Country Style – The Wandering Weasel
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Category: Country Style

Welsh Touring Highlights

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‘Touring’ sounds likes such an old fashioned term, but it’s one that I’m using nonetheless.

For the last year or so I’ve been touring around the UK in what can only be described as the world’s shabbiest caravan.

It’s been a surprisingly thrilling 12 months, with each day throwing up more challenges than you could wave my only hammer at (which was coincidentally one of the central sources of my problems). You’re probably wondering why I made the decision to leave my perfectly comfortable job and set out on a long road trip across the UK in my grandfather’s caravan from the 70s. I could have escaped to the other side of the world to some sunny beach and drowned myself in cocktails, but instead I decided on taking an ancient caravan on it’s last journey on a road trip that my grandfather has always dreamed of taking.

My year long journey was full of strange and interesting stories, so I thought I’d present them slowly through a number of posts divided by each country of the UK that I visited. First up is Wales, a country that I’d not visited before and one that managed to somehow managed fall in love with over the 2 months that I spent driving through it. These are my highlights for my journey through Wales:

Camping for the night in Snowdonia

Although I spent most of my nights huddled for warmth under a mass of blankets when I passed through Scotland, by the time I reached Wales I was the nights were getting temperate enough for me to consider cracking the tent out. Whilst the caravan had a perfectly decent sponge mattress to relax on, there were nights during my trip that I yearned for a night’s sleep outside of the confines of the caravan. The tent was almost as old as the caravan, but it was made of a solid enough design and was just the trick for enjoying my first night under the stars in Wales.

‘Surfing’ for the first time in a quarry

My trip to Wales was full of many firsts including my first ever surfing experience. Surf Snowdonia is an attraction that is certainly worth visiting if you’re someone like me who has never dared step on a surfboard before. In a massive ex-quarry the smarty-pants that pioneered this award-winning attraction have installed an artificial surfing lake which comes complete with it’s own wave system. They offer a wide range of packages that are suitable for complete novices (like me) and more experienced surfers who are keen to take on a new challenge.

Eating a Full Welsh Breakfast

It turns out a Full Welsh breakfast was not too different from a Full English albeit for the addition of Cockles and Laverbread. I have to admit that I started somewhat when I saw the big lump of fried oatmeal and seaweed on my plate next to the familiar ingredients, however I was starving so I quickly dove into the meal without thinking too much about it. Although I can’t say that my life has been changed by these strange additions, this meal nonetheless marked one of the best meals I had in Wales.

Click through here for a complete guide on where to stay in Snowdonia.

Devon: Chilly Seas, Burn Breakfasts and Pool Covers

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I’d not been on a trip down to Devon since I was a kid.

I’m not one of those resentful, bitter people who finds fault with the way his parents raised him or questions the values that he was taught.

Nope – other than a strange obsession with cooking Mac’n’Cheese every Friday night for almost 20 years straight, my parents did a pretty bang up job of making me who I am. Some of the fondest childhood memories that I still have knocking about in my noggin are of our holidays down to Devon.

Those oddly stilted, ill-fated trips will be forever lodged in my mind as a series of Fawlty Towers-esque semi-disasters, which had no right being as fun as they were. Our little three-person unit was constantly besieged with the worst weather that the British summer could throw at us. Without the trusty internet or GPS systems, we were perpetually lost, struggling in vain to navigate using a dog-eared road map that hadn’t been relevant for 15 years.

We were never the kind of family to complain though, which is probably why I have so many good memories of us struggling against the elements to erect the decades-old tent that my Dad insisted on bringing. The same goes for the game attempts my Father had at producing a full English on a single hotplate and the astounding chilliness of the sea on the Devonshire coast, which we would always try to brave nonetheless.

These might not sound like the most idyllic of memories, but these were the holidays that stuck with me the most and gave me my first real taste for adventure, which has led to me writing this blog.

In the spirit of those early holidays, I decided to organise a weekend away with the people who birthed me, partly as a way of catching up and also as a way of getting a fresh perspective on one of the most popular tourists destinations that the UK has to offer.

Thousands of people visit Devon every year to make the most of the warmer climes and feast their eyes on a number of attractions, both man-made and natural. It took a lot to convince my Dad not to dig out the old tent from the loft, but his attitude certainly changed when we arrived at Gitcombe, a collection of smart holiday cottages set in a truly scenic part of South Devon.

Peter and Joanne O’Brien own and manage the eight cottages on the site, they’re very proud of what they’ve accomplished in their little corner of Devon and so they should be.

As we were holidaying in the off-season the prices were a good deal cheaper, however, the colder weather did mean that the aquamatic pool cover was definitely staying closed on the outside pool. That didn’t stop us from enjoying a dip in the heated indoor pool or the hot tub though.

Although it was tempting to take refuge in the warm snug of the cottage for the weekend, the chilly beauty of the Devonshire countryside was waiting for us – and we weren’t about to leave it out there waiting for us…

This post is continued later…

Dartmouth: Cafes, Castles and Exorbitant Dinners

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It’s amazing what a little time can do to change your perspective on a place.

My childhood holidays spent in Devon were ruled by frugality.

We were constantly on a shoe-string budget during the 1990s, so you could pretty much forget about any fancy meals out or exorbitant trips to the ice cream parlour. Then again, considering the standard of food back in the 90s, perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing after all…

Thankfully, myself and my parents can afford to splash out a little more, which is fortunate when you consider how many places there are to spend money in Dartmouth.

I would never describe Devon as a cheap place to visit. Fuel costs a lot more in these far flung towns and you’ll often find that food will also come at a dearer price. There are many tourist traps in Devon that seek to take advantage of this and will end up charging the unwary visitor an arm and leg for a sub-par meal. Dartmouth is a town that will charge you an arm and a leg for a meal, but the quality will be of such a high standard that you really won’t mind spending the money.

It took my Dad some convincing to not cook a fry-up when we woke on Saturday, however he changed his tune when we cruised into peaceful Dartmouth and sidled into the understated Cafe Alf Resco for brunch. Going out for brunch is the kind of luxury that my parents had never really indulged in before – “It’s just eggs and bread, why should you have to pay through the nose for it?”

Two slabs of artisan bread, with some perfectly poached eggs soon put an end to any complaints about value and set us up for a day’s visit to Dartmouth Castle.

Going to visit a National Heritage site is one of those things that I’ll only ever do with my parents, but I always surprise myself with how much I enjoy them. Dartmouth Castle is a sterling example of architectural conservation in action, although sections of this coastal fortress are now approaching nearly 600 years old, you’d never tell, allowing an almost seamless transition from the quaint town of Dartmouth into the 14th century castle interiors. Military buffs will enjoy the collection of armaments and the maze of tunnels (built during the Victorian era) are still a joy to walk around.

In fact, the entirety of Dartmouth is accessible on foot and with parking mercilessly few and far between, you’ll want to pay for the whole day so that you can leave the car in one place. With breakfast a now distant memory, the time had come once more to bite the bullet and sit down for another expensive meal – our dinner at the Bushell’s Upper Deck turned out to be a little more complex than our sturdy breakfast.

Bushell’s Upper Deck is one of two high-end restaurants in Dartmouth owned by Jaime and Sarah Bushell.

Starters cost around £7-8 and with mains costing between £15-£25, we all knew that the final check was going to hurt our wallets somewhat. The Upper Deck is a great example of Devonshire hospitality done right, whilst the price may well set off alarms, the food and atmosphere more than made up for this. Despite the high-end costs, there was a homespun charm to the meal.

From the dated furniture to odd crockery choice, these touches made us feel like we were in someone else’s home more than a freshly refurbished restaurant – certainly not a bad thing.

Bristol: Bikes, Candy Crush and Bohos

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Bristol used to be epitomised by a few things: strong cider, farmers’ markets and questionable views on immigration – but things have changed.

There was a time when Bristol was dubiously touted as ‘the next London.’

For better or for worse, a number of writers had decided that it’s decidedly multicultural population, combined with its austere Victorian charm, made it directly comparable to the capital. The idea took hold and started to filter through to young people, graduates and trainees, looking for somewhere exciting to live that wouldn’t render them as penniless as the countless homeless people lining the streets of Westminster.

Word began to spread that Bristol was the place for young professionals to go. A diverse town that accepted people of all races and religions, a place with it’s own currency and thriving arts scene. Most importantly this was a town where you could afford to pay your rent, go out to dinner and have a decent Saturday night without bankrupting yourself for the foreseeable future. Slowly but surely, a migration started to take place and, imperceptibly at first, rental prices started to rise.

10 years later and the cider is still as strong as ever but the passage of time has changed a few things. The internet age has broadened the horizons of the belligerent minds that were trapped in the past and the farmers’ stalls are slowly being replaced by hipster food trucks. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether this progression is a good thing or not…

I took the train West to see how gentrified the town had become and if it could still prove to be a viable alternative for a Londoner seeking a change of scenery.

For any London dweller who’s looking to up sticks but not fly too far from the coop, Bristol is a good option. It takes roughly an hour and 40 minutes to get to, which is probably on par with some unfortunate office dweller’s commutes. One of the joys of this train ride are the ambient noises of the carriage. If you listen carefully, along with the familiar chimes of Candy Crush, you’ll be able to hear the accents of the Bristol-bound folk grow more and more pronounced, as their destination comes ever closer.

Besides an utterly charming accent, the town itself is crammed full of diversions. Trendy restaurants, street food markets, venues regularly playing host to live music and a thriving art scene are just a few of the reasons to take a trip here. I know what you’re thinking though. What makes this any better than London?

One word: accessibility.

One of the first things you’ll notice about Bristol is that this is a cyclist’s city. Students, doctors and lawyers alike all travel by bike and for good reason, Bristol has been voted one of the most cycle friendly cities in the country. If Bristolians aren’t cycling then they’re walking through the picturesque alleys and side streets that make up a great deal of Bristol’s walkways. The main centre of the city is small, so you’ll find that you’ll be able to walk to most of the destinations that you have in mind. For trips that will take you a little further afield to the suburbs, you can use the simple train system that runs around the circumference of the city.

Rental properties may well be creeping up in line with London, but this is still a town well worth staying in and at the very least visiting for a day or two.

The Isle of Man: Mountains, Towers and Voyeurs

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Do you ever feel like you’re trapped inside your own life?

City living has a way of confining the mind over a long period of time.

I talked last time about the London ‘bubble’ and how it serves to limit your experiences to the very trendiest of places, rather than the dives that you might actually want to visit. It’s really more of a self-imposed imprisonment, composed of bars complete with exposed brick and bare light bulbs. If I spend longer than a month in London, continuously flitting around the streets of Camden and Brixton, I begin to become weighed down by a real sense of claustrophobia.

The streets begin to narrow and each bar seems to get busier with each passing minute.

When I find myself gasping for fresh air and a place to drink that isn’t painted with several layers of irony, I make my excuses and run back to my flat. In a darkened room with my favourite Bjork album playing, I calmly book myself tickets on a plane to a remote British island and sit back with a sigh of relief.

I’d not considered visiting the Isle of Man before this week. Call me a bigot, but it had always seemed like a distant (and Northern) cousin of the Isle of Wight. As far as I was aware this was a small island, surrounded by sea with seemingly very little do, at least in comparison with London. However, after my little panic attack in Camden, this sounded like just the thing that I needed. After a speedy session of booking through SkyScanner (return flights for the weekend for £180), Airbnb (Room in Douglas for £114 p/night) and Airport Parking Market (parking at London City Airport for £33) – I was ready to leave.

The flight from London took just over an hour. As it was an internal flight so the security was light so before I knew it I was stepping out of the wonderfully named Ronaldson Airport and breathing the fresh island air of Douglas, the capital of the Isle of Man.

A few things to note about the Isle of Man, when considering it’s differences to London.

It has a population of just under 88,000 compared to London’s 8.674 million. It covers roughly 570 square kilometres, whereas London sprawls over 1,500 of them (you can do the mathematics on that one). But, what about crime? Surely such an isolated place must be filled with crack pot deviants and raving marauders, right? Wrong! There were 194 offences in the space of a year on the Isle of Man, compared to the thousands recorded in London. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be starting to consider how much you’d really miss having London on your doorstep.

The Isle of Man has been an established tourist destination for some time, as such it’s had a significant amount of financial investment from patrons over the past century. As the years have gone by, fuelled by it’s popularity during the Victorian era, the island has become populated with strange follies and quirky tourist attractions. Great Union Camera Obscura is probably the best example of this.

Sat on top of a hill at the edge of Douglas, this squat building has the look of an observatory, except the telescope isn’t pointed towards the stars. Fans of people watching will be hard to pull away from this lens which is set firmly on the town centre, allowing the voyeur to watch tourists as they go about their business.

Hopping into a hire car I drive over to Bradda Glen to get a look at Milner’s Tower.

The sun is shining and I can see the coast of Ireland looming massively on the horizon. Dedicated to the philanthropist William Milner, the tower cuts a striking shape in sharp contrast to the utterly rugged landscape all around it. I stand and stare for a while before remembering that I have a flight back to London in a day’s time – so it’s back to Douglas for a meal and sleep.

I wanted to spend the last day on the island absorbing as much of the place as possible without having to move too much so I elected to sit on the Snaefell Mountain Railway and idly munch on a meal deal. I’ve spoken before about the romance of train journeys and this one was no different. The railway climbs up 2,000-ft to reach the summit of Snaefell Mountain, the highest point on the Island. With the sun breaking through the clouds, the mountain breeze shook the fine layer of Dorito dust from my trousers as I stepped onto the platform.

Any thoughts of cramped London streets, gourmet bao buns or rooftop bars soon dissipated from my mind as I stared at the vast expanse of land and sea below me.

The Isle of Man is undoubtedly the ultimate British island retreat for any claustrophobic Londoner.

The Highlands: Pies, Miles and a Range Rover

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Don’t feel bad for Scotland.

They’ve done a damn good job of playing the sympathy card for the last couple of decades. Movies like Trainspotting and Under the Skin have done their best to portray Scotland as the grubby back end of English civilisation.

Towering concrete blocks housing drug addicts and boozers do little to put forward an impression of Scotland as a high-ticket holiday destination. But, don’t be fooled by these false images though, Scotland (and the Highlands especially) is home to a wealth of gorgeous vistas, comforting public houses and top-class restaurants.

If you’re thinking of ditching the annual holiday of sun, sea and sand, in favour of something a little more atmospheric, then Scotland might just be the place for you. Whereas you might not be guaranteed to get much of a tan whilst you’re out there, you’d be surprised how pleasant the weather can be at this time of the year. So nice in fact, that you might want to consider booking a 2-day driving tour of the Highlands, instead of a long stint at just one Hotel.

My recommendation?

If you’re travelling from London (as I did) then take the utterly mesmerising train up to Edinburgh. The journey will take you around 4 hours and 30 minutes, enough time to settle into a few of Robert Burns’ poems or even slam through Mel Gibson’s ever-so-slightly-broad Braveheart. Regardless of if you came to see it or not, schedule a couple of hours to enjoy this enduringly picturesque city. My top recommendations for a flying visit are, of course, the Castle as well as a bite to eat at The Piemaker – here’s a hint, try the pies…

Once I soaked up what Edinburgh had to offer in the way of cuisine and culture, I headed to Hertz and picked up the vehicle that would take me on my trek around Scotland. Here’s a piece of advice for anyone who’s nervous about renting a car for the first time: Don’t panic when you can’t find something exactly like your comfy little Kia parked at home. Take the opportunity to broaden your horizons, rent something completely different and have some fun!

I don’t own a car in the city, so I jumped at the opportunity to drive a brand new Range Rover.

I would never usually drive something like this, but as it was a holiday, I thought that I’d get into the spirit of the country (as well as ape a certain television show featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon). With the dust in my rear view mirror quickly rising to obscure the retreating vision of Edinburgh, I drove on to my bed for the night in Crieff.

Existing in the sweet spot halfway between luxury hotel and self-catered accommodation, Highland Heather Lodges provide lodges in perthshire with hot tubs in the form of 4 accommodation options that will suit most requirements. Although better suited for couples or families, the 1-bedroom lodge that I stayed in more than served my needs. Handsome hard floors, comfortable furnishings and a modern kitchen make this a great option for anyone looking to find themselves a cosy home away from home in the Highlands.

From Crieff you can easily access either the Highlands proper or Loch Lomond & The Trossachs, making it a perfect spot for any hikers eager to take advantage of both of these fantastic walking destinations. I was more eager to get the Range Rover back on to the road and drive through some seriously scenic territory. With the lease fast running out on my new found treasure, I pushed a little harder on the accelerator and allowed myself to drift into a James Bond influence fever dream of mist, green mountains, winding roads and burning rubber.

I knew I’d be blown away by the scenery on offer in the Scottish Highlands, I just didn’t think that I’d return so smitten for my rental car.

Durham: Cathedrals, Gardens and Tea for One

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The North East of England doesn’t get the respect it deserves when it comes to tourism.

When it comes to foreign tourism, visitors to the UK are more likely to hit the iconic cities of London, Edinburgh and Liverpool. Simply put, most foreigners have never heard of Durham.

They don’t have an internationally recognised Football team and the closest thing they have to a globally known landmark is the Angel of the North (which is more in Newcastle’s jurisdiction really). To a visitor, with a very small grasp on the history of Great Britain, the attractions that Durham has to offer might seem a little confounding. Cathedrals, gardens and tearooms are really what this not-so-modern city has to offer – three things that an utterly British gent like myself is more than happy to make the journey for.

London to Durham by train can take anywhere from just under 3 hours to around 3 hours 40 minutes. Although the price and standards of the trains in Britain have started to become very distantly related variables, I’d take a seat on a carriage over a tiring drive any day. When I arrive into Durham it’s around half 11 and a perfectly acceptable time to stop into the first tearoom of the day.

Walking through Durham’s charming shopping district, meandering my way towards the Cathedral, I find myself forgetting that I’m as North as I really am.

The cobbled streets, narrow Tudor-style walkways and copious pubs that crowd the streets here are reminiscent of Dickens’ London, or perhaps the live-action adaptations that were filmed here. It’s a shame that this quaint city doesn’t get the international attention that it deserves, foreign tourists would no doubt be wooed by the utterly English sensibility that rules large swathes of the town. Nowhere in Durham does this Englishness feel more pronounced than in one of it’s many tearooms.

I stop by at the questionably named Cafedral Durham for a refreshing cup of tea and a scone. For all of it’s Southern pretensions, I’m instantly reminded that I’m far up North thanks to the dark builder’s tea I’m served. The cafe is only a small space, but there’s a real bustling feel to it.

If this had been a place in London, the designers would have no doubt decided to cram the place with overtly quirky bric-a-brac – but the owners of Cafedral Durham have clearly shown some restraint and left the decor clean and unfussy. Think less Grandma’s front room and more modern country kitchen.

Feeling utterly refreshed, I wander the short distance over to the Cathedral to admire a building that has overlooked the city for nearly a thousand years.

Religious buildings often split the room. You have some people who are insistent that you have to be religious to enjoy a trip to a Cathedral, whilst others frankly say that ‘they all look the same’. For me, the sheer spectacle of a cathedral is enough to put a smile on my face. That’s exactly what happened when I ambled my way into Durham Cathedral’s cavernous surroundings. On a Wednesday afternoon it’s blissfully quiet, the few tourists visiting make very little noise as they slowly circle the building. Whether you’re religious or not, the scale and detail of Durham cathedral is more than enough to inspire. The mind boggles all the more when you consider how this gargantuan build was undertaken without the use of computers, cranes or any kind of electric tool.

Just a 15 minute walk from the Cathedral lies Crook Hall and Gardens. Walking along the River Wear, with Cathedral in the distance you can imagine the city as a bustling Medieval metropolis, with the water crowded with canal boats and barges. Within 10 minutes any noise from the city has been eaten up by trees and space leaving only the sound of birds and wind through the trees. Crook Hall is nowhere near as ancient as the Cathedral, it exudes a country charm that makes one forget about the Dickensian city just a few minutes walk away. A carefully manicured garden is the icing on the cake.

I can understand the trepidation that foreign tourists treat Durham with. It has none of the flashing lights and distractions of Britain’s other cities, yet it’s hard to imagine finding a more ‘English’ experience anywhere in the country.

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