The Observer – 25 great things to do this Christmas

Discover how the Victorians celebrated yuletide, perfect your skating skills, make your own decorations or escape the festive madness on a magical walk. Liz Bird has the lowdown on the best family days out this winter.

Liz Bird

Ice-skating at Hampton Court, UK

Muncaster Castle, Ravenglass, Cumbria

Be transported back to the Christmas of 1885 by ’19th-century servants’ on a tour of this historic stronghold. You’ll find out that eating turkey became popular only in Victorian times – previously people in the north of England ate beef, while southerners preferred goose. Mince pies and mulled wine will be on offer while you listen to the butler imparting some Victorian gossip. After your tour, walk around the gardens, which will be decorated with coloured lights and other special effects.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight

Queen Victoria always celebrated Christmas at her palace by the sea. Admire rooms decked out with evergreens, Christmas trees and other opulent decorations on a tour of the house. Kids will love the Swiss Cottage, a miniature chalet with child-sized furniture, where Victoria’s children learnt how to keep house. If it isn’t raining, take a horse-and-carriage ride around the extensive grounds or wear the kids out at the children’s play area.

Palace House and Motor Museum, Beaulieu, Hampshire.

Kids can dress up in period costumes and talk to characters from Victorian times to discover what life was like ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ during yuletide at Palace House, home of the Montagu family since 1538. The house will be festooned with Victorian-style decorations and a Christmas tree and there will be carols around the grand piano in the lower drawing room. Young children will also enjoy the snowman ride accompanied by images and music from Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman.

Hop on a replica 1912 open-topped London bus for a tour of the 38-acre grounds or take a ride on the high-level monorail. More than 250 vehicles are on display, including the Lotus submarine car from The Spy Who Loved Me.

Grottoes with a twist.
National Coal Mining Museum, Wakefield.

Travel 140m down a coal mine to deliver your Christmas list to Santa. Normally under-fives are not allowed on the underground tour but have special dispensation while Father Christmas is in residence. Visit the pit ponies and discover what life was like as a child growing up in Victorian times. A festive menu will be available in the cafe.

Cheddar Gorge, Somerset.

The cathedral-like caverns of Gough’s Cave provide the underground setting for a visit to Father Christmas. While you’re there, marvel at the colours in Cox’s Cave and visit the Cheddar Man and the Cannibals Museum, which tells how our ancestors survived in the Stone Age.

National Museum of Flight, North Berwick, near Edinburgh.

Santa will be residing in a private jet during his visit to this fascinating museum. Visitors can also tour the Concorde Experience, which charts the rise of the supersonic plane, from breaking the sound barrier to arriving here, its current home. Every Sunday at 11.30 am and 2pm the museum also hosts a free toy-making workshop using everyday objects to create cotton-reel tanks or paper planes.

Eureka! Museum for Children, Halifax, West Yorkshire.

Search for Santa in an indoor maze with surprises at every turn, from optical illusions using mirrors, to real snow, at this glass-fronted museum. Father Christmas will be in residence every afternoon from 17-23 December. There are donkey rides in the grounds from 27-30 December and 3-4 January, while the storytelling Snow Queen will take over from Santa from 27 December to 6 January.

Ice, ice baby.
Torquay Synthetic Ice Rink, Devon.

Open-air ice rinks may be increasingly popular but they use a huge amount of energy and water. Torquay has a synthetic rink, which requires no power and is said to be the best surface to learn on, making it perfect for children. Even the Christmas trees surrounding the rink at Beacon Quay will be decorated with low-energy fairy lights.

Warwick Castle, Warwickshire.

Last weekend Warwick Castle set the world record for the longest chain of Santas on an ice trail. The castle forms a dramatic backdrop to the new 250m track through Peacock Garden, which is adorned with lights. There’s also a Victorian steam fair with Noah’s Ark ride and a carousel, carol singers and festive storytelling. Inside the castle, opulent decorations include a 25ft Christmas tree decorated with 1,000 lights in the Great Hall and seasonal plants from mistletoe to poinsettia.

Colwyn Bay, North Wales.

This open-air ice rink, the first of its kind in north Wales, has a roof to keep off any inclement weather. Christmas trees and wooden chalets selling gifts and food add to the festive feel.

Sandringham Estate, Norfolk

A giant undercover ice rink with a separate junior rink, husky sleigh rides and a Christmas fair are just some of the activities available at the first Norfolk Christmas family festival in the grounds of the Queen’s Sandringham Estate.

Winter Walks

Westonbirt Arboretum, Gloucestershire

This spectacular 600-acre tree garden will be bathed in thousands of colourful lights for the annual Christmas illuminations but this time they are powered by bio-diesel fuels and energy-efficient lighting units. There will also be carol singing, Santa visits, Christmas tree sales, mulled wine and roasted chestnuts.

Whisby Nature Park, Lincolnshire

Search for Christmas presents scattered along a self-guided trail around the 200-acre Whisby Nature Park until 6 January. And while you’re there keep a look out for kingfishers, great crested grebe and tufted duck, although the best places to view birds are from the bird hides scattered around the park.

Sheffield Park Garden, East Sussex

Admire the reflection of floodlit trees in the water at this Capability Brown landscaped garden with its waterfalls, cascades and four lakes. Explore the gardens between 5pm and 8pm on 22 and 23 December, and from 27 to 30 December, to see the lights.

Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire

Work off all that turkey and Christmas pudding on a guided Boxing Day walk along the River Bollin on the picturesque Styal Estate. After your bracing walk, visit the working cotton mill, home to the most powerful working waterwheel in Europe, and the Apprentice House, which depicts the life of the pauper children who worked at the mill in the 1830s.

Escape the festive madness.

Tate Liverpool

Be inspired by Turner Prize winner Mark Wallinger’s bear video before creating your own masterpiece during the monthly Great Art Adventure on 30 December at Tate Liverpool. Armed with activity trail kits, families can tour the exhibition, which includes the work of the three other Turner Prize short-listed artists, and answer a quiz before returning to the education studio and devising your own artwork.

Snow Park, Strood, Kent.

Craving some real snow? Get a taste of the white stuff at this newly opened outdoor snow park with two ski slopes, an 80m-long snow tube run, toboggans and a snow play area where you can build snowmen, make snow angels and throw as many snowballs as you like.

Science Museum, London.

Launchpad, the Science Museum’s most popular exhibit, has been revamped and relocated. Among the 50-odd interactive displays is a light table, where you can bounce light around with the use of mirrors, and a thermal imaging camera which you can use to see which bits of your body are warmer than others. Three- to six-year-olds will enjoy the Garden, where they can play with water and giant building blocks.

Conkers, near Ashby de la Zouch, Derbyshire.

If the weather’s a bit unpredictable, this interactive indoor and outdoor woodland play centre in the National Forest makes a great day out. When it’s raining, head for the indoor play area or the new Enchanted Forest, an interactive simulation of life in the forest with spider’s webs, worm tunnels and enormous acorns to negotiate. Outside are lakeside walks, sculpture and nature trails, an assault course, train rides and a playground. This month there’s also a self-guided hibernation trail where you can learn how animals survive in the chilly winter months.

Roald Dahl Museum, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire.

This lovely little museum celebrating the life of the children’s author has a number of creative workshops at the end of the month. Make your own whizzpopping rockets, volcanoes and super bouncy balls during George’s Marvellous Experiments on 28 December (₤ 3 per child – seven years and over). Listen to extracts from Dirty Beasts for inspiration to create your own wiggly creature puppets on 29 December (₤ 2, five and over) or colour in your own bookmark on 30 December (free, all ages).

National Gallery, London

Paint a monster with the help of artist Ansel Krut at free two-hour painting workshops between 27 and 29 December at 11am and 2pm. Five to 11-year-olds can also take part in a mixed-media workshop with artist Felicity Powell. There’s magic carpet storytelling for under-fives, who sit on a magic carpet in front of a different painting each day at 11.30 am between 27 and 30 December. Three free gallery trails include Seeing Things, where children are encouraged to find hidden objects in pictures.

Crafty Christmas

Kew Gardens, Surrey.

Free activities and games using natural or recycled materials will be on offer at Kew’s interactive play area, Climbers and Creepers, every day until 2 January. A games session starts at 1pm and arts and crafts at 2pm and 3pm. The Royal Botanical Gardens is also the setting for a new 12m-diameter dome complete with real snow and an ice rink in front of the Temperate House, the world’s largest Victorian glasshouse.

National Maritime Museum, Falmouth, Cornwall.

Trace your hands and feet to create a 3D picture of Rudolph or make your own North Star, traditionally used by sailors to help navigate the seas. Compete in the Great Santa Boat Race, with radio-controlled boats on the boating pool, while trying to avoid the icebergs (all available on 22 and 23 December from 12 noon to 4pm). After Christmas, design a rocket, fill it with fuel and see it released from the museum’s launch pad between 27 December and 1 January (1pm to 4pm).

Somerset House, London

Make a snow shaker at a holiday drop-in workshop on 20 and 21 December. After creating your glittering souvenir, head to the ever-popular ice rink, which features children’s hour for the first time this year, or sip a hot chocolate and watch the action from the skate cafe.


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