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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Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside: walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks with children

As we took our seats in the Pen-y-Ghent cafe it was hard to ignore the bright red arms and necks of the two men on the table beside us. The Yorkshire Dales aren’t usually known for their sunny climes but we had somehow managed to coincide our holiday with a week of good weather.

Inspired by the lack of rain we spent part of our holiday walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks with the kids. This 24 mile challenge, with 5200ft of ascent, is often completed by charity walkers in around 12 hours. That wasn’t a sensible option for us so we climbed the hills individually on different days.

Pen-y-Ghent

Start of our route up Pen-y-Ghent
Start of our route up Pen-y-Ghent

Our first hill of the week was Pen-y-Ghent. This is the lowest of the Three Peaks but its distinctive shape, as seen in the photograph below, helps makes it one of the most popular.

Walking up Pen-y-Ghent
Walking up Pen-y-Ghent

Our route up Pen-y-Ghent followed the well worn track from the cafe in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, up past Brackenbottom Farm. Although this is the classic route for Three Peaks walkers it was pretty quiet. I guess we timed our departure well.

Pen-y-ghent summit path
Pen-y-ghent south face

The path took us up beside a stone wall until we reached a junction on the ridge, signposted the Pennine Way. Turning left we encountered a steeper section followed by an even steeper section. We had to use our hands a couple of times to pull ourselves up but it was pretty straightforward, barely a scramble.

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

The summit was much busier than our walk up. We spent a while pointing out the other hills in the Dales, before climbing over the stone wall stile. I love a good stone wall and always wonder at the logistics of building them on top of the hills.

Our descent path was clear, snaking down across the hillside like a white ribbon, so no chance of getting lost. Adventurous walkers might want to visit Hunt Pot, a fissure in the ground off to the left of the path.

Looking back up to Pen-y-Ghent, Yorkshire
Looking back up to Pen-y-Ghent, Yorkshire

A little further on we detoured a couple of hundred metres to visit Hull Pot, a collapsed cavern which is the largest natural hole in England. We peered carefully in; although inaccessible to walkers it is popular with climbers. In wet weather a waterfall flows over the sides but it was completely dry on our visit.

Hull Pot, visited on the descent from Pen-y-Ghent
Hull Pot, visited on the descent from Pen-y-Ghent

From Hull Pot it took us about 45 minutes to walk back along a walled lane into Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Hill number one successfully completed!

Ingleborough

Our walk up Ingleborough was an add-on to our Gaping Gill cave descent. We’d already walked for 1.5 hours to reach Gaping Gill, on the flank of Ingleborough, so it seemed a shame not to climb the hill.

Whilst I thought it was a good idea my son didn’t. He was, he said, starving. Instead of a picnic on Ingleborough summit we ended up stopping halfway up to eat the remains of our sandwiches (which we’d partially eaten at 9am whilst waiting for our cave descent). Suitably refreshed we continued up the hill although my son still wasn’t impressed by the climb.

Summit trig on Ingleborough
Summit trig on Ingleborough

It turned out to be a good decision to eat our picnic early. As we emerged from the last few steps up to the summit plateau the wind took our breath away. Even though there’s a small stone shelter it wouldn’t have been a pleasant picnic stop. Instead we headed over to claim the trig point before quickly retracing our steps off the hill.

Route down from Ingleborough, Yorkshire
Route down from Ingleborough, Yorkshire

Once back out of the wind and heading downhill my son perked up. We retraced our steps past Gaping Gill, down Trow Gill to Ingelborough Cave. The show cave conveniently sold ice-creams, a perfect reward for completing hill number two.

Whernside

We hadn’t planned to walk up Whernside. My original idea for the last day of our holiday was a gentle stroll around the Ingleton Waterfalls Walk. But how could we resist the appeal of the highest hill in Yorkshire on such a gorgeous sunny day?

We decided to walk the standard Three Peaks route from Ribblehead Viaduct but in reverse. This turned out to be a good decision.

Ribblehead viaduct and Whernside
Ribblehead viaduct and Whernside

After walking under one of the arches of Ribblehead Viaduct our route took us into a couple of livestock fields and then through meadows full of buttercups. Definitely one of my favourite memories of our Yorkshire Dales holiday.

Buttercup meadows near Whernside
Buttercup meadows near Whernside

After the meadows we started our climb. We passed a few people already heading down off the hill, some finding the steepness quite tricky and resorting to their backsides. Something I’ve also done in the past on other hills! Although our ascent was steeper than the reverse route my knees definitely prefer a more gradual descent.

Whernside summit family photo
Whernside summit family photo

As we reached the summit a couple of fell runners overtook us. I almost felt jealous of them. Obviously the sun must have affected my head.

We ate our picnic lunch in one of the ingenious curved shelters designed into the dry stone wall. We didn’t really need protecting from the elements but I imagine they’re very welcoming in inclement weather. Sadly the second shelter appeared to have been used as a toilet; how can people have so little respect?

Track along Whernside summit, Yorkshire
Track along Whernside summit, Yorkshire

The stone wall along the ridge defines the boundary between Yorkshire and Cumbria. It’s evidently possible to see Blackpool Tower on a clear day but I was obviously looking in the wrong direction. However we were treated to fabulous views of the Lake District peaks.

Stone slabs marked the long descent down. Either side the bog cotton and dried peat reminding us that the weather in Yorkshire isn’t usually so dry.

View from Whernside
View from Whernside

Near the bottom we stopped for a while to admire an aqueduct carrying the stream from Force Gill waterfall. It was interesting to consider man’s impact on the landscape around us. The aqueduct, viaduct and Blea Moor Tunnel were all major projects of their time; impressive structures but no match for the natural beauty of the hills.

Finished the Yorkshire Three Peaks!
Finished the Yorkshire Three Peaks!

There was time for one last photo stop to celebrate the completion of the Yorkshire Three Peaks.

The viaduct finally came into view, marking the end of our walk. Even better was the sight of the snack van as we’d all run out of water. As we sat relaxing by the stream and enjoying our drinks we were even treated to the sight of a train crossing the viaduct. The perfect ending to hill number three.

More info:

  • Thinking about walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks with your children? Please consider your abilities and check the summit weather conditions before setting off. We were incredibly lucky with the weather on all three days but ice, rain, wind and fog are pretty common.
  • We followed the classic routes up all three of the Yorkshire Peaks (although walked one in reverse). I found the Walks in Yorkshire and Where2Walk websites helpful with route planning.

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Three of the best views near Fort William, Lochaber


As regular readers may know I’m a sucker for mountain scenery. With a spare day in Fort William after our trip to Eigg I was keen to see what the proclaimed outdoor capital of the UK had to offer. Whilst the town isn’t particularly scenic there are plenty of great views just a short drive away. Here are my top three suggestions:

1. Steall waterfall

The walk to Steall waterfall is billed as one of the best short walks in Scotland. The drive in along Glen Nevis is impressive, with mountain views all the way to the car park at the end of the single track road. The midges greeted us when we stepped out of the car and were less welcome. Fortunately a few squirts of Smidge repellant soon stopped them.

Walk to Steall waterfall
Walk to Steall waterfall

As we left the car park I was a little disconcerted to see a sign warning visitors of ‘Danger of death’. If you’re properly equipped for the weather and familiar with walking in rocky landscapes you’ll have no problems at all. That said, I’d think twice about walking the path during icy conditions.

The path leads walkers through lush woodland, up and down rocky steps. Down in the gorge you can hear, and at times see, the river. Keep your eyes on the path though!

Walk to Steall waterfall
Walk to Steall waterfall

The track was busy; some visitors looked better prepared than others. Going by the number of camper vans and foreign plate vehicles in the car park I’m guessing this walk appears in most tourist guidebooks.

Steall Bridge, near Fort William
Steall Bridge, near Fort William

At the top of the gorge the view opens up across a meadow and out towards Steall Falls. Before you reach the waterfall there is one further diversion; the famous wire bridge across the river. There’s no need to cross it to see the falls but my other half wasn’t going to pass up a chance to do so. The kids were eager too but I only let them walk across as far as the start of the river section. My daughter would have been fine but my son wasn’t tall enough to reach both of the wires. And I didn’t fancy a dip in the river to rescue him!

Steall waterfall, Fort William
Steall waterfall, Fort William

Dropping from a height of almost 400ft Steall waterfall is an impressive sight. We visited after a relatively dry period so I’d imagine it’s even more exciting after rain. From the waterfall I also took the valley picture below, almost a classic geography textbook photograph.

View along valley from Steall waterfall
View along valley from Steall waterfall

Heading back to the car park I wondered why my son and other half took so long to reach the car. It turns out they were clearing up rubbish left by campers. I really don’t understand why people believe it is OK to leave bags of rubbish and used portable barbecues behind.

2. Viewpoints via the Glen Nevis gondola

In the afternoon we drove out to Glen Nevis for a ride up the Nevis Range gondola system. During the winter this is a popular ski destination but in the summer it’s busy with tourists, walkers and mountain bikers.

Nevis Range gondola, Fort William
Nevis Range gondola, Fort William

The gondola takes about 10 minutes to transport visitors 650m up Aonach Mor. As you’re swaying gently above the treetops you can watch mountain bikers whizzing down the boardwalk tracks beneath you. Whilst it looked fun I know I’d have been squeezing my brakes hard for the entire route!

Nevis Range gondola station
Nevis Range gondola station

At the top are two signposted walks to viewpoints, each in different directions. They’re relatively short (20-30 minutes each way) so it’s easy to complete both. Follow the blue rope and you won’t get lost!

Sgurr Finnisg-aig viewpoint walk, Aonach Mor
Sgurr Finnisg-aig viewpoint walk, Aonach Mor

My favourite viewpoint was Meall Beag. We sat for a while on the chair, looking out over Loch Eil and Loch Linnhe. Although I felt a little guilty for enjoying such great views with so little effort.

View no 2: Meall beag viewpoint
Meall beag viewpoint

Walking back towards the gondola it’s hard to ignore the visual impact it has on the area. It’s primarily a functional ski area and I’m sure looks much better when everything is covered in snow. On the plus side there’s a restaurant, bar and toilets and it would have been amiss of us not to check out these facilities.

Snowgoose Bar, Glen Nevis gondola station - a cafe with a view!
Snowgoose Bar, Glen Nevis gondola station – a cafe with a view!

3. Ben Nevis Inn

This last suggestion requires minimal effort. Unless, like us, you decide to walk to the pub from town.

I’ve climbed Ben Nevis in summer when the summit was knee deep in snow and the views obscured by mist. This time we contented ourselves with a seat in the Ben Nevis Inn. There are not many pubs where you can look out the window and see a view as incredible as this!

View from the Ben Nevis Inn, near Fort William
View from the Ben Nevis Inn, near Fort William

The Ben Nevis Inn certainly deserves its number 1 Trip Advisor rating. Between us we ate some great food although I made the wrong food choice; I know now that I don’t like vegetarian haggis!

If you’re thinking of travelling to Fort William you can read more about our journey on the Caledonian Sleeper train. After visiting Fort William you might like a trip to the fabulous white sand beaches at Morar and Arisaig or a drive through the highlands to Gairloch.

More info:

  • The Steall waterfall walk directions are on the Walk Highlands website.
  • The Nevis Range gondola is open year round except for a maintenance period from mid-November to mid-December and during strong winds. A family ticket for 2 adults and 2 children costs £32.50; season tickets are also available.
  • The Ben Nevis Inn is open daily during the summer months but check the website for opening dates and times throughout the winter period.
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A family walk up Pen-y-Fan, Powys

I’ve climbed Pen-y-Fan, the highest hill in southern Britain, a couple of times without the kids. As the kids are older now I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to stretch our legs on the way back from our holiday in Pembrokeshire.

Having only visited outside of the summer season previously I had no idea how popular the walk was. Our first hint was the long line of cars parked along the edge of the main road. There are a couple of off road car parks but as these were both full we parked on the grass verge like everyone else.

Start of the route up Pen-y-Fan
Start of the route up Pen-y-Fan

There are several routes up Pen-y-Fan. If we’d had the time and energy it would have been good to tackle one of the circular routes which takes in several of the peaks. However with a 2 hour journey behind us and another 2 hour drive home we settled on the standard route up from Pont ar Daf car park, also known as ‘The motorway’.

The Pen-y-Fan motorway

The main track is broad and well made, obviously used to thousands of walking boots. The route was straightforward and relatively easy; it was just a pity that some people had decided to leave dog poo bags alongside the track.

Pen-y-Fan walk
Pen-y-Fan walk

As we walked my son recounted part of the Bear Grylls book he’d just read. Bear’s SAS selection process took place in these hills and although we had an easier time than Bear this mountain shouldn’t be under-estimated. The ease of access means that people can and do get into difficulty, particularly in poor weather.

The first summit (with the flat top shown in the picture above) is actually Corn Du. We skirted around the edge, saving it for our return journey, and walked on to Pen-y-Fan. The views open up at this point and it’s a pretty spectacular view down the Neuadd valley.

A rather busy Pen-y-Fan summit!
A rather busy Pen-y-Fan summit!

A short final climb took us up onto the summit of Pen-y-Fan. I would guess there were a couple of hundred people up there enjoying the views, many more than I’ve seen on any other hill. Families with children of all ages, runners, walking groups and plenty of dogs.

Summit photo, Pen-y-Fan
Summit photo, Pen-y-Fan

We queued for a few minutes to take the obligatory summit photo. Just behind us is the view you see in the feature photo at the top of this post, incredible!

We’d been organised enough to bring a picnic and managed to find a relatively empty spot to eat it in. On bad weather days the wind would be howling across the summit but we were lucky and enjoyed our sandwiches in glorious sunshine.

Picnic on the Pen-y-Fan summit
Picnic on the Pen-y-Fan summit

On to Corn Du

Heading off of Pen-y-Fan we tackled the summit of Corn Du, the second highest peak in South Wales. It’s similar to the summit of Pen-y-Fan; in fact I had to let one family know that they weren’t quite on Pen-y-Fan, much to their kids disappointment.

Route down from Pen-y-Fan
Route down from Pen-y-Fan

It’s pretty steep coming down from Corn Du and I was pleased we’d chosen to walk up the route from Pont ar Daf rather than Storey Arms. The path drops down to a stream before climbing back up a little. We saw a couple of runners filling their water bottles in the stream but rather them than me. I’ve seen too many dead sheep in streams higher up the mountains to even consider this!

We were soon back at the car, ready to hit the M4 again. I’m glad to report that we all enjoyed Pen-y-Fan more than the usual motorway stopover.

If you’re looking for other walks in the Brecon Beacons check out my family walks near Abergavenny post. On a wet day you might like to explore Caerleon’s Roman history or Blaenavon’s industrial heritage.

More info:

  • This route starts from the Pont ar Daf car park on the A470 between Brecon and Merthyr Tydfil. We followed the 4 mile walk outlined on the National Trust website.
  • There are a couple of burger vans and some pretty foul toilets at the start of the walk.
  • We visited on a sunny clear day and there were loads of families walking the hill. However remember that the weather and visibility on top may be very different from your starting point. Always take appropriate equipment and clothing, check the weather forecast and walk within your abilities.
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