2016: a year in review – my top 10

It’s almost time to say goodbye to 2016. What can I say? It’s been a mixed year. Huge political shake ups, continuing civil wars, the Rio Olympics and Paralympics and Planet Earth II.

Personally, there have been sad times and happy times. I’ve had some great adventures and ticked off a couple of long held ambitions. Focussing on the positives, and in no particular order, here are my top 10 of 2016:

1. Running the London marathon

The first three months of 2016 were spent pounding roads and muddy footpaths in preparation for running the London marathon. My once in a lifetime challenge.

Finished!
Finished!

The day itself was incredible and by far the most physically demanding thing I’ve done. There were tough parts (the last six miles), amazing parts (spectator support and running over Tower Bridge) and emotional parts (finishing). Would I do it again? No way! But I’m very glad to have completed it.

2. Walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks

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

We spent a week in the Yorkshire Dales and were blessed with ideal walking weather. Perfect for tackling the Yorkshire Three Peaks – Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside. Often walked as a day long charity challenge, we chose the easy option and spread them over three separate days.

3. Family backpacking adventures

Rest break near the gallops, Lambourn
Rest break near the gallops, Lambourn

I’ve cheated here and combined two trips into one. At the start of the year we decided the kids were old enough for backpacking. We bought a couple of lightweight tents and chose a couple of weekend routes close to home.

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

It wasn’t all plain sailing. I oversetimated the mileage we could comfortably walk on our Lambourn Valley Way weekend. And the weather was just a tad too warm on our Thames Path walk. But both weekends were fun, we rewarded ourselves with lovely meals out and made some great memories.

4. Going underground at Zip World Caverns, Blaenau Ffestiniog

My scary but exciting birthday present. Zip lining in caves, crawling through tunnels and scaling the side of the caverns. Are you brave enough to tackle Zip World Caverns?

Zip World Caverns training
Zip World Caverns training

5. Watching a Midsummer’s Night Dream, Creation Theatre, Oxford

“Quick, follow me. Walk in zigzags and blink your eyes really fast. Get in the van, hurry”. Think of Shakespeare and you don’t generally think of being bundled into a van in a public car park. Or taking part in an audition. Or popping into the printers to pick up wedding invites.

Part immersive performance, part treasure trail around Oxford this was an incredibly imaginative version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Creation Theatre. It was simply the best production I have ever seen.

6. Descending into Gaping Gill

Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent
Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent

This was an unplanned, but welcome addition, to our Yorkshire Dales holiday. After spotting an advert in a local cafe we siezed the opportunity to descend 100m by winch into Gaping Gill, a large pothole. We had to contend with an early start and a couple of hours queuing but it was worth the wait!

7. Finally finding a bee orchid. And then another. And another.

Bee orchid, Warburg nature reserve
Bee orchid, Warburg nature reserve

You know the saying about waiting for buses? Well this year I could have substituted the words ‘bee orchid’. I was so happy to find my first bee orchid at Warburg Nature Reserve, closely followed by several more discoveries. I even found one on a roadside verge whilst out on my lunchtime walk. How could I possibly have missed them in previous years?

8. Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim

Giant's Causeway
Giant’s Causeway

I’ve wanted to visit Giant’s Causeway for many years. It has been on my bucket list forever. With expectations so high, thank god it lived up to them!

9. Watching coypu at our campsite in France

Coypu at Milin de Kerhe campsite, Brittany
Coypu at Milin de Kerhe campsite, Brittany

Whilst on holiday in Brittany my favourite activity was watching a family of coypu living near our campsite. I’d head down to the river every evening, about half an hour before dusk, and wait patiently for them to appear. I was childishly excited at the first glimpse of the coypu each night, and even more so whenever the young appeared.

10. Starlings and moon rise at Otmoor

Moon from RSPB Otmoor
Moon from RSPB Otmoor

Over recent years we’ve made an annual pilgrimage to watch the starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor. This year, in addition to 40,000 starlings, we were treated to the most amazing moon rise. Two spectacular natural sights in one day!

What are my plans for 2017? We’re keeping things flexible at the moment but I have a very long UK bucket list which I’m hoping to make a dent in. How about you?

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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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