Fairhaven Woodland & Water Garden – June 2018

On a hot day in June we took a drive out to Fairhaven Woodland & Water Garden, a faerie-like dreamland of quiet streams and secret rhododendron paths.

The garden took 15 years to create when the late Lord and his team of gardeners began to restore the house and land after the war. The spectacle is quiet strange; almost current-less waterways cross the garden, and rooms of hydrangeas and camellia merge. There were plenty of ducks and their young, dragonflies and damselflies, and schools of thousands of sticklebacks.

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I’d love to know what kind of funghi are these?

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The foxgloves were out in force.

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An Egyptian goose spotted.

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I don’t feel so bad about the green skud on the surface of my pond – the water here is covered in it, you feel like it’s grass.

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The fields of wheat.

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We were really impressed to find that in the tearoom not only was there vegan cake in the form of a delicious chocolate and marmalade slice, but also there was a sandwich option. It doesn’t take much to add an easy hummus sarnie to your menu but it makes such a difference!

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Glamping in Wales (Part 3): Do

My final post in my series on glamping in Wales will look at the activities we took part in. You can catch up on my previous posts here: Sleep and Eat.

Do

Day 1: Check In

After a 6 hour train ride that involved several changes and delays, I checked into Hidden Valley Yurts for a week of comfortable glamping and fun activities. The first evening was really about having a brief look around the immediate site, settling into the yurt, and getting to know some of my fellow happy glampers.

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Day 2: Wye Valley Walk

We drove to Tintern and met John Bosley of Forest of Dean and Wye Valley Tour Guides who took us on a guided walking tour of the Wye Valley. John was an excellent tour guide and provided plenty of facts about the local history of the area and also pointed out some of the local attractions, such as the Tintern cafe station and the Anchor Inn, in which we had later enjoyed tea and cake. The route we took meandered along the River Wye past Tintern, past the old Tintern train station (sadly defunct though once a hive of industry), through the notorious Brockweir, once famous for its debauchery, and up hill to take in views of Tintern Abbey, before winding up at the Abbey itself.

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The landscape was absolutely stunning and following the river via wildflower meadows, with dandelions out in full bloom, was a beautiful sight, even in the torrential rain. And it really did rain, though this didn’t put off John, who is a real trooper! The tiny village of Brockweir was really interesting as it used to be a centre of industrial activity when the river was the main channel of commerce in previous centuries. Brockweir had more than its share of criminality and immoral living, so much so that local Christians managed to persuade the Moravians to finance the building of a Church in the village to rescue these lost souls from depravity. The church was very simple and interestingly the gravestones were all flat and tiny as part of the Moravian tradition – we are all equal in death.

 

After Brockweir we walked uphill to look down at the valley and from here you can see the river Wye on your right and the river Severn on your left. You can also just make out through the trees the ruins of Tintern Abbey and it’s easy to imagine how Wordsworth was so inspired by this view that he chose it to explore themes of the sublime in ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’.

Day 3: Farm Walks & Gorge Walks

In the morning, Mike, the owner of Hidden Valley Yurts, took us on a guided tour around the farm, meadows and woodlands. He explained how a previous owner died in the stream when returning home drunk from the pub, and how the Roundheads hid a foundry in the hills and disguised the path to Trellech as an old waterway. It was never discovered and is thought to be the reason the area is called ‘Hidden Valley.’ It’s easy to see how you can stay hidden in an area as remote as this.

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As we walked, Mike pointed out the highland cattle that are used on the farm for conservation grazing. Magnificent creatures with longhorns and floppy fringes, they were a firm favourite amongst the photographers in our group, though unfortunately I didn’t get many good shots as I had to use my phone and not my camera at this point. We walked through some of the ancient woodland and took in the bluebells and wood anemone and tried to spot the fleeting woodland birds sheltering from the rain.

Further down we came across a rope swing attached to a tree and all spent some time on this. It was a lot of fun!


In the afternoon the rest of the group went with Inspire 2 Adventure on a gorge scrambling adventure. Unfortunately, with my heart condition this is not a suitable activity for me as it’s just too strenuous but it looks like a lot of fun. They climbed up waterfalls, scrambled through tunnels and generally got very, very wet! This looks like a fantastic activity for those up for a real challenge and you can find more information here.


Instead of the gorge walk, I had some time to myself and as the sun had finally decided to show its face I went for a long walk around the farm. I took my binoculars and hoped to do some birding but Tilly the dog had other plans – she decided she would take me for a walk instead. I think she may have frightened off the birds but I still had a fantastic time hanging out with the sweetest of spaniels and the cutest of companions. There’s nothing better than walking in woodlands, especially ancient, natural woodlands like the kind you find at Hidden Valley Yurts. A previous owner planted an arboretum in the 70’s to re-tree the area and the canopy is very impressive already after such a short time. It’s clearly very valuable ecologically as there’s evidence of badgers, birds, bugs and all sorts in the woods, as well as rare wildflowers.

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Day 4: Canoeing on the river Wye & storytelling in Trellech

On our final full day of activities we set off by minibus to Monmouth to catch a canoe ride down to Whitebrook. I’ve never been canoeing before but we were in safe hands with Graham from Monmouth Canoe and Activity Centre. This is a really popular activity in the are as travelling by river is a great opportunity to experience the landscape from a different angle.

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Sorry, I can’t pose!

I took up position in the front as paddler, though the river was quite fast and really there was very little need to paddle. Graham steered the boat around the known hazards you might find in rivers – difficult bridges, random rocks – so we were in very safe hands. We even picked up a bit of litter along the way to help keep the environment healthy. Graham had a lot of knowledge to share about the river and pointed out all the bridges and towns along the way. We had beautiful sunshine for most of the journey and it made canoeing very relaxing. There was, of course, a sudden shower that lasted about 10 minutes in which we just let the river drift us down stream rather than using our very cold hands to paddle onwards.

 

Along the way we spotted martins nesting in an old dilapidated bridge, buzzards circling the woods, mandarin ducks by the banks, and swans sitting on their nests. There’s plenty of wildlife along the river and kingfishers and otters are occasionally seen, though sadly not by us.

The Boat Inn is a really nice pub you can stop at along the way but we didn’t have time. You can do full days canoeing and go further up river and take in this pub or others along the route and I’d definitely love to come back and do a full days canoeing one day!

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On our final day we wound down with a bit of very pleasant storytelling with Jan from Strolls ‘n’ Stories. We met in Trellech and she led us to the old Norman castle that is now just a large mound with a very big tree on top. We climbed up and got good views of the surrounding countryside and I could see the first swallows of the year darting in and out of barns.

Jan is a fantastic storyteller and she told us about a character named ‘Old Nell’, a well-loved herbalist who met a sorry end when the plague struck Trellech and she suffered the anger of the mob who decided she was a witch. Jan made this sad tale really come to life and it’s a great way for children to learn about local history with a personal touch. Next we moved onto Harold’s stones, which are 3 stones stuck in the ground and no one is really sure why! Theories abound – are they druidical time-telling devices, ceremonial stones, the work of giants or a communication tool with aliens?!

 

Finally after another short stroll past the sun dial sculpture we went to the virtuous well, which was historically been used for its healing powers. Many people still place offerings here but it’s not advisable to drink the water any more. Here Jan told us the story of Lady Amberley, who is famous for being Bertrand Russell’s mother but should really be known for her suffragette activism and her own merits. This was a firm favourite amongst our group and we all loved listening to Jan tell this story about an inspiring woman lost to history.

 

Day 5: Lake House Tour & check out

Before our departure we took a tour of the new Lake House, which is soon to be open on site. The owners have been developing this new accommodation for some time – they’ve converted a previous owner’s summer party house into luxury accommodation. It’s a converted cricket pavillion and you can see all the stud marks on the floorboards from the cricketers’ spikes.

The Lake House is absolutely stunning and everyone wanted to move in straight away! It’s set by the lake, as the name suggests, so it’s a really tranquil location. It’s ideal for those who want to experience life in the Hidden Valley but want a little more luxury and privacy, as the Lake House will have its own driveway and is separate from the other yurts, though of course residents can still go to the main yurt area.

 

The accommodation is really beautiful and the location is so peaceful and perfect. There are two bedrooms, one with an immaculate en suite and beautiful tiles for the shower. The furniture is all boutique, unique specimens and it all fits beautifully together. The kitchen and living area is really spacious and the kitchen has everything you need – cooker, butler sink, Smeg fridge, and all the worktops and units are tastefully made. The sofa is very large and comfy and be converted into a bed if needed, meaning that the Lake House can sleep 4-6. There’s more in the way of technology here than at the yurts as there’s a TV and WiFi (though you don’t have to use it if you still want that digital detox experience!)

 

The outdoor area is really special as well. There’s a BBQ and seating, and a wicker fence surrounding it in front of the lake. You’re right in the woods as well, with the stream nearby as well as your own lake, which attracts ducks, otters, and toads in the breeding season.


After the tour of the Lake House (which I am totally booking one day!) we packed up our stuff, straightened out the yurts, said our goodbyes to Tilly the dog and gave our heartfelt thanks to Mike for accommodating us and Alex from ALS Marketing for organising and driving us all over. This has been an absolutely fantastic break in nature and a much needed digital detox. I’ve got to know some fantastic people and done some really amazing activities – I want to take up canoeing now! The woodlands I can wander in for days and never get bored, and the yurts could easily be my home for weeks without discomfort.

Glamping in Wales (Part 1): Sleep

In the final week of April I took on a challenge that was so far out of my comfort zone as to be in a different postcode. I spent 5 days glamping in south Wales, an area of the UK I’ve never visited before.

I was invited to stay with Hidden Valley Yurts, a glamping site in the Wye Valley, near a tiny Welsh village named Llanishen. I was promised a back-to-nature digital detox experience and I was not disappointed.

I’m going to share my experiences with you through a series of three blog posts focusing on the accommodation, the food, and the activities. So first of all I’ll start with the site.

Sleep

Hidden Valley Yurts is located on a farm in the Welsh hills, with access to tourist hot spots like Tintern, the river Wye, Monmouth and the Brecon Beacons. I can’t call it “easy” access as the roads are as to be expected – narrow, hilly, and not for the faint-hearted. You can read all about the history of the site here but to summarise: the new owners took over in 2015 and have given the yurts and facilities a full makeover and created a really special place to stay.

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The Yurts

Mongolian yurts are a really cosy concept. The decor inside is intricate and the beautiful furniture gives it a homely feel. The beds and futons are ridiculously comfortable and, despite being out of my comfort zone, I had some of the best nights’ sleep I’ve had for a long time. Partly this was the incredibly comfortable mattress but I think the darkness also had something to do with it.

Each yurt comes equipped with a log burner and all logs, kindling, paper and firelighters required to get a roaring fire going. This sometimes presents a challenge for many visitors but I’m pleased to report it’s a skill we all managed to master. It didn’t take long for the log burners to heat up the yurt and we were soon cosy and warm – a very essential feature in rainy Wales!

Facilities

This is camping made easy. The yurt site boasts a fully equipped kitchen with all pots, pans, cutlery, washing up materials, so you really don’t need to bring anything like that with you – there’s even an espresso machine! The communal kitchen is really beautifully made and although it’s covered it is partly open air, so whilst you’re waiting for your food to cook or the kettle to boil you can gaze at the impressive canopy opposite and try to see how many birds and squirrels you can spot.

I did, of course, end up bringing too much food with me and had to leave some behind for the next guests. One of the most helpful aspects of this trip was that most major supermarkets deliver to the site and when I arrived Mike had already put all my shopping away in the kitchen for me. This meant I could eat well and easily, especially as there is a fridge and freezer in the kitchen.

The bathroom and toilets are really quite posh for a glamping site, let alone a campsite! The water was always warm and there’s even a bath if you fancy a long relaxing soak after a hard day’s hill hiking. There are also some compost toilets for yurts 1 and 2 and yurt 1 has its own smaller kitchen so if you’re not into communal campsite living you can always book yurt 1 and enjoy a bit more privacy.

There’s a lovely little campfire area with BBQ and outdoor seating but sadly we never got to try this as the evenings were either rainy or windy, which was a real shame as I can imagine it would have been so nice to sit by the fire roasting vegan marshmallows.

The farm

The yurts are located on Lower Glyn Farm, an old working farm with woodlands and meadows. I would have loved to have seen the wildflower meadows in full bloom but I visited in April; I did, however, see plenty of bluebells dotted about the site and they put on a particularly good show in the ancient woodlands with the wood anemone. In fact, there are plenty of wildflowers to be found so it’s a botanists dream. (Please don’t pick the wildflowers though – the bees need them.)

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Lady’s smock

There are plenty of excellent walks around the 80 acre farm for all abilities. I have to be honest and point out that this is a valley and there are hills so some of the walks are quite steep. I’m a Norfolk girl so this was quite challenging to me! (For all my non-UK readers, Norfolk is known for being completely flat.) But after a few days I adapted to hill-walking and I even think my ankles might have changed shape.

Throughout the site runs a stream that children would love to play in. It’s very shallow in places and provides a very relaxing sound when drifting off to sleep. There are quite a few bridges across the stream throughout that you come across when walking and we even found a really attractive little waterfall. I’m told that occasionally kingfishers and otters can be spotted though I didn’t have such good luck. On one of our walks we came by a tree swing near the stream in a really private area – a really good find for families!

Speaking of families, there is also a large supply of board games and outdoor games, including a boules pitch and a football pitch. There’s plenty of space to run around in and explore and I can’t imagine any child being bored here.

The farm uses some animals for conservation grazing on the meadows – highland cattle, soays sheep. I even came across a pony. But by far the best animal on site is Tilly the dog – the friendliest, most lovable spaniel! She likes nothing better than just hanging out and having her belly rubbed. One afternoon she took me for a walk through the woodlands!


Hidden Valley Yurts has been a wonderful place to stay to get away from city life and reconnect with nature. It’s so easy and welcome to have a complete digital detox here – for a start, there’s no WiFi and phone signal is poor. This is of course camping for those who like a few mod cons, like a proper kitchen and clean bathroom facilities. I was so impressed by how cosy and comfortable the yurts are! I also really liked the fact that there are endless walks on the farm and in the local area so you don’t even have to travel anywhere if you don’t want to – you can just stay on site and explore the natural world and get away from modern life. The landscape is truly stunning and the woodlands provide so much wildlife to enjoy – it’s a birder’s and nature lover’s paradise.

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Bluebells

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Buzzard

Wild Camping

You know about camping. It involves pitching up in the falling darkness, carrying your washbag to the nearby smelly toilet block, being kept awake by fellow campers, and trying to dry out your tent before you have to bed down for an uncomfortable night in it.

But have you heard of wild camping?

Wikipedia doesn’t bother to define it. It’s also technically illegal (though widely tolerated) in most of the UK, so I’m obviously not encouraging you…. If you do decide to defy the law, however, you might want to think about where and how to go about wild camping. Do you want to escape into nature for a few days and/or give your children a true adventure?

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There are a few points to remember:

  1. You have to carry the tent and all your equipment. Wild campers often follow a route across the landscape they want to travel in and therefore have to cart all their stuff around between locations, which are often remote and difficult to traverse. You can buy ultra lightweight gear but it’s pricey, so be prepared to travel light and eat all your tinned food on the first night.
  2. Take a trowel. No toilet block means a rudimentary latrine. Dig this far enough from your tent and find an area with some privacy.
  3. Animals will wake you in the night. Strange rustling sounds of mammals attracted by the smell of your stove-cooked dinner of baked beans on toast will disturb your sleep; don’t be alarmed, and don’t leave any food outside for them. The creatively-minded might decide to set up some camera traps near the tents to capture video or photo of the animals that visit them in the night.
  4. Pitch somewhere protected from the wind. Camping with an unobstructed beach view sounds delightful but just remember that that sea wind has not been deadened by any trees or terrains yet so you will feel its full force. Oh, and don’t forget about the tide coming in!
  5. Don’t trespass. It’s not worth the risk – there are plenty of public footpaths across the country.
  6. No electricity means your smartphone will soon run out of charge and you can’t rely on Google maps when you’re lost. Brush up on your map and compass reading skills.
  7. Pay attention to the weather and don’t set off on a mountain hike in fog or poor conditions. You don’t want to be the idiot that has to be rescued because they climbed a mountain in a storm without proper equipment or food.

So if you want to “get back to nature” and have a proper experience of the stars without light pollution, camping without the annoying families, survival by your own skills and no reliance on phones, then wild camping might be for you. There are sanitized versions where you can camp on the edge of the wilderness in a managed site, or there are more adventurous versions that involve climbing a mountain or wandering deep into a forest and pitching up somewhere where no one can find you. Nature is great for your physical and mental health, the perfect antidote to hectic modern lifestyles, and it’s so much more memorable and interesting than lounging by a Spanish hotel pool.

 

 

 

Random Acts of Wildness Challenge

I’m taking part in the Wildlife Trusts June challenge: 30 Days Wild.

Hoping the weather will improve to make things easier. Some photography in the garden was all I could manage in the first week, but I took a trip to RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk at the weekend, which was fantastic. Here’s a few photos of birds and other sightings.

(I had a fleeting glimpse of my first bittern but no photos to prove it.)

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DSCF4587 Avocet, the symbol of the RSPB and a renowned conservation success.

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A swallow on the sluice.

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The Springwatch studio.

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Cameras on spineless Si and frisky Phil.



Secret Gibbon Whispers Translated By Scientists

Since the 1940s, we have known that gibbons use a secret language to communicate, but only now, with ultra sensitive equipment, have scientists been able to decipher their unusual calls. This research could give us clues to the evolution of human language.

Lar gibbons, or the white-handed gibbon, are an endangered primate, usually found in Thailand, Laos or Malaysia. Every morning, the gibbon family gathers at the edge of its territory, and sings out a ‘great call’, a duet between the breeding pair, each pair exhibiting a unique variation of the family song.

Lar gibbons can produce sounds so soft that they can’t be easily heard by the human ear. Scientists from Durham University have managed to record these calls by spending four months following them through the forests of North-eastern Thailand, and they have published their analysis in the BMC Evolutionary Biology journal.

The team found that there were different calls or ‘words’ for a range of predators, including leopards, tigers, pythons and eagles. The whispers even distinguished between different types of birds even when they were physically quite similar, such as eagle owls and serpent eagles.

The gibbons use over 450 ‘hoo’ sounds, and each ‘word’ or ‘call’ serves a different purpose in a specific context. This new research suggests that, according to the lead scientist, Dr Esther Clark:

…lar gibbons are able to generate significant, context-dependent acoustic variation within their main social call, which potentially allows recipients to make inferences about the external events experienced by the caller.

You can listen to the lar gibbons’ call here:

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