Weekend Breaks – The Wandering Weasel
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Category: Weekend Breaks

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.

Leeds: Rock’n’Roll, Rice and Pints

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I’m quite proud of being an atypical Londoner.

Yes – I’m super into the hottest new bars (Dalston Roof Park is my new favourite, along with about ten thousand other journos in the city) and I can’t imagine a day without finding fault with something on the Underground, but I’m not completely trapped in the ‘bubble’ as it’s known.

Whereas the vast majority of my colleagues and friends seem to be psychically tethered to the city, I find myself constantly seeking out other British towns to escape to. ‘The price you must spend on train tickets’, they always tell me, after dropping £30 at the door just to get let into ‘that new Japanese Blade Runner kind of place’.

They’ve forgotten that life can be wonderful and vibrantly different outside of the ‘bubble’. Not only do you not have to queue, wait and pay for the privilege of heading into a new bar, most of the time, you can walk in and buy 3 pints for the same that one would cost you in London.

Such was the case on a rather drizzly weekend spent in the heart of Yorkshire’s capital, Leeds.

When you hear Londoners talk about ‘the North’, you can practically hear them place sarcastic emphasis on those quotation marks. I probably acted in a similar way a few years ago. The sheer notion that there was an alternative to London for (relatively) young people looking for a place to live and work seemed ridiculous. Sure, maybe the rent’s cheaper, but have you heard how backward people are up there? Do you really think there are any decent places to drink, other than gross old man pubs?

If I had the ability to travel back in time, before making the obligatory trip to 20th April 1889 to kill a certain Austrian would-be dictator, I’d make a brief sojourn back to 2013 to slap myself in the face – time paradox be damned.

Leeds is one of those cities that you really need to be shown around.

The best places to drink are off the beaten track and the hippest restaurants need to be stalked like rare game. You can, of course, elect to enjoy the city with a Lonely Planet in hand, but you’ll find even the most recent edition will fall some way behind what a real Loiner (Leeds inhabitant) can offer you.

My guide was an old school mate who had fallen in love with the city over a decade ago, whilst racking up a mountain of unbeatable debt as a student. Despite the rising student fees, Leeds is still an incredibly popular student town – there are three Universities within the city limits and it has the fourth largest student population in the UK. It’s not hard to see why, when we walk into the Brudenell Social Club, where you can get a decent pint of Theakston’s Ale for well under £2.

There’s music playing in both rooms to the side of this odd, box-shaped boozer. Half the drinkers here are drifting in and out of each room, head’s nodding and slightly swaying. The other half are happily eating pies and swilling pints, there’s an effortlessly casual feeling to the atmosphere that you simply wouldn’t find in London and I am instantly beguiled. After a couple of pints, my eyes were beginning to be drawn to the food on other’s plates.

Thankfully, we had a plan for this.

Anand Sweets is a family run shop and catering business, specialising in vegetarian and vegan Indian dishes and methai (Indian sweets). We sit inside the newly refurbished shop and enjoy ordering off a menu of dishes which is pretty much alien to me. In my mind, I consider how popular a simple place like this might be and decide that the perfect storm of delicious food, entirely vegan options and incomprehensible menu would probably bowl over thousands of Londoners if they ever got the chance.

Getting the train back to London, I felt the change in my pocket from the £40 that I’d taken out at the start of my journey and thought about how far it would have taken me if I’d stayed in the big city.

Probably, about as far as the queue for the first bar…

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