Review: Seaquarium Weston-Super-Mare

As Granadad and Nanny were in Burnham-on-Sea having a holiday, we decided, it’s really not all that far and we haven’t seen them in a while so we should go visit them. The plan was for a beach day, but we chose to go down on a day when the weather was drab. Though for us that’d normally mean “yay waterproofs”, Nanny and Grandad were on holiday with Ariella’s step brother Jamie. Jamie is on the ASD spectrum and doesn’t do much outdoors, and definitely not much that involves rain.

After much searching around for a plan, Jamie agreed that he’d be happy to go to Weston-Super-Mare and visit the Seaquarium. Again my inner (ethical) conflict came to the surface, but still we went. And I will try and review this without letting that come to the surface.

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The Seaquarium was well thought out, utilising different angles of the same tank as viewing space in order to maximise the size of the main tank (with tunnel). The tanks all looked clean and in good order and there didn’t seem to be overcrowding in any of the tanks. There was a good variety of sea life on offer and the aquarium offered up lots of opportunity for learning, not just of the view-able sea life on offer, but also about ecological and environmental stability.

As the ticket is valid for re-entry all day, we went around a second time. But the second time we did the treasure trail that we didn’t know was on until we got inside the first time. It was quite good, clues related to the sections of the aquarium. Each section had a board for them to go to so they could stamp it with a punch. And at the end they had a pirate related prize.

Situated on a pier of its own on the sea front between the Grand Pier and the old Tropicana pool, it is in a prime location. There is nearby roadside parking which is quite expensive (if memory serves, £10 for the day), but the nearby shopping mall was slightly cheaper so we parked there, which was a reasonable walk. It was by no means a cheap attraction, but was on par with other attractions of its type (£9.50/adult and £7.50/child). Discounts offered for carers and also (we found out) to West Midlands Safari Park pass holders (as they are operated by the same group).

Please note, this is a review based on our personal experience and opinion. The Seaquarium didn’t know we were going to write this review. 

Review: National Trust Brockhampton Estate

The property is entered directly from the A44 between Bromyard and Worcester. About a 10-15 minute drive from another National Trust property we visited the same day (The Elgar Birthplace Museum – The Firs). The long, high wall on the outer of the property gives an indication of a vast estate, but it doesn’t prepare you for what you encounter.

After driving a few minutes down a single track road, surrounded by open countryside and grazing sheep you get to a lay-by and a little hut where you are expected to pull over. A National Trust member of staff comes to greet you and ask what your plans are for the day (so they can give you directions). It’s here that we found out we weren’t actually “here” yet… the actual house and gardens are a further 1.5 miles drive through the estate down this single track. The beauty cannot be escaped though – even the children were making sounds of awe as we turned the corner downhill towards the Lower Brockhampton estate. And then again as the road became tree lined. And then cheers of excietment when they realised we were at the car park and the much anticipated end of journey was nigh.

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The medieval manor house (entered by a cute little gatehouse) takes you through much history and is very well presented and provides a lot of information. This is a house with no roped off areas, so you can really get up close to the displays and furnishings. And in one of the upstairs rooms there’s a chance for dress up; though the children didn’t actually dress up on this visit, the house is a bit dark which added an eerie feel, they didn’t want to stick around too long upstairs. With short films available in a room at the back taking you through how the house was opened, archaeology days and the like.

 

 

 

 

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There is a lot more information to be found on various signs around the gardens and also in the courtyard by the Granary shop and kiosk (which we didn’t use on our visit, as we didn’t have need to). You can find a lot of information about the history and uses of the estate and some of the history of the chapel, as well as some information about agriculture.

 

 

 

 

The chapel is in ruins, but still has 4 walls and and is in good enough a state to get some kind of feel for space and layout. And previous archaeological digs have found remnants that give an indication of how it would have looked, so there are pictures of that too. The children thought it was very cool to see the font in position in the chapel. More history about the property and the site can be found at their website here.

 

 

 

 

The grounds are vast and as such we didn’t cover much of them, there are many walks but we didn’t come prepared for off-roading with Caitlin (we had the standard town-friendly wheelchair, and no carrier). We did try, but after rolling through a lot of sheep poop, and flicking it everywhere as the wheels spun, we decided to call it quits and hope that we may be able to get back there on another day for a walk (perhaps with Bruce, so he can share the carrying duties hehehe).

 

 

 

Whilst we were there, they were running the “Make do and mend” trail, where the children got to hunt for different things whilst learning about how people used to make do and mend. They found it both interesting and fun and were excited to chose their prizes at the end. It was an additional cost of £2.50.

This is a genuine review and all opinions are based on my own experiences during the visit. The National Trust are not funding my visits, we have a year annual pass that was gifted by a family member as a Christmas present, hence our numerous National Trust visits. 

Review: Croft Castle and Parkland (National Trust Property)

As we received a National Trust membership for Christmas, we have been aiming to visit as many properties and locations as possible. Thanks to the move and the slightly disappointing time we have been having housing and health wise this hasn’t been achieved to its fullest potential, so we are giving it our all before Christmas if we can.

Croft Castle was the first of a run of these undertaken, and here’s what we thought:

Entered via a very long single track driveway down into the parkland, you instantly get the feeling of how vast and extensive the parkland is. Situated deep within the countryside it is surrounded by vast amounts of mostly unspoiled beauty. The car park is situated slightly ahead and to one side of the main house.

 

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The grounds are very clean and tidy, well presented and welcoming. With various different areas to explore, including a walled garden, various other gardens, a chapel, many walks and the main house of course.


 

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The house has 1000 years of history, which I shall not spoil, if you want to know more about the history/background you can ready it at the National Trust’s page here. The children enjoyed that it was not roped off inside, meaning they could get right up to everything and see it all. In the main house there was even a little “spot it” type guide for the children to draw interest and focus in each room (this was for fun, and as such was free).

As it is the UK Summer Holidays, there was also a fun trail (with prize) for the children to do, which had them going from one place to another to find clues, puzzles or riddles to untangle, or tasks to perform, and get an answer sorted on their trail booklet. Once all was finished they were able to choose a prize (this was at an additional cost of around £2 on top of the entry fee per child). It was well thought out, very well sign posted and very clear for them to do. They really enjoyed it.

 

We can make no comment about the eateries on site as we did not utilise them. But we did see a cool little park (where they’d even built a mini castle). The toilets near the cafe/park were clean and well equipped.

The site was accessible for a wheelchair on the most part, and seemed quite family friendly. If your children like exploring and don’t need things to be overly stimulating to enjoy. If they like things to be electronic and very interactive then it is perhaps not the place for them.

Review: West Midlands Safari Park

First I have to say, I am always very conflicted about places such as zoos, aquariums and safari parks. Like, I understand that many can do great work with conservation projects and endangered species, or even rehabilitation efforts with rescue animals that have been hurt, kept illegally or abused to the point of not being able to return to the wild. But there are also many that are terrible, keeping animals in poor, cramped conditions; caring more about profit than animal welfare. But after a debate in a recent Eco Kids magazine about the positives and negatives of zoos and the like. And actually I decided if I want the children to make an informed choice they’ll need to experience it themselves and draw their own conclusions.

With that in mind, the following will ignore my underlying moral and ethical conflict to the extent that I would consider “fair”; that is to say, if I comment on what I feel is not ethical, it’s above and beyond the “normal” level of conflict within me.

So West Midlands Safari Park happened.  The  safari itself is well thought out, with many animals experiencing a relatively “wild like” atmosphere. I am not keen on the fact that you can feed some of the animals, it takes away from the “wild” for the animal, and is purely indulgent for the humans involved. And can end in reactions that can scare or hurt the animals. That said, on the safari drive itself, although they don’t have the masses of land they’d perhaps have in the wild, the animals all do seem to have a fair amount of space, shelter food and care. But in general the overall experience of the safari itself is quite good, the animals look happy and healthy on the most part.

The walk through area contains: Penguin Cove, Sea Lion Theatre, Lorikeet Landing, Reptile World, Creepy Crawlies, Seaquarium and Twilight Cave.

The Penguin Cove does have a medium sized pool, a “beach” area and some caves. The penguins are seemingly able to retreat from spectators, the area looks well maintained and the penguins seem happy and healthy. They have balls etc. in the water to play with. The keepers to timed penguin feeds for spectators to watch, we never attended so I cannot comment on this.

The Twilight Cave, Creepy Crawlies and Seaquarium are all housed within the same building, in a “route through” style. You can skip the Twilightcave if you do not wish to go through (it is dark, damp and has bats flying around, so if bats flying or dark, damp, strong smelling rooms are an issue – for Caitlin they are – you can by pass this). It is a large room, with freedom of movement for the bats and plastic flaps that prevent the bats from escaping. It’s not possible to see much in it, but we have been there as the room’s cleaning is just finishing – so they do ensure the place is cleaned. The Seaquarium is setup with fish tanks containing the usual suspects you’d find (nothing like an Octupus in a cramped tank or anything) and Creepy Crawlies contain usual suspects of spiders, snails, ants, stick insects etc. All of the tanks looked well maintained and clean and filled with fresh supplies of relevant food and water sources.

Similarly the Reptile World seemed adequate, clean and well supplied. I struggle personally with the size of the crocodile enclosures, and perhaps some of the larger snakes (but I don’t have sufficient training and professional background to criticise the adequacy of it all – so please do just understand that is just my personal struggle).  We have not visited Lorikeet Landing.

In all of the areas you will find masses of information about all of the animals, also access to hand cleaning facilities if you have come into contact with animals etc.

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The Sea Lion Theatre provides “shows”, which are described as part of the sea lions’ enrichment program. It is packed with educational information regarding sea lions. I cannot comment further on this, as shows are an area I do not morally agree with beyond being conflicted.

Near to the Sea Lion Theatre is the entrance to the Ice Age exhibit. This is a large area of models, information and animatronics applicable to, and representative of, the Ice Age. The children absolutely loved it (Caitlin in a slightly conflicted way, as she’s still at that young-naive, “it’s alive” kind of stage). You get to walk through the smoking volcano on your way in, and there are cracks with Lava under your feet (along with rumbling sound affects). And then an adventure through the Ice Age area, complete with little finger-trail Identification games. Then at the end you walk through an Ice cave under the volcano, which is complete with its own little “secret tunnel” which the children loved going through. Even a small child’s wheelchair could fit through.

But one of the things that got them very silly and laughing we signs like the below. “No smoking. Only the volcano has permission” and “Keep to the paths. If not, the mammoth may tread on you and that might make their feet sore.” There were many others too.

 

The Land of the Living Dinosaurs had similar signs too. And was equally enjoyable. Similar to the Ice Age exhibit it is filled with models, animatronics, information and finger trail identity games. Unlike the Ice Age area though, it has a large sand pit for fossil discovery, a themed shop and a geyser sure to attract some attention. Again the children absolutely loved it (even with Caitlins slight fear that the raptors would eat her). It’s definitely a well thought out area, and fun for all ages.

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What was also fun was noticing the evolving foot prints on the floor, on the way in and way back out… see below gallery.

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Once you are through this area you cross a small, private road (with zebra stripes on the zebra crossing) which takes you over to the theme park, the Boj Giggly Park (for the little ones), the Hippo Lakes and the African village. Despite more than one visit (you get a free return included in your ticket) we didn’t have time to do everything. We did see the meerkats briefly, and breeze past the hippos and park, but didn’t really take time there. The children, were naturally, drawn to the rides, and that’s where we spent much of our remaining time.

You can purchase ride wristbands to get unlimited rides, and really, if you plan on going on rides this is the advisable thing to do. You just show your wristband and on you get. They have quite a selection of rides you can go on, from carousel-based rides and a kiddy coaster for the littlies, to flying hippos, rhino-coaster and snake helter skelter for the slightly more adrenalin filled littlies to wild water rapids,  twister-coaster and even bigger rides for the even more adrenalin fuelled theme park go-er.

There is clear signage and height checkers around this area so you’ll know what each guest can go on (whether independently or accompanied) including by the wristband exchange area where you’d purchase the wristbands from (so you’ll know if the guests can do what you expect/want them to do). The staff are very efficient at trying to get everyone through and filling up the rides etc. And were all friendly and welcoming; trust me, I know how boring it is to repeat the same safety stuff over and over, and I have been multiple places where actually they kind of show hatred towards guests who mishear/misunderstand/ask questions etc. We did not experience this here.

Then the important bit – food of course…

We only used the Dino Diner. I mean – it has a Jurassic Park feel to it and I have 2 dino mad children. Of course we ate there. The whole restaurant is decorated to have a dinosaur feel, with various dino creatures featuring around the place. The most amazing part of the decoration though was the light shades which are themed as hatched dino eggs. The children honestly wanted to take some home with them. They can not be purchased though – the talents of team they have on park created them. I think the children would lay an egg apiece if I got them a light shade like that each.

But the food. You could argue it’s over priced if you are used to your chip shop, Spoons or McDonals prices, but actually as seasoned day trippers the menu is on par, at the lower end of the scale, of attraction prices (especially when you factor in portion sizes). The first visit saw the adults with “Chip-izza” (a plate of chips covered in pizza topping) – completely by accident, I forgot what was meant to be ordered when I got to the till and end up ordering that – which was enjoyed. And the children ordering their usual “can we get away with it today Mumma?” chicken goujons and chips. The second trip saw us order a platter of sizzling chicken fajitas for 4. Including drinks, dining for 4 was around £30-35. but you can see the prices in the above gallery.

The food wasn’t fast, but it was busy, and still came out within a reasonable time frame (the kids had started moaning they were hungry but weren’t on the verge of meltdown both times, this usually happens within 20 minutes in a busy restaurant so reasonable). The food was ok, good portions as stated before. Not of excellent quality or flavour, but also not bad. For example, the chicken in the fajitas was not bad, but it was tough. But the overall flavour was good.

You can also purchase a guidebook packed full of information about the animals found at the park. I also have to point out that I am aware that safari parks and zoos such as this do important work towards conservation, research and endangered species.

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To summarise. 

Safari park and the walk through discovery trail are mostly good (well maintained, clean and the animals are clearly cared for), it just depends on your moral position on certain aspects. But the Ice Age and Land of the Living Dinosaur exhibits are unquestionably good. Theme park is good, with attentive and friendly staffing, clear signage and ability to purchase unlimited ride wristbands. The food isn’t cheap and isn’t amazing, but it’s on par with other attractions prices and a good portion and isn’t bad either.

*** As an aside. The site is wheelchair friendly (if not hilly in places). And if anyone is visiting with adults/children who have issues with busy places (but feel safe in the comfort of their car) I would say, on arrival head straight to the car park. You can do the Ice Age and Land of the Living Dinosaurs before the Discovery Trail opens, then do the Discovery Trail before the theme park opens and then get that done before people start really coming in and queuing and making it feel busy. The safari itself can be done multiple times if you want and at any point in your day. ***

Review: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (and Dippy the Dinosaur)

Knowing that Dippy the Dinosaur (the diplodocus skeleton normally resident in London’s Natural History Museum) is on tour around the UK (currently at Birmingham), how much my children love dinosaurs and how easy Birmingham is by train I decided that this was a must this summer… so a day trip was planned with my little brother (Max, only 10 months older than Logan).

We were surprised to find out it’s all free. Not just the exhibition to see Dippy, but also the entry to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. So that was a bonus. But I must say, having never been there before, and knowing it’s a free museum, we were pleasantly surprised not only of the quality of the exhibitions on offer, but also the interactivity layout and presentation of the place. It was fantastic. The regret we have is not having planned more time there. But knowing it’s free and easy to get to, I expect there shall be a return visit at some point.

There were various different permanent exhibitions, from Ancient History through to the history of Birmingham There were many artifacts on display, quizzes, electronic interactivity, models, example clothing and fashion as well as sections for the children to play on something related, for example the 1930’s kitchen in the above picture gallery.

Then it was time for Dippy, although it is free entry, you have to book in for your time slot to enter online here. It was a big hall with Dippy being the central focus. Some dinosaur related information and displays around the outer sections of the hall. And then towards the back the children were given the opportunity to write on a brown label, with a message for Dippy to take on tour with him.

The museum itself was about a 5 minute walk from the Snow Hill rail station, but surrounded by a lot of building works. It wasn’t that hard to find as it’s quite centrally located. However, using google maps on my phone for directions we ended up facing the task of getting a wheelchair up a enormous amount of steps. Luckily, Caitlin can walk, so she could get out and be supported up the steps whilst her wheelchair was carried. However, on exit we found that if you enter the museum from Edmund Street this is much more accessible. The Museum itself does have lifts, though the one at the beginning of the museum was the only one in use whilst we were there, so you had to walk back through the exhibition to get back to the lift to go down… or find a way down the stairs. Toilet facilities were good and clean, though had run out of toilet paper by the time we used.

Review: Berrington Hall (National Trust)

We visited Berrington Hall at the same time as visiting Croft Castle (they are within 10 minutes drive of one another).

As with Croft Castle, there is a long drive up to the car park/property and it is surrounded by beautiful countryside imagery. The grounds are immaculate and have various points of interest including the walled garden (which is an area growing edibles), a produce stall, and various walks and trails. And of course the Georgian house. Details of the history etc. can be found on the National Trust page here.

 

 

 

Though there was a definite “roped off” section in the main house, the children still loved it as much as, or perhaps even a little more than, Croft Castle. Though this may have been something to do with the dress up they could do; there are various bits of dress up in the house, from male court-wear to a petticoat for a court mantua dress on the way around, to the dress up room at the end of the tour around the house. Strangely Caitlin suits the look (and unsurprisingly wanted to take the dresses home).

There was also a kids treasure trail on for the summer here too. This one was based on the story of the Robinson Crusoe family, and the kids found this one slightly more interesting than the one at Croft Castle. It was a similar sort of setup, they just enjoyed the puzzle clues more here. Including, having to make a den in the den building area.

The grounds were fairly accessible, though the house would be inaccessible for someone with mobility issues as the house itself is entered and exited via many steps. We did not use the eating and toileting facilities here.

A day trip to London

Sometimes, I wake up with this urge… I’m not sure if anyone else gets it, I’d be interested to know if people do to be honest. But basically, it’s like an itch, I can’t physically scratch it I can only relieve it by succombing to its desire; the desire to escape and explore. I woke up with that itch a couple of months back and, somehow, within the hour we were on a train to London for the day.

The children were most excited, we’ve only been to London once before, and it’s a couple of hours by train; after getting all the way into London and across to Statford (we were going to the Olympic park), Caitlin decided to trip over her own shadow and smash her nose, forehead and lip up on a storm drain. It was awful, there was lots of blood. So, we only, really, got to London, rode on the tube and used a toilet and came home (then spent several hours in A&E).

That was over a year ago, and they regularly beg to go back and explore properly. So, there it was, we were on the train. Thankfully it was easy to get out of the house because we could eat breakfast on the train, we always have bags ready to leave packed with a crayon roll and sketch pad, threading boards, finger knitting and some books. They just had to add waterproofs and a water bottle and we were ready to leave, well after getting dressed of course; London accepts quite a bit of diversity… but I think, even there, a family day out in PJs is a bit extreme (especially if you saw the state of our PJs).

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The excitement levels were through the roof, so a journey of over 2 hours meant their bags came in very useful indeed. And, honestly, with children who don’t self-regulate well, it is quite welcomed. They also add some familiarity to the day and keep a feeling of consistency to the day; children with attachment issues, can present with issues much like children on the Autistic Spectrum, so a change to their normal routine, going somewhere new, this can be an issue. Knowing that this can be problematic, the bags were introduced, we set them up, and they come everywhere with us… and we adventure A LOT. This will hopefully give them the skills to eventually approach unknown places and situations with confidence. Also, showing that I have no fear exploring (I really don’t) helps; the children got really confused when we moved to a new house and I got lost, they honestly believed I knew everywhere because of the adventures we go on.

Millenium Bridge

We discussed our options for the day and, between the children decided, they wanted to see the Millennium Bridge, explore some art, see some dinosaurs, see the London Eye and go on a treasure hunt. Challenge accepted… once we arrived, we caught the tube down to Blackfriars, walked across the Millennium Bridge, explored the Tate and then had lunch in the Café. After letting lunch go down, we had a lovely walk Thames-side across to Waterloo to look at the London Eye and play in the park before catching the tube to South Kensington and having an explore around the Natural History Museum, where we explored the dinosaurs followed by using the map to find “the Vault” and see the treasure. Yes! I ticked every box… see – no fear.

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We headed back to Paddington for our return home, early so we could eat dinner at the station; this was going to be the real test as we wouldn’t be able to catch the train until their normal bed time, meaning that by the time we were home and ready for bed, they were going to be 3 hours late for bed. But it all worked out fine, a little crabbiness from Jessa was filtered out by napping, and for a treat they were allowed their Kindle Fire to watch movies/play games on the train. They barely get screen time, so it was such a treat that it was sufficient to get us home.

Good to know we can, if we want to.