By Anna Marie Roos

The Waterlily House is just one of the many different houses and gardens that visitors can enjoy while at Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens

London is a wonderful, exciting lollapalooza of a place, but sometimes you and your family want to leave the city behind.

All the destinations featured are a short train or car ride away from central London, offering delights for all ages and interests.


Fancy a trip to the beach? And how about touring a royal pavilion with Indian domes and minarets, munching on fish-and-chips made of that day's catch, and sampling "Brighton rock" at a Victorian pier? Brighton, the United Kingdom's "pleasure dome," offers a day out with sea breezes, local bohemian color, architectural wonders, and a little something for the child in all of us.

Your first stop should be the Royal Pavilion, first built by King George IV in 1787 as a weekend getaway dedicated to the pleasures of the seaside. The outside, designed by John Nash, is a fairy tale of Taj-Mahal like domes, decorated minarets, and lacy ironwork. The pavilion's lavish interiors feature Chinese motifs of gilded dragons and faux-bamboo staircases that blend the exoticism of Asia with a pinch of English eccentricity.

If you have kids in tow (or even if you don't), two museums are worth a visit. First, a stone's throw from Brighton's amazingly intricate Victorian train station is the Brighton Toy and Model Museum. Old model trains chug through the museum, scale model airplanes fly from the ceiling, and cabinets feature a collection of antique dolls and dollhouses, teddy bears, tin-plate cars and boats, and 200-year-old model farmyards. Over 10,000 antique toys are on display, and the museum periodically offers authentic Victorian "magic lantern" shows. The shop has a huge range of toys, from pocket delights priced at 40 pence, to marionettes made by local artists for £55 (I liked the frog), to rare vintage teddy bears selling for four figures.

The National Museum of Penny Slot Machines on the beach near Brighton Pier, is Britain's only public vintage penny arcade. The museum houses more than 40 fruit machines, fortune tellers and strength testers dating from 1895-1945. Just 50 pence buys you seven old pennies (before British money was decimalized) so you can play with the machines and enjoy this trip down memory lane.

Then of course, there is Brighton Pier. Opened in 1899, with gilded filigree ironwork arches and a wide promenade offering exceptional ocean views, Brighton Pier is a theme park on the sea. The "Palace of Fun" offers the typical arcades and booths selling hard candy (Brighton Rock) and cotton candy (candy floss), as well as the Super Booster that lets you experience some stomach dropping G-forces while swinging perilously close to the water. If you want maximum adrenalin, this is the ride for you, but not right after lunch.


Leeds Castle is not in the city of Leeds at all, but in Kent, a lovely and bucolic county convenient for a day trip from London. Originally built in the ninth century as a royal manor, Leeds Castle was transformed by Henry VIII into a pleasure palace for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. While adults will appreciate its splendid gardens, rich tapestries, and historic paintings, children will love the enormous Knight's Realm Playground with a wooden castle, Maiden's Tower and Secret Tunnels. A toddler's play area provides a safe and fun environment for the littlest ones. Older children will enjoy a balloon ride which provides stunning views of the countryside and the castle, built on two islands on the River Len. There is also a challenging maze, secret grotto, and an aviary, which features falconry demonstrations and rare black swans paddling in the moat.

For animal lovers, Leeds Castle has the weird and wonderful dog collar museum. Poet Alexander Pope provided the collar inscription for the dog belonging to King George II's son "I am his Highness' dog at Kew: Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?" If you have a special occasion to celebrate, Leeds Castle does wonderful birthday parties in the castle dining room, complete with a "throne" for the birthday boy or girl to sit upon while they enjoy their ice cream and cake.


A perfect destination to enjoy the tranquility of nature, Kew Gardens is the jewel in the crown of British public gardens. Considering Britain is the land of horticultural obsession, that is saying something.

Set in a leafy London borough, Kew Gardens is a 300-acre site with one of the world's largest Victorian glasshouses featuring a delectable variety of rare and edible plants. In a steamy jungle atmosphere, kids can see bananas growing on trees, coffee beans ready to be picked, and coconuts dangling above their heads. The lacy Victorian wrought iron staircases allow you to walk among the treetops.

The Palm House and Princess of Wales Conservatory are also worth a visit, as they feature aquatic tanks with freshwater stingrays and water dragons zooming about in their habitats, as well as a brightly colored coral reef with a treasure of sea creatures to marvel at and discover. There are also different climatic zones in the conservatory, including a desert landscape with giant cacti right out of a Texas ranch, a nice refuge in a drizzle.

If you or your kids want to experience life as a hobbit (or just blow off steam), check out the Badger Sett where food stores, sleeping chambers and nests are connected by a warren of human-sized tunnels. Kew also features Climbers and Creepers, the first interactive play zone in the United Kingdom for budding botanists. Children can get "eaten" by a giant pitcher plant or make like a bee and crawl into a plant to pollinate it.

For the historians in the group, Kew Palace on the garden grounds is a must-see. Built in 1631 by a wealthy Dutch Merchant, it became the family home of King George III who ruled during the American Revolution. Recently reopened to the public after 10 years of restoration, it is intimate as palaces go. Venue for a recent birthday party for Queen Elizabeth II, it's the place to glimpse the private life of the monarchy. Particularly charming is the dollhouse built by King George III's daughters.

If the 300 acres prove too much for your feet, there's a little steam train to take you around the grounds, and some stunning gardens for a gentle stroll, including the Japanese garden complete with cherry trees and a slender, ornate pagoda.


After taking tea with the Queen, you can build a model spaceship. Well, not quite, but almost! Windsor Castle is one of the Queen's official residences with a magnificent art collection, while LEGOLAND in Windsor features over 50 rides, shows and workshops about -- you guessed it -- building with LEGOs. This is a kid's paradise, primarily aimed at the under 12 set, and it takes all day to visit.

At the Robolab workshop, children are shown how to build their own animated machines, or they can watch master model builders make representations of the Crown Jewels as well as a model of the cockpit of a Boeing 747. Miniland uses 35 million of the ubiquitous plastic blocks to reproduce the Tower of London and Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and the canals of Amsterdam, as well as many other famous European landscapes. If only world travel was always this easy!

In addition to building, children can also learn to pan "gold" (fool's gold mixed with sand), "pilot" a hot-air balloon, "steer" a boat though a series of canals (not as easy as it looks, trust me!) and learn the tricks of the trade -- the magician's trade that is -- with a backstage sneak peek at how magicians saw a lady in half or make coins disappear. If the kids want a "driving license," they can get that too (without parental heart palpitations), by driving a LEGO car around a set of tracks complete with traffic lights and road signs. There are also shows throughout the day that range from traditional fairy tales for the little ones to live action extravaganzas featuring a LEGO character called Johnny Thunder.


A journey to the "dreaming spires" is a delightful day trip from London. Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland fans won't be disappointed. The medieval colleges exude history and learning, and the students give Oxford an air of youth and vitality.

To get a lay of the land, take an open topped bus tour of Oxford right from the train station. Your ticket is valid all day, and you can hop on and hop off as you see the sites. If your children are old enough to handle a walking tour, Oxford-on-Foot offers excellent themed tours, including ghost walks, Inspector Morse walks, J.R.R. Tolkien tours, and of course, Harry Potter sojourns.

Wild about Harry? Take a tour of the Duke Humfrey, part of the Bodleian Library. Named after Duke Humfrey of Gloucester, it served as Hogwarts library and is all old bookstalls, manuscripts, leather folios chained to the shelves, and medieval stained glass. Downstairs the chapel for the Divinity School became the Hospital Wing where Harry recovered from his jousts with Voldemort. For older travelers, the Bodleian Library store is a splendid place to get stationery, postcards, bookstands and fabulous scarves. The Duke Humfrey is available for viewing only via private tours, held daily. Details are on the Bodley Shop's Web site or contact:

The cloisters at Christchurch College were also used in the Potter films, and its Great Hall was reproduced by movie magic. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll and author of Alice in Wonderland, was a mathematics professor at Christchurch. His dean Henry Lidell introduced Carroll to his daughter named Alice, and the rest is history. If you'd like to visit Christchurch yourself to follow the footsteps of Carroll or the boy wizard, check out the "Behind the Scenes" tour, which must be reserved. Contact the Head Custodian at +01865-276492 or email:

Alice fans or dinosaur fanatics should see Oxford's Museum of Natural History, one of Carroll's frequent haunts. Surrounded by giant prehistoric skeletons and stuffed fish, a display case in the Great Hall contains the most complete remains of the dodo bird, which inspired Carroll to create a dodo character in the Alice adventures. The Natural History museum also has a collection of his letters and illustrations, and there are numerous children's activities. When I was there recently, children's book illustrator Korky Paul was signing books and drawing animals to the delight of many young visitors. Next door, the Pitt Rivers Museum of Archaeology, a treasure trove of artifacts arranged in delightfully old-fashioned cases, also has "Pitt Stops" or drop-in family activities the first Saturday of the month and during school holidays. Kids can make totem poles, learn to play the African game of mancala, make Native American dreamcatchers or learn about medieval armor.

Lastly, if the weather is fine and your children are older, consider punting down the Thames. (Punts are shallow-bottom boats propelled by long poles). Punting is Oxford's classic recreational activity and a great way to explore the city and surrounding countryside. [Read about a family of four's first-hand punting experience.]


The Watercress Line is a steam engine heritage line that runs from Alton to New Alresford in Hampshire, named because it was used at one time to transport locally grown watercress to London. The normal steam train runs take you through 10 miles of glorious English countryside, with cream teas on board, or a "real ale" tour. At Easter and in August, a special train appears from the Isle of Sodor -- Thomas the Tank Engine. Arrive early and bring a picnic lunch because this is an all-day event with Thomas racing Diesel, and visits from Mrs. Kindly, the Fat Controller, the Policeman and the Vicar. Best of all, Thomas will give you a ride in style.

Thomas is very popular, so reserve tickets via email: or call +01962-733810.


Winter in London: Chilly Weather, Warm Memories

Brighton England: Fun, Sun and Candy Floss

London's May Fair Hotel Rocks


© Anna Marie Roos

Travel | Family Friendly Day Trips From London | European Travel Guide