Take the kids to … RSPB The Lodge nature reserve, Sandy, Bedfordshire

Its wildlife trails and play areas make this free attraction a fun and affordable day out in the countryside – with the odd woodpecker for company, too

In a nutshell

The RSPB’s headquarters is in a nature reserve that’s free to visit year-round and has great outdoors activities for children. It covers more than 200 hectares (494 acres) of heathland, grassland and woodland. Three trails run through the scenery, each a manageable 11/2 miles, and kids can pick up a wildlife-challenge checklist from the information point at the start, then exchange it for a certificate at the end. The woodpecker and nuthatch trails loop past a hide where it’s possible to watch birds feeding and the buzzard trail passes through an area that was once an iron-age hill fort. We walked this route, and the change in the landscape was incredible: from flat, open heathland cloaked in purple heather, to deep, thick woodland so gloriously overgrown that my children thought we were on a jungle expedition.

The writer’s children do their wildlife-challenge checklist at RSPB The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire, UK
The writer’s children do their wildlife-challenge checklist. Photograph: Katie Gregory

Fun fact

If following the woodpecker trail, listen out for the cackle of the green woodpecker laughing at you. Unlike Woody Woodpecker, these birds don’t do the tree-drumming thing as their bills are too weak, so you’ll hear their laugh-like call – known as a yaffle – instead. And look down, not up, if you want the best chance of spotting one. They mostly eat ants, found on the forest floor.

Best thing about it

The wild play area was the highlight for my school-age kids. It’s a natural playground with musical instruments made from tree stumps, climbing frames made from tree trunks and loads of wood to build dens with. It’s next to the car park, so it’s the first thing you come to, but even on a sunny day in the summer holidays it was quiet enough that all the children could play in peace. The RSPB volunteers deserve a special mention, too. From the guides at the information point, to the wildlife experts who helped us spot hobby chicks in their nest through telescopes, everyone was keen to share their wildlife knowledge with us.

Hobby spotting with an RSPB volunteer, RSPB The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire
Hobby spotting with an RSPB volunteer. Photograph: Katie Gregory

What about lunch?

There are picnic benches in front of the visitor centre and shop (the Gatehouse) and loads of space to pitch up with a picnic blanket in the reserve itself. The shop sells pre-packed sandwiches and rolls (£2.50), hot drinks from a machine (tea £1.70, coffee £2), cold drinks and ice-creams. There’s no seating inside, so it’s a fair-weather affair or an emergency in-car lunch if it rains. We packed a picnic and bought some drinks (£1.99), then spent half an hour defending them from wasps.

Exit through the gift shop?

The little shop in the Gatehouse is quite sweet, with its wildlife books, animal soft toys and bird feeders (for the garden). Binoculars can be bought here, or hired for the day (£5). At the information centre, you can sign up to become an RSPB member and buy little pin-badges for a £1 donation.

RSPB Visitor Centre Sandy, Bedfordshire, UK.
Visitor centre. Photograph: Robin Gilmore

Getting there

East Midlands Trains operates services from St Pancras station to Sandy – the journey takes 50 minutes, and from the station, it’s a 10-minute walk to the start of the nature trails. If driving, it’s just off the A1 – take the B1042 Potton road from Sandy town centre.

Value for money?

Parking is £6 for the day – or free for members – although it’s worth getting there early as the car park gets busy in the holidays. Access to the reserve is free, so it makes for an affordable day out if you bring a picnic.

The writer’s children have a go at den building, RSPB The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire, UK
The writer’s children have a go at den building. Photograph: Katie Gregory

Opening hours

Car park and reserve open 7am-8pm, or dusk if it’s earlier, all year round apart from Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Shop open 9am-5pm weekdays, 10am-5pm weekends and bank holidays.


8/10. Although my two reluctant walkers moaned initially, they loved doing the wildlife challenge and running free in the wild play area, and us grownups loved having a decent day out for less than a tenner.


Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips

Katie Gregory

The GuardianTramp

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