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A Winter’s Tale

Hibernating until spring along with the family tortoise? Big mistake. Book a winter break to banish the bad weather blues and put the colour back in your cheeks…

It’s all too easy to write off winter as a time when we batten down the hatches, open the telly guide and decide not to venture outside until the first buds of spring appear in the garden. But winter in Britain, once you’re away from the sleet of the city streets and the chaos of the over-heated shopping centres, is a treat. Think of wandering through the forest as the frost glistens on pine trees, rays from the low sun dancing off the naked branches as you flash along woodland pathways on a mountain bike. Or how about taking the dog on a foraging expedition on a crisp December morning? Go on, harness some of that just-do-it attitude that woke up Britain during the 2012 London Olympics and jump headfirst into a winter woodland holiday – no DSs, Gameboys or X-Boxes required.

Did you know?

Humans have had a relationship with the woods since Neolithic times, around 4000BC. It was then that the first forests were cleared in order for farmers to work the land.

Change the routine: young families

Having small children in winter can be a challenge. They’ve watched more CBeebies than is good for them, you’ve done all the craft activities you can think of (and the family cat’s still got that face paint on its whiskers to show it) and now they’re moaning they’re bored. At home, keeping the kids occupied through colder months is never easy but when you’re in the great outdoors, nature does all the entertaining for you.

Once you’ve booked up a holiday in the forest, all you have to do is get them wellied-up, throw on their coats, hats and gloves and unleash them! My eight-year-old daughter isn’t quite ready for all the action-Jackson type stuff you can get up to these days in the woods (see next section), but when we spent some time in Sherwood Forest not long ago she spent the best part of an afternoon rushing along pathways clutching a pencil and a National Trust Tree Spotter’s Book and yelling: “I can confirm this is an oak!”. We also took with us a map of the trails you can follow and even our five-year-old son, who usually has to be surgically removed from his Micro Scooter, adored scampering off, discovering clearings ripe for den-making as we worked our way along.

Kids in the forest (3)

And there’s nothing quite so pleasing as stopping for a minute or two and sitting quietly on a conveniently seat-shaped tree stump, sipping tea from a flask and listening to the blissful silence of the woods, punctuated only by rhythmic bird song and the occasional darting of a squirrel. We happily stumbled upon a superb playpark deep in the woods too - lots of Forestry Commission areas have these, ideal on the off-chance that your kids haven’t worn themselves out already looking for stonechats and crossbills and playing Olympic Stream Jumping (or is that just our family?)

Did you know?

The 23-ton, 10 metre-girthed Major Oak in Sherwood Forest Country Park is the biggest oak tree in Britain and is between 800 to 1000 years old. It can produce 150,000 acorns in a good year!

Do something different: families with teens

When was the last time you got to sit down with your teenager and mull over life? Chances are back home you’re too busy getting them to do their homework, discussing what grades they need in their GCSEs or laying down the law on what time they have to be home at night. But once you’re out in the woods, it just seems easier to forget about the daily grind. And the plethora of activities you can get into helps too.

Cycling in the forest

Book the family some mountain bikes and work up a sweat in the winter chill as you race along forest tracks or head for the water and spend the day learning how to canoe. Depending on where you book your forest break, you can do all sorts of stuff you’ve never tried before – Forest Holiday organises clay shooting (tweeds optional), coasteering, sea kayaking, archery, deep sea fishing, horse riding, quarry jumping (husband not too keen when I suggested this), laser tagging, caving, raft building and rock climbing to name just a few. Call me a big kid but my favourite activity is the zip wire where, for just a few minutes, I could forget about my impending tax bill and just shout ‘Wooooooh!’ for a few minutes like I was nine again.

Forest Holidays has also come up with a series of forest ranger trips that older kids (and parents) will get a real kick out of – after all, how often do you get to traipse off into the woods after dark wearing night vision equipment and carrying sonic bat detectors on a nocturnal guided tour? The rangers will also turn your kids into mini Bear Grylls with a session on woodland survival skills and what’s best not to eat – but don’t worry, there are no Bush Tucker Trials!

Time to relax: couples

Now look, just because the kids have flown the nest, it doesn’t mean you don’t have an excuse to get out and about in the Great Outdoors. These days a trip away in the woods has gone up a notch on the luxury front too, so instead of thinking soggy tent and baked beans for dinner, imagine curling up by a roaring fire in a cosy log cabin with a glass of red after a gentle day’s stroll under crisp winter powder-blue skies. Forest Holidays has some real spoil-yourself five-star woodland homes in its portfolio including the super-luxurious Golden Oak cabins where you can warm your bones after a bracing walk by the log burning stove or go all Hollywood mogul and settle into your private outdoor hot tub with a glass of fizz under the stars.

You could bring along friends too for a good old catch up as you kick the leaves and take the dog for a walk (and boy, do dogs love to explore the woods) – cabins have up to four bedrooms over two storeys so no one’s going to feel cramped. And Britain’s wealth of woodlands means there are loads of places to explore. If you haven’t tried a holiday oot and aboot in Scotland, for example, then you’ve been missing out on days spent messing about in boats on the mirror-like waters of the lochs, so calm they reflect perfectly the mountains that loom over them.

Couples hot tub

And if you feel the need for a little pottering, you can dip into the local villages to explore the museums and craft shops (go steady, though, it’s all too easy to blow your pocket money all at once on those lovely chunky knits when it’s chilly). To be honest, you don’t have to slum it under canvas to be a happy camper in the forest in the 21st century. More champers, anyone?

Five top things to do

  • Family: Hire bikes and set off to explore the fabulous wildlife that inhabits the forest. In Scotland, keep your eye out for wild boars, roe and red deer, and otters playing on the shores of the lochs.
  • Teenagers: Sort the men from the boys as you zip through the forest canopy on one of the Go Ape set-ups that are close to all Forest Holiday sites.
  • Couples: Take a romantic day a deux in a canoe - gently explore the scenic River Wye as you mull life, the universe and what you’re going to have for dinner.
  • Seniors: Go on, you deserve it – book a spa therapist to come to the privacy of your own forest cabin and massage those legs after all that hearty walking.
  • Multi-Generational: Do the forest ranger experience – they’ll come to your cabins at night and tell you tales of woodland folklore and fairies – or even take you bat-spotting.

Kids in the forest

Back at the Ranch

  • Settle down into a hot tub to soothe those muscles
  • Open the wine and make a meal at your own pace and then sit and eat it all together – there’s no need to rush around because there are no chores or homework to be done on holiday!
  • Light the log burner, lie on the sofa and sit and listen to the sounds of a woodland night – it beats the car-alarm city soundscape any day.
  • Have a romantic evening in – you can order champagne, chocolates, rose petals and aromatherapy oils to be brought to your cabin with Forest Holidays.
  • Crack open the board games. Take a break from the TV and show those family members you’ve been hiding your Monopoly light under a bushel…

Dinah Hatch is a travel writer and author of Frommer’s England With Your Family and Scotland With Your Family.