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
Advertisements

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

Garlic & chilli heaven on the Isle of Wight

Breathing fire and smelling like a dragon

That’s right. We devoted an entire day of our holiday to two of my very favourite ingredients. Both of my pregnancies had me fairly obsessed with garlic and chilli, to the point that I carried a bottle of Tabasco in my handbag and used half the bottle of garlic piri-piri sauce every time I went to Nandos (which was a lot).

So you can imagine my excitement to find that The Garlic Farm and House of Chilli were within a short drive of one another. We also accidentally discovered some other fun stuff at Holliers Park, where House of Chilli was based.

House of Chilli

This place is a shop, a tourist attraction and a way of life all rolled up into one. Their homepage says their aim is “not just to help the hardened chilliheads feel the burn, but to offer a rangehouse of chilli of products suited to all tastes”. The walls of the rather large shop were lined with chilli-based sauces beyond what you’ve ever imagined.

The main attraction of the shop is their extensive tasting table. The large table in the middle of the shop had about 20 different things to taste, including salad dressing, mayonnaise, pickles, chutneys and salsas. The mechanism for transferring condiment to mouth were some rather lovely tiny pieces of tortilla. I tried everything. My favourite was the Chip Shop Curry Sauce.

There was also a smaller table with an actual health warning on it. About 5 sauces that are not for chilli rookies, arranged in order of hotness. I managed two of the milder ones and was temporarily deprived of the ability to speak (a very rare occurrence). Husband tried the hottest one and he was stoned on chilli endorphins for the next half hour.

It was also a child-friendly shop with a great big chalkboard at the back where they could draw and a reading area with some children’s books. There was an ice cream machine as well, although that may have been more for those adults who go a little too far with the chilli samples.

Holliers Park

Husband was suffering some serious chilli intoxication after leaving the chilli shop, so we decided to have a nose round the other shops on the property while he sobered up.

First we popped into Island Artisan. I groaned on the way in, expecting it to contain a variety of generic tourist tat. Boy was I wrong. This was a real hub of unusual artisan goods with a number of artists in residence who you could watch in action. steampunk hats

One man had lost many abilities due to suffering a stroke but had found new purpose in doing pyrography. I was very tempted to buy his portrayal of the Lady of the Lake bestowing Excalibur upon King Arthur. I also really wanted to buy one of the steampunk hats. I’m sure those would have multiple uses, mostly involving alcohol consumption. But my house is really small and my two little monkeys are the reason why we can’t have nice things.

There was loads of other cool stuff there and, thoughtfully, they provided toys and colouring to keep the kids busy while the parents nose around.

All of that hankering after hats began to work up a thirst, and it was simply not an option to ignore the property’s Victory Tearooms. “It’s a double-decker bus cafe!” shouted Eldest Victory Tea Rooms on the Isle of Wightin amazement. And right he was – it was a massive double-decker bus filled with wartime memorabilia. You order downstairs from two cheerful women in 1940s attire, and your order is delivered via dumbwaiter to the top deck of the bus.

The service was a little bit slow to us mainland Southerners, but then there seemed to be a general lack of rush across the whole island. We kept reminding each other that we should try to enjoy the island pace of life. And in any case, where else can you eat tea and cake whilst pretending to drive the bus? Cafes don’t get much more fun than this.

The Garlic Farm

The Garlic FarmAnd so, having tired of driving the bus, we proceeded to The Garlic Farm to have our lunch.

The restaurant has a nice atmosphere but a very small menu. I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t a larger choice of garlic-related main courses on the menu. Many of the more unique garlicky dishes were part of overpriced sampler platters.

I had the roasted garlic starter, which involves spreading soft, massive garlic cloves on slices of bread. I’ve seen this executed much better. There was not enough bread and the butter was cold, so I couldn’t spread it. The garlic also wasn’t as flavourful as I was expecting. Perhaps it was not the correct breed of garlic.

I enjoyed my main more: a flatbread spread with pesto and piled with a collection of roasted vegetables. The pesto transformed the dish from dull vegetarian option to delicious and the sweet, succulent tomatoes upstaged the other vegetables. I did not eat the ill-considered giant wedges of barely-cooked red onion.

Husband had a sandwich with smoked salmon, cream cheese, garlic puree and some other stuff. He said it wasn’t too bad but that it was weird that it was served hot. Warm sheets of smoked salmon just aren’t really a thing, as far as I know.

The kids menu was large and provided in the form of an activity/colouring sheet, which was nice. But the kids didn’t really eat the food. Not even Youngest, who eats everything.

So, I was a little disappointed with the restaurant and think they could up their game there, but the rest of the farm was brilliant. Especially considering that admission and parking are free.

TOP TIP: Despite my moaning about “not enough garlic”, I really wouldn’t recommend going to the The Garlic Farm restaurant if you’re planning a date, a business meeting, or to take public transport. The garlic smell emitted from our mouths (and other places, perhaps) was truly offensive for at least the next 24 hours. It’s a good thing we didn’t have any guests in our caravan.

Besides the shop (where we bought the pesto from my flatbread and a massive braid of garlic), there was a large room where you could taste the wares, an education room hosting arts & crafts for children, a cafe and an ice cream stand.

Wildflowers at The Garlic FarmWhat we enjoyed most was the walk around the farm. There were beautiful fields of wildflowers and rows of different types of garlic with descriptions for each. I had no idea there was such a wide variety of garlic breeds for all around the world.

You could then proceed to take a nature walk through woods and fields, where you may see some cows. The website had implied there was a variety of other animals, but we couldn’t spot them. It was a very hot day so perhaps they were wiser than us and off keeping cool somewhere.

The farm was also a prehistoric settlement and you can see some artefacts that have been found there in the education room.

TOP TIP: If you’re with the kids, remember to get a map before starting the nature walk (I didn’t), and make sure you only attempt “very short nature walk” or “short nature walk”. We did the latter and it was still a big ask for Eldest. At one point, I told him to go have a rest on a random bench, but when he did, it fell over on top of him! So do test any benches before attempting to sit on them.

The walk ended in a grassy area with a children’s playhouse and some free-range chickens. I was a little bit scared that the chickens would attack, so we didn’t stay long.