Family day out: London Wetland Centre, Barnes
I rarely return to places again and again. When there’s so much to discover, why revisit the ones you’ve already seen?
But I’ve discovered that travelling with a child means you can discover the same place over and over as they grow and develop. Certainly when it’s somewhere as lovely as the London Wetland Centre in Barnes, handily just down the road from me.
On our first visit, Minnie was still newly walking and we had the place almost to ourselves on a chilly grey winter’s day. Second time around, she was almost two and the sun shone. Visit 3, earlier this year, Spring was just starting. And for our latest high summer trip, we’d timed it for the school holiday activities – and Minnie was also old enough to join in.
Honestly, the wetlands are always worth exploring. Whatever the weather or time of year, there’s something to see, along with the world’s cutest pair of Asian short-clawed otters which are a highlight of every trip.
There are gardens, bird hides (if you’re not with small children), open paths to run along, birds galore on the lakes and ponds, a bug hotel, always changing with the seasons – this time we saw cygnets and the flowers were in bloom.
And there are some great child-friendly spots. First, an indoor games room where all the activities have an educational slant – dam a river or divert the water in one, fire ‘poo’ (balls) and see how important protective reeds are in another, shoot water jets and revive endangered species for a third.
Then the Explore play area, which we discovered for the first time on this visit, with the usual playground options like slides, wobbly bridges, balance beams and ‘giant water vole’ tunnels, along with a splash zone if you want to cool off from the sun.
Or a giant snakes and ladders. This time, I won…
During the summer, there are several small food kiosks open as well as the main cafe (which does some very fine millionaire’s shortbread which I can rarely resist).
That’s before the activities. There’s usually something running throughout school holidays as well as some weekends, which we usually manage to miss by going on a weekday in term-time to avoid the crowds.
Last weekend, we finally got to join in. And despite being a glorious summer’s day, it wasn’t even too crowded. The wetland centre has introduced a ‘Nature Explorer’ passport with eight different activities to try which helps you discover the whole area.
You get stickers for each one you complete (which can be on successive visits) and once you’ve got the set, kids get free entry with a paying adult. Under-fours are already free.
However many you tick off, it’s a great way to help plan your visit. There’s so much to do in a day that we never get to all of it. This time, we spent five hours exploring and skipped whole areas that we saw last time, including most of the Pond Zone and the Wetlands of the World section.
But we did get to try pond dipping, scooping up a water snail or two, spotting a few tadpoles, pond skater and a surprisingly speedy damselfly nymph. Or possible a mayfly nymph. Thankfully there were handy pictures and helpful staff to help narrow it down.
Later, we joined in some crafts as well – leaf rubbing with crayons, which Minnie thought was basically magic, and making an impression of flowers and leaves on cloth. It was an extra pound to join in that one, wielding a fairly hefty hammer to thump the plants into the material, but all the rest are included in the entry fee.
And the otters. No trip would be complete without the otters. As ever, you’ve got to be lucky to spot them outside feeding time, but watching them glide through the water, dexterous little paws pouncing on fish and mussels, gobbling them up before squirming in the dust to get the water from their coats, was just magical – check out the video.
With quite a few stamps still to get, I can’t imagine it’ll be long before we’re back again.
The centre opens at 9.30am year-round, with last admission at 5pm in summer and 4pm in winter. Closed on Christmas Day and some sections are shut during the winter months.
Maps are available to download online, with a walks and talks schedule also on the website. There are also special events throughout the year, such as the children’s night safaris in August 2015.
Disclosure: Our entry was free of charge for the purposes of review and to try the Nature Explorer activities. All opinions remain my own. Our previous three entries were paid for, so you can tell I’m not making it up when I say we love this place.
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