Day trips that make history fun and fascinating for kids are the order of the day at these UK museums, exhibits and attractions
Read Saturday’s Guardian Travel for 100 things to do with the kids in the UK this summerNungwi Village
Galleries of Justice, Nottingham
Everyone loves a bit of gruesome history and there’s plenty of gore and horror at the Galleries of Justice, an attraction based on the history of crime and punishment. In the home of the nasty Sheriff of Nottingham – at the city’s old courthouse and county gaol – character actors lead visitors through the grim dance from trial and sentencing to prison (or death) in a real court. Along the way a range of displays tell the story of penal reform. A separate Robin Hood exhibition draws the crowds (and hosts free kids’ activities in the summer holidays).
• The Lace Market, 0115 952 0555, galleriesofjustice.org.uk. Adults £9.50, kids £7.50
The Canterbury Tales, Canterbury
A funny and fascinating trip back into 14th-century England, The Canterbury Tales recreates five of Chaucer’s pilgrim stories through a series of rooms in a converted church. Costumed guides bring the scenes to life, along with sounds and (strong) medieval smells. Little ones might freak out a bit at the wax characters and the gloomy dark but this is a fun way to bring a fairly weighty school text to life.
• St Margaret’s Street, 01227 479227, canterburytales.org.uk. Adults £8.50, 5-15 years £6.25
Dinosaur Isle, Isle of Wight
Since it’s almost the law that small boys (and a good many girls) fall in love with all things Jurassic from the age of four, Dinosaur Isle, (shaped like a pterosaur, naturally) makes a perfect day out. Kids can design a stegosaurus, smell the stinky breath of a carnivore and scream at a bloody-jawed animatronic raptor. There are fossils galore (pleasingly, you can pick some up) and a lab where kids can ask the experts questions about the items on display.
• Culver Parade, Sandown, 01983 404344, dinosaurisle.com. Adults £5, three-15 years, £3.70
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Portsmouth
The highlight here is a 50-minute guided visit around the HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship, where visitors can inspect a replica of an officer’s cot (which, alarmingly but highly practically, also doubled as his coffin) and learn fascinating/disgusting facts, such as that sailors washed their clothes in urine. Pop into the new Mary Rose Museum, do the HMS Warrior 1860 tour and try simulated helicopter flying in the modern Royal Navy exhibition hall. There are also daily talks in the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
• Victory Gate, HM Naval Base, 023 9283 9766, historicdockyard.co.uk. Adult £26, kids £19.75
Jacobite Steam Train, Fort William, the Highlands
Trips don’t come more “classic” than a West Coast Railways Jacobite steam-train ride. Boarding at Fort William close to Ben Nevis, passengers cross the famous 21-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct. And if your kids aren’t excited yet, sling on a Harry Potter film beforehand and point to the shot of the Hogwarts Express chuffing towards the wizard school – it’s the same train. The loco whistles past sparkling Loch Morar, through the lovely villages of Lochailort and Arisaig (from which you can make out the small isles Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna) and finishes up at Mallaig – where a fish supper on the quayside, legs dangling over the water, comes highly recommended.
• 0844 850 4685, westcoastrailways.co.uk. Adults £33 return, kids £19
Big Pit: National Coal Museum, Blaenafon, Torfaen
Take your seat in the miners’ waiting room at the Big Pit, wearing your helmet, cap lamp, belt, battery and self-rescuer mask, and prepare to descend 90m down a mineshaft. After this, it’s a 50-minute tour around the original coalfaces, engine houses and stables of this former colliery in the company of a former coal miner, which gives this attraction an authentic feel. Back above ground, the Pithead Baths building houses exhibitions such as the story of children in mining, and pit-town home life. On 27 July, a family fun day to mark Big Pit’s 30th anniversary will feature competitions, demonstrations and workshops about the history of coal-mining.
• 0300 111 2 333, museumwales.ac.uk. Free entry
The Titanic Experience, Belfast
On the Belfast slipway on which the original ship was launched, the city’s newest attraction, Titanic Belfast, takes on the story of the famous ship’s creation and demise. Nine galleries narrate the tale, from context-setting in boomtown early 1900s Belfast, through construction and fitting-out, all the way to the launch and catastrophic maiden voyage. Superb special effects add an extra dimension so that, for instance, as you walk past the original slipway, the ship is superimposed on the window to create the view workers would have seen in 1911. Later galleries deal movingly with the sinking and the aftermath.
• 1 Olympic Way, Queen’s Road, 028 9076 6386, titanicbelfast.com. Adults £14.75, five-16 years £7.25
National Motor Museum, Beaulieu, Hampshire
With more than 250 cars, ranging from Del Boy’s Reliant Robin to several world land-speed record-breakers – including Donald Campbell’s Bluebird – this museum set in a country estate tells the story of motoring history in a child-friendly way. The museum has kept exhibits lively and current, so kids can gorge on the largest collection of James Bond vehicles in the world, as well as Top Gear rejects such as the Alfa/Saab stretch limo and an amphibious Toyota. There is more to do outside: smaller ones will particularly enjoy the monorail around the grounds and the 1912 open-top London bus ride.
• 01590 612345, beaulieu.co.uk. Adults £20, 13-17 years £12, five-12 years, £9.95
Knight’s glamping, Leeds Castle, Kent
While medieval theme and colurful striped tents at this summer pop-up glampsite may be aimed at kids, there’s no doubt the luxurious interiors have been created to keep mum and dad happy – think oak four-posters, woodburning stove, luxury linens and even a dressing table. Tents are pitched in the one-acre vineyard in the castle grounds, which campers have to themselves once the castle has closed for the day, allowing kids to explore while you cook dinner on the cast iron griddle over a fire pit – though you can choose to dine in the restaurant.
• 01622 767823 leeds-castle.com/glamping. Tents for four from £120 a night, two-night minimum at weekends
Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
Home of the Percy family for the past 700 years, this glorious castle does family fun in spades. Aside from the fact this is the setting for many scenes in the Harry Potter movies (naturally you can take broomstick lessons, watch magic shows, and see where the first Quidditch match took place), Alnwick also cheerfully goes full medieval tilt as far as kids are concerned. There are costumes to dress up in, actors to meet as they recreate life in a village square, and traditional games and crafts plus knightly skills to master. The hall of grisly mirrors based Dragons Quest is good fun for slightly older kids. From now until the end of October, Alnwick is hosting regular Battleaxe to Broomstick Tours in which kids learn from costumed guides about the estate’s film career and learn about the similarities between the castle’s very own knight Harry Hotspur and JK Rowling’s boy wizard.
• 01665 511100, alnwickcastle.com. Adults £14.50, five-16 years £7.30
National Maritime Museum, Falmouth, Cornwall
How do you stay alive when marooned at sea in a lifeboat? (Drink turtle blood, of course). What do lighthouse keepers’ eat for tea? Ever fancied learning to steer a boat? Take the kids here to quench their thirst for all things nautical: over five floors, the museum has 15 galleries of excellent, hands-on exhibits – one of the highlights is a Sea King rescue helicopter, whose cockpit kids always scramble to sit in. Don’t miss the regular storytelling sessions, where wide-eyed listeners get to handle real pirate treasure while learning about survival skills and the history of seafaring.
• Discovery Quay, 01326 313388, nmmc.co.uk. Adults £11, six-15 years £7.60
Royal Air Force Museum, Barnet, London
History lessons come to life at this museum in north London, which houses over 100 aircraft including Harriers, Chinooks, Tiger Moths and an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet. The Battle of Britain Hall’s sound and light show, Our Finest Hour, tells the story of the blitz. Children get to sit in a Jet Provost cockpit and soar through the sky in a dogfight in the 4D cinema (£4). This summer the museum is hosting a family events, such as Land Army Week, when youngsters meet the animals people were encouraged to keep during the war to ensure fresh food supplies.
• Grahame Park Way, Barnet, 020-8205 2266, rafmuseum.org.uk. Free
Blists Mill Victorian Town, Ironbridge, Shropshire
Any kids’ historical attraction that involves a sweetshop has to be good news. The one at Blists Mill, part of the Ironbridge Gorge world heritage site in Shropshire, lets children pay in Victorian shillings and farthings (which you can get in the bank on arrival). This recreation of a Victorian town comes with pub, pharmacy, greengrocers, drapers, printers, candle-makers, workers’ cottages, bakery and even a chip shop. Children can try rides on the Victorian fairground in the summer, dress up in period costume for a snap at the photography shop and take a clip-clop round town on a horse and cart. On 20 July, a Meet The Animals day allows visitors to find out more about the town’s four-legged residents, chat to the shopkeepers, learn about old-fashioned remedies in the pharmacy and witness long-lost skills with the artisans.
• 01952 433424, ironbridge.org.uk. Adults £15.95 kids £10.50
Festival of archaeology, Nationwide, 13–28 July
With more than 1,000 events at almost 400 museums, castles, monuments and houses in the UK, the festival of archaeology is a celebration of the UK’s complex heritage. The event is a collaboration between English Heritage, Cadw, the Museum of London Archaeology, The British Museum and the Manchester Museum, with community groups, local museums and archaeologists. Kids can roll their sleeves up and dig for skeletons, dress up as Romans, handle neolithic artefacts, go metal detecting, learn medieval royal etiquette, take a lesson in stone-age survival skills, and take part in period-focused workshops.
• 01904 671417, archaeologyfestival.org.uk/whatson
Family ticket and online discounts are available at many of these attractions
Ben Hatch is author of family travel memoir Road to Rouen. To order a copy for £9.59 including UK p&p, call 0330 333 6846 or visit guardianbookshop.co.uk