A Wales National Parks Road Trip

Who’d have thought when our US National Parks Road Trip planned for last summer had to be cancelled that we’d be unable to reschedule it for 2021 either?! But with Covid still dominating new headlines around the World, the US still not allowing UK visitors and strict rules on entering and exiting the UK still in force over a year on, we realised pretty early into the year that making any plans to travel out of the UK was not a good idea. Despite some travel being allowed out of the UK to the few ‘green/amber list’ countries who will have us, with all the uncertainties over how long countries will remain on these lists for and all the complicated – not to mention expensive – testing rules to travel, we decided we were best to make summer travel plans a bit closer to home again.

In the beautiful Brecon Beacons

We had a few early discussions about possibly travelling to Ireland, a country I’ve seen very little of, for a road trip around the coast but not being sure if we’d both be fully vaccinated in time to go there, that idea was soon put hold for the future and our thoughts returned to the UK National Parks.

After a successful 2-week trip to the National Parks of Northern England last summer, we narrowed this year’s options down to the parks in Southern England, a trip up to Scotland for a mixture of National Parks, isles, highlands and cities or heading west into Wales. We eventually settled on visiting the 3 National Parks of Wales, a country I am very familiar with having holidayed there at least once a year for the last 27 years. In fact, my annual family holiday is usually taken in Tenby, a seaside town in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park but as this is mainly spent as a beach holiday with the occasional trip out to other nearby beaches, there was plenty of the National Park I’d not seen as well as some activities and attractions I’d not visited since going as a teenager which I wanted the opportunity to relive. I figured I could then play tour guide on the day we planned to spend in the southern end of the park which I know and love.

Regularly visiting Snowdonia National Park too with a friend having a holiday home at the southern end of it as well as often taking out of season trips there with the dog meant I was somewhat familiar with this area too although once we started looking into what to do there, I soon realised I’d actually seen very little away from the southernmost tip where the seaside town of Barmouth is located.

One of the many waterfalls in the Brecon Beacons

The Brecon Beacons was a National Park I was totally unfamiliar with outside of the town of Brecon itself where my family would often make a pitstop at en route to Tenby so I decided to concentrate my initial research here.

Looking at a range of websites, blogs etc on each of the parks, we eventually came up with a plan to split our time with 3 nights un the Brecon Beacons and 5 nights at Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and Snowdonia National Park respectively during which time we’d tackle some of the big hikes including Pen-y-Fan and the Four Waterfalls Walk in the Brecon Beacons and, of course, Mount Snowdon in Snowdonia National Park.

On Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire National Park

Despite pretty much having our trip all planned out, we put off booking longer than we usually would as we waited to see what restrictions would or wouldn’t be eased. Then, just as we were starting to think about booking hotels for our stay, our plans had to be briefly put on hold as my friend suffered an injury which could have put an end to any hiking and long days driving followed by a death in the family.

When we finally came to book some places to stay we found very limited availability and extremely high prices, especially as we’d decided to book fully cancellable options just in case things changed before we went.

Walking an alpaca

We eventually settled for a pub/motel room in the town of Merthyr Tydfil, a few miles south of the Brecon Beacons National Park and just a short drive from some of the walks we planned to do. The motel was within our budget and included breakfast and its location was also convenient for eating out in the evenings as there were plenty of cheap and cheerful chain restaurants just a short drive from the town centre.

For Pembrokeshire National Park we had to stay quite a way out of the park in a roadside motel near the town of Narberth. The motel cost us a lot more than we’d wanted to pay but was still the cheapest place we could find. It did include breakfast though and although being a bit out of the park, was at least pretty centrally located meaning we never had more than a 40 minute drive to the north or south end of the National Park from there.

Snowdonia proved to be the most difficult and expensive park to find accommodation for and we ended up having to split our stay between 2 places, choosing a small farm guesthouse just outside the south-west end of the park for the first 2 nights and a chain motel in Bangor, a seaside town north of the park for the final 3 nights.

Visiting Snowdonia National Park

With our accommodation finally sorted, we moved on to the activities. Whereas many of the activities and attractions in the park are usually turn up and go, many of them currently had pre-book only rules which can be difficult when you’re going somewhere with very unpredictable weather! We had the National Welsh Showcaves at Dan-yr-Ogof pencilled in as a rainy day activity for the day we left the Brecon Beacons in case it was too wet to hike but decided to hold off booking in case the weather did turn out to be ok.

As soon as we realised it was almost certainly going to pour down that morning, we went to book only to find we were too late and it had sold out. That wasn’t our only booking failure – we also left booking activities at the popular ZipWorld attractions in Snowdonia way too late, finding the Velocity 2 zipline and the mountain coaster we really wanted to do both sold out until the autumn (we did eventually manage to get a cancellation slot on the ziplines at a later date!)

We did manage to pre-book a boat trip to Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire National Park – something I’d wanted to do for years – but pre-booking weeks in advance meant it was pot luck with the weather and, of course (spoiler alert!), it ended up absolutely pouring down that day.

About to zipline over an old quarry in Snowdonia

We were luckier with the date we picked to walk Alpacas or that would have been miserable too. Other activities such as visits to Heatherton World of Activities and Oakwood Theme Park both in Pembrokeshire, we decided to leave til the last minute and check on the weather and luckily, when we did decide to attend Heatherton, there were plenty of tickets left booking the day before we attended.

Despite everyone staycationing leading to accommodation prices shooting up and activities selling out way in advance, our trip was, overall, a success and while it still wasn’t quite up there with our US adventures, we were grateful to be able to get away at all and had a pretty great time.

Lincolnshire

A UK Staycation visiting the Lincolnshire coast and Wolds

With Spring half term approaching, I started to think about taking another UK staycation with my parents and their dog Lily. With foreign holidays still being complicated, it seemed that everyone else had had the same idea and prices for a caravan holiday in the parks we’d usually use were way out of our budget. Not giving upon the idea, we kept regularly checking prices in the hope that something last minute would appear and with prices at chain sites not budging, I decided to google privately hired lodges and static caravans.

Humberston Fitties Beach and Tetney Marsh

Finally, on the Friday the schools broke up, a couple of options turned up, an AirBnB static for hire on private land in the Lake District, a lodge in Norfolk reduced on Hoseasons after a cancellation and a caravan in Lincolnshire on a small privately owned site by a fishing lake, all pet friendly and all around the same price. The AirBnB option disappearing as fast as it appeared, we knew we had to make a decision quickly so we went for the slightly cheaper option of the static caravan in Lincolnshire.

The site was situated inland on the edge of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Lincolnshire Wolds but the nearest beach, Mablethorpe was just a 25 minute drive away. After spending the weekend looking up which beaches were either completely dog-friendly or at least had dog friendly areas, we set off early on the bank holiday Monday morning, hoping to beat the traffic and arrive in time to spend an afternoon on the beach before arriving at our accommodation.

Fitties Beach

The journey went smoothly and without hold ups, the only problem being when we stopped at the services only to be met with the longest queue I had ever seen to get into the building and use the conveniences!

Deciding we could all hold on, we continued north of where we were staying towards Grimsby then, bypassing Cleethorpes (a resort with a huge, sandy beach but where dogs are completely banned throughout the summer season), drove south to Humberston where we were aiming to find and visit Fitties Beach.

Following the satnav to our destination, we were slightly concerned when it seemed to be taking us straight through a huge Haven holiday park, especially as we could see arriving cars queuing to check in ahead of us.

Above, and below, a stroll alongside Louth Canal

Luckily, we were guided past the queuing arrivals and out through the other side of the park where we found a small, private village, the narrow streets lined with chalet-style holiday homes and pretty bungalows. We were eventually lead down a no-through road, the car park for Fitties Beach and the neighbouring RSPB Tetney Marshes lying at the end. The car park was super busy so we drove back out, managing to find on street parking just down the road and from here, we followed a public footpath between the houses, across some dunes and onto the beach.

The beach was more mud flats than sand and the tide was so far out we could hardly see the sea but there was the sun was shining and there was plenty of room for Lily to have a run around so we spent a bit of time walking towards the Tetney Marshes end of the beach and back again.

After spending an hour or so exploring, we walked back to the car and began to drive towards the town of Louth, our accommodation being situated a few miles outside of the town in the village of Alvingham. As soon as we arrived, we knew we had made the right choice of sites for a relaxing holiday. Our caravan was one of just 3 statics on site, all of which overlooked a large fishing lake. A few tourers were parked up on the rest of the grassy field beside us while chickens roamed free around the site, their fresh eggs being sold daily.

An empty Huttoft Beach

After checking in, we drove the short distance into Louth to grab fish and chips for dinner then that evening, we took a walk along the disused canal which lay behind the site, the path eventually lead to Louth but we turned around long before that point!

The next day, we took a ride out to the coast and a beach we had researched to be dog friendly. Not far from the better known Mablethorpe, Huttoft Beach was a little gem. The beach was backed by a busy car park but after parking up, we walked away from the crowds sat in front of the car parks to an almost empty section of the beach in the distance. It was a warm, sunny day but Lily had a great time keeping cool with regular dips in the sea, chasing sticks and rarely bringing them back again!

After returning to the car for a picnic overlooking the sea, we decided to drive on to look at a few other bays, the first being Sandilands.

Above, and below, at Saltfleetby-Theddlethorpe Dunes National Nature Reserve

With it now being early afternoon and the sun still shining, it was suddenly very busy and we were unable to find a space on the small car park or nearby. We continued on to Sutton-on-Sea and then Mablethorpe itself but had the same problem at each place so instead we drove to try to find the beach at the Saltfleetby-Theddlethorpe Dunes, nearby National Nature Reserve. We instead ended up at an entrance to the Nature Reserve that did not have beach access but instead, there was a trail to follow around the reserve and viewpoints of the distant dunes so we spent a bit of time looking around.

The church in Alvingham Village

We returned to our caravan park late afternoon but after dinner, went out for another canal side walk, this time walking in the opposite direction and heading away from Louth. Our walk took us towards the village of Alvingham and, reaching a bridge crossing the canal, we crossed it into the village, past the village churches and looped back through the village to reach our caravan park again.

Back at the caravan park, we picked up a few leaflets outlining countryside walks in the local area and in the nearby Lincolnshire Wolds and made plans to have a day away from the coast the next day and explore the Wolds a bit instead.

Lily cooling off at Hubbards Hills Country Park, and below, a walk in the Wolds

Awaking to yet another day of glorious sunshine and warm temperatures, we were conscious of going somewhere where there would be plenty of shade for Lily and possibly some water for her to cool off in so we decided to drive to the nearby Hubbards Hills, a country park in the Wolds. Parking up at the free car park at the back of the park, we entered the park to find a shallow river which Lily dived straight into. The pretty park has a path running from one end to the other which runs alongside the river. Lily wasn’t the only dog paddling in the river and as we got closer to the busier side of the park, we found an area in which children could paddle and play in the river too. We instead, walked away from this area, up into the hills and followed a shady path through the trees which eventually lead us out into a nearby village. From here, we crossed the river and walked back into the park, finding a quiet patch of grass to site and have a picnic before following the riverside path back to the far end where Lily once again cooled off in the river before we returned to the car.

It was mid-afternoon so after our walk in the Hubbard Hills, we decided to drive to one of the villages in the Wolds to follow one of the ‘Wolds Walks’ on a leaflet we had picked up from the caravan site.

We drove to the pretty South Thoresby, parking in a layby and trying to make sense of where we were on the map we had on the leaflet. Finding the church where the walk started at, we struggled to work out which direction we were to walk in to being our walk so we followed the public footpath signpost and hoped for the best.

Lily relaxing in South Thoresby village after her walk

We didn’t get very far before we reached what seemed to be someone’s back garden. Confused, we returned to double check that was indeed where the signpost was pointing. A local saw us hesitating and called across that we were going the right way and to go through the gate. Following his instructions, we found that the footpath cut right through a garden before leading out to a field the other side!

Following the signpost to a stile, we helped Lily through and continued along the path, reaching main road at the end of it. It was at this point that we realised where we were on the map and that we were following a second, longer walk than the one we hoped to pick up. Not wanting to return back though the back garden again, we used google maps to work out a cut through back to the original route, although this did mean walking it in the opposite direction to how it was intended and following the instructions backwards!

St Andrew’s Church in South Thoresby
An exhausted Lily!

Finding our way to the path marked on our route map, we managed to find the entrance to a public footpath running alongside a farmer’s field, past a copse and through some woods. We then followed a boardwalk over marshland which lead us back to the church in the village where we had started.

It had been a pretty walk through the Wolds on a warm, sunny afternoon and the drive through the Wolds back to our holiday site was just as pretty.

That evening, we attempted another canalside walk from our caravan but an exhausted Lily was having none of it and after reluctantly making it a few metres along the path, refused to move any further!

The last day of our trip was another warm, sunny one so we decided to head back to the coast, this time driving slightly further south to Anderby Creek.

The small car park at the beach was already full but we managed to find on road parking nearby. Walking up to the sands, we turned left at the entrance to the dog-friendly end, walking away from the crowds towards a near-empty sandy beach.

Lily enjoys one last walk on the beach

Lily once again had a great time splashing in the sea and insisted on taking up most of the picnic blanket we had brought out with us when it was time to have lunch!

We spent most of the day at the beach before returning to our holiday park again, spending one final evening taking a walk along the old canal.

We had really enjoyed our visit to Lincolnshire. It wasn’t somewhere we’d really considered going to before but we had found some really lovely beaches and what we’d seen of the Wolds had been really pretty. It’s definitely somewhere we’d love to return to!

East Sussex and Kent coast

A UK Staycation

After months of lockdown over the winter, I was desperate for a break and with Spring approaching, UK staycations in self-contained accommodation were finally to be allowed. With the opening date for holiday parks, holiday cottages and lodges overlapping with the second week of the school Easter holidays, we decided to look for somewhere to go for a few days, just looking forward to a change of scenery.

Winchelsea Beach

With Wales, our normal port of call for a UK staycation, remaining closed to visitors from across the border for the time being, we had to look elsewhere. Having family in Kent we’d not seen for a while, we started to look at availability in the south of England, thinking we could tie in a get-together while there.

Prices were sky high with everyone desperate for a getaway, especially in the more obvious holiday destinations around Brighton. Deciding to leave booking to the last minute, we eventually managed to grab a bargain 4-night stay at in a static caravan at an East Sussex holiday park.

It was a long drive from the Midlands down to the small seaside town of Winchelsea and by the time we arrived we were pretty exhausted. Not wanting to cook, we took a drive into the nearby town of Rye, hoping to grab some food from the local chippy. Unfortunately, we found both of the town’s Fish and Chip shops closed on a Monday. Not being able to find or settle on anything else, we ended up heading back to the holiday park and its local Co-op, finding what we could from the groceries we’d brought with us and grabbing a few extra items from the convenience store.

On the bech at Camber Sands

The next morning, we had arranged to meet with family at Winchelsea Beach. They were not expected to make it there til a little before midday so with Lily the dog chomping at the bit to be walked, we headed down a bit earlier. We were disappointed to find that with the tide in, the beach was pebbly, the shale stone hurting Lily’s paws so instead we had to walk her along the coast path that ran along the top of the sharply steeping beach.

Messaging our family who were more familiar with the area, we asked if there was any sandy bays they knew of nearby and they suggested Camber Sands, just a 20 minute drive along the coast. Quickly changing our plans, we arranged to meet there instead at around noon and turned around to walk back to the small Winchelsea Beach car park.

With it being a warm-for-April, sunny Easter holiday day, the main car park at Camber Sands was busy and the charges seemed a bit steep but luckily, we found some on-road parking nearby and cut across a playing field to reach the dunes backing the beach. Following one of the well-trodden paths that had been made through the dunes, we soon emerged the other side to be greeted with an absolutely beautiful stretch of golden sands to our right which gradually turned to pebbles to our left.

We made our way down towards the beach cafe where we’d arranged to meet our family members who had also just arrived then walked down towards the sea to find a space to sit out and picnic together.

A stroll on the beach at Camber

After lunch, Lily and my 6 year old niece paddled happily in the sea. The tide was starting to go out and we spent the next few ours strolling along the sand, paddling in the shallows, and, once away from the busier end of the beach (by the car park and cafe), we even found time for a family game of French cricket!

Away from the crowds, with the warm sun shining and the sea sparkling, we could have been anywhere. The beach at Camber is definitely up there with some of the best I’ve been to in Europe and further afield!

Above, and below, at Bexhill-on-Sea and, further below, St Leonards-on-Sea

3 hours later, we decided it was time to make our way back to our cars and saying our goodbyes, we returned to our spacious caravan back at the holiday park exhausted.

After dinner, we took Lily out for an evening stroll in Winchelsea around the playing field behind the beach where a local children’s football club were finishing a practise session, then up to the coast path retracing our steps from our morning stroll.

The next day, we decided to have a ride our further along the coast to explore the area further. Driving out past an extremely busy-looking Hastings, we stopped instead at the quieter Bexhill-on-Sea. Like Winchelsea, the beach here was pebbly while the tide was in but we enjoyed spending an hour or so walking along the wide, grass-lined promenade, sitting out in the sunshine on a bench overlooking the sea to eat our picnic lunch. After lunch, we briefly walked Lily down to the sea, being careful not to stay too long on the pebbles before returning along the promenade to our car and driving back towards Winchelsea.

Our next stop was at St Leonards-on-Sea. Unfortunately, the weather had changed for the worse and the sunny spells from the morning had been replaces by cloud, some passing drizzle and a bitterly cold wind. Parking at the southern end of the town, we took a quick walk down onto the beach hut lined pebbly beach then battled against the wind to take a stroll along the promenade and back.

On the way back to Winchelsea, we took a slight detour to the small village of Icklesham.

Hogg Hill Mill sat on top of a hill

My mother is a huge fan of The Beatles and my sister-in-law had informed her a recording studio belonging to Paul McCartney lay just outside of Winchelsea and it was possible to follow a public footpath running alongside it. After looking it up, we found our way to Hogg Hill Mill, a former post mill which had been converted into a recording studio.

Reaching the former mill

Seeing the building lying on top of a hill, we found a small pull in to park by the gate signposted as a public footpath and dutifully all marched up the hill so my mother could get a photo with the studio in the background!

Returning to the holiday park, we ventured out again in the evening to once again walk Lily around the playing fields behind the beach, this time heading up to the coast path and wandering along towards Rye Nature Reserve before looping back to the car.

Wanting to give Lily another run on a sandy beach, the next morning we returned to Camber Sands first thing.

Back on Camber Sands briefly, and below, the intriguing landscape of Dungeness

After Lily had a run around and splash in the sea, we drove east across the border into Kent to visit Dungeness. Situated on the Kent headland, Dungeness is part of Romney Marsh and is both a private estate and part of a national nature reserve. The barren, almost destitute headland was like something out of an apocalyptic movie with rusting machinery, empty shacks and rotting boats sporadically dotted across the land, paths and the occasional boardwalk leading down to a shingle beach and the sea.

Further along, a lighthouse, which can sometimes be climbed for views across the bay, lay along with a busy cafe and more boardwalk walks across the land.

Greatstone-on-Sea

After spending some time exploring, we continued along the Kent coast, stopping at Greatstone-on-Sea where we found another pretty, but pebbly, beach. Taking a walk along the grassy promenade, we then continued into the town of New Romney and along towards Dymchurch where we hoped to make our final stop of the day.

Unfortunately, we found Dymchurch to be incredibly busy and, unable to find somewhere to park, had to turn around and head back towards Winchelsea and our holiday park.

After another walk along the Winchelsea coast path that evening then again the next morning, it was time to say goodbye to East Sussex and Kent but we’d enjoyed spending a few days exploring part of the UK we’d not seen before.

Scottish Highlands: Journey to Loch Ness

The Scott Monument in Edinburgh

Having travelled all the way north to the island of Orkney for a wedding weekend, I was now in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, from where I would be departing the next day on a tour of the Scottish Highlands with small group tour company, Macbackpackers.

Arriving into Edinburgh early evening, I got the airport bus straight into the city and found my way to my city centre Travelodge accommodation for the night. All checked in, I headed out into the city to grab some food and find the meeting point for my tour the next day so I wouldn’t be panicking looking for it in the morning then it was back to my room to catch up on some sleep before the early start the next day.

Crossing into the Scottish Highlands

After getting breakfast from a nearby cafe the next morning, I checked out of my hotel and dragged my luggage through Edinburgh’s cobbled and steep streets to the hostel my tour would be departing from.

There were a few Macbackpackers tour leaving that morning and we all gathered in the hostel’s common room where we could help ourselves to drinks while we waited for our tour to be called. Gradually working out who else would be on the same tour as me, we started to bundle together, starting the introductions.

Our tour finally called and our names ticked off, we didn’t waste any time loading the minibus with our luggage and climbing aboard. I was pleased to see I wasn’t the only one bringing a medium-sized case along rather than a backpack – always a worry of mine when I join a group tour!!

After formal introductions on board, we were off out of the city, across the Forth Bridge and heading towards the Highlands. We made our first stop of the day at the side of the road by the Scottish Highlands welcome sign taking pictures with it and tasting the occasion with a shot of Scottish Whiskey!

An old blackhouse at the Highland Folk Museum

Our next stop was in the pretty town of Pitlochry where we all piled into one of the cafes recommended by our tour guide for lunch then we continued on to Newtonmore to visit the Highland Folk Museum. The open air museum recreates Highland life from the past and we attended an old ‘school’ where the school mistress sternly watched over us as we practised our handwriting before exploring the old working croft with its traditional blackhouses, old farm machinery and chickens milling around.

Chickens roaming freely at the Highland Folk Museum, and below, at Culloden Battlefield

The museum was used as a location in TV series Outlander which excited some members of the group who were fans of the show.

From the Highland Folk Museum, we continued north to Culloden Battlefield, our guide detailing the story of the Jacobite Rising in the 1700s, culminating in the Battle of Culloden. We had the option of buying a ticket to the museum or just exploring the grounds, most of the group opting for the latter.

Outside the visitor centre, we also had our first encounter with some ‘hairy coos’, or Highland Cattle, the famous long-haired and large-horned cows which we were all very excited about!

Spotting some ‘hairy coos’

We made one more stop at a supermarket just outside of Inverness to buy supplies for dinner which we’d decided would be a communal effort at the hostel then continued on to our Loch Ness-side accommodation pulling over once more for a quick photo opportunity at a viewpoint overlooking Urquhart Castle and the Loch. There was no sign of the Loch Ness Monster yet so with that, we went and checked into our accommodation where we were staying in dorms for one night.

View of Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness and below, on the banks of Loch Ness

The hostel lay right on the banks of Loch Ness and after we’d made and eaten dinner, we fought through the mosquitos to walk down to the Loch, some of us paddling our feet while braver members of the group even took a quick dip in its freezing waters!

We spent the rest of the evening in the hostel common room continuing to get to know each other before retiring to our dorms, most of us getting an early night before the next day’s early start.

It had been a fun first day and we’d packed a lot in. Tomorrow we’d be taking a ferry across to the first island of our trip and we were all excited to continue our Scottish adventure!

A weekend in Orkney

Having been invited to a wedding by a friend who lives way up north in the Orkney Islands, I began making plans to fly up there from Birmingham for 2 nights. Discovering just how expensive this was going to be, I ended up having to change my initial plans slightly, taking a direct flight with Loganair from Manchester rather than flying to Edinburgh from Birmingham and then having to change flights.

The trip was going to cost so much that it seemed a shame to only be spending a weekend in Scotland when the flights were so much so I decided to extend my trip adding on an extra week touring the Scottish Highlands after my weekend in Orkney.

Kirwall marina

Flights, itinerary and accommodation sorted, I travelled to Manchester by train and on to its airport on a Friday afternoon only to find my flight to Scotland had been indefinitely delayed. Strike action was going on and it was a scary few hours waiting to find out not only if my flight would run at all, but if it would be scheduled in time to arrive in Orkney before it’s airport shut down early due to the industrial action.

Luckily, a new flight time was eventually announced and we set off with minutes to spare. After a short but pleasant flight – I especially appreciated the free tea and Scottish Caramel bar on board – we arrived, the penultimate flight to land that evening in the moments before the closure.

The airport at Kirkwall couldn’t be more different from the huge, busy metropolis that is Manchester airport. Instead, we walked from the steps of the plane into a small hangar with a single waiting area for departures, a (now closed for the evening) cafe and a small conveyor belt which our luggage promptly appeared on. Meeting my friend who who had scraped in on the final arriving flight of the day shortly after, we walked the short distance outside to the bus stop and waited for the next bus into Kirkwall centre. The journey didn’t take long and from the central bus station, it didn’t take us long to find our hotel – a pub/guesthouse.

Arriving at the Skara Brae Visitor Centre

After settling into our room, we went for a walk into the town centre. Other than the local convenience stores, the businesses had all closed for the evening but it at least allowed us to get our bearings and find the Cathedral which tomorrow’s wedding would take place at. Returning to our hotel, we had dinner at the pub downstairs before settling down for the night trying to ignore the music coming from the bar!

Views on Orkney Island, and below, at the Ring of Brodgar

The next morning, we walked to the local garden centre for a delicious cooked breakfast at their cafe then spent some more time exploring Kirkwall, visiting some of the now open independent and boutique stores. The rest of the day was spent getting ready for and attending the wedding, a lavish and traditionally Scottish affair that was lots of fun to be a part of!

We all had early evening flights booked out of Orkney the next day so planned to use the day to explore Orkney a bit further. We had originally hoped to hire a car and explore the island ourselves but it was a Sunday and most of the car hire services on the island either weren’t open or closed early meaning we wouldn’t be able to return our car at a suitable time. So instead, we had enquired at the tourist information office the morning before about using the island’s sightseeing bus service. The T11 service which doubled as a commuter route, offered an open-topped hop on/off bus tour of the island looping back round to Kirkwall.

The service was busy but luckily they had multiple buses ready to cope with the demand. Despite it being a cool, blustery day with the occasional drops of rain in the air, we bundled ourselves onto the top deck to get the best views along the way.

View from the Ring of Brodgar

The bus made stops along the way at points of interest giving us time to get off and see these attractions before either jumping back onto the same bus or waiting for the later service. The buses were not very regular and with our time restraints, we didn’t have the option to wait for later buses if we were going to be back in Kirkwall for our flights back so we made the most of the time we were given at each stop before jumping back on the same bus.

The first stop was at Skara Brae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can explore a Neolithic village of ancient stone houses discovered to be lying on Orkney in the 1800s. The entrance fee into the grounds was more than we wanted to pay given that we didn’t have much time to explore and get our money’s worth so instead, we read about the site at the visitor centre, looking out at the stone houses from there before grabbing a delicious lunch from the on site cafe.

Following the Orkney coastline

Back on the bus, we continued through Orkney making one more stop at the Ring of Brodgar, a circle of ancient standing stones. We were given time to walk up the path to the stones and take photos before getting back on the bus one last time as we returned to Kirkwall.

While the tour wasn’t ideal, we were at least glad to have had an opportunity to get out and see some of the island while we were there.

Once back in Kirkwall, it was time to collect our luggage and catch the bus back to the airport where I’d be catching my Edinburgh-bound flight, ready to start a new adventure the next day – exploring the Scottish Highlands!

A UK National Parks Staycation

Like many people, I had big travel plans for this year, namely a 5-week mammoth USA road trip passing through California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah and Arizona visiting a variety of National Parks. Luckily, while our route was planned, we hadn’t got very far in the booking process with just our return flights to LA and our first 2 nights’ hotel accommodation booked by the time we went into lockdown. We put our planning on hold and thankfully, as it became more and more apparent that our trip had no chance of going ahead, our flights with Norwegian Airlines were cancelled and promptly fully refunded and we went ahead and cancelled our LA hotel reservation.

While travel to the USA was out of the question, as restrictions in the UK slowly began to be lifted, we started to wonder if a trip here would be a summer possibility. While I’ve extensively explored the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and a range of European cities, there is very little of my own country I have spent time seeing in anywhere near as much detail. Trips here for me mainly consist of city breaks to see a concert where more time is often spent travelling to and getting ready for our night out than sightseeing, or a few days somewhere on the Welsh coast walking my dog on the same 4 or 5 beaches each time. With our original trip being based on visiting USA National Parks, we wondered if we should maybe spend some time in the UK Parks.

So, still unsure if our trip would even become a possibility, we tentatively started doing some research.

With Wales and Scotland under separate rules and restrictions to here in England, we decided we should plan to stay away from the parks there in case we were still not allowed across the borders by the time August rolled around. That straight away cut down the possibilities to 10 English National Parks. The Norfolk Broads on the east coast, the Southern Downs, New Forest, Exmoor and Dartmoor in the south and the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors, Lake District and Northumberland National Parks to the North. Living in the Midlands, any direction would suit me as nowhere is very far in comparison to the distances we’d have driven in the US.

After some research, we decided rather than being over ambitious and attempting a full 5-week road trip taking in all of the parks when local lockdowns were very likely to come into force and disrupt our plans, we would concentrate on the parks in one area of the country and aim to spend about 10-14 days on our trip. Having seen a number of reports on crowds rushing to the south of England, we eventually decided to head to the parks in the north and came up with a 14 day itinerary during which we would hopefully spend time in the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, Northumberland and then the North York Moors. We’d begin our adventure midweek to avoid weekend traffic and made sure the days spent in the Lake District, the park we expected to be busiest, were also midweek when it might be slightly quieter.

By the time that it looked as if lockdown would be relaxed enough for our ideas to possibly come to fruition, we found that with everyone being forced into staycations, accommodation options were either very limited or extremely expensive so rather than staying in the parks themselves, we opted for chain hotels in towns on the outskirts of the park – making sure we went for the fully cancellable room options of course, just in case!

Hotels booked, a basic plan of possible activities was next. Covid restrictions meant spontaneity was not as much a possibility as usual. Attractions including National Trust properties, farm parks, boat trips etc were all working on a time-slot booking system and spots were filling up quickly but we were pleased to see most places offering transferable or even refundable tickets in case circumstances changed and visitors couldn’t it.

We wanted to stick with outdoor activities for the main part anyway so were banking on the weather staying mainly dry at least so we could busy ourselves with a range of walks to see the parks’ highlights. In preparation, we found the postcodes for all the car parks we might use and collected together as much change as possible – which is more difficult than it sounds in a world where contactless card payments are preferred everywhere – in case any of the park machines were cash only.

With the government’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme running Mon-Wed throughout August, park attractions weren’t the only thing we couldn’t be spontaneous with. Most restaurants were also operating a book ahead only policy so we had to think ahead as to where to eat on our trip sometimes booking more than a week in advance. Staying in the towns on the outskirts of the parks at least gave us more choice with this and allowed us to vary our cuisine a bit more. The scheme helped us to keep the cost of the trip down a lot along with finding various online vouchers to use at chain restaurants for the remaining days of the week and we kept the cost of eating out down further still by carrying a box of cereal with us for breakfast, buying rolls to make our own lunch and even taking a flask of hot water with us each day to make our own tea!

As we set off for the Peak District, we were fully expecting to have to give up and head home from our trip before reaching the end either due to weather issues or local lockdowns suddenly coming in but surprisingly we made it to all 5 of the parks on our list without interruption. It was certainly very different from our experiences of visiting the National Parks of America in the past with the UK parks being large areas containing lived and worked in towns and villages rather than being actual parks like in the US with an entrance, exit and a route to follow through taking you past all the highlights. We discovered early on that it was best to mainly keep out of the villages and towns after we arrived in Bakewell to find crowded streets and very little social distancing going on and from that point forward we aimed for open spaces where we could hike out to beauty spots on easy to follow trails, keeping a distance from others.

It was great to see a bit more of our own country, to get out into the countryside and go hiking and to drive through such beautiful scenery and while not quite as exciting as the trip we had planned, it was an adventure we would probably never have planned or experienced in normal circumstances.

Keep checking back for my write up of what we got up to in each park starting with our visit to the Peak District!