HAMPSHIRE: Fun Days Out

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By Tim Saunders

Days out are a good way of spending time together, experiencing something new but also keeping the children occupied, taking some of the strain away from their addled parents.

With this in mind a day trip to the Isle of Wight sounds like just the ticket. It can take close to hour travelling from Southampton or Lymington, which does eat into a day trip. We were excited to discover that Hover Travel flies passengers from Southsea to Ryde in just 10 minutes. We’ve never been on a hovercraft. It is a very similar experience to travelling by ferry but considerably quicker.

We board at 1030am. Our three children sit altogether while Caroline and I sit behind. When all passengers are seated the craft rises slightly and rotates speeding off towards Ryde on the Isle of Wight. The outward journey is pretty smooth. It’s a fascinating mode of transport and if you don’t look out of the window you don’t even realise that you’re above the water. Little Henry (3) is mesmerised by the fact that he is actually inside this craft that until now he had only experienced by watching Grampy Rabbit’s Hovercraft on Peppa Pig.

Travelling as foot passengers is a rarity for us because we usually rely on a car. So the idea of queuing for a bus is an unusual activity. But this whole experience does us all the world of good. Realising that patience is a virtue. A bit of waiting does no one any harm in this rush dash world we live in.

On arrival we walk over the bridge and down to the bus station where we board the number 9 to Wootton Station. We all sit at the front on the top deck and the children love it. It takes about 20 minutes. This stop takes us to a station that is serviced by the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, which operates four stations on the island.

We travel to Havenstreet, about 10 minutes away. It’s an ingenious form of transport. Sitting in our third class carriage we are transported back in time and imagine what life was like then. Ah, no mobile phones. The puff of the steam, the whistle, the guards in their uniforms… There is such passion that has long since evaporated on the mainline electric trains. And of course this service is run and kept alive mainly by volunteers, who really love what they do.

If time allows you can spend all day riding the trains. However, unfortunately, time does not allow and so with one eye on the watch we have to prioritise.

We visit Haven Falconry, just a short stroll across from the station and in the field ahead of us there is a display. Some red kites are flying and their handler informs us that these African birds have a reputation for being able to eat in flight and also have the nickname of ‘firestarters’ due to their ability to pick up burning bits of wood and then drop them in order to capture fleeing animals. “Do not eat anything whatever you do,” the handler warns us. “They have been known to even get food out of people’s mouths.”

No fear we won’t eat our packed lunches then, until we know it’s safe. We head into the centre and are advised to wait 15 minutes until the birds are back in their cages.

Meanwhile we walk around looking at the birds. Scops Owls are called Transformers because they can shrink to half their size or even double their size if they feel threatened. But it is the Great Grey Owl that really captures our attention as he turns his head all the way round. A lovely, wise creature, much like Daddy, I insist. There is an insect area, too which features large African snails and even Indian stick insects.

The weather is good for the entire day which allows us to picnic, at which point a ferret comes out to say ‘hello’.  

After lunch we visit the railway shop and museum where there are a range of train sets for the enthusiast no matter how old they are. The museum itself is a great place to spend time acquainting yourself with all things train related. Sadly there isn’t a huge amount of time and the children haven’t got the attention span to hang around.

At the Train Story Discovery Centre we learn about the history of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway and how it was started by a group of teenage enthusiasts wishing to save the steam trains. What an achievement. This is a magnificent place where there’s a full size model train that children and adults alike can pretend to drive by stoking the coal. They can even dress up as a train driver. So Henry (3) and Harriett (8) do.

There are carriages and trains that you can walk around and listen to engaging audio stories, enhancing the experience. The children thoroughly enjoy running around this large centre, which includes a little wooden train set for the children to play with. Distressed railway carriages are lovingly restored to their former glory by staff and volunteers, who are preserving some of our important past.

Time to head for the play area. It’s funny because early afternoon tends to be tired time for Henry and yet he is so full of enthusiasm he seems to overcome any lethargy and runs like billyo to the train shaped climbing frame and then the swings. Meanwhile the girls venture to the woodland stage where Caroline enjoys a good chuckle when she sees light hearted sayings in and around the trees. “It is all in close proximity,” she says. “Which is great because it means I don’t have to walk too far.”

After a couple of days rest we venture to Winchester, only about half an hour from our home. There we visit Winchester Discovery Centre and see an excellent exhibition by designer Orla Kiely. A Life in Pattern delves into the designer’s world and is a visual feast of many colourful and inspiring fabrics. Dresses, handbags and even seat covers feature her unique 1960s inspired designs. We learn that she has even collaborated with Citroen. We shall buy some of her cushions for our new sofa.

At the Theatre Royal Winchester we see The Gruffalo, The Witch and The Warthog starring the award winning author Julia Donaldson. It is quite something to see Julia on stage performing in front of us. She has sold over 13 million copies of The Gruffalo and written more than 200 books. Not only can she write but she can perform, too. In fact she has been a performer for years, having busked her way round Europe in her youth. And what fun this show is. Julia appears on stage alongside her husband Malcolm, who plays the guitar. Her sister Mary joins them together with a couple of friends. They look so comfortable and relaxed. They sing songs and introduce us to some of Julia’s much loved characters such as The Witch, Superworm and finally The Gruffalo. As The Witch Julia dons a wig and sits on a broomstick reciting her story. Little Henry (3) is spellbound especially as it is Halloween time and there’s a witch’s cackle. Afterwards there are songs about The Ugly Five; creatures like the vulture, warthog and the spotted hyena, which highlight their characteristics and teach us some interesting facts. Julia then teases the children by saying, “I’ve covered all my stories and I’ve finished.” The lights go down and there are sighs of, “Oh no you haven’t, what about The Gruffalo?” In time the lights come back up and she becomes the mouse in The Gruffalo scaring away a fox, an owl and ultimately The Gruffalo himself. This hour-long performance keeps the children’s attention throughout and they thoroughly enjoy it.

Afterwards there is a book signing and our children meet Julia, who signs one of her books for them.

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