April 21

Undersea adventures with the Octonauts Live

Oc2 The CBeebies series The Octonauts is a favourite in our house, so when I saw there was a live-on-stage version on tour we just had to go along and it didn’t disappoint 🙂

The producers have done a good job adapting a cartoon series for the stage and my two children were enthralled. Most of the action takes place in the Octonauts submarine with a undersea world back projected to give the impression of being underwater. They also threw in a few songs, a bit of pantomime-style audience participation, some puppets and some neat ultraviolet fish!Octonauts1

The show wasn’t too long (which meant our two-year-old enjoyed it – her first live theatre show) and everyone seemed to go away happy. I’d certainly recommend it.

The tour runs until July and it will be visiting Bristol, Swansea, London, St Albans, Manchester, Glasgow, Lowestoft, Southend, Swindon, Brighton, Sheffield, King’s Lynn, Harrogate, Southsea, Woking, Northampton, Lichfield and Blackpool.

 

January 8

They really do think of everything at Flear Farm…

mistbgBooking a family holiday when you’ve got young children isn’t always easy. On top of all the usual things you have to think about when you’re packing there’s all the extra stuff to consider: travel cots, stair gates, highchairs and toys.

And particularly if you’re holidaying in the UK there another worry: will there be things to do if it rains?

Well it’s fair to say that booking a stay at Flear Farm in Devon means you can stop worrying about all those things and simply get on with the important business of having a good time and enjoying your holiday.

Everything about Flear Farm is designed to make a stay there fun and relaxing for all the family – not just the children. The friendly and welcoming owners, Barney and Camilla, have young children, which means their attention to detail and understanding of just what families need is first rate.20141012_095253 (Large)

Nestled in a valley in the beautiful South Hams area of Devon, Flear Farm is a picturesque 27-acre estate and its attractive and characterful stone-built farm buildings have been converted into cottages with a great deal of thought and care.

FF-Mangers-Dining-to-kitchenThe cottages are cosy, comfortable and well equipped. There’s children’s cutlery in the drawers and stair gates already in place – and your children are likely to discover that there are jigsaws, books and games in the lounge.

One of Flear Farm’s great attraction if you have children is the play barn, which is just perfect for children of all ages. It really has something for everyone. For little ones, there’s a soft play area, rockers and swings. For slightly bigger children there’s a big trampoline, climbing frame, play house and trikes. Then for medium-sized little people upwards there’s a pool table, table football, piano and table tennis…

20141012_095648 (Large)So if it does decide to rain during your holiday, you know there’s somewhere where you can let the children play happily while you sit on a comfy sofa with a coffee (and if you’re like me, check your emails via the free wifi!).
Just round the corner (and actually underneath the play barn) is a decent-sized swimming pool. Perfect for a quick dip, or if you have a son like mine, perfect for hour upon hour of swimming and playing…. until you come out with your fingers and toes wrinkled like a prune! And just to illustrate that they really do think of everything at Flear Farm, there’s even a travel cot by the swimming pool if you have a really little baby where they can play safely while you have a swim.

FF-Pool-Barn-Head-onJust outside the swimming pool is a hot tub. Perfect, or so my son thinks, whatever the weather (so much so that we recently sat in it for an hour while it was raining!)

There’s plenty more to do outside. There’s a tennis court, small golf course, football goals and play area – and lovely places to walk. In fact, if you feel like abandoning your car then, provided you’ve stocked up with food (or arranged a supermarket delivery in advance!) you could enjoy a relaxing stay at Flear Farm without getting back in your car.

But if you so fancy venturing out then there is much to see nearby. The pretty town of Kingsbridge is about three miles away and is one of those places with enough independent shops to still make its high street worth a wander – and a Tesco and Morrisons for big grocery shops.

It also boast “The Best Fish and Chip Shop” in the world. Well that’s what I think anyway. I’ve eaten fish and chips everywhere from Portsmouth to Florida and from Whitby to Sydney (including the stonkingly good Doyles in The Rocks and the smaller branch in Watson’s Bay) and in my view Kingsbridge’s pun-tastic chippy The Codfather beats them all. Just delicious, plain and simple. You can eat in, but if the weather’s ok then I recommend walking 200 yards and sitting on a bench overlooking the river.

Dartmouth is another place [or plaice, if you are still thinking in Codfather-style puns) that you must visit. A beautiful, historic town (and home to the Britannia Royal Naval College) is great whether you want to shop, have lunch or while away a few hours enjoying the views and eating ice cream.

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If you are planning to go to Dartmouth, here are some of my recommendations of things to do:

Go crabbing: This is a real must if you’ve got little people with you (or even not so little people!) Get yourself a crabbing net, some bait and a bucket and spend a lazy afternoon catching (and then releasing!) crabs by the water’s edge. My tip: the bait is very smelly so have some hand-wash handy!

Visit Dartmouth Castle: You can walk from the town to Dartmouth Castle which is owned by English Heritage – and there’s a very nice tea and ice cream shop (with great views….!) The historic church is very pretty too. My tip: Get a boat from the town out to the castle and then stroll back.

Go on a ferry: I’ve been going to Dartmouth since I was a child and getting there from Kingswear on the other side of the river Dart by car ferry always felt like a treat – and still does! If you don’t need or want to take your car then hop on a passenger ferry.

20140120_113120 (Large)Go on a steam train: While you’re in Kingswear you could take a trip on a steam train – the train goes to Paignton (and stops at Greenway).

Take a river tour: Sail down the Dart and keep a look out for Agatha Christie’s Greenway House which is now owned by the National Trust.

 

Get up early and have breakfast at Café Alf Resco: It is really no exception to say that this is one of my favourite cafés in the world (click here is another) – great food (proper freshly squeezed orange juice, local bacon and a range of cereals (Small Son’s favourite)), friendly staff, a nice vibe and it’s open from 7am (and staff are cheerful even if you’re a bleary-eyed parent out for early morning crabbing)

Have lunch or dinner in Rockfish. Rockfish is one of three restaurants in Dartmouth owned by chef Mitch Tonks (the others are the fish and chip shop by the car ferry and the more formal Seahorse).

Rockfish is brilliant – the food is delicious and the prices are very reasonable. And if you’ve got children then the Rockfish activity packs are priceless (quite literally, as they are free).20140118_090303-002

Have tea and cakes in Saveurs – lovely service and great cakes. And they do dinner too. (Another place I’d recommend for eating is Kendrick’s)

Back at Flear Farm, if the weather’s good (we’ve been lucky both times we’ve stayed there) then eating outside is a must and each cottage has its own outside area with tables and chairs. There’s also a barbecue area if you feel like cooking outside.

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It’s hard to fault Flear Farm. We’ve been there twice – and I’m sure we’ll be going back.

 

 

 

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July 18

Isle of Wight holiday in a lighthouse cottage will leave you beaming with delight

DSC_6440I blame Enid Blyton. Ever since I read her Famous Five adventures I’ve been fascinated by lighthouses.

Rising majestically on the edge of a cliff or standing precariously on top treacherous rocks, they are weather-beaten and storm-lashed – yet unmovable.

Then there were the lives of the men and women who worked in them, manning them round the clock, making sure the lamps shone brightly and the foghorns never let mariners down.

An often solitary, yet strangely romantic existence, the jobs of these hardworking and dedicated individuals have long since vanished and the network of lighthouses around the British Isles is automated.

With no lighthouse keepers to provide homes for these days, Trinity House – the 499-year-old corporation given its Royal Charter by Henry VIII to look after the safety of shipping around our coast – rents them out as holiday lets.

And that’s how we find ourselves spending the weekend in a keeper’s cottage at St Catherine’s Point Lighthouse, Niton Undercliff, at the most southerly point of the Isle of Wight.

And if beautiful sea views, crashing waves, sunshine, rocky beaches and history are your thing, then you’ve found the perfect place to stay.

The cottage itself – we had Landward, the middle one of three there – could not have been more perfect for a weekend away.

The spacious, well-equipped kitchen was perfectly in keeping with the Victorian building and contained everything you could need.

In fact they really have thought about their customers’ needs to the point where they even have children’s cutlery – something very few places have (and something we always forget to take with us).

The welcome pack of food is also spot on. Someone has clearly gone to some trouble to think about what you might need – and there are enough provisions provided for a simple family tea and the first breakfast.

The bedrooms – one double with sea views and one with two single beds – are homely and welcoming and the lounge, again with those amazing views, is comfortable and cosy.

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After looking around inside, my small son and I decided to go exploring.

There’s a private walled courtyard and beyond that a gate leading to the lighthouse.

The present lighthouse was built in 1838 after the loss of the sailing ship Clarendon, which was wrecked by hidden rocks.

It was originally three tiered but that turned out to be too high – the lantern was often shrouded in mist – so in 1875 it was lowered by 13m.

The lighthouse was automated in 1997 and the last lighthouse keepers left that July. It is now managed from Trinity House’s control centre in Essex.

 

On certain days it’s open to the public for viewing and my son and I decided to take the 94-step trip up to the top – including a short, almost vertical, ladder climb. It was well worth the effort because, as you might imagine, the views from the top are spectacular – and it’s impossible not to be impressed by the Victorian machinery still turning the light in the 21st century, its great weight floating on a bed of mercury.

DSC_6793 (Large)If you look closely you’ll see some chips in the lenses, a sad reminder of St Catherine’s darkest day – June 1, 1943 when a German bombing raid destroyed the engine house, killing the three lighthouse keepers who were on duty.

With such a tragic history and the fact that we’re on what’s known as Britain’s most haunted island, it seems inevitable that there have been sightings of ghosts at the lighthouse – including a figure in the lamp room and reports of a noisy family who talk and slam doors. I tried to put that out of my mind but later that night – when I ventured outside during a storm to take pictures, with the spooky beam of light from the lamp cutting through the fog – I did start to wonder…

During daylight the clifftop walks from St Catherine’s Point are spectacular – part of the 67-mile Isle of Wight circular walk – and the nearby town of Ventnor is a five-mile walk along the coast.

Ventnor has a wide sandy beach – ideal for sandcastles and perfect for children – as well as a host of bars and restaurants, including the olde worlde Spyglass Inn, which is an ideal place to have some good pub grub while enjoying views over the beach and out to sea.

Travel the other way from St Catherine’s Point – by car or, if you fancy a long walk, on foot – and you’ll find Blackgang Chine (blackgangchine.com). This has been ushering in visitors since 1843 – one of its first “attractions” was a whale skeleton.

The site is now one of the island’s most popular destinations and there is lots for families to see and do – Dinoland, Wild West-themed Frontierland, a giant maze, a crooked house and water rides. There’s also an exhibition explaining the cliff falls and erosion that have made Blackgang a disappearing village.

Further round the coast, at the island’s most westerly point, are the famous Needles – three distinctive stacks of chalk which take their name from a fourth needle-shaped stack of chalk which collapsed in a storm in 1764.

You can get a great view of these amazing rocks from The Needles Battery, a fortification perched on the cliffs built to guard the island, first against the French in the 19th century and then against the Germans in the 1940s.

Now run by the National Trust, they are a great place for young and not-so-young to explore, with gunpowder stores and the guardhouse.

There is also a tiny but excellent tea room in a World War II look-out tower. Nearby at High Down is another National Trust-run military relic – a former rocket test site where some of Britain’s Cold War and space race technology was tested under conditions of great secrecy.

With our afternoon exploring over, it’s back to the lighthouse for dinner. By now it has started raining and the wind has begun blowing a gale.

Back in the comfort of Landward cottage, it’s the kind of stormy, authentic lighthouse keeper experience you’d expect. And, fortunately, still no sign of those ghosts…

IMG-20120908-00657 (Large)Travel File

When to go : The Isle of Wight is great all year round. It’s the perfect place for lazy days at the beach in the summer when the weather is good, but it’s also fantastic for atmospheric walks by the sea or in the countryside when it’s stormy.

Top Tip : Take a bus. Even if you’ve got a car with you, leave it for a day and avoid the hassle of trying to find a parking space. The island is well served by buses which weave through the narrow roads (and you get great views from the top of a double decker!). There’s also railway line which uses former London underground trains.

Getting there : We travelled with Wightlink Ferries from Portsmouth to Fishbourne wightlink.co.uk You can also get there from Southsea by hovercraft and from Southampton by car ferry.

Book it: A two night stay at Landward Cottage starts at £287 with Rural Retreats. ruralretreats.co.uk 01386 701177

Article (c) Steve Clark 2014 / External photographs (c) Steve Clark 2014. All rights reserved.

 This piece by me was originally published in the Sunday Mirror. Click here to view it online.