Like many people, I had big travel plans for this year, namely a 5-week mammoth USA road trip passing through California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah and Arizona visiting a variety of National Parks. Luckily, while our route was planned, we hadn’t got very far in the booking process with just our return flights to LA and our first 2 nights’ hotel accommodation booked by the time we went into lockdown. We put our planning on hold and thankfully, as it became more and more apparent that our trip had no chance of going ahead, our flights with Norwegian Airlines were cancelled and promptly fully refunded and we went ahead and cancelled our LA hotel reservation.
While travel to the USA was out of the question, as restrictions in the UK slowly began to be lifted, we started to wonder if a trip here would be a summer possibility. While I’ve extensively explored the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and a range of European cities, there is very little of my own country I have spent time seeing in anywhere near as much detail. Trips here for me mainly consist of city breaks to see a concert where more time is often spent travelling to and getting ready for our night out than sightseeing, or a few days somewhere on the Welsh coast walking my dog on the same 4 or 5 beaches each time. With our original trip being based on visiting USA National Parks, we wondered if we should maybe spend some time in the UK Parks.
So, still unsure if our trip would even become a possibility, we tentatively started doing some research.
With Wales and Scotland under separate rules and restrictions to here in England, we decided we should plan to stay away from the parks there in case we were still not allowed across the borders by the time August rolled around. That straight away cut down the possibilities to 10 English National Parks. The Norfolk Broads on the east coast, the Southern Downs, New Forest, Exmoor and Dartmoor in the south and the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors, Lake District and Northumberland National Parks to the North. Living in the Midlands, any direction would suit me as nowhere is very far in comparison to the distances we’d have driven in the US.
After some research, we decided rather than being over ambitious and attempting a full 5-week road trip taking in all of the parks when local lockdowns were very likely to come into force and disrupt our plans, we would concentrate on the parks in one area of the country and aim to spend about 10-14 days on our trip. Having seen a number of reports on crowds rushing to the south of England, we eventually decided to head to the parks in the north and came up with a 14 day itinerary during which we would hopefully spend time in the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, Northumberland and then the North York Moors. We’d begin our adventure midweek to avoid weekend traffic and made sure the days spent in the Lake District, the park we expected to be busiest, were also midweek when it might be slightly quieter.
By the time that it looked as if lockdown would be relaxed enough for our ideas to possibly come to fruition, we found that with everyone being forced into staycations, accommodation options were either very limited or extremely expensive so rather than staying in the parks themselves, we opted for chain hotels in towns on the outskirts of the park – making sure we went for the fully cancellable room options of course, just in case!
Hotels booked, a basic plan of possible activities was next. Covid restrictions meant spontaneity was not as much a possibility as usual. Attractions including National Trust properties, farm parks, boat trips etc were all working on a time-slot booking system and spots were filling up quickly but we were pleased to see most places offering transferable or even refundable tickets in case circumstances changed and visitors couldn’t it.
We wanted to stick with outdoor activities for the main part anyway so were banking on the weather staying mainly dry at least so we could busy ourselves with a range of walks to see the parks’ highlights. In preparation, we found the postcodes for all the car parks we might use and collected together as much change as possible – which is more difficult than it sounds in a world where contactless card payments are preferred everywhere – in case any of the park machines were cash only.
With the government’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme running Mon-Wed throughout August, park attractions weren’t the only thing we couldn’t be spontaneous with. Most restaurants were also operating a book ahead only policy so we had to think ahead as to where to eat on our trip sometimes booking more than a week in advance. Staying in the towns on the outskirts of the parks at least gave us more choice with this and allowed us to vary our cuisine a bit more. The scheme helped us to keep the cost of the trip down a lot along with finding various online vouchers to use at chain restaurants for the remaining days of the week and we kept the cost of eating out down further still by carrying a box of cereal with us for breakfast, buying rolls to make our own lunch and even taking a flask of hot water with us each day to make our own tea!
As we set off for the Peak District, we were fully expecting to have to give up and head home from our trip before reaching the end either due to weather issues or local lockdowns suddenly coming in but surprisingly we made it to all 5 of the parks on our list without interruption. It was certainly very different from our experiences of visiting the National Parks of America in the past with the UK parks being large areas containing lived and worked in towns and villages rather than being actual parks like in the US with an entrance, exit and a route to follow through taking you past all the highlights. We discovered early on that it was best to mainly keep out of the villages and towns after we arrived in Bakewell to find crowded streets and very little social distancing going on and from that point forward we aimed for open spaces where we could hike out to beauty spots on easy to follow trails, keeping a distance from others.
It was great to see a bit more of our own country, to get out into the countryside and go hiking and to drive through such beautiful scenery and while not quite as exciting as the trip we had planned, it was an adventure we would probably never have planned or experienced in normal circumstances.
Keep checking back for my write up of what we got up to in each park starting with our visit to the Peak District!