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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A family walk up Pen-y-Fan, Powys

I’ve climbed Pen-y-Fan, the highest hill in southern Britain, a couple of times without the kids. As the kids are older now I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to stretch our legs on the way back from our holiday in Pembrokeshire.

Having only visited outside of the summer season previously I had no idea how popular the walk was. Our first hint was the long line of cars parked along the edge of the main road. There are a couple of off road car parks but as these were both full we parked on the grass verge like everyone else.

Start of the route up Pen-y-Fan
Start of the route up Pen-y-Fan

There are several routes up Pen-y-Fan. If we’d had the time and energy it would have been good to tackle one of the circular routes which takes in several of the peaks. However with a 2 hour journey behind us and another 2 hour drive home we settled on the standard route up from Pont ar Daf car park, also known as ‘The motorway’.

The Pen-y-Fan motorway

The main track is broad and well made, obviously used to thousands of walking boots. The route was straightforward and relatively easy; it was just a pity that some people had decided to leave dog poo bags alongside the track.

Pen-y-Fan walk
Pen-y-Fan walk

As we walked my son recounted part of the Bear Grylls book he’d just read. Bear’s SAS selection process took place in these hills and although we had an easier time than Bear this mountain shouldn’t be under-estimated. The ease of access means that people can and do get into difficulty, particularly in poor weather.

The first summit (with the flat top shown in the picture above) is actually Corn Du. We skirted around the edge, saving it for our return journey, and walked on to Pen-y-Fan. The views open up at this point and it’s a pretty spectacular view down the Neuadd valley.

A rather busy Pen-y-Fan summit!
A rather busy Pen-y-Fan summit!

A short final climb took us up onto the summit of Pen-y-Fan. I would guess there were a couple of hundred people up there enjoying the views, many more than I’ve seen on any other hill. Families with children of all ages, runners, walking groups and plenty of dogs.

Summit photo, Pen-y-Fan
Summit photo, Pen-y-Fan

We queued for a few minutes to take the obligatory summit photo. Just behind us is the view you see in the feature photo at the top of this post, incredible!

We’d been organised enough to bring a picnic and managed to find a relatively empty spot to eat it in. On bad weather days the wind would be howling across the summit but we were lucky and enjoyed our sandwiches in glorious sunshine.

Picnic on the Pen-y-Fan summit
Picnic on the Pen-y-Fan summit

On to Corn Du

Heading off of Pen-y-Fan we tackled the summit of Corn Du, the second highest peak in South Wales. It’s similar to the summit of Pen-y-Fan; in fact I had to let one family know that they weren’t quite on Pen-y-Fan, much to their kids disappointment.

Route down from Pen-y-Fan
Route down from Pen-y-Fan

It’s pretty steep coming down from Corn Du and I was pleased we’d chosen to walk up the route from Pont ar Daf rather than Storey Arms. The path drops down to a stream before climbing back up a little. We saw a couple of runners filling their water bottles in the stream but rather them than me. I’ve seen too many dead sheep in streams higher up the mountains to even consider this!

We were soon back at the car, ready to hit the M4 again. I’m glad to report that we all enjoyed Pen-y-Fan more than the usual motorway stopover.

If you’re looking for other walks in the Brecon Beacons check out my family walks near Abergavenny post. On a wet day you might like to explore Caerleon’s Roman history or Blaenavon’s industrial heritage.

More info:

  • This route starts from the Pont ar Daf car park on the A470 between Brecon and Merthyr Tydfil. We followed the 4 mile walk outlined on the National Trust website.
  • There are a couple of burger vans and some pretty foul toilets at the start of the walk.
  • We visited on a sunny clear day and there were loads of families walking the hill. However remember that the weather and visibility on top may be very different from your starting point. Always take appropriate equipment and clothing, check the weather forecast and walk within your abilities.
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Puffins and bluebells on Skomer, Pembrokeshire

Twenty odd years ago I spent a week volunteering as an assistant warden on Skomer, a small island off the coast of south west Wales. It was a formative experience of my 20s; the beauty of the island, the conservation work and the volunteers are all ingrained in my memory.

Bluebells and sea campion, Skomer
Bluebells and sea campion, Skomer

It’s always tricky to revisit a place that holds such strong memories but I wanted to return with the kids when they were old enough to enjoy it. Our recent holiday to Pembrokeshire gave me the ideal opportunity; I knew the visit would be completely different but would I regret returning?

Puffin on Skomer island
Puffin on Skomer island

The boat to Skomer

The boat to Skomer leaves from the small bay of Martin’s Haven. As the island has a limit of 250 day visitors you need to arrive early if you’re travelling during peak season. We were visiting on the late May Bank Holiday so didn’t take any chances and were in the queue for tickets by 8am.

Our early start paid off and we were allocated seats on the first day visitor sailing. Our boat, the Dale Princess, makes the 10 minute journey several times a day which is reassuring given the notorious reputation of Jack Sound, the stretch of water that separates Skomer from the mainland. I was glad it was only a short journey as the swell was considerable despite it being a calm day.

Skomer guillemots
Skomer guillemots

As we neared the landing stage we were surrounded by seabirds, mostly puffins, bobbing in the sea around us. After disembarking we were directed up a flight of steps, past ledges full of guillemots, for an introductory talk by the warden. 

The warden described the island as a piece of Swiss cheese. This is a perfect analogy. Three of its main inhabitants live in the burrows which cover the island; puffins, rabbits and Manx shearwaters. Whilst you’re likely to see both puffins (in season) and rabbits the Manx shearwaters arrive and leave in darkness. Only overnight visitors will witness the vocal cacophony of the shearwaters that return to the island each evening.

Visitor centre and volunteer accommodation, Skomer
Visitor centre and volunteer accommodation, Skomer

We had around 5 hours which is more than enough time to walk a circuit of the island. Our first stop was a trip to the Old Farm, which houses a small visitor exhibition and, most importantly, the only public toilets on the island. It’s also the location of the volunteer accommodation, which I was keen to show the family, even though the kids weren’t particularly impressed by my reminiscing.

Skomer volunteer accommodation - 1990s vs 2015
Skomer volunteer accommodation – 1990s vs 2015

The volunteer accommodation had certainly had a makeover since my earlier visit, as you can see from the then and now photo. Our converted cowshed (top photo) had no running water and very rudimentary facilities. I’m not sure what I smelt like after a week with no shower but I doubt it was fragrant!

We continued walking on towards Skomer Head. As with much of the Pembrokeshire coast the island is carpeted with flowers during late spring. At home (Oxfordshire) the bluebells have finished for the year but they were still flowering in abundance on Skomer, along with pink campion and sea thrift. 

Walking through the bluebells, Skomer
Walking through the bluebells, Skomer

We saw plenty of rabbits as we walked. Rather disconcertedly the first one was black and white which made the kids wonder if a pet rabbit had escaped. The rabbits were introduced to the island in the 13th Century and were raised by locals for their fur and meat. Hence many are from domesticated stock and aren’t the traditional brown colour.

We didn’t actually miss out on seeing Manx shearwaters either. Although sadly they were dead ones! Skomer is home to the largest population of Manx shearwater in the world and they’re easy picking for greater black backed gulls. As we walked around the island we saw plenty of Manx shearwater carcasses in various states of decomposition. My son delighted in taking photographs of these, I’m not quite sure what that says about his psyche.

Skomer signpost
Skomer signpost

We stopped for an early picnic lunch near Skomer Head where we attempted to spot porpoise. We were out of luck so contented ourselves with views of Grassholm, renamed gannet island by the kids. The island is home to thousands of gannets, who are responsible for the snow covered appearance of the island (bird poo).

The Wick

After lunch it was on to the main attraction, The Wick. This sheer cliff is rammed full of seabirds, mostly guillemots and razorbills, which you can hear just as well as you can see. All the visitors to the island seemed to congregate here too as it’s the best place to watch puffins on Skomer.

Skomer puffins
Skomer puffins

This year’s puffin count recorded more than 21,000 individuals, the highest number ever. The footpath runs between the puffin burrows and the cliff so visitors are treated to great close up views of the birds. There was no need for binoculars, although there was a Skomer volunteer manning a telescope focused on The Wick for better views of other seabirds.

I remember my volunteer work consisted of boardwalk building and a bird count. I should probably apologise for any inaccuracies in puffin numbers during the early 1990s. It was hard to accurately count birds that wouldn’t stay in one place for long!

Puffin burrows, Skomer
Puffin burrows, Skomer

The puffin burrows are marked with numbered sticks. These help the volunteers record which burrows are occupied and which eggs have hatched. Every so often a startled puffin emerged from one of the burrows, let out a squirt of poo and escaped the cameras by heading out to sea.

Of course puffins are not the only bird on the island. They’re not even the main attraction for the serious birdwatcher. The Skomer island blog shows that a black stork flew over on the day we visited; previous visitors this year include several golden orioles and even hoopoes! Needless to say we didn’t see any of these, but we were quite content with puffins.

View over to The Neck, Skomer
View over to The Neck, Skomer

After we finally tore ourselves away from The Wick we headed back to our start point, stopping to take in the glorious views over The Neck (inaccessible to day visitors). The photo above really doesn’t do it justice as the ground was covered in swathes of bluebells and pink campion.

We arrived back at the landing stage earlier than our planned departure time so that I could take some photographs of the guillemots we’d passed earlier. As it turned out, the boat arrived early too and we were allocated seats on an impromptu 2.30pm sailing. The trip back was completely calm, no spray and no swell, much more pleasant.

Boarding the Dale Princess, Skomer
Boarding the Dale Princess, Skomer

Did my return visit live up to expectations? Of course it did, and the rest of the family enjoyed it too. Sadly there was no sign of the boardwalk we built, but the island was exactly how I remembered it, with added puffins.

If you’re visiting the area you might also like to read my blog post about things to do near St Davids, Pembrokeshire.

More info:

  • Access to Skomer. The island is open from 1 April to 30 September, except Mondays (although it is open on Bank Holiday Mondays). It is not possible to book  trips in advance so on busy days during peak puffin season you should aim to be in the queue at Lockley Lodge, Martin’s Haven before 8am. Once you’ve got to the front of this queue and paid your landing fee you’ll be allocated a boat departure time. The landing fee is £10 for adults, children under 16 and members of the local Wildlife Trust are free.
  • Taking the boat to Skomer. The boat officially departs at 10am, 11am and 12 noon (although we were allocated a place on a 9.30am boat). It only sails when conditions allow. In particular, a strong northerly wind can mean no sailings; you can check latest boat information via @skomer_boatinfo on Twitter. The boat departure point is about 5 minutes walk downhill from Lockley Lodge. The fee is paid on the boat in cash only; this is £11 for adults, £7 for children.
  • When can you see puffins on Skomer? The best time to see puffins is May to mid-July. Most have left by early August.
  • What facilities are on Skomer? There are basic toilet facilities on Skomer but that’s all; there’s nowhere to buy food so bring a picnic with you. You can however hire a pair of binoculars; these cost £5 and are recommended if you’ve forgotten to bring your own.
  • Is Skomer suitable for children? Yes, but with some reservations. There are 87 steps to climb from the boat landing stage and much of the island is rugged terrain with open cliffs, visitors must remain on paths at all times. There are only a couple of  places to shelter on Skomer so visit on a dry day. Lastly consider whether it’s the kind of place your family would enjoy. If you’re looking for beaches, a cafe etc it won’t meet your expectations. If you’re happy to wander round the island, stop to watch wildlife and enjoy a picnic you’ll be fine. There are kids trails available, pick one up from the warden at the introductory talk.
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An amazing walk from Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucs

This 4 mile circular walk from Bourton-on-the-Water takes in two Cotswold villages, a nature reserve and, not one, but two mazes. Hence the cheesy pun in the title!

Tourist literature describes Bourton-on-the-Water as ‘Venice of the Cotswolds’. Whilst the River Windrush flows through the village it doesn’t bear much resemblance to Venice except for the crowds of visitors. Once you’ve put the analogy aside it’s an enjoyable place to spend a few hours and, as we found, it’s easy to escape the tourist hordes.

Greystones Farm nature Reserve
Greystones Farm nature Reserve

As is almost always the case, a 10 minute walk from the village centre took us away from the day trippers. We left Bourton-on-the-Water via Greystones Farm Nature Reserve, which is managed by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.

We followed the route through the farmyard past an unusual looking building marked with the words ‘Lely Astronaut’. I thought it might be an observatory but we found a small viewing window and realised it was a robotic milking parlour. We watched one of the cows for a while, hoping to see it getting milked, but the cow had other ideas so we left it in peace.

Unusual gate at Greystones Farm nature Reserve
Unusual gate at Greystones Farm nature Reserve

Leaving the farmyard we encountered this gate which had a convenient person shaped hole in it. It wasn’t so convenient for the people behind us who had multiple dogs, one of whom they were pulling along in a cycle trailer!

Further on we found some badger setts. The badgers were tucked up underground as it was the middle of the day but it would be great to stake out one of the setts.

Checking for badgers
Checking for badgers

We walked on through meadows before crossing the River Eye and River Dickler. Otters and water voles evidently frequent these rivers but we searched in vain for footprints on the banks. Even though we didn’t see signs of these elusive animals it was great to explore the incredibly clear rivers.

River Dickler, Greystones Farm
River Dickler, Greystones Farm

We managed to take a wrong turning after crossing the bridge. As we walked on the instructions started to differ from the route and when we reached a road it became obvious we’d gone the wrong way. Whoops. Fortunately we’d bought an OS map so we could work out where we were supposed to be, just a pity I hadn’t checked it sooner. On the positive side we did hear our first cuckoo of the year.

We reached the village of Wyck Rissington via our unplanned road detour. This unspoilt Cotswold village is a complete contrast to the tourist honeypot of Bourton-on-the-Water. We only saw one other person in the village visiting its picturesque duckpond and Cotswold stone buildings.

Wyck Rissington
Wyck Rissington

Wyck Rissington does have a couple of claims to fame. The composer Holst worked as an organist in the church in 1892. Holst enthusiasts can follow the 35 mile Gustav Holst walk which passes through places associated with the composer and ends at the church.

Of more interest to us was a story I’d heard about a maze in the rectory garden. It turned out we were 30 years too late as it was dismantled when the rectory was sold. However there is a mosaic inside the church which is a copy of the original maze. Can you complete it?

Mosaic maze in Wyck Rissington church
Mosaic maze in Wyck Rissington church

Our walk back to Bourton-on-the-Water was almost scuppered when we encountered a dog walker who told us about a herd of cows blocking our access ahead. Neither my daughter or I are fans but after checking the map we realised we’d either have to retrace our earlier route or brave the cows. With some nervousness we settled on the latter. We had several fields to cross; each one was carefully checked but there were no cows to be seen. Either they’d gone in for milking or the dog walker had imagined them. I was relieved!

The final stretch of walk took us past fishing lakes back into the village and onto our second maze of the day.

Dragonfly Maze, Bourton-on-the-Water

One of the reasons Bourton-on-the Water is so popular is because of its many attractions. These include Birdland, a model village, a perfumery, motor museum and a maze. We had time to spare after our walk so decided to explore the Dragonfly Maze.

Dragonfly Maze, Bourton-on-the-Water
Dragonfly Maze, Bourton-on-the-Water

Dragonfly Maze is a yew maze with a twist. In addition to finding the centre of the maze we needed to solve clues along the way in order to fully enjoy the attraction at the centre (I’m trying not to give anything away here).

The clues are picture based, similar to the top left hand photograph above. We didn’t manage to find one of them but were still able to solve the puzzle. The maze took us about 30 minutes to finish; it’s not particularly big but the added puzzle made it an entertaining way to finish our walk.

Smiths of Bourton tearoom

In my view, a walk can only be perfect if there’s a good tearoom somewhere en route. We were spoilt for choice in the village but settled on Smiths of Bourton tearoom.

We initially visited for lunch before our walk; I had a Ploughmans, the children sandwiches and my partner a fish finger sandwich. They were all delicious although my partner hadn’t expected either tomato ketchup or mushy peas inside his sandwich. This was rather unfortunate as he doesn’t like them; fortunately both kids do so after some sandwich swapping everyone ended up with something they enjoyed.

Smiths of Bourton
Smiths of Bourton

We returned after our walk for cake and coffee. My daughter was embarrassed to see one of her school teachers sitting on the table next to us, particularly as we were an hour’s drive from home. I, on the other hand, was happy to see that the tearoom offered a selection of 3 smaller size cakes for £3.95. Perfect for me as I can never make up my mind. I chose fruit, carrot and chocolate cakes to share with the kids. If I’d been a proper food blogger I’d have Instagrammed the cakes, but I only thought about this after I’d ate them. You’ll just have to take my word that they were all delicious, a perfect end to our afternoon walk.

If you’ve enjoyed this you might also want to read about our walk from Winchcombe to Belas Knap or our climb up to Broadway Tower.

More info:

  • We followed the Bourton-on-the-Water and Wyck Rissington Jubilee walk. It’s 4 miles long and flat so easy to do with children. There are loads of cafés, pubs and other facilities available in Bourton.
  • The Dragonfly Maze is open year round, depending on the weather. A family ticket for 2 adults and 2 children under 12 costs £9.
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