National Trust parks and gardens are open to the public, with some restrictions in place due to the coronavirus pandemic. On a number of sites the cafes are operating on a takeaway basis, so you can have your scone with cream and jam on your visit! All visits must be pre-booked. To make a booking visit the National Trust website of the property you’re interested in and click on What’s On. This will lead you to the booking page. New slots are released each Friday. If you’re trying to book a weekend slot our recommendation is to be online before 8am on the Friday, a week before you’re planning to visit.
The National Trust prides itself on being inclusive but when we were new parents (oh so many years ago now) we weren’t so sure. We thought they were about historic houses filled with ‘don’t touch’ items. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Nine years on and we have enjoyed many National Trust days out across the UK. Read on to discover more about the wonderful wide open spaces you can access and find out which houses are actually welcoming to young children.
The National Trust was founded 125 years ago on 12 January 1895 by Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley. They set up the Trust to look after the nation’s coastline, historic spaces, countryside and green spaces as they believed nature, beauty and history are for everyone. 125 years on, the Trust is now the biggest conservation charity in Europe, caring for over 250,000 hectares of farmland, 780 miles of coastline and 500 historic properties, gardens and nature reserves, meaning there’s bound to be a pocket of land being looked after by the National Trust near you.
For this post I’ve mainly focused on National Trust properties that we’ve visited which have a house and garden or estate. There are many, many places which the National Trust look after, from beaches to local woodland. We’ve enjoyed days out in the fresh air at countless places, from our frequent local dog walks at The Chase near Woolton Hill, to stomping through wild garlic on walks near Fowey on Cornwall’s south coast, and visiting the glorious beach at Mwnt in Cardigan Bay, Wales.
Somerset & Wiltshire
Come to Avebury near Marlborough for the mystical ancient stone circle, a museum taking you back to prehistoric times, and a family-friendly hands-on experience in Avebury Manor. We love it for space to run and roll amongst the historic stones, and as a starting point for a scenic walk on the Wessex Ridgeway.
Facilities include a restaurant and café within Avebury village, but we also recommend The Red Lion pub at the edge of the village, especially after a good walk! It’s one of our favourite local days out near Hungerford.
Barrington Court, (pictured in cover photo) near Ilminster in Somerset, is an empty Tudor manor house which children can explore without fear of breaking anything. The volunteers in the house will even encourage them to climb in the fireplaces! The gardens are beautiful, planted seasonally and in front of the house is a wide lawn which is a great place for running around between excursions in the house. Barrington Court is surrounded by glorious Somerset countryside made for muddy walks.
Café / Restaurant on site and access to great walking in the surrounding countryside.
Visit Montacute House in Somerset not just to go into the attractive, family-friendly Elizabethan house, but also to discover creative events in the barn and play hide and seek in the gardens. On one of our visits they had a puzzle activity to engage kids with the portraits hanging in their gallery. The volunteers were very encouraging and gave our kids stickers on completion!
Café on site, and access to great walking in the surrounding countryside.
The Cotswolds, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire
The house at Cliveden isn’t open to the public. It’s an exclusive hotel and restaurant, but don’t let that stop you from visiting. Cliveden, near Maidenhead, is much-loved for its excellent playground inspired by classic stories such as Wind in the Willows. There is a café right by the playground and a lawn nearby with more toys set out for children to play with. On the way to the playground from the car park you’ll walk through a carefully laid-out formal garden with space to roam. The main draw here is a pagoda in the centre of a small lake that you can reach via stepping stones.
Cliveden’s showstopper attraction is the view from the terrace of the house. These stunning lawns, along with formal gardens to explore and dog-friendly walks beyond the gates, which lead through woodland and down to the banks of the River Thames, make Cliveden an ideal place for a day out.
As well as the café near the playground there is also a popular restaurant in the Orangery.
At the centre of an ancient deer park sits the 17th-century house and formal gardens of Dyrham Park near Bath. Volunteers run family-friendly nature walks in the deer park including pond-dipping in the gardens. There is a farm-themed playground and a superb landscape to walk and run around. Highlights include a view across to the ‘rugby posts’ of the Severn Bridge, the playground and playing hide-and-seek in the formal gardens. We’ve not been inside the house, but according to the website they have family-friendly trails.
Facilities include a tea room at the house. Access to the house from the car park is either by taking a long walk, or hopping on the free bus. The parkland is not dog-friendly.
Berkshire, Hampshire & the Isle of Wight
Basildon Park, near Reading, is known locally for its annual ball run where tennis ball obstacle courses are placed at various locations throughout the park. We can’t comment on visiting the house with kids as we’ve not taken them inside, but we can highly recommend visiting Basildon Park for a walk in the grounds and in the surrounding parkland.
Facilities include cafes near the entrance and in the house.
The Vyne is a Tudor home near Basingstoke with gardens, woodlands and wetlands to explore. We visited during October half-term, so took part in their seasonal Halloween trail. The trail led the kids racing around looking for clues. Lagging behind we caught glimpses of the house, lake, bridges and surrounding parkland. On subsquent visit we discovered myriad paths through the woodland on the other side of the lake.
A very engaging playground, with mini-maze, is situated near the house. There is a restaurant on site and we were pleasantly surprised that the house itself was welcoming to children. The kids were encouraged to explore and ask questions of the volunteers. The house tour finishes in a second-hand bookshop which captured the kids attention for a little while longer.
Facilities include a restaurant attached to the house and a small coffee kiosk.
Mottisfont, located roughly halfway between Winchester and Salisbury, is not only special for the 18th-century house at its heart (originally a medieval priory), but also the wild meadow, the river walk (look for the trout in the crystal clear chalk stream) and the walled garden. The views across the Hampshire countryside are stunning. There is space to run and play and set up picnics. We visited in July 2020 so access was limited due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some paths and areas were blocked off, and a one-way system was in place on the popular river walk. The shop and toilets were open but the main restaurant in the house was closed. There was a Jude’s ice cream van on site and an outdoor tea room (expect to queue) next to the walled garden.
Kent, Surrey & Sussex
Hatchlands Park, near Guildford, is the perfect place to head for an outdoor family day out. Its wild play area is engaging and will keep the kids busy for hours. The play area is set in woodland where they’ve also set up den-building areas, which is perfect for those kids who want to get constructing. We’ve visited in winter and spent hours outdoors, fuelled by a hot chocolate from their tea room before setting off. We also visited one summer many years ago when they’d populated the lawn in front of the house with space hoppers. A genius plan!
Much of the park is dog-friendly. We’ve not been in the house but, according to the website, they have a Georgian dressing-up box for children, so it sounds very family-friendly. Café on site near the house.
Sheffield Park is a stunning landscaped garden with lake, waterfall and bridges galore. Multiple paths lead visitors amongst mammoth rhododendrons to spectacular viewpoints. The paths are buggy-friendly, but our kids didn’t restrict themselves to sticking to the path. There were far too many places to explore!
The formal gardens are surrounded by beautiful parkland and woodland which visitors can explore. It’s close to the Bluebell Railway so makes the perfect destination for a big day out.
Sissinghurst Castle Garden
Famous among garden lovers for its design and planting by Vita Sackville-West and her author husband, Harold Nicolson, Sissinghurst is a beautiful, and family-friendly place to spend a day out. We visited in Summer 2020 when some access was restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic. We hadn’t been before so didn’t feel like we missed out at all. The formal gardens are a feast for the eyes, and the children were happy wandering around the maze-like garden rooms. We picnicked in the picnic spot above the vast vegetable garden before going for a big walk around one of the lakes in Sissinghurst’s wider estate.
Brimham Rocks, near Harrogate, is the exception in our list as it has no house as its central attraction. What it does have is an other-worldly landscape of boulders high up on Nidderdale Moor, paths leading between huge rock piles and plenty of places for the kids to play at being explorers.
There is a kiosk selling hot drinks, snacks and ice creams.
Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Gardens is a World Heritage Site near Harrogate, North Yorkshire. Expect to spend a full day here, and hope for dry weather as 90% of the site is outdoors.
From the car park you’ll first walk through the visitors centre where you’ll also find a restaurant. Follow the path down which leads past the play park – you may want to stop here first, but our recommendation is to try and get past it, and visit the playground at the end of your visit (we’ve sometimes found it challenging encouraging the kids to leave!). On the way to the abbey ruins there’s a chance to go into a small museum. There are interactive displays and the chance to dress as a monk.
The abbey ruins are arguably the main draw of a visit here. The provide hours of exploring and hide-and-seek opportunities, or simply picnic on the lawn and soak in the monastic atmosphere. When you’ve had your fill of the abbey there is much more to explore. A long walk leads you through Studley Royal Water Garden, with its formal layout created to impress and surprise visitors. The reward at the far end of the walk is a café, a great place to refuel with a scone before turning around and heading back to the car park, via the playground of course.
With a restaurant, café and museum Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden is well-equipped. It also welcome dogs on leads in most areas. We visited twice on recent trips to North Yorkshire. You can discover more kid and dog-friendly ideas here.
If you’re in Wales you’re spoilt for choice for castles to visit. The ruins of Cilgerran Castle teeter on the edge of a cliff overlooking the spectacular Teifi Gorge. Visit for the views, but also for exploring the remains of the castle itself, imaging life amongst its walls 800 years ago.
There are no facilities on site, but it’s situated in the village of Cilgerran, near Cardigan, which has facilities. It’s also possible to walk down from the castle to the banks of the river Teifi and watch the kayakers navigate the water.
Visit Tredegar House, near Newport, on your way to the Welsh coast (as we did on our way to Cardigan Bay for an Easter break), or plan a day out to visit in its own right. The house is worth a visit to see the impressive Gilt Room, but if you prefer to stay outdoors the attractive parkland has plenty for the family to enjoy. Wind your way through the Walled Garden or run free by the lake in the park.
There is a café in the house and a kiosk in the park.