The great fire of London walk

Both of my kids enjoyed learning about the great fire of London at school. We visited some of the places below when the kids were younger but as they were both eager to revisit the Monument I devised a themed ‘Great fire of London’ day.

Museum of London

We started with a visit to the Museum of London to see their Plague and Fire gallery. The best place to begin is by watching the 6 minute video which gives an overview of the fire and a day by day account from some of the eye witnesses. You might also like to pick up the War, Plague and Fire family activity sheet from reception (or download in advance from their website).

Afterwards take a walk around the gallery and see some of the objects relating to the fire. Our favourites were smoke blackened tiles unearthed in a cellar in Pudding Lane back in the 1970s. You can also try on a fire fighters leather helmet and compare it with our modern day equivalent.

St Paul’s cathedral

St Paul's cathedral
St Paul’s cathedral

After leaving the museum we walked to the Monument past St Paul’s cathedral. The previous cathedral, known as Old St Paul’s, was one of the casualties of the fire. Many people had put their belongings into the crypt, believing they’d be safe from the fire but sadly it was not to be and the cathedral burnt. The current cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and rebuilt after the fire once attempts to restore Old St Paul’s were stopped.

We’ve visited St Paul’s Cathedral before so didn’t go in this time but if you’ve never been it’s worth it for the climb up to the Golden Gallery. It’s not cheap but you can get slightly reduced prices by buying tickets online.

Monument to the Great Fire of London

Monument to the Great Fire of London
Monument to the Great Fire of London

On to the Monument, which was designed by Wren and his colleague Dr Hooke, as a memorial to the Great Fire. This stone column is 61.5 metres high which is the exact distance from its location to the start of the fire.  It’s fun to climb the 311 steps to the top and take in the view over London although you may need to queue for a while to get in.

View from the Monument
View from the Monument

The view had changed significantly since I last climbed the Monument as the new Walkie Talkie skyscraper now dominates the area! You can always pretend it’s not there and look out to the Thames and Tower Bridge instead. There is wire fencing all around the viewing area which can make it a little tricky to take photographs (hence no photo of the Walkie Talkie) but at least you’re safe.

Once you’ve squeezed back down the stairs you can pick up  a free certificate to show you’ve climbed the Monument.

Certificates from the Monument
Certificates from the Monument

Pudding Lane

Just down the road from the Monument is Pudding Lane, the source of the great fire. The only reminder nowadays is a small plaque on one of the buildings. The road itself is nothing special, I think a new bakery would be a great addition!

Pudding Lane
Pudding Lane

All Hallows by the Tower

All Hallows by the Tower is the oldest church in London. It’s location next to the Tower of London means that it received plenty of beheaded bodies from the executions.

It’s also the church where Samuel Pepys climbed the tower to view the progress of the great fire. The church survived thanks to surrounding buildings being demolished to create firebreaks. It didn’t fare so well in the second world war though and in the crypt you can see lead which melted from the roof during the bombings. In the under croft you can also find an excavated Roman pavement, dating from the second century.

We finished our tour with a quick trip to Borough Market. This has a tenuous link of existing at the same time as the great fire, but we only really visited for its yummy food!

More info:

  • The Museum of London is free although a donation is appreciated. The museum is open daily from 10am-6pm. It’s a short walk from either Barbican or St Paul’s underground stations.
  • The Monument costs £4 for adults, £2 for children. The stairs are the only way to get up and the staircase is pretty narrow, as is the viewing platform. It can be a bit of a squeeze when trying to pass people. I wouldn’t personally recommend it if you have pre-school children but we did see a few being carried up.
  • All Hallows by the Tower is free to enter. It’s open 7 days a week except during services. The nearest tube station is Tower Hill.

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.

REME Museum of Technology, Berkshire

*Update: the REME museum near Wokingham closed in April 2015. It will reopen in its new location at Lyneham, Wiltshire during 2016.*

We recently visited REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) museum, which is attached to Arborfield Garrison near Wokingham. REME are responsible for maintaining electrical and mechanical equipment in the British army, this includes everything from tanks and helicopters to dental tools. Whilst this might not sound the most exciting topic for kids the stand out feature for me was how family friendly they’ve made the museum.

Technology at REME!
Technology at REME!

On arrival the kids were given a map each and a feedback form for them to detail what they took part in, what they enjoyed and what bored them. I found this typical of the museum; they’ve thought hard about how to make it more interesting for children.

REME feedback form
REME feedback form

The museum exhibits included displays of uniforms, medals, armour, technology and general war memorabilia. I enjoyed the replica of the 1950s guard room, with details of the soldiers duties. Some parts of the museum are more interesting to adults rather than kids and without the additional activities I think the kids would have been finished in an hour. As it was, we spent about three hours on site and we only left as we had a swimming lesson to get to.

Activity station at REME
Activity station at REME

We visited the ‘Firepower’ event which ran during the half term holiday, but I can see from their website that they have events on most holidays. There were lots of small activity stations for the kids with word searches, colour in a Christmas card for a soldier, quizzes, make a rocket mouse and trails to complete.

The mini-assault course at REME
The mini-assault course at REME

One of the activities the kids most enjoyed was the mini assault course. This had a variety of obstacles including nets to climb over, tyres to run through and a paddling pool water feature! The kids were fitted with a helmet and jacket and encouraged around the course by a soldier. These were timed and at the end they received a certificate with their timing and some sweets. Although the mini assault course was a special holiday activity it looks like it runs several times throughout the year so worth keeping an eye out for.

They also took part in a marching drill. Most of the kids taking part got confused with the steps but they all seemed to enjoy it. I was really impressed with the young soldiers helping out with the activities. They were very friendly and helpful, even though I’m guessing this was not what they signed up for!

Vehicle room
Vehicle room

The best part of the museum, from the kids perspective, was the vehicle exhibition hall. This held vehicles associated with the Corps and had tanks, armoured vehicles and even a helicopter.  It also had the rear part of a Volkswagen Beetle that had been made into a sofa, which the kids thought was really cool.

Vehicle hall at REME
Vehicle hall at REME

The museum has a small onsite cafe offering a range of baguettes and sandwiches, drinks and cakes. Prices were very reasonable, with baguettes costing around £2.50, tea 90p and filter coffee £1.10 for a mug. The cafe was very busy and appeared to be a popular place for the soldiers as well as visitors.

Overall REME is an excellent museum to visit. To make the most of your day I’d definitely recommend choosing a day when they have additional family activities.  Visit soon though, as Arborfield Garrison (and the museum) are going to be relocated to RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire in the next couple of years.

More info:

  • Further details can be found on the REME website. The museum is closed on Saturdays and for a short period over the Christmas break.
  • Almost all of the museum is accessible to wheelchairs.
  • Activities are best suited to 5-12 year olds. The museum would have limited appeal for pre-school children.

Costs:

  • A family ticket (2 adults and up to 3 children) costs £15.  Children under 5 are free.

Roald Dahl museum, Great Missenden, Bucks

I had some reservations about visiting the Roald Dahl Museum as Trip Advisor reviews were split between those who really enjoyed the museum, and those who found it small and over-priced.  Added to this, I’ve never really been a fan of Roald Dahl’s books (am I the only one?) even though both my kids enjoy them.  However, as we were already in the area, it seemed a shame not to pop in and check for ourselves.

The Roald Dahl museum and Cafe Twit
The Roald Dahl museum and Cafe Twit

The kids started their visit with a Fizzlecrumper and Swishwiffler at Cafe Twit. They wouldn’t normally get to drink such sugary monstrosities (lemonade and coke with an ice cream float and sprinkles) but it seemed an appropriate treat. They loved them but they were way too sweet for me so I stuck to the coffee.

On to the museum. At the entrance the kids were given a story ideas book and a trail sheet. We were also given a map, and I picked up a village trail sheet for later exploration.

Inside the Roald Dahl museum
Inside the Roald Dahl museum

The Roald Dahl museum is small, with two main rooms dedicated to his life. The boy gallery detailed his early years at boarding school. I loved reading his letters home, detailing his love of chocolate. You can certainly understand some of his inspiration for ‘Charlie and the chocolate factory’.

The second room houses his writing hut. The kids enjoyed spotting and learning about the objects in his hut, particularly his ball made up of silver chocolate wrappers and part of his hip (from a hip replacement). However they didn’t really spend much time reading the rest of the exhibits, despite them being colourful and appealing to the eye.

The Story Centre at Roald Dahl museum
The Story Centre at Roald Dahl museum

The third room at the museum is the interactive Story Centre. This encourages kids to be creative, with dressing up clothes, art activities and magnetic words to create poems. The kids spent most of their time in here.

We also went to a short story time session, when one of the staff members read to the children. Whilst the rest of the museum was aimed at 6+ the story telling session actually seemed to be for younger children.

The museum offers great sounding workshops but you do need to book in advance. On the day of our visit they’d been decorating chocolate, but we weren’t organised enough to book beforehand and the workshops were full.

We had some time left after visiting the museum so followed the village trail. Roald lived in Great Missenden for 36 years and drew much inspiration from the area. The trail took us around parts of the village important to Roald and finally to the graveyard, where he is buried.

Roald Dahl's grave
Roald Dahl’s grave

There is a BFG footprint near to his grave which adds a note of fun. However, I felt that the pencils and museum leaflets left blowing around the grave, presumably as a tribute to Roald Dahl, made a bit of a mess.

You can also follow a countryside trail, which takes you on a walk through beech woods featured in his books. Both the village and countryside trails are available free of charge on the museum website.

Overall, I probably learnt more from the museum than either of my kids did. However, I generally prefer smaller museums which have a narrow focus, rather than ones which are so stuffed with exhibits that I just wander aimlessly past all of them.

Was it worth the admission fee? Mm, not sure.  The high admission cost is difficult to justify when other museums are free, but given its charitable status I can understand why the charges are there. Would I recommend it to others? Probably only if you were already in the area and had children of the right age, I wouldn’t make a special trip to visit.

More info

  • This museum is best suited to older primary school children who enjoy the Roald Dahl books.
  • As the museum is small it gets crowded pretty quickly so try and visit when other people are unlikely to.  We visited mid-afternoon on a sunny day, when most people were outside enjoying the sunshine. I would imagine that a wet day in the Easter holidays is the wrong time to visit!
  • The museum website details opening hours and workshops.
  • There is no parking at the museum, instead visitors are directed to a car park about 5 minutes walk away.

Costs

  • Entrance for adults is £6.60, for children £4.40 (under 5’s are free).  A family ticket is £21. Search for 2 for 1 voucher offers prior to arriving as there was a large sign on the door detailing all of the vouchers they accept.
  • Parking at the Link Road car park costs £1.80 for up to 3 hours on Mon-Sat, and is free on Sunday.