Seaside holidays might get all the press but you’re likely to find yourself sharing space with hundreds of other families. Pick a quiet place in the countryside, however, and you could have hundreds of acres of rural landscape almost entirely to yourself. The options on where to go are legion -- just find an under-explored corner of the country and you’ll readily find accommodation listed online. But what should you take and what can you actually do in the countryside?
What You’ll Need
If you’re staying in a holiday cottage, or something similar, then you can pretty much pack as though you were travelling to a hotel. But be sure to check what’s included with the accommodation owner. For example, most places will supply stuff like plates, pans, cutlery and glassware, but not everywhere will offer towels. Some may have cots available on request while others will expect you to take a travel cot. Think of everything your family will need, and make sure it’s either packed or on the ‘supplied’ list.
You’ll want to do plenty of exploring during your stay, so pack a few items to make that more fun and pleasurable. A good map is essential. While most rural areas now have decent phone and GPS coverage, you’re guaranteed to hit a black spot at the very moment you find yourself lost. OS maps show public footpaths that might be absent from apps and online maps. Plus, it’s both fun and educational for kids to follow a paper map.
Make sure everyone’s got a good water bottle. Places to refill or buy can be hard to come by when out and about in the countryside, especially with many small businesses struggling to reopen in the wake of coronavirus.
Insect spray, suncream and a first aid kit are also advisable contents of any hiker’s rucksack. What else you take depends on your spirit of adventure. Binoculars, wildlife guides, a compass… just remember you have to carry all this stuff.
What you might not need to take is entertainment. Almost any holiday cottage will come loaded with rainy day stuff… books, DVDs, board games, plain old television. Again, check ahead to be sure. Not every holiday home will have internet access… which might be a good thing if you want a break from the screen.
Food is rarely an issue. Most accommodation will provide information on local shops and supermarkets that do delivery. But it wouldn’t hurt to check out the local resources online, ahead of the holiday.
What To Do
You’re in the middle of the countryside with your family. What can you do? Quite a lot, actually.
Go for a ramble: The obvious one. Britain is criss-crossed with signposted walking routes, from the ‘mainline’ routes like National Trails, to less-celebrated local pathways. Plan a circular walk that takes in one or more of these. Alternatively, get creative with the kids, and plot out your own route following public footpaths and country lanes, using the OS map for inspiration.
Set a wildlife challenge: Get the kids taking a deep look at nature by setting them wild missions. Who can find and photograph three types of mushroom? How many species of bird or butterfly can you spot in one day? Or prepare a ‘bingo card’ of 15 things they have to look out for while out.
Explore the local area: Most holiday homes come with a teetering pile of leaflets advertising local attractions. Make the most of them -- though be sure to check ahead to ensure the venue has reopened.
Get stuck in to farm work: Some smaller farms offer working farm holidays, during which you and the kids can get properly stuck into the rural life, helping out with animal feeding and other farm tasks. The numbers seem to have diminished in the wake of coronavirus, but some are still operating.
Trapped indoors? Of course, you might get unlucky and hit a week full of rain. There are ways to turn this into a positive, though. How about staging an indoor picnic, or assembling an undercover beach? Build an indoor fort, or set up indoor mini-missions. We've got dozens of further ideas on how to have fun without leaving the house (or holiday home).
Follow The Countryside Code
If the weather's fine, and you do get to explore, then make sure everybody is aware of the Countryside Code.
A balance has to be set in the countryside. Everybody would like Britain’s green and pleasant lands to be open to those who want to explore. But it’s important to remember that much of the countryside is also a workplace. Whenever we walk through rural areas, we should be mindful and respectful to both the natural world, and the working rural world. To help, the Countryside Code sets out the dos and don’ts of taking your family out of the town.
* Always leave gates as you find them. Usually, they should be closed, but a gate may have been left open for a reason.
* Stick to designated footpaths (marked on OS maps and many mapping apps). Don’t go off the track unless a notice says you can. This is especially important when walking beside or through crop fields.
* Leave no trace of your visit, and take all litter home.
* Never touch or feed livestock (unless you’re with the farmer). If an animal appears to be in distress, contact a farmer rather than trying to intervene yourself.
* Give animals plenty of space, especially if they have young, or if you have a dog (see below).
* Cycling? By law, you have to give way to walkers and those on horses.
* Plan ahead. Some rural areas may have restricted access during seasonal work, or through local conditions such as flooding.
Taking The Family dog?
Many holiday homes will allow your canine companion to join you -- though not all. Be sure to check ahead before turning up with fido.
While out and about, dogs should be kept under control, especially in areas containing livestock. This is not just good practice, but the law. Dogs must be on short leads in the open country between 1 March 1 and 31 July 31 (a law designed to help nesting birds), and always when around farm animals. Dogs that injure or harass livestock are at the mercy of the law, and could be put down.
You’ll also need to consider the poo. It’s very important to clear up any mess to avoid spreading disease (look up Neosporosis, though not while you’re eating your lunch). Make sure you’ve brought some kind of sealable container in which to carry the smelly deposits. Unlike your local park, the open countryside does not always contain bins for dog mess. You may need to carry the feculent package some distance, so have a good think about how best to do that in a safe and sanitary way.
The rules of the road are exactly the same in the countryside as in a city centre. However, rural areas throw up all kinds of hazards you wouldn’t encounter on the North Circular. If you’ve never driven in the countryside before, it pays to think ahead and consider the following situations.
Narrow roads: Many rural roads are narrow; not much wider than a single vehicle. Keep your speed down, especially when approaching bends. Look ahead and try to spot the next passing point -- a short section where it’s possible to pull in and let oncoming traffic pass.
Scratchy, bumpy roads: If you’re lucky enough to drive a sleek, expensive sports car, you might want to leave it at home. Roads in the countryside are often bumpy, pothole-filled, waterlogged or otherwise out of peak condition. You might also consider your options if you’re precious about your car’s paintwork. The narrow tracks can force you tight against hedges. Rub a hawthorn at speed, and you’re going to see scratches.
Other road users: Few country roads have paving for walkers, and many lack even a grassy verge. Walkers will commonly take to the road. Keep this in mind when you go around every corner, and slow to a crawl on the tightest bends. Likewise, cyclists and horse riders make good use of rural roads, and should be given as much space as possible. Drive particularly slowly near horses, and look out for manure on the road as a sign they might be ahead. Never try to overtake anywhere near a bend.
Tractors: It goes without saying that you’re likely to encounter rural vehicles in the countryside. Have patience if you find yourself behind a slow-moving tractor -- they usually don’t travel very far before turning off again. Watch out, too, for vehicles pulling out of farm tracks. Most turnings will be signposted with a ‘Concealed entrance’ hazard warning, but not always.
Animals in the road: Look out for animals in the road. Hundreds of people are injured in the UK each year following collisions with animals, and a handful of deaths also sadly occur. You never know what you might meet. Pheasants, deer, sheep, badgers, foxes… all come and go at their own whim. Drive cautiously, paying particular attention after warning roadsigns. If you do hit an animal, whether it is killed or injured, you may have a legal obligation to report the incident to the police. This applies for dogs, horses, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, donkeys and mules. Cats are, for some reason, not on the list, though you may want to do the decent thing and check if the stricken animal has a contact number on its collar.
Driving at night: Use full-beam headlights on country roads. You won’t find many street lights, and you’ll need all the illumination you can get to spot the hazards noted above. Remember to dip the lights when approaching an oncoming car so as not to dazzle the driver.
Do It The Easy Way
Finally, if the idea of a full-on countryside holiday still seems a little daunting, then consider a compromise closer to home. Glamping is always an option, with many semi-rural sites across the UK that are comfortably close to towns and cities. Some of these can be enormous fun, too. How about glamping in a converted double-decker, or a UFO, or even a helicopter?
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.