English Heritage Properties with Free Entry

Thetford Priory

English Heritage looks after a number of historic properties throughout England. Having joined last year (we were visiting North Yorkshire where there are quite of few of the best, and they were doing a special offer of 15 months for the price of 12), I downloaded the English Heritage App onto my phone. The App provides details of all the properties, including opening times and entrance fees for non-members. As a result, I discovered that there are quite a number of properties with free entrance for everyone, not just members. I can therefore recommend that non-members should get hold of the app themselves.

Having said that, some of the free properties are not worth the bother!

So in order for others to learn from my experience, here’s a list (to which I hope to add over time) of places I have been to, in chronological order, together with a summary my thoughts on them, plus some admittedly subjective ratings.


North Leigh Roman Villa, Oxfordshire: quite interesting, pleasant location. Take footwear suitable for a muddy track! 5/10

Minster Lovell Hall, near Witney, Oxfordshire: limited parking, so get there early or perhaps visit the pub in the village for a meal. We did neither and so didn’t get to see it. The village itself is delightful, though (which I was surprised about as my grandparents lived there for a couple of years in the 1960s) so we intend to return: ?/10

Bishop’s Waltham Palace, Hampshire: impressive ruins, nice village with more than one dining option. Some on-site parking. 7/10

Dunster, West Somerset: 3 properties, Yarn Market, Gallox Bridge and Butter Cross: Dunster is a fabulous village with a spectacular Castle (National Trust). The Yarn Market is at the far end of the high street from the castle. The Butter Cross is not all that impressive in itself, but it is a pleasant walk to get there, similarly the Gallox Bridge is in a pleasant spot if not especially distinguished. 10/10

Nunney Castle, near Frome, Somerset not far from the A361: picturesque, in another lovely village, with a nice tea room and a pub recommended on the AA’s Pub Guide App (although we didn’t go in). 9/10

Hatfield Earthworks (Marden Henge), Wiltshire, between the Vale of Pewsey and Sailsbury Plain. Just a few ridges in a field; no parking, but there is an excellent pub (also recommended by the AA) about a quarter of a mile away (the Millstream, Marden). Not worth the bother unless you are visiting the pub! 2/10

Ludgershall Castle, Wiltshire (not far from A303): worth seeing if breaking a journey, the town does not have much to commend it. 6/10

Eynsford Castle, Kent: lovely village close to the M25 with a ford and nice coffee shop. Castle itself is not that impressive, but in a pleasant location. Near Lullingstone Roman Villa. 8/10

St Leonard’s Tower, near West Malling, Kent. Just a tall square building by the side of the road. Some free on-road parking a couple of hundred yards away, past the entrance to Manor Park Country Park. Nothing special. 3/10.

Faversham Stone Chapel (Our Lady of Elverton) near Faversham, Kent. A ruin through which trees are growing in a field next to a busy road (the A2) with no discernible parking. 1/10.

Bury St. Edmunds Abbey, Suffolk: extensive ruins in attractive market town with nice gardens round the back of St. Edmundsbury Cathedral, slightly spoiled by the presence of tennis courts. 8/10.

Thetford Priory, Norfolk: extensive ruins of the abbey, with plenty of information, pleasant location. Parking for about 4 or 5 cars. 7/10.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Thetford: just the ruins of a chapel, not always accessible, no parking but walkable from Thetford Priory, although hardly worth the effort. 2/10



The West Country for a long Holiday Weekend

Dunster on Easter Day 2019

For the benefit of non-British readers, the West Country is a loosely-defined area of England that generally consists of the traditional counties of Devon, Dorset and Somerset, and can also include Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Cornwall, depending on one’s point of view (I’m not sure that the Cornish regard themselves to be part of the West Country, seeing as they don’t really regard themselves as being part of England at all!). It’s a particularly popular destination for holiday makers, especially Devon and Cornwall; Wiltshire, perhaps not so much.

The trouble with visiting the West Country during long public holiday weekends is that the number of direct trunk routes to get there by car are somewhat limited: from the Home Counties, one has a choice of the M4/M5, or the A303. The latter is notorious for hold-ups, especially in the vicinity of Stonehenge (the stones themselves are quite visible from road, especially westbound, which is a contributory factor to the traffic slowing down). Other parts of the A303 also feature bottlenecks, because there are single-carriageway sections and roundabouts.

The M4/M5 route is generally not so bad, but still suffers from severe congestion, especially where the two motorways meet near Bristol: traffic from the Midlands and South Wales merges with south-westbound traffic from the M4, and then there is more local traffic going to/from Bristol itself.

So, at times such as public holiday weekends when lots of other people are traveling as well, it’s perhaps not the best destination for those of us who want to maximize our limited time off work. After all, one is not exactly getting great value for precious time while being stuck in traffic.

There is an alternative, though, and that is to take a cross-country route, stopping off at attractions on the way in order to break the journey, spending some quality time, as well as seeing some attractive scenery. There are a number of related routes to take that pass close to places worth seeing, especially if one is a member of the National Trust or English Heritage (or both, as in our case).

For example, you could take the A350 from the M4 past Chippenham (which appears to be a place to fill up with cheap petrol!), and then the A361 and A39 to reach the M5. The A350 passes Lacock village, featured in a number of films and TV series, owned by the National Trust. Lacock is a delightful village, with some nice pubs, quite apart from the Abbey itself.  It is a popular tourist attraction in its own right, of course. Other places to stop off at include Nunney Castle near Frome, the Cathedral City of Wells (England’s smallest city), and Glastonbury.

Or you could take the A4 west from Newbury, which passes through the towns of Hungerford and Marlborough, and then goes close to Avebury, and then join the A361.

Another route would be to go along the A303 past Andover, and then take the A342 through Ludgershall and Upavon, and then the B3098 to Westbury, which goes past the site of King Alfred’s victorious battle against the Vikings at Edington in 878, and then the impressive Westbury White Horse (perhaps seen better when travelling eastwards rather than westwards).

Of course, these cross-country routes do take rather longer, even if the journey itself is more pleasant, so you can’t count on getting to your destination much before late afternoon or even early evening.

Having booked a 3-night stay in Dunster for the long Easter weekend, despite my reservations about the travelling, we decided the way to optimise our time was to get down to West Somerset as quickly as possible without stopping on the way. We set off from home on Good Friday, leaving at a respectable 8am, aiming to get to Cleeve Abbey for lunchtime, with Google Maps telling us we’d arrive at our destination by 11am. Sadly, that proved to be hopelessly optimistic: once we’d passed Swindon at about 9am, the time remaining of our journey, instead of diminishing as we went alongas one would expect, got stuck at about 2 hours left until we’d got onto the M5, at which point we became embroiled in the traffic. Still, it wasn’t too bad; although it was stop-start in several places, we did make progress, and after a coffee and comfort stop at Sedgemoor Services, we got through the worst of it. It probably delayed us by three-quarters of an hour overall.

We were certainly glad we had braved the traffic, because we were blessed with gorgeous weather for the entire weekend; sunny, warm, and remarkably little wind.

Dunster itself, which is near the coast and on the edge of Exmoor National Park, would have to be one of the most attractive villages in the entire country, with its 17th Century Yarn Market at one end of the High Street, even without taking into account the Castle at the other end. It really has a stunning setting. There are a number of places to stay, with 3 hotels on the High Street itself, plus additional places to eat: we can recommend Reeves Restaurant.

And then there are lots of things to see and do in the general area. Far more, indeed, than we could do justice to in a single long weekend; you could easily have a fortnight in the area, especially if you venture further west along the coast.

On our return, however, we decided to avoid the main routes, and to stop off at several places on the way home. As mentioned previously, obvious stopping points would be Glastonbury and Wells, but we’d been to both fairly recently, and not just once either. So, to make use of the English Heritage membership we took out last year, we went to Muchelney instead, on the Somerset Levels, about an hour’s drive from Dunster, where there is a ruined Abbey. There is also a National Trust property, the Priest’s Cottage, but that didn’t open until the afternoon; we were at least able to admire its garden, though.

Our next stop was at Nunney, a very pretty little village near Frome, which has a medieval castle (English Heritage, but entry is free). There’s a nice little tea room on the corner of Castle Street.

At this point we could have headed north along the A350, but we had visited Lacock last year, so after studying the map of English Heritage properties, we headed for Hatfield Earthworks, also know as Marden Henge, near Devizes, between the Vale of Pewsey and Salisbury Plain. This took us past Westbury and then the pretty village of Urchfont, but unfortunately the Lamb Inn, which could have been a suitable lunchtime stop, is closed on Mondays (including Bank Holidays). Instead, we continued on to Marden, where we had lunch at the Millstream, a nice pub which I’d be happy to revisit. The Earthworks themselves, however, maybe a quarter of a mile from the pub, turned out to be less than impressive: just a set of ridges in a field!

So we continued on to Ludgershall Castle (worth seeing once, but perhaps not a second time) and then home. Overall, we spent about an hour longer in the car than had we taken a more direct route, but we got to see some interesting things and it was very much more scenic than going on the motorway!

Riviera Maya in January


In January 2016 we visited Mexico for the first (and so far only) time, staying at the Royal Hideaway Playacar, on the Riviera Maya, booked through Trailfinders. At the time, we had Silver status with British Airways Executive Club, BA’s frequent flyer programme, having earned lots of tier points on our trip to New Zealand the previous year.

Here are a few thoughts I had immediately afterwards (which I saved for posterity by posting them on Facebook).

Some good things about a holiday on the Riviera Maya in late January:

1) The beaches – fab white sand;

2) The weather – settled and sunny, and nice and warm without being too hot or humid, and without the sun being too strong;

3) Direct flights from the UK;

4) Friendly service from the locals;

5) The Mayan ruins;

6) Cerveza with a wedge of lime!

Some less good things about a holiday on the Riviera Maya:

1) The sheer number of other tourists;

2) No BA lounge at Cancun airport;

3) Not much in the way of scenery away from the coast;

4) Nasty biting insects

5) 5 hours of jet-lag on getting home!



Two weeks fly-drive from YVR

The Fairmont Empress Hotel, Victoria

A few years ago I spent quite a lot of effort planning a holiday to British Columbia in Canada, which would have involved seeing Vancouver Island, the Sunshine Coast and Whistler. I had the itinerary all sorted, but then our circumstances changed and we didn’t go. (We did eventually end up going to the Canadian Rockies instead later on that year, for just a week – but what a week it was!)

Anyway, on the off chance this is helpful for someone else…

We took our initial inspiration from the Beautiful British Columbia itinerary suggested by  Trailfinders, but we didn’t fancy driving all the way to Okanagan and back. We’ve also been to Vancouver a couple of times previously, so we wanted to avoid spending any time in the city if we could.

Because it’s a long flight from the UK to Vancouver, and because the shortest ferry route over to Vancouver Island departs from Tsawwassen, which is the other side of the airport from the city, we thought it made sense to spend the night on arrival at a hotel at the airport itself (there’s a Fairmont). Then we’d pick up a car first thing next morning and get an early ferry to Swartz Bay, which should give us the opportunity to get to The Butchart Gardens before the crowds on our way to Victoria, where we’d be tempted to stay at the Fairmont Empress (see picture above) simply for the experience.

The Trailfinders itinerary suggests travelling from Victoria to West Coast Wilderness Lodge in a single day, but I didn’t like that idea: you need to get not just one but two ferries. There are two different routes: Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay, then Horseshoe Bay to Langdale (but it looks to me like you can’t get directly from one ferry onto another at Horseshoe Bay – instead, you might need to drive up to the main highway, leave at a junction to perform a U-turn, and then go back down to the port again). The alternative is to drive all the way along from Victoria to Comox, and then get a ferry to Powell River, and then another from Saltery Bay to Earls Cove. And that would mean a very early start, albeit the jet-lag (assuming one lives in Europe) would make that easier. Even so, I thought it would be better to stay the night somewhere in the vicinity of Courtenay Bay, which would provide an opportunity to see more of Vancouver Island.

Thereafter, the plan was to continue as per the Trailfinders itinerary to Whistler, and up to Echo Valley Ranch. At that point we’d return to Vancouver via Whistler, but staying somewhere else at Whistler – I was thinking of staying at Fairmont Chateau Whistler on the way up to Echo Valley, and at Nita Lake Lodge on the way back.

If we were to do this now (and for the time being I have ruled out trips to Canada due to the effects of jet-lag on returning home, until such time as we retire or get more annual leave), I don’t think we’d do the trip quite like that. It’s a longish way from Whistler to Echo Valley Ranch and then back again, and we’d getting a bit too old to be spending too much of the day on horseback in any case, so maybe we’d give that a miss. (Thinking further, if you went to Echo Valley then it would make sense to continue east, say to Sun Peaks, and then Revelstoke – in which case you may as well continue onwards to Banff or Lake Louise and then back via Calgary. Say – that’s fab idea for another trip!)

We would therefore spend more time on Vancouver Island, maybe going to Tofino and/or Campbell River, and perhaps have a longer stay on the Sunshine Coast.

I’m also no longer quite so keen on Nita Lake Lodge – although it has a lovely setting on the lake, I hadn’t previously realised that it’s right by the railway station. I’m not sure I fancy taking the risk of being disturbed by freight trains running through the night! It might be that I am worrying unnecessarily, but clearly I need to do more research.

But I have to say, having spent some time thinking about this again, and having discovered Princess Louisa Inlet, I’d love to do this trip (and indeed a trip between Vancouver and Calgary) once I no longer have to worry about the effects of jet-lag on my morning commute!








Dealing with Jet Lag

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A selection of food on offer at the Qatar lounge at LHR T4

Different people have different ideas about how best to minimise the effects of Jet Lag. For example, I recently encountered someone on Twitter (a native Kiwi but who lives in Europe) saying that, because they had had bad experiences travelling via South East Asia, they preferred to travel back to New Zealand via LA, stopping off on the way.

I find this interesting because I am not a fan of stopovers. It seems to me that it’s not value for precious annual leave, because of all the faffing about getting into and out of airports.

I would much prefer to get the journey over in one go, and in my experience the longer the flight, the easier it is to adjust to a new time zone. For that reason, I have always found it easier travelling back home to the UK from the western side of North America than from the eastern seaboard. Time seems to pass differently during a flight – I doze on and off rather than sleeping solidly, but at least I can be reasonably relaxed – or at least, that’s the case when not travelling in economy class!

I reckon that the key thing is the time of arrival. Early afternoon is the optimal time: given that typically after a flight you’ll be fairly tired, you don’t really want to have to stay up for too long, but if you can get a couple of hours of sun on your skin first, it will help to reset your body clock.

Conversely, early morning arrivals are the worst, and should be avoided if possible. For that reason, the couple of times we visited the eastern side of Australia when the flights to Sydney got in at about 6 in the morning, we flew onward to Cairns straight away, so that we would not have to stay up too long on arrival in the resort.

When we travelled out to New Zealand in February 2015, we flew via Hong Kong in Premium Economy. The leg from HKG to AKL arrived just after lunchtime, and we were at our hotel shortly after 3pm. This gave us time to wander out, get our bearings, and have a meal before retiring to bed early. The next day we were fine – perhaps not totally adjusted, but not too far off.

The journey home was less successful – we had a two day stopover in Hong Kong, and then the flight to the UK didn’t take off until midnight, so we had a very long day. Although we flew Club Class back to London and got some sleep, the flight arrived at stupid o’clock (04:45 to be precise) on a Monday morning. I went into work that day – I was completely knackered by the afternoon, and working a 5-day week was a real struggle. No way am I doing that again!

When we went to Western Australia last year we got a flight which arrived in Perth shortly after sunset, so we just went to bed soon after checking into the hotel, and being tired after the journey didn’t have too many problems sleeping. The next day the sun was out, and again we adjusted quickly.

On the way back, we chose the flights so that we’d arrive in the UK at a sensible time. The flight took off from Perth at 11pm, and we were able to get some reasonable sleep (admittedly we did fly in Club again). After changing planes at Doha, we got to Heathrow mid-afternoon on the Saturday. The next day was Easter, so we had Easter Monday as well to recover, but I don’t think we really needed the extra day. We were glad we only had a 4 day week at work to cope with, though.

I find that the first night after a long journey it’s easy to sleep; it’s the 2nd and 3rd nights when jet-lag is a problem. So I am now of the opinion that it’s best to fly back home to the UK on a Tuesday night, arriving on a Wednesday afternoon. You can then go to work on the Thursday and Friday, and have the weekend to recover before tackling a full week at work.

In terms of making the journey itself more bearable, the trouble with economy class when travelling as a couple is avoiding the dreaded middle seat, when you have a stranger on one side of you. Unfortunately, that’s not easy to do, because a lot of seat configurations are 3-4-3. On some routes, however, you can get 2 seats on their own – for example, we have been on Air Canada flights to Calgary and Vancouver with a 2-4-2 configuration; having the 2 seats by the window made such a difference to the comfort of the journey! This is the reason why we almost always fly Premium Economy (at least) now that we can afford it, and look out for routes on which Business Class is not so expensive – for example, we have yet to fly Club to South Africa, because the flights are not cheap, even in Premium, but flying Club to Perth and back was relatively reasonable.

So in summary, my recommendations for long-haul travel are:

  • Get the travelling over and done with in one go
  • Arrive at the destination mid-afternoon; if an early arrival can’t be avoided and your itinerary will involve multiple flights anyway, consider starting off at one of the more remote destinations, so that you fly onward straight away
  • Return home mid-week
  • For couples, if you can’t guarantee that one of you won’t be in a middle seat when flying Economy, Premium economy is often worth the expense; look out for good deals in club class for overnight flights

And if, like me, you want to do all you can do to minimise the agony, choose your holiday destinations carefully!




Contentment in Costa Rica

A small coffee plantation near Arenal

The ongoing disaster that is Venezuela has been much in the news lately, but I’d like to shift attention to a country further round the Caribbean coast clockwise from Caracas, namely Costa Rica, a country that puts a high priority on education, healthcare, welfare and environmental protection, is relatively egalitarian, produces fair-trade organic coffee, and what is more doesn’t have a standing army: what is there for a typical millenial not to like?

In terms of its politics, I had been vaguely aware that Costa Rica was different to its neighbours for a number of years, but what really brought it home to me was, perhaps oddly, its national team’s approach to the game of football. During the FIFA World Cup in Brazil in 2014, Costa Rica was in the same group as England; they played with such a sense of joy that I did not begrudge the fact that their victories over Uruguay and Italy knocked England out before the final group game.

Costa Rica is supposed by many to be one of the happiest countries on the planet. Having visited it fairly recently (November 2017), and having also visited other reputedly happy countries such as Australia, Canada and Switzerland, I can quite believe that to be true.

So why is Costa Rica so happy? Is it happy because it is a stable liberal democracy? Or is it a stable liberal democracy because it is happy?

I have seen some theories that its happiness is helped by its weather, with some parts of the country enjoying plenty of sunshine. But much of the country has large amounts of rainfall, with uncomfortably high humidity, and plenty of nasty biting insects. That does not therefore seem to account for it.

Other theories indicate that it is related to the importance placed upon family and community. Each small town of any significance almost invariably has 4 things: a church, a school, a bar and a football pitch, perhaps ideal ingredients for social cohesion.

The most cogent explanation I have seen is that, at the time of colonisation, it lacked both mineral resources and an indigenous population to exploit. Indeed, in 1719, a governor pronounced it “the poorest and most miserable Spanish colony in all America”. The early settlers therefore had to work the land themselves, discouraging the establishment of large plantations, thus avoiding the import of slaves, and leading to it becoming a far more egalitarian nation than its neighbours.

One thing is for sure: Costa Rica might be small, but it is independent, and hasn’t found to surrender its sovereignty to some supra-national organisation. This might also help to increase the happiness of its citizens, because they feel they have more control over their own lives.

Costa Rica has been changing in recent times, however. It is now a mainstream (if not mass) tourist destination, there being direct flights not only from the USA and Canada but also now from European cities (BA flies to San Jose twice and sometimes three times a week from Gatwick, for example).

Costa Rica has also set out to attract foreign investment, in the shape of free trade zones, with investment and tax incentives. As a result it has become substantially more prosperous, with GDP increasing by nearly 50% between 2011 and 2017.

This increase in prosperity is giving rise to some issues: coffee plantation owners are finding that they can’t recruit Ticos (as the Costa Ricans call themselves) for the harvest, and are having to import labour from Nicaragua and Colombia instead. Indeed, Nicaraguans and Colombians now make up more than 10% of the population.

It will be interesting to see whether, as Costa Rica develops and becomes more prosperous, it remains as happy.

Stress-busting in South Africa

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As a not very adventurous person, I completely get why some people are reluctant to travel to South Africa. I used to feel that way myself, until after much persistence my wife Julie persuaded me to go. I can remember the feeling of shock I felt on our transfer from the airport, on the way to our hotel in Cape Town, which was situated was in suburb of Sea Point, not far from the boundary with Bantry Bay, seeing all the properties surrounded with 6-foot tall walls topped with razor-wire, with 24-hour response armed security vehicles parked in the street. Even when we moved on from Cape Town to Franschhoek, the security measures were still much in evidence.

The only place I have been where I have felt anything similar is Rio de Janeiro, where the security fencing surrounding the high-rise buildings isn’t quite so in-your-face, if just as ubiquitous.

As a friend put it to me recently, is this really the sort of experience one wants on a holiday? He has ruled out South Africa as a holiday destination for that exact reason.

Well, it’s not really the sort of experience I want on holiday either. But the good news is that it can be avoided: a fly-drive holiday to the Western Cape doesn’t have to be stressful.

Although Cape Town is typically where lots of people start off when doing the Western Cape and the Garden Route, it is not necessary to stay within the City itself. Although I accept that there a few cities in the world with a location to rival that of Cape Town (Rio de Janeiro, obviously, plus maybe Vancouver and Sydney), to me much of the area’s appeal lies outside of the city. So in my view, frankly, it’s best to avoid driving into the city centre at all, particularly immediately on arrival after an overnight flight.

Instead, assuming you’ll want to do the Winelands anyway, why not start off in Stellenbosch or Franschhoek? Stellenbosch is only about three-quarters of an hour’s drive from the Airport, and Franschhoek only about half-an-hour further. If going to Franschhoek, good spots to break your journey for lunch are Babylonstoren and Boschendal Wine Estates.

You can then venture into the Cape Town area when you have got your bearings, and it still isn’t necessary to stay within the city centre itself: nearby Constantia has a completely different and safer-feeling vibe, and it is fairly straightforward to find by car. There are also great places to stay on the Atlantic coast, south of Cape Town.

Basically, the further you go from built-up areas, the less edgy things become. Fewer properties in Hermanus, further east along the south coast, are surrounded by high walls, and thus the town feels fairly safe, as does Paternoster up the west coast, where high walls seem entirely absent. Swellendam feels rather less threatening than big cities in the UK, as does the Garden Route area (if you don’t take the occasional pack of baboons into account). And when we stayed at Altes Landhaus, near Oudtshoorn, the hotel manager told us he never even bothers locking his doors!