May 2014.

I've bought a campervan as a 60th birthday present to myself, made some curtains and a patchwork quilt, waved goodbye to my family, and set off. My aim is to explore the coastline of Britain, anti clockwise, starting in Kent. I have no idea what will happen.

Monday, 15 December 2014

From Devon into Dorset

I had a wonderful few days visiting Dartmouth and Dawlish where I stayed a night with my friend Knocker and saw the famous Dawlish black swans and met the team of orange railwaymen who have restored the line that was so devastated in February by the storms that hit the south coast. Massive sea defences were being put in place in case it ever happens again.
I looked in at Exmouth at teatime where beyond a vast shingle beach people come to windsurf after work, and from Budleigh Salterton to Lyme Regis and the Jurassic Coast. Cheyenne and her husband, wardens at the Pooh Cottage Campsite at Budleigh Salterton, had a wonderful trip, travelling around the coast of Britain like me but taking two years to do it. She recommended that I should see the quarry at Beer, where stone was quarried from Roman times until the 1920s. The enchanting village of Beer is on my list of ‘places I’d like to go back to for a weekend’.
Chesil Beach
The Jurassic Coast is an incredible 95-mile stretch of 180 million years of geology that starts near Exmouth and ends at Swanage. I visited Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door and plan to visit again, maybe in February when they won’t be so crowded. Golden Cap near Charmouth is the highest point along the south coast and well worth the climb for the views, and maybe the best view I had of Chesil Beach was from the top of the Isle of Portland. The Swannery at Abbotsbury is another must, and I was there to take a full part in teatime (feeding time is at 12 noon and 4pm) which I loved. 
Feeding time at The Swannery
This entire stretch of coastline is such a wonder and, after all its wild geology, I thought Poole Harbour sounded a bit tame, somewhere I would ‘tick off’. I headed for the quay and saw the glitziest array of gin palaces bobbing in the water. They must be a rich lot in Poole, I thought, until I realized I was looking at the parking lot for Sunseeker which has its HQ here. I got on a more modest vessel for a tour of the harbour and to see Brownsea Island which is run by the National Trust and was another delightful surprise. Lord Baden-Powell brought his first ever band of Scouts to camp here and it is home to a rare colony of red squirrels.
Poole Harbour
The boat came back past Sandbanks and the helpful skipper, giving his commentary, said: “The middle one of those houses over there belongs to Harry Rednap. He doesn’t much like us pointing that out! And the one next to it has just been sold for £9million.” And when he said ‘next to it',  they really are close together. I would expect something more secluded for my £9million!

Monday, 17 November 2014

South Devon

I have been off air because I have had a spell at home. The weather has turned and the clocks gone back and I have been moving along the south coast in fits and starts. I had great weather along the Devon coast: it was so beautiful, the sun shining and the horizon indiscernible between the blue of the sky and the sea. The village of Aveton Gifford, close to where I met the swan man, is charmingly Devonian – I half expected to see Miss Marple come strutting round the corner.
From there the road to Hope Cove leads down to a sweet narrow bay with two beaches protected by a headland called Bolt Tail. In the village shop I bumped into the people from Poole I'd had coffee with at Burgh Island who, like me, felt the urge for an icecream. (This is an urge I have had for too often as I have driven around Britain – it has become a problem!)
The Kingsbridge estuary, Salcombe
There is a carpark above Salcombe but I had been advised that I would probably be able to get into the small one in the centre of town and that it was opposite a pub with wifi. That was all true, it's right by the water, and I had to shoe-horn Baa into a tiny space next to another campervan. I walked around the town which is lovely and has a large water frontage up the west side of the large Kingsbridge estuary. I just caught the end of the holiday season – mainly 'seniors' and young couples with toddlers.
Salcombe is very middle class - women with loud voices talking to men in shorts the colour of bricks - and shops like the Salcombe Coffee Co, White Stuff, Fat Face, Jack Wills - they're all there!
When I came back to collect my laptop from Baa I was alarmed to see that the camper I had hemmed in had a disabled badge in the windscreen, but by then Baa was hemmed in on the other side. I went to have tea in the pub and use the wifi... and when I came back an hour later, the camper next to Baa had gone. I did some nifty reversing in order to extricate myself and a woman waiting for the space (at a safe distance) congratulated me on my efforts!
Blackpool Sands, South Devon
I was heading for Dartmouth and had a wonderful drive alongside Slapton Sands. It's a stunning stretch of coast – apricot sand with clefts in the cliffside dropping down to sandy coves - a lovely beach called Blackpool and the prettiest Devon village called Stoke Fleming.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Burgh Island

When Jane left from Plymouth I decided to head for Bigbury-on-Sea. I found the campsite on a hill above the village, looking across the water to Burgh Island. The Burgh Island Hotel, ultra art deco and gleaming white in the late afternoon sun, was built in 1929 and was popular with Agatha Christie and Noel Coward and other such luminaries in the 1930s and 40s. Today (the website tells me) it is popular for weddings and parties and themed events for people who like pearls and cocktails, nostalgia and comfort.
Back to that other iconic, white place to stay .. Baa wasn't in quite such romantic and sophisticated surroundings. The campsite was in a great position and had (very) basic loos and showers. There were three other campervans, and two caravans and I parked next to an elderly combine harvester. There had either been a hell of a party the night before or the dustmen were on strike, but either way the wheelie bins were groaning under the weight of bottles and beercans.
Burgh Island Hotel from the campsite
The charming farmer came in the morning to be paid and said the hotel isn't open to non-residents which was a shame, as I wanted to do a recce for Fiona – and because I'm interested. Fiona sent the hotel an email.
The tide was low and I walked across (when it's higher a tractor with huge wheels takes guests over). I had coffee with four very nice people from Poole Harbour at The Pelican Inn which is owned by the hotel and at the bottom of its drive. We watched black RangeRovers chauffeuring guests to and fro through the electric gates and down across the causeway, and it felt very Dickensian! I got through the gates behind one of the cars and the lobby was full of hung-over thirty-somethings checking out after a wedding the day before, so the fearsome manageress had her hands full. I was just able to ascertain that she hadn't received an email from Fiona, so I got no further and can only say that the lobby is spacious, art deco and has a navy blue carpet.
I drove from Bigbury to Hope Cove along a 'tidal road' which crosses the Avon above Aveton Gifford. The estuary was crowded with birds: Canada Geese, Mallard, Widgeon, gulls and White Egret. I parked to watch them near a man binoculars. He had a mane of unkempt hair and the smiliest brown face with bright blue eyes shining out of it.. and he loves those swans! He said Timothy White and Rosalind had two cygnets (probably the foxes got to the eggs) and how Timothy fought with Toby who, with wife Janet, has five cygnets. He knew most of their names. The biggest hazard is foxes – and mink. Rosalind had a nasty puncture wound where her leg attaches at the back – probably due to a fox - so he made a mash of organic oats, Ribena and vitamin c and she's right as rain now.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

South-east Cornwall

Jane joined me for a sisterly nostalgia trip along 'our patch' of Cornwall, the south-east. She was born in Ivy Cottage, Wilcove next to Torpoint where the chain ferry crosses to Plymouth - you can't get much further east in Cornwall. Our father was a Royal Marine in 42 Commando at Bickleigh Barracks near Plymouth, and our parents bought Ivy Cottage in 1949 from the Antony Estate.
The Gunnera at Trebah
We started at Trebah Gardens on the Helford River which is owned by the Hibbert Family who we were at school with. It is a beautiful garden, sub-tropical and with a private beach on the Helford River. There are magnolias, camellias etc earlier in the year, and we had the hydrangeas and the incredible gunnera. There are spectacular trees whatever time you go, and the garden is open all year round.
It was dark and very foggy by the time we got to Fowey and we couldn't find the campsite we had chosen from my book. Diana, the satnav, took us to a petrol station and the man there said it was always happening, he shared a postcode with the campsite half a mile up the road.
After breakfast we headed for Fowey. This is real Daphne du Maurier country; during the war she rented a house near here called Menabilly which was such an inspiration for her writing. The town is crowded round the most beautiful natural harbour. Among the sailing boats, large ships come up, turn round and are towed to the docks round the bend in the river to collect cargos of china clay. 
Looe Harbour
The Looe Music Festival was in full swing, the streets thronging with people, brightly dressed, pushing buggies and eating – fish and chips, hot dogs and burgers. It was very summery and colourful and it's hard to imagine what these narrow streets were like when Looe was hit by storms and flooding in the winter.
We drove through Downderry and Crafthole towards Whitsand Bay. The roads, and the lanes leading off them, reminded me of my Baa wishlist – 'the van mustn't be too big, and be easy to drive down narrow Cornish lanes'. These roads are so Cornish: wooded either side with oak, beech and hornbeam, curling branches meeting above the road, forming dark, green tunnels, rivers and streams running below. After Crafthole the road to the Rame Peninsular is high and clear with open fields of wheat and pasture.
Whitsand and the chalets at Freathy
We turned right at Tregantle Fort which was built in 1865 to repel the French. There are still firing ranges here which slope sharply down to Whitsand Bay, and then we came round a corner and were suddenly surrounded by handsome young men jogging along the verge and peeling off their wetsuits. Surfers park their cars on the clifftop and climb down to the beach, and we met them as they returned – like Mapp and Lucia suddenly finding themselves on the set of a Rip Curl promotion!
On towards Rame Head, past Freathy, the clifftop is peppered with little cabins with the most stunning views out to sea, which were originally built to house people evacuated from Plymouth during the War. Most of them have been rebuilt and look very chic but planners restricted them to the same footprint and height.
Our home for the night and The View behind
The View, is a wonderful restaurant in something not much bigger than those modest cabins - but the food there is anything but! We first came here last year when the family came to scatter Mummy's ashes at Portwrinkle, and Jane and I decided to treat ourselves again. The joy of Baa is that we parked in a layby hard up against the cliff, and walked to dinner.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Helford to St Mawes

William joined me to explore at a friend, Clare Latimer's house by the Helford River. Clare has lived down here for much of her life and knows all about it. We had lunch in the Shipwright's Arms in Helford and then Will and I set off for Marazion and St Michael's Mount.  The castle is still home to the St Aubyn family but the Mount is owned and run by the National Trust.
St Michael's Mount
We saw it – so beautiful - in the evening light, too late to cross (by foot at low tide and by boat at others times) and I am glad we did see it then because the next day was dull. No matter, we had other fish to fry – pan fry.
Will is a chef and I have to say that the two suppers I had with him surpassed my previous best – crab starter followed by salt marsh lamb in Kent with Fiona. We were too late for the fish stalls so bought dover sole, and wonderful Cornish butter for the beurre blanc sauce, in a supermarket in Penzance.
Will preparing supper
We stayed on a piece of scrub land near Newlyn in a strong wind, with the sea banging and crashing beside us. Expletives from the kitchen (one metre away) from where I sat when chef realised the fish hadn't been scaled, so he went out into the wind with the (only) kitchen knife and transferred the scales from the fish to the back bumper! They and the sauce were utterly delicious.
 Next day we wandered around Newlyn Harbour. Will was intrigued by a decrepit fishing boat lying in the water at a worrying angle beside the harbour wall, its heavy cables now very rusty. A mechanic for Stevensons Fish said the boat had been working 5 years ago but the man who owned it became ill and stopped work, and the boat had sprung a plank and now it was beyond repair... Commercial boats have to work 12m+ out to sea (more often 30 – 100m) out and that the EC can dictate what is being over-fished. Fishermen can't help catching a fish they aren't meant to catch, and have to throw them (dead) back, and aren't allowed to give them away or sell them for charity.. Ridiculous. 

We bought crab for lunch and hake for supper at the Stevensons shop on the quay before our visit to St Michael's Mount. It is a real gem of a place, where a fairytale castle sitting on top of a vast chunk of granite in the bay. Visitors can walk round the castle and the garden and see wonderful views back to Penzance, Newlyn and The Lizard.
I met Phineas on the King Harry Ferry
The King Harry Ferry crosses the River Fal, avoiding driving miles up to Truro and down the other side to St Mawes on the Roseland Peninsular. St Mawes is a dreamy place, once a fishing port, with its castle built in the time of Henry VIII to defend our coast from the French and Spanish. We had tea watching the most lovely boat (I have since heard her name is Agnes, and she's a 46ft Pilot Cutter) sailing in the estuary, and an elderly man swimming strongly against the tide.

Tea at St Mawes
Will's last night in Baa was at a campsite outside Mevagissey. I bet few of the other campers had such good hake with caper sauce!  Will suggested an early morning swim and, having torn his boxers on the door handled, reached the water a bit quicker than me! After our excellent sauces there was just about enough of that Rhodda butter left two pieces of toast.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Tin mines

I stayed at a campsite close to Botallack, west of Pendeen, and walked in the morning to the Botallack Mines - or the Crown Mines as they are sometimes called. These are the most iconic and much photographed Cornish tin mines because they are beautifully poised on the side of the cliff.

Botallack Mines

It was a bright, sunny day and I walked through small fields, all irregular sizes and uneven ground, with coarse thistley grass, and with hefty stone walls wide enough to run along, their sides thick with grass and brambles. The land feels lost in time, remote and poor, even though the odd incomers have done up a few nice old farmhouses.
I walked on about a mile to the east to the Levant Mine, passing the hollowed out brick carcasses of other ruined mines with their tall, round chimneys.
The Levant Mine, opened in 1820, first mined copper, and then tin. It closed in 1930 and is now owned by the National Trust.
The stone steps are just visible on the left
The entry to the mine, when it first opened, was via a cleft in the side of the cliff. The men had to climb down steep, slippery stone steps to get to the face of the mine,1500ft below. It took them an hour and a half to get down there before they could start work, and they'd probably walked 4m from St Just to get there. As the mine developed the face went down to 1800ft, and two miles out to sea. I can't imagine how hard it must have been, hacking into the rock; it's very hot that far under the sea, and the air was very thin. At the end of their shift they had to walk back up those steps, and home again. It isn't surprising that their working lives on the face were short: maybe from age 14 to 30 - but it probably didn't feel so short to them.
After some years the mine owners decided that the walk down the steps wasted too many man hours. Cages pulled up and down the very narrow shaft by steam engines could only carry four men and they were slow. So in the late 1800s the mine owners installed an engine which carried men, two at a time, on narrow platforms. Ledges were set into the side of the shaft at 12ft intervals, and as the engine lifted the men they would step off one platform and on to a ledge; then on to the next platform as it came up. Is that clear?! It meant that when a shift changed men were coming out of the top of the shaft every seven seconds.
Disaster struck on 20 October 1919. Men coming out of the top of the shaft noticed that no one was getting out behind them, so they ran back to see what had happened. The engine had collapsed and fallen half way down the shaft. More than 30 men died and many more were injured. It was the worst Cornish mining disaster in history.

I felt so moved by the whole area – the beauty of it, and the tough life of the people who lived there. I think it was seeing the old mines, once such powerful, busy places employing hundreds of men, that made it so evocative.

Monday, 6 October 2014

St Ives

St Ives Bay is a vast sweep of sand with St Ives at the south end and, on the northern tip the lighthouse at Godrevy Point is said to have been Virginia Woolf's inspiration for her book To The Lighthouse.
Godrevy Point
Hayle sits on the estuary of the Hayle River in the centre of the bay. In the early part of the 19th century Hayle was at the heart of the Cornish mining industry where rail and tramways converged from the outlying mining areas. Two of the largest foundries were here and it was the centre for steam engine engineering. But the tin mining industry declined rapidly between the Wars and Hayle's fortunes  spiralled downwards.
But things are looking up. I talked to the Harbour Master who told me ING Investment bought the Hayle harbour in 2004. The North Quay has been developed and is now used by 30 fishing boats and many leisure craft, though a sandbar at the mouth of the navigable part of the river makes this a tricky place to get in and out of. A protection zone has been established around a patch of a rare weed called Petalwort at Middle Weir, but a large superstore is being built on the South Quay.
I left Baa at St Erth and caught the train that goes around the bay to St Ives. You don't want a car in St Ives and everything is in walking distance. I walked around the narrow streets in the sunshine, along with hundreds of tourists even though it was mid-September. I love the Barbara Hepworth collection of sculptures in her garden in the centre of town and walked from there through the crowds past pretty little lanees and alleyways, the tea shops and pasty shops to the Tate.
Barbara Hepworth's garden
The scenery on the drive west from St Ives changes suddenly to moorland. On the advice of the Harbour Master at Hayle I was heading for the Levant Mine near Pendeen. The road passes brackeny hills with grazing sheep, small farms with pretty stone farmhouses, and the occasional B&B. The vast open expanses that lead to the sea are peppered with the ruins of old tin-mines with their circular chimneys. The beaches are still wonderful but this feels completely different to the holiday and surfing destinations that I have been through.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014


I left Baa in a carpark in the middle of Tintagel and set off to see the sites. There is a charming Old Post Office dating back to late 1300s which is owned by the National Trust. It was a Medieval hall house, and then a post office in Victorian times, with low ceilings and narrow stairs, and furniture and chattels dating back to the 16thC. I'm glad I went early because when I walked past a couple of hours later there were Japanese tourists queuing round the block.
I walked a little way out of the village to St Materiana, the parish church of Tintagel, dating back to 1080, though there was something even older there before. It's Grade I listed and utterly beautiful, sitting close to the coast, and another short coastal walk from the medieval Castle, said to be home to King Arthur. Merlin, his mentor, is supposed to have lived in a cave on the beach below. It is a is a real meeting of history and myth - the site of the castle goes back to Roman times, and no one really knows the truth about King Arthur .. or if he was born there.
Tintagel Castle
It's a fascinating place, with different courtyards spreading across part of the mainland, and all over a little island which is reached by a bridge.
When I got back to the village I stopped to eat a pasty for lunch in the sun with my newspaper. The most surreal thing happened... I was reading an article by Janet Street-Porter as I was biting into my pasty, (I quote..) “Last weekend in Cornwall, I stopped at a deli in Tintagel to eat a pasty, and gawped at the procession of fatties, waddling along the main street licking ice creams and gobbling chips...” It was the start of a diatribe about obesity in this country... and she had a point, most people who passed by were overweight, and most of them were eating! I ordered an ice cream and left...
After all the crowds in Tintagel I couldn't bring myself to face more people in Port Isaac. It's a no-car village and I would've like to see where Doc Martin treats the sick, but I decided to move on.
Just along the coast is the charming narrow bay of Port Quin, and I wish I had been organised enough to walk there from Port Isaac... it's only 2 or 3 miles along the cliff path, but there's always the problem of getting back to the van. I sat on the small narrow beach, the tide was out and a couple of people were swimming, and talked to a nice woman from Wadebridge who had moved down from Tunbridge Wells.
Port Quin
Sadly it was a closed day at Prideaux Place a beautiful 17thC house just outside Padstow which I have put on my 'next time' list. It is where a lot of Rosamunde Pilcher's stories have been filmed and, as she is immensely popular in Germany, that's probably another reason why this stretch of coast is so popular with Germans. There are any number of wonderful places to eat in Padstow and it has great charm, sitting on the side of the Camel estuary. It is also home to the National Lobster Hatchery which was also shut when I got there – it was after 6.30pm, that's why. I got poor Baa wedged in a parking space and, after the unfortunate Bude incident, took ages to get her out.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014


The Cornwall coast north of Padstow was all new to me and I liked Bude. It feels a bit more of a place than some of the popular seaside resorts, like people actually live there and go to work and aren't just there on holiday.
I arrived in the evening and went to a campsite south of the town overlooking Widemouth (Widm'th) Bay with laundry facilities. There weren't many campers there, but a man with a motorbike and a tent sat in a canvas chair looking out to sea as the sun was setting. The next morning he was there again (had he been there all night?) but in the time it took me to have my breakfast and gather my laundry, he had upped and gone, with his tent on his back.
The reception smelled of cats, and the washing machines were pretty decrepit (one was full of sand) but I got the washing done and partially dry, before I hung it around the van (from the skylight bar and the shelves at the sides) to air, before I set off to explore.
Bude has three beaches, Widemouth, Summerleaze and Crooklets, and a good heritage centre at The Castle which tells about Bude's maritime history and the canal which was built in the early part of the 19thC to transport the mineral rich sand from the coast around Bude to the poor agricultural hinterland behind it.
I had read about a hotel near the canal called The Beach which has an Ottolenghi-trained chef – and I love Ottolenghi food. This was to be research for another time – this trip doesn't warrant me buying myself expensive lunches – but the website almost put me off (the term Boutique Hotel is enough to do it).
I saw the hotel, sitting up high and looking out over Summerleaze Beach, and headed for the nearby carpark – but I couldn't find a space. It was as I turned to get out of the carpark, peering past all the laundry, that I drove very slowly into a park car. Damn! There wasn't a scratch on Baa, but there was a little one, and a dent, in the side of the silver Mazda. I confess I did consider letting in the the clutch and fleeing the crime scene, but only for a moment. I left a note with my number and have been in touch ever since with Matt from Sutton Coldfield about the cost of repairs.
Finally I got to The Beach, and it is nice: modern and sunny, looking out over Summerleaze Beach. I had a drink and tagged on to their wifi, and would like to return as the menu looked excellent.
Boscastle is the most enchanting village at the end of the Valency Valley with a natural winding outlet to the sea and an Elizabethan harbour. The white wonky cottages with their uneven roofs and slate porches line the street, punctuated with quirky little shops and tearooms. This was the place that suffered the most fearful storm 10 years ago when a flood the equivalent of the Thames rushed through the village in the space of about six hours. It now looks the picture of tranquility. Thousands of tourists love it visit Boscastle and, even after the end of the school holidays, the place was packed. I visited The Museum of Witchcraft – a leader in its field, being so close to Tintagel and all things magical – and I hated it. I don't know quite why it had such a negative effect on me, but I suspect that I must have been a condemned witch in another life.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Clovelly and Hartland

St Beuno's Church, Culbone

Sam and Harry from the AA came promptly at 8.30am, to drain Baa's fuel tank, etc. They were as nice as Jason and, though it was an expensive mistake, it wasn't fatal. “Oh we'll get this old thing right in no time. It's the modern ones that are difficult...” ! Baa was no trouble and in an hour we were heading back towards Porlock via the toll road which avoids the hill. Wonderful as Jason had been carrying us up Porlock Hill, I didn't want to call him out again.
The walk to Culbone Church, above Porlock Weir was more than we'd bargained for – 2 hours instead of 40 minutes - but well worth the climb. St Beuno's is the most enchanting church, inaccessible by road, and said to be the smallest church in England. Its origins are Anglo-Saxon and it retains adorable and tiny box pews.
Ilfracombe Harbour
We went via Ilfracombe and were so exhausted when we got to the campsite in Woolacombe with its bars, nightclubs and karaoke that I am afraid we didn't see any of it!
Nick and Alf left from Barnstaple the next day and I wasn't sure where I was headed. I rang a campsite at Stoke, and asked if they had wifi. No, she said, but they've got it in the pub down the road at Hartland Quay. That was such a revelation! Hartland Quay is just that – a quay (or what remains of it), with a hotel and a pub, and a carpark. The pub was doing a roaring trade at 6.30 with walkers coming in from the coastal path.
Opposite the campsite, the parish church of Hartland, St Nectan's, is huge and indicates just what a community there must have been here in the 17th and 18th centuries. Hartland Quay was a very busy place, with ships carrying lime, coal and slate coming in from the Bristol Channel and cargos of grain etc going out.
Next day I walked across from the campsite to join the coastal path (the more challenging stretch is south towards Bude) and the views are extraordinary up and down the coast with headlands sticking out like a row of beasts with their heads in the cliff, wonderfully contorted rock formations and sandy beaches appear when the tide is out. When I was there the sun was shining and the sky was blue as I walked along, but when Hartland Quay was a thriving port, many ships floundered on this dangerous coast.
The street in Clovelly
Clovelly is an absolutely adorable no-car village with a steeply cobbled path that leads down to the little harbour from a carpark at the top. It was bustling with tourists, and many Germans, because the owners of Clovelly have connections there. In days gone by all goods were carried up and down to the village by donkeys and there are still donkeys there now giving rides – unfortunately only to children. My mistake was wearing my Vivobarefoot shoes. They are designed to reawaken your feet and make every bone do its bit as you walk along - by having soles as thin as blotting paper. Not good on cobbles and I felt every one!

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

North Somerset

Nick and Alfie joined me at Weston-Super-Mare for three days. We didn't stop long there – it is a popular seaside resort with a large pier, recently restored after a massive fire in 2008.
Julie on Burrow Mump
We went to the Somerset Levels to where the worst of last winter's west country flooding had been. At Burrowbridge we walked up Burrow Mump, a small hill with the remains of a Saxon church on top which now shelters sheep from the weather. Nine months ago the Mump stood like an island, totally surrounded by water, but today it looks green and peaceful. The only evidence of the floods was a team of workmen dredging the River Parrett.
An american woman called Julie walked up the hill with us; she had a backpack and had walked from Glastonbury. That's a good walk isn't it? I said. She smiled, and shrugged. (I looked it up, it's 10m.) Where did you start your walk? Gt Yarmouth! Crikey, how far can that be? She shrugged again, (it's more than 200m) and said she didn't count miles, but was heading for Land's End.
We bought Scrumpy from a lady called Jeanette at West Lynn. She offered dry, and medium, and Nick said he liked dry cider. “It's pretty dry!” she warned, and gave us samples of both to try. The dry felt like it would rip the enamel off your teeth, so we went for the medium - which was still pretty dry. Nick pronounced it excellent, and I had mine 50:50 with apple juice!
Alf having an ice-cream
We visited Dunster Castle, run by the National Trust now but the family home of the Luttrell family. It's Saxon, but greatly refurbished, mostly in the 19thC, and definitely worth a visit. Alfie had his tea, a walk in the park and an icecream – we were having a lovely day out. Then to Minehead – Nick thought Butlins looked a bit like Lord's Cricket Ground - and to refuel. I stopped to take a photograph across the bay and we set off for a campsite near Lynton. Baa spluttered a bit.. “You did put in diesel, didn't you?” No, he had not!
I stopped there and then in Park Road, opposite the optician and two funeral parlours, and rang the AA. We sat for nearly 3 hours, getting angry looks from passing motorists, and quizzical looks from pedestrians - particularly when I started cooking lamb chops for supper. The recovery truck arrived, on cue at 9.05pm.
Jason, a huge man with metal hanging all round his ear like a gaoler's keyring, was a real gem. He took such care hauling Baa onto his low loader, knowing she has vulnerable pipes and taps underneath, and Nick, Alf and I got into the cab. Jason's powerful Mercedes engine had no trouble climbing Porlock Hill, as he regaled us with tales of how many caravans he had rescued from each bend. “People set off up here, not realising how steep and long it is, and then they slither backwards, jack-knife, burn their clutches out..”
Bar getting on the recovery vehicle
(Be warned campers, Porlock Hill climbs 1,300ft in two miles.)
When we got up to the top, the full moon shone over Exmoor and we could see sheep and ponies grazing, and the play area where Jason and his wife liked to bring the grand-children. Bar was safe (unscarred by the overhanging trees) and all lit up behind us! We got to the campsite at 11pm and Jason rolled Baa carefully onto her pitch to await the AA the following day. Thank you Jason.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Cardiff Bay

Cardiff has recently been voted the best place for young people to live in Britain, and I know where those you people will be heading. But I went first to Barry Island just to get a flavour of Gavin & Stacey. Apparently Stacey's home is on the market, but I didn't see it. The bay is wonderful and I walked the path round the headland watching a class of surfers charging into the sea. There is an amusement arcade on the front “Nyssa’s Slots.. come and see what's occurring!” and things went downhill from there.
Surfers off Barry Island!
I stayed in Penarth, a comfortable suburb of Cardiff. The large and expensive-looking Victorian houses of Marine Parade show that Penarth has long been a good address around here. But I am sure that it is to the massive new marina and housing development that those young professionals choose to live; it looked pretty classy. Beyond the development, at Penarth Head it is possible to park and walk the 1.1k across the barrage to the Queen Alexandra Dock on the north side.
The barrage is like a massive lock gate which keeps the level of Cardiff Bay constant.
The Barrage at Cardiff Bay
Costing in excess of £200m, it was completed in 1999, and is the single most important factor in the regeneration of Cardiff. Before the barrage the bay was smelly, and tidal, so that at low tide the large mud flats were hideous, littered with rubbish and rusty supermarket trolleys.
Cardiff Bay
Today it is a freshwater harbour, the water's edge lined with shops, restaurants, smart offices and wine bars. I aimed for the warm copper shell of the Millennium Building, Cardiff's arts centre, and parked behind The St David's Hotel. I joined a harbour tour with a nice family who farm near Liskeard and Chris, our skipper, explained how the barrage works and how it keeps the salt water from the Bristol Channel out of the harbour. He said the St David's Hotel was where the NATO delegates stayed, and that the roof had been crawling with snipers – none when I looked. He said that security had been so tight over the conference that all the manhole covers in Cardiff had been lifted and sealed. The Bay certainly looks wonderful now and is the focus of the city – I can understand why all those young things want to live there.  

The Gower Peninsular

The sun was shining behind a heavy haze which covered the whole of the Gower Peninsular when I was there.
I headed for the village of Mumbles where party people on a Saturday night used to gather, and stagger, down the Mumbles Mile having a drink in all of the (20+) bars and pubs between the White Rose Pub at one end and the pier at the other. Now, I understand, somewhere called Wind ('Wined') Street in Swansea city centre has taken over as the go-to destination for Stags, Hens and drunken revellers, and relative peace has been restored to Mumbles. I thought it was nice, and villagey, with its huge beach looking out over Swansea Bay.
I wiggled all around the houses getting from Mumbles to Rhosilli which is the biggest (three mile) surf beach. I stopped to see beautiful Oxwich Bay on the southern side of The Gower, and kept going west. The peninsular has many densely populated villages – all feeling quite comfortable and prosperous - with great expanses of countryside between them. I found a campsite at Pitton near Rhossili at about 6.30pm and walked for half an hour, up Rhossili Hill, thinking I would see the bay. But I didn't.. so I walked back to the campsite.
Next day I set out to walk for half an hour or so before breakfast. I headed for the coast (south) and then east towards Rhossili. It was almost two hours before I got to Worms Head, a rocky promontory with a rocky causeway which is only exposed at low tide, on the south side of Rhossili Bay. I had no money on me and was starving!
Rhossili Bay
It is difficult to describe one vast and wonderful beach after another, when I have seen so many fantastic stretches of coast... but Rhossili, facing due west into the Bristol Channel, deserves all the adjectives that are thrown at it. Surfers, I am sure would explain why they find it so good... It took me half an hour to walk back by the road.
Here is a little Welsh joke... I got confused between Penarth and Penclawdd.. It isn't a great joke (it's just that they sound similar in Welsh, dd being th) but Penarth is an up-market suburb of Cardiff, while
Very distant cockle-pickers
Penclawdd is a place where hard-working cockle-pickers have scratched a living from the beds far out to sea, getting up at all hours depending on the tide.
Just before I was there the BBC re-ran part of a programme Derek Cooper made years ago about the Penclawdd cockle-pickers, and he talked to a wonderful Welsh lady and ate her cockle-pie and laverbread - and didn't enjoy the latter much. I felt I must go. Originally horses were used to bring in the cockles – they have to go miles out at low tide – and now they use tractors. But sadly by the time I had found the track that leads out to the cocklebeds the pickers were on their way back in.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

St David's

Anna joined me to visit St David's and we weren't quite so lucky with the weather. We had rung in advance to book a boat trip to see dolphins, seals and puffins on Ramsay Island (4.30pm) for an hour. This meant we could just make it to choral evensong at the Cathedral at 6.00pm; perhaps it was cutting it a bit fine. By the time we had made it to the quay at St Justinians the weather had started to blow up. We were put in three teams of eight, and issued with lifejackets, and still the three boats we were meant to be boarding hadn't got back from the previous trip. We looked like being late for church: never mind, if we were a few minutes late, we'd sneak in the back. But by 5pm when our boat was still not in and we were advised move to a safer part of the quay for boarding... we began to feel less and less inclined to go to Ramsay Island. Then the decision was made for us as the trip was cancelled, so we hurried back to Baa and headed for St David's Cathedral with time to spare. It is the most beautiful Mediaeval cathedral tucked into a dip between the town and the coast. There was a monastery on this site in 600ad founded by a monk called David who spread christianity in the region and attracted pilgrims from all over the world. Today the cathedral is largely Norman, quite small, and simple inside, with leaning arches and a pronounced slope to the floor in the nave.
It was a good thing that we weren't late, because evensong took place in the quire with the visiting choir from Solihull slightly outnumbering the congregation. They sounded wonderful, and was exciting to be near enough to hear individual voices, see their concentration, and their mismatched socks. The choirmaster had a fearsome way of eyeballing the younger members whose concentration wavered. There were two boys of about seven, one of whom had a very earnest mother who crouched beside him and encouraged him with great fervour.
We were booked into a campsite at Newgale, south of St David's, which we never found, and so ended up at another one which was on the side of a very windy hill, with a distant loo block and a cold tap, no shower. We had a good supper with the wind lashing around the hill and Anna, who is used to more comfortable accommodation than Baa, let alone sleeping at an angle, made no complaints!
Milford Haven appearing in the mist
The next day we went to Dale, a tiny and sweet little village opposite Milford Haven. At first the mist was so thick we couldn't see beyond the boats anchored in the bay, but by the time we'd had a cup of coffee it had started to lift and we could see the tankers and the gas terminals appearing through the fog – they really looked rather lovely! And by the afternoon the mist had gone and we walked along a section of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path at Freshwater West, before heading for lovely Tenby.

The north Pembrokeshire coast


I spent two days with my friend Trish near Fishguard at Newport - not to be confused with the NATO Summit Newport on the M4. This one has a wonderful beach, busy with fishing and sailing and the narrow channel up to the river goes past Trish's house. It is easy to spend the day watching the boats and the surfers, and the tide go in and out.. But after an hour mackerel fishing Trish took me on a little tour.
We first went to see the Strumble Head Lighthouse on a little island just off the coast. It was beautiful and calm with sheep grazing happily on the gentle slopes that lead down to the sea. It's hard to remember on a day like that what a notoriously dangerous bit of coast this is when the weather turns bad.
Strumble Head Lighthouse
We went on to Llanwnda and parked, to see where what is referred to as “the last invasion of Britain” took place in 1797. 1,400 Frenchmen came ashore here at Carregwasted Head (and that must have been quite a feat in itself) in support of Irish Republicans. The landing in Wales and another near Newcastle were diversionary tactics to the main attack which landed in Ireland. The men who came to Wales were a rough lot, chiefly convicts and “irregulars”, and the invasion soon turned into chaos when they all got drunk and set fire to the church. It ended a few days later on 23 February at The Battle of Fishguard, where the British were victorious.
Up the road from Newport Nevern is a pretty village with a Norman church, St Brynach, with a “bleeding Yew” in the churchyard. There's a Pilgrim's Cross nearby where people came to pray on their way to St David's Cathedral 30 miles further west. Pilgrims came from miles around in the Middle Ages, landing in boats around the coast, and walking from all over Britain, to worship at St David's.
Today The Pembrokeshire Coastal Path makes life easy for walkers. It is 180 miles long and runs from St Dogmaels near Cardigan in the north to Amroth, between Tenby and Swansea, in the south. I think next year I would like to do part of the walk... perhaps not all of it. Its creation has taken 17 years and, though it may sound a little prescriptive, some of it is pretty arduous and the scenery is fantastic. Certainly the little bits I have done have been wonderful, and I don't think it would feel like a walk in the park.

Friday, 12 September 2014

The west Wales coast

Lots of houses in Wales are painted pretty colours, perhaps to counteract grey rainy skies (though I have sunshine in Wales for all but two days) and ward off depression, or maybe just because it looks nice. From buzzing Llandudno on the north coast with its pretty seafront, hotels and boarding houses to Anglesey (I didn't notice so many pretty coloured houses in Rhyl) and all the way down the coast, there are pastel-pretty houses, in pinks, blues, and pistachio – and occasionally a stand-out deep purple or burgundy one, or red hot terracotta. It usually looks great – though I don't think eau de nil works well against a Welsh sky.
The view from Harlech Castle
Harlech wasn't so noticeable for its painted walls, but for its Castle, built by Edward I in 13thC, which sits on a low hill looking down on some very ordinary houses around its feet. It looks the other way to Snowdonia and across the sea over an incredible sandy beach – a beach which continues pretty much all the way down to Barmouth 10 miles away.
On the way flat, reclaimed farmland stretches from the road to grassy sanddunes and the sea, and in places the stubble fields appear to drop straight into the sea. Silver-grey dry stone walls enclose small paddocks for sheep and cattle, and on the land side, high, granitey hills slope sharply down to the road.
This stretch of coast felt totally foreign to me. I am not quite sure why (Portmeirion and Aberystwyth are only 60 miles apart) perhaps because it's on the far side of those stunning mountains. It isn't bleak, it just feels a long way from anywhere!
... it also looks out this way!
Barmouth looks a tiny place on my map, but it isn't. It's a town of some stature, with tall Victorian guesthouses edging the road, with steep steps up to the doors. There's a bridge on my map which crosses the mouth of the river and I suspected it was a no-car bridge. I was right. I had to drive up the north side of the Mawddach estuary to Dolgellau and then, as it was getting late, I chose the A487 down to Machynlieth. This covers the southernmost part of the Snowdonia National Park and cuts through narrow passes that felt like Scotland with sheep grazing on grassy slopes under purple/blue smokey mountains above.
I stayed a night by the sea wall at Borth, looking along its long seafront lined with houses painted in more punchy colours. The sky was heavy and grey when I woke and walked down the beach towards the town centre. Men were working on new coastal defences... colossal chunks of rock (5+ tons a piece, they were marked) were being bedded into the beach. The work they did here last year protected the south end of Borth's seafront last winter, so they're continuing up the beach.
Rain imminent at Borth
The rain was bucketing down in Aberystwyth. I drove to the waterfront to see the old university building (sand/brown, no pastels here) and the curve of houses round the bay in washed out pale watercolours. I had been told that Constitution Hill had the best views, but it was just too wet, so I drove up Bridge Street, wipers on fast. I stopped by a shop window full of wonderful cheeses, and bought a bit of Welsh cheese, though most were Spanish with excellent hams, etc.
Aberaeron, further south, wins the prize for the prettiest coloured houses! They were on a hill overlooking the bay on the way south which Baa struggled to climb, so I couldn't stop. Now I am told there is a square there supposedly designed by John Nash – he did a lot of work round here. I should have stopped!