Plummy Reviews: Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre

Stealth building

Voted Midlands Family Attraction of the Year 2017 by Going Places

We decided to visit the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre last Sunday afternoon. The husband and dog hadn’t been before and I knew it would be a good place to walk the dog and caffeinate the husband whilst entertaining the kids. Win-win for mother of the year here.

The centre is a sustainable building: it’s grass-roofed and curvilinear so it more or less disappears from view when travelling past on the A49. It’s run by the Grow Cook Learn charity which aims to connect people to the landscape through growing and cooking the local food and by introducing them to the history of Shropshire.

I’d been before with the children for one of the centre’s activity days based around the Julia Donaldson book Superworm. It involved a lady reading the book, taking the kids outside to dig up worms and bugs then crafting the same out of air-drying clay when they got back inside. We enjoyed the activity but it was in April when it felt like winter was going to reign forever, so we were icy cold despite the unparalleled joy of furtling for worms.

Lots to choose from

This time round we had the dog with us so we thought we’d explore the meadows first. A hard-standing path takes you around the side of the building past a kids’ playground (accessed from the café on sunny days) and outdoor seating and then past a second wooden play area – all good for energetic children. The various paths are pictured on a nearby information board, then you walk through a pair of (wooden) mammoth tusks and you’re in the Onny Meadows: 30 acres of beautiful countryside. All the paths eventually linkup with one another so it’s up to you how long you walk for.

We meandered past some large climb-able tree trunks and towards the river, over a little bridge and through a spinney that had further balancing and den building equipment. Unaccountably, the girls decided it was the perfect place to sit at a bench and do some colouring books that we had brought with us. This gave me, the dog and the husband the chance to delve a little deeper into the scenery. There was a small pool with a little jetty, some interestingly gnarly old trees and the River Onny itself. After finding some bulrushes and dried grasses (useful dad-poking tools) we continued around until we looped back.

Wellies are definitely useful in the meadows, especially at this time of year although, as we know, they are no protection against the well-aimed pratfall directly into a puddle… There are loads of activities that you can do by yourselves or loan from the centre in order to dig deeper into the landscape than we did and it’s worth doing them (if you don’t have a stroppy 3 year old to shoulder around the paths). You can hire a GPS or go Geo-caching.

Afterwards, we cuddled Harry up in the car with his rug and his water for a well-deserved sleep (something we only do in the deepest, darkest depths of winter) and we went inside to have a look around. There are lots of boot-cleaning areas and for a small donation you can borrow some boot-bags that go over the muddier shoes to prevent dropping clumps all over the floor – they must have seen us coming. The girls were instantly drawn to the attractive shop right in front of the doors (canny, Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre, canny) but we drew them away with the promise of mammoths.

Ruddy huge!

In 1986, a number of mammoth skeletons were discovered in a quarry not far away from the centre. Archaeologists were amazed to find out that they were a mere 14,000 years old – 4,000 years younger than had ever been expected. A life size recreation of one of the adult Condover mammoths is the first thing you are confronted with when you enter the exhibition. My youngest and I had enormous fun recreating the mammoth noise in the café later (it’s possible our nearest neighbours didn’t enjoy it so much).

The youngest was right at home…

It’s a relatively small exhibition so you move quickly through from the (warming) Ice Age to the Bronze Age where there is a recreation of around house. There are numerous hill forts in the local area so it’s a useful tool to help you imagine how people once lived in them. There are dressing up clothes for the kids, plentiful colouring in opportunities, a flickering fire and some pots of ‘original’ smells like wood smoke and urine.

Medieval Shropshire is also covered, as are the foods that people ate throughout the ages. Wild Edric, the local Shropshire legend, also gets a mention here in a little electronic game.

Surprisingly hard to photograph…

Finally though you come to the piece de resistance, the widescreen cinema. It forms the little metal tower at the middle of the centre and plays a lovely little film about the Shropshire Hills on a relay throughout the day. It’s slightly eye-boggling but fine when you get used to it. Voiced by Billy Postlethwaite (the actor Pete’s son), it’s a good introduction to the area and the views of the hills, taken by drone, are pretty spectacular. It’s in this space that they host lots of cinema nights too, which is interesting to note.

The last area is another opportunity to do a bit of crafting/jigsawing and giving feedback. We were tempted out by the scent of coffee into the gallery area where local artists are represented, the café lying just beyond it.

The sound of a woolly mammoth – and me in the café

The café was very busy with walkers, volunteers and escapees from the chilly weather, so it took a little time for my husband and eldest daughter to be served. Luckily, my youngest and I had a mammoth to impersonate so we got on with that instead of worrying about queues. It was a little bit scruffy too but we were coming in at the end of serving time at the end of what looked like what had been a busy day. The food was fine but I had perhaps expected better (wider choice for children, more artisan or local products rather than Walkers and Fruit Shoots) from a food and produce charity. Nevertheless, we ate it all and enjoyed the coffee before being mugged by the gift shop.

One gem pulled off within seconds of purchase, predictably

In fairness, it was the kind of gift shop I don’t mind being mugged by. There were some very nice things to buy, including well made puppets, lovely books for all ages and pocket money tat which always goes down well. We were stiffed for £2.50 for some ‘Gemstones of the World’ and £2.99 for blue putty which was the best £2.99 we’ve ever spent because it kept them both entertained when we stopped off for a drink and a sit-by-the-fire at the Black Swan, Aston Munslow, on the way home (excellent place for a fireside chat by the way).

All in all, an excellent Sunday afternoon at a local attraction and one we’ll no doubt return to in future. Happy dog, happy kids, happy husband and some history thrown in too? That’s a happy mummy right there.

4 out of 5 plums (1 off for the café)

Take a look at the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre Events page as there is a great deal going on for adults as well as children. 

Location: Craven Arms, just off the A49 

Times: Open All Week, 10am-5pm

Cost: Nothing to enter the information centre, small cost for the exhibition ‘Shropshire Hills Through Time’:

  • Adult £5
  • Senior/Student £4.75
  • Child £3.50
  • Under 5s Free
  • Family ticket £13.50 (2 adults, up to 3 kids)
  • Free for disabled people’s carers

Parking: £1 donation, plenty of parking (experience based on a wet November Sunday), there’s further parking in the town car park a short distance away

Accessibility: Wholly accessible, lots of wide, open areas, all flat

Dogs: No dogs except assistance pooches allowed inside the building but very much welcomed in the meadows outside.