Strangely, you may think, looking at plankton under a microscope had never been on my bucket list. Yet, it formed one of my highlights of our Real Family Holidays (RFH) Dale Fort experience – and that isn’t meant to sound like a negative. Bear with me a second here, it WAS more interesting than watching paint dry, I promise.
Whenever I think of our stay at Dale Fort, in Pembrokeshire, Wales, the incredible view and the things we learned during the activities are likely to be prominent in my mind. With all the modern gadgets and entertainment systems we have today, you’d expect seeing a few various-shaped black outlines pulsing and flitting around a white background to hold your attention (and that of a child) for roughly a second, but, across the generations, as we examined plankton through a microscope, we were enthralled. Honestly!
Our Little Man (OLM) was too young to go out on the fort’s RIB to collect the sample earlier in the day – you have to be eight and 1.3 metres tall. Instead, OLM and I enjoyed spotting my husband Nigel go and experience it from Dale Fort’s incredible rooftop sundeck. Nigel found the RIB thrilling, clutching a rope whilst perching on the inflatable side of the vessel as it sped its way up the estuary the fort looks out upon.
That night, one of the RFH activity leaders offered us the chance to find out more about the cloudy liquid samples the RIB’S crew had brought back. A snappy five-minute PowerPoint in a real science lab taught us all what plankton actually is – who knew crabs and starfish begin their life as these bottom-of-the-food-chain flecks? Then, thanks to a plentiful supply of microscopes, each family got to actually see them. When many of the slides revealed wriggling, squirming, multi-shaped plankton in what had appeared to be a drop of clear water, we were all crowded round oohing and ahhing, keen to attempt to identify them against check sheets.
I’ll admit Nigel may say (ok, will definitely say) the RIB was more exciting than viewing the plankton, but he and everyone else in the lab did find it totally engaging. This hands-on 20-minute experience will mean my son will never forget what plankton is.
Due to another of the included activities, he will also never forget how to differentiate a male crab from a female. A broad triangle on the abdomen is female, narrow male. This we learned on the jetty in pretty Dale village as we plucked spider and common shore crabs from the water. Again, we matched them to a Field Studies Council information sheet under the guidance of a RFH activity leader who enthusiastically provided deeper level knowledge about the creatures’ habits and skeletons in answer to our questions.
I’ll bet OLM can tell you a thing or two about map symbols too after a quick fire ten-minute lesson that led on to orienteering around the village and ultimately buried treasure. There was real, valuable learning within the Dale Fort activities but it didn’t feel like anything other than easy, family fun. It makes you realise how fast knowledge can be imparted in an exciting scenario and environment.
The Fort is your accommodation for your stay, which, in itself, is pretty cool. It’s set on a headland with a remarkable view out into the estuary. It’s a view you see every time you leave your room (and, if you’re lucky, even from your room), can enjoy from some of the recreation rooms and reveals itself further every time you leave the centre, but it doesn’t get less fantastic. And the very best place to see it, in our opinion, was from a quiet sundeck on the roof where there are two picnic tables. We went there every day to enjoy a drink and take it all in.
In a week, we felt we only scratched the surface of Pembrokeshire, but saw enough to fall in love a little. To our minds there were echoes of Cornwall, a long-held favourite place of ours – and part of the reason we found our way to sign up as advocates of RFH.
With so much to entertain and explore within the free RFH activities – which also included family team games, a campfire and evening nature walk – and the area directly surrounding Dale, we only really had one day further afield. This we spent experiencing the Iron Age roundhouses of Castell Henllys, stopping off on the return at stunning Fishguard, which looked worthy of a longer look had time allowed.
Less than ten minutes drive from Dale Fort, mesmerising Marloes Sands was probably at the very top of the list of best spots we visited during our stay. It’s a National Trust beach, perfect for body boarding, with endless interesting rock formations, cliffs and rockpools, accessed by a path through undulating lush countryside. The £5 parking charge initially feels a little steep but allows you to drive up to Martins Haven later on the same day and enjoy a walk around the tip of the peninsula for some spectacular views. If you arrive late afternoon the parking charge is reduced to £2.
The other thing I won’t forget about Dale Fort is the people we met – just like our previous RFH experience. During our stay at RFH’s Start Bay centre in Devon we felt we got to know all the other guests. Dale Fort is a little larger and, whilst we didn’t get to know everyone, there were one or two families in particular we really hit it off with. Great people and breathtaking nearby attractions seem to be as much a certainty on a RFH trip as the plentiful food, fun and adventure.
Dale Fort highlights for Our Little Man (age 7):
- “Crabbing because we caught a big spider crab”
- “Marloes Sands because it was really good for body boarding, there were lots of people there to make friends with and it was nice to look at”
- “The microscopes, it was the first time I had used one” – see, I told you it wasn’t just me who liked it!
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