Arguably nothing could make anyone want to run away to a cabin in the woods more than the scenes of traffic queueing along the A30 over the past two weeks. Add the Portugal fiasco to the fact that Cornwall is seemingly booked out until 2022 and it’s evident that we should, perhaps, consider something new for our holidays this year – preferably on home soil.
Somewhere like Cheshire, maybe. I know, “Who goes on holiday to Cheshire?” – but that is exactly the point. The fact that the northern county is rarely considered as a worthy candidate for a break, especially one in a forest, should make it a front runner this summer.
That’s why I recently found myself in the middle of Delamere Forest at the new Forest Holidays site, scooping meal worms out of a tin camping mug and washing it down with bramble tea.
Disappointed that my holiday to the Maldives had been cancelled for the fourth time in 14 months, I had decided to seek solace in the one green-list destination that won’t disappear from the list anytime soon (we hope) – Britain.
“Meal worm?” Mike Wickham, self-professed wild-camping expert, had casually offered as if he were handing out free lollipops. Starved of even the smallest hint of adventure for the past year, I didn’t hesitate. I picked out a small pinch of the dried critters and popped them in my mouth.
“Marshmallow to follow?” Gerry O’Brien, forest ranger, suggested from his crouched position by the fire as I crunched the smokey, distinctive fare. Our Ultimate Forest Survival experience had started an hour before with shelter-building – an activity that Gerry admitted was unlikely to be needed in the Cheshire forest, but useful all the same. “It’s a fun thing to learn, and the kids love it,” he said, as he gestured to an impressive structure that a father-and-son team had made earlier.
In comparison, our paltry A-frame shelter looked like even the slightest breeze would knock it over. This was, I decided, at least partly Gerry’s fault. Not because of his teaching ability, but because I was so easily distracted by the tales of his post-military career, the efforts of Forest Holidays and their partners Forestry England, Forestry and Land Scotland and Natural Resources Wales to restore the nation’s woodland.
As we hunted for branches, sticks and moss, Gerry not only provided useful tips for construction (locate y-shaped branches first, create the frame and then pack with moss), but also spoke of the impact that the pandemic has had on Forest Rangers.
“For a while, I was put on furlough, but the grounds and forests need maintenance,” he revealed. “It’s been tough – like it has for everyone – but people seem more connected to the outdoors than before, and the simple joy that they have at being away on holiday again is obvious.”
Talks, lessons and activities have all started again in earnest and the passion of these woodland custodians is obvious. As we wandered to find Mike and his fire pit, Gerry pointed out various plants and their uses in a survival situation – some a good source of vitamins, others downright poisonous.
Greeting Mike, a fire-starting lesson ensued and I was proud to light my first flame without the use of matches or a lighter. As we waited for the flames to grow, Mike spoke about his love of the outdoors and his new job with Forest Holidays as something of a vocation. “If it weren’t for this new site protecting the forest while also providing jobs, I think this native woodland would have soon disappeared,” he revealed. But the opening of Forest Holidays in Delamere Forest in April 2021 hasn’t only helped to protect the native forest, it’s supported the community, too.
Tourism has been hit incredibly hard as a result of the restrictions, and I met staff members who had been made redundant from jobs as travel agents and marketing companies as business went into a tailspin, finding a fresh start employed in various roles with Forest Holidays.
The new cabins sit huddled within Delamere Forest’s canopy, promising a semi-private getaway for couples and a diverting break for families. As we waved Gerry and Mike farewell, licking sticky marshmallow from our fingers, the clouds that had been threatening all afternoon finally broke and rain pattered softly on the leaf litter, amplifying the earthy smell of the forest. By the time we reached the front door of our White Willow Premium cabin, we were drenched and shivering.
The only sensible solution for the bone-deep cold was sitting on our deck; we poured a couple of glasses of complimentary prosecco, ordered dinner and submerged ourselves in the hot tub.
Part of the beauty of this site is that you can do as much or as little as you like. If you’re after a relaxing weekend, you can order a spa treatment to your room through Glo Pamper (glo-pamper.co.uk), light a fire and curl up on the sofa, or make the most of the outdoor kitchen with its BBQ and pizza oven. There’s also a small shop as well as a café and you can order food and drinks straight to your cabin door, including a Booths (booths.co.uk) meal kit that provides pre-prepared ingredients.
In theory, you could spend a whole weekend without setting foot outside, but you’d be missing out on the underrated Cheshire countryside. For the active, there’s Go Ape (goape.co.uk) nearby offering treetop adventures; a plethora of biking tracks (bikes can be hired on site); and a number of spectacular walks – the view from the top of Old Pale Hill is especially worth it.
Like many, I have always found comfort in the outdoors, and that has only been amplified over the course of the pandemic. But even I was surprised by the feeling of peace and calm that I found in the Cheshire forest. It may not be the Maldives, but it’s a great option for those with soaring stress levels – and for those who need distracting from dreams of tropical idylls.
How to do it
A two-bedroom White Willow Premium cabin at Delamere Forest (03330 110 495; forestholidays.co.uk) costs from £1,065 for four nights.