Tuesday, February 28


Difficult as it is to believe, Stratford-upon-Avon is not just about William Shakespeare - although there are certainly many signs of him and I'm sure about 70% of the people in the town centre on a weekend are there because of him!

I was there to visit my sister and her family, who have recently moved house to the outskirts of the town. They are right next to the Welcombe Hills nature reserve, which makes for some stunning walking on the doorstep - something I was very jealous of!

But you can also walk along the canal with its mix of grimy industrialism giving way to rural beauty - the former making me feel a little more at home.

It was a glorious weekend for walking, with more than a hint of the spring weather to come. We followed the canal for a couple of miles or so, past several flights of locks and past cheery clumps of snowdrops and squabbling ducks.

Eventually the lure of lunch became too great, and we headed back into town to partake of some splendid pork pie and sandwiches at Hobsons - which I am reliably informed by the newly-installed locals is the best cafe in Stratford-upon-Avon. With not a mention of Shakespeare in sight!

Monday, February 20

Meopham and Luddesdown

Another glorious day saw me itching for a walk, so after stoking up my energy levels with a sausage sandwich or two, I set off for Meopham in Kent.

I'm keen to continue my exploration of this part of Kent - for one thing it's within a half hour drive of home, and for another, it has some beautiful countryside.

When you drive through on the M2 it's difficult to believe that, as the motorway is flanked by electricity sub stations, out of town shopping centres, and industrial estates. But you don't have to go far to find hidden valleys, quiet lanes and beautiful woodland.

The walk, which I downloaded from here, starts just a few miles off the M2 at Camer Park, very close to Meopham. I extended the route to Luddesdown, which was great as I got to discover Luddesdown Organic Farm and witness their Gloucester Old Spot piglets having great fun digging massive holes in the ground!

The rhubarb in the old tyres was just peeking out, looking ready to spring into life at any minute.

The only downside of the walk was the pub that I'd thought might be good for a mid-walk pint in Luddesdown turned out to be closed. If only I'd googled it beforehand I would have known to divert the walk a bit earlier so I would pass the Cock Inn just around the corner!

But I made up for it by buying myself a bottle of wine from the Meopham Valley Vineyard shop in Meopham.

Sunday, February 19

Porto pleasures

Every now and then I get a reminder of the good bits that my job involves; last week I was invited to Portugal to witness the operation of a big, technically-sophisticated bit of bridge-building kit.

The company that invited me had booked me into one of the poshest hotels I've ever stayed in, with a glorious view across the river Douro in the heart of Porto (well in fact the hotel was in Gaia on the opposite side of the river).

The bathroom had a window for goodness sake!

I was the only person in the swimming pool/gym, which also has a view of the river, and we dined that evening in the restaurant at the hotel where I tasted a glass of Taylor's Scion port that was bottled in 1855. I like port, and this was incredible stuff but eye-wateringly expensive.

Of course everything comes at a price and the next day I endured a rather nerve-wracking few hours visiting the site; the views were lovely but clambering around large pieces of equipment at heights of about 300ft is not something I would choose to do! I could have done with a restorative glass of port after that visit!

Sunday, February 12

Richmond to Teddington via Ham House

Saturday was my favourite type of winter day - crisp, clear and sunny, even if it was a little bit cold. Richmond was the starting point for a walk with Gareth; we both felt the need for some river views but nothing too physically taxing nor difficult to get to.

We detoured to look at Ham House, not expecting it to be open to the public this time of year, but we had forgotten it was half term and the gardens, cafe and shop are apparently open all week. It was delightfully deserted, seems like nearly everyone else had forgotten too!

The kitchen garden proved so sheltered and sunny that even in the freezing temperature we were able to enjoy our coffee and soup outdoors, watching the parakeets bully the blue-tits off the bird nuts!

Walking on to Teddington Lock offered some lovely river vistas, although the temperature dropped rapidly whenever we were in the shade. Always good to get home to the warmth, and count my blessings that I'm able to do so.

Saturday, February 11

For the love of pickles

I love preserves - whether pickled herring, home-made chutney or preserved lemons.

As well as jumping at any excuse to serve pickles and chutneys, I am always on the lookout for new recipes and love to try them wherever I see them on sale, in case I can get an idea or pick up some hints for something new. The basic recipe for my favourite ever home-made chutney (spicy apple) came from a jar I bought from a WI sale in Tenterden.

This little collection formed a large proportion of my dinner last weekend, and very tasty it was too, accompanied by bread, cheese and a hefty glass of wine.

Clockwise rom top left: smoked salmon rolls in dill sauce (part of a christmas hamper); pickled herring (last of a jar I bought more than a year ago in Ikea - lasts pretty well!); pickled garlic (my own recipe) with onion marmalade (from Paxton & Whitfield, part of another christmas hamper); pickled courgettes (my own recipe).

Plenty of plans for new pickles and preserves this year; currently waiting for the big jar of preserved lemons to mature, so I can try and work up a new chutney or relish which involves them. Tried a delicious preserved lemon and coriander sauce today at the Richmond farmers market, so I'm keen to try and replicate it. Watch this space!

Friday, February 3

Lille weekend

Last weekend the Curse and I took ourselves off to Lille for a couple of nights for a belated celebration of a special birthday. The destination was intended to be a surprise for him, but I'm crap at keeping secrets and had already let the cat out of the bag some weeks ago. Heck he always did tell me that he didn't really like surprises...

It's only about 90 minutes on the train from Kings Cross, which makes it handy for short trip and the city is small, compact and easy to walk around. It's a lovely combo of arts and crafts, cake shops and Belgian beer and we found the people to be extremely friendly and welcoming.

We packed a lot into the weekend, including quite a bit of hanging out in the bar of our very sumptuous hotel.

Right opposite the hotel, tucked behind the shabby 1960s shopping centre, we found the town hall with its glorious bell tower. Apparently bell towers are something of a tradition in northern France and are seen as a symbol of independence. Luckily this one was built in the 1920s and had a lift; it was also fabulously lit at night.

Out the front of the town hall is a monument celebrating the opening of the building and featuring fine, upstanding country folk carved in a Soviet-esque style.

More towers in the main square, which is an imposing space surrounded by fine buildings and many bars.

Meert bakery; home of the famous Gaufres (wafers) which are sandwiched together with various flavoured pastes and sold in boxes. The bakery sells a huge array of dainty sandwiches, biscuits and cakes, as well as old-fashioned-looking sweets in a traditional sweet shop next door. There's a tearoom at the back too.

On the same street I found a fabulous craft shop with walls that had shelves from top to bottom with dozens of jars of buttons on one side, and a huge array of yarn skeins on the other; turns out it's a French craft shop chain!

We rounded the weekend off with a trip to the former textile town of Roubaix - accessible by metro - where we paid a visit to the museum which is housed in a former art deco swimming pool. Incredibly beautiful and peaceful, the museum has a permanent collection of sculptures and paintings, including quite a lot of local artists, and also has historical artefacts relating to the textile industry for which Roubaix used to be known.

They have a lot of sample books, some of which are open on display behind glass, the rest you can see by appointment. Many of these samples came from the early part of the 20th century which I was very surprised by, I thought a lot of them looked far too modern!