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.
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.
I’ve driven through Llangollen many times whilst en route to the mountains in Snowdonia. But it was only during a visit to the town last autumn that I discovered what fantastic family friendly walks we’ve missed out on.
Llangollen has a number of attractions dotted around the town and local area. This circular walk covers many of them but it’s easy to add in others such as Valle Crucis Abbey, Llangollen Railway or Motor Museum and make a full day out.
Coed Hyrddyn – Velvet Hill
As we were staying in a holiday cottage at the foot of Velvet Hill it made sense for us to start our walk here, with a trip to the top of the hill.
It was good to start with a brisk uphill walk; these days my knees much prefer going up than down. Although a damp day, with a touch of drizzle, this didn’t detract from the views out towards Llantysilio.
From the summit of Velvet Hill it was downhill all the way to Horseshoe Falls. Don’t get too excited by the name. This is not a thundering waterfall but a semi-circular weir designed by Thomas Telford. Of course, it is impressive in an industrial heritage way, but personally I prefer the natural alternative.
Nowadays the Falls appear to be the starting point for an entirely different activity, presumably never envisaged by Thomas Telford. White water rafting along the River Dee into Llangollen. We walked past several groups of rafters still on dry land and kept hoping to see them on the rapids later on but no such luck. Perhaps they chickened out.
You may notice Mr Telford’s name pops up a lot in these parts. Head over to my post about Pontcysyllte Aqueduct to see another of his masterpieces.
From the Falls we walked towards Llangollen, bordered either side by the River Dee and Llangollen Canal.
The Chain Bridge, a footbridge over the River Dee, reopened in 2015. We didn’t need to cross it on our walking route but it would have been a shame to miss out so we diverted through the hotel terrace to do so. On the far bank there’s an information board which shows what the bridge looked like pre-restoration. Wow. That would have been an exciting crossing!
We followed the canal towpath into Llangollen. Opened in 1805 to transport slate and to feed the Shropshire Union Canal it’s much narrower than our local canal. In some spots it was only wide enough for one boat, although there are plenty of passing places. Horse drawn boat trips are popular along this stretch, they’re certainly the way to travel if you want a slow relaxing trip.
We passed a lot of canoeists as we walked. I was intrigued by one man wading in the water beside his canoe rather than actually sitting in it. I’m sure he had a perfectly valid reason but I didn’t think to ask him why!
Castell Dinas Brân
The canal took us directly into Llangollen where we stopped for a coffee break and to view the birds and animals in the taxidermy shop. I wonder if they do much business?
From Llangollen town centre we crossed back over the canal and walked up the hill to Castell Dinas Brân. I’d been eyeing this up since we’d arrived the previous day. The ruined medieval castle sits imposingly atop a hill overlooking Llangollen. I rather like the English translation – the crow’s fortress, or crow castle.
After a short sharp walk up we mooched around the ruins for a while, enjoying the views over to the limestone escarpment of Trevor Rocks. The castle only had a brief working life, destroyed by Edward I’s troops just a few decades after it was built. It once featured a gatehouse, keep, hall, D shaped tower and a courtyard but only ruins remain nowadays. Given its exposed location it’s pretty impressive that even these are left.
From the castle we walked down to join the Clwydian Way. This circular route covers 120 miles of Welsh countryside and was created as part of the millennium celebrations.
Our route took us through beech woods and along bracken lined paths, back towards our holiday cottage. There was time for a short break and photo stop at a handily placed viewpoint.
We could have extended our afternoon by popping into the Cistercian Valle Crucis Abbey. I actually feel rather guilty about not visiting. But there was a tea room, next door at the Abbey Farm caravan site. And I really needed a cup of coffee!
If you’ve enjoyed this post you might also like to read about the short break I enjoyed, walking the Llantysilio hills and Trevor Rocks escarpments.
- Our walk was approximately 7 miles. Much of it is flat easy walking but there are a couple of steeper sections up Velvet Hill and Castell Dinas Brân.
Often voted amongst the greatest road trips the Causeway Coastal Route in County Antrim combines spectacular coastal scenery with world class attractions. On a recent trip to Northern Ireland we spent a couple of days in Belfast before hiring a car to explore the coastal road and its hinterland.
Glenariff Forest Park
Our first stop and opportunity to stretch our legs was Glenariff Forest Park. We parked in the large car park and had a brief wander around the visitor centre, not the most picturesque of buildings.
Fortunately the scenery outside more than made up for it. After checking the trail map we chose the 3km waterfall walk; a wooden walkway which descends the Glenariff River gorge passing several spectacular waterfalls.
My favourite waterfall (below) was Ess-Na-Grub, next to Laragh Lodge, at the end of the main trail. The mossy branches and ferns made it feel like something out of Jurassic Park. Whilst you’d never catch me bathing in a waterfall pool in temperatures of less than 30C it did look tempting!
As we’d spent the first part of the walk heading downhill it was time to walk back up again. With the exception of the final stretch back up to the visitor centre it wasn’t overly steep. The waterfall trail lives up to its name and I’d highly recommend a visit; my only slight disappointment was not seeing one of the red squirrels that frequent the park.
Drive to Torr Head
At Cushenden we left the main Causeway Coastal Route and drove out to Torr Head, on a road designated as an additional scenic route. I didn’t get much chance to look at the scenery as the single track road took most of my attention. I did manage to glance out at the Scottish islands which are easily visible on a clear day but most of the time I was just thankful it was a quiet road and there wasn’t much traffic to squeeze by.
Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, Ballintoy
The rope bridge was the one place my daughter wanted to visit. Traditionally used by salmon fishermen, nowadays the rope bridge transports tourists over to Carrick-a-Rede island. Spectacularly located, the bridge spans a 30 metre deep and 20 metre wide chasm. Don’t look down!
We queued for a few minutes before being allowed to cross as only 8 people are allowed at any one time. The bridge reminded me of Go Ape in that it feels a little scary but is perfectly safe. Although perhaps not in high winds.
The island itself is pretty small so we only spent 20 minutes or so on it. The views along the coast and out to Rathlin island are fabulous but there are no barriers so keep an eye on the cliff edges if you’re trying to take the perfect photo!
Portrush has beautiful sandy beaches and is a popular resort on the north coast – but it wasn’t for us. My partner compared it to Newquay; amusement arcades, lots of restaurants and bars and cars screeching along the roads at 3am. Plenty of people love the town but we only stayed because of our overnight accommodation.
Dunluce Castle, Bushmills
The next morning we set off early, back towards The Giant’s Causeway. We pulled into the Magheracross viewpoint to view the ruins of Dunluce Castle which are spectacularly sited on the edge of the cliffs. In fact, a little too close to the edge as back in the 1600s the kitchen fell into the sea after a severe storm!
We had a closer look at the castle from its car park but we were there before opening time so didn’t actually step inside. One to go back to.
Giant’s Causeway, Bushmills
The Giant’s Causeway has been on my bucket list for years so it was great to finally visit. It’s Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage site and consists of more than 40,000 basalt stone columns.
I’d read beforehand that the Giant’s Causeway is free to visit but if you wish to park at the visitor centre, use the toilets or eat in the cafe then you’ll be subject to the visitor fee (which was £22 for us, National Trust members are free). Hence we parked at Bushmills, walked the 2 mile path alongside the railway and then entered the Causeway site through a tunnel to the right of the visitor centre.
It’s a 15 minute downhill walk fom the entrance to the stone columns. I enjoyed the anticipation of the walk, but the National Trust does run a shuttle bus service (extra cost) down to the beach for those that require it.
The Giant’s Causeway is an understandably popular destination and even though we visited early in the day there were already plenty of coach parties on site. That said, although it was the busiest place we visited in Antrim it didn’t feel particularly crowded. There are more than enough rocks to go round (or hexagonal).
It’s hard to imagine the geological processes that resulted in the Causeway. Suffice to say that the basalts were formed as part of a large volcanic plateau. Although it’s tempting to believe that it’s really a result of a fight between Scottish and Irish giants! Regardless of its origin I’m glad to say the Giant’s Causeway lived up to my expectations.
The downside of the 2 mile walk back to our car can be guessed if you look at the clouds in our photos. We got rather wet!
Ballintoy was another of my trip highlights. I’d never even heard of it until I saw a picture of the harbour in one of the tourist leaflets. The drive down is rather steep but there’s a large free car park at the bottom. Before heading down we stopped for lunch at the Red Door Tea Room, it’s easily identifiable from the main road and the food was excellent.
Many tourists visit Ballintoy Harbour as it’s a Game of Thrones filming location but the coastline, with its arches, caves and rockpools were the star attraction for me.
I could easily have spent the whole afternoon exploring but we were booked on a late afternoon flight so all too soon it was time to head back to Belfast, via our final destination, The Dark Hedges.
The Dark Hedges, Stranocum
I’ve never seen Game of Thrones but my other half was keen to see the Dark Hedges which feature in the series. It’s a popular pilgrimage stop on the Game of Thrones tourist trail although it would be better if visitors parked in the allocated car park rather than on the edges of the road itself (grumble, grumble).
The Dark Hedges comprise of rows of beech trees which frame either side of the road. A couple of the trees blew down in Storm Gertrude so there are some gaps. It’s a nice enough place to stop for 15 minutes and meant that we got to visit the countryside of Antrim rather than just the coast but it is probably more significant to fans of the series.
What did we miss?
We only had time for a whistlestop tour of Antrim. If we’d had longer I’ve have added in Whiterocks Coastal Path (looked beautiful when we drove past), a day trip to Rathlin Island and a walk along the cliff path at The Gobbins (closed during our visit due to storm damage).
Have you visited Antrim? If so, what else would you recommend?
Pin it for later:
- We flew with Easyjet from Luton to Belfast International. An interesting experience, particularly on the return journey when we sat on the tarmac for 1.5 hours whilst the staff tried to identify a potential extra passenger. And eject (one of the) drunken passengers. But of course the flights were cheap!
- Our car hire was through Budget. Cheap headline price but lots of extras for the unwary (£9 per day for additional drivers).
- It’s free to enter Glenariff Forest Park but car parking costs £5. Coins only, which we didn’t have. Logging operations can affect which trails are open so check before you make a special visit.
- Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and the visitor centre at the Giant’s Causeway are free for National Trust members. If not, a family ticket for the rope bridge costs £14.80 and access to the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre and parking is £22 (although the Causeway itself is free if you do not use these facilities).
£9 for a 10 minute bus ride? I thought the driver had misheard me so I repeated our destination, Milford-on-Sea. Yes, the figure was correct; £2.50 per child and £4 per adult for a single fare. It would have been cheaper to get a taxi, and quicker given the bus was running 25 minutes late. With gritted teeth I paid the fare and made a mental note to avoid buses in future.
Fortunately we’d had a better experience with the train. Taking advantage of our family railcard and off peak travel I’d planned a trip to Hurst Castle, a spectacularly located castle overlooking the Solent and Isle of Wight. It’s possible to walk to Hurst Castle from Lymington railway station but I thought the short bus ride to Milford would allow a linear walk and reduce mileage.
My mood lightened a little as we left Milford-on-Sea and attempted to run up and over the shingle bank which heads out to Hurst Castle. Easier said than done as the pebbles slipped away under our feet and wind blew hair and sea spray across our faces. Across the Solent we could see The Needles, glistening white against the clouds.
It’s a 1.5 mile walk out along the shingle to Hurst Castle. It was surprisingly hard walking along the top of the spit, even with a stiff breeze blowing us along. After a few minutes we admitted defeat and dropped down to the sheltered side of the bank, away from the waves and wind. We walked beside the mud flats and salt marsh; they’re a haven for waders and wildfowl although the only bird I recognised was an egret.
As we walked Hurst Castle slowly came into focus. It’s a strange looking building, more of a fort really, with destructive gun batteries and protective lighthouses alongside each other.
The castle was built by Henry VIII to guard the western approach of the Solent and help protect the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth. Despite the threat of invasion the castle saw little action for much of its early history although it was used to imprison Charles I in 1648. Significant renovations and the addition of armaments were completed during the Napoleonic Wars but life at the castle remained uneventful. Further modifications took place throughout the Victorian era and up to the end of the Second World War.
Entering via the guard room we first explored the early part of the castle. The Tudor tower housed the garrison and marks on the floor outline the living accommodation. The roof was used as a gun tower but nowadays offers great views across the marshes and the Solent.
The original Tudor castle sits between two large wing batteries which were added between 1861 and 1874. Later in the week we visited the Isle of Wight and it’s only after seeing the castle from the seaward side that you really appreciate the positioning and structure of the building.
We continued our explorations of the remainder of the castle. We walked up and down stairs, searched nooks and crannies and balanced along old railway tracks. The two lighthouses shown above no longer work. Instead the Hurst Point lighthouse fulfils their role and there’s a small exhibition in the castle about them.
Before we left, and in the interest of research, we felt obliged to pop into the cafe for a drink. We’d already eaten our picnic but the food looked good and the cakes tempting.
Return to Lymington
I had planned to catch the ferry back from the castle through the marshes to Keyhaven but it was a busy summer day and the queue was long. In case you’re wondering, the term ‘ferry’ is probably a little optimistic. Think small boat with room for about 10 people rather than Isle of Wight Red Funnel car ferry!
There also appeared to be a drama happening in one of the channels as a boat was stuck in the mud. Our boat was called into action to rescue the passengers and take them back to Keyhaven. At this point I decided it was quicker to walk back rather than wait another 20 minutes for the next ferry. Fortunately the wind had dropped since the morning, making it a less arduous walk.
Our walk back to Lymington took us past more mudflats, the boats of Keyhaven Yacht Club and clouds of butterflies. I’d under-estimated how long it would take to walk this final stretch and we had to run to reach the railway station in time for our train. We arrived sweaty and hot with a couple of minutes to spare.
We really enjoyed Hurst Castle but if you plan to visit I would definitely suggest walking one way from Lymington or Keyhaven and using the ferry service as this looked like a fun way to travel.
- Hurst Castle is open daily from the end of March to the end of October. Check the English Heritage website for exact dates and times.
- The ferry runs every 20 minutes between Keyhaven and Hurst Castle during castle opening times. A single ticket costs £3.50 for adults, £2.50 for children.
Have you been to Dover Castle? It’s one of English Heritage’s top attractions, popular with visitors from across the world. Located above the white cliffs, the site occupies a prominent defensive location and is a microcosm of British history.
To give you just a flavour. First used by Iron Age inhabitants as a hill fort, the Romans built a lighthouse, the Saxons a church. Henry II was responsible for the stone tower, Henry III added gatehouses whilst Henry VIII just visited. Underground tunnels were built during the Napoleonic Wars; these became the headquarters of Operation Dynamo in World War II and a nuclear refuge in the Cold War. And now they’re invaded by tourists, including us!
With so much to see its difficult to know where to start. However, we’d been warned about queues for the tunnels that’s where we headed first.
There are more than 3 miles of tunnels in the chalk cliffs, most of which are inaccessible to visitors. However the World War II Secret Wartime Tunnels and Underground Hospital are open. Although we’d arrived early we were disappointed to find there was already a 90 minute wait to tour the main set of tunnels. We reluctantly decided to skip these and just visit the underground hospital.
The hospital tunnels were used from 1941 as a triage centre for wounded troops. Medical dressings were applied and emergency operations carried out to stabilise the injured before they were moved further inland to recuperate. We joined a tour and followed the story of an injured pilot. This took us through recreated rooms complete with ‘real’ wartime sounds and dimming lights to make us feel as if we we’re under attack. The operating theatre was my favourite but it was also interesting to see the everyday dormitories where some of the women lived.
I’d spotted another set of tunnels on the map so after a coffee break we took a long walk round to the opposite side of the castle. Built during and after the 1216 siege to help protect the castle from attack is a maze of medieval tunnels. Dark and atmospheric in places, they give you a real feel for how life might have been. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have wanted to be a soldier!
The Great Tower
By then we’d had enough of tunnels so headed above ground to see the star attraction, the Great Tower. This was used both to entertain visitors and as state apartments for the king. Many of the rooms, such as the King’s chamber, are furnished and richly decorated to reflect this. I read that the walls are 6.5 metre thick in places, you could never imagine that in a modern building.
From the top of the Great Tower the views out across the Channel are impressive. It’s easy to see France on a clear day but even if the weather is cloudy it’s mesmerising to just watch the comings and goings of the port traffic.
Our next stop was lunch in the Great Tower cafe; a disappointing choice. It was a Bank Holiday weekend so you’d expect them to be prepared for a busy time but the cafe appeared overwhelmed with visitors. At 12.45pm we queued out of the door only to find that they’d run out of kid’s sandwiches and there was no bread to make any more.
We walked off our lunch with a wander around the battlements out to the church and lighthouse. The kids enjoyed a runaround at Avranches Tower which was once a multi-level tower used by archers firing crossbows.
I was particularly impressed with the Roman lighthouse. Almost 2000 years old it is one of a pair which once protected the Roman port of Dubris. Although you cannot tell from the photo above it stands right next to the Saxon church, rather a strange pairing!
The visit was wrapped up with a trip to the gift shop and an ice cream. Although we spent most of the day at the castle we didn’t see everything. So what are my tips for other visitors to Dover Castle? Definitely plan an entire day on site, take a picnic and try to visit on a quiet day.
- Dover Castle is open daily for most of the year but only at weekends during the winter. Check the website for exact opening times. It’s run by English Heritage so is free to members, a family ticket for non-members costs £46.80 excluding gift aid.