Back to Basics

Dougal, Florence, Dylan, Zebby, Oliver and Compton. Old or new, all the campervans in the Fishbourne fleet have a name, many with a Magic Roundabout twist. In the beginning, there was an Ermentrude, too. Ours was Isla. As in Isla Wight. And she’s also white. Isla isn’t one of the classic models, but a 2013 version, with all the bells and whistles. She is also the only one we could take off the island, apart from Dylan who was otherwise occupied. The Oldies can’t hack the pace on the mainland motorways, apparently.

These gorgeous VW campervans are the pride and joy of Will & Jubee Samuelson, who own Isle of Wight Campers. As if we were borrowing one of their children, Will took us over every inch of the precious Isla before we were permitted to transfer our bags from Vivienne, our VW Tiguan, to Isla’s pristine interior. Then we had to examine every previous nudge and bump, before being warned, quite seriously, not to create any more. He didn’t quite say ‘on pain of death,’ but the implication was there.

And I can’t blame them for such parental anxiety, as I know I’d be exactly the same. There is something very anthropomorphic about a VW camper.  Growing up in England, we had Bella Bus, and she was as much a part of the family as anyone else. Also white, she was perhaps a tad less shiny and modern than Isla. And to this day, my parents love nothing better than to head off into the bush with their current campervan, fifty-odd years after they traipsed through Europe in an old Bedford van.

For years, we have talked of following in their footsteps, of buying a camper. Of the joyous freedom of a nomadic life with your own portable bed, kitchen and wardrobe. Of no longer dragging suitcases across acres of airports or drinking rubbish coffee. Of moving on whenever we felt the urge, and wherever the wind or the road took us, without all the usual palaver of packing boxes and removal companies.

We also knew we had to hire one first; to try it on for size, quite literally. With the One & Only clocking the height chart at 6’2” and Yours Truly being clumsiness personified at the best of times, we had to make sure we had enough room to manoeuvre comfortably, or bruising and claustrophobia would inevitably put the kibosh on any further escapades. And I have done enough camping in my youth to know that my own particular preoccupation (bordering on mania) is bathrooms and toilets, and how to survive without them. Thus, ‘try before you buy’ would be a vital part of the process.

For years, it had never been quite the right moment. And then, out of the blue, the perfect opportunity presented itself. We had a birthday party on the mainland, and we needed accommodation. Why not try a campervan rather than a hotel this time? William had a small window in his booking schedule for a few days before the Isle of Wight festival. It was exactly the time slot we wanted. We were in business…

We gleefully boarded the ferry at Cowes, thrilled to think that our first night’s dinner was ensconced in the pocket-sized fridge- -one I prepared earlier – while a couple of bottles of wine were tucked safely into the cupboard, along with everything else we could possibly need on this mini adventure, thanks to the foresight of Jubee and Will. Not for us a built-in icebox à la Bella Bus, which kept the milk merely tepid, squatting in a pool of melt-water, but the Real McCoy. And a gas stove! I love cooking on gas and we haven’t had a gas stove in years. As we drove through Southampton, the weather report promised a grizzly weekend of monsoonal rain; a veritable Noah’s Flood. Minus a few dry moments between deluges, that’s pretty much what we got. Nothing daunted, we took it on the chin and headed east towards Portsmouth, aiming for the South Downs and a campsite in the woods near Petworth, thanking God we wouldn’t have to erect – or disembowel – a tent in a storm.

Passing The Badger and The Three Moles pubs – both names tempted us to pop in, for the sheer delight of their Wind-in-the-Willows monikers – we resisted temptation and drove on, down winding country lanes with their thick hawthorn ramparts, past an endless array of pretty stone cottages and forests. Eventually, unscathed by booze, badgers or hawthorn, we discovered the Graffham Club Campsite at the end of a single-lane farm track. It’s a fabulous campsite, wooded and shady, and we were cheerfully directed to a sandy parking spot, tucked up against a wall of rhododendrons. Despite our novice status, we soon had the roof raised, the deck chairs assembled and the wine poured. And, for the first night at least, we could eat al fresco, although the woodland fire rules forbade us to barbecue our IOW lamb chops. When at last the pasta was cooked, we had already emptied one bottle of Shiraz.

By bedtime, we had realized that the double bed wasn’t quite big enough for two – not the two of us anyway – but Will had provided enough bedding to make up the loft bed too. I suggested tossing a coin, but my chivalrous One & Only insisted that he was happy to clamber up to the top bunk, and who was I to argue? I woke sometime after midnight to the soft nattering of rain on the roof.

Night Two, and after a cultural day at Petworth House, we drove east to Crowborough, where I had located a campsite not far from the friends we were meeting for lunch the following day. Crowborough is situated seven miles south-west of Tunbridge Wells, on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, so I was also hoping to visit Pooh Corner and the Pooh Sticks bridge while we were in the area, but sadly, the unpredictable weather put us off the idea of trekking through a dripping and soggy forest. We got a lovely surprise at the campsite, though, which was located on a terraced hillside facing north, with glorious views over the Weald of Kent.

By now, we were experts at raising the roof, swivelling the front seat, turning on the gas, setting up the table and plugging in the electric cable. Dinner was underway in a matter of minutes, and the first glass of wine had been poured while we waited for the stew to warm up. After dinner, in an interlude between rain showers, we discovered a huge recreation park above the campsite, where the vast skies stretched to infinity and beyond, over this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We exclaimed at the space and the sky and the baby rabbits that had emerged from a coppice for silflay (xref ‘Watership Down’). The rain began again at nine thirty, but the sun was setting, and we were heading for bed anyway…

My long-held gripe with camping in tents or smaller camper vans is the somewhat sadistic tendency of park staff to send those of us without mobile bathrooms to the furthest reaches of the campsite, ensuring that a midnight call to the loo involves a long-distance marathon. And at my age, that has become a major aggravation. But so far so good. This trip we were able to ensure that the van was parked no more than 100 metres from the facilities, so that even in the rain, I could make it there and back without drowning.

Night Three, and we were even closer to a bathroom. Dropping by to visit our friends in Horsmonden, we defied the weather to attend the annual fair on the village green across the road. After some Morris Dancing, a sing-along with a ukulele band, and a bottle or two of wine – do you see a common theme here? – we ended up camping outside our friends’ front door, with the key in our possession for emergency access to the loo. This also meant we were virtually in the marquee with the local bands that played on merrily till midnight, which made for an unusual lullaby.

Night Four found us back on the South Downs. Neither woodland, nor township, we were now in a huge field below Ditchling Beacon. Our neighbours were few, but the rain was mizzling, so after a postprandial lap of the extensive and almost empty campsite, we retired early. It was my turn in the top bunk, after three nights grace on the firm but cosy bed below. At this point, admiration for the stoicism of my One & Only reached celestial heights. Now nesting right under the roof, the rain was suddenly thumping in my ears as if I were curled up beside last night’s drummer. And I know I’m a bit of a Princess when it comes to mattresses, but I like a soft mattress if I’m not going to wake up like a fierce and cranky Goldilocks. While there is plenty of room upstairs, I felt this upper bunk was better suited to more supple bones than mine. And more agile ones, too, as I almost propelled myself through the windscreen trying to clamber down in the dark for that midnight dash. Not surprising then, that our final night found me in my cousin’s spare bed with a hot water bottle, while the One & Only claimed the luxury of the bottom bunk and slept uncomplaining and cosy in the driveway…

So, while the weather wasn’t ideal, our test run was a great success, and really good fun. We learned an awful lot about the pros and cons of living in a campervan, and my childhood fantasy for the life of a gypsy is still alive and well. The layout of seating and cupboards proved excellent, and there was plenty of storage. We even got the hang of the front passenger seat that sashays around to face the back for dining. But I would definitely like a thicker mattress for the loft bed. And perhaps an annex of some sort, for housing wet coats and muddy boots in bad weather, and, ideally, a porta-potty!

Apart from these few simple adaptations, we are now inspired to invest in our own camper. We both love the flexibility and freedom a campervan provides, and we thoroughly enjoyed joining the ranks of the light-hearted, liberated and friendly camping community who showered us with encouragement, useful information, and wondrous tales of a truly nomadic life. Top marks, too, to all the campsites we stayed at, where the facilities were spotless and not at all the nasty experience I remember from my childhood camping trips. Adventuring with a VW campervan is so much easier – and warmer – than it was with the tent and numerous boxes of camping gear we lugged around last summer, and of course it’s a much dryer port in a storm. For several long moments we even forgot that we had to return dear Isla to her proud parents and considered heading off into the sunset – and possibly warmer climes – never to return. Maybe next time…

PS Both Isla & I returned to the island with no additional bumps or bruises, despite the flooded roads, some severely pot-holed lanes and minimal suspension. Not to mention having to scale the heights to reach the loft bed! In truth, I only knocked over the coffee pot once, when my elbows got in the way, and I think that’s a record. Also, please note the photo of the campervan above is a stray Google Images one. If you’d like to meet Isla and her friends, check out: www.isleofwightcampers.co.uk/

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Glorious Gardens

The Lake, Petworth: Sunset, Fighting Bucks c.1829 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Spring is rolling into summer, and although the weather may not be participating, the fields and hedgerows are lush and green – even more so, perhaps, thanks to days of heavy rain. It wasn’t exactly what we were expecting though, for a long weekend in Sussex in mid June…

On the first day of our adventure on the mainland, we awoke to persistent drizzle. A long hike through the countryside promised nothing but damp heads, soggy feet and the onset of pneumonia. So, we changed course and headed to Petworth House. On the cusp of a pretty village of the same name, this imposing stately home lies in the heart of the South Downs National Park, in West Sussex. Once the country estate of the Earls of Northumberland, this treasure trove of art and history is now in the hands of the National Trust, along with a 700 acre deer park designed by the 18th century landscape architect Lancelot Brown. More commonly known as ‘Capability’ Brown, he was renowned for telling every potential client that his property had ‘capability’ for improvement.

Back in the 12th century, Petworth Estate was bequeathed to Joscelin of Louzain by his sister Adeliza, the widow of Henry I. Joscelin then married Elizabeth Percy, heiress to one of the most powerful noble families, adopting the Percy name and all its estates. IN 1377, his descendant, Henry Percy, was created Earl of Northumberland at Richard II’s coronation. Prominent throughout the Tudor and Stuart dynasties, several reckless – or audacious – Percys would spend their time both courting and yet miraculously dodging political and financial disaster. By 1750, they were one of the wealthiest families in England, but with the death of Algernon, 7th Duke of Somerset, the vast Percy estates and titles were divided between the Duke’s only surviving daughter and her first cousin. A branch of Percy descendants continue to live at Petworth House to this day, although there is barely any resemblance to the house Queen Adeliza gave to her younger brother almost a thousand years ago.

In the 17th century, the medieval country house was inherited by Lady Elizabeth Percy and her handsome husband, the conceited and vainglorious Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset. Seymour took to his exalted new life like a duck to water, and promptly proceeded to enlarge the house at Petworth in the manner of Versailles, retaining only the beautiful, medieval chapel as a favour to his wife, adding grandiose state rooms to display the family’s wealth, taste and royal connections.  Described by a contemporary as ‘a man in whom the pride of birth and rank amounted almost to a disease,’ he turned the original manor house into a palace, and employed the King’s own gardener to design structured, formal gardens at the front of the mansion, complete with ramparts, terraces, and ornamental gardens.

Petworth today

Barely fifty years later, Charles Wyndham, 2nd Earl of Egremont inherited Petworth, he commissioned Capability Brown to modernize the gardens, relegating the ostentatious French style to the rubbish heap and replacing it with Brown’s signature informality. Parterres, meticulously manicured lawns and hedges, elaborate fountains, sharp edges and symmetry gave way to ha-has and grassland as far as the eye could see, with soft curves from surrounding hillocks and a scattering of carefully tousled ever-green trees. This new form of landscape gardening – idealizing and styling the landscape so harmoniously to make it look as if it had been created naturally – became hugely popular with the British aristocracy, and the fashion spread back to France. Renowned water-colourist, J.M.W. Turner, was one of the Earl’s protégés. Amongst other things, the Earl commissioned him to paint several views of the park, which were then hung at eye level in the dining room, for the appreciation of those not facing the tall windows overlooking the park itself. These remain in situ, although they are currently owned by the Tate.

Capability Brown’s pastoral landscapes celebrate the dominion of mankind over nature, yet without too much primping or accessorizing. The scenes are peaceful and placid, depicting sweeping vistas of lawn or grassland, punctuated by stands of stately cedars and serpentine lakes. By the beginning of the 19th century, however, a reaction had set in against Capability Brown’s overly tidy and ‘facile compositions.’ Such natural simplicity no longer impressed. Apparently, a garden required more drama to be truly appealing. The Picturesque style began to emerge, and garden designers looked for uplifting drama and heightened allure. Ruins, follies and classical temples, adding a touch of mystery and charm, became all the rage.

Scotney, on the border of Kent and East Sussex, provides all these things by the barrowful. The original medieval manor house was built in about 1380. Tucked into a secluded valley, it sits on a small island, the surrounding moat fed from the little River Bewl. (One guide I spoke to suggested that the Bewl was once wide enough to transport large boats from the Medway to the castle, but given its meagre size today, I suspect this is apocryphal.)
The manor was fortified during the 14th century, when the 100 Years’ War brought the threat of a French invasion, and subsequent owners continued to enlarge and renovate the original manor. In 1778 it was purchased by London lawyer, Edward Hussey. Forty years later, Scotney was inherited in 1817 by his grandson, Edward Hussey III, after the tragic deaths of both his father and his grandfather in the same year. Still only a child, he was taken to live on the coast by his mother who, not surprisingly, had few happy memories of the secluded medieval manor house.

Scotney, old and new

As an adult, Edward Hussey III moved back to Scotney. Faced with the outdated, impractical and doubtless crumbling manor house, he decided to build an entirely new home on a terrace overlooking the old castle, quarrying the honey-coloured sandstone from the hillside below. In 1837, he commissioned architect Anthony Salvin to design it in the mock Elizabethan style popular at the time, while William Sawrey Gilpin took charge of creating the garden. As part of the surrounding landscaping, the remains of Scotney Castle were deliberately ravaged to make it a feature of the new garden; a picturesque folly in the glen. The quarry, too, was embellished and beautified with ferns, fuchsias, azaleas, magnolias. Today, the gardens overflow with colour from banks of spring daffodils, to the summery scented orange Ghent azaleas and deep blue hydrangeas, to the autumnal russets of liquidambars and Japanese acers. The ruins have been softened with honeysuckle, climbing roses and wisteria, and the moat is awash with water lilies, as prolific as those in Givenchy, its banks edged in yellow iris and marsh marigolds.

Instead of the once popular pastoral landscapes, this garden is a maze of winding woodland paths, mossy nooks and hidden gullies. It feels utterly magical. And when the sun, putting in a brief appearance, sparkles across the water, the castle’s round tower is reflected perfectly in the moat. During this brief hiatus in the pitiless rain, I feel the urge to go in search of Sleeping Beauty or possibly Rapunzel in the fairy-tale castle, so enchantingly tucked among the lush and lustrous rhododendrons, and framed by tall and elegant oak trees. And what about a picnic basket and a bottle of bubbles?

Pashley Manor

Only fifteen minutes down the road and across the border into Sussex, is Pashley Manor. Once upon a time, Pashley was a moated hunting lodge owned by the Bullen (or Boleyn) family. In 1540, the property was sold, and the new owner built a Tudor house on higher ground. In 1981, the Sellick family came to Pashley, and were faced with the monumental task of taming eleven acres of garden long neglected garden. Over a thousand trees were uprooted during the notorious storm of 1987, but this at least gave the Sellicks some space to recreate their exquisite English country garden. From the house, the focal point is the lake, or moat, and an arched bridge takes us over the water to a small island. Beneath the trees, where the old hunting lodge once stood, we found a temple beside a lovely statue of Anne Boleyn.

Wandering down a narrow woodland path, we come across wood nymphs galore, roughly hewn from gnarly old branches and nailed to living trees. Another area is scattered with statues of children tucked beneath a tree with a book or leap-frogging over a tree stump. A large stag stands forever at bay on the shore opposite. The walled kitchen garden has been revived and is now filled with a dense collection of artichokes and espaliered fig trees, vegetables, herbs, sweet peas and edible pansies. A terrace beside the café is draped in wisteria and provides the perfect place to sit in the sunshine and enjoy the views across the lawn to the moat, its island, and the fields beyond.

We then have the opportunity to accompany the lady of the manor through the multiple walled garden ‘rooms’ brimming with roses of every conceivable colour and variety – including some new blue ones which are yet to flower. While she leads the way, providing tips to gardening enthusiasts, I drop back to bury my nose in every bloom, the older varieties providing all the scent, the newer innovations providing longevity but little aroma. It is immediately apparent that much time, effort and love has been lavished on maintaining every inch of this beautiful garden. We leave reluctantly.

Attempting to take cover from the inevitable showers that have plagued us all weekend – English summer my welly boot! – we found yet another convenient National Trust property on our route, and yet another period in English horticultural history. Standen House, south of East Grinstead, has a well-established, 12 acre garden, but given the continuing deluge, we decide to head into the house, only to find that the textile designer and socialist William Morris had considerately brought the outdoors inside.

Standen House, built by Philip Webb in the 1890s, is literally embowered in William Morris designs. William Morris was mad about nature, a passion that was translated into interior decoration; his designs paper the walls, carpet the floors, frame the windows and cover the furniture with stylized sunflowers, ferns, rambling roses, larkspurs and poppies, often in single colours, occasionally in a broader palette.

Bringing nature into the home first became popular in Victorian England and would become highly fashionable among the followers of the new Arts & Crafts Movement. Essentially, the A&C aficionados were reacting against industrialization and its economies of scale and mechanized speed, which they believed lacked both quality and integrity, disconnecting its workers from both life and nature. Instead, the Arts & Crafts Movement supported traditional craftsmanship and the beauty of using natural motifs, focusing on small workshops and old-world techniques.

James Beale and his wife Margaret, having commissioned this illustrious team to build and decorate their new summer house in the depths of West Sussex, worked closely with both architect and interior designer to create a comfortable, modern family home. Today, immersed in an era of beige and monochrome symmetry, it is difficult to appreciate the overwhelmingly, almost epileptic fussiness of Morris’s designs and his total disregard for colour schemes, as walls and floors and furniture collide in a kaleidoscope of contrasting, conflicting, discordant colours and patterns. But it was definitely a thorough lesson in Arts & Crafts decor.

Morris in all his splendour

So, quite unintentionally, we enjoyed a fascinating journey through the development of the English country garden from the 17th to the 21st century. An unexpected treat indeed. Next time, though, I must remember my umbrella!

*With thanks to Google Pics and the National Trust for photos of Petworth and Standen, and to the One & Only for his panoramic view of Pashley.

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Carisbrooke Castle

“It is my earnest hope and desire that with the help and co-operation of others, I may be able to form a full collection of objects of historical interest connected with the Island.” ~ Princes Beatrice of Battenburg

When I first moved to the Isle of Wight, I thought it would be fun to volunteer at one of the National Trust properties on the island. Before they could respond to my application, a friend from my writing group asked if I would like to join the team at the Carisbrooke Castle museum. I said ‘yes please’ without a second thought.

I have loved castles since I was a child. We didn’t see a lot of castles in Australia – not real ones – so when I moved to England with my family, aged eight, I was very soon besotted with all things historical, and castles in particular. But if I’m honest, even the word museum makes my legs ache and my eyelids droop. Having visited more than my fair share when I was at school, I have tended to shy way from them ever since. But museums have come a long way since then, and the Carisbrooke Castle Museum is a perfect example of the new, improved variety. Information is clearly exhibited, display cases are full of some really interesting tidbits, and there is something for everyone: a clock designed by John Nash; a Victorian dolls house handmade from an old cupboard and decorated by two talented great aunts. The oldest working chamber organ in Britain plays the trumpet minuet by Alfred Hollins, and an Irish tune, Lillbulero, which you may recognize as the tune of Rockaby Baby; and at the entrance to the museum is a fascinating and detailed model of the castle in its heyday.

For more than a millennium, Carisbrooke Castle has stood on a hilltop above the town as a fortress, a garrison, a residence for local nobility, even a prison. Today, the castle is like a strudel: layer upon layer of history dating back to the Saxons, who built it as protection from Viking raids. It was reinforced by the Normans, and again by the Elizabethans, against the threat of Spanish and French invasions. Briefly, it was used to imprison Charles I, and afterwards, two of his children, Elizabeth and Henry.

Today, it is still a fine example of a Norman motte and bailey castle. It’s in such good shape that visitors can walk a complete circuit of the medieval castle walls and climb up the incredibly steep stone steps (seventy-one of them) to the unroofed keep, the last refuge of the inhabitants in the face of attack or siege. For the modern-day visitor, unthreatened by a French or Spanish invasion, the view from the walls, over Carisbrooke and the surrounding countryside, is simply fabulous. And there is plenty of space within the walls for a picnic lunch. Many locals have told me that they visited the castle as children and particularly remember the donkeys that were used to raise buckets of water from the well by walking inside the 16th century wheel. To this day, four castle donkeys take it in turns to show visitors how the huge oak wheel draws buckets of water from the depths of the castle well.

A small chapel in the castle grounds dates back only 115 years, but there has been a succession of chapels over the centuries on the spot where the present one now stands. Surprisingly plain on the outside, it is most beautifully decorated inside. The ceiling is particularly sumptuous, and the organ, with its colourful pipes, was donated by Edward VII. The elegant altar painting was commissioned by Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, the Princess Beatrice, and dedicated to her son Maurice, who was killed at Ypres in World War I. Over 1,500 names are inscribed on the walls in remembrance of all the islanders killed in the two world wars.

My favourite period of Carisbrooke’s long history is the thirteenth century, when Isabella de Forebus, a fiercely independent young widow, inherited the castle and the island on which it stood, from her brother Baldwin. She was only twenty-six, yet she was already a mother of six and a wealthy widow. She was named ‘Lady of the Isle’ and became one of the richest landholders in England, inheriting in her own right the Lordship of the Isle of Wight and the earldom and substantial land in Hampshire and Devon, as well as her husband’s vast estates in the north of England.

Clever and strong-willed, Isabella her extensive properties with care and dedication. Based at Carisbrooke, she transformed the castle from a fortress to a comfortable and prestigious residence for a wealthy noblewoman. Isabella was responsible for many renovations and extensions within the castle walls, including a small chapel at the south-eastern end of the Great Hall. As a wealthy widow, she was courted by some of the most powerful men in England, but she obstinately refused to marry any of them, preferring to retain her independence, rather than becoming the chattel of some well-heeled, grasping Lord. Such behaviour was a severe aggravation to the King, Henry III. The Isle of Wight was strategically important to England, and in his opinion, it was not safe in the hands of a mere woman. In 1268, he attempted to marry his son and heir, Edward, to the feisty Isabella, but she refused even this illustrious proposal, and offered her ten-year-old daughter in her place.

When Edward himself became King, he continued to put pressure on Isabella to sell him the island. She continued to refuse until she was on her deathbed, at which point she succumbed to his wishes. With no living heirs, she was induced to sell it to him for a pittance. The Isle of Wight and its castle passed into the hands of the Crown, where it remained for centuries.

The Great Hall

Carisbrooke Castle is currently in the care of English Heritage. The museum, however, is an independent venture, supported by a separate charitable trust. Princess Beatrice, who used the castle as her summer residence after her mother’s death at nearby Osborne House, first established it in the castle Gatehouse. Over the years, it became the repository of both castle and island memorabilia from every era of its history. It eventually expanded so much that it was moved from the Gatehouse to the Great Hall and its upper rooms.

Princess Beatrice

The Great Hall has been revamped and modified over the centuries, but the outline of Isabella’s medieval great hall remains. The huge 14th century fireplace, once hidden behind 17th century panelling, was rediscovered in 1856, as was Isabella’s chapel, which had been overlaid by a broad staircase to the second floor. Upstairs, a generous room with a huge glass window overlooking the courtyard is remembered as Charles I bedroom, for the brief time he was imprisoned here, before his execution at Whitehall in 1649. The building’s current layout and interior décor is largely due to Princess Beatrice’s renovations. It is a bit of a rabbit warren, but there is a map, and the various collections are a fascinating treasure trove of the island’s history.

Paintings in the museum include a watercolour of the castle gatehouse by J.M.W. Turner and a wonderfully symbolic painting by C.W. Cope of the death of the Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Charles I, who died of pneumonia at Carisbrooke castle only a year after her father’s execution. She and her younger brother Henry had been separated from their parents and kept as prisoners of the Parliamentarians for eight years. Prince Henry was only returned to his mother, in France, two years later. Queen Victoria would eventually replace the simple, initialled headstone with a white marble sculptor of a much-airbrushed princess (she had apparently been severely deformed by rickets) and place her in Saint Thomas’s Church in Newport. A model of the sculpture can be seen at the museum. The sculptor, Carlo Marocchetti, was also responsible for the bronze lions at Trafalgar Square.

Other famous islanders are remembered in a display on the first floor, including Professor John Milne. Working in Japan during a particularly memorable earthquake in Yokohama in 1880, Milne was responsible for founding the Seismological Society of Japan and inventing the machine that could detect and measure the strength of earthquakes. He became renowned in Japan as the father of seismology, but remains undervalued and virtually unknown in his own country, or even on the Isle of Wight, where he died in 1913.

My favourite part of the museum is tucked away right under the roof on the fourth floor. In this shadowy room is a small library, a hidden gem full of history books relating to the Isle of Wight and its inhabitants.

Thus, Princess Beatrice’s initial plan for a substantial museum has come to pass. Today, the museum exhibits only a portion of its large collection of island memorabilia – some 30,000 items – but the upper rooms change their displays regularly, in order to show off different aspects and eras of the island’s history. The castle is fantastic, the museum, a jewel in the crown.

*With thanks to Google images and the Museum website for the photos I didn’t take myself.

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A Few of My Favourite Things

It sometimes happens that the town child is more alive to the fresh beauty of the country than a child who is country born. ~ Beatrix Potter

Hannah Dale’s ducks


I first came across Hannah Dale’s designs in a National Trust shop and immediately fell in love. Her rather tousled but joyfully animated wildlife are utterly heart-warming, and I have indulged in Wrendale cups, cards and books ever since. Dale provides the mouth-watering detail of British wild-life, that I once loved in Beatrix Potter’s child-sized books, but without Potter’s urge to anthropomorphize.

Jemima Puddleduck


As an aside, Bill Bryson once wrote that Beatrix Potter’s books were too twee for words. He has obviously never opened a single book. Despite their bonnets and blue jackets, Potter’s characters live among the brutality of the natural world. Remember how Squirrel Nutkin loses his tail to Old Brown Owl, Tom Kitten is nearly consumed by rats, and the wily Mr. Tod attempts to put Jemima Puddleduck on his luncheon menu? It could be argued that this is too much reality for small children, despite the quaint illustrations and the book’s appealing size.

Dale’s paintings provide a different reality, and it is difficult not to consider becoming a vegetarian for the sake of her appealing illustrations. Particularly since my Hannah sent me her latest book ‘The Farmyard Set: a celebration of friends on the farm.’ I am, of course, smitten. Expanding from British wildlife to our favourite farm animals, she is now inspiring me to create my own hobby farm, by adopting as many real-life Hannah Dale animals as I can lay my hands on. Remember Tom and Barbara in ‘The Good Life,’ set in suburban Surbiton in the 1970s? Watch out Margot, here I come…


Of Dale’s plethora of delicious illustrations,one of my many favourites – honestly, it’s impossible to choose just one – is the Highland Cow. I fell in love with these gorgeous animals many years ago, when I first met them in Kent, where I was working for the National Trust at Winston Churchill’s old home at Chartwell. With their beautiful woolly coats in a myriad autumn colours, these long-horned cows originate from the highlands of Scotland – obviously! – and the Outer Hebrides. In the past 200 years, these Highland cattle have caught the travelling bug. They first migrated to Victoria, Australia in 1841 and discovered their way to Canada about the same time. These days, they are also wandering about in Denmark, Finland and the States. Apparently Queen Liz is mad about them too, and has kept a herd at Balmoral since 1954. Only the group noun is not ‘herd’ but ‘fold,’ after the stone lodgings that were built to keep them warm through winter nights.

Highland cattle are raised primarily for their lean and luscious meat – which tasty though that sounds, is almost enough to turn me off meat-eating forever. Have you seen their eyes? They also produce wonderfully creamy milk. And now, not only do I have one on my favourite coffee mug, but I have found several real ones roaming around the Isle of Wight.

Enough of cows. Back to wildlife. After six years in Manila, free of any wildlife bar the odd pigeon and a handful of feral cats, I am still getting a buzz out of bird song, wildflowers and native fauna. We regularly spot beautiful, tawny buzzards perching on fence posts or on hedges. Their numbers had been decimated by pesticide poisoning and human hunters, but they have recently been making a terrific comeback. On the other hand, Great White Egrets – a type of heron – are a rare sight here on the Isle of Wight, so we were very excited to see one wading through Brading Marshes recently, on elegantly long legs, pausing to pose haughtily for a couple of keen photographers. The Little White Egrets are more common and we often come across them paddling along the shoreline when we stroll down to the beach after dinner. Also, the solitary grey crane we used to chat with regularly on the Alzette in Luxemburg appears to have followed us here and taken up residence on the reef at Bembridge.

Cicely Mary Barker’s Bluebell Fairy

As well as indulging in some amateur bird watching, my childhood memories of Flower Fairies have come to the fore as we wander through water meadows dotted with bright yellow marsh marigolds and bird’s foot trefoil, pink campions and wild orchids, into woodlands carpeted in bluebells and wild garlic, and over the Downs thickly coated in gorse bushes smelling of Pina Colada or coconut suntan cream.

As we’ve wandered the coastal path, strolled along the Medina or the Yar, meandered through hidden valleys or clambered up on the Downs, we have also spotted many a well-fed bunny and a couple of foxes. And recently, on our way home from the pub, we were overtaken by a pair of galloping badgers. Yes, really! The sturdy, short-legged badger, like the wombat, can run surprisingly fast when necessary – a solid competitor for the 100 metre dash, if not for long distance marathons – and they careered past us in tandem before disappearing into a nearby garden. Our neighbour says he once had a sett of fifteen badgers in the garden until they started digging up his lawn and he politely encouraged them to move into the overgrown garden next door!

My One & Only now has his own Hannah Dale mug featuring a cuddly looking grey and white badger. (It was once known locally as ‘Old Brock,’ the Celtic word for grey.) Despite their disruptive penchant for excavation, culling badgers has become wildly unpopular in the UK, where the badger is now considered an iconic British species, although sadly, it is rarely seen as more than roadkill due to its nocturnal habits and its underground living quarters.

‘Human language is lit with animal life: we play cats-cradle or have hare-brained ideas; we speak of badgering, or outfoxing someone; to squirrel something away and to ferret it out.’ ~ Jay Griffiths

Perhaps the badger’s high profile has grown from its regular appearance in children’s literature. Remember the grumpy Mr. Badger from ‘Wind in the Willows?’ A stoic and solitary character who lives in the Wild Wood, he is considered learned and wise by the other animals, and works hard to reform the impetuous, irresponsible Mr Toad. In T.H. White’s children’s classic cum Disney movie, The Sword and the Stone, the wizard, Merlyn transforms Arthur into a small brock, so he may learn lessons in kingship from a wise old badger. JK Rowling may have remembered these characters when she endowed Hufflepuff House with the emblem of a badger: the house whose students are known for their patience, hard work and loyalty.

Another popular animal in children’s fiction is the red squirrel. Neat and petite, with russet fur, bottlebrush tail and tufted ears, it can be hard to find, as it prefers to stay hidden high in the canopy of broadleaf woodland. Native to Britain, it has been bullied almost out of existence by the imported grey squirrel. Today, it is seen very rarely in England, although it is still reasonably common in Scotland, and, much to my surprise, here on the Isle of Wight, too, where it is protected from everything but cars, and where the grey squirrel has failed to swim across the Solent. We have managed to spot a few, for a fleeting moment, as they skibble up the trunk of an oak tree or dash along a fence line. There are many signs around the island asking drivers to go slowly, and be aware of the local red squirrels, and their presence has also been widely publicized by the IOW Red Squirrel Trust dedicated to protecting both them and their habitat. In a lovely little church in Newtown, I donated to the charity box and came home with a very sweet knitted squirrel in a crocheted yellow dress and bonnet. Very Beatrix Potter.

Every walk we take, whether it’s a short stroll down to the beach, a strenuous hike along the cliffs, or a meander through the marshes, we are constantly pausing to watch the ducks or the moorhens, bending down to photograph an unknown wildflower or identifying a pretty, floral moon jellyfish that has washed up on the sand. Today, it’s hard to imagine a world on the thirty ninth floor, bereft of wildlife beyond an episode of Life on Earth on the telly.

*With thanks, yet again, to Google, and to the Wrendale website for the lovely photos.

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The Glories of Garlic

“Garlic used as it should be used is the soul, the divine essence, of cookery. The cook who can employ it successfully will be found to possess the delicacy of perception, the accuracy of judgment, and the dexterity of hand which go to the formation of a great artist.” – Mrs. W. G. Waters

As Spring finally arrives, wild garlic has been proliferating all over the Isle of Wight, the multitude of white flowering heads sprinkled thick as snow through woodlands, along the verges and across fields. The National Trust are even using it for wild garlic soup, and apparently the leaves are great in a salad.

I have seen the Garlic Farm mentioned in numerous Isle of Wight publications. Unable to fathom why I would want to visit a farm immersed in the nose-crinkling aroma of garlic, I heard on the grapevine that it has one of the nicest restaurants on the island for lunch. Then I read that it is far more than a mere farm, but a feast of entertainment and education, too. Left to my own devices for a couple of days, while the One & Only trekked up to London, I passed the sign on a quiet country lane and, on a whim, decided to drop in for a visit.

Down the lush green lanes of the Isle of Wight, tucked away from the madding crowd in the glorious Arreton Valley, is a sign on a wall:

‘Stop and smell the garlic – that’s all you have to do’ ~ William Shatner

As I climbed out of the car, my assumptions were proved instantly wrong – there is no strong scent of garlic on the air at all. In the farm yard, old stone farm buildings have been converted into visitor-friendly spaces. There’s the cosy Allium café and a heritage centre that tells the history of the farm and the story of garlic. A large tasting room provides a cornucopia of garlic products, including a couple of unexpectedly spicy (as in achingly hot) offerings. There is even a garlic ice cream, which I may try when the weather is warmer.

Invited to taste the various condiments, I happily wallowed in pickles, chutneys, sauces and jams. Then I walked through the heritage centre and dipped deep into the history of the farm, and the ancient tale of garlic.
Like many foods now common to our tables and our supermarkets, garlic is not a native of England, but travelled west from Central Asia. Closely related to the onion, shallots, leeks and chives, garlic was popular with the Sumerians, and we’re talking three millennia BEFORE Christ. The Ancient Egyptians were aware of its health benefits, in the Talmud, it is believed to be an aphrodisiac. And, of course, it has been at the heart of French culinary culture for centuries. Long held in disdain by the English, we have long mocked our garlic eating neighbours for their strange taste. Today, we know better than to criticize, and English cooking can be grateful for the addition of garlic to a somewhat bland cuisine.

Back on the farm, the Boswell family planted its first garlic crop in 1972 in the kitchen garden. Seeing how well it took to the soil and the climate, Colin Boswell, travelled the world seeking out the history and origins of garlic. Meanwhile, his wife Jenny experimented in the farmhouse kitchen with different garlic varieties in pickles and chutneys. Colin’s travels unearthed some rare and interesting varieties of garlic, many of which are exhibited in a plot below the wildflower meadow. Studying the signs, I discovered that the garlic here comes from as far afield as Japan and China, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Turkey and Siberia, and as close as Italy and Spain. And, not surprisingly, there are several types from regional in France. Today, the Garlic Farm boasts at least fifteen varieties of peripatetic garlic and it has become the UK’s largest specialist garlic grower.

As we all know, garlic has a characteristic pungent, spicy flavor that mellows and sweetens – caramelizes almost -with cooking, particularly if you roast it. Garlic is essential to many cultures, and there are some six hundred varieties to choose from. It is popular across Asia, predominant in Arabic cooking, popular around the Mediterranean. Think hummus, shawarma, tzatziki, aioli…

In a nod to ancient British prejudices, the farm’s blog admits that ‘garlic does make your breath smell and although there are some ways to mitigate the effects, it’s not always possible to remove it completely.’ It seems there is a particular compound in garlic that our bodies find difficult to assimilate. That notoriously scented compound is therefore forced to exit via the breath, pores and perspiration. This may only be a problem for the English – other garlic-loving nations couldn’t seem to care less – but there are ways to reduce the effect on your breath if it bothers you:
• Drink plenty of water, as this will flush it quickly through the system
• Eat a chocolate coated coffee bean – and smell of coffee instead
• Chew on some fresh parsley, mint or apples
• Drink a glass of full cream milk

Do bear in mind that a little bad breath may just be worth the great flavour. After all, is it any worse than coffee or raw onions?
Not only does garlic improve the taste of a wide variety of dishes, but many claim it has medicinal value, too. During World War I – before penicillin – garlic was used as an antiseptic to clean wounds and prevent gangrene. It is commonly believed that garlic consumption can reduce some types of cancer, high blood pressure and blood clots, not to mention deterring vampires. It may improve cholesterol levels and boost the immune system to deter the common cold. Apparently, crushed garlic in warm water will heal mouth ulcers and prevent insomnia. Whether any of this has been proved, I haven’t been able to ascertain, but it is nonetheless heartening, if only as a placebo effect. On another level, garlic is also a natural fungicide that, if grown in tandem with other crops can repel many unwanted visitors such as aphids. Also, garlic, if allowed to flower, will attract bees.

Who would have thought there was so much to learn about garlic? And there’s more…

I also learned that there are two different garlic families: soft-necks and hard-necks. Soft-necks refer to the soft stem and these types do not flower, but produce smaller, tightly-packed cloves, and prefer living closer to the equator. The flowering kind produces a ‘scape’ or ‘rocambole’- a flowering head – that is generally picked off early to maximise the growth of the edible bulb. The scape can also be turned into a culinary treat: sautée it in butter or add it to soups or stews.

Tips on storing garlic include hanging them up in a dry place – do not refrigerate or seal in plastic. And there are methods to plait or ‘grappe’ your garlic cloves so they keep longer – and look prettier!

The Garlic Farm is quite the family business. Daughter Natasha has written two books on cooking with garlic and how to get the most of its amazing health benefits. Daughter Josephine and son Hugo run the Garlic Farm Field Kitchen, a mobile catering service for events, shows and music festivals where garlic is the star turn on the menu.

Fancy a farm holiday? There are six beautiful stone holiday cottages on the property to rent. And in the field above the restaurant, there is a terrific little playground for smaller kids which made me wish I was still three feet high. I followed a walking path through fields of wildflowers, past the pine plantation and into the woods, where I found a nursery: two Highland cows feeding their calves in the shade. I left them in peace to wanderback to the restaurant and shop. There are several options for longer walks which I will explore next time, but I was keen to explore the shop now, and my stomach was calling quite loudly for lunch…

In the extensive farm shop, I collected some terrific garlic products. There is also a wide selection of other Isle of Wight products here, such as cheeses and gins. Then, well-armed with gifts for my friends – and me – I decided it was time for coffee. I found a peaceful spot on the terrace, in the sun, and took the time to sip slowly and enjoy the ambiance and the view. Eventually, I ordered myself a glass of rosé and a bowl of garlic button mushrooms doused in garlic cream, accessorized with a colourful array of baby tomatoes and served with soft, fresh bread and butter. Ingredients have been locally sourced wherever possible, and of course garlic plays a prominent role in the menu.

I also read a great little handbook about growing your own garlic, where I was assured that growing garlic is easy and can be grown year-round in mild climates. In England, many varieties are planted in the autumn and harvested in late spring or early summer. (NB: plant them deep in the ground to keep them cosy and warm over winter. You don’t want them to freeze or they rot or go mouldy.) To save drowning you in detail here, the booklet is available in the shop.

If you need some inspiration for cooking with garlic, indulge in a cookbook. And in the meantime, here are a few simple suggestions :

• cut the top off the garlic bulb, coat the cloves by dribbling olive oil (or other oil-based seasoning) over them, and roast them in an oven. Garlic softens and can be extracted from the cloves by squeezing the (root) end of the bulb, or individually by squeezing one end of the clove. Spread on toast, mixed with freshly diced tomato for a Spanish style bruschetta.

• immature scapes are tender and edible. They are also known as “garlic spears”, “stems”, or “tops”. Scapes generally have a milder taste than the cloves. They are often used in stir frying or sautéed like asparagus.

• garlic leaves are a popular vegetable in many parts of Asia. The leaves are cut, cleaned, and then stir-fried with eggs, meat, or vegetables.

• peeled garlic cloves can be bottled in vinegar and stored in the fridge to create pickled garlic, and garlic infused oil is great to season pasta sauces and salads.

And if you are looking for something different to do in the summer, there is even a Garlic Festival here in August.

*With thanks to Google Pics for the images of the garlic flowers and the roast garlic. The Garlic farm snap is my own.

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Wight Wines

The first time we visited Adgestone Vineyard, it was mid-winter. The air was still. The vines were sleeping. The car park was empty. As we got out of our car, we were greeted with fervent enthusiasm by two incredibly fluffy bantams, who came galloping down the hill towards us with delighted clucking. Our new feathered tour guides accompanied us to the cellar door, then took us inside to meet Josh, who introduced them as Lucky and Margaret. They hung around, constantly interrupting our conversation with cheeky demands for snacks.

Sadly, both Margaret and Lucky have been lost to God and a hungry fox since we last popped by, but Stanley and Kevin, a pair of young goats with a penchant for taco chips, are still entertaining visitors with their childish antics. Kevin – or was it Stanley? – clambered right into the manger for his lunch, and then spent five minutes trying to shake off the pieces of hay that were clinging to his legs, looking like a confused rapper.

Adgestone is a tiny hamlet on a narrow country road that runs beneath Brading Down on the Isle of Wight. A sign at the entrance to Upper Adgestone Road asks that you drive no more than 15 mph as this is a ‘quiet road’. This is a subtle suggestion to pernicious drivers to slow down and keep an eye out for walkers, cyclists and wildlife on narrow, winding and poorly surfaced rural lanes. I slow down and feel the urge to whisper. Over the hedge on our left, about half a mile across the fields, lies the Brading Roman Villa, discovered in 1879 by a local farmer. In front of us, we can see vines crawling up a slope almost as steep as those we have seen along the Moselle.

On his chatty, informative website, Russell Broughton tells how he took on the vineyard, on a whim, after twenty-six years of working as an engineer. With no previous experience of wine making or viticulture, or even running a small café, Russell decided to throw caution to the winds and take the plunge anyway.
It took two years to set up a loan for the venture, but at last, in July 2013 he sailed off into the sunset – almost literally – leaving the mainland and a mainstream lifestyle behind.

Adgestone Vineyard had a good reputation in the 1970s, but forty years on, it needed barrels of TLC. Despite loads of enthusiasm, Broughton doubtless faced a learning curve as steep as his new vineyard, but he jumped in feet first. The building, containing café, cellar and cellar door, was thoroughly refurbished, and around 3000 young vines were planted that year, with no expectation of a harvest for the next four or five years. By the end of the first year, before and after photos show the winery already looking far less shabby.

I have already visited Adgestone two or three times, for a tasting or a light lunch in the cosily rustic café, and there is always a warm welcome – not only from the chooks! But this time – a blue but rather brisk spring day – I am keen to do the winery tour. Complete with map and headset, I wander through the vines, pausing occasionally to enjoy the wonderful views down the neat rows of early budding vines, over the neighbouring fields and down to the sea at Sandown, where huge container ships and ferries head in an orderly manner towards Southampton. It looks like a life-sized game of Battleships.

We know that the Romans brought viticulture to England over 2000 years ago, and with the Roman Villa lower down the hill, it seems fair to assume that they would have planted vines on these south-facing, chalky slopes. Due to several historic upheavals – Viking’s devastating villages and vineyards in the 8th century, Normans replanting them in the 11th century, and the abolition of the monasteries in the 16th century killing off viticulture for a second time – wine making in England pretty much disappeared until the mid-20th century.

Many of the grape varieties at Adgestone originate in Germany for the sensible reason that these are already known to thrive in a similar climate. South Australian winemakers have made the same connection and have been having a whole lot of fun experimenting with Mediterranean grape varieties, doubtless suited to our hot, dry climate better than the original northern European varieties.

More familiar with grape varieties from Italy, Spain and southern France, these cold climate grapes – many of them new hybrids created in the last thirty years – are unknown to me. Phoenix, Bacchus, Regent, Rondo, Orion, Pinot Noir, Schönburger, Seyval Blanc. Great names that roll round your mouth like marbles And then there are the non-grape based wines made from fruit and flowers foraged from the hedgerows or the veggie patch: elderflower and blackberry, rhubarb and root ginger. I like the idea of serving these sweeter wines icy cold on a hot, sunny afternoon, but I could also imagine warming the ginger wine to subdue a dose of Man Flu.

Juggling handbag, map and headset, I dutifully follow the designated route up the hill and around the vines, where soft, newborn leaves are beginning to unfurl. As I stroll, I am given plenty of useful tips for starting my own vineyard. I learn about a ‘double guyot’ (a vine training system to maximize exposure to the sun) and why I should prune the vines ruthlessly for maximum yield. I discover why not watering the vines ensures deeper roots, broader leaves and more fruit. I learn that grapes used for the blush (rosé) are lightly pressed immediately after picking and then strained to prevent too much colour and tannin leaching into the juice. I hear about bentonite and sulphur and yeasts and proteins. It is a thorough and comprehensible chemistry lesson for a girl who failed year 10 chemistry with a staggering 33%. Having inspected the cellars, the wine press and the fermentation tanks, I am ready to emerge into daylight and taste the products of all this creativity and hard work.

Currently, there are nine wines on the list, including the four made from fruits other than grapes. The blush is apparently out of stock (it had already sold out by Christmas last year), but the new batch will be ready sometime this month, so I must remember to drop in again in two or three weeks. Meanwhile, there are two dry whites, and a red to taste, as well as the sweeter fruit wines. There is also an expensive and startlingly blue bubbly, aptly named ‘Something Blue’ that is not available for tasting, but may force me to rethink my aversion to blue foods. (Remember Bridget Jones’ soup? Not to mention blue Smarties.)

Adgestone’s Dry Wight (please note the spelling and, yes, of course it’s intentional) is made with Phoenix grapes, the style reminiscent of a crisp sauvignon blanc. The grape stems are added during fermentation to enhance the citrus flavour, Josh tells me. He then explains how natural sulphides protect the wines for a longer shelf life but can mask the flavours, and shows me a party trick to overcome this: take a mouthful of wine, lean over, and slurp the wine noisily to the back of your mouth. I highly recommend you practice this at home first, or you may end up choking and spraying wine over your companions, but it is a surprisingly effective technique to better appreciate the flavours in the wine. This dry white is refreshing and bright – good for a warm afternoon by the beach or in the garden – and apparently excellent with cheese or a carbonara.
The Oaked Wight, Josh assures me, is only very lightly oaked, but I have never minded a bit of oak. And the slurping trick makes it more pronounced. This wine is a blend of four grapes – Bacchus, Schönburger, Phoenix and Seyval Blanc. As the wine rolls over my tongue, there are delicate notes of buttered toast, and the wine notes suggest it would be good with white fish or chicken. Oak and all, I am taking at least one of these home with me.

Then onto the red wine, which is surprisingly full-bodied for an English red. The taste doesn’t linger terribly long, but while it does, there is time to notice an earthy, almost peaty flavour with a whisky-like smokiness, a comfortable amount of tannin and plenty of soft fruits (blackcurrant, blackberry) that would do justice to a barbecued steak or roast lamb. This wine is made from Rondo grapes with a splash of Regent, neither of which I know much about. Rondo, a dark-skinned grape variety, was created in Czechoslovakia in 1964. Specifically designed for the northern Europe climate, it makes a dark red wine, like a Czech garnet. Regent is also a relatively new grape: a Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau cross popular in England and Germany.

Before I leave, I pop over to say goodbye to Kevin and Stanley, and peek inside the rather gorgeous gypsy caravan that was built last summer with thoughts of overnight guests. Our daughter, much taken with the idea of minimizing our carbon footprint and building a compact container home, would love it, although I suspect the lack of bathroom might prove troublesome, at least for us ladies!

All done, but I will definitely be back later in the month to try the Blush, perhaps accompanied by my favourite tasting platter, on the lawn, in the sun…

*With thanks to Adgestone Vineyard website for the lovely photo of Margaret. Mine was hopeless!

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A Bird’s Eye View

And I dream I’m an eagle
And I dream I can spread my wings
Flying high, high, I’m a bird in the sky
I’m an eagle that rides on the breeze.
High, high, what a feeling to fly
Over mountains and forests and seas
And to go anywhere that I please. ~ABBA

This weekend I finally realized a childhood dream and got to fly a plane. The flight was a birthday gift from the One & Only, and I have been anticipating a clear, warm day with increasing impatience. This Easter weekend, the sky was blue, and the temperature was at last resembling something Spring-like. I called the flight instructor on Friday and made a booking.

We have driven around, across and over the Isle of Wight several times already. The One & Only is on a mission to circumnavigate it by foot. He also hopes to sail around it one day. (Yes, I will go with him, but only if I can lounge around with a glass of bubbles and no one expects me to do stuff with ropes.) We could cycle around it or join the International Scooter Rally (the Vesper Festival?) on a motorbike, but I loathe pedalling up hills, and nor do I fancy the crowds at a motorbike rally. I would rather take to the clouds and fly around the Isle of Wight. Like an eagle.

Admittedly, the plane I am proposing to fly is a far cry from a Boeing 747 or even a Cessna, but a flighty, light-as-a-feather Microlight. Jon Thornburgh, a microlight pilot I discovered on the internet, describes a Microlight as “seat of the pants” flying, which I find slightly disturbing. And my flight instructor is no more reassuring, as he outlines the differences between Microlights and larger aircraft.

Many microlights have very little instrumentation, most do not even have a compass. So, it’s risky to fly through cloud, or at night time. In other words, just don’t. A Microlight is also quite a bit slower than a regular plane. However, due to its relative simplicity, the licensing regulations for both pilots and aircraft are less stringent than for conventional light aircraft. I guess that’s a good thing. It certainly allows for a slightly cheaper hobby.
As its name suggests, the Microlight is incredibly light – it’s made of fiberglass – which means you can manoeuvre it around an airfield with a gentle push. It also means there’s a weight issue: there’ll be no squeezing an elephant into the back of this Mini. And it makes the Microlight more susceptible to the elements, so be prepared for a bit of bouncing about on the breeze.

As I was soon to discover, my perfect spring day was not necessarily the best time for a smooth ride. Contrary to popular belief – well, mine, anyway – winter is the best time to fly, as long as you have a decent coat. Firstly, there are no thermals to contend with – these are what creates the trampoline effect – so your flight will be much calmer and smoother. There will also be greater visibility. Whereas Brighton and Bournemouth are both a murky blur on the horizon on this hazy April afternoon, crisp, clear winter skies allow for 100-mile visibility. In winter, you are also less likely to run into a thunderstorm – unless you forgot to heed that looming mass of black cloud – and there will be fewer small aircraft to contend with.

A slightly less reassuring piece of information: the Microlight comes apart like Lego (my word not his) and can likewise be put back together with very little effort, so it can be maintained by unlicensed mechanics. If you are good at Lego. Hmmm.

Before I left home, I was pleased to read on a website that Microlighting has advanced so much over the last twenty years that it has become the safest and most affordable form of motorised flight in the UK. And much to my relief, I would not be flying in one of those one-seater, open-to-the-elements, glorified-paraglider-type microlights or gyrocopters, but a real plane with wings, two seats and a door you can shut. Albeit a small one. The Smart Car of aviation.

When ABBA released ‘ABBA: The Album’ in 1977, I fell in love with the first song, Eagle. The music swooped and soared like an airborne raptor, and likewise my imagination took flight. If I couldn’t have my own wings, I would fly a plane, I decided at the tender age of ten. Well, over the intervening years I have flown in many larger, commercial aircraft, and some not-so-large ones, but this will be the first time anyone has offered to let me take the controls. I am already ten feet in the air with anticipation.

Back down on the tarmac, I climb into the driver’s seat. Pilot’s seat. Aiden and I have a brief chat about the controls, then I pose for a photo or two. While I am awfully excited to try flying the aircraft myself, I am also a little relieved to learn that Aiden can take back control of the plane the moment the going gets tough – or I just want to take some photos. Then, as if dancing a Scottish Reel, Aiden and Number 2 Son twirl the little plane around, manually, towards the runway. At last we are off.

In seconds, we are bumping across the grass and onto the AstroTurf landing strip (it can get very wet and boggy at Sandown). A few seconds more, and we are airborne, high above the golf course next door, and heading east towards Bembridge.

Exhilarating, breath-taking, intoxicating, enthralling. I have scoured Roget’s Thesaurus for the perfect word. Put them all together and you may come close to the sense of freedom and joy of soaring through the sky in a plane barely bigger than a ladybird. We fly up to 3,000 feet, and across the Solent towards Chichester, following the coastline past Portsmouth and Hayling Island, where a rash of umbrellas and beach towels has sprung up along the sand during this exceptionally warm Easter weekend. We loop around and back towards the Isle of Wight. We soar past Southampton Water, ducking below the commercial air traffic route and dodging a mighty Spitfire by the skin of our teeth, who is too busy showing off its highfalutin’ tricks to pay attention to a sparrow-sized Microlight.

I have the controls at this point, which is probably why Aiden seems a bit edgy and less-than-impressed with the slapdash attitude of our unobservant aeronautical gymnast. I am thrilled, however, far too much of an amateur enthusiast to appreciate our near-death experience – and far too busy trying to fly a three-dimensional Smart Car in a straight-ish line through choppy thermals to worry about a clever-clogs Spitfire.

A microlight is a far more sensitive beast than I had imagined, and the joystick responds instantly to the slightest touch. As the actress said to the bishop. Which is fine, once I understand that it does not work like a stick shift on a manual truck.

We fly over the estuary at Newtown, and a flotilla of sailing boats, where last week there were half a dozen… turning left at Yarmouth, we fly through the narrow gap between Hurst Point Lighthouse on the mainland and the Cliff Point Battery on the north-western tip of the island… and then we are flying south-west towards the best possible view of the Needles. Then it’s “second to the right, and straight on till morning”, or more sensibly, another sharp left-turn and straight on towards Blackgang and Saint Catherine’s Lighthouse, following the cliffs below Military Road. The Isle of Wight spreads out below us, an irregular green and yellow patchwork, trimmed by a turquoise sea. The last leg back to Sandown takes us over Ventnor and Shanklin, before we swoop back over the golf course and the Alverstone Garden Village and glide gently down… landing with a rough sashay on the knurly airfield.

There is an unexpected sense of anti-climax at suddenly finding myself grounded again. Hedgerows and buildings rush up to meet me in sharp contrast to the enormous expanse of sky only minutes before, as we skittered above the sea. We drive up to Culver Down, so I can reluctantly re-acclimatize. I may never get to loop-the-loop in a Spitfire, but I can’t wait to fly a Microlight again.

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Contemplating Island Life

“Nights and days came and passed, and summer and winter and the rain. And it was good to be a little Island. A part of the world, and a world of its own, all surrounded by the bright blue sea.” ~ Margaret Wise Brown, The Little Island

There is something mystical, magical and utterly captivating about an island. Particularly a small one like the Isle of Wight. Acquiescent in its geographical limits, yet baffling in its sense of ‘otherness,’ its sense of isolation from a more consequential mainland.

The Isle of Wight continues to confound me. A microcosm of the ‘North Island’ – England – it embraces Dover’s white cliffs and Gloucestershire’s wolds. It has an abundance of rural villages dotted with stone cottages bewigged in thatch. Winding country lanes are trimmed with hawthorn hedges, now covered in an avalanche of white blossom. Mile upon mile of walking paths cling precariously to the coastline, skirt wetlands, clamber up rolling hillsides, cross fields inundated with wildflowers. Of course, being an island, there are beaches galore, sandy or pebbled, and even a Brighton style pier. From almost every angle there are wonderful views across hills and valleys or out to sea. And of course everything is only a moment away…

On Sunday, on a sudden whim, we headed across the island to visit Mottistone Manor, an Elizabethan estate in the picturesque village of the same name. It is a National Trust property, although only the gardens are open to the public. The house was apparently the venue for the wedding of Benedict Cumberbatch to director Sophie Hunter in 2015.

Mottistone is only a mile and a half from the south-west coast of the Isle of Wight, tucked into a secluded valley in the hills below the Downs.  It is early spring, and the formal gardens are looking sparse, but will come into their own later in the year. These gardens have been redesigned using plants common to the Mediterranean and drier areas of the southern hemisphere, to ensure less water is needed to maintain them. This not only came about because a previous lady of the manor was Sicilian, but because the Isle of Wight is not self-sufficient during summer, and must bring water from the mainland, through pipes beneath the Solent.

Meanwhile, the wilder side of the garden is awash with well-known English plants: azaleas, rhododendrons and camelias, heavy with dark pink flowers. Across the grassy banks is a profusion of daffodils and narcissi. Magnolia buds are on the verge of blooming. In the orchard, fruit trees look positively bridal in white and pink blossom, the grass beneath carpeted with primroses. A hillside grove of young olive trees overlooks the kitchen garden.

The house itself is a grey stone manor reminiscent of my favourite National Trust property, Ightham Mote without the moat, and I am sorry not to get a peek inside.

Further up the valley, we discover woodlands on the cusp of bursting into a full-throated chorus of bluebells. We plan to come back in a week or two to see them at full throttle. Leaving the woods through a kissing gate, we follow a steep, sunken path uphill. As the path emerges onto Castle Hill, we are confronted by a pair of ancient stones:  a megalithic standing stone or menhir made from local sandstone four metres high, with a smaller one lying at its foot. It is said thy were dislodged by the Saxons and, later moved by a nineteenth century squire, so that today they no longer stand where they are thought to have been originally planted: at the entrance to a nearby Neolithic burial ground, or possibly as part of a druid temple. The National Trust website suggests that ‘moot’ is Saxon for meeting, and it seems probable that the menhir provided a meeting point for the Saxons, and that Mottistone is a corruption of Moot Stone.

On this cold and blustery hilltop, trudging among gorse bushes, we enjoy glorious views of the Highdown cliffs and coastline towards Freshwater Bay to the north west, and St Catherine’s Hill to the south east. Apparently, there are also the remains of Bronze Age barrows and an Iron Age enclosure, but we don’t go in search of them today, as the wind is chilly, and drives up back down into Mottistone Gardens for a warming hot chocolate at the tea shop.

By the tea rooms, we find The Shack, once a rural retreat for architects Seely & Paget, complete with drawing boards, a basic kitchen, a small bathroom and two cabin bunks under the eaves. Built in the 1930s it is an unusual example of Modern Movement design, a precursor of the tiny house movement so popular today.  Mottistone Manor was completely remodelled the 1920s by this architectural firm. The ‘Seely’ of Seely and Paget was the second Baron Mottistone and the great-grandson of Charles Seely who bought the house and estate in 1861.

*

For the foodies, there are many eating experiences to enjoy on the Isle of Wight: a plethora of pubs; two vineyards and a gin distillery; armfuls of farm shops and seaside cafés, even a garlic farm. Not too shabby for a tiny island only 23 miles by 13 miles!

My favourite eating spot this week is over in the north west of the island, only a fifteen minute drive from Mottistone. Beside Thorley Brook at the back end of Yarmouth, is the old railway station. Once part of the island rail network, the station first opened in July 1889. Unfortunately, like many other lines on the Isle of Wight, the Freshwater-Yarmouth-Newport railway, was never a financial success, and it finally closed down in 1953. For fifty years the station building housed the Yarmouth Youth Club. It was sold in 2010, when the original building was carefully renovated and decorated with a railway theme. It opened as a restaurant in 2014. The aptly named ‘Off the Rails’ now provides sustenance to walkers, cyclists, holidaymakers and locals who pass along the disused railway track that is now a path along the Yar to Freshwater.

A row of banquettes in green and grey line up along the back wall to form booths, like the old British Rail compartments we haven’t seen since the 1980s. I spot a child’s model steam train on a roof beam, another perching on a window sill. Black and white photos illustrate the history of the Yarmouth to Newport line.  A pile of old leather cases is stacked at one end of the room, more lie on old BritRail luggage racks above the banquettes. On our table squats an antique inspection lamp.

There are several outdoor tables on Platform 1, overlooking the marshes towards Thorley. Thorley Brook provides entertainment from ducks and other water birds, and there is plenty of space for dogs and children to play.  On a summer’s day, the multiple bi-fold doors across the front of the café open out onto the platform.

Open from Wednesday to Sunday, 9am-4pm, and Saturday night from 6-10pm, Off the Rails provides separate menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner with many nods to this railway themed diner: a Controller’s Chowder loaded with seafood; the Yardmaster’s fabulous carbonara with pork belly and freshly made pasta served up in a wooden bowl; Firebox fishcakes, moist and fresh and  rolled in charcoaled coconut crumbs to resemble coal; a Trackside fish’n’chip butty, and Furnace, a smoked mackerel bruschetta, to name but a few. Anything take your fancy? Till now, I have only popped in for lunch, but if the rest is as good as the meals we have sampled, no one will suffer from a lack of tasty offerings. I also like the fact that the kitchen does not cater to the usual notion of a kids menu full of fried food and carbs but simply provides smaller samples of the adult menu.

In addition, there are some very British events held on the premises from time to time. Fawlty Towers, Allo Allo, the Pink Panther and a Murder mystery are all on the menu this year.

Best of all, after you have eaten your fill, you can walk it off with a stroll through town or out along the cycling path. Bon appétit!

*With thanks to the National Trust website for photos of Mottistone and the Downs, and to Son #2 for the snap of his carbonara.

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Tasting Sherry in Andalucía

Three birthdays, two wedding anniversaries and a long weekend of celebrating in Spain led to chronic indigestion and border-line alcohol poisoning, but we had a ball. We also got to spend a day in Jerez learning all about sherry.

Remember that pre-dinner drink our grandparents enjoyed in tiny, egg-cup sized glasses? British wine writer Jancis Robertson once described sherry as a “neglected wine treasure”. In Andalucía, however, it is a drink for all seasons, where it is poured generously into wine glasses and quaffed with your meal.

Sherry is produced in the hot and sunny south-west corner of Spain, in the region around Jerez de la Frontera. Like Champagne and Burgundy it has recently reclaimed its name as belonging only to that drink made in this south-west triangle of Spain. This ‘protected designation of origin status’ was the first of its kind in Spain.

The name Jerez is a derivation of the original Arabic name for the town. Originally known in England as sac from the Spanish word for extraction, saca, the English later anglicized Jerez  to form the name of the drink: sherry.

After touring three different bodegas in Jerez, we are now experts on sherry, and yes, I did take notes so that I could share all my new-found knowledge with you. Although, I have to admit, by the third bodega, my ability to analyse the sherries with a modicum of clarity or take intelligible notes was long gone. Lucky, then, that we had a driver and there was no need for any of us to get behind a wheel.

The origins of this particular wine region go way back to more than a thousand years before Christ. It was the Phoenicians who first popped into Spain in 1,100 BC, bringing gifts of grape vines and olive trees. Perhaps not gifts exactly: they set up a flourishing trading post in Cadiz. The Greeks dropped by later to show the locals how to sweeten the wine with unfermented grape syrup. When they claimed the Iberian Peninsula for themselves, around 200 BC, the Romans generously continued the local tradition of wine-making. Settling in for a mere seven centuries, they made quite a successful commercial business of exporting wine throughout the Roman Empire.

Then, in 711 AD the Moors arrived from North Africa. As Muslims, the Moors were teetotal. Nonetheless, they were well-versed in wine-making and also introduced the art of distillation for creating crude fortified wines, a precursor to sherry.

In 966 AD, the somewhat sanctimonious Caliph of Córdoba ordered the destruction of the vineyards. The townspeople caused a riot, declaring that their vineyards also produced raisins to feed the Caliph’s soldiers. The Caliph kindly reconsidered, and his change of heart came in time to spare two-thirds of the vineyards. (Many centuries later, as tastes for sherry has waned, these vineyards would be reduced still further – from 22,00 hectares to a mere 7,000 in the 21st century.)

It took eight hundred years for the Spanish to oust the Moors and reclaim the Iberian Peninsula. They immediately set to work to flex their new-found muscle and spread their territories across the Atlantic, claiming large slices of South America. Cadiz became a primary port for exploration and colonisation, and the ships setting sail for the New World were often better stocked with wine than guns.

The wines from Jerez had, in the meantime, had become popular abroad. England was particularly fond of the Spanish ‘sack,’ as it was known, at least till the English broke with Rome over Henry VIII’s divorce from his Spanish Queen Katherine of Aragon. Such an insult to the Spanish King, the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church made the English merchants personae non gratae on the Iberian Peninsula for several decades.

In 1587, however, Drake sacked Cadiz and destroyed the Spanish Armada. He claimed 2,900 barrels of sherry as a portion of his winner’s prize and proudly presented it to Queen Elizabeth’s Court.  The Queen loved it, and thanks to such royal favour, sherry once again became popular in England. Even Shakespeare thought it worth a brief acknowledgement. In Henry IV, Falstaff states dramatically that ‘if I had a thousand sons… I would teach them… to forswear thin potations and addict themselves to sack.’ Sack, or sherry, would gain such recognition in England, that many of the Jerez cellars would later be founded by British companies – does Bristol Cream Sherry ring any bells? By the end of the 16th century, Jerez wines were again being exported across Europe and were considered by admirers to be the world’s finest wine.

The fortification of wine into sherry seems to have been something of a lucky accident. During the nineteenth century, wines from Jerez began to be upstaged by Porto’s fortified wines. Spanish merchants were left with excess stock that they could only move in small amounts. The solera blending system developed – I’ll give a more detailed explanation of this later – to top up little used wine barrels. It was soon discovered that this had a remarkable effect on the flavour and aroma the wines, not to mention creating a more consistent profile. Adding brandy, as the Portuguese did to strengthen their ports, also proved a good tip, and oloroso came into being. Thus, centuries of colonisation and exploratory vinification have resulted in a wide variety of splendid sherries.

Enough history. Let’s get on with the tasting!

Our first stop was to Bodegas Lustau, which was established in the late 19th century by José Berdejo. In the 1940s, he was joined by his son-in-law Emilio Lustau, who expanded the business considerably. Lustau is now one of the world’s most reliable sherry brands, easily recognisable by its black, smooth-shouldered bottles. It also claims to produce the largest range of sherries. I had certainly never realized there were so many different types.

Driving into the centre of the city, we were met by our guide, a long-term English expatriate, Together, we entered the cobbled courtyard behind the grand front gates. Inside, we wandered through Cathedral-like halls where some 2000 black wooden barrels were stacked three high in rows that seemed to stretch for miles. The barrels are painted black so that leaks can be seen more easily. Unlike winemakers, sherry producers are keen to avoid wood flavours in the wine, so a new barrel will be used to ferment wine or age whisky for up to 10 years to reduce the woodiness, before it is used for ageing sherry, especially the more delicate varieties. The sherry might then remain in the barrels for anything up to 30 years, and the barrel itself may be in use for a century or more. Bodegas will therefore stockpile old staves and hoops should the barrels get damaged.

It is necessary to keep the barrels cool in this hot climate, so the ceilings rise fourteen metres high, and the walls of the buildings are extra thick. It is also important to keep the air circulating, so there is no glass in the windows, only shutters, which are closed when the ‘levant’ (hot wind) blows through. The floor consists of locally quarried sand that is packed down and watered weekly (more often in summer) which creates natural air conditioning and humidity.

The first sherry we meet is fino, which is made from palomino grapes. Palomino makes up about 95% of the region’s harvest, as it is used for most sherry styles, including amontillado and oloroso. Two other grape varieties – Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel – are used for sweeter sherries that are often preferred in northern Europe over the drier styles.

Harvested in August, the grapes are fermented into a base white wine and then fortified over winter. During fermentation, the barrels are not filled to the top, allowing air and space for a layer of natural yeast to form on the surface of the wine that protects it from oxidisation. Barrels can therefore be uncorked, to check the development of the sherry.

Making sherry involves a system known as solera, which means floor in Spanish. Stacked three barrels high, bottling occurs from the bottom up. As each lower barrel is partially emptied, it is topped up from the barrel – or nursery – above, in a cascade-like effect that also feeds the yeasts with fresh nutrients. This method of blending ensures every bottle tastes the same. Also, as the different batches mingle, the resulting sherry becomes more mature, but at the same time adds a freshness to this older wine. Thus, sherry bottles will not usually carry a specific vintage year and can contain a small proportion of very old wine.

After fermentation, the base wine is fortified with grape spirit, raising their final alcohol content from 15.5 – 18% depending on the style. Those at the higher end of the alcohol chain do not develop yeast and therefore oxidise a little as they age, giving them a darker colour. As the fortification takes place after fermentation, most sherries are initially very dry, and any sweetness is added later. In contrast, port is fortified halfway through its fermentation, which stops the process so that not all the sugar is turned into alcohol.

The barrels, originally made from chestnut, are now made from white American oak, the older the better, to ensure minimum oak influence. For the sweeter sherries, the need to keep the barrels cool is not so significant. Natural sugars are increased with one of two methods: either late harvesting or drying the grapes in the sun after picking. Each style of sherry therefore develops different characteristics.

Fino can be incredibly, tongue-curlingly dry, and sometimes almost salty. There is an aroma of sandalwood and honey. Puerto fino smells like popcorn and tastes like hot buttered toast. It is a real mouthful of flavour.

Amontillado, a fortified fino, goes through a double aging process that makes it much more complex.  It can be as dry as fino but it smells – and looks – like caramel. With a definite nutty flavour (think hazelnuts) it goes well with pecorino cheese or wild mushrooms.  An Italian friend immediately planned a dinner with mushroom risotto.

Olorosso, has a strong whiff of the chemical, combined with an unexpected woodiness in both aroma and flavour. Our guide recommended a strong cheese or osso buco to accompany it.

At the sweeter end of the scale, the sherries are dark, and taste more like tokay without a tokay’s long finish. Think Christmas pudding, plums, brandy, golden syrup, liquid gold…

These sweeter sherries pour like olive oil, with a viscosity that gives it ‘legs’ – a thick trail of wine that seems to flow down the inside of the glass like honey. These have proved much more popular than the dry sherries among northern European drinkers, although personally, I prefer the drier styles.

The second bodegas we visited was also near the centre of Jerez. Diez-Merito was established in the 19th century. It stayed with the family until 1979. In 2016, it was bought by the Espinosa family, who added new vineyards, and established the cellar door in a lovely old building that dates to 1760. Our guide is a tall, lean Spanish woman who walks and talks at high speed in a thick Spanish accent, taking us through the details of sherry production.  By now, as I hear much of this information for the second time, I am starting to feel quite knowledgeable, and nod encouragingly even at what I can’t quite follow. She also proves her point that sherry tastes better with food by sitting us at a vast refectory table and providing plates of tapas to accompany our sherry tasting. Relieved to be off our feet, we cheerfully try more sherry and munch through a selection cheese and meats.

Our final visit was to the Estévez Bodegas y Viñedos. This is a vast, custom built and relatively new bodega on the outskirts of town, although the family has been making sherry since the late nineteenth century. Unlike the previous bodegas, this one uses state of the art technology, and has acquired many other labels over the years.

The entrance is grandiose, the walls lined with family portraits. Our guide is Danish and well-informed. We follow her through cathedral halls where barrels are stacked to the horizon. By now, my taste buds were exhausted, and I really didn’t feel like drinking another drop of sherry. Luckily there were other forms of entertainment here. We were invited to take a peep at the horse stud out the back: beautiful glossy black stallions, tall and temperamental, and the friendlier mares and foals, soft as satin. The Estévez family have also gathered an awe-inspiring collection of mostly Spanish art. This included the entire collection of Picasso’s sketches and a Miro, displayed on a mezzanine gallery above the banqueting hall, where we wandered, agog, unwilling to drag ourselves away.

An outstanding day was finished off with a terrific dinner, and of course more wine. Overindulged? Totally!

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Roma di Nuovo

Rome again. While I have been lucky enough to visit the Eternal City several times, I always seem to land here in the heat of summer. And any city in the height of summer is hell. But this time it is winter, and walking the cobbled streets is a joy when compared to the sweltering, pulsating tourist-laden traffic of July and August.

This time we have an apartment in the burbs, about a thirty-minute walk (or a ten-minute bus ride) to the Coliseum. As we are out of the usual tourist traps, we are having great fun finding local restaurants, where the food is magnificent, the prices moderate and the service warm. The staff are amused but encouraging about at our amateur attempts to speak Italian. It’s the carciofe season and artichokes as large as melons overflow from boxes on the roadside stalls. So, determined to eat seasonally, we order them at every restaurant we visit. The sky is blue and the days are considerably warmer than their northern European counterparts, although I still need a coat. We have an outdoor terrace which catches the afternoon sun, and plenty of rosemary bushes from which to garnish our sundowner gin and tonics. We amble through the city streets, keen to soak up the atmosphere, and stop whenever our legs get weary for a glass of prosecco, or a coffee break. Coffee has vastly improved since we first came to Rome together in 1991, largely because three decades later, we can now afford the coffee in Rome! I still remember the horror of buying a cappuccino near the Vatican that cost us half our daily allowance. Apparently we were also paying for the table. And the view.

As we have all been here before, sightseeing is not really a priority, but eating and drinking is. We indulge in both with marked enthusiasm.

Initially, I struggle to replace my amateur French with my even more amateur Italian, but smiles and windmill arm movements go a long way towards making ourselves understood. We are now experts at jumping on and off the buses, and we have learned not to drink coffee on the postcard piazzas where the prices are exorbitant.

Rome is surprisingly walkable, where every cobbled lane whispers a promise of wondrous art and architecture. I love the early mornings, before the shops open and the crowds fill the streets, and it feels like the city belongs to me. The evenings are fun, too. Although the piazzas are teeming, there is a more relaxed atmosphere as people drift out to dine at tiny tables already swamping the pavements. There is also a distinct lack of beggars and gypsies grabbing for our purses on the Spanish Steps, around the Colosseum, or by the Fontana di Trevi than there were thirty years ago. Perhaps they are just better disguised, or I look less like a tourist than I once did, laden down with my backpack and money belt!

We spend days soaking up the endless Roman ruins, the innumerable churches, the countless statues.

And we finally get to visit Villa Borghese. Originally a country villa in a vineyard on the edge of Rome, Villa Borghese was created in the 17th century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the favourite nephew of Pope Paul V, to house his art collection and his homoerotic orgies, so the legend goes. He also created several acres of park and gardens around the villa. As a patron of the sculptor Bernini, he commissioned several statues from his protégé that have become the real celebrities of his art collection, along with a number of Carvaggio paintings. A greedy and unscrupulous man, the Cardinal was known to go to any lengths to acquire the works of the most renowned artists of the day for his collection: it is a wonderfully flamboyant tale of grasping skulduggery that Shakespeare would have leapt at to furnish the plot for one of his plays. He was not above stealing the works he couldn’t buy and trumping up charges against any dealers who did not accept his offers, and apparently even had Raphael’s Deposition removed from an altar in Perugia.

So, he would be spinning in his grave to know that four centuries later his adored art collection would be acquired for a song from his impecunious descendants.

Napoleon Bonaparte, then Emperor of France, had first pickings from his Borghese brother-in-law, Prince Camillo Borghese, in the early nineteenth century. Napoleon requisitioned almost seven hundred paintings and sculptures from the Prince’s illustrious collection in order to establish a collection of Roman Antiquities for what would become the Musée du Louvre. The Prince was initially reluctant to part with his beloved artwork, which included sculptures and bas reliefs that had been incorporated into the facade of the Villa Borghese. But Bonaparte was determined, and eventually offered almost three times the estimated price (a price that was never fully paid), and the prince caved in.

As a result of this dubious transaction, a law was passed to prevent future generations selling the collection off piecemeal. Sadly, for the family, this plan backfired when one nineteenth century Borghese financial wizard got into such dire straits that he was forced to sell off the house, land and contents to the state for a fraction of its worth.

For the City of Rome, the Romans and the tourists who were to follow, it was an absolute coup. With nowhere near as much effort as Napoleon, who would spend thousands attempting to transport his ill-gotten gains to Paris, we acquired early bird tickets to the Villa, and joined a tour group of only six, headed by an outstanding Italian guide and art historian. Armed with unquenchable enthusiasm and infinite knowledge, (name?) escorted us through the Villa to show off the highlights of this superb collection.

There are numerous paintings by Bellini, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, and Caravaggio, the most notable for me being Caravaggio’s Madonna and Child with Mary’s mother, St Anne. Caravaggio’s penchant for realism went too far for the Church authorities in this case. Depicting a barefoot Madonna with cleavage on abundant display (symbolic of her motherhood), a naked Jesus as toddler (deemed highly inappropriate at the time) and St Anne as an older woman, wrinkled and worn, the painting had been commissioned for St Peter’s Basilica, but was rejected, and ended up in Borghese’s private collection.

But I have a particular love of the three dimensional works: Napoleon’s sister, Pauline Bonaparte, immortalized in marble as Venus by  Italian Neoclassical sculptor, Antonio Canova; Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, and Pluto and Persephone. We also saw a small piece Bernini sculpted in his early teens: The Goat Amalthea with the Infant Jupiter and a Faun is the first known work by the young prodigy.

Scipione obviously didn’t spend as much time and effort on his park as he did on his art collection. Or perhaps it has just been long neglected. This is no Hyde Park. There is a lot of dirt and dust and random trees. But it is a wonderfully large space in the middle of the city, which makes it very popular with dog walkers, cyclists and joggers. We joined the crowds and wandered back into town…

*With thanks to Google images for the pics. (Except the street musicians, which is mine!)

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