Make a break for Britain

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The school holidays are upon us, but if you're not joining the exodus abroad, there are still lots of enticing options closer to home

What's the attraction?

For the majority of families, the summer holidays begin this weekend, prompting a mass exodus from the UK. Two people every second are due to fly out from Heathrow on Sunday; in the next week, half a million people will pass through Manchester airport.

There are plenty of reasons why we choose to leave Britain over the summer: the lure of decent weather, perhaps, or the impressive package deals offered by countries such as Greece and Portugal, currently desperate for tourism income. (For some of the best late-availability offers, see our "Good to Go" round-up opposite.)

But financial concerns can provide just as good a reason to stay. Although summer breaks in the UK are often less cost-effective than package holidays abroad, the punishing euro exchange rate means the price of independent travel swiftly adds up.

Don't forget, too, the natural beauty of Britain, from the wilds of the Scottish Highlands to the alluring South Downs. Factor in the stress involved in 21st-century air travel and suddenly a family boating trip on the Norfolk Broads, or cottage in the Cotswolds, looks a perfect option.

Many of the best UK deals have been snapped up. However, while it often pays to book early, if you hold out long enough, you can often find yourself with a great deal by scooping up those holidays that the operators have not yet sold.

A home from home

Though you might argue over who does the shopping, cooking and washing-up, self-catering is the obvious place to turn to for a late deal. "Boutique" self-catering agent, Sheepskin (01865 764087; www.sheepskinlife.com), has plenty of August availability for the Music Mill, a decadently equipped property in the Peak District. The building sleeps six, and is claimed to be the first record-player needle factory in the UK. August rentals start at £1,653 per week.

Even in traditional honeypots such as Cornwall it's still possible to find a bargain. Carbis Bay Holidays (0800 012 2241; www.carbisbayholidays.co.uk), which advertises four and five-star cottages in and around St Ives, still has availability for late July and August rentals. If you book within a week of departure, the company is offering 25 per cent off published prices. At Chy Lowen, a glamorous beach house sleeping eight, this brings rates down to £1,950 per week or £244 per person.



Back to nature

If your brood like their camping with creature comforts, Featherdown Farms (01420 80804; www.featherdown.co.uk) is a popular option. The company sells stays under canvas on small farms across the UK, albeit with beds, wood-burning stoves and toilets. A halfway house between a cottage and camping, these tents book up quickly. However, there is still some availability this summer, including the site at Upper Shadymoor in Shropshire, where guests have access to lakes and a hot tub. A six-person tent costs £539 for a Monday to Friday stay in August (plus £5.99 per person for bed linen).

Another luxury option is available in leafy Suffolk: two neighbouring shepherd's huts, Rose and Apple, can be hired together to sleep a family of four. A steal at £398 per week in August, they're set in the village of Butley, within a pork scratching's throw of a family-friendly gastropub if you fancy getting someone else to do the cooking (01728 638962; www.bestofsuffolk.co.uk).



Brief encounter

If you don't have a whole week to spare, Swinton Park (01765 680900; www.swintonpark.com) is the kind of place that will kid you into feeling you've had longer away than you really have. It is set outside Masham, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. The homely hotel caters to discerning guests with gourmet menus, luxurious bedrooms and some of the country's most spectacular views, while also being family-friendly. A "Holiday Heaven" package is available during school holidays, where guests staying for three nights or more can pay from £250 per room per night, including dinner, bed and breakfast for adults and free meals and accommodation for children under 12. There is still availability for this on certain dates in July and August (Saturday nights are excluded from the offer).

For a more event-filled weekend, hit the festival scene. The Wilderness Festival, in Oxfordshire, celebrates the arts and outdoors from 12 to 14 August, with music from the likes of Gogol Bordello, feasts cooked up by Skye Gyngell and a wilderness spa with lakeside sauna. A programme of children's activities is also part of the festivities. Weekend tickets, including standard camping, cost £99.50 per adult and £49.50 per child, or £250 for a family of four ( www.wildernessfestival.com).



And... action

If you want to do more than just walk, or stay in a cottage, Lakeside YMCA (01539 539000 www.lakesideymca.co.uk) could be just the thing, offering five-day family or group activity breaks at the Outdoor Activity Centre, on the shores of Lake Windermere, from £180 per person in August. This includes full-board, kit and the chance to try a range of activities from archery and rock climbing to ghyll scrambling.

Of course, not everyone who takes their holidays in the summer has family with them. For a grown-up active break, head across the water to Northern Ireland, where NI Bootcamp has places left on its 7-13 August fitness bootcamp (028 4377 0900; www.nibootcamp.co.uk). Led by a young couple (he's an outdoors instructor, she's a nutritionist), visitors enjoy a week of outdoor activities in the Mourne mountains and surrounding forest, with an emphasis on pleasurable exercise, stunning scenery and fresh, healthy, tasty food. Camps cost £850 per person, including six nights' full-board accommodation, activities, a nutrition consultation, equipment and transfers.



Urban escape

As with many other European cities, British urban centres tend to quieten down in the school holidays, and there are bargains for those looking for a week spent visiting museums and watching shows.

One Fine Stay (0800 612 4377; www.onefinestay.com), for instance, matches travellers with carefully vetted out-of-town Londoners, so you get to base yourself in some very swanky homes for what is often much less than the price of a room at a boutique hotel. The company also provides some of the services of a hotel, such as a concierge. Still on its books for several weeks in August is a smart, two-bedroom family house in Wimbledon, from £176 per night. Other available London options in August include 4 First Street, a homely but luxurious B&B in Chelsea with just one double room costing £100 per night (01637 882012; www.uniquehomestays.com).

Beyond the capital, Base2Stay in Liverpool (0151 705 2626; www.base2stayliverpool.com) has availability for the first week in August with rates for a stylish double room with kitchenette costing from £59 per night.

A company called Further Afield lists a range of stylish gay and straight-friendly guesthouses, hotels and cottages across the country (07932 755515; www.furtherafield.com). Current urban listings with availability in August include 15 Glasgow, a boutique B&B in Scotland's second city, with doubles from £95 per night – a good solution for anyone wanting to avoid the scrum in the country's capital but to combine a day trip to the Edinburgh festivals with more general sightseeing.



What Google will tell you...

"When the sun shines in Scotland, it is the best place in the world to be. And although the Scottish climate is renowned for its variability, it is not nearly as rainy as you may think. Even if you get caught in the rain, you will see waterfalls and rivers come to life, and the mountains take on an atmospheric appearance, which can be very dramatic."

So says Wilderness Scotland (0131 625 6635; www.wildernessscotland.com), which runs a range of walking and adventure holidays in Scotland, including the 12-day John Muir Journey. The trip is self-guided, meaning that it can still be organised throughout the busier summer months, and takes in many of the places the great conservationist visited on his return to Scotland from America, including the Cairngorms and some of the country's other wild spaces. The trip costs £1,345 per person, including B&B accommodation and detailed maps and route notes.



What Google won't tell you... until now

The best way to get a late deal these days is often on Twitter, says Greg Stevenson, founder of specialist rentals company Under The Thatch: "We've noticed the squeeze seems to be in the mid-range price bracket – our most expensive properties are all fully booked, and the late deals always get takers. Our typical guests are the ones who are really feeling the pinch at the moment". In response, the company frequently offers special discounts on available properties, sometimes through newsletters but largely now through Twitter. The late-availability page on its website is always worth checking for offers, too. Current offers include four nights in mid August at Blaen-y-Buarth, a cosy cottage in Snowdonia that sleeps six, for £584 (0844 500 5101; www.underthethatch.co.uk).

Who said that?

"I realised what it was that I loved about Britain – which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad – Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying 'mustn't grumble' and 'I'm terribly sorry but'; people apologising to me when I conk them with a nameless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays – every bit of it." Bill Bryson, from 'Notes from a Small Island'

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