For those in the know, Shropshire is considered a bit of a secret – especially when it comes to family holidays. Unjustly, it doesn’t possess the international pull of the Cotswolds or Lake District and is often overlooked by holidaymakers whizzing up the M54 to mid and north Wales.
But the country possesses a wealth of fantastic days out for all ages, from farm parks and animal kingdoms to open-air museums offering an interactive insight into the region's rich industrial heritage. So, whether you want to spend the day exploring an RAF hangar, riding a miniature railway through someone's back garden or getting dressed up in your finest Victorian get-up, Shropshire has plenty for you and the kids to enjoy.
Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre
Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre is an excellent starting point for exploring south Shropshire and the quirky grass-roofed centre incorporates visitor information, a gift shop, gallery space, activity rooms, and comfy seating. The Secret Hills Exhibition offers an engaging overview of the geology, ecology, history and people of this special part of the world. Exhibition highlights include a full-size replica of the mammoth skeleton discovered near Condover, and a panoramic film taking the form of a hot-air balloon ride over the hills.
© Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre
The centre is a gateway to 30 acres of meadowland around the River Onny, offering gentle and level surface conditions for walking and playing. There are four waymarked trails of varying length and difficulty, taking you into the surrounding countryside, and countless other walks (with leaflets available to buy in the shop). It’s always worth looking up forthcoming events on the website – you’ll often find activities geared towards even the youngest visitors, from marshmallow toasting to den building.
Hoo Farm Animal Kingdom
The Dorrells, a family of dairy farmers, moved to the site of Hoo Farm in 1988. At first they used the land as the council had done before them, for growing and selling Christmas trees, but soon realised the visiting public was more interested in seeing their resident cows, goats, horses, pigs and sheep. In 1991 the family reopened their business as Hoo Farm Animal Kingdom, adding more exotic animals in the early 2000s as a protective response to the foot and mouth epidemic that had devastated farms across Britain.
© Hoo Farm
Now they have around 150 species, including pythons, cockatoos (some of them talk), wallabies, otters, meerkats, lemurs and ostriches, and specialise in up-close animal encounters. The woodland and paddocks have plenty else to amuse younger guests (particularly those of pre-school age), including a play barn and ride-on tractors. Weekdays during term time are often blissfully peaceful. The on-site catering doesn’t deviate far from jacket potatoes and burgers, but you’re welcome to take your own food and there are plenty of benches for picnicking.
Acton Scott Historic Working Farm
The Actons are one of those fabled Shropshire families who have held the same estate for years. In their case, close to 900 years. Tom Acton established Acton Scott Historic Working Farm in his family’s homefarm buildings in the 1970s, with the intention of preserving 19th-century farming practices increasingly lost to modern machinery.
© Shropshire Town Council
This 23-acre upland farm, about four miles south of Church Stretton, is now a popular visitor attraction (featured on BBC2’s Victorian Farm and Ben Fogle’s Escape in Time) where heavy horses work the land and you can pat Tamworth pigs, Shropshire sheep and Longhorn and Shorthorn cows – the ‘traditional’ livestock that someone farming in south Shropshire between around 1870–1920 would recognise. Acton Scott also nurtures the skills of yesteryears: a blacksmith, wheelwright and farrier make daily visits and demonstrations during open season.
And if you fancy learning a new skill yourself, look for hands-on rural trade and craft courses in disciplines as varied as ploughing, coracle making, stick-carving and whittling, baking and loom-weaving. The gift shop contains an admirable collection of locally produced items, including handmade lace, eggs, beeswax products and honey.
British Ironwork Centre
Located off the A5 between Shrewsbury and Oswestry, the British Ironwork Centre provides a shopping experience with a difference – or just a happy afternoon out. Here you can browse the UK’s largest collection of decorative metalwork: everything from life-size iron animals to ornate gazebos and carousel pavilions. The centre is also the site of the open-air Museum of Steel Sculpture, showcasing work of the late sculptor Roy Kitchin. Indoors, packed but beautifully presented showrooms stock both functional and ornamental pieces for the home.
© British Ironwork Centre
Since its inception the centre has continually grown: recent additions are golf buggy and bike rental (that’s how big the site has become), and a ‘metal safari’ for children. Look out also for experience workshops in blacksmithing, silverwork and ceramics. When you’ve finished exploring, the Forge Café is ready with hot lunches, savoury bites and homemade cakes and bakes; there’s even a chocolate counter.
Blists Hill Victorian Town
Of the ten museums run by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, the open-air attraction at Blists Hill is undoubtedly the biggest crowdpleaser. Blists Hill once comprised blast furnaces, a brick and tile works, and mines. Now the industrial landscape has been reimagined as a ‘living museum’ across more than 50 acres, allowing you to experience with all five senses a small English Victorian town. It is populated by real Victorian characters (or, rather, volunteers happy to play the part) pottering about their daily lives in shops, workplaces, cottages and gardens. Their commitment to detail is impressive: I once overheard a bonneted lady, briefly and forgivably out of character, apologising for squinting because she’d had to leave her plastic-rimmed glasses at home.
© Visit Ironbridge
If you feel similarly inspired to enter into the Victorian spirit, exchange your money at the bank (modelled on the still-existing Lloyds in Broseley) for pre-decimal sterling to spend in the shops, where skilled trades are preserved wherever possible – including in tallow candle making and typesetting and printing. Other establishments in which you can lighten your pocket include a sweetshop, bakery and a traditional fish and chip shop. Other jolly experiences include dressing up and sitting for a portrait photograph, taking part in a music hall singalong in the New Inn Pub and, in summer, enjoying the swingboats and carousel at the old time funfair.
Hawkstone Park Follies
© Visit Ironbridge
If you’ve never before visited Hawkstone Park Follies, I envy you your first glimpses of this mysterious place, just east of Weston under Redcastle. Pack a torch, drinks and lunch and wear sturdy shoes because you’re not venturing out on an ordinary walk. You’re embarking on an adventure through a restored 200-year-old pleasure garden of which Samuel Johnson described: ‘its prospects, the awfulness of its shades, the horrors of its precipices, the verdure of its hollows and the loftiness of its rocks … above is inaccessible altitude, below is horrible profundity’. Walking where whimsy and fabricated surprises meet with naturally dizzying cliffs and crags, it’s pleasing to imagine the reactions of Georgian and Victorian visitors who weren’t spoiled as we can be today by theme parks and manufactured thrills.
Located next to a working airfield, the RAF Museum at Cosford holds an internationally important collection of over 70 aircraft, including the world’s oldest Spitfire and the three ‘V’ bombers: Vulcan, Victor and Valiant. Admission is free which feels almost too good to be true because the museum represents a substantial day out and has something to interest most people. (Even if you’re not crazy about planes, there’s a fascinating display on aviation mascots and lucky charms.)
© RAF Museum Cosford
It’s also an ideal place to spend a rainy day as most exhibits are in hangars, with a ‘Fun ‘n’ Flight’ interactive gallery to amuse younger visitors. The National Cold War Exhibition is particularly well done, and my children like looking down at the immense Belfast Transporter from the high-level viewing gallery.
Telford Town Park
Whatever you feel about the planners who created Telford New Town, we’ve got to hand it to them for allowing space for Telford Town Park. Having grown up on a site of brickworks, coal mines and quarries, much of the park is now a designated Local Nature Reserve. The park offers a great deal to keep young families amused: adventure playgrounds and a trim trail with age guidance, a huge rocket slide, water play and sandpit. The playground built around the incongruous remains of a Norman chapel (moved to the park from nearby Malinslee in the 1970s) has apparatus for small children and a roundabout that is flush with the ground to allow wheelchair and buggy access.
© Discover Shropshire & Telford
At the southern end of Telford Town Park is Wonderland, a low-key theme park set in nine acres of woodland. Its faded fairytale characters and fibreglass cottages may not impress anyone over the age of four. But having once carried a two-year-old out kicking at the end of a long day (‘Play MOOOORE!’) I can confirm that, for tots, this place is enthralling. One admission fee grants unlimited rides and there is soft play for when the weather sends you indoors. If you’re often dismayed by theme park catering, consider bringing a picnic.
Woodseaves Miniature Railway
Tucked away in Woodseaves, a hamlet just over two miles south of Market Drayton (and not to be confused with the Staffordshire village Woodseaves), is a 2.2-acre slice of happiness where one couple – Bill and Jean Haywood – are living out their individual dreams alongside each other. A talented gardener, Jean has created a nursery where all fruit trees, shrubs, herbs, climbers and bedding plants for sale are also featured in pockets of gardens, allowing visitors to see them in context.
On Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays in summer, hauling delighted passengers around Jean’s gardens and through a willow tunnel, is Bill’s 7¼-inch miniature railway, complete with a green Roanokemade engine called Sydney and a burgundy steamie named after Jean. Bill built the narrow-gauge track himself: it covers 400yds although the clever layout gives the illusion of a longer journey; a trick Bill told me he learned from working on model railways. You’ll find one of those operating on the second Sunday of summer months too. Refreshments can be arranged from a tea shed, including Jean’s homemade cake – phone in advance if you are planning a group visit.
For many more family days out and adventures in Shropshire, check out: