I can't tell you how relieved I am that spring is here. Actual light! Actual warmth! Actual greenery! The world is waking up and I am cheering up.
And so, for no reason other than I'm happy, let's have some April photos. These aren't masterpieces, just a selection of pics from the iPhone (some mine, some Dan's), but does anyone really care about that when there are blossoms and blue skies and sunshine to be enjoyed?
(Just a little tune to look at photos by!)
Stuck in traffic around the back of Lewes, we decided to stop and explore Malling Down Nature Reserve. A brilliant idea, it turned out!
And so, we head into May. I want to gobble up as much lovely springtime I can, and I'm looking forward to some nice walks and trips to Wales, Oxfordshire, maybe Bristol . . . What are your plans?
Epic post ahoy! (But it's mostly photos - and tweets with photos - so don't be alarmed.) Over summer, we went on a road trip, visited a bunch of National Trust properties, camped a lot, saw several lovely friends and subsisted almost entirely on scones, pizza and instant noodles. It was a pretty great holiday, even if we got the best version of British Summer (i.e. rain) most days.
We recently bought ourselves life memberships of the National Trust (thanks to M&A for the gift). The National Trust owns a whole range of places, from castles and stately homes to countryside and coast, interesting historic houses, follies and factories. Most of these places are open to the public, the larger ones have cafés or restaurants, members get free entry and (usually) free parking. We decided that visiting a National Trust place every day would be a good way of exploring the country during our summer hols. Spoilers: we were right. Herewith, a bit about our trip (places marked with an * are not National Trust).
I always find it funny that English road signs will sometimes point to "The NORTH" or "The WEST" or "The SOUTH" (I don't think I've seen one to "The EAST" before - do they exist?). I don't know what the technical definition of those areas are, but I'm going to divide this post according to them anyway. Essentially, we started in Sussex and did a clockwise loop around England, albeit skipping some major parts and adding a short visit to Wales (and an even shorter, minutes-long trip to Scotland). We didn't visit many NT places close to home, because we'll go to them on weekends and short breaks . . .
Day 1: Barcombe Mills*, Ditchling Beacon, Devil's Dyke, Saddlescombe Farm
Our travels started off with a visit to Barcombe Mills for a walk. Then we headed along the line of the South Downs (Ditchling Beacon and Devil's Dyke) with sunshine and wind and forecasts of storms. Unfortunately, we couldn't stay where we planned on the first night due to a family illness, so we stopped off at a camping field - literally, we couldn't even find the loo! - at Saddlescombe Farm.
Day 2: Worthing Beach*, Mottisfont
The rain didn't let up, so we packed up the tent in the wet (not fun, as it was the first time we'd used this tent since last summer, so we were out of practice) and trundled off over the South Downs to Worthing Beach for breakfast (or morning tea, maybe). I picked a bit of sea kale while we were there, to add to our instant noodles later on. Our National Trust property of the day was Mottisfont, where we arrived just in time for the mediaeval history walking tour. Then it was off to our peaceful, if rather poorly signposted, campsite for the evening.
Day 3: Pepperbox Hill, Myncen Farm*, Hardy's Cottage, Max Gate, Loughwood Baptist Meeting House
We woke to a glorious sunrise and popped out of the tent to pick blackberries for breakfast (probably the best breakfast of our holiday, TBH, see ingredients in the tweet below). We set off across the counties of the south coast, stopping at Pepperbox Hill, following a sign to cider and arriving at Hardy's Cottage near Dorchester just as the rain set in. I've never been a huge Thomas Hardy fan, probably because I read Tess of the D'Urbervilles when I was too young to realise it was a condemnation of societal values and couldn't understand why someone would write something so horrible, let alone why people would choose to read it. However, both the cottage and Max Gate down the road were really interesting spots to find out more about domestic and social life of the period. Did you know people used tea leaves (after brewing them) to polish/stain their wooden floors? We called in at Loughwood Baptist Meeting House before heading to Exmouth.
The South West
We felt like we'd moved properly into different terrain. We drove through the long, lingering Downs-ish hills merging into Salisbury Plain, then suddenly we were in the steep green country of the South West, Somerset and Devon. We were in the area last year, and it felt good to return.
Day 4: Lower Halsdon Farm, Exmouth*, A la Ronde, Exeter*
We had a morning to ourselves, so we took advantage of the lovely weather and walked into Exmouth. Our Airbnb hosts told us about a new path that had been put in through a National Trust-owned farm, so we followed it down to the path that snakes around the estuary, enjoying views across the water and mussel beds. We stopped for a cream tea on the way back, which we ended up sharing with a little orange cat. The main event of the day was a visit to A la Ronde with our friend Rachael. Read about the history of the house here. We went to Exeter for a dinner of delicious vegan and vegetarian pizzas at The Flat.
Day 5: Knightshayes, South Hill
Goodbye, Exmouth! We took back roads slowly up to the north coast of Devon/Somerset, enjoying the views of hills and streams and stopping off at Knightshayes for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. The estate itself looked beautiful, but we spent most of our time inside the ridiculous Gothic-revival house, enjoying the first of many examples of ostentatious interior design. We learnt about linen presses (thanks, chatty volunteer), women's golf and a bit about the local lace-making industry (where the family made their fortune). Then we set off again, up to the remote-feeling hilltop expanses and steep, secluded valleys of Exmoor.
Day 6: Watersmeet, County Gate*
Our pretty campsite was tucked away in a wooded river valley sheltered between the high moors outside Porlock. I tried out my new water shoes with a paddle down the river. It was beautiful, and hard to leave for the day! But leave we did, for a wander along the streams and waterfalls to Watersmeet. Their card machine wasn't working, we didn't have cash and the car was parked a mile or so upstream, so after a quick look around we headed off. We went for a lovely little walk at County Gate, through the bright purple heather and yellow gorse (which they call furze, there).
Day 7: Glastonbury Tor, Costa at Shepton Mallet*, Kennet and Avon Canal at Bradford-on-Avon*
It rained! Are you surprised? Dunster Castle wasn't yet open, so we headed to Glastonbury Tor, somewhere I've wanted to visit for ages. We nabbed ourselves some free street parking and joined the train of folks heading to the summit. Oh my goodness. It rained sideways with such ferocity that one side of us was dripping while the other was quite dry. We could see barely a thing from the top. Then we had to come down, drenching our other sides. We were so wet. We bundled into the car, sitting on towels, and sought refuge in a retail park twenty minutes up the road where we tried to dry things under the hand dryer. Luckily, our Airbnb hosts were beyond lovely and helped us dry out. We even had bath robes! In the evening we went to visit our friend Dru, an artist, poet and engineer who lives on a narrow boat on the Kennet and Avon Canal.
Day 8: Dyrham Park, Bristol*
As we pulled in to the drive at Dyrham Park, I said to Dan, "Don't you feel like we're rich folk on a grand tour, visiting our friends in all their grand houses?" Dyrham is one of those classic National Trust properties - a big house, fancy garden, a cafe and bookshop in the stables and a deer park with spectacular views . We went on the volunteer-lead garden tour and it was fascinating to learn its history and the plans for further restoration. After Dyrham, we headed to Bristol, where we stayed with Allysse & co. Allysse and Emma took us out for some tasty pizzas. Mmm, yum.
Day 9: Cheddar Gorge, Wells*
After a relaxing morning, Allysse, Emma, Dan and I drove down to Cheddar Gorge, where we climbed a lookout, had lunch in the (very touristy) village and then walked around the top of the gorge. It's an amazing place! I guess I thought, in the back of my mind, that you don't get "big landscapes" in England - especially in the south. I loved everything about the walk and the company. Allysse and I recorded an intro for Queer Out Here. We saw wild goats . . . and Glastonbury Tor, in the distance, in the sunshine. After a few false starts (including an abandoned pub!), we ended up in Wells for dinner.
We love Wales (had you noticed?), so we couldn't really go from Bristol to Birmingham without popping in to a couple of our favourite places. It was fun to notice that our DuoLingo and Say Something in Welsh practice has paid off a bit - we could understand a few more signs this time. Gwych!
Day 10: Tredegar House
Allysse had to work, but Emma came with us to Tredegar House on the outskirts of Newport. We had a short wander around the ponds, then popped into the house. Once again, the room volunteers provided entertaining commentary on the history of the house and its owners. Fave quote about a fellow with a pet kangaroo: "As you can see from this photograph, he was gay." We went to a talk about the history of the property from Tudor times to its life as a school and council-run venue. It was warm, I was comfortable, I fell asleep. Sorry, volunteer presenter! We ate scones, dropped Emma at the station then headed on up to an Airbnb in Caerphilly.
Day 11: Lanlay, Caerphilly Mountain*
National Trust places seemed a bit thin on the ground in the immediate vicinity, but we found one: a field. OK, that makes it sound dull, when in reality Lanlay is a series of beautiful riverside meadows that have not been farmed since before WWII. This means the place retains traditional hedges and a huge diversity of wild herbs, grasses and so on - the kind of diversity I'd heard about, but it was another thing to see and truly understand what we've lost elsewhere and what people are working to bring back where possible. There was a sign encouraging people to pull up Himalayan Balsam, so rather than walking we went on a long weeding expedition. We had lunch with lovely friends (and it was a lovely lunch, although I think the soup broke two soup makers?!). After lunch we drove to the top of Caerphilly Mountain for a wander around the common/heath. All in all, an enjoyable day!
Day 12: The Sugar Loaf, Abergavenny*, Pen-Ffordd-Goch*, LLanthony Priory*
Up through the valleys from Caerphilly we went, heading towards a wonderful part of the world - the area around the Black Mountains/Brecon Beacons/Usk Valley/Wye Valley/Vale of Ewyas. First stop: a climb to the top of Sugar Loaf/YFâl. This was great. The climb gradually steepening to the rocky crest. We spent a while enjoying the excellent views and watching the rain jumping peaks towards us - Corn Du, Pen y Fan and Cribyn in the distance, then the nearer hilltops, then the Usk Valley, then . . . it missed us! We popped down to Abergavenny for lunch and over to Pen-Ffordd-Goch/Keepers Pond to find the road we'd seen from Sugar Loaf/Y Fâl. Finally, we drove to the sweet little campsite below the picturesque remains of Llanthony Priory/Priordy Llanddewi Nant Hodni. It felt like it had been ages since we'd camped - days since Exmoor - and it was good to be back in the tent.
The Middle Bits
A.K.A. Birmingham, Warrington and Manchester. (I originally called this section "The Midlands" and Derry told me off. Landscape-wise, it felt like we entered The NORTH only once we'd passed Manchester. And let's be real, Manchester's only about two thirds of the way from the south coast to Scotland!) This section of our trip was based more around seeing friends than any particular National Trust properties - but that's not to say we didn't visit some great places.
Day 13: Gospel Pass (Wales)*, The Weir Garden, Birmingham*
Leaving our campsite after a paddle in the nearby river (cripes, it was freezing!), we headed out over the Gospel Pass - one of my favourite viewing points in the world, I think! We then followed the Wye Valley around to The Weir Garden, set on a steep hillside overlooking the Wye. We'd stopped opposite it while canoeing down the Wye last summer and had filed it away as a place to come back to. Worth it! Then it was on to Birmingham, which we managed to do via quite a green route almost all the way into the city. We went to a pub quiz with our friend Rachael (who put us up for the night, too) where we came equal third - only 1.5 points below the winners. (I contributed only one, incorrect, answer - essentially, I think I lost the quiz for the team. Whoops!)
Day 14: Kinver Rock Houses, Alderly Edge, Warrington*
(A.K.A. the day I had chips for breakfast - classy!) We drove with Rachael to check out the Holy Austin Rock Houses at Kinver. These houses are part cave, carved into the red sandstone of Kinver Edge. People were living here up until the 1960s and the houses are refurbished in a cosy, domestic style along early-mid 20th century lines. Unlike many National Trust places, here visitors are encouraged to pick up the household items, sit in the furniture and feel what home might have been like in these fascinating structures. After most of the day out, we dropped Rachael back in Birmingham headed to our dinner date in Warrington, via Alderley Edge. I was such a fan of Alan Garner's books (these ones) as a kid and had a fantastic experience the first time we came to this area, remembering the books, matching the maps with places and going investigating. This was only a brief stop, but oh, wow, I still feel like I know these woods - and the things that might lurk there. It also made me want to re-read Boneland. Anyway! We had a good time with our friend Derry in Warrington. I had chocolate gnocchi for dessert.
Day 15: Quarry Bank, Manchester*
This was a bit of a terrible day, in that I didn't really eat properly until about 3pm. The less said about that, the better! But Quarry Bank was fascinating. The demonstrations were really informative and helped create a physical appreciation of the place's history - the noise, the dangers, the smells, the speed. We bought a tea towel woven on the machines in the factory and headed off to Manchester. It was such a pleasure to spend time with Sarah and Jit and their six cats (SIX CATS). We had a great walk along the canal into the city centre with Sarah, where we met Jit for a drink in the late afternoon sun before gorging ourselves on yet more delicious pizza.
Day 16: Lyme Park and House
After an amazing breakfast (thanks, Sarah - and thanks also for the amazing picnic lunch and dinner on this day!) we all piled into the car and headed off to Lyme. Another NT property with all the trimmings - deer park, stately home, formal garden, stables, orangery, etc. I got to play the piano (as I had at A la Ronde and Knightshayes) and we heard a talk about one of the owners of Lyme. Dan and I tried on the dress ups at pretty much every NT place where they were on offer, but Lyme was definitely the best. They had a whole room of clothes and volunteer assistants to help you dress and you could put on a complete outfit and wander around the property in it! We saw a few people in full costume around the house. Brilliant!
The North (The NORTH). I can count the number of times we've been north of Manchester on one hand (once to Scotland, once to the Yorkshire Dales, once to the Lake District), so it was great to be back! I think it feels so far away from us down on the south coast that we don't even think about going there on holiday. That's kind of changed after this trip, and I like to think that we'll visit The NORTH more frequently, now.
Day 17: John Rylands Library*, Malham Tarn Estate
Having had a lovely time with Sarah and Jit, we went with them into town and visited the John Rylands Library, where we wandered around an interesting exhibition, ogled the reading room and admired the very cool neo-Gothic spaces (the library has featured in the Harry Potter films). We ate a tasty brunch before setting off northwards, with no precise destination in mind. We wanted to check out Malham Tarn and the rain stopped just in time for a lovely stroll on the boardwalk. We spotted wildflowers and ate wild raspberries -yum! Further and further through the Yorkshire Dales we pootled, checking out a couple of campsites to no avail before stumbling upon a Camping and Caravanning Club affiliated one in Aysgarth, where we settled in for the night.
Day 18: Aysgarth Falls*, Tan Hill Inn*, Hadrian's Wall and Housesteads Fort
We'd never heard of the Aysgarth Falls before, but as we were camped nearby it only seemed right to toddle down for a peek and a paddle. It was a glorious morning, so we made the most of it. We decided to head for Hadrian's Wall in the afternoon, which meant another long drive, down quaint country lanes and up over crumbling moors (there is some seriously bad erosion going on up there). We stopped off for lunch at Tan Hill Inn, a popular spot not only because it's the highest pub in Britain but because the Pennine Way leads right to its door. We reached Hadrian's Wall later than we might have liked, but still had enough time to take in the exhibition as well as Housesteads Fort. It reminded me so much of The Wall in Garth Nix's Old Kingdom series, I was concerned by the lack of wind flutes. Having signed up to the CCC that morning, we checked the app for nearby campsites. As luck would have it, there was one just down the road that had space for us - and they even gave us half a dozen eggs!
Day 19: Wallington, Cragside
After the massive, crunched up hills of Yorkshire, Northumbria seems to stretch itself back out, with longer, lower rises and gentler valleys. Driving through the heather-drenched landscape, we found a sign pointing to Wallington, where red squirrels might be found. Of course, we stopped! An hour in the hide only turned up birds (mainly tits, robins, nuthatches, woodpeckers) and a tiny frog, but it was an enjoyable break. We headed to Cragside in the afternoon. A couple of people had mentioned this as a destination - and no wonder! It was the first home to be lit by hydroelectricity, so there's some interesting engineering history there, but it's also a great house (with the most ridiculous 10 tonne marble fireplace) and a gorgeous estate.
Day 20: Barter Books*, Lindisfarne, Scotland*
The day got off to a bad start. We couldn't find the car keys anywhere (we looked everywhere - the field, the tent, the facilities caravan) and presumed we'd locked them in the boot. We called our insurance to get a locksmith, but he got lost on the way and it took 2 hours for him to arrive. He opened the car, we still couldn't find the keys . . . until Dan went back into the tent, and there they were. Argh! Hungry for breakfast, we found a random cafe in nearby Alnwick - which turned out to be in the most awesome second hand book shop, Barter Books. After breakfast, we headed to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, parking in the dunes and finishing the trip on foot. It was packed with tourists and the castle was closed, so we bought some mead and walked back, the ghostly moans of the seals drifting across the water on the wind. As we were so close to Scotland, we popped up to cross the border. On the way back to the campsite I had a paddle at Cocklawburn Beach in the dark blue North Sea. The day ended better than it began with a delicious picnic (with mead, natch) in the low evening sunshine.
Back down to the East
And so we began driving south - "downhill" - out of The NORTH . . . it felt like we'd turned the corner and were heading back home. In fact, we reminded ourselves, we still had a week to go!
Day 21: Fountains Abbey
The Unthank sisters brought a tear to our eye as we passed Gormley's Angel. The day's stop was Fountains Abbey, set in the beautiful Studley Royal Water Garden, where we wandered the paths, enjoyed the interpretation timeline, admired the views, did a bit of knitting and of course ate a scone. I haven't mentioned every scone we ate. There were so many! I was quite the contributor (or should I say Sconepal?) to the National Trust Scones Twitter feed. That night we stayed in another CCC affiliated site - our first choice was a cute place that turned out to be wedged between two noisy motorways, but we ended up in a bleak semi-industrial landscape with pylons and smokestacks in the background. But the staff were nice, the food was fine and the showers were warm.
Day 22: Nostell, Sheffield*
Having camped not too far from Nostell, we got to the property early and had a peaceful stroll around the walled garden - and a few spins on the flying fox/zip wire! - before the crowds arrived. We went on an informative guided tour of the house, learning about the owners, architects/designers and collections. Our guide took pains to point out the collection of Chippendale furniture - some of which was horrible, in my non-expert opinion! In the afternoon, we headed to Sheffield to stay with our friends Vic and Jonjo (who have better taste) and went for a drink on a rooftop terrace to soak up some summery atmosphere. The last bit of our trip was shaping up to have much better weather.
Day 22: Tattershall Castle
After a homemade breakfast (thanks, Vic) we were off, heading towards Tattershall Castle. I didn't know what to expect, but I loved it! After seeing a few "in the style of" neo-Gothic or Romantic-mediaeval properties, it was good to get a feel for a space that is solidly middle ages - the big rooms, wide fireplaces, spiral stairways and windows over the moat. Mostly, though, I loved the graffiti, which had been scratched into the stone from the 1700s right through until the present. We heard others tut-tutting about it, but how cool to think of someone's hands running over that precise spot over 200 years ago. (Some of the graffiti was, perhaps, a little less authentic - check the tweet below.) We decided we'd rather not spend a night in the forecast storm, so we pushed on across the lowlands of Lincolnshire, through New York and Boston (yes!) and around the Wash to the comfy bed that awaited us in Norfolk.
In Norfolk: Morston Quay, Titchwell*, Sandringham*
Our road trip proper stopped in Norfolk, where we stayed with family in a holiday house for a while. I went swimming a couple of mornings, we visited Titchwell RSPB reserve a few times, we ate some good food and did some touristy things. Including . . . seeing seals! They were delightful to watch. Our final National Trust place was Morston Quay, near Brancaster. You can listen to the sound of boat rigging in the wind below. We also visited Sandringham (the Queen's house), which made for an interesting comparison with all the NT stately homes we'd seen. You only get to visit a handful of rooms, but they're apparently set up just as they are when Her Maj is in residence. It must be odd to live amongst the collections of stuff from past royals - there's a whole collection of jade ornaments, which I found especially unappealing. You can read a bit more about the interiors in this Country Life article, if you're interested.
And so our National Trust road trip was at an end. Dan and I agreed that it had been a great holiday.
We saw new sights, learnt many interesting things and had a ready-made structure to each day. Car camping was fairly low stress, though next time I would be a bit more organised - we took far too much stuff, probably because before we left we were concentrating on moving house rather than packing for a holiday. The Camping and Caravanning Club membership proved a happy medium between total spontaneity (and the stress that can bring) and complete pre-planning (and the lack of flexibility that can bring). Hopefully we'll use it again over the year. Speaking of memberships, I'd thought by the end of our trip I would be sick of National Trust branded literature and atmosphere, but it wasn't too bad - each place retained enough individual character to intrigue and charm us.
We were ready to stop by the end, though. As much as it was enjoyable to pop in to so many different parts of the country, I think next time we'll pick just one or two areas to explore!
Thanks so much to all the folks who put us up, fed and watered us and/or spent time with us: Rachael, Dru, Allysse, Emma, Kate & family, Rachael (another one!), Derry, Sarah, Jit, Vic & family, the Katzes.
In which I
In which I do things and write about them
In which I tag
In which I archive