National Trust membership

Five years ago we signed up to National Trust membership in a car park somewhere in Cornwall. We were swayed by the promise of days out and free car parking. Last year we let it lapse. Did we make the right decision?

We started off with great intentions. During our first year of membership we visited the properties local to us, and took advantage of free parking at a nearby beauty spot.  However, over the years we realised we were forcing ourselves to visit places we wouldn’t normally go, just so that we could benefit from the NT membership.  We’re not that keen on historic houses, so we’d tend to only visit the gardens or surrounding woodland, and quite often this would have free access via public footpaths.

Additionally I can’t help thinking we’ve either grown out of, or are too young, for their target markets. Last week I took advantage of the free NT entry offer and visited The Vyne,  partly to see whether our decision was right.  It was full of families with toddlers, all having a great time. The other visitors appeared to be retired.  Our kids, being at primary school,  still enjoyed themselves but we seemed a bit out of place amongst the other visitors.

So last year we didn’t renew.  I still feel guilty about this.  Primarily because I know the membership goes towards preserving these historic homes and and the countryside. As a lover of the great outdoors I feel almost obliged to support this cause.  But with the family membership now costing almost £100 per year I think it’s the right decision. It’s a luxury we’re going to do without from now.

Maybe we’ll find ourselves strangely drawn to membership again in 20 years time!

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A free day out at The Vyne, Hampshire

vyneLast weekend we took advantage of the free entry offer to National Trust properties.  After searching through the suggestions on their website we decided on a trip to the The Vyne, just north of Basingstoke.

The visit didn’t start well, as upon arrival we were faced with traffic queues outside the property and parking stewards telling people the car parks were full.  After sitting in the queue for a while we turned around and were lucky enough to find a spot on a nearby verge, just a short walk from the The Vyne.  We headed up through the NT car park and were surprised to see lots of free spaces, and a rather harassed parking attendant trying to pass on the message to those directing traffic on the road.  The mayhem continued in the cafe, which looked like it had been looted and had little left on the shelves.  Let’s just say it was an unfortunate introduction to our visit!

Daffodils at The Vyne
Daffodils at The Vyne

Luckily after lunch things got better.  We started with the Hidden Realm play area, so the kids could run off some energy before visiting the house.  This is newly built, and consists of a variety of tunnels, a fort and a stream to dam. The stream and resulting wet sandpit area were incredibly popular with the pre-school age group who were having a ball!   The playground is advertised for children up to the age of 10, and my two did have fun even though it was mostly younger children using it during our visit.

The Vyne
The Vyne

The house dates from Tudor times but has some more recent associations with Jane Austen and J R Tolkien.  We don’t tend to visit stately homes much, given the bull in a china shop tendency of our youngest but we decided it give this one a whirl. We were pleasantly surprised.  The assistants were not the usual staid guardians that I tend to associate with such properties, but were keen to point out interesting items in the rooms and engage with the children.  My eldest daughter’s latest school topic is the Tudors so it really helped history come alive for her.

I liked the use of holly and teasels located on the various bits of furniture to stop people sitting on them.  They were an interesting alternative to the usual “Do not touch” signs, although the first time I noticed them was after my son had picked some up and was wandering over to me with it!

The house also has a room dedicated to the ring that may have been an inspiration for Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  Whilst I found it an interesting, but tenuous, link I think it could have been presented better.  The exhibition was word heavy and neither of my kids bothered to read any of the information, despite them both loving The Hobbit.  They had a quick glance at the ring on display but were in and out of the room in minutes.

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Which walk?

Back outside again and we decided to take advantage of the fabulous weather.  We walked by the side of the lake, spotting some huge fish, until we reached Morgaston Woods.  The NT have signposted several walks through the woods, including one which takes you along a concrete track that was built during the Second World War.  Its purpose was to act as a decoy for enemy bombers, and to distract them from a nearby munitions depot. We had great fun imagining what it would have been like back in war time.

Geocaching at The Vyne
Geocaching at The Vyne

I’d read on the website beforehand that the woods had a geocache trail.We weren’t organised enough to plan this in advance but whilst on one of the woodland walks I checked the geocaching app on my iPhone and it picked up the NT geocaches. The kids had an enjoyable time running around and searching for them. Both of the ones we found were pretty easy to locate, but that’s better than not being able to find them at all!

So, in summary, the day didn’t start that well but things got better. I’m surprised how interesting we found the house, but as always it’s the outdoor things we enjoyed the most.

Kids view:

We liked the geocaching best.  It was boring whilst we had to wait for somewhere to park.

General info:

  • Check opening times carefully before you visit.  Not all parts of the property are open, particularly out of season.
  • The property and grounds have reasonable accessibility, and good family facilities.
  • Further details: National Trust website.

Costs:

We visited on a free weekend so didn’t have to pay. The usual price of a family ticket, including gift aid, to the house and gardens is £30, entry to NT members is of course free.  Would I pay this to visit again? Er, probably not!

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On the beach with Antony Gormley

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Antony Gormley “Another Place”, Crosby beach

Most people know Antony Gormley as the creator of the “Angel of the North”, but being a southerner I tend to associate him with a solitary statue on top of Exeter College in Oxford.

I was keen to see more of his work so on a recent trip to Liverpool our first port of call was Crosby Beach.  This is the site of “Another Place”, an installation which has been exhibited in Norway, Germany and Belgium but now has a permanent home at Crosby.

Antony Gormley statue
Antony Gormley statue

The kids were initially excited about visiting the beach but when I mentioned it was to see some statues, rather than to go paddling (it’s a non-bathing beach), it lost some of its appeal.  Never mind that it was a freezing cold day with a biting wind!

We took the train from Liverpool to Blundellsands and Crosby station.  From the station it’s a 5 minute walk down to the beach front.  I’d seen quite a few photos of the statues beforehand but even so I was suitably impressed on arrival.

There are 100 statues, along a 2 mile stretch of beach, facing out to sea.   They’re made from casts of the sculptors own body so are realistic to a level of detail which made the kids snigger (if you get where I’m coming from).

A few statues are sunk into the sand and that’s a warning you should heed – the mud is particularly sticky so don’t attempt to walk out to the statues away from those closest to the promenade.

joeandmanSome of the statues have been dressed or painted.  Others are covered in barnacles. Most have a liberal dosing of seagull poo. We visited at low tide so you can see the statues stretching out into the distance.  Every so often your eyes play tricks and you think it’s a real person out on the horizon.

We walked alongside the promenade until we reached the coastguard station, and then followed the signs to Hall Road station, the next stop along on the railway. It’s only as I write this that I realise our tickets were only valid to the stop we got off at. I’ve no idea if there is a price difference but best to check in advance if you plan to do a similar walk!

Kids view:

We liked seeing the statues stuck in the sand, although it would have been better if it was warm and sunny.  The statues must get really cold!

General info:

  • I wish we’d bought a pair of binoculars with us.  In addition to the furthest statues, there are plenty of birds and large container ships to look out for.
  • Wellies might also have been useful. Although the tide was out, and we didn’t venture far from the promenade, we still got wet feet visiting some of the statues.
  • The train takes about 20 minutes from the centre of Liverpool. You can also drive to Crosby and then follow the brown tourist signs to Antony Gormley’s Another Place.
  • There’s not much in the way of facilities en route apart from an ice cream van and a stall selling drinks and hot snacks in the car park at the lifeguard station.
  • The promenade runs alongside the beach and is fully accessible.

Costs:

  • The statues are free to visit.  The ice cream van was  rather pricey, but I guess it’s a captive market.
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London with kids – a day out with the Travelcard

My kids have been wanting to ride the new Emirates Air Line (cable car across the Thames, in plain speak) in London ever since they first heard about it. My difficulty was trying to work out what else to combine the trip with. It doesn’t really link up with much in the way of attractions, unless you happen to be visiting its next door neighbour, the O2 arena.

Taking the “it’s better to travel than arrive” approach I eventually decided we should do exactly that – spend a day travelling in London using as many different types of transport as possible. Whilst my 7 year old son was excited, it was a harder sell to my tween daughter, but the prospect of a hearty fried breakfast, a boat trip and a ride on a cable car won her round.

So, what did we do?

Underground from Paddington to Embankment

You can start near enough anywhere in London. Our arrival station was Paddington, so it should have been a relatively straightforward trip on the Bakerloo line to Embankment.  However we made a detour to the Regency Cafe in Pimlico for the aforementioned fried breakfast.  This added a fair amount of walking, and more than a few minutes trying to decipher Google maps, so whilst the cafe was first class I wouldn’t try to combine it with this trip again.

Thames Clipper from Embankment to North Greenwich

We boarded the Thames Clipper at the Embankment.  The Clipper is a regular everyday commuting boat so there’s no tourist commentary, which from my perspective is no bad thing. It’s also a heck of a lot cheaper than a dedicated sightseeing cruise.  You buy your tickets before you get on the boat, from a booth alongside the pier.   Once on board there’s a snack bar and toilets.

View from the Thames Clipper
View from the Thames Clipper

We were the only passengers for most of the journey so the children had a front seat view. They were incredibly excited to begin with, pointing out the attractions they knew such as HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge, although this tailed off a little when we reached a long stretch of river with no obvious landmarks.  Fortunately the pilot sped up and the trip took on a more exciting, James Bond-like, feel! At Greenwich you can see the restored Cutty Sark and then it’s just a short hop to the cable car.

Emirates Air Line from Emirates Greenwich Peninsula to Emirates Royal Docks

View of O2 arena from the Emirates Air Line
View of O2 arena from the Emirates Air Line

Despite its glorified name the Air Line is a cable car built, as you’ll probably guess, with sponsorship from a major airline.  Opened in 2012, the journey across the Thames takes about 10 minutes, although this is reduced to 5 minutes at peak travel times.

Even though it was half term there were no queues, and we were able to have an entire car to ourselves.  Boarding is straightforward, and then you’re off into the sky.  For the first minute or so the kids were a little nervous, unwilling to move in case they rocked the car.  However they soon realised it was pretty solid and that the doors were unlikely to open mid-flight to deposit them into the Thames.  The views over the O2 and back towards the City are fantastic and even though we visited on a gloomy day it’s well worth the money.

Docklands Light Railway (DLR) from Royal Victoria to Tower Gateway

Front seat on the Docklands Light Railway
Front seat on the Docklands Light Railway

For those of you unfamiliar with the DLR, the trains travel above ground, often on elevated stretches.  It is operated through a computer system so there are no drivers.

We’ve been on the DLR a few times now, and the plan is always to sit in the front seats in the front carriage.  The kids liken the ride to a roller coaster, although it would be a pretty tame ride in my opinion!  Regardless, they enjoy throwing their arms up in the air at the slightest hint of a slope or bend.

Red heritage bus (route 15) from Tower Hill to Trafalgar Square

The number 15 heritage bus route uses the traditional Routemaster buses, with a conductor on board and an open back platform. The bus takes about 25 minutes to reach Trafalgar Square, passing the Monument and St Pauls Cathedral on the way. If I’m honest, the ride was rather bumpy and I’d probably opt for the modern buses in future, but it was a fun experience.

Underground from Charing Cross to Paddington

Back to Paddington for our mainline train home – standing room only for the entire journey!

Our travels lasted around 3.5 hours, although we were very lucky with almost immediate connections and an absence of any queues. You can really mix and match the transport options in any way you like – or even add in others, such as a London cab or a Boris bike (for the brave).  Whilst all of the transport options above are well signposted and connect well with each other it’s probably best to bring a map too, in case you want to make any detours.

Kids view:

We liked the Clipper because it went fast, and the cable car because it was high.

General info:

  • The Air Line doesn’t always run in poor weather. Check the website before you travel to save a wasted journey.
  • The DLR, Thames Clipper, Emirates skyline and some Underground stations are wheelchair and buggy accessible. The route 15 Heritage bus isn’t easily accessible, but you can travel on a standard route 15 bus as these (and all other) buses have low lift floors.

Cost:

Surprisingly affordable. We travelled to London on the train so our Travelcard included the underground, DLR and bus travel.  It also entitled us to discounts on the Emirates Air Line and Thames Clipper.

If you don’t have a Travelcard (or Oyster Card) an adult single ticket for the Air Line costs £4.50, and £7.15 for a one way journey on the Clipper. Accompanied children under 10 travel free on the underground, DLR, and at a reduced rate on the Air Line and Thames Clipper.

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