Our exploration of a modest chunk of southern England – Wiltshire, Somerset, Dorset, Dover – revealed a long, long list of things to do. The selection of family-friendly destinations seemed endless, from the mega-touristy to the hidden gems.
We loved Bath. We loved it so much the parental units dreamt of disappearing there for a few days sans kids for some rambling (yes, we admit to strong urges for some quiet time). But TeamBuss were in Bath for one important mission: the Roman Baths. Our kids are all huge fans of Horrible Histories and were raring to meet some ‘Rotten Romans’. The museum immersed us into a Roman world from start to end. We were all enthralled. Bug got talking to a trader who, after declaring us Barbarians from a far-flung land, tried to offload Portuguese urine for tooth brushing whilst enquiring of his slaves (us mums). Wisely, Bug declined on both counts.
Our second favourite destination was the SS Great Britain museum in Bristol. Wow. We had the place to ourselves and ran ragged for hours. It wasn’t just about the story of the ship, which is captivating, but the way the entire museum transported us back to the Victorian era. The world’s largest passenger ship of the time has been utterly and faithfully restored, and completed with realistic audio, aromas (wanted and unwanted) and dressed up dummies throughout – the latter positioned in places like the cabins, doctor surgery, captain’s room, animal stores and engine rooms and each so realistic in its depiction of vessel life it was all but overwhelming a couple of our kids. Somewhat relieved to be back up on deck, they were made part of the real-life sailor crew and happy to be given a strict lesson on scrubbing the boards.
The Cotswolds is one of England’s ‘Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ and it’s a sizeable area stretching from Bath in the south to Shakespeare’s Stratford-on-Avon in the north. It’s a tapestry of farms, woods and towns gracing the hills of Wiltshire. We merely scratched the surface of the southern Cotswolds in a single day trip, visiting jaw-dropping spots such as Castle Combe, Lacock (for history boffins and Harry Potter fans), Bradford-on-Avon and Malmesbury (for yet more ice cream).
It was stunning enough visiting in the depths of winter where a lack of sunshine can dull the hues of even the most scenic landscapes so it must be really something to enjoy an ale along the Avon River in summer and watching the canal boats glide by without the fear of frostbite taking a limb or two.
The major museums in London are free, but almost all attractions outside London are not and some are expensive when adding up for a family of five against the Australian dollar. We agonised over what we did and what we were prepared to pay for. At Cheddar Gorge, we researched the walking routes to find how we could climb safely to the top of the gorge without having to pay an exorbitant fee and opted against a paid visit to the limestone caves beneath.
A visit to Cholderton Farm was a costly mis-hit as many of the activities were closed over winter and there were limited animals on display (although the baby rabbits were super cute).
The Portland Bill Lighthouse and Weymouth Sealife visits were fantastic fun and worth every cent.
It’s the stuff we did outside the big ticket experiences that were ultimately worth their weight in gold. We explored farm shops, picking up cheese, milk and eggs, wrote a heap of postcards and walked them to the post box down the road that looked straight out of an historic movie, spent a wonderful morning enrolled at a home school session on British birds run by the Secret World animal refuge, searched for pirate graves at a hidden cemetery on Portland, and, most memorably, had a long convivial lunch with parents of friends and a couple of “epic” playdates with Bug’s Welsh friend Toby from primary school and his lovely family.
We avoided paid guided tours where possible as our kids don’t yet have the required attention span so, on a day trip to the magnificent Jurassic Coast, we visited the free and informative visitor centre at Charmouth instead of the Lyme Regis Fossil Museum and then fossicked around the beach ourselves for an hour or so before Squirt cut her foot on a rock (in a total repeat of Sydney) and Koala and Bug were drawn to the hot chip van like moths to a flame.
Travel times were longer than we had expected for relatively short distances, so we focussed mostly on one destination per day or half-day trip. To fully uncover all the wonders of this area – and probably any part of England – requires a genuine road trip, albeit a slow one. But just know that if you blindly plonk a finger on the map and stay put in just one place for a few days, there will be no shortage of stuff to do and see. And when its timed outside of weekends and school holidays, it will be minus the maddening crowds.