It's a common conundrum — London may be packed with museums, parks, galleries and more, but you've either been there with the family already, or they're packed to the brim. Here's our guide to getting away from the big-name attractions so you can enjoy a more unusual family day out in London.
1. Brixton Windmill
One of the last working examples in London, Brixton Windmill is a treasure. This beautifully-restored 1816 Grade II* listed building isn’t just a history lesson on London’s agricultural past, it’s a celebration of everything that’s great about London now. The heart-warming story of the Friends of Windmill Gardens is that of a close-knit group of residents who campaigned to restore the windmill and were instrumental in its reopening to the public in 2011.
Today, it stands complete with sails, driven by wind-powered machinery as well as electricity. Alongside the free guided tours offered by the active Friends group (they usually run tours across one weekend each month, which must be booked in advance), families can also enjoy a host of seasonal events in Windmill Gardens. Previous offerings include Easter Egg Hunts, Bat Walks, a Beer and Bread Festival and even Santa’s windmill grotto. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting on National Mills Weekend, you might even see the sails turning.
Brixton Windmill, Windmill Gardens, Off Brixton Hill, SW2 5EU. Entry is free and the windmill is usually open every second weekend of the month, April-October. Special events may see the windmill opening at additional times. Full tours are free, but must be booked in advance. Short tours do not need to be booked, but may require queuing on the day. Please note that children less than 1.2m tall cannot go above the first floor of the windmill due to the steep ladders.
2. Chislehurst Caves
Thanks to films such as A Night At The Museum, an overnight stay is now a popular gimmick offered by a range of family attractions. But imagine a place so haunted that only one member of the public has ever made it through the night. Rumour has it that Chislehurst Caves is that place, and the lamp-lit tours that share stories of ghosts, druids, smugglers and murderers, 30m below the homes and woodlands above, have done nothing to dispel the hearsay.
It may sound intimidating, and the caves might be overwhelming for children who are afraid of the dark, but most young venturers find it a hoot. Originally dug for chalk used to make bricks in the building of London, this labyrinth of man-made tunnels also has a rich modern-day history, from sheltering Londoners during the Blitz to acting as a backdrop for six episodes of Dr Who — The Mutants in 1972.
Chislehurst Caves, Caveside Close, Old Hill, Chislehurst, BR7 5NL. Open Wednesday-Sunday, 10am-4pm or daily during school holidays. Access is by guided tour only, which lasts for 45 mins and leaves on the hour. Adults £6, children (3-15 years) and seniors (over 60 years) £4. Children under 3 go free, but may find the caves a little too scary!
3. Nunhead Cemetery
The crumbling headstones and imagined stories of those buried in Nunhead Cemetery's churchyard are captivating for all members of the family. Thanks to the efforts of community groups, councils and the Heritage Lottery Fund, many of London’s cemeteries are now in great shape to receive family visitors. Opened in 1840, Nunhead Cemetery was one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries established to alleviate overcrowding in Victorian burial grounds.
As well as a resting place for heroes who fought at the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo, it has incredible views, attractive monuments and is an established haven for wildlife, including several species of butterfly, parakeets, woodpeckers and tawny owls. Its annual Open Day in May is a particularly good time for families to visit with the added attraction of bug hunts, guided tours, demonstrations, treasure trails and badge-making. Visit any other time for a more tranquil experience.
Nunhead Cemetery, Linden Grove, London SE15 3LP. Various seasonal opening times apply, but in general the cemetery is open to the public seven days a week, 8.30am-4pm in winter and slightly longer in spring and summer. Check the website for more details on opening times. Free tours take place the last Sunday of every month at 2.15pm (donations welcome).
4. Visit London’s only lighthouse
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Despite its atmospheric location, London’s only lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf can’t lay claim to magical stories of navigating boats through the high seas. It did, however, play an important role in testing maritime lighting and training generations of lighthouse keepers, from its creation in 1864 through to the mid-20th century.
The climb to the top might be modest, but you’ll still be treated to jaw-dropping views of the River Thames, The O2 and Canary Wharf. This vibrant arts quarter is also home to plenty of one-off and regular attractions, including one of London’s smallest museums, dedicated to Michael Faraday (who conducted many of his lighting experiments here) as well as an unusual sculpture park featuring a fascinating moon and tide clock. Nearby, Fat Boys American diner serves giant brunches, burgers and milkshakes that will make the kids smile.
Trinity Buoy Wharf, 64 Orchard Place, E14 0JY. Open every day of the week, 9am-5pm, admission free.
5. Morden Hall Park & Summer Fair
However much you love living in London, it’s reassuring to know that every now and again, the countryside comes to you. Celebrate the traditional quirks and eccentricities of the British countryside at Morden Hall Park's Summer Fair, where visitors may be treated to a showcase of morris dancing, ferret racing, and even a goat show. Mesmerised by basket-making and bee-keeping, the kids won’t even notice the funfair or the bouncy castle, and if you’re lucky, you might even be able to sneak a sample of the ale or scrumpy. The exact line-up of stalls and event changes every year, but animal shows, crafts and foodie vendors are a staple.
At any other time of year, National Trust's Morden Hall Park remains a fine family destination. The 50 hectares of parkland provide ample opportunity for exploring, while the meandering River Wandle can be crossed by charming footbridges or stomping wellies, depending on the weather. School holidays are packed with additional kids' activities, like storytelling sessions and drop-in arts and crafts.
Morden Hall Park, Morden Hall Road, Morden, SM4 5JD. The Summer Fair takes place every year in July and tickets cost £7.50 for adults or £3 for adults (family discounts available and tickets are also slightly cheaper if booked online beforehand). Entrance to the park is free throughout the rest of the year, with opening times generally 8am-5/6pm.
6. Creekside Discovery Centre
Sporting a collection of flotsam and jetsam to rival that found at some of the UK’s most famous beach-combing spots, the Creekside Discovery Centre offers families a fascinating range of activities. You can walk through a wild river, fish for animals in their natural environment and experience the diversity of urban wildlife resulting from the rich history of fishing, ship building, dockyards and slaughterhouses found at this tidal tributary of the Thames.
Deptford or ‘Deep Ford’ was named after its tidal creek. As the tide falls each day it exposes almost a kilometre of riverbed, making an ideal setting for Creekside Discovery Centre's popular Low Tide Walks. During school holidays, the centre also runs a comprehensive programme of workshops from Bug Hunting to Crab Fishing and Mud Larking.
Creekside Discovery Centre, Deptford Creek, 14 Creekside, SE8 4SA. Low Tide Walks take place monthly and usually cost £12 for adults, £8 for children, booking is essential.
7. Grant Museum of Zoology
What could be more fun than inspecting pickled brains, handling the skull of a leopard seal or trying to piece the bones of a gorilla back together? This hidden gem of a museum gives families an unrivalled opportunity to delve deep into history and get hands-on with a host of relics from the animal kingdom, many of which are now endangered or extinct.
Take a free 45 minute guided tour around the museum (every Friday at 2pm) or learn more through getting hands-on with the specimens at one of the monthly Explore Zoology sessions. These drop-in events are led by museum educators and are perfect for budding zoologists.
Grant Museum of Zoology, Rockefeller Building, University College London, 21 University Street, WC1E 6DE. Open 1-5pm Monday-Saturday, entrance is free — donations welcome.
By Phillipa Ellis, author of Arts Aloud: Enjoying the arts with little people