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Family staycations in the west country and Wales

Elizabeth Roper lives with her family in the South Cotswolds, and shares with us the incredible holiday destinations to be found in this part of the world

FlightFree UK
20 Aug 5 min read

As a working mum on a modest budget I am perhaps lucky that I do not have to curtail my family’s holiday plans for the sake of our poorly planet. I have not flown for 21 years. We took the train to Barcelona on our honeymoon in 2007, and since then have not left our shores.

I think a little secret to finding excitement with the sometimes over-familiar Britain is to look a little beyond the usual resorts and destinations and find real adventures in the familiar places just by learning more.

As a museums researcher, married to an archaeologist, I do maintain that if it is something new and refreshing that you seek in your UK holiday – something broadly exotic and adventurous – then I suggest that you look no further than the stories and sites of our own native culture.

A hill top walk at National Trust Dyrham Park, near Bath

Whilst we have the benefit of a 9-year-old with a massive imagination, he, like children generally, cannot be relied upon to explore museums, galleries or historic sites with the greatest level of concentration. As a result, we chose some places to visit where he might be able to learn a little, and play a lot.

We live in Wotton Under Edge in the South Cotswolds. Bristol is a 30 minute drive and Bath is 40. Our nearest railway station is Cam & Dursley, on the Bristol to Gloucester line. It is important to us that the Cotswolds are on our doorstep: the big skies and old world charm of Berkeley Vale are just a short drive or cycle downhill, Wiltshire with its two World Heritage Sites and chalky downs officially begins 7 miles away, and the Mendip Hills and ethereal beauty of the Somerset Levels are well within reach.

Over the Severn, the Forest of Dean is great for family cycling, caves and the wonderful folk culture of the Dean Heritage Centre trails and exhibits. Just 40 minutes from us is the beautiful Wye Valley and my personal place of pilgrimage, Tintern Abbey.

Exploring CADW Tintern Abbey with props

Being loosely West Country based, we are close to the Severn bridges into south Wales. “Over the bridge” await all the glorious adventures of Welsh heritage. The ‘second Severn crossing’ to Newport, Cardiff and beyond is now toll free, and the beaches of the South Wales coast are within easy distance for a day’s fix of the ocean. Beyond Bridgend, the Bristol Channel is wide, wild and blue and has become a favourite haunt.

Our favourite spot is Southerndown Beach in Dunraven Bay, CF32 0RT. When the tide is out there is plenty of sand, as well as rich-pickings in rock pools, hermit crabs and it is rich in fossils. The beach is on the private Dunraven estate.

Public access is allowed for a modest parking charge. It is a Blue Flag beach with good water quality and there is a Lifeguard Station. The author accepts no responsibility for the reader's safety on the beach, but everything is in place for a wonderful day! There is small takeaway booth with pasties and ice creams. Southerndown is an excellent surfing beach, with a shallow shelf suitable for safe body/boogie boarding.

While you are at the beach, you may notice the spectacular cliffs. Dunraven Bay is on the Glamorgan Heritage Coast and the fascinating geology of the area is fully explored in the Heritage Coast Visitor Centre (free), just two minutes walk from the beach. The Centre is well set up for children with digital games to play and paper-based wildlife trails to pick up.

Exploring CADW Raglan Castle

On the way to the Heritage Coast, there are plenty of CADW Castles to explore. CADW is the Welsh Government Heritage Service – its equivalent in England being English Heritage, and in Scotland, Historic Scotland. Caerphilly Castle is surrounded by lakes covering 30 acres and here, as well as at Castell Coch, and Raglan Castle, CADW have added wonderful enhancements to children’s enjoyment of the sites. It is well worth downloading the CADW app to enjoy augmented reality fantasy trails and detailed histories. At Raglan, a series of sculptures celebrate histories of the castle, and it was the pile of books up the library steps which really caught our imagination.

Back on English soil, we love to visit Brunel’s SS Great Britain in Bristol. It is the highest quality, best value for money visit in Bristol (apart from the wonderful Bristol Museum and Art Galleries (free/ by donation) – look out for dinosaur bones, Egyptian mummies and the gypsy caravan).

Brunel’s SS Great Britain features a highly interactive museum about Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ship, plus some truly evocative installations including sights, sounds and smells. You can experience everything from third class bunks to first class dining in the mid-19th Century. Look out for the doctor’s office and kitchen.

All hands-on deck and emigrating to New Zealand on the SS Great Britain in Bristol

Slightly closer to home, we enjoy kite-flying at Coaley Peak (free) near Stroud. Here are wonderful views over to the ‘other side’ of Gloucestershire and the Forest of Dean, plus the Malvern Hills and the site of the famous May Day beacon at May Hill. The gentle winds up there are constant and the site also has access to Nympsfield Long Barrow (free) which is a Neolithic (late stone age) burial chamber, upon which many local legends are based. We like to embark on some storytelling here, the remains forming the perfect listening circle. Find out more here: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/prehistory/long-barrows/.

My last, brief recommendation is the glories of WWT (Wildfowl and Wetland Trust), Slimbridge. This has a rightful claim to the birthplace of nature conservation in the UK. Today, Sir Peter Scott’s detailed observations of migrating birds on the tidal Severn Estuary have inspired a wonderful visitor attraction, which acts as a gateway to nature conservation philosophy for young families. There are waterfowl, otters, amphibians, talks, walks and the peaceful and inspiring bird hides looking out over the wetlands. My son loves to spot the star of the show in the Kingfisher Hide.

WWT Slimbridge Canoe Safari

Some websites to recommend, as I realise I could write a book on what I love about this part of the world:

www.greatwestway.co.uk is a 2019 initiative to reveal the attractions on the roads and rail west from London to Bristol. www.kypwest.org.uk is a heritage portal for the west, which features layers of historic mapping so that you can see how your chosen adventure locations have developed over time. Information from archaeology and archives are here all in one place.

(Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Bristol Temple Meads station is a destination in itself!) (www.gwr.com)

Happy travels – and be green where you can!

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