sitting on a bull in the heather

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July 1st 2011
Published: October 18th 2011
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We gave ourselves plenty of time to get to the airport, and our traffic fears were well founded. The airport was reasonable. A bit of construction happening to get ready for 2014, but other wise it was as airports are.

We waited, we ate, we looked at stuff, we got on a 747.

The flight was okay if shorter than we thought. We were too busy playing with the entertainment system to listen to the pilot rabbiting on and missed his talk about flight time. No worries – it was on the screen – 14 hours. Sweet. That means I can watch X amount of movies and sleep for Y.

Only the clock on the screen was wrong – it was only 10 hours. Landing at Heathrow with 4 hours sleep wasn't part of the plan.

Another thing not in the plan was the civil service strike in the UK protesting the useless austerity measures of the UK government (thanks a lot Tories). The effect at the airport was a total of 7 immigration staff out of 32 odd stations working. And they were crankier than those people normally are, which is saying something.

We made it through and out of the terminal, then our first order of business was to pick up the little Kia Picanto rental car. Gutless, but at least all the controls were the right way around. Then we headed to Watford. Just because we knew there was a hardware store there – Google said so.

In Watford it was a nice Saturday, and take your mini Shetland pony for a walk day; possibly a normal Saturday in Watford. Found the B and Q camping section and bought half of the stuff there, then hit the road.

Our destination was Swanage, near Dorset, and we even had a campsite picked out – Ullwell Cottage. We got the last site, sorry, pitch in the campsite near Corfe Castle. The campsite had quite a decent pub down the front, and we had a good English meal for the first time in a while – a Granny dinner if you like. That, and fantastic beers on tap. Oh, it was good to be in a land of decent beer – so far, what the Poms lacked in attractive people they made up for with beer. There could be a connection.

It was a great campsite, but an interesting introduction to European, or at least British, camping. All the mod cons, cabins named after tv soaps, pitches, not sites. And a lot of caravans and motorhomes.

We only had 7 days to see as much of Britain as possible, so we didn't have time to muck around. Happily, Britain is tiny, relatively speaking. We got to Wareham for breakfast – no reason in particular – we simply picked it off the map. A nice little cafe with an English breakfast and the Sunday paper. It may have been a Newscorp paper, but at least it was in English. It still seemed very strange to be speaking English to people – we both said gracias when the girl brought us our coffees.

Prior to arriving we had done a bit of googling and found the English Heritage website. Tons of info and it even came with a few audio tour mp3s of some of the historical sites. It was on the strength of this that we loaded the tours up on Klaire's cheapo Bolivian MasterG and set off to increase our knowledge.

Maiden Castle was next on our list, although it was more Maiden Mound of Dirt. There had been some sort of Iron Age hill fort there – the finest Iron Age hill fort in Britain, just so you know – now it was neatly arranged piles of dirt and sheep grazing. The only construction was a bathtub and the remains of a Roman temple, complete with the goddess Minerva.

The rest of the day was spent using the gps to avoid motorways. This ended up taking us down some truly tiny back roads – the kind where you had to back up when someone came the other way. Driving the Kia meant that everyone else was bigger, so we did a lot of reversing. We went through some really pretty country. It all looked very English, strangely enough.

Then through Dartmoor national park, which doesn't feel like a national park. A national park is wild, with trees, or grasses, or water. It celebrates pristine wilderness, and the beauty of nature. Not in the UK. Here I'm really not sure what the difference was with the rest of the country. One moment you're driving along the street in the town, then the next you're in the park. There are still farms and towns and houses. All a bit strange.

Saw a big rock, so we stopped, bought an icecream and went to look at it. Haytor, we were told. Not much to it really, just a big rock. There were, of course, people climbing on it. And people sitting under it. And people walking with big sticks. It seemed that walking with a big stick was the national pastime. Underwhelming, to say the least, but it did afford us the opportunity for a walk through the heather. At least I think it was heather. There were even bulls around, but Klaire refused to go and sit on one for a photo.

We gazed out across the moors a bit, then were on our way.

And always, everywhere, people sitting on the side of the road, having a cup of tea. Along the motorways especially, there were an amazing amount of rest areas, and, without exception, they were full of tea-drinkers.

We gave Houndtor a miss – it sounded like another rock - then ended up at “Slapton Sands” caravan park. Chosen mainly for the name, and because I was tired of driving, it had a nice view of the sea. Nice, but chockers with caravans.

Next morning, the heritage continued. We arrived at Dartmouth Castle. You had to pay to in, but to get an English Heritage pass was only a couple of quid more, so we got a week long pass. This would get us in to almost all of the English Heritage sites we wanted to see and was well worth it.

Dartmouth Castle wasn't a castle either. Another fort, in fact, which watched over the entrance to the estuary. Still, it was worth a look – great views from the towers and interesting to look around in.

And so we continued on our quest to find a castle. From Dartmouth we headed towards Cornwall and ended up in Falmouth. Here was Pendennis Castle. Built by Henry the VIII it was very impressive.

But also a fort.

Great setting overlooking the town and the bay, and with very well preserved and restored buildings, it even had a truly awesome electronic show inside – cannon sounds, men shouting, smoke machines. Brilliant.

But still a fort.

Well preserved, an informative museum and heaps of cannons and guns an wartime displays.

A fort.

After a day of forting we found a campsite near Falmouth. St Days Holiday Park – 12 pounds for the night, and free wifi. Also no children allowed, which was good. Now that it wasn't the weekend it wasn't so busy. We pitched the trusty Gelert Welsh Weather Checked tent, and settled in with some English Beer and Spanish wine.

We made an earlier start the next morning, although we were still unused to the midnight sunsets – there were castles to see!

Our first of the day was Restormel Castle. Happily, this one wasn't a fort.

Still not a castle, though.

It had been a big house, really, not really built for defence. In my mind a castle has to pass the zombie test, or should have been able to once upon a time – when the zombiepocalypse comes will you be safe from the ravening hordes within its sturdy walls?

In this case – no. Ground level external windows, no internal water source, only one escape route. Dead before breakfast, you'd be. was our favourite. We arrived at 10, just as the friendly lady was getting ready for the four or five people she expected through the gates that day. It was raining, in true English style, but the rain was not unwelcome. Rather, it was fitting. The grey skies somehow made the grass and rolling hillsides that much more verdant, and the misty air provided a most excellent backdrop to the ruins of the big house/castle/ whatever. It was fantastically atmospheric, and we had the run of the place.

Then, we cut cross the sticky outy bit (Cornwall, to the locals) to Tintagel. They had, we had been told, an actual castle. And, more importantly, pasties. Cornish pasties as big as your head.
We arrived to find it mostly true. There were the ruins of a pretty decent actual castle, and some excellent pasties. We shared one – never eat anything bigger than your head, I say.

Though there was not much left of the castle the setting was truly magnificent. Perched on a rocky outcrop jutting into the Irish Sea, the ruins were everything a ruined castle should be – craggy, ruined and extensive with a view over the whitecapped ocean into the blue yonder. While in no danger of passing the zombie test these days, they once would have.

Our luck held on the way to Bath. We headed inland and stopped for a look at Launceston. They had a castle too, and theirs was right in the centre of town. Nice little town, nice little castle.

We made it to Bath...and then didn't even look at the baths. It was all a bit much after the castles and, anyway, we decided the asking price was a bit steep. So we camped at a weird campsite a bit out of town. We were the only tent, and there were only a few other guests; all of them in caravans. The rest of the space was taken up by a mass of derelict caravans.

Still, the bloke at reception was very friendly and helpful, and the facilities were fine. We settled in to the slightly spooky campsite, lulled to sleep by the constant sound of shotguns from over the road – an automatic bird scaring machine.

Additional photos below
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18th October 2011

Just us and the caravan army
Know how you feel - except here they're called travel trailers. And most of them are twice the size but I suppose that's ok because our tent is twice the size of your's. Really enjoyed your post. You sound like you had a great time.

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