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!
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.
It is a long drive from Brittany to Coventry, but at least we were on our own schedule for this part of the trip, so decided to split it over two days, with an extended stop on the first day. I had planned to stop in Honfleur, a lovely little fishing port, but realised that it wouldn’t be suitable for Owen, so decided to stop a few miles away in Deauville, so that Owen could run around on the beach and dig some holes!
After another great breakfast, we said our goodbyes to Michel and Collette, my Mum’s cousins who had been hosting us in St Brieuc, and my parents, who were extending their trip with a few days in the Massif Central. We made plans to meet Simon and Sophie in Deauville, then set off, initially retracing our route from day 2. It took around three hours to get to Deauville. Owen only slept for the last hour, despite still seeming tired from his late night previously. There were a few traffic snarl ups around the Caen ring road, but we made good time and even managed to find a parking space right next to the beach. Ideal when you have a grumpy toddler who just wants to dig holes in the sand!
Whilst Owen was building, then immediately destroying sandcastles, I went to find some ham and cheese baguettes for lunch. Deauville beach is really well set up, with a boardwalk, little cabins (named after Hollywood stars, who may or may not have visited Deauville) then little kiosks selling beach essentials – including lunch! After eating our baguettes we walked along the beach road, checking out the impressive old buildings. The Normandy Hotel, where my Mum used to work, was the highlight, with its half timbered exterior. We then walked back along the boardwalk, stopping for ice cream. I found my new favourite ice cream flavour – chestnut. I’m not sure where else I will be able to get it from again. Although I do know some chestnut farmers, so have got them on the case! Whilst we were eating our ice creams, Simon and Sophie turned up, so we spent some time with them whilst Owen played in the sand some more. When it was time to leave, he ran all the way down the boardwalk to the car – quite a long way for someone with such little legs! It was a good job he was tiring himself out, as we had almost another three hours of driving ahead of us.
Our overnight stop was in Le Touquet, and we spent most of the drive looking out for tractors with Owen – he seemed way more impressed with them than the huge bridges we went over. As we were getting closer to Calais we noticed that most of the cars on the road were British registered, which I thought was funny. Not having been to Le Touquet before I wasn’t expecting to drive through pine forests on the edge of town and was pleasantly surprised to see that everything was really well set up for cycling. We were less impressed with our hotel, which felt really tired and due to a strange layout we were in the 153rd of 156 rooms down a really long corridor. At least the location was good – right on the beach! The town itself seemed nice though! We walked along the beach, past the wake boarding pool, the beach bars, kids clubs and volleyball courts to the town centre. I wasn’t prepared for just how busy the town centre would be – there were people everywhere, shopping, drinking and generally having a good time. As we were all pretty hungry, we went to the first place we found, a little pizza restaurant just off the main street. The pizza was amazing! I love that in France you can get pizzas with an egg on – quite a rarity in the UK. Owen was a bit of a monkey during dinner, I guess he had loads of pent up energy, after being cooped up in the car most of the day. So while Jen did some last minute shopping in town, I took Owen down to the beach for more digging! This is the photo at the top of the post. Once again, Owen enjoyed himself on the beach, hopefully two beaches in one day made up for all the time stuck in the car!
The tractor and combine harvester conversations we had been having with Owen in the car must have been playing on his mind, as he work up at 5:45 asking about combine harvesters! We let him get into bed with us, forgetting that toddlers seem to have an inbuilt need to sleep perpendicular to anyone else in the bed. With only a tiny slither of bed to balance on, I didn’t manage to get back to sleep. At least this meant we were ready to leave early for the relatively short drive up to the Chunnel. When we got there we were given the opportunity to take an earlier train – result! Jen had never used the Le Shuttle, and was wowed by how seamless it all was. We were pretty much straight off the motorway and onto the train! Before long we were speeding along under the English Channel. Whilst I was stretching my legs Owen took the opportunity to commandeer the drivers seat, thinking he’d get to drive the next leg of the journey. He was so upset when I put him back in his car seat.
We’d worked out that it would only be a twenty minute detour to visit Jen’s sister, Heather, in Hackney. So as it was her birthday it would have been rude not to call in! I love the drive into east London, with the Canary Wharf skyline, Olympic Park and the O2, then through the 120 year old Blackwall Tunnel. At this time on a Sunday morning it was a pretty easy drive too. Owen was very excited to see Heather, especially as this was the first time he had been to her flat. We had brunch at the cafe around the corner from Heather’s flat. As I was in East London I felt that it would be rude not to have smashed avocado on toast (and of course post it to my Instagram story).
I was surprised at how easy it was to get from Heather’s flat to the M11 for the start of the final leg of our journey – two hours back to Coventry. I was back on familiar roads, and driving on the left, so it was the easiest drive of the trip. We were home by 14:00, exactly five days since leaving, having covered just over 1,000 miles!
We woke up to rain, not ideal on holiday. After a good breakfast at the hotel in Coutances, we loaded up the car for the drive to Brittany. It was still raining. At least it was a good opportunity to test the new wipers and RainX on the windscreen of the BMW. My main niggle with the car since getting it, is that there is no intermittent setting on the wipers, only an “intelligent auto” setting. Which isn’t that intelligent. Even on the most sensitive setting it waits until you can’t see anything ahead, then wipes the screen. I found an old bottle of RainX in the garage and thought it would be worth a try. I wish I’d thought of that a few years ago, as it worked a treat! Even in the heaviest rain I could leave the wipers set to auto and I could see the road ahead clearly!
Just because I could see where I was going didn’t mean that the journey went smoothly. Our first stop was in St Malo, and we had been sent directions to the car park we were meeting everyone at. However the directions opened in Google Maps, and we find that whilst the directions are usually spot on, they aren’t communicated well. It seems to be a lottery if it tells you the road name/number to turn on to and doesn’t show the number of the exit from roundabouts. To be fair we also didn’t have the audio mix tuned, so I could barely hear the turn by turn instructions, so we took a few wrong turns. I think I’ll stick to using Apple Maps.
When we arrived in St Malo the car park that we were looking for was full, so ended up parking somewhere else anyway. It was still raining. The plan had been to have a walk around the old town, but no-one really felt like it, so we followed my Dad straight to his favourite ice cream shop – Sanchez. He seems to have a favourite ice cream shop in every town we visit! 11:00 isn’t really ideal ice cream time, but it was somewhere we could sit in the dry, and I’d heard Dad saying how good this place was for a few years,. So we had to try it out. I had a giant sundae, with coconut, white chocolate and banana ice creams. It was good, but even I struggled to eat it! The plan had been to get “galette saussice”, for lunch, but I was so full of ice cream I couldn’t face one, so shared with Owen. For those that don’t know, a “galette saucisse” is a buckwheat pancake wrapped around a sausage. It is a typical Breton street food and one of my favourite lunches in France.
From St Malo we drove an hour along the coast to St Brieuc, where fortunately the weather was better. We were staying with my Mum’s cousin Michel and his wife Collette. We saw them in the UK last year, but it is probably 25 years since I last visited them. I didn’t really remember their house, but it is lovely, with the living areas (and a massive garage, with workshop) downstairs, then the guest bedrooms upstairs. The downstairs is very modern, with each of the guest bedrooms decorated with a different theme. Jen, Owen and I were in the historically themed room, with a Louis XIV wardrobe that Michel restored in his workshop. The wardrobe was an ideal place to hide all of the breakable ornaments from Owen – as it is very much the sort of house that a two year old could cause trouble in! Michel is also a petrolhead and has a lovely classic Simca 1000, that was manufactured in the year he was born, so we did some tyre kicking. Owen liked the “old car” too.
We drove into the centre of St Brieuc for a walk around, then down to the harbour, where the Rosengart car factory used to be. We had a little walk around, looking at the boats and one of the cars made in the factory. On the way back, we stopped at the supermarket to pick up some essentials: milk for Owen, chestnut puree for me and wine for Jen! Owen was disappointed that this supermarket didn’t have a tank of live crabs/lobsters, unlike most other French supermarkets. Michel did a BBQ in the evening – french sausages and merguez (a spicy north African sausage), which was one of the foods we particularly wanted to eat on our trip – result! Michel and Collette are great hosts (they used to run bars), and we had a lovely three course meal, with the sausages/merguez as main course. Owen loved watching the sausages being cooked on the open fire, and wolfed his sausage down. Then stole some of my Mum’s merguez too! We had to break our “no iPad after dinner” rule, as toddlers and extended French meals are not an ideal combination – something I remembered from when I was a little boy. He sat happily on my Mum’s knee playing tractor/digger games whilst the grown ups chatted, mostly in French.
After his late night Owen had a short lie in, and when we got downstairs Michel had just arrived with croissants for breakfast from the local bakery – they were still warm! They were the best croissants I have ever eaten, they were so light. Nothing like the croissants you get in the UK. The bread was amazing too, and this is just from their local neighbourhood bakery. After breakfast we went to the beach at Les Rosaires, as we hadn’t really done anything aimed at Owen and digging holes at the beach is his favourite thing to do. We were there about an hour, Owen made sandcastles, paddled in the sea, explored rock pools and generally had the time of his life! However, we had to leave, as we had to fit in a three course lunch before our afternoon excursion!
Collette made us an amazing lunch – cockles, pot roast pork and raspberry panna cotta – I think they also grew/caught everything in the dinner apart from the pork and the milk! As is the way with French meals, it took a wee while, so we were late leaving for the pink granite cliffs at Ploumanach. The drive took just over an hour and Owen slept for most of it. When he woke up we were in a little seaside town that reminded Jen of Lulworth Cove in Dorset, and me of 17 Mile Drive in California. We had to carry him past the ice cream shop and the beach (“sandpit” in Owen’s words), then up the hill to the pink granite outcrops. He absolutely loved it there! Climbing on the rocks and posing for photos. I also like to think he was taking in the amazing views and wondering what geological and ocean forces were at play to form these amazing rock shapes. As the grown ups were taking their time walking back, I sat Owen on my shoulders and carried him to the beach, to do more digging in the sand. I’m not sure where he learned to do it, but he has taken to using my head like a steering wheel if I’m not walking the way he wants to go. Then if I mention it, he tries to steer me off the path or into something. He is such a cheeky little monkey!
Michel led us back the scenic route to St Brieuc, so it was already past Owen’s bed time when we got back. Collette made him egg and toast for dinner – his favourite. He had also asked for baked beans, not understanding that you don’t really get them in France. As we’d had a large lunch I was expecting a light dinner, but it was a 6 course job, including the aperitif and cheese! Aperitif (nibbles), mackerel pate, mussels, cod in white sauce, cheese and fruit salad! We were all stuffed after that. After his dinner, Owen had perked up a bit and didn’t want to go to bed, he sat quietly on his iPad, until the fruit salad came out. He took a liking to the homegrown blackcurrants, stealing them from my Mum’s bowl, then requesting more from the serving bowl! He actually stayed up later than his grandpa!