Home-grown specialities

For those who shudder at the thought of distant travel in high season, Jill Crawshaw suggests some unusual summer breaks here in Britain
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The Independent Culture
LUXURY FOR LESS

As high summer is often the low season for the UK's top hotels, there's a chance to sample a bit of luxury at reasonable rates.

Until 30 September, for example, rooms at Stapleford Park, about four miles from Melton Mowbray, will come down to pounds 45 per person per night, based on two people sharing a double room; the usual price is pounds 135-pounds 295. Outdoor pursuits available on the hotel's 500-acre estate include riding, tennis and falconry.

An hour from London, and part of the 1,100-acre estate of the East Sussex National Golf Club, Horsted Place Hotel has reduced its rates for the summer from pounds 75 to pounds 45 per person per night, b&b. Dinner will cost pounds 39.45 per person, including a glass of champagne and a bottle of wine. The hotel has an outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts, croquet lawn and two 18-hole golf courses.

Stapleford Park 01572 787522; Horsted Place Hotel 01825 750581

BUBBLE BATHS

Center Parcs call themselves "a blend of villa holiday, health farm, country club and sports complex: the holiday the weather can't spoil". They are best known for the huge "bubble" that maintains swimming pools, tennis courts, whirlpools, restaurants, bars and shops - in a setting of tropical plants - at a temperature of 84 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the middle of the winter.

Outside the bubble, there are villas and cycle paths (no cars are allowed), as well as a range of sporting and health facilities, boating lakes, clay- pigeon shooting, bowls areas, archery and golf driving ranges, which come into their own during the summer. In Britain the Center Parc villages are in Sherwood Forest in Nottingham-shire, Elveden Forest in Suffolk and, the most recent opening, in Longleat forest in Wiltshire.

During the main summer months, holidays of one week minimum can be booked, though weekend breaks are available for the rest of the year. A fully equipped, two-bedroom villa sleeping four people costs a maximum of pounds 662 for a week, pounds 415-pounds 488 in September. Maid service can be arranged at an extra charge.

Center Parcs 0990 200200

PEACE, PERFECT PEACE

Rural Retreats specialises in letting high-quality cottages and country houses in Britain. The Old Post Office in Edith Weston, Rutland, is a 19th-century stone cottage in the heart of the village overlooking the square. It accommodates four people and costs a total of pounds 545 in August, reducing to pounds 510 on 1 September.

The 200-year-old Willow Cottage in Llangynog, in Powys, mid-Wales, has a spectacular view across valley and mountains, with not another house in sight. Lake Vyrnwy is a 20-minute drive away. The cottage, which sleeps seven, costs pounds 935 in August, pounds 790 from 1 September.

The National Trust has a few cottages still to let for this summer, including Overhaven in Cornwall, a former farmhouse with views across Pentireglaze Haven. Overhaven will sleep six people and costs a total of pounds 712 for a week.

Rural Retreats 01386 701177; The National Trust 01225 791133

ACTIVE LEARNING

Craft and activity breaks offered at YHA hostels all over the country offer a chance to learn new skills at a modest cost. At Cowden in the Peak District National Park, for instance, courses on the ancient art of drystone walling are available from 18-20 August. They cost pounds 60 per person for full-board accommodation and the instructors are members of the Drystone Walling Association.

The Capel-y-ffin youth hostel near Abergavenny is highlighting trail- riding holidays in the Brecon Beacons throughout August. The courses involve riding 20 miles a day between hostels; they are not for beginners - riders should be experienced enough to canter. Five nights full-board breaks cost pounds 245, seven nights pounds 359, and supervision is available for participants aged from 11 to 17.

At Edale in the Peak District and Llangollen in North Wales, multi-activity breaks include instruction in canoeing, orienteering, abseiling and archery; courses cost pounds 80 for two nights, pounds 119 for three nights and pounds 159 for four nights.

Cowden 01457 852135; Capel-y-ffin 01873 890650; Edale 01433 670302; Llangollen 01978 860330

HISTORY WITHOUT TEARS

A number of historic hotels offers short summer breaks. The Rose & Crown, a 13th-century coaching inn in Salisbury, organises a series of Heritage Weekends concentrating on different aspects of the cathedral; these include visits to workshops where ancient skills are still taught, along with guided walks with experts. The weekend themes include medieval builders, stained glass and carpentry. Two nights full board and tuition cost pounds 175 per person.

An exclusive tour of Chester's medieval city walls is included in the weekend breaks (of one to three nights) based at the luxury Chester Grosvenor; bed-and-breakfast costs pounds 65 per person per night.

Rose & Crown 01722 327908; Chester Grosvenor 01244 324024

STATELY HOMES AND GARDENS

Midweek English garden breaks are on offer at Charingworth Manor near Chipping Camden. The gardens visited are at Hidcote Manor, owned by The National Trust, Kiftsgate Court and Burnt Norton, which inspired one of T S Eliot's Four Quartets when he was staying at Charingworth, then a private house, in 1934. The cost is from pounds 330 per couple for two nights half board.

Visits to local castles and stately homes and gardens are among the summer breaks on the Historic Houses Hotels' programme. From Bodysgallen Hall in North Wales (pounds 86 per person per night, half board), you can choose Caernarfon or Penryn Castle, or some of Britain's finest gardens at Bodnant.

From Hartwell House in the Vale of Aylesbury - at one time the home of the exiled Louis XVIII of France - there's a choice of visits to Blenheim Palace, Waddesdon Manor or Woburn Abbey. The price of pounds 107 per person per night, half board, also includes the use of the hotel's spa health centre.

Charingworth Manor 01386 593555; Bodysgallen Hall 01492 584466; Hartwell House 01296 747444

HOME-BREWED CRAFTS

Some unusual weekend and week-long holidays are available from Acorn Activities in August and September. On a "Rural Surprises" weekend, for example, there is the opportunity to observe potters, glass-blowers and wood-carvers at work, as well as visits to the second-hand book mecca of Hay-on-Wye, and trips to sheep, cattle and small-breed farms, and to a family cider-making business. Travel is by minibus and the two nights' full-board break costs pounds 195, staying at a hotel in Llanrwst.

Hands-on experience with a variety of crafts, from brass-rubbing and silversmithing to water-colour painting and quilting, is included on a multi-activity crafts week based in Snowdonia. Sightseeing trips are also part of the package, which is hotel-based and costs pounds 450 half board.

Among more sporting holidays is a "Real Ale Trail" by horse through the the Brecon Beacons National Park. Riders stop off en route at inns, some of them dating back to the Middle Ages and all offering craftsman-brewed ales. Accommodation is in farmhouses, the cost pounds 535 for a week.

Acorn Activities 01432 830083

BATPERSONS WANTED

Volunteers are needed for conservation-work holidays throughout the summer, all over the UK. In August and September, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers is looking for helpers on the following projects: drystone walling in Exmoor; transforming a disused aerodrome once used by Battle of Britain pilots into a roosting site for bats; controlling scrub on Salisbury Plain; installing kissing gates and clearing reeds in the Scilly Isles; and strengthening sand dunes in Antrim, Northern Ireland.

No practical experience is needed for these tasks, but energy and enthusiasm are. Prices start (you do the paying) at pounds 15 for a weekend, pounds 28-pounds 65 for a week, depending on the type of accommodation. Food is provided.

The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers 01491 839766

NEXT WEEK: long-haul holidays

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