Inkpen Wild Walk, Berkshire

I’m pretty sure the best antidote to a dismal grey day is a walk in the countryside. Last weekend we ignored the clouds and drizzle and headed to Inkpen in Berkshire for a walk that combined a macabre gibbet and spring crocuses!

We followed a shortened version of the Inkpen Wild Walk, a walk designed by the local wildlife trust that links two of their reserves. Our 6 mile route started at Inkpen Common, the longer alternative being a 10 mile walk which joins up to Kintbury railway station.

Inkpen Common nature reserve
Inkpen Common nature reserve

At Inkpen Common villagers once had the rights to graze livestock and burn the gorse in their ovens. Nowadays the gorse sits alongside other heathland plants and the reserve is a haven for reptiles. However the likelihood of spotting lizards and snakes sunbathing on a cold March day was pretty minimal.

Along the Wayfarer's Walk
Along the Wayfarer’s Walk

We puffed our way up Walbury Hill, the highest hill in Berkshire and the starting point for two long distance walks, the Test Way and the Wayfarer’s Walk. A wide chalk track led us along the Hampshire Downs towards Combe Gibbet. The fields either side were full of sheep although we looked in vain for any lambs.

Combe Gibbet, Inkpen
Combe Gibbet, Inkpen

Combe Gibbet, at the top of Gallows Down, is a notorious local attraction. The original gibbet was erected in 1676 to hang adulterers George Broomham and Dorothy Newman. They had murdered Broomham’s wife and son after their illicit affair had been discovered. Today’s gibbet is actually a replica but you can still imagine the crowds gathering to watch the hanging.

From the gibbet we continued along Wayfarer’s Walk, taking in the amazing views and snacking on biscuits, before heading down steeply from Inkpen Hill. There was plenty of evidence of spring arriving; buds on twigs, plants peeking through the soil and stinging nettles starting to grow again. We found a muddy puddle with some great animal and bird tracks which we attempted to identify.

Inkpen Crocus Field Nature Reserve
Inkpen Crocus Field Nature Reserve

The second reserve of the day was Inkpen Crocus Field Nature Reserve. Accessed via Pottery Lane (Inkpen was once home to several potteries) we first had to walk past a number of large and imposing houses; property envy was rife!

The meadow has the largest wild crocus population in Britain. Although we visited at peak viewing time (March) I was a little disappointed with the number of crocuses. I was expecting a field of purple but the flowers were rather more sparse. Perhaps my expectations were too high or maybe it hasn’t been a great year for the crocus. Crocuses aside, the meadows must be idyllic on a sunny summer day.

Pooh sticks in the wood
Pooh sticks in the wood

The drizzle started so the last mile was walked pretty quickly. There was still time to throw a few twigs into a woodland stream, and admire an amazing treehouse in a back garden.

Despite some initial moans from the kids (we’ve got to walk 6 miles?) we had a great afternoon walking and I’m glad we made the effort to get out rather than lazing around at home.
Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

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Taking off at Boscombe Down and Old Sarum, Wiltshire

Have you ever fancied a career as a fighter pilot? If so, I’ve found the perfect place to visit. There aren’t many places in the world where you can imagine yourself in Top Gun but Boscombe Down Aviation Collection in Wiltshire is one of them. Oh, and the kids will probably enjoy it too!

Old Sarum

As we’d driven some distance to reach the museum I thought it prudent to let the kids run off some energy outside so we headed first to the nearby attraction of Old Sarum.

Old Sarum is the original site of Salisbury, although nowadays it’s a couple of miles north of the city. Its hilltop location was home to an Iron Age fort and subsequently used by Romans, Saxons and Normans.

Bridge over to Old Sarum castle
Bridge over to Old Sarum castle

The site consists of the remains of a castle and cathedral. The castle was established by William the Conqueror when he built a motte in the centre of the hill fort. A recent geophysical survey has discovered it once consisted of halls, towers and apartments; very different to how it looks nowadays.

Old Sarum views, Salisbury
Old Sarum views, Salisbury

The site has information boards dotted around to advise what would have once surrounded you. We rather liked the old toilets (pictured above) and the kids enjoyed dropping a few pennies down the well.

Although there’s not much left of the actual castle it’s in a stunning location and has great views, both of Salisbury and the surrounding countryside.

Well at Old Sarum
Well at Old Sarum

Outside of the English Heritage site (and free to visit) you’ll find the cathedral foundations. This was first completed in 1092 but burnt down just 5 days after it was consecrated. Another cathedral took its place a century later. Both the cathedral site and earth banks around the castle appeared to be a well known dog walking route. Unfortunately not all of the dog owners had poop scooped so watch your step!

Old Sarum
Old Sarum

Boscombe Down Aviation Collection

Boscombe Down Aviation Collection is only a mile or so from Old Sarum. It’s located in a hangar next to the airfield on an industrial site although if it wasn’t for the two aircraft outside you’d wonder if you were in the right place.

The aircraft in the collection are associated with the Boscombe Down military flight testing centre. They consist of restored and replica planes and cockpits; each one has an information board next to it detailing its history.

Boscombe Down Aviation Collection
Boscombe Down Aviation Collection

There are 18 cockpits from a variety of aircraft, including a Harrier, Tornado and Sea Hawk. The absolute best thing about this museum is that you are encouraged to sit in all of them, flick the switches and generally pretend you’re flying a fighter jet. This applies to the adults as much as the children! Staff are on hand to point out what all the controls are for and are incredibly knowledgable about the planes.

In the cockpit, Boscombe Down
In the cockpit, Boscombe Down

At the age of 12 I thought my daughter was well past the age of dressing up. How wrong I was. She jumped at the chance of wearing a pilot’s jump suit and helmet throughout the visit. My son wasn’t fussed about dressing up but they both enjoyed ‘flying’ the BAC1-11.

Flying the BAC1-11 at Boscombe Down Aviation Collection
Flying the BAC1-11 at Boscombe Down Aviation Collection

Aside from the cockpits there are 8 full size planes to view, although you are not allowed to enter these. These include a restored Sea Harrier which saw action in the Falklands Conflict. 

There are also a couple of helicopters, weapons, aircraft models and engines. The helicopters don’t have rotor blades but my son was initially hesitant of sitting in them after the lady on the entrance desk mentioned that a child had been able to start one previously.

Boscombe Down jets
Boscombe Down jets

Towards the end of our visit one of the staff offered to take the kids in the trainer, a Link flight simulator. They had great fun, although I’m not sure I’d want to go in a real plane with them as they’d crash it before long!

We all loved the museum. Even if planes aren’t your thing it’s an unusual way to spend a couple of hours and just as enjoyable for us adults as it was for the kids.

More info

  • Old Sarum is open daily except over Christmas and New Year. It’s an English Heritage site so is free to members, otherwise it’s £4.40 for adults and £2.70 for children.
  • Boscombe Down Aviation Collection is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10am-6pm. They’re closed Mondays except on Bank Holidays. A family ticket costs £23. I’d suggest the collection is best for primary school or older children rather than pre-schoolers as access to the cockpits involves climbing up short ladders.

 

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Family days out in March 2015

At last, spring is on it’s way! I’m really looking forward to the longer days and some warmer weather. There’s plenty going on this month to encourage you to get out and about; I’ve listed a selection of events below. Do leave a comment if there are any others you’d like to add.

1. Partial solar eclipse, nationwide

This will make for an interesting school run! The partial eclipse will be visible, clouds permitting, from around 8.40-10.30am on Friday 20 March. I’ve seen a couple of headlines stating that Britain will be plunged into darkness; it won’t but you’ll still need to wear eclipse viewers and not look directly at the sun.

2. Red Nose Day, nationwide

Taking place on Friday 13 March, there are events across the country to raise money for Comic Relief. If there isn’t one near you already why not organise something yourself? And remember to buy your red noses!

3. Mother’s Day, nationwide

Mums go free at many attractions on Sunday 15 March. Some of these include Trebah Garden in Cornwall, The National Botanic Garden of Wales, The Big Sheep in Devon and Corfe Castle Model Village in Dorset.

4. Discover Lincolnshire weekend

Attractions across the county of Lincolnshire are offering free entry during the weekend of Saturday 28 and Sunday 29 March. The Visit Lincoln website details the attractions taking part; they include Tattershall Castle, Gainsborough Old Hall and Lincoln Cathedral.

5. Lambing weekends, nationwide

Is there anything more spring like than newborn lambs? I think not! There are lots of lambing events across the country including Saddlescombe Farm near Brighton, Kentwell Farm in Suffolk and Oaklands College in St Albans.

The National Trust also has a list of their properties where you can see lambs.

6. Big Bang science fair, Birmingham

With over 75,000 visitors in 2014 the Big Bang science fair is the largest show of its kind in the UK. Aimed at 7-19 year olds the free event runs from 13-16 March. It’s a mix of science related shows, workshops and fun activities to inspire young people to consider careers in science, technology and engineering.

7. Children’s Literature Festival, Cardiff

There’s lots of story telling, Horrible Histories and Diary of a a Wimpy Kid shows and a creative writing workshop at the Cardiff Children’s Lit Fest. Most public events take place on Saturday 28 and Sunday 29 March and are aimed at primary school children. Tickets are from £3 per event.

8. St Piran’s Day celebrations, Cornwall

St Piran is the patron saint of Cornwall. St Piran’s festival takes place in Redruth on Saturday 7 March with a parade, street entertainment and children’s town trail. There are also parades in Falmouth and Bodmin on Thursday 5 March and a procession in Perranporth on Sunday 8 March.

9. World Book Day, nationwide

School children across the country will be dressing up as their favourite book characters on World Book Day, Thursday 5 March. You’ll find events at local libraries and bookshops and if you live near the Roald Dahl museum in Buckinghamshire you can pop along to their after school World Book Day party.

Older children might be interested in Teen Fest from 6-8pm on Wednesday 4 and Thursday 5 March. They can chat online to more than 40 authors, including Holly Smale, Malorie Blackman and Andy McNab.

10. Family fun day, British Geological Society, Nottingham

If your kids are interested in rocks and geology they’ll enjoy this family fun day held at Keyworth in Nottinghamshire. This free event is on Saturday 21 March between 10am-5pm; geologists will be on hand to talk about earthquakes and fossils and there’ll be family specific activities. Register online on the BGS website if you plan to attend.

Discovering the roof gardens of London

We always have a day out in London during February half term. I’ve learnt the hard way that the big attractions attract big crowds so I try to choose a less popular, more quirky option. I recently read about the new Sky Garden at the top of 20 Fenchurch Street (the Walkie Talkie building) so decided to combine a trip to this with two other roof gardens.

The Roof Gardens, 99 Kensington High Street

I’ve walked along Kensington High Street many times but until last week I had no idea that on the roof of the building above we’d find trees, a stream and four flamingos! Yes, you’ve read that correctly. The 1.5 acre roof gardens took 2 years to build and opened to the public in 1938; visitors paid a shilling to enter with the monies raised going to charity. Nowadays Sir Richard Branson leases the roof gardens along with a private clubhouse and restaurant on the 7th floor.

The Spanish garden, The Roof Gardens
The Spanish garden, The Roof Gardens

We signed in at reception and took the lift up to the 6th floor before stepping out into the surreal experience of a Spanish garden. Modelled on the Alhambra in Granada it certainly brightened up the grey and dreary London sky.

Flamingos at The Roof Gardens
Flamingos at The Roof Gardens

There’s also a Tudor garden but our favourite was the woodland garden with its free roaming flamingos. This contains over one hundred trees, including six that have been there since the garden opened. Plenty of spring bulbs were pushing through the soil and a few were already in flower.

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

The middle of February is never going to show a garden in its full splendour but we thought it was great. We’ll definitely pop back to the Roof Gardens in summer to see it in its prime.

Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch Street (Walkie Talkie)

I’ve always wanted to visit the Shard but why pay £25 when you can experience similar views and a sky garden for free at 20 Fenchurch Street? Admittedly the Walkie Talkie, so called because of its bulbous shape, is less aesthetically pleasing and significantly lower than the Shard but it still provides a great vantage point. And I wonder whether the Shard is just too high to get decent photos?

Sky Garden at the Walkie Talkie
Sky Garden at the Walkie Talkie

I’d booked tickets to the Sky Garden a few days previously and although we turned up an hour early the staff were accommodating and let us in before our actual slot. My passport ID was checked, bags put through security scanners and then we were in the lift. I haven’t been in many skyscrapers so I was pleasantly surprised how quickly we zoomed up to the 35th floor.

Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch St
Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch St

The views are stunning. There are no information boards but most of the buildings are instantly recognisable. We enjoyed looking across to the Gherkin and at a helicopter which appeared to be flying at the same height as us. Aside from the views, I’d describe the sky garden as corporate. It’s the kind of planting that you get in posh offices. Nice enough, but didn’t really have any soul. Maybe give it a year to mature and it’ll look better. If you visit for the views you’ll love it but if you visit just for the garden you’ll probably be disappointed.

Views from the Sky Garden
Views from the Sky Garden

When we came to leave we discovered both lifts were temporarily out of order and awaiting repair. The lift attendant announced that he’d take 8 people down in the maintenance lift. At this point I started to worry that we’d be trundling down the outside of the building in some kind of cage. After several more minutes of my mind running through increasingly doom-laden scenarios (Towering Inferno) the lift door suddenly opened and we were able to leave. A few seconds later and I was secretly relieved to be back on the ground floor!

SOAS Japanese Roof Garden

Expectations for our final garden were high, but it’s unfair to compare this garden with either of the previous ones. It’s much smaller and has minimal planting. Instead, the SOAS Japanese Roof garden is all about the stone with sandstone, slate and granite chippings providing texture and interest.

Japanese roof garden, SOAS
Japanese roof garden, SOAS

There’s seating for those who wish to enjoy the peace and meditate but we didn’t linger. I’m sure that in May, when the wisteria flowers, it is lovely but on a cold February day we were rather happy to head back indoors. An interesting garden to visit if you’re already in the area but I wouldn’t make a special trip just to see it.

More info

  • The Roof Gardens at 99 Kensington High Street are free to enter but ring before you visit to ensure they are not closed for an event.
  • The Sky Garden is open from 10am-6pm weekdays, 11am-9pm weekends. Visits are free although you’ll need to book a timed slot in advance. Remember to bring ID with you.
  • The SOAS roof garden is on top of the Brunei Gallery and is open whenever the gallery is (generally 10.30am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday).