A family walk in the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

Back in the summer holidays we spent a day exploring the Malvern Hills. This range of hills extends for 15 kilometres across Worcestershire and Herefordshire and offers relatively easy walking for families with older children.

We arrived by train into the town of Great Malvern, having seen glimpses of the hills from our carriage. The station is about 15 minutes walk from the centre of town. It’s worth taking a quick look at its Victorian architecture, tea room and bookshop before you leave. A little twee but it’s lovely to see a station so obviously well cared for.

Great Malvern
Great Malvern

Although I’ve visited the Malvern Hills before I wasn’t entirely sure where to walk. Given the geography of the hills it’s hard to get lost but my natural sense of direction is terrible. Fortunately the tourist office provided a map showing the most popular walk options.

The route on to the hills is via ninety nine steps from the back of Rosebank Gardens which is a couple of minutes walk from the tourist office. We forgot to count how many steps there were but when you think you’ve finished there is a short stretch of uphill road.

Walking up the 99 steps to St Ann's Well, Great Malvern
Walking up the 99 steps to St Ann’s Well, Great Malvern

Our brief uphill exertion provided the perfect excuse to stop for a drink at St Ann’s Well cafe. Great Malvern was once a famous centre of hydrotherapy and visitors were transported up the hill by donkeys to drink the waters from the well. Water still flows from the well today and although there was a sign saying it isn’t currently safe to drink this didn’t deter one visitor who popped in to drink it during our stopover. My daughter was horrified that someone would ignore the notice!

Taking a break on the Malvern Hills
Taking a break on the Malvern Hills

Suitably refreshed we carried on walking towards Worcestershire Beacon. My son decided he needed another rest on a bench despite him being the youngest and probably fittest out of us.

We tackled a final steep stretch up onto the summit. At 425m Worcester Beacon is the highest point in Worcestershire so as you’d expect the views in all directions were amazing. Due to its location and height I’d imagine it’s the most popular destination in the Malvern Hills but even on a sunny summer day it was pleasantly busy rather than overcrowded.

Malvern Hills viewpoint
Malvern Hills viewpoint

It was also a convenient lunch spot particularly as there was a group of paragliders nearby who we hoped would entertain us. However, either the thermals weren’t sufficient or they were having a break too as they lay on their backs on the slope the whole time without taking off. We saw some later in the day though, circling high in the skies above Great Malvern.

Waiting for the paragliders, Malvern Hills
Waiting for the paragliders, Malvern Hills

After posing for the obligatory photo at the toposcope on Worcester Beacon we continued our walk south. We’d already tackled the highest point of the day so we enjoyed an easy downhill stroll towards Wyche Cutting. Whilst it’s possible to walk the full length of the hills in a day we were restricted by our return train time so I decided that from Wyche we’d return back to Great Malvern via a different route.

Summit of Worcestershire Beacon, Malvern Hills
Summit of Worcestershire Beacon, Malvern Hills

Wyche handily provides yet another refreshment stop at the H2O cafe which is part of the Malvern Hills Geocentre. This is a small visitor centre for the Geopark Way, a 109 mile geological route from Bridgnorth to Gloucester.  The visitor information is primarily provided by iPads but there are maps and some printed information available. We were only there for coffee and cake so it was perfect for us but I wouldn’t really visit it as a destination unless you’re planning to walk the actual trail.

Walking the Malvern Hills
Walking the Malvern Hills

Our return route provided a complete change of scenery as it skirted along the edge of the hills through woodland and past Earnslow Lake. This is the site of an old quarry. Tales abound that gold was mined nearby but the only certainty is that granite was once taken from these hills.

The Malvern Hills Conservators have landscaped the old quarry and it’s possible to walk part way around the edge of the lake. All very picturesque until the kids spotted a huge dead fish floating in the water!

Earnslow Pool, Malvern Hills
Earnslow Pool, Malvern Hills

Our path led us back to the cafe at St Ann’s Well. We had a much quicker descent down the 99 steps (which we still forgot to count) and into town. I managed to squeeze in one more cup of coffee before leaving; I think this walk broke a record in terms of number of cafés visited on a half day walk!

More info:

  • I previously linked to a leaflet outlining two walks on the north Malvern Hills  but this no longer appears available and there is no obvious replacement. Instead the website suggests purchasing walk leaflets from the tourist office.
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Walking on the Isle of Eigg, Inner Hebrides

This is part two of our Isle of Eigg adventure covering our family walks on the island. Pop over and read part one for more information about Eigg, our accommodation and where to eat.

The most famous walk on Eigg is to the summit of An Sgurr, the dramatic lump of rock you can see in the photo below. I wasn’t sure how suitable it was for the kids to climb so we chose a couple of less strenuous options.

Laig Bay and Singing Sands beach

Our first walk was to the north of the island to spend a day exploring the fabulous beaches of Eigg.

An Sgurr, Isle of Eigg
Leaving the hostel, walking towards An Sgurr, Isle of Eigg

We set out from our accommodation, Glebe Barn Hostel, along the main road towards Cleadale. This took us past the village primary school and a small heritage centre which we stopped to have a look in. Next door my daughter nosed around the island swap shop; I had visions of her finding something large and bulky which we’d have to carry so I quickly retrieved her.

Banana ice cream on our Eigg walk
Banana ice cream on our Eigg walk

A better find was a sign outside a house which advertised home made ice cream. It was early in the day but it’s never too early for ice cream if you’re a kid! We sat outside, drinking coffee and enjoying the morning sunshine, whilst the kids ate some rather yummy banana ice cream.

Walk from Blar Dubh plantation towards Laig, Eigg
Walk from Blar Dubh plantation towards Laig, Eigg

Shortly after leaving our ice cream stop we veered away from the road and followed a track marked by dots up through the trees. The path continues across heather over some pretty boggy ground. It eventually led us to the gate shown above. Little did we know that after passing through the gap in the cliffs we would be treated to the stunning landscape below.

Walking towards Laig bay, Eigg
Walking towards Laig bay, Eigg

Looking across we could see the cliffs of Beinn Bhuidhe and below them the crofts which have opened up since the residents bought the island in 1997. Beside us was a kettle hole lochan formed by a retreating glacier, whilst in front was the Bay of Laig.

Walk down to Laig beach, Isle of Eigg
Walk down to Laig beach, Isle of Eigg

We walked down past a farmhouse onto Laig beach. As usual in Scotland, we had the entire place to ourselves. A stream flowed down across the beach which proved slightly more difficult to cross with dry feet than you would imagine.

Crossing the stones on Laig beach, Eigg
Crossing the stones on Laig beach, Eigg

I was determined to eat an egg sandwich on Eigg so after finding the perfect picnic spot (the tree trunk in the top photo) we stopped for lunch. Sitting on Eigg, and looking across to the peaks of the Rum Cuillins I could think of nowhere else I’d rather be. I therefore declare this the best picnic spot in the UK but if you have any other contenders do let me know.

The path to Singing Sands beach, Isle of Eigg
The path to Singing Sands beach, Isle of Eigg

At low tide it is possible to walk along the beach from Laig to Singing Sands but the tide was too far in on our visit. Instead we detoured inland and crossed a field of cows (which my daughter hates). We passed a couple of bicycles in the field, temporarily left unlocked whilst the hirers visited Singing Sands. The kids both remarked how you’d never be able to do this back home without them going walkabout.

View of Rum from Laig beach, Isle of Eigg
View of Rum from Singing Sands beach, Isle of Eigg

Singing Sands beach

The beach at Singing Sands is so named because of the quartz sand grains which make a squeaky sound if you walk across them when dry. We managed to make some sounds by scuffing our boots along the sand but the term singing is rather fanciful!

Singing Sands beach, Isle of Eigg
Singing Sands beach, Isle of Eigg

We loved the welly stile below, a creative use of old boots. There were also a couple of sculptures on the beach made from items washed ashore. I’ve no idea who made them but they’re a fun and thought provoking addition.

Welly stile, Singing Sands beach, Isle of Eigg
Welly stile, Singing Sands beach, Isle of Eigg

Dragging ourselves away from the beach, and the views, we took the direct route back to the hostel along the main road. A couple of cars passed us which had seen better days. I read afterwards that cars on Eigg are MOT exempt which explains a lot!

The Cleadale road, Eigg
The Cleadale road, Eigg

We’d underestimated how warm the day was going to be and hadn’t taken enough water to drink. We were relieved to find that the house selling ice cream was still open for business. Even better, the lady had just baked a rhubarb pie. It would have been rude not to sample it and it certainly helped power the final part of our walk home.

Cathedral and Massacre caves

Our second walk only took a couple of hours, although at low tide you could walk further. Starting out from the pier at Galmisdale this time we followed purple paint spots for about a mile until we reached the caves.

Walk to Cathedral Cave, Isle of Eigg
Walk to Cathedral Cave, Isle of Eigg

After our views of Rum the previous day this time we were facing the small island of Muck. We watched a couple of sea kayakers who were making the crossing over to Muck.

The path led down from the cliff onto the beach to our first cave of the day, Cathedral Cave. The cave was once used for Roman Catholic services hence its name. It has an impressively large entrance and can be explored at low tide as long as you remember to bring a torch.

Cathedral Cave, Isle of Eigg
Cathedral Cave, Isle of Eigg

The Massacre Cave looks less impressive from the front. It has however an incredibly sad history.

Back in 1577, as part of a long running feud with the Macleods of Skye everyone on the island hid in the cave to avoid detection. However footsteps were spotted in the snow leading to the cave and the Macleods lit a fire in the entrance. All 395 people who were hiding perished.

Massacre cave, Isle of Eigg
Massacre cave, Isle of Eigg

In the past visitors have been able to walk into the cave but a large lump of rock fell from the roof recently narrowly missing a couple. There are now signs at the entrance, and elsewhere on the island, warning not to enter. It was disappointing not to go in but I didn’t fancy a chunk of rock on my head!

To extend the walk there are several other caves and a couple of waterfalls further on along the beach. However we were keen to visit the island produce and craft market back in Galmisdale so we simply retraced our route.

More info:

  • The gift shop in Galmisdale sells a pack of postcards with details of the popular walks on Eigg. There is also a map near the pier which outlines the approximate routes of the walks. Alternatively, further walks are available on the Walk Highlands website which we found an invaluable resource.
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Riding the Needles Breezer; an open top bus on the Isle of Wight

A couple of weekends ago we decided on an impromptu trip to the Isle of Wight. We belatedly realised that trying to book a late afternoon car ferry on a sunny Sunday just a few hours before travelling is rather expensive! Time for Plan B; travel as a foot passenger and use the island buses.

After our trip to Hurst Castle I was hesitant  to rely on buses but it turned out fine. The Isle of Wight has an excellent bus network with regular and tourist routes. We decided to ride the open top Needles Breezer which markets itself as one of the most spectacular bus rides in England.

Needles Breezer bus, Isle of Wight
Needles Breezer bus, Isle of Wight

Needles Breezer

The service starts in Yarmouth so after arriving in Cowes we caught a connecting service via Newport. Fortunately the bus services and Red Jet are joined up; we never had to wait long for a connection.

From Yarmouth the Needles Breezer covers a circular route, first heading to the south coast at Freshwater Bay before turning west towards Alum Bay and the Needles then back past Colwell Bay to its starting point. The big attraction is the open air seating up top. All passengers make a beeline for these seats despite the risk of overhanging branches!

Open air seats on the Needles Breezer
Open air seats on the Needles Breezer

We spent the day travelling around this route, hopping off at points of interest. The Needles Breezer service runs between March and November and as there’s a bus every 30 minutes we were able to fit quite a lot into our day.

Yarmouth

If you like boats then Yarmouth is the place to be. There’s a chandlery, yachts, car ferry port and sailing school all just a few minutes walk from the bus stop. For us it was a convenient stopover with toilets and cafe high on our list.

Yarmouth, Isle of Wight
Yarmouth, Isle of Wight

Yarmouth also has the longest wooden pier in the UK and a castle, built by Henry VIII (an incredibly busy man), although we didn’t visit as we walked out through Fort Victoria Country Park instead.

Fort Victoria Country Park

Fort Victoria Country Park is about 20 minutes walk from Yarmouth town centre. A former artillery fortification it now houses several small attractions (an aquarium, planetarium and model railway) but we just enjoyed a walk along the beach and back through the woods.

View of Hurst Castle from Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight
View of Hurst Castle from Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight

My main reason for visiting Fort Victoria was for the view of Hurst Castle on the mainland. We’d visited the castle a few days previously and wondered what it looked like from the island. As you can see from the above photo we now know!

Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight
Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight

Back in Yarmouth we boarded the bus, sitting up top of course, and enjoyed a ride through the Isle of Wight countryside. It is rather exciting and bumpy being  driven through the lanes at speed. Sit on the left hand side if you enjoy encounters with branches!

The bus passed the site of the first Isle of Wight Festival (a field, no need to get off) and the pretty St Agnes thatched church.

The Needles

The ride up to The Needles stop is the trip highlight. Sitting on top it felt like we were hugging the edge of the cliff as the bus climbed towards the Needles viewpoint. It’s quite safe though and there are spectacular views of the coloured cliffs at Alum Bay.

The Needles, Isle of Wight
The Needles, Isle of Wight

We’ve seen the Needles several times before but I always enjoy the view of the white rocks against a blue sea. In the past I’ve visited the Needles Old Battery, whose guns once defended the Solent. It’s worth a visit if you’ve never been before but we had plans for a walk so gave it a miss this time.

Tennyson Monument

Tennyson monument, Isle of Wight
Tennyson monument, Isle of Wight

From the Needles we enjoyed a great walk along Tennyson Down to Tennyson Monument. This was built to commemorate Lord Tennyson who lived nearby and walked on the down daily. It’s an easy and popular walk across the Downs, with great views along the south coast of the island.

With the benefit of hindsight we should have got off at the Tennyson Down bus stop, walked up to the Monument and then along to the Needles where we’d be able to rejoin the bus. Instead we had to backtrack and cover part of the route we’d already been on. On the plus side we got to ride up to the Needles again and as we managed to just miss one of the buses we were able to pop in for a quick drink in Highdown Inn.

Alum Bay

Alum Bay sands, Isle of Wight
Alum Bay sands, Isle of Wight

We didn’t get off at Alum Bay. Whilst I would have loved to take the kids down to the beach on the chairlift to see the coloured sands the rest of the site just didn’t appeal. Heaving with tourists, there are multiple ways to spend money ranging from a sweet factory demonstration to Jurassic Golf. From the looks of Trip Advisor some people love it, many don’t, but it’s just not our kind of place.

Colwell Bay

We were running out of time at this point so our last stop was a quick visit to Colwell Bay. From the bus stop it was a 5 minute walk down to the beach.

Looking out over Colwell Bay, Isle of Wight
Looking out over Colwell Bay, Isle of Wight

We’d managed to time our visit badly as the tide was in and there was no beach to be seen. Most people were sunbathing on concrete ledges so we bought some ice creams and sat in a shady spot to enjoy them.

There were loads of families swimming and enjoying paddling. It was a hot day and the sea certainly looked as if it would be warm. After a quick check my son confirmed it was freezing!

Ice creams finished we headed back to the bus stop for our final journey on the Needles Breezer back into Yarmouth. From Yarmouth we backtracked to Cowes and our short ferry crossing to Southampton. I had been a little unsure about relying on the buses to see the Isle of Wight but the Needles Breezer is a great service and one I’d recommend even if you do have the use of a car on the island.

More info:

  • We travelled on the Red Jet high speed ferry between Southampton and West Cowes. The crossing takes about 25 minutes and is for foot passengers only. There’s no need to book or check in before your journey, simply turn up, buy your ticket and travel. Our family day return cost £31.90 for 2 adults, 2 children.
  • Our family bus pass cost £25. This entitled us to ride on all Southern Vectis buses on the island for the day. Southern Vectis, the island bus company, offers a Downs Breezer and the Island Coaster hop on hop off services too. I had notionally thought of taking the Needles Breezer, then transferring to the other tourist services to see the whole island. Whilst this is possible in peak season it does mean you’d spend most of the day on the bus and I quickly decided to just focus on the western side of the island.
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Imber and Copehill Down; the ghost villages of Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire

There aren’t many places in this country where you can visit two empty villages just a few miles from each other. Yet Salisbury Plain is home to two military training villages. Usually closed to the public we took advantage of an open day at Imber church and combined it with a walk across the Plain to a fake German village.

Imber village

Imber stands in the centre of Salisbury Plain, a huge expanse of grassland that the army uses as a military training area.

Until 1943 it was a small agricultural village. The MoD requisitioned Imber for military training and gave the villagers 47 days notice to evacuate. Most villagers agreed readily as they saw it as part of the war effort.  They always assumed they’d be able to return but the army eventually decided to keep the village for military use, despite the protests of locals. It’s still off limits to the public although the MoD allows access for a few days each year, usually around Christmas, Easter and August.

Salisbury Plain warning signs
Salisbury Plain warning signs

Driving along the A360 Salisbury to Devizes road we initially missed the turn off for Imber village, sidetracked by the excitement of seeing road signs with tank pictures on. The road to Imber, which is usually closed to civilian traffic, isn’t signposted but there are plenty of clues to let you know you’re driving in the right direction. These include warnings every few hundred metres about the danger of unexploded military debris if you leave the road.

Entering Imber we drove past the shells of buildings that stand either side of the road, punctuated by more warning signs. It’s only a small village and before long we’d driven out the other side. I turned the car around in the deserted road whilst the kids excitedly pointed out a rusting tank on the hillside above us.

Imber church
St Giles church, Imber

St Giles church, Imber

Heading back in we parked in the small field next to St Giles church. Unlike the rest of Imber the church remains outside of army ownership and is the main destination for visitors. Surrounded by high wire fencing and an out of bounds sign it’s maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. Inside we read information boards about the eviction. Volunteers provided refreshments; the bottled water and camping stove a reminder that this village has no utilities or concessions to visitors.

Outside I took a walk around the graveyard. Much of it has been reclaimed by nature with huge thistles attracting lots of butterflies. Some of the headstones are dated after the 1943 evacuation, including that of the village blacksmith, Albert Nash. Albert’s wife believes he died of a broken heart just a few weeks after the eviction.

Imber village, Salisbury Plain
Imber village, Salisbury Plain

After visiting the church we walked along the main road to see the other buildings. In addition to the original village buildings, most of which are in a poor state of repair, there are a number of newer house type structures built in the 1970s. These were to help soldiers prepare for the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Despite the many Keep Out warning signs I saw one man taking his young son up onto the first floor of the house shown above. The area is still used for live firing and it seemed mad to ignore the warnings.

Tilshead Down ,Salisbury Plain
Tilshead Down, Salisbury Plain

Copehill Down walk

From Imber we drove a short distance to the nearby village of Tilshead. Imber isn’t the only ghost village on Salisbury Plain and we were about to discover another one, this time purpose built by the military.

We set off on the 6 mile walk across the Plain towards the village on Copehill Down. From Tilshead Down we followed a path through an avenue of trees. These are noted for their tree graffiti, carved by soldiers in the Second World War. The kids tried to decipher some of the initials but most were unreadable as the trunks have grown and morphed the shapes of the letters.

Walking along Long Barrow, near Tilshead Down
Walking along Long Barrow, near Tilshead Down

Just off of the avenue we came across a small clearing with a sign warning us not to dig. What was there? Prehistoric skeletons or landmines? I didn’t want to find out!

FIBUA (Fighting in a Built-Up area), Copehill Down village

Mock German village, Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain
Mock German village, Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain

Our second empty village of the day lay ahead of us. This village was built as an MoD training facility in the 1980s at the end of the Cold War. Originally created as an East German village it has been updated to include an Iraqi section but this wasn’t visible from outside.

East German village, Salisbury Plain
East German village, Salisbury Plain

It’s not possible to enter the village but the track runs close to the entrances so it’s easy to look in at the houses and crashed cars. Although there weren’t any training activities taking place we spotted lots of empty blank cartridges strewn across the ground.

Walking in the tracks, Salisbury Plain
Walking in the tracks, Salisbury Plain

Salisbury Plain

After leaving we walked up onto Copehill Down and followed a stretch of the Imber Range Perimeter Path. This 30 mile long distance walk skirts the edge of the military training firing area.

Although used by the military Copehill Down is undeveloped and hasn’t been farmed in many years. This is great news for wildlife as Salisbury Plain is now the largest area of chalk grassland in north west Europe. The whole area was full of flowers, insects, butterflies and birds. So different to intensively farmed fields.

Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain
Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain

On the brow of the down my partner was incredibly excited to see a great bustard in the grasslands. This large bird was reintroduced to Britain in 2004 after becoming nationally extinct in 1832. I had been looking in the opposite direction and, annoyingly, by the time I looked the bird had disappeared into the long grass.

Just outside of Tilshead we passed White Barrow, a Neolithic long barrow in National Trust ownership. It’s one of more than 2000 archaeological sites on Salisbury Plain, many of which lay within the military area. We didn’t visit as time was against us and we were keen to get started on our return journey. Although we did have to make time to pop into the garage for some much needed ice creams and drinks!

If you get the opportunity do visit Imber and Copehill Down. The combination of military usage, environment and prehistoric sites makes for a unique day out.

More info:

  • St Giles church and Imber village can only be visited on specific open days. These usually occur at Christmas, Easter and mid-late August but check the website for up to date information. It is not possible or safe to travel to Imber outside of these dates as it is used for military operations.
  • We followed the Discovering Britain Military Environmentalism walk from Tilshead to visit the mock village on Copehill Down. This walk is always open, even when military exercises are happening in the village. There is no access to the village.
  • The St Giles church volunteers offer tea and coffee for £1, squash for 50p, both come with a biscuit. There are a couple of basic Portaloo type toilets in one of the car parking lay-bys.
  • The garage at Tilshead has a small mini-mart and toilets.
  • There is no mobile phone reception in Imber.
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