We usually visit the Isle of Wight for our holidays, as it provides free accommodation and babysitting thanks to my mother. However, we broke from tradition to try out Cheddar Woods Resort and Spa in Somerset at half term.
After an everlasting journey down the M5 we were pleased to find we’d been given a prime position at the far end of the site. Usually that would mean you’re next to the bins and the maintenance vehicles but in this case it meant we had an elevated view across the Mendip Hills towards Glastonbury Tor. It also meant we didn’t have any neighbours on one side and that we weren’t near to the restaurant and playground so didn’t have to put up with noise from other people’s children.
The lodge was modern and had everything we needed, including a dishwasher, tumble dryer and washing machine which played jolly tunes when it was finished. There were four televisions, which seemed a bit excessive along with outdoor furniture which looked pleasant, though were unlikely to be used in February.
The complex at the bottom of the hill was very smart with a Brewers’ Fayre-esque restaurant along with a skittles alley, swimming pool, sauna and a small playground. It was certainly the sort of place which is a bit posher than most caravan parks, so it’s not one for our cheap holiday parks guide. Having said that, I thought it was good value at around £700 for a week for our three bedroom lodge (August is more like £1600).
Needless to say, it rained for a couple of days but we managed to coincide these with trips to see relatives in Somerset. The children happily played with Lego and plastic horses all day with second-cousins they rarely see, whilst we drank coffee and rested our heads on the kitchen table.
Despite being in Cheddar we only had a fleeting visit to the Gorge. Mrs Guru and I stared with admiration as we drove through, whilst the younger members of our party either slept or refused to look up from the CBeebies App.
On our first sunny day we applied to remortgage our house before heading to Longleat Safari Park. We spent a happy couple of hours on the adventure playground and with the penguins before heading off on the Safari. It took some time to persuade our four year old that the rhino wasn’t going to charge at the car and we just about got round before the 1 year old began screaming.
On the other two days when we had a bit of sunshine we went to Weston Super Mare, which was a much large place than I remembered from my visit some years previous. The Pier was gutted by fire 10 years ago but has been rebuilt into a headache inducing wonderland with a thousand clankity clank noises competing with each other. I’m sure my father would have described it as a special kind of torture, but we enjoyed throwing 2p coins into the machines until a gold coloured piece of tat fell out.
Besides the arcade machines, the Grand Pier has plenty to do now, with several small rides and a restaurant with great views out to sea. Some reviewers complain about the £1 you have to pay to go onto the Pier although I was happy to pay it after seeing so many piers slowly rot into the sea. I imagine such reviewers would have steam coming out of their ears at the Longleat ticket booth.
So far on Holiday Park Guru I've only attempted to do comparisons for a handful of locations (Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, Wales and the Isle of Wight).
My longer term plan is to spread my caravan shaped wings a bit and explore places such as the Lake District, Northumberland, Norfolk and Yorkshire to help people pick the best holiday parks, based on price, location and facilities.
But which of the holiday locations that we've covered so far has the most to offer for tourists? To attempt a vaguely fair comparison I decided to look at how many attractions each county has, in relation to its size. Wales is obviously larger than the Isle of Wight but you aren't likely to drive from Rhyl to Swansea for a day trip. A high concentration of attractions is more important than a high number spread over a huge area.
So, the fairest way I could think to do this was to look at the number of attractions listed on TripAdvisor. I'm sure there are flaws in this, as you do get rogue shops and other non-attractions appearing on TripAdvisor as an attraction. However, I'm hoping it will even out across all the locations.
First up is Devon, which has (according to TripAdvisor) 825 attractions. I'm not inclined to sift through them all to work out which are legitimate as I was hoping to get to bed in six hours time. Devon is 2590 square miles, which there is an attraction for every 3.1 square miles.
Honestly, I've no idea if that's good or bad before we look at the rest so let's plough on with a comparison to local rivals Cornwall.
Well, according to TripAdvisor you'll find 659 things to do in Cornwall across a land mass of 1376 square miles, which means there is an attraction for every two square miles in Cornwall - significantly more than Devon.
OK, how about Dorset? TripAdvisor reckons there are 437 things to do in Dorset and the county is 1024 square miles, so that puts it somewhere between Devon and Cornwall with an attraction for every 2.3 square miles.
Let's see how Wales compares, which I admit is a whole different kettle of fish to a single English county...
As you might expect, the wheels fall off this flimsy comparison at this point as TripAdvisor doesn't bunch all of Wales into one. Instead it gives the number of attractions per county.
Nevermind, I will move on and pretend this was just an English comparison.
Finally, my beloved Isle of Wight. *He nervously changes tabs*
According to TripAdvisor (as I keep repeating) there are 184 attractions on the Isle of Wight, with a land mass of 146 square miles. So, there is an attraction for every 0.8 square miles.
OK, so I admit the Isle of Wight is small and I was kind of hoping that the result would go this way (as it was my hunch) but that's a pretty sensational victory. I'm certainly biased, but I encourage you to do the comparison yourself and see if you can find an English county with more attractions per square mile than the Isle of Wight.
Sure, you can start arguing about the size of attractions etc...but let me have my moment.
So, we've decided that we're going to do an annual price comparison of holiday parks in the Westcountry. Here's the press release for the first year, with details of how we worked it all out at the bottom of the page.
A new study has found Devon is the cheapest county in the Westcountry for a family summer holiday, with regional rivals Cornwall in second place.
The comparison by Holiday Park Guru looked at the cost of a week’s holiday in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset, comparing accommodation in caravan holiday parks, attraction entrance fees and driving distance for visitors.
The total cost for Devon was £673 for a week's holiday for four, compared to £812 in Cornwall, £817 in Dorset and £825 in Somerset.
Robert Lane from Holiday Park Guru said:
“We often hear about holidays in August being a rip-off but it’s certainly possible to have a week away in the Westcountry on a budget. All four counties had plenty of highly-rated free attractions but Devon and Cornwall had the cheapest holiday park accommodation. Several Devon holiday parks were less than £20 per person, per night even in peak season. Cornwall wasn’t far behind but the extra mileage helped bump up the price.”
The study looked for a week’s holiday in August 2017 for a family of four, staying at a caravan holiday park and arriving on a Saturday. An average price was taken from the five cheapest holiday parks which had availability, as of late May 2017.
It also included the cost of a family ticket to the five highest rated attractions in each county, according to TripAdvisor. Many of the highest rated attractions were free including The Lizard and Kynance Cove in Cornwall, Sidmouth’s Donkey Sanctuary, Bournemouth Beach in Dorset and Wells Cathedral in Somerset.
Car journeys were for a return journey to the county capital (Exeter, Dorchester, Truro and Taunton) from London and Manchester, with an average figure being calculated.
Holiday Park Guru is an independent guide to caravan parks in England and Wales. For more information on the comparison see Holiday Park Guru's blog.
Notes to editors:
Holiday Park Guru is an independent guide to holiday parks in England and Wales.
Methodology: We searched for a week’s holiday with Hoseasons, Haven, Park Holidays, Breakfree Holidays and Park Resorts. Searches were carried out in late May for self catering in holiday park caravans for a family of 2 adults and 2 children (aged 10 and 12) from Saturday 12th August 2017 or arriving on a Saturday either side. We averaged the top five cheapest accommodations available for each county (we used the ‘mean’ average). Attractions were calculated by looking at the cost of entrance for two adults and two children (aged 10 and 12) at the five highest rated attractions, according to TripAdvisor in late May 2017. We chose the on-the-day price and we didn’t include parking, discount vouchers, optional gift aid or mileage to the attractions. We assumed visitors didn’t have National Trust Membership. We calculated fuel costs by looking at a return car journey from central London and central Manchester to the county town, averaging 35 MPG with petrol costing 117 pence per litre.
Family holidays are tense.
I don't mean a family holiday with your spouse and children (although they have their moments).
I mean those family holidays with grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts. They are great fun but they are inevitably tricky when you realise everyone does holidays differently.
We went to Devon a little while ago with my wife's family, including a total of three families.
The main point of contention was the one before we had even booked.
I am very much of the opinion that hotels and toddlers do not mix. We've had the odd night at a Lenny Henry themed hotel off a motorway to break up an intolerable long journey but the thought of a week in a hotel with a little one or two doesn't appeal.
Our toddler’s eating schedule is an hour or two earlier than full sized people’s with breakfast in the early hours, lunch instead of elevenses and an evening meal at about 4.30 or 5pm. Decent hotels try their best to accommodate families but you can hardly ask the chef to get up an hour earlier to get you some porridge which probably won’t be eaten anyway.
Our main issue is the risk of being publicly exposed as parents whose children aren’t always perfectly behaved. What if the little one decides to deliberately decorate the hotel carpet with honey or face dive into her yogurt? Do you tell her off and make a scene or keep quiet and appear to be undisciplined parents?
And then there’s the sleeping arrangements which in a hotel usually involve piling everyone into the same room and regressing to the first few months of their lives where you counted down the days until you could put them in their own room without feeling guilty.
In a hotel I would spend the night stiff as a board and playing on my phone under the duvet, terrified that if I fell asleep I would break wind or shout in my sleep and wake everyone up.
No, I’d much rather stick to the freedom to choose meal times that suit us and sleeping arrangements which enable at least a reasonable chance of rest.
And so we agreed to split into two parties with two families staying in a hotel and us in a nearby holiday park. We chose a basic site near Sidmouth with a set of swings and a field, rather than a big park with flumes and bingo. Personally, I prefer the peace and quiet that comes from quieter parks, but there is something to be said for onsite facilities if it starts to rain or you want a low hassle holiday.
The holiday itself was much less tense than I was expecting. We took turns to choose attractions around Devon, compromised on mealtimes and spent a couple of days doing our own thing.
I’m sure we could have managed most of that in a hotel, but I think I’ll leave it a few more years, just in case.
A little while ago I saw some sweeping shots of the Pembrokeshire Coast in Wales on one of those BBC Sunday night programmes. I can't remember if it was Countryfile or Coast or Strictly but the views were spectacular.
I turned to my wife and commented that I'd love to walk the coastline when the children were old enough to not require reins on clifftops.
A few days later I was discussing this with my mother who reminded me that we had spent a week walking the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path when I was nine. She explained that I had complained for the whole week that I was having to carry my own bag. I sensed there was a slight resentment in her tone, despite the passing of time.
The pieces gradually fell into place and I started to recall the three memories I have of the holiday.
Firstly, I remember eating some Kendal mint cake whilst sitting on a rock.
Secondly, I remember playing table tennis in some sort of self-catering accommodation. I'm afraid I can't remember who won, so it was probably my brother.
Finally - and most vividly - there was the Subbuteo shop in Aberystwyth which was inexplicably half the price of my local supplier. I was overwhelmed and ended up cleaning the car twice in a week in an effort to earn extra pocket money so that I could buy a scoreboard and a set of throw-in men.
You will notice that I have absolute no memory of Pembrokeshire's vast cliffs, its beautiful sandy beaches or the diverse wildlife which has found a home along the route. I have no recollection of the views or the crashing waves although I do still have the scoreboard.
This appalling memory of holidays and days out is a recurring theme. Not long ago I commented that whilst growing up on the Isle of Wight we never went to Sandown - one of the busiest resorts. The same day I found a school diary with a detailed account of a trip to Sandown and no suggestion that this was unusual.
I don't think my memory is the problem but I think the things you look for in a holiday as a child are very different from those you want as an adult. Viewpoints and walks were utterly tedious until I reached adulthood - now I would love to spend a few hours exploring a stretch of coastline on foot.
So what's the answer? Should we take our offspring on child-friendly holidays involving a whole week spent in soft play and touring round toy shops? Or a week sat round a swimming pool whilst a man dressed as a dog provides daily entertainment? I can't really think of anything worse.
I like to think that my parents' insistence on holidays which involved walking, views and history did spark some kind of interest in those sort of things, even if it took me 20 years to realise that I enjoyed myself.
I also naively think that my children will be different and that for some reason they will enjoy walking holidays and National Trust properties.
That's nonsense of course but as long as I can fit in a trip to a toy shop on route, I might just get away with it.
In some English seaside holiday counties it doesn't matter all that much which town you stay in. For example, the Isle of Wight is small enough that you will never be more than 20 minutes from a beach and you can't drive for more than an hour unless you get lost or stuck behind a tractor.
Cornwall is completely different and in terms of land mass is nearly 10 times the size of my beloved Isle of Wight. So, it is worth spending 10 minutes studying a map before booking your holiday and hoping you can explore the whole county.
Let me give you an example. You book a holiday in Bude. You've heard it's a pretty seaside town and it is in the East of the county so it is a fair bit easier to reach from somewhere like London or Bristol than other parts of the county.
After you've unpacked the travel cot and eaten your organic porridge you set off to see Lands' End.
After the first hour's driving, things are getting a little tense. The battery is getting low on the tablet and the Frozen soundtrack has started skipping in the CD player.
After another hour you've arrived (assuming there aren't roadworks or jackknifed caravans) and all is well with the world, until you realise that you've left teddy behind...
All in all, a round trip from Bude to Lands' End will take you four hours which may not be especially welcome after you've spent the previous day in the car.
So, if you want to explore the whole county I would consider somewhere a little more central. It's still a lot of ground to cover in a week but a base around Newquay or a quieter resort nearby is a safer bet. The centre of the county is also better for visiting the Eden Project, which remains one of the county's biggest attractions.
Alternatively of course you might want to head for the Lizard Peninsula. Or how about the town of St Ives or one of the many coastal villages. It's a colossal journey from London (about 5 hours by car or train, on a good day), but it's a more remote and rustic experience than the flumes in a Newquay holiday park.
Just don't attempt a day trip to bude...
Cornwall is stunning, let's not be coy about it. The imposing cliffs of the Lizard Peninsula, the pretty coastal towns of St. Ives, Padstow, Looe and Bude. The fishing villages of Polperro and Port Isaac. I can even see the appeal of Newquay for a family holiday.
I'll even go as far as admitting that much of the Cornish coast is more stunning than much of the coastline of my beloved Isle of Wight.
Cornwall’s visitor numbers are greater, their waves are higher and I expect the sticks of rock will rot your teeth quicker.
But I still don’t think Cornwall is the UK’s number one holiday destination. For me, it’s the Isle of Wight.
Yes, I’m a little biased having spent many years living on the Island but hear me out.
There’s a perception that the Isle of Wight is a 1950s version of England but in my view it’s more like a mini version of England, so you can see a remarkable variety of coastline on a lump of rock which is just one ninth of the size of Cornwall.
If you stay in the middle of the Isle of Wight you will struggle to drive for more than 25 minutes in any direction without getting your feet wet. If you find a nice B&B in Bude and fancy seeing Land’s End then you will have a four hour round trip. In a car. In summer. Behind a caravan. Admittedly Newquay is more central, but it’s still an hour’s drive to the southerly point.
It’s not just Cornwall, in most English counties you face a choice of either visiting the same few beaches all week or spending hours driving along A-roads.
On the Isle of Wight, it’s feasible to abandon the car for a couple of days and see huge chunks of the Island’s coastline in a short trip on an open top bus. You can spend the morning building sandcastles and eating ice creams on Shanklin beach, eat lunch at a seafood restaurant in charming Steephill Cove and then have one of the South Wight’s rocky beaches all to yourself in the afternoon.
That closeness means you get to know the Island after a couple of days but it also means you can confidently ask a four year old what they want to do today and know that it won't lead to a huge journey.
Some of the main towns are linked by pretty cycle tracks (due to the closure of most of the Island’s railways in the 1960s) so you can avoid the car altogether if you travel a little lighter than we do. The numerous attractions certainly don’t compete with the big theme parks of the mainland, but they are mostly around a tenner and they’re perfect if you want to waste a couple of hours with younger children.
The rarely visited wildlife haven of Newtown Creek feels a world away from the busy sailing town of Cowes, even though they are just five miles apart. The 2p machines which empty your pockets on Sandown Pier are 10 miles from the virtually uninhabited West Wight coastline. Poundland is only a couple of miles from an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
People of Cornwall, please don’t be offended. We’ve had some lovely trips to your county and I'm not surprised it is frequently voted as England's favourite holiday destination. But come and see our fair Isle once and I'm confident you'll be back again.
Holiday Park Guru Blog
Occasional thoughts on holidays in England, Wales and Scotland