I’m a sucker for quirky attractions and the Cotswold Sculpture Park fits the description perfectly. It’s a fabulous place to visit even if, like me, you’re not particularly into art.
Cotswold Sculpture Park
Upon arrival you’re given a leaflet detailing the sculptures and their prices. There are over 150 sculptures, created by more than 70 artists. The sculptures vary in size and sculpture medium; from Portland limestone to scrap metal. There really is a sculpture to please everyone, whether you prefer modern or traditional, abstract or figurative.
I’ve visited a couple of sculpture trails previously which have felt like outdoor high end art galleries. This trail was different, a fun wander around ten acres of woodland and garden. The grounds are a little rough and ready but that made it more enjoyable for me. Think wildlife friendly garden rather than manicured lawns and perfect borders!
The park is owned by David Hartland, who is also a sculptor. His pieces, mostly made from scrap metal, are instantly recognisable and include the Morris Minor on the tower at the entrance. The owner’s sculptures are the only permanent pieces and are not for sale. The other sculptures are either sold or returned to the artist at the end of the season.
I think we managed to spot all of the sculptures. Some blend in well into their surroundings. Others stick out like a sore thumb! It would have been good to learn more about the sculptures and artists as we visited them although I later discovered many of their profiles are on the website.
The sculpture park is Tardis like, there is so much to see. We reached as far as the toilet building (beware, it’s the opposite end from the entrance) and assumed we’d seen almost everything. How wrong we were! Leave yourself a good couple of hours to see everything.
We all had our favourites but I loved this sculpture. Not sure it would really fit my pocket sized back garden but I’d snap it up if I had a spare acre.
One other sculpture which garnered a lot of attention was a bronze statue of Icarus by Nicola Godden. It was superb, yours for just £33,000!
The sculpture prices ranged from £20 for a robin to an eye watering £60,000 for a bear made out of galvanised chicken wire. Most pieces were in the hundreds or low thousands range. Whilst I admired many of them I think they probably look at their best in a woodland setting, not a small town garden.
After you’ve finished head to the onsite cafe, The Poppin Tearoom, which serves hot and cold snacks and drinks. I highly recommend sitting outside and enjoying coffee and cake if the weather allows. It’s a great way to round off your visit.
The Cotswold Sculpture Park is in Somerford Keynes near Cirencester. It’s open from April to September, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, entrance fee applicable. No dogs or picnics allowed onsite.
I’m not going to beat around the bush. Thistledown, an organic farm on the western edge of the Cotswolds, makes it onto my list of favourite ever campsites.
That said, if you prefer organised entertainment and extensive facilities it’s probably not the site for you. Read on to find out more.
You need to know…
No cars are allowed on the pastures, yay! Depending on where you camp it’s a 5-10 minute steep walk downhill with your gear. There are wheelbarrows to borrow. Or, for £5, you can have your gear transported to your chosen pitch in a buggy.
There are no flushing toilets. It’s compost only if you’re camping in the pastures. Three simple rules – men and boys must sit, you add a handful of wood chips after a poo and put the lid down after you’ve finished.
There are event style portable loos in the elderflower orchard (where cars are also allowed) if you really cannot cope.
There are no electrical hook ups. This doesn’t bother me one jot as we’ve never needed it. At least not until the teen discovered hair straighteners.
If you’re not fazed by the above then you will love Thistledown Farm. We did! As for the positives. Well, where do I start?
We camped over a Bank Holiday weekend. The site was rammed (as described by the chap who works there). You can see what I mean below. Hardly room to move.
There are three different camping areas, split between the car free pastures and the elderflower orchard. There are no designated pitches, campsite rules state you should leave six metres between tents. Yes, you read that correctly, six metres. Even though the 70 acres of woodland and meadow could accommodate many more tents the owners wisely choose to restrict the numbers that can camp.
For children there’s a tractor. Marshmallows toasted over the camp fire. A stream. Kunekune pigs and rare breed sheep. And rope swings in the wood. There’s no artificial playground. Why would you need it?
Camp fires are encouraged. Bring your own wood or buy a bag on site (£7.50). Just don’t collect it from the woods; it’s a habitat!
Remember to look up from your fire too. Once your eyes have acclimatised you’ll be amazed by the stars. The lack of light pollution allows you to spot many more stars than usual.
There’s a fabulous cafe on site (but do book in advance). It’s open for breakfast and lunch from Wednesday to Sunday. It also offers pizza on Friday and Saturday evenings from April to October. It’s not cheap but the food is mostly organic, local and incredibly tasty.
Indeed I ate the best pizza of my life. A sour dough base, topped with spiced butternut squash puree, caramelised onions, goats cheese and wild garlic pesto. The pesto, made with fresh leaves from the wood, was out of this world. If it’s in season (April) when you visit you must try some!
The camping pastures are surrounded by mixed native woodland. In spring bluebells and wild garlic carpet the ground. Trails lead through the wood but get a map from reception otherwise you’ll probably end up following a badger track.
The whole site is set up to encourage wildlife. It’s a receptor (rehoming) site for slow worms and grass snakes. The pond by the cafe is full of newts.
There are badger sets throughout the wood; tidy your food away at night to stop the badgers helping themselves. Tawny owls might keep you awake; the dawn chorus will probably wake you up!
Sunrise is incredible. I’d got up early to look for badgers, but not early enough it seems. Instead I walked up to the pond and stone circle to watch the most magical sunrise. Aside from three geese and a couple of newly arrived swallows I was the only one there (well, it was 6am on a Sunday morning).
Later we ate breakfast in the early morning sun, watching the birds flitting between trees. Butterflies were out enjoying the warm weather. I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else.
We did tear ourselves away from the campsite as there’s plenty to see locally, including Stroud farmer’s market on Saturday mornings, Woodchester Mansion (walkable from the campsite) and the viewpoint at Coaley Peak. All coming soon in another blog post!
We paid £68 for a family of four for two nights camping in the 3rd pasture. It’s cheaper to camp in the elderflower orchard, but for the full experience head to the pastures. Further details and online booking can be found on the Thistledown Farm website.
There are more than 80 miles of Dorset coastline, much of it with World Heritage Status. We spent a couple of days exploring the eight mile section between Charmouth and West Bay, an area packed full of fossils, great walks and spectacular views.
Our first stop was West Bay, the village made famous by the TV drama, Broadchurch.
We visited out of season, early on a grey Monday morning. Although many places were open the village felt a little ‘closed for winter’. We mooched around the harbour, got buffeted by the wind on the pier and then lost ourselves in a huge building full of crafts and antiques.
However, it’s the cliffs which West Bay is famous for so, once we’d seen the village, we headed towards the beach and its towering golden sandstone cliffs.
Our walk started, as expected,with a steep uphill climb to blow the cobwebs away. Once up top we enjoyed a fabulous walk along a stretch of the rollercoaster Dorset coast. This area isn’t without its dangers. A short while after we visited a huge rockfall temporarily closed both the beach and the cliff path. After seeing the photographs it’s a sobering thought that we were walking beside the collapsed cliff section. Do visit, but abide by all warning notices.
We didn’t walk far. The weather wasn’t conducive to staying on the cliffs and we had a longer walk planned for the afternoon so we soon retraced our steps to the village to find a cafe for lunch. If it’s a nice day, and you fancy seafood for lunch, I’d suggest checking out the kiosks by the harbour. However it was too cold for us to mill around outside and most were still closed for winter so we opted for indoor comfort at West Bay Tea Rooms. This was a great choice with friendly service and good size portions.
Golden Cap walk
After lunch we drove over to Seatown, our starting point for a walk to the summit of Golden Cap. This is a flat topped hill that looked distinctly un-golden when we arrived at Seatown car park. Obscured by heavy rain I decided it best to shelter in the car whilst we waited for the rain to blow over. If you’re without a car and looking for shelter the alternative is a quick half in the Anchor Inn. Although you might be tempted to stay longer than strictly necessary…
At 191 metres Golden Cap is the highest point on the south coast. We followed the 4 mile AA Golden Cap in Trust route. As per our morning walk it started with a steep schlep up to the summit. The heavy rain had made it much muddier and slippier than I’d envisaged. Although when the sun came out a few minutes later all was forgiven. The route to the top took us around half an hour or so; by then we’d jettisoned our outer layers as spring appeared!
On a clear day it is evidently possible to see as far as Dartmoor from the summit. Whenever facts like this are pointed out to me I’m always disappointed as I can never see as far as some people obviously can. I could certainly see Portland Bill and, in the opposite direction, Lyme Regis. But not Dartmoor.
Our route continued down the far side, passing the ruins of St Gabriel’s Church. There are some fabulously located National Trust holiday cottages here if you fancy getting away from it all (or as much as you can in Dorset). These buildings are all that remain of Stanton St Gabriel, a village deserted in the 18th Century after residents moved to nearby towns for work.
The rest of the route took us on a tour of green and quiet lanes. We cut back beneath Langdon Hill, which is still part of the National Trust estate and offers an alternative starting point for the Golden Cap ascent. As you return to Seatown the views of the Dorset coast return too, it’s even more beautiful when the sun is shining!
Charmouth fossil hunt
The following day saw us in Charmouth, exploring a stretch of Dorset coastline marketed as the Jurassic Coast. The cliffs and beaches are full of fossils that reveal the Earth’s history, from prehistoric Triassic deserts to tropical Jurassic sea. Fossil hunting in Charmouth has long featured on my UK bucket list so I was looking forward to our next activity, a walk with a fossil expert.
We’d booked a walk with fossilwalks.com; at just £5 per head it was excellent value. They run most days during the school holidays or alternatively you can book a rather more expensive private walk. Whatever you choose, book early.
The walk starts with a half hour introductory talk about where to find the fossils, what to look out for and what you might find. Chris, our guide, passed around samples of the different fossils for us to handle. We also learnt how to use our hammers correctly (additional cost, book in advance through the guide).
After our briefing we set off to find fossils on the beach. This is a key safety point. Fossil hunting takes place on the beach, not the cliffs! I was sceptical at first to think that fossils would just be lying around on the beach. That was until I found my first ammonite on the sandy shore. Followed by further ammonites, belemnites and, what I’ll call, stones with fossils in. Perhaps not exciting finds in geological terms but I was happy with my haul.
Charmouth Heritage Centre
After the walk we visited Charmouth Heritage Centre which houses some larger fossil finds information about the area’s history and geology. Entrance is free (although do leave a donation) and highly recommended; they also offer guided walks and hammer hire.
If you haven’t managed to find any fossils on the beach there’s also a fossil shop next door. Shush, no-one need ever know you’ve bought one.
So, there you have it. Two days exploring the Dorset coast. I now need a few more months to explore the rest of it!
Fancy visiting a disused underground station? I did! With a little forward planning (and hint dropping) I was lucky enough to receive a Hidden London tour of Aldwych station as a Christmas present. What did I think?
Aldwych began life as the Strand station. Hence the rather confusing sign outside the entrance. In stark contrast to those entering Fashion Week across the road our group was (mostly) middle aged and comfortably dressed. No high heels allowed on this tour!
Aldwych was never a busy station. When it opened in 1907 the first two trains didn’t have any passengers at all. Despite partial refurbishment in the 1980s passenger numbers remained low. When the station closed in 1994 only 450 people were using it every day. That said, it’s no ghost station. Indeed, it has led a significant alternative life as we discovered on the tour.
Ticket hall and entrance
The tour started in the ticket hall where our guides, Paul and Nick, provided an overview of the station. The architect, Leslie Green, designed a number of Tube stations, often with similar distinctive features. Our guides highlighted the red station frontage, the teal and cream tiling scheme and the design of the ticket office windows. And to think I’ve never given the design of underground stations a second glance before.
From the ticket hall we walked down our first set of stairs to the eastern platform. At this point I realised I hadn’t taken any photos of the ticket hall. I later regretted this as you exit via an alternative route; make sure you don’t make the same mistake if you visit.
Our next stop was the lift shafts. Three shafts were dug out by hand but only one was fitted with lifts. This economy of design is reflected elsewhere in the station, from unfinished tiling to tunnels.
We discovered that one of the unfinished lift shafts was the perfect location for a music video, Prodigy’s Firestarter. Other bands, including Madness and The Kinks, have also filmed down here.
The eastern platform only saw active service until 1917, at least in relation to its train service.
In World War I the platform acted as an emergency store for over 300 paintings from the National Gallery. This function was repeated in World War II when many valuable artworks were moved underground for storage. These included the Elgin Marbles, which were brought down in the lift. Our guides showed us the large looped rings installed to make their subsequent removal easier.
Elsewhere on the eastern platform there are experimental tiling designs. We discovered that one of Aldwych’s many alternative uses is as a drawing board for other stations.
Although they might not look particularly exciting these original rails contribute to the station’s Grade 2 listing. They are very different to today’s rails; there’s no suicide pit and the sleepers are wooden. They also include an early design of insulator. This is, evidently, a big deal for insulator enthusiasts!
Posters still adorn some of the walls. Including a timely advert encouraging us to join the Common Market!
The Western platform remained open until the station’s closure.
In World War II it was used as an overnight air raid shelter. We sat in a disused carriage and listened to a recording of Julian Andrews, recounting his time spent sheltering here.
Although the government propaganda advertised a holiday camp atmosphere the reality was a lot of people in a very small space with minimal privacy and hygiene. The toilet was initially a curtained off bucket. However as the bombings dragged on an underground community was formed, offering a library, religious services and entertainers including George Formby.
Despite the lack of trains the station is still in use today. Nowadays it makes money from film and TV studios. Films such as Atonement and Darkest Hour and TV shows Sherlock and Mr Selfridge were filmed here. Hence, not everything is at it seems. The Whitechapel sign is an obvious imposter but our guide also pointed out fake tiling and wall panels left behind by the film companies.
The station is also used by emergency and armed services to carry out training. Forces trained here as part of the preparation for the 2012 London Olympics and in 2015 it was used by the emergency services in a mock terrrorist attack.
There was a lot of heavy breathing as the group climbed the 160 steps back to the surface. From where, ironically, we finished our tour in the lift.
The Edwardian lifts weren’t very reliable and their potential refurbishment cost was one of the reasons for the stations eventual closure. The power failed on occassions so a supply of candles were kept in the lift. If the lift broke down we were shown a ‘secret’ door into the next door lift shaft from where the second lift could come and rescue passengers. Nowadays the lifts don’t move, I’m rather glad of that!
Our 75 minute tour sped by. I’m usually desperate to get out of underground stations but the tour could easily have lasted another hour. I certainly have a new found appreciation of the tunnels beneath our feet!
This trip was on my UK bucket list, pop over to my blog post to see what else is on there.
Hidden London tours are an offshoot of the London Transport Museum. Tours of a variety of underground stations (some disused, some not) are announced several times per year. Most sell out quickly so sign up to the advance notice mailing list on their website to be in with a chance.