All aboard the Severn Valley Railway Santa Special

We had the most magical day aboard the Santa Special at the Severn Valley Railway, there’s simply no better way to meet Santa in the Midlands!

We booked our tickets months ago because these are usually a sell out and opted to book a table for four of us. Myself, Arlo, Nanny and Grandad. There are also compartments available for families for up to six people – babies can sit on laps but they don’t receive a gift from Santa. Steam trains alone are magical – but at Christmas it’s like being on The Hogwarts Express in a Harry Potter movie!

Our heritage steam train was specially decorated with beautiful bunting throughout and each carriage was named for one of Santa’s Reindeers, and was ready and waiting at the platform for a prompt departure. The station was just as spectacular too.

We chose to arrive almost an hour early to ensure that we could get a parking space – it’s £4 for the day to park at the station. A brass band was playing, a miniature railway was running around a glorious tree and there so many wonderful original features around the station to look all beautifully decorated for Christmas.

We browsed the gift shop, bought some traditional sweets for the journey and soaked up the buzzing atmosphere, and to make sure boarding was efficient, an MC announced four families names at a time to call them to board the train. We had just enough time to test out Santa’s sleigh to make sure the cushions are comfy enough for the big man himself.

There was no rushing and everyone got a chance to enjoy the platform and board the train comfortably. The trains themselves are beautiful and well preserved. Grandad was delighted because they were just like he remembered trains as a child, with little details such as the door handles and window slides, and all of the original fixtures and fittings were “just like they used to be when I was a child ” It was lovely for grandad to be able to share these memories with Arlo.

It was easy to find our reserved table and lovely to see a decorated biscuit and mince pies left out for us as well as a kids activity book and drink, we stashed our belongings in the overhead space, which was decorated with bunting and baubles along the entire length of the carriage and so we settled in for the journey.

Once everyone was on board we all heard bells ringing and got a glimpse of the big man himself walking along the platform to board the train accompanied by his elves and huge sacks full of toys! This little glimpse meant that all the children were reminded to be on their best behaviour.

The Railway takes you along the Severn Valley and there are some glorious views to be seen, especially on a crisp winter Morning, however the most delightful exclaims for the children came when we went past the elephant paddock at West Midlands Safari Park.

We visited the Safari Park yesterday and for some reason the stars aligned and we happened to be in the elephant paddock as the train went past which I captured on film, but today we were far to busy waving from the windows…. but you get the idea from the clip!

The Santa Special doesn’t stop on the outward journey like it does for the usual timetable however there is an opportunity to leave the train at Bewdley on specific return trains to explore the village.

We went through all of the stations slowly enough to see all of the beautiful decorations and to be greeted by people just like in “the railway children” – we were content to watch the world go by and I packed a bag of toys to keep Arlo occupied on the journey. He was extremely well behaved and I think he has earnt his place on Santa’s “nice” list.

This is the first year Arlo has been truly aware of Santa and Christmas and so this experience was magical for him, and just fabulous for me to see it all come to life as a parent.

Throughout the journey a lovely elf popped in and out of the carriage to remind us to listen out for Santa’s bells and raise a chorus of jingle bells from all of the passengers every now and again, and we also encountered the drinks cart and enjoyed our complimentary hot chocolate (with an optional baileys tot for the adults).

A magician appeared almost out of nowhere and had us all intrigued as he managed to trick all the children by making coins appear and disappear, pencils appearing from behind ears and then turning tuppence into a pot of jam! No idea how he did that and all the grown ups were just as intrigued as the children.

Suddenly we heard a knock at the end of the carriage and the sound of bells grew louder…. Santa’s arrival was announced – he visited every group, taking the time to have a good conversation and Arlo waited patiently for his turn, leaning around the seats and waving his beloved sleigh bell for attention – and then amusing our carriage companions with his own rendition of jingle bells whilst everyone else waited patiently for their turn.

As soon as Santa arrived to greet us Arlo became overwhelmed and was a little bit shy however Santa was extremely patient and had a lovely manner, eventually finding common ground comparing their bell noises, and giving high fives before posing for pictures and then reaching into his sack to gift Arlo a beautiful leopard toy.

Santa’s assistant also gifted us some unique tree decorations as a memento of our day, and the elves who were taking the responsibility for the toy sacks were friendly and chatty as they worked their way through the carriage too – Arlo was beyond excited and overwhelmed by the whole experience.

Before we knew it we arrived back at Kidderminster – Santa was happy to pose for a selfie in front of the steam engine with all of the children waiting and the driver blew steam and the whistle much to everyone’s delight.

The smell of roasted chestnuts inside the station greeted us and we got the chance to soak up more of the festive atmosphere, check out the gift shop and meet the deputy Station Manager to give our positive feedback from our trip.

We had a wonderful morning and most certainly recommend this Santa Special to families across the West Midlands, we will be back to explore the railway and more stations in the summer!

We’re going on a bear hunt – theatre performance at The Mac

This morning we woke up at a ridiculous hour (even earlier than usual) because of the clocks going backwards. Despite my best efforts to stay in bed for a lovely Sunday lie in – it wasn’t going to happen.

By 9am we had had breakfast with dinosaurs, done lots of stickers and stamping and we had read “we’re going on a bear hunt” a dozen times – with lots of songs and actions.

At some point in my sleepy haze I remembered that a flyer had popped through the letter box about a theatre production at The MAC – and so I checked ticket availability online, packed up our bags and we decided to go on a real bear hunt.

Parking for the Mac is plentiful, it’s the same car park for Cannon Hill Park, and is neighbouring the old Nature Centre. I use the parking app’s and there’s a reasonable charge of £2.81 for four hours.

We arrived early, purchased our tickets from the reception/shop area and had time for a second breakfast in the cafe. It was packed but we managed to place our order efficiently, find a table and our food was served in ten minutes – we munched our toast before we heard the sound system give a five minute warning for performance time.

We clambered up the stairs and into the Foyle theatre which is a lovely small theatre with padded bench style seats which were surprisingly comfortable. The seating was unallocated but despite being second row from the back, as it’s such an intimate space this wasn’t an issue. You don’t need to rush to get a good seat and then keep a child occupied for a long time, unless of course you’re in a large group and wish to sit together.

The lights dimmed, and four actors marched in to the room chanting the familiar “we’re going on a bear hunt” rhythm and as soon as they did Arlo was transfixed.

I won’t give you much detail about the performance itself but suffice to say it was a mesmerising show, and truly captured the spirit of the story. The puppets were beautiful and operated in a really unique style which portrayed realistic movement – if you like spoilers then you can check out the official YouTube channel – there’s no filming/photography allowed during the show.

The addition of music was lovely, and delighted Arlo, and when eventually the bear was discovered, it was fabulous to have him bought around to greet everyone in the audience with a roar.

The 45 minutes passed by quickly and I was surprised at how well behaved Arlo was during the whole performance. Being child friendly there was no problem with him loudly roaring and pointing out the different animals which appeared – in fact at a couple of stages audience participation was required and encouraged.

Little Angel Theatre productions are based in London but have various touring shows so check the website as there might be an opportunity to catch a show near you!

I now feel confident that we can go and enjoy more experiences like this together, at £13/£15 per ticket I was reluctant to book ahead originally as it’s hard to predict what kind of mood Arlo will be in, but I no longer have this qualm and am going to make sure I book dates for future events in advance as I’m sure they will sell out. I have no doubts Arlo will share my love of theatre and the performing arts in the future.

We used the changing facilities at the MAC which are always spotless before heading out to walk around the duck pond in the park as we still had plenty of time on the parking meter – and Arlo was happy to chant “we’re going on a bear hunt” and roar at some passers by with delight! Despite visiting Cannon Hill park regularly since I was a child, it always surprises me at how such a beautiful place can exist in the middle of our busy city. If you are visiting it’s a lovely escape from the hustle and bustle, and worth checking the “what’s on” guide.

To book tickets in Birmingham click here

Seals in the City

We were invited to a special evening at the Sea Life Centre in Birmingham to celebrate the arrival of Miley and Boo.

Miley and Boo, who each have medical conditions which will prevent them from ever surviving in the wild, have been fostered from Sea Life Centres in Hunstanton and Scarborough respectively in order to make critical space within rehabilitation hospitals for the coastal sites during their heightened “pup season”, when demand for rescues of common seals in Britain is at an all-time high.

Boo is a five year old who was rescued as a pup with lots of health problems, and despite attempts to rehabilitate, it’s best for him to be kept in the safe care of animal handlers. Miley was rescued at two days old as an abandoned pup and has an underlying thyroid condition which requires daily medication.

Together they now live in a purpose built facility in Birmingham where their presence will help educate millions of visitors about conservation of our oceans.

Their new rescue facility is awe inspiring to behold, as a visitor you get a first glimpse from a pathway through a window where you can see Miley and Boo tumbling and spinning around under water.

The sea life centre itself is designed to be a one way walk through, so before you meet the Seals there is plenty of opportunity to meet other wonders of the world beneath the sea. In fact the first animals to greet you on your visit are Pablo and his pals the Gentoo penguins.

En route there are rock pools, cat fish and sharks to meet, and my personal favourite the seahorses. We opted to head for a “behind the scenes” experience where we learnt lots about how all of the fish are fed. Very interesting for the parents and older children.

As you continue on your journey through the centre, you turn a huge corner and are greeted by a panoramic view of the seal facility, where you can really appreciate the size of the enclosure, and there’s a fabulous little tunnel to climb through for a fully submerged viewing experience – and the seals seemed to love all of the attention, interacting with us as we watched.

There’s plenty more to see and do at the Sealife centre, with the underwater shark tunnel and a 4D movie experience too so you can spend a good few hours soaking up the atmosphere and learning along the way.

The centre publishes a full schedule of feeding times to get a close up experience with informative team members happy to share lots of information.

For tickets and to find out what’s on head to the website. There are various offers including reduced price tickets for toddlers with parents, as well as themed events during the school holidays.

If you are visiting the midlands be sure to take advantage of the combination tickets with other local attractions including the Lego Land discovery centre and Warwick Castle.


Arley Arboretum

What a beautiful place. It was my sisters idea to take all of the kids for a little mini break, so we booked a hotel, packed up the cars and headed off on an adventure for the bank holiday weekend.

Arley Arboretum is in Worcestershire, not too far from the beautiful banks of the river Severn where there are plenty of beautiful rest stops for scenic picnics.

The entrance to the arboretum in a lovely wisteria covered archway which takes you into the entrance courtyard, with a little cafe, outdoor seating and a hut to buy tickets. For an additional £3.50 we purchased a Peter rabbit trail booklet.

What a fabulous idea – the booklet and enclosed stickers have been designed with much thought, to guide you around the grounds following the story and looking for Peter at some of the most beautiful spots, at each location a picture of Peter was hidden with a little Beatrix Potter themed set up and we had to match stickers to the location.

The story began of course at Mr Macgregors garden. The first Peter was hidden in the beautiful courtyard at the first of the greenhouses, with a watering can and so we found the first sticker with the watering can, added this to our map and read the next bit of the story.

This told us to follow the signs – bright orange carrots painted on to signposts in the shapes of arrows pointed the way clearly, and as a little checkpoint we found Peter’s blue jacket in the gardens. At this point Arlo was fully invested….. he knows what a rabbit is and is familiar with Peter Rabbit so recognised the blue jacket and then began to point out the signs as we spotted them along the route.

We walked through the courtyard and through an arch into the grounds, past Mr MacGregors gate to look for Jeremy Fishers pond. This area was nothing short of stunning.

I won’t share all of the details and ruin the surprises, but along the route we met Jemima Puddle Duck, Mrs Tiggy Winkle and other characters from the books before finally finding Peter Rabbit.

The walk took us over an hour to complete, and we slightly overlapped with another route for older children called “the goblin trail” so even without the guidebook we decided to follow the signs for this trail too, because who can resist a fairy door?

Our route took us to retrace some steps back to the park area, and we spent a while here with a picnic, and being followed by pheasants. Throughout the day we’d heard the far off sound of the Severn Valley Railway steam trains and we were delighted to discover that just behind the park, was the perfect grass bank for train-spotting.

We sat and played tumbling down the hill before picking up the goblin trail clues again which led us along a path to a sensory garden, which is a work in progress but full of herbs which we took some time to investigate before heading along an enchanted pathway to the maze.

I took a picture of the maze map before we entered, and it took us a good 45 mins to find the centre and then find our way back out again. The kids loved running through, chasing dead ends and each other – by the time we’d finished here it was time to start a leisurely stroll back to the main entrance.

We took our time ambling through the woods and into the walled gardens, which are beautifully landscaped and home to chickens and peacocks which were free roaming, and we sat for a while on the tree swing just to soak up the surroundings, before heading past the fountains to the cafe.

We showed our completed Peter Rabbit trail sticker books and all of the kids chose their reward from a basket full of chocolate eggs and bouncy balls and all sorts of fabulous prizes, and then we ordered milkshakes and sat outside to enjoy our drinks and review the days “best bits.”

Organised Chaos at Kidtropolis

I don’t know what I was thinking yesterday but I decided to take Arlo and two of his cousins to “Kidtropolis” on my own – and what in theory should have been a fabulous day out almost turned into a disaster.

Before we even entered the event they were all playing chase in the queue, Literally a minute after I took this picture Arlo knocked Logan’s glasses from his face, Logan dropped Arlo. The glasses broke and Arlo then projectile vomited over all of us, whilst surrounded by thousands of people eagerly counting down 10…9…8 until the gates opened.

No big deal, I swiftly got everyone changed into clean clothes (I always carry lots of spares because these things happen)….. a member of staff quickly came over to help clean up the mess and as soon as the kids saw the soft play section all was forgotten.

The under 4’s section was the first we visited, and all the kids ran off in different directions – it was at this point I realised I probably shouldn’t have gone alone with three wildlings….. but it was too late to back out. There was a huge variety of attractions but it was quite difficult to manage the kids expectations, as there were different age restrictions for everything and it wasn’t immediately obvious and the map in the guide book didn’t have clear labels.

There was a huge inflatable assault course, I think this is one of the best I’ve ever seen and the older two went on this one several times. Each of these attractions was managed by an independent company with their own staff, and it seemed as though some were more professional and child friendly than others.

Logan was happy to join Arlo on a mini version in the under 4’s area and he quickly tired out so had his afternoon nap in his stroller whilst we explored some other areas for the older two.

The fair ground ride was a big hit – the boys were so excited and nervous at the same time! The roller blading arena was a fabulous idea – a really slick set up with skates and protective gear available in abundance. They had ten minute sessions and didn’t over fill the space so the kids had a really good time trying this activity out and have asked if we can go to a roller disco again.

I also have to take a minute to praise the bumper cars – I’ve never seen this style of car – the kids picked up the controls quickly and were delighted to discover the big red button with inbuilt water pistols.

Lots of high octane activities, most of which we had to queue 10-15 mins for and only lasted 3 minutes – as a side note I think allocating fewer tickets for each session would have helped to manage the queues and deliver a better experience for all guests – it was a nightmare trying to contain the excitement of the kids on my own, and the queues were a little bit on the stressful side for me.

There were some fabulous promotional areas, the big brands really pulled out all the stops with kinetic sand, messy play, wooden trains and tablets all providing lots of entertainment and this was something we could all participate in – the floss challenge with Phillips was fun and we all received a goodie bag full of surprises which I won’t spoil.

I would love to give the NEC a shining review as it is on my doorstep, and I love to support local attractions but there a few things which really do let the venue down. As this was an event specifically geared towards an audience of children and families it was disappointing to see a lack of catering options inside the event space and also to have to eat our snacks on the floor because there was no seating – next time inviting a kids brand and setting up a pop up cafe (like Ella’s kitchen at the baby event) would solve these problems.

I would also add a child/baby friendly feeding and changing area – one baby change toilet inside the event space was not adequate.

In a timed event session, wandering around the huge NEC concourse to find a subway sandwich or another toilet would have meant missing out on play time so I just made do with what was available.

We didn’t manage to get around the whole event in our four hours, and chose to leave queuing up to “meet and greet” characters, the kids preferred to play on the activities instead – I’m grateful that they made that decision for themselves (phew).

I think this event on paper is literally the stuff kids dream of, but for adults it’s the stuff of nightmares. I think I would probably brave it again, but would have to travel with back up adults and pack more food/drink supplies to avoid paying over inflated prices.

Pretty Fly – Butterfly Farm – Stratford Upon Avon

A Sunday afternoon visit to The butterfly Farm in Stratford upon Avon.

Arlo woke up at 6am this Sunday and had me playing and running around after him all morning. As per usual he started singing “old Mac Donald” so I packed him and our supplies in the car, planning to go to our local child’s farm but he fell asleep en route.

I decided to continue a couple of junctions up the motorway so that he could get his forty winks and turned off at Stratford thinking we could have a little wander around as it was such a lovely day – and I ended up heading to the sports club for parking.

We had a wander over the bridge to get a bite to eat (I can highly recommend The Cox Yard for lunch) before heading to the butterfly farm.

Entry is free for under 3’s and adults are £7.25. I decided to ditch the stroller and head through to the flight area on foot. I was quite surprised at Arlo’s reaction to all the butterflies -he was very interested but also cautious and unsure a first – he wasn’t keen when they landed on him or if they flew too close to his face.

The flight area is like a huge greenhouse full of plants and flowers which the butterflies must love, and every so often there’s a feeding table set up so you can get really close up to look at the colours.

We went through into two side rooms to look at the chrysalis collection – Arlo is way too young to understand the life cycle of a butterfly but for older children this could be a fab learning experience. Arlo watched with wonder as one emerged.

As we continued along the pathway, we encountered a waterfall area and a bridge – it 20p to purchase a handful of fish food from a little machine and Arlo stood blocking the pathway for half an hour as he spotted one of the biggest koi carp I’d ever seen. Butterflies kept landing on him and he was blissfully unaware, until this little one must have tickled him. He stood still so patiently without me having to say “gentle” so he’s finally learning to respect animals and not touch them.

In another side room there were some insects and other creatures to encounter – I won’t ruin the surprise if you plan to visit but don’t forget to look up! Arlo was fascinated with the fish and snakes and kept running back and forth to the tanks….. and then he spent quite a long time watching a dung beetle do its thing before rushing over to a frog and saying “fwwrog” for the first time.

As always you exit via the gift shop, so after a couple of hours we emerged into bright sunshine and Arlo chose a little wooden snake. We sat in the sensory garden outdoors and ate our snacks before bidding our farewell to the butterflies.

If you’re visiting the area it’s certainly a memorable experience to add to your trip – you wouldn’t spend a whole day there, but there is plenty to do in Stratford Upon Avon – you’re a couple of minutes walk away from the boating area, you can get an ice cream, feed the ducks and wander down to the markets in Stratford too. I’ve picked up some leaflets and hope to take Arlo for a theatre experience in the summer.

West Midlands Safari Park

This week we visited the safari park – Arlo is learning new sounds and animal names every day and we’re really keen to encourage this whilst he seems so interested.

The challenge is there’s only so many animals you can see on a day to day basis “in real life” and I’m getting a bit bored of ducks and dogs.

We do as much as we can in terms of books, toys and the dreaded you tube clips of animals but there’s nothing better than an in the flesh experience and the Safari Park is right on our doorstep!

(I designed and made this little busy bag for all the animal toys)

So off we went with a bag full of snacks for Arlo and two cartons of animal feed- and of course he was delighted – it was enough to be allowed to come to the front of the car – he found the radio volume control immediately, but then he realised that there were some huge animals wandering very close by. He kept pointing, and saying “look” – he soon figured out that the animal feed bought the animals closer so he kept reaching into the box to pass some over to daddy and was brave enough to try himself a couple of times.

The safari park itself is extremely well maintained. An adult entry ticket is £24 however this also entitled you to a free return visit. Under 3’s are free and I thought this was fairly reasonable.

After the safari experience we parked up and walked into the grounds, visited the dinosaur exhibition and saw the penguins – we fed the lorikeets (£1.50 for a cup of nectar).

There’s a full schedule of animal encounters in the grounds every half an hour – we went to feed the hippo’s some cabbage before Arlo fell asleep for his nap, so we will revisit to meet the meerkats and lemurs.

We’ve picked up quite a few new animals from the gift shop to put in our busy bag on the way home.

Arlo seems to absorb all of the information from a day trip and we do try to utilise the opportunity – At home we ask him “what noise does a tiger make” or “what colour is a tiger” and he tells us the answers and he is also able to identify and pick up animals we ask for from a selection of animals spread out. Now we’re working on separating a donkey from a zebra and trying to figure out different noises to make for all the big cats.