Family days out in March 2015

At last, spring is on it’s way! I’m really looking forward to the longer days and some warmer weather. There’s plenty going on this month to encourage you to get out and about; I’ve listed a selection of events below. Do leave a comment if there are any others you’d like to add.

1. Partial solar eclipse, nationwide

This will make for an interesting school run! The partial eclipse will be visible, clouds permitting, from around 8.40-10.30am on Friday 20 March. I’ve seen a couple of headlines stating that Britain will be plunged into darkness; it won’t but you’ll still need to wear eclipse viewers and not look directly at the sun.

2. Red Nose Day, nationwide

Taking place on Friday 13 March, there are events across the country to raise money for Comic Relief. If there isn’t one near you already why not organise something yourself? And remember to buy your red noses!

3. Mother’s Day, nationwide

Mums go free at many attractions on Sunday 15 March. Some of these include Trebah Garden in Cornwall, The National Botanic Garden of Wales, The Big Sheep in Devon and Corfe Castle Model Village in Dorset.

4. Discover Lincolnshire weekend

Attractions across the county of Lincolnshire are offering free entry during the weekend of Saturday 28 and Sunday 29 March. The Visit Lincoln website details the attractions taking part; they include Tattershall Castle, Gainsborough Old Hall and Lincoln Cathedral.

5. Lambing weekends, nationwide

Is there anything more spring like than newborn lambs? I think not! There are lots of lambing events across the country including Saddlescombe Farm near Brighton, Kentwell Farm in Suffolk and Oaklands College in St Albans.

The National Trust also has a list of their properties where you can see lambs.

6. Big Bang science fair, Birmingham

With over 75,000 visitors in 2014 the Big Bang science fair is the largest show of its kind in the UK. Aimed at 7-19 year olds the free event runs from 13-16 March. It’s a mix of science related shows, workshops and fun activities to inspire young people to consider careers in science, technology and engineering.

7. Children’s Literature Festival, Cardiff

There’s lots of story telling, Horrible Histories and Diary of a a Wimpy Kid shows and a creative writing workshop at the Cardiff Children’s Lit Fest. Most public events take place on Saturday 28 and Sunday 29 March and are aimed at primary school children. Tickets are from £3 per event.

8. St Piran’s Day celebrations, Cornwall

St Piran is the patron saint of Cornwall. St Piran’s festival takes place in Redruth on Saturday 7 March with a parade, street entertainment and children’s town trail. There are also parades in Falmouth and Bodmin on Thursday 5 March and a procession in Perranporth on Sunday 8 March.

9. World Book Day, nationwide

School children across the country will be dressing up as their favourite book characters on World Book Day, Thursday 5 March. You’ll find events at local libraries and bookshops and if you live near the Roald Dahl museum in Buckinghamshire you can pop along to their after school World Book Day party.

Older children might be interested in Teen Fest from 6-8pm on Wednesday 4 and Thursday 5 March. They can chat online to more than 40 authors, including Holly Smale, Malorie Blackman and Andy McNab.

10. Family fun day, British Geological Society, Nottingham

If your kids are interested in rocks and geology they’ll enjoy this family fun day held at Keyworth in Nottinghamshire. This free event is on Saturday 21 March between 10am-5pm; geologists will be on hand to talk about earthquakes and fossils and there’ll be family specific activities. Register online on the BGS website if you plan to attend.

Discovering the roof gardens of London

We always have a day out in London during February half term. I’ve learnt the hard way that the big attractions attract big crowds so I try to choose a less popular, more quirky option. I recently read about the new Sky Garden at the top of 20 Fenchurch Street (the Walkie Talkie building) so decided to combine a trip to this with two other roof gardens.

The Roof Gardens, 99 Kensington High Street

I’ve walked along Kensington High Street many times but until last week I had no idea that on the roof of the building above we’d find trees, a stream and four flamingos! Yes, you’ve read that correctly. The 1.5 acre roof gardens took 2 years to build and opened to the public in 1938; visitors paid a shilling to enter with the monies raised going to charity. Nowadays Sir Richard Branson leases the roof gardens along with a private clubhouse and restaurant on the 7th floor.

The Spanish garden, The Roof Gardens
The Spanish garden, The Roof Gardens

We signed in at reception and took the lift up to the 6th floor before stepping out into the surreal experience of a Spanish garden. Modelled on the Alhambra in Granada it certainly brightened up the grey and dreary London sky.

Flamingos at The Roof Gardens
Flamingos at The Roof Gardens

There’s also a Tudor garden but our favourite was the woodland garden with its free roaming flamingos. This contains over one hundred trees, including six that have been there since the garden opened. Plenty of spring bulbs were pushing through the soil and a few were already in flower.

The Roof Gardens, 99 Kensington High St, London
The Roof Gardens, 99 Kensington High St, London

The middle of February is never going to show a garden in its full splendour but we thought it was great. We’ll definitely pop back to the Roof Gardens in summer to see it in its prime.

Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch Street (Walkie Talkie)

I’ve always wanted to visit the Shard but why pay £25 when you can experience similar views and a sky garden for free at 20 Fenchurch Street? Admittedly the Walkie Talkie, so called because of its bulbous shape, is less aesthetically pleasing and significantly lower than the Shard but it still provides a great vantage point. And I wonder whether the Shard is just too high to get decent photos?

Sky Garden at the Walkie Talkie
Sky Garden at the Walkie Talkie

I’d booked tickets to the Sky Garden a few days previously and although we turned up an hour early the staff were accommodating and let us in before our actual slot. My passport ID was checked, bags put through security scanners and then we were in the lift. I haven’t been in many skyscrapers so I was pleasantly surprised how quickly we zoomed up to the 35th floor.

Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch St
Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch St

The views are stunning. There are no information boards but most of the buildings are instantly recognisable. We enjoyed looking across to the Gherkin and at a helicopter which appeared to be flying at the same height as us. Aside from the views, I’d describe the sky garden as corporate. It’s the kind of planting that you get in posh offices. Nice enough, but didn’t really have any soul. Maybe give it a year to mature and it’ll look better. If you visit for the views you’ll love it but if you visit just for the garden you’ll probably be disappointed.

Views from the Sky Garden
Views from the Sky Garden

When we came to leave we discovered both lifts were temporarily out of order and awaiting repair. The lift attendant announced that he’d take 8 people down in the maintenance lift. At this point I started to worry that we’d be trundling down the outside of the building in some kind of cage. After several more minutes of my mind running through increasingly doom-laden scenarios (Towering Inferno) the lift door suddenly opened and we were able to leave. A few seconds later and I was secretly relieved to be back on the ground floor!

SOAS Japanese Roof Garden

Expectations for our final garden were high, but it’s unfair to compare this garden with either of the previous ones. It’s much smaller and has minimal planting. Instead, the SOAS Japanese Roof garden is all about the stone with sandstone, slate and granite chippings providing texture and interest.

Japanese roof garden, SOAS
Japanese roof garden, SOAS

There’s seating for those who wish to enjoy the peace and meditate but we didn’t linger. I’m sure that in May, when the wisteria flowers, it is lovely but on a cold February day we were rather happy to head back indoors. An interesting garden to visit if you’re already in the area but I wouldn’t make a special trip just to see it.

More info

  • The Roof Gardens at 99 Kensington High Street are free to enter but ring before you visit to ensure they are not closed for an event.
  • The Sky Garden is open from 10am-6pm weekdays, 11am-9pm weekends. Visits are free although you’ll need to book a timed slot in advance. Remember to bring ID with you.
  • The SOAS roof garden is on top of the Brunei Gallery and is open whenever the gallery is (generally 10.30am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday).
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Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

A walking break in Elterwater, Lake District

I was lucky enough to get some ‘me’ time a few weeks back. I’m not the kind of person who enjoys spa breaks; instead I indulged in my pre-kids hobby and booked a short walking holiday based in Elterwater in the Lake District.

Summit of Harrison Stickle, Elterwater
Summit of Harrison Stickle, Elterwater

This was the fourth time I’ve walked with Country Adventures so when I finally arrived at Elterwater Hostel (thanks M6) I already knew the leader, Joe, and some of the others in the group, many of whom are regulars.

That evening Joe outlined the walking routes for the next day. Our walks were based in and around the Langdale Valley, and as there were several leaders we had a choice of a challenging walk or a more moderate option. As I was walking without kids, I was happy to go for the slightly harder route up Harrison Stickle. I cannot remember the exact distance but I think it was around 9 miles long with 3000 ft of ascent in total.

Day 1 – Harrison Stickle

I’d been checking the weather forecast religiously the previous week and was prepared for rain. Not just any rain, but torrential rain and wind; this being the Lake District after all. Instead we were greeted with a cold sunny day and not a cloud in the sky. A perfect day for walking.

Views of and from Harrison Stickle
Views of and from Harrison Stickle

Our day started with a short minibus ride to Dungeon Ghyll car park. Packs on, we headed off in the opposite direction from most walkers who all seemed to be walking straight up to Stickle Tarn. Instead our route took us on a gradual ascent up between Harrison Stickle and Pike of Stickle.

Higher up we started to encounter snow. It was still in the light and fluffy stage. Lovely for walking in except when it gets down the back of your boots and melts inside them! Despite this I was still walking with just a fleece jacket; hard to believe it was the middle of winter.

Walking up Harrison Stickle
Walking up Harrison Stickle

We seemed to reach the summit pretty quickly. The views from the top of Harrison Stickle were stupendous. Looking back at these photos I am reminded how perfect the day was. Our guide helpfully named the peaks around us although I promptly forgot them all. Instead I was happy to just stand and take in the panorama.

Snow views from Harrison Stickle
Snow views from Harrison Stickle

I could have sat on the summit cairn all day but lunch called. We first had to negotiate a rather icy downhill stretch which I didn’t particularly like. It was a relief to get out of the shade and back into the sun. We skirted around Stickle Tarn; my camera once again working overtime.

View of and from Harrison Stickle
View of and from Harrison Stickle

As we walked away from Harrison Stickle it was hard not to turn round and check the view every couple of minutes (top photo in collage above). The peak and it’s shady descent are imprinted on my mind for ever more.

The route back to Elterwater
The route back to Elterwater

Despite having reached the summit the bulk of the mileage was still ahead of us. We walked back to Elterwater across the fells, passing by Blea Cragg and Lang How. The best views were behind but we were still treated to a glorious winter walk, arriving back into Elterwater just as the tea shop was shutting (boo!).

That evening we ate at the hostel and enjoyed one of Joe’s quizzes. Some of the questions had made a repeat appearance from previous years, time for some new ones Joe!

Day 2 – Lingmoor Fell

There was just one walk on the second day but it came with an option to shorten it. We were walking from the hostel, on the southern side of the Langdale valley, up and over Lingmoor Fell.

Views from Lingmoor Fell
Views from Lingmoor Fell

The views were never going to surpass those of the previous day but it was impressive to see the fog cloaking Windermere below us as we emerged from the woods. I wonder if those in Windermere knew we had such great weather?

Walking over Lingmoor Fell
Walking over Lingmoor Fell

Standing atop of Lingmoor Fell gave us another view of the Langdale Pikes. The weather wasn’t quite as agreeable as the previous day so we didn’t hang around on top for too long. Once again we were faced with an icy descent which involved some detours over bracken; at least this made for a soft landing when the inevitable happened!

View from Blea Tarn
View from Blea Tarn

Lots of walkers appeared as we hit the road and tourist hotspot of Blea Tarn. After stopping for the obligatory photo of the Langdale Pikes (above) we followed the well made track back past Little Langdale and into Elterwater. Once again arriving home as the tea shop shut.

No quizzes on day 2. Instead a game of film and TV Pictionary. Some of the drawings had us in stitches, I haven’t laughed so hard in ages.

Day 3

I’d have loved to walk on the last day. But with another M6 journey to contend with I decided it was best to head off early. First though a browse around the outdoor shops in Ambleside and, at last, a visit to an open tea shop!

More info

  • I travelled with Country Adventures, a company that offers walking and other activity holidays in the Lake District, Yorkshire, Peak District and Wales. I’ve always enjoyed my trips with them and I think the fact that many of their clients come again and again speaks for itself. Our group had sole use of Elterwater Hostel but Joe can arrange alternative accommodation if you prefer.

A weekend on the Ridgeway

The Ridgeway, Britain’s oldest track, is our local long distance path. We often walk it at weekends and for a couple of years the other half and I entered the Ridgeway40 challenge, a 40 mile day walk. I still remember the agony of attempting to climb stairs the following day! This weekend it was the turn of my daughter who was taking part in an 18 mile Scouts winter hike. I quite fancied doing it too so walked alongside her group as a helper.

Ridgeway winter challenge
Ridgeway winter challenge

Around 800-900 beavers, cubs and scouts from across Oxfordshire took part. The beavers and cubs had a shorter 9 mile option but I was impressed to see that a lot of them carried on for the full 18 miles. The walk itself was quite straightforward. It would be hard to get lost (particularly given how many people were taking part) and the track is gently undulating rather than hilly. However the weather was freezing and the icy ground turned to mud as the day progressed; not a pleasant combination.

All finished
All finished!

There were checkpoints every couple of miles. A bacon butty stand at checkpoint 3 was particularly popular, as were the tuck stalls at other stops. Sugar appeared to fuel most of the walkers; I did a double take at one girl we passed who was carrying a HUGE bag of pick and mix! It was too cold to hang around much. We had a couple of short breaks for lunch but as soon as we stopped walking our hands and feet froze. The upshot of this is that we made good time. As we neared the finish line the youngsters, and more reluctantly the adults, broke into a jog for the last 200 metres. I’m rather proud that my daughter’s all-girl team were the first home from their Scout group in a time of 6 hours and 55 minutes.

View from Swyncombe
View from Swyncombe

You’d have thought we’d seen enough of the Ridgeway on Saturday but we were back on it again on Sunday. We were visiting the 1000 year old St Botolph church at Swyncombe, near Wallingford, to see their snowdrop displays and partake in afternoon tea. We’ve visited the snowdrops here a couple of times, although one memorable year we were thwarted by the steep icy hill on the approach. Our car, and others, got stuck whilst trying to reach the church. So near yet so far!

Cake and tea in Swyncombe graveyard
Cake and tea in Swyncombe graveyard

The snowdrops and aconites are planted in drifts around the graves and provide a beautiful display, although I think we were spoilt by the huge swathes we saw at Welford Park last year. As you can see from the above picture, our refreshments were eaten in the graveyard; I wonder what its inhabitants would think of us?

Signs of spring at Swyncombe
Signs of spring at Swyncombe

After the snowdrops and cake we were ready for a short stroll. We walk the same route each year; turning left out of the church on to the Ridgeway and following a circular route which takes us up a short steep wooded section before circling back round behind Swyncombe Manor. Heading back to the church we passed through a field of pregnant ewes. No lambs yet but only another few weeks and it will be spring. About time! More info:

  • The snowdrop weekends at Swyncombe Church are held in February each year. Check the church website for exact dates and before you travel; they may be postponed in inclement weather.