CHAPTER FOUR TRAVEL NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND
For our half term holiday at the end of May with Team H we stayed in two cottages in a village where the borders of Dorset, Devon and Somerset meet. The village was near to Chard for shopping, but the cottages were secluded with plenty of parking space, and animals to look at. It was easy to get to the places we wanted to visit.
On any English holiday it will rain, but it will also stop raining at some point so it is always worth setting out. Fossil hunting was the main aim.
‘The Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site on the English Channel coast of southern England. It stretches from Exmouth in East Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset, a distance of about 96 miles, and was inscribed on the World Heritage List in mid-December 2001.’
Obviously you won’t see it all on a week’s holiday or a day out, but whether you enjoy beautiful scenery, geology, fossil hunting or relaxing at the seaside, any part of this coast is worth visiting.
Charmouth, Dorset is one place where everyone is looking down, but not at their phones, they are all looking for fossils. There is a pleasant village with the river Char running gently out to sea; you can step over it at low tide or walk across the little bridge. The row of beach huts is deceptive, walk a little further and this is not a normal seaside beach. Gaze up at black layered cliffs. Don’t go too close, there are regular mud slides and crumbling of the cliff edge. This is why fossil hunting is so popular, new fossils end up on the beach and people are welcome to collect them as they would otherwise be washed out to sea. You can also book a guided walk, but check in advance as the walks were booked up. At the free Charmouth Heritage Centre you can learn about prehistoric times and volunteers will identify your fossils and tell you how old they are. You can also put your fossils under a microscope.
Beneath the heritage centre is a cafe and behind that the public toilets, but the rest is unspoilt coast. There are two car parks both near the beach, the first one you come to is long stay.
The grassy hill is in contrast to the beach and a pleasant walk, but don’t go near the edge. When we set off to walk along the beach the first thing we saw was a father and son climbing up the cliff chipping away with their hammers; there is always someone who has not read the boards about dangerous cliff falls.
The second full day of our holiday brought the torrential rain the weatherman had forecast. We went into Seaton, a seaside town with an electric tramway that runs along the estuary of the River Axe to Colyford and the village of Colyton. Fortunately lots had changed since the last time we were there and next to the tram station was the new Seaton Jurassic, an excellent centre to escape the rain. Visitors are escorted in and the children given passports for the time machine. It’s all very interactive and older children can stamp their passports and answer clues. It is also quite dark and mysterious with lots of turns and tunnels, so make sure you don’t lose little ones. The final part takes you outside to gardens. Most importantly there is a good restaurant. We had lunch and by that time it had stopped raining and we went on the tramway. The little ones loved being on the open topped tram, the day remained grey, but it was still a pleasant gentle ride with a lovely little station and playground in Colyton.
Seaton Jurassic and the tram were not cheap. Tram tickets last all day and Colyton is worth a look round, so buy them in the morning if you want to make the most of it.
The next day was fine and Team H decided to get up very early and catch low tide at Charmouth for more fossil hunting, followed by cooked breakfast at the cafe. We followed them, but not quite so early. Yes you can find fossils, not necessarily big ones, but if you are sharp eyed you should find some ammonites and at low tide there is plenty of beach to search.
A holiday anywhere in this area, most times of the year, is enjoyable and there are plenty of options to choose from; caravans, B&B, self catering.
Most of us find places to stay for holidays or mini breaks on line and a good way to choose is to pick a bed and breakfast that looks interesting and will make good photos for Instagram, Facebook and your website.
We picked Primrose House in St. Ives, Cornwall. February is hardly peak season, but the weatherman promised fine weather. It was half term and we were booking at the last minute, but we got a room.
The journey down was thick fog all the way. Our breakfast stop turned out to be a Macdonalds; in the fog we just saw a sign for Services, no HGVs and a white house shaped building. We decided its proximity to Poundbury, Prince Charles’ life size toy town near Dorchester, was the reason for the absence of the usual bright red and yellow sign. Inside it was bright and clean and packed with customers and more staff than I have ever seen; we later heard from one of the staff they were expecting an unexpected visit from the big boss. That explained the enthusiastic clearing and wiping of tables.
Although the fog cleared just before we got to St. Ives it was impossible to find Primrose House. Like lots of West Country towns St. Ives was built for fishermen and real people walking about their business, not for tourists. We knew there were steep narrow winding lanes, that’s why we wanted to stay in the town and walk everywhere, but we still had to get to our accommodation in the first place. Sat Nav’s directions made no sense. The place is right by the branch line from St. Erth, how handy it would have been to arrive by train; except that journey involves five trains ( four changes ) and takes over nine hours.
We diverted to the car park of Tregenna Castle Resort, a hotel we had stayed in once before ( another good place to stay ) and the only place we could think of to safely stop. We phoned the B&B and discovered we had missed the tiny lane that was the road to Primrose Valley. It was so steep we could have turned the engine off and free wheeled down. At the bottom were a couple of sharp U turns under, then back under the branch railway line. ‘We’re not moving the car again until it’s time to go home’ I said when I opened my eyes again – I’m not the driver...
Luckily Primrose House lived up to our expectations. We found we had been upgraded on arrival and even got a share of someone's birthday cake. Run by friendly young proprietors who have made the spacious1908 guest house bright and attractive, it is all white walls, timber and minimalism. The only criticism being that it might be described as a touch too minimalist. Our big room had lots of floor space, but not a single chair to sit on or many surfaces to put anything down. The bathroom was good with a lovely big shower.
There was lots on the breakfast menu, freshly cooked and plenty of fruit, cereals etc to help yourself. On the first morning there were lots of guests, but Sunday and Monday nights the owners told us we were alone; literally as there were no staff staying overnight! Possible inspiration for a story? The other strange thing that happened was our room didn’t get serviced due to a mix up after the upgrading, but they gave us a bottle of champagne and deducted money off the bill. I would certainly like to stay there again.
Saint Ives famously has attracted artists since the nineteenth century with the quality of light and beautiful blue seas. Now the town is also well known for its Tate Gallery, squashed between housing association flats on the promenade. Inside, the light and airy building comes into its own, with a beautifully framed view of the beach, which my photograph doesn't do justice to!
The town has layer upon layer of higgledy piggledy old buildings and narrow lanes clinging to its steep hills; a tourists’ delight. Wandering around the maze of lanes we saw a door only two foot wide at the top of steep steps and one building where a few steps took you below ground to two tiny front doors crammed at right angles; they were holiday lets.
Out and about there is plenty of space; the attractions for visitors include the old mine workings and the rocky coast where unbelievably blue seas with snow white surf pound black rocks. Fans of the Poldark books and television series will be familiar with the Cornish scenery and it is as fantastic as it looks on television. Winston Graham the author was not a local by birth, but did live in Cornwall for thirty five years from the age of seventeen.
NOTES FROM 2018
AUTUMN IN KENT
A four day break in Kent found us staying at two very different places and gaining an extra hour as the clocks went back to Greenwich Mean Time.
Botany Bay Hotel sits on the cliff at Botany Bay between Margate and Broadstairs. Sandy coves formed by erosion of chalky cliffs make this a lovely part of the coast. On a clear day you can see rows of windmills out at sea. At night they twinkle with red and white lights and there are also the bright lights of moored container ships.
We stayed here three years ago and the smell of cooking fish was exactly as I remembered when we walked in. This time the only room available was the best one, with a little balcony and a round seating area with a view. The staff are friendly and welcome children and dogs as long as they stay off the furniture and out of the table service dining room; the dogs that is, not the children. We don’t have a dog, but if we did I’m sure we would enjoy staying or stopping for coffee in the warmth after a bracing walk on the beach or cliff top. But we had never seen so many dogs in one place and contrary to popular myth, the children were better behaved than the dogs.
On the first morning our quiet sit in the bar lounge with the papers ( and mobile phones of course ) was disturbed by an outbreak of yapping; two poodylish dogs hidden under their owners’ table went into a frenzy every time another dog came near.
The place was packed as it was the end of half term, but after meeting up with relatives on the cliff top for a bracing walk in howling wind and rain, we returned to find enough room for lunch in the bar. The lunch was very good and no toddlers or babies were eaten by dogs, nor were any dogs attacked by little people.
In the evening we were back in the bar for a snack and to our dismay so were the poodlyish terrors, they were obviously staying. A very loud family had a long haired Alsatian puppy squashed under their table and every time it moved the poodlyish were alerted.
The next morning the hotel was even busier, most of the guests were there for a wedding so I was enjoying eavesdropping and working out people’s family history. A very pregnant lady came to greet another table and they said ‘Oh... your mother told us not to mention to anyone that you were pregnant.’ I wondered how the mother thought nobody at the wedding would notice.
Even from the sanctuary of the dining room we could hear the poodlyish yapping again. In the bar lounge there were now a couple of dog walkers with three Alsatians and a border collie. The poodlyish couple seemed to have no desire to take their dogs outside. I wondered how many dog owners and non dog owners had fantasies of unwinding the offending dogs’ leads from the table and chair legs and leading them on a brisk walk to the cliff edge....
Our second two nights were in Hythe, a town we stayed in two years ago at a strange seafront hotel; as that was full we stayed at a guest house near the high street, a lovely old house with beautiful gardens. Satnav got us there, but the usually available private parking, a small triangle of gravel at the back of the house, was blocked with a huge horse box and a couple of cars. Further up the steep hill we found a side road. We then slid back down the hill, with our luggage, on a pavement carpeted in wet autumn leaves. A car was backing out of the guest house; it drove back in and a woman half climbed out, we assumed she was our hostess but she said ‘Mother will look after you’ and drove off.
At the back door we were greeted by an elderly lady who showed us into the hall and up to the landing; all the walls were covered in shiny silver flowery wallpaper. Upstairs everything was a pink time warp and the three rooms and guest lounge were named after Winnie the Pooh characters. In our room there was a 14inch television perched on the dressing table with lots of interference and, but there was WiFi. The For Sale signs we had seen outside did make us wonder if the place was being gently run down.
We left from the front door to find somewhere for dinner, but as it was dark by then the descent of the uneven, steep front path was an adventure. The royally named old pub we had fond memories of from last time had lost its charm, but we realised this too late. We watched as another couple were brought soup swimming in a bowl the size of a bath and were glad we hadn’t ordered starters. Our dinners arrived on huge platters; a shark in batter with a week’s worth of salad and vegetables. We surmised the sweet menu was purely for show as it was unlikely anyone would manage a third course.
At breakfast four guests were seated at the other table, we were all sitting in the hall and the daughter and granddaughter wandered back and forth in their dressing gowns with mugs of tea. The other guests asked the elderly lady if she ran the place by herself.
‘Oh yes, I’ve been doing it for forty years’ she answered cheerfully as she brought us tea and coffee; no pots, the overflowing cups rattled in their saucers as they shakily descended to the table.
As we left on the second morning we asked if the place was for sale because was retiring.
'I am 82, so I suppose I’ll have to retire sometime, but I don’t want to.'
Hythe is a very pleasant seaside town with a long promenade and shingle beach. You can also walk along the tree lined military canal built during the Napoleonic Wars and there are walks laid out to take you from the town to the sea. From here you can also ride on the Romney Hythe Dymchurch narrow gauge steam railway which will take you to Dungeness, you can see the headland from Hythe sea front.
STRATFORD-UPON-AVON APRIL 2018
With Cyberspouse going on a one day course near Stratford-upon-Avon, we recently booked two nights at the originally named hotel The Stratford. Formerly the town hospital it had pleasant spacious gardens at the front and plenty of parking at the back. It was about ten minutes walk from the historic heart of the town.
Our room was large with a very wide screen television. We were not asked if we wanted to book a table in the restaurant for dinner, we found out why the next morning.
After our slow journey we wanted to stretch our legs, explore the town and go down by the river. The sky remained an unrelenting grey, but it did not rain and we got a picture of William Shakepeare’s birthplace without too many people in the way. We had our dinner at The Golden Bee, another Wetherspoons pub to tick off our collection.
On our return to the hotel we went to the bar to get a cup of coffee; not an unreasonable request in a hotel. There were several other guests so we assumed someone was around to serve us... yes, but still took a long time for two over expensive lattes to arrive. Both were dark and too strong, no pretty stripes, one merely warm, the other burning hot.
The next morning when we went to breakfast we were asked if we were with the ‘Bridge Group’. Non bridge players were relegated to the hotel lobby for breakfast; it was a bit of a trek backwards and forwards to the buffet bar in the restaurant and then a manoeuvre between tables crammed together.
The food itself was indifferent, but amusing. Breakfast buffets are never as good as freshly cooked and toasters never seem to work properly, though it makes for camaraderie among hotel guests. Each passing on tips; you have to put it through twice... it takes forever... it was not a surprise when smoke started coming out. The continental selection had a lyrical description on the menu that bore no relation to the reality. The croissants and fresh uncut loaves were very nice, but thin slices of cheese were curled up, the only meat was salami and the unpeeled fruit had been hacked into pieces impossible to negotiate.
The staff during our stay were friendly and smart, with one exception. The excellent view of the reception desk from our breakfast table provided us with free entertainment. The large chap who was on reception shuffled out to help people with his shirt hanging out and in general disarray. He didn’t seem to be able to help any of the guests who came with queries and problems ranging from toilets to windows.
An intriguing sight was a large white bear who I came to call Sad Ted, he was sitting by the entrance waiting to be won. Who would want to win him or how he was to be won I’m not sure, but it seemed to involve putting your business cards in a bowl. He was still there when we left.
On Saturday the sun came out and I made the most of my day wandering around the town. The ticket to Shakespeare’s birthplace lasts all year, or you can buy a ticket to include all five historic locations. The town deserves at least a week to sample everything on offer. The River Avon and the canal were in holiday mood in the afternoon; after our late snows and wet spring everyone was out and there were plenty of boat trips on offer. The river is also the location of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre.
I’m looking forward to going back; we'll look on line and see what hotels come up next time.
Read about Shakespeare's birthplace in my blog.
FOR MORE VISITS
CHAPTER FIVE BEACHWRITER'S BLOG
THE WEBSITE OF AUTHOR JANET GOGERTY