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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Weobley Castle is open daily between 1 April and 31 October. It’s free for Cadw members, alternatively pay in the farmhouse before entering.
The three miles of golden sand at Rhossili on the Gower Peninsula regularly features in top ten lists of best beaches. This year alone it has been voted the number one beach in Wales, third best in the UK and 25th in Europe. I can see why. But, and I will whisper this, perfect sandy beaches just don’t do it for me. I don’t swim, sunbathe or surf. I need something else to hold my attention.
So it’s fortunate that, at the southern end of the beach, there’s a fabulous tidal island that’s right up my street. Let me introduce the rockpools, cliffs and wildlife of Worm’s Head.
But, first, a word about the name. The Vikings named the promontory ‘wurm’ which translates to dragon. Not worm. I guess that with a little imagination the green summits do resemble a serpent’s back.
Crossing the causeway
The large National Trust car park for Rhossili beach is about 20 minutes walk from Worm’s Head causeway. From the car park it’s a surfaced track almost as far as the volunteer run coastwatch station.
From the headland there’s a short scrambly section to get down onto the causeway which links to the island. Worm’s Head is accessible for 2.5 hours before and after low tide; there’s a large notice advising the safe crossing times so there’s no excuse for strandings. If you’re tempted to race the tide the small coastwatch station has a tally notice in the window advising of the number of rescues. Don’t add to the numbers!
Crossing the causeway takes about 20 minutes assuming you’re not distracted by the rock pools. We delayed our rock pooling until the return journey so soon reached Inner Head, the first section of Worm’s Head. The entire island is about a mile long; Inner Head is joined to Outer Head, by Low Neck. I guess the Vikings had exhausted their imagination after naming the island.
We hadn’t been organised enough to make a picnic but fortunately we’d bought some sandwiches in Rhossili. The sandwiches were surprisingly good although I think a combination of sea air, fabulous views and rumbling tummies contributed to our enjoyment. We ate our sandwiches, enjoying the view, and discovered that the people staying next to us in the campsite were sitting only a few steps away. Great minds.
After lunch we faced the first climb of the day to the summit of Inner Head. Although quite a steep hill it was relatively short and once over the top we were treated to a panoramic view of the serpent in all its glory.
As we dropped down to Low Neck we took a slight detour to peer over the cliffs at the grey seals below. A couple were swimming lazily in the sea, another huge one was laying on the rocks, seemingly oblivious to the humans above them taking photographs.
The most exciting part of the route came next, clambering across the jagged teeth of Low Neck. OK they were only rocks. But surprisingly fierce ones; I still have one of the bruises! There are a few hand on rock moments and god forbid if you’re trying to cross in Crocs (as I saw one lady wearing). The big positive is, in dry conditions at least, the rocks are very grippy. This section can take some time to negotiate so do bear this in mind if the tide is turning.
My geology knowledge is basic but even I could appreciate the different strata and faults in the rocks. However my eyes glaze over at the mention of wave cut platforms, carboniferous limestone and calcite veins; suffice to say they all feature on Worm’s Head.
Devil’s Bridge is the remains of a collapsed sea cave. One day it too will fall into the sea. Until then it’s one of the most photographed features on the island. The best photographs are obtained by scrambling down towards the sea, probably not for the faint hearted.
The crossing itself is straightforward and nowhere near as airy as I expected, but then again I didn’t attempt to look down. I might have changed my mind if I took a moment to peer over the edge.
A little further on we came across a cave window, perfectly framed for a photograph out to sea. If you’ve come this far with children be warned there’s a sheer drop off the cliff on the other side of the window!
At the bottom of Outer Head there’s a notice advising of nesting birds and asking visitors to keep to the marked path. We didn’t go any further as we’d left the teens at Devil’s Bridge and I had visions of them scaling cliffs or (more likely) arguing.
Instead we stopped and watched the seabirds for a while. Guillemots and razorbills whirling and diving around the cliffs. I looked in vain for puffins but to no avail.
We took an alternative return route, keeping low and circling around the hill, enjoying the waves of pink sea thrift that lined the path edge.
Back at Devil’s Bridge the kids were still on speaking terms and had been taking photographs of each other messing around on the bridge. I’m glad I wasn’t around to watch them do this. My parenting survival gene may have kicked in!
Rock pooling on the causeway
The second highlight of the day, after Low Neck, was rock pooling on our return journey.
I love rock pools. The ones on the Worm’s Head causeway were fascinating; I could easily have spent all of low tide mooching around them. They were teeming with creatures; anemones, hermit crabs, shrimps, dog whelks and seaweeds to name but a few. Some of the rocks were completely covered in mussels and barnacles making it impossible to avoid standing on them. And sometimes the weird and wonderful shapes of the rocks alone were enough to make me stand and stare.
Despite the tide being out I still managed to get wet feet. I can only blame the sun reflecting off the water for my decision to walk through a large pool. My trainers and socks got soaked through so it didn’t matter when I did it again a few minutes later. Fortunately it was a warm day and I managed to forget how wet my feet were before the family stopped laughing at me.
The final part of our journey took us back to Rhossili for a well deserved ice cream. And several water bottle refills at the NT shop. The day had turned out much warmer than we’d planned for!
The National Trust owns the land around Rhossili and Worm’s Head. Car parking is free to NT members or £5 for the day for non-members. There are no facilities on Worm’s Head.