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
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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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2016 starling murmuration, RSPB Otmoor, Oxfordshire

I hadn’t planned to write about our latest visit to RSPB Otmoor. I’ve already written about our previous trips to watch the starling murmuration here and here. Added to this I have loads of half-drafted blog posts which I really need to finish! Yet an estimated 50,000 starlings and an almost supermoon changed my mind.

This way to the starlings, RSPB Otmoor
This way to the starlings, RSPB Otmoor

Starling murmuration

Our previous trips to watch the Otmoor starling murmuration were memorable for the wrong reasons. We turned up way too early the first time, and although we had a great view of the murmuration we were almost frozen to the spot. The second time we decided to visit later so that we didn’t have to hang around. But we were too late. Never mind, at least we saw a good sunset.

Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor
Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor

Our timing, and the weather, were spot on this year. It wasn’t all perfect though; so many people come to watch the murmuration that the small car park gets very busy. We were fortunate to get a space but do car share if you plan to visit, otherwise you may have a long walk down from the village.

Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor
Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor

Back to the all important timing. We left the car park at 3.30pm, and took about 20 minutes to walk to the starling viewpoint. We passed several serious looking bird watchers heading the opposite way so I worried we were too late. I needn’t have been. An RSPB warden at the hide informed us the starlings would arrive in 10 minutes.

Moon from RSPB Otmoor
Moon from RSPB Otmoor

The warden must have had a direct line to the starlings as they flew in almost to the predicted minute (which strangely was later than the previous time, when we missed them). Flocks started arriving from all directions. Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be any starlings left elsewhere in Oxfordshire another flock would swoop and swirl in. And then another. And another. All settling down into the reedbeds for the night. Not that I think they’ll have got much sleep given the noise they were making.

Moon from RSPB Otmoor
Moon from RSPB Otmoor

Supermoon

Almost as spectacular as the starlings was the rising moon. We visited the day before the supposed ‘supermoon’ (which was a non-event in Oxfordshire due to cloud). There were no clouds to spoil our view that night at Otmoor. Simply a huge illuminated ball rising above the flat plain. Absolutely breathtaking. The perfect accompaniment for our walk back to the car park.

More info

  • The RSPB website has travel directions and further information on visiting Otmoor. Please park responsibly!

Linking up with:

Untold Morsels
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