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Thursday July 16, 2015

Why cabin fever is gripping British expats returning to the UK

Woodland retreats have become all the rage

In my mental memory box of eccentric childhood holidays abroad is the recurring image of a stifling and flaccid igloo tent that used to collapse at the slightest whisper of a breeze. Consequently I came to loathe camping as a nipper and instead fantasised about staying in a caravan similarly to lucky friends of mine at primary school or better still, a wood cabin such as that I read about with delight in Little House on the Prairie.

So imagine my recent joy – some four decades later – to have received an invitation to stay in a friend’s rented static caravan at Quex Park in Birchington in Kent. And then, oh the excitement, another to spend the weekend with expat friends in a luxury woodland cabin in Hampshire. Despite my family’s snobbery about caravan vacations, I thoroughly enjoyed my sojourn on the north Kent coast, strolling along the sandy beaches of Minnis Bay and also Margate, a far cry from how I remembered it in my youth. With new investment, property developments and the reinvigorated Dreamland pleasure park attracting swathes of tourists, the place was brimming with life. Despite the heady sun, it was still refreshingly 10C cooler than my beloved Majorca.

But nothing could prepare me for the thrill of an English backwoodsman retreat. My expat friends, fellow residents in Spain, return regularly to see family and friends in Hampshire and have come to use Blackwood Forest as a base. Set in 270 hectares of woodland, the 60 spacious holiday cabins are a joint venture between the Forestry Commission and a private equity firm and there are nine such centres owned by Forest Holidays across the UK. Unlike Center Parcs, there’s no razzmatazz, water ‘fun’ or choice of cafés and restaurants. It’s just cosy wood cabins with all mod cons set apart in tranquil beech forest, and an unobtrusive shop cum restaurant that only serves food until 8.30 pm but there are plenty of local hostelries. It’s a paradise for bird watchers, nature lovers and dog owners and there are bikes for hire and rangers offering group walks into the silent woods at dusk. The top notch Golden Oak cabins have hot tubs on the terraces and log-burning stoves so I could understand why it had become a home from home for my expat friends and their children all year round. There’s even a laundry, pizza and ice-cream delivery service.

Of course caravan parks, wood cabins and even camping are not really an option in Majorca. Even though limited camping does exist I can’t imagine that with the Serra de Tramuntana’s new UNESCO Heritage status, holiday cabins will be popping up like expectant rabbits in the mountains any time soon and thank heavens for that. As the jewel in the island’s crown it should be left in its virgin state.

All the same, so enamoured was I by my woodland experience in the UK, that I’ve persuaded some expat girlfriends to join me for a walking holiday out of season when prices are lower. We’re still undecided whether we’ll head for Blackwood in Hampshire or try out the company’s Forest of Dean or Sherwood Forest base but at just £300 per head for a week, we can’t complain.

Meanwhile, another chum has invited me on a family camping weekend in Dorset this summer. She tried to assure me that it would be more ‘glamping’ than camping but I’m not convinced. And now that I’ve experienced the comfort of a proper roof over my head, hot tubs and starry nights in the forest, I fear she may be barking up the wrong tree.

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