Middle England. Two simple words but laced with visions of suburban life – two point four children, twin cars in the driveway and perfectly-mown lawns.
That’s the adopted definition at least, but what of the geographical Middle England? With a car laden with mum, dad, two point four children (with the part of “point four” played by our new baby, just a few months old) and way too much luggage, we set off on our mission of discovery.
First things first, where on Earth, or more precisely on the map of Britain, is this fabled destination?
For decades, the honour has been held by Meriden, near Coventry. Then, in 2002, the BBC, with the help of the good people at Ordnance Survey, conducted their own investigation and duly knocked Meriden from its throne.
The new centre point was a small farm near Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire, courtesy of a different way of calculating the mid-point. Confused?
We were too, so took a broad-brush approach and threw a ring around the area, choosing to take in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and several points in between.
Base camp for our expedition was Nottinghamshire and the rolling fields and gentle slopes around the quaint and picture-postcard village of Caunton.
Not for us a stuffy bed and breakfast or hotel chain – no, we were getting back to nature. Having toyed with a Feather Down Farm Days experience for several summers, it was time to take the plunge and go under cover of canvas.
Any fear, concern or nervousness was quickly blown away as we threw open the door – or unzipped it, to be precise – to discover that glamping really does have an enchanting quality that stretches far beyond the websites and brochures.
The safari-style tents are, quite simply, fantastic. Step into the open-plan kitchen, dining and living area and you can’t help but be impressed. Complete with woodburning stove and farmhouse dining table, attention to detail is king – from the retro-style trinkets to metal cups and plates, it’s like stepping back in time.
At the rear of the tent is the master bedroom (yes, in a tent) with trademark fluffy duvet and a separate room with bunkbeds for the little ones. But with an additional cupboard bed (you guessed it, a bed in a cupboard) there was no chance of getting them to sleep anywhere other than cozied up in the purpose-built closet, a small, neat touch that’s big on impact.
The accommodation, with five tents spread generously in one field on the working farm, is just part of the Feather Down package.
The real purpose is to let guests sample life down on the farm, and we certainly did that. From touring the sprawling buildings, feeding the calves, petting the horses, meeting the donkeys and adorable bloodhounds, cooking pizza in the wood-fired oven, toasting marshmallows on the campfire built from firewood collected in the woods – Readyfields Farm and the Boddy family as the perfect setting with perfect hosts, who were helpful but never intrusive.
Nottingham itself was just a short drive away and appears to be a city enjoying something of a renaissance, with a vibrant centre offering an excellent shopping destination as well as a wealth of restaurants and relaxed vibe. Away from the buzz of the city’s heart, we also found time for a walk along the banks of the Nottingham Canal and drinks by the waterside.
It wasn’t all lazy days in the fields and down by the water. Oh no. There’s much more to see and do in Middle England.
As you sit 180ft above the ground facing a vertical drop into a black hole, several thoughts rush through your mind. Is the seatbelt fastened? Will the carriage stop at the other end? Is this really fun? Fortunately, the answer to all of the above is “yes”. It is fun Alton Towers style and, more specifically, courtesy of Oblivion.
Officially it may only be the second-best ride in the Staffordshire theme park– a vote pitted the big hitters against each other and it was Nemesis that came out on top with 41% of those polled plumping for it – but it left a lasting impression on this thrillseeker.
That was my little grown-up indulgence during an action-packed two-day stint at Alton Towers that, despite my midlife crisis antics on some of the bigger rides, was all about the kids. And what a whale of a time they had, from driving schools for boy and girl racers to stage shows and every type of ride you (and your little ones) could wish for.
Just a short hop away is Stoke on Trent. Famous for pottery, Robbie Williams and, more latterly, its plucky Premier League football team.
But if you go down to the woods today you’re in for a big surprise – because there’s a hidden wonder to this Middle England city. The wonderful Trentham Estate is a must-visit attraction in this under-explored part of the country.
First stop was the Monkey Forest. Wander through 60 acres of woodland and marvel at the colony of monkeys who roam freely through their home patch. Make no mistake, this is their forest – visitors are simply welcome guests.
After a morning among the primates, we spent the afternoon on the other side of the estate at the spectacular Trentham Gardens.
The 19th-century Italianate gardens have been painstakingly restored to take full advantage of their scenic lakeside setting and make for a fantastic family day out, complete with playpark and plenty of other child-friendly attractions.
Perfect for monkeying around on a summer’s day and blowing away any Middle England preconceptions that might be lingering.