I heard this traditional Welsh song on the tour bus before we stepped out onto the Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales.
We’ll keep a welcome in the hillside
We’ll keep a welcome in the Vales
This land you know will still be singing
When you come home again to Wales.
Mai Jones (1940)
As far as I was concerned though, you couldn’t hear the land singing so much as the wind whistling. Even though I was bundled up from the cold, within a few minutes, my eyes were tearing, my nose running and my ears ringing. As we hiked up the hill, I could appreciate the beauty of the landscape despite the discomfort. Just about.
The Brecon Beacons National Park
The Brecon Beacons national park stretches out over 332,100 acres with the valleys undulated between the Brecon mountains. The stone formations ripple from the icy farewell kiss of glaciers retreating after the last Ice Age. No one view the same as the other. Wild and remote, I can see the dramatic landscape bringing out the poet in anyone so inclined. It’s no surprise to me that some of the best fantasy writers in English – C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman and Roald Dahl are Welsh.
The highest mountain in Southern Britain, Pen y Fan, is located in the Brecon-Beacons National Park. George Everest, the geographer for whom Mt. Everest is named, was a local boy who grew up clambering up and down the local mountains. Paul, our guide from See Wales Tours, is on a personal mission to make sure that everyone knows that Everest is correctly pronounced Eve (as in the wife of Adam)-rest. So now you know. Feel free to throw that tidbit about at your next cocktail party if you want to sound like a pretentious plonker.
Who Lives There
Even though most of the population of Wales opts to live in the valleys nowadays (sensibly in my opinion), the Celts choose to live in hill forts above the valleys. From their high vantage point, they could see unfriendly people or animals approaching. I guess when confronted with the risk of death, being somewhat cold was a minor inconvenience. Wales has evidence of over 600 of these Celtic hill forts with 24 of them being in the Brecon Beacons. I would’ve have taken a photo of the fort we were shown if my fingers weren’t so numb from the cold.
These forts though were no match for the Romans who invaded in 43 AD. They eventually managed to subdue the Celtic tribes and set up their main base near the town of Beacon. Although you think of sheep as being a dominant part of the Welsh landscape, they are actually imports. The sheep were brought to Wales by the Romans from the areas of their empire we now know as Iran and Iraq.
Did you know that during the spring and summer, there are 3 million people in Wales and 15 million sheep? The sheep become fat and happy until they are culled in the fall. Pretty much everywhere I looked there were sheep.
After the Romans, it was the turn of the Normans to invade Wales. As they did in England, the Normans were big on building castles to keep their stranglehold on the local population. There are 641 castles in Wales and 6 of them are in the Brecon Beacons.
The Brecon-Beacons is also home to about 2000 wild ponies. No longer needed to work in the coal mines, the ponies are left to graze in the moorlands and keep the grass under control.
As an American, I find it surprising that there are homes and towns in British national parks. Unlike the USA where the government was able to designate national parks before they got settled, these lands have been settled for hundreds of years. The Brecon Beacons was only designated a national park in 1957 – a mere blink of an eye relative to the amount of time people have lived there.
The main town in the Brecon-Beacons National Park is Brecon with a population of about 20,000. There has been a settlement in the Beacon area for over 2000 years.
What to See and Do
The Brecon Beacons send out a homing signal for local outdoorsy types (of which there seemed to be many). We saw many hardy souls hiking the mountains despite the blustery wind. There is plenty of good hiking and biking trails. The rivers provide water activities and fishing. A portion of the Brecon Beacons has achieved Dark Skies status which means that the star gazing will be excellent.
For city folk like me, who prefer ‘soft adventure’ after a bracing (if short) walk, there are great country pubs and restaurants in the Brecon Beacons. While I was on my tour, my husband and children enjoyed a long leisurely Sunday lunch at The Three Horseshoes Inn in Brecon which they told me was excellent.
While they were testing out the culinary options, I went to the UNESCO world heritage site, the Big Pit National Coal Museum, which tells the story of coal mining in Wales. Divide and conquer and all that.
In terms of towns, Brecon has a small but charming cathedral. The Norman castle is a wreck and not worth visiting. In addition, Hay-on-Wye is a small town just at the edge of the national park which holds a world-renowned literature festival every year.
Wales is blessed to have 20% of its land mass designated as national parks. There are three national parks – the Pembrokeshire Coast in West Wales, Snowdonia in North Wales and the Brecon Beacons in the South. The most easily accessible for visitors is the Brecon Beacons. You can easily reach the Brecon Beacons from Cardiff in about an hour. There are regular express train connections from London to Cardiff.
Our day trip from Cardiff only covered a small portion of the Brecon Beacons. I had a great overview of how beautiful the park is thanks to our day with See Wales Tours which was organised by the Welsh Tourist Board. My family choose and paid for their own itinerary. As ever, all opinions are my own.
I crept past the looming head of Amenhotep III. His smirk gave away his thoughts on my midnight excursion through the gallery of priceless artefacts. Don’t judge me buddy, I thought, you’re made of stone. You don’t have mortal needs. The low rumble of the ventilation echoed through the open halls and high ceilings. As I moved further along the gallery, I realised the rumbling was just a parent snoring. Poor Amenhotep III survived thousands of years to spend his nights listening to middle-class British person snoring at a sleepover at the British Museum.
My Sweaty Betty pilates socks shuffled past more pharaohs whose names I didn’t know and assorted Egyptian gods. I realised that this walk was the most work that my pilates socks had seen in a year. Just when I thought I had gone too far, I heard the rumbling louder again. I was in another section with another parent snoring. I wondered if sleepover organisers had separated out the snoring parents for everyone’s sanity.
Fumbling past the darkened statues, I realised that it was a right at the Rosetta Stone to exit the Egyptian galleries. (Yeah, the real Rosetta Stone.) It was a left at the Rosetta Stone to get to the Parthenon and a right to get to the bathrooms. Welcome to a sleepover at the British Museum.
A Sleepover at the British Museum
For my daughter’s 10th birthday, she wanted to have a slumber party at a museum. In London, you can get sleepovers at several museums, including the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the British Museum.
I chose the British Museum because not only do I love it but also because they had the most structured program. A bunch of hyped-up children running around a museum brought back memories of the days I had spent on the children’s floor of the Science Museum before the twins started school. They thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I did not.
An empty Parthenon gallery is a perfect space for cartwheels.
The British Museum sleepovers are a highly organised affair. Registration starts at 6pm when the museum closes to the public. There are 2 activities, a snack break and another two activities. Preparation for bedtime begins at 11:30 and the lights go out at midnight. Wake-up time is 6:30 AM, breakfast at 7 AM and then there is a final activity before you are sent home.
I was utterly impressed with the military precision with which this sleepover was organised. I shall name no names but I have friends who have done sleepovers at other institutions which are not as well controlled. The children are kept occupied, active and out of trouble. My husband pointed out that the sleepover organisers probably learned their skills at the ultimate in British sleepovers, boarding school.
Did anything surprise me? Yes! We were allowed to sleep among priceless artefacts in the Egyptian and Assyrian galleries. When we have a party at my house, I clear the rooms of important things. I’m not sure why the British Museum would trust these kids with their (let me repeat) priceless artefacts. In addition, the shopping section in the middle of the museum was left wide open. The New Yorker in me didn’t understand why they didn’t worry about light-fingered people. Presumably, the British Museum thinks their guests are too well-behaved to steal (unless, of course, it involves the Parthenon and a dubious permit to purchase).
At the sleepover, our group of a couple of hundred children was split into four smaller groups. Each group did one activity together and then changed to another activity. I have been told there is always an arts and crafts activity and a physical activity. I would say most of the children were in the 9-11 year old range and fairly well-behaved. There were a couple of know-it-all Nigels whose parents beamed with indulgent pride at their precocious offspring but the activity leaders were very good at keeping all the children involved.
Our sleepover at the British Museum had an Olympic Games theme in honour of the Summer Olympics in Rio this year. The four activities were arts and crafts, capoeira, story-telling and secrets of the Ancient Greek Olympics which from what I could tell was just a museum crawl.
clockwise from top left: arts and crafts, capoeira practice, story-telling and a museum crawl
The arts and crafts hour involved creating your own Olympic athlete. Give my kid anything with glue and glitter and she is a happy camper.
Next up was the Capoeira lead by a team from the London School of Capoeira. Capoeira?? This martial art is an important cultural heritage and sport associated with Brasil. They glossed over the history and heritage of Capoeira which I think the children would have benefited from knowing. Maybe they didn’t want to get into a discussion on the slavery origins of Capoeira with all the liberal intellectual parents in the crowd. Anyway, our children jumped and kicked through 45 minutes until they were near exhaustion.
After the break, we had story-telling which my children initially thought would be too babyish. It wasn’t. They absolutely loved the story-telling which was lead by an enthusiastic lady who had a gift for theatre. We learned about the origins of the ancient Greek Olympics as well as the Greek gods associated with them.
The last activity involved walking around the galleries, upstairs and downstairs in the museum. We started and ended in the Parthenon which was only fitting. If my children weren’t exhausted before this activity, they were bone-tired afterwards. They crawled into their sleeping bags and were fast asleep in 15 minutes. Although I had been dreading sleeping on a museum floor with an ordinary sleeping mat and sleeping bag, I was fast asleep in minutes as well.
Good night from the British Museum
The morning came way too soon. I think it was cruel & unusual punishment to start Sunday morning off with a class on Greek and Roman trumpeting. Why trumpeting? To announce games and stuff, I guess. I was half-asleep even with a trumpet blaring in my ear. My kids were completely into it though. After the session, they went to try out all the trumpets which was as noisy as you can imagine.
My daughter and her friends absolutely loved the museum sleepover. I’m pretty sure we will be back to do another sleepover later in the year. I have some handy tips if you are considering a sleepover at the British Museum:
You are not allowed to bring anything motorised into the galleries. You are, however, allowed to bring blow up beds that are battery-operated. Smart parents brought blow-up beds (including doubles) and cot-beds so that they didn’t have to sleep on the floor.
Don’t bother with camping backpack gear. The smart money brought roll-away suitcases where you can just throw stuff into it in the morning. This trick will save you a lot less packing stress when you are bleary-eyed in the morning.
Go early so that you can get a prime position to set up camp. We found a little nook that was perfect for our 4 girls to set up.
The museum is kept at a nice temperature. Light sleeping clothes and a blanket are all that is needed.
When you pack your snack, make sure that you have enough to feed your crowd but not too much. Any extras get thrown out and don’t get given back to you. If I had known our Joe & Seph’s popcorn would not be returned to us, I would definitely have eaten the bag (whether or not I was hungry).
The children are woken up at 6:30 AM. The adults who wanted some peace and quiet in the bathrooms woke up at 6 AM to use the facilities unmolested by little people.
They say not to bring any valuables and so I did not bring my DSLR. Bad move. Lots of parents had their cameras because it is a great opportunity to take photos of the museum without tons of visitors blocking your perfect photo.
A near empty British Museum is a joy to visit.
The British Museum has sleepovers for its Young Friends several times a year on a Saturday night in conjunction with the special exhibits they have at the museum. The rules are strict and the event very controlled. The sleepovers are for Young Friends and their friends.
In your party, one child needs to be a Young Friend. Young Friend membership is easy to obtain through the museum. The Young Friend can bring two guests, one of which is a child between 8-15 years old and another must be an adult. Adults are required to be with their children at all times. They can only guarantee that two Young Friends will be placed together during the nights’ activities. Hence, we had 2 Young Friends, 2 adults and 2 guests in our little birthday party. This rule prevents people from bringing entire classroom groups to the sleepover which believe me is a good thing.
The British Museum sleepover is restricted to children 8-15 years old. Even if you don’t have children of your own, how hard can it be to convince a kid to do this sleepover? If you don’t have any friends with children, the Natural History Museum does sleepovers for grown ups. Although the children and I had a blast, I ‘m not sure I’d do a museum sleepover without kids. Camping even urban and indoors is not my thing.
What do you think? Have you been to a museum sleepover or would you consider one?
In the United Kingdom, when you hear River Cottage you immediately think of a posh man with curly brown locks who traded London (aka The Big Smoke) for the rural idyll of the English countryside. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is one of the early proponents of farm-to-table fare in England when he set off on his agricultural adventure in 1998. He established River Cottage in a small game-keeper’s lodge in Dorset which he had previously used as as weekend home (as if the double-barrelled name hadn’t given enough of a clue to his privileged background). Hugh’s River Cottage has had a major influence on the growth of the popularity of local, organic and seasonal food in the United Kingdom.
River Cottage is an industry in itself between the dozen television series, the 20+ books, the renowned chef-training school, the cookery classes at its HQ, the weekend dining experiences at HQ and the casual restaurants at the four River Cottage Canteens. I was told they are expanding the brand into Australia as well.
I really want my city kids to understand the process behind how their food is grown and importance of quality in what they eat. What better place to do it in England than River Cottage? In New York, we have been to Stone Barns on the Rockefeller estate. Stone Barns though is a more recent addition to the farm-to-table scene having been set up only in 2004 We had a tour of River Cottage HQ and we also had lunch at River Cottage Canteen.
The glorious English countryside around River Cottage HQ
River Cottage HQ
River Cottage HQ is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Covering 90 acres of prime Devon agricultural land, HQ is approximately 1/3 self-sufficient. Animals are raised and the vegetables in the kitchen garden are grown in numbers only enough to pass through the kitchen without wastage. Around 50 people work on the farm, including the agricultural and office staff.
We were given a tour of River Cottage HQ by a member of staff, Kate Parr. Kate was enthusiastic about country living and knows her farming stuff well. The daughter of a tanner and the partner of a dairy farmer, she knew all the answers to my children’s random farm questions including ‘do the lambs and piglets have names?’. The answer is that the animals aren’t named because they will be ‘passing through’ the kitchen soon enough. You can’t treat farm animals like pets – clearly a lesson hey had not learned reading about Wilbur the pig in the book Charlotte’s Web.
We were at River Cottage HQ just in time for lambing season. The little lambs we saw were at most a week old. My children loved watching the lambs toddle about on their ungainly legs.
Life is good until the silence of the lambs in September.
My son briefly thought about becoming a vegetarian until he realised he could never give up bacon. On the plus side, the animals at River Cottage have a great life gamboling about the great English outdoors while they are alive. As Kate noted to the children, animal husbandry is a necessary thing because otherwise these animals would just wind up in zoos without any other purpose.
I bet the foxes in the area are salivating over these chickens.
Visiting River Cottage HQ
Located at Park Farm, Trinity Hill Road, Axminster EX13 8TB, River Cottage HQ is on the border between Devon and Dorset. It is conveniently located near the resort town of Lyme Regis and the train station at Axminister. There are trains from London to Axminister which take about 3 hours. Taxis are available from the train station to HQ.
HQ (or The Death Star if you are into Star Wars analogies).
Check out the excellent website for River Cottage for a calendar of all activities undertaken at River Cottage HQ. Cookery classes run from one day affairs to four-day classes. Most of the courses are about 20 people maximum. The one-day classes are the most popular. You learn to cook all day and then it’s a full supper based on what you cook. It’s surprising how much you can learn in a day. For example, you can learn how to butcher and cook an entire pig in a day. It’s the nose-to-tail approach cooking so there is no wastage of the animal.
Dinners are available at HQ from Friday to Sunday as communal dining events for about 60 people. It’s advisable to book up to 3 months in advance as dinners are very popular. You start with a tractor ride down to the farm, canapés and drinks in the yurt and then a set menu dinner. As long as you mention it in advance, they are able to cater to different dietary requirements.
Growing purple broccoli
Children are welcome during the summer months with a special reduced rate for lunch or dinner at £10. Although there are no restrictions on children attending the regular weekend dinners, keep in mind the atmosphere will be for adults and there is no reduced rate for children. I don’t know about you but my kids don’t eat a meal that is even close to the starting rate of £70/person.
River Cottage Canteen
The River Cottage Canteens are conveniently located in several small towns around England. The closest River Cottage Canteen to London is in Winchester. We went to the original Canteen at Axminster near River Cottage HQ. With industrial touches and high ceilings, the Canteen & Deli looks urban and hip. It wouldn’t look out of place in trendy Shoreditch in London but is remarkably different from the nearby stodgy-looking Conservative Club headquarters and charity shops lining the street of this little market town.
Wait… are we still in Devon?
We had issues with parking our car nearby (which was news to me because I thought limited parking was just a London thing). The efficient staff were used to dealing with people who couldn’t dilly dally but didn’t want to be rushed either.
A healthy starter of carrots and pita with squash hummus.
Although I was desperate for a Diet Coke (hanging out with children for an extended period makes me crave caffeine and sugar in increasing quantities), mass-market sodas don’t fit in with the River Cottage ethos. I was pacified with a ginger drink which was actually very good.
Could it get more English-sounding than a Rhubarb Bellini??
My daughter ordered off the children’s menu and had a Welsh rarebit. My son ordered the brisket and devoured it to my dismay. I had ordered the Merguez spiced lamb meatballs and had assumed I’d be having some of his brisket. Nope, not a chance. He did offer me some of the parsley mash and cabbage that came with the brisket. Thanks kid.
Clockwise from Top Left: mozzarella on toast, merge sausage, brisket, and pork crackling
The Canteen displays a list of the local suppliers of their farm-to-table fare. None of the food is sourced though from River Cottage HQ which only raises enough meat and produce to supply their own needs.
Industrial lights and a suppliers list on a chalkboard, naturally.
The River Cottage Canteen in Axminster is located at Trinity Square in Axminster EX13 5AN. The Axminster Canteen is a short uphill climb from the train station and pretty much in the centre of the market town across from the church. You can book online through the website. It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is also a deli at River Cottage Canteen if you just want to take stuff away for a delicious picnic in the countryside.
Pies available for takeaway at the deli.
River Cottage and Farm-To-Table Fare
We had a great visit to River Cottage HQ. It was only supposed to take a half-hour but Kate kindly spent almost an hour and half with us. I think my children came away with a pretty good understanding of how much effort goes into the raising of good food. They can definitely taste the difference of good quality food and it’s only right, they appreciate the background aspects before it shows up on their plate.
Go on, pin the picture onto Pinterest. You know you want to.
It was Saturday night and the line for entry snaked around the building like we were waiting to get into a popular club. I looked at my husband and he raised his eyebrows. Although we have been to many food festivals previously, we have never stood in line to get into one. The sign clearly said Hawker House Street Feast London. So we knew we were at the right place.
My next question was slightly more frantic. “Does our family have the dubious honour of being the oldest and the youngest at this place??” My husband, who is taller than me, looked around.
“No,” he said. “There are a handful of kids in strollers and some people who are older than us.”
Phew. I was not ready to face the fact that I would appear like a wannabe-young hipster-granny to the cool young couples surrounding us. All we wanted was some good street food without actually being out on the street where it was a freezing cold January night . They could keep their painstakingly groomed beards and plaid shirts. We were simply on a mission to eat good food.
The Hawker House night-time indoor market set up was inspired by the hawkers in Singapore. It is in a giant warehouse in Canada Water in the Rotherhithe area of South London. There are two interconnected rooms and an upstairs drinking area. The walls are clad in graffiti, table and chairs are scattered throughout the rooms, the music is thumping and the whole place is buzzing.
Drink Vendors at Hawker House
Check out the Whiskey Roulette at Whiskey Bar. For £8 you get a spin and wherever the ball lands, you get that drink. The whiskey runs from £9 for the bartenders’ specials to £35 for the most expensive. So, you win no matter what and have a bit of fun a the same time.
Try your luck with whiskey roulette.
Along with the Whiskey Bar, there are 7 other bars including the Camden Beer Van and Street Vin. The upstairs area is set up as a lounge area.
Food Vendors at Whiskey Bar
There are a rotating line up of about 20 food vendors in the space. Very clever marketing because it encourages you to come back and try new vendors another weekend.
We had Breddos tacos (southern fried chicken in tacos) which the kids loved. We also tried Rola Wala (pork, chicken or spicy paneer in a naan slider) which was delicious. Dessert was hot chocolate with marshmallow fluff from Chin Chin labs.
Tip: Go early and eat early. The food started running out very quickly and the lines at the places with food got really long. We waited around to digest between bites which was our mistake. For example, by 8pm, all the burgers at Chuck Burgers were all gone and the B.O.B.’s Lobster was down to just one dish. Hopefully, next week they will plan accordingly to accommodate the crowds. Although I am a bit surprised about this lack of foresight, Hawker House was around in 2015 and was very popular then too.
Naan ready to be made into sliders.
Venezuelan areas available through Petare
Interesting combo from Tata Riceatery
We definitely want to go again. My son feels robbed because he didn’t get to eat at Meat Hook which serves Argentine-style steaks. It was really popular and the line was just too long. I want to try the sandwiches at Tata Riceatery which looked different from anything I’ve seen previously. Basically, the bread part is made from rice and the seaweed you get in Japanese onigiri. The filling was either short ribs or beef brisket. They were sold out early too!!
Visiting Hawker House Street Feast London
Hawker House Street Feast London had its opening the last weekend of January. It will be open from 5pm till late on Fridays and Saturdays until March. Entry before 7pm is free and afterwards, £3/person. It is located near the Surrey Quays Retail Park which has plenty of parking. Alternatively, it is only a few minutes walk from the Canada Water underground station.
You have to be a dedicated foodie to chase around the Welsh countryside in search of a specific restaurant as dusk gathers and the children are grumbling that they are hungry. Sure, we could have stopped at any number of pubs that were in the area but we were in search of something special. Wright’s Food Emporium was purported to be delightful by both The Guardian in its roundup of the top 40 UK restaurants and a blurb I had read in Conde Nast Traveller. So we were people on a mission. We had wasted time putting in the wrong postcode into the car’s GPS but a little hiccup like that only made us more determined to find Wright’s Food Emporium.
Wright’s Food Emporium
The drive through idyllic countryside in search of The One was worth it. Wright’s Food Emporium is both a restaurant and a food store located in a converted country pub in Carmarthen, Wales. From what I could tell, Carmarthen is a handful of houses on the side of the road. Even in a little village, there has to be an obligatory local pub which in this case has become Wright’s Food Emporium.
We piled into one of the side rooms and settled in for some good eats. Thanks to our having taken the scenic route, we avoided the Sunday lunch crush at the restaurant.
A reminder that you are in a different country!
The food in the cafe is simple yet delicious. I personally think it is more of a restaurant even though they like to call it a cafe. Made from locally sourced ingredients, the quality of the food is apparent with every bite. There is a fairly extensive and creative menu written on a chalkboard. The Welsh rarebit was the best I have ever had. My friend pronounced his roast beef sandwich excellent as well.
The service at the cafe is exceptional. Everyone was friendly and happy to explain the menu. The wonderful staff made a plate of pasta for my fussy-eater daughter even though it wasn’t on the menu. For my dog who was looking hopefully at the waitress from under the table, they gave him some left-over sausage. How incredibly kind is that? I love when good restaurants are not hoity-toity.
Welsh rarebit is just another form of grilled cheese sandwich.
A roast beef sandwich
We couldn’t pass up on the desserts for which there was a great selection. Our table went with an assortment of British favourites – pear tart, cheesecake and sticky toffee pudding.
The dessert table
These cake bars were too healthy for me!
The grocery section was small but charming and well-stocked. They had chicken and leek pie as well as potatoes dauphinoise for taking away. I took these dishes back to London so that we could relive the gourmet experience back home. Yeah, they were delicious! Even my daughter loved the chicken and leek pie.
fruit for sale
The grocery section of Wright’s
Refillable wine bottles – what a great idea!
Wright’s own craft beer
I did wonder what a fabulous place like Wright’s Food Emporium was doing out in the middle of nowhere in Wales. That sentiment, however, is the Londoner in me talking. Wright’s are clearly doing booming business so there are plenty of appreciative gourmands in Wales. Of course, it helps too that the owner, Simon Wright, is a Welsh writer, food critic and restaurateur. He knows exactly what he likes and he’s brought that knowledge to his food emporium.
Visiting Wright’s Food Emporium
Wrights Food Emporium is located in the Golden Grove Arms in Carmarthenshire in South West Wales. It is actually conveniently located near the A40 and the Brecon Beacons National Park. They suggest you make reservations for the cafe if you are larger than a party of 6. It’s quite popular so I suggest you go during an off-peak time.
As soon as we stepped off the catamaran which took us from Portsmouth harbour to No Man’s Land Fort, I knew we were in for a treat at this Solent Fort Hotel. The granite stone fort was weather-beaten and forbidding from the outside. The wind whipped through the English Channel and the metal staircase to the fort’s entrance wobbled with the movement of the waves. As soon as we stepped inside the fort though, we were greeted with the warmth of central heating and a glass of champagne. My husband’s eyes gleamed like a little boy ready for an adventure. History and luxury – two of his favourite things in a hotel!
The weekend getaway we had at No Man’s Land Fort in the middle of the English Channel is hard to describe. Sometimes I felt like I was on a luxury cruise. We were stranded on the fort but with our every comfort attended to by attentive staff. Although you could hear the waves crash against the building, the fort obviously was not moving. The interior decor was shabby chic antiques and naval historical relics along the lines of a country house hotel. Inspirational quotes from Winston Churchill were scattered around the walls. You were isolated from the rest of England but had excellent WiFi.
Board games add to the country house feel.
History of the Solent Fort Hotels
The Solent Forts were built to guard Portsmouth against a possible attack from Napoleon III of France. The Prime Minister of the time, Lord Palmerston, thought it would be a good idea at the time. He came to regret his decision when the attack never came and he got stuck with the forts which got nicknamed “Palmerston’s Follies.” You win some…
No Man’s Land Fort were meant to part of the first line of defense against an attack. It’s only about a mile and a half from the Isle of Wight. It is considerably larger than Spitbank Fort which is much closer to Portsmouth.
Spitbank Fort has a bedroom in the lighthouse.
Portsmouth has been a naval base for the British military for hundreds of years. During the 13th century, the British would use Portsmouth as a base from which to attack France. The French, in return, would regularly sack the city. By the 19th century, Portsmouth was such an important part of British Naval operations that it became the most fortified city in Europe. So Palmerston wasn’t entirely silly in building the Solent Forts.
The forts were sold off by the British Ministry of Defense in 1982 because they were not needed. No Man’s Land Fort became a luxury hotel with a pool. Unfortunately, an outbreak of legionnaire’s disease in the pool caused the hotelier’s bankruptcy. The fort was rescued by another company which has created the Solent Fort Hotels.
Solent Fort Hotels has branded pretty much everything you see.
Facilities at the Solent Fort Hotels
Two of the forts, Spitbank Fort and No Man’s Land Fort, are luxury hotels now. The same company owns Horsebank Fort and is turning that into a living museum of how the forts would have operated. Spitbank Fort is the smaller hotel with just 9 bedrooms. No Man’s Land Fort has 22 bedrooms.
The weather-beaten fort does not give away the luxury interior. That’s Portsmouth in the distance.
No Man’s Land Fort has been set up like a big boy playground. There is a TV room, a billiards room and a snooker room. If only I knew what the difference between billiards and snooker. Let’s not forget darts, foosball etc. There is also a floor devoted to laser tag (when the lights go out – trust me that area gets really creepy and dark).
This is the floor with the laser tag. Imagine running through this with no lights.
The Mess Hall has been converted into a restaurant serving dinner and breakfast. Of course, meals are included in your stay because it’s not like you are going to nip out to the nearest gastropub. We thought the food and service was excellent.
The Cabaret Bar is another room which has a full bar, karaoke and a stripper pole. Just in case, your trophy wife decided to relive her stripper days perhaps??
The rooms are spacious with comfortable beds. The style was more country house style than design hotel. Lots of neutrals and a liberal use of the colour blue. It’s interesting being at a hotel which is so obviously trying to please the men who go there. Presumably the hotel group assumes that the men pick the hotel and their wives are along for the ride.
The bedrooms are all large and comfortable.
The top of the fort has been laid with artificial grass and set with deck chairs. It was too cold and rainy when we were there, but I’m sure it’s beautiful in the summer. It was also too windy for the evening bonfire they do when the weather is good.
After the rain, there was a glorious sunset. You can see the outline of the Isle of Wight.
There are two hot tubs on deck as well. Annoyingly, a large party of people took over the hot tubs from the time we arrived until evening. You get drinks served to you in the hot tubs so there really was no reason to leave.
The outdoor entertainment facilities are dependent on rain and wind conditions.
My favourite part of the No Man’s Land Fort was probably the lighthouse. It has glorious views over the water and comfortable chairs for snuggling up with a book.
The lighthouse at No Mans Land Fort is additional lounging space.
Staying at a Solent Fort Hotel
You can rent the whole of a Solent fort hotel for private parties which I would love to do. Perhaps for a do-over of my 40th birthday! How great would it be to have a murder mystery weekend? Think of it like a modern interpretation of Agatha Christie’s 10 Little Indians where guests are invited to a private island and then killed off individually. Ten Little Indians with actual Indians. he he.
Children are not allowed on the fort except for private events. The building is not especially child-friendly but how much fun would it be? I can just envision a giant game of hide and seek. And, probably, some child sobbing at being told ghost stories. Technically, No Man’s Land Fort has no ghosts and Spitbank Fort has only one (Henry, an army guy who died accidentally in 1910). Poor Henry is probably stuck there for eternity because he can’t swim. (The army liked to put soldiers at the forts who couldn’t swim so that they couldn’t swim the mile and a half to shore and run away.)
Although a Solent Fort Hotel experience is not cheap, the hotel rooms do get booked up. An overnight stay can run from £500-£1000 a night. I would say there were about 60 guests between the two forts the weekend we went. The price includes full board and private transfers to and from the fort. We had a special offer at the hotel booked through the members’ travel club, Secret Escapes. It was a completely unique stay unlike anything else I have ever experienced.