This year, many of us have rediscovered the staycation. British weather is far from reliable but our countryside is beautiful and there’s always loads to do. If you’re thinking about a family road trip from the Midlands, the Highlands of Scotland might not be your first choice. After all, it’s a really long way away. But if you break up the journey with some overnight stays and a few National Trust days out, it becomes a little more reasonable. We spent three weeks this summer driving from Worcestershire in the West Midlands up to Aviemore in the Highlands. We broke the journey into manageable chunks with no more than four hours travelling in a day. Each travelling day had a fun stop where we could all stretch our legs, including the dog. Here’s our itinerary including where we stayed, where we stopped and what we thought of each destination.
Part 1: Road trip from the West Midlands to North Yorkshire
The first stop on our journey was two nights at a gorgeous campsite that we’ve been to before. Hillside Caravan Park in Thirsk has everything you need and nothing that you don’t. A small park for the kids, nice clean toilet facilities, electric hook ups and the option to stay in a glamping pod, lodge or holiday cottage if you prefer. We travelled in our family camper van so we went for one of the gravel hardstanding pitches. We only stayed for a couple of nights, so we didn’t bother with our awning. A small, pull-out porch awning did the job instead.
Where to break up a journey from Worcestershire to North Yorkshire
When travelling with children and a dog, National Trust properties are the ideal place to break up a journey. Nostell is a beautiful location with a café, large children’s play area and plenty of walking routes. Much of the grounds is dog friendly too. We didn’t venture into the house but spent a lovely few hours exploring the outdoor areas. It is about a two and a half hour drive from Worcestershire, then about another hour to carry on up to North Yorkshire.
Things to do in North Yorkshire
The main reason for breaking up our journey in North Yorkshire was to revisit Sutton Bank National Park Centre. It’s an excellent place for both walking and mountain biking. There’s also a mountain bike skills course and a pump track. The pump track is quite taxing and both girls fell off, with Lia doing so in spectacular style. The skills course is much easier and more suited to younger children. Cycle routes and walking routes are separate at Sutton Bank, which did mean that I couldn’t take the dog on the same route that my husband and the children were taking on their bikes. Instead, I went for a run with the dog, then we all met up at the café for lunch. If you’re travelling without bikes, you can hire them at Sutton Bank.
Part 2: Road trip from North Yorkshire to Dunbar in East Lothian, Scotland
The next destination on our road trip was Belhaven Bay campsite in Dunbar, East Lothian. This is another campsite we’d been to before and were keen to return to. In fact, it’s one of the most beautiful and convenient places we’ve stayed. A very short walk from the beach, Belhaven Bay has everything you could possibly want as an active family. Without going on the road, you can access the coastal path walking and cycling track, the beach, a huge adventure playground and it’s about a two mile walk into Dunbar town centre. When the tide is in, a small inlet fills up. Perfect for paddle boarding and swimming. With the tide out, the surf is ideal for body boarding. You can also hire surfboards nearby but we didn’t have a day when we felt there was enough surf to bother.
Where to break up a journey from North Yorkshire to East Lothian
I find the what’s halfway website really useful for working out where to break up a journey. Particularly when I don’t know the area. We usually default to a National Trust property because we’re members so it’s free. When I searched for somewhere to go between North Yorkshire and East Lothian, I came up with Cragside. This was probably the most beautiful National Trust property we have ever visited. So of course, I took precisely no photos and you’ll have to take my word for it.
Parking a camper van there wasn’t the easiest. The first car park we came to was very busy with no spaces left that were big enough to park a camper van with a couple of bikes on the back. So, we had to drive along the narrow, six-mile long Carriage Drive to the other car park. It does say on the Cragside website that vehicles going to the estate should be a maximum of 264cm high and 195cm wide. Cars with trailers or caravans can’t be accommodated due to the roads and they have a few designated camper van/motorhome parking spaces on a first-come first-served basis.
If your vehicle fits within those parameters, Cragside comes highly recommended. There are a few places to buy refreshments, a large play area and absolutely stunning scenery. Dogs are welcome on leads and it’s a beautiful place to break up the journey.
Things to do in and around Dunbar, East Lothian
For us, Belhaven Bay is the ideal place to park up the van, hook up our huge Olpro Cocoon Breeze awning and stay put. There’s a small shop on site and larger ones within cycling distance, so there really is no need to go anywhere. On this basis, my first recommendation would be plenty of days at the dog friendly beach. We did a lot of paddle boarding, body boarding, playing in the sand and rock pooling. There is an ice cream van that regularly parks up next to the Bridge to Nowhere. It serves some of the best ice creams I’ve ever had. Most notably the Biscoff one. If I had the time I’d drive back up there now to buy another one.
In terms of venturing further, there are loads of options. The first is East Links Family Park. By bike, head left on the coast path by the campsite going away from the golf course. The park itself isn’t dog friendly, although the café is. So, my husband took the children there while I went for a run with the dog. A variety of animals call the park home, including some rather cute wallabies as well as llamas, prairie dogs, rhea, donkeys, horses, deer, sheep, goats, cows, ducks and geese. Play equipment includes go-karts, a fortress with slides, a sand pit, play park, trampolines and the safari train. The girls loved it, my husband said it was a bit tired but a nice day out.
Next to the East Links Family Park is a free adventure play area. It’s huge and never too busy. Again, this isn’t dog friendly but there are some stunning woods and the beach a short walk away so I took the dog for some exercise while the children played.
Further afield, the fabulous Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick is just a 25 minute drive away. Boat trips run most days to Bass Rock from there but we tried to take one last time we were there and it was cancelled due to the weather. Tantallon Castle and Seacliff Beach are just 20 minutes drive from Belhaven Bay too. Both are dog friendly and come highly recommended.
Part 3: Road trip from East Lothian to Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands
Our next stop was Dalraddy Holiday Park and dog friendly campsite just outside Aviemore in the Cairngorms National Park. It was the first time we’d been to this campsite and it looked like a nice place to base ourselves for exploring the area. Without having to go onto a public road, you can get from the campsite onto an off-road footpath/cycle path that goes to Aviemore in one direction and Kincraig and Loch Insh in the other. The campsite itself has lots of activities available, including a children’s play area, bike skills track, archery, quad biking and a little train that takes you around the park and through the forest.
On paper, Dalraddy Holiday Park looks perfect. It’s set in a stunning forest with plenty to do. In reality, we weren’t keen on it for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s absolutely enormous with only one play area. This was a long way from our camping pitch and too far for the children to go on their own. This immediately restricts their independence, which is one of the things they love most about camping. Secondly, there were very few toilet, shower and washing up blocks. This resulted in long waits for the shower and washing up and quite a long walk from the camping pitch to the toilets. Pitches in the main motor home and camper van area were incredibly cramped. Luckily, we went for the half grass, half hard standing pitches which were a lot quieter but this meant being further from the play area.
On the plus side, we did love the location of Dalraddy. It cost £5 to take the little land train to explore the forest where we saw deer and wood ants. The children enjoyed the archery and it was great to be able to cycle or run to Aviemore and Loch Insh. But I think the drawbacks probably outweighed the positive aspects for us. So, if we went back, we would stay elsewhere.
Where to break up a journey from Dunbar to Aviemore
When traveling from Dunbar to Aviemore, we met up with my friend Jenny at The Kelpies. For anyone passing that way, I would highly recommend a visit to Helix Park and the Kelpies even if it’s not a natural break in your journey. The Kelpies are two giant horse statues that are Falkirk’s version of the Angel of the North. Visible from the M9 Motorway, the statues tower over the landscape. It is possible to go into them if you book a tour in advance but even without doing so, there is plenty to keep families occupied.
Dogs are allowed in outdoor areas on leads. Between the statues themselves and the play area, there’s a nice walk along the canal. The play area is quite large with plenty for children of different ages. By the kelpies is the visitor centre where you can learn about their history and the stories and horses they are based on. For a full review, head to Monkey and Mouse.
Things to do in and around Aviemore
Aviemore is in the Cairngorms, a popular area for hiking and mountain biking in Summer and skiing and snowboarding in Winter. We took our bikes but stuck to the off-road cycle trails on the Speyside Way with the children. These are a bit hilly but well surfaced so easily doable for little ones with a few walks on the big uphills. We spent a day cycling from the campsite to Aviemore, then boarding the Strathspey Railway for a short journey. Certain carriages are dog friendly and the train passes through beautiful countryside.
Another fun day out close by was Loch Insh in Kincraig. The whole loch is beautiful but it is worth heading to the water sports centre to hire a SUP or canoe, launch your own or go for a swim. A loch-side café serves light meals and there’s a large children’s play area. We paid a small launch fee for our two SUPs and spent a very pleasant afternoon paddle boarding and swimming. A little further away is Loch Ness, where we passed another very enjoyable day taking a Loch Ness boat trip and looking out for Nessie.
Probably the children’s favourite day out of the whole holiday was Landmark Forest Adventure Park. We had booked tickets for a few days after the roller coaster accident in which a couple of people were injured. After hearing about that, I was slightly worried about safety but everything actually seemed really good. Dogs are allowed in all the outdoor areas of the park, which was really helpful for us. The children loved all three of the big water slides, the high ropes course and the rock climbing. They were too small for the skydive and the larger ropes course but they looked brilliant. With various other attractions as well, Landmark is a full day out and I would highly recommend it.
Things to avoid in Aviemore
Another popular attraction in the Aviemore area is the Alvie Estate, Lots of activities take place there including clay pigeon shooting, archery, quad biking, a zip wire and pony trekking. The girls wanted to go pony trekking, so my husband took them while I stayed with the dog. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t recommend it at all. Instead of the promised beautiful mountain trek, they trudged around a farmyard and some bins on ponies that clearly didn’t want to be there. Despite telling them how experienced they were, the children were put on ponies that had to be led – or rather dragged along.
The people leading the ride didn’t engage at all with the children or indeed speak a word to them whilst dragging the ponies along. The girls also didn’t feel that the staff were very nice to the ponies. Overall, it was a really disappointing experience for them. The pony trek they went on cost £96 which had to be paid in cash at the start of the ride. My husband actually waited at the end to complain about how bad the whole experience had been, but the staff disappeared and he couldn’t speak to them at all. I know that pony trekking is run by a private individual rather than the Alvie Estate, so I have no idea what the rest of the activities are like. But if you’re considering pony trekking, give this place a swerve.
Part 4: Road trip from the Scottish Highlands to Bamburgh
After our stay in Aviemore, it was time to head south again. This time, we went for a campsite that we had been to a couple of times before, Waren Mill Camping and Caravan Park. A sister site to the one we love in Belhaven bay in Dunbar, Waren Mill is a great place to stay with kids. A small swimming pool, games room and two playgrounds put this to the top of the children’s list of favourite campsites. For the adults, there is a lovely onsite pub serving relatively decent food. The site feels very safe and we were happy for the children to go to the park without us. It’s also walking distance from beautiful Bamburgh. Our only regret is that we didn’t stay longer.
Where to break up a journey from the Scottish Highlands to Bamburgh
Halfway from Aviemore to Bamburgh is beautiful Loch Leven. The last time we went there, we managed a swim. This time, as we were just passing through, we headed to Kirkgate Park. It’s an ideal stop off on the banks of the loch. We took a picnic, the children played in the park and we dipped our toes in the loch. Annoyingly, there is a 20p coin charge for the public toilets. Always awkward in these days of not carrying cash. A footpath/cycle path runs around the banks of Loch Leven and at other points on the Loch there are cafés if you prefer to stop somewhere that serves food. The park is dog friendly and the children’s playground was pretty good. My girls would have happily spent a lot more time there.
Things to do in Bamburgh
I absolutely adore Bamburgh. Its long sandy beach is idyllic. Dog friendly with decent waves, beautiful sand dunes and never too busy. There are some lovely dog friendly pubs and sweet little shops. The town does get busy so it’s worth booking for things like meals and places you want to visit. We only spent two nights in Bamburgh this time and had glorious weather. We regretted not staying a bit longer.
Bamburgh Castle is a fascinating dog friendly day out. It’s quite interactive too so the children enjoyed it and the views of the coast from its vantage point up on the cliff are spectacular. A small museum in memory of Grace Darling is always one of the highlights for the girls. Her story is both inspiring and extremely sad, given that she died aged 26, just a few years after her courageous rescue of shipwreck survivors. You can also see her grave in Bamburgh churchyard.
Part 5: Road trip from Bamburgh to Yorkshire
The final stop on our epic road trip was The Hideaway at Baxby Manor. Baxby Manor’s website sells it well and definitely made me want to book. The one thing I didn’t see mentioned on the website though, was the thing that made our stay there more pleasant. There’s a little shack selling breakfast and smoothies that then reopens in the evenings to sell freshly made pizzas. As we were on our last few days travelling and didn’t have an electric hook up, this was a bit of a godsend. It’s quite a quiet site with a strict no noise policy after 11pm. There’s plenty of space between pitches but there’s no playground or area for kids to run around. That would put me off staying there as a family for any length of time but for the few nights we were there, it was fine.
Where to break up a journey from Bamburgh to Yorkshire
The natural place to break up a journey from Bamburgh to Yorkshire is somewhere around South Shields. I had a look for a National Trust property in the area and came up with Souter Lighthouse and the Leas. The historical lighthouse opened in 1871. It was the first in the world to be designed and built to be electrically powered. Visitors can take a tour of the lighthouse, even going to the light at the top. There’s a National Trust café with a dog friendly outdoor seating area.
From here, you can walk along two and a half miles of coast. Tiny pebbly coves, limestone cliffs and grassy coastal paths make it a pleasant walk. The nesting Kittiwakes, Cormorants, Fulmar, Guillemots and Shags on Marsden Bay’s rock stacks are fascinating to see, if a little stinky. A reclaimed colliery is now a wildlife haven at Whitburn Coastal Park and Nature reserve.
Things to do in and around Yorkshire
On the way home from our road trip, we spent two days in Yorkshire. This time, we decided to head into York itself. My husband took the girls to the Jorvik Viking Centre and York Minster. The girls particularly loved the Jorvik Viking Centre. The story of York’s Viking past is told very realistically by waxworks with all the sights, sounds and smells of the time. Unsurprisingly, neither the viking centre nor York Minster are dog friendly, so I spent the day around York with the dog. I didn’t find it a particularly dog friendly city. It wasn’t really clear where I could and couldn’t take the dog in terms of restaurants or cafés, so I ended up heading out of town for a walk beside the river. This was lovely, but it’s not a city I’d choose to go to again with the dog.
Our other day in the area was spent at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden. As well as the history behind the Abbey itself, this National Trust property has a huge area for visitors to explore and dogs on leads are welcome. There’s a huge children’s playground quite close to the large café and reception. From there, you can walk to the Abbey and on to the Royal Water Garden. Landscaped gardens, a deer park and beautiful woodland make for a very varied landscape to explore.
Another local place that we love is Brimham Rocks. Children are fascinated by the dramatic rock formations and it’s a lovely area to explore. There’s a small food kiosk and plenty of picnic areas but it’s not a full day out. If we were breaking a journey, we’d probably choose Brimham Rocks but Fountains Abbey is ideal if you want to spend all day somewhere.
The journey’s end
We decided to end our journey with a visit to family on the way home from Yorkshire. It’s always good to make the most of travelling around to visit people we don’t manage to see very often. We were away for a total of nearly three weeks and managed to see a lot of the UK and put our camper van and awning to good use. It is a long time to be away from home and we all missed the cat. There were a few arguments when the children had been together too long but all in all, it was a brilliant road trip. Now, it’s time to start planning for next year.