If you’re enjoying a late night in an outdoor hot tub with your partner, you could do without a gang of peeping toms staring insolently at your bikini. As we toasted the start of our rather unusual British holiday, we were surrounded by bullish locals wordlessly demanding exactly what we were doing on their turf.
They were cows – and thankfully the only sentient beings in sight in the moonlit valley beneath our cabin. Welcome to sort-of-Wales, sort-of-England – depending on whereabouts on this hillside farm you happen to be standing. Our two-storey Finnish lodge, one of a small collection on the slopes below Black Hall Lodges farmhouse, is in west Shropshire (we think).
Breakfasting on our veranda the following morning, the cows barely gave us a glance, and we were too busy admiring the view to out-stare them anyway. Below us descended the lush green Terne Valley, then beyond that a bank of rolling hills, firmly over the border in Wales, gave way to another valley, then another... It was like an optical illusion – a kaleidoscope of green stretching off to infinity.
To our left lay a pocket of woodland, where buzzards and red kites could be seen circling above the trees, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Time to explore...
Not being experienced or remotely well-equipped walkers, we took the path marked “family nature trail”, one of several walks in and around the farm mapped out for visitors. At the top of the hill, the farmland includes a section of Offa’s Dyke – the ancient border made by King Offa in the 8th century to protect his kingdom of Mercia from what is now Wales. A national trail runs the 180-mile length of the Dyke, from Chepstow on the Severn Estuary, north to Prestatyn.
The stretch that passes through Black Hall is one of the best preserved, and it was easily visible as we picnicked in the upland pastures. The ascent was too steep for us, but a five-minute drive away, in the small border town of Knighton, the Offa’s Dyke Visitor Centre acts as a gateway to a relatively easy walk on well-worn paths, along the river and up through the fields to the Dyke.
Not for the faint-hearted, but we did manage it in sandals with two small children in tow.
Aching limbs are soon soothed in the pool at Black Hall, housed in the main Canadian timber lodge near the farmhouse. During our week we largely had the pool, sauna and steam room, gym, and the games room (complete with soft play for toddlers) to ourselves.
There’s an outdoor play area too and a petting barn where children can meet the animals, with lots of space for them to play. This is one of 13 Autograph Lodges – destinations marketed by Hoseasons in the UK – but privately owned and managed by the farmers. They were looking to diversify after foot and mouth all but wiped out their livestock, and built their first holiday lodge back in 2002.
Friendly and happy to help, they’re always on call via a radio in the main lodge, but still have a herd of organic beef cattle and sheep to tend to – so you do feel a sense of ownership yourselves here.
If you’re not walkers, another great way to explore the countryside is by bike. You can arrange to have hire bikes waiting for you at your lodge, but we drove instead to Wheely Wonderful Cycles, five miles west of Ludlow and about 15 minutes by car from Black Hall.
On two modern tandems we pulled the (surprisingly heavy) children along quiet country lanes, over little humpback bridges, past hedges of wildflowers, to the pub, of course.
Although The Lion at Leintwardine is more than a pub – it’s an elegant boutique hotel and restaurant, sitting on a gentle bend in the river alongside an arched stone bridge, perfect for resting our bikes against.
We sat outside and, wary of the return cycle, enjoyed a light lunch of spring bean risotto with peas and red mint, while the children played in the idyllic little Wendy house against the garden wall.
This whole region is foodie heaven. Ludlow claims to have invented the slow food movement and the fields are bursting with produce. We stopped en route to our lodge to stock up on local lamb, beef and cheeses at the Ludlow Food Centre – a permanent indoor farmers’ market and cafe.
The village below our farm (as we liked to think of it), Llanfair Waterdine, is home to award-winning restaurant The Waterdine, run by chef Ken Adams and his wife, Isabel. It felt like such a backwater place to experience such fine dining, but you can sit in the quaint rooms of an old drovers’ inn and enjoy mouth-watering seasonal and homegrown produce. Booking is essential.
Tea rooms abound, as you’d imagine. Some of the best home-made cake we’ve ever eaten can be found at The Tower House Gallery and Tea Room in Knighton (as well as local art), but make time to visit the picture-postcard village of Clun for tea too. Then work off that clotted cream by walking around the castle ruins.
There’s another great view from the top of Clun Castle and a pretty meadow surrounding the mound, where the children ran about in the evening sunlight.
Being border country, you’re always a stone’s throw from a castle – there are almost too many to choose from.
Stokesay Castle, run by English Heritage, is billed as the finest and best preserved fortified medieval manor house in England. It’s far from a ruin. The pretty timber-framed gatehouse is immaculate and leads to an enclosed courtyard garden from where you can explore three storeys of the manor and admire its gigantic wood-panelled fireplaces.
It’s surrounded, as is everything in Shropshire, it seems, by farmland. We stood on the ramparts and saw nothing but fields.
Many farms, like Black Hall, have diversified to stay in business. During our holiday we visited farms that had turned barns into indoor play centres – such as Mickey Miller’s Family Playbarn in Craven Arms – and those that had created mystical sculpture trails through their woodland – like Ray’s Farm near Bridgnorth – but there’s still a sense that life here comes from the land.
And what a beautiful land.
Emily Shelley stayed in Inari Lodge, at Black Hall Lodges, Shropshire, part of the Autograph Lodges collection, courtesy of Hoseasons. Accommodation sleeps between four and seven. A week’s stay at Black Hall Lodges starts from £445 and a short-break from £290 (low season). For more information, visit www.hoseasons.co.uk or call 0844 847 1100. Cycle hire at Wheely Wonderful Cycles starts from £18 per day for an adult trail bike. Visit www.wheelywonderfulcycling.co.uk for more information and to book ahead.