Lavender fields and a cold war bunker, near Broadway, Worcestershire

The kids could barely contain their excitement when I told them we were going to visit a lavender field. Followed by a Cold War bunker. A strange combination perhaps but as they’re only a few miles apart I thought it was the perfect opportunity to visit two more places on my UK bucket list.

My youngest stated he’d prefer to stay at home on the Xbox and the eldest asked why we couldn’t just go to Thorpe Park instead (like normal people). Surely, I suggested to them, it’s more fun to experience an authentic Cold War bunker….

Cotswold Lavender Farm, near Snowshill

Lavender fields have become a ‘thing’ in the last couple of years. Similar to bluebell woods. Everyone jostling to get a photo of their loved ones sitting amongst the flowers. But there’s a reason for their popularity. They’re incredibly photogenic!

Cotswold lavender farm, near Snowshill
Cotswold lavender farm, near Snowshill

Cotswold Lavender is open from mid-June until the flowers are harvested in early August. We visited the first weekend in July, a good but busy time to choose.

Our visit began with a walk past some of the 40 different varieties of lavender grown at the farm. Ranging in colour from pale lilac to a dark purple I never realised there were so many different varieties.

We progressed to walking around the main fields. These were planted with homogeneous dark purple bushes; very pretty but I couldn’t actually smell any lavender.

Cotswold lavender farm, near Snowshill
Cotswold lavender farm, near Snowshill

Regardless of the smell the bees were loving the flowers. It was great to see, and hear, so many varieties. The fields were literally buzzing.

Visitors are free to walk as they wish around the fields. It was lovely to have this freedom but I would have liked the option of a guided tour to learn more about the farm.

Wildflower Meadow, Cotswold Lavender
Wildflower Meadow, Cotswold Lavender

Almost as photogenic as the lavender field was the wildflower meadow. The reds, yellows and blues of once common flowers nodding in the breeze. My enjoyment tinged with the sad recognition that I haven’t seen a single wild cornflower this year.

Cotswold Lavender, near Snowshill
Cotswold Lavender, near Snowshill

We ended with a trip to the gift shop and cafe. I resisted all of the lavender perfumed and flavoured items in the shop. But not the lavender brownie in the cafe. Although we played it safe and bought a non-lavender cake too just in case it tasted awful (it didn’t).

Cold War bunker, Broadway Tower

After lunch in Broadway we drove onto Broadway Tower. We climbed the tower a few years ago but missed out on its underground attraction, a restored Cold War bunker.

Climbing down into the Cold War bunker, Broadway Tower
Climbing down into the Cold War bunker, Broadway Tower

The bunker is a few minutes walk from the tower. Accessed via a ladder, down a 14 foot shaft, this is not for those with a fear of heights or claustrophobia. We descended one at a time; the family next to us helpfully shouting up encouragement to their children. Along the lines of “It’s a lot harder than it looks!”

Climbing down into the Cold War bunker at Broadway Tower
Climbing down into the Cold War bunker at Broadway Tower

Once we’d all descended our guide explained that the bunker was built in the late 1950s and operated until 1991. It formed part of a nationwide monitoring network of bunkers, all built to the same design and equipped with state of the art (as was) detection facilities.

The bunkers weren’t designed to protect occupants from a direct nuclear hit. Manned by volunteers from the Royal Observer Corp their aim was to help determine the location of bombs and direction of fallout.

Inside the Cold War bunker, Broadway Tower
Inside the Cold War bunker, Broadway Tower

We listened to a short recording as our guide pointed out the various pieces of equipment. I was strangely excited to see a nuclear warning siren!

In addition to the scientific instruments the room was kitted out with bunk beds, a separate toilet and sufficient food and water for three weeks. Minimal privacy though, you’d get to know your fellow workers very well.

I’m sure my kids thought this was all ancient history but I was a teenager in the 1980s and remember the threat of nuclear war. The bunker provides a fascinating insight into the Government’s emergency plans and precautions. Although with hindsight I do wonder how effective they’d be.

Despite the kid’s grumbles both loved the Cold War bunker, a definite hit. As was the lavender brownie!

More info:

  • Check the Cotswold Lavender Farm website for exact opening dates. Entrance is £3.50 for adults and £2.50 for children aged 5-15 yrs.
  • Entrance to the Cold War bunker is by guided tour only. These generally run hourly throughout summer weekends. There’s a maximum of 12 people and a minimum age of 12 years, tickets cost £4.50 per visitor.

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Orchid spotting at Homefield Wood, Bucks

My family doesn’t share my love of orchids. Or, more specifically, the walks spent looking for them.

Back in mid-May we visited the BBOWT reserve at Homefield Wood in Buckinghamshire. Although relatively small it’s one of only three sites in the UK where military orchids flower, a good enough reason to drive an hour to reach it. Or at least I thought so!

Military orchids, Homefield Wood
Military orchids, Homefield Wood

The reserve is a short walk through the Forestry Commission’s woodland. As we arrived the military orchids were immediately visible in the meadow, along with other chalk loving plants. Aside from the flowers, the most impressive sight was the number of bees, insects and butterflies flying and buzzing around the grassland. Something that is sadly lacking on my local farmland walks.

However, despite the rarity of military orchids (in the UK), they weren’t my favourite find.

Fly orchid, Homefield Wood
Fly orchid, Homefield Wood

I preferred the fly orchid. Although it was only when another visitor pointed one out to me that I realised I’d already walked past several without realising. It might have been hard to spot but it’s easy to identify. Why? The fly orchid, erm, looks like a fly!

Common twayblade, Homefield Wood
Common twayblade, Homefield Wood

Alongside the fly orchids I found common twayblade. Compared to other orchids it’s nondescript so I didn’t mention it to the family. If they’re not excited by colourful orchids how would I interest them in this one?

Walking through Homefield Wood
Walking through Homefield Wood

The family had skulked off into the woods at this point. My other half looking for birds, my son and daughter taunting each other with sticks. I remained in the meadow, chatting to a couple of visitors laden with expensive looking camera gear.

Military orchids, Homefield Wood
Military orchids, Homefield Wood

They told me most of the military orchids were in another field, a short walk away through the wood. I headed over to find a much larger patch, some roped off to protect them from human feet. Volunteers cleared this area several years ago allowing the orchids to flourish and conservation work looked ongoing. Thanks to these efforts over 700 military orchids were recorded on the reserve in 2016.

Walking back to the entrance I detoured into the woodland to find my last orchid of the day, white helleborine, growing under the beech trees. I strolled happily back to the car to find the family waiting, bored, hot and only placated by the promise of an ice cream.

If you, unlike my family, are interested in orchids you might also enjoy reading my posts about Hartslock and Warburg nature Reserves.

More info

  • Homefield Wood is 2.5 miles from Marlow. It’s not the easiest reserve to find so follow the directions on the BBOWT website.
  • I highly recommend Peter Creed’s ‘Guide to finding orchids in Berkshire,  Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire’.
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A Mother’s Day walk from Watlington, Oxfordshire

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.

Walking the Ridgeway, near Watlington
Walking the Ridgeway, near Watlington

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.

Lambs near Aston Rowant reserve
Lambs near Aston Rowant reserve

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.

Walking up Bald Hill, Aston Rowant Nature Reserve
Walking up Bald Hill, Aston Rowant Nature Reserve

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.

Picnic on Bald Hill, near Watlington
Picnic on Bald Hill, near Watlington

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!

Aston Rowant nature reserve
Aston Rowant nature reserve

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?

Lewknor village

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!

A boy, a stick and a stream!
A boy, a stick and a stream!

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.

St Mary's Church, Pyrton
St Mary’s Church, Pyrton

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.

Daffodils at St Mary's Church, Pyrton
Daffodils at St Mary’s Church, Pyrton

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.
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Four family walks in the Quantock Hills, Somerset

The only good thing, from my perspective, about our impending winter is that it gives me a chance to catch up on blog posts. Take our trip to the Quantock Hills for example. We visited in late summer, the August Bank Holiday weekend to be exact. Remembering the weekend we spent walking the hills, eating cream teas and searching for fossils cheers me up no end on a wet and grey November day.

Located in north Somerset, the Quantock Hills cover an area of 38 square miles. They’re less well known than their nearby neighbour, Exmoor, but on a Bank Holiday weekend that’s a bonus. As usual we chose to explore on foot, walking along the coast, through heather moorland and wooded combes. We squeezed in four short walks, not too strenuous and all less than 4 miles so perfect for families.

1. Kilve beach and East Quantoxhead

Whilst some people enjoy golden sand and blue seas I prefer interesting beaches. Give me rockpools, fossils and shells any day. Kilve beach ticked these boxes. Whilst it isn’t the most beautiful to look at, particularly on a grey murky morning, it’s a fantastic place for fossil hunting.

Rock strata, Kilve beach
Rock strata, Kilve beach

The cliffs at Kilve beach are formed from oil rich shale, with the different layers of rock clearly visible. Back in the 1920s, plans were afoot to extract the oil but fortunately proved unprofitable. I hope it remains this way.

We spent a good hour mooching around the beach, turning over the rocks in our search for fossils. We found plenty but what impressed me most were the huge ammonite fossils; it’s incredible to think these are 200 million years old!

Ammonite on Kilve beach, Somerset
Ammonite on Kilve beach, Somerset

The kids were disappointed to leave the beach and go on a walk; they wanted to carry on fossil hunting. Tearing ourselves away we headed up onto the cliff to continue our walk along the coast path. All around us were the gifts of late summer; blackberries, golden fields and swallows.

View from Kilve beach walk
View from Kilve beach walk

Turning inland we passed through the tiny village of East Quantoxhead with its manor house, duck pond and mill house.

As we neared the end of the walk a small ford offered some fun. We all had a go jumping over the stream; much more exciting than walking across the bridge.

No need for the bridge! Jumping the ford near Kilve
No need for the bridge! Jumping the ford near Kilve

It was a fortunate coincidence that our walk ended back at Chantry Tea Gardens. How on earth did that happen?! Sitting outside in the sun we enjoyed sandwiches and a cream tea, accompanied by a cheeky robin demanding crumbs.

2. Beacon Hill

Our second day started wet. The forecast was an improving one so after a lazy morning we headed to Beacon Hill. The rain wasn’t quite done with us so we lingered in the car park waiting for the showers to pass.

View from Beacon Hill - between rain showers
View from Beacon Hill – between rain showers

I’d originally planned a longer walk but decided a quick trip up to Beacon Hill summit would be drier. It didn’t take too long to climb and from the top we had great views in all directions. Of rain clouds that appeared to be heading towards us. We didn’t stop to admire the views! Straight back down to the car. Just before the rain arrived, again.

3. Lydeard Hill and Wills Neck

Fortunately the weather cheered up as the day progressed. Aside from the threat of one further heavy shower where we decided to take refuge in a house offering cream teas. Two cream teas in two days, yum.

Heather path up to Wills Neck, Quantock Hills
Heather path up to Wills Neck, Quantock Hills

Our afternoon walk took us onto the highest point of the Quantocks, Wills Neck. This was another straightforward out and back route, up and down a hill; good job really as I didn’t have a map. From the car park we walked to the left of Lydeard Hill, down into a small plantation and up again.

The colours of the Quantocks really are stunning in late summer. The pink and purple heathers and the yellows of the gorse. At least I think it was gorse; the problem with writing a post three months after a visit is that I cannot see from my photos whether there are prickles on the bush (and is therefore gorse) or not (and is therefore broom). Either way, it’s beautiful.

View from Lydeard Hill, Quantock Hills
View from Lydeard Hill, Quantock Hills

4. Holford Combe and Woodland Hill

This was my favourite walk. The weather, in contrast to the previous day, was warm and sunny. Perfect for sitting on the M5 looking at the back of car bumpers queuing for miles. But I’ve jumped ahead to the afternoon. Our morning was idyllic.

The first part of our walk took us through Holford Combe, a steeply wooded valley. I was surprised to learn the video for the Bryan Adams song, Everything I do (I do it for you), was filmed around here. Back in 1991 it was number one for a gazillion weeks so in the interests of blog research I watched the video again. After the initial shock of how young Bryan Adams looked I could immediately spot Holford Silk Mills. Sadly not passed on this walk, but Kilve beach features too.

Crossing Holford Combe stream
Crossing Holford Combe stream

Two hundred years before Bryan some very different wordsmiths, the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dorothy and William Wordsworth lived and wrote in these hills. As our track opened out into a sunlit glade it was easy to see where they got their inspiration. The stream sparkled in the sunlight and I could easily imagine whiling away afternoons relaxing on the grassy bank. It was magical; if  I believed in pixies this is where they’d live!

On top of Woodland Hill, Quantock Hills
On top of Woodland Hill, Quantock Hills

We followed the stream until it reached Ladies Combe then headed out of the woodland up a steep track onto Woodland Hill. Along the familiar heather and gorse covered slopes to the top of the hill. There are fabulous views from the summit, if you exclude Hinkley Point nuclear power station (far right in the picture above) from your field of vision.

Descending Woodland Hill, Quantock Hills
Descending Woodland Hill, Quantock Hills

Walking back to the car park we found a large muddy pond teeming with tadpoles. I know very little about the frog breeding cycle but it seemed very late in the season. Indeed, as I sit here on this November night I start to wonder what happened to them. I do hope they reached frog-hood!

More info

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