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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Simply, Frascati

It is mid-February, and our last day in Rome. The One & Only has caught a cold and is happy to stay in bed, cuddled up with his pillow and the rugby. I leave him to it and take an early train from Roma Termini to Frascati, a hilltop town twelve miles south-east of the city, on the rim of a dormant volcano. The train sweeps through the outer burbs of Roma, following the scattered remains of an Ancient Roman aqueduct that once emptied a lake behind Frascati into the water tanks of the city.

In recent times, several international scientific laboratories have set up home here, but I’m afraid this doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the town’s history and the fact that Frascati produces a popular white wine of the same name.

I have booked a guided tour through Airbnb, with Dominique*. It promises to be a small group – maximum ten – which sounded a  comfortable number.  Dominique hails from California, but has been living in Italy for fifteen years. Once married to a local winemaker, she has helped build up a co-operative of three local vineyards, based at a 16th century artisan winery ten minutes out of Frascati. With an eye on the tourist industry, she has choreographed a crackerjack day out to help promote the region and its wines.

Our motley crew meet up on the platform at Frascati railway station, where our exuberant local guide is waiting for us. Massimo, or Max, is full of amusing and salacious tales, both ancient and modern, about his home town. He is also well-versed about its wines.

We follow him up the staircase from the station to the town. This staircase was once grander than the Spanish steps, until it was heavily bombed by the Americans, towards the end of World War II. Attempting to destroy German headquarters, they unfortunately did plenty of damage to the local population and its buildings, while barely scratching the Germans. Nonetheless, the Germans were eventually elbowed out by the Allies in June 1944. The town and its staircase has been substantially rebuilt since then. We clambered breathlessly to the top of the stairs. Here, looking out over a glorious vista of Rome, we encountered a large company of local ‘blokes’ who gather on the Viale Vittorio Veneto every day to drink coffee or wine, to gossip and, according to Max, to watch the women passing by. He suggests there is more for them to enjoy in summer when the ladies are in shorts!

Frascati, once the Beverley Hills of Rome, became a popular summer resort for Popes, Cardinals and the Roman nobility from the 16th century onwards. It was here, above the sweltering city, that many illustrious citizens built a plethora of extravagant country villas around the rim of the ancient but dormant volcano. Their reward? Stunning views, cool breezes, plenty of quaffable wine.

The name Frascati, according to our guide, comes from the word ‘frasche,’ or branches, which could refer to a medieval trade of collecting firewood from a hillside that was once thickly forested in oak and beech. Later, wine makers would replace this forest with chestnut trees, whose wood was thought better for making wine casks: apparently it has a lighter touch and doesn’t affect the flavour of the wine as heavily as oak. Thus, Frascati is now celebrated for its light, bright white wines rather than its acorn woods.

Frascati is low in alcohol and made from a blend of several local grape varieties. The core is formed by the classic central Italian white wine blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia.  These are mixed with varying degrees of Greco, Bellone and Bombino Bianco and up to 15% of local varietals. It can therefore be a bit tricky to define, but for me, it has a distinct citrusy character, and a gentle aroma of apples and almond blossom. It is not a sophisticated wine, but it is exceedingly drinkable and utterly unpretentious, and goes oh-so-well with the regional dishes. Perfect to sip, chilled, on a warm summer evening, overlooking the vineyards…

Wine making has been popular in Italy since 500B.C. Once upon a time, the grapes came from Greece, and the wines made in Frascati rapidly became popular with the Ancient Romans, who called it ‘golden wine.’ These wines were still a firm favourite with the Popes and Roman nobility of the Renaissance, they would inspire the poets and artists of the 18th and 19th centuries and were acclaimed by ‘La Dolce Vita’ generation of the 1960s. In 1966, Frascati was granted Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status, a quality assurance for Italian wines modelled on the French system, AOC. In 2011, it rose to DOCG  status, the highest quality designation in Italy, requiring producers to follow the strictest wine making regulations.

By 11am we have been given our first taste of a less illustrious local brew. Stored in a plastic gallon container, Max decants it into plastic cups at the local bakery and serves it up with ‘wine biscuits’ for dipping. There is not an ounce of pretension here, but an understated appreciation of the small joys in life. The locals actually prefer the time-honoured tradition of taking their own jugs to the winery and decanting it straight from the barrel, rather than buying it in bottles.

As we nibble on a selection of bakery samples, we chat with its 93-year-old owner, as creased and crunched as a bed sheet on a hot night, yet bright as a button, who still mans a stall at the Frascati market every week and touts her wares like a carnival spruiker. Afterwards, we climb into taxis waiting in the plaza to drive us around to the winery.

Our guide loves to tell apocryphal tales of his fellow Italians and their subversive behaviour. He gleefully explains Italy-according-to-Max, while assuring us we will never read these stories on Google.  He is a born story-teller, and it’s hard to decipher truth from fiction. One story involved hiding the Jews in plain sight from the Germans, by burning all the Frascati birth records so that Jewish residents could not be identified.  Later, from a viewpoint on the city walls, he points out a shell-shaped dome we could see lying on the plains below Frascati. This, he claims, was a swimming pool intended for the Rome Olympics. Money garnered from the EU and the Italian government disappeared without a trace and left an empty swimming pool in its wake, so the competition was moved at the last minute to another complex and other hastily organized venues. I did find something on Google loosely related to this one, but Max’s yarn, as all his yarns that day, made far more scintillating listening!


We arrive at the vineyard around midday, to find an old stone building roofed in terracotta tiles, and a courtyard dotted with lemon trees in large tubs. A future project to make limoncello or gin perhaps? This vineyard has been run by the same family for seven generations, and one of the current owners comes out to meet us, accompanied by Dominique. He is keen to share his knowledge and speaks in soft but rapid Italian, fondling the bare vines as he talks, barely giving Dominique time to translate. Nino and his brother run the vineyard together, and despite their seventy plus years, they do almost everything by hand.

While many modern vineyards are using up-to-date techniques and technology, here, wine making must rely heavily on traditional methods and hours of manual labour to qualify for the DOCG recognition, which allows neither chemical fertilizers or technology. They are even forbidden to irrigate the plants. As in olden times, the grapevines are planted in a sloping crease of the hill to catch any rain, while the vines are trellised to create a canopy of leaves, shading the grapes from the sun, and retaining as much moisture as possible. Around the edge of the vineyard there are five hundred olive trees more than four centuries old. All the pruning, of both vines and trees, is done by Nino and his brother, who jealously guard this vital role.

We wander through the sleeping winter vines, nudged by the girdle of olive groves. The soil here is well drained and largely volcanic, which makes it incredibly fertile and creates prolific harvests. The volcanic ash also makes the soil porous and rich in potassium, which gives the wine a noticeable mineral flavour. Many of the vineyards in this region, including this one, have cellars dug out of the volcanic rock, ideal for storing the wine.

Nino’s wine cellars are hidden beneath the 16th century farmhouse. A narrow tunnel, dug into the porous black rock, slopes gently downwards, the temperature dropping with each step, dusty bottles stored in niches on either side. Here, the only sign of modern wine making is a large steel tank. Frascati is now made in steel tanks to reduce tannin and completely avoid any flavouring from wooden casks.  In the bowels of the earth, we discover large pottery urns and green, blown glass flagons from Venice, both used to store the wine before stainless steel was invented. Only the dessert wine gets a little time on wood. This is not the syrupy-sweet dessert wine I am familiar with, but a lighter variety, the taste drifting away like butterfly wings, sweet but not cloying. It is made from grapes dried to raisins, and then squeezed in a hand press to within an inch of their lives to garner every last drop of sugary juice.

In a dining room on the first floor, with a Juliet balcony wrapped in wisteria vines, we finally get to taste the three wines that are made here: a light, smooth white (Frascati Superiore); a mild red (Vagnolo), and a sweet wine (Cannellino di Frascati). To accompany the wine, Dominique has arranged small snacks: slices of homemade pizza and pecorino drizzled with honey. We learn that parmesan (or Parmigiano Reggiano) is made in the north from cow’s milk, whereas Pecorino Romano, originating further south as its name suggests, is made from sheep’s milk. (The word pecora is Italian for ‘ewe.’) They have a similar, hard texture, but pecorino is saltier, while parmesan has a denser flavour.

Plates and glasses emptied and shopping done, we gather in the courtyard for a final chat with Dominique, accompanied by the clinking of our treasure trove of wine and olive oil bottles. After fond farewells, we head back to town for lunch, where we feast like kings at a local cantina, on the best pepperonata I have ever tasted, mixed with diced roast potatoes. Two more platters follow: a white bean and tomato dish, and carciofe and green beans. Greedily, like Oliver Twist, we all go back for seconds, before we realize there is more to come: two different pasta sauces, one red, with beef, one white, with broccoli. And while we devour these simple but luscious dishes, Max pours the wine, first from bottles from the winery, later in carafes – doubtless from a plastic container! Anyone for dessert?

It is a merry meal, full of laughter and limoncello, as we share our own tall tales and make new friends. I cut my losses while I can still walk in a straight-ish line, and stroll through town where a pre-Lenten parade is beginning. This involves much flinging of confetti, a brass band, and half the town in costume. Among the younger participants, there is a plethora of princesses, policemen and spider men. I even spot a discombobulated lap-dog dressed as a black and yellow bumble bee. I stand on the church steps, absorbing the excitement for a while. Then, in reasonable order, I make my way through the crowds and down the long staircase to the station where a few of our number have already gathered. The ride back to the city adds a final note of jollity and chatter to a superlative day.


**With thanks to Dominique’s website for the photo of the wisteria in full bloom (as it wasn’t in February!). The rest are my own.


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A Mermaid, a Chambermaid and a Princess

St Helen’s is an attractive English village that boasts rich tales of royalty and smugglers. It is centred on a long, broad green that sits high above St Helen’s Duver, on the eastern end of the Isle of Wight.

A duver – it rhymes with cover – is local lingo for an area of sand dunes. In the late nineteenth century, St Helen’s Duver was a golf course by the sea, and the Royal Isle of Wight Golf Club soon rivalled St. Andrew’s in Scotland. Making use of the existing sand dunes and shrubbery, turf was also brought down from Cumbria to create a popular nine-hole course that opened in 1882. It was originally a men’s only course, and Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, became its Patron and first President. His younger sister, Princess Beatrice, who was Governor of the Isle of Wight for many years, would later become President of the Club until her death in 1940.

The Club quickly became popular with politicians, celebrities and the extended Royal family, who often stayed with Queen Victoria at her nearby island retreat, Osbourne House. Unfortunately, club membership diminished dramatically after World War 2 and the Club finally closed in the 1960s. It was decided by the remaining members to present the land to the National Trust. The original weatherboard clubhouse has been converted into an attractive and comfortable National Trust holiday cottage, where we stayed for a gloriously windy week in January. Now the golf course is common land, and popular with many local dog walkers… and ducks!


Long before there was a golf course, there was a church just above the beach. The Church began to collapse in around 1550, as the coastline beneath it was eaten away by the sea. Today, only a portion of the Tower remains. It has been bricked up on the seaward side and painted white, for use as a sea mark, that identifies the approximate position of a maritime channel or hazard, so boats can navigate safely.

In the eighteenth century, a local fisherman gained notoriety here as a smuggler. Dickie Dawes was reputed to have hidden his contraband brandy and tobacco beneath the gravestones in the old churchyard, before hefting it through secret passages to the village and the Cluniac priory.

Dickie’s daughter, Sophie, was born in a small terraced house on the upper green of St. Helen’s in about 1795. A real rags-to-riches, Pygmalion-style story, Sophie was sent to the workhouse at Newport when her father died, but she would eventually find her way to the French court. After leaving the workhouse, she gained a position as a chambermaid in Portsmouth. Moving on to London, she was employed as a servant in a high-class brothel in Piccadilly. There, she met the exiled French Duke de Bourbon. Pretty and quick-witted, she soon became his mistress and protégée. Later, she followed him to Paris, where she became a minor celebrity in the court of Louis XVIII. The Duc arranged a dowry and a marriage of convenience to his military aide, but kept her as a lover, bequeathing her a title and, on his death in 1830, a large fortune. However, the circumstances of his death (he was discovered with a rope around his neck) and her subsequent inheritance, cast suspicions on the Baronne de Feuchères, and she was forced to flee back to England, where she died a decade later, still entangled in legal squabbles about her inheritance.

Today, she is remembered by a simple blue plaque on the house of her birth and the nickname the Queen of Chantilly, after one of her lover’s properties.


A couple of miles north of St. Helen’s, a once-popular pub at Pondwell has recently metamorphosed into The Mermaid, a bright and airy home for the Isle of Wight Distillery and its new cocktail bar. We popped in to try its latest concoctions and to look at the beautiful gin stills with their flute-like pipes, set up in what used to be the pub kitchen. The weather was a little chilly, but the large deck at the rear, overlooking vineyards and a glimpse of the sea, will provide a wonderful summer destination. Pete Muspratt welcomed us enthusiastically, and offered to take us through the story of the Isle of Wight Distillery, followed by a tasting of their products.

The distillery was set up in 2014 by experienced wine and beer makers, Xavier Blake and Conrad Gauntlett. Old friends, they were keen to expand their business and have successfully ridden the wave of the latest drinking trend: gin.

Mermaid Gin is a smooth and sophisticated gin made from a barley-based spirit from Manchester and ten botanicals, many locally sourced. We followed the recipe with interest: coriander is grown across the Solent in Sussex and the citrusy Boadicea hops come from Ventnor’s Botanical Gardens, on the southern side of the island. The rock samphire, known locally as Mermaid’s Kiss (hence the name of the gin), also grows on the cliffs in the south. Peter lets us dip our finger into a testing jar of liquorice powder, which is surprisingly sweet, while the oris root, used as a fixative, has a flavour reminiscent of camomile tea. Then there is elderflower, Sicilian lemons and the unexpectedly peppery Grains of Paradise from Ghana. With the popularity of boutique gin distilleries on the mainland, the Isle of Wight Distillery has had to plant its own juniper bushes in the vineyard, and in the meantime, they import the berries they need from Macedonia.

The botanicals are mixed together and steeped for 24 hours to release all the essential oils. The spirit rests for seven days to ‘allow the flavours and aromas to mellow and marry together.’ The result is described as a ‘smooth, refreshing, and complex gin with a contemporary style’ with a nose of ‘fresh citrus, sweet spice, gentle juniper.’ Pete suggests that it is best drunk with Fever Tree’s elderflower tonic water.

The HMS Victory Navy Strength Gin, named for Nelson’s warship, is aged in oak barrels from the famous ship, in partnership with the National Museum of the Royal Navy. It has a higher concentration of botanicals than the Mermaid gin, giving it a greater intensity of flavour. In the 18th century the Royal Navy ruled that all naval ships were to carry gin on board that had to be 100° proof – the English standard of the day – which equates to 57% ABV, or alcohol by volume. It was discovered that gunpowder soaked in alcohol stronger than 57% could still be ignited, and this became the standard test for Navy Strength or ‘gunpowder proof’ gin. A percentage of the sales apparently goes to support the ongoing restoration of the HMS Victory.

Apart from these two gins, the Distillery also laid down its first barrel of Whiskey in 2015, which is almost ready to be launched on the world.

Rock Sea Vodka is a grain distilled Isle of Wight vodka, with a subtle addition of rock sea salt for smoothness and a sense of salt on your lips after a day at the beach.

And finally, a dark rum: HMS Victory Rum is a blend of aged demerara rum from Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica. It is, so Pete tells us, reminiscent of the taste of traditional ‘rum tots’ issued on board naval ships. The rum has been refined and rested in oak barrels using an oak stave from HMS Victory herself, which adds a depth of character. The One & Only, a keen rum drinker, was delighted with the Victory rum. I preferred the Mermaid Gin, though, and went home happily with a bottle.

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On the Duver

The invisible, invincible, bullying wind
tears round the masts of pint-sized sailing boats
and whistles through the wires.

It buffets the screeching seagulls,
tossing them through the sky
like drunken dodgem cars.

Moorhens bob between the boats,
paddling with grim determination
against the windblown waves, while

Feather-white clouds scutter and skibble
across the cold-blue sky,
torn to shreds by a taunting squall.


A low tide exposes mops of rotting seaweed
but the rancid smell is dispersed,
thank God, by the fierce breeze.

Shivering trees wag furious fingers
at the boisterous, bumptious, obstreperous wind
that wheels and corkscrews through their branches,

whisking hats from heads,
whirling plastic bags into hedges,
twitching and teasing the scarves of infants on the beach and

tormenting puppies into a flat spin,
making them chase their tails
with frenzied high-pitched, yipping.


Biting at ears and noses and ungloved fingertips,
it drives unwary walkers back inside,
to hide from this irascible, cantankerous, querulous wind.

Last night’s frost nips the grass
and ices the puddles,
crunching underfoot like broken glass.

In the shelter of a gorse bush I huddle,
cold hands gripping a hot mug
as the wind whips by.


*with thanks to the One & Only for his pebbles.

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Prague Revisited

The rain has driven me off the somewhat slippery cobbled streets of Prague, and I am sitting in a corner of a rather elegant coffee shop on Rybinska with a flat white coffee and ‘torn pancakes with cinnamon sugar’ accompanied by a bowl of whipped cream garnished with a spray of mint leaves. The latter hasn’t proved a great choice – the pancakes have literally been ripped up and refried in cinnamon sugar, creating a crunchy, sugary clump of inedible ex-pancakes. The pot of canned cream does nothing to improve them. But it is warm and dry in here, and relatively peaceful considering I had to queue for a table.

For the past three days we have roamed this romantic, enchanting city with our sons, revisiting old haunts and relishing new ones. It is over sixteen years since we last visited Prague, eighteen since we lived here, when we welcomed in the new millennium from a perch above the Vltava, our pint-sized children dragged unwillingly from warm beds into the frozen night to watch the sky explode into technicolour bouquets.

Much has changed, and nothing has changed. The small primary school the children attended by the river has grown exponentially and our rather ramshackle country village is full of smart new houses. Yet the woodland paths are surprisingly familiar, the ghosts of chocolate coloured puppies and well-wrapped children dashing ahead between the trees. The city of paneláks in Prague 9 still crown the cliffs across the river and the allotments behind our house are obviously still in use. In the Old Town, the endless array of glorious buildings still makes us gasp in wonder, and the names are like faint echoes of children’s nursery rhymes, whispering their once-familiar magic through our memories.

It is cold – well, it is winter after all – but not painfully so, as we wander through market squares and winding lanes. The 14th century sandstone Karlův Most (Charles Bridge) is almost as thick with tourists on this dark winter afternoon as it is in the height of summer. I am in thrall to the spires and the statues, the Art Deco and the domes, the Baroque, Renaissance and Gothic buildings. Always there is a facade to gaze upon and exclaim at, even as your feet stumble on the beautifully patterned cobblestones. I can’t stop walking and yet I also want to sit in every cosy little bar or coffee shop and soak up the atmosphere.

We are delighted to rediscover a tiny restaurant in Malá Strana. ‘Čertovka’ is reached by a staircase so narrow there is a traffic light to prevent jams. Apparently, it was an old fire lane, the only one remaining in the Lesser Town. The service here has become infamous for its shoddiness, but the view to the Charles Bridge and along a narrow canal that runs beside it, is rather special. The name of the restaurant actually comes from the name of this canal or stream, an arm of the Vltava that used to feed the many mills and tanning works along its banks. I remember the lush horse chestnuts in summer that would shade the terrace as we sipped wine and looked out over the water.  My sister-in-law once made a lovely charcoal sketch of the scene. The food is good, if a tad more expensive than some, but I am happy to pay for the view and a dose of nostalgia. Number One Son is delighted to taste a Czech dish he adored as a child: slabs of bread dumplings drowning in rich meat gravy.  International cuisine has made some headway over the intervening years, but Czech and Italian restaurants still dominate the culinary scene, as pork and pizza become our staple diet. And the One & Only was thrilled to find that the Christmas carp is still sold fresh from tubs on the side of the street.

Further down the road, on a different day, we come across a well-heated courtyard with sheepskin coverings on the bench seats. Here we indulge in a lunchtime meat fest of extraordinary proportions: dinosaur-sized spare ribs and stonking great pigs knuckles, to the delight of the One & Only, all accompanied by buckets of Czech beer. Pilsner Urquell or Staropramen, I can’t remember which, yet, notoriously disinterested in beer, I rather like these lighter Czech varieties. After gorging ourselves to bursting point, we set off uphill to walk off the calories in the fading light and find Pražský hrad (Prague Castle) at the top of the hill, with the stunningly beautiful Saint Vitus cathedral tucked behind its walls. Somewhat obscured by the castle buildings at ground level, Saint Vitus can, nonetheless, be seen clearly on its hilltop from almost anywhere else in the city. A life-sized straw nativity has been arranged to one side of the cathedral’s vast entrance (I loved Mary with her straw pigtails), and the gargoyles and glorious wrought iron gates keep us glued to the spot in awe for some time.

The castle buildings represent virtually every architectural style since the 9th century, including its Gothic cathedral and the Romanesque Basilica. A UNESCO World Heritage site of almost 70,000 m²,  the castle was extensively renovated and extended during 1918-1938, to include a palace for the President of the newly created Czechoslovakia. Today it is a bustling tourist destination, even at 7 pm in late December. And the views from its walls are breath-taking, especially at night, like something from a fairy tale.

The Czech people are as curt and impatient as ever: car horns are constantly squawking; distracted pedestrians will mow you down without a second glance. Smiling is not a thing. But I love the sound of this guttural, vowel-free language, and they really are a very attractive race. And what infinite luxury to be able to take this picturesque city for granted. I still remember catching the metro into the old town with a small son on my back, to stand under the mediaeval astronomical clock and pinch myself to think that I really lived here. This unusual clock is another popular tourist spot, and the area beneath it is often made impassable by mobs of camera-flashing admirers. First constructed in 1410, the two-faced clock is a dizzying array of dials and hands and astrological symbols on a starry night sky. Twelve apostles appear from a small door above the double face every hour and disappear through a second one, each holding the symbol that represents him. At the sides stand four more figures: an old miser with a bag of gold depicting the cardinal sin of Greed, a well-dressed figure with a hand mirror representing Vanity; the skeletal figure of Death tolls a bell and holds an hourglass to remind you that the end is inevitable, and beside him is a figure known commonly as the Turk, as the symbol of lust and earthly pleasures. Back in the 1990s there were fewer tourists in town, so it was easier to stand and gawp for as long as a small boy could sit still. Then we would move on a few steps to find ourselves hypnotized by the jazz band that frequents the Old Town Square to this day: a double bass, a clarinet, a saxophone and trumpet, a banjo and a washboard. Tonight they perform beside a giant polar bear, their old voices grown crackly and faded after so many years, almost drowned out by the carol singing students on the stage beneath the enormous Christmas tree. So much is the same, yet we instantly miss the pen of farm animals – Thelwell ponies, sheep and donkeys – that used to entertain the children near the Irish pub, ‘Caffreys.’

We wander up to Václavské náměstí (Wenceslas Square) named for the patron saint of Bohemia. Wenceslas Square is more avenue than square, crowned by the elegant, neoclassical Národní Muzeum, or National Museum. All the trees are draped in tiny fairy lights, and the avenue is lined with stalls sell snacks and Christmas crafts. Here we nibble on roast vegetables, sausages and trdelník, a traditional eastern European sweet pastry that is rolled around a stick, coated in walnuts and sugar, and grilled. Some fill its hollow centre with Nutella or cream.

One evening, we meet up with my godson and his cousins in a local brewery near the square. ‘Restaurace Novomestsky Pivovar’ on Vodickova was a favourite while we lived here. Eighteen years ago, the owners sent over a whole suckling pig complete with trimmings (chips, sauerkraut, horseradish by the gallon) for Christmas lunch. It was a gastronomic delight and solved the problem of feeding fifteen people from my tiny oven. Today we order generous platters of Czech style antipasti, and towers of home-made beer, followed by the ubiquitous variations of pork and potatoes. The staff are friendly and helpful, and the food is immensely filling and tasty.

Christmas shopping puts in a last-minute appearance, as we dash to jewellery stores, Hamley’s and the Lego Museum. A fabulous Lego exhibition in the basement of Hamley’s holds us captive for ages, gazing upon the castles and cathedrals of Bohemia in intricate and spectacular detail. Meeting friends eventually takes priority over a plan to attend a Christmas concert in one of the many church venues, but the lapse simply provides an excuse to return. Number Two Son doesn’t remember living here – he was not quite three when we left – but he has proved invaluable with his instinctive sense of direction, and we are rarely lost, even when memory fails us. It has been a wonderful walk down memory lane, one I would love to repeat in the spring, as the trees start to bud, the days grow longer and the chill has gone from the air.

*With my usual thanks to the One & Only for his fab photos.


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Christmas Markets

  • It is a Sunday morning in mid-December. We are in Köln (Cologne) in western Germany, wandering along the Rhine,  with our hands buried deep in pockets, and scarves wrapped almost up to our eyebrows as an icy wind whips around our ears. Despite the risk of frostbite, the promenade is surprisingly well frequented with families, young lovers, elderly couples.

Walking through the streets of the old town last night, it was seriously cold. Frigid, in fact. Like everyone else, we huddled together around the stands selling local beers,  glühwein and eierpunsch (eggnog). It was a simple a survival technique. And we were hardly surprised to see a frosting of snow on the roofs this morning, much to the delight of our Number One Son who had recently arrived from a 40’C summer in Australia.

Since the beginning of the month, friends from Luxembourg have been travelling far and wide to shop at every Christmas market they could find, and the reports have been enthusiastic and varied. Having a very low tolerance for Christmas shopping, I waited to realize a long-standing plan to meet old friends in Cologne, where, it turns out, there is not just one Christmas market, but a clutch of them: Weihnachtsmarkt Altstadt, in front of Cologne´s town hall; Weihnachtsmarkt am Dom, with the largest Christmas tree I have ever seen, dwarfed only by a backdrop of the huge cathedral standing proudly behind it; Stadtgarten; Neumarkt’s Market of Angels, and a colourful gay and lesbian market… the list goes on.

Having met our friends at the hotel, we headed first to the Cathedral, struggling not to lose each other in the dense crowds. My extra tall friend and my One & Only were understandably smug about their superior view of the world, while her shorter husband and I linked arms for moral support, well below the surface of the human tide.

Around the base of the Cathedral clustered the Weimersmarkt stalls, and breathing space was at a premium. To move forward was to squeeze through bodies like blood through a clotted artery. But the bodies were friendly and the mood happy. It was a crazy, but surprisingly contented crowd. No one was pushing or shouting, everyone waited patiently and politely for service, however long the queue. There was no ounce of aggression, or drunken rowdiness, but a real sense of goodwill in the air.

We tried a couple of the local specialties to assuage hunger: flammkuchen and gebrannte mandeln (candied almonds), wurst in a variety of sizes and kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes), schupznudeln (potato gnocchi and bacon) and crepes. We are in the land of pork and carbohydrates, and in this chilly weather, it is a perfect diet, although my jeans may beg to differ. Craft stalls, too, were plentiful, but it was around the food and drink that the crowds converged. Fairy lights hung above our heads, coating the mighty tannenbaum in the centre of the platz, even twinkled on our heads, in the shape of a spiral-topped, red headband. Now there would no losing one other.

At centre stage, a band was singing Christmas tunes, as we sipped glühwein  from rather garish, festive mugs that we will undoubtedly take home as souvenirs. A  group of geeky Santas were warming up beside us, their cotton wool beards already askew, their glasses steaming up. A Christmas bucks night, perhaps?

Christmas markets have been popular in Germany since the late middle ages, all through the four weeks of Advent. In the twenty first century, their popularity has expanded across Europe. Now, the festive season is ushered in with a plethora of Christmas markets across Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Belgium, Spain and France.  Luxembourg City alone has four or five. In Place Guillaume II there is a skating rink popular with the kids, and the Place d’Armes has a bandstand for live performances and a carousel or two, not to mention all the pretty wooden huts lined up neatly around every city square. And it is such fun and provides such childish delight to see the city streets humming with activity even on these dark, dull winter afternoons, while the forest of pine trees decked in fake snow and baubles give off a nostalgic scent of Christmas to warm the cockles of the heart.

Merry Christmas everyone!



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“‘Tis the Season to be Jolly”

Trelissick House is a three-hundred acre country estate just outside Truro in Cornwall. Built in the 18th century by the Lawrance family, has had a chequered history, having been bought and sold several times over the intervening centuries.  Today it is owned and run by the National Trust. The Trust has managed the gardens since 1955, but only took over the house about five years ago, when the previous owners auctioned off the family heirlooms and moved to a more manageable house in the area. It is rare to find a National Trust property that has been brought into the modern world. The vast kitchen was only upgraded a dozen years ago and has been turned into a coffee shop, with a little snug above it that overlooks the kitchen garden. It is amazing to step into such a grand old house, and yet be able imagine how it would feel to live in such a place in the 21st century.

Trelissick House sits on a narrow peninsula above Carrick Roads, the oddly named estuary of the River Fal, and is wrapped in acres of gorgeous gardens, designed like outdoor rooms that, even in winter, are a joy to wander through on a clear, blowy afternoon.  All the reception rooms on the east side of the house have wisely been installed with tall, broad windows that provide beautiful views across green parkland and over the water. There is even a haha, a deep, dry ditch, lined with a stone wall, and thus concealed from sight. Used in landscaped gardens and parks in the eighteenth century, it was designed to give the illusion of a continuous rolling lawn, whilst providing boundaries for grazing livestock. The ha-ha got its name from the effect of this optical illusion, as any visitor approaching the hidden ditch would suddenly come across it and cry “Ah-ha!” in surprise.

We arrived on the morning it re-opened especially for the Christmas season. The stables had been set up with Christmas craft stalls, the rooms of Trelissick House had been decorated with huge Christmas trees and colourful flower arrangements. In the library, the Christmas tree was decorated in the green, white and purple, not for Wimbledon, but for the suffragettes, as this is not only the centenary year of the Armistice, but also of women’s right to vote in the UK, and one of the previous owners of Trelissick was an enthusiastic supporter of the Suffragettes. In the music room, a volunteer played Christmas carols on the grand piano, and the scent of pine suddenly made it feel a lot like Christmas. I found myself humming the tunes under my breath as we wandered through the vast reception rooms and gazed out over the fields.

Back in the garden, a sheltered tennis court overlooks the Fal, and I couldn’t help thinking that it was a thoroughly distracting view for potential tennis players. An arched wooden bridge crosses the deep lane that heads down to the King Harry ferry, and lands in the orchard, planted over twenty years ago to preserve several local, heirloom apple varieties. The gardens themselves are full of fascinating and exotic specimens, many garnered by one peripatetic son of the house from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.  There is also a very decorative Rapunzel tower, which we thought at first was a pretty folly, but apparently started life as a water tower, and is now a quirky holiday rental.

Behind the house is an array of attractive farm buildings that have been converted into a café, an art gallery, the ubiquitous National Trust gift shop, a plant nursery and a large second-hand bookshop where I went completely mad and came home with an armload of books that cost the princely sum of £15.00!

Feeling in need of a longer walk, we headed into the parklands to follow a woodland path around the peninsula and along the edge of tidal creeks, catching glimpses of the river through beech and oak and wading through inches of fallen leaves. Oyster catchers vacuumed the sand for afternoon tea and a lone heron stood guard on a rock. Young, boisterous dogs charged past, gathering sticks in their mouths, while older ones paced slowly along behind, obviously longing for home and a cushion by the fire. Strolling through this ancient woodland, it is easy to imagine you have stepped back in time and will emerge to see horses and carts rolling down the lane. Much to my disappointment, my Thomas Hardy moment never happened, but it does feel as if little has changed here over the last two or three centuries. And like those older dogs, I can now curl up happily by the fire with plenty of reading material.

*With thanks to Google images for the photos, as the One & Only forgot his camera!

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A Blustery Day

‘I knew when I met you an adventure was going to happen’ ~ A.A. Milne 

Woken by the foghorns on Falmouth Harbour early this morning, we faced a grey and gloomy day, warm for November, but with mizzling skies. The One & Only had planned to walk the coastal path around the Roseland Peninsula. Uninspired by the weather, I found myself drawn instead to a cosy coffee shop in nearby Portscatho to await his return and make some notes about our time here in Cornwall.

Growing up, it seemed my family always had beach holidays in the winter, which, even in sunny South Australia, can be chilly. Whether it was to dodge the crowds or the excessive cost of summer holiday rentals, I don’t know, but whatever the reason then, I now much prefer a deserted, windblown beach, to the burning sands and burning skins of summer. Going to the beach in winter gives a real sense of escape and a chance to blow away the cobwebs both literally and figuratively. To stride across virgin sand devoid of the detritus of summer – buckets and spades, irksome seagulls snatching chips, gritty sandwiches, beach umbrellas – lifts the spirits and calms the soul.

In Britain, there are 20,000 miles of coastline that incorporate coves and cliffs, dunes and beaches, fishing villages and sprawling sea ports. In Cornwall, one third of this county’s extensive coastline is owned and maintained by the National Trust. Once Cornwall was economically dependent on farming, fishing and mining, but these have long been upstaged by tourism. Now every fishing village has an abundance of antiquated stone cottages available for holiday rentals, and it seems every farm has laid aside a field or two for campers, so that Cornwall now boasts over 160 camping sites.

It’s a bit of a schlep from almost anywhere in the UK, but for the milder climate, the beautiful countryside and the stunning shoreline, it is well worth the effort. We legged it all the way from Luxembourg, and it was a sheer delight, even in winter. Narrow lanes weave between high hedgerows or under the shadow of oak and beech woods. They follow the curve of merry brooks, and dash round sharp bends to startle an unsuspecting stone farm house or a cosy country pub. When we finally abandon the car, by our own stone cottage above the sea, the southern coastal walk is a joy.

Wildlife abounds. It is not hard to understand Daphne Maurier’s inspiration for her thriller, ‘The Birds,’ as vast flocks of seagulls swoop and soar around the cliffs and black crows amass in the empty fields. We have a friendly heron who waits for us on the road every morning as we drive off to explore another stretch of the glorious Roseland Peninsula, and we are constantly dodging the pheasant – including some surprisingly snowy white ones we have never come across before. Neither chooks, nor albinos, as we first suspect, but an ornamental variety, bred specifically for their pristine feathers. It is somewhat larger than the more typical ring-neck pheasant, and they are apparently very tasty, but these wild ones won’t oblige us by running under the wheels of the car, so it is a dinner I will continue to anticipate, until I can find someone farming them.

Chinese ring-necked pheasants were originally brought to Britain by the Romans around A.D. 1000, but soon disappeared. These days, the countryside is teeming with the more common dappled cock pheasant with its red wattle and glossy green head and its comparatively dowdy, chestnut-coloured spouse. It is a mixed breed, reintroduced as a game bird during the 19th century. The habitat seems to suit them well. Apart from the breeding programs set up by shooting enthusiasts, they have also bred naturally and prolifically in the wild, throughout the British Isles. These daft birds love to play chicken with passing cars, and so far, they are winning, despite barely a single brain between them. In the twilight, they are even more flighty, with a kamikaze approach to car headlights that keeps us crawling at a snail’s pace and lurching to a stop every hundred metres or so, as they either sprint across the lane under our front tyres or take to the air in a panic-ridden flurry of feathers.

The other appeal of Cornwall’s coast is its many lighthouses. By good luck, we are staying in a comfortable National Trust cottage that squats above the St. Anthony’s lighthouse. Built in 1835, this lighthouse stands directly opposite Falmouth, at the very tip of the Roseland Peninsula, and about 200m from our front door. The One & Only, with a long-standing passion for lighthouses, has collected photos of ‘our’ lighthouse in much the same way that Monet collected haystacks.

One blustery afternoon, we turn right at the lighthouse and follow the coastal path north, where fierce winds threaten to throw us off the edge of the narrow path onto the jagged rocks below. The shrubs and trees along this exposed ridge have been buckled and bent by a feisty wind that is all too obviously a regular visitor. Eventually, we turn a corner into more secluded fields, and follow the path through the woods to Place House and the parish church of St Anthony. Originally built in 1150 beside an Augustinian Priory, the church was extensively restored in the 19th century.  The priory itself was pulled down during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, but the site was recovered in 1840 to build Place House, the home of the Spry family, and the church, still consecrated, is filled with memorial plaques to members of that family, a number of whom held senior positions in the Royal Navy during the 19th century.

On yet another blustery day, we turn left at the lighthouse towards Portscatho. En route, we find an isolated beach where we spot a couple of grey seals, obese as walruses, lounging lazily on the rocks, while their young pups play in the waves.

Long a fan of Daphne du Maurier and Mary Wesley, I was excited to discover that many of their book and film locations can be found in the area. ‘Menabilly’ at Fowey was the inspiration for ‘Rebecca’ and her beloved Manderley, while Broom Parc, at Port Looe, was the location for the miniseries ‘The Camomile Lawn’. There is an actual Frenchman’s Creek, a tributary of the Helford River, and Jamaica Inn is a real pub on Bodmin Moor. Many other writers have escaped to this region for inspiration. Maybe, one of these days, I will follow their example. Now, we must reluctantly pack our bags and lock the door on our snug and tranquil cottage. As we drive for the last time, up the now familiar country lane, half a dozen foolish and feeble-minded pheasants dash out into the middle of the road and our friendly heron, lanky legs loosely dangling, rises sedately into the cloudy, grey sky.

*with grateful thanks to the One & Only and E.H. Shepherd for the perfect pics.

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Remembering the Armistice

“They do not know that in this shadowed place It is your light they see upon my face” ~ Mary Borden

There was no forward planning whatsoever, but by pure fluke we ended up in the UK for the centenary celebrations of the end of the Great War. Although the last living veteran of World War I died in 2012, aged 110, this rather special Remembrance Day has obviously hit a chord here in England.

On Saturday night, on BBC One, we watched the Royal British Legion host the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, attended by most of the senior members of the Royal Family. This is an annual event that has been held at the Albert Hall since 1923 to commemorate the British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who lost their lives in the two World Wars and today, subsequent conflicts as well. Full of pomp and circumstance, marching and music, there were many spine tingling moments, not least when the ceiling rained with red poppies upon the heads of the silent servicemen and women during the two minutes silence.  And despite the recent Royal fervour, following two royal weddings and royal babies, it was a sign of the solemnity and importance of the occasion that for once the cameras were not fixed on the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex, but on those soldiers performing in the centre of the hall.

We also joined in to two minutes silence on Sunday morning, when we walked down to the village green, to observe the Remembrance Day service in front of the village church. The local scout troops, church officials and the choir paraded around the village pond, before gathering around the cenotaph. It is a moving, albeit a slightly unnerving experience, to stand in complete silence for two minutes among a large crowd of strangers of all ages, from the elderly in wheelchairs to the small children in their prams, and everyone in between. The rain fell lightly throughout the service, but as it came to an end, the rained stopped and the sun came out as if specially choreographed.

Later, we caught the train to London, to stay near the Tower of London. From the seventh floor of the CitizenM hotel at Tower Hill, we were able to watch the fabulous light and sound installation, “Beyond the Deepening Shadow: The Tower Remembers,” created as an act of remembrance for those that died in the Great War.

As the sun set over the Thames, on this chilly but clear Sunday evening in late autumn, the crowds gathered around the outer walls of the Tower and the moat filled with smoke, resembling the trenches of the Somme submerged in canon smoke. Then, a procession of Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London entered the moat to light the first flame. The subsequent lighting of thousands of flares was accompanied by the music of Mira Calix, a piece commissioned by the historic royal palaces. This choral piece is described as ‘a sonic exploration of the shifting tide of political alliances, of unity and division, of love and loss in war. Calix used lyrics taken from “Sonnets to a Soldier iii” by suffragette and war poet Mary Borden, and performed by Solomon’s Knot and Laura Cannell. How the flares were lit so quickly is beyond me, but in a very short time, the moat was lit up by the glow of thousands of small flames

(Coincidentally, I have been reading a book about the women who influenced the life and reign of Elizabeth I, and it seems ironic to be watching a display that celebrates those that died for their country on a spot infamously renowned for the beheading of traitors in previous centuries.)

From country churches to city cathedrals, poppies have been thick on the ground. You may remember the ceramic poppies that were made to fill the moat at the Tower of London four years ago, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War. This year, every country church we passed was bedecked in knitted woollen poppies. They may not survive a heavy deluge of winter rain, but for now they are a bright, international symbol of remembrance in an otherwise grey world.

* With thanks to Google Images for the amazing knitted poppies, and the One & Only for the glorious view of the Tower on Armistice Day.

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