Monthly Archives: July 2014

Oxford Mommy’s one-year anniversary

I’ve been blogging for a whole year! Thank you to all my readers – you have given me wonderful feedback and encouragement as the Baberoo and I discover Oxford’s baby-friendly and toddler-friendly venues. I hope we’ll continue to unearth the city’s treasures and give you useful tips and guidance for navigating those first important years while having fun in Oxford!

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Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens

I’ve never been much of an animal lover. Zoos and wildlife parks have never held any appeal for me; I prefer cultural and culinary adventures rather than getting up close to nature in all its glory. So I very nearly didn’t go along when the Baberoo’s Gran and Oxford Daddy planned a trip to Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens (near Burford, Oxfordshire, OX18 4JP; £14.50 for adults, £10 for children 3-16 and seniors, free for under-3s). And that would have been a shame – because as it turned out, it was more fun than a barrel full of monkeys.

And there sure were monkeys. Monkeys, marmosets, lemurs, tamarins, and gibbons! They were all so interesting up close – I never thought I would enjoy observing  small primates so much. The Baberoo loved the smaller animals, especially the meerkats and the squirrel monkeys. She also enjoyed seeing the penguins and tropical birds as well as the larger mammals (although I’m not quite sure she can distinguish between most of them yet: the wolves, warty pigs, and capybaras all elicited a ‘woof woof’ sound).

Cotswold Wildlife Park penguin

What struck me most about the Cotswold Wildlife Park was how nicely it was laid out and how beautiful the vegetation was – both in the animals’ habitats and in the landscaped gardens. The gardens are as finely and professionally cultivated as any botanical garden, although they prefer to refer to their style of horticulture as ‘theatre with plants’. We were lucky enough to go on a beautiful sunny day that was not too hot, but I imagine that the gardens are equally lovely in different seasons. Since nearly everything is outdoors, make sure you plan accordingly with umbrellas, stroller covers, sweaters, jackets, and/or sunscreen, depending on the weather forecast.

Cotswold Wildlife Park landscaped gardens

The Cotswold Wildlife Park is an easily walkable size, and for those who don’t want to walk the whole time there’s a narrow-gauge railway (£1, free for under-3s) that will take you around the park. (Unfortunately, you wouldn’t be able to fit a stroller onto the train, so it’s not suitable for babies or toddlers.) If you have an older toddler or child who likes crafts, you can also visit the Brass Rubbing Centre, located in the Victorian Manor House in the centre of the Park (open school holidays and summer weekends; £1-£2.50). There’s a Children’s Farmyard where young ones can pet the animals and an Adventure Playground so they can run around, and a new ‘Skymaze’ adventure playground is set to open on July 19th.

Cotswold Manor House

Judging by the number of strollers and small children, Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens is no secret to families around Oxfordshire. We loved it and will definitely be back. Here’s how it rates for baby- and toddler-friendliness according to my five criteria of menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding.

Menu: The Oak Tree Restaurant is the main eatery at the Wildlife Park; it offers standard cafeteria-type dishes such as chilli con carne, jacket potatoes, burgers, or chicken nuggets, with chips as a side for most meals. A few of the dishes can be eaten one-handed if you are holding a baby in one arm. The restaurant offers children’s portions as well as baby-sized portions of most of the main meals. There are also three kiosks serving ice cream and snacks. But frankly, your best bet, for price as well as for ambiance, is to bring a picnic and eat in the gardens or at one of the picnic shelters or picnic tables around the park. We laid our blanket out on the Anniversary Lawn and ate a lovely picnic while we watched the train circling the park.

Space: There’s plenty of space in the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens, and even double strollers – of which we saw plenty – will fit comfortably into all the entrances, paths, and facilities (although pushchairs are not allowed in the Madagascar exhibit, so you’ll have to take your little one out if you’d like to visit that one). The hard part is getting there: the Park is two miles south of Burford on the A361, about 20 miles west of Oxford. Coming by car is by far the best (some might say it’s the only) option, as buses to Burford are few and far between. The bus route from Oxford is the Swanbrook No. 853, operating three times daily on weekdays, four times on Saturdays, and once on Sunday, and you need to get a taxi from Burford to the Wildlife Park after getting off the bus. If you don’t have a car, it might be an idea to hire one for the day. Parking is excellent, with staff directing drivers to the next available space in the grass car park.

Ambiance: This is definitely a place for kids and it’s geared towards their enjoyment, from the signage to the Adventure Playground. Whoops of delight and happy faces everywhere made it clear that families were enjoying themselves, and the commercial aspects of the Park were kept very clearly within the shop and the eateries. The animals we saw looked like they were thriving and happy in their surroundings. All the staff we saw were pleasant and knowledgeable.

Facilities: There are four toilet blocks around the park, one of which is in the restaurant. All of them have baby-changing and disabled facilities. The baby-changing in the large block of toilets nearest the shop (shown at left in the picture below) is bigger than the one in the restaurant (shown at right). All of the baby-changing facilities I saw were clean and well-aired.

Cotswold Wildlife Park baby-changing facilities

Feeding: If your little one is eating solid food, you can get a child- or baby-sized meal at the restaurant. If you’re breastfeeding, there are many places to sit around the park, including picnic tables and garden benches, or just on the grass. If you’d like a secluded area for breastfeeding, you’ll be able to find one somewhere around the park.

In total the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens gets an 8.25 out of 10 for baby- and toddler-friendliness. Although it’s much more geared towards school-aged kids than towards babies or toddlers, I’d highly recommend it as a great day out for even the youngest of babies. Most little ones will be thrilled to get a close-up look at the real-life counterparts of the toys they snuggle with and the animals they read about in books.

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Bill’s

One thing you never realize until you’ve lived with a toddler is that regular-people lunchtime falls exactly during toddler naptime. That means that going out for lunch at a normal hour is pretty difficult indeed. Never mind: there’s still breakfast, brunch, tea, and dinner!

Our most recent breakfast was at Bill’s (Northgate Hall, St Michael’s Street, OX1 2DU). I went to the original Bill’s in Lewes when it was the only one and rushed with excitement to try the one in Covent Garden when they opened in London; now there are more than 40 branches. They’re definitely doing something right, but as with most endeavours that start out small and get a lot bigger pretty quick, there’s a bit of a sameness to the newer branches that will never match the homegrown ambiance of the original.

Bill’s does a good job of offering tasty food throughout the day; there are menus for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and teatime. I ordered the blueberry and buttermilk pancakes (£5.95) with a peach and fresh mint iced tea (£2.95), while Oxford Daddy opted for the Bill’s Breakfast (£7.95) and the Baberoo got the eggs on toast from the kids’ menu (£2.95). The pancakes were light and thin – much better than your average stodgy thick pancake – but there were only three of them, which left me still hungry. This is unusual for Bill’s, where I’ve always found the servings quite generous.

Bill's pancakes

Luckily, I had also ordered a Jaffa cake (£2.55) from the teatime menu, so I wolfed down most of it – revelling in the squidgy, tangy jelly – and exchanged the rest for part of Oxford Daddy’s breakfast (the sausages were delicious). I also scarfed most of the Baberoo’s eggs, since she was enjoying the toast more. I was finally full, but I wouldn’t order the pancakes again because of the small quantity.

Bill's Jaffa cake

I’m a longtime fan of Bill’s and it will always be on my list of places to go for something tasty at any time of the day. But is it baby- and toddler-friendly? Here’s how it rates based on the five elements I always look for: menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding.

Menu: The breakfast menu offers a few choices suitable for those who need to hold a baby in one arm while eating with only one hand; the lunch/dinner menu does less well, since most of the offerings will require both hands to eat. Your best bets, if you need to eat one-handed, are risotto, mac’n’cheese, and some of the mezze, starters, and small plates. But you can always get one of the cakes or sweets from the teatime menu (which I highly recommend), so it’s a great choice of venue for afternoon tea. Bill’s offers a kids’ menu that offers a larger selection than the usual children’s menu, including six breakfast dishes (priced from £1.95 to £4.95) and seven lunch/dinner dishes (all £5.95, including ice cream for dessert). Many of the dishes will appeal to even the smallest toddlers.

Space: Your first hurdle will be getting up the stairs; there is a set of five stairs to get into the restaurant, which may deter those with large prams. It put me off for months before I finally went in! The staff are always happy to help you lift your carriage up the stairs, though. Once you’re in, you have only a few choices for seating where you are not blocking the way for other restaurant patrons and staff, especially since tables are set close together. There are a few tables that have regular chairs; these are your best bet. The booth seating doesn’t leave much room for a pushchair (and if you also need a high chair then there’s hardly any room at all). We sat at a regular table and removed two chairs so we had room for both stroller and high chair.

Bill's interior

Ambiance: The style is industrial-cozy: reclaimed wood, exposed piping, leather armchairs in lounging areas. The restaurant is also bursting with displays of Bill’s packaged specialty foods, which are available to buy right from your table, where you can fill out a little form while you eat. The service is friendly enough, although our server didn’t talk directly to the Baberoo or bring us a kids’ menu until we asked for one. He also suggested a table that would have put us in everyone’s way; we vetoed it in favour of one that was a little easier for a pushchair to fit in. On previous visits our servers have been much more on the ball about catering to our little one’s needs.

Bill's food to buy

Facilities: During this visit I had mistakenly thought there were no baby-changing facilities at Bill’s; the regular toilets (which are tiny) are signposted very well, but there is no sign on the door for the disabled/baby-changing loo so I didn’t see it at all. Alerted to its existence by a kind reader after having written this review, I made sure to try it out when I visited again some weeks later. The room is spacious and clean, and did the job fine – so if you were put off by my original post saying there were no baby-changing facilities, don’t be!

Feeding: If you’re breastfeeding there are some comfy leather armchairs you can lounge in, although they are right at the restaurant entrance so you will be on view. The bench seating will probably only be OK if you’re feeding a smaller baby, while the chairs will be fine for breastfeeding any age of baby/toddler but may not be that comfortable. If your little one is eating solids then it’s a safe bet to say the kids’ menu will have something they will enjoy.

By my ratings system, Bill’s gets a 7.75 out of 10 for baby- and toddler-friendliness – up from its previous lower score of 6 out of 10, which was my mistake because I hadn’t noticed the baby-changing facilities. It has the advantage of being open all day long, and if you have a fairly small baby carriage or are using a sling or baby carrier, you’ll be able to enjoy it. However, it’s a much easier place to take an older kid rather than a baby or toddler.

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