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.
I almost don’t want to publish this blog post. After spending four amazing days in the Ardnamurchan area I am hesitant to recommend it for fear of it becoming too busy. But, as my favourite part of our Scotland holiday how can I not write about it?
Continue reading Our holiday explorations in and around Ardnamurchan, Lochaber
We recently completed another item on my UK bucket list and spent a week on Anglesey in North Wales.
Anglesey is the largest island in Wales and has plenty of tourist attractions for all ages. Read on to find out what we enjoyed most about the island.
When a beach is the number one Trip Advisor attraction on Anglesey you know it’s going to be special. You also expect it to be overrun with people. And perhaps, on a sunny summer day, Newborough beach and Llanddwyn Island are. But visit on a cool spring evening and you might well have the sweep of golden sand to yourself.
The car park at Newborough Forest is huge. Presumably testament to the number of day visitors who come to enjoy the beach, search for red squirrels and cycle the woodland tracks. There are toilets, marked trails and an ice-cream van in high season. But, aside from a couple of cars and campervans, it was almost empty at 8pm.
We parked and climbed the dunes to the beach. A perfect crescent of sand greeted us. Oystercatchers calling out. And a huge dead fish down on the shoreline that had both kids poking it in excitement.
Our target was Llanddwyn island, a mile or so along the sand from the car park. The island is cut off at high tide so check tide tables before you visit. Unless you fancy being marooned.
As we reached the island the clouds parted and a few rays of sun broke through. We were treated to the magical golden glow you get just before the sun sets.
Tŵr Mawr lighthouse, Llanddwyn island
For such a small finger of land Llanddwyn Island, named after St Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers, has more than its fair share of things to see. Away from the beaches there are historic lighthouses, the remains of a church, crosses and a terrace of houses once used by pilots guiding ships into the Menai Straits.
I thought we were the only ones on Llanddwyn. Until I realised I was about to walk into a photo shoot. Several professional looking photographers had set up their tripods and cameras to record the perfect sunset shot. Feeling guilty about spoiling their photos I decided not to visit Tŵr Mawr lighthouse. Instead I joined them on the rocks to bag a shot of my own.
Leaving the island we raced the darkening skies back to our car. As we drove home through the woods we scared the kids with tales of mutant giant squirrels attacking the car. They’re old enough for a few scary stories. But it was funny how they both locked their passenger doors!
Our second sunset visit was unplanned. We’d set off on an after dinner walk to a different stretch of beach. All started well until I climbed a sand dune expecting to see the sea. The water was a good mile away, separated by rolling sand dunes. Realising we wouldn’t reach the beach for sunset we turned around and retreated to the car.
Undeterred we drove on to Newborough beach, arriving just as the sun dipped behind the trees. There was no time to walk far from the car park. Once again the tide was out. But this time so was the sun. It was stunning.
Over on the mainland the sky above the mountains of Snowdonia and the Lleyn Peninsula turned pink. Inspired by this view we headed there later in the week to climb Yr Eifl, the hill on the right in the picture above.
Returning my gaze to Anglesey I watched the most incredible sunset. As the sun sank below the horizon the clouds turned from yellow to orange to red. The colours reflecting in the pools left by the retreating tide.
With impeccable timing a flock of Brent geese flew up from the shoreline, silhouetted against the orange sky. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect ending to the day.
Another five minutes and the colours were gone. It was time for us to leave.
We didn’t return to Newborough beach again; there was no need. I’ll remember this sunset for the rest of my life. And if you’re looking for the best sunset in Anglesey, perhaps even Wales, you should visit too!
If you’d like to find out what else we enjoyed on the island more pop over to 10 things to do on the Isle of Anglesey.
- Newborough Nature Reserve is on the southern tip of Anglesey. Car parking costs £4 during the day but the barrier is up and it appears to be free during the evenings.
“Are we near the sea yet?” my son asked as we drove into the beach car park at Lepe Country Park. “Er, yes, look in front of you”. To be fair, the drive down hadn’t provided any of the tantalising sea glimpses that normally precede arrival at a beach. But now the Solent sparkled just a few metres away.
The weather forecast was perfect for a weekend outing to the seaside; a day out to capture the remnants of summer. The busy car park informed us we weren’t the only ones with this idea. Although we were missing one essential item, a dog. You cannot take a dog onto Lepe family beach during the summer months. But from the start of October everyone brings their pooches for a paddle!
Family tradition dictates that we start our days out with a visit to a cafe. Fortunately Lepe had a beach cafe, albeit heaving with ramblers, families and day trippers all making the most of the autumn sun. We shared a couple of slices of cake, fuel for our morning walk.
Our route for the day was the 5 mile Lepe Loop. The circular trail runs west along the beachfront before heading inland along footpaths and gravel tracks. It’s an easy route to follow, both in terms of terrain and navigation. The walk is marked throughout with Lepe Loop signs.
As we set off along the seafront a small flock of turnstone ran back and forth, flying off whenever we got too close only to land again a few feet in front of us. They entertained us for quite some time and I even managed a couple of photos during one of their rare standing still(ish) interludes.
The Isle of Wight looked deceptively close. So close that if it wasn’t for the busy shipping channel you could almost imagine swimming over (well, not me, I’m a terrible swimmer). There were a couple of hardy swimmers taking a morning dip closer to shore. Evidently the sea is at its warmest tempersture in late summer but rather them than me.
Along the waterfront we found clumps of pampas grass. I hardly see them nowadays but I’m old enough to remember when every house in the 1970s had a clump in the front garden. Although in my naivety I’ve only just discovered that it was evidently a signal for couples who enjoyed other activities too!
Our route took us past the small, but perfectly proportioned, lighthouse. It’s officially a Millenium River Beacon, and looks much older than it actually is. Only built in 2000 its job is to steer seafarers into the Beaulieu River fom the busy Solent.
We coincided our walk with high tide so followed the detour onto a country lane near Inchmery House. As we walked past we were intrigued by the extensive CCTV signs. Minutes later a police car cruised slowly by so we decided it was time to Google the owner. This turned out to be the historian and TV presenter Dan Snow. Just as interesting were its former owners, mercenary Simon Mann and the Mitford and de Rothschild families. If walls could talk!
Although high tide scuppered plans to eat our picnic on the beach we managed to find a spot on the edge of the salt marsh at the junction of the high and low tide routes. With the warm October sun shining on us and calm water lapping at our toes it was an idyllic place.
Living inland, the huge appeal of walking the Lepe Loop was the first mile or so along the waterfront. Whilst the remainder of the walk was pleasant enough I can trek through fields and along tracks almost any day. That’s my excuse for realising I’d taken lots of photographs of the beach, but none of the rest of the walk!
D-Day at Lepe
After the main walk we wandered east along the beach to look for the World War II remains. The beach was used for loading heavy equipment in preparation for the D-Day invasion, and some of the structures are still visible. There’s an information board that explains the various items; the rusty platforms below are known as dolphins and were used to help load the departing ships.
We also found chocolate bars. Don’t get too excited, they’re made of concrete and although they appear to be modelled on Dairy Milk they were actually used to stengthen the beach so the tanks could be loaded onto the departing ships.
Elsewhere in the park there is a Cold War underground monitoring bunker which is being restored. Strange to think that when I visited Lepe as a child this was probably in use.
Returning to the car park we stopped for a while to watch a huge container ship manoeuvre itself out into the Solent from Southampton. It dwarfed the Isle of Wight Red Jet ferry and reminded me just how busy this stretch of water is. Although perhaps quieter than our M3 journey home!
- We followed the route in the Lepe Loop walking leaflet. Available via the online link and as a printed copy (costs 50p) at the visitor centre in the car park.
- It cost £6 for a day’s parking at Lepe Country Park. It’s cheaper out of season although Hampshire County Council still classify October as summer. There’s a cafe, small visitor centre and toilet 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.