A magical (and affordable) day out at Priory Farm

There are only a few days left of the summer holidays, and I’ve noticed that all the days out and extra childcare that summer entails are taking their toll on my wallet. When I had a chance to take my older son out last week, I was keen to find somewhere with free or very cheap admission.

We ended up at Priory Farm near Redhill, Surrey. If the weather is nice and your budget is tight, you can’t really beat this place for a day out in the Southeast.

We went on a weekday and arrived about 10am. At this time we had no trouble finding an excellent parking space, but there were absolutely loads available.

Just next to the car park is this huge pirate ship where the kids can play.

Pirate ship playground at Priory FarmThere is a coffee kiosk in the area and picnic benches so that parents can watch their kids play from a civilised distance whilst imbibing caffeine and/or cake. It also sells ice cream, in case you need to bribe your kids to leave the pirate ship.

My 4 year old had no trouble safely climbing around the ship on his own. A toddler would need closer supervision.

Right next to this play area is the entrance to the main attraction – the Discovery Walk. The Discovery Walk showcases the natural beauty of this property, set as it is with views over the Downs. But it offers more than just trees and flowers. Throughout the trail there are many things to climb, tunnels to explore and secrets to discover.

Before you start

The admission price is a very reasonable £2.50pp, which includes a treasure hunt for the kids. The standard treasure hunt features nature facts, but there are also themed hunts throughout the year. The one we did was all about the Olympics. Each stop on the hunt had a trivia question to answer (with some pretty obvious clues to help younger ones figure it out), along with a hint about how to find the next question. The price included a prize at the end, which was a small bag of sweets and a plastic gold medal like the ones you get at sport days. In my opinion, this place is very good value for money.

For an extra £1, you can get a bag of fish food, which I highly recommend, for reasons I’ll explain later.

I should also mention that the trail is relatively buggy-friendly (although I wouldn’t attempt it as the lone adult – better to have at least one friend to join you if you’re pushing a buggy as well as chasing after a child).

Highlights of the Discovery Walk

The first stop on the trail is this pretty little garden.

Wendy's garden at Priory Farm

After you leave the little garden, you turn the corner, and the next thing you see is a beautiful field of wildflowers. You walk past that to discover a teepee with a drum inside. Plan to spend a rather long time listening to your children banging the drum.

When you’ve managed to tear the kids away from the drum, you will encounter one of the absolute highlights of the park: a maze made of sunflowers instead of hedges. I’m a complete sucker for mazes of any type, but this one takes the biscuit. In this maze, on this day, I took probably one of the best pictures I’ve ever taken.

Sunflower
I totally put this on Instagram.

The maze has fun little hints to help you through, and spinners to help you choose your direction. My son loved this and felt a sense of achievement when we found our way out. It isn’t so big that you will be lost for an onerous amount of time.

After you leave the sunflower maze, there is a gentle hill to climb. This is the first time you’ll encounter one of these little balance beams.

Balance beam at Priory Farm

There are lots of little things like this to climb throughout the trail. They are great because it means you never have a long walk without encountering something that keeps the kids interested.

At the top of the hill, you will enter a little wood, in which the trees are labelled with their names (very educational), and there are many secrets to discover. They’ve built lots of little houses made of sticks, which may or may not be inhabited by faeries. I won’t ruin it by telling you all the details, but here is an example of one of the least elaborate ones. Faery house at Priory FarmThe trail through the woods leads you to an abandoned quarry, which contains some more surprises, and then you are invited to climb out of the quarry using a wooden climbing wall. There is a trail round if you can’t or don’t want to climb. I went ahead and climbed straight up, no doubt looking super mature and dignified as I did.

At the top of the hill, there are further things to climb, ways to make loud noises, secret tunnels to navigate, circles of standing stones, and more. Word to the wise: the tunnels might be very muddy on the bottom, even if the weather has been dry. My son could walk at full height through them but I had to maintain an awkward crouch in order to avoid getting filthy. Ouch, my aching middle-aged back! In retrospect, my son probably could have managed in there on his own, but just be prepared for possible crouching or extremely muddy knees if you need to retrieve your children from the tunnel.

Another real highlight for me was the Labyrinth. This bit is not buggy-friendly, or suitable for anyone who can’t balance or climb things. But it is totally worth it. Legend says that a dragon resides within.

The Labyrinth releases you into a beautiful fruit orchard. Look at the size of those plums!PlumsYou then make your way down a gentle slope to the fish pond. Here is where your fish food purchase comes into its own. The pond is well-stocked with fish and they are the greediest creatures you’ve ever seen. There are also lots of greedy ducks. The fish climb on top of each other, and the ducks climb on top of the fish as they all compete for a bit of your fish food. This is truly a spectacle to thrill kids and adults alike. I took some pictures but they just don’t do it justice – you need to see for yourself.

There are a few more surprises on the short walk after the fish pond, before you come to the exit of the Discovery Walk. It took us just over an hour, despite one of us having little legs. My son was having so much fun that he didn’t once complain about his little legs being tired (a complaint that happens for much shorter distances when he’s bored).

If you have more time…

There are loads of other things to do on this property that we didn’t have time for on this day. You can race rubber ducks down a little waterway. You can visit the garden centre and eat lunch at the cafe there, which has a large playground attached to it. And you could pop across the road to check out the Farm Shop.

The verdict

The fun we had at this attraction easily rivals that we’ve had at farm parks which charge four times more for entry. It is a unique place which has clearly had a huge amount of effort and love put into it. The result is a truly magical day out, with new things to discover around every corner.

Cuddle Fairy
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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.

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.