Peace, relaxation and wildlife make a stay in Blair Atholl one to remember for Martin Gray
One of my cherished childhood memories is of a typically British holiday – rain beating down, but madly happy in our cosy caravan, colouring-in while my Mam made supper.
Well, mobile homes today are a lot smarter and better equipped than in the Seventies, and I’ve long since lost my Crayolas, but there’s always the chance of rain. And while I’d hate to be stuck inside for an entire weekend, a few hours of enforced confinement in which to enjoy the five-star accommodation at Blair Castle Caravan Park might be rather nice.
The sun was shining as we arrived at the site, on the edge of the Cairngorm National Park. After handing over the key, the receptionist pointed out the nearest shower and toilet blocks. OK, we thought, it’s all part of the authentic caravanning experience. But blessed relief (literally) to find our caravan came with shower and not one, but two loos. It also had two bedrooms, one with double bed, the other with two singles; a very well-equipped kitchen; living room, dining area and, best of all, an instant flame-effect electric fire.
The camping site sits in a clearing surrounded by mature trees. As well as fixed caravans, there are lodges and – very 2016, this – pods, plus pitches for people with their own caravans. There’s plenty of room for tents of all shapes and sizes, from mini-mansions to one-person bicycle bivis... ah, that’s who the shower and toilet blocks are for.
Despite being fairly busy with couples and families during our June visit, there was a serenity to the site – a combination of the lovely setting, trilling of cute wee birds and joyous babbling of the nearby River Tilt.
Stopping only to pick up an ice cream at the reception centre – which also boasts a games room, library and internet gallery, and there’s a beauty parlour, laundrette and Segway rental outlet just yards away – we headed off into Blair Atholl. The village comprises pretty stone cottages, chocolate box church, railway station and, thank goodness, a cashpoint attached to the grocers. One garden features a little bridge for its many hens to cluck across as ducks swim underneath – we must have spent at least ten minutes taking in its Beatrix Potter vibe.
There’s dining at local pubs, and a restaurant across from the camp site, but where’s the fun in that? We made a tuna pasta and wandered around the site one more time, as contented campers sat under the stars.
Next morning we were up early to meet Sandy, who was taking us up into the hills on a Land Rover Safari. An estate worker for 59 years and now officially retired, there couldn’t have been a better guide to the scenery and wildlife. Soon we saw red deer lolloping past, a roe buck disappearing into the bracken, a hare playing hide and seek... In the air we saw a ptarmigan, oyster catcher, wagtail, even a golden eagle – one of just four which soar over Atholl Estates, which runs to 145,000 acres of farmland, forestry, rivers, lochs and hills.
After this three-hour treat and a bacon sarnie at the village’s Watermill cafe, it was time to check out the castle’s attractions – starting with the Hercules Garden. Newly restored to its full Georgian glory, it’s packed with colourful blooms, beautifully laid out around a central pond with Chinese bridge. I could happily have moved in, joining the families of ducks, swans and cheeky sculptures dotted around.
The white-walled Blair Castle morphed from its medieval beginnings into a sumptuous Georgian mansion, then a stunning Victorian castle in the baronial style. Aspects of all these ages survive; it’s easy to imagine the Dukes of Atholl – whose portraits adorn the walls – entertaining allies and rivals alike. There’s much good taste on display, but my favourite thing is the suit of armour, whose helmet has a titchy man growing out of it. And it’s posed by a polar bear. Nice.
After a quick trip to nearby Pitlochry for provisions, we retired to the caravan just in time for the heavens to open... yay! We’d had a wonderful day of history, both natural and social, and had earned a few hours of cosy nesting. Bliss.
• Three nights in a Banvie caravan holiday home in the summer season (until 21 August) costs £400/£290 early season. For full details on Blair Castle Caravan Park visit www.atholl-estates.co.uk or call 01796 481263. Private Land Rover Safaris for up to six people cost £200 for a half day, £340 for a full day, picnic lunch £10pp, tel: 01796 481355. Scheduled wildlife safaris run April-October and cost £40 adults, £20 children. A family ticket (two adults, three children) to Blair Castle and gardens is £28.90.