Updated: Jul 24
I haven’t written a blog post in forever. And actually didn’t intend to write one now as I am currently mid website rebrand and build for September (yep you heard it here first... things will look a different round here soon).
But, inspired by a few of our recent family day trips, a handful of you have asked that I pull together a selection of easy family days out which would be suitable for this summer, taking into account COVID-19 advice and restrictions (for this reason they are all outside). I thought a blog post was the best place to pop them (although I did love my friend Anna’s idea that “a post-it note would do”).
As is the case for many people, lockdown gave us time to really assess what it is we enjoy doing as a family and what’s important to us. We realised that some of the best holidays we’ve had since having the kids were when we’ve rented a car and an Airbnb and just headed off each morning for a little adventure and to explore somewhere new. Sunloungers and late nights with young kids in tow just don’t cut it any more. As lockdown started to lift and it was deemed safe to be outside we realised that there were so many brilliant places not a million miles away from where we live to explore, so off we trotted.
Many of the places on this list are free, some take advantage of having a membership (for example National Trust, RHS or WWT), and a few are more “treat” days which require purchasing tickets for, often in advance. I am listing them from the perspective of driving to them from where we live in South West London. While some can certainly be reached by public transport, we do rely heavily on our car to make day trips work for us.
The other thing to consider is the age of your children and how flexible you/ they are with any routine you may have. Our kids are now 2.5 and 4 and have pretty much abandoned regular day time naps and are much better at being entertained in the car with a story CD or a handful of books/ stickers. This means we now have a bit more freedom in how far we are willing to drive for the day. When they were younger and needed a good lunchtime nap, we tended to stick to places up to an hour away so we could head off after lunch and let then sleep in the car on the way home. Now our maximum distance to drive is around the 2 hour mark each way which we’ve found just about doable for all our sanity.
Our golden rule though is always to head out early. Pack everything the night before and get clothes out ready. This means that as soon as the kids are awake (between 6am-7am in our house), we just chuck everyone in the car and spend the first half hour of the drive having a “car picnic” for breakfast. It passes some time in the car and is super easy to just throw into the back piles of toast, bagels, croissants and bananas. This means we tend to arrive at our destination by 9am-ish raring to go. Places are still quiet then, car parks are emptier and as a family we tend to all function better in the morning.
My other tip, which again works for us, is to pack lunch and loads of snacks for the kids. Nothing fancy (sandwiches, crisps, fruit, Organix snacks etc), but not only does it keep the cost down on buying them food out but it takes the pressure off finding food for them as soon as you arrive somewhere. If we then buy lunch at a cafe for me and Jonny we might pick them up an ice cream/ some chips, but it’s far more relaxing knowing you have food for them with you for the day.
I’ve split the places up by those that are an hour-ish away from SW London, and those which are are a little further. The majority of places tend to be in London/ Surrey/ Sussex/ Kent. I make no apologies for the fact I live near the A3 and grew up in Sussex so tend to stick nearer to where I know and can easily drive to. I do though fully intend to explore more places north of us in due course.
My top six outdoor places to visit under an hour away from SW London:
We have been coming here since the kids were born and have annual membership as it’s literally down the road from us. A one-off trip is on the pricier side so it’s worth considering membership if you’re local like us. Membership also covers their centre in Arundel, West Sussex, (amongst others nationally), which is also fab and runs little boat trips around the wetlands there.
At the time of writing you have to prebook a slot to visit so they can safely manage numbers and the children’s play area was closed when I last checked. The cafe is open for takeaways and you are welcome to bring picnics and use many of their picnic tables.
It a huge 100 acre site of wetland reserves you can explore on foot, with a large number of lakes, ponds and gardens as well as a wealth of bird species. There’s otter feeding, bird watching cabins and loads of buggy friendly boardwalks around the wetlands. It’s glorious in the sunshine but it’s just as much fun puddle jumping in wet weather gear.
2. Kew Gardens
Another great local option with membership (again one-off trips are more pricey) but good value if you go with a degree of regularity (or if you know someone with a membership card as they don’t have photo ID on. Just sayin’.) You can also take a guest in with you for free with membership.
Again, the children’s play area is currently closed and you need to prebook a slot, even if you are a member, but once you’re in you can stay all day and it’s massive and beautiful. There are loads of different areas for the kids to run around and have picnics and the cafes are open for takeaway along with pop up ice cream and various bbq vans.
We tend to get there for just before it opens at 10am (park in the Ferry Lane car park - it’s £5 for the day and you can pass your ticket on to someone else arriving to use when you leave. This means you enter at Brentford Gate where the queues are much smaller than the main gates). The Kitchen Garden is particularly worth exploring at this time of year and they have just reopened some of the glasshouses. I’ve also been well advised that the Kew Gardens Log Trail towards the other end of the Gardens is a hit with the kids too.
About half an hour drive away in Banstead, this little gem of a place is an organic lavender farm with a gift shop and cafe open for takeaways of everything you can imagine infused with lavender. It’s out in full bloom at the moment and I imagine will be for all of August, before it closes on 31 August (but you can check what the lavender currently looks like on their Instagram page). You only need an hour or so here but it’s fab to take some beautiful pictures (you will see lots of people dressed up and doing little photo shoots), and treat yourself to a lavender ice cream or cupcake. You can’t take picnics and it’s busy on the weekends so tends to be somewhere we go on a weekday afternoon as it doesn’t require loads of time. Entry costs £4 for adults and children are free so a pretty cheap afternoon out.
Cannizaro Park is a free public park just off Wimbledon Common. It’s huge, with beautiful ornamental and landscaped gardens, woodlands, ponds and sculptures. It’s open every day of the year and doesn’t cost a penny. The only downside is if you’re driving, parking is quite limited so you do need to drive around a bit to find a pay and display, particularly if it’s the weekend. It is however better connected to public transport than some of the other places I’ve mentioned.
We tend to take a picnic and a blanket as there’s loads of space to sit down and eat and then grab an ice cream on the way out from the van that’s often parked outside the entrance. There is a Hotel Du Vin and Bistro that backs onto the park if that’s your thing.
A total local gem that we only discovered recently. The House, playground and conservatory are currently closed but the gardens, cafe and toilets are open and the gardens are FAB.
Again, it is free to enter every day all year round, and there is a pay and display car park on site (which if I remember correctly cost around £5 for the day). It has gorgeous 18th century classical gardens, ponds, bridges and fountains as well as a wooded wilderness and an enclosed gated area where dogs aren’t allowed in which feels super safe to let the kids run about by themselves and have a picnic.
We took a fancy picnic for Father’s Day this year and will def be heading back again soon.
6. Garsons Farm Pick Your Own, Esher
One of the closest PYO farms to us, Garsons has around 30 different crops you can go and pick between June – October, as well as a fabulous garden centre and farm shop. You need to buy a farm pass online to book a space, and these get released online daily for a week ahead. You need to be relatively on the ball if you want to get a ticket for a morning slot as they do sell our pretty quickly. Once you are there you can drive around the farm and pull up and park at whatever crop you fancy picking, and you pay for what you pick at the exit, minus the cost of your farm pass. We went a few weeks ago and picked loads of strawberries, some blackcurrants and cherries. Keen to go back with our handsaw and get some sunflowers soon as the sunflower field was stunning! Def a super kid friendly and purse friendly activity, close enough to London to make it a little morning/ afternoon trip out.
My top six outdoor places to visit under two hours away from SW London:
So this is probably one of my top beaches to visit on a day trip. It’s quieter than the more popular London day-tripper hot spots (which I will come on to), it is sandy when the tide is out, has facilities and is close to where I grew up and my parents live so have fond memories of Littlehampton Beach as a kid.
West Beach is the other side of the river to the more famous East Beach and is much quieter (largely because it has much less going on and less infrastructure than East Beach but it does have a car park, public toilets and a café doing basic takeaways). Fun fact – it is home to only one of three sand dune systems in West Sussex and has the ruins of a Napoleonic Fort next to it! My top tips would be to get there early to ensure a car parking spot, especially if it’s a hot summers day or the weekend, and check the tide times. You want to ideally time your trip with low tide so you get lots of sand to run around and play on.
We only went to Camber Sands for the first-time last weekend as it is that bit further away for us. It is understandably a popular destination as it is driveable from London and its sandy beaches are take-your-breath-away beautiful. Regularly voted as one of the best beaches in England, you’ll find a five-mile stretch of sand backed by rolling sand dunes. There are a number of pay and display car parks which had plenty of space at 10am but had queues to get into by 12pm, a shop selling every manner of inflatable (yep we bought a boat) and a couple of cafes and restaurants that we didn’t sample. We instead headed into the gorgeous ancient town of Rye (it is apparently in the Doomsday Book), a 10-minute drive away, for lunch. We had booked a table for our first family meal out since March at The Standard Inn where he had some fab fish and chips and Jonny was very happy with his first pint in a pub in a long time. Having a wander along the beautiful cobbled lanes of Rye with medieval half-timbered houses, such as the beautifully named Mermaid Street is a total joy.
Another super popular choice for day trippers, I couldn’t not include West Wittering in my line up. We’ve been going here for years and we love it. The best thing about it in the current climate is that because it is a private beach, the management team have restricted access and are controlling the number of people who are able to visit by limiting the car parking spaces available each day. This makes it easy to practise social distancing and while still busy, it isn’t heaving like reports of other beaches around sunny weekends. This does mean that you do need to book your car parking space in advance (which costs £8/£9 for the day) and if the car parking spaces are sold out it is advisable not to drive to the area as there is little to no parking in the village and it is being quite heavily controlled. The rolling shoreline and sandy dunes make it picture perfect and it has the usual facilities to hand.
So a bit of a curveball choice this one. We have only recently started exploring Kent as it is that little bit further from us but we’ve now got an ever-growing list of places we want to visit there.
While the beaches above obviously cost nothing but the petrol and car parking, Port Lympne is definitely a treat day out. We paid £50 for a day ticket for a family of four (under 3s go free so we in fact only paid for three of us) and it is a longer drive than we would normally do. You currently have to prebook your tickets online and it’s worth noting that the Africa “safari” drives which take you to see the giraffe and zebra are currently not running. Having said all that, we and the kids absolutely loved it. I’m normally a bit funny about zoos and their questionable eco credentials (a pacing polar bear in a Copenhagen zoo broke my heart a little bit), but this is a huge 600-acre site and they work alongside The Aspinall Foundation, a charity which has successfully released and have bred many of their animals back in to the wild. The grounds are stunning and we saw gorillas, tigers, lions, rhino and loads of other animals. There is also an incredible “Dinosaur Forest” which we literally spent hours in! The distances to walk are quite long so definitely bring a buggy if you have little legs in tow. Again we took picnic food and snacks but there were a handful of food spots open for takeaway chips and ice creams. (It’s worth noting that there is also a hotel here with some incredible looking options to stay over night amongst the animals from teepees and cabins to luxury suites amongst the lions costing £1000 a night!)
5. Hever Castle & Gardens
And for my final stop, another Kent gem. The childhood home of Anne Boleyn, the castle is exactly what you want from a castle. Turreted, moated and haunted. The 125 acre gardens are also a delight to explore, with the giant topiary chess set and 4,000 rose bush quintessential English rose garden. You need to prebook a Garden Ticket and then you can upgrade to a Castle Ticket (at no extra charge) at the castle entrance as they are limiting the number of people entering the castle at any one time. Under 5s go free, and it is £15.50 per adult. Again there are cafes open and they have recently reopened the children’s playground. You probably don’t need more than a morning and lunchtime here which makes it a perfect “drive-home-at-nap-time” outing.
6. Leonardslee Lake & Gardens, West Sussex
Hailed as "The most spectacular woodland garden in England", I'd be inclined to agree. Privately owned, it has recently reopened after after a nine year hiatus whilst owned by "an international businessman". I couldn't be more pleased about this as it is a happy place to while away a day, particularly around May when the rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, magnolias and bluebells are at their best. There is a beautiful lake, woodlands, children's nature trails, and the real highlight... wallabies!! There are also a number of eating options including a casual cafe as well as a Michelin starred restaurant. Entry costs £12.50 per adult and under 5s are free.
So there you have it. I hope you found this round up useful and have time to visit one or two of these spots this summer. There’s no doubt about it, creating mini stay-cation memories are where it’s at this summer. Let me know where you go, where else we should be exploring, and I’ll try and write another update in August.