So the summer of 2020 is coming to an end. Well, sort of. In this year like no other, even the norms of the seasons have become muddled.
Campsites, glampsites, activity providers and other tourism businesses across the British Isles are extending their usual opening months in an attempt to both claw back lost earnings and to service the unprecedented demand.
With this July and August seeing too many people trying to holiday in the same places at the same time, the only way for many of us to guarantee an annual getaway has been to defer it into autumn or even winter, instead.
But is that a bad thing? While little about Covid is anything other than awful, here I see a sliver of a silver lining.
Because exploring this country – this varied, cultured, wild, delicious country – year-round is exactly what we should do.
Yes, we need to keep abreast of the constantly changing rules, lockdowns and official requests to please visit at a later date. But as long as we’re actually allowed, there are countless good reasons to keep exploring within our borders this ‘summer’ – which, for this year only, actually lasts through to March…
There are invigorating walks, wildlife phenomena and cosy cottage stays; there are roaring fires, seasonal delicacies, emptier sites. And anyway, weather is hardly 100 per cent predictable, so why plan around it? I’ve been cold-soaked to the skin up Pen y Fan in August and I’ve cycled in shirtsleeves along the Brecon Canal in February.
Travelling in low season offers many benefits, from experiencing the rapture of an unexpectedly sunny day to bagging cheaper deals. “Fair weather travellers will generally pay more,” says Ged Brown, founder of Low Season Traveller (lowseasontraveller.com), “but for those who like to go against the flow, low seasons offer huge rewards.”
Holidaying off-peak is possibly the most sustainable form of travel too, as you’re paying into the local economy when hotels, cafes and attractions need it most: “Those who travel at these times can be assured that their presence and money is even more appreciated,” adds Brown.
Low season breaks are also the best way to avoid the crowds, which has never been more appealing. So, gather your bubble, rip up your regular holiday thinking and make the most of what’s on the doorstep every month. Here are some ideas to keep you going until the so-called normal summer comes round…
Off-season October? Not on your nelly. This is arguably one of the best months for exploring the UK. Forests from Hampshire to the Highlands are a-glow, landscapes are softened by mists and mellow sunshine, fresh produce abounds and (but for half-term) prices drop and crowds thin but most attractions remain open. Where isn’t good to go?
Some spots are especially alluring. Take Herefordshire, where October is all about apples (visitherefordshire.co.uk/applesforautumn). This rolling, rural county, hugged by the Malverns and Black Mountains, is like one enormous orchard. Two new Cider Circuits have just launched, trails to drive or cycle, mapping the county’s best cider and perry sites: from bijou Oliver’s (oliversciderandperry.co.uk) to family-run Westons (book lunch at the Scrumpy House; westons-cider.co.uk). Sleep on theme in the Cider Suite at Broome Farm (from £100pn; broomefarmhouse.co.uk) or at luxe farmstay Crumplebury, which presses its own apple juice for breakfast (from £140pn; crumplebury.co.uk).
If wine is more your tipple, choose the South Downs, to see the grape harvest underway – a delicious doorstep alternative to the French vendage. Mid-Week Harvest Escapes at Rathfinney Estate’s converted Flint Barns include special grape-picking tours (October 13-November 5; £210pn for two; rathfinnyestate.com). Elegant Ockenden Manor is surrounded by vineyards – award-winning Bolney is within walking distance – and also has a heated outdoor pool for year-round swims (from £189pn; hshotels.co.uk/ockenden-manor). The nearby gardens of Nymans (nationaltrust.co.uk) and Wakehurst (kew.org/wakehurst) put on fabulous fall displays too.
For a high density of dazzling colour, look to the Cheshire Plain (visitcheshire.com). There are several spectacular spots in close proximity – from the oaks and chestnuts of Delamere Forest (forestryengland.uk/delamere-forest) to the ancient copper beeches and vibrant acers of Dunham Massey (nationaltrust.org.uk/dunham-massey). Alderley Edge is ideal for leaf-kicking walks with big views. For a longer autumn leg-stretch, follow the 55km ridge-tracing Sandstone Trail, stopping at The Pheasant Inn mid-route (from £110pn; thepheasantinn.co.uk).
Finally, it’s hard to top Exmoor. This magical meeting of moorland, woodland and coast is never better than when the trees and bracken are ablaze. This is also when the national park’s estimable dark skies are most celebrated (Dark Skies Festival, 16-31 October 2020; visit-exmoor.co.uk/dark-skies) and when the stags are bellowing – stalk them by 4WD (from £35pp; exmoorwildlifesafaris.co.uk).
Poor November sounds very unsexy, seemingly lacking the fruitfulness or festivity that cheers other low season months. So I say: seize it, in all its unpopular (read: cheaper) glory. Consider it not a time of increasing gloom but of untapped potential.
Look south for last gasps of warmer weather. Cornwall’s Roseland Peninsula has a balmy microclimate that allows subtropical plants to flourish – for proof, view the bromeliads and camellias at Trebah Gardens (trebahgarden.co.uk) – and can see autumn colour last well into November. The coastal walking is second-to-none too: quieter roads lead to emptier beaches where you can pick up the South West Coast Path.
Hide away at two-bed Granary Cottage (from £442 for two nights; nationaltrust.org.uk/holidays), above Carne Beach, and follow the path to Porthcurnick’s Hidden Hut café – it usually closes in October but, for 2020, is open to New Year (hiddenhut.co.uk). Or stay at the Idle Rocks in St Mawes: two-night Taste of Cornwall winter specials include dinner, wine tasting and a book of Roseland walks (from £375pp; idlerocks.com).
Alternatively, stride out in the Lake District. HF Holidays’ Keswick country house is open for walking breaks to late November (from £180pp for four nights; hfholidays.co.uk). The mountains can be more, er, exciting in rain or frost, making ‘easy’ walks more challenging, but HF’s route options are flexible, boot room warm and meals hearty. If the weather is really rotten, escape on a tour into Honister Slate Mine (honister.com).
Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast is a good-value choice. Book a winter break at Ballycastle’s Marine Hotel (from £120 for two nights, including one dinner; marinehotelballycastle.com) and use it as a base to explore this wild Atlantic shoreline at its most dramatic; the Giant’s Causeway itself is free and open year-round. Tour Game of Thrones locations without the insta-crowds – the Dark Hedges, just inland from Ballycastle, look especially ghostly in their leafless glory.
And play Royal Portrush Golf Course – rounds, usually £250, cost £90 November-March (royalportrushgolfclub.com).
The Pembrokeshire coast is wonderfully windswept too. Swells wallop the cliffs and coves, making for exciting coasteering, doable into November (from £70pp; tyf.com). Invigorating walks along the cliffs may yield sightings of seals and their pups too, especially around Cemaes Head and Marloes Peninsula. The stylish two-bed Barn at East Hook, near Marloes, has coast path access (three nights from £557; qualitycottages.co.uk).
Christmas causes a high-season blip, and can deter people from travelling earlier in December. Which is a shame: having a mid-December birthday, I’ve taken many brilliant breaks at this time, from a weekend of frosty strolls in the Cotswolds to snapping up a popular Landmark Trust hideaway (landmarktrust.org.uk – Frenchman’s Creek).
With luck, covid won’t entirely ruin Christmas: there are many places to embrace festivities outdoors, from the fantastical IGNITE trail at Dorset’s Kingston Lacy (ignitetrails.co.uk/kingstonlacy) to Lightopia at Manchester’s Heaton Park (lightopiafestival.com).
Or head to Nottingham: the city’s Bavarian-style Winter Wonderland will be bigger than ever in 2020 (nottinghamwinterwonderland.co.uk) while Wollaton Hall is hosting its first enchanted lights trail (wollatonhall.org.uk). While you’re hereabouts, stroll leafless Sherwood Forest, looking for crossbills and redwings, and finish by the fire in Nottingham’s Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, allegedly England’s oldest inn.
To escape seasonal shenanigans altogether, try Northumberland National Park (northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk), one of the least-visited parks at any time, let alone winter. As well as quieter visits to Hadrian’s Wall and brisk yomps across the Cheviots, now is best for stargazing in this International Dark Sky spot, with December promising the Geminids meteors and a super conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.
Choose a Stargaze, Supper & Slumber break at The Twice Brewed Inn, which doubles as an observatory (from £189pn; twicebrewedinn.co.uk). Or book your bubble into the Barn, a four-bed retreat with floor-to-ceiling windows, ideal for warm indoor astronomy (from £843 for three nights; crabtreeandcrabtree.com).
North Norfolk does dazzling skies too, as well as the big, open spaces we’ve been craving during this year of socially distanced staycations. Indeed, in 2020 Sawday’s saw searches for accommodation in the county jump by 175 per cent on 2019. Visiting in December means missing human crowds but joining wild ones: 100,000 pink-footed geese flock in (rspb.org.uk/snettisham) and seals give birth at Blakeney Point. Stay at the family-run Blakeney Hotel, overlooking the marshes (from £134pn; sawdays.co.uk/theblakeneyhotel), and take a boat trip to see the fluffy pups (beansboattrips.co.uk).
In general though, on-water activities are limited during low-season, as many waterways and operators close. However, Warwickshire-based Kate Boats hires into December. For a short-n-serene cruise, putter along the misty Grand Union Canal from Stockton to Braunston, via pubs, lock flights and a mile-long tunnel (from £460; kateboats.co.uk).
New year, new you! Give up booze! Get fitter! Be better! Blimey, it’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself in joyless January. You could do all those things. Or your could just use the lowest season to explore quieter sites, plot extreme adventures, enjoy brisk walks, book bargains or crawl between pubs with roaring fires.
For a good mix, start your year in Bath. In January, without the usual tourist hordes, its honey-stone gorgeousness is quieter and often cheaper: for example, Roseate Villa offers three nights for the price of two (from £133pn; roseatehotels.com); the Bird will chuck in a free champagne afternoon tea (from £117pn; thebirdbath.co.uk). Visit the crowd-free Roman Baths (romanbaths.co.uk) and Thermae Bath Spa (thermaebathspa.com), where the heated rooftop pool allows all-weather outside simmering. Then stroll into the surrounding hills or, if your resolution is to get fit, take a scenic jog with Bath Running Tours (bathrunningtours.com). Foot Trails’ self-guided Bath & the Avon Valley trip combines the city, countryside and cosy inns (from £735pp; foottrails.co.uk).
In North Wales’ Dee Valley & Clwydian Hills (clwydianrangeanddeevalleyaonb.org.uk) winter doesn’t stop play. The River Dee offers gnarly whitewater year round, and – with neoprene and bravado – you can raft, kayak and SUP even in January (standuppaddleboarduk.com; whitewateractive.co.uk). The long nights and dark skies are also excellent for astronomy – the AONB’s new mobile observatory will be out and about. Stay at the cosy 15th-century West Arms country inn (from £155pn; thewestarms.com); it’s also the base for a Mindful Walking in North Wales break – a great way to reset yourself for 2021 (15-17 January, from £325pp; adventuretoursuk.com).
Or how about embracing wildest England in its wildest climes? Now, Dartmoor’s roads are quiet, its walking wonderful (just don’t wander unprepared), its pubs at their most inviting – not least the Warren House Inn, where the fire’s been burning since 1845 (warrenhouseinn.co.uk).
You can camp year-round at Woodland Springs – though its heated pods might be more appealing (£90 for two nights; woodlandsprings.co.uk). Or snuggle up in two-bed Moorland View Cottage (from £295pn; moorlandviewcottage.co.uk), where January prices are half those of July, and which comes with woodburner, copper tub and membership of Bovey Castle’s spa. Consult Dartmoor Experiences (dartmoorexperiences.co.uk) for an inspired tour collection, many of which run year-round, from spooky Myths & Legends Walks to Photography Workshops.
February can seem like nowt but cold, grey gloom punctuated by half term and Valentines. But it can also mean possible snow-sparkle, tourist-lite places and the first signs of coming spring. It’s the most hopeful month of all, if you have the right attitude.
Take February in the Cairngorms. When conditions play ball, there’s snow fun aplenty: downhill skiing at Cairngorm and Glenshee; crowd-free cross-country around Glenmore and Braemar (with hire shops nearby; aviemoreski.co.uk); many great slopes for sledging. Or you could go winter Munro-bagging and snow-holing with a guide (scotmountainholidays.com). The baronial Fife Arms in Braemar (from £324pn; thefifearms.com) sits on the River Dee, one of Scotland’s great salmon rivers, and can arrange fly fishing for guests once the season starts in early February.
Alternatively, if the weather is dreich, hunker down somewhere cosy and seek out the national park’s log fires, ceilidh dances and whisky distilleries instead (Royal Lochnagar, Dalwhinnie and Glenlivet have visitor centres). Book a cosy lodge for your bubble (greatnorthlodges.co.uk) or somewhere romantic for two, like forest-tucked Pine Cottage (from £125pn; kiphideaways.com).
Talking of romance, for a leftfield take on Valentines, try the North Yorkshire Coast (discoveryorkshirecoast.com). The winter months, when rough weather churns up the shores, are the best time to forage for wild jet between Boulby and Robin Hood’s Bay.
Then head to a Whitby jet jeweller (such as eborjetworks.co.uk) to commission an engagement ring from your own finds. Try boudoir-like B&B La Rosa (doubles from £90pn; larosa.co.uk) for an amorous overnight stay. Lovers can also get starstruck at the North York Moors Dark Skies Festival (February 12-18, 2021), which will include nighttime yoga and mindfulness, ghost walks and stargazing Valentine breaks.
From shooting stars to green shoots: February is the time to see snowdrops. Head for the Thames Valley, where the grand gardens of Cliveden publish a dedicated snowdrop watch (nationaltrust.org.uk/cliveden). The riverside hereabouts is also a good for winter strolls, and the paths of Windsor Great Park are perfect for frosty walks, cycles and horse rides.
Also, boat tours operate from Windsor year-round – a chance to navigate the Thames at its quietest and most mistily atmospheric. The nearby Runnymede Hotel is a smart option in glorious grounds, with romantic spa breaks available (from £161pn; runnymedehotel.com).
Nearly there! Though as the country starts springing into ‘the season’, maybe you’ll feel a twinge of sadness about bidding farewell to the peacefulness, wildness and bloodymindedness of travelling when most people aren’t.
Southerly spots such as the Isles of Scilly auger spring first: average March temperatures here are similar to Barcelona.
Daffodils and narcissi explode across the archipelago, while exotics bloom at Tresco’s Abbey Gardens. The Scillonian ferry restarts mid-March, but the Skybus runs year-round. Use either to access empty sandy beaches, leisurely walks, fresh lobster suppers and the arrival of thousands of seabirds. Hotel prices are still a fraction of peak season too: get cheaper rates at St Mary’s Star Castle Hotel, set in a former 16th-century fortress (from £153pn in March vs £327pn in August; star-castle.co.uk) or the nautical New Inn on Tresco (£160pn vs £245pn; tresco.co.uk). Prestige Holidays can arrange trips including travel and accommodation (ukprestigeholidays.co.uk).
At the other end of the country, it’s still excitingly wild in the Orkneys. This is the time to experience the raw power of the sea, spot a profusion of overwintering birds, visit unrivalled Neolithic sites and maybe glimpse the mirrie dancers (northern lights) with few other tourists. Wilderness Scotland’s four-night Winter Orkney Isles trip combines Hoy, Skara Brae, sea cliffs and distilleries (March 5 and 19; from £995pp; wildernessscotland.com). Or face the elements full-on with a stay at cliff-top Cantick Head Lighthouse Cottage (from £115pn; cantickhead.com).
For something between these extremes, head for Dyfi Unesco Biosphere, a wildlife-rich and under-visited chunk of mid-Wales stretching inland from Aberystwyth (dyfibiosphere.wales). In March 2021 a new visitor centre opens at Cors Dyfi Nature Reserve, where there’s a chance to spot ospreys (dyfiospreyproject.com).
There’s more good birding at RSPB Ynys-hir (rspb.org.uk), plus one of the country’s best restaurants, Ynyshir, is close by – book a table now, as March is filling up fast (ynyshir.co.uk). With quiet, dramatic roads, this is epic driving country too – follow scenic routes from the Elan Valley to Devil’s Bridge (where the waterfall is especially impressive after rain) or Lake Vyrnwy to Dinas Mawddwy.
If you don’t want to drive yourself, or if conditions are too testing, go off-road in a Land Rover with Cambrian Safaris (cambriansafaris.co.uk). Brynarth Country Guest House is a lovely base, right by Cors Ian Nature Reserve (from £85pn; brynarth.co.uk)