Nature as seen in the great wilds is unbeatable, but if there’s one thing you can say about urban nature reserves, it’s that they know how to keep a child’s attention.
London’s Wetland Centre in the southern London suburb of Barnes is within a wingbeat of Hammersmith Bridge, but that doesn’t stop an extraordinarily diverse range of birds making it their home throughout the year. Every season brings new migratory species such as the bittern, or the osprey, or New Zealand’s beautiful black swan. Our favourites were the white-faced whistling ducks, who stop their endless preening to stare in your direction if you whistle at them – get the right tone, and the whole group will whistle back.
The centre has 104 acres to explore, on paths that take visitors past reedbeds, ponds, lakes and wetland meadows – buy the map if you don’t want to get lost. There’s also a bat-house and several observation hides, the largest of which, the three-storey Peacock Tower, even has its own lift.
But birds aren’t the only story here – a lot of displays teach children about wider environmental concerns. The pretty Rain Garden imaginatively encourages visitors to make the most of rainwater supplies in their own gardens – children can peer through a periscope at the flowers on the grass roof of the pavilion, made out of an old shipping container, pump water down funnels to the ponds using foot pedals, or just play about on the little footbridges. Beside the Discovery Centre, Pond Safari enables kids to control an underwater camera that looks (quite murkily, it has to be said) at what’s beneath the surface of the ponds and lakes.
Inside the Discovery Centre itself, there’s an interactive digital floor offering several games; try to feed the dragonfly larvae quickly enough to see it transform into a winged creature. Also in this area is the Down the Plughole exhibit, created inside an actual sewage pipe, which does a simple and effective job of educating visitors in what not to flush down the loo or the sink.
Visitors can also take daily (free) guided tours with bird-watchers or feed the birds with a warden, and there are always lots of great activities during the school holidays. But who needs organised activities when there’s a giant Snakes & Ladders game (in which kids act as their own moving counters as someone else shakes the giant dice) and an adventure playground with tunnels, a climbing wall, a zip-wire and a rope-swing? There’s also a very pleasant picnic area and a self-service restaurant with a large terrace overlooking one of the lakes. With a well-stocked shop into the bargain, this really is a full, fun and highly educational day out for all the family.
For more things to do in London with kids, along with our handpicked recommendations for family-friendly accommodation in London, see our destination guide.