Family days out in October 2014

October is one of my favourite months. I love the changing of the season with its misty mornings and colourful leaves. And of course there’s a half term holiday too! If you’re looking for things to do in October or over the half-term break I hope you’ll find inspiration in the list below.

autumnleaves

1. Celebrate Science, Durham

From Tuesday 28 October to Thursday 30 October you can ‘Celebrate Science’ in Durham. Activities include glassblowing, making electricity from fruit and training a robot. The events are free and take place across Durham University visitor attractions. Click here for the programme.

2. Fungi foray, nationwide

October is a great month for fungi spotting; you’d be amazed at just how many varieties there are. To get you started there’s a family fungi foray at Moors Valley Country Park, Hampshire on Sunday 12 October (booking essential). You could also check out the listings for your area on the Wildlife Trust website, there’s sure to be a family oriented event near you.

3. The Big Draw, nationwide

The world’s largest drawing festival runs throughout the month of October. Galleries and museums across the UK offer drawing events which are generally free and suitable for all ages and abilities. There’s no specific theme, so you might be involved in anything from drawing a poppy to creating a large community artwork. A complete listing is available from the Big Draw website.

4. World conker championships, Northamptonshire

Fancy yourself as a conker champion? The world conker championships are happening near Oundle on Sunday 12 October; register here if you’d like to take part. Alternatively head along as a spectator (family ticket £10) and enjoy music, dance and craft stalls. There will also be a display highlighting the role played by conkers in the First World War. (If you’re as intrigued by this as I was, find out more on the English Heritage site).

5. National Apple day, nationwide

Apple day events happen throughout October and celebrate all things apple related. This usually means apple bobbing, juice pressing, themed arts and crafts and apple testing. It’s a great opportunity to visit your local orchard and find out more about this humble fruit. Many National Trust properties are holding apple related activities, you can also search for other events near you on the Orchard Network site.

6. Diwali, Leicester and London

Diwali, the festival of lights, is observed by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs and celebrates the victory of light over darkness. Leicester holds one of the biggest events outside of India and includes a lights switch on and fireworks display on Sunday 12 October, with a further fireworks display and cultural entertainment on Diwali Day, Thursday 23 October. You’ll also find Diwali celebrations in Trafalgar Square, London on Sunday 12 October with a street bazaar, traditional food and Asian music and dance.

7. Halloween events, nationwide

Not everyone is keen on Halloween but many of the half term events focus on pumpkins, witches and spooky trails. English Heritage has a great selection of half term activities, including ghost tours at Bolsover and Kenilworth castles and a medieval spooky fun week at Whitby Abbey.

8. Autumn leaf colour, nationwide

The shortening days of autumn cause leaves to turn bright red, orange and gold. Westonbirt Arboretum is probably the best known place in the UK for autumn colours but it does get incredibly busy. In past years we’ve enjoyed the leaf colours at Batsford Arboretum, Gloucs and Harcourt Arboretum near Oxford. Alternatively just head to your local wood to see autumn arrive.

9. Go Wild in Autumn, National Museum of Rural Life, East Kilbride

You’re invited to ‘Go Wild’ from 11-19 October at the National Museum of Rural Life. Visit the farming museum and then make a mini scarecrow, build a den or make an egg carton nose. A family ticket to the museum is £19 and includes all activities. Further details on the website.

10. Bonfire season, Sussex

Whereas the rest of the UK restricts its bonfire celebrations to 5 November the Sussex bonfire season runs from September to November. Held in different towns throughout the season these events usually include torchlit processions, fireworks and a bonfire complete with effigy. Some, such as the Seaford bonfire on Saturday 18 October and Littlehampton bonfire on Saturday 25 October, advertise as being suited to families. If you have young children you’ll want to avoid the livelier events such as the one in Lewes which gets very crowded. Further details here.

I hope this list has given you ideas for days out in October. If you have any further suggestions do add a comment below.

Things to do in the Haute-Loire, France

Our summer holiday was spent camping in the Haute-Loire region of central France (read our CosyCamp review). Named after the river that flows through it, the area is predominately rural with lots of small farms, meadows, cattle and forests.

Haute-Loire countryside

Haute-Loire countryside

Le Puy-en-Velay is the biggest town (population 20,000) and warrants a separate blog post as there’s lots to see. Aside from Le Puy, tourism is low key and it was hard to obtain tourist information in advance of our visit. Even TripAdvisor was woefully short on suggestions. However once there we found plenty to do, and this post will hopefully help future visitors.

1. Chamaliéres-sur-Loire

This small village is situated alongside the River Loire, and was our base for the week. It’s best known for its 12th century Romanesque church which is worth a visit, even if churches are not normally your thing.

The church at Chamaliéres-sur-Loire

The church at Chamaliéres-sur-Loire

The village has a couple of restaurants, a bakery and a tourist office which gives out free route maps of local walks.

Tourist office

Tourist office, Chamaliéres-sur-Loire

There are a couple of signposted walks from the village. We took the shorter route which led up into the hills behind for some great views. The route is way marked with yellow stripes but we managed to miss some so keep a careful eye on the map.

River Loire, Chamaliéres-sur-Loire

River Loire, Chamaliéres-sur-Loire’

We saw a fair number of people canoeing along the Loire although I’m a non-swimmer so this didn’t appeal. The river looked peaceful and calm during our visit but do take a look at the flood height markings down by the bridge; it’s hard to believe how high the river has reached when you visit during the summer!

2. Chalencon, near St André de Chalencon

I love castles so our visit to Chalencon Castle and its medieval village was one of my holiday highlights.

Chalencon castle

Chalencon castle

The parking area is on the outskirts of the village, about 10 minutes away, although longer on the way back when you’re walking uphill. We looked round the 11th century chapel first, although my son was more interested in photographing the lizards running up and down the outside walls.

Chalencon castle

Chalencon castle

The castle itself was abandoned around 1600, and much of it is now in ruins. You can still look round the battlements, peep up inside the tower and generally imagine what life must have been like for the Lord of Chalencon.

Chateau de Chalencon

Chateau de Chalencon

If you take the cobbled pathway down from the castle to the Ance river you’ll come to Devil’s Bridge. This is an arch bridge, probably around 600 years old, with a story attached to its name. The legend goes that the devil made a pact with the locals to help save Chalencon from flooding, where he would take the first soul to walk over the bridge. He hoped it would be the local lord, but it turned out to be a dog, much to his disgust!

3. Mont Mezenc, Les Estables

Mont Mezenc lies on the border of the Ardeche and Haute-Loire; it’s distinctive shape is visible from miles around. Whilst you can walk to the summit direct from the nearby village of Les Estables we drove some of the way up and parked on the outskirts of the forest.

Walking up Mount Mezenc

Walking up Mount Mezenc

It’s a relatively easy walk up Mont Mezenc from the car park, first through woodland and then across the stony plateau. We didn’t have a map but the path was straightforward and there were signposts on route.

Mont Mezenc

Mont Mezenc

The mountain has two summits, with the southern one slightly higher at 1753m. There are two orientation tables and it’s interesting to look at how the scenery differs on either side of the mountain. On one side you can see the Alps, and we may have seen Mt Blanc although I’m not convinced.

The village of Les Estables is the highest in the Massif Central and is worth a stop on the way back. It’s a ski centre during the winter months, and even in summer we passed some brave roller skiers on the surrounding roads.

4. Chateau de Lavoûte-Polignac, Lavoûte-sur-Loire

This chateau is spectacularly situated on a bend in the River Loire. I had no idea what to expect as I’d only seen it marked on the tourist map but it looked pretty impressive from the outside.

View from Chateau de Lavoute-Polignac

View from Chateau de Lavoute-Polignac

Entrance was via guided tour only (in French) although we were given some notes in English. The tour took us through six rooms in which the guide gave a talk about most of the objects in the room, along with a detailed history of the Polignac family portraits. There were several kids in the group but the tour was not aimed at families in any way, ours were bored and fidgety by the end. Suffice to say we wouldn’t rush back but others might enjoy it much more.

5. Ravin de Corbœuf, Rosières

The Ravin de Corbœuf is formed from multi-coloured clays and is nicknamed ‘Little Colorado’. Prior to our visit I’d copied a walk from a French hiking book which turned out to be useful. It started in the nearby village of Rosières and took in both ends of the ravine. You could probably figure out the walk without the book as long as you’ve got a better sense of direction than me.

Ravin de Corbœuf

Ravin de Corbœuf

The colours in the strata are impressive but the thing I was most amazed at was the total lack of other visitors. This would be a major tourist draw in other areas!

6. Chateau Artias, near Retournac

Situated opposite our campsite, but separated by the River Loire, the ruins of Chateau Artias tower over the valley. If you happen to be staying at the campsite at Chamaliéres-sur-Loire you can use their kayaks to cross the river, otherwise you’ll need to access it by road from Retournac.

Chateau Artias

Chateau Artias

The ruins are fenced off but you can walk around the edge to view them. They include a 12th century chapel which was the official parish church for many years. From the top you can look down and along the River Loire, but we didn’t stay long as the rain arrived.

7. Suc de Bartou

The rolling farmland of the Haute-Loire is punctuated by small volcanic hills, known as ‘suc’. These offer plenty of walking opportunities, and you can be sure of a good view regardless of which one you climb.

Walk up Suc de Bartou

Walk up Suc de Bartou

We booked on a nature walk through our campsite. Adrien, our guide, took us to the top of Suc de Bartou, walking through hamlets and along woodland paths. He pointed out items we’d never have known, for example the building in the top right of the collage is the communal village oven.

It took us a couple of hours to reach the summit of Suc de Bartou. It wasn’t difficult walking but the last section was quite overgrown and I’d have never worked out it was the way without a guide. We rested up top for a while, picking out the other volcanic hills in the landscape and watching a peregrine falcon swoop below us. An almost perfect view!

8. Vélorail du Velay, Dunières

This was great fun. As shown in the picture below, you pedal a cart along an old railway track; each cart seats two pedallers and two or three children. After a safety briefing (there are no helmets or seatbelts but you have brakes and lighting) you set off along the track for 4 km.

Vélorail du Velay, Dunières

Vélorail du Velay, Dunières

The first part is slightly downhill so you get a brief taste of your return journey but the rest of the outward trip is on a slight incline. The pedalling isn’t too hard, but I think my other half may have been doing more work than me. At the appropriate stopping point you dismount, turn around your cart and freewheel almost the whole way back to the station. This includes a rather scary stretch through a long dark tunnel and across a couple of viaducts but it’s an exhilarating ride and we all loved it.

The entire journey takes about 1 hour 15 mins. If you want to take photos, make sure you do this on the way out as you’ll be going too fast on the return journey!

9. Lac Bleu, Les Balayés

The incredible blue colour of this lake is caused by a type of volcanic rock called phonolite. The lake is very photogenic although rather small so I would only suggest a visit if you’re already in the area. Picnics and bathing are not allowed, but you can spend a fun few minutes spotting the fish.

At the entrance to Lac Bleu you’ll also find a miniature village with castles and scenes from the Auvergne. We didn’t go in as it looked more suited to families with young children.

Lac Bleu, Les Balayés

Lac Bleu, Les Balayés

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this round-up of places to visit in the Haute-Loire, and that you’ve got some inspiration for your holiday. If you have any further suggestions please do leave a comment.

More info:

  • The best site to plan your Haute-Loire travels is here; it’s a pity I didn’t find this until after we’d returned home!
  • During August Chalencon Castle was open from 2.30-6.30pm at the weekend, and 3-6pm during the week. Adults cost 3 euros, children 1 euro. Pay in the chapel and then wait for the attendant to unlock the castle.
  • Chateau de Lavoûte-Polignac is open from April to October, generally from 2-6 pm although longer during July and August.
  • The Velorail costs 12 euros for adults and 5 euros for 5-12 year olds. Children under 5 are free but I’m not sure I’d recommend it for this age group as there are no restraints on the cart. The Velorail operates at fixed departure times, book in advance before you visit. Further details can be found here.
  • Chateau Artias, Ravin de Corbœuf and Lac Bleu are free and open year round.

Greenwich tall ships festival, London

I’ve always had a soft spot for tall ships, probably a legacy of my 1970s childhood when The Onedin Line was prime TV viewing. When I heard the Tall Ships Festival was coming to London for the first time in 25 years I knew we’d be there.

Not a sight you'll normally see on the Thames!

Not a sight you’ll normally see on the Thames!

The festival took place at the start of September and encompassed a long weekend of events and sailing activities. More than 50 ships took part; these were handily spread out across several sites along the Thames. We spent a day wandering around three of the locations enjoying the festivities and exploring parts of London we rarely visit.

We started at North Greenwich where was a small area selling food and drinks and performances by sea shanty singers. We didn’t linger as we’d already seen some tall ships sailing past and were eager to see more.

Tall ships sailing the Thames

Tall ships sailing the Thames

Instead we joined the other Sunday strollers for the 1.5 mile walk along the Thames path to maritime Greenwich. It’s quite an industrial stretch of the river but there was plenty of interest, ranging from old wharves to rusting ships cut in half. Closer to the Old Royal Naval College you pass modern housing but you’re also treated to a cobbled area with signs and buildings that remind you of Greenwich’s maritime history. Some of the larger tall ships moored here were open to visitors although we managed to coincide our arrival with the lunchtime closure.

A giant lobster at the tall ships festival, Greenwich

A giant lobster at the tall ships festival, Greenwich

The main festival village was in Greenwich. There was lots to see, from costumed characters to dancers and pull along lobsters. I’m still intrigued by the lobster and I’d love to know what it does the rest of the year! There was also rigging to climb, model ships to sail and demonstrations to watch. This area was incredibly busy with long queues for everything; I’m sure most of London had decided to visit the festival that afternoon.

Making musket balls

Making musket balls

Our favourite stand was the man making musket balls. After melting pewter in a small pan he poured it into moulds and, when cold, released the balls and filed them smooth. The resulting musket balls were for sale and he had quite a production line going for all of the kids (including ours) who wanted to buy them.

Viewing the tall ships at Greenwich

Viewing the tall ships at Greenwich

Of course the main attraction was watching the ships on the river. It was great to see them sail past and imagine how the Thames might have looked in years gone by.

Tall ships at Wood Wharf, London

Tall ships at Wood Wharf, London

Our last stop of the day was at Wood Wharf, near Canary Wharf. This housed some of the smaller ships and thankfully wasn’t as busy as Greenwich. It was surreal to see the tall ships moored against a modern skyscraper background. A great way to finish our day out!

More info:

  • The Tall Ships festival in London has finished but Greenwich could easily occupy a day of your time. I’d love to go back and walk through the Greenwich foot tunnel, which takes you under the Thames to the Isle of Dogs. More obvious tourist destinations are the Cutty Sark and the National Maritime Museum, further details of all attractions can be found here.
  • One of the next opportunities to see the tall ships will be in Belfast in July 2015 when they’ll be visiting as part of the Titanic Maritime Festival.

Campsite review: CosyCamp, Chamaliéres-sur-Loire, France

We decided to venture to France for our holiday this year, and after much trawling of the internet came across CosyCamp. This campsite only opened in 2013 and already has plenty of positive feedback on the various review sites. Read on to find out how we got on.

Location

CosyCamp is situated on the outskirts of Chamaliéres-sur-Loire, a small village in the Haute-Loire department. It’s in central France, in the southern part of the Auvergne region. The area hasn’t been discovered by the tourist masses but there’s plenty to do locally; I’ve detailed some of the attractions we enjoyed in my blog post here.

Getting to the campsite

We flew to Lyon with British Airways and took advantage of a combined hire car offer with Avis. It was a straightforward 1.5 hour drive to the campsite, although we did have a moment when the Sat Nav suggested a U turn on a dual carriageway!

By the looks of the car park, the majority of guests drive to the site, either from the Netherlands or the UK. According to Google it’s a 9 hour, 548 mile, journey from Calais.

The grounds

The campsite runs alongside the River Loire. There’s a grassy area between the tents and the river bank but it’s not fenced off so you need to keep an eye on young children. A big positive is that cars are not allowed on site. There’s a car park just outside the main entrance along with trolleys for transporting luggage and camping gear.

CosyCamp grounds

CosyCamp grounds

The different types of accommodation and tent pitches are mixed throughout the 4 acre site so there’s no regimented feel. The grounds are flat with well maintained garden areas, including herbs and vegetables.

Gardens at CosyCamp

Gardens at CosyCamp

Accommodation

Whilst most guests bring their own tents we decided to hire a safari tent for the week. This was the basic accommodation option but it was luxurious compared to our usual camping experience. The other lodgings include wooden cottages, luxury safari lodges, a treehouse and a gypsy caravan. There is a separate area for camper vans.

Our safari tent at CosyCamp

Our safari tent at CosyCamp

Our safari tent had two bedrooms, split between a double room and a kids bunk room. The bed was incredibly comfortable and I slept well the entire week. The kitchen area had a fridge, microwave, kettle and camping stove. We used the communal campsite toilets and washing up areas. Outside on the deck we had chairs and a small table.

Inside our safari tent at CosyCamp
Inside our safari tent at CosyCamp 

We took our own duvet covers and pillowcases, although you can hire them. We had a slight issue with ours, as the pillows were square but we’d brought standard oblong pillowcases, whoops! We managed to make them fit with a bit of fiddling.

For some reason our tent attracted earwigs and we had to clear them out every evening (sorry earwigs). On a positive note there weren’t any mosquitoes.

Campsite facilities

There are three toilet and shower blocks. These were unisex and contained a mix of showers, toilets and washbasins in cubicles. We sometimes had to queue for toilets, particularly if parts were closed off for cleaning. The showers were warm and free.

The campsite has a strong environmental ethos. We were given a recycling bag for plastics, glass, cans and cardboard. There were also compost bins for food waste, conveniently located near the washing up areas. The lights in the wash blocks were motion activated and the showers had push buttons rather than a constant flow of water.

Washing up facilities at CosyCamp

Washing up facilities at CosyCamp

There were plenty of dish and clothes washing sinks. The site also has a laundry room with washing machines, dryers and ironing facilities.

There isn’t a shop on site but we were able to order croissants, pain au chocolat and baguettes (all 1 euro each) for collection the following morning.

Campsite activities

We visited in August and there were lots of children on site. I’m sure that plenty of couples stay outside of the school holidays but the campsite is definitely geared towards families (kids up to about 12 years of age) and the activities reflect this.

Our kids found a badminton court, table tennis, basketball hoop and football area, all with equipment nearby. Some were in almost constant use but they managed to have a go on most things throughout the week. There’s  a small playground which looked good for younger children.

CosyCamp playground

CosyCamp playground

There’s an outdoor swimming pool and paddling pool, which were very popular (I had to wait until the evening to get a photo with no-one in). There’s also a heated indoor pool that can be hired for sole family use for 10 euro per hour; this has massage water jets, coloured lights and music.

Swimming pool, CosyCamp

Swimming pool, CosyCamp

The campsite offers free weekly organised nature activities for children; these are advertised on the information board in reception. Opposite our tent there was a den building area which was popular with kids building and demolishing structures.

Hut building area

Hut building area

There are also a couple of canoes (with lifejackets) to borrow for outings on the River Loire. Next door there’s a horse riding school. It’s not part of the campsite but appeared to be busy with kids every time we went past.

Evening activities

Evenings were low key, with many guests heading to the cafe bar for a glass of wine or two. We spent several nights here playing board games, which we never do in England! There’s a family room above the cafe with a TV, games and books to borrow. Downstairs in the reception area were tourist attraction leaflets, walking books (in French), maps and large coffee table photographic books of the area to help you plan the next day.

CosyCamp cafe and family room

CosyCamp cafe and family room

We ate at the cafe a couple of evenings during our stay. It primarily serves pizza and salads, along with a daily speciality. Prices were very reasonable, with pizzas costing 8-12 euros. We really enjoyed our pizzas although there were quite a few flies in the dining area which was off-putting.

 Staff

Richard and Sophie own the site and do an incredible job, I dread to think how many hours they work. They were usually around the reception area, advising on places to go and helping with bookings. Issues were dealt with promptly, for example we reported a problem with our stove. Richard came almost immediately and fixed it (well, turned a valve, it wasn’t broken). Later in the week my daughter had an infected cut. As it was a Sunday everywhere was closed, again they came to the rescue with a loan of antiseptic cream.

The bar and cafe staff were also friendly and hard working. Everyone spoke English, or French, depending on your preference.

Summary

We loved our safari tent and the campsite. It might be too quiet (lack of evening entertainment) or too noisy (lots of kids) for some but it was perfect for us. We really liked the surrounding area too, even though there aren’t many ‘must see’ tourist destinations nearby.

Overall, it was one of the best holidays we’ve had in France.

More info:

  • CosyCamp is open from the middle of May to the start of October.  A basic tent pitch in August costs around £20 per night (for 2 people, small extra charge for children). A fully equipped safari tent costs £58 for 5 people per night. Outside of school holidays the prices are significantly lower.
  • Further details can be found on the CosyCamp website.