I’d been having cabin fantasies – I wanted to go off-grid, swim in a river, eat tomatoes and read books. I wanted to be Huckleberry Finn. We booked a rural place in the north of the Dordogne, did lots of walking and as it was cep (porcini) season, the local market was full of delicious mushrooms. Most visitors to France buy wine and some cheese to take home, but by the end of the week we’d found some land nearby for sale, with a little fisherman’s hut by a lake, surrounded by trees. This was almost 10 years ago, and the two-room cabin is now our little piece of eco-heaven.
We used clay and straw to plaster the inside, and the wood for the staircase and the handcut chestnut roof shingles came from our land or our neighbour’s. It has a kitchen-living area, a bedroom under the eves, a terrace and a composting loo, but no telly or phone signal. There’s a shower with a solar pump connected to the lake – but my favourite way of washing there is to heat a kettle on the woodburner and have a bucket shower.
We go a couple of times a year, paddling on a raft and swimming, surrounded by kingfishers, swallows and dragonflies, with the sound of frogs in the evening. I once spent a month trying to spot a black woodpecker, which I saw fleetingly while running with my dog. You can feel like Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond.
For campervan drivers in France, there’s a system called France Passion . Membership costs €28 and includes a directory of places where you can stay for free for 24 hours. Some have a farm shop, so you can buy, say, some cider in return.
My favourite thing is the night walk (about €12) from Busserolles village, which usually happens in July. About 300 people of all ages meet at 7pm to take one of two routes (8km or 12km). After a few kilometres, you convene in a field where there are lots of bottles of wine and little amuse-bouches. Further on, another field has rows of trestle tables for the main course – perhaps a huge bowl of bean soup with bread and cheese – by which time it’s dark and most people are a bit drunk. Back in the village there’s coffee and eclairs or sticky buns and a disco in the square. It’s a lovely community event that brings everyone together on the level that walking does. I’m researching a book about living simply, so in November I’m going to be an intern at the Earthship. It was started by architect Michael Reynolds, in Taos, New Mexico, who builds autonomous buildings made of 50% rubbish, designed to regulate temperature, recycle water, and have space to grow food. The book is about how to live happily with a lighter footprint on the planet. There’s no blanket solution but it’s about balance and consciousness, and as a global community, we’re all culpable. • Poacher’s Cabin sleeps two and is available to rent from Canopy & Stars (£90 a night)
One of the most important things to do on holiday is to disconnect from the outside world. No TV, no newspapers or looking at phones too much. When we visited the Norfolk Broads a few years ago, it was fantastic for going offline. Our children are 12 and 14, and it was the youngest who suggested it again for this year. Spending time as a family with the dogs on a boat with a top speed of about six miles an hour really makes you slow down.
We picked up the boat in Stalham, cruised past Yarmouth to Beccles and Lowestoft then back up via Reedham. We did a few nights of wild moorings, under beautiful dark skies, and saw an otter or two, herons and lots of other wildlife. It’s a different experience from other ways of travelling around the UK – arriving at little villages by water, taking a walk to seek out a teashop, or into a pub for dinner. We loved the Ferry Inn in Stokesby and the Rising Sun in Coltishall, both with overnight moorings.
We then drove up the east coast to Northumberland and stayed in a cottage on a farm near Alnmouth. I had my first family holiday in the village when I was 13 and I’d often pass it on the train to Edinburgh, and thought I’d like to return.
We spent half a day at Druridge Bay, just south of Amble. Friends of the Earth have been fighting against a proposal for a new opencast coal mine on this unspoiled coastal stretch. Tourism has brought in £1bn for the region, but the proposal could end the very reason people visit these parts. The Northumberland coast is extraordinary, with beautiful sand dunes and hardly anyone there. We had a lot of long walks on dog-friendly beaches, made “water worlds” in the sand, and caught a whiff of smoky kippers in Craster.
People will often talk about holidays in the UK as a “staycation” but I find that odd. When I was growing up, the normal thing was to holiday in the UK – it’s how I got to know the country I live in, an experience I want my children to have too.
Italy by train
Emma Kemp, campaigner, 10:10 Climate Action, leader of its Climate Perks initiative
Following a breakup, I decided to travel solo around Italy for two-and-a-half weeks in the hope of filling myself with Italian veggie food, sunny weather and Roman history. It was my first time travelling alone and the days before I left were speckled with excitement over my new-found independence, as well as nerves.
I was stunned by the views from the train between Paris and Turin, through mountains and little villages. After a day spent cycling along the riverbank and eating amazing local raspberry and almond granita, it was on to the Cinque Terre, where fresh pesto in Vernazza was a highlight.
Next, an overnight train took me to Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. I adored the whole region: Lecce is all baroque architecture, and in Ostuni I feasted on regional beetroot and turnip-top soup and truffle pasta with wild mushrooms. A lot of the traditional food in this region is vegetarian, because meat was once unaffordable for most.
Everyone told me the same thing about Naples: that you cry twice. Once when you arrive and again when you leave. I was surprised by how much this rang true. When I got off the coach it was a shock after clean, quaint Lecce, but I fell in love while wandering the city’s streets and eating deep-fried pizza.
After day trips to the Amalfi coast, Pompeii and Paestum – said to be the birthplace of mozzarella – I took a sleeper train to Sicily, which goes on the ferry to cross the Strait of Messina. Syracuse has an amazing archeological park, with both Greek and Roman ruins and, 15km south, a flawless beach called Fontane Bianche. Later in the trip I passed through Siena – stumbling on a vegan dessert shop during the busy horse race celebrations – and spent a rainy day in Venice.
Going by train allowed me to rediscover the magic of travel, and although it was more expensive than flying, it didn’t break the bank.
This year I made a conscious choice to stay close to home, using public transport to visit a place where I spent a lot of my childhood – the New Forest in Hampshire. The forest has some spectacular ancient woodland but also wide expanses of lowland heath which is great for wildlife but a globally threatened habitat. I took advantage of fine weather with an exposed heathland walk on Hampton Ridge in the north of the forest. From the bus stop in Fordingbridge, I walked two miles along country lanes to the hamlet of Frogham, where there is a pub, the Foresters Arms. Beside this is Harry’s Field for camping, open only for summer weekends.
The trail leads up onto a high gravel ridge with long views north and south over heathland flushed purple with heather. It looked just as I remembered it from my last visit, way back in the 1970s.
The place is tranquil now, but it was not always so; in the 1940s it was part of a bombing range. There are still a few traces that remain, including a slightly alarming 30-metre concrete arrow, a directional marker for bombers.
Beside the ever-present buzzards, there is a chance to see other birds of prey, including goshawks, hobbies and even honey buzzards; and in the gorse brakes along the ridge-line trail, there are stonechats and Dartford warblers, only found on lowland heath.
At the end of the ridge, the trail leads left into the isolated Pitts Wood Inclosure, known for woodpeckers, crossbills, and hawfinches. I saw both roe and fallow deer too, fawns in tow, and by staying until dark, was able to watch the mysterious nightjar.
From the wood, the path heads up Cockley Hill to the village of Godshill and the Fighting Cocks pub. I usually camp in the area; there are 40 campsites scattered around the forest, such as Longbeech close to this trail, where I’ve stayed before. The walk, from roadhead to roadhead, could be managed in two or three hours, but it’s better to make a day of it, or stay overnight, and just wander and soak up the atmosphere.
I usually seek out a rural UK eco-retreat for a holiday, and this year headed to the Rewilding Consciousness retreat at the Embercombe Centre near Dartmoor. I travelled by fold-up bike to the station, took a train to Exeter, then cycled to Embercombe – a hilly but pleasingly low-traffic ride. The great thing about a bike is that if you have to push it uphill, you have fun free-wheeling down the other side.
Halfway there, the heavens opened, turning the roads into raging muddy torrents. I got soaked, but this was warm summer rain so felt like a hilarious adventure. Rolling up to reception, I stood in silence looking at the valley below and felt a sense of achievement in getting there without motor transport.
Accommodation was in little yurt villages, with woodburners and composting loos among trees laden with ripe fruit. The wind in the woodland whispered gently, and roared in a glorious storm one evening. Embercombe also has a lake called Tree Mirror, which is great for swimming.
The course taught us to open our ears and eyes to nature and reconnect to it in a way that we have lost in our busy tech-based lives. On the final evening, I slipped out to the stone circle to spend the night in my sleeping bag under the full moon. By the end of a week without my phone, my soul felt recharged. Investing in such “holy-days” heals our hearts and minds.
One of the under-reported things about Extinction Rebellion (XR) is that it’s developing into a really close community. A lot of people who felt isolated in their horror at the climate emergency suddenly find all these other compassionate, dedicated people who feel the same, so there’s an immediate connection. Naturally, people get to know each other and travel to see one another for talks and events. More than once I’ve rung someone in the organisation and they’ve helped me find somewhere to stay.
I’ve been very busy this year, and didn’t have much planned for the summer. I was asked to talk at Byline Festival in East Sussex [which helps promote independent journalism], so decided to have a holiday in the area too. I phoned an XR friend in Brighton and asked if she knew of anyone with a bit of land to camp on but it turned out her family home was in the countryside near Pulborough, and she let us borrow it.
We mostly relaxed at the house but did go to the local village fete in Rackham one day. But my thing is cooking. I’m an organic farmer (although I’m now mainly based in the XR London office), so I brought enough veg from the farm in Wales to last us the week. We had a vegan sausage barbecue, and there were apples, plums and blackberries growing onsite to make a pie from. The South Downs was great for long walks – it’s about as wild as southern England gets.
I often travel around the UK, but I don’t take many holidays. There’s definitely a balance that we’re all trying to negotiate, and the two big lifestyle issues are flying and meat. My feeling is that we are on the verge of a major change in social attitudes.
I live in Brighton but one of my favourite places to go on holiday is Transylvania, where I’m from. It’s a place of wild, untouched beauty and I go back whenever I can. Cluj is the second-largest city in Romania and is very multicultural, home to lots of artists and festivals, such as the Transylvanian film festival in May, and Untold dance music festival in August.
Cluj is very close to the Apuseni mountains, where I stay in a restored village called Raven’s Nest. They’ve converted beautiful old houses into guest accommodation and source local products for everything, from soaps to throws.
The views are stunning and there’s an outdoor hot tub for soaking under the stars. The restaurant uses regional, organic ingredients and has a good selection of Romanian wines. I love walking to waterfalls and caves in the surrounding wilderness. There are bears here and other amazing wildlife, too.
I’m going back to Romania at the end of September and plan to take the train there via Vienna, where I’ll spend the night. It’s one of my favourite capitals, the meeting place of east and west Europe. I love the museums. I’ll continue to Romania by rail, and visit the area in the Carpathian mountains where I’m planting trees with my new reforestation charity, Forests Without Frontiers. I want to visit Amfiteatrul, an eco-lodge in the mountains that I’ve heard a lot of good things about. This is my favourite kind of trip – slow travel, really connecting with nature and with local people.
I’m training for a big cycle ride this month, from Dieppe to Nice. I’ll take the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe, stopping off at Mont Ventoux in Provence for the not-insignificant challenge of cycling up the mountain from three different approaches in one day. So my summer has been a series of weekend training trips in the UK, visiting places I love or have never been to.
Abergavenny falls into the latter group. The Tumble, a famous climb at the edge of the Brecon Beacons, was my goal, and Wales didn’t disappoint. It was a weekend of cycling in horizontal rain. The River Usk foamed the colour of chocolate at the bottom of the valley, as the mercifully flat towpath led into Brecon for shelter and warming soup.
The Lake District could not have been more different – it was the August bank holiday weekend, when heat records were broken yet again. Accommodation was at the YHA: it was comfortable, a great budget option, and a lovely melting pot of people. From the hostel, the views across Windermere were spectacular, and the cycling was terrific – wild, windswept moorland and rich, luscious greenery. It was really hard, but I was fuelled by Kendal mint cake. The view changed with every turn, from a corrugated skyline of mountains to smaller hills marked with sheep and the scribbling of dry stone walls.
I haven’t flown for 10 years, and I’m not about to start now. There is so much variety here in the UK that we’re spoiled for choice with no-fly adventures. And my return from Nice next month will be by train.
After turning down a trip to New York in May because I didn’t want to fly, I had the chance to go to Lausanne in Switzerland for a week in August, for an international conference with other young climate activists. There were 25 of us from the UK, and 446 in total, from 37 different countries. I took the train from Exeter to London, the Eurostar to Paris and then the TGV to Lausanne. It was the best train journey I’ve ever done, watching the mountains pass as we travelled through the Alps. It was beautiful. We stayed in the Pontaise district and had meetings and workshops at the University of Lausanne. The food at the university was vegan, a lot of it from supermarkets who were about to throw it out – all fresh but going to waste because it had reached its sell by date.
Lake Geneva is right beside the university. It has a beach where we went swimming and had seaweed fights. We also went into Lausanne town and bought Swiss chocolate.
It was my first proper trip abroad without my family. They just went to Turkey without me, but I didn’t want to fly, and don’t enjoy the heat that much. We need to improve transport around the UK, and I think we should use a frequent flyer levy to invest in rail and bus travel, to make it easier to get around rural areas.
This summer I went to Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in Tarn-et-Garonne, in the south of France with a friend. I wanted somewhere I could drive to with my road bike, so we took the Eurotunnel, but abandoned the car for the week to cycle and walk around. We saw a lot on the way down, and felt we’d travelled properly; with air travel there’s no real sense of journey.
We stayed in a friend’s townhouse a few minutes from the centre, called Cordeliers. There’s a great Sunday market on the town square selling local produce – cheese, bread, wine and wobbly fruit and vegetables that taste amazing.
As the town is in a gorge, whichever way you cycle, it seems to be up. But there are plenty of medieval towns with old churches and ruins to explore, with masses of countryside and smooth riding on often empty roads in between.
We’d go out in the mornings before it got too hot, then sometimes spend the afternoon relaxing by the River Aveyron, swimming or exploring by kayak. One ride took us to Saint Projet, where we joined a marché gourmand community food event, with lots of food stalls and everyone eating at communal tables. This one was big on goat’s cheeses and aligot – the smoothest mashed potato ever with cheese and garlic.
Next year I’m planning to cycle coast to coast in France, probably from Caen to Nice, which is around 900 miles and will be a real adventure.
Last January, my husband and I went for a week of snowboarding and skiing for my birthday. We caught the Snow Express coach from London Victoria to Tignes in the French Alps, which took around 20 hours with stops for coffee breaks. Part of the journey was on the Dover-Calais ferry, which gave us a chance to stretch our legs. .
We booked into a UCPA (French non-profit) hostel that provides equipment, half-day lessons, lift passes and meals. It was beautiful weather all week, with good snowfalls overnight. One morning I explored the area on foot, and loved watching a flock of Alpine choughs – a yellow-beaked member of the crow family – hopping over chalet roofs in the warm sun. The Alps in winter aren’t an obvious place to go birdwatching, but the snowy backdrop makes it easy to spot anything flying around. There’s also the chance to see bearded vultures, one instructor told us, which are on the rise in the area after a successful breeding programme.
Being out on the slopes all day meant most evenings were spent eating and relaxing, but on my birthday we went to Cocorico après ski bar. The music was cheesy 1990s and noughties, which was perfect for singing along to, no matter what languages everyone spoke. We had a great night drinking beers and vodka shots and dancing under the stars.
We both love travelling by train, and have decided to avoid taking flights in Europe for the foreseeable future. It’s increasingly difficult to justify the carbon emissions of flying. Next year, for any trips around the continent, the journey will be part of the holiday – watching the different landscapes pass by instead of hurrying around by plane. We love the idea so much we’re now thinking of saving up to take the Trans-Siberian Express to Mongolia.
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