When a beach is the number one Trip Advisor attraction on Anglesey you know it’s going to be special. You also expect it to be overrun with people. And perhaps, on a sunny summer day, Newborough beach and Llanddwyn Island are. But visit on a cool spring evening and you might well have the sweep of golden sand to yourself.
The car park at Newborough Forest is huge. Presumably testament to the number of day visitors who come to enjoy the beach, search for red squirrels and cycle the woodland tracks. There are toilets, marked trails and an ice-cream van in high season. But, aside from a couple of cars and campervans, it was almost empty at 8pm.
We parked and climbed the dunes to the beach. A perfect crescent of sand greeted us. Oystercatchers calling out. And a huge dead fish down on the shoreline that had both kids poking it in excitement.
Our target was Llanddwyn island, a mile or so along the sand from the car park. The island is cut off at high tide so check tide tables before you visit. Unless you fancy being marooned.
As we reached the island the clouds parted and a few rays of sun broke through. We were treated to the magical golden glow you get just before the sun sets.
Tŵr Mawr lighthouse, Llanddwyn island
For such a small finger of land Llanddwyn Island, named after St Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers, has more than its fair share of things to see. Away from the beaches there are historic lighthouses, the remains of a church, crosses and a terrace of houses once used by pilots guiding ships into the Menai Straits.
I thought we were the only ones on Llanddwyn. Until I realised I was about to walk into a photo shoot. Several professional looking photographers had set up their tripods and cameras to record the perfect sunset shot. Feeling guilty about spoiling their photos I decided not to visit Tŵr Mawr lighthouse. Instead I joined them on the rocks to bag a shot of my own.
Leaving the island we raced the darkening skies back to our car. As we drove home through the woods we scared the kids with tales of mutant giant squirrels attacking the car. They’re old enough for a few scary stories. But it was funny how they both locked their passenger doors!
Our second sunset visit was unplanned. We’d set off on an after dinner walk to a different stretch of beach. All started well until I climbed a sand dune expecting to see the sea. The water was a good mile away, separated by rolling sand dunes. Realising we wouldn’t reach the beach for sunset we turned around and retreated to the car.
Undeterred we drove on to Newborough beach, arriving just as the sun dipped behind the trees. There was no time to walk far from the car park. Once again the tide was out. But this time so was the sun. It was stunning.
Over on the mainland the sky above the mountains of Snowdonia and the Lleyn Peninsula turned pink. Inspired by this view we headed there later in the week to climb Yr Eifl, the hill on the right in the picture above.
Returning my gaze to Anglesey I watched the most incredible sunset. As the sun sank below the horizon the clouds turned from yellow to orange to red. The colours reflecting in the pools left by the retreating tide.
With impeccable timing a flock of Brent geese flew up from the shoreline, silhouetted against the orange sky. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect ending to the day.
Another five minutes and the colours were gone. It was time for us to leave.
We didn’t return to Newborough beach again; there was no need. I’ll remember this sunset for the rest of my life.
Newborough Nature Reserve is on the southern tip of Anglesey. Car parking costs £4 during the day but the barrier is up and it appears to be free during the evenings.
Back in January I picked up Country Walking’s guide to Long Distance Paths. It was the perfect antidote to a wet New Year’s Day. I’ve always had vague plans to walk a long distance path but the logistics and lack of spare time put me off. However when I realised we could walk the 100 mile South Downs Way in four weekend stages I immediately started planning.
Fast forward three months and we’ve completed the first two days. How did we get on?
Winchester to Petersfield by bus
Most people start their walk in Winchester and head east, or in Eastbourne and head west. We did a bit of both due to the lack of public transport on Sunday. After parking in Winchester we caught the bus to Petersfield and then walked back to the city.
The downside? The number 67 bus takes 1 hour 20 minutes to reach Petersfield; twice the time it took us to drive to Winchester. At least we had an in-depth tour of the local villages en route!
Petersfield to Buriton (2.5 miles)
From the bus stop in Petersfield’s town square it’s a couple of miles to the South Downs Way (SDW) at Buriton.
I didn’t have a map for the walk to Buriton, relying instead on information I’d screenshot from the web. Fortunately it was a straightforward route following another long distance path, The Hangers Way. Or at least I thought it was. Turns out we didn’t end up on this at all but somehow took another route to the same destination. Don’t tell the family!
Buriton is a picture perfect English village with a 12th Century church, two pubs and a duck pond full of huge fish. It would have been lovely to sit beside the pond but time was already against us. We’ll be starting at Buriton when we walk the second stage so maybe next time.
South Downs Way: Day 1 – Buriton to Exton (12 miles)
From Buriton we picked up the trail into the wooded Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Despite lots of trail options it’s impossible to get lost as there are SDW signposts every 100m or so. Maybe they heard I was navigating?
The woods were busy with walkers, cyclists and a horse riding event. My son, who isn’t keen on horses, was some way back chatting (well, bickering) with big sister. Imagine his horror when several horses appeared, cantering along the path behind him. Big sister stepped up onto the bank out of their way. However he decided to run and catch up with us! I can still see the look of terror on his face as he sprinted towards us, closely followed by three horses. Fortunately they passed without incident but he’s even less of a fan of horses now.
By now the combination of our drive, bus journey and walk to join the South Downs Way meant it was already lunchtime. We’d bought a picnic which we supplemented with drinks from the conveniently located visitor centre cafe.
After lunch we crossed under the A3 and headed to the summit of Butser Hill, the highest point on the South Downs Way. We last visited Butser Hill several years ago when we watched egg rolling on an Easter Monday.
As we climbed the chalk hill towards the radio masts on top there were great views back of the A3. Supposedly of the Isle of Wight too, but I could only make out the sea. And traffic.
Summit ticked, we followed a quiet road and track for a couple of miles along a broad ridge with views across the Meon valley.
It wasn’t long since our earlier coffee break but I’d already planned afternoon coffee at the Beech Cafe, part of the Sustainability Centre. There’s hostel accommodation here too; albeit not the most aesthetically pleasing. This, in part, is because the site was once home to HMS Mercury, the Royal Naval Communications and Navigation School.
We walked on, through the ripening oilseed rape fields. At one point there were rain clouds in all directions except the way we were walking. Not just any rain clouds either. Torrential downpour clouds.
They looked particularly ominous as we neared Meon Springs fly fishery. It was a beautiful spot, complete with refreshment shed, but even I couldn’t justify another break.
Instead we took the uphill path towards Old Winchester Hill. I was keen to visit this Iron Age fort as it’s on my UK bucket list. So why was I underwhelmed? Perhaps it was the threatening clouds or the knowledge it was already 5pm and we still had a couple of miles to walk; we didn’t hang around. Maybe one day we’ll return and explore at leisure.
We upped our pace off the hill, trying to outwalk the rain. This was successful but meant there was no time to enjoy the trail which follows a pretty stream into Exton. Instead, relief as we reached the village knowing our first day was complete.
Overnight at Corhampton Lane Farm B&B
Corhampton Lane Farm B&B was exactly what we needed at the end of our walk.
The B&B is located in Corhampton which is slightly off route but the owner, Suzanne, picked us up from Exton.
As we walked into the house Suzanne pointed out a lemon drizzle cake for us to help ourselves to. We were eating out in less than an hour so I actually bypassed the cake. Completely out of character I know. Instead we sufficed ourselves with hot drinks.
Our family room was generously sized with its own private bathroom. Most importantly, from the kids perspective, it had Kit Kats on the tea tray and Wi-Fi!
Dinner at The Shoe Inn, Exton
I’d tried to book a table at the local pub, The Shoe Inn, earlier in the week only to be told it was fully booked. Thankfully Suzanne was one step ahead and had already reserved us a table. Phew! Even better, she kindly dropped us in and picked us up from the pub later that evening.
The food was excellent. I chose spaghetti with wild garlic, goats cheese and pesto whilst my other half opted for a pie. The kids ate from the children’s menu as the portions were huge. Our desserts included panna cotta, ice creams and crumble, albeit this was slightly let down by the incredibly sweet fruit.
South Downs Way: Day 2 – Exton to Winchester (12 miles)
After a good night’s sleep we fuelled up with breakfast. Once again Suzanne drove us back, this time to the local village shop so we could buy snacks for the walk ahead.
Shortly after leaving Exton we tackled the main climb of the day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we walked to the summit of Beacon Hill.
A little further along we found the first bluebells of spring; pretty impressive for the start of April.
We stopped for a late morning drink at The Milburys Pub. I wasn’t impressed with the service; smiles and pleasantries were in short supply but it was lovely to sit outside in the sun.
Leaving the pub behind we walked for another couple of miles before stopping next to an old barn for lunch.
Afterwards we walked over the wide open Gander Down. This was my favourite part of the second day despite it coinciding with my son having a grumpy moment (or two).
This section of the SDW was by far the busiest. I hadn’t fully appreciated the SDW is also a bridleway (with some diversions). Cyclists easily outnumbered walkers. That was until we passed a huge group of scouts and cubs on an afternoon hike.
The natural amphitheatre of Cheesefoot Head is a couple of miles from Winchester. I’d hoped to find an ice-cream van in the car park but no such luck. Cheesefoot Head is probably most famous as the location where General Eisenhower addressed the American troops before D-Day. Although I prefer its alternative claim to fame as a crop circle location.
Arriving into Winchester, via a footbridge over the M3, was an anti-climax. It’s usually the start or finish of the SDW but for us it was just the end of the second day. Although it was the perfect weather for a celebratory ice cream before our drive home.
How did the kids do?
A couple of people have asked how the kids coped with the walk. As they’re 14 and 12 years old they’re both capable of walking the distance, particularly as we already walk a fair amount anyway.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Our feet were hurting at the end of the second day and the last couple of miles were hard-going for all of us. We walked a total of 15 miles on day one (or 42,566 steps according to my son’s Fitbit). Day two felt longer although it wasn’t. I don’t think we’d have coped well with a third continuous day of walking.
In addition to sore feet there were also sore shoulders. I’d overseen the rucksack packing but a few extras were added to my daughter’s bag. And, being a teenager, she wasn’t going to listen when we suggested taking things out!
As always, snacks and brief stops worked wonders for all of us.
We used the Cicerone guide ‘Walking the South Downs Way’ as it describes the trail both west to east and east to west. It includes OS maps of the trail but have a back up plan if you need to walk off trail e.g. for public transport or accommodation.
What would your perfect Mother’s Day look like? Mine would start with breakfast in bed followed by a walk and picnic. Later on the children would complete the housework with not a moan or groan to be heard. Likelihood of this happening in our family? Zilch. But at least the walk and picnic happened!
Along the Ridgeway, Watlington
Our walk began in the small market town of Watlington, at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. It’s home to some interesting looking independent shops (OK, it has a chocolate shop) but the shops were closed on Sunday and the town deserted.
Watlington is also home to the actor Jeremy Irons. I saw him here a few years back; out riding a horse and accompanied by a couple of dogs. He greeted us cheerfully but I didn’t recognise him; fortunately my fellow walkers did!
There was no sign of Jeremy on this walk. Surprisingly, for such a lovely spring day, we saw very few people.
From Watlington we joined the Ridgeway National Trail, our local long distance path. We walked for a mile or so between fields and the edge of woodland, listening to skylarks and spotting the first butterflies of the year. A little further along we left the Ridgeway and walked through fields of lambs. Although inquisitive and playful they ran to their mums as soon as I attempted to photograph them.
Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve
I’d checked the map for possible picnic sites before leaving home. We were following a walking trail leaflet but I decided a diversion was needed for a good lunch stop. The viewpoint on top of Bald Hill, which forms part of Aston Rowant Nature Reserve, was slightly off route and, of course, uphill but proved the perfect location. Although my son wasn’t enamoured with the climb and announced he’d eat at the bottom instead.
Despite my son’s protestations we set out our picnic on the summit. Thanks to my daughter we enjoyed a special Mother’s Day picnic that was a more elaborate affair than our usual sandwiches, with quiche, dips, homemade sweet potato crisps and fruit kebabs.
Rather incredibly, the M40 splits Aston Rowant Nature Reserve in half. If you’ve ever driven from Oxford to London along the motorway you’ll have passed through it at Stokenchurch Gap, usually signalled by red kites flying high above the traffic.
Red kites were reintroduced here in 1989 and are a huge success story. They’re now widespread across Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties with more than 1000 breeding pairs recorded. Ironically we didn’t see a single kite as we ate our picnic.
Instead we sat on our peaceful hilltop and watched the mesmerising stream of motorway traffic, wondering where everyone was driving to. How happy we were not to be in a car!
After lunch we walked downhill to rejoin the trail. I’m glad we visited the reserve; great views are an important part of any walk for me and Bald Hill was well worth the climb. Dare I say the walk would have been a tad boring without it?
We crossed the road into Lewknor and walked through the village, resisting temptation to stop for a drink at the Leathern Bottle. Many of the houses in Lewknor and the small hamlet of neighbouring South Weston are constructed from brick and flint which is abundant in the Chiltern Hills. I love this style of building; a pity we live in a 1960s house.
Back on farm tracks we passed near to Model Farm. Its imposing chimney harks back to the days of steam power but the farm also has a more controversial recent history. In 1999 it was one of the UK trial sites for genetically modified crops. That’s until protestors converged on the farm and destroyed the GM oilseed rape crop!
The fields around here were also used as the filming location for the 2014 war epic Fury, starring Brad Pitt. I wonder if he fought in the same area as the GM crop protestors?
St Mary’s Church, Pyrton
There were more signs of spring in Pyrton where the churchyard is famous for its spring daffodil display.
The weekend before our visit was Daffodil Sunday when, in addition to visiting the daffodils, there’s afternoon tea on offer in the village hall; something to remember for next year.
As we walked around the churchyard my son spotted a headstone for a young sailor lost in the 1914 sinking of HMS Aboukir. Just as sad was his brother’s gravestone next to it; another casualty of World War I. A sobering reminder of the importance of European unity.
Back in Watlington we looked in vain for an open cafe. We were out of luck. Thankfully our drive home took us past a waterside cafe where we stopped for a break. Along, it seemed, with half the population of Oxfordshire!
We followed the Watlington to Lewknor and Pyrton walk with a side diversion into Aston Rowant Reserve. The main walk is flat and six miles long. The diversion up and down Bald Hill adds about one mile.
Every year I treat myself to a walking break with Country Adventures, usually in the Lakes or Peak District. But this time the destination was Llangollen, staying a mile or so from the holiday house I’d rented with the family two months earlier. I had mixed feelings about heading back somewhere so soon but I needn’t have worried. The walks, the weather and of course the people were all different.
Our base was the White Waters Country Hotel in Llangollen; a step up from the usual youth hostel accommodation. I met the rest of the group for a welcome talk the first evening; lovely to catch up with some familiar faces from previous holidays before settling down to our evening meal.
Day 1 – Llantysilio hills
The day started with a minibus journey along the Horseshoe Pass to the Ponderosa cafe. We’d driven up here on our previous visit but only stopped briefly, rather put off by the sights and sounds of a hundred or so motorbikes. This time we were walking along Llantysilio mountain, a range of hills running from the Pass, before dropping down into Rhewl and back to Llangollen.
Leaving the minibus behind we headed towards our first peak, stopping frequently to enjoy the glorious views of the mist settled over Llangollen. Although the sunny picture above doesn’t manage to convey how cold it was!
Our route ahead was plain to see; an up and over track taking in the summits of Moel y Gamelin, Moel y Gaer and Moel Morfyyd. We’d already started from a high point so the walking wasn’t too strenuous. However there were a couple of steeper downhill stretches to negotiate, complete with icy patches, which slowed some of the group.
We eventually reached the far summit of Moel Morfyd. Looking back from the trig point I tried to work out the ramparts of the Iron Age hillfort on Moel y Gaer but had no luck. Although it’s immediately obvious when you look at aerial photos afterwards.
The summits of Snowdonia were much easier to spot. It’s rare that I’ve seen them bathed in sunlight and clear of cloud. I’ve walked in Snowdonia many times and can barely remember a trip where it didn’t rain!
After a lunch break we headed downhill towards Rhewl, passing near some paragliders taking advantage of the weather. It was great to chat with the group members as we walked; both those I already knew from and others who I hadn’t met before.
Our route took us along an old drovers track. In years gone by drovers moving their livestock would stop for a drink in the Sun Inn at Rhewl. It’s a pity it was closed when we passed as it looked like the kind of place where you could easily while away an afternoon.
We paused for a while to peer down the driveway of Llantysilio Hall, a large Victorian house once owned by the locomotive designer Charles Beyer. Rather fittingly he’s buried in the graveyard at nearby Llantysilio Church, which he’d helped restore and modify.
We’d been spoilt by the glorious sunshine up on Llantysilio. It was a stark contrast as we walked through the fog that cloaked Llangollen. How different Horseshoe Falls looked from my previous visit!
Fortunately the warmth of our hotel was only a short walk from the Falls. Plenty of time to relax before one further walk; a trip to The Corn Mill in Llangollen for a tasty curry and an evening of enjoyable conversation.
Day 2 – Trevor Rocks
Our walk on the second day covered some of the places I’d visited on my previous trips so I’m focussing this report on Trevor Rocks, my favourite part.
We started out from Ty Mawr Country Park, initially walking to Pontcysyllte aqueduct and then onwards through Trevor Hall wood towards the limestone escarpment of Trevor Rocks.
I hadn’t realised how popular the area around Trevor Rocks would be. With the dead. After spotting several memorial plaques it became apparent that a lot of people have enjoyed the views during their lifetime.
It’s easy to see why as they stretch for miles in all directions. If you live in Llangollen I guess this is your local beauty spot. We stopped for lunch and to enjoy the views too but when it became obvious that a family group were meeting to scatter ashes nearby it was time to move on.
We worked off our lunch with a short uphill climb. It was worth the effort when we reached the top, being treated once more to views of Dinas Castle, on the hill opposite.
This ruined medieval castle stands on top of an Iron Age hill fort. Climbing to the castle from Trevor Rocks gave me a completely different perspective from my previous visit when I’d walked from the town centre. It certainly seemed much steeper!
After mooching around the ruins and experiencing the buffeting winds we returned to Llangollen where the group split and we headed our own ways for coffee, photographs and a spot of shopping.
Day 3 – Llangollen walk
Some of the group were leaving early on day three so it was a depleted number who set out for a morning stroll from Llangollen.
It was only a short walk, from the town up into the hills and back down to Berwyn but a perfect leg stretch before a long drive. The sun didn’t make much of an appearance but this didn’t seem to bother the kayakers on the River Dee. Rather them than me, the water must have been freezing!
The highlight? Finding the cafe open at Berwyn Station and enjoying bara brith before an impromptu trip on the steam train back into Llangollen.
A little later we headed our separate ways, another excellent break over. Roll on next year!
If you’re looking for a guided walking break in the UK I highly recommend Country Adventures. Joe, the owner, runs day and weekend trips primarily in and around the Lakes, Yorkshire, Peak District and Welsh hills. Pop over to their website for further details.