Day. 4. A visit to the Clifton Suspension Bridge & M Shed

Our final day in Bristol, but still plenty of time for more sightseeing, so after checking out of our hotel and leaving our luggage to collect later in the day we once again caught the Bristol Ferry Boats 10.00 a.m. service.  Unlike the previous day, when we disembarked at SS Great Britain, this time we remained on board for its entire 35 minute journey to The Pump House landing stage in the Hotwells district.

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View from the Bristol Ferry Boat

As it was fine, we were able to sit out on deck and enjoy the ever changing waterfront scenery as we slowly made our way along the harbour.  Our reason for taking the boat to Hotwells was so that we could visit another of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great masterpieces, the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

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The Clifton District of Bristol

It took us about 15 minutes to reach the bridge from the waterfront.  It’s quite a steep climb up some narrow streets through the prosperous village of Clifton, with the bridge becoming visible as we approached.

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The Clifton Suspension Bridge

In 1754 a wine merchant left £1,000 in his will to build a bridge across the Avon Gorge, but it was 70 years later when Brunel began working on the project.  The bridge finally opened in 1864, five years after Brunel’s death.

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Crossing the Clifton Suspension Bridge

The Clifton Suspension Bridge links Clifton in Bristol to Leigh Woods in North Somerset and crosses the Avon Gorge which was formed during the ice age.  This spectacular setting is a popular beauty spot and many visitors come for a stroll, not only to view Brunel’s feat of engineering but also to admire the dramatic views looking down onto the gorge below.  Avon Gorge is home to many rare plants and wildlife and is a designated site of special scientific interest (SSSI), one of the country’s best wildlife and geological sites.

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The Avon Gorge

Crossing the bridge on foot or by bicycle is free but there is a £1 charge for motorists.  As we walked across the bridge we stopped repeatedly to take photos, the views seemingly to improve the further we walked.  The river was very low when we visited but as the Avon is a tidal river it rises and falls by 13 metres, with high tides twice a day.

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Inside the Clifton Bridge Visitor Centre

Reaching the Leigh Woods (toll booth) side there is an informative visitor centre which is worth a visit.  In here we found an exhibition about the history of the bridge and the people who worked on it.  Returning back across the bridge to the Bristol side, we followed a path uphill to the Clifton Observatory.  This former corn mill is now used as an observatory and features a camera obscura.

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The Clifton Observatory

We then retraced our steps downhill back to the ferry landing stage and with good timing only had to wait a few minutes until one of the small blue and yellow boats arrived, taking us back into the centre of town.

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The Bristol Ferry arriving at Hotwells

After a quick coffee stop, we were ready to visit our final museum of the weekend at M Shed, which is located on Prince’s Wharf beside the harbour.  The museum is housed in a dockside transit shed that was formerly occupied by the Bristol Industrial Museum and is free to visit.

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Inside the M Shed museum

The museum is divided into four sections with the first gallery focusing on Bristol Life. This explores ways in which people experienced local life over the centuries.

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Exhibits in the M Shed museum

We then continued on to the Bristol People Gallery which focuses on the ways that people have shaped the city and their experiences.  It highlights how Bristol has transformed over time and showcases the discoveries that have been made in and around the city.

Upstairs in the Bristol Places Gallery we explored the activities past and present that made Bristol what it is.  We learnt about the city’s trading past and its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.

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View from the upper floor balcony at M Shed

On the top floor there is a large viewing terrace with far reaching views over the city and of the museum’s outdoor working exhibits including cranes, trains and boats which are operational on selected dates.  Overall, we found the museum to be very informative with some interesting exhibits detailing Bristol’s industrial heritage.

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CARGO at Wapping Wharf, Bristol

On leaving, we came across a vibrant area located just behind the museum known as Wapping Wharf.  This lies between the main harbour and the New Cut, an artificial waterway completed in 1809 to divert the river Avon.  Here we found an eclectic mix of small, independent shops, bars and cafes some of which are housed in converted shipping containers with glass frontages and terraces.

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The New Cut, Bristol

There was plenty of time for us to enjoy a final meal in the city before returning to Temple Meads station for our rail journey home.  As you can tell from this series of four posts, there is much of interest to see and do in both Bristol and Bath.  So much in fact that there’s still lots more we want to experience, so hopefully it won’t be too long before we return there.

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Attractive paving stone on Bristol’s waterfront

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Day 3. Exploring SS Great Britain & Aerospace Bristol

After the previous day’s glorious sunshine, we woke to grey skies but as we’d planned to spend the day visiting two of Bristol’s top cultural highlights which were both indoors, it didn’t bother us too much.  So, after our usual cooked breakfasts and large cappuccinos we felt suitably nourished and ready for a day of sightseeing.

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Views from the ferry boat along the floating harbour

Our morning activity was to explore the SS Great Britain, and what better way for us to travel to this iconic museum ship than by water.  Bristol Ferry Boats operate a scheduled water bus service around Bristol Harbour and so we boarded their first service of the morning from Temple Meads at 10.00 a.m.  There are 17 stops along the harbour, some of which are request only, so if you see the blue and yellow ferry boat approaching, just stand at the landing stage and give the crew a wave and they will stop and pick you up.  Detailed timetables are affixed to each of the stops and boats run at 40 minute intervals.

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Entrance gates to SS Great Britain

It was a 30 minute journey along to the SS Great Britain and we enjoyed viewing the city from the perspective of the water.  Matilda, our ferry boat, took us alongside houseboats, barges and sailing ships including a replica of The Matthew on which John Cabot sailed to Newfoundland.  Since the 1970’s Bristol harbour-side has undergone a huge amount of regeneration and is now both an attractive and vibrant part of the city centre.

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SS Great Britain

SS Great Britain was launched by Prince Albert in July 1843 and was at that time the largest passenger ship in the world.  She was also the first screw propelled ocean going iron hulled steam ship and was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859).  Brunel was a famous engineer who built bridges, railways, tunnels, ships and docks and his innovative approach to engineering meant that people were able to travel and trade in new ways.

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SS Great Britain Dry Dock

After obtaining our tickets, (standard adult £14) it was suggested that we start our self guided tour of SS Great Britain in the Dockyard.  Since 1839, when it was decided to construct a transatlantic liner, the Great Western Dockyard has been here.  The bustling atmosphere of a ship being prepared for departure is still evident today and from the quay we were able to view the SS Great Britain adorned in flags and ready to depart.

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Viewing the SS Great Britain’s hull under water

From the Dockyard we were able to access the Dry Dock where we strolled along a pathway around her iron hull.  The Dry Dock has been sealed by a huge water line glass plate surrounding the ship and to keep the air dry a giant dehumidification plant helps to retain the atmosphere at a relative humidity of 20% to prevent corrosion.  On one of the information boards I read a sign explaining that the air in the Dry Dock was actually as arid as that of the Arizona Desert.

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SS Great Britain ready to sail

Continuing our tour, we moved along to the Dockyard Museum where visitors are taken back in time through the SS Great Britain’s history.  Our self guided stroll took us through four time zones with each gallery showcasing the ship’s long life of adventure.

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Inside the SS Great Britain Museum

Starting in 1843 with the launch of the luxury liner, the exhibition captures the experiences of the passengers and crew through to the 1850’s when she made 32 voyages carrying emigrants across the world.  In 1880 she was converted from steam to sail and made three voyages to San Francisco.  It was in 1970, after a dramatic salvage operation in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands that the ship was rescued for the nation and became a major tourist attraction along the Bristol waterfront.  After learning about her history, we were then ready to step on board SS Great Britain in her fully restored glory.

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On the Upper, Weather Deck of SS Great Britain

We began our tour on the upper, Weather Deck. Here the space was divided into different areas for passengers travelling first, second or third class. Only first class passengers were allowed to cross a white painted line behind the mainmast.

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The Promenade Deck of SS Great Britain

On the floor below we explored the Promenade Deck.  This was an area for first class passengers to socialise, walk and dance without having to get wet or windswept on the open air Weather Deck.  On either side of this deck we were able to look in some of the first class cabins and observe life on board a luxury liner.

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The Dining Saloon on SS Great Britain

As with cruise holidays today, eating and drinking were a major part of life on board. In the Dining Saloon first class passengers dined in style sitting with fellow travellers at long tables eating off the finest porcelain tableware and drinking expensive wines from crystal glasses.

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First class accommodation on SS Great Britain

Third class passengers, also referred to as steerage, endured journeys on the lower decks in noisy, cramped accommodation during their voyages to Australia but I’m certain they still had lots of fun and made the most of their time. We also had an opportunity to view the galley, stores, bakery, forward hold and engine. In the forward hold, live animals were transported some of which were slaughtered for fresh meat to be used in the kitchens during the passage.

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The Engine Room, SS Great Britain

Touring the museum ship was an absolute treat as it is set out with interactive displays and rather than just being able to glance into cabins, kitchens etc., visitors are actively encouraged to step inside and relive the voyage.  I was also pleasantly surprised to find how accessible each part of the ship was.  Over the years I’ve visited numerous museum ships where it’s been necessary to clamber up and down steep narrow stairways and although I haven’t found it problematic, it would be for some visitors.  Don’t let that dissuade you from touring the SS Great Britain and enjoying life on board the ship. Tickets are valid for one year, providing an opportunity to view the new exhibit ‘Being Brunel’ about the life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel which is due to open at the end of March 2018.

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SS Great Britain in Bristol Harbour

We spent about two and a half hours exploring SS Great Britain so I would suggest setting aside half a day for a visit to this majestic vessel.  It was back on the water for us as we caught another one of the Bristol Ferry boats back to the city centre.  As it was lunchtime we popped into the V Shed pub on the waterfront for a panini and coffee before catching a No.75 bus to Aerospace Bristol, the new home of Concorde.

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Aerospace Bristol Logo

Checking route information on the First buses website, the journey time was listed as 31 minutes and it claimed contactless payment was available.  Both of these facts appeared to be incorrect as our Saturday afternoon journey actually took 50 minutes and the driver would only permit cash payments despite having a card reader installed!  A day ticket costs £4.50 and fortunately I had a £20 note to be able to pay for the two tickets otherwise we would probably have not been allowed to board.

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Concorde on display

The 75 service doesn’t actually drop passengers at the door of the museum so its necessary to alight at Gypsy Patch Lane just after you see the large Royal Mail sorting office on your left.  To get to the museum, continue walking along the road for approximately ten minutes (there is a pavement) and you will see the museum ahead.

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Visitors are able to board Concorde

Aerospace Bristol only opened in October 2017 and is located on the historic Filton airfield from where every British Concorde made its maiden flight.  Adult admission is £15 and is valid for one year for return visits.  The museum cost £19 million to build and its main attraction and centrepiece is undoubtedly a visit to the purpose built Concorde hangar to view Concorde Alpha Foxtrot, the last of the iconic supersonic passenger jets to be built and the last to fly 14 years ago in 2003.

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Inside Concorde

Bristol can safely hold claim to being the rightful home of Concorde, being the location of the U.K. assembly line and where the airframe and engines were largely developed. Viewing Concorde in its shiny, new home was a marvellous experience.  Not only are visitors able to walk around the outside of the aircraft but they are also invited to step on board through its front doors.

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Champagne from the maiden flight

The aircraft design needed to be long and thin as it was all about speed, but it was still surprising to note how narrow the soft leather seats were and how little legroom was provided.  We peered into the cockpit wondering what all the buttons and switches controlled, saw the toilets which were not even as smart or spacious as those we are familiar with today when travelling long haul economy.  Considering the gourmet meals served during the supersonic three and a half hour flight between London and New York, it was a tight fit in the cramped galley for the cabin crew to prepare the food.

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Beneath Concorde

After leaving Concorde by its rear door, there was still plenty to see. Off to one side is a gallery dedicated to the airliner where we saw menus, champagne bottles from its maiden flight, changes in seat design, smart uniforms and other fascinating memorabilia.  The Concorde hangar has been designed to be used to also host functions, just imagine enjoying dinner sitting beneath the wings of Concorde – it’s certainly a venue with a difference!

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The Bristol Tramways and Carriage Company

Although Concorde is Aerospace Bristol’s showstopper there’s lots more to keep visitors interested.  Back in the main building, the museum explores the wider history of the aerospace history in Bristol from the earliest days of powered flight to the latest technological advances.

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Sea Harrier Jet Fighter

In 1910, the entrepreneur Sir George White announced that Bristol Tramways and Carriage Company were going to branch out into aircraft, and at the outset of World War One the British Colonial Aerospace Company (BCAC) was launched and building fighter planes.  Since then, warplanes, missiles, helicopters, satellites and rockets have all been built in Filton and the surrounding Bristol area.

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Bristol Type 192 Belvedere Helicopter

Exhibits range from a Sea Harrier jet fighter noted for its vertical take-off and landing, and its use in the Falklands conflict, to the Bristol Type 192 Belvedere twin rotor helicopter which had originally been designed for inter-city travel but was later used as a troop carrier and bears resemblance to the modern Chinook used today. As well as exhibits, there are numerous interactive displays designed for both adults and children.  Using one of these we tried to create enough power to fly a plane and on another we learnt about engine thrust, providing visitors with both an educational and fun experience.

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Bristol F.2B Fighter

We had found the museum so interesting that we were among the final visitors to leave just before it was closing.  Along with SS Great Britain its a definite must see on a visit to Bristol and I would recommend setting aside at least two hours for a visit to Aerospace Bristol.

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A cross section of a Bristol Britannia

On leaving, instead of returning back into the city centre on the same bus service we arrived on, we continued walking along the road to the Cribbs Causeway Mall which is a large, out of town shopping centre located to the north of Bristol.  It took us about 20 minutes to walk to the mall, most of the way along pavements with just a short section where we had to take extra care.  After a day of museums we rested our feet with tea and cakes in the John Lewis cafe then did a spot of window shopping and admired the festive decorations before returning to the city centre on a No.2 bus.  Numerous buses operate between Cribbs Causeway and the centre of Bristol so we didn’t have to wait very long to board.  Journey time was similar to that of the service we took earlier in the day.

It was then back to our hotel after a fun filled day viewing ships and aircraft.

Day 2. A day in Bath

We were up bright and early as we had planned to spend the day in neighbouring Bath, 10 miles (16km) from Bristol.  Getting there was easy as trains depart frequently from Bristol Temple Meads taking just over 10 minutes to Bath Spa station, adult off-peak day return fares are £8.60.

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Abbey Square, Bath

From the moment we left the station and wandered towards the city centre, we thought that Bath was absolutely beautiful with its stylish Georgian architecture.  Passing through Milsom Place, we could easily have been tempted into looking in some of the smart, sophisticated stores but that needed to wait until later in the day as we had lots of sightseeing planned first.

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View from the Terrace, Roman Baths

In the heart of the city stands The Roman Baths, a well preserved Roman site for public bathing.  As it is one of the finest historical sites in Europe we decided to visit there early before it became crowded later in the day.  After obtaining our tickets (adult admission £15.50) which come with useful audio guides, we made our way to the terrace which overlooks the Great Bath.  Surrounding the terrace are Victorian statues of Roman emperors and governors of Britain.  The views, both looking down into the Great Bath and of the city centre are stunning.

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The Great Bath, Roman Baths

Continuing our tour below modern street level the Roman Baths are divided into four main sections, the Sacred Spring, the Roman Temple, the Roman Bath House and the museum.  A gallery on ‘Meet the Romans’ takes visitors into the Roman town of Aqua Sulis where we found archaeological ruins, artefacts and models of the Roman temple.

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The Roman Bath House

Having viewed the Great Bath from above, we were able to walk around the edge of the steaming pool, filled with hot spa water and view the magnificent centrepiece of the Roman Baths.  The water that flows into the Roman Baths is considered unsafe for bathing and visitors are not permitted to enter the water, however the recently constructed nearby Thermae Bath Spa allows visitors to bathe and experience the waters.

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A guide at the Roman Baths

Near the exit there is a spa water fountain from which visitors can taste the water containing 43 minerals that’s been used for curative purposes for more than 2,000 years.  I would suggest allowing two hours for a visit to the Roman Baths, to be able to see everything without needing to rush.

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Interior of Bath Abbey

After leaving the Roman Baths we crossed Abbey Square to visit Bath Abbey which was founded in the 7th century but did not resemble what we see today until 1499.  There is no admittance charge to visit the Abbey but donations are welcome and help towards the upkeep of the building.  The interior is stunning, having some beautiful stained glass windows and a fan vaulted ceiling.

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Behind the clock face, Bath Abbey Tower

Tours of the tower take place each hour and as one was about to start, we decided to join the other 6 people and climb more than 200 stone steps which are enclosed in a narrow spiral staircase. The climb is broken down into manageable chunks with a pause part way up to look in the bell ringers room and hear a short history of the abbey’s bells.  Next, we were taken into a tiny room hardly bigger than a cupboard, where we actually sat behind the clock face and moving on a little further, we inspected the bells themselves and watched as one of them struck the half hour.

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Taking the Bath Abbey Tower Tour

On reaching the Abbey roof we had splendid views over the city and our helpful guide was on hand to answer any questions.  The tour lasts around 50 minutes and costs £6 which I thought was good value.  I would recommend climbing the tower if the weather is good, bags can be left in a locked room as it would be difficult to navigate the staircase with bulky items.

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Panoramic views from the top of the Bath Abbey tower

As the sun was shining we then decided to have a walk beside the river and take a look at Pulteney Bridge which crosses the river Avon.  It was completed in 1774 in Palladian style to connect the city with the newly built Georgian town of Bathwick.  It was a pleasant stroll along the riverbank as we passed the weir and returned to the other side of the river via the next bridge a little further downstream.

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Pulteney Bridge, Bath

It was then time to pop into a cafe for some sandwiches and coffee and after a little rest we were ready to continue exploring the city.  Our next stop was to the Bath Postal Museum which is a small museum dedicated to the postal service.  I am very fond of anything post related and was keen to visit this museum which included a reconstructed Victorian post office, a collection of heritage post boxes and some cabinets containing old stamps.  I thought that the £4.50 admission price was perhaps a little high for the size of the museum but it did contain some interesting exhibits.  It’s located beneath the existing post office on Northgate Street and has limited opening hours.

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Inside the Bath Postal Museum

A walk through the shopping centre followed as we made our way to the Assembly Rooms which house the Fashion Museum.  Entrance to the museum is £9 but a combined ticket can be purchased which is better value if you are also wishing to visit the Roman Baths.

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Glamorous fashion on display at the Fashion Museum

The Assembly Rooms are a splendid Georgian building where guests came to dance, listen to music and play cards, they are now owned by the National Trust and admittance is free.  The Fashion Museum is located on the lower ground floor and is one of the world’s top 10 museums of fashionable dress.  Exploring the galleries, we found everything from Georgian gowns to the latest designer trends.  Included with the ticket was an audio guide which was useful when more information was needed on a particular garment.  There’s also a dressing up room with large mirrors if you fancy seeing yourself in a Georgian ballgown or other outfit.

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The Royal Crescent, Bath

From the Assembly Rooms we consulted our map once again and made our way over to view some of Bath’s finest Georgian architecture at the Circus and Royal Crescent.  Originally known as the King’s Circus, the Circus is a circle of townhouses divided into three curved segments and arranged in a circular shape.  We sat down for a few minutes on one of the benches in its central gardens admiring the buildings before continuing a little further to the Royal Crescent.

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A warm welcome at No.1 Georgian House Museum

The Royal Crescent is a row of 30 terraced houses laid out in a sweeping crescent and is believed to be one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the U.K.  Standing on the corner is No.1 Royal Crescent, a museum that has been furnished as it might have been during the period 1776-1796.  It was an hour before closing time when we arrived, but there was still ample time to tour the house and being late in the day, we had the museum more or less to ourselves.

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The formal dining room, No.1 Georgian House Museum, Bath

Instead of guided tours, a member of staff is available in each room to answer questions and provide useful insights into how the room may have been used.  The museum is spread over several floors and includes the kitchen and scullery below stairs.  We found the staff to be very helpful and informative and were pleased that we decided to visit.  Standard admission is £10 with concessions available.

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The Royal Crescent, Bath

Thankfully, it was a downhill walk back into the centre of town, where we glanced in some of the fashionable shops before returning to the station for an early evening train back to Bristol.  It would have been nice to sit down on the train but as it was crowded when we boarded, we had to stand for the short 10 minute journey.

We had a lovely day in beautiful Bath and were fortunate to experience the city on such a sunny, winter’s day.  Bath has so many cultural highlights that it wouldn’t have been possible to see them all in one day so I’m certain we will be returning before too long to see even more.

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Day 1. The start of our Bristol city break

After enjoying city breaks in London, Edinburgh and Birmingham we decided to head to the south west of England for our next weekend away.  My journey on board a CrossCountry train was pleasant, having an interesting conversation with an Edinburgh green keeper, learning about life on one of Scotland’s premier golf courses as we journeyed south.

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Temple Meads Railway Station, Bristol

After three and a half hours, my train pulled into Bristol Temple Meads station just five minutes behind schedule at 1.45 p.m. and it was good to find my son waiting to greet me as I stepped onto the platform.

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Statue of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Temple Meads station was opened in 1840 as the western terminus of the Great Western Railway from London Paddington.  This railway station was the first to be designed by the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and is now a Grade 1 listed building.

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Bristol Waterfront

Our first stop was to the Bristol Central Travelodge on Mitchell Street, conveniently located for visiting the majority of the city’s attractions and not very far from the station.  After checking into our room and leaving our luggage, we were ready for a bite to eat so we settled down in the Knight’s Templar pub where we planned our afternoon activities over a light lunch.

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Historic ships, Bristol Harbour

An hour later and we were ready to begin our tour of the city.  Our first stop was at Temple Quay which lies to the west of the station and is a waterside development including a significant amount of office accommodation.  It’s also the starting point for the Bristol Ferry’s service, which operate regularly through the city.

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Historic ships, Bristol Harbour

Continuing further, we arrived at Bristol’s Harbourside which at one time was the Port of Bristol’s busy dock area where merchants traded goods and ships sailed on voyages of discovery.  Strolling along the quayside, we discovered that the area has been transformed into an attractive tourist attraction with shops, restaurants and cultural highlights lining the waterfront.  Former warehouses have been converted into museums and galleries overlooking historic ships moored on the quay.

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Bristol Cathedral

A quick check of our map followed and soon we had arrived at College Green which is surrounded by Bristol Cathedral, City Hall, the Lord Mayor’s Chapel and the Abbey Gatehouse.  Entrance to the cathedral is free of charge and so we took an opportunity to admire the interior with its tall, gothic windows and clustered columns along the nave towards the main altar.

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Interior of Bristol Cathedral

From the Cathedral we made our way to the top of Park Street so that we could take a look at the landmark building of the University of Bristol.  Known as the Will’s Memorial Building, this neo-gothic tower was completed in 1925 and is considered to be one of the last, great Gothic buildings to be constructed in this country.  We were able to walk into the entrance but public access is not permitted beyond this point.

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The Will’s Memorial Building, University of Bristol

It then started raining heavily, so we took shelter looking around the Broadmead shopping centre with its festive lights helping to brighten up a dark, damp evening.  Finishing shopping, our feet were beginning to tire so we found a city centre pub to rest awhile, enjoy a meal and finalise plans for our next day’s activities.

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Attractive shopping arcades in Bristol

There was only a slight drizzle when we returned outdoors and made our way to Millennium Square by the harbour to enjoy the Christmas Market with its ice rink, Ferris wheel and enchanting small wooden huts decorated with twinkling fairy lights.

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Sky View Wheel, Bristol

Being a lover of Ferris wheels, we couldn’t resist the temptation of a ride on the Sky View Wheel for some stunning nighttime views of the city skyline from a height of 35m.  The Bristol Christmas Market continues until 16th January 2018 allowing plenty of opportunities for visitors to come and enjoy the festivities.

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Millennium Square Christmas Market, Bristol

It was then getting late, so we returned to the hotel to get a good night’s rest as we wanted to make an early start the next day.

A Victorian Christmas at Harewood House

As we’d recently had the pleasure of viewing the exquisite toys and dolls on display at the Ilkley Toy Museum we couldn’t resist the temptation of seeing them once again whilst they were on loan to Harewood House.

Harewood House

Harewood is a stately home in North Yorkshire, located mid way between Harrogate and Leeds and it’s the first time in five years that the House and Gardens have been opened during the festive season.  Much of the filming for the popular ITV television series Victoria took place at Harewood and to celebrate this, Michael Howells, the programme’s award winning set designer returned to dress the state rooms and kitchens for visitors to come and enjoy.

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The welcoming Christmas Tree

Edwin Lascelles, 1st Earl of Harewood, started building Harewood in 1759 and employed the finest craftsmen of the time, with no expense spared in creating his palatial Yorkshire residence.  The title has now passed on to David Lascelles, 8th Earl of Harewood who lives in the house and is a first cousin once removed of the Queen.  Viewing the decorations, it’s not difficult to imagine the lavish celebrations the family must have enjoyed over the years.

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The Yellow Drawing Room

We started our tour in the Robert Adam designed grand entrance hall with its huge welcoming Christmas tree as its centrepiece, giving us an indication of what lay in store as we toured the state rooms.

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Victorian Toys on display

The Drawing Room was resplendent with elaborate Victorian decorations yet still had a homely feel with its roaring fire and displays of toys and dolls on loan from the Ilkley Toy Museum.  It’s hard to believe, but at the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was hardly celebrated but towards its end, things began to change rapidly.

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The State Dining Room

Queen Victoria introduced one of the most prominent aspects of Christmas, that of celebrating around a Christmas tree, a tradition reminiscent of Prince Albert’s childhood in Germany.  It was not long afterwards that almost every home in Britain had their own Christmas tree.  The Victorians continued to transform the idea of Christmas and invented the Christmas cracker.  This was originally a simple package filled with sweets that were later replaced with small gifts and paper hats similar to those we decorate our dining tables with today.

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Festive food displays in the kitchen

Another festive favourite was the Christmas card which started when Henry Cole commissioned an artist to design a card in 1843.  As these were expensive, people started making their own and by the 1880’s the sending of cards had become extremely popular.

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Recipe cards for visitors to try

Continuing our tour of the rooms, the State Dining Room was laid out to give the impression that good food and wine had been enjoyed and the guests had retired to the Drawing Room to relax.  It must have been a grand affair sitting around the large Chippendale dining table.  In this room we found more toys, board games, toy soldiers and dolls helping to bring the Victorian Christmas to life.

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Toy Soldiers on loan from Ilkley Toy Museum

We then took a look below stairs in the kitchens and scullery where we could feel the hustle and bustle of life in service, amidst the preparations for an indulgent Christmas.  Food delicacies of the period were on display and we enjoyed collecting some recipe sheets to try at home.  These included spiced parsnip soup and red cabbage with walnuts and stilton both of which sound interesting and I think I’ll make at home.

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The Harewood House Courtyard

Observing all this festive fare was making us feel hungry, so our next stop was to the Courtyard Cafe where we enjoyed a light lunch of vegetable soup, homemade cakes and coffee.  We then looked in the gift shop and the children’s activity centre which was well equipped with craft items and instruction sheets demonstrating how to make both Victorian Christmas cards and crackers.

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Festive family activities

From the courtyard, we explored the grounds and gardens. There are over 100 acres of gardens at Harewood, this magnificent setting having been laid out by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.  It was a bitterly cold late November day but viewing the bird garden with its penguins, flamingoes, owls and parrots helped to lift our spirits.  An unexpected bonus was to see a red kite hover overhead.  Red kites were released onto the Harewood Estate in 1999 as part of a conservation initiative involving the RSPB.  Numbers have gradually increased and there are now around 300 red kites in this part of North Yorkshire.

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Flamingoes on the Harewood lake

Before leaving the grounds, we strolled around the lakeside path following the Christmas Carol family trail.  From an activity sheet we’d picked up indoors, we searched for clues hidden along the path helping us solve the names of eight Victorian carols – a fun way to complete our visit to Harewood’s Victorian Christmas.

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The Penguin House at Harewood

If you are also interested in experiencing The Victorian Christmas at Harewood it is taking place between 24th November – 31st December (excluding 24th-26th December), adult admission is £16.  Visitors arriving by bus can gain half price admission on production of their tickets.  A free shuttle bus then meets passengers at the main entrance archway taking them down the long sweeping drive to the house.

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Festive planting at Harewood

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An evening at the RHS Glow Winter Illuminations

What better way to lift our spirits on a dark, damp evening than with a visit to the RHS Garden Harlow Carr to view their Glow Illuminations.

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Thurnscoe Male Voice Choir


It’s the first year that lights have been installed in the gardens, and as we have visited Harlow Carr on numerous occasions in daylight we were eager to view the landscape after dusk.  The gardens are located in Beckwithshaw on the outskirts of Harrogate, North Yorkshire and have ample free parking.

Before leaving the car, we wrapped up warm with hats, scarves and gloves and made our way over to the visitor centre with its welcoming twinkling lights and beautifully decorated Christmas tree helping us to get into the festive spirit.

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Harlow Carr Gift Shop Window

Over in one corner, the Thurnscoe Male Voice Choir were performing and we almost forgot that we had come to follow the Glow trail as we stood for quite some time listening to their uplifting, festive music.

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Glow lighting

Stepping outdoors, the gardens were a winter wonderland of colour.  One of the guides told us that it had taken a team of six people an entire week to assemble the 400 LED light fittings using 4,100 metres of cable.  As we walked along the trail, the perfectly positioned Illuminations made the most of the natural features, highlighting specific trees and shrubs and painting them with light.

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Stunning lighting effects at Glow

The garden borders and winter walk have been transformed into an enchanting display, bringing a touch of magic to this most northerly of RHS gardens.  Around the Queen Mother Lake, cleverly placed lights produce stunning reflections on the water with views across to the main buildings.

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Along the lakeside sculpture trail

Mid way around the trail, we warmed up with mugs of mulled wine and overindulged on mince pies and Christmas cake in the Betty’s Cafe and Tearooms pavilion.  This cosy setting provided us with even more festive cheer and a chance to sit and relax before completing our evening stroll.

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3D lighting effects at Glow

There were even more stunning lighting effects to admire alongside the stream side sculpture trail from where we had some splendid views looking back towards the visitor centre.  The illuminations showcase the structure of the gardens after dark, adding a new dimension to Harlow Carr in the run up to Christmas.

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Lakeside lighting effects

Before returning home we took a look in the RHS gift shop where we found much to tempt us as Christmas approaches.  Beyond the gift shop there is a large plant centre which seemed to stock everything for the garden enthusiast whatever the time of year.

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Festive shop displays

Visiting Glow was an absolute delight and a real opportunity to see Harlow Carr in a different light!  If you might also be interested in seeing the Glow winter illuminations they are taking place each weekend (Thursday to Saturday) between 23rd November and 30th December 2017, with a reduced garden admission price of £8 (RHS members free of charge) after 3.00 p.m.  Last admission to the gardens is one hour before closure at 7.00 p.m.

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Harlow Carr Gardens in the springtime

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Historic Lancaster

A weekend visit to the historic city of Lancaster located in the north west of England was our plan, approximately a two hour drive from our home.  I’d visited Lancaster before but not for many years and on entering the city, it was still congested through the one way system as we crept along until finding a turn off to a car park.

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Pub just below Lancaster Castle

Before looking around the city we found a pleasant pub for a bar snack and a drink before climbing a hill to visit Lancaster Castle which overlooks the town and river Lune below.

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Lancaster Castle

The castle buildings are owned by the Duchy of Lancaster and part of the castle is leased to Lancashire county council who operate a crown court in part of the building.  Interestingly, up until 2011 a large section of the castle was leased out to Her Majesty’s Prison Service, with the H.MP. Lancaster Castle sign above the large entrance gates still in place.  Tours of the castle cost £8 and last 90 minutes, further details can be found here.

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Judges’ Lodgings, Lancaster

Leaving the castle, a little lower down the hill we came to the Judges’ Lodgings which is the oldest remainng town house in Lancaster, dating back to the 17th century.  The building was originally home to Thomas Covell, Keeper of Lancaster Castle and a notorious witch hunter.  It was then used by visiting judges when they attended the sessions at the Assizes Court but this ceased in 1975 when the building was converted into a museum.  Sadly, the museum closed in 2016 due to council cutbacks but there are plans for it to re-open in the near future.

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Lancaster City Museum, Market Square, Lancaster

Returning to the town centre we wandered along the narrow, pedestrianised streets, glancing in the quaint shop windows along the way and being drawn in to some of the more interesting stores.  Although quite small for a city, Lancaster has a prosperous feel and with its artisan food stalls in the market square it was buzzing with activity.

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Interior of Lancasster City Museum

Dominating the market square in what was once the town hall is Lancaster City Museum.  The museum was founded in 1923 and features displays on the history of the city from Roman to current times.  Also located within the building is the Kings Own Royal Regiment Museum with artefacts covering Lancaster’s Regimental history.  Admission to both these museums is free of charge and we found each of them interesting to view.

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Millenium Bridge, Lancaster

Our walk continued along the River Lune which stretches 53 miles through Cumbria and Lancashire.  To celebrate the millennium the Lune millennium bridge was constructed, opening in 2001 and allowing pedestrian and cyclist access.  This cable stayed footbridge is unusual in that it forms a Y-shape, connecting the riverbank, a viaduct and the quay.  Our car was parked close to the river so we concluded our tour through the city here but decided to stop off at Lancaster University on our way home.

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Lake Carter duck pond, Lancaster University

The University campus is situated three miles outside the city centre at Bailrigg and was established in 1964.  Occupying a 360 acre site in a parkland setting, campus buildings are located on a hilltop whilst the lower slopes are landscaped with sweeping lawns, the Lake Carter duck pond and playing fields.  In recent years the university has expanded with the building of new halls of residence and research facilities making it a pleasant environment for study.

After a busy day of sightseeing in Lancaster we made our way home with fond memories of our visit to this part of Lancashire.

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Modern buildings on the Lancaster University campus

Feeling nostalgic at the Ilkley Toy Museum 

Tucked away on a side street yet only a few minutes walk from Ilkley railway station stands the Ilkley Toy Museum.  This hidden gem has been located in a former Sunday School building in the attractive small West Yorkshire town of Ilkley for the past 16 years.

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A giant bear in a soldier’s uniform at the Ilkley Toy Museum

The museum contains one of the finest private collections of toys and dolls in the north of England and after enjoying visits to toy museums in London, Edinburgh and Espoo, Finland we were eager to take a look at the items on display here too.

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Dolls on display in the Ilkley Toy Museum

The Ilkley Toy Museum is generally only open to the public between 12.00 noon and 4.00 p.m. at weekends but school parties can arrange educational mid-week visits.  During opening hours a giant sized bear dressed as a policeman guards the entrance, his pockets filled with useful museum leaflets.  Stepping inside, another large bear dressed as a soldier with a bright red jacket stands on duty near the ticket desk.

Part of the model fairground

Arranged in glass cabinets are a collection of toys representing a journey back to childhood for many visitors.  We were particularly interested in a model fairground which was thought to have been made around 1950.  This scale model comprises 21 pieces of which 12 are electrically powered.

Visitors can operate this model fairground by purchasing a token costing 20p from the reception desk.  Placing our token into the slot, we gazed in awe as the fairground swung into action and it was fun to watch the merry-go-round rotate and the swings swaying during the 45 second operation.

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The interior of a dolls house kitchen

There’s a large display of Victorian dolls’ houses with miniature furniture and household items.  The attention to detail is incredible with intricately painted porcelain and tiny pieces of lace edged cotton for tablecloths.

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The Original Swan

One of the buildings, the Original Swan c1865-70 caught our attention, formerly in the Vivien Greene Dolls House collection, it was bought by the museum from a lady in Oxfordshire when it was in a derelict condition.  The featureless dolls house has since been converted into an 1880’s country hotel with a period bar and other fittings restoring it to its former glory.  Taking pride of place in the centre of the room is a large model railway bringing out the child in all of us.

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Teddy Bear on duty pointing the way upstairs

Along the corridor and pointing the way upstairs was another helpful bear, this time a traditional teddy bear sitting comfortably in a chair and sporting a red bow tie.  There are two galleries on the upper floor both full of fascinating exhibits in glass display cabinets and beneath them we found pull-out drawers packed with tin plate figures, small metal cars, wooden and paper toys.

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One of the upstairs galleries filled with toys

One of the games on display, a Waddington’s Formula One board game was familiar to us as an elderly relative has this in one of her cupboards.  This game has kept our family amused over the years with its 1950’s racing car models and cardboard dashboards and hopefully it will continue to do so for generations to come.

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Waddington’s Formula 1 board game

In the dolls’ gallery there is a beautiful display of early English wooden dolls, pedlar dolls weighed down with their big wooden trays filled with tiny trinkets and many other exquisite dolls through the ages.

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Pedlar Dolls

We adored Pratt’s Garage, a rare wooden service station dating from 1932.  The Crescent Garage in the foreground has intricate detail with its very own wooden accessories including an air and water set.  The car filling up at the petrol pumps is a 1935 coupe.

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Rare wooden garages on display

Also on display is a 1980’s Paddington Bear made by Gabrielle Designs.  Michael Bond wrote the first of his Paddington books in 1958 but it wasn’t until the 1970’s that Paddington gained popularity when he first appeared on television.  In the photo Paddington is stood next to a Richard Steiff teddy bear whose German company are believed to have developed the teddy bear in the early 1900’s.

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Paddington Bear and Friends

Before leaving the museum we had a look in the small museum shop which stocks a range of traditional toys, games and jigsaws.  As soon as I returned home, I went straight upstairs to say hello to my very own Paddington Bear which I received as a gift in 1980.  He is identical to the one on display in the Toy Museum except that his felt hat is now perhaps a little faded from the sun.

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My very own Paddington Bear and Teddy

He still wears his original blue Dunlop wellington boots and looks smart with his red duffel coat.  Sitting next to him is my much loved teddy bear Edward, who has been at my side as my dear friend for as long as I can remember.  His coat is made from mohair and he has a growler sewn into the back of his body from which he can still manage a deep grunt if he is gently rocked.  I wonder, do you still have dolls or teddy bears from your own childhood?  If so, do please let me know who your favourites are!

The Ilkley Toy Museum will be displaying a collection of their Victorian board games, dolls houses, toy soldiers and rare dolls at a Victorian Christmas at Harewood from 24th November – 31st December 2017.  Harewood House is located 7 miles from Leeds and Harrogate and further details of the event can be found on their website.

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I would like to thank the Ilkley Toy Museum for kindly inviting us to visit their toy collection.

Day 1.  A day at the seaside in Blackpool 

It’s been a number of years since we last visited Blackpool, one of England’s premier seaside resorts, so we thought we’d return and see if it had changed.  Blackpool is located in the north west of England on Lancashire’s Fylde coast.  We travelled by train, arriving into Blackpool North station shortly before lunch.  When purchasing our rail tickets we took advantage of the Plusbus scheme available at certain destinations, paying an additional £3.60 each per day for unlimited use of local public transport.  In Blackpool standard day tickets cost £5 making Plusbus good value.

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Themed funfair seats in the Layton Rakes pub, Blackpool

A few minutes walk from the station we reached the promenade and our first glimpse of the iconic Blackpool Tower.  It was a little early to check into our hotel and feeling hungry after our early start, we enjoyed hearty cooked breakfasts and coffee in the JD Wetherspoon Layton Rakes pub.  The pub’s interior features a seaside funfair theme with some booth seats styled to resemble rollercoaster rides.

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Our room at the Ibis Styles Hotel, Blackpool

Our hotel, the Ibis Styles, was just around the corner in Talbot Square.  The hotel, once the historic Clifton Hotel and more recently a Travelodge, overlooks the seafront facing the North Pier having arguably the best position in the town.  The room, although adequate, was not to the usual standard of an Ibis Styles and I can only assume that the refurbishment programme is ongoing.  Check in for our overnight stay was efficient and after dropping off our luggage we crossed the road for a stroll on the North Pier.

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North Pier, Blackpool

The oldest of Blackpool’s three piers, it first opened in 1863 as a 500m pleasure pier with a landing jetty.  There is no fee to stroll along this English Heritage listed wooden pier jutting out over the town’s Blue Flag beach into the Irish Sea.  The pier is still in regular use today with its bars, ice cream parlour, theatre and amusement arcade attracting visitors in search of traditional seaside fun.

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The Blackpool Tower building

A little further along the promenade lies the famous Blackpool Tower, rising to a height of 158m (518 feet).  It was constructed in 1894 inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris, however the base of this tower is hidden by a red brick, three storey building which houses a circus, aquarium and the famous Tower Ballroom.

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Ascending the lift to the top of Blackpool Tower

Tickets can be purchased covering some or all of the Tower attractions and are 20% cheaper if pre-booked online.  We just wished to take the lift to the top of the tower which costs £13.50 per person on the day but as we had travelled to Blackpool by train we were able to take advantage of the 2 for 1 National Rail days out offer which provides a 50% discount on certain attractions if a downloaded voucher is presented with rail tickets valid for that day.

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View of the Blackpool coastline from the top of Blackpool Tower

Included in the ticket price is a short 4D film about the history of the tower and of the town.  On entering the 4D theatre we were handed 3D glasses to wear and stood on one of the raised platforms ready for the performance to begin.  I had thought it strange that there were no seats but this became apparent when the film started as the incredible filming included sensory effects with shaking floors, wind and sea spray.

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The Walk of Faith, Blackpool Eye

After enjoying the 4D cinema experience we were guided to the lifts which take visitors to the top of the tower.  We watched cars and buildings decrease in apparent size through the steel girders as we ascended to the indoor viewing platform now known as the Blackpool Eye.  If you have a good head for heights you can take ‘The Walk of Faith’, which is a 5cm glass floor running along the western edge of the tower.  Standing on the glass we were able to view the vertical drop onto the promenade directly below and watch a tram pass by.  There are uninterrupted views of the north west coastline and over the town from the viewing area which is the highest observation platform in the north west of England.  This enclosed viewing area also includes a cafe/bar with seating.

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Upper viewing area, The Blackpool Eye

When weather permits it’s also possible to climb up a narrow spiral staircase to further viewing platforms.  Although it’s worthwhile making the ascent, the outdoor levels are not very good for photography being covered in protective mesh.  It was quiet on the afternoon of our visit but one way staircases operate as it would otherwise be impossible to pass on the narrow stairways.

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Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Having enjoyed the bird’s eye views from the top of the tower we took the lift back down to ground level.  It wasn’t possible for us to view the beautiful Tower Ballroom as a separate ticket is now needed to enter this elegant dance hall.  Pausing at the door, we heard the melodic sounds coming from its famous Wurlitzer organ and caught a glimpse of couples enjoying an afternoon whirl on the dance floor.  The ballroom features annually on the calendar of the UK’s Strictly Come Dancing programme and I remember being taken there by my parents many years ago.

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The Golden Mile, Blackpool

Leaving the Tower we strolled along the promenade passing the famous Golden Mile with its myriad of slot machine arcades, fortune tellers, fish and chip shops and stalls selling Blackpool rock.  Tacky yes, but it’s what Blackpool is famous for, gone are the ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hats but otherwise it’s business as usual.  In its heyday, thousands flocked to the resort for their annual holidays from the nearby Lancashire mill towns but since the advent of cheap overseas package holidays with guaranteed sunshine in the 1960’s the town has seen a steady decline in visitor numbers.

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Central Pier, Blackpool

Sitting shoulder to shoulder from Bispham in the north to the Pleasure Beach in the south, are hundreds of hotels and guest houses.  In fact, Blackpool has around 3,000 hotels and guest houses, its hard to believe but that’s more than the whole of Portugal!  Our stroll in the bracing sea air continued past the Central Pier with its large Ferris wheel and took us all the way to the South Pier which is much further along.

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Looking north from the South Pier, Blackpool

Facing the South Pier is the Pleasure Beach, a theme park featuring a selection of rides from roller coasters to gentler rides suitable for young children.  It used to be possible to wander around the Pleasure Beach but nowadays it’s necessary to purchase a wristband to enter.

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Cleveleys, Lancashire

After our lengthy walk we caught a northbound tram to Cleveleys.  Trams have run along the Blackpool seafront since 1885 making it one of the oldest tramways in the world.  The track is 11 miles long starting from Starr Gate in the south up to Fleetwood which lies to the north of Blackpool.  Since 2012 the old trams in the Blackpool corporation green and cream livery have been replaced with modern, low floor trams but some heritage trams still operate in the autumn whilst the illuminations are taking place.

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Las Vegas style wedding chapel, Blackpool seafront

The Plusbus ticket allows travel as far as Cleveleys so we enjoyed a ride along the 30 minute seafront route.  It’s many years since I was last in Cleveleys and it appeared much improved from how I remembered it.  We wandered along its main shopping street as far as the promenade before returning to the tram stop.  It was then back to our hotel for a short rest before our evening activities.

To be continued …..

Day 1.  The Blackpool Illuminations 

The Blackpool Illuminations is an annual lights festival which was founded in 1879.  It started life with garlands of 10,000 coloured light bulbs strung along the seafront and was such a huge success that it continued as an annual event extending the tourist season by an extra two months.

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Illuminated street leading to the seafront

The Illuminations or ‘The Lights’ as they are often referred to run from late August to early November each year.  The Lights extend for 6 miles (10 km) and contain more than one million light bulbs.  Each year on the opening night ‘The Big Switch On’ takes place with a live concert and a celebrity is invited to perform the switch on.  This year, for the first time, instead of a celebrity the illuminations were switched on by Star Trek with intergalactic help from a huge laser beam.  The switch on takes places on the Tower headland and it is so popular that around 100,000 people apply for the 20,000 tickets available.  The annual cost of staging the illuminations is £1.9m and although free to view, donation boxes are placed at each end of the promenade for voluntary contributions to help defray costs.

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Blackpool Tower and the promenade illuminations

Most visitors drive slowly through the illuminations by car or coach but viewing the extravaganza on board a tram is also popular especially on one of the three illuminated trams which are shaped to resemble a train, a boat and a rocket.  It takes 22 weeks to assemble the lights and to check that they are all working and then a further 9 weeks to dismantle them at the end of the festival.

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Night view from the top of Blackpool Tower

We ate dinner early so that we had plenty of time to view the illuminations.  Following our afternoon trip up the tower we noticed a poster offering ticket holders a return evening visit for an additional £3.  This offer seemed irresistible and so we returned at 8.00 p.m. to view the twinkling lights from the top of the Tower.

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Sunset view from the upper viewing deck

It was very quiet and we were able to ascend the lift without any delays.  I’m so pleased we were able to appreciate the views both day and night.  We even climbed up to the outer viewing area once more but it was quite windy up there so we didn’t linger very long.

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Blackpool illuminations

After leaving the Tower we strolled along the promenade as far south as Central Pier before boarding a northbound tram to Bispham which lies at one end of the illuminations.

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Bispham Tram Station

Bispham tram station was built in 1932 and has a facade of columns and urns.  It used to contain a ticket hall and provide shelter for waiting passengers but is now closed and is only in use as a tram stop.  Recently Blackpool Civic Trust submitted plans to re-open the heritage station as a cafe so hopefully this will happen soon and bring the building back into use.

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The ‘Western’ train illuminated tram
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The illuminated Blackpool tram depicting a train

Along the cliff tops from Bispham to North Shore the displays comprise 40 large tableaux.  A path runs alongside the tableaux which are set back from the promenade beyond the tram track making it easy to view them.

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Egyptian tableau at the Blackpool Illuminations

It was fun strolling past the various tableaux and watching the lighting effects.  The Egyptian tableau was very impressive as the sarcophagus opens to reveal a mummified secret.  In addition, to the side of the tableau a large mummy pops up to give onlookers a scare.

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The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party at Blackpool Illuminations

Moving along we observed a wide variety of tableaux ranging from nursery rhyme characters to television favourites.  I particularly liked the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party with Alice in Wonderland, featured above.  On reaching the end of the tableaux displays we caught a tram back to the North Pier and returned to our hotel after a fun filled day at the seaside in Blackpool.