20 free things to do with kids this summer

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Words by Harriet Cooper

The summer holidays are upon us… and, as every parent knows, they can prove long and rather expensive. We’ve come to the rescue with an array of family-friendly activities that aren’t just fun, they’re free.

So if you’re looking to save a few pennies, why not jump on a train (don’t forget to investigate our child-friendly fares) and try one of these cost-effective days out.

1 Cromer Pier

Spend the day by the seaside on Cromer pier, the perfect spot for crabbing. Afterwards, take a peek around the RNLI Lifeboat Station Cromer Pier, a working lifeboat station.

And don’t miss the RNLI Henry Blogg Museum on the promenade, which tells the courageous history of saving lives at sea in Cromer.

Nearest station: Cromer

Cromer pier

2 Norwich Cathedral

Set in the heart of Norwich, the cathedral is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe. Unearth over 900 years of history on one of the hourly guided tours.

Ask for an Explorer Backpack, which contains everything little ones need for their visit including binoculars, a torch and a pencil to help complete the special trail.

Nearest station: Norwich

Norwich cathedral

3 Dad’s Army Museum, Thetford

Don’t panic! Even if your kids don’t remember this beloved BBC sitcom, they’ll enjoy this quirky museum in Thetford.

Aside from unique memorabilia and replicas of the uniform worn by the Home Guard, there are reconstructions of Captain Mainwaring’s office and the Marigold Tea Rooms. Cheery volunteers serve tea and biscuits, and talk you through it all.

Nearest station: Thetford

4 Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich

Hop on a bus from the station to the Sainsbury Centre at the UEA. With art work spanning 5,000 years of human creativity, there’s plenty to see – don’t miss the outdoor sculpture park with pieces by everyone from Henry Moore to Antony Gormley.

There are regular family events including Story Pot, a free storytelling workshop every Saturday.

Nearest station: Norwich

5 Ipswich Museum

This fascinating museum has something for everyone. Meet wild animals in the Victorian Natural History Gallery; learn all about when Ipswich was once a vast area of grassland and our ancestors used stone tools; and don’t miss the gold mummy mask of Titus Flavius Demetrios, which is about 2,000 years old.

Nearest station: Ipswich

Ipswich museum

6 Royal Plain Fountains, Lowestoft

If you’re in need of a cool down, the Royal Plain fountains on Lowestoft seafront are a must. In operation over the summer, the fountains consist of 74 individual water jets that kids can play in.

Every half-hour, a musical display takes place with the fountains moving to the sound of recorded music by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Nearest station: Lowestoft

7 Bury St Edmunds Abbey

Founded in the 11th century, the abbey was once one of the most powerful Benedictine monasteries in England. The impressive ruins are set within the Abbey Gardens, which come alive in the warmer months.

Find a quiet spot in the rose garden, water garden or the Pilgrims herb garden. Kids will enjoy the wildlife feeding area.

Nearest station: Bury St Edmunds

8 Landguard Nature Reserve, Felixstowe

Covering 33 acres on the southern tip of Suffolk’s coastline, this reserve is awash with things to do. Discover rare plant and birdlife on the nature walks; look out for the huge ships arriving and departing at Britain’s busiest container port; and go beachcombing for shells, whelk eggs and mermaid’s purses.

Nearest station: Felixstowe

9 Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The Fitz, as it's known, houses a world-renowned collection of over half-a-million works of art, paintings and historical artefacts – even its special exhibitions are free.

Little ones will appreciate the Fitz Kits with games and puzzles, Gallery Trails, and practical art workshops so you can create your own masterpieces.

Nearest station: Cambridge

Fitzwilliam museum, Cambridge

10 Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

Fresh from its £4.1 million redevelopment, the Museum of Zoology is better than ever. Thousands of treasures are on display from the entire animal kingdom, some of them discovered by the great naturalist Charles Darwin. Look out for the skeleton of the extinct Dodo!

Nearest station: Cambridge

11 Geocaching across Essex countryside

Geocaching is an exciting treasure hunting game using GPS technology to find hidden caches or boxes – and Essex’s country parks are a great place to do it.

If you don’t have your own GPS receiver, taster sessions are held throughout the parks, so keep your eye on the website.

Nearest stations: Various

Geocaching in Essex

12 Essex Police Museum, Chelmsford

Hello, hello, hello… This museum tells the story of the history of the police in Essex from the Victorians to modern day. With over 25,000 artefacts in its collection, there’s plenty to see and do including stepping inside a Victorian cell, trying on a real police uniform and having your fingerprints taken.

Nearest station: Chelmsford

13 V&A Museum of Childhood, London

Tell the kids that they’re going to a museum full of toys and there’ll be smiles all round. The V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green has been collating childhood-related objects since 1872 from dolls’ houses to Incredibles figurines, and everything in between.

There are drop-in activities, workshops and interactive displays for all ages.

Nearest station: London Liverpool Street

14 Natural History Museum, London

The Natural History Museum in South Kensington may be renowned for its dinosaurs, but when you enter you’ll be greeted by a 25.2 metre-long blue whale skeleton.

The museum houses over 80 million specimens spanning 4.5 billion years of Earth's history including a rare piece of Mars rock, Darwin’s pet octopus and a 3.5 tonne Cranbourne meteorite from Australia.

Nearest station: London Liverpool Street

Natural History Museum

15 The Greensward, Frinton-on-Sea

There are no slot machines or amusement arcades in the genteel seaside resort of Frinton-on-Sea. Instead, arm children with a bucket and spade and head for the gently sloping beach, lined with quaint, rainbow-hued beach huts.

Afterwards, picnic on the Greensward – a wide grassy area, that divides the esplanade from the shore – and marvel at the swooping seagulls and views across the ocean.

Nearest station: Frinton-on-Sea

16 Harwich Lighthouse

What kid isn’t intrigued by a lighthouse? The High Lighthouse in Harwich was built in the late 19th century to aid navigation into the harbour.

These days, the 90ft, nine-sided tower is run by Harwich Society as a museum of local interest with displays on different floors and knowledgeable guides on hand to answer questions. Though it is £1 entry for adults, it is free for children.

Nearest station: Harwich Town

Harwich lighthouse

17 Southend Pier

Southend Pier is sure to excite little minds: extending 1.34 miles into the Thames Estuary, it’s the longest pleasure pier in the world. Indeed, Sir John Betjeman once said that “the Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier”.

Admission to Adventure Island – the amusement park at the north end of the pier – is free.

Nearest station: Southend Victoria

18 Great Yarmouth

The Greater Yarmouth coast stretches some 15 miles and its clean, golden shoreline make it ideal for days out by the sea. Among the 11 beaches to choose from are South Beach, with its grassy sand dunes ideal for families who want a quieter spot to settle for the day, and Central Beach, a glorious sandy stretch between Britannia and Wellington Piers, ideal for sandcastle building.

Nearest station: Great Yarmouth

19 Newmarket horse racing

Newmarket is generally considered to be the birthplace of horse racing and is home to the famous racecourses and the oldest horse racing institution in the world, The Jockey Club.

However, one of the most thrilling things to do is stand on the town’s Warren Hill in the morning and watch some of the country’s finest thoroughbreds thundering past as they do their daily exercise along the gallops.

Nearest station: Newmarket

Horse racing at Newmarket

20 Gainsborough trail, Sudbury

Sudbury was the birthplace of 18th-century portrait and landscape artist Thomas Gainsborough, and the surrounding countryside inspired much of his work.

Download the free Gainsborough Trail map and set off on the 3.5 mile Meadow Walk section. Featuring ancient water meadows, much of the route follows an old railway track which is bursting with wildlife.

Nearest station: Sudbury