2016 starling murmuration, RSPB Otmoor, Oxfordshire

I hadn’t planned to write about our latest visit to RSPB Otmoor. I’ve already written about our previous trips to watch the starling murmuration here and here. Added to this I have loads of half-drafted blog posts which I really need to finish! Yet an estimated 50,000 starlings and an almost supermoon changed my mind.

This way to the starlings, RSPB Otmoor
This way to the starlings, RSPB Otmoor

Starling murmuration

Our previous trips to watch the Otmoor starling murmuration were memorable for the wrong reasons. We turned up way too early the first time, and although we had a great view of the murmuration we were almost frozen to the spot. The second time we decided to visit later so that we didn’t have to hang around. But we were too late. Never mind, at least we saw a good sunset.

Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor
Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor

Our timing, and the weather, were spot on this year. It wasn’t all perfect though; so many people come to watch the murmuration that the small car park gets very busy. We were fortunate to get a space but do car share if you plan to visit, otherwise you may have a long walk down from the village.

Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor
Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor

Back to the all important timing. We left the car park at 3.30pm, and took about 20 minutes to walk to the starling viewpoint. We passed several serious looking bird watchers heading the opposite way so I worried we were too late. I needn’t have been. An RSPB warden at the hide informed us the starlings would arrive in 10 minutes.

Moon from RSPB Otmoor
Moon from RSPB Otmoor

The warden must have had a direct line to the starlings as they flew in almost to the predicted minute (which strangely was later than the previous time, when we missed them). Flocks started arriving from all directions. Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be any starlings left elsewhere in Oxfordshire another flock would swoop and swirl in. And then another. And another. All settling down into the reedbeds for the night. Not that I think they’ll have got much sleep given the noise they were making.

Moon from RSPB Otmoor
Moon from RSPB Otmoor

Supermoon

Almost as spectacular as the starlings was the rising moon. We visited the day before the supposed ‘supermoon’ (which was a non-event in Oxfordshire due to cloud). There were no clouds to spoil our view that night at Otmoor. Simply a huge illuminated ball rising above the flat plain. Absolutely breathtaking. The perfect accompaniment for our walk back to the car park.

More info

  • The RSPB website has travel directions and further information on visiting Otmoor. Please park responsibly!

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My British bucket list: 100 things to do in the UK

There are so many places I’d love to visit around the world but I don’t have the time or money to travel extensively. Fortunately there’s lots to see and do in the UK so I’ve created a bucket list which will keep me busy for the next few years.

My bucket list favours outdoor attractions, walks and great scenery as that’s what I enjoy. It may look like I’ve ignored vast swathes of the country and prime tourist attractions but that’s because I’ve already visited many of them!

What’s on my bucket list?

  1. Wild camp on Dartmoor.
  2. Walk a long distance path. We’re walking the South Downs Way across four weekends.
  3. Cycle the towpath from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon.
  4. Spend a night on Lundy Island, Devon.
  5. Enjoy a weekend break in Lincoln.
  6. Join a tour of Highgate Cemetery, London.
  7. See the Purton Ships graveyard, Gloucestershire.
  8. Brave the Via Ferrata at Honister Slate Mine, Cumbria.
  9. Camp on Bryher, one of the Isles of Scilly.
  10. Climb Up at the O2, London
  11. Watch a Highland Games in Scotland.
  12. Spend a week exploring the Isle of Anglesey. Here’s our list of 10 things we enjoyed on Anglesey, including the best sunset in Wales at Newborough Beach.
  13. Attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
  14. Take an underground train ride at the Postal Museum, London.
  15. Stay in a castle.
  16. Enjoy the Gower Peninsula beaches.
  17. Explore the Isle of Harris.
  18. Go wildlife spotting on the Farne Islands, Northumberland.
  19. Explore Neolithic Orkney.
  20. Visit a lavender field.
  21. See Britain’s only desert at Dungeness beach, Kent.
  22. Walk part of Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland.
  23. Enjoy the waterfall at St Nectan’s Glen, Cornwall.
  24. Stay in an Airstream caravan.
  25. Explore the deserted village of Tyneham, Dorset.
  26. Visit a tin mine in Cornwall.
  27. Spot dinosaurs at Crystal Palace, London.
  28. Eat afternoon tea somewhere posh.
  29. Discover the Rame Peninsula, Cornwall
  30. Watch the British Firework Championships in Plymouth, Devon
  31. Ride Velocity, the longest zip line in Europe at Bethesda, Gwynedd.
  32. Tour Ramsgate’s war tunnels, Kent.
  33. Watch the seabirds on Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire.
  34. Go pony trekking on Exmoor.
  35. Spot Banksy’s art in Bristol.
  36. Have fun in Margate, Kent
  37. Stay overnight on the Knoydart Peninsula.
  38. Attend the Cotswold Olimpick Games, Gloucestershire.
  39. Enjoy the seaside at Barry Island, Vale of Glamorgan.
  40. Search for dolphins in Cardigan Bay.
  41. Walk in the Mourne Mountains, County Down.
  42. Explore the remote Ardnamurchan Peninsula, Lochaber.
  43. Take a boat trip to Smoo Cave, Sutherland.
  44. Cycle from Bournemouth out to Hengitsbury Head, Dorset.
  45. Visit Dennis Severs’ House, London.
  46. View the Kelpies in Falkirk.
  47. Explore Kinver Edge and the cave houses, Staffordshire.
  48. Admire the Devil’s Bridge, Ceredigon.
  49. Walk along Brean Down, Somerset.
  50. Discover Hawkstone Park follies, Shropshire.
  51. Visit a deserted underground station.
  52. See the treasures at London Silver Vaults.
  53. Go fossil hunting in Charmouth, Dorset.
  54. Explore the ruins of Denbigh Castle, Denbighshire.
  55. Have an adventure in How Stean Gorge, Yorkshire.
  56. Discover the coastal scenery of Duncansby Head, Caithness.
  57. See the apes at Trentham Monkey Forest, Stoke-on-Trent.
  58. Enjoy the rock formations at Brimham Rocks, North Yorkshire.
  59. Tour Brighton’s sewers.
  60. Go puffin spotting on Rathlin Island, County Antrim.
  61. Take a boat trip in the Lake District.
  62. Relax on Man O’War beach, Dorset.
  63. Climb Low Fell, Cumbria.
  64. See the Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis.
  65. Drive the ‘Pass of the Cattle’ to Applecross, Wester Ross.
  66. Take the train from Exeter to Teignmouth, Devon.
  67. Learn about the historic Coffin Works, Birmingham.
  68. Go on a wildlife safari.
  69. Walk up Pendle Hill, Lancashire.
  70. Ride the Kyle Line from Lochalsh to Inverness.
  71. Walk along the shingle on Chesil Bank, Dorset.
  72. Enjoy the views from the summit of Box Hill, Surrey.
  73. See how the Roman’s lived at Fishbourne Roman Palace, West Sussex.
  74. Watch the seabirds at Bass Rock, North Berwick.
  75. Walk the woodland trail to Puck’s Glen, Argyll.
  76. Stroll around the fishing village of Crail Harbour, Fife.
  77. Explore Great Orme Copper Mine, Conwy.
  78. Enjoy Dewstow Garden and Grottoes, Monmouthshire.
  79. Climb Old Winchester Hill, Hampshire. Completed as part of our South Downs Way walk.
  80. Learn about the past at Killhope Lead Mining museum, County Durham.
  81. Explore maritime history at the Historic Dockyard, Chatham, Kent.
  82. Cycle the Plym Valley Trail, Devon.
  83. Wander around Eyemouth harbour, Berwickshire.
  84. Discover ancient Wistman’s Wood, Two Bridges, Dartmoor.
  85. Enjoy the plants of Benmore Botanic Garden, Argyll.
  86. Go caving.
  87. Go underground into a Cold War bunker.
  88. Buy some blooms at Columbia Road Flower Market, London.
  89. Experience life in The Workhouse in Southwell, Nottinghamshire.
  90. Explore the coastline at Robins Hood Bay beach, North Yorkshire.
  91. Cycle the Red Squirrel Cycle Trail, Isle of Wight.
  92. Descend into the mine at the National Coal Mining museum, West Yorkshire.
  93. Hunt for wildlife at RSPB Leighton Moss, Lancashire.
  94. Explore the valley around Hardcastle Crags, West Yorkshire.
  95. Learn about our industrial heritage at Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire.
  96. Follow the Black and White village trail, Herefordshire.
  97. See the Severn Bore.
  98. Discover our history at Battle Abbey and Battlefield, East Sussex.
  99. Zoom down the ArcelorMittal Orbit Slide, London.
  100. Enjoy the views from Ratagan Youth Hostel, Ross-shire.

Completing my bucket list

As I complete items on the bucket list I’ll be adding links from this page to my blog write up so do pop back from time to time to see how I’m getting on.

Do you have a bucket list? If so, what’s on it?

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Backpacking the Thames Path trail, Oxfordshire

After our last backpack along the Lambourn Valley Way I was keen to attempt another overnight trip with the family. This time I was under strict instructions to make the walk shorter. Fortunately I had such a trip up my sleeve. A walk from Oxford along the Thames Path to a small campsite near Eynsham, returning by a different route the next day; a total of around 10 miles.

Port Meadow and River Thames, Oxford
Port Meadow and River Thames, Oxford

Day 1: Oxford to Eynsham along the Thames Path National Trail

The Thames Path National Trail runs for 184 miles from the Cotswolds until it meets the Thames Barrier in Greenwich. We joined it a few minutes walk from Oxford railway station; the traffic noise and fumes of Botley Road magically disappearing just a few feet along the path.

The first stretch from Oxford to Wolvercote was packed with families and groups enjoying the weather. Helped of course by two pubs conveniently located just off the trail. We watched as the cattle and ponies of Port Meadow paddled in the shallows, trying to escape the afternoon heat.

Mutiny on the Thames Path - too hot to walk!
Mutiny on the Thames Path – too hot to walk!

Once past Wolvercote the path was much quieter with only the occassional walker or cyclist. The local wildlife appreciated the peace; a heron and little egret perched photogenically on a dead tree trunk. Although of course they flew off just as I attempted a photograph.

At one point we came across an elderly couple swimming au naturel in the river. We were walking beside a stretch of overgrown bank so I’m assuming they couldn’t see us. Let’s just say their shouted conversations to each other made us all smile!

Whilst the walk was much shorter than our last trip I couldn’t do anything about the weather. Hot and sunny. Bliss. Unless you’re walking with a backpack in which case it means sweaty backs and complaints from the kids about how warm it is.

Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham
Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham

Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham

We reached Swinford Lock campsite late afternoon. The Environment Agency runs a number of basic campsites on lock islands along the Thames. A toilet, a water tap and a fire pit were the only facilities but for one night what else do you need?

After pitching the tent we walked into the nearby village of Eynsham. Despite living only a few miles away I’d never visited before. It’s definitely the kind of place I can imagine living; a large thriving village with lots of community spirit and good transport links.

Something we rustled up on the camp fire (or maybe The Bayleaf Restaurant, Eynsham)
Something we rustled up on the camp fire (or maybe The Bayleaf Restaurant, Eynsham)

Eynsham is also home to several eateries and inns. We don’t carry cooking equipment on our overnight backpacks as we like to treat ourselves and eat out. Hence we dined at The Bayleaf, a restaurant serving Bangladeshi and Indian food, before a slow walk back to our campsite collecting firewood on the way.

At the campsite we were still the only tent on the island. When I’d phoned earlier in the week the lock-keeper had advised there were seven others booked in. But nobody else arrived and we ended up with our own private camping island. How lucky we were!

Swinford Lock camp fire, Eynsham
Swinford Lock camp fire, Eynsham

Every campsite needs a campfire so we set about building one. It took a while to light but eventually some toilet paper and old receipts did the trick. Fortunately I’d managed to buy marshmallows in the local shop for the kids to toast; it’s lovely there are some family traditions they haven’t grown out of yet.

We went to bed shortly after sunset. Further along the riverside a wedding party was in full swing and we were woken by the music several times in the night.

Sunset from Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham
Sunset from Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham

Day 2: Eynsham to Oxford

The morning dawned cloudy, ideal weather for walking. After a trip into Eynsham for breakfast provisions (fresh pain-au-chocolat and croissants) we packed our tents and continued our walk along the Thames Path. We passed the remnants of the wedding party camp, I’d imagine there were quite a few sore heads that morning.

Just before the next lock we turned away from the river. I thought I’d planned a scenic walk around Farmoor Reservoir but the path I’d chosen took us outside the boundary instead. Next to the sewage works. Whoops.

Hot chocolate at Farmoor reservoir
Hot chocolate at Farmoor reservoir

We eventually reached the main entrance to the Reservoir and made our way through the car park. I was delighted to see people drinking coffee outside the sailing club. How I’d missed my morning cuppa! For the grand sum of £2.30 we spent the next half-hour drinking two mugs of coffee and two of hot chocolate whilst watching sailing races on the reservoir.

Japanese knotweed footpath invasion!
Japanese knotweed footpath invasion!

After leaving Farmoor the next couple of miles took us through crop fields. We thought we’d lost the footpath at one stage but discovered it hidden under an invasion of Japanese Knotweed. Incredible just how overgrown the path was!

The last mile was through the outskirts of Oxford. Some lovely houses to look at but not exactly backpacking territory. It was tempting to stop at one of the bus stops and cover the final mile on wheels. But we resisted, and I’m glad we did. It was good to complete the trip under our own steam.

So that’s our second backpacking trip ticked off. I wonder if we’ll be able to squeeze another one in before the end of summer? And if so, where will we go?

More info

  • A list of Environment Agency and other commercial campsites close to the River Thames can be found here. The Environment Agency campsites are open to walkers, cyclists and river users only; there are no parking facilities close by. Our pitch (2 backpacking tents, 2 adults and 2 children) cost £14 for the night.
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25 things to do with your family in Oxford

Oxford, my local city, attracts around 9 million tourists every year. Whilst many are language students or couples there’s a fair smattering of families amongst them. The usual Oxford tourist itinerary focuses on the historic University buildings but my children would be first in line to declare how BORING these are.

Christ Church College, Oxford
Christ Church College, Oxford

With this in mind I’ve chosen 25 (hopefully less boring) suggestions for things to do with your family in Oxford. Whilst this list contains some obvious tourist attractions it also includes those which are likely to be more interesting to families. Read on for my locals’ guide to places to visit in Oxford with kids.

1. Pitt Rivers Museum

My favourite museum in Oxford, the Pitt Rivers, shares a building with the Natural History museum and is full of ethnographic objects from around the world. There are so many items squeezed into the darkened display cases that it’s worth focussing on just a few areas. Most kids will want to see the shrunken heads but there’s so much more, ranging from masks to carvings and a witch in a bottle! Free entry.

2. The Covered Market

The Covered Market is a great place to wander and check out some food stalls. Head along to The Cake Shop to watch the staff decorating cakes through the windows and then join the queue at Ben’s Cookies. I can recommend whatever has just come out of the oven.

The Covered Market, Oxford
The Covered Market, Oxford

Visit at Christmas to see deer and pheasant hanging outside the butchers and to pick up some Oxford Blue from the cheese shop

3. Eat out along the Cowley Road

You’ll find the main chain restaurants along Park End Street and dotted around the city centre but there’s more interesting dining along the Cowley Road. Atomic Burger, Pizzeria Trattoria Mario and the Tick Tock Cafe are good family options but there are loads to choose from covering all tastes.

4. The Story Museum

This is a relatively new addition to Oxford and offers a variety of exhibitions plus book related events for all ages. The Story Museum is work in progress and is gradually developing into a centre which will celebrate all forms of storytelling.

The Story Museum, Oxford
The Story Museum, Oxford

The museum also has a cafe and children’s cookery classes run by chef Sophie Grigson and her team. Admission charge applies.

5. Headington shark

Once hugely controversial but nowadays just part of the landscape it’s worth a quick trip out to Headington to see a huge shark sticking out the roof of 2 New High Street. The house is sometimes up for rent so if you don’t mind a steady stream of tourists and can afford £2000+ per month you can live beneath the shark sculpture!

6. Oxford Castle Unlocked

The area around Oxford Castle has been revamped in recent years with part of the old prison converted into a luxury Malmaison hotel. At Oxford Castle Unlocked you can take a guided tour and discover the story of the prison and castle area. Visitors can experience a Norman crypt, see prison cells, climb 101 steps to the top of a Saxon tower for views across the city (5+ only) and scale the mound of the 11th century motte and bailey castle. Admission charge applies.

7. Walk along the Thames to Iffley Lock

A popular Sunday stroll for both visitors and locals.  From the Head of the River pub it’s a 30 minute riverside walk to Iffley village. At busy times you’ll be forever moving out of the way of cyclists and runners but if you manage to combine your walk with the opening of the Isis Farmhouse pub you’ll be rewarded with a huge slice of cake. It’s generally open Friday to Sunday but check opening hours before you visit as they’re variable.

Watching the rowers on the River Thames, Oxford
Watching the rowers on the River Thames, Oxford

8. Ashmolean museum

The Ashmolean is the world’s first university museum. They have some great events for children but the museum is probably best visited in short bursts.

Ashmoleum museum, Oxford
Ashmoleum museum, Oxford

Some of the collections will have limited appeal to children but the Ancient Egyptian galleries are always popular with kids. There’s also a top 10 trail and dog detective spotter sheet to keep the children entertained. Free entry.

9. Spot the Antony Gormley statue

I have a soft spot for Antony Gormley sculptures. A 7ft iron man (similar to those we saw on Crosby Beach) sits atop Exeter College watching over Broad Street. Can you find him?

Antony Gormley sculpture, Oxford
Antony Gormley sculpture, Oxford

10. Bill Spectre’s Oxford ghost tour

Rated as one of the top 10 ghost tours in the world our children loved Bill Spectre’s Oxford ghost tour. Theatrically dressed, he regaled us with spooky tales, burning books and magic on our walk around the city. It’s suitable for all ages; highly recommended!

11. Explore the city with a Treasure Trail

We’ve found Treasure Trails are a great way for locals and visitors to discover new areas, even if you think you know the place well. There are several trails available in Oxford; read our reviews of the Spy Trail around University Parks and the Oxford Canal and Jericho treasure trail.

Oxford canal
Exploring Oxford canal on a treasure trail

12. Blackwell’s bookshop

The front of Blackwell’s bookshop gives no clue to the huge numbers of books the shop stocks. I always make a beeline for the travel section, leaving the kids to browse in the varied children’s department. It’s not exactly a tourist destination but you can easily while away a couple of hours browsing the bookshelves.

13. Botanic Garden

Oxford’s traffic can sometimes detract from its beauty so it’s great to be able to step away from the manic High Street into the peaceful calm of the Botanic Garden.

In the glasshouse at Oxford Botanic Garden
In the glasshouse at Oxford Botanic Garden

The oldest botanic garden in Great Britain is relatively small but perfectly formed. I particularly enjoy warming up in the heated glasshouses on a cold winter day. Featuring plants from tropical jungles, desserts and alpine environments, you can read more about one of our visits here.

It’s also famous as a literary hangout. J.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll were frequent visitors, whilst Phillip Pullman features the bench at the back of the garden in His Dark Materials books. Admission charge applies.

14. Look out over the dreaming spires

View from the Sheldonian cupola
View from the Sheldonian cupola

I have two favourite views. Firstly from the tower of St Mary the Virgin church on High Street which provides a fantastic panorama over the Radcliffe Camera. Secondly from the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre, the magnificent Christopher Wren designed building which is open when not in use by the University. Admission charges apply to both but it’s money well spent.

15. MINI plant tour

The MINI plant is located just outside of the city and is Oxfordshire’s largest private sector employer. My children aren’t old enough to visit yet but if yours are 14+ they can tour the MINI plant. The tours last 2.5 hours and visit the assembly area where you can watch MINIs being made. Admission charge applies.

16. Oxford University Museum of Natural History

In my view the best museum in Oxford for young children. The family friendly Museum of Natural History contains dinosaur skeletons, rocks and minerals, a bee hive, fossils and so much more. There are plenty of hands on exhibits and lots of family activities and events at the weekends and during school holidays. Free entry.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Oxford University Museum of Natural History

17. Go for a walk in Port Meadow

The largest area of common land in Oxford. Running alongside the River Thames it is easy to access from the city centre and is a popular area for walking. See if you can spot the ponies and cattle that freely graze the meadow.

View over to Port Meadow, Oxford
View over to Port Meadow, Oxford

It’s best visited on a summer day. If you visit in winter you may well find it flooded!

18. Go punting

An Oxford tradition. I know it’s touristy and expensive but it is fun too. Choose a warm summer day, glide along in your flat bottomed boat and enjoy the sights and sounds of the river. If you have small children you might want to hire a chauffeur to do the hard work (about £25 for 30 minutes) whilst you keep an eye on your brood.

Alternatively just watch the tourists from Magdalen Bridge as they tentatively leave the safety of the boathouse. Always fun watching to see if anyone falls in!

19. Cutteslowe Park

As you would expect there are lots of parks in Oxford. The one with the most varied family attractions is Cutteslowe, located in north of the city. As well as the usual play equipment and sports facilities there’s a miniature railway, paddling pool, mini golf, orienteering course and kiosk. Some of these are summer only attractions so check before you travel.

20. Check out a college

Whilst you won’t want to drag your kids around every college it would be a shame to miss out on visiting at least one. Even if it’s just so you can tell them that if they study hard this may be where they can end up!

Tom Tower, Christ Church
Tom Tower, Christ Church

There are 38 colleges to choose from. Christchurch is one of the most popular and has links to Harry Potter but it’s expensive too (up to £22 for a family). Magdalen College is probably my favourite, primarily for its deer park and gardens. New College and Merton College are good options too but always check opening hours  before you visit. Admission charges apply.

21. Museum of Modern Art

This attraction can be a little bit or miss, depending on the exhibition but it’s free so certainly worth popping in to see what’s on. We’ve been to a couple of good ones and some strange ones. The most notable one was an exhibit made entirely from oranges. Visitors were encouraged to take away an orange to eat.

22. Celeb spotting at the Randolph Hotel

Admittedly this is more for the adults than the children. The city centre Randolph Hotel (which strictly speaking, is now the Macdonald Randolph Hotel but no local ever calls it this) has hosted many famous visitors over the years. I once saw Bill Clinton, returning from a jog around the streets of Oxford surrounded by his entourage. If you’re a fan of Inspector Morse or Lewis the hotel will look familiar as it has starred in several of the programmes. (You might also like to pop down to the police station in St Aldates where a sign in one of the windows proclaims it is Inspector Morse’s office).

23. Run around the Radcliffe Camera

This is my favourite building in Oxford. Sadly I’ve never been inside as it’s the main reading room for the Bodleian Library and is accessible to registered students only. It’s particularly beautiful at sunset when the stone turns a lovely orange colour; best views are from the church mentioned above. Alternatively tire the kids out by getting them to run around the perimeter (but watch out for bicycles and tourists).

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford
Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

24. Visit a board games cafe

Playing board games at Thirsty Meeples cafe, near Gloucester Green bus station, is a great way to while away a wet afternoon. Pay a cover charge and play as many games as you wish for 3 hours. There are hundreds available for all ages; the staff will recommend games and explain rules if necessary. Book a table in advance if visiting at the weekend.

25. CS Lewis Nature Reserve

This small reserve consists of a wooded area and large pond and is located in Risinghurst, a couple of miles from the city centre. The land was once owned by CS Lewis and provided the inspiration for the Chronicles of Narnia.

CS Lewis Nature Reserve, Oxford
CS Lewis Nature Reserve, Oxford

The pond is a flooded Victorian clay pit, alive with dragonflies, toads and birds. Towards the back, up a steep woodland bank, is a tree swing which is a popular attraction for children. The former home of CS Lewis backs onto the reserve and is sometimes open for booked tours but I’m pretty sure the kids will enjoy the reserve more!

I hope you’ve found this list useful. Please do leave a comment if I’ve missed out your favourite place to visit with children in Oxford.

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