Friday, 24 July 2015

Our top five toddler days out in east Kent

I love living in Canterbury because it's central to all the attractions of east Kent. Most of our favourite places are less than 30 or 40 minutes' drive away, making it the perfect base from which to explore. Here's a list of our Top Ten favourite places to go, where we are guaranteed a happy day of smiles and giggles. 

1. Leeds Castle
This 900-year-old castle is set within 500 acres of parkland and gardens, and during its fascinating history has been a Norman stronghold, the home of six medieval queens, Henry VIII's palace and the private home of Lady Baillie. It is described as 'the loveliest castle in the world', and I think that might just be true. We love visiting this amazing place and there is plenty to see and do. I always take my daughter's scooter, so she can zoom along the lovely paths through the gardens. Along the way we can feed the ducks, geese and swans which are very tolerant of toddlers on scooters and mothers running along after. Our first port of call is the coffee shop, of course, and there are a few to choose from. Then we zoom to the playgrounds. There is a large adventure play area for older children, and another for younger children. The latter is the play area we prefer as it has everything a toddler needs - sandpit with buckets and spades, slides, various swings and zip lines with toddler seats. After an exhaustive couple of hours (yes, I said HOURS) we have lunch at the picnic tables where there is a coffee shop, and then on to the unfathomable maze and underground grotto. The maze is not a pretend maze, it is full-on tricky. We have got lost every time we've been, and we've visited many many times. We walk around for ten minutes and then shout for help to a member of the castle staff who keeps guard on the mound above the maze. They give directions and we hide our embarrassment by scuttling down to the grotto as quickly as possible. The grotto is magical and eerie complete with shell sculptures and dripping echoes. After that we scoot to the castle where we enjoy a good nose around the fabulous rooms. My favourite is Lady Baillie's suite, and it is here that my daughter likes to try and get into the roped off areas! If we have the energy we go to the shop and scoot back to the car, but if not, there is a land train for 50p, which is quite exciting for a three year old. For those with crazy energy you can also take a punt around the moat and enjoy falconry displays. At various times I have also seen tents with face painting and craft activities for children! Leeds Castle is amazing, and there is always a full programme of events throughout the year including Easter egg hunts, food festivals and beautiful decorations at Christmas. Tickets: Free for children under four and £24 for adults (this ticket grants repeat visits for a whole year from the date of issue with exception of special ticketed events). You can get a discount when you book online. Opening times: 10.30am until 4.30pm (3pm from October to March).

2. Lower Leas Coastal Park in Folkestone
The award-winning Lower Leas Coastal Park is the largest free adventure play area in the south east and consists of beautiful flower gardens, thoughtfully laid-out paths, pine avenues, picnic areas where barbecues are permitted and the most amazing play areas. The play area is extensive and separated into four parts, as far as I can see. There is a large pirate ship (the best one I've ever seen); a spider net and climbing wall; various sand pits including mini diggers; and a huge network of wooden climbing frames, tube slides and zip wires. We can easily spend a day here with a break for lunch at the nearby Mermaid Cafe, and a walk along the seafront. We also like to explore the charming Leas Cliff, the artificial cliff-side gardens, which were laid out in Victorian times and now carefully and thoughtfully maintained. If you follow the path up the cliff you will find a little mouse carved into the concrete, and we always like to give him a raisin. I love the fact that there is never a problem parking and once we're out of the car we are in for a lovely day. There are toilet facilities, plenty to do, it's a friendly well-kept place and there are always park staff around. We can take a scooter and a picnic and just enjoy the day.

3. Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway
Running now for over 88 years, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway is a special treat for us. It is world-famous for its one-third full-size steam and diesel locomotives, which run regularly from Hythe to Dungeness stopping at four stations along the way. The locomotives were all built between 1925 and 1937 and are utterly charming. My daughter is always thrilled when we board our little carriage and travel to the traditional seaside town of Dymchurch. Here we visit another vintage little treasure, the very retro Dymchurch Amusement Park, where there are little rides for children. The railway has played a big part in my daughter's life since she was a year old. At Christmas we board the Santa train to New Romney where we see santa arrive on his sleigh, visit his grotto, get a special gift and enjoy festive refreshments while watching the children play in the 'snow'. There is also a full programme of events throughout the year for adults as well. We love this wonderful railway. Click here for full timetables and fares.

4. Viking Bay in Broadstairs
Broadstairs is a quintessential seaside town situated on the Isle of Thanet, and Viking Bay is the jewel in its crown. This blue-flag sandy beach is perfect for little children because it's sheltered, has excellent facilities, clean sand and ever-watchful life guards. Here you can rent deck chairs, parasols and wind breakers from a cute little hut on the beach. When you need refreshments there are plenty of places to find a coffee, ice-cream or chips. When the children have tired of swimming in the sea they can bounce on the bouncy castle or have a turn on the swing boats. The best thing, I think, are the traditional gelato ice-cream parlours which serve the best ice-cream in the world. I have often insisted that we drive to Broadstairs from Canterbury just so I could have a nutella-flavoured ice-cream the size of my arm. Delicious! If you haven't got a car, you can go on the train. You must go, even in winter we LOVE it.

5. Jungle Jims at Quex Park
Located in Birchington as part of the Quex Park Estate, Jungle Jims has to get a place in our Top Five places to go. This large indoor and outdoor soft-play barn may not be somewhere adults relish visiting, but children adore it. I love this place because it has given my daughter invaluable experiences which I couldn't have given her myself. She has learnt so much from climbing along the rope bridges, throwing herself head first down the huge four-lane slide and diving into the many ball pits. I have seen her confidence soar every time we have visited. There is lots of seating for adults, children are easy to monitor, there is a friendly atmosphere and it feels clean and safe. You couldn't ask for more from a soft-play centre. Opening times: There are dedicated toddler mornings from 10.30am until 2.30pm every week day in term time. Prices: £3.50 including a lovely lunch for your little one (sandwich, choice of snack and drink) and under one's go free.

My daughter and I love our days out, as there are so many special places to visit here in Kent. If you have any suggestions I would really like to hear them. I will keep you posted on some more of our favourite places too.

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