Palms and peacocks at Harcourt Arboretum and Botanic Gardens, Oxford

We’re regular visitors to Harcourt Arboretum and the Botanic Gardens in Oxford as they offer lots to see in a relatively small space. The sites are part of the Oxford University estate, and are used for teaching, research and conservation purposes. Access is open to all, and there’s always something of interest whatever the time of year.

Botanic Gardens

Oxford Botanic Garden was founded in 1621, and is the oldest in the country.  There are around 5000 different plant species growing in a surprisingly compact area.

The outdoor gardens at the Botanic Garden are lovely, particularly in mid-summer, but it’s the glass houses that keep me visiting. Imagine a mini Eden Project in one of the busiest streets of Oxford and you’ll understand why I enjoy it so much.  In the depths of winter, when the outdoor beds look bare, it’s a pleasure to stand amongst tropical greenery in the heated greenhouses.

In the glasshouse at Oxford Botanic Garden
In the glasshouse at Oxford Botanic Garden

There are 5 different glass houses. They’re not big but they pack a lot into them. My favourite is the Palm House, which houses a variety of tropical plants, such as bananas, papaya, pineapple, ginger and sugar cane. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it! On our visit the Seville oranges were ripening, giving the glass house a citrus aroma reminiscint of Mediterranean holidays.

Beware! Fly eating plants at Oxford Botanic Gardens
Beware! Fly eating plants at Oxford Botanic Gardens

The kids love the insectivorous house, and when no-one is looking they like to tease the fly traps (should I admit this?). There are magnifying glasses available to look more closely at the plants.

Lily pads at Oxford Botanic Gardens
Lily pads at Oxford Botanic Gardens

The lily house has a raised pond with huge lily pads and hundreds of tiny fish to watch.

Water lily at Oxford Botanic Gardens
Water lily at Oxford Botanic Gardens

For once I’d brought my ‘proper’ camera with me, rather than relying on my camera phone, so I was able to take some close up shots.

Bee on dahlia at Oxford Botanic Garden
Bee on dahlia at Oxford Botanic Garden

The garden has inspired plenty of children’s authors, including Lewis Carroll, JRR Tolkien and Philip Pullman. Seek out the bench at the back of the garden which is famous for its appearance in one of Pullman’s novels. You can also listen to Philip Pullman on the garden audio trail, along with staff discussing their favourite plants.

The Botanic Garden is bordered by the Cherwell River. On a sunny summer afternoon there are always plenty of people attempting to punt which is fun to watch. Surprisingly, I’ve never seen anyone fall in yet!

Harcourt Arboretum

Harcourt Arboretum is about 5 miles from Oxford, in the village of Nuneham Courtenay.  It’s straightforward to reach by bus from Oxford, but if you want to visit both the Arboretum and the Botanic Gardens on the same day it’s much easier having your own transport.

Log balancing at Harcourt
Log balancing at Harcourt

The Arboretum is a collection of trees and shrubs from around the world.  It’s a great place to visit if you’re trying to complete an I-Spy Trees book, although I guess some would classify this as cheating! Whilst there are exotic specimens such as redwoods and acers there is also an area of native woodland and a wildflower meadow.

Harcourt Arboretum is definitely the wilder cousin, when compared to the manicured lawns of the Botanic Gardens, and it has plenty of space for kids to run around in. There are usually peacocks wandering near the entrance and often peacock feathers to find.

Autumn colours at Harcourt Arboretum
Autumn colours at Harcourt Arboretum

Our visit coincided with the start of the autumn colour change. Harcourt has a number of Japanese maples which put on a great display each year.

Trees at Harcourt Arboretum
Trees at Harcourt Arboretum

A speciality of the Arboretum are conifers from the north west coast of America, some of the trees are huge! Lay on the ground and look upwards for an interesting view.

Both the Botanic Gardens and the Arboretum have family activities throughout the year.  Each summer the Arboretum runs a geo-caching trail, and they always have activity backpacks available. Even if you just visiting for a family ramble you can be pretty sure you’ll find plenty to interest you.

More info

  • Follow the links for visitor information for Harcourt Arboretum and Botanic Gardens. Both gardens are accessible, with a dedicated wheelchair path at the Arboretum.
  • There are no refreshment facilities at either site. This isn’t an issue in Oxford as there are plenty of places nearby.  If we’re visiting the Arboretum and fancy a drink we usually go to Notcutts garden centre. It’s about a mile away, but I wouldn’t recommend walking as it’s along the side of a fast main road

Costs

  • Entrance for adults is £4.50, accompanied children are free. The ticket entitles you to visit both the Arboretum and the Botanic Garden on the same day.
  • If you live locally an annual pass costs £15.50 and is well worth the money.
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My video entry for the Center Parcs family blogger challenge

A different type of blog this week.  I’ve entered a Center Parcs competition  to produce a 1 minute video showing how our family enjoy the great outdoors.  I’m hoping to win a break at Center Parcs, and thought I’d share my video as I’ve had great fun making it, even if it’s not a winning entry.

The subject choice was easy.  We live near an off-road Sustrans cycle route, and often bike along it at the weekends. At the end is a playground which the kids love.  If we cycle a little further there’s a cafe which I love!

On to the hard part…..  I’ve only ever taken a couple of clips with the video functionality on my phone before, and  I’ve never done any video editing.   It’s taken me a good week to get to grips with the editing, adding the video to a sharing site and getting the link working on my blog.  I gave up on YouTube, as although the rest of the world are able to upload videos of dancing cats I don’t appear to use the right file format, aargh!

I know it’s not perfect, as some of the quality has been lost in the upload and the muzak is a little irritating after you’ve watched it for the 10th time, but without further ado I hope you enjoy my entry for the Center Parcs challenge.

If we do win we don’t really mind which village we visit, although Whinfell is quite a drive from us, so we’d prefer one a little closer!

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Roald Dahl museum, Great Missenden, Bucks

I had some reservations about visiting the Roald Dahl Museum as Trip Advisor reviews were split between those who really enjoyed the museum, and those who found it small and over-priced.  Added to this, I’ve never really been a fan of Roald Dahl’s books (am I the only one?) even though both my kids enjoy them.  However, as we were already in the area, it seemed a shame not to pop in and check for ourselves.

The Roald Dahl museum and Cafe Twit
The Roald Dahl museum and Cafe Twit

The kids started their visit with a Fizzlecrumper and Swishwiffler at Cafe Twit. They wouldn’t normally get to drink such sugary monstrosities (lemonade and coke with an ice cream float and sprinkles) but it seemed an appropriate treat. They loved them but they were way too sweet for me so I stuck to the coffee.

On to the museum. At the entrance the kids were given a story ideas book and a trail sheet. We were also given a map, and I picked up a village trail sheet for later exploration.

Inside the Roald Dahl museum
Inside the Roald Dahl museum

The Roald Dahl museum is small, with two main rooms dedicated to his life. The boy gallery detailed his early years at boarding school. I loved reading his letters home, detailing his love of chocolate. You can certainly understand some of his inspiration for ‘Charlie and the chocolate factory’.

The second room houses his writing hut. The kids enjoyed spotting and learning about the objects in his hut, particularly his ball made up of silver chocolate wrappers and part of his hip (from a hip replacement). However they didn’t really spend much time reading the rest of the exhibits, despite them being colourful and appealing to the eye.

The Story Centre at Roald Dahl museum
The Story Centre at Roald Dahl museum

The third room at the museum is the interactive Story Centre. This encourages kids to be creative, with dressing up clothes, art activities and magnetic words to create poems. The kids spent most of their time in here.

We also went to a short story time session, when one of the staff members read to the children. Whilst the rest of the museum was aimed at 6+ the story telling session actually seemed to be for younger children.

The museum offers great sounding workshops but you do need to book in advance. On the day of our visit they’d been decorating chocolate, but we weren’t organised enough to book beforehand and the workshops were full.

We had some time left after visiting the museum so followed the village trail. Roald lived in Great Missenden for 36 years and drew much inspiration from the area. The trail took us around parts of the village important to Roald and finally to the graveyard, where he is buried.

Roald Dahl's grave
Roald Dahl’s grave

There is a BFG footprint near to his grave which adds a note of fun. However, I felt that the pencils and museum leaflets left blowing around the grave, presumably as a tribute to Roald Dahl, made a bit of a mess.

You can also follow a countryside trail, which takes you on a walk through beech woods featured in his books. Both the village and countryside trails are available free of charge on the museum website.

Overall, I probably learnt more from the museum than either of my kids did. However, I generally prefer smaller museums which have a narrow focus, rather than ones which are so stuffed with exhibits that I just wander aimlessly past all of them.

Was it worth the admission fee? Mm, not sure.  The high admission cost is difficult to justify when other museums are free, but given its charitable status I can understand why the charges are there. Would I recommend it to others? Probably only if you were already in the area and had children of the right age, I wouldn’t make a special trip to visit.

More info

  • This museum is best suited to older primary school children who enjoy the Roald Dahl books.
  • As the museum is small it gets crowded pretty quickly so try and visit when other people are unlikely to.  We visited mid-afternoon on a sunny day, when most people were outside enjoying the sunshine. I would imagine that a wet day in the Easter holidays is the wrong time to visit!
  • The museum website details opening hours and workshops.
  • There is no parking at the museum, instead visitors are directed to a car park about 5 minutes walk away.

Costs

  • Entrance for adults is £6.60, for children £4.40 (under 5’s are free).  A family ticket is £21. Search for 2 for 1 voucher offers prior to arriving as there was a large sign on the door detailing all of the vouchers they accept.
  • Parking at the Link Road car park costs £1.80 for up to 3 hours on Mon-Sat, and is free on Sunday.
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Oxford University Parks spy trail

Oxford is my local city, so one I think I know quite well. However, after completing a Spy Trail around University Parks I’ve realised there are still areas left for us to explore and discover.

It was my youngest son who decided he’d like to do a treasure trail in Oxford. After looking through the ones available he chose a Spy Trail in and around the University Parks. The 3 mile walking trail consists of a small booklet with directions and 21 clues to solve. You transfer the answers to a grid on the back and then use the shaded letters to crack a code. Each trail has a back story; our mission was to stop a Cambridge student sabotaging the Oxford University Cricket Ground with mole hills by uncovering the code to thwart his plans.

Start of Oxford spy trail
Start of Oxford spy trail

The trail started at the University Museum, with a couple of clues in the museum grounds. If you have time, I recommend a visit to the Pitt Rivers museum, an anthropological treasure trove. From the museum we made our way towards the University Parks, solving a couple of clues along the way.

The University Parks have been run by Oxford University since 1853 and cover more than 70 acres of landscaped parkland. You can pick up a map at the entrance, which marks out points of interest and gives you an overview of the history.

Solving the clues
Solving the clues

The majority of the clues are in the park. Many involve finding an engraving, a memorial or (as above) a park bench and then answering the question posed. We often had to do simple sums, for example counting the number of park benches, or the number of letters in a name and then taking this number away from another one.

Oxford University Park - hopeful ducks
Oxford University Park – hopeful ducks!

I’d never been to the duck pond in this corner of the park before, but it’s obvious from the way the ducks followed us that plenty of people visit and bring them food. They were disappointed with us! After the pond, we walked alongside the River Cherwell for a while, watching a couple of groups attempt to punt.

Punt rollers, Oxford
Punt rollers, Oxford

Did you know these are punt rollers? I didn’t! They’re used to move punts between the rivers. These rollers are in an area known as Parson’s Pleasure, which is famous as the area where Oxford dons used to sunbathe naked up until quite recently.

Another area I’d never visited before was Mesopotamia, which is a narrow island between the upper and lower Cherwell River. There’s a footpath alongside the river, which takes you back towards the park, where there some final clues to solve.

Walking back through University Park
Walking back through University Park

After we’d completed the answers I took the trail home and forgot about it for a few days. Coming back to it, I decided it was about time to transfer our answers into the grid on the back and discover the secret code. If you complete this code correctly on the Treasure Trails website you are entered into a prize draw. Unfortunately for us, I belatedly realised that some of our answers were wrong as they didn’t fit into the grid. I really should have checked this whilst we were doing the trail! I tried to use the text service advertised in the trail leaflet, which sends you the correct answer if required, but for some reason I never received a text back. Never mind.

So what did we think of the trail? Overall it was very good, apart from the missing text answer. The trail was perfect for the kids age range (primary), and they were able to solve the clues themselves with only a little help from me. The kids did lose a little interest towards the end but this was probably due to it being lunch time. The only improvement I’d suggest would be the inclusion of a map of the area the trail covered.

If you’re interested in more things to do in Oxford check out my 25 things to do with the family blog post; there are plenty of ideas here to keep you all entertained!

More info

  • We purchased our spy trail from Blackwells bookshop in Oxford, but you can also buy them online from the Treasure Trails website. There are 5 different trails available for Oxford, and plenty more covering most parts of the UK. We’ve also done the Oxford Jericho and canal trail which you can read about here.
  • There’s lots of information about the University Parks here, including a list of all the trees you can find in the park!
  • There is no car parking at the park. I recommend using the Park and Ride services as parking in central Oxford is very expensive.

Cost

  • Our trail cost £6.99.
  • The cheapest council car park in central Oxford costs £14.70 to park for 4-6 hours on a Saturday.  The Park and Ride bus costs £2.40 per adult, children under 16 are free. There’s also a controversial charge of around £2 for all day parking at some of the Park and Ride car parks.
  • There is no entrance charge to the University Parks.
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