The Donkey Sanctuary Sidmouth - meet the animals, welly walks, outdoor play & a family restaurant
Updated: Jun 7, 2020
I feel like every family should know about The Donkey Sanctuary near Sidmouth, not just because it’s a charitable cause, but because it’s a great family day out with lots of scenic welly-walking opportunities (most of which are buggy-friendly), friendly donkeys to meet, a play area, a maze, and one of the best family-friendly café/restaurants in the area. And did I mention that it is gloriously FREE?!
It’s somewhere we head when we’re in need of some fresh air (well – maybe the air has the odd donkey-whiff -) and space to let the girls run off some steam along the grassy paths, come rain or shine. The cafe, visitor centre and discovery barns provide some shelter on wet days but it’s the kind of place best enjoyed with the right ‘gear’ – much of the site is open air so come prepared with wellies, a coat with a giant hood, and a sturdy pushchair or carrier for smaller visitors.
The Donkey Sanctuary Sidmouth is a working farm perched on the edge of the Devon coastline with views down through the valley to the sea. It’s home to hundreds of donkeys and mules, many of which have been rescued or rehomed from unfortunate circumstances, so everything here is naturally donkey-themed! There are plenty of opportunities to get close to the animals during your visit, so a great place to come with animal lovers.
On arrival you have the option to pick up a themed trail booklet from the Main Entrance for a small fee – look out for the Halloween Trick or Treat trail coming up from 19th October – 3rd November where you have to find pictures of food across the site and guess whether they’re a treat food for a donkey, or a ‘trick’ - all trail participants receive a sugary prize once they’ve finished. Our 6 year old loves nothing more than a clue hunt - we find the trails a really good way to keep her engaged!
In behind the main entrance desk there’s an area to learn about the charity’s work across the world, though I suspect the main attraction to this area for kids is the climb-aboard land rover and giant spinning globe.
Once you’ve had a wander around the main yard and popped into the various information huts and barns (many with interactive displays and things to be fiddled with for the younger visitor – my two particularly enjoyed trying out the microscope in the medical themed area), there’s some pretty gardens and a hedge maze to be explored.
And from there we usually set the girls loose on a mission to complete the pleasant walking circuit starting from the main entrance/The Kitchen cafe and going past the shelters 1-3 – check out the map below along the bottom– looping back around at shelter 4 with the playground as the final destination. It’s only about 10 minutes slow wander in each direction so easily manageable for little legs, though some of the paths are grassy so remember to come prepared for a little mud.
On the way you can meet loads of varieties of donkey – if you stand by the fence they’ll often come over and patiently let the kids pat their heads and attempt to investigate their nostrils (is it just my kids that seem to have a fascination?!) – a novelty for most younger visitors.
The playground is a relatively basic affair but a hit with younger children (probably up to about age 9), with a vintage tractor to clamber on, child-sized stables, wooden donkeys and log stump stepping stones, all enclosed by fence.
For those with older children or more intrepid walkers, there’s some more adventurous walks to be completed around the site and you can even head down to the beach (apparently it’s very steep, be warned!) or join up with the South West Coast Path to Beer, Branscombe, or Sidmouth.
There’s lots of spots across the site where you can stop for a picnic which we’ve often done in the summer, but would any of my days out be complete without dragging Andy into the café? I think not. Thankfully the one at the Donkey Sanctuary is outstanding, a huge spacious area with floor to ceiling glass giving views across the fields and to the sea beyond. And it’s not just the bog-standard ham sandwich affair, the food is really good (and well-priced) – with a crowd-pleasing children’s menu including the ‘Donkey Bag’ lunchbox option for a packed lunch style offering.
Unfortunately the youngest child was in ‘angry mode’ last Saturday and sat in the middle of the queue eating crumbs off the floor, but eventually the arrival of lunch won her over.
I know I go on about cafes a bit too much but I’d actually suggest coming to The Kitchen at the Donkey Sanctuary just as a great place to eat out with family and kids, even without the bonus of the rest of the attraction – it’s a winner! They do Sunday lunches too so could be a good alternative option to a pub for a family roast, and a new brunch menu will be available from mid-October (2019.)
Anyway, with our tummies full we’re usually off home, but we’ve just started giving the girls some pocket money (in an attempt to curb the relentless requests for spends at the weekend!) so we rounded off our latest visit with a good hunt around the gift shop. Two giraffe (not donkey) shaped wristwatches purchased and our visit was complete!
Now on to the practical stuff. Parking is free at the Donkey Sanctuary and most of the site is easily pushchair accessible. There are changing facilities in the disabled toilet in the café and in the loos behind the gift shop, and the café is very much a child-friendly affair with high chairs are available. You can also bring the dog, though they need to be kept on a lead.
Before I go can I encourage you to follow the Donkey Sanctuary on Facebook (or check out the events section on their website), as they’ve got a great programme of special events and fairs aimed at families throughout the year. I’ve been to the Christmas Fair and the Summer Fair previously and they’re both excellent and worth the small entry fee – this year we’re off to the Family Food Fair on the 12th October (2019) which will give our girls the opportunity to get stuck in to some kids’ cookery workshops, should be interesting..! I also see that they’ve got a Junior Vet day event lined up in October for 11-15-year olds which looks like such a great offering for aspiring vets.
The Donkey Sanctuary is open to the public 365 days a year, 9am to 4pm from 1 November to 28 February and 5pm for the rest of the year, though The Kitchen restaurant and the visitor centre/gift shop is closed on Christmas Day.