The Duncan Family discover what’s magic about Dumfries and Galloway…
One of my favourite books as a child was Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. The attraction of the story was that you could be somewhere remote and rural, still not too far from home, when suddenly a magical new land with lots of exciting opportunities for fun would appear. You might not have to climb to the top of an enchanted tree to get there, but I have just discovered that the parallel experience for nature-loving grown-ups to enjoy with their children must surely be a trip to Dumfries and Galloway…
Famously home to Galloway Forest Park, the UK’s first Dark Sky Park and an amazing place for little stargazers to wonder at over 7,000 stars and catch a glimpse of distant planets, the journey to the beautiful lowland part of Scotland, is ‘nae bother’ as the locals would say. Our early morning 7.30am departure with P&O Ferries from Larne was plain sailing as we relaxed in the Club Lounge with a delicious full Ulster fry, unlimited access to soft and hot drinks and snacks, the Sunday papers and free Wi-Fi. After breakfast, a spot of on-deck whale watching and a trip to the brightly-decorated play area and game zone with the kids, we arrived in the port of Cairnryan at 9.30am, refreshed and raring to go with a full day of adventure still ahead of us.
Less than one hour’s drive away, wonderful surprises await you at a CocoaBean Company children’s workshop in Twynholm, a golden ticket to chocolatey happiness and the perfect egg-cuse to get creative in their kitchen lab. After donning colourful purple aprons and hair nets, under our watchful eye (parents can view the messy proceedings through the handy glass wall) the kids eagerly got to work making everything from delicious dinosaurs and ducks, to huge sweetie-covered slabs and hungry marshmallow caterpillars. Another top treat was the reward of face-painted-on white chocolate whiskers which not surprisingly didn’t stay on too long. Dropping off their swag bags full of goodies with Mum and Dad – only for safekeeping not eating (we promised) – the next delight was a full exploration of the massive indoor soft play area and outdoor adventure playground. Their imaginations ran riot with gigantic dinosaurs to run away from, a pirate ship to sail, a vast fort to fight dragons from, and a journey to the Wild West to burn off some of those chocolate calories panning for gold.
Separating children from their top two passions of chocolate and playtime is no easy task, but after a yummy lunch in CocoaBean’s café at least we didn’t have to travel too far to our next pit stop at the David Coulthard Museum which is right next door. Petrol head fans of all ages would adore a visit here where you can get up close to an impressive collection of F1 memorabilia, including his Red Bull and Mercedes F1cars, his first kart, see almost every trophy DC has ever won and even feel what it’s like to be behind the wheel of an F1 car in the full motion simulator. I’m not quite sure which of my boys was the most excited during our visit, (probably the big kid I’m married to) but it’s a real hidden gem worth digging up if you’re in the area.
Tired, but in a we’ve-had-a-brilliant-day-can-we-do-it-all-again kind of way, the kids had a backseat snooze and I took in the luscious green landscape on the 50-minute drive to our ‘happy holiday home’ as it was soon named by our three-year-old. The Three Glens in Thornhill is a spectacular sight perched midway on the hillside where the three glens of Craigdarroch, Dalwhat and Castlefairn converge. Surprisingly easy to find, despite the remote location, breathtaking doesn’t even begin to describe the jaw-dropping views from the massive wood-decked balcony (accessed via ceiling to floor automatic glass-sliding doors), or indeed from any room you step into. Unlike so much holiday accommodation for families, space is in abundance in this perfectly designed upside down luxury eco-house offering a huge upstairs open-plan living, kitchen and dining area with a separate conservatory and TV room snug. Downstairs you will find four double bedrooms with en-suite wet rooms, all thoughtfully well stocked with plenty of the softest bedding, fluffy towels and designer bathroom products. Lovingly created by farm owners Mary and Neil Gourly, The Three Glens is such a beautiful sanctuary for a family trip the only downside is you might be reluctant to leave the stone-clad walls (all sourced from their farm’s fields) to explore the area and take advantage of activities such as walking, cycling or fishing.
For families concerned about our carbon footprint while travelling, fear not! This is the perfect destination to inspire young ‘green’ minds as your hosts will explain how the turf-roofed farmhouse provides a unique slant on sustainable living using solar thermal and ground source heating, combined with wind turbine and hydro-electric power, to keep you as cosy as your only neighbours for miles – woolly-coated Blackface sheep – as over 2,000 of their fleeces are also stuffed into the walls. Operated with chalet-style service, a live-in member of staff is always on hand to cook you a delicious dinner, or farmhouse breakfast, using many ingredients sourced directly from the farm.
After a blissfully comfortable sleep, the next day we were appropriately woken by birdsong and up with the larks for our next big adventure on a wild day out to WWT Caerlaverock Wetland Centre. In under 60 minutes we arrived at the stunning nature reserve, just nine miles south east of Dumfries. Spring is a wonderful time of year to visit with the wildflowers blooming and ospreys and warblers flying in from the south, however we were there to witness wild swan feeding and show off our splashing skills at the WWT Scottish Puddle Jumping Championship.
Inside the Sir Peter Scott Observatory you can get closer to these magnificent creatures than anywhere else in Britain, and find out all about them via live commentary by the warden. Our little nature detectives adored every second, eagerly taking their turn on the telescope to watch baby cygnets hitch a ride on mum’s back across the lagoon. Next, it was time to limber up and make waves as the kids took on the challenge of attempting the perfect puddle jump. Our judge told us points would be awarded for style, enthusiasm and size of splash – and after enough practise to ensure their waterproofs were completely sodden – the scores on the doors were a respectable 83 and 84. Not the gold medal, but when you’re having this much fun who cares?
A quick change later, thanking our lucky stars we had access to our own fully-loaded car on this trip, and we were off along the Burns Heritage Trail for lunch at the famous Globe Inn, former lodgings and favourite “howff” of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. Over scrumptious Scottish fayre of Cullen Skink (smoked haddock soup) and Houston’s Haggis from a local Galloway butcher, served with mashed neeps and champit tatties, we learnt more about his life and works from our friendly host, saw the room he slept in – which is now crammed with an eclectic collection of artefacts – and even sat in the “poet’s chair” to recite a verse or two (ignore this tradition at your peril as the penalty for non-compliance is buying everyone in the bar a bevvy).
The rest of the fun-filled afternoon was spent in another of Dumfries’ main attractions, Dalscone Farm, a kiddie paradise of indoor and outdoor play areas, pedal karts, outdoor paddocks with lamas, alpacas and rheas [native to South America, related to the ostrich and emu, don’t you know] and the pièce de résistance, Scotland’s largest independent toy shop.
Dinner that evening was dished up in style at The Buccleuch and Queensberry Hotel in Thornhill, just 20 minutes drive from our ‘happy holiday home’, and one of the finest restaurants in Dumfries and Galloway. Its chefs use only the freshest and finest locally sourced produce to create a superb menu – including one of the best variety of children’s choices I have ever seen. As they are a proud member of the Scotch Beef Club, it would have been rude of us not to sample the house Buccleuch Beef Wellington for two followed by Crème Brûlée. Simply sublime!
Although we felt we had packed so much into two days already, there was still plenty of time for a final flurry of fun before heading back to Cairnryan for our late afternoon sailing home. As their slogan says, Cream O’Galloway Farm is ‘deliciously good fun’ and a-not-to-be-missed experience near Gatehouse of Fleet. The organic cheese and ice cream producing dairy farm take great pride in their high standards of animal welfare and award-winning products. On the farm tour, we were taken to see their very well-cared for herd of happy cows, which are only milked once a day to leave enough for the cows to suckle their own calves – almost unheard of in UK dairy farming. We also got a behind-the-scenes look to see where the real magic happens. The production kitchen for their completely naturally-made ice cream!
However the real treat which follows is an ice cream tasting session. Try and guess which 10 flavours you have been served up; is it gingerbread or whiskey, honey and oatmeal? Salted caramel or sticky toffee? It’s dessert heaven, and not as easy as you think to identify all the flavours, but certainly a whole lot of fun trying. If you have room after all that, the restaurant serves up a fabulous range of homemade meals, again with most ingredients coming straight from the farm or local suppliers. But burning off those extra calories isn’t a problem. Inside the visitor centre play barn lies the Smugglers Warren, a completely natural timber multi-level play-frame with hidden tunnels and separate pirate ship soft play room for younger children, while outside you can swoop down into the woodland area via the Flying Fox zip line or terrifying Drop Slide, Go Boing on aerial netting treetop trampolines, take on the assault course or hide out in the tree house in the Adventure Playground, clamber through hoops and nets in the 3D Maze, go karting, play crazy golf and much, oh so much more – phew! The only disappointment of our entire visit was to discover that Cream O’Galloway ice cream is only currently sold in Scotland and is not available yet in NI. Local supermarkets please take note.
As we discussed our ‘best bits’ relaxing in P&O’s Club Lounge on the ferry home over dinner, the main discussion point was why, despite living in Scotland for a few years and being frequent return visitors, the amazing area of Dumfries and Galloway had remained a completely unknown and unexplored realm for the Duncan clan when it ticks off so many demands of the ultimate family break checklist; fantastic accommodation; lots of fun things to do; great value for money; unique experiences… As I said at the top – if an ever-changing landscape of stunning scenery and excitement appeals to your inner-child, and your kids, there’s a merry magical trip waiting right here.
The Duncan family travelled to Scotland with P&O Ferries who offer up to seven sailings a day from Larne to Cairnryan, no baggage restrictions, and great value fares starting from £74 each way for a car and driver. Upgrade to Club Lounge for just £12 per person if booked in advance (£14 on board). For all information on sailing times and to book visit POFerries.com or Tel: 0800 130 0030
Find The Three Glens online at 3glens.com and for more on visiting the area go to visitscotland.com and search Dumfries & Galloway.