When we moved to the Sussex countryside, we did what all good middle class, rural living people do and joined the National Trust. What fun we would have taking the children on adventures to castles and country houses! How they would enjoy exploring these beautiful spaces and revel in the history. Except the reality is somewhat more stressful. I’m really not sure why it’s seen as a good idea to take small children into a house where everything is old, valuable and very, very breakable. For parents of toddlers, they are the stuff of nightmares. It almost seems a kind of heresy to question whether the National Trust is family friendly, but on my last outing I did, indeed, question whether the National Trust is a nightmare for parents.
Maybe it’s just me or maybe it’s my children. In its defence, the National Trust does make an effort with trails and activities for children. We had a particularly enjoyable visit to Corfe Castle in Dorset. It was the summer holidays so there were lots of things going on and the Enid Blyton connection also added to the fun. Close supervision required lest you lose a small child over the edge of the crumbling ruins (Corfe Castle is perched on a hill), but it seemed a little more doable.
We live near Bodiam Castle which is a beautiful 14th century moated castle. It has everything the child safety videos warn you about. Open water, sheer drops, rickety stairs are all in abundance. I went with a group of other mums and our pre-schoolers. As we crossed the drawbridge a volunteer stepped forward to give us the spiel on what we should and should not do (and more importantly, what the children should and should not do). At this point, the children surged forward past startled volunteer with the mums in hot pursuit. We had spotted halfway up the hill this was not a place to take your hands off your child. I think I caught a couple of words as I passed him ‘climb…walls…erosion…’ I got the gist. Not only was this place lethal to children, they were lethal to it.
I have since taken my older children to Bodiam castle and they loved it so from eight years and up, great. My younger child I would only do with one to one supervision and nerves of steel.
Bateman’s – home of Rudyard Kipling
We are also near Bateman’s, which was the home of Rudyard Kipling and another National Trust property. There is a lovely Jacobean house and beautiful gardens. Again, the house I do not even go in if I have my youngest in tow. It’s just not worth the stress levels. There is Kipling’s old car to look at and the water mill, which is being restored, so there is a little more to see. There’s a great tearoom and it is lovely in the summer however, when I take the children, we probably on stay an hour which is fine if you are members otherwise a standard family ticket is £28.75. I think this is probably the heart of the matter for me. National Trust properties can be expensive as a one off because they are often not places I could stay more than a couple of hours with children. If I go by myself, I would happily stay for hours meandering round the garden, getting inspiration and having tea and cake.
I am currently considering the unthinkable and cancelling my National Trust membership until the children are a little older and I have more time to go by myself. I am considering trying English Heritage membership as this may be a better fit for us. We recently went to Battle Abbey which includes the 1066 battlefield, abbey ruins, playground and a great visitor’s centre. Most primary age children learn about the battle of Hastings, so it feels a little more relevant. The playground and visitors’ centre keep all ages entertained and means that rain doesn’t completely scupper the entire visit. A family ticket is a little more expensive at £32 but we have happily spent a day at Battle Abbey with no moans or meltdowns.
I do hope National Trust die hard fans do not take this as criticism of their favourite institution. I think sometimes there are better ways and places to spend your money when children are very small. I will always enjoy a visit to beautiful gardens and country houses just not perhaps with a toddler in tow.