I am lucky enough to have travelled a fair bit, both through work and on holidays. I usually take my camera and blog about where I have been. For bigger trips I do a day by day trip report, partly to document where I have been and to let family at home know I am safe, but also because these are some of my most popular posts.
The boy’s school has got a geography display, showing where students have travelled to this year. They asked for parents to share some photos for the display, and I could not resist sending a few in. As I had collated a group of images I thought I would also share them here.
Cheddar Gorge: from our Somerset weekend. The boys, particularly Henry, did so well walking around the top of the gorge. It was a long walk for little legs. I was not sure that the panorama would work well, so I snuck in a photo of Owen too.
Hadrian’s Wall: also from our summer road trip, but I thought it would be relevant as Romans are one of the history topics at school.
The England/Scotland border: I just wanted to see if a photo of the van would make it on to the display.
The Tweed Valley: I do not think anyone else at school would have appreciated the Tweed Valley, so I added a shot of Owen riding at Glentress. I skipped out Edinburgh from the second part of our road trip, as it looked like someone else had already submitted a photo for that.
Saltburn-by-the-Sea: This photo of the pier at Saltburn, from the last stop on our road trip, is one of my favourite photos that I have taken this year. I also felt like I should add in a photo of Henry, as I had included a few of Owen.
The boys have not seen the display yet, but the geography teacher has thanked Owen for the photos. I do not think we have got any more trips planned with the boys in 2023, but when we are on our travels next year, I’ll be sure to get some more location photos just in case.
After picking up cakes from the bakery in Peebles, we started the drive south, back to England. After enjoying our visit to Birdoswald Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall on the way to Peebles, we decided to stop at Corbridge Roman Town just across the English border. We had not checked that there would be a cafe – so it was a good job that we had picked up some cakes before we left! We ate our “lunch” sat amongst the ruins of the Roman town. The boys loved clambering over the ruins as they played hide and seek. I much prefer this sort of historic attraction to one that is all roped off. What struck me about the town was how well-engineered things were, with buildings with raised platforms for storing grain, and water systems. And of course that these were still visible two thousand years later! From Corbridge we carried on south, skirting around Newcastle and catching a glimpse of the Angel of the North, and as we got nearer to Saltburn, eventually arriving on roads familiar from our trip to Staithes last year.
We arrived in Saltburn too early to check in to our Airbnb, but we were able to park on the street outside, and went straight down to the beach – the boys had been looking forward to it all holiday! The tide was in, so there was no space to build sandcastles, but it was great for jumping in the waves. When we visited Saltburn last year we had fish and chips at The Seaview Restaurant, however, it had been featured on a BBC food programme, so is now super popular, and we could not get a table. Last year, we spotted Tomahawk Steakhouse across the road, so we booked into there instead. It was a good move – the food was great, and we had a nice sea view. Whilst we were waiting for our food we saw a fire on the headland in the distance, which started to get bigger. By the time we had finished our main courses, the fire brigade had arrived to put it out.
As we finished our dinner, it became clear that there was going to be an epic sunset, so I rushed back to the flat to grab my camera and tripod, for a photography session on the beach. Saltburn is one of the few places on the east coast of England where the sun sets into the sea, as the town faces north, so I was hoping for some epic photos. I was probably a few minutes too late for the best, golden, light, but stuck around on the beach for another hour or so and was rewarded with a lovely pink and purple sunset. I mainly shot around the pier, and my favourite composition was directly under it, with a neutral density filter on my lens to give a longer shutter time to blur the water. But when I got the pictures onto my laptop, I preferred the one at the top of this post, looking back at the pier and the pink sky, again with a neutral density filter to blur the water. As I wanted to move quickly, I had only taken my camera, with standard zoom, tripod and filters with me – which I regretted as I climbed the steps up from the beach to be met by a crowd lined up to photograph the “Super Blue Moon” over the headland, which had earlier been on fire. Nonetheless, it was probably my best photography session of the year.
The plan for the last full day of our holiday had been to have a beach day – but the weather did not agree with our plan! As it was a bit grey and windy, we had a quiet morning at the flat before trying to get a table for lunch at the Sea View Restaurant, again our plans were scuppered, this time by an extremely long queue. So we went for a round of mini-golf, to see if the queue went down at all. It did not. After our round of mini-golf, which I won, the queue was even bigger! Instead, we got a takeaway, and sat on the beach to eat it – the fish and chips were good, even if the boys did not really appreciate them. We also managed to avoid any seagull attacks. In the afternoon we returned to the beach. It was cold, but the boys still managed to do some digging, whilst Jen and I wrapped ourselves up against the wind. The boys and I also had a windy game of frisbee. As the beach at Saltburn is lower than the town, there are a lot of steps to climb back up. Fortunately, there is also a Victorian cliff railway to take you back to the town – we made use of this to get back to our Airbnb. Walking back, we noticed that the corner shop at the top of our road had a great butcher/deli/cake counter, so we picked up some things for a light dinner and some cakes for afternoon tea. Although it was not the beach day that we had hoped for, it was nice to have a relaxing day. In the evening Owen and I went out for a walk with our cameras. The light was not as good as the previous evening, but it was still nice to get out together.
Before setting off for home, we had another little walk around Saltburn stopping to pick up breakfast at another little bakery, where their “meal deal” meant it was cheaper for us to also pick up some cakes! We ate our breakfast (but not the cakes) on a bench overlooking the sea, which was a really nice way to end our time in Saltburn. We broke up our journey home with another English Heritage stop – at Brodsworth Hall and Gardens, chosen because it had a playground and cafe, and only added a few minutes to our route. It was nice to explore the gardens and stretch our legs, but I think we were all quite keen to get back home by this point, so did not stay for too long.
I feel like this whole road trip has been one of our best family holidays. Heading north for our main summer holiday was always going to be a risk, but other than our planned beach day, the weather was mostly pretty good, in particular the days we were in Scotland. The multiple-stop road trip is my favourite type of holiday, but not always easy with small children, now that the boys are older it worked really well. We managed to keep all the drives below two hours so the boy did not get too bored. Despite it being our longest trip with the boys, and also having bikes and kit for all of us, we managed to pack sensibly and did not have to perform much “van Jenga”. We packed smaller cases for both the Lake District and Saltburn, only emptying the van fully when we were in Peebles. We wanted to try a UK road trip as a trial run for a future European road trip, and other than the longer distances involved I think that it will work well. As we were driving home, one of my main takeaways from the holidays was how much I enjoyed visiting all the small bakeries. The thing is, that we actually have a really nice bakery near our house, so we are going to make an effort to go there more and keep the holiday feelings going.
Our second base for this trip was the Scottish Borders, more specifically the town of Peebles in the Tweed Valley. Mountain bikers will need no introduction, but for everyone else, the Tweed Valley is a mountain biking hot spot, with some of the best trails and infrastructure in the world. It was the venue for the Mountain Bike XC competitions at the World Cycling Championships a few weeks before our visit, and is home to many professional mountain bike racers.
As we drove up the A7, a route I remember from visiting my granny when I was younger, we stopped for a quick photo at the border. Arriving in Peebles, we found our holiday cottage tucked away down a quiet pedestrian street near the town centre. It was nice to have secure bike storage there, rather than worrying about the bikes being left in the back of the van. Once settled in, we went out for a walk to explore the town, starting with a walk around Hay Lodge Park, then across the Tweed on a footbridge and back into town on the main road bridge. We walked up the high street, picking up some food for breakfast, and finally calling in at Jim Jack’s Fish and Chip shop to get our dinner. Jen and I had haggis supper (deep fried battered haggis and chips) – one of my favourite meals – and the boy had sausages. It was good to be back in Scotland!
The plan for our first full day in Peebles had been to go for a family bike ride, either at Glentress trail centre or along the cycle path between Innerleithen and Peebles. However, the boys did not want to go out, they just wanted to stay in and watch TV. So rather than forcing them out of the house, I went for a solo ride at the Golfie. These semi-official trails in Caberston Forest, above Innerleithen, are known as “the Golfie” because the access point is next to the golf course. The trails have been cut into the steep hillside and are known as some of the best in the world, having played host to Enduro World Series rounds over the last few years. As the trails are unofficial there are no signposts, but thanks to Trailforks, I was able to find the trails. I decided to start with the lower section of the Wardell Way, as there was not a big climb to the start, and was one of the easier graded trails. After what felt like a long slog up the fire road I got to the entrance to the trail – it looked steep, rocky and loose and I could not see where the trail went. Quite an intimidating trail to drop into! The ride down was good, at the limit of my comfort level, but it is good to push yourself sometimes! The trail mostly cut across the slope, with the occasion tight hairpin bend and I was buzzing when I popped back out on to the fireroad. Having survived the first trail, I decided to climb even further back up the fire road to ride “Flat White”, possibly the most well-known trail at the Golfie. It was a long climb, but not too steep, and there were plenty of other riders out, despite it being a working day in Scotland. I did not need to check the map to know that I had arrived at “Flat White” – I recognised the entrance from many Instagram posts! After the tame start, in the photo above, “Flat White” got serious – it is a series of steep corners down the hill, peppered with the occasional drop. As I was riding down I noticed lots of toadstools by the side of the trail, which always makes me think of getting a speed boost, like on Mario Kart – however, given the steepness, I did not need a speed boost! Usually, I would have stopped to take a photo, but I felt like it was safer to keep riding, starting again on the trail would have been tricky. It was by far the most technical trail I have ridden, and I really enjoyed it! The Golfie more than lives up to the hype, and I am glad that I was able to ride there, even if it was just a short taster.
After lunch at the cottage, we had another walk around Peebles, stopping for an ice cream at Caldwell’s on the high street. Then in the evening, we went to Franco’s Italian Restaurant, after a recommendation from a friend. We all loved Franco’s – the food and service were great. I was particularly impressed with Henry, who ordered spaghetti bolognese and ate it himself, without making a big mess. Despite his earlier ice cream, Owen insisted on ordering a large sundae for dessert, then struggled to eat it – Jen and I had to help, and I can confirm that the ice cream was good too. Once the boys were in bed, Jen and I watched the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo on television – because we would be going to Edinburgh the next day.
The boys knew that we would be going to Edinburgh, but what they did not know was that we would be meeting up with my parents, who were also having a few days in Scotland, nor that my cousin Valerie would be joining us from Paris, and that my Auntie Isabel would also be getting the train down from Aberdeen to join us. Part of the plan was to drive to Tweedbank, near Galashiels, to meet my parents and get the train along the new (in 2015) Borders Railway. It meant driving in the opposite direction to Edinburgh, but it is a scenic railway journey and goes through the village where my dad grew up. Even after arriving at Tweedbank station, and parking next to a white Porsche Macan S “just like Grandpa’s” the boys still had not figured out the surprise. We had kept the secret for months, and the plan worked perfectly – the boys had no clue until they actually saw my parents and cousin at the station. It was a nice train ride through the Borders to Edinburgh, giving us all the time to catch up, Henry really took a shine to Valerie, who he had not seen since he was a baby. Then after the train pulled into Waverley Station, we met my auntie, which was another surprise for Owen. Henry had only met Isabel when he was a little baby, so did not remember her.
Even though we were too late to book tickets, we walked up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle just to have a look. It was busy, both with tourists and workers dismantling the seating from the Tattoo the previous evening. Unfortunately, this meant that we could not get to the walls to admire the view over the city, so instead, we walked back down the hill to Princes Street Gardens, stopping for a photo at the scene of the last trick on Danny MacAskill’s Inspired Bicycles film – one of Owen’s favourites. It was a nice day, so we sat at the cafe in the park for a bit, enjoying ice creams and coming up with a new plan. We decided to visit the planetarium at Dynamic Earth, at the bottom of the Royal Mile. After a lot of walking, it was nice to sit down and watch a couple of short films – one about satellites and another about deep sea creatures. From the planetarium, we walked back to the New Town for a meal before getting the train back to Tweedbank.
We had planned to ride at Glentress on our last full day in Peebles, but it was becoming apparent that Owen was actually not feeling very well, rather than just being reluctant to ride. After a full Scottish breakfast at a hotel in town and a quick look around the shops he had perked up a bit, so we drove to Glentress. The revised plan was that Jen and the boys would go for a chilled ride while I did a short loop on the blue/red trails. By the time I got to the top of the first descent, “Berm Baby Berm,” I got a message from Jen to say that Owen was feeling better, found the trails too tame and wanted to ride with me. It was a fun ride back down to the cafe, on the blue-graded trail. There were plenty of optional, bigger, features to make the trail more technical – almost as if it had been specifically designed for the differences in abilities when parents ride with their kids. I caught up with Jen and the boys at the cafe and adjoining bike shop – which the boys had already scoped out. Owen has got a bit too used to getting a treat from the bike shop whenever we ride anywhere with one and this time it was a Fox hoodie. I also treated myself to a Glentress T-shirt, but Henry was left disappointed, as they did not really have anything small enough for him. Owen and I decided that we would ride as far up the hill as he could, then ride back down. He liked seeing the remnants of the bigger features from the XC World Championships course, which we had watched on television a few weeks previously. Owen seemed to be struggling on the climb – I think the adrenaline from the earlier ride had worn off, so we rode back down at the first opportunity. It was a fun ride back down though, further than he had ridden with Jen and Henry earlier, and I was happy with the photo I got of Owen on the boardwalk section. It was only when I was processing the photo that I realised how ill he looked. As we got back to the van we spent some time watching the trail builders working with their digger, which Owen loved. For years Owen said he wants to be a “digger driver” when he grows up and I think driving a digger and building trails would be the dream!
Back in Peebles, we had a post-ride treat lined up – a visit to Cocoa Black, a chocolate cafe! We had cakes and one of the best hot chocolates I have ever had. We also bought a chocolate haggis to bring home with us. Owen still was not feeling great, so Henry and I took a walk to the park, and back along the river – spotting a heron on the way. We had dinner at the house – Jen and I had lasagne pies from the butchers in town, and they were great!
After packing up the van, we had one last thing to do before leaving Peebles – visit The Fat Batard Bakery – I have been following their Instagram account for a while and their cakes looked amazing, but our final morning was the only chance for us to visit, so we bought some cakes for the road, and pointed the van south to start our return journey.
I really enjoyed visiting the Tweed Vallet, and feel like it is somewhere I will return to, especially as Owen missed so much of the riding. There is a lot of trail work happening at Glentress, so it should be even better, but even without the mountain bike facilities it just felt like a really nice place to visit, and a lot easier to get to than the Highlands.
We decided to head north for our road trip this year with our first stop, for three nights, being in the Lake District – somewhere that Jen and I have only ever visited briefly, and somewhere completely new for the boys. We are staying in a camping pod on a farm near the village of Troutbeck, above Lake Windermere. It is beautiful here, there are three (ensuite!) camping pods, and a communal hobbit house, in a field with a stream/waterfall running behind them, and a view down the valley to the lake.
After managing to load the van up with minimal fuss, the drive up the M6 was not too bad. Other than the usual traffic hotspots we managed to make decent time. The boys even managed to alternate napping, so there was minimal squabbling in the back of the van! After exploring the pod and hobbit house, we walked to the local pub, The Queens Head, for dinner. After the long drive, it was nice to stretch our legs. Once the boys were in bed, I was hoping to benefit from the dark skies to get a photo of the Milky Way, but the cloud cover had come over.
We spent our first full day in the Lake District on a cruise on Lake Windermere. We drove to Bowness and got on the “red cruise”, which covers the lake’s northern half. Henry was not too sure about the boat at first but then decided he enjoyed it. Our first stop was at Brockhole, the National Park visitor centre, where the boys loved playing on the adventure playground. After a few hours at Brockhole we got on another boat and continued our cruise to Ambleside, where we took the scenic route to the village centre, via the ruins of a Roman fort. After a quick ice cream stop, we walked back to the pier to catch the boat back to Bowness. The return leg was on a much bigger boat, and we had much better views across the western shore. The cruise was a great way to see the lake, especially being able to hop off at various points. Back in Bowness, we went for an early dinner – pizzas at the Tap Rooms, before heading back to the pod, to play the Lakes edition of Monopoly in the hobbit house.
Saturday in the Lake District started with Parkrun – Jen and Owen both did Rothay Parkrun, back in Ambleside. Owen even set his fastest Parkrun time! Henry and I played on the playground, took photographs and cheered them on. From Ambleside, at the northern tip of Lake Windermere, we continued around, by van this time, to Wray Castle – a Victorian castle, now owned by the National Trust. Every guide I had read about “what to do with kids in the Lake District” mentioned the great playground at Wray Castle. Unfortunately, it was closed. Nonetheless, we still had a good time. I particularly enjoyed the exhibition of Victorian-era photography, showing life in the Lake District. I had also read about the “flat, traffic-free” cycle route along the western shore of the lake, from Wray Castle to Claife Viewing Station, another National Trust property 7km to the south, so we decided to ride there. The terrain was mostly flat and mostly traffic-free, but with a few steep hills chucked in, and a few sections of narrow road shared with cars. The boys coped well with the ride, but there was no way we would be able to coax them 7km back to Wray castle – and up the hill that the castle is at the top of. So Jen stayed at Claife Viewing Station with the boys and I rode back as quickly as I could to get the van and drove to collect them. Due to the geography of the western shore, the ride back on my bike was only five minutes longer than the return journey in the van, which took the long way around, along Esthwaite Water and past Hill Top, the former home of Beatrix Potter. After picking up Jen and the boys we caught the car ferry across the lake back to Bowness, which was much busier than the previous day. It took us a while to find a parking space, and even then it was a long way out of town. We had another (early) pub dinner, at the Village Inn – Jen and I both went for their speciality, Hungarian Goulash. We got dessert from the ice cream shop we had spotted the day before, which we ate down by the lake.
After packing up our pod, one of the downsides of multiple-stop road trips, we set off north, over the Kirkstone Pass to Glenridding and along Ullswater, to be M6. The van coped much better with the pass than Jen’s FIAT 500 did when we last drove over it probably ten years ago! Before crossing the border, we stopped off at Birdoswald Roman Fort, on Hadrian’s Wall. I have driven to Scotland many times but had never stopped at Hadrian’s Wall, so this felt like a good opportunity, especially as Owen has been showing an interest in the Romans. We were caught in a heavy rain shower whilst exploring the remains of the fort, so headed inside to look at the exhibits and grab some lunch. The “build yourself a model Roman wall with Lego” exhibit went down very well with the boys! After having learned about Roman forts, and Hadrian’s wall, we walked/climbed on the wall before continuing north to our next stop.
We all really enjoyed our short time in the Lake District, especially staying in the camping pod. It felt like we barely scratched the surface of what was on offer in the Lake District. Jen said she thought it was one of the nicest places we had been with the boys and it is definitely somewhere that I would like to return to.
As a family, one of our goals for 2023 was to get out for more family trips in the van. The first main trip we had planned was to Cruise to the Prom at Weston-super-Mare, mostly because it gave us a date in the calendar for a weekend at the seaside, but also because the event ticket was cheaper than paying to park for the day near the beach. As the event started early, we decided to make a weekend of it – staying in a hotel, rather than the van though.
After loading up the van we drove down to Cheddar Gorge – somewhere Jen and I had briefly stopped at ten years ago. We decided to do the clifftop walk, which started with the 274 steps of Jacob’s Ladder. Starting this way meant that we had to pay almost £20, which seemed steeper than the steps, given that most of the walk was on public rights of way! At the top of the steps, there was a tower – which meant another 48 steps to climb. The view from the top of the tower was good, but as we carried further along, and up, the cliff top path the views got even more spectacular (click on the panorama above so see the full image). The plan had been to walk to the “Pinnacles” section, but the boys seemed to be coping well, so Jen suggested that we did the full 5km loop back along the other side of the gorge and back to the village, rather than retracing our steps.
After the Pinnacles section, the trail was a lot quieter, but also rockier, but we took our time and made it down to the road at the top of the gorge. It was only the last few metres where we were able to actually see the road, as the top of the gorge is that far above the road. This was roughly the halfway point of the walk, we had to cross the road and walk back to the village on the north side of the gorge. The trail on this side seemed a bit easier, but only slightly. Owen picked up a big stick to help him over the rocks, although I think it was more for effect. On the way back, we also saw some of the goats that have been introduced to help with biodiversity. When we got back to the village, we treated ourselves to ice creams at Holly House tea rooms.
We drove up through the gorge, to get the alternative view of where we had walked, then carried on to Burnham-On-Sea, where we bought fish and chips and ate them on the beach and had a walk along the prom, before checking in to our hotel for the night.
In the morning we got up and out of the hotel fairly early to join the VWs and cruise to Weston-super-Mare. We arrived just after the gates of the garden centre we were meeting at opened, and there were a few other VWs in the car park, mainly Transporters like ours. What I had not expected was that VWs of all shapes and sizes, but mainly Transporters, would be flooding into the car park for the next hour. There were hundreds of them! However, when hundreds of cars, and vans, try to leave a car park at the same time it causes a bit of a jam, and being one of the earlier arrivals it took us a long time to get out as the car park emptied row by row. Then it was just a case of following the long line of VWs to the Beach Lawns in Weston-super-Mare.
When we had parked up we took a quick look through the fields of VWs – even more than had been in the convoy, but mainly used the show as a base to explore Weston-super-Mare. I had only ever driven through the town and along the promenade, and Jen and the boys had never been at all. After a late breakfast, I believe our first of the year eaten outside, we took a stroll down the promenade, stopping at the Grand Pier to play on the arcades, before continuing down to the Marine Lake – a nice tidal pool and beach at the north end of the town. We then walked back to the van stopping en-route for ice creams – it had been another day with a lot of walking! After wandering back through the VW show, we picked up our beach stuff from the van, crossed the road onto the beach and let the boys have some time playing in the sand.
After the beach we went back to the now emptying show as I had two things I wanted to do before leaving. I had finished building Henry a new bike (a hand-me-down from Owen) and wanted him to give it a test ride before he took it to school, for “Wheelie Day” a few days later. I also wanted to test out the awning, and awning rail, I had bought for the van. However, after getting the awning out of its bag and connected to the rail on the van, it became obvious that it was a bit too windy for an awning, so confirming that all the required pieces were there, we put it back in the bag to use on a less windy day.
Then there was just the small matter of the drive back up to Coventry. Henry said he needed to have a wee, then fell asleep straight away, so we decided to have a McPitstop at Cribbs Causeway. After which, the boys both stayed away all the way home – surprising after such a busy weekend! Cruise To The Prom is an annual event, and one that I hope we can go to again in the future, albeit maybe without joining the organised convoy to the event. The VW show added another element to a day out at the seaside and Weston-super-Mare was nicer than we expected. This is good news for Owen, as he will be going back there in a few weeks for a school trip!
Owen has had a busy end to his summer holidays – a visit to the Malverns Classic MTB festival, a trip to Skegness with his mum and grandparents, and then a trip to Wales with me. The main reason for the trip was that our friends Nicki and Mat were over from Australia to compete in the Dragon’s Back race from Conwy Castle to Cardiff Castle, running the whole length of Wales, via many mountains! They were visiting us in Coventry, so rather than letting them get the train to Conwy, I drove them up in the van and Owen came along for the ride! We dropped Nicki and Mat off in Conwy – it looked like a lovely little town, and I would have liked to stay there for dinner, but had already promised Owen a “traditional British seaside” experience, so we set off across the estuary to Llandudno. Conwy has jumped to the top of my places for a weekend away with Jen though, as I know she would love the castle and town walls in the historic town. I’d also like to drive the MR2 around the Great Orme.
Our first stop in Llandudno was fish and chips. Owen wanted to go to a sit down restaurant, so we did that, even though the takeaways looked better. Owen did get an ice cream to eat at the beach. After the beach we went to the arcades – Owen’s favourite part of a seaside visit. He was especially excited to find the Luigi’s Mansion arcade game – he loves all things Super Mario. After the arcade we got some doughnuts to eat as we walked along the pier, where we got a nice view of the sunset.
We stayed overnight at the Premier Inn, and set off early for Coed-y-Brenin, after a McDonald’s breakfast. The weather forecast had been for rain over North Wales, but despite some overnight rain, the sun was out and there was barely a cloud in the sky. It was a great drive over, although would have been better in my MR2. The last time I rode at Coed-y-Brenin was eventful to say the least – whilst warming up on the blue graded Minotaur trails, my friend Partho overcooked a small jump and broke his jaw, requiring an ambulance, a North Wales hospital tour and his jaw being wired shut for six weeks. Since Owen learned to ride a bike there has been banter about who would complete the Minotaur trail first. Partho and I had been planning a return trip in April 2020, but we all know how that panned out. So it was Owen that had the first shot.
Owen smashed it! Including a stop for photos on “Partho’s jump”. Owen rode all of the descents really well, although he still needs to work on climbing, as he would rather get off and push the bike than change down a gear to make it easier to pedal. Since my last visit a fourth loop has been added to the trail, mostly on fireroads, with a waterfall viewpoint, so we thought it would be worth investigating. Other than a few climbs on the fireroad it was easy riding, and it was good to see the waterfalls. Towards the end of the extra loop there was a fun bonus singletrack section. The climb back up the hill to the visitor centre was a bit of a slog, especially for Owen, but we got there in the end and treated ourselves to hotdogs on the visitor centre balcony. The ride was exactly fifteen kilometres, one of Owen’s longer rides, so it was no wonder that he was absolutely shattered afterwards.
Owen is interested in Spitfires, and enjoyed a visit to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford last year, so on the way home from Coed-y-Brenin we stopped at the RAF Museum at RAF Cosford, near Wolverhampton. It was only a brief visit, as we arrived just over an hour before it closed. The first exhibition we visited was the Cold War hangar – I liked how some of the aircraft were suspended at various inclines, especially the English Electric Lightning pointing vertically upwards, as if performing its vertical climb party piece. However, the Avro Vulcan was my favourite plane on display – I remember seeing them flying when still in service with the RAF, so it was great to be able to get up close to one. We had a quick tour of Hangar 1, which had a varied selection of planes, including James May’s life size Spitfire Airfix model – I think Owen would enjoy watching that programme. What Owen wanted to see though were real Spitfires, so we cut though the Test Flight hangar, and went to the War in the Air exhibition, which had two Spitfires, a Hurricane and a Messerschmitt BF109. This was Owen’s favourite part of the museum. Even with traffic on the M6, it only took us an hour to get home from the museum, so I am sure that we will visit again, and make a full day of it, so that we can see all the exhibits properly.
Martyn Ashton is a legend of mountain biking, so when I heard that he would be giving a talk about his career I had to go. My friend Partho was keen to join me, and as the talk was at Buxton, in the Peak District, we decided to make a day of it. As we were not taking bikes, it meant that we could take my MR2 Roadster for the drive – so of course we went via the country roads.
Enroute, we stopped at The Roaches, a rocky area between Leek and Buxton, for some photograhy. We had a rough plan of walking up to Doxsey Pool, which is allegedy bottomless and inhabited by a mermaid. However, the directions we were following were somewhat vague, and we parked in the wrong place, so walked up Hen Cloud instead. It was really windy at the top, but the view was good. Even if the light was not great for photography. It was good to break up the drive, and we both want to return another time and ideallly do the walk we orginally planned and hopefully with better light!
On the drive in to Buxton we passed Flash, where I remembered stopping on a breakfast drive a few years ago. We had some time to kill in Buxton before our dinner reservation, so took a stroll around the Pavilion Gardens and past the Crescent and spa – it seemed like a nice town worth going back to. We had a great Mexican dinner at The Lone Star.
Martyn’s talk was great – the first half covered the moment up to his lifechanging accident in 2013 – I remember reading Mountain Bike UK magazine in the late nineties, and Martyn was always in it, so it was good to head some stories from that first golden era of mountain biking. It ended with Road Bike Party – including a viewing of the film, for those in the audience without a six year old child who regularly asks to watch it! Martyn shared a lot of still photos, which I always prefer to videos, but the one I found the most powerful was that split second before his accident, the bike about to hit the bar he was landing on. The second half of the show covered his long recovery and the second-half of his career, and the rise of adaptive mountain biking – a truely inspriational story.
After the talk, it was time for the long drive back to Coventry, however I love roof-down drives on a warm summers evening and I had one of my best drives in ages, on mostly empty roads. It was a late night, but well worth it!
After our trip to Bluestone in 2019, Owen regularly asked when we would be going back. It was a great holiday, so we booked a short break for May 2020, our last opportunity for a term-time holiday for a while. We all know how that ended! So we moved our booking to 2021, during Owen’s school summer holidays.
On our previous trip, we were in my BMW 120i, which was not at all suitable for a family holiday – packing was much easier with the van! We broke up the journey at Dare Valley Country Park, where we had a nice lunch outside in their courtyard. After lunch the boys checked out the adventure playground, then the new pump track – the reason that we were there! The pump track (and family-orientated downhill trail, with uplift service) only opened this month, but I had heard good things about it. I was impressed with the asphalt pump track, the only niggle I have with it is that there is not a natural exit point, without crossing the track. Both of the boys rode really well. Henry was not at all phased by the biggest rollers and berms he had ridden, despite all bigger kids whizzing around. Owen was in his element, just putting in lap after lap.
From our stop, it was another ninety minutes to Bluestone, which Henry slept for most of. In total on the way from Coventry to Bluestone we saw 124 VW Transporter leisure vans (only T5 or newer, not including panel van etc) – we only saw one MR2 Roadster.
We had the same type of cabin as our last visit – a detached “upside-down house”, just down the hill from last time. Inside it was almost identical, but with different views out of the windows, which I found a bit confusing. The house was nearer to the “village” centre, so we took the boys down in the evening to explore and burn off some energy on the playground. It only took Owen 76 seconds to run back to our front door!
Our first full day started with a three bike convoy (Henry on the Mac Ride on Jen’s bike) to “The Hive” a large soft play centre, which was new since our last trip. The boys loved it – Henry especially, as he has missed out on soft play sessions and this was his first proper exposure. We then moved on to the Serendome, an undercover, but just about outdoor, area with loads of activities for the kids. The “building” area, which was Owen’s favourite, had been replaced with an area for craft activities, but the disappointment was short-lived once the boys got to the sandpit, where they played happily until Owen’s “Wacky Racers” pedal car session. Owen had not been old enough for the pedal cars on our first trip and was very excited to drive his car, which he christened “The Crazy Giraffe”. After a brief slalom to test driving abilities, Owen led out the first drive down the hill, stopping to collect coloured discs at a few points down the hill, then full pelt into the crash-pad at the bottom. Next was a timed hill climb back to the start – Owen did particularly well on this. The last run down the hill was a test of smoothness, a small bucket of water was placed on the car, with instructions not to spill any. Owen managed to not spill any at all – which I was very proud of. The races finished with a couple of celebratory laps around the Serendome.
In the afternoon, we left Bluestone and headed to the beach – Freshwater West, as we had enjoyed our previous visit there. It is a big beach, with dunes at one end and rocks at the other. We were able to get parked at the rocky end and set up our base near the rock pools. The boys enjoyed digging and paddling, although Henry was not too keen on his hands getting sandy. Owen and I took a walk down to the sea, although as it was just after low tide it took a while! On our way back to the van we got ice cream from Cafe Mor. Just like in 2019 I wished we had been there when we were planning to eat – the burgers looked, and smelled, amazing! At least the pizzas we had delivered to our cabin when we got back to Bluestone were really nice!
On Wednesday morning I managed to escape for a solo bike ride in Canaston Woods, whilst Jen and the boys had breakfast. It was a shorter version of the loop that I did last time, as I chose to stay nearer to Bluestone and repeat a particular loop. It was good to get out and ride some longer and more technical trails that I am used to at home in Coventry.
After a quick shower to remove the muddy evidence of my bike ride, we all got on our bikes and rode up to the Blue Lagoon pool. Unfortunately, they did not have the wave machine working, but the boys still enjoyed the lazy river. Owen was not quite big enough to go on the water flumes, but did get a chance to show Jen how well he can swim on his own now, albeit with a float belt and pool noodle. It has been over a year of (interrupted) swimming lessons since Jen last saw him swim and he has made good progress! Henry seemed to be his usual happy self and particularly enjoyed splashing around in the baby pool. After swimming, we went to the “village” coffee shop for “Welsh cream tea”, which was a normal cream tea but with added Welsh cakes – something I can certainly get on board with!
In the afternoon we walked down the steep ravine to Camp Smokey, for BBQ food and s’mores. Henry could not wait for his marshmallows to be toasted, he just gobbled them up! After our meal we took the long way back to the house, along the nature trail – the boys did well, walking all the way, and they still had the energy to run around the playground for an hour! After a busy day, we retired to the cabin and watched a film and gave the boys a relatively early night.
Our last full day at Bluestone started with another trip to the Hive, then to the Serendome. Owen got to play in the water play area, which he was upset to have missed out on earlier in the week. From there we left Bluestone to explore Narbeth. On our last trip, Jen had a quick look around and had found a nice Spanish deli. Our plan had been to have lunch there, but we had chosen the day their cafe was closed. Instead, we found Oh Crumbs! where Henry ordered a huge plate of waffles with brownies and marshmallows. Fortunately, he needed some help to finish them!
The plan had been to head back to Bluestone, but Henry was sleepy and Owen was being difficult, so we decided a longer drive in the van and change of scenery may help. I had heard about Llys y Fran on the Little Rippers MTB FaceBook group. We did not really know what to expect as we followed the signs pointing us down increasingly smaller roads into what felt like the middle of nowhere. Then all of a sudden we pulled up in a big car park that was mostly full. As we drove around trying to find a space Owen spotted the pump track! Henry was asleep in his car seat until just as Owen and I were kitted up and ready to head to the pump track and a little voice piped up “Henry come too”. Unfortunately, we had not really come equipped for riding the pump track – we only had our bikes to ride from the cabin to the van, no kneepads or full-face helmets etc. So we decided to take it easy.
When we got to the pump track we discovered that it was not just one pump track, but two, and a skills area! The smallest pump track would have been great for Henry, Owen enjoyed the bigger, asphalt, track, but before long we pedalled up to the top of the skills area to see what the trails were like. The short green graded line was nice and flowy, Owen rode it well, so we went back to the start to hit what we thought was another green graded line, but turned out to be the first section of the main mountain bike trail around the reservoir. Again, it was nice and flowy, but we just had a longer pedal back than expected! Next, we tried the blue line in the skills area, Owen set off first, but failed to get over the bridge feature – which to be fair was pretty steep for a blue graded trail, especially as you came up to it blind. After some help, he completed the trail and went back to the pump track where he was happy looping around it. Jen joined us, with Henry on the Mac Ride on her bike, and after swapping the Mac Ride onto my bike, we decided to check out the mountain bike trail around the reservoir.
Owen set off first, having already ridden the first green section, he was confident and shot off into the distance. Jen struggled to keep up – at this point I should have realised that the green-graded (easy) trail was actually trickier than the blue-graded (medium) trails she had ridden previously. After his laps of the pump track earlier in the week, Henry had decided that he liked corners again, so he was giggling away as we brought up the rear of our train. The second section of the mountain bike trails was also graded green but notched up the difficulty again. Jen was not at all confident riding it, although Owen was fine. At this point, I suggested heading back to the van, but Jen decided to push on around the reservoir on the gravel road. There were plenty of other families riding and all seemed well. I had a look at the next mountain bike section as we rode past, noting that the grading had increased to blue, and it looked a lot more technical – too technical to ride with Henry on my bike and for Owen without his protective gear. A while later we crossed the stream and the head of the reservoir, I noticed that the sign indicated 2 miles back to the visitor centre via the route we had come, or 5.5 miles via the way we were going. As it had been an easy ride up until that point I thought nothing more of it. Then the steep climbs started! I just about managed to struggle up the climbs with the extra weight of Henry on my bike, but Owen needed to push (of course I had left the tow rope back at the cabin). Because what goes up must come down, we then came to some seriously steep descents. Steep enough that Owen and Jen opted to walk down them. I think Henry would have also preferred to walk, but I wanted to keep momentum up for the following climbs. This part of the ride felt never-ending – we had definitely bitten off more than we could chew. But we were not about to go back up the super steep hills we had just come down! We had to keep on going – especially as we had a dinner reservation to make! As we eventually neared the dam we stopped to talk to the ranger, who informed us that he speaks to a lot of people who think it will be a flat ride around the reservoir. He also broke the news that we would not be riding across the dam, but would be descending to the valley floor, then back up the other side. At least it was a gentle gradient on tarmac, rather than more steep gravel sections. Henry and I powered ahead, put my bike in the van, then walked back to meet Owen and Jen, so I could take their bikes back to the van whilst the boys had a brief play on the playground and we could take the selfie above – as I had not actually taken any photographs all ride!
Somehow, we just about managed to make our dinner reservation at the Bluestone Pub, where we enjoyed a well-earned meal! The boys still had enough energy left to finish our stay as it had started, with a charge around the playground on the way back to the cabin. It was good being back at Bluestone, and the boys are already asking when we can go back. However I do not feel like I am in a rush to go back, whilst it is a great place to holiday with children, as there is plenty to keep them occupied, I did not really feel like I had much of a rest. We were ferrying excitable children to various activities, then supervising them. I do really like the concept of a car-free “village” and I am sure that we will go back in a few years when the boys are older they will be able to partake in different activities, so it will be a new experience for them.
We were not going straight home from Bluestone – in 2019 we had called at the Forest of Dean and decided that we would like to spend more time in that area. Our first stop was for lunch and a bike ride at the Cannop Cycle Centre. After eating our takeaway lunch in the van we headed for the family cycle trail, with Henry on the Mac Ride, and his balance bike strapped to my back. The plan had been to do a short ride on the family cycle trail, but the boys were being difficult, so we went straight to the playground at Beechenhurst, the non-mountain biking Forestry England site in the Forest of Dean, which is just over a kilometre away from the cycle centre. Incidentally, I think having the split sites works really well, rather than the usual mix of hardcore mountain bikers and families going to the cafe/playground/GoApe. After a good run around the large play area, the boys seemed a bit happier, so we went back to the cycle centre to hit the pump track. The skills area at the Cannop Cycle Centre is perfect for families, and Owen got straight on with riding laps of the pump track with the other kids there. Henry was a bit more reluctant but ended up doing some great riding on his balance bike, starting higher and higher on the start ramp each time he went around. Unfortunately, Owen was in a foul mood again by the time we got back to the van, culminating in him refusing to drink any of his water, then dropping the bottle as soon as we had set off, then claiming he was about to die of thirst. Henry being the helpful little brother that he is kindly offered Owen his drink. Of course, this was not good enough for Owen, which Henry responded to with taunts of “drink it, Owen”. Sensibly, at this point, Owen realised that when a two-year-old is mocking your tantrum it is best to give up and stayed quiet for the rest of our journey (which was completed before he died of thirst).
Our next stop was at Ross-on-Wye, a town I had driven through on many occasions, but never visited. Tea and cake were first on the agenda, we went to The Ginger Nut Cafe, which had tasty looking homemade cakes in the window. Suitably refuelled, we had a short walk around town, well as much as you can with two small boys, before heading back to the van and our hotel. Opposite the hotel, there were two combine harvesters “eating the wheat” as Owen would put it, which were good to watch as we had our dinner. I am going to finish this post here because the next part of the trip deserves a post of its own. The boys loved being back at Bluestone and are already asking when we can go back…
The Elan Valley in Mid Wales has been high on my list of places to visit – the only question was, do I take the MR2 or the mountain bike! Partho and I both had a free Sunday, and with existing plans to ride bikes together in the week, it was an easy decision to take our sportscars for a much needed Sunday morning run out.
We met at Droitwich for a McDonalds breakfast, then headed west. I had not specifically chosen the route, but the sat nav picked a mix of twisty single carriageway A and B roads, the natural environment for an MR2 Roadster. With great roads and little traffic it was one of the best drives I can remember. For reference the route was A4133 – A443 – A456 – B4362 – B4356 – A488 – A44.
We spent a few hours cruising around the valley, looking at the dams and taking photos. I was surprised to see that whilst one of the reservoirs was full, others looked quite empty. The roads in the valley were mostly small single track roads, so I was glad that I was in a small car. In fact, I found the roads we took to get to the Elan Valley more fun to drive than the roads when we got there. The views were stunning however, especially when the sun came out so that we could see them! I was surprised at how quiet it was for a Sunday in the summer holidays, there were no traffic jams and we had no trouble parking at any of the viewing points. We mostly followed this guide, which coincidentally also features an MR2 Roadster.
After our lap of the dams, with many photos taken, we took the mountain road to Devil’s Bridge. Again, this was mostly a singletrack road, but was generally well sighted, so we could press on a bit and work the cars. We missed the turning for the big hotel at Devil’s Bridge, so stopped for Cornish pasties and Welsh cakes at the tea room next to the campsite. As Partho had to get back home, we did not pay to view the waterfall, and from what I have heard since, that may have been a good job!
After lunch, I turned round and drove back over the mountain road to Rhayader, then back home along a similar route. Unfortunately, the twisty roads that had been so fun in the morning meant that I was unable to overtake the three lorries in front of me, so the drive home was not quite as fun. Despite that, it was still good to get out in the MR2, which ran perfectly, other than the 12v cigarette lighter socket which no longer works.
I loved visiting the Elan Valley, it was a good drive over, and I felt that it had a good balance of remoteness and ease of access. I already had plans to return with my bike, but I will also return with Jen and the boys, as we will all be able to explore together, both in the van and on some of the lower level cycle trails around the reservoirs.
Today is Big Sursday – at least to Apple geeks, like me, excited about the launch of the new Big Sur operating system for Mac computers. I though it was a good enough reason to do a #throwbackthursday post from when Jen and I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur, on our honeymoon.
Driving from Monterey to Santa Barbara was a big day on the road, but the scenery was amazing – the hype about this road does not even do it justice! A particular highlight was pulling in to a lay-by, looking out to sea and seeing a whale jumping out of the water.