Of the five Real Family Holidays locations we’d visited so far, the approach to Malham Tarn Field Studies Cente was certainly the most dramatic and, arguably, most beautiful.
The 30 miles or so from the M6 to the centre, which overlooks Malham Tarn (a lake formed in the last ice age 12,000 years ago), is occasionally undulating, mostly green and dotted with rock formations. But it’s the six miles between Settle and the centre which really grabs your attention – incredible landscapes as far as the eye can see. However, it’s best to remind the driver to keep focused on the narrow roads and winding, steep ascents and descents.
We arrived to a warm welcome and settled into the accommodation, a reasonably spacious room with two single beds and a bunk bed in a courtyard of converted stables.
The dining room was alive with chatter and laughter about the day’s ventures from people who had already stayed a few days. It was clear that several families had hooked up and were enjoying one another’s company – and it was also obvious that none of them was looking forward to the prospect of leaving the following morning.
After dinner it was campfire time, with about 30 people huddled on tree stumps.
With a few new faces evident, each family was invited to give a brief chat on either something they had enjoyed from the past few days, or for the newbies, to introduce themselves and say what they were looking forward to. A nice “icebreaker” before the much more important and awaited task of toasting marshmallows.
Tutor Adam told a story (including prompts for audience participation with appropriate sound effects) as the youngsters knelt by the fire with their pink or white lumps on the end of partially stripped twigs.
MONDAY: We spent this first full day exploring the immediate surroundings of the centre – and there was plenty to go at in this National Trust estate.
First stop was the boardwalk through Tarn Moss, not just moss but a collection of fascinating trees and unusual flora.
The boardwalk allows you to walk right through the middle of this important conservation area without damaging it. A series of colourful information boards tells you what you’re seeing and what else to look out for – like the lizard we spotted camouflaged on the boardwalk itself.
After a long walk loosely following The Pennine Way (loosely as in we made a wrong turning somewhere and were off the beaten track for a good while), we were more than ready for the afternoon cuppa and piece of cake back at base.
The evening turned out to be slightly misty – the perfect setting for the free activity of Bats in the Belfry. After an informative briefing by a bat expert, the children were thrilled to tune into the bats’ echolocation sound with handheld devices.
The flying mammals were soon swooping around the centre’s yard as darkness fell.
TUESDAY: Kian and I went off to see what Settle had in store. The laundrette is perhaps not one of the first things many families would choose to hunt down, but for us it was a must and, fortunately, there was one quite close to one of the most central car parks, since the dirty washing bag was starting to bulge significantly.
Just outside, some things to do posters caught Kian’s eye and one in particular hit the nail on the head for something engaging for him at low cost (at £1 it could hardly be lower).
Each year throughout July and August, Settle and a couple of surrounding villages hold a flowerpot festival (www.settleflowerpotfestival) and scores of businesses and residents create fantastic men, women and animals from the humble plastic flowerpot.
The Folly coffee shop – part of a much larger architecturally fabulous building which used to be a gentleman’s club – was one of the stockists for the trail and quiz leaflets and, armed with a golden nugget from my wallet, Kian popped it in a collection box and we were off. At that stage we didn’t realise that there were three different trails of differing lengths (since there are more than 100 flowerpot creations), but we’d noted the two-hour estimation for ours and were happy with that.
What a lovely time we had following the directions, spotting the flowerpot artwork and answering the questions based on them.
The quality of the creations was – almost without exception – very high, sometimes exceptional. A pair of tall giraffes with swishy tails on one doorstep (just up the road from the famous flowerpotmen Bill and Ben perched on a riverside windowsill); a black and white cow with pink udder peering down from a wall and a fish ‘leaping’ out of the fast-flowing river (suspended in mid-air by ropes). This was no low quality, quickly flung together trail but a terrific, traditional community effort by the people for the people. What a clever marketing event for the town too, encouraging visitors into the town and subtly getting them to notice all the many independent shops and businesses.
Back at Malham Tarn Field Studies Centre, the free activity for the day was the setting of mammal traps. This was a very interesting and educational hour, thanks largely to the knowledge and enthusiasm of tutors Ellie and Rhiann.
During a perfectly-pitched 20-minute chat with slides, the youngsters (and probably the majority of adults too) learnt what animals might be caught, how to tell the difference between the mammals (such as the difference in eye, ear and tail size of mice and voles) and what necessities would be needed in the traps and why.
Everybody eagerly stuffed in handfuls of hay and added spoonfuls of food and chopped up apple to cater for all possible visitors.
Then we trotted down to a forested area just 100 yards away and followed the tips on where to lay them. It was then a case of waiting with fingers crossed til the morning…
WEDNESDAY: Lovely though the hearty English breakfast was, the chatter in the dining room focused on what, if anything, might be in the mammal traps.
Everybody excitedly recovered the small contraptions, with stilted yelps of excitement from those who found that their trapdoor had been activated.
Again nicely done by the tutors, each child was encouraged to come forward and watch closely as their activated trap was emptied. The joy and excitement on their faces was wonderful.
Out of about 20 traps, we had a very good return of six mice and four voles. Everyone had the opportunity to study the mammals’ physical differences before they were released. This was done with everybody standing in a circle and the mice and voles released one by one in the middle. Everybody had been urged to stay rooted to the spot, whichever way the released animals made off – and to their credit all managed that, even when the mice and voles ran through people’s legs.
Great to note that had that been in some people’s home, screams and jumping on chairs might have been expected. Here, after forming a friendship with these little furry guys over 20 minutes, their free presence and movements caused not a ripple between the youngsters and adults alike.
In the afternoon we hooked up with another family to drive to Malham and do the 45-minute walk and climb up Malham Cove, a stunning limestone formation. A perfect location from which to enjoy views for miles and the tasty packed lunch made earlier at the Real Family Holidays centre.
At the foot of Malham Cove, we loved the challenge of crossing the stream by stepping stones. And the sight of climbers halfway up the face of the cove was astonishing and awe inspiring.
THURSDAY: The rocket launching activity was delivered with the same slick pace and enthusiasm as mammal trapping and the FSC tutors had the room-full of children hanging on their every word from the start.
Kicking off with a few seconds-long video of a real rocket launch grabbed their attention before 20 or so minutes of concentration and energy around the room as plastic bottles were decorated and embellished with drawings and adaptations in a bid to stay in the air the longest after launch.
Rocket fuel – in the form of around half a bottle of water – was added by each team to their newly designed rocket, with the exact amount left up to teams to decide. Typically for Real Family Holiday activities, teams weren’t exclusively divided along family lines. Our seven-year-old decided to buddy up with a slightly older boy and was extra engaged in the task because of that as the pair of them took proud ownership of it.
Once ‘fuelled’ all the rockets were taken onto the centre’s front lawn overlooking the Tarn and launched individually. Each team taking their turn to pump their rocket with air as everyone else watched it explode high into the sky, a trail of spurting water in its wake. There were whoops and laughter as each rocket went up, it’s time in the air carefully recorded on a score chart.
Hearty cheers were dished out to the winning team before the bottles were collected up for re-use and parents were left chattering once again about how the simplest things bring the most joy as the kids ran off down the hill to get stuck into a game of football.
After dinner we took advantage of a lovely summer evening to have a stroll around the other side of Malham Tarn.
FRIDAY: The town of Skipton – on the Leeds-Liverpool canal – is about 40 minutes’ drive from Malham Tarn and well worth a visit.
We soon jumped on a canal boat for a leisurely half-hour cruise before tucking into our packed lunch watching further barges pass by.
Then we checked out Craven Museum, which has worksheets and dress-up clothes to engage the kids further. A nice surprise here was a partial Shakespeare First Folio (collection of 36 poems and plays) donated to the museum about a century ago.
On the way back to the centre we stopped off near Malham to take in Janet’s Foss waterfall and Gordale Scar, another stunning limestone creation.
In fact we were so taken with these natural beauties that we lost track of time. Deeming it too late to make it back to the dining room, we consoled ourselves with yummy fish and chips in Settle. Another win-win at RFH.