Christmas Eve Bansky hunt in Palestine

I am a big admirer of Banksy, the British street artist/political activist and have been to various spots around the UK to see his art. I had heard that he had opened a hotel in Bethlehem, that also housed a museum, art gallery and restaurant, so I eagerly started planning my visit once our flights to the region had been booked.

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You can book specific Banksy tours over in Palestine, taking you to some of his work found around the area, as well as to the hotel, but we decided to make our own way on public transport and enter Palestine on foot via the notorious Checkpoint 300.

When you tour Palestine on a tour bus you are let through the border without any hassle, its quick, safe and easy, but a privilege that actual Palestinians don’t have. Having had that tourist friendly experience earlier on in our trip, I wanted to make the journey on foot this time and experience it as a local would.

We boarded the 234 bus from Damascus Gate in Jerusalem which stops right outside the Checkpoint on the Israeli side, it takes about 25 mins to get there and costs around £3.

I didn’t take any pictures as we made our way through the border checkpoint, maybe you weren’t allowed, but also, out of respect for all those who aren’t free to wander between the two countries like I did with my British passport.

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When you arrive on the Palestinian side you are greeted with a combination of Israeli Army personnel and lots of eager taxi drivers. We avoided both, as its only a short walk from the checkpoint to the hotel, but we arrived about an hour before the hotel opened for our Christmas Eve lunch on purpose, so we had lots of time to walk alongside the separation wall, which in part has been turned into a ‘museum’.

This ‘museum’ comprises of 270 stories pasted onto the wall, recalling tales from local Palestinian women and children, telling the daily struggles they face living inside the walled off region. It gives a human face to the conflict, and a narrative usually missing from world news reports, it made a somber reflective morning walk, but it was an important part of why I wanted to visit. If I just wanted to enjoy sun, sand and sanitised safe tourist spots, I would have just stuck to the Spanish coast for my holidays.

We continued our walk, alongside the wall, taking in all the art and stories, spotting some of the more well known pieces of graffiti, including ‘make hummus not war’, a alternative New York subway transit sign, a possible sighting of a Banksy rat and the Angels, which is a certified Banksy.

If you keep following the direction of the wall from the checkpoint with the wall to your right hand side, its probably not more than 10 minutes to walk to the hotel, but of course if this is your first visit, like it was for us, it will likely take you a lot longer to walk there, as you take in all the messages and artwork on the concrete.

Soon Banksy’s hotel came into view, called ‘The Walled Off Hotel‘, a play on the famous Waldorf Hotel, as well as by means of its location as it’s effectively ‘walled off’ from the rest of the world. Opened in 2017, this boutique hotel has 10 rooms, varying from presidential suite, to no frills budget room with shared bathroom, all with the worst view in the world, the 8ft concrete wall outside.

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The hotel is open to none-residents from 11am – 10pm daily, wanting to make sure we would get a table for our Christmas Eve brunch, we arrived just as the doors opened. On arrival you enter straight into the Piano Bar, fashioned on an old colonial style dining room, you can sit down for food or drinks, surrounded by many of Banksy’s works as well as a haunted piano, playing works recorded specifically for the hotel from musicians such as Flea and Trent Reznor.

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We ordered a ‘walled off salad’ with some dips and bread and whilst we were waiting a camera crew walked in, only the day before a new Banksy installation had been put on display in the hotel, some friends had even texted me from home about it. So overwhelmed and excited to be in the hotel, we had walked straight past the ‘Scar of Bethlehem’ in the entrance, a take on the Nativity scene, which instead of taking place in a straw laden manger, takes place beside the concrete wall, complete with bullet holes.

By the time we had finished our brunch complete with virgin cocktails, the camera crew had left, so we had space to investigate the piano bar further, along with the nativity scene, the place was packed with Banksy paintings and installations, including my favourite Flower Thrower.

Upstairs there is an art gallery to visit, this time no Bankys here, this space is purely for Palestinians, some known artists such as Suliman Mansour have their work on display here, as well as a temporary area for rotating new and up and coming work. There was some really cool stuff on display and we felt lucky to have been able to see artwork that due to restrictions you wouldn’t normally get to see outside of the country.

Back downstairs is a museum dedicated solely to the separation wall. It’s a really modern interactive space, as you would expect if Banksy was involved along with the help of a British university professor. There’s lots of information about the history of the wall right up to present day with little films, audio, military artefacts and a camera on display from the incredible Oscar nominated Five Broken Cameras, which I really recommend watching. The plan is for the exhibit to be expanded as more artefacts are collected over time, but it was a thought provoking, humbling experience to see and hear how this wall has changed the face of the landscape and its people on both sides.

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Final stop was obviously the gift shop, where we were lucky to chat to the manager of the hotel. A lovely man called Wissam Salsaa, he was keen to know where we had travelled from and what we thought of the hotel, in short I told him, if we were to return to the area, I would absolutely plan on staying here next time around.

There were a few Banksy items for sale in the gift shop, and I did think long and hard about a £70 keyring, which was the cheapest item for sale that was certified by the artist. But then the frugal part of my brain kicked in and I just bought postcards and a couple of tote bags instead, realising I could use that £70 for another flight somewhere instead (not realising Covid was about to happen and I wouldn’t get away for almost another 2 years!).

I desperately wanted to stay for longer, but we had really explored every part of the hotel that is open to none residents, also we were conscious that it was Christmas Eve and the tourists would be flocking to the centre of Bethlehem for the celebrations. So we headed back to Checkpoint 300 which was practically empty as we passed back through, the security guard barely looking at our British passport, and the local bus was waiting ready to return to Jerusalem on the other side. With so many places I still have to see, I rarely make plans to return to a visited place but Palestine makes that list and hopefully one day I can return, whether the political situation will be any calmer, I’m doubtful.

 

Winter in the West Bank

My last trip abroad before Covid hit was another Christmas spent in the Middle East, using East Jerusalem as our base, we travelled around Israel and Palestine both independently and with guided tours.

Our first trip was a full day booked with Abraham tours, leaving by the old Jaffa gates of Jerusalem.  It wasn’t long before the separation wall came into view, with evidence of recent tension and fighting becoming apparent, with abandoned buildings and barbed wire taking over the view from the well paved roads and souvenir shops. Once we had officially passed into Palestine, our guide jumped on board, as he wasn’t allowed into Jerusalem without paperwork, our first experience of the many restrictions facing the people of this torn land.

We alighted the coach on arrival into Ramallah, a place I had only really heard of via news reports I am sad to say, but now is a bustling, busy city. The main business and cultural capital of Palestine, full of coffee shops, offices, and people rushing past to get to their next destination, all the while I was still very aware of the concrete wall that now surrounded us.

Although Ramallah is a predominantly an Islamic city, historically it was Christian, and so being a few days before December 25th, it was no surprise to see a Christmas tree erected in the centre of the city. We had time to explore around Al Manara Sq and saw the infamous Star and Bucks, as well as many Palestinian flags proudly flying in the cool winter sunshine.

Our next stop was just outside the city centre, to the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s mausoleum. A temporary resting place, Arafat actually wanted to be buried in East Jerusalem, but of course like the rest of the Palestinians, alive or not, he’s not allowed to cross beyond the separation wall. The area comprises quite a minimalist, simple white building of glass and stone, with water on three sides and although not visible, there’s an underground rail track, ready to take him to his final resting place at some point in the probably far distant future.

Jericho is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world, and was about an hours drive, through the Judean desert from Ramallah. The sign that welcomes you to the oldest part of the city, states that there has been a settlement here for around 10,000 years, making it an incredibly important site where historians can learn about the first group of humans that settled in a one place and made the move away from being nomadic hunters.

As well as being the oldest, it is also the lowest city in the world as it is situated so close to the Dead Sea, so it’s no surprise this place should be on everyone’s itinerary who visits this area. Our tour avoided the more modern centre, concentrating on the excavated ruins of the ancient city, including Hishams Palace, one of the Desert Castles found across the Middle East. It really was other worldly wandering around the dusty, sandy walled remains, with the Judean mountains towering in the background, it really felt a special place, even if I couldn’t quite comprehend how it must have looked all those thousands of years ago.

As lunchtime was approaching we headed down to the River Jordan, which also acts as the border with Jordan itself, and the previous year we had been on the other side as we spent Christmas in Amman. As the people on our tour excitedly visited the baptism site of Jesus and looked on as pilgrims got blessed in the river, mother and I grabbed a drink, found some shade and investigated the souvenir shop, There were a lot of soldiers on this side of the river border and lots of religious tourists in white robes queuing up to go in the river, I remember it feeling much more peaceful and calmer on the Jordanian side, but I’m happy I got to experience it from both countries.

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One of the things I loved about travelling in this part of the world was the incredible history, literally everywhere you went. For example, the countryside views surrounding the cafe where we stopped for lunch was said to be where the story of the 3 Wise Men took place, as in was in the adjacent fields where they saw the Star of Bethlehem in the clear night sky as they hiked on their way to Jerusalem.

Our final stop on this particular tour was back close to the ‘border’ and a place that must have changed beyond all recognition from biblical times, Bethlehem. It’s a place swarming with pilgrims just like Jerusalem is and if you have any passing interest in history, then this place must be on your to do list. The main draw is the Church of the Nativity, Jesus was born in a grotto on this spot and the church itself was built over the top, and as a result it’s one of the holiest spots for the Christian religion. It’s such an important site to the Christian community, but because the religion itself is split into many different denominations, this church is one of a handful of buildings shared between different Christian communities, with the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Catholics all sharing various parts together.

As it was only a few days from December 25th, the church was decorated and packed full of pilgrims from all over the world, often wearing T-shirts with their particular church logo’s on, all of them queuing up to see the exact spot where Jesus was born.

Although I love a religious building of any kind, I don’t class myself a follower of any, plus we didn’t have time on the tour to queue for what would have been probably an hour for a quick 20 second peek at the site of his birth inside the dark grotto. But our tour guide took us ’round the back’ down into the cave to explore from the other side, so I feel we still got the same experience, but with less crowds anyway.

The church itself was quite plain, with the exception of Christmas baubles and ornate incense burners hanging from above, red limestone pillars along the sides and various fresco’s partly uncovered on the walls, but of course, the decor isn’t why you visit. There is another church just off to the side, actually sharing a wall with the Nativity Church, called Church of St Catherine of Alexandria and it is here where the televised service from Bethlehem is filmed every year. After visiting both churches, we had a brief explore around Nativity Square where a large Christmas tree had been erected, and the whole area was in the midst of getting ready for the crowds of worshippers who would be visiting on Christmas Eve, so we planned to return later on our trip at our leisure.

Before returning to Jerusalem, we had a walk along part of the separation wall, which is only a short distance from the heart of Bethlehem. Graffiti from famous international artists cover large swathes of the wall and we successfully spotted a few Bankys’, all the while being aware of the imposing watch towers looming overhead.

It was then back to the bus for our return to Jerusalem, but for an introduction to Palestine and the region as a whole, it was outstanding, it was an experience I feel incredibly privileged to have had and the memories will stay with me forever.

We were to return a few days later, venturing back past the wall under our own steam, for a completely different adventure . . . .

Finally back to Portugal

I first visited Portugal, The Algarve to be precise over 40 years ago, which I know must be hard to believe, as I don’t look a day over 30 (joke).

I’d been wanting to visit Porto for a long weekend for quite a few years, but it always got pushed back for a number of reasons, last year it was actually booked, but then Covid had other plans.

It took a few stressful hours of figuring out the paperwork and which tests were needed and although it felt like a lot of extra work for just a 3 day trip, I hadn’t been off the UK in 22 months, so it was something I was happy to overlook.

With all the documents loaded onto my phone and also printed out, mum and I speeded through security in minutes and after a short delay, boarded our half full plane for a brisk 2 hour flight south. Due to our late evening arrival, we checked into our hotel and went straight to bed, ready to hit the sights early the next morning.

First things first, I had to try a Pastel de Nata and a short walk from our hotel was the semi vegan bakery Pastelaria Tupi. Still slightly sleepy and not quite believing we were abroad at last, we ordered coffee, the famous Portuguese pastry and planned the day ahead.

I hadn’t done as much research for this trip as previous city breaks, mainly because so many trips had been cancelled since the pandemic, and I didn’t quite believe we would actually make the trip. So, with a mini Porto guide to hand, we decided to let that do the organising, and followed their UNESCO walking tour for the first few hours.

First up, it was a short walk downhill (Porto is very hilly by the way, so be prepared with good walking shoes) to the ridiculously ornate Church of São Francisco. The gothic building hints of its splendour inside by the rose window and spiralling columns that great you as you enter, but nothing quite prepares you for the opulent, golden baroque interior. The alter is particularly impressive and you would be hard pressed to find a spot that hadn’t been covered in gold at all.

It took a few seconds for our eyes to adjust to the natural light as we exited the church and into the adjoining museum to see all the related religious art.  We then descended the stairs into the catacombs, where monks and notable local families are buried, you can wander along rows of tombs decorated with skulls and an ossuary filled with thousands of bones, truly fascinating if a bit eerie.

The church is just by the River Douro, so we walked along the river’s edge, past market stalls full of local crafts made of cork, towards the huge arched Dom Luís I Bridge, spotting boats full of barrels of port along the way.

Once we reached the bridge, our map took us left back towards the city centre, up some high steps and bricked walls, every so often as we stopped to get our breath, we were afforded some stunning views of the terracotta red roofs and the river below.

After a few lost turns, we made it to one of the cities oldest and highest buildings, the Se do Porto, otherwise known as the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady. A Romanesque style of architecture, comprising the Cathedral itself with a porch, rose window, narrow central nave and large silver altarpiece. I particularly liked the 14th century cloister decorated with beautiful blue tiles and somehow ended up being the unofficial photographer for the many other tourists all wanting their photos with the blue backdrop.

After a stop for lunch, we stumbled upon a speciality coffee place called the Calma Coffee Room, housed in the 150 year old Porto Commercial Atheneum. The room itself was originally the tea room, and the only place in the building where women were allowed, its small, but packed full of history, tiled walls, chandeliers and a large window which opens out to the busy street below, perfect for some people watching over your double expresso with oat milk.

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Next up it was a short walk to what looks like at first glance a very large church, but on closer inspection its actually 2 churches with a thin house in the middle. Carmo and Carmelitas Churches comprise of one church originally just for nuns, whilst the other was specifically just for the monks, the house in the middle was possibly there to uphold an old law that says 2 churches can’t share a wall, or maybe just to keep the men and women apart! You can buy a ticket to visit all 3 buildings and it’s well worth a look inside and don’t miss the beautiful blue tiles on the outside side wall as well.

We spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering the streets close by, scrutinising menu’s for a place to eat our dinner and ended up at Noshi. It was a lovely friendly place, with a fully plant based menu, we sat outside and watched the trams pass by our table, and when the rain hit hard, our waiter arranged a taxi for us back to our hotel, even letting us wait inside after closing until our driver arrived, if we had stayed longer in the city, we would have definitely returned.

The rain continued into the next day,  so after a snack in our hotel, we headed back down to the gothic Church of Sao Francisco, where the No 1 tram starts its journey along the bank of the River Duomo west to its final stop in Foz. This neighbourhood of Porto lies on the Atlantic Ocean, with beach cafes, bars, and a promenade with views of the rocky, sandy coastline, complete with lighthouse.

We went straight to The Bird for a tasty veggie lunch and it had pretty much stopped raining once we were replenished and ready to explore the front, so we headed down to the beach.

With the main tourist season over and of course Covid restrictions still in place, we had the beach almost to ourselves and it was wonderful to get lost in the views, the crashing of the waves against the rocks, boat spotting in the fog, dodging the high rising spray and of course keeping a close eye on the rising tide around our feet. I could have stayed longer, there is just something about a windy, wet coast line that is just invigorating and life affirming.

Foz do Douro lighthouse is located at the end of a breakwater as you walk back towards the tram stop. I was impressed by the waves crashing along the beach, but it was nothing compared to huge swell of water rocking and rolling around the red topped Felgueiras Lighthouse, which lies pretty much where the Douro River and Atlantic Ocean meet and if you look carefully you can see the colour changing as fresh river water pours out into the salty sea.

Last up was a walk back through the Jardim do Passeio Alegre a 19th century garden complete with palm trees, sculptures and fountains, and whilst we were there, also a little market selling local honeys and cheeses. Back on the tram into the centre of Porto, we headed to Amorino Santa Catarina for one of their famous flower ice creams, it was my first time to the ice cream chain, no actual dairy free ice cream was available, but there was a decent range of sorbets. and it looked so pretty, I still couldn’t resist.

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Had a bit of a fail for dinner, all the places on my list were either close on Sundays, closed for private functions or fully booked. So we settled on a tapas bar close to our hotel, and I managed to just about make a full meal with the plant based dishes on offer, along with a couple of bottles of Super Bock of course!

Our final morning, and still a little hungry from the night before, we headed to Manna Porto for the most delicious breakfast and fresh coffee.

Then for a second time we walked past the Livraria Lello book shop, it’s next door to the ice cream parlour we had been too the day before and had a huge queue outside. Thinking it may be better at its opening time of 10.00am we walked past after our Manna breakfast, but the queue was even longer, so we decided to pass, always leave something to return to right?

One of the famous and striking features of Porto are the 6 bridges that span the Duomo, and its most popular is the double decker, iron arched Dom Luis bridge. You can drive or walk across the lower tier, and walk or catch the metro across the top tier. We walked across the top, for outstanding views across the river, full of pleasure cruises and the Rabelo‘s with their barrels of port setting off on their journeys.

Another advantage of taking the top tier across the river is you have less to climb to get to the Monastery of Serra do Pilar once you arrive on the other side. Unfortunately for us, it was closed on Mondays, but we still managed to walk around the exterior courtyard and got to enjoy more stunning views across the city.

They say what goes up, must come down, and as we wanted to stay on this side of the river and explore the area known as Cais de Gaia, you have two options, either walk back down to the riverside or you can catch the Cable Car. Mum wanted to save her legs, and I wasn’t complaining, so we slowly and smoothly floated above the city and the Port houses to arrive in the heart of  Cais de Gaia full of bars, restaurants as well as the famous Port wine cellars. We wandered through little markets and down narrow streets dodging the hustle and bustle of the Port houses getting ready to export their sweet fortified wine across the globe.

We gradually made our way back along the Duomo, lined with heavily laden Rabelo’s and colourful riverside houses, it really feels like nowhere else, truly beautiful and unique.

We then took the lower tier of the bridge back across to the old town for a late lunch and final pastry, so we returned to Pastelaria Tupi for their vegan version of the traditional Francesinha sandwich and of course a Pastel de Nata.

We just had time for a walk to burn off our lunch before heading back to collect our bags and get a taxi to the airport, there was still a few things I would have love to have seen within the city, and future day trips I have my eye on.  I definitely don’t aim to leave it another 40 years before my next trip. Portugal, you were wonderful.

 

 

Two Castles and a Kayak

I was invited the other weekend to go kayaking in Llanberis, a small town just on the western edge of Snowdonia National Park.  It wasn’t until the Sunday afternoon, so with no other plans booked in that weekend, I decided to make it into a little overnight road trip, finishing up Sunday lunchtime in Llanberis for a kayak with friends.

A Unesco sites that I had been meaning to visit, but was just a bit too far for a day trip, were 2 of the 4 world heritage castles on the west coast, in the county of Gwynedd; Conwy and Caernarfon. I had visited Beaumaris previously over on Anglesey and the 4th, Harlech is a lot further south, but Conwy and Caenarfon are only about 35 minutes apart, so seemed doable in the same day.

It’s super easy to get to Conwy from where I live and I didn’t even need to use my maps to get me there and 90 minutes later I was parked up at the main long stay carpark.  It sits behind the castle walls, easily signposted and payment is by app or card, so no fumbling for money needed!

Conwy Castle is an incredibly well preserved Medieval fortress, over 700 years old. Built by Edward I, Edward Longshanks to his friends, Edward was born in England, but was intent on conquering Wales. The four castles along the coast with their imposing walls, were all part of his successful takeover plan and sent out a very strong message to the Welsh that he meant business!

I have to say, Conwy Castle is one of the most impressive castles I have visited, for sheer size and how it has retained its features. You really do feel transported back in time as you explore the many chambers, climb the spiral staircases up to the towers and walk along the high walls. The views of the Conwy Suspension Bridge over the River Conwy and Snowdonia’s mountainous skyline in the distance, is spectacular, I can’t think of a more perfect location for a castle.

Having been to Conwy before, I just had a short walk along the harbour, and sat and had my packed lunch, watching the tourists queue up to visit the ‘smallest house in Britain’ while a vicious seagull attempt to eat a families bag of chips, quite entertaining really. Then I took the long way back to the carpark, via the main high street for a bit of window shopping, before heading down the coast, to Castle no. 2.

Just over half an hour later, I was pulling into the carpark down by the waterfront, staring back up to the imposing castle walls in the town of Caenarfon. Although the building of this castle started the same year as Conwy, this castle took over 40 years to completion, compared to Conwy’s quick 7 year build.

It’s an ideal spot if you’re going to build a castle, as it sits at the tip of a peninsula, edged by the Menai Strait and River Seiont, affording great views and lots of protection.

Unlike its neighbour in Conwy, Canaerfon isn’t in as good a state of repair inside, but the walls and main structure are still none the less impressive. Much of the interior hasn’t survived that well and some of the buildings weren’t ever fully finished. That said, I preferred this castle to Conwy, it takes a little more effort to get too, and was nowhere near as busy, and for me that gave it its charm. There is still lots to explore here though, spiral staircases to climb and outstanding views from the top, as well as a museum inside too. Part of the castle was in the process of being renovated during my visit, leaving a few spots out of bounds, but all us visitors got a free guidebook as compensation instead.

Highlights for me included, the dark atmospheric passages taking you through the basement and up the Well Tower, the narrow stone spiral staircases winding you up to the 2nd floor for epic but windy views from the Chamberlain Tower and a surprising single stone glass window.

Once done, I took a short walk through the town centre, but as we are still in Covid times and with some places still closed and restrictions in place, I decided to power on and head to my final destination for the day, Bangor.

I only knew of Bangor from my University days, as they used to have a school of Podiatry there, but I knew absolutely nothing else. The reason I chose it as a place to stay the night was it’s a University town, so I knew there was a good chance of there being some affordable hotel options as well as probably some plant based food for sale somewhere, and it was only a 20 minute drive from my meeting spot the next day.

But I was pleasantly surprised, once checked in I headed to Yugen coffee house, to pick up an oat latte and some vegan cheesecake, then headed to the coastline located a nice bench and then just sat and took in the breathtaking views, of the Menai Straits and Anglesey to the front and Snowdonia behind.

After a quick check of maps on my phone, I could see what looked like a pier, stretching almost all the way to Anglesey, so I continued to walk south, until I arrived at a place I had no idea existed, Garth Pier. A Grade II listed Victorian Pier, there are 2 colourful Kiosks to welcome you, and a small fee to enter. Then its a lovely walk right out across the Menai Straits, with local crafts, ice cream and art work being sold, as well as a coffee shop right at the top. I had just filled up on coffee, so I just sat on a bench completely taken in with the surrounding views of the Welsh landscape, texting family and friends about this new (to me) discovery and recommending it to everyone.

Finally, all my plant based dreams came true and my bet on Bangor being vegan friendly paid off, the first fully plant based restaurant in Wales happened to be a 5 minute walk from the pier. Called Voltaire although they were fully booked, they were happy to let me have some take-out, so with one of their signature burgers and fries bagged up, I hotfooted it back to my hotel, and tucked in, it’s pretty much a whole reason in itself to return.

The next morning, feeling refreshed, I took the short drive to Llanberis and found myself a nice free parking spot by the lake. I arrived an hour early, so did a loop of the town, remembering the places I had visited previously, investigated the lake we would soon be sailing on, and watched admiringly the sweaty, tired looking hikers who were returning from Snowdon’s summit, which I had done a year earlier.

After a hearty breakfast with my fellow kayaker’s at Pete’s Eats we headed down to Snowdonia Watersports and got our kit. For £25 we got full kit hire and 2 hours out on the lake, you also get access to indoor changing rooms, a locker and hot showers, so absolutely worth it.

Of course I fell in, whilst the others gracefully climbed into their kayaks, but I regained my composure and tried again with my second attempt being successful, all while keeping my hair dry!

Then we were off, for a glorious, peaceful sail around the lake, with incredible 360 views of the lakeside steam train, the welsh mountains and the sun reflecting off the rippling water. It was a perfect sunny Sunday afternoon.

Once back on dry land and warmed up with a hot shower, we all headed back to Petes Eats for a hot drink, then it was time to load up another podcast for the drive and head back home to have that kind of deep rejuvenating sleep you can only have after a full day out in nature. Wonderful.