Looking for something to entertain the children over holidays? Here are some of our favourite family-friendly days out in England.
The Tamar Otter & Wildlife Centre, Cornwall
© Tamar Otter & Wildlife Centre
Nothing could be better than watching wild otters playing in a Cornish river, but here’s the next best thing: at this centre (previously known as the Otter Sanctuary) rescued otters as well as home-bred otters from Cornwall and further afield can be seen (and smelled) at close quarters doing ottery things in big pens watered by natural streams and pools. The new name for the centre reflects its growing population of deer, tame enough to be hand fed by children, as well as wild cats, owls, chipmunks and wallabies.
Pennywell Farm, South Devon
Forget conservation and endangered species, this hands-on animal place is just that – its aim is to bring humans and animals as close together as possible and as such it offers one of Devon’s most rewarding experiences for children. Just look at the expression of a little girl gently stroking a tiny dozing piglet, and you’ll see how well it works. Pennywell has been selectively breeding miniature pigs since 1992, with the result that a piglet weighs just eight ounces at birth and grows to about the size of a springer spaniel. It’s not just the miniature piglets you can hug: every half hour there is something different happening, such as ferret racing, pig racing (14.30 daily, in season), bottle feeding or a falconry display, and there are plenty of non-animal activities for children too; much of it is under cover.
The Gnome Reserve, North Devon
These little fellows deserve their reserve; after all there are over 2,000 of them, dotted around the dark mossy woods and involved in every activity you can imagine. You’ll find them cycling, skateboarding, wielding a tennis racket, a javelin or a violin and riding anything that moves: a bicycle, aeroplane, duck, pig, and a snail (at least I think it’s a snail). There are two gnomes on their potties, mooning at delighted children, and one luxuriating in his bath. All in all they are having a wonderful time, and visitors are expected to play their part. You are greeted by the indefatigable owner, Ann Atkin, who asks you to select an ‘almost compulsory hat’ to wear as you tour the garden. Trained as an artist, she has been collecting gnomes since 1979 and it remains a family concern, with her daughter-in-law Marg baking the scones for the cream tea that any visitor should indulge in before going gnome.
Pecorama, East Devon
Peco is the leading British manufacturer of model railways, so Beer’s leading ‘official’ attraction evolved from its model railway display and now encompasses extensive gardens and a delightful passenger-carrying miniature railway. Model-railway enthusiasts still make this their first port of call in Devon – after Buffers, at Colston Cross, north of – but it is the Beer Heights Light Railway that catches the general public’s attention. An assortment of little steam locomotives take passengers on a mile-long, 7¼-gauge track including a long tunnel, tooting as they go. It’s a delightful trip for all ages and deservedly very popular. There are ‘refreshment stops’ along the line, and the Garden Room Restaurant for more substantial meals.
It would be hard to find any child or indeed accompanying adult who wasn’t fascinated by something at this particularly intimate-scale zoo. Mice live in a Mouse House like a doll’s house, tiny monkeys look as curious about the visitors as the visitors are about them and children can go through a tunnel to look at the meerkats through a clear dome right inside their enclosure, and greet the snoozing ring-tailed lemurs. Elsewhere there are otters, pigs, macaques and penguins, a Hello KittySecret Garden with three children’s rides, Drusillas’ very own railway and some very innovative play areas including an interactive maze called Eden’s Eye. Drusillas has an accent on learning too – at key holiday times there’s a rogues’ gallery of confiscated illegally traded objects like crocodile shoes – and they carefully place labels at child level.
A little way along the A1062 Horning Road, BeWILDerwood describes itself as a ‘curious treehouse adventure park’. Certainly, it’s designed to exercise and stimulate the mind as much as the body. It’s a magical place for children – forest folk like Mildred, the vegetarian Crocklebog who lives in Scary Lake, and the Twiggles, litter-hating goblin-like figures, are BeWILDerwood residents, as is a giant spider called Thornyclod. BeWILDerwood’s environmental pedigree is certainly impressive too. The treehouses, ropewalks and boardwalks are all built from sustainable wood, while the 50 acres of marshland and woodland that make up the site are entirely pesticide-free, guaranteeing that no harmful chemicals leak into the broads. If that were not enough, some 14,000 broad-leaved trees have been planted since the park’s creation and the food on site is mainly locally sourced and organic.
Cotswolds Farm Park, the Cotswolds
© Cotswold Farm Park
On Bemborough Farm, the home of BBC Countryfile presenter Adam Henson, this farm park is home to over 50 breeds of animal – sheep, cattle, pigs, poultry and horses – positioned around an informative history trail, giving visitors a chance to meet them all. It begins with native breeds from the Neolithic period, then Roman and Viking right up to modern, commercial breeds. Visitors can see how farmers have changed and adapted to meet demand. In addition to visiting the farm park, visitors are free to wander a two-mile waymarked Wildlife Walk around the farm and view a farming landscape that has been shaped over 6,000 years. There are butterflies and birds, and over a hundred species of wild flowers and grasses on the walk, including typical limestone-loving flowers and some unusual species as well as the very rare Cotswold pennycress.
Hay Farm Heavy Horse Centre, Northumberland
A short walk east from Heatherslaw Mill (under a mile) to see Hay Farm’s Clydesdale horses is recommended for families and anyone who finds these friendly giants endearing (who doesn’t?). On demonstration days, horses are ridden in their finery and you’ll hear about their traditional duties when they worked the land. At other times, visitors are welcome to get up close to the animals and see the displays of horse-drawn machinery. Built in the 18th century (with 19th-century additions), the farm’s historic barns, stables, granary and engine house are an added attraction. In the summer there is a dedicated heavy horse show, the Festival of the Heavy Horse, which makes for a great family day out. Watching the horses being ridden and pulling vintage machinery is quite a sight. It is also an opportunity to sample sample regional foods produced by local farms, and watch craftsmen and women demonstrating traditional skills (there’s a wheelwright blacksmith, for example).
The Forbidden Corner, Yorkshire Dales
© Welcome to Yorkshire
This place in Coverdale, west of Middleham, quite justifiably advertises itself as ‘The Strangest Place in the World’. It is brilliantly unique and although it was voted top family day out in a national survey, beating Alton Towers and Legoland, it was never intended as anything more than a private family folly. It was the brainchild of the owner of Tupgill Park, Colin Armstrong, who in the 1980s teamed up with architect Malcolm Tempest to design a series of walled gardens, tunnels, grottoes and towers which linked into a three-dimensional maze for his family and friends to explore. As it developed it was opened to the public and its fame spread by word of mouth, to the point now where it can barely cope with its own popularity. What makes it so good is that it is a genuine adventure. On arrival you are given a leaflet which is not a map, but a series of cryptic messages. The entrance though the gaping mouth of a giant stone monster sets the tone and away you go. You'll undoubtedly spend hours climbing, crawling, getting lost, studying clues, groping along dark corridors, planning routes from battlement viewpoints, getting lost again and finally finding the way to the underground temple. This is a must-see place, especially if you have children, but its best to come at less busy times to make the most of the sense of exploration.
The Heights of Abraham, Peak District
The view over Buxton from the cable car © Michael Beckwith, Wikimedia Commons
Part of the fun of The Heights of Abraham is the journey – a cable-car ride. It hovers mid-point, allowing you to drink in the views of the Derwent Valley, the riverside town of Matlock Bath and Cromford flanked by the rocky outcrops of the Black Rocks. You can also spot the Arkwright mills, Willersley Castle and Cromford Canal beyond. Once at the top, though, there's plenty to see. Take a guided tour of Masson Cavern, a lead mine later worked for fluorspar. Squeezing between the rocks, you get an inkling of the dark, damp and claustrophobic conditions the miners worked under, some of them children. In the Great Chamber, you’ll be awarded for your efforts with a multi-coloured light show. There are a lot of steps and uneven ground, so wear comfortable shoes – and bring a jumper. Further down the hill, Rutland Cavern has fewer steps. It’s smaller than Masson Cavern, but its museum setup gives you a feel for the miners’ existence. Check out the Long View exhibition, telling the story of Matlock Bath’s development as a tourist town along with Heights of Abraham. Children can enjoy the hairy spiral climb to Prospect Tower with its 360° view of the surrounding area and the exceedingly long slide in the playground.
Ryedale Folk Museum, North York Moors
The small and unassuming frontage to this museum, on the village main street, gives no clue to the delights hidden behind. Over 20 buildings, strung-out down a long, thin, three-acre site, house recreations of Ryedale country life through the centuries, all the way back to a thatched Iron Age roundhouse. Many of them are genuine historic buildings moved from their original sites, and rebuilt stone by stone, to house the artefacts of many rural craftsmen and craftswomen, like blacksmiths, wheelwrights, coopers, saddlers and dairy-maids. Trails and activities are provided for children, and many hands-on events are put on throughout the year, usually with an old-fashioned theme; the ancient board-game of Merrills, for instance, once had its world championships held here. Recent attractions have included a cottage cooking weekend, harvest festival, dry-stone walling taster, bee-keeping workshop and Maypole dancing. The Ryedale Folk weekend is a regular feature in May.
Discover more great days out for the family in our Slow Travel series: