When our sons turned 10 and 13, my husband and I realized that our family summer vacations might be numbered - would our kids still want to travel with us once they hit the full-blown teen years? We decided to take them to Europe, and we chose England because it's the most accessible foreign country.
With two boys, we wanted to be physically active so we opted for the countryside: the Cotswolds for its old-fashioned charm; Yorkshire for the moors and history; and the Lake District for its beauty. Though our vacation lasted three weeks because we also stayed in London for a few days, you can see many of the high points in a shorter time. And since the most enjoyable activities are outdoors, it is best to go in the spring, summer or fall.
It's expensive to travel abroad and we were on a tight budget, so we had to decide how best to get around the country. BritRail offers a variety of Eurail-type passes for families, but we ultimately chose to rent a car for mobility. Driving on the left side of the road is not that difficult if you rent an automatic; just begin driving in a relatively quiet area, not in a big city.
We splurged on a cottage rental in the Cotswolds, but saved money by cooking all our own meals. In Yorkshire and the Lake District, we stayed at Youth Hostels which offer basic and clean facilities. Many hostels have private family rooms with four bunks in each, and cost about $16 per person (versus $24-$32 for the least expensive Bed and Breakfasts). You can take advantage of the inexpensive meals they serve or make your own in the members' kitchen. The Youth Hostel Association (YHA) for England and Wales runs 240 hostels of varying types in cities and in the countryside. You can get more information by calling 01727/855215 or visiting www.hostels.com.
THE COTSWOLDS The Cotswolds, a region northwest of London, was known for its wool production in the Middle Ages. The ancient villages are the epitome of what the English call "twee" - charming and picturesque, with their distinctive Cotswold stone architecture. We stayed in Bourton-on-Water, a quaint, idyllic village on the tiny Windrush River. From there, it's not far to other Cotswolds villages such as Burford, Bibury, Cirencester, Chipping Camden, and Stow-on-the-Wold.
There are many activities that children of all ages will enjoy, from the purely kid-oriented attractions to historic sights to scenic spots. Here are a few that were hits with our family: - The Maze designed by children's author, Kit Williams, is in Bourton-on-Water. You find your way through a large and convoluted hedge maze to collect clues which reveal a secret treasure. - Birdland, also in Bourton-on-Water, is an 8 1/2 acre aviary boasting over 500 birds, including flamingoes, penguins, parrots, and toucans. You can get close enough to the birds to touch them. - The Vale of the White Horse is a 13th century chalk horse set in a hillside in Uffington. While the actual horse looks more like modern art, the setting is unspoiled by tourists and offers a breathtaking view of the countryside. - The Cotswold Wildlife Park, on the grounds of a Gothic manor house just south of Burford, has rhinos, zebras, bats, lions, etc. and a playground and carousel for little ones. As at Birdland, it was thrilling to be able to get so close to the animals. - At the Bibury Trout Farm on the outskirts of tiny and scenic Bibury, you can rent poles and fish for trout, but you must buy and keep your catch. We were able to land a delicious trout dinner rather easily. - The Brewery Arts Center is in Cirencester, the former center of the Cotswold wool industry. Fifteen craftworkers make and sell their work on the premises, ranging from a very friendly sweater designer to a willow basket maker who ignored us. - The Lords of the Manor Restaurant in Upper Slaughter is an elegant former estate where you can experience a proper English tea on a grand lawn. Tea is served with dainty sandwiches or the classic scones, clotted cream and strawberry preserves. - A lovely walk from Bourton-on-Water to Clapton-on-the Hill, is just one of many public footpaths that traverse people's farms and fields. Most Cotswolds towns provide pamphlets about country walks in their area. - From the Cotswolds, you can easily visit Stratford-on-Avon, the over-commercialized and touristy birthplace of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's home and the cottage of his wife, Anne Hathaway, are the two main attractions. You can also see a play at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
YORKSHIRE York is a historic, beautiful and often underrated city surrounded by medieval walls. Some of its colorful streets, crowded with shops and restaurants, date back to the Norman Conquest. - The York Minster, built in the 13th century, is one of the world's great Gothic cathedrals. You can climb up its tower for a panoramic view of York. - Clifford's Tower, the remains of a Norman castle in the center of York, also affords a wonderful view of the city. - From Scarborough Castle, northeast of York, you have a spectacular view of the ocean, beaches and city of Scarborough. We attended a Jousting Tournament in which armored knights and their horses demonstrated the evolution of jousting from the 11th to the 14th century. - The Yorkshire Dales National Park is a landscape of rolling green fields and dramatic limestone crags, lined in every direction with ancient stone walls. Each village has information about the many walks and hikes in the park. - The White Scar Cave Tour near Ingleton takes you deep into the largest cave in England, past waterfalls, over an underground river and into a huge Ice Age cavern. - The Ingleton Waterfalls Walk is a popular 4 1/2 mile hike which crosses a number of impressive waterfalls, then emerges high up on the magnificent dales.
THE LAKE DISTRICT The Lake District is one of England's most beautiful areas and the home of William Wordsworth, the romantic poet, and Beatrix Potter, creator of children's stories. There are many lakes, each with its own character, appeal, and wonderful hikes. - In Bowness-on-Windemere, a touristy town dating back to Queen Victoria's time, you can rent boats of all kinds, from canoes to steamers, to tour on the lake. - Also in Bowness-on-Windemere is 'The World of Beatrix Potter' which uses high tech media to tell the story of Potter's life. In the shop, you can buy all sorts of Beatrix Potter merchandise. - From the charming village of Hawkshead, an easy hike through fields and forest leads to Tarn Hows, a beautiful lake. - The village of Ambleside bustles with tourists, interesting stores and restaurants. - Grasmere Lake, the early home of William Wordsworth, is surrounded by fells (barren hills). Wordsworth called it "the loveliest spot that man hath ever found." Dove Cottage, his home, and the Wordsworth Museum are located here.
The trip was a great success. We were all impressed by the courtesy and friendliness of the English people and their ancient history. Travel to another country always gives you a fresh perspective on the society in which you live, and this is something even children can appreciate. Take the kids while you can.