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Take the Family › A Galloway Family Break: Forest Parks, Kids Bookshops and Football

A Galloway Family Break: Forest Parks, Kids Bookshops and Football

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 in 2001, and the Red Kite Trail has a special kids’ section.

But first to Wigtown. A pre-trip perusal of the festival brochure revealed that it included a children’s program, including storytelling, clowning, theatre, drawing and appearances by well-known authors. Yippee. I’d also done my homework and found out that the town had a specialist children’s bookshop, The Box of Frogs. The latter turned out to have not only a great choice of new books, gifts and gadgets, but an Aladdin’s cave of a back room full of classic second-hand books at non rip-off prices. Combined, the events and bookshop allowed my husband and I to take it in turns with the kids so that the other could nip off for a spot of browsing in the town’s other bookshops – one of our favourite pastimes but one that’s proved sadly impracticable since the boys came along.

The best place to to grips with the forest at itself 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. This thrilling sight made up for our missing Halloween offerings such as lantern-making and a pumpkin parade. 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 – Conifers forest lodges on the fringes of the forest park close to the Visitor Centre – was spot on. It’s not Centreparcs, 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 but keen to travel in the evening to avoid the traffic and so that the kids could fall asleep and simply be decanted into their beds on arrival back in Manchester, 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. The regular tours were suspended due to a foot and mouth scare, but there was masses to keep us occupied: 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 playbarn 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 Sailing Centre offers everything from half-day taster sessions to week-long courses ‘for ages 6–80’.

Oh yes, we’ll be back.

By Rhonda Carrier

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