By Rhonda Carrier
Rough tracks petered out, unnervingly, in the middle of nowhere. Cropton Cabins' heart-of-the-forest location had sent our SatNav into meltdown. When we finally arrived, my first impression was that it was all quite civilised – a neat row of wooden cabins backed by trees on the edge of a camping/caravanning site. By 10pm that evening, however, as the last of the light died, I knew that this was probably about as far away from civilisation as I would feel comfortable while sitting in an outdoor hot tub drinking fizz. As unidentified wildlife snuffled in the trees, it was all too easy to conjure up scenes from The Blair Witch Project and Antichrist.
"Graeme our ranger took us deeper into the forest and told us we’d just survived a plane crash and had 40 minutes to build ourselves a shelter using fallen wood. It was harder than it sounded and we some succumbed to communal panic as our plan to build a square structure around four trees proved unworkable, for the simple reason that didn’t have a clue what we were doing."
The absence of any mobile signal or WiFi is just one of the attractions of a stay at Cropton, one of several sites offering forest cabins run by Forest Holidays, a partnership between the Forestry Commission and the Camping & Caravanning Club. Cropton is on a camping and caravan site in North Yorkshire and shares some amenities with its longer-established sister site Keldy 10 minutes away by road or a half-hour’s walk through the woods.
One of the rangers told me that many people come to Forest Holiday cabins just for the famous hot tubs, never straying into the forest. But while the tubs were a hit with all our family, we couldn’t wait to go exploring either, arriving keen as mustard for the first morning’s welcome meeting, where over free bacon butties and tea the affable team told us all about what was on offer. From then, it was a quick scoot to Keldy (from which most activities are run; this may change) for our first outing, Young Explorers.
This usually takes the form of arts and crafts activities using natural materials that kids gather during a stroll in the woods, but as we were the only family signed up to do it (it was term-time) and my sons are a bit older than the normal age range for this outing, the ranger decided to take us on a ramble in the forest, to show us the hide used to monitor the local badger population, and to point out interesting facts such as how the numbers of local deer are assessed (by their teeth marks on tree-trunks) and how to gauge the age of pine trees.
The Forest Survival outing, after lunch, drew a bigger crowd of two more dads and their boys. This time, Graeme our ranger took us deeper into the forest and told us we’d just survived a plane crash and had 40 minutes to build ourselves a shelter using fallen wood. It was harder than it sounded and we some succumbed to communal panic as our plan to build a square structure around four trees proved unworkable, for the simple reason that didn’t have a clue what we were doing.
We downgraded to a simple tepee-shaped structure around a single tree – also a mistake, we were told when we’d finished, for if it rains, water pours straight down the tree and into the shelter. Graeme also told us (in the kindest possible way) that ours was the messiest shelter he’d ever seen – the kind he imagined a psychotic madman in one of my husband’s horror novels might inhabit.
After our own shelter-building, Graeme talked us through a one-man structure he’d built, then led a Q&A with the kids on what kind of food they could expect to rely on in the heart of the forest (squirrel, pheasant, rabbit, bilberries, nettles) and taught them to extract drinkable fluid from a silver birch tree. Lastly, he produced some fire starters and gave everyone the chance to try to raise a spark.
After our busy introduction to forest life, we spent the following day at Cropton. Though this is a cosier site than Keldy (which has a games room, a Forest Experience room and Laser Quest facilities), there’s plenty to do, if you’re happy with low-key activities: play in the small woodland playground, discover the waymarked forest trails on foot or by bike (on-site hire include kids’ bikes, tandems, baby seats and trailers), and borrow/hire wildlife-spotting equipment such as Bat Detectors and Nightvision cameras.
Unfortunately, with dusk coming so late in May, we found it impossible to keep our boys up late enough to make use of the latter, or to join one of the Dusk Watch ranger outings, so they never did see the bats they craved. However, they did see a snake, a woodpecker, a pole-cat, plenty of rabbits, and pheasants, partridges and creepy-crawlies galore. The cabins themselves come outfitted with a hamper of board games so we spent a lot of time just hanging out, playing Jenga and Scrabble, and my husband taught our oldest boy Ethan to play chess.
My only real quibble with the cabins was that given their popularity with the family market – there were lots of young parents on site during our visit, taking babies and pre-schoolers cycling in the forest – there were several elements that were surprisingly non-child-friendly. While parents are well catered for with thoughtful touches from boot- and coat-drying rooms and wetrooms to fluffy bathrobes and plastic wine glasses and champagne flutes for the hot tub, much of the equipment (flatscreen TV, microwave, oven) is accessible to destructive toddler hands. Some toddler-friendly cutlery and crockery would be helpful too, although you can hire highchairs and travel cots.
But these are minor grouches. Forest Holidays’ cabins offer an excellent family holiday concept that left us all wanting more, the proof being that we’re already planning our next visit. Next time we’ll stay longer – we found that a five-day (Mon-Fri) stay wasn’t enough given everything else there is to do in the area.
We spent a day at the seaside, discovering Whitby and its famous Gothic abbey, a location in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and then the much wilder Robin Hood’s Bay just south of it. We’d like to have enjoyed the tacky but fun resort of Scarborough too, but just didn’t have time. En route to the cabins and on the way home, we experienced two very different attractions handy for Cropton: the stately home of Castle Howard, where the boys spent the afternoon at the adventure playground and following the quiz trail around the gorgeous gardens with their stunning mythical statuary, and Flamingo Land theme park.
Find out more about UK family holidays and breaks at Forest Holidays Cropton Cabins including any current special offers on family lodge holidays and/or check out our top 10 places to learn survival skills and bushcraft with kids.