Days 65-69 : Bonkers for Conkers

The last ten days have taken us from the extreme south-east of England, to within a stone’s throw of the extreme north-west of England. However we’ve not done this diametric displacement all in one go and so this blog post is about what we’ve being doing on the way.

We set off from Kent on a Tuesday with a plan to drive up the M1 to a place in the East-Midlands called Conkers. That was the day when someone decided to dump a bucket of corrosive liquid of some kind under a bridge on the M1, and so cause a security incident which saw the motorway closed for most of the day. Thankfully the East-Midlands is really not very far away from the West-Midlands, and so we got to our destination with hardly any delay by doing a big detour via the outskirts of Birmingham.

We chose to visit this area mainly as it was on the route from Canterbury to Wrightington, our next planned destination, and we didn’t have any other plans to visit the Ashby-de-la-Zouch / Burton-upon-Trent area in our year to come. We discovered it thanks to our Camping and Caravanning Club membership – they have a campsite right next-door to the main Conkers attraction. We enjoyed chatting to the only other family on site, who were caravanning with their almost one year old for the first time. They came over for a chat as they’d seen us leaving the campsite at around 11 that morning. “We were pleased to see someone leaving the site later than us... Does it always take this long to get going when you’re a family camping?” they asked.. Yes, it’s certainly difficult for us to be up and ready to leave by 9, although we can do it if needed. We have learned to make sure we intersperse no-agenda days with our timed days (when we visit English Heritage sites we have to state an arrival time) so that we take things at a pace which suits everyone.

Conkers is a visitor attraction at the centre of a project called the National Forest. The project has been running for 20 years and has converted old coal fields and wastelands into a rich natural landscape by planting 8 million trees. The ultimate objective is to plant 30 million trees and restore a large area of forest in the geographic heart of England which will join up existing ancient woodlands.

Our trip to Conkers coincided with Nathanael’s birthday, and there was enough to do to make it a special day for all of us. The excellent play areas, indoor and outdoor, got the vote from the boys. We adults and Myriam especially enjoyed the imaginative bare-foot walk, which seems designed to push people outside their comfort zone and to get in-touch with nature in a direct, mud-squidging-between-your-toes kind of way.  It’s worth a visit, although it needs some investment in the original attractions which are now getting a bit run down.

On the Thursday we took a short drive to visit Ashby-de-la-Zouch castle, which we were prompted to visit thanks to English Heritage’s home educators programme which basically gives us free entry if we reserve one week in advance.
An excellent Horrible Histories style audio guide managed to bring the ruins to life and to recreate the siege of this Royalist stronghold during the civil war. Our informal chats with Samuel and Nathanael about what they’ve seen and heard reveal that they are absorbing quite a bit of the who and why and when of English history. You won’t be surprised to know that learning dates off by heart is not on our syllabus.  Their favourite bit of the audioguide, however, was the mention of the gift shop and buying fudge!

Following our exploration of Conkers and Ashby we continued north-west to James' Mum's house in Wrightington, Lancashire which will be our base-camp for the next month. We spent most of our time there doing washing, picking vegetables from the beautiful garden, and checking-out our new inflatable drive-away awning, but we did make time to visit Haigh Hall and Woodland park twice in 4 days. Our next destination is the Lake District...


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