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.

Oxford University Parks spy trail

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.

Start of Oxford spy trail
Start of Oxford spy trail

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.

Solving the clues
Solving the clues

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.

Oxford University Park - hopeful ducks
Oxford University Park – hopeful ducks!

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.

Punt rollers, Oxford
Punt rollers, Oxford

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.

Walking back through University Park
Walking back through University Park

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.

If you’re interested in more things to do in Oxford check out my 25 things to do with the family blog post; there are plenty of ideas here to keep you all entertained!

More info

  • 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.

Cost

  • 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.

A walk along Regent’s Canal to Camden Lock, London

We’ve managed to see quite a lot of London over recent years, and now tend to search out places away from the main tourist sites. On our most recent trip we walked along Regent’s Canal from Little Venice to Camden Market, and then visited the London Canal Museum.

Regent’s Canal walk

Regents Canal sign
Regent’s Canal sign

Regent’s Canal links the Grand Union Canal with the River Thames. The towpath along the canal forms part of the Jubilee Greenway walk, a 37 mile route to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Our walk was just 2 miles long,  but there was still a lot to see in such a short distance. We started from Warwick Avenue tube station and walked to Little Venice, which marks the junction of Regent’s Canal with the Grand Union Canal. The road beside the canal has some expensive looking houses, although we did wonder at the raggedy “For Sale” paper sign in a very posh Bentley. Is this how rich people normally sell their cars?

View along Regent's Canal
View along Regent’s Canal

It was a lovely morning so we stopped for coffee on the terrace at Cafe Laville. The cafe is located directly over the canal, at the entrance to the Maida Hill tunnel. We sat outside and watched life (well, tourist boats) on the canal.

We passed through Lisson Grove where many of the canal boat residents have extended their living areas onto the bank. Tiny garden areas are bursting with flowers, vegetable plots and trees decorated with fairy lights.

Sunflowers alongside Regent's Canal
Sunflowers alongside Regent’s Canal

Macclesfield Bridge has an interesting story attached to it. A barge carrying carrying gunpowder exploded underneath in 1874, resulting in the death of three people. The original bridge was destroyed, and the replacement came to be known as “blow up bridge”.

Blow up bridge, Regents Canal
Blow up bridge, Regent’s Canal

The canal cuts through Regent’s Park, taking you past London Zoo. We were excited to see warthogs lining one bank and an aviary on the left hand side. Snowdon aviary was built in 1962, and from our viewpoint outside we could see ibis, cranes and lots of starlings. Even the police patrolling the canal stopped to have a look at the birds.

Snowdon aviary at London Zoo
Snowdon aviary at London ZOutOur

Our walk finished at Camden Lock. We were hoping to spot a Banksy mural on one of the bridges, but we never managed to see it. Either it had been removed or we weren’t looking in the right place. If you’re interested in spotting street art in London check out my post about our family walk along Brick Lane.

Camden market

Camden Lock sign
Camden Lock sign

This place is pretty touristy, but you also get plenty of young and trendy Londoners too. We started off with lunch from the food stalls. It was like being at a music festival with choices from just about any country you could imagine. Our combined lunch consisted of food from Turkey, Mexico, Poland and Ethiopia!

Food stalls at Camden market
Food stalls at Camden market

After lunch we walked around the market stalls and shops. The market primarily appeals to the young adult market with lots of alternative clothing retailers, interspersed with stalls selling Banksy pictures, London tourist tat and things you didn’t realise you’d ever need. If you’re looking for a new outfit for your dog or some vintage spectacles, you’ll find them here!

Camden market
Camden market

I can imagine my kids loving this place when they’re teenagers although I hope they don’t wear some of the more ‘interesting’ outfits you can buy here. After a while you realise you’ve started to see the same goods on different stalls, including for some reason, wooden iPhone cases. It was time to move on.

Shops in Camden High Street
Shops in Camden High Street

London canal museum

Continuing with the canal theme we visited London Canal Museum to learn more about them. I had originally planned to walk to the museum from Camden but time was short so we took the tube instead. If you do walk it takes about 25 minutes.

London Canal Museum started life as an ice warehouse back in 1863. It is now a small museum dedicated to the twin stories of London canals and the ice business which was made possible due to the canals.

The highlights for us were the narrow boat Coronis and the ice store. The kids loved clambering around the boat, with its traditionally decked out cabin. I read the displays whilst the kids did this; they were quite text heavy which was fine for adults but didn’t appeal so much to the kids.

The ice well, basically a big hole in the ground, was pretty impressive. Ice was imported to London from Norway by ship, and then stored in the huge wells. The exhibition details the story of Carlo Gatti and the ice cream trade he founded. One point that stood out for me was that the workers would tread across the ice in their dirty outdoor boots, and the ice would then be used in desserts for high class families. Yum!

Overall I found the ice related aspect of the museum the most interesting as it was something I knew nothing about before our visit. Whilst the museum has some exhibits aimed at children, I felt it was probably of more interest to adults or older children who have a specific interest in canals.

More info

  • We followed the Jubilee Greenway walk from Little Venice to Camden.  It’s a flat path suitable for buggies and wheelchairs.  Cycling along the towpath is also popular, although I’d imagine the path gets very crowded at weekends. It is not recommended that you walk along the canal towpath after dark.
  • The London Canal museum is recommended for children aged 6+.  During the school holidays they run activity sessions on specific dates giving kids the chance to make ice cream, go on a boat trip or try their hand at canal art.

Costs

  • The canal museum costs £4 per adult, £2 per child or a family ticket for £10.  We had a 2 for 1 Great Western offer which reduced the price for our family to £8.

London with kids – a day out with the Travelcard

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

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

So, what did we do?

Underground from Paddington to Embankment

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

Thames Clipper from Embankment to North Greenwich

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

View from the Thames Clipper
View from the Thames Clipper

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

Emirates Air Line from Emirates Greenwich Peninsula to Emirates Royal Docks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underground from Charing Cross to Paddington

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

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

Kids view:

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

General info:

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

Cost:

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

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