Far from the madding crowd: rural breaks boom as wary avoid coast
There are no beaches, no seagulls, and in some places there are more cows than people. This is summer 2021: the year that Britons sought social distancing as much as sun, sea and sand.
Demand for rural retreats in counties such as Worcestershire and Staffordshire has soared this summer as people swapped the Algarve and Costa del Sol for the countryside, data from travel websites shows.
Camping and caravan trips to Staffordshire – which is nearly 100 miles from the nearest beach – have increased by 300% compared with 2019, according to pitchup.com, while bookings in the landlocked counties of Worcestershire and Cambridgeshire have more than doubled.
The traditional honeypot resorts of Devon and Cornwall, which together attract about 10 million tourists a year, have seen the usual influx of visitors this summer. But nervousness around Covid-19 has meant that some of the UK’s less-obvious – and, crucially, quieter – destinations have enjoyed a huge tourism boost.
“There’s an element of anxiety as people are emerging from lockdown,” said Dan Yates, the founder of pitchup.com. “People are tiptoeing an hour away for one or two nights … and that’s why you’re seeing counties like Worcestershire seeing the demand as well as continued demand for places like the Lake District, Devon and Cornwall.”graphic of rural retreat hotspots
Uncertainty around the UK’s ever-changing travel restrictions has meant millions of people have ditched their annual foreign getaway. AirBnB said domestic holidays account for 82% of nights booked so far this year. And rural retreats are becoming vastly more popular, accounting for nearly half of all bookings this year compared with 23% in 2019.
In previous years, AirBnB’s most in-demand properties have been in exotic locations abroad: last year’s favourite was a Greek cave, and a Balian treehouse took top spot in 2019. This year’s hottest listing was a luxury “Pigsty” on a farm in Winchester (£200 a night, almost fully booked until January).
Although there is evidence of a rural renaissance, travel experts are reluctant to call time on the traditional bucket and spade holiday. All of the top 10 searched-for towns on campsites.co.uk this summer was a beach resort, said the website’s founder, Martin Smith. Newquay, one of Cornwall’s rowdier spots, was the most sought after destination.
Away from the campsites, however, people have looked for lesser-known retreats as many hotels and short-term lets in Devon and Cornwall have been fully booked for months. None of AirBnB’s top trending seaside destinations this summer were on the popular south-west coast.
Instead, tourists have swarmed on the seaside resorts of Seaburn, near Sunderland, and Ingoldmells and Sandilands, near Skegness, according to the site. On the south coast, Sandgate in Kent and Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex had the biggest increase in bookings.
On the Isle of Anglesey, an astronomical rise in visitors has not been wholly welcomed. Campers have been pitching up illegally on beaches and private land, some leaving behind rubbish and creating a huge drain on resources, said Michael Thomas, the council’s tourism manager.
“It’s great that there has been a massive increase in visitors,” he said. “The downside to this is a lot of people are turning up with motorhomes and tents without booking places and they’re putting a massive pressure on our infrastructure. We’ve probably got a 500% increase [in visitors] because people are coming in the hope they will get somewhere and then we’re faced with the cleanup.”
In Staffordshire, however, tourism officials were over the moon with a near-300% rise in campsite bookings. The county has been busy promoting its many jewels since lockdown restrictions began to ease in April. Its gems include the rolling hills of Cannock Chase and Peak District, as well as the theme parks Alton Towers and Drayton Manor.
Philip White, the deputy leader of Staffordshire county council, said on Friday he was overjoyed to see people discover the county’s lesser-known qualities: “The huge range of attractions in Staffordshire is well known, but the beauty of our countryside is one of the UK’s best-kept secrets. We’ve been focusing on telling people about what we have to offer, how easy it is to get here and all there is to do so we’re delighted to see it paying off.”