Adventures around the world

Ken and Maureen Harrison organise a dozen day trips and holidays a year as group leaders for The Country Travellers in Staffordshire, with their most ambitious task being a 25-day world tour. Carrie Drage finds out more.

Ken and Maureen Harrison

Ken and Maureen Harrison

The Country Travellers in Staffordshire first came into existence about 40 years ago when the chairman of Endon Flower Club, Freda Harrison, decided to organise a five-day trip to the Floriade in Ghent for nearly 40 people. The club liked it so much that they wanted more of the same so, with the help of group members Ina Davie and Jennifer Kent, they put together a programme of day trips and holidays for everybody to enjoy under a new name. It was when Jennifer passed away around 18 years ago that Ken and Maureen became group leaders. Maureen explains, “Originally, Ina would come up with ideas of places to visit and I’d make all the bookings. Then when Ina turned 75 about six years ago, she decided she’d retire from the role so we now do everything ourselves.” The Country Travellers currently has around 100 people on its database, with members living within a five to 10 mile radius of Longsdon in North Staffordshire. Ken explains, “There is no fee to join; people simply pay for the trips they’d like to come on.” The programme is confirmed in February each year and members are invited to the annual lunch at a local hotel where diaries containing information about upcoming trips are passed around. Ken explains, “Maureen and I work well together as a team. I take charge of all the technical duties like maintaining the database and and Maureen does all the bookings, deals with members’ queries and acts as courier on the coach.”

Beachside in Los Angeles

Beachside in Los Angeles

Trekking the globe

Ever since the group’s first short break to the Floriade some 40 years ago, the members have been keen to explore foreign shores. Maureen says, “A lot of the members are widows who aren’t confident enough to go on holiday alone so the foreign trips are a way for these people to experience different cultures with the added security of being in a group.” The eight-day break to Santiago de la Compostela in Spain was the first overseas break organised by Ken and Maureen six years ago and was met with a lot of interest, with around 30 people signing up for the trip, which was booked with Tailored Travel in London. The city is famous for its cathedral and, while here, the group was lucky enough to witness the swinging of the enormous Botafumeiro, a metal container filled with burning incense. Ken says, “It takes nine men to make it swing across the transept and in medieval times was used to diffuse the strong scent of pilgrims that arrived tired and unwashed.”

Tailored Travel was also responsible for arranging the group’s 14-day Mediterranean cruise four years ago. Maureen remarks, “We sailed on the Marco Polo, which has beautiful teak decks and is well-appointed too.” The eight-strong group sailed out of Venice visiting ports such as Nice and Dubrovnik over the two-week period. Maureen says, “On one of the days, the cruise line had chartered a train to take us to Rome and we also visited the Basilica of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona.”

On a limousine ride

On a limousine ride

Indeed, there was one cruise destination that stood out above all others and that was the island of Sicily. Ken says, “Everybody loved it here so we decided to return the following year.” The seven-day break was booked with Riviera Travel in Staffordshire and attracted 25 members. The group divided their time between Agrigento and Taormina, with a highlight being an excursion to Mount Etna. Ken says, “A couple of days before we took the cable car up the mountain there was a volcanic eruption, which was a spectacular sight.”

The pair are certainly ambitious and their 25-day world tour in 2007 fulfilled a lifelong dream for many of the group. The trip was booked with Collette Worldwide Holidays in Middlesex and the group flew to New Zealand via Singapore, with Fiji and Los Angeles also on the itinerary. During the trip, the 14-strong group enjoyed a number of once in a lifetime experiences including a light aircraft ride over Mount Cook on New Zealand’s South Island and a limousine ride around Los Angeles. Maureen laughs, “There was a film premiere at one of the theatres and when we got out of the limo, everybody stoppped to stare.”

Discovering Britain

Although foreign holidays were a popular addition to the programme a few years ago, some members are more reluctant to travel overseas these days, mainly due to health concerns. To compensate, Ken and Maureen organise a five-day break in the UK each May. Ken says, “We like to research potential destinations thoroughly and have a good track record of converting familiarisation visits into successful group activities.”

On New Zealand’s South Island.

On New Zealand’s South Island.

In 2003, a group of 40 travelled to Northampton following a successful familiarisation trip with the Coach Drivers Club (CDC). One of the highlights was a day out at 78 Derngate, which Ken admits they would never have found had it not been for their earlier recce. He says, “The house was remodelled in the early 20th century by the world famous architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and is well ahead of its time.” Other attractions visited during the break include the Shoe Collection at Northampton Museum & Art Gallery and Bletchley Park. Ken remarks, “The Shoe Collection is themed by style of shoe rather than chronologically so you have examples from various eras with a common factor, displayed side by side.
Bletchley Park, which was Britain’s main decryption establishment during World War II, was also really enjoyable. It was fascinating to see the Enigma machine.”

Pitlochry in Scotland, meanwhile, was the destination for 30 members in 2009, a break that was booked through Simply Groups in West Yorkshire. As well as “wonderful” visits to Blair and Glamis castles, the group also enjoyed a day out at Dewar’s World of Whisky at Aberfeldy. Maureen remembers, “We were taken on a tour of the distillery and had a whisky tasting session.” A little more unusual was the group’s excursion to a wild salmon leap. Ken explains, “As the salmon head upstream to spawn they jump repeatedly at obstacles like waterfalls, rapids and weirs, and we were able to witness their incredible journey.”

Last year, 30 members ventured to Windsor for the group’s annual five-day break, which was booked on the back of a successful familiarisation trip with the regional tourist board. Once again, the group enjoyed a packed itinerary, with excursions to Eton College, The Savill Garden and Windsor Castle among some of the highlights. Maureen says, “Eton College is definitely worth a visit and we had a guide take us round The Savill Garden, which helped us get more out of it. At Windsor Castle we enjoyed seeing Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House and the resting place for the Queen Mother in St George’s Chapel.”

This year, meanwhile, saw a group of 25 travel to the Isle of Man staying at The Empress Hotel in Douglas. Maureen says, “This is a beautiful hotel. We came across it on a recce with the tourist board.” On one of the days, the members visited the Old House of Keys at Castletown. Ken says, “Inside the old debating chamber they have an animatronic speaker and visitors have to vote on issues that the Manx Parliament have come up against in the past, such as decide if women should have the vote.” The group also learnt about the kipper-making process on a guided tour at Moore’s Traditional Kipper Factory in Peel. He adds, “They still smoke kippers the traditional way and you get to see them being hung in large chimneys.”

Enjoying a guided tour at The Savill Garden in Windsor.

Enjoying a guided tour at The Savill Garden in Windsor.

Journeying into the past

When it comes to day trips, The Country Travellers mainly have an interest in visiting gardens, stately homes and places of historical or industrial importance including railways, canals and factories. Maureen says, “Ken and I spend hours researching destinations and find inspiration in many places, notably The National Trust Groups Guide, Hudson’s Historic Houses & Gardens and the Coach Drivers Club Yearbook. We also get requests for certain destinations from our members and like to incorporate these where we can.”

Day trips average about 10 a year and most attract around 40 to 50 people, with transport for these provided by Robin Hood Travel in Staffordshire. Ken says, “They’re a family-run firm and we’ve always found them to be very good. They allow customers to park their cars at the coach depot, which saves a lot of time with pick-ups when we go on holiday.”
This year, the group has enjoyed a number of day trips including an outing to Wightwick Manor and Hartlebury Castle in the West Midlands in April. Maureen remarks, “Wightwick Manor is an art deco house and it’s a lot cosier than most stately homes. Hartlebury Castle, meanwhile, is home to the Worcestershire County Museum so makes for a very engaging visit.”

Another castle was on the agenda the following month; this time Muncaster Castle in Cumbria, which offers a combined ticket with the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway. Maureen remarks, “Muncaster Castle has an owl centre in the grounds and the birds perform flying displays in the afternoons. The train ride was also lovely and the sunny weather meant the group was able to sit in the open-air carriages.”

The rain didn’t put a dampener on the group’s spirits during their visit to Scotland.

The rain didn’t put a dampener on the group’s spirits during their visit to Scotland.

Ken and Maureen are always looking for something a little out of the ordinary for the group’s day trip programme and the excursion to John Taylor & Co. bellfoundry in Leicestershire six years ago fitted the bill perfectly. Ken remembers, “We were shown the process of bell-making and how to tune them, and also learnt how bells actually work by seeing a working model of the ringing wheel and the cradle in which the bell is mounted.”

Meanwhile, a visit to Rourke’s Forge in Burnley, eight years ago, allowed the group to learn about the work of this award-winning wrought ironsmiths. Ken says, “We watched a blacksmiths demonstration in the forge and had a talk about some of the wrought iron gates commissioned by celebrities.”

Although Ken and Maureen usually prefer to arrange the separate elements for each trip independently, they have been known to use Shropshire-based firm, Welcome Days Out, for day trip itineraries in recent years. Maureen explains, “Packages include morning coffee, a tour guide and lunch so everything is taken care of from a group organiser’s point of view.” In July, the group enjoyed ‘Flight of the Osprey’, an itinerary that included a ride on the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway in Wales. Maureen says, “They use carriages from all over the world here. Ours was from Hungary and the history behind it was wonderful.”

More recently in June this year, Ken and Maureen also booked a 4* Day Out in Evesham with the local tourist board. Ken explains, “After coffee at the Vauxhall Inn, we had a look round the Almonry Museum & Heritage Centre, which is housed in a building formerly inhabited by the almoner of the Benedictine abbey.” The group also got to enjoy a boat ride along the River Avon with the Handsam Boat Company and a cream tea at the Sankey Marine Boat House as part of the package.

Going that extra mile

Ken and Maureen admit that one of the biggest attractions of being group organisers is experiencing destinations that they might not otherwise get to see. Maureen says, “Both of us really enjoy our roles. We would never have been to half the places we have visited if it wasn’t for the group. This is the main reason we continue to be involved.”

With a world tour already ticked off the ‘to do’ list, the group has already experienced more than many people in their lifetime; however, the couple are still keen to keep their programme fresh and interesting. Maureen says, “If anything, we’d like to introduce some theatre to the programme. The main problem we have is that most regional theatres don’t finalise their show programme far enough in advance for us.”

Although the couple are yet to confirm their diary for 2012, The Country Travellers are still awaiting a number of excursions for the remainder of the year including a visit to the Gordon Boswell Romany Museum, in Lincolnshire, in September and a day out to the Thackray Medical Museum, in Leeds, in October.

Maureen says, “Ken and I are the youngest in our group so hope to continue in our roles for a good while yet. We’re having the time of our lives.” Ken adds, “We certainly live up to our strap-line ‘We Go that Extra Mile’, don’t you think?!”