Charles Darwin and not camping

So we wimped out, twice. We had camping blocked off in the diary three weeks ago but after my birthday and everyone staying and all the back to school stuff we were so knackered we decided that we’d reschedule to last weekend. Lo, the weekend arrived and we were baffled to discover we had still made no arrangements – no location was decided, no campsite was booked, no big plastic box tripping us up in the living room….

No worries. We’re middle class and have English Heritage membership so we settled on the next best thing – a Big Bernice Day Out. SC’s (slightly surprising) choice was Down House near Bromley, home to Charles Darwin for 40 years.

Bernice ready to go complete with new deadlocks and alarm

The upper floor of the house is an exhibition in a more classical “museum” style. There are a number of rooms encompassing Darwin’s five years on HMS Beagle, his extensive work on classification and the controversy surrounding the publication of the Origin of Species in 1885. It’s very engaging and an accomplished use of multi media resources (as I believe they say….) but mainly aimed at older children and adults.

There’s a resource room with colouring and a digitisation of Darwin’s notebooks. There’s a big case of stuffed tropical birds which kept SC simultaneously happy and horrified for ages and also dressing up in Charles and Emma’s bedroom.

Downstairs has been restored as closely as possible to how it was when Charles and Emma lived there with their children using photos from the family. No photography is allowed inside the house (I didn’t realise this until afterwards) but the highlights were Darwin’s study with his original desk and scientific instruments and the sitting room with a grand piano, bassoon, books, games, knitting and papers everywhere.

There’s an audio tour available. It’s not specifically for children but SC seemed happy enough following it round asking us random questions on the way. She was entranced with the wooden gulley that Darwin had made to turn his staircase into a slide for his children.

Sneaky pic of Darwin’s study – I’m using it as inspiration for my spare room….

I felt really inspired by Darwin. Not just his amazing, history-changing scientific work but by him as a person. He was a kind boss to his staff and a warm, loving father when Victorian fathers were generally cold and distant figures. He chose his furniture for comfort rather than fashion and welcomed guests into his home from all over the world who came to meet him. Looking at his lovely sitting room I longed to step back in time for a game of backgammon by the fire.

We had an underwhelming lunch in the cafe (served by very cheerful and helpful staff). You know when you get immediate menu regret and plate envy? I had the tepid, slightly crunchy jacket potato but looked longingly at the steaming soup made from vegetables from the kitchen garden.

As soon as it stopped raining we headed to the amazing garden. The highlights include the hothouses where Darwin carried out many of his plant experiments including growing beautiful orchids (my favourite), succulents and carnivorous plants. SC, who was flagging a bit by this point, was revived with the delight of the Venus fly traps snapping shut.

There was a harvest event on with a special trail for kids and a potato digging station. The lovely kitchen garden has astonishing pumpkins and the friendly head gardener Anthony was around for a chat.

Gorgeous flower beds and potatoes from Darwin’s kitchen garden

All in all it was a lovely Big Bernice Day Out. I definitely haven’t done Down House justice in this post (mainly due to the time that has passed with my post – 40 gloom combined with writers block…) but also because there’s so much more to see. I’d definitely go back to learn more about Darwin and encourage you to visit too. Have the soup…..!

Swattesfield in ten

Here’s a quick top ten of our fab trip to Swattesfield. Sorry for the delay, I’ve been very busy turning the big 4 0!

1. We were very lucky to see the shining yellow ball in the sky on more than one occasion. Yes, miraculously for the August bank holiday, it was SUNNY!

2. It was the maiden voyage of the Coleman Event Shelter (see here for background). Never has the erection of a jointly owned, oversized gazebo been so hotly anticipated. It was worth the wait, it’s solid as a rock and lovely to have a communal area to shelter from the elements.

3. Swattesfield is great for kids. There’s loads of kids but also loads of space for tearing around and the wooded area has an epic tyre swing. There’s also chickens and sheep for the little ones.

4. It’s welcoming for dogs. The spotty member of the party seemed to enjoy himself.

5. There’s loads to do without moving your Bongo. See here for more info about the local Thornham Walks, in addition, there’s a lovely cafe with a playground and a couple of decent pubs in walking distance.

6. Conversely there’s lots to do within an hours drive (see the website here for more info). We took the kids to Lowestoft beach on Sunday and they had a whale of a time. Lynne and Barrie tried to go to Southwold but it was absolutely heaving, they ended up in an amazing maize maze nearby instead but made it out in time for tea.

7. The food was top notch. With seven adults and four kids Lynne insisted on an organised approach food rather than the Belmonte “sausage, beans and beer” as standard. We were variously treated to chilli, pasta and a lovely barbecue with an actual salad. Salad! This was glamping indeed…. The campsite does also have a wood fired pizza oven which we saw in use every night.

8. Dave the site manager is friendly and welcoming in a gruff, winding-you-up kind of way. I gave as good as I got when I overheard him dissing the mighty Mazda Bongo!

The mighty Mazda Bongo in question..

9. Ah, campfires, bit of a recurring theme in this blog but I do have a soft spot for a site where you can have a campfire in the evening. It was so lovely to be sitting out under the dark starry sky, beer in hand having a chat after the kids were tucked up. We don’t often camp with others so it was nice to catch up with some of our closest friends and family in such a beautiful setting.

10. All in all I can’t think of a nicer place or nicer people to spend the last days of my 30s with. Here’s to another decade of great camping…. 🥂

Bernice on Instagram!

A bit slow to the party but Bernice now has her own account on Instagram!

Please do follow her on @adventureswithbernice.

Gratuitous picture of Bernice in the elderflower orchard at Thistledown Farm in Gloucestershire

I was a bit slow to Instagram myself but it’s a great place to contact other Bongo owners and see their adventures.

I’m particularly enjoying:





@loubeeeloo – owner of Betsy Bongo

My fave account at the moment though is @bertie_b_adventures and their #44daysofsummer hashtag. I’m pretty envious of their Bongo and their summer of fun, check it out!

Other campervans are available to follow. Something called a “V” “W” seems to gaining popularity 😋.

Bernice is also on Twitter @bongoblogging and Facebook here so get in touch!

One week to the next big trip, back to Swattesfield for the bank holiday weekend. See this post for my first review of this lovely site in Suffolk. There’s a big gang of us going and a bunch of kids so we’re doing sun dances around the clock….

Swattesfield in Sept 2016. Bet it’ll be busier next week!

An unexpected palace

You know when you’ve lived down the road from a local attraction for years but never visited? Safely home from France we awoke to a glorious sunny Sunday, the last “official” day of our holidays. Out of nowhere we decided to hit Eltham Palace, an arduous six miles away and 15min drive in Bernice.

I sternly instructed Scott not to let them sucker us into joining English Heritage. We had been at the place less than four minutes before we were signing the direct debit form. It seems very good value and SC does love a castle you know….

Eltham Palace was absolutely fabulous and splendid for the short trippers. I knew shamefully little before we left and was expecting a “standard” stately home, four poster beds, oil portraits, ponderous commentary etc.

The original palace was built in the 14th century and was where Henry VIII spent his childhood.  The only remaining part of the original palace is the Great Hall built in 1470. I had no idea that the majority of the building is a perfectly restored 1930s Art Deco mansion.

Stephen and Virginia Courtauld bought the shell of Eltham Palace in 1933. They were filthy rich and spared no expense on all the mod cons of the period and an extremely understated bathroom…. I’m not much of a design buff but it is literally jaw-on-the-floor stuff and controversial at the time. They incorporated the stunning Tudor Great Hall into the design (which had been used as a stable, a barn and a tennis court in the interim) .

Very similar to our washing facilities in Bernice….

The Great Hall

Highlights for SC included seeing the luxury quarters for Mah-Jong, the Courtauld’s pet lemur and trying on 1930s frocks. There’s a free audio tour of the house and garden with a family tour option. The family tour is actually very good, fun but informative with a game for each room.

The palace has jazz on the lawn on a Sunday afternoon and listening to it floating up while in such a beautiful setting was pretty magical. We’d bought an austerity picnic so we abandoned the tour as it returned to the entrance hall and hurried out to listen.

The grounds are equally lovely but quite disorientating over a number of different levels. If you blindfolded me and span me round I’d probably still be there now.

Eltham Palace features on English Heritage’s list of most haunted properties. A staff member who died the week after his retirement is said to give tours to visitors. There’s a fun article here about spooky occurrences in Eltham and other EH properties (sorry about the link to the Daily Torygraph).

By the time we’d completed the tour, investigated the giant fish in the moat, played in the playground (all tasteful English Heritage wood, not a garish piece of plastic in sight…) and had an ice cream it was getting on for 4pm. It’s not a cheap day out at nearly £40 for a family but I guess it takes more than a few quid to keep it running. It was great to visit somewhere so local and I’m sure we’ll be back soon.

A small château and a giant telescope

Camping fatigue is setting in, I can feel it. The rules are slipping.  Yesterday I ate a meal with broccoli in and I’m not sure how many more rounds of Junior Monopoly I can take.

The weather has turned a bit. Intermittent torrential rain with dazzling hot sun has meant that we’ve done a few more trips. Here are the highlights…..

Château de la Ferté St-Aubin

You can’t come to France and not take in a chateau or two. A castle has stood in this spot since the11th  century and has had bits added on ever since.

The entrance fee seems a bit steep until you read that it only covers the cost of five new roof slates. 400,000 have been replaced so far with many more to go.

The rooms in the castle are suitably impressive and furnished in an 18th century style. For children (or childish adults….) there are loads of different parlour games to try.

I took this opportunity to try and teach SC to play chess. With my chess skills she was a worthy opponent until she had a total meltdown claiming I had moved my king two spaces….. (I hadn’t, I swear!!). I blame a lack of lunch so we headed to the park adjoining the castle.

We spent the afternoon in the “Parcours des poisons” which is a terrific treasure hunt style game in the grounds of the castle.

As “Madeleine d’Egennes” you have to follow clues through the woods, collect the names of poisonous plants, traverse obstacles and solve riddles in order to find the witch La Voisin to assist you to poison your husband.

Completing the barefoot section of the hunt….

Now I’ve written that down it doesn’t sound very suitable but it was really good fun and the weather  was lovely. If you return to the apothecary with all the clues completed they give you a vial of “poison” which has been a highlight of the trip for SC 😀

Pôle des Etoiles

The weather was due to be awful on Tuesday so we headed to this space research centre and planetarium in Nançay.

It’s pleasantly creepy in a vast, middle-of-nowhere space research centre Dr Who-y kind of way. The English commentary is not for beginners: “The radiographic heliotrope was installed in a decametric quandrant in 1958….” but the exhibition was interesting and had enough buttons to keep SC mainly happy until her end goal – the gift shop.

You can walk out from the car park to see the awesome radio telescope which monitors the activity of the sun.

It’s 40m high – Scott & SC for scale!

As always there are loads of other enticing things to see and do in the region, there’ll  never be quite enough time.

We’d like to come back…but there’s so many other places to go! Soon we’ll be heading back to Greenwich but we’ve already got a couple of shorter trips in the diary.

I’d love to hear about your summer trips, leave me a comment below!!



We finally snapped out of our torpor and, at the ungodly hour of 10.44am, took the train to Orléans. And a good thing we did as it was fab – clean, beautiful and flowery.

As we had limited time we headed for Tourist Info for advice on family friendly activities. A charming young man (who had clearly never met a 6 yr old) advised us to go on a tour of the cathedral followed by a worthy sounding museum devoted to the great thinker Charles Péguy.

We thanked him profusely (that's as far as my French confidently goes) and headed out, none the wiser. In the cathedral square the answer lay in front of us – LAND TRAIN! I'm not a tourist snob, I love a good tour, the cheesier the mode of transport the better!

Following a splendid tour by the cheerful Oscar we were starving. I know it's sacrilege in France, home of good cooking, but we were all craving a pizza / pasta fix. We headed to the recently refurbished beautiful old town and found Volpone on the Rue de la Cholerie. We had wondered why Orléans seemed so quiet on a Saturday but it turned out everyone was at Volpone. 

We were squeezed in to the outside seating and struck up a friendly conversation with a couple on a cycling tour of the region. The service was a bit slow (or perhaps it just felt that way in the presence of a very hungry short camper…) but the food was lovely.

After lunch we embarked on an exhaustive cultural tour of Orléans….

I'm kidding. We sat in the central Place du Matroi in the sun (under the gaze of the ubiquitous Joan of Arc….) and watched kids play in those fountains that pop up randomly from the ground. SC had an ice cream and two goes on the carousel and I had a poke round the shops. We know our cultural level….

Sorry for the lack of decent pictures, I haven't done Orléans justice at all. There's loads more to do if you were staying longer (or if you got up earlier and had less devotion to pizza than us!!). The cathedral tour and Joan of Arc museum are rated very highly and a short bus ride out the city is a big park with a butterfly garden and a zoo.

There's very few trains from Orléans to Nouan-Le-Fuzelier so unfortunately we had to leave these for another day and hastened to the 16.50 without incident. 

Busy doing nothing

It’s been a tough few days. We’ve been very busy enjoying the view…

The little white hut is a glamping pod on the lake. It’s tethered on a long rope so when you want to go to bed you have to find it and then row there. Very cool and good entertainment.

Between swimming, napping, trampolining and spending time at the kids club it’s been hard to fit in much else.

The swimming pool is the local municipal pool adjacent to the campsite. You get free entry but, boy, does everything about it scream municipal pool. It’s a bare, square, industrial joyless affair. No sun loungers, no umbrellas, no ice cream stall….

SC, with her slavish devotion to all things waterbased still thinks it’s amazing. We arrived on the first morning to find it’s compulsory for men to wear the teeny tiny Speedos that the French are so fond of. Scott, more of a board shorts man, left muttering regretful noises clearly delighted at the prospect of a coffee and his book by the lake.

It’s also pretty nippy. After 30 min of SC barking out orders (“catch me”, “carry me”, “push me” etc) I felt more like I’d had a stint in a 1950s Swiss therapy pool having rehabilitation for TB than a relaxing dip.

I digress, pool aside, the campsite is awesome and the village is only about 200m walk through a beautifully maintained park for croissants and essentials.

We’ve planned to take the train to Orleans tomorrow. Will we get there or will the power of doing nothing keep up sat by the lake?  We’ll see…..