If you’re looking for a short quirky walk in Gloucestershire how about visiting a ship’s graveyard? We spent an hour discovering the Purton hulks, one of my British bucket list items, on the way home from an overnight stay at St Briavels Castle YHA.
Gloucester and Sharpness Canal
After parking opposite the church in Purton, we crossed the bridge and followed a sign directing us to the Purton hulks. This took us along a towpath, bordered on one side by the Gloucester and Sharpness canal and the River Severn on the other.
The 16.5 mile canal runs, as you’d expect, between Gloucester and Sharpness. Built to bypass a dangerous stretch of the River Severn it was once the deepest and broadest canal in the world. Nowadays it’s mainly used by pleasure craft and kayakers. In the not too distant past oil tankers and even submarines have navigated its waters!
After 15 minutes or so we reached the first few boats. Between 1909 and the 1970s vessels were deliberately beached along the River Severn to shore up the banks and protect the land between the river and canal.
Today there are over 80 vessels in the ship graveyard. Many are hidden under grass or silt. Some are in an advanced state of decay with just the rotting timbers and huge bolts remaining. You certainly need to keep your eyes on the ground, partly so you don’t miss anything but also to avoid the trip hazards.
There’s a huge variety of boats here, from schooners to concrete barges. The Friends of Purton group have investigated and published in-depth histories of each of the vessels on their website. Each ship has a name plaque which you can look up online.
In the same way that I loved learning about the residents of Highgate Cemetery on our recent visit, I enjoyed finding out about the vessels at Purton.
The ship below is Harriett, the last known example of a Kennet built barge. She spent her life in the Bristol docks area, carrying grain and wood pulp.
This is Edith, a Chepstow trow. She used to transport coal between Bristol and the Forest of Dean. Edith has an eventful past, with several collisions and groundings. She was finally beached in the 1960s.
There’s not a lot left of Sally, also known as King. Beached during a snowstorm in 1951 much of her history is a mystery although she may have originated in the Caribbean. Sadly she has suffered at the hands of arsonists who have burnt her timbers in order to extract metals from them.
Photographers will have a field day exploring the hulks. Historians and boat lovers too. I don’t particularly class myself as any of these but they’re well worth a visit. Just don’t leave it too long. They won’t be here forever!
After you reach the last of the accessible boats the path leads back up to the canal. From here you can return along the towpath. Or, if you fancy a longer walk, head into Sharpness in the opposite direction.
The Friends of Purton website is a mine of information with copious detail on the ships and their histories.
Wear wellies or boots after rain. It will be very muddy!
If the canal path from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon had its own theme tune it would consist of bicycle bells and whirring tyres; to say it’s a popular cycling route is an understatement. Indeed, if you’ve arrived here from my UK bucket list link you’re probably expecting to read about our cycle ride beside the canal. But, for various reasons, we ended up walking instead; read on to find out how we got on.
Bath to Bathwick
We joined the Kennet and Avon canal path immediately behind Bath railway station. Connecting Bristol to Reading, the canal opened in 1810 but fell into disuse and dereliction following the opening of the railway in 1841. Restored and fully reopened in 1990 it’s now a popular amenity for locals and visitors.
The first mile or so winds through the city; past locks, under bridges and opposite mansions with their honeyed stone and pristine gardens. Two hundred years ago the canal would have been busy carrying coal into Bath and stone out. Several features along the route hark back to those days, including the pumphouse chimney. This was built in an ornate style as the local wealthy residents didn’t want to look out on to an industrial structure!
At Darlington Wharf we came across a floating market. Narrow boat businesses were moored alongside the path offering, amongst others, a sweet shop, wooden crafts and clothing. A little further on we spotted a boat with a Polling Station sign; not sure if it really was or whether the sign had been relocated from elsewhere!
On a warm spring weekend the canal towpath was busy with dog walkers, weekend joggers and cyclists. Ah yes, the cyclists. I’m far from anti-cyclist but when they whoosh past at great speed or cycle in groups across the entire path it’s hard to have a positive view. Of course there were plenty of considerate people too but given that we rarely walked more than 100m without meeting cyclists it only took a few to spoil our enjoyment.
At Bathampton we couldn’t resist a stop at the Cafe on the Barge, a tiny café in a narrow boat. Primarily offering drinks and cakes, I highly recommend the carrot cake. We sat on the small open deck, completely forgetting we were on a boat until another craft came by and rocked the waters. There are seats on the canal towpath too as there’s not much room on the boat itself.
Walking on we enjoyed watching the variety of canal users. A mix of holiday barges, day rentals, homes and (further on) a defunct lifeboat chug up the canal and line the moorings. It’s easy to tell the difference. Those belonging to long term residents are often laden with bikes, wood, pot plants and Buddha statues. The hire boats were usually more pristine, with traditional decoration aside from the holiday company logos.
We heard the swimmers and picnickers at Warleigh Weir, near Claverton, way before we saw them. This beauty spot on the river (not the canal) can be reached by a short walk downhill and across the railway line. I’ve no idea what it’s normally like but on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday the field beside the river was packed with people. Rather like Bournemouth beach on a sunny day.
Elsewhere in Claverton there’s a pumping station which was built to transport water from the River Avon to the canal. Fully restored it operates on selected dates (advertised on the canal noticeboards). It was closed during our walk but reviews suggest it’s worth a visit when it’s open.
Leaving Claverton behind we walked a rural stretch of the canal. The bees and butterflies were out and everything looked a vibrant green in the spring sunshine. A little further on there’s a small wooded area beside the path where the garlic smell hits you before you see the white carpet of ramsons.
One of the highlights of this walk are the two aqueducts built to carry the canal over the River Avon.
Completed in 1805, Dundas Aqueduct is 137 metres long with three arches. We walked across it and down the steps to the river bank for the best view. It’s a grand imposing structure but has had its problems over the years. It spent much of the 1960s and 1970s drained dry due to leaks and has now been lined with polythene and concrete. Materials not available to the original builders!
It was another three miles to Avoncliff aqueduct. Three more miles of cyclists. Three very warm miles with empty water bottles. You can hardly blame us for another cafe stop. This time at the No 10 Tea Gardens, handily located alongside the aqueduct. I smiled inwardly as I watched a couple of teens revising for their GCSEs in the tea garden; well, their books were open but I think they were on a break.
Avoncliff Aqueduct was designed by John Rennie (who also designed Dundas Aqueduct). Not bad for a first attempt at an aqueduct, albeit the central span sagged soon after completion and had to be repaired several times. Where were the Romans when you need them?
I had a navigation ‘moment’ after leaving the tea room. Seriously, how can anyone get lost following a canal? Er, it’s quite easy if you end up on the road because you can’t find the canal path! (Hint, walk under the aqueduct). Navigation error aside the last couple of miles passed uneventfully. Still plenty of cyclists but this time along a broad track so plenty of room for all.
The very last section took us through Barton Farm Country Park. Not quite Bournemouth beach busy this time but it appeared very popular with family groups.
We reached Bradford-on-Avon late afternoon. I’ve only driven through the town before so thought we’d do a spot of sightseeing before taking the train back to Bath. But our cafe studded walk meant we arrived later than planned. And everywhere appeared shut. And we were hot and tired. So after a celebratory ice cream we headed straight to the railway station. Next time…
If you’re looking for an alternative route in Bath (without cyclists) head over to my Bath Skyline walk report.
The route from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon is approximately 10 miles. For further details on the Kennet and Avon Canal pop over to the Canal & River Trust website.
The kids could barely contain their excitement when I told them we were going to visit a lavender field. Followed by a Cold War bunker. A strange combination perhaps but as they’re only a few miles apart I thought it was the perfect opportunity to visit two more places on my UK bucket list.
My youngest stated he’d prefer to stay at home on the Xbox and the eldest asked why we couldn’t just go to Thorpe Park instead (like normal people). Surely, I suggested to them, it’s more fun to experience an authentic Cold War bunker….
Cotswold Lavender Farm, near Snowshill
Lavender fields have become a ‘thing’ in the last couple of years. Similar to bluebell woods. Everyone jostling to get a photo of their loved ones sitting amongst the flowers. But there’s a reason for their popularity. They’re incredibly photogenic!
Cotswold Lavender is open from mid-June until the flowers are harvested in early August. We visited the first weekend in July, a good but busy time to choose.
Our visit began with a walk past some of the 40 different varieties of lavender grown at the farm. Ranging in colour from pale lilac to a dark purple I never realised there were so many different varieties.
We progressed to walking around the main fields. These were planted with homogeneous dark purple bushes; very pretty but I couldn’t actually smell any lavender.
Regardless of the smell the bees were loving the flowers. It was great to see, and hear, so many varieties. The fields were literally buzzing.
Visitors are free to walk as they wish around the fields. It was lovely to have this freedom but I would have liked the option of a guided tour to learn more about the farm.
Almost as photogenic as the lavender field was the wildflower meadow. The reds, yellows and blues of once common flowers nodding in the breeze. My enjoyment tinged with the sad recognition that I haven’t seen a single wild cornflower this year.
We ended with a trip to the gift shop and cafe. I resisted all of the lavender perfumed and flavoured items in the shop. But not the lavender brownie in the cafe. Although we played it safe and bought a non-lavender cake too just in case it tasted awful (it didn’t).
The bunker is a few minutes walk from the tower. Accessed via a ladder, down a 14 foot shaft, this is not for those with a fear of heights or claustrophobia. We descended one at a time; the family next to us helpfully shouting up encouragement to their children. Along the lines of “It’s a lot harder than it looks!”
Once we’d all descended our guide explained that the bunker was built in the late 1950s and operated until 1991. It formed part of a nationwide monitoring network of bunkers, all built to the same design and equipped with state of the art (as was) detection facilities.
The bunkers weren’t designed to protect occupants from a direct nuclear hit. Manned by volunteers from the Royal Observer Corp their aim was to help determine the location of bombs and direction of fallout.
We listened to a short recording as our guide pointed out the various pieces of equipment. I was strangely excited to see a nuclear warning siren!
In addition to the scientific instruments the room was kitted out with bunk beds, a separate toilet and sufficient food and water for three weeks. Minimal privacy though, you’d get to know your fellow workers very well.
I’m sure my kids thought this was all ancient history but I was a teenager in the 1980s and remember the threat of nuclear war. The bunker provides a fascinating insight into the Government’s emergency plans and precautions. Although with hindsight I do wonder how effective they’d be.
Despite the kid’s grumbles both loved the Cold War bunker, a definite hit. As was the lavender brownie!
Entrance to the Cold War bunker is by guided tour only. These generally run hourly throughout summer weekends. There’s a maximum of 12 people and a minimum age of 12 years, tickets cost £4.50 per visitor.
Bristol is only an hour from home but most of our previous visits have been to two of its outlying attractions, the airport and IKEA. Our recent two night trip allowed us to discover the city at leisure, without the distraction of missed flights or Swedish meatballs!
There’s plenty to keep younger children occupied in the city, from At-Bristol to SS Great Britain, but what’s there to do for older children in Bristol?
Ferry boat trip
Faced with a longish walk from Bristol Temple Meads railway station to our accommodation I thought a ferry trip into the centre might head off some of the grumbles.
It was the right decision. We were the only customers on board so the ticket lady treated us to a mini-tour of the river highlights. En route we passed another Bristol Ferry Boat full of litter pickers fishing rubbish out of the river. It may well be due to their efforts that we later spotted a kingfisher, watching us from the river bank.
But there’s a lot more to Bristol than Banksy as we found on a street art tour. Starting from City Hall and winding our way up through the city centre to Stokes Croft we learnt about the techniques used, artist backgrounds and the meaning behind some of the pieces.
One artist that stood out for me was JPS, who stencilled Spartacus (below, left). Previously homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol JPS was inspired to paint after visiting Banksy’s Bristol musum takeover. There’s a definite Banksy likeness to some of his creations but he’s now a well known street artist in his own right. Heck, he’s even appeared in the Guardian and has a street art trail in his home town of Weston-super-Mare.
Part way through our tour the guide managed to loose half of the group at a busy traffic crossing. We watched from afar as the rest of the group disappeared down an alley. Ten minutes later, with the help of Head Office, we were reunited, but not before we’d jokingly decided to run our own self-directed tour.
Depending on your point of view, our final destination, Stokes Croft, is either full of drug dens and brothels, bohemian and edgy or gentrified and expensive to live in. Whatever your thoughts there’s definitely lots of street art to see.
St Nicholas Market
Leaving our street art tour behind we headed back to the city centre via the indoor St Nicholas Market. The market has the usual clothing and knick-knack stalls but what sets it apart are the food outlets. With options from all over the world it wouldn’t look out of place in Borough Market. One particularly alluring stand, Aah Toots, was named after my childhood nickname and aptly full of cake.
Whenever I visit somewhere new I always climb a tower for a bird’s eye view of the area. For someone with particularly bad spatial skills it’s my way of making sense of my surroundings. Cabot Tower, set in parkland on Brandon Hill, gave me the views I needed to decipher Bristol.
Built in the 1890s to commemorate the journey of John Cabot from Bristol to Canada the tower is free to visit. There’s a 360 degree panoramic view from the top although getting there may involve a squeeze. The spiral stairs are pretty narrow and things get interesting when you meet someone coming the opposite direction!
Continuing our Bristol exploration we finished our day with a riverside walk. I’d originally planned a short stroll to see the SS Matthew, a replica of the ship that John Cabot used for his voyage to Newfoundland. Yet we arrived at its mooring point to discover a missing ship, along with a note stating it was in dry dock further along at Underfall Yard.
For some reason I thought it would be good to continue walking on to Underfall Yard, a historic boatyard. Twenty minutes later we found SS Matthew, closed to visitors. As was most of Underfall Yard. Despite trying its best to attract tourists it’s probably better to visit when the cafe and visitor centre are open.
The kids were wilting by this time. Not surprising really as I later discovered we’d walked about 10 miles. Fortunately our walk home was accompanied by a paddleboarding dog (OK, its owner was paddling, the dog just balancing) and a great sunset.
Clifton Observatory – The Giant’s Cave
Next morning we continued our walking theme with a stroll out to the affluent suburb of Clifton. Clifton is the polar opposite of Stokes Croft with expensive interior shops, lots of coffee shops and estate agents full of houses we could never afford. We were there to visit one of Bristol’s most iconic attractions, Clifton Suspension Bridge, but were side-tracked into visiting Clifton Observatory first.
Clifton Observatory is home to two attractions, a Camera Obscura and Giant’s Cave. We took advice from the ticket lady and left the Camera Obscura for a sunny day. Instead we opted for the cave, once home to two giants, Goram and Ghyston. It would be wrong to suggest this is pure myth but I wonder how the giants negotiated the 200ft tunnel to the cave. I bent my head as I walked down the steps and I’m definitely no giant.
Even if there is a touch of make believe about the tale, the steps lead out onto a platform with an impressive view of the gorge and bridge. You can just make out the bright yellow platform jutting out in the picture above. It’s probably not for you if you’re nervous of heights!
Clifton Suspension Bridge
I’ve seen Clifton Suspension Bridge from afar many times but its taken me 40+ years to walk over it. Was it worth the wait? Yes, of course. The bridge spans the Avon Gorge and is probably one of Brunel’s most famous designs (although some dispute the extent of his involvement).
On the far side there’s a small visitor centre. I enjoyed looking at the drawings submitted for the bridge design competitions. The kids played with a weighing machine that tells you how many of yourself can stand on the bridge without it collapsing. Quite a few fortunately!
I had a vague plan to walk beside the river back into the city but we decided it was probably a step too far after the previous day. Instead we explored Clifton further before returning to our hotel to pick up our luggage.
One of the great treats on our city breaks is eating out. The family seem to think I’m a little fussy in my choice of venue. After I’ve checked the Trip Advisor reviews I’ll generally check their hygiene score and the menu. And did I mention I’m vegetarian? Anyway, the following met my standards:
For mice and men
Advertised as a travelling grilled cheese muncheonette we found this pop up stall at the Harbourside Market. My daughter and I highly recommend one of their bespoke toasted cheese sandwiches.
Under the stars
A floating tapas boat moored at the Harbourside. Lots of tasty veggie options, reasonable size portions and a quirky venue.
An Indian restaurant with great service in a small (and dark) venue so book in advance. I probably chose the wrong item as it was a lot spicier than I expected but everyone else enjoyed their meals.
An ice cream treat for the kids with lots of different flavours to choose from. As it was a cold February day I stuck to coffee but quality checked both ice creams. Very tasty.
We stayed in a Premier Inn. Not quirky or characterful but a central location and very good value for a family room. And we love the breakfasts.
Cabot Tower is free. Check opening times before you visit; it is currently closed on Friday afternoons.
Clifton Observatory is usually open daily. Entry to the cave costs £2.50 for adults, £1.50 for children (must be 4 or older).
Clifton Suspension Bridge is free to walk over (£1 for drivers). The visitor centre is open every day except Christmas Day and New Year from 10am-5pm.