Pirating in Portsmouth
World-famous ships, including HMS Warrior and HMS Victory, are waiting to be explored in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, just a few minutes from the city station. Would-be pirates will enjoy the Jolly Roger exhibition, plus don’t miss the Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower, which can be reached by water bus. Other city highlights include the Spice Island Treasure Trail, a self-guided trail that comes with a downloadable map that leads you around the historic centre’s cobbled streets hunting for clues. Once you’ve cracked the mystery, head to the top of the Emirates Spinnaker Tower for panoramic south-coast views (kids will enjoy the glass-bottomed sky walk).
Station: Take Southern to Portsmouth Harbour station to be in the heart of the action. Direct trains from London Victoria will get you to Portsmouth in about two hours.
Forest fun in Ashdown
The inspiration for AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories, Ashdown Forest is an area of outstanding natural beauty just 30 miles south of London. Families can hunt out the original places found in the stories, including Hundred Acre Wood and Galleon’s Leap, and play Poohsticks on footbridges. Arrive at Crowborough station, which borders the forest. There you’ll find riding schools, if you fancy a family trek by hoof rather than foot, plus a glamping site for longer visits.
Station: Take Southern to Crowborough from London Victoria or East Croydon. Trains from London Victoria will get you to Crowborough in about an hour and 15 minutes, with a change at East Croydon.
Surfing in St Ives
You can surf year-round at Porthmeor Beach, a pebble’s throw from St Ives’ narrow cobbled streets, quaint harbour and galleries. Book lessons for all ages at the St Ives Surf School and, after a morning catching waves (or at least trying to), tuck into a hearty lunch at family-friendly Porthmeor Beach cafe. When you’re not splashing around in the sea, there’s the St Ives Museum, the Tate and the Cornish coast path to discover, plus the St Ives School of Painting, where you can drop in and pick up a family art trail kit (£5).
Station: St Ives, at the end of the St Ives Bay Line from St Erth, one of the most scenic rail journeys in the country, with coastal views of Carbis Bay and Hayle Towans.
Culture in Cambridge
This university city delivers for inquiring minds, thanks to its multitude of museums. Kids can handle fossils and follow dinosaur trails at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, while the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has activity sheets to complete on each floor – who doesn’t want to see a Roman skeleton or a 500-year-old potato? Let little ones loose with the free Fitz Kit, filled with games and puzzles for five- to 12-year-olds, in Fitzwilliam Museum, while you check out previously unseen Edgar Degas paintings. No trip to Cambridge is complete without a punt on the River Cam, so wrap up warm and book a tour with Scudamore’s (£56 for two adults, two children) for trained guides full of interesting facts. Don’t want the fun to end? Book a ghost walking tour around the spookiest parts of the city.
Station: Take Thameslink to Cambridge station, a Grade II-listed building just a short walk from the city centre. Thameslink trains direct from St Pancras or Kings Cross can get you to Cambridge in just over an hour.
Cycling in the New Forest
Autumn is a splendid time of year to visit the New Forest National Park; think 78,000 hectares (193,000 acres) of trees turning red, gold and brown. The best way to explore is by bike, thanks to 140 miles of safe, off-road cycle tracks, not to mention the free-roaming ponies, deer, donkeys and sheep to spot along the way. Step off the train at Brockenhurst, where you can hire bikes (including e-bikes and kids’ trailers) at Cyclexperience, and check out New Forest Cottages for family-friendly places to stay while you’re there.
Station: Brockenhurst, a five-minute bike ride from forest trails.
Hiking in Hastings
Get your rucksacks at the ready to explore this East Sussex seaside town, home to a vast country park nature reserve with grazing ponies and stunning coastal walks taking in sandstone cliffs, an iron age hillfort and lighthouse. Ideal for kite-flying and picnics, it also incorporates the wide expanse of Pett Level beach. Elsewhere, there’s a funicular railway to ride at East Hill, Source Park (the world’s largest underground skatepark), the Shipwreck Museum (open on weekends only) and the Bluereef Aquarium. The old town, with its ruins of William the Conqueror’s castle, and Smugglers Adventure (a labyrinth of secret caves and passageways in West Hill) is also a fun place to explore.
Station: Take the Southern train to Hastings, around 15 minutes’ walk from the country park nature reserve. Southern services direct from Brighton can get you to Hastings in just over an hour.
Mediterranean magic in Portmeirion
Wales’ answer to Portofino appeals to all generations, thanks to attractions such as a miniature train, fairytale buildings and beautiful gardens. Welsh architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis created Portmeirion in 1925, and today the village’s Italian-style pastel house-lined streets are full of restaurants, shops and ice-cream parlours. There’s a lido and more than 28 hectares (70 acres) of gardens and woodland to discover, dotted with eccentricities such as a gothic pavilion and lighthouse folly. Want to stay more than a day? Check into one of the village’s hotels or self-catering cottages.
Station: Minffordd, accessed via trains from Blaenau Ffestiniog on the scenic Conwy Valley Line. From there, follow a footpath clearly marked to Portmeirion, 18 minutes away. Staying the night? A courtesy car is available for transfers from the station.
All aboard the heritage train in High Weald
Kids love trains. Fact. They love taking them. Playing with them. Pretending to drive them. Pretending to be them. So why not give them the chance to be a trainspotter-in-training and catch the steam- and diesel-powered Spa Valley Railway, which runs through the High Weald Area of Oustanding Natural Beauty. Alight at High Rocks station and head to the High Rocks Inn, the perfect place for the kids to watch the trains go by while mum and dad enjoy a drink in the landscaped gardens. On the way back, get off at Groombridge where an enchanted forest and Crusoe’s World await, open for the season on 7 March. Kids ride for a quid and adults go for £12.
Station: Catch a mainline Southern train to Eridge where you can board the Spa Valley service. Trains from London Bridge direct to Eridge will take just under an hour.
Watersports in Windermere
Inject some Swallows and Amazons-style adventure into your half term with a rail journey to Lake Windermere, the backdrop for various escapades in Arthur Ransome’s famous book. Try kayaking and standup paddleboarding (from £20 for two hours) with Windermere Canoe Kayak or hire a self-drive boat with Windermere Quays (up to six passengers, from £20 per hour). Back on land, visit The World of Beatrix Potter for a chance to see Peter Rabbit and friends in a magical indoor recreation of the books (family ticket £22).
Station: Windermere, a 20-minute walk (or eight-minute bus ride) from Bowness-on-Windermere, home to the above attractions.
Caving in Buxton
Crystal stalactites and limestone caverns dating back millions of years await in underground wonder Poole’s Cavern (£28 per family), where beautifully illuminated walkways are open all year, come rain or shine. Back above ground, hit Buxton country park for woodland sculptures, Go Ape zip-wires and walkways, and Solomon’s Temple, a folly on the top of Grinlow Hill with amazing views across the Peak District. There for a few days? Staden Grange on the outskirts of town has a B&B, glamping and Archie’s Farm, where kids can pet everything from donkeys to miniature pigs. Don’t miss a ride on the miniature railway in Pavilion Gardens and follow the Bear trail at Buxton Museum.
Station: Buxton, reached via scenic rail journey through the Peak District.
Want to embark on more epic child-friendly adventures? Up to four kids per adult can travel with Thameslink on most journeys for as little as £2 on Off-Peak and Super Off-Peak tickets (T&Cs apply). Find out more and book at thameslinkrailway.com