Disclosure: This post contains advertorial content as part of a collaboration with Visit England x Peppa Pig. All thoughts expressed are my own. We took this trip before we were advised to practice social distancing, but I hope that it will prove interesting for now and useful for later, when we can travel freely around our beautiful country again.
If you have been following this blog for a while, you may have noticed that we have never taken the children abroad. Whilst we recognise the value of overseas travel, our decision to remain in the UK has been motivated by several factors – the biggest is of course money, our airfare would be extraordinarily expensive for a family of seven, not to mention the cost of accommodation and the various costs associated with fully exploring our destination. That said, we also believe quite strongly that there is so much to experience in the UK that we certainly haven’t missed out by choosing to spend our free time here instead. Now that tourism is beginning to reopen in the UK we are looking forward to sharing with you a minibreak that we took earlier this year, in Birmingham, to inspire and encourage you to make the most of your precious summer holiday during this time where we cannot easily leave the country. To make exploring England even easier, VisitEngland have launched their Know Before You Go Hub, designed to ensure that travel is as enjoyable as possible without placing too much pressure on regional attractions, services and health systems. VisitEngland is filled with resources for enjoying days out, minibreaks and holidays in England, so when planning your minibreak do make sure to check out their website!
Our Visit England Minibreak
Birmingham is about three and a half hours by train from our home in Folkestone. My children are all enthusiastic train travellers and tend to behave very well whilst travelling; nonetheless, we planned for them to eat lunch on the longest train (two hours and ten minutes) and packed colouring books, pens and stickers to keep them occupied. We played I-Spy with letters for the five-year-olds and colours for the three-year-olds, looked out of the window at the Imaginary Zoo, practiced word recognition using our phones, took a million and one trips to the onboard toilet and before we knew it, we were in Birmingham! It was a little colder up north and rather drizzly but we had checked the forecast and packed our jumpers and our Peppa Pig wellington boots so we were well prepared.
We stayed at the Staybridge Apartments which was five minutes’ walk from the station and we were soon checked in. The children tested the beds, admired the view from all of the windows, wondered out loud whether the television might feature their favourite shows – and, after not long at all, requested that we venture back out to explore Birmingham City Centre.
The children had never seen a tram before and Balthazar and Lysander were particularly amazed by the concept of a train-like vehicle that shares the road with cars. Half of the fun in travelling with them is in experiencing the journey through their eyes and sharing in the wonder and joy of their new discoveries, and the trams were no exception. The locals must have thought we were quite silly as every time a tram passed us, we all had to stop and wave until it was far off in the distance. After a bit of window-shopping, a quick nip into the supermarket for snacks and nappies, a few games of hide-and-seek down quiet streets and a splash or two in every puddle we could find it was time to make our way to our dinner reservation at Mowgli Street Food. We were so pleased to see that they had an extensive vegan menu, and the servers couldn’t have been more helpful in recommending dishes for us. The children enjoyed their Dal with basmati rice, and then looked longingly at our Puri and the vegan yoghurt ‘Chat Bombs’ until we were convinced to share with them as well. It shouldn’t still surprise me how well they eat outside of the house, but every time I am amazed by their willingness to try new foods in a restaurant setting.
Once we had finished eating and the last of the pineapple juice had been drained, we made our way back to the apartment. The children were tired from their day of travelling and we wanted them well-rested for the following day, so we changed them into their pyjamas and settled them into bed with the promise of a little late night television whilst they wound down. They were thrilled to discover Peppa Pig on the tv, though it wasn’t long at all before the girls were fast asleep. The boys followed not long after, all cuddled up together on their sofa bed.
We awoke at 04.47 to the sound of little voices. It soon became apparent that settling them back to sleep was not on the cards, but the apartment was supplied with a little stash of coffee and that made the early start almost bearable. It was soon time for a little more Peppa at 6am, and then breakfast opened at 06.30. We are big fans of staying at serviced apartments like Staybridge because they offer a little more in the way of space and home comforts than a hotel, but it is so wonderfully convenient to just be able to wander downstairs to eat a breakfast that somebody else has prepared! We had a busy morning planned so I was keen to ensure that the children started their day well-fed. Balthazar, Lysander, Embla and Olympia all had Weetabix made with soya milk, with a sprinkling of Coco Pops as a treat. They also had a bagel, which was still warm, and a glass of orange juice. Baby Vita had a Weetabix and then snacked on a few raisins whilst we adults also had breakfast and a hot coffee. Once our hunger was satiated, we made our way back upstairs to our apartment to prepare for the day.
Visit England had arranged for us to spend the day at Warwick Castle. The castle is less than an hour from Birmingham by car or by public transport so it was a very manageable day trip. We absolutely love a train ride, and the ticket inspector was kind enough to stop to chat with the children and clip their tickets numerous times. The children had never visited a castle before, but we read Peppa’s Castle Adventure to get us in the mood, and all of the little Peppa and George toys gazed eagerly out of the window as towns and countryside flashed by.
We alighted at Warwick Station and a kind stranger directed us up the hill. We were certainly glad for our coats as the lashing wind reminded us how very high up we were! But before we knew it, there – in the distance – was Warwick Castle!
There is so much to see and do at Warwick Castle and we saw families of all ages, shapes and sizes making the most of the many attractions. We explored the Castle interior from towers to dungeons, marvelled at the armoured horses and tried on a knight’s helmet – which was shockingly heavy, even for us adults! It was a fascinating day and an excellent way to bring history ‘to life’ for my five-year-olds. The highlight for all four of the children was in meeting a ‘real’ Princess, who hosted an interactive murder mystery-style storytime with the children and gently lead them to solve the clues that lead to the awakening of a Prince trapped in a mirror, just in time for the Royal Wedding! Both the five-year-olds and the three-year-olds were utterly enchanted, insisted on cuddles and referred to each other as ‘Your Majesty’ periodically through the remainder of the day!
Although it was jolly cold on the hill we had plenty of energy to burn, and our Peppa Pig wellies certainly came in handy for our many games of Hide-and-Seek through the extensive Castle grounds! We had pizza in the Undercroft Restaurant and the staff were very happy to veganise a couple of pizzas for us, although I do think that in warmer weather it would be far lovelier (and less expensive) to take a picnic to enjoy in the grounds.
We had printed Peppa Pig’s 25 Family Adventures Checklist from the Visit England website and it was very exciting indeed to tick off two adventures from our day – being King or Queen of a Castle and Peppa’s favourite, jumping in muddy puddles!
Note: Warwick Castle has reopened for visitors now and is displaying the industry-standard ‘We’re Good to Go’ mark, to reassure visitors that they are following government guidelines.
Dinner that night was at Bodega Cantina and I thoroughly recommend its vegan menu! We started the meal with a delicious mocktail made from oat milk, almond syrup, vanilla and cinnamon, whilst the children enjoyed a fresh orange juice. Embla and Olympia, in particular, were exhausted from a busy day of exploring the castle and not in a mood that was particularly conducive to eating out, so we decided to order meals for the adults – who were quite peckish – and pudding for the children, who were still full from pizza anyway. The servers could not have been more understanding and in virtually no time at all four chocolate and orange tarts materialised, as did our Peruvian Quinoa Chaufa – a delicious stir-fry of tofu and broccoli with a teriyaki quinoa base. It was genuinely one of the yummiest things I had ever tasted, and the children’s pudding was equally gorgeous. I found myself regretting that we hadn’t ordered a meal and pudding for everyone, as the children perked up the minute food arrived and were only too happy to taste, and then devour, my quinoa, and not especially eager to share their tarts!
Once our plates were cleared, we retired back to our apartment and the children didn’t take long at all to fall asleep – and neither did we!
By Day Three of our stay the children were quite used to the morning routine! They were pleased to find that their preferred table for breakfasting was vacant and lost no time in claiming their seats and reminding me of their various dietary preferences! We ate quickly, finished our packing and checked out, leaving our suitcase in the Luggage Room at behind reception. We intended to visit one final attraction before departing back to the South Coast: the National SEA LIFE Centre!
As we walked the mile from the Staybridge Suites to the SEA LIFE Centre, passing galleries and museums, fountains and monuments, I found myself reflecting upon the convenience of staying in such a central location. Although our stay included visits to several attractions with an entry fee, we could just as easily have taken advantage of the many free attractions, enjoyed a picnic lunch and returned to the apartment to prepare dinner. One of the best things about travelling with young children is that they are able to extract so much pleasure from the simplest of things: a change of scene, a ‘treat’ for pudding, a game of Hide-and-Seek in a rainy courtyard whilst you wait for the city to wake up.
We were so glad that we left a little early to visit the SEA LIFE Centre because the walk was one of the highlights of our minibreak. Just like Peppa Pig, my children adore a chance to get a bit wet or muddy and they spent a merry twenty minutes chasing the fountain spray and splashing in the pools left behind!
The SEA LIFE Centre was absolutely magical and I was so glad that we went! My favourite part was the penguins, who were charmingly interactive and fun, though the children preferred the sting rays, jelly fish and the octopus. We all marvelled as we found ourselves walking through the UK’s only 360-degree ocean tunnel, surrounded by Black Tip Reef sharks, rays and a Giant Green Sea Turtle. Right at the exit is a small soft play and the children insisted upon discarding their shoes and coats and disappearing in there for a cheeky half an hour, which gave Kirsty and I a chance to sit down for a bit!
We could have spent longer at the SEA LIFE Centre but we were mindful that we had a long journey home ahead of us, so after a couple of hours we decided to head back to the Staybridge Suites to collect the suitcase that they were holding for us, and from there to make our way to the station to catch our train back to London. We meandered back toward the apartment via the canal and admired the many beautiful canal boats that we passed on our way.
We always try to plan our train journeys so that the longest portion of the trip coincides with a picnic meal, and to serve lots of little ‘picky bits’ that take a while to eat in order to keep them occupied for as long as possible! It can feel rather daunting to take children on long journeys on public transport but we have always been pleasantly surprised by how much they enjoy it and how well they behave on the trip. On this occasion we also brought pens, paper cut-outs and stickers and the children coloured and drew, practiced their writing and – of course- chattered endlessly to each other and with us about all of the marvellous things they had done on their minibreak and what they would tell their friends when they returned to school and to nursery.
Don’t forget that you can check out the Know Before You Go Hub when planning your travel this summer, to assure yourself of a warm welcome when you arrive at your destination!
How are you going to make the most of your England this summer?