Festive Escapes: Five Ways to Enjoy an Alternative Xmas

Let’s be honest – Christmas isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. It’s the most stressful, expensive, noisy time of the year, and it’s cold, too. While there are some people who love nothing more than carol singing, gift giving and wearing festive jumpers – for the rest of us, getting into the Christmas spirit means opening up a bottle of gin.

If you’re already dreading the manic shopping, the office parties and the tense family dinners, you are not alone. Thousands of Brits head for sunnier climes over the Christmas break, choosing to shun tradition and do Christmas their way. But you don’t need to spend a small fortune and travel hundreds of miles just to escape the hustle and hype of the run up to December 25th. Instead, why not give yourself a little breather by taking a couple of days to just chill out and enjoy the holiday season your way.

1. Retreat to the country

St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides: a scenic Xmas escape

It’s not that people don’t celebrate Christmas in the countryside – it’s just that you don’t have to deal with the glaring lights and tacky store window displays when you leave the city centre. Find somewhere nice and remote that’s well away from the lights of the city, and treat yourself to a bit of good old fashioned peace and quiet.

To guarantee tranquillity, choose an area which boasts dark skies, for instance the South Downs or the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. In the far north of Scotland, you can even see the Northern Lights at this time of year.

At night, you can sit outside your rural cottage and drink in the silence while you gaze up at the stars and contemplate the vast emptiness of space and time. Not a sleigh bell or reindeer in sight.

2. Hit the water

Lose yourself in the Lakes

When you really need to get away from it all, there’s no better cure than a night or two at sea. If you can sail, hire a yacht or a boat and head out to sea until you can no longer see the twinkling of the Christmas lights along the coast.

If you can’t sail, simply enjoy the tranquillity of the water from the comfort of the shores. Find a nice big lake or a quiet bay – the sort of place where you can’t see an end to the horizon. That’s better, isn’t it? Treat yourself to a nice fish supper and your seaside retreat is complete.

3. Just stay in

Enjoy a holiday hideaway

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. If you hate Christmas, and Christmas seems to be everywhere, just stay inside. No one’s forcing you to put on the Christmas telly, and you don’t have to have mince pies with every meal. Your house, your rules.

Except sometimes it isn’t quite that simple – whether it’s the bulb-tastic display on the house across the street glaring through your bedroom window and keeping you up at night; or the festive fervour of your flatmates or family – sometimes you need to take a break in a home away from home. Hire a holiday cottage or house so you can simply bed in, veg out and luxuriate in your indoor haven.

4. Catch up on your culture

Soak up some culture

While everyone else is off at the school nativity or carol singing in the town square, you could be off getting some real culture in your life. It’s the start of the Hollywood award season, so all the best movies of the year are being released at the moment. Treat yourself to a double bill at the local cinema; for extra Scrooge points, choose a horror flick or a psychological thriller.

Or you could spend the long dark evenings getting stuck into a good book – Wolf Hall should see you through December, and it’s a decidedly non-festive read.

There isn’t much on at the theatre at this time of year – aside from the local panto of course – but you could catch an experimental student production at a local college or uni as the end of term approaches. Oh yes you could.

5. Reach new heights

Put some perspective on Christmas

Take a tip from the Grinch: he moved to a cave on top of a mountain just to get away from the Christmas obsessed residents of Whoville.

There is nothing better than a mountaintop when you just need to be alone. The climb up is reassuringly tough, the air is clean and fresh, and the view from the top puts everything into perspective. Where better to indulge in a picnic, take in your surroundings and scream into the wind? Go on, scream away – it’s just you and the mountain – anything goes. You can even belt out a few verses of your favourite/least-hated Christmas carol if you like… we won’t tell.

Find a host of holiday hideaways with cottages4you

9 Perfect Ways to Unwind this Winter

The summer months may be behind us, but there’s a whole host of exciting activities and events for you to enjoy this winter. Whether you’re holidaying in a favourite corner of the UK or looking for new and exciting events nearer home, our fair isle has plenty on offer to keep you and the family busy over the winter months, whatever the weather. Click on the first image to start the tour.

 

Autumn After Dark – a UK entertainment guide

New Year's Eve Fireworks

London lights up in November

As the nights begin to draw in, and a distinctive British chill returns to the air, it’s easy to lament the passing of those long, hazy days spent outdoors in shorts or summer dresses. It often feels like there’s nothing left to do until next year but hibernate, coming out only to celebrate those precious fun filled weeks over Christmas.But fear not! Your summer clothes may be packed away, but the UK is chock full of activities, locations and adventures up and down the country that will help you to enjoy the evenings that are closing in.
Enchanted Forest – Faskally Wood, Pitlochry
3rd – 26th OctoberWhat better way to take advantage of the early darkness than enjoying one of the UK’s most spectacular sound and light shows! Put one every year as autumn unfolds, each event has a different theme that is then explored through choreographed sound and light effects, which unfold as you work your way through the forest. This year’s theme is Elemental, and is all about getting back to nature through the enjoyment of the elements. While the weather is usually an uncontrollable aspect of the show, this year you can expect to be wowed by elemental effects.

The natural backdrop of the forest will be set off by amazing visuals and beautiful design, accompanied by an original music score written specially for the event. You can also expect to be delighted by aerial performance artists defying gravity in the tree tops, and an enchanted story telling yurt. The outdoor catering team also ensures you won’t go hungry, and you can enjoy a hot chocolate or a mulled wine to keep you cosy as you wonder around on a frosty evening.

It’s recommended that you allow between 60 – 90 minuets to fully appreciate the event, and you may want to go around more than once to make sure you catch everything! The show is fantastic for children, although you may struggle to get around the forest path with large buggies.

Illuminating York – York city centre
29th October – 1st November

On a similar theme, you can also brighten up your autumn nights with a visit to York’s annual light festival, Illuminating York. Named as one of the Guardian’s top ten European light festivals, it’s one of the city’s biggest annual events and is not to be missed. Having begun nine years ago, York have been wowing visitors with stunning illuminated art for nearly a decade. With specially commissioned digital art being projected onto various historic buildings, you get to appreciate York’s beautiful architecture as well as seeing some great works of art. Using the latest technology available, 12 pieces of illuminating artwork will be displayed across the city centre.

The main attraction is to be Hidden Worlds, which is being projected onto the York Crown Court Building. Using 3D projection-mapped animation, the art work explores the microscopic and the unconscious. There are also various supporting events and other local attractions that can be taken advantage of while visiting the city, including several tours and trails, so you can enjoy the event over several evenings. Also new for this year is the opportunity to travel further afield to witness the Castle Howard bathed in light.

Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations – Lewes, East Sussex
5th November

The biggest and best known bonfire night celebrations in the UK have been taking place in Lewes for hundreds of years. Almost always a riotous affair, the event sees six local bonfire societies joining forces with visiting groups. Marching bands also travel to take part in revelries, and the occasion is always marked by costumes and parades, along with a tradition of carrying 17 burning crosses through town. The evening peaks with huge bonfires on the surrounding hills, and spectacular firework displays. As the carnival-like evening can be pretty boisterous, it’s not recommended that you take young children.

Lord Mayor’s Show – London
8th November

While occurring very close to bonfire night, this event comes from a completely different tradition – since the year 1215, the city mayor was expected to travel upriver to Westminster, in order to swear loyalty to the king. What started out as a duty became a major celebration, and now the event sees a flotilla sailing up the Thames, followed by a street procession and a massive firework display. The show takes up a whole day, with the flotilla beginning as early as 8.30 am the procession following at 11 am, and the fireworks taking place at 5.30 pm. It’s a fun and exciting day out for all the family.

So there you have it – you don’t have to stay at home forlornly just because it’s getting dark! Instead, take advantage of the early evenings and experience some of the great night-time events that are happening up and down the country.

Cottage of the Week – Skene House Cottage

A695869

Skene House Cottage. Property ref: 29020

Not only does this unique holiday property form an annexe of the stunning Skene Castle (a privately owned property in peaceful seclusion, west of Aberdeen) but it’s also part of the cottages4you Green Scheme, which promotes properties that offer environmentally friendly features!

We’ve established our Green Cottages scheme by identifying holiday cottages where the owners have taken extra steps to be kinder to the environment whilst remaining completely warm and comfortable. This includes looking at the impact on the environment of each cottage with regards to energy, pollution, information, water, wildlife and landscape. Property owners may also provide information about local facilities and car-free days out whilst we provide practical advice on how to make small improvements for a greener future.

We think you’ll agree that whilst Skene House offers a wonderfully ‘green’ holiday experience, no compromises have been made in offering complete comfort, warmth and relaxation for holidaymakers. Of course, the best way would be to find out for yourself! Find more info and make a booking on the property listing on cottages4you. Find more info on The Green Scheme.

Cottage of the Week – Phil’s House, Lairg

Perfect for pets and people, Phil’s House (ref SUUR) is an architect designed, eco-friendly, single-storey house on an elevated position with panoramic views over the village of Lairg in the Highlands, waters of the Loch Shin and towards the hills beyond. Sleeps 6 and 3 pets. Check out customer comments and find more info on the property listing.

The UK’s Best Ice Cream Parlours

Three ice cream cones

Maybe you’d prefer Cotton Candy and Bubblegum flavours…

We’d eat ice cream every day of the year if we could, but July gives us the best excuse to – it’s National Ice Cream Month! The tradition was started in 1984 in the United States by the President at the time, Ronald Reagan. With temperatures soaring across the UK, what better time to take advantage of some of the incredible ice cream on offer? The UK is home to some of the world’s best ice cream, and here are five places to sample the best…

The Pudding House, Lancashire.

Wallings Farm is located in Cockerham, just outside Lancaster. The ice cream parlour is extremely popular with the locals, so be prepared to queue – especially if it’s a nice day. It’s positioned in beautiful countryside, with alpacas grazing in the adjoining fields. The perfect location for enjoying your ice cream! The parlour is situated at the front of the Pudding House café, and stocks a huge range of around 40 flavours. Traditional flavours are available, but what really sets Pudding House apart as one of the best is their incredible range of unique, innovative ice creams. The Lemon Meringue Pie flavour is a popular choice, with real meringue pieces nestled between delicious lemon ice cream and ripples of lemon curd. Alternatively, if you’re feeling festive, why not try their Christmas pudding flavour? With delicious ice cream, generous serving sizes and an idyllic setting, you won’t be left disappointed after a visit to Lancashire’s most loved ice cream parlour and farm.

Billy Bob’s Parlour, North Yorkshire.

Finding an ice cream parlour in the Yorkshire Dales can be a difficult task, as there are so many to choose from. Billy Bob’s parlour, situated just outside the beautiful town of Skipton, is a popular choice with locals and tourists alike. The parlour boasts a fantastic 30 flavours, with something on offer for everybody. Traditional flavours, such as Vanilla and Strawberry, compete against some more extravagant choices, like the Cotton Candy and Bubblegum flavours. As well as the tasty ice cream, Billy Bob also serves a full range of delicious fast food, from burgers and hot dogs, to pancakes and waffles. An excellent choice if you’re travelling with children, the parlour also boasts an outdoor play area as well as an indoor play barn. No matter what the weather, Billy Bob’s ice cream parlour is a fun day out for the entire family. Plus, when you’re finished, you can continue your adventures in the Yorkshire Dales.

Aplin’s Farm, Devon.

Otter Valley Dairy in Devon have won numerous awards, and it’s not hard to see why. The small, family-run business has been around for four generations, refining their range of ice cream to create new, mouthwatering flavours. There are 21 flavours to choose from, including Rhubarb and Ginger, Cream Tea, and Devon Rice Pudding with Raspberry Jam, as well as four varieties of sorbet for those looking for something a little different. The ice creams are made in house, using milk from their own herd of cows, and the recipe is based upon Italian Gelato. Off the beaten track, Otter Valley Dairy can be difficult to find but a visit is worth the trip. Tucked into the breath-taking valley, the summerhouse offers fantastic views of the Devon countryside. If the weather permits, you can enjoy your ice cream outdoors in the designated picnic area, beside the very same cows that helped to create the wonderful ice cream.

Broughty Ferry, Scotland

Visocchi’s Café, in Broughty Ferry, has recently been awarded the title of the best ice cream in Scotland. Located just outside Dundee, the café specialises in two Italian delights: pizza and ice cream. All handmade at the premises, their ice creams attract huge crowds during the summer. Exceptionally creamy, and with inventive flavours, you get luxury ice cream at affordable prices. Broughty Ferry itself is located on the Firth of Tay. It’s a historic river town, with plenty to see and do, including Sandy Beach and its Esplanade, Barnhill Rock Gardens, and Broughty Ferry Castle.

Blaze Farm, Peak District.

Blaze Farm boasts the best ice cream in the Peak District. The ice cream is well known, having won several awards, and is all made on site using milk from its own herd of dairy cows. With an impressive range of flavours, you can choose from traditional varieties or the more inventive, such as the Turkish Delight with White Chocolate Chip. In addition to the amazing ice cream on offer, Blaze Farm has nature trails that can be enjoyed by the whole family. With plenty of wildlife and incredible countryside views, it’s not to be missed! If you visit in the springtime, you may even get to watch the lambing take place on the farm. There’s lots of interactive fun for the children, too, with cows milked daily in the parlour. There’s no admission fee for the farm, so it’s the perfect family day out for those on a tight budget.

Celebrate National Picnic Week! 

iStock_000012304156MediumPICNIC

In a world where we live our lives increasingly indoors, and where families eat together far less often than they used to, picnics offer the perfect chance to come together and enjoy some al fresco food and drink as well as each other’s company.

It’s also a great bonding opportunity away from the distractions of home and work. Even if the weather isn’t at its best, it can still be a hugely enjoyable and beneficial experience. Equally, if you have a large extended family and not that much space indoors, or if you don’t have a big garden, a picnic can be one of the best ways of relishing being outside spaces.

Taking place this year from June 16-22, National Picnic Week aims to give families the ideal chance to come together over an outdoor meal, with tips, advice, recipes and other information, so that you enjoy the perfect picnic. It encourages people to get outside and find great local al fresco dining sites, and the event has grown hugely over the decade it’s been around.

That’s because, while it may be a hoary old cliché, food really does taste better outdoors! There aren’t many better ways of making the most of the summer.

In the rush to get overseas for holidays and the like, it can be easy to forget how lucky we are in the UK to have a huge range of open areas for picnics, from forests and woodland to Britain’s dramatic coastline, hillsides, fields and meadows. Or how about having a picnic on an island, the grounds of a stately home or in a lovely country park? Your perfect family picnic spot may be closer than you realised.

Of course, like most things, a little preparation is required. As well as planning and making your food with care, you will need to choose your family picnic spot in advance, and give some thought to the decision.

Here are just some ideas. Even if they aren’t close to where you live, they could provide inspiration for the sort of spot you’d like to take your family to.

Country Parks 

In the UK, we are very lucky to have a good number of these. In Wiltshire, for example, the Avon Valley Country Park covers some fifty acres of gorgeous land right by the River Avon, and there’s stacks for grown-ups and children to do. Kids, for instance, will love the youngsters’ assault course and there are some great riverside rambles to do while you work up an appetite and decide where to unfurl your picnic rug.

Another good place is Wellington Country Park, with its 350 stunning acres of Hampshire countryside, not to mention a miniature railway, crazy golf, oversized snakes and ladders game, nature trails and more.

North of the border, Beecraigs Country Park in the Bathgate Hills near Linlithgow makes another idyllic location for a family day out. There are activities from kayaking to archery, a fishery and deer farm as well as a campsite, so you could stay a few days and enjoy not just one but several wonderful al fresco meals.

Still in Scotland, the Glenkiln Sculpture Park in Dumfries and Galloway has six sculptures in its eight miles of land.

Historic Sites 

Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey

Avebury Stone Circle in Wiltshire makes an unusual picnic spot, at Europe’s biggest stone circle, thought to be four thousand years old.

Alternatively, in North Yorkshire the ruined Rievaulx Abbey, surrounded by woodland, dates from medieval times and will give your picnic a unique atmosphere. Or what about picnicking in the grounds of Dorset’s Corfe Castle?

Open spaces

The heather and bracken of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall offer a dramatic backdrop to any outdoor meal, as do the North Pennines, from Northumberland’s Hadrian’s Wall into Cumbria. In Wales, the Clywedog Valley and Trail has seven miles of great walking and you could visit the local lead mines. Or take in the hills, woodland and Iron Age fort of Devil’s Dyke, East Sussex.

Beaches and Islands

Still in Wales, Barafundle Beach in Pembrokeshire is a little known spot, but discover it and you won’t want to leave. For island settings, think about beautiful St Herbert’s, Cumbria, or Dorset’s Brownsea Island, dotted with idyllic picnicking locations.

Stately homes

Ragley Hall in Warwickshire provides a superb family day out, with 400 acres to play in, an adventure playground incorporating a maze, climbing frames and a trampoline. You may want to spread out your picnic rug by the lake, where its’ nice and peaceful, and you may see the odd peacock strutting around!

London 

Finally, if you thought the city was no place for a picnic, think again. Somerset House lets you escape the chaotic capital with a massive courtyard complete with fountains, in front of this glorious eighteenth century palace. Another idea is the gardens next to the Horniman Museum, which have sixteen acres and where there’s always something going on.

With so much to enjoy, what are you waiting for? Pack up your picnic basket this summer and head off to enjoy the best of what the UK has to offer- and don’t forget to capture the moment for your Big Kid Bingo card!