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


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 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

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


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

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

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


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


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.

What’s on this weekend: Mother’s Day special

With Mother’s Day coming up on Sunday, I’ve reminded the boyfriend a number of times that he has to make the day special until the Little One is old enough to make me tea and burnt toast in bed. I’ve dropped lots of hints, well ok demands is probably more accurate. There must be breakfast in bed, flowers and a card. It’s only my second Mother’s Day as a mum but I think it’s important to set the ground rules early! And I want to get out-and-about with the Little One and I definitely do not want to cook. Not too much to ask really.

As the boyfriend has been lacking inspiration, I’ve been suggesting things we can do and I thought it might be useful to share some of the local places we’ve been considering. Hopefully, by next year he can just surprise me! So if you haven’t quite decided how you’ll spend the day together or if you want some inspiration to share with your other half, here are a few ideas for kid-friendly places visit.


boy walking in Epping Forest

If your don’t want to be tied down to a lunch booking or if you’ve left it too late, one of my favourite ways to spend any Sunday is a walk in Epping Forest followed by lunch at the lush Butler’s Retreat café. And as we don’t do it often enough, this looks like it could be a front-runner for us this weekend. Run by the same people behind The Larder in Wanstead, the food at the Butler’s Retreat is great and it’s very child-friendly with lots of space to run around outside. Perfect if, like me, you have a toddler who is against sitting still for 5 minutes. Hopefully, by next year he’ll be at an age where he can sit nicely at the table without a meltdown and we can go somewhere a bit fancy. But until then, open spaces and outdoor tables mean we don’t have to worry about noise or making too much mess.

Address: 12 Rangers Road, Chingford, E4 7QH

More info: Butler’s Retreat website


Flowers in Copped Hall garden

Run by a charitable trust, this Georgian mansion is currently being restored and they open the doors to the public once a month. It’s set in grassy parkland and so at their open day and tour this Sunday you’ll also get a chance to see the gardens. There’s a shop that sells produce from the walled garden and refreshments available on site. You don’t need to book and the tour lasts between 2 – 3 hours. Kids under 14 are free and it is £8 for everyone else.

When: Sunday 14th March 2015, The gates only open between 10-11am on Crown Hill.

Address: Stables Courtyard, Copped Hall, Crown Hill, Epping, Essex CM16 5HS

More info: Copped Hall website


Easter barn at Norpar Barns Essex

I’m a big fan of Norpar Barns. It’s a lovely drive out into the Essex countryside and the barns are down a peaceful country lane. A visit to their Christmas barn is already a family tradition. Last year, I went along to the Easter barn and it really does get you in the mood for spring. There’s also a small tearoom where you can have tea and cake. It depends on the age of your children and how well behaved they are if you want to bring them. Babies and older children will be fine. For the moment, while the Little One is a mischievous toddler who wants to grab everything I think we’ll wait a bit longer before bringing him back. However, it would be the perfect place to take your own mother if you want a few hours away from the kids!

Address: Navestock Hall, Navestock, Romford, RM4 1HA

More info: Norpar Barns website 


Based in Wanstead library, this local fair is holding a Mother’s day special this Sunday 14th March 2015. It’s child friendly and there’ll be stalls from local artists and craftspeople as well as jewellery, vintage furniture and haberdashery. Open 11am – 4pm and it is open to all ages

Address: Churchill Room, Wanstead Library, Spratt Hall Road, LONDON, E11 2RQ

More info: Flamingo Fair Wanstead


I haven’t actually eaten here before but I noticed that The Castle Harvester restaurant in Woodford Green is offering a free main meal to all mums who eat with them after 6pm. There’s no voucher needed and you can read more about the offer on their website. The website claims they are kid-friendly so I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has tried it out.

Address: 393 – 395 High Road, Woodford Green, Essex, IG8 OXG

More info: The Castle Woodford Green website

What’s on this weekend: 10th – 12th October

Let’s hope this rain doesn’t hang around until the weekend. I’ve just ordered waterproof trousers for The Little One (as he’s still bum shuffling and refusing to walk) but at this rate we’ll be needing them too.

Well rain or shine, there’s lots on locally especially as its the last few days of the Woodford Festival which I’m keen to support as I think it would be lovely to have even more community events like this in the area. The programme includes music, an arts trail and walks plus a children’s author was doing a reading at The Village Bookshop on Wednesday. It would be great if there were more things for kids but maybe that is something to get involved with in the future. Perhaps I could convince some other mums to set up a children’s fringe festival. Now there’s a thought. (Note to self: stop having good ideas that will involve yet more time I do not currently have.)

toy fire engine on wooden floor

Photo via hellosputnik

Anyway, back to this weekend, my top pick is the Woodford Green fire station open day this Saturday which is being billed as a Community Safety Day for families together with the Metropolitan Police, St Johns Ambulance, Guide Dogs for The Blind and Cadets. As The Little One has turned into a stereotypical boy shouting with glee at every bus, lorry and aeroplane, I’m pretty sure a giant firetruck like the one in Fireman Sam might blow his little mind. Combine that with some dogs and rumours of a helicopter and we could be hitting the toddler jackpot.

When: Saturday 11th October 11am-5pm

Where: Woodford Fire Station, 2 Snakes Lane, IG8 0EX

Before that I’ll be heading over to Wanstead for the NCT Nearly New Sale. You’ll find second hand toys, books, clothes and sleeping bags amongst other things and the quality is usually pretty high while pricers are low – double win. But don’t even think about bringing your little ones along. This is an elbows-out, stay-focused kind of affair. Seasoned NCT shoppers will know that the best bargains go early and NCT members can get in 15 minutes before anyone else by presenting their membership card. It starts at 11am so I recommend getting there as early as you can, queue up and get stuck in. If you’re running late, forget it. The excitement is usually all over in an hour.

When: Saturday 11th October 11am, 10.45 NCT members (last entry 12.15)

Where: Christ Church Hall, Wanstead Place, E11 2SW

Admission: £1

More information: Redbridge NCT Website

And last but not least is the Copped Hall Apple Day. I have to confess that I haven’t actually been to Copped Hall or even heard of it before this week. It looks really interesting; its a Georgian mansion that was saved by local campaign groups and is currently being restored. National Apple Day is all about celebrating our unique British food heritage by highlighting local varieties and orchards, so Copped Hall will be displaying and selling their apples. And just for the adults, I’ve heard rumours of cider… now we’re talking! They are promising entertainment and food as well as access to the gardens and mansion.

When: Sunday 12th October 11am -4pm

Where: Copped Hall, Crown Hill, Epping, CM16 5HS

Admission: £7

More information: Copped Hall Website

If you do visit any of these over the weekend, feel free to let me know your thoughts and views. And if you have events coming up for families that you’d like me to consider for future features, just get in touch via the comments or tweet me @WestEssexMums.

Welcome to West Essex Mums

How the hell did I end up living in a grown up house in the suburbs spending more time watching In The Night Garden than having a social life? Somehow this happened and my previous life, drinking my way around London trying to fit in all the new bars, restaurants, and films is no more.

So I’m getting used to my new life in Woodford with The Little Guy in tow, and to be honest I’m loving it. Having a little person has been even better than I imagined and as he heads towards being one and a half he gets funnier and more amazing each day. But where do you take a one year old? Which cafes aren’t going to kick us out when he insists on feeding himself aka drops stinky tuna sandwich all over the floor? Is soft play a special kind of hell or a handy haven on a rainy day?

The Little One playing with record coasters

I’ve found it quite hard to find out about where to go and what to do with kids in the local area. Not knowing that many other mums means I don’t have the inside knowledge. And as lots of other new mums seem to be moving to the area, I thought it might be useful for others too if I shared what I learn as I investigate the local area seeking out kid-friendly ways to spend our time. So I’m going to give you my honest opinion about local things to do and places to go, reviewing them and writing about them on this blog to help other mums. I’ll be looking at classes and clubs, family friendly activities and kids days out in the local areas: Woodford Green, South Woodford, Wanstead, Snaresbrook, Loughton and Epping. And armed with an Oyster card we’ll also cover London and will take the trusty, rust-bucket we call a car to the M25 seeking out countryside and outdoorsy things in Essex, Surrey Kent and beyond.

The reason I’ve called this West Essex Mums is that this isn’t just about our little family, I want this to be a genuinely useful resource for all local mums, dads and families so please feel free to get in touch with recommendations, questions, suggestions of places or things that you want to know more about and I’ll investigate for you.

Come and say hi on Twitter @WestEssexMums.