Bilbao – the old town

Colourful houses on the banks of the Bilbao River in central Bilbao

When I think of Bilbao, the first place that springs to mind is the Guggenheim Museum, the Frank Gehry-designed curved titanium and glass behemoth that put the Basque capital firmly on the international art map in the late 1990s. But there’s much, much more to the city than its most iconic building.

I recently spent a day-and-a-half in Bilbao on my way to the Haut-Béarn region in France. I arrived in the city with no expectations, other than knowing I wanted to go to the Guggenheim, and I found a city that’s cool and edgy, a mixture of old and new, brimming with culture, history, art and exceptionally good food. Needless to say, I loved every minute there.

The grand Arriaga Theatre in Bilbao

It was late afternoon when we arrived in Bilbao, and keen to see as much as we could in the next few hours, we made a beeline for the old town, the city’s historic centre. Crossing the Arenal Bridge over the Bilbao River, we came upon the Arriaga Theatre (above), a grand, elegant 19th century architectural gem that’s still in use as a theatre.

Santiago Cathedral in Bilbao

From there, we walked through the narrow streets of the old town to Santiago Cathedral (above). The Basque-Gothic cathedral, which dates back to the 14th and 15th centuries, is said to be the oldest building in the city and after paying the €5 entry fee (which also gave us entry to the nearby San Antón Church), we headed inside.

The pale stone walls inside the simple, but elegant, Santiago Cathedral in Bilbao

The cathedral, which boasts three naves, is beautifully simple, with pale stone walls, high-vaulted ceilings and delicately-patterned stained glass windows. The cathedral has been destroyed by flooding on a number of occasions, resulting in extensive restoration work, but you’d never know it walking around. It’s impeccable and a simple, ornate but classy building.

Inside the cloisters at Santiago Cathedral in Bilbao

Having had a good look around the main body of the church, we headed to the adjoining cloisters, which feature a small garden filled with lemon trees in the centre. I really liked the simplicity of the cloisters and the small gargoyles atop the outer wall and the leafy green pot plants dotted throughout added to its charms and helped create a sense of tranquility.

The Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

Having seen all there was to see in the cathedral, we wandered down one of las 7 calles, the so-called seven oldest streets in Bilbao, which run parallel to each other and make up the heart of the old town. At the end of the street, we came upon the Mercado de la Ribera on the banks of the Bilbao River.

A sign inside the Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

I’d read good things about the market, which is the largest covered market in Europe, so we crossed the road and had a look inside, and were thrilled to discover an amazing food hall. The food hall is home to lots of stalls selling all manner of pintxo (Basque tapas), along with a central seating area where you can enjoy your purchases.

From the market, we made our way to the neighbouring San Antón Church (above, left). Dating back to 1453, the church is tiny and looks really old from the outside. It’s much more modern inside, with cream stone walls and an altar filled with paintings and statues. There’s a glorious chandelier in one of the chapels (above, right), and you can also see the remains of the original foundations through a series of glass floor panels near the altar and the entrance. It’s a nice enough church, simple yet unremarkable.

After our visit to San Antón, we continued to amble through the narrow warren of streets, taking in the sights and sounds. Many of the buildings were quite rundown and the streets were home to a bizarre array of shops, selling all manner of goods, including clothes, hams, furniture, paintings, pastries, household goods, and fruit and veg.

The old town has a cool, edgy vibe to it, and as I walked through the streets, I felt as though I’d stepped back in time. All the shops were independent, there wasn’t a chain store in sight, and many of the characterful bars were teeming with locals.

Santos Juanes Church in the middle of the old town in Bilbao

Our final destination in the old town was Santos Juanes Church, a Basque-Classicist church dating back to the 17th century. The church was far more ornate and lavish inside than it’s nice, simple exterior suggested.

The ornate altar inside the Santos Juanes Church in Bilbao

Inside, at the far end of the church, there was a lavish altar that was dripping with gold, while along the sides of the church, there was a series of chapels featuring elaborate and ornate guilding, and very expensive-looking paintings and statues. It was a small, interesting church and in total contrast to the simplicity of the cathedral.

Olives with accompaniments on sticks at the Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

By now we’d thoroughly explored the old town, so we headed back to the Mercado de la Ribera for dinner. Being able to pick and choose small bites from lots of different stalls was great, the only downside was that everything looked so tempting, I had trouble deciding what to eat.

I ended up choosing a series of olive skewers from La Bodeguilla (above) to start. Each skewer featured different accompaniments such as anchovies, gherkins, quail’s eggs and tomatoes. The skewers were delicious and cheap (€1.10 each), and I could easily have had an entire meal of them.

Mixed pintxo at the Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

Next up, I shared half a slice of ham pizza, which was tastier than it sounds, and finished my meal with cod pintxo with squid ink and aioli, a pastry puff with goat’s cheese and tomato sauce, and a cheese croquette on a slice of bread from Me Tienes Frit@ (above). I got a little carried away buying the pintxo, but thankfully the man who ran the stall suggested I stop at three, and I’m glad I listened to him, as by the time I’d polished it all off I was stuffed.

Santander train station on the banks of the Bilbao River in central Bilbao

With dinner over, we had a pleasant walk along the riverbank back to the train station (above). I really enjoyed my first few hours in Bilbao as it turned out to be a wonderful, unexpected afternoon filled with great experiences.

Stay tuned for my second day in Bilbao, including my trip to the Guggenheim…

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Tintern Abbey

The remains of Tintern Abbey

If you were looking for a picture-perfect spot on which to build an abbey, Tintern, on the banks of the River Wye in Monmouthshire, would tick all the boxes. Beside a bend in the river, Tintern is surrounded by steep hills covered in lush, green forest and is so lovely it’s inspired artists and writers, such as JMW Turner and William Wordsworth.

Since passing my driving test earlier this year and buying a car, I’ve been keen to explore the south Wales countryside, especially places that aren’t easily accessible via public transport. When I was drawing up a list of places to visit, Tintern was at the top. I had vague memories of visiting Tintern as a child and I’d been keen to go back after passing it a couple of years ago on the way to a friend’s wedding in Gloucestershire.

Tintern Abbey and the remains of the buildings associated with it

After what seemed like a very long drive from Cardiff along twisty-turny country roads (I wasn’t brave enough to venture onto the M4), I eventually arrived in the idyllic village of Tintern, parking in the handy car park opposite the abbey.

Inside the remains of the church at Tintern Abbey

The abbey was founded in the 12th century by the local powerhouse Walter de Clare, the owner of nearby Chepstow Castle, and it was the first Cistercian abbey in Wales. But in the 16th century, the abbey, like so many religious houses in England and Wales, was closed and plundered during the reformation.

The remains of the monks' dormitory and day room at Tintern Abbey

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the abandoned abbey and the River Wye proved a beacon for many artists and writers, inspiring poems and paintings that celebrated the romantic ruins and its picturesque surroundings. William Wordsworth name-checked the abbey in one of his poems, while JMW Turner and Thomas Gainsborough were among the artists who immortalised it on canvas.

The remains of the presbytery inside Tintern Abbey

Today, the abbey is an enormous, ruined shell, maintained by Cadw, the Welsh historic environment organisation, and is still one of the finest medieval buildings in south Wales. It’s flanked by the ruins of a number of monastic buildings, which I had a great time exploring, seeking out the many nooks and crannies.

Inside the church at Tintern Abbey

The abbey is still a draw for artists and creative types today, and on the day I visited, there were a fair few folk taking pictures of the gothic ruins. It’s a splendid structure, even in its ruined state, and I spent ages photographing the abbey from lots of different angles.

The ruins of the warming house at Tintern Abbey

After spending a good hour at the abbey looking around it all, I decided to go for a long walk and set off along a path close to the River Wye (below). I followed a trail that took me up into the steep hills on the other side of the river, where I went in search of Offa’s Dyke, the ancient structure that roughly marks the border between Wales and England, and the Devil’s Pulpit, which promised excellent views over the valley.

The River Wye at Tintern

The path to Offa’s Dyke took me through a thick forest and was quite uneven underfoot, and as I climbed higher and higher up the hill, it began getting quite windy and at one stage a large branch snapped off a tree in front of me.

The deeper into the woods I got, the more the weather turned less favourable, and after 40 minutes or so, I decided to turn back as I didn’t want to be caught out on a precarious hillside path if it suddenly started bucketing down or the wind picked up even more.

Lemon and elderflower cake, and a pot of tea, at The White Monk Gift Shop and Tea Room in Tintern

Back safely in Tintern, it was time for a well-earned rest, along with a pot of tea and a slice of scrumptious lemon and elderflower cake (above), in a charming cafe next to the abbey, The White Monk Gift Shop and Tea Room. It was the perfect way to end a very agreeable day out.

Info

Tintern Abbey, Tintern NP16 6SE
Adults £6.90, Seniors £5.50, children aged 5-16 and students £4.10, children under 5 free
cadw.gov.wales/daysout/tinternabbey

Ogmore-by-Sea

The rocky coastline at Ogmore-by-Sea

Ogmore-by-Sea is one of my favourite stretches of coastline in south Wales. The rocky strip of land, which boasts fantastic views over the Bristol Channel, is around the corner from another favourite beach, Southerndown, and is a great place for a brisk weekend coastal walk.

Ogmore Beach and the River Ogmore where it meets the Bristol Channel

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a blustery morning exploring Ogmore as Storm Ali approached, whipping up the occasional (painful) blast of sand and giving my hair a very windswept aesthetic.

There’s a long strip of grassland along the top of Ogmore beach and I set off for a stroll along it, admiring the sea views as I walked and stopping every so often to watch the waves crash onto the rocks below. The rocks are home to lots of rock pools and, on a calmer day, they’re a great place to look for marine life such as starfish, anemones and crabs.

Stormy skies above the River Ogmore

Having strolled along the coastal path and back, I wandered down to the shore near the mouth of the River Ogmore (above), and from there, made my way to Ogmore Castle, a short walk down stream.

The entrance to the ruined Ogmore Castle

Built in Norman times by one of William the Conqueror’s knights, William de Londres, Ogmore Castle is now very much a ruin and what’s left of it is maintained by Cadw, the Welsh heritage organisation.

The ruins of Ogmore Castle

The remains of the castle were more extensive than I was expecting, but there still isn’t a huge amount to see. It is, however, in a beautiful location, set against the idyllic (and strategic) backdrop of the Ogmore River. And it was a fun place to spend a little time clambering over the ruins, exploring  its nooks and crannies, and trying to imagine how the castle would have looked during its medieval heyday.

The remains of Ogmore Castle

Down by the river, there are a series of stepping stones you can use to cross it and from there you can walk to Merthyr Mawr, home to a large sandy beach and Wales’s biggest sand dune, and had it been a nicer day I would have set off in their direction. But by now the weather was turning blacker and the rain wasn’t too far off, so I made the decision to turn back rather than risk getting stuck the other side of the river during a storm. I’ll just have to go back next spring/summer when the weather’s better  and properly explore the area.

Info

Ogmore Castle
Open 10am-4pm, daily
Free
cadw.gov.wales/daysout/ogmorecastle

London – Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier at the Design Museum

Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier exhibition at the Design Museum

When I was in London a couple of weekends ago, I was looking for an exhibition to see and, while there weren’t many that grabbed my fancy,  Azzedina Alaïa: The Couturier at the Design Museum looked intriguing. I might not be a fashionista, but I enjoy fashion and am familiar with Azzedine Alaïa’s work, and was curious to see what his clothing would look like up close.

Purple and white dresses from the wrapped forms display at the Azzedine Alaia exhibition

The exhibition is the first in the UK to be solely dedicated to the late Tunisian designer and was co-curated by the legendary couturier and his friend, curator Mark Wilson, and I was surprised to see the entire exhibition contained within one large, open-plan room.

Exploring volume display at the Azzedine Alaia exhibition

The exhibition features around 60 items of clothing, mostly dresses, dating from the early 1980s through to Alaïa’s last collection in 2017. The pieces are grouped together according to theme and the themes included “exploring volume”, “Spanish accent” and “other places, other cultures”.

The pieces on display were exquisite, and it was fascinating to be able to examine the clothing up close and see the intricate detail and superb craftsmanship that went into making them. I might not have wanted to wear all the pieces (some are best left to Amazonian supermodel-types), but I could nevertheless appreciate Alaïa’s exceptional knowledge of structure and fabric.

Sculptural tension display at the Azzedine Alaia exhibition

My favourite dresses were the seven dresses that made up the “sculptural tension” display (above). The black velvet dress (above, 2nd from right) and the sculpted pleated leather dresses either side of it were my favourites and I’d have been very happy if any of them had made their way into my wardrobe. I also adored the slinky, hooded purple dress from the “wrapped forms” display and all the dresses in the “timelessness” section.

Along the walls hung a number of photos of Alaïa, along with famous models, actresses and singers (notably Naomi Campbell and Grace Jones) wearing his creations. There was also a short film playing.

Black and pink dress from the exploring volume display at the Azzedine Alaia exhibition

Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier is a fascinating glimpse inside the world of an exceptional designer and is filled with fabulous, jaw-dropping fashion. It was interesting to see how the designer’s style evolved over the years and to have an opportunity to appreciate how clever his designs were. My only complaint is I felt the exhibition was overpriced for what it was. It didn’t take long to look at everything (20 minutes or so, if you were really taking your time) and £16 seemed a bit steep for such a small collection. But that aside, it’s an intriguing exhibition and one that’s likely to appeal to those interested in fashion and design.

Info

Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier at the Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington High Street, London W8 6AG
Until 7 October 2018
Adults £16, children (six to 15 years old) £8, concessions and students £12
designmuseum.org/exhibitions/azzedine-alaa-the-couturier

 

 

Fonmon Castle

Fonmon Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan

Tucked away in the Vale of Glamorgan countryside, not far from Cardiff Airport, is Fonmon Castle. I first heard about the privately-owned castle a couple of years ago when it opened its doors to the paying public for guided tours on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.

As I work during the week, I hadn’t had a chance to visit until last Wednesday when I had the week off work and was spending my days exploring the countryside near Cardiff. It’s lucky that Fonmon Castle was at the top of my to-visit-list, as it turns out it’s up for sale and, depending on its new owners, might not be open to the public next year.

The small castle dates back to 1180 and since then it’s been owned by just two families – the original owners, the St Johns, and then from the 1650s onwards, the Jones and Boothby families.

One of the gardens at Fonmon Castle

I arrived a little early for my tour and so spent the next 20 minutes exploring the castle grounds, which are also open to the public on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons. As it’s mid-September, there weren’t many flowers to be seen (I suspect the gardens look rather more colourful in spring and early summer), but the gardens were well-maintained and the vegetable plots looked sublime with giant cabbages, lettuces and beans among the veg being grown.

Part of the gardens at Fonmon Castle

Just before 2pm, a side door near the castle entrance opened and I ventured inside to be met by our tour guide. Our friendly guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the castle, and over the next hour, proceeded to tell us in great detail about its history and its former owners, some of whom led rather colourful lives.

As the castle is also a family home, only part of it is open to the public, but we were shown a number of rooms including the grand orange-hued entrance hall with its sparkling chandelier, the old kitchen, and the small library dotted with old books and a cabinet filled with priceless china. Throughout the castle, portraits of its former occupants are on display, which helped bring the stories being told about them to life.

The delightful grand dining room at Fonmon Castle

My favourite room was the delightful grand dining room (above), a large, light and airy room with a beautiful rococo ceiling and bookcases filled with old tomes. The room is often used for weddings and teas, and I can see why it would be a popular venue as it’s enchanting.

The remains of a tower in the grounds of Fonmon Castle

Following our guided tour, I headed off for a stroll across a large, perfectly-mowed lawn, which was once the driveway to the castle, in search of Fonmon tower (above). The derelict, partially-ruined folly was at the end of the lawn, hidden behind some trees.

I’m glad I finally made it to Fonmon Castle – and in the nick of time, too! It’s a wonderfully preserved slice of local history, and it was great to have an opportunity to look around the castle and learn about the families who owned it and their long connection to the region. It was a charming place to spend a leisurely afternoon.

Info

Fonmon Castle, Fonmon, Vale of Glamorgan CF62 3ZN
Open for guided tours on the hour from 2-4pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, between April and September
£6 – adults and children over the age of 14 years
fonmoncastle.com

Edinburgh travel guide

View over Edinburgh New Town and the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh Castle

Settled around two extinct volcanoes and steeped in history, Edinburgh is a cultural, culinary powerhouse boasting dramatic scenery, excellent food and fabulous shopping. With lots to see and do, it’s a great destination for a weekend city break. If you’re planning a trip to Auld Reekie, here’s my mini travel guide to the Scottish capital…

History

The entrance to Edinburgh Castle

Perched atop one of the city’s two ancient volcanoes, Edinburgh Castle is not to be missed (above). The huge fortress is home to a royal residence, the legendary stone of scone, the Scottish crown jewels, the city’s oldest building (St Margaret’s Chapel), the national war memorial and a few museums (a couple of regimental museums and another on prisoners of war). While the ruined David’s Tower was the site of Scotland’s very own ‘red wedding’ when the young head of the Black Douglas clan and his brother were murdered during a banquet in an event known to history as ‘the black dinner’.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh

Down the hill from Edinburgh Castle, at the end of the Royal Mile, is Edinburgh’s other royal residence, the Palace of Holyroodhouse (above), the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. The palace is also the site of another infamous royal murder – that of Mary, Queen of Scots’s private secretary David Rizzio by her husband Henry, Lord Darnley, and his cronies. Inside the palace you can tour Mary’s apartments and explore the ruined Holyrood Abbey (below), which once upon a time hosted the coronations and marriages of many a Scottish monarch.

A passageway inside Holyrood Abbey

Delve into the capital’s more recent history and pop inside the Scottish Parliament opposite Holyrood Palace. The parliament, which is free to visit, offers guided hour-long tours focusing on different aspects of the building – you can choose from a parliament tour, a photography tour, an art tour or an architecture tour.

Museums and galleries

There are a number of world-class museums and art galleries in the Scottish capital, but the best by far is the National Museum of Scotland. The enormous museum extends over multiple floors and features exhibitions about Scottish history, the natural world, technology, science, fashion and more.

The museum’s most famous artefacts are the Lewis Chessmen, a series of 12th century ivory and walrus-tooth chess figurines discovered on the Isle of Lewis. Eleven of the glorious chessmen – they each have unique facial features – are on display here, the remaining 82 pieces are in the British Museum in London.

The statue of Greyfriars Bobby

On leaving the museum, don’t miss the statue of Greyfriars Bobby opposite (above), outside Greyfriars Kirk. JK Rowling found inspiration for many a Harry Potter character’s name in the churchyard – the names on the gravestones include Thomas Riddell, McGonagall, Potter and Moodie.

Art lovers should make a beeline for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Housed in a gorgeous red brick building in the New Town, the enormous gallery is home to a host of portraits of fascinating, world-leading Scots (I had no idea how many Scots had shaped our world until I visited). Flora MacDonald, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns are among the famous Scots whose portraits are on display.

Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh

The Scottish National Gallery (above) beside the city’s Princes Street Gardens features works by a slew of famous artists such as Constable, Monet, Degas and El Greco. While modern art fans should plan a trip to the city’s Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art where you can see works by the likes of Joan Miro, Alberto Giacometti and Rene Magritte.

Plants and wildlife

Edinburgh’s most famous gardens are the Princes Street Gardens in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. The popular gardens are a great place to while away an hour or two with a book on a sunny afternoon. The Royal Botanic Gardens to the north of the city centre span some 70 acres and are home to more than 13,500 plant species. RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, meanwhile, looks after the UK’s only giant pandas (Tian Tian and Yang Guang) and koalas (Alinga, Goonaroo and Toorie), along with penguins, lions, vultures, hippos and more.

Walking

View of Arthur's Seat from the grounds of the Palace of Holyroodhouse

When a city boasts two extinct volcanoes, you know there will be plenty of opportunities for long walks and hikes. The best hike in the city is the magnificent Arthur’s Seat (above), which overlooks the Palace of Holyroodhouse and has breathtaking views over Edinburgh and out towards the Firth of Forth. There are various trails you can follow to the peak, some steeper than others, and depending on the weather, it can get pretty windswept at the top.

If you’re not feeling quite so energetic, the nearby Calton Hill, which is topped by the  distinctive, unfinished Parthenon-like national monument, is a better bet. For those who dislike hills, the Water of Leith walkway follows the path of the River Leith from the suburb of Balerno to the port of Leith and extends over 12 miles in total. But for a shorter walk, start in the city’s picturesque Dean Village and follow the river through the city to Leith, home to the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Shopping

Princes Street is Edinburgh’s shopping mecca, awash with the usual high street names such as H&M and Marks & Spencer, but make sure to explore the streets and alleyways behind it in the city’s New Town. The area is filled with independent boutiques that are well worth a browse. Edinburgh’s quirkiest and most interesting shops, though, are to be found in the city’s Grassmarket area and along steep Victoria Street that curves from the George IV Bridge down to Grassmarket.

Food

Outside London, Edinburgh is one of the UK’s brightest culinary hot spots featuring a host of exceptionally good restaurants and cafés. One of my favourite places is The Scran & Scallie gastropub, co-owned by renowned local chef Tom Kitchin, which serves modern, seasonal British fare. Be sure to rock up on a Sunday evening when folk musicians play in the bar area – there’s a lively atmosphere and it makes for a fun evening.

Chez Jules, an unpretentious French bistro in the New Town, is also worth checking out, as is Hendersons, an Edinburgh institution that serves excellent veggie and vegan dishes. It’s my go-to breakfast place in the city. For a quick caffeine fix, Wellington Coffee in the New Town is a tiny, basement delight. Order the hot chocolate – it comes with a giant, pillowy chunk of marshmallow on the side.

Day trips

Fancy seeing some sights outside the city? You’re in luck as the area surrounding the Scottish capital is brimming with places to visit. Fans of symbolism and/or The Da Vinci Code should hop on the number 37 bus from Princes Street, which will take you to the village of Roslin, home to the romantic 15th century Rosslyn Chapel and its copious, intricate stone carvings. Sadly, there’s no sign of the holy grail.

The courtyard inside the ruined Linlithgow Palace

If Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse failed to satisfy your appetite for all things royal, the haunting Linlithgow Palace (above) is a short 20-minute train ride away. The ruined shell of a palace was the birth place of Mary, Queen of Scots. While the imposing and impressive Stirling Castle is around 50 minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley Station.

Inchcolm Abbey

The beautiful Firth of Forth is also a short train ride away – alight at South Queensferry where you can catch a boat to Inchcolm Island. The small island in the middle of the firth is home to a splendid, partially-ruined abbey (above). While sailing across the firth, keep your eye out for puffins (their distinctive orange beaks make them relatively easy to spot) and soak up the magnificent views as you sail under the iconic Forth Bridges.

Getting there

Edinburgh Airport is well served by airports in the UK and abroad. Once you’ve arrived, the easiest way to get into the city is via the express bus service. Buses run every 10 minutes and cost £7 for a return ticket. The bus’s final destination is Waverley Bridge, overlooking Edinburgh Waverley train station, in the heart of the city.

Wells – Bishop’s Palace and Gardens

The Bishop's Palace in Wells

Welcome to part two of my Wells adventure, which after Wells Cathedral and Vicars’ Close focuses on the remaining part of the city’s triumvirate of medieval masterpieces – the Bishop’s Palace and gardens. The partially-ruined Bishop’s Palace has been the home of the Bishop of Bath and Wells for more than 800 years and is steeped in history.

The medieval stone gatehouse and drawbridge that provides entrance to the Bishop's Palace

The palace, along with the 14 acres of gardens that surround it, lies in the heart of the city, a stone’s throw from Wells Cathedral, concealed behind high stone walls. To get inside, you have to cross a large moat, which is home to a number of swans that have a bell they ring when they want feeding, and pass through an impressive stone gatehouse (above).

Stone archway beyond which lies the Bishop's Palace's south garden

After paying our entrance fee, we made our way past the large croquet lawn towards the palace, turning off before we got there by passing through a stone archway into the gardens (above). The archway forms part of the palace’s ruined great hall, which, along with the chapel, is one of the oldest parts of the palace, having been built in the 1290s. Only a couple of its walls and a few turrets remain, and it’s now enveloped by large, idyllic gardens, creating a picturesque scene.

The ruins of the great hall and the surrounding gardens at the Bishop's Palace in Wells

It was a warm, sunny day when we visited and there were quite a few people spread out on the lawn in the south garden (above), reading a book or enjoying a picnic, and I couldn’t help but think that if I lived in Wells, I’d definitely be doing the same when the sun was out. It’s such a pretty, tranquil space.

We strolled around the gardens at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights and enjoying the peace and quiet. The gardens were dotted with pieces of art, including a large wooden carving of a hand and a statue of a monk praying (above). The art was a fun, quirky touch and added a playful element.

Along the far side of the south garden, we climbed up onto the ramparts and walked the length of the wall. If you stand on tiptoes and look over the wall, you can just make out the deer park on the other side of the moat. Despite trying my best, I didn’t spot any deer but the large tract of land has been home to the ruminants since the early 13th century when King John gave the then-bishop Joscelin permission to establish a park, which he later filled with the creatures.

From the ramparts, we wandered through the east garden, which is home to lots of delightful plants and flowers, along with a giant swing, and then passed through a doorway and over a stream into another part of the gardens, which is home to the city’s namesake wells.

The Well Pool in the Bishop's Palace gardens, with Wells Cathedral in the background

The well springs are formed when water in an underground river, which flows down from the nearby Mendip Hills, hits a series of rocks and is forced up through the ground. There are three wells in total, the largest of which is the Well Pool (above). The Well Pool is stunning and we took our time walking around it, admiring the picture-perfect scene and scanning the surface of the water to see if we could spot any bubbles, which form when the water rises through the ground.

We then strolled around the other two wells and the remaining parts of the garden, including the arboretum, which features a large play park for children, and the community garden, before making our way back towards the Bishop’s Palace.

The Bishop's Palace from the east garden

The palace is still in use by the Bishop of Bath and Wells so only a small part of it is open to the public. The most impressive parts on display are the long hall, a long corridor filled with paintings of previous bishops, and the chapel, which features a high-vaulted ceiling and lots of stained glass windows.

By the time we’d finished looking around the palace and its gardens, it was mid-afternoon, so we stopped at The Bishop’s Table café within the palace grounds for lunch. The friendly café sells hearty fare such as ham, egg and chips, burgers and ploughman’s, along with a range of sandwiches and salads. There’s also a great spread of cakes. I had a cheese and pickle sandwich, which came with a side of coleslaw and salad, and really hit the spot.

Saint Andrew's Well in Wells

Having seen all the main sights in Wells, we spent the rest of the afternoon pottering around the market (there was also an antique fair in the city hall) and the city’s shops before making our way back to the bus station. I loved my day out in Wells. It’s a charming place full of pretty medieval architecture and great food, and is the perfect place for a day trip.

Info

The Bishop’s Palace, Wells BA5 2PD
Open 10am-6pm, daily (25 March to 28 October); 10am-4pm, daily (28 October to 31 March) 
£8.05 adults; £7.15 concessions; £3.55 children aged five to 18 years old
bishopspalace.org.uk

Wells

Wells Cathedral from the city's Bishop's Palace Gardens

I’m a little ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard of Wells, England’s smallest city, until a couple of months ago when my Bristol-based sister and brother-in-law took my mother there on a day out. My mother came back raving about the place, insisting I had to go as she knew I’d love it.

Fast forward a few weeks ago and my mother announced she was treating me to a day out in Wells for my birthday. Wells may officially have city status because of its cathedral, but in reality, it’s more like a small, traditional English market town. One that also happens to boast a beautiful cathedral, the UK’s only street that’s completely medieval, a partially-ruined Bishop’s Palace surrounded by idyllic gardens and, of course, a series of wells.

Nestled at the foot of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, the city is named after its three wells and has been inhabited since Roman times. We visited the city on a Saturday, and when the bus dropped us off in the city centre, we found a huge outdoor market taking place. The market stretched all over the large central square (the aptly-named Market Place) and was filled with stalls selling everything from candles to ceramics, cacti and local produce, such as cider, jams and honey.

The medieval houses with their very tall chimneys in Vicars' Close, Wells

After a quick look around the market and a brief sustenance stop (tea and scones) in the cathedral café, we headed to Vicars’ Close, which my mother had correctly predicted I’d spend ages photographing. The street is said to be the only complete medieval street left in the UK and it’s mindbogglingly attractive.

The entire length of the street is filled with small, picturesque stone cottages, each with a distinctive tall, thin chimney. There’s a tiny chapel at the far end (above) and a covered entrance at the other. Walking up and down it, I felt like I’d stepped into a scene from Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia; it has such an otherworldly feel, it doesn’t seem real.

The stone cottages in Vicars' Close, Wells

Built in the 1360s as homes for the cathedral’s choir, the street is still occupied today. And despite looking like a picture-perfect idyll, I can’t imagine it’s much fun to live there. I suspect the steady stream of strange visitors walking up and down the street taking photos of your home must be quite tiresome.

Wells Cathedral

From one medieval masterpiece to another, we made our way to the city’s showstopper – its magnificent 12th century cathedral (above). The cathedral’s facade is unlike any other I’ve seen in the UK as it’s covered with sculptures and boasts one of the largest collections of medieval statues in the world. The sculptures represent a variety of kings, bishops, angels and apostles. There’s also a statue of Jesus.

Scissors arches and the ceiling in the nave at Wells Cathedral

Inside, the cathedral (and the nave in particular) is just as spectacular boasting unusual architecture and rare features, and is the earliest Gothic-style cathedral in England. The highlights include the unique scissor arch design in the nave (above), which was added in the early 14th century to stop the tower’s foundations from sinking. It’s a tremendous piece of craftsmanship and is so beautiful, not to mention practical, that I’m amazed more cathedrals didn’t follow suit and copy the design.

The Chapter House at Wells Cathedral

Just beyond the scissor arches, to the left of the nave, there’s a rickety old staircase that leads up to the mesmerising Chapter House (above). The stunning octagonal chamber dates back to the beginning of the 14th century and is still used today.

The Wells Cathedral clock

At the bottom of the rickety staircase, we stopped for a brief sojourn on a bench opposite the cathedral’s celebrated clock (above). The medieval clock, which dates to around 1390, is said to be one of the oldest in the UK. Every 15 minutes, a series of knights come whirling out onto a ledge above the clock face where they take part in a “jousting contest”.

The knights were amusing to watch and I was impressed that the clock is still in such good working order after more than 600 years. It’s a remarkable piece of machinery. I also enjoyed the little figurine of a man in the top right-hand corner who rings his bell when the knights come out to play.

The quire and Jesse window at Wells Cathedral

The rest of the cathedral, which includes a couple of chapels and cloisters, is fairly typical for a medieval English cathedral. The old quire in the centre of the cathedral is pretty, as is its exquisite stained glass Jesse window (above). I really enjoyed looking around the cathedral and Vicars’ Close, and admiring their charming architecture. It’s remarkable that after so many centuries, these incredible pieces of medieval craftsmanship are still in one piece.

After leaving the cathedral, we ambled over to our final destination, the medieval Bishop’s Palace and gardens, which I’ll write about next week – stay tuned for part two of my Wells adventure!

Getting there

It’s really easy to get to Wells using public transport. The 376, which stops just outside Bristol Temple Meads train station, runs every 30 minutes and takes around an hour to get to Wells. The bus drops you off in the city centre, but on the return journey, you’ll need to go to Wells Bus Station to catch the bus back to Bristol.

Info

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral, Chain Gate, Cathedral Green, Wells BA5 2UE
Open 7am-7pm, daily (April to September); 7am-6pm, daily (October-March)
Free – donations are welcomed
wellscathedral.org.uk

Dyffryn Gardens 2018

Rockery at Dyffryn Gardens 2018

A couple of months ago, I paid my annual visit to Dyffryn Gardens, a large Edwardian manor house, surrounded by 55 acres of botanical gardens,  just south of Cardiff.

I won’t write about the house as it hasn’t changed much since I wrote about it last year. But there was a wonderful art exhibition in the great hall by the Japanese artist Takumasa Ono. If you come across an exhibition of his work at another National Trust property, I’d recommend checking it out. I spent ages looking at all the prints and paintings for sale, and eventually bought a traditional Japanese-style painting of cherry blossom.

The gardens were as beautiful as ever, and I spent a lovely, relaxing day walking around. As always, I got a little carried away photographing them, even though a number of the flower beds had been left fallow and there were fewer plants and flowers to see.

Here are some of my favourite photos from this year’s visit, starting with this lilac flower:

Lilac flower at Dyffryn Gardens

The blossom was out in force in May:

Pale pink blossom at Dyffryn Gardens

The dragon flies came out to play:

Blue and green dragonflies on a stick in a pond

The Italian Gardens were as delightful as ever:

The Italian Gardens, with a round fountain at its centre, at Dyffryn Gardens

I liked the shape of these red flowers:

Red flowers at Dyffryn Gardens

A couple of the many flowering cacti in the orangery:

A lonely blossom on a tree branch:

Pink flower on a tree branch at Dyffryn Gardens

In case you’re interested in seeing how the gardens have changed over the last few years, here are 2017, 2016 and 2015’s posts.

Manuel Antonio

The beach at Manuel Antonio National Park

Of all the places I visited in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio – the final stop of my trip – was possibly my favourite. Partly because of how close I got to the amazing wildlife, partly because of its divine, golden sandy beaches, and partly because I had so much fun snorkelling in the Pacific Ocean.

I knew I was onto a winner as soon as I stepped into Manuel Antonio National Park and came across a group of people crowding around a tree, staring up at the top where there was a female sloth hanging out with her baby(!). From there, we were treated to one delightful animal encounter after another, interspersed with a few spectacular beaches.

A lizard pops its head up among the leaves in Manuel Antonio National Park

As we strolled through the park – which was much busier than anywhere else we’d been in Costa Rica – we came across some amazing blue and orange crabs, along with lots of lizards, birds and insects. It seemed as though every few metres we’d stumble upon another fantastic species or other.

A raccoon walks across a beach in Manuel Antonio National Park

We followed the trail through the park to Manuel Antonio Beach, a huge stretch of golden sand lined with palm trees, which looked like something out of a holiday brochure. On the edge of the beach, we found a pile of teeny hermit crabs crawling along the ground, and as we ventured onto the beach, we turned around to see three raccoons skulking across the sand, looking to raid the bags of unsuspecting tourists for food.

A raccoon strolls across a beach in Manuel Antonio National Park

While it was incredible seeing the raccoons up close, I also found it rather sad because they’re nocturnal creatures and they’ve changed their behaviour because of the impact us humans have had on their habitat.

View over the Pacific Ocean from Manuel Antonio National Park

From the beach, we continued to hike through the park’s winding trails, following them as they twisted and turned this way then that, past idyllic little coves that looked out over the Pacific Ocean. My favourite moment came when we stumbled upon a troop of capuchin monkeys. I’d briefly seen a capuchin monkey high in the tree canopy in Monteverde, but these monkeys were fearless.

A capuchin monkey in a tree in Manuel Antonio National Park

There were loads of them hanging out beside the trails, some in the trees, some on the fence posts. One, aggressive male monkey strolled right beside my foot, then climbed onto a post to watch us. The monkeys were spectacular and I had to use all my powers of control to avoid smiling at them as baring your teeth is a sign of aggression. I was astonished and thrilled by how close we came to the monkeys, and how unafraid they were of humans.

We continued through the park and made our way back towards the entrance, where we saw yet more sloths, lizards, crabs and insects, unable to believe how lucky we had been to see so many beautiful creatures up close.

One of the idyllic golden sandy beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park

That afternoon, we headed to Manuel Antonio’s port where we joined a boat tour around the park’s coastline. Unfortunately, by the time we got out onto the ocean, the weather had turned and it had started raining quite heavily. After sailing towards the rocky coastline, the boat stopped so we could go snorkelling.

Despite the ocean being somewhat cloudy because of the rain, I happily plunged into the water and swam out towards a series of rocks where there was a shoal of bright-coloured fish. I swam with the fish for ages, watching them in awe, all the while aware of a slight, but frequent, stinging sensation, which I took to be the rain hitting me as I swam.

When I got back onto the boat, I was itching all over and as I went to scratch myself, a group of Mexican girls, who were also on-board, yelled at me to stop. I looked up astonished as the captain grabbed me and took me to hose me down. It turned out I’d been stung repeatedly by some teeny, invisible jellyfish. Just my luck! After a very thorough hosing down, my skin eventually calmed down and the stinging subsided. It was an eventful, if somewhat ridiculous end, to a fun-filled adventurous day.