Heidi McAlpin continues her two-week England carcation with children Scarlett (14), Freddie (11) and husband Ray. With Chester, Chatsworth, Lincoln and Norfolk in their wake, the second week sees them exploring Cambridge, Althorp House and Birmingham.
Our non-stop excursion has been a blast, and with another week to go it’s time to hit the road for yet more historic delights, city surprises and lots more family-friendly adventures. And none more so than our next destination.
DAY 10: GO APE AT THETFORD FOREST
Halfway between medieval Norwich and our next overnight, the university city of Cambridge, we stopped for an afternoon of hi-octane fun at Thetford Forest’s Go Ape, one of a GB-wide group of outdoor adventure centres. A giant cat’s cradle of rope walks and zip lines entangled the tall trees as, true to form, the kids and dad took on this sylvan expanse while I remained firmly on the forest floor. Know your limits, that’s my motto. After an hour or so of arboreal acrobatics, and a pizza refuel at the on-site café, it was time to hit the road once again for the altogether more serene Ely city.
DAY 10: ELY CATHEDRAL
I say ‘city’, but the singular structure that elevates this small community to city status is the sole reason for our stop. Known as The Ship of the Fens, Ely Cathedral is a magnificent site standing proudly on the highest point of this otherwise flat landscape. The fenland was once waterlogged leaving a 26m high island on which the cathedral was built, hence the ‘ship’ moniker. Subsequently drained in the 17 th century, Ely became landlocked, and its medieval Cathedral is an easy and very popular stopover en route to Cambridge. Our visit coincided with the ‘Gaia’ installation. a giant 3D Planet Earth created from 120 NASA images. We gazed in awe at this imposing globe suspended from within the equally resplendent edifice. Its jaw-dropping scale juxtaposed with quaint surrounding streetscape makes a detour to Ely truly a vision to behold. But the road is calling and onwards we must head to our next, no-less impressive destination.
DAY 11: CAMBRIDGE CITY
If ever a place exuded brains and beauty, it has to be Cambridge. Resplendent colleges, emerald expanses, cobbled lanes and the genteel River Cam combine to create a destination straight from the pages of an historic novel. And it’s no surprise to learn that Cambridge has provided the picture- perfect backdrop for such films and TV series as The Theory of Everything, Chariots of Fire and Grantchester.
Punting on the Cam has become something of a bucket-list must-do for travellers, putting it up there with a Venetian gondola ride or cruising along the Seine. Student and Cambridge native Sam steered us on a 45min pleasure punt along this tranquil trail through the city’s historic heart. Each meander revealed architectural masterpieces, from the famous Cambridge College ‘Backs’ to the mind-boggling Mathematical Bridge whose straight timbers were cleverly arranged as an arch in 1749 and rebuilt twice to the same perplexing design. A distinctly delightful way to spend a sunny afternoon amid this esteemed seat of learning. Back on dry land and Cambridge’s quaint streets beckoned with come-hither cafes, vintage boutiques and enough bookshops to fill several large libraries. I even glimpsed Northern Irish scribes
Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney peeking out from a literary window or two. A proud sight indeed.
DAY 12: ALTHORP HOUSE
The delights of Cambridge forever etched in our memories, it was time to take a 60mile drive to our final regal detour. Home for more than 500 years to the Spencers, Althorp House is the family home and final resting place of Diana, Princess of Wales. It is on an island in the middle of the Round Oval lake where Diana is buried, a location so private it can only be visited by family and a handful of close friends including, in 2002, Nelson Mandela.
We and a steady flow of fellow visitors got a closer look at the lakeside Diana Memorial created by her brother Charles, Earl Spencer shortly after her death. This Doric-style temple contains a bench,on which visitors aren’t allowed to sit, and is adorned with Diana’s silhouette. When we were there several bouquets had been left, no doubt a regular sight especially throughout the summer months. Each year from 1 st July, Diana’s birthday, to 31 Aug, the date she died, Charles Spencer opens several rooms at Althorp House for visitors to enjoy. Highlights include the Picture Gallery whose 35m long wood-panelled walls display dozens of centuries-old portraits and where, in Tudor times, ladies
would walk in inclement weather to avoid the muddy lawns.
Diana devotees can delight in the grand staircase down which she no doubt slid as a young child. And the tiled floor of the grand entrance hall on which she was said to practice her tap dancing. Portraits of Diana and Earl Spencer’s wife Karen overlook the scene – the two women at the heart of this aristocratic seat. Glimpses into guest bedrooms reveal majestic four poster beds and views across the 13,000-acre estate. One tantalisingly called ‘The Princess of Wales Bedroom’ is, in fact, named after Princess Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII who overnighted in 1863.
The ever-industrious Charles Spencer has transformed Althorp’s stables into a café, surprisingly small gift shop and well-presented exhibition on his family’s history and Diana’s funeral. One exhibit of note is a copy of his impactful funeral speech with hand-written edits including a scored out mention of Diana’s partner Dodi who died alongside her in that fatal Paris car crash. As one of modern history’s most iconic women, Diana’s childhood home and burial site makes for a relatively remote diversion. But its backstory sits perfectly in our cathedral and stately-home-laden itinerary and I’m glad we made time to take it all in.
DAYS 13 & 14: BIRMINGHAM
A final 50mile blast saw us hit England’s second largest city in no time. Birmingham is a big, bold destination whose confidence and prestige is soaring as it prepares to host next summer’s Commonwealth Games. In its Centenary Square a giant clock counts down to the main event, reminding locals and visitors of the sporting excellence to come. Surrounded by the grand designs of the International Convention Centre, Birmingham Symphony Hall and the wonderfully bonkers Library of Birmingham (think three giant metallic boxes topped with a gold bottle top), this public plaza provided the perfect cooling off point with dancing water jets for the children to jump through.
But it is another aquatic feature that had us exploring Birmingham from a whole new perspective. I’d heard of Manchester’s canals but didn’t realise Birmingham had its own network of man-made waterways. And so, we four landlubbers embarked a kayak tour along the Birmingham Canal from the newly opened Roundhouse, a former stables reimagined as a vibrant, canal side tourist hub. Gingerly pouring ourselves into our wobbly kayaks, we quickly got to grips with our new mode of transport and were soon paddling gently past much of the city’s old and new built heritage, ably guided by the amiable Keith – or Kayak Keith as we liked to call him.
The canals are being newly marketed as a key transportation option, again with the Commonwealth Games very much in the city burghers’ sights. I, for one, like to think our trial run has paved the way for exalted medal winners to make their own merry way along this surprisingly pretty stretch. After disembarking, we retraced the canal route to the National SEA LIFE Centre where adorable penguins and sweet sea otters entertained us, while sharks, stingrays and their marine mates circled as we walked through the UK’s only 360° Ocean Tunnel. Yet more family fun was had at the
neighbouring LEGOLAND Discovery Centre where an impressive LEGO model of Birmingham’s landmarks included our next port of call.
Cadbury World is the nation’s very own Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and I have long desired to peek behind its famous brick façade and marvel at the wonders within. Naturally, the children were equally enamoured of the sweet treats in store. There’s something about the unctuous pour of this glossy brown confection that sends hearts soaring. And the unmistakable scents of Wispa, Buttons and Curly Wurly wafted in the air as we drove through Bournville Village, created by the Quaker owners to house their factory workers, and towards our very own dream destination.
The tour began with a bagful of chocolate bars and continued in similar calorie-inducing mode as we ventured through the Aztec Jungle to discover the history of chocolate, wrote our names in sugary ink and took a Beanmobile drive through the magical world of Cadbury. Ray and I were instantly transported back to our childhood as the kids looked on incredulously. Turns out you’re never too old for a kiddie ride.
The history of Cadbury’s ground-breaking marketing campaigns, from the Flake girl and Caramel bunny to Freddo Frog and the drumming Dairy Milk gorilla is told in Advertising Avenue. And a 4D Chocolate Adventure has you riding the Crunchie Rollercoaster and floating high in a Creme Egg airship. Talk about a real-life sugar rush.
After all that indulgence, only one destination could rebalance our choccie-warped chakra. Famed explorer Bear Grylls, who spent his early childhood in Donaghadee no less, has put his name to The Bear Grylls Adventure, a fantastic collision of activities designed to test the fearless and physically fit. Much like at Go Ape, yours truly watched on as Scarlett, Freddie and Ray conquered the highest rope course in Europe (a dizzying 65ft, should you ask) and Royal Marine-inspired assault course.
To be fair, I did have a crack at the archery and managed to hit the target on at least three out of thirty tries. I really wanted to check out the Shark Dive too, but, sadly, time wasn’t on our side. Maybe next time. Or perhaps Bear will be inspired to open a similar Centre right here in his old stomping ground. A Belfast Bear Grylls Adventure? Build it and they will come.
With its imposing architecture, pedestrian friendly spaces and plenty of child-centred entertainment, Birmingham makes for the perfect family city break. And our stay came at just the right time in our two-week England odyssey. We ended the trip on a high (literally in the case of Bear Grylls) and left with a new-found affection for this beautiful big city.
Heading back to catch the Birkenhead to Belfast ferry, I had just one stop planned to fill up those final few hours before our overnight crossing. Conveniently located just 40 miles from the Stena Terminal, Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in North East Wales is an 18-arched stone and cast iron bridge and, at 38m, the world’s highest aqueduct. Dubbed ‘The Stream in the Sky’, canal boats ply its narrow waterway, bumping jovially between its low sides as our eyes darted from the sheer drop to stunning views reaching far into the distance. Nerves of steel, me.
As we retired to our cabin aboard the elegant Stena Edda, our heads hit the pillow for a deep sleep, knowing we’d crammed a lot into a fortnight on the road. From lofty cathedral roof tours to glimpses into grand houses, outdoor adventures to relaxing boat trips, coastal charms and the revelatory delights of Birmingham city, England (and a wee bit of Wales), you haven’t disappointed. Follow our two-week itinerary for an unforgettable family expedition of your own across this extraordinary land.
Heidi and family stayed at Stylish and Cosy Home, Cambridge terrace house with a cool retro vibe
and within walking distance of the city and Birmingham’s Ibis Styles, a great value basic overnight
option also within walking distance of the city’s main attractions.