Sometimes things are just meant to happen aren’t they? My best friend lives in Derbyshire and Monkey and I try to visit her as often as we can. Her partner had a cycling trip to Sweden booked so we’d arranged to drive up straight from school last Friday and spend a couple of days with her, rather than do the normal there and back in a day. We’d arranged that ages ago and then into my email inbox pops an intriguing invitation. Just my sort of thing, checked the diary and it clashed with our meet up. Uuum, wait a minute the venue wasn’t far from Auntie A, would she be up to a challenge? Yes. Lovely! It was time for making fire and having fun at Conkers.
Conkers is set in the National Forest in South Derbyshire and I’ve seen it sign-posted from the A42 before, but had presumed it was a fairground type of attraction due to the signage. How wrong could I be! Auntie A had been before and gave me a low down on her last visit. Monkey would love it there with the woodlands, lakes and ponds and educational indoor space too. Of course, being England you could have put money on it raining and it did. The forecast was fairly dire but we were prepared – waterproofs and boots to hand, off we set. We weren’t going to let the rain spoil our fun. There’s lots of free parking, and there are two centres – Discovery Centre closest to the entrance and Waterside Centre (which is close to the train and main play ground).
We were greeted by Park Ranger Tom who handed out maps of the Conkers site.
Each map was slightly different. Head for the blue spot on your map and find your survival kit, then head to the yellow spot and we will meet you there.
We were off, and in fact it was Monkey who spotted our kit. We headed to the Bush Craft area for the real challenge of making Fire and having fun at Conkers.
First task – build a shelter with a tarpaulin, 2 jubilee lines and whatever we could find in the woods. At this point I should mention that Auntie A has a condition which makes it hard for her to lift anything, let along logs and shelter linings. Our team was slightly handicapped but this one-time Brownie and Girl Guide was not for giving up before we’d started. We had the upper hand as we had reached base camp first. A quick survey and we decided to work with an existing den structure. A shelter of sorts was constructed. It may not have kept us dry in a gale but with the rain we faced it did the job.
Next task – make a fire. It was raining, I am no camper, Auntie A and I were dubious. The Rangers made it look very easy to start a fire. Could we? We’d kept the cotton wool dry from our survival kit and we were each given flints. Then it was a case of finding wood dry enough to form a base for a fire and kindling to get it going once lit. I’ll be honest, we didn’t think we could do it, yes we were sceptical, not helped by Monkey’s high expectations. He was having a great time collecting wood and digging in the soil (no surprises there then!). The pressure was on. There’s definitely a nack to raising a spark with the Flint but I got there. I made fire! Then it went out! But thanks to Auntie A who had kept part of our cotton wall back, all was not lost!
With a bit of encouragement and guidance from the Park Rangers we were back on track. We had fire and this time it took. We tracked down twigs and branches to keep it going and I blew air into the base so it took hold. It was all rather exciting! We were the fire starters and Auntie A and I were rather pleased with ourselves. Monkey took it all in his stride, can we have marshmallows now Mummy? We made S’mores, which went down rather well and were a great reward for our efforts.
Treats eaten, camp fires extinguished and shelters taken down and packed away. It was time for the Barefoot Walk. This was a totally new concept for us, a sensory barefoot walk which takes you on a journey through the 200 history of the Conkers site – mining, Victorian spas through the woodlands and beyond. I knew Monkey wouldn’t be up for taking his boots off and really going for it, but he was eager to watch others. So we walked along side the paths, it’s a great idea and I can imagine in a year or two, he will relish the challenge. Others in the group certainly did. There were a number of information boards along the route and this is a theme at Conkers. We found these boards all over the site, which helped to explain different areas to Monkey as we explored.
For those taking part in the walk there is a hut to store shoes and socks, and a welcome foot bath to clean up at the end.
We’d spotted a train track when we first arrived at Conkers and this would take us from the Barefoot Walk to the Waterside Centre for a buffet lunch. The train has two stations, runs all day and is also free.
There are eateries and toilet facilities (the hand driers aren’t too powerful so hand towels would be a good idea) in both of the Centre’s and children were well catered for. I noticed a number of hot meal options specifically for children priced at £4.95.
Somewhere like Conkers is just begging to be explored. The paths are all easy for younger children to navigate and everything is well signed. Where to start? Woodland Walk, Wildlife Pond, Sensory Trail, Fairy Labyrinth (my kind of maze as you can’t get lost), Willow Swamp – we had a great time wandering around the grounds. We even managed a slug hunt! We are bug hunters after all and the weather was perfect for slugs and snails! There’s also an activity trail for children aged 13 and over.
There really is loads to keep you entertained outdoors, we didn’t even try out the Adventure Play Area, Wobbly Bridges or make it up the Viewing Tower. More for a future visit. Also, on 13th July this year Conkers will open their High and Low Ropes Adventure Course featuring 15 aerial sections with climbing nets and walkways 30 feet off the ground. There will also be a Low Rope section for younger children with 10 stages set at 10 feet off the ground. There will be a Climbing Wall, Powerfan Descender and a Zip Wire – full details here. This will incur an additional charge.
Auntie A had mentioned the indoor activities before we’d arrived at Conkers so we decided to check those out towards the end of the day. The flooring was a big hit – let’s chase the leaves!
We had fun exploring the interactive exhibits, not all of them appeared to be working, but we still had lots of fun in the Forest Interactive Hall and had fun on the Tree Top Walk.
With Gift Aid, adult tickets cost £9.75, children aged 3-15 £7.95 and under 3’s are free. There are also family tickets available (2 adults+2 children) at £32.95 and it’s also to upgrade tickets into an annual pass.
We will definitely be revisiting Conkers in the summer holidays, and I noted that they are running a number of free activities during the school holidays, which will be worth trying out.
When you have a great day out at a predominately outdoor focused location, in the rain, you just know it would be even better on a dry day! The weather didn’t stop us from doing anything, and we all thoroughly enjoyed making fire and having fun at Conkers.
disclaimer: we were given free access in exchange for an honest review