Come the weekend, everyone in our house is a bit frazzled. The relentless school run, the commute into central London, and after-school ballet, football, tae kwondo and swimming lessons all zap our energy. And in the background there’s the constant buzz of London life: traffic, occasional shouts from the street, and pollution. It’s difficult to switch off. So when Landal Darwin Forest invited us to spend a long weekend in one of their luxury Peak District lodges, it sounded like the perfect way to shrug off the tiredness that comes with London life.
What, and Where, is Darwin Forest?
Darwin Forest Country Park lies near Matlock, in Derbyshire’s rugged, gently beautiful Peak District. The holiday park was a finalist in the Visit England Awards for Excellence, and Darwin Forest lodges are rated as 5-star. There are around 120 wood cabin-style lodges, in different sizes, nestled in a green space encircled by trees. Some lodges were built in the last year or two, some are older, and they were all made locally, in Bakewell. The family have run a holiday park on the site for 25 years, and recently Landal, the European holiday chain (whose Seawest park we stayed at in Denmark) teamed up with the family to take Darwin Forest under its wing. The Derbyshire holiday park was a first in the UK for Landal, who have a strong commitment to helping holidaymakers enjoy their natural environment.
From our home in south-east London, the SatNav told us the journey should take three hours and twenty minutes. If we’d lived in north London we’d have shaved about an hour off that journey, making Darwin Forest a very easy run for a weekend break. As it happened, we left at the worst possible time and got caught in Friday rush-hour traffic coming through the Blackwall Tunnel and out onto the A12. SatNav was way out – but if we’d left town at a more sensible hour, It might have been more accurate.
Checking in to Darwin Forest
Despite us arriving, rather bedraggled, at the unholy time of 10pm, our check-in was smooth, with the information about our lodge left in a secure box outside reception. We were staying in a Meadow lodge, on the edge of the holiday park. The narrow, winding country lanes at the end of our journey had already piqued the interest our city-raised children. As we turned off the lane to drive slowly through Darwin Forest itself, and past the glowing lights that illuminated our way out to the secluded Meadow, my daughter squealed, ‘it looks like the Magic Forest!’
When I stepped out of our car and felt the rich,warm hush of the trees and saw our log cabin’s fire feature shining out through the window, I couldn’t help but agree.
Waking up in Darwin Forest
The next morning we woke to birdsong, the scent of pine needles and a fresh smattering of Autumn leaves on the ground. D and I found some snuggly robes and slippers in our wardrobe, and padded out onto the veranda, to check out the feature that had most excited the kids (and us) before this trip: our very own hot tub.
Our Darwin Forest spa lodge
An outdoor hot tub’s always a treat, but there’s something special about sinking into warm, bubbly water when the air around you is chilly and crisp. And that’s exactly how it was during our October stay at Darwin Forest. That very first dip, the morning after we arrived, was enough to soak away all the stresses of London life. And from then on, we made the most of our hot tub. From delicious morning soaks to quiet evening sessions under the stars, we might have broken the record for the number of hot tub dips. A few times a day, a staff member came along to check the temperature and make sure it was all working correctly. And you’re told not to stay in it for longer than fifteen minutes. But other than that, we spent an awful lot of time in the tub.
Darwin Forest log cabins
All the cabins at Darwin Forest are made locally, in Bakewell. The park is self-catering. A greeting message sent about a week before our trip gave us the details of major supermarkets in Matlock, Chesterfield and Alfreton that could deliver groceries to our lodge. Instead, we brought provisions from home.
There was a decent amount of space in the kitchen area, which was in the corner of the lodge’s large open plan living/dining space. The welcome pack included teas, pods of coffee for the nespresso machine, dishwasher tablets and washing-up liquid as well as cleaning cloths and a tea towel. Family visitors were well catered for, with as many plastic knives, forks and spoons as there were grown-up versions, and an array of plastic plates and cups. No foil or clingfilm, although the kitchen came with all the hardware you would need: dishwasher, fridge, microwave, a large oven, and a natty wine cooler, where I stashed my bottle of Aperol.
With a washing machine/dryer and ironing board, the place was well set up for families wanting to stay the week. The cabin’s layout was calming and cosy. It was a two-bed, and each bedroom had its own ensuite, including large walk-in showers with powerful waterfall heads, and, in the twin room, a modern take on a rolltop bath.
It was tempting to spend our weekend lounging on the cabin’s large comfortable sofas, playing board games (we arrived to find a Ludo set, which we could swap for any of the others held at reception), or watching DVD films on one of three televisions. The TV reception was patchy, and the DAB radio couldn’t pick up a signal – the price you pay for being in such a rural area, I guess. But the wif-fi in the cabin was excellent. Tempting as it was to just hunker down, we decided to switch off the electronics and explore the beautiful grounds of Darwin Forest Country Park.
Darwin Forest: the setting
Darwin Forest’s 47 acres of mixed woodland is managed, with trails for walking or cycling. But it doesn’t feel overly manicured. We spotted a fair number of the highly poisonous fly agaric mushrooms, which we warned the kids not to touch – but, of course, the vivid crimson fungus with its creamy white spots meant that fairies couldn’t be too far away.
And the mushrooms weren’t the only evidence of little woodland folk. Gwen was excited to find several fairy doors, scattered along the Trim Trak, a circular woodland walk featuring obstacles like stepping blocks, and monkey bars.
We tried three walks at Darwin Forest, all signposted via a map we picked up at reception. The Trim Track took us through tree tunnels formed by stately deciduous trees. The Forest Trail edged through dense pines, and silvery sunlight illuminated ferns and pine cones on the ground. We were glad of our wellies on the Woodland Walk, after wading through long grass, past dens built from tree branches and through a door that looked as though it was a portal to another dimension.
Indoor activities at Darwin Forest
But our weekend wasn’t all about lounging in the hot tub, swooshing through leaves and breathing in fresh forest air. There were lots of other things to do, and plenty of indoor activities for when the weather was bad. Not all lodges had hot tubs, but if people wanted a dip, they could go to Darwin Forest swimming pool. The pool was inside Evolution Darwin Forest, a health and fitness centre open to the general public. Its gym and spa offered massages and beauty treatments. The swimming pool itself was a hive of water-based activity, with mini jet ski, snorkelling and Waterwalkerz sessions. This was essentially water zorbing, and after trying it out in Wales this summer, our two were keen to give it a go.
The Waterwalkerz sessions lasted for ten minutes, and involved the children trying to stand and run in what looked like a giant hamster wheel. After asking them to don a crash helmet, the guide taught the kids the hand signals for ‘I want to get out’ and ‘spin me’ – which triggered a huge heave on the rope attached to the ball, sending it twizzling round at high velocity. Both children emerged from their balls red-faced, sweaty and with huge grins on their faces. It was £5 well spent.
Little Monkeys Darwin Forest was close to Evolution, and if the weather had been bad, we’d no doubt have tried out the three-storey soft play centre. As it was sunny, though, the kids preferred to monkey around outdoors, in the playground.
Outdoor Family Fun at Darwin Forest
Have you heard of Body Zorbing? It involves wriggling into an inflated ball that looks a bit like an oversized beach ball, then running around a field, bouncing into the other zorbers and rebounding onto the ground.
The kids’ Body Zorbing session lasted an hour. D and I thought this might be too long, but after the kids had played Sumo, bowling ball and tag under the guidance of the Evolution staff member, the time just melted away.
Body Zorbing cost £8 per child. Depending on the age of the child, there was also archery, fencing, mini beast hunt and orienteering. Simply too much to cover in one short weekend, unfortunately! Our welcome email told us to book the activities in advance, and I finally got round to it about a week before our trip. Our stay fell at the beginning of a school holiday, and I’m glad I booked. Both the WaterWalkerz and Body Zorbing were full when we arrived.
Foresters Bar and Restaurant at Darwin Forest
We didn’t eat at Forester’s Bar and Restaurant, the on-site eatery. It looked pleasant. Parents sat outside in the late afternoon Autumn sunshine drinking cocktails, while their children climbed and swung in the play area next door. The menu seemed unadventurous, but reasonably priced. The designated kids’ menu had more options than usual for the youngsters, and was inexpensive (£5.95 for a main course, including chicken goujons, burgers or pizza).
Shop at Darwin Forest
If you hadn’t managed to sort out a shopping delivery for your stay, or brought food from home, then the holiday park’s reasonably sized shop would have most things you’d need. It was more expensive than a regular supermarket, but the fare was good quality. Eggs and meat from local farms sat in the fridge, apples from nearby orchards nestled in a basket, and there was all the organic veg you needed. Derbyshire cider, local ales and British wine practically filled the alcohol section. The shop sold coffee pods and dishwasher tablets in small packs, so you didn’t have to buy more than you needed. And a selection of DVDs were available to rent, for £3 each.
Things to do near Darwin Forest
Darwin Forest holidays can be a complete experience in their own right. A weekend of forest walks and hot tub dips was more than enough to keep our London-based family happy. But if you wanted to venture further afield, there’s plenty to see and do in the area. The Peak District’s beautiful rolling landscape is a haven for walkers, and there are several walks suitable for little legs. The Chatsworth Estate is close enough to Darwin Forest for a short visit, but really the country manor and exensive grounds deserve a full day’s exploration. And Bakewell‘s a pretty market town, good for a wander followed by a session sampling the local tarts and puddings.
These are just a few of the activities in Derbyshire’s Peak District, and we’ll be posting about more on the blog. In the meantime, what would you recommend for families in the Peak District?
Disclosure: other than our travel costs and the extra activities (WaterWalkerz and Body Zorbing) we didn’t pay for our long weekend at Darwin Forest. They provided us with the stay so that I could write about it here, and share the experience on social media. Prices vary. To find out more, visit the Landal Darwin Forest website.
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