A day out in Winchester, Hampshire

We often drive past Winchester when heading to the south coast but I’ve never visited before. Whilst it has quite a few attractions I thought they were probably more suited to older tourists rather than families. I was wrong though, as proved by an enjoyable visit recently.

Military museums

Royal Green Jackets museum, Winchester
Royal Green Jackets museum, Winchester

We started with a visit to the Military Museums, a group of five museums focussing on various aspects of the British Army. They’re located next to each other in an area close to the city centre. We visited two – the Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum and Horsepower, the Museum of the King’s Royal Hussars.

The Baker rifle range, Royal Green Jackets museum
The Baker rifle range, Royal Green Jackets museum

The Royal Green Jackets Museum traces the involvement of the regiment in various conflicts over the last 250 years ranging from the American War of Independence through to Iraq. There are over 40,000 objects to see in the museum and lots of information boards to read. I found it very interesting but would recommend it to older kids and adults rather than younger children. That said, younger visitors can dress up and get the opportunity to shoot a laser Baker rifle.

Model of the Napoleonic war, Royal Green Jackets museum
Battle of Waterloo model, Royal Green Jackets museum

The highlight for us was the Waterloo diorama. This is a huge model of the battlefield with 22,000 model soldiers and horses. It’s accompanied by a 7 minute recording which tells you all about the day of the battle. It really was impressive and we spent a lot of time in the room looking at the detailed scenes.

We followed with a short visit to Horsepower, the museum of the King’s Royal Hussars. This was a smaller museum which covers the contribution made by horses in the army. There were quite a few life size models of horses, which were strangely accompanied by realistic horse smells. Again there’s quite a lot to read so another museum for interested teens or adults.

The Great Hall

King Arthur's Round Table at the Great Hall, Winchester
King Arthur’s Round Table at the Great Hall, Winchester

The Great Hall is a short walk from the Military Museums so we popped in for a quick look. The medieval hall is the only surviving part of Winchester Castle and supposedly contains King Arthur’s Round Table. The table hangs on the wall and is the main point of interest for most visitors. It certainly looks the part, but following carbon dating they’ve discovered it probably isn’t old enough to have been used by King Arthur and his knights.

City museum

The City Museum is spread across three floors and tells the story of Winchester from the Iron Age to today. The Roman history of Winchester was probably our favourite part of the museum, particularly a large mosaic floor and a recreation of underfloor heating.

We visited whilst the ‘Romans’ were in town which made it more interesting. They’d bought replica items to handle and I was impressed by how well one of them managed to explain an instrument for dealing with haemorrhoids to my kids.

Downstairs we met a visiting academic from Southampton University. He was researching whether the public would be able to better engage with museum objects if printed in 3D. He’d bought along a 3D printer and was creating 3D versions of various artefacts. It was the first time I’d seen a 3D printer live in action!

Winchester cathedral grounds

After our cultural morning we had a late lunch and took a wander around the city centre. There were plenty of shops I’d have liked to pop into, but browsing in shops doesn’t have the same appeal with kids in tow. Instead we walked past the house where Jane Austen lived for a short time, checked out Winchester College (fees of £33K per year!) and then returned through the grounds of Winchester Cathedral. It was a lovely area and great for strolling.

winchester5

The cathedral is the most popular attraction in Winchester with over 300,000 visitors each year. I considered visiting but as the kids were having a noisy moment I thought it best not to spoil the serene atmosphere inside. If you do plan to go download a copy of their excellent kids trail in advance from the Winchester Cathedral website.

Winchester cathedral
Winchester cathedral

There were several more attractions in the area to visit, but not all were open. So a future visit has been earmarked for visiting the City Mill, the ruins of Wolvesey Castle and a walk through Winnalls Moor Nature Reserve. We’ll definitely be back!

More info:

  • The Royal Green Jackets museum cost £4 for adults. Children were free but there was a 50p charge for the Baker rifle game. Horsepower cost £2 per adult, again children were free. Further details are available on their website.
  • The Great Hall is open daily but is occasionally closed for events. It’s free to enter although donations are welcome. It’s accessible and also has disabled and baby changing facilities.
  • The City Museum is free. It’s open every day during the summer but closed on Monday from November-March. The lift was out of service on the day of our visit, this looks to be an ongoing issue.
  • Winchester Cathedral costs £7.50 per adult, children are free. It’s open 7 days per week but has restricted hours on Sundays. Full details here.

A street art walk around Brick Lane, London

Art galleries and kids tend not to mix that well. Combining priceless art works and contemplative visitors with exuberant kids certainly makes me a little uneasy. Fortunately we found that street art is a great alternative when we enjoyed a great day out spotting it in London.

Street art without permission is illegal, and I wouldn’t condone it in inappropriate places, but in the right context it can enhance an area and attract visitors. One such place where it works really well is in and around Brick Lane, London.

We decided to go on a family street art walk from Aldgate East tube station to Shoreditch Overground station. As well as art on Brick Lane you’ll find plenty on the streets either side of the main thoroughfare and around Shoreditch station. Although some pieces are relatively long lived, the nature of street art is that it changes constantly. We came across some new street art being created in a rather forlorn car park off Brick Lane.

Creating new street art
Creating new street art, just off Brick Lane

Most people will immediately think of Banksy when asked to name a street artist. Once you start your street art hunt you’ll realise just how many other artists there are. Two of our favourites were Jonesy and Stik. Stik paints simple stick like figures, whilst Jonesy creates brass sculptures as well as paintings with an environmental message.

There are various styles of street art, and we saw most types during our walk. This giant hedgehog is by Belgian artist, Roa, and adorns an entire wall. Whilst he is renowned for his large animal murals, other artists may specialise in stencils, wheatpaste or posters. Even yarn bombing is a type of street art and examples adorn lamp posts in our local village. Interestingly, this is technically as illegal as graffiti!

Giant hedgehog, Chance Street (ROA)
Giant hedgehog, Chance Street (ROA)

Brick Lane has an interesting history. As its name suggests it was originally a centre of brick and tile manufacturing. Over the years it has seen successive waves of immigrants, with two of the most notable groups being the French Huguenots in the 17th century and more recently the Bangladeshis. The Huguenots established weaving in the area, whilst the Bangladeshis have led to this area being called the curry capital of the UK.

We didn’t stop for a curry but we did pick up a cheap lunch in another Brick Lane institution, the Beigel Shop. This bakery vies with another a couple of doors down to sell the best salt beef bagel but being a vegetarian I’m not able to comment on who wins. My son certainly enjoyed his smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel though!

Beigel shop, Brick Lane
Beigel shop, Brick Lane

More info:

  • The nearest tube station is Aldgate East. Brick Lane is signposted and about a 5 minute walk from the tube.
  • Brick Lane is probably most famous for its Sunday market. I would suggest visiting on an alternative day if you’re street art spotting as the area gets incredibly crowded.
  • Give your kids a camera so they can snap the art they enjoy. My daughter took loads of photos!

10 things to do in Liverpool with kids

When I think of Liverpool I picture The Beatles, the Grand National and football, all cliched views of the city. I wouldn’t usually think of it as a holiday destination but it has some fabulous free museums which are perfect for exploring year round. Our short visit proved it was an ideal destination for a family break.

1 World Museum

The best museum in Liverpool according to my kids.

The first floor hosts a small aquarium, whilst the second one has a bug house with leaf cutter ants. The higher floors cover topics like the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and world cultures. The dinosaur exhibition is very popular with dinosaur bones and fossil footprints to see. There’s also a planetarium but you need to get in early to get tickets to a show.

The information boards provide bite sized snippets perfect for primary school aged children, evidenced by the various school groups racing around the exhibits. This is most definitely a museum for the kids; adults might find they’d like a little more detail about some of the exhibits.

2 Superlambana hunt

What on earth is a superlambana I hear you say? It’s a 5 metre high bright yellow sculpture of a lamb crossed with a banana! According to the Japanese designer Taro Chiezo it’s a comment on the dangers of genetic engineering but also reflects Liverpool’s history where lambs and bananas used to travel through the city docks.

A lambana!
A superlambana

The original superlambana was joined by 125 smaller statues back in 2008. These were displayed around the city and then auctioned off for charity. There are still plenty to see, including 4 outside the Museum of Liverpool. The superlambanas are colourful and appealing to children, and fun to spot if you visit the city.

3 Fab Four Beatles tour

It’s hard to ignore The Beatles whilst in Liverpool as they’re probably responsible for much of its tourist industry. You could easily spend a weekend solely visiting Beatles related attractions but as time was short we decided on a 3 hour Fab Four Beatles taxi tour.

Penny Lane, a stop on the Fab Four Beatles tour
Penny Lane, a stop on the Fab Four Beatles tour

Our black cab visited schools and art colleges, homes, Penny Lane, Strawberry Field, Eleanor Rigby’s grave and various other places mentioned in their songs. The childhood homes of John and Paul are owned by the National Trust (you can arrange a tour round these) whilst the early home of Ringo is boarded up and covered in Beatles graffiti. We felt sorry for the owner of George’s previous house as it is still privately owned but must be subject to a never ending stream of tourists.

John Lennon's house
John Lennon’s house, Liverpool

Our guide was excellent and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Beatles. As adults we found the tour to be just the right length but our kids were getting decidedly itchy towards the end. In hindsight we probably should have booked the 2 hour tour!

4 International Slavery Museum

This museum is located at Albert Dock, close to the dry docks where 18th century slave trading ships were fitted out. Its galleries tell the story of life in West Africa, the transatlantic journey the slaves took, life on the plantations and the legacy of slavery.

This is not an entertaining museum but it is thought provoking. It’s a museum more suited to older kids as there is quite a lot to read, rather than hands on activities. Understandably, some of the information might also be quite upsetting (my eldest watched a video which she said was very sad).

5 Merseyside Maritime Museum

Located in the same building as the Slavery museum, this tells the story of Liverpool’s maritime history.

Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool
Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool

My favourite gallery was the one dedicated to the tragedies of the Titanic, Lusitania and Empress of Ireland, three ships all connected to Liverpool which sank between 1912 and 1915. Whilst most people are pretty familiar with the story of the Titanic, the others are sometimes overlooked.  Did you know that more people died on the sinking of the Empress of Ireland than the Titanic?

Other galleries covered the story of emigrants and smuggling. The Seized! gallery offers visitors the ability to handle some of the collections and take part in craft activities.

6 View from St John’s Beacon Viewing Gallery (Radio City Tower)

St John’s Beacon, the home of Radio City, is an iconic landmark in Liverpool but not many people seem to know you can visit it. Tickets for the viewing gallery can be purchased at the radio station entrance, and visits depart from reception every half hour or so.  A super fast lift takes you up to the viewing gallery, and after a short overview you are left to look at the views for as long as you wish.

Radio City Tower
Radio City Tower

The 138m high beacon was once the tallest building in Liverpool, and although it no longer holds this title there are fantastic views over the city and beyond. Visitors receive a pictorial guide to help identify the buildings. On clear days you can supposedly see to North Wales and the Lake District.

View from Radio City Tower
View from Radio City Tower

I’m not sure you’d want to visit if you’re scared of heights. It is completely enclosed but the tower moves slightly with the wind and with most of the viewing area made from glass it feels a bit more exposed than it actually is.  One lady on our tour really didn’t like it!

7 Museum of Liverpool

This museum traces the history of Liverpool through from the Iron Age to modern days. I really enjoyed finding out about the docks and how the port of Liverpool came about. I learnt loads but admittedly my knowledge of Liverpudlian history was limited.

Visitors can sit in a carriage from the Liverpool overhead railway, see a replica of the Liver Bird up close and watch a Beatles show. Downstairs in the Wondrous Place gallery you are reminded of just how many writers, artists and musicians come from Liverpool – it’s not all about The Beatles!

8 Albert Dock

The Albert Dock area is at the heart of the city and a great place to wander round. When the dock opened in 1846 cargo came from all over the world and included cotton, brandy and sugar. Sadly trade via sailing ship diminished and by 1920 the warehouses were only used to store goods which travelled by road or rail.

Albert Dock, Liverpool
Albert Dock, Liverpool

Albert Dock was eventually abandoned in 1972 but revitalised in the 1980s with the building of the Maritime Museum. Today it’s home to several museums, and has a number of restaurants and shops to visit.

Albert Dock at sunset
Albert Dock at sunset

9 Liver Birds

The Liver Birds stand on top of the Royal Liver Building and are one of the most recognisable symbols of Liverpool. Although you cannot view them up close they’re easily visible from the local area. One bird faces inland, to protect the city, whilst the other looks out to sea to protect those at sea.

10 Antony Gormley statues on Crosby Beach

Not strictly in Liverpool but a great choice if you fancy a trip out of the city. Easily accessible by train, read more about our visit to Antony Gormley’s sculptures on the beach.

Antony Gormley's 'Another Place'
Antony Gormley’s ‘Another Place’

More info

  • St John’s Beacon is open daily. More details on the website.
  • Full details about the museums above can be found on the National Museums Liverpool website.  The museums above are open all year, with the exception of a short closure over Christmas and New Year.
  • The Fab Four taxi tours website details the different tour options and lengths.

Costs

  • All of the museums above are free!
  • A family ticket for St John’s Beacon costs £14.50 and includes a tour guide.  Individual tickets are £5 for adults, £3 for children.
  • The 3 hour Beatles Fab Four taxi tour costs £55 per taxi (seating up to 5 people).

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.