Weston-super-Mare may not be the most fashionable or upmarket of resorts but whenever we visit we have a great day out. This time we did something a little different. The kids are too old for donkey rides and building sandcastles (sob) so we explored Uphill, a village on the outskirts of Weston-super-Mare.
We walked south along Weston’s promenade, passing Funland, an outdoor theme park, which has replaced Banksy’s Dismaland. After a short beach stretch we turned inland just before the golf course. This road took us almost directly to Uphill, only 20 minutes or so walking but a world away from Weston.
Arriving in Uphill we passed the sweetly named Donkey Field. In years gone by this has been used as a retirement field for a local donkey and as pasture for the Weston beach donkeys. We didn’t see any donkeys but a few Dexter cattle were grazing in one corner. Despite their horns the kids thought these miniature cattle were very cute.
Uphill Hill Local Nature Reserve
We were aiming for Uphill Hill Nature Reserve. However I somehow managed to walk past the main entrance and arrive at the boatyard instead. Conveniently home to the only cafe in the village so we stopped for a drink and bite to eat.
Suitably refreshed we followed the sign past the boats to Uphill Hill Nature Reserve. As befits its name, the reserve is primarily a hill; its limestone grassland covered in flowers each spring. An old windmill tower and partially ruined church top the hill.
There are fantastic views from Windmill Tower; Brean Down and Weston Bay in one direction, inland Somerset the other. I didn’t realise at the time but it’s possible to climb the tower for even better views. Although the kids were keen to avoid the cattle grazing near its entrance.
The Old Church of St Nicholas stands on top of the hill. This Norman building dates from around 1080AD and consists of a tower, chancel and roofless nave. Nowadays it is cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust and although not complete seems to be in pretty good condition given its exposed aspect.
From the church we walked down the steep hill back into the village and turned left towards the coast. I didn’t have a map so we simply followed the path alongside the River Axe, as it flows out into Weston Bay.
The view out to Brean Down was tantalising; however it’s not possible to access from Uphill. Despite various warning signs we still saw several people on the horizon paddling at the water’s edge. We’ve watched a rescue from the mud further down on Weston beach, why ignore the signs?
Uphill beach was very windy, which I guess explains its popularity for beach wind sports. We watched a man zooming up and down in a land yacht (I think, but I’m no expert). Wow, did he go fast.
Despite the wind we couldn’t resist a drink on top of the double decker cafe bus that’s parked on the beach. We had to hold on tight to our cups and try to ignore the sand blowing into our eyes and hair!
It was a sunny day but this end of the beach was almost deserted. That is until we reached the beach car park. From that point on the crowds walking into Weston thickened, until there was hardly room to move on the pavement.
We walked past the sand sculptures which we’ve visited previously. No time to visit this year! However there’s no way we’d escape Weston-super-Mare without a trip along the pier to feed 2p pieces into the arcade machines. Family tradition also dictates stopping for ice-cream at PJ’s Ice Cream Parlour on the seafront. Highly recommended.
We all agreed that this year’s trip had made a great change from our usual day out. Next time we’ll walk north to Sands Bay, returning via the Pier of course!
Find out more about the Uphill Hill Nature Reserve in this leaflet. Access is free.
After our last backpack along the Lambourn Valley Way I was keen to attempt another overnight trip with the family. This time I was under strict instructions to make the walk shorter. Fortunately I had such a trip up my sleeve. A walk from Oxford along the Thames Path to a small campsite near Eynsham, returning by a different route the next day; a total of around 10 miles.
Day 1: Oxford to Eynsham along the Thames Path National Trail
The Thames Path National Trail runs for 184 miles from the Cotswolds until it meets the Thames Barrier in Greenwich. We joined it a few minutes walk from Oxford railway station; the traffic noise and fumes of Botley Road magically disappearing just a few feet along the path.
The first stretch from Oxford to Wolvercote was packed with families and groups enjoying the weather. Helped of course by two pubs conveniently located just off the trail. We watched as the cattle and ponies of Port Meadow paddled in the shallows, trying to escape the afternoon heat.
Once past Wolvercote the path was much quieter with only the occassional walker or cyclist. The local wildlife appreciated the peace; a heron and little egret perched photogenically on a dead tree trunk. Although of course they flew off just as I attempted a photograph.
At one point we came across an elderly couple swimming au naturel in the river. We were walking beside a stretch of overgrown bank so I’m assuming they couldn’t see us. Let’s just say their shouted conversations to each other made us all smile!
Whilst the walk was much shorter than our last trip I couldn’t do anything about the weather. Hot and sunny. Bliss. Unless you’re walking with a backpack in which case it means sweaty backs and complaints from the kids about how warm it is.
Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham
We reached Swinford Lock campsite late afternoon. The Environment Agency runs a number of basic campsites on lock islands along the Thames. A toilet, a water tap and a fire pit were the only facilities but for one night what else do you need?
After pitching the tent we walked into the nearby village of Eynsham. Despite living only a few miles away I’d never visited before. It’s definitely the kind of place I can imagine living; a large thriving village with lots of community spirit and good transport links.
Eynsham is also home to several eateries and inns. We don’t carry cooking equipment on our overnight backpacks as we like to treat ourselves and eat out. Hence we dined at The Bayleaf, a restaurant serving Bangladeshi and Indian food, before a slow walk back to our campsite collecting firewood on the way.
At the campsite we were still the only tent on the island. When I’d phoned earlier in the week the lock-keeper had advised there were seven others booked in. But nobody else arrived and we ended up with our own private camping island. How lucky we were!
Every campsite needs a campfire so we set about building one. It took a while to light but eventually some toilet paper and old receipts did the trick. Fortunately I’d managed to buy marshmallows in the local shop for the kids to toast; it’s lovely there are some family traditions they haven’t grown out of yet.
We went to bed shortly after sunset. Further along the riverside a wedding party was in full swing and we were woken by the music several times in the night.
Day 2: Eynsham to Oxford
The morning dawned cloudy, ideal weather for walking. After a trip into Eynsham for breakfast provisions (fresh pain-au-chocolat and croissants) we packed our tents and continued our walk along the Thames Path. We passed the remnants of the wedding party camp, I’d imagine there were quite a few sore heads that morning.
Just before the next lock we turned away from the river. I thought I’d planned a scenic walk around Farmoor Reservoir but the path I’d chosen took us outside the boundary instead. Next to the sewage works. Whoops.
We eventually reached the main entrance to the Reservoir and made our way through the car park. I was delighted to see people drinking coffee outside the sailing club. How I’d missed my morning cuppa! For the grand sum of £2.30 we spent the next half-hour drinking two mugs of coffee and two of hot chocolate whilst watching sailing races on the reservoir.
After leaving Farmoor the next couple of miles took us through crop fields. We thought we’d lost the footpath at one stage but discovered it hidden under an invasion of Japanese Knotweed. Incredible just how overgrown the path was!
The last mile was through the outskirts of Oxford. Some lovely houses to look at but not exactly backpacking territory. It was tempting to stop at one of the bus stops and cover the final mile on wheels. But we resisted, and I’m glad we did. It was good to complete the trip under our own steam.
So that’s our second backpacking trip ticked off. I wonder if we’ll be able to squeeze another one in before the end of summer? And if so, where will we go?
A list of Environment Agency and other commercial campsites close to the River Thames can be found here. The Environment Agency campsites are open to walkers, cyclists and river users only; there are no parking facilities close by. Our pitch (2 backpacking tents, 2 adults and 2 children) cost £14 for the night.
For many years I’d planned to visit one of the archaeological dig open days at Roman Silchester, just north of Basingstoke. The dig that Reading University organised every summer for the last 18 years. Until 2014. The archaeologists have evidently discovered all they need to know about Silchester and the dig is no more.
However, the small matter of a missing hole in the ground didn’t deter us from visiting the site. It’s still open for all to explore, even if it is mostly left to your imagination. This is not a place to visit for above ground ruins (apart from the walls). Do go if you’re happy to imagine and wonder what things may once have looked like.
Mortimer to Silchester
Our exploration started from the railway station at Mortimer. I’d planned a walk from Mortimer to Silchester and on to Bramley railway station to get the train back home.
From the station we walked down past St Mary’s Church and then followed a small brook. Although the banks were overgrown there were several places where you could access the stream. It was lovely and clear, very inviting on a warm summer day. The summer sun had bought out masses of butterflies and insects, with chirping grasshoppers all around.
Leaving the brook, we cossed the railway line and walked a short distance along a quiet road, onto the Devil’s Highway. This is a Roman road that leads up to Silchester. Nowadays it runs through a field of linseed; very pretty blue flowers but no insects anywhere. The last part runs through a cattle field; we skirted around the edge rather than take the footpath through the middle of the herd. We were ready to jump over the fence if needed!
Silchester – Calleva Atrebatum
The Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum was built on the site of a previous Iron Age settlement. The town was a major trading centre with local goods, such as chariot gear, exchanged for slaves and metals.
Our first stop was the amphitheatre. It is hard to believe that upwards of 4500 spectators once packed into the relatively small arena. Nowadays only the flint walls which supported the seats remain. A small track runs around the top of the seating bank.
We ate our picnic lunch overlooking the amphitheatre before following the walls around the site of the Roman town. The town was designed on a grid system, the layout determined from aerial pictures taken during a dry summer. It included public baths, the forum basilica, temples and housing.
This is where the recent archaeological action took place. From 1997-2014 the Town Life project excavated one block known as Insula IX. This area contained high status housing, a fact that archaeologists have determined from the presence of exotic plants such as figs in the cesspit soils. Nowadays the area has reverted to scrubland; you wouldn’t know it was a dig site without the sign.
Silchester was abandoned in the fifth or sixth century and unlike most other Roman towns in the area wasn’t settled on again. The present village of Silchester was built in the 17th Century on a site to the west of Calleva Atrebatum.
Silchester to Bramley
Leaving Silchester we took our first ever footpath through an alpaca field. The kids were desperate to stroke them but they wisely stayed on their side of the field.
The best laid walking plans sometimes go wrong. After passing the pretty church at Silchester we were supposed to follow the Brenda Parker Way through a field. However, faced with head high bracken and knee high stinging nettles and thistles we decided to give it a miss. Future walkers take note!
Instead we walked along a quiet country lane to the next hamlet, Three Ashes. Picking up another footpath we found ourselves walking towards a huge electricity sub-station with pylons and wires humming overhead, not the most scenic sight. It wasn’t all bad though; after walking through a couple of arable fields we found ourselves in cool woodland. A welcome relief from the overhead sun!
Our walk had one last sting in the tail. We were desperate for cold drinks when we arrived in Bramley so I popped into the bakery opposite the railway station to buy some. As the crossing barrier gates came down I realised there was no footbridge to access the railway platform. We had to watch from behind the barrier, with some annoyance, our train arrive and depart without us. Aargh!
Despite the nettles, electricity pylons and missed train we had a very enjoyable walk. At some point we’ll head to Reading Museum which has a dedicated Silchester collection. This includes artefacts recovered from the site, including the famous bronze Silchester eagle, stone sculptures and gold jewellery. Perhaps we’ll visit in winter when I can look back and remember the warmth of our summer walk!
It’s possible to spend a small fortune entertaining children during the summer holidays. However there are plenty of free places to visit and things to do with the family in the UK, from music festivals to carnivals and firework displays. I’ve rounded up 25 of the best ideas below.
Please note that whilst all the suggestions are free you’ll need to factor in travel, food and ice-cream costs. But you should still be quids in compared to a day at the theme park.
1. Check out the free Edinburgh Fringe events
If you’re near Edinburgh in August it’s impossible to miss the Fringe. But did you know there is also a Free Fringe festival? Children’s events run from 31 July throughout August and include comedy, science magic and bubble tricks.
2 Enjoy a microadventure, nationwide
Microadventures are short local adventures and the summer is the perfect time to complete them. My list of family friendly microadventures include walking to the highest point in your county (some more family friendly than others!), sleeping out in your garden and geocaching.
3. Kids’ bike workshop at Halfords, nationwide
Halfords are offering one hour bike workshops throughout the summer holidays at Halfords stores across the UK. Aimed at 7-11 year olds, children will learn how to check their tyre pressure, fix a puncture and adjust their saddle. Book a slot in advance on the Halfords website; once your bike is in tip-top condition head out for a cycle ride.
4. Herd of Sheffield sculpture trail, South Yorkshire
Throughout the summer visitors can follow a trail around Sheffield parks and open spaces to spot 58 decorated elephant sculptures. There are a further 72 elephant calves decorated by schools which can be found in indoor venues. Download the interactive Herd of Sheffield app to follow the trail.
5. Explore your local nature reserve, nationwide
The Wildlife Trusts manage around 2300 nature reserves across the UK so there’s bound to be one near you, you can find your nearest one here. Many offer free activities; alternatively there are lots of spotter sheets and games on the Woodland Trust Nature Detectives website.
6. Notting Hill Carnival, London
Billed as Britain’s biggest street party this takes place over August Bank Holiday. The Children’s Day parade is on Sunday but bear in mind that whenever you visit it will be busy!
7. Go rockpooling, nationwide
I love pootling around in rockpools on my summer holidays and I’m way past childhood. Head out at low tide and see what you can find! Some good rockpooling destinations include Kennack Sands in Cornwall, Wembury Bay in Devon and Caerfai Bay, Pembrokeshire.
8. Big Cheese Festival, Caerphilly
The Big Cheese Festival portrays the history, heritage and culture of Caerphilly. Takng place place from 29-31 July it includes the Great Cheese race, re-enactment displays, fire eating and fireworks.
9. Active August at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London
Throughout August the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is running more than 250 free sporting activities for all ages, ranging from youth parkour to mini tennis and rowing. Even if none of the activities take your fancy you can relieve the Olympics with a summer trip to the Park; read about ours here.
10. Watch the balloons take off at Bristol International Balloon Fiesta
Running from 11-14 August the festival features mass balloon ascents twice per day, evening night glow events and fireworks. The sight of a mass ballon ascent is an impressive spectacle, albeit weather dependent. Check out some of my photos from a previous visit to the Bristol balloon fiesta.
11. Hastings Old Town carnival week, East Sussex
Hastings Old Town carnival week takes place from 30 July-7 August. Events take place throughout the week with the grand carnival procession and fireworks on 6 August.
12. House swap with friends or relatives
Whilst there are several official house swapping companies why not organise an informal weekend swapping arrangement with friends or relatives who live elsewhere in the country?
13. Plymouth Firework festival, Devon
The British Firework championships return to Plymouth on 16-17 August. Head to the Hoe to watch demonstrations from the companies vying to become Champion of Champions.
14. Themed walking trails, nationwide
Almost every large town and city will have free themed walking trails available to download from their respective tourist information sites. Some suggestions include the (Dr Who) Whovian Guide to Glasgow or the Seven Seas Fish Trail in Hull.
15. Sky Ride, Coventry, Ipswich, Liverpool and Leicester
On Sundays throughout July and August join thousands of other people by hopping on your bike and taking part in a traffic free ride through city streets. Although free to take part you’ll need to register in advance on the Sky Ride website.
16. Portsmouth International Kite festival, Hampshire
If you’re looking for an adventurous night under the stars how about wild camping on Dartmoor? You’ll need to be self-sufficient and follow some basic rules. Full details of where you are allowed to camp can be found on Dartmoor website.
18. Visit a garden, nationwide
You don’t need to live in the countryside to enjoy wandering around gardens. There are free Botanic Gardens in Sheffield and Glasgow whilst visitors in London can even spot flamingos on the Roof Garden on Kensington High Street!
19. See the Red Arrows, nationwide
The Red Arrows spend much of the summer carrying out displays at airshows and events. Even if you’re not attending the event you’ll have a pretty good chance of seeing the display from local vantage points. For a full list of shows check the Red Arrows website.
Cf20. Manchester Mela
Manchester Mela is the biggest celebration of South Asian culture in the north of England. Head to Platt Fields Park on 30-31 July to enjoy food stalls, dance workshops and big name stage performances.
21. Bristol Harbour Festival
One of the UK’s largest public festivals runs from 15-17 July. A 2 mile stretch of quayside comes alive with a mix of music, maritime attractions, dance and street performances. Further details on the Bristol Harbour Festival website.
22. South Tyneside Festival
The South Tyneside festival runs between June and August. Kids fun-fest afternoons take place in August along with free Sunday concerts from UB40, The Proclaimers and Tony Hadley.
23. Around the world with IKEA, Belfast
Belfast IKEA is running multiple events across the summer holidays celebrating the culture of countries such as India, Sweden and Poland. Activities include potato painting (!), samba drummers and maypole dancing and run from 12 noon-4pm on selected dates; check the Visit Belfast website for further details.
Whilst many of our flagship castles have high entry costs you can find plenty of free ones via the English Heritage website. Favourites include Maiden Castle in Dorset, Ludgershall Castle in Wiltshire and Wolvesey Castle in Hampshire. You’ll probably have to use your imagination as many of the free castles are ruins!
Please check the organiser’s latest website details prior to setting out; remember some events are weather dependent.
Do you have any other suggestions for free summer outings?