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
The Tamar Otters & Wildlife Centre houses rescued otters © 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 current 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
The Gnome Reserve is one of the UK's stranger days out © Richard Breakspear, Flickr
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.
Drusillas's small size makes it more intimate than most other zoos © Drusillas
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.
BeWILDerwood is designed to stimulate the mind © BeWILDerwood
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 is home to over 50 breeds of animal © 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
Some hidden corners of this strange place still evade even repeat visitors © Welcome to Yorkshire
West of Middleham, Coverdale’s major attraction is the Forbidden Corner, a fantasy-based series of mazes and follies in the four-acre garden of an old racing horse stables, Tupgill Park. It quite justifiably advertises itself as ‘The Strangest Place in the World’ and is brilliantly unique. Although it regularly features on national lists of top days out, it was never intended to be 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 Ice Cream Farm, Cheshire
The Ice Cream Farm is home to more than 50 flavours of ice cream as well as its own ice-cream tree © The Ice Cream Farm
A theme park dedicated to ice cream – it’s a no-brainer in Cheshire, where the lush grass nourishes the local dairy herds. The Ice Cream Farm sells more than 50 flavours of its Cheshire Farm Ice Cream, from vanilla to Cointreau and orange (there are even gluten-free cones), which are served in the world’s largest purpose-built parlour. It’s perhaps advisable to treat the kids to an ice cream after they have enjoyed the rides in the farm’s play park, which has attractions with lip-smacking names such as Strawberry Falls and Honeycomb Canyon, and promises rollicking good fun with indoor sand and water play, climbing frames, inflatable slides, battery-powered quad bikes and the like.
Green Dragon Rare Breeds Farm & Eco Centre, the Vale of Aylesbury
The farm runs daily animal encounters with an educational aim © Derek Pelling photography
Here be no dragons, but most other feathered, furry and cold-blooded friends are somewhere on this 44-acre farm. The farm runs daily animal encounters with an educational aim, so that children can learn about animal health care while getting up close with ponies, barn owls, donkeys and so on. The rare breeds include an Oxford sandy and black pig who was trying to open the enclosure to let itself out when we visited. A pedal kart area and two play barns mean that little ones have plenty to do. The ‘eco’ part of the visit is embodied by the Eco Centre, a barn built from sustainably sourced timber that is run using biomass, photovoltaics and solar panels; and by the walled garden, where you can find an aquaponics system, solar water pump, compost area and a small greenhouse made from plastic bottles. An innovation for 2018 was the opening of a three-acre British and European wildlife zone featuring birds of prey, red fox, red squirrel and pine martens, with the overall aim of this section being rescue, rehabilitation, captive breeding and eventual release into the animals’ most natural environments.
The Heights of Abraham, Peak District
The view over Buxton from the cable car © Michael Beckwith, Wikimedia Commons
It’s time to take the cable car, season and pocket permitting, up to the Heights of Abraham. Sit back and enjoy this particularly Slow mode of transport. The cable car 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.
At the top, 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. It’s cold down there. 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. For the best dining view in the Peak District fringes, grab yourself a table at the Vista Restaurant or Terrace Café. They’re both a cut above the average attraction eatery.
If you are planning to walk back to Matlock, leave the Heights of Abraham from the top entrance, pausing at the Tinker’s Mineshaft Viewing Platform for yet more panoramic views of the Derwent Valley and surrounding area. If you happen to be visiting in July, August or early September, bring a bag as the bushes on the lane behind are laden with wild raspberries, and blackberries soon after.
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.
(Photo: Rydale Folk Museum, Yorkshire ©Tracey Phillips, North York Moors National Park Authority)
Abbotsbury Swannery, Dorset
Abbotsbury Swannery is home to the only swans in England not owned by the Queen © Abbotsbury Swannery
By far Abbotsbury’s best-known attraction is the swannery on The Fleet lagoon, which is home to around 600 swans (and various other canny birds who have taken up residence and exploit the very pleasant living conditions). It was established by Benedictine monks during the 1040s, when they farmed the swans for food. Sir Giles Strangways bought the swannery from Henry VIII in 1543 and it is still owned by his descendants, the Ilchester Estates (page 182), making these the only swans in England not owned by the Queen. Clearly the swans you see here today won’t end up on anyone’s plate – this is a sanctuary – and you won’t see swans in pens, they are free to roam. The visit begins with a film and an exhibition about swans and the swannery. You can then wander along the paths among the nesting mute swans, and hides allow you to watch the birds out on the water. On display over the waterways are some rather dastardly looking old-fashioned duck traps. Children have the opportunity to help with feeding at noon and 16.00, and mid-May to late June is a particularly exciting time to visit as this is when the cygnets hatch.
Exmoor Pony Centre, Somerset
Willing volunteers look after the foals at the Exmoor Pony Centre © Exmoor Pony Centre
About four miles west of Dulverton is the hamlet of Ashwick and the Exmoor Pony Centre, home of the Moorland Mousie Trust (named after one of the most popular pony books of all time, published in 1929). This charity was set up to give the surplus foals from moorland-bred herds a future by training them to be useful family ponies, so lovers of this distinctive native breed get a chance to meet them face to face and perhaps ‘adopt’ a pony to help with its upkeep. There’s an informative display about the trust in the Green Room. There are various riding possibilities, from taster sessions for those with little or no experience to two- or three-hour treks on Exmoor for more competent riders; in all cases, book well in advance. They also run their own festival in August.
Discover more great days out for the family in our Slow Travel series: