It’s always the way – there’s so much out there to discover that we forget to explore what’s right on our doorstep. I remember trying to cover as much of Germany as possible during my year working there, armed with guide book and Deutsche Bahn discount card.
Back in the UK, I realised it had never occurred me to do the same at home. I was 21 then, and I’m still working on it.
The ancient market town might not have such a high profile today as when Saxon kings were crowned there, but there’s still a lot to discover, not least the ‘Coronation stone’ in the grounds of the Guildhall as well as a daily market in Market Place.
Over the summer, they’ve been various family activities, plenty still running now it’s term-time. So bag packed, day’s itinerary all drawn up, I was reminded of one of the key lessons of travelling with a baby… be flexible.
Minnie’s first molars have been coming through over the past week, leaving her distinctly unlike her usual sunny self. And after weighing up the consequences of sticking to the plan with a grumpy baby, I regretfully decided an extra nap would be more fun for everyone than our plan of Rhyme Time at the Rose Theatre.
A shame, as Minnie does like a good singalong (even if she tends to stick to clapping and ba ba ba-ing to the music) and a free baby activity always goes down well.
Thankfully, as her smile came out, so did the sun – briefly. So we headed straight to the river front nearby, next to Charter Quay. Swans were gliding serenely along the Thames, narrowboats lined up along the bank, adding a splash of colour on a very grey day.
Part of the Thames path, stretching to central London (with a few breaks here and there), this section is helpfully wide and paved enough if you’re pushing a buggy. On a sunnier day, we’d definitely have explored further as planned, and tried to follow it up to Canbury Gardens, 14½ acres of park with tennis courts and a playground.
Instead, we headed indoors to the dry sanctuary of Byron Burger. The Quay has a string of other upmarket chains, including Carluccio’s and Browns, while there’s a Jamie’s Italian around the corner.
I sank down comfortably into one of Byron’s comfy booths, Minnie got one of the string of highchairs (the lunchtime crowd was a mix of families and people nipping out from their offices nearby) and a colouring sheet to entertain her.
Sadly she was more interested in trying to eat the crayons, as well as stealing my courgette fries, but it gave me enough time to scoff my own burger – the Byron, with cheese, bacon and Byron sauce. Perfectly cooked, lovely and beefy, the kind of thing that should be so simple and yet most places get horribly wrong.
There’s a whole string of different choices on the menu, including salmon, chicken and veggie versions, plus some great ice cream desserts and milkshakes if I’d had room (or someone else to help entertain Minnie).
Instead we headed back out and took shelter from the rain in The Bentall Centre, where I could very happily have sheltered for hours. It’s mainly high street stores, but with 75 of them over four floors, you’re not about to run out of things to do.
Kingston’s town centre is also pedestrianized, so there’s more shops to discover outside, as well as a few unusual options like Feather & Black which has gorgeous children’s beds.
Tucked away downstairs in the shopping centre is the new Caterpillars Café. My very first experience of soft play – yes, I have managed to go nearly 14 months. And compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard, it was a great place to start.
There’s a separate section for under-twos, ideal as Minnie was easily the youngest there and I’d be wary of her getting trampled by over-excited five-year-olds (they had their own multi-level section to climb, slide and hide in).
She, meanwhile, was in toddler heaven. Plenty of room to crawl around, red balls to play with an eat, older toddlers to gaze at in fascination, a slide to try, squashy things of different heights so she could practise pulling herself up. She was literally squealing with glee.
In the café to the side, there’s fruit on sale as well as coffee and cake (all under £1, although obviously there is an entrance fee – £4.50 for under-threes, one adult free per paying child), and a nice baby changing room with adult toilet and a useful little seat with straps to secure Minnie in in the meantime.
You’d hope a soft play café would have thought of these kind of facilities, but over the past year, I’ve discovered plenty of baby-friendly options which haven’t.
With the rain still lashing down outside, it was the perfect place to spend an hour. But after a misjudged tumble onto a squishy toadstool, and finally defeated by the weather, we called it a day. Today, inevitably, the sky is blue (well, bluer), and it looks like one of those crisp autumn days which are perfect for walking along the river.
Kingston, I think we may be back…
Disclosure: My day out was courtesy of Kingston Upon Thames and the venues mentioned