From crabbing to geocaching - 9 free family days out in Suffolk and north Essex
Seeking inspiration for a free family day out? Here are some suggestions of fun things to do which won’t cost the earth.
Going crabbing is a very popular sport for youngsters, which involves a minimal outlay for equipment. Suffolk’s top spot for this pastime is Walberswick, which used to host the British Open Crabbing Championships, until the event became a victim of its own popularity and was scrapped because it got too big. Old Felixstowe, Orford Quay, Ramsholt and West Mersea are also popular crabbing spots.
It’s best to check the tides before you set off, and ensure you are crabbing on an incoming tide, because this is when crabs naturally come into feed. All you need is a string or handline, a small fishing net, a plastic bucket and something to hold the bait - an old washing tablet bag is ideal for this. If you don’t have the kit, you can buy it from local shops.
Bacon is probably the most popular bait, although some crabbers try other types. Put salt water in the bucket with seaweed and pebbles, and don’t keep any crabs in the bucket for too long before putting them back in the water. And, of course, keep a close eye on children while crabbing.
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Seahorses trail in Ipswich
The Pigs Gone Wild sculpture trail was a big hit with youngsters back in 2016, and families are eagerly looking forward to Elmer’s Big Parade Suffolk next year. But, if you can’t wait that long, there’s a mini-sculpture trail to enjoy in the meantime - the Ipswich Family Trail.
Get your children to track down the 10 colourful 3ft seahorses stationed around the town centre. You can pick up a free trail map at the Tourist Information Centre or the Reg Driver Centre in Christchurch Park, or at the various sculpture locations and other shops and businesses.
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Once your family has completed the trail, you can collect an Ipswich Explorer sticker and enter a competition to win four tickets for this year’s rock’n’roll panto at the New Wolsey Theatre.
Landguard Nature Reserve and Visitor Centre, Felixstowe
Of course, the most obvious free thing to do in Felixstowe is to spend time on the beach, whether you prefer to relax in the sun, paddle or swim or play beach games. However, there are also other fun free activities to enjoy, including spotting both birds and ships.
Landguard Nature Reserve is open free all year, covering a 33-hectare shingle spit, where you can see migrating birds and unusual and rare plants. The reserve includes a pond where dragon and damselflies gather, and a boardwalk with views of the estuary mouth. Youngsters will also enjoy beachcombing and finding shells and stones.
The John Bradfield Viewing Area offers great views of the container port and its giant visiting ships, as well as the scenery of the estuary. You can also visit the Landguard Visitor Centre and ViewPoint Cafe, which has hands-on displays about the Felixstowe peninsula and public toilets as well as a large cafe.
Christchurch Park and Mansion in Ipswich
Most families in the Ipswich area will know this green oasis in the heart of town, but how much of it have you explored? It’s a great place to go for a walk and enjoy a picnic, as the park covers 33 hectares. It also includes wooded areas. The play area has a good range of equipment, as well as other sporting facilities including tennis courts, a table tennis table and bowling greens.
Children will love to see the park wildlife, including ducks, geese and fish in the ponds. There are believed to be more than 100 types of bird in the park, as well as cheeky squirrels. The Reg Driver Visitor Centre has displays and exhibitions and is open from 10am to 5pm until August 31, then 4pm from September (not open on Bank Holiday Monday). It also includes loos and a baby-changing area.
You can combine a visit to the park with a look around Christchurch Mansion. It is free to visit, and open from Tuesday to Saturday, from 10am to 5pm, and Sunday from 11am to 5pm (it closes an hour earlier from November). Highlights include a Tudor kitchen, Victorian toys and games and the chance to admire many works of art. There is currently an exhibition by Sudbourne Park Printmakers. If you want to learn more, the Friends of Ipswich Museums offer free short daily tours of the Mansion at 11am from Tuesday to Saturday and 2pm on Sunday, until October. There is no need to book for these.
Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum, Flixton, near Bungay
If your children are keen on aeroplanes, this free museum in north Suffolk has an impressive collection of 60-plus planes, including a number which are displayed outside. However, there is also plenty that’s undercover, including the three main hangars, which are all linked.
The museum is divided into themed areas including the RAF Air-Sea Rescue Museum, complete with an airborne lifeboat, plus sections dedicated to RAF Bomber Command, the Royal Observer Corps and more.
There are some hands-on activities in the hangars for children, and a small sit-in fun aircraft and boat outside. There is a “NAAFI” serving light refreshments on-site. Although the museum is free, donations are welcome. Summer opening times are from 10am to 5pm from Sunday to Thursday, until October.
Abbey Gardens, Bury St Edmunds
There is a wide range of activities to enjoy at in these town-centre gardens, which lie around the ruins of an 11th-century abbey. This is the ideal spot for a picnic.
The top attraction for many youngsters will be the chance to see the birds in the small aviary, while the good news for parents is that there is no charge to see these. There is also a wildlife feeding area near the dovecote, and visitors are asked only to feed the park’s wild birds and squirrels in this area.
Attractions include a well-equipped play area and treehouse within a willow maze, as well as a rose garden, herb garden, water and sensory gardens and several other areas. Sports fans can also take part in tennis or crazy golf or use the bowling green, but there are charges for these activities.
Natural History Museum, Colchester
Want to get closer to nature? You can do that at Colchester’s Natural History Museum, in the town’s High Street, opposite the main gates to Colchester Castle Park. The museum is free to visit and is open from 10am to 5pm from Tuesday to Saturday, and from 11am to 5pm on Sundays.
You can find out more about wildlife habitats, biodiversity and climate change, and the mammoths and hippos which once used to roam in East Anglia. There is even a display dedicated to the stag beetle.
Children will also enjoy hands-on items including the crawl-through badger sett and interactive microscope. Nearby Hollytrees Museum is also free to visit, so you could even visit the two together.
There are two circular walks laid out, an easy access trail covering three-quarters of a mile, and a longer trail covering three miles. The UFO trail is popular with all ages, taking in sights connected to the UFO sighting reported in December 1980.
There are also bike trails and play areas close to the car park, including a tube slide and zip line. Be aware that harvesting operations are taking place at Rendlesham this year, so some areas may be restricted. The forest park is open from 8am to 8pm daily.
Although it’s free to visit the forest park, there is a charge for parking - currently £4 for all-day parking or £2.50 for up to two hours, and you need to have the correct change.
Remember when treasure hunts used to mean hiding items in your garden, and waiting for children to find them? You can still do that, of course, if you have enough time and space, but geocaching is now an increasingly popular modern alternative, with more than 15 million people signed up worldwide.
So what is it? For the uninitiated, it involves searching for a “cache”, a small container containing a logbook (you sign this to show you found it) and small toys or trinkets which youngsters can swap with something else. All you need to do is to sign up free with the geocaching site, and download the app to your GPS device or mobile phone.
If you discover a cache is hidden in the nearby countryside, it’s the perfect way to encourage children to go on a family walk.