Puffins and bluebells on Skomer, Pembrokeshire

Twenty odd years ago I spent a week volunteering as an assistant warden on Skomer, a small island off the coast of south west Wales. It was a formative experience of my 20s; the beauty of the island, the conservation work and the volunteers are all ingrained in my memory.

Bluebells and sea campion, Skomer
Bluebells and sea campion, Skomer

It’s always tricky to revisit a place that holds such strong memories but I wanted to return with the kids when they were old enough to enjoy it. Our recent holiday to Pembrokeshire gave me the ideal opportunity; I knew the visit would be completely different but would I regret returning?

Puffin on Skomer island
Puffin on Skomer island

The boat to Skomer

The boat to Skomer leaves from the small bay of Martin’s Haven. As the island has a limit of 250 day visitors you need to arrive early if you’re travelling during peak season. We were visiting on the late May Bank Holiday so didn’t take any chances and were in the queue for tickets by 8am.

Our early start paid off and we were allocated seats on the first day visitor sailing. Our boat, the Dale Princess, makes the 10 minute journey several times a day which is reassuring given the notorious reputation of Jack Sound, the stretch of water that separates Skomer from the mainland. I was glad it was only a short journey as the swell was considerable despite it being a calm day.

Skomer guillemots
Skomer guillemots

As we neared the landing stage we were surrounded by seabirds, mostly puffins, bobbing in the sea around us. After disembarking we were directed up a flight of steps, past ledges full of guillemots, for an introductory talk by the warden. 

The warden described the island as a piece of Swiss cheese. This is a perfect analogy. Three of its main inhabitants live in the burrows which cover the island; puffins, rabbits and Manx shearwaters. Whilst you’re likely to see both puffins (in season) and rabbits the Manx shearwaters arrive and leave in darkness. Only overnight visitors will witness the vocal cacophony of the shearwaters that return to the island each evening.

Visitor centre and volunteer accommodation, Skomer
Visitor centre and volunteer accommodation, Skomer

We had around 5 hours which is more than enough time to walk a circuit of the island. Our first stop was a trip to the Old Farm, which houses a small visitor exhibition and, most importantly, the only public toilets on the island. It’s also the location of the volunteer accommodation, which I was keen to show the family, even though the kids weren’t particularly impressed by my reminiscing.

Skomer volunteer accommodation - 1990s vs 2015
Skomer volunteer accommodation – 1990s vs 2015

The volunteer accommodation had certainly had a makeover since my earlier visit, as you can see from the then and now photo. Our converted cowshed (top photo) had no running water and very rudimentary facilities. I’m not sure what I smelt like after a week with no shower but I doubt it was fragrant!

We continued walking on towards Skomer Head. As with much of the Pembrokeshire coast the island is carpeted with flowers during late spring. At home (Oxfordshire) the bluebells have finished for the year but they were still flowering in abundance on Skomer, along with pink campion and sea thrift. 

Walking through the bluebells, Skomer
Walking through the bluebells, Skomer

We saw plenty of rabbits as we walked. Rather disconcertedly the first one was black and white which made the kids wonder if a pet rabbit had escaped. The rabbits were introduced to the island in the 13th Century and were raised by locals for their fur and meat. Hence many are from domesticated stock and aren’t the traditional brown colour.

We didn’t actually miss out on seeing Manx shearwaters either. Although sadly they were dead ones! Skomer is home to the largest population of Manx shearwater in the world and they’re easy picking for greater black backed gulls. As we walked around the island we saw plenty of Manx shearwater carcasses in various states of decomposition. My son delighted in taking photographs of these, I’m not quite sure what that says about his psyche.

Skomer signpost
Skomer signpost

We stopped for an early picnic lunch near Skomer Head where we attempted to spot porpoise. We were out of luck so contented ourselves with views of Grassholm, renamed gannet island by the kids. The island is home to thousands of gannets, who are responsible for the snow covered appearance of the island (bird poo).

The Wick

After lunch it was on to the main attraction, The Wick. This sheer cliff is rammed full of seabirds, mostly guillemots and razorbills, which you can hear just as well as you can see. All the visitors to the island seemed to congregate here too as it’s the best place to watch puffins on Skomer.

Skomer puffins
Skomer puffins

This year’s puffin count recorded more than 21,000 individuals, the highest number ever. The footpath runs between the puffin burrows and the cliff so visitors are treated to great close up views of the birds. There was no need for binoculars, although there was a Skomer volunteer manning a telescope focused on The Wick for better views of other seabirds.

I remember my volunteer work consisted of boardwalk building and a bird count. I should probably apologise for any inaccuracies in puffin numbers during the early 1990s. It was hard to accurately count birds that wouldn’t stay in one place for long!

Puffin burrows, Skomer
Puffin burrows, Skomer

The puffin burrows are marked with numbered sticks. These help the volunteers record which burrows are occupied and which eggs have hatched. Every so often a startled puffin emerged from one of the burrows, let out a squirt of poo and escaped the cameras by heading out to sea.

Of course puffins are not the only bird on the island. They’re not even the main attraction for the serious birdwatcher. The Skomer island blog shows that a black stork flew over on the day we visited; previous visitors this year include several golden orioles and even hoopoes! Needless to say we didn’t see any of these, but we were quite content with puffins.

View over to The Neck, Skomer
View over to The Neck, Skomer

After we finally tore ourselves away from The Wick we headed back to our start point, stopping to take in the glorious views over The Neck (inaccessible to day visitors). The photo above really doesn’t do it justice as the ground was covered in swathes of bluebells and pink campion.

We arrived back at the landing stage earlier than our planned departure time so that I could take some photographs of the guillemots we’d passed earlier. As it turned out, the boat arrived early too and we were allocated seats on an impromptu 2.30pm sailing. The trip back was completely calm, no spray and no swell, much more pleasant.

Boarding the Dale Princess, Skomer
Boarding the Dale Princess, Skomer

Did my return visit live up to expectations? Of course it did, and the rest of the family enjoyed it too. Sadly there was no sign of the boardwalk we built, but the island was exactly how I remembered it, with added puffins.

If you’re visiting the area you might also like to read my blog post about things to do near St Davids, Pembrokeshire.

More info:

  • Access to Skomer. The island is open from 1 April to 30 September, except Mondays (although it is open on Bank Holiday Mondays). It is not possible to book  trips in advance so on busy days during peak puffin season you should aim to be in the queue at Lockley Lodge, Martin’s Haven before 8am. Once you’ve got to the front of this queue and paid your landing fee you’ll be allocated a boat departure time. The landing fee is £10 for adults, children under 16 and members of the local Wildlife Trust are free.
  • Taking the boat to Skomer. The boat officially departs at 10am, 11am and 12 noon (although we were allocated a place on a 9.30am boat). It only sails when conditions allow. In particular, a strong northerly wind can mean no sailings; you can check latest boat information via @skomer_boatinfo on Twitter. The boat departure point is about 5 minutes walk downhill from Lockley Lodge. The fee is paid on the boat in cash only; this is £11 for adults, £7 for children.
  • When can you see puffins on Skomer? The best time to see puffins is May to mid-July. Most have left by early August.
  • What facilities are on Skomer? There are basic toilet facilities on Skomer but that’s all; there’s nowhere to buy food so bring a picnic with you. You can however hire a pair of binoculars; these cost £5 and are recommended if you’ve forgotten to bring your own.
  • Is Skomer suitable for children? Yes, but with some reservations. There are 87 steps to climb from the boat landing stage and much of the island is rugged terrain with open cliffs, visitors must remain on paths at all times. There are only a couple of  places to shelter on Skomer so visit on a dry day. Lastly consider whether it’s the kind of place your family would enjoy. If you’re looking for beaches, a cafe etc it won’t meet your expectations. If you’re happy to wander round the island, stop to watch wildlife and enjoy a picnic you’ll be fine. There are kids trails available, pick one up from the warden at the introductory talk.
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An amazing walk from Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucs

This 4 mile circular walk from Bourton-on-the-Water takes in two Cotswold villages, a nature reserve and, not one, but two mazes. Hence the cheesy pun in the title!

Tourist literature describes Bourton-on-the-Water as ‘Venice of the Cotswolds’. Whilst the River Windrush flows through the village it doesn’t bear much resemblance to Venice except for the crowds of visitors. Once you’ve put the analogy aside it’s an enjoyable place to spend a few hours and, as we found, it’s easy to escape the tourist hordes.

Greystones Farm nature Reserve
Greystones Farm nature Reserve

As is almost always the case, a 10 minute walk from the village centre took us away from the day trippers. We left Bourton-on-the-Water via Greystones Farm Nature Reserve, which is managed by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.

We followed the route through the farmyard past an unusual looking building marked with the words ‘Lely Astronaut’. I thought it might be an observatory but we found a small viewing window and realised it was a robotic milking parlour. We watched one of the cows for a while, hoping to see it getting milked, but the cow had other ideas so we left it in peace.

Unusual gate at Greystones Farm nature Reserve
Unusual gate at Greystones Farm nature Reserve

Leaving the farmyard we encountered this gate which had a convenient person shaped hole in it. It wasn’t so convenient for the people behind us who had multiple dogs, one of whom they were pulling along in a cycle trailer!

Further on we found some badger setts. The badgers were tucked up underground as it was the middle of the day but it would be great to stake out one of the setts.

Checking for badgers
Checking for badgers

We walked on through meadows before crossing the River Eye and River Dickler. Otters and water voles evidently frequent these rivers but we searched in vain for footprints on the banks. Even though we didn’t see signs of these elusive animals it was great to explore the incredibly clear rivers.

River Dickler, Greystones Farm
River Dickler, Greystones Farm

We managed to take a wrong turning after crossing the bridge. As we walked on the instructions started to differ from the route and when we reached a road it became obvious we’d gone the wrong way. Whoops. Fortunately we’d bought an OS map so we could work out where we were supposed to be, just a pity I hadn’t checked it sooner. On the positive side we did hear our first cuckoo of the year.

We reached the village of Wyck Rissington via our unplanned road detour. This unspoilt Cotswold village is a complete contrast to the tourist honeypot of Bourton-on-the-Water. We only saw one other person in the village visiting its picturesque duckpond and Cotswold stone buildings.

Wyck Rissington
Wyck Rissington

Wyck Rissington does have a couple of claims to fame. The composer Holst worked as an organist in the church in 1892. Holst enthusiasts can follow the 35 mile Gustav Holst walk which passes through places associated with the composer and ends at the church.

Of more interest to us was a story I’d heard about a maze in the rectory garden. It turned out we were 30 years too late as it was dismantled when the rectory was sold. However there is a mosaic inside the church which is a copy of the original maze. Can you complete it?

Mosaic maze in Wyck Rissington church
Mosaic maze in Wyck Rissington church

Our walk back to Bourton-on-the-Water was almost scuppered when we encountered a dog walker who told us about a herd of cows blocking our access ahead. Neither my daughter or I are fans but after checking the map we realised we’d either have to retrace our earlier route or brave the cows. With some nervousness we settled on the latter. We had several fields to cross; each one was carefully checked but there were no cows to be seen. Either they’d gone in for milking or the dog walker had imagined them. I was relieved!

The final stretch of walk took us past fishing lakes back into the village and onto our second maze of the day.

Dragonfly Maze, Bourton-on-the-Water

One of the reasons Bourton-on-the Water is so popular is because of its many attractions. These include Birdland, a model village, motor museum and a maze. We had time to spare after our walk so decided to explore the Dragonfly Maze.

Dragonfly Maze, Bourton-on-the-Water
Dragonfly Maze, Bourton-on-the-Water

Dragonfly Maze is a yew maze with a twist. In addition to finding the centre of the maze we needed to solve clues along the way in order to fully enjoy the attraction at the centre (I’m trying not to give anything away here).

The clues are picture based, similar to the top left hand photograph above. We didn’t manage to find one of them but were still able to solve the puzzle. The maze took us about 30 minutes to finish; it’s not particularly big but the added puzzle made it an entertaining way to finish our walk.

Smiths of Bourton tearoom

In my view, a walk can only be perfect if there’s a good tearoom somewhere en route. We were spoilt for choice in the village but settled on Smiths of Bourton tearoom.

We initially visited for lunch before our walk; I had a Ploughmans, the children sandwiches and my partner a fish finger sandwich. They were all delicious although my partner hadn’t expected either tomato ketchup or mushy peas inside his sandwich. This was rather unfortunate as he doesn’t like them; fortunately both kids do so after some sandwich swapping everyone ended up with something they enjoyed.

Smiths of Bourton
Smiths of Bourton

We returned after our walk for cake and coffee. My daughter was embarrassed to see one of her school teachers sitting on the table next to us, particularly as we were a good hour’s drive from home. I, on the other hand, was happy to see that the tearoom offered a selection of 3 smaller size cakes for £3.95. Perfect for me as I can never make up my mind. I chose fruit, carrot and chocolate cakes to share with the kids. If I’d been a proper food blogger I’d have Instagrammed the cakes, but I only thought about this after I’d ate them. You’ll just have to take my word that they were all delicious, a perfect end to our afternoon walk.

If you’ve enjoyed this you might also want to read about our walk from Winchcombe to Belas Knap or our climb up to Broadway Tower.

More info:

  • We followed the Bourton-on-the-Water and Wyck Rissington Jubilee walk. It’s 4 miles long and flat so easy to do with children. There are loads of cafés, pubs and other facilities available in Bourton.
  • The Dragonfly Maze is open year round, depending on the weather. A family ticket for 2 adults and 2 children under 12 costs £9.
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Great Bedwyn and Wilton windmill walk, Wiltshire

This AA circular walk from Great Bedwyn is full of variety and at just over 5 miles is perfect for families. Encompassing a canalside walk, the option to visit two industrial heritage attractions and finishing with a woodland trail there’s plenty to keep kids occupied.

Great Bedwyn Post Office and shop
Great Bedwyn Post Office and shop

Our walk started from the village of Great Bedwyn. We passed the village Post Office, intriguingly adorned with stone plaques and monuments. They’re a legacy of Lloyd’s stonemasons who once operated in the village. My son couldn’t resist pressing the ‘Operate’ button on a pineapple shaped fountain; fortunately for him there was no water in it.

Footpath past St Mary's church, Great Bedwyn
Footpath past St Mary’s church, Great Bedwyn

Walking past the church we found even more stonework as the path was made of headstones! We crossed over the railway track (used by high speed trains so cross carefully) to reach the canal.

Kennet and Avon canal, Great Bedwyn
Kennet and Avon canal, Great Bedwyn

Kennet and Avon canal

Our route took us alongside the canal for 1.5 miles. There weren’t many boats around but we did stop to watch one going through the locks. I often fancy hiring a canal boat for the weekend but I think I’d be a little nervous about crashing it.

Butterbur - not a rare orchid!
Butterbur – not a rare orchid!

The flower above lined the ditch beside the canal path. I’d never seen one before so hoped it was something rare. However my mum immediately identified it as butterbur, not rare at all. The plant has many herbal medicine uses and its leaves were once used to wrap butter, hence the name.

Kennet and Avon canal, Great Bedwyn
Kennet and Avon canal, Great Bedwyn

The Crofton pumping station marked the turning off point of our canal walk. Crofton Beam Engines were built around 200 years ago to help supply water to the upper stretches of the Avon and Kennet canal. The engines still work and are generally open for steaming weekends once a month.

Crofton Pumping station
Crofton Pumping station

From Crofton we walked into the village of Wilton. Wilton has the most pristine duck pond I’ve ever seen. Surrounded by picture postcard thatched cottages, one of the gardens had a small rowing boat temptingly moored next to it. My daughter has decided she’s going to live in the village when she’s older; I daren’t tell her how much it’s likely to cost!

Wilton Windmill
Wilton Windmill

Wilton windmill

It’s a relatively short, but uphill, walk to the nearby Wilton windmill. Wilton windmill was built in 1821 and was in use for 100 years before falling into disuse. The mill was subsequently restored and is once again used for making flour. We could only look from the outside as we hadn’t managed to co-ordinate our visit with its opening hours.

'Stick' fighting, Bedwyn Brail
‘Stick’ fighting, Bedwyn Brail

The last part of the trail took us back through the woods. Although we were never in serious danger of getting lost there were a few points where I wondered whether we were going the right way. Quite a few areas had been felled recently creating new clearings, which meant the walk instructions were harder to follow.

We knew we were on the right path when the village of Great Bedwyn came into view. A final downhill stretch, a short walk along the canal and we were back at the car having enjoyed a great afternoon walk.

If you enjoyed this you might also like to read about our walk up and down the Caen locks or our Cold War walk on Greenham Common. Alternatively if you fancy more of a challenge how about cycling along the Kennet and Avon Canal or an overnight backpack along the Lambourn Valley Way.

More info

  • Check the Crofton Beam Engines website for details of opening hours and dates. Adults cost £4.50 for static open days or £8 when the engines are in steam; children are free.
  • Wilton windmill is open 3-5pm on Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays between Easter and the end of September. Adult tickets are £4 each, children are free. Even if the windmill itself is closed you can still walk around the site, view from the outside and use the picnic benches.
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Family walks around Faversham, Kent

The image above sums up our introduction to Faversham in North Kent. We arrived on a miserable day and after dropping off our luggage headed to the local nature reserve to stretch our legs. Contrary to what you may think I rather like the bleakness of the mudflats against the grey sky.

Faversham may not be an obvious tourist destination but it has an interesting history. In particular it was home to the first gunpowder plant in the country, an industry that featured in most of our walks.

Oare Marshes Nature Reserve

Oare Marshes Nature Reserve comprises an area of saltmarsh, mudflats and reed beds. We followed part of the nature trail from the visitor centre along to the hide where we stopped to look for birds. The track forms part of a 2km route around the reserve and is perfect for a short evening walk.

Looking over to Sheppey island
Looking over to Sheppey island

There are good views over to the Isle of Sheppey which looks tantalisingly close across the Swale Estuary. At one time a ferry operated to the island from the causeway but nowadays it’s a 45 minute detour by road.

Oare Marshes nature reserve
Oare Marshes nature reserve

The tide was out so we watched the birds wading through the mudflats. I’m no expert, but my other half informs me they included curlew, avocet, redshank and shoveler ducks.

Oare marshes
Oare marshes

It’s hard to believe but this peaceful place was once home to a gunpowder factory. In 1916 a huge explosion occurred at the nearby Guncotton factory in Uplees which killed more than 100 men and boys. Despite being heard as far away as Norwich the explosion was kept secret for several weeks, presumably due to the ongoing war. Much of the factory that once stood on this marsh was destroyed although there are still remnants of concrete bases in the grassland.

Gunpowder Works Country Park

This is a small reserve that’s full of interest. As its name indicates it is sited on the remains of a former gunpowder factory. The park contains relics from it’s industrial past, including parts of the mills and the leats (canals created to enable movement of gunpowder around the site).

Gunpowder Mills country park
Gunpowder Mills country park

Gunpowder was produced here until the 1930s when the site was closed and left to nature for more than 70 years. Nowadays the woodland is managed and new structures such as a boardwalk across the marshland have been put in place.

Gunpowder Works Country Park
Gunpowder Works Country Park

There’s a small visitor centre based in the old cooperage, where the gunpowder barrels were once made. When it’s open you can find out more about the history of the site and pick up a walking trail leaflet. Walks around the park are colour coded; we chose the longest yellow circuit which took about an hour.

Looking up, Gunpowder Mills country park
Looking up, Gunpowder Mills country park

If you’re in the area on a weekend afternoon you can also visit Chart Gunpowder Mills. Situated in the middle of a housing estate you’ll find Faversham’s first gunpowder factory. It’s a fully working mill but given its location I assume they don’t manufacture the gunpowder!

Faversham town and creek

The town of Faversham is great for random wandering. We walked through the town, nosing at the various houses, along to Standard Quay. Whilst the area where the barges are moored is interesting, most of Standard Quay appears to be given over antique shops.We’re not ‘antique tourists’ so carried on through to Iron Wharf. This is a working boatyard where you’ll find boats in all stages of repair.

Faversham creek boatyard
Faversham creek boatyard

We weren’t sure if we were supposed to be walking through as it’s a bit haphazard with rusting boats and containers stacked on top of each other. There’s a definite boating community feel to the area and lots of different vessels to look at. At the end of the boatyard there’s a small bridge that takes you out on to the marshes, and signs for the Saxon Shore Way which indicated we’d been on the right route. We turned back soon after, but if we’d felt energetic we could have walked all the way to Whitstable. Next time maybe!

More info:

  • Oare Marshes Nature Reserve is open all year round. There’s no entrance charge.
  • The Gunpowder Works Country Park is open from 9am-5pm daily. The visitor centre (where the only toilets are) is open from 10.30am-4.30pm at weekends between April-November.
  • Chart Gunpowder Mills are open 2-5pm weekend afternoons from April to October. It’s a bit tricky to find so keep a close eye out for the signs whilst driving round the estate.
  • We didn’t follow a specific trail in Faversham but if you want to know what you’re actually looking at this walk looks perfect. It’s a flat 4 mile route through the town and along Faversham Creek.
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