If you’re looking for a short quirky walk in Gloucestershire how about visiting a ship’s graveyard? We spent an hour discovering the Purton hulks, one of my British bucket list items, on the way home from an overnight stay at St Briavels Castle YHA.
Gloucester and Sharpness Canal
After parking opposite the church in Purton, we crossed the bridge and followed a sign directing us to the Purton hulks. This took us along a towpath, bordered on one side by the Gloucester and Sharpness canal and the River Severn on the other.
The 16.5 mile canal runs, as you’d expect, between Gloucester and Sharpness. Built to bypass a dangerous stretch of the River Severn it was once the deepest and broadest canal in the world. Nowadays it’s mainly used by pleasure craft and kayakers. In the not too distant past oil tankers and even submarines have navigated its waters!
After 15 minutes or so we reached the first few boats. Between 1909 and the 1970s vessels were deliberately beached along the River Severn to shore up the banks and protect the land between the river and canal.
Today there are over 80 vessels in the ship graveyard. Many are hidden under grass or silt. Some are in an advanced state of decay with just the rotting timbers and huge bolts remaining. You certainly need to keep your eyes on the ground, partly so you don’t miss anything but also to avoid the trip hazards.
There’s a huge variety of boats here, from schooners to concrete barges. The Friends of Purton group have investigated and published in-depth histories of each of the vessels on their website. Each ship has a name plaque which you can look up online.
In the same way that I loved learning about the residents of Highgate Cemetery on our recent visit, I enjoyed finding out about the vessels at Purton.
The ship below is Harriett, the last known example of a Kennet built barge. She spent her life in the Bristol docks area, carrying grain and wood pulp.
This is Edith, a Chepstow trow. She used to transport coal between Bristol and the Forest of Dean. Edith has an eventful past, with several collisions and groundings. She was finally beached in the 1960s.
There’s not a lot left of Sally, also known as King. Beached during a snowstorm in 1951 much of her history is a mystery although she may have originated in the Caribbean. Sadly she has suffered at the hands of arsonists who have burnt her timbers in order to extract metals from them.
Photographers will have a field day exploring the hulks. Historians and boat lovers too. I don’t particularly class myself as any of these but they’re well worth a visit. Just don’t leave it too long. They won’t be here forever!
After you reach the last of the accessible boats the path leads back up to the canal. From here you can return along the towpath. Or, if you fancy a longer walk, head into Sharpness in the opposite direction.
The Friends of Purton website is a mine of information with copious detail on the ships and their histories.
Wear wellies or boots after rain. It will be very muddy!
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.
We started with a visit to Weobley Castle, or more accurately, the remains of a 14th Century fortified manor house. It’s a low key attraction with most of the inside area open to the elements. One room has been restored and this houses panels detailing the history of the area and the de la Bere family who lived here.
But it’s the positioning of Weobley Castle that’s most impressive. Standing high above the coastline a window provides a perfectly framed view of the salt marshes and mud flats that typify the north Gower coastline. Admittedly not to everyone’s taste but it’s my kind of place. The salt marsh is grazed by ponies and sheep whose diet of samphire, sorrel and sea lavender contribute to its unique flavour. If you fancy trying the resulting salt marsh lamb you can often buy it from the farmhouse where you pay your castle entrance fee.
Llanrhidian marsh is a great bird watching spot, particularly during the winter months when it’s home to a large population of waders and wildfowl. We asked permission at the farmhouse and walked down to see what bird life we could spot. Despite a lack of binoculars we saw a couple of little egrets wading in one of the muddy channels and a fledgling nuthatch hopping along the ground. However we didn’t walk far as the ponies were having fun cantering around the marsh and we decided it best to watch them from afar.
It’s a ten minute drive from Weobley Castle to the small village of Llandmadoc. After a refreshment break in the community shop and a spot of hanging around in the car waiting for the rain to clear we headed out towards Whiteford Sands. This is the most northerly beach on the Gower peninsula and, thanks to the lack of a car park, one of the least visited.
After a 20 minute walk we reached the beach and were greeted with a sign warning visitors not to pick up unusual items. The area was used as a firing range in World War II and unexploded shells still turn up occasionally.
Whiteford beach stretches for about two miles, and is backed by sand dunes and trees. We visited at low tide and the waters were too far out for a paddle. Instead we walked along the tideline checking what treasures high tide had bought. We found several sea potatoes, whelk egg cases and lots of crab legs. There were a couple of small jellyfish, but nothing like the huge barrel jellyfish we’d seen on the southern beaches.
As we walked we heard our first, and only, cuckoo of the year. It was somewhere in the trees but despite it reminding us of its presence every few minutes we couldn’t spot it.
Given the earlier rain it wasn’t surprising we were the only ones on the beach. This was also fortunate as I subsequently discovered that Whiteford Sands is a well known naturist beach. I can only imagine how embarrassed the teens would have been if we’d come across some au naturel visitors.
Later a couple of quad bikes passed us and we realised the beach wasn’t entirely empty. Far out we could see a couple of groups of people who I guess were harvesting cockles or mussels. A backbreaking job perhaps better left to the oystercatchers!
At the far end of Whiteford beach there’s a cast iron lighthouse which was built in 1865. Over 30 shipwrecks have been recorded in this area, including 16 ships sailing out of Llanelli which were wrecked in just one night.
The lighthouse is accessible on foot at low tide, providing the ultimate goal for my beach walk. Although I underestimated just how far out it was. The rest of the family sensibly decided to sit it out on the beach whilst I seemingly walked several miles out to it (OK, perhaps half a mile).
Whiteford Burrows Nature Reserve
Leaving the lighthouse behind we walked past the sand dunes that make up Whiteford Burrows. The path gradually turned from sand to mud as we moved inland. Yellow irises flanked our route, indicative of the marsh that lay just off our route.
We arrived at a path junction and I was immediately drawn to the sea wall that heads out across the marsh. The wall was breached in 2014, resulting in sea water flowing into the freshwater marsh. Rather than repair it the National Trust have left nature to take its own course. This has resulted in the area previously behind the sea wall turning into salt marsh. Good news for wildlife although not so good if you wanted to take the footpath along the sea wall!
A little later we stopped in a bird hide overlooking the marsh. Our lack of binoculars once again put paid to any serious bird spotting so we didn’t linger. There was also the small matter of reaching Cwm Ivy cafe before closing time.
Sitting in the cafe a short time later we reflected on our northern Gower day out. The area has a stunning coastline, nature reserves and historical attractions. Yet we‘d seen less than 30 other visitors all day; it’s definitely the place to visit if you’re looking for a quiet day out (particularly in the rain)!
Exploring the Gower Peninsula was one of my UK bucket list challenges. As well as the above day out you might also like to read about the fun we had tackling the Worm’s Head at Rhossili.
Weobley Castle is open daily between 1 April and 31 October. It’s free for Cadw members, alternatively pay in the farmhouse before entering.
The three miles of golden sand at Rhossili on the Gower Peninsula regularly features in top ten lists of best beaches. This year alone it has been voted the number one beach in Wales, third best in the UK and 25th in Europe. I can see why. But, and I will whisper this, perfect sandy beaches just don’t do it for me. I don’t swim, sunbathe or surf. I need something else to hold my attention.
So it’s fortunate that, at the southern end of the beach, there’s a fabulous tidal island that’s right up my street. Let me introduce the rockpools, cliffs and wildlife of Worm’s Head.
But, first, a word about the name. The Vikings named the promontory ‘wurm’ which translates to dragon. Not worm. I guess that with a little imagination the green summits do resemble a serpent’s back.
Crossing the causeway
The large National Trust car park for Rhossili beach is about 20 minutes walk from Worm’s Head causeway. From the car park it’s a surfaced track almost as far as the volunteer run coastwatch station.
From the headland there’s a short scrambly section to get down onto the causeway which links to the island. Worm’s Head is accessible for 2.5 hours before and after low tide; there’s a large notice advising the safe crossing times so there’s no excuse for strandings. If you’re tempted to race the tide the small coastwatch station has a tally notice in the window advising of the number of rescues. Don’t add to the numbers!
Crossing the causeway takes about 20 minutes assuming you’re not distracted by the rock pools. We delayed our rock pooling until the return journey so soon reached Inner Head, the first section of Worm’s Head. The entire island is about a mile long; Inner Head is joined to Outer Head, by Low Neck. I guess the Vikings had exhausted their imagination after naming the island.
We hadn’t been organised enough to make a picnic but fortunately we’d bought some sandwiches in Rhossili. The sandwiches were surprisingly good although I think a combination of sea air, fabulous views and rumbling tummies contributed to our enjoyment. We ate our sandwiches, enjoying the view, and discovered that the people staying next to us in the campsite were sitting only a few steps away. Great minds.
After lunch we faced the first climb of the day to the summit of Inner Head. Although quite a steep hill it was relatively short and once over the top we were treated to a panoramic view of the serpent in all its glory.
As we dropped down to Low Neck we took a slight detour to peer over the cliffs at the grey seals below. A couple were swimming lazily in the sea, another huge one was laying on the rocks, seemingly oblivious to the humans above them taking photographs.
The most exciting part of the route came next, clambering across the jagged teeth of Low Neck. OK they were only rocks. But surprisingly fierce ones; I still have one of the bruises! There are a few hand on rock moments and god forbid if you’re trying to cross in Crocs (as I saw one lady wearing). The big positive is, in dry conditions at least, the rocks are very grippy. This section can take some time to negotiate so do bear this in mind if the tide is turning.
My geology knowledge is basic but even I could appreciate the different strata and faults in the rocks. However my eyes glaze over at the mention of wave cut platforms, carboniferous limestone and calcite veins; suffice to say they all feature on Worm’s Head.
Devil’s Bridge is the remains of a collapsed sea cave. One day it too will fall into the sea. Until then it’s one of the most photographed features on the island. The best photographs are obtained by scrambling down towards the sea, probably not for the faint hearted.
The crossing itself is straightforward and nowhere near as airy as I expected, but then again I didn’t attempt to look down. I might have changed my mind if I took a moment to peer over the edge.
A little further on we came across a cave window, perfectly framed for a photograph out to sea. If you’ve come this far with children be warned there’s a sheer drop off the cliff on the other side of the window!
At the bottom of Outer Head there’s a notice advising of nesting birds and asking visitors to keep to the marked path. We didn’t go any further as we’d left the teens at Devil’s Bridge and I had visions of them scaling cliffs or (more likely) arguing.
Instead we stopped and watched the seabirds for a while. Guillemots and razorbills whirling and diving around the cliffs. I looked in vain for puffins but to no avail.
We took an alternative return route, keeping low and circling around the hill, enjoying the waves of pink sea thrift that lined the path edge.
Back at Devil’s Bridge the kids were still on speaking terms and had been taking photographs of each other messing around on the bridge. I’m glad I wasn’t around to watch them do this. My parenting survival gene may have kicked in!
Rock pooling on the causeway
The second highlight of the day, after Low Neck, was rock pooling on our return journey.
I love rock pools. The ones on the Worm’s Head causeway were fascinating; I could easily have spent all of low tide mooching around them. They were teeming with creatures; anemones, hermit crabs, shrimps, dog whelks and seaweeds to name but a few. Some of the rocks were completely covered in mussels and barnacles making it impossible to avoid standing on them. And sometimes the weird and wonderful shapes of the rocks alone were enough to make me stand and stare.
Despite the tide being out I still managed to get wet feet. I can only blame the sun reflecting off the water for my decision to walk through a large pool. My trainers and socks got soaked through so it didn’t matter when I did it again a few minutes later. Fortunately it was a warm day and I managed to forget how wet my feet were before the family stopped laughing at me.
The final part of our journey took us back to Rhossili for a well deserved ice cream. And several water bottle refills at the NT shop. The day had turned out much warmer than we’d planned for!
The National Trust owns the land around Rhossili and Worm’s Head. Car parking is free to NT members or £5 for the day for non-members. There are no facilities on Worm’s Head.
If the canal path from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon had its own theme tune it would consist of bicycle bells and whirring tyres; to say it’s a popular cycling route is an understatement. Indeed, if you’ve arrived here from my UK bucket list link you’re probably expecting to read about our cycle ride beside the canal. But, for various reasons, we ended up walking instead; read on to find out how we got on.
Bath to Bathwick
We joined the Kennet and Avon canal path immediately behind Bath railway station. Connecting Bristol to Reading, the canal opened in 1810 but fell into disuse and dereliction following the opening of the railway in 1841. Restored and fully reopened in 1990 it’s now a popular amenity for locals and visitors.
The first mile or so winds through the city; past locks, under bridges and opposite mansions with their honeyed stone and pristine gardens. Two hundred years ago the canal would have been busy carrying coal into Bath and stone out. Several features along the route hark back to those days, including the pumphouse chimney. This was built in an ornate style as the local wealthy residents didn’t want to look out on to an industrial structure!
At Darlington Wharf we came across a floating market. Narrow boat businesses were moored alongside the path offering, amongst others, a sweet shop, wooden crafts and clothing. A little further on we spotted a boat with a Polling Station sign; not sure if it really was or whether the sign had been relocated from elsewhere!
On a warm spring weekend the canal towpath was busy with dog walkers, weekend joggers and cyclists. Ah yes, the cyclists. I’m far from anti-cyclist but when they whoosh past at great speed or cycle in groups across the entire path it’s hard to have a positive view. Of course there were plenty of considerate people too but given that we rarely walked more than 100m without meeting cyclists it only took a few to spoil our enjoyment.
At Bathampton we couldn’t resist a stop at the Cafe on the Barge, a tiny café in a narrow boat. Primarily offering drinks and cakes, I highly recommend the carrot cake. We sat on the small open deck, completely forgetting we were on a boat until another craft came by and rocked the waters. There are seats on the canal towpath too as there’s not much room on the boat itself.
Walking on we enjoyed watching the variety of canal users. A mix of holiday barges, day rentals, homes and (further on) a defunct lifeboat chug up the canal and line the moorings. It’s easy to tell the difference. Those belonging to long term residents are often laden with bikes, wood, pot plants and Buddha statues. The hire boats were usually more pristine, with traditional decoration aside from the holiday company logos.
We heard the swimmers and picnickers at Warleigh Weir, near Claverton, way before we saw them. This beauty spot on the river (not the canal) can be reached by a short walk downhill and across the railway line. I’ve no idea what it’s normally like but on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday the field beside the river was packed with people. Rather like Bournemouth beach on a sunny day.
Elsewhere in Claverton there’s a pumping station which was built to transport water from the River Avon to the canal. Fully restored it operates on selected dates (advertised on the canal noticeboards). It was closed during our walk but reviews suggest it’s worth a visit when it’s open.
Leaving Claverton behind we walked a rural stretch of the canal. The bees and butterflies were out and everything looked a vibrant green in the spring sunshine. A little further on there’s a small wooded area beside the path where the garlic smell hits you before you see the white carpet of ramsons.
One of the highlights of this walk are the two aqueducts built to carry the canal over the River Avon.
Completed in 1805, Dundas Aqueduct is 137 metres long with three arches. We walked across it and down the steps to the river bank for the best view. It’s a grand imposing structure but has had its problems over the years. It spent much of the 1960s and 1970s drained dry due to leaks and has now been lined with polythene and concrete. Materials not available to the original builders!
It was another three miles to Avoncliff aqueduct. Three more miles of cyclists. Three very warm miles with empty water bottles. You can hardly blame us for another cafe stop. This time at the No 10 Tea Gardens, handily located alongside the aqueduct. I smiled inwardly as I watched a couple of teens revising for their GCSEs in the tea garden; well, their books were open but I think they were on a break.
Avoncliff Aqueduct was designed by John Rennie (who also designed Dundas Aqueduct). Not bad for a first attempt at an aqueduct, albeit the central span sagged soon after completion and had to be repaired several times. Where were the Romans when you need them?
I had a navigation ‘moment’ after leaving the tea room. Seriously, how can anyone get lost following a canal? Er, it’s quite easy if you end up on the road because you can’t find the canal path! (Hint, walk under the aqueduct). Navigation error aside the last couple of miles passed uneventfully. Still plenty of cyclists but this time along a broad track so plenty of room for all.
The very last section took us through Barton Farm Country Park. Not quite Bournemouth beach busy this time but it appeared very popular with family groups.
We reached Bradford-on-Avon late afternoon. I’ve only driven through the town before so thought we’d do a spot of sightseeing before taking the train back to Bath. But our cafe studded walk meant we arrived later than planned. And everywhere appeared shut. And we were hot and tired. So after a celebratory ice cream we headed straight to the railway station. Next time…
If you’re looking for an alternative route in Bath (without cyclists) head over to my Bath Skyline walk report.
The route from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon is approximately 10 miles. For further details on the Kennet and Avon Canal pop over to the Canal & River Trust website.