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Friday, 9 November 2018

A day at St Martin's Lodge - a unique place to stay in Leicester

When King Richard III was found in the car park in Leicester, just a stone's throw from the Cathedral, the eyes of the world honed in on the city.

The story brought tourists from all over the world, on day trips, to stay overnight, but there was only a few modern hotels close by to the historic Cathedral Quarter. Until now.....

You can now stay at St Martin's Lodge which has just opened bang opposite the Cathedral where Richard III is buried, close to the city's mediaeval Guildhall..

It's a Grade II Georgian  listed building, a former house and more recently a solicitors office, which I've watched being transformed over the last year.

What's more, the rooms at the back overlook the very spot, a mere thirty steps away where Richard III's body was actually found in the car park.

Earlier this week, I was given an exclusive preview of the new, luxury accommodation  which offers 28 en suite rooms, two of them fully accessible rooms.

The whole building has been restored sympathetically with beautiful old marble fireplaces kept in situ, and original bow windows restored.  It's also decorated in historic colours, with every room very different from each other. Fortunately though, the bathrooms are bang up to date with the latest designer showers and baths!


 I was staying overnight , and as the door to my room was opened, I was delighted with the view...

All I had time for was a quick look around, as I was recording and editing all day. I couldn't wait until the end of a long day to return and relax.

The view had changed dramatically by nightfall as the Cathedral was bathed in red for Remembrance
and I just stood gazing out at my favourite area of the city.

Prising myself away from the windows which run along the length of the room, I made myself at home 

I eyed the bed longingly,

After a ten hour shift at work though, I decided to make the most of the beautifully appointed bathroom. I wallowed in the huge roll top bath by lamplight, watching the shadows play on the wall and  admiring the beautiful tiles.....

After an oh so comfortable night's sleep in a bed the size of the Isle of Wight , I tested the shower, which was big enough for three people, and reluctantly got ready for work again.

It was the attention to detail I noticed though before I left....lovely drawings and sketches on the walls by local artists, local bottled water in glass bottles in the fridge, organic toiletries in recyclable packaging, USB points and plug sockets by the bed, in the sitting area and at the desk and dressing area.
There's  a Nespresso machine, kettle and a selection of teas available  in each room, but don't expect breakfast or a bar here.

This isn't a hotel, it  has the atmosphere of a private house. Breakfasts and lunches are available at St Martins House just a few steps across  the square, and a wide selection of bars and restaurants are only a hop, skip and jump away from St Martins Lodge.

This is in a prime location for anyone staying in Leicester, especially if you want to visit the King Richard III Centre which is a mere fifty yards away, or walk around mediaeval and Roman  Leicester, or if you're attending a wedding or a conference.

Despite just opening , bookings have been brisk, with the first guests coming from Singapore for a wedding( they took every room except one) and had the reception just across the Square , quickly followed by a posse from Wyoming , USA and a number of business guests.

St Martins Lodge is quirky, quaint and quite unique.  I also like its back story. It's owned by the Church - the Diocese of Leicester , who were offered the building a few years ago. How could the Church turn down the space,  the location , with a large car park at the back ?

It couldn't...the restored building is enhancing the Cathedral Square, attracting visitors to the area, and the profits will help pay the salaries of  priests and church staff as well as extending the church's work across Leicestershire and Rutland. That's what I call a win win situation.

You can find out more information about St Martins Lodge and book rooms here.....

You can also hear more on this story from me here 
- just scroll  I hour 25 minutes into the programme.


Sunday, 4 November 2018

Days of lettering

Are you lucky enough to make your passion your career?

So many people aren't, but earlier this year my daughter Lucy made the step to do just that. She's now working for herself  as Little Old Goose, a modern calligrapher, chalkboard and lettering artist.

I should have seen it coming a child she loved writing, and by her early teens had a distinctive and clear hand. She doodled too,  always having a  notebook or sketchbook close by.

When she got married, she had a ball designing all her wedding stationary, creating the chalkboards and signage. Everyone loved her style, and now she doing it for other couples getting married, for big events and anyone celebrating.


If you visit Southsea, Winchester and other places on the South Coast , you can see examples of Lucy's work in various shops, bars and restaurants....on walls, chalkboards and glass windows.


"I never know where my next commission will come from, or what the client will want. Sometimes they don't even know themselves."says Lucy. "That can be exciting, but I also work to definite briefs."
The commissions come from far afield, down south and across  in Leicestershire, Rutland and Lincolnshire.
Lucy also runs modern lettering workshops across these counties too. Held during the daytime and evenings, she provides brushes, ink and paper and guides groups of up to twelve people through the basic strokes and shapes.
"People come to the workshops alone, in couples, or as part of a group of friends or colleagues and during the break, there's  the chance to have a glass of wine or a soft drink .One thing is certain, there's always cake or nibbles and everyone always seems to really get on. Mind you, when they're practicing their lettering, it's quiet...the concentration levels are high, and everyone is totally focused on what they're producing."
At the end of the workshops Lucy says she loves to see they're pleased with what they've achieved and I love to see what workshop attendees go on to create.
Lucy is also asked to deliver workshops elsewhere for others. -at the end of September she flew to  Copenhagen for the third time to run two sold out workshops and she's also been asked to go back next year.
Before Christmas though, she's running workshops on the Isle of Wight, in Leicestershire  and Lincolnshire.
You can get more details here....
Lucy's also off to London for four days in December to hand letter personalised baubles and gifts at Selfridges and John Lewis.
Meanwhile, what's your passion ? Have you been able to take it a stage further too...or are you planning to? I'd love to hear about what you're doing........


Friday, 28 September 2018

Autumnal days

On Sunday it was the Autumn Equinox...that magical time of year when the Sun positions itself directly over our Earth's Equator. The first day of autumn, and I found myself walking on a crunchy carpet of acorns which had fallen on the right hand side of our lawn from the aged oak tree next door.

As I walked the dogs around the village they started to sniff at the ground under the horse chestnut trees.....and I espied conkers. It's years since my boys played with conkers, but they brought back happy memories of the boys coming home with pockets full of them.

We'd always put a few on the side table in the kitchen, and I couldn't resist doing that again this mini version of the junior school's nature table! Besides, I don't want too many daddy long legs coming into the cottage - they love thatched roof cottages .

I also put on the table a huge pine cone which I was given earlier this year when I recorded a programme at the wonderful Kilworth Conifers in South Leicestershire .

The signals of Autumn are definitely here - such as wearing  pairs of socks for the first time in months and putting on black opaque tights for work. Also, all the lamps are being lit just after seven after viewing the beautiful sunsets this week from the garden.
An extra quilt has been thrown on our bed as the nights are distinctly chillier and the chimney sweep needs to be booked. I'm preparing mounds of apples for storing and freezing, and I'll be making  apple mint jelly in the next few weeks.
I do love Autumn , making the most of the most of the light, and watching with delight the Virginia creeper starting to show off ,before  getting ready to hunker down for the  for my least  favourite season in the year. Yes, Winter, you know who you are....
Every year, I  breathe a sigh of giddy relief when the Spring Equinox finally arrives in late March, but this year, I am really looking forward to it.
That's because something very special is happening at that time, apart from the nights getting lighter, the weather becoming warmer and the world springing into new life.
My daughter is going to be having a baby at the time of the equinox!
She runs a company called little old goose, designing chalkboards and signs and running hand lettering workshops. To say I am thrilled for her and her hairy husband is an understatement. To say I'm excited, bowled over and totally over the moon is another one.
We have all been wishing and hoping for this news for a long time, but things often don't go according to plan. This baby may be making an appearance much later than anyone hoped for, but the sheer joy of meeting this little one, this first much longed for grandchild will be carrying me through the dark days of the coming winter.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Monday Monday and why I love Fridays

Mondays are usually such busy days aren't they?

The first day back at work , all systems a gogo from the moment the alarm shrills, there's a sense of urgency, and even excitement,  and a sense of "What will happen this week?"

But today is a Bank Holiday here in England , an official day off and the last one until Christmas. I adore bank holiday Mondays ...they are days which seem to give you carte blanche to do exactly what you will, whether it be going out , meeting up with friends or just slobbing about the house, reading, listening to music or having a doze on the sofa. Today I'm off to the allotment to pick apples and Victoria plums and perhaps if I feel the urge, do some weeding.

So a lovely day, but even though I love my job, Fridays are my favourite days.   For many, they mark the end of the working week, the beginning of the weekend and freedom for a couple of days.

 For years I've worked on a Friday. They've always been a complete rush, as it's a  busy day in a newsroom. You're making packages and features, and orb booking guests for the Monday  breakfast programme. Often stories fall down at the last minute, and you have to pull something out of the bag,chase a fresh angle or a different story, and you can't leave until everything is done.

This always seemed to happen when it was a Friday fizz night with friends which happens once or twice a month.  I was always the last to arrive. A bottle and a half of prosecco would have been polished off , some nibbles and canap├ęs already eaten and lots of gossip already done, dusted and dissected before I'd got a foot through the door.

That's all different now though as I now get Fridays off....and I am bloody well loving it. Arriving on time for Fizz Night, food shopping all done leisurely instead of battling the hordes at Waitrose on a Saturday, and time to walk the dogs, see friends, go to the allotment or read.

 On one Friday each month a group of friends all meet for lunch to critique each others work and have lunch. This month , four of us  drove off to Grantchester for work news, chat, and a chance to see one of our latest books hot off the press - Pippa Goodhart's The Great Sea Dragon Discovery . Brilliant book , and stunning cover ....

Last Thursday night, my darling daughter, her husband and dog all arrived, so Friday was a heady mix of shopping, wine tasting and lunch, and that was all before 2.30pm.

An hour or so later though the dogs made it quite clear (there were four at home) decided that they wanted another walk, so my son in law and I nipped off in the car to the canal a couple of miles away.

A quiet part of the canal where we could have a gentle stroll. There was no one around, only the cows to our left through the hedge who were on their way to afternoon milking.....

I love this part of the Grand Union Canal....

It may be only twenty two miles away from Leicester where I work, but it's a whole world away from there in terms of noise, bustle  and the start of the Friday leave work early traffic. 

We didn't see anyone else apart from a couple who waved as they passed us by...

Birdsong, the gentle mooing of the cows, chatting with Harry and watching the dogs all enjoying their walk ...what a lovely way of recharging my batteries on a Friday afternoon.

Simple pleasures make me smile...

Then it was time to load the dogs back into the car, and driving home, up the lane

with a goodbye from this lot...

to begin cooking supper for eight of us and trying out the new wines we tasted earlier.

Relaxing around the table until it was dark...and still the chatter continued by candlelight. Bliss....

Each Friday is different, and quite a few Fridays this Autumn are going to spent writing, but it's a delicious feeling knowing that Friday means fun, freedom, fizz and friends.

Here's to Fridays which for me are the best day of the week, whatever I do.....

Saturday, 11 August 2018

National Plum Day

Apparently today is National Plum Day here in the UK....the first one ever.

Of course people in Pershore, Worcestershire will be celebrating it as part of their Pershore Plum Festival - they are famed for their plum harvests dating back to mediaeval times.

Plums are one of those fruits that I didn't care for much as a child, but over the years I've become an avid fan of such a delicious fruit. Especially over the last three years since I took on another small strip of an allotment . It may be small but it contains a damson tree , a Victoria plum tree and one of unknown origin along with a number of apple trees.

So why do I like plums so much? There's a gutsy depth of flavour...which can be both tart or sweet. They're such versatile fruits which can be used in so many different ways, and they're good for you. Packed with antioxidants, they're good for lowering blood sugar (they have a low glycaemic index score ) lowering blood pressure, not to mention helping your intestines, heart and even your bone health.

Two weeks ago I was the allotment, and the damsons were still as hard as bullets. I thought they'd be ready in perfect time for the village show on 1st September as usual. I was wrong though  - last week I checked and the wasps were circling the tree, a sure sign that they were ripe, or  some were even  over ripe.

I picked at least twenty pounds of damsons , and gave about three pounds away immediately to my neighbour on the next plot. Once home, my plans for the day were rearranged as dealing with the damsons had to take priority.

I decided to try a new recipe for damson jam first. This is a very soft set jam where the fruits are whizzed to a pulp first in a food processor before cooking in the preserving pan.

I made a litre of damson ice cream for the first time, whisking away the ice crystals in an ice cream container and popping back in the fridge at intervals. This was very fresh and fruity, and I was rather taken by it. But not the first time, did I wish I had a proper ice cream maker. One day, one shall be mine...!

I digress....I froze about five pounds in a sugar pack, made a litre of damson gin and then wondered what I could do with the rest.

I posed that question on twitter and instagram with a photo of my damson haul.

My friend Laura merely suggested more gin, but that's not surprising , she loves making any type of fruit gin. Then Antonio got in contact...he and Daniele run Gelato Village in favourite geleratia outside of Italy. I've written about them in the past  here

Antonia hasn't made damson sorbetto before but thought he might like to try. So on Monday I put three kilos in my wicker basket and dropped them off at the geleratia, only a few minutes walk from work.

The next morning I received a call. "It's ready " said Antonio, and I could tell he was pleased with the flavour when he sent this tweet.

Well, I couldn't wait until I finished work that evening. to taste my very first plum sorbetto.
The colour was deep and appealing, the taste sublime.

What alchemy and magic had Antonio conjured up to transform the damsons which only the day before had been growing on my tree?

I got some of the other customers to have a quick taste.....the comments ranged from "Wow!" to "This is so fruity" to "I think this is the best flavour today."

Feeling so proud of my plums and admiring Antonio's handiwork, I was then given a huge box full of sorbetto to take home and put in the freezer, and the rest was sold.

My husband I have been eating damson sorbetto every night since Tuesday. A pudding which is not only damn tasty but healthy - so that's why we're having some tonight too, to celebrate the first ever National Plum Day.

I've been back on the allotment today though, and picked pounds more damsons..........


Saturday, 23 June 2018

Days at Monsoon Valley Wines, Thailand

Summer, and it's the time to enjoy all those chilled glasses of rose which are so perfect for a picnic, for lunch and especially before supper on a warm evening out in the garden.
I like them dry, especially from Provence, but there's a rose from somewhere quite different which I absolutely adore.

Brace yourselves, it's from Thailand. Yes, hot and humid Thailand - from the Monsoon Valley Vineyard, set in the hills about twenty five miles from Hua Hin.  It's a Shiraz Rose which earlier this month won the title of "The World's Best Rose" in Thailand - ahead of eighty others from all around the world in a blind tasting..

I've been to that vineyard on my last three trips to Hua Hin, to taste the wines and to have lunch. The rides around the vines are optional, by elephant or jeep . Go before lunch because it's just too hot afterwards, and you will, whether you intended to or not, have drank some fabulous wines which don't mix well with the undulating motion that comes with being stuck on top of a walking elephant. That said, I wouldn't take an elephant ride in the first place.

Chalerm Yoovidhya is the very successful Thai businessman who had the vision to create Monsoon Valley Wines back at the beginning of the century, even though it wasn't a given that it could succeed.

Last year, my husband and I were in the south of Thailand in January and February, amid the terrible storms which caused widespread destruction and we were stuck on roads which had been swept away. So when we made it to the vineyard on the way back from the islands a few weeks later, we were only too well aware of the difficulties that winemakers here face weather wise.

It was a very warm and muggy Saturday, not a hint of a breeze and we couldn't wait to sit in the shade of La Sala for lunch.

Thai and European food is available - we usually stick to light dishes and salad and pair them with a flight of three wines. 

With a starter of satay pork, we drank the crisp white Columbard. It's zingy freshness worked well with the peanut and lime sauce. Then came the Shiraz Rose, which although slightly sweeter than I usually prefer, was bursting with flavour -  wild strawberries and happiness in a glass.

I also liked the Shiraz red, spicy and plummy and so likeable with a lightness of touch.

After ending our meal with a mango and sticky rice pudding with mango ice cream, we decided we weren't quite ready to go back to our hotel in Hua Hin.

We ordered a bottle of the Shiraz Rose and spent the most delicious hour chatting, eavesdropping on some very interesting conversations at nearby tables and drinking in the views across the vineyard.

My husband is already planning the next trip to Thailand - he leads a golf tour there every year, and no doubt another visit to the vineyard will be planned. Next time though, I will insist we buy a few more bottles of the Shiraz Rose to keep in our hotel fridge!

You can get to the Monsoon Valley Vineyard from the seaside resort of Hua Hin by minibus or taxi, easily arranged by your hotel or by contacting the vineyard direct. Alternatively there is a shuttle bus which runs from Villa Market twice a day  and the journey takes about 40 minutes.

One final word, do book a table for lunch as it's a long way to go and find that they are fully booked!

Thursday, 14 June 2018

A day at Barnsley House, Gloucestershire

Yesterday, I was at Barnsley House in Gloucestershire with some friends from the Garden Media Guild to visit the garden. Some of us had seen this quintessential 17th century Baroque mansion before, but for me, this was my first visit to such an iconic garden.

It was Rosemary Verey, the garden designer and writer, who created  the eleven acre gardens here adn lived here from the 1950s onwards. After her death in 2001,  Barnsley House became  a very welcoming hotel.

Set in a picturesque village, as I arrived the sun was shining and everyone was in the world famous garden for a tour around by Richard Gatenby, the Head Gardener.

 He's an engaging guide, obviously very proud of what is here, and of what Rosemary Verey achieved.
 "Gifted amateurs have no boundaries. Mrs V found the experts and made her own mind up." he said.
It was Percy Cane the garden designer who told her  to include as many vistas as possible, using the longest distance, and that's exactly what she did here  - pictured from outside the temple.

He's working with Rosemary Verey's legacy and says it was the hedgerows and edge of woodland which turned her on - that and successful planting.

 My eyes were darting here and there, as we made our way along the laburnum walk, the temple and  the herbaceous borders.The tour wasn't just an elongated recitation of a plants list thankfully, he took us all along with him by his enthusiasm, and letting us admire the garden at a leisurely pace. "I'm a hopeless romantic who sees the magic not the mechanics " he said.

 I really liked that, and I soon found the magic behind this gate.

Rosemary Verey created this potager and in turn inspired thousands of other gardeners. It is simply and utterly gorgeous, no wonder it created a trend in ornamental kitchen gardens.

Outside the walled potager, the field is the powerhouse for the kitchens of the hotel with beds of spinach, chard, rhubarb. peas, winter squash Crown Prince plus this glorious array of herbs.

There's polytunnels full of tomatoes - mamande, sungold and rosella, plus, as if on guard outside one of the tunnels, the largest, most vigorous lemon verbena I've ever seen.

I  nipped inside one of the polytunnels  to see what the chefs could pick this week , hoping to get a clue of what might be on the lunch menu.

Lunch was very jolly, all of us enthusing about what we had seen while we ate raw broad beans and freshly baked bread and  "Oh, a glass of wine?Well I don't mind if I do..."

This was followed by a delicious lunch using ingredients picked earlier in the day. Cotswold chicken, sun blush tomatoes, peas, broad beans and roasted rosemary and garlic potatoes for most and a deliciously creamy pea risotto for those of us who requested the vegetarian option. Lemon posset to die for afterwards ....all served expertly by a friendly team .

But our visit wasn't over yet. We then made our way to the Temple  where Davina Wynne Jones,
 Rosemary's Verey's daughter talked to us about her mother and the influence she had on her and so many others.

Prince Charles and Elton John both admired her greatly and she was very influential in America.
"Sh could be very difficult and utterly charming , both at the same time"

Meanwhile, Richard Gatenby was back in the Rosemary Verey garden he loves, and that with an attention to detail...

What a revealing and interesting day at Barnsley House.  As I made my way past hotel guests sitting in the sunshine, I wished I could stay overnight too. I simply wanted to stay in the magic which Rosemary Verey and Richard Gatenby have created and kept alive . Another time I hope.

As I drove home I decided it was a day of the four Ps..... a sense of place, planting, personalities and perfection.

You can find out more about Barnsley House at