By Eugene Costello
“In ’Artford, ’Ereford and ’Ampshire, ’urricanes ’ardly hever ’appen…” So I mused as I drove the remarkably short drive from south-west London down to Southampton on an — at last — lovely sunny afternoon the day before Good Friday.
In the back of the car my daughter Evie, and her best friend Essie, were agog with excitement. The funny things is, Evie in her eight years has travelled the world, from New York to Tokyo, and yet the prospect of a few days in Hampshire with her beloved Dad — oh, all right, Essie — meant she was in hog heaven.
Hampshire is a fabulous county, with variety of landscape, from coast to Downs to marsh to the beautiful New Forest, and it’s fair to say whatever sort of break you’re after, you’ll find it here.
Our first venture was to be an educational one. We headed into Southampton City Centre along wide tree-lined avenues and found a parking spot. Stop number one was to be Southampton’s number one tourist attraction — SeaCity Museum…
Attractively housed in the main civic building, SeaCity Museum’s main claim is that it tells the story of Titanic, who set off on her last fateful journey from Southampton in 1912. But there is much more to it than that.
In the rooms called ‘Gateway to the World’, Evie and Essie were enrapt by the tales of the peoples who had passed through or settled in Southampton, from Roman traders bringing goods, to Saxon settlers who made ‘Hamwic’ — to give the city its Middle Saxon (c700—850AD) name, on to Huguenot Protestants fleeing oppression in Catholic France and into Victorian times.
Plenty of touchscreens, displays and an interactive map that shows Southampton as it changed over the centuries kept the two cub reporters out of trouble for a good hour.
But there is no denying the lure of Titanic — and the permanent exhibition here is excellently done. The centrepiece is a 1:25 replica of the doomed ship, showing menus for the different passengers, from first-class to third-class and objects and artefacts that survived. An interesting angle is that the docks were naturally a major local employer, meaning that many of the crew were from Southampton. Much of their testimony is repeated as oral history and, with a wardrobe of clothes from the time for the girls to dress up in, SeaCity received an emphatic thumbs-up.
SeaCity Museum; ; 023 8083 3007. Adults: £8.50, children (5—16) and concessions: £6, under-5s free.
After SeaCity Museum, we walked along what remained of some city battlements down to the Tudor House, a really fascinating glimpse into the changing fads and fortunes of Southampton over the past 800 years or so; I urge anyone in this neck of the woods to swing by for a couple of intriguing hours playing the amateur historian.
Tudor House and Garden
The first thing to point out is that it is not really a Tudor house at all — it’s far older than that. It dates back to 1348 when it was built by a John Wytegod, a wealthy merchant who imported wines from France. Though the house now looks over a municipal car park, in those days, it would have abutted the docks, the river running alongside the foundations of the house. You can still see some of the original wall; downstairs would have been the secure stores, with the merchant and his family living “above the shop” in relevant opulence. In fact, the history of Tudor House is best observed by the succession of people who lived here, remarkably well chronicled. A well conceived trail ensures that you see the changing architecture as bits were added on over the centuries; don’t miss the Elizabethan garden, with meticulously researched medicinal herbs and berries, and the Georgian extension where a society couple lived and where he painted some rather good pieces of art that are on display today. And be sure to start your tour with the rather fun multimedia introduction by the House’s ghosts; the kids loved it.
Tudor House & Garden; tudorhouseandgarden.com. Adults: £4.75, children (over-7s): £3, (under-7s free), family ticket (2 adults and up to 3 children): £13.50, concessions: £3.75
And that was that. Enough cultural improvement for the day; it was time to head west. There was a hotel with a swimming pool to be discovered. The drive from Southampton to the lovely port and fishing village of Lymington — our home for the next two nights — is a 40-minute drive through one of the most beautiful tranches of our great country — the New Forest. Think single-lane roads through woods lit to stroboscopic effect by the sunlight. Think old English villages garnered around a green or a pond with a red telephone box and at least one classic car every few houses. (Perhaps that’s the effect of the nearby National Motor Museum at Beaulieu — but more of that later). And best of all, as far as the girls were concerned, think ponies. Wild ponies that came up to the window of the car when we stopped to take a pic — one inquisitive chap actually poked his head through the open passenger window as if to say, “Afternoon, everyone. Having a good day?”
As well as the famous New Forest ponies, we also saw plenty of donkeys and cows that roam freely, often wandering across the road, secure in the knowledge that any cars will stop — it doesn’t do to be in a rush in this neck of the woods…
Our hotel was across the estuary from Lymington itself — past Wightlink’s small terminal for the Isle of Wight ferry and opposite a golf course is the imposing entrance to our new home…
Macdonald Elmers Court Hotel & Spa
As I crawled up (in the car, I mean, not on all fours like a baby — that would be weird) the imposing drive to the grand house at the end of the manicured lawn and gravel drive, I could hear Joan Fontaine’s clipped vowels. “Last night I dreamt to Manderley again…”
Elmers Court is part of award-winning Macdonald Hotels’ empire, and there is something of the Scottish baronial about it once inside, all wood panelling and tartan. The main house, I was to learn, was sold as fractional ownership apartments before Macdonalds took over so now hotel guests are houses in super-comfortable chalets and lodges in the sumptuous grounds of the estate. It works surprisingly well, as it is only a two-minute walk from reception past the superb swimming pool and health centre. The room itself was enormous — these rooms are on two levels so you either get a patch of lawn in front of your spot or a wooden staircase and veranda. Either way, perfect for pulling up a chair in the sunshine and reading a book.
And inside the room is big enough for a king-sized bed, an armchair, a desk, a separate bathroom and an alcove that serves as a dressing room, with floor-to-ceiling windows. Handy when you have a daughter who seems to think going for fish ’n’ chips at a local pub requires the sort of preparation required of a Hollywood starlet readying herself for a red-carpet appearance…
But enough of the room. The girls had only been in the room for around 30 seconds when they re-emerged in swimming cossies and caps, like belles of the silver screen about to perform in synchronised swimming. The pool beckoned…
Now, the pool and facilities — beautiful grounds and palatial rooms aside — is the real draw of this place. A decent-sized indoor pool (the outdoor pool was not yet open for the summer) is cleverly designed to offer a standard-shaped area for those wishing to do a few lengths, with a shallower area to one side for horsing around and a separate pool for toddlers. There is a well-constructed whirlpool area, and even a sauna and steam room. I am glad it was so pleasant; it turned out we would be spending a lot of time here over the next couple of days…
Macdonald Elmers Court Hotel and Resort; room for couple with two under-12s from £xx;
That evening, we repaired to a quayside hostelry in Lymington called the Ship Inn, and I’m here to tell you that is one burger I would happily make the 200-mile round trip to savour again. The next morning, we had a fine full English (well, I did — the girls were more your muesli-and-juice brigade). There was fun to be had. Serious fun — we were headed for Paultons Park, a half-hour pootle back up towards Southampton, down the road from Romsey…
Or Hog Heaven, as they could just as easily have called it, as Evie and Essie were in their element. (On the subject of hogs, Paultons Park is also home to Peppa Pig World, though “that is for babies, Dad”, apparently.)
Paultons Park is a generous and attractively laid-out estate that should be admired for its gardens and aviaries as much as for its thrilling (and not-so-thrilling) rides. For me, it was the perfect choice for an outing with an eight-year-old and a ten-year-old. In truthfulness, there are possibly not enough high-octane rides to keep teenagers happy — they would be happier at, say, Alton Towers or Thorpe Park — but the mix of attractions for toddlers up to those around the age of 12 is superb.
Helpfully, the map they give you upon admission is colour-coded into four types, from “thrill ride” down to toddler-friendly, so it’s pretty easy to work out which ones you are best for you and your family.
We arrived at 11.30am and queues were beginning to build up on the more extreme rides — we waited around 40 minutes for our turn on Cobra, a relatively adrenaline-pumping rollercoaster. In fairness, that was far and away the longest we had to wait for a ride all day, but it is not a bad idea to arrive at 10am when the park opens to get around the more popular rides before the park fills up too much.
While there are plenty of ‘hot dog and fries’-type stalls dotted around the park, it’s worth remembering that you can bring a picnic if you’re trying to keep the costs down. Or do as we did — get your hand stamped, pick up your car, drive to a local village for a pub lunch and come back for more fun later. It really is a great day out; watching the two girls racing around hand-in-hand to go back to their favourite rides even managed to put a smile on my cynical old face. And that’s saying something…
Paultons Park, Ower, Romsey, Hampshire SO51 6AL; ; advance day-pass tickets for a family of three, £68; family of four, £90; family of five, £112.50.
And at the end of a long day of frantic, full-on family fun, it was back to Lymington for dinner and an early night; we were all exhausted, plus my bald pate was a little — how shall I put it? — sun-kissed from the unseasonably warm Easter sunshine.
The next morning, we said goodbye to Essie who was heading back to London with her dad for a family meal. We were to be joined in the evening in the next hotel, the Portsmouth Marriott, by a pal, Kevin, and daughter Ella, just turned seven, so today was to be special Dad-and-daughter bonding time.
The only problem was, we each had different ideas about what we wanted to do. Dad being Dad, I was fighting the corner of the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu; it would be rude to be so near and to visit, wouldn’t it?
Evie being Evie, she wanted to return to Paultons Park for more unfettered soakings and swoopings and swirlings through the air. There was only one thing to be done, as I am unscrupulously fair. We would simply have to toss a coin…
An hour later, we were pulling up at Car Park 3 of the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu with me letting out a silent prayer of gratitude for the naivety of eight-year-olds and also the ingenuity of the double-sided coin. All’s fair in love and family outings, as the old saying almost has it.
National Motor Museum, Beaulieu
Now, any of you reading this and thinking, what a mean Dad, nothing could be further from the truth and indeed, it is so rare for me to come off the better in a Dad/daughter exchange that I feel I must boast about it in print.
The fact is, we had a fine old time driving over, listening to Fleetwood Mac (that, and Belle and Sebastian seem to be the only CDs we can ever agree upon), and who would be so churlish as to begrudge us that special time together?
And as it turned out, little girls do love cars after all, or at least the way they are laid out at Beaulieu, they do. First up, when you come on to the estate, you immediately notice a large monorail over your heads that seems to go on forever — through the landscaped gardens, into and out of the main museum and exhibition building and up towards Beaulieu House.
Since they had been good enough to throw it in at no extra cost, the least we could do was take a ride on it. What fun! It was the monorail equivalent of those little trains we used to get on in the hazy summery dog day afternoons of my youth over at Ruislip Lido or wherever, an old guy with a navy serge engineer’s cap and a beard astride the locomotive. Such innocent days… though not so innocent if any of my mum and dad’s stories are to be believed. (Which, of course, they’re not. I would simply not have done anything of the kind, whatever my age.)
We eschewed the stop at Halfway Station (it’s not really called that, I just made it up — though I am more than happy for them to use it. All I ask in return is for a tasteful little blue plaque of attribution to be placed underneath acknowledging their debt to me. And free return admission for life. Google my agent — and if you find him, let me know where he is. He stopped taking my calls some years ago now…). Instead, we came back to the beginning, disembarked and headed on in to the first attraction — Cars Are The Stars or something similar. Cars you know from TV and film — geddit?
To be honest, you won’t be detained here for too long. They’ve got a Ford Anglia from the Harry Potter films, DelBoy’s Robin Reliant from Only Fools And Horses, Mr Bean’s Mini and, em, a Landrover that appeared in Heartbeat. Quite underwhelming. A bit like when you to a ‘zoo’ and all they have are beavers, geese, some stick insects that may or may not be in the cage and an owl that looks like it might be stuffed.
Naturally, I said nothing and feigned great excitement. The trick is not to let your children sense your disappointment. They’ve got plenty of that headed their way in the years to come; why steal away those innocent care-free moments any sooner than is necessary?
But my cynicism evaporated the instant I walked into the main hall. Row upon row of gleaming, lovingly restored machines from the discovery of the internal combustion engine through to more recent models. Oddly, one that stands out in my mind was a showroom condition 2CV with the price still chalked on the windscreen and polythene covers over the seats still in situ.
But there is so much more. Highlights for Evie included the actual model used in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, while for me an Auburn 851 reputed to have been driven by Marlene Dietrich in Desire stole my heart.
We spent several hours here, peering, watching displays and loving a ghost-train-like ride through the history of motoring. Clambering aboard an old 1939 Routemaster with the strangely familiar white tape wrapped around the conductor’s pole, I reminisced about skiving off school as a lad and jumping on a 65 at Ealing Broadway that in those days went all the way to Leatherhead and Chessington Zoo, as it was then.
“God, Dad, I didn’t know you were that old!” said Evie. I pointed out that they has a service history of half a century, those old warhorses, but she was too busy enjoying her little joke to care. Beaulieu — thank you for a wonderful day out. You have given us memories to cherish…