Due to its extensive farmland and greenery, farm experiences are becoming increasingly popular and common across Scotland. It can be a case of actually trying to choose between a selection of offerings. The Almond Valley Heritage Centre in Livingston, just outside Edinburgh, should be on the shortlist, as it combines a mix of animals, learning, experiences and fun.
The heritage park is a social enterprise and an accredited museum working closely with West Lothian council, so customers receive the switched on service of the private sector, combined with the more educational focus of the public sector. Its story began in the late 1960s with a campaign to save the historic buildings of Livingston Mill from demolition. We visited this month, so here’s our list of what worked well, and any niggles.
1 Catch the Train
Every hour, on the half hour, a small diesel engine (that spent its working life in an explosives factory) chugs its way along a small section of railway track. It passes fields of sheep, past the waters of the mill lade, until its tiny and grown-up passengers get the chance to disembark, go for a 5 minute wander, before chugging back again. [This journey kick-started our visit, it costs £1 per person in addition to the entry fee.]
2 Go On a Tractor & Trailer Ride
Every hour, on the hour, a tractor pulls a trailer of giddy children and their parents around the Almond Valley site. This costs 50p per person in addition to the entry fee. Kids can also drive their own mini ride-on tractor if they prefer to be more hands on.
3 Feed the Animals
Keep an eye out for animal handling and feeding sessions. When we attended a large crowd had gathered to feed the lambs and calves. It was a busy experience but, to their credit, the staff were absolutely brilliant at ensuring that every single child in attendance got a chance to bottle feed the animals. No tears, no disappointment.
4 Go Back in Time
Highlights of the ‘heritage’ side of the centre include old mills, milking stalls and farmyards of colourful old ploughs. Learn how the land used to be tended in years gone by.
5 Highland Cow Hoopla
The centre sums up the cultural history of quoits in Scotland, alongside the chance to throw hula hoops onto the horns to Highland Cows, a clever way to combine history with activity.
6 See Real Highland Cows
An icon of Scotland, meet these majestic beasts in person. A photo opp for sure.
7 Meet an Array of Animals
As well as Highland Cows, get up close and personal with Smokey the pig, Anabel the dairy cow, as well as a mix of goats, miniature donkeys, rabbits and guinea pigs.
8 Jump Around
Three large trampolines, as well as a huge pillow trampoline, await bouncy youngsters. Mr Tot was so enamoured by a Cow shaped Bouncy castle that it was all he talked about for quite some time.
9 Dig It
This was a surreal hit with my tots. A giant sandpit within a tent sounds cool enough, but dig into the sand to uncover skeletons and the occasional bit of treasure. It’s meant to represent an archaeological dig (rather than a freaky crime scene), and my kids loved digging up skeletons, although I’m not sure quite what to make of that. They didn’t find any treasure but didn’t seem too bothered.
10 Get Musical
Our tots played their own personal ‘greatest hits’ selection on the xylophones in the park. I’m sure the other families were delighted.
11 Trolley Dollies
The subterranean trolley rides at Almond Valley are SO cool. They somehow have an inbuilt brake mechanism, so kids think they’re flying downhill super fast, when really they aren’t. The trollies cleverly (and thankfully) come to a standstill all by themselves. Wee kids are delighted riding these trollies solo – so grown-up.
12 Hit Up the Flying Foxes
Two ziplines encourage flying children at high speed. Always a winner.
13 Discover a WW2 Garden
I loved this spot. Rather than simply have a garden, theming it around the Second World War, complete with motivational posters, an air raid shelter and an air raid warden, was an unusual way to combine horticulture with history. We attempted to explain rationing (as Mr Tot looked aghast) and gently discussed air raids whilst nibbling the occasional raspberry.
14 Bring a Picnic
Whilst many child friendly sites have narky posters declaring that you can only eat food bought onsite, at Almond Valley it’s the complete opposite. A family day out can be expensive, and this inclusive policy enables families to pay the entrance fee, then chill out when it comes to food. It also allows tots or parents who follow a particular diet, to eat the way they need or wish to eat.
15 Dine at the Café
If you do fancy a day without food preparation or washing up, the café at Almond Valley is well stocked. Get more info here- I can personally vouch for the tray bakes.
16 Go Nuts in the Soft Play
Next to the café is the soft play. The advantage of this is that you can have a coffee and watch your kids run wild. The downside is that, if you enter the café, then chances are your children will spot the soft play and start politely requesting (whingeing) about gaining access. We let our children in for a play, and it’s a vast multi level soft play where they got delightfully lost. Meanwhile we indulged in a rocky road tray bake without them even noticing. [Soft Play costs £1 per 30 minutes in addition to the entry fee.]
17 Transform Your Child into an Urchin
When you leave Almond Valley be sure to let your child become a historic kid. Seeing my tots in the vintage photographs was a real wake up call. I imagine life would have been far tougher for them in the 19th or early 20th century. On the plus side, and on a more cheery note, your kids will look ridiculous and the photos will make you smile.
There are other activities at Almond Valley that we perhaps missed (such as the go-karts), but I’ve described the experiences we encountered and enjoyed. There’s a lot to cover and it is quite a vast centre, but certainly not overwhelming. Almond Valley offers a solid family day out, with lots to learn, see and do.
A range of events are forthcoming at the heritage centre, including Den-Building Adventures, and seasonal events at Halloween and Christmas. Click here to keep up to date. For the latest prices and opening hours visit here.
HIGHLIGHTS & LOWLIGHTS
H – The ability to bring your own food and drink is a huge bonus, secondly the park is vast and you could spend most of the day here.
L – If you are on a budget then note that the entrance fee doesn’t cover the train ride, tractor and trailer ride or soft play.
We drove from Aberdeen to Livingston which took just over two hours (including a swift coffee en route just outside Dundee). There was ample parking at Almond Valley (fields of it!) when we arrived but it does get surprisingly busy. It is manageable as a day trip from Aberdeen, as you don’t get snarled up in Edinburgh itself. In our case, we carried onto Newcastle where we were catching a flight the following day, it made an excellent half way stop for a few hours to let the kids run around, get some fresh air, eat and play.