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 The sun had been replaced by drizzle and mist.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.
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Our holiday explorations in and around Ardnamurchan, Lochaber

I almost don’t want to publish this blog post. After spending four amazing days in the Ardnamurchan area I am hesitant to recommend it for fear of it becoming too busy. But, as my favourite part of our Scotland holiday how can I not write about it?

Ardnamurchan Peninsula is a 50 mile square area of land, famous for its remoteness. We stayed in a neighbouring district, Sunart, and explored both the peninsula and surrounding areas. So what did we do?

Strontian, Sunart

This was the base for our stay. It’s about 12 miles from the Corran ferry, which itself is 6 miles from Fort William. The ferry, which runs every 20 minutes or so, only takes a few minutes to cross Loch Linnhe. But on the other side you feel like you’re a world away from the busy A82.

Corran ferry
Corran ferry

We found the village of Strontian an ideal holiday base. Located at the northern end of Loch Sunart, there’s a couple of shops, cafe, hotel and campsite. There’s even a police station but I cannot imagine they’re very busy!

View from Strontian
View from Strontian

We stayed in a wooden cabin at Sunart Camping. Although small it was cleverly designed and included a small kitchenette and toilet. It’s not luxurious but a definite step up from camping and the kids loved staying in a fairytale cabin.

Our wooden cabin at Sunart Camping
Our wooden cabin at Sunart Camping

Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide, Ardery

A few miles from Strontian, and overlooking Loch Sunart, this hide is evidently one of the best places in the country to see otters. That said, we visited on four occasions and still didn’t see an otter. Gorgeous sunsets though.

View from Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide
View from Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide

Aside from otters, you are near enough guaranteed to see seals and herons, both of whom live on the rocks opposite the hide. The seals can do a pretty good impersonation of an otter so they livened things up for us a couple of times. There’s a telescope but bring binoculars if you have them.

Drive to Ardnamurchan Point

Single track road on Ardnamurchan
Single track road on Ardnamurchan

A notice on the Strontian tourist office window states a driving time of 1 hour 30 minutes to cover the 35 miles from Strontian to Ardnamurchan Point. Hard to believe until you leave Strontian and discover it’s a single track road with passing places all the way to Ardnamurchan Point.

View of Ben Hiant and Camus Nan Geall
View of Ben Hiant and Camus Nan Geall

That said, it’s a fabulous drive. The road winds its way along the shore of Loch Sunart, curves around Ben Hiant and crosses an ancient volcanic landscape. It’s as spectacular as it sounds!

Ardnamurchan Point
Ardnamurchan Point

We stopped en route for morning coffee at the Ardnamurchan Natural History and Visitor Centre. Primarily a shop and cafe there’s also a small exhibition on the local wildlife. Golden eagle sightings appear to be common here. But I think they were off playing with the otters during our visit.

Ardnamurchan Lighthouse

Accessed via the most westerly set of traffic lights in mainland Britain Ardnamurchan Lighthouse is one of a handful of tourist attractions in Ardnamurchan (aside from the amazing scenery of course) so near enough everyone ends up here. There must have been at least ten cars in the car park.

Most westerly traffic lights on mainland Britain, Ardnamurchan lighthouse
Most westerly traffic lights on mainland Britain, Ardnamurchan lighthouse

The lighthouse was automated in 1988 and is operated remotely but visitors can climb both the tower and visit the slightly dated exhibition centre (check opening times first). We had a short wait before our lighthouse tour so temporarily retreated to the cafe to hide from the rain showers.

We worked off our cafe excesses with a climb up the 140 spiral stairs to the top of the lighthouse. Followed by another ten steps up a ladder. At the top we were treated to views out to the Small Isles, including Eigg which we visited a couple of years ago.

Ardnamurchan lighthouse
Ardnamurchan lighthouse

Ardnamurchan is one of the best places in the UK to see basking sharks and minke whales. The lighthouse guide pointed out a whale watching boat and we followed its course  in the hope of spotting whales, dolphins or porpoise. Anything really. Once again we were unlucky with our wildlife sightings. To add insult to injury our guide told us he’d recently watched an orca take a seal from the nearby colony, flip it in the air and eat it. Oh well, at least we saw the seals.

Walk from Portuairk to Sanna beaches

The weather had brightened by the time we left the lighthouse, which was fortunate as I had a walk planned.

Portuairk, Ardnamurchan
Portuairk, Ardnamurchan

Starting from the nearby crofting village of Portuairk we walked along the coast to the sandy beaches of Sanna.

Sanna beaches, Ardnamurchan
Sanna beaches, Ardnamurchan

You know those photographs which look like the Caribbean but were actually taken in Scotland? Well, this is where you’ll find some of those amazing beaches. And there’s hardly another person to be seen.

Beach at Sanna, Ardnamurchan Peninsula
Beach at Sanna, Ardnamurchan Peninsula

We walked as far as the car park at Sanna before returning to Portuairk via the same route. The beaches at Sanna are spectacular but be aware there are no facilities. No toilet, no cafe, no shop. Bring a picnic or stop off at the Ardnamurchan lighthouse cafe first.

Ariundle National Nature Reserve, near Strontian

The native oakwoods near Strontian offer a variety of easy walks. We followed the marked 3 mile Ariundle Trail which took us through the moss and lichen covered trees before we crossed the river and returned to Strontian.

Ariundle Trail, near Strontian
Ariundle Trail, near Strontian

In hindsight we should have walked the route anti-clockwise for the best views up the glen. But it was easy to turn round every few minutes to check out the mountain views behind.

Singing sands walk, near Kentra

This was an out and back walk of three distinct parts.

The first part of the walk follows a good track around the edge of a tidal mudflat.

Kentra Bay walk
Kentra Bay walk

The second stage took us though a rather eerie forestry plantation. We followed a large stony path through the middle, rather baffled at the seven foot wooden fence protecting one side. I later found out this was the location of a Channel 4 reality programme (Eden) where contestants spent a year living in the wilderness. Given the clouds of midges we encountered whenever we stopped to shelter from the rain I didn’t envy them in this location.

We finally reached the beach and the rain stopped sufficiently for a rainbow to form. There are, supposedly, otters on the beach but you can already guess we didn’t see any!

View from Singing Sands at Gortenfern
View from Singing Sands at Gortenfern

Castle Tioram, near Acharacle

Castle Tioram is a ruined castle on a tidal island. The castle itself is off limit to visitors as it’s awaiting restoration but we walked across the causeway for a closer look. We didn’t hang around as the weather was against us.

Castle Tioram
Castle Tioram

Fortunately we found a great tea room at nearby Acharacle. Perfect for drying off, eating cake and using Wi-Fi.

Despite the lack of wildlife (excluding midges) we loved our few days on Ardnamurchan. One of the highlights so far on my UK bucket list. And just for the record, we finally saw a golden eagle on our last afternoon!

More info

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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).

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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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