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.

Is it weird to love cemeteries?

We’ve been at it again, me and my good friend Devon.  Stalking the dead.  This time we’ve been visiting Brompton Cemetery, where the dearly departed of West London are interred.  What could be more joyful on a crisp December morning than stepping amongst the tombs of those who have been loved and lost and reading inscriptions about their lives?

Brompton is one of the Magnificent Seven – the fabulously-named ring of ‘garden cemeteries’ built in the late Georgian and early Victorian period to relieve the pressure on London’s crowded ancient churchyards.  And for keen cemetery-visitors like Dev and myself, it does not disappoint.

It is positively bijoux compared to vast Highgate Cemetery and rambling Nunhead.  The well-maintained graves are packed tightly together like a giant game of dominoes, as if with a mighty push you could send a ripple of falling tombstones that would run all the way round the cemetery.  I like my graveyards densely packed – all the better for seeing as many dead people as possible in the time you have available.

bromptonBrompton has some fancy mausoleums and some simple haeadstones, and at the southern end is a rather beautiful chapel – built at vast expense and nearly bankrupting its investors – which looks like a mini-version of the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford.  And who doesn’t love the Radcliffe Camera?

For those who enjoy variety, Brompton’s inhabitants represent a good mix of the famous, the slightly well-known and people who were possibly somebody at the time, but are now quite forgotten.  I always find it strange to think everyone who knew or cared about someone is dead, yet here I am reading about their lives a hundred years later.

Here’s some of the highlights from mine and Dev’s latest outing…

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To live in the heart of those we love is not to die

This tombstone is not damaged, it was designed like this.  I think its solid simplicity speaks volumes about the General.  Clearly Bill was a man of few words and no messing.  I respect that about him.

The same can’t be said of the next lady:

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To the memory of Blanche Roosevelt Macchetta… By her brilliant accomplishments and rare graces of mind and person she gave distinction in the world of literature and art to the name of Blanche Roosevelt.

I can’t help feeling she might have written that eulogy herself, although in fairness she has her own page on Wikipedia, so maybe I’m too cynical…

I do love a Latin inscription, particularly if it’s a mosaic.  This little beauty is on the floor of the family vault of Herbert Fitch.

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Deeds not words!

Other members of the family buried in the vault get little more than their names and ages, but the eldest son gets a poem:

Come unexpectedly! Give me no warning.

But in a brighter land, bid me ‘Good Morning!’

Rather lovely, I think.

I think the gates below look like they come from the film set for Cleopatra, but they are actually the entrance to the catacombs – I’m not sure whether the snakes are there to keep visitors out, or the dead in!

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The next lady gets a lovely inscription, although I can’t help feeling that the author (her husaband) had obviously run the poor woman ragged.

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In loving memory of my beloved wife Elizabeth Baker… who was a charming companion, a helpmate under all difficulties, a comforter in sorrow, a true wife and sincere friend and now alas the most blessed memory of mine age.

The inscription on the grave below is in Russian so I’ve no idea what it says.  I am filling in the blanks by imagining that she is a Russian aristocrat who fled her homeland during the Russian revolution.  Feel free to investigate and correct me.

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Sadly, despite being quite large, the monument below doesn’t take a good picture – and for some reason the statues around it are all headless.  But I love the idea that the community were so swelled with pride at Robert’s rowing achievements that they all chipped in to give him a good send off.

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This monument was erected by public subscription by the warm friends and admirers of Robert Coombes, champion sculler of the Thames and Tyne.

Rumours abound that this Egyptian-style mausoleum is, in fact, a working time machine.  And I don’t see why it shouldn’t be, since it looks very much like it might be a Tardis.  Although no-one let me in when I knocked…

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Mausoleum of Hannah Courtoy who conveniently inherited a fortune from her husband and invested it in this lovely monument to herself (and her daughters).

And lastly, a nod to science:

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To John Snow MD. Born at York March 15th 1813, died in London June 16th 1858.  In remembrance of his great labours in science, of the excellence of his private life and character.  This monument (with the assent of Mr William Snow) has been erected over his grave by his professional brethren and friends.

I’ve included John Snow because I once watched a very interesting documentary about him, and I thought it would be selfish to keep my learning to myself.  By mapping cases of cholera, Snow was able to demonstrate that they clustered around water pumps, showing that it was water-borne, and not caught by breathing ‘foul air’.  His systematic approach (i.e. using evidence, instead of making stuff up), means he is often cited as the founder of epidemiology. Go John Snow!

Hungry for more stuff about cemeteries, but don’t know where to get it?  Why not read my exciting blog about Highgate and Nunhead.  It’s got all of the fun of Brompton but less of the photos – enjoy!

 

Getting to Brompton Cemetery

The nearest London Underground & Overground station is West Brompton (District Line, Wimbledon branch, and London Overground): turn right out of the station, and the North Gate and Lodges are within two minutes’ walk.

Earl’s Court Station (Piccadilly and District Lines) is within ten minutes’ walk to the north: turn left out of the Warwick Road entrance and walk south along Warwick Road to Old Brompton Road.

Find out more about the Cemetery on the Friends of Brompton Cemetery website.

Let’s All Dance delivers a Christmas ballet at family-friendly prices

It’s not that I don’t like ballet – I absolutely do – it’s just that I don’t really want to pay upwards of £25 a ticket (and upwards of £102 on some days) if I want to see English National Ballet’s Nutcracker this Christmas.  So it’s lucky that Granny loves ballet and has diligently investigated more affordable ways to see it (thank you, Granny).

As a result, on Saturday we took my two daughters to see Let’s All Dance‘s performance of The Nutcracker at Blackheath Halls, for the bargain price of £14 for my ticket, and only £10 a ticket for Granny and the kids.

Let’s All Dance’s website describes their version as ‘kid-size’ and I would agree. Not only is it shorter than the full ballet – reflecting a younger audience’s ability to concentrate – but the small venue means that everyone is close to the stage and can clearly see the dancers – no fancy opera binoculars needed here!

Using all the original music, and with very simple staging, they beautifully recreated the ballet. There are only six dancers, but I actually enjoyed the simplicity of it, as it makes you really appreciate each dancer’s every move.  It certainly kept the young audience captivated (virtually every other chair had a little person in it sitting quietly and staring at the stage).  Although, I have to say, my favourite parts were the set pieces with all six dancers on the stage.

Afterwards there is an opportunity to have your photo taken with the dancers, which is a lovely way to get the children involved.

There are more performances still to come at other local venues (see their website for details), and I was sufficiently impressed that I picked up a flyer about other ballets Lets All Dance will be performing in 2018.

Family-friendly prices, intimate venues, and performance tailored to a younger audience – that’s ticking my boxes!