Many years ago – almost exactly four to be almost exactly precise – my wife and I decided to take a day’s trip to the West Country (that area of the country in the west) and a jaunt around Cheddar Gorge in particular. The plan was to travel for a few hours to it, spend several hours in it, and travel back; the plan failed horribly. The route we chose – the supposed fastest one – was beset every few hundred metres it seemed by breakdowns and accidents (other people, somewhat thankfully, not us) and so our several hours at the tourist attraction became less than one as we had a pressing engagement that required us to return home.
Fast forward to the beginning of last week and we decided to return. There was a good reason to return; when you buy a ticket for the various caves and museums at Cheddar that ticket is good for ten years. We wanted to complete all the things we’d had to skip on our previous trip. And, if we were going to go to Cheddar then why not extend the stay for a few days and take in the historical sights of Bristol and Bath at the same time? That was our thinking so that’s what we did. We selected Weston-super-Mare as the base of operations for no other reason than we’d not been there and it sounds pretty funky.
One of the first things you discover about Weston-super-Mare is that it has a sandy beach. You get to discover this long before you see the beach as the wind whips up the top layer of said beach and makes continuous and often successful attempts to insert that layer of sand into your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. If you’re wearing a skirt (I wasn’t) or loose-fitting shorts (again, no) then you might want to clench your buttocks as you battle the omnipresent off-shore gale too in order to prevent some uncomfortable, rough rubbing a bit later on. Unless you like that sort of thing. Weirdo.
The next thing you discover about Weston-super-Mare is that the sandy beach extends a long way out and at some fair distance away the sand becomes wet and muddy. This level of the beach then extends further out towards the horizon where – if the sun is shining – you’ll see reflections on the surface of something that might just be the sea. However, during our three days in Somerset we weren’t able to ascertain if this really was the case or if the mud simply underwent a process that made it shinier the farther from shore it was.
Weston-super-Mare has two piers; the older one that you can’t get to is, apparently, the only pier in the country that leaves the mainland and ends up on an island. The newer, more impressive pier – the Grand Pier – is the only pier in the country that doesn’t get its legs wet from our experience. However, it is a nice pier; not as traditional-looking as, say, Brighton, but there’s an amusement arcade on it that really is quite impressive and this comes from someone who typically avoids these sorts of places because of all the carnies and pickpockets and roving gangs of gypsies and drug-addicted stereotypes that inhabit them and steal you off to power the candy floss machines in underground caves.
Things to do in Weston-super-Mare: well, you can ride a donkey if they’re about. We didn’t. You can walk around a lot and pick sand out of your eyebrows. This we did plenty of times. There’s a ferris wheel by the beach which should be able to give stunning views of shiny mud for miles and miles. We didn’t ride that either. There was a golf course but, seriously? Golf? I don’t think so. A few pubs serving a fair selection of real ales provided most of our entertainment but we only really checked the town out in the evenings on weekdays. Who knows? It might be stunningly different at other times.
On our first full day in the West Country we took a drive to Bristol, primarily to see Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain. We’re from Portsmouth, so’s IKB; we live in a naval port, we like ships; we like history; it all made sense. The ship didn’t disappoint; very interesting, good that you can get under the hull in dry dock (as with the Cutty Sark in London), hardly any restricted areas on the vessel itself so exploration is good, and a nice mock-up of an historical dockyard by its side that really helped to cement the context. And you can even dress up in period clothes should you so wish. I’ve got a photo of my wife in a captain’s outfit but I’m not allowed to share it with you.
We then went for a bit of a wander around Bristol (we actually wanted to find a “real ale and metal” pub we’d seen advertised in a brochure the night before but it was closed) and chanced upon a city-wide art exhibition called Gromit Unleashed. We managed to find nine by luck (we didn’t have a map to help us) and by the end of our stay down that area of the country we’d found another two bringing our sightings of Gromit to eleven (I can do maths!) which you can see here.
The one other thing I was quite keen on doing was taking some photos of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Sadly, we were on it before we realised (after a panicky search for the toll money) and couldn’t stop nearby thanks to an inconsiderate Audi driver (shock!) taking up three parking bays. Disappointed, I picked a direction at random and drove and this turned out to deliver us a bit of fortune in the discovery of a National Trust property called Tyntesfield.
There’s plenty to see in Tyntesfield and one of the highlights for me was the games room with its large snooker table with embedded buttons in its frame that controlled an electric scoring system on the wall; very clever, very Victorian. The chapel attached to the gothic revival property was also very nice and typical of the period with its occasionally gaudy religious objects. This proved to be a very nice surprise.
On our second day we hit Bath to see the Roman baths that gave Bath its bathy name. They were very impressive and the number of various rooms just off the main baths themselves in which you could pass through was surprisingly large. The only downside to this popular tourist hotspot was the popularity of it with tourists, most of whom were holding audio guides to their ears and stopping suddenly to listen to a description of something in the vicinity blocked from view by tourists standing motionless and holding audio guides to their ears; this did not make for an easy wander through the attraction. However, very much worth the visit.
One of the fun activities we engaged in while wandering through the Roman complex at Bath was something we called Trying To Rein In The Rage At Seeing Yet Another Person Ignore The Signs Telling People Not To Touch The Water. Oh, we had a great time!
A visit to Bath must include a trip to the Royal Crescent under pain of death by swans (it’s an old charter). We had simply intended to take a few snaps and then head off again but we found out that one of the properties was open to visitors and, since we were visitors, we decided to take a look inside. And very glad we were too. Georgian buildings do have a wonderful sense of proportions and balance and this was a great example of the architectural style. I think it’s fair to say we could have lived there. If it weren’t for needing lots of money to do so, obviously. Anyway, go there. It’s great.
We left Bath (eventually, no thanks to the awful traffic light sequencing in place that only seemed to let one car through a junction every ten minutes) and headed northwards to another National Trust property, the baroque mansion of Dyrham Park. But not just a mansion! Oh no! Also, home to (admittedly a bit of a guesstimate here) four billion deer. If you like mansions and deer then Dyrham Park is the place for you. If you also like steep walks up hillsides to get back to the car when you should have waited for the free shuttle bus but you thought you were fit enough to do it and clearly you weren’t at all then Dyrham Park is doubly the place for you.
Dyrham Park also boasts a very nice garden, a lake, and an orangery with actual oranges in it. Of all the times we’ve visited places with orangeries this was the first to actually contain the fruit. Amazing!
The main reason for our short break; Cheddar. We started off with a visit to the museum (after being told “Ooh! That’s an old ticket, isn’t it?” from the woman on the gate) which rapidly changed from “definitely aimed at kids” to “holy hell, that terrified the crap out of me!” to “what the actual fuck is that doing here?” In summary: well worth a visit.
Next, we took in Cox’s Cave and The Crystal Quest (after being told “Ooh! That’s an old ticket, isn’t it?” by the woman at the cave entrance). The cave was very pleasant and filled with some great rock formations and stalactites and stalagmites, as you’d expect; it’s not really in their interest to charge for access to an uninteresting cave, after all. The Crystal Quest, we were warned, contained strobes and things of a scary nature. The goblins did not scare us. The wizard did not scare us. The man pretending to be an animatronic mannequin did not scare us. The dragon did not scare us. That bloody portcullis that dropped a little just before we walked under it almost made us wet ourselves. Well played Cheddar, well played.
Finally, we climbed Jacob’s Ladder and the lookout tower at the top to afford us some lovely views of the surrounding countryside and Cheddar Gorge itself (without being told “Ooh! That’s an old ticket, isn’t it?” by some woman this time). Well… I say “climbed”… I mean “shuffled, stuttered, panted, and rested often on the excruciating steps that formed”. We knew we were in trouble when some schoolchildren came down before we started the ascent and one of them warned us to “turn back now” and “it hurts so much”. We didn’t heed his warning and he was so, so right.
And then we went home.
Wait. And then we bought lots of cider and real ales and cheese. And then we went home.