Five things to do with teens around Coniston, Cumbria

It can be hard work holidaying with teens. Even more so when your destination is a soggy Lake District rather than the Instagram perfect beach of their dreams. Fear not, if you’re in the Lakes, and you’ve managed to lure them out of bed before noon, why not try one of the following:

Walk up a mountain

Looking back towards Old Man of Coniston
Looking back towards Old Man of Coniston

Climbing to the summit of any mountain gives a great sense of achievement, even if there are a few grumbles along the way. From Coniston, the 2634 ft Old Man of Coniston is the obvious target. The tourist trail paths are well marked and there’s plenty of legacy mining activity to add interest.

We booked on to a guided walk with Lake District volunteer leaders. Our route was originally designed to summit both the Old Man and Dow Crag. However the incessant rain put paid to this and our leader suggested an alternative descent instead of Dow Crag. Although slightly disappointing we were all soaked through and it was the right decision. Of course the rain eased off not long afterwards!

Route down from Old Man of Coniston
Route down from Old Man of Coniston

Walking with a guide offered us the opportunity to learn more about the area and its industrial history, which I wouldn’t always appreciate if walking alone. The National Park offers a variety of walks for all abilities which generally cost £10 or less per person (many are free). Highly recommended.

Quarry on descent route from Old Man of Coniston
Quarry on descent route from Old Man of Coniston

Go gorge scrambling

If there’s one thing that gets teens animated it’s the chance of an adventure. Something completely different from their day to day routines. Gorge scrambling definitely offers this.

We booked a half day gorge scrambling and canyoning trip with Adventure 21. This was a somewhat unusual activity for me as, unlike the rest of the family, I do not like water. I can hardly swim and I hate getting my face wet. I was way out of my comfort zone.

Gorge scrambling - photos courtesy of Adventure 21
Gorge scrambling – photos courtesy of Adventure 21

After manoeuvring ourselves into wetsuits, waterproofs and helmets we walked from Coniston Water up through the village to Church Beck. Here we entered the fast flowing water and I was relieved not to be immediately swept downstream. Despite my fears an almost enjoyable two hours ensued. Gorge scrambling is as it sounds; we climbed up through small waterfalls and negotiated the rocky river bed. If you’re used to scrambling on dry land, this is technically easier but the water makes it ‘interesting’.

At the end of the scramble there’s a chance to try canyoning. Better known as scary big jumps into water. The non-swimmer in me opted out. There was no way I was going to put my head under water.

Despite my reservations everyone survived. And, as predicted, the teens declared this the best day of the holiday.

Take a boat trip on Coniston Water

Coniston boat trip
Coniston boat trip

I’d been looking forward to a boat trip in the Lake District (particularly as it’s one of my UK bucket list items). Truth be told, this was one of our less enjoyable days. It didn’t help that I’d read the wrong timetable and arrived just as the steam gondola I’d planned to catch left the jetty. Or that it was raining. Again.

We took an alternative boat which, although perfectly serviceable, wasn’t what I’d envisaged. Our 60 minute cruise took us up to Wildcat Island, of Swallows and Amazons fame, before returning via Brantwood. This was the home of John Ruskin and makes for an interesting stopover. There’s a cafe, museum and, on dry days, gardens to explore.

Brantwood House
Brantwood House

For a little more excitement we could have hired a canoe, kayak or rowing boat from the Coniston Boating Centre. But I’d had enough of water over the previous couple of days. And at least our boat trip was weather proof.

Go on a road trip

I was running out of ideas to occupy another wet day. Sitting in a car for much of the day wouldn’t normally feature on my list of activities. But when your drive includes a route over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes it’s a lot more exciting!

View from Hardknott Roman fort
View from Hardknott Roman fort

We drove a circular route via Coniston to Broughton-in-Furness, up to Duddon Bridge and Ulpha, onto Eskdale then over the passes to Little Langdale.

We stretched our legs in Eskdale with a walk to Stanley Ghyll Force waterfall and again at Hardknott Roman Fort. The fort is in an incredible setting but I didn’t envy its inhabitants. The winters would have been so harsh; no amount of Roman plumbing could convince me to live there.

View across Wrynose Pass
View across Wrynose Pass

From the fort a single track road zigzags up and over Hardknott and then Wrynose Pass. It’s one of the steepest roads in the UK so you’ll be lucky to get out of second gear. My advice? Give way to drivers coming uphill (and locals), concentrate on the road and don’t be scared by the TripAdvisor reviews. If you’re a confident driver in a decent vehicle you’ll be absolutely fine. Believe me, it’s one of the best drives in the UK. Even the teens stayed awake for it!

Explore caves

There are lots of abandoned quarries, mine workings and caves in this area. Many are dangerous and shouldn’t be entered. However Cathedral Quarry, a short walk from Little Langdale, offers you the opportunity to explore a man made quarry and tunnels in a relatively safe environment.

Cathedral cave, near Little Langdale
Cathedral cave, near Little Langdale

Cathedral Quarry is, rather surprisingly, owned by the National Trust. It is not your usual NT property. It’s free to visit and always open but there are no facilities or cafe. You’ll need to bring a torch for the tunnels and waterproof footwear for clambering over rocks and wading through puddles. Great fun for an hour or two. Oh, and watch out for the goldfish!

Important

All of the above suggestions are at your own risk. As in, they might be dangerous. But how boring would life be it was perfectly safe?

We visited in summer (I use this term loosely); a winter visit is a completely different undertaking.

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A walk beside the Purton hulks, Gloucestershire

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.

Gloucester and Sharpness canal
Gloucester and Sharpness canal

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!

Purton Hulks

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

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.

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

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.

Purton Hulks, Gloucestershire
Purton Hulks, Gloucestershire

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.

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

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.

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

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.

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

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.

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

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!

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

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.

More info

  • 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!
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A walk to and around Highgate Cemetery, London

Highgate Cemetery, one of my UK bucket list items, might appear a strange destination for a family day out but we loved it. We spent an afternoon visiting the cemetery after a morning walk across Hampstead Heath.

Hampstead Heath

We had a couple of hours spare before our cemetery tour so I’d planned a walking route from Hampstead Heath underground station to Highgate Cemetery.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Hampstead Heath. My prior knowledge mostly came from lurid tabloid headlines about the after dark activities of gay men on the western heath. The daytime reality was a tranquil dog walking and running area, albeit one that was in need of a good dose of rain.

Hampstead Heath boating pond
Hampstead Heath boating pond

Our route took us up to the viewpoint on Parliament Hill. From here the Shard, Gherkin, St Paul’s Cathedral and BT Tower are all easy to see. Some of the other buildings shown on the orientation map were harder; I couldn’t see the London Eye however much I looked.

View from Primrose Hill, London
View from Parliament Hill, London

Highgate is also famous for its outdoor bathing ponds. These were much busier than I expected on a gloomy weekday. I’m not a water lover so couldn’t imagine wanting to swim in them, surrounded by ducks and pond debris. However plenty of swimmers looked like they were enjoying it, particularly the divers jumping off the board in the men’s bathing pond.

Before heading to the cemetery we popped into the Village Deli in Highgate village for a takeaway lunch. Despite the expensive sounding name, and location, our picnic lunch was incredible value and very tasty, highly recommended. There’s a square opposite to sit and eat your lunch in.

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate was one of seven new private London cemeteries, constructed in the Victorian era, to accommodate the increasing number of burials. Prior to this, burials were in local churchyards but these were literally overflowing due to the doubling of London’s population.

West Highgate cemetery, London
West Highgate cemetery, London

Many of London’s wealthiest were laid to rest in Highgate. However, the cemetery fell into decline after the second World War. Decaying and vandalised it was taken over in 1975 by a charity, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, who work to restore and preserve the area.

We visited West Highgate on a guided tour before crossing Swain’s Lane to look around the East Cemetery independently.

West Highgate Cemetery

Forget your local graveyard. Imagine instead a jumbled area of crowded gravestones and gothic and Egyptian influenced monuments, some covered with ‘Dangerous’ tape. Nature is in charge; tree roots climb over gravestones, ivy and bramble tendrils encircle the monuments. This is West Highgate cemetery. Some visitors call it romantic, others creepy; I guess I’m somewhere in between.

Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, West Highgate cemtetery
Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, West Highgate cemtetery

We started our tour in the open space in front of The Colonnade; big enough, our guide explained, so that the horse drawn carriages delivering coffins could turn around.  From here we followed the path up through the graveyard to the Egyptian Avenue, flanked by columns and obelisks.

There are sixteen family vaults on either side of the avenue; each with room for twelve coffins. The vaults are also home to a large spider, the rare orb weaver. Discovered during a bat survey the London Wildlife Trust estimates the vaults could contain a hundred of these adult cave spiders. I’m not sure whether the bodies or the spiders unsettle me more!

Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery
Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery

The Egyptian Avenue leads out into the Circle of Lebabon; a huge 300 year old cedar tree surrounded by a circle of tombs. The Victorians certainly knew how to celebrate their interred relations, very different to today’s attitude to death.

Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery
Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery

Our eyes slowly accustomed to the dark inside our next stop, the above ground Terrace Catacombs. It takes a moment longer to realise that every recess on either side of the passageway houses a coffin. Room for 825 people in total! We heard how coffins were once prone to exploding due to a build up of gases inside them. The ingenious solution was to drill a small hole into the coffin, insert a pipe and burn the gases off.

Catacombs, West Highgate cemetery
Catacombs, West Highgate cemetery

Outside the catacombs stands the mausoleum of Julius Beer. This was built for his daughter Ada who died she was just eight years old. Although we couldn’t go inside our guide showed us photographs of its rich interior. The mausoleum cost £5000 to build in 1878; in today’s money that’s around £3 million!

Most residents of West Highgate cemetery may not be household names today but many were famous in their day. I loved hearing the stories of some of these. Our guide recounted the life of Tom Sayers, a bare knuckle fighter whose stone dog adorns his grave. And that of Jim Selby, a carriage driver who raced from London to Brighton and back in less than eight hours.

Tom Sayers grave, West Highgate cemetery
Tom Sayers grave, West Highgate cemetery

The grave of George Wombwell reflects his livelihood, a travelling menagerist. His tomb lies under a statue of his lion, Nero. George famously advertised a dead elephant as one of his exhibits in order to attract more visitors than a competitor, who only had a live elephant. Different times indeed.

One of the more recent graves is for Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector who was poisoned by polonium radiation. His grave is buried 12 foot deep and lined with lead to protect from visitors from accidental radioactive exposure.

Alexander Litvinenko gravestone, West Highgate cemetery, London
Alexander Litvinenko gravestone, West Highgate cemetery, London

Our guide also explained the symbolism used by the Victorians. I’ve never given it any thought before but urns, clasped hands and broken pillars all have specific meanings. For example, a broken column indicates a life cut off in its prime. I’d always assumed it was due to vandalism!

Nature taking over, Highgate cemetery
Nature taking over, Highgate cemetery

We finished our tour with a visit to the dissenters graveyard. This is an area of two acres set aside for non-Anglicans; not as extensive as the fifteen acres for Anglicans.

I’d hoped we might see some of the wildlife that Highgate is famous for. There were plenty of butterflies and a cheeky robin but no fox cubs lounging on gravestones that I’ve seen in some photographs. Fortunately we didn’t see the vampires or ghosts that Highgate is also known for!

West Highgate cemetery, London
West Highgate cemetery, London

East Highgate cemetery

East Highgate Cemetery is a tidier, more manicured resting place on the opposite side of Swain’s Lane. There’s less woodland and the graves are arranged in a more formal layout.

The entry booth provides maps with the graves of more notable residents marked; there are plenty of familiar names. There are all walks of life here; from historians, architects, zoologists and cabaret stars to political activists. Even the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery.

Gravestones in East Highgate cemetery
Gravestones in East Highgate cemetery

Over in West Highgate most of the gravestones we saw were of traditional design. Whereas in East Highgate Patrick Caulfield’s gravestone has the word DEAD cut out of the granite, and Malcolm McLaren has another statement headstone. Douglas Adams has a simple grey headstone but fans have adorned it with a pot full of pencils.

However the most famous grave belongs to that of Karl Marx, the German philosopher. Although originally buried in another part of the cemetery he was moved in the 1950s after the Communist Party funded a new memorial.

We didn’t stay long in East Highgate as we had a train to catch. Fortunately we left early as I took the roundabout route back to the underground station. Yes, we went the wrong way!

If you’re looking for other unusual things to do in and about London please pop over to my 10 quirky things to do in an hour in London post.

More info

  • You’ll need to book in weekday tours advance in the West Cemetery on the Highgate Cemetery website. Alternatively turn up early on a weekend and go on the next available tour. You can visit the East Cemetery without a tour, an entrance fee is payable.

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Exploring the northern Gower Peninsula, Swansea

Think of the Gower peninsula and you probably imagine holidaymakers enjoying its golden sandy beaches. But whilst the area is home to some of the most celebrated beaches in Wales, spare a thought for its quiet northern neighbour. On a recent trip we left the busier southern beaches behind and spent a day discovering just how different the northern Gower is.

Weobley Castle

We started with a visit to Weobley Castle, or more accurately, the remains of a 14th Century fortified manor house. It’s a low key attraction with most of the inside area open to the elements. One room has been restored and this houses panels detailing the history of the area and the de la Bere family who lived here.

Weobley Castle
Weobley Castle

But it’s the positioning of Weobley Castle that’s most impressive. Standing high above the coastline a window provides a perfectly framed view of the salt marshes and mud flats that typify the north Gower coastline. Admittedly not to everyone’s taste but it’s my kind of place. The salt marsh is grazed by ponies and sheep whose diet of samphire, sorrel and sea lavender contribute to its unique flavour. If you fancy trying the resulting salt marsh lamb you can often buy it from the farmhouse where you pay your castle entrance fee.

View from Weobley Castle over Llanrhidian salt marshes
View from Weobley Castle over Llanrhidian salt marshes

Llanrhidian marsh is a great bird watching spot, particularly during the winter months when it’s home to a large population of waders and wildfowl. We asked permission at the farmhouse and walked down to see what bird life we could spot. Despite a lack of binoculars we saw a couple of little egrets wading in one of the muddy channels and a fledgling nuthatch hopping along the ground. However we didn’t walk far as the ponies were having fun cantering around the marsh and we decided it best to watch them from afar.

Whiteford beach

It’s a ten minute drive from Weobley Castle to the small village of Llandmadoc. After a refreshment break in the community shop and a spot of hanging around in the car waiting for the rain to clear we headed out towards Whiteford Sands. This is the most northerly beach on the Gower peninsula and, thanks to the lack of a car park, one of the least visited.

After a 20 minute walk we reached the beach and were greeted with a sign warning visitors not to pick up unusual items. The area was used as a firing range in World War II and unexploded shells still turn up occasionally.

Tide’s out at Whiteford Sands
Tide’s out at Whiteford Sands

Whiteford beach stretches for about two miles, and is backed by sand dunes and trees. We visited at low tide and the waters were too far out for a paddle. Instead we walked along the tideline checking what treasures high tide had bought. We found several sea potatoes, whelk egg cases and lots of crab legs. There were a couple of small jellyfish, but nothing like the huge barrel jellyfish we’d seen on the southern beaches.

As we walked we heard our first, and only, cuckoo of the year. It was somewhere in the trees but despite it reminding us of its presence every few minutes we couldn’t spot it.

Whiteford Sands, Gower Peninsula
Whiteford Sands, Gower Peninsula

Given the earlier rain it wasn’t surprising we were the only ones on the beach. This was also fortunate as I subsequently discovered that Whiteford Sands is a well known naturist beach. I can only imagine how embarrassed the teens would have been if we’d come across some au naturel visitors.

Whiteford beach, Gower peninsula
Whiteford beach, Gower peninsula

Later a couple of quad bikes passed us and we realised the beach wasn’t entirely empty. Far out we could see a couple of groups of people who I guess were harvesting cockles or mussels. A backbreaking job perhaps better left to the oystercatchers!

Whiteford lighthouse

At the far end of Whiteford beach there’s a cast iron lighthouse which was built in 1865. Over 30 shipwrecks have been recorded in this area, including 16 ships sailing out of Llanelli which were wrecked in just one night.

Whiteford Lighthouse, Gower Peninsula
Whiteford Lighthouse, Gower Peninsula

The lighthouse is accessible on foot at low tide, providing the ultimate goal for my beach walk. Although I underestimated just how far out it was. The rest of the family sensibly decided to sit it out on the beach whilst I seemingly walked several miles out to it (OK, perhaps half a mile).

Whiteford Burrows Nature Reserve

Leaving the lighthouse behind we walked past the sand dunes that make up Whiteford Burrows. The path gradually turned from sand to mud as we moved inland. Yellow irises flanked our route, indicative of the marsh that lay just off our route.

Whiteford Sands, Gower Peninsula
Whiteford Sands, Gower Peninsula

We arrived at a path junction and I was immediately drawn to the sea wall that heads out across the marsh. The wall was breached in 2014, resulting in sea water flowing into the freshwater marsh. Rather than repair it the National Trust have left nature to take its own course. This has resulted in the area previously behind the sea wall turning into salt marsh. Good news for wildlife although not so good if you wanted to take the footpath along the sea wall!

Sea wall across the marsh, Whiteford
Sea wall across the marsh, Whiteford

A little later we stopped in a bird hide overlooking the marsh. Our lack of binoculars once again put paid to any serious bird spotting so we didn’t linger. There was also the small matter of reaching Cwm Ivy cafe before closing time.

Whiteford nature reserve, Gower
Whiteford nature reserve, Gower

Sitting in the cafe a short time later we reflected on our northern Gower day out.  The area has a stunning coastline, nature reserves and historical attractions. Yet we‘d seen less than 30 other visitors all day; it’s definitely the place to visit if you’re looking for a quiet day out (particularly in the rain)!

Exploring the Gower Peninsula was one of my UK bucket list challenges. As well as the above day out you might also like to read about the fun we had tackling the Worm’s Head at Rhossili.

More info:

  • Weobley Castle is open daily between 1 April and 31 October. It’s free for Cadw members, alternatively pay in the farmhouse before entering.
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