What to do with a week on my own in England preceding a family reunion?
HF Holidays sprang to mind. Friends had told me of this company’s reputation as a leader in special interest vacations, and I had long been curious to try a walking program based at one of its 18 country inns located all over Britain.
Initially, I checked out the website where I found such a bewildering array of walking and other special interest holidays, both in the UK and abroad, that I felt I had to request a specific brochure to study more closely. After poring over the colorful “Classic Walking” brochure, I went back to the website, checked availability, then booked two consecutive holidays at Newton House in Dovedale, Derbyshire, an area in England known as the Peak District.
I flew into London Heathrow on a dark October morning at 6:30am, caught the Heathrow Express train (a 15-minute journey) from Terminal 4 to London Paddington railway station (£13), took a 10-minute taxi ride to St Pancras station (£8) where I purchased a train ticket to Derby (£39). By now it was 8am, just time enough for an invigorating coffee before my train departed.
During the 90-minute trip to Derby, two chatty fellow passengers filled me in on English current affairs. From Derby to Ashbourne, I connected to a double-decker bus and sat next to a dear old soul who’d just lost her husband of 60 years. She needed a willing ear to get some things off her chest, and I was quite happy to oblige. Lastly, I got on a little 20-seater bus that trundled along narrow, leafy lanes bringing home the locals from market day. When I got off at Newton House, all on board waved me goodbye with wishes for a happy holiday.
It was about 11:30am by this time. What might have been a long, tiring trip had passed quickly in the company of strangers, so I felt energetic and eager to get right into the action at Newton House. Instead, I found empty silence. I opened the front door and called out a hello. No reply.
After a few minutes of investigating the kitchen and various other rooms, I heard a TV rugby commentary coming from behind a door marked “Staff Only.” I knocked and a very apologetic fellow bounded out and explained that everyone was still out walking and would be back in two hours. Admittedly, I had arrived on day two of the program, so my reception was not a normal one, and later the manager was also most apologetic.
I looked around my clean, spacious, en suite room. No TV or phone, but it was equipped with coffee and tea supplies. Satisfied I had everything I needed, I immediately decided to go out exploring along the Tissington Trail, which runs along the back of the hotel garden. This disused railway line has been taken over by cyclists and walkers and is an ideal first day’s foray.
I made it to the village of Tissington, 5 km away, before returning for dinner sharp at 7pm, anxious to meet my walking buddies. In the dining room, I found everyone taking places wherever they wanted around several tables for eight. The dinner menu offered a choice of three courses, including vegetarian fare.
This was the real beginning to a holiday that all in all was a big success. Great group camaraderie, lots of laughs, good food and company. The average age was around 40 with a balanced split of males to females. The majority were British, a mix of singles and couples. One fellow, Michael, a computer programmer, was on his fourth HF holiday this year. Chris from Scotland and Kaye from Lincolnshire had met five years ago on an HF holiday and HF’d it together every year since. Kathy and her friends from Nottingham were walking to raise funds “to help women with disabilities adapt to a normal lifestyle.” Pat, a London barrister, just needed to recharge the batteries.
The HF leaders really make the holiday. Andy, Diane, Patience, and Sean, like all HF Leaders, are volunteers who have taken vigorous qualifying examinations. I had the utmost respect for them.
They were on duty from 8am to around 10:30pm and were the most capable, energetic, humorous, and diplomatic of souls. They were engaging at the dinner table and had us in convulsions over the ridiculous games we got involved in after dinner: quizzes, charades, and all sorts of fun they had concocted. I don’t know when I last flew a paper airplane – actually that game got seriously competitive and technical.
Games don’t appeal to everyone, but somehow the leaders have a knack of getting the majority involved.
Each evening, over coffee and chocolate mints in the lounge, the leaders would describe the next day’s walks. There is always a choice of short (9 km; 6 miles), medium (13 km; 8 miles), or long walks (19 km; 12 miles).
Usually the three groups set off after a hearty breakfast, about 9:30am, directly from the house, or a bus would take us to our starting point and pick us up later on. Walks go in all weather, so HF’s recommended rain gear is a must-bring to avoid getting soaked. In the six days in October I had one bout of rain lasting around 40 minutes. The rest of the time was bright and frosty – perfect walking weather.
The walks in Dovedale are a scenic mixture of moorland, fields, hills, and trails. With no idea of the pace or if I’d be hindered by jet-lag, I began on the safe side by choosing a short walk with a 220-meter (725-foot) ascent. My muscles ached after most walks, and I’d vow to take it easier the next day, only to change to a longer walk the next morning after a night’s rest. Sometimes I chose the walk because of historical interest – like clambering down through the hauntingly beautiful “Lud’s church.” It’s a cleft in a narrow, dank, steep ravine dripping with emerald mosses, lichens, and ferns, which was once a place of worship.
Our steepest climb was only 396 meters (1,300 feet) over the whole day. The hardest part was climbing over the stone wall stiles. Picture a five-foot high wall of stones stacked up, without mortar, and a line of thinner rocks perched on top like jagged teeth. That’s a Derbyshire stile. The footpaths all seem to have a horrible habit of leading directly to a stone wall stile, with never a gate in sight.
Along the way we’d stop often for picnic fixings or special treats such as warm Bakewell tart with thick cream, or hot chocolate for “elevenses.” All the while, the leaders filled us in on local lore. We explored Eyam, the village that locked itself away from outsiders during the plague of 1665. We searched for wallabies among rock bluffs called the Roaches. Yes, wallabies! Apparently some had escaped a local zoo and survived in the wild for a number of years.
I had arrived on a Saturday, and the first group left Monday morning, so I had the day to myself before the new group arrived later in the afternoon. I could have visited Chatsworth House or other nearby stately mansions, but instead I went antiquing in Ashbourne and enjoyed a pub lunch.
The second group was older, predominately female, and 38 of the 45 guests were there for a brass band retreat.
It was disconcerting to find that there would only be seven of us serious walkers and all the rest were serious musicians who would be at band practice most of the day and evening. In future, I would check beforehand if another special interest group is running simultaneously. That said, I have to admit that on our last evening, we seven were treated to a band concert that I would not have missed for the world.
I would certainly go again. In six days, I had worked my way up to walking 19 km (12 miles) a day and felt great.
On the last day, as I was selecting an apple for my picnic lunch, Andy, with typical HF leader enthusiasm, came over and presented me with one of his home-grown, rare “Charles Ross” apples. “That’s funny,” I said, “one of my relatives is Charles Ross, and I’ll be seeing him at a family gathering this weekend. I must share it with them all.” So, I did, along with many happy memories of the HF holiday.
Newton House accommodates about 45 people, some in the main house, others in the adjoining, converted stables. There is a games room, lounge, bar, dining room, washing facilities, and drying room. The cost for 6 nights was £412 (C$895; US$ 660), including single room with shower, meals, snacks, and guided walks. My only extras were drinks from the bar. After I had paid in full, I received a very comprehensive welcoming kit which included directions on reaching the hotel, a 30-page booklet outlining the various walks, a survival and clothes list, and generally what to expect of the holiday.
Solitary rambling: If you prefer to navigate your way over the many footpaths using Ordinance Survey maps, you may still book an HF Holiday as a “stay as you please” guest. Each day you make your own route, then return in the evening to the comforts of a hotel. Make a note of your route each morning before leaving and a search party will set out for you if you don’t show up by 6pm!
HF Leaders are selected from many backgrounds, aged 18-65. Leaders choose to volunteer for as little as 2 weeks or as much as 15 weeks each year in Britain or abroad. Applicants attend weekend courses where their skills and potential are assessed. In return, leaders receive training, full board accommodation, access to all facilities enjoyed by guests, travel expenses, a day free on most holidays of 7 nights or longer, £15 clothing allowance per week, discount holidays for partners or children, leaders' newsletter, discounts from Cotswold Camping mail order, and vouchers for free accommodation during low-season periods in Britain.
Singles and solos are welcome on all HF Holidays, but the company also offers these trips designated for solos only. Single occupancy rooms are provided without surcharge.