Live webchat about UK family holidays with Will Gray

This is an edited transcript of a live webchat with Will Gray on 12 June 2009. Will Gray

Family-friendly holidays | Camping | Budget holidays in the UK | UK holiday ideas | Best UK beaches | Best UK days outFestivals | Car journey games

Family-friendly holidays

Letter Qrubyslippers: What are the alternatives to places like Center Parcs? I have just read and heard so many mixed things but like the idea of self-catering/activities/outdoorsy stuff etc. 

Letter AWillGray: Hi rubyslippers. Thanks for your message. I know what you mean. Center Parcs is a bit like Marmite (you either love it or hate it). We took our eight-year-old twins to the Sherwood Forest one recently and they had a fantastic time. Center Parcs now have a growing number of snazzy lodges, some with their own games room and sauna, so the standard of self-catering accommodation is excellent. Then there's the Aqua Sana Spa, Subtropical Swimming Paradise, tree trekking, falconry, quad biking, archery, canoeing, sailing, …. Still not sold on the idea?

OK, for a lower-key self-catering option in the woods, how about Forest Holidays? It offers cabin holidays in Cornwall, Yorkshire and Scotland. Each cabin is carefully sited so that you feel like you're deep in the woods. Double-storey windows flood open-plan living areas with dappled sunlight. Kitchens come with all the mod cons, most cabins have barbeques, flatscreen TVs and DVD players, while some have hot tubs and an en-suite treehouse attached by a rope bridge.

You even get a Wii in Golden Oak cabins, but don't worry – kids get ample opportunity to live in the real world thanks to ranger-led activities that include night-vision wildlife watching and forest survival skills. Kelling Heath in North Norfolk is another good option worth checking out.

Letter Qfruitshootsandheaves: Would he like to borrow my children to test more family-friendly holidays? They are all completely wild adorable.

Letter AWillGray: Thanks for the offer fruitshootsandheaves, but I can only just about cope with my own wild bunch. Our twins began their travelling lives when they were toddlers and I was researching an article on Northumberland. We checked into our hotel, Joe immediately felled a standard lamp and then ate two sachets of Nescafe off the tea tray while Ellie helpfully scattered jars of Moroccan chicken baby food across the bedroom floor – one of which sent me cartwheeling into the ensuite… Travelling with kids HAS got easier since then (I think)…

fruitshootsandheaves: Could you please arrange for the sun to shine for the two weeks at the end of July, for everyone, but hottest in Scarborough. Thank you.
 

Camping 

Letter QUnicornvomit: Can you help me convince my DH that camping in the UK would be lots of fun? Where are your recommendations for family-friendly campsites where the DCs can run about, and stay safe?

Letter A WillGray: Hello Unicornvomit! I love your nickname – conjures up many a long car journey with our children when they were babies. Now, how can I convince your DH that camping in the UK would be lots of fun? Here goes... It doesn't really matter whether you go posh at a Feather Down Farm or pitch your own tent in a damp, slightly sloping field somewhere in Wales. Any form of camping is an essential family holiday experience! Everyone mucks in to make things happen, whether it's inflating airbeds or collecting eggs from the local farm. Few other types of holiday have such a bonding effect on families. You may even find that Nintendos, and the like lie forgotten in the car as your children rediscover simpler pleasures, like flying a kite, building a den or organising a picnic.

Just make sure you are properly kitted out and try a dummy run in the back garden before setting off on something more epic. As a general rule of thumb, buy a tent that's at least one size up from the one you think you'll need – the extra space will always come in handy for storage – or somewhere for your DH to sulk when it's been raining 48 hours solid.

Remember: the worse the family camping experience, the better the dinner-party stories in years to come! Now, family-friendly campsites. There are loads to choose from, but if I had to select seven of my favourites (where children can run free and safe) they would be:

  • Bracelands, Forest of Dean
  • Ty'n yr Onnen, Snowdonia
  • Compton Farm, Isle of Wight
  • South Penquite Farm, Bodmin
  • Low Wray, Lake District
  • Pencarnan Farm, Pembrokeshire
  • Wapsbourne Manor Farm, Sussex


There are hundreds of recommended family-friendly campsites in my book, Britain with Kids, all tried and tested last summer. 

Letter Qbelgo: Would we be mad to consider camping for the first time in the south of England or Wales, with three children under the age of five? If not, where would you recommend? It would have to be somewhere with good facilities and plenty of things for the children to do.

Letter AWillGray: If you're worried about the potential stress of independent camping with three young children, you could consider a tipi or yurt holiday. The tents are already up for you, and kitted out with beds and most, if not all, of the gear you need. Kids love the added adventure of staying in a tipi/yurt and several sites are well geared to young families.

Take Woodland Tipis and Yurts, for example. Located in Herefordshire's Wye Valley, it's the kind of place where your little 'uns can run wild with the fairies – building them miniature wigwams of sticks and leaves decorated with petals and feathers. There's a fenced, six-acre woodland that's perfect for den-building, playing hide and seek or collecting firewood for the traditional clay pizza oven.

Also try Cornish Tipi Holidays and the Really Green Holiday Company on the Isle of Wight – we've stayed at both and can thoroughly recommend them.
 

Budget holidays in the UK

Letter Qflier: Is there such a thing as pocket-friendly family-friendly holidays? There seem to be a lack of hotels in this country which cater for families but don't cost the earth. I mean in terms of all staying in one comfortable room without being too expensive.

Letter AWillGray: Hello flier, I think you're right, a lot of 'family hotels' tend to be quite upmarket and expensive, but there are more modest options if you hunt around. We came across a corker a little while back – The Sun Bay Hotel in Devon's South Hams, a friendly old-fashioned place just a short stroll from Hope Cove and not bad value at just £40-50/adult B&B and £20/child sharing parents' room.

I think some of the more modern (or refurbished) youth hostels are beginning to fill a budget gap for families (see TotalChaos below). Some of the bigger resorts also have good value options. In the Cairngorms, for example, the MacDonald Aviemore Highland Resort caters for most budgets and is a superb base for exploring the mountains and lochs in the area.

Letter QTotalChaos: What would you recommend for families on a tight budget other than camping?


Letter AWillGray: Aha! TotalChaos, do I detect an allergy to soggy flysheets, temperamental gas stoves and hygienically-challenged toilet blocks…?!?! I have just the thing for you: youth hostels. Don't laugh, I'm quite serious. Forget musty old buildings with dingy dorms and a shared bathroom at one end of the corridor. The Youth Hostel Association is an altogether different beast to the one of twenty or thirty years ago. Opened in 2007, YHA National Forest in the Midlands (yha.org.uk) has ensuite family bedrooms with a restaurant/bar, lounge and self-catering kitchen opening onto a terrace surrounded by lawns and newly-planted trees. It recycles rainwater for flushing toilets, has a bio-fuel boiler using wood chips sourced sustainably from the forest and supplements this with solar power. There's even a touch-screen monitor in reception where you can find out about local attractions that include the brilliant Conkers adventure centre. And all this for just £15.95/adult, £11.95/child per night.

Letter Qwannabesurfchick: How about if we have less cash?
 

Letter AWillGray: Keep an eye on the websites of the big holiday park operators (Hoseasons, Haven, Woolacombe Bay, Pontins etc) as they often have online deals (kids go free etc). I still reckon these are your best option for lots of things going on for a wide age range.
 

UK holiday ideas

Letter Qyellowbrickroad: The only place in the UK we tend to visit is Cornwall. We do like beaches, but also things to do (with two boys) and interesting places to see. Can you offer up some inspiration outside of the South?

Letter AWillGray: Hi yellowbrickroad, sounds like you need to get hold of my new book, Britain with Kids! Horribly blatant plug, I know, but while we were researching it last year, we came across some fantastic spots in the UK that easily rival the beaches and attractions of Cornwall (and like you, Cornwall is our favourite place to holiday in Britain).

Let's forget Devon (after all, you might as well carry on to Cornwall) and go for somewhere completely different – the Gower Peninsula near Swansea is an absolute gem (even Katherine Jenkins has sung its praises). Gorgeous beaches, great surf and adventure activities for your boys, wet-weather stuff to do in Swansea (they have an indoor surf pool there), some excellent campsites and it's all quite compact and easy to get to.

Still in Wales, try Snowdonia but stay on the west side of the mountains where you can easily combine mountain activities with beach outings to the Llyn Peninsula (Whistling Sands at the tip is a real beauty).

Northumberland is another fantastic and under-rated beach destination in Britain – miles of sand and the added bonus of some great castles to explore, including Alnwick (a must if your boys are Harry Potter fans).

Further afield, and a really cracking family adventure, the Isle of Mull has beautiful beaches and exciting wildlife safaris in search of eagles, otters, whales and basking sharks. Hope that helps!?

yellowbrickroad: Hi Will and welcome back! That's great! Thanks for your help. 

Letter Qcarriemumsnet: We have two weeks booked off work but haven't made a plan yet - and it doesn't help that those two weeks are the first two weeks of August and everything's probably already booked. We have three children, 10, 8 and 3 and a half, want to be near a beach and other children to play with but not in a noisy hotel. We like swimming (will need a warmish pool esp for 3 year old - and me) and cycling and tennis. Quite fancy bed and breakfast, but maybe accommodation with a kitchenette so we can do basic meals. Open to suggestions.

You'd think after 10 years on Mumsnet I'd have all the answers, but in a way there's almost too much choice and we can't seem to make a plan. What would be your top five recommendations?

Letter AWillGray: Hi carriemumsnet – you're right, there's a huge choice! I haven't checked availability in early August for any of the following, but they tick some of your boxes:

  • Flying Boat Club, Tresco (Isles of Scilly) Ultra-posh, but what a location!
  • Moonfleet Manor, Fleet, Dorset – one of the members of the exclusive Luxury Family Hotels group.
  • Easwell Farm Holiday Park, North Devon (the quietest of the Woolacombe Bay Parcs, with luxury cottages for rent and access to all the activities at the other livelier parks)
  • The Rosevine, Portscatho, Cornwall – classy coastal retreat with self-catering as an option. 12 apartments in a Georgian house.
  • Farsyde Farm Cottages – A 10-minute walk from Robin Hood's Bay on the North Yorkshire coast, the largest of these self-catering cottages has an indoor pool and they all have footpath access to Boggle Hole beach – a favourite spot for a swim. 

Letter QNappyValley: If you have an only child, finding places where they can interact with others is important. Do you have any tips on that?

Letter AWillGray: Hi NappyValley, that's a really good point and one that I often take for granted since our children are twins and have always had a play partner in each other. If you're camping, look out for sites that provide good, centrally located play areas where kids from different families can meet up. Holiday parks have stacks of activities laid on, including children's clubs. Why not enrol in a surfing or sailing club for a few days? That's a great way to hook up with like-minded children.

Letter Qbelgo: I have a second question, for Belgian friends who want to go to England with their two primary schoolaged children for a short trip. They want to take the tunnel to Folkestone but they don't want to travel much further in England. Where is a nice area for them to stay, and places to visit?

Letter AHello again belgo. If your Belgian friends turn left at Folkestone it's not a huge drive to reach the lovely Sussex coast (and they can also get to know Britain's newest national park – The South Downs).

Good places to visit:

  • Seven Sisters Country Park – great family-friendly walking and cycling.
  • Wittering Sands – one of the best beaches.
  • Bracklesham Bay – go fossil hunting for sharks' teeth.
  • Brighton – Sea Life centre and pier.
  • Ashdown Forest – a must for fans of Winnie-the-Pooh.
  • Bluebell Railway between Sheffield Park and Kingscote – quintessential England!
  • Arundel – superb Wildfowl and Wetland Centre
  • Drusillas Park – a must-visit, probably Britain's best small zoo and perfect for Primary age kids.


Good places to stay: Butlins are opening their smart new Ocean Hotel in Bognor this August. If that's not for them, Seattle Hotel in Brighton is contemporary, vibrant and welcome kids. For budget travel, the youth hostels in Littlehampton, Alfriston and Arundel are good. Cottages are available from Best of Brighton and Sussex Cottages. 

Letter Qwannabesurfchick: My kids have got quite a big age gap. How can I keep them both entertained during a day out / holiday? Is there anywhere you've come across that caters just as well for toddlers as for eight to nine year olds?

Letter AWillGray: Hi wannabesurfchick. Don't know if holiday parks are your thing, but we found Woolacombe Bay Parcs in North Devon had activities that pretty much covered the entire age range. With cash to splash, some of the dedicated family hotels (like those in the Luxury Family Hotel group – Moonfleet Manor, Fowey Hall etc) and some of the upmarket hotels like Bedruthan Steps in Cornwall, also lay on plenty for toddlers, kids and teenagers.

Letter QJackBauermustlive: My family and I are actually pretty bummed that we can't go abroad this year. We've never camped and have this perception that UK holidays are littered with crowded amusement parks and cold beaches! Do you really think the UK can offer us sceptics up a good family hol?

Letter AWillGray: Hi JackBauermustlive. Of course! This is the year that will completely change your perception of holidays in the UK. Trust me. Forget those images of cold beaches and crowded amusement parks. Try Pembrokeshire's coast – it's got some of the highest concentrations of Blue Flag beach awards in Europe. Get some wetsuits for the kids and you won't be able to get them out of the surf. The whole coastline is a national park, so not much in the way of amusement parks. Great coastal walks, an excellent choice of campsites (try Caerfai Bay or Pencarnan Farm).

Letter QJackBauermustlive: That does sound idyllic. All we need now is the sunshine!
 

Letter AWillGray: Fingers crossed JackBauermustlive!!! Although, when we were camping most of the summer hols last year, the rain didn't really spoil it for us. I think when you're under canvas, living outdoors, you just make the most of every scrap of dry weather and sunshine! And the kids don't seem to be mind whatever the weather. Roll on barbecue summer...

Letter Qyellowbrickroad: Do you and your family have a favourite holiday spot in the UK?
 

Letter AWillGray: Our favourite holiday spot in the UK, yellowbrickroad, is Cornwall, right down on the far north coast between St Ives and Sennen Cove. Also love the Lizard around Kynance Cove. Thing is, though, researching this book has opened our eyes to a whole stack of other great spots - in Wales the Llyn peninsula, Gower Peninsula and Pembroke coast have beaches that easily rival Devon and Cornwall. Also love the South Hams in Devon.

National Forest in the Midlands was a real eye-opener for us - just something a bit different - great woodland activities etc. Cairngorms in Scotland is the best for a multi-activity break for kids. Camp at Glenmore and you've got everything right there from canoeing, cycling, meeting reindeer, learning to sail.

yellowbrickroad: I want your job!

Letter QPoppity: Can you suggest any good campsites or cheap places to stay around Oban for two nights in August? We are stopping there on the way further up and are feeling a tad unwilling to unpack and put the (huge) tent up only to take it down a couple of days later, but don't mind if we have to. We have three children and don't need a big facility-heavy site if we do camp. I can only find two sites in that area.

WillGray: Hi Poppity, I don't suppose you want to go across the water from Oban to Mull (40 minutes on the ferry) but the Shielings campsite on Mull is absolutely fantastic! The Oban Caravan and Camping Park (www.obancaravanpark.com) might be a good bet – you can either camp or stay in a holiday home or cottage if the thought of pitching your tent doesn't appeal.
 

Best UK beaches

Letter QStarbear: Where would you go for an English beach holiday that doesn't have that shabby, not-fixed-up-since-the-1950s look. We go to Croyde in North Devon, which I like. But I need something like that but somewhere else. DH has been going there since he was six! I've been there four times in eight years.

Letter AWillGray: Have you tried the South Hams in Devon? If you like your beaches big and sandy like those in Croyde, you'll find Bantham and Bigbury-on-Sea just as impressive. And there's nothing 50s or dated-looking about nearby holiday centres like Salcombe.

At the tip of Cornwall, Sennen Cove is one of our all-time favourite spots. The beach is stunning (great surf and two miles of sand) and there's a trendy beach café/restaurant right behind it. There's plenty of rental accommodation in the area, or you camp at Trevedra Farm which has a footpath down to Gwenver Sands at the far end of Sennen Cove's Whitesand Bay.
 

Best UK days out

Letter Qyellowbrickroad: Another one from me. We'll only be able to afford one week away this summer. How about any top tips for family-friendly days out that won't cost us £50 a time!

Letter AWillGray: Hello again yellowbrickroad. One of the big things in my book, Britain with Kids, is that you can have some brilliant days out without spending anything at all.

These are my top 10 free days out:

  • Beechenhurst Lodge, Forest of Dean
  • Donkey Sanctuary, Sidmouth, Devon
  • Highland Folk Museum, Scotland
  • Lake District Visitor Centre
  • The Moors Centre, Yorkshire
  • National Railway Museum, York
  • Natural History Museum, London
  • Ranworth Broad, Norfolk
  • Welsh Wildlife Centre
  • Wembury Marine Centre, Devon


Another thing worth considering is getting family membership of either the National Trust or English Heritage. It costs around £80/year, but entitles you to free entry to some fantastic places around Britain (castles, gardens, historic homes etc) many with children's activities, adventure playgrounds, quiz trails etc. If you had to pay individually for family entry to some of these, you'd very quickly be spending over £100 on just a few days out. Hope that helps. Have a great week away this summer.
 

Festivals

Letter QCMOTdibbler: I fancy taking my just three-year-old DS away for a long weekend on my own. Any suggestions for somewhere to go - a festival of some kind would be nice but not necessary - like folk, children's book or storytelling. But not where camping would be with lots of noisy people or they would be annoyed by 6am recitals of The Gruffalo.

Letter AWillGray: A couple of good festivals for families are Camp Bestival (Lulworth Castle, Dorset, mid-July) and Shambala (Northmaptonshire, August). Both have plenty to keep you and your three-year-old happy.

Letter QCMOTdibbler: Thanks Will, but those are a bit much in size to deal with on my own with a toddler - just the walk from the car to the campsite would be a nightmare. I was thinking more about somewhere that was nice for preschoolers to visit as a location, where there might also be something going on of interest. Camping is an option, but only if quiet, and I can drive pretty much to the site. Not picky me, no.

Letter AWillGray: Hi again CMOTdibbler, have you considered North Norfolk? It's got a nice gentle mix of sandy beaches, good value places to stay (including top campsites like Deepdale Farm) and your three-year-old would absolutely love Bewilderwood (a woodland adventure park with a magical twist that often has special events like story telling during the summer). You could also go for a ride on the North Norfolk Railway and visit the seal rescue centre at Hunstanton. Just a thought...
 

Car journey games

Letter Qpopmum: Any tips on making long road journeys more interesting?
 

Letter AWillGray: Hi popmum, here are three games for long car journeys that don't involve a Nintendo DS:

  • Car bingo: give players a sheet of paper and ask them to write down 25 different numbers between one and 99. The person in the front passenger seat calls out the last one or two digits from the licence plates of passing cars. The winner is the first to cross off all their numbers and shout "Bingo!"
  • Licence to thrill: make up phrases based on the letters of licence plates. For example, 234 IFS 00 could be 'Ice-cream for Sally', 'Ian fancies Susan' or 'I feel sick!"
  • Buzz words: pick a word, then turn on the radio or play a story CD and try to be the first to shout "buzz" when the word is mentioned.

Letter Qscrappydappydoo: Question similar to popmum really, where are motorway services/breaks where kids can run free playgrounds or just space (I'm thinking mostly A303 but other ideas would me good).

Letter AWillGray: Hello scrappydappydoo. Hmmm, motorway services with playgrounds for kids – now there's a good idea! Unfortunately, the only decent motorway stop we came across all last summer during our research for Britain with Kids was just as you approach the Cairngorms in Scotland where there's a brilliant little roadside visitor centre, café, playground, picnic areas and even a nature trail. Not much use to you on the A303, I know, but the simple fact is you're probably better off planning a slightly more convoluted route away from the really popular, really busy ones. That way, you can stop in villages etc and use public playgrounds etc

WillGray: Let's hope for a great summer. We'll be in Cornwall for most of it researching the next title in Footprint's 'With Kids' series. Have a great summer everyone and thank you for taking the time to join me on this chat. All the best, Will. 

Will's latest book Britain with Kids is published by Footprint Travel Guides.

Last updated: 24-Feb-2011 at 2:39 PM