Wild swimming for families

Kids love to go wild swimming too Photo: Catherine Mack

Ever since returning from my swimming holiday a few years ago, my kids have been pestering me to know when they can do one too. Most swimming holiday providers don’t cater for kids, or families, being aimed more at the long distance neopreners. However, there is a place for everyone, and Dan Graham and Gabby Dickinson who founded the new outdoor swimming company based in North Wales, Gone Swimming, have filled this gap in the market.

This coming October half term, from Saturday 27 – Tuesday 30 October, they are running a family wild swimming long weekend, teaching not only the skills of open water swimming to parents and children, and as Dan is a water safety expert and Gabby is a child care professional (as well as complete water babies themselves) they are well qualified to do so too.

They are basing the trip in Cwm Pennant Hostel in the Cwm Pennant Valley close to the base of Snowdon. From here, they have a plethora of outdoor swimming spots on the doorstep, and the choice of swim will depend on the weather conditions and also the sort of thing that families are hoping to do.

Gone Swimming want to provide families with the knowledge they will need to make sure that they carry on wild swimming long after the Half Term. They will be reading the maps, deciding on locations as well as learning about how cold water affects both adults and the kids. Dan and Gabs will be with them in the water and every step of the way, but this is not a coaching or training weekend, more a blast in the open water sort of weekend. And yes, wetsuits are a must!You can also hire them from Gone Swimming if needs be.

Learning to embrace the cold while wild swimming Photo:Catherine Mack

There is an early booking offer on this trip of £300 per person, adults and children alike (a saving of £50 per person over the regular price) – that is for an all inclusive three night stay (arrival Saturday and depart Tuesday). It is also worth noting that they will pick you up from Bangor station if you choose to go by rail, so dig out your Family and Friends’ Railcard and get a great offer on the train too.




Once upon a time on the Wight

Glistening red apples... Copyright: Catherine Mack

Glistening red apples have always been symbolically tempting. Snow White was lured, they got Adam and Eve into big trouble, and in ancient Norse mythology they were seen as providing eternal youth. Whatever their powers, there are thousands of them here, lining the path to our gleaming white yurt, tucked away in a corner of this burgeoning  orchard, like a red carpet to a palace. Camping? Not as we know it, Jim.

We are met on arrival by Anthony, who co-owns The Really Green Holiday Company with his partner Alison, creating this glamping gem on land they lease from Afton Park Orchard.  He leads us down the red carpet to our yurt, and opens the wooden door into our ongoing storybook world. Because a yurt resembles a theatrical space, with its raised wooden floor, perfectly lit by natural light seeping in through the (covered), transparent hole in the ceiling, its canvas backdrop stretched over a circular frame, almost resembling a model of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre itself.

These yurts have been beautifully furnished with recycled antiques and bric a brac. But most important for glampers, there are beds. Proper beds. An old mahogany frame for us, and a double futon for our two boys. After endless ‘normal’ camping breaks, our two boys, aged seven and ten, can’t resist a bit of bouncing. “They’re real mattresses, Mum!”  Not air, not army, not yoga, and just to add to the five star-ness of it all, there are crisp (and ironed, I notice) white sheets and eiderdowns to make our cocoons exquisitely cosy.

Copyright: Catherine Mack

Although I am a lover of real camping, wild camping even, I must admit that this bit of luxury is like a naughty, but more than nice, treat. Indeed, it feels almost opulent putting a match to the yurt’s preset stove, creating a homely atmosphere which is nigh on impossible in our tent. After leaving us to bask in the gorgeous glow of it all for a while, Anthony then shows us the inner workings of the campsite. Unlike most campsites, there is lots of room between us and our neighbours (although we are close enough for me to spot that they have a four poster bed in their palace). There is a proper solid table and chairs outside the yurt, and a cleverly designed brazier cum barbecue for cooking, or just keeping us warm. There is an ample supply of wood, all from sustainable island sources, and constantly stocked up by Anthony and Alison.

However, glam is quickly upstaged by green, as we continue to explore. There may be sheets and stoves, but if you are looking for shower blocks and sockets, that is where the luxury ends. Like so many places I have already visited on the island, and one of the main reasons I keep coming back for more and more, The Really Green Holiday Company does exactly what it says on the tin. First of all, this is a precious working orchard, with 150 trees to be nurtured, and also, this stunning coastal area of the western end of the island is protected, officially known as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Consequently, the orchard is totally off-grid.  No electricity, gas, sewers, or mains water (although there is a little onsite water, just in limited supplies).

The loos are compost, and function with a brilliant barrel system, which is turned regularly to speed up the composting action. Using the loo is far from glam and takes a bit of getting used to, but the kids are totally enthralled as Anthony explains how they work. With steps up to their wooden huts, they remind me of the Granddad in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, who gets carried up into the air while going through the motions in his wooden hut; “Maybe that’s why they called it ‘Chitty’ Mum,“ my younger son announces loudly to the amusement of all the nearby happy campers.

The shower is also pure and simple, powered by solar and, when the sun lets you down, there is a wood burner underneath to get the water sizzling again. The grey water from the shower goes into barrels, then used for watering the trees around us. There are buckets of water to wash hands, using rainwater from butts, and eco-friendly products everywhere to protect the immediate environs.

Copyright: Catherine Mack

The campsite revolves around a communal dome tent, used for cooking and eating when it gets wet. There are some Calor Gas cookers, and flasks full of hot water for a quick coffee to get the sand out of the eyes in the morning. Just as Anthony is showing us the workings of the dome, the clouds over Freshwater open like they haven’t all summer. We all look up as the dome roof lifts into one big arc, a gale force kicking in with wild abandon. Anthony looks at the water seeping in under foot, totally unperturbed. A little more concerned, wondering if our storybook adventure is about to segue into an Oz-like tornado, we excuse ourselves and rush back to the safety of our yurt. With the comfort of the wood burning stove, cuddled up under duvets, we stare up through the now black hole at the clouds swooping in like the wicked witch herself, spookily backlit by the moon.  The canvas is shaking, and the apple tree branches cast shadows everywhere. However, after a few marshmallows toasted over the fire, and hot chocolate heated on the stove, all is good in the land of yurt, soon transformed to a sumptuous land of nod.

Morning comes and, as if following a script, the sun is shining, skies are blue, and the dome tent is still there. Anthony is up a ladder mending a couple of tears, the kettle is on, and people gather round the dome to compare storm survival notes. I couldn’t help thinking of some of the clifftop campers nearby, some of whom must have had to pack up in the middle of the night, and take refuge in cars. Glamping is stormproof, that’s for sure.

After a typically slow start to the day, one of the best things about camping in my view, we stroll down toFreshwaterBay, just a ten minute walk through woodland. The waves are still too high for swimming with the boys, despite clearer skies, and gentle paddling leads to general drenching. We head back to the yurt to dry off and for lunch, and shopping is made easy with the onsite Afton Park Farm Shop. Within a few minutes we  stock up with chicken fillets, mushrooms, crème fraiche and onions, all from local farms. I realise that we are now becoming galloping, glamping gourmets. None of your baked beans here.

Paul and Michaela Heathcote, who own this fab farm shop and orchard, are also rare breed specialists and have de-camped a few favourites from their nearby farm to graze in the field beside the orchard. Even the animals are posh here, I think, such as Mayzie, an Irish moiled calf, one of only 400 females left worldwide, and Matt, a Wensleydale sheep, of which there are only a thousand left worldwide. Don’t get too attached though, as some of their relatives are available in the shop, and you won’t taste a better sausage on the barbeque than theirs. Combined with their new co-venture, whereby their café is transformed into a superb evening restaurant, run by a budding local chef, AftonPark has to be one of the most impressive examples of rural diversification I have come across on my travels.

Superb lunch at Briddlesford Farm Bluebells cafe, isle of Wightmy travels.

We finish our stay at the yurts with just one more bit of magic, taking place, rather aptly, up a tree. But this time, an ancient oak tree. Anthony recommends an outing with Goodleaf, a local recreational treeclimbing company. Over a period of two and a half hours, trained arborist Paul McCathie, teaches us how to use harnesses, carabiners, ropes and knots, as well as climbing and abseiling techniques, and then leads us gently up into the branches of a sixty foot oak. My sons dance like nymphs from branch to branch, while I slowly heave my way feeling more like the giant trying to get back up the beanstalk. When I reach my first big branch I dare to look down at Paul smiling below, breathe in the smell of the branches, and realise that I haven’t contemplated a fear of heights for a second. There is something about the slow pace of climbing this magnificent natural structure, which helps conquer your fears, and its canopy. And in terms of thrills, my kids say it beats any roller coaster ride.

This exhilarating treeclimbing experience is undoubtedly the perfect closing chapter to our storybook weekend, which draws to a close much quicker than we want it to. However, as we close the door for our last night under the stars, and lie down to take in the ever-changing night sky drifting over our heads, we vow to come again, and raise our hot chocolates in a mutual toast to glamping happily ever after.

For more details of the yurts at Freshwater Bay, see www.thereallygreenholidaycompany.com, weekend hire from £220. For details of the orchard, farm shop and restaurant, see www.aftonpark.co.uk.

 Five things for glampers to gloat over on the Isle of Wight:

  • Isle of Wight Sea KayakingShimmy in off the beach at Freshwater Bay, straight into the waves and around the coast, depending
    Catherine and children sea Kayaking in Freshwater Bay Photo: Catherine Mack

    on your ability, confidence, and the weather. With a bit of experience you can take trips to caves, sea stacks, off-shore Napoleonic forts and otherwise inaccessible beaches. Fantastic family half day offers from £45.

  • Walk the Coastal Path – With just over 100kms of brilliantly maintained coastal walking paths, this has to be the best way to discover the island. For details of all walking routes, as well as the annual Isle of Wight Walking Festival in May, www.islandbreaks.co.uk have great maps of each route, and, very cool indeed, details of companies which offer a bargain bag collection service to move your bags from one accommodation to another as you head there by foot.
  • From field to fork – You will have the perfect glamping experience if you stock up your barbeque with some of the superb range of the island’s local produce by seeking out some of the local farm shops. My favourites include Bluebells at Briddlesford Farm, Wooton, which also has a superb restaurant, Kings Manor Farm, and of course, The Garlic Farm, near Newchurch. Or even more impressive, order in advance to be delivered to your yurt, with inspired local food delivery company, The Real Island Food Company.
  • Robin Hill Countryside Adventure Park, which successfully combines a fun park and rides to suit all ages, with 35 hectares of
    Catherine's husband and son treeclimbing with Goodleaf Copyright: Catherine Mack

    countryside, including nature trails, sculpture parks and falconry displays.

  • Goodleaf Tree Climbing – For the best ever trip to the treetops with expert recreational treeclimber Paul McCathie. A two and a half hour climbing experience costs £25 for children and £35 for adults, including equipment, tuition and tea and cakes.  This very green company also offers 5% discount to anyone arriving by public transport, pushbike or foot
  • For up to date information on all things cool and green on the Isle of Wight check out my favourite blogs, My Isle of Wight, and Ventnor Blog.This article was first published in Island Visitor Magazine, Summer 2011


Coastal walk Steephill Cove into Ventnor, approaching Ventnor Copyright: Catherine Mack

Lanzarote, green not grotty

Just one of Lanzarote Retreat's stylish yurts

I never expected to come back from Lanzarote with a yearning to create.  Indeed, I can’t think of any other occasion when my expectations of a place have been so totally reversed, thanks in the main, to the place we stayed. Lanzarote Retreats is an eco hideaway, almost concealed from view from the beach of nearby fishing village, Arrieta, just minutes’ walk away, on the remote north coast of the island. Just a few elegant palm trees mark the spot of the finca, or farm, where Michelle and Tila Braddock, of UK origins, but living on the island for the last twenty years, have not only mastered a collection of eco designs, but also created an exemplary flagship of what sustainable, rural tourism can and should be.

The finca boasts seven yurts and a handful of cleverly restored stone and wooden buildings, including a stunningly romantic, converted water tower, an about to be completed eco barn, all powered by forty solar panels and two wind turbines, with spring sourced water and a grey water recycling system. The small community revolves around a communal, solar heated pool area in the restored farm reservoir, with an honesty shop built over a disused well, now housing everything from locally sourced water melons and bread to local wine. They now have the only electric car on the island, a very cool lunar looking mobile which they power using their solar panels. Click here for a photo of Twizy getting solar sustenance.

What’s more the local wine is good – another thing you wouldn’t expect from a place which is notorious for being grotty not green. There are wineries, or bodegas, spread throughout the heart of this volcanic island, with La Geria valley covered in thousands of craters dug into black sand, each home to an individual vine surrounded by a stone wall  to protect it from the island’s almost constant, and welcome, wind, so that they can thrive in this harsh environment.

This harsh beauty, with its fertile oases, is what makes Lanzarote so unique, and Michelle and Tila’s finca is a

microcosm of this, with yurts mirroring the soft mounds of the island’s myriad volcanic cones, and the stone renovations a reminder of a local determination it to survive here following first eruptions in 1730.

The general air of living life to the full at the finca, where chickens roam around freely and the much loved donkey, Molly, always brays a welcome, infused our holiday from the start. Although we had the use of a hybrid Toyota Prius, which came as part of our Eco Luxury Yurt package, Tila met us off the plane in his Prius, with a bottle of chilled bubbly in the boot to wash away any travel stress within minutes. Within minutes of arriving at their divine homestead, Tila had whisked our boys down the dusty path to the beach, complimentary body boards in hand, to show them where to catch the best waves. We sipped more bubbly, rifled through our pre-ordered box of local fruit and veg, and took in our sumptuous surroundings.

Our yurt was bigger than our home, with polished wooden flooring, swathes of fabric separating our bed from the kids’, a private terrace with daybed and dining area, an outdoor  kitchen with a view of the sea, and a private bathroom with shower and wooden bath. All enclosed by the finca’s signature stone wall, with cleverly designed windows set into it, so you never lose sight of the sea and swaying palms.

Lanzarote Retreats is not a product of the latest ‘glamping’ fashion, however. There are plenty of less ‘luxurious’ yurts on offer, still stunning, but with the use of a communal kitchen and shower, but with all the same gorgeous views and vibes. They are not trying to impose a glamorous retreat onto this quiet, rural spot, but simply letting their finca something organically and sustainably.

The Braddocks have always been inspired by the Lanzarote’s visionary artist and architect, César Manrique, who worked closely with local authorities throughout the late 20th century to prevent his homeland from resort ruination, and whose many architectural masterpieces built into lava bubbles and caves we visited and adored. To visit Lanzarote without imbibing the creative juices of Manrique is like doing Barcelona without Gaudí.

The Eco Luxury Yurt at Lanzarote Retreats

Manrique’s statue ‘El Diablo’ is the symbol of Lanzarote’s National Park of Timanfaya, and his restaurant is still at its heart, with meals still cooked using the volcano’s heat. Most tourists opt to tour the Park by bus or camel, but I avoided the tourist trail by trekking up Pico Partido volcano with expert local walking guide Marcelo Espino of Canary Trekking, one of a handful to have a walking permit within the Park. With superb geological knowledge, English and charm, he led us along dramatic lava flows, tunnels, craters and ridges, and finally up to the one of the best viewpoints of the island, where the geological magnificence was closer to my landscape expectations of Iceland than resort land.

Like the wild figs which thrive in the volcanic desert, or the fecund vines which blossom out of their otherwise barren foothills, Lanzarote Retreats proffers colour and life. We jumped off the local pier with a bevy of screeching local kids. We took a boat out to the small nearby local island of La Graciosa, camped on one of its secluded beaches, barbecued freshly caught tuna from its tiny fish shop, and snorkelled along its reef. The boys surfed, we all swam and I saluted the sun in the finca’s yoga class. On the last day I went hiking with Michelle straight out of the finca, up through the Temisa Valley, onto a mountain path which led to the artisan craft market at Haria.

On the way back we strolled into Haria’s cemetery where, hidden away, we found Manrique’s grave. Just a plain, engraved stone set into the ground, with a palm at one end and a cactus at the other it was, “Just as Manrique had requested”, the gardener told us. “It’s simple, natural beauty is really quite touching,” Michelle said and, as we strolled back down the side of the volcano, in quiet contemplation of the good things in life, I caught sight of her simple, natural creation among the palms far below, and smiled, thinking that her hero must surely be looking down on it and smiling too.

This article was first published in The Irish Times . For more photos see my Flickr collection