Archive for October 2012
September is the ideal month to visit my parent’s caravan in mid-Wales for an easy weekend away. It’s only about 90 minutes away and regardless of the weather it’s a great way to chill out. There are no household chores to do and no pressure to do anything else. If the weather is good there are loads of great things to do and see and plenty of walks. If the weather isn’t so good then we just potter on the beach, have a lie in a generally take it easy.
We took one of these weekends in mid-September and on the Saturday the weather was dry but cloudy and I decided to take a look at the Teifi Pools area just out to the east. I’ve had this walk in mind for a couple of years as it’s in a couple of my walking guides.
6.5 miles, 1,200 feet of ascent
I was also inspired by a write up by James Boulter over at Backpackingbongos and the area looked wild and untamed despite being so close to civilisation. I figured it would introduce the kids to a small area of wild upland without being too crowded.
We parked up in a tiny space at the end of the road up from Strata Florida Abbey. The walk takes you up through the Nant Egnant Valley and it’s gorgeous, a small stream tumbling over a succession of small falls with Red Kites and Buzzards overhead to keep us company.
As the path climbs the way becomes more moorland in nature, soggier underfoot with views across to grassy hills that must rarely see a walker’s footprint. We stopped for lunch on the grass and it really felt as if were completely alone in the hills.
Lunch in upper Nant Egnant
A sense of space and solitude that these rolling hills of mid-Wales supply in great quantities. What they lack in dramatic crags and peaks they more than make up for in open space and wilderness. I’m entranced by these hills although I’m not so sure the rest of the family share the passion (probably just as well I didn’t indulge my passion to explore the small rocky knolls that smother the highest areas, going off-piste round here would mean wet feet!)
The path wanders across some squelchy moorland until you suddenly come across the dam for Llyn Egnant, one of the larger of the lakes and water board reservoirs that dot this upland plateau.
D approaches Llyn Egnant
The walking from here was much easier, along the water board road. I imagine on a warm summer’s day this would be a stunning spot for a picnic. Today under the leaden grey skies the water looked dark and forbidding.
Eventually you come out at the end of the metalled road. To the right it continues as a track through some truly wild country that eventually brings you out at the far end of the Claerwen reservoir, one of the Elan valley reservoirs that supply the West Midlands with its water. It would be a fine wild mountain bike route and indeed we saw our first people of the day biking out into the back of beyond.
Llyn Hir & Llyn Teifi
We walked back along the road to past the smaller Llyn Hir and took the Water Board road down towards Llyn Teifi the largest of the reservoirs. As the name suggests, birthplace of the River Teifi that ends its journey down the coast at Cardigan.
Dam at Llyn Teifi
From there the route follows the infant Teifi and it’s another highlight with a succession of green paths through low hills (with a couple of rather nice secretive wild camp sites by the river.
The kids seemed to enjoy this stretch as well with nice easy walking on splendid paths.
TBF & J Striding Out
We approached civilisation at Frongoch Farm that was absolutely swarming with sheep, hundreds of them. Not sure why, considering sheep are inoffensive creatures, but I always find wandering through their massed noisy ranks a little intimidating. Here they were in their usual blind panic of running about a hundred directions at once and bouncing over walls and fences. The farmer appeared on his quad bike clearly in the process of herding them into the right fields. I was a little apprehensive as I’ve read a number of tales of unfriendly landowners in this part of Wales, even though we were on a right of way. However he gave us a smile and a wave as a he breezed past and as we continued down we watched in awe as he and his dogs skilfully manoeuvred the sheep into a succession of fields.
The walk finished as the path crested and traversed a steep slope above, and down to the valley we’d set off from.
A really enjoyable walk that wasn’t spoilt by the overcast conditions, in fact they added to the sense of adventure.
The rest of the weekend was wet, cold and windy but we still managed a little potter across the beach before the worst of it.
TBF in action
The cave of doom
Just before we headed home we were treated to a stunning sunset across the caravan site.
Sunset over the Caravan Park
Now I’ve completed my French trip write ups I’ve got to catch up on my haul of posts since early September. Hard work this blogging malarkey; I need to get my blog-life balance sorted 🙂
In my current job I’m lucky to work right on the outskirts of Bristol near the Severn Bridges. Like the previous year I had grand plans for several evening walks on my way home from the office. However the dismal British summer put pay to that and I never had a chance. Way back in early September we had a spell of warm dry sunny weather (seems a very long time ago now). I was sat working at home as it happened and with a sudden snap judgement I shut my laptop down on a whim, threw some stuff together and jumped in the car for an evening walk. (This rather swift exit led me to forget my camera so the photos and video clips aren’t quite as good as usual as I had to use my phone).
3 miles, 700 feet of ascent
It gets dark a bit early this time of year so I headed up to the high grassy parking area above Hay-on-Wye for a quick jaunt up Hay Bluff. It was pretty much cloudless and the sky a dark clear blue. In a moment of madness I decided to see how quickly I could get up to the top, a short but extremely steep climb of 700 feet.
View north from Hay Bluff
Answer = 20 minutes causing me to arrive on the top with my whole body crying out in protest. I had the top to myself and the views were sensational.
Lord Herefords Knob (Twmpa)
Across the long ridges of the Black Mountains to the distant Brecons and the mid-Wales hills.
Vale of Ewyas
East from Hay Bluff
West from Hay Bluff
I’d had an idea that I could also make it across to the wonderfully named Lord Hereford’s Knob (or Twmpa to give it its Welsh name) but a long stop perched on the edge to admire the views with a fresh brew seemed a much better way to spend the evening in quiet reflection.
As I sat there it occurred to me that with a little more grip and a bit of pre-planning I could have put some overnight gear together and spent the night up here. There are enough small patches of grass to throw up a tent and so long as you are away promptly in the morning, no-one is likely to give you any grief.
Still it was a glorious evening and I contented myself with watching the sun set over the mountains.
Lord Herefords Knob (Twmpa)
I could pretty much see the sun moving down towards the horizon at pace so I thought it best to head down to the Gospel Pass where the road comes through from Llanthony and the Vale of Ewyas. Rather than walk along the road I managed to find a succession of paths that traversed the hillside between the road and the steep flanks of Hay Bluff. I got back to the car just in time to watch the sun set behind the Welsh hills.
Sunset on Hay Bluff
Much better way to end a Friday that writing my weekly reports 🙂
And so came the final act of our French holiday. After the morning at Chateau de Castelnaud we drove over the bridge and up to the Jardins de Marqueyssac on the opposite bank of the river. You can buy a combined family ticket to both attractions so it was good value.
Beynac et Cazenac from the gardens
There is actually a chateau but the main reasons for visiting are the gardens which are lovely. They are perched up above the limestone cliffs we’d canoed past the previous day and like Castelnaud the views across the Dordogne to Beynac et Cazenac and La Roque Gageac were superb.
Beynac et Cazenac
The gardens date fom the 17th century but fell into disrepair and looking at the photographs dotted around it was pretty much a neglected wilderness. As the agricultural activity on the estate declined so did the state of the chateau and gardens. The same people responsible for the museum of warfare and restoration of Castelnaud took on the restoration work that started in 1996 and completed the following year. Today its the most visited garden in the region
The whole place is designed for walking and there are several routes and trails around the gardens. We strolled leisurely about, mainly due to the fact that it was pretty hot.
Across the river to the Chateau de Castelnaud
The castle was just an empty shell but the topiary and the gardens around it are excellent. We walked along the edge of the cliffs and watched the flotilla of canoes and kayaks on the Dordogne and admired the views.
View across the Dordogne
Relaxing on the terrace
There is even a little Via Ferrata along the cliff face but it was extra cash and I wasn’t feeling charitable. L was feeling the heat a little so I cheered her up by chucking water at her from a small trickle of water that was running alongside and under the path. It worked so well that I decided to “cheer up” TBF and D as well 🙂
The path worked its way along the edge to the kids play area complete with tree-house.
From there it wends its way to the highlight, a lookout point right on the edge of the cliffs with a sheer drop down to the valley floor below. The view was tremendous taking in all the sights.
La Roque Gageac
The whole valley is very reminiscent of the Wye Valley where I live. Combination of wide lazy river for canoeing, wooded hills, limestone cliffs, farmland, gardens and castles. It was helping with the transition back to home.
We wandered past another play area and out to the poets hut and a slow wander back that took us on a slightly higher route through a kiddy scramble, a sort of maze in the trees and a long archway walk
The long walk from the Poets Hut
Last lingering look
And that was the end of the line for this trip. All that was left was a long drive back home via an overnight in Orleans and a return trip through the Eurotunnel. We’d had another awesome 3 weeks with pretty much unbroken sunshine (with a few storms here and there), seen some great sights, done some fun and cool stuff and I’d climbed a big mountain. As if to welcome us back to reality, within 20 minutes of driving off Le Shuttle, the skies had darkened and it was pishing it down. It was good to be back 😦
I’m already planning next summer’s trip, nothing like a holiday planning session to cheer you up on a cold, wet and miserable Sunday in mid-Wales!
It was our last day of proper holiday fun before we started the long drive back home.
Chateau de Castelnaud and Village
There was plenty of choice for us with rivers, castles, gardens and caves all on our doorstep. The Dordogne really is a top place for a family holiday, plenty to keep the kids entertained. As you know from our visits to Peyrepertuse and Bonaguil we are castle addicts in the Jones family and the Chateau de Castelnaud only 10 minutes away was too good to resist.
Chateau de Castelnaud
We’d seen the castle from our trip down the river the previous day so it was an obvious choice for a visit.
Castelnaud bridge over the Dordogne
Chateau de Castelnaud & Keep
It stands high above the river and it’s a massive and impressive construction, unlike the other two castles it was pretty much intact and it was clear from entering the gates that they take alot of effort to make a visit an entertaining and informative affair.
Chateau de Castelnaud & Keep
There were loads of people wandering around in period costume with demonstrations of a small working trebuchet (the catapults that hurl stones and boulders around) as well as sword fighting displays and a whole raft of audio-visual stuff. There was also an impressive display of various siege engines and war machines from those that just chuck small rocks to massive ones that can hurl huge boulders, quite ingenious for the middle ages.
Siege Engines and Trebuchets
You enter the castle at its base and work your way upwards through the armouries to the living quarters and eventually out on to the battlements at the top of the keep.
View across the armoury tower
On the curtain wall
The castle’s prime years were in the hundred years war when it changed hands many times and was in constant conflict. However at the end of the war it had been largely destroyed. worn down by the constant sieges. The castle was restored in both the 15th and 16th centuries but it wasn’t until 1969 that a major reconstruction was started that has returned the castle to its former glory. It’s now a great example of a classic medieval castle with machicolated keep, curtain wall and inner bailey. The whole of the castle is in effect a museum of medieval warfare with a huge array of siege weapons, bows, crossbows, armour and the like.
Away from the historical fascination the castle commands a prime site on a spur above the river and the village of Castelnaud and the views are majestic.
Across the Dordogne to La Roque Gageac
There is a terrace outside the castle perched right on the edge and the panorama, from Domme, across the Dordogne and its neighbouring patchwork of fields and farms to Beynac et Cazenac, is breathtaking.
Across the Dordogne to Beynac at Cazenac
I stood and leaned on the wall and took in the scene with that slow dread starting to form that our holiday was coming to end and that winter would soon be starting. Much as I like the winter for walking I have to admit there is nothing to beat the warm sun on your back as you relax and take in the beauty of your natural (and man-made) surroundings.
A great place to visit and strongly recommended for families with a keen interest in history or just an appreciation of a fine monument in a great natural setting.
Beynac et Cazenac
We had a lovely lunch in the village before our final fling of the holiday, a visit to the Jardins de Marquesyssac on the opposite bank of the river
Time to get back on the water.
Early morning mist over the valley
We’ve really enjoyed both our kayak trips down the Tarn gorge, this year and last year so it was an easy decision on what to do with our full day in the Dordogne. We’d booked in the night before and even though it rained overnight the day dawned bright and sunny with fog still lingering over the river valley, a sure sign of a cracking day and so it proved. After breakfast we walked across from our hotel to the Canoe Loisirs HQ where we were issued with two Canadian style canoes.
TBF was very nervous about taking command of a boat but the Dordogne is wide and forgiving and she was soon paddling with confidence (despite D’s advice, all of which was wrong!).
L leads the way
TBF in control
We’d chosen a route from Vitrac to Beynac a journey of 16km that took us past the major sites of this stretch of river. A bus would collect us at the end of the day and return us to Vitrac. It was a stunning day with a deep blue cloudless sky and rapidly warming temperatures. The first long stretch took us to Cenac, 3km downstream and a great chance to get used to the river and the canoes. The scenery is vastly different to the Tarn, much more open and pastoral with a succession of towns, bridges and castles to admire from the water. Vitrac itself was once a busy port centred on transporting wine and the raw materials for its barrels made of chestnut. As you approach Cenac, the fortified village of Domme is visible high above the river on a rocky spur (Cenac was the port for Domme).
Rafting up, Domme on the hill in the background
After passing under the bridge we took a stop for some fruit on the bank and for the kids to watch the small fish in the rock pools. The Dordogne here is not especially deep and you can see masses of larger fish pretty much the whole way down.
Resting on the rocks
The river flows fairly quickly with a few small faster stretches to provide some excitement. Mostly however its just lazy paddling with plenty of chance to lie back and admire the views which are superb. It’s obviously popular and well-known, especially with Brits – lots of familiar accents – but as the river is so wide it never feels especially crowded.
Limestone cliffs before La Roque Gageac
After a section of limestone cliffs the river winds past the achingly pretty village of La Roque Gageac with its golden stone houses clinging to the cliffs and the water’s edge.
La Roque Gageac
The site has been occupied since prehistoric times and there have been numerous flint tools found in the caves. The cliff stairway is a relic from the time of Viking invasions when villagers sought refuge from the pillaging and stuff. These fortifications were strengthened by the Bishops from the nearby town of Sarlat in the middle ages. Like most of the towns on the Dordogne it was an important port until the trade declined.
La Roque Gageac
It’s now a major tourist hotspot for obvious reasons with bars, cafes and restaurants and boat trips along the river.
Jardins de Marqueyssac
From La Roque Gageac its a long straight paddle to the next bridge at Castelnaud with its massive and imposing Chateau towering above the river.
Chateau de Castelnaud
Chateau de Castelnaud
There is a beach by the bridge so we pulled over for a swim and a picnic lunch. A mighty fine place it was too with the view of the castle through the arches of the bridge.
Picnic by the river
A picnic and a river swim is my idea of heaven on a hot sunny day. More about the castle and its history in a later post.
From Castelnaud it’s a short paddle downstream to Beynac et Cazenac.
View upstream to Castlenaud
Like La Roque Gageac it’s a stunning and imposing town with the same golden stone buildings and a mighty castle perched high on the outcrop above the river.
Beynac et Cazenac
The castle has a fascinating history. It was one of the four baronies of Perigord, was captured by Richard the Lionheart and used as a base by the sinister Mercardier whose men pillaged the countryside. During the 100 years war the Dordogne was the frontier between the English and the French and there were constant skirmishes between the castles of Beynac and Castelnaud. It was abandoned in 1798 until 1961 when the present owner embarked on a massive renovation project that is expected to take 100 years. Today it’s a majestic site but a visit would have to wait for another day.
Chateau de Beynac
We finished our excursion a couple of miles downstream of Beynac with long lingerg views back down the river to the castle.
View upstream to Beynac et Cazenac
It had been a great day out, totally different to the Tarn Gorge trip but no less interesting and fun. We finished the day with another lazy late afternoon by the pool and a hearty meal in the restaurant.
So our 2 week stay in Roussillon and the Pyrenees Orientales was over and now it was time to head home. As with the last couple of years we’d be taking it in stages and stopping off to do some interesting stuff. We’d stopped off in the Alps previously but that wasn’t really on our way home so this time we thought we’d try the Dordogne. After a long drive through the foothills of the Pyrenees, past Andorra (much enjoyed by D as he has a fascination with small countries) and an overnight in a place called Montauban we were once again at large with time to enjoy the sights.
Chateau from the village
The rather excellent France for Families website recommended the Chateau de Bonaguil as a fine place to visit and as all the family love a good castle (see the post about the Chateau de Peyrepertuse) we headed on our way. It was pretty much en-route to our hotel in the Dordogne and after a pleasant drive through the Tarn and Lot valleys the castle suddenly rears up from the rolling wooded hills that seem to characterise this part of France
Outer Barbican and Donjon
Kitchens and main oven
It was a stunning spot, very much like the area I live in at home in Herefordshire. Rural, and pretty without ever being truly dramatic.
TBF on the outer defensive walls
The previous day had been cool and showery but the sun was out again now and the temperature warming nicely. It’s a majestic castle, its walls, towers and turrets of golden stone glowing in the sunshine.
Donjon from below
Grosse Tour from the Esplanade
The castle was originally built in the 13th Century but it was transformed into the fortress seen today by the wonderfully named Beranger de Roquefeuil. He was by all accounts a brutal and vindictive so and so, keen on repression and extortion of his subjects. Unsurprisingly his peasants revolted so he transformed the castle into a mighty fortress around which he could quell any rebellion. It took 40 years but it was never actually besieged and was intact until the Revolution when it was partially demolished but is still a mightily impressive place.
View down from the Donjon
As a place to explore its one of the best I’ve visited in France. It has all the usual walls, battlements and towers and a mighty Donjon in the centre with an elevated roof terrace with spectacular views down over the castle and over the local wooded hills.
Donjon from the Kitchens
Roof of the Donjon
It also has some unusual features of its own including a “spiral” ceiling in one of the store rooms and caves under the castle used for storage and defence.
They also have an outdoor theatre here and a play performed here under the castle walls at night would be a magical experience.
Needless to say the kids and the adults pretending to be kids had a fabulous morning poking about and playing at medieval knights. TBF is above such tomfoolery preferring the simple pleasures of warm sunshine in a nice spot.
View from the Donjon
After a picnic lunch in the grounds we headed over to our hotel for a couple of nights and what a great hotel it was. The Hotel de Plaisance was located right next to the banks of the Dordogne in a place called Vitrac with views across the valley to the hills beyond.
From the hotel bedroom
The staff were friendly and welcoming and went to great lengths to make sure we enjoyed our stay (they even held a table in their excellent restaurant for us even though we hadn’t booked – just as well as the food was absolutely superb). The hotel had a marvellous pool set in its own landscaped flower be-decked gardens and we spent a very pleasant couple of hours playing in the pool and sunbathing, having the place pretty much to ourselves.
Enjoying the afternoon sun
TBF takes a break
We had a nice stroll by the river before our evening feast to book our kayak trip down the river the following day.
Upstream from Vitrac Bridge
I’ve used smaller photos on this post to see if that helps the page loading times. I’d appreciate any comments about whether the reduced size impacts the post and of course if the page loads a little quicker.
One of our favourite adventures last year was one of those adventure parks in the forest that are becoming extremely popular in the UK as well as France.
Take it to the bridge
We were lucky this year as there was one of these places just up the road from the town of Prats de Mollo that we visited earlier in the holiday. This one was called Mont Oz Arbres and the kids were very keen to do this as soon as we arrived in the area.
The adventurers await
Our first attempt ended in failure when shortly after starting the course, the skies darkened, the clouds rumbled and the heavens opened. Hanging about in tree-tops attached to wires is not the place to be in a thunderstorm so after trying to wait it out we reluctantly called it off. The very friendly proprietors said we could come back the next day so we headed home and planned to come back in the morning when we figured these was less chance of storms. Unsurprisingly when we got home no more than 15 miles away the skies were clear and the sun was shining!
L in her element
D practices for his Niagara skywalk
The next morning brought clear skies and hot weather. After the usual safety instructions (in french but we’re experienced tree adventurers these days) we were away. In case you’ve never seen or done this before it’s a course through the trees with a variety of ladders, obstacles, balances and zip wires to test your nerve and skill. It really is the most tremendous fun, easy enough that anyone with a head for heights and a modicum of agility can do, but tough enough in places to make you work and think.
Could have been worse, could have been me in the photo
Pull up to the bumper
There were four courses increasing in difficulty as you go. L is totally in her element. She has no sense of fear and tackled every obstacle with ease and grace, making me and TBF look rather cumbersome in comparison. Last year L was really disappointed that she wasn’t allowed on all the courses as she wasn’t old – or tall – enough. This year although the last course was strictly speaking not for her, the organisers didn’t seem too fussed so she tackled it – with ease I should add.
The suspension is killing me….
There was also a mini via-ferrata course out on the rocks but neither the instructors or L herself felt she was ready for that so we gave it a miss
Downside of all this frenetic activity in the height of summer is the heat and we were forced to take a break for lunch before the big finale. The whole course has several long zip wires but at the top of the hill is the daddy of them all. A zip wire from an 80m rock perch back down over the valley, a truly exhilarating finish to the days fun.
Trois, deux, un……..
In an effort to appear rather cool and nonchalant I lightly hopped out of the harness, stood on the straps and fell on my ar5e, spraining my ankle in the process and bringing a wry smile to the face of the instructor. Only a clumsy oaf like me could spend half a day climbing trees, wobbling across wooden platforms and sliding down zip wires only to injure himself taking the safety gear off. I’m still feeling the pain in the ankle 7 weeks on. What a numpty
I think a day out at these places will be a fixture of our summer holidays for many years to come. The photos give a bit of the feel but there are some video shots in the clip below that do the whole place better justice. You’ll believe a familly can fly!