A summer day out on the South Bank, London

As the kids get older it’s harder to find days out that appeal to us all. When you’re fourteen you want action, adventure and preferably no parents!

Fortunately London is still cool, whatever your age. When South Bank invited us to sample some of their ideas for days out this summer I knew we’d be fine. Even if summer was looking decidedly grey and wet.

A boat trip along the Thames

Bankside Pier, London
Bankside Pier, London

Our day started with a boat trip along the Thames. It’s the best way to see the city and the one thing I’d recommend to every visitor. The Thames has shaped the history of London, indeed was responsible for its founding back in the Roman times, and there’s no better way to experience the juxtaposition of old and new than to see the sights unfold along the river bank.

There’s a wide selection of boat trips available; we travelled as guests of City Cruises who operate a hop-on, hop-off boat between five piers.

Tower Bridge from the River Thames
Tower Bridge from the River Thames

Our circular route took us past the Shard, the Monument, HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge, Millenium Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament. The boat has an open upstairs deck which is perfect for photography on a dry day. However we sheltered in the covered section below. You can always guarantee rain during an English summer!

Under the Tower bridge, London
Under the Tower bridge, London

One of the highlights was when our boat slowed and turned under Tower Bridge so visitors could take photos from all angles. For me, Tower Bridge holds a fantastic memory as my favourite part of the London marathon route.

No polar bears at the Tower of London today
No polar bears at the Tower of London today

The boat stopped for several minutes to let passengers off at Tower Pier. My son informed me that Henry VIII once kept a polar bear at the Tower of London which was taken out to fish in the Thames. Whilst some of my son’s facts are of dubious origin this one does appear to be correct. What a sight that would have been.

Cranes and a police boat, River Thames, London
Cranes and a police boat, River Thames, London

Leaving Tower Pier we headed back towards Westminster. It’s only when you see the cranes that you remember how much building work is constantly transforming London. Every time I visit there’s another high rise.

Houses of Parliament, from the Thames, London
Houses of Parliament, from the Thames, London

The sight of red London buses crossing Westminster bridge, with Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben in the background must bring out the inner tourist in everyone, however many times you’ve seen it. I certainly snapped away as we headed towards our disembarkation point at the London Eye.

Sea Life London aquarium

Back on the South Bank we wound our way through the throngs of tourists; it’s incredibly busy but for good reason. The South Bank is home to several major attractions, including the London Eye, London Dungeon and the National Theatre, but it’s also a great place to wander, with plenty of bars and restaurants to stop in.

We headed to Sea Life, where we donned lifejackets and took turns to go out onto a metal walkway to feed the rays. The rays are fed on a shallow platform, primarily to stop Boris and Phoenix, two Green Sea Turtles who share the same tank, joining the party.

Visitors can also swim with sharks, although the Health & Safety sign about how to treat a sharkbite worried me!

Feeding the rays (and turtle) at Sea Life London aquarium
Feeding the rays (and turtle) at Sea Life London aquarium

Afterwards we were given a short tour of the new jellyfish exhibit at Sea Life. The jellyfish are mesmerising to watch as they float around, highlighted by ever changing colours. If screensavers were still a thing (remember them?) these would be perfect.

We learnt about the complicated life cycle of a jellyfish. And found out plenty of interesting facts.

Jellyfish at the Sea Life London aquarium
Jellyfish at the Sea Life London aquarium

I discovered jellyfish have something in common with me, they’re not very good swimmers. You’d have thought an animal that lives in the ocean would be a strong swimmer but they rely on the ocean current to get around. At Sea Life this means they are kept in round tanks (called a kreisel) as they get stuck in the corners of square tanks!

Leake Street grafitti and street art

Regular readers will know I have a soft spot for street art. The route to our next destination, the House of Vans took us through Leake Street tunnel where several street artists were busy creating new pieces.

Leake Street, near Waterloo station
Leake Street, near Waterloo station

House of Vans skate park

Exiting Leake Street we found ourselves behind Waterloo Station. The old railway arches are now home to the House of Vans.

It may be an unpromising location from the outside but step inside and, wow, the transformation is incredible.

House of Vans, London
House of Vans, London

The phrase hidden gem is often overused. However I cannot think of a better way to describe this place. Whilst trains rumble overhead the tunnels have been converted into an exhibition space, cinema, music venue and skate park. And incredibly, it’s all free!

House of Vans, London
House of Vans, London

We were invited to take part in a skateboarding lesson. After donning helmets and protective knee and elbow pads the kids were ready. Me? Well someone had to take the photographs. OK, I wimped out. That concrete floor looked unforgiving.

House of Vans skating lesson, London
House of Vans skating lesson, London

Dave, the skating instructor, made everything look super easy. I was even tempted to try a couple of the tricks he demonstrated. But I’ve been on a skateboard before and think I’ll stick to feet rather than wheels.

The kids really enjoyed themselves. My daughter decided she’d come every weekend if she lived locally. Although probably more for the cool location than the skating. Oh, and the photo booth.

Cocktails at The Mondrian

Our last stop of the day was for cocktails at the boutique Mondrian Hotel. I felt rather a fraud as I sat sipping my cocktail in such a swanky hotel. Pretending I do this kind of thing all the time. When usually I’d be drinking coffee in a cafe. That said, it slipped down nicely. I could get used to this lifestyle. I checked the website after our visit and notice they do a botanical theme afternoon tea. Now that’s right up my street.

So, thank you South Bank. Our family had a great day out and you provided plenty of ideas for us to do this summer. Particularly on a typically wet summer day!

More info:

  • Head over to the South Bank website to find out more about visiting the area. There are lots of events and ideas, including free outdoor theatre.
  • We travelled with City Cruises. They offer a £10 (adults) hop on-hop off river pass plus combined tickets to many London attractions.
  • Sea Life London Aquarium is one of London’s premier attractions. It can be expensive but is free to Merlin Pass holders. Check out offers before you travel as it’s easy to find 2 for 1 tickets (particularly if travelling by train).
  • The House of Vans is open four days per week. Check the website for details of upcoming performances and exhibitions or to book on one of the free skating lessons.
  • The Mondrian Hotel is fabulously located in the Sea Containers building, overlooking the Thames. Ideal for a special night out.

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10 things to do with your family in Côtes-d’Armor, Brittany

Are you thinking of a family holiday to Brittany? We stayed for a week in the Côtes-d’Armor department and discovered just how much there is to see and do in Brittany. Read on to find out our top ten suggestions for a family trip.

1. Visit the Pink Granite Coast, near Ploumanac’h

The Pink Granite Coast is one of Brittany’s premier tourist attractions. The coastal walk, which follows a former coastguard footpath, from Perros-Guirec is very popular and a great introduction to the pink rocks.

Pink granite coast, near Perros-Guirec
Pink granite coast, near Perros-Guirec

Many of the formations are named after the shapes they resemble, including a rabbit and a witch. I’ve no idea if the large rock below the lighthouse in the photograph is an ‘official shape’ but it looks like a sideways face to me!

2. Eat a crepe

It would be hard to come to Brittany and miss out on crepes. There are creperies everywhere, with traditional lemon and sugar fillings plus the ever popular Nutella option.

Crepes, Guingamp market, Brittany
Crepes, Guingamp market, Brittany

My favourite was a takeaway from a market stall eaten on a rainy morning. We ate posher crepes, with knives and forks, but nothing surpassed the simple joy of eating a crepe, oozing warm chocolate spread, direct from a paper bag.

3. Chateau de Tonquédec, Tonquédec

This is possibly my favourite castle in France. Built in the 15th Century, it is still owned by descendants of the original family. If you like your castles intact and perfectly restored this is not for you; it’s definitely a work in progress.

Château de Tonquédec, Côtes d'Armor
Château de Tonquédec, Côtes d’Armor

There are lots of interesting areas to explore; dark stairways to venture down (if you’re brave!) and towers to climb. Children will love it but do keep an eye on them as some parts resemble a medieval building site. Watch out for the local goats too; on our visit they were sitting high up on top of one of the walls.

Château de Tonquédec, Brittany
Château de Tonquédec, Brittany

4. Hisse et ho, Plelo

My kids loved this! Think of giant nets suspended from trees, rather like a cross between Go Ape and a trampoline park. There are slides, balls and hoops and bouncy nets to jump around on. Definitely a place to wear off some energy.

Hisse et ho! Char à bancs, Brittany
Hisse et ho! Char à bancs, Brittany

It’s not just for kids either. I enjoyed it too although the bounciness made me feel travel sick after a while. I was happier sitting and watching from the picnic table.

5. Watch the waves at Site du Gouffre, Plougrescant

Coastline, Le Gouffre, Brittany
Coastline, Le Gouffre, Brittany

The peninsula is probably most famous for Castel Meur, a house situated between two huge granite rocks, which features on postcards and tourist literature across the region. However, I enjoyed walking the coastline and watching the waves force water through the nearby gouffre. Although relatively peaceful during our visit the power of the waves was very evident. I’d love to return on a stormy day.

6. Centre de Découverte du Son, Cavan

The Sound Discovery Centre may sound a tad boring but it’s the complete opposite. It’s a quirky and unique attraction, which I highly recommend. Visitors follow a trail through the woodland where musical instruments are ingeniously incorporated into the surroundings. There are strings to strum, drums to tap and plenty of tubes to blow (mouthpieces provided).

Sound Discovery Centre, Cavan, Brittany
Sound Discovery Centre, Cavan, Brittany

After the woodland trail there’s a garden designed in the shape of the ear, along with a few more sounds to discover. The whole place is cleverly put together and great fun for all ages.

7. La Vallee des Saints, Carnoët

If, like me, you have an (unrealistic) yearning to visit Easter Island then a trip to the Valley of the Saints might just suffice. Perched on a hill there are currently more than 60 granite statues dedicated to Breton saints.

Valley of the Saints, Carnoët, Brittany
Valley of the Saints, Carnoët, Brittany

Visitors are free to wander around the saints, all of which are funded by donations from local communities and organisations. Over the next 50 years the project aims to create 1000 statues; a definite Easter Island contender.

8. Abbaye de Beauport, Paimpol

Founded in 1202 Abbaye de Beauport was once a centre of monastic life but in recent years the buildings have housed apartments, schools and a farm. Although parts of the abbey have been restored I preferred the atmospheric ruins. Pink and purple hydrangeas brightened up the grey stone walls. Very photogenic.

Abbaye de Beauport, near Paimpol, Brittany
Abbaye de Beauport, near Paimpol, Brittany

There’s plenty of information available in English, including a discovery trail leaflet and multi-lingual information boards. There are grounds to explore too, including a walled orchard and marshy coastline.

9. Explore Dinan

We arrived in St Malo on the overnight ferry and had a few hours to fill before our campsite was available. A visit to the medieval town of Dinan, with its half timbered houses and extensive ramparts, proved the perfect stopover.

Dinan
Dinan

We spent most of our time wandering through the picturesque lanes and browsing the shops. However, we exerted ourselves a little climbing to the top of the clock tower for a view over the roof tops.

Dinan, Brittany
Dinan, Brittany

I’m glad we managed to get some exercise as Dinan is also notable for providing our first, and best, taste of  Kouign-amman. This heavenly Breton cake consists of 30% sugar and 30% butter so I’m rather glad it’s not readily available in the UK!

10. Île de Bréhat

Having holidayed in Guernsey and Jersey I was keen to visit Île de Bréhat which is marketed as the French Channel Island. The island is just a mile off the Brittany coast, but after a ten minute ferry ride you feel miles from anywhere.

Île de Bréhat consists of two main islands. Both are car free so visitors either walk or hire bikes to see the islands. We chose to walk which I think was the best option to access the more remote beaches. Although it was a rather warm day for too much strenuous activity!

Île de Bréhat, Brittany
Île de Bréhat, Brittany

The island is incredibly beautiful although in August it was also incredibly busy. I felt rather sorry for the locals but I guess they also rely on the summer tourist invasion.

Have you visited Brittany? Where else would you suggest visiting?

More info:

  • Chateau de Tonquédec costs 5 euros for adults, 2.5 euros for children. It is open daily at varying times from April to September, and weekends only in October.
  • Hisse et Ho is open daily in July and August and weekends from March to November. Adults cost 12 euros, children cost 10 euros.
  • The Sound Discovery Centre is open 1-7pm from March to November, every day during the French school holidays. Entrance costs 7 euros for adults, 3.5 euros for children.
  • Boats to Île de Bréhat depart from Pointe de L’Arcouest, near Ploubazlanec. The return journey costs 10 euros for adults and 8.50 euros for children aged 4-11 years. From April to September boats generally depart every hour, there is a less frequent service from October to March. Futher details from Vedettes de Bréhat.
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5 free things to do in Cardiff

There are plenty of places to spend your money in Cardiff but on a recent visit we discovered the city attractions you can enjoy for free. Read on to find out more.

1. Bute Park

Bute Park is located between the River Taff and Cardiff Castle. Walking up to the entrance we passed the Animal Wall which consists of a variety of animal sculptures such as lions, a hyena and a sea lion.

We didn’t visit on the nicest of days. The rain was just stopping when we arrived so our first port of call was the cafe. Unlike a group of Japanese visitors we resisted the lure of afternoon tea (at 10am) although it was rather tempting.

Bute Park, Cardiff
Bute Park, Cardiff

The park covers an impressive 130 acres and includes an arboretum collection, fitness and play trails and a riverside path. It’s famous for its champion trees, which are the tallest or broadest specimens of their type. As ours was a springtime visit the leaves weren’t out but this meant we saw some great tree shapes (photo above).

I was also impressed by the amount of bird life so close to the city centre. We watched a jay up close for ages and also saw a tree creeper, nuthatch and lots of robins and coal tits.

2. St Fagans National History Museum

St Fagans is the most visited heritage attraction in Wales. Its 50+ historical buildings have been moved from around the country and re-erected at the open air museum. The buildings cover a wide time frame and range from farmhouses through to urinals and workshops.

St Fagans National History Museum
St Fagans National History Museum

It’s best to visit on a dry day as the buildings are spread out across 100 acres of parkland. Whilst you can shelter in the buildings there’s a fair amount of walking between them.

Some of my highlights were the coloured paintings at St Teilo’s church (picture above), the 1940s prefab and watching the blacksmith in the smithy. I also enjoyed the Ironworkers cottages, which were similar to those we visited at Blaenavon Ironworks last year.

St Fagans National History Museum
St Fagans National History Museum

We spent most of our planned time looking around the buildings and hadn’t left much time spare to look at St Fagans Castle. This was a mistake as it meant we had to rush round the rooms and didn’t get much of a chance to enjoy the castle or its grounds. Plan to spend a whole day here if you want to see everything the site has to offer.

3. Cardiff Story

Cardiff Story is a small museum providing visitors with an insight into the history of the city. It takes you on Cardiff’s journey from a small market town to a world port through to the modern capital it has now become.

It’s a good place to start your exploration of Cardiff, allow a couple of hours to see it in detail. We only popped in for a short visit but lingered over a dolls house exhibit and a ‘build your own’ model city which I think was probably aimed at younger children rather than us!

4. Cardiff Bay

It’s easy to spend an afternoon wandering around Cardiff Bay. The area was once a thriving dockyard but fell derelict as the coal industry declined. The building of the barrage and subsequent regeneration of the area has resulted in Europe’s largest waterfront development.

Some of the original buildings remain, such as the Pierhead, where we watched a short film illustrating the growth and decline of the docks. The Norwegian Church is another survivor. Formerly a place of worship for the Norwegian community in Cardiff (Roald Dahl was baptised in it) it’s now a cafe and arts centre.

'People like us', Mermaid Quay, Cardiff
‘People like us’, Mermaid Quay, Cardiff

There are new buildings too, most notably the Senned, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Wales Millenium Centre. Both buildings are impressive from the outside although we didn’t go in.

The Mermaid Quay area is a ‘leisure district’ and primarily home to shops and restaurants. It’s a nice enough place to wander but I found it a little soulless. If you’re a Torchwood fan however you might enjoy Ianto’s shrine, a board full of notes left following the fictional death of the character. It was a bit lost on me though as I’ve never see Torchwood.

5. Cardiff Barrage walk

The controversial construction of the Cardiff Barrage created the 500 acre freshwater Cardiff Bay and has contributed (some would say, at great cost) to the regeneration of the local area.

Whilst there was strong opposition to the original project the resulting trail along the barrage is popular with walkers, cyclists and kids on scooters and is an excellent choice for a city walk.

Walking out along Cardiff Bay Barrage
Walking out along Cardiff Bay Barrage

Walking from Mermaid Quay, we were waylaid by a Tardis (courtesy of the Doctor Who Experience), playgrounds and a skate park en route to the barrage locks. These control the flow of water into the bay and it’s fun to watch the bridges opening up to let yachts and sailing boats through. We also enjoyed watching the cormorants diving for fish in the fast flowing waters of the fish pass.

Cardiff barrage locks
Cardiff barrage locks

The yellow rings in the photo above are part of an art installation ‘Three ellipses for three locks’. The full set of aligned concentric circles can only be seen from one spot; they highlight the different parts that go into making the barrage work.

We had planned to take the water bus back into the city centre from Penarth but timed it wrong so ended up walking both ways. If you’re visiting late on a Sunday afternoon check sailing times in advance!

More info:

  • Bute Park is open daily from 7.30am until 30 mins before sunset.
  • St Fagans is open daily from 10am-5pm. It’s 4 miles from the city centre so you’ll either need to drive (parking charge applies) or take the bus from outside Cardiff Central station. A return adult fare is £3, children £1.70.
  • The Cardiff Story is open 10am-4pm from Monday to Saturday (closed Sundays).
  • The Pierhead building is open daily from 10.30am-6pm; the Norwegian Church is also open daily from 11am-4pm.
  • The barrage embankment is open daily; further details are available on the Cardiff Harbour website.
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Taking off at Boscombe Down and Old Sarum, Wiltshire

Have you ever fancied a career as a fighter pilot? If so, I’ve found the perfect place to visit. There aren’t many places in the world where you can imagine yourself in Top Gun but Boscombe Down Aviation Collection in Wiltshire is one of them. Oh, and the kids will probably enjoy it too!

Old Sarum

As we’d driven some distance to reach the museum I thought it prudent to let the kids run off some energy outside so we headed first to the nearby attraction of Old Sarum.

Old Sarum is the original site of Salisbury, although nowadays it’s a couple of miles north of the city. Its hilltop location was home to an Iron Age fort and subsequently used by Romans, Saxons and Normans.

Bridge over to Old Sarum castle
Bridge over to Old Sarum castle

The site consists of the remains of a castle and cathedral. The castle was established by William the Conqueror when he built a motte in the centre of the hill fort. A recent geophysical survey has discovered it once consisted of halls, towers and apartments; very different to how it looks nowadays.

Old Sarum views, Salisbury
Old Sarum views, Salisbury

The site has information boards dotted around to advise what would have once surrounded you. We rather liked the old toilets (pictured above) and the kids enjoyed dropping a few pennies down the well.

Although there’s not much left of the actual castle it’s in a stunning location and has great views, both of Salisbury and the surrounding countryside.

Well at Old Sarum
Well at Old Sarum

Outside of the English Heritage site (and free to visit) you’ll find the cathedral foundations. This was first completed in 1092 but burnt down just 5 days after it was consecrated. Another cathedral took its place a century later. Both the cathedral site and earth banks around the castle appeared to be a well known dog walking route. Unfortunately not all of the dog owners had poop scooped so watch your step!

Old Sarum
Old Sarum

Boscombe Down Aviation Collection

Boscombe Down Aviation Collection is only a mile or so from Old Sarum. It’s located in a hangar next to the airfield on an industrial site although if it wasn’t for the two aircraft outside you’d wonder if you were in the right place.

The aircraft in the collection are associated with the Boscombe Down military flight testing centre. They consist of restored and replica planes and cockpits; each one has an information board next to it detailing its history.

Boscombe Down Aviation Collection
Boscombe Down Aviation Collection

There are 18 cockpits from a variety of aircraft, including a Harrier, Tornado and Sea Hawk. The absolute best thing about this museum is that you are encouraged to sit in all of them, flick the switches and generally pretend you’re flying a fighter jet. This applies to the adults as much as the children! Staff are on hand to point out what all the controls are for and are incredibly knowledgable about the planes.

In the cockpit, Boscombe Down
In the cockpit, Boscombe Down

At the age of 12 I thought my daughter was well past the age of dressing up. How wrong I was. She jumped at the chance of wearing a pilot’s jump suit and helmet throughout the visit. My son wasn’t fussed about dressing up but they both enjoyed ‘flying’ the BAC1-11.

Flying the BAC1-11 at Boscombe Down Aviation Collection
Flying the BAC1-11 at Boscombe Down Aviation Collection

Aside from the cockpits there are 8 full size planes to view, although you are not allowed to enter these. These include a restored Sea Harrier which saw action in the Falklands Conflict. 

There are also a couple of helicopters, weapons, aircraft models and engines. The helicopters don’t have rotor blades but my son was initially hesitant of sitting in them after the lady on the entrance desk mentioned that a child had been able to start one previously.

Boscombe Down jets
Boscombe Down jets

Towards the end of our visit one of the staff offered to take the kids in the trainer, a Link flight simulator. They had great fun, although I’m not sure I’d want to go in a real plane with them as they’d crash it before long!

We all loved the museum. Even if planes aren’t your thing it’s an unusual way to spend a couple of hours and just as enjoyable for us adults as it was for the kids.

More info

  • Old Sarum is open daily except over Christmas and New Year. It’s an English Heritage site so is free to members, otherwise it’s £4.40 for adults and £2.70 for children.
  • Boscombe Down Aviation Collection is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10am-6pm. They’re closed Mondays except on Bank Holidays. A family ticket costs £23. I’d suggest the collection is best for primary school or older children rather than pre-schoolers as access to the cockpits involves climbing up short ladders.
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