Family Fun in North Wales

August 20, 2010

We’ve been stopping in North Wales recently, and discovering the delights of some of the local attractions – or, in at least one case, the lack of them.

First, the good: the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway in Porthmadog. This little gem is often overlooked, as most people know about the more famous Ffestiniog Railway which is at the other end of the town. The fact that there is now also the Welsh Highland Railway (owned by the Ffestiniog) running from Caernarfon to Pont Croesor and aiming to run all the way to Porthmadog in 2011 also tends to overshadow it.

The history of the Welsh Highland is long, convoluted and controversial. Wikipedia can give some of the details but suffice to say that at one point there was a lot of bad feeling. The irony is that in reality there isn’t really much competition, as they are doing very different things.

The two Ffestiniog-run lines have long scenic routes, in my eyes aimed squarely at the enthusiast, those who want a lazy way to enjoy the scenery, or at least those families with children old enough to enjoy the long journey and the views. A quick look at their timetables reveals this – the return trip from Caernarfon to Pont Croesor would see you on board for about four hours, while the trip from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog takes about 75 minutes. Anyone with young children will know that this is simply too long – the novelty of being on a train wears off after ten or fifteen minutes. Add in the cost – a family of four would need to pay more than £50 on the Welsh Highland or more than £35 on the Ffestiniog for a full return – and it’s not a particularly appealing prospect.

Contrast this with what the Welsh Highland Heritage offers. It’s about a mile long so isn’t likely to attract those wanting a great railway journey (on the plus side this means no chance of bumping into Michael Portillo) but then again the train journey is just a small part of it. A quick journey up the line, and then there’s usually the opportunity for the kids to get out and help operate the points and signals as the engine runs around the train; then back to their Engine Shed and Museum, where there’s a miniature railway to ride on, a steam engine to climb into the cab of, buttons to press, rubbings of nameplates to make and more before the short journey back to the start again. Any child under 8 who loves trains will love it and probably want to go round again – fortunately the very reasonably-priced Family Ticket at a cost of £15 allows you to ride all day. We’ve been several years running now and can’t speak highly enough of it.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said of Anglesey Sea Zoo. Visiting it was a little like being in a timewarp – there seemed little interactivity and much of the place looked in need of sprucing up. This is apparently the biggest aquarium in Wales – but the place seemed quite small in size and indeed less than 45 minutes after going in we were on the mixture of Adventure Playground and Crazy Golf Course outside. None of us had much desire to go back inside, and the day would have felt wasted had the weather not improved enough for us to visit one of Anglesey’s excellent beaches instead.

The cost for a family ticket was £25, and to be honest for what you get it is far too much. Compared to other aquaria it looks old and tired; maybe it’s not the cost of for example Blue Planet but the equivalent family ticket at The Deep in Hull is only a fiver more – less if you buy in advance online – and it allows you to go back for a full year rather than just the seven days.

My opinion is that the Sea Zoo needs to either freshen up or reduce its prices – at the moment it seems to be relying on its status as being an all-weather attraction on Anglesey to bring in visitors, and in today’s connected world the negative reviews are easy to find. Had they put in a fraction of the thought and effort that somewhere like the Welsh Highland Heritage have, it could have been so much better.


Toy Story 3 and tears

August 16, 2010

I finally saw Toy Story 3 the other day, and like many before me couldn’t help but blub at the end of it – even though you couldn’t exactly describe it as anything other than a happy ending.

Why should this be so? Without wanting to give the ending away, it is clear that for the main characters they have reached a good place. I think though that it links into something deeper: the power of human imagination.

This may sound a bit obvious; after all, isn’t imagination a given when watching a film? That’s not what I’m talking about however; I’m concerned here with the quality that allows us to see objects as something more. If we did not have this quality, toys would be just objects; instead, we imbue them with personalities, create stories around them, and give them a value and a role that goes far beyond a lump of metal or plastic. This in many ways is what Toy Story has always picked up on: we are able to suspend our disbelief in toys having some form of life and personality because as children, and as adults that play with children, this is exactly what we do.

This means that when the time comes to put away those toys, throw them out or pass them on, we find it hard. It’s not just a toy tiger; it’s the personality that we created for it, the imaginative play it lead to, the shared experience. There’s a grieving process, a sense of loss – and Toy Story 3 recognises this, plays upon it, and in masterly fashion makes adults acknowledge something: that it is never just a toy, but a companion.