Bristol to Bruges and back again by bike

Easter weekend saw me take on a whole new sort of adventure. Since Christmas I’ve been commuting longer distances by bike and began to think about a longer trip on two wheels. Given that my longer commute still isn’t very long I wanted to pick a route that would have enough challenge but was also not too ambitious. As a cautious Carol I know that if I spectacularly fail something once it’s unlikely I’ll be trying again for a long time – not a great life tactic I know but one I’ll bet is pretty common!

I thought a strategy of a long flat ride to somewhere with lots of things to eat and drink would be the best option, I’d heard tell of a great cycle network in Belgium and had never visited Bruges so quickly the destination was decided; the fact that Bruges is probably one of the most famous chocolate producing towns in the world and that the trip would take place over Easter weekend was no coincidence!

Transport logistics

With destination decided I looked at transport options. Deciding that the long cycle should be on the continent I booked train tickets to Dover and then found that we could take the ferry to Dunkirk instead of Calais shaving 30 not particularly scenic kilometers off the route distance. Online rail booking sites couldn’t cope with a multi-leg cycle reservation journey but booking at a station was easy and ended up being incredibly good value – £30 return for me and my bike from Bristol to Dover.

Cycling from Paddington to St Pancreas was a surprisingly easy as there is good cycle path down the backstreets which is well signposted. A quick picnic purchase and onwards to Dover. Having left after work on Thursday I was enjoying a drink in Dover by 9pm. A big thanks to the excellently situated Premier Inn for allowing bike storage in their laundry room. I wouldn’t hesitate to stay there again on any European adventures.

VIP ferry passengers

The next day saw me on a VIP cycle through the port of Dover, again really well signposted through the port. As a cyclist I boarded the ferry first and was sat comfortably in the saloon before any of the other passengers (apart from the other cyclists who, on Good Friday, were numerous).

Arriving in France the VIP treatment continued as the cyclists were also first off. However, the cycle route out of Dunkirk was much less clear and a few navigational difficulties ensued. There are a few link roads that have you along with all the traffic from the ferry but after a couple of roundabouts you can turn off onto more amenable roads through – look for the D601 to Loon Plage which takes you though a little village to pick up the cycle path towards Grande Synthe and Dunkirk town. To my dismay I only worked out that Dunkrik Ferry Terminal is approximately 25km south of Dunkirk on the ferry thus extending the planned ride by 1/4!

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Pretty excited to reach the Belgian border

 

The route up to Dunkirk and onwards to the Belgian border was mainly on roadside cycle paths. There were very few cycle specific directions but google maps on bike setting did a reasonable job.

Knoopunten – the cyclists best Belgian friend

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The super Knoopunten list

Once in Belgium though things really reached a whole new level of cycle routing, one which I only truly mastered on our return journey. Throughout Flanders and extending into other areas of Belgium are cycle paths which you can navigate by the delightfully named Knoopunten. Each junction has a choice of routes, the number filled in in green shows where you are and you then select which number you need to go onwards. The very useful website Fietsroute.org has a cycle planner which will generate a list of numbered points for you to follow. The screenshot below shows our return route and I can vouch that all numbers were present and correct. Being able to quickly check a screenshot rather than draining a mobile battery using google or checking a map made for really efficient cycling. The route up to Bruges starts down a farm track just at the Belgian border with the D60, while variety is the spice of life had I used these on the way out I would have been introduced to the Belgian cycle paths much sooner.

The route to Bruges

Eventually I joined the off road paths just outside Veurne, which, had I been visiting earlier in the day would have made an excellent lunch stop. From here the route headed North along canalside paths with very little traffic. Sunshine and a small tail wind made cycling a pleasure. Belgian cyclists were extremely friendly and as soon as there was any puzzling over the map someone would offer help. At one point a local escort appeared as if by magic help navigate around Niewport.

From Veurne it is straightforward to follow one canal north to Niewport, tour over a few fields then pick up another (or perhaps the same canal) to the north of Niewport and then at Passendale turn right to follow a third (?second) canal into Bruges.

Bruges and Ghent

Bruges is a beautiful city, the photos probably do it more justice than my words can. It is very, very touristy but quiet pockets can be found such as a walk out to St Anna’s windmills. Lovely bars and pubs abound to drink delicious Belgian beers in. A tell tale sign the beer consumption had gone to far was when a 7% beer was referred to as a ‘light refreshing afternoon beer’. Some favourite drinkeries included Cafe Rose Red, Comptoir des Artes, Cafe Cambrinus and Cafe Terrastje. I also enjoyed a fantastic cocktail at Groot Vlaenderen and loved them even more for not judging me in my one non cycling outfit, packed for practicality rather than style, despite it being a rather fancier than it appeared from the outside cocktail bar!

Beautiful Bruges

Bruges is very compact and after a day of wandering and no major interest in 16th Century Flemish art we decided to take a day/afternnon trip to Ghent. An easy 20 minute train ride from Bruges, Ghent was a lovely contrast, it still has a beautiful historic center but manages to combine old and new with some wonderful modern architecture alongside its history. There are also many museums to explore, with more variety than Bruges. We took a trip to the delightfully named S.M.A.K; a modern art museum near the station. A trip to the gallery and a potter round town with some great chips along the way made for a lovely contrasting day out.

Super Ghent

The return journey

Having spent some time figuring out the Knoopunten the return journey was much less navigationally challenging. However, the weather was less on our side although atleast the rain was blown in by a tail wind for most of the cycle south. Given that it was a bank holiday our eating options were limited and we were incredibly grateful to our B&B hosts for having made us an enormous packed breakfast. The looming deadline of the ferry crossing and the inclement weather certainly sped us up and we managed to cover the 100km in 5 hours meaning we caught an earlier ferry, just as well as our VIP treatment was not repeated and we waited nearly 45 minutes to disembark at Dover meaning we only just made the train connection back to London and onward to Bristol.

Lessons learned and helpful tips

Book your cycle reservations for UK train in person at a station

Dunkirk ferry terminal is NOT in Dunkirk

Trust the Knoopunten

I was lucky with the wind but bear in mind a lot of Belgian cyclists will quote ‘in Belgium the wind is our hills’

Belgian beers taste better in Belgium but my does it taste good there!

Building cycling into a holiday really does encourage eating and drinking all the things…

Cheers! I’m already planning my next European cycling adventure – all suggestions welcome.

One day adventures: Glastonbury Tor, Somerset

The longer I live in Bristol the ever widening circles I draw around the city to investigate new adventures. Don’t get me wrong I also love to re-visit some of my favourites which you can read about here on my Bristol page.

A few weekends ago a new destination was needed. As it was a gloriously sunny day somewhere with a view was in order. I’d been meaning to visit Glastonbury for a long time, I’d heard tell of a hill rising from the flattest land around and mystical goings on in the town itself.

About an hours drive from Bristol it’s certainly worth waiting for a day where you can capitalise on the fabulous views. I’d love to visit in Winter too as it is supposed to be a great spot to view the starling murmurations that form over the Somerset levels.

Parking in Glastonbury town we soon picked up the trail for the Tor, passing the first and second very unique Glastonbury attractions in quick succession; firstly the Somerset Rural Life Museum (currently closed but due to reopen this summer). Secondly, The White Spring, which was very atmospheric. I decided not to indulge in any naked bathing which, I was relieved to see, was permitted as it was a little chilly and off we continued up the Tor.

The Tor itself rises to a fairly paltry 158m but because it reaches that height from the flat as a pancake Somerset Levels it provides provides a spectacular 360 degree panorama of the surrounding area. As I hope you can see from these pictures the view is pretty far reaching.

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The walk up takes a leisurely 30 minutes and would be a perfect family adventure. On our return we enjoyed a lovely tea and cake in Glastonbury town courtesy of The Hundred Monkeys cafe which I would recommend.

A little less adventurous than some previous outings but still a great day out and one that you could certainly combine with Wells (previously adventured – see link) to make a perfect Somerset weekend.

Gert lush!

Mountain of the month: March 2017; Beinn Fhionnlaidh, Highlands, Scotland

On the 31st of March I popped up Beinn Fionnlaidh just in the nick of time to have it count as March’s mountain of the month. I would love to fill this post with beautiful pictures of the glorious varied views up the mountain and then culminate in the stunning vistas from the summit. However as you will see from the photos, this was a different kind of mountain; one that is only truly appreciated back in the car.

Some people I know are very lucky when it comes to their Scottish trips; they imagine sunny skies, huge mountains and a dusting of snow and that is precisely what they get. Whether through bad luck or just a normal helping of luck this has rarely, if ever, been my experience of the joys of Scottish weather. Whether visiting in May or January I tend to pack pretty much the same kit although I have to say that there was really very little snow left on the hills on this visit so the ice axe was barely needed on this trip.

I was visiting for a long weekend and the forecast for the last day of March was fairly uninspiring. Double raindrop all day with cloud cover down to 400m. There had been talk of scrambles, gulleys and 10 hour epics but when we awoke to the sound of heavy rain none of these seemed like brilliant ideas. Nonetheless as it was my first day up north a summit should at least be attempted. We scanned the local area for a straightforward top that there was little chance we could fall off in bad visibility.

Beinn Fhionnlaidh seemed to fit the bill. I am led to believe by the excellent walkhighlands description that is a little ripper of a hill, gradually unveiling itself as you climb before summiting with wonderful views towards the summits of Glencoe and the Aonach Eagach ridge. The weather forecast ran true and we saw none of these things. We walked in double rain drop rain combined with 30 mph winds for no views at all. At least there was a trig point to tell us we had definitely reached the top from where we bid a hasty retreat.

Why have I then made this mountain of the month? I’ll be the first to admit it’s probably not going to be a mountain I’ll rush back to BUT I have no regrets about getting up it on a nasty weather day and practicing some navigation and building some confidence. Every hill we climb gives us something to call on when we’re next out; experience.

So if you’re ever in two minds about going out; do it. You might not get the views but you’ll get something equally as valuable; another hill day under your belt.

This mountain definitely got me thinking about Munro bagging again; I had been a skeptic (see my post here) but actually I am beginning to see the positives that it can bring. To complete even half would be a major achievement and would have no doubt got me up a few hills when the conditions were far from perfect and taken me to parts of Scotland I may otherwise not have visited. Don’t call me an official bagger just yet but do watch this space….

The trip also consisted of a couple of Munros with marginally better views on the 1st April but surely that would be cheating to count those as mountain of the month for April? April is shaping up to be a good mountain month so hopefully I should have plenty to chose from.

 

Introducing… Mountain of the month; Feb 2017; Ben Ledi, The Trossachs, Scotland

New year, new plans didn’t get off to a brilliant start. I had formulated a scheme in my mind to climb a mountain each month but my first attempt was aborted in bad weather. It appeared on the blog here but I was a little coy at revealing my plans and it turned up as a post about winter skills.
Adjusting your day is an important part of being a year round hiker and I’m still going to count my first mountain of the month as a relative success.

However, February’s outing was the absolute definition of a successful mountain day for me; beautiful weather, just the right amount of difficulty and challenge and super company.

I love to get up to Scotland and whenever I go am surprised at the ease with which I can be in the hills. It does involve throwing a bit of money at the problem given that I live in the south but it’s always worth it when I land in Glasgow or Edinburgh (whichever has the cheaper flights) and get in a tiny hire car (the cheapest there is) and hit the road.

To maximise my choice of mountain days I headed for the Trossachs and based myself in Callander. This area was brand new to me but I will certainly visit again. Just over an hours drive from Glasgow airport it has munroes, corbetts and lochs a plenty – something for everyone no matter what the weather.

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A phone picture couldn’t come close to doing justice to this spectacular panorama

Ben Ledi (879m) stands out as an obvious and intriguing choice from Callander. It is tall enough to make a day out but not so tall or steep that it can’t be tackled in winter with a bit of sensible decision making. I used the circular route from Walk Highlands which absolutely made the day. The standard route up wasn’t busy by any stretch but the second half of the loop, north of the summit hadn’t been walked that day. Deep, crisp snow underfoot along the ridge and down the bealach was a delight. The clouds stayed away (probably as they were blown through at 50mph when the gusts of wind came) allowing appreciation of the size and beauty of the Trossachs area. The views from the ridge were some of the best I’ve seen in Scotland, across to Ben Lomond and the Arrochar Alps. The whole circuit took about 4 hours and involved approximately 700m of ascent and descent so felt like a good outing but at no point presented too many route finding or navigational difficulties.

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The summit cross, a memorial to those who lost their lives when a helicopter on a rescue operation crashed on the mountain.
 
A highly recommended route aided by a beautiful Scottish winter days weather. I’m already planning my next trip and of course, now I’ve started, next months #MOTM – all suggestions welcome!

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Significant dedication required to get this photo in 50mph gusts. #mountainsmiles

Urban rambling in Falkirk

I like to walk whenever and wherever I can. So, with an afternoon to pass in central Scotland I decided to embark on an urban ramble, trying to link two mysterious brown signed tourist attractions I had passed signs to frequently but had never visited. Using my very handy and very free (with a Trail magazine subscription) OS maps app it appeared that I could link the two sites with some canal, park and nature trail based rambling.

There are always green spaces even in the most urban of areas and trying to link them into a route can be a really rewarding experience.


Falkirk’s two top hits on the tourist trail are the intriguingly named ‘The Kelpies’ and ‘The Falkirk Wheel’. The former, two giant metal sculptures of mythical creatures with the power of 100 horses,  the later a rotating boat lift! Both feats of engineering, both with attached cafes, both on canals.

Starting at the Falkirk Wheel I parked up and spent atleast 5 minutes marvelling at this feat of engineering. Disappointingly the wheel was dry and not in operation. When not dry as a bone you can take a ride on it, which I’ll be honest, I would have been pretty tempted to do!

The canalside awaited and off I set on the towpath of the Union Canal. With Falkirk town on my left and almost open countryside on the right there were moments when I felt miles away from civilisation. There was plenty of birdlife to keep me amused and before long I was following the John Muir Way into the grounds of Callander House. Woodland paths meandered down towards the house; so far so good on the urban nature, I had barely set foot on concrete. This changed somewhat as I struggled to link Callander House to the start of the Helix which is the park in which the Kelpies are situated. I toured some less than exciting housing and industrial estates. However powered by some emergency mini eggs I finally entered the Helix and made my way to The Kelpies. Helped by a backdrop of snow capped hills and crisp blue sky the sculptures really were a great spectacle.

I didn’t linger long as had a dying phone (source of my map) and limited daylight to complete my walk on the towpath of the Forth and Clyde Canal. I have to say this canal was less scenic and it is always a sorry site to see litter and plastic bottles in our waterways. Despite the need for some extreme litter picking I continued to see a wide variety of bird life. The stretch through Falkirk itself was a practical route but not one that I would rush to walk as a standalone, however once the town centre was passed greenery ensued once more.

 

As the sunset reflected in the still waters of the canal and the final light of the day disappeared I felt a lot of love for this urban ramble. It certainly wasn’t my classic hiking day but I had seen two amazing human built sculptures and more wildlife than I sometimes see on the hill, a perfect complement of urban spaces and nature.

One day adventures near Bristol: The Malvern Hills

Following on from other one day adventures that you can read about here I want to let you in on another superb one day adventure easily accessible from Bristol. This one requires a slightly longer drive or train journey but is absolutely worth it.

I have visited the Malvern Hills for many years as some of my family live very close to the foot of them. They are a perfect chain of mini mountains which lend themselves superbly to anything from a car park stroll to a full day traverse.

The full traverse requires a bit of logistical planning and although I’m sure achievable with public transport would probably be best with two cars. It’s something I’m certainly having a think about as an adventure later in the year. However in this post I will let you in on a delightful circular walk taking in two of the main features of the southern end of the hills. Perfect for friends or family, it’s gentle enough for a morning but just long enough that you feel you’ve had a leg stretch and justified whatever you plan to eat later in the day…. There are some great pubs nearby!

Starting from the quarry car park head north up a good track, where you can keep to the right skirting around the bottom of the obvious fort summit, when you meet the main path coming from the car park in the middle of hills (usually signified by the sudden appearance of buggies) head uphill on any path you care to chose to ascend the Herefordshire beacon (also known as roman camp – you’ll certainly see why when you ascend its slopes. If you were looking for a vantage point to fend off hoards of marauders and ancient troublemakers you couldn’t find much better!). From here head south taking any path that keeps you on the right hand side of ridge until a clearly marked footpath bears off to the right from Hangman’s Hill. From this path you can then ascend via any of the three paths available to you to the Obelisk. Both high points offer spectacular views out over Worcestershire and Herefordshire.

Retrace your steps down from the obelisk and return to the quarry car park by way of the gullet.

The area would also suit itself brilliantly to trail running as the paths are generally good and navigation is very easy as the hills run in an almost perfect north to south line. The area around the hills and some of the bridleways on the hills are also suitable for mountain biking. This website has some great cycling and walking routes listed.

http://www.malvernhillsaonb.org.uk/exploring-the-aonb/cycle-routes/

Winter lesson learning in the Brecon Beacons

Like the rest of Southern Britain I got pretty excited about the prospect of snow last weekend. Even better than snow being forecast sun was too. It was more encouragement than I needed to book a last minute bunk at YHA Brecon Beacons and head off into the mountains.

I hurriedly packed what I remembered from last year as my winter kit and set of straight from work on Friday. Driving up into the hills snow slowed traffic on the roads but I didn’t care I knew snow at night meant even better chances of waking up in a winter wonderland the following day.

Overnight I was kept awake by the pounding of rain on the skylight – probably the first sign that the weather wasn’t quite following the forecast. Undeterred I set off on a wet morning to the area known simply as The Black Mountain. It was an area of the Brecons I hadn’t visited before and was keen to explore. I’d set my sights on Fan Foel the highest peak in the area at 802m. Still waiting for the emergence of anything approaching dry, sunny weather I decided I could wait in the car no longer and set off. It was raining heavily and the early route was incredibly muddy. There were a couple of tantalizing sun beams intermittently but as the route went on and I climbed higher the rain, then snow became more persistent, the wind picked up and my waterproofs became less and less effective.


The route I had chosen climbed steadily to a lake at around 650m with a final push up onto the ridge for the summit. I persisted to the lake but was getting colder, the conditions were getting worse rather than better, I was on my own and there was some pretty remote, steep, snowy ground to the ridge. I made the decision to turn back. I was disappointing but had learnt some really valuable lessons which I share with you now:

  1. Read the forecast but plan for what you know the default mountain weather is in the UK – wet, cold and windy!
  2. Check your kit list carefully – I had forgotten compass, dry bags and flask – all essential for a winter day
  3. Winter conditions mean winter kit (ice axe and crampons) even in areas you wouldn’t necessarily associated with winter routes
  4. Constantly assess the route and don’t be afraid to modify it or retrace your steps
  5. So important I’m going to put it again – don’t forget your compass! The paths aren’t there so in poor conditions a bit of compass work is essential to get your home.

Lessons learnt and waterproofs re-waterproofed I’m looking forwards to another crack at winter walking in Scotland in February (fingers crossed the snow returns!)

I leave you with this video. Never trust the forecast!

 

 

 

 

Exploring Northumberland; England’s forgotten corner?

Sometimes at key times during the year it can feel like everyone has had the same bright idea as you. Our national parks are beautiful and do a fantastic job of encouraging people to visit them. Even on the busiest weekends there are always pockets of peace and tranquility (some of them I’ve even written about – Not going up Snowdon anyone?). But just imagine if there was a whole national park that only a select group of people seem to visit. Imagine no longer because I think Northumberland might just be that gem.

This was my first visit to the area and we chose to go over what I would say is fairly peak tourist season; New Year. We stayed in Craster which is a fishing village approximately 45 minutes south of Berwick-upon-Tweed and about an hour north of Newcastle. The A1 becomes single lane and every brown tourist sign seems to contain at least three castles, that’s when you truly know you’ve hit Northumbrian honeypot destination.

What I liked most about the area, apart from is outstanding seascapes and castles was the fact that in contrast to North Norfolk it seemed to have resisted fancification. Here was a region full of working market towns and seaside villages that still had people living in them who just wanted to live by the sea and did so 365 days a year. It was also steeped in history and criss-crossed with footpaths and even a couple of long distance walking routes.

We visited Lindisfarne, walked around Rothbury, took in the coast path from Craster to Alnmouth and explored Alnwick. I could give you extensive details on each but the official website does a very good job of the doing that. Instead I am going to show you some of my photos hoping that I’ve captured some of the special magic in the air in this beautiful region that I cannot wait to explore further.

Alnwick Gardens

Seascapes in Craster

Walking around Rothbury and Simonside

Beautiful Lindisfarne, a real highlight of a wonderful trip.

I’d love to hear your recommendations for my future visits. Happy New Year!

Nordic walking the Norfolk Coastal Path

The challenge: a winter walking holiday that would provide a sense of achievement and enjoyment and would take place in the week before Christmas, which features the years shortest day, with a mother who  loves walking but (understandably) isn’t a fan of walking in the dark.

The solution/holiday: The Norfolk Coast Path.

The plan: the Norfolk Coast Path is approximately 46 miles long and follows the beautiful North Norfolk coast from Hunstanton to Cromer. It links with the Peddars Way and is also being extended beyond Cromer as part of the England Coast Path project which is due to complete in 2020. We only had 3 days (to include travel there and back from Essex) and limited daylight hours. It was deemed that we needed to move quickly. Handily my mother has discovered Nordic walking in her retirement and has progressed to the point where she felt she could find me some poles and impart her hard earned knowledge to me. In turn I had high hopes that Nordic walking may mean I got a few more miles out of my dodgy hip before it flared up again.

One of the things I found most appealing about the path is that it is easily accessible by public transport. We took the train to Kings Lynn and then caught the regular Coasthopper bus up to Hunstanton. For our return we simply took the train from Cromer. We elected to stay at a couple of pubs with rooms on the way given the time of year but there are accommodation options, including camping to suit all budgets along the path.

Day 1: Hunstanton to Brancaster (appox 10 miles)

Within an hour of setting off we were already out on big sky beaches which we had to ourselves. Occasionally we would come across a hardened dog walker to give some sense of perspective to the gigantic landscapes in front of us. This was probably the longest stretch of pure beach walking which was ideally suited to the Nordic walking poles and we made good progress to a coffee stop in Thornham. The path then headed inland and before we knew it we popped out in Brancaster for our dinner, bed and breakfast at The Ship Inn.

Day 2: Brancaster to Blakeney (approx 20 miles)


We knew we’d have to put in a couple of big days to get the route done in 3 days; thankfully the weather gods could not have been kinder to us and we walked swiftly over marshes, beaches, ancient pine forests and more marshes before arriving just as dusk was falling in Blakeney. This was undoubtedly a long day and the stretch of path from Wells-next-the-sea to Morston was, for me, a little uninspiring. If we had had more time I think breaking the walk at Wells would have been a nice way to split the distance over 4 days. We had a lovely stay at the The White Horse in Blakeney.

Day 3: Blakeney to Cromer (approx 15 miles)

Day three provided delightful contrast to the previous few days. Gone was the sand and the marshes were now on our right hand side as we walked along sea wall for many miles. Initially along flood defenses, then along shingle bank and finally along the classic seaside ‘front’ at Sheringham before touring the caravan parks of West and East Runton and descending into Cromer with its classic seaside pier.

North Norfolk will always have a special place in my heart and memories as it was somewhere we often holidayed as a family when I was a child. We would tour the sailing clubs of the coast competing in dingy races each day. This visit was the first time I had been in over 15 years and I was surprised at the apparent gentrification of the area, particularly over the first 20 miles or so of the trail. However this does not detract at all from the areas beauty and I was really pleased to have seen the variety and contrast that the more traditional seaside resorts provided as the miles wore on.

The Norfolk Coast Path was my first fully completed national trail and I would highly recommend it for a short walking break. About 70% of the trail was suitable for Nordic Walking and incorporating this technique into the trip certainly improved our average speed and most importantly enabled me to complete the trip as planned.

Useful Links

National Trail Website

The Ship, Brancaster

The White Horse, Blakeney

Nordic walking – using poles to create a whole body workout that is kind to joints and offers excellent cardiovascular exercise. I would really encourage anyone to give it a go – there are lots of local groups around the UK.

I’m looking forward to exploring more of our national trails throughout the year. The week before Christmas is an ideal time to get out walking!