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).
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.
We recently completed another item on my UK bucket list and spent a week on Anglesey in North Wales.
Anglesey is the largest island in Wales and has plenty of tourist attractions for all ages. Read on to find out what we enjoyed most about the island.
1. Walking the Anglesey coastal path
This 200km path circles the coast and offers lots of walking opportunities. It’s a relatively gentle coastal path; whilst there are cliffs in the north we mainly walked beside heath, sand dunes and salt marshes.
Our favourite walks were along Aberffraw creek to the beach, a circuit around the northern end of Holy Island and an evening stroll to Llanddwyn along Newborough beach. Find out more about the stages and highlights on the Visit Anglesey website.
2. A behind the scenes tour at Halen Môn (Anglesey sea salt)
We spent an entertaining hour or so at Anglesey Sea Salt. We discovered how salt is harvested from the Menai Straits, processed and packaged in the onsite production facility.
Afterwards there’s an opportunity to sample table, rock and sea salts. You’re even given a handy little tin to take away your favourite; the smoked sea salt was to die for!
The tour is aimed at older children. If you’re travelling with youngsters Anglesea Sea Zoo (which we didn’t visit) is next door and might be a better option.
3. Spotting puffins on Puffin Island
Our boat trip with Seacoast Safaris took us out past Penmon Point lighthouse and around Puffin Island. The trip lasts around 90 minutes but is flexible to accommodate wildlife sightings. Our skipper tried to ensure both sides of the boat had equal viewing opportunities and was a mine of information about the area and its wildlife. Visitors usually see puffins between April to July but there are always plenty of other seabirds and seals to spot. We were even lucky enough to see porpoise – after we’d got off the boat in Beaumaris!
4. Watching the jets at RAF Valley
My son’s choice of activity; not an official tourist destination but very popular. The RAF station is used to train crew to fly fast jets and is also the base for RAF Mountain Rescue. There’s a public car park from where you can watch the pilots, usually flying Hawks, practise their take-off and landing skills. We watched for about 30 minutes or so; during this time we saw one take-off, a landing and a fly past. The take-off was the most exciting and is unbelievably noisy!
5. Visiting LlanfairPG
There’s not much see once you’re here but how could we resist stopping off to take a photo of the longest place name in Europe?
6. Following the boardwalk through The Dingles, Llangefni
Easily accessed from Llangefni (once you find the right car park) this is a wooded valley with a boardwalk running through much of it. Visit in spring and you’ll be rewarded with swathes of bluebells.
My partner was lucky enough to see a red squirrel so keep your eyes peeled.
8. Exploring the copper mine on Parys mountain, Amlwch
Once the largest copper mine in the world this is a fascinating place to visit.
We followed the shorter waymarked walk around the huge open cast mine. The rock colours are amazingly vibrant and the whole area feels completely alien to its surroundings. There’s no entrance charge or visitor facilities aside from some information boards. Be aware it’s in an exposed location so prepare to get windswept!
9. Watching birds at RSPB South Stack and visiting the lighthouse on Holy Island
Two attractions in one. Watch seabirds on the cliffs and then, if you’re feeling fit, walk the 400 steps down to the lighthouse. Remembering that you’ll need to climb up 400 on the way back. Alternatively just sit in the RSPB cafe and enjoy the views.
The lighthouse was closed during our visit so check opening times before you go. You wouldn’t want those steps to be in vain.
10. Eating a massive scone at the Wavecrest Cafe, Church Bay
If you fancy a cream tea on Anglesey you really must treat yourself to a super size scone at Wavecrest Cafe. Just look at it!
Afterwards head to the beach at Church Bay to run around and attempt to burn off the calories.
Have you been to Anglesey? If so, what were you favourite things to do?
Back in January I picked up Country Walking’s guide to Long Distance Paths. It was the perfect antidote to a wet New Year’s Day. I’ve always had vague plans to walk a long distance path but the logistics and lack of spare time put me off. However when I realised we could walk the 100 mile South Downs Way in four weekend stages I immediately started planning.
Fast forward three months and we’ve completed the first two days. How did we get on?
Winchester to Petersfield by bus
Most people start their walk in Winchester and head east, or in Eastbourne and head west. We did a bit of both due to the lack of public transport on Sunday. After parking in Winchester we caught the bus to Petersfield and then walked back to the city.
The downside? The number 67 bus takes 1 hour 20 minutes to reach Petersfield; twice the time it took us to drive to Winchester. At least we had an in-depth tour of the local villages en route!
Petersfield to Buriton (2.5 miles)
From the bus stop in Petersfield’s town square it’s a couple of miles to the South Downs Way (SDW) at Buriton.
I didn’t have a map for the walk to Buriton, relying instead on information I’d screenshot from the web. Fortunately it was a straightforward route following another long distance path, The Hangers Way. Or at least I thought it was. Turns out we didn’t end up on this at all but somehow took another route to the same destination. Don’t tell the family!
Buriton is a picture perfect English village with a 12th Century church, two pubs and a duck pond full of huge fish. It would have been lovely to sit beside the pond but time was already against us. We’ll be starting at Buriton when we walk the second stage so maybe next time.
South Downs Way: Day 1 – Buriton to Exton (12 miles)
From Buriton we picked up the trail into the wooded Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Despite lots of trail options it’s impossible to get lost as there are SDW signposts every 100m or so. Maybe they heard I was navigating?
The woods were busy with walkers, cyclists and a horse riding event. My son, who isn’t keen on horses, was some way back chatting (well, bickering) with big sister. Imagine his horror when several horses appeared, cantering along the path behind him. Big sister stepped up onto the bank out of their way. However he decided to run and catch up with us! I can still see the look of terror on his face as he sprinted towards us, closely followed by three horses. Fortunately they passed without incident but he’s even less of a fan of horses now.
By now the combination of our drive, bus journey and walk to join the South Downs Way meant it was already lunchtime. We’d bought a picnic which we supplemented with drinks from the conveniently located visitor centre cafe.
After lunch we crossed under the A3 and headed to the summit of Butser Hill, the highest point on the South Downs Way. We last visited Butser Hill several years ago when we watched egg rolling on an Easter Monday.
As we climbed the chalk hill towards the radio masts on top there were great views back of the A3. Supposedly of the Isle of Wight too, but I could only make out the sea. And traffic.
Summit ticked, we followed a quiet road and track for a couple of miles along a broad ridge with views across the Meon valley.
It wasn’t long since our earlier coffee break but I’d already planned afternoon coffee at the Beech Cafe, part of the Sustainability Centre. There’s hostel accommodation here too; albeit not the most aesthetically pleasing. This, in part, is because the site was once home to HMS Mercury, the Royal Naval Communications and Navigation School.
We walked on, through the ripening oilseed rape fields. At one point there were rain clouds in all directions except the way we were walking. Not just any rain clouds either. Torrential downpour clouds.
They looked particularly ominous as we neared Meon Springs fly fishery. It was a beautiful spot, complete with refreshment shed, but even I couldn’t justify another break.
Instead we took the uphill path towards Old Winchester Hill. I was keen to visit this Iron Age fort as it’s on my UK bucket list. So why was I underwhelmed? Perhaps it was the threatening clouds or the knowledge it was already 5pm and we still had a couple of miles to walk; we didn’t hang around. Maybe one day we’ll return and explore at leisure.
We upped our pace off the hill, trying to outwalk the rain. This was successful but meant there was no time to enjoy the trail which follows a pretty stream into Exton. Instead, relief as we reached the village knowing our first day was complete.
Overnight at Corhampton Lane Farm B&B
Corhampton Lane Farm B&B was exactly what we needed at the end of our walk.
The B&B is located in Corhampton which is slightly off route but the owner, Suzanne, picked us up from Exton.
As we walked into the house Suzanne pointed out a lemon drizzle cake for us to help ourselves to. We were eating out in less than an hour so I actually bypassed the cake. Completely out of character I know. Instead we sufficed ourselves with hot drinks.
Our family room was generously sized with its own private bathroom. Most importantly, from the kids perspective, it had Kit Kats on the tea tray and Wi-Fi!
Dinner at The Shoe Inn, Exton
I’d tried to book a table at the local pub, The Shoe Inn, earlier in the week only to be told it was fully booked. Thankfully Suzanne was one step ahead and had already reserved us a table. Phew! Even better, she kindly dropped us in and picked us up from the pub later that evening.
The food was excellent. I chose spaghetti with wild garlic, goats cheese and pesto whilst my other half opted for a pie. The kids ate from the children’s menu as the portions were huge. Our desserts included panna cotta, ice creams and crumble, albeit this was slightly let down by the incredibly sweet fruit.
South Downs Way: Day 2 – Exton to Winchester (12 miles)
After a good night’s sleep we fuelled up with breakfast. Once again Suzanne drove us back, this time to the local village shop so we could buy snacks for the walk ahead.
Shortly after leaving Exton we tackled the main climb of the day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we walked to the summit of Beacon Hill.
A little further along we found the first bluebells of spring; pretty impressive for the start of April.
We stopped for a late morning drink at The Milburys Pub. I wasn’t impressed with the service; smiles and pleasantries were in short supply but it was lovely to sit outside in the sun.
Leaving the pub behind we walked for another couple of miles before stopping next to an old barn for lunch.
Afterwards we walked over the wide open Gander Down. This was my favourite part of the second day despite it coinciding with my son having a grumpy moment (or two).
This section of the SDW was by far the busiest. I hadn’t fully appreciated the SDW is also a bridleway (with some diversions). Cyclists easily outnumbered walkers. That was until we passed a huge group of scouts and cubs on an afternoon hike.
The natural amphitheatre of Cheesefoot Head is a couple of miles from Winchester. I’d hoped to find an ice-cream van in the car park but no such luck. Cheesefoot Head is probably most famous as the location where General Eisenhower addressed the American troops before D-Day. Although I prefer its alternative claim to fame as a crop circle location.
Arriving into Winchester, via a footbridge over the M3, was an anti-climax. It’s usually the start or finish of the SDW but for us it was just the end of the second day. Although it was the perfect weather for a celebratory ice cream before our drive home.
How did the kids do?
A couple of people have asked how the kids coped with the walk. As they’re 14 and 12 years old they’re both capable of walking the distance, particularly as we already walk a fair amount anyway.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Our feet were hurting at the end of the second day and the last couple of miles were hard-going for all of us. We walked a total of 15 miles on day one (or 42,566 steps according to my son’s Fitbit). Day two felt longer although it wasn’t. I don’t think we’d have coped well with a third continuous day of walking.
In addition to sore feet there were also sore shoulders. I’d overseen the rucksack packing but a few extras were added to my daughter’s bag. And, being a teenager, she wasn’t going to listen when we suggested taking things out!
As always, snacks and brief stops worked wonders for all of us.
We used the Cicerone guide ‘Walking the South Downs Way’ as it describes the trail both west to east and east to west. It includes OS maps of the trail but have a back up plan if you need to walk off trail e.g. for public transport or accommodation.