Britain and Brittany 2013 – Episode Five

18th May 2013

After our not quite as early start at Manchester airport as Roger and Denise’s, we made our Air France hops to Paris – and then to Rennes. There we were met and warmly welcomed by our barge skipper and co-host, Ian Slade. The hour-long drive to Redon, where “Libje” was moored was leisurely and enjoyable – passing as it did through at least one of the villages, La Gacilly, that we would be visiting later in the week.

“Libje” – Our private hotel barge for the next five nights
19 to 25 May 2013

We were equally warmly welcomed by Ian’s wife, Jane, and shown to our well-equipped and spacious cabin. We loved the light and airiness of our cabin – adjoined as it was by as minute but practical an en-suite as you are ever likely to find.

Our Cabin on “Libje”

Regrettably the weather on arrival, and later, prevented us making as much use of the comfy outdoor seating on the foredeck. That it would have been just wonderful in more clement weather was emphasised by the hour or so we did once spend there one evening enjoying the view – and the wine and nibbles served to us by Ian and Jane. That’s not to say that we didn’t make good use of the comfort and warmth of the Wheelhouse both to view the stunning scenery or Ian and Jane’s lock-working skills.

The Wheelhouse on “Libje” – and wet weather sightseeing refuge

Over the next five days we enjoyed the warmth of Ian and Jane’s hospitality and relished the fresh croissants and fruits at breakfasts, those just too tempting salads at lunch, and just scrumptious dinners – whether prepared by Jane or partaken with Ian and Jane at some of their favourite local restaurants along the canal. And, how could we forget to mention the just great wines that enhanced our repasts.

All ready for relaxed repasts…

To complement Jane’s culinary and canal lock-working skills, Ian was not only our expert skipper but our driver/guide on excursions ashore. His knowledge of and love for the region showed wherever he took us – be it to the more than just picturesque villages of Rochefort-en-Terre or La Gacilly, the just wonderful 11th century church in St Gobrien or the standing stones at Monteneuf.

We know the expression “the devil’s in the detail”, but devilish or not here it is:
On our arrival on the barge, we were greeted, too, by two canine supernumerary crew-members, Millie and Pippa – welcoming greetings they repeated each time we returned from an excursion.

While we were settling in, Ian “skippered” us to Malestroit, about 30 kms away, where we were to moor for the next couple of nights. On the following morning, while Ian was motor-cycling back to recover the mini-bus, we had our first walk through the village. On his return, Ian chauffeured us to Rochefort- en-Terre. Rochefort won the village with best flower displays in France so many times that it was eventually banned from entering again to give the others a chance! Although too early for the spring flower displays, we could see why it is so regarded.

Rochefort-en-Terre, Morbihan, Brittany
20 May 2013

Photos: Our visit to Rochefort-en-Terre, Morbihan, Brittany – 20th May 2013

After one of Jane’s light but beautiful lunches with accompanying wine – something we became quite readily used to – Ian took us on a guided tour of the Malestroit. Founded in 978, this medieval town with its winding streets has many half-timbered houses with overhanging gables liberally decorated with wood carvings. And what a beautiful village it is – not only because of the things we saw, but also the friendly people. In fact, in every village we visited, one of the real attractions was the friendliness of people whether it was in shops or just on the street. The cheery “Bon Jour” greetings, accompanied as they were by eye contact, were something we’re just not used to – but love.

Malestroit, Morbihan, Brittany
20 May 2013
More beauty in Malestroit, Morbihan, Brittany
20 May 2013

Photos: A few of the carved wooden characters of Malestroit, Morbihan, Brittany – 20th and 21st May 2013

Next morning we were off to view the standing stones at Montneuf which, unlike the more famous ones at Carnac, are accessible and “touchable” – something that always has appeal for us whether it be a ruined abbey or a piece of sculpture. This smaller version of Carnac was discovered only 30 years ago after a forest fire revealed the alignments. Extensive searches have now revealed over 200 menhirs (upright stones) and several burial sites.

Standing Stones – Montneuf, Morbihan, Brittany
21 May 2013

Photos: Our visit to the Standing Stones at Montneuf, Morbihan, Brittany – 21st May 2013

We later lunched at Creperie Mael Trech in Malestroit (a nice enough restaurant – and a favourite of Ian and Jane’s – but we have to say that neither galettes nor crepes are altogether favourites of ours).
After lunch we were barging again, stopping on the way to visit the 11th century church in St Gobrien – which has a just wonderful array of wooden statues. Ian tried to convince us that the village had been founded by a Celt from Ireland named G. O’Brien – and the village was named after him!!

Church of St Gobrien, Morbihan, Brittany
22 May 2013

Photos: Our visit to the Church of St Gobrien, Morbihan, Brittany – 22nd May 2013

On the way, we passed through some of the prettiest countryside on our cruise, with meadows coming right down to the river as it wound through natural woodland.

En Route to Josselin Morbihan, Brittany
22 May 2013

Photos: En Route to Josselin Morbihan, Brittany – 22nd May 2013

On approaching Josselin, where we would be based for the next couple of nights, we were told that just around the next bend in the river Ouse was one of the best and most famous canal views in France. And there it was – the magnificent chateau of the Rohan family towering above the river.

Josselin Castle, Morbihan, Brittany
22 May 2013
Josselin Castle, Morbihan, Brittany
22 May 2013

The next day was something of a walking day, but with our mooring just below the chateau walls, nothing was too far distant – even for Norm.
Regrettably, as the only tour of Josselin Castle (as the Chateau seems to be called) was in French, we really did quite well matching the Guide’s French commentary with the English in our guide booklet. If we missed some of the highlights within the castle itself, this wasn’t the case with the garden which was just beautiful as was the view from the ramparts down over the river.

Josselin Castle and Gardens
22 May 2013
Josselin Castle and Gardens
22 May 2013

Flushed with this success, we then made our way up the main street to the heights of Josselin where we found, very appropriately, the “Bois d’Amour”. We had no trouble at all meandering our way – for what must have been an hour or so – along the well-kept paths through both woodland and open areas coming out almost at our mooring. But we still had not visited the Basilica “Notre Dame du Roncier”, built on the spot where, in the ninth century, a peasant is said to have found a wooden statue of the Virgin under a bramble bush.

On the following day, after a walk through the western side of the river, Ian took us on an excursion to the artisan village of La Gacilly. The old main street of this town has been converted over the years into a haven for artists and craftsmen. Each shop now houses a different skill with its own workshop. From glassblowing to wood carvers to artists, La Gacilly has it all. In addition, the village hosts each year one of France’s major outdoor photography exhibitions with large and spectacular photographs decorating the town as well as several galleries – sponsored, we understand by Yves Rocher, who are based here.

La Gacilly, Morbihan, Brittany
22 May 2013
La Gacilly, Morbihan, Brittany
22 May 2013

Although the exhibition does not open until the summer, there was still a sizeable display from last year – an attraction which we found it difficult to leave to head “home”. We had dinner with Ian and Jane that evening at a fine local restaurant “La Table D’O” and, without remembering what we had; know that we enjoyed it thoroughly.

On Friday morning, the weather was at last kind enough, to allow Carol to enjoy her early-morning cycle on the canal path – Norm meanwhile rested up!! After breakfast, we set sail once more passing beneath the walls of Josselin Chateau and past the old artisan quarter of St.Croix. After several locks and increasingly quieter and more rural scenery, we arrive at the little village of Pomeleuc, where Ian and Jane moor for the winter. After lunch we continued upstream, passing the Abbaye de Timadeuc where monks to this day offer a retreat in peaceful surroundings, before reaching our final mooring place at the market town of Rohan that gave its name to the Rohan dynasty that still owns the Chateau at Josselin.

It was with regret that we recovered our suitcases from the spare cabin to pack for our return home, before heading off with Ian and Jane to a local restaurant for our last dinner with them. And, although the name of the restaurant escapes me, the flavour of the escargot that Ian and I had will not!! Whether garlicky or not, it was a fittingly relaxing finale to what had been one of our best holidays ever.

All of which deserves a sampling or two of what we saw and enjoyed:

Photos: A sampling from our “Libje” Cruise – 20th May 2013

Photos: A sampling from our “Libje” Cruise – 21st May 2013

Photos: A sampling from our “Libje” Cruise – 22nd and 23rd May 2013

Next morning we farewelled Jane, Millie and Pippa before being ferried back to Rennes by Ian to catch our flight to Paris to Tokyo to Sydney and home.

Britain and Brittany 2013 – Episode Four

12th May 2013

If we are leaving the impression we rather liked Llangollen, you’d be right. For, on the next day, we were there again. We had booked a Sunday Lunch cruise with “Jones the Boats” to cross the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct but spent the morning at “Plas Newydd”, the home of the “Ladies of Llangollen” – and what a find that was. The house and garden were an attraction in their own right, but it was the history of the “Ladies” that made it such a fascinating place. Courtesy Wikipedia, this is part of their story and, given the surname of one of the ladies, perhaps our interest will come as no surprise!!

Eleanor Charlotte Butler was a member of one of the dynastic families of Ireland, the Butlers, the Earls (and later Dukes) of Ormond. Eleanor was considered an over-educated bookworm by her family, who resided at the Butler family seat, Kilkenny Castle. Sarah Ponsonby lived with relatives in Woodstock, Ireland. Their families lived only two miles from each other. They met in 1768 and quickly became friends. Over the years they formulated a plan for a private rural retreat.
Rather than face the possibility of being forced into unwanted marriages, they left their hometown together in April 1778. Their families hunted them down and forcefully tried to make them give up their plans – in vain. They decided to move to England but ended up in Wales, and set up home at Plas Newydd, in 1780. They proceeded to live according to their self-devised system though they could rely on only a modest income from intolerant relatives. Still, they restructured Plas Newydd to the Gothic style with draperies, arches and glass windows.
They devoted their time to seclusion, private studies of literature and languages and improving their estate. They did not actively socialise and were uninterested in fashion. Llangollen people simply referred to them as “the ladies”. After a couple of years, their life attracted the interest of the outside world. Their house became a haven for all manner of visitors, mostly writers, but also the military leader Duke of Wellington, who came to visit, too.
The ladies were known throughout Britain, but have been said to have led “a rather unexciting life”. They lived together for the rest of their lives, over 50 years, Eleanor Butler dying in 1829 and Sarah Ponsonby two years later.

Plas Newydd, Llangollen, Denbighshire
12 May 2013

Photos: Our visit to Plas Newydd, Llangollen, Denbighshire – 12th May 2013

It was with some reluctance that we dragged ourselves away to go cruising. And, anyway it was getting close to lunchtime. We found our embarkation point with some difficulty but were welcomed warmly aboard our brightly coloured narrowboat “Eirlys”. Carrying as it does 50 passengers, it was something of a comfortable squeeze, but neither the number of passengers nor the minute galley seemed to faze our chef and his waitresses at all as they served us a very good Sunday roast lunch. This was accompanied by a very non-intrusive commentary about the history of the canal and the aqueduct we were to cross and, of course, the obligatory glass or two of red wine. Again being the chilly sort of day we were becoming used to, we remained in the warmth of the cabin rather than brave the elements – and the height of the path across the aqueduct – as quite a number of passengers did. We did get a couple of photos though, one of which survived the lunch, the wine and the height:

The river Dee from the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Wrexham
12 May 219

But what about the aqueduct itself, you ask?

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Wrexham
12 May 2013

Well, here we go, again courtesy Wikipedia:

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is a navigable aqueduct that carries the Llangollen Canal over the valley of the River Dee in Wrexham County Borough in north-east Wales. Built by Thomas Telford and William Jessop, the aqueduct is 1,007 ft. (307 m) long, 11 ft. (3.4 m) wide and 5.25 ft. (1.60 m) deep. It consists of a cast iron trough supported 126 ft. (38 m) above the river on iron arched ribs carried on nineteen hollow masonry piers (pillars). Each span is 53 ft. (16 m) wide. Completed in 1805, it is the longest and highest aqueduct in Britain, a Grade I Listed Building and a World Heritage Site.

And, on the next day, guess what? Rain again. Still full of steadfastness, however, we were off, again, first to Shrewsbury, where we walked to the Castle before realising we’d been there before – in 2006. Duh!

An early “Hole in the Wall” – Shrewsbury, Shropshire
13 May 2013

So, only slightly deterred by Norm’s amnesia and the weather, we headed off to Powys Castle & Garden, another National Trust treasure. It was too wet and cold to view the garden, but we spent an informative hour or two touring the house, and later, I suspect to our surprise the really fascinating collection exhibited in the “Clive of India” Museum. That the collection is here arises from the fact that in 1784, Lord Clive, son and heir of Clive of India, married into the Powys Herbert family, whose family seat is this very castle, bringing the Clives’ vast fortune and art collections with him.

Powys Castle and Garden, Powys
13 May 2013
Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire
14 March 2013

On our last day in the Shropshire area, we went all industrial, visiting the Blists Hill Victorian Town at Ironbridge.
This too was a memorable place and not only because Norm tried to leave the little café where we had had a couple of cups of unremarkable coffee without paying. He was chased down, successfully, by an irate waitress who really was convinced he was doing a “runner”!!
But I digress; we will remember our visits to the Bank where we bought a set of old coins and the Pharmacy with its amazing array of wicked-looking instruments and medicines. One of the items on display was a tin of Zam-Buck that cure-all ointment, which Norm remembered from his youth both as a salve and as a name to describe ambulance-men and first-aid officers in NZ. Doubtless, Derek will also recall the name being used in that way.
Another part of the pharmacy was set up as a Dentist’s surgery of yesteryear, a photo of which Carol sent to our dentist in Sydney!! It was, as you’ll see, equipped with a treadle drill – an instrument of torture that some of you may remember. We also watched what we assumed were enthusiastic volunteers put an old working steam engine through its paces – if that’s the right term.

Photos: Our visit to Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire – 14th May 2013

We enjoyed the visit thoroughly. Proof of Norm’s on-going amnesia was further evidenced by an attempt to visit Chirk Castle for the second time. Neither of us can remember when the first one was but it would have been some time in the last five days!!! Needless to say, we didn’t stay.
As was the case at so many of the places we had stayed, it was with reluctance that we left the “White House” and the warmth of the hospitality Ross and Isobel had shown us – to say nothing of the food, glorious food we had enjoyed!

Today was our last touring day but we managed, as planned, to call into Speke Hall on our way “home’ to Didsbury. Speke Hall is a rare Tudor timber-framed manor house in a most unusual setting on the banks of the River Mersey, not far from the centre of Liverpool. Restored and brought back to life in the 19th century, it is a unique and beautiful mixture of Tudor simplicity and Victorian Arts and Crafts’ aesthetics. We first had a costumed guide for a sneak preview and, later tour of the whole house on our own. This would have been fine but for the unsolicited offers of information by a literal swarm of guides who clearly felt we needed their help! We later escaped to the gardens to wander through and get photos of the first real swathes of bluebells we had seen anywhere on our travels.

Speke Hall, Liverpool, Merseyside
15 May 2013

Photos: Our visit to Speke Hall, Liverpool, Merseyside – 15th May 2013

We were, fortunately, able to beat the Manchester “rush hour” and arrive back at our Didsbury “home” to find that we had scored a just delightful light and airy loft-style room with skylight windows. Perhaps not surprisingly we spent the next couple of days regrouping and preparing ourselves for the pleasures of barging in Brittany. We walked into Didsbury village each day both to stretch our legs, do any necessary shopping and indulge in a coffee at our favourite coffee shop, Costas.

We usually walked through Didsbury Park as being a more peaceful alternative than busy Wilmslow Road and on the Friday discovered there the chain-saw sculpture entitled “The Owl and her babies”.
And here they are:

Photos: “The owl and her chicks”, Didsbury Park, Greater Manchester – 17th May 2013

On the Saturday evening before our flight to Brittany on the next morning, we enjoyed a convivial and “Yummy” dinner with Roger and Denise at one of our joint favourite eating places “Café Rouge”. It was all you would expect of a dinner with old and dear friends – and provided us with the opportunity to bid them “bon voyage” for their trip to Sicily which left the following morning.
…and what was to follow was just a great way to end what had already been a wonderful tour.

Britain and Brittany 2013 – Episode Three

8th May 2013

Although Norm had visited Blenheim Palace more than a few years ago, his memory of it was more than a little vague. That being the case, what else was there to do but go? For those who have been there the Palace and grounds are all you would expect from the name “Palace” – which we understand is unusual in that it is the only non-royal or non-episcopal country house in England to hold that title. We thought you should know that!
While the rooms and their furnishings were magnificent, we spent most of our time there exploring the Churchill Exhibition. We both found it fascinating – encompassing as it does, not just photographs and official documents but a sizeable collection of letters – the most poignant of which were those that, as a youngster, he wrote to his parents. He comes across as an extremely lonely boy craving for parental affection that he seemed never to have been given.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
8 May 2013

Photos: Our visit to Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire – 8th May 2013

Churchill’s Grave, Bladon, Oxfordshire

We were sufficiently enthused by the Churchill Exhibition to visit the nearby Bladon village church, where Winston, Clementine and any number of other members of the Marlborough family are buried. That someone whose importance to Britain was so great is buried here (where his parents and brother, Jack were buried) rather than somewhere grander, says much about how important his family was to him.
A day or so earlier than our visit, a floral tribute had been placed close to his grave by the members or descendants of the Dutch Resistance Forces. He seems better remembered in Europe than at home!

With some reluctance, we bid farewell to the “Falkland Arms” for our relatively long drive, via Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton, to Maesbury Marsh, in Shropshire and the “White House”, which was to be our home for the next six nights. We arrived in driving rain and cold wind after driving into the wrong “White House” next door. It was only when pulling in to the right place that Norm remembered that the “our” White House was a brick house – with not a hint of white about it. Duh!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Wightwick Manor is unusual in that, in 1937, its owner, Geoffrey Mander MP, persuaded the National Trust to accept a house that was just 50 years old. It really is a lovely Victorian manor house in Arts and Crafts style, set in superb gardens.

Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton, West Midlands
9 May 2013

The house interiors feature original wallpaper and fabrics by Arts and Crafts pioneer William Morris, along with Pre-Raphaelite stained glass, paintings, and objets d’art. It is designed in a mock-Tudor ‘Old English Style’, with brick and timber-framed whitewashed walls under a tile roof.

The Great Parlour, Wightwick Manor, West Midlands
9 May 2013

…and it was quite a find – helped not a little by an informed and informative guide. Well done National Trust.

We were warmly welcomed by Isobel on our arrival and shown to our light and airy bedroom – adjoined as it was by as spacious an en-suite bathroom as you are ever likely to find! It was, in fact, larger than the bedroom! We later met Ross, our joint host, who was our waiter, wine-waiter and raconteur extraordinaire. Regrettably, the weather that greeted us on arrival continued for almost all our time there and prevented us exploring the garden which, in more clement times, would have been a great spot to chill out after a busy day’s touring.

Over the next five days we did, however, enjoy Ross and Isobel’s hospitality and relished the hearty breakfasts and just scrumptious dinners for which the “White House” is recognised. Our dining experiences were made even more enjoyable by being served in the light-filled conservatory. Not surprisingly perhaps, we chose to “eat-in” every night – and on no occasion were we disappointed. Each morning, we enjoyed our post-breakfast perusal of the extensive Dinner menu and found some difficulty making a choice from so many tantalising dishes. Particular favourites included the Sole Meuniere and the Vegetarian Haggis but every dish we tried, be it an amuse-bouche, entrée, main or dessert, was a tribute to Isobel’s cooking – and truly five stars.
No wonder the “White House” is listed as a “Gastro” Bed & Breakfast.

To complement Isobel’s culinary skills, Ross was the quintessential “mine host” whose gregariousness, ebullience and quick-wittedness kept us mightily entertained. We thoroughly recommend the White House as a wonderful base for exploring Shropshire and beyond – and, if you are so inclined, acquiring a reason for later dieting regimes.

10th May 2013

Off into Wales today – and Llangollen in particular. Our introduction was not encouraging – not because of the town, but the bitter cold – to the point that Norm had to buy some warming gloves – for, if he remembers correctly, the princely sum of about $8.00 from a recycle shop recommended to us by a Camping, Shooting, and Fishing shop in the main street.
This really was a tourist trip day. First we caught the “Llangollen Railway’s” Heritage Diesel Railcar to Carrog – about 12 km from Llangollen.

Our Heritage Diesel Railcar Llangollen, Denbighshire
10 May 2013

Regrettably, it wasn’t the right day for a steam experience. We nonetheless enjoyed a picturesque ride in prime seats behind the driver.

Photos: Our trip on the Heritage Diesel Railcar, Llangollen, Denbighshire – 10th May 2013

It was a most enjoyable experience – and one we would recommend, but only when the weather was warmer. It was perhaps for this reason, that on our return we beat a hasty retreat back to the “White House” to thaw out.

The following day dawned more brightly and we felt sufficiently confident of our weather forecasting skills to return to Llangollen to take a Horse-drawn Barge Trip to see the Horseshoe Falls. As the trip didn’t leave until 11:30 am, we had time for a leisurely walking tour of what really is an attractive small town. As you’ll see from the photo of the Morris Dancers performing outside the Tourist Office, taken as we made our way to the wharf, the weather was still fine.

Morris Dancers, Llangollen, Denbighshire
11 May 2013

It didn’t last and by the time it came to board, it was raining quite heavily. We could only feel for the poor horse and its handler having to brave the intermittent wet – and the cold – for the two hour return trip.

Our Barge awaits us… …and our horse, Llangollen, Denbighshire
11 May 2013
The man-made “Horseshoe Falls” – courtesy Thomas Telford
Llangollen, Denbighshire
11 May 2013

Photos: Our trip on the Horse-drawn Barge to the Horseshoe Falls, Llangollen, Denbighshire – 11th May 2013

We agreed with the reviewer who described this as “possibly the most beautiful length of canal you will ever see, and the horse-drawn trip is definitely the most peaceful and relaxing way to see it”. We could only agree.

With the weather looking a little kinder again, we set off for a couple more attractions, Valle Crucis Abbey and Eliseg’s Pillar. By the time we got to the abbey, the cold wind had returned and we were forced to use it more for shelter than the in-depth tour it may have deserved. We also made it to the Pillar, via a cow-pat strewn path. But we did get to them both, steadfast tourists as we are.

Entrance – Valle Crucis Abbey, Llantysilio, Denbighshire
11 May 2013


Britain and Brittany 2013 – Episode Two

On the following day, we explored the North Norfolk Coast. We braved the wind and took a short walk on the beach at Hunstanton but, with the best will in the world, couldn’t persuade ourselves that it had the same appeal for us as Forster’s Main Beach. Our plan for the day also included visiting as many of the sights that Denise had kindly listed for us as among their favourites when they visit this corner of Norfolk.
We just loved the villages of Old Hunstanton and Burnham Market and were able to find the cottage R&D rent each year – and have photographic evidence to prove it.

“Rose Cottage”, Burnham Market, Norfolk – a Roger and Denise Favourite
1 May 2013

We were successful, too, in finding the “Humble Pie” they recommended but, as it was closed for the day, will have to postpone our sampling of that famous delicatessen’s wares to another visit.

The “Humble Pie” – Burnham Market, Norfolk
1 May 2013

We had better luck with the “Stiffkey Red Lion” and found a sunny spot – more or less out of the wind – to enjoy a “half ” of Wherry – and wherry nice it was too.

A “Half” of Wherry – “Stiffkey Red Lion”, Norfolk
1 May 2013

Believing that we would not be able to fit it on our way from Norfolk to Oxfordshire we made a special visit to Anglesey Abbey, Gardens and Lode Mill.  Apart from its lovely garden and grounds the old abbey undercroft that is now the dining room is a must see.

Anglesey Abbey, Cambridge
2 May 2013

Photos: Our visit to Anglesey Abbey Gardens, Cambridge – 2nd May 2013

On the way to our next staging post in Oxfordshire, we called in at Saffron Walden to visit a church that friends of Carol had visited and recommended. “Simon” – our GPS guru had no difficulty finding it but his expertise didn’t run to finding us a parking spot nearby. After finding one in what we understood was a nearby car park, Norm’s in-built GPS let us down and it was only with the help of a “local lad” – with cricketing interests and a kind word or two to say about our (Australian) cricketers – who pointed us in the right direction.
And what a beautiful church “St Mary’s” turned out to be – not just because of its appearance but more the feeling we had that this was a truly loved and cared for place of worship. As Carol’s friends had done, we “too” lit a candle.

St Mary’s Church, Saffron Walden, Essex
3 May 2013

Photos: Our visit to St Mary’s Church, Saffron Walden, Essex – 3rd May 2013

Our next stop was Audley End House and Gardens. We are not usually fans of tours – preferring to make use of audio-guides when they’re available – or to do our own thing at our own pace. Here we had a very good guide, Sara, whose knowledge and enthusiasm added significantly to the appeal of our visit. We spent considerable time in the grounds and gardens but made a brief visit to the newly-restored stables where the two residents “Duke” and “Jack” are lodged in some comfort.

Home for the next six nights was the “Falkland Arms” in Great Tew a tiny village near Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire.

The “Falkland Arms”, Great Tew, Oxfordshire

We were warmly welcomed on our arrival and shown to our well-equipped room on the first floor. All creaky floors and dark beams – it was a quintessentially old English pub bedroom – and we just loved it.

Our bedroom window – and the view from it across the road to the lovely old Public School
5 May 2013

The quiet country location lived up to our expectations, but the sense of being residents – albeit temporarily – of a just gorgeous Oxfordshire village was a real bonus.
While one of us, at least, continued to manage those hearty English breakfasts, both of us really enjoyed our dinners in the bar/restaurant – and sharing that convivial space with both visitors to the village and “locals” (of both the human and canine variety) made it just that much more enjoyable.
And the hospitality we were shown during our time there was also special – one example of which was that they found a way of fitting us in over the busy Bank Holiday weekend, for what was a special “family reunion” Sunday lunch with Norm’s niece Kathy and her two daughters, Hayley and Rachael, who drove up from Portsmouth for the occasion.

On the Saturday, we paid what was to turn out to be the first of two visits to Waddesdon Manor. Waddesdon Manor was built in the style of a 19th-century French château by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1874 to display his outstanding collection of art treasures. No wonder then, that we spent nearly three hours in the house alone. That this was so was largely the result of one of the best audio-visual guides we have ever come across. Not only were there audio and visual overviews of all the rooms, but the facility to drill down for further spoken and pictorial information of the important items in each room. Being as crowded as it was for the Bank Holiday weekend we didn’t get to see the garden or the special exhibit in the stables and postponed that until the holiday Monday.

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire
4 May 2013

Photos: Our visit to Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire – 4th May 2013

On the Sunday morning – which, for once, was not bone-chilling cold and had the promise of being a fine day – we took a stroll through the village and, later, up the road to the village church. As there was a service in progress and our “reunion” lunch called, we didn’t get to see inside the church.
And as this photo testifies, we had a lovely lunch – with lots of reminisces, recollections and laughter.

Rachael, Norm, Kathy and Hayley
5 May 2013

Not surprisingly perhaps, this took more than an hour or two, but we still managed to fit in a post-prandial recovery walk through the village to admire some fine examples of thatching and some more refreshments in the “sunny and warm” backyard of the Inn to sustain them on their trip home.
Thank you, Kathy.

Photos: Our walk with Kathy, Hayley and Rachael, Great Tew, Oxfordshire – 5th May 2013

Monday had us returning to Waddesdon to complete our visit there.
A highlight was the “Cantus Arcticus” exhibit in the Coach House of the old stables. It was inspired by the shimmering curtains of the Northern Lights and by a piece of music of the same name by a Finnish composer, which in turn was inspired by the landscape and bird song of the Arctic tundra. Light cascades over the curtains of fibre optic, casting soft pools that change colour in response to the music. We spent a deal of time there just absorbing the changing mood of the display.  Regrettably, our photographs failed to catch the mood.
We happily filled in the rest of our time there in the beautiful gardens and visiting the small but apparently important aviary.

On the following morning, after an unwanted but necessary visit to the Medical Centre in Chipping Norton for Norm’s monthly INR blood test, we were off to Hidcote Manor Garden. We had seen and heard something of it on a DVD we have of some of the National Trust Gardens, but were delighted that it was so much better in reality – as the following photos, we trust, will show:

Hidcote Manor Gardens, Gloucestershire
7 May 2013

Photos: Our visit to Hidcote Manor Gardens, Gloucestershire – 7th May 2013

Britain and Brittany 2013 – Episode One

Carol and Norm’s Britain and Brittany
16th April to 27th May 2013

Our most recent foray overseas was every bit as good as we’d hoped.
As I’m not sure if we had mentioned in earlier epistles – of the paper as well as the electronic – form we took this self-drive tour at a much more leisurely pace, staying six nights in country coaching houses, pubs, inns and the like in Yorkshire, Norfolk, Oxfordshire and Shropshire. All have been different and, in their own way, delightful places to stay – and, as it has turned out, to eat.  We are now totally enamoured of the benefit of having a central base from which we can comfortably reach the places we want to visit – and, after a day’s touring, coming back each evening to what have turned out to be genuinely warm welcomes. 
But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On arrival at Hertz depot at Manchester Airport, we were told that the car we had booked and paid for three months earlier was not available!! The agent tried, unsuccessfully, to convince us that a VW Golf was a medium sized car and seemed surprised that we were not happy to tour for a month with one large suitcase in the boot and the other on the back seat!!! With some reluctance, we were offered an exchange for a “larger” car the following day – and we ended up with a practically new VW Jetta and some belated apologies.

We spent the first couple of days in Manchester where our old friends, Roger and Denise live.

Entrance to 11 Didsbury Park, Greater Manchester

Here we stayed at 11 Didsbury Park, a quiet town-house hotel in Didsbury where we were welcomed like old friends – which is what we are really, having stayed there every time we’ve visited Didsbury over the past six or seven years.

We spent the morning of our first day at the local Tesco buying a simple mobile phone on a pre-paid basis – and stocking up on some other essentials like wine.  We ventured into Manchester city itself next morning by bus – and window-shopped for as long as we were able to stand the “spring” temperatures and accompanying wind and rain.  On our return journey to Didsbury, we managed to get the front seat upstairs on the double-decker – and our ride “home” was almost an adventure in itself!

As if to ensure that we were adequately fed before our foray into the country on the following day, Denise cooked up a veritable “feast” for lunch. Accompanied as it was with the appropriate wines – and water, of course – we gave Roger as much help as we could to do it the justice it deserved. And I’m sure we succeeded. Thank you both.

To start our central England circuit, we headed for Yorkshire – and the Loftsome Bridge Coaching House in Wressle, near Beverley. On the way we called in at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – 500 acres of rolling countryside which prompted one reviewer to write: “Probably the finest exhibition site for sculpture in the world.” Be that as it may, we meandered for as long as we were able in the bone-chilling cold of Britain’s late spring (that we later found a pain, in every sense of the word) for as long as we were able, taking in just some of the range of sculptures on offer. Here are a few:

Henry Moore – Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Yorkshire
21 April 2013
Barbara Hepworth – – Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Yorkshire
21 April 2013
Miro – – Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Yorkshire
21 April 2013

…and whilst not exactly sculptural, these two could only be described as just beautiful living exhibits.

Living Sculptures – – Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Yorkshire
21 April 2013

Oh, and the park has one of the best gallery-style shops we’ve visited. We could have spent lots there – but, regrettably in hindsight, resisted temptation. We succumbed to the temptation of just beautiful Tomato & Basil Soup and Crusty Bread in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park Restaurant – and, given the chill of the rural setting, why not?
Loftsome Bridge Coaching House – as was all our accommodation – was chosen on the basis of being central to the areas we wanted to visit and one that had positive reviews. As it turned out, they all lived up to – and, in some cases – surpassed our expectations. In any event we were warmly welcomed on the Sunday afternoon of our arrival and shown to our truly spacious lodgings in the former stables. A complimentary basket of fruit awaited us which, was replenished every day – a hospitable touch that we really appreciated.
The hotel is very much in the country with all the benefits of traffic-less quiet and rural outlook that we were looking for – and, as a bonus, had a view over our very own lake with resident geese and three new goslings.

Our Loftsome Bridge Coaching House Stable Suite,  Wressle, North Yorkshire – and VW Jetta
21 April 2013

Favourite amongst the places we visited in Yorkshire were

    • York Minster, of course,
    • Nunnington Hall (and both for its wire & willow horse sculptures and wonderful “Carlisle Collection” of miniature rooms in the attic);
Nunnington Hall, North Yorkshire – and those “horses”
23 April 2013

Photos: Our visit to Nunnington Hall, North Yorkshire – 23rd April 2013

    • Brodsworth Hall and Gardens (and the “Duty Calls” exhibits recalling how the house, its owners and staff were impacted by WWII 70 years earlier);

Photos: Our visit to Brodsworth Hall Gardens, South Yorkshire – 24th April 2013

    • the Rudston Monolith (2000-3000 yrs old) in the grounds of the early Norman “All Saints” church there; and
Rudston Monolith, Rudston, Yorkshire – and shy tourist, Carol
25 April 2013
    • Burton Agnes Hall & Garden (and its wire & willow geese) and, not least, the masses of daffodils that surrounded the property.
Daffodils in grounds in front of Burton Agnes Hall, Yorkshire
25 April 2013

Another “stately home” visit was to Beningbrough Hall where, in addition to the house and gardens there was a National Portrait Gallery exhibition where we took the opportunity to “commission” a portrait. And here we are – in appropriately period dress:

Carol and Norm at Beningbrough Hall, North Yorkshire
26 April 2013

Although our visit to Hardwick Hall promised the benefit of using our English Heritage card for the “old” Hall and our National Trust Card for the “new”, the warm welcome of the English Heritage staff at the “old” Hall was insufficient to counter the bitter cold of what is a roofless ruin – and we fled to the warmth of “new” Hall. That either hall exists is courtesy Bess of Hardwick, about whom, whether you want it or not you’re going to get a “potted” history:

Bess of Hardwick, as history recalls her, rose from humble origins to become one of the most powerful people in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. She married four times, each time gaining more wealth and her fourth husband was the Earl of Shrewsbury, one of the richest and most powerful of the English nobles of the time. For many years the Shrewsbury’s were responsible for the guardianship of that unhappy Queen Mary Queen of Scots.
The story is that Bess had a furious dispute with her husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, and in 1584 had to leave their home at Chatsworth. She came to the Old Hall at Hardwick and largely rebuilt it as a place for her to live. However, when the Earl died in 1590 her finances became much more secure and she immediately began the construction of the ‘New’ Hall. The Old Hall was abandoned and gradually became a ruin.
With its massive windows and fine proportions, it is an impressive statement of the power and wealth of its creator who made sure the statement was made quite clear by having her initials ES carved on stone letters at the head of the towers! The hall was notable for the size of its windows and the amount of glass used, which was far more than in similar houses of the period.

For us, the “new” Hall was just as you might have expected from the status of its owner, a statement of wealth and power – and really quite cold in the other sense of that word.

Hardwick “Old” Hall, Derbyshire
27 April 2013
Hardwick “New” Hall, Derbyshire
27 April 2013

Then on to Norfolk – and our home for the next six nights – The Bedingfeld Arms at Oxborough. Again a warm welcome in what is the village’s “local” pub. We had a spacious comfortable room on the first floor overlooking fields behind the hotel. As visitors from “down under” we found the room very cold and were grateful when someone showed us where the heating controls were and turned them on.
Over the next five days, we relished hearty breakfasts (including, again, black pudding for Norm) in the bar and appetising dinners in the restaurant. On one evening when the restaurant was not open, a dinner reservation was made for us at a nearby pub, “The Berney Arms” at Barton Bendish – and this was absolutely delicious.
In Norfolk, as in Yorkshire, the evidence of spring being six or so weeks late was still frigidly clear – bare hedgerows and trees, but daffodils everywhere, even on median strips. All very fine, but we could have done without the unwelcome addition of those chilling winds. 
But brave colonials that we are, we soldiered on. High on our list of favourites would be

    • Blickling Hall (it looks every bit the 16th century stately home it is);
Blickling Hall, Norfolk
28 April 2013
    • the late gothic Paycocke’s House (with its stunning woodcarving and elaborate panelling inside, and tranquil cottage garden outside);
Paycocke’s House, Essex
28 April 2013
  • And, how could we forget Sutton Hoo and its treasures?
    Sutton Hoo is the site of two 6th- and early 7th-century cemeteries. One contained an undisturbed ship burial including a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artefacts of outstanding art-historical and archaeological significance, now held in the British Museum in London. Fortunately for us – and other visitors – replicas of many of the treasures are displayed here, and what treasures they are.
Anglo-Saxon mask motif on the front of the Exhibition Hall, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk
30 April 2013
Replica of the “Great” Gold Belt Buckle – Sutton Hoo, Suffolk
30 April 2013