A fun activity on a guided walk brings the countryside to life for kids. One dad even gets his three splashing about in the rainy Norfolk Broads
Tracking rare birds of prey, Norfolk
Small children will never rapturously welcome the announcement of an activity they’ve never done before. Especially if it involves the dreaded word “walk” – and definitely not when temperatures are close to freezing on a day of constant rain.
Even I quail a little when I phone the visitor centre at Hickling Broad and they cheerily announce that the Raptor Roost Walk – a guided twilight stroll in search of rare birds of prey – is going ahead.
“It’s going to stop raining,” I lie to my mutinous children on the drive to Hickling, a national nature reserve well-suited to a wet day: it contains the largest reedbed in England and the largest of the Norfolk Broads’ freshwater lakes. I try to distract the kids by creating great curtains of brown water as I drive along the flooded roads.
Our group of a dozen gathers at the visitor centre and our leader, Richard, is careful not to overhype our prospects. He’s done an hour’s recce, his hands are numb and he’s not seen any birds of prey. He explains we will walk half a mile to Stubb Mill, a disused wind-pump, and look out for marsh harriers, hen harriers, barn owls and maybe even Britain’s tallest bird, the crane, which was once extinct in this country but last year enjoyed its best breeding year since the 17th century after flying back into this watery corner of eastern England.
With the light fading, we squelch along a muddy track. Amazingly, it has stopped raining. One of my seven-year-old twins runs ahead, relishing the fresh air after a day indoors, my five-year-old is busy testing my binoculars and the other twin is still moaning, but her puddle-sploshing is definitely a secret pleasure.Advertisement
We pause and survey flooded meadows. A flock of lapwing swoop against the wintery sky, a grey heron stands motionless on one leg and a Chinese water deer jinks into the reeds. And in the distance, a marsh harrier.
We live nearby and are familiar with marsh harriers but this large, slender-winged bird is rarer than a golden eagle in Britain. It flies low over the reedbeds, into the wind, deliberately slowing its flight so it can eyeball voles cowering in the reeds. I have a basic nature knowledge but there is always more to learn, and picking up tips from other enthusiasts, in the field, is much the quickest and nicest way to learn.
Beyond the mill, we stop on a raised flood bank and train binoculars on the marshes beyond. At dusk in winter, up to 100 marsh harriers roost for the night in scrubby hawthorn dotted through these flatlands. We spy a buzzard and watch more than a dozen marsh harriers. Then, with an eccentric croak, two cranes flop on to the marshes. They remind me of ornamental peacocks as they strut through the undergrowth with great majesty.
As if commanded by the cranes, the sun appears, turning the marshes golden, and the huge skies pink as we return to the visitor centre, numb with cold but glowing; and in a much calmer, but also ebullient, state of mind. At home that evening, all three children fall sleep instantly, another of the many benefits of a cold, wild walk.
• Norfolk Wildlife Trust runs regular guided walks at reserves including Hickling and Cley next the Sea, £3.50–£5pp, norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk
The Gobbins Coastal Path, County Antrim
Adventurous older kids will love the spectacular Gobbins Coastal Path, a guided hike along a steep, narrow trail hugging the cliff face at Islandmagee, County Antrim. The path was built in 1902, and this modern version opened in 2015. The strenuous 2½-hour trail includes bridges, tunnels and caves, with seabirds nesting in the cliffs above and the sea crashing against the rocks not far below. Guides recount the history of the first path’s construction and tell tales of local smugglers; dolphins are sometimes spotted off the coast. There is no age limit, but there are strict height restrictions: children must be at least 1.2 metres (4ft) tall and cannot be carried. Everyone must wear walking boots and a safety helmet – this is not a stroll in the park.
• Adult £15, child £12, open daily until 3 Nov, thegobbinscliffpath.com
National Trust, nationwide
The National Trust runs frequent family-friendly guided walks. At Chirk Castle near Wrexham, there is a Winter Woodland Welly Walk for half-term. Kids will learn to identify trees from their buds, spot winter flowers and fungi, and have a go at “building their own tree” (free, 19 and 27 Feb). Budding photographers can go on a Kids with Cameras walk at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire. They’ll pick up plenty of tips and tricks, and find different views to capture (walk free, admission adult £15, child £7.50, 16 Feb and 6 July).
Those with younger children can join the “pramblers” at Souter Lighthouse in Tyne & Wear for weekly guided coastal walks on pushchair-friendly routes (free but book ahead, every Monday). And there is a birdwatching walk with a difference in the coastal village of Ravenscar, North Yorkshire. Participants record the birdsong they hear in the woods and on the cliffs, then learn how to turn the sounds into spectograms – visual representations of the song (£60 for a full day, ages eight and above, 2 June).
• Find more walks at nationaltrust.org.uk/walking
Fossil and rockpools, Dorset
Charmouth Beach on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast is one of the best places in the UK to find fossils. The Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre runs guided fossil walks, starting with a 20-minute talk before heading out on to the beach to hunt for specimens to take home. There are daily walks during half-term (adult £8, over-8s £4, charmouth.org, 17-24 Feb). The centre also runs Rockpool Rambles just along the coast in Lyme Regis, where ledges full of marine life are exposed at low tide. A warden points out all the plants and animals living on the seashore – and kids love splashing in the water (adult £4, child £3, next ramble 7 April). Finally, volunteers are welcome to help hunt for nurdles – not mythical sea creatures but tiny plastic pellets that are harmful to wildlife (next hunt 17 March).
Wildlife walks, Glen Doll, the Cairngorms
The rangers of Glen Doll, in the Cairngorms national park, run regular guided walks. For example, Tracks ’n’ Trails teaches children how to spot signs of animal activity, including tracks and scats (droppings). Traces of pine martens, otters, deer and even wildcats can be found.
There are also six self-guided trails from the ranger base – staff are there most days to give advice. One route follows the River South Esk, a habitat for wagtails and dippers; another goes up into larch forest, where red deer roam; a third reaches Corrie Fee, a vast natural amphitheatre carved out by glaciers, where golden eagles can be seen circling overhead. Experienced walkers can bag a Munro (a mountain over 3,000ft) – Glen Doll is a starting point for hill walks to the peaks Driesh and Mayar.
• Adult £7.20, child £4.05, next guided walk 17 Feb, cairngorms.co.uk
Woodland Trust, nationwide
The Woodland Trust – the UK’s largest woodland conservation charity, which manages more than 1,000 sites – runs guided walks and events throughout the year. Upcoming events include a winter tree ID workshop on 23 February at the Smithills Estate outside Bolton (1pm, free); a circular walk exploring the environmental history of a Celtic rainforest in Coed Felinrhyd and Llennyrch, Gwynedd, with lichenologists on 17 March (9.30am, free, booking advised); and a chance to enjoy the dawn chorus with an expert birder at Glasswater Wood in Downpatrick, County Down, on 6 April (starts 5.30am, adult £5, child £3).