Don’t pretend to be a duck: Lessons from a lovely day at Hever Castle

Tips for a stress-free day out with the kids.

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I think we’ve already established that I’m not the outdoorsy type. It’s not that I don’t like going outside, it’s just that I’m lazy and everything is easier indoors.

I am the sort of parent who believes in toddler gates. Lots of them. And playpens too. Anything that keeps my little ones in an enclosed area in which I can watch them without having to move (or spilling my drink). I therefore get just a little bit stressed about taking my kids to wide open spaces where I have to chase them around and apply jackets, or sunscreen, or hats (that will be immediately tossed away and lost) or perhaps a change of clothes because they’ve fallen into a moat or something.

So I thought I would share with you some lessons I learnt on a recent trip to Hever Castle, which might help anyone who’s planning a trip there to have a stress-free time – or at least give you a chance to laugh at me.

1. Plan your journey

As usual I just assumed my sat nav would get me to the Castle’s car park and did no further research despite having an excellent internet connection in my house. I’m pretty sure my sat nav is out to kill me. Every time I saw a lovely brown sign pointing the way to the Castle, my sat nav entreated me to go in the opposite direction. Luckily, I ignored it and managed to not end up crashing into a field of sheep. However, apparently Hever has more than one car park. I had planned on meeting my friend ‘in the car park’, and we ended up on opposite ends of the property. No big tragedy, but could have been avoided if I was paying attention.

2. The Tower Maze is awesome but watch the exits

Our first point of call was the adventure playground, containing standard playground equipment along with a truly awesome giant wooden multi-level maze with slides coming down out of it. Having entered at the top of the playground, my friend and I blithely assumed that there were no further exits to the playground area and that we could send our older children to run free on the Tower Maze without them disappearing into the unknown.

But then we didn’t see or hear them for a while. So I walked round to the back of the maze and [camera pans to my face with a look of horror] there was another exit out of the playground. Going right out to who-knows-where. Cue me walking frantically around the maze looking for the children, calling their names in my ‘definitely not panicking’ voice. Thankfully, I found them hiding in a hidey hole in the maze having a whale of a time and not the least bit lost.

3. They have really nice toilets

Like, really nice. With those Dyson hand dryers that you stick your hands into instead of under and that actually dry your hands. Whenever toilets have their own dedicated outbuildings, I don’t expect them to be nice. But they were. With proper baby changers and everything. And it’s a good thing too. Because we went to ALL the different toilets while we were there. At least 5 times. I’m not convinced that my son even used the toilets each of those times. Maybe he was just admiring the hand dryers.

4. Don’t pretend to be a duck

Hever is a beautiful place to have a picnic. We set up under the shade of a big old tree on a slope of well-groomed grass that looked out towards the castle. For 10–15 glorious minutes, all of the children sat on the actual picnic mat and ate their picnics. This is something that has never happened to me before. Usually they are just running about while I chase them with a sandwich.

ducks at hever castle
You can see the ducks here, trying to sneak up on an innocent child, looking shifty.

And what was it that broke the spell? It was me, pretending to be a duck. There were lots of ducks around, and a couple of them were getting a bit close and looking a bit shifty like they wanted to make off with some of our carbohydrate-rich food.

I shouted at them to go away. They ignored me. I threw a small stick in their direction, hoping to scare them off. They tried to eat the stick.

Finally, I got up off the picnic mat and chased them away, waving my arms in the air while yelling, ‘Quack, quack, quack’, as if somehow speaking their language would finally get through to them and make them realise they were on my turf.

The good news is, my strategy worked. The ducks flew away and didn’t return. However, our children thought that my duck impersonation was the funniest thing since a Minion first said ‘banana’. Their peaceful sitting-and-eating turned into them running away across the field while shouting QUACK at each other. As there were no toddler gates, I got stressed that one of them would fall into the moat.

5. Bring a change of clothes or a swim kit.

Hever Castle gardens
My attempt at an artsy photo of the gardens.

Hever Castle has this awesome thing called a Water Maze. It is a series of stepping stones leading into a central tower and back out again. If you try to go the wrong way, great jets of water fly out of the ground. I’m pretty sure the idea is that if the water sprays, you realise it’s a dead end in the maze and try going a different direction. But try telling that to a 4-year-old who would rather just stand in the spray of water for as long as possible. This would indeed be jolly good fun for all if you had brought swimming costumes and towels, or at least a change of clothes. Do you think we had brought these things? If you do, you haven’t been paying attention.

The verdict

Hever Castle is absolutely beautiful. I haven’t even mentioned the actual castle bit yet.

That is because they do a really great deal where you can pay for just the gardens and not the castle. We didn’t think we’d be able to enjoy the castle bit with the kids so saved ourselves the money. But I did go inside the castle once pre-kids and remember it being very interesting indeed.

I don’t think one could get tired of walking through the gardens, and I know they put on a lot of different activities for children and adults throughout the year. When my kids are older, I look forward to renting a pedalo or rowing boat on the lake.

All-in-all, it’s a lovely place for the kids to play, for the adults to enjoy the scenery, to buy an ice cream … and to visit the toilet.

The Lake at Hever Castle
This is a pretty fountain by the lake.
The Pramshed

If a child falls in the forest, does anyone hear him scream?

A visit to Peter Rabbit’s Post Box in Limpsfield Chart.

Yes, they definitely do, as I learned today.

Recently I met up with a friend with the intention of taking our children on a fully wholesome and healthy adventure. And of course it was, but boy am I rubbish at being even vaguely outdoorsy.

We were headed to a unique attraction in Limpsfield Chart, near the KentHedgehog Hall/Surrey border. I’d heard about it around town from other mums – a number of Beatrix Potter inspired dens in the forest. It sounded magical. And before I go any further, it really was. There were perfect little diminutive animal houses, including Fox Villa, Badger Barracks, Hedgehog Hall and, best of all, Peter Rabbit’s Post Office.

But damn was it hard work with a 4-year-old and a toddler. So here are a few tips, gleaned from painful experience, to make your visit easier.

Tip 1: Don’t get lost

First of all, I got lost finding it. It’s not super easy to find. I’d duly looked up a postcode before I left the house and then failed to bring it with me. I tried to look it up on my phone but I had no signal. So plan to go to Ridlands Grove Car Park in RH8 0SS. Write that down on a good old-fashioned piece of paper and remember to bring it with you! If you don’t have a sat nav, I suggest having a nice long look at Google Maps before you go, maybe make yourself a nice little sketch.

Tip 2: Owls live in trees

Near the car park, there is a sign that says “Owl’s House” with a sort of diagonal pointing arrow. We thought the arrow was trying to tell us which path to take through the forest, as there were no other instructions there. We later realised that we were supposed to look directly up into a tree, in the direction of the arrow, to see Owl’s House. Duh! This is where sleep deprivation gets you.

Our kids all ran in the opposite direction to the arrow anyway, just for kicks and giggles.

Exploring is great, but if your kids have little legs and are easily tired, or you’re hoping to get to the local off-licence before it closes, take the path that goes off to your right as you’re walking towards the woods from the car park. It will get you to the good stuff a lot sooner.

Tip 3: All-terrain buggies… 

…absolutely, positively cannot roll over fallen tree branches in any way whatsoever. Do not attempt it. If you have a buggy, stay on the path or bring a saw, because you will certainly get stuck. A non-all-terrain buggy has no chance.

Tip 4: Clumsiness

I’m the sort of person who bumps my hip on the corner of the kitchen worktop pretty much every time I walk past it, and my 4-year-old takes after me. Eldest tends to trip over his own two feet or fall off of nothing at least once a day. He SCREAMED when he couldn’t keep up with the other children. He SCREAMED because in trying to catch up he tripped and fell on his face. And then he would try to climb on some pile of tree branches, which more than once resulted in him SCREAMING while suspended upside down by his feet with his head stuck between two sticks. I’m not entirely sure how to avoid this problem or prepare for coping with it. Maybe some earplugs.

Tip 5: Don’t believe everything you hear

Peter Rabbit's Postbox
The postbox is much smaller than a welly boot

Now I was sure I’d heard that if you put a letter in Peter Rabbit’s Post Box, you’ll get a note back. So we spent some time writing one, but when we got there, we found that the postbox was so small only a note written on a single square of toilet roll would have made it through. I let Eldest cram the note partially in until he lost interest, then hid his letter in the buggy.

Tip 6: SNACKS

I know you probably wouldn’t leave the house without snacks anyway, but I just had to mention it. At one point my son just sat down in despair and the half-squashed Nutri-Grain bar I handed him truly saved the day.

But all this said, it really is a fantastic free day out. My friend and I went home with the knowledge that the children had exercised, that they’d learned about nature, and that it was nearly wine o’clock.