Taking the kids to Dismaland, Weston-super-Mare

I’ve never known the train from Bristol to Weston-super-Mare to be as busy as it was last weekend. The usual assortment of day trippers had been replaced by hip twenty-somethings and American tourists; all left standing in the aisles as there were no seats available.

Dismaland
Dismaland

The reason? Banksy’s Dismaland bemusement park on the seafront at Weston. This antithesis of a theme park has opened for 6 weeks on the site of the old Tropicana lido. We didn’t have tickets but I’d heard that on the day tickets were available for those prepared to queue. We arrived just as they were closing the morning queue so the security man suggested we came back later for the afternoon session. That was fine for us as it meant we had time for a trip to PJ’s Ice Cream Parlour, a wander around the pier and lunch.

Get your programmes here! Dismaland
Get your programmes here! Dismaland

We were back queuing at 2.30pm. At 3pm the ticket office opened and a cheer went up. At 4.30pm we got our tickets. The kids were surprisingly good about queuing for so long and I knew the minute I handed the money over that it would be worth the wait. I thanked the ticket attendant and he replied that I wouldn’t be thanking him when we got inside.

Dismaland
Seagull Lady, Banksy, Dismaland

A few minutes later we’d passed through some pretend security and were standing in Dismaland. The exhibition is a mix of fairground attractions with a twist, large model exhibits, films and an indoor art gallery. Over 50 artists have provided works, with Banksy responsible for 11 of the exhibits, including the seagull model above.

Banksy describes Dismaland as a theme park unsuitable for children. My kids loved it, as I’m sure would most teens, but I’d think twice about taking younger children. You’ll spend half of your time explaining the irony behind the exhibits, the other half trying to avoid the liberal use of swearing around the site!

Dismaland
Horse meat carousel, Dismaland

The fairground attractions, which cost extra, included a carousel where a white suited figure is making lasagne from the horses, topple the anvil with a ping pong ball (and win the anvil) and a rotating caravan ride.

I loved the ‘Hook a duck from the muck’ stall. The prizes were inflated plastic bags with a piece of orange fabric in them, modelled to look like goldfish. Not that many people won them! As soon as someone got close to hooking a duck the unsmiling attendant would pick up a duck and throw it at the target, generally resulting in a large splash of water over the person. Or alternatively she’d grab the fishing rod and throw it on the floor.

Big Rig Jig, Dismaland
Big Rig Jig, Mike Ross, Dismaland

The staff, who had responded to an advert for film extras, played their roles perfectly. Unsmiling and disinterested, generally slouching in a corner or getting in the way of photos. I bought a souvenir programme and the attendant literally threw it, and the change at me. It was hard not to laugh.

There is no getting away from the Disney aspect. The staff wear ears which bear a strong resemblance to mouse ears. The entrance wristbands, logo and online advert are unmistakably modelled on Disney. How I’d love to be a fly on the wall in their lawyer’s office!

Dismaland
Outdoor cinema, Dismaland

There’s a cinema showing short films so we bagged some deckchairs and rested our feet. Perhaps we were just watching the wrong film but I found this part the weakest of the show. Wandering off after a few minutes we discovered a giant toilet roll sculpture and a killer whale jumping out of a toilet (the former by Michael Beitz, the latter a Banksy).

Dismaland
Dismaland

I loved the way the original lido had been incorporated into the exhibition. Although I am assuming that the crumbling stonework, uneven flooring and weeds weren’t added recently for effect!

The police riot van below was built for use in Northern Ireland but now stands in the middle of a lake adorned with a slide and fountain.

Dismaland
Police van, Banksy, Dismaland

We entered the burnt out castle and found a dead Cinderella falling out of her pumpkin carriage surrounded by paparazzi. This piece is probably one of the most controversial given the obvious similarities to the death of Princess Diana. The other exhibit to stir up emotions is that of the boat pond where visitors can control the crowded boats full of migrants. Bad taste? Certainly thought provoking.

Dismaland
Mini Gulf, Dismaland

We passed on the opportunity to play Mini Gulf but enjoyed checking out the variety of obstacles. There’s a huge sandcastle and windmill next to the children’s play area and pocket money loans shop. Not many takers for the 5000% interest rate!

Dismaland
Dismaland

There was a short queue of people waiting to take selfies at the selfie hole (oh the irony). I’d read a couple of reviews slating the queues inside Dismaland, all part of the experience I’m sure, but we were lucky and whilst a couple of exhibits had queues most of them didn’t. It actually felt relatively empty which was rather surprising given the long wait outside.

Dismaland
Selfie hole, Dismaland

The three large art galleries were excellent. We watched a Banksy offering, the grim reaper riding the dodgems to the soundtrack of the Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive.

There are a couple of Damien Hirst pieces including a unicorn preserved in formaldehyde but one of my favourites was Promise by Caroline McCarthy. This consisted of plastic plant pots and ready meal packaging with garnishes cut into the cardboard to suggest freshness.

Promise, Caroline McCarthy, Dismaland
Promise, Caroline McCarthy, Dismaland

The galleries were a fascinating mix of sculptures, paintings and objects. One gallery was dominated by a mushroom cloud tree house. The Spanish artist Paco Pomet had inserted the Cookie Monster into a picture of war lords driving a jeep. Whilst Jessica Harrison had porcelain figurines with tattoos. I’d love to have such creative thoughts.

Readers of a certain age will remember Jimmy Cauty, one half of the group KLF, and the man who burnt a million dollars. His contribution to Dismaland is a huge sculpture which initially looks like a large model railway set. Look closer and you’ll find almost 3000 model police figures in a post-apocalyptic world. The strobe lighting and staff shouting ‘Move along, there’s nothing to see’ are incredibly atmospheric.

Dismaland
Dismaland

The exit sign was exactly as I’d expect of a Banksy exhibition. Dismaland delivered everything I’d hoped for and more. Given the number of people visiting Weston for the attraction I really hope it’s delivered a great boost to the late summer tourist trade too!  

More info:

  • Dismaland was only open until 27 September 2015 and has now closed.

Riding the Needles Breezer; an open top bus on the Isle of Wight

A couple of weekends ago we decided on an impromptu trip to the Isle of Wight. We belatedly realised that trying to book a late afternoon car ferry on a sunny Sunday just a few hours before travelling is rather expensive! Time for Plan B; travel as a foot passenger and use the island buses.

After our trip to Hurst Castle I was hesitant  to rely on buses but it turned out fine. The Isle of Wight has an excellent bus network with regular and tourist routes. We decided to ride the open top Needles Breezer which markets itself as one of the most spectacular bus rides in England.

Needles Breezer bus, Isle of Wight
Needles Breezer bus, Isle of Wight

Needles Breezer

The service starts in Yarmouth so after arriving in Cowes we caught a connecting service via Newport. Fortunately the bus services and Red Jet are joined up; we never had to wait long for a connection.

From Yarmouth the Needles Breezer covers a circular route, first heading to the south coast at Freshwater Bay before turning west towards Alum Bay and the Needles then back past Colwell Bay to its starting point. The big attraction is the open air seating up top. All passengers make a beeline for these seats despite the risk of overhanging branches!

Open air seats on the Needles Breezer
Open air seats on the Needles Breezer

We spent the day travelling around this route, hopping off at points of interest. The Needles Breezer service runs between March and November and as there’s a bus every 30 minutes we were able to fit quite a lot into our day.

Yarmouth

If you like boats then Yarmouth is the place to be. There’s a chandlery, yachts, car ferry port and sailing school all just a few minutes walk from the bus stop. For us it was a convenient stopover with toilets and cafe high on our list.

Yarmouth, Isle of Wight
Yarmouth, Isle of Wight

Yarmouth also has the longest wooden pier in the UK and a castle, built by Henry VIII (an incredibly busy man), although we didn’t visit as we walked out through Fort Victoria Country Park instead.

Fort Victoria Country Park

Fort Victoria Country Park is about 20 minutes walk from Yarmouth town centre. A former artillery fortification it now houses several small attractions (an aquarium, planetarium and model railway) but we just enjoyed a walk along the beach and back through the woods.

View of Hurst Castle from Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight
View of Hurst Castle from Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight

My main reason for visiting Fort Victoria was for the view of Hurst Castle on the mainland. We’d visited the castle a few days previously and wondered what it looked like from the island. As you can see from the above photo we now know!

Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight
Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight

Back in Yarmouth we boarded the bus, sitting up top of course, and enjoyed a ride through the Isle of Wight countryside. It is rather exciting and bumpy being  driven through the lanes at speed. Sit on the left hand side if you enjoy encounters with branches!

The bus passed the site of the first Isle of Wight Festival (a field, no need to get off) and the pretty St Agnes thatched church.

The Needles

The ride up to The Needles stop is the trip highlight. Sitting on top it felt like we were hugging the edge of the cliff as the bus climbed towards the Needles viewpoint. It’s quite safe though and there are spectacular views of the coloured cliffs at Alum Bay.

The Needles, Isle of Wight
The Needles, Isle of Wight

We’ve seen the Needles several times before but I always enjoy the view of the white rocks against a blue sea. In the past I’ve visited the Needles Old Battery, whose guns once defended the Solent. It’s worth a visit if you’ve never been before but we had plans for a walk so gave it a miss this time.

Tennyson Monument

Tennyson monument, Isle of Wight
Tennyson monument, Isle of Wight

From the Needles we enjoyed a great walk along Tennyson Down to Tennyson Monument. This was built to commemorate Lord Tennyson who lived nearby and walked on the down daily. It’s an easy and popular walk across the Downs, with great views along the south coast of the island.

With the benefit of hindsight we should have got off at the Tennyson Down bus stop, walked up to the Monument and then along to the Needles where we’d be able to rejoin the bus. Instead we had to backtrack and cover part of the route we’d already been on. On the plus side we got to ride up to the Needles again and as we managed to just miss one of the buses we were able to pop in for a quick drink in Highdown Inn.

Alum Bay

Alum Bay sands, Isle of Wight
Alum Bay sands, Isle of Wight

We didn’t get off at Alum Bay. Whilst I would have loved to take the kids down to the beach on the chairlift to see the coloured sands the rest of the site just didn’t appeal. Heaving with tourists, there are multiple ways to spend money ranging from a sweet factory demonstration to Jurassic Golf. From the looks of Trip Advisor some people love it, many don’t, but it’s just not our kind of place.

Colwell Bay

We were running out of time at this point so our last stop was a quick visit to Colwell Bay. From the bus stop it was a 5 minute walk down to the beach.

Looking out over Colwell Bay, Isle of Wight
Looking out over Colwell Bay, Isle of Wight

We’d managed to time our visit badly as the tide was in and there was no beach to be seen. Most people were sunbathing on concrete ledges so we bought some ice creams and sat in a shady spot to enjoy them.

There were loads of families swimming and enjoying paddling. It was a hot day and the sea certainly looked as if it would be warm. After a quick check my son confirmed it was freezing!

Ice creams finished we headed back to the bus stop for our final journey on the Needles Breezer back into Yarmouth. From Yarmouth we backtracked to Cowes and our short ferry crossing to Southampton. I had been a little unsure about relying on the buses to see the Isle of Wight but the Needles Breezer is a great service and one I’d recommend even if you do have the use of a car on the island.

More info:

  • We travelled on the Red Jet high speed ferry between Southampton and West Cowes. The crossing takes about 25 minutes and is for foot passengers only. There’s no need to book or check in before your journey, simply turn up, buy your ticket and travel. Our family day return cost £31.90 for 2 adults, 2 children.
  • Our family bus pass cost £25. This entitled us to ride on all Southern Vectis buses on the island for the day. Southern Vectis, the island bus company, offers a Downs Breezer and the Island Coaster hop on hop off services too. I had notionally thought of taking the Needles Breezer, then transferring to the other tourist services to see the whole island. Whilst this is possible in peak season it does mean you’d spend most of the day on the bus and I quickly decided to just focus on the western side of the island.

A walk to Hurst castle, Hampshire

£9 for a 10 minute bus ride? I thought the driver had misheard me so I repeated our destination, Milford-on-Sea. Yes, the figure was correct; £2.50 per child and £4 per adult for a single fare.  It would have been cheaper to get a taxi, and quicker given the bus was running 25 minutes late. With gritted teeth I paid the fare and made a mental note to avoid buses in future.

Fortunately we’d had a better experience with the train. Taking advantage of our family railcard and off peak travel I’d planned a trip to Hurst Castle, a spectacularly located castle overlooking the Solent and Isle of Wight. It’s possible to walk to Hurst Castle from Lymington railway station but I thought the short bus ride to Milford would allow a linear walk and reduce mileage.

Shingle beach walk to Hurst Castle
Shingle beach walk to Hurst Castle

My mood lightened a little as we left Milford-on-Sea and attempted to run up and over the shingle bank which heads out to Hurst Castle. Easier said than done as the pebbles slipped away under our feet and wind blew hair and sea spray across our faces. Across the Solent we could see The Needles, glistening white against the clouds.

It’s a 1.5 mile walk out along the shingle to Hurst Castle. It was surprisingly hard walking along the top of the spit, even with a stiff breeze blowing us along. After a few minutes we admitted defeat and dropped down to the sheltered side of the bank, away from the waves and wind. We walked beside the mud flats and salt marsh; they’re a haven for waders and wildfowl although the only bird I recognised was an egret.

The approach to Hurst Castle
The approach to Hurst Castle

As we walked Hurst Castle slowly came into focus. It’s a strange looking building, more of a fort really, with destructive gun batteries and protective lighthouses alongside each other.

Hurst Castle

The castle was built by Henry VIII to guard the western approach of the Solent and help protect the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth. Despite the threat of invasion the castle saw little action for much of its early history although it was used to imprison Charles I in 1648. Significant renovations and the addition of armaments were completed during the Napoleonic Wars but life at the castle remained uneventful. Further modifications took place throughout the Victorian era and up to the end of the Second World War.

Hurst Castle
Hurst Castle

Entering via the guard room we first explored the early part of the castle. The Tudor tower housed the garrison and marks on the floor outline the living accommodation. The roof was used as a gun tower but nowadays offers great views across the marshes and the Solent.

The original Tudor castle sits between two large wing batteries which were added between 1861 and 1874. Later in the week we visited the Isle of Wight and it’s only after seeing the castle from the seaward side that you really appreciate the positioning and structure of the building.

Old lighthouses, Hurst Castle
Old lighthouses, Hurst Castle

We continued our explorations of the remainder of the castle. We walked up and down stairs, searched nooks and crannies and balanced along old railway tracks. The two lighthouses shown above no longer work. Instead the Hurst Point lighthouse fulfils their role and there’s a small exhibition in the castle about them.

Before we left, and in the interest of research, we felt obliged to pop into the cafe for a drink. We’d already eaten our picnic but the food looked good and the cakes tempting.

Hurst Point Lighthouse
Hurst Point Lighthouse

Return to Lymington

I had planned to catch the ferry back from the castle through the marshes to Keyhaven but it was a busy summer day and the queue was long.  In case you’re wondering, the term ‘ferry’ is probably a little optimistic. Think small boat with room for about 10 people rather than Isle of Wight Red Funnel car ferry!

There also appeared to be a drama happening in one of the channels as a boat was stuck in the mud. Our boat was called into action to rescue the passengers and take them back to Keyhaven. At this point I decided it was quicker to walk back rather than wait another 20 minutes for the next ferry. Fortunately the wind had dropped since the morning, making it a less arduous walk.

Walk from Keyhaven to Lymington
Walk from Keyhaven to Lymington

Our walk back to Lymington took us past more mudflats, the boats of Keyhaven Yacht Club and clouds of butterflies. I’d under-estimated how long it would take to walk this final stretch and we had to run to reach the railway station in time for our train. We arrived sweaty and hot with a couple of minutes to spare.

We really enjoyed Hurst Castle but if you plan to visit I would definitely suggest walking one way from Lymington or Keyhaven and using the ferry service as this looked like a fun way to travel.

More info:

  • Hurst Castle is open daily from the end of March to the end of October. Check the English Heritage website for exact dates and times.
  • The ferry runs every 20 minutes between Keyhaven and Hurst Castle during castle opening times. A single ticket costs £3.50 for adults, £2.50 for children.

15 things to do in and around St Davids, Pembrokeshire

St Davids is Britain’s smallest city (population 1800) and makes an excellent base to explore Pembrokeshire. Despite being a city St Davids is the ideal place to visit if you enjoy the outdoors, be it walking the Pembrokeshire coastal path, surfing or coasteering. Read on to find out things to do in and around St Davids, Pembrokeshire.

1. Bishop’s Palace, St Davids

Located adjacent to St Davids cathedral, Bishop’s Palace was built in the 13th Century to house the bishops and entertain guests. Nowadays it’s a ruin but an impressive one and well worth an hour of your time.

Bishop's Palace, St Davids
Bishop’s Palace, St Davids

Inside there are plenty of areas to discover, up and down winding staircases. The dark undercrofts were great for hiding and jumping out on the kids, whilst the towers provided great views. Information boards are dotted around the site to give you an insight into how life would have been.

Check the CADW website for Bishop’s Palace opening times as they vary according to season. A family ticket for 2 adults and 2 children costs £10.50.

2. Solva

Just a couple of miles from St Davids, Solva wins my award for the most picturesque harbour in Pembrokeshire, possibly even in Wales. It’s particularly lovely when the sandy beach is revealed at low tide. Wander along Trinity Quay for a spot of boat and people watching or head into the village to visit cafés and galleries.

Solva, near St Davids
Solva, near St Davids

We walked from Solva over Gribin ridge to the pebble beach at Gwadn. The kids messed around in the stream before walking inland up the valley. At this point we discovered the stream the kids had been playing in earlier was the (treated) outflow from the sewage works! Despite this late discovery we all enjoyed the walk and the sudden need to wash our hands was a good excuse to visit a cafe.

3. Enjoy an ice cream at Gianni’s, St Davids

Gianni's ice cream, St Davids
Gianni’s ice cream, St Davids

It’s not the cheapest but you get what you pay for. £2.50 buys you a cone of Gianni’s organic home-made ice cream in a huge variety of flavours. We sampled many of these throughout the week, including salted caramel, raspberry dodge and mango sorbet. There’s a daily alcoholic choice, a dairy and sugar free option and even bacon flavour ice cream for your dog! Gianni’s is located in the High Street in St Davids; easily identified by the queues in sunny weather!

4. Whitesands Bay

Looking at the photo below you could almost imagine it was taken in sunny California. Although you can guess from the lack of people sunbathing that it was taken in colder climes.

Whitesands Bay, Pembrokeshire
Whitesands Bay, Pembrokeshire

If you’re a fan of golden sandy beaches then you’ll love Whitesands Bay, just outside St Davids. This large beach is popular with families and is one of the best in Wales for surfing. There’s a large car park, cafe, toilets and lifeguard service throughout the summer months.

If you prefer smaller beaches take a short walk north along the coastal path to Porthmeigan. There are no facilities here but it’s a quieter choice if Whitesands is too busy.

5. Walk around Ramsey Head

Just about any walk along the Pembrokeshire coastal path will reward you with spectacular scenery and wildlife sightings. If, like me, you prefer circular walks, you’ll enjoy a walk on the Treginnis Peninsula.

We started at Porthclais, a couple of miles from St Davids, and followed the coastal path around Ramsey Head. We headed inland near St Justinian’s back to our starting point. A highlight of this walk are the views over to Ramsey Island, which is separated from the mainland by a treacherous reef called The Bitches. Popular with experienced kayakers, the tides race through the channel creating whirlpools and eddies.

6. St Non’s chapel

St Non’s chapel is a 20 minute walk (or short drive) from the city and is said to mark the birthplace of St David. The small ruin and holy well are located in the middle of a cattle field.

St Non's chapel, near St Davids
St Non’s chapel, near St Davids

There’s not much to see but it’s a peaceful place to spend a few minutes. From the chapel you can walk down through the field to reach the coastal path. Bring a picnic and enjoy the view.

7. St Davids cathedral

The cathedral is the reason for St Davids city status. Although we didn’t go inside we walked down through the cemetery to reach Bishop’s Palace so were able to appreciate its architecture.

St Davids Cathedral
St Davids Cathedral

It’s in a beautiful location, evidently built in a dip to hide it from invaders coming from the sea. It survived an earthquake in the 13th Century but was almost destroyed by Cromwell’s forces. Fortunately it has been restored and visitors can enjoy its splendour. Find out more details here.

8. Watch the jumpers at the Blue Lagoon, Abereiddy

The Blue Lagoon, a few minutes walk from the beach at Abereiddy, is an old slate quarry. Popular with coastering groups, the quarry has several high ledges that brave souls can dive from into the incredibly blue waters. Alternatively, scaredy cats (like me) can just sit and watch.

9. Climb Carn Llidi

If you’re feeling energetic the 595ft summit of Carn Llidi makes a good destination for an afternoon walk. We parked at Whitesands Bay and walked north along the coastal path around the headland before walking up the shoulder of Carn Llidi.

carnllidi

The last few feet to the summit requires a scramble which I opted out of as it was quite windy on top. Fortunately the views are just as good a few feet below. You can supposedly see Ireland on a clear day but I was quite content with views of the coastline and Whitesands Bay.

10. Go on a boat trip

There are several boat operators vying for business in St Davids. These offer plenty of choice, from landing trips on the RSPB reserve of Ramsey Island to evening wildlife cruises and jet boat rides.

Boarding the Dale Princess, Skomer
Boarding the Dale Princess, Skomer

We chose to visit Skomer island which necessitated a longer drive to the boat departure point at Martin’s Haven. It was worth the extra effort and early start; you can read about our trip here.

11. Have a BBQ on the beach

One of our most memorable evenings was spent barbecuing chocolate stuffed bananas and toasting marshmallows on the beach. We carried foil wrapped bananas and a disposable barbecue down to the beach. I kept watch whilst the kids went off to play on a rope swing in the woods behind Aber Mawr beach.

BBQ bananas on the beach
BBQ bananas on the beach

The chocolate bananas took a while to cook but were definitely worth the wait. Although next time I’ll remember to bring some tissues as they were rather messy to eat!

If you’re going to do something similar remember to take all litter home with you and leave no trace of your visit.

12. Rockpooling at Caerfai Bay, near St Davids

We joined a sea safari at Caerfai Bay organised by Pembrokeshire National Park. Starting from the top of the beach our guide pointed out the different rocks, mosses and flowers. We walked down towards the sea, stopping often to explore the different creatures in the rock pools. We learnt lots about barnacles, sea anemones and limpets; a couple of the group got to taste seaweed too.

Rockpooling
Rockpooling

13. Enjoy the wildflowers along the Pembrokeshire coastal path

Spring and early summer are a great time to enjoy the wild flowers. Thrift and brightly coloured gorse bushes line the coastal path and helpfully cheer up photos on dull days.

Flowers of the Pembrokeshire coast
Flowers of the Pembrokeshire coast

We found groups of heath spotted orchids whilst walking on Carn Llidi, bluebells on Skomer and campion, spring squill and foxgloves almost everywhere along the coast. There were also plenty of others that I didn’t get around to identifying!

14. Visit the art galleries

Pembrokeshire is home to a large number of artists and many villages have galleries and craft shops. Whilst keeping an eye out for child related breakages isn’t the most relaxing way to spend your time we do enjoy picking up mementos of our stay. St Davids in particular has a couple of good options including Oriel y Parc and Oriel y Felin. Some of the artists also have their own galleries, including one of our favourites, Chris Neale.

15. Seal spotting

We only saw one seal on our most recent visit; however if you’re visiting in autumn you’re in for a treat. The seals come ashore to pup so keep an eye out for them from the coastal path or alternatively visit Skomer or Ramsey islands.

Have you visited the area? If so, let me know if you’ve any further suggestions for things to do with children in Pembrokeshire.