The Caledonian Inn

28EC44CE-5081-472B-845F-0BAA1563DCDEA wood panelled dining room. A quiet corner table by an open window. A cool evening breeze drifting in, after a molten afternoon. A glass of chilled, Limestone Coast Chardonnay. A book. A sumptuous salmon fillet with a crusty, crunchy skin, resting on a bed of al dente vegetables: broccolini, asparagus, fennel. A caper and dill aioli. A scattering of orange segments, that match the colour of the sun dropping out of the sky. Feel the serenity…

I am a lone diner at the Caledonian Inn, but I have a lovely waitress checking regularly to make sure I have everything I need. I’m thoroughly enjoying my book. I’ve had a call from a friend in Sydney who I haven’t seen in ages. The Chardonnay is crisp and soothing. My salmon is perfection. What more could a girl want?

I have been in Robe for almost a fortnight and this is my fourth visit to the Caledonian Inn. The night we arrived, we wandered down to the beach after dinner, and we ended up stopping in for a drink. Two years ago the hotel’s lease was bought by the Prest family Its hard work, they admit, but they seem to be thriving on it. Since then, the inn has been given quite a makeover. There is music most weekends, and the beach cafe in the beer garden is due to open for the summer in mid December. While my parents caught up with old friends, I joined the fun on the dance floor, as Beachport musician, Bec Willis, played all my favourite cover songs from the ’70s and ’80s.

On Sunday we went back for dinner on the balcony, where we tucked into a beautifully presented and delectable duck breast with a spicy plum sauce. It was a great spot to watch the sun set, too, but eventually I wandered down to the front lawn for an even better view from a wicker armchair above the sea.

The following week, I went again with a friend from Manila days, to relax in the courtyard beergarden brimming with sunshine and jolly holiday makers.  There, we happily overindulged in a tasting platter for two, followed by a wonderfully spicy lamb curry, all washed down with a soothing Mount Benson Rosé.  The antipasti included some tasty local sausage, Kalamata olives (my favourites) and crispy garlic ciabatta, which I dipped vigorously, lovingly into olive oil and dukkha. The lamb curry was thick, aromatic and full of flavour, and when the spiciness started to overwhelm my tastebuds, there was always more wine. My only sorrow was that our curry followed so hot on the heels of the tasting platter that I had to admit defeat before the bowl of lamb was even half empty.

Robe, once a busy port in the south east corner of South Australia, was established in 1847. The 0C11E832-487D-476A-868C-27D7FA6DBCFB (2)Caledonian Inn was built a decade later, and this handsome, heritage listed building has been an integral part of the town ever since. The most well-known story about it relates to that famous writer of bush ballads, Adam Lindsay Gordon, who dropped into the pub, and ended up marrying the publican’s daughter.

Known locally as ‘the Cally,’ the pub seems popular with locals and visitors alike: the bar and restaurant were both humming with patrons every night that I have popped in. And the staff are already running flat out, although it’s not quite summer. The chefs are a truly multicultural bunch and currently include a Sri Lankan, an Indian, a Chinese-Australian and a Frenchman, and the team is soon to be joined by a Filipino. So ‘Mabuhay‘ to Robe! Each adds an element of exotica to the menu, which is unexpectedly elegant for pub fare, and the portion sizes are sensible . With a little advanced warning, you can even reserve fresh crayfish. Trip Advisor have awarded the hotel a certificate of excellence, and it is well deserved. The food is great, the service is friendly and welcoming, and the atmosphere is lively. The wine list is largely South Australian, and includes a number of interesting local wines from the Coonawarra and Limestone Coast.

I have timed this final visit well. When I arrive, the restaurant is full, and I must wait for a table, but it’s not long before the majority of diners peel off and leave me to soak up the late evening peace. The dessert menu looks tempting (pavlova? coconut pannacotta?) but I decide to finish with a glass of my favourite Bird in Hand bubbles and return happily to my book.

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Matt & Matilda

“Aussie food truly reflects the multi-cultured nature of our society and we’re all the better for it.”       ~  Matt Moran

original_original_matilda2_300Up in the lovely, leafy Adelaide Hills is the town of Stirling, with its plethora of deciduous trees and, this month, a glorious bouquet of purple jacaranda. Stirling also has a bouquet of bookshops, including one rather special little beauty called Matilda’s.

Last week Matilda’s joined forces with the Stirling Hotel and Deviation Road Winery to launch Matt Moran’s latest cookbook, ‘Australian Food: Coast and Country.’

I came across the legend that is Matt Moran when we lived in Sydney in the noughties, where he had already built quite an empire. Aria on Circular Quay was a far cry from his beginnings as an apprentice chef in Roseville, aged only sixteen. He opened his first restaurant at the tender age of twenty-two, and today, just shy of fifty, he heads an armada of restaurants across three states.

Despite all this, not to mention a significant television presence and an armful of best-selling cook books, Matt Moran comes across as an open, down-to-earth, easy-going bloke, who shared stories with sixty-odd strangers as if we were old friends.

I had booked this dinner before I flew to Australia, keen to see how East Coast cuisine had developed since we left xmatt-moran-s-australian-food-no-more-signed-copies-available-.jpg.pagespeed.ic.cay-fZf84zSydney in 2010. I came away feeling I had learned more about the man than the business machine. He talked cheerfully of his country childhood, where ‘the closest I got to seafood was a fish finger’ and home cooking was, inevitably, ‘a piece of protein and three veg.’ Even today, he told us ingenuously, he prefers to keep it simple, and ‘Sunday night at home is a boiled egg and toast soldiers.’

Having said that, tonight’s dinner was a beautifully presented, sophisticated assortment of dishes taken from his latest cookbook.

I wandered into the Stirling Hotel with a couple of enthusiastic young women I had been chatting to on the terrace, to find the room already packed with guests. As our hosts ticked off our names, we were handed a glass of 2017 Deviation Road Sauvignon Blanc, a variety, as you may know, that I usually prefer to dodge. Tonight, however, I made an exception, and it proved to be a good decision. Maybe I am just coming around to Sauvignon Blanc in my old age, but I thoroughly enjoyed this fresh and crispy start to the evening. As I sipped, and introduced myself to a room full of strangers, the staff served up the canapés: roughly moulded, very moreish zucchini and feta fritters, and crumbed fish served in a perfect, hand-sized, soft tortilla wrap with a zingy tomato salsa. I anticipated instant deconstruction down my shirt, but – hola! – I succeeded admirably in getting it in my mouth without even a drop wasted.

As we walked into the dining room, I eyeballed the phalanx of wine glasses before me, and promptly discarded my plan to drive home. One glass simply would not make the cut, when we were being offered a different wine with each course.

The seating arrangement was casual, so we all wandered in and sat at two long tables stretching the length of the room. Knowing no one, I was delighted with my extremely gracious and friendly neighbours who were happy to include a lone diner. And I soon realized we all had at least one important thing in common: a passion for food. Not to mention Matt Moran.

23896990_1629052813822692_667847872_oAs wine number two was poured – a Gruener Veltliner of which I shall talk more later – we were presented with a shared platter of salmon gravlax and a salad of watermelon, pomegranate and whipped feta. Gravlax is a Swedish cured salmon that I have eaten many times, sliced almost as thin as prosciutto. Tonight, it arrives in thick slabs, like sashimi, and I immediately decided this was the only way I would be eating it in future. The salad was light and bright and summery, and while I know pomegranate has become terribly trendy, I can’t resist it, and it complimented the other ingredients perfectly.

Now the wine. Gruener Veltliner. (Spelt with an ‘e’ because I have no idea where to find an umlaut on my keyboard ). This variety originated in Austria, where it accounts for almost a third of Austrian wine production. It has also become extremely popular in the Czech Republic. Beyond Europe, it has already been discovered by the cooler climate American states and the Canadians of the Okanagan Valley. And now, it is in the Adelaide Hills, where Deviation Road is on its third vintage. Gruener Veltliner is apparently known as a food friendly wine, and it certainly matches perfectly with the gravlax. I was delighted with its slightly spicy character and its touch of oak. French oak, of course. Honestly? I read the tasting notes. It is noticeably different to an oaked Riesling, but I will have to try more before I can possibly explain why. Watch this space…

I briefly feigned disinterest in drinking more white wine, until I overheard the waiter say that it was a Chardonnay. I can’t resist a Chardonnay.  ‘Ah well,’ I thought, as I belatedly raised my glass in front of the waiter’s nose, ‘the car is definitely camping in the Hills tonight.’

Second course. Spatchcock with a charred corn salad. Spatchcock, or poussin, is young chicken, and these ones had been marinaded in lime and garlic, cumin and paprika and then chargrilled, so the skin is satisfyingly crispy. The charred corn kernels were tossed together with spring onion, avocado and lettuce, and the result was a joyful blast of taste and texture. The platters were quickly wiped clean.

The wine changed colour at this point, to a DR 2016 Pinot Noir. Again, I was tempted to resist, and again I didn’t. Thislogo Pinot has a bit more oomph than its subtler European cousins to which I am slowly becoming accustomed, but it was still considerably lighter than the fuller bodied Aussie reds in which I usually indulge. But I really liked it. And it was a very happy accompaniment to the barbecued sirloin served with a ‘killer potato salad’ that I have already tested at home with terrific results, (page 164 in Matt’s new cookbook, and worth the investment for this recipe alone).

Finally, when I had just decided I was full to bursting, I was again forced to eat humble pie, or in this case, a triple chocolate tart. It was absolutely stunning, although I had to admit defeat and left a morsel  on my plate. Seriously, the slices were enormous. The DR Sparkling Rosé is a nice little drop, but it would have made a better impression as a pre-dinner drink, I feel, as it’s delicate flavour was engulfed by the richness of the chocolate praline filling.

And I am done.

And yes, I did call a taxi. And the car was quite happy to wait in the hills until I had sobered up! And yes, I did get a photo with the delicious Matt Moran…

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Citrus Drizzle Cake

Its mid-October and the sun is getting lazy, rising reluctantly well after eight o’clock. Yet, way down south on the toenail of Spain, there is still heat in that slothful sun.

IMG_2622 (2)Andalucia. Vejer de la Frontera. A sprawling hilltop town – un puebla blanca – with a bird’s eye view across the flood plains of the Barbate River to the Straits of Gibraltar. A strategically placed fortress town since Phoenician times, Vejer has also been occupied by the Carthiginians, the Romans, the Moors and the Castilians. Until the 21st century, the women of Vejer wore long, black cloaks and scarves – cobijada – that veiled bodies, hair, faces like nuns’ habits, a nod to a Moorish past, depicted in paintings all over town. The town has had several name changes over the years. The Moors called it ‘Vejer de la Miel,’ thanks to its many beehives and a thriving honey industry. The Castilians rebranded it ‘Vejer de la Frontera,’ after Ferdinand de Castilla took it from the Moors, wrapping it in high, castellated walls to protect it from further Moorish invasions, and to safeguard the local fisheries from the frequent attacks of the Barbary Corsairs, rapacious pirates from North Africa.

In Vejer de la Frontera – pronounced B’hair, of course –  there are still many signs of half a century of Moorish rule. But it is the church bells from the neighbouring Catholic church, Iglesia del Divino Salvador, on Calle Nuestra Señora de la Oliva that wake me up before sunrise, clamouring raucously, louder than a flock of magpies, a strident alarm at the crack of dawn.

At this early hour, the air is clear, calm, cool and still. If I venture out to the echo of the bells, the town seems uninhabited by anything other than pigeons and yesterday’s litter. White washed houses hedge narrow, cobbled streets that wind up and over the hills like a mad rollercoaster, along which the bulls charge wildly every Spring. Broad, thick, wooden doors are studded with fat nails, the knocker like a closed fist. Fatima’s hand, a symbol of protection.  Peek through an open doorway to see a porch decorated with brightly coloured, busily patterned tiles, or glimpse a cobbled courtyard trimmed with terracotta pots. Looking north from the Calle de los Remedios, orange orchards and olive groves lie beneath a dusty haze, and flights of wind turbines scar the horizon. Closer to home, windmills of the old-fashioned variety skirt the town, stubby and shabby with conical roofs and bare spokes. A shaded café sells a full English breakfast and a cappuccino on the pavement near the Plaza de España , where date trees encircle a vividly tiled fountain.

Despite such temptations abroad, my preferred spot this early in the day is a sheltered courtyard at the rear of my luxurious hospederia, where I sip a small, strong coffee and peel mandarins that seep sticky juice down my fingers. Here, the white walls rise two storeys, supporting a vociferous vine in dire need of trimming, while the pretty, brickwork floor is cluttered with an array of flowerpots: oleander and geraniums, gerboras and ferns. The sky is already a deep azure blue, the air warm and serene, whispering a promise of midday heat across my skin…

One unusually wet morning – the first rain we have seen after days of clear skies and sultry afternoons – my sister IMG_2574and I leave home early, on a culinary mission. Outside the Hospederia Convento, our hostess awaits, a diminutive Scot with a huge smile and a determined attitude.  Annie Manson has lived in Vejer for over a decade, immersing herself in local tastes and traditions. She talks with enthusiastic detail of the local cuisine, and local customs.  Then, two Aussie sisters, in the motley company of a Scotswoman, an Irishman, his Basque wife and a Dutch couple from Maastricht,  trip down a nearby alley to a tiny market, its walls and ceilings decorated with large, hand-painted tiles depicting flowers, fish and birds in orange and blue. We examine an array of local fish, silver and blue, while Annie gathers supplies for our cooking class. Across the street, a corner grocer’s shop provides a variety of top notch tinned tuna, paprika, peach jam. Around the corner, in a narrow little carniceria, the butcher leans over the counter with samples of thinly sliced jamon wrapped around a baton-shaped biscuit. We nibble eagerly, squeezing into the tiny space to keep out of the rain.

Superb, costly, jamon iberico de bellota or pata negra comes from the small, brown, free-range iberico pig, raised on acorns or olives. My sister and I have been introduced to this amazing appetiser already. Jabugo, a small puebla bianca to the north,  is ringed by huge white, windowless jamon factories, its residents experts in this ancient industry. Along the Carretera San Juan del Puerto, numerous shop windows are strung with the dark, dangling limbs of cured, air-dried ham.

IMG_2623Now, back to Vejer and our cooking class. As the rain sets in, we huddle under wind battered umbrellas, and scuttle up the lane to a thick wooden door in the wall sporting a head-sized hatch, like an olde worlde security camera. The house within, Casa Alegre, is a series of rooms stepping up the hillside, the bright kitchen packed to the gunnels with cooking utensils and polychromatic pottery.

‘Annie B.’s Spanish Kitchen’ has already been discovered by the likes of Jamie Oliver and Melbourne chef Frank Camerra. Annie herself even features in Frank’s cookbook ‘Movida Solera.’ My sister came across her classes on an Aussie TV show: Shane Delia’s Moorish Spice Journey. Vejer is proud of its adopted culinary expert, crowning her  ‘Vejeriaga de Adopcion’ in 2013 for her contribution to local tourism. As Annie says on her website “the best way to appreciate the culture of any area is through its food and its wine.” We took the bait…

There are eight of us gathered around the large stainless-steel kitchen table: six guests, Annie, and her assistant Pepi, a sweet, smiling Spaniard with no English, who quietly tidies up behind us. Annie provides a long and daunting list of recipes. Yet, with practiced choreography, efficiency and firm organization, combined with six pairs of eager hands, it is surprising how quickly dish after dish is prepared. And despite our incorrigible tendency to chat and giggle, to constant, crisp reminders from Annie that ‘this is not a coffee morning!’ We learn to dip octopus in boiling water so its tentacles curl like Shirley Temples ringlets; to cut white onions wafer thin for the tuna salad, and de-bone tiny, fresh sardines with our fingers. We roll meatballs to bake in the oven and test the local beer, the local wine, the local sherry in its infinite variety. Is it any wonder we are giggling? In no time at all the poolside table is laden with juicy albondigas, diced pulpo, a tangy tuna salad and a luscious Tortilla de Pepi, crispy bread, white wine and more sherry. (Annie is, according to her website, fluent in English, Spanish and Sherry!’)

And the grande finale? A mouth-watering, surprisingly light Citrus Drizzle Cake, made with almond meal and drenched in an oranges-and-lemon syrup that has been imbued with cardamom, cinnamon sticks and star anise. It smells like a lush and sumptuous Christmas pudding. It tastes like heaven.

Before we leave, we climb to the roof top terrace (azotea) of Casa Alegre to appreciate the magnificent view over this glorious, white-washed town and the stark, sun-bleached countryside beyond. We have talked too much, eaten too much, drunk too much and laughed hysterically with this diverse, prodigious collection of new friends. A thoroughly Andalusian culinary adventure.

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Autumnal Ramblings

Trees of bronze and amber drip rusty leaves onto the forest floor.
Mistletoe, like giant Christmas baubles, adorns naked branches.
A rift in the forest is a window onto verdant farmland fanning out to a hazy horizon.

Walking paths, like worm casts, wind around the edge of a lake,
where toddlers pedal frantically on small plastic bikes,
couples stroll hand-in-hand and runners huff-and-puff like steam trains.

A bashful autumn sun ekes out the last droplets of warmth onto thirsty faces
and angel wings are imprinted, lightly, on a cerulean sky.
Far below, a fountain, rising from the lake like an oil geyser, shoots for the moon.

Sparrows skitter across the drooping remains of summer wildflowers,
and a silent heron glides like a ghost across the water,
wings spread-eagled, lanky legs loosely dangling.

We picnic by a pond dimpled with ducks and geese,
and feathered with cast-off foliage,
while the sun melts slowly down the sky…

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Bibliomania

unnamed“It borrows, it steals, it assimilates what words it pleases from all points of the compass…” ~ Charles MacKay on the English language.

Bibliomaniac. Isn’t it a wonderful word? I found it in a book called ‘Forgotten English’ by Jeffrey Kacirk that I picked up at a second-hand book shop recently. It means someone with a lunatic’s passion for collecting books.

I am mad about books, and I do mean the physical kind. Elsa, in the novel ‘My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry’ declares that ‘Soup is soup, whatever bowl it’s in,’ and books are still books on an iPad. Like the psychotherapist, however, I prefer a physical book: one to hold, to turn the pages, to drop in the bath; the kind you can smell. I hoard them by my bed and I alphabetize them on the shelves so I can always find the one I want. Whenever we move, I try to purge, but it is usually too painful, so I have travelled round the world for years with crates and crates of paperbacks. Several friends have tried to win me around to the idea of replacing my library of real books with a Kindle. I have heard all the arguments and I get the point. Perhaps I am being stubborn, and environmentally unfriendly, but I’m just not tempted to read off a computer screen.

My mother had a cousin, a rather eccentric man, whose house was filled to overflowing with books. Almost every room, as I remember it, was lined with row upon row of old metal bookcases, the books often two or three deep on the shelves. During rare visits, I would wander, awestruck, up and down the aisles, wondering if he had them all catalogued. Did he still read them? Had he ever read them all? And how on earth did he ever find that one he wanted to read again?

Recently, in Folkestone, we came across a coffee shop on the narrow, precipitous High Street which reminded me of Cousin Ralph’s mania for books. The walls of the cafe were papered with bookshelves and wherever you sat, you were in easy reach of a good read. It made my mouth water. I could have camped there for days. Later, as we unpacked the car after a month on the road, my One & Only grew despairing at the number of books I had collected in bookshops along the way.

Much to my delight, I am not the only bibliomaniac in Luxembourg. Joy of joys, at the bottom of our road is a small bovary1café and bar, relaxed, convivial, traditional, and totally chock-full of books. At Café Littéraire le Bovary, bookshelves line the walls, and occasional tables are piled high with paperbacks in at least three languages. Even the stairs to the basement are knee-deep in casually stacked tomes. And guests are invited to swap. The walls are awash with paintings and the window sills wallow in jugs and vases and more books. It is the first café with so much character that we have discovered in Luxembourg, where many restaurants seem uncomfortably formal and somewhat staid.

Outside, through the summer months, the cobbled terrace is scattered with pot plants and small tables, a sunny spot to enjoy the sunshine with a chilled glass of Rosé or an Aperol Spritz, and, of course, a magazine, journal or newspaper. Inside, during cooler seasons, you can wallow in a deep armchair with a coffee and a novel, hedged in by homely clutter and frippery. And according to the website, there are regular music and literary events here if you fancy a little cultural entertainment.

The name, Le Bovary, comes from the novel, Madame Bovary, creation of French writer Gustave Flaubert. This inflammatory tale of a promiscuous doctor’s wife became a nineteenth century bestseller, its author posthumously famous for his novel style of writing: literary realism. Flaubert was also a ‘logophile.’ Another unfashionable word, it means a lover of words. Logophile comes from two Greek words: lógos meaning “word, speech, discourse” and philos meaning “loving, dear.” Flaubert has been described by critics as a ‘martyr of style’ and ‘a zealous pedant,’ nonetheless, his reputation as a realist has lived on.

We have popped in to Le Bovary on many occasions for a coffee or a pre-dinner drink on the terrace, but we hadn’t tested the menu till last month, when a friend invited us to dinner there. The service – as always – was friendly and welcoming, the atmosphere warm and casual. We cosied up in a corner behind the bar, from where we almost needed a shoe-horn to extricate the One & Only later in the evening! I don’t believe they are used to accommodating six foot two Australians.

bovary2The menu at Le Bovary is short and sweet. A small blackboard lists half a dozen main courses, another tempts you to a choice of three or four desserts. So, will it be grilled chicken tortillas, homemade hamburgers, or fish ‘n’ chips? Most of the dishes are accompanied by chips served in a miniature metal chip strainer lined with mock newspaper. The servings – unlike the enormous and daunting helpings in many local restaurants – were sensibly sized, but filling, and tasty, reminiscent of English pub food.  I found a very pleasant Chardonnay on the wine list, and the Pinot Noir was well received by the others, although no one became ‘bibulous’ (“absorbent like a sponge; addicted to alcohol”) from the excess quaffing of wine. It’s a little pricey, but we are getting used to that in Luxembourg – and we think it worth it for the proximity to home and the lovely atmosphere.

Last weekend, I wandered down the hill with my ‘Piggesnye’ (a Chaucerian endearment) for a romantic dinner à deux. We were almost the first to arrive and were given a small table near the piano. Very soon, Le Bovary was humming with activity, due to the imminent arrival of a young ‘glee-man’ (singer; minstrel) set to serenade us with Brazilian melodies on the acoustic guitar. While I sipped on a deliciously satisfying crémant, and nibbled on my perfectly crispy battered fish, my One & Only indulged in a stein of local beer and a thick, mouth-wateringly meaty hamburger. And eventually, we were duly serenaded by Gregorio and his guitar.  It was a wonderfully relaxing evening, and a lovely way to usher in the weekend. So, sated and only slightly intoxicated, we wended our way home to bed, fortunately suffering from neither ‘fotadl’ (“gout”) or ‘tympane’ (“great windiness”). And I will end there, before I am accused of ‘inkhornism,’ or writing a literary composition that is overworked and gratuitously intellectual!

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Living it up in London

IMG_1954Earlier this year, I spent an unusually sybaritic week sightseeing and overindulging with a friend from the Philippines on her first trip to London: Hampton Court (food), Harry Potter World (food) and Harrods (and more food). Then there was a river cruise with a highly amusing Cockney guide, a train ride or two, and miles and miles of walking through the city parks and along the Thames.

We saw a musical in the West End from the from row of the balcony. We viewed London from the top of a double decker bus, and then from The Ned’s new roof garden in the City. We walked across Charing Cross Bridge and took photos of the Houses of Parliament in the twilight. We waved to the Queen at Buckingham Palace, and again at Windsor. Unfortunately, she wasn’t free to join us for afternoon tea at Harrods, but we wore our tiaras just in case she changed her mind. We brunched at Borough Market, lunched in a pub by the Thames, and dined at a curry house in Surrey. We drank Butterbeer at Harry Potter World – and I can promise you I won’t be doing that again. I have the souvenir mug, if only to remind me to keep a wide berth! (But the rest of that day was a blast, and we were definitely NOT the only visitors over twelve.) We sang thunderously at a Sunday service in the prettiest, white weatherboard church beside a duck pond. We chatted with the deer in Bushy Park and popped in to see Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. We dashed along Piccadilly in the rain, dodging puddles and pedestrians, armed with umbrellas we had bought at Waterloo… we were the archetypal tourists. It was a non-stop, whirlwind week and the most amazing fun. Even now I can’t think how we squeezed so much into a mere eight days. Or so much eating!

Yet the event we both remember best was a morning at Hampton Court, when the rain drove us out of the IMG_0728Wilderness, across the rose garden and in through the huge gateway to the Clock Court…

Once upon a time, in primary school, I did a project on the history of London, which included trips to the Monument, the Tower of London, the Houses of Parliament and Hampton Court. Our class even produced a short play about Henry VIII and his six wives. I was Katherine Howard in pink satin overlaid with black lace.  And I had to scream piercingly as I was dragged off to the Tower.  As a result, I became obsessed with all things Tudor.

Hampton Court Palace has particularly strong ties to the Tudor Dynasty. Located on the Thames, ten miles upriver from the city of London, it was originally owned by Cardinal Wolsey, a powerful and ambitious statesman and chief advisor to King Henry VIII for many years. He fell from favour, however, when he was unable to procure Henry’s divorce from his first wife, the Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon. Accused of treason, his titles and properties confiscated, Wolsey died en route to his trial. Cheerfully requestioning Hampton Court for himself, King Henry made himself at home, with his new and heavily pregnant bride, Anne Boleyn. The Palace would become a firm favourite with both Henry and his older daughter, Mary.

Yet there is more to Hampton Court than the Tudors. In the 17th century, William and Mary of Orange added a huge Baroque extension and landscaped gardens the designer hoped would rival Versailles. In the 18th century, George I added a Hanoverian flavour, employing the architect Vanbrugh to make improvements and finish the work begun by the Stuarts. So, a tour of the Palace is like travelling through time, from the vast Tudor kitchens and the beautiful chapel with its deep blue, star-spangled ceiling, to the formal state rooms designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and finally to Vanbrugh’s Georgian suite.

As you may have gathered, I have a long-standing love affair with Hampton Court, as much for its extensive grounds as its sumptuous palace. In spring, the Wilderness, on the north side of the palace, is awash with daffodils, and three-hundred-year-old yew trees line the world’s oldest maze. In summer, the walled rose garden is sublime, lush with roses of every imaginable colour. The walled kitchen garden, recently restored to its 18th century splendour, is planted with orderly rows of historically accurate fruit and vegetable crops. In the summer months, you can even buy the produce grown there. Behind the kitchen garden, the latest addition is a magical, mediaeval themed playground for the kids, built on Henry VIII’s jousting yard.

To the east and south of the palace, lies a series of formal gardens, designed in the late 17th century by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who also planted a grape vine there. Today the ‘Great Vine’ is the world’s longest single grapevine, and is housed in a large conservatory where it still produces a yearly crop of sweet black grapes. These grapes were once kept solely for the king’s table, but these days they are sold to the public. And if your legs need stretching, there are a further 750 acres of deer park and riverside walks along the Thames towards Kingston.

tudor henry-anneBut I am drifting. On a rather drear Spring morning, awash with mizzling rain, we ducked into the palace and donned headphones to listen to some fascinating insights into life at Hampton Court through the ages, following an architectural timeline through Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian England.   We were down in the kitchens, watching a kitchen boy light the fire with a flint and straw when we were rounded up by a troupe of travelling players, and carried off to the Great Hall, where, in time-honoured tradition, we settled down to watch a short production that had been written specifically for Hampton Court Palace by playwright Sarah Dickenson. In Mediaeval England, the Royal Family would not have attended plays with the commoners in the London playhouses. Instead, acting troupes would occasionally be asked to perform at Court. In the early 17th century, Shakespeare and his troupe performed many times at Hampton Court Palace.

Today’s historical drama is set in the summer of 1533, as the new Royal couple move into the Palace. The play begins in the Great Hall, where renovations are under way, and Anne is heavily pregnant with Henry’s desperately needed son and heir, and being a thoroughly stroppy cow, doubtless thanks to hormones and the ill-informed belief she is having a boy.

As the tale unfolds, we follow the players through the Tudor palace, who gradually expose the hopes and fears of this infamous King of England, and the complex political machinations of his courtiers.  There are ten performers: Henry and Anne of course, with Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, the politician and the pontiff closest to Henry at the time. Anne’s waiting woman, Bess, is Anne’s dubious ally. Jane Seymour has just arrived at Court with her brother Edward, from the household of the dethroned Queen Catherine, and soon, herself, to be queen number three. Two townsfolk, George and Mary provide voices for the commoners, while Grace, minstrel and narrator, weaves the threads together.

We were entranced by the performance, and the only nuisance was that the troupe split up at one point to tell opposing tales, but we could only follow one of the lead players. Nonetheless, we were both educated and entertained by this lively interpretation of an infamous era of British history. And I find I am still besotted with all things Tudor.

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Compare & Contrast

Nine months ago, we packed our bags and too many boxes and headed out to Ninoy Aquino International Airport for the last time. It was six years and a matter of days since I had first arrived in the Philippines. During those busy years, I had some incredible experiences, made some wonderful friends, ate some amazing food (in every sense of the word), and wrote a book about it all. However, in six years, I never did acclimatize to the tropical heat and humidity. It made me sluggish and cross, and inclined to hide away in the air-conditioning during the hottest months. So, while the farewells were tough, I was over the moon to be returning to more temperate climes, where I could indulge in a boot fetish and lots of woolly jumpers…

And I must admit, I am thriving in the cooler temperatures of Europe in general and Luxembourg in particular – although I have been surprised at how hot and humid it can get here, too, in the middle of summer. I have enjoyed watching the seasons change: the crisp and misty winter mornings; the magically emerging spring; the luxuriant summer running rampant through the woods; the glorious shades of autumn tinting the trees in carmine and coral, gold and ochre, orange and vermilion. I love, love, love the long summer evenings, that stay light till forever, and I don’t even mind that the days close up so early in winter, after the never-changing routine of 12 hours of daylight nearer the equator.

That there is more aesthetic appeal to turrets and spires and ancient castle walls over concrete overpasses and tangled ropes of electric cables looping overhead is inarguable, or that a walk in the woods in clean air full of birdsong is irrefutably preferable to sweating along broken pavements dodging bikes and jeepneys.

And yet… and yet, I find myself missing our life in Manila. And I am often taken aback at the odd things that make me homesick. Recently, I re-read two articles I wrote in the early days, in which I listed all the things I already loved about the Philippines.  They were light hearted articles, but they threw me straight back to those first impressions. And I found myself unavoidably comparing them to life in Luxembourg.

My points, ten in total, included fun things like jeepneys, mall trawling and the Filipinos unique use of the English language. Here in Luxembourg, I am sure I cause my fair share of amusement for my unique use of the French language, but that is more due to rust than imaginative creativity. And I sometimes think the Europeans have a better grasp of English grammar than I do myself.

There was the ‘suggestion’ of road rules, in a country where most people drive like cowboys, when the traffic is moving at all, and this bears no resemblance whatsoever to a driving culture that seems like a nanny state by comparison.  We have already totted up a handful of minor speeding fines thanks to to the constantly changing speed limits and the constant presence of security cameras. Security can be tight in Manila, but not necessarily on the roads. And I find I miss the freedom to drive like a cowboy, too.

I loved the Manila markets, and wrote copiously about them, so I was delighted to find that we have a great food market in the middle of Luxembourg, twice a week, full of the most wonderful fresh produce, home-made jams, salamis, cheeses and flowers. There is not, however, the abundance of fascinating cooked food or wonderful Filipino crafts in evidence as there were in Legaspi. And the Luxembourgers just don’t seem to have that same passion for food that was the norm in the Philippines. Even the coffee was better in Manila.

I am not yet missing the luxury of help in the house. So far, housework retains a certain degree of novelty value that hasn’t yet worn thin, but I expect that to change at any moment. After all, there’s only so much joy you can achieve with a duster and a mop. I remember one friend returning to England and bemoaning the fact that however long she hung out at Sainsbury’s, the house elves just weren’t getting the job done.

I do miss the smiling.  It sounds clichéd, I know, but people don’t smile much in Luxembourg. Luxembourg is the wealthiest country in the world, per capita than anywhere but Qatar, apparently. The Luxembourgish are well educated and fluent in at least three languages. While it is a tiny city of only 120,00 (Manila has 20 million) it punches above its weight for culture, with its entertainment centres, art galleries and ridiculous numbers of eateries.

Despite such affluence, few people smile here. I am invisible at worst, unacknowledged at best. I have tried wearing them down by beaming at everyone I walk past, but mostly they are pointedly looking the other way. Or they stare at me fixedly, unblinking, as if I had suddenly grown an extra head. They will come around eventually, I am sure, but it is taking more time than I had expected. So I do miss those fabulous Filipino smiles, whatever the weather, whatever their own personal problems or hardships. Those smiles from strangers used to make my day, and make me feel as if I was a special part of the community.

In Luxembourg, buckets of euros are spent on building bridges and the most frightening efficient – and cheap – transport system in Europe, and yet nothing has the quirky charm of the jeepney. And the taxis here, while they actually have suspension, cost a fortune.

And, of course, I miss like crazy the many special friends I made in Manila, locals and expats both. I guess that will always happen when one leads a nomadic life, but I had forgotten the emptiness of facing a new life without a single friend. (And I don’t mean to discount the One & Only, but he is a bit office bound these days, and not always available for a coffee and a gossip.) After six years in the Philippines, many of my first bunch of expatriate friends had moved on, but there were plenty still in town, and more friends to be made every day. And the Philippines was one of the few postings we have had where we were able to make so many local friends. In Luxembourg, in my experience, it is not only rare to find a local, but they do tend to keep to themselves. I am slowly gathering up some friends now, but it has been a long process. This is partly because so many people working here actually live beyond Luxembourg’s borders, commuting daily from France, Belgium and Germany. This has made it hard to find a niche, as a trailing spouse, especially with no kids in tow this time.

The strangest thing I find I miss – was not expecting to miss – is the sense of adventure that flavoured every day we spent in the Philippines. Whether it was the traffic jams or the storms, the shopping or the travelling, everything we saw, heard, smelled, touched or tasted, love it or hate it, was a daily challenge to the senses, an adrenalin fix sorely lacking in this most civilized and organized of cities. At first, such methodical, structured correctness was balm for the soul, but now I find I miss the furious urgency I used to feel when trying to achieve something quite simple in Manila, and the staggering sense of delight when I actually managed to get something done.

In Luxembourg, I am reminded almost daily of Tim Winton, who wrote in his memoir An Island Home about the total domestication of Europe that he had “never encountered places so relentlessly denatured… it seemed that every field, hedge and well was named, apportioned and accounted for.”

The same could never be said about Manila. The unpredictability, the inefficiency, the pollution and the madness can all drive you crazy, but it can also be fun. While we foreigners may rant and rave when life did not go smoothly, the Filipinos faced it all with those patient, unassuming smiles. And it certainly ensures a life less ordinary.

In Luxembourg the pollution is almost non-existent, as the country is largely rural with a high density of forest: ‘the lungs of the city’ as the tourist brochures proclaim. And I certainly don’t miss Manila’s mustard coloured skies. Here the roads are wide and rarely filled with cars: the rush hour is just that. An hour. And everywhere I want to go is no more than fifteen minutes away, except IKEA which involves crossing the border to Belgium, but it’s still only half an hour in the car. Such luxury was unheard of in Manila, unless it was a major public holiday.

So, I still don’t miss the heat, the pollution or being stuck in the traffic for days. But the joy of stepping under a cold shower, when the heat was literally rising in waves of your body, was breath-taking. In the Philippines, it was a life of extraordinary juxtapositions and violent extremes, both good and bad. It was a life lived on the edge of your seat. Here I think everyone is on Valium. The atmosphere of safe, unruffled calm is something I still find a little unnerving. And on a Sunday morning you can drive across the city and see no one, nothing is moving, it’s like a ghost town.

Never, can I imagine that thrumming, smog-bound, madcap tropical city resembling a ghost town. And I miss the madness. When you are immersed in it, it can be overwhelming, sometimes even a bit frightening. But you know you are alive.

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…and North Again

6A256B92-ADB3-4DC9-BA33-C4B118E4FE1AFrom Menton, with its glimmering sea and glittering inhabitants, we drove east along the coast and straight into Italy, where the buildings instantly lost their glamour and polish. Manicured gardens became market gardens, pencil pines were exchanged for olive trees and road rules were cast aside for much arm waving and mad driving techniques. At Ventimiglia we crossed the gravelly, flat bottomed estuary of the Roya and turned north. Somehow, we missed the uscita to the autoroute – it may have been while we were dodging the dizzy bloke weaving along on his bike, or the distraction of an irate old driver shaking his fingers furiously at us – and found ourselves on a narrow road, winding higher and higher, past derelict houses and hydro-electric power plants. The road criss-crossed back and forth from France to Italy. At one border, and despite the Schengen agreement, there were police checking car boots for refugees. On our right, the Roya River, milky blue like glacier mints, leapt feverishly from rock to rock, rushing down the mountain, while on our left, five Ferraris fled down the road, racing the river to the sea. Ancient, hilltop towns clung to the cliffs and I imagined the fate of elderly people trying to leg it up and down the almost vertical roads.

Major road works kept us waiting on a lonely bridge for twenty minutes, dipping fresh bread into the dripping gorgonzola we had bought in the Menton market that morning, and devouring a whole bag of vine ripened tomatoes, while we drank in the view. Then, an apple for dessert, which I would come to regret as the road continued to climb and wind like knotted spaghetti to the summit and down again for another hour before we finally flopped out into the Po Valley and onto a strip of straight motorway at Cuneo. It wasn’t the most picturesque route at that point, but eventually we passed Torino and found ourselves climbing back into the mountains towards Aosta.

Initially uninspiring, the town gradually opened up to us, and showed off some of its prettier corners. We unexpectedly discovered Roman ruins hidden behind the main promenade, when we ducked down a tiny side street to see, more clearly, an amazing view of one of the many mountains that skirt around the rim of the valley. Its peaks were still sprinkled lightly with snow, like icing sugar on a sponge, a high wind blowing it off and up to the heavens like a willow-the-wisp, or a tiny tornedo against the deep blue sky. Dressed for the sunnier south, I was sorely tempted to spend a large amount of money on a cashmere cardigan from a boutique bearing my name.

We crept into dour churches, with dark and dismal paintings depicting the stations of the cross, urns containing bits of saints, and a wooden Saint Derek clutching his head under one arm like a motorbike helmet, while a beggar praying loudly at the door in hope of alms. A quartet of paintings on the ceiling depicted a naked Mary Magdalene, her long, strawberry blond hair loose to her waist, but not quite covering her modesty, washing Jesus’ feet or posing, like Venus emerging from the waves, reminding me of the patriarchal, misogynist aspect of Christianity I have never found very appetizing.

As the sun set below the mountains, we each ordered a bowl of pasta in a quiet, dimly lit restaurant a few steps from our hotel, before we collapsed exhausted and chilled beneath seersucker duvet covers. From a dawn dip in the Mediterranean to snow on the peaks at bedtime, the whole day felt somewhat surreal.
073E47CA-CDB2-47FC-B4A3-BA26FA299393In the morning, we made an early start, and took another winding road through ever-closer mountains that were doused in frost, as the temperature crept down towards zero. A canon sprinkler, left on all night, had created a glorious display of icicles on a metal guard rail along the edge of the road. Heavy duty roof tiles – chunky slabs of rough-hewn slate – looked thick enough to bear the brunt of an avalanche, while kilometres of concrete veranda provided the same protection for the road that led us up to the San Bernardino Tunnel, and took us 6.5 kilometres under the mountain and into Switzerland, where we experienced another cultural switch to confuse the senses. Prices escalated, road signs were organized, the traffic had manners, and the coffee was dreadful. We arrived at the tip of Lake Geneva in time for lunch, and the sun shone brightly, but without much warmth, as we wandered along the banks and spotted ducks and seagulls and a small pine bedecked with sparrows like baubles on a Christmas tree. Sheepskins covered the cold plastic café seats. Coats were already in evidence. We even saw a pair of Ug boots walking across the street.

Onwards, away from the steep, rocky, overbearing southern mountains looming all round us to the lush alpine meadows of central Switzerland, where the fields looked like freshly mown lawn, and intrepid mountain goats were replaced with soporific cows.

As the sky line levelled out, we were joined by large farm tractors on the country roads, en route to clearing fields thickly forested with ripe wheat.  We passed enormous weatherboard farm houses, half barn, half house, with curling roofs, like the caps I remember on traditionally dressed Dutch dolls. Around a bend and on through beech wood and at last we landed up in a small rural town, and our B&B, Sven’s Place, complete with IKEA kitchen and a spa on the back deck, just perfect for aching shoulders.

Later, we took a walk through the woods, past a small deer farm, some horse riders and six-foot-high sunflowers on their last legs. The countryside in the north of Switzerland is more domesticated, cosy, softer around the edges than the Southern Alps.

Our last day on the road took us through the hills of northern Switzerland, passing horse studs and huge mounds of wood stockpiled against the barns for winter fires. A pretty road led us up through beech woods and into pine forests before dropping down again, along a tiny stream, Cynthia SatNav having surmised correctly that we preferred to stay off the motorways. But the last leg of our drive through Switzerland put us back on the motorway, where the Swiss showed off their penchant for tunnelling, and we found ourselves driving in and out of tunnels like a sewing machine needle hemming sheets.

Then it was heads down and a mad dash for home, as the good weather dissolved into rain-spattered windscreens and heavy grey clouds. The countryside was still heavily wooded and lushly green, but the further north we went, we saw autumn colour changes creeping in around the edges.  Back home in Luxembourg, the sky has faded to a washed out denim after months of deep blue, and the mornings are shrouded in autumn mist, and our final glimpse of summer is fading into memory.

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Road Trip South…

Dijon1

A clement, uneventful, Sunday drive out of Luxembourg, along a smooth motorway that crossed vast pastures, south to Dijon.  Here we found narrow, cobbled streets and half-timbered buildings, a handful of handsome churches and clusters of modern coffee shops that encircled town squares, centuries old. A carousel, mustard, of course, a Sunday market full of trash and treasure, a bleached Roman arch, and ‘les toits bourguignons’ (decorative roof tiles of green, yellow and black in geometric patterns), the town spiralling out to broader roads lined with large and elegant houses with a touch of Haussmann. Then a short drive into the countryside and along the lazy Saone to Seurre, once a busy market town, now a subdued country town of beautifully fading glory: crumbling old houses with washed-out, ramshackle facades; iron gates, rusty and battered; rickety rooftiles and shabby wooden beams; weather-beaten shutters and unkempt gardens.

Yet, to counterbalance the decay, there were occasional glimpses of stubborn pride, a determination not to be cast aside: overflowing hanging baskets strung from a rustic footbridge; polished plaques depicting a once illustrious history; an old-fashioned wooden bell tower to call the kids to school; an unexpectedly fine meal at a local restaurant offering boeuf bourguignon and homemade sushi; a marina boasting a small armada of fat-bottomed barges and perky pleasure cruisers; a well-maintained park edged with plane trees, spick and span.

We stayed overnight in a small chateau on the edge of town, with ice-cream-cornet-turrets, unpolished woodenseurre2 floors, and barn-sized bedrooms. Downstairs the owners had filled once elegant reception rooms with an assortment of refurbished arcade games. Outisde, the garden was hedged with well-established trees, including a spread-eagled weeping willow and an elegant silver birch.

South, south, south to Uzès, and the scenery slowly changed from broad, green fields, deep, languid rivers and ense, fecund woodland to dry, gravelly riverbeds and chalky white soil dotted with small, gnarly grapevines and stolid, sandstone farmhouses. Instantly familiar, this arid region of Languedoc was heartbreakingly reminiscent of our childhood state of South Australia, with its bleached, sunburnt, end-of- summer landscape, its sparse and dusty trees, its fierce blue skies. And it wasn’t just the sights and smells of childhood that greeted our senses, but its flavours too, as we drove past a roadside stall laden with succulent stone fruits, chucked a u-ey and pulled up in a spray of  dust and gravel. What else could we do but fill the back seat with local wines, lavender products, citrus aperitifs, and our lascivious mouths with plums, peaches and apricots, spitting stones through the car window with a gratifying plunk onto the dry earth?

Uzes1We eventually reached Uzès, an ancient town just north of the Carmargue. For centuries, it has been a bishopric and home to the first, the oldest Duchy in France. Dismantled after the French Revolution, the Chateau, hidden in the cloistered centre of the old town, has been restored to its former glory by the current Duke – the 17th – and his late grandmother. We peeked through a door in the centre of a huge, heavy gate and found a courtyard, a wall thick with Virginia creeper and an astonishing Renaissance façade. In one corner a tall, square tower rose 44 metres (and 135 steps!) above the town, providing amazing views to the distant horizon over a sea of terracotta roof tiles.  We trudged down steep steps to the wine cellar, once used to store supplies in case of a siege. Overhead, a petite, fifteenth century chapel blended a Gothic ceiling in gold and eau de nil with 17th century trompe l’oiel walls. Family history was mounted on every wall: solemn paintings of the illustrious souls who have borne the name of Clussol and Duc d’ Uzès.

Later, we headed back to town for dinner, and parked the car carelessly beneath an orderly row of Plane trees. Birds chattered, frantic and furious, among the treetops, late into the night, spitefully splattering their ‘petits besoins’ all over the car, like sloppy painters.

Bec à Vin, a sign we passed earlier in the day, is a IMG_2360traditional restaurant that came recommended highly by our Parisian host. It was a little cool to sit in the garden, as planned, but the rustic stone interior was warm, inviting and quietly bustling. We had already drunk our fill of local wines at our B&B, so we resorted now to water, which meant we were fully focussed on our food: a light, spicy watermelon gazpacho with the best, most flavourful, crispy toasted cheese ever made – or, in more sophisticated terms: Gaspacho de pastèque et bruschetta au pistou rouge, jambon cru et mozzarella. The One and Only chose squid stuffed with vegetables and conversation became non-existent. Later, we were equally aphoristic as we immersed ourselves in Carré d’agneau Catalan au miel et romarin, risotto au pélardons et épinards (rack of Catalan lamb with honey and rosemary, risotto with pélardons and spinach) and a melt-in-the-mouth, almost-local Iberian ‘Bellota’ pork – the pork equivalent of wagyu beef, only better.

We returned to base through a looming guard of honour that seemed to inch ever closer to the narrow road: upright plane trees, their white bark coats ghost-like in the headlights, that lined our route up to Arpaillagues-et-Aureillac.  There we creep through the front door of a silent guest house, built eons ago in rough-hewn sandstone, the rooms dim and cool, with attractive, barrel-vaulted ceilings, the garden full of delicate laurel trees that shaded a wide stone terrace and a sparkling pool, doubtless a real haven from the heat at the height of summer. Here, in the morning, we would nibble on fresh croissants and home-made apricot jam, on crusty bread and baby goats cheese smeared with salty-sweet olive jam, and sip hot coffee, before we packed our bags and headed east…

IMG_0284…turning our our eyes back, once more, towards Menton, on the eastern end of the Cote D’Azur, a short stroll from Italy along the rocky Mediterranean shoreline, trimmed with a multitude of yachts and motor launches. Dinner was served high up on a blustery balcony, sipping Aperol Spritz and listening to the crack and crackle of the surf.

At dawn, I wandered down to the pebbled beach, as the glowing sun, like a peach-slice, rose swiftly over the rim of the hills, morphing first into a round blood orange and then bouncing into the sky as a luminous, dazzling white ball. Reflected on the surface of the sea, it pointed a glaring white signpost across the rippling water and cast the palms on the headland into sharp-edged silhouettes. I watched, as early bathers edged warily, painfully, across the unforgiving stones to the bracing water. Beyond their tortured feet, a steady stream of cars and motorbikes roared along the coast road, waking the day with a crotchety clatter of engines. I sipped my first coffee and gazed over the glittering sea.

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History Upended

blog3A birthday. I forget which one. I was probably about ten. A card arrived from Australia with a $10 bill inside. There was a financial exchange with my father, a trip to the local bookshop, a new book: The Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marrayat.  I read it cover to cover in one sitting, and a passion for historical fiction was born.

Marryat tells the tale of the four Beverley children, orphaned during the English Civil War, who hide in the forest to escape from the evil Roundheads and their puritanical, Protestant leader, Oliver Cromwell. For three hundred pages, I joined the children, as they learned to survive in the forest. The story is set in the south-east corner of the New Forest, between Lymington and Sway, and the Beverley’s manor house was modelled, apparently, on the real-life manor of Arnewood (written without the ‘e’ in the book).

Three years ago, my younger brother and his family moved to the New Forest, just a stone’s throw from Arnewood. Having grown up with the steep, wooded hillsides and narrow hedge-rowed lanes of Kent, the New Forest came as an enormous surprise. More reminiscent of the Yorkshire Moors than my impression of South East England, I gazed in awe at its huge open skies, broad tracts of open, gorse-covered heath, wild horses, deer and cattle, and a handful of wooded areas nestling in the river valleys.

Ninety miles south west of London, the New Forest ranges across Hampshire and Wiltshire, and was designated a National Park in 2005. It covers an area of 566 square kilometres and is made up of vast tracts of heathland, regenerated woodland and valleys lined with shallow, tea-coloured rivers. Several small towns and villages are scattered through the National Park, but access roads are narrow – and scarce – and seize up with tourist cars and camper vans in the summer months.

The name New Forest seems somewhat inappropriate to our modern understanding of the term, for there are  neither miles of impenetrable  trees, malignant and creepy, nor can it honestly be called new, having been created by William the Conqueror in 1079 as a Royal Hunting Ground. With Kingly disdain, he carelessly evicted the peasants of almost forty parishes to clear the way for herds of deer and wild pigs, for the sole use of Royal hunting parties. Once deciduous woodland, it was cleared for cultivation way back in the Bronze Age, but the poor soil ensured a total lack of success for agricultural  development.

In fact, in Norman times the word ‘forest’ applied to a legal system, known as forest law, set up to protect the deer and the undergrowth they fed on. This law was hugely unpopular with the residents of the newly named nova foresta, who were suddenly forbidden to continue their traditional way of life, on pain of death or mutilation. No longer allowed access to the wild deer and pigs, they were not even permitted to gather wood for building their houses or lighting their fires on what had originally been common land. Nor were they allowed to enclose their own land, as fences disrupted the hunters. Punishment for contravening forest law was severe, and for more than a century, these laws were strictly upheld by the King’s foresters. Eventually, sometime in the thirteenth century, a new charter was written to re-establish pasturing rights to the disgruntled commoners, and the death penalty for poaching the deer was abolished.

Today, common pasturing rights are still in place, and you can see wild horses, donkeys and Shetland ponies, a wide variety of cattle, deer and even pigs grazing freely all over the New Forest. Speed limits are low throughout the National Park to prevent accidents – and bodily mutilation – as the animals wander freely through the villages, stroll along the verges and cross the roads at will. They will often gather under bridges for shade and a spot of gossiping. And they all play a part in park management, thanks to their constant grazing.

This summer we have been lucky enough to spend a fair bit of time with family in the New Forest: trudging acrossblog1 (2) the heath, thick with gorse and delving deep into the woods; picnicking by the gravel-bottomed streams; pottering wide-eyed through village art galleries; guzzling greedily on luscious cream teas; sipping cider in the local pubs; gazing adoringly at new-born foals and young, rust-coloured calves; wandering along the coast and through pretty seaside towns laden with sailing boats. Suddenly, I remembered Marryat’s book, and went searching for a replacement copy in second hand bookshops, sadly to no avail.

And then, we found ourselves in Ely, and I dropped into Oliver Cromwell’s home to hear his side of the story. An attractive, half-timbered house just up the road from Ely Cathedral, Cromwell’s family home abuts the local parish church of St Mary’s. The portrait of the sometime Lord Protector of England shows a doe-eyed man the spitting image of Alan Rickman, with a reputation as infamous as Rickman’s alter ego, Severus Snape.

As I explored the old house, now an inter-active museum, I learned a lot more about this much-maligned British Head of State. Often remembered as a traitor, Oliver Cromwell led armed forces against King Charles I, and would eventually oversea his beheading. Yet, as a Parliamentary soldier, he was apparently one of the greatest military leaders England has ever known.

Life was a struggle after Cromwell’s father died, when Oliver was only sixteen. Some years later, however, he inherited the house in Ely and considerable lands. He moved his family of nine children across the county and became a respected member of parliament. When King Charles, a devout believer in   in the divine right of kings, began to take the law into his own hands, defying Parliament at every turn, and trying to convert the country back to Catholicism, the Protestant Cromwell found himself leading the opposition and openly criticizing the King.

Civil War broke out in 1642. Cromwell was among many to take arms against the king. The War would continue for eight years, and shook the country to its roots. In 1645, a national army was created. As second in command, Oliver Cromwell led the New Model Army to victory time and time again. After the King’s execution, he was installed as Lord Protector and ruled as “King in all but name.” His supporters say he kept a firm hand on the tiller and restored peace to England long before his death in 1658. Nonetheless, his name was mud when Charles II returned to England and the throne, and set about his enemies with a vengeance.

Blog2So, was he the traitorous rebel that Marryat described in my childhood novel, or was he in fact a national hero? A matter of perspective, perhaps, but at least I now have a more objective view. And Ely also provided some pretty parks and gardens, and a stunning cathedral. Here Shakespeare had taken over from God the night we arrived, with more juicy tales of Royal intrigue in a production of the black comedy, Richard III.

We arrived too late for a ticket, but not to worry – it was a perfect evening for lounging outside the Cutter Inn, where we could admire a flotilla of canal boats moored along the riverbank and overindulge in steak and kidney pie. We stayed overnight on the outskirts of town, in a cosy B&B filled with a cornucopia of Victorian cranberry glass, and a fecundity of photo frames and frills.  Hardly a reflection of a dour local hero accused of banishing the fripperies and furbelows of Christmas!

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