Since my Ethan started at school in September 2013 we have become very restricted with regards to holidays, much like most of the families in this country. Prior to this we would go on holiday during term time to take advantage of the cheaper prices. We were very lucky and would go for a week away in the Summer in France or the UK, a week in Centreparcs in October and maybe a long weekend away somewhere at some point in the year. Because it was cheaper, we could afford to! We managed to fit in one more cheeky Centreparcs break once Ethan had started at school because he wasn't 5 until July '14 so legally we didn't have to have him in school.. but now he's in Year One and rapidly heading towards 6, it's a different ball game.
I hate to be restricted in this way. I personally feel that holidays are incredibly beneficial for families. Not essential maybe, but very important. Holidays mean a change of scenery, time together, a chance to get away from every day chores that take up our time, new experiences, new languages, new food. Holidays create memories that all of us treasure and look back on forever. Think of some of your favorite memories from your childhood or in fact your life in general.. Most of mine are from time spent away with family and friends and I bet yours are too!
I understand supply and demand. I know why travel companies up prices in the school holidays but it is still maddening to most of us. If you do take your child out of school you can now be fined (though I have heard whispers that something might be being done to change all of this). For some of us, the risk of a fine is one worth taking. My husband and I are a bit goody goody really and being fined does put us off. We're also not comfortable with the idea of phoning the school and pretending Ethan is ill for a week. In no way would I want to make my child lie and show them that lying is OK. So. We are stuck. Holidays in the school holidays it is. Or no holidays at all.
For this reason, when I read about Real Family Holidays earlier this year I pretty much lept up and whooped for joy! Finally a company who want to make holidays accessible to all!
Who are Real Family Holidays? Well, they are part of the Field Studies Council? Not heard of them before? Well, they are a registered charity who are "dedicated to helping people enjoy nature". If you studied Geology or Geography at A Level or higher, chances are you took a field trip and stayed at one of their locations around the country to complete some field work. This is where the idea came from. The FSC have lots of locations in the UK which are used by schools/collages/universities in term time but during school holidays, these places are left empty of students. Why not fill them with families who need a break from their towns and cities, want a chance to get close to nature and have a family holiday that doesn't cost the earth?!
From £20 per person per night (including all your food and accommodation) you can get away to a variety of places around the UK during the holidays. You can't get much cheaper than that! The FSC have buildings in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Yorkshire, Wales, Surrey, Somerset and Devon. A good selection!
We decided to visit one of their Welsh locations, Dale Fort in Dale, Pembrokeshire. We felt it would be a good distance from us in Somerset. The location in Somerset felt too close to home. Anything further than a couple of hours drive too far away (Felix is not yet 2) and Devon is somewhere we visit quite often.
Dale Fort is a converted Victorian Military Fort right on the Pembrokeshire cost. From the base you can easily explore beaches and countryside and even visit the famous bird islands of Skomer, Skokholm and Grassholm. The accommodation consists of a mixture of twin/3 bed/dormitory style rooms, so great for families and groups. Toilet & shower facilities are close to rooms and in some cases in rooms. There is a quiet lounge for visiting adults and a common room for children. These rooms house coffee/tea making facilities, TVs and games.
A free activity is offered for each day, at Dale Fort these activities include rock pooling, pond dipping and wild art.
The centre also offers a field for sports and a lawn/decked area for relaxation in nice weather.
We visited during the first week of the Easter holidays. Unfortunately the weather wasn't great during our stay, it was rather cold and very windy.. but this was unlucky!! For the people staying during the second week I'll bet it was a different story! Despite the weather we were very impressed.
We found Dale Fort easy to find. Once you reach the village of Dale it's quite a long thin road you have to rive down to reach the fort but it's very quiet so this was no issue. There was plenty of parking once we'd arrived.
The welcome we received was very friendly. In fact, all contact we had with staff during our stay was fantastic. They were all friendly and very very helpful. I felt they were excellent at dealing with young children and you certainly felt they were available to you, should you need them. We were shown to our room which was one of the dormitory style rooms which could sleep up to 5 people (or more!). The room was an excellent size. There was one set of bunkbeds, a high sleeper and two single beds underneath. Plenty of room for us to set up Felix's travel cot, a large desk, a chest of draws, wardrobe, chairs, sink and our own shower and loo. An excellent set up!
Felix still drinks a lot of milk so we were very pleased to find a small fridge available in the common room and adult lounge. We were assured that it was absolutely fine for us to store milk there and just advised to write our name on it.
Once we had settled into our room and been for a little explore around the centre it was time for our first meal. Meals with Real Family Holidays are a little like a school dinner experience but I mean that in a positive light. The evening meal was served between 6-7pm. Breakfast was between 8-9 am and packed lunch making facilities and supplies were available in the mornings until a little after breakfast time. Homemade cake, tea & coffee were available at all times in the common rooms. All of the families staying at the centre eat in the same room (but there are separate tables) and the food is served from a hatch (this is where it feels a bit like school dinners!) with water, squash, tea/coffee, sauces, cutlery, napkins and fruit available on the tables. The menu changes each day with one main choice, a vegetarian option and the option of a jacket potato and toppings if you don't fancy the main option. A pudding is also provided in the evening.
We found the food to be great! Yes, it's not Michelin standard but it was more than acceptable, Tasty, warm. Just what you need after a busy day. Ethan loved going up to the hatch and asking for his food. We loved all eating together and not having to cook or wash up (you do help by taking your dirty plates through to the wash up area). Because the boys are still young there aren't many times we all manage to eat as a family of four so this was a lovely chance for us all.
The trickiest thing about our stay was that we were all in the same room. Felix is not yet two and not the easiest sleeper at the best of times. I would be lying if I didn't say sharing a room was hard. However, if he were a little older I know this would not be a problem. Or even if he had a different personality!! The fact is he's a light sleeper and very switched on. Other kids are out like a light and hardly wake! Thankfully the room was big enough for us to put one light on once the boys were asleep so we could read, chat quietly and have a cheeky pint. WiFi was available too!
Our second day dawned and we all excitedly attended breakfast. There was plenty on offer. A cooked breakfast with all the trimmings, cereal, fruit, drinks. We filled ourselves up!! Once we'd eaten we visited the packed lunch making room (down a corridor from the dining room) and were VERY impressed with the choice! Just about every sandwich filling you could ever think of was on offer. I mean it! Marmite, jam, cheese, phili spread, egg mayo, tuna mayo, cheese savory, coronation chicken, branston pickle and the list goes on. There was plenty of bread, brown and white, masses of salad and veg, fruit and heaps of cakes and biscuits. You just made as much as you wanted and bagged it up for later!!
After making our packed lunch we went for a stroll into the village. It took about 20 minutes to walk there (it'd be a bit quicker without young ones in tow) and once there we visited a cafe as Felix had fallen asleep. Pete and I read whilst Ethan did a bit of Minecraft!! Chill out time. After that we headed back up to the Fort to eat our lunch in our room and then do some more exploring! In the afternoon Ethan and I took part in that day's free activity. We'd decided it'd probably be a bit too structured for Felix (again, this will depend on the activity and your child!) so Pete took him for a walk.
Ethan and I met the FSC employees who were running the activity in the Dale Fort library. That day it was just Ethan and I taking part in the activity and we were asked if we'd like to go pond dipping or rock pooling. Ethan and I decided rock pooling would be more exciting. We then grabbed a load of equipment (I borrowed some waterproof trousers. Waterproofs and wellies are available for hire during your stay) and off we set.
We took a short walk from the centre down to one of the small beaches nearby. It took about 10 minutes to get there and whilst a little steep at times, it was an easy walk for Ethan (who's 5) to manage. Once down on the beach we headed to the rocks to find the rock pools and see what we could find!
The staff were full of information and were absolutely brilliant with Ethan who wouldn't stop talking and singing at them. Honestly, they were a delight! We found heaps of creatures. Ethan impressed everyone by correctly identifying barnacles, anemones and limpets! We found fish (Blennies), crabs and even some tiny, very cute starfish! Ethan was in his element and we had a fantastic time. I don't think Pete had it so easy controlling Felix back at the fort!!
Once we arrived back we all hung out in the common room. The boys enjoyed seeing some other children in there.. then before we knew it it was time for our evening meal! We had fish and chips with fruit salad for pudding. Classic! After tea Pete took Felix back to our room to get him settled down for the night. I took Ethan off to the adult quiet room as there was no one else there. We enjoyed a bit of TV together for a bit (I had a coffee!) and then we nestled into one of the sofas and I read him a few chapters of his book. After that it was up to bed where he settled down quite easily and Pete and I could relax in (dark) peace for a bit!
On our final day we took part in the morning activity which was Wild Art. We all trekked down to the beach in Dale village and set about collecting whatever we could find. Ethan had asked me if he could make a mobile so we found bits of drift wood and shells. It was sunnier but still windy and a bit chilly so we didn't hang around too long- Felix was starting to get cold and grumpy! We found a good selection of stuff and with the help of the staff who provided string and scissors I was able to create quite a good mobile with Ethan!
After the activity we decided to start making our way home as we had a 2.5 hour drive ahead. Whilst we would have liked to stay for longer than two nights at Dale Fort we suspected in advance that it would be quite hard work with Felix being so young still, all of us in one room. We were right. However, on our journey home Pete and I both expressed that whilst it was hard work looking after him there, we would do it again in a heartbeat. We're just going to wait a year or two!
The boys enjoyed themselves no end which is what it's all about really. Ethan didn't want to leave. he really took to the staff and they to him! He loved being able to take part in making his own packed lunch and rambling around getting mucky and exploring the beaches.
Since getting back I have told so many friends and family about Real Family Holidays. Everyone I tell is so impressed with the price. I think it's such a fantastic idea and we truly recommend it. If your children are aged 3-4 upwards I think it'd be perfect. There's little else you can do in this country for this price, food and accommodation included.
The different centres around the country offer different times for stays but they are all set during the school holidays. There is something for everyone!
Thinking of going? Great. You won't regret it!! All I would say is to remember it's an outdoors/activity based holiday so pack for all weathers and don't pack your nicest clothes and you'll be fine!