One of my favorite things about living in England is our proximity to National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Beauty (AONBs) with their myriad of opportunities for hiking, biking, and exploring. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some city life, fancy clothes, and foodie nights on the town, but those things tend to drain me of energy, while hiking and fresh air rejuvenate every particle of my soul. It’s been years since I’ve been able to jump in the car and within minutes leave behind chaos and turn the corner into magnificently deserted hills, farms, and wide open spaces.
The UK boasts 15 National Parks and 46 AONBs. We’ve visited a handful, but I’d like to get serious and visit as many as possible. Sometimes it’s difficult to resist going back to the same tried and true places knowing how fabulous they are, but we have yet to be disappointed by any of these wilderness wonderlands. 2 weeks ago we visited Cannock Chase AONB for the second time and last Saturday we drove to Snowdonia National Park in Wales. Snowdonia is absolutely stunning and reminded me a lot of Colorado (one of my favorite states). Cannock Chase is only an hour from our house, and a nice place for a quintessential English Sunday walk. Not sure we should really label it hiking.
Snowdonia, Wales – Fisherman’s Loop Hike out of Beddgelert
Those wild mountain goats or whatever they are had no problem continuing their descent and approaching us. We booked it out of there since those horns are at least twice the size of Penny. Super cool though! We ended the hike with a pint outside at a local pub, full of other hikers and exhausted dogs.
Cannock Chase AONB – Hike out of Rugeley
We didn’t bring our camera to Cannock so we only have a few blurry photos on our phones. Beautiful pine forests, a few small ponds, and easy to follow trails.
Seeing the white cliffs of Dover has been on my to-do list since moving to Birmingham and we had the perfect opportunity to check them out on the tail-end of our Bruges road trip. To my dismay, we emerged from the Eurotunnel into some of the thickest fog I’ve ever experienced. We could barely see the car in front of us, let alone the coast.
Not willing to give up so easily we drove 10 minutes north to Capel-le-Ferne to see a WWII memorial site honoring those who fought in the Battle of Britain in 1940. The memorial was really nice and judging from pictures on TripAdvisor, a beautiful place when the weather cooperates. A memorial wall lists the names of those who fought in the battle, and the site houses replica Spitfire and Hurricane planes. It was a quick stop – as long as you don’t plan on visiting the cafe or doing the “scramble wall experience” you can easily limit your visit to 30 minutes. The below picture was taken facing the cliffs and the memorial to the airmen. O well.
Another 10 minutes down the coast is Samphire Hoe, a coastal park that was created during the Channel Tunnel excavations. Half of the chalk marl and stone (4.9 million cubic meters) that were removed from the channel were deposited in Samphire Hoe, and the other half went to France.
Nerd lesson: Samphire is a category of succulent plants that grow near bodies of water. Rock Samphire is a particular species native to the UK with white flowers often found on cliffs along the coast. “Samphire” derives from the French “sampierre” or “Saint Pierre.” St. Peter is the patron saint of fishermen, and since this plant grows along the coast, water->fish->Peter->Samphire… voila. In King Lear, Shakespeare mentions the tedious and dangerous task of foraging for samphire (some people pickle it or eat it in salads). The park visitor’s center has a little sign advertising SHAKESPEARE and SAMPHIRE HOE where you can read this particular section of King Lear. A bit of a stretch, maybe, but at least they explain the weird name.
We took the mile-long path from the car park to the rocky beach and by that time the fog had lifted enough for us to see the cliffs. The view was definitely worth the short detour! I know there are other, whiter sections of the Dover cliffs closer to the actual town of Dover, but this was good enough for me. Low-tide meant we could check out some sea critters on the rocks and take some cool pictures of the glowing seaweed.
True to form, I couldn’t resist leaving without a few of those chalky rocks. Some habits die hard. If you could only see my rock collection… These ones are now sitting on my mantel in a very zen arrangement and they make me happy. (Dad, go ahead and roll your eyes. I like rocks. And collecting things.)
The above picture has been a recurring joke in our house for the last two weeks. Something about the overly simplistic yet very public apology struck us as hilarious. Connor actually googled the phrase. Nothing.
Mike – I really hope you didn’t do anything drastic like gamble away your home and then jump in the sea. I hope you would leave Jan with more than just a chalk apology note. (Dude, it rains here a lot, in case you didn’t notice). Or maybe you broke up with Jan. Or just got in a silly argument? Again with my point about something more permanent than a washable chalk message. Snail-mail, perhaps? Since I’m assuming she isn’t answering her phone. Or did you think this was romantic? I guess it could be, depending on the situation.
Jan – Did you see this message? Do you come here often? Clearly you aren’t answering Mike’s calls or texts and you’ve blocked him on all social media so his last resort was writing on an actual wall instead of your virtual one. Yes? No? Who is Mike, by the way? What happened? I really hope you guys are OK.
In other news, I’m planning to migrate the blog over to an actual, legit web address so stay tuned! More details coming soon!
Bruges is a magnificently preserved Medieval town in Northern Belgium, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a fabulous place to spend a long weekend. One of the first things we noticed was that Bruges is incredibly clean. No pigeons, which means no poop riddled buildings and nothing to trip over in the main squares, no garbage on the streets, no graffiti, impeccably maintained buildings, and very fresh air. We’ve become accustomed to the smokey atmosphere of Europe, the garage door-like shop fronts usually covered in graffiti, and some element of crumbling buildings since everything is just so old. Those things are part of the charm of Europe, but Bruges seems like a fairy tale in comparison.
The wealth of Bruges came from their position as an important trading center and manufacturer of textiles, especially wool and eventually lace, and was a thriving market city until the 1400s. The city was constantly at odds with their overlords, especially the French, and continually fought for independence. In the 1300s, Jan Breydel (a local butcher, how fitting) and a friend led an uprising against the French remembered today as the Bruges Matins. Their group of guildsmen knocked on doors all around the city, and if the inhabitants were unable to correctly pronounce a national phrase “shield and friend” they were murdered. Basically, if you had a French accent, it was over. A statue of Jan Breydel and his buddy holds a prominent place in Bruges’ Markt square, and the Bruges football stadium is named after Jan.
Some time later in the 1400s, the people of Bruges were fed up with the Hapsburg empire so they kidnapped the heir and imprisoned him for 4 months. Pretty bold move for such a small city. The angry Hapsburgs ordered Bruges to tear down their city walls, and today, the only part of the walls that remain are 4 gate houses. They also ordered the city to keep and take care of swans… something about “long necks” translating to the same word as the last name of a friend of the Hapsburgs who was executed by men from Bruges. This was the beginning of the end for the city, and because it fell in prominence, it was left untouched by both world wars. Tourism picked up again as people visiting Waterloo passed by the town, and today the city seems to have a love/hate relationship with tourists. Day-trippers from Brussels are insufferable and they crowd the tiny streets, so staying overnight is essential if you want to soak up the magic of the canals without selfie stick people all up in your business.
We joined the Bruges free walking tour on Saturday morning and it was excellent, as usual. At the end of the tour our guide handed out coupons for free beers at a Trappist bar, a discount on waffles, and I made sure to ask for advice on buying chocolate. We took all his suggestions and they did not disappoint.
The tour ended in the Burg, the square adjacent to the main Markt center. We went inside the Stadhuis (City Hall) and checked out its Gothic Hall, which is gorgeous. The Burg is the administrative center of Bruges and the Heilig-Bloedbasiliek (Basilica) is tucked away in one of the corners. The chocolate shop recommended by our guide was here (Chocolaterie de Burg), as well as the most amazing waffle truck in the history of the world. We had waffles covered in chocolate sauce for lunch.
In the evening we tried the house beers at Cambrinus bar and then went to Le Trappiste Bruges and redeemed our drink coupons. There is such ceremony in the presentation of Belgian beers! They scrape the foam off the top with a tool that looks like a letter opener, and there’s usually a snack to compliment the drink. I tried a lambic at Le Trappiste and the bottle was served in its own little basket. We had a fun time chatting with the bartenders at Le Trappiste and taking their advice. There are a few cellar bars around Bruges and Le Trappiste was one of them. Really really cool.
On Sunday we went to mass at the Basilica which is a lot smaller than I was expecting. It was a bit unusual in that the wall frescoes were very patriotic. The repeating pattern on the walls featured swans, a symbol of the city since the 1400s, and there was a giant fresco of the man who brought a relic of the Blood of Christ back to Bruges after the Crusades.
After mass we had some more waffles since they were sooo good and then took a boat tour through the canals. We learned about the stepped gables of the houses – the more steps you had, the richer you were. The number of windows on your house also indicated your level of wealth. At one time there was a window tax, and many people filled in some of the windows on their homes to reduce the tax they had to pay. Only the wealthy were able to afford to keep all their windows.
After the boat tour we checked out a brewery that recently opened along a canal, but they wouldn’t let us sit outside unless we ate lunch, and we had already eaten waffles, so that was not a good plan. It was warm and sunny so we walked east to see the old windmills in the St-Anna district. They are still used to grind grain but I don’t believe they are in their original locations. There used to be quite a few of these in Bruges, but I believe there are only 4 or so left.
We walked past Jeruzalemkerk, a church that was built to imitate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and went inside a stunning old church with massive framed paintings on the walls. Our canal guide said there are 22 churches in Bruges and 21 are Catholic. I didn’t fact check that, but it’s a lot of churches for a small place.
That evening, we visited Connor’s favorite bar of the trip. De Garre is tucked into an alley off one of the main streets full of chocolate shops; one of those streets where your eyes can’t help but jump from one tempting chocolate display to the next, glazing over whatever may fall between.
Dinner was outside at a little cafe, followed by a brief visit to ‘t Poatersgat cellar bar, which means Monk Hole. ‘t Poatersgat was cute, mostly because of its teeny door half submerged below ground, but I preferred Le Trappiste Bruges. Better service and beer presentation.
And that’s that! The trip back to England on Monday morning was uneventful, and we stopped in Dover to see the cliffs and break up the drive. I’ll post cliff pics next week! Happy Fri-yay peeps!
Spellchecker wants to change “Bruges” to “Brutes” so I can already tell this will be a fun post to write.
Have you ever embarked on a 300+ mile road trip in a car of questionable reliability? Spanning 3 foreign countries? Spoiler alert: we made it there and back. Barely.
An hour and a half into the drive we stopped at the “services” (aka rest stop) and promptly locked the keys in the car. This was just terrible luck since I only discovered the convoluted way to successfully lock the car about 2 days prior to the trip. We looked really awesome in this bank-holiday crowded parking lot trying to force the finicky window to roll down as it so often and randomly does. Fail. 45 minutes and a significant chunk of change later we were on our way. Can I mention that when I asked someone inside the service station if they had a number we could call or any suggestions, the man said, “there is nothing you can do” and finally suggested breaking the window. I’m sorry, but what?? Not helpful. I gave him the you-know-what look and said something patriotic about this happening all the time in America with no broken windows and then exited the building.
A little while later, the car engine or something under the hood gave one of those ka-chunk ka-chunk I can’t make it up this hill announcements. A split second after we exchanged horrified looks we saw a tow truck on the side of the motorway with our EXACT car on his tow bed. Silver, 2-door, VW Polo circa 1998. SO MANY BAD OMENS. Are we in a movie? Is someone filming all this? I thought we were doomed.
The rest of the drive was uneventful, thank heaven. We arrived in Folkestone in time to make our Eurotunnel train (nobody over here refers to it as the chunnel, by the way). We drove our car onto the train and 30 minutes later emerged in Calais, France. Bruges was an hour and a half away. Except we were exhausted and needed to sleep.
Some of you know that we planned to sleep in the car that first night. Yes, I know. So classy. You would think that experiencing Europe would lend us a bit more sophistication, but we seem to be regressing. The car was packed with necessities… blankets, pillows, a down comforter, a cooler, a ton of food… we ran out of food in Barcelona and had a flight delay and so we basically didn’t eat for an entire day. That will never happen again.
The finishing touch was a stack of custom, fancy window coverings that I fashioned out of cardboard. Yeah! I can’t think of anything worse than waking up to some stranger’s face peering in at me, can you? So we were set, as far as I was concerned. We pulled off the road and parked in the middle of some farmland. Quiet. Dark. If a stranger was wandering the fields at 2am it would probably be the bad guy from Dennis the Menace and I could just give him a can of beans and send him on his way. Perfectly safe.
When we woke up we found that we had parked in a flower field! How cute!
Before anyone could discover us on their land we drove the final 25 minutes to Bruges at around 5am, since the sun was already up and at ’em. Nothing in the little town opens before 9:30am and we were still exhausted, so we parked outside of our Airbnb and slept some more. In hindsight, this was sort of dumb. I’m sure the Airbnb host noticed the junkie UK car right outside his front door, parked in front of his own car (we saw him in it later), with two weirdos fast asleep inside. We had the down comforter on our laps so it looked like the airbags had exploded. No cardboard this time since I was too exhausted to even care.
We woke up a few hours later feeling much better, brushed our teeth in the street (yeah!), ate a breakfast cookie, and went out in search of a coffee.
Check back tomorrow for more pictures and fun times exploring the little city! My posts are generally much longer than I read on other blogs, so I’m breaking up this trip report into 2 posts. Is that annoying? Do you prefer to read everything all at once? Or am I deterring some of you from reading because I’m so wordy and therefore multiple posts are better? Feedback is always welcome, and rest assured I am not offended either way.