Based in the UK? Staycationing for the foreseeable? Here are five unusual UK activity breaks…
While Covid continues to provide uncertainty about travelling abroad (red, amber, green list, last minute changes to the rules, endless queues and expensive tests) if you live in the UK, having a break in the UK could well be a good idea, at least for the time being. And it is possible to find some really interesting activities all over the country.
- Build Your Own Canoe
“If you look for a happy person, you will find them building a boat,” said our host John, quoting Beran Wolfe. He’s right. Birchcanoes in rural Leicestershire offer a canoe building holiday where you can stay onsite and construct your very own vessel over the course of three days. John is on-hand to give as much help as you need and at the end of your stay you launch your vessel on the River Wreake and then take your canoe home with you so that you can explore your local waterways – and beyond.
John offers accommodation on-site, so we could stay while we were building our canoe. We slept in the River Cabin, a snug wooden building just a stone’s throw from the river and a 30 second walk from the workshop. It was self-catering and had all the facilities we could have wanted.
We had checked out John’s website to decide which type of canoe to build and after some discussion with him we landed on the Lakota design – the most popular type of build. However, a quick measurement of our garage (we have a small car) revealed that we would not be able to fit both the Lakota and the car inside. No problem, John modified the design to accommodate our maximum length and very first Lakota 4.4 (4m 40cm) began construction.
Day One of the canoe building involved cutting marine ply panels using a template. We used a Japanese pull saw and a jigsaw to cut out each piece.
We then sewed the canoe together using cable ties and added the gunwhales. At the end of the day our canoe most definitely looked like a canoe.
The next day we made the seats. There was a lot of sawing, particularly at strange angles, using an ingenious contraption John had devised, and sanding. Then the seats were fitted inside the boat. We also applied resin to the inside of the canoe.
Day Three involved getting the canoe watertight and ship-shape. There was a lot of planing and sanding involved – all by hand – to get a really smooth finish.
Then we applied glass fibre tape and resin to the exterior of the canoe.
The resin needed to dry overnight so the fourth day was launch day. It was essential that we had a mini-bottle of Prosecco for pre-launch.
The lovely thing about this experience is that the whole family is welcome to join in.
We also needed to think of a name. After some deliberation we landed on Obi-Wan Canoe-bi. We had fitted a roof-rack to our little car a few weeks before our holiday and Obi-Wan sat snugly on top.
Since getting home we’ve thoroughly enjoyed paddling on our local canal and plan to go further afield this year. Several trips for the price of one!
While You’re In The Area
The workshop is in rural Leicestershire and there are some lovely walks in the area. It’s also very close to Melton Mowbray which is known as a bit of a foodie town and is famous for both its pork pies and Stilton cheese
2. Meet and Fly Some Birds of Prey
At Icarus Falconry in Northamptonshire you can meet and fly their remarkable birds of prey. We flew several owls and a harris hawk and also got to hold a tawny eagle and a peregrine falcon.
We met four different owls. Their bodies are really small but are fluffed out by masses of feathers which enables them to fly virtually silently. Many of the feathers are serrated for additional hush. They eat rodents and swoop low, flying just above ground level, to pick up their prey mid-flight. For this reason when you are flying owls you don’t hold the meat lure in your glove otherwise they would just fly off with it; you reward them when they’ve landed on your hand. Apparently the “wise old owl” moniker is a myth. They’re not very clever and haven’t got very good eyesight either. But each one we met had a terrific personality. Tom the Burrowing Owl was tiny and cute and ran round and round the drainpipe system in his cage, clearly enjoying himself. He’d fly directly into your hand.
Spot the Spotted Owl (she’s over there!) was very beautiful and apparently could be a little bit naughty. She was happy to be petted. She flew well but got a touch tired towards the end of the session and decided that walking was much more fun.
Mia the Bengal Eagle Owl was just gorgeous, she had the most wonderful eyes. She was also very vocal.
Grace the Barn Owl (also known as Dis-grace) just loved flying. She couldn’t be bothered to wait for a reward, she’d just fly to anything that looked like somewhere to land. She was hand-reared and had spent her early months perched at the end of her owner’s bed.
Curiously, owls can take a dislike to certain people and will refuse to co-operate with them. However, all the owls we met were most definitely on their best behaviour and it was an absolute pleasure to meet and fly them.
3. Forge Your Own Birdfeeder at a Traditional Blacksmith’s Forge
At the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, you can join Alex the blacksmith for a day, using a traditional 19th century forge to create a bird feeder comprised of fishtail scrolls amongst other forged elements. Safety equipment was provided and we were given full instructions and supervision. The fire had been started for us before we had arrived so the forge was ready.
We visited in winter, which was a really good idea because the forge is hot! We used steel rods which we heated in the fire until they were white hot (about 1600 ⁰C) and we saw sparks – indicating that the steel was ready to be worked– then took the rod out and hammered a fishtail shape on the anvil.
Alex also demonstrated how to bend the metal around a jig creating the lovely curvy design of the birdfeeder – you had to heat the metal, get it to the jig quickly and bend it before it cooled. It required quite a lot of dexterity to pick up the metal using tongs (with gloved hands) and transfer it to the jig while it was still white hot. It took a couple of attempts but eventually we managed to produce some very satisfying curves.
When the constituent parts had been constructed Alex welded them to a support pole and turn them into the finished piece. Alex was very accommodating – as mentioned with the canoe building, our car isn’t very large. Transporting two long birdfeeders down the M6 motorway wasn’t going to happen (we did this course before we invested in roof racks), so Alex managed to adjust the overall length so that they would fit into the car. As we own a cat we decided it wasn’t fair to the birds to use them as birdfeeders but instead we added hanging baskets in order to grow tomatoes. They make a lovely addition to our garden.
While You’re In The Area
We stayed overnight and visited the National Waterways Museum which offers a fascinating history of British canals and waterways. It’s also close to historic Chester where there are loads of places to visit, and lots of activities including a Roman tour led by a centurion, running tours, cycling tours and, of course, foodie tours.
4. Become a Big Cat Zookeeper for a Day
Dartmoor Zoo in Devon is famous for being that zoo from the film We Bought A Zoo starring Matt Damon. The story of the zoo is very interesting and we discovered that they offered zookeeper experiences. Our day was due to start really early, so we had driven down to Devon the night before and stayed at a local hotel. After we arrived we were given a safety briefing and advised not to be too squeamish. Good advice – you come into contact with raw meat that was most definitely formerly part of an animal as well as copious amounts of poo. We met our keeper, Holly, and volunteer George, who we would be shadowing throughout the day. They had prepared and portioned the meat for all the animals we were to encounter. We were impressed to learn that local farmers donate carcasses of farm animals that have died or been killed which are used to feed the carnivores, which strikes us as being a very sensible approach. Similarly, local supermarkets donate unsold food, some of which can also be used to feed the animals. As soon as we were wearing appropriate clothing (old clothes with wellies and gloves), we set about doing the morning rounds to make sure that all the animals were still in their cages and in good health. We had a wheelbarrow full of meat and an empty bucket and shovel for cleaning the enclosures.
Our first stop was the lions. We met two lions, an enormous male, Jasiri, who weighs about 200kg and Josie, a female. They were being kept inside for the day of our visit because the zoo was constructing an enclosure that would allow them to interact with each other. The lions were none too chuffed about being inside but the zoo had left a couple of Christmas trees inside Jasiri’s pen to keep him occupied.
We visited Josie to feed her. She snarled a little, unsurprisingly, and a grumpy lion is a pretty scary thing. But she soon settled after her protest and was happy to wolf down the food presented to her. Sadly Josie passed away some time after our visit due to a medical condition.
Next stop was the jaguar, a four year old male called Chincha who is very curious. He was in gorgeous condition and had the most amazing fur coat. Jaguars have the perfect combination of cat skills – they excel at climbing, jumping, swimming and running.
We followed the same feeding/cleaning routine for all the animals we attended. They were lured inside their indoor enclosures using a piece of tasty meat, then locked in using a counter-weighted metal gate system. We were then free to enter the main enclosure. We had to search for stools and discarded bones, which we removed, and then provided some food for each animal. We tried to present a challenge for them, hiding the meat in various locations so that each animal would have to search for it – something that provided them with a good deal of stimulation.
Then it was on to the tigers. Vladimir and Stripe are brother and sister, about 20 years old. They were born at the zoo, hand reared, and the previous owners apparently used to allow them to be petted when they were cubs. They are utterly gorgeous creatures and very sociable. Stripe willingly comes inside and was happy to pose for us. She also rolls around like a kitten.
We were struck by how many mannerisms we see with domestic cats can be seen with the big cats. It was marvellous to be able to get so close to them.
It was our day to feed the tigers as one of the zoo’s attractions. Holly managed to lure both inside, then we went into the enclosure, performed poo duty and set up some food for both tigers. Holly’s plan was to ensure that Vladimir was occupied with the meat that we had located in an obvious place which would enable Stripe to find her meal without her brother dominating her. Vladimir would be released first and hopefully spot the easy pickings then Stripe would find the meat that we had hung on a chain for her to enjoy. The plan worked perfectly.
And finally it was the turn of Sita the Cheetah. Sita is a grand old lady, over 20 years, an incredible age for her species. She clearly looks her age, but we were impressed at how the staff monitor her health. However, despite her advanced years she is… a cat. And a princess at that. We followed the usual routine of enticing her indoors and Holly called her into her indoor enclosure. Despite knowing the drill, she wasn’t ready to eat and certainly wasn’t going to do anything she didn’t want to.
Any cat owner will recognise this look:
Holly said that feeding usually happens on ‘Sita time’ and she adjusts her schedule to accommodate the cheetah. Eventually Sita made her way into the indoor room, was given meat and medicine (she takes it straight from a syringe) and, once locked in, we went inside the enclosure to do final cleaning duty. We didn’t hide the food for Sita, but simply left it right outside the door for her.
We were so impressed by the zoo – particularly by the animals’ good condition. Apart from Sita, who is very old, their fur is amazingly glossy, they are clearly in good health and also seemed to be happy. We drove back home to be greeted by our little cat… and a litter tray that needed to be emptied.
It’s actually quite hard work and there’s a lot of poo involved but getting up close and personal with the magnificent cats at Dartmoor Zoo was a wonderful experience. Bear in mind that the zoo often has 2 for 1 offers, so keep an eye out on the website.
While You’re In The Area
The zoo is located in beautiful Devon, close to Plymouth, where there are loads of attractions – from a National Aquarium to The Box, a cultural centre. The coastlines of Devon and Cornwall are renowned for their beauty and the zoo is right on the doorstep of the Dartmoor National Park – so it’s definitely worth extending your trip if possible.
- 5 Learn to Play the Japanese Taiko Drums
Japanese Taiko are traditional drums often used at festivals in Japan. There are a number of taiko ensemble groups, notably in Japan, which engage in exciting and energetic performances using a variety of drums. Mugen Kyo – the name means ‘limitless reverberation’ – are a UK based drumming troupe that have been established for over 25 years. The founders trained in Japan and set up a dojo not far from Glasgow. They run courses and workshops and also perform, touring the UK regularly. They have even toured in Japan and were invited to participate in a Taiko festival there – the first Europeans ever to participate.
The group happened to be touring a couple of weeks before our course, so we went along to see them perform. They were terrific – energetic, dynamic, exciting. You can check out their Video Gallery – Mugen Taiko.
The course began on a Saturday morning. The instructors introduced themselves – we were to be taught by the founders as well as two additional professional members of the group. The dojo had nine drums so we paired up and took it in turns to play. This was a really good system – the course was very intense so it was great to have a break from actual drumming to rest legs (not arms) and learn the pieces while the other group practised.
We found many similarities with martial arts: getting into a strong stance, letting gravity do most of the work hitting the drum but maintaining control as the bachi (stick) hits the hara (centre of the drumskin). We learned breathing techniques and the principles of channelling ‘ki’ (energy). And lots of random shouting to encourage your team rather than scare your opponent. We were taught to play as a group. You learn the rhythms by chanting, then chant whilst practicing the hand movements with your bachi in the air. We counted in using: “One, two, so, re” – on ‘re’ raise your hands dramatically to begin drumming.
We learned about the Ji-uchi or base rhythms: Gobu-Gobu (doko doko): 5 – 5, Mitsu-uchi (don doko); three hits and Shichi-san (donko donko): 7 –3. These were played for us by the pros so that we could keep time.
We played three pieces: Kamitsuki Kiyari Daiko (Miyake) and Chichibu Yatai Bayashi, which is traditionally played at matsuri (festivals), where the drummers are located inside huge floats and these are carried through the streets. The drum is positioned at a 45 degree angle, you sit with it between your legs, lean back and drum away. Don Ka Ki Daiko was played as a group with a line-up of five drums at the front and four at the back. The first brave soul did a solo of the first two lines, then on “Ha!” jumped to the next drum and the next in line jumped in. This was repeated until all nine drummers had completed their line. Two drummers were on the O-daiko (the really big drum) and joined in for the next part of the piece. Playing the O-daiko was a brilliant experience – it has such a deep, resonant sound. It’s hard work though.
The Mugenkyo dojo is open for bookings later in the year, you can check the dates here.
While You’re In The Area
We actually did a road trip travelling up to the dojo over several days, travelling along the northeast coast of England, before hopping across to Scotland. This included visiting Whitby…
and Berwick upon Tweed.
We attended all these experiences at our own expense and can wholeheartedly recommend them all.