Kidding the kids. How to find a zoo in a garden centre, family fun on country walks and hide-and-seek heaven, plus boats and plants at Fairhaven

PUBLISHED: 06:35 12 May 2017

Ready or not! William playing hide and seek. Picture: Sally White

Ready or not! William playing hide and seek. Picture: Sally White

Picture: Sally White

Garden centres with animals are ideal for families without gardens, or pets. And actual Norfolk visitor attraction gardens can make surprisingly wild days out too.

When my youngest was a babe, we used to chuck him in the sling, pop William (five) on his scooter and schlep up to Notcutts in Norwich for a gawp at the fish and a coo at the rabbits and a massive slab of cake. Once home, we would ruffle William’s hair and tell him what a lucky boy he was for having been on a trip to the ‘zoo’. As all great parenting handbooks tell us, white lies are good lies. Actually, that’s clearly rubbish: there’s no such thing as a ‘great’ parenting handbook – the best advice I’ve ever read was that children are a bit like Labradors because they need cuddles, grub and to be let out at least twice a day. But when you’ve got a small city garden and the thought of going to the park AGAIN makes you want to bounce a seesaw on your skull, then I have the solution: garden centres.

Notcutts is a great starting point for any novice garden centre visitor. Cake. Pets. Garden furniture to get mucky shoes on. Worse-case scenario? You go home with a budgie and a lifetime ban. Life’s for living! If you’re not near a ‘cutts then I recommend Peter Beales near Attleborough. There’s a nice little tearoom and an immaculate garden with paths and tunnels of roses. There’s even a bridge over a pond which your toddler can insist on walking across 877,986 times. If you’re aiming for more than that, then I really enjoy Fairhaven and I think you will too.

Fairhaven Woodland and Water Garden isn’t purely a garden centre but it does hit the happy medium of being civilised but also interesting. It has more than four miles of woodland walkways and little bridges over streams and pathways with interesting tree roots to clamber over and a hidden ice house and plants that look like something from Day of the Triffids. It’s exactly the place that is perfect to take visiting relatives because you can have ‘a bit of a walk’ but there’s enough to excite the children.

In fact, we went recently visited Fairhaven with our two kiddos, my sister-in-law and our teenage nephew. On paper, that’s a bit of a tough gig. When we told the children we were going to ‘look round a garden’ we were met with suspicion. I get that. I spent a childhood being dragged around National Trust gardens being told to admire box hedging and not walk on the grass. I would be suspicious. Happily, my boys are as shallow as a puddle and fell in love with Fairhaven the moment we bought our tickets from the gift shop. My kids bloomin’ love a gift shop. Buy those tickets and high tail out of there before there’s a paddy over a pencil sharpener or a novelty thimble.Alex, overcome with excitement for being out and about (#Labrador), ran, arms wheeling, feet flying, straight out of the gift shop, down the path and came within two inches of diving head first in to the slow-moving river. My nephew caught him, but let that be a warning to you. We harnessed that enthusiasm with a game of hide and seek for which Fairhaven is top notch. The pathways are sheltered by beautiful rhododendron bushes and small wiry trees and all sorts of nooks and crannies for concealing an over-excited five year old.

Now, regular readers may have twigged that us lot are somewhat fond of boats and Fairhaven ticks that box too. Leaving from the far end of the garden is an Edwardian-style river cruiser that does trips around the Broad. We opted for the 20-minute one which was plenty long enough for our two fidgetfaces but there is an option for a 50-minute trip which takes you past the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey which sounds rather romantic. We found it very relaxing and enjoyed seeing all the wildlife and fabulous broadside houses. My sister, who has recently completed the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, found it marginally underwhelming I imagine.

Once you’ve tootled on the boats, rampaged around the woodland, meandered over trickling streams and laughed at the odd-shaped exotic plants, you may well be hungry. There is a café on site and it’s reasonably priced, cheerful and ‘jacket potato and flan’ style. It’d be ideal for a pit stop.

However, we opted to head to the nearby Ranworth for a pub lunch at The Maltsters. As we sat back, spritzer in hand, sun shining, boys nicely tired but happy, we reflected on a good day out. Well-fed, thoroughly exercised and slightly sun-burnt, William curled on to my lap, ate the remaining ketchup off my plate and said ‘Mummy, tomorrow, shall we go to the zoo?’ Notcutts here we come!

Fairhaven’s website has prices and events on its website:

For those of you who aren’t married to a person who hates pets so much he pretends to be allergic to them, Fairhaven is dog-friendly and dogs are welcomed in the gardens and on the boat trips.

See you at for more days out and kid-free travel ideas.

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