Haven in a restful world of its own

Family days out can be fun or fraught - and they frequently prove costly. But it's not often that East Anglian attractions are genuinely relaxing, leaving visitors with a sense of well-being and natural harmony.

Family days out can be fun or fraught - and they frequently prove costly. But it's not often that East Anglian attractions are genuinely relaxing, leaving visitors with a sense of well-being and natural harmony.

I'm happy to report that such a haven of peace and beauty has now been discovered by the Bullock family: and it's hidden away in the countryside near Bungay.

The day of our visit had originally been set aside for the Royal Norfolk Show. Young Gregory was off school and it seemed almost obligatory to join the crowd of thousands at the sun-soaked Costessey showground.

Julie and I, however, opted for a change of plan and determinedly broke tradition - despite Gregory's initial protests.

We've been taking our seven-year-old lad to the annual county show since he was a baby and, although it boasts countless activities, our trips had become somewhat stuck in a rut. Every year he'd drag us to the pricey giant slide and crazy house, followed by a glance at the Alpacas, the rare breeds tent, goats, bee-keeping and an interminable queue to climb inside some kind of RAF cockpit.

We'd then sit and politely watch children's country dancing until Gregory would insist on having his face painted in garish colours and spend the rest of the day in a sweaty, smudgy mess. Hey, ho - the pleasures of the show!

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This year we headed instead for the Otter Trust at Earsham and enjoyed one of the most calming, undemanding days out I have experienced in a very long time.

"We're going to meet a real Mij and lots of his friends. I just can't wait," Gregory enthused as we hit the road to the Waveney Valley. For readers unfamiliar with Mij, he's the cute otter in the 1969 film Ring of Bright Water, which stars Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna and has become one of Gregory's firm favourites.

The film, rather like the Earsham Otter Trust, is a simple and restful affair. A stressed London office worker buys Mij from a city pet shop and downshifts to the Scottish Highlands to enjoy a remote, rural life with his newfound pal.

It's a gentle, heart-warming tale - except for one unexpected moment of brutality at the end that must surely have left many youngsters in tears and mentally scarred over the last 37 years. Suffice to say that there's not a lotta otter left by the time the credits roll. Another tissue, anyone?

The Otter Trust was founded by Philip and Jeanne Wayre in 1971. Four years later, they bought River Farm at Earsham and established the trust's headquarters. Set in 30 acres of attractive countryside, it is now home to the largest collection of otters in the world.

We arrived at Earsham just in time for the midday feeding session and learned some fascinating otter facts from the warden as he provided a commentary while throwing his charges their fishy treats.

British and Asian otters frolicked in their enclosures, spinning and splashing happily in the ponds as they dashed to grab their snacks. There were plenty of rings of bright water as little otter heads emerged from beneath the surface and bobbed along - much to the delight of visitors.

This is an attraction with no white-knuckle rides: just a compact children's playground. There are no burger stalls, cola machines, amusement arcades or distracting sideshows.

Most of all, there is no 6ft-tall unemployed sociology graduate dressed up as Ollie the Otter. Hoorah!

The welcoming, light and airy tea-room is a pleasure, and the gift shop is appropriately small and discreet.

"Whatever you do, please don't buy a cuddly toy otter. You've got too many cuddlies at home already," I warned Gregory in my best 'serious tone' as he popped into the shop with his purse.

Needless to say, Mij the toy otter was duly purchased and has joined the burgeoning cuddly collection here at Bullock Towers. So much for Daddy's natural air of authority.

As the afternoon wore on and the scorching weather became 'otter and 'otter, our furry friends were replete from their lunch and sensibly opted for a siesta. Electric-blue dragonflies hovered over the lakes, tame deer and donkeys ambled around in the lazy sunshine and we all felt like a summer slumber.

The Otter Trust at Earsham may lack 21st century frills and spills, but its good old-fashioned charm makes it a natural winner. You otter try it.