London, sure! Who doesn’t love London what with the theatres, the museums, the palaces, the restaurants? And every kid loves Hamley’s toy store. But we’ve visited London and while a return visit is definitely going to happen at some point, this winter we tried something different. We stayed outside the famed city and explored the West Midlands area of England. Over the Christmas holidays we called Coventry home and filled our two-week vacation with terrific, family-friendly activities enjoyed by both tourists and locals.
When looking at a map it appears that the West Midlands is actually located smack-dab-in-the-middle of England. Birmingham, the 2nd largest British city, is the anchor of the geographic area. Other notable cities making up the West Midlands are Coventry, Wolverhampton, the Cotswolds, and Warwickshire (home to Stratford-Upon-Avon). Interestingly, the West Midlands and greater London are the only landlocked regions of the United Kingdom.
Ready to explore? Rent a car! When you are visiting London you can easily walk, ride the bus, or hop the Tube. Outside of London, the transit system is still rather amazing but with kids I like the freedom of picking up and going. We certainly boarded a few trains (the kids would have been devastated if we hadn’t) but I conquered my fear and drove “on the other side”. Just remember “driver in the middle” and you are good to go!
On our trip we combined tourist destinations with local hang outs. It is fun pretending to be a local when travelling abroad; if only my Canadian accent didn’t give me away. Our efforts to mimic the outings of a West Midlander took us to Birmingham’s outdoor Frankfurt Christmas Market. With more than 180 stalls, oodles of yummy food, more trinkets and kid-toys than you can imagine, it is none-too-surprising the Birmingham market is the largest in England.
If your kids are nutty for machines that move add The Wonderful World of Trains and Planes to your itinerary. Three floors filled with display and hands-on activities. Without a doubt, the flight simulators were a hit with the 3 kids and 3 dads in our group. I got a ridiculous amount of pleasure watching my mom race slot cars with my eldest son. The kids in our gaggle ranged from 2 – 7 years (well 71 years if you count the grown up kids) and everyone had a great time trying their hand at driving trains, planes and cars.
I love sightseeing and cramming as many memorable experiences as possible into our holiday. But everyone needs a break and a return to normalcy. For our kids that means splashing around in a pool or climbing through a play structure. We found both at the Coventry Sports & Leisure Centre. The pool has a big slide and a wicked water current; the play facility, Jungle Junction, entertained our kids for hours. Just a 15 minute drive away is another fun play centre called Jam Jam Boomerang (we may have spent Christmas Eve morning here trying to burn off some of the kids’ crazy energy).
As we all know, England is positively dripping with history. While I was more than happy to give the kids some down time, I couldn’t wait to take them to castles, stately homes and famous landmarks. It is absolutely worthwhile getting your family an English Heritage Overseas Pass for the cost savings it provides (unlimited use for 9 days is £62; 16 days is £66 for a family of 2 adults & up to 4 kids). In order to get this pass you must book ahead online and be able to show proof of overseas residency when you pick up your pass. English Heritage manages a large number of properties in the West Midlands area (in fact more than 100 properties / attractions across England). Our first English Heritage stop was Kenilworth Castle, a medieval castle which played a significant role in many of England’s historical events. As silly as it may seem, get the audio guides for your kids. Our 5 year old wandered all over the grounds with the guide glued to his ear and for days afterwards stories about Kenilworth kept spilling out of him.
Another English Heritage must-visit venue is Witley Court & Gardens in Worchestshire (about an hour’s drive from Coventry). The stunning summer home was destroyed by fire in 1937. The grounds are beautifully maintained (if they look gorgeous in December I can only imagine their beauty come the Spring). Again audio guides were available and provided detailed stories of the glamorous life once lived inside the ruins. Pack a picnic and spend the day. There is a huge play area with multiple play structures for the kids.
We couldn’t visit the West Midlands and not spend at least one day in Stratford-Upon-Avon. When I visit Stratford I have a checklist of places I must see or my visit doesn’t feel complete. First on the list is Anne Hathaway’s Cottage – the home in which Shakespeare’s wife grew up. The gardens are beautiful, the home and its stories are fascinating, and I get to imagine planting my foot in the same spot as Shakespeare did over 400 years ago. 2016 is a great year to visit any of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust properties as this year marks 400 years since the Bard’s death. Numerous events and a brand new venue are in the works for this year.
My Stratford checklist also includes Shakespeare’s Birthplace in the centre of town, a boat ride along the beautiful Avon River, and lunch at Pizza Express. Why I’m in love with Pizza Express I have no idea but the kids’ meal is great and the food is delicious! Word of advice, take transit to Stratford. The streets are narrow, the cars are plentiful and the pedestrians overwhelm; the driving experience was a bit wild.
Our 2-week winter break in the West Midlands flew past filled with history, adventure and fun. When planning your next trip to England, have a look outside of London for your holiday adventures. There is also something rather wonderful travelling during the winter months…no crowds!