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What The Independent travel team did as domestic holidays got the go-ahead

Simon Calder,Helen Coffey and Cathy Adams
·7-min read
 (Getty/iStock)
(Getty/iStock)

Monday was a big day for travel in England: self-contained accommodation opened, meaning overnight stays for the first time in 14 weeks.

The likes of Center Parcs, Haven Holidays and some Forest Holiday locations opened; while campsites, caravan parks and self-catering accommodation also threw open their doors. On the days out front, facilities like zoos and theme parks reopened for the first time since January.

For the first time in months, The Independent travel team was let back out into the wild – so how did we spend the day?

Helen Coffey in the Cotswolds

After three months of lockdown – and many more since I stayed overnight anywhere but my own bed – I fear I have become institutionalised. I am only going to the Cotswolds for two nights to hang out in a sweet holiday pad, and yet, as I make my way across London to Paddington station, I have the kind of anxious heart palpitations I’ve only previously experienced when embarking upon a truly intense work assignment (like the time I spent just 12 hours in Doha – don’t ask).

I keep anxiously running through my packing list – yes, I made a packing list – I worry about booking a taxi, I feel so nervous about missing my train that I give myself a full hour to get to the station. It’s as if, having lived a shrunken half-life for so long, I have forgotten how to do this whole travel thing; as if I’ve forgotten how to do my job.

Of course, once my taxi pulls into the glorious Lower Mill Estate in Cirencester, where luxury holiday homes, all of them mimicking the famed Cotswolds stone in shades of buttermilk, are liberally scattered among the myriad lakes, I start to remember the pleasures that freedom can bring.

Helen Coffey
Helen Coffey

My first meal “out” since before Christmas is at Ballihoo, the onsite restaurant, where I pretend I am immune to the seven-degree chill (it was snowing just hours earlier) and savour each mouthful of my charred mackerel and purple sprouting broccoli salad with blood orange segments. Then onwards, to my temporary digs – which, thanks to a last-minute cancellation, happen to be big enough to house 10 people over three floors and come with a pool table, wood-burning stove, and terrace and balcony that strength the length of the property. It’s a tad overwhelming at first, and yet to have so much space after coming from a shared house, along with floor-to-ceiling views of a pretty stone bridge crossing a stream surrounded by swaying reeds, is the ultimate luxury. Plus, it means the welcome hamper – which includes two bottles of wine – need not be shared. Result.

I am due to take a lake tour by kayak, but have to settle instead for a bike ride exploring the estate’s nature trails – after the night’s sub-zero temperatures, the water is simply too cold to paddle upon, I’m told. It is ruddy freezing, so I’m not as disappointed as I might have been – soon, I am whizzing along lakeside tracks with not a soul in sight. The air feels fresh and clean in my lungs; the powder blue sky is reflected in the water, ruffled ever so slightly by the wind; the only sound is the cacophony of birdsong. Ah yes, I think. I remember this feeling now: delight. The morning’s anxieties are left shivering by the wayside, exposed for the inanities that they are, as I stop, and look, and enjoy for the first time in a long time.

Simon Calder in Chessington, Sussex and St Pancras

At 7pm the setting sun prised itself clear of the clouds over Sussex and illuminated the salted meadows of Romney Marsh – whose already considerable ovine population has soared over the past month with the thousands of new-born lambs.

The Rye-to-Ashford railway marks the boundary between Romney Marsh and the rest of the planet. South and east of the line lies a mosaic of meadows punctuated by spires of churches that long ago lost their congregations to the world beyond.

This cul-de-sac for the nation provides a sublime end to a journey that began in the morning rush-hour – which, for the first time this year, actually started to live up to its name.

“Revenue protection” was back checking tickets on the Southwestern Railway train from what used to be the busiest transport terminal in Europe, London Waterloo. I was aiming for Chessington South, gateway to adventure – or at least the closest you can get to it within the M25. Snow pummelled the straggle of staff and visitors walking to Chessington World of Adventures, but at first contact with the theme park, glee prevailed.

Simon Calder
Simon Calder

Back in London, St Pancras International – rail hub for the nation and beyond – was in good shape, with the most indoor “outdoor dining” I have witnessed this side of the crisis. Southeastern’s intransigent ticket machines and barrier staff combined to ensure I missed my planned train to Kent, and the Covid train schedule meant an hour’s delay.

But eventually I made it to Camber Sands (twinned, at least in Pulling Mussels from a Shell by Squeeze, with Waikiki in Hawaii) and met Harry Cragoe – owner of the Gallivant Hotel, and evangelist for Britain’s post-pandemic hospitality industry.

“We’re trying to create a really lovely place for people to escape to, and to inspire them.

“Four of the hotel’s rooms are sufficiently ‘self-contained’ to comply with strict lockdown rules. Within three days of putting them on sale, almost all have been taken up.

“One of the real positive stories of the past 12 to 16 months is to create a huge awareness of places they can go and visit.”

Which, given the complexity and uncertainty of going anywhere beyond the shores of Britain, is just as well.

Cathy Adams in... London

The empty reception area
The empty reception area

While my colleagues zipped off to the Cotswolds and Chessington, I spent the morning... at home in London. But there was some afternoon delight. A visit to a hotel! Remember those?

I last visited the Hoxton Southwark, the latest London outpost of the swaggering Hoxton Hotel group (now of multiple cities including New York and LA, but born on Great Eastern Street in Shoreditch) soon after it opened in autumn 2019. The vibe was fantastic: there’s an eye-popping seafood restaurant on the roof (Seabird); rooms in various sizes are instantly recognisable from quirky design accents (as well as being, er, ergonomic in the “cosy” iterations) and people on this particular Friday night were hanging out among palm fronds, looking cool drinking housemade cocktails from frosted glasses. Sigh. How I can’t wait to get back to that... from 17 May.

View from SeabirdCathy Adams
View from SeabirdCathy Adams

Hotels, like other hospitality, can legally open their outdoor food and drink spaces to guests this week, and for many properties it’s a chance to give it a rather cushioned opening, to iron out any issues before the next big date on the travel reopening calendar next month.

So for the next few weeks until they open properly, hanging out at a (thankfully heated) outdoor table at the Hox’s downstairs Albie restaurant will have to do for this hotel junkie. Beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to travel sizzle these days, so I cycled three not-particularly-salubrious miles through south London to get the hotel’s space on Blackfriars Road. Albie is its ground-floor all-day diner, which usually sprawls inside in a sort of reception/co-work space/lounge area hybrid, that overflows outside with wooden benches, towering plants and comfy cushions, and it’s where I found myself with my laptop on Monday afternoon.

However, the Hoxton Southwark is tentatively reopening this month. Rooms are available for business guests and for key workers only; while its large “apartment” is now available for meetings. Still, there’s something so creepy about seeing a place you associate with lots of life suddenly emptied of it. The chairs and tables of the open-plan reception/lounge area sat primed, cushions artfully plumped; but looking, sadly, a little too “new”. The highlight was having a sniff around the just-cleaned rooms, including the “biggie” category (I’m a sucker for a hotel tour) before sneaking a lift to the Hoxton’s rooftop restaurant Seabird, which comes with a truly heartbreaking London view. Of course, it’s also solidly booked up for the next three months. It’s the first day of lockdown and I still can’t manage to get a table.

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