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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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 (or tombolo, as I later found out), was exactly how I imagined. Pebbles as far as the eye can see. Eighteen miles of them.
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!
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!
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).
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.
I’ve never known the train from Bristol to Weston-super-Mare to be as busy as it was last weekend. The usual assortment of day trippers had been replaced by hip twenty-somethings and American tourists; all left standing in the aisles as there were no seats available.
The reason? Banksy’s Dismaland bemusement park on the seafront at Weston. This antithesis of a theme park has opened for 6 weeks on the site of the old Tropicana lido. We didn’t have tickets but I’d heard that on the day tickets were available for those prepared to queue. We arrived just as they were closing the morning queue so the security man suggested we came back later for the afternoon session. That was fine for us as it meant we had time for a trip to PJ’s Ice Cream Parlour, a wander around the pier and lunch.
We were back queuing at 2.30pm. At 3pm the ticket office opened and a cheer went up. At 4.30pm we got our tickets. The kids were surprisingly good about queuing for so long and I knew the minute I handed the money over that it would be worth the wait. I thanked the ticket attendant and he replied that I wouldn’t be thanking him when we got inside.
A few minutes later we’d passed through some pretend security and were standing in Dismaland. The exhibition is a mix of fairground attractions with a twist, large model exhibits, films and an indoor art gallery. Over 50 artists have provided works, with Banksy responsible for 11 of the exhibits, including the seagull model above.
Banksy describes Dismaland as a theme park unsuitable for children. My kids loved it, as I’m sure would most teens, but I’d think twice about taking younger children. You’ll spend half of your time explaining the irony behind the exhibits, the other half trying to avoid the liberal use of swearing around the site!
The fairground attractions, which cost extra, included a carousel where a white suited figure is making lasagne from the horses, topple the anvil with a ping pong ball (and win the anvil) and a rotating caravan ride.
I loved the ‘Hook a duck from the muck’ stall. The prizes were inflated plastic bags with a piece of orange fabric in them, modelled to look like goldfish. Not that many people won them! As soon as someone got close to hooking a duck the unsmiling attendant would pick up a duck and throw it at the target, generally resulting in a large splash of water over the person. Or alternatively she’d grab the fishing rod and throw it on the floor.
The staff, who had responded to an advert for film extras, played their roles perfectly. Unsmiling and disinterested, generally slouching in a corner or getting in the way of photos. I bought a souvenir programme and the attendant literally threw it, and the change at me. It was hard not to laugh.
There is no getting away from the Disney aspect. The staff wear ears which bear a strong resemblance to mouse ears. The entrance wristbands, logo and online advert are unmistakably modelled on Disney. How I’d love to be a fly on the wall in their lawyer’s office!
There’s a cinema showing short films so we bagged some deckchairs and rested our feet. Perhaps we were just watching the wrong film but I found this part the weakest of the show. Wandering off after a few minutes we discovered a giant toilet roll sculpture and a killer whale jumping out of a toilet (the former by Michael Beitz, the latter a Banksy).
I loved the way the original lido had been incorporated into the exhibition. Although I am assuming that the crumbling stonework, uneven flooring and weeds weren’t added recently for effect!
The police riot van below was built for use in Northern Ireland but now stands in the middle of a lake adorned with a slide and fountain.
We entered the burnt out castle and found a dead Cinderella falling out of her pumpkin carriage surrounded by paparazzi. This piece is probably one of the most controversial given the obvious similarities to the death of Princess Diana. The other exhibit to stir up emotions is that of the boat pond where visitors can control the crowded boats full of migrants. Bad taste? Certainly thought provoking.
We passed on the opportunity to play Mini Gulf but enjoyed checking out the variety of obstacles. There’s a huge sandcastle and windmill next to the children’s play area and pocket money loans shop. Not many takers for the 5000% interest rate!
There was a short queue of people waiting to take selfies at the selfie hole (oh the irony). I’d read a couple of reviews slating the queues inside Dismaland, all part of the experience I’m sure, but we were lucky and whilst a couple of exhibits had queues most of them didn’t. It actually felt relatively empty which was rather surprising given the long wait outside.
The three large art galleries were excellent. We watched a Banksy offering, the grim reaper riding the dodgems to the soundtrack of the Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive.
There are a couple of Damien Hirst pieces including a unicorn preserved in formaldehyde but one of my favourites was Promise by Caroline McCarthy. This consisted of plastic plant pots and ready meal packaging with garnishes cut into the cardboard to suggest freshness.
The galleries were a fascinating mix of sculptures, paintings and objects. One gallery was dominated by a mushroom cloud tree house. The Spanish artist Paco Pomet had inserted the Cookie Monster into a picture of war lords driving a jeep. Whilst Jessica Harrison had porcelain figurines with tattoos. I’d love to have such creative thoughts.
Readers of a certain age will remember Jimmy Cauty, one half of the group KLF, and the man who burnt a million dollars. His contribution to Dismaland is a huge sculpture which initially looks like a large model railway set. Look closer and you’ll find almost 3000 model police figures in a post-apocalyptic world. The strobe lighting and staff shouting ‘Move along, there’s nothing to see’ are incredibly atmospheric.
The exit sign was exactly as I’d expect of a Banksy exhibition. Dismaland delivered everything I’d hoped for and more. Given the number of people visiting Weston for the attraction I really hope it’s delivered a great boost to the late summer tourist trade too!
Dismaland was only open until 27 September 2015 and has now closed.
Art galleries and kids tend not to mix that well. Combining priceless art works and contemplative visitors with exuberant kids certainly makes me a little uneasy. Fortunately we found that street art is a great alternative when we enjoyed a great day out spotting it in London.
Street art without permission is illegal, and I wouldn’t condone it in inappropriate places, but in the right context it can enhance an area and attract visitors. One such place where it works really well is in and around Brick Lane, London.
We decided to go on a family street art walk from Aldgate East tube station to Shoreditch Overground station. As well as art on Brick Lane you’ll find plenty on the streets either side of the main thoroughfare and around Shoreditch station. Although some pieces are relatively long lived, the nature of street art is that it changes constantly. We came across some new street art being created in a rather forlorn car park off Brick Lane.
Most people will immediately think of Banksy when asked to name a street artist. Once you start your street art hunt you’ll realise just how many other artists there are. Two of our favourites were Jonesy and Stik. Stik paints simple stick like figures, whilst Jonesy creates brass sculptures as well as paintings with an environmental message.
There are various styles of street art, and we saw most types during our walk. This giant hedgehog is by Belgian artist, Roa, and adorns an entire wall. Whilst he is renowned for his large animal murals, other artists may specialise in stencils, wheatpaste or posters. Even yarn bombing is a type of street art and examples adorn lamp posts in our local village. Interestingly, this is technically as illegal as graffiti!
Brick Lane has an interesting history. As its name suggests it was originally a centre of brick and tile manufacturing. Over the years it has seen successive waves of immigrants, with two of the most notable groups being the French Huguenots in the 17th century and more recently the Bangladeshis. The Huguenots established weaving in the area, whilst the Bangladeshis have led to this area being called the curry capital of the UK.
We didn’t stop for a curry but we did pick up a cheap lunch in another Brick Lane institution, the Beigel Shop. This bakery vies with another a couple of doors down to sell the best salt beef bagel but being a vegetarian I’m not able to comment on who wins. My son certainly enjoyed his smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel though!
The nearest tube station is Aldgate East. Brick Lane is signposted and about a 5 minute walk from the tube.
Brick Lane is probably most famous for its Sunday market. I would suggest visiting on an alternative day if you’re street art spotting as the area gets incredibly crowded.
Give your kids a camera so they can snap the art they enjoy. My daughter took loads of photos!