Having a holiday or weekend break is something we’ve all taken for granted over the last few years.
But the travel industry changed beyond recognition in the blink of an eyelid when the Covid-19 pandemic struck . The world of travel is now a very different place to what it was 12 months ago.
After 100 tedious days of lockdown, the UK’s tourism industry is finally taking its first tentative steps to making a comeback. But how is the new world of travel shaping up?
The Great Outdoors
There was a huge cheer in our household when it was announced that camping and caravan sites would be re-opening in England on 4 July.
A ‘Great Escape’ beckoned – but on a smaller scale than usual!
I’d set my heart on getting away somewhere – anywhere – in the motorhome to escape the gloom and isolation of the last three months.
But it would have to be in England this time around as travel abroad is still tricky despite the announcement of ‘air bridges’ and new quarantine rules.
We decided to head to the English Lake District, but what would this new world of post-Covid travel look like?
The Lake District was our first choice because it’s a short drive and a good place to rediscover the great outdoors.
Finding a caravan site was slightly trickier than usual because there had been a flurry of bookings. Everyone had leapt at the thought of a weekend escape to the country so sites were going to be busy.
After a few phone calls, we found a small, quiet ‘CL’ (certified location) for the camper van within easy striking distance of Ullswater in the northern Lakes.
It’s always easier to book these smaller sites compared with the bigger caravan parks… and I find them more personal and less regimented in any case.
Fearing the worst on ‘Super Saturday’, we set off at midday to escape the predicted traffic chaos. Much to our surprise, the roads seemed quieter than normal with not a single jam.
Down on the Farm
Our destination was Grovefoot Farm near Thackthwaite – about three miles from Ullswater. It lies snuggled under the lumpy Little Mell Fell with panoramic views all around.
I felt a sense of freedom and escape as we drove up the farm entrance. At last we were on a mini-holiday after three straight months at home.
The site was far from full and its holiday chalets were largely shut. But staying somewhere quiet was just what the travel doctor ordered.
Perhaps the lack of crowds was a sign that some folk are still very wary about staying overnight and travelling too far from home.
One thing that isn’t shut is the countryside. We enjoyed a lovely nature walk around Little Mell Fell, only marred by the boggy conditions under foot.
Naturally I nearly fell into the mud bath several times – and struggled to wade through a gloopy field of young, frisky bullocks! The story of my life…
We had the walk to ourselves which gave us a sense of escape and freedom.
Enjoying nature is one thing that has become a real treat during lockdown. Like many others I’m continuing to value these small pleasures and micro-adventures.
On our walk we were surprised by the glut of summer wild flowers, butterflies and we even spotted a lively hare sprinting across the fields.
Just being able to be transported to a different location on the other side of the country is a real treat in these strange times.
The countryside landscape looked greener, wilder and more luxuriant, perhaps due to the lack of visitors over the last three months.
Open for Business?
Beyond the farm we wondered which bits of the Lake District would be open for business.
We’d checked online but there’s a lot of fuzzy information about what the deal is in certain places. And the situation keeps changing every week!
One thing we noticed… it was definitely quieter than a normal summer in the Lakes. Perhaps some tourists have been put off by many of the area’s tourist attractions still being closed? Or perhaps they are playing the waiting game?
Looking at what is open, it’s a mixed picture. Hilltop, the former home of Beatrix Potter and a popular National Trust attraction, is still shut except for its garden and shop.
You’ll also need to book ahead if you want to visit its gardens.
It’s tough for properties like these because the old cottage is tiny inside and it’s difficult to organise safe, social distanced visits.
Nearby, the Rheged Discovery Centre also remains closed apart from its cafe – and its main visitor centre isn’t due to reopen until Autumn 2020.
Elsewhere, there are signs that some outdoor attractions are reopening but with restrictions in place on how many people can be involved.
The Ullswater Steamer has started running again but trips have to be booked in advance online. Seeing the steamer back in action brought a tear to my eye but I’m still holding off until things settle down.
Over at Aira Force, one of Ullswater’s most popular outdoor attractions, the National Trust site was heaving with people. The car park was almost full and there were queues of visitors on the footpath and at the loos.
The new rules at the waterfall include a one-way walking trail, limited parking and a maximum visit time of two hours.
We decided to give it a miss because the idea of queuing and social distancing on the footpath running up to the waterfall didn’t appeal. Perhaps next time…
I guess it’s one example of how a honeypot attraction seems to have become an even bigger magnet for day trippers since the lockdown has lifted.
Although many summer events have been cancelled, there are plenty of outdoor activities available to take part in across the Lake District .
At Ullswater it was much quieter than normal but things are starting to get going again at sailing and watersport clubs.
It was fantastic to see a handful of people sailing their yachts on Ullswater and going out in their canoes, but numbers looked to be down.
Even if some places are still shut, you can enjoy the views across the lake, eat a picnic or take a lakeside walk whilst social distancing from fellow tourists.
The weather on our trip was predictably unpredictable – always a problem on Lake District holidays. Expect to get drenched at least once on your trip.
It was harder than usual to cope with the rain and wind because so few indoor attractions are currently open for business.
The only thing to do is to head to the pub and drown your sorrows with a pint of beer… but I felt edgy about mixing with large groups of people. It’s still a higher risk than going for a country walk.
Many pubs have re-opened with a new Covid regime in place which varies from place to place. This generally involves new seating areas and a limit on the number of drinkers.
The Brackenrigg Hotel with its panoramic views over Ullswater is one of them. It boasts a well-laid out outdoor seating area with waiter service for those who feel ready to take the plunge – plus there’s a view to die for (not literally, I hope in these pandemic times).
For once, I didn’t succumb to a pint of beer or pub meal. Perhaps the lockdown has made me cautious about drinking in public places… especially because there have been fresh Covid spikes at a handful of English pubs.
Drinking has ceased to be a fun and raucous group activity… it’s now a more solitary, chilled experience.
The Sanitised High Street
Our next trip was to Keswick, one of the Lake District’s larger towns, although I wasn’t sure how many places would be open.
Getting into the main Keswick car park was really easy and it wasn’t as busy as normal. Normally we struggle to find a spot to park the bulky camper van.
Once on Keswick’s main high street, it was fantastic to see that virtually all the shops were up and running again, especially the outdoor retailers.
I guess that everyone needs fleeces and waterproofs on a rainy, cold summer’s day in the Lakes!
But new rules apply. You can’t go far without having to spray your hands with sanitiser. I had to use four dollops of the gloopy stuff in four separate shops in 20 minutes because some stores have made it mandatory.
Many shops have one way systems and restrictions on numbers of people as well as perspex counter screens and staff wearing face masks.
But the general vibe is quite relaxed with most people being cautious about getting too close. Expect some queues to get inside the most popular stores.
The biggest crowds were predictably outside pubs and cafes, but once again I felt slightly nervous about venturing inside.
Sitting outside in the beer garden is always an option and many pubs have improved their outdoor seating areas… with social distancing measures in place.
On Tuesday, we decided to take a walk on the quiet side of Ullswater near Pooley Bridge, but instead found another busy tourist honeypot.
It seemed that everyone else had the same idea and we had to abandon the trip because the car park by the Pooley footbridge was full.
Instead we drove a mile up the road to the old village of Dacre which turned out to be a wise choice.
Dacre is a quiet and picturesque historic village with many 18th Century buildings. It’s perfect for a gentle stroll.
Don’t miss Dacre Castle, a fortified home and pele tower built in 1307 to protect its inhabitants from raiding Scots on the other side of the English border.
Although it’s not open to the public, you can see the exterior of the tower and take a walk around its moated grounds.
There’s also the pretty village church of St Andrew’s which has a fascinating graveyard which is worth exploring. The churchyard is open so why not take a look around.
The New Pub ‘Rules’
Finish off your joinery with a trip to the Horse and Farrier public house in Dacre which is open for business. It’s a fascinating example of how pubs are dealing with Covid challenges.
The Horse and Farrier is lucky because it has well-spaced tables for drinking and eating outside.
It also has Covid rules in line with many English pubs which have reopened.
In line with the government’s regulations it has reduced the number of tables in the pub so it’s essential that you book a table if you plan to eat.
The pub isn’t taking bookings for the outside seating areas and these are available on a first come first served basis. There’s a time limit of 90 minutes for tables of up to three people and two hours for larger groups.
It’s also closed between 4pm and 5pm to enable staff to clean tables between sittings. There’s also the hand sanitiser routine.
Be prepared to wait for the loo at your seat due to the narrow corridor to the bathrooms.
The Horse and Farrier is also part of the Covid-19 track and trace scheme. Expect to be asked for your name and phone number on entry.
Escape to Nature
One of the best ways of forgetting about the Covid crisis is to go for a hill walk and enjoy nature. I walked for miles and hardly saw a soul.
Bird watching has been hugely popular during the Covid crisis. As the lockdown unwinds, it’s something that you can do with minimal risk of catching the virus… and it’s good for your mental well-being.
One of the best birding sites during the summer in the Lakes is Bassenthwaite. Ospreys come here from Africa to breed and raise their brood of chicks.
There’s a good chance of seeing these magnificent birds of prey from the specially designed viewpoints from April to September.
I spent an hour looking for the birds from the lakeside but had little joy.
I returned for one last look and ‘bingo’. A pair of Ospreys were hovering over my head. Absolutely stunning!
Ospreys try to fly with the minimum of effort so they use thermals at every opportunity so looking up high in the sky is a good plan… and that’s exactly what my ospreys were doing.
This thrilling white bird of prey is one of my favourites. Not only is it a real stunner, it’s a superb hunter of fish and a very good parent.
The Bassenthwaite Viewing Point is close to parking area to the south west of the lake. It’s a brilliant place to look for them but you need to be patient and keep studying the skies.
Another good spot is Dodd Wood, one of the official osprey viewing points close to Bassenthwaite. There are also lots of good woodland walks. The main car park has reopened to visitors.
Read more on my Bassenthwaite osprey blog posts. Don’t forget your binoculars.
The Lake District Osprey Project has more information about osprey viewing points at Dodd Wood and from the lakeside.
Tourism has been ravaged by Covid-19 so it feels very special to get out on the road in the camper van, even if it’s just for a mini-staycation.
Things aren’t back to normal but we’re edging towards new ways of doing travel and tourism. There’s no quick fix.
I’m hoping that many more tourist attractions will open their doors again soon. But they are going to look and feel a lot different, whether it’s restaurants and hotels or museums and galleries.
If the lockdown has done one positive thing, it has made us to look at places differently and appreciate nature.
‘Slow tourism’ can be just as enjoyable as being an obsessive completist, ticking off attractions and rushing from place to place.
Being in ‘the moment’ and looking at our heritage can be incredibly rewarding so why not delve deeper into the Lake District’s historic villages?
Spending time looking at natural’s spectacles is another great way of reconnecting with the planet. And it doesn’t contravene any lockdown rules now we can travel further afield.
This strange mist phenomena at Blea Ring gave us an opportunity to practice our photographic skills and enjoy a wild walk.
What to Expect…
The Great British Staycation is this year’s big tourism trend and the Lake District’s popular honeypots are bound to busy.
The Lake District’s holiday parks, lodges, caravan and camping sites, glamping sites and holiday cottages are currently seeing over 300% increase in bookings for short breaks and holidays, compared to the same time last year.
Book your accommodation well ahead of time. You may find better availability if you stay slightly away from the busiest tourist centres, slightly off the beaten track.
Check websites and social media for updates on tourist attractions, opening times and the latest ‘Covid rules’.
One thing is guaranteed… ‘post-lockdown’ is here to stay for a long time so why not make the most of what is open and enjoy it in fresh ways?
Just don’t forget your face mask and hand sanitiser!
Respect the risk. Cumbria continues to record new cases of the covid-19 coronavirus every day and the threat has not gone away. Plan ahead and avoid busy places: use http://www.saferlakes.co.uk to park safely and considerately and avoid the more popular destinations.
Covid-19 advice from Visit Cumbria