Rhossili Bay, Gower
We couldn't have had a better day for it; clear blue skies in the middle of the week, too early in the season for crowds. The tide was out making the forever beach five times wider and even more take-your-breath-away impressive. It also meant we could have walked across to the iconic Worm's Head, if we wanted to. Which we didn't. It was a long way down and just looking at it made us sweat. Besides, there were ponies, many with suckling foals (cu-ute!) wandering around utterly unfazed by us. And Welsh cakes (those nice flat-raisin-scone biscuity pancake things) to be sampled. And views to savour. It was enough just to be there.
Our trusty sat-nav directed us, bypassing Swansea and heading out to Rhossili Village at the end of the Gower Peninsula.
What we did
We walked, oohed and aahed at ponies and had tea and Welsh cakes at the cafe overlooking the beach. Took photographs. But there's loads more on offer, see here and here, and that's just for starters. I don't always get why places have Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty status, but in this case, it's obvious. It's stunning.
South West Wales
Wild flowers, castles, balancing stones and beautiful beaches; very strange road signs (how do you even pronounce that word - where are the vowels?) South West Wales is a complete surprise. In a good way. The weather is amazing for one thing, which seems to surprise the Welsh even more than it does us. For another, it's more remote than I expected, with stretches of beach expansive enough to swallow up the crowds of sun-seekers. Even at Tenby where the village itself seethes with holiday-makers, we manage to arrive at low tide and there's just so much beach. And cliffs and stairs and ice-cream. And wild flowers, did I mention those?
This was a self-drive camping trip, hiring a car was the only way for us to explore the way we wanted to. Road-tripping, aka seat-of-your-pants type travel.
Where we stayed
Seat-of-your-pants accommodation involved starting to look for a suitable campsite around 4.00 pm wherever we happened to be and panicking a bit before finding a leafy pitch near Tenby, another close-ish to Fishguard (complete with loo Muzak and lamas) and Cardigan Bay where we had cliff-edge, front row seats on the Irish Sea.
Weird and wonderful Whitby
Whitby is many things to many people. At first glance it's a picturesque seaside town on the North Yorkshire coast with a staggering number of Fish and Chipperies equalled only by the number of super-sized seagulls ready to dive-bomb you and steal your lunch. For those of us living in the South Pacific it's a starting point; James Cook set out from here on his voyages of discovery. For those of you horror-genre fundis, it's a vortex for vampires, werewolves and all things goth-related; Bram Stoker's Dracula was supposedly inspired by the abbey ruins. For fossil hunters (and it turns out there are a lot of them) it's a treasure trove of ammonites, dinosaur bits and Jurassic plant remains, if you know where to look. Scattered among all this, there's jet. Yep, I'd never heard of it either, but thanks to a visit to the 2023 Yorkshire Fossil Festival, I leave Whitby a wiser, more educated person.
We caught the train from Middlesbrough, 17 stops, backwardsing and forwardsing through delicious Yorkshire countryside; green and leafy with spring lambs bounding around the fields.
Whitby what? Not an adventure water sport but ancient fossilised wood, jet black and shiny when polished, a lignite (coal) and gemstone used in jewellery. Favoured by Queen Victoria mourning Albert's demise, it went out of fashion after the Victorian era but complements the Goth theme perfectly in the here and now.
Weird and wonderful Brighton
Brighton was our first port of call on our very first trip to the UK. It rained then and it's raining now as we battle the wind and fight our way down to the sea. We don't mind, we didn't come for wonderful weather or a fabulous beach. There's so much else to do here. Like marvelling at the outrageously fanciful architecture of the Royal Pavilion or shopping the arty Lanes or hiding out in any number of pubs and quirky cafes. . . But in the end, it's the beach that draws me. The two piers, one burnt and broken, one hustling fairground rides and tacky arcade games. The promenade with its carousels, bucket and spade shops and ice-cream kiosks. Hove and the iconic rows of painted beach huts. . . There's a gull-screeching, rollercoaster energy about Brighton, part frenetic, part forlorn; a place you sense has been down on its luck and flying high many times. Right now it's hard to pick where it's at.
We caught the train from Bristol, an adventure in itself - split tickets and many, many station stops. Same again coming back plus the added confusion of industrial action, cancellations, uncancellations (yep, there's such a thing) carriages being added then shunted off, and Ladies' Day at the Goodwood Festival in Chichester. The highlight was spotting the Westbury White Horse on the hillside near the Salisbury Plain.
Brighton Beach Swimming
Swimming is possible, believe it or not. The water is not that cold. The beach is pebbly though, torturous underfoot without some kind of water shoe (shops sell them on the promenade, luckily) and your ankles get pebble-pummelled when there's surf.
Where is Severn Beach?
The train we catch from Bristol Temple Meads to Stapleton Road station (where we get off to go home to Easton) is the service to Severn Beach. Where is this beach, we wonder? Is it close? Good for a swim? I haven't heard rave reviews about it - the opposite in fact - so it's not hard to exceed expectations. And thanks to a rare blue sky day and the gentlest of sea breezes, it really does. True, there's no beach to speak of and I wouldn't intentionally put my foot in that muddy brown water. But for two happy hours we walk the walkways, squinting across at Wales in the sunshine. Our mission: to touch the bridge. Once that's accomplished there's not much left to do. Shirley's Cafe is too full with the lunch time crowd and the lady in the bakery seems put out by the word 'vegetarian'. We short cut it back to the station.
After Stapleton Road (our usual exit point), the train carries on through Montpelier to Clifton Downs where it dives into a really long tunnel. When it eventually emerges we're in the country tracking alongside the river to Sea Mills, Avonmouth and finally Severn Beach. There are 21 trains a day, more info here.
Things we weren't expecting
We're impressed by the expansive views, pleasantly surprised by the friendly greetings from other amblers, happy to note a complete lack of litter.
Pick your day and take your own picnic. Oh yes, and turn left not right when exiting the Severn Beach station.
Bristol Balloon Fiesta
I have a thing for hot air balloons. I love the fantasy of them and the promotional images on the Bristol Balloon Fiesta website are amazing. I want to be among a mass rising of balloons and take photos that look like that. Last year we woke before dawn to get to a viewpoint above the Suspension Bridge and the balloons, tiny blobs in the distant sky, floated off in the opposite direction. This year they don't even get off the ground. After walking and waiting for hours, the mass late afternoon ascension is cancelled at the last minute due to unfavourable winds. Then at seven the next morning I'm woken by the hissing and huffing of gas firing up hot air balloons overhead and all I have to do is stand at the front door in my pjs. It's starting to rain but I don't care. More steampunk than glossy promo pics, here they come down our road, so low it looks like they're going to get stuck on the chimney pots. Best. Views. Ever.
We caught a train to Bristol Temple Meads, walked through Harbourside and followed the Festival Way cycle path to Ashton Court Estate. A hot, tiring trek that all up took a couple of hours.
Ashton Court Estate
I'm not a fairground fan, a festival fan or partial to heaving crowds, so if it wasn't for the balloons, I really wouldn't have come. But it helps that the grounds (with the 700-year-old Domesday Oak and two deer parks) are lovely, as is the mansion house, painted that weird yellow colour that seems to be favoured by stately homes around Bristol.
27° and London icons blister and blink in the sunshine. I love the old and new of it, the brown and the blue of it. I don't love the heaving mass of tourists though and we don't even attempt the walk across Tower Bridge, choosing instead to find a bench in the shade and watch everyone else fight their way through. Sitting alongside the muddy brown Thames, I'm not in the least tempted to cool off in it, despite info boards telling us clean-up campaigns in recent years make it one of the world's least polluted big city rivers. We overheat circumnavigating the castle with its moat of dried-out wildflowers, so it's back to Shoreditch where we're staying, where the flowers are painted on walls. Not iconic as such, but still a mix; historic and hipster, old and new, brown and blue.
Old icon: Tower Bridge
On a busy day, it's more fun to view from a distance, then read about it here
New icon: The Gherkin
Otherwise known 30 St Mary Axe, funny names for a funny-shaped building. It takes itself very seriously here
Old icon: Tower of London
Crown Jewels and all that. Free to wander around the outside, costly to go in and brace yourself for queues. The new innovation of moat wildflowers is obviously still in the experimental phase.
Forever icon: The River Thames
Thames wild swimming is on the way up, yes really, and here's the how-to guide
Brick Lane, London's East End
Brick Lane, busted by ghosts and Jack the Chipper; there's a story here. It's getting dark and as a crowd gathers under our hotel window at 13 Brick Lane, it feels less jokey and more, well, sinister. Along with yet another Jack-the-Ripper tour group, we're hearing, in graphic, gory detail, how poor Polly met her demise - just over there. . . We stumbled across Monty's Bar during happy hour and laughed at the crazy little ghost painting booing us from a graffiti wall. On the way back we were so bamboozled by the rows of curry restaurants and their touters that we settled for a box of hot chips for dinner. Jack the Chipper, we laughed at that too (although we got ours from Poppies). I don't believe in ghosts, not really, but it's August and almost to the day, the 135th anniversary of that infamous murder. I'm not laughing now.
Aldgate East underground station pops you up next to Whitechapel Gallery, Brick Lane is around the corner.
Things we were looking for (and found):
The Baltic & the Bridges, Gateshead
On one side of the River Tyne, you're in Newcastle. On the other you're in Gateshead. At least seven bridges built in different eras span it here and we use the most recent, the Gateshead Millennium tilting foot and cycle bridge, to get to the Baltic. Once a flour mill, the building was converted into a contemporary art centre around the same time as this bridge opened. The exhibitions, gift shop and cafe are all good, but it's the views that really get our attention. Worth a visit for those alone. We glimpse them from the lift as it travels between floors and lose ourselves in them as soon as we hit the viewing deck. Bridge after bridge, we're enticed and captivated; Newcastle's old-world city skyline is the show-stopper. Even the Gateshead Sage reflects it in its shiny dome-y sides, rather than taking centre stage.
Across the Millennium Bridge from Newcastle Quayside.
Heaps of info on the Millennium and other Tyne bridges
A concert venue and music centre, notable also for its architecture (described as an 'undulating blob' and a 'shiny slug') designed for acoustics as well as aesthetics.