Exploring Roman Silchester, Hampshire

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 if you expect above ground ruins (apart from the walls), but do go if you’re happy to imagine and wonder what things may once have looked like.

Mortimer to Silchester

St Mary's Church, Mortimer (left) and St Mary the Virgin church, Silchester (right)
St Mary’s Church, Mortimer (left) and St Mary the Virgin church, Silchester (right)

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.

Stinking chamomile (I think)
Stinking chamomile (I think)

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 not a single insect to be seen. The last part runs through a cattle field; we skirted around the edge rather than take the footpath through the middle of the herd. That way 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.

Roman amphitheatre, Silchester
Roman amphitheatre, Silchester

We ate our picnic lunch overlooking the amphitheatre before following the walls around the site of the Roman town. There are information boards dotted around the site which help with interpretation.

The town was designed on a grid system, the layout of which can be seen from aerial pictures taken during a dry summer. It included public baths, the forum basilica, temples and housing.

Roman excavation site, Silchester
Roman excavation site, Silchester

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 housing, which archaeologists have determined was of high status occupation due to 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 for reasons unknown. Unlike most other Roman towns in the area it wasn’t settled on again which has made the archaeologist’s job easier! The present village of Silchester was built in the 17th Century on a site to the west of Calleva Atrebatum.

Crossing the alpaca field, near Silchester
Crossing the alpaca field, near Silchester

Silchester to Bramley

Leaving Silchester we took our first ever footpath through an alpaca field. They wisely stayed on their side of the field even though the kids were desparate for them to come over for a stroke.

The best laid walking plans sometimes go wrong. After passing the pretty church at Silchester we were supposed to cross the road and head into another field, following the Brenda Parker Way. However, faced with head high bracken and knee high stinging nettles and thistles we decided to give it a miss. We were all wearing shorts and had no desire to end up covered in stings. Future walkers take note!

The route from Silchester to Bramley
The route from Silchester to Bramley

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!

Walking through the wheat fields, near Silchester
Walking through the wheat fields, near Silchester

Our walk had one last sting in the tail. Arriving in Bramley we were desperate for cold drinks so I popped into the bakery opposite the railway station to buy some. As I watched the crossing barrier gates come down (5 minutes before the train was due) 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 actually 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!

More info

  • Silchester is open all reasonable hours; there is no entrance charge; further details on the English Heritage website.

Linking up with:
Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

Share this:

25 free days out in the 2016 summer holidays

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

View walking down from Worcester Beacon
View walking down from Worcester Beacon

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

Rock pooling at Kennack Sands, Lizard Peninsula
Rock pooling at Kennack Sands, Lizard Peninsula

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

balloon6

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

Held at Southsea Common on 13-14 August the Portsmouth International Kite festival includes kite flier demonstrations, Japanese fighting kites and synchronised kite ballet.

17. Wild camp on Dartmoor, Devon

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

The Roof Gardens, 99 Kensington High St, London
The Roof Gardens, 99 Kensington High St, London

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

Red arrows
Red arrows

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.

24. Free museums, nationwide

Big Pit National Coal museum, Blaenavon
Big Pit National Coal museum, Blaenavon

There are many amazing free museums  throughout the UK (although donations are always appreciated). Some of the ones I’ve written about on this blog include The Big Pit National Coal Museum, Blaenavon,  Imperial War Museum in London, and St Fagans National History Museum near Cardiff.

25. Visit a castle, nationwide

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?

Linking up with:

You Baby Me Mummy
Share this:

Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside: walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks with children

As we took our seats in the Pen-y-Ghent cafe it was hard to ignore the bright red arms and necks of the two men on the table beside us. The Yorkshire Dales aren’t usually known for their sunny climes but we had somehow managed to coincide our holiday with a week of good weather.

Inspired by the lack of rain we spent part of our holiday walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks with the kids. This 24 mile challenge, with 5200ft of ascent, is often completed by charity walkers in around 12 hours. That wasn’t a sensible option for us so we climbed the hills individually on different days.

Pen-y-Ghent

Start of our route up Pen-y-Ghent
Start of our route up Pen-y-Ghent

Our first hill of the week was Pen-y-Ghent. This is the lowest of the Three Peaks but its distinctive shape, as seen in the photograph below, helps makes it one of the most popular.

Walking up Pen-y-Ghent
Walking up Pen-y-Ghent

Our route up Pen-y-Ghent followed the well worn track from the cafe in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, up past Brackenbottom Farm. Although this is the classic route for Three Peaks walkers it was pretty quiet. I guess we timed our departure well.

Pen-y-ghent summit path
Pen-y-ghent south face

The path took us up beside a stone wall until we reached a junction on the ridge, signposted the Pennine Way. Turning left we encountered a steeper section followed by an even steeper section. We had to use our hands a couple of times to pull ourselves up but it was pretty straightforward, barely a scramble.

View from Pen-y-ghent descent
View from Pen-y-Ghent descent

The summit was much busier than our walk up. We spent a while pointing out the other hills in the Dales, before climbing over the stone wall stile. I love a good stone wall and always wonder at the logistics of building them on top of the hills.

Our descent path was clear, snaking down across the hillside like a white ribbon, so no chance of getting lost. Adventurous walkers might want to visit Hunt Pot, a fissure in the ground off to the left of the path.

Looking back up to Pen-y-Ghent, Yorkshire
Looking back up to Pen-y-Ghent, Yorkshire

A little further on we detoured a couple of hundred metres to visit Hull Pot, a collapsed cavern which is the largest natural hole in England. We peered carefully in; although inaccessible to walkers it is popular with climbers. In wet weather a waterfall flows over the sides but it was completely dry on our visit.

Hull Pot, visited on the descent from Pen-y-Ghent
Hull Pot, visited on the descent from Pen-y-Ghent

From Hull Pot it took us about 45 minutes to walk back along a walled lane into Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Hill number one successfully completed!

Ingleborough

Our walk up Ingleborough was an add-on to our Gaping Gill cave descent. We’d already walked for 1.5 hours to reach Gaping Gill, on the flank of Ingleborough, so it seemed a shame not to climb the hill.

Whilst I thought it was a good idea my son didn’t. He was, he said, starving. Instead of a picnic on Ingleborough summit we ended up stopping halfway up to eat the remains of our sandwiches (which we’d partially eaten at 9am whilst waiting for our cave descent). Suitably refreshed we continued up the hill although my son still wasn’t impressed by the climb.

Summit trig on Ingleborough
Summit trig on Ingleborough

It turned out to be a good decision to eat our picnic early. As we emerged from the last few steps up to the summit plateau the wind took our breath away. Even though there’s a small stone shelter it wouldn’t have been a pleasant picnic stop. Instead we headed over to claim the trig point before quickly retracing our steps off the hill.

Route down from Ingleborough, Yorkshire
Route down from Ingleborough, Yorkshire

Once back out of the wind and heading downhill my son perked up. We retraced our steps past Gaping Gill, down Trow Gill to Ingelborough Cave. The show cave conveniently sold ice-creams, a perfect reward for completing hill number two.

Whernside

We hadn’t planned to walk up Whernside. My original idea for the last day of our holiday was a gentle stroll around the Ingleton Waterfalls Walk. But how could we resist the appeal of the highest hill in Yorkshire on such a gorgeous sunny day?

We decided to walk the standard Three Peaks route from Ribblehead Viaduct but in reverse. This turned out to be a good decision.

Ribblehead viaduct and Whernside
Ribblehead viaduct and Whernside

After walking under one of the arches of Ribblehead Viaduct our route took us into a couple of livestock fields and then through meadows full of buttercups. Definitely one of my favourite memories of our Yorkshire Dales holiday.

Buttercup meadows near Whernside
Buttercup meadows near Whernside

After the meadows we started our climb. We passed a few people already heading down off the hill, some finding the steepness quite tricky and resorting to their backsides. Something I’ve also done in the past on other hills! Although our ascent was steeper than the reverse route my knees definitely prefer a more gradual descent.

Whernside summit family photo
Whernside summit family photo

As we reached the summit a couple of fell runners overtook us. I almost felt jealous of them. Obviously the sun must have affected my head.

We ate our picnic lunch in one of the ingenious curved shelters designed into the dry stone wall. We didn’t really need protecting from the elements but I imagine they’re very welcoming in inclement weather. Sadly the second shelter appeared to have been used as a toilet; how can people have so little respect?

Track along Whernside summit, Yorkshire
Track along Whernside summit, Yorkshire

The stone wall along the ridge defines the boundary between Yorkshire and Cumbria. It’s evidently possible to see Blackpool Tower on a clear day but I was obviously looking in the wrong direction. However we were treated to fabulous views of the Lake District peaks.

Stone slabs marked the long descent down. Either side the bog cotton and dried peat reminding us that the weather in Yorkshire isn’t usually so dry.

View from Whernside
View from Whernside

Near the bottom we stopped for a while to admire an aqueduct carrying the stream from Force Gill waterfall. It was interesting to consider man’s impact on the landscape around us. The aqueduct, viaduct and Blea Moor Tunnel were all major projects of their time; impressive structures but no match for the natural beauty of the hills.

Finished the Yorkshire Three Peaks!
Finished the Yorkshire Three Peaks!

There was time for one last photo stop to celebrate the completion of the Yorkshire Three Peaks.

The viaduct finally came into view, marking the end of our walk. Even better was the sight of the snack van as we’d all run out of water. As we sat relaxing by the stream and enjoying our drinks we were even treated to the sight of a train crossing the viaduct. The perfect ending to hill number three.

More info:

  • Thinking about walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks with your children? Please consider your abilities and check the summit weather conditions before setting off. We were incredibly lucky with the weather on all three days but ice, rain, wind and fog are pretty common.
  • We followed the classic routes up all three of the Yorkshire Peaks (although walked one in reverse). I found the Walks in Yorkshire and Where2Walk websites helpful with route planning.

Pin it for later:

image
Linking up with:

Travel Monkey
Share this:

Searching for orchids at Warburg nature reserve, Oxfordshire

I’ve become obsessed with orchids lately. In May we visited the orchid slope at Hartslock nature reserve to see rare monkey orchids. Last weekend we headed to Warburg nature reserve, one of BBOWT’s flagship reserves near Henley-on-Thames.

Great butterfly orchid (left) and white helleborine (right), Warburg nature reserve
Greater butterfly orchid (left) and white helleborine (right), Warburg nature reserve

We’re regular visitors to Warburg and often walk the waymarked Wildlife Trail. This time our route was determined by a map in the visitor centre marking the orchid flowering spots.

Orchids at Warburg

My main reason for visiting was to see a bee orchid, and joy of joys, they were marked on the map! And is wasn’t just bee orchids. Greater butterfly, bird’s nest, white helleborine and green hound’s-tongue were also marked. I photographed the map and then headed out into the reserve.

Summer walk in Warburg nature reserve
Summer walk in Warburg nature reserve

We found our first orchid, the greater butterfly, just a few steps away from the car park. This orchid has greenish-white flowers, grows on chalk grassland and in woods. A similarly coloured orchid is the white helleborine, which we found beside the path in the beech woods.

Our next spot was the strange looking bird’s nest orchid, so called because its roots resemble a bird’s nest. Hidden amongst decaying leaves in woodland it’s a strange looking flower. Not one of the prettiest. It lacks chlorophyll, is light brown in colour and blends well with the background. This is my excuse for belatedly discovering my photos of them were rather blurry!

Now it must be said that the rest of the family aren’t as smitten with orchids as I am. Particularly the teen daughter, who decided she’d had enough at this point and headed back to the car to listen to music.

Meadow brown butterfly on bird's foot trefoil, Warburg nature reserve
Meadow brown butterfly on bird’s foot trefoil, Warburg nature reserve

Spotting the bee orchid

Walking out of the woodland and into the open, I finally got to see my bee orchid. Standing alone in the chalk grassland it looked exactly as expected. It mimics the bee in looks, scent and touch in order to attract male bees and help aid pollination. I’ve wanted to see one of these for a couple of years now and was very happy with the find. The irony is that I’ve subsequently found several less than a mile from my house!

Aside from the bee orchids there were loads of common spotted and a few pyramidal orchids just starting to flower. A variety of butterflies were out too, enjoying the temperamental sun.

Common spotted orchid (left), bee orchid (right), Warburg nature reserve
Common spotted orchid (left), bee orchid (right), Warburg nature reserve

My son and I continued on to the last flower marked on the map, green hounds-tongue. I’ve never seen this plant before and had no idea what I was looking for. It also took us further away from the car park in the direction of some ominous looking clouds overhead. I don’t mind getting wet on a walk but thunderstorms were forecast and I had no desire to get struck by lightning.

We went slightly off piste in our rushed quest for the last flower and ended up with very wet legs from walking through long grass. Although it rained a little the storm didn’t materialise and we were able to find the green hounds-tongue. That said I wasn’t exactly sure which plant it was so took photographs of a couple of contenders and identified it properly once I got home.

Super-sized slugs!

On our return to the car park we kept finding super-sized slugs. The paths were dotted with large black and brown varieties; we had to watch our step to ensure we didn’t squash any. I’m not a great fan of slugs in my garden but they were quite interesting to examine close up, away from lettuce plants!

Warburg nature reseve pond hide
Warburg nature reseve pond hide

Before leaving we met up with my other half in the visitor centre bird hide. We’ve often sat here in the past but haven’t always seen that many birds. This time was different; a couple of greater spotted woodpeckers were in control of the feeders, attacking any other bird trying to feed. Whenever they flew away normal service resumed with chaffinches, goldfinches, a nuthatch, blue tits and marsh tits all hastily returning to feed. I could have watched for hours but the kids were restless and it was time to go.

More info:

  • The best time to visit BBOWT’s Warburg nature reserve to see orchids is around June, although this does depend on seasonal weather conditions. However Warburg is a great reserve to visit all year round. There’s a small visitor centre (not usually manned), toilets and picnic site.
Share this: