Summer holidays are in full swing and holiday camps are a go-go, but are you tired of the same old playgrounds and farm parks? Want to escape with your family to somewhere a little more wild, but just as fun? From shady woodland to sandy beaches, we review some of the top spots to get outdoors in Surrey and go wild with your family.
So long summer! You left so soon, like an affronted guest forced to sit next to boring uncle Albert at the wedding party.
But while you partied, we joined in. Though we nearly forgot. This trip down to the beach, and our first and only, took place a couple of weeks ago, just as we realised your swan song was near.
Littlehampton appears to be one of the nearest sandy beaches to where I live, hence the visit there. Freddie has not been to a sandy beach before. He took a while to warm up, unsure of what on earth seaweed was, and what this strange yellowy squishy stuff was beneath his feet. But then he loved it. He became more adventurous in the water too, going deeper into the waves then rushing back as the water came in – lovely to watch.
Unfortunately Littlehampton doesn’t have much else going for it other than it’s beautiful beach. An air of provincial despair seems to hang around the town, and even blows down to the seafront at times.
A small motor railway trundles up and down the seafront carrying miserable-looking grandparents and toddlers. I was probably that miserable-looking mother that they talked about when they got home and bitched about their day.
I lie. One other saviour of Littlehampton is the East Beach Cafe, a piece of architectural delight. Freddie and I sat outside with a plate of chips fending off seagulls and watching the sea. East Beach Cafe was designed and built locally. All the food is local. However it feels like a beached whale here – it should be happier somewhere like Cape Cod or Newquay. Sorry Littlehampton.
Summers are for the beach, but next year we’ll be partying at some other seaside.
Hmm Mayfield Lavender Farm wasn’t really that suitable for taking an 18 month to, and trying to take pictures of. I had to rescue him every five seconds from trying to pick up bumblebees. Plus he was more interested in picking up stones in the car park than looking at all the pretty fields and imagining he was in rural France and not on the outskirts of Croydon.
And he had a paddy after about 10 minutes as he just.wanted.to.be.picked.up. (I know I will miss this when he’s older, and I do secretly like that I am Number One Mummy at the moment, but it would also be nice to be able to DO THINGS WITH TWO HANDS once in a while). But go with two people and it would be a different story. Or go if your mini me is younger or older than mine.
The farm is quite small (25 acres) so it won’t take long to wander around and take some arty shots. There’s a cafe and small outdoor shop at the entrance. Across the road there is also an entrance to The Oaks Park to let small people stretch their legs a bit more. There’s unfortunately no playground, but there are a lot of dogs. And quite a lot of poo. Which reminded me even more of being in Croydon. Sorry Croydon (not sorry).
PS If you don’t want to go to Surrey there is also a farm in Kent. July/August is the time of year to go and see the lavender in full bloom.
Greenwich is a town that doesn’t like to think it’s in London. It is a place in its own right. It has a university, the river, a park, the navel college, the observatory, shops, the arena, the maritime museum, a ship, and even a foot tunnel and fan museum. It’s the centre of the world! Literally.
There is too much to fit everything into one day. If you have children, the park is obviously going to be a hit. Greenwich Park, one of the capital’s eight Royal Parks, dates back to Roman times but will be encapsulated in younger people’s hearts as that view from the behind of a horse’s rump as he jumps through a moon towards the Canary Wharf during the 2012 Olympics.
Even on a non Olympic day the views are outstanding. From the mighty HSBC tower over to St Paul’s with the Queen’s House and the Thames holding fort, it’s one for all to enjoy.
Other than the view, the Park has lots to offer. There’s the observatory of course, but also it’s home to both red and fallow deer plus there are lots of different “types” of parkland to explore – including a fruit and vegetable section, formal gardens, more wild areas and acres of pure grassland for the kids to run around in. Greenwich Park is 180 acres so there is plenty of space but not so much that you couldn’t explore all of it. The borough also kindly puts on family friendly activities like minibeast hunts or a Sunday afternoon jazz concert.
We chose to go to the National Maritime Museum as well. Maybe we went on a bad day twice, but I wouldn’t recommend the cafe there. It is so busy and crowded. Be savvy and go somewhere Greenwich central instead, or take a picnic to the park before you visit the museum.
After our miserable lunch we mooched around the museum showing Freddie lots of things he found interesting, though at 10 months old anything is pretty interesting really. I love this age. Not mobile usually, and pretty content to be taken to most places, with not so much effort to put in with naps and milk and what not. Freddie loved the open plan first floor most of all, which has a huge world map pasted onto the floor. Also this fab children’s gallery is now open, which looks great fun, and it markets it for 0-7 year olds so babies should have a good time too.
Greenwich is really easy to get to. It’s on the tube (Jubilee to North Greenwich then a bus), DLR (Cutty Sark) and overground from London Bridge. We drove from our house and parked in a car park in the centre (easy early am but does get busy later on). Parking is also available in the park.
Though we didn’t have time, other family-friendly things to do in Greenwich include under 5s activities on the Cutty Sark (free for littlys too), a planeterium show for children at the observatory, Mudchute city farm (a bit of a walk under the foot tunnel mind) and a trip on the cable car
Who needs the rest of London when Greenwich has all this. It really is the centre of everything.
I do apologise for the not so great quality of the pictures I post on here. I vaguely knew I wanted to start a blog about all this, and imagined all the arty, lifestyley shots I would take, but the reality has been a little different.
For a start I often forget my camera so have to rely on my iphone. The amount of stuff you have to cart around with you when you have a small person is jokes. Half an hour down the road I think CAMERA! CRAP! But it’s too late by then.
Then when I do remember the camera I never have my hands free. Or the wrong lens is attached. Or I am messing around with the aperture and whatnot then his nibs starts whinging. Or I am half lugging buggerlugs, or change bag, or looking at a map, or holding an umbrella. Or generally just trying to manage being out and about on my own with a small person, which is doable, but is hard work. So I hope to improve in the future, but it’s a work in progress for now.
A while back I drove up to Dulwich village. Very easy with a sat nav. Parking is easy too. Dulwich Park. Loads of spaces. Free. On my agenda was the park, the village, the art gallery, and if I only did one of these things I would be happy. Often with a small person, I find you have to scale back your expectations. Pre Fred I was so used to dashing round at a million miles an hour getting this and that done and forgoing a lunch here and there to fit it all in. You can’t do that with a baby. You have to work around them. You have to think about timings and naps and food and forward plan it all. Well I do. And that’s fine too. It just means that maybe you won’t see or do as much as before, but maybe you will see a different side to things, or visit places you wouldn’t have done without children. And I love that.
We walked around Dulwich Park and admired the ducks in the pond before stopping at the Pavilion cafe in the park. This cafe is great for babies and toddlers. Loads of buggy-maneuvering room, child-friendly meals, and even a small play area with some toys and books.
I’ve been to the village before but I didn’t really remember it, other than it was quite pretty and villagey. In fact, it still it, but there isn’t much there really. A few gift shops and trendy cafes and estate agents. I think I’ve been spoilt by living in the greatest place in London ever (Crouch End but you knew that right?).
But Dulwich does have an art gallery. Small but perfectly formed. Freddie fell asleep just as I got there, which was good news. He’s the type of baby that you have to keep moving with all the time. Does anyone else have this trouble? In supermarkets, it’s like some kind of trolley dash. No stopping allowed.
I could have spent this time taking better pictures, but instead I decided to join my son in having a doze. Sorry Dulwich!
Petworth is the antiques heart of Sussex (can you tell I like antique rummaging yet?) It’s also a beautiful small town that has the added bonus of the National Trust’s Petworth Park on its doorstep; a park that seems even grander than Richmond Park.
We visited when the little guy was about 10 months old. I know this as it was mid autumn and a glorious vest and shorts day. Days like this are even better than hot summer days I think, as they are unexpected. I remember sitting lazily in the sunlit gardens at Petworth Park, Freddie content, and thinking ‘this is what happy feels like’.
To earn my rest I trogged round the shops with Freddie in a sling. I managed about an hour before he became too heavy (I’ve always wondered how people manage toddlers in slings? Please tell me the trick. I’ve always wanted to be that mum who carries their kid not pushed them, without success). I would suggest (now that Freddie is a very active 18 month old) that a trip to Petworth shops is only really doable with a immobile baby.
Petworth is an upmarket place. I realised this as soon as I saw the first price tag of £500. Hmm don’t think I’ll be bringing much back. But it’s enjoyable all the same and the stuff for sale is good for inspiration. Plus most of the shopkeepers loved Freddie and he seemed pretty happy to be nosing around too!
I unfortunately didn’t take many pictures (too intimidated!) but here is a list of the key shops.
You can walk round in an hour no problem. There are also some fab places to eat, though we chose to have a picnic in the park.
Back to the park…(and this place is GREAT for older children) as we all know National Trust is a beacon to parents across the land. Even without all the extra kid friendly stuff they put on, just having some safe outdoor green space to run around is worth paying the membership for. Freddie was too young to enjoy the NT for himself at this point so it was a selfish visit for moi.
The park consists of formal gardens and a 700 acre deer park. It was the deer park that captured my heart, probably partly to do with the weather being so blooming glorious for October. Sublime rolling hills as far as the eye could see with a backdrop of Petworth House – a massive 17th century mansion. For the green fingered out there, the gardens were fashioned by Capability Brown. And for the artists, Turner then immortalized these gardens into his famous paintings. If you have time to go inside the mansion, you would also be rewarded with an epic collection of art from Turner, Blake, Reynolds and van Dyck.
Coming here made me realise how much there is going on culturally outside of London. Yes, you may to look for it and drive here there and everywhere, but it’s oh so rewarding when you find somewhere special like Petworth.
Who needs soft play?
Box Hill isn’t all bikes and lycra you know. It has an amazing natural play trail that follows two mile’s worth of wooded path. At the beginning there’s a natural play area with carved out trees to run through and wooden boulders to climb. Further on, there are dens made out of branches to explore and build up further, and a wooden bridge to clamber across. Finish up with a play and a picnic in the meadow that overlooks the view of the surrounding countryside.
Even without all the magic wooded play stuff created by the National Trust, woods are ace for kids (and even babies) to play in and explore. Freddie was as absorbed in stacked stones as he ever is in lego, and as happy collecting and sorting sticks as he would be in plastic stacking cups.
And Box Hill also has loads of meadow space to have a picnic and let kids run wild a bit. There’s a handy car park at the top of zig zag road (love that name) with a cafe, shop and toilets.
Freddie and I have visited Box Hill a lot since we moved out to the Surrey Hills. I like the buzz around it. I don’t know if it was so popular before the 2012 Olympics but it’s always busy now, and there are always lots of MAMILs (middle aged men in lycra) about as well as the usual National Trust suspects (read many families and larger percentage of grey-haired folk) so it’s a lively mix of people. I like going as it reminds me a bit of being in London. That sounds silly but it’s the vibe about the place. It’s full of promise, and feels like a place where things happen, even though it’s deep in the countryside. If I’m feeling a bit lonely I like coming here as you always end up having a chat with a friendly dog walker or mother. Nothing being than a walk in the woods, admiring the view and settling down for a cup of tea and a bit of cake to raise the soul.
It started off so badly. Buggerlugs is wailing (though this is probably more to do with what I have dressed him in than anything else) and the name of the place is a bit How’s Your Father.
But it’s really lovely here! A grower though, not a wham bam oh my god this place is AMAZING type of place. Walking here most weeks has almost changed my mind about living out here. Almost.
Titsey is a private estate consisting of house, gardens and woodland walks. I’ve not yet paid to go into the house and gardens, I’ve just used the tea shop and been on the walks as they are both free. The tea shop is ace for buggies. It’s a huge conservatory. Nice and bright and accessible. And the cakes are really good. There is loads of outside space as well but it’s not so great for toddlers as it backs onto the car park and driveway in and out of the park. Unfortunately the cafe doesn’t do sandwiches. Nor does it open all the time. Only Wed, Sat and Sun 1-5. I’ll take a picture soon and post it.
The walks are challenging in places as they cut up (and down) the North Downs. You can park in a number of places – either at the bottom of the driveway from Water Lane (sat nav RH80SA), by the house, or at the top of the Downs just off the junction between Pitchfont Lane and The Ridge (sat nav RH80HD).
The walks are definitely more of a rucksack option (or if your children are older they can walk too). There are lots of paths cutting through the woodland on the Downs. It’s so pretty, ghostly even, and you would never know the M25 is mere metres away. Big smiles around.
Ah well this could have gone horribly wrong but it turned out okay in the end. Don’t you hate it when you have it all planned out in your head. “Yes, he’ll fall asleep in the car on the way there, nice half an hour nap so he’ll be in a good mood for when we get there, we can have some lunch and not rush, and get back before he nods off for his afternoon nap so I can
enjoy lazing on the sofa watching Made in Chelsea and eating biscuits catch up on all the housework.”
But instead it turns out that he looks as if he may fall asleep any moment, so you carry on driving past the entrance but those slitty eyes carry on pee-poing at you for a good half hour later so you think fuck it let’s just go in I’m running out of petrol anyway. So you go in and you’ve actually come to the wrong place and it has started to rain and the little guy starts to whinge. So you get back in the car and try to find the right place, but you can’t find it so you think sod this let’s go, but you then drive past the entrance, so with a screaming baby in the back you think it can’t get any worse and you turn around and go in.
Hallelujah Coolings we found you!
So that was our journey to Coolings Garden Centre. We didn’t really go for the garden centre. We went for the nature trail and cafe. Freddie is having a love in with animals at the moment. It’s more of the dog and cat variety but he’s not too fussy. Coolings has Wallabies! Sheep! Pigs! Goats! Chickens! Geese! Ducks! Plus a buggy-friendly nature trail that takes a toddler walking in random directions about an hour to walk around. All this plus a really spacious cafe with lots of kiddie meals and a baby change facility. You can either pay £14 for the year or £3.50 per visit (under fives go free).
Freddie cheered up wandering around the nature trail. I cheered up after I’d had a cup of coffee and a fat slice of chocolate cake.
Richmond Park is pretty much up there as one of my favourite places of all time. I used to come here in my young, free and single days to do loops of the park (I’m an avid runner). Over the years I’ve spotted a celeb or two here too – Nell McAndrew, Andrew Marr, Ben Shepherd plus many gazelle-like Kenyan athletes effortlessly bounding past me. I’ve got so many lovely memories of the park – all linked to running – so when I was first able to come back here with Freddie I was in my element.I wasn’t in a very good place when Freddie was young. I missed London. I missed my freedom and I missed running. We moved out of London just before Freddie was born. In hindsight that was a mistake. I found having a baby almost too overwhelming at times. I felt like I had been hit by a truck but had to carry on as normal as there was no alternative. I don’t think I was suffering from post natal depression but I wasn’t far off it. Some people find the newborn months an absolute breeze. I hated them. I loved Freddie. I just felt completely out of my depth and panicked. That combined with living in a strange, unknown place made for a horrible time, when I happily thought a few months before, it was going to be the best of my life. Just goes to show things are never what you seem. Anyway, getting out of the house on a daily basis was essential for me to maintain any level of sanity on maternity leave. Even better if it was to one of my all time favourite places.
We bought a running buggy when Freddie was four months old. Richmond Park is an ideal spot to go running with a buggy as there is offroad gravelly trail all the way around the edge of the park. Plus there are toilets and cafes en route so it’s a lovely way to spend a few hours with a baby out in the greenery but with facilities to hand. It’s really easy to park there on a weekday, and it’s free too! I felt so free again being able to go running in Richmond Park, but with Freddie. I guess one of the hardest things I found about the newborn stage is that you are a little like a prisoner. You are tied to this vulnerable person 24/7. They need you on call day and night. I think I went for a very short jog around six weeks after Freddie arrived, but didn’t really manage much till he was around four months old. You are tired, your pelvic floor muscles aren’t what they were, you have no time to go to the loo or drink a cup of tea, let alone go for a run! Which made this trip all the more exciting as I felt like the old me again, just with my new best friend and sidekick tagging along!