What it's like to go an HF holiday in the covid era

Adaptations and changes at our country houses

walking holidays

With all of the changes at our country houses since the phased re-opening of HF properties post-lockdown, we wanted to see what the new covid-secure safety measures meant in practice and what the impact on the holiday experience was. So, we sent Head of Marketing Michelle Laverick to experience a stay at Derwent Bank in the Northern Lake District and report back:

In the course of the summer I usually try to visit several HF houses and join a number of our walking breaks to meet our guests and experience what they are enjoying. Because of the Covid crisis this opportunity had been necessarily curtailed. With the phased re-opening of our country houses though, I decided to join an HF walking holiday in the Lake District – a classic break that sits at the heart of what the business offers – and see firsthand the adaptations and changes put in place to make HF holidays covid-secure and safe for guests and house teams alike.

The allure of the Lakes, with its wide open spaces, fresh air and countless places to walk so you can avoid the crowds were popular reasons for guests choosing DB. Close to Keswick and sat slap bang on the shores of beautiful Derwentwater, with the glassy lake on one side and the razor-edged ridges, humpbacked fells and muscular mountains of the Lake District on the other, the house enjoys a coveted location. And because of this location, there’s great walking right from the door, so there’s no need to use transport to reach the trailheads, a change adopted across HF guided walking holidays in the wake of the covid crisis.

On arrival

walking holidays
walking holidays

As I arrived at the house, Covid-19 measures were visible from before you entered the house; at the front door there was a reminder to wear a mask before entering and hand sanitiser clearly positioned. There was more hand sanitiser as soon as you walked in too – along with the NHS Test and Trace Bar code for guests to scan. Because HF owns its country houses (or leases them from the National Trust), we can better control the experience and manage necessary changes, such as reduced total occupancy, which is currently capped. The welcome by the house team though was as warm as ever, and I was directed to my room. This had been deep cleaned and had a ‘sanitised for your protection sticker’ on to prove no one had entered the room since it had been cleaned, which was a great reassurance.

In the room

Inside the room was a Welcome pack containing a friendly letter, guest registration form, menu for the week ahead and lunch and dinner request forms for each day of the week so that I could choose my packed lunch and pick an evening meal in advance. As I admired the view from the recently refurbished Garden Room, I helped myself to the well-stocked supply of tea and coffee sachets. Munching on a complimentary biscuit I scanned the room; although there was no hairdryer, very little else was different or missing from the comfortable rooms usually on offer.

In the bar

Walking holidays

Refreshed, I headed down to the bar to meet my fellow guests. Again, there was a hand sanitising station as soon as you walked in. As required by government guidance, the bar was table service. The tables had been re-arranged from my previous visit to allow for ample social distancing – when a guest attempted to pull two tables together, a member of the house team politely intervened and asked them to not move the furniture. Seats on the sofas were also marked off to support the need for social distancing. The bar itself was blocked off so that guests couldn’t stand at the bar. Table service was prompt, and I took advantage of the well-stocked range to enjoy a local gin and tonic. Despite the changes, the atmosphere remained relaxed and the bar was as welcoming as ever. Guests didn’t seem to be put off either, and before both dinner sittings there were good numbers of people present, excited about the walking ahead and glad to be able to catch up, even at a distance.

Leaders - walks advice

The HF Walk Leaders worked the room and spoke to all of the guests individually to discuss walk options., which helped them to allocate the right guests to the right walks, according to their ability, experience and what they hoped to see. More informal than the traditional Leader Walk Talks where they’d usually present options over a slideshow, this seemed to work very well, and guests enjoyed the relaxed and more personal approach. There was more information readily available as ever in the Discovery Point, with route guides, maps and other material available for both people looking to research the guided walk they’d be doing or those on a self-guided walking holiday.

Breakfast

Following a sound sleep, I rose to make one of two breakfast sittings (07:30 & 08:30). With buffet breakfasts a thing of the past now, I was pleased to see the table set with crockery and a pot of condiments for toast. As soon as I sat down, I was asked for tea or coffee and brought toast. My cooked breakfast order was then taken and arrived quickly, meaning that the half hour allocated for breakfast was more than enough time. During the meal, my bagged picnic lunch was delivered to the table – while I missed the trip to the tuck shop and chance to collect the goodies myself, and maybe snaffle an extra chocolate bar, just in case, there was more than enough available on the lunch menu. So much so that I still worried about having to carry it all in my pack.

Heading out on a walk

Walking holidays
Walking holidays

To ease congestion when leaving the house on one of the new no-transport walk options, walk times were staggered. Three different walks set off at 15-minute intervals from 9.30, so not too many people gathered at the same time. Group sizes were capped with 14 guests to 1 leader. Rather than require coach transport or travel, all walks began from the house so had a lower impact environmentally. It also meant there was some flexibility when it came to weather conditions; on a wet day the group could return early and shorten the walk, while on a glorious day they could linger longer over lunch or immerse themselves in the fells without the need to rush to meet their bus back. The walks from the house also provided greater flexibility for leaders to manage the ability of the group too.

Myself, I took the option to take in two classic climbs. On my first outing I joined a group climbing the ridge rising above Derwentwater to the summit of Cat Bells. After soaking up the magnificent views of the northern fells, we descended to the lakeshore path and looped back to the house. The second day I fancied a leg stretcher and opted to climb Skiddaw at the northern end of Derwentwater. As we followed the Cumbria Way to the back of Latrigg before taking a good path up to the broad summit, the cloud closed in and it started to rain. Undeterred we summited, resigned to not seeing the panoramic views from the top of the Lake District’s fourth highest peak. We all found our own perch to picnic on and just revel being back outdoors. From here, a steep but steady descent brought us back to the hamlet of Millbeck, where we glimpsed views of the lake and onwards to Borrowdale. Field paths finally brought us back to the HF house.

In the evening

Walking holidays

That evening, weathered and worn out by a great day in the hills, I looked forward to a relaxed dining experience. Rather than all come together for a single sitting as usual, there were two sittings in place to allow for social distancing. The reduced numbers of guests in the dining room could have felt strange and being spread out might have felt awkward but it meant no-one had to shout over each other to be heard as can sometimes be the case in our larger, busy dining rooms. Each course was served faster too and the ever-attentive waiting staff appeared more relaxed and less rushed as they delivered plates of roast beef and risotto. One constant was the quality of the food, which was delicious. Drinks were offered at the table and replenished as stories were swapped. Without any organised evening activities conversation continued to flow naturally over coffee and in the bar area afterwards as well. All in all, it was a very enjoyable experience.

So, was it different?

Ultimately, it felt and worked like an HF holiday should. I’d worried I wouldn’t recognise the HF holiday that I know and love. Or that it would be compromised in some way by the onerous yet necessary new rules. But fundamentally it didn’t. The core ingredients of a walking holiday were the same. Yes there were changes and noticeable adaptations but none of these impacted the holiday experience or detracted from the time away. Derwent Bank still felt and worked like an HF house, spending time with familiar and new friends was still the perfect tonic, the great British countryside on the doorstep remained just as thrilling and glorious as it ever did, and exploring on foot was still the best way to experience it all.

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