A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: ToonSarah

Kentish charms

Whitstable

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Beach hut, Whitstable

The first time we went to Whitstable for a short break, a few years ago, we stayed in nearby Seasalter and made a couple of day trips into the town. We liked what we saw, and it was frustrating not to be able to easily spend our evenings here. So when we were considering ideas for a coastal staycation during the pandemic, renting a house in the centre of this appealing seaside town was a no-brainer!

The photos on this page were taken on both visits, March 2015 and October 2020.

Oysters

Whitstable is known for its oysters and a short distance west of the harbour you will find the Whitstable Oyster Company. The company claims to be able to trace its origins back to the 1400s. and to be one of the oldest companies in Europe. But the fame of the oysters of Whitstable goes even further back, almost two thousand years, to when the Romans discovered them and shipped them back live to Rome to be enjoyed as a delicacy at the best tables there. At the company’s peak in the 1850s it was sending as many as eighty million oysters a year to Billingsgate fish market. By that time oysters had become so plentiful and cheap that they were regarded as the food of the poor, not the gourmet indulgence of today.

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Oyster shells

However in the twentieth century the industry began to decline due to a number of factors: cold winters, a parasite infection, two World Wars, the great flood of 1953 and changing tastes – notably the rise of the prawn cocktail!

In recent decades there has been a resurgence in the oyster industry. The company is now a family-run business, not only farming oysters but also running a highly-regarded restaurant in the old oyster stores. Walking around outside, the discarded oyster shells crunch under your feet – a sure sign you are in Whitstable.

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The Whitstable Oyster Company

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Sign at the Whitstable Oyster Company

The harbour

The harbour at Whitstable is very much a working one. Fish are landed and processed here, and there is a tarmac production site, with what it must be said is rather an ugly main structure. But I like the fact that it is functional as well as tourist-focused. Fishermen land their catch right next to the informal fish restaurants selling mussels, oysters and fish and chips; old fisherman’s huts are home to small craft shops and art galleries; locals walk their dogs, and tourists stroll, in the shadow of the tarmac factory.

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Whitstable Harbour

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Harbour scenes

In the summer boat trips run from here, out to see the wind farms and the offshore World War II sea forts which are visible on the horizon. These Maunsell Forts (named for their designer, Guy Maunsell) were built in the Thames and Mersey estuaries during the Second World War. They were used for anti-aircraft defence – during World War II, the three forts in the Thames estuary shot down 22 aircraft and about 30 flying bombs. They were decommissioned by the Ministry of Defence in the late 1950s; some were used in the 60s as bases for pirate radio stations.

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Wind turbines and Maunsell Forts

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Birds in flight and Maunsell Forts

The Favourite

One boat not to be found in the harbour is the Favourite. This is a traditional Whitstable oyster yawl and was built by the Whitstable Shipbuilding Company based at Island Wall (west of the harbour and oyster company) in 1890. She was used by the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company to dredge oysters from the beds off shore until 1939. She was machine-gunned by an enemy aircraft and began to sink, but was beached and dragged up the shore. When the sea wall was built she was moved and spent some time in a cottage garden before being acquired by a charitable trust who raised money for her restoration. Today she sits on display just behind the wall, very near where she was built. As she would have been built directly on the shingle beach the site around her was restored to look like a beach and now has a good display of shingle flora.

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The Favourite

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Flowers by the Favourite

Beach walks and beach-huts

Although Whitstable doesn’t have a traditional seaside promenade (and for me that is one of its charms), it is possible to walk the length of its beaches stretching some distance both east and west of the centre – a walk of about three miles in total. To the east you are walking along the foot of Tankerton Slopes. At first these are green lawns, sloping down to the sea. At their foot are colourful beach huts, one of my favourite subjects for photography in Whitstable.

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Beach huts, Tankerton Slopes

The footpath passes the Street, a naturally formed spit of land that extends into the sea and can be walked on at low tide.

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The Street

A key feature of Whitstable’s beaches are the breakwaters, a favourite perch for visiting gulls.

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The beach near Tankerton Slopes

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Breakwaters on the beach

Further along, the tamed lawns give way to a nature reserve, a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, where the largest population in Britain of hog’s fennel can be found. Not being an expert in botany, and with no winter images on the information board, I am only about 80% certain that I photographed the right plant, but in any case I loved the sculptural shapes of its seed-heads.

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Hog's fennel - I think!

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Above Tankerton Slopes

Eventually in this direction you reach Swalecliffe Brook, a small stream running into the sea between Whitstable and the next town, Herne Bay.

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Beyond Tankerton - Swalecliffe Brook

This is the furthest we have walked in this direction, so let’s turn back now and head west.

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Enjoying the sea views

Walking west from the centre you pass the Favourite, mentioned above, and soon after arrive at one of Whitstable’s best-loved pubs, the Old Neptune or ‘Neppy’ as it is affectionately known. It makes the proud claim to be ‘one of only a handful of pubs to be found on the beaches of Britain’. It sits directly on the shingle and while it has a cosy interior, the main attraction for us and for many others is found outside where, even in these times of COVID, there are plenty of wooden tables and benches where you can enjoy a beer and maybe some fish and chips with a sea view. It was just about warm enough during our recent October stay to be able to stop off for drinks here on a couple of occasions.

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The Old Neptune

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View from our table at the Old Neptune

Beyond the Neppy are more beach huts and some attractive and interesting old houses. One of the latter was once home to the actor Peter Cushing, best known for his roles in the Hammer horror films of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The house is marked with a blue plaque.

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Beach huts and boats

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Beach hut detail

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Colourful houses

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Peter Cushing's former home

There are also more breakwaters, whose rhythmically-spaced lines stretch away into the distance on either side, creating interesting photo opportunities.

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Looking back towards the town centre

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Breakwaters

When it’s time to turn back you can return the way you came or take the quiet road running parallel to the beach, Island Wall, to see more of Whitstable’s quaint houses.

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House detail

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Halloween in Whitstable

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Starling outside a Whitstable house

The town centre

I’ll finish in the centre of town which is in its way as appealing as the shore. There are plenty of independent shops selling upmarket clothing, books, jewellery, antiques and of course souvenirs. The latter include craft items and home decorations, perfect if you want to replicate the beach house look at home, although in our London terrace that is best restricted to the bathroom! The restaurants too are mainly independents, although there are a couple of Italian chains, and likewise the cafés, although again there is one chain coffeeshop. Of the pubs we liked best the atmosphere in the Royal Naval Reserve on the High Street, as the Duke of Cumberland (which we’d had a good lunch in on a previous visit) was rather cold and empty, perhaps because COVID restrictions prevented it from staging its popular live music evenings.

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Pub and antiques shop

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Cheese and gift shop

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Look for the details

Finally, take a look at these fun murals, most of them by an artist called Cat Man, which I spotted around the town.

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Whitstable murals

Posted by ToonSarah 04:57 Archived in England Tagged beaches buildings boats harbour england coast history pubs seaside details street_art Comments (23)

Autumn colours and fungi

Emmetts Garden, Kent

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In the Rock Garden

A few days ago we paid a first visit to this fairly small National Trust run garden just off the M25 to the south of London. And what a delight it was!

The garden was developed in Edwardian times by Frederic Lubbock, a keen plantsman. He collected many exotic and rare trees and shrubs from across the world. Under the National Trust’s ownership it is gradually being restored to its former glory but is already a fabulous spot for a walk and for photography.

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View from near the entrance

There are wonderful views over the Kent Weald (this is one of the highest spots in the county) and a network of trails through the wooded slopes, in addition to the formal gardens. These include a Rock Garden, at its best in autumn when the acers glow red and orange; a Rose Garden; and planned areas of shrub planting to show off the more exotic specimens in a semi-natural setting.

Let me take you on a walk through the garden …

The Rock Garden

This was where we saw the most vivid colours as there is a great collection of Acers (Japanese Maple). There were also still some flowers in this sheltered spot.

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In the Rock Garden

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Acer in the Rock Garden

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In the Rock Garden

The North Garden

They are currently restoring this area to look more like Frederic Lubbock's original design, making more of the small pond at its centre. This is the highest part of the garden.

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The North Garden

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In the North Garden

Woodland Walk

Steps led us down to a path strewn with fallen leaves and prickly sweet chestnut cases. There were lots of fungi to spot among the trees, some of them tiny!

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On the Woodland Walk

The path led us to a viewpoint at the lowest point on the walk.

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View from Emmetts Garden

The South Garden

This is more open, with lawns dotted with trees, many of them vibrant at this time of year.

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Autumn colour in the South Garden

There were some interesting specimen trees, all labelled, and a white rhododendron having a late flush.

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Prickly heath bush from Argentina

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Rhododendron in the South Garden

While autumn is recommended as a special time to visit, I’m told by a friend that the woods are also stunning in the spring when the bluebells are flowering - and of course the Rose Garden would be at its best in the summer months. We will have to return ...

Posted by ToonSarah 03:30 Archived in England Tagged trees flowers colour garden autumn Comments (16)

The largest stone circle in Britain

Avebury

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The stone circle, Avebury

I find it a little odd that Avebury is not as well known, nor as visited, as nearby Stonehenge. Personally I find it just as impressive and in some ways more atmospheric. Its henge (circular bank and ditch) encloses the remaining stones of the largest stone circle in Britain, built during the Neolithic period (c. 2850 BC – 2200 BC). The circle is so large that over time people have built their houses around and among the stones, so that today it seems almost as if the somewhat unearthly stones are slowly encroaching on human space.

This aerial photo, from Wikipedia, shows clearly how the henge encircles the village:

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Attribution: Detmar Owen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

There were originally over 100 stones in the main outer circle. Many have been lost, but about 30 still remain. The position of lost stones is today marked with smaller pyramid-topped concrete posts to give an indication of what the complete circle would have looked like. The missing ones suffered various fates – used as building materials by the villagers, or broken down and buried, perhaps because they were in the way of village development.

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The stone circle
~ you can see the concrete posts marking the location of missing stones

Within that main circle were two inner ones – the north one with 27 stones (of which only four remain) and the south slightly larger with 29 stones (with five remaining).

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The north inner stone circle

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The south inner circle

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Significance

This was clearly a significant site for the people of that period, and the surrounding landscape is dotted with others – avenues of stones leading to other sites, the man-made mound of Silbury Hill, burial mounds such as West Kennet Long Barrow, and more. Together with Stonehenge these form the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site.

The English Heritage website about Avebury concludes that:

‘The impression gained is of a landscape being shaped for rituals that involved inclusion, exclusion and procession.

If this is correct, then the various monuments may have been built as public ‘theatres’ for rites and ceremonies that gave physical expression to the community’s ideas of world order; the place of the people within that order; the relationship between the people and their gods; and the nature and transmission of authority, whether spiritual or political.

The length of time over which the Great Henge and its two avenues were built is so long that it suggests the community’s relationship with its environment may gradually have altered. Changing rituals may have been the driving force for the building of new monuments and for their eventual abandonment around 1800 BC.’

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More images of the outer stone circle

There have been some at times rather bizarre alternative suggestions about the construction of Avebury, especially during Victorian times. These include the idea that both Avebury and Stonehenge were built by the Phoenicians (many Britons of that period believed these ancient seafarers first brought civilisation to our island). It has also been proposed that it was constructed to commemorate the final battle of King Arthur, and that his slain warriors were buried here. Yet another Victorian pseudo-historian argued that it was Native Americans from the Appalachian Mountains who once crossed the Atlantic Ocean to build the great megalithic monuments of southern Britain. All very fanciful, and none of them given any credence today.

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The stone circle, Avebury, and view over the Wiltshire downs

Visiting Avebury

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Lichen on a standing stone

Avebury is free to visit but parking is charged for, in a somewhat odd arrangement that sees the car park owned by the National Trust while the site itself is owned and managed by English Heritage. We stopped here on our way home from Wells and only had time for a slow walk around most of the circle, taking photos as we went. In any case, the onsite museum was closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

My main aim on this visit was to capture in photographs the slight eeriness of the site, in which I hope I have succeeded, but in future I’d like to visit the museum and also make time for stops at some of those other sights such as Silbury Hill.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:42 Archived in England Tagged landscapes england history archaeology Comments (15)

Where the Mendips meet the sea

Brean Down

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Looking back towards the 'mainland' from Brean Down

On the coast of Somerset between Weston-super-Mare and Burnham-on-Sea, a long finger of land juts out into the Bristol Channel – the Mendips’ last hurrah before disappearing beneath the waves. Brean Down rises high above the beaches on either side, a two-kilometre-long ridge of limestone and an obvious place to build a fort – or several. Certainly Iron Age man thought so, as there is evidence of a fort and field systems from that period. The Romans built a small temple here, and much more recently, between 1864 and 1871, another fort was constructed at the very tip of the promontory.

Today the land is under the protection of the National Trust. As with most of their open countryside there is no charge to walk on the land, but you pay for parking. We visited on a rather dull September morning during the Coronavirus pandemic and found the car park quite busy with dog walkers and with ‘staycationers’ such as ourselves.

A three-mile walk leads you up onto the ridge, along its western edge to the fort, and back along the eastern side. It starts with a steep climb up a long flight of steps. There are small stopping areas at intervals where you can pause to admire the view – surely no one will guess that you’re really stopping to catch your breath?!

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The steps up Brean Down, and old post box at the foot

Once at the top the path is undulating, crossing grassland closely cropped by sheep and goats that live here. Walking out towards the far point you have wonderful views west along the coast and across the Bristol Channel to Wales. Apparently you can see the remains of the Romano-British temple somewhere along this stretch but it eluded us.

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Trees on Brean Down

The coastline here is famous for the wide expanse of sand (some say mud!) revealed at low tide. The Bristol Channel has the second largest tidal movement in the world (second only to the Bay of Fundy in Canada); according to the National Trust website, the distance between high and low water can be as much as 0.75 of a mile (1.2 kilometres). This made for some interesting photo opportunities in today’s changing light, but is a challenge on sunny days for anyone wanting to swim!

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Views of Brean Beach from Brean Down

Brean Fort

Our walk brought us eventually to the remains of the fort built here in the 19th century. This was one of the Palmerston Forts (named for Lord Palmerston, the then Prime Minister), designed to protect Britain from invasion by France – an invasion that never came. As I explained in my post about Spitbank Fort, in the Solent, Napoleon III was strengthening his navy at that time, and the memory of past threats from that quarter were still fresh. But the invasion never came and the forts were never used for their original purpose.

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Looking down on Brean Fort

Although in ruins the walls of many of the fort’s buildings still stand and there are signs to guide you as you explore. I felt it had a slightly haunted atmosphere, despite the presence of other visitors here and there. Maybe I was sensing the ghost of Gunner Harris, who one night in July 1900 inexplicably fired a carbine into the ventilator shaft of a magazine storing gunpowder. The resulting explosion caused huge damage to the fort and killed Harris. There was some speculation that this might have been suicide – Harris was known to be sullen, with a bad temper, and was in trouble because he had left the fort without permission the previous day. At his inquest the jury returned the verdict that, ‘the explosion was caused by the deceased firing a carbine down a ventilator and that at the time he was temporarily insane.’ Whatever the reason, Harris had effectively dealt a fatal blow not only to himself but to the fort. It was closed down soon after, decommissioned and its guns sold for scrap in 1901.

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Brean Fort

However the building has been put to various uses both before and since then. Marconi had used it in 1897 to test his new wireless transmission equipment, setting a new distance record of 8.7 miles (14 kilometres) for wireless transmission over open seas. For a while it was used as a café (what a great spot to stop for a coffee that must have been!) before being rearmed during WW2 with anti-aircraft guns. The site was used to test bouncing bombs and other secret weapons. You can still see the length of rail employed to launch the bombs. A sign at the fort explains that the tests didn’t always go well. On one occasion the bomb, along with the trolley carrying it, flew off into the Channel, did a sharp right turn and came back inland to land in a local farmer’s chicken run!

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Bomb launching rail, with Steep Holm Island beyond

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Bomb launching rail, and window in the barracks

This is a great spot to take a break, sitting on the old walls with a view out to Steep Holm and Flat Holm islands. The former is English while the latter, lying just beyond it, is in Wales (its Welsh name is Ynys Echni). Both islands were also fortified under Palmerston's scheme. Flat Holm has had a lighthouse since the early 18th century (this is a treacherous area for shipping) but the current building dates from the early 19th and is today automated, running almost entirely on solar power.

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Steep Holm Island from Brean Down

The return walk

After exploring the ruins of the fort and enjoying the view out to sea, we retraced our steps but on the eastern side of the headland. The path here is a little lower and more sheltered, but even here trees struggle to grow.

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On Brean Down

There were some pretty wildflowers and views across the wide sands of Weston-super-Mare below.

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Wild flower

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Lichen

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On Weston-super-Mare beach

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Sparrow near the café

At some point this path passes the banks and ditches that mark the site of the Iron Age fort, but this too, like the Roman temple, we managed to miss!

Beyond the top of the steps we had climbed at the start the path curved back on itself and we were able to descend a more gentle slope down to the road, the car park and the café. Here we bought cold drinks and hot pasties to enjoy at a table overlooking the beach – a good reward for our efforts!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:57 Archived in England Tagged landscapes trees coast history ruins views fort seas Comments (6)

Britain’s answer to the Grand Canyon

Cheddar Gorge and the Mendip Hills

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Cheddar Gorge

Cheddar Gorge

Cheddar Gorge cuts into the southern edge of the Mendip Hills in Somerset. At 137 metres deep it is hardly the Grand Canyon, but it is pretty impressive nevertheless! Unfortunately (in my view) its lower end is marred by touristic over-development, but as you travel up the gorge it becomes wilder, thankfully.

The southern side of the gorge is steepest and the most developed. There are several cave complexes within it. Some are usually open to the public, but we visited during the coronavirus pandemic and the caves were closed – a bonus in some ways as it meant the gorge was much quieter. On the other hand, it would have been interesting to see where Britain's oldest complete human skeleton, known imaginatively as Cheddar Man and estimated to be 9,000 years old, was found in 1903.

There are several cafés strung out along the side of the road, all also closed when we visited, and of course a shop selling the famous Cheddar Cheese. This was open but we didn’t go in.

While there is some development on the northern side too, it’s mainly restricted to a handful of shops by the car park at the foot and a sprinkling of houses, some of them rather attractive. Paths lead up between the houses to the open land above, which is owned by the National Trust. The most distinctive feature here is the so-called Lion Rock, and unlike some such features you see around the world, I think this one does look a bit like the animal for which it is named! I found photography here quite challenging because of the contrast between the sunny upper slopes and rocks, and the deep shadows lower down.

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Lion Rock, and early autumn colour

Tricky lighting in Cheddar Gorge

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Towards the top of the gorge the scenery becomes wilder. The road climbs steeply – it’s a popular challenge for cyclists and was used as part of the 2011 Tour of Britain race. There are several places where you can pull over and park to admire the view or go for a walk. There are a lot of rock-climbing routes and we saw several small groups just embarking on ascents, but they were still at the stage of sorting their equipment so I couldn’t get any interesting photos of them. But the light was better here for photographing the scenery, and we came across a number of the feral goats that graze the slopes, including a young kid and his (her?) mother.

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In Cheddar Gorge

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Mother goat and kid

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Goats in Cheddar Gorge

Deerleap

Instead of returning the way we had come, back down Cheddar Gorge, we continued to climb up into the Mendip Hills before turning south on a network of minor roads to the small carpark at Deerleap, from where I had read good views were to be had. Sure enough, the view from the car park itself was good, but even better from the public footpath that starts from here. We could see for miles across the Somerset Levels below, with the former island of Glastonbury Tor, which we had visited yesterday, clearly visible.

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View of the Somerset Levels and Glastonbury Tor from Deerleap carpark

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More views from the footpath

But we found more than just views, wonderful as these were, as the path led us across the fields to an area set aside as a nature reserve, with wildflowers dotting the grass.

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Late summer flowers on the Mendips

It must be lovely at the height of summer and was still a pleasant spot even in late September, especially on this sunny day. This gentle walk was a great way to round off our morning before returning to our base in Wells for lunch and an afternoon exploring the city.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:58 Archived in England Tagged landscapes animals flowers england views glastonbury cheddar_gorge Comments (16)

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