School summer holidays, they go on forever, right parents? And filling them with fun, educational activities can be a challenge – not just for the imagination but for the bank balance too. So we’ve put our heads together and come up with a few solid ideas for days out by rail that are free. So pick up your tickets, pack a picnic and let’s get going.

Saving on the train fare
A couple of tips here for cash-strapped parents, Firstly BOOK IN ADVANCE. For example an off-peak single from London Waterloo to Bath Spa is £37.30 on the day of travel, but book it a month in advance and it can be yours for just £12.60! Advance tickets are available on all trains on a first-come, first-served basis up until 24 hours before the train departs. Also, make the most of the LiveBig summer promotion where up to 4 kids can travel with an adult for just £1 each up until the 2nd September! 

OWLING WITH DELIGHT

Station: Bath Spa

Bath is a great city to visit with children any time: all the sights (Abbey, Circus, Royal Crescent, Victoria Park) are a short distance from the train station, there are oodles more parks dotted around the city where you can take a breather and snaffle that picnic, and lots of the city centre is pedestrianised. 

But add in Minerva’s owls and you’ve got a day out children in particular will love. A sculpture trail through the city, each of the 80+ owls has been decorated by artists, designers and other creative types. Best of all, a free app will take you on an owl hunt where you can try to visit them all, and a miniature beacon inside each owl will interact with the app once you’ve found it. Think Pokemon Go, but with statues.

The owls will be flocking to Bath until the 10th September, so if you’ve been thinking of a visit to the World Heritage City but haven’t got round to it yet, now is a good time.

Top Tip: The Victoria Art Gallery in the centre of town is free, kid-friendly and a terrific oasis to visit on a hot day for a bit of a cool-down. It has wonderful artworks (from Gainsborough to Grayson Perry), there’s usually a good exhibition and there are free kids’ activities on offer.

THE TATE ESCAPE

Station: London Waterloo
A day out in the capital need hardly cost a penny beyond your train fare, and there are so many iconic sights to see that the time will whizz by. From the station, head to the London Eye and turn right along the Thames. The stretch of embankment here is pedestrianised and wide, so you can feel at ease with the little (and not-so-little) ones. Opposite you are the Houses of Parliament and as you walk on you’ll see lots of other famous landmarks - Westminster Bridge, St Pauls, The Cheese Grater and The Walkie Talkie…

But your goal is the sublime Tate Modern about a 20-minute stroll away. Kids seem to love modern art – maybe they don’t suffer from grown-up preconceptions – and Tate Modern is stuffed full of it, and the vast majority of it is free to see. Even the building itself is amazing, and the staff are reassuringly relaxed about children being children, so don’t expect to get into trouble if they break into a happy, shouting run when they hit the VAST turbine hall – that’s just fine.

Top Tip: If you make your way to the Clore Welcome Room on Level 0, Boiler House once you get to Tate Modern you can pick up a free ‘collection case’ that is full of objects and words to help you get the most out of your visit.

FOSSIL EYES

Station: Weymouth

Take a day trip into the distant past with a fossil-hunting expedition. Our area is full of great places to find fossils. We recommend Weymouth for a combined day on the beach and fossil hunt. Once you’ve had your fill of sandcastle making and paddling, you should make your way to King Barrow Quarry. Once a source for the famous Portland stone, this site  is now a nature reserve and a great place to go for fossils, especially ammonites. There’s even a ‘fossil forest’ here, where the mysterious rings are actually fossilised algae that formed around prehistoric trees.

Top Tip: The small expenditure involved in getting hold of a book will make your fossil hunting much more fun, and also much more informative. We recommend the Usborne Nature Trails: Rocks and Fossils. It helps you identify your finds and comes complete with basic geological information that guide you to hunting hotspots in the first place.

RIGHT ROYAL RUMBLE

Station: Windsor & Eton Riverside

So it costs to go in the castle itself, but there’s so much else to do in Windsor that you really won’t miss out if you don’t cough up the entrance fee. Things like taking part in the Guards march through town (see below) are free. The famous Long Walk is an adventure in itself, and a picnic setting made in heaven, and leads to the Great Park which is so great you could lose yourself in it for days.

You could use the Queens Walkway or the Eton Walkway as a guide to explore all the key sights, with free maps available from Tourist Information, or a free app to download, you’ll get a dose of history to sit happily alongside your sightseeing.

Top Tip: Timing is everything here, and do check the Windsor Castle website for latest details, but the highlight of your day may very well be marching with the Queen’s Guards through central Windsor. Every morning except Sunday in July the guards plus jolly marching band leave Windsor Barracks at 10.45 and arrive at Windsor Castle for the 11am changeover. See if you can keep up! Altogether now. Rum Dum Di Dum-Dum. Rum Dum Di Dum-Dum.

PONY TRAILS

Station: Sway (New Forest)
Nestling amid the leafy boughs of the New Forest, visiting the gorgeous village of Sway where New Forest ponies roam free, is like taking a visit to some fantastical village in a story (no coincidence then that famous kids novel *Children of The New Forest* is based around here). 

This dappled green refuge offers a wonderful base to explore the New Forest with trails leading out in all directions. There’s a fascinating local folly to visit, built in the victorian era out of Portland cement, Peterson’s folly sticks up like an accusing finger pointing at the sky. And there’s simply oodles of great wildlife to spot. You can even amble down to Lymington for some seaside just a couple of miles away.

Do remember that the ponies are wild though. Great as they are to look at, going near them can be dangerous as they may bite or kick, especially mums with foal.

Top Tip: Bring your bikes. The New Forest trails are mostly flat and bike-friendly and it’s possible to go for miles on your bicycle. If you’ve brought bikes get off at Brockenhurst instead of Sway, as Brockenhurst is at the heart of a glorious network of off-road routes. See our information for travelling on a train with bicycles.

Photo Credit: Grant Rooney Premium / Alamy Stock Photo

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