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 in the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

Back in the summer holidays we spent a day exploring the Malvern Hills. This range of hills extends for 15 kilometres across Worcestershire and Herefordshire and offers relatively easy walking for families with older children.

We arrived by train into the town of Great Malvern, having seen glimpses of the hills from our carriage. The station is about 15 minutes walk from the centre of town. It’s worth taking a quick look at its Victorian architecture, tea room and bookshop before you leave. A little twee but it’s lovely to see a station so obviously well cared for.

Great Malvern
Great Malvern

Although I’ve visited the Malvern Hills before I wasn’t entirely sure where to walk. Given the geography of the hills it’s hard to get lost but my natural sense of direction is terrible. Fortunately the tourist office provided a map showing the most popular walk options.

The route on to the hills is via ninety nine steps from the back of Rosebank Gardens which is a couple of minutes walk from the tourist office. We forgot to count how many steps there were but when you think you’ve finished there is a short stretch of uphill road.

Walking up the 99 steps to St Ann's Well, Great Malvern
Walking up the 99 steps to St Ann’s Well, Great Malvern

Our brief uphill exertion provided the perfect excuse to stop for a drink at St Ann’s Well cafe. Great Malvern was once a famous centre of hydrotherapy and visitors were transported up the hill by donkeys to drink the waters from the well. Water still flows from the well today and although there was a sign saying it isn’t currently safe to drink this didn’t deter one visitor who popped in to drink it during our stopover. My daughter was horrified that someone would ignore the notice!

Taking a break on the Malvern Hills
Taking a break on the Malvern Hills

Suitably refreshed we carried on walking towards Worcestershire Beacon. My son decided he needed another rest on a bench despite him being the youngest and probably fittest out of us.

We tackled a final steep stretch up onto the summit. At 425m Worcester Beacon is the highest point in Worcestershire so as you’d expect the views in all directions were amazing. Due to its location and height I’d imagine it’s the most popular destination in the Malvern Hills but even on a sunny summer day it was pleasantly busy rather than overcrowded.

Malvern Hills viewpoint
Malvern Hills viewpoint

It was also a convenient lunch spot particularly as there was a group of paragliders nearby who we hoped would entertain us. However, either the thermals weren’t sufficient or they were having a break too as they lay on their backs on the slope the whole time without taking off. We saw some later in the day though, circling high in the skies above Great Malvern.

Waiting for the paragliders, Malvern Hills
Waiting for the paragliders, Malvern Hills

After posing for the obligatory photo at the toposcope on Worcester Beacon we continued our walk south. We’d already tackled the highest point of the day so we enjoyed an easy downhill stroll towards Wyche Cutting. Whilst it’s possible to walk the full length of the hills in a day we were restricted by our return train time so I decided that from Wyche we’d return back to Great Malvern via a different route.

Summit of Worcestershire Beacon, Malvern Hills
Summit of Worcestershire Beacon, Malvern Hills

Wyche handily provides yet another refreshment stop at the H2O cafe which is part of the Malvern Hills Geocentre. This is a small visitor centre for the Geopark Way, a 109 mile geological route from Bridgnorth to Gloucester.  The visitor information is primarily provided by iPads but there are maps and some printed information available. We were only there for coffee and cake so it was perfect for us but I wouldn’t really visit it as a destination unless you’re planning to walk the actual trail.

Walking the Malvern Hills
Walking the Malvern Hills

Our return route provided a complete change of scenery as it skirted along the edge of the hills through woodland and past Earnslow Lake. This is the site of an old quarry. Tales abound that gold was mined nearby but the only certainty is that granite was once taken from these hills.

The Malvern Hills Conservators have landscaped the old quarry and it’s possible to walk part way around the edge of the lake. All very picturesque until the kids spotted a huge dead fish floating in the water!

Earnslow Pool, Malvern Hills
Earnslow Pool, Malvern Hills

Our path led us back to the cafe at St Ann’s Well. We had a much quicker descent down the 99 steps (which we still forgot to count) and into town. I managed to squeeze in one more cup of coffee before leaving; I think this walk broke a record in terms of number of cafés visited on a half day walk!

More info:

  • I previously linked to a leaflet outlining two walks on the north Malvern Hills  but this no longer appears available and there is no obvious replacement. Instead the website suggests purchasing walk leaflets from the tourist office.
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Imber and Copehill Down; the ghost villages of Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire

There aren’t many places in this country where you can visit two empty villages just a few miles from each other. Yet Salisbury Plain is home to two military training villages. Usually closed to the public we took advantage of an open day at Imber church and combined it with a walk across the Plain to a fake German village.

Imber village

Imber stands in the centre of Salisbury Plain, a huge expanse of grassland that the army uses as a military training area.

Until 1943 it was a small agricultural village. The MoD requisitioned Imber for military training and gave the villagers 47 days notice to evacuate. Most villagers agreed readily as they saw it as part of the war effort.  They always assumed they’d be able to return but the army eventually decided to keep the village for military use, despite the protests of locals. It’s still off limits to the public although the MoD allows access for a few days each year, usually around Christmas, Easter and August.

Salisbury Plain warning signs
Salisbury Plain warning signs

Driving along the A360 Salisbury to Devizes road we initially missed the turn off for Imber village, sidetracked by the excitement of seeing road signs with tank pictures on. The road to Imber, which is usually closed to civilian traffic, isn’t signposted but there are plenty of clues to let you know you’re driving in the right direction. These include warnings every few hundred metres about the danger of unexploded military debris if you leave the road.

Entering Imber we drove past the shells of buildings that stand either side of the road, punctuated by more warning signs. It’s only a small village and before long we’d driven out the other side. I turned the car around in the deserted road whilst the kids excitedly pointed out a rusting tank on the hillside above us.

Imber church
St Giles church, Imber

St Giles church, Imber

Heading back in we parked in the small field next to St Giles church. Unlike the rest of Imber the church remains outside of army ownership and is the main destination for visitors. Surrounded by high wire fencing and an out of bounds sign it’s maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. Inside we read information boards about the eviction. Volunteers provided refreshments; the bottled water and camping stove a reminder that this village has no utilities or concessions to visitors.

Outside I took a walk around the graveyard. Much of it has been reclaimed by nature with huge thistles attracting lots of butterflies. Some of the headstones are dated after the 1943 evacuation, including that of the village blacksmith, Albert Nash. Albert’s wife believes he died of a broken heart just a few weeks after the eviction.

Imber village, Salisbury Plain
Imber village, Salisbury Plain

After visiting the church we walked along the main road to see the other buildings. In addition to the original village buildings, most of which are in a poor state of repair, there are a number of newer house type structures built in the 1970s. These were to help soldiers prepare for the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Despite the many Keep Out warning signs I saw one man taking his young son up onto the first floor of the house shown above. The area is still used for live firing and it seemed mad to ignore the warnings.

Tilshead Down ,Salisbury Plain
Tilshead Down, Salisbury Plain

Copehill Down walk

From Imber we drove a short distance to the nearby village of Tilshead. Imber isn’t the only ghost village on Salisbury Plain and we were about to discover another one, this time purpose built by the military.

We set off on the 6 mile walk across the Plain towards the village on Copehill Down. From Tilshead Down we followed a path through an avenue of trees. These are noted for their tree graffiti, carved by soldiers in the Second World War. The kids tried to decipher some of the initials but most were unreadable as the trunks have grown and morphed the shapes of the letters.

Walking along Long Barrow, near Tilshead Down
Walking along Long Barrow, near Tilshead Down

Just off of the avenue we came across a small clearing with a sign warning us not to dig. What was there? Prehistoric skeletons or landmines? I didn’t want to find out!

FIBUA (Fighting in a Built-Up area), Copehill Down village

Mock German village, Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain
Mock German village, Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain

Our second empty village of the day lay ahead of us. This village was built as an MoD training facility in the 1980s at the end of the Cold War. Originally created as an East German village it has been updated to include an Iraqi section but this wasn’t visible from outside.

East German village, Salisbury Plain
East German village, Salisbury Plain

It’s not possible to enter the village but the track runs close to the entrances so it’s easy to look in at the houses and crashed cars. Although there weren’t any training activities taking place we spotted lots of empty blank cartridges strewn across the ground.

Walking in the tracks, Salisbury Plain
Walking in the tracks, Salisbury Plain

Salisbury Plain

After leaving we walked up onto Copehill Down and followed a stretch of the Imber Range Perimeter Path. This 30 mile long distance walk skirts the edge of the military training firing area.

Although used by the military Copehill Down is undeveloped and hasn’t been farmed in many years. This is great news for wildlife as Salisbury Plain is now the largest area of chalk grassland in north west Europe. The whole area was full of flowers, insects, butterflies and birds. So different to intensively farmed fields.

Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain
Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain

On the brow of the down my partner was incredibly excited to see a great bustard in the grasslands. This large bird was reintroduced to Britain in 2004 after becoming nationally extinct in 1832. I had been looking in the opposite direction and, annoyingly, by the time I looked the bird had disappeared into the long grass.

Just outside of Tilshead we passed White Barrow, a Neolithic long barrow in National Trust ownership. It’s one of more than 2000 archaeological sites on Salisbury Plain, many of which lay within the military area. We didn’t visit as time was against us and we were keen to get started on our return journey. Although we did have to make time to pop into the garage for some much needed ice creams and drinks!

If you get the opportunity do visit Imber and Copehill Down. The combination of military usage, environment and prehistoric sites makes for a unique day out.

More info:

  • St Giles church and Imber village can only be visited on specific open days. These usually occur at Christmas, Easter and mid-late August but check the website for up to date information. It is not possible or safe to travel to Imber outside of these dates as it is used for military operations.
  • We followed the Discovering Britain Military Environmentalism walk from Tilshead to visit the mock village on Copehill Down. This walk is always open, even when military exercises are happening in the village. There is no access to the village.
  • The St Giles church volunteers offer tea and coffee for £1, squash for 50p, both come with a biscuit. There are a couple of basic Portaloo type toilets in one of the car parking lay-bys.
  • The garage at Tilshead has a small mini-mart and toilets.
  • There is no mobile phone reception in Imber.
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A walk to Hurst castle, Hampshire

£9 for a 10 minute bus ride? I thought the driver had misheard me so I repeated our destination, Milford-on-Sea. Yes, the figure was correct; £2.50 per child and £4 per adult for a single fare.  It would have been cheaper to get a taxi, and quicker given the bus was running 25 minutes late. With gritted teeth I paid the fare and made a mental note to avoid buses in future.

Fortunately we’d had a better experience with the train. Taking advantage of our family railcard and off peak travel I’d planned a trip to Hurst Castle, a spectacularly located castle overlooking the Solent and Isle of Wight. It’s possible to walk to Hurst Castle from Lymington railway station but I thought the short bus ride to Milford would allow a linear walk and reduce mileage.

Shingle beach walk to Hurst Castle
Shingle beach walk to Hurst Castle

My mood lightened a little as we left Milford-on-Sea and attempted to run up and over the shingle bank which heads out to Hurst Castle. Easier said than done as the pebbles slipped away under our feet and the wind blew hair and sea spray across our faces. Across the Solent we could see The Needles, glistening white against the clouds.

It’s a 1.5 mile walk out along the shingle to Hurst Castle. It was surprisingly hard walking along the top of the spit, even with a stiff breeze blowing us along. After a few minutes we admitted defeat and dropped down to the sheltered side of the bank, away from the waves and wind. We walked beside the mud flats and salt marsh; they’re a haven for waders and wildfowl although the only bird I recognised was an egret.

The approach to Hurst Castle
The approach to Hurst Castle

As we walked Hurst Castle slowly came into focus. It’s a strange looking building, more of a fort really, with destructive gun batteries and protective lighthouses alongside each other.

Hurst Castle

The castle was built by Henry VIII to guard the western approach of the Solent and help protect the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth. Despite the threat of invasion the castle saw little action for much of its early history although it was used to imprison Charles I in 1648. Significant renovations and the addition of armaments were completed during the Napoleonic Wars but life at the castle remained uneventful. Further modifications took place throughout the Victorian era and up to the end of the Second World War.

Hurst Castle
Hurst Castle

Entering via the guard room we first explored the early part of the castle. The Tudor tower housed the garrison and marks on the floor outline the living accommodation. The roof was used as a gun tower but nowadays is best for its great views across the marshes and the Solent.

The original Tudor castle sits between two large wing batteries which were added between 1861 and 1874. Later in the week we visited the Isle of Wight and it’s only after seeing the castle from the seaward side that you really appreciate the positioning and structure of the building.

Old lighthouses, Hurst Castle
Old lighthouses, Hurst Castle

We continued our explorations of the remainder of the castle. We walked up and down stairs, searched nooks and crannies and balanced along old railway tracks. The two lighthouses shown above no longer work. Instead the Hurst Point lighthouse fulfils their role and there’s a small exhibition in the castle about them.

Before we left, and in the interest of research, we felt obliged to pop into the cafe for a drink. We’d already eaten our picnic but the food looked good and the cakes tempting.

Hurst Point Lighthouse
Hurst Point Lighthouse

Return to Lymington

I had planned to catch the ferry back from the castle through the marshes to Keyhaven but it was a busy summer day and the queue was long.  In case you’re wondering, the term ‘ferry’ is probably a little optimistic. Think small boat with room for about 10 people rather than Isle of Wight Red Funnel car ferry!

There also appeared to be a drama happening in one of the channels as a boat was stuck in the mud. Our boat was called into action to rescue the passengers and take them back to Keyhaven. At this point I decided it was quicker to walk back rather than wait another 20 minutes for the next ferry. Fortunately the wind had dropped since the morning, making it a less arduous walk.

Walk from Keyhaven to Lymington
Walk from Keyhaven to Lymington

Our walk back to Lymington took us past more mudflats, the boats of Keyhaven Yacht Club and clouds of butterflies. I’d under-estimated how long it would take to walk this final stretch and we had to run to reach the railway station in time for our train. We arrived sweaty and hot with a couple of minutes to spare.

We really enjoyed Hurst Castle but if you plan to visit I would definitely suggest walking one way from Lymington or Keyhaven and using the ferry service as this looked like a fun way to travel.

More info:

  • Hurst Castle is open daily from the end of March to the end of October. Check the English Heritage website for exact dates and times. An adult ticket costs £4.40, a child ticket £2.80. English Heritage members have free access.
  • The ferry runs every 20 minutes between Keyhaven and Hurst Castle during castle opening times. A single ticket costs £3.50 for adults, £2 for children.
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