A Travellerspoint blog

May 2013

Simpson's Cross - Home

Bouncing home with the help of a wallaby and a few lemurs

semi-overcast 12 °C
View Boulogne 2013 & Picturesque Pembrokeshire and Skomer Island 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Packing up to go home was kind of sad, although I have to say I am looking forward to a nice warm shower and my own bed. The tipi has been lovely, full of little details that have made our stay really enjoyable, and Claire (the owner) even came by last night to check that we were OK after the storm earlier in the week. She said she had expected us to bail out during the high winds (as previous guests have done apparently), but that didn't even occur to us.


We decided to take the long route home, through Pembrokeshire National park – beautiful as ever.


Manor House Wildlife Park
Our first (and as it turns out, only) stop today was at the Manor House Wildlife Park. The park is full of humorous signs and pictures of the (apparently famous) owner Anna Ryder Richardson – we couldn't even buy a post card without her face on it!


This conservation-led zoo advertises itself as having four Zoonique Walkthroughs with 52 acres of organically packed fun. The lemur Walkthrough is said to be one of Europe's largest and the zoo also houses the world's largest bird table. Just as we were leaving the lemur enclosure, we were told off for being in there as it wasn't open yet. Oh well..... I am sure the very cute lemurs didn't mind.


Other animals included pygmy goats you could pet, gibbons, zebras, rhinos, wallabies you could hand feed and many more. The park was very well laid out, the setting was picturesque and natural and the enclosures large, but I think the best way of describing the place would be “has potential”.


Through Brecon Beacon National Park and then home – until next time.

Posted by Grete Howard 11:34 Archived in Wales Comments (1)

Teifi Marshes Nature Reserve and Cilgerran Castle

Bluebells, giant badgers, train spotters and medieval castles

semi-overcast 13 °C
View Boulogne 2013 & Picturesque Pembrokeshire and Skomer Island 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Teifi Marshes Nature Reserve
We woke to some nice sunshine this morning, and thoroughly enjoyed having breakfast outside overlooking the valley and hearing the birds singing from the hedgerows and the horses (and seriously cute foals) frolicking in the field next door. As we had no idea how long the good weather would last, we decided to make the most of it and head for the open spaces. Teifi Marshes Nature Reserve is part of the Welsh Wildlife Centre, a 264 acre reserve with many habitats to explore, such as river, ponds, reeds, woodland and meadows. The bluebell glades were particularly beautiful, and we enjoyed hiking some of the many trails. In the fabulous modern visitors centre, we savoured an Indian Spiced Carrot Cake while overlooking the giant wicker badger. As you do.


Castle Kitchen
Heading for the castle at Cilgerran, we decided to stop for lunch at the very quaint and very quirky Castle Kitchen, almost next door. Part restaurant, part museum, part shop, it is run by a model railway enthusiast and his very tolerant wife (his words, not mine). When we arrived we caught him playing with his train set which is set up in one corner of the restaurant; and the walls are filled with (mostly) railway memorabilia. Such a friendly couple, and the food didn't disappoint either – I had the sewin (a local river fish similar to trout and a new one on me!) with a creamy mushroom sauce and David opted for the more traditional steak and kidney pudding. Best of all, the food came served with no less than five different vegetables and three different types of potato. Vegetables are the one thing I miss the most when we travel, so this was a real treat for me!


Cilgerran Castle
At almost 800 years young and counting, Cilgerran castle occupies a stunning location. Perfect for stunning attackers that is. The striking 13th-century castle is perched on a precipitous, craggy promontory overlooking the spectacular Teifi Gorge and has inspired many artists, including Turner. The Teifi here is just at its tidal limit, so the castle was able to control both a natural crossing point and the passage of seagoing ships. Traditionally, medieval castles were designed with a keep or strong tower at the centre but Cilgerran Castle is unusual because two massive round towers were erected instead.


The current keeper of the castle, Rob, (or at least the keeper of the till in the ticket booth) obviously became easily lonely in his little 'office' and took great delight in long, in depth conversations with each and every visitor to the castle. Nice chap, but boy did he go on....

Dragon Reptiles
I'd read about this place on the internet before we came, and thought it would be a cool place to visit. David looked up the address on line and found it was in an arcade in Pembroke Docks. We stopped by on the way up here on Monday, but found the whole arcade was closed, probably due to it being a bank holiday. Yesterday it was open, so we wandered down the row of little budget shops until we found Dragon Reptiles. On line it is described as “an exciting indoor exhibition with over 100 enclosures of reptiles, insects, fish and amphibians. This popular attraction bring the exotic life of the rainforest and desert to people of all ages”, so we were dismayed to find it was nothing more than a small shop selling lizards and other little similar creatures. We didn't even bother to go in – the store was no bigger than our living room! Last night, making further searches on the internet, we discovered there are no less than THREE Dragon Reptiles in Wales, and the above description seems to have been liberally applied to all of them, when in fact it only belongs to the attraction near Tenby.

On our way back from Cilgerran, we stopped by the Tenby place (finally the RIGHT place), to find it had shut some ten minutes earlier! It was not to be on this trip. I do find it very strange, however, how attractions in Britain have such short opening hour s– many just open from 10:00 – 16:00. It makes for such a short sightseeing day if you are touring the area.

Getting some fish and chips on the way back to the tipi, we retired to our little den in with a drink and listened to the new arrivals gushing about the facilities as they settled into their weekend accommodation.

Posted by Grete Howard 11:35 Archived in Wales Comments (0)

Scolton Manor, Pembrokeshire National Park and Carreg Coetan

Upstairs, downstairs, chocolate disappointment and old graves

storm 9 °C
View Boulogne 2013 & Picturesque Pembrokeshire and Skomer Island 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Despite the driving rain (and at times hail) slapping against the canvas and the howling wind rustling in the rafters and shaking the tipi to the core, I was snug as a bug in a rug in my very comfortable bed. Of course, I was wearing thermal underwear, thick socks, a balaclava, gloves and a tracksuit; and I was covered with my own lovely 10 tog quilt and a thick blanket....

We have a small kitchen near the tipi – more akin to a shed – in which I cooked sausages for breakfast, before we drove the 150 yards to the toilet block. I know that sounds terribly lazy (and I suppose it is), but the long grass was wetting my shoes, socks and jeans, and of course the diagonal rain was making everything else wet.

Scolton Manor
We deliberately chose to visit Scolton Manor this morning because of it being an indoor attraction – what we didn't realise was that there is a half mile walk (slight exaggeration maybe...) from the car park to reach the house. Pembrokeshire's County Museum is located in a traditional Victorian country house and surrounded by 60 acres of park and woodland. Until 1972 Scolton Manor was home to successive generations of the Higgon family and has been used as both a family home and a convalescence hospital for servicemen during the Second World War over the years. It now provides visitors with a taste of Victorian society and style, both above and below stairs. There were enough artefacts to make it interesting and the museum was small enough to hold that interest until the end. Each room had a very informative fact sheet, from which my personal guide (David) read out as I was busy taking photos. I love how well my new camera – and the 50mm f/1.4 lens in particular - copes with low light situations. Next door to the museum is a nice little modern café serving delicious cream teas!


Pemberton Chocolate Farm
At the suggestion of my friend Sarah (who was there last year and thoroughly enjoyed it), we headed for the Pembrokeshire Chocolate Factory, Britain’s only chocolate farm (not quite sure how you farm 'chocolate' in Wales though). We'd seen the signs for it a couple of days ago on the A40, and turned off the main road, then drove and drove and drove on the side roads without any indication as to where this factory might be.


Just as we thought we were on the wrong road and were about to turn the car around, a sign appeared confirming we were heading in the right direction. After around an hour's drive, we finally arrived at the factory, only to find they don't open until June! We were so disappointed, we had to buy some consolation chocolate from the shop – which was all that was open. The girl who served us was most amused when I explained that Sarah's mobile phone had decided to auto-correct Pemberton to 'perverted' when she text me the details. I think I prefer the idea of 'perverted chocolate' myself....

Lucy (our not-always-quite-so-trusted Sat Nav) took us down some super little side roads back to camp – I love the Welsh place names, they seem to be extremely economical with their vowels.


Pembrokeshire National Park

We even took a little detour up onto the wild and desolate Pembrokeshire National Park. I would hate to break down up here – I can just hear the conversation with the recovery company:
“Where are you?”
“I have no idea”
“What can you see?”

This place really is well out in the sticks – so much so that there are no sticks. However, the sun came out and stayed out most of the afternoon, making everything seem rosy again.


Carreg Coetan Arthur Dolmen (Burial Chamber)
Neolithic burial chamber dating from around 3000BC, with a 4m-long capstone supported by two of the four surviving 'legs' which might seem precariously perched until you consider that it has stood this way for thousands of years.


I loved the write-up on a Neolithic Portal website about the dolmen: “The reason for these structures has finally been solved; they are Gnome traps. We managed to entice this particularly persistent chap into the chamber with some mouldy pepperoni laced with whisky (irresistible to Gnomes) and then activated the device. These creatures create havoc locally, where they run around the gardens naked and rifle through the bins looking for cat litter (also irresistible to the little people) “

As the weather had cleared up so miraculously, we decided to make the most of it and light the BBQ back at the tipi camp, and toast some marshmallows to make s'mores. So many of my American and Canadian friends talk about this delicacy of toasted marshmallows sandwiched with chocolate between two biscuits. I'd not heard of it until the last couple of years, but can now proudly say I am no longer a s'more virgin! The name 'smore is said to come from the expression “please may I have s'more?”


Posted by Grete Howard 13:14 Archived in Wales Comments (0)

Skomer - Simpson's Cross

Bishops, Saints and Tipis

semi-overcast 13 °C
View Boulogne 2013 & Picturesque Pembrokeshire and Skomer Island 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

We awoke at 05:00 wondering if we'd get off the island today or not. By 08:00 we were given the go-ahead for departure at 09:00, the last boat trip to the island until Saturday. The guests who were booked until Thursday had to leave a day early and those due to arrive on the island on Thursday or Friday would miss out completely. We certainly should count ourselves lucky we made it across at all!

It was with a heavy heart, many happy memories, three huge blisters and way too many photos of puffins that we made our way to the landing stage. If I thought the other guests on our outward boat were carrying a lot of luggage, it was nothing compared with the photography group who were already on the island when we arrived. Creating a human chain, we passed all the heavy bags, tripods, camera equipment, food containers and rubbish bags (EVERYTHING has to come off the island with you!) down the steps and into the boat (after having done the same in reverse with the luggage belonging to the arriving passengers), before boarding ourselves. Fortunately the force six wind was in a due south direction, keeping the water in the bay nice and calm. Swells of up to 4.5 metres have been known during a northerly wind.


During the 15 minute journey the captain was feeding the gulls bread through the window in his cab, making them hang around on the thermals overhead. The journey was totally unadventurous other than the sea birds, as was the landing at Martinshaven on the mainland.


I have heard of a pub with no beer, but never a post office with no stamps! Calling at Marloes Post Office and general stores, I was told he only had six first class stamps left, that was all. At Tesco in Haverfordwest we took a break for a coffee and to update the blog using their free wifi, and bizarrely enough bumped into one of the girls from Skomer! It's a small world! We stocked up on food for tonight's meal and made our way towards the campsite. We knew approximately where it was and headed off in the right direction. Having not seen any signs, it's a bit worrying when you stop and ask the one person who should know where EVERYTHING is in the area is – the postman – and he's never heard of the place. We thought we'd drive back to the village and phone the proprietor when we spotted the sign: TO THE TIPIS. Yay! We've arrived! The tipis are awesome! With only three of them in a huge field, we're not exactly crowded, and anyway, Claire (the delightful owner of Pembrokeshire Tipis ) informed us that we have the place to ourselves for the first two nights.


Pembrokeshire Tipis
Tipis (also spelled tepee and teepee) were traditionally made of animal skins and wooden poles and used by nomadic tribes of the Great Plains. These days, with glamping becoming a more and more popular form of holidaying, tipis (and yurts for at matter, but after our traumatic experiences in Kyrgyzstan it will be a while before we voluntarily stay in another yurt) have sprung up all over the UK. Being constantly on the lookout for new and exciting experiences, we jumped at the chance of staying in these glorified tents for a few nights. We got a really good deal by staying outside of the season, getting a free night because of booking three, and a discount for just two people staying (the tipi sleeps six), so here we are!

Tipis_2.jpg Tipis_3.jpg

After dumping a lot of the stuff from the car in the tipi ,we set off to explore St David's. Although still gusty, the sun had come out by now, and making our way across the beautiful old bridge to the Bishop's Palace, the wind takes my hat and deposits it in the river! Talk about lucky – it landed on some rocks and David was able to retrieve it quite easily, in fact it didn't even get wet!


St David's Bishop's Palace
Known as the Welsh Marches, the border area between England and Wales was hotly disputed in the Middle Ages. After the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror set out to subdue the Welsh, appointing several trusted nobles – known as Marcher Lords – to guard this frontier society. The lordships in this area had special privileges which separated them from the usual English lordships in that they ruled their lands by their own law and could build castles, a jealously guarded Royal privilege in England.

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In the 13th century there were few landowners in Wales wealthier than the Bishop's of St David's who were also Marcher Lords in their own right. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that their palace buildings offered such regaling splendour, with the entire cathedral close surrounded by a precinct wall with four gates, one of which still remains standing. An impressive palace, we were pleased to discovered CADW have an arrangement with English Heritage, allowing us free entry into all their properties. Good call.


St David's Cathedral
Next door is the 12th century St David's Cathedral built on the site of the monastery founded by St David himself in the 6th century. The cathedral is quite magnificent and having the organ practice helped add just the right atmosphere.


Back at camp, we enjoyed a couple of drinks and some traditional camp food of sausages and beans, before retiring to our very comfortable bed for the night.


Posted by Grete Howard 00:08 Archived in Wales Comments (2)

Marloes - Skomer

P-p-p-p-p-pick up a puffin

sunny 20 °C
View Picturesque Pembrokeshire and Skomer Island 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After a full English breakfast to set us up for the day, we made our way to the farm near the harbour where we were leaving the car for a couple of days. From there it was less than a mile walk to the jetty for the boat to take us the ten minute journey across to Skomer Island. What a day we picked for it! Last week the forecast kept changing from sunny to overcast to cloudy to light rain to heavy rain, but we woke up this morning to brilliant sunshine and not a cloud in the sky.

Skomer Island
Called Ynys Sgomer in Welsh, Skomer is an island off the coast of Pembrokeshire in south west Wales, best known for its wildlife. This is our second attempt at visiting Skomer to see the puffins, after an aborted effort some years ago. Places are very limited on the island, only 250 visitors per day and a mere 16 people can stay overnight, so we feel quite privileged to be amongst the few.


It's a fairly small island, 1.5 x 2 miles, with the highest point being 75m above sea level. It might not sound like much, but when you have to carry all your gear (clothes, food, bedding, camera equipment) in a backpack up a series of switchback steps to reach that point, it morphs into the highest mountain you've ever climbed. Having said that, it wasn't as bad as I expected it to be, and if we thought we were taking a lot of stuff, we had packed light compared to the others on the boat – we had everything in one backpack each (plus camera gear), other had two rucksacks plus a holdall per person!


There are said to be over 16,000 breeding pairs of Puffins on Skomer at last count (although I am not sure exactly HOW they do count them!) and neighbouring Skokholm Islands, making them one of the most important Puffin colonies in Britain.


At the moment they are building their nests, often in old disused rabbit warrens or in home dug burrows.


Puffins form long-term relationships, with the female laying a single egg, and both parents incubating the egg and feeding the chick (or "puffling" – I love that word!) using the same burrow as in previous years. The puffling grows to full size in about six weeks and then flies away from the island to spend its next three to four years floating on the high seas. I would love to come back in mid-to-late-June to see the pufflings!


No privacy!

Puffins often live 20 years or more (unless they get eaten by tourists in Iceland of course) with the oldest known puffin believed to have lived to be 38 years old. One of the reasons I am particularly attracted to puffins, is their almost comical colourful beaks and feet which in spring turn a colourful orange in preparation for the breeding season and the beak increases in size as the bird matures. The size and colour of puffin beaks is believed to serve as badges of experience and help birds assess the ‘quality’ of potential mates. So it's true with puffins as well as humans: size matters!


Courtship ritual

There is one particular area on the island known as The Wick, and this is where the puffin party is! I expected to only see them at a distance as you are not allowed to stray from the island's paths, so I did not expect them to run over my feet as they scuttled from one side of the path to the other with their nest building material.


Roving eye: While Mrs Puffin was busy home making, Mr P was checking out his neighbour's wife!

The island may not be big, but we walked solidly for over five hours, probably covering around five miles; the island is criss-crossed by paths and dotted with hides overlooking ponds.


Rabbits were introduced in the 13th century and their burrows and grazing have had a profound effect on the island landscape in more ways than one: they nibble heathland and other flowering plants promoting dominance of unpalatable plants; their burrows cause soil erosion; the rabbits are a source of food for the island's buzzards and gulls (we saw one being eaten); they provide good feeding habitats for the chough and meadow pipits by keeping the grass short through grazing; and empty borrows are taken over by Manx sheerwaters and puffins (you could say they burrow borrow). All in all rabbits on Skomer are a conservation conundrum. There are said to be 30,000 rabbits on the island, I think we probably saw 29,998 of those – everywhere you look there are cute, fluffy little rabbits' tails bobbing up and down as they hop off or their little pink ears sticking up out of a burrow, only really visible when backlit by the sun.


Manx Sheerwaters
A third of the world population of Manx Shearwaters nest on the island and at night time tens of thousands of the nocturnal birds return to their burrows, skimming the air like half-seen shadows and tumbling clumsily to the ground. With so many birds all calling at once, the intensity of their discordant cries smothers the island in a blanket of strangely eerie noise. We went to bed at 21:00, exhausted from the walking and constant battering wind on the island, setting the alarm for 23:00 to check out the sheerwaters. Stormy nights such as tonight is the best condition to see the birds, and we certainly weren't disappointed – you could say I had an up close and personal experience as one wind-battered bird struggled to keep his course in the gusty, dark night and smacked straight into my face. I don't know who was most startled, me or him! I'm jolly glad the sheerwaters are not the same sized as gulls – the impact was more soft and feathery than painful. After a few minutes regaining his composure on the ground (“I've never run into a Norwegian on this island before”) he was on his merry way.


With no heating, the bedrooms in the solid stone building can get very damp and cold, and we finally retired for the night fully clothed inckuding gloves and a balaclava, covered with a quilt and two blankets. With the howling wind, screeching sheerwaters and snoring husband; I didn't get a great deal of sleep.


David in front of the accommodation

Posted by Grete Howard 07:10 Archived in Wales Comments (1)

Bristol - Marloes

Abbeys, rocks and birds.

sunny 20 °C
View Picturesque Pembrokeshire and Skomer Island 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I can't believe how much stuff we're taking just for a week camping in Wales! It was like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube attempting to fit it all into the car! We didn't pack our passports however, and we had to bribe the officials to let us into Wales. Oh, wait, that's a road toll....

Neath Abbey
Originally founded as a daughter house of Savigny in 1130, the abbey was absorbed into the Cistercian order in 1147. Fairly complete remains of the abbey survive, together with the sixteenth-century mansion raised within its precincts. Once the largest abbey in Wales, it was known as "the fairest abbey of all Wales.”

Like its contemporary, the more famous Tintern Abbey, Neath is huge! The grounds were lush meadows covered in wildflowers – albeit mostly dandelions and those baby daisies you often find in lawn,s but it was beautiful all the same. Such an impressive site, it is amazing that not only is it free entry, but we also had the place to ourselves!


Stack Rocks
We had planned to visit a reptile place in Pembroke, but when we got there we found it was closed, so we decided to pop out to the coast to see the stacks instead. Good move. The stacks are on a military firing range, and are only accessible when there are no manoeuvres happening. Today being a bank holiday, the road was open.


Stacks are isolated pillars of rock which rise steeply from the sea and are of Carboniferous Limestone, the dominant local rock type. Around the Pembrokeshire Coast there are a number of stacks. Stacks were once part of the mainland, however, over time the sea has worked into weaknesses in the rock, known as joints and bedding planes, and worn it away. What is left is a stack that is separate from the mainland. Some stacks form from arches, after the arch part has collapsed.
The two stacks are important nesting sites for guillemots and kittiwakes, two of the many species of seabirds found on the Pembrokeshire Coast. The birds return to the stacks in spring, and can be viewed from the mainland throughout the spring and early summer. Locally the Stack Rocks are known as the Elegug Stacks, after the Welsh word for Guillemot. According to a local birder we got chatting with, the birds only arrived a couple of days ago, very late this year due to the cold spring, so we were very lucky! There were literally thousands of the birds perched on the rocks, making an already stunning location totally breathtaking.


The Green Bridge of Wales
The Green Bridge of Wales is said to be one of the most famous landmarks in Wales, and one of the most spectacular sites on the Pembrokeshire Coast. I have to admit I had not heard about it until I started the research for this trip.
The Green Bridge is basically a limestone arch. formed when the sea wore away the rock underneath. At first, it is likely that a cave was formed in each side of the spur, then as the sea gradually washed more rock away, the two caves joined together to make an arch. One day in the future the centre of the arch is likely to collapse, and the arch will become a stack.


Carew Cross
This magnificent 11th century decorated cross is believed to commemorate Maredudd ap Edwin who died in 1035. This cross provides the inspiration for the symbol of Cadw, the Welsh Heritage organisation. The cross is right next to Carew Castle, which we visited some years ago, but I can't remember seeing the cross at the time. It must have been there though, as I am not that old.


Jodie's Place
On our way to our overnight accommodation, we popped in to see an old friend who is now a farmer's wife (in all but name) at a gorgeous remote location in Pembrokeshire. We were treated to coffee and home made flapjacks, a tour of the new vegetable patch, pond and the boys' camp in the woods (which brought back many happy memories of playing and making dens in the forest as a child) as well as cuddles from Kenny the boxer dog. Apparently it is a sign that he likes you when he places his head on your leg at the table.

Jodie_1.jpg Jodie_2.jpg

The Griffin Inn
After checking in to our guest house in Marloes and ordering tomorrow's breakfast, we set out to go for dinner. Having read many scathing reviews on Trip Advisor about the local restaurant within walking distance of the guest house, we headed for The Griffin Inn in Dale instead, a ten minute drive away. Boy were we glad we did! What a wonderful place! Specialising in fresh fish – very fresh, most of it comes from the bay right outside their door – and the staff were exceptionally friendly, treating us like long lost friends. The menu was described to us in detail, the manageress and the chef both came out to ensure everything was OK and just to generally chat. And did I mention that the food was awesome? I tried razorclams for the first time and they were scrummy! The clams were picked from the sea wall some 20 metres from our table earlier that day! That is truly local and truly fresh!


Posted by Grete Howard 13:42 Archived in Wales Comments (3)

There be Wales on the horizon

Planning for Picturesque Pembrokeshire, Photogenic Puffins, Peculiar Pre-history and Period Palaces

The main reason for this trip to Wales, is to visit (and stay overnight on) Skomer Island, with the hope of finally clapping eyes on puffins! Over the years we have made a few attempts to see the colourful and comical puffins in the wild, but so far we've been unsuccessful. Our encounters with the cute little birds to date have been a little off-beat:

1. stuffed specimen in the Natural History Museum in London
2. in captivity in The Living Coasts in Torquay
3. as a fluffy toy in an RSPB souvenir shop
4. lightly smoked on a dinner plate in Iceland

Maybe the last one is best kept to ourselves when we meet the wardens (and the birds) on the island...




(the smoked puffin is to the right at the front...)

While we are in the Pembrokeshire area, we are staying for a few more nights, meeting up with a friend and seeing some of the local sights. Watch this space for frequent updates as I have specifically been out to buy a dongle so that I can (hopefully) access the internet via the mobile phone network. Buying a dongle in England was a totally different kettle of fish to purchasing one in Mumbai some 18 months ago. Some of you may remember the palaver, if not, you can read about it here

Posted by Grete Howard 08:05 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

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