Our holiday explorations in and around Ardnamurchan, Lochaber

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?

Ardnamurchan Peninsula is a 50 mile square area of land, famous for its remoteness. We stayed in a neighbouring district, Sunart, and explored both the peninsula and surrounding areas. So what did we do?

Strontian, Sunart

This was the base for our stay. It’s about 12 miles from the Corran ferry, which itself is 6 miles from Fort William. The ferry, which runs every 20 minutes or so, only takes a few minutes to cross Loch Linnhe. But on the other side you feel like you’re a world away from the busy A82.

Corran ferry
Corran ferry

We found the village of Strontian an ideal holiday base. Located at the northern end of Loch Sunart, there’s a couple of shops, cafe, hotel and campsite. There’s even a police station but I cannot imagine they’re very busy!

View from Strontian
View from Strontian

We stayed in a wooden cabin at Sunart Camping. Although small it was cleverly designed and included a small kitchenette and toilet. It’s not luxurious but a definite step up from camping and the kids loved staying in a fairytale cabin.

Our wooden cabin at Sunart Camping
Our wooden cabin at Sunart Camping

Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide, Ardery

A few miles from Strontian, and overlooking Loch Sunart, this hide is evidently one of the best places in the country to see otters. That said, we visited on four occasions and still didn’t see an otter. Gorgeous sunsets though.

View from Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide
View from Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide

Aside from otters, you are near enough guaranteed to see seals and herons, both of whom live on the rocks opposite the hide. The seals can do a pretty good impersonation of an otter so they livened things up for us a couple of times. There’s a telescope but bring binoculars if you have them.

Drive to Ardnamurchan Point

Single track road on Ardnamurchan
Single track road on Ardnamurchan

A notice on the Strontian tourist office window states a driving time of 1 hour 30 minutes to cover the 35 miles from Strontian to Ardnamurchan Point. Hard to believe until you leave Strontian and discover it’s a single track road with passing places all the way to Ardnamurchan Point.

View of Ben Hiant and Camus Nan Geall
View of Ben Hiant and Camus Nan Geall

That said, it’s a fabulous drive. The road winds its way along the shore of Loch Sunart, curves around Ben Hiant and crosses an ancient volcanic landscape. It’s as spectacular as it sounds!

Ardnamurchan Point
Ardnamurchan Point

We stopped en route for morning coffee at the Ardnamurchan Natural History and Visitor Centre. Primarily a shop and cafe there’s also a small exhibition on the local wildlife. Golden eagle sightings appear to be common here. But I think they were off playing with the otters during our visit.

Ardnamurchan Lighthouse

Accessed via the most westerly set of traffic lights in mainland Britain Ardnamurchan Lighthouse is one of a handful of tourist attractions in Ardnamurchan (aside from the amazing scenery of course) so near enough everyone ends up here. There must have been at least ten cars in the car park.

Most westerly traffic lights on mainland Britain, Ardnamurchan lighthouse
Most westerly traffic lights on mainland Britain, Ardnamurchan lighthouse

The lighthouse was automated in 1988 and is operated remotely but visitors can climb both the tower and visit the slightly dated exhibition centre (check opening times first). We had a short wait before our lighthouse tour so temporarily retreated to the cafe to hide from the rain showers.

We worked off our cafe excesses with a climb up the 140 spiral stairs to the top of the lighthouse. Followed by another ten steps up a ladder. At the top we were treated to views out to the Small Isles, including Eigg which we visited a couple of years ago.

Ardnamurchan lighthouse
Ardnamurchan lighthouse

Ardnamurchan is one of the best places in the UK to see basking sharks and minke whales. The lighthouse guide pointed out a whale watching boat and we followed its course  in the hope of spotting whales, dolphins or porpoise. Anything really. Once again we were unlucky with our wildlife sightings. To add insult to injury our guide told us he’d recently watched an orca take a seal from the nearby colony, flip it in the air and eat it. Oh well, at least we saw the seals.

Walk from Portuairk to Sanna beaches

The weather had brightened by the time we left the lighthouse, which was fortunate as I had a walk planned.

Portuairk, Ardnamurchan
Portuairk, Ardnamurchan

Starting from the nearby crofting village of Portuairk we walked along the coast to the sandy beaches of Sanna.

Sanna beaches, Ardnamurchan
Sanna beaches, Ardnamurchan

You know those photographs which look like the Caribbean but were actually taken in Scotland? Well, this is where you’ll find some of those amazing beaches. And there’s hardly another person to be seen.

Beach at Sanna, Ardnamurchan Peninsula
Beach at Sanna, Ardnamurchan Peninsula

We walked as far as the car park at Sanna before returning to Portuairk via the same route. The beaches at Sanna are spectacular but be aware there are no facilities. No toilet, no cafe, no shop. Bring a picnic or stop off at the Ardnamurchan lighthouse cafe first.

Ariundle National Nature Reserve, near Strontian

The native oakwoods near Strontian offer a variety of easy walks. We followed the marked 3 mile Ariundle Trail which took us through the moss and lichen covered trees before we crossed the river and returned to Strontian.

Ariundle Trail, near Strontian
Ariundle Trail, near Strontian

In hindsight we should have walked the route anti-clockwise for the best views up the glen. But it was easy to turn round every few minutes to check out the mountain views behind.

Singing sands walk, near Kentra

This was an out and back walk of three distinct parts.

The first part of the walk follows a good track around the edge of a tidal mudflat.

Kentra Bay walk
Kentra Bay walk

The second stage took us though a rather eerie forestry plantation. We followed a large stony path through the middle, rather baffled at the seven foot wooden fence protecting one side. I later found out this was the location of a Channel 4 reality programme (Eden) where contestants spent a year living in the wilderness. Given the clouds of midges we encountered whenever we stopped to shelter from the rain I didn’t envy them in this location.

We finally reached the beach and the rain stopped sufficiently for a rainbow to form. There are, supposedly, otters on the beach but you can already guess we didn’t see any!

View from Singing Sands at Gortenfern
View from Singing Sands at Gortenfern

Castle Tioram, near Acharacle

Castle Tioram is a ruined castle on a tidal island. The castle itself is off limit to visitors as it’s awaiting restoration but we walked across the causeway for a closer look. We didn’t hang around as the weather was against us.

Castle Tioram
Castle Tioram

Fortunately we found a great tea room at nearby Acharacle. Perfect for drying off, eating cake and using Wi-Fi.

Despite the lack of wildlife (excluding midges) we loved our few days on Ardnamurchan. One of the highlights so far on my UK bucket list. And just for the record, we finally saw a golden eagle on our last afternoon!

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10 things our family enjoyed on the Isle of Anglesey

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.

1. Walking the Anglesey coastal path

This 200km path circles the coast and offers lots of walking opportunities. It’s a relatively gentle coastal path; whilst there are cliffs in the north we mainly walked beside heath, sand dunes and salt marshes.

Anglesey coastal path near Cemlyn
Anglesey coastal path near Cemlyn

Our favourite walks were along Aberffraw creek to the beach, a circuit around the northern end of Holy Island and an evening stroll to Llanddwyn along Newborough beach. Find out more about the stages and highlights on the Visit Anglesey website.

2. A behind the scenes tour at Halen Môn (Anglesey sea salt)

We spent an entertaining hour or so at Anglesey Sea Salt. We discovered how salt is harvested from the Menai Straits, processed and packaged in the onsite production facility.

Halen Môn salt tasting
Halen Môn salt tasting

Afterwards there’s an opportunity to sample table, rock and sea salts. You’re even given a handy little tin to take away your favourite; the smoked sea salt was to die for!

The tour is aimed at older children. If you’re travelling with youngsters Anglesea Sea Zoo (which we didn’t visit) is next door and might be a better option.

3. Spotting puffins on Puffin Island

Puffin island from Penmon Point, Anglesey
Puffin island from Penmon Point, Anglesey

Our boat trip with Seacoast Safaris took us out past Penmon Point lighthouse and around Puffin Island. The trip lasts around 90 minutes but is flexible to accommodate wildlife sightings. Our skipper tried to ensure both sides of the boat had equal viewing opportunities and was a mine of information about the area and its wildlife. Visitors usually see puffins between April to July but there are always plenty of other seabirds and seals to spot. We were even lucky enough to see porpoise – after we’d got off the boat in Beaumaris!

4. Watching the jets at RAF Valley

Hawk jet at RAF Valley, Anglesey
Hawk jet at RAF Valley, Anglesey

My son’s choice of activity; not an official tourist destination but very popular. The RAF station is used to train crew to fly fast jets and is also the base for RAF Mountain Rescue. There’s a public car park from where you can watch the pilots, usually flying Hawks, practise their take-off and landing skills. We watched for about 30 minutes or so; during this time we saw one take-off, a landing and a fly past. The take-off was the most exciting and is unbelievably noisy!

5. Visiting LlanfairPG

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Anglesey
Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Anglesey

There’s not much see once you’re here but how could we resist stopping off to take a photo of the longest place name in Europe?

6. Following the boardwalk through The Dingles, Llangefni

Easily accessed from Llangefni (once you find the right car park) this is a wooded valley with a boardwalk running through much of it. Visit in spring and you’ll be rewarded with swathes of bluebells.

Dingle nature reserve boardwalk, Llangefni, Anglesey
Dingle nature reserve boardwalk, Llangefni, Anglesey

My partner was lucky enough to see a red squirrel so keep your eyes peeled.

7. Watching the sunset at Newborough Beach

Brent geese flying from Newborough beach
Brent geese flying from Newborough beach

If you’ve seen my previous post about Newborough Beach and Llanddwyn Island you’ll know why I’m including it here. This is, in my opinion, the best beach on Anglesey. Just go!

8. Exploring the copper mine on Parys mountain, Amlwch

Once the largest copper mine in the world this is a fascinating place to visit.

Copper mine at Parys mountain, near Amlwch, Anglesey
Copper mine at Parys mountain, near Amlwch, Anglesey

We followed the shorter waymarked walk around the huge open cast mine. The rock colours are amazingly vibrant and the whole area feels completely alien to its surroundings. There’s no entrance charge or visitor facilities aside from some information boards. Be aware it’s in an exposed location so prepare to get windswept!

9. Watching birds at RSPB South Stack and visiting the lighthouse on Holy Island

Two attractions in one. Watch seabirds on the cliffs and then, if you’re feeling fit, walk the 400 steps down to the lighthouse. Remembering that you’ll need to climb up 400 on the way back. Alternatively just sit in the RSPB cafe and enjoy the views.

South Stack lighthouse, nr Holyhead
South Stack lighthouse, nr Holyhead

The lighthouse was closed during our visit so check opening times before you go. You wouldn’t want those steps to be in vain.

10. Eating a massive scone at the Wavecrest Cafe, Church Bay

If you fancy a cream tea on Anglesey you really must treat yourself to a super size scone at Wavecrest Cafe. Just look at it!

Wavescrest cafe, Church Bay
Wavescrest cafe, Church Bay

Afterwards head to the beach at Church Bay to run around and attempt to burn off the calories.

Have you been to Anglesey? If so, what were you favourite things to do?

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10 things to do in and around Hawes, North Yorkshire

I loved visiting the Yorkshire Dales last year. We stayed in the small market town of Hawes, which is a great base for a Yorkshire Dales holiday. There are several attractions in the town itself and there’s plenty to see in the local area. Read on for our suggestions:

1. Wensleydale Creamery

By far the best known attraction in Hawes is the Wensleydale Creamery, home of Wensleydale cheese. The centre offers cheese making demonstrations, a small museum and viewing gallery, cafe and shops. The creamery has a lot to thank Wallace and Gromit for; the animated duo helped increase production at a time when sales were slowing. Nowadays the creamery sells a cheese named after them, I bet it’s a popular choice for visitors.

Wensleydale creamery
Wensleydale creamery

The best part, for most visitors, is the cheese shop. It’s full of samples, even for those people who (dare I say this) don’t like Wensleydale cheese.

You can visit the cheese shop for free; a family ticket (2 adults and 2 children) to the museum and cheese making area costs £7.50.

2. Hardraw Force waterfall

Hardraw Force is England’s highest above ground single drop waterfall, with a plunge of 100 foot. It’s a short easy walk to the waterfall through the grounds of the Green Dragon Inn. We visited during a dry spell; I’d imagine it’s even more impressive after heavy rain.

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The waterfall is open daily from 10am. A family ticket (2 adults, 2 children) costs £7.50.

3. Hawes Ropemakers (Outhwaites)

Outhwaites Ltd, Ropemakers, Hawes
Outhwaites Ltd, Ropemakers, Hawes

Located in the town this traditional ropemaker is worth popping into for 20 minutes or so. It’s mesmerising standing in front of the machines watching rope being made. There are machines making braids of all thicknesses and lengths from church bell ropes to skipping ropes. And if you’ve got a dog, their leads are available to buy and very popular.

Entrance is free.

4. Sheepdog demonstration

Countryfile have resurrected “One man and his dog” over the last couple of years which may account for the popularity of this evening out.

Sheepdog demonstration, near Hawes
Sheepdog demonstration, near Hawes

Run by a local farmer, Richard Fawcett holds weekly demonstrations in a field just outside Hawes throughout the summer season.

Visitors are introduced to the dogs and watch them working the sheep. They make it look easy even if the sheep don’t always behave according to plan!

Check Richard’s website for details of upcoming dates and times. Tickets cost £5 for adults, £1 for children.

5. Dales Countryside Museum

The Dales Countryside Museum is a small local museum that focusses on the Yorkshire Dales and its people. Housed in the old railway station you’ll find exhibits ranging from Bronze Age spearheads to a Victorian smithy. Outside there are railway carriages with activities for younger children.

Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes
Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes

The Dales Countryside Museum is open daily except over the Christmas period and throughout January. Admission is £4.50 for adults, children are free.

6. Red squirrel spotting at Snaizeholme

First, an admission. We didn’t see any red squirrels because we didn’t actually make it to the squirrel viewpoint. Why? We made the mistake of randomly driving to the area shown on the Red Squirrel Trail map without arranging parking first. Don’t make the same mistake as us. Call in to the tourist information at Hawes to arrange parking before you go! Alternatively you can book the on-demand bus service from the Dales Countryside Museum.

Once you’ve conquered the transport there’s a 40 minute walk to the red squirrel viewing area where, hopefully you’ll be able to spot one.

7. Drive up Buttertubs Pass

Buttertubs Pass links Swaledale with Wensleydale and has the rather dubious accolade of being Jeremy Clarkson’s favourite road in the UK. I can understand why petrol heads might enjoy zooming around the twisty turns and bends but I decided on a more careful driving style.

Buttertubs Pass
Buttertubs Pass

We drove up on a misty and murky day. About halfway along there’s a small lay by to pull in and view the buttertubs; deep limestone potholes once used to store (you can probably guess) butter. Heading back towards Hawes the clouds cleared and we were treated to great views, and a very low flying helicopter!

8. Aysgill Force

We walked from Gayle Mill, along the beck to Aysgill Force. It’s about a mile or so to reach the 40 foot waterfall. Well worth the effort, although be prepared for mud and slippy sections if visiting after rain.

Aysgill Force, near Hawes
Aysgill Force, near Hawes

9. Gayle Mill

Gayle Mill is a restored 19th century sawmill with working machinery and water powered turbines.

The mill can only be visited on a guided tour but, if like us, you arrive at the wrong time you can always browse in the craft shop. Gayle Mill also offers heritage craft workshops with some great options such as making your own cartwheel (sadly rather pricey).

Gayle Mill, near Hawes
Gayle Mill, near Hawes

10. Explore the village

I’ve seen Hawes mentioned as a tourist honeypot but I think it manages to absorb visitors without harming the character of the town. It’s easy to spend an hour or two browsing the shops and stopping at one of the cafes. Although if you visit on a Bank Holiday weekend be prepared for hordes of motorcyclists, all apparently visiting for fish and chips!

I hope you’ve enjoyed these suggestions. If you’re looking for an active break in the Yorkshire Dales you might also enjoy reading about our Three Peaks walks and our trip down Gaping Gill pothole.

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2016: a year in review – my top 10

It’s almost time to say goodbye to 2016. What can I say? It’s been a mixed year. Huge political shake ups, continuing civil wars, the Rio Olympics and Paralympics and Planet Earth II.

Personally, there have been sad times and happy times. I’ve had some great adventures and ticked off a couple of long held ambitions. Focussing on the positives, and in no particular order, here are my top 10 of 2016:

1. Running the London marathon

The first three months of 2016 were spent pounding roads and muddy footpaths in preparation for running the London marathon. My once in a lifetime challenge.

Finished!
Finished!

The day itself was incredible and by far the most physically demanding thing I’ve done. There were tough parts (the last six miles), amazing parts (spectator support and running over Tower Bridge) and emotional parts (finishing). Would I do it again? No way! But I’m very glad to have completed it.

2. Walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks

View from Pen-y-ghent descent
View from Pen-y-ghent descent

We spent a week in the Yorkshire Dales and were blessed with ideal walking weather. Perfect for tackling the Yorkshire Three Peaks – Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside. Often walked as a day long charity challenge, we chose the easy option and spread them over three separate days.

3. Family backpacking adventures

Rest break near the gallops, Lambourn
Rest break near the gallops, Lambourn

I’ve cheated here and combined two trips into one. At the start of the year we decided the kids were old enough for backpacking. We bought a couple of lightweight tents and chose a couple of weekend routes close to home.

Swinford Lock camp fire, Eynsham
Swinford Lock camp fire, Eynsham

It wasn’t all plain sailing. I oversetimated the mileage we could comfortably walk on our Lambourn Valley Way weekend. And the weather was just a tad too warm on our Thames Path walk. But both weekends were fun, we rewarded ourselves with lovely meals out and made some great memories.

4. Going underground at Zip World Caverns, Blaenau Ffestiniog

My scary but exciting birthday present. Zip lining in caves, crawling through tunnels and scaling the side of the caverns. Are you brave enough to tackle Zip World Caverns?

Zip World Caverns training
Zip World Caverns training

5. Watching a Midsummer’s Night Dream, Creation Theatre, Oxford

“Quick, follow me. Walk in zigzags and blink your eyes really fast. Get in the van, hurry”. Think of Shakespeare and you don’t generally think of being bundled into a van in a public car park. Or taking part in an audition. Or popping into the printers to pick up wedding invites.

Part immersive performance, part treasure trail around Oxford this was an incredibly imaginative version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Creation Theatre. It was simply the best production I have ever seen.

6. Descending into Gaping Gill

Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent
Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent

This was an unplanned, but welcome addition, to our Yorkshire Dales holiday. After spotting an advert in a local cafe we siezed the opportunity to descend 100m by winch into Gaping Gill, a large pothole. We had to contend with an early start and a couple of hours queuing but it was worth the wait!

7. Finally finding a bee orchid. And then another. And another.

Bee orchid, Warburg nature reserve
Bee orchid, Warburg nature reserve

You know the saying about waiting for buses? Well this year I could have substituted the words ‘bee orchid’. I was so happy to find my first bee orchid at Warburg Nature Reserve, closely followed by several more discoveries. I even found one on a roadside verge whilst out on my lunchtime walk. How could I possibly have missed them in previous years?

8. Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim

Giant's Causeway
Giant’s Causeway

I’ve wanted to visit Giant’s Causeway for many years. It has been on my bucket list forever. With expectations so high, thank god it lived up to them!

9. Watching coypu at our campsite in France

Coypu at Milin de Kerhe campsite, Brittany
Coypu at Milin de Kerhe campsite, Brittany

Whilst on holiday in Brittany my favourite activity was watching a family of coypu living near our campsite. I’d head down to the river every evening, about half an hour before dusk, and wait patiently for them to appear. I was childishly excited at the first glimpse of the coypu each night, and even more so whenever the young appeared.

10. Starlings and moon rise at Otmoor

Moon from RSPB Otmoor
Moon from RSPB Otmoor

Over recent years we’ve made an annual pilgrimage to watch the starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor. This year, in addition to 40,000 starlings, we were treated to the most amazing moon rise. Two spectacular natural sights in one day!

What are my plans for 2017? We’re keeping things flexible at the moment but I have a very long UK bucket list which I’m hoping to make a dent in. How about you?

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