🪁From kite flying to a ride on a historical steam train, we reveal the best outings for families that have no time to pre-book
Parents like me rely on spontaneity not spreadsheets, so follow my easy guide to winging the summer holidays 2021
Even though we are still a couple of weeks away from the long summer holidays, the go-to activities have been full up for months. That’s the word at the school gates, where I fold as much of my face as possible into my mask and dodge the inevitable question: “So, what have you got planned for the summer holidays?” It’s an episode of Motherland in the making.
We may be less than a week from the lifting of all social restrictions, but the lack of availability feels like another life limitation at a time when we are all craving freedom. This time it’s the freedom to wake up and decide over breakfast, “What shall we do today?”
So, for all those parents like me who rely on spontaneity not spreadsheets, here’s my guide to winging the summer holidays 2021 with lots of activities you don’t have to book weeks in advance – or even at all.(Warning: these suggestions may require some moderate organisation, such as sticking spare clothes in a carrier bag, making sandwiches and putting petrol in the car.) headtopics.com
Culture vultures Rural museumsOn Haslemere high street in Surrey is the 19th-century Haslemere Museum. Over the summer it is running a Brick Flicks Exhibition with famous film moments recreated in Lego. This may suit a film-buff teen. The Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins session is aimed at primary schoolchildren. Pre-booking is recommended but a spokesman says there tends to be availability up to the day before.
Put on your own open-air playThrow the dressing-up box in the boot of the car and head to a woody glade with rugs and tree stumps for seating and refreshments for half-time.Living the lifeWeald and Downland Living Museum in West Sussex can hold a lot of visitors and still seem quiet. Amble between the ancient houses and structures (from AD 950 to the 19th century), wild-flower gardens and feed the ducks on the mill pond.
Turn up to the theatreJulia Donaldson’s What the Ladybird Heard is returning to the West End’s Palace Theatre (July 15 to August 29). Pre-booking weeks in advance is not essential as some seats are kept aside for walk-ins on the day.Battlefield tours The relief of Montgomery Castle
The border town of Montgomery in Powys saw the biggest battle fought in Wales (1644) during the Civil War. A footpath from nearby Offa’s Dyke leads to what is thought to be the centre of the action. For more information, see the website.The War of the Roses walk, Towton, Yorkshire headtopics.com
The bloodiest conflict on English soil, which left more than 28,000 soldiers dead, took place near the village of Towton near Tadcaster. There are three-and nine-mile circuits. For more information, visit the website.Flodden Fields, NorthumberlandWhen Henry VIII invaded France in 1513, Louis XII asked his Scottish ally James IV to create a diversion by invading England. James obliged and crossed the Tweed, capturing a string of English castles along the way. The Earl of Surrey raised an army and the two sides met outside Branxton in Northumbria where 5,000 Scots were killed including King James – the last British monarch to die in battle.
For animal lovers Petting farms in the sticksThe award-winning Little Owl Farm Park in Worcestershire doesn’t tend to be fully booked until a few days before. The farm has a meerkat enclosure, reptile house, rescue foxes, pigs, chicks and rabbits to stroke – and sheep racing.
Urban wildlife centreOuseburn Farm is spread across fields and meadows a mile from Newcastle city centre. Petting and feeding sessions are available, as well as animal-drawing classes. The community-led farm has plenty of availability this July.Red squirrel spotting on Brownsea Island
Booking for Brownsea Island, just off Poole in Dorset, is recommended but not essential and you can check availability on the National Trust website before setting off. Visitors walk on to the foot ferry from Poole over to the wildlife haven which is famous for its red squirrels. headtopics.com
Avon Heath Country ParkDorset has far more to offer than just its coast. Avon Heath Country Park is 236 acres of heathland 10 miles north of Bournemouth, with sand lizards, moth enclosures and walking trails.Child-friendly pubs The Hadley Bowling Green, Worcestershire
You cannot book the beer garden at the Bowling Green in Hadley Heath. Picnic tables line the fenced play area with climbing frames. Turn up at opening time to get a table for lunch with views over lavender fields.The Good Companion, BrightonA welcoming message flashes up on its website: “Please note we do not take bookings, walk-ins only.” The pub has two large beer gardens and a children’s menu, available on the website.
Head for the highlands A daycation in DornochMiles of award-winning golden, sandy beaches stretch from the coastal town of Dornoch up to the mouth of Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve. Dornoch suits young families, with gentle shallows for paddling. There are otters and seals to see, too.
The lesser-known lochsLoch Maree is the fourth-largest freshwater loch in Scotland (there are 31,000). Situated in Wester Ross in the north west, it has 60 islands. Keep a look out for golden eagles.Get arty The Creative Folkestone TriennialFrom July 22 to Nov 2, there’s no need to book and it’s free. This is one of the UK’s most ambitious outdoor exhibitions, with 74 pieces of artwork popping up across Folkestone – including a giant dance floor and decorated beach huts.
Well-dressingThis tradition hails from the Peak District and means decorating a well or spring with petals and plants. All you need is to find a well!Follow the Lincoln Imp TrailBetween July 3 and Sept 9, you can spot 30 sculptures and public artworks in honour of the Lincoln Imp, a mythical creature said to be sent to the cathedral by Satan. No booking, just wander round the historic city.
Flower pressingPick flowers on a local walk, then put them in between two sheets of paper in the middle of a pile of heavy books to begin a summer art project. The Natural History Museum website has a helpful guide for beginners.Nature artTurn a walk into a collecting expedition. At home, make a frame with sticks and fill sections with themed natural objects like flowers or leaves.
The sea, the sea Remote beachesIf you look hard enough, Britain is ringed by off-the-beaten track beaches. The starting point for a search is to find beaches that don’t have parking on site!Saltwick Bay, east coast of North YorkshireAccessible only on foot down a steep rocky path, but it’s worth it. The secluded cove is considered one of the best places in the country to watch the sunrise rise or set.
Pink Bay in PorthcawlA hidden gem in Bridgend County – a quieter alternative to the ever-popular Pembrokeshire. Walkers, wildlife enthusiasts and surfers all use the beach which is accessible by a steep pebble bank that runs into golden sands.Tread the coastal paths
The National Trust’s South Purbeck cliffs walk in Dorset is one for older families but the winding coastal path provides six miles’ worth of sea views, quarries and grassland.Spot a sea creatureWildlife Watch will guide you to the best parts of the UK to spot basking sharks, bottlenose dolphins and seals.
CrabbingCrabbing can keep kids occupied for hours. Mudeford Quay, Dorset, and Charlestown Harbour near St Austell in Cornwall are both popular spots with good reason.Beach combingMetal detecting has enjoyed a boom across Britain during the pandemic. Reviews and advice on where to buy the best detector, and a very useful beginner’s guide are available at The Detectorist.
Where to stay Making a night of itOf course, some of the more far flung of the destinations listed will need overnight booking. With the run on self-catering accommodation, a good alternative is Paul Camper, which is the Airbnb of campervans. With options across the UK, it’s worth a try.
Two wheels good Brun Valley Greenway, LancashireLeisure Lakes Bikes has put together a guide for the summer with trails for all levels of cyclists across the UK. This trail starts in Burnley town centre, Lancashire, and heads out into the surrounding countryside through Brun Valley Forest Park which has tracks for BMX riders.
Sankey Valley Park Trail, WarringtonThis is a waterside cycle route in Cheshire for all the family which passes through play areas, mazes and a wetland reserve.The Chiltern HillsLeisure Lakes Bikes also recommends a route through the Chiltern Hills with a mid-point picnic spot in Wendover Woods. Keep an eye out for the Iron Age Boddington Hill Fort.
Cycling the New ForestThe New Forest is a convenient daycation for those living in the South East. Bikes can be hired from Brockenhurst where the train from London pulls in. For those driving, visit The New Forest to find out about car parks and lavatories.
Myth and legends Rendlesham ForestUnexplained lights in the sky over Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk in 1980 were believed to be a UFO. Visit Forestry England for maps of the UFO trail.Sherwood ForestFor younger children, a day trip to Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire may be less sinister. Visit Robin Hood’s hang-out, the Major Oak, which is thought to be between 800 and 1,000 years old. Visit the website for more information.
Mother Shipton’s CaveIn the woods behind the Yorkshire town of Knaresborough is Mother Shipton’s Cave. The witch and prophetess Ursula Southeil was born in the cave and went on to predict the Great Fire of London. The woods are open to all; booking required for the cave, but I predict good availability over the summer.
Get spooked at Bodmin JailBuilt in 1779, Bodmin Jail in Cornwall is considered to be one of the most haunted buildings in the UK. After an £8.5 million overhaul it offers multi-media immersive paranormal tours and ghost walks. Based on my experience during May half-term, there should be good availability a few days before a visit so take your chances. Follow on Instagram on @bodminjail.
Give something back RewildingYoung conservation campaigners can join local groups all over the country who are rewilding local waterways. Visit rewildingbritain.org.uk to find your local project.Litter pickingThis will never be oversubscribed, but organised litter picking can transform your local stream or beach. Check out your local Facebook community page.
Step back in time Historic city toursYou only need the internet and a notebook to create your own historic walking tour. Walled cities such as York are a good option, but for those kids who like grisly tales of Medieval battles, Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire is ideal. This summer is the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Tewkesbury which is seen to be the last key conflict in the War of the Roses. Consult the battlefield map and start at the Norman Abbey, wander down the River Severn and through the Bloody Meadow where the Lancastrians were slaughtered.
Walk Hadrian’s Wall…Hadrian’s Wall is 73 miles of Unesco World Heritage Site stretching from coast to coast, so there is plenty of space to spread out as you uncover ancient towers, turrets and forts. One of the best stops is Housesteads fort, with dramatic views of the Northumbrian countryside. Discover more at English Heritage.
…Or the Antonine WallBuilt in AD 142, the Antonine Wall runs 39 miles across the central belt of Scotland from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde. The best views can be seen from Bar Hill where there are preserved fort remains.The Anglesey ghost town
In 2017 archaeologists uncovered the remnants of a seventh-century settlement following the discovery of a lead coffin. It’s believed the village at Rhuddgaer on Anglesey was covered by up to 3ft of sand in the Great Storm of 1331.All aboard the Isle of Wight
The Isle of Wight Steam Railway is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Travel in style in the restored carriages. Although this requires booking, there is still plenty of availability. In the same style, the West Somerset Steam Railway takes you through the Quantock Hills.
Get active GeocachingThis is orienteering for the digital generation. All you need is the geocaching app and a phone with GPS. A cache is a small waterproof box hidden outdoors with a note in it, or another coordinate to visit. There are thousands hidden all over the UK and plenty on your doorstep.
Night hikesDon head torches and explore your favourite beauty spots at night for a real adventure (but get your bearings in the daylight beforehand and only visit somewhere you feel safe).Mini triathlonsPut the bikes on the back of the car and combine wild swimming, cycling and running on a mini countryside circuit (don’t worry if you don’t manage the full Olympic distance).
An old-fashioned treasure huntSet up a treasure hunt in your local woods, leaving clues in Tupperware and hide sweets at the end of the trail. Tell your friends about the hunt too and leave it in place for a few days.Kite flyingMake your own kites at home, then fly them on top of your nearest hill range or at the beach. Search Wikihow and YouTube for kite-making tutorials.
Take to the the water Wild swimming in SussexSussex has plenty of safe spots for fresh-water swimming away from the crowds. The website Muddy Stilettos has the low-down. The blog describes Barcombe Mills, River Ouse, as the worst-kept wild swimming secret in the county. Just inland from Cuckmere Haven is the Cuckmere Meanders which is wide, warm and shallow – and good for beginners and children.
Pond dippingRescue glass jars from the recycling, tie string to them and see what creatures you can disturb in the local waterways.Learn to surfYes, this will require booking, but there are centres away from the busy south of England coastline with plenty of availability. Rest Bay in Bridgend has a new water-sports centre running surf lessons. For lessons, click here.
What’s SUP?Join the stand-up paddle boarding craze with lessons for all the family at Cony Surf School in Mid Glamorgan. The sheltered cove, next to Rest Bay, is ideal for beginners. There is space this summer.Go fishingRod licence sales increased by 17 per cent last year as fishing was allowed under lockdown rules. Go to Angling Trust for tips on how to start and where to go near you.
Toy boat racingTie really long pieces of string to toy boats and launch at a local pond to race or pull along the stream behind you.At one with nature Beauty spots you don’t have to bookThe Moat at Thursley Nature Reserve in Surrey is a peaceful spot with a car park right by the water. There’s a wooden platform jutting out, perfect for picnics and spotting fish. Beyond this pond are 325 hectares of woods, peat bogs and heath where lizards and snakes can be spotted. The boardwalk was destroyed by wildfire last year but is growing again. Be respectful of the birds and twitchers (redstarts and Dartford warblers are among the residents).
Build a damFind a woodland stream, collect sticks and build your own dam in honour of the beavers that are being reintroduced to the UK. The National Trust website has detailed tips.Tucked-away nature reservesTheddlethorpe Dunes in Lincolnshire is a locals’ secret. The nature reserve behind the bay comprises sand dunes and saltwater marshes – one of the few locations where the natterjack toad can be found.
Start twitchingLockdown has encouraged a new generation of birdwatchers – so grab those binoculars. A copy of Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to British Birds (Quercus, £14.99) will help to get you started.WhittlingWhittling or wood carving is a creative way for children to engage with nature and learn knife skills. Check out woodlandtrust.org.uk on how and where to do it safely.
Throw money at it Polo lessons at CowdrayThere is availability still for polo lessons at the Cowdray Estate (Midhurst, West Sussex). Group lessons for juniors are £60 per pupil during the week. With a popular farm shop and beautiful grounds, it’s a lovely place to sit while little ones enjoy their lesson.
Learn how to shootCowdray’s Hownhall Shooting School is running simulated game shooting and clay-pigeon shooting sessions, too.Giraffes, tigers and penguins at Marwell ZooMarwell Zoo in Hampshire has split booking into two sessions (from 10am to 3pm; and 12pm to 5pm). To avoid the crowds and to find availability just a few days before you want to go, choose the later slot. Tickets are £23 for an adult and £19 for a child. The zoo’s website advises that you’ll need at least four hours if it’s your first visit. As well as hundreds of animals in the 140-acre park, there are also five adventure playgrounds.
Landscapes that inspired children's books Beatrix Potter’s Lake DistrictThe Beatrix Potter museums require pre-booking but the landscapes that inspired her stories are free to roam. The National Trust’s Moss Eccles Tarn trail winds up from the village of Near Sawrey to a Lake in the Hills where she painted.
Pooh Sticks in Ashdown ForestA A Milne lived in the little village of Hartfield on the edge of Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, otherwise known to Winnie the Pooh fans as the Hundred Acre Wood. Trail maps that take in the bridge, left, where pooh sticks originated, are available.
Bilbo’s ShireJRR Tolkien’s stamping ground stretched from Herefordshire to Staffordshire, but the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire was a regular haunt. For walks across the top of the range, see the website.Let off some steam Inclusive play centresChallengers charity runs inclusive play centres throughout the summer holidays in Farnham and Guildford (both Surrey) for children who have additional needs. The sites have outdoor play areas, water play, soft play and sensory rooms. Children will need to do a visit first before booking in (disability-challengers.org).
Hold a silent disco outdoorsDress up, grab a couple of pairs of Bluetooth headphones and head up the nearest hill for a silent disco on a hilltop. This may require a quick recce to ensure that the internet works properly up there!Axe throwing and archery
The 18th-century stately pile Blenheim Palace (Woodstock, Oxfordshire) is running axe throwing and archery sessions this summer. Both need booking, but currently there is availability throughout the coming months on the website.Wild Shore, LiverpoolThe aqua park Wild Shore has returned to Liverpool’s waterfront at the Royal Albert with free fall slides and stand-up paddle-boards. There is plenty of availability still over the summer, at £18 per person.
Visit where they filmed... Poldark: Botallack Mine, St Just, CornwallThe BBC’s Poldark was filmed on the craggy coastline of south-west Cornwall on the Penrith Heritage Coast. A lovely spot for a family stroll.Gladiator: The BourneThe opening bloody battle scene in Gladiator (Germania) was filmed at the Bourne woodland near Farnham in north Surrey. Are you not entertained?
Harry Potter: Alnwick CastleThis castle in Northumberland was Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. You need to book, but buying a one-day pass will get you access for a year.Make your own documentaryTake the iPad or iPhone (installed with iMovie app) on one of your trips and allow your kids to be the directors.
If all else fails, feed them... Picnic spots with a viewDon’t settle for the local play park for a picnic. Aim high. The clifftops above Ravenscar in North Yorkshire have views over the North Sea that stretch to Robin Hood Bay and on to Whitby.Foraging
Woods and hedgerows are great places to find food without queuing to get into fruit-picking farms. With the right guidance, July brings bilberries/blueberries, wild strawberries and edible flowers such as mallow. Seek advice from the Woodland Trust.Seaside supper clubs
Switch it up. If you have been at home or in the garden all day, pack up supper and surprise the children with an evening trip to a local beauty spot or beach, after the sun seekers have dispersed. Read more: The Telegraph »
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