Thursday, 20 August 2009

Some great people along the way...

I met some very professional managers and owners of accommodation. The ones I remember, though, were not perfectionists...they were more interested in making sure I had a good time, and that I left with a sense of place - they wanted me to know why their little spot on the planet was so special to them. Many of my favourite hosts had been born or had grown up in their area, and the landscape was fused to their bones. I realise now that I remember the people as much as I do the postcard views...

1. Trevor Lowther at Lowther House in Whitehaven, Cumbria. Trevor is a walking, talking encyclopaedia. I have no way of proving this, but I am sure he knows everything about the Lake District, and in particular the coastal area near Whitehaven. But while he knows plenty, he is also fanatically zealous. He is only too happy to show people around, giving them an entertaining and informative tour.

2. Paul and Alyson Rhind and their three kids (Adam, Fraser and Aylee) at Newstead Housein Silecroft, in the Lake District in England. The Rhinds were friendly and frank, and I felt pretty homesick when I left, because they reminded me of my family - a bit crazy (like all families!)

3. Christian Drew at Corriegour Lodge, Spean Bridge, Scotland. This fantastic lady was the friendliest person I met. She is born and bred in the Highlands, and tartan-coloured blood flows in her veins. She gave me many reasons to one day marry a Scottish woman.

4. Annie Cooper at Boscombe House in Llandudno, Wales. Annie fed me up, did my laundry, showed me around the pretty town of Llandudno, and made me feel like I was her son. On a long trip alone, that's a pretty good thing!

5. Tom and Mary Watson at South Whittlieburn Farm near Largs, Scotland. At first I couldn't understand a word of what Tom and Mary were saying, but it didn't matter, because it sounded wonderful. And more than anyone I stayed with, they were proud to live on the land of their birth.

There were obviously plenty of other hosts who made me feel welcome. And in amongst all the other people I met, I only had one slightly offish experience, and that was being sworn at by a drunk in Edinburgh...for the rest, everyone was decent and kind. Most friendly people? I'd have to say the Welsh...if you want to get friendly with a Welshman, either buy him an ale or start talking rugby.

Monday, 17 August 2009

The Top 5 most beautiful surroundings for accommodation

Some accommodation establishments are very lucky. They don't need to do very much to wow their guests...the scenery does it for them.

1. MacDonald Hotel in Kinlochleven, just south of Fort William in Scotland. This area is otherworldly. A long, thin loch with inky-black water, guarded on either side by the brooding Ben Nevis mountain range. The town is at the end of a road, and you really do feel like you're in Lord of the Rings.

2. The Cottage Hotel in Hope Cove, England. Unknown to many local tourists, Hope Cove is what I've always imagined a seaside fishing village in Britain to be. Small, remote, away from the main roads, craggy coast, stormy sea,'s a must-do.

3. Worm's Head Hotel on Rhossili Peninsula, Wales. This hotel looks out over miles of beach, and the Worm's Head island just offshore. It's an untouched area, designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

4. Thistle House in St Catherine's, near Inveraray in Scotland. Wake up to a view with Inveraray Castle reflecting on the mirror surface of the loch. 'Nuff said.

5. Castle Cottage, in Harlech, Wales. To the right is Mount Snowdon, in front is a loooong and wild beach, and to the left is the regal Harlech Castle (a World Heritage Site). Sit in Castle Cottage's bar and stare at all of this, then tell me there isn't a divinity of some sort.

It's very tough to leave the following out...Eddrachilles Hotel (Scourie, Scotland), Corriegour Lodge (Spean Bridge, Scotland), Torridon Inn (Torridon, Scotland), Dunchraigaig Guest House(Kilmartin, Scotland), The Ship Inn (Mousehole, Cornwall) and Cornerways (St Ives, Cornwall) and on the white cliffs of Dover, Varne Ridge.

Top 5 best value accommodation on my trip around the coast of Britain

"Value" is a relative term. You can have the best view from your room, but if the service ain't good...well, it just doesn't work as a package. And because travellers value different things at different values (if you follow me!), it's awful difficult to provide a bullet-proof list...So the following places were great value to me...

Factors I considered were price (obviously), scenery, service, cleanliness, decor, food, friendliness...and the undefinable X-factor, which can be little things like a manager's hearty laugh, or a glass of sherry next to your bed, or home made jams at breakfast, or a phone call after you've left, saying "thanks for coming, it was great to have you to stay"...

1. Eddrachilles Hotel, in Scourie, northwest Scotland. Beautiful location in the lochs and mountains, spick-and-span rooms, and excellent food. All for £60 a person a night (high-season), including room, breakfast and a fine three course dinner.

2. Cottage Hotel, Hope Cove, England. The hotel sits on the hill that overlooks the harbour and bay, and okay, the simple hotel food ain't gourmet, but it suits the setting...somehow it would seem wrong to eat haute cuisine in a village that survives on a daily catch. £60 a person a night (high-season), including room, breakfast and three-course dinner.

3. Lowther House, Whitehaven, England. For £40 a night, you'll get the smartest accommodation on the coast of Britain and the best breakfast (seriously). I can imagine heads of state staying here, and being quite comfortable...the rooms are huge, and the bathrooms are too. And it was the cleanest I experienced.

4. Cornerways, St Ives, England. For between £25 and £40 a person a night, you get slick accommodation in the middle of the labyrinthe of St Ive's cobbled streets and a very good breakfast. Trust me, this is cheap for St Ives...

5. Varne Ridge Holiday Park, Dover, England. This isn't a hotel, nor a guest's got a couple of mobile homes which are very comfortable, and kitted out with everything you need for a self-catering holiday. Including flatscreen TV with all the channels - not that you'll watch them, because you'll probably be staring out across the English Channel. On average, you'll pay about £15 a person a night for a family of four...and these rates come down the longer you stay.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The end and the beginning...and everything in between

I started my trip around the coast of Britain in Brighton on the 12th July, and have ended it here on the 14th August...

I've loved every minute of it. There are a couple of things that will stay with me forever:

Drinking illicit whisky with Johnny Clotworthy at Loch Ewe Distillery.
Kayaking at sunrise with Chris Wilson on Loch Torridon.
Eating fish and chips in the rain on St Ives harbour in Cornwall.
Walking through the Eden Project nearby to Penzance.
Chatting on the cliffs of Dover at Varne Ridge with Julieann Galloway, who had just swum the English Channel.
Watching the bagpipers and the fireworks under a glittering sky at the Edinburgh Tattoo.
Seeing the sharks being fed at The Deep in Hull.
Sitting alongside the ghosts of ancient Scottish kings on Dunadd Fort near Kilmartin.

The list goes on and on...I've compiled a couple of Top 5 selections, which I'll keep posting during the week...

Day 33 - England South East Coast - Dover to London - My journey ends on an inspiring note...

I spent the last night of my journey on top of the cliffs of Dover at Varne Ridge Holiday Park. It's a small site with two bungalows and couple of caravan homes. It's got unrivalled views of the coast, across the channel to France. On a clear day you can see the cliffs on the continent, and at night you'll almost always see the lights.

I've been on the road now for 33 days, and have spent every night in a new town. So by the time I got to Varne Ridge, between Dover and Folkestone, I was ready for a break. And it couldn't have been a better spot to unwind and reflect on the last month of travel.

The view from Varne Ridge Holiday Park...across the channel to France. One of the finest views of my for a full screen version.

I got talking to owner and manager David Frantzeskou, and we spoke randomly and easily about the effect the ocean has on one's life. David moved with his wife Evelyn from London, leaving his job in an architectural firm. They saw the views, and bought a little house straight away. Game over.

Then they bumped into a little old lady who owned the caravan park next door, and she sold it to them...

The reason I'm telling you all this, is because David's holiday park is now the base for almost all the channel swimmers who swim the 20-odd miles across to France (and sometimes back again, and sometimes again across to France! More on this later).

Varne Ridge has become the "unofficial" official place for channel swimmers to wait for the right tide and time to make their crossing. On the walls as you drive in are the names of all the successful swimmers who've swum the distance, along with their national flag. And on the day, your national flag is raised when you come back to Varne Ridge...

David Frantzeskou at Varne Ridge Holiday Park, where most channel swimmers stay before and after they make the 21 mile crossing...every successful swimmer gets their name up on the wall.

David introduced me to Julieann Galloway, who at the wise old age of 23 had just swum the channel. She mentioned it like I mention brushing my teeth. Like "oh, I've just brushed my teeth" or "oh, I've just swum the channel". She's a Texan who's studying her PhD in Dublin, and thought she'd pop down to Dover to have a dash. For sure, she's trained in Dublin harbour right through winter, acclimatising to the cold water - but she had never swum in the ocean before 2007! And yes, she is an Olympic triallist for the 200 metres, but hey, she drove down from Dublin by herself with her dog Gibson, and now she's driving back to get on with her life. No friends, no family...just herself, her dog and 21 miles of powerful ocean currents. Talk about willpower.

Her pilot (that's the guy with the boat who follows you across, and feeds you as you go along) gave her the call at 8pm, telling her that the tide will be right at 2:40am the next morning. So it's pitch black, and Julieann says the first hour was the hardest. "I knew that once the sun comes up, I'd be fine" she said. "But swimming in the dark like that, by yourself, with another ten hours of swimming ahead...that was tough."

Her time of 9 hours 51 minutes is very respectable. Most people do it in 12 to 14 hours...including the men. The first person to do it was Captain Webb in 1875, who swam it in 21 hours 45 minutes. The record belongs to Chad Hundeby, who swam it in 1994 in 7 hours and 17 minutes...

Then there's Philip Rush, a New Zealander, who in 1987 wasn't happy swimming across the channel once, so he swam it twice, then turned around and thought he'd swim it again. He swam from England to France (7 hours 55 min), back to England (8 hours 15 min), and then back again to France (12 hours 11 minutes). His total time was 28 hours and 21 minutes...non-stop.

Think about this...up to 2009, 3000 people have climbed Everest, but only 734 have swum the channel. For sheer physical triumph, I guess the Tour de France might match swimming the channel three times. Well, for me, swimming it just once would be a superhuman achievement. Well done Julieann!!!

Channel swummer Julieann with her "pilot" who followed her in his boat, making sure she didnt' get eaten by any sharks...and no, she didn't swim naked, but she is definitely a "real" swimmer.

The next morning, after another good chat with David about the swimmers, the channel and life in general, a young girl drives out of Varne Ridge. "She's 18," says David, "and she's going to swim the channel today or tomorrow. They're programmed like robots, they're just so incredibly focused."

What were you doing when you were 18? Not sure about you, but I was falling out of pubs, chasing girls and trying to figure out what to do with my life (still am, I guess!). I certainly wasn't about to swim the English channel. People like Julieann deserve all the success they achieve...

Day 33 - England South East Coast - Dover - The "key to England"...

Ask someone what comes into their heads when you say "British coast", and chances are they'll mention the white cliffs of Dover. (I think I would!?) For centuries, the cliffs were the first thing international travellers saw, arriving on passenger ships from the continent.

Today it is still a major port, with ferries leaving every few minutes to make the 21 mile crossing to France. And the best place to see them coming and going is Dover Castle, perched on the hill above town. It is a superb spot. The castle is imperious, with 270-degree views of the coast. It's been a very important military stronghold since its beginnings nine centuries ago. Indeed, it's always been known among army men as the "key to England".

Dover Castle to the left, Roman lighthouse and St Mary's Chapel in the centre, and Dover harbour to the for a full screen version.

Dover Castle...

The iron age folk used it as a fort, and then the Romans built a huge lighthouse, which still stands today next to St Mary's chapel on the castle grounds. And the castle has been garrisoned continuously from 1066, when William the Conqueror built the first version of the castle, to 1958. Only the Tower of London and Windsor Castle can claim likewise.

It's a worthwhile visit. There are three things you shouldn't miss. First, Dover Castle itself. It's very well preserved...perhaps more so than any other castle I've seen on my trip. Make sure you walk to the top of the Great Tower in the centre, for fine views.

Second, St Mary's chapel next to the Roman lighthouse...the chapel is one of the oldest in the land. It's also got the best view across the channel.

And third, do the Secret Tunnel tour...

When Napoleon and the Brits locked horns in the late 1700s, the army built a vast network of tunnels underneath the castle, to house up to 2000 soldiers. No threat really materialised, but the engineers of the time could never have known how important their work was to become.

During World War II, the tunnels served as the bomb-proof command centre for Operation Dynamo. In May 1940, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were cornered by the advancing Germans on the northern beaches of Dunkirk in France. The Britisn army's survival was at stake. The navy was tasked with getting them off the continent and back home, so they could fight another day.

From the tunnels the senior naval staff commandeered close to 700 ships, and in nine days more than 300 000 troops were rescued. The ships comprised naval vessels, fishing boats and any number of volunteer leisure boats. It came to be known as the "miracle of Dunkirk," because initially it was thought that only 90 000 troops could be rescued.

The Tunnel Tour will let you see what it was like for those naval officers, as well as the doctors and nurses that worked in the underground make-shift hospital.

Trying to look like Churchill...the Prime Minister came to Dover Castle to monitor the Battle of Britain...

Soon afterwards, the castle's tunnels were used again to monitor the Battle of Britain (July to October 1940). Winston Churchill watched the Spitfires and Hurricanes dogfight with the Luftwaffe's planes, knowing that the war's outcome depended more on this battle than perhaps any other. For it was Hitler's intent to invade Britain across the channel, landing 60 000 German soldiers on the 21st September 1940 between Dover and Brighton. The Nazi leader knew that air supremacy was crucial to the success of his naval operation, so he sent hundreds of planes across the channel to destroy the British air bases.

Three thousand British pilots in 20 squadrons were waiting for them, and the battle reached its climax on the 15th September 1940, when 85 German aircraft were destroyed or seriously damaged, and only 26 Royal Airforce planes were shot down. It was one of the turning points in the war, and led Churchill to praise his pilots with perhaps an incomparable commendation: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Almost 600 Allied pilots died during the Battle of Britain, and more than 800 died later in the war.

And that's why the most memorable thing you can do is visit the Battle of Britain Memorial on the coastal road between Dover and Folkestone. On top of the cliffs is a statue of a young pilot, sitting, waiting...pensive and silent, alone. He's looking out to sea, across to France...watching for German planes, ready for the call to jump into his Spitfire or Hurricane. It's a powerful experience...and brings home the sacrifice that each pilot had to make during those few weeks in 1940.

The names of all the pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain are engraved on a wall behind the statue, and nearby is "Bob", a statue of one of the squadron dogs, who's also looking attentively out to sea, waiting for his pilots to come back safely.

Dover Castle is a great visit, but the Battle of Britain Memorial is more impressive, despite it's simple design and slightly run-down state. (It's maintained by volunteer money, so make sure you donate when you're there!)

The Battle of Britain Memorial between Dover and Folkestone...

"Bob", the squadron dog...waiting for his pilots to come back from their battles above the channel.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Day 32 - England East Coast - West Mersea - "Sitting on the dock of the bay, wastin' time..."

Sittin' in the mornin' sun
I'll be sittin' when the evenin' come
Watching the ships roll in
And then I watch 'em roll away again, yeah

I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away
Ooo, I'm just sittin' on the dock of the bay
Wastin' time

Otis Redding's famous song "Dock of the Bay" could have been inspired by Mersea. This island is only 70 miles from London, but it might as well be a 1000 miles. If you're looking to get away from the capital, it's a good bet. At 6pm you'll leave your desk job, sober and serious, in suit and tie, fretting over your mortgage, and by 8pm you'll end up amongst osyster farms, boozed fishermen, delapidated fishing boats and a superb sunset- all of which can be seen while sipping an ice-cold beer on the lookout deck at The Victory. And after two beers (or G&Ts), you'll want to move to Mersea to join the fishing fleet.

Although the island sits just offshore from the mainland (connected by a half-mile causeway), in a river estuary, there is a sense of separation that extends beyond the tenuous geographical isolation; the "island way" lifestyle is reassuringly disparate from that in the nearby cities and towns. It might have something to do with the pungent smell of the sandbanks when the tide goes out, or the harbour men who seem to have spent more time on the bottle than on the boat. But it's great, because it's real. After travelling through some brash and ballistic theme-park resort towns on the east coast (as fun as they are - if you're in the mood), Mersea is a dreamy reminder of how fishing villages should be.

And once again, I find people who've moved away from the madness of the cities to the "backwaters". Peter and Gill Tydie at The Victory ditched their corporate jobs in advertising and sales, and spent a "gap" year sailing the canals of France. They figured there was an alternative to an "8 to 6" day in the office, and after a spell at a pub in Hertfordshire, they bought the Victory on the shorefront in West Mersea. I have met plenty of people on my trip who have done very similar things...(are we city folk missing something here?)

The beach at for a full screen version. (Sorry about my shadow!)

Upstairs in the two-storeyed Victory are three decently comfortable rooms, and below is a very good contemporary restaurant (have the tuna steak salad), bar and separate sports pub. Sleep with the porch door open - the rooms look onto the many yachts and fishing boats in the harbour.

There's a good sense of humour in the service too: Peter and Gill are always up for a good chat, and the waiters and waitresses even more so. And the motto of The Victory ("a great place to sink a few") ties in nicely with the menu's battleship theme (starters are "take aim", mains are the "big guns" and desserts are "extra ammo".)

An aside...The HMS Victory was Lord Nelson's flagship which gave the French a wallop at Trafalgar - and is the oldest naval ship still in commission! It sits in a drydock in Plymouth as a museum ship...(looks like a worthwhile visit).

Mersea is famous for oysters, and The Company Shed is the most famous place on the island to eat oysters. Proudly non-chalant and low-brow in its atmosphere, this is the place to come for a fish-feast. But because the Shed is so wonderfully focused on fresh sea-food, you'll have to bring your own bread and drinks!

And coming up soon on the 22nd August is West Mersea's sailing regatta, which has been running every year since 1838...check out more info here.

Some more videos of Edinburgh Tattoo 2009...

Okay, here are some more videos of the 2009 Edinburgh Tattoo! Some are up to 10 minutes long, and you'll need a decent broadband connection to view them. But they're definitely worth a look! My favourite is Swiss Top Secret Drum's brilliant. And The Last Post with The Lone Piper is also very atmospheric. And of course the fireworks are probably one of the main reasons people go to the Tattoo.

If you are going to Edinburgh next year in August, do yourself a favour and go to the Tattoo.

Swiss Top Secret Drum Corp

RAF Massed Bands

Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and Royal Regiment Band of Scotland

Fireworks display, including "God save the Queen" and "Auld Lang Syne"

"Abide with me", The Last Post and The Lone Piper

"Amazing Grace"

Highland Spring Dancers

"Going Home"

She Hou Cultural Act Xi'an from China

Burns Vocal Vignette

Traditional Bag Pipers!!

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Day 31 - England East Coast - Great Yarmouth to West Mersea - The Vanishing Coast at Dunwich

There's less and less to see on the east coast of England. That's because - well - the coast is actually vanishing...

Take Dunwich, between Great Yarmouth and Felixstowe, for instance. It's the most spectacular case of disappearing coastline. When the Romans pitched their tents on Dunwich's natural harbour, the coastline was almost 2 kilometres east of where it is today. (On the map below, that would be about two centimetres - on the map scale - to the right of its current location.) And imagine a twisty estuary, with a big harbour. Because there was one (even though there isn't a trace of a harbour today!), and it gave Dunwich a lot of strategic power. It was one of the few natural harbours along this coast with deep anchorage.

View Edge of Britain in a larger map

During medieval times, the town's population of 4 000 was only half that of London's. (Today it's population is only a few hundred). But the coastline was disappearing even then. In the 1000 years from the Roman arrival to the arrival of William the Conquerer in 1086, the coast had already retreated by almost one kilometre.

But no-one was complaining, because the harbour was still one of the best in the region. Dunwich continued to thrive. It was one of the ten biggest towns in Britain, and had eight churches, three chapels and two hospitals, plus close to one thousand houses.

All Saints Church in Dunwich in 1904

And the same church in 1919...

The north sea, though, kept bringing more and more shingle on its tides, twice a day. And when a storm raged for three days in 1286, a large chunk of the town was swept into the sea. Equally catastrophic for Dunwich, the harbour was partially closed by huge banks of shingle stone. Another storm in 1328 sealed it off completely. Dunwich's commercial and political power collapsed along with it's coastline - without a harbour, it was useless to traders and shipmen.

Today, all the old houses and churches have been captured by the sea, except for the last remaining ruin of All Saint's Church, whose final capitulation is inevitable.

The whole story of Dunwich is very well told in the museum of the town. Below is a snippet of a DVD entitled "Whatever Happened to Dunwich", produced by John Cary, and copyright of Dunwich Reading Room and Museum. The DVD is sold for £4.95, and can be bought at the museum or from John Cary Studios.

Right next to the museum is The Ship, a pub and inn that serves very good food. It's not the usual burger and chips - you'll get a freshly-made, diverse menu.

About ten minutes from Dunwich is Minsmere Nature Reserve, one of the leading birding spots in Britain. You can see more than 300 species of birds - check out the seasonal highlights.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Day 30 - England East Coast - Cleethorpes & Skegness - Theme park theatrics...

Compared to a lot of other scenery I've been fortunate to see in Britain, the Lincolnshire coast is not very eventful. It's mostly flat, with few big drawcards...

One of the "nicest" little towns is probably Cleethorpes, which is small, simple, clean and - yes - "nice" (it really is the best way to describe it). I stayed there with Tudor Terrace Guest House, and had a good dinner at Signtaure Restaurant down the road. Kids will enjoy the coastal light steam railway's a miniature train that goes up and down the coast. The Discovery Centre on the sea front has extensive views of the Humber Estuary.

Check out the Lincolnshire tourism website for more things to do in the area.

Go further south to the theme parks at Skegness. Do so entirely at your own risk, because your kids will chain you to the roundabout and throw away the key. It's a galactical law that all kids love theme parks, and if Skegness were a planet, kids would be in charge. Be prepared for anything and everything...Skegness is raw. I wouldn't recommend it for Vuitton-brandishing Londoners - for the rest of normal humanity, it could be the most fun we've had for a long time.

I have never seen so many happy people in one place.