Kids – you’ve got to love them, but you’ve also got to keep them entertained. In the second part of our special guide to British breaks for children, we look at puppet theatres, model villages, and trusty Thomas the Tank Engine. Share your own ideas for kid-friendly holidays below.
Revisit the Viking era in York
A thousand years ago York was a thriving Viking city known as Jorvik, its vitality, wealth and scope clear from the myriad buildings and artefacts found in the 1970s during work on the new Coppergate shopping centre.
After an initial five-year dig, and a couple of subsequent multi-million-pound developments, visitors to Jorvik Viking Centre get an innovative, close-up look at Viking society on the very site where the excavations took place. If you were ever going to get kids interested in the past, this is the place, with its interactive museum exhibits, role-playing Vikings and touch-screen learning, but the best bit comes right at the beginning as you descend beneath the modern-day streets and are clunk-clicked into a ghost-train-style “time capsule”, which then lurches off through the streets of Viking York.
It’s a clever and classy conceit that grabs you from the start, as your ride takes you right inside the excavated houses, shops and backyards, with animatronic figures hailing you in Old Norse, smoke blasting from a blacksmith’s furnace, and Viking builders enjoying a tea break (no change there then). Neatly redressing the one thing missing from every period-piece movie – the smell – you get decidedly authentic wafts from both farmyard and market, while every child’s favourite attraction is the furiously straining Viking gent astride the outdoor latrine. This is (ahem) bottom-up history at its best.
Jorvik Viking Centre, Coppergate, York, www.jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk.
Tunnel your way to the Ilfracombe’s tidal pool
Kit up first with picnic rugs, wet suits, buckets, spades, snorkels and crabbing nets. Accessed via a series of long subterranean tunnels, carved through the lofty rocky cliffs, Ilfracombe’s spectacular Tunnels Beaches are one of the jewels of the Devon coast. Emerge around low tide into the sunlight onto the sheltered sand and pebble beach, and you’ll be able to take a dip in the magnificent tidal sea-water swimming pool, a haven for little ones. Add in an abundance of rock pools rich with sealife, the opportunity for kayaking out to a secret cove, and all the facilities you need, from a stylish family café to an indoor soft play area, and you have a superb family day out.
Tunnels Beaches, Ilfracombe, Devon www.tunnelsbeaches.co.uk.
Fall spellbound at Little Angel Puppet Theatre
It is dark, save for several bouncing streaks of DayGlo colour. Three caterpillars are singing in three-part harmonies, and somewhere in the mix is a gang of angry strawberries. You are not insane, but an audience member at Islington’s wonderful Little Angel Puppet Theatre. And next time, you and your brood will be shoving the other kids out of the way so you can get to the front.
The setting is a dark, slightly draughty room, a former temperance hall with a high ceiling and wooden pews. Expert lighting illuminates the tiny set and its characters, to a playful, enduringly catchy score. The puppeteers, who sing, act and perform intricate manoeuvres, connect beautifully with the rapt kids (all nicely hypnotized and quiet), and although most performances are aimed at very young children, the accompanying adults cannot fail to be equally enchanted.
Little Angel has been running puppet shows here since 1961, when it was set up by innovative puppeteers John and Lyndie Wright. The hall seats a hundred, but feels much more intimate, and the workshop at the back is where many of the puppets are born.
The magical glow of the lights, the resonating voices, the accessible melodies and the artistry of the movements – it all makes the prosaic slapstick of the old Punch and Judy shows seem rather flat. And so, as the dancing DayGlo blobs flit about, and the surrounding children’s eyes grow vast with wonder, even the most sensible soul in the room will just give in, sit back and listen to what the singing caterpillars have to say.
Little Angel Puppet Theatre, 14 Dagmar Passage, London N1 020/7226 1787, www.littleangeltheatre.com.
Getting in touch with your inner bear, Hartfield
Now approaching his 85th birthday, A.A. Milne’s “bear of very little brain” has become a global phenomenon, with the original stories translated into fifty languages and Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet and co featuring on duvet covers from Beijing to Barcelona. While the Disney films might have given him a jarring US accent, Pooh is, of course, a quintessentially English bear and the geography of his world is based firmly around Milne’s home in deepest Sussex.
Here among the open heathland and pine trees of Ashdown Forest you’ll find many of the locations – the Hundred Acre Wood, the Enchanted Place and the Heffalump Trap – captured so beautifully in the books by illustrator E.H. Shephard. Most are within a short drive of the village of Hartfield which functioned as Milne’s country escape from the 1920s until his death in 1956.
From Hartfield, pilgrimage can be made to the various Pooh-related sites. Best of all is Poohsticks bridge, a perfect representation of the bridge where Pooh invented a new game by absent-mindedly dropping pine cones off the side. The rules are simple – face upstream, release your sticks from an equal height (throwing is strictly forbidden), then rush over to the other side to see whose comes out first.
The House at Pooh Corner in Hartfield (www.pooh-country.co.uk) offers tours and information on “Pooh Country”.
Reliving history at Linlithgow Palace
Fifteenth-century Linlithgow Palace may be in ruins, its windows open to the sky, but it has enough hidden spiralling staircases, stony dungeons and vertiginous walkways to keep adventurous kids happy for a good couple of hours, and the huge roofless Great Hall is a marvellous place to run amok.
There’s plenty of child-friendly entertainment in the summer, from staged medieval games and jousting to falconry, displays of weaponry skills and tours by costumed guides. But at any time of year there’s plenty to engage kids actively in the castle’s history.
On the domestic front, peering at the huge fireplace in the kitchens helps you imagine how the castle’s lavish banquets were produced, with meat being turned on spits by little boys who were called “turnbrochies”. From the kitchen, chutes propelled rubbish into the surrounding dry – and doubtless very smelly – moat.
Continuing to the Great Hall, infant jaws will drop at a fireplace so big it required whole tree trunks to fuel it. And don’t forget to point out the minstrel’s gallery, where party entertainment was provided and you can still see the hooks from were tapestries were hung. Beyond are the bedrooms, and the lofty heights of Queen Mary’s Bower, with sweeping loch views and a satisfyingly dizzying perspective on the castle itself.
Linlithgow Palace, Kirkgate, Linlithgow, West Lothian, www.historic-scotland.gov.uk.
Spending a day with Thomas at Kirklees
A whistle toots, clouds of smoke and steam billow skywards, and parents with their kids stream down from the car park. Children throng the playground, throw themselves around on bouncy castles, have their faces painted. There’s usually something going on at Kirklees Light Railway, but today it has a special buzz: for Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends have come to town.
On the platform, the little blue engine hisses, parents jockey (politely – this is England) to snap him with their self-conscious children, the Fat Controller (can you still say that?) looks at his pocket watch and taps his foot. Doors clatter shut, the whistle screeches, the couplings take up the slack, and with a crescendo of clanks and chuffs brave little Thomas hauls the carriages through an untidy sprawl of factory buildings and derelict land. The strains of “Thomas and Friends” bounce cheerfully down from ceiling-mounted speakers.
Suddenly, you’re cruising through glorious Yorkshire countryside as the little train sails out onto an embankment, smoke streaming back from its stack. Finally, 25 minutes after setting off, the train pulls into Shelley station. More bouncy castles, coffee and soft drinks, burgers and doughnuts. Engines huff and puff, turntables turn, points are thrown, water is taken on, and the return journey begins.
Kirklees Light Railway, Clayton West, near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, www.kirkleeslightrailway.com. Thomas and friends visit for one weekend per month.
Children’s stories on seven storeys
If you don’t have a child, kidnap one. And then take that child (and yourself) straight to Seven Stories, Britain’s only museum dedicated to celebrating the art of children’s literature. Tucked beneath the Byker Bridge in Newcastle’s Ouseburn Valley, the inviting, bright white building is called Seven Stories (a) because it’s got seven storeys and (b) because there are, reputedly, only seven types of story you can tell.
The entrance level, Level Three, houses an enormous bookshop rammed with all sorts of wonderful children’s books – from charming Paddington Bear stories by Michael Bond to Jacqueline Wilson’s most recent Tracy Beaker tales. But before delving in, head upstairs to Level 4, The Sebastian Walker Gallery, where changing exhibitions bring children’s picture books to life using hands-on, interactive games, quizzes and models.
Pop upstairs to Level 5, the Robert Westall Gallery, named after the Tyneside-born writer with a penchant for tales of cats, war, the supernatural and love, an intriguing combination that’s explored further through old photographs, manuscripts and original artwork of all of his most familiar stories – don’t miss the mock 1940s radio that has recordings of the author himself reading from his books. Don’t forget to stop by the bookshop on the way out. Oh, and give that kidnapped child back.
Seven Stories, 30 Lime St, Newcastle upon Tyne is at www.sevenstories.org.uk.
Stacks of fun at Legoland
Did you know the word Lego comes from the Danish leg gohdt, meaning to “play well”? Well, there are no limits to the possibilities for play in this plastic fantastic land constructed from over 25 million bricks. Around every corner across the park’s ten kingdoms await grin-inducing creations: Lego wildlife, Lego knights, Lego pirates, Lego dinosaurs. In Miniland you’ll even find Lego reproductions of famous landmarks such as the Moulin Rouge and London’s skyline, the latter including a 16-foot-high Canary Wharf made from 200,000 bricks.
It may be the Lego that makes it unique (at least within Britain), but really Legoland is all about good old-fashioned theme park fun. Aimed primarily at 3- to 12-year-olds, the park boasts a dizzying array of roller coasters, water rides, trains and merry-go-rounds spun into its 150-acre labyrinth. But, unlike most theme parks, it’s not just geared up for adrenaline junkies: there’s plenty to amuse younger tots too.
Legoland, Windsor, Berkshire, www.legoland.co.uk.
Strange ways in the woods at The Forbidden Corner
As greetings go, the entrance tower gives you a pretty good impression of what is to come. Huge blinking eyes and a gaping mouth invite you on a walk down a giant tongue-tunnel, complete with reverberating, digestive burp – cue screams and laughter as the kids charge further on into the self-styled “Strangest Place in the World”. It certainly defies straightforward description – call it a woodland maze within a secret walled garden, wrapped up as an eye-popping folly, and you’re only halfway to understanding what makes The Forbidden Corner such a hoot.
It’s a labour of love by owner and folly enthusiast Colin Armstrong and his architect friend Malcolm Tempest, who have turned part of the Tupgill Park Estate, just outside Middleham in North Yorkshire, into a highly eccentric family attraction. Trick fountains, oak-carved giants, misleading gateways, frog fountains and talking statues are just the start of it, since the maze effectively continues underground as well, with an underworld labyrinth entered through a full-sized Classical temple facade. This is an extraordinary place of revolving floors, blank doors, secret passages and subterranean forests, where nothing is quite as it seems – dare to walk through the underground waterfall, for example, and the waters miraculously part, while if out of curiosity you try the door marked “staff only”, out shoots a hand accompanied by a gruff invitation to clear off.
The Forbidden Corner, Tupgill Park Estate, Coverham, Middleham, North Yorkshire www.theforbiddencorner.co.uk.
Buried treasure: fossil hunting in Lyme Regis
To any child who loves dinosaurs (are there any who don’t?) the Jurassic Coast must sound like a dream destination. At its most celebrated spot, Lyme Regis in Dorset, 12-year-old fossil hunter Mary Anning found the near-perfect skeleton of a massive ichthyosaurus, revealed by a rock fall. Could such a miracle happen again?
Elsewhere in Britain, the erosion of cliffs is a worry or even a tragedy, but on the rugged Devon and Dorset coast it’s a process which keeps offering up fresh gifts. Visit Lyme Regis today and you may not, perhaps, find so much as a sniff of an ichthyosaurus, but traces of their contemporaries are there in abundance, embedded within layer upon layer of blue lias rock. Every day, the tide uncovers fresh material, laden with history.
Fossil-hunting is such a mainstay of the Lyme Regis tourist industry that the town goes all out to advertise and encourage it: even the lampposts are adorned with elegant, ammonite-shaped ironwork. It’s now generally frowned upon (and somewhat dangerous) to hack away at the cliffs, but you just need to sift through the fallen shards that litter the beach, chiselling large pieces open, to find the petrified bodies of primitive shellfish and reptiles. To get an expert’s eye view of this treasure-trove, kids can sign up for an organized fossil hunt with a professional palaeontologist.
Discovering Fossils (book online at www.discoveringfossils.co.uk) runs expert-led fossil hunts in Lyme Regis.