Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A Day Trip to the Forest

With the summer slowly ebbing away and UK weather patterns returning to the standard mix of sunshine and showers (read torrential rain) last weekend, we were looking for somewhere to go for the day that wasn't too far from Bristol but would allow for some exercise and a last gasp of sunshine ahead of a week that was forecast to be miserable. After discounting the beach (perhaps not a good option when the tail end of a hurricane looms on the horizon) and a train trip to Cheltenham (too many tempting shopping opportunities) we ended up packing a picnic and heading off to the Forest of Dean, or specifically the Sculpture Trail at Beechenhurst. 

Ticking the boxes for being cheap (just petrol costs and parking - £3.50 for the whole day – to consider) and not being too far away if the weather should turn really foul, this is a great place for a family day out. About an hours drive from Bristol, this particular part of the forest offers some lovely surroundings to explore, as well as some unusual, natural sculptures to spot en route.

The trail is accessed via Beechenhurst Lodge where you’ll find plenty of parking, information (including maps of the trail), toilets and a café. There’s also a lovely children’s play area, with sections for both toddlers and older children – a great place to hang out and have a cuppa from the café before you head home. If you're bringing a picnic there's a large, flat grassed area in front of the lodge where you can lay out your blanket, play some ball games or just relax before or after your walk.

The full trail might be a bit ambitious for younger kids, being 3.5 miles long, but you can do a portion that suits you and there are signposted short cuts to help you keep distances manageable for little legs. There are plenty of places to rest along the way, with lovely, tranquil spots where you can build dens, walk along logs or just sit on a tree stump and drink it all in. The sculptures are designed to blend in with the natural surroundings and aren't hugely obvious, particularly for kids, who may be expecting something with a bit more 'wow' factor. That said, be sure to look out for the hanging stained glass window, which casts an ethereal glow over the surrounding trees. The sculptures are really a bit of an aside to the simple pleasure of walking in some peaceful, magical surroundings, away from the crowds. If you're lucky you might also spot a wild boar as we did on our travels... 

If you’re looking for an alternative attraction in the Forest of Dean, try Puzzlewood. If there was ever a place to define the idea of a magical wood, this is it – Puzzlewood is an otherworldly place of ancient trees, moss-covered rocks, labyrinthine pathways and rickety wooden bridges. It's really quite spectacular and quite probably unlike anywhere you've ever been before.Walking around this strange environment you can see why Puzzlewood regularly crops up as background dressing for dramas such as Merlin an Dr Who. It's also rumoured to have been the inspiration for Tolkien's Middle Earth forests. There's an outdoor and indoor maze, toddler racing track, playground and cafe here, too, and at just £22 for a family ticket, pretty good value for a family day out.

If you'd like longer to explore this lovely corner of the country, a good accommodation option is the Forest Holidays outpost at Coleford. Bed down in well-equipped, high-spec cabins (ranging from standard options to more luxurious cabins equipped with outdoor hot tubs; some even have their own adjoining tree house!) and enjoy direct access to the forest with its many cycle trains and walking routes. We visited a couple of years back when the complex first opened so we enjoyed the facilities at their shiniest, newest best, plus we paid next to nothing for a three-day break. Prices are substantially higher now Forest Holidays have become much more established, but you can still get reasonable deals out of season, or if you're able to stay during week outside of peak times. If you can travel in a larger group and split the cost between you, prices even out quite significantly. 

Monday, 4 August 2014

Summer So Far...

The six-week summer break can stir up mixed feelings in parents up and down the land. Shrugging off the wearying routine of getting little people out of the house on time (and then navigating the inevitable stress of getting yourself to work, too) is a wonderful thing, but it's often replaced with the equally stressful job of balancing holiday fun with financial reality, as well as coping with the eternal problem of childcare cover for those days that you work. It's no wonder that many of us can't get to the school gate quick enough come September!

At the risk of tempting fate, our summer break has so far been pretty successful. With a run of good weather, we've managed to avoid unreasonable amounts of screen time or costly trips to indoor,  rainy-day activities. We've covered beach, hills and city so far and we've all got some healthy colour in our cheeks. 

Here are three recommendations for summer fun, based on what we've been getting up to over the past couple of weeks...

1. Get on your bikes

An activity that wins approval from both kids or adults. If you can't face another trip to the park or refereeing football matches than inevitably turn fractious, try getting out the bikes instead. Cycling any great distance is obviously age and ability dependent, but if your kids are over seven you'll be surprised at just how far you can get on a family ride. Living in Bristol - the UK's first 'Cycling City' - helps as there are some fantastic flat routes that are do-able with little ones in tow. Start with the Avon Gorge tow-path to Pill, a lovely little route with a good stopping place for snacks or a picnic on the green just before you get to Pill harbour. The terrain is nice and flat pretty much all of the way, and you pass through some really tranquil countryside. On your way back, you could continue on the railway track towards the harbour and stop at the docks for coffee or a stroll around the M Shed museum (entry is free.)

A little further afield is the Strawberry Line, a scenic route that cuts through some really lovely Somerset countryside, beginning at Yatton and finishing at Cheddar. It's 9 miles one way, which might be too far for younger children, but you can just do a portion of the route, perhaps stopping at a country pub en route to sample some of the local cider (and freshly squeezed apple juice for the kids.)If you do make it as far as Cheddar you can cool down after your ride by descending into the famous Cheddar caves for a subterranean experience your kids will love. 

Visit Sustrans for details of cycling routes across the UK.

2. Hit the beach

A no-brainer if the sun is shining. We return again and again to Lyme Regis, about an hour and a half from Bristol on a good day and a place that just works for us. It's the right side of busy (though the sandy area of the bay can get uncomfortably cramped on a sunny day), has safe, shallow waters and a mix both sand and pebbles. The only real hint of seaside tackiness is the promenade arcade (which comes into its own in the case of a sudden downpour) but on the whole Lyme Regis is a pretty stylish place. Pastel-coloured beach huts line the beachfront and there are some cute cafes on the front and in the town. We like the Town Mill Bakery, an organic cafe and bakery where you can feast on artisan breads, delicious cakes or enjoy a traditional Dorset cream tea. For something a little more chi-chi, esteemed chef Mark Hix has an outpost here at the Hix Oyster and Fish House, smart restaurant overlooking the harbour.

There always seems to be something happening at Lyme Regis, too. On our most recent visit here was a bath tub race going on and on previous visits we've seen air displays and lifeboat launches - exciting viewing to keep kids entertained without spending a penny.

If you're looking for somewhere to camp in the area, I recommend 
Hook Farm in Uplyme, just five minutes in the car from the centre of Lyme Regis. It's a clean, well laid-out site, with both pitches and static caravans. It was packed with young families when we were last there, plus there is a small play section and wooded area towards the back of the site which the kids can explore.

3. Take on the capital

I used to be scared of visiting London with my kids. Despite having lived there for years and knowing my way around, the idea of depositing the kids in the thick of all that hustle and bustle used to bring me out in a cold sweat. But having visited London several times with the kids now - most recently without my other half - I know I won't actually lose one of them or accidentally leave them on the tube. The key is to word them up before you leave on staying close to you(and perhaps leave your phone number somewhere about their person, or make sure they've committed it to memory) and to keep your expectations reasonable. Stick to one main activity rather than trying to pack too much in and factor in plenty of pit-stops. I keep costs down by cashing in my Clubcard points for restaurant tokens so we can enjoy a big, energy-restoring lunch and use our Family and Friends Railcard to get a third off our tickets. 

Travel while in London is cheap - kids don't pay on the tube or buses until they're 11 years old. And of course while you're there, there are lots of free activities to enjoy. Be warned that you need to get to key free attractions like the Natural History and Science museums early to beat the queues. If you do find there's a big queue, cross the road to the V&A which never seems to have a queue and is definitely worth a look, even though it's not as obviously kid-friendly as the other museums in the area. Girls particularly will love strolling around the fashion exhibits, but there's appeal for boys too, with amazing sculptures, ceramics and artworks to look at, as well as a whole section devoted to technology from the past. Stop for snacks at the gorgeous Morris, Poynter and Gamble rooms - your kids will love the theatricality of these rooms, with their huge, glittering lights, ornate stained glass and colourful tiles. 

On our most recent trip we spent a day in Greenwich, a great place to escape the crowds of the West End and enjoy some green space and amazing views over the city. You can also visit another free museum here, the National Maritime Museum which is full of interesting model ships and exhibits that chart sailing history through the ages. There are lots of dedicated children's areas with hands-on exhibits to keep them occupied. Then, meander through the market to pick up lunch (everything from Italian panini to tailor-made sushi is on offer) and eat your treats in front of the Cutty Sark. You can pay to take a closer look above and below deck. 

A real highlight for our kids on this trip was a ride on the Thames Clipper, which you can pick up from Greenwich Pier and which goes back into town, stopping at Embankment. It's a low-cost, fun way to see London from the water, taking in some key sights and traversing beneath the famous Tower Bridge. Prices are really reasonable and you can use your Oyster card to pay for your journey. 

For more tips on travelling to London with kids, take a look at my previous blog post here. 

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