Best of Bedfordshire: 15 fab family attractions
Don't fancy sitting in a hot car for hours to find the fun? No worries! We're lucky to have plenty of activities for the whole family right here in Beds. Make a note of these local gems and start ticking them off now!
1. ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, near Dunstable
By far one of the county’s best attractions (and the UK’s biggest zoo), ZSL Whipsnade is a must. You’ll find all the big players here, from lions and tigets to elephants, rhinos and giraffes (our family fave!), plus there’s a farm area, soft play, massive adventure playground and a mini railway. There are also amazing views over the Dunstable Downs, some decent cafés and restaurants and plenty of green space to enjoy a BYO picnic. This summer there’s the Ultimate Animal Challenge, where kids can compete against their family members and complete some animal based challenges to win prizes (until 4 Sept) and We recommend getting membership if you’re within an hour’s drive as it’s much better value for repeat visits (and it makes a great birthday present for the kids!)
2. Wrest Park, Silsoe
This striking 19th century chateau-style manor was once home to the aristocratic de Greys family, with gardens dating back to the 17th century. Pay a visit to this English Heritage property to explore the ornate rooms and sculpture gallery, 90 acres of gardens with features including a Chinese Bridge, the Archer Pavillion and stunning parterre. For the kids, there’s a play area and woodland walks. And to make it more of an adventure, they can have a go at the Summer Explorer Quest to find the missing shields (and get a history lesson while they’re at it – not that they’ll realise!).
3. Stockwood Discovery Centre, Luton
Combining a gorgeous walled garden, interactive local history museum, play area, and… the largest carriage collection in Europe (not something you see every day, eh!?) the Stockwood Discovery Centre is a pretty good bet for a FREE day out (you don’t even have to pay for parking!)
This summer you can catch the ethereal Lace Trees outdoor exhibition until 11 Sept and they’re holding a Summer Garden Party on 6 and 20th Aug and 3 Sept with theatre, storytelling, puppetry and a parade on the final day (also free to attend!). Plus there’s a café serving dishes made with their own homegrown fruit and veg.
4. Rushmere Country Park, Heath and Reach
Country parks are always a winner for families and this one’s a corker, with 400 acres of woodlands and heathland to explore, with a range of walking routes for all abilities and stamina levels. The fab natural sculpture trail with its carved creatures, giant chairs and secret fairy doors hidden in the trees will help to keep those little legs moving along too! We love the ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ gate to nowhere too! There’s an Xplorer Challenge on 28 July and a Bug Lab on 11 and 12 Aug for minibeast mad 5+ year olds. And make sure you bring the bikes as there’s a Downhill Zone and Cross Country track for skilled mountain bikers, plus a Pump Track for younger and less experienced riders.
5. Shuttleworth, Biggleswade
This Muddy Award-winning Wedding Venue (the Jacobean manor house is an absolute stunner!) is also a rather unique family attraction. Set within 875 acres of Old Warden estate land, you’ll find a pretty Swiss Garden, sculpture trail and lakeside parklands to explore, plus… a superb collection of vintage aircraft, thanks to the estate’s namesake Richard Shuttleworth who rescued and restored them during the 1930s. No wonder this place is infamous for its family airshows (the next one is on 7 Aug) with kids’ activities, a funfair and display aircraft doing their thing. Can’t make that one? No worries. There’s a packed calendar of events from live music on the lawn and in the Swiss Garden, to summer activities for kids and regular themed fly-ins. Plus the rousing Flying Proms concert on 20 Aug with a full symphony orchestre and firework display – dig those Jubilee flags out again!
6. Woburn Safari Park, Woburn
Wanna see some big cats up close? This drive-through park, set within 300 acres of Beds countryside is about as close as you can get, with just a car door or windscreen separating you from real life lions, zebras, ostriches and more – best put on those big girl pants, then! Watch out for the pesky monkeys playing with your windscreen wipers, too! There’s also an on-foot safari, with some decidedly smaller mammals to see, like lemurs, red pandas, monkeys, penguins and sea lions, as well as an Australian walkabout, Elephant Meadow and bird amphitheatre. For littlies you might want to tie in your visit with the upcoming appearances of a certain Peppa Pig (27 July) and Hey Duggee (11 Aug), plus there are regular charitable weekends to help with conservation projects at the park and in the wild.
7. Bedford Embankment, Bedford
The River Great Ouse is one of the county town’s biggest draws, with the annual River Festival (sorry, you’ve just missed that one) and for just being a rather idyllic spot to wander along. Take a cruise on the John Bunyan boat which run on various days with special themed trips – how about a jazz cruise or a gin tasting one? And for families there are Eye Spy cruises running every monday throughout August, departing from Sovereigns Quay. Then check out the Saxon Castle Mound and Victorian Gardens on the Embankment. Further up stream you’ll find Russell Park with a brilliant play area, then head over the iconic butterfly bridge to the boating lake and hire a quirky dragon boat from the Longholme Café. Want more? Priory Country Park is a lovely spot for watching the wildlife (and big boats at the Marina!), with 360 acres of parkland to explore. All this within the city of Bedford!
8. Mead Open Farm, Leighton Buzzard
One of Bedfordshire’s first open farms, there’s tonnes to see and do here. Meet the resident animals and enjoy lots of hands-on experiences, from grooming ponies to cuddling rabbits, and have a go on the go-karts and diggers. There are also indoor and outdoor play areas, sand and water play, high ropes, jumping pillows and crazy golf. Throughout the school hols there’s a Summer Festival of Fun (until 29 Aug) with circus skills, singalongs, dance offs, tractor rides and a daily foam party!
9. RSPB’s The Lodge, Sandy
This nature reserve makes up the largest stretch of heathland in the county, which looks it’s most beautiful at this time of year as the heather starts to turn purple. With that come dragonflies, butterflies, green woodpeckers and newly fledged blue and great tits, plus lizards and natterjack toads. You’ll find five miles of walking trails, beautiful gardens, Iron Age banks and a birdwatching lookout. There’s a Wild Play Trail and self-guided activity sheets for the kids available from the visitor centre and you can hire binoculars from £5. There’s also a natural play area with den building zone and an insect hotel. Check out the Big Wild Family Summer Trail (pick up an activity pack until 4 Sept), go on a Bug Safari or enjoy some outdoor theatre from Widdershins (10 and 17 Aug).
10. Jordans Mill, Biggleswade
Did you know that Bedfordshire was once a major hub for flour production? Well Jordans Mill was at the heart of that and is also responsible for producing one of the most popular breakfast granolas on the shelves (you know the one!). Today you can take a tour of the historic mill (which has been in the family for 150 years and only ceased working in 2000) and explore the pretty gardens, where flowers, fruit, veg and cereal crops are grown. Then take a walk through the wildflower meadows, and woodland, following the log pathway with its teepee and wildlife attracting woodpiles. Finally pop into the shop to stock up on all your cereal-based products and local goodies. There’s also a lovely café with a riverside terrace. Throughout the summer there’s a kids’ games trail (until 4 Sept) with some old faves including hoopla, quoits and hop scotch. And there’s a Craft and Food Fayre on 6 Aug, 3 Sept and 1 Oct (plus Christmas ones on 5-6 Nov and 3-4 Dec). Open Weds-Sun.
11. Box End Park, Bedford
This pretty epic watersports centre has the world’s first Lake Ninja course (yep, rather them than me!), an inflatable aqua park, overhead cable tows for wakeboarding, and you can try paddleboarding and open water swimming. There’s even a beach zone where you can pull up a deckchair on the sandy lake side (now you’re talking!) and a rather good restaurant, Corner 5, with panoramic lakeside views and a patio bar – you’ll need to book ahead as it’s popular! There’s even a Summer holiday club from 25 July – 3 Sept.
12. Herrings Green Activity Farm and Birds of Prey Centre, Wilstead
With more than 200 birds of prey and rare breed animals to meet, there’s whole day’s fun to be had here for all ages. Mini Harry and Hermione’s can have a go at flying an owl (yes, really!) and see hawks, eagles and falcons swoop through the air in the daily displays. There are cute fluffy rabbits and guinea pigs to stroke and goats to feed, plus ride-on tractors and a pirate play area. You’ll even find wallabies, parrots and reptiles here and a milking parlour where little ones can learn more about where their food comes from. For seriously keen animal lovers, you can book a special experience, from being an animal handler for a day to an alpaca walk or bird of prey experience.
13. Dunstable Downs and the Whipsnade Estate, Dunstable
If it’s open space and fresh air you’re after to give those kids a good run, this is an absolute winner. Miles of chalky grasslands in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the highest point in the whole county, means the Downs has second-to-none views. And it can get pretty brezzy up there, so make like Mary Poppins and go fly a kite, or just watch nature’s kites (of the bird variety) hovering on the thermals, while gilders soar amongst them – it’s great sport from the comfort of your picnic blanket! This summer you can take part in all kinds of sporting activities too (for free!) including 5-aside football, cricket, athletics, volleyball, tennis, table tennis table and other family games, plus have-a-go soft archery sessions. Grab a challenge card for the chance to win a medal – nothing like a bit of friendly family competition!
The county town’s key cultural hub, The Higgins combines the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford Museum and Bedford Gallery under one umbrella. The buildings themseleves have an interesting history, dating back some 200 years including a former life as a family-run brewery. Philanthropist, Cecil Higgins, moved on from brewing to found the museum to house his collection of decorative arts and share it with the public. Now you’ll find a collection of different galleries showcasing local history and fine art. Currently there’s an exhibition of children’s work from the Harpur Trust Art Competition (until 4 Sept) as well as a whole range of art workshops for ages 7+, from calligraphy to clay, running throughout the summer hols.
15. Summerfields Miniature Railway, Haynes
Got a train enthusiast in the fam? This feat of miniature engineering will be a surefire hit. It’s all aboard at Haynes End for Hammer Hill Station, where there’s a picnic area to pause for a bite and watch the Garden Line steam trains going up and down the tracks. Or if you are going the other way, there’s a station buffet at Haynes End where you can pick up some refreshments too. Departures are between 10.30 and 3.45 so don’t be late! Just £3 for a return ticket.
Finally… if you’re wondering why Woburn Abbey hasn’t made our list (good question!), it’s closed for a major refurbishment and isn’t due to reopen until Spring 2024, so watch this space!