Although there’s now distant light at the end of the tunnel, it’s still a long time before we’ll be able to meet up with family and friends safely indoors without Covid-19 hovering invisibly around us. So, I’ve put together a list of ideas for outdoor places to visit this winter. I’ve done so many local country walks with my children this year, that I am definitely looking forward to meeting up with my parents and other family members at some new outdoor attractions this winter.
There are some brilliant outdoor places to visit near me which I haven’t had a chance to check out yet. No doubt by the end of lockdown we’ll all be experts in the outdoor places in our areas. And I’m determined to make a walker out of my reluctant six year old who’s determined to travel everywhere by bike. If you have any tips, please let me know.
Wild outdoor places to go: nature reserves
Some nature reserves are fairly basic with just an anonymous car park or a layby next to the road to park in, but there are others which offer a visitor centre, café and toilets. There are often bird hides where you can quietly view the wildlife (I find this rather tricky with one of my children…) and there’s usually plenty of trees to climb, rivers to explore and sticks to collect. It’s surprising how long the lure of stick collecting continues through childhood.
The RSPB has a really useful search facility whereby you can look for a nature reserve by the facilities it offers such as toilets or a café.
Find out more: RSPB nature reserves
National Nature Reserves
The government also has a useful website to track down our national nature reserves. We are lucky enough to have one quite close by us – beautiful Broxbourne Woods near Hertford is one of my kids’ favourite places to go outdoors.
Find out more: National Nature Reserves in England
The Wildlife Trust
The Wildlife Trust has its own list of outdoor places to explore. We have some lovely areas near us which are managed by the Wildlife Trust – an old apple orchard favoured by badgers and a stretch of our local river. Pre-lockdown and hopefully in the future, there are organised walks and meet ups geared towards children. We enjoyed a brilliant bat safari by boat a couple of years ago.
We have lots of pockets of woodland protected by the Woodland Trust near us – some of our favourite local walks are in these woods. If you’re looking for a new outdoor place to visit with kids, take a look at the Woodland Trust website for some ideas.
Historic places to go outdoors: open air museums
We’ve been to some excellent open air museums over the years. Our local one is Mountfitchet Castle near Stansted. It’s a recreation of a Norman castle and village with plenty of amusing attractions to keep both adults and children entertained. If you’d prefer not to visit an indoor museum at the moment or you’d like to meet up with someone who can’t be indoors, open air museums are a really great option.
While most of the highlights of an open air museum are outside, there’s usually a café and other attractions indoors so you can take shelter should the weather turn.
Read my blog post about the best UK open air museums.
National Trust outdoor places to visit
The good old National Trust – where would we be without it right now? The National Trust doesn’t just preserve stately homes and landscaped gardens, it also looks after thousands of acres of wild places: forests, coastlines, moorlands.
Our most recent trip to a National Trust outdoor place was Frensham Little Pond near Farnham. At Frensham there are brilliant walks for children, trees to climb, hills to run up (and down) plus a great little café selling bacon butties and coffee. Our nearest large National Trust property is Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire which has an excellent walk across fields to a ruined folly. We also love Hatfield Forest in Essex which has tons of space for walks and also a decent café with plenty of outdoor seating.
The National Trust has a really good search function on its website where you can filter by your requirements – castle, countryside, coast and the results are plotted on a map for you. If you’re not keen on splashing out on National Trust membership, there are plenty of places managed by the Trust which only require a car parking charge for you to enjoy the facilities.
For my mum’s birthday we squeezed in a final family gathering just before the rule of six came into force with a picnic by the River Thames at Runnymede. There’s a car park right next to the river (ideal if anyone in your party has mobility issues), there’s also a café (shut when we visited in September) and toilets plus some lovely walks in the surrounding countryside. I’d recommend visiting Runnymede simply to see the excellent Writ in Water installation by Mark Wallinger.
Where are the best National Trust places to visit near you? Let me know in the comments at the end.
Find out more: National Trust website.
Cool places to go hiking: UK National Parks and AONBs
We all know about the big name parks – Snowdonia, the Lake District and the Cairngorms. But can you name all of our country’s national parks? I couldn’t! Exmoor, the Norfolk Broads and the Pembrokeshire Coast all have National Park status. There are fifteen National Parks in total across the UK and I was surprised to discover that I have actually visited all of them during my adult life.
While these wild places might not be on your doorstep, they make great destinations for a socially distant long weekend away if separate groups stay in different accommodations. The National Parks are great places to go hiking but they’re equally good if you’re looking for beautiful coastlines, pretty villages and other fun outdoor places.
Have a read of my article on Hampshire, home to two beautiful national parks – the South Downs and the New Forest.
Find out more: UK National Parks
I’ve extensively explored the rural areas of Hertfordshire close to me since Covid took hold. In the most recent lockdown I had a real hankering to climb a hill – it’s fairly flat where we live – and so I found an excellent walk not far from us over the border in Bedfordshire in the Chiltern Hills which is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or AONB. We have 46 AONBs in the UK and 66% of us live within half an hour of one. These protected places are landscapes which are deemed to be exceptional in terms of their beauty and character.
Find out more: AONB Landscapes for Life
Arty outdoor attractions to visit: sculpture parks and trails
Sculpture trails and parks are a great way to inject a bit of art and culture into your children without dragging them round a traditional gallery or museum. Some sculpture parks are formal places where art can be purchased while other destinations are simply there to be enjoyed.
One of my favourite outdoor places to go near me is the Henry Moore Studios and Gardens which are particularly brilliant if you have young children who like to touch things – the outdoor bronze sculptures are fine to manhandle (one of my children finds it difficult to resist touching things in museums). On a larger scale, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield is a brilliant family outdoor day out, the artworks are set in huge grounds and it’s free to enter, you just pay for parking.
Great places to go with kids outdoors: Forestry Commission woodlands
These fun outdoor places to go are dotted across the country. Our nearest one is Wendover Woods in Buckinghamshire. It has various woodland trails perfect for walks and bike rides. There’s also a play area and a café and toilets. It’s in a great location midway between us and the in-laws.
If you’re looking for family-friendly places to cycle in the UK, check out my article all about the best bike rides for kids – it covers woodland trails as well as disused railway lines and coastal routes.
My favourite Forestry Commission woodland is without doubt Moors Valley Country Park which has some truly brilliant adventure play areas dotted through the woods. We also like Alice Holt near Farnham which is a good spot for meeting up with my parents who live nearby.
Forestry England has a useful search facility with a map search function, really useful if you need to find a midway point to meet family or friends in England.
Best urban places to visit outside: the High Street
During this bleak period, I think we need to borrow some traditions from our European neighbours. In Italy, families take to the streets in all seasons to walk, meet friends, shop and have coffee. They even have a name for it – passeggiata. It’s an age old tradition which doesn’t seem to have been affected too dramatically by the rise of the internet.
Scandinavian countries meanwhile embrace the cold – with blankets. We visited Denmark and Sweden in very chilly weather and enjoyed al fresco dining in Copenhagen and Malmo thanks to many of the cafes and restaurants offering rugs and blankets to the customers. I’ve now adopted this at home – I’ve started taking a blanket to the pub when I go for an evening out with friends.
Our local high street needs us more now than ever. Perhaps there’s a town you’ve always wanted to visit – well, now is a great time to do some UK sightseeing. We live in Hertfordshire and my family live in Hampshire – there are plenty of great towns between us where we could meet up for a spot of window shopping with a takeaway coffee in hand.
Check out The Great British High Street for award winning high streets near you.
Fun outdoor places to go: country parks and regional parks
We have some brilliant country parks in the UK. Some have a café and toilets located close by so they work well for families meeting up who might be in need of refreshments. The government has an accredited list of country parks in England but there are plenty more besides. Our closest regional parks are Lee Valley and Colne Valley – both are close to London.
There are also quite a few privately owned country parks in the UK. We regularly meet up with family at Wellington Country Park, near Reading in Berkshire. There’s a petting farm, lots of play equipment, a café and lots of outdoor eating areas. I used to visit this country park as a child and it’s great returning there with my own children. Not far from us but somewhere I’ve yet to visit is the Aldenham Country Park, a non-profit farming and educational enterprise which has nature trails and an adventure play area.
Here’s the link to the government’s list of country parks: Accredited country parks in England
Coastal outdoor places to visit
Do you or your friends and family live relatively near the coast? A day at the seaside is a great option for a socially distant meeting place. There’s space to spread out, plenty of facilities and the sea air is incredibly good for the soul at any time of year.
Our favourite seaside spots in wintertime are Camber Sands in Kent and Holkham in North Norfolk. We spent New Years Day 2020 celebrating with a huge group of friends on the beach at Holkham – little did we know at that stage what the year would bring.
Check out my post about UK seaside holiday destinations for more ideas on a day trip to the coast.
Stay outdoors: glamping and camping
Now, this is perhaps not what comes to mind when you’re considering suitable destinations where you can meet up with family and friends, but please bear with me. We stayed at a brilliant glamping site in North Yorkshire in the summer and although it is closed over the main winter months, it does reopen at the start of March, complete with en-suite facilities and a log burning stove – I think this would be a wonderfully cosy weekend break (albeit not a particularly cheap one). Some glamping and camping sites remain open year-round for hardy visitors.
Check out my blog post about some of the best family friendly glamping sites across the UK. If you prefer a bricks and mortar break but with a similarly rural feel, have a look at my post about farm stays in England.
I’ve also written an extensive article about places to stop at just off the motorway – picnic spots, local pubs and lots of other ideas which avoid stopping at motorway service stations. We’ve used this list lots of times when planning to meet up with family and friends at a midway point.
If you’re local to Hertfordshire, I’ve put together some of our favourite places for Autumn walks in Hertfordshire.
Do you have any suggestions for fun and interesting places to meet family and friends this winter and on into the unknown of 2021? Let me know in the comments below.
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