Exploring Bristol with older children

Bristol is only an hour from home but most of our previous visits have been to two of its outlying attractions, the airport and IKEA. Our recent two night trip allowed us to discover the city at leisure, without the distraction of missed flights or Swedish meatballs!

There’s plenty to keep younger children occupied in Bristol, from At-Bristol to SS Great Britain, but what did we do with a teen and a tween in tow?

Ferry boat trip

Faced with a longish walk from Bristol Temple Meads railway station to our accommodation I thought a ferry trip into the centre might head off some of the grumbles.

Bristol ferry
Bristol ferry

It was the right decision. We were the only customers on board so the ticket lady treated us to a mini-tour of the river highlights. En route we passed another Bristol Ferry Boat full of litter pickers fishing rubbish out of the river. It may well be due to their efforts that we later spotted a kingfisher, watching us from the river bank.

Street art tour

Back in 2009 we visited the Banksy Bristol Museum takeover and in 2015 we enjoyed Dismaland in Weston-super-Mare so you’ll probably realise I’m a Banksy fan. Discovering Banksy art in Bristol is also on my 100 things to do in the UK bucket list so I was looking forward to ticking off another item.

Banksy art, Bristol
Banksy art, Bristol

But there’s a lot more to Bristol than Banksy as we found on a street art tour. Starting from City Hall and winding our way up through the city centre to Stokes Croft we learnt about the techniques used, artist backgrounds and the meaning behind some of the pieces.

One artist that stood out for me was JPS, who stencilled Spartacus (below, left). Previously homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol JPS was inspired to paint after visiting Banksy’s Bristol musum takeover. There’s a definite Banksy likeness to some of his creations but he’s now a well known street artist in his own right. Heck, he’s even appeared in the Guardian and has a street art trail in his home town of Weston-super-Mare.

Bristol street art
Bristol street art

Part way through our tour the guide managed to loose half of the group at a busy traffic crossing. We watched from afar as the rest of the group disappeared down an alley. Ten minutes later, with the help of Head Office, we were reunited, but not before we’d jokingly decided to run our own self-directed tour.

Depending on your point of view, our final destination, Stokes Croft, is either full of drug dens and brothels, bohemian and edgy or gentrified and expensive to live in. Whatever your thoughts there’s definitely lots of street art to see.

St Nicholas Market

Leaving our street art tour behind we headed back to the city centre via the indoor St Nicholas Market. The market has the usual clothing and knick-knack stalls but what sets it apart are the food outlets. With options from all over the world it wouldn’t look out of place in Borough Market. One particularly alluring stand, Aah Toots, was named after my childhood nickname and aptly full of cake.

Saint Nicholas Market, Bristol
Saint Nicholas Market, Bristol

Cabot tower

Whenever I visit somewhere new I always climb a tower for a bird’s eye view of the area. For someone with particularly bad spatial skills it’s my way of making sense of my surroundings. Cabot Tower, set in parkland on Brandon Hill, gave me the views I needed to decipher Bristol.

Cabot Tower, Bristol
Cabot Tower, Bristol

Built in the 1890s to commemorate the journey of John Cabot from Bristol to Canada the tower is free to visit. There’s a 360 degree panoramic view from the top although getting there may involve a squeeze. The spiral stairs are pretty narrow and things get interesting when you meet someone coming the opposite direction!

Bristol harbourside

Continuing our Bristol exploration we finished our day with a riverside walk. I’d originally planned a short stroll to see the SS Matthew, a replica of the ship that John Cabot used for his voyage to Newfoundland. Yet we arrived at its mooring point to discover a missing ship, along with a note stating it was in dry dock further along at Underfall Yard.

View from near Underfall Yard, Bristol
View from near Underfall Yard, Bristol

For some reason I thought it would be good to continue walking on to Underfall Yard, a historic boatyard. Twenty minutes later we found SS Matthew, closed to visitors. As was most of Underfall Yard. Despite trying its best to attract tourists it’s probably better to visit when the cafe and visitor centre are open.

Sunset over Bristol harbourside
Sunset over Bristol harbourside

The kids were wilting by this time. Not surprising really as I later discovered we’d walked about 10 miles. Fortunately our walk home was accompanied by a paddleboarding dog (OK, its owner was paddling, the dog just balancing) and a great sunset.

Clifton Observatory – The Giant’s Cave

Next morning we continued our walking theme with a stroll out to the affluent suburb of Clifton. Clifton is the polar opposite of Stokes Croft with expensive interior shops, lots of coffee shops and estate agents full of houses we could never afford. We were there to visit one of Bristol’s most iconic attractions, Clifton Suspension Bridge, but were side-tracked into visiting Clifton Observatory first.

Giant's cave, Clifton Observatory
Giant’s cave, Clifton Observatory

Clifton Observatory is home to two attractions, a Camera Obscura and Giant’s Cave. We took advice from the ticket lady and left the Camera Obscura for a sunny day. Instead we opted for the cave, once home to two giants, Goram and Ghyston. It would be wrong to suggest this is pure myth but I wonder how the giants negotiated the 200ft tunnel to the cave. I bent my head as I walked down the steps and I’m definitely no giant.

Even if there is a touch of make believe about the tale, the steps lead out onto a platform with an impressive view of the gorge and bridge. You can just make out the bright yellow platform jutting out in the picture above. It’s probably not for you if you’re nervous of heights!

Clifton Suspension Bridge

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol
Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol

I’ve seen Clifton Suspension Bridge from afar many times but its taken me 40+ years to walk over it. Was it worth the wait? Yes, of course. The bridge spans the Avon Gorge and is probably one of Brunel’s most famous designs (although some dispute the extent of his involvement).

Clifton suspension bridge, Bristol
Clifton suspension bridge, Bristol

On the far side there’s a small visitor centre. I enjoyed looking at the drawings submitted for the bridge design competitions. The kids played with a weighing machine that tells you how many of yourself can stand on the bridge without it collapsing. Quite a few fortunately!

I had a vague plan to walk beside the river back into the city but we decided it was probably a step too far after the previous day. Instead we explored Clifton further before returning to our hotel to pick up our luggage.

Eating out

One of the great treats on our city breaks is eating out. The family seem to think I’m a little fussy in my choice of venue. After I’ve checked the Trip Advisor reviews I’ll generally check their hygiene score and the menu. And did I mention I’m vegetarian? Anyway, the following met my standards:

For mice and men

Enjoying a cheese toastie, For mice and men
Enjoying a cheese toastie, For mice and men

Advertised as a travelling grilled cheese muncheonette we found this pop up stall at the Harbourside Market. My daughter and I highly recommend one of their bespoke toasted cheese sandwiches.

Under the stars

A floating tapas boat moored at the Harbourside. Lots of tasty veggie options, reasonable size portions and a quirky venue.

Urban Tandoor

An Indian restaurant with great service in a small (and dark) venue so book in advance. I probably chose the wrong item as it was a lot spicier than I expected but everyone else enjoyed their meals.

Swoon gelato

An ice cream treat for the kids with lots of different flavours to choose from. As it was a cold February day I stuck to coffee but quality checked both ice creams. Very tasty.

Accommodation

We stayed in a Premier Inn. Not quirky or characterful but a central location and very good value for a family room. And we love the breakfasts!

More info

  • Cabot Tower is free. Check opening times before you visit; it is currently closed on Friday afternoons.
  • Clifton Observatory is usually open daily. Entry to the cave costs £2.50 for adults, £1.50 for children (must be 4 or older).
  • Clifton Suspension Bridge is free to walk over (£1 for drivers). The visitor centre is open every day except Christmas Day and New Year from 10am-5pm.
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Snowdrop Sunday at Kingston Bagpuize House, Oxfordshire

I’m a sucker for snowdrops and love spotting these first signs of spring. In previous years we’ve visited the snowdrops at Welford Park and Swyncombe Church. This year I was delighted to find a venue even closer to home, Kingston Bagpuize House, whose grounds are open for snowdrop Sundays during February.

Snowdrops at Kingston Bagpuize house
Snowdrops at Kingston Bagpuize house

We arrived early on the first open weekend. So early that we discovered we were the first visitors of the year! Encompassing manicured lawns, shrub borders and woodland we soon realised the grounds of Kingston Bagpuize House have plenty to see. But we were on a snowdrop mission.

Woodland garden, Kingston Bagpuize house
Woodland garden, Kingston Bagpuize house

Clutching our location map we wound our way through the gardens, initially wandering through the woodland garden and shrub border in our quest for snowdrops. Fortunately the owner provides a spotters guide to help locate and identify the sixteen different snowdrop species. I thought sixteen was impressive until I read later that there are 2000 cultivars.

Woodland garden steps, Kingston Bagpuize house
Woodland garden steps, Kingston Bagpuize house

The wooded area around Church Copse, beside the parish church, has been cleared over recent years to allow the snowdrops to naturalise. As we visited early not all of the snowdrops were flowering. Later in the season I’m sure the woodland floor will be carpeted in white.

Snowdrops in Church Copse, Kingston Bagpuize house
Snowdrops in Church Copse, Kingston Bagpuize house

From Church Copse we walked through the open parkland to reach Court Close Copse, another area of managed woodland. Everwhere I looked I could see the beginnings of new growth, from tree buds to the tiny leaves of stinging nettles just starting to emerge. And of course snowdrops. Spring is definitely on the way.

St John the Baptist church, Kingston Bagpuize
St John the Baptist church, Kingston Bagpuize

Now an admission. I enjoyed the snowdrops but surprisingly they weren’t my favourite feature. Nor were the sunny yellow aconites also peeping through the ground. In fact, my standout plant was a scented shrub, wintersweet. Just one sniff of its perfume and my son and I were immediately transported to warmer climes. If only my garden had space for one of these, I’d be out there all winter!

Winter aconites, Kingston Bagpuize house
Winter aconites, Kingston Bagpuize house

Returning back through the parkland we watched several red kites screeching overhead. In much of the country these birds are still a rarity but they’re a very common sight in Oxfordshire. I can even see two of them swooping over our garden as I write this blog.

Walking towards Court Close Copse, Kingston Bagpuize house
Walking towards Court Close Copse, Kingston Bagpuize house

Back in 2011 Kingston Bagpuize House and gardens were the backdrop for the film, Tortoise in Love. First shown at the Cannes Film Festival, it made headlines as the 800 village residents were all involved in the financing and making of the film. The WI provided catering, villagers starred as extras and the local hairdresser provided make up. The reviews aren’t the greatest but I am tempted to watch it solely because of this back story.

Kingston Bagpuize house
Kingston Bagpuize house

Although the house wasn’t open on the day of our visit the cafe was. Located down a set of steps we rounded off our visit with drinks and sweet treats. Snowdrop walk complete, I’m looking forward to the daffodils next!

More info

  • The gardens at Kingston Bagpuize house are open from 2-5pm on Sundays during February. They’re also open during the summer, along with the house, on selected dates; check the website for up-to-date information.

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A circuit of Llangollen’s highlights, Denbighshire

I’ve driven through Llangollen many times whilst en route to the mountains in Snowdonia. But it was only during a visit to the town last autumn that I discovered what fantastic family friendly walks we’ve missed out on. Since this first visit I’ve returned again for another walking break. Before I write about that trip it’s best to catch up on this one!

Llangollen has a number of attractions dotted around the town and local area. This circular walk covers many of them but it’s easy to add in others such as Valle Crucis Abbey, Llangollen Railway or Motor Museum and make a full day out.

Coed Hyrddyn – Velvet Hill

As we were staying in a holiday cottage at the foot of Velvet Hill it made sense for us to start our walk here, with a trip to the top of the hill.

View from Velvet Hill, near Llangollen
View from Velvet Hill, near Llangollen

It was good to start with a brisk uphill walk; these days my knees much prefer going up than down. Although a damp day, with a touch of drizzle, this didn’t detract from the views out towards Llantysilio.

Walking Velvet Hill, near Llangollen
Walking Velvet Hill, near Llangollen

Horseshoe Falls

From the summit of Velvet Hill it was downhill all the way to Horseshoe Falls. Don’t get too excited by the name. This is not a thundering waterfall but a semi-circular weir designed by Thomas Telford. Of course, it is impressive in an industrial heritage way, but personally I prefer the natural alternative.

Horseshoe Falls, near Llangollen
Horseshoe Falls, near Llangollen

Nowadays the Falls appear to be the starting point for an entirely different activity, presumably never envisaged by Thomas Telford. White water rafting along the River Dee into Llangollen. We walked past several groups of rafters still on dry land and kept hoping to see them on the rapids later on but no such luck. Perhaps they chickened out.

You may notice Mr Telford’s name pops up a lot in these parts. Pop over to my post about Pontcysyllte Aqueduct to see another of his masterpieces.

Chain Bridge

From the Falls we walked towards Llangollen, bordered either side by the River Dee and Llangollen Canal.

The Chain Bridge, a footbridge over the River Dee, reopened in 2015. We didn’t need to cross it on our walking route but it would have been a shame to miss out so we diverted through the hotel terrace to do so. On the far bank there’s an information board which shows what the bridge looked like pre-restoration. Wow. That would have been an exciting crossing!

Chain bridge, Llangollen
Chain bridge, Llangollen

Llangollen Canal

We followed the canal towpath into Llangollen. Opened in 1805 to transport slate and to feed the Shropshire Union Canal it’s much narrower than our local canal. In some spots it was only wide enough for one boat, although there are plenty of passing places. Horse drawn boat trips are popular along this stretch, they’re certainly the way to travel if you want a slow relaxing trip.

Llangollen canal
Llangollen canal

We passed a lot of canoeists as we walked. I was intrigued by one man wading in the water beside his canoe rather than actually sitting in it. I’m sure he had a perfectly valid reason but I didn’t think to ask him why!

Castell Dinas Brân

The canal took us directly into Llangollen where we stopped for a coffee break and to view the birds and animals in the taxidermy shop. I wonder if they do much business?

From Llangollen town centre we crossed back over the canal and walked up the hill to Castell Dinas Brân. I’d been eyeing this up since we’d arrived the previous day. The ruined medieval castle sits imposingly atop a hill overlooking Llangollen. I rather like the English translation – the crow’s fortress, or crow castle.

Walking up to Castell Dinas Bran (Crow Castle), Llangollen
Walking up to Castell Dinas Bran (Crow Castle), Llangollen

After a short sharp walk up we mooched around the ruins for a while, enjoying the views over to the limestone escarpment of Trevor Rocks. The castle only had a brief working life, destroyed by Edward I’s troops just a few decades after it was built. It once featured a gatehouse, keep, hall, D shaped tower and a courtyard but only ruins remain nowadays. Given its exposed location it’s pretty impressive that even these are left.

Castell Dinas Bran (Crow Castle), Llangollen
Castell Dinas Bran (Crow Castle), Llangollen

Clwydian Way

From the castle we walked down to join the Clwydian Way. This circular route covers 120 miles of Welsh countryside and was created as part of the millennium celebrations.

Along the Clwydian Way
Along the Clwydian Way

Our route took us through beech woods and along bracken lined paths, back towards our holiday cottage. There was time for a short break and photo stop at a handily placed viewpoint.

Taking a break on the Clwydian Way
Taking a break on the Clwydian Way

We could have extended our afternoon by popping into the Cistercian Valle Crucis Abbey. I actually feel rather guilty about not visiting. But there was a tea room, next door at the Abbey Farm caravan site. And I really needed a cup of coffee!

More info

  • Our walk was approximately 7 miles. Much of it is flat easy walking but there are a couple of steeper sections up Velvet Hill and Castell Dinas Brân.
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Magical Lantern Festival 2017, Chiswick House, London

It’s the Chinese New Year this Saturday. And it was my birthday last weekend. What better way for us to celebrate both events than with a trip to the 2017 Magical Lantern Festival in London.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

This is the second year of the London festival. From my perspective it’s a much more relaxing way to celebrate the Chinese New Year than getting squished at the festivities in London’s Chinatown. Although a lot of other people have the same idea.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The 2017 festival theme is ‘Explore the Silk Road’. One of those exciting sounding places that I have always wanted to travel along. The marketing blurb promises a journey through Central Asia, India and China. Via Aladdin and the Houses of Parliament.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The trail, through the grounds of Chiswick House, took us about an hour to walk round. It’s flat and accessible for all but there were bottlenecks at some displays. Each lantern is accompanied by a couple of lines of explanatory text in Mandarin (I presume) and English.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

It sounds really obvious but remember to dress for the outdoors. It was freezing during our visit, although we’d probably not helped the situation by roaming the Richmond Park tundra until sunset. The upside of the weather was the frozen lake. I love how it blurred the reflections of the lanterns around it.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The lanterns are not the floating fire starters that you imagine. In fact, impressive though they are, I wouldn’t think of them as lanterns. More like giant illuminated sculptures. I’d love to know more about they how they were made.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

One of the surprising highlights for me was Chiswick House. I’ve never visited in the daylight but loved the glimpses of statues, architectural details and the villa itself. I’m not usually one for historical houses but I am inspired to return.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The lanterns are very well displayed and make the most of their setting. It’s hard to pick out favourites but I enjoyed these pandas. They weren’t the biggest or most intricate, I just like pandas!

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

At the end of the trail there’s a group of food and drink stalls, including an ice bar. There’s also an ice rink which looked much smaller than the advertised 600 square metres. As I had no desire to celebrate my birthday with a broken leg we didn’t try it out.

Magical Lantern Festival, London
Magical Lantern Festival, London

Overall we were really impressed. If you’re looking for something a little different to do in London over the next few weekends I’d definitely suggest checking this festival out.

More info:

  • The Magical Lantern Festival runs in London until 26 February. It’s open Thursday-Sunday evenings, and throughout half-term. Buy your ticket and book a timed entry slot in advance on the festival website. An advance purchase weekend family ticket costs £56.
  • Chiswick House is a 10 minute walk from Turnham Green underground station.
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