Jettison your worries about air emissions and the pound’s exchange rate and opt instead for a British break. To help you plan, travel writer Mark Rowe offers his top five regions for green getaways.
We’ve all heard of the slow-food movement: you’ll find plenty of evidence of that in Somerset – not least in the cider, where the local brews cannot be hurried either in preparation or consumption – but you’ll also find many green getaways that enable you to lessen your carbon footprint in the pursuit of relaxation.
This is a county of flaxen softness, of low, dawn mists and mysterious hills, which runs from the high plateau of Exmoor with its giddy cliffs, via the Quantock, Blackdown and Mendip Hills, to the spirit-level flatness of the Somerset levels.
Like anywhere, things are imperfect: eight out of ten visitors to Somerset arrive by car but the county is trying to address this with a series of thoughtfully compiled car-free itineraries. These enable visitors to travel around by bus, bicycle, train – including vintage steam trains – and on foot.
There are seven itineraries and websites of attractions you’ll encounter along the way, which can be downloaded from the Visit Somerset website. The routes range from the county’s legends and associations with King Arthur, its coastline, fossil hunting by the seaside, and the enigmatic hinterland of the Somerset Levels, dominated by willow trees used for weaving baskets.
Perhaps the most eye-catching is “scrumptious Somerset”. This involves a 19-mile bus and cycling expedition that takes in a smokery at Hambridge, which specialises in smoked eels and salmon, a cider distillery at Stembridge and an orchard.
Another of the itineraries starts from Bishops Lydeard, home of the West Somerset Railway, the longest heritage route in the UK. Close by, and a good base for a holiday, are the Mill Meadow Eco Lodges in Kingston St Mary. The lodges are graded five-star for their tourism standards and are rated as excellent by the BRE Eco-Homes certification system. Features include heat pumps, rain harvesting, low energy lighting and triple glazed windows.
Another good option is either of two lodges at Torr Farm near Cheddar, clad in English cedar with environmentally friendly green roofs, one with a living sedum roof and the other with slates made from recycled car tyres. Across the county, many hotels, B&Bs and guest houses are graded by the Green Tourist business scheme, the sustainable tourism certification scheme for the UK. For a full list, see the Visit Somerset site.
As you explore the county, you soon discover that there is a lot more to it than Cheddar Gorge. The Mill on the Brue centre in the south-east of the county offers summer camps and outdoor activities for children and adults, including building and floating a raft down the River Brue. The centre follows a strict green code and grows its own organic vegetables, sources other food locally and has a solar clothes drying room.
To see how generations of farmers and craftsman have worked with nature, visit the Somerset Levels and moors, a watery world stretching for 260 square miles, historically flooded in winter when communities were marooned on higher ground.
The climate is perfect for willow growing, a centuries-old county tradition. From the withy beds, woodcraft and wattling techniques are used to create furniture, hedges, baskets and even artists’ studios, all of which seem coeval with the land on which they stand. To learn more about this sustainable artisan trade, visit the Willow and Wetlands Centre.
Cycle routes abound: two of the best routes are the 80 miles in South Somerset, which begins at Yeovil Junction train station and can be divided into seven stages; and the 60-mile Exmoor Cycle Trail which begins in Minehead, linking up with the West Somerset Railway, before moving inland to high moorland.
Several themed walking routes nudge their way around the county: a personal favourite is the Coleridge Way, a 36-mile trail that links the Quantock Hills and Exmoor National Park through ancient oak woods and secluded valleys.
Despite his opium addiction, the poet Samuel Coleridge was a passionate walker, and the walk starts in the village of Nether Stowey, where he spent three years, writing The Rime of The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan.
Somerset also has a number of low-carbon community-inspired paths. Arguably the pick of these is the Strawberry Line, a project that is converting a railway line from Clevedon to Cranmore into a network safe paths for walkers, horseriders and cyclists. The paths have been restored in areas where it was previously difficult or dangerous to walk because of busy roads. Nature reserves are being created or restored as part of the project and several parts the route recently opened.
To stock up on food, Somerset boasts a number of towns, including Frome, Chard, Somerton and Langport, that place great emphasis on local food and products and where you will find vibrant farmers’ markets. As a base for a holiday where you can keep you impact on the environment to a minimum, there are few better regions in the UK.
I was once told that you slow down as you enter Herefordshire, not because there’s a tractor in front of you, but to take in the views. But the cliche about the pace of life being slower holds true.
The place to stay: The Buzzards, Kingsland, a self-catering property in rural north Herefordshire based on a 17- acre organic smallholding that is home to a nature reserve and wildlife trail.
The attraction: Herefordshire’s best attraction is arguably its countryside. It has the UK’s longest complete footpath, the 154-mile Herefordshire Trail, which loops through bucolic countryside, character-filled market towns, pretty rural churches and castle ruins, occasionally flirting with the England- Wales border. It can be walked in bite-sized chunks for those who cannot spare the 10 days the whole route requires.
The activities: If you want to try to carve a bark seat, a Windsor chair or a baby rattle from wood, then you could consider visiting Gudrun Leitz, a working craftswoman based near Ledbury. Other local crafts that can be sampled include herbal medicine, blacksmithing, bookbinding and basket making. All these can be booked through the Creative Breaks association, set up to enable visitors to meet local craftspeople.
Children’s day out: The Amazing Hedge Puzzle at Symonds Yat West, Ross-on-Wye, is a must-see. Once you’ve broken the Jubilee maze mystery, visit the hands-on museum to discover maze secrets through the ages.
North Norfolk and the Broads are famed for their birdlife. The county also boasts one of the UK’s best public transport routes, the Coasthopper service, which links Cromer and King’s Lynn.
The place to stay: Strattons Hotel in Swaffham is a boutique hotel in a converted Palladian villa, and the first in the UK to win the Queen’s Award for Outstanding Environmental Performance. The restaurant offers organic and locally-sourced foods. Campers may opt for the tipis and yurts at Deepdale Farm in Burnham Deepdale.
The attraction: The Wildlife & Wetlands Trust at Welney boasts sustainability awards from the Civic Trust for its timber-framed visitor centre. You don’t need to be a twitcher to enjoy the fenland landscape it sits in.
The activity: At the height of summer, the Broads can resemble the port of Dover with boats chugging back and forth. There are a couple of greener alternatives: one is to take to a canoe through the reedbeds and waterways. The other option is to cycle the nine circular rides through the northern Broads, including the River Ant.
Children’s day out: Visit Wroxham Barns at Hoveton, a member of the Produced in Norfolk scheme that promotes and supports local suppliers and producers. The promise of egg collecting and pony rides on the farm, and the children’s funfair, should keep the little ones happy while you browse the craft stalls.
Britain’s most visited national park – 36 million of us go there each year. This has prompted determined efforts to lower visitors’ carbon footprint to prevent longterm damage and create a more rewarding, greener experience.
The place to stay: The Environmental Quality Mark (EQM) rewards properties offering high standards of conservation and environmental protection. This includes the use of locally-grown products, efficient use of energy and water, and environmental information for customers. A list of EQM-standard accommodation can be found on the park’s website, but one of the most characterful is Beechenhill Farm, an organic dairy farm which offers B&B.
The attraction: The Moorland Centre at Fieldhead, Edale, in the shadow of Kinder Scout. The centre is insulated with a green roof and heated by a ground source heat pump and has a good exhibition on the surrounding peat moors.
Activities: The Peak District National Park’s BESST (Business and the Environment linked through Small Scale Tourism) project funded a range of activities, including several cycling and walking routes.
Children’s day out: Experience the inside of a chimney or a Victorian schoolroom and other interactive events and performances at the National Trust Museum of Childhood, in Sudbury Hall, Ashbourne.
The big skies and empty spaces of Northumberland lend themselves to a range of environmentally-sensitive and low-carbon activities.
The place to stay: The Hytte (pronounced Hutta) is a timber-built, grass-roofed, geothermally heated cottage, located 10 miles north of Hexham, close to Hadrian’s Wall.
The attraction: Kielder Water & Forest Park is the most tranquil place in England according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Kielder is not only the country’s largest forest, it has, thanks to minimal light pollution, the darkest skies overlooking northern Europe’s largest man-made lake. The new 27-mile Lakeside Way, above, is a track suitable for wheelchairs and pushchair as well as cyclists, horse riders, runners and walkers.
The activities: Guided kayaking trips along the Northumberland and Scottish border coast or inland rivers. Walking opportunities abound and the county is operating a three-month Summer of Walks programme. In a county of hidden gems, perhaps the least visited of all is the magnificent walking territory of Coquetdale, north of Otterburn, the MoD’s military training area. Contrary to popular belief, military land is usually open to the public when training isn’t taking place (and sometimes even when it is) and the absence of people make for a dramatic, unspoilt landscape.
Children’s day out: The Sanctuary Wildlife Care Centre, Morpeth, offers pony rides, ride-on tractors and animal feeding. Your entrance fee helps to care for the injured wild animals the charity rescues, hoping to return to the wild.
• Originally published in GreenerLiving magazine in August 2009