Reconciling the different – and often conflicting – interests of parents and their offspring can be one of the biggest challenges of family trips. So when my novelist husband was invited to play as part of the England Writers football team at the annual Wigtown Book Festival in south-western Scotland, the challenge was to find something that would swing the balance in favour of taking our young sons along.
We were in luck: Wigtown, Scotland’s ‘National Book Town’, just happens to lie on the fringes of the biggest forest park in all Britain, Galloway, and the region’s website promises up-close-and-personal encounters with all manner of wildlife over its spectacular 800km2 of woods, moorland, lochs and waterfalls: there’s a red deer range, a wild goat park (beware: they’ll want to share your sarnies) and red squirrel feeding station. Rare red kites were introduced here a couple of decades back, and the Red Kite Trail has a special kids’ section.
The best place to get to grips with the forest is Kirroughtree Visitor Centre (open late March-early Nov, plus weekends early Nov–early Dec), which hosts a range of seasonal events, many specially for kids or families. Coinciding with the Wigtown Festival is ‘Roaring Stags’, during which you can see (and hear!) red deer during the rut – the season when the biggest, strongest males round up a bunch of females for mating, driving away rivals by bellowing and sometimes even clashing their mighty antlers. At other times of the year you might find Easter treasure hunts, teddy bears picnics, bat hunts, woodland den building, pond dipping, ‘Nature Detectives Academies’, astronomy sessions (the area boasts some of Europe’s least light-polluted skies), a Santa’s grotto and Christmas horse-and-carriage rides. The Centre also has an adventure play area, picnic sites and a tea-room, and the friendly staff will point you in the direction of the waymarked walking trails for all ages, including a sculpture walk – more fun for kids than it sounds, it turns out, because some of the artworks, which include a maze, are concealed and have to be hunted out.
Our accommodation choice – Conifer Lodges on the fringes of the forest park close to the Visitor Centre – was spot on. It’s not Centre Parcs, but for a low-key holiday with the space and self-catering facilities a young family requires, it can’t be beat.
Reluctantly homeward-bound, we spent Sunday afternoon at Cream O’Galloway, a working organic farm handily located on the road back to Dumfries, Gretna Green and the M6, with regular tours, an amazing adventure playground squirreled away in the woods, a wildlife pond and observation hide, nature trails, cycle tracks (and bike hire, including child seats) and what may be the world’s best ice-cream parlour. The frequent events include bat watches and bug hunts.
As to that all-important question, and the gauge of all holidays – would we come back? – the answer is definitely. We left feeling that three days had not been enough to do the area justice: among attractions we hadn’t had time for are the Galloway Wildlife Conservation Park, another woodland site with maned wolves, red pandas and more in imaginatively designed, spacious enclosures, plus woodland walks and a play area; and Mabie Farm Park, with donkey rides and animal-feeding but more besides – quad-biking, grass-sledging, paddle-boating, a vast play-barn and picnic areas, and a toy shop.
And when the boys are older they’ll no doubt appreciate the fact that this region is fast achieving renown as a centre for cycling, particularly mountain-biking. In fact, the forest park boasts a number of cycle routes, including the award-winning 7 Stanes mountain-bike trails. This is also a good place to learn to sail, on Lock Ken, where the Galloway Activity Centre offers everything from half-day taster sessions to week-long courses ‘for ages 6–80’.
Read more about family holidays in Scotland including out hand-picked family-friendly places to stay.