It’s time to plan those mini-breaks for spring and summer – and you don’t have to be loaded to stay somewhere picturesque. There are plenty of places you can find Shangri-La for peanuts. In fact, some will even pay you to stay.
Stay for free
Go to a music festival for nowt
Most of the big music festivals, like Camp Bestival, use stewards from Oxfam, which still has slots available this year for a range of events, including Womad at Malmsbury in Wiltshire. Eligible stewards pay a refundable deposit of £185 for the entire festival season, so you could steward at one or ten festivals on the same deposit. Camping and food tickets are included, and in return you’ll be expected to complete three eight-hour shifts.
Register with a housesitting service and you could choose to stay in someone’s home for a weekend or longer; most companies charge a small fee but it’s worth it for the range of clients they have. Mind My House, for example, which charges just £13 to register as a sitter, recently had a weekend housesit just a few minutes’ walk from the beach in Worthing.
In exchange for conservation work at Hazel Hill Wood, a secluded 70-acre woodland just seven miles from Salisbury, you can get food and accommodation on a range of conservation weekends. Facilities include heated sleeping lofts or camping, an indoor group room, civilised loos and showers.
While it’s illegal to plonk your tent down on any old bit of land that takes your fancy, if you choose your spot carefully (not next door to the farmhouse, say) there’s a very good chance no one will bother you. The more remote parts of the North and South Downs are good beginners’ sites.
The Youth Hostel Association has 200 hostels in England and Wales, many of them in great rural locations – like the one in Saffron Walden, in a 600-year-old former maltings with oak beams and a walled garden. Prices start at £11.95 a night for members, £14.95 for non-members.
The Suffolk seaside town of Southwold has many charms, from candy-striped beach huts to an enchanting pier. Pitch up at Harbour Camping a mile out of town, and it’s a mere hop, skip and jump over the dunes to a large sandy beach. Around £15 a night for two adults.
Make your home work to your advantage by swapping it with a tourist while you stay in their rural/seaside/mountain idyll. InterVac costs £39.99 to join for a year and when we checked the website swaps were available all around the country, from Bath to Stafford and from Cardiff to Edinburgh.
Camping in East Sussex’s bewitching Blackberry Wood, near Ditchling, amid leafy clearings, is perfect for ghost stories. Set up in one of the 20 or so pitches – or you can opt to stay in one of the site’s retro caravans, or even a London bus. Camping from £5 a night; caravans from £20 a night; bus £50 a night; all plus £5-£8 per adult.
If you live in London and want to keep your camping really cheap and cheerful, head east on the Central Line to Debden House, seven fields over a 50-acre site that offers party camping at its noisy, raucous best. Two fields have huge fire pits around which friends and families gather to play music; it’s just like a festival but without the annoying bands. Perfect. £7 per adult per night.
Volunteer weekends at National Trust sites involve anything from cleaning up beaches and moats to setting up weekend theatres. For £60 per person you could spend a weekend weeding ragwort on the Golden Cap Estate in Dorset, with a guided walk on the Jurassic Coast on the Sunday, or upgrade to a premium weekend in a holiday cottage from £120 per person.
Set in an eighteenth-century farmhouse on a 100-acre farm near Badgworth in Somerset, the Mendip Stud offers western riding lessons for the energetic, or a lake and extensive grounds for the less horsily inclined. The Mendip Hills and Weston-super-Mare are close by, and so are Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole for rainy days. Accommodation in an elegant double room starts at £55 a night; one-hour riding lessons at £37.50.
This year the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers celebrates 60 years of what it calls ‘mud sweat and cheers’. Weekends and longer stays cover everything from butterfly habitat management and beachsweeping in Devon to woodland management in East Sussex and dry stone walling in Derbyshire, starting at £60 per person.
Hate camping but love the experience of nodding off to the noise of nature? Woodland Yurting could be your nirvana. Opened last spring, this tiny site in Shadow Woods, on the edge of the South Downs and the High Weald on the Surrey/Sussex border, is a delight; it has five functional yurts dotted around the woods and a nearby meadow for recreating ’70s Cadbury’s Flake adverts. Yurts come with a lantern, gas stove, cooler box, firebowl and even bedding if you don’t want to bring your own, all for £120 for a two-night weekend retreat in a double yurt.
Last year Butlins unveiled the £20 million Ocean Spa Hotel at Bognor Regis, where most of the 200 rooms feature rainfall showers, balconies and views of the sea or South Downs. A midweek two-night stay starts at £61 per person, leaving you spare cash to try out the spa, which includes a snow cave and around 70 treatments, from £20.
Bognor Regis Resort, West Sussex, PO21 1JJ (01243 820202, www.butlins.com).
Time-travel on the Isle of Wight
With a secret rocket launch site, a tiny train network that uses old London tube carriages and miles of glorious white cliffs, the Isle of Wight is a real island paradise, just 15 minutes by ferry from Portsmouth. A two-night stay in a ’50s caravan starts from £160.
Follow the nautical trend with a riverboat hotel weekend exploring Britain’s waterways. Stay on the cute Edward Elgar riverboat as it makes its way through the Cotswolds on the Severn. It’s not ‘Apocalypse Now’, but use your imagination and it could be rural France. Weekends from £195 include two nights in a double cabin, six meals and three ports of call.
King’s Lynn in Norfolk is a medieval town that rewards the intrepid explorer – nip down any unlikely looking alleyway and you may stumble upon an Elizabethan watchtower. Stay at the swish Bank House Hotel, an eighteenth-century townhouse with all mod cons, including a great restaurant and river terrace. Double rooms from £100 per night, including breakfast.
Set just outside the town of Petworth in West Sussex, the Old Railway Station lets you stay in a converted Victorian railway station, with old Pullman carriages acting as characterful rooms – and all from £45 per person per night. Breakfast is served on the platform when it’s sunny, or in the waiting room when it’s not, and this being the South Downs there are great walks, while nearby Petworth’s centre is a must for antique-shop fans.
Camber Sands in Sussex is a glorious seven-mile-long beach protected by a wall of sand dunes. Its secluded western end sits opposite the modernist boutique hotel Place at the Beach, which kickstarted the gentrification of Camber and is still a real draw for couples and families looking for good food and a quiet weekend. Double rooms from £99 per night.