Christmas train Special Christmas train at Audley End Miniature Railway. Picture: David Johnson

Santa’s coming to town: Santa’s grotto and stop off points in West Essex and nearby for Christmas 2015

*FOR WHERE TO FIND SANTA THIS YEAR VISIT THE 2016 SANTA’S GROTTO POST HERE*

Yay! It’s November which means I can officially start talking about Christmas. I love the festive season but my partner finds my over-excitement a bit much so I’m banned from breaking out the Christmas songs until now. As the little one is two this year, I’m hoping he’ll really get into the whole Santa thing. He certainly understands what presents are now. So I’ve rounded up some places where you can take your kids along to meet Father Christmas, special Santa grottos in Essex and nearby as well as family-friendly places with plenty of festive atmosphere for the children and grown ups.

Santa at North Weald station for Santa specials train rides Epping and Ongar railway

Some things like the Santa train in Epping get booked up early so it is worth getting tickets as early as you can. Other events have yet to publish their full details and I will be adding to this post soon as I get more information, so keep checking back.

 

SANTA SPECIAL TRAIN, EPPING AND ONGAR RAILWAY

Santa special Christmas train Epping and ongar railway

All aboard for a fabulous festive day out. We took the Santa special train last year and had a fabulous day. On arrival, there is mulled wine and mince pies for the adults and juice and snacks for the children. Then the classic steam train will arrive at the station where you can board for the short journey through the countryside to Ongar. There are children’s entertainers on board and Santa and his elves come round to deliver gifts to all the children. The train stops for a short while at Ongar where a brass band plays carols and you can stretch your legs before boarding the train back to North Weald.
There is limited parking at North Weald so it’s advisable to get one of the special vintage route master busses from Epping or Ongar. All in all it feels very festive and if your little one loves trains they will have a brilliant time.

Dates & times: Santa specials will run on the 5, 6, 12, 13, 19, 22, 20, 23 and 24 December. Departures from North Weald are at 09:45*, 11:25, 13:05, 14:45** & 16:25** (*excluding 5 & 6 December, **excluding 24 December).
Price: Adults £16, children £13 respectively but some busier days will costs slightly more for adults. You can also book out entire train compartments for large groups.
Address: Trains depart from North Weald station, CM16 6BT
More details: Epping and Ongar Railway website

SANTA’S GROTTO, CHIGWELL NURSERY
reindeer at chigwell nursery for christmas
This is where we get our real Christmas tree to I love the fact that the whole nursery feels Christmassy and is full of decorations. To be honest, this is not the place to go for a big flashy grotto but a great way to fit in a visit to Santa while picking up your tree and decorations. There’ll also be local carol singers from 2:30pm on Saturday 5th December.

Dates & times: Saturdays: 28th November; 5th, 12th & 19th December: 9:30-12:00 & 2:00-4:30. Sundays: 29th November; 6th & 13th December: 9:30-2:00
Price: Free. A voluntary collection box will be present, with all donations going to local community group Youth Plus.
Address: Chigwell Nursery, High Road, Chigwell, Essex, IG7 5BL
More information: Chigwell Nursery Website or call 020 8500 2690

SANTA’S GROTTO, ASHLYN’S FARM SHOP

We love the soft play centre at Ashlyn’s farm shop as it’s a great place for the little ones to run off steam and is clean, safe and friendly and it has a brilliant farm and outdoor playground. For Christmas, they are offering tractor rides to visit Santa and his deer in his grotto. There’ll also be festive treats like mulled wine and mince pies available to buy.

Dates & times: Farm opening hours during December, call to confirm.
Price: £12.50 per child which includes 2 accompanying adults. Booking advised, call 01992 523 118 to book.
Address: Ashlyns Farm Shop, Epping Road, Epping, Essex, CM16 6RZ
More information: Ashlyn’s Farm shop website

ADVENTURE TO SANTA’S GROTTO, WESTFIELD STRATFORD
Sometimes an all-singing, all-dancing Santa experience is what you’re after and the grotto at Westfield Stratford delivers. We had a lovely time there last year and it starts with an interactive film featuring the children and the highlight for my son was a huge moving train set. This year Shrek and Donkey will be helping Santa out with a 4D cinematic sleigh ride which will transport you through the skies to Santa’s workshop in the North Pole. Each child will have the chance to speak with Santa and receive a gift and photo packages will be available to purchase after your visit. Last year we got a really sweet little snow globe with a photo inside of our son with Santa. And it’s worth noting that there is a buggy park near the grotto.

Dates & times: 16th November – 24th December 2015
Price:  Peak single: £10, peak family (4 people): £35, off-peak single: £8, off-peak family (4 people): £28. Peak and off-peak sessions are displayed on the date & time selection page of the booking site.
Address: Adventure to Santa’s grotto is located outside at Chestnut Plaza beside Cafe Football and Omega. Westfield Stratford, Montfichet Road, Olympic Park East London E20 1EJ
More details: Westfield Stratford Santa’s Grotto website

SANTA EXPRESS, AUDLEY END MINIATURE RAILWAY SAFFRON WALDON
Christmas train Special Christmas train at Audley End Miniature Railway. Picture: David Johnson

It’s a bit further away in Saffron Waldon but the Audley End Miniature Railway transforms its usual enchanted fairy and elf walk into a Christmas special. Families take the Santa Express train into the woods to visit Father Christmas and his elves at his woodland Grotto. Each child receives a present and there’s letter writing in the craft tent for older children and a bouncy castle which is an extra £1.50 weather permitting. For adults there’s some complimentary festive roasted chestnuts, mulled wine and tea or coffee.

Dates & times: Open on the 28th & 29th Nov, 5th & 6th, 12th & 13th, 16th – 24th December. Trains run 11.00am – 4.40pm.
Price: £8.00 per person on the 28th & 29th November, £10.00 per person on the 5th, 6th, 12th, 13th, 16th – 24th December, Under 2s are free. It is advisable to book tickets in advance but tickets are also available on the day.
Address: Audley End Miniature Railway, Audley End Road, Saffron Walden, Essex, CB11 4JB
More details: Audley End Miniature Railway website

MEET SANTA IN HIS GROTTO, REDBRIDGE CENTRAL LIBRARY

Santa will be stopping off in his cosy, twinkly grotto at Redbridge Central Library during December. His merry elves will be on hand to keep you amused and spread some Christmas cheer.

Dates & times: Saturdays 5, 12 & 19 December 11am – 4pm. Tuesdays 8 & 15 and Thursdays 10 & 17 December 11am – 1pm. Monday 21 – Thursday 24 11am – 3pm.
Price: £3.50 per child with a gift included, book in advance at the library or online at The Little Box Office
Address: Redbridge Central Library, Clements Road, Ilford, IG1 1EA
More details: Redbridge Central Library website

***UPDATE: THE SANTA’S GROTTO AT THE VIEW IS NOW ALL SOLD OUT***

SANTA’S GROTTO, THE VIEW CHINGFORD PLAIN EPPING FOREST
Although the details on their website are currently minimal, one of the people who works in the View told me that this is a lovely magical weekend. Santa’s Grotto is inside the Queen Elizabeth Hunting lodge which gets decorated and there is festive music to get everyone in the mood. Booking is essential and as it is only on for a few days it’s likely to get booked up quickly.

Dates & times: Saturday 12 & Sunday 13 December from 10am – 3pm
Price: **UPDATE: TICKETS ARE NOW ALL SOLD OUT** Booking is required and costs £12.95 per child which includes a gift. You can buy tickets in person at The View or by telephone on 020 7332 1911
Address: The View, 6 Ranger’s Rd, London E4 7QH
More details: Epping Forest events website

If you know of another stop off on Santa’s busy schedule that you’d like me to include just comment below or tweet me @westessexmums.

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What’s on in West Essex this October half term: Monday 26th – Friday 30th October 2015

It’s finally starting to feel like Autumn and the October half term will be here before you know it. So here’s some inspiration for child-friendly activities and things to do around West Essex and London.

ALL WEEK

MICHAEL ROSEN’S BEAR HUNT, CHOCOLATE CAKE AND BAD THINGS EXHIBITION, DISCOVER CENTRE STRATFORD

Michael Rosen Going on a Bear Hunt exhibition Discover Centre Stratford

Opening on Friday 16th October, this interactive family exhibition at the Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford is suitable for children for both to 11 years old. I’m sure we’re one of millions of parents across the country who end up reading We’re Going on a Bear Hunt on repeat so this is bound to be a popular exhibition. There’s even a Bear Hunt trail for younger children to swishy swashy and stumble trip through. It’s not only the work of he much-loved children’s author Michael Rosen that features in the exhibition but even things that provided inspiration for his writing such as his grandparents sitting room and his classroom. You can also step inside a humungous chocolate cake and explore the Bad Things in the Dread Shed. There’s also a chance for older children to create their own poems and find out some fun facts about Michael Rosen as they go around the exhibition.

Price: £5 per adult or child, £18 family of 4, free for under 2s
Opening Times: During half term and weekends you’ll need to book one of the following slots: 10.20 (half term only), 11.20am, 12.20, 1.20, 2.20, 3.15 and 4.15pm. Then during term time you can drop in on weekdays between 3-5pm and there is no need to pre-book.
Address: Discover Children’s Story Centre, 383-387 High Street, Stratford, London E15 4QZ
Further information: Discover Centre website

VARIOUS DRAWING & STORYTELLING EVENTS,  V&A MUSEUM OF CHILDHOOD BETHNAL GREEN

Daily drawing drop in sessions which take children on an adventure around the museum and are suitable for all ages. Illustrator Salvatore Rubbion, author of A Walk in London will be running the Explore and Draw sessions on Monday and Wednesday. Using drawing and collage children will help to create a long fold-out picture exploring the special things about the capital. Illustrator Heidi Deedman will be helping children create their own Toy Stories, a book and story inspired by the real toys from the Museum’s collection on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
The Enchanted Forest Toy Theatre Workshop will be a chance to create your own story in a quintessential magical setting with illustrator Frances Barry who will help you draw trees, characters and creatures.

Price: Most are free but the Explore and Draw, Toy Stories, Enchanted Forest Toy Theatre workshop all cost £5 (with parent or carer) and you can sign up on the day. These three activities are most suitable for ages 5 – 12 years.
Opening Times: Activities 11am – 4pm, museum is open daily from 10.00am to 5.45pm (last admission 5.30pm)
Address: V&A Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 9PA
Further information: V&A Museum of Childhood website

SPOOKY SECRET ISLAND, ROYAL GUNPOWDER MILLS WALTHAM ABBEY

Spooky Secret Island, Royal Gunpowder Mills

Professor Nitrate’s evil twin Dr Gore will be hosting science shows and cooking up some diabolical experiments, much to the amazement of all those present in his crazy Mad-Lab.

An array of frightfully fantastic activities will be available for all ages. Try hat and mask making to transform yourself into a witch, monster or other spooky character for the day. Be prepared to get messy with some ooey-gooey monster slime making, freaky monster skin, and make gruesome discoveries in the feely boxes.

Price: Adults £8.77, children £6.97
Opening Times: 10am – 5pm (last entry 3 pm)
Address: Royal Gunpowder Mills, Beaulieu Drive, Waltham Abbey, Essex, EN9 1JY
Further information: Royal Gunpowder Mills website

MONDAY 26 OCTOBER

FESTIVAL OF STORIES, VALENTINE’S MANSION & GARDENS ILFORD

This special half term event for children 3 years and upwards features local authors hosting talks and workshops on storywriting, illustrations and craft activities.

Michael Rosenberg, author of Chilly Goes to Australia, will be carrying out hour long readings and workshops at 11.30, 12.45 and 2.00. And Julia Habgood, who wrote and illustrated Esmeralda and the Prancing Parasols, will be sharing her wealth of knowledge on drawing and illustrating in her 45 minute workshops, followed by 15 minute readings from her debut published childrens book, also at 11.30, 12.45 and 2.00.

Price: Free entry and no need to book
Opening Times: 11am-3pm
Address: Valentine’s Mansion and Gardens, Emerson Road, Ilford, Essex, IG1 4XA
Further information: Valentine’s Mansion and Gardens website

TUESDAY 27 OCTOBER

PRESENTING BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, VALENTINE’S MANSION &  GARDENS ILFORD

Spooky storytelling Dracula may well be getting the audience involved and they recommend coming dressed in your scariest Halloween outfit for a spine chilling visit to Valentines. Suitable for all ages.

Price: £5 per child (maximum 1 adult per child), Pre-booking essential on 020 8708 8100
Opening Times: 2pm – 2.40pm
Address: Valentine’s Mansion and Gardens, Emerson Road, Ilford, Essex, IG1 4XA
Further information: Valentine’s Mansion and Gardens website

WEDNESDAY 28 OCTOBER

GHOULISH SPIDERS, PUMPKINS & GHOSTS, VALENTINE’S MANSION & GARDENS ILFORD

There’s a chance to get creative and make your own pom-pom spiders, pumpkins and ghosts to decorate your home with this Halloween. Suitable for children 4 years and over.

Price: £5 per child, pre-booking essential on 020 8708 8100
Opening Times: 10am-11am
Address: Valentine’s Mansion and Gardens, Emerson Road, Ilford, Essex, IG1 4XA
Further information: Valentine’s Mansion and Gardens website

HALLOWEEN LANTERNS, VALENTINE’S MANSION & GARDENS ILFORD
Have fun transforming old jars into amazing Halloween decorations, guaranteed to create a spooky atmosphere at home! Suitable for ages 4 years and older.

Price: £5 per child, pre-booking essential on 020 8708 8100
Opening Times: 2pm-3pm
Address: Valentine’s Mansion and Gardens, Emerson Road, Ilford, Essex, IG1 4XA
Further information: Valentine’s Mansion and Gardens website

FAMILY ASTRONAUT: COMETS & METEORS, EPPING FOREST FIELD CENTRE

An illustrated presentation on Comets and Meteors: their relationship and how to observe them. Audience participation with practical activities and time for questions. Given clear skies, there will be the chance to observe some notable objects with a 15cm Newtonian reflecting telescope. Take appropriate clothing and footwear in case the ground is muddy. Suitable for children aged 8 and over (must be accompanied by an adult).

Price: £6 per person, booking required.  Email enquiries.ef@field-studies-council.org or ring 020 8502 8500.
Opening Times: 6pm – 8pm
Address: Epping Forest Field Centre, Paul’s Nursery Road, High Beach, Loughton, IG10 4AF
Further information: Field Studies Council website

THURSDAY 29 OCTOBER

PUMPKIN CARVING, THE VIEW EPPING FOREST 

Join us at The View for an afternoon of pumpkin carving. From jack-o-lanterns to spooky faces, learn how to create a design that will impress any trick or treaters – with prizes for best-carved designs!

Price: £5 for a pumpkin and tealight, and a free hot or cold drink. £3.95 if you bring your own pumpkin. £1 for non-carvers. Booking required (2 hour time slots) call 020 7332 1911.
Opening Times: 10am – 3pm
Address: The View, 6 Ranger’s Road, Epping Forest E4 7QH
Further information: For more information and to book, please contact The View on 020 7332 1911. The View website

FOREST FAMILIES: FREAKY FOREST, EPPING FOREST FIELD CENTRE

Join in with creepy crafts, monstrous makes and a spooky scavenger hunt in the forest. While siblings of all ages are welcome, the activities are aimed at children aged 5-11. Wear appropriate clothing and footwear in case the ground is muddy.

Price: Children £4, adults £2, booking required.  Email enquiries.ef@field-studies-council.org or ring 020 8502 8500
Opening Times: 10am-noon
Address: Epping Forest Field Centre, Paul’s Nursery Road, High Beach
Further information: Field Studies Council website

If you know of any other events that you think local mums should know about just leave a comment below or tweet me @WestEssexMums.

banana bread with chocolate chips and sunflower and pumpkin seeds

Cooking with kids: Easy seedy, chocolate-chip banana bread recipe

banana bread with chocolate chips and sunflower and pumpkin seeds

I love banana bread and as the Little One loves bananas we always have some hanging around. So if you find yourself with some that are over-ripe this is a perfect way to use them up and it’s very easy so the children can help you bake it. This is a mishmash of various banana bread recipes, keeping the bits I like such as chocolate chips and a crunchy, sweet, seeded crust. At two years old, I’ve been involving my son in baking for a while now and it’s great to see him really keen to get involved. However, as with most things these days, he insists on trying to do it by himself (obviously I’m actually doing most of it) but luckily this is one of those recipes that is quite forgiving even if everything isn’t quite mixed properly. And I’ve learnt  to accept the fact the kitchen will get covered in flour as he ‘stirs’ while actually flicking stuff all over the place!

What you’ll need

A 2lb loaf tin
A willing little helper (ideally wearing an apron if you can get yours to wear one!)

130g Butter
150g Light brown sugar
3 ripe bananas, mashed
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large free range eggs
250g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp mixed spice
100g bag of choc chips
2 tbsp demerera sugar
2 tablespoons seeds, sunflower and pumpkin seeds

weighing ingredients for banana bread

What to do

  1. Preheat the oven to 160° C (fan), 180° C conventional, gas mark 4. I use a silicon loaf tin so just grease it with butter but if you’re using a conventional tin you may want to line it with baking parchment too.
  2. Get your little ones to help you mash up the bananas with a fork (I have to stop mine sneaking most of it into his mouth as he loves bananas).
  3. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. I use an electric handheld whisk then little hands can ‘help’ you by holding on.

Mixing banana bread ingredients

4. Add the eggs, mashed banana and vanilla and whisk a bit more until all combined.

5. Sift the flour, mixed spice, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda and fold in. Then add the chocolate chips (you could add other things here – dried fruit, coconut, white or dark chocolate chunks – up to you)

6. Transfer to the loaf tin and then sprinkle the top liberally with mixed seeds. I suually have pumpkin and sunflower seeds in the cupboard but you can use whatever you have or even exchange these for nuts like flaked almonds or even desiccated coconut.

7. Finally sprinkle with Demerara sugar (for a yummy sweet crust) and then put it in the oven for 50-60 minutes.

8. It’s delicious eaten warm, but it will keep for a few days and is yummy lightly toasted with butter for breakfast. Although ours usually gets eaten pretty quickly!

Boy stuffing his face with banana bread

Link up your recipe of the week
The Twinkle Diaries

Wanstead Park: The bluebells are here!

Boy walking in Bluebell Wood Wanstead Park

When we first moved to the area, I was pregnant and living in a temporary flat in Leytonstone waiting for our house purchase to go through. I remember heading to Wanstead Park when I went on maternity leave hoping that what people said about a long walk might really bring on labour.

Long walks proved to be completely ineffectual, but I did get to happen upon the Bluebell Trail in Wantsead Park completely by chance and was overwhelmed by how beautiful it is. It felt like stumbling on a little secret (it’s often very quiet in the week) and it’s quite magical in among the fragrant woodland with the carpet of blue in all directions. I remember thinking that I’d bring our son there one day to run around the bluebells and this year he was finally old enough to toddle about. If you live locally at all, I would definitely recommend a visit but be quick as part of their appeal is that the bluebells are only around for another few weeks.

Bluebells in Wanstead Park

We’ve become regular in Wanstead Park now and it’s always worth visiting the little cafe where they sell home made cakes, tea in proper mugs and what I think is the best 99 flake around. (Trust me, I like ice cream a lot and have sampled my fair share but the ice cream here is properly creamy rather than full of air and the portions are very generous.) It’s just by the lake, a short walk from the temple and has lots of chairs and benches to watch the world go by. Although, watch out for the geese as they can be a bit over-friendly or aggressive depending on your outlook!

cafe in Wanstead Park

And if you live anywhere near the Bluebell Railway in Sussex then now is the time for a trip. The Bluebell Specials run until the 8th May and you can ride in a special 1918 observation steam train through the countryside with full panoramic views of the bluebells.  I haven’t been since I was little and I’m desperate to take the Little One as he is obsessed with trains but I’m not sure we can fit it in this year – it’s definitely on the list for next year.

Wanstead Park website

Bluebell Railway website

Review: OAE TOTS classical music concert for kids at the Southbank

Our Little One loves music. He loves watching people play any sort of instrument and I’ve been on the look out for gigs and concerts for children for ages. There are surprisingly few around that are suitable for toddlers, even in London, and while I found a few classical music concerts I have yet to find a regular live music gig with rock or jazz music.

The OAE TOTS (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) concerts at the Southbank only happen about every 6 months in London so I’ve been waiting since before Christmas to visit this one. And that’s probably no bad thing, as the Little One is only just about able to concentrate for long enough. As my parents were staying with us for the weekend, I dragged everyone out of the house at 8.30am on a Sunday morning (the boyfriend was not impressed!) to get to the London Southbank Centre in time for the 10am concert (they also do a second sitting at 11.30am). Luckily, Waterloo tube station handily has a lift which makes it easy for the buggy. The whole thing was really well organised with a colouring in table and stickers to keep kids amused before the concert started. And there was a large buggy park area for all the pushchairs. The Purcell Rooms where the concert is held is quite small which meant that it felt exciting to be part of an audience without being overwhelming for the kids. I’d booked some of the last few tickets which meant we had tickets right at the back but there was still a very good view of the stage.

boy watching OAE TOTS concert at Purcell Rooms London

One of the OAE musicians was effectively the MC; introducing the music and getting the children involved – shouting hello, getting them to sing along and encouraging them to learn about the instruments. She was brilliant at getting everyone involved and made it fun for both the children and adults. There was a water theme and she helped to explain sounds that appeared in the music and linked certain sections to animals which all the kids enjoyed. As well as some classical pieces there was some family favourites too for the kids to join in with such as Row Row Row the Boat. All the music was kept short and just the right length to engage the children.

Boy watching OAE TOTS concert

Our son LOVED the whole thing; he was the first one to shout ‘hooray’ after every piece of music ended and was enthusiastically clapping along. I was worried about him being able to sit still for the duration – it lasts about an hour – but as we were at the back he enjoyed dancing on the back steps as well as climbing up and down a few. The great thing is all the other parents there are in the same boat; some have babies, others have toddlers and older kids but people really don’t mind if your child makes a noise, or wanders around and I found the whole thing really enjoyable rather than having to worry about his behaviour or how other people would react.

The other lovely thing was that after the concert all the musicians left the stage to set up in the foyer and played as we all filed out of the Purcell Rooms. It was great for the kids to see the musical instruments being played up close and they all seemed to really enjoy this aspect of it. It was just a great example of the small touches the OAE have provided to  ensure the concert is genuinely child-friendly.

OAE musicians in foyer at Southbank Centre

Even the boyfriend, who went under duress, loved seeing our son so excited and couldn’t believe we’d have to wait until October until the next one. We’re definitely going to go again and I’d thoroughly recommend it.

OAE TOTS concerts are advertised as suitable for children aged 2 – 5 years old and our son is 22 months and there were people there with babies and younger children.

The next concert at the London Southbank Centre is in October but the date is still TBC – I’ve signed up to the Southbank and OAE family mailing lists so that they’ll let me know.

Meanwhile, the OAE do other children’s music concerts around the UK and you can find out more information on the OAE website.

If you’ve been to the OAE TOTS concerts or discovered any other good live music events for children please let me know in the comments section or tweet me @WestEssexMums on Twitter.

 

Bubbablue and me music linky