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!
Summer days are made for picnics. Whether you’re looking for somewhere to take the kids, a peaceful river bank or a hill with a view there are plenty of great picnic spots in Oxfordshire. Scroll down to find my favourites!
1. Cutteslowe Park, Oxford
Cutteslowe is the largest park in Oxford with lots to keep children entertained. There’s mini golf, a splash zone (summer only), miniature railway (selected weekends), play areas, duck pond, sandpits and picnic tables. You could easily spend all day here. Parking charges apply.
2. Warburg Nature Reserve, near Henley
Hidden in the Chiltern hills this woodland is a great spot for nature lovers. At the reserve entrance you’ll find a small interpretation centre, toilets and a picnic area. Once you’ve eaten, walk off your lunch on the circular wildlife trail. If you visit in early summer look out for the orchids.
Warburg isn’t the easiest place to find so follow the instructions on the BBOWT website.
3. White Horse Hill, Uffington
In my opinion the view from White Horse Hill is the best in Oxfordshire. After your picnic be sure to explore the area; as well as the chalk figure, walk around the Iron Age hill fort of Uffington Castle and wander along the Ridgeway to the Neolithic burial ground of Wayland’s Smithy.
Park in the National Trust car park, charge applies for non members.
4. Abbey Meadows, beside the River Thames, Abingdon
Another family friendly option. Visit in the summer to enjoy the interactive water features and outdoor swimming pool. You’ll also find a newly refurbished playground, tennis courts and walks along the River Thames.
Parks in general are great for picnics; check out the free parks website for lots more suggestions.
5. Hartslock Nature Reserve, Goring
This is a good option if you want to combine a walk with a picnic. Park or take the train to Goring and then follow the river east until you reach the reserve. Head steeply uphill and rest on the bench looking out across the Thames and Goring Gap. A fabulous view, albeit slightly less lovely since the railway electrification gantries have been installed!
6. Minster Lovell hall, near Witney
Minster Lovell hall was a 15th Century Manor House. Now in ruins it backs onto the River Windrush; a perfect setting for a picnic. Paddle in the shallow river, watch the ducks or explore the ruins. Be warned, it gets very busy in summer.
Park in St Kenelm’s Church car park from where it’s a five minute walk to the ruins.
7. Blenheim Palace parkland
Blenheim Palace is one of Oxfordshire’s most visited attractions. Its manicured parkland make sure a great picnic spot.
Whilst you need to pay to access the Palace or Pleasure Gardens it is possible to enter the parkland for free on a public footpath. Just pick up an OS map or follow the instructions here.
8. Rollright Stones, near Chipping Norton
Picnics aren’t just for summer. We ate a memorable picnic one cold January day surrounded by the Rollright Stones, a complex of three Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments.
There’s limited road parking beside the stones and an honesty box for your £1 entrance fee.
9. Lord Wantage monument, The Ridgeway
Take the B4494 from Wantage to Newbury for approximately three miles until you reach the Ridgeway car park. Park on the left hand side and then walk east along the Ridgeway for a few minutes until you reach the Boer war monument.
Despite the amount of house building in Oxfordshire I always marvel at how much ‘countryside’ you can see from here; it feels very rural. Although you’re unlikely to be alone as it’s a popular rest stop for walkers and cyclists on the Ridgeway.
10. Beside the Oxford canal, Thrupp
Thrupp is a small canalside village a couple of miles from Kidlington. Choose your picnic spot beside the towpath and settle down to watch the narrow boats and ducks.
Parking is behind Annie’s cafe. Of course, if you’ve forgotten your picnic you could always just eat here instead!
11. Wittenham Clumps, Long Wittenham
Easy to spot from a distance these two wooded clumps are visible across much of flat South Oxfordshire. Archaeological digs have confirmed the site has been used since the Bronze Age; understandable given it’s prominent location.
Nowadays it’s a nature reserve and is better known for its kite flying and winter sledging opportunities. There’s an orientation pillar, benches and lovely views of the River Thames from the top of Round Hill. Or Didcot if you look in the other direction.
12. Watlington Hill, Christmas Common
Oxfordshire is well known for red kites and this is a great place to watch them. Its chalk grassland is also a haven for butterflies in the summer.
Park in the free National Trust car park at the top of the hill and walk a couple of hundred metres to find a picnic spot with a view. If you’re feeling more adventurous there’s a waymarked short route to follow around the hill.
13. Port Meadow, Oxford
Port Meadow is a large meadow just outside the centre of Oxford bordering the River Thames. Best visited in summer unless you’re a bird watcher, if so visit in winter when the flooded plains are full of geese and ducks.
For picnics I prefer the Thames Path side on the opposite river bank, away from the grazing ponies and cattle, unless you’re happy surrounded by hooves!
14. Kirtlington Quarry nature reserve
Famous for its fossils this small nature reserve was once used for the production of cement. The tooth of a Megalosaurus has been found here so your picnic would have been a scary affair 166 million years ago. Nowadays it’s rather more relaxing; after your dinosaur hunt here’s a large flat area perfect for setting up your picnic mat.
15. Faringdon Folly woodland
Previously owned by the eccentric Lord Berners Faringdon Folly is usually open on the first and third Sunday from April to October. There are great views from the top so it’s worthwhile trying to coincide your visit with one of these dates. However the surrounding woodland is always open and is perfect for a picnic.
Wherever you decide to picnic remember to follow the Countryside Code. Respect the countryside and most importantly take all rubbish away with you.
If I’ve missed your favourite picnic spot please let me know in the comments.
If the canal path from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon had its own theme tune it would consist of bicycle bells and whirring tyres; to say it’s a popular cycling route is an understatement. Indeed, if you’ve arrived here from my UK bucket list link you’re probably expecting to read about our cycle ride beside the canal. But, for various reasons, we ended up walking instead; read on to find out how we got on.
Bath to Bathwick
We joined the Kennet and Avon canal path immediately behind Bath railway station. Connecting Bristol to Reading, the canal opened in 1810 but fell into disuse and dereliction following the opening of the railway in 1841. Restored and fully reopened in 1990 it’s now a popular amenity for locals and visitors.
The first mile or so winds through the city; past locks, under bridges and opposite mansions with their honeyed stone and pristine gardens. Two hundred years ago the canal would have been busy carrying coal into Bath and stone out. Several features along the route hark back to those days, including the pumphouse chimney. This was built in an ornate style as the local wealthy residents didn’t want to look out on to an industrial structure!
At Darlington Wharf we came across a floating market. Narrow boat businesses were moored alongside the path offering, amongst others, a sweet shop, wooden crafts and clothing. A little further on we spotted a boat with a Polling Station sign; not sure if it really was or whether the sign had been relocated from elsewhere!
On a warm spring weekend the canal towpath was busy with dog walkers, weekend joggers and cyclists. Ah yes, the cyclists. I’m far from anti-cyclist but when they whoosh past at great speed or cycle in groups across the entire path it’s hard to have a positive view. Of course there were plenty of considerate people too but given that we rarely walked more than 100m without meeting cyclists it only took a few to spoil our enjoyment.
At Bathampton we couldn’t resist a stop at the Cafe on the Barge, a tiny café in a narrow boat. Primarily offering drinks and cakes, I highly recommend the carrot cake. We sat on the small open deck, completely forgetting we were on a boat until another craft came by and rocked the waters. There are seats on the canal towpath too as there’s not much room on the boat itself.
Walking on we enjoyed watching the variety of canal users. A mix of holiday barges, day rentals, homes and (further on) a defunct lifeboat chug up the canal and line the moorings. It’s easy to tell the difference. Those belonging to long term residents are often laden with bikes, wood, pot plants and Buddha statues. The hire boats were usually more pristine, with traditional decoration aside from the holiday company logos.
We heard the swimmers and picnickers at Warleigh Weir, near Claverton, way before we saw them. This beauty spot on the river (not the canal) can be reached by a short walk downhill and across the railway line. I’ve no idea what it’s normally like but on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday the field beside the river was packed with people. Rather like Bournemouth beach on a sunny day.
Elsewhere in Claverton there’s a pumping station which was built to transport water from the River Avon to the canal. Fully restored it operates on selected dates (advertised on the canal noticeboards). It was closed during our walk but reviews suggest it’s worth a visit when it’s open.
Leaving Claverton behind we walked a rural stretch of the canal. The bees and butterflies were out and everything looked a vibrant green in the spring sunshine. A little further on there’s a small wooded area beside the path where the garlic smell hits you before you see the white carpet of ramsons.
One of the highlights of this walk are the two aqueducts built to carry the canal over the River Avon.
Completed in 1805, Dundas Aqueduct is 137 metres long with three arches. We walked across it and down the steps to the river bank for the best view. It’s a grand imposing structure but has had its problems over the years. It spent much of the 1960s and 1970s drained dry due to leaks and has now been lined with polythene and concrete. Materials not available to the original builders!
It was another three miles to Avoncliff aqueduct. Three more miles of cyclists. Three very warm miles with empty water bottles. You can hardly blame us for another cafe stop. This time at the No 10 Tea Gardens, handily located alongside the aqueduct. I smiled inwardly as I watched a couple of teens revising for their GCSEs in the tea garden; well, their books were open but I think they were on a break.
Avoncliff Aqueduct was designed by John Rennie (who also designed Dundas Aqueduct). Not bad for a first attempt at an aqueduct, albeit the central span sagged soon after completion and had to be repaired several times. Where were the Romans when you need them?
I had a navigation ‘moment’ after leaving the tea room. Seriously, how can anyone get lost following a canal? Er, it’s quite easy if you end up on the road because you can’t find the canal path! (Hint, walk under the aqueduct). Navigation error aside the last couple of miles passed uneventfully. Still plenty of cyclists but this time along a broad track so plenty of room for all.
The very last section took us through Barton Farm Country Park. Not quite Bournemouth beach busy this time but it appeared very popular with family groups.
We reached Bradford-on-Avon late afternoon. I’ve only driven through the town before so thought we’d do a spot of sightseeing before taking the train back to Bath. But our cafe studded walk meant we arrived later than planned. And everywhere appeared shut. And we were hot and tired. So after a celebratory ice cream we headed straight to the railway station. Next time…
If you’re looking for an alternative route in Bath (without cyclists) head over to my Bath Skyline walk report.
The route from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon is approximately 10 miles. For further details on the Kennet and Avon Canal pop over to the Canal & River Trust website.
After the success of our short break to Lille a while back I was keen to explore other destinations accessible via Eurostar. Ghent fitted the bill perfectly; a Belgian city just a couple of hours from London.
What did we do in Ghent?
We travelled as a family of four; two adults and two teenagers. With this in mind you’ll appreciate our sightseeing and food choices were attuned to pleasing the whole family. Or attempting to at least!
So, how did we spend our time?
1. Climb the Belfry
I always make a beeline for the highest viewpoint in any new city. In Ghent it’s the 91 metre belfry, the highest one in Belguim.
A lift can take you part of the way up but we climbed the steps (to offset the waffles later). At the top there’s a 360 degree viewing platform with excellent views over the town centre, churches and cathedral. You’ll also discover how much building work is happening in the city.
Aside from the views check out the Roeland Bell (which was chimed to warn of approaching enemies) and listen to the carillon which plays every 15 minutes.
2. Wander the streets around Graslei and Korenlei
In the Middle Ages this area was a busy port and the centre of the Flanders grain trade. Nowadays it’s tourism central but for good reason; cobbled streets, historical buildings and, in the summer at least, pavement cafes. It’s a good place to take a boat tour or simply wander.
After dark it’s a completely different view with the illuminated buildings reflected in the water. Visit it as part of the Ghent light tour (see below).
3. Visit Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts)
This medieval fortress has seen many changes of use in its lifetime. From the seat of the Council of Flanders to a prison to cotton mills; at one point it was even going to be demolished and the land sold for development. Fortunately saved by locals it was restored extensively and is now one of Ghent’s main attractions.
Don’t expect lavish decorations inside the castle. For me the appeal was very much around the physical architecture, the towers, turrets and staircases. Although, thanks to those restorations, it was rather weird to walk up a heated staircase; the last thing you expect in a castle.
One room that is decorated, in a macabre way, houses the torture equipment. A reminder of the castle’s gruesome history. I found this fascinating but you might want to avoid it if you have younger children.
4. Ghent by light
We missed the Ghent Light Festival by a few days. Held every three years this would have been a spectacular sight but sadly it didn’t correspond with half term.
Even though we’d missed the festival Ghent illuminates many of its key buildings and monuments after dark, making an evening stroll obligatory. We followed the route on the Ghent light plan which took us to parts of the city we hadn’t seen in daylight. I highly recommend the walk but wrap up warm in winter.
5. Eat frites with mayo
A Belgian classic. We got ours from De Frietketel, a student hangout famous for its fries and burgers. Oh my word, the portion size! We ordered two small portions with mayo between the four of us and couldn’t even finish one portion.
It’s not haute cuisine but is tasty and cheap. Veggies and vegans can have their fill of junk food too; there are loads of options for non meat eaters. Indeed Ghent is known as the veggie capital of Europe.
6. Discover the city history at Stadsmuseum Gent (STAM)
I really enjoyed STAM, a museum covering the history of Ghent. I’d suggest visiting as early as possible during your visit to get an overview of the city. I’ve chosen my highlights below.
The first room houses a huge map of Ghent printed on the floor. Once you’ve donned protective shoe covers visitors can walk across it. It gives a sense of scale and geography of the city, particularly outside of the main tourist area.
The museum also includes a room dedicated to the Ghent Altarpiece (evidently one of Europe’s premier art works) which is in St Bavo’s Cathedral. I discovered it’s the most frequently stolen artwork of all time; one of the panels is still missing from the 1934 theft. It was really interesting to read about the police investigation and conspiracy theories, even if, ahem, we didn’t visit the actual painting whilst in Ghent.
The family dived into the huge pile of white Lego bricks left out for visitors to enjoy. Experts can attempt to recreate Ghent’s towers. Mere mortals can build small block houses.
7. Enjoy some warmth at the Botanic garden
If, like me, you prefer warm weather then head for the greenhouses at the University botanical gardens. It’s a little way out of the city centre but you can combine it with a walk through Citadelpark.
The outside garden didn’t contain a huge amount of interest in February but there was plenty to see inside the tropical and sub-tropical greenhouses – and they were warm!
8. Eat waffles
Another Belgian speciality. I realised halfway through my chocolate and cream covered concoction that I’d never eaten waffles in Belguim. It bore no resemblance to any waffle I’ve ever eaten before. It was sweet, light and slightly chewy, delicious!
Waffles cost a couple of euros from most street vendors, more if you cover them in melted Nutella. Ignore the calories, you’re on holiday.
9. Saviour the view from St Michael’s Bridge
This is the quintessential Ghent view, described as the Manhattan of the Middle Ages. Or, in non-tourist talk, it’s the opportunity to see three towers in a row; those of the Belfry, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church. I think it’s the one picture all tourists attempt to take even if it does mean getting mown down by a bus whilst you’re standing in the road.
10. Wander the streets around Patershol
This trendy neighbourhood is a small area of cobbled streets and restored houses. A place to wander aimlessly.
We visited during the afternoon when it was very quiet. Lovely to look at but almost deserted. I assume the restaurants liven things up in the evenings.
11. See the vineyard at St Peter’s Abbey
We stopped here on our walk back from the botanical garden as I wanted to see another city centre garden.
This garden is unique as it contains a vineyard. In the middle of a city. Although only planted in the 1980s there are references to earlier vineyards onsite from the 9th Century. The monks must have loved their wine. I wonder what it tasted like?
12. Graffiti street, off Hoogpoort
This is a pedestrianised alleyway full of graffiti which gives you a break from the medieval-ness of Ghent. It is as its name says; full of tags rather than street art. The teens liked it.
13. Ride a tram
The centre of Ghent is easily walkable so there’s no great need to use the trams. However my son was desperate to ride one so we took a tram to the railway station on our final day. It would have been cheaper to use a taxi but nowhere near as novel.
14. Little noses (cuberdons)
These cone shaped sweets (like noses) are a Ghent speciality. You can buy them for around 3-5 euros from street vendors. Fruit flavoured, with a hard shell and soft filling, they were an acquired taste but my son insisted he liked them.
15. Visit the cathedrals and churches
I’m not religious but do appreciate the history and architecture of churches, particularly ones as huge and ornate as those in Ghent. That said, with teens in tow visiting the cathedrals and churches was never going to be top of the sightseeing list.
Despite this we visited St Bavo’s Cathedral, where we spotted a whale skeleton but missed out the Ghent Altarpiece.
We also popped into St Peter’s church (next to the Abbey) and admired several others from outside.
Ghent – the verdict
We loved Ghent and I’d highly recommend it as a short break destination. We easily filled two full days with sightseeing. Another day, or even two, would have been ideal so we could see more museums and perhaps take a boat tour.
Ghent isn’t as overtly pretty as Bruges but I preferred it. There are far fewer tourists (in February at least) but lots of students which gives it a different feel.
We travelled by Eurostar to Brussels. From Brussels we took a train to Gent-Sint-Pieters Station. The train takes about 30 minutes; we’d already bought a Eurostar ticket which was valid to any Belgium station so there was no need to purchase a separate ticket.
We stayed in a studio apartment which you can see on the Stay at Ghent website. The second floor duplex studio was perfect for us but had a mezzanine and is reached via a steep staircase so not suitable for those with mobility difficulties or young children.
Belguim has two official languages; Flemish and French. Whilst I can get by in French Ghent is in the Flemish speaking area. It pains me to say but you’re better off speaking English.