The fun farms of England
Choosing moseying over museums, the paths of animals over the footprints of kings, a family has a jolly old B&B countryside time.
Will there be chickens? Sheep? Horses? The questions from the back seat came fast and furious as we wound through England's narrow hedgerow-lined lanes, heading to our next farm B&B.
If the back seat were in charge, we'd skip the museums and Stonehenge ("boring," decided my crowd-adverse 9-year-old) and spend our country tour gathering eggs and running through fields surrounding the family farms that offered us lodging.
Well, maybe we'd take a break for Windsor Castle. Or Longleat, a stately home outfitted with mazes and a safari park. Or Salisbury Cathedral, with its not-for-the-timid tower climb.
But the undisputed highlights of our trip were the bed-and-breakfast accommodations we booked on the Web.
Like traditional B&Bs, farm stays provide a dazzling English breakfast of cereal, eggs, bacon, sausage, fried bread, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, toast and tea. Often the meat is from the village butcher, the milk is fresh, and the bread is just-baked.
Unlike traditional B&Bs, farms tend to be off the beaten path, requiring an occasionally terrifying drive down one-car lanes, dodging villagers accustomed to jumping through the hedgerows.
But once you make the leap to the other side of those walls of green, you'll find that farms offer more than just a place to sleep.
With fields and barns to explore, horses to pet, and dogs to throw sticks to, they invite you to travel at a more leisurely pace. It's a pace that lets children play and grown-ups imagine for a moment that they actually live in the English countryside.
Long Compton, the Cotswolds
To immerse ourselves in thatched roofs and cottage gardens, we drove two hours - well, three if you count getting lost - from Heathrow airport to the Cotswolds village of Long Compton.
Set between the tourist towns of Moreton-in-Marsh and Chipping Norton, Long Compton is a tiny gem. It has a church, pub and, more important, Yerdley Farm's Tallet Barn.
This beamed, stonewall building takes its name from a "tallet" - a place where animals were kept beneath a feed loft.
No sooner had we pulled into the drive than our hostess, Diana Richardson, emerged from the adjacent farmhouse with a pitcher of fresh milk. She'd set out tea and biscuits in our room, which had a double bed, bunk beds, and just enough space for a tea party.
Though Tallet Barn does have a turtle to feed and a dog to pet, its setting is more village than farm. But a short walk away, the Richardsons' fields of wheat, oats and barley pinwheel out from the village, as they have for centuries.
There were signs of farm life in both a dusty Land Rover and bearded John Richardson, a fifth-generation farmer who loves talking about why he gave up on cattle and whether he'll soon be growing corn for fuel.
For the next four days, we took full advantage of Tallet Barn's lending library of brochures and maps. We learned about the Cotswold Falconry Centre near Moreton-in-Marsh and the Rollright Stones, an ancient stone circle where the most frequent visitors are birds.
But our luckiest discovery was a map charting the footpaths that cross England's private land. When we realized a two-mile stroll would take us through three of England's prettiest villages, we packed a picnic bought at the Long Compton food shop and set off.
Starting at untouristy Upper Slaughter, we wandered over hills and through sheep pastures to Lower Slaughter. This postcard-perfect village has a fine church, a hotel with a dining room, and a watermill that's a museum. We reluctantly passed by the organic handmade ice cream stand and followed Lower Slaughter's gently winding River Eye toward our lunchtime destination, Bourton-on-the-Water.
Beloved by tourists, Bourton-on-the-Water has attractions aplenty, including the Bourton Model Railway, the Cotswold Motoring Museum, and Birdland, which houses 500 winged species.
But for us, the allure was the River Windrush, which winds beneath arched bridges through the center of town. We picnicked on its banks, fed the ducks, and finally persuaded the children to wade downstream toward the Model Village.
Built by local craftsmen in the 1930s, this charming stone creation reproduces Bourton-on-the-Water at waist height. The clocks tick, tiny trees cast shade, and choirs can be heard as you peer into exactingly re-created churches.
When the children finally were ready to leave, we crossed the road to the very satisfying Dragonfly Maze. In its passageways are clues that must be gathered to solve the delicious riddle at its heart.
Restored by a stop for ice cream on the riverbank, we made our way back to Upper Slaughter, stopping to gather sheep's wool for making doll pillows. For dinner, we returned to the peace of Long Compton, lured back by the Red Lion Pub, which offers sophisticated seasonal dishes, interesting pub fare, and a children's menu without chicken nuggets.
North Hill Farm
After an idyll in the Cotswolds, it seemed proper to introduce the children to the queen - or at least her home at Windsor Castle. So we headed to North Hill Farm, a B&B surprisingly close to London, stopping for the afternoon at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Center in Great Missenden.
This clever museum bursts with imagination that has made classics out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG. There are costumes to dress up in, Dahl's chair to sit in, and some excellent lessons on the creative process.
When we'd tried on the last hat and written the last silly verse, we drove 15 minutes to North Hill Farm. Located in Chorleywood, 20 miles from Heathrow and just one mile from a London Underground train stop, North Hill is a rural hideaway in an unrural part of the world.
The owners, Nigel and Georgina Clark, have traded cattle for the steadier profits of innkeeping. But North Hill is still a farm in spirit.
Its fields stretch down to the River Chess, another perfect wading spot. And you don't need a car to go to dinner. Just cross the river and follow the public footpaths a mile to a pub.
The farm's Web site indicates that it offers clay pigeon shooting and carriage driving. It doesn't, but never mind. It does have a hot tub and, more important, horseback riding.
After yet another rousing breakfast, Nigel outfitted the children with helmets and gave them a short riding lesson. Then they bounced on the trampoline while we checked e-mail - North Hill is one of the few farms with Internet access for guests - and then were off to Windsor Castle, a half-hour away.
Buscot Wick, Faringdon, Oxon
With Queen Mary's dollhouse and those red-coated, bearskin-hatted guards, Windsor Castle is inherently child-friendly. But who would have thought the kids would want to linger in its carved and gilded rooms when their parents were ready for tea?
It turns out the kids' version of the complimentary audio guide was far more amusing than ours. We'd be directed to one painting, they to another. They insisted on pressing every button and hearing every joke. By then, the gift shops were closing, but we did leave with three handouts full of games and puzzles from the information booth.
These proved a great help in shortening the drive to Buscot in Oxfordshire, where we were staying at Weston Farm, a stone's throw from Kelmscott Manor.
Kelmscott is the home of William Morris, 19th-century poet and founder of the arts and crafts design movement. "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be beautiful or believe to be useful" is his famous line.
Fittingly, Weston Farm is a very useful place in a beautiful setting. The stone building, which dates to 1649, is owned by Christ Church at Oxford and rented to Andrew Woof, who runs the B&B and farms - organically - the surrounding 500 acres. His wife works as a bookkeeper nearby.
After breakfast, served on cow-decorated china made by a local craftsman, Woof offered the kids a quick ride on his tractor. They romped with the dog, Jake, and then it was time to see Kelmscott.
A shrine for design and garden lovers, Kelmscott is decorated with handmade tapestries, beautifully carved furniture, and paintings by Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti. An activity sheet kept the kids occupied - briefly. They preferred the arts and crafts lunchroom, which serves excellent fare.
Afterward, we took a short walk to the Thames, which at this point in its meandering journey has a peacefulness befitting the classic of children's literature The Wind in the Willows - and a plethora of ducks.
Collingbourne Kingston, Wiltshire
Stonehenge by day, chickens by night: That was the bargain Manor Farm allowed us to strike. The innkeepers' 8-year-old son, Josh, befriended us over breakfast and offered to take the kids to gather eggs when they'd finished touring.
Since we stayed two nights at Manor Farm, taking advantage of its large family room, we were able to see two sets of stone circles. To the north is Avebury, where a series of monoliths loop through town, unconcerned about traffic, sheep or modern life. Its gnarled and weathered circles have a quiet magic.
Stonehenge, by contrast, towers majestically above the Salisbury Plain. But seeing it means following busloads of tourists in a wide circle, listening to a fairly dull audiotape.
We reclaimed our sense of awe at Salisbury Cathedral, where we climbed the tilting bell tower, the tallest in England. Our 332-step tour brought us into the Tudor-beamed inner workings of the church, offering an excellent lesson in architecture along with spectacular views.
Once on the ground, we rushed back to the farm, worried that Josh would be waiting. He met us with a bowl of chicken feed and led us through walled gardens to see the hens that roost in the raspberry patch and old shepherd's hut.
Would we like to see the horses? And the barns? Only the call to dinner ended the tour. Josh went in to eat, and we walked a short way to the Barley Corn Pub.
Our final destination was the same as King Arthur's: Glastonbury Abbey. We had the good luck to roam its ruins in the company of a "knight" leading a family tour of the grounds. With the help of a plastic Excalibur, he recounted Arthur's life and explained that the Holy Grail is said to be buried on a tower-topped hill that's definitely worth climbing.
The abbey was left to decay when King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, but the town of Glastonbury has prospered. Its streets are lined with bustling cafes and tempting restaurants. Shops sell witches' calendars, mystical books, and everything a New Ager would want.
Our final B&B was the snazziest of the trip. Once we'd taken our luggage to our well-decorated family room, owner Hilary Millard settled us in the sitting room with tea and homemade jam cake.
Then we checked e-mail on the guest computer and ventured into the barn, which has full-sized billiard and ping-pong tables.
Double-Gate is a proper farm, raising chickens by the hundred thousand. But its real focus, and the reason it has won so many hotel awards, is breakfast.
You order the night before, choosing from a menu that's longer than a bishop's robe. At 8:30 a.m. sharp, all 14 lodgers are served with military precision. Conversation flows along with the tea, providing an excellent ending to a country outing. Sated and happy, we bid our farm stay goodbye.
Finding a Fine English Farm
The biggest and most popular Web site for farms in the United Kingdom is www.farmstayuk.co.uk. Whether you're traveling to England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland, you can search its offerings by clicking on its accommodation map.
Zoom in, and the map rewards you with a sprinkling of blue dots marking the location of farm B&Bs. Red dots indicate farms with facilities called self-catering. This type of accommodation, which lets you do the cooking, is generally rented by the week.
Bookings can be done by e-mail, though phoning may be necessary if a spam filter eats an innkeeper's reply. Sometimes a credit card number or a deposit is necessary to secure a reservation. Many farms don't take credit cards, in which case an e-mail from your host is all you need to confirm your room.
Prices vary with the season. Here's what we paid per night:
About $120 for a family room with double bed, bunk beds, and bath with shower.
About $203 for a family room with double bed and two twin beds, plus a bathroom with a whirlpool tub, shower, robes and slippers.
About $175 for a room with double bed and a room with twin beds, with a bathroom across the hall.
About $176 for a family room with double bed and two twin beds and private bath.
About $194 for a family room with double bed, bunk beds, shower, huge tub, and heated towel rack.
- Claire WhitcombEndText