Tuesday, 11 June 2013

From castles to bunkers via salty sea dogs and the wastes of London

Day 35 to 39 - Kent, Surrey, Middlesex, Essex, Hertfordshire

My plans for Kent were twofold. For a few years I'd wanted to visit Dungeoness, particularly after a friend told me that it is the only place in Britain that is officially a desert (on account of its low rain fall rather than the temperature). I also imagined that it might hold some interesting landscapes. The other location that I had heard of was Bodiam Castle and it was said to be the quintessential symmetrical castle with round corner towers and all the features so beloved of schoolboy adventures of knights in shining armour. Had I thought before that I would see Bodiam then I might have seen less castles on the rest of the trip but it was a classic so perhaps it was appropriate that it should be the last.

Arriving at Bodiam at about midday it really was everything it was said to be. Not only is it the classic symmetrical design, it's also largely intact. Check out the photos on Instagram and go see it if you are interested. The only thing wrong with Bodiam Castle, is that it's not in Kent. Somehow I thought it was in Kent but it turns out to be just inside Sussex but what the hell.

To make up for the lack of my time spent in Kent I decided that I should head for Dungeoness so at about 4pm I set off. People had asked why I'd want to go there but those people clearly have no soul. (Either that or they haven't heard the song by Athlete.) It really is unlike anywhere else. The flat landscape, combined with the sea and shingle, give it a character that is almost haunting. You'd think it run down what with the shabby state of things but you soon realise that's a condition of the environment rather than an issue of prosperity.

I made my way to the Britannia Inn, as far down the bumpy road across the shingle as you can go and had a fairly mediocre fish and chips (compared to those I'd had in Dorset and Berkshire) and headed back to my tent on a surprisingly sheltered camp site (2852 total miles). It's amazing what a few earth banks can do.

I really wasn't sure what I would find to do in Surrey and, sure enough, I didn't find anything. Had I not started from Dungeoness I might have made it to Kew Gardens but I decided it wasn't worth the effort so I found my way to something described as Surrey's best kept tourist secret at a canal boat yard and tea shop. It wasn't really worth it and I can see why they keep it a secret. However, finding a camp site serendipity struck again.

I ended up camping at the Springbok Estate Merchant's Seaman's Mission or some such (2956 miles). They have a camping field and allow guests to use the bar in return for a quid to pay for temporary membership. I spent a splendid evening talking to salty old sea dogs, listening to shaggy dog stories and generally getting pissed amongst blokes with white beards not dissimilar to Captain Birdseye

What can you say about Middlesex? It's now North and West London, I camped near the Thames in West London (3015 miles), it was sunny and the whole place looked the same as I drove through it. Nothing to report.

Essex was a surprise. I had no plans of what to do, I certainly didn't want to look at any more ruins so I didn't bother with the English Heritage book. Instead I decided to head for Essex and follow the first brown sign I came across. Unfortunately the first brown sign was for a golf club so I ignored it, although it occurred to me that I could have gone for a game or a lesson or whatever if they were promoting themselves to passing tourists. The second sign was also a golf club and the third was an old church or something so I ignored those too. However, the next one couldn't be ignored.

Approaching a roundabout I saw a big white sign with the three possible directions each declaring a list of destinations. The third option indicated three or four destinations one of them against a brown background and it read "Secret Nuclear Bunker". Clearly someone in Essex has a delicious sense of irony so I followed the signs.

Kelvedon Hatch is the location of a three story nuclear bunker that was the location of a regional government headquarters in the event of the cold war becoming hot. It was a total surprise to find it as I grew up hearing about these places but never dreamed I'd get to see the inside of one. I'll not go into the details other than to say that if you lived through the cold war or are interested in this part of our history then you should really go see for yourself. The place is, to say the least, a bit shabby, being peppered with shop window dummies dressed in military uniforms to try to give it a bit of extra something. Many of the artefacts are real, as left by the government when it was decommissioned and many more artefacts have probably been added to give it flavour but that doesn't really matter. The point about the place is the architecture. Walking down the 100 metre entrance tunnel, seeing the tonne and a half blast doors, seeing the room full of tele-printers, hearing the tannoy announcements, it's all done rather well. You have to understand that this place is now back in the hands of the farmer from whom the land was originally requisitioned and as such they probably have very little in the way of funds so the fact that it is open to the public is something of a miracle. Apparently there are other bunkers open as museums but this one is privately owned and they are clearly operating on a shoestring. If you do go make sure you get the audio tour as it gives a lot of explanation and you'd miss a great deal without it (3083 miles)

Being my home county I wasn't sure if I'd bother with Hertfordshire at all. I certainly wasn't going to camp in Hertfordshire when I had a perfectly comfortable bed to sleep in. In the end I did the same trick as in Essex and headed for the first likely looking brown sign. In the end this turned out to be the de Haviland Museum just outside St Albans. They have fine collection of de Haviland aircraft ranging from WWI a Tiger Moth, through the fully restored Mosquito and a Sea Vixen fighter jet. They've got bits of comets and part restored aircraft all over the place as well as a Chipmunk, the 1950s trainer that was the first aircraft I ever flew in.

Total miles door to door Hertfordshire to Hertfordshire via Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Rutland, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, County Durham, Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmorland, Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, Surrey, Middlesex, Essex, 3128 miles.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Four days in the south of England

Day 31 to 34 - Wiltshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, Sussex

The day in Wiltshire was hot and sunny. I escaped Dorset s quickly as possible via Weymouth and headed to Salisbury and on to Amesbury. I've been to Stonehenge loads of times, usually for the summer solstice, so I thought I'd give that a miss this time. However I'd never been to Woodhenge so I thought I'd give that a go. Woodhenge is basically a bunch of concrete posts indicating where post holes were excavated some time ago. The posts make up a series of concentric ovals (is there such a thing as concentric ovals?) around a central space. They've gone to the trouble of colour coding the ovals so you can see how they relate to each other. I Know that they say they are not roof supports for a large hall but I can't help thinking that if you only had small spans you might need this many posts (2553 total miles).

Berkshire was a bit empty of things to do so after checking the tourist web sites and finding not much apart from things related to the royal family I checked the English Heritage book and found the only thing I could do was visit the only castle they list for Berkshire. Donnington Castle, not to be confused with Castle Donnington in Derbyshire where there's also a race track, is a medieval gatehouse, all that remains of a castle on a hill near Newbury. Interestingly the ruin is from the late 14th century, the same date as Bodiam Castle in Surrey that I visited later and apparently a similar size. Bodiam is much more complete, though, and prettier to boot. I ended up camping in Lambourne (2629 miles) where I spent the night in a stable on a previous trip some 25 years ago. Oddly I had always thought Lambourne was in Wiltshire.

After needing a jump start to get the truck started in Lambourne (details to follow in the book) it took me most of the day to get to Hampshire so my plan to visit the new Mary Rose exhibition was scuppered by lack of time. My plan to visit the Isle of Wights was scuppered by a lack of a spare 70 quid for the return fare. A friend had suggested I visit Porchester Castle so at the risk of castle overload I discovered it was ten minutes away so I headed over there.

Porchester Castle is a Roman fortress adapted into a medieval castle and then into a prison during the Napoleonic wars. The interesting thing about the place is that they have replaced some of the floors in the keep so you can see what it was really like in the great hall and other parts of the keep.

After camping within yards of the nudist beach in Southsea (2711 miles) I set off for Sussex. I'd thought to head for Hastings but it was just a bit too far and the roads along the south cost just a bit too like motorways, so at Chichester I dropped off the motorway to take a look at the cathedral. Cathedrals are always a good reserve option and I spent a fine couple of hours wandering around and looking for the entrance to the crypt. I didn't find it. Leaving Chichester I ended up on the sea front at Worthing with my ukulele slung across my back hoping to find some place on the beach where I could sit and practice my three chords. Unfortunately the sea breeze was so strong that there was nowhere suitable that would have been out of earshot of the public. Call me a romantic, I wanted to sit away from everybody, in splendid isolation away from people on the beach, not where people were walking thinking I was a bad unlicensed busker (2763 miles).

Here are the photos on Instagram

Day 35