CHAPTER FOUR TRAVEL NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND
We spent Christmas with Team H in Margate and as Team AK were also coming down we volunteered to stay at the Premier Inn.
Premier Inn is a British hotel chain and the UK's largest hotel brand, with more than 72,000 rooms and 800 hotels.
On our various trips and breaks we do stay at blogworthy bed and breakfasts and hotels of character and weirdness, but Premier Inns are a good choice if the location is handy. You know what to expect; the rooms are big enough, the beds comfortable and everything is purple. The Margate Premier Inn is by the railway station, looks out to sea and the walk to the home of Team H takes us within view of many cultural landmarks.
We have stayed a good few times and never had a room with a sea view, this time we did, but the view was blocked by the air conditioning unit on top of the Brewer’s Fayre pub and restaurant below. But the winter afternoon was drawing in and it was time to check in with the rest of the family then back to the sea front for another family tradition – dinner at Wetherspoons.
J D Wetherspoon plc is a pub company in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Founded in 1979 by Tim Martin, the company operates nearly 900 pubs and a growing number of Wetherspoon hotels. The company is known for converting unconventional yet attractive premises into pubs. Another chain where you know what to expect, Tim is obviously a chap who, unlike most politicians, cottoned on to what people want. Cheap pub food, refillable coffee cups, meals served from morning till night and a relaxed place where you can take your granny or your grandchild. As you order at the bar, or with your smart phone, you can wander in and out for a handy loo visit or perhaps hang out all day. The added bonus for writers is that you can watch all sorts of people and for photographers many of the branches are in amazing buildings rescued from neglect. Another interesting fact; it is claimed that every Wetherspoon has a different pattern of carpet, inspired by the location and specially woven; you can even buy a book about them.
The Margate Wetherspoon has just been refurbished and now boasts comfy booths where you can charge up your various electronic gadgets. The walls are adorned with framed snippets of the town’s history. It is called The Mechanical Elephant, recalling the creature that used to give rides along the promenade in the 1950’s. This little bit of history inspired my short story Thanephant an Elephantasy which was included in Thanet Writers’ anthology ‘Shoal’.
On Christmas Eve morning it was time to return to Wetherpsoons for breakfast, but first another cultural landmark. At this end of the main sands is the Victorian Nayland Rock shelter. In the late Autumn of 1921, the bank clerk poet T.S. Eliot came to Margate on doctor’s orders to convalesce. He was in a fragile state physically and mentally and took a tram to sit on the seafront every day. While looking out at the expanse of grey water, watching children playing and war veterans exercising on the beach, he drafted part of The Waste Land.
“On Margate Sands/ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing/
I have to confess I haven’t read The Wasteland, but I have just downloaded it onto my Kindle for 99pence.
Margate is on the Isle of Thanet, a real island until a few hundred years ago. It is on the east coast of Kent, but actually faces north across the Thames Estuary, so the sea can be grey on a grey day. The first day trippers used to come by steamer down the Thames.
On Christmas Eve morning the sun had come out and on the beach we saw the new attraction, a recreated bathing machine; the steam arising from the roof gives a clue to its secret, it is actually a sauna. I was almost envious of the chap emerging from the sea to clamber inside.
Near the Mechanical Elephant is Dreamland. Amusements have been on this site since 1880, it was first called Dreamland in 1920 when the Grade 2 listed Scenic Railway wooden rollercoaster was opened. After going into decline early this century and being closed down there was a public campaign to restore the park and it re-opened in June 2015. Dreamland’s morale has been greatly boosted by the opening of the Turner Contemporary Gallery in 2011, bringing a big buzz to the town. Cheap property prices and a fast train route to London have brought artists and fresh blood into the town – DFLs Down From London. The gallery is built on the spot by the harbour where the painter JMW Turner’s landlady had her boarding house.
When we went to north Wales last month I was fascinated and envious of the Welsh speakers. Welsh is a Celtic language, the language everyone probably spoke on this island before waves of invaders.
You know you are in Wales when the road signs are in both languages. Only about fifth of people in Wales actually speak Welsh fluently, but in the north the majority do.
We stayed in Porthmadog for four nights, a lovely town with mountains in the background, a harbour and lots of trains, including the famous Ffestiniog Railway, Rheiffyrdd Ffestiniog. Being winter some places were closed. Our pub hotel was rather gloomy inside; someone had bought a job lot of brown paint. The dining room was in darkness and the bar rather bleak, but on our first evening we found a cafe at the railway station which was open till eight and was warm and cheerful.
The next morning at breakfast our suspicions were confirmed that we and four chaps on a photography holiday were the only guests. A Welsh radio station played in the background. The weather was mostly heavy skies and damp, but stayed clear for our trip on the Welsh Highland Railway. As it was winter the Ffestiniog was closed and most of the line for our train. We went half an hour out, stopped for the engine to be moved then back again. The little steam trains are gleaming and lovingly looked after. That night a roaring open fire had appeared in the bar so we had our meal in there.
The next day was the planned trip to Portmeirion, the fantasy cliffside village designed by architect and local aristocrat Clough Williams-Ellis. It is famous as the setting where sixties television series ‘The Prisoner’ was filmed, one of those dramas where viewers had no idea what was going on, thus making it a cult film. You have to pay to go in, but it is well worth a visit and it must be even better on a sunny summer’s day. Colourful strange buildings cling to rock faces. Various winding steps, slippery in the damp weather, take you down to the edge of the estuary. No one lives there. We went to the hotel that was the house of a previous reclusive owner before Clough Williams bought the land in the 1920s and had coffee in front of an open fire. It was quiet, but apparently they had had a hundred guests for breakfast, those staying at the hotel and others in self catering apartments in the exotic buildings. Behind the village woodlands spread up the hill.
On the third day we drove to Llanberris through the mountain scenery of Snowdonia in mist and rain to visit the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Of course that was closed till March, but we thought it would be fun to see the station. I had always imagined a station sitting at the foot of the mountain. It isn’t quite like that and with the low lying cloud and mist we were not quite sure which mountain was Snowdon. Since 1896 the little rack and pinion railway has been taking visitors up Snowdon and there is now a new visitor centre and cafe at the summit, no doubt welcome after the one hour trip. If you plan to go there in spring or summer book in advance for the mountain railway.
Whitby is a scenic harbour town on the east coast of Yorkshire; the harbour piers face north so it has an east and west cliff. Count Dracula, disguised as a black dog, ran up the 199 steps to the top of the east cliff after his ship was blown off course in the north sea. The gothic abbey ruins and the steps are a tourist attraction. Author Bram Stoker is not the only famous person to have lived here, son of Yorkshire, Captain James Cook, attended school in Whitby and was born in a nearby village. You can see his statue on the west cliff.
This was not our first visit to Whitby, but it was our first attempt at airbnb. We chose a cottage in town according to good reviews; as first timers we had to register with some personal info and after being accepted received reams of instructions on where to park the car and how to get in the door. We managed the key box without any trouble and were delighted to find ourselves in a cosy three storey home. The bathroom was on the middle floor and the bedroom at the top, the two flights of winding narrow stairs were more like mountain climbing, but that was all part of the cottage’s character. Botham’s tea rooms and bakery were next door so that was an added attraction.
Exploring on foot is the best way to enjoy Whitby and our accommodation was handy for that, the swing bridge is a quick way to get from one side of town to the other and if you like fish there is no shortage of fish restaurants. On our first evening the weather was fine and the town lights shone on the harbour.
The next day we easily walked up the 199 steps, but were soon soaked in the rain, photos of the abbey would have to wait. The abbey was ruined by Henry V111, but St. Mary’s church is fascinating with all the pews in boxes; respectable families had their own boxes, strangers were kept separate and the rabble squashed into the more uncomfortable boxes. There is also a lovely building which now houses a youth hostel with its restaurant open to the public; you can be any age to stay with the Youth Hostel Association so it’s worth investigating.
It was only £1.50 to climb up the 81 steps of the harbour lighthouse; you can step outside at the top and walk all round, but there is not much room: more people followed us up and we wondered if the chap at the door was keeping count of how many he let in. Would we be able to get down if someone was coming up?
If you like trains check the Esk Valley Railway, we saw a ‘vintage diesel’ taking day trippers out, but we only saw the steam train from the top of the cliff.
Check the tide times if you want to walk to Sandsend along the coast before the tide comes in. Showers were followed by sunshine as we reached the lovely village with cottages either side of the little river. There is a bus every half hour, so we took the bus back after exploring the lovely riverside village, there are two coffee shops by the beach.
There is plenty more to do and we wished we were staying longer than four nights. Boat trips, the pavilion on the sea front and a lovely park with museum and art gallery; you can also hike along the cliff top on the Cleveland Way, visit villages, explore the North York Moors or take a trip to Scarborough.
SEE MORE PICTURES IN CHAPTER FIVE
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!
FOR MORE VISITS
CHAPTER FIVE BEACHWRITER'S BLOG
THE WEBSITE OF AUTHOR JANET GOGERTY