WHO WENT Liz Todd and her daughters Catherine, 3, and Hannah, 1
WHERE WE WENT Rye Meads nature reserve and St Michael's Manor Hotel
WHY WE WENT
Kids of all ages love being outdoors - the playground, park and beach are all favourite destinations. The RSPB is the country’s largest nature conservation charity and they are working hard to inspire us all to spend more time in the natural world. Our children are three and one, a bit young to hike up mountains. But they love mud, bugs, puddles and birds so we headed to two RSPB sites in Hertfordshire for our date with nature.
THE NATURE RESERVE
Our first stop was Rye Meads Nature Reserve, just outside London and close to Ware, Hertfordshire. It’s a wetland reserve by the River Lee, filled with ponds, streams and reedbeds teeming with birds and other wildlife. RSPB volunteer Simon took us on a guided walk and his enthusiasm was fantastic. He eagerly pointed to the ducks on the water, naming each one but also helping us to spot things for ourselves. His knowledge on birdsong was brilliant and as we paused to listen to chirps and tweets it was great to learn some of the bird names.
Three-year-old Catherine proudly strode along the buggy friendly footpaths with her own binoculars, one of many pairs available to borrow at the reserve. She had her own spring bingo sheet to fill in, scribbling happily when she spotted a nestbox, bees and a ladybird.
I was nervous about taking an energetic toddler and babbling baby into one of the many bird hides - would more serious birdwatchers throw us out for disturbing the peace? On the contrary, people were happy to share their stories and help us spot birds as they flitted about.
I was expecting an unwelcoming wooden hut but the hides themselves were great. They were painted with bright wildlife-themed murals and had information cards with photographs to help novices identify what might have just flown past. One-year-old Hannah had a wonderful vantage point sitting high up in the back carrier. She loves pointing at birds and it made a change to see something more exciting than the slightly mean-looking seagulls we encounter in our hometown by the sea.
After our wildlife walk we headed to the visitor centre to get creative. Rye Meads, like many reserves, holds regular art events for children, and Catherine enjoyed making a fluffy yellow chick with the staff while Hannah emptied and refilled huge boxes of felt tip pens and crayons from the well-stocked shelves.
The Date with Nature team had plenty of telescopes set up including child-friendly ones extra-low down, as well as binoculars to borrow and a camera installed on the island capturing live footage of the chicks in the heronry. The parent birds looked so graceful as they swooped across the water that it was fun to see them clamber through the branches on their long, ungainly legs. We loved our close up view of the chicks too. We marvelled at how big they already were at just a few weeks old, and were surprised at how much noise they made - a loud ‘agagagagag’ as they called for food.
Once again it was a pleasure to chat with RSPB staff and volunteers. If you don’t feel like ‘an expert’ on nature it can feel daunting not being able to answer your child’s questions. Everyone we spoke to put us at ease and they shared their knowledge with passion and enthusiasm, which is exactly what children (and grown ups!) respond to. We left with our own eager plans to get closer to nature, armed with a brilliant bug hunting kit for creepy crawly inspections and the RSPB’s wonderful First Book of Birds to help the girls identify some feathered friends.
St Michael’s Manor Hotel is close to the centre of St Albans and has its own lake - when we arrived we spotted a heron poised silently at the water’s edge, hunting for fish for its young.
It is hard to believe the manor house and its immaculate five-acre grounds are only a 20-minute train ride from London, because it was so quiet and peaceful we felt as though we were in the middle of the English countryside. I needn’t have worried about taking our two cherubs to somewhere so elegant - the staff were so incredibly welcoming and friendly I was soon put at ease, even when one-year-old Hannah protested loudly as she tried to escape up the grand staircase.
We stayed in the Junior Suite, in the Sycamore room (all 30 rooms are named after trees in the grounds) which was big enough to include our king size bed, a travel cot and fold-out sofa bed for three-year-old Catherine.
We all loved the food, sitting on a sunny terrace overlooking the private lake for our dinner. The kitchen staff were happy to prepare smaller meals for the children, altering a dish so it contained fewer green vegetables (heaven forbid the toddler should be made to eat peas!) and supplying child-sized cutlery. My husband and I enjoyed our delicious and carefully crafted desserts later, ordering room service once the children had gone to bed. The staff were wonderful, creeping silently into the room so as not to disturb our sleeping beauties.
Breakfast in the orangery-style Lake Restaurant was a treat - like so many parents we normally restrict ourselves to self-catering holidays, worried about straying into the grown up world of hotels with two small children. St Michael’s Manor has been owned and run by the same family for 50 years and the welcome we received for our little family was first class.
WHAT TO EAT
When it comes to a traditional pub lunch, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans has been in the business a while. It’s thought to be an 11th century structure on an 8th century site and according to the Guinness Book of Records is the oldest pub in England.
The quirkily shaped building is full of nooks and crannies and little sections filled with benches perfect for enjoying a pint. We ordered Sunday roast and marvelled at the huge portions - even the children’s meals were supersize.
It sits right on the edge of Verulamium Park, perfectly placed to satisfy our hunger after our morning of birdwatching. And as we helped the children with their dinner, we couldn’t help but be reminded of the hungry heron chicks clamouring for more.
Experiencing the great outdoors means being kitted out in the right gear whatever the weather - we wanted the wellies on before we jumped out of the car. We test drove the new Vauxhall Meriva Exclusiv, a family car which promises flexibility and space. The most obvious feature was the impressive rear-hinged back doors, which made dealing with car seats - and the wriggling children in them - a doddle. The front doors opened extra wide too, creating an enclosed space to the side of the car where we could zip up coats and adjust waterproofs. The FlexSpace rear seats slid back and forth, giving us more space in the boot. Vauxhall’s genius FlexFix bike rack was a masterpiece of engineering and design, cleverly hidden in the rear bumper and incredibly easy to use.
There are 200 RSPB reserves across the country and many more Date With Nature sites staffed by enthusiastic volunteers and wildlife experts eager to share their knowledge. Find out more at www.rspb.org.uk and visit rspb.org.uk/events/day_trips for dates and locations of RSPB day trips around the country throughout the year.
Vauxhall’s new Meriva Exclusiv 1.4i 16v VVT Turbo (120PS) costs £18,325 on the road.
The Junior Suite at St Michael’s Manor Hotel in St Albans is suitable for two adults plus two adults or children on the sofa bed. Prices start from £275 including bed and breakfast. To book visit www.stmichaelsmanor.com
Sunday lunch at Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans costs £11.95. There are highchairs and a children’s menu available.
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