Winning tip: Dunbar, East Lothian
With one very active and another dreamy nephew, entertaining them is sometimes problematic. While holidaying in Scotland, we visited Pressmennan Woods, near Dunbar, a perfect compromise. As well as opportunities to run free and spot wildlife, including deer and otter, there’s an amazing circular sculpture trail. Our “bookworm” was entranced by the carved wooden characters, the floor-living “glingbobs” and canopy-dwelling “tootflits”, whose “homes” he discovered. Busy creating stories about these mythical creatures, he scarcely noticed the climb to the top of the hill. There, we picnicked with two happy lads and magnificent views towards the Firth of Forth.
Slieve Gullion forest park, County Armagh
My young children particularly enjoyed The Giant’s Lair Story Trail in this free-to-enter park on the eastern side of Slieve Gullion mountain. Wandering through the woodland, led by a mischievous fairy called Flynn, they “ooh’d and aah’d” at tiny, magical doorways on tree trunks, and at the fantastical creatures carved into stumps. Best of all, my eldest, previously scared of all creepy-crawlies, was so caught up in the miniature life – both real and imaginary – on the forest floor that his fears disappeared and he is now an avid bug-hunter.
Margam country park, Neath Port Talbot
Our grandsons love the Wood Vibrations Trail in Margam Country Park, a few miles south of Port Talbot, where giant musical instruments have been carved from felled trees. They compete to deliver “fortissimo” concerts from the various woodwind and percussion instruments as they roam through the mixed woodland. There are so many great trees, perfect for climbing, bark-rubbing or bug-hunting among the roots. Helpful rangers provide treasure hunt maps to search for leaves, birds and deer and give tours and talks. One we saw was on the life of a tree from “sapling to sideboard”, which fascinated the boys.
• Entry free, car park £5.60, margamcountrypark.co.uk
Moors Valley, Dorset
This country park near Ringwood has an excellent adventure trail through the pine woods, where kids can tear about in search of the next exciting playtrail. It’s only about a mile or so in total but the ten(ish) climbing stations are so much fun it took us a couple of hours to get around, more if you want to stop for a picnic or veer off into the woods to explore. The treetop walkway trail and high ropes course are also great, but the playtrail is always the first thing our kids want to do.
• Free entry, car park from £1.50, moors-valley.co.uk
Lesnes Abbey Woods, south-east London
We escape into the depths of this superb wild place east of Woolwich, near our home, whenever we can. It is a large expanse of ancient woodland that is criss-crossed by trails and paths, large enough to get lost in but not so large that you won’t make it out again by sunset. You will encounter sculptures carved from trees, such as a towering totem pole of all the woodland creatures, and you might come across a secluded pond home to ducks and other water birds. As you meander back towards the abbey ruins and gardens, it’s worth stopping by the fossil beds to look for the shells and teeth of sea creatures from 50-odd million years ago.
Delamere Forest, Cheshire
We took our children around a two-mile trail hunting for the Gruffalo in Delamere Forest. After buying a Spotters Pack for £3, my daughter used the activity cards, magnifying glass and evidence collection bag to find hidden footprints of each animal from the Gruffalo story while her 12-year-old brother used an augmented reality app to make each one appear. They had a great time. There’s also a Gruffalo orienteering challenge that offers a certificate if you hop, skip or jump to hidden markers. The trail is free, parking was £6 for the day.
My daughter loves exploring the picturesque Fairy Glen near Parbold and as the route takes in wooden bridges, waterfalls and dramatic-looking cliff faces her tales of spotting goblins, dwarves and brave fairies become far more believable. In spring there are spectacular carpets of bluebells and wild garlic. If you choose to end your walk with a trip up Parbold Hill, you’ll be met with beautiful views and my daughter’s favourite sighting of the day: an Ice Cream Van.
Adventure begins at home. We’ve just retired, living in Cumbria, and have started a series of compass walks: using public transport to go 25-30 miles from home and then walking/running back over two days. The idea is to go to a different point of the compass each time and try to follow a straight(ish) line home using Ordnance Survey maps. We’ve stayed overnight in hostels, inns or friends’ places and despite having lived here for 20 years, we’ve discovered miles of footpaths we’ve never been on. Linear journeys are so much more motivating than circular ones and the brilliant thing is, you’re always heading home.