A walk to Hurst castle, Hampshire

£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.

Shingle beach walk to Hurst Castle
Shingle beach walk to Hurst Castle

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.

The approach to Hurst Castle
The approach to Hurst Castle

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.

Hurst Castle

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.

Hurst Castle
Hurst Castle

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.

Old lighthouses, Hurst Castle
Old lighthouses, Hurst Castle

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.

Hurst Point Lighthouse
Hurst Point Lighthouse

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.

Walk from Keyhaven to Lymington
Walk from Keyhaven to Lymington

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.

More info:

  • 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.
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Discovering Dover Castle, Kent

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!

Dover Castle
Dover Castle

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.

Entrance to wartime tunnels
Entrance to wartime tunnels

Hospital tunnels

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.

Dover Castle
Dover Castle

Medieval tunnels

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!

Dover Castle great tower
Dover Castle great tower

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.

Inside the Great Tower, Dover Castle
Inside the Great Tower, Dover Castle

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.

View from the Great Tower, Dover Castle
View from the Great Tower, Dover Castle

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. 

Roman lighthouse at Dover castle
Roman lighthouse at Dover castle

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.

Roman lighthouse

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.

More info:

  • 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.
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Things to do in the Haute-Loire, France

Our summer holiday was spent camping in the Haute-Loire region of central France (read our CosyCamp review). Named after the river that flows through it, the area is predominately rural with lots of small farms, meadows, cattle and forests.

Haute-Loire countryside
Haute-Loire countryside

Le Puy-en-Velay is the biggest town (population 20,000) and warrants a separate blog post as there’s lots to see. Aside from Le Puy, tourism is low key and it was hard to obtain tourist information in advance of our visit. Even TripAdvisor was woefully short on suggestions. However once there we found plenty to do, and this post will hopefully help future visitors.

1. Chamaliéres-sur-Loire

This small village is situated alongside the River Loire, and was our base for the week. It’s best known for its 12th century Romanesque church which is worth a visit, even if churches are not normally your thing.

The church at Chamaliéres-sur-Loire
The church at Chamaliéres-sur-Loire

The village has two restaurants, a bakery and a tourist office which gives out free route maps of local walks.

Tourist office
Tourist office, Chamaliéres-sur-Loire

There are a couple of signposted walks from the village. We took the shorter route which led up into the hills behind for some great views. The route is way marked with yellow stripes but we managed to miss some so keep a careful eye on the map.

River Loire, Chamaliéres-sur-Loire
River Loire, Chamaliéres-sur-Loire’

We saw a fair number of people canoeing along the Loire although I’m a non-swimmer so this didn’t appeal. The river looked peaceful and calm during our visit but do take a look at the flood height markings down by the bridge; it’s hard to believe how high the river has reached when you visit during the summer!

2. Chalencon, near St André de Chalencon

I love castles so our visit to Chalencon Castle and its medieval village was one of my holiday highlights.

Chalencon castle
Chalencon castle

The parking area is on the outskirts of the village, about 10 minutes away, although longer on the way back when you’re walking uphill. We looked round the 11th century chapel first, although my son was more interested in photographing the lizards running up and down the outside walls.

Chalencon castle
Chalencon castle

The castle itself was abandoned around 1600, and much of it is now in ruins. You can still look round the battlements, peep up inside the tower and generally imagine what life must have been like for the Lord of Chalencon.

Chateau de Chalencon
Chateau de Chalencon

If you take the cobbled pathway down from the castle to the Ance river you’ll come to Devil’s Bridge. This is an arch bridge, probably around 600 years old, with a story attached to its name. The legend goes that the devil made a pact with the locals to help save Chalencon from flooding, where he would take the first soul to walk over the bridge. He hoped it would be the local lord, but it turned out to be a dog, much to his disgust!

3. Mont Mezenc, Les Estables

Mont Mezenc lies on the border of the Ardeche and Haute-Loire; it’s distinctive shape is visible from miles around. Whilst you can walk to the summit direct from the nearby village of Les Estables we drove some of the way up and parked on the outskirts of the forest.

Walking up Mount Mezenc
Walking up Mount Mezenc

It’s a relatively easy walk up Mont Mezenc from the car park, first through woodland and then across the stony plateau. We didn’t have a map but the path was straightforward and there were signposts on route.

Mont Mezenc
Mont Mezenc

The mountain has two summits, with the southern one slightly higher at 1753m. There are two orientation tables and it’s interesting to look at how the scenery differs on either side of the mountain. On one side you can see the Alps, and we may have seen Mt Blanc although I’m not convinced.

The village of Les Estables is the highest in the Massif Central and is worth a stop on the way back. It’s a ski centre during the winter months, and even in summer we passed some brave roller skiers on the surrounding roads.

4. Chateau de Lavoûte-Polignac, Lavoûte-sur-Loire

This chateau is spectacularly situated on a bend in the River Loire. I had no idea what to expect as I’d only seen it marked on the tourist map but it looked pretty impressive from the outside.

View from Chateau de Lavoute-Polignac
View from Chateau de Lavoute-Polignac

Entrance was via guided tour only (in French) although we were given some notes in English. The tour took us through six rooms in which the guide gave a talk about most of the objects in the room, along with a detailed history of the Polignac family portraits. There were several kids in the group but the tour was not aimed at families in any way, ours were bored and fidgety by the end. Suffice to say we wouldn’t rush back but others might enjoy it much more.

5. Ravin de Corbœuf, Rosières

The Ravin de Corbœuf is formed from multi-coloured clays and is nicknamed ‘Little Colorado’. Prior to our visit I’d copied a walk from a French hiking book which turned out to be useful. It started in the nearby village of Rosières and took in both ends of the ravine. You could probably figure out the walk without the book as long as you’ve got a better sense of direction than me.

Ravin de Corbœuf
Ravin de Corbœuf

The colours in the strata are impressive but the thing I was most amazed at was the total lack of other visitors. This would be a major tourist draw in other areas!

6. Chateau Artias, near Retournac

Situated opposite our campsite, but separated by the River Loire, the ruins of Chateau Artias tower over the valley. If you happen to be staying at the campsite at Chamaliéres-sur-Loire you can use their kayaks to cross the river, otherwise you’ll need to access it by road from Retournac.

Chateau Artias
Chateau Artias

The ruins are fenced off but you can walk around the edge to view them. They include a 12th century chapel which was the official parish church for many years. From the top you can look down and along the River Loire, but we didn’t stay long as the rain arrived.

7. Suc de Bartou

The rolling farmland of the Haute-Loire is punctuated by small volcanic hills, known as ‘suc’. These offer plenty of walking opportunities, and you can be sure of a good view regardless of which one you climb.

Walk up Suc de Bartou
Walk up Suc de Bartou

We booked on a nature walk through our campsite. Adrien, our guide, took us to the top of Suc de Bartou, walking through hamlets and along woodland paths. He pointed out items we’d never have known, for example the building in the top right of the collage is the communal village oven.

It took us a couple of hours to reach the summit of Suc de Bartou. It wasn’t difficult walking but the last section was quite overgrown and I’d have never worked out it was the way without a guide. We rested up top for a while, picking out the other volcanic hills in the landscape and watching a peregrine falcon swoop below us. An almost perfect view!

8. Vélorail du Velay, Dunières

This was great fun. As shown in the picture below, you pedal a cart along an old railway track; each cart seats two pedallers and two or three children. After a safety briefing (there are no helmets or seatbelts but you have brakes and lighting) you set off along the track for 4 km.

Vélorail du Velay, Dunières
Vélorail du Velay, Dunières

The first part is slightly downhill so you get a brief taste of your return journey but the rest of the outward trip is on a slight incline. The pedalling isn’t too hard, but I think my other half may have been doing more work than me. At the appropriate stopping point you dismount, turn around your cart and freewheel almost the whole way back to the station. This includes a rather scary stretch through a long dark tunnel and across a couple of viaducts but it’s an exhilarating ride and we all loved it.

The entire journey takes about 1 hour 15 mins. If you want to take photos, make sure you do this on the way out as you’ll be going too fast on the return journey!

9. Lac Bleu, Les Balayés

The incredible blue colour of this lake is caused by a type of volcanic rock called phonolite. The lake is very photogenic although rather small so I would only suggest a visit if you’re already in the area. Picnics and bathing are not allowed, but you can spend a fun few minutes spotting the fish.

At the entrance to Lac Bleu you’ll also find a miniature village with castles and scenes from the Auvergne. We didn’t go in as it looked more suited to families with young children.

Lac Bleu, Les Balayés
Lac Bleu, Les Balayés

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this round-up of places to visit in the Haute-Loire, and that you’ve got some inspiration for your holiday. If you have any further suggestions please do leave a comment.

More info:

  • The best site to plan your Haute-Loire travels is here; it’s a pity I didn’t find this until after we’d returned home!
  • During August Chalencon Castle was open from 2.30-6.30pm at the weekend, and 3-6pm during the week. Adults cost 3 euros, children 1 euro. Pay in the chapel and then wait for the attendant to unlock the castle.
  • Chateau de Lavoûte-Polignac is open from April to October, generally from 2-6 pm although longer during July and August.
  • The Velorail costs 12 euros for adults and 5 euros for 5-12 year olds. Children under 5 are free but I’m not sure I’d recommend it for this age group as there are no restraints on the cart. The Velorail operates at fixed departure times, book in advance before you visit. Further details can be found here.
  • Chateau Artias, Ravin de Corbœuf and Lac Bleu are free and open year round.
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