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12 Apr 2018

All-weather fun at Culzean Castle

Written by Robin McKelvie
The McKelvies at Culzean
Travel writer Robin McKelvie and his family find that Culzean Castle and Country Park is packed with fun family activities, even when the Scottish weather refuses to play ball.

I often tell people that Culzean Castle is great fun to visit no matter the weather. I’ve only been, though, on glorious sunny days! My assertion was put to the test for real recently when I took my wee girls along to this most epic of castles on a seriously dreich Ayrshire day.

The McKelvies at Culzean

Last time we were at Culzean Castle my girls were much younger. Tara (now nine) was a toddler and her wee sister Emma (now seven) was just a baby. It was a sky-splittingly clear blue day and we made the most of it, sweeping through the glorious grounds exploring the network of trails and spending some time down by the beach. Here the kids played whilst daddy gazed over to the Isle of Arran in the distance, then we all enjoyed a picnic.

The younger McKelvies exploring Culzean
The younger McKelvies exploring Culzean

This time we headed straight for the castle itself. Before the girls had been too young to really appreciate this dramatic 18th-century edifice, but this time I’m happy to report that it worked well on a number of levels. First up they were interested in the fact that the same visionary, Robert Adam, who worked on Hopetoun House near our home was the main architect behind this gem. I got to share with them one of my favourite architectural flourishes in all of Scotland – his vaulting, ornate oval staircase. I explained to my girls the differences between the trio of column styles Adam fashioned here, with Doric, Corinthian and Ionian columns all at play under his light-bathing glass cupola.

Adam's grand staircase
Adam's grand staircase

Another level was less artistic and pure entertainment, as they loved the LEGO hunt. LEGO is all the rage these days, indeed it has never really gone out of fashion since I was a kid. The hunt here is a brilliant idea. It’s well organised too, with a proper printed tick sheet so that kids can mark off the LEGO figures as they find them in each room. I was a bit sneaky, making the girls listen to a little bit of history about each room before we got down to the serious business of finding the wee figures hidden away in chandeliers and inside cabinets. I won’t reveal any more …

On the LEGO hunt at Culzean
On the LEGO hunt

We finally emerged out of the castle and I was surprised to find we had spent a good couple of hours wrapped in its grand charms. We savoured lunch in the Home Farm Restaurant. I like that they have water jugs so you can just have water with your lunch if you’re on a tight budget. The lunch options were good value anyway – I enjoyed a steak and ale pie, the ale hailing from Arran just across the water. The highlight for the kids were the cakes. The setting was dramatic too as we sat overlooking the old farm courtyard that Adam fashioned as a model working farm.

The rain was still putting the green into Scotland when we finished, but again that did not deter us. We set off on the Lion Trail, just one of a quartet of new trails that spirit you around the expansive 600 acre estate grounds. The Lion Trail is accessible to all - it’s great to see the National Trust for Scotland investing in accessibility for all. These marked trails give a focus to your walks and we found them easy to follow.

I had kept an ace up my sleeve with the girls and now I decided to play it just at the moment that they started to complain of being tired. I told them that not only had the playground been expanded, but it had been transformed into the Adventure Cove and Wild Woodland. Suddenly they had a spring back in their steps and we were off in search of adventure.

Nevermind the girls being impressed with the new Adventure Cove and Wild Woodland. Daddy was seriously impressed too. Real thought, effort and investment has gone into conjuring up an interactive outdoor space that fits perfectly into the wildlife-rich woodland.

Tara and Emma loved hurling themselves around this woodland wonderland, squeezing up stairs, pulling themselves up ropes and swooshing down slides. It’s a nice touch that grown ups are allowed on, so you can be part of the fun and also keep an eye on lively kids. There is a great under-5s section too at a kids’ attraction that makes visiting Culzean worth it alone for families.

Kids and big kids alike getting active at Culzean
Kids and big kids alike getting active

It doesn’t end there at Culzean. We didn’t have time to check out the Deer Park, nor on this visit to make it down to the shore or the Swan Pond. We were so engrossed in our wooden playground antics that we missed the free kids’ tour of the castle too and I’ve still not managed to take the opportunity of getting on one of the ranger-led trips that head down to the Firth of Clyde in search of the mysterious old coves that would once have been a favourite of smugglers.

We left Culzean Castle and its grounds after an action-packed day with the girls already insisting we had to come back – always the sign of a successful family day out. Not once had the girls complained about the weather and not once had it stopped us doing anything. I was glad - and I admit more than a little relieved - to find that Culzean Castle is indeed genuinely a great place to visit no matter the weather!