If you’ve got a big trip that involves driving along the M5 motorway in the South West, or you’re looking for a good meeting place for families with kids in tow, you’ll find wildlife attractions, an ancient castle, soft play, a trampoline park, seaside towns and lots more just off the motorway near Bristol – all of which make far more exciting pit stops than a dreary service station.
As a child whose dad was extremely reluctant to stop at service stations for fear we would, and I quote, ‘spend £30 on books’ (which we never once did…and I’d argue there are worse things we could have bought there), I heartily encourage the pit stop!
M5 stop offs just off the motorway near Bristol
The Wave is about 2 miles from junction 17 of the M5 motorway – Washingpool Farm, Easter Compton, BS35 5RE
As far as cities go, Bristol fares pretty well in the ‘cool’ stakes, and then they went and built an inland surf lake. If my favourite city was lacking anything before, it was waves…and now we have them! Glassy, clean, azure blue, consistent, barrelling, left and right-handed waves, so goofy or regular footers can take their pick. The Wave can generate up to 1000 waves an hour, from 50cm to 2m, so there’s plenty of opportunity for surf stoke whether you’re a grommet or a pro.
Open seven days a week, every day of the year except Christmas Day, it’s easy to find at a time to suit, but do plan ahead rather than drop in on the off-chance – you need to be onsite at least 90 minutes before your surf session starts and ideally book onto a lesson if you’ve never surfed here before. Kids over the age of 6 years old can have a go or splash in the bay (check timings as you need to book in advance) and there’s also a lovely cafe/bar, onsite surf shop, viewing deck, gardens and general vibe of friendliness, passion and excitement hanging in the air.
Location: Just off the motorway junction 17/19 of the M5 (entrance opposite Bristol Golf Club), Wild Place, Blackhorse Hill, Bristol BS10 7TP
Sister attraction of Bristol Zoo Gardens, Wild Place Project is located just moments off the motorway from junction 17 of the M5, and yet there are acres of green space, animal habitat-themed zones and exotic beasts wandering the wilds here – a perfect antidote to the monotony of the motorway.
Wild Place is home to bears, wolves, cheetahs, giraffes, zebras, eland, geladas, okapi and a lemur walkthrough. As well as these majestic creatures, there’s a Barefoot Trail, a walled garden full of exotic birds and meerkats, plus a number of play areas and an indoor Fun Fort (handy if the weather isn’t playing ball).
Adrenaline-loving families might like to test their nerve on The Leap of Faith – an outdoor climbing adventure that takes around an hour to complete and includes a giant 25ft swing – a far cry from endless miles of motorway tarmac.
The Courtyard Cafe uses local, ethical and sustainable ingredients to create sandwiches, toasties and soup, cakes, coffee, cold drinks and ice creams as well as kids lunch bags – easily beating the offering of most motorway services. There’s also an inside and outside dining area so you can bask in the sun’s rays on a sunny day (or take your food and picnic in the extensive grounds).
Another bonus, is that this family-friendly motorway pitstop also has a rather exciting accommodation option for getting even closer to nature and the park’s wildlife – Camp Baboon. This urban safari-style camp is made up of luxury wooden cabins set around a campfire (for marshmallow toasting) and those choosing to stay here are treated to exclusive after-hours animal tours, unique animal encounters, special bush craft activities, breakfast and dinner, plus two days free entry to Wild Place Project and free entry to Bristol Zoo Gardens on the day of departure. Now that’s a thrilling way to break up your journey and wow-factor alternative to your average motorway-side hotel if ever I heard one.
Fun fact: The clock on the Hollywood Tower in Tower Meadow was made in 1839 by Dent, who also counts ‘Big Ben’ in his portfolio.
Top tip – book online in advance to save 10% on your tickets.
Location: just off the motorway M5 Junction 13/14 (about 20-minutes from the M5 – follow the brown duck signs). Slimbridge Wetland Centre, Bowditch, Gloucestershire, Gl2 7BT
A-well-a bird bird bird, well-a bird is the word…well it certainly is here at Slimbridge, a wetland and wildlife conservation area with other 2000 birds, including swans, flamingoes (there are six species here), ducks, the rarest goose in the world, otters, the largest collection of amphibians in the UK as well of oodles of other wildlife. You can purchase bird seed at the shop and in the foyer and some of the feathered creatures will eat right out of your hand!
It’s easy enough to wander through the Wetland Centre and see the beak-ed beasts – flat, buggy-friendly pathways make strolling with little ones a breeze, the Centre is massive and it seems you could walk all day and still have parts left to see. There are also bird hides overlooking marshland, where you can attempt to spot a lesser-spotted something-or-other (although being quiet seems to be valued in these huts, which isn’t always so easy with toddlers).
One of the biggest draws for those with young children is likely to be Welly Boot Land – an outdoor water play area that is perfect for cooling off on a sunny day, or for going splashtastic in wellies (remember to bring a swimming costume or puddle suit and towel). There’s also a soft play area, regular special events and it’s also possible to go exploring on a canoe safari to try and spot water voles and the like – a thrilling experience.
If you need human fuel while you’re here, there are a couple of cafes with bird views as well as a snack kiosk.
Fun fact: WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre is often referred to as the birthplace of modern conservation. It was founded by Sir Peter Scott, who was knighted for his contribution to the conservation of wild animals and whose father was the famous Captain Robert Scott – who led two expeditions to Antartica and died in a race to reach the South Pole.
Top tip: book tickets online and save 10%.
Location: Junction 13 or 14 of the M5 (around 16-minutes from the M5 motorway). Use postcode GL13 9PJ for your Sat Nav.
It’s quite something to see an almost-pristine fortress that dates back to medieval times, another to discover the same family – the Berkeley family – has lived there since the late 12th century. The magnificent Berkeley Castle is set in acres of glorious South Gloucestershire countryside, making it an enchanting day out. Of course, it comes with the territory that a historical building such as this guards fascinating and often grizzly secrets of preeminent beings from days gone by. If this castle can do anything, it’s namedrop like a motherflipper: King Edward was imprisoned and murdered here, Queen Elizabeth I came hunting here (much to the disdain of Lord Berkeley, after she shot 27 of his prize deer), King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn visited here and Francis Drake’s furniture even resides here!
Unsurprisingly, the photogenic building has starred in many film and TV productions – Wolf Hall, Johnny English and The White Princess, to name a few. On top of scenic wanderings around the castle and its gorgeous grounds (think pretty walled garden, tunnels, a lily pond), there’s also a Butterfly House filled with flittering flutterbies and a Yurt Tea Room, which is frankly, just lovely. On a hot sunny day when we visited, there was a shady teepee to slurp ice creams under on the lawn and a dragon hunting trail for kids.
If you time your visit right, there are often medieval-themed events taking place in the garden, such as falconry, knights and princess dressing up, visiting Tudors and storytelling witches, but just be aware the castle is only open from Sunday – Wednesday from April-30 October (apart from Easter Weekend).
Fun fact: Shakespeare wrote ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘ for a Berkeley family wedding.
Top tip: Gift aid your castle entrance ticket and you can return for free for up to 12 months during normal opening times.
Location: Hayes Way, Patchway, Bristol BS34 5BZ – about 5-minutes from M5 motorway Junction 17.
This aeronautical museum is perfect for aviation-mad youngsters and engineering enthusiasts, or kids that love to press buttons and check out helicopters, aeroplanes and all kinds of engines. Covering everything from the earliest days of powered flight, to bold pioneers and the role of both women and men in the two world wars, there is historical memorabilia from over a century of powered flight. Of course, the star of the show is that beautiful old bird, Concorde Alpha Foxtrot which takes up an entire hangar and has her own little exhibition in a separate hangar. It’s even possible to board the legendary plane and get a glimpse of what life on-board would have been like for those paying a whopping sum to travel at the speed of sound! While there weren’t as many interactive exhibits as my kids would have liked, there is plenty to see and do, the odd aeroplane to clamber aboard, an outside play area and a nice cafe.
Fun fact: Concorde Alpha Foxtrot is the last of her kind to be built and fly (in Bristol, I might add).
Top tip: Tickets are valid for a year so you can return time and again!
Location: around 7 minutes off the motorway, Junction 14. Wotton-under-Edge GL12 8HH
This four star De Vere hotel and Grade II*-listed Cotswold mansion might seem like an odd suggestion for an alternative stop off the motorway with children, but it’s very welcoming to kiddos and there’s masses of space to run wild in, including the hotel’s very own arboretum! If you’re visiting around spring time, you’re in for a treat as part of the gardens are carpeted in beautiful bluebells. Same goes for autumn, when the the estate’s many trees start changing colour. There are a couple of restaurants here to choose from, but if you’ve got young kids, I’d go for the more casual Atrium Bistro Bar which has impressive high ceilings and exposed brick walls. You should know there’s a spa here, in case you are somehow able to merge that with your stop here…
Fun fact: During World War II the mansion was a naval training base for coding and signals under the name of HMS Cabbala, and a mast was erected in the high reception hall.
Top tip: Try one of their naughty but oh-so-nice afternoon teas!
Price: Being a hotel, it’s free to enter but you’ll want to have some food and drink in exchange for visiting. Or check out their room prices for a luxurious overnight stay.
Location: just off Junction 17 of the M5 motorway – Unit 5 Britannia Road, Patchway, BS34 5TA
If the kids are getting fidgety on a long drive and in desperate need of some energy-burning, or if you’re looking to blow your children’s minds with the funnest of meeting places, then might I recommend Airhop. The largest trampolining park of it’s kind in the entire world, this place is where leaping dreams come true. If you’re going with under 5s, you need to look out for the ‘Mini Hoppers’ sessions (Tues-Fri, 10am-12pm and Sat-Sun 9-10am) or the family takeovers for 2-12 year olds (Mondays 4-6pm). During these times you’ll have access to the Dodgeball Courts, Slam Dunk basketball area, Main Court and foam pit, with a few balls and soft plastic toys thrown in for good measure. It is REALLY fun and kids (big and little) love it. If you’re in need of refreshment after all that pinging about, there is a cafe onsite or take a short drive to next door The Mall at Cribbs Causeway which has well-known restaurants such as Wagamama, Yo Sushi, GBK, an M&S cafe and lots more.
Fun fact: according to AirHop, bouncing can burn up to 1000 calories per hour! Worn out kiddos guaranteed.
Top tip: If you have other trampolining socks from another venue, don’t bother bringing them as you have to wear actual an actual AirHop pair.
Location: 22 Concorde Road, BS34 5TB. Just off the motorway from J17 of the M5 near The Mall at Cribbs Causeway, follow signs for ‘Patchway Trading Estate’. Find Jump at the furthest end of the trading estate.
A great rainy day option, Jump is one of those humongous soft plays that take up an entire industrial unit (at 22,000 sq feet, it is the largest dedicated indoor soft play centre in England). As is customary, it’s rather lacking in natural light and there’s nothing particularly pretty about it, but it does serve a purpose – entertaining and wearing out little ones by means of climbing, sliding, whooshing, inflatables, exploring, balancing, bouncing, clambering, crawling and infinite amounts of playing. There’s an indoor football pitch for soccer fans, a separate area for younger toddlers and babies to totter around at leisure without the bigger children disrupting them and a big cafe area serving up all the usual suspects – beans, chips, burgers and that sort of thing.
Location: 10 minutes off M5 motorway Junction 19 (Easton-in-Gordano), Clevedon Road, Wraxall, Bristol, BS48 1PG
Young animal fans will love this countryside attraction with big zoo animals including tigers, rhinos, giraffe, bears and elephants as well as smaller farmyard animals, meerkats and monkeys. Check out their ‘Animal Experiences’ vouchers in advance for family members who’d be keen to do more than just gaze at the animals from afar.
As well as wildlife, there are also outdoor activities such as bounce areas, adventure playgrounds (including a very ‘unique’ elephant slide – check the photo and you’ll see what I mean), a giant maze, welly splash pool and sand pit.
If it’s cold or rainy, you can whip round the park and then let the kids loose in a ginormous indoor soft play complete with beehive maze, slides, ball pit, a straw barn where they can swing from ropes and land on a blanketed mound of straw and lots more.
Four seasonal kiosks and a restaurant take care of the food options on offer, which you can also take away and tuck into at the various picnic areas around the zoo. While some people don’t necessarily agree with the creationist undertones that the zoo holds onto, these are fairly discreet nowadays and you can easily choose to ignore them and enjoy the animals and kiddy entertainment.
Fun fact: Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm is home to the UK’s only African elephant bachelor group.
Top Tip: Check out their website for special online offers such as ‘Child goes free’ discount codes. You also get 20% off if you book tickets online.
Location: Wraxall, Bristol BS48 1NX, just off motorway Junction 19 of the M5 (5 mins).
If you’re a National Trust member, you should add this beautiful gothic Victorian mansion, pretty sprawling estate and gardens to your list if you’re looking for somewhere just off the motorway near the M5. And if you’re not, it’s definitely worth the entry fee at any time of year. Seasonal events take place all year round, so it’s likely your visit will coincide with some family-friendly activities – my favourites are Christmas, when the house is decorated spectacularly in authentic Victorian style and a horse and carriage takes excited families to visit Santa (you need to book this in October time as it’s so popular!) and Halloween when the orangery is filled with pumpkins of all shapes and sizes, there’s a spooky trail and the rolling countryside glows in all its autumnal glory.
There are a couple of cafes onsite – a self-service one close to the entrance that is based in the old cow barn, with cattle stall-style booths to dine in (quite useful if you have unruly kids to keep in check) and food flavoured with herbs from the Victorian kitchen garden (which you’re free to explore). The Pavilion cafe is right opposite the natural play area, so you can scoop up a coffee or afternoon tea while the little’uns take on the wooden obstacle course and mess about on the tractor.
Fun fact: BBC 1’s Sherlock ‘The Abominable Bride’ used Tyntesfield as a filming location.
Top Tip: Come autumn, you might be able to do a bit of foraging for chestnuts and conkers in the grounds.
A shopping centre might seem like an odd one to put on a list of places to stop off with young kids – I realise that after a spot of retail therapy with a toddler in tow, one might actually need to check in to therapy, but bear with me. Firstly, if it’s food you’re after, there are lots of family-friendly restaurants here – Wagamama, an M&S cafe, a John Lewis Cafe, GBK, Yo Sushi, Las Iguanas, Nando’s and Pizza Express as well as lots more.
Secondly, if you’re visiting during the school holidays, there’s often a small train running up and down the length of the shopping centre and Christmas, you’ll find the full shebang. Ice rink, an ice castle containing snow fairies and Mr Claus, plus fairground rides and food stalls.
Location: Just off the motorway – 10 minutes from M5 Junction 19, Esplanade Road, Portishead, BS20 7HD
Portishead is a coastal town just 5-minutes from the M5 motorway. The Portishead Open Air Pool became my favourite place last summer during the fabulous UK heatwave, thanks to its picturesque perch gazing over the Bristol Channel. The large open-air pool is heated by green energy and has a non-slip, shallow toddler pool if you’ve got smaller children with you. When it’s busy they run short sessions, so everyone can have a turn in the big pool and afterwards it’s nice to chill out on the amphitheatre-style steps that make up one side of the lido and have the great views out to sea. When you’re done wallowing in the water, there’s a tuck shop right next to the swimming pool as well as a cafe serving yummy food with both indoor and al fresco tables on the seafront.
If you’re keen for a walk or a bit of a runaround, the swimming pool is right next to Portishead Point, which you can walk up to and out to the Lighthouse. There’s also a large grassy area (full of badger holes so watch out!) with views for miles along the murky-coloured Bristol Channel and a couple of benches which make a view-heavy ice cream slurping spot. Head in the other direction and you’ll get to the Marine Lake, which also has a children’s play area next to it.
Fun fact: The town inspired the name for the famous Bristol band Portishead.
Top Tip: Go early in summer to be able to park right outside for free.
A quintessentially English Victorian seaside town in North Somerset that overlooks the Bristol Channel, Clevedon has it’s own historic pier (seen in a One Direction music video and Keira Knightley movie ‘Never Let Me Go’) that you can pay to walk down. Or you could just admire it from the pebbly beach – a haven for coloured sea glass lovers – or one of the seafront cafes.
If you’re popping by in summer, there’s a huge marine lake you can swim, boat, Zorb and canoe in, plus lots of lovely coastal walks and a miniature train (£1.50 for all) that chugs around Salthouse Fields. For food and sea views, there are cafes and restaurants dotted all along the seafront from the marine lake to the pier. We quite liked the Salthouse Bar & Restaurant for its al fresco dining area with views out to the channel, kids’ play area and nearby parking. Start here and then stroll along the flat, pedestrian walkway over to the pier with the beach for a charming little seaside break from the motorway.
Top Tip: If you’re intending on going in the marine lake, check ahead to make sure the water is ok to swim in.
Fun fact: The BBC’s popular TV programme Broadchurch was filmed here.
Just off the motorway: Weston-super-Mare
Location: about 15 minutes from M5 Junction 21
Weston often gets a bad wrap, but for me, on a sunny summer’s day, I can’t believe my luck that there is a sandy beach so close to Bristol and it’s really easy to reach from the M5. I’m no expert on the town, having only visited a handful of times, but there is a vast expanse of sand in front of the marine parade that is great for sand-castling – just be aware of the signs as there is sinking mud about in these parts – the water is a no-no. From this part of the beach, there’s a lovely view out to Brean Down and the fort at its end – a National Trust area that makes for a lovely coastal walk. In not-so-sunny climes, the Grand Pier – basically an indoor theme park – has everything from a Go Kart track to roller coaster rides and arcades to keep all ages amused.
Fun fact: Remember Banksy’s temporary bemusement park ‘Dismaland’ a few years back that caused great excitement around the world? That was right here in Weston-super-Mare, at The Tropicana on the seafront.
Location: Cowslip Lane, Hewish BS24 6AH: Just off the motorway – approx. 5 minutes from M5 Junction 21
This wildlife and adventure park is great for all weathers. Outdoors you’ll find animals such as meerkats, birds of prey, ponies, cows and all kids of kid-friendly fun, such as tractor rides, a bouncing pillow, trampolines, a mini merry-go-round, a miniature train, crazy golf, numerous adventure play areas, bumper boats, a pedal kart track, diggers, boating lake and water activities, dodgems-style cars, high ropes course and lots more! Indoors, there’s soft play, animals to pet in the discovery barn, a couple of restaurants and a farm shop selling local produce. The only problem is trying to fit it all in one visit!
Fun fact: Puxton Park is set within 40-acres of North Somerset countryside.
Top tip: It’s slightly cheaper out of season (November to February) and on weekdays.
Price: Non-Peak Prices: Weekdays: Adults: £8.50, Children (2-16 years): £9.50, Children (0-24 months): Free, Family Ticket (4 persons): £35.00
Peak Prices: Weekends, Half-terms and School Holidays: Adults: £10.50, Children (2-16 years): £12.50, Children (0-24 months): Free
So there you have it! Oodles of options for kiddy entertainment, all conveniently located near the M5 and just off the motorway near Bristol. For a full list of family-friendly service station alternatives, check out this mammoth list from Smudged Postcard which has suggestions for stop-offs near the M1, M2, M3, M4, M5, M6, M9, M11, M25, M40, M74, A1 and more!
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