Location: Moreton, Weymouth, Bridport and Charmouth, Dorset
Arriving at our next campsite, another Camping and Caravan Club site, it was becoming “normal” to have to wait in the motorhome and be given a list of all things you couldn’t do because of the restitutions designed to minimise the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But the sun was shining and we tried to cast aside our concerns, deciding to catch the train into the nearby seaside resort of Weymouth. Not a place either of us had recalled visiting before when we lived in England, but the wow factor on this blue sky day was huge.
We walked around the old harbour area, I’m always fascinated by them, and not just because that’s always where the cafes and restaurants are (although that does perk me up), but its the history that seeps out off the buildings. What tales they could tell.
This town just had both of us gawking at it loveliness. It seemed to have just a great balance between feeling like a working harbour, and a place you would love to holiday in. It wasn’t until afterwards that we read it was the first place to record the Black Death arriving in 1348!
Once we moved around the edge of the harbour, walks opened up along the coast. The South West Coast walk for instance stretches for hundreds of miles in either direction from here.
But our tummies told us it was time to pick a lunch spot, and after chatting to one of the locals, who turned out to be a London chef with a holiday house in town, we went to the restaurant he recommended. It was our first “flash” lunch since Sydney in February. It was so perfect, until they messed up the order and brought Catherine a dish that contained dairy. But once the error was pointed they were mortified, and wouldn’t let us pay for a thing! What exceptional service.
Some places just have a great vibe about them, and this was one of them. I even managed to get my eyes pressured checked on the spot – and all was well – a great relief.
Every time we looked up and out at the sparkling ocean, we had to remind ourselves that we hadn’t been transported to some mediterranean resort. Well until you looked at the people wandering around – definitely Brits!
Next stop on the Dorset whistle stop tour tour close to the small town of Bridport. We had managed to find a space on a Caravan and Camping Club farm site. These are great places for us, with just a water tap, somewhere to empty your toilet waste, and on this one, mains power.
We could walk right from the site out onto the hills, and ended up doing an 18k circuit.
A little stiff, the following day a we pumped out a 39km cycle up through enough hills to give us decent workout, even with our batteries. People seem to think an electric bike is like a moped. You just twist the throttle. Some of them are. Ours are whats called “pedal assisted” – you get a little help – but you still need to work.
We then had the pleasure of a long, fast downhill into the small seaside town of Charmouth, heaving with school holiday visitors, but with almost no tourist development. The few cafes there were had massive queues for the standard fried fare. As usual we were relieved to have brought a picnic and a flask of tea.
This is a part of England‘s south coast that we will come back to and explore more, ideally when its not peak season. It has ingredients we love – walking cycling, and enticing pubs. Hopefully it will at least be when we can actually get in to a pub spontaneously and not have to book – as we were told we needed to at the one place we tried. Testing times.
Location: West Bagborough, East Quantoxhead, Mendip Hills, Somerset, UK
It was hard not to feel a little sad and apprehensive at our impending departure from West Bagborough, and the weather didn’t help either, with its chilly breeze and drizzly rain. With a little sunshine forecast for Monday afternoon we forced ourselves out of the house and down to East Quantoxhead for a walk.
We just love the scenery down there, and we had the whole area to ourselves. The wind was rather chilly, but when the sun came out and you were in a briefly sheltered spot you could have imagined it was summer!
The beaches here might not have the squeaky fine white sands of Australian shores, but they are far more interesting. The tide goes out a long way here, revealing fossil filled rock pools, petrified forests, attracting herons and other fish-loving birds. The pink and mauve striped sedimentary rocks look like magnificent sculptures.
Our week was then largely spent making preparations to head on the road – getting Truffy packed up (it is amazing how everything somehow fits back in to him!), and returning the cottage to its former state, ready for the next holidaymakers to arrive.
We had some farewell drinks and fish and chips with our friends down at Quantock Camping, their site now bustling with visitors enjoying the luxury of personal toilet blocks, and also were invited for some wine and nibbles with our landlady, Jennifer.
Suddenly Friday morning was upon us, and we packed off our final bits and pieces, and hit the road.
Our first stop was the village of Cheddar in Cheddar Gorge. This is located in the southern Mendip Hills, and riddled with limestone caves. In the early 1900s a complete human skeleton was found in one of the caves here which was carbon dated as being about 9,000 years old.
This is also, of course, the location which first made Cheddar cheese – with documented evidence of its particular recipe going back to the 12th century. Apparently the caves in the gorge are the perfect temperature and humidity for maturing the cheese.
On our visit however, the caves and the museums showing the evidence of first humans were closed due to Covid-19, so we donned our hiking boots and took to the hills instead (Strava link).
The climb up from the valley floor was rather steep, but once up on top we were rewarded with magnificent views, easily able to see the Quantock Hills and all the way down to Minehead.
We climbed along the top of the cliffs, enjoying the fabulous views and fresh air. Up on the cliff walls, delicately picking their way along the greenery, are a number of Soay Sheep. They are brown in colour (and rarely, patched with ginger!) and live here accepted as a feral flock. The sheep are native to islands off the coast of Scotland, and were released here in the early 90s, these days appreciated as lawn mowers, keeping the undergrowth in control.
Originally we intended to make a circuit around the other side of the gorge, but the primary access point, Jacob’s Ladder, was closed for repairs. Instead we wound our way back to the village down the road.
Back in the village, a few of the local shops had recently opened to visitors – most importantly, the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company. They still mature some of their cheddars in the caves, and Mr A could not resist a tasting.
Our destination for the night was the village of Priddy. Unlike the massive distances we are used to travelling in Australia, this is just 54km (33.5 miles) from our former cottage in West Bagborough – practically a day trip! We settled ourselves in for a peaceful night.
Saturday morning saw us pulling back on our walking boots and following a trail I had plotted on a new app I am using, Komoot. It’s a free app that allows you to plan and follow walking trails – I marked a 15km (9.5 miles) circuit (Strava link) from our camp to the village of Wookey Hole and back via Ebbor Gorge.
In contrast to our Quantock Hills walks, the fields here were lined with stone walls, often with steps leading us up and over. The stone slabs were frequently shining from centuries of hands and feet.
Crossing fields with wonderful views we eventually began heading downhill into the village of Wookey Hole. The village centres around the Wookey Hole Caves, in which tools have been found dating back to the Palaeolithic times – around 45,000 years ago. As a child, I visited this area as part of a school trip – my memories limited to the Witch of Wookey Hole – a stalagmite that looks vaguely like a human who has been turned to stone.
Despite the caves being open, the thought of being trapped with crowds of people underground was not too appealing, so we headed to the local pub in search of lunch.
After half a pint and a sandwich in the pub garden we had to muster up the energy to head back to camp, knowing there would be a steep uphill. Our route took us to Ebbor Gorge Nature Reserve.
The limestone gorge is very lush, with moss covered walls dripping with water. Like Cheddar Gorge, this is also popular with climbers and we passed a few as we hiked up.
Upon reaching the top we found ourselves a quiet patch of field for a well deserved rest and drink of water.
After two days hiking with rather steep climbs, we decided to do a somewhat tamer walk on Sunday (Strava link).
Like the Quantock Hills, the Mendip Hills were a hotbed of activity back during the Bronze Age (and way before). Not far from our campsite are a series of Bronze Age burial mounds, known as barrows. These were created between 2200 and 1100 BCE, and originally were to be found all over the UK. Many were destroyed as towns built up, but a few survived.
The Priddy Nine Barrows are now protected, set in farmland. Having been here for between 3 and 4,000 years, it is not surprising to read they have been raided in the past, with a reverend during the 1800s making notes about his finds, which included amber and blue beads, cups, an arrowhead or spear and of course bones.
We continued our walk passing more barrows, the warm afternoon sun just perfect. Its the kind of weather where you could walk forever.
We wound our way over styles and walls, making our way back towards the main village of Priddy. The landscape is quite interesting here, often looking like it has been carved out by a raging river or moist marshland, but without the liquid which shaped it – changes likely caused by sinkholes and underground streams.
This whole area has an incredible history, The Romans were active here with evidence of diggings for lead. Being on top of limestone, there are also many caves, with maps showing a whole 16km network winding under the village.
Given the pubs are now open, we found ourselves wandering through the village to our local – the Queen Victoria. They had rigged up fencing to ensure people only enter through one location, where we had to use alcohol hand gel and share a name and phone number before proceeding. Once in, we were allocated a red-tableclothed bench to sit at and our orders were taken. Half a cider each and a packet of ready salted crisps were then delivered to a blue-tableclothed table, and we had to collect them ourselves. Payment was by contactless card at arms distance. All very Covid-safe, but not quite the pub experience of old!
We stuck to the one drink before wandering back to camp for the evening.
It has been a brilliant commencement to our travels, which we began with great trepidation. So far we have found that people are mostly being sensible about distancing and staying healthy. We have quite a few people and places to visit in the coming days and weeks and now feel a little less nervous about our upcoming adventures.
Location: West Bagborough, Porlock Weir & Bridgewater Somerset, Honiton, Dorset, UK
This Friday we will be pulling out the driveway of our Somerset hideaway to once again hit the roads (click here for our planned upcoming locations). Our feelings are very mixed. We are looking forward to seeing family and friends, many of whom we’ve not had the opportunity to see yet in the flesh, but moving on from our protected little bubble will bring new risks as we move into areas of higher infection in the midlands in particular and interact with a wider number of people.
A reporter for the Guardian has spent the last couple of weeks driving around Britain interviewing people coming out of lockdown. We resonated with some of the themes that emerged. For instance, a determination to retain a focus on mental and physical health. For many people who have retained their positivity during lockdown they have credited this to regular exercise, and better eating and sleeping habits. We similarly are pleased with the amount of exercise we’ve been doing, and determined to not lapse back into sedentary ways when we are on the road.
Easier access to restaurants and pub grub is going to make it more of a challenge to continue the relatively healthy eating regime we have maintained, cooking almost all of our food from scratch. I take zero credit for this, other than being an appreciative consumer.
We have also been protected in this rural bubble from the noise and air pollution that many of Britain’s more urban environments suffer from, and we are going to find it a shock to return to the real world of heavy traffic and smog.
But move on we must, and we have been busy trying to get our home on wheels ready to face the rigours of the road. Our main problem was that we lost all our 12 volt power, so no taps would work, no internal lights, the whole system was dead. We also noticed a very rotten egg type smell when we were working in there. Of course I was immediately blamed…but protested my innocence, and for once was proved guiltless. We did some research and eventually discovered that a dead battery if put under charge gives off a pungent aroma, as a precursor to then exploding!
We were lucky to find a local auto electrician to help us, everyone is so busy in lockdown fixing people’s vehicles that have been left idle. The guys at AD Auto-Electrical near Bridgewater were brilliant, quickly finding a wire on our alternator had been chewed though, presumably by mice when he had been left all alone on a farm in storage over the winter. They soon repaired it, then popped a couple of new batteries in, our motor home dealer, Fuller Leisure, agreeing to foot the bill even though strictly we were out of warranty. Good lads.
We also managed to assess and repair some minor stuff ourselves, thanks to Catherine’s love of problem solving and a much more practical bent than my own. I did manage to fit a Heads-Up Unit to display speed directly onto the windscreen. It was so hard to read from the dashboard dial. It has worked very well so far, with no need now to take my eyes off the windscreen to make sure I am keeping under the multiple speed limits we constantly drive through. with speed cameras lining the roads.
We took an afternoon off jobs to walk another section of the South West Coast Path. We started from the small settlement of Porlock Weir, a small harbour with a documented use going back over 1,000 years. It wasn’t hard to imagine the regular waves of Danish and Irish invaders sailing up to the little jetty, with intentions ranging from trade to plunder.
We spotted a little sign advertising local oysters, not a produce we expected to see in the western reaches of Somerset, so we plunged in to sample half a dozen.
Apparently a community initiative in 2013 led to Porlock Bay Oysters being the first oyster farm to achieve the top “Class A” certification in England and Wales. Another causality though of the closing of pubs and restaurants, they now have over 30,000 oysters plump and ready for eating, with their customers only just opening up. As with many businesses affected by lockdown, they are flexing their business models and trying to find new channels to market. In this case selling direct to the public. We loved our sample, easily beating for taste and texture the ones we tried in Normandy, although Scottish shellfish still sits up there for us.
The coast path led us up a steep track through woods smelling that unique pungent aroma you get from trees recently soaked with the showers that have persisted the last few weeks.
We started to notice the remains of old walls and bridges, we learned later this is all that remains of the once grand coastal retreat for the first Lord Lovelace, married to the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. Not much remains of the once grand home, but what does certainly created an atmospheric backdrop to our wander.
One of the Lovelace family also designed a grand gatehouse, which has been restored and sits over the entrance to what is now a quirky tourist attraction – a scenic toll road that winds its way a few miles along this beautiful stretch of coast. Our slightlly plump Truffy wont be fitting through that arch!
This little walk was full of surprises. Next came England’s smallest parishchurch in the tiny village of Culbone.
Unfortunately we had run out of time and had to retrace our steps. Another place on the list to come back to, sometime in our unknown future…
Back at our little cottage which sits in the grounds of the rather grand main house, we had organised a bit of a celebration for the owner. Jenny had just had built a little folly in the garden. Well, not one to miss an opportunity for a decent glass in these stunning gardens, I suggested it should have a grand opening. With her friend down to stay for the weekend, our host concurred and a very pleasant evening was had gazing our over the Somerset countryside this property has such commanding views of.
We also took a trip over the nearby Blackdown Hills to the small town of Honiton to visit a long-time friend of Catherine’s and her family. So many families have experienced tragedy thanks to this virus, and theirs was no exception, so it was an afternoon of laughter mixed with tears, with a very long and thoughtfully prepared lunch culminating in a dairy-free sponge cake, just so Catherine could join in and enjoy it. We also got a much needed feline fix from their gorgeous cat Worcester.
We were then able to return the favour when they came over to our place. We were treated to freshly baked scones, with jam and cream – our first cream tea this year – hopefully not the last!
We also managed to celebrate the opening of pubs on the 4th July by popping down our nearest local for a couple of pints. It was great to see how hard they had worked to flex their arrangements, building a new outdoor bar, counting heads coming in to make sure there was sufficient room to keep our distance, taking down phone numbers for their participation in the Covid-19 track-and-trace scheme and lots of new outdoor seating and cover. Well done to the Farmers Arms.
So as we start to pack up the cottage its hard to not feel nervous about what awaits us, but it‘s time to go. Saying goodbye to this welcoming community, and hoping one day we can work a return to this little slice of paradise into our travels.
Location: Watchet, West Bagborough, Dulverton, Somerset & Putsborough, Devon, UK
June continued its mixed weather with two days of solid rain. forecast. We took advantage of the final dry day for a little while and drove down to Watchet to walk some of the coast walk, intending to go to a town intriguingly called Blue Anchor.
It was an overcast day so there were few people about, and we saw nobody on the walk, which followed the cliff top with lovely views.
We walked as far as we could along the coast before reaching a coastguard barrier – not far beyond this the cliff had collapsed into the sea, apparently happening in early March. The diversion inland didn’t really appeal with the impending storms, so we made it a short walk and returned to Watchet – just 6.5km. Blue Anchor remains a mystery for now!
With extra time up our sleeves, we decide to drive over to Dunster again, to have a better look at the town. Mr A was also hoping the Rohan outdoor gear shop was open, now that clothes stores had been given permission to serve customers again, but unfortunately this store remained closed.
Tuesday’s downpour arrived as scheduled. Fortunately I was busy helping with a medical research project which took up a lot of my time, and Mr A delved deeper into investigating his family tree, unearthing new names and histories on his mother’s side.
During a break in the wet weather we had an impromptu visit from two of the friends we have made here, Karen and Jane Ayre who run the caravan park down the road. During lockdown they have been training a young pony, Vinnie, which will eventually be sold to a family for a young child to learn to ride. He’s quite small and very gentle, and even Mr A (who has a fear of horses) was brave enough to give him a stroke.
After a couple of days of enforced rest we were itching to get out and about again. So on Friday decided to jump in Truffy and head back over to Exmoor and the small town of Dulverton.
Mr A navigated the narrow lanes brilliantly, barely flinching as we squeezed between old stone houses and parked cars as we found our way to a parking spot beside the eighteenth century Marsh Bridge on the outskirts of town.
We set off on a circuit walk (Strava link), following the River Barle into town.
The showers dissipated totally by the weekend, allowing us to get out for a muddy walk locally on Saturday. Again, the colours seemed all the more vibrant for being freshly watered.
We were just walking up through the village on our way home, when we noticed a couple of our neighbours having socially-isolated drinks on their front lawn. We were invited over to join them, and soon our plans for making curry and relaxing with Netflix were out the window.
My cousin Ian and his family, Caroline, Emilia and Leo, drove down from Almondsbury for the afternoon on Sunday. We were so excited to see them – not only the first family we’ve seen since mid March, but the first time I have seen them in six years! I am sure we all looked older, but especially this children – I have not met Leo before, and Emilia was a baby in a high chair last time!
Thankfully the rain held off so we enjoyed Father’s Day cake and tea in the courtyard before a short stroll around the village and surrounds.
It was a fun afternoon, but as we waved them farewell, we took note to ensure we don’t have sore heads next time we encounter excited children!
On Monday we took our bikes exploring around some of the local villages and lanes – there are some incredible buildings around here. One of them, multi-million pound Denzel House has just been sold to a London-based electronics importer apparently – as we rode past ogling, we saw several people working on improvements to the grounds.
The overall ride was lovely, and we took in the whitewashed village of Stogumber which sounds to me like something you’d chop up and serve in salad. Apparently the name is derived from Stoke (meaning dairy farm in old English) and the surname Gunner (presumably the owner of the dairy?).
It was while we were our riding that we heard the welcome news from Boris announcing that from 4 July campsites could open (as well as pubs, hairdressers, other holiday accomodation and so on – as long as they are ‘Covid-secure’). I say welcome, but it comes with mixed feelings. The opening up means returning to the stress of finding a place to stay, potentially mingling with other people, and leaving our new friends in this haven within the Quantock Hills. I for one have a little bit of nervousness about what the coming weeks will bring.
So this week the chaos began, the mad dash to try and find campsites with space for us in locations we would be interested in visiting. I would liken it to trying to find tickets to see The Rolling Stones, with everyone selling out almost immediately and if you’re lucky you get the last two on offer. Although unlike getting tickets to one band, we have to go through it again and again booking up the coming few weeks.
We gave ourselves a break on Tuesday afternoon to head back to the western Quantocks, and parked Truffy up by Crowcombe Gate, taking our second walk in this area.
The heath and bracken looked healthy and lush after the rain, and most of the soil well drained. We admired the views we have seen from many angles over the past three months, never tiring of that magical feeling this area brings.
Wednesday promised to be a hot day, with temperatures climbing up in to the early 30s. We decided that cycling would be the coolest activity (other than swimming in our pool, and who wants to spend the day doing that?!), so we found a cycleway by the coast so we might enjoy some sea breezes and perhaps a dip in the water.
We drove to Barnstaple in Devon and parked up. Our intention was to ride the Tarka Trail in the other direction, towards Woolacombe. Off we set on off-road cycle lanes, which soon turned into country lanes (Strava link).
The path’s signage was a bit misleading, and soon we had to ask for directions from a couple of other cyclists. We soon realised that the Tarka Trail was no longer following old rail tracks, but now had become the Sustrans route 27 cycleway, which shared narrow country lanes with cars. We found ourselves pulling off regularly to let vehicles past, but people were friendly and grateful, not aggressive towards us.
As always, we were pleased for our electric motors, with some decent gradient hills along our ride, especially in the heat.
Our destination for the day was Putsborough, the quieter and less commercialised end of Woolacombe Beach. The coast walk comes along here, and by the looks of it would be spectacular and ever so quiet.
The car park and sole café was doing good business, but once you were on the beach people were well spread apart with plenty of social distancing (quite unlike the newspaper headlines for that day!).
I left Mr A on a bench with the bikes and went for a stroll across the sands and a paddle in the water. It is a perfect beach for children with warm rock pools and soft sand of the ideal consistency for sandcastles. The water wasn’t that cold considering we are in the UK (though I didn’t go in for a swim – the water is between 15-19°C!).
The ride back to Barnstaple was equally lovely, with plenty of water drunk.
Fish and chips from our favourite chippy in Taunton (Sea Bass Fish and Chips) were our reward for our efforts, enjoyed in Truffy at the side of the road. Perfect!
And so on Thursday we decided to make a concerted effort to get all of our bookings locked in for the next few weeks. Priority had to be seeing family, as it seems crazy we haven’t even seen Mark’s daughters and the grandchildren since October last year.
After a lot of phone calls, messages and waiting for websites to work, we have confirmed the following locations which will take us up to September. Phew!
We know this has missed out a few people, but we don’t leave the UK until early November, so hopefully will have an opportunity after the summer craziness!
Location: West Bagborough, Glastonbury, Exmoor & East Quantoxhead, Somerset, UK
We have both commented that the weeks and even months we have been in lockdown seem to be flashing past. I was puzzling about this and remembered reading something about how the perception of time accelerates as we get older. So that may account for why I am expereincing this phenomenon, you chuckle, but how about the “child bride” Catherine, as my friends endearingly have called her?
So here’s my take. One of the reasons that older people do experience the passing of time differently (well documented if you fancy going down that rabbit hole – start at the Wikipedia page) is that for them (“us” if you insist), new events are in shorter supply. We have seen it and done it. Our brains find it no effort to process those routine events, so as we pay less attention time appears to pass more quickly.
In lockdown for us, and I suspect many others, the days pass with little differentiation in activity, and it‘s all low stress, so the brain doesn’t engage too much in deciding which flavour of Pukka tea to have this morning. or do we turn right or left out the gate on our walk today.
However, the last week has brought two new activities into our lives. A book club and family genealogy. One of the things I really miss in lockdown is just shooting the breeze with friends, often over a glass of something. Digital catch ups for me are always more stilted, lacking the comfortableness of being able to pause and reflect, and gauge from body language how the other parties are reacting. Often the subject of conversation is books or article one of us has read, so after starting a particularly good read I decided to float the idea of an online book club amongst these friends. We had our first Zoom based hook up. Given the constraints of the medium it seemed to work for us.
The book chosen was the new best seller from Rotger Bregman, Humankind. Essentially it is an analysis of our basic nature, is it kind or is it cruel? It offers fascinating revisionist history on events and phenomena we thought we knew and understood.
The other new activity that has helped time slow down a little and provide new stimulus, has been researching my family tree. Inspired by cousins of mine and Catherine. Catherine’s cousin Karen has been able to trace back theirs, to the the 1700’s in Orkney. Her family history is full of talented artists, rich merchants and military leaders. Some even have dedicated Wikipedia pages.
In contrast my ancestors (that I’ve tracked so far), have not broken out of the abject poverty of farm labouring, crammed into boarding houses with other families (16 of them in one case) except for a great grandad and uncle who both ran fish and chip shops, which perhaps explains my fascination for a well cooked plate of this English fare. More on this as our respective stories unfold.
I have never shown the slightest interest in my family history to date, I am ashamed to say, but whatever brain chemistry clicked into place during lockdown I’m so glad it did. I’m finding it hugely interesting and so grateful for the discretionary time to tackle it.
However, it hasn’t been all indoor sports, and our usual diet of walks only briefly held back by more typical changeable weather. We decided to check out Glastonbury, famous for its namesake the Glastonbury Festival, which isn’t actually held near the town, and that pretty much says it all. We found it an uninspiring, slightly run down place full of New Age nonsense shops (sorry but.. really…), however the local bakery did catch my attention!
The pubs were all still closed, but one caught Catherine’s eye given its distinctive facade. It turns out to be the oldest in south-west England.
We quickly donned our boots and escaped the thundering lorries that sadly hadn’t yet been routed out of the High Street in this town and dashed up the hill that rises up over the flat surrounding countryside of the Somerset Levels. Glastonbury Tor is a natural hill emanating of erosion, although a lot of twaddle has been written by New Age “scholars” about the function of the terraces that wind up its steep slope. I’m not going to even credit them by repeating what they say. The actual archaeology of the site does though remain clouded in the mists of the Neolithic though, like so much of our history from that period. For us it was sufficient to sit with our mugs of tea and quietly contemplate the fabulous 360 degree views.
With the novelty of inclement weather, we did an afternoon’s drive around the lanes and villages of Exmoor, our first excursion to this area. While it was a little too wet and cold to do too much walking, we did enjoy the sights, and managed to find a cute little deli in the village of Dunster that we’re sure to return to.
One walk that will forever remain in my mind from this week was the coastal ramble that forms a very tiny part of the “English Coast Path” (how did they think of that one?). I had no idea England had a path all the way round it..and it doesn’t…yet. When completed, in theory this year (in practice I doubt it, with the competition for funding in the recession that is going to hit the UK hard) it will be 2,795 miles in length (around 4,500 km).
Currently, various sections are open (click here for more details) and conveniently one of them is on our doorstep. I think this area must be one of the most well served in the world by long distance trails for walking and riding, quite amazing and a credit to the foresight of several governments, and the popularity here of getting out into this beautiful countryside.
We started our walk from a car park at East Quantoxhead, a small settlement a little way back from the coast. It was our first time on a bit of grass since we had our awning fitted in March, so much to the amusement of our fellow car park neighbours we rolled it out to check all was working.
Looks pretty good, however it‘s a reminder of our aborted plan to have spent the summer cruising through the hot climates of Spain and Portugal. We quickly roll it up again and put that thought behind us.
We wandered up to the cliff edge and gazed down the coast. I really can’t remember such a heart lifting view. We overhead a fellow walker exclaim “It looks more like a picture than real life”, and he wasn’t wrong.
The pebbly beach was pretty busy as there was a car park close, but as usual once again, no more than a 10 minute walk from the reach of a car and the population thins out to a spattering of smiling fellow trampers.
Wild flowers, including orchids, were everywhere, the Quantock Hills, providing a stunning backdrop. No wonder this was the first place in the UK to be given a classification of Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
So we think our time here is drawing to a close, our little cottage is rented from July 12th, so we have to be out by then, but there’s no date yet for campsites to reopen, so that‘s introducing some challenges to our forward planning! Fingers crossed the government gets its new guidelines for them out in time, but its looking less likely I think.
Location: West Bagborough, Porlock and Chard, Somerset, UK
Having provided us with the sunniest May on record, June has decided to become changeable, more along the lines of what might be expected at this time of year. The second of June, however, was very warm, with temperatures heading up into the high 20s in this part of the world.
We decided to travel back to Porlock, and hike some of the South West Coast Track towards Minehead. All up we walked 9.5km (Strava link).
As we set off we could see the wisps of cloud racing across the sky, signalling a change in the weather patterns. There was just a gentle breeze down below as we tracked our way through the village and wound our way along the marshland towards the next village of Bossington.
Bossington is a sweet old village, part of the Holnicote Estate which was leased to the National Trust in 1907 for 500 years, with the aim of preserving this part of Exmoor for the people.
Continuing through the village we crossed the babbling River Horner and climbed up onto Bossington Hill, following a path that wound around the cliffs.
We picnicked at Hurlstone Point, outside the ruins of what used to be a coastguard lookout station in the early 1900s. We mused how it would make a great pop-up bar – though the combination of alcohol and the steep cliffs here might not be so good.
We started to pick our way along the cliff edge walk, which originally was set up in the 1800s for coast guards to walk along between lighthouses, keeping them maintained and checking for smugglers. Fishermen also used this clifftop route to look for shoals of fish, before rushing down to their boats to try and catch them.
We climbed up most of Bossington Hill, before finding a resting place to enjoy the sound of birds and insects and enjoy the view stretching out before us, before looping back to Porlock.
Wandering through Bossington on our way back, we spotted a local house selling bottles of organic apple juice for £3. Finding we only had a ten pound note, we started to walk away, only to get chatting to another couple of walkers who had decided to buy a bottle. The next thing we knew, they were buying us a bottle of apple juice! Yet another random act of kindness in our lives – how lovely.
Later on in the week we decided to make use of the changed Covid-19 lockdown rules, which now allow us to mingle with other people outside, while maintaining social distance. We caught up with a couple from Australia, Beverley and Andrew, who had also been over here in the UK for the duration of the lockdown.
We picked the town of Chard in the Blackdown Hills Area of Natural Beauty on the Somerset-Devon border. It was half way between where each of us were staying. The weather was forecast to be showery, but other than a few drops of rain on our drive over, it turned out just fine, and we were soon stripping off the layers.
It was a good taster of the area, with about 10.5km walked (Strava link) and so nice to talk to people other than each other! Bev and Andrew are about to tackle the journey back to Australia and endure a two week quarantine in a hotel room, so we’ll be interested to hear how that goes.
The weekend was warmer than expected also, and allowed us a chance to go walking around the local lanes. The scenery continues to change with new flowers emerging and crops growing.
As we approach mid-summer here, we are able to enjoy long evenings. Late Monday afternoon we took off on quite a decent hike (Strava link), walking just under 13km, finishing around 7pm. It was a perfect time to go out, with the gloomy morning’s cloud lifting to a spectacular evening.
Our walk started with a decent amount of uphill, taking us to our favourite spot of Cothelstone Hill, where we enjoyed a herbal tea and admired the views.
We explored new pathways, winding through the woodland and startling a red deer which bounded off away from us. The path disappeared and we had to do a little bush-bashing through the undergrowth to find a marked path.
It took us into a plantation through towering trees and we picked our way along what looked like badger or fox paths through the ferns and foxgloves.
It wasn’t too far though, and we were soon back on track, climbing up through peaceful lanes offering us rewarding glimpses across the countryside.
The dry weather hung around for another day, so on Tuesday we jumped into Truffy and drove up to Crowcombe Gate, which to date has been the extreme of our walks in the Quantocks.
We took off in a westerly direction, marvelling at the different scenery, wrapped up warm against the brisk fresh wind blowing off the Bristol Channel. Fewer trees dot the scenery here, the low heathers and bracken making up the main undergrowth.
It was lovely to get a first taster of another part of the hills. From here we could walk down to the coast quite easily…it’s the getting home bit we would need to work out. One day perhaps…
We finished our walk with ice creams from a van in the car park – locally produced Jersey cow milk ice cream with a flake for Mr A…and a chocolate-vegan ice cream for me. How civilised!
Footnote: Sadly our little rescued baby rabbit (kit), Bags Bunny did not make it past her fourth day. We shed a few tears and buried her in the garden here.
Another week streaks by in our lovely little rented cottage here in the west of Somerset, with a clear blue sky greeting us as we pull the blinds back every morning, apparently the sunniest May on record,
The toughest decision of the day, ‘Shall we walk or ride?’ and ’What shall we have for dinner?’ I think we will always remember this lockdown for the bizarre dichotomy of living our day to day lives in the most stress-free way we ever have, surrounded by the world in chaos.
This is a life we have never experienced before, having been mostly city dwellers, passing though the landscapes as we travel, but not being immersed enough in it to really appreciate the depth of its beauty and function. Not really seeing the rhythm of a life that goes on there by people who call it home.
I recently read a book that touched on this theme, called ‘A Shepherd’s Life’, set up in the English Lake District. The author, James Rebanks, a shepherd himself, makes a number of really poignant observations about the tourists who come and travel through his countryside, but with no appreciation of how that landscape is worked to produce the food that enables our lives. I feel in many ways our travels over the past few years, while broad in their scope, have lacked the depth of perception that comes when you stay in one place long enough to start to see the cycle of nature moving through the seasons, something we really don’t notice in Australia as much.
By this enforced stay in one place we have been able to watch spring come to the landscape, to see lambs take their first stumbling steps, to then come back a few weeks later and watch them bouncing around with their mates. To spot the wild flowers change as spring is turning into summer. It has just been a totally different, and in many ways, more meaningful expereince than the ‘drive through‘ touring we have been doing.
As I reflect back on individual walks we have done, all from our back door, they start to merge into one long memory of being immersed in this beautiful lanscape , putting one foot in front of the other as we watch a fox dash to a hedge before scornfully peering at us over her shoulder then disappearing instantly, or a deer startled by us invading its little slice of paradise, and bolting through the woods. We just want it to go on and on, relishing the breather from having to decided where to travel to, negotiating unfamiliar roads, trying to find campsites, constantly planning where we go next. Our minds feel calm, and it’s wonderful.
The history of humans in this landscape continues to enthral us. In Australia it is so inaccessible to most non-indigenous folk like us, but here it’s around every coroner. The fire beacon on the top of a hill, lit to warn of invaders sailing up the estuary, there’s a story to be uncovered everywhere we look.
It was time to swap our boots for our bikes, and I had read about a cycle trail running through the coastal town of Barnstaple. The Tarka Trail (named after the 1927 novel, Tarka the Otter, set in north Devon) is over 200 kilometres of traffic-free path, the longest in the UK, and all running along old railway lines. Off we set, for our longest drive (at 90 minutes) since mid March. It felt like quite an adventure! We had read horror stories about the traffic on the coast, but this day it was empty, as was the car park, apart from the mobile virus testing station being run from a big army truck.
This was magnificent riding, we batted along and soon found ourselves passing though a number of small villages before settling on the beautifully positioned Instow, on the estuary of the river Taw and Torridge (just roll of the tongue don’t they?).
We chatted to a couple of fellow cyclists who turn out to be motorhomers as well, as we munched into our first proper Cornish pasty. Just blissful. We so miss that random connection with another human being sharing stories and learning from each other.
With 50 kilometres under our wheels we arrived back at our car park and noticed the army truck had left, and the 2.7 metre height barrier had been put back down. Given we are driving a 3 metre high motorhome, that became a problem!
It had been lifted up when we arrived and I had sailed through, not really anticipating it would be lowered and locked. Oops…several panicked phone calls to the council, who were wonderful, and a warden arrived to unlock it. Next problem, the army had changed the padlock and not told him the combination. He tried for a while to reach them with no success. We had visions of spending the night there, which would have been illegal under the current restrictions, with no bed linen, food or cooking equipment. Luckily in the end they reached the military men and we were released.
A fish and chip supper in Truffy on the way back and our day trip was complete. There is just something about well fried English fish and chips that tastes so delicious to us, starved of that in Australia where they do it very differently. I guess its what you grow up with, hard baked into your taste buds, like mother used to make Yorkshire pudding, in my case.
The only interruption to our serene regime comes when Catherine is out on a walk and arrives back carrying the tiniest baby rabbit (apparently called a kit).
She had noticed it lying on the road, just having been narrowly missed by a car and covered with gravel. Its little eyes were still closed it was so young, maybe a day old. Perhaps the victim of that fox we saw, or a buzzard? Catherine was straight on to her sister, who worked at the RSPCA, and armed with advice put a message out onto the local village chart group. A few minutes later a kindly neighbour has offered her a heat pad and syringe to try and get some nourishment into her. All we have is oak milk, but she takes it and seems to settle down in the cosy little warm nest we have made.
So here we are on the second morning with an addition to our household, and she is still with us. So two extra days of life for this little one. Catherine’s niece and nephew are loving following the story, and just for that alone its worth it. A cycle down to the local Co-Op rewards us with kitten milk, apparently the best substitute for doe milk. Catherine is almost clucking with maternal delight feeding her this morning, until the little one releases her first pee down her arm.
We have decided now she seems stable, that a name is appropriate. Catherine has the inspired idea of Bags..as in we are in West Bagborough, so Bags Bunny. I will leave you with that to roll your eyes and laugh at us, or with us, we don’t really care 🙂
Location: West Bagborough, Quantock Hills , Taunton and Walchet, Somerset, UK
With the government now encouraging people to drive as far as they like to enjoy outdoor activities, the Quantock Hills are starting to get busier, especially at the weekends. And by busier, I mean we actually see other people when we are out walking, but they are still quite a way away and easy to avoid!
It’s amazing still to us that we continue to discover new to us paths that wind through new areas, the scenery constantly changing as the leaves on the trees mature and new blooms burst through the undergrowth.
Saturday’s stroll through the hills took us up the usual 20 minute straight up walk to the top of the hills, and looped back around, taking us past the usual two tantalising yet closed pubs (Strava link). Still no glimmers of hope on the pub front for the UK unfortunately, all remaining firmly closed for now, despite calls for pub gardens to be opened up.
The above plantain plant is apparently listed as vulnerable – I remember seeing many in my childhood, but less so these days. I’ve learnt this plant is an antihistamine, antifungal, antioxidant, analgesic and a mild antibiotic! It is the best treatment for nettle stings, unlike dock leaves which are apparently a placebo…worth knowing for our next walk. As the trousers come off and shorts are worn, nettle stings are becoming all the more likely. Apparently the leaves from the plantain can make tea that works as cough medicine too. What a handy plant!
Tuesday: Mark had done a bit of reading about a cycleway which runs alongside the Taunton Canal, so worked out a 48km circuit through the hills, down to the canal, and back again via Taunton.
It was a great afternoon out, helped of course by the glorious weather again. The sunshine just keeps on coming – with the odd overnight rain shower just to make sure the landscape remains green.
You might be able to spot one of the many World War II pillboxes that line this canal ahead of Mr A in the photo above. Many of them sit abandoned, but some have now found new uses as bat roosts. There are many signs of WWII as we cycle along, including demolition chambers (now filled in) underneath bridges.
It was a fabulous ride, and gave us a good workout (yes, in spite of having batteries on our bikes!).
Wednesday afternoon we thought we would just do a short walk to get some fresh air…it turned out to be 11km (7 miles)! The ever changing scenery is addictive – we know we won’t be here forever, so just want to enjoy it while we can.
Thursday we decided to jump in Truffy and see somewhere new. We drove a short way north-west to the town of Watchet on the coast.
Watchet is a sweet little coastal town with a friendly and authentic feel. Its history goes back to the Iron Age, with a port then being settled by the Saxons. It was attacked by Vikings in the 10th century, and there are many tales of smugglers and battles to be read about. It’s a town of great traditions, with a lantern festival held each September. A group known as the ‘True Men of Watchet’ has met at the local pub on an annual basis since being founded in 1643, apparently representing the town court and responsible for law and order in the area…positions have names such as Ale Taster (Mr A wouldn’t mind this job) and Portreeve (like a ‘mayor of the people’). Fascinating! We couldn’t help but wonder how one might get membership to such a group, and what pomp and ceremony would accompany their meetings…
And again, everywhere we go seems to have a link back to Hastings. Apparently in 1067 after King Harold was slain, Harold’s mother Eleanor fled to Watchet, where she caught a boat out to Flat Holm Island in the Bristol Channel. After a few months there she caught a boat over to France and settled in Saint Omer.
The tides go out a long way here, with a range of 6 metres.
When there isn’t a pandemic, Watchet holds a weekly market down by the harbour, and an annual music festival.
The Pebbles Tavern looked like an interesting establishment – apparently dedicated to selling microbrewery ciders and ales, it has several awards and regular live music nights. We looked on wondering what it might be like…of course it is closed just now.
We spotted a signpost directing us to Fossil Beach, and took ourselves off for an explore. Despite the sunshine, there was a fresh breeze blowing, so we hoped to find somewhere sheltered to eat our lunch.
Fossil Beach was nice and sheltered from the wind, and full of interesting scenery. Much of the beach here is mudstone, ie fossilised river bed. Apparently the rocks found in the craters on Mars are most similar to those found here at Watchet, suggesting that there was water on the planet at some point.
It doesn’t take long to find fossils on the beach, and even an old piece of wall that has been smoothed and shaped over many years in the water. We left everything there for future visitors to enjoy.
Our halfway point of our walk was the train station at Doniford Halt, surrounded by fields and no town. No trains are running here due to the lockdown, and a couple of volunteers weeding told us the plan is not to open up the trains until next year.
We had a lovely afternoon out exploring, and are certain to come back and have another look along this interesting coastline.
After such an active week, the past two days we have given ourselves a break to recharge the batteries.
Location: West Bagborough, Minehead and Porlock, Somerset, UK
With the welcome news that as from this week, we were to be encouraged by the UK government to spend as long as we wanted in the outdoors, I widened my search parameters for local walks and rides. So far we have done everything from our front door. Now we could legitimately give Truffy, our little used motorhome, a badly needed run and get that oil moving round the engine and those batteries charged up.
I spotted references to a long distance path I confess to never having heard of before called the South West Coast Path, which fortuitously starts just down the road in Minehead. This path is part of the system of National Trails that criss-cross the UK, and this one happens to be the longest at a foot burning 1,014km (630 miles).
The route follows the old tracks used by lighthouse keepers when they walked between each lighthouse checking for smugglers. Now the walk runs from Somerset, through Devon and Cornwall and round to Poole Harbour in Dorset. Back in 2012 a piece of research was commissioned to estimate how much revenue walkers on the path brought into the local communities – a whopping £412 million (AU$775 million) – the equivalent of around a thousand jobs.
Well, unfortunately in these times of pubs and cafes being closed, we didn’t contribute anything into that pot on our first two jaunts onto the path, and not for the want of hunger or thirst. However, times will change and I’m sure we will going forward into peacetime.
The first walk we did (Strava link) was starting right at the “beach” (no, get that image of sand out of your head and picture rocks and shingle) in Minehead. The track soon had us climbing up onto the cliffs with stunning views over to Wales across the Bristol Channel. I appreciated how, over the length of the walk, someone had calculated that a person would be climbing the equivalent of four times the height of Mount Everest!.
We were mesmerised by the views once again, the coastline here is so rugged, the wildflowers spectacular. However, we both noted the muddy brown colour of the Bristol Channel. A bit of Googling revealed its the turbidity (now there’s a word you have to work into conversation) caused by the fast tidal flows along the River Severn which empties into it, plus the natural geology which makes the riverbed sediment-rich. Not somewhere I will be rushing to get the packrafts out into. We took the “rugged” option right along the cliffs. I was soon at my limit for high exposed walking. As I’ve got older I experience vertigo more frequently, and this was one of those movements. So we returned the way we had come, constantly mesmerised by the changes in the landscape, the variety of flora and fauna. This is a wonderful corner of the world.
Our second walk a few days later (Strava link) started in the small village of Porlock. Childhood home of one of dearest friends in Australia, Richard Dawes. It was wonderful wandering round imagining him as a boy darting down the little alleys. We so miss him and his wife Rosemary, and for a precious moment we felt connected across the miles.
Porlock is one of those picture postcard perfect Somerset sea side spots that I’m sure have tourists flocking in peacetime. On our visit we (thankfully) had the walks almost to ourselves.
We headed along a woodland path lined with bold robins puffing our their chests as if proudly showing off their habitat.
We soon emerged down at the beach (again..think lots of rocks), and followed the South West Coast path along the foreshore.
We only crossed paths with one other couple on our walk. When I struck up a conversation with them, they turned out to be good friends with the only other people we had got to know in Somerset! Synchronicity once again telling us that this is a place with a good vibe.
We gazed out to sea and realised not far over the horizon was Ireland, County Cork in particular. So many places still on the list. Perhaps our experience will be different when we travel in the future, but travel we will. We day dream as we wander of walking holidays exploring further along this National Trail, regularly voted one of the top long distance walks in the world. Perhaps…who knows….one day.
Can the world really take this opportunity for a once in a generation change for the better? Will more people begin to travel by electric car or instead work from home, and those with shorter distances to work jump on a bike (or e-bike) or walk instead? Can this cleaner air and quieter environment we’re enjoying be more permanent?
It seems the UK hopes so. Breathing in air pollution, particularly from diesel engines (nitrogen dioxides) and micro particles (PM2.5 – from brake pads being applied and wear and tear of tyres), is responsible for contributing to an estimated 9,500 deaths per year. The worst affected areas are unsurprisingly around London and the south-east of England, and the cleanest in the north of Scotland.
Since the lockdown began, some areas of the UK have already seen a 70% increase in cycle journeys. Mark and I have certainly been enjoying our 5km (3mile) each way ride to our local shops. And we have mentioned time and time again over our period here how much we are enjoying this clean air.
Selfishly, as people who enjoy being more in touch with the world the way cycling allows, we wholeheartedly support this approach. We would also relish the clean air that comes with more electric vehicles and bikes on the road.
The announcement of a £2 billion package to encourage cycling and walking – including pop up bike lanes, cycle and bus only streets, requirements for councils to create safer streets is also welcomed. If only we saw something like this in Sydney. Our friends there already have mentioned noticing an increase in air pollution, and the lockdown there is not yet fully lifted. I for one have often been deterred from cycling in Sydney because of the lack of safety on the roads. It’s so encouraging seeing the humble bike being one of the answers to getting the country moving again here.
Electric vehicles should help with reducing pollution too. The top two cars sold in the UK last month were both electric, with plans for increased numbers of charging points to support this in the future. I know that Mark and I would definitely go electric with our next vehicle, with Mr A already getting excited about the Tesla Model Y SUV. In contrast, the two best sellers in Australia were big Toyota gas guzzlers, with distance often blamed for the slow adoption of electric.
Less traffic means less noise of course, which for us, is one of the most stressful elements of city life. I read an article the other day which revealed the impact of city noise on birdsong with our feathered friends in city locations found to be singing at higher pitch to be heard over traffic (when compared to their country cousins). They also have been heard to sing faster and shorter songs.
With the lockdown still firmly in place, we have continued with our regular walks around the neighbourhood, traffic slightly increasing as people choose to travel further afield for walks, but still not too bad.
We’re still enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the country as the season progresses, waking up in the morning to birdsong and the little cries of lambs.
We did a fabulous e-bike ride in the last week as well, not long in distance (only 30km/18.6 miles) but very steep – and yes, before you say it, you do have to work hard even with a motor on your bike! (Strava link here)
Looping north through a couple of villages, we climbed up over the Quantock Hills, closer to the coast than we have ever been. Here, the heather and grass covered tops are fairly free from trees, but with the usual Exmoor Ponies and horse trekkers about.
The trees reemerged beside the road as we reaped the reward of a wonderful long downhill towards the village of Over Stowey.
Nether Stowey Castle was next lived in by the lord of the Manor of Stowey, who then abandoned it in the mid 1400s. Much of the stone from the original buildings was used to build what is now a grand manor house in the village, Stowey Court, the lord’s new home.
Not much remains of the castle other than a grass covered mound and ditch, but you can see the wonderful views they would have enjoyed.
Friday 8 May was VE (Victory in Europe) day, when Germany’s forces surrendered unconditionally to the allied forces, marking the end of World War II. This time last year we were in Reims in France, watching a rather sombre ceremony in the pouring rain.
This year was different all together. No marches, or ceremonies of remembrance, but still the bunting decorated the village and there were some socially distanced celebrations.
As we enter our eighth week here, the lockdown looks to continue for some weeks (or months?) more. The good news for us is that there are now slightly lifted restrictions which will allow us to drive to get out and about for our outdoor exercise. It looks like we might be able to see a little more of the immediate region while we are here after all.