DAY TRIP: Puppet-making, lights and fairytales in Norwich
Budding animators will be in their element at Norwich Puppet Theatre, which has excellent children’s workshops this half-term, along with performances of Goldilocks and Puss in Boots. Youngsters (five and over) can make their ultimate side-kick in puppet form, while older children can try using wire armature to make movable characters with plasticine. If you’re in Norwich at the beginning of the half-term, catch the city’s new light festival (13-15 Feb) Love Light Norwich: a trail of light and fire artworks, installations and performances will celebrate the city, on a theme of love and belonging.
MINIBREAK: The Bard, bugs and boats, Stratford-upon-Avon
Theatre, grisly Tudor exhibits, a 16th-century schoolroom, creepy crawlies – Stratford has more than enough attractions to entertain kids for a few days – all within a short walk of each other. There are still tickets available for the RSC’s much-lauded Boy in the Dress musical (until 8 March), based on the David Walliams story with songs by Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers. All five historic Shakespeare family homes (Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Shakespeare’s New Place, Hall’s Croft, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Mary Arden’s Farm, £23/£15 for a combined ticket) put on family-friendly events and activities throughout the year, while Shakespeare’s Schoolroom (£7.65/£4.95) gives kids a taste of Tudor discipline, with a chance to take part in a lesson led by a “master”.
Beyond the Bard, the Tudor World museum offers an insight into life in the 16th century (grisly, smelly, dangerous); the Mechanical Art & Design museum (£7.80/£5.20) is a collection of wonderful moving sculptures and models; and the Butterfly Farm is home to 2,000 free-flying butterflies plus creatures that crawl, jump and slither. There are also boat trips on the river and, for older children, evening ghost walks (£7/£5). Stay at the recently refurbished YHA, in a Georgian mansion with family rooms (from £39 midweek) and a restaurant.
WEEK BREAK: Off-season hideout, Cornwall
Embrace winter hibernation at a cosy cottage in picturesque Fowey. From Par railway station (which has direct links with Bristol, Paddington and Cardiff), there’s an hourly bus into the town, which swarms in summer but should be calm in February. For beaches, you’re close to Readymoney Cove, below St Catherine’s Castle and rocky National Trust beach Lansallos. Catch the ferry to pretty hillside Polruan for cobbled charm. Du Maurier Reach (from £356 for seven nights in February, sleeping four) is a recently updated former fisherman’s cottage with river views.
DAY TRIP: Saxons, crafts and stargazing, South Downs
Five miles from Petersfield railway station (on the no 37 bus towards Waterlooville), Butser Ancient Farm (£9/£5) is an archaeology site and farm in the South Downs national park, Hampshire. Its reconstructions of buildings from the stone age, iron age and Roman Britain will transport you to another era. This Easter, families can see craft demonstrations, cooking and combat displays and try DIY archaeology experiments such as mini-mosaic making and wattling, as well as meeting newborn lambs. Stay into the evening on 17 April for stargazing (£8/£5), in this dark sky reserve.
DAY TRIP: Ancient treasure and pop art, London
Mark 100 years since the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb with a visit to the Saatchi Gallery, which is exhibiting in spectacular style more than 150 pieces from the famous site (including 60 which have never previously left Egypt). Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh (from £24.50/£16.50) is on until 3 May – it’s Hollywood but it works, says the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones. An interesting contrast (for teens rather than little ones) will be the Andy Warhol exhibition (£22), which opens at Tate Modern on 12 March. As well as Marilyn Monroes and Campbell’s soup cans, there will be more rarely seen work such as a selection of his portraits of drag queens and trans women. Over at Tate Britain, pop into Steve McQueen’s epic Year 3 exhibition and see if your kids recognise any of their mates.
MINIBREAK: Fairies and chocolate in York
You might not see any fairies at Northwood Trail Fairy Sanctuary (£8.90/£6.90), but the magic in its woodland air is palpable. A half-hour bus ride (no 10) westwards from York (followed by a 20-minute walk from Stamford Bridge, or a taxi ride). Sunlight dances through the canopy, and dotted along the track are fairy homes, doors and bridges between the trees – along with a maze and William Morris-styled cafe. Central York, which has announced plans to go car-free by 2023, is compact enough to walk around. Of the big attractions, the Railway Museum (free entry) is the most soothing, and the Chocolate Story (£12.95/£10.50) will not disappoint. Stay at new aparthotel Roomzzz (family rooms from £99).
MINIBREAK: Sands and squirrels, Merseyside
Spring is a good time to see Formby and Crosby without the crowds, and Merseyrail’s frequent Northern Line (Southport branch) runs along the Sefton coast, which is home to the longest sand dune system in the UK and buzzes with wildlife. Spot red squirrels in National Trust-maintained woodland at Formby, along with 15 species of orchid and lizards. And from April you can head out on a boat for seal spotting with Wirral Sailing Centre (£35/£25 for a two-hour trip, over-8s only). On dry land, take a train to Liverpool South Parkway, followed by bus nos 80A, 86 or 500 to get off close to National Trust property Speke Hall (£14/£7), a superb Tudor house and estate on the banks of the Mersey with a maze and extensive trails and events throughout the year. Stay at YHA Liverpool Albert Dock (from £39 for a family room sleeping four).
WEEK BREAK: Oban and the Hebrides
Reached by train from Glasgow Queen Street, Oban is a small port town on the west coast that seems eternally quaint despite its popularity. Here, you’ll find seafood restaurants galore, curio shops and wide views out to neighbouring islands. Catch a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry service to the beautiful islands of Mull, Lismore, Colonsay, Barra and Tiree, keeping eyes peeled for porpoises, eagles and seals along the way. West Coast Cottages has properties in and around Oban, including self-catering apartment Argyll Mansions (from £680 a week, sleeps five).
DAY TRIP: Dress as a Saxon, Bury St Edmunds
Suffolk has so much more to offer than its beaches. At Bury St Edmunds, take a picnic to the Abbey Gardens, admiring the ruins of a monastery founded by King Canute 1,000 years ago. There’s also space to run around along with a children’s play area, a sensory garden, walks along the river and a wildlife feeding spot. Meanwhile, Horrible Histories enthusiasts will love Moyse’s Hall Museum (£12/£6 for a year combined with West Stow country park, or day ticket £5/£3), which is packed with insights into local superstitions and witchcraft. Or take the no 355 bus to West Stow country park for heathlands, nature trails and an adventure playground. The park encompasses a recreated Anglo-Saxon village on one of England’s important archaeological sites, and children can dress up in dark ages garb and meet the rare breed pigs and chickens.
MINIBREAK: Sand dunes and wildlife, Rye
Rye Harbour nature reserve is one of the most biodiverse places in Britain, with 4,200 plant and animal species. In March, the reserve celebrates its 50th anniversary with a new Discovery Centre in association with Sussex Wildlife Trust. There’s a host of activities, a cafe and a gallery – all aimed at promoting a deeper connection with nature. It’s a good area for family cycling, with local rides to the reserve and Winchelsea Beach. Camber Sands and its dunes are on the doorstep, as are the atmospheric towns of Rye (with a railway station linking it to Ashford, Hastings and Eastbourne), Winchelsea and Tenterden. Kip Hideways has a nautically themed apartment in the heart of Rye (from £100 a night, sleeping four) with a double bedroom tucked into the eaves and a second bedroom with curtained cabin beds.
WEEK BREAK: New aquapark, Isle of Wight
The Isle of Wight tourist board recently launched a slow travel guide to the island including bus, walking and cycle routes. Late spring is the perfect time to see the island come alive before its summer influx. And its first outdoor, floating aquapark at Tapnell Farm is due to open with floating obstacles as well as kayaking, paddleboarding and swimming. Elsewhere, Goodleaf tree climbing centre (from £28, over-8s only) is a 25-minute walk from Ryde ferry dock (ferry crossing from Portsmouth or Southampton from about £55 return). Old Mill Holiday Park near Bembridge in the east of the island has caravans and apartments from £300 for four nights. With a day in Portsmouth, catch the no 3 or 23 bus south-east to cool Southsea for the rock gardens, boating pond, cute model railway and hot chocolate and cream teas at the excellent Tenth Hole cafe.
DAY TRIP: Tree climbing and tropical wildlife, Cheshire
For thrillseekers, Bewilderwood adventure park (prices tbc) is opening in the grounds of Cholmondeley Castle in south Cheshire in spring. Most parents will feel tired just looking at the maze of woodland ziplines, rope bridges, slides, treehouses and aerial walks – all of which will no doubt fill youngsters with glee. Wind down with a trip to Chester Zoo (£20/£15), where the UK’s largest tropical house, Monsoon Forest, will reopen this summer after a fire in 2018 and features an enhanced habitat for critically endangered Sumatran orangutans and threatened Indonesian hornbills.
DAY TRIP: Wildlife watching, Gloucestershire
Slimbridge wetland wildlife reserve (£12/£7), founded by Sir Peter Scott (son of Antarctic explorer Captain Scott) in 1946, is going through a mega refurbishment and has 12 new attractions planned for this opening year. At Easter, the open-air Living Wetland Theatre will open, offering film screenings and interactive live shows as birds fly overhead, while Mission Possible charts how Scott Junior brought the Hawaiian goose back from the edge of extinction. An accessible walkway overlooking the Severn estuary is due to be completed by summer, offering a wheelchair-friendly place from which to spot dragonflies, frogs, birds and butterflies.
MINIBREAK: Beaches and books, Newcastle
Opening in May, the £10.55m Horden railway station will open up the Durham Heritage Coast, making it easier to travel between Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Durham, Whitby and Saltburn-by-the-Sea. With Newcastle as your base, take the train to Tynemouth for Riley’s Fish Shack’s sublime fish and chips on the beach. Quieter South Shields has striking sculptures by Juan Muñoz, a free-to-enter reconstruction of a Roman fort and two lighthouses, the curious-looking Herd Groyne and – towards Whitburn – the Souter, which visitors can climb. Journey south past Sunderland to Seaham for sea glass beaches and rock pools. Back in Newcastle, if it’s a rainy day budding authors should head to Seven Stories (£7.70/£6.60), with its new permanent exhibition about children’s literature from ideas stage to fruition. Sleeperz in central Newcastle has family rooms from £60 a night.
MINIBREAK: Waterways, Birmingham
The Canal and River Trust and the National Trust plan to open the refurbed Birmingham Roundhouse on 7 May as a base for exploring the city on foot or by bike and boat. On Wednesday evenings throughout the summer, Ackers Adventure offers canoe and kayak lessons (family of four £75) on the Grand Union Canal. For a drier day, visit the Botanical Gardens (£7.50/£5.25), the wonderfully eccentric Pen Museum (£6/£2.50). Bed down at Selina, a converted Victorian factory with rooms from £15-£100 a night including bunk rooms suitable for families.
MINIBREAK: Surfing and Brunel, Bristol
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the return of Brunel’s SS Great Britain’s (£17/£10) to the city after being recovered from the Falkland Islands, where it had been scuttled. Children will love the real sights and smells recreated on the Victorian cruise liner (including a very pongy toilet). Elsewhere, visit Bristol’s docks, home to Wapping Wharf, a bevy of restaurants in shipping containers, or the Clifton Observatory’s cafe and play park with views of the eponymous Grade I-listed suspension bridge. Inland surf lake, The Wave, which opened last autumn, offers lessons for all abilities. Easy day trips by bus include Portishead open air pool, Clevedon Marine Lake (and beautiful Victorian pier) and Weston-Super-Mare for the very cool Lambretta Scooter Museum. Stay in a converted airstream caravan at Brooks Guesthouse from £99 (sleep two or two + two kids).
WEEK BREAK: Marine fun, Guernsey
Reached by ferries from Poole, Guernsey’s clean, powdery beaches and rocky inlets do a good job of making you feel as if you’re abroad. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war and the island’s liberation from Nazi forces, so visitors can expect festivities from April to October. Take a puffin-spotting kayak trip from Shell Beach (£40/£15), heading to Puffin Bay and calling in at the sanctuary on Herm. Active sorts might enjoy coasteering on Sark, with its magical caves and cavern systems, including the famous Gouliot Caves. Or head to the recently renovated La Valette bathing pools on Guernsey’s east coast. Camp at Fauxquets Valley campsite, where a pre-pitched compact safari tent costs from £130 a night for a family of two adults and two children (five-night minimum).
WEEK BREAK: Dolphin spotting, Ceredigion
Everyone seems to be repurposing shipping containers these days, but here’s a novel idea. The Ty Cwch Boat House (cabins £120 a night) is made up of three separate sleeping cabins (each for up to four people), with two shared bathrooms, a kitchen/living space downstairs and a deck for barbecues, so it’s perfect for a large family group or group of friends. Local instructors can be booked through the property for hiking, cycling, kayaking and surfing, and it’s right next to beautiful, bijou Cwmtydu beach. This year, the Wales Coast Path launches more than 50 new self-guided walking itineraries including one in this area, from nearby New Quay (on the coastal T5 bus route) along the Ceredigion Coast Path. The coastline is spectacular, and out to sea you may see a dolphin or two – the area has the highest number of sightings in the UK.
DAY TRIP: Childhood nostalgia, Derbyshire
The Museum of Making opens on 19 September on the site of Derby’s grand Old Silk Mill, and will celebrate the area’s history with workshops, activities and events and exhibits from the area’s industrial past. Meanwhile, nearby Sudbury Hall’s Museum of Childhood (11 minutes by train from Derby to Tutbury & Hatton, then a 10-minute ride on the hourly no 401 bus) is a great way to explore childhood in times gone by: children can dress up as a chimney sweep or a Victorian school pupil. Previous exhibitions have included the heady subjects of computer games, sweets and chocolate (entry from £12/£6).
MINIBREAK: Fossils and Lego, Somerset
From Taunton, take the no 28 bus to Watchet and walk a couple of miles west to St Audries Bay – a geologist’s dream where the Quantock Hills meet the Bristol Channel; its moody beach is vast and shadowed by rocks and waterfalls. Stay in a static caravan, lodge or cottage overlooking the waves with views across the Bristol Channel to Wales at Home Farm Holiday centre (from £350 a week), which has direct access to the beach and a heated indoor swimming pool for rainy days. From Watchet town, take the West Somerset Railway for views of the Quantocks, head to Kilve (on the no 23B bus to Taunton) to hunt for ammonites and stroll round the harbour, where children will love the quirky Lego/bric-a-brac shop. Ten miles east of Bridgwater, the RSPB’s Ham Wall wetland reserve (free entry), with views to Glastonbury Tor, is a great place to see starling murmurations, water voles, otters and kingfishers. The reserve is also on several cycle routes.
WEEK BREAK: Lakes and caves, Cumbria
Wrap up warm for a bracing week exploring the Lake District and Cumbrian coastline after the summer crowds die down. The area is fairly easy to get around, on foot, by bus and by train – all with dreamy views. With the village of Coniston as your base, take a cruise on Coniston Water aboard the National Trust’s Steam Yacht Gondola (£23/£11) or visit Hawkshead for the Beatrix Potter Gallery (£7/£3.50). A 40-mile recreational trail from Whitehaven to Millom called Connecting Cumbria’s Hidden Coast is due to open in September. Or explore by rail: take a bus from Coniston to Windermere to pick up the train to Oxenholme for a scenic ride over viaducts and causeways. If you have your own wheels, head west to Ravenglass to ride the steam railway to Munster Castle or Dalegarth and its Roman ruins. Coppermines has a selection of self-catering cottages in Coniston (from £120 a night).