Blog England

Embracing Winter with Millets

Can you feel that? There’s a chill in the air and it’s not going anywhere, anytime soon.

That’s right, Winter’s here and by gum can you feel it!

Although this time of year usually heralds a choir of moans and groans from the older generation, I always look forward to the arrival of the colder months. During this magically frosty time, sunrises sneak up on you unawares and there’s no guilt in heading to bed early, especially when you know that there’s going to be a stunning sunrise gracing the landscape as early as 7am. Of course if you’re not well kitted out before Winter begins, you’re probably going to find it all decidedly less enjoyable.

Before I set out on my first excursion of Winter I’m always sure to have a thorough check through all my wet-weather gear – making sure that there are no critical tears in anything and (most importantly) that the waterproofing is still working well. There’s nothing worse than driving long distance through rather dismal clouds to discover that your waterproof coat has given up the ghost whilst in storage and that you’re going to have to spend the rest of the day in a state of constant dampness.

During my ritualistic Autumnal run down of my waterproofs I was rather disappointed to find that my boots were nowhere near as waterproof as they needed to be.

As sad as I was to throw this tatty pair of shoes into the bin, there was a small part of that me that was excited to jump into Millets and see what kind of deals I could pick up.

I would never describe myself as a ‘kinky’ person, but I think I can get an idea as to the excitement that is borne out of inanimate objects whenever I step into a shop like Millets. This might seem like an odd reaction to walking into something so pedestrian as a high-street retail shop but it’s true nonetheless. As you walk into a Millets outlet the first sensation that you are greeted by is the familiar rubbery smell of new waterproofs, similar to that ‘new shoe’ smell you get in a place like Clarks. Next, you hear the sound of helpful assistants guiding customers through their selection of rucksacks until, finally, you witness the glorious sight of bright tags with the words ‘SALE’ on them.

I probably get a little too much out of my annual trip to Millets and I know that they certainly get too much out of me. It’s the classic case of too many good offers to turn down.

I went in there last weekend with the intention of just picking up a cheap pair of walking boots, but I left with so much more. With many brands bringing out their new ranges this month, there are loads of great discounts to pick up on all of their ranges – this is why, although I only came in for a pair of boots, I ended up leaving with a new day pack, a pair of socks and a new pair of gators that weren’t even in the sale.

Before you go anywhere this Winter, make sure you’re geared up – it never hurt to be too prepared!

Blog Scotland Wales

The Shetland Isles with Airport Parking Market

I needed the whole week to recover from an exhausting weekend in Ireland.

Whilst I’d originally planned to enjoy the charm of Ireland’s capital and kick my feet back, in the end I found the infectious spirit of Dublin too rapacious to ignore.

I drank more Guinness than I ever thought was possible and stayed up the whole night talking nonsense with a gang of youths half my age. The hangover which accompanied me on the drive back home served as a constant reminder that I might still be able to put them away like I used to in my old networking days, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I should.

I had planned on taking my time, driving back up through Wales and perhaps stopping off for a piece in the midst of Snowdonia. Instead, with the weight of the world hanging on my eyelids and a lingering yeasty smell that I couldn’t quite shake off, I found myself a conveniently empty car park near Pembroke Castle and passed out – exhausted.

I awoke to a tapping on the window, my little Ka was absurdly steamy and the Parking Officer clearly suspected that there was something untoward going on inside. All he found was a dishevelled looking 40-something woman with a serious case of morning breath. I thanked him for waking me and promptly sped out from the car park before he had the chance  to consider what I was doing there in the first place.

With a sneaky McDonalds breakfast inside me, the world began to shift from greys and whites to the familiar blues and greens of the Welsh countryside. Snowdonia is one of my favourite places to drive through. The roads are as smooth as you like and some of the views that you’re treated to verge on the pornographic. By the time I returned to Conwy I was more than ready for another sleep which I gratefully dropped into as soon as I could.

Mum and Dad were rather amused when they found out about my indulgent weekend and suggested that I take it easier on my next trip, advice that I took to heart when I booked flights for the Shetland Isles.

Home to a population of less than 24,000, the Shetlands are comprised of a handful of islands that collectively amounts to around 1,400 square kilometres, around two thirds the space of my beloved Snowdonia National Park. The weekend I had planned would by no means set my world alight with excitement, but there comes a time (around when you hit 40) when you discover that the promise of unbroken fresh air and light exercise is more alluring than the idea of several pints down the pub. So I packed a pair of walking boots, small rucksack and took the Ka up to Edinburgh to catch my flight.

I get a little thrill whenever I’m on the way to the airport, regardless of the duration of the flight. The entire ritual of the experience, from booking my parking (I use Airport Parking Market to get the best deals) to check-in, is something that brings me straight back to my days working in business and causes me to unconsciously start going through non-existent presentations in my head and rack my brain for investment opportunities that were optioned years ago.

The hour and a half flight flew by in a flash, the dark indigo of the North Sea quickly surrendering the craggy coast lines of Shetland. There are few airports that I’ve landed in that are as dinky as Sumburgh’s. Just a few bare landing strips are accompanied by a couple of boxy buildings, greatly reducing the time in between landing and getting out into the open air.

When it comes to accommodation on this small crop of land, the bulk of the hotels and guest houses can be found in Lerwick, the Shetland’s biggest settlement.

However, I wanted to be as far away from this as possible. I was lucky then to get my first choice when it came to Airbnbs. Abby is a writer and journalist specialising in the Shetland Isles, so she makes for a perfect host. Her cottage is a gorgeous little retreat from reality. Surrounded on all sides by expansive moor land and lochs, cars pass by rarely, making this a truly idyllic spot to enjoy

After a 45 minute drive to the cottage (you can hire cars from the airport) I’d already seen half the island from the comfort of my rented vehicle. Abby’s cottage is situated pretty much bang in the middle of the main island, making it an excellent base of operations for rambles and walks out to the surrounding countryside. If I was worried about drinking too much during the weekend, I needn’t have, there are no pubs near walking distance from the cottage, only a quaint little village shop and cafe.

The Mainland of the Shetlands is a truly peaceful place, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the centre of the island or in one of the many little inland settlements, the exposed nature of the island is forever in your mind with the sea breeze tossing a fine layer of sea salt over every blade of grass. After a weekend spent walking the hills and eating the fine food that these islands have to offer (I ate a cream cake in Lerwick, on the way back to the airport that made me want to die) I felt thoroughly refreshed…

…if not a little thirsty for a pint.

Blog Ireland

Road Tripping to Dublin with Irish Ferries

Pints, Pals and Piety in Dublin

Following a rather typical week in Conwy, filled with the usual ups and downs, I knew that I needed to get myself away from Wales for a few days.

Living in semi-retirement may sound like a rather idyllic lifestyle, but you’d be surprised how quickly living in such a place can start to make time drag. The monotony of daily existence took it’s toll on me quicker than I thought it would, so by Wednesday I was up at 6am, scrambling for my laptop and madly researching my next adventure.

After my rather hair-raising trip to North Wales last weekend, I knew that my next trip needed to be decidedly more laid back. No dangling from wires suspended hundreds of metres in the air and no diving into ice-cold plunge pools. Nope – this weekend needed to be stress-free and, most importantly, fun. The open road was calling me once more, but this time I had something a little more out of the way for my little Ford Ka to tackle.

Although I’ve visited dozens of far flung countries in exotic locales, there are still many places much closer to home that I’ve yet to make the journey to see. Places in Europe, like Germany, Croatia and the Netherlands are still huge gaps in my travelling history. Up until last weekend, Ireland was one of those countries and, although I only saw a fraction of what this stunning country has to offer, I know I’ll be back to explore even more of it.

When I visit a country for the first time, I prefer to experience it on foot. There’s something to be said for getting down on street level and becoming familiar with the city as if you were a local. However, when I took a passing glance at the possibility of taking my car across the Irish sea to the Emerald Isle, the sheer practicality and affordability won me over and led me to embark on a 450-plus mile round trip from my home in Conwy to Ireland’s beating heart in Dublin, down the country’s stunning coast to Rosslare and back up through Wales, spearing through Snowdonia National Park.

My Irish Ferries booking had me set off from a bustling port in Holyhead, just a 45 minute drive from Conwy.

Rolling onto the ferry, I experienced a sharp moment of nostalgia pulling me back to an ill-fated voyage to Calais involving a rather destructive bout of sea seasickness. Thankfully, my stomach remained gloriously settled for the entirety of the trip, so I’ll put that early experience down to a mixture of nerves and adolescence.

Arriving in Dublin, I was initially taken aback by the industrial nature of the city. In my mind I’d envisioned green hills, rosy cheeked avuncular bar keeps and flowing pints of the black stuff. What I found however was a rather grim looking city – the overcast weather didn’t help matters – with a beating heart of gold hiding beneath the surface. I made a beeline to my hostel for the night: Abigail’s Hostel is a smart looking modern establishment that has been converted from a hotel, it’s staff were friendly and the clean spacious rooms made for a comfortable experience.

I had just the one day and evening to spend in this iconic town and I wasn’t about to waste it lying around the hostel, no matter how friendly the staff were. Two tourist attractions were on my agenda.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral is one of two grand religious buildings in the city. It has the honour of being the tallest church in Ireland, as well as the largest. It’s been a holy site for over 1500 years, with it’s chief claim to fame (if a cathedral can have such a thing) being that Saint Patrick used the well to baptise converts into Christianity. I always try and make time for a visit to a city’s cathedral, it’s a perfect opportunity to take a breather and gaze in wonder at the usually stunning architecture. At €6.50, I’d say the visit is well worth it.

From pious quiet to something a little more sinful.

Just a 20 minute walk away from the Cathedral grounds is arguably Ireland’s most popular tourist destination (in fact, it was the number one recommendation from the receptionist at my Abigail’s Hostel).

The Guinness Storehouse experience is one that should not be missed. Yes – the free pint of the black stuff might well have put in a particularly receptive mood, but that came after a genuinely interesting near-2 hour stroll through some wonderfully interesting exhibitions. Everything from Guinness’ rich advertising heritage to the actual production history is covered in this self-guided tour which ends on a real high, as you enjoy a well-earned pint (and a 360º view!) at their Gravity Bar on the 7th floor. At €14, this experience is not only a steal, but an absolute must-see.

Once I’d got my feet back on the ground, I felt an incurable thirst for more Guinness. After a quick trip back to the Hostel to gather up an extra jacket and a few drinking companions, we hit the town and began a night of revelry that I wish I had more memories of. Dublin’s nightlife is famed, the locals are friendly but the drinks are regrettably not that cheap. However, what the city lacks in affordability it more than makes up for in characters and sights. My top tip is to get settled in one pub (we chose Grogan’s for it’s old-school charm and top-notch toasties) and simply watch the place spiral out of control as the night goes on.

I awoke with a sharp headache and a deep hunger within me. Thankfully, I was up in time to grab the free breakfast in the Hostel. A sorry display of hungover faces presented me in the dining room, with a few sheepish smiles as plates were piled high with ample breakfasts. I had just enough time to wolf my food down before making a quick dash for my Ka and a rather shaky drive down the tranquil south-eastern coast of Ireland.

There’s nothing quite like a nice slow drive to ease the latter stages of a hangover.

The drive from Dublin to Rosslare can take you anywhere from 2 hrs 20 minutes (when taking the direct route on the M11) to around 3 hrs and and a half, if you’d rather take the scenic route. Desperately needing a dose of fresh air, I opted to take the R115 from through the Wicklow Mountains National Park. I’d stocked up on a meal deal (not very cultural but the only cure for my particular kind of hangover) and took a break to admire the landscape. Although I’d only got a small glimpse of what Ireland had to offer, I knew that I’d be back again.

The ferry ride back from Rosslare to Wales was less smooth – I think I lost my sea legs somewhere around the 5th pint in Grogan’s.

Blog England

May Day Bank Holiday with My Parents

Both of my parents should have retired a long time ago.

They got married incredibly young (my Dad was just 18 when he proposed) and have always cited their busy work lives as a driver behind their marital bliss.

Even at the ages of 60 and 62 they both still insist on pulling full time shifts. Dad used to be a mechanic, but the job proved to be too physical for him later in life. He now loves working down the local supermarket, talking to people all day and keeping active, stocking shelves. Mum’s been working as a receptionist at the same GPs for her entire working life, keeping order behind her desk and ensuring the most needy patients are seen first.

Bank Holidays tend to not mean much to people who live overseas for any great stretch of time, after all, it’s not like you can demand to have the May Day Bank Holiday off whilst you’re living in Dubai, just because everyone back home is taking it off. When I finally made it back to Blighty, after nearly 20 years spent abroad working, I had to remind myself (as well as my parents) all over again about the joys of Bank Holidays. These wonderful 3 or 4 day stints pop up throughout the year offering the British public a well earned break and a chance to indulge in extended weekend adventures.

When Bank Holidays come around, my parents usually like to indulge in a lie-in, get the papers and catch up on some television. However, since I returned to Conwy, I’ve insisted on them making the most of their time off. That’s how we found ourselves bundled into my car with a picnic hamper, rolling down the M6 on our way to glorious Devon.

Although Wales is full of great places to visit, not to mention some truly epic landscapes, my parents often have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the country, even when we have the luxury of long weekends.

When I was a child they were always content with taking me to the beach and hiring a couple of deckchairs for the day. As much as I can still find huge nostalgic thrills from walking down our local waterfront, I don’t mind getting into the car and taking my parents out of their comfort zone.

Staunch patriots that my parents are, it takes a lot to convince them that there might be better beaches outside of Wales. However, they were pleasantly surprised by what we found on the gorgeous coast of North Devon.

With miles of coastal trails and paths to explores, there’s more than enough variety to appease even the most stubborn Welsh nationalist. After a day of breaking in and out of stunning moor land, my Dad was more than a little pleased to stumble across The Village Inn in the town of Lynton.

Lynton is one of those quintessential coastal towns that makes you feel like you’ve travelled back in time. There’s a functioning Cliff Railway system (the highest of it’s kind in the world) that hauls happy tourists up throughout the warmer months of the year and you can even a watch a movie in the adorable Lynton Cinema, a 68-seat capacity theatre that usually puts on two showings a day.

In addition to these charming diversions, there’s also the picturesque High Street that is home to some lovely cafes and souvenir shops.

After a long day of exploring Exmoor, it would have been nice to hole up in a pub for the evening and settle into a B&B for the evening, however this was May Bank Holiday and my parents were eager to get back to Conwy.

Within minutes of setting off from Lynton, the half pint of ale had taken effect and I spent the drive back to Wales listening to the soft rhythmic snores of my Mum and Dad.