Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park was home to the unforgettable 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. We visited the Paralympics and had an amazing time watching athletics, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis; that day will stay with me forever!

The park has undergone major redevelopment since then. Some of the Olympic venues have gone and other areas are still being redeveloped. New attractions in the North Park, such as a large playground and cafe, welcomed visitors last summer whilst the South Park reopened in April 2014. I was intrigued to see what changes had been made so we spent a day exploring the Olympic park.

Olympic rings, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Olympic rings, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Our first stop was the information point to pick up a map and trail leaflets. There’s a great choice of trails covering London 2012, children and art in the park. I was impressed by the quality of the trails, even better that they were all free.

Our route into the park took us past the London Aquatics Centre. The pool is open for public swimming sessions now but it’s best to book in advance. All of the kids sessions were fully booked on the day of our visit so we had to content ourselves with a peep inside (no Tom Daley to be seen).

Aquatics Centre, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Aquatics Centre, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

The Orbit, or ArcelorMittal Orbit as it is now known, has also re-opened. Created by Sir Anish Kapoor for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games it’s the tallest sculpture in the UK. Visitors can take the lift up 80m to a viewing platform for a panoramic view across London. When you’re ready to leave there are 455 steps back down to the ground! We didn’t go up as I couldn’t justify the cost, but it’s an impressive sculpture to walk around.

Orbit, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Orbit, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

From the Orbit we followed the trails to the North Park. These took us past play fountains, a playground for younger children, climbing walls and lots of wooden deck chairs to relax on.

Climbing wall, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Climbing wall, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

We found a listening station and relived the cheers of Super Saturday when Team GB won three gold medals in the stadium.  We also attempted to jump as far as Greg Rutherford’s winning jump. Not surprisingly we couldn’t!

Can you jump as far as Greg Rutherford?

Can you jump as far as Greg Rutherford?

The only disappointment of the day was the Timber Lodge Cafe. We visited on a busy day and the cafe was having problems coping with the numbers. The tables were all dirty, the queues horrendous and the food not great. On a positive note the prices were reasonable for London and I’m sure that on a quieter day it’s probably a decent cafe. But our experience was pretty poor!

Tumbling Bay playground, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Tumbling Bay playground, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

The Tumbling Bay playground was a HUGE hit with the kids. They spent a while playing with water pumps, damming channels and running along a wobbly rope bridge. It was only when I went to leave that I realised there was another much larger section with wooden tree houses, rope nets and loads of climbing opportunities. This part was aimed at older children (I’d suggest 6+), and looked amazing. All of the kids were enjoying themselves, running around and scrambling up and down the tree structures.

Velodrome, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Velodrome, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

After I managed to drag the children away from the playground we walked on to the velodrome. It’s open to the public, and visitors can also book taster sessions on the BMX track and mountain bike route. We sat and watched some cyclists tackling the velodrome, the banks looked pretty scary close up.

Mirror bridge, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Mirror bridge, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Before leaving there was time for one last photo, my daughter couldn’t resist a Usain Bolt pose on the podium.

Podium, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Podium, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

We had a great day out at the park. I thought I might be disappointed returning to a place that held such great memories but there are different things to see and do now. We’ll certainly visit again to see the bits we missed and perhaps use some of the sporting facilities. Definitely recommended!

More info:

  • The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is free to enter. The nearest tube is Stratford, it’s about a 10 minute walk via Westfield Shopping Centre. The park is open 24 hours a day, whilst the information point is open from 10am-3pm. The website has loads of information and is worth a browse before you visit.
  • Standard swimming sessions at the Aquatics Centre cost £4.50 for adults, £2.50 for children. During the school holidays the pool runs Aqua Splash obstacle courses; these cost slightly more but sound great fun. Book your swimming session in advance here.
  • A family ticket to the Orbit is £40. Alternatively an adult ticket is £15, a child ticket is £7. Kids under 3 are free.  It’s open from 10am-6pm during the summer with slightly reduced hours the rest of the year. The Orbit is fully accessible to wheelchairs. More details can be found on the Orbit website.
Posted in London

Things to do with the family in April 2014

I love April. The weather is getting warmer, the trees are full of blossom and chocolate abounds. There are also 2 weeks of school holidays to fill so if you’re looking for places to visit with kids over Easter read on.

daffs

1. National Trust Easter Egg hunts, nationwide

The National Trust and the National Trust for Scotland have once again joined with Cadbury to offer Easter Egg trails at 300 of its properties. They have a dedicated site where you can pop in your location to find a trail close to you and further information about opening times. The trails cost around £2 in addition to any NT entrance fees. Children are given a journal with clues to complete the trail, at the end they receive a Cadbury Egghead chocolate treat.

It’s also worth keeping an eye out for their free entry weekend. In 2013 it was held over 21-22 April but as these dates coincide with Easter this year I think it’s highly unlikely to be the same weekend. Keep a watch out for further announcements. 

2. Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London

Remember the 2012 Olympics? The park was the scene of many amazing victories and it’s now open for the public to enjoy. You can swim in the Aquatics Centre, play in the Tumbling Bay playground or visit the Orbit (the controversial sculpture by Sir Anish Kapoor). When you’ve finished take a stroll through the landscaped parklands. Entrance to the park is free although there are charges for activities and the Orbit. Full details here.

3. Vaisakhi celebrations, Birmingham

This Sikh festival is being celebrated on Sunday 27 April with two colourful street processions through Birmingham and a gathering at Handsworth Park. Everyone is invited to share a traditional free vegetarian meal, browse the bazaar stalls and listen to Punjabi music. This is one of the world’s largest Vaisakhi celebrations and it’s worth knowing that in 2013 visitor numbers topped 100,000! Full details are available here.

4. Easter adventure quest at English Heritage properties, nationwide

This is held over the Easter weekend at properties ranging from Whitby Abbey, N Yorks to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. Young adventurers are required to solve clues in return for a chocolate treat.

Pendennis Castle in Cornwall, another English Heritage property, hasn’t gone down the chocolate egg route. Instead they’re holding a Soldiers and Spies Academy from 14-18 April. Standard entrance prices apply plus a £1 charge for taking part in the activity.

A full list of Easter events at English Heritage sites is available here.

5. Duck race, Isle of Wight

This takes place on Saturday 19 April. Over 1000 yellow plastic ducks will race down the River Yar, with cash prizes for those holding ticket numbers that match the winning ducks. After my recent success at the World Pooh Sticks Championships I might give it a go! Tickets cost £1 each and are available in advance and on the day. More info here.

6. St George’s day

St George’s Day is on 23 April, but there are several events taking place either side of this date. In London there’s a feast of traditional English food and free activities in Trafalgar Square on Monday 21 April.

Alternatively a St George’s Festival is being held at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire over the weekend of 26-27 April. It advertises itself as the biggest St George’s celebration in the country. The day includes jousting, falconry and a recreation of St George’s battle with the dragon. Admission charges apply, these are much reduced for English Heritage members.

7. Egg rolling, Butser Hill, Hampshire

If you’re looking for something different why not visit the Great Butser Egg Roll at Queen Elizabeth Country Park, Hampshire from 10am on Easter Monday. Eggs cost £1.50 each from the Visitor Centre, which you then roll down Butser Hill. Various other activities such as an Easter trail, face painting and a puppet theatre will also be on offer.

I wrote my first blog post a year ago about our visit and although we didn’t do the egg rolling we took part in their Easter trail, had fun orienteering and walked around the park; read about it here.

8. Cardiff children’s literature festival

If you’re looking for a weather proof event why not consider the Cardiff children’s literature festival. This takes place between 9-13 April, with a variety of 1 hour events every day. Tickets are generally £3 each per session and there are options for all age ranges. The programme showcases authors in English and Welsh and is headlined by Michael Morpurgo.

There are a number of connected events taking place in the city. On Saturday 12 April budding comic writers can join a free workshop, whilst eagle eyed children can take part in a Where’s Wally hunt around Cardiff.

9.Trevithick Day, Camborne, Cornwall

This is a 1 day festival held on Saturday 26 April to celebrate the industrial heritage of the area. It’s named after the inventor and mining engineer Richard Trevithick who helped develop the world’s first high pressure steam engine.

The afternoon includes a steam engine parade, traditional dancing from local children, displays of veteran vehicles and engines and plenty of street stalls. Further details can be found here.

10. Edinburgh International Science Festival

This takes place at several venues across Edinburgh from 5-20 April. The programme includes plenty of family friendly events with activities suitable from age 3+. Sessions include robot racing, chocolate alchemy, a soldering workshop and being a farm detective.

The festival has some amazing lectures for the 14+ age range too and I was glad to see they’ve got a hands-on adults workshop titled ‘Mammoth poo detectives’. After all, we’re all kids at heart!

You can download the 60 page programme here (be aware, it’s a big file). Some events are free, others require tickets which start from £3.

I hope you’ve found something in the list above to inspire you. If you have any other suggestions feel free to leave a comment to let other readers know about them too.

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Posted in Family activities

World Pooh sticks championships, Oxfordshire

A couple of years ago the World Pooh Sticks Championships was voted by Countryfile magazine readers as Britain’s favourite quirky event. Now in its 31st year, it attracts competitors from all over the world and raises several thousand pounds for charity. This year (unlike last) the weather was gorgeous so it seemed the perfect way to spend a lazy Sunday.

2014 world Pooh sticks championships

2014 world Pooh sticks championships

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, Pooh sticks involves dropping a stick into the water on one side of a bridge, and then rushing to the other side to see which one makes it to the finish line first. The game was invented by A.A. Milne for his son, and made famous by his Winnie the Pooh books.

Plenty of Pooh sticks

Plenty of Pooh sticks

As the weather was so lovely a lot of people had turned out for the event. After buying our competitor tickets we had to queue for a while before our first round. During this time we chose our sticks, each a different colour but similar in size to the other sticks in the round. We were in a group of six, and when the time came for our heat we were taken to the bridge where we had to line up against the designated colour spot for our stick.

Sticks at the ready!

Sticks at the ready!

The starter shouts Ready Steady Go, at which point we dropped our sticks into the river. A couple of kids in some of the rounds eagerly threw their sticks in a little too early but fortunately they kept spare sticks on the bridge.

Getting ready to drop the Pooh stick

Getting ready to drop the Pooh stick

After dropping the sticks you race to the other side of the bridge (if you’re a kid) to see which colour wins. The finishing line was several metres from the bridge so there was plenty of time to cheer your particular stick on. The kids were full of theories as to how to make the sticks go faster but it’s really just a game of chance.

Watching for the winner

Watching for the winner

The recovery boat was kept busy picking up the sticks and although a few got away most were recycled for the next heat. The man in the picture below had the job of deciding the winner for each round, which he announced by holding up a card with the winning colour on it.

The Pooh stick recovery boat

The Pooh stick recovery boat

Amazingly my blue stick won the first round. I was a little surprised as I’d heard (after choosing a colour) that the pink sticks had the best position on the bridge, but it really is down to chance. I was even more amazed to win my 2nd and 3rd rounds and gain a place in the final. I felt slightly guilty that my kids hadn’t got past the first round but hey, it was Mother’s Day, so I decided it was justified.

There was a bit of hanging around before the final as there were a lot of competitors to progress through the rounds. During this time we had a look at some of the stalls and ate lunch whilst I eyed up the competition.

Eventually it was time for the final. It was a tense moment when the finalists headed up to the bridge. Someone was about to be crowned the Pooh sticks world champion.

And sadly, it wasn’t me. However it was a fair battle and I take my hat off to the winner, he’d obviously trained harder. I did get a Runners Up certificate though and had my photograph taken with Pooh and Tigger.

Receiving my Pooh sticks runners up certificate

Receiving my Pooh sticks runners up certificate

The individual championships were followed by the team event, but we decided to head home at this point. Roll on next year!

More info

  • The event is held yearly at Day’s Lock, Long Wittenham on the River Thames in Oxfordshire. It’s usually around the end of March, although last year it was postponed until the autumn due to high river levels.
  • Entrance in 2014 cost £2 per stick in the individual championships or £12 per team in the team championships. Teams need to enter in advance, individuals enter on the day.
  • For more information pop along to the world Pooh sticks championship website.
Posted in Family activities, South

Spring at Bucklebury Farm Park, Berkshire

A perfect spring day calls for a spring like visit, which must of course include lambs! We’ve visited Bucklebury Farm Park several times before and always enjoyed our visit so decided to venture out to see their newborn animals.

Feeding the lambs at Bucklebury Farm Park

Feeding the lambs at Bucklebury Farm Park

The farm park has a variety of farmyard animals, several outdoor play areas and a large deer park. Our arrival coincided with one of the lamb bottle feeding sessions so we headed straight over to feed the lambs. The park takes in orphan lambs from local farms, and offers several feeding opportunities each day. In  addition to the lambs there were also some very young piglets and an incredibly cute black and white kid goat. 

Woody's Leap obstacle course

Woody’s Leap obstacle course

After the lambs, my son had some energy to burn off (as usual) so our next stop was the obstacle course. There’s lots to climb over and the kids can race each other. At the top there’s also a den building area which gets used for birthday parties and bushcraft courses.

Pedal go-karts at Bucklebury Farm Park

Pedal go-karts at Bucklebury Farm Park

The pedal go-karts are always very popular with the older children. Later in the season there is usually a staff member on hand to ensure everyone gets a fair turn. However it was quiet whilst we were there so the kids spent quite a while on them. There are also some smaller tricycles for toddlers.

The jumping pillow, Bucklebury Farm Park

The jumping pillow, Bucklebury Farm Park

We first came across jumping pillows when we took our kids on a trip to New Zealand. Every campsite would have a jumping pillow as part of its play area so we have fond memories of these. When you’ve finished on the jumping pillow (or bounce mat as they call it) there’s a long zip wire nearby for more fun.

Deer on hillside at Bucklebury Farm Park

Deer on hillside at Bucklebury Farm Park

We had been disappointed on arrival to find that the trailer rides to see and feed the deer weren’t running due to field conditions. This is usually one of the highlights and I thought the park could have made this clear on their website or Twitter feed so we’d have known before arrival. This time round we had to content ourselves with viewing the deer from afar.

Feeding the donkeys at Bucklebury Farm Park

Feeding the donkeys at Bucklebury Farm Park

We’d been given a free bag of animal food to make up for the lack of tractor rides (although a discount on admission would have been preferred). Most of the animals weren’t interested as I think they’d had a lot of extra food already but the donkeys and goats were happy to take advantage. I saw a couple of goats devouring the paper bags as well as the food!

Pat-a-pet at Bucklebury Farm Park

Pat-a-pet at Bucklebury Farm Park

It’s only when I visit places like this that I realise how much our two have grown. This was definitely noticeable in the pat-a-pet session when all the others were toddlers. You’re never too old to cuddle a guinea pig though.

The slides at Bucklebury Farm Park

The slides at Bucklebury Farm Park

Throughout the day we had a couple of visits to the indoor slides. My son really enjoyed the highest drop slide (which big sister wouldn’t go on) and they both had fun racing against each other on the yellow slide.

Bucklebury Farm Park has a cafe which is open to both visitors and passers by. I couldn’t fault our food but there were some strangely expensive options, particularly jacket potatoes for £8.50! I didn’t see anyone eating them so cannot confirm if they were gold plated. Fortunately there are plenty of picnic tables around the park too.

More info:

  • A family ticket for two adults and two children costs £30. Children under 2 are free. Full details on the Bucklebury Farm website.
  • The website states it’s a great day out whatever the weather but you’d definitely miss out on a lot of the activities if it was pouring with rain. I would only visit on dry(ish) days.
  • Bucklebury Farm Park primarily caters to the younger visitor with lots to do for toddlers. Whilst we had an enjoyable day I think my eldest is outgrowing this kind of attraction, although she’d be the first to deny this!
Posted in South

Wow!How? Family Science Fair, Oxford

Last weekend we visited the Wow!How? science fair at the Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. This is the 10th year of the event, which forms part of the Oxfordshire Science Festival. We’ve been a couple of times before but this year it seemed bigger and better than ever!

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

There were over 30 stalls spread throughout the museums, each offering the opportunity to carry out scientific investigations. Most were aimed at the 8+ age group but many were still suitable for younger children. We spent the afternoon in the museum and still didn’t manage to visit all of them!

One of the most popular stalls was ‘Murder mystery at the museum’. A murder had been committed and 5 suspects identified. Using a variety of techniques and evidence the kids had to solve the case.

Finger printing, murder mystery at the museum

Finger printing, murder mystery at the museum

The first step was taking fingerprints. The scientist helpers explained the different types of fingerprint, and then the kids had to eliminate some of the suspects whose fingerprints didn’t match. This was followed by matching hair samples and looking at them under the microscope.

Maggots! Murder mystery at the museum

Maggots! Murder mystery at the museum

The kids were equally revolted and impressed by the next step which was to use maggots (and their life cycle) to determine how long the body had lain for. This helped exclude more suspects. The final step was comparing DNA found at the crime scene and then working out who the killer was.

Leaf insect, bug handling

Leaf insect, bug handling

We moved on to look at several other stalls, before stopping for a while at the bug handling stand. Visitors were able to hold a stick insect, giant cockroaches (not many takers) a tarantula, giant millepede and my favourite, the leaf insect shown above. I learnt that, as part of its camouflage, the leaf insect can mimic being blown around in the wind, in the same way that a leaf on a tree does!

Happy hearts

Happy hearts

On another stall the kids found out how hearts work, and had their heart rate and blood oxygen levels measured. They then had to do 30 seconds of star jumps to see how much their heart rate increased. At the end they were rewarded with a Skittle sweet, along with the information that this is how much exercise it takes to burn off one Skittle.

Snazzy Sellotape

Snazzy Sellotape

At the next stand the kids made snazzy Sellotape. This very simple experiment involved sticking pieces of Sellotape at angles across each other onto a clear plastic film. When viewed under a light source lots of different colours were visible.

Fossil casting

Fossil casting

Another popular stall was fossil casting. After mixing water and plaster together it was poured into a variety of moulds. My daughter made a cast of a Megalosaurus footprint but there were lots of others to choose from. They were left to dry for around 15 minutes before the helpers extracted them from the moulds. Despite such a short drying time ours still arrived home in one piece.

Darwin's finches experiment

Darwin’s finches experiment

The kids also learnt about Darwin’s finches and how beaks evolved to be different shapes based on the food that was available. They had to match the various implements available (stand in beaks) to the different foods on offer. I never realised there was such a thing as a blood sucking bird, but I know now there is an aptly named vampire finch!

There were many other stands that we only managed a quick look at. These included building a Lego dinosaur, Crazy Custard, Disaster Zone and Cambrian Explosion. Add to that some stands that we didn’t manage to see at all; we really should have got there when it opened.

The day finished with the Super Cool Show which was all about changes of state. We missed part of this, but did manage to see the end. The kids got to sample instant ice cream made with the help of nitrogen, and to run around outside (I’m guessing) in ‘nitrogen fog’. A great end to the afternoon.

More info

  • The event is held yearly in March at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
  • Full details are available on the website, look out in due course for information on the 2015 event.
  • Entrance is free.
Posted in South

Reading climbing centre, Berkshire

As the kids have got older we’ve been able to try more adventurous activities as a family. One of these was a trip to Reading climbing wall, which we decided upon after we saw an offer on Groupon.

Reading climbing centre

Reading climbing centre

We booked a 1 hour introductory climbing lesson. My son has never climbed before so it was a new experience for him, but my daughter has been a couple of times.

Beginners route at Reading Climbing Centre

Beginners route at Reading Climbing Centre

Our instructor supervised us putting on the harnesses and clipping into the ropes. He then gave us a quick demo, showing how we should put just our tiptoes onto the climbing holds, along with the best way to use hand holds and position our arms. We were also shown how to belay the climber by keeping the rope tight as they were climbing.

I'm nearly at the top!

I’m not far off the top!

We started off on an easy route. Our son was a little nervous to begin with and didn’t want to go too high on his first climb. The instructor was very patient and encouraged him to go as high as he could but didn’t force him to do anything he was unsure of. Meanwhile our daughter zoomed to top so the instructor suggested she made her next climb harder by just using the climbing holds of one colour.

Once we reached the top we abseiled back down. Even though I’ve climbed before it’s still a little unnerving to sit back and walk your feet back down the wall but you do get used to it.

Bouldering at Reading climbing centre

Bouldering at Reading climbing centre

The hour passed really quickly. At the end the instructor gave us a quick introduction to the bouldering wall (climbing practise at low level without ropes) and then left us to our own devices for as long as we wanted. My son was happier here because he could climb up just a little way and then jump off onto the safety mat. I, on the other hand, preferred the wall as I enjoyed the challenge of getting to the top.

If you have a climbing wall near you it’s definitely worth popping along and having a go. My daughter isn’t really into competitive sport but she likes climbing so it’s a great chance for her to get active. Many walls have weekly classes for children but as we found it’s a good activity to do as a family too.

More info: 

  • We visited Reading Climbing Centre, details here. We had a 1 hour introductory session which usually costs £80 for a family of four. We only paid £29 as we took advantage of a Groupon offer; it’s worthwhile keeping your eye out for these!
  • There’s a small cafe with cakes, drinks and some limited snacks. Prices were reasonable, for example £3 for beans on toast or potato wedges. The cafe overlooks the climbing wall so you can watch the climbers as you eat.
Posted in Family activities, South

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