It’s almost time to say goodbye to 2016. What can I say? It’s been a mixed year. Huge political shake ups, continuing civil wars, the Rio Olympics and Paralympics and Planet Earth II.
Personally, there have been sad times and happy times. I’ve had some great adventures and ticked off a couple of long held ambitions. Focussing on the positives, and in no particular order, here are my top 10 of 2016:
1. Running the London marathon
The first three months of 2016 were spent pounding roads and muddy footpaths in preparation for running the London marathon. My once in a lifetime challenge.
The day itself was incredible and by far the most physically demanding thing I’ve done. There were tough parts (the last six miles), amazing parts (spectator support and running over Tower Bridge) and emotional parts (finishing). Would I do it again? No way! But I’m very glad to have completed it.
2. Walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks
We spent a week in the Yorkshire Dales and were blessed with ideal walking weather. Perfect for tackling the Yorkshire Three Peaks – Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside. Often walked as a day long charity challenge, we chose the easy option and spread them over three separate days.
3. Family backpacking adventures
I’ve cheated here and combined two trips into one. At the start of the year we decided the kids were old enough for backpacking. We bought a couple of lightweight tents and chose a couple of weekend routes close to home.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. I oversetimated the mileage we could comfortably walk on our Lambourn Valley Way weekend. And the weather was just a tad too warm on our Thames Path walk. But both weekends were fun, we rewarded ourselves with lovely meals out and made some great memories.
4. Going underground at Zip World Caverns, Blaenau Ffestiniog
My scary but exciting birthday present. Zip lining in caves, crawling through tunnels and scaling the side of the caverns. Are you brave enough to tackle Zip World Caverns?
5. Watching a Midsummer’s Night Dream, Creation Theatre, Oxford
“Quick, follow me. Walk in zigzags and blink your eyes really fast. Get in the van, hurry”. Think of Shakespeare and you don’t generally think of being bundled into a van in a public car park. Or taking part in an audition. Or popping into the printers to pick up wedding invites.
Part immersive performance, part treasure trail around Oxford this was an incredibly imaginative version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Creation Theatre. It was simply the best production I have ever seen.
6. Descending into Gaping Gill
This was an unplanned, but welcome addition, to our Yorkshire Dales holiday. After spotting an advert in a local cafe we siezed the opportunity to descend 100m by winch into Gaping Gill, a large pothole. We had to contend with an early start and a couple of hours queuing but it was worth the wait!
7. Finally finding a bee orchid. And then another. And another.
You know the saying about waiting for buses? Well this year I could have substituted the words ‘bee orchid’. I was so happy to find my first bee orchid at Warburg Nature Reserve, closely followed by several more discoveries. I even found one on a roadside verge whilst out on my lunchtime walk. How could I possibly have missed them in previous years?
8. Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim
I’ve wanted to visit Giant’s Causeway for many years. It has been on my bucket list forever. With expectations so high, thank god it lived up to them!
9. Watching coypu at our campsite in France
Whilst on holiday in Brittany my favourite activity was watching a family of coypu living near our campsite. I’d head down to the river every evening, about half an hour before dusk, and wait patiently for them to appear. I was childishly excited at the first glimpse of the coypu each night, and even more so whenever the young appeared.
10. Starlings and moon rise at Otmoor
Over recent years we’ve made an annual pilgrimage to watch the starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor. This year, in addition to 40,000 starlings, we were treated to the most amazing moon rise. Two spectacular natural sights in one day!
What are my plans for 2017? We’re keeping things flexible at the moment but I have a very long UK bucket list which I’m hoping to make a dent in. How about you?
After our last backpack along the Lambourn Valley Way I was keen to attempt another overnight trip with the family. This time I was under strict instructions to make the walk shorter. Fortunately I had such a trip up my sleeve. A walk from Oxford along the Thames Path to a small campsite near Eynsham, returning by a different route the next day; a total of around 10 miles.
Day 1: Oxford to Eynsham along the Thames Path National Trail
The Thames Path National Trail runs for 184 miles from the Cotswolds until it meets the Thames Barrier in Greenwich. We joined it a few minutes walk from Oxford railway station; the traffic noise and fumes of Botley Road magically disappearing just a few feet along the path.
The first stretch from Oxford to Wolvercote was packed with families and groups enjoying the weather. Helped of course by two pubs conveniently located just off the trail. We watched as the cattle and ponies of Port Meadow paddled in the shallows, trying to escape the afternoon heat. If you’re looking for a picnic spot this is a great location; it’s one of my 15 best picnic sites in Oxfordshire.
Once past Wolvercote the path was much quieter with only the occassional walker or cyclist. The local wildlife appreciated the peace; a heron and little egret perched photogenically on a dead tree trunk. Although of course they flew off just as I attempted a photograph.
At one point we came across an elderly couple swimming au naturel in the river. We were walking beside a stretch of overgrown bank so I’m assuming they couldn’t see us. Let’s just say their shouted conversations to each other made us all smile!
Whilst the walk was much shorter than our last trip I couldn’t do anything about the weather. Hot and sunny. Bliss. Unless you’re walking with a backpack in which case it means sweaty backs and complaints from the kids about how warm it is.
Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham
We reached Swinford Lock campsite late afternoon. The Environment Agency runs a number of basic campsites on lock islands along the Thames. A toilet, a water tap and a fire pit were the only facilities but for one night what else do you need?
After pitching the tent we walked into the nearby village of Eynsham. Despite living only a few miles away I’d never visited before. It’s definitely the kind of place I can imagine living; a large thriving village with lots of community spirit and good transport links.
Eynsham is also home to several eateries and inns. We don’t carry cooking equipment on our overnight backpacks as we like to treat ourselves and eat out. Hence we dined at The Bayleaf, a restaurant serving Bangladeshi and Indian food, before a slow walk back to our campsite collecting firewood on the way.
At the campsite we were still the only tent on the island. When I’d phoned earlier in the week the lock-keeper had advised there were seven others booked in. But nobody else arrived and we ended up with our own private camping island. How lucky we were!
Every campsite needs a campfire so we set about building one. It took a while to light but eventually some toilet paper and old receipts did the trick. Fortunately I’d bought marshmallows in the local shop for the kids to toast; it’s lovely there are some family traditions they haven’t grown out of yet.
We went to bed shortly after sunset. Further along the riverside a wedding party was in full swing and we were woken by the music several times in the night.
Day 2: Eynsham to Oxford
The morning dawned cloudy, ideal weather for walking. After a trip into Eynsham for breakfast provisions (fresh pain-au-chocolat and croissants) we packed our tents and continued our walk along the Thames Path. We passed the remnants of the wedding party camp, I’d imagine there were quite a few sore heads that morning.
Just before the next lock we turned away from the river. I thought I’d planned a scenic walk around Farmoor Reservoir but the path I’d chosen took us outside the boundary instead. Next to the sewage works. Whoops.
We eventually reached the main entrance to the Reservoir and made our way through the car park. I was delighted to see people drinking coffee outside the sailing club. How I’d missed my morning cuppa! For the grand sum of £2.30 we spent the next half-hour drinking two mugs of coffee and two of hot chocolate whilst watching sailing races on the reservoir.
After leaving Farmoor the next couple of miles took us through crop fields. We thought we’d lost the footpath at one stage but discovered it hidden under an invasion of Japanese Knotweed. Incredible just how overgrown the path was!
The last mile was through the outskirts of Oxford. Some lovely houses to look at but not exactly backpacking territory. It was tempting to stop at one of the bus stops and cover the final mile on wheels. But we resisted, and I’m glad we did. It was good to complete the trip under our own steam.
So that’s our second backpacking trip ticked off. I wonder if we’ll be able to squeeze another one in before the end of summer? And if so, where will we go?
A list of Environment Agency and other commercial campsites close to the River Thames can be found here. The Environment Agency campsites are open to walkers, cyclists and river users only; there are no parking facilities close by. Our pitch (2 backpacking tents, 2 adults and 2 children) cost £14 for the night.
Sometimes you don’t need to travel far for an adventure. Whilst my younger self demanded exciting experiences or exotic destinations last weekend we hopped on a couple of buses, hoisted on our backpacks and walked the Lambourn Valley Way.
The Lambourn Valley Way is a 20 mile walk, running from White Horse Hill, Uffington in Oxfordshire to Newbury in Berkshire via the horse racing village of Lambourn. There are no dramatic mountain vistas but plenty of downland views, farmland and racing gallops. We split the walk over two days, camping overnight at Farncombe Farm near Lambourn.
This was our first backpacking trip with the kids. Aged 11 and 13 years they’re used to walking reasonable distances and both were looking forward to the adventure. They were carrying their sleeping bags, mats and change of clothes whilst we also carried a tent each. We didn’t bother with cooking equipment as we ate out for a treat.
Uffington to Lambourn
We arrived in Uffington, ate a late lunch and after fortifying ourselves with additional cake set off on our backpack. There were a couple of extra miles to the official start of the Lambourn Valley Way but our feet and shoulders were fresh so we hardly noticed it. We did notice the ominous sign below; a pity we didn’t see any!
Our afternoon walk took us across chalk downland and alongside racing gallops. Away from the busy White Horse and Uffington Castle we walked the downs alone, treated to a landscape of gently rolling hills and serenaded by skylarks.
Further on we walked beside the gallops. I’m sure that if we’d been thundering along them on racehorses we’d have reached the end in no time at all. But we weren’t. And the path and gallops seemed to stretch into the distance forever. Not my favourite part of the walk.
We finally made it to Lambourn an hour later than planned. The village and surrounding area are synonymous with horse racing and there are more than 50 local racing yards. According to the Lambourn village website the valley has a higher ratio of horses to humans than anywhere else in the country. Yet we didn’t see a single racehorse!
Overnight in Lambourn
We had one more mile ahead of us, away from the official trail, out to Farncombe Farm campsite. The direct route was along the edge of the road; no separate footpath but relatively quiet and easy to hop on the grass verge if a car came by.
It was great to arrive and deposit our rucksacks for the evening. I was surprised we were the only campers on site although there were a couple of caravans at the other end of the field.
The only downside of the location was the extra walk to and from Lambourn for our evening pub meal. But our dinner at The George was worth it. The pub is the local racing hang out with horse racing on the TV, horse pictures on the wall and racing yard staff in the bar. Service and food were both excellent, a great meal out.
Our night on the campsite passed peacefully and not quite as cold as the weather forecast had suggested. After drying the tents we packed up and tackled the road into Lambourn one last time. The campsite owner did point out an alternative route back into Lambourn but it involved crossing a field of cows.
Lambourn to Newbury
After an excellent breakfast at The Café Lambourn, we pulled our rucksacks onto sore shoulders and headed out along the trail. Unlike the downland walk the previous day our route took us from village to village, sometimes following the river, other times the disused railway track which once ran to Newbury.
We passed through East Garston, an idyllic village where the River Lambourn separates many of the houses from the main road. The river is actually a chalk stream; crystal clear and inviting in May but troublesome in flood. The area suffered significant damage in February 2014 and it would be wise not to walk this route if flooding is likely.
The scenery was varied; not spectacular but the type of countryside where you’d go for a leisurely afternoon ramble or dog walk. We followed footpaths through fields of bright yellow rapeseed, across someone’s garden and amongst woodland. We stroked horses, avoided cowpats and heard our first cuckoo of the year.
We stopped for a short break in Great Shefford to buy ice creams. I would like to point out we don’t normally live on chips, fried breakfasts, cake and ice cream but I figured we were doing plenty of exercise so treats were allowed.
As we skirted around Welford we were worried by a ‘Bull in field’ sign. We had little choice but to walk quickly through the field. Fortunately the bull was nowhere to be seen. However my daughter spotted something much more exciting. For the last two years the Great British Bake Off has been filmed in Welford Park and she is convinced she saw the tent that it’s filmed in. Personally I was just keen to get away from the bull!
We made a couple of grisly discoveries along a footpath near Boxford. Two partially decomposed animal skeletons. We decided they were young badgers until we walked through the next field, full of sows with piglets. The sows were kept inside their pens by electric fencing but the piglets could easily walk under it without getting zapped. I’m guessing a few wandered away from their mums and met with an unfortunate end.
The final stretch to Newbury
At Bagnor it’s possible to take a short detour to Donnington Castle. This is worth the extra leg work if you haven’t visited before but we’ve been several times so I was happy to miss it out.
The last couple of miles were hard-going. Blistered feet, sore shoulders and, amazingly, we were all hungry again!
I stopped to take a photo of the building above, perched on stone mushrooms in Speen. I had hoped to read more about it on the Internet once home but couldn’t find any information. Any ideas?
It was a relief to finally reach Newbury and dive into the nearest shop for some snacks. Even more of a relief to get to the railway station and collapse into our seats for the journey home. Back in our home town we treated ourselves to a taxi for the final part of our adventure.
I’m already looking forward to our next backpacking trip but I’ll pay closer attention to the total mileage. Once I added in the extra distance from the bus stop to the start and the walk out (and back) to the campsite twice it totalled 26 miles. On a warm weekend. With kids. Carrying backpacking gear.
I was in two minds whether to write a review of Denfurlong Farm campsite or not. Partly because it’s a simple set up so there’s not really much to say about it. And partly because it’s our new favourite campsite which I’m not sure I want anyone else to discover!
Denfurlong Farm campsite is on the outskirts of Chedworth village in Gloucestershire. It’s the perfect location for discovering the local Cotswold villages and countryside. Cirencester is a 15 minute drive south of the campsite whilst the tourist destinations of Northleach and Bibury can be reached in the same time.
We stayed over a gorgeous sunny weekend in June. There were only about 10 other people on the site, I couldn’t believe how quiet it was given the location.
This is not the place to visit if you expect extensive facilities. There’s a field, one Portaloo and basic shower, a water tap and waste disposal. There are a small number of electric hook ups for caravans but it’s not your typical caravan site.
New toilet and shower facilities are underway; we had a peek and it looks like they’ll be a big improvement when they’re finished. Although I’m a little worried the campsite will become too popular when the facilities open!
*Update August 2015* – the new toilet block is now open!
The campsite has loads of space for children and dogs to play. Our kids enjoyed playing on the rope swing and exploring the area up behind the tents. There’s a communal campfire pit in the middle of the field which we didn’t get a chance to use but would be perfect for toasting marshmallows. If you do plan to cook you can hire cool boxes and barbecues from the farm shop.
There are a couple of bell tents to hire too. They look quite roomy inside and can be hired with or without equipment. I always enjoy staying in my own tent but these would be handy if you don’t want the hassle of putting up a tent.
Chedworth Farm shop
Aside from the location, the main reason I chose this site was because of the farm shop cafe which is only a couple of minutes walk away.
The cafe is open on weekend mornings for bottomless fried breakfasts (£7), unlimited coffee (£2) and plenty of other breakfast choices. The kids had a smaller fried breakfast for £4.50 each but it was still pretty big!
The farm makes its own ice cream so we felt obliged to test this too. The lemon meringue flavour was the favourite from our choices although all were good. I didn’t get around to eating any cakes but they also looked tempting.
The only downside was that the cafe had a ‘fried smell’ about it. It wasn’t really obvious once you were sitting inside but was a little off-putting when you first walk into the farm shop area.
Things to do nearby
Corinium Museum in nearby Cirencester is a great place to learn about the Roman history of the area. The museum contains locally found mosaics and wall paintings, along with plenty of Roman artefacts and information.
The ruins of Chedworth Roman Villa are around 3 miles away from the campsite. It’s one of the largest Romano-British villas in the country and well worth a visit. Keep an eye out for large snails around the site; their ancestors were brought over by the Romans to be fattened on milk and eaten as a delicacy.
We’ve been to the villa before so didn’t visit this time. Instead we went for a walk in Chedworth Woods and Nature Reserve and then made use of the National Trust cafe and toilets at the villa.
We loved this Cotswold campsite and are already planning our return. We are back to basics campers so don’t mind the lack of facilities but it won’t suit everyone. For us though it is the perfect place to spend a night or two in the Cotswolds.
We paid £10 for our grass pitch, this included 2 adults and 2 children. Prices increase slightly during July and August but are still a bargain for the area. Further details and booking information can be found on the Denfurlong Farm campsite website.
Corinium Museum in Cirencester is open from 10am-5pm Monday to Saturday and 2pm-5pm on Sundays in the summer months. Different opening times apply out of season. An adult ticket costs £4.95, children age 5-16 cost £2.45.
Chedworth Roman Villa is open 10am-5pm during the summer months. Entry is free to National Trust members, alternatively a family ticket costs £22.50. Check the website before visiting out of season.
We decided to venture to France for our holiday this year, and after much trawling of the internet came across CosyCamp. This campsite only opened in 2013 and already has plenty of positive feedback on the various review sites. Read on to find out how we got on.
CosyCamp is situated on the outskirts of Chamaliéres-sur-Loire, a small village in the Haute-Loire department. It’s in central France, in the southern part of the Auvergne region. The area hasn’t been discovered by the tourist masses but there’s plenty to do locally.
We flew to Lyon with British Airways and took advantage of a combined hire car offer with Avis. It was a straightforward 1.5 hour drive to the campsite, although we did have a moment when the Sat Nav suggested a U turn on a dual carriageway!
By the looks of the car park, the majority of guests drive to the site, either from the Netherlands or the UK. According to Google it’s a 9 hour, 548 mile, journey from Calais.
The campsite runs alongside the River Loire. There’s a grassy area between the tents and the river bank but it’s not fenced off so you need to keep an eye on young children. A big positive is that cars are not allowed on site. There’s a car park just outside the main entrance along with trolleys for transporting luggage and camping gear.
The different types of accommodation and tent pitches are mixed throughout the 4 acre site so there’s no regimented feel. The grounds are flat with well maintained garden areas, including herbs and vegetables.
Whilst most guests bring their own tents we decided to hire a safari tent for the week. This was the basic accommodation option but it was luxurious compared to our usual camping experience. The other lodgings include wooden cottages, luxury safari lodges, a treehouse and a gypsy caravan. There is a separate area for camper vans.
Our safari tent had two bedrooms, split between a double room and a kids bunk room. The bed was incredibly comfortable and I slept well the entire week. The kitchen area had a fridge, microwave, kettle and camping stove. We used the communal campsite toilets and washing up areas. Outside on the deck we had chairs and a small table.
We took our own duvet covers and pillowcases, although you can hire them. We had a slight issue with ours, as the pillows were square but we’d brought standard oblong pillowcases, whoops! We managed to make them fit with a bit of fiddling.
For some reason our tent attracted earwigs and we had to clear them out every evening (sorry earwigs). On a positive note there weren’t any mosquitoes.
There are three toilet and shower blocks. These were unisex and contained a mix of showers, toilets and washbasins in cubicles. We sometimes had to queue for toilets, particularly if parts were closed off for cleaning. The showers were warm and free.
The campsite has a strong environmental ethos. We were given a recycling bag for plastics, glass, cans and cardboard. There were also compost bins for food waste, conveniently located near the washing up areas. The lights in the wash blocks were motion activated and the showers had push buttons rather than a constant flow of water.
There were plenty of dish and clothes washing sinks. The site also has a laundry room with washing machines, dryers and ironing facilities.
There isn’t a shop on site but we were able to order croissants, pain au chocolat and baguettes (all 1 euro each) for collection the following morning.
We visited in August and there were lots of children on site. I’m sure that plenty of couples stay outside of the school holidays but the campsite is definitely geared towards families (kids up to about 12 years of age) and the activities reflect this.
Our kids found a badminton court, table tennis, basketball hoop and football area, all with equipment nearby. Some were in almost constant use but they managed to have a go on most things throughout the week. There’s a small playground which looked good for younger children.
There’s an outdoor swimming pool and paddling pool, which were very popular (I had to wait until the evening to get a photo with no-one in). There’s also a heated indoor pool that can be hired for sole family use for 10 euro per hour; this has massage water jets, coloured lights and music.
The campsite offers free weekly organised nature activities for children; these are advertised on the information board in reception. Opposite our tent there was a den building area which was popular with kids building and demolishing structures.
There are also a couple of canoes (with lifejackets) to borrow for outings on the River Loire. Next door there’s a horse riding school. It’s not part of the campsite but appeared to be busy with kids every time we went past.
Evenings were low key, with many guests heading to the cafe bar for a glass of wine or two. We spent several nights here playing board games, which we never do in England! There’s a family room above the cafe with a TV, games and books to borrow. Downstairs in the reception area were tourist attraction leaflets, walking books (in French), maps and large coffee table photographic books of the area to help you plan the next day.
We ate at the cafe a couple of evenings during our stay. It primarily serves pizza and salads, along with a daily speciality. Prices were very reasonable, with pizzas costing 8-12 euros. We really enjoyed our pizzas although there were quite a few flies in the dining area which was off-putting.
Richard and Sophie own the site and do an incredible job, I dread to think how many hours they work. They were usually around the reception area, advising on places to go and helping with bookings. Issues were dealt with promptly, for example we reported a problem with our stove. Richard came almost immediately and fixed it (well, turned a valve, it wasn’t broken). Later in the week my daughter had an infected cut. As it was a Sunday everywhere was closed, again they came to the rescue with a loan of antiseptic cream.
The bar and cafe staff were also friendly and hard working. Everyone spoke English, or French, depending on your preference.
We loved our safari tent and the campsite. It might be too quiet (lack of evening entertainment) or too noisy (lots of kids) for some but it was perfect for us. We really liked the surrounding area too, even though there aren’t many ‘must see’ tourist destinations nearby.
Overall, it was one of the best holidays we’ve had in France.
CosyCamp is open from the middle of May to the start of October. A basic tent pitch in August costs around £20 per night (for 2 people, small extra charge for children). A fully equipped safari tent costs £58 for 5 people per night. Outside of school holidays the prices are significantly lower.
Further details can be found on the CosyCamp website.