Country Escape

Just back from a country house escape – sounds posh, doesn’t it? In truth, my room was in a former pub, which was even better; it nicely set the tone for the weekend – sociable, relaxed and never too far from a reviving drink.

All black beams, sloping ceilings and leaded windows, I was staying in the grounds of Harrington House, a quintessential Georgian house in that most quintessential of Cotswold villages, Bourton-on-the-Water.

Harrington House, Bourton-on-the-Water 1

Take honey-coloured stone, a sparkling brook, weeping willows and a broad green; mix in ducks and a sprinkling of creamy tearooms and you’ve got the picture. Harrington is one of HF Holidays’ guest houses and it pretty much has prime position in this Cotswold peach; central but tucked away from the coachload tourists.

Bourton-on-the-Water 1

HF Holidays are all about an easy sociability – as little or as much as you like – usually mixed with an organised activity; again, as much or as little as you like. On our stay (I was joined by my cousin) there were people doing landscape painting, others on a cultural and historical tour; the previous week, there’d been guided walking groups and music. (Bridge, photography, yoga, cooking, cycling, mindfulness and singing are just some of the other possibilities HF offers, both at their UK houses and places abroad.) Our ‘escape’ weekend was more relaxed but we took advantage of the excellent choice of self-guided walks, complete with maps and clear route descriptions.

Saturday I woke to one of those rare, dreamy, English-summer days: peerless blue skies and cotton-wool clouds. We were torn between a decent walk or a stroll round Hidcote gardens, a superb example of Arts and Crafts style, until – oh joy! – we found a walk combining both. After a substantial breakfast, whose options included smoked haddock and eggs Benedict, and having collected our equally substantial packed lunch – including 12 sandwich options, fruit, flapjack, pork pies, trail mix – we headed north 30 minutes to Hidcote.

Our walk took us up gentle hills, across meadows, past cottage gardens and  watery blue flax fields, and rewarded us with horizon-stretching views of the Vale of Evesham and across to the smoky blue Malvern Hills. Lunch was under the oak tree on Ebrington village green in front of a row of thatched cottages.

It was as quaint and chocolate-box perfect as Hidcote was lush and sumptuous. Created by Lawrence Johnston in the early 20th century, the gardens, now owned by the National Trust, are a series of ‘rooms’ that take you on a dreamy journey from the Bathing Pool Garden to Hydrangea Corner, and from the Pillar Garden to The Wilderness, via unexpected corners and secret vistas. The Red Borders and the Long Borders were my favourite; the former a subtle mix of red-hued leaves and blooms cleverly ending in an arched wrought-iron gate that framed the sky, the latter a riot of voluptuous colours and shapes.

Hidcote Garden 1

Even better, because we’d arrived after a long walk, the lovely National Trust lady at the entrance gave us a free cup of tea voucher; it’s their ‘reward’ policy.

Restored by a handsome supper – four courses if you want, and we did (excellent local cheeses) – on Sunday we took a circular walk from our base, discovering the quaint and peaceful Norman church at Clapton-on-the-Hill with its open-beamed roof and pews for just 45 people. That evening, we helped our team to a respectable score in the art quiz, despite – or perhaps because of – some rather good Shiraz.

I left the following day feeling I’d had a week’s break rather than just a weekend.



The key to Middleton Coach House

Last week I was humiliated. Professionally humiliated. As a travel writer, I’ve stayed in dozens of hotels, b&bs and pubs. I know how things work – mostly, although showers continue to tax me with their cunningly disguised hot-and-cold, on-and-off controls. I certainly know that room keys (or cards) should be placed in easy-to-remember, safe pockets or bag compartments. Or thought I knew…

Last week, I managed to lose my room key. To make matters worse, while I was scrabbling around, all hot and bothered, I bumped into the owner, James Allison. I was staying at The Coach House at Middleton Lodge, an English county estate in perfectly formed miniature near Middleton Tyas in North Yorkshire. I’d only been there a few hours, during which time James had kindly given up some of his busy time to show me around. It’s lovely: all soft grey stone, huge arched windows and pleasing symmetries, and set around a pretty courtyard garden.

Middleton Coach House Restaurant exterior 2

I had to ‘fess up. James just waved away my bumbling apologies, we found a spare key and I arrived late for dinner. This place is worth it for the dining room alone. Set in the former stables, open beams and brickwork make a soaring backdrop for a rustic mix of tongue-and-groove panelling and mis-matched tables, poshed up with slate floors and judiciously placed green glassware. The food is standard Modern British but with fun tweaks – potato risotto with the roast cod (my choice; the cod was silky-soft) – and interesting vegetarian options: BBQ leeks with smoked mayonnaise, for instance.  Puddings are rich and gorgeous; my rhubarb, apple and ginger with vanilla pannacotta hit the spot.

Middleton Coach House Restaurant 1

Next morning shone gorgeously sunny and, as a long shot, before breakfast I decided to retrace the woodland walk I’d taken the previous afternoon. Just in case. The bluebells were giving a last hurrah, a squirrel darted up a beech tree, lambs bleated obligingly. But no sign of a key. Almost back at the courtyard, on a whim, I took a small path to my right. And there, glinting in the sunlight was my key. Breakfast that morning never tasted so good.

June 2015


Isle of Man – full of surprises

Kippers, Queenies (scallops) and Manx lamb I expected, but the sourdough almond croissant was something else: light, sweet and impossible to eat tidily. It was Saturday morning, a few weeks ago, and I was making a fine sticky mess of one in the Isle of Man’s capital, Douglas. I was in Noa Bakehouse where Miles Pettit and his team had been baking since 2.30am. Their open kitchen is in the middle of this warehouse-style café and bakery, all scrubbed tables, mis-matched chairs and huge windows.

Isle of Man - Noa Bakehouse menu

Pettit gave up a Soho-based film production career to open the bakery – specialising in sourdough breads – in 2013 when he moved to the island with his Manx-born wife. Warm and laidback, with a bit of a Californian vibe, Noa – which means ‘fresh and new’ in Manx Gaelic – was the first of several surprises the Isle of Man threw at me.

There was the landscape which rapidly morphed through several UK styles, from Lake District-like fells to Fenland-flat cereal fields in the north and Cornish coastal cliffs in the south. Yet the island is only 33 miles long by 13 miles wide. Then there were the stars; zillions of them in peerless inky-black skies. Most astonishing was the colour of the sea. I’m used to North Sea steel-grey. Here the sea ranged from denim blue to dark jade to tropical aquamarine. The water lapping Fenella beach at Peel would have given the Caribbean a run for its money.

To be honest, I expected things to be, well, a little old-fashioned. It’s true, there are still horse-drawn trams on Douglas promenade and lots of seaside-y guest houses but there are also slick restaurants and interactive museums. And then there is The Arches.

Isle of Man - The Arches

High on the hill above Port Erin, this b&b is like a James Bond lair. Each of the six rooms has peerless views over the bay through floor-to-ceiling windows, and each has a ‘wow’ factor: blinds you can operate from the bed; a floor-lit bathroom with TV above the bath; or a mezzanine-level Jacuzzi bath with sea views. The living room is a vast, seductive pad with white leather sofa, zebra-striped cushions and customised lighting. Fancy a dip? Head downstairs to the indoor infinity pool. The Isle of Man is seriously groovy.

May 2015


North York Moors surprises

As someone proudly Yorkshire-born, I thought I knew the place well. Ha! More fool me. Just back from a few days in the lovely North York Moors – should that be ‘on’? – with three little gems.

Beer cake. This I found in what would make a creditable entry for smallest pub in the world. Birch Hall Inn, at Beck Hole near Goathland, is a slip of a room with three tables, fading wallpaper and a serving hatch for a bar. As well as serving its own-brewed beer, it has a short menu of doorstep sandwiches, scones and beer cake; the latter made by soaking fruit in the afore-mentioned beer. Yummy. Do take time to pop into the next-door shop (the other side of the hatch) for a bag of old-fashioned sweets such as midget gems and liquorice sticks. More yum!

Bridestones. These sound rather charming but the reality was rather different… Emerging from a path on the edge of Dalby Forest, near Thornton-le-Dale, for a moment I thought I’d walked onto a sci-fi film set. A series of towering, toadstool-shaped rocks stood in eerie silence around the rim of a shallow valley. The eeriness was compounded by the fact I couldn’t see another soul. The rocks seemed to possess a power, as though lined up for a ritual. In truth, they are just fantastically weathered sandstone. But the atmosphere around them was extraordinary.

Bridestones 1

Chimney Bank. I knew this twisty road up out of Rosedale Abbey was steep – 1-in-3 – but I didn’t know it was something of a cycling challenge; the record is just over five minutes for the half-mile from bottom to top. Even with a trusty four wheels, and doing nothing more taxing than changing gear, I was puffed when I reached the summit. But the views are glorious!

Rosedale from Chimney Bank 1

I learned the cycling facts from Kate Jones and Stephen Gilles, traditional glassmakers whose studio in Rosedale, Gillies Jones looks out onto the moors. As someone once said of their signature bowls: I want one in every colour.



Mad running season

It’s that time of year. The streets are full of runners, physiotherapists are fully booked, and I’m badgering friends to part with their money. Yes, it’s Great North Run season (Sep 7, Newcastle). And this year, the millionth runner will cross the finishing line – a world first. No other mass-participation running event has reached one million participants.

And, yes, I’m doing the Run (hoping not to be that millionth person; too embarrassing) fund-raising for The Stroke Association. In a moment of madness, I also signed up to take part in the Opening Ceremony (Sep 4). This will be a musical-dramatic-pyrotechnic-acrobatic-magical lighting-all-singing-all-dancing spectacular on the Quayside with around 1000 volunteers shaking their booty. Stories of the north-east’s shipbuilding and coal-mining heritage, together with its inventor and sporting heroes, will be told. A bit like the Olympics, but with a definite northern twang.

The air will be electric with Geordie good humour. Come along!