Farne Islands puffins, on a visit to Northumberland

Anyone who spent their childhood in the North-East of England is likely to reminisce of regular seaside visits to the coast with buckets and spades and sandy sandwiches. For the rest of us, this part of the World is some what unexplored.

My aunt, grew up in Northumberland, and has since returned to the area after many years overseas. The descriptions she often shared during family get togethers, always had me intrigued. So, in an effort to see more of the UK, I was encouraged to plan a visit to the area.

The promise of seeing Farne Islands puffins was course a huge factor increasing my interest, but there is so much more to see and do nearby. Northumberland really is a bit of a hidden treasure.

Farne Islands

Almost the last stop before reaching the Scottish borders, Seahouses is just a little harbour town with arcades and fish and chip shops, but it’s also the best place to take a boat to the islands.

A favourite of naturalists Sir David Attenborough, this cluster of 28 islands, are mostly uninhabited, other than the wildlife. I would definitely recommend a visit the Farne Islands to see the puffins before you plan a trip to its foreign big brother, the Galapagos.

As well as puffins, there are seals and numerous other birds. Arriving in as early as March each year, the puffin count recorded by the National Trust during the last census in 2013 was 40,000 pairs. Early indications of this year’s census show a decline of 12℅.

There are many seals too…

Tips when planning a visit to see the Farne Islands puffins

1) We were there in April with good weather and calm seas. I can imagine rough waters wouldn’t be great for a 2 hour round trip out to the islands, so plan for this.
2) Early in the season the puffins are a little shy and mostly hang out on the waters edge. When nesting time begins (May) they will be scattered around the islands. By June the adults will be seen with breaks full of sand eels, feeding the newly hatched pufflings (babies). June and July are the best time to visit but also popular with tourists.
3) Take a hat, whatever time of year it will be windy, and if you plan to get off onto the islands (only possible from May and on selected islands) you will be grateful you did as the birds will swoop and peck as well as drop little presents on you.
4) A boat trip is adequate to get a good view and stay out of pooing distance, but those closer photographs to be had on land (Inner Farne or Staple Island), may encourage you to brave a landing. Note that landing times are restricted to mornings (Staple Island) and afternoons (Inner Farne) during the months of May – July.
5) There are many other wildlife viewing opportunities with seals, guillemots, razorbills, terns and shags. Probably others too.
6) I was warned about the smell when visiting the islands – although didn’t see this was a problem at all. I expect the heat of summer makes the seals and bird nesting areas some what stinky, so bringing along something to cover your nose might be a good idea.

Billy Shiel’s Boats are a good choice for a boat trip to the Farne’s and other nearby tours.

I also recommend you spend a few days in the area to check out some of the other things to see/do. There is so much to choose from but here are my personal favourites:

St Aidan’s Beach

St Aidan’s beach, sometimes referred to as North Sunderland beach has an extensive stretch of sand. Hidden from the coastal road by dunes, the beach provides a beautiful backdrop for Bamburgh Castle.

When the tide is out, it’s a popular location for walkers as well as families with young children.

Great for sand castle building or kite flying as it can be fairly windy. Consider walking from Seahouses to Bamburgh Castle which takes about an hour.

Bamburgh Castle

This impressive castle is still inhabited but open to the public all year round and well worth a visit.

Bamburgh Castle view

I recommend getting the audio guide to get plenty of information during a visit and hear some interesting stories. Afterwards wander the village and it’s little shops and perhaps grab some lunch in on of the pub’s.

Alnwick, Barter Books

Alnwick is a lovely market town, which still has a regular market in the square.

The castle and gardens are a big draw here, with the former having featured in Harry Potter, therefore popular for a visit with kids. A number of other films feature the castle as well so it’s fairly recognisable.

The highlight for me was a visit to Barter Books. Located in an old train station building, this might just be one of the biggest second hand book shops in the UK. You can spend hours in here, enjoying a cup of something from the coffee shop, sitting quietly with a book.

There’s also a little bit of history hidden here:

Holy island

Accessible via a tidal causeway, you can drive out to when the tide permits. Check out crossing times and plan ahead.

holy island causeway entrance

Explore the island, including the recently refurbished Lindisfarne Castle. I recommend at least half a day here but don’t risk getting stuck.

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall is one of England greatest landmarks, with some of the best-preserved sections located in Northumberland.

There are various sites and museums which tell the story of Roman times in the area so consider checking some of these out. Hopefully I’ll create another post, featuring some of my recommendations, but I still have a few to cover off myself.

There’s a lot more I could mention in this post, as Northumberland really has a lot of history and places to visit… but I’ll leave it here for now. Feel free to leave any recommendations in the comments?

Christmas market countdown

With the last few days of the Christmas period fast approaching, what better than to visit the Christmas markets for those last minute gifts, where you can relax with a glass of something warm.

amsterdam Christmas market

The best Christmas markets in my opinion are by far the German ones. However, if you can’t quite stretch to a trip to Cologne or Nuremberg, there are more and more markets scattered around the globe, and maybe just close enough to stop by in the coming days…

1 Check your local events – notice boards in newsagents and supermarkets often advertise local events. Or check your local newspaper or neighbourhood news. My go to place for up to date info regarding what’s on is Twitter. Just search to see the latest tweets in a particular location.

2 Plan a day trip – some of the largest Christmas markets in the UK this year can be found in Birmingham, York, Manchester, Bath and Winchester. Lincoln is apparently the largest in the UK with 250 stalls, but it’s only open for 4 days (1-4th December this year) so you will need to plan ahead for visiting this one in 2017.

We managed to get to both Bath and Winchester in the same day, although Bath was larger and had more non Christmas market things to do, so I would definitely recommend this one to fulfill your Christmas needs.

Bath Christmas market stalls
It is possible to visit a German market on a day trip, and booking last minute flights early in the morning and late at night can be very reasonable compared to booking ahead.

3 Wander at lunchtime or after work – if you are fairly close to any of the Christmas markets, for work, which many who work in the big cities will find they are. Then check out where the market stalls will be and plan a short visit at lunchtime or head there after work. Those in London will find numerous small markets scattered around the city, and there’s a new one this year in Leicester square which promises Christmas shopping and Santa’s grotto.

4 Check schools and churches – you will find more markets at schools and churches taking place around Christmas time. Again best to check local events information for details, but smaller events that are often not advertised too far afield, so it’s worth searching with this in mind.

5 Meet a friend/take another – the run up to Christmas is a busy time of year and it’s hard to find the time to catch up with everyone. Kill two birds with one stone and plan to meet a friend at the markets, take a friend or family member (although I would recommend limiting the number of people as it can be busy) or simply just arrange other plans so you can visit the markets in conjunction with other things.

6 Plan ahead – spend a short amount of time making a list of potential things you want to try and get. Couple that with listing some of the other Christmassy shopping you need to do. The more focused you are the more likely you will find all the gifts you need, and more.

7 Carry bags – avoid the possibility of collecting unnecessary (plastic) bags during any shopping spree. Take a tote bag or rucksack to carry your purchases in and you will find it much easier to collate your shopping as you go.

8 Stay warm – make sure you wrap up appropriately for the weather. Layers are best.

Unless heavy rain is expected you can probably pass on the umbrella. Afterall markets are likely to be busy and there’s often plenty of shelter if the weather isn’t too cheery.

9 Have fun  – Christmas markets often have side events such as ice skating and live performances. A great opportunity to have some fun in between the shopping.

ice skating Winchester Christmas market
Have you been the some Christmas markets ahead? Got recommendations to share, I’d love to hear them.

Where to get your Harry potter fix in London

Whether you have tickets for the play or hoping to get along to catch the new film, Harry Potter fans will be in their element in the coming months.

Harry Potter book covers

A trip to London or some of the other Harry Potter filming locations around the UK should be on the to do list as the wizarding world is once again upon us. Where to start is the question?

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – 30 July

This month the Palace Theatre opens it’s doors for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and preview tickets are already available.

The ticket prices are very reasonable compared to other shows, particularly given you get tickets to two parts, with each available to view on the same day or on consecutive days.

Despite tickets having sold out for the rest of the year, it is possible to get them nearer the time. See more at the official site here.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – 18 November

In November, the Harry Potter phenomenon continues with the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them on screen.

On location in London – anytime

Whether or not you’ve managed to get your hands on any tickets, planning a trip to London to check out everything Harry Potter over the next few months is a must do in the meantime.

Even those familiar with London will find places on the trail they may never have been before.

With numerous websites that give more details on most of the key locations from the film’s, any visitor should be able be to experience it all independently. Here are a couple of useful links:

Or why not hire an independent guide who can make sure you get around all the key sights.  Many companies offer private tours which you can take at your own pace and tailor to your interests.

There are of course also a number of Harry Potter themed tours run by some London tour companies, which are more reasonably priced, and you will not be disappointed with the choice. Check out my post Take your pick from Harry Potter themed tours in London for some suggestions and what to expect.

Take your pick from Harry Potter themed tours in London

As Harry Potter fans prepare to descend on the British capital over the next few months for the upcoming Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play, that previews this month, they may also find they are spoilt for choice in terms of other Potter themed things to do.

The Warner Brother’s Studio Tour of course is an absolute must do. But there are also numerous filming locations in and around London that, with a little research, you could easily visit independently. Or you could of course learn a thing or two extra and take part in one of the many Harry Potter tours available.

If you are trying to decide from the many different Harry Potter themed tours, here’s a quick round-up of some of the options and what to expect:

Muggletours – walking tour

They only do Harry Potter tours, offering something a little bit different to many of the other companies; so they have certainly done their homework. Their guides are known to compete with each other on their Harry Potter knowledge, and our guide, Joseph Lockhart claimed to have read one of the books 10 times. And I can confirm he really knows his stuff.

In fact this tour was really good fun. Despite covering a lot of the same film locations as other available tours, the content was made really interesting with some great insights into JK Rowling’s motivations for certain references throughout the books. There were a couple of locations   that were a little different to other tours and I learnt quite a bit that I didn’t know already.

St Paul's City of London

What I really enjoyed about this tour is that there were a few really fun moments which had me laughing out loud, like a child… and this particularly stood out to me when comparing to some of the other tours that are available.

If you’re a die hard Potter fan then the guides will really give you a run for your money… their knowledge is outstanding!

Quick info

  • Price: £12
  • No of pax: varies
  • Length of tour: 2.5 hours
  • Covers: key spots

Most likely to appeal to: those who want to learn that little bit more than just tick off the locations. Die hard fans will enjoy the detail provided by the guides.

Harry Potter Bus Tour of London Locations – Brit Movie Tours

Brit Movie Tours specialise in television and movie themed tours in and around the city.

They have a Harry Potter walking tour, which is fairly comparable to Muggletours Tours’ offering, but have also adapted this into a bus tour, which allows them to cover a lot more locations than is possible on foot.  As well as having the added benefit of staying dry when the weather turns. They are the only one of the tours here that includes Lambeth bridge and Kings Cross station (Knight bus and platform 9 34).

Being on a bus has the added advantage of being able to show the relevant movie clips on the way round, and our guide, Michael, seemed to time these perfectly between destinations and commentary. Whether that was luck or judgement based on his knowledge of the ever increasing traffic spots, it really did seem to work well.

The movie clips shown whilst in the bus, brought the locations to life, more than just with the stills, which were also on hand at the locations where we disembarked to take a closer look.

Leaky Cauldron location

The detail picked out of the film during the commentary was really interesting and the interjection of historical information along the route, as well as fitting this with the Harry Potter theme, was a refreshing mix.

Quick info

  • Price: £27
  • No of pax: approx 30
  • Length of tour: 2.5-3 hours
  • Covers: key spots

Most likely to appeal to: those that prefer to avoid walking or are less familiar with the film’s

Unique Fully Guided Tour – City Wonders

Of course, a London Harry Potter experience wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Warner Brother  Studios.

With 2016 being the 15th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone there are a number of special features taking place throughout the year.

Therefore it’s bound to be extra busy over the next few months, so why not avoid the crowds a little and take a unique guided tour with City Wonders.

You will be accompanied on the train directly to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour and on arrival will have a dedicated Studio Tour guide. With an opportunity to enjoy a frothy Butterbeer ahead of the crowds, you will also have the headset and access that an ordinary entrance ticket provides… it’s just that little bit more exclusive.

Quick info

  • Price: £129
  • No of pax:
  • Length of tour: 5 hours (including travel time)
  • Covers: more than the standard studio tour

Most likely to appeal to: those that want to avoid the crowds and hassle of visiting independently

Doctor Who v’s Harry Potter

Fans of both the modern series of Doctor Who and the Harry Potter movies will be overwhelmed by the similarity of the locations used in both.

The special walking tours run by Andrew and Jess are something very different and definitely a fun way to spend a couple of hours. The competitive ‘quiz’ environment created by the guides makes this tour  great fun for fans of both Doctor Who and Harry Potter… and you get to choose whether you join Dumbledore’s Army or UNIT.

The tour only runs once a month, but true fans of either Harry Potter or Dr. Who, or both, will definitely enjoy this one.

Quick info

  • Price: £11
  • No of pax: varies
  • Length of tour: 2 hours
  • Covers: a balanced mix of info for a number of locations

Most likely to appeal to: those who like to get competitive. Or those with non-magical significant others.

If you’re on a budget, or your trip to the Warner Brother’s Studio’s plus souvenirs and tickets to the theatre have left you a little poor, then I can also recommend Andrew’s company: Free London Walking Tours, whose tour is based on tips, so you can pay what you can afford or think it’s worth. Edit: Sadly this tour is no longer available.

Have you been on any of these tours? It would be interesting to hear what you thought of them and any others too.

Now I just have to get my hands on some Theatre tickets and my Harry Potter experience list will be almost complete.

What does a travel blogger do when she’s not travelling?

Back in April I set myself the challenge of finding more things to do in the UK that would fulfill my travel bug and also to encourage locals to experience more of what is on their doorstep.

My “Fulfil your travel bug with: something unusual” post ‘research’ soon filled most of my spare time in between house hunting and working full-time.

Saving money, settling for a while and not travelling has been quite an experience for me so far this year. There are so many things to do and experience in and around London, that are a little bit different; and I’ve surprised myself at just how much I’ve enjoyed exploring the UK these last few months.

Of course not flying to the other side of the world to continue my adventures is a difficult pill to swallow and I often have to remind myself that long term travel isn’t for me.

At the time of writing this post I have not travelled anywhere outside the UK (other than a short visit to Spain to visit family, which doesn’t count) for 9 months!

For those of you who know me personally, that will come as quite a shock. To be honest, for me, the hardest part of that time, has been fielding the inevitable conversations with friends and family as my latest travel plans have been non existent. That’s made even harder when working in the travel industry!

Despite this, I’ve had heaps to talk about, and I instead struggle to decide which of the run of unusual experiences over the last few months I would recommend first! Rather than tales of worldly travels my focus has been on experiences closer to home, and these are more likely to be possible on a whim, last minute or with little planning.

The jury is still out on my favourite but here are a few of those I would recommend to anyone looking for something a little bit different and/or unusual to do:

Kayaking the Thames

Definitely one to recommend for a different perspective of some of London’s key sights.

We were lucky with the weather as to be honest it still would have been a great experience, but the sunset hues across the water with the wind in our hair totally made it.

The crew were brilliant at ensuring the group navigated safely along the waters edge, provided plenty of insight and got us safely to the pub for dinner. Secret Adventures organise a number of other events throughout the year so check out their website to book this great tour and others.

Timed games

With escape rooms popping up in many cities this isn’t an experience restricted to London.

I’ve done a few of these now, and every one is different. It’s a great way to spend 60 minutes with friends or family, although consider carefully your team mates, as how well you work together is often the key.

Great for a rainy day indoors, but I also really enjoyed the outdoor equivalent with Agent November. The variety of the carefully selected locations for collecting clues coupled with the cleverly linked theme had us intrigued throughout. I’ve since tried out one of the other games offered by Agent November and its just as good… there’s still one more to try thankfully as it’s totally addictive.

Read all about Agent November here and one of my indoor escape room experience here.

Walking the A to Z of London

I moaned a little (ok, quite a lot!) towards the end as my feet were tired and the route was becoming less interesting than at the start, but secretly, when I reached the last destination, the sense of achievement made it worth the pain. And better still, this little adventure took me to places in London I had often ignored and may never have visited otherwise.

Check out the full route details in my post “Experimental travel: walking London from A to Z

For geocachers (check out my post “Geocaching on my travels, why not give it a try” if you want to find out more about this hobby) it’s a good way to get a few urban treasures and for everyone else, its something you can do anywhere in world, even on your doorstep.

So if London doesn’t appeal or is a little too far for an adventure, apply the theory to just about anywhere for something unusual to do solo, or with friends or family.

London tours

There are so many tours in and around London that cover the same sites. If you have been there and done those, then you must try some of the more unusual ones. You can find some ideas in my post “5 unusual London tours“.

I’m struggling to pick my favourite as there really were quite a few that had me intrigued by every tale, and for all very different reasons.

I really enjoyed the Street Art tour with the workshop (with AlternativeLDN) where you create your own street art,  mostly because you get to try it for yourself hands on, which of course appeals to my creative side.

The Liar Liar tour was intriguing, competitive and a lot of fun. For Londoners, locals or visitors – a brilliant concept that ensures you learn plenty and leave with some interesting dinner party stories.

Be sure to check out the others here.

What next

The weather is cooling off and the nights are drawing in but this doesn’t mean the end to my search for unusual experiences. So do check back or follow me on Facebook or Twitter to see what else I get up to. Maybe there will even be some travelling!

Have you tried an unusual experience recently, or do you have an idea to recommend? I’d love to hear about it…