Wednesday, 25 February 2015

How to go birdwatching in Somerset

If you're a keen birdwatcher, you'll probably already know that the south west of the country is one of the best places to spot our feathered friends. In fact, the National Trust describes the region as a "mecca" for them.

In Somerset there are birdwatching opportunities all year round, but the spring and autumn migrations are by far the most exciting times of the year to see a variety of bird species, from starlings and sparrowhawks to wood warblers and wagtails.

You don't need to go anywhere particularly special to spot birds in Somerset, but there are some parts of the county where you get a really special, close-up and uninterrupted view, and the Somerset Levels and Moors are most definitely among them.

This vast coastal and wetland plain covers around 160,000 acres and consists of marine clay levels and peat-based moors that support a vast array of wildlife, including numerous bird species.

The Levels and Moors are home to the largest lowland population of breeding wading birds, with around 60 cranes living wild in the area and fitted with small radio transmitters so that their movements can be monitored.

Cranes were a common sight in UK wetland areas more than 400 years ago, but they were sadly wiped out by hunting. Fortunately breeding programmes are seeing them reintroduced and these magnificent creatures can be viewed on a Crane Safari organised by the Great Crane Project.

Starling mumurations can also be witnessed on the Somerset Levels and Moors in autumn and winter as these pretty little birds flock together to create huge and spectacular aerial displays.

There are a number of nature reserves dotted around this area, but Westhay Moor, Shapwick Heath and RSPB Ham Wall are three of the best for starling spotting. To find out exactly where the starlings are during your visit to Somerset, simply call the Avalon Marshes Starling Hotline on 07866 554142.

The Levels and Moors are also a great place to hear the unique 'booming' call of the bittern. These rare birds - a member of the heron family - have been making a remarkable comeback across Somerset in recent years and are doing very well in the Avalon Marshes.

Due to their secretive nature, they are difficult to spot, but if you are lucky you might hear the male as he attempts to attract a female during the breeding season.

Other species
There are numerous other species of birds to be seen across the Levels and Moors from season to season. In spring, look out for mute swans, lapwings, skylarks and reed buntings, and in summer keep your eyes peeled for buzzards, kestrels and little egrets.

As autumn arrives, you may be able to spot kingfishers, green sandpipers and - if you're lucky - peregrines, while winter brings with it large flocks of wigeons, teals, mallards and occasionally shovelers, gadwalls and pintails.

Read more information on our inspected and star-rated Somerset holiday cottages.


Starlings picture credit: RSPB

Friday, 20 February 2015

3 of Devon's best vineyards to visit

English wines have been growing in popularity for a number of years now, and many of them are produced in the agriculturally-diverse county of Devon.

There are vineyards and wineries scattered across the region, and some of them have been winning awards for their excellent tipples. You can explore them yourself, or take a guided tour and find out how the wine is produced from grape to glass.

Either way, a visit to one of Devon's beautiful vineyards is not to be missed, especially if you're a wine connoisseur who can't wait to sample what the county has to offer.

1. Sharpham Vineyard
Situated near Totnes, this beautiful vineyard lies within 500 acres of farmland owned by the Sharpham Trust and unpasteurised cheeses are also produced here, so you can enjoy a nibble with your wine tasting.

Sharpham Vineyard (pictured above) offers a variety of tours - from Trek and Taste, which allows visitors to explore at their leisure - to the Sharpham Experience, which is described as an "all-singing and dancing tour with bells on top" taking in the vineyard, the winery and Sharpham House.

Each tour includes wine and cheese tasting, and from Easter through to September you can also enjoy alfresco dining at the Vineyard Cafe, which serves a variety of fresh, organic locally-sourced food, as well as light refreshments.

2. Kenton Vineyard
This vineyard, planted in 2003, lies on the west side of the Exe Estuary and produces thousands of bottles of white, red, rose and sparkling wine every year.

There is a varied programme of events and activities taking place at Kenton throughout the year, including wine tastings, food and wine matching events and grape picking. You can also take a guided tour of the vines and the winery with a qualified viticulturist and winemaker.

Still wines can be sampled free of charge in the wine shop, or you can order by the glass and relax on the beautiful sun terrace overlooking the vineyard, taking in the stunning views of the surrounding Devon countryside.

3. Yearlstone Vineyard
This is Devon's oldest vineyard, started in 1976 by pioneering viticulturist Gillian Peakes who experimented with wine growing techniques for the English climate. Since then it has grown from 1.5 acres to more than 7.5 and includes a mature orchard from which cider is also produced. It can be found near the village of Bickleigh.

It also offers both self-guided and guided tours of the vineyard. The latter option includes an explanation of the history of English wine, the recent boom in its popularity and the principles of vine growing in the south west, as well as a visit to the winery to learn about the process of wine making and to sample the goods in a tutored tasting session.

There is a cafe on site called the Deli Shack, where a variety of seasonal dishes are available. Guests can dine inside or out on the terrace - where there are stunning views of the Exe valley towards Exeter and the sea - and the cafe also caters for hen groups and wedding after parties.

Read more information on our inspected and star-rated Devon holiday cottages.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Somerset's historic harbours and stylish marinas

Somerset is absolutely full of historic harbours and stylish marinas.

Holidaymakers spending time in the county would do well to take a trip to one or more of these if they can, as they all offer a unique taste of life in the south-west.

Here are just four great locations to get you started.

1. Minehead
Minehead is thought of as the Northern Gateway to Exmoor and is the largest town in the area. This makes it the ideal site from which to explore the moors and the Quantock Hills.

It is also great for seaside holidays, as the town boasts a large, long and flat sandy beach. The sand here is perfect for building castles, or playing games.

There is also a picturesque harbour with a Royal National Lifeboat Institution station and shop, with pleasure boat cruises on the paddle steamer Waverley and motor vessel Balmoral being regularly hosted in the summer.

2. Watchet
Watchet is a bustling harbour town that boasts a long and fascinating history as a busy seaport.

This lineage is traced on a fascinating Heritage Trail, which guides visitors on a trip back in time through more than 1,000 years of Watchet's history.

Early prosperity based on sea trade paved the way for the town's current popularity as a holiday spot - and a new marina and a station for the West Somerset Railway are among the key attractions.

A statue of the Ancient Mariner celebrates the harbour's links with Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

3. Portishead
Portishead is a beautiful coastal fishing town in the North of Somerset. Overlooking the Severn Estuary, it is just five miles from Bristol.

It has a lot of attractions on offer, including an outdoor swimming pool during summer, a boating lake, with several cafes and play areas, a cricket ground, and football and hockey pitches.

The Victorian High Street is also full of unique local shops that are not to be missed, as well as the usual big-name fixtures.

A wide variety of bars can be found at the marina, as well as restaurants and cafes offering pleasant views of yachts and sailing boats.

4. Porlock Weir
Porlock Weir started life as a busy port, but is now a much more peaceful and picturesque hamlet.

This delightful harbour hosts yachts and fishing boats and is situated along the South West Coast Path, which makes it a good starting point for walks.

Indeed Culbone is not too far away, and is home to the smallest church in England. Porlock Weir itself is the site of the famous award winning restaurant, Andrews on the Weir.

Read more information on our inspected and star-rated Somerset holiday cottages.


Photo credit: Porlock Weir by JE McGowan

Friday, 13 February 2015

Four reasons why Dorset is great for foodies

When it comes to food, Dorset really has it all.

Whether you're after fish and chips by the sea, a visit to a traditional tearoom, an upscale restaurant or something else, the county will not disappoint.

Dorset is well known throughout the UK for both the quantity and quality of food it has on offer. While there are plenty of traditional choices - you haven't lived until you've tried Dorset apple cake or Blue Vinny cheese - eateries in the area have embraced flavours and styles from Europe and Asia.

So bearing this in mind, let's have a look at some of the best options.

1. Celebrity chefs
Some of the UK's best-known chefs have chosen Dorset as the base for their stunning restaurants. For example, Alex Aitken (pictured above) cooks at The Jetty in Mudeford and this has been awarded the title of 'Taste of the South West'. Sienna in Dorchester is another superb location, as the Russell Brown-run establishment has one Michelin Star and three AA Rosettes. Lesley Martin and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall also have eateries in the county.

2. A relaxing tearoom
What could be better than visiting one of Dorset's many tearooms for a lazy afternoon lunch? Abbots Tearoom in Dorchester offers homemade scones and Duchy Originals Strawberry Jam - the perfect combination. The Worth Matravers Tea and Supper Room in Swanage is also worth a visit, as it provides a beautiful setting in rural Dorset. You can even eat outside during the warmer months.

3. Pub lunches
There are a whole host of traditional pubs in Dorset offering top-quality food at reasonable prices. Rural gastropubs will offer unique takes on classics such as prawn cocktail and the ploughman's lunch, while one of the local delicacies is the crab baguette. These establishments come alive during the summer months, as you can call in for a relaxing bite to eat - and a glass of delicious scrumpy cider - after a hard day spent exploring the local countryside.

4. Night time dining
Obviously you'll be looking to have some memorable meals on your trip to Dorset, which is why you're lucky there is such a comprehensive selection of eateries. Seafood plays a big role in the local menus due to the county's location, so make sure to go somewhere like Captain's Club Hotel Restaurant in Christchurch or the Riverside in Bridport. But Dorset really is a place for everyone, as places like The Corner in Swanage offer a dining experience you will not forget and rivals anywhere else in the UK.

Regardless of the duration of your trip, be it a long weekend or a two-week holiday, Dorset can cater to your dining needs. The county has the perfect mix of fine establishments and relaxed eateries, meaning you can choose your destination based on how you are feeling on the day.

Read more information on our inspected and star-rated Dorset holiday cottages.