Hit the Road for a Family Car-Cation with Heidi McAplin!

HEIDI McALPIN and her family took a two-week road trip across England that was designed to keep everyone happy. Some must-haves included visits to stately homes and cathedrals.... and of course a few child-friendly activities thrown in to keep the kids happy!

Designing a two-week England road trip to satisfy a penchant for stately homes (that’s me), someone who worships cathedrals (dad) and two kids with precious little interest in either formed the tremulous foundations of my post-lockdown holiday plans.

Yes, the children will complain, but I’d a few age-appropriate activities up my sleeve to wrench them from the Wi-Fi. And so, with my all-consuming, colour-coded itinerary nestled in its ziplock pouch, we embarked on a 650-mile odyssey destined to kick lockdown to the kerb. Our adventure began with an overnight sailing from Belfast to Birkenhead aboard the shiny new Stena Edda. This was our first time on this route and our spotless four berth en-suite cabin and access to the Stena Plus Lounge – with enough complementary snacks and juice to keep scurvy at bay – made the eight-hour journey a doddle.


Back on dry land and Google Maps, our trusty friend for the fortnight, guided us 25 miles to our first stop, the charming medieval walled town of Chester. Its monochrome Tudor streetscape embellished with a blaze of multi-hued blooms, this picture postcard destination provided the perfect start to our jam-packed car-cation. And dad’s much vaunted Cathedral Bagging Tour of England was off to a flying start with the Chester Cathedral at Height Tour.

Genial guide Matt regaled us with the building’s centuries-old history as we ascended its 125ft tower for magnificent views across several counties and into neighbouring Wales. The tour also took us to previously inaccessible parts of the cathedral where yet more awe-inspiring interior views showcased the gothic nave, stunning stained-glass windows and lavish mosaic floor. Even the children enjoyed relaxing in the sunny cloisters as we contemplated our next stop. No rest for the righteous.


As we headed 70 miles east views turned from urban to rural as one of my holiday highlights came into view. Made famous when Mr Darcy emerged glistening from the lake to enrapture Elizabeth Bennet, the magnificent Chatsworth House has been wooing visitors – and Pride & Prejudice fans – to its pastoral Peak District domain.

In fact, each year the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire welcome over half a million visitors to their humble abode. And as we catch our first glimpse of the mansion and meticulously landscaped grounds, the scale of their extravagant estate is nothing short of staggering.

A house tour showcased its sheer opulence as painted ceilings, sweeping staircases, priceless antiques and a quirky curation of classic and contemporary art vied for attention. And the equally beguiling 105-acre gardens enraptured with a mind-melting Maze, gargantuan Rock Garden and classical Cascade where water tumbled from an ornate fountain down a flight of stone steps.

Though my only sighting of Mr Darcy was as a gift shop ornament, Chatsworth… you didn’t disappoint!


Our cathedral and stately home spotting coming along apace, according to dad the next destination promised an ecclesiastical site just as commanding as Chatsworth. Set 55 miles east, Lincoln is a city synonymous with its cathedral. And it’s not hard to see why as this mighty site rose up from its hilltop perch.

This cavernous gothic creation dates back to Norman times and was once the world’s highest building until a storm toppled its spire in 1549. Over the centuries Lincoln Cathedral has also survived fire, an earthquake and attack by Cromwell’s troops and remains the UK’s fourth largest cathedral.

Eager to explore, I took a Lincoln Cathedral Roof Tour while dad and the children checked out the iconic Lincoln Imp statues dotted throughout the city. Getting up close to one of two stained glass rose windows as the choir sang Pie Jesu was like glimpsing heaven itself. And emerging onto the roof for those head-spinning views is a moment that will live long in the memory.

Our next city stop was neighbouring Lincoln Castle, built by William the Conqueror and home to a Victorian Prison and an original copy of the 1215 Magna Carta. After immersing ourselves in all that history, we took the Medieval Wall Walk for panoramic views of the castle complex – and, of course, that ever-dominant cathedral. Both the Castle and Cathedral sit at the crest of the aptly named Steep Street whose quaint cobbles lined with cute independent shops and cafes are well worth the climb. What a delightful revelation Lincoln City has been.


No time to dally though, and next morning it was onwards a further 70 miles south-east for a three-day visit to Norfolk. But not before dad added a quick midway stop at the Boston Stump, aka St. Botolph’s Church whose 81metre tower stands out for miles from its flat Fenland base. Sadly, strong winds prevented us from ascending its 209 steps, but an interactive virtual view showed us what we were missing. And craning our necks to look up at the tower, both inside and out, was just as jaw-dropping.

A restored coaching house close to King’s Lynn provided the ideal base for our Norfolk sojourn. And with the coast calling, we dumped our bags and headed straight for the nearby seaside town of Hunstanton. Though set in England’s most easterly county, the town is west-facing and famous for its sunsets, with a funfair, caravan parks and big sandy beach adding to its busy holiday vibe. As a timely reminder of home, though, our trip coincided with a biblical-like deluge turning Sunny Hunny into Runny Hunny. Happily for the kids, shelter was taken at one of its many glitzy amusement arcades where piles of 2ps where duly transformed into two small chews. ‘Twas ever thus.


From the flashy to the distinguished, and the following day took on a rather more regal air with a trip to another of my must-sees. Built in 1870 by the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, Sandringham is the country retreat of HM The Queen. A house tour showed us around several ground floor rooms including the elegant Drawing Room where the family congregates at Christmas and the Grand Ballroom where Union flags from Shackleton’s successful and Scott’s fateful Antarctic expeditions are proudly displayed.

A lakeside summer house built for Queen Alexandra and the burial places of three of the Queen’s corgis were among the notable sites in Sandringham’s 24-hectare Gardens. The surrounding 600-acre Royal Park is freely accessible year-round (car parking charges apply) and includes a shop, café, and play area with 26ft high water tower and slide. All were explored and enjoyed before we ended our day glimpsing inside the estate’s St. Mary Magdalene Church where the royals attend the Christmas Day service.


Halfway through the trip, and a necklace of villages dotted with distinct flint cottages bejewelled our drive along the beautiful North Norfolk Coast. Stops at upmarket Holt and charmingly named Wells-Next-The-Sea topped and tailed our main destination of Cromer. The kids revelled in a North Sea dip beside Cromer Pier as families trawled the waters with buckets and nets in search of some famous Cromer crab. We chose to secure our catch with Crab Burgers at the award-winning No. 1 Cromer café. What a treat!


Bidding our country pad farewell, we headed 40 miles east to Norwich, Norfolk’s capital city famous for Coleman’s mustard, Delia Smith and, you’ve guessed it, a fabulous big cathedral. Dominating the skyline with its 96m tower, the second highest in England, Norwich Cathedral packs more than 900 years of history in its picturesque 44-acre Close and Cloisters. A City Sightseeing Bus Tour showcases the spire and other city highlights, among them the Norwich City football ground whose owner Delia famously cajoled the crowd with her war cry ‘Let’s be ‘aving ya!’. I dare any visitor not to leave Norwich without doing the same.

Exploring a city anew often uncovers happy surprises. And, for us, one was undoubtedly Norwich Market. This cornucopia of around 200 stalls can trace its origins back as far as the cathedral’s, making it one of the largest and oldest markets in England. Losing ourselves within this wonderful warren rewards us with spicy Cuban sandwiches, minty mushy peas and gravity defying cupcakes.

And though much of the city’s architectural heritage has been lost over the centuries, Elm Hill remains a shining reminder of its medieval heyday. Thatched dwellings and merchant houses share this striking streetscape with boho shops and cute cafes. Speaking of which, more award-winning fish and chips awaited us at The Grosvenor Fish Bar, a culinary landmark reimagined with industrial chic décor and a trad fusion menu. We tucked into Krusty Krab Rolls and good old Cod & Chips alongside its legion of local fans.


With one final destination to tick off our Norfolk bucket (and spade) list, we headed 22 miles east to the seaside town of Great Yarmouth. If Barry’s and Vegas had a lovechild it would surely be this bumper resort. Its Golden Mile stretches from Britannia Pier to the Pleasure Beach with dodgems, log flume and traditional wooden roller coaster. The Venetian Waterways, Observation Wheel, Merrivale Model Village and Sea Life Centre also populate the bustling promenade, with Sara’s Tearoom providing a welcome beachfront pitstop for – what else but – those trusty fish and chips.

At night, the resort dazzles with cash guzzling casinos and come-hither amusement arcades while the Hippodrome entertains with its unique Circus Water Spectacular combining comedy, acrobatics, wheel of death motorcycle stunts and synchronised swimmers! A fabulous end to what we all agreed was the best family day of the entire trip yet. And with more cathedrals, cities and stately homes to come, lots more surprises and adventures lay ahead for our full-on family staycay.

Next time: Cambridge to Birmingham via Ely, Althorp and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.

For more info on all the destinations visited by Heidi and her family check out:

Heidi and family stayed at:

  • Holiday Inn Chester South basic hotel with swimming pool.
  • Hassop Station charming B&B along the Peak District’s traffic-free Monsal Trail and 10min drive to Chatsworth House.
  • Holiday Inn Express, Lincoln sleek budget hotel within walking distance of the city.
  • Ffolkes Arms Hotel charming rustic pub hotel close to Sandringham and handy for Norfolk daytrips.
  • City Pad Norwich clean and cosy terrace house with cheap parking and a short stroll into town.