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.

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!


Anne and I crossed over to Anglesey and went to see Plas Newydd, formerly a home of the Earls of Anglesey, and now run by the National Trust. It looks south across the Menai Straits with stunning views of Snowdonia beyond. The artist Rex Whistler spent a lot of time here and his mural of a romantic Venetian-type scene which runs the length of the dining room is in itself worth a trip to Anglesey.

In the grounds there is a vast barrack of a building called HMS Conway which, when it ceased being a naval training establishment, was used by Cheshire Education Authority for a drama summer camp. Here Anne spent a month, four summers running at the end of the 1970s, encouraging truculent teenagers to explore their creativity. She was responsible for getting the costumes made; the students blossomed, and she absolutely loved it. We peered through the laurel and HMS Conway looked handsome and deserted but just how she remembered it. Memories came flooding back, and she nostalgically identified the different departments, and her bedroom window!
I have a watercolour of the Menai Straits with 'Beaumarais, 1854' written on the back, and I wanted to find where it was painted. It shows Snowdon in the distance and the Thomas Telford (1826) Menai Suspension Bridge - a quiet and agricultural scene from the Beaumarais shore. The town is still charming, with its narrow streets, pretty coloured houses and quaint shops and cafes but the quay looks very different - teeming with cars and tourists queuing for boatrides. I couldn't imagine where the artist stood their easel.
In the north-west of the island Trearddur Bay was also teeming with holidaymakers – probably very different than when Anne's grandparents had a holiday house there. But we found the house, and her grandfather's grave.
Unlike most seaside resorts, which grew up out of a shipping or fishing port, Rhosneigr came to life because of tourism. It began around 1905 with Mr Palethorpes, a Yorkshire sausage baron, who built himself a huge white 'castle' on the beach, and many other holiday homes have been built since. We had tea with friends, Andrew and Joy, who have a lovely one (not castellated though!) and walked on the beach as the sun was going down.
Anne left from Bangor the next day and I drove to see the famous model village at Portmeirion, built by the architect Clough Williams-Ellis from 1925 - 1976. It rises up a slope with a dramatic sandy peninsular in front of it, and woodland behind and is a massive tourist attraction.

The best thing about Portmeirion for me was finding a flyer to Clough-Ellis's own garden, 5 miles away. It is called Plas Brondanw and the garden is stepped down in terraces from the house (which isn't open to the public) with farmland falling away below and, to the right, Snowdon rises up beyond gaps in the topiary (above). I thought it was magical and as I walked back past the house a small black rabbit scuttled out from under one hedge, looked at me for a moment, and then ran under another!

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Happy Camper

Anne Sykes is a friend from Hampshire who was brought up in Cheshire. She has happy childhood memories of Anglesey and Abersoch and is passionate about camping! She booked in early to join me for three days, and a little trip down memory lane.
Abersoch is historically where the great and the good of Cheshire and Yorkshire have come on holiday – there or Tenby. It's got wonderful beaches, sailing, and golf courses but we had no time for such things.
Roy & Judy's campsite
We camped at Llanaelhaearn near Trefor on the north side of the Lynn Peninsular, looking out to sea, with the end of the Snowdon range framing our view to the east, and Yr Eifl and the Tre'r Ceiri Hillfort to the west. The day after a bank holiday, we were the only guests.
The site, on a slope but with level pitches, is run by Roy and Judy who came here from Virginia Water 14 years ago. So far there's just one small shed, painted dark green, which opened up like a tardis; pink and immaculately clean inside with a loo and basin, and an information board detailing local attractions, etc. A shower next door to the shed will be ready for next year.
In the morning I asked where I might buy calor gas and check my tyres and Roy said Ifan Hughes, in the village, was the man to see. Ifan is the local mechanic, the milkman, the undertaker and delivers the papers. He also drives the village coach, and will pull stranded campers out of the mud!
Ifan at work
The forecourt of Ifan's garage (it's not a petrol garage, no calor either) was choked with cars and coaches, vans and trucks – some new arrivals were barely off the road, others looked more clapped-out and there for the long haul. Ifan is a lovely bobble-hatted, apple-cheeked man. I explained my problem (tyres) and he looked at me quizzically; with his strong Welsh accent and me with my la-di-dah English one I thought we might have a problem. But he smiled and got an extension for his tyre gauge. I explained that the front drivers' side valve was difficult – he deftly kicked the hub-cap off, and kicked it back on again. Then he told us where to buy calor gas in Caernarvon (we didn't understand, and got it somewhere else) and he refused any payment.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Sunlight at the end of the Tunnel

The drive from Liverpool under the Mersey to The Wirral felt endless; the tunnel seemed to go for miles, and has bends in it – I felt like a trapped rabbit. Eventally I emerged, and found the road to the village of Port Sunlight. In celebration of its 125 years, a few residents have guided tours around the village, and I went on one.
My 'group' at Port Sunlight
Lord Lever was a man from Bolton who, at the end of the 19thC, started a soap factory with his brother James. Their soap was made from vegetable oil, rather than animal fat, so it lathered better, and instead of buying a chunk from a block on the grocer's counter, housewives bought their own individually wrapped bar - of Sunlight Soap. Soon new premises were needed and Lord Lever bought a patch of marshy land on the Wirral: it had an established railway line and sea links across the Mersey, and the marsh meant it was cheap.
Lord Lever was a great visionary and philanthropist and had become a very rich man. And he had a passion for architecture. At a time when working class families were living in crowded, unhygenic accommodation, he would have a stronger and happier workforce if he built them pleasant, and comfortable houses. 
Different architects were employed to build streets of two- and three-bedroomed houses, all with hot water, a bath, and an outside privvy. They are different in design – Arts & Crafts, and a lot of Dutch influence - and have extravagant design features, intricate brickwork, etc. All of the houses had a small front garden, a back yard and an allotment, and none were passed for building without Lord Lever's close scrutiny. He didn't like ugly washing lines, bins etc to be seen from the front, and all houses were kept immaculately tidy.
His employees were not expected to work late, but to better themselves: attend concerts, etc. This philanthropic 'care' for his workers might sound controlling today. Sunlight women and men had separate entrances to the factory, separate dining rooms, and the women, who were largely employed in the packing department, had to leave if they got married. But they had jobs, and lovely homes – Port Sunlight had 10 households per acre when across in Liverpool there were 40 houses per acre – and probably no hot water.
Today the houses are still lived in by Sunlight (now Unilever) employees, or their descendents; now they have been modernised and have upstairs bathrooms as standard. They look just the same from the front but out the back the allotments have gone and smart cars are parked where the privvies used to be.
The crowning glory of the village is the Lady Lever Art Gallery which Lord Lever built to house his personal art collection and opened in 1922 as a monument to his wife, Elizabeth.
I left The Wirral, my head full of philanthropy, betterment and inspiration, and headed for the north Wales coast where I planned to camp on a grassy knoll somewhere around Prestatyn or Rhyl. Ha! I came down to earth with a bump. There is no space between the trailer parks along that coast. It was seething with people I didn't want to see, and general ugliness, and I ended up at a campsite near Llandulas, in the late arrivals naughty corner, with the the North Wales Expressway (the A5) drumming overhead.  

Friday, 5 September 2014


The campsite I stayed in for the stormy night was close to Ainsdale, near Southport, and in the morning the warden told me there was a good train service into Liverpool from the village. I parked in a residential street and (£3.80 return for Seniors) set off for the city, half an hour away. I walked around the city centre and then down to the dock area where much of Liverpool's regeneration has taken place. The Eye – similar to London, but smaller – gave a good view of the city. At the Tate I saw an exhibition of the Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian. It was mainly neo-plasticism – his blue, red and yellow shapes, strong straight black lines – which is how he got from abstract (an abstract version of a known form) to total abstraction - from the purest state of the human mind. I loved them, and was glad I took the headset!
The docks are regular brick wharflike buildings, listed and wonderfully restored, and made into flats above the shops. The Liver Building (Royal Liver Assurance) was the tallest building in Europe when it was built in 1911, with its three iconic 'Liver' birds on the top. They're 18' high and are mythical birds. A local sculptor/artist was commissioned to make them and was told they should look like eagles. He'd never seen an eagle but had seen plenty of cormorants around the dock so he made huge cormorants, and then someone told him eagles didn't have webbed feet, so he took the legs off and added clawed feet.. .!!? Or that's what I was told by Chris, the wonderful Scouse guide on the Hop on Hop Off tour bus I joined by the Albert Dock. Those buses are so good and I only wish I had recorded what he said because he was so warm and funny and interesting.. He was very proud of his city and made it clear just how important Liverpool had been in the 19thC, with the White Star Line and Cunard, the dock crammed with people heading for America etc. It was, and still is, a buzzy place, and the most multi-cultural community. (Scouse comes from the Scandinavians... they brought with them a poor man's pie or stew with lots of vegetables and a bit of meat or fish. Delicious! Chris still has it once a week.)
The Anglican cathedral is wonderful and vast (the biggest in the UK) and was completed in 1978. At the other end of the road the Catholic Cathedral which was originally to have been designed by Edwin Lutyens (actually, back in time, there were other ideas too).
Lutyens' crypt was built but the project then stopped because of the war in 1941. What is there now was designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd and completed in 1967. It is rather wonderful (very un-Lutyens) with fantastic stained glass windows in the tower and the 'crown of thorns' coming out of the top. It's known locally as Paddy's Wigwam!

On the way back to Ainsdale I got off the train a few stops early (Hall Road, Northern Line) to walk down to Crosby Beach to see the Antony Gormley statues, Another Place. They are amazing! The tide was almost out and the statues, 100 identical cast iron figures weighing 650 kilos each, are staring calmly out to sea, (“human life tested against planetary time” Gormley said) -taking all that comes at them. They are spread out over 2 miles of the shore and that day the most battering wind was blowing off the sea. They have such an ordinariness about them and yet they are utterly extraordinary. 

Tuesday, 2 September 2014


I arrived in Blackpool in pouring rain and nose to tail traffic, lights and banners overhead, and the pavements crowded with holidaymakers. There was a Red Arrows (the real Red Arrows? I think so) display over the beach so everyone was looking skywards. I could see the Tower up ahead and a ferris wheel beyond and when I was alongside the Tower I turned towards a sign to a carpark. Excellent. But it had a height restriction (Baa is 10ft tall) so I went to another, and that also had a height restriction - but it had an alternative entrance. It was crammed with cars and I must have spent 15 minutes trying to manoeuvre myself into an awkward parking space. Hot, but not bothered, I set off in the rain for the Tower, past colourful stalls and shops, arcades and fortunetellers.
I booked to go to the Eye – the highest part of the Tower, not like the London Eye. I regret not seeing the Ballroom but it was an expensive 'step back in time' and I could also have gone to the Circus, Jungle Jim's Playground and the Dungeons. But the 'all attractions' ticket would have cost me about £50 - no, less for concessions – and I didn't want to go that much.

Once through the turnstile, an arm stopped me walking in front of a laughing Indian family having their photograph taken. Me next, (“Would you like your photo taken?” “What does it cost?” “Nothing, it's just a bit of fun” “All right then”.)
Look aaah! as though you're falling off the Tower!” I looked aaah!
Excellent! Really, really good” (I was a natural!) “Now look thumbs up, excited!” I looked very excited.
Off we all went to the little theatre with special glasses for a short, 4-D warm-up fairytale film about a little boy flying round Blackpool (and, special effects, we got sprayed with water, but I was pretty damp anyway) and then up to the Eye. We squashed into the lift, me next to a girl who can't have been more than 15, with a ladder of cuts up the outside of her arm, the most recent one livid and painful-looking. She was with four or five others and they all looked pretty miserable.
Looking through the glass floor

Despite the overcast day (the rain had momentarily stopped) we could see up the beach and down the beach and all around Blackpool, and I could see Baa 500ft below in the corner of the carpark. When I left the Tower I took my ticket to get my photos – Durrr! Silly me. It didn't cost anything to have the pictures taken, but £20 if you wanted prints. They were very good, but not that good!
Baa, right in the middle
I went back to the carpark at about 5pm, the pavements crowded with people eating burgers, chips and fudge - we all waded through a sea of wet cans, plastic bottles and polystyrene food containers. I had a cup of tea before I could face getting out of my parking space (much easier getting out!) and setting off for Southport, just above Liverpool. I found a good campsite called Willowbank and felt quite sheltered in there on one of the stormiest nights they had had all summer.

Morecambe and Fleetwood

Alongside the sandy beach there's a mile of fun to drive through at Morecambe; amusement arcades, burger bars, and people sitting outside boarding houses drinking tea. I couldn't find anywhere to park and pulled over for a moment in a service road (admittedly on a double yellow line) and a traffic warden came running towards me like a charging bull.

Half way along the pleasure mile Eric Morecambe's skipping statue looked dwarfed by the holidaymakers around him eating their icecreams and I felt a tinge of disappointment. So I didn't stop long, and now I wish I had because there is a wonderful art deco hotel, The Midland, close to Eric and I missed it!
A little further south is the village of Heysham where I walked round a small National Trust headland to see St Peter's Church and St Patrick's Chapel, both established in the 8th century. They sit on a beautiful promontory with Morecambe to the north and looking across, I think, to Grange. There are a set of graves cut into the sandstone which are thought to date from the 10thC with slots where the wooden crosses would have been, and they would have had lids. Water lay in the bottom of one or two graves, and a tourist lay in the biggest one, trying it for size! The chapel next door is even older, around 750AD. Walking round to the south Heysham Power Station comes as a stark contrast to the ancient hewn graves, and it is not so beautiful, or so golden, close up!
A tomb with a view
The weather took a turn for the worse as I drove on to Fleetwood. I didn't mean to stop long, but I wanted to at least see the harbour where its huge fishing fleet had once made this such an important Lancashire town. Today, the fishing industry in Fleetwood has almost disappeared.
The docks looked deserted (but it was quite late) as I drove round and got shouted at by a few gulls. But lots of new houses are being built near the harbour, so maybe things are looking up. Small factories, one after the other, line the route to the docks and I was glad to see where Fisherman's Friend throat lozenges (developed by a local pharmacist in 1865) are made. But there's little other evidence of fishing.
I passed the large North Euston Hotel, elegantly curved and sitting on a prime site overlooking the water – though it doesn't bear close scutiny – and decided to stop for the night on the promenade. I felt quite safe, under a street light, but it was pretty miserable, and one of the few occasions when I have asked myself what on earth I was doing! Alone on a Saturday night in the rain, cooking something with rice, outside an amusement arcade in Fleetwood. The glamour!
The next morning mizzly rain was falling when I lifted the blinds, and then Ange rang which was cheering. A man on a bike drew up outside on the wide pavement and looked in. He stayed there for at least 40 mins in the rain, wriggling unnervingly on his saddle with his hands in his pockets.. Ange and I talked for ages, and eventually he went.

Morecambe Bay

There's a long thin island called Walney, which is connected to the west side of Barrow in Furness by a bridge. I didn't spend long in Barrow; I am sure it has its charms, but all I saw was American-style malls ('Brewer's Fayre' and fast food joints) and the massive BAE Systems building where submarines are made, and which dominates the town's coastline.
I headed for Walney to have a good walk on the nature reserve, and stopped on the way to have a sandwich in a pub. The pub was nothing special (I had to fix the loo cistern) though nice enough. I read the newspaper and ate the most delicious ham sandwich made with dark rye bread, while on the next table an Italian drank red wine while reading a book called 'Learn Norwegian'..
The tide was out when I reached the Walney reserve, which wasn't ideal for bird-watching, but I met a few Twitchers and saw different gulls, some terns, a skua and one seal. Looking across Morecambe Bay to the east a modern, square building shone like gold in the afternoon light, and away to the south of it I could just make out Blackpool Tower in the mist. When I got back to the nature reserve hut I asked someone what the big square building was, but he didn't know.
You have to imagine how gold it looked

Morecambe Bay is the most fantastic expanse of water – or sand, depending when you go. Once it could only be crossed by foot or by ferry because of the mountains of the Lake District on the north shore, but in 1857 the Furness Railway was built along that north side with viaducts crossing the estuaries. The uninitiated should not set off across the bay  (there is a Guided Walk for those who want to do it) as it is 120 square miles of unpredictable and dangerous quicksands and fast-moving tides. Ten years ago 23 Chinese cockle-pickers tragically died there, cut off by the tide. The area is teeming with wildlife and out to the west of the bay is one of Britain's largest natural gas fields.
I drove back to Barrow, round the BAE Systems building and up the coast road towards Ulverston and stopped at Bardsea to look again across the bay. I asked a man selling ice creams in a lay-by what the lovely golden building was across the bay – he said it's Heysham Nuclear Power Station!


Cartmel is a small village, tucked away off the road which leads from the M6 to Barrow, but its buzzing when you get there, particularly in summer. It's famous for three things: its Priory, National Hunt racing, and Sticky Toffee Pudding. The 12thC Priory church of St Mary and St Michael founded by Augustine monks attracts 60,000 visitors and pilgrims each year. Do they each buy a sticky toffee pudding? I recommend them, but you can find them all over the country now.
Grange over Sands is a lovely little town looking out over Morecambe Bay from the north side. Its quaint shops and pretty stone houses, many boarding houses and wholesale quantities of begonias planted along walls, in hanging baskets and windowboxes, might make it sound a bit smug, but it isn't.


Whitehaven Marina

Whitehaven was a boomtown in the late 18th and the 19th centuries, chiefly on the back of coalmining, shipbuilding and iron ore, and the clonisation of the Americas. The slave trade brought rum, tobacco, molasses and coffee, to Whitehaven and great riches to the town's merchants. The handsome houses which rise up behind the town, looking across the harbour, are testimony to their success. But it wasn't to last...
The Industrial Revolution drew businesses away to the larger northern cities and by the second half of the 19th century, Whitehaven's fortunes really started to decline.
More recently Sellafield, just down the road, was a big employer, but not any longer.
Today the town's having a renaissance. Millions of pounds have been poured in – there is a fantastic museum called The Beacon which shows all about the changing fortunes of the town from Roman times to Sellafield, and The Rum Story tells the story of the smuggling that came with the importing of rum, etc.There is a thriving marina, and a smart development of flats and small businesses has been built on the quayside. The town centre still looks a bit shabby but large businesses are opening up there – including the Inland Revenue.
Egremont Castle, south of Whitehaven, dates back to the 12thC (and probably to Roman times) but today the town's story is based around the iron ore industry. Large deposits of hematite iron ore were found in West Cumbria, and in the early 18th C the region prospered from exporting the iron ore. In the latter part of the century Victorian industrialists began smelting the iron ore, but when the railway arrived they began importing more rather than they had been exporting.
Florence Mine, Egremont
Today the Florence mine, just outside Egremont, is the only open iron ore mine left – and it produces paint pigments, not iron ore. I met an artist called Kevin Weaver there at his show of vivid, dotted, Impressionist canvases of Cumbria. One was a wonderful picture of Wastwater, the deepest and perhaps the most dramatic lake in the Lake District, with Scafell Pike behind. He said I must go and camp there, and so I did. There is a campsite at the head of the lake and I drove up the west side (you can't drive round the lake, the east side is sheer hill and scree) but when I got there the campsite was tucked away under trees and not looking over
My campsite at Wastwater
Wastwater. So I retraced my steps and eventually found a level patch of grass which didn't have a 'No overnight camping' sign, and stopped. A few more visitors came to watch the sun setting and then left and I was alone with Baa and a lot of Herdwicks, pretty sheep with sweet faces, dark bodies and white heads and legs. I awoke to rain, the sheep still grazing outside.
Next stop was Waberthwaite, a village on the A595, where a shop called Woodalls had been recommended to me as purveyors of the best home-cured meat and sausages. The lady there said they bring in the black pudding, but everything else is theirs.