It turned out to be our lucky duck. After a nerve-jangling five-minute slalom down a challenging stream-based course, number 23 beat a chasing flotilla of 30 or so yellow plastic bath toys to clinch first prize in the Deerpark Duck Race. As a result, and much to the annoyance of his older brother, our three-year-old son (whose duck it was) became the triumphant recipient of a set of small binoculars, which he promptly looked through the wrong end of, remarking as he did so at the tininess of his own feet.
Once the last of the competitors had been scooped up from the water in a gigantic fishing net, Martin, our Forest Holidays ranger, urged the assembled audience of families to sign up for one or more of the various other activities on offer during the week, which ranged from night-vision walks to pond-dipping. We opted for the next morning's "The Forest Awakes" stroll (£15 for a family of four), which started at a relatively civilised 8am. I rather suspected the forest would be long awake and possibly even enjoying a hearty breakfast by then, but Martin seemed to know what he was doing, and I wasn't going to argue with a man who'd just given my family gold-medal status.
In fact, Forest Holidays' Deerpark cabin site, near Liskeard in south-east Cornwall, is the sort of place where Mother Nature probably does take her time getting on with the business of the day. The site is designed around relaxation and ease of use, where the grubbier side of the great outdoors is tidied up and tucked away out of sight, along with the gumboots and empty wine bottles.
The site consists of 45 self-catering wooden cabins set on Forestry Commission land, all of which cluster around a pond and an old gunpowder mill. Ours was – appropriately enough given our later success at the stream – a "Golden Oak" cabin, which meant that it came with towels and an impressive view of the water. An asphalted road ran from the reception building over a tiny bridge, and we parked at the top of our own set of wooden steps leading down to the pond. This, we soon discovered, was stuffed with massive carp, most of which immediately bubbled upwards from the depths and demanded to be fed. Luckily for them it was all taken care off: fish food cost 40p a bag from reception.
Inside, our cabin was a plush affair. A double-height glass-walled sitting room boasted a DVD player and a TV, and shared the open-plan ground-floor area with a fully tooled-up kitchen, dishwasher included. Two bedrooms were tucked neatly into the eaves of the roof, a third was on the ground floor, and everything – apart from the smart black-tiled bathrooms – was decked out with Scandinavian-rustic fixtures and fittings. The boys even found a tiny den tucked away at the back of their room, into which they unpacked all their Lego.
Golden Oak cabins also come with a hot-tub set out on the wooden veranda, which seemed a little at odds with our low-tech view of the surrounding forest, but which the children thought was amazing, especially when they discovered how to make the underwater lights come on.
We got to know the neighbourhood. The old powder mill served as a focus, with a laundry and a sort of chaotic schoolroom, where we met Martin the next day. First, he sorted some moths he'd trapped during the night, using a strange lightbulb-and-Tupperware contraption (some very rare ones apparently, but moths just look like moths to me) and then he led us round a short loop of the forest, which was gently dripping in the rain. Everything felt very wet and green, and there was a fantastic stillness about the place, broken only by Martin quietly pointing out the medicinal value of this or that flower or plant. The huge pines, he told us, would probably never be chopped down; they stood impossibly straight, tapering upwards to the sky.
The Forestry Commission plants its trees in regimented lines – this is nature as man intended, not red in tooth and claw – but as a quiet introduction to Cornwall's lush landscape, it's perfect. We hired mountain bikes from reception and pootled along the low-gradient forest paths for a while, admiring ferns, a trickling stream, a small and picturesque bridge. That evening, as bats and swifts began zipping across the millpond, we decided to have a barbecue. The site regulations stipulated that guests weren't allowed to use their own charcoal-burning equipment, so one was set up for us on the balcony, ready to light, while we went out for a walk. Sometimes, just sometimes, regulations rock.
There are regulations of a rather different sort at Cornish Tipi Holidays, 25 miles north-west of Deerpark, just inland from the tiny beach of Port Isaac on the north coast. Here, fire-lighting is actively encouraged (in a keeping warm, rather than pyromaniacal sort of way) but cars must remain parked outside, other than for loading and unloading purposes. There's a shower block and mains water available, but no fripperies such as electricity, which means that DVD players and dishwashers are a bit thin on the ground.
Nevertheless, making the transition from luxury log cabin to tipi was surprisingly easy. I'd always fancied staying in a wigwam, perhaps as part of a residual – and no doubt faintly recidivist – yearning to play Cowboys and Indians. Ours was a private plot, hidden behind thickets of brambles, and the owners had helped matters along by decking out the inside of our tipi with ethnic rugs, sleeping mats, crockery, pots and pans and a Calor gas stove for cooking. And matches.
Matches? Time for that fire, then. Not only do the tipis not come with a hot tub, but you have to chop your own wood if you want to stay warm in the evening. According to Elizabeth Tom, who founded the site 11 years ago with only two tipis (there are now around 40, arranged singly, in pairs, or in larger numbers on the "Village Green"), all the dads love chopping wood. "You instinctively know that you're living at a much more basic level," she said. "It puts you back in the loop. After all, most people in the world live like this all the time. It exposes something fundamental in all of us."
The fundamental thing it exposed in me was that I wasn't very good at it, but that didn't stop my sons from watching in awe as their father chipped, nicked and cursed through the log-pile. Luckily, we were on a private site, which meant that no other dads witnessed my subsequent pathetic attempts to ignite a damp copy of The Guardian (supplied). Eventually, I admitted defeat and walked down the hill to admire the raging inferno created by our neighbours, who immediately offered me a couple of firelighters and some dry kindling. They were on a return visit, and kindly insisted that there was no shame in my failure: "The wood's so damp this year, it needs a bit of assistance." I added my nice crisp copy of The Independent to the mix (all the burning issues of the day) and then went nuclear with the airbed pump. Bingo.
Cornwall's riches once lay buried: minerals, metals and stone. Now the county thrives on tourism, but the remnants of its industrial and mining heritage live on. Just as Deerpark is centred around an old gunpowder mill, so the tipis ring Tregildrans quarry, which was worked until the late 1950s and which is now flooded – and fenced off to deter wandering children.
A rowing boat and a couple of canoes were available, along with lifejackets, and we spent a gentle hour paddling the lake and watching dragonflies flit and zip. The natural world seemed very close: by day the boys fished unsuccessfully for minnows in the stream while birds of prey patrolled overhead; in the evening, toads glistened at the roadside as we traipsed to the shower block to brush our teeth; at night we heard dormice scurrying around outside as we fell soundly asleep in our moonlit tipi.
This slice of Cornwall bulges with child-friendly things to do, from the biome domes of the Eden Project in the south, to the packed-out sands of Daymer Bay close to Padstow on the north coast. From our log cabin at Deerpark, we bought ice creams in the tiny seaside village of Polperro and visited Carnglaze Caverns – an old slate mine with "fairy garden" attached – on Bodmin Moor. From our tipi we ventured to the ruins of Tintagel castle and paddled at Port Isaac.
Most exhilarating, if less child-friendly, was our trip to Trebarwith Strand at high tide (we'd gone for the rock pools but had got our timings wrong). Huge waves battered the tiny bay; the rocks of the shoreline loomed brutal and black. Duck number 23 wouldn't have stood a chance.
Forest Holidays (0845 130 8223; www.forestholidays.co.uk) offers a four-night mid-week stay in a three-bedroom "Golden Oak" cabin for £274 at the Deerpark Forest cabin site near Liskeard. A three-night weekend stay costs £325.
Cornish Tipi Holidays (01208 880 781; www.cornishtipiholidays.co.uk) at Pendoggett, near St Kew, offers a week in a large tipi for £435 in low season (30 August-1 November) and £555 in high season (12 July-30 August). There is an additional charge of £35 per person aged four and over, with a maximum of six people sharing a large tipi. Private sites incur an extra charge of £100 in the high season.
The Eden Project (01726 811 972; www.edenproject.com) at Bodelva, near St Austell, is open 10am to 6pm daily. Until 4 September, opening hours are extended to 8pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. A family ticket costs £36 for two adults and up to three children.
Carnglaze Caverns (01579 320 251; www.carnglaze.com) at St Neot, near Liskeard, is open 10am-5pm Mon-Sat (and until 8pm in August). A family ticket costs £17.50 for two adults and two children.
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