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.

Linking up with:

Hilary Style
Share this:

Walking the South Downs Way with children: Part 3 Amberley to near Lewes

After a summer break we returned to walking the South Downs Way with the children. We’ve already completed the sections from Winchester to Buriton and from Buriton to Amberley. This time our walk took us from Amberley to near Lewes, with an overnight stop at Truleigh Hill YHA.

Amberley to Truleigh Hill YHA (14 miles)

As with our other South Downs weekends the logistics of linear walks take some organising. This time we had an early morning drive to Three Bridges railway station where we left the car for the weekend. From Three Bridges we took a half hour train ride to Amberley, our starting point.

Unlike our previous visit the sun was shining and our feet and shoulders were fresh and ready for the walk. Amberley is evidently the prettiest village on the South Downs Way but it was too early in the morning to get distracted by tea rooms so we skirted the centre and headed steeply uphill to join the crest of the Downs.

View from Rackham Banks
View from Rackham Banks

The path continued upwards, passing the fenced off trig point on Rackham Hill. A while later we decided to take the diversion which avoids crossing the busy A24 dual carriageway and enters Washington instead. Although longer it allowed us a quick drink in the pub and the chance to refill water bottles.

Walking towards Chactonbury Ring
Walking towards Chanctonbury Ring

Suitably refreshed we climbed again up to Chanctonbury Ring whose beech trees mark the site of an Iron Age fort and a Roman temple. Sadly much depleted by the great storm of 1987 there are several legends connected to them. Did you know you can summon the devil by running anti-clockwise round the clump seven times? Or that women can increase their fertility by sleeping beneath the trees for a night. Needless to say we didn’t try either of these.

Looking towards Steyning Bowl
Looking towards Steyning Bowl

Onwards towards the amphitheatre of Steyning Bowl, nicely framed by a field punctuated with sunflowers. In the far distance we saw the radio masts on Truleigh Hill, reminding us how far we still had to walk that day. We were also treated to views of the derelict Shoreham cement works. There are grand plans afoot to convert the works into an eco or holiday village, depending on which report you read. Until then it’s a blot on the landscape.

As we made our way down Annington Hill we were distracted by the sights and sounds of hundreds of pigs and piglets. Row after row of pigsties, full of sows lazing in the sun and piglets squeaking.

We crossed the road and climbed Beeding Hill, our last hill of the day. We met a couple of cyclists heading in the same direction and rather embarrassingly passed them on foot. In their defence it was a steep hill and perhaps easier to walk than cycle up!

Arriving at Truleigh Hill YHA
Arriving at Truleigh Hill YHA

The last mile or so was a long slog along the road to the Youth Hostel. Taunted by other guests arriving in their cars, and the cyclists overtaking us again. It was a relief to finally arrive at the YHA!

Overnight at Truleigh Hill YHA

This was the perfect location for our overnight stop. The building design was nothing to write home about but the hostel is right on the South Downs Way so no extra mileage required.

Truleigh Hill YHA
Truleigh Hill YHA

After a short rest we were picked up by friends for an evening meal and discovered that even though a pub is a couple of miles away as the crow flies it’s a whole lot further when you need to use the roads! After a twenty minute drive, via Shoreham, we arrived at the pub and decided the menu wasn’t for us. Fortunately the pub in the next village was more promising and, surprisingly, had availability on a Saturday night. An excellent evening of catching up with old friends ensued.

Back at the hostel we had a good night’s sleep and a reasonable breakfast. Although I do wish the YHA would stop offering powdered scrambled eggs at breakfast. Yuck.

Truleigh Hill YHA to Housedean Farm, near Lewes (15 miles)

After a short walk we finally got to pass the radio towers which we’d seen from far away the previous day. The site is a former air defence radar station and underground there’s a nuclear bunker and tunnels. From the looks of the web it’s a favourite for urban explorers, which always sounds like an exciting, if slightly scary, hobby.

Wonder which way the winds blows on the South Downs Way?
Wonder which way the winds blows on the South Downs Way?

From the escarpment we were able to look down to Fulking and realise just how close the pub was to the South Downs Way. If you’re walking that is.

View from Fulking escarpment
View from Fulking escarpment

Our route took in a couple of major attractions, the first being Devil’s Dyke. It’s a deep V shaped valley and, given its name, unsurprisingly home to more legends about the devil. It was a huge attraction for the Victorians with thousands of daily visitors at the peak of its popularity.

Devil's Dyke view
Devil’s Dyke view

After Devil’s Dyke we stopped for a drink at the WildFlour cafe. Located in a small walled garden at Saddlescombe Farm I was surprised to find that the current tenants of the farm had until recently farmed just a couple of miles away from our home. Small world.

Jill windmill, near Clayton
Jill windmill, near Clayton

I had shown remarkable restraint at the cafe so whilst walking through the village of Pyecombe I bought some brownie treats from a street stall. We ate these whilst walking up through the golf course, keeping an eye open for stray golf balls.

At Clayton there’s the chance to detour slightly off route to see the Jack and Jill windmills. Jack, a tower windmill, is privately owned and unusual because of it’s male name. Evidently windmills are usually given female names.

Jill windmill was another casualty of the Great Storm when she caught fire as a result of her sails moving whilst the brakes were applied. Fortunately members of the local Windmill Society came to the rescue. Nowadays, Jill is owned by Mid Sussex District Council and open to the public on summer Sunday afternoons (although it was also open when we visited in the morning). Visitors can buy stoneground flour, or just sit and enjoy the sound of the sails moving in the wind.

Braving cows on the South Downs Way
Braving cows on the South Downs Way

Onto Ditchling Beacon, the highest point in East Sussex. It’s a popular destination, evidenced by the overflowing car park and ice cream van. There were plenty of cyclists too who had struggled up the steep road from Brighton. Rather them than me!

The final part of the walk was a bit of a trudge into the drizzle. That type of rain that gets you wetter than you realise. We quickened our pace to escape the rain, trotting through the woodland and down the steep hill to Housedean Farm, and the bus stop. I was relieved to discover there were frequent buses on Sunday as I really didn’t fancy walking beside the busy A27 into Lewes.

From Lewes we hopped on the train to Three Bridges, and returned to our car for the long drive home. Only 25 miles left of the South Downs Way!

More info:

  • Visit the National Trails website for further information about walking the South Downs Way.
Share this:

Walking the South Downs Way with children: Part 2 Buriton to Amberley

Welcome to the second instalment of our South Downs Way walk. At the start of April we walked the first stage between Winchester and Buriton. Rather belatedly I’ve written up the next section of the walk, which took us from Buriton to Amberley.

This time our dependence on public transport was even more complicated than before. Mainly because I’d booked an Airbnb room in Petersfield. Not an ideal location given the walk route and dearth of weekend public transport, but it was the only place with triple room availability. (Eagle eyed regulars may notice the absence of a child on this walk; my daughter was away at Scout camp).

South Downs Way: Day 3 – Cocking to Buriton (11 miles + 3 miles to Petersfield)

Our day started with a drive to Petersfield, a bus to Midhurst and another connection on to Cocking. From here we’d walk the route (in reverse) to Buriton and on to Petersfield. The one benefit of our public transport shenanigans was that we only needed to carry provisions for the day, no need for overnight gear.

Walking up Cocking Down, South Downs Way
Walking up Cocking Down, South Downs Way

With temperatures forecast to reach 28C I’d remembered water bottles, hats and suncream. At 9am the sun was already hot; how would we cope in the hours ahead?

When we finally stepped off our second bus, near Cocking, we were in for a weather shock. The sun had been replaced by drizzle and mist. And it was cold! OK, perhaps not Arctic conditions but we were dressed for summer. As were most of the other walkers we saw shivering in shorts and vests.

Devil's Jumps round barrows
Devil’s Jumps round barrows

We warmed up a little with a long steady climb up onto the Downs. Our first stop was the Devil’s Jumps, a series of five Bronze Age mounds. Local folklore suggests the devil used to jump between the barrows; strangely this story is also attributed to similarly named burial mounds in the next door county.

Near Beacon Hill on the South Downs Way
Near Beacon Hill on the South Downs Way

We continued onwards towards Pen Hill. Given the weather it was typical that our guidebook was full of praise about the extensive views we would see that morning. From Chichester cathedral to the Isle of Wight. Not to mention the sunlit glades we were going to walk through. Instead we walked under dripping trees, views completely obscured by mist. As we walked near Monkton House we heard the distant sounds of peacocks through the gloom.

Walking towards Beacon Hill (in the mist)
Walking towards Beacon Hill (in the mist)

We climbed Pen Hill (splendid panorama from the crest, evidently) and traversed around Beacon Hill. Although it’s possible to take a shortcut over the next summit, Beacon Hill, it’s not strictly the South Downs Way so we kept to our longer route.

Misty Millpond Bottom, South Downs Way
Misty Millpond Bottom, South Downs Way

After lunch, we headed uphill again, tackling Harting Down. Past Harting we found ourselves on a quiet road bordered with a long row of copper beech trees. I don’t think I’d registered the existence of different coloured beech trees beforehand but everywhere I go now I see them.

Orchids at Coulters Dean Nature Reserve
Orchids at Coulters Dean Nature Reserve

Just before Buriton the track passes close to Coulters Dean Nature Reserve and I couldn’t resist a short detour to go orchid spotting. The rest of the family don’t share my passion so they took a break. If only they knew what they missed! Hundreds of orchids cloaking a realitively small patch of chalk downland. I was in heaven.

The ducks thought they'd get fed!
The ducks thought they’d get fed!

As we arrived in Buriton the sun finally broke though the mist. We sat by the village pond and teased the ducks before tackling the last three miles (off the official trail) to our evening accommodation in Petersfield.

South Downs Way: Day 4 – Cocking to Amberley (12 miles)

After an overnight stay in our first ever Airbnb we left early to drive to Midhurst, our car parking spot for the day.

From Midhurst we returned by bus once more to the car park near Cocking. There was no repeat of the previous day’s weather. Instead we were greeted with glorious sunshine.

The start of our fourth day on the South Downs Way
The start of our fourth day on the South Downs Way

Our day started, as usual, with a climb. That’s the thing about the South Downs. The villages and facilities are generally off the route so walkers will often find themselves adding an extra mile or two (down and up) to gain access. Still, what’s an extra mile or two when the views are so lovely? Ask me that again at the end of the day!

Plenty of flint in the fields on Westburton Hill
Plenty of flint in the fields on Westburton Hill

Much of the morning’s walk took us through or beside woodland. We found more burial mounds on Heyshott Down. Whilst on Graffham Down we passed several meadows protecting chalk downland (and yes, more orchids).

Lunch stop after Bignor Hill descent
Lunch stop after Bignor Hill descent

Later on we walked across large open fields, full of flint. I don’t envy the farmers growing crops around here. We followed an old Roman route, Stane Street, towards Bignor Hill. I was sorely tempted to detour off to Bignor Roman Villa.

That’s my only regret with our tightly co-ordinated weekends. Losing the ability to head off the track and visit nearby villages and attractions. Of course, there’s plenty to see on the route itself. But how I wanted to visit the villa!

Looking back towards Westburton Hill
Looking back towards Westburton Hill

We ate our lunch sitting beside the path. People watching. The South Downs Way was much busier than on our previous weekend. Aside from the ubiquitous cyclists we were in awe of a group of army lads carrying a 16 stone dummy on a stretcher and bemused by an elderly backpacker pushing his dog in an all terrain buggy.

Single poppy on the South Downs Way, near Amberley
Single poppy on the South Downs Way, near Amberley

The last stretch was a race against rain clouds. Unusually for the SDW we found ourselves following a tidal river embankment. With impeccable timing we managed to reach Amberley just as the heavens opened.

The gathering clouds! View from Westburon Hill
The gathering clouds! View from Westburton Hill

From Amberley it was a short train journey to Pulborough and a long wait for our bus to Midhurst. The rain turned torrential and I thought of all the people still out walking. Whilst we sat in a cafe, eating cake and staying dry!

More info:

  • We relied on the Cicerone Walking the South Downs Way guidebook. It’s perfect for us as it describes the route in both directions.
Share this:

Stones galore at Chesil beach and Tout Quarry, Dorset

In case it’s not obvious from my blog I’m one of life’s planners. For me, planning a holiday is half the fun; I like to know where I’m going and what I’m going to do when I’m there. I’m not so good with spontaneity. But sometimes I manage to ditch the plan.

Our trip to Chesil beach was one such occasion. My original intention was to visit Portland Bill lighthouse on the Isle of Portland then go for a walk on Chesil beach.

Portland Bill lighthouse, Dorset
Portland Bill lighthouse, Dorset

We duly arrived at the lighthouse only to find a two hour wait for the next tour. Our stomachs were already rumbling and we hadn’t bought any food with us (sometimes I forget to plan the obvious things). I knew that hanging around wouldn’t be a popular choice. Instead we settled on a quick circuit of the lighthouse before retreating to a local cafe for lunch.

Tout Quarry

But what to do after lunch? I’d seen what appeared to be a mini-Stonehenge standing in the middle of a roundabout when we’d driven through Portland Heights previously. A quick Internet search revealed the existence of Tout Quarry, a sculpture park, so we hopped in the car and headed back the way we’d come.

Olympic Rings, Portland Heights
Olympic Rings, Portland Heights

We ended up parking near the Olympic Rings viewpoint and braving the main road in our attempt to access the quarry. There is, I discovered later, dedicated parking on a nearby industrial estate but I missed any signs pointing this out. Which is rather indicative of the site in general. It’s low key approach to attracting visitors suited me just fine.

Tout quarry
Tout quarry

Tout Quarry sculpture park began in 1983 in an abandoned stone quarry. Portland stone is still quarried in other parts of the island; it’s perfect for carving and has been used in many grand buildings, including St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace.

Although we found an information board detailing the sculptures we were either really bad at finding them or they’ve changed since the board was installed. We ended up just wandering the paths and clambering over rocks looking for works of art. There are 70+ sculptures to find, ranging from butterflies to a huge drinking bowl to a hearth; there’s even an Antony Gormley creation.

Tout Quarry
Tout Quarry

The quarry runs close to the cliff edge. ‘Tout’ actually means lookout, an understatement of the fabulous coastal views from the edge of the quarry.

Tout Quarry is also a nature reserve. The only other person we saw was a butterfly spotter who appeared oblivious to the sculptures. Fortunately it was the perfect day for butterflies.

Tout quarry
Tout quarry

If you’re visiting Tout Quarry with young children you’ll need to keep a close eye on them. There are plenty of drops and edges to keep back from. But for everyone else it’s great fun!

Tout quarry, Dorset
Tout quarry, Dorset

Chesil Beach

From the Olympic Rings viewpoint on Portland we’d had a birds-eye view of Chesil Beach. It’s a long spit of shingle stretching from Portland Island to West Bay; the saltwater Fleet Lagoon separating the beach from the mainland.

Chesil Beach, Dorset
Chesil Beach, Dorset

Chesil Beach (or tombolo, as I later found out), was exactly how I imagined. Pebbles as far as the eye can see. Eighteen miles of them.

Running up the shingle on Chesil Beach
Running up the shingle on Chesil Beach

Walking along the shingle of Chesil Beach was one of my UK bucket list challenges. At one point I’d considered walking the full distance. What a mad thought. It was hard enough walking a few hundred metres from the Visitor Centre to the beach (and some of that was on a boardwalk). I’m so glad I realised it was a tad ambitious!

View from the visitor centre, Chesil beach
View from the visitor centre, Chesil beach

Instead we just sat on the beach enjoying the sunshine and listening to the sound of pebbles being washed by the sea. It’s not advisable to swim or even paddle as the bank shelves deeply into the sea and there’s a strong undertow. Despite this the beach was busy with holidaymakers and fishermen.

We didn’t stay long. Mainly because we’d only put two hours on our car parking ticket. And we’d already spent rather a lot of that time in the visitor centre cafe!

More info

  • Tout Quarry is free to visit and always open.
  • Access to some parts of  Chesil Beach is restricted, primarily due to bird nesting sites. We parked in the Pay & Display next to the Chesil beach visitor centre and cafe (open daily).

Linking up with:

Suitcases and Sandcastles
Share this: