December 9

Inspiring views and great food at Leonard’s Cove in Devon

20151122_073344 Thinking of booking a holiday? Well I recommend Leonards Cove Holiday Park in ‪‎Devon‬. As I have written before, the views from Leonard’s Cove are stunning and it’s a great base from which to explore the beautiful countryside of the South Hams area in Devon, including one of my favourite places in the world, the waterside town of Dartmouth.

12314463_523175847844529_1902256074410907596_oI recently spent a week at Leonard’s Cove working working on a book – and it really was the perfect place for inspiration and peace. I rented the same lodge as I’d stayed in before (you can see some pictures here).

Located in the village of Stoke Fleming in the beautiful South Hams district, Leonard’s Cove boasts stunning views out across Start Bay and a range of accommodation from camping pitches to mobile homes, lodges and cottages.20151121_074240

I stayed in and cooked most evenings in a break between writing but on my last night I was treated to dinner by the owner at Leonard’s Cove at his restaurant Radius 7, a short stroll from the lodge. The staff were friendly and welcoming and the place was obviously popular with locals, which is always a good sign in touristy areas.

small_635708340460706585_gallery_image_02I settled down with a nice glass of wine… To start I had home-made bread and dips, which were delicious. My main a Radius 7 burger, made, as with everything they offer, with local beef. It was perfect – and cooked just right.

I normally skip desserts but could resist trying a couple of scoops of Dartmouth Dairy Ice Cream – and I’m glad I did, as it was delicious.

Next time I stay at Leonard’s Cove I’ll definitely be eating at Radius 7 again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

November 6

Happy days hunting for dinosaurs (well, their fossils) on the Isle of Wight…

2015-08-29 21.14.17We recently spent a very enjoyable week on the beautiful Isle of Wight. Living in Hampshire, the Isle of Wight isn’t far away as the crow flies, but as you need to take a trip across the water to get there, going there always feels a bit special.

20150822_100714 (Large)We took the car (very laden, as holidaying with two young children means you can never travel light!) and travelled from Southampton to West Cowes with Red Funnel Ferries – and it all went very smoothly.

It was remarkably stress-free. The ferry was bang on time and boarding was efficient. We were soon aboard and greeted by a cheery and helpful member of the Red Funnel team. Within a couple of minutes we were sitting enjoying the view with a decent cup of coffee.20150829_165147 (Large)

The trip across the Solent takes under an hour, so there’s not exactly a lot of time for children to get bored, but even so, I was jolly impressed to hear over the tannoy that there was a magician to keep children entertained.

But this wasn’t to be just any old magician – this one would actually be teaching a few magic tricks. So Small Son and I moved up a deck and found a crowd of other parents and children about to literally learn some of a magician’s tricks of the trade.

20150829_165215 (Large)The three tricks demonstrated – a card one, a rope one and a dotty one – were well selected too… tricky (sorry!) enough to baffle most of an audience but straightforward enough for children to master, with a bit of practice.

At the end of the demonstration tricks could be bought and more tuition given to make sure every child could do the trick. But this was certainly no hard sell operation, and at just £2 a trick (I’d expected more than double this price) they were a bargain.

And with that, laden with all three tricks to show the rest of the family, my wannabe Paul Daniels and I returned to our seats – with me a bit relieved that Small Son had not asked if the magician could saw me in half…

(On the return journey Red Funnel, which has just invested over £2.2 million in the refurbishment of the Red Osprey passenger and vehicle ferry to the Island, with two new lounges and a sun deck, had laid on face painting for the children, which again proved to be very popular!)

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20150828_144850 (Large)We’d rented a house in Freshwater Bay but had a few hours to kill before we could get the keys so as the sun was shining we headed to Compton Beach and within an hour or so of arriving on the island, Small son and I were in the sea and making the most of the good weather.20150828_120148 (Large)

I can’t remember the last time I swam in the sea in the UK, but it was surprisingly warm and it was just as well that we enjoyed that sunny weather that day as it poured down for the next three days…

Now all parents with small children know what a nightmare constant rain (in this case, torrential) can be as little people need to have a run around and aren’t as content to sit in a pub all afternoon with a drink and a good book as we grown-ups might be…

Our problem was solved by the discovery and a fantastic new soft-ish play barn at Tapnell about 10 minutes from where we were staying.

Located on a farm, it was a fabulous find: a great indoor play area for children with a zip wire, bales of straw to climb on, massive tractor inner tubes, little tractors, massive building blocks, a huge chalk wall and a climbing wall.20150824_110054-001

There was something for all ages (and adults were allowed on the zip wire when it was quiet!) and more than enough to occupy a few hours on a rainy day – and we made two return visits during our holiday.

Fifty yards away was a restaurant which did everything from tasty breakfast to proper lunches. The food was great, the staff were very friendly and helpful and the cow-themed décor cool, without being too OTT. All in all, a very well thought-out venue.20150823_123046 (Large)

With considerable justification given the number of dinosaur bones which have been discovered in what is only actually a 147 square-mile island, the Isle of Wight promotes its dinosaur heritage heavily.

We spent a very enjoyable afternoon at Dinosaur Isle, a recently build centre for the island’s dinosaur and geological heritage. Although the rather poorly laid out building isn’t a patch on London’s spectacular Natural History Museum, it was busy and there was plenty to occupy dinosaur-mad children.

But hunting for dinosaurs (or at least their remains!) is even more fun so we booked places on a fossil hunt with dinosaurexpeditions.co.uk. We met expert  Agnes on the beach at Brook Chine and then spent a very enjoyable few hours finding fossils and fossilised wood which had been washed in on the tide. 20150828_140343 (Large)

Agnes was endlessly patient with all the young (and some not so young!) fossil hunters identifying and classifying every stone or fossil they brought to her. It was hard not to be enthused when easily picking up bits of rock that were 120 million years old!20150828_144510 (Large)

The fossil hunt was very enjoyable and my Son ended up with around three dozen bits of fossils of one type of another. The highlight for me was seeing huge fossilised iguanodon footprints at Compton Bay. Hundreds of millions of years ago this part of the island was a muddy lagoon and the footprints the dinosaurs made in the mud became fossilised. As the cliffs have eroded they’d been uncovered, although they are frequently re-covered by the tides so they might only be visible for a while. Each day can bring something new…

20150826_171422 (Large)Another must as far as I’m concerned if you visit the Isle of Wight is a trip to Carisbrooke Castle. It ticks all the boxes for a great castle as far as I’m concerned: it’s perched on the top of a hill; has stunning views; lots of space for children to run around and a proper place in history (Charles I was held prisoner there during the English Civil War, shortly before he was executed).20150826_174702 (Large)

On the day we visited there were lots of extra activities to see and do such as short plays, a very funny jester and, instead of the scheduled jousting (due to several days of torrential rain, the ground was understandably too wet and dangerous for knights on horses) the knight gave us a superb demonstration of just how tricky wearing, not to mention fighting in, a suit of armour would have been. Brilliant managed by English Heritage, it’s a fabulous place for a day out… (Weather tip: better for dry weather, but has some weather cover if wet)20150826_145653 (Large)20150826_171742 (Large)

The following day we headed to Robin Hill Country Park, which I hadn’t visited since I went to it on a day trip with the cubs many (many!) years ago. It was very different to how I remembered it. It’s one of those attractions that is hard to categorise. Part nature centre, part theme park, there’s plenty to do and see.

We particularly enjoyed the bird of prey display (with some hilariously reluctant feathered performers), the Canopy Skywalk, a 100-metre walk along the tree top canopy and – best of all – the Toboggan Run, an fun and surprisingly fast, run down ¼ mile metal track on a wheeled cart. There is a modest extra charge for this, but arguably one go on it should perhaps be included in the price of the entry ticket. (Weather tip: Less fun in the rain, so try to go on a dry day).
Despite mixed weather, we had a great week on the island. There is plenty to see and do, some great places to visit and the beach is never far away, which, if you have small children as we do, is somewhere they never get tired of… particularly when there’s the chance of uncovering a dinosaur or two…

Top tip:
20150828_182241 (Large)If you happen to see mobile Wightwood Pizzas, who operate from a beautifully restored vintage Citroën van, then make sure you try one of their pizzas. You won’t find a better one!

Getting there:
As you will have already read, we travelled with Red Funnel Isle of Wight Ferries, who kindly provided us with our crossing ticket. Red Funnel offers day return foot passenger crossings from just £9.00, and short break return vehicle crossings from just £57.00, together with ferry inclusive holiday accommodation, attraction tickets, festival and event tickets, and activity packages for visitors to the Isle of Wight. For more information and to book, visit www.redfunnel.co.uk or call 0844 844 2687.

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.

DSC_6404 (Large)

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.