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Monday, 21 July 2014

Wilderness Scotland and Panda Experience

I've already been back from Scotland for a few days after having a really busy time, so busy that I didn't have a chance to write my blog. So forgive me if this one ends up being short and sweet, they are always better written as it happens.

Day 1

We had a relatively early start this morning to get on the road heading for Scotland. I had a feeder meeting point off route and it had also been badly timed so by the time I had picked up all my passengers I was already 40 mins behind time. Not good when we have such a distance to travel so I was starting the day already a little bit wound up!

We got on the road, had a coffee break at motorway services then pressed on to the Old Blacksmith's Shop at Gretna Green for lunch. When we arrived, there must have been 30 coaches there. Luckily, most of them were just on their way out. They are very well geared up to cope with large numbers of people here and I've never found a problem with lack of food, slow service or no where to sit, regardless of how busy they are.

There was a wedding taking place while we were here which some of my passengers enjoyed watching. After some lunch and a bit of browsing in the shops we were back on the road, next stop, our hotel.

We are spending the next 4 nights at the Best Western Winnock Hotel in Drymen, just 4 miles from Loch Lomond. We checked in, I had a very spacious, comfortable room with a double bed, always a bonus! There was time for a soak in the bath for dinner.

Our evening meal was very good but I didn't like the room we were eating in. It was far too small for the size of our group and we were squashed in like sardines. There was no air conditioning and with the low ceilings if was uncomfortably hot. I did enjoy the food though.

Day 2

This morning we have quite a long drive to get to our destination in North Berwick.
We are going to the Scottish Sea Bird Centre. We arrived just before 12 and had an introductory talk before going around the Discovery Centre for an hour. We then had half an hour to grab some lunch before meeting up again at 1:30 for our trip on the privately chartered trip on the catamaran, out to Bass Rock to see the bird colonies.

We were just gathering together when one of the staff came and informed us that our trip would have to be delayed because the tide was out and our boat was sat on the sand! How ridiculous the skipper can't read a tide timetable! So we had another hour to do not a lot before our boat trip. It was a good thing it was a beautifully sunny day so people didn't really mind. 

The boat trip was certainly well worth the wait. I was most fascinated by the Puffins.
(Image taken from Google)

Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the trip. I tried to drive the boat but the skipper was having none of it!

Obviously we were now quite late in leaving and we still had the same long journey back to the hotel.

We went straight in for dinner when we got back to the hotel. The meal, once again was lovely. I had an early night because we have a really early start tomorrow.

Day 3

Breakfast this morning was at 6:30, confirmed by the hotel last night, but when we arrived the receptionist said she was expecting us at 8! The staff were then in a mad panic and it wasn't looking like we would be leaving on time at 7:30.

We left 15 minutes late for today's excursion which was another 2 hour drive away. We were going on a land rover Highland Safari near Aberfeldy.

When we arrived we were split into 2 groups. The first group would go off in the land rovers while the other group met and fed the herd of Deer at the centre and met the relatively new resident Barn Owl.

I was in the first group so did the safari first. We went up into the hills where the weather wasn't very good and only got a glimpse of a Deer before she ran away. We didn't see any other animals but we had a lot of fun and I found out what is under a Scots mans kilt!

The groups swapped over and we fed the Deer.

And met the Barn Owl.

After the second group came back in land rovers we had lunch here before a scenic drive back to the hotel. The weather on the journey back to the hotel was horrendous but not bad enough to not be able to see the dramatic scenery. 

It was a bit of a challenging drive although I enjoyed it. We travelled along the length of Loch Earn before heading back towards the Trossachs, passing Loch Lubnaig and Lake Menteith, the only lake in Scotland. All others are Lochs.

We arrived back at the hotel at 4:30 and the weather had turned nice again. Many people took the short walk to the viewpoint where you could just see Loch Lomond.

After travelling through such horrible weather today my coach was looking dirty so I gave her a quick wash before dinner so she was all sparkly and ready for another days work tomorrow.

Day 3

We had a more respectable breakfast time this morning before leaving at 9:30. I put in another scenic drive this morning, again over the Trossachs but this time up to Aberfoyle, over Dukes Pass where you get a glimpse of Loch Katrine, along Loch Drunkie, Loch Achray and Loch Venachar to Kilmahog where we stopped at the woollen mill for coffee and to meet Hamish the Highland Bull.

From here we travelled through Callender to pick up the motorway, over the Kinkardine Bridge and the Forth Road Bridge into Edinburgh where we had free time for lunch.
(Image taken from Google)

After a couple of hours free time we transferred to Edinburgh zoo. We had 2 hrs free time with the option of a one hour guide showing the highlights before our private viewing of the Pandas.

For many of the group this was the highlight of the trip and for some, the reason for booking this holiday. 

We then had a private viewing of the penguins which I thought was quite disappointing. We didn't see anything any better than the general public and I was disappointed we couldn't have any interaction with them.

We left the zoo at 6:30 so once again, it was straight in for dinner after an exhausting day.

Day 5

This morning we are checking out and heading home after a very busy holiday. We stopped at Moffat Woollen Mill for morning coffee before going to Carlisle for lunch. Everyone is always unsure when Carlisle is mentioned as lunch stop but it is very nice since it has been redeveloped and always goes down well. We stopped at Barton Grange Garden Centre mid afternoon before tackling the M6 traffic home. We had a horrible journey from here on and I came in half an hour late. Over the last 5 days I have driven just short of 2000km! Although it has been a busy time and hard work, I and all the passengers have thoroughly enjoyed this trip. It's been nice to do something a bit different.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Gardens of North Devon

This tour will be my third year with a local gardening club, who I have got to know quite well and they refer to me as 'quirky' so they have obviously got the gist of me! I generally have a good time with them, although we always have a packed itinerary over 4 days, but we are always in very nice hotels. The gardens they tend to visit are ones which are generally not open to the public and are usually at someone's house in the middle of nowhere and so the driving has never been particularly easy to get to them. This years tour is to North Devon, staying at the Brend Hotel Group, The Barnstaple Hotel in Barnstaple. I've stayed at many Brend Hotels and the service is always exceptional as well as being able to rely on good food and a comfortable bedroom. However, since I saw the itinerary for this years tour back in December and having looked at where these gardens are, if I am honest, I have not been looking forward to this years tour, purely because of some of the places I am expected to get a 13m coach to. Unclassified roads are bad to take a coach at the best of times but in Devon...... You're having a laugh!!

Day 1

I was at work at 6:30am to pack and check my coach before half the group arrived at the depot ready for a 7:45am departure. When Diane, (group organiser) and Rob, (her partner) arrived, I got a big hug and I was just as pleased to see them. We left the yard and collected the rest of the group from Ashchurch Railway Station.  There are only 6 people travelling this year who I haven't met and everyone said they had been pleased to learn that I was driving them again this year, so that was nice.

We headed South on the M5 and had a brief comfort stop at motorway services. Diane had laid down the law, no time to get coffee or go to the shops, splash and dash! After only 7mins we were back on the road and heading for our first visit of the day not far from Honiton. This was an easy garden for me to get to, just off the main road. The lady who owned the garden was on the road waiting for us. She welcomed us and showed us through to her garden.

Little Ash Bungalow is a private 1 1/2 acre garden developed since 2000 to provide year round interest and a wildlife haven. A stream runs past the bottom of the garden and feeds a shady, damp area planted with a collection of shade loving plants. This is an NGS garden and the owner was a finalist in the 2009 BBC Gardener of the Year Competition. Although the garden was lovely, my hay fever was playing me up so all I was really interested in was the free tea and cake. And the cake was delicious!

After an hour and a half we were back on the road and making our way to our next visit, RHS Gardens Rosemoor at Torrington. I have been here many times before so because it was such a beautiful day, I found a quiet spot by the lake, where I sat in the sunshine, writing my blog! I have written about Rosemoor in a previous blog.

After a couple of hours basking in the sun, I moved up to the tea room to claim my free tea and cake! At 5:30pm we made our way to our hotel.

When we arrived, the manager was waiting outside for us and came on board the coach to welcome us to the hotel and inform us of meal arrangements. He also mentioned that we were free to use the gym and the indoor and outdoor pools but, and in his words I quote, "no skinny dipping allowed! I know what you lot are like!" Not really what I would have expected in the welcome speech at a 4* hotel! The porterage was dealt with very quickly and by the time I had parked and locked the coach I only had an hour before dinner, so my swim would have to wait for tomorrow.

The food and the service at dinner, as expected, was very good but I think the Imperial Hotel does it better. The group did try to get in the Imperial but they couldn't get the single rooms so this was their second choice of hotel but nevertheless, everyone is very happy. I am in a double room with a balcony overlooking the outdoor pool, far better than I was allocated last week and better than I've ever had at the Imperial.

After dinner I sat down with Diane briefly so she could double check routes with me. I'd have thought, this being the third year I have done this group, she would have realised that I do my homework and know where I'm going! She does pack a tight schedule though and tends to fret a little so I suppose I will let her off! So I went back to my room and sat on the balcony reading for a while before an early night. I had forgotten that this group likes to start early!

Day 2

So today is one I am not looking forward to due to the locations of all 3 of our visits. The first garden today is again a NGS garden in the pretty coastal village of Croyde. I know I can get there and I know I need to come out the same way but I don't see where I am expected to turn and park and just to make things more difficult, today is the day of the open air market in the village!

We left the hotel slightly late just after 9am due to Mike, (it's always Mike!) being late. Rob and I went to find him and when we did, I hurried back to the coach to give Rob the opportunity to have a few stern words, which he did. 

So we were on the road. It is a nice drive out to Croyde with stunning views of the coastline and across  Saunton Sands. We arrived in Croyde, the owner of the garden was waiting at the end of his lane where I dropped the group before going to find the village 'car park' which I had been booked into. I don't know what I'd been so worried about! It was easy and all down to Diane's good planning. I suppose I need to trust her a little more as well as her needing to trust me!

Langtrees is another private garden. The 1 acre garden has an eclectic selection of plants with some interesting trees and shrubs. Many Southern Hemisphere plants are grown successfully due to the mild coastal climate. It was probably all wasted on my untrained eye but I did appreciate sitting in the nice surroundings, enjoying yet another beautifully sunny day. I also enjoyed the free tea and cake!

Our next visit today was also our lunch stop at Marwood Hill Gardens. This is another garden I have been to before but not at this time of year and certainly not in such good weather. This 20 acre garden was started by Dr Jimmy Smart VMH and since his death in 2002 has been maintained by Head Gardener Malcolm Pharoah and his team. The garden remains privately owned and all proceeds from the admission charges, plant sales and tea room go towards the running and maintenance of the garden.

I had 5 miles of unclassified roads to drive to get to this garden and luckily, I met very little traffic. There were a lot of tractors working in the fields so I think I was lucky to not meet any. 

I had my priorities right and the first thing I did after parking up was to head to the tea room for free tea and cake! I had to be early because my group would fill the place later. Then I found somewhere to sit out and relax. This was my choice of view.

The ducks were having a marvellous time chasing each other and diving in the water, making a lot of noise and the fish obviously thought I had come to feed them. Do they not know I'm just looking for some peace and quiet?!

We had to take the same 5 miles of country lanes when we left and then we were heading for our final visit of the day at Morthoe which is on the cliff-top heading out of Woolacombe and has uninterrupted views to Morte Point on the North Devon Coast. This was a garden that couldn't be accessed by coach. The group were dropped at the end of the Esplanade in Woolacombe and had to walk up the hill from there. The garden owner did a couple of runs in his car for those who couldn't manage the climb. 

I left them to it and had to go back to the beach to park up so I missed out on the free tea and cake! Instead, I took the opportunity to have a quick kip!

We left Woolacombe at 5 o'clock and made the short journey back to the hotel. By 5:30 I was taking a dip in the outdoor pool and by 6:30 I was enjoying a glass of wine in the garden. We had another lovely meal this evening before I disappeared to my room and had a very restful night. And I would be needing it. Tomorrow will take a lot of concentration because tomorrow is the day of driving to stupidly narrow places!

Day 3

We had an early start this morning because we had quite a distance to travel on roads that aren't the best to get to our first two of today's visits. We left at 8:30, I think they had forgotten that this is a holiday! Everybody was on the coach, even Mike and we left 5 mins early. They must all be frightened of being late!

It was a nice, although slow drive to our first garden of the day at Buckland Monachorum, just outside of Yelverton on the edge of Dartmoor National Park. The last mile to the garden was ridiculously narrow. There wasn't even room to pass a pedestrian!

I stopped in the gateway to let everyone off before I got my head around how I was going to turn this machine around and get her parked up and go and have a look at the garden.

Keith Wiley, who has appeared many times on BBC Gardeners World, was Head Gardener at The Garden House just a mile down the road, for 25 years until he decided to cut loose and build his own piece of paradise at Wildside. The garden has been sculpted from a flat Devon field over the last 10 years to create a natural landscape inspired by visits around the world. His planting seeks to work in harmony with nature allowing plants to thrive much as they would do in the wild.

When I walked in the garden my first impression was that it was a scruffy mess! But when I walked through and I could see the garden from different aspects, it was absolutely stunning. Keith was giving a guided tour but I took myself around and found a quiet spot to sit. We didn't get tea and cake here, something I have grown to expect!

Lots of plants were bought again here and we are starting to get low on locker space. I hope I can squeeze all the luggage into one locker in the morning!

We moved on to our next visit which was The Garden House, just up the road. I was a little luckier on the narrow lane this time as I didn't meet anything coming the opposite way.

The group had a pre booked lunch here and I was given a meal voucher to choose what I'd like before there was a short introductory talk by one of the gardeners.

The Garden House garden still bears the imprint of Keith Wiley's 25 year stay but subsequent Head Gardeners have also made their mark. Run by the Fortescue Garden Trust, a charity set up to ensure the survival of the garden, the 8 acre site contains many different garden styles. Personally, I don't consider this to be a patch on the previous garden, even though this garden has given me free tea and cake! It was getting really hot in the sun so I found a nice shaded seat in the 'Magic Circle'.

We left Buckland Monorchorum and travelled back to North Devon for our final visit of the day in the tiny hamlet of Yarnscombe. This was the place I had been most concerned about coming to and Diane admitted that she was also worried about the access here but the garden owners had assured her that they regularly have full size coaches to visit, warned us to only take one specific route and had said there was plenty of room to turn and park. We came off the main road and had 5 miles to go to get to the garden. It looked ok at first. Then the hedges got taller and were coming in on me. My mirrors were just brushing the hedges on each side. We got to the village and there was one corner, just before reaching my turning area, which I only just made it round. We came round the corner and the garden owner was stood on the side of the road, directing me into the village hall car park. Well! Never in a million years has a full size coach ever got in there! I dropped the group and they went on to the garden. Rob stayed to help me. The garden owner was a very irritating little man who laughed nervously at everything that was said. He laughed when I said I wouldn't fit round and through the gate into the car park and he said that's where the coaches always go and that it must be that I can't drive it! Then he admitted that my coach was larger than anything else they've had there. And laughed again. I would have loved to smack him in the gob! 

So Rob and I went for a walk down the lane to see if there was anywhere I could turn and park. There was a small junction just up ahead which seemed my only chance and with the help of Rob, I had done a 47 point turn and got parked on what wasn't much more than a farm track. Then we went for tea and cake.

I did have a quick look around the garden but I didn't actually see what I was looking at. I was so wound up that the garden owners would have a coach the size of mine down here without knowing if it would fit or not. It later became apparent that they had never had any coach of any size into this village.

I went back to fetch the coach and again, Rob came to help. I was still uncertain as to wether or not I could turn left out of the lane where I was parked but I had to try, that was the only direction I could go to get back out of the village. After several attempts we had to give up on the left turn, the coach was just too big to fit round, no matter how many shunts it took. So I had to turn right. I knew there was a crossroads a mile down the road and that was now my last chance to turn around and get out of here before I would be ringing the police for them to come and close the road behind me, for me to reverse the 5 miles back to the main road. Rob and I walked down to the crossroads first to see what the chances were. The road was even narrower but the crossroads were looking hopeful. We walked back to the coach and gave it a go. Had the lane been only 2 inches narrower, I wouldn't have fit but after what seemed like hours we had made the one mile to the crossroads. We hadn't seen any traffic at all in this village but Sod's law, cars came from every direction when we got to the crossroads. Rob spoke to each driver and it was like a puzzle with one having to reverse for me to nose up to him while the two from the other directions went up the hill and I could reverse around the corner with only one shunt before allowing the final car through and telling him that we would be following up so he could tell any traffic coming down. So I finally collected the group, who had been kicked out of the garden to wait on the roadside, nearly 40mins late. The garden owner was there and was still laughing and I just couldn't hold my tongue any longer. I let rip and I wouldn't be surprised if he put in a complaint about the way I spoke to him. I can't think how they ever thought a coach would get there, let alone turn! DON'T EVER TAKE A COACH TO THE CROFT GARDEN AT YARNSCOMBE!

I couldn't settle all evening, I was so het up about the whole thing. Diane was upset and felt responsible for putting me in that situation but she had been given the reassurance that it is a regular thing. I don't blame her. I had a large glass of wine before dinner and had a very restless night. However, the group now think I am even more wonderful! I just want to go home. 😞

Day 4

Hoorah! I'm going home today! But not before 4 more garden visits! I'm still not settled and I'd had very little sleep, trying to think if there was something I could have done differently. Should I have stopped when the road started to narrow and refused to go any further? I couldn't do that, I was committed on the road. Even in hind sight, I don't think I could have done anything better. 

I was feeling quite flat when we arrived at our first garden. This was an extra visit that had been fitted in and I don't know the name of the garden but it was another private one. I had stayed on the coach when everyone went in and I was sat enjoying my coffee when two ladies came back for their cameras and said that I really should go and have a look because it was very quirky and a lot of fun. So I went and had a look. It was the best medicine for me this morning and I had a laugh at lots of things. When you first walk into the garden there is a big plastic drum by the gate with a sign on it saying 'ok for 2 eyes but not good for 4' and when I looked inside, there were just lots of pairs of glasses at the bottom! There were lots of statues which squirted water and were activated by movement sensors and a witch who had flown into a telegraph pole.

The owner had the most gorgeous dog called Noodles who was a black lab cross and I spent some time playing fetch with her while everyone else was buying more plants. It was brilliant and I was feeling a different person.

Our next visit was to Tapeley Park Garden. We had been due to have a tour of the house here but that had to be cancelled due to a ceiling falling down a few days before, hence the extra visit. There were still plenty of gardens and grounds to explore and a lovely little tea room where I had free tea and cake!

Tapeley is owned by the Christies family from Glyndebourne, Sussex, and is now run by Hector Christie, a farmer and passionate activist. The Victorian kitchen gardens provide year round, chemical free fruit and vegetables for the tea room, house and local community. There are Classic Victorian Italian terraces and a permaculture garden demonstrating a sustainable policy working with nature to produce healthy plants.

Our next visit wax Castle Hill Gardens, Filleigh, which was a very beautiful spot where we took lunch in the West Wing of the home of the Earl and Countess of Arran. The landscape surrounding the house is laid out in the 'Versailles' style and here is a walled kitchen garden, shrub garden, Millennium Garden and an extensive woodland garden. I didn't look around any of them. Instead, I stayed in the west wing for a second helping of strawberries and clotted cream!

Our final garden today was Stamford Shrubs and Holbrook Garden, Sampford Peverell. A two acre garden which has been created in a heavy clay Devon field alongside a small nursery specialising in shrubs and hardy herbaceous perennials, especially Helenium. The whole enterprise is run organically without pesticides or peat. But the best bit was the free tea and flapjacks! The little space we had left in the lockers had been eyed up and was soon filled before we hit the road for home.

We had an easy journey home with an even quicker 'splash and dash' than we had managed on Monday. Rob and Diane we thanked and presented with a gift before I was thanked and presented with a gift. I hope it's not a plant! 

On the whole I have enjoyed my tour with this group again and they have asked me to take them on their trip next year to Hampshire. The roads in Hampshire are far better than the roads in Devon so it should be a doddle! Once again, I have come home with some very happy people! 😊 

Le Touquet

Day 1

Monday morning and I'm off on tour again. Just a little 4 day skip over to Northern France this time. I am taking an all girls school from Shrewsbury. They were picked up at 05:30 this morning and so the coach is being fed to me at Corley Services. I'm driving the monster 14.5m tri-axle this week. I've not driven it for a while so I will have to think harder all the time. Just the thought makes my brain hurt!

I arrived at Corley in plenty of time for a quick breakfast before my coach arrived. They turned up late due to the school leaving nearly half an hour late and then they got held up in rush hour traffic around Birmingham. We were booked on the channel tunnel and with the girls needing to have a comfort stop on the way, we would be cutting it fine to make our booked time. 

The coach arrived and I introduced myself to the teachers who all seemed very pleasant although a little straight laced. They reminded me of the book 'Little Women'! Then I made them move seats with the girls so they were next to emergency exits and more evenly spread throughout the coach to keep an eye on the girls. They weren't too impressed and said that they thought that only applied in France. Simple answer to that one. It's a safety issue and strongly advised regardless of which country you are in. Now move!!

I introduced myself to the girls over the mic and gave them my usual spiel. "Seatbelts must be worn at all times, non negotiable. If you are caught not wearing your seat belt you will be cleaning the coach at the end of the day. There will be a competition every day of who can make the most mess around their seat and the winner will be cleaning the coach at the end of the day. If you don't like the prize, don't make a mess!" They look horrified every time!

So we set off and after an hour they were ready for their comfort break. They had been on the coach for nearly 3 hours. We pulled into services and had only been there for about 5 mins before the fire alarm went off and the building was evacuated. We had stopped here for the girls to have chance to get some breakfast so they waited until they were allowed back in again so they could get some food. Our 20min break had turned into 40mins and the excuse was the 5 mins that the building had been evacuated! We're not due to do anything other than go to the hotel when we arrive, but I'd like to check in in time for the train we are booked on so I can spend the afternoon on the beach! But being in time is now out of the window.

We continued on to Folkestone and the teacher started panicking because we were late. Then one of the girls had a message to say there were 5 hour delays at the tunnel. There was nothing I could do about it and we had to get to the check in. We queued for 40 mins to check in. The guy on the desk said he'd put us on the next train which would be at 1350. That was in an hours time. We drove around to the terminal building and again the girls had been on for 3 hours and needed a wee. Just as we pulled into the terminal car park, our letter was called to proceed to vehicle check in and loading. I told the teacher, no shops, wee only! She told the girls over the mic but I didn't think she got the message across so I reiterated what she had said with "be quick girls, if you are longer than 5 mins we will miss our train and be sat here for 5 hours!" That did the trick! We drove round to our lane for boarding where I was watching the info boards where the 1350 train was delayed to 1415. Then our letter was transferred off the 1415 and onto the 1530. Then the 1530 was delayed until 1645. When I had said we will be sat here for 5 hours I really didn't think we would be but we wouldn't be far off.

Emergency food parcels were being handed out and the Channel Tunnel had now been closed to anyone who wasn't already there. Apparently, a non eurotunnel train had booked to use part of the line but hadn't taken any notice of the height restriction and entered a tunnel, pulling out 250m of 25,000V electric cable. It was going to take at least 24hrs to repair and so only one tunnel was in use. 

Eventually we were called to board and I put the monster coach on the train like a pro! We were finally on our way again but our next problem was that we weren't going to make it in time to the restaurant where we were booked for our evening meal. A phone call was made and the time of our booking couldn't be moved because the Tour de France would be in Le Touquet tomorrow and so it was really busy in town this evening. So we had to cancel. The teachers asked if I could find a macdonalds where we could stop for our evening meal. How revolting! I wasn't at all happy about maccy's for tea but that was what they wanted so that is what we did. The staff in maccy's were so quick and efficient I was amazed. There were 60 people in our group who walked in, without warning, and put in one mass order. Within 45 mins we had all eaten and were on our way again.

The teachers were already aware that the coach couldn't get to the hotel and I was surprised at where they had suggested to be dropped off because I think I probably could have got them a little closer but not particularly easily. But they were happy to walk so that was good for me. The coach is parked at the airport and the teachers are getting me taxis too and fro.

Once I'd had a quick change I went to the beach with the girls, the place I should have been 6 hours ago! 

I went for a walk into town to find a cashpoint and on the way back I couldn't resist an ice cream. The town was buzzing because the Tour de France is coming through here tomorrow.

We left the beach at 10pm. I was feeling quite tired and went straight to bed. I was surprised to find I had quite a large, although tired looking room with a double bed. I'll be quite happy in here for the next 3 nights. And surely after today, things will go more smoothly.....

Day 2

I didn't wake up as early as I'd wanted this morning and so I had to skip breakfast and go to fetch the coach. When I arrived at the coach park, it was chocka block with vehicles for the Tour de France. They were blocking me in. I spoke to several people who all said 'yes 2 minutes', except it wasn't. The time I was supposed to pick up my group came and went, I couldn't get a phone signal and no one was prepared to move their vehicles so I could leave. I was starting to get quite concerned because not only was I late to pick up my group but the roads would be closed soon for the Tour de France and I wouldn't be able to get in at all. Finally, the Tour de France vehicles were on the move and I eventually got round to pick up my group 45 mins late and just before the roads were closed.

Our first visit today was to Nausicaa at Boulogne. This is the biggest aquarium in Europe and is a fantastic visit. It is one of the largest public aquariums of Europe. Nausicaa is described as a center of scientific and technical discovery of the marine environment, focusing primarily on the relationship between man and the sea.

The exhibit area is currently about 5,000 square metres (54,000 sq ft), and includes the following main exhibits:

  • Shark Aquarium
  • Tropical Lagoon
  • Sea Lion Reserve
  • Tactile Pool
  • World Ocean
  • Submerged Forest
  • Penguin Beach

After their visit the girls had a picnic lunch in the park before we moved up to Boulogne old town for an hour. The coach park here was particularly busy. I struggled to get my monster out of the way and parked and it was an equal struggle to exit the car park back onto the road. But the girls enjoyed their time here so it was worth it.

Our final visit of the day was to a wheat farm where we also be having our evening meal. We had a demonstration on how to make corn dollies and decorations before we all attempted making corn dolly hearts. This is what they should look like.

This is what mine looked like!

Well someone had to do a really bad job so that none of the girls had the worst one! Then we were moved into a barn for dinner. For starters we had eggy and ham bread and these funny cheesey shoux pastry type things. They were ok. For main course, the girls had one cheese and ham pancake, the teachers had two accompanied with a side salad. For pudding we had more eggy bread with chocolate sauce and sugar. Considering this was our main meal of the day I thought it was terrible. The teachers did ok out of it but the girls, the ones who were actually paying, should have had a more substantial meal. We left and headed back to the hotel.

I dropped the girls off and asked the teacher to call me a taxi for 20mins time. One hour later, no taxi. None of my phones were working so I started walking. It took me 40 mins to walk to the hotel and I wasn't a happy bunny when I got there. Also, at the hotel, the front door is locked at 8pm and you need a key fob to get in. Only one fob had been issued to the whole group and it wasn't me! Luckily there was a teacher waiting for me while everyone else was at the beach. So an hour and a half after dropping off I was in my hotel room with very sore feet because I am wearing rubbish shoes for walking. A soak in the bath calmed me but what I really wanted to do was go and find a bar and have a glass of wine but I couldn't because I didn't have a key to get into the hotel. Instead I festered in my room! Surely tomorrow has got to get better.

Day 3

I was awake early this morning and went down for breakfast before the girls. When I finished I asked the receptionist to call a taxi. Half an hour later it still hadn't turned up. Finally a lady driver arrived saying 'sorry for the wait, I had to get diesel', but the back seat of the car was full of shopping bags. Anyway, I got out to the coach and back to pick up just in time. I had mentioned to one of the teachers this morning that I would be handing a dust pan and brush to the girls on the back row so they could clean up the mess they had made. They were brought up to the coach early to clean the coach! I was hearing comments like 'that wasn't there yesterday' and 'we didn't do that'. It had even been mentioned that I had thrown a bag of crisps on the floor so they would have to clean! The teacher was having none of it and she wouldn't let anyone on the coach until they had cleaned it! Bonus! I only wanted them to clean their own mess but now they had cleaned the whole thing! I bet there's no mess tonight!

Our first visit today was to a snail farm. I found this quite interesting, I'd never visited a snail farm before. We learnt that all snails are born male and have a life span of 6 weeks. At 6 weeks old the snails turn into females and lay approximately 100 eggs each before they die from exhaustion.

At this particular farm, 300,000 snails are harvested each season, leaving a few to reproduce and keep the cycle going. The snails are harvested by hand, removed from their shells with a needle and dropped in a pot of boiling water.

The most popular way of eating snails is whole, in garlic butter, individually served in a snail shaped biscuit. Most of the girls tried these but only about a third of them enjoyed it. Snails are also made into a pate with pork, served on toast. Very few of the girls liked this. Other things we were told could be done with snails is snail quiche, snail tart or snail vol au vents. I didn't try anything because it all looked horrible and I don't want the slime down my throat!

Our next visit today was at the bee museum where we had a picnic lunch before a tour of the bees. This was of equal interest. 

There are three different bees. The workers, who go through 3 stages in their 6 week life. When they are born they are cleaners. They spend their time cleaning the cells and disposing of dead bees. Next they feed the Queen. In the final stage of their life it is their job to collect nectar. They do this by rubbing their abdomen on the flowers and when they are back in the hive, they use their back legs to scrap the nectar off their abdomen and into the cells. All workers are female and they do not sleep so they die from exhaustion at 6 weeks.

Then there are the drones. Drones are male bees and their sole purpose is to fertilise the Queen. Drones are bigger than workers because they never leave the hive. They just stay and eat all day and would eat the whole winter ration of food so in September there is a 'massacre' of the drones. The Queen does not lay eggs in the winter so there is no use for the drones and they are killed.

Finally there is the Queen. They Queen is chosen by the workers when she is born and is only fed on Royal Jelly so she grows bigger and with an extended abdomen and she will live for 5 years. Her abdomen is used to store 5 years worth of sperm when she is fertilised by the drone. The Queen decides to lay male or female eggs depending on what is needed in the hive. When the hive becomes over populated, the Queen leaves the hive taking worker bees with her and starts a new colony. This is the only time you will see a swarm of bees. The workers in the hive which no longer has a Queen chooses a young bee to take her place and feeds it Royal Jelly so she grows to be Queen. So this is how the reproduction of bees works. I really enjoyed this visit.

Our final visit today was to a chocolate factory. We had a demonstration on how the chocolates are made and a tasting before buying in the shop. We were sampling the fresh chocolates which had just been made and they were so much nicer being fresh. We were only here for an hour then headed back to Le Touquet.

One of the teachers rang for my taxi on the way back and he was there waiting for me when I parked up. He took me to a restaurant in town where we were booked for our evening meal. The girls had no choice of meal, chicken and chips, although this seemed to go down very well as it was the first substantial meal they'd had since we arrived. The teachers had a choice of chicken, salmon or spaghetti bolognaise. Hand cut chips and side salads. And  I didn't complain about us having bottomless carafes of wine! The food that was served up tonight was very nice. I'd had spaghetti bol which was my first proper meal of the week and I hadn't realised how much I needed it.

By 8 o'clock we were leaving the restaurant and I was looking forward to a relaxing evening. I had a walk along the beach but it was quite windy and chilly so I didn't go far before heading for the hotel where I just chilled with my tunes!

Day 4

Nothing really to report today. Luggage was loaded onto the coach after breakfast and I had to sit in the coach park while the group went to the market for an hour before leaving for the channel tunnel. There were more immigrants about today than I think I have ever seen. Not a problem for us as we are not stopping anywhere other than the tunnel but the girls were quite nervous of their presence. We managed to get an early train but lost the time we had made up in heavy traffic due to accident after accident on the M1. I met my feeder driver at Corley Services, told the girls how good they had been and how much I'd enjoyed the past 4 days with them but also how I'd told the feeder driver about the most mess cleaning the coach! I thanked the teachers and was on my way. The next morning, the office received a very nice email from the lead teacher thanking me and saying how marvellous I am! More happy customers!