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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
The lily house has a raised pond with huge lily pads and hundreds of tiny fish to watch.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.