For the last couple of years, on the last May bank holiday weekend, we’ve made our way up to Oxford. There, we meet up with three other families to watch the Summer Eights rowing racing (the intercollegiate regatta of bumps races – carnage, but the kids love it!), and explore the beautiful city together. Last year, we stumbled across one of the most fun ways to see this city of dreaming spires, which not only fully captivated all nine children, but also allowed us to discover parts of Oxford we’d never seen before (despite having lived there for three years of our life!): The Treasure Trail.
Available to download and purchase from this website, there are over 1,000 treasure trails available across the UK. Kids and adults alike are given a mission to solve, from locating hidden booty and wily spies to catching criminals, and set off on a trail to decipher clues through the winding backstreets, parks and hidden quarters of cities, towns and villages.
Last year, we opted for the Murder Mystery Treasure Trail, which took us on an adventure around the central parts of Oxford, past colleges, down cobbled streets and culminating in the final few clues at the Oxford Castle, where we were finally able to ascertain who committed the murder and with which murder weapon! This year, we bought the Oxford City and Meadow Spy Mission Trail, and for only £6.99, it provided lots of fun for the seventeen members of our group. This time our mission was to uncover the code required to thwart a Cambridge student’s wicked plans to turn the Oxford University Cricket Club into a cabbage patch, by releasing hundreds of giant moles onto the pitch! With Bean7’s obsession with all things cricket and both of their addiction to puzzles, riddles and mysteries, this challenge appealed enormously. And, as the trail required the children to follow directions across an unknown city to find the clues, it linked in perfectly with all the map work we’ve been doing recently.
Starting outside the Museum of Natural History, the nine children (ranging in age from 5-12) took it in turns to read out the directions and clues to solve, and excitedly ran on ahead to try and be the first to find the answers. The mystery took us on a trail around some really gorgeous parts of the University Parks, areas that I’ve never explored before, past the river and the odd unhurried punt, over beguiling bridges and through Parson’s Pleasure, which according to the Top Secret notes on the Treasure Trail, were once an area for male-only nude bathing frequented by university dons… who knew!
This time, the clues were quite tricky to find, which made it all the more authentic and appealing to the children, requiring them to look really carefully to find hidden plaques or statues on which information for the clues could be found. For example, one of the answers was found on a small plaque set into the ground in front of a tree – the grass growing around it made it particularly tricky to spot. Once, when we were having difficulty locating a clue, they worked out that they could use the instructions for the next clue to see if they’d gone too far, and thus narrow down their search area.
I particularly love the diversity of the types of clues to crack, requiring the children to use their lateral reasoning and critical thinking skills. Here are some examples: My first is that of Thomas and Wiggins, and my last is Crank’s first. Who am I? or Count the number of metal rollers set into the concrete punt track, and then count the number of letters in your answer. Write the difference between the two numbers in your grid.
All the answers to the clues are words, letters or numbers, which you add to a grid on the back of the trail pack as you go along. Some of the boxes within the grid are shaded. Using the numbers or letters which you write onto these shaded boxes, you then cross off the corresponding number or letter in a separate combination box (a 7 by 4 grid of numbers and letters). Once all the clues are solved, only 4 numbers or letters remain in this combination box – this is the de-activation code that you need to thwart the student’s evil plan!
If you struggle with any of the clues and really can’t find the answers, you can text the company (free of charge) and they’ll text you back the answer, up to a maximum of three clues. We had to use this for one of the clues as the University is in the process of moving the Keble Gate entrance to the Parks, near which was supposed to be located a clue. As the area is now closed off for renovation, we unfortunately couldn’t access the clue, but a quick text elucidated the answer and we were off to find our next clue.
The pack also includes some interesting facts about the areas you pass by on your route, such as how in WW1 the parks were used for training purposes; aircraft hangars were built and soldiers camped in the SE corner.
Once you’ve completed the trail and disentangled all the conundrums, you can submit your answers online, and if correct, download a certificate and have a chance to win their monthly prize.
It was a lovely way to spend a day and the children walked for miles without complaint, so focussed were they on discovering the clues! Bean8 loved it so much last year, that she requested she do one for her birthday party. Our local town is quite small and so unfortunately it didn’t have an available Treasure Trail, so I created one for her instead. OK, so I may have looked a little like a crazy lady as I scoured our local high street and back roads for interesting signs/plaques/monuments to use as the basis of the clues, but the children loved the concept and it turned out to be her favourite birthday party to date. And it was completely free!
She loved it so much that she’s requested another such mystery tour for this year’s party too. This year, I’ve discovered there’s one available in a nearby town, so I may cheat and purchase that one instead!
So, if your children fancy practising their detective skills and you’d like to discover hidden parts of your local city, town or village (or one that you’re visiting on holiday), I’d highly recommend seeing if there is one of these Treasure Trails available in your area and releasing your inner Sherlock Holmes!
And if exploring Oxford floats your boat (there’s seriously so much to do with kids in this awesome city), I’d recommend visiting on the last May bank holiday weekend as the rowing bumps races are such a lot of fun to watch with children. The boats basically line up in a long row along the river, separated by a boat length between them, and, when the gun goes off, they have to row as fast as they can to try and catch and physically bump the boat ahead of them. There are lots of divisions and so lots of races and opportunity for clashes of oars and boat collisions. Throw in some Pimms for you, an excited atmosphere and a chance for your children to run alongside the boats hollering their support, and you have a recipe for a great day out! With this and a Treasure Trail, it made for a fantastically fun, if not exhausting, weekend.