I hadn’t realised how stifling London had become

As a freelancer with two young kids – and a third on the way – Annie Ridout was finding herself getting through each day but not feeling particularly excited about anything. A trip to the Mill Eco Barn in Norfolk changed all that…

With a four-year-old daughter now at school, a two-year-old son in childcare three mornings a week and both my husband and I working, it’s been easy to fall into a pattern of routine weekdays and mostly staying local at the weekends.

We’re both self-employed so often spend the middle two hours of Saturdays and Sundays catching up on work, while our son naps and our daughter watches a film.

Fortunately, we enjoy time as a family so a Sunday divided into coffee/park in the morning, two hours work, then a walk through Epping Forest, followed by a home-cooked roast, keeps the four of us happy. Well, I thought it did but as the winter dragged on and I started googling ‘Easter holidays in Portugal’ and May half-term breaks on campsites in the south of France, it became clear that I needed a break.

However, the inflated ‘school holiday’ prices make trips abroad for a family-of-four prohibitively expensive. It costs a couple of grand just to hire a caravan in France, once you’ve covered flights (x 4) and car hire. Usually we drive but I’m now five months pregnant so not really up for two days of driving (each way).

While I was doing the sums and dreaming of a family trip – just the four of us – Emma Punchard, the owner of Mill Eco Barn in Norfolk, got in touch. She wondered if we’d like to stay in her family-friendly converted barn. I responded with an instant ‘YES PLEASE’.

Mill Eco Barn, Norfolk

And so it is that we wound up collecting our daughter from school on Friday afternoon, piling into the already-packed car and heading north of London for a weekend of sea air, fields and time together – away from the mundane routine we’ve become accustomed to. Hitting the motorway felt rather exhilarating.

What should have been a two and a half hour drive took an extra hour with Friday traffic and toilet stops so we arrived in the dark; past the kids’ bedtime. But their grumpiness instantly subsided as they rushed into the high-ceilinged converted barn and discovered an impressive collection of toys, books, puzzles and DVDs.

My daughter hopped in the swinging chair while my son hid in the mini circus tent with a box of dominoes – and they laughed and played while we made a quick (late) tea for them. I went up to run a bath while my husband prepared their food and it was full in a couple of minutes; there’s a powerful water supply here.

We chose to sleep on the ground floor, in a huge double bedroom, and put our daughter in the twin bedroom next door. The first floor bedrooms are separated by a mezzanine landing so we thought she’d be safer downstairs, while our son was contained in his cot in a massive, airy upstairs room.

We were delighted to see a solid wooden cot with a proper mattress, already made, which meant not having to erect our fiddly travel cot; a real touch after a lengthy drive with tired kids.

Freshly-baked chocolate cake, waiting for us at the barn

After books on the bed, he went to sleep easily, as did our daughter and we were left to collapse on the sofas, in front of the telly, with delicious steak and mash, and a glass of red wine.

As I sat back, smiling, I realised I hadn’t felt this good in a long time. It wasn’t that I’d been depressed, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with my life, but I’d just been feeling flat.

Freelance life means working hard in my limited childcare hours – and then evenings/nap-times/weekends – so that I can spend time with my kids. But with the addition of an exhausting and very nauseous first trimester; I’d been on the brink of burning out.

Now, sat with my husband – kids sleeping soundly – surrounded by space; inside and out, I was realising the importance of getting away, just us, every so often. Without the distraction of other people, laptops, Amazon deliveries.

The 10-minute walk to the beach

Our early-risers didn’t lie in to compensate for a later night, as we’d hoped, but they’d both slept through, which was a relief. So we rose at 6am, and gathered for delicious apple juice made on the farm, dippy eggs produced by local hens – the kids were thrilled by the different coloured shells (white, two shades of brown, green) – and toast. Emma had kindly left a hamper with the bread, eggs and juice plus jam and a huge chocolate cake baked in the village. We spent our time getting ready before gathering buckets and spades from the ‘games barn’ next to our accommodation (see main image) and heading to the beach.

It’s supposedly a 10-minute walk but with a dawdling toddler, took us the best part of half an hour. Once there, we were amazed by the beautiful dunes, and a sandy beach stretching for miles. After a hot chocolate and (very good) bacon bap in the Dunes Cafe, we headed down for sand castle-building.

Bacon bap at Dunes Cafe, Winterton-on-Sea

We’d been told the seals might around but I couldn’t believe it when we saw dozens of brown seal heads bobbing on the horizon. Further up the beach, a cow (female seal) and pup were rolling around in the sand. We’d been told not to get too close, as they need time on land to warm up. So we kept our distance but got close enough for an amazing view of their seesaw waddling. The kids were impressed but perhaps not so much as the adults; neither of us had ever been so close to a wild seal before.

Seals on the beach

On the walk home, after spotting a loveliness of ladybirds, my daughter turned to me and said: ‘this is like a nature trip. I love nature’. It was a reminder that in London, with our busy lives, we don’t connect with nature nearly enough. Both kids had quickly pulled off their shoes and socks on the beach, in spite of it being a chilly early March morning, and visibly enjoyed feeling their toes sinking into the sand. I know how good it is – for body and mind – to feel your bare feet on the earth, but with a London garden full of fox shit and cat wee, it rarely happens at home. It was heartwarming to see them connecting with their natural surroundings like this.

Back home, they ate pasta on the miniature kids’ table then my daughter watched a DVD while her brother slept. The afternoon was spent locally, eating and drinking at the Fisherman’s Return pub and then it was another evening spent lounging in the barn.

On Sunday morning, we ate more eggs before packing up and returning to the beautiful beach for another blast of nature and sea air before the journey back home.

I spent the weekend thinking: should we leave polluted London for a quiet life of fresh air and country walks? But I came to the conclusion that just having a couple of nights away, every few months – to break the routine and step away from life’s daily stresses – will probably suffice.

I love London – my home, friends and family, our local community, the work opportunities for us both – but it does get a bit too much sometimes. Driving away from all that on a Friday eve is so refreshing. And then returning, 48 hours later, is rather nice too.

Two nights at the four-bedroom Mill Eco Barn in Winterton-on-Sea, Norfolk, start from £600. More information here: