Treasure Trails: how I spent an afternoon outdoors with my husband and children and nobody cried

I have found the holy grail of the school holidays: how to entertain a family of four for the afternoon for under £10.  And I am claiming bonus points for it being outdoors and involving some mild exercise. Please pass my crown, because I am now the queen of parenting!

I am talking about Treasure Trails – hours of family fun solving clues as you tour local points of interest and discover hidden gems – and all for the bargain price of £6.99.  You just pick your trail, download and print the PDF, and you’re off.  We chose the London South Bank trail, starting and ending at Waterloo Station.

We started by reading our mission – we were in the Secret Service trying to stop the nefarious President of Vulgaria activating an encrypted file.  The children read out each clue and led the hunt to find and solve it, whilst Mr B and I strolled behind them enjoying the scenery.

One of the joys of the trail, is that it guides you past all the iconic buildings and sights of the South Bank, as well as highlighting interesting vistas and lesser known points of interest – like the graffiti tunnel (worth a visit in its own right) and the Royal Waterloo Hospital for Children and Women (no longer a hospital, but still an amazing building). And because you’re following a trail of clues, you notice things that normally you might walk past.  Even though I’ve been to the South Bank a few times, I felt like I must have spent the whole time walking round with my eyes shut.

 

Just as we were flagging, we arrived at the South Bank Centre and took a two minute detour from the river bank to the Food Market on the other side of the building for lunch (open Fridays to Mondays in the summer – check for other times of year).  Predictably, our children chose burgers, but Mr B and I had a thorough browse before picking more exotic choices.  If you have the time, this is a great place to explore interesting and delicious street food from around the world, but sadly this is not a pastime our children enjoy. *rolls eyes*

 

Although the trail is just under 2 miles of easy walking, we spent the best part of four hours on it, taking into account stopping for lunch and a reviving cup of tea en route. This particular part of London is tourist heaven, with landmark buildings and amazing views at every point, not to mention street artists – we saw an acrobatic act, live music, people pretending to be statues, and everything in between.

And as a small bonus, once you have solved every clue, you have the de-activation code, which you can submit to Treasure Trails to be entered in a monthly prize draw to win £100.  I’m not holding my breath, but it’s nice to be in with a chance!  In the meantime, we all enjoyed it so much that we are already planning to do the Temple and Fleet Street trail.

 

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PS Due to building works, clue 14 on this trail is behind some hoardings.  Luckily a security guard saw us and helped us out.  I’m not giving anything away, but this is what you’re looking for if it’s still covered up when you do the trail…

 

 

Top tips

My daughters are 9 and 11, which is a great age to enjoy hunting for and solving the clues.  But we were all getting a bit tired towards the end, so I would say you probably wouldn’t want to do it with any children much younger.

If you fancy the South Bank trail (and I highly recommend it), then you need to plan the best time for you.  If you love pushing through crowds, clutching your child’s hand so they don’t get swept into a sea of tourists, then a Saturday afternoon in August is the perfect time.  But if, like me, you prefer something a little more relaxed, maybe plan to do this trail at a quieter time!

If anyone needs the loo en route, you can always nip into the South Bank Centre, where the facilities are lovely and clean.  They also have a pleasant cafe on site, and if the weather is warm enough, you can sit outside.

If the South Bank is not for you, there are over 1,200 trails across the country, so it should be easy to pick a trail reasonably close to you.  Each trail is about 2 miles of easy walking taking you on a circular route.

Once on any of the trails, it’s difficult to plan when and where to eat, as you never know where you’re going.  If you know you need to eat whilst you’re out, I would recommend taking the opportunity when you get it. It also doesn’t hurt to pack a couple of snacks and a bottle of water to keep you going.

 

Dinosaur delight in south east London

It’s true I like dead people – some of my happiest days out have been spent in cemeteries – but I’ve never really been that interested in dead animals, or dinosaurs to be more specific.  So I really wasn’t expecting Dinosaurs in the Wild to be quite so much fun for adults and children alike.

If you like your entertainment to be immersive, then this is for you.  The central idea is that a company called Chronotex has invented time travel and are now taking tourists back 67 million years to their dinosaur research facility in Montana.  I loved the careful detail with which everything has been planned and executed, from the realistic laboratory set-up, to the fridges filled with samples, to the scientific notes casually left open on a desk.  In fact, it was so realistic, that my 9 year old decided to hold my hand for some of the more ‘wild’ bits of it.  In contrast, my eleven year old (no previous interest in dinosaurs) and her friend (a dinosaur officionado) were desperate to ditch the mums and tour around on their own.  And, given how well-managed it is, they were pretty much able to do so.

IMG_6648.JPGAs you move through the tour of the facility there is a mix of dinosaur models, animatronix and 3D films, which ensures you never get complacent about what you are seeing.  In each lab or zone there is a member of Chronotex’s team talking about their work, which includes everything from incubating dinosaur eggs to conducting dinosaur autopsies.  There are interactive parts (like putting on gloves and sifting through dinosaur poo) and the opportunity to ask questions and engage with the ‘scientists’ at every stage.  I have read elsewhere that the information they present is accurate and incorporates up-to-date information from recent scientific studies, which doesn’t surprise me given the level detail that is everywhere you look.

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This is how Chronotex have mastered time travel

There is so much to watch, listen to, read and do, that there’s no time to get bored and the tour guide keeps up the pace, moving you from one zone to the next.  If anything, we could have spent longer soaking it all up.

I also want to give a mention to how fantastic all the staff were.  It wasn’t just all the actors playing out their roles, but everyone from the man on the door to the lady in the cloakroom finding our coats, everyone was friendly, welcoming and helpful.

It is such a unique experience that the kids and I were talking about it for ages afterwards.  I thoroughly recommend it for children, adults, dinosaur lovers and cemetery geeks (me) alike!

Prices

I’ve got to be honest, it is quite expensive for something that only takes about an hour and a half (£26 for a child and £95 for a family of 2 children and 2 adults), but, although there is a shop at the end, there is no real push to sell you merchandise that so often bumps up the cost of taking children out. If there are any special offers, other than for groups and schools etc, I couldn’t find them.

Booking

Dinosaurs in the wild is on until 31st July, and tours run from 9.30am til 4.30pm Tuesday to Sunday.  You can book a date and time slot to suit on-line depending on availability.  Find out more

Getting there

Dinosaurs in the Wild is on Greenwich Peninsula, a ten minute walk from the O2 and North Greenwich underground on the Jubilee Line.  It is on a number of bus routes.  Find out more.

Cemeteries

If you’ve read all this, and still think you’d rather go to a cemetery, why not read my blog about Nunhead and Highgate Cemeteries, or my blog about Brompton.  Or follow my blog, because I’ve recently been to Kensal Green cemetery and I’ve got to tell you it was awesome!

Review: Indoors and educational – we love the Science Museum

You live in London, it’s the school holidays and it’s raining.  Every parent knows that this is a terrible combination.  Because unless you find something for the kids to do, your little angels will spend the entire day trying to (a) kill each other or (b) demolish your home.  In the worst case scenario, they may even do both.

science logoWhich is why I was particularly pleased with myself when I came up with the plan to take them to the Science Museum.  It is indoors, it is entertaining and it educational.  That is like the holy grail of parenting!  And the good news is that kids (or at least, my kids) even like all the boring train and tube travel it takes to get there.

The first thing to mention about the Science Museum is that it is completely free to enter, although there are some things you pay for such as the Wonderlab and Imax Cinema (more of which later).  There is a sign asking for donations, but the woman on the desk as we came in looked absolutely stunned when we made one, so I guess not that many people do, although it’s such a great resource that – if you’re not going to any of the paid exhibits – it seems only fair to make some sort of contribution.

On arrival, we hurried straight up to the Wonderlab on the third floor (I say hurried, but the lift was broken, so huffed and puffed would probably be more accurate).  This space is designed for young people to get real hands on experience of science, watch live experiments and listen to talks. Judging from the age ranges there, I would say it would appeal to kids from about 4 to 13 or 14.  We paid £28 for a family of four for the day (umlimited entry and exit), but if you think you’ll go more than once, it’s definitely worth getting an annual pass.

science julieAmongst other things we did in the Wonderlab, we explored the colour room (learning about the impact different coloured light has on how we perceive the colour of objects).  The girls raced each other for who could pull themselves up a rope the fastest using a pulley system.  We all had a go on the friction slides (verdict: astro-turf makes the slowest slide, and the wooden slide goes so fast it made mummy scream).  We watched dry ice whizzing over the surface of water as it dissolved, and we went to a talk about rockets.  The kids thought the talk was the highlight and I was amazed and to hear my 11-year-old talking to granny about Newton’s first and second law the next day, so I guess she genuinely learnt something.

After about two hours, it started to feel a bit relentless, so we dipped out and went for lunch.  The kids wanted to stay longer, and we could easily have gone back after lunch and there would have been plenty more to see and do.

For lunch we eschewed the pleasant looking, well-lit Energy Café which serves all the kinds of food you would expect (hot and cold dishes, pizza, salads and sandwiches) and instead went to the Deep Blue Diner.  Unfortunately this was not a good choice.  The main source of light in the diner was the light-up tables, which made me feel slightly headachy and snow-blind.  The service was slow, the portions were small, and none of us felt like the food was great.  Next time we will definitely go to the Energy Café instead.

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Under the Sea in 3D at the Imax Cinema

After lunch we went to the Imax Cinema.  This is where things start to get expensive, as a family ticket was £23.  We saw Under the Sea, a 3D movie about different sea creatures and the impact of the modern world on their environment.  I’ve never been to a 3D movie before, so I jumped a couple of times as eels darted out of the screen to eat their prey, and I had to resist the urge to put my hand out and try to touch some of the creatures as they floated serenely towards me.

After the movie we visited the Exploring Space gallery as the kids were all fired up about rockets following the talk earlier.  There are some amazing artefacts, including a re-entry capsule from one of the Apollo missions to the moon, but we were all definitely flagging at this point.

We stopped for a reviving cup of tea and slice of cake at the Energy Café, before heading back out into the rain and home on the tube.  I am not sure how, but we seemed to have passed an entire day at the Science Museum, we all enjoyed it and the children even learnt stuff.

The trip was such a success that I am sure we will go back (I wish we’d bought the annual pass to the Wonderlab!) and next time I will plan specific galleries to look at.  I’m really keen to see the Winton Gallery – not only to explore mathematics, but just to see the incredible space designed by Zaha Hadid Architects.  I’d also really like to see the exhibition Wounded about the medical and human impact of the First World War.  And if there’s time, I’d also like to squeeze in the Challenge of Materials, which includes a steel wedding dress (no irony intended).  In fact, next time, maybe I’ll take a friend instead of the children because it’s packed with stuff I want to see, and then I can be completely selfish and I won’t have to share my cake either.

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The Winton Gallery – made for maths enthusiasts

A couple of practical notes

  • Travel: The Science Museum is on Exhibition Road (as are the Victoria and Albert Museum and Natural History Museum) and is a short walk from South Kensington Tube.
  • Prices: The museum is free to enter and you could easily lose yourself in the galleries for the day, but you do have to pay for the Wonderlab, Imax Cinema and certain exhibitions.  Check the website for details.
  • Eating: There are a series of different cafes, but there are also a couple of picnic areas where you can sit down and eat your own food if you fancy taking a packed lunch.
  • When to go: The museum is open daily (apart from 24th – 26th December) from 10am to 6pm.  We arrived at the Wonderlab at about 11am and walked straight in, but the website does warn that there may be a queue of up to 90 minutes at peak times.

Review: Everything you need to know about KidZania

The blurb about KidZania says it is ‘a real life role play experience for 4-14 year olds, blending learning and reality with entertainment.’   My fabulous friend Sarah and I are always looking for great days out to entertain our children, so we took our four girls aged between 7 and 9 on a weekday afternoon to find out what it’s all about…

How safe is it?

Once you arrive, the first thing to mention is how safe it is.  The children and their accompanying adult(s) all wear an electronic wrist band that can’t be taken off, and the children can only leave with the adult they came with.  Because it’s so safe, you can go round with your children, but you can also give them the freedom to explore on their own, or even drop them off and go shopping in Westfield (if they’re over 8).

What happens in KidZania?

Inside, it is like a child-size shopping centre built within a real shopping centre – the difference being that it’s kept really clean, and all the staff are super helpful.  There are a series of shop-fronts, with different activities happening in each shop.  There about 60 real-life roles the children can do, from reporter to fashion model, and the guide says kids normally complete 4-6 roles.  Each role takes between 10 and 20 minutes, and they run continuously.  If an activity has already started when you get there, you just join the queue for the next session.  We went from 3-7pm on a weekday and there were no real queues for anything, but a friend who went at midday told me the queues were up to 45 minutes for popular activities.  Our children managed to do seven roles and were more than happy with that, again the friend who went at a busier time told me her children only managed to do three.

Most of the roles have a genuinely educational element – training to be an airline pilot courtesy of British Airways or learning about clothes recycling with H&M stand out – but our children had no idea they were learning anything, they were just really having fun.

kidzania firemenOnly children are allowed into the activities and adults who choose to stick around can watch through big shop windows.  We went to the first couple of activities with our kids, but they couldn’t ditch us soon enough, so we showed them where the adult lounge was and told them to come and get us if they needed anything (they didn’t).

If you decide to let your children roam free, the wrist bands track them, so anxious parents can use information kiosks around the City to see which activity their child last checked into and even to send messages, but we didn’t bother.

The adult lounge is actually surprisingly pleasant, and whilst more expensive than a cup of tea at home, not shockingly priced for this kind of place (a cup of earl grey tea was £2).  As well as a selection of cakes and pastries, I was surprised to see they served alcohol.  Whilst we were there one daddy had a quiet glass of wine, and there were two mummies who knocked back several beers before heading out to find their children.  The lounge was also noticeably empty, which makes me think that a lot of parents had taken the option of checking their children in and then going shopping!

KidZania has its own currency (Kidzos) and children get a small number to start with.  For each activity the children either get paid (e.g. working in the clothes recycling centre) or need to pay (e.g. the chocolate factory).  Not only do they need to ‘balance their books’ during their visit (hurrah for secretly making them do maths!) but there is a Department Store, where they can spend any left-over Kidzos at the end of your visit. This meant our children weren’t worried about browsing in the gift shop at the end – they’d already the done their shopping.

After four hours the children can no longer participate in the activities, but you can stay in KidZania and browse the Department Store, eat, or just stroll around.  As we started at 3, after a bit of a browse, we eventually left at 7.30. Our kids were absolutely buzzing, but needed feeding straight away.

What does it cost?

The cost during weekends and holidays is £32 for kids and £16.50 for adults, but ticket combinations including family tickets are available – check the website for up-to-date details of the options and prices.  When we left we also got vouchers for free adult entry, so if we decide to go again we will only be paying for the children.

Although there are a couple of places you can stop for a snack, or even a meal, and these take real money, it is really noticeable there is not a constant demand to pay for little extras.  There are even water fountains so everyone can stay hydrated without needing to buy drinks.

There is a professional photographer going round and the photos are quite expensive when you get to the end – £12 for a single photo.  Although, in fairness, we got charged £50 (the most expensive package) for all the photos of our four children, rather than being charged separately for each family or even each child.  I’d still be surprised if many people buy them at that price.

Would we go back?

Our kids are already talking about activities they missed and want to do next time, including being in the police force and fire service. So yes, I would say we’re definitely going back.

SUMMARY

  • It’s really safe, so you can keep as close an eye on your children as you want or leave them to enjoy the freedom and independence of exploring on their own.
  • The children absolutely loved it, didn’t notice that they were learning(!), and were still enjoying it at the end of the four hours.  I would say our children – aged 7 to 9 – were the perfect age to get the most out of it.
  • The price you pay at the door is all it needs to cost you, there is no need to spend anything once you get in there – in fact the only things you can spend real money on are food (if you want it), photographs, and the gift shop when you leave.  For this reason I would say it’s good value.

 

How to get there

It’s based in Westfield Shopping Centre in West London, which is really well connected by public transport, particularly by tube.  It’s actually very close to four tube stations: Shepherds Bush and White City on the Central Line and Wood Lane and Shepherd’s Bush Market on the Hammersmith and City Line.  I would say it’s a six or seven minute walk to Westfield with kids from each – a bonus since at least one of mine moans incessantly about any walking at all.

The photo at the top comes from an article in the Standard about Kidzania.