Although I’m guilty of being seduced by exotic destinations and the promise of warmer climes, when it comes to family holidays, the truth is you don’t have to go very far to have a brilliant time. The explosion of unusual accommodations available for rent in the UK means short-breaks can deliver big on magic and memories – without costing the earth or entailing the hell of heaving airports. Here are five places I’ve found that should capture the imaginations of your children – and bring out a little childish excitement in you.
1. Meon Springs Yurts, Hampshire
Ask your children what a yurt is and they will probably tell you it’s a fruity pudding that comes in a small pot. Then tell them that they are going to spend the night in one, and puzzlement, if not hilarity, will ensue.
The truth is yurts have become very trendy of late. Originally housing nomadic huntsmen tribes on the plains of Mongolia, you are now more likely to encounter one in a paddock in Surrey. But, to the uninitiated campers amongst us, desperately fending off kids-with-a-sudden-taste-for-canvas, how they appeal! They offer the best of both worlds: the ‘outdoors’ experience – the camp fires, the morning brew in the fresh air – but with all the comforts that actually make it a holiday, as opposed to a survival course: double beds; carpets; heating. A fair compromise I say!
Located just outside the village of East Meon in Hampshire, Meon Springs offers a particularly alluring set-up. The 6 yurts each sleep 4 people in a double bed and 2 singles (plus there’s a double futon for any visitors). They can also supply cots if needed. The beds come ready made-up with fresh linen and extra blankets for cold nights. Outside each yurt is a BBQ and fire-pit, with firewood included in the cost. However – and this will really excite the camping-phobes amongst you – there’s also what’s called the ‘Yurtery’, a centrally-heated area with a fully-fitted kitchen, hot showers and comfy sofas – the perfect retreat should you be unlucky with the weather (which, let’s face it, is quite likely) and a good place to socialise with fellow ‘glampers’.
The site is within walking distance of a cafe and there are pubs in East Meon. Further afield, the lovely sandy beaches of West Wittering are a short drive away, as are the New Forest for pony-riding and Portsmouth for a visit to the Mary Rose. You’re slap bang in the South Downs National Park too for beautiful country walks.
A 3-night weekend in peak season costs £445. For more information, see www.meonsprings.com.
2. The Coppice Woodland VW Camper Van, near Cambridge
I daren’t mention this place to my son; if I did, I’d never hear the end of it. “Dad… but when are we staying in the Camper Van?” would be ringing in my ears for weeks. Of course, his reaction would be entirely understandable. What little boy – or girl, for that matter – would not find the prospect of bedding down in a retro VW utterly compelling?
The Van itself sleeps 4; there’s a (small) double bed for Mum and Dad at one end (195cm x 145cm); and at the other, in place of the driver and passenger seats, are beds for the children – although the website is clear to point out that only kids under 4ft can be accommodated here. If your children are bigger, they (or you) can sleep in the bell tent, also provided on site, that doubles as your lounge. Before you panic, like I did, about having to wash and cook in the Van, you have an oak-framed cob hut that houses a compost toilet and a covered kitchen area with sink and gas stove. Bear in mind, however, there is no electricity – you’ll need to bring candles and torches.
When it comes to activities, look no further than your private, wok-like hot tub. Accommodating 6 adults, it’s more like a swimming pool for little ones. There are also garden games scattered about the site, including a two-hole golf course and football nets. If you feel the need for civilization, you’re a 10 minute walk away from the village of Bassingbourn, where there’s a village shop and bakery for basic provisions and a pub; Duxford Aircraft Museum and Wimpole Hall (which has a fantastic Home Farm) are a little further away and make good day trips. If you really want to splash out, local chefs are available for hire to cook for you in the woodland – now that really is glamping.
A 2-night break in July or August costs £235. For more information, see www.canopyandstars.co.uk
3. Appleton Water Tower, Sandringham, Norfolk
It’s not many people who can say they’ve spent the night in a water tower. And, unless you’ve come across this place on the web, you probably never had any ambition to do so. But wow! What an incredible holiday home! And how utterly cool for kids (and parents) to brush with Royalty AND be kings of their own little castle in this most regal of places.
Built in the late 19th century to provide a safe and sanitary water supply for the Royals during their summer stays, the Appleton Tower, which reaches a height of 60 feet and is topped by 32,000 gallon tank, is a marvel of Victorian engineering. Thanks to the Landmark Trust, it’s now available to rent, for a few nights or longer.
The accommodation is on the lower 3 floors: the ground floor houses a kitchen and living space; there’s a twin bedroom for the kids on the first floor; and a double on the second. The third floor is home to the bathroom (shower only). Then it’s a long, spiral staircase to a panorama room and terrace on top of the tank. The views across the Norfolk countryside towards the Wash are sensational; be sure to take a telescope too for unparalleled star-gazing.
Outside, there’s a garden for the kids to play in and dogs are allowed, so long walks along North Norfolk’s stunning beaches are in order. Glorious Holkham is about 40 minutes drive away. For something a bit more honky-tonk, Hunstanton, with its amusements and fish and chip shops, is just up the road.
Prices start from £606 for a 3 night stay in January, rising to £1,671 for a week in August. For more information, see www.landmarktrust.org.uk
4. The Gypsy Camp, Wickham Bishops, Essex
Not one gypsy caravan, but two! The set-up here would particularly suit families with slightly older children who would not only love the idea of sleeping in a rustic caravan (these are genuine article, lovingly restored), but would relish the thought of having one all to themselves. I’m sure Mum and Dad would quite like the privacy too… knowing, of course, that the darlings are just a few feet away.
The setting is bucolic: the camp is set on a working apple farm, Bouncer’s; you can purchase homemade apple juice to sup round the camp fire. The farm is also home to enough creatures and critters to keep the kids entertained: pigs, sheep, ponies will be your neighbours for your stay.
The caravans themselves are really only for sleeping; on site, you also get a carpeted ‘bender’ tent with a day bed for lounging. In the tent, there’s a woodburner for when it’s cold and outside there’s a firepit with BBQ rack (although convivial owner, Ann, will cook for you on request). Hot showers and the loo are in the nearby farmhouse.
The coast is just 4 miles away for a change of scene (nearby Maldon has a great playground with splashzone for kids); and, hard to believe, but you can be back in central London in just over an hour on the train.
5. Living Room Treehouses, Machynlleth, Wales
These treehouses are the stuff of fairytales. Like bunk beds on steroids, you start by climbing up a 20ft spiral staircase; on reaching the top, you are rewarded by not just a bed, but a kitchen, lounge and (I can hear the relief) a toilet – although you have to cross a rope bridge to get to that.
There are only four tree houses on-site and they are very popular, so you need to book early. They are sold as part of two-night ‘experiences’ – presumably that’s long enough… The treehouse is yours from 4pm on Day 1 till 11.30 on Day 3. Each house has a double bed and bunks for the children. Warmth in winter is provided by a wood-burning stove (which also heats water for the spring water shower at ground-level, underneath the treehouse). An eco-style, outside bucket-fridge is provide to keep your provisions cool.
One of the best things about the treehouses is that, other than food and drink, you don’t need to bring much at all. Linen is provided, as is all your kitchen equipment, although facilities are still relatively basic – aim for pasta’n’sauce rather than full roast. Bear in mind you can’t drive right up to the treehouses – you need to park 400 yards away and cart your stuff to the door. Plus there’s no electricity, so it’s games by candelight after dark.
Machynlleth is in a remote and beautiful part of Wales, on the edge of Snowdonia National Park (beware the single-track lanes en route – tricky tractor-encounters are common). You are not far from stunning sandy beaches; plus, for kids who just want to potter, there are streams to splash about in right under the houses and a fully working sheep farm on your doorstep.