My top 10 highlights of 2017

As is my blog tradition I like to review the year in passing.

Of course, nothing is ever perfect and this year has had its share of sad times, frustrations and grumpy children. But there were plenty of great times too and I ticked off a few things on my UK bucket list. Without further ado here are my top 10 of 2017 (in no particular order):

1. Watching the sunset at Newborough beach, Anglesey

Brent geese flying from Newborough beach
Brent geese flying from Newborough beach

This was the most perfect sunset of the year, possibly because it was so unexpected. The weather in Anglesey was, let’s say, mixed.

Newborough beach is a long sandy beach backed by dunes and forest. From the car park it’s a half hour walk out to the tidal island of Llanddwyn Island for more spectacular views. Just keep an eye on the tide otherwise you might be spending the night there.

Newborough beach sunset, Anglesey
Newborough beach sunset, Anglesey

2. Bryan Adams at Cornbury Festival

I was never much of a Bryan Adams fan and I hated the over-played ‘Everything I do I do it for you’ song back in the 1990s. But guess what? Bryan Adams was completely and unexpectedly amazing. He’s one of those performers that commands the stage and it was a revelation how many songs I knew and could sing along with. I’m sure he appreciated my contribution.

3. Walking the South Downs Way

View from Rackham Banks
View from Rackham Banks

Back at the start of January I decided the family needed a challenge. A 100 mile walking challenge to be precise. Split over four weekends we’ve now walked the South Downs Way from Winchester to Eastbourne. Logistics and weather weren’t always on our side but the views, evening meals and sense of achievement more than made up for the sore feet and wet clothing. Not sure I can persuade them to walk the Pennine Way though.

View from Birling Gap
View from Birling Gap

4. Wereldband at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

We spent three days at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, watching an eclectic mix of musicals, comedy and theatre. All of us had our individual favourites but the one act we all agreed on was Wereldband. This Dutch group is best described as a collection of slapstick musicians but this understates their talent, imagination and energy. Sometimes there was so much going on it was hard to decide who or what to watch. If you ever get the chance, go see them!

5. Worbarrow Bay walk

Pondfield Cove, Dorset
Pondfield Cove, Dorset

Whilst in Dorset we walked from the MoD village of Tyneham to the coast at Worbarrow Bay. The path passes through land used for military practise so there’s plenty of warning notices and unusual sights to keep an eye out for.

Worbarrow Tout, Dorset
Worbarrow Tout, Dorset

The bay itself, and particularly Worbarrow Tout, is picture perfect. Although the water is freezing in May. You have been warned.

6. The Ardnamurchan Peninsula

Portuairk, Ardnamurchan
Portuairk, Ardnamurchan

We spent four days exploring the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, and it’s now one of my favourite areas in Scotland (except the Isle of Eigg, nowhere beats that). Ardnamurchan is remote, empty of tourists and stunningly beautiful. But you’d probably hate it so please don’t go!

Ardnamurchan Point
Ardnamurchan Point

7. Highland Games, Skye

Dancers at Skye Highland Games
Dancers at Skye Highland Games

There were more tourists than locals at the Skye Highland Games but the traditional mix of sports, piping and dance lived up to my expectations.

I’m still in awe of those competing in the heavy events, I really must practise my tree trunk lifting.

8. Running the Oxford half marathon

I need a challenge to keep me running regularly. There’s no way I’d ever run a marathon again but I quite enjoy running half the distance. The conditions and route for Oxford half marathon were perfect and I was pleased to run a PB. I might even do it again next year.

9. An inaugural music festival

I’ll keep quiet on the location of this as it was a private festival held over midsummer. Camping out in a friend’s field, watching a hilarious tribute act (performing 30 different musicians in an hour) and then rocking to a 90s tribute band. The kids roamed free, returning occasionally with tales of misbehaving grown ups. An excellent night and already in the diary again for 2018.

10. Twixmas walking break in the Lake District

Heading to the summit of Sergeant Man, Lake District
Heading to the summit of Sergeant Man, Lake District

I’ve previously managed to miss my yearly Twixmas walking breaks off my top 10 posts, usually because I’m more organised and have written the blog before the end of the year. But this year I’m less organised so it takes its rightful place.

Descent off of Lingmoor Fell
The traditional way off Lingmoor Fell

This year’s trip, as always with Country Adventures, was based in Ambleside in the Lake District. Our first day was spent enjoying a sunny, albeit icy, walk in the fells above Grasmere. The weather was more interesting on the second day (snow, then rain) but there was still fun to be had in the form of tobogganing and snowball throwing. A great sociable break as always.

The quick way off Lingmoor Fell
The quick way off Lingmoor Fell

How about you? What were your highlights? And what does 2018 hold in store?

Share this:

An athletic afternoon at the Skye Highland Games, Portree

I’ve wanted to visit a Highland games for years. It was on my ‘must do’ list before I’d even written my UK bucket list. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I planned our trip to Skye to coincide with their Highland games.

Field events at Skye Highland Games
Field events at Skye Highland Games

What are Highland games?

Highland games take place throughout Scotland between May and October. Although each event is slightly different they usually encompass piping, dancing, field and track events. It’s thought the games originated as a way for clan chieftains to choose their best bodyguards and fighters. Seems logical, I wouldn’t mess with someone who could toss a tree trunk at me!

The Skye Highland Games are held at The Lump. This aptly named area is a wooded promontory with a natural amphitheatre overlooking Portree harbour. It’s a great location and, although busy, it was easy enough to find a space to watch. Those more organised than us bought along picnic blankets and camping chairs. Why didn’t I think of that?

Piping

Most of the piping competitions took place the day before the main games. A fortunate coincidence from my perspective as I’m not a huge fan of bagpipes. Despite this we somehow managed to position ourselves next to the remaining piping competition. Perhaps that’s why there was a space!

Band at the Skye Highland Games
Band at the Skye Highland Games

That said, I enjoyed the interludes when the Isle of Skye Pipe Band marched through the games field. I couldn’t fail to be moved by the spectacle of the band members dressed in traditional clothing, combined with the sound of massed pipes and drums, parading through the grounds.

Dance

The dance competitions took place on the opposite side of the arena. Children of all ages, and a few grown ups, danced the hornpipe, Irish jig and reel.

Dancers - and tug of war - at Skye Highland Games
Dancers – and tug of war – at Skye Highland Games

I have two left feet so feel unqualified to report on the dance competitions. Suffice to say there was lots of jumping up and down on the spot, pointed toes and outstretched arms. I can only apologise to the Highland dancers for this simplistic description of their celebrated dance.

Track events

The track events were a mix of running laps around the arena and a longer hill race.

Whilst some of the runners looked like they’d trained hard for the races there were a smattering of tourists too. I almost wished I’d brought my trainers. Instead I contented myself with working out who I’d have beaten. And who would have beaten me.

Men’s track event, Skye Highland Games
Men’s track event, Skye Highland Games

The main running event was the hill race. After leaving The Lump competitors ran down to the beach and up the hill opposite. Runners collected a token to prove they’d reached the marker flag before racing back to the arena. It’s just under three miles in total, assuming you take the direct route. The hill climb wouldn’t have bothered me; I’d be more worried about getting lost en route!

Field events

The quintessential Highland games events are the heavy ones. Hammers, tree trunks and stones are flung varying distances and heights. It’s rather ironic this display of manliness takes place in a kilt.

Indeed, Highland Garb is compulsory for these events. An understandable, albeit somewhat bizarre, requirement given that most of the open event competitors weren’t from Scotland!

Putting the stone, Skye Highland Games
Putting the stone, Skye Highland Games

There were some seriously impressive competitors in the field events. I couldn’t lift 56lb, let alone throw it several feet in the air. There must be some very sore backs after these events.

Tug of war at the Skye Highland Games
Tug of war at the Skye Highland Games

The penultimate field event was tossing the caber. Surprisingly it’s not the distance the trunk is thrown that counts. Instead, contestants have to toss a tree trunk so that it turns end over end.

Tossing the caber (or considering it) at the Skye Highland Games
Tossing the caber (or considering it) at the Skye Highland Games

One moment will remain engraved on my mind forever. The hill race runners returned for a final lap at exactly the same time as one of the caber competitors managed to lift and toss. As the tosser (yes, seriously) staggered towards the runners with his caber I had visions of it going seriously wrong. I could hardly bear to watch. Fortunately all ended well and no runners were impaled with a caber!

I’m glad to report that my first Highland games lived up to my high expectations. Have you been to the Highland games? If so, what did you think?

More info:

  • The Skye Highland Games are held in Portree at the start of August. Tickets cost £10 per adult for the main event day, there is a reduced fee for the earlier piping competitions.
Share this:

My Humphry Davy MOOC review and a visit to the Royal Institute, London

I can imagine many of you wondering what on an earth a MOOC is. Simple really. It’s A Massive Online Open Course. Or in other words an online course, often created by a University, open to anyone with an Internet connection. I discovered them recently whilst browsing the web and decided to try one out.

Why did I study a MOOC?

I completed a Natural Sciences degree through the Open University (OU) in my 30s and often think about studying again. However I cannot afford the time or money to study another degree at the moment.

Fortunately many MOOCs are free and take just three to six weeks to complete. In the UK, FutureLearn (a private company offshoot of the OU) have been providing courses since 2013. They work with UK and international universities and provide an eclectic choice of courses. There’s bound to be something for everyone!

Humphry Davy MOOC

Sir Humphry Davy, Bt by Henry Howard oil on canvas, 1803 NPG 4591 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Humphry Davy by Henry Howard NPG 4591 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Created by Lancaster University, this MOOC focussed on the life and works of Sir Humphry Davy. I have a fascination with polymaths and Davy fitted the bill perfectly. Probably best known for inventing the miners’ safety lamp, he was also a chemist and a poet. He isolated several elements, experimented with nitrous oxide, helped found the Zoological Society of London and wrote Salmonia, the fly fisherman’s bible. A man of many talents.

The course took place over four weeks, with about three hours study per week. It’s easy to extend this if you want to read more around the subject; indeed I’ve just bought one of the further reading suggestions.

The course is a mix of online videos, reading and discussions. Each week we looked at two or three different aspects of Davy’s life. For example, investigating the controversy around the Davy safety lamp or looking at Davy’s possible connection to Frankenstein.

The work involved was quite straightforward but I struggled to understand and enjoy some of his poems. Whilst I appreciate Davy’s many talents his poems were not to my taste.

Davy’s safety lamp - and a variety of other designs, Royal Institution, London
Davy’s safety lamp – and a variety of other designs, Royal Institution, London

Students were encouraged to contribute to online discussions with comments and questions after each piece. I didn’t always have time to add my thoughts but it was interesting to read everyone else’s. The course educators also commented and created a weekly summary arising from the online discussions.

Whilst browsing the comments I couldn’t help but sneak a look at some of the other student’s profiles. Most appeared to be retirees who I guess have time on their hands and want to occupy their brain cells. It also appears that once you’ve completed one course you start another. That’s my experience too as I’ve already signed up for another two courses!

And what’s the connection to the Royal Institution (Ri)?

I’m a regular visitor to London but have never considered visiting the Royal Institution. That is, until it was offered as an opportunity as part of the Humphry Davy course.

Founded in 1799, the Ri was set up to promote scientific education and research. Humphry Davy lectured at the Ri; his chemical experiments were incredibly popular but would be a health and safety nightmare today.

Professor Frank James at the Royal Institution
Professor Frank James at the Royal Institution

Located in Mayfair the building is set amidst luxury hotels, jewellers (Faberge is at the end of the road) and high end restaurants. Not an area I’d usually visit.

Our course educators had arranged for us to view some of Davy’s notebooks from the archive, take a guided tour of the Faraday museum and listen to them presenting in the lecture theatre that Humphry Davy presented in. Professor James even demonstrated how Davy’s safety lamp worked (with real flame!). It was an incredible opportunity to learn more about Davy and a definite highlight of the MOOC for me.

Although the Ri is open to visitors I’m not sure I’d gain the same enjoyment from a visit without the context of the course. You’d need an interest in the history of science to truly appreciate the Faraday museum but I’d certainly attend the regular public lectures if I lived closer.

My introduction to the world of MOOCs was an excellent experience. I think my other FutureLearn courses will have a high bar to overcome!

More info:

Share this:

An autumn walk from Turville in the Chilterns, Bucks

Despite living only 40 minutes drive from the Chilterns we don’t visit as often as we should. Stretching across four counties, from Bedfordshire to Oxfordshire, they’re less well known than the Cotswolds but a great option for walkers in hill deprived southern England.

The area is characterised by beech woodlands, chalk hills and brick and flint villages. Autumn, when the leaves change colour, is impossibly pretty. It also seems to be the only time of year I remember that I live close to the Chiltern Hills. There is an inherent switch in me; falling leaves equals walk in the Chilterns.

Add into this mix a fantastic cafe whose existence I’d only recently discovered. It was time to head to the Chilterns.

Turville village

We started in Turville, a small village with an impressive screen pedigree. Scenes from Midsomer Murders, Lewis and Jonathan Creek have all been shot here. And you may even recognise St Mary’s Church, renamed as St Barnabas Church, which featured in the Vicar of Dibley. Of course all of this was lost on my Netflix generation of children.

Turville village
Turville village

Leaving Turville we walked up through Churchfield Wood, emerging beside the security cameras of Turville Court.

It’s fair to say many of the home owners round here are rather well heeled. Whilst Google couldn’t name the owner of Turville Court we did discover it was sold for £18 million in 2015. It has 26 bathrooms, 13 bedrooms and interior decoration which is definitely not to my taste.

The Chilterns in autumn
The Chilterns in autumn

As we walked on we were treated to the sight of about 30 red kites circling above a nearby field. Kites are common in the Chilterns but I did wonder what was attracting the carrion eaters. Or maybe I read too many crime novels.

The next property, Turville Grange, is the country retreat of an influential American family and has previously been owned by both the Henry Ford family and the younger sister of Jacqueline Onassis. The footpath passes between the house and walled garden so you can sneak a view of the estate. Oh how the other half live!

The Barn at Turville Heath

Pub walks may be popular for beer lovers but I’m not much of a drinker. I prefer a cafe with coffee and cake any day. When I heard about The Barn Cafe in Turville Heath I knew it would be a perfect lunch stop.

The Barn cafe at Turville Heath
The Barn cafe at Turville Heath

One niggling concern was that I wasn’t sure exactly where it was. I was therefore relieved our walking route took us right to the front door. This is one of its great features. It’s a no car cafe; you can only reach it on foot, bicycle or horse.

Burgers at the Barn cafe, Turville Heath
Burgers at the Barn cafe, Turville Heath

As befits the name it’s a cafe in a barn; keep an eye out for the old Land Rover in the kitchen! The cafe serves its own Dexter cows in the form of beef burger and ghoulash, along with other home reared and local products. I was pleasantly surprised to find several veggie and vegan options.

We sat inside but there’s limited seating so do come prepared for an outdoor lunch. After our excellent burgers we just about had room for something sweet so shared a slice of lemon and blueberry cake. Rarely get that in a pub!

Walking down to Turville Wood
Walking down to Turville Wood

Onwards towards Ibstone

It was time to walk off our lunch. From Turville Heath we took the footpath leading down to Holloway Lane, and back uphill the other side. Did you know Holloway is another name for a sunken lane? It described this road perfectly.

At Hell Corner Farm, previously owned by the Labour MP Barbara Castle, we turned towards Ibstone and walked a track through the woods. The kids found a rope swing and argued over it for a couple of minutes.

Park Wood, near Ibstone
Park Wood, near Ibstone

These woods were the reason I wanted to walk in the Chilterns. We kicked through leaves, spotted fungi and watched the sunlight filter through the trees. It really was the most gorgeous day.

We emerged onto the road near Ibstone House, yet another mansion owned by the super rich. After a short road section we headed back into the woods, eventually arriving near Cobstone Mill.

View through the trees, Park Wood, near Ibstone
View through the trees, Park Wood, near Ibstone

Privately owned Cobstone Mill stands proudly on a hill above Turville. The 200 year old windmill has starred in numerous TV programmes and films including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Somebody from the TV location agencies must really love this area. Or live here.

Cobstone Mill, Turville Hill
Cobstone Mill, Turville Hill

From the windmill it’s a very steep walk back down the hill into Turville. So steep that it was hard not to run down it. Although I’d probably end up falling over if I attempted to do so.

Back in Turville we mooched around the church and admired the houses. It’s a gorgeous area and we really must make the effort to visit more than once a year. Particularly now I know a great cafe for lunch!

More info:

  • The Barn at Turville Heath offers full service during weekends and a limited menu with self service during the week.
Share this: