The Complete Guide To: Great British days out

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The summer holidays are here – the best of times for people who prefer to pick and mix their lazy, hazy days. From sandy coves to stately homes, the sky's the limit, says Harriet O'Brien

Best of British

Ancient castles, glorious gardens, serene rivers, great galleries – what a wealth Britain offers. Summer 2008 could be the time for what the Americans call a "staycation" – a stay-at-home vacation – offering the happy opportunity of doing day trips. From thousands of options on offer across Britain, we've selected some great family excursions, plus days out with a little tranquillity.



A cliffhanger...

For a spectacular stretch of coast, head for the Seven Sisters Country Park, on the edge of the South Downs (01323 870280; www.seven-sisters.org.uk). Situated between Eastbourne and Seaford, the parkland extends over salt marshes, chalk uplands, and the lovely Cuckmere Estuary, and it also features the astonishingly bright-white Seven Sisters cliffs. Beside them is Cuckmere Haven Beach, a pebbly expanse that does require a little energy to reach down a pretty footpath, but is worth it. The car park is, charmingly, located on a working farm, while adjacent is a visitor centre in an 18th-century barn (open daily in summer, 10.30am-4.30pm).

Further west, along the shores of Dorset and south-east Devon, the Jurassic Coast is so called because of its amazing fossil sites and geological features dating back some 185 million years. One of the best beaches for both scenery and fossil finds is at Dorset's pretty village of Charmouth. This broad sweep of shingle lies beside cliffs that are eroding fairly rapidly, so "new" fossils are constantly being exposed. There's a well-equipped visitor centre on Charmouth's seafront, with fossil exhibits and hands-on displays, and you can get information on local fossil hunting (open daily in summer, 10.30am-4.30pm; 01297 560772; www.charmouth.org).



Take me to sandy shores

Barafundle Bay, in Pembrokeshire, claims to be Britain's most beautiful beach – with some justification. This stunning shoreline lies between limestone cliffs and is backed by dunes and woods, within the National Trust's Stackpole Estate (www.nationaltrust.org.uk). The beach is secluded, accessed down steep steps from a footpath that runs along the cliffs from the little harbour town of Stackpole Quay.

In Scotland, there's a great combination of golden sands and local action at the cheerful little town of Elie in Fife. The beach fronts the town bay and, at low tide, links with neighbouring Earlsferry beach, presenting a good mile of uninterrupted shoreline. There are great coastal walks from here, and you can sometimes spot dolphins and seals in the sea. For refreshment, Elie's waterfront Ship Inn (01333 330 246; www.ship-elie.com) offers good no-nonsense dishes such as haddock and chips (£9), and organises beach cricket matches – the next fixture is tomorrow afternoon.



I'd like to go green

Limit your carbon footprint by taking a day out by train to the New Forest (023 8028 2269; www.thenewforest.co.uk). Opposite Brockenhurst station you'll find New Forest Cycle Hire (01590 623407; >www. newforestcyclehire.co.uk; open 9.30am-5.30pm), which will rent you a bike for the day and advise on routes (with pub stop-offs). From Tuesday to Thursday next week (29-31 July), the New Forest & Hampshire County Show takes place near Brockenhurst, featuring such events as a Shetland Pony Grand National, and ferret and terrier racing alongside livestock competitions and exhibitions. Come by train to Brockenhurst and then take the show's shuttle bus to the park. Tickets on the day are £15 per adult, £7 per child, but there's a reduction if you buy online: www. newforestshow.co.uk.

The Eden Project in Cornwall (01726 811 911; www.edenproject.com) has revived the centre of the county – and shown how an exhausted china clay pit can be transformed into a fascinating and enlightening tourist attraction. In a series of biomes –including the biggest greenhouse in the world – you learn about the diversity and fragility of plants. Until 4 September it opens 10am-8pm from Tuesday to Thursday, to 6pm on other days; adults £15, children £5, or less if you arrive after 4.30pm on the days it's open to 8pm.

For more activity, head to Bewilderwood adventure park, near Wroxham in Norfolk (01603 783900; www.bewilderwood.co.uk; open daily 10am-5.30pm; ages five-59 £10, three-four £5, over 60 £7.50). It is brilliantly designed, with treehouses, jungle walkways and marshes, using sustainable wood and other planet-friendly materials. The beach and nature reserve at Holkham on the north Norfolk coast are close enough to be included in a day trip.

A green giant of a theme park lies at the south end of Snowdonia national park: the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth (01654 705950; www.cat.org.uk; open daily 10am-5.30pm; adults £8.50; children £4.20). The inventive contents include the vertiginous water-balanced cliff railway that lifts you from valley level up to the centre.



Gardens of earthly delight

Follow in Gordon Brown's footsteps and head to Suffolk this summer. One of the country's finest gardens lies near the coast between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. The extensive grounds of Somerleyton Hall (01502 734901; www.somerley-ton.co.uk) feature splendid herbaceous borders along with a maze, devised and planted in 1846. See also the ornate glasshouse designed by Joseph Paxton, a two-acre walled garden with figs and climbing hydrangeas, and a dreamy tree-filled garden featuring giant redwood.u

Summer opening times are Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday, 10am to 5pm. The Italianate Somerleyton Hall itself is well worth a visit, too, and is open on the same days from 11.30am to 4pm (gardens – adults £5, children £3; hall and gardens – adults £8.25, children £4.25).

In south-west London, there's a treat in store at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (020-8332 5655; www.kew.org; summer opening weekdays 9.30am-6.30pm; weekends 9.30am-7.30pm; adults £13; no charge for children under 17, but they must be accompanied by an adult). This summer a great new attraction has opened: the Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway. You start your visit by entering in a submerged chamber, where you learn about root structures; you then proceed up to canopy platforms running along the tops of sweet chestnut, lime and oak trees. The views of London's skyline are breathtaking, while the walkway offers the chance to see life among the leaves.



And when it's raining?

Make for one of the country's many galleries and museums. Among those with particular appeal to families, two especially stand out. At Sudbury Hall (01283 585305; www. nationaltrust.org.uk), near Ashbourne in Derbyshire, the National Trust Museum of Childhood recently reopened after a three-year, £2.2m refurbishment. Situated in the 19th-century servants' wing of this splendid 1660s country mansion, the museum gently presents a history of childhood over the last 200 years, and offers chimney climbs for would-be sweeps, a Victorian schoolroom, interactive displays, and toy collections, brought right up to date with a doll modelled on the Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra. Sudbury Hall itself – the setting for the BBC's Pride and Prejudice – is well worth visiting for its wood-carvings by Grinling Gibbons and its sumptuous Long Gallery. Until September, the museum opens 11am-5pm daily; the hall is open 1-5pm Wednesday to Sunday. Museum: adults £6.48; children £3.78; joint ticket for museum and hall – adults £11.25; children £5.85).

The Imperial War Museum Duxford (01223 835000; www.iwm.org. uk) won gold in the Enjoy England Awards for Excellence. Developed since the late 1970s in Duxford Aerodrome near Cambridge, the museum includes an AirSpace hangar that opened last year (housing helicopters, bombers and even a Concorde). The museum is open daily from 10am to 6pm; adults £16, children under 15 free. Forthcoming events include the Duxford Air Show on 6 and 7 September.



Where can I get muddy?

Given the damp summer, there should be no shortage of mud, glorious mud, and there's no finer place to exercise your wellies than the National Wetlands Centre near Llanelli in Carmarthenshire (01554 741087; www.wwt.org.uk; daily 9.30am-5pm; adults £6.95; children £3.85). Part of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, this 450-acre reserve is made up of salt marsh and mudflats that are home to a terrific variety of birds, from mute swans and tufted ducks to little egrets. There's even a flamingo house here. If it starts raining too hard, take refuge in the lakeside Observatory or the interactive Discovery Centre. The seventh annual National Mud Festival of Wales will be held here on 6 and 7 September; join mud safaris, look at mud sculptures, and try some competitive wellie throwing.

Further north, Northumberland's Kielder Forest is home both to England's largest forest and its biggest area of blanket bog. The reserve is run by the Forestry Commission which has an excellent visitor centre at Kielder Castle, built in 1775 as the hunting lodge for the Duke of Northumberland (01434 250209; www.forestry.gov.uk; open 10am-5pm daily; free entry, although there is a car-parking fee of £3). It houses displays about the surrounding landscape and its wildlife – otters, goshawks and red squirrels. From the centre there are plenty of walking trails, including a fairly challenging hike to the summit of Deadwater Fell, which straddles the border of England and Scotland.

Go Ape! is a woodland franchise that extends across England and Scotland, but to sample the two longest zip wires in the UK you should head for the Scottish site at Aberfoyle in Stirlingshire. After being kitted out with safety gear and instructed on the fine art of leaping from tree to tree, you are free to take on an assault course in a spectacular setting. It opens 9am-5pm daily until the end of October; adults £25, 10-17-year-olds £20.



Or be a knight in shining armour?

This summer, English Heritage is offering a range of chivalric events – from "Knight School" to medieval storytelling – at many of its castle properties. Scarborough Castle, for example, is staging a Medieval Siege this weekend (adults £5; children £2.50), complete with horse-mounted knights and medieval music. Next week, Monday to Thursday, and subsequent weeks until 21 August, you and your children can attend Knight and Princess School here, learning the arts of courtly etiquette while suitably clad in armour for boys, and long dresses and hennins for girls (adults £4; children £2). Built in the 12th-century by Henry II, the castle is spectacularly positioned on a headland about a mile east of Scarborough, and offers panoramic viewing battlements as well as interactive displays in its visitor centre (01723 372451; www.english-heritage.org.uk; daily 10am-6pm; adults £4, children £2).

In Kent, Leeds Castle, near Maidstone, is an impressive complex set on two islands on the river Len (01622 765 400; www.leedscastle. com). Its summer programme includes a wildlife weekend on 2 and 3 August – with stalls beside the castle's aviary – and a jousting tournament on 6 and 7 September. Open 10am-7pm daily in summer for the grounds; 10.30am-6pm for the castle; adults £15; children £9.50.

Scotland: The brave

One of the country's oldest inhabited castles is Traquair – six miles from Peebles, and an easy day-trip from Edinburgh (01896 830323; www.traquair.co.uk) . Set in magnificent wooded grounds, with lawns where peacocks roam, it is packed with history and charm: see the bed of Mary Queen of Scots slept, the secret stairwells used by Catholic priests and the illuminated books in the library. Open daily 10am-5pm; adults £6.50; children £3.50.

Britain's most evocative battlefield is Culloden, where a new visitor centre opened last December. It tells the story of how the Jacobite cause was lost in just an hour, and how the English subsequently dismantled Highland society. The National Trust for Scotland site opens 9am-6pm daily until the end of October; adults £10, children £7.50.

Some white-knuckle fun?

There's a staggering choice of hair-raising rides at Alton Towers, near Stoke-on-Trent (0870 520 4060; www.altontowers.com). Roller coasters include the Nemesis, which swoops and twists you through a post-apocalyptic landscape. New this year is Mutiny Bay, a series of pirate-themed rides. Opening times (until 1 September) are 10am-7pm daily (adults £35; children aged four-11 £26; discounts if you book online).

Near Motherwell, in Strathclyde, M&D's Theme Park (01698 333 777; www.scotlandsthemepark.com) offers more than 40 attractions, from the Tornado roller coaster, with its 360-degree loops, to a catapulting bungee ride. Peak summer opening times are 11am-8pm daily. For those over 1.35m tall, an unlimited-ride wristband costs £15.45, for those under £11.45.

In Surrey, Thorpe Park (0870 444 4466; www.thorpe park. com) presents Stealth, which is billed as Europe's fastest roller coaster and accellerates from 0-80mph in two seconds. Other attractions include the Logger's Leap water flume, and Time Voyagers, a new 4-D movie ride. Thorpe Park opens 9.30am-6pm daily (to 8pm from 3 to 31 August); adults £33; children £21.



Urban adventure?

The greatest concentration of interest is arguably at Albert Dock in Liverpool, a Unesco World Heritage Site now at the heart of the European Capital of Culture (0151 707 0729; www.albertdock.com). Key attractions include Tate Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the International Slavery Museum – plus the newly expanded Beatles Story.

****

Messing about in boats

Pottering around on a riverboat is a wonderfully British activity: "Nothing really seems to matter, that's the charm of it ... whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else" said Kenneth Grahame's Ratty about such activities. And there is nowhere more apposite to do so than the Thames. Evoke Ratty in Wind in the Willows or Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat by heading to Henley-on-Thames (below) and hiring your own watercraft.

Hobbs of Henley (01491 572 035; www.hobbs-of-henley) has a fleet of rowing boats (three-seaters £40 per day or £10 per hour; five-seaters £50 per day or £13 per hour) and also offers self-drive motor launches. Or make for Lechlade in the Cotswolds, the highest navigable town of the Thames. By St John's Lock, just east of the town, you can rent a rowing boat from Cotswold Boat Hire (01793 727083; www.cotswoldboat.co.uk; from £12 per hour or £30 for three hours). The company operates from the lawn of the Trout Inn (www.thetroutinn.com) where live jazz is played on Tuesday and Sunday evenings.

Or try your hand at punting. Cambridge has the edge over Oxford as a venue for such a venture in that you can choose between town and country, poling yourself in a leisurely fashion up to Grantchester or taking a scenic city trip along the Cam passing the backs variously of King's, Claire, Trinity, St John's and Magdalene colleges.

Scudamore's (established in 1910; 01223 359 750; www.scudamores.com) rents out punts for all-day Grantchester trips (£80 weekdays; £90 weekends) from its Mill Lane boatyard; and those for city trips (hourly rate £16 weekdays; £18 weekends) from Mill Lane, Magdalene Bridge and Jesus Green.

*****

Treat yourself

For a day out with style, sophistication and a superb setting, make for Lucknam Park Hotel (right) near Bath (01225 742777; www.lucknam park.co.uk). This Palladian mansion is set in extensive parkland of some 500 acres, and has a Michelin-starred restaurant serving excellent-value midweek lunches – £30 for three courses.

Or for a day of complete tranquillity there's Cowley Manor, near Cheltenham (01242 870900; www.cowley manor.com). This chic and funky country-house hotel has recently started offering day spa services. A £105 package includes a one-hour treatment, use of all the spa facilities, and a two-course lunch from the spa menu. You are also welcome to wander round the beautifully landscaped grounds.

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