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.
Share this:

A walk along Regent’s Canal to Camden Lock, London

We’ve managed to see quite a lot of London over recent years, and now tend to search out places away from the main tourist sites. On our most recent trip we walked along Regent’s Canal from Little Venice to Camden Market, and then visited the London Canal Museum.

Regent’s Canal walk

Regents Canal sign
Regent’s Canal sign

Regent’s Canal links the Grand Union Canal with the River Thames. The towpath along the canal forms part of the Jubilee Greenway walk, a 37 mile route to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Our walk was just 2 miles long,  but there was still a lot to see in such a short distance. We started from Warwick Avenue tube station and walked to Little Venice, which marks the junction of Regent’s Canal with the Grand Union Canal. The road beside the canal has some expensive looking houses, although we did wonder at the raggedy “For Sale” paper sign in a very posh Bentley. Is this how rich people normally sell their cars?

View along Regent's Canal
View along Regent’s Canal

It was a lovely morning so we stopped for coffee on the terrace at Cafe Laville. The cafe is located directly over the canal, at the entrance to the Maida Hill tunnel. We sat outside and watched life (well, tourist boats) on the canal.

We passed through Lisson Grove where many of the canal boat residents have extended their living areas onto the bank. Tiny garden areas are bursting with flowers, vegetable plots and trees decorated with fairy lights.

Sunflowers alongside Regent's Canal
Sunflowers alongside Regent’s Canal

Macclesfield Bridge has an interesting story attached to it. A barge carrying carrying gunpowder exploded underneath in 1874, resulting in the death of three people. The original bridge was destroyed, and the replacement came to be known as “blow up bridge”.

Blow up bridge, Regents Canal
Blow up bridge, Regent’s Canal

The canal cuts through Regent’s Park, taking you past London Zoo. We were excited to see warthogs lining one bank and an aviary on the left hand side. Snowdon aviary was built in 1962, and from our viewpoint outside we could see ibis, cranes and lots of starlings. Even the police patrolling the canal stopped to have a look at the birds.

Snowdon aviary at London Zoo
Snowdon aviary at London ZOutOur

Our walk finished at Camden Lock. We were hoping to spot a Banksy mural on one of the bridges, but we never managed to see it. Either it had been removed or we weren’t looking in the right place. If you’re interested in spotting street art in London check out my post about our family walk along Brick Lane.

Camden market

Camden Lock sign
Camden Lock sign

This place is pretty touristy, but you also get plenty of young and trendy Londoners too. We started off with lunch from the food stalls. It was like being at a music festival with choices from just about any country you could imagine. Our combined lunch consisted of food from Turkey, Mexico, Poland and Ethiopia!

Food stalls at Camden market
Food stalls at Camden market

After lunch we walked around the market stalls and shops. The market primarily appeals to the young adult market with lots of alternative clothing retailers, interspersed with stalls selling Banksy pictures, London tourist tat and things you didn’t realise you’d ever need. If you’re looking for a new outfit for your dog or some vintage spectacles, you’ll find them here!

Camden market
Camden market

I can imagine my kids loving this place when they’re teenagers although I hope they don’t wear some of the more ‘interesting’ outfits you can buy here. After a while you realise you’ve started to see the same goods on different stalls, including for some reason, wooden iPhone cases. It was time to move on.

Shops in Camden High Street
Shops in Camden High Street

London canal museum

Continuing with the canal theme we visited London Canal Museum to learn more about them. I had originally planned to walk to the museum from Camden but time was short so we took the tube instead. If you do walk it takes about 25 minutes.

London Canal Museum started life as an ice warehouse back in 1863. It is now a small museum dedicated to the twin stories of London canals and the ice business which was made possible due to the canals.

The highlights for us were the narrow boat Coronis and the ice store. The kids loved clambering around the boat, with its traditionally decked out cabin. I read the displays whilst the kids did this; they were quite text heavy which was fine for adults but didn’t appeal so much to the kids.

The ice well, basically a big hole in the ground, was pretty impressive. Ice was imported to London from Norway by ship, and then stored in the huge wells. The exhibition details the story of Carlo Gatti and the ice cream trade he founded. One point that stood out for me was that the workers would tread across the ice in their dirty outdoor boots, and the ice would then be used in desserts for high class families. Yum!

Overall I found the ice related aspect of the museum the most interesting as it was something I knew nothing about before our visit. Whilst the museum has some exhibits aimed at children, I felt it was probably of more interest to adults or older children who have a specific interest in canals.

More info

  • We followed the Jubilee Greenway walk from Little Venice to Camden.  It’s a flat path suitable for buggies and wheelchairs.  Cycling along the towpath is also popular, although I’d imagine the path gets very crowded at weekends. It is not recommended that you walk along the canal towpath after dark.
  • The London Canal museum is recommended for children aged 6+.  During the school holidays they run activity sessions on specific dates giving kids the chance to make ice cream, go on a boat trip or try their hand at canal art.

Costs

  • The canal museum costs £4 per adult, £2 per child or a family ticket for £10.  We had a 2 for 1 Great Western offer which reduced the price for our family to £8.
Share this:

A mud bath at the Nuts Challenge, Dorking, Surrey

The Nuts Challenge is presumably so called because you need to be nuts to enter. It’s an adventure race over a military assault course, although their Facebook page markets it as “a fun obstacle course”. My other half had been talking about entering an adventure race for a while, so guess what he got for his birthday…..

Nuts Adventure Challenge - the start line
Nuts Adventure Challenge – the start line

The two day event is held twice a year in March and September in Dorking, Surrey. The Saturday is for those running the 7 or 14 km course (1 or 2 laps), with approximately 120 obstacles per loop. This day has a family feel to it, with entertainment and kids activities available. Sunday is for the hardcore athletes, who are completing 21km or 28km (3 or 4 laps), but despite their fitness the majority of contestants entering the 4 lap course don’t complete it.

These courses have become very popular over the last few years. I expected, and saw, plenty of mid life crisis men but was pleasantly surprised there were probably an equal number of women taking part on the Saturday. There were lots of people running for charity, as well as fancy dress galore. The kids had great fun spotting Batman, Where’s Wally (there were lots of them), Superman and the Smurfs.

Spectator review

Skydiver at Nuts Adventure Race
Skydiver at Nuts Adventure Race

The day started with a display from 4 skydivers. The location is very close to Gatwick airport and on a couple of occasions a passenger jet flew over which looked like it would be lower than the skydivers plane. Fortunately they landed safely, I wonder if any went on to complete the assault course?

Onto the main event. In the race area there are a reasonable number of  obstacles where spectators can stand and watch. We wandered around these whilst the other half was competing.

Tackling the slippery logs
Tackling the slippery logs

The course was pretty quiet early on in the day but very busy from around lunchtime, with people queuing up to go over the obstacles.  There was also a lot more mud and general slippiness once a few people had gone through.

Mind the barbed wire!
Mind the barbed wire!

There were tunnels to crawl through, muddy banks to slide down and logs to pull yourself over. In all, it was one big mud bath!

The tyre challenge
The tyre challenge

The tyre challenge involved hauling a tyre up a hill and then running back down with it. Competitors who asked for small tyres seemed to get given the biggest ones!

I think they're having fun
I think they’re having fun

It was a warm day so the lake crossings were probably useful for cooling off in, although it would be my idea of hell.

The event seemed well set up to cater for spectators, although it’s not something you would visit (or know about) unless you were supporting an entrant. There were pony rides and a climbing wall for children, along with an ice cream stand and a tent selling burgers. There was also a band on Saturday afternoon, singing covers of recent hits. It was a relief to listen to the band as the inane chatter of the commentator was starting to grate on me by this time.

You may have gathered from this review that this race wasn’t something I’d have enjoyed – and you’re right. Whilst I quite enjoy running I do my best not to get wet or muddy whilst I’m doing it!  So in the spirit of a balanced view I’ve asked my other half to write his thoughts on the race.

Competitor review

Halfway round the Nuts challenge
Halfway round the Nuts challenge

I must admit, when I got this I thought it was a great present but the closer to the day it got and the more I looked at previous photos the more nervous I became.  On the day itself, the registration process was pretty straightforward, there was a bag and key drop for competitors, all very well organised with no queues.

When it came to the race there was a zumba warm up beforehand (not my kind of thing) and then we were off. From the start there was a range of obstacles from hurdles to deep stream beds.

Any trace of nervousness disappeared and adrenalin kicked in. I threw myself into streams, climbed over netting, swam through seas of mud and water and crawled through pipes. I was absolutely covered in mud. But, did I enjoy it? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Certainly.. Now, when is the next one…

More info

  • The course states it is for all abilities, and that less fit people can walk 1 lap. However, I think to gain any enjoyment from it you would need to have a reasonable level of fitness first. The First Aid tent looked busy all day with broken bones, sprained ankles and cuts. The waiver you sign as part of the entry specifies these are all common.
  • Children aged 14+ can enter, subject to their parent signing a waiver and them being accompanied by an adult. The small number of kids I saw looked like they were having a great time and finding it much easier than some of the adults.
  • Entry form and further details can be found on the Nuts Challenge website.

Costs

  • The cost varies depending on how many laps you enter, and how early you book. At the September 2013 event the price for 2 laps was £45.
  • There is an additional £3 charge for parking. This is in a field, which is reached by driving along dusty tracks. I could imagine this would get rather muddy after rain (or maybe that’s the idea).
Share this:

A family walk to Broadway Tower, Worcs

What better thing is there to do on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday than go for a walk? Actually my kids could probably think of lots of things they’d rather do, like playing Minecraft all day, if only I allowed them….

Instead, I’d put some effort into finding a decent walk, with a cafe stop halfway round, a good view and no rain. We hadn’t visited the Cotswolds for quite a while, so a walk to Broadway Tower fitted the bill.

Broadway village
Broadway village

Our walk started from the picture perfect Cotswold village of Broadway, with its honey coloured stone houses and cottage gardens. The village roads are lined with antique and country clothing shops, and whilst it’s undeniably pretty I couldn’t help feeling it was suited to older and more affluent visitors than ourselves.

Walking the Cotswold Way
Walking the Cotswold Way

From the village centre we took a path past a playground, which looked new and was very popular. Most of the play items were for younger children (<8 years) so we didn’t go in.

Walking through woods to Broadway Tower
Walking through woods to Broadway Tower

After crossing a couple of fields we started walking uphill through a wooded lane. This was most welcome as the afternoon was turning out warm, so we appreciated the shade. Although it had been dry in the days prior to our visit the track was still quite muddy in places, so I’d imagine it would be a pretty wet walk in the winter.

From the wood we walked up through a field of sheep, past a house that had superb views over the countryside. At a junction with another track we came across some children selling small purple plums for £1 a bag.  I don’t normally like plums but as they were raising money for charity I bought a bag and they were delicious!

Broadway Tower
Broadway Tower

Broadway Tower was almost upon us, but we were desperate for a drink so stopped at the nearby Morris & Brown cafe first. The cafe, as expected on a Bank Holiday, was heaving and people were queuing out the door. We eventually got our drinks and sat outside enjoying the views. Suitably refreshed, we queued again for the toilets before finally making our way to the tower itself.

Broadway tower
Broadway tower

Broadway Tower is a folly and was built in 1799. Follies often have an interesting history and this one is no different. According to Wikipedia (if you believe it) this one was built for Lady Coventry as she had wondered whether she’d be able to see a beacon on this hill from her home 22 miles away. (She could).

Birmingham is over there!
Birmingham is over there!

The tower is the second highest point in the Cotswolds, after Cleeve Hill. From the top you have excellent views across the surrounding counties, and down to the red deer in the enclosure near the tower.

There are plaques around the tower which show you what’s in each direction.  You can supposedly see as far as Birmingham and various parts of Wales but I’m not convinced!

From the top of Broadway Tower
From the top of Broadway Tower

The path back from the tower follows the Cotswold Way and is downhill all the way to Broadway. We passed a Cotswold stone wall being repaired, lovely to see that this traditional craft is still being maintained.

Building a Cotswold stone wall
Building a Cotswold stone wall

Youngest son had great fun running down the hill whilst we followed at a more leisurely pace. There were thistles next to the path which were attracting loads of tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies, probably the most I’ve seen all summer.

Heading downhill back to Broadway
Heading downhill back to Broadway

The path takes you back into Broadway village, where there are plenty of tea rooms if you’re in need of a refreshment stop.

Cost:

  • We parked in Broadway, the cost was £4 for up to 10 hours.  Alternatively you can park for free at Broadway Tower.
  • You can walk around the grounds of Broadway Tower for nothing. To go up the tower, it costs £5 for adults, £3 for children (but those under 10 are free) and £14 for a family ticket.

More info:

  • We followed the  Cotswold Way “Broadway and the Tower” circular walk.  The walk is not suitable for pushchairs or wheelchairs. It’s a 4 mile walk and I’d suggest most suitable for children age 5+, who are used to walking.
  • Broadway tower is open daily from 10.30 am to 5pm.
  • There is also a nuclear bunker next to the tower, which is open on selected dates. It wasn’t open during our visit but I’d like to go back and have a look in it sometime.
Share this: