Ever since we saw the video showcasing the Gruffalo Spotter activities on offer at forests up and down the country we've been looking forward to trying it out. We visited Kielder Water and Forest Park last year, when they had the Stickman trail on and we'd really enjoyed it, but as our kids were too young for the crafts and games which had come in the activity pack it had been more the getting dirty and running around that they had liked. This year the Forestry Commission has gone all out though, on Gruffalo augmented reality, which should entertain everyone from toddlers to mams and dads.
Well, South Tyneside is fast becoming the toddler activity capital of the North East. After we visited the fab Role Play cafe a couple of weeks ago, we headed back to Hebburn a few days later to look around the new messy play venture in Victoria Industrial Estate - Lets Play Big
Unlike most of the messy play classes that I know of, which operate from community centres or hired rooms, Lets Play Big is based within it's own unit in an industrial estate. It is open 7 days a week, running four sessions a day which makes it perfect for working families. Before I started my current maternity leave, I worked four days a week, and I remember searching online for classes that I could take my toddler to on my day off, and frequently being disappointed when something looked really good, but was only available on a Monday at 10am or something when I was working. It is even better for people who work five days a week, because as far as I know, whilst some classes are branching out into putting on the odd Saturday morning, there isn't anywhere else nearby where they offer this amount of pre-school classes over holiday time and weekends.
Apart from the brilliant opening hours, Lets Play Big had really gone for it with the variety of tasks and crafts that kids could get involved with. I haven't been to loads of messy play groups, a handful of individual classes and we used to go to baby sensory when my toddler was tiny (obviously neglected second baby hasn't been to any sensory classes, she just gets dragged around to noisy toddler activities, and perhaps that was why she was so excited to be able to play during this visit.) So I can't say that I'm a messy play connoisseur, but I felt like Lets Play Big had put on so many great play stations, that even the most seasoned crafters and gloop-players would really enjoy the sessions.
On a freezing cold Saturday in April, we headed out with a few friends to Ridley Park in Blyth. I'd never been to this park before, but my husband had told me it was really impressive. Well he wasn't exaggerating. It was a lovely park, big enough to have a meander through for 15-20 minutes, green space for a kick about, loads of equipment for kids of a pretty wide age range and a cafe to grab a coffee and bit of cake.
Parking: There was a decent sized car park which was almost empty when we visited. I can imagine on a sunny summers day the car park would be heaving pretty early on, but if so there were plenty of spots to leave the care on the road surrounding the park.
Play areas: A short flat walk from the car park led to the main park where there were 3 distinct playing areas. A playground for 10 year olds and under, a junior park for 11 and over and a water feature area.
UPDATE: TWITTER TELLS ME THE WATER FEATURE WILL START ON 28TH MAY 2016 FOR THE SUMMER. The water wasn't on when we visited. The northumberland council website tells me that it's on 'most days' during the summer, from 11-6pm. I can imagine the toddler going nuts for this when it's operational, and as it was freezing cold it was probably for the best so my toddler was exposed to fewer risk factors for hypothermia. You could see from the placement of water pumps that it would probably be quite dramatic when it was on, but unfortunately without the water sprinkling, my trusty iPhone photographs are a bit bland. The ground was a soft, anti slip material, although I feel like those 6 rocking animals might act like a magnet to excitable kids' heads when they are running around in the water.
The Junior park for under 10s, was really well equipped with a few pieces which were different from the usual swings or roundabouts that you see in most parks. Below are photographs of all of the equipment in this section of the park. Including climbing pieces, slides, and water and sand features. The water feature, which was a tap with a series of tubes, turbines and mills for the water to travel through, wasn't on when we visited. Perhaps this is something else which is only operational during the summer months? Our toddler didn't seem to mind though and still had a play on it.
One of the things which set Ridley Park apart from the other parks that I've been to before was the area for over 11s. The equipment in this section was frighteningly big. The type of park which is great when you are 11, then as soon as you have kids and lose your sense of humour and ability to see any fun in taking risks, it is quite terrifying. Mainly the climbing apparatus. I don't think my photos show just how high some of it went.
As well as the play areas there were lots of grassy patches which you could spend a while walking around, have a picnic or play games on.
Cafe: There was a really sweet cafe in the centre of the park, with places to sit both inside and out. I spotted at least two high chairs for the little people, and dogs were welcome inside too. The cafe supplied some games equipment (which in the interests of full disclosure I must point out some of it was tired, like when Eddie Izzard completed 50 marathons tired, a couple of the balls looked like they had been salvaged from a dog's mouth, but there was enough equipment in good enough state to have a kick about with) like balls, hula hoops, and a mini kids slide. I thought this was a really nice touch, and we had a good time chasing around one of the balls each time our toddler kicked it in the opposite direction to us. For the size of the cafe it had a very big menu, not just offering coffee and cakes, but full meals. We saw a few people tucking into baked potatoes and paninis and they looked really good. We treated ourselves to a millionaires shortbread and hot chocolate whilst I fed the baby, and they were lovely. Slightly disappointingly they'd added synthetic tasting chocolate sauce when decorating our plate which distracted a little bit from the rich, slightly bitter taste of the chocolate on the shortbread. Millionaires shortbread is one of my favourites, and this was definitely a really good one, and tasted home made. I'm sure it was, as we saw them bring out big trays of freshly cooked scones from the oven. The only downside to this cafe was that if you needed the loo, you needed to go outside and brave the elements, as the only ones available were the parks toilets.
Toilets: Now for the weird bit of the review. With a baby and toddler needing their nappy changing, what feels like every 15 minutes, the toilets are pretty important to me. Important enough to take photos of, it seems. These pics were taken on my iPhone, but I think even a top of the range SLR couldn't save these pics from how grim they are. Probably my only negative part of the review of this park, but there were only one sets of toilets open. So two female toilets, and absolutely nowhere within them to change a baby. The green porta-cabin building were toilets too, but these were all locked up. Perhaps there were baby change within the disabled toilet? But I had asked within the cafe if there were any baby change in the park and they didn't know, so I'm not sure whether there are any baby change places in the park. Thankfully on our trip there were no tell-tale smells indicating an immediate nappy change required, so both the toddler and baby just had to wait until we got home.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely, it was a perfect park for the colder weather, lots to entertain the little ones, bits of games equipment for us to use, and a lovely cafe for a cake. We'll definitely go back in the summer so that we can see the water area in action. We live about a half an hour drive away, but I think that if we were heading out for a day it would be worth making the trip to Ridley park for the great play spaces.
Have you been to Ridley Park? What did you think? Did you find any baby change facilities? Have I missed anything out of this review? Leave me a comment below.