Four family walks in the Quantock Hills, Somerset

The only good thing, from my perspective, about our impending winter is that it gives me a chance to catch up on blog posts. Take our trip to the Quantock Hills for example. We visited in late summer, the August Bank Holiday weekend to be exact. Remembering the weekend we spent walking the hills, eating cream teas and searching for fossils cheers me up no end on a wet and grey November day.

Located in north Somerset, the Quantock Hills cover an area of 38 square miles. They’re less well known than their nearby neighbour, Exmoor, but on a Bank Holiday weekend that’s a bonus. As usual we chose to explore on foot, walking along the coast, through heather moorland and wooded combes. We squeezed in four short walks in the Quantocks, not too strenuous and all less than 4 miles so perfect for families.

1. Kilve beach and East Quantoxhead

Whilst some people enjoy golden sand and blue seas I prefer interesting beaches. Give me rockpools, fossils and shells any day. Kilve beach ticked these boxes. Whilst it isn’t the most beautiful to look at, particularly on a grey murky morning, it’s a fantastic place for fossil hunting.

Rock strata, Kilve beach
Rock strata, Kilve beach

The cliffs at Kilve beach are formed from oil rich shale, with the different layers of rock clearly visible. Back in the 1920s, plans were afoot to extract the oil but fortunately proved unprofitable. I hope it remains this way.

We spent a good hour mooching around the beach, turning over the rocks in our search for fossils. We found plenty but what impressed me most were the huge ammonite fossils; it’s incredible to think these are 200 million years old!

Ammonite on Kilve beach, Somerset
Ammonite on Kilve beach, Somerset

The kids were disappointed to leave the beach and go on a walk; they wanted to carry on fossil hunting. Tearing ourselves away we headed up onto the cliff to continue our walk along the coast path. All around us were the gifts of late summer; blackberries, golden fields and swallows.

View from Kilve beach walk
View from Kilve beach walk

Turning inland we passed through the tiny village of East Quantoxhead with its manor house, duck pond and mill house.

As we neared the end of the walk a small ford offered some fun. We all had a go jumping over the stream; much more exciting than walking across the bridge.

No need for the bridge! Jumping the ford near Kilve
No need for the bridge! Jumping the ford near Kilve

It was a fortunate coincidence that our walk ended back at Chantry Tea Gardens. How on earth did that happen?! Sitting outside in the sun we enjoyed sandwiches and a cream tea, accompanied by a cheeky robin demanding crumbs.

2. Beacon Hill

Our second day started wet. The forecast was an improving one so after a lazy morning we headed to Beacon Hill. The rain wasn’t quite done with us so we lingered in the car park waiting for the showers to pass.

View from Beacon Hill - between rain showers
View from Beacon Hill – between rain showers

I’d originally planned a longer walk but decided a quick trip up to Beacon Hill summit would be drier. It didn’t take too long to climb and from the top we had great views in all directions. Of rain clouds that appeared to be heading towards us. We didn’t stop to admire the views! Straight back down to the car. Just before the rain arrived, again.

3. Lydeard Hill and Wills Neck

Fortunately the weather cheered up as the day progressed. Aside from the threat of one further heavy shower where we decided to take refuge in a house offering cream teas. Two cream teas in two days, yum.

Heather path up to Wills Neck, Quantock Hills
Heather path up to Wills Neck, Quantock Hills

Our afternoon walk took us onto the highest point of the Quantocks, Wills Neck. This was another straightforward out and back route, up and down a hill; good job really as I didn’t have a map. From the car park we walked to the left of Lydeard Hill, down into a small plantation and up again.

The colours of the Quantocks really are stunning in late summer. The pink and purple heathers and the yellows of the gorse. At least I think it was gorse; the problem with writing a post three months after a visit is that I cannot see from my photos whether there are prickles on the bush (and is therefore gorse) or not (and is therefore broom). Either way, it’s beautiful.

View from Lydeard Hill, Quantock Hills
View from Lydeard Hill, Quantock Hills

4. Holford Combe and Woodland Hill

This was my favourite walk. The weather, in contrast to the previous day, was warm and sunny. Perfect for sitting on the M5 looking at the back of car bumpers queuing for miles. But I’ve jumped ahead to the afternoon. Our morning was idyllic.

The first part of our walk took us through Holford Combe, a steeply wooded valley. I was surprised to learn the video for the Bryan Adams song, Everything I do (I do it for you), was filmed around here. Back in 1991 it was number one for a gazillion weeks so in the interests of blog research I watched the video again. After the initial shock of how young Bryan Adams looked I could immediately spot Holford Silk Mills. Sadly not passed on this walk, but Kilve beach features too.

Crossing Holford Combe stream
Crossing Holford Combe stream

Two hundred years before Bryan some very different wordsmiths, the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dorothy and William Wordsworth lived and wrote in these hills. As our track opened out into a sunlit glade it was easy to see where they got their inspiration. The stream sparkled in the sunlight and I could easily imagine whiling away afternoons relaxing on the grassy bank. It was magical; if  I believed in pixies this is where they’d live!

On top of Woodland Hill, Quantock Hills
On top of Woodland Hill, Quantock Hills

We followed the stream until it reached Ladies Combe then headed out of the woodland up a steep track onto Woodland Hill. Along the familiar heather and gorse covered slopes to the top of the hill. There are fabulous views from the summit, if you exclude Hinkley Point nuclear power station (far right in the picture above) from your field of vision.

Descending Woodland Hill, Quantock Hills
Descending Woodland Hill, Quantock Hills

Walking back to the car park we found a large muddy pond teeming with tadpoles. I know very little about the frog breeding cycle but it seemed very late in the season. Indeed, as I sit here on this November night I start to wonder what happened to them. I do hope they reached frog-hood!

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A family road trip exploring County Antrim

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.

Glenariff Waterfall Trail
Glenariff Waterfall Trail

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.

Glenariff Forest Park
Glenariff Forest Park

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!

Glenariff waterfall trail
Glenariff waterfall trail

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!

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge
Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

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.

On the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge
On the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

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!

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge
Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

Portrush

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!

Looking towards Dunluce Castle
Looking towards Dunluce Castle

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.

Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle

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.

Giant's Causeway
Giant’s Causeway

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.

Giant's Causeway
Giant’s Causeway

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).

Giant's Causeway
Giant’s Causeway

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.

Giant's Causeway
Giant’s Causeway

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 harbour

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.

Ballintoy
Ballintoy

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.

Ballintoy
Ballintoy

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.

The Dark Hedges
The Dark Hedges

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?

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  • 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).
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Fossil hunting on the Isle of Wight

Earlier this year the Natural History Museum named the Isle of Wight as dinosaur capital of Britain. With the Bank Holiday weekend looming, and fond memories of previous trips to the island, we decided to see whether we could discover some dinosaur bones ourselves.

A browse through Trip Advisor suggested the Fossil Hunting trips run by Dinosaur Expeditions. My inner child was immediately captivated by the name, and putting aside all thoughts of Jurassic Park I booked us onto an afternoon ‘hunt’.

Walking the Tennyson Trail to The Needles
Walking the Tennyson Trail to The Needles

We caught an early morning ferry so had time spare to walk a stretch of  the Tennyson Trail. It was a gentle uphill walk, along a broad trail over West High Down to The Needles. Newly arrived swifts swooped along the trail, and with the gorse bushes smelling of coconut (suntan lotion) it really felt like summer had arrived.

needles
The Needles

The walk ended at a viewpoint over the white cliffs out to The Needles.  A coastguard helicopter was practising below us, adding a touch of excitement to the otherwise serene spot.

Dinosaur fossil hunting
Dinosaur fossil hunting

Back in the car, we managed to fit in a quick picnic at Freshwater Bay before heading over to start our fossil hunt. Oliver, our guide, met us in the car park near Brook Chine on the south coast of the island.  He started by explaining the types of fossil we might find, and handed round samples for us to familiarise ourselves with.  The children listened attentively to the ground rules (no paddling, no cliff climbing and don’t throw stones) before we walked down to the beach to start our fossil hunt.

The group consisted of 6 families, and I’m pretty sure the adults were as excited as the kids, I know I was! We trawled our way through the stones on the beach, picking up anything that looked fossil like and taking it to Oliver for identification.  We quickly became adept at identifying flints, sandstone, fossilised wood and sea sponges.

dinosaurfoot

After a while, Oliver took us on a walk to see some dinosaur footprints. He also explained the geological history of  the beach, and talked about the various strata in the cliffs behind us.  The tide wasn’t quite low enough to visit the footprints, instead he pointed out dinosaur footprint casts. I’d have never realised these were the slimy green rocks we’d been clambering over earlier but it was obvious the minute he showed us!

The walk back along the beach provided more fossil spotting opportunities.  My daughter was desperate to find a dinosaur bone, but sadly it was not to be.  However, at the end of trip Oliver surprised the children with a small fragment of dinosaur bone each.

We rounded off our day with a cream tea at Chale Bay Farm.  Our first of the year, it was a delight to laze in the sunshine, and feast on fruit scones, jam and cream.

Back home the kids had fun washing and sorting their finds.  You might think this just looks like a selection of stones, but we know better!

Not just any old stones!
Not just any old stones!

Kids view:

The dinosaur fossil hunt was very good because the man knew the names of all the things we picked up.

General info:

  • Take a bag or bucket to collect your fossil specimens in.
  • There are no toilet facilities at Brook Chine, so ensure you pay a visit before arrival.
  • The beach isn’t accessible for either wheelchairs or buggies.

Costs:

We travelled with Red Funnel from Southampton to East Cowes; a family day return cost £32. The family ticket for the fossil hunt was £12.50.

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On the way home
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