Tom's Britain - Exploring places of interest and things to do in England, Wales & Scotland

22 November 2016

Cross the Gospel Pass

Perhaps surprisingly, the highest road pass in Wales is less than two miles from the English border, a short drive south west of Hay-on-Wye. The single track road initially rises gently from from Hay to before steepening towards an altitude more than 540 metres (1,801 ft) at the point that it passes between Hay Bluff and the poetically-named Lord Hereford's Knob (pictured) in the Black Mountains. From here, the road drops towards the pretty little Chapel of St Mary at Capel-y-ffin and the former Augustinian priory at Llanthony.

Local folklore has it that the pass draws its intriguing name either from the 12th century Crusaders who passed through it preaching and raising funds on the way to the Holy Land or - rather less believably - from the time that St Peter and St Paul crossed it to meet Claudia, daughter of the Welsh chieftan Caradog, who asked them to convert the Silurians living in the area to the north of the mountains. Today, the pass is popular with cyclists, walkers and those seeking a break from the bookshops of Hay.

For more, see

11 April 2016

Meet the Chillingham Cattle

Up a rough track, through a field, over a bridge and through a gate, your author finds Ellie Crossley - the first female warden of the Chillingham wild cattle - waiting patiently in her shed. From Easter to October, Ellie offers the chance to meet the Chillingham wild cattle, England's last herd of wild cows who have lived separately from the rest of the world in a secret park in the Northumberland hills for 800 years.

Once owned by the lords of Chillingham Castle - still standing just a few field away - the cattle are now in the care of the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association,  and the only way to see them is via one of Ellie's regular £8 safaris, either on foot or in a tiny off-roader. The visits occasionally offer the chance to watch a real bullfight or see a newborn calf, but your author was just as content to watch these great beasts scratching off their winter coats and happily munching grass on a spring morning, just as they have been doing for centuries.

The herd has lived and died in these fields with minimal interference from humans - save the odd Victorian shooting party - since the 1300s. Calves are freeborn without the help of their keepers and they undergo no veterinary procedures. It's amazing to think that these animals have managed to survive in isolation from the herds of domestic cows who roam the rest of England's millions of acres of cattle pasture for so long.

For more, see

3 March 2016

Things to do around Britain in March

As spring finally begins to arrive, trees but, lambs skip in the fields and this year an early Easter races towards us. It's time to get out and about and see what the season has to offer.

1.Attend the Yorkshire Brass Band Championships

Wakefield - 5th & 6th March 2016

Picture © Rich Tea
Once a year, more than sixty brass bands - including those of Black Dyke, Brighouse and Rastrick, Grimethorpe Colliery, Rothwell - gather together to compete for the the honour of representing Yorkshire in the hotly contested National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain.

This year's competition takes place over the weekend of the 5th & 6th March at St George's Hall in Bradford, a Grade II* listed Victorian concert hall which is set to close at the end of the month for a potential £3.2 million refurbishment project.

For more, see

2. Celebrate St Piran's Day

Cornwall - 5 March

Celebrate the national day of Cornwall - and the patron saint of tinners - which regularly provokes special events in Bodmin, Bude, Callington, Camborne, Falmouth, Marazion, Newquay and Porthleven, where the Old Cornwall Society holds an annual Flag Raising.

For more, see's_Day

3. Experience lambing at the Welsh Life Museum 

St Fagans, South Wales - 9th, 13th, 16th & 20th March

Picture © Alvesgaspar
In what sounds like a dream for some and a nightmare for others, St Fagans National History Museum offers the chance to spend a full day with a shepherd called Emma in a lambing shed at Llwyn-yr-eos Farm, learning how to care for pregnant sheep, with the possibility of getting hands on with delivery.

 For more, see

4. Attend the Niel Gow Scottish fiddle festival

Dunkeld & Birnam, Perthshire, Scotland - 18th - 20th March

The 13th The Annual Niel Gow Festival takes place in the Perthshire town of Dunkeld & Birnam, and honours the famous 18th century Scottish fiddler and dancie Niel Gow, who was born in Inver on the south side of the Tay. The event aims to celebrate the life and music of the Perthshire's fiddle legend, as well as raise enough funds to erect a fitting memorial to the man himself.

For more, see

5. Gaze into space at the Observatory Science Centre

Herstmonceux, East Sussex - 20th March

Picture © Oast House Archive
The Observatory Science Centre at Herstmonceux Castle in East Sussex was the home of the Royal Observatory from the 1950s until 1990, when the Observatory moved to Cambridge. Part of the site has now become  the Bader International Study Centre of Queen's University in Canada, and the other bit is now the Observatory Science Centre, an interactive hands-on science centre for families, which hosts regular stargazing evenings.

For more, see

27 February 2016

Ski at Glenshee

When you go skiing in Scotland, you always take a bit of a gamble with the weather, and last weekend's jaunt demonstrated that very well. Originally, your author had planned to mark the 60th anniversary of Glencoe ski area with some skiing there. However, come Saturday morning a small party was hauled up in a cafe on the outskirts of Glasgow with heads cloudy from the previous night's festivities, to find that Glencoe was closed due to high winds. The result was a last-minute dash to Glenshee in the Cairngorms National Park for some very windy skiing.

As far as British skiing goes, Glenshee is about the best we have to offer. It's our largest resort, with with 21 lifts over 4 mountains and 3 valleys, and they've been skiing here since at least the 1930s, with the first rope tows installed in 1957, with even a chairlift as early as 1962.

However, last weekend visibility was low, the wind was very cold and at one point your author planted his face in a bank of snow rather hard. It was rather a shame for those there last weekend that the week before and the week after witnessed clear blue skies,  but the runs were open and in places the snow was very good. Plus, there was one room left at the excellent Braemar Hostel, a functional dinner and ale was on offer at the Invercauld Arms and the Moorfield House Hotel in Braemar had a fire and some good whisky to warm the group up again. And anyway, skiing on the continent often has its bad weekends.

A good feed on Friday was had at Stravaigin in Glasgow's West End, the drive between Glenshee and Glasgow Airport took less than two and a half hours, and car hire is very reasonable. Ski pass and hire cost around £50 a day and the whole trip cost more than your author cares to remember.

For more, see

8 February 2016

Things to do in Britain in February

The shortest month at the tail end of winter, February often gets overlooked by those organising interesting events, as commercial imperatives focus the mind on Valentine's Day mid-month, from which cash usually flows. Nevertheless, there are some good things to see and do for those willing to travel. A selection are reproduced below.

Olney Pancake Race, Olney, Buckinghamshire

Shrove Tuesday - 9th February 2016, 8.30am - 1pm

A village tradition dating back to at least 1445, the Olney Pancake Race was revived in 1948 by Reverend Canon Ronald Collins, the Vicar of Olney. Legend has it that the race began when a local housewife - busy cooking pancakes in anticipation of the beginning of Lent - heard the Shrove Tuesday "Shriving Bell" pealing from the Church of St Peter and St Paul and ran to church, still with her pancake pan in hand.

For more, see

Chinese New Year, London

Sunday 14th February - All day

London welcomes the Year of the Monkey on Sunday 14th February, with music, dance, food and drink from 10am in Trafalgar Square, on Wardour & Gerrard Streets and on Shaftesbury Avenue, with highlights including Szechuan Opera and a monkey-themed finale with fireworks and projection on Nelson’s Column.

For more, see

Jorvik Viking Festival

York - 15th to 21st February 2016

Vikings return to York for the annual festival of fighting, shouting, lectures, guided walks and battle re-enactments which attracts around 40,000 visitors to the city during February-half-term, the ancient moment when young Viking warriors got a week off school to spend time with their grandparents. The finale takes place on 20th February and sees the Castle Green become thr fiery battleground the infamous Battle of Assundun.

For more, see

Alcester Winter Folk Festival

Alcester, Warwickshire - 19th - 21st February 2016

Music, workshops, storytelling and sessions for a weekend  the Holly Bush in Alcester,  a Warwickshire market town famous for its Roman history. The pub was taken over last year by Nigel Smith, who supplies bars to the Bromyard and Warwick Folk Festivals, making it a great place for Folk.

For more, see

The Scottish Snowdrop Festival

It's snowdrop season, and Visit Scotland have gathered together nearly 60 events where you can go and gawp at white flowers on a background of green, all around he country at castles, botanical gardens and observatories.

For more, see

21 January 2016

The Outwood Wassail

There will be a good cider apple harvest in Surrey this year. Your author has made sure of it. On 16th January, a small group of friends made their second pilgrimage to join locals in Outwood village in the Surrey Weald and Rampant Rooster Morris from nearby Dorking for the Outwood Wassail, a blessing of the orchard through fire, song and dance. Wassailing is a pre-Christian tradition which aims to wake the trees from their wintry slumber, and drive away evil spirits which may threaten the next year's apple harvest.

After nourishment, a jar of ale, and a chance to watch Rampant Rooster outside the 17th century Bell Inn at Outwood, those present were handed a piece of fire and set off en masse uphill past the beacon towards Outwood Mill. Behind the Mill is a small orchard, and there mulled cider and apple juice were enjoyed around the bonfire before everyone was offered the chance to drink from the Wassail bowl. As a result,there will be apples again this year in Surrey.

For more, and details of next year's event, keep an eye on

13 January 2016

Eat at the Bush Inn, Morwenstow

When you learn that the Bush Inn at Crosstown in Morwenstow, north Cornwall, has been licensed since the 13th Century - with a history stretching back to 950AD - it might seem surprising. However, when you step through the door after the long drive along winding lanes to be greeted by friendly faces and a fire smouldering in the grate you realise not a lot has changed in this corner of rural England.

The only difference is you are more likely to meet a friendly local farmer than one of the wreckers who used to haunt these wilder parts of the west of England. Today, the Fletcher family are doing a great job in welcoming all comers to Crosstown, with great food, bed and breakfast and self catering breaks on offer, and walks from the door out towards the South West Coast Path.

For more, see

8 January 2016

Attend the International Mummers Unconvention

Mummers Plays have been popular in the Cotswolds broadly since the medieval period, and though it has seen ebbs, flows and revivals, this intriguing form of traditional folk drama never quite died away. Distinctive village plays once toured from house to house and pub to pub in England, and even sometimes Scotland and Wales, and they still remains popular in some corners. Your author very much enjoyed his second trip to watch the Marshfield Mummers on Boxing Day and is disappointed to be missing this weekend's International Mummers Unconvention in that best of all towns, Stroud in Gloucestershire.

The event will see Stroud filled with Mummers, with a symposium and keynote speech today followed by a fitting trip to the pub, in this case the Prince Albert in Rodborough. Then tomorrow sees the town full of Mummers, with plays in the streets, wassails in the town centre and  at the Museum in the Park, a procession, and Twelfth Night revelry at the Subscription Rooms.

For more, see

5 January 2016

Buy the Badachro Inn

Since the puritanical Scottish Government's draconian new driving laws kicked in a little over a year ago, the life of the Highland publican has gone from "very difficult" to "virtually impossible to sustain" and so it is that many of your author's favourite rural drinking spots have either closed or been put up for sale. One such pub is the wonderful Badachro Inn found on the banks of Loch Gairloch in Wester Ross, with views over the water to Eilean Horrisdale.

It was only a year or so that the equally-brilliant Melvaig Inn, ten miles or so to the north closed down, and whilst hopefully someone will take on the Badachro, times are hard for the pub with no rooms in these parts of Scotland, even if some of your clientèle arrive by yacht. When you're trading in what was once an area of fishermen and crofters, now popular with seasonal second homers things are even harder, but with a stunning position like the Badachro, a reputation for great food, free moorings for customers, lobsters, crabs and prawns still landed nearby and available for cooking and a fine interior, hopefully someone will be able to find the nearly-half-a-million quid needed to keep this lovely pub alive.

For more, see