Well, I’m back…

A long weekend in Cheshire and NorthWales is to be highly recommended. We were, as always budget conscious and enjoyed two nights away with Master A (who is a rather vocally pedantic pre-teen) at The Bear’s Head in Brereton which is close to Sandbach and about 30 miles from Manchester. The room was clean and tidy and the complimentary buffet breakfast was perfectly good; this is not a five-star premises but was comfortable and convenient and the room cost only £114 for both nights…and of course, to keep costs down, we hammered hell out our family National Trust membership!

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On our way ‘up north’ we stopped at the National Trust’s Shugborough Hall, once home to Lord Litchfield, photographer extraordinaire. The house is beautiful and is slowly being restored having been recently handed back to NT from Staffordshire council. I last visited as an eight year old and in the twenty five or so ensuring years little has changed. It’s a great place for families to visit, the grounds are spectacular and it’s quite easy to loose yourself in the formal gardens and wild parkland. Stafford is of course, home to the Staffordshire Oat Cake; a griddle-cooked pancake often served with bacon and eggs for breakfast, a dish worth seeking out.

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Our second visit of the day was to Little Moreton Hall near Congleton. This was about fifteen minutes from our hotel and is quite delightful. Known to be the best example of a black and white Tudor Manor House in Britain, it sits in splendid isolation with a small moat, knot garden and is surrounded by beds of sweet smelling herbs.

That evening, to the dulcet whinge of Master A, we dined at The Vicarage.  It being a Sunday evening we couldn’t say no to a roast and enjoyed local Cheshire pork with all the trimmings; admittedly the portions were not as generous as we would have liked but it tasted delicious and even Master A was content once he’d demolished a home-made, brioche-bunned burger as big as his head. I also ‘discovered’ Rum and Raisin ice-cream.

Our second day took it towards Manchester, and to Quarry Bank Mill, famous as the location of Channel Four’s gritty period drama, ‘The Mill’.

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Walking through the various rooms, hearing the machinery and learning about the cotton industry in general was fascinating, even Master A didn’t moan too much! Occasionally immersing ourself in our industrial history is so important, how many children wear cotton today and don’t know where it comes from, know nothing of children in a bygone time who suffered, worked and often died in pursuit Britain’s most valuable industry?

Nowadays, here at least, it’s much more ethical and I did treat myself to some cotton fabric woven at the mill and printed locally, which depicts the mill, the ‘big house’ and the Apprentice house (a building which housed poor children from city workhouses who were indentured to work for 9 years at the mill for their keep only). There is also a great cafe with some really tasty local dishes and of course ice-cream to keep the little ones happy!

That afternoon I achieved a lifelong ambition (well a 20 year ambition anyway) I went to

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Pemberley!!!!!!

Well, not exactly….Lyme Park to be precise but I did tread in the footsteps of Mr (Colin Firth) Darcy…sadly my Mr D refused to recreate the shirt and lake scene, but you can’t have everything.

Saying that there were a lot of rather odd, Austenland types wandering around dressed as Eliza Bennet…but with the charming additions of camera and mobile phone. The house was lovely and you could pick up your ‘I Love Mr Darcy’ totes in the shop, so well worth the visit.

Our final day took us into North Wales and to Wrexham’s Erddig estate which I absolutely adored. The family were definite hoarders and nothing was thrown away resulting in a collection of over 30,000 objects to be curated by the National Trust. The history buff in me got in the way this time and I happily spent a hour or two reading the wonderful poems which the squires had written about their servants; many of which were accompanied by oil portraits (18th century servants) and photographs (19th an 20th century staff).

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There is a lovely poem of blessing  in the servants quarters which I think everyone should have a copy of  in their kitchens.

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Steeped in culture and history we stopped for a nice cup of tea and a piece of cake in the cafe;

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where Master A completely let the side down by drawing a selection of bright pink willies on the fairy themed children’s colouring sheets (although they were apparently ‘funny men’ with big (hairy) eyes and long, pointy noses). Enough said!

With the weather a little overcast we headed to the internationally famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct designed by the eponymous Thomas Telford (who built himself a rather nice little pad in full view of it). We boarded a boat and enjoyed an hour or so peacefully meandering over the aqueduct and back again. It is a true feat of industrial engineering…and totally worth a visit!

 

So all in all a lovely couple of days and please do check out the links for more details.

And finally a few words from one of the former owners of Erddig…(although the peace and beauty may be a little lacking!)

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Let’s start with the Lower Wye Valley

I have to admit that, beautiful as our area is, we are off and over this hills this bank holiday. However, I thought it would be rather nice to share a few thoughts for those of you who’s ‘over the hills’IMG_6805, is actually my little part of Wales.

The Wye Valley has been a popular tourist destination since the 18th century; one guide book depicts be-hatted and floral-bonneted ‘tourists’ being rowed down the Wye (past the heavy industry which blackened almost everything green and natural) to appreciate it’s beauty (from a safe distance). Even Nelson visited (a visit upon which Monmouth has been dining out for over two centuries) with his ‘posh crumpet’ Lady Hamilton. But what does it have to offer?

Well, it’s great for families, you can keep the little ones entertained from dawn to dusk, on dry and wet days. It keeps the cultured happy and the food lovers, but most of all it’s a superb place to just relax. Being only 40 minutes from Bristol, under an hour from Cardiff and (with a fair wind) under three from London, the Lower Wye Valley, which lies between the towns of Chepstow and Ross-on-Wye, and is ideally located for a short break or weekend getaway.

Of course, the river is splendid at this time of year, when it reflects the pale yellows, deep reds and golden browns of the woodland, interspersed with numerous swans and the odd leaping salmon. Hiring a canoe from one of the many outdoor adventure companies is a great idea and meandering down the river makes for a very pleasant day out. There are numerous pubs to ‘rest’ at on the way, and most offer reasonably good fodder for a lunchtime sojourn. I think that it’s only from the river that one can fully appreciate the majesty of the Valley. The road which shadows it is well worth the drive but you fail to notice the little things, the unusual angle to view Tintern Abbey, the lost church of Lancaut, the Seven Sisters Rocks and The Slaughters (named for the memory of a battle between Viking invaders and the rather annoyed natives) near Symond’s Yat or the great railway bridge at Redbrook which stands, somewhat forgotten, a legacy of an Industrial Age when this little village produced the thinnest tin in the world. There’s Goodrich Castle which peers down at the river and the old Priory of Flansford which sits, timelessly, beneath it; and a plethora of architecturally fascinating bridges.

Ross-on-Wye, a few miles into Herefordshire, and well named for the red sandstone upon which it is built, is quintessentially English, its pretty covered marketplace the centre of many a 1950’s picture postcard.

The county town of Monmouth is well worth a visit. Although it has a few too many coffee shops for comfort the museum is free and the fortified gatehouse which sits astride the river Monnow is one the best preserved examples in the UK. It also has a Waitrose which is obviously a good thing!

Chepstow, the final stop on the Offa’s Dyke path is known for its castle, once the stronghold of William Marshall, the greatest knight of the 12th century. There are a few chunks of the old town walls about and there are a rather good soft play centre for rainy days and bored children.

This site is a good starting point: Wye Valley AONB

 

 

A few thoughts on foodie fashion….

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As a food writer by profession (for more years than I care to remember), I have been fully immersed in the revival of the British food industry. I’ve always found it interesting to observe fashion and food fashion is no exception. Over the past decade we have seen quite a swing in the direction of ethical, local food; small producers and cottage industries had popped up all over the place. Television programs, such as The Great British Bake Off have encouraged us back to our cookery roots and it’s difficult to attend a dinner party these days where the origin of the ingredients aren’t discussed for the greater part of the evening. I think all this is wonderful! We should be proud of our heritage and our brand of British cuisine. We should be promoting our farmers and those taking up the reins of the great brewers, bakers, cheesemakers and butchers of old. These days a recipe ‘discovered’ in an old, well used cookery book is a great an accolade; ten years ago it was pesto and goats cheese tartlets; today ham hock terrine and piccalilli.

Buying local is far easier now than it ever has been; seasonality is a delight and companies promoting both (as well as ethical production) have a golden ticket. For the past six years I have written a monthly ‘foodie’ column in which I have tried to promote my ‘local’ and ‘seasonal’ food and drink; it has been a privilege to research and I have discovered so many little gems. From my previous posts, you will see some of my favourites are still businesses thriving today and I continue to champion British food on a daily basis.

So….Lets hope this isn’t just a fashion, that’s its here for the duration and not tied up with the current ‘hip’ penchant for tweed and gin and beards (lovely as those trends are). If we really considered the quality and sourcing of our foodstuffs we would be healthier – for years our British staples have been messed around with by large corporations until they are genetically virtually unrecognisable – wheat being one
the main victims. Our daily bread is not the daily bread of old (but no doubt more on that in the future) – we are a society of allergies and intolerances, of cancers, fibromyalgia, and heart disease, not to mention type 2 diabetes. Can this be changed by diet alone? I, for one, believe it can.

 

 

Is it Autumn yet?….

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I am an Autumnophile (if there is such a word). I get terribly excited in about July and wait for that change in the air which denotes the beginning of the new season and having become extremely sensitive to this natural phenomenon I can state that Autumn does begin in August, usually when I’m in France on about the 7th. This year it was on the 5th and I admit to phoning Mr D (who was working in the UK) at 7 am in the morning to let him know, although I don’t think he entirely shares my enthusiasm for cold, damp days and soggy leaves!

I’m not sure where this date stands from an ‘equinox’ point of view but meteorologically the Autumn is supposed to begin in late September. However, the leaves are just starting to turn here, the air is muggy and warm, there are plums in abundance and our abandoned grape vine is bending with fruit. I sense a difference in the light, I can’t quite pinpoint the exact first feelings of Autumn (before the traditional ‘signs’) but it does seems to be in the light, which changes to a more golden hue from the bright, fluffy light of summer. Growing up, I  was always told that Mayday was the first day of summer, with its Green Men and general frolics (now apparently the first day of summer is sometime in late June which surely is close to Midsummer’s Day, the clue being the word Midsummer.) In December we don’t sing “In the Bleak Early Winter” as is meteorologically correct. And I’m sure Midwinter is around the equinox of the 21/22/23rd, therefore, Winter must actually start in November which is ‘meteorologically’ Autumn. See how confusing it all is? Answers on a postcard, please!

But for now, all I can really think about is the prospect of Autumn food, long boots, snuggly jumpers, candles and log fires (although I know it’s too early to indulge). So….to help my with my addiction  I’m going to share a few of my favourite Autumn things over the next few weeks, items which I think are essential to enjoy the nights drawing in and the temperature dropping. I know there are many of you who seek the last days of the summer, praying that it’ll eek out into September, but sorry to say an ‘Indian summer’ is just a ‘Warm Autumn’. Perhaps we are just conditioned to hibernation, the arrival of the orchard fruits in abundance call out to our early genetic makeup to ‘stock up and store’ for the hard winter (which we fail to have now).

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When I take the Collie out, along the lane beside the river and up into the woods the smell of autumn is just creeping in – it is of course the smell of decaying vegetation, and not the most desirable if analysed, but I so enjoy driving through the cider orchards and inhaling the fruitiness in the air before the fruity smell turns slightly alcoholic in early October. I do think a cider post will be essential around that time – after all, it’s only fair to guide my readers through the perils of scrumpy, Perry and the like. But for today, overcast and slightly warm, I think I’ll stay indoors, bake something and just ponder on the wonderful season ahead.

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Hidcote and The National Trust in general

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In 2015 we joined The National Trust. We were in Cornwall, the rain was beating down and had been for two days, the wind was rather dominant and it was the August Bank holiday.

What to do with a bored 9 years old and a borrowed 15 year old (my niece)? Also we were a little down on our uppers and the National Trust offered monthly instalments. And so we took the plunge and have never looked back. We have been to so many stunningly beautiful places; we have centred weekends away around National Trust properties, we have been inspired and in awe (and sometimes a little spooked). For family membership we pay about £9 a month and we try and visit something at least once a month (our record being 5 in 2 days, although we are off the Cheshire next weekend so watch this space).

I really love the ethos of the National Trust, the volunteers are knowledgeable and very enthusiastic, the cafes and restaurants are usually very good (although they do get very busy) but we often take a picnic. I’m a bit of a picnic addict, I have far too many wicker hampers, cool bags and melamine, I get very excited by picnic mats and multi-tools. Sad, I know. Often we’ll pack an empty hampers and stop at a farm shop or deli on route – sampling the local cheeses, breads or pies. It’s always lovely to immerse ourselves in the area, last week we enjoyed  a bottle of local cider and a chunk of Single Gloucester from Morton-in-Marsh’s cheese shop before visiting nearby Chastleton House .

We preceded our visit to Chastleton with a few hours wandering about the flagship gardens at Hidcote which were an absolute delight, in fact we plan to return there to see them in the other seasons, I should imagine early summer would be exceptional.

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The gardens would inspire anyone to turn their hand to horticulture, the wild cottage style gardens within gardens were wonderfully informal (and the ice-cream was good too!)

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As with all National Trust properties it’s very family friendly, there are lots of things for children to get involved in, we enjoyed the Croquet (although it did get a little bit, shin-achingly competitive). So it’s a thumbs up for The National Trust and no doubt I will be hopping on my soapbox to extol their virtues for many years to come!

And so we begin again…cheers!

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When I first started this blog, several years ago, I wanted to focus purely on food. As a food writer I wanted to share my recipes, thoughts, recommendations…however, at the time it was not to be and I have admittedly been rather sporadic with my posts (although feel free to read through them). Life has been a bit up and down over that time but now I’ve think I’ve discovered happiness, Hygga, contentment, Cwtchiness (as we say in Wales). For a long time I lost myself and now I realise I was there all along, I just refused to accept myself. Now I am on a new journey.

I ultimately chose one thing ‘To Find Happiness” – if I had to write a list, now, of things which make me smile, it would be extremely long. This blog is going to be packed full of those things, whether physical items, days out with memories attached or photographs. Negativity is not good for the soul, it can always be counteracted, though. This is where mindfulness come in (I do try but I’m not really a kale smoothie drinking, flexibly yogic, life coach-type); I just believe that a happy, positive thought has far more power than a dark, negative one.

I cannot leave my roots though and there will be a fair amount of foodie related (and boozie related) content but alongside this I want to introduce you to some of the ‘lovely things’ in my life that make me smile and yes, some of them are commercialised indulgences and most of them are food and drink! These make you feel good inside just as much as the walk after the rain down by the river, under the trees where the light shone just so. Sometimes a pretty cup or stupidly expensive cake is exactly what’s needed, sometimes new shoes or picking up a lost feather does it. I’m afraid that I am not a ‘back to nature’ blogger who’s wardrobe is capsule and mostly made by indigenous peoples from natural fibres (although I do like a bit of alpaca of a winter), and just sometimes (ahhhhhhh) I even go to McDonalds.

I do subscribe to the ‘buy quality and it will last’ theory and I try to buy British as I believe it is important to support these industries especially  as we approach Brexit. And yet, I always seem to turn out a little scruffy.

I never compromise on my annual Smythson diary, rather enjoy wearing pearls and silk scarfs as well as drapey linen ‘Toast” numbers for days when I want to feel ‘yummy mummy’ and I own a pair of Birks. I am not of a type, I am me and am finally proud to be so.