England’s best beaches: Blue Flag and Seaside Award winners announced

In total, 168 awards were given to English beaches by Keep Britain Tidy (KBT). Blue Flags were awarded to 56 beaches while 112 picked up the Seaside Award.

The awards recognise “high standards of management, cleanliness and safety”, according to KBT. This year the water quality was judged against the EC Bathing Water Directive, which the group said requires meeting “the very highest international standards”.

Thanet in Kent has claimed the title for the most Blue Flag beaches with seven, closely followed by Poole, Torbay, Bournemouth and Isle of Wight which received four each.

Richard McIlwain, Programmes Director for the charity Keep Britain Tidy, which is responsible for the Blue Flag and Seaside Awards in England, said: “It’s fantastic news for everyone who loves visiting the seaside that more than 160 awards have been won by beaches, which guarantees the public the best facilities and the cleanest beaches this summer.

“The sight of the Blue Flag or Seaside Award flying gives visitors the reassurance that they’ll have a great time.”

The Blue Flag beaches for 2014 are as follows:

  • East Midlands: Mablethorpe Central , Skegness Central, Sutton-on-Sea and Cleethorpes North Promenade
  • East of England: Cromer, Sea Palling, Sheringham, Mundesley, Martello Bay in Clacton on Sea, Dovercourt Bay, Brightlingsea, Frinton On Sea, Southwold Pier and South Claremont Pier in Lowestoft
  • North East: Tynemouth Longsands, King Edwards Bay, Whitley Bay, Sandhaven
  • Yorkshire: North Bay in Scarborough, Whitby and Hornsea
  • South East: Littlehampton Coastguards, Tankerton, Hayling Island Beachlands, Sandown, Ventnor, Yaverland, Colwell, Sheerness Beach, Minnis Bay, West Bay, St Mildreds, Westbrook Bay, Margate, Botany Bay, Joss Bay, Stone Bay, West Wittering
  • South West: Blackpool Sands, Sandbanks, Shore Road, Canford Cliffs and Branksome Chine in Poole, Alum Chine, Durley Chine, Fisherman’s Walk and Southbourne in Bournemouth, Carbis Bay, Sandy Bay, Salcombe South Sands, Swanage Central, Dawlish Warren, Breakwater, Broadsands, Meadfoot, Oddicombe and Westward Ho!

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5 ways to experience English wine

From Jersey to Yorkshire, there are now more than 410 vineyards across the UK, including 16 or so in Wales. Recently, the big success story has been English sparkling white. This continues to be the strongest product for 2014 but there’s also a buzz about still whites this year. 

Eat, drink …

For an all-encompassing epicurean experience, head to the Flint Barn Restaurant of the English Wine Centre (01323 870164; englishwine.co.uk) at Berwick in Sussex. There’s an extensive (English) wine list and lots of advice about what goes best with the seasonal organic menu. Stock up on wine before or after: the shop is supplied by more than 100 vineyards.

Stay on a vineyard

Glass in hand, absorb the peace. Three Choirs Vineyards (01531 890223; three-choirs-vineyards.co.uk) in Gloucestershire is one of the most established wine producers to offer stylish accommodation, with 11 rooms set among the vines. Doubles cost from £135, including breakfast. Other options include the seven-bedroom farmhouse at Denbies (01306 876616; denbies.co.uk) near Dorking, with doubles from £98, including breakfast; and self-catering cottages at the Camel Valley vineyard in Cornwall (01208 77959; camelvalley.com), costing from £400 for a week for two.

Take a tour

Although tours are offered by many vineyards, by and large you can’t simply turn up – booking is essential. Guided visits range from a three-hour tour with lunch at the evolving Rathfinny Estate (01323 870022; rathfinnyestate.com) in Sussex (£55 per person), to the family atmosphere of award-winning Furleigh Estate (01308 488991; furleighestate.co.uk) in Dorset (Fridays and Saturdays £9 per person, including a tasting).

Follow a trail

The best options for wine trails are in the South East, which has the greatest concentration of vineyards. Produced in Kent (producedinkent.co.uk) publishes a free leaflet downloadable from its website that gives details of 14 vineyards and when they are open to visitors. In Sussex, Wine Rides (07967373958; winerides.co.uk) offers short-break bike trips on which you visit and camp at Carr Taylor vineyard near Hastings and Seddlecombe vineyard north of Battle. Two-nights cost from £195 including luggage transfer, tent hire, meals and wine tastings (bike rental extra).

A free map of vineyards in England and Wales is available in print from English Wine Producers (englishwineproducers.co.uk): fill out the form online and you’ll be sent a copy.

Get involved

For those who want to feel connected, vine “adoption” could be the answer. In exchange for a financial contribution for a year, a plaque is usually posted by the chosen vine, you get a bottle of that year’s vintage and have opportunities to be involved in the production. Among the vineyards offering such schemes is Pebblebed Vineyards (07814 788348; pebblebed.co.uk) in Devon, offering annual vine adoption from £55. Multi award-winning Chapel Down (01580 763033; chapeldown.com) in Kent has vine leasing schemes from £245 a year.

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5 ways to experience English wine

From Jersey to Yorkshire, there are now more than 410 vineyards across the UK, including 16 or so in Wales. Recently, the big success story has been English sparkling white. This continues to be the strongest product for 2014 but there’s also a buzz about still whites this year. 

Eat, drink …

For an all-encompassing epicurean experience, head to the Flint Barn Restaurant of the English Wine Centre (01323 870164; englishwine.co.uk) at Berwick in Sussex. There’s an extensive (English) wine list and lots of advice about what goes best with the seasonal organic menu. Stock up on wine before or after: the shop is supplied by more than 100 vineyards.

Stay on a vineyard

Glass in hand, absorb the peace. Three Choirs Vineyards (01531 890223; three-choirs-vineyards.co.uk) in Gloucestershire is one of the most established wine producers to offer stylish accommodation, with 11 rooms set among the vines. Doubles cost from £135, including breakfast. Other options include the seven-bedroom farmhouse at Denbies (01306 876616; denbies.co.uk) near Dorking, with doubles from £98, including breakfast; and self-catering cottages at the Camel Valley vineyard in Cornwall (01208 77959; camelvalley.com), costing from £400 for a week for two.

Take a tour

Although tours are offered by many vineyards, by and large you can’t simply turn up – booking is essential. Guided visits range from a three-hour tour with lunch at the evolving Rathfinny Estate (01323 870022; rathfinnyestate.com) in Sussex (£55 per person), to the family atmosphere of award-winning Furleigh Estate (01308 488991; furleighestate.co.uk) in Dorset (Fridays and Saturdays £9 per person, including a tasting).

Follow a trail

The best options for wine trails are in the South East, which has the greatest concentration of vineyards. Produced in Kent (producedinkent.co.uk) publishes a free leaflet downloadable from its website that gives details of 14 vineyards and when they are open to visitors. In Sussex, Wine Rides (07967373958; winerides.co.uk) offers short-break bike trips on which you visit and camp at Carr Taylor vineyard near Hastings and Seddlecombe vineyard north of Battle. Two-nights cost from £195 including luggage transfer, tent hire, meals and wine tastings (bike rental extra).

A free map of vineyards in England and Wales is available in print from English Wine Producers (englishwineproducers.co.uk): fill out the form online and you’ll be sent a copy.

Get involved

For those who want to feel connected, vine “adoption” could be the answer. In exchange for a financial contribution for a year, a plaque is usually posted by the chosen vine, you get a bottle of that year’s vintage and have opportunities to be involved in the production. Among the vineyards offering such schemes is Pebblebed Vineyards (07814 788348; pebblebed.co.uk) in Devon, offering annual vine adoption from £55. Multi award-winning Chapel Down (01580 763033; chapeldown.com) in Kent has vine leasing schemes from £245 a year.

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Get set for summer

Young children go free on HF Holidays’ (0345 470 7558; hfholidays.co.uk) new self-guided cycling and walking breaks in the UK this summer. There’s a free place for children aged under 11 with every adult booking, plus children aged between 11 and 17 pay half price on the same basis.

Stay in country houses, many in areas of outstanding natural beauty, run by managers who can advise on what to do in the local area and supply Ordnance Survey maps and notes on recommended walking and cycling routes. For example, a week at Abingworth Hall in Sussex, with pool, putting green and croquet lawn, secure bike storage and boot room, costs £650 per adult, including breakfast, picnic lunch and three-course dinner each day.

Read more: Get set for summer: Far

Get set for summer: Windy

Get set for summer: Fast

Get set for summer: Slow

Get the white sand between your toes on the west coast of Ireland on a two-week holiday that takes in a stretch of the new Wild Atlantic Way, the 2,400km coastal driving route from Donegal to Cork that launched earlier this year. Irish Ferries Holidays (08717 300 400; irishferries.com/holidays) is offering 14-night, two-centre tours in Galway and Kerry, staying at Spiddal Holiday Homes in Galway, a collection of whitewashed cottages newly built in traditional style, with access to a games room, tennis courts and play area, and Dingle Harbour Cottages, a complex of pretty holiday homes set above the sea. It costs £1,614 in total for two adults and two children, including cottage rental and return car ferry crossings. Departs 26 July, 2 and 9 August.

Read more: Get set for summer: Wild

Get set for summer: High

Get set for summer: Hot

Get set for summer: Cool
 

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5 ways to enjoy a dram

It’s World Whisky Day (worldwhiskyday.com) on Saturday, slap bang in the middle of Whisky Month (visitscotland.com), which is topped and tailed by the Speyside Whisky Festival and the 30th annual Islay Festival (islayfestival.com), a music and malt island shindig from 23-31 May. As you’d expect there are more than a few whisky-themed events taking place across Scotland at the moment – some involving a dram or two.

What’s more, Whisky Galore, the musical based on the true story of the SS Politician running aground – along with its precious cargo – off the isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides during the Second World War (later turned into a best-selling book by Compton Mackenzie), is also touring Scotland during Whisky Month. It will finish its run on Islay on 31 May (tickets.comar.co.uk).

Grouse season

The oldest working distillery in Scotland, dating back to 1775 – and the most popular – has just had a £250,000 revamp. The Famous Grouse Experience (01764 656565; thefamousgrouse.com; tours from £10) at The Glenturret Distillery in Perthshire has spruced up its visitor centre, tasting experience and café. It’s bound to go down a treat when even more visitors surge in for a snifter when the Ryder Cup at nearby Gleneagles kicks off in September.

There’s a new tasting bar and a series of nosing pods where visitors can put their senses to the test, sniffing out the aromas and ingredients that make this blended whisky so distinctive.

Follow a whisky trail

The west of Scotland is peppered with distilleries. Wilderness Scotland (01479 420020; wildernessscotland.com) offers a six-day guided sea kayaking trip along Scotland’s Whisky Coast, from the isle of Gigha to Oban, paddling by day past picturesque coves and sheltered lochs. By night, curled up in cosy Highland hotels, you can warm up with a dram, sampling whiskies from the 11 local distilleries in an informal tasting session.

Also included in the holiday is a tour of Oban distillery. It costs from £925 per person based on two sharing, including five nights’ BB, packed lunches, whisky tasting and distillery tour.

Go drambling

Macs Adventure (0141 530 1186; macsadventure.com) offers self-guided walking and cycling holidays including the Speyside Whisky Trail. This six-night walking trip weaves through the Spey valley, meandering along the river, through woodland and taking in a handful of distilleries that make up Speyside’s Malt Whisky Trail (maltwhiskytrail.com) including Cardhu, Cragganmore, Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet. The trip costs £375 per person, including BB, maps and baggage transfers.



Glenmorangie HouseGlenmorangie House

Don’t drink and drive…

Stumble up to bed. Check into the Mash Tun (01340 881771; mashtun-aberlour.com; BB from £100), a whisky bar with rooms in Aberlour in Speyside, the heart of whisky country. Or bed down in a distillery. Glenmorangie House in the wilds of Ross-shire is an opulent option for whisky buffs (01862 871 671; theglenmorangiehouse.com) from £140 per person BB.

In Edinburgh, The Balmoral’s (0131 556 2414; thebalmoralhotel.com) swanky whisky bar, Scotch – done out in warm amber tones, tweed and tartan – has more than 400 single malts to sample – and some very comfy rooms in which to sleep it off. Doubles start at £225, room only.

Chemistry lesson

At Glengoyne distillery (01360 550254; glengoyne.com) just outside Glasgow you can create your own whisky. The Master Blender session gives you an insight into the alchemy of whisky blending. With a choice of five single malts and two blends, you design your own variety, which will then be bottled (100ml, so handy if you’re flying) for you to take home. £40 per person.

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How to cross a city park like an explorer

However, unlike most characters – real and fictional – that have revelled in this pastime over the years, my passion for deduction has been focused outdoors. Sherlock Holmes may have felt the mist of the moor under his deerstalker on occasion, but he had a distinct preference for indoor clues over outdoor ones. While I doff my Panama in Mr Holmes’ general direction, I venture to suggest that he would have done well to spend more time looking at the clues in nature and less time peering at cigar ash through a magnifying glass.

Within the world of natural clues, the field that fills most of my working hours is the rare art of natural navigation. I have spent much of the past two decades studying, practising, teaching and writing books about clues to direction in nature. My latest book, The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues Signs, is the one I like to think Sherlock would read while on holiday. But to see if this game is for you, I recommend that you attempt to cross a city park like an explorer.

Many of the skills explorers have depended upon can be used practically over very short distances, even in the middle of cities. And I’m talking about real explorers here. The old type; the ones who saw stuff without names, let alone names that can be found on Google Earth.

If there is a fundamental skill that separates the successful expedition from one that ends ignominiously, it is effective navigation. In essence, if you continue in a roughly straight line in the direction you want to head, then, avoiding pitfalls, you will succeed in reaching your goal.

Use the sun if it is out. It will rise close to the east most of the year and set close to west most of the year (well south of both in winter and north of both in midsummer, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves). To keep things simple set off in the middle of a sunny day, as this is when the sun is due south and you can use this as your first dependable compass.


Use TV aerials to navigateUse TV aerials to navigate (Getty)

If you are on the edge of a park, you should be able to find plenty of satellite dishes on roofs, they will point close to south-east in the UK. Now, check the conventional TV aerials and work out which way they are pointing and see if there is a dependable trend. Next, look up and make a mental note of which way the clouds are moving. Using clouds to navigate sounds too woolly to be practical, but I’ve crossed cities and jungles with the help of clouds alone. Last week, I became disorientated in the Kielder Forest, and peered through a break in the tree canopy at the clouds passing overhead. I knew they were flowing from west to east that day and that was the direction I needed to head.

Now, make your way into the park and look at any trees you find. There are 19 different ways you can use trees to navigate, but there are two good ones to get started with. There will be more tree – by which I mean a greater number of slightly bigger branches – on the southern side of most trees. The tops of trees, even in cities, will often show the effects of having been combed over by the wind. Since most strong winds come from the south-west, we find the tops of trees brushed over ever so slightly towards the north-east. This effect is dramatic in exposed locations and subtle in cities, but can be spotted in the tops of trees all over the world.

The next thing to do is look down. Look at the grasses and mud near your feet. Explorers need to take a professional interest in the routes of others. If someone has gone before you, and that is quite likely in a park, there will be clues to what they got up to. With a lot of practice, you can tell the height, weight, sex, speed and mental state of a person from their tracks in the ground. But to start with, just try seeing if you can spot the most common routes across the grass.

Now you are ready to study how the plants can help with finding tracks. Some plants can handle being walked over and some can’t. Plantains do better than most plants on commonly walked routes and they are easy to spot – those big weed-like leaves you see among the grass. If you look carefully, you will spot that they are more common along some lines than others. These plants reveal paths that are easy to spot when you know how, but which few people notice.

Every plant is a clue to something, and most can help with finding direction. Notice how you get a lot of different wildflowers on a south-facing bank, but far fewer on a north-facing one. Now get down really low – checking for canine clues first, perhaps – and look at some daises from the side. Notice how the stalks of the taller daisies curve a little towards the south on average.


The way trees grow also offers a guideThe way trees grow also offers a guide (Rex)

Now look at the trees again. Mature trees have survived a long time and this means they must be suited to their environment. Turn this logic around and hopefully you can see that trees can all be used as a really good clue to the surrounding area. London planes earned that name because they are one of the few trees to tolerate both city pollution and crushed roots; they will now be found in cities all over the world. But the trees that give clues about water are a bit more interesting. Beech trees hate ground that gets waterlogged and so are a sign of dry ground, but willows and alders are a sign you are getting close to water. If you are lucky enough to be in a park by a river or lake, notice how the trees change dramatically close to the water. The trees are mapping the land for you, and this is a trick that has saved the lives of countless thirsty explorers.

If at any stage you feel a mild terror that you are perhaps lost in a great wilderness, then there is plant that can calm your nerves. Stinging nettles don’t grow anywhere; they need a lot of phosphate in the soil. The way humans live makes the soil richer in phosphates. Put these two pieces of information together and you can see that stinging nettles are a clue to nearby human habitation.

Press on, using the sun, clouds and trees to hold your course, and you will reach the far side of the park. All it remains to do is to remove your pith helmet and prepare your report for the Royal Geographical Society.

‘The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues Signs’ by Tristan Gooley is published by Sceptre (Hardback, £20). For more information, see naturalnavigator.com

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Head for Mid-Wales for high-flying animal magic

Gilfach excels for leisurely exploration. Three trails connect a habitat mosaic: traditional hay meadows littered with anthills, bracken-covered slopes and birch-flanked river. Start early and make for woodland near the river. Amid the oaks, the flicker of a flame-red tail draws attention to your first of the avian triumvirate: the common redstart. A vocal shiver marks out a wood warbler, glistening ivory and primrose. And, concealed in a carefully positioned hide, you might watch a male pied flycatcher returning to its nest box.

Peer into the river itself for the fish duo: brook lamprey and bullhead. Primitive vertebrates, eel-like lampreys forsake jaws for a round sucker-like mouth lined with sharp teeth. The bullhead’s name refers to its wide, flattened head.

Elsewhere in the reserve, unusual ferns include moonwort and adder’s-tongue, plus parsley fern in higher, rockier areas. Overhead you should see red kite, common buzzard and raven.

To round off the day, two options stand out. First, Nannerth Farm has a treetop hide sited above a badger sett: watch the occupants emerge at dusk. Alternatively, bats frequent the lake in Llandrindod Wells at dusk on warm evenings. Daubenton’s bat seizes insects over the water, with common noctule and pipistrelles.

With all the fish about, Wales unsurprisingly attracts piscivorous predators. The most recent recruit is your major quarry on day two: osprey. In 2007, conservationists erected an artificial osprey nest-platform at the boggy Cors Dyfi reserve. A succession of ospreys have subsequently taken up residence, culminating in successful breeding in 2011. End the weekend 50 minutes east at RSPB Lake Vyrnwy, exploring more woodland, wild water and hills via a quintet of trails and hides. Dipper and grey wagtail use the pool below the lake dam; goosander and great crested grebe breed on the lake; and kites and buzzards cruise lazily around.

This is an edited extract from ’52 Wildlife Weekends’ by James Lowen, published by Bradt. IoS readers can buy a copy for just £7.79 (inc UK pp) by visiting bradtguides.com and using the discount code 52WW. Offer valid until 31 January 2015

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Hiking wild, windswept Connemara

I’d made it beyond the shores of Lake Doolough, otherwise known as “the black lake” (where hundreds had perished during the Great Famine that swept Ireland in the mid 1800s), up the near-vertical trail and beyond the hairy “ramp”, a narrow pass which falls away into a gully, with boot intact. Now I was on “the saddle”, a flattish stretch beyond the cairn on Ben Bury (one of the lesser peaks in the Mweelrea range) ready to make a final push to the summit. So, what to do?

I waved my detached sole at our guide, Henry, who was further ahead with the faster members of the group (ie, everyone else). He hiked back to investigate and I could sense him groan inwardly.

“See these,” he said, pointing to his sunglasses. “These are my angry eyes behind here.” Oh dear. I hated to disappoint Henry. He was a superb guide: skilled, fun, patient and the kind who wore his considerable knowledge of the flora, fauna and history of the area lightly. Nimble as a goat, he could probably scale the peaks and ridges of Connemara – this ravishing region in the west of County Galway that sweeps over the border into the south of County Mayo – in his sleep. I held my breath as he examined the offending footwear. Then, gingerly, I took a few steps with my sole-less boot. He asked if I could still walk OK. I could, it seemed. And that was it – ascent back on.

Forty minutes later and four hours after our 10am start, I’d made it to the top, laboriously negotiating that last slope of boulders and rocks. I drank in the staggering views with the others in my group – Louise and Mike (a couple from Wales who walked as if on air), David (a Londoner with legs of steel), Amber and Brad from Arizona, and Amber’s father (due a knee replacement, mind-bogglingly).

Henry pointed out the landmarks: to the west was the Atlantic and Inishbofin Island, to the north the larger Clare Island, to the east the Sheeffry Hills and Delphi Valley. South was Killary, Ireland’s only fjord, and the Twelve Bens, a range of sharp-peaked quartzite mountains that dominates the Connemara landscape.

What goes up must come down, and I reached the bottom of the valley only for it to dawn on me that I had another 4km hike to do. Through a bog. So when I caught sight of the path that led to our van I nearly wept with relief. That night, full of home-cooked scallop, haddock and soda bread, showered and dry in front of the fireplace at cosy Aasleagh Lodge – a hotel on the salmon- and trout-rich River Erriff in County Galway run by fly-fishing enthusiast Jim Stafford and his wife Mary – relief turned to exhilaration.


Aasleagh Lodge,setting for fresh fish dishesAasleagh Lodge,setting for fresh fish dishes (Jini Reddy)

Not only had I reached the top of Mweelrea, but the previous day I’d climbed two of the Bens in torrential rain and hail, and the day before that I’d walked up the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick. Challenging? Yes. But there is a power to a trip of this nature that is greater than the sum of its parts: to immerse onself in this unspoilt, colourful landscape is to summon feelings of awe, melancholy and a sweet quietness. Perhaps Oscar Wilde said it best: “Connemara is a savage beauty.”

It’s ready to be explored – and tour operator Wilderness Ireland, which launched last year, is enabling people to do just that. I’d flown into Knock’s tiny airport and stayed for the first night at the Clew Bay Hotel, in Westport, a charming coastal town. The next day I’d met the rest of the group and we’d driven to the foot of Croagh Patrick, a 15-minute drive away. The walk up the wide “Pilgrim’s Path”, though hardly off-piste – there were so many hikers they practically formed a conga to the top – is iconic. Legend has it that St Patrick endured a 40-day ritual of fasting and penance here, and chose this spot from which to banish snakes from Ireland forever. Every year, on the last weekend in July, “Reek Sunday” sees hundreds of barefoot pilgrims walk up it to the tiny white church at the summit.

It takes around three hours from start to finish; it’s rocky and tough on the knees. At the top, though, you have a wonderful view of the reputed 365 islands of Clew Bay. I fall into step with a barefoot pilgrim called Patrick Hogan, a journalism student from New York who is walking with his (boot-clad) younger brother and father. “I do it as a kind of cleansing, every year before college. My feet aren’t faring too badly,” he says, showing me soles gritty with dirt.

The following morning we fuel up on porridge, eggs and soda bread before driving west to the foot of Benbaun. I clock Kylemore Lough and the fairytale Kylemore Abbey, a Gothic castle built in 1860. Wildflowers line the winding road: orange montbretia and wild crocosmia, purple thistle, reddish fuschia, bright yellow bird’s foot trefoil.

What a contrast to the wet, gloomy fug in which we hike: the going is steep, strenuous, boggy and off-trail. Early on our trail up Benbaun (“little” Benbaun that is, at 477m not to be confused with the 729m Benbaun, the highest of the Bens) we pass a lime kiln, and pause to peer into its depths. Henry points out a famine-era burial ground – unconsecrated graves close to a Neolithic tomb. It’s a mournful sight.

We halt briefly at the summit to gnaw on sodden sandwiches, then follow up with another hour’s hike to the 582m Benbrack, marked by a cairn. That night my spirits are buoyed by seafood chowder, pork belly and Guinness – at the convivial pub at Ballynahinch Castle, near the foot of the Bens.

The sun is shining the day we take the ferry over to Inishbofin Island (population, around 200). Popular with sailors, artists and daytrippers alike, the island has a cheery holiday vibe and boasts a smattering of pubs, hotels and guesthouses. Once we’ve docked, I leave the group, which heads off to the west quarter of the island for more hiking, and strike out eastward for a picnic on the deserted white sands of Dumhach Beach. So blue is the sea here, it’s hard not to believe I’m in the Caribbean. Lol McClean, a local potter and BB owner had recommended it. She invites me back later for a drop-in session on the wheel in her workshop, in her postcard-pretty cottage. (My attempts at pot-making are wobbly at best.)

Back on the mainland, on the last day, there’s just time for another stomp up Diamond Hill in Connemara National Park in a fresh pair of boots. The park contains a vast expanse of mountainside including three of the Bens, grasslands and bog. But after a while, I stop dead in my tracks.

Poor Henry, he thinks I’m in a mood. But I’m not. All I want is to be still, where all is still around me. I let the group pass on and spend the next two hours contentedly perched on a rock mid-trail, gazing at the Atlantic from afar. The perfect ending to five days in wild, windswept Connemara.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Jini Reddy travelled with Wilderness Ireland (00 353 91 457 898; wildernessireland.com) which offers a guided “High Points of Connemara” wilderness walking break from £765pp, including four nights accommodation, most meals, transport, ferry to Inishbofin and guiding. This year’s departures are 25 June and 27 August. Privately guided walking breaks are also available at other times.

Jini flew with Aer Lingus (0871 718 2020; aerlingus.com), which flies to Knock from Gatwick daily.

For details on Lol McClean’s pottery workshops on Inishbofin see: artisaninishbofin.ie

More information

ireland.com

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Walk of the month: The Chilterns

It’s a refreshing encounter. We’re walking in the Chilterns, near Bix Bottom, four miles from the Thames and Henley. This is an area of great beauty, but which is under pressure. Housing development periodically nibbles away at this rural lung of the South-east and, more recently, the proposed high-speed railway (HS2) seems poised to cut through its heart. Despite some compromises on the route and tunnelling, the fear remains that the line will irrevocably change the way the Chilterns are used and viewed.

All in all then, the woodpecker marks a hugely uplifting way to start the walk, and it soon becomes clear that whoever put this route together for the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Beauty really knows the lie of the land and its features. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed such a rhythmically smooth walk, with gentle ups followed by sweeping downs. I feel as though I’m walking around the lip of a hollowed-out crater, or amphitheatre, the edges of which are fetchingly crumpled and crinkled.



Through Kitesgrove Wood we walk past fences of wattles of ash, while the last flocks of redwing flitter between the branches – the very last stragglers poised to return to Scandinavia for the summer. The bluebells have exploded into colour, with the reserve’s abundant orchids not far behind.

After a secluded amble under a canopy of native trees – coppiced beech, some oak and a sprinkling of yew trees – the route swings upwards across fields to cut through the edge of the nature reserve. The wood here is less intensively managed, exposed chalk breaks through the soil, the tree tops have settled in lean-to poses, propping one another up, and there are wonderfully twisted vines and branches.

Emerging from the wood, I come upon Maidensgrove Common, a huge expanse of open land, fringed by the occasional cottage, frequented by fluttering meadow pipits. The local by-laws are pretty strict – a notice warns against driving cars or flying model aircraft – and with almost no housing, the common soaked up a good deal of the rain that fell in January and February, perhaps preventing worse flooding down in the valley.

The path is full of temptations. I give in at the Five Horseshoes pub, just beyond the common, before continuing down a steep hill, and I resolve to come back with toboggans in winter for what, in snow, must be something of a black run, with striking views right across the Chilterns.

It’s turning out to be one of those walks where the wildlife pops up on demand. I spot nuthatches, foxes, buzzards and pick out a sparrowhawk rustling furtively in the conifer trees. Birds and butterflies under pressure elsewhere are improbably doing well in this secluded slice of the crowded south-east. Another bird, the red kite, is everywhere. If you come from a part of the UK that doesn’t have them, then you find it difficult to take your eyes off them, even though they seem to be as common as pigeons here. They hang in the air in a vaguely prehistoric, mosquito-like way, and when the sun flickers across their feathers, they take on a pre-Raphaelite tinge. Not once on this walk, when I glance up to the skies, do I fail to see one.

The woods too are easy on the eye. The Chilterns are the largest area of native beech in England. Trees sprout like pillars of marble in aesthetically pleasing clumps, fringing hills and field edges.

Returning to the car park, I nose around the visitor centre, operated by the Berks, Bucks and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust. There are good activities for children, and in the literature, there’s the intriguing suggestion that some of the Warburg Nature Reserve’s beech woods may never have been cleared throughout history. A nature garden sits behind the building and bees, dragonflies and butterflies are fizzing and fluttering between pollen sources and log piles. Warburg is a pocket of nature shoehorned into a busily populated area – three major towns and half a dozen major roads are within 15 minutes’ drive – yet for now I feel as though I am as remote as anywhere I’ve been.

Getting there

The closest railway station to Warburg Nature Reserve is at Henley-on-Thames. Mark Rowe travelled via Maidenhead with First Great Western (firstgreatwestern.com). For times and fares from stations across Britain, call 08457 48 49 50 or visit nationalrail.co.uk.

Staying there

Mark Rowe stayed at Hartwell House (01296 74744; hartwell-house.com) which offers double rooms with breakfast from £240.

More information

Berks, Bucks and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust: bbowt.org.uk

Distance: 4 miles

Time: Two hours

OS Map: Explorer 171 Chiltern Hills West

Directions: The Warburg Circular Walk can be downloaded at bit.ly/WarWalk

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Traveller’s Guide: Carmarthenshire

Thomas spent the last four years of his life (1949-53) in Laugharne, living with his wife Caitlin and their three children in the Boathouse. It was from the picturesque vantage of his Writing Shed, overlooking the tidal Taf Estuary and preserved just as he left it, that he wrote Under Milk Wood.

However, he’d known the area all his life, holidaying nearby as a boy, and living here with Caitlin for a period in the 1930s. He called it “the strangest town in Wales”. Yet he was drawn back to its world-removed confines again and again. It suited him. Or at least provided rich literary inspiration.

So Laugharne, like other locations linked to the writer, is celebrating the Thomas centenary this year. Three Dylan Weekends (2-5 May, 19-21 September and 26-28 September; dylanthomas100.org) will explore his works. The first sees famous contemporary poets perform Dylan in his old haunts. BBC Radio 3 has designated 5 May “Dylan Thomas Day”, and will broadcast live from 13th-century Laugharne Castle (01994 427906; cadw.wales.gov.uk; £3.80).

However, the countryside that so inspired Dylan Thomas is there to see all the year round – the “pebbly dab-filled shallow”, “the lamb white days”, the “springful of larks in a rolling cloud”.

 

Carmarthenshire is known as the Garden of Wales, a county of sparse population, fertile fields, a varied and extensive coast (traceable via the Wales Coast Path) and mountainous uplands where A-roads seemingly come to die. Wedged between the better-known Brecon Beacons to the east and Pembrokeshire to the west, it is often overlooked or driven straight through.

But there’s mystery aplenty. One favourite local legend is of a fairy girl living in Llyn Y Fan Fach, a story best appreciated while making the 18km escarpment walk above the enchanted lake (start from Llanddeusant; map available at bit.ly/FanFach). It’s also rumoured that the Holy Grail may have passed through the county, along the Taf Estuary, on its way to Nanteos, near Aberystwyth. The Monty Python team definitely filmed some of their Holy Grail here (look out for the Norman bulk of Kidwelly Castle at the movie’s start).

Merlin was allegedly born in a cave just outside Carmarthen – you can visit Bryn Myrddin (Merlin’s Hill) and find out more at the Merlin’s Hill Centre (07866 880594; merlinshill.com; admission £3). The Romans were certainly active in Carmarthenshire. They mined for gold at nearby Dolaucothi (01558 650177; bit.ly/WelshGold; £7.70), the UK’s only known Roman gold mine. You can take adventurous guided tours down its Roman, Victorian and 1930s shafts; new for 2014 is a self-guided audio tour of the Roman workings. There are further Roman remains in the county: an amphitheatre at Carmarthen, one of only four in Wales; Garn Goch Iron Age Hill Fort; and the fortlets of the Towy Valley, an important marching route (download the archaeological app from bit.ly/TowyValley to make sense of it all).

For more recent relics, the tourist office (01267 231557; discovercarmarthenshire.com) has launched a brocante trail, guiding visitors around its best antiques shops, flea markets and book shops, including Corran Book Shop, opposite Brown’s Hotel, whose owner is well-versed in the town’s literary connections (bit.ly/BrocanteT).

So Carmarthenshire is a place of stories and characters – walk round Laugharne today and, some say, you can still spot the dramatis personae of Under Milk Wood. Perhaps that’s why Dylan Thomas liked it here so much, and why – for all his grand American tours and London living – it was to Carmarthenshire, his “fields of praise”, that he returned.

Historic hills

Carmarthenshire is not short of castles. Many have free entry: the 13th-century ruins of Newcastle Emlyn; Dryslwyn Castle, lording over the Tywi Valley; Dinefwr, which shares its walking trail-laced estate with a 17th-century manor (01558 824512; nationaltrust.org.uk/dinefwr; house entry £4.40); and the coastal stronghold at Llansteffan. If you’re happy to pay, head for Carreg Cennen near Llandeilo (01558 822291; carregcennencastle.com; £4). This romantic ruin sits atop an explorable cave (bring a torch) and amid a working farm; walk to the castle to see resident mountain sheep and longhorn cattle.

A dose of Dylan

In Laugharne, take a self-guided stroll with Dylan. The Birthday Walk (dylanthomasbirthdaywalk.co.uk) follows the 3km route that Thomas immortalised in “Poem in October”. It leads around the harbour to Sir John’s Hill. For a stroll around town, start at the church, where a white cross marks the poet’s grave, then tick off the sights: Brown’s Hotel, where he drank (a lot); the Pelican, where his parents lived; the Corran Book Shop, owned by George Tremlett, Dylan expert; Sea View, where he lived 1938-1940; his Writing Shed and the Boathouse, now a heritage centre (01994 427420; www.dylanthomasboat house.com; £4.20). The tourist office also has a recommended amble (bit.ly/DylanCrawl).

For a different vantage, do a Dylan trail on horseback. Hill Farm Stables runs a two-hour Centenary Ride (01994 427375; hillsfarmridingholidays.co.uk; £40). It’s a leisurely hack through Laugharne up Ants Hill and the Uplands.

Outside Laugharne, take a Dylan Thomas drive, from Carmarthen to the Llansteffan Peninsula (bit.ly/DylanCarm). This links his favoured pub in the county town (the Boar’s Head Hotel) with Fern Hill (his aunt’s farm) and Llanybri, below which ferries once puttered over the Taf to Laugharne – there are lovely views of the Boathouse.



Outdoor adventures: Pendine beachOutdoor adventures: Pendine beach (Getty)

Outdoor adventures

Dylan Thomas liked to travel by bus, but these days there are more thrilling ways to explore Carmarthenshire. Run by a welcoming biker/cook couple, Mudtrek (01267 202423; mudtrek.com) offers mountain-biking breaks at its chalet-style hideaway near Brechfa Forest. The views are spectacular and the riding options varied, from Brechfa’s marked trails to owner Jason’s gentle-to-white-knuckle off-piste routes.

Two-night breaks, including one day’s guided riding and all meals (hearty fuel, homecooked by Nikki), cost from £135pp, depending on group size.

West around the coast from Laugharne, on the 11km of Pendine Beach, Pendine Outdoors (01994 453659; pendineoutdoors.co.uk) hires a range of kit for water fun, including sit-in kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.

It can also organise activity days, from coasteering to bushcraft and archery (from £15 per half day).

A Laugharne tour followed by a paddle up the Taf in Canadian canoes (look out for otters) costs around £100 for a family of four.

Still growing strong after 400 years

As the Garden of Wales, it’s appropriate that Carmarthenshire is home to the National Botanic Garden of Wales (Llanarthne; 01558 668 768; gardenofwales.org.uk; £8.50). Opened in 2000, this evolving garden – the centrepiece of which is the striking Norman Foster-designed Great Glasshouse – occupies 225 hectares of 400-year-old parkland, its 8,000 plant species thriving amid the remnants of the Regency water park.

There’s easily enough to fill a day’s visiting here, from the dipping pond and lakes to the atmospheric Ghost Trees; the whole estate is riddled with walking trails.

The gardens at the Tywi Valley’s Aberglasney House (01558 668 998; aberglasney.org; £8) were beloved of poets in Tudor times, well before Dylan.

Extensive restoration in the 1990s revealed rare treasures – including an Elizabethan/Jacobean cloister and a parapet walk – and the gardens continue to flourish.

The indoor Ninfarium, built within the ruins of the mansion, contains a colourful collection of exotic plants.



Raise the bar: Brown's Hotel in Laugharne was a favourite of Dylan ThomasRaise the bar: Brown’s Hotel in Laugharne was a favourite of Dylan Thomas

Where to stay

Dylan Thomas’s favourite haunt for a tipple, Brown’s Hotel in Laugharne (01994 427688; browns-hotel.co.uk) has double rooms from £95, including breakfast. The whole place was refurbished in 2013 and now offers comfortable accommodation with a Forties and Fifties feel; in-room oddments, such as vintage cameras and suitcases – as well as books on Thomas – create a literary-luxe feel. It actually describes itself as a “bar with rooms”.

Alternatively, you could try a slice of unexpected opulence by staying just outside Laugharne at a 16th-century dairy which has now become the Corran Resort (01994 427417; thecorran.com). Here, BB doubles start at £200, but the rooms are high-spec and characterful and there’s a spa in the old cow barn along with a restaurant serving regional dishes – its salt marsh lamb can be seen grazing just outside.

Elsewhere, the Dolaucothi Arms in Pumsaint (01558 650237; thedolaucothiarms.co.uk) is a lovely former 18th-century coaching inn, with BB doubles from £75. The 17th-century Drovers BB in Llandovery (01550 721115; droversllandovery.co.uk) has William Morris-inspired interiors and doubles from £83.

To be at one with the county’s great outdoors, camp in the Towy Valley at Ty Cefn Tregib (01558 823830; tregib.co.uk).

The site has yurts and a refurbished 1970s Airstream caravan. Three-night stays start at £255.

Getting there

Carmarthenshire is easily reached by road. The M4 leads into the county from London, Bristol and Cardiff to the motorway’s end at Pont Abraham. From there, Carmarthen is 24km along the A48. A much more scenic approach is on the A483 to Llandovery from Chester, which is itself accessible from across northern England.

Rail access is tricky. Most journeys (08457 48 49 50; nationalrail.co.uk) require a change at Swansea – accessible from London Paddington and Manchester Piccadilly. An onward train to Carmarthen takes an hour. The most scenic railway is the Heart of Wales line (01597 822053; heart-of-wales.co.uk), which runs from Swansea to Shrewsbury through eastern Carmarthenshire.

National Express (08705 808080; nationalexpress.com) serves Swansea, Carmarthen, Llanelli and St Clears (near Laugharne). Megabus (0900 1600 900; megabus.com) serves Carmarthen. Local buses connect smaller villages (sirgaerfyrddin.gov.uk).

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