It's easy to schlep to the same old parks and attractions, rather than risk the unknown. But we're getting a bit braver as a family, trying out new places that pique our interest. I am becoming more accepting of the fact that some days we'll find some great new place to add to our itinerary and sometimes, well - we won't.
Given that it can be difficult to engage Spike with activities that don't involve trains, we're always alert to diverting things to do that are near trains. This summer, we checked out Kentish Town City Farm, which is riven in two by train lines. Like many a bemused commuter, we have often spotted goats on the railway embankment steppe and I was keen to see this odd juxtaposition from the other side of the fence.
Regrettably, on the piercingly sunny day that we visited, the farm was a veritable kaleidoscope of butterflies (or gaudily-painted death bugs, as one of our party would have it). So very not-lovely for us. They were attracted by the beautiful, thriving community garden and allotments, which were achingly green and in full fruit and blossom. Poor Spike was in fight/flight so, needless to say, our visit was short. We marched from one end to the other as if under time trial conditions and then retreated to the safety of the Overground.
Neither boy is a rabid animal lover, although they both seemed to enjoy the incongruity of seeing livestock in such an urban setting. They also agreed that the pig was enormously fat, and the cow very stinky. Despite being only a narrow wedge, the farm's animal offering is not meagre: a couple of horses, a number of cheeky goats, free-ranging hens and ducks, a massive pig and black cow. I thought it was a bit of a shame that the animals were largely off-limits and there were many forbidding signs prohibiting any form of contact. In the spirit of my gratitude post, the stabled horses did seem to inspire some thread of equestrian curiosity in Spike, who has said he wants to ride a horse several times since. If I mention the farm to Spike now, he enthusiastically recalls seeing "a class 700 Thameslink train, a class 222 East Midlands train AND a class 378 Overground train!", so there is that.
While Spike and Oscar were terrified/underwhelmed, I was charmed by the place. It clearly works hard to provide enriching opportunities for local people, especially children. The allotments are incredibly well-looked after and there is a riding programme and a young farmers group. My impression is that it does rather better at this than it does as an attraction, which is fine.
Very much more successful, was our more recent visit to Camley Street Natural Park run by the London Wildlife Trust. This 2 acre site adjacent to the Regent's Canal and the multiple train lines terminating at King's Cross St. Pancras station is jam-packed with nature. Butterfly season has passed and the visit was unpunctuated by drama, bar Spike taking exception to Oz chucking a stick in the pond. An adult group hurried past us with semi-appalled looks and eyebrows gymnasticing, like they'd never seen two weary parents trying to contain a minor sibling skirmish next to a body of water. Things were turned around for Spike when he found a tall, straight stick and announced that he was "taking it home to put in my bedroom. If I get a bad leg, I'll have a stick!"
We pond-dipped a little and found some pond hog-lice. Further up the path we found their terrestrial brothers. Giant ones, in fact. Camley must be feeding them well. Oscar disturbed numerous black, sticky slugs. Unfortunately, the minibeast zone is closed at the weekends, to allow the ground to recover from the hoards of school trippers who trample through the place during the week. Spike and I also enjoyed sitting on the floating 'Viewpoint' (designed by Finnish architects, EOR) duck-spotting and watching narrow boats navigating the lock, a curiously compelling activity. If you don't know your coot, from your moorhen or mallard, then there are laminated cheat-sheets to pick up in the Visitor Centre.
As I stood watching Oscar clamber atop a huge pile of waste wood, it occurred to me that this was the kind of place that someone might have hidden a geocache. I cracked open the app, only to discover I was 5m from one. I'm clearly a natural cacher! The hunt was short, but we were rewarded with our biggest cache to date. I can't recommend geocaching enough, whether you have children or not. It's such a cool way to inject a little randomness and excitement into your day.
We will definitely return to Camley Street. Ordinarily, I think craft activities and other opportunities are available for visitors (there was a party in progress when we went). In the warmer months there is a cafe. We heard mutterings that the place will be closed for redevelopment of its buildings, next year, so do check their website before you visit.
The new development around King's Cross has created other cool, off-beat places to while away time, particularly as an adjunct to a journey to or from the nearby station. Gasholder Park is a lovely invention. The ironworks from Pancras Gasworks have been lovingly restored and repurposed into a green space consisting of a circular lawn and a polished steel pavilion. It is small, but the boys played here for more than hour, climbing on the iron buttresses, rolling down the grassy slopes and performing tricks with the mirrored surfaces of the colonnade.
It is a good spot to watch both the Eurostar hauling its cosmopolitan cargo of passengers out of St. Pancras, and the narrow boats on Regent's Canal. Spotting a boat named the "Arthur Dent" near enough made my day. I felt momentarily under-prepared without a towel on my person.
The boys also loved the deep astroturfed steps leading down to the canal at Coal Drops Yard. We watched the Mad-Hatter, a Mitch-from-Baywatch, a lady leopard and assorted others boarding a floating Halloween party, while the boys pinged up and down the steps, cartwheeling and parkouring until we needed refuelling. The steps make a great picnic spot, but we dodged the fountains and headed across Granary Square to Caravan, which do well by kids and adults (although we thought they were rather outshone by their Bankside counterpart).
This place will soon be overrun with tourists and consumers, as Thomas Heatherwick's plans for a shopping centre resolve into bricks and mortar. The teaser images of kissing gabled roofs look pleasingly inventive, particularly when compared with the rather drab, rectangular resident boxes that make up the majority of the local architecture. It's a shame the architectural innovation can't be put to a more wholesome use, but there is plenty to enjoy in this previously unloved corner of the inner city.
Want to read more? Meanwhile, in another green pocket of London.