A break in Britain means very different things to me and my husband.
He wants to be in an isolated cottage in the countryside, miles from anyone (and any shops) with plenty of walks and wildlife to see. I, on the other hand, want the chance to take a night off from cooking, have a spa treatment and not have to worry about packing the car with every essential we might need, from nappies to salt. Add an energetic toddler into the mix and finding the perfect place can be tricky. That’s why Habitat Escapes seemed such a promising bet. Luxurious but homely accommodation set on a private estate and nature reserve, with a spa, swimming pool and all-day clubhouse thrown into the mix. It’s also in the Cotswolds, famed for its good looks, excellent family attractions and ease to reach.
But, would it provide all that the three of us were hoping for?
Driving through the secure gate into Lower Mill Estate, the private nature reserve near Cirencester where Habitat Escapes is based, we were immediately struck by how quiet it was and the natural beauty surrounding it. This former quarry is set on 550 acres of land, with a variety of eco-friendly holiday homes and rentals set around eight lakes and two rivers. It was established by the Paxton family 18 years ago, who wanted to create a safe place for families to explore nature. There are two-bedroom apartments up to six-bedroom villas on offer to suit your family’s need. Each one is individually designed and comfortable, with a choice of glass fronted modern properties and more traditional cottages.
Our home for three nights was Dragonfly, a two-bedroom ground floor apartment with two en-suite bathrooms, an open plan lounge kitchen and large decked terrace with barbecue. The design was modern and stylish, with plenty of fluffy towels and a travel cot and highchair ready and waiting for Ralph. While we were right next to Swillbrook Lakes, a high hedge meant that unfortunately we could see it. However, being on the ground floor was handy for buggy access and for families with older children, being able to throw open the door while the played on the grass outside would be appealing.There was something immensely comfortable and comforting about the place. The kitchen was brilliantly equipped for us to cook some nice dinners once Ralph was asleep (it even had a washer-dryer) and the beds were just divine. Always a winner for sleep-deprived parents.
It was just a short walk from our apartment to the swimming pool, spa, tennis courts, playground and the clubhouse, Ballyhoo. We had a fantastic lunch at the latter, which is generally open day into night (seasonal hours apply), serving hot, cold and alcohol drinks, fresh seasonal food and cakes. There’s a takeaway service too. Ballihoo is set in a converted barn and has a big log fire, cosy sofas and plenty of papers and board games to while away wet and windy days. The staff couldn’t do enough for us and Ralph devoured his homemade chicken goujons and peas with relish. My chicken superfood salad (and lunchtime prosecco) went down equally happily. There’s also a small general store where you can buy everything from milk, bread and eggs to fancy crisps and condiments. You can pre-order provisions to collect on arrival too.
The spa is next door, nestled inside trees and a small stream. It’s a beautiful building, with big glass windows at either end and a very high-quality finish. It boasts three swimming pools – a large heated indoor one, an outdoor lily-filtered eco pool and a second outdoor one – along with sauna, steam room and gym. The weather was far too chilly to brave the outdoor pools but the boys loved the indoor one, which was pretty much had to ourselves each day. Even though it is family-friendly, there remains a chic, grown-up feel to the place. There was a definite sense of tranquillity and the changing room are luxurious, with excellent baby change provision.
While they splashed, I booked in for an express facial and back, neck and shoulder massage. The treatment room was vast – none of your usual pokey business – and the therapist incredibly friendly. When I got back to our apartment, my husband remarked that I looked “dazed” because I was so relaxed. I took that as a compliment.
THINGS TO DO
The philosophy of Lower Mill Estate is to embrace the natural world in which it sits and there are plenty of ways to do this. Energetic sorts can head to the activity hub, where you can hire bikes, canoes, kayaks and paddleboards. There are seasonal ‘adventures’ too, like moonlight katakanu trips where you toast marshmallows by moonlight or dawn canoe safaris. There are plenty of opportunities for fishing on a number of the lakes too, with kit available for hire. My husband is a keen fisherman but since we were here for family time, he stoically gave it a miss.
With the ground a bit boggy and some of the lakes closed for conservation reasons during the winter lull, we decided a few good walks would be the thing. There are plentiful trails around the site, where we enjoyed glorious winter sun, beautiful views and lots of birds. We found the banks of Freeth Mere especially peaceful and idyllic. There are hides if you are a dedicated spotter along with benches to rest your legs and dedicated picnic spots. The estate is home to 3,000 different species, including beavers in Flagham Fen.
They were previously extinct in Britain for 500 years until being reintroduced in 2007. Wisely, they are now keeping a low profile because, try as we might, we were unable to spot one. We did see some beautiful Belted Galloway cows though.To keep things interesting for little ones, you can pick up a map for the Miss Mouse Adventure Trail, which takes children around the estate to collect treasure and learn about the different species who live there. It’s based on a children’s book thought up by the estate creator, Jeremy Paxton.
It would be perfectly easy to laze away the days wandering the estate but with the Cotswolds on your doorstep, it would be rude not to venture out. We made a couple of trips. The first was to chocolate box perfect and attraction packed Bourton-on-the-Water, famed for its tiny bridges over the River Windrush and its amazing array of attractions, including the Cotswold Motor Museum and the Model Village. Even in the winter rain, it looked charming. The market town of Cirencester also proved to be a delightful place to explore, with a great selection of independent and high street shops, the award-winning Corinium Museum and a Roman amphitheatre. There are plenty more activities in the area to suit every taste. Read about our 10 best attractions in the Cotswolds for families.
With its abundant walking trails and wildlife, serene spa and high-end but homely accommodation, Habitat Escapes managed to tick all of our boxes for a family staycation. Taking a final walk along the banks of the River Thames, which runs through the estate, it felt like a world away from the London we’d be returning to at the other end. And that’s the point of a good holiday, isn’t it?
>> A three-night stay in Dragonfly, a two-bedroom ground floor apartment, starts from £454. For more information and to book, visit habitatescapes.com or call 01285 869 489.