On the road again: Staycations a hit among holiday makers
School’s out – though, in truth, since March it hasn’t really been in. It’s time to hit the road.
While travel agents have reported a boom in bookings since the end of lockdown, the number of people planning an overseas holiday remains low.
Though air bridges are in place with so much of the world that the skies must resemble an aerial Spaghetti Junction, many Brits are planning to stay at home. Amid ongoing concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic and with adverts reminding us about travel changes once the Brexit transition period ends on December 31, many are taking the sensible option and dusting down their AA Roadmap of Britain.
Because England is stunning. England is beautiful. England is too-often overlooked as we pack our bags and head to Spain, Italy and France.
Historic and diverse, easy-on-the-eye and frequently undiscovered, our green and pleasant land is more than a match for other parts of the world – and staycations mean an end to 60-minute airport security checks, over-priced beer, flights full of mask-avoiding travellers and having your bag pickpocketed in Barcelona’s parks.
To celebrate our Great British Summer, we took to the road for a no-expenses-paid, whiste-stop roadtrip. We found cheddar in Cheddar and tall trees in Tall Trees – then decided not to visit Bishop Spit, in Kent; or Greedy Gut, in East Yorkshire. Our rules were simple. Next-to-no planning, no freebies, and just Test Match Special to keep us company as we went on a quest to find the beating heart of Britain.
The first decision was simple: what type of weekender were we looking for? A roadtrip through scenic England or a couple of days on the beach? The answer was glaringly obvious. We are in England and the cricket season had just begun – bringing with it the rain. Beaches were out, road trips were in.
Rugged Cornwall and idyllic Scotland were too far away, tempted though we were by the route from Loch Lomond to Lochgilphead; we wanted to spend time looking and enjoying, not simply driving. For all of the charms of Belfast and Derry, despite the wonders of Galway and Westport, Wexford and Waterford, Ireland was too complicated – there’d be planes and ferries, rules and regulations. We wanted something simpler, something that anyone with a tank of diesel or unleaded could achieve without so much as 15-minutes packing.
And so we escaped to the country. Heading a short distance south of the West Midlands, Stratford-Upon-Avon is a destination of international repute. Shakespeare gave birth to a battalion of tea rooms and budget bistros when he wrote his 37 plays and 154 sonnets. Not only that, the town has its very own Gin Cruise, providing visitors with the chance to cruise along the River Avon while sipping a classic G&T. The town has a Michelin-starred restaurant, the very excellent Salt, from Paul Foster, as well as a butterfly farm, racecourse and more.
Many tourist businesses are, of course, only now dusting off the cobwebs and so Stratford-upon-Avon provided the start point for our sojourn, rather than the end point. From there, a mazy ride along the B4362 provided a reminder of the beauty of the Cotswolds. Peaceful and tranquil, rising and falling through undulating Cotswold hills, there were meadows full of wildflowers, sheep grazing in pastures, centuries-old woodland and picture-perfect English villages. Chipping Camden’s honey-coloured limestone buildings, built from Cotswold stone, was a reminder of this area’s spellbinding beauty.
At Cheltenham, it was time to take stock. England is only just starting to wake up after its unseasonal hibernation. Streets remain quiet, many restaurants are still closed while shops provide assorted ephemera for patrons who adhere to social distancing and wear their mask across their face rather than their chin.
The town rose to prominence as a holiday spa town following the discovery of mineral springs in 1716. It is a bastion of culture and sport, boasting festivals for literature, jazz, science, music, cricket, food and drink and, of course, it hosted the famous Cheltenham Covid-19 Festival, at the town’s steeplechase course, this March.
Today, it’s quiet. Such dazzling restaurants as Koj, the Japanese emporium opened by BBC MasterChef star Andrew Kojima, are closed. It resembles a Sunday, rather than a Thursday, with a quiet High Street and limited dining options.
Roadtrips are about short stop-offs, of course, and having caught up for an hour with a friend and perused the town’s shops, it was time to depart. Lunch was calling, a motorway service station beckoned. Gloucester Services Southbound might seem an unlikely destination to obtain sustenance, yet it provides dining options that knock rivals into a cocked hat. Since 2016, the services have featured in the prestigious Good Food Guide, becoming the first to do so. They don’t do Ginsters pasties, you won’t find a rancid burger and there’s zero chance of a mass-produced chocolate bar. Instead, Gloucester Services sit in landscaped grounds. Honey is produced from hives atop a grass- and flower-covered roof while there’s a spectacular deli and a restaurant offering great hot food options, even during socially-distanced times.
The services are operated by the Westmorland family, which created a similarly-impressive service station back in 1972 when farmers John and Barbara Dunning forged a parternship with local bakers in Tebay. Their operation remains the only family-run service station in the UK, providing local, seasonal food.
A bottle of cherry juice – all of the flavour, none of the chewing – washed down a venison, chilli jam and pork pie, while dessert was a sweet, sharp and citrussy lemon curd crumble shortcake, which was as delicious as it sounds. Angels danced on my tongue as I put away a second one, just for good measure.
It’s just over an hour from Gloucester Southbound services to Cheddar Gorge, where tourists continue to flock. The countryside is also spectacular. Located in the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it is filled with limestone hills and lakes near to Chew Valley. Steep slopes, an undulating plateau, spectacular gorges and rocky outcrops are located near to rich grasslands and wooded combes. It’s like a mini Arizona, though much lusher and greener, with hundreds of ancient monuments and a landscape ready to be explored.
Not all of Cheddar Gorge is open, cave attractions were closed when I visited last week, though a slew of independent shops were selling toys and models, rocks and fossils as well as Christmas decorations. Oh well, it’s best to buy in July, I suppose; you never know when a global pandemic is going to strike and keep us locked up for five months or more. Amid the tack and rainbow-coloured cuddly unicorns was the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, offering vast wheels of clothbound cheese that had been aged in caves. Complex, nutty and with a smooth, rounded-flavour, I stocked up on my own isolation pack and made for the hills. A National Trust walk of around three miles starts in the Cheddar Gorge village before ascending rapidly through steep woods up onto the Cheddar Cliffs. The pandemic has reduced numbers and paths that might once have been crowded with ramblers are now deliciously people-free. I was rewarded with some of the finest views in Somerset as the Mendip Hills stretched out before me. Teaming with wildlife and flowers, there was also evidence of Cheddar Gorge’s primitive goats and the UK’s largest flock of free-roaming soay sheep, who keep the scrub down.
I’d booked a delightful cottage just 12 miles away in Chew Magna, on the road to Bath, thanks to the re-opening of Airbnb. A genial host, beautiful old-stone building and modernish fittings made for a relaxing end to my first evening on the road.
The following morning, I drove south through such towns as Frome and Warminster before stopping off for breakfast in the cathedral city of Wiltshire. Located at the confluence of the rivers Avon, Nadder and Bourne, picturesque Salisbury is just eight miles from Stonehenge and lends itself perfectly to outdoor activities. The scourge of Russian agents, Novichok poisoning and a £13.5 million clean-up bill has passed and the city is open for business.
It is also just a 20-minute drive from the stunning New Forest National Park, where the village of Lyndhurst provides a right royal welcome.
Known as the capital of The New Forest since William the Conqueror established it as a royal hunting ground in 1079. Lyndhurst has been visited by kings and queens staying at the Royal Manor throughout the centuries. Today, Lyndhurst remains the administrative heart of the New Forest.
Situated at the top of the High Street, sits the impressive gothic parish church of St Michael and All Angels. The church was built in the mid-nineteenth century, although evidence suggests churches were previously found on this site. Within the church you can find some beautiful pre-Raphaelite windows designed by William Morris and a fresco by Lord Frederick Leighton which is said to be modelled on local people.
In the graveyard of St Michael and All Angels’ Church can be found the grave of one of the New Forest’s famous residents, Alice Pleasance Liddell. Alice was the little girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’. Alice’s connection with the New Forest began in 1880 after she married wealthy Reginald Hargreaves, who had inherited the Cuffnells country estate, near the village.
Close by to the church, you will find Queens House, which remains the property of the Crown. Today, Queens House provides offices for the Forestry Commission and is home to the Verderers Hall, where the Verderers meet monthly.
Lyndhurst houses the New Forest Heritage Centre, providing a wealth of information about the special history of the area. The centre is also home to regular exhibitions and holds various events throughout the year. It was, however, shut. No matter. Google Maps provided details for a circuitous eight-mile walk from Lyndhurst to Brockenhurst, via backwoods. Walking through forest inclosures and across heaths, hours passed in peaceful solitude as birds swooped and butterflies fluttered past. With few other walkers or cyclists, it provided an opportunity to connect with nature and detach from the madness of Covid-19.
Back in Lyndhurst, it was a short drive to the Tall Trees Trail, a busier and more-popular route next to Blackwater Arboretum. Sensory information boards along the trail provided fascinating facts about the tallest, heaviest and toughest trees in the world. The walk meandered past majestic conifers planted in the 1850s, some of the oldest Douglas fir trees in Britain and included views of two enormous redwoods.
Lockdown has ended and Premier Inns have returned, though things ain’t what they used to be. New regulations mean doors are locked, unless your name is on the list and staff buzz you in. It’s a bit like going to an upmarket nightclub, except it’s not a nightclub and not particularly upmarket. A check-in girl offered to sign me while fussing over which pens were and weren’t sanitised. After two days walking and driving, at least there was a bath, a comfortable bed and no sign of Sir Lenny Henry.
I ruminated on my next move. Should I hop across to the South Downs, England’s newest National Park, which provides beautiful walking through Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex, including the formidable South Downs Way. Passing through Brighton, Britain’s coolest town, I could make a beeline for the Seven Sisters Country Park, enjoying great walking, cafes and tearooms and the elegant Beachy Head.
A mini-road trip had loosened the lockdown shackles and provided some sense of reconnection with the human race.
There’d been a life-affirming reminder, too, that we live in one of world’s most beautiful, varied and compelling nations, where historic towns, fabulous architecture and spellbinding countryside make for the ultimate staycation.
But the road was calling and it was time to move on. If lockdown has taught us anything it’s this: holidays are great, but there’s no place like home.