Coasteering: Dorset delight with Cumulus

Coasteering with Cumulus near Swanage. As amazing as it looks

Owen, 12, was thrilled when I booked a coasteering adventure with Cumulus Outdoors, a company specialising in outdoor adventures and residential programmes. We’d hoped to go coasteering in West Wales but Storm Ellen sank that plan. We arrived at the Cumulus base in Langton Matravers, just outside Swanage, with a sense of excitement – and, for me, a few butterflies.

Our guides were welcoming and patient, which was good as we took time to get into our wetsuits. (Karen, as a former guide leader, would have hurried us up.) We began the trek to the starting point, the stunning Dancing Ledge on Dorset’s Jurassic coast, England’s only natural world heritage site.

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St Davids: a happy return to Britain’s smallest city

St Davids cathedral, Pembrokeshire

One of my favourite memories is getting a high speed train in the rush hour in London in the 1980s and finishing my journey five hours later at an isolated stone cottage near St Davids on Wales’s Atlantic coast. At first, the train was packed with commuters to Reading and Swindon, but as we travelled further west into Wales the train took on a different character. I savoured a beer watching the evening reflections as the train followed the Tywi estuary. My father collected me at the end of the line at Haverfordwest. We then enjoyed a magical car ride in the fading summer light to the dramatic Atlantic coast at Newgale and on to the quietude of St Davids, the smallest city in Great Britain.

Whitesands Bay, St Davids

I was fortunate enough to return for a work management offsite a few years ago in St Davids. I’m sure some of my London colleagues wondered why our boss had chosen such a remote location, but if you want to reflect there’s no better place to go. We stayed in the excellent Twr y Felin hotel. It was nice to be able to speak Welsh on a work trip!

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The joy of Tenby: pandemic pleasures

We were meant to fly to Florida on Friday, for an amazing family holiday in Walt Disney World. It was obvious months ago that the dream would have to wait. So we booked an Airbnb in Tenby in West Wales so we’d have a holiday to look forward to. We were so glad we did.

Tenby by night

We arrived in the rain, but it soon passed and we were revelling in a night walk around the old town and along the Castle beach.

I have so many happy memories of Tenby. My father Bob took me on a tour of West Wales at the end of my upper sixth school year and we called in to Tenby on the way home. A few years later I enjoyed a weekend in the historic town with my sister’s family when Siân and Ria were small. I fell in love with Tenby that weekend: it was endlessly fascinating yet also had the small town charm. I spotted the flat we stayed in – Troy House – near the harbour this weekend as we arrived. I must find that photo of Ria at the round table in the bay window overlooking St Julian’s Street leading to the harbour.

Castle beach

This is the beach I remember from those long-ago holidays. I built dams across the streams running down the beach with the girls. I was intrigued by the fort, which dates from the 1860s – so not quite the redoubt against Napoleon Bonaparte that I misremembered!

Caldey Island

We enjoyed a boat trip to (but not on) Caldey Island. This lovely island houses a Franciscan monastery. My good friend Anthony Beer and cousin Rosemary Dymond have both enjoyed retreats on this special piece of land. I can imagine the tranquility and solitude. Intriguingly, the island is a mix of sandstone and limestone, giving a contrasting coastline.

The Tenby town wall at the coast

Tenby is a remarkable example of an ancient town that has kept most of its ancient town wall. Here you can see the wall as it ends at the cliff. Below is the gate we drove through to get to our Airbnb at Scarborough House, The Paragon. (Highly recommended .)

Prince Albert monument

We climbed to admire the views from Tenby castle over the sea and the town.The weather was perfect for exploring today. I remembered the fun I had hanging from the canons at Fishguard and Tenby in 1984, and naturally had to recreated the fun… Needless to say, Owen, 12, had to do the same…

My coronavirus first: driving to another country

On Saturday, I clocked up a series of firsts. My first drive over 10 miles since March. My first motorway journey and trip to another country – Wales – since lockdown.

I was on my way to see my father, Bob Skinner, for the first time since his care home closed to visitors in March. (I have blogged about that unforgettable visit here.)

I loved the drive – I treasured the time listening to music and Jack Thurston’s Bike Show podcasts. All things I used to enjoy on my daily commute. Working from home has been enjoyable but I have missed these audio moments.

Crossing the Severn Bridge into Wales, the motorway signs proclaimed: WELSH COVID RULES APPLY. It was a graphic reminder that Wales has, sensibly, taken a more careful approach to relaxing lockdown rules. The only reason I was able to make the journey to Cardiff was the scrapping of the Welsh ban on travelling more than five miles, allowing Dad’s Sunrise of Cardiff care home to allow visiting. It was nice seeing the familiar Welsh road signs: gwasanaethau (services), Caerdydd (Cardiff) and canol y ddinas (city centre).

I was very happy to drive the 300 mile round trip to see Dad for an hour (the maximum visit) but thought it would be nice to see something of my hometown after saying goodbye to Bob. So I hopped on my Brompton folding bike, and headed along Cyncoed Road and down Pen-y-lan hill towards the centre of town – canol y ddinas…

The roads were quiet, and I made up my route as I went along, threading through the streets of Cathays and emerging by the National Museum in Cathays Park. Cardiff has closed the roads around the castle to cars, and it was a pleasure to arrive at the imposing gates of the castle.

Entry to the grounds is currently free, so I wheeled my bike in, and enjoyed a few tranquil moments, reflecting on my visit to Dad.

I made my way back to Cyncoed via childhood spots such as Roath Park Lake, and past my childhood home in Winnipeg Drive, Lakeside. My Brompton is the electric version, so it made the climb back towards Cyncoed Road very easy.

I’m looking forward to a longer Welsh bike ride when we’re in Tenby in August.

Roath Park Lake and the Captain Scott memorial

I popped the Brompton back in the car, and enjoyed another easy drive (no queueing past the Brynglas tunnels at Newport). A memorable and enjoyable day.

ITV’s Good Morning Britain features my reunion with Dad

None of us will ever forget living through the coronavirus pandemic. But for me the sweetest memory will be visiting my 93 year old father, Bob Skinner, in his care home, Sunrise of Cardiff, on Saturday. This was our first meeting since February – I was due to visit on 20 March, but Sunrise closed to visitors the day before. (Dad and I had already agreed a visit was not wise given the fast escalating COVID-19 crisis.)

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We meet again!

Mine was one of countless family reunions happening around the country as lockdown restrictions eased. But, unusually, ours was featured on television. After Bob so eloquently praised care home workers on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in April, the programme asked to film him meeting his first visitors since March. Virgil from the Sunrise team in Cardiff filmed my visit for ITV. Then Bob’s granddaughter Ria visited live on Monday’s show. You can see it here.

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Dad and I reunited – as seen on TV!

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All smiles: Bob meets Ria

Ria and I both loved the experience of seeing Bob face to face (two metres apart) after months of Zoom calls, phone chats and emails. I noticed how well he looked – the Sunrise care has done him a power of good! Viewers to the show will have been struck by his energy, enthusiasm and eloquence. (Kate Garraway referred to how positive Dad had been throughout.) He started a blog – Bob the Blogger– about his coronavirus experience back in March, and blogs almost every day. You can read his post about his latest TV appearance here.

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I couldn’t give Bob a hug – that was tough, but I gave myself a gentle hug as Dad came towards me as a symbol of affection. Good Morning Britain presenters Ben Shephard and Kate Garraway spotted that and commented that we can’t give the hugs we want to. Dad said how much better it was to see family face to face. It is the start of better times.

Kate recalled Dad comparing the coronavirus crisis with the Second World War during his earlier GMB interview. Bob explained the key difference today is we are fighting a totally unknown, deadly enemy, and don’t know how to deal with it. He discussed this contrast in more detail in a blog post yesterday.

Dad talked about how happy he has been at Sunrise. It was a blessing that he moved from his home in Penarth six months before the COVID-19 lockdown began. It would have been a huge worry had he still been living alone, although his former neighbours in Penarth such as Therese and Brian would have been wonderfully supportive. As Dad said, he has had no worries and has been happy from the moment he moved in.

Later in the interview, Ria stepped onto the ‘stage’ to say good morning to Bob and to the presenters. It was a wonderful moment, live on national TV. As Ria said, it was rather overwhelming seeing Bob for the first time for many months. “It’s marvellous to see you!” Bob exclaimed with a broad smile to Ria.

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You can watch the Good Morning Britain segment with Dad, Ria and me here:

Monday’s edition of Good Morning Britain was an emotional one for other reasons. Writer Michael Rosen spoke with huge affection about the care he received as he recovered from an almost fatal encounter with COVID-19. Talking about the NHS staff who saved his life, he explained: “Just massive and incredible, they saved my life several times.”

Screenshot 2020-07-15 at 10.05.01Interviewing Michael was an emotional experience for presenter Kate Garraway. This was her first day back after a four month break while husband Derek Draper was in intensive care and came close to death from COVID-19. Movingly, Michael said he hoped his experience gave Kate hope. Welcome back, Kate, and heartfelt best wishes to Derek and Michael.

Coronavirus: my 93 year old father praises care workers on UK national TV

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I was a very proud son today. My 93 year old father Bob Skinner appeared on prime time national TV to praise the care home staff who are making his life comfortable and happy despite being ‘locked down’ for a couple of weeks as the country struggles to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Dad was interviewed live on ITV’s Good Morning Britain breakfast show. He explained how the carers at Sunrise of Cardiff have provided exceptional care, despite the challenges they themselves have faced during the pandemic. Bob described how he couldn’t have been luckier to be at his Sunrise home, thanks to the exceptional care from staff who, he said, have become friends. “I couldn’t praise them high enough,” he said. “I’ve even learned to play bingo!”

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Our longest reigning monarch: Queen Elizabeth II

The class of 1926: Queen Elizabeth II and Bob Skinner

The class of 1926: Queen Elizabeth II and Bob Skinner

The Queen reached a landmark this week: she is now Britain’s longest reigning monarch. On Wednesday she overtook Queen Victoria’s record of 63 years and 216 days on the throne.

For most of us, she has always been there – a constant presence. The photograph at the start of this post shows the Queen with my father Bob Skinner earlier this year, at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death and the creation of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust as the great man’s memorial. Dad was an early beneficiary of this noble trust, which offers British citizens the chance to travel overseas to learn a new perspective on their personal or professional lives. Bob spent time in Japan studying how that country’s great cities communicated with the people – a fascinating perspective given that London and Tokyo were similarly sized world cities in 1971. Dad found that Japanese mayors were far keener to engage with their public. His boss quickly dismissed the idea of holding public surgeries. How things change..

In 2015, a monarch wouldn’t be anyone’s obvious choice of head of state. How could you possibly decide that a family chosen by fate centuries ago should lead you country? Yet we’ve never found the idea of President Blair or Thatcher more attractive or compelling. We recognise that the monarch holds no power. So why change? Overwhelmingly we admire the Queen’s 63 years of service to the nation and the Commonwealth. (It’s striking that Australia, Canada and New Zealand have been no more enthusiastic about ditching the Queen, despite being confident independent nations.) Time will tell if that changes under Charles III.

I’ll end on a personal note. All my grandparents were Victorians, born in the reign of that extraordinary monarch. Nan, Dad’s mother, turned 10 the year Victoria died, yet lived through 42 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign to the amazing age of 102. Continuity is a huge factor in British history, and that applies to any family.

The Great War, 100 years on

To war, Gare de l'Est, Paris

High hopes and hidden fears: to war, Paris, 2 August 1914

It was meant to be the war to end all wars. It was the conflict that went global. And it killed millions, leaving families across the globe grieving lost sons, brothers, fathers – and lost womenfolk and children. 

The Great War has left a deep scar across Britain, France, America and the Commonwealth, not to mention Germany and her allies. The photo at the top of this post captures young Frenchman leaving Paris for war as France mobilised the day before Germany declared war on the country. Britain and its empire entered the fray the following day. This was one of a moving open air exhibition in Paris’s Avenue des Champs Élysées. By a curious coincidence, I photographed the photo 100 years to the day after it was taken.

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Looe landslip tragedy was in our 1976 holiday home

Our holiday home - scene of March 2013 landslip tragedy

Our 1970s Looe holiday home – scene of March 2013 landslip tragedy (with roof windows: photo: Feb 2006)

The news that a home in Looe, Cornwall had been struck by a landslide was a shock. Karen and I have spent several happy holidays in Looe, including Owen’s very first vacation. But it was the photo on the BBC news website that stopped me in my tracks. I recognised it instantly: it was our 1970s holiday home in Sandplace Road.

We spent many happy hours there, including a fortnight in the glorious heatwave summer of 1976 after my sister’s wedding. That’s where we watched the BBC Sailor fly-on-the-wall series about HMS Ark Royal, Britain’s last ‘proper’ aircraft carrier. (And, if memory isn’t playing tricks, ITV’s Bill Brand drama about a Labour MP.) We went fishing for mackerel in Looe Bay, leaving Mum to gut the fish in the small kitchen in the flat. We loved the view over the East Looe River towards the Mill Pool. And, as a 1970s school boy, I made Airfix kits there: HMS Victory, the RAF emergencyrefuelling and recovery sets (still being sold almost four decades later) and (again, this was the 1970s!) the Austin Maxi.

We first stayed in Sandplace Road 40 years ago in the spring of1973. The flats were run by Mrs Pearce. I wasn’t pleased as I wanted to go to Newquay, which looked much more interesting than Looe. (Thanks to a more impressive brochure.) But I came to love Looe, with its fascinating history, its small streets, beautiful rivers and compact beach. Our first visits were in the rooftop flat (with the distinctive windows), but later on we stayed in the main floor flat. I remember a very steep set of steps up the hill to St Martin’s Road.

When Karen and I stayed in Looe years later, we stayed at Barclay House on St Martin’s Road, run by the wonderful Nick and Kelli Barclay, who now run Blue Plate Restaurant in Downderry. (Another place with 1976 memories: I spend endless hours that summer paddling my rubber dinghy on the river at Seaton, which was then dammed to make a pool.)

This weekend, Looe is mourning Susan Norman, who died in the landslip at her home – our 1970s holiday home. A sad story to mingle with all those happy memories.

Britain’s winter’s tale

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Milton’s Cottage, Chalfont St Giles

I was seven before I remember playing in the snow. Christmas 1970 was a winter wonderland – but it was another six years before I experienced the excitement of a world transformed by a white blanket.

By contrast, our four year old son Owen has had a snowy childhood so far. Every winter of his life has seen significant snowfall, especially the winter of 2009/10. He’s had two white Christmases (by my definition of snow on the ground on Christmas Day, rather than the Met Office’s stricter criterion.) I have blogged every winter about these snow days, most recently during February 2012’s snowy snap.

Some may argue this is evidence of climate change. Perhaps. But anyone born in 1976 would have had a similar snowy introduction to winter.

Whatever the reason, Owen and I are making the most of it!

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The snowman, 2012 edition