On Sunday, we headed off on a #railadventure, and enjoyed a fabulous family trip to Cambridge by train.
We were raring to explore further afield, after starting half term with a lazy day at home, building dens and putting up a tent in the garden. (More on budget half term activities)
Save on train tickets and activities
Right now, you can snap up kids train tickets for just £2 return!
That’s right. Travel off peak anywhere within the Greater Anglia network, and you can add children’s return tickets for just £2 each.
There’s no need to book in advance, you can just rock up on the day, but you do need to buy the tickets at the station rather than online. (More on Kids for £2 tickets).
The offer means it would cost a family of four just over £40 to travel off peak from Ipswich to Cambridge for the day. I was surprised we only had to add £3 for parking all day at weekends at Ipswich station. Save on petrol, save on parking, save on hassle – sounds good to me!
If you travel by train, you can also take advantage of offers like 2 for the price of 1 tickets. Slash the cost of loads of big attractions in London and elsewhere via the Days Out Guide website, and here’s the list of Greater Anglia offers in and around Cambridge.
Travelling by train
We took a leisurely approach to our #railadventure to Cambridge.
Rather than getting up at the crack of dawn, we set off to catch an 11.02 am train from Ipswich station. It meant I had time to slap some sandwiches together and bake a lemon drizzle cake for a picnic.
The weather forecast was discouraging, threatening thunder and rain, despite the sunshine outside. We shoved macs and swimming kit in our bags, just in case it poured and we needed to retreat indoors.
The kids also chose stuff to keep them entertained, as we’d be on the train for nearly an hour and a half each way. My son found the travel versions of Connect 4 and snakes and ladders we’d picked up from charity shops and my daughter packed her drawing pad and pens.
The children made themselves at home as soon as they got on the train, hanging up their rucksacks on hooks by the window. Meanwhile my husband was delighted to go by train rather than being stuck behind a steering wheel. It meant he could relax, rather than concentrating on the road. We could go to the loo without delaying the journey, and the kids could swap seats if they were irritating each other (ahem #keepingitreal).
My daughter was keen to point out the plugs to charge any electronic devices, but in the end she drew rather than staring at a screen the whole time. Instead, we watched beautiful East Anglian countryside slip past the train windows, and spotted places like Bury St Edmunds that we’d visited before.
Visiting Cambridge Botanic Garden
When you arrive in Cambridge, just head left out of the station for buses to the City Centre, or look right for taxis. We didn’t need any transport, as we were heading for Cambridge University Botanic Garden. It’s super close to the station, only a 5 minute walk straight up the road to the Station Road entrance.
We’ve been to the Botanic Garden once before, on Mothering Sunday, but promised ourselves we’d come back later in the year. I’m so glad we did.
The Station Road entrance may seem small, but opens onto a massive 40 acre site, an oasis of green so close to the city centre. This time, we were surrounded by beautiful flowers from irises and alliums to roses and foxgloves. If you check the website before visiting, you can find links on the home page to what’s ‘Looking Good Now‘ and the ‘Head of Horticulture’s Plant Picks‘, as well as a calendar of free and paid events.
Tickets cost £6 for adults, or £5.50 for over 65s and students with a recognised identification card. Children under 16 and students with a valid Cambridge University card go free.
We started by searching for a shady spot for our picnic lunch, under a tree on one of the many lawns. My husband and I could sit back and enjoy the view, while the children dashed back and forth for food, exploring the garden. If you don’t bring your own picnic, there’s also a Garden Cafe (fine cake).
We borrowed a couple of the explorer backpacks from the ticket office for free. The children really enjoyed trying out the mini binoculars and using the magnifying glasses and bug jars to get up close to tiny flowers and insects.
There was also a set of Sense Safari cards, with challenges from colour spotting to yoga poses. The children seized on the suggestion about walking on grass in bare feet, and stripped off their shoes and socks for the rest of the visit. Hugging trees was unexpectedly popular, though I should say that however tempting the trees in the Botanic Garden, they’re more like museum exhibits and not suitable for climbing.
One joy in the Botanic Garden is that although there were other visitors, there was plenty of room for everyone. Even on a Bank Holiday Sunday with children running around it felt peaceful and not remotely crowded.
The Botanic Garden is divided up into different parts with different plants, so we pottered round exploring. We tried to identify different smells in the Scent Garden, and managed lemon and mint. I made a beeline for the Rose Garden and checked out the Systematic Beds, with families of plants grouped together. My daughter was bowled over by the aptly named giant redwood trees and my son was fascinated by the fountain. They both enjoyed watching the ducks on the lake, before scrambling over the rocks in the Rock Garden, spotting tiny streams.
We ventured into the big glasshouses, humid in the heat and bursting with exotic orchids and bird-of-paradise flowers. The children were particularly fascinated by the gruesome carnivorous plants.
One of our last stops was in the Schools Garden, used to teach children about sowing seeds, growing fruit and veg and taking cuttings. The sign itself is a bug hotel, and the plot looked cheerful with bunting. My daughter was delighted by a miniature wooden house, built with a tree trunk at the base.
We finished our visit by removing the children from the gift shop, and returning the back packs at the opposite entrance to the Botanic Garden, Brookside Gate on Trumpington Road.
Walking through Cambridge
Our next stop was by the river, so we headed down Trumpington Road. The weather forecast still threatened thunder, so we decided to pass the Fitzwilliam Museum and try for the punt tour.
It takes 15 minutes or so to walk straight down Trumpington Road, which becomes Trumpington Street, and then left down Mill Lane to Scudamore’s Punts.
Complaints about heat and feet broke out roughly as we reached Peterhouse, so we tried distraction tactics, pointing out different colleges and glancing at the book sale outside Little St Marys (nothing for the kids, but I came away with a green Penguin Margery Allingham).
Tickets for a Scudamore’s punt tour
The street outside Pembroke in the photo above may look empty, but we discovered where everyone had gone when we reached the river.
We got to Scudamore’s just before 3pm, clutching our e-ticket for a shared punting tour. The shared tours take 45 minutes, for up to 12 people, with a chauffeur who gives a brief history of Cambridge and points out buildings and sights along the river.
Going online cuts costs compared to waiting until you arrive. Take advantage of the 2 for 1 offer when travelling by train, and a punt tour costs £40 for a family of four. This compares to £63 if you buy on arrival (£20 per adult, £11.50 per child over 4) or £54 if you buy tickets on the Scudamore’s website (£17 per adult, £10 per child over 4). Children under 4 go free.
The drawback with an e-ticket is that you can’t book a time in advance, but just show up and get on the next available tour. Turned out we weren’t the only people who fancied a punting tour on a sunny Bank Holiday Sunday. The first available tour was at 5.40pm, two hours and forty minutes later.
Apparently, even on a ordinary sunny weekend it’s worth allowing a one to two hour wait for a shared punt tour. Another option is arrive in the morning, and either try for a tour then, when it’s less busy, or book into a tour later in the day.
Otherwise you could pay more for a private tour straight away, or hire your own punt and try punting yourself for £30 an hour.
Swimming at Parkside Pool
We’d intended to do a punt tour while the weather held, and then go swimming. The later tour time meant we decided to go swimming first.
So after a brief sit down in a shady part of the grass next to the punting station, we headed off to Parkside Pool.
The walk took just over 20 minutes but was definitely worth it. The kids shot into the small pool to play with floats, where the water was lovely and warm. We also tried the larger (and cooler) pool in the ‘swim for all’ lane. When the flumes opened, my husband and children headed off to whoosh down with and without inflatables. I figured I could do without that much excitement, and swam a few lengths at stately pace instead.
As non-members, our family ticket cost £14.40 for two adults and two children. As a refreshing change from the heat outside, and a change of pace between botanic garden and punt tour, it was priceless.
Taking a Scudamore’s Punt Tour
We made it back to Scudamore’s just before our 5.40pm punt tour, and celebrated with ice creams from a stand nearby. The man at the Verrechia ice cream cart was so kind, he even replaced a cone for free after a dropped ice cream incident.
Scudamore’s suggest showing up 5 minutes before the time on your ticket, so you can queue up at the punt tour landing station just in front of the Anchor pub (white building in the photo above).
It’s luck of the draw where you get to sit in the punt, depending on your place in the queue. However, if you’d like to take photos without the punt chauffeur, try to sit down facing the Anchor rather than the river, and aim to sit opposite each other so you’re not taking photos of strangers.
I’ve never been in a big punt built for 12 before, and there was plenty of room for our bags. The seats were comfortable with cushions and blankets, and there were even massive umbrellas stored at the side in case of rain.
I’ve tried punting in the past and I was rubbish, so it was a real luxury to sit back while someone else hefted the pole and deftly steered us past everyone else on the river.
Our punt chauffeur, Jacob, talked us through the early history of Cambridge, pointed out the different bridges and buildings and told stories about the colleges. He was happy to answer questions, and fielded my son’s enthusiasm for the mathematical bridge at Queens.
It was very special to see Cambridge from the river, without worrying about ramming into the bank or other punts. The route passed famous Cambridge sights including Kings College Chapel, the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s and the Wren library at Trinity. We also saw students studying, tourists gazing, ducks with ducklings and statues from stags to wyverns.
Thank goodness the threatened thunder never materialised, and we slid smoothly along in the sunshine. I was particularly entertained by the enterprising drinks punt in the middle of the river, so you could draw alongside to buy hefty cups of Pimms, or cold beer, wine and water from a cooler.
The punt tour took 45 minutes down to Scudamore’s punting station by Magdalen and back, with our punt chauffeur telling us further details on the return trip. The tour was a real highlight of our day.
The punt trip was only due to finish at 6.25pm, and we really wanted to grab some food before the 7.14pm train home.
Before starting the tour, we decided to blow the budget and book a taxi to collect us afterwards and whisk us to the station (Panther Taxis, 01223 571 571).
Otherwise, we faced a half hour route march to the station, rather than the 15 minute walk we’d originally planned from the swimming pool.
The taxi felt like £7 well spent – we got to the station in plenty of time to nip into a supermarket for supplies.
Money saving tip: there’s a small branch of M&S food in the ticket hall itself, but if you look right coming out the station, there’s also a branch of Sainsbury’s Local. We had time for everyone to choose their favourite sandwiches, negotiate several packets of sweets down to a single box of millionaire’s shortbread, insist on fruit and stock up on drinks.
The carriages were busy but a considerate passenger switched seats so we could sit at a table together for our train picnic. It had been a long day, and the train meant we could stay later, rather than worrying about getting caught in traffic in the car. Everyone ended up having a nap on the journey back, tired but happy after our day out.
Cambridge is a great place to visit by train, as the centre is so compact and it’s a lovely place to walk around. Our combination of botanic garden, swimming and punt tour made for a packed day, but there’s still loads to explore on return visits.
Now – over to you. Any favourite outings by train? Tips for a family trip to Cambridge? Do share in the comments, I’d love to hear.
Plus could you help me out? Let me know if you feel inspired to have your own rail adventure after reading this post, by clicking on this link to a survey. It’s only one question – thanks so much!
More ideas for family outings by train? Check out our action packed trip to Norwich by train
DISCLAIMER: We were given free rail travel, station parking and tickets to Cambridge University Botanic Garden and a Scudamore’s punt tour as part of the Greater Anglia #railadventure campaign, in exchange for this post. However, all views are my own. We had such a good day!