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Monday, 24 April 2017

A day in a Leicestershire vineyard

A  sunny Sunday Spring afternoon in Leicestershire, and it was time to taste some wine.

I was at the Rothley Wine Estate in North Leicestershire for another visit to Liz Robson's vineyard along with other invited guests. Liz is a former lecturer at De Montfort University who began the vineyard as a hobby. Nine years later, she has a two acre vineyard in what was her mother's garden  and she is a vintner.


Liz's wines were flowing to celebrate the  launch of a new disabled access route around the two acre vineyard and the official opening of the small tasting room with such glorious views over the gardens and vineyard.
Sue Lobb, a wine expert and tutor performed the honours. Having had polio as a child, she's been using a wheelchair for the last ten years. As she told me, it's very rare  to able to go into  vineyards in a wheelchair and to have special loos to use, especially in Europe. So she's delighted by the new facilities here in Rothley.
"So, what would you like  to try first? "Laura Hadland, a senior museum curator and food and drinks blogger, who volunteers at the vineyard was proffering a glass with an inquiring smile. It was warm so I decided on the Sparkling Orion, This sparkling white was just what I needed, chilled and dry, oh so bubbly with a hint of pears.
Nibbles were on each table, canap├ęs being circulated, so with glasses in hand, we sat chatting in the gardens. Some drifted off to test the wheelchair access route or to wander around the vineyards whilst others hovered around the testing tables.

 I decided to taste the pink fizz next. It's called the Spirit of Freedom , a name with a nod to the Rothley Temple, now a hotel which is next door. This is where William Wilberforce came to meet local landowner Thomas Babbington. They were both fervent in their desire to end the slave trade, and over a series of meeting s here, they drafted what became an act of parliament to abolish slavery.

This is an easy drinker with the sweetness of strawberries, not as effervescent as the sparkling Orion. Made from orion, siegerebbe, regent and pinot precose grapes, this could be dangerous - very refreshing when you're thirsty and all too easy to sink a bottle of this in  a short space of time.

I went off to wander around the vines.

They're all in bud, in lines patiently waiting for the warmer weather.  

The last time I came to meet Liz was in September 2015, to record an interview about how she feared the lack of sunshine could so adversely affect her harvest after an awful summer.
The vines were full of fruit, such a picture of promise that it was hard to think of a disaster. Luckily the sun came out just in time and for enough hours each day for the crisis to be averted.
Back to an April afternoon though...


If the vines were just waking up, at one end of the vineyard was a long row of morello cherries in blossom


Whilst at the top of the vineyard, there were lines of wheelbarrows ready for action.

Work on a Sunday afternoon ? Oh no, the thought of another glass of something was far more appealing, so I made my way back up to the house and garden, past the cherry tree..

and back to where others had the same idea

 Time then, for a glass of Liz's elderflower wine, grown from the elderflowers on  her land whilst saying my goodbyes and thank yous.  Liz is justifiably proud of her vineyard, on what was originally a field. And these new additions to the vineyard, the disabled loos and access are very close to her heart as her mother couldn't go to many attractions outside because of the lack of them.

Tours and tastings are now available at this vineyard. The next one is on Saturday 13 May, costs £10 for an hour's tour around the vineyard and the ancient Kingfisher Pool followed by an hour's tasting and talk.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

A day of time travelling at Caerhays Castle

On the last day of March, I went time travelling in Cornwall. I went back to the nineteen and twentieth centuries, and then forwards by about four or five weeks to early May 2017.

It's true I can assure you. So how did I do it?

I was on a one day only whizz down to near St Austell, to the wonderful Caerhays Castle and Gardens to join about fourteen other Garden Media Guild members for a private tour of the gardens.

We met mid morning in the Cornish sunshine after parking our cars down at Porthluny Beach and walking up the hill to the castle. It was built by John Nash for the Trevanion family in 1810, carefully hidden away from the beach in case of attack by the French..

The Trevanions left the castle in 1840, and the estate was later taken over by the Williams family who were in mining. The great grandfather of the current owner, J.C.Williams, who was only eighteen when he inherited the estate, financed a large plant hunting expedition in 1911. George Forrest and Ernest Wilson set sail on a trip which was to bring horticultural treasure from the Far East, from China, back to this part of Cornwall with its own micro climate.

Charles Williams, the current owner, led our expedition around the estate,with thumbstick in hand, at a cracking pace. I was still breathing heavily after rushing up the hill in the first place, but luckily he kept stopping to show us various vistas and specimens, and I eventually got my breath back.

To be fair, I was slightly overwhelmed by the sight of so many plants , many in their prime, towering over me. Caerhayes is a triumph of how to do things on a big scale, and seeing a national collection of magnolias (about four hundred and fifty of them, plus so many camellias and rhododendrons in prime condition  in 140 acres of garden and woodland, was a surprise and a delight.

I must confess I was one of the dawdlers, and yes there were a few of us. I was trying to take everything in, and take photographs too, so that I missed many of the species names. I was writing notes I believe that this is a magnolia amoena.....I just adored the shape and colour with the blush pink.

I loved this blowsy camellia reticulata dream castle

Even after flowering,as the petals fell to the ground,  the beautiful pink carpets had their own charms

I've never been a girly girly pink girl in my life but I absolutely adored seeing so many pinky hues, from the palest to the most shocking pinks....

But of course, I didn't just fall for the pinks...

Walking quickly to catch up with Charles who was introducing something ahead , I was really taken with these pretty flowers

All  of a sudden, a fragrance stopped in my tracks. I sniffed, I held a flower to my nose and inhaled deeply, there were hints of ginger and something I couldn't identify. It was quite exhilarating.

Likewise, a couple of hundred yards away, Charles was in  a slight dip, pointing to this....a michelia doltsopa....inviting us to come closer....".come on, what's this scent?" We all duly poked our noses close, I though a hint of nutmeg or mace, and Charles told me I was was cinnamon.
He calls his scented collection "the smellies , a somewhat rude term for such beautiful fragrances!

But don't get Charles talking about classifications of magnolias and michelias which are so closely related...he has definite ideas on some of these...and I believe the words "absolute bollocks" were mentioned at one stage concerning one of his favourites. I asked if this was a technical term  but he just grinned.

What was wonderful, was following in Charles's footsteps seeing his estate through his eyes, not being confined to the paths, tramping over the grass and primroses alike, as we darted hither and thither, learning much more than I dreamed possible in a couple of hours. Classification of plants, history, of how the estate was managed and how planning for the future of the castle grounds are an ever important concern.

Caerhays may have it's own microclimate in South Cornwall, but its proximity to the sea and the sea gales means that more windbreaks have to be grown. We were taken to a part of the gardens which was a corn field back in 2006. Since then, lots of laurel hedging has been put in to protect against the seaspray and salt, and now more azaleas have been planted as well as camellias and magnolias.

The gardens here aren't immune to damage. Many rhododenrons sinogrande  were lost in the drought of 1976, a japanese oak in the winter of 1963 and in 1990 , twenty five acres of garden were lost.

Charles then led us to a ridge where we stopped to gaze over the estate land which lay as far as we could see...a breath taking view, even though the sun had gone in, for those of us seeing it for the first time through rosy, romantic glasses. "It takes three months to cut the grass in these a hundred and forty acres" Charles said drily.

By now we were walking downhill, back towards the castle

We walked behind the castle, through the most inviting gate,

and found ourselves back where we had started the tour. When I said I had been time travelling a month or so, I really had. All the trees and shrubs were so much further on than in the Midlands, I was told that this year, the season is a good three weeks ahead on previous seasons and I felt as I'd missed April completely .

We wandered into the castle courtyard for lunch...most of us were hungry after early morning starts to be here. Thank goodness for cornish pasties on the menu, and we all sat chatting away madly, the way all garden fanatics and members of the Garden Media Guild do, when they've just visited somewhere with so much to look at and think about. So lovely too to be able to sit outside.

All too soon, it was time to get back on the road back north. I walked back down the hill

From the shelter of the castle, by the time I got back to the beach at Porthluny, the wind was whipping around and it was chilly with a touch of rain.  But I couldn't not come to a beach and not have a short walk on the sands, could I? Especially when I live in landlocked Leicestershire! So I did...

The perfect end to a trip to Caerhays Castle and Gardens. Unfortunately there wasn't enough time to visit Burncoose Nurseries too, which is also part of the Caerhays Estate or to find out more about the cottages on the estate which are available to rent. You can even stay in a wing of the castle or in a boathouse. Next time perhaps......

But in the meantime, a lovely day in a fabulous location  with delightful people in a beautiful part of Cornwall....thanks to James Robbins from the Garden Media Guild for organising the trip.

The gardens at Caerhays Castle is open from mid February to mid June.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

A day celebrating Adrian Mole's 50th birthday

A week ago today I was standing outside the Charles Wilson Building  at the University Of Leicester  with award winning author Bali Rai who was vaping madly. We were there to celebrate the 50th birthday of a character in a book. 

Now this wasn't just any was the birthday of the wonderfully and woefully comic Adrian Mole, and what would have been the 71st birthday of his creator.

Adrian became a worldwide publishing phenomenon of the 1980's and brought success to the much loved and admired Sue Townsend who was born and lived in Leicester. Last Sunday was all about celebrating that success and to find out more about Adrian, Sue and the worlds they inhabited.
But first lunch! Bali and I went up to the restaurant and met the other speakers who would be taking part in the afternoon's talks and the reunion which I was chairing.
A jolly affair and a hearty meal, and wine? "Oh should I?" I wondered , and then thought "Bugger it - everyone else is having one." Which they calm the nerves as one said. Cheers then...

In the morning, Caroline Holden Hotopf had held a very popular illustration workshop so she was celebrating, and as we sat next to each other at lunch, it turned out that as youngsters we had lived within half a mile of each other and in summer went to the same outdoor swimming pool. We were both in Loughborough at arts college and university. Small world.
The first session in the afternoon was devoted to Sue Townsend's work as a playwright. Introduced by Bali Rai, it featured Carole Hayman and Janette Legge who knew Sue as an emerging writer, when only a few years before, Sue a young mum of three children had been so desperately broke, she and the children used to play scavenger hunt for pop bottles so that they could get 4 pence for each bottle they took back.
Carole Hayman was a hoot...theatrical, full of gossip, and lovely anecdotes about her time at the Royal Court Theatre in the late 1980's, when she directed two of Sue's plays, Bazaar and Rummage and the Great Celestial Cow. They got on famously, so much so that she collaborated with Sue Townsend on the TV series "The Spinney" which sadly never made it to the screens.
Carol and Janet then read out a script from the series to the appreciation of the audience...what a missed opportunity we all thought.
Then it was my turn to chair "a Reunion" of the key figures responsible for bringing Adrian Mole, the teenage intellectual, out into the world of radio and publishing.
John Tydman the legendary Deputy Head of BBC Radio who commissioned  and directed Mole’s first radio appearance  was unwell and couldn't be there unfortunately .When I say Mole, on radio,  it was Nigel Mole aged 13 and three Quarters  who created such an impact on New Years Day in 1982. 
Colin Broadway, Sue's second husband also was unable to attend - a real shame as he suggested that Sue start a writing course at Leicester’s Phoenix Theatre. It was there that Sue learnt her craft writing plays, before branching out into writing books. Colin had met Sue when she was a single mum. They fell in love, had another child together and until Sue died, was her champion, her support and her rock, especially as her health declined. When she lost her sight, He and her son Shaun, her daughter Vicky and her editor Louise took it in turns to type out Sue’s work as she dictated her words.
The audience last Sunday loved the story of his I told about one winter he and Sue were in Spain. He came back to Leicester for a few days, and Sue’s daughter continued to work on the latest book. Unfortunately there was a power cut, Vicky hadn’t backed up the work...there was a panicky phone call back to Colin. What can we do? He said "Give Sue a vodka and tonic, a packet of cigarettes and give her ten minutes. "Vicky did, and Sue was able to recreate the lost work.
So Simon Dixon,  Archives and Special Collections Manager here at the University of Leicester stepped in as the first speaker. He talked about Sue's early career as writer and described the large collection of her work which is stored at the university.
Luckily I've had a private viewing of that collection...and it's fascinating to see early glimpses of Adrian in cheap lined exercise books on one side of a page and shopping lists....bread, potatoes on another.
To say that our next speaker had a tremendous impact on Sue Townsend and indeed on Adrian Mole himself, was an understatement. Geoffrey Strachan was the commissioning editor at Methuen in the early eighties who read an early version of the script...and he was charmed by its humour and pathos.  He knew comic talent when he saw it...and the value of diaries, after all he'd suggested to Michael Palin that there was a good book in the diaries of working on Monty Python and behind the scenes. He also commissioned Caroline Holden Hotopf to illustrate the first and subsequent books.
He also had quite an impact on the audience...what an amusing and thoughtful speaker he was.
Then it was Caroline Holden Hotopf's turn ...since the Adrian Mole books, she’s illustrated children’s books, picture books, grammar books, poetry books and underwater detective novels. Her work has also featured in Private Eye, The Oldie, the Sunday Times and the Law Gazette. She also writes childrens books.
She described so well what it was like for her work to be spotted in an exhibition by Geoffrey Strachan, being asked to design the book jacket and how they both decided that they wanted the readers to imagine the main characters. How do illustrators get their inspiration? Well she told us...and she mentioned chatting to Sue about places in Leicester to use as locations in the book. Apparently there was a list.
So when it came to question time, after some lovely questions by our audience, I couldn't wait to ask where the list was and where were those locations? I feel a feature coming on...and I also wanted to know just how grateful she was to Geoffrey for such a regular source of income. "Very" she said "It paid for my first flat in Stepney!"
The next part of the afternoon brought some delightful surprises, in the form of new writing from both commissioned writers and school pupils, which channelled and was inspired by Sue Townsend's work.
Pupils from two local schools were introduced by Bali Rai and their voices shone from the page as they read of their Leicester, their streets and their world. Funny, clever and thought provoking they were too.

Then there were three commissioned monologues from Maria Taylor, Marilyn Ricci and Heidi Goody and Ian Grant. Different futures and scenarios for Adrian were laugh out funny, with great one liners, which so accurately captured the wit, cleverness and charm of the original Adrian.

A new speaker came skidding in towards the end...the first actor to play the original Adrian Mole no less. Simon Schatsburger was in the original play at Leicester's Phoenix Theatre, and transferred to London when the time came, with the rest of the cast at Sue's insistence. She didn't want more famous names...she wanted her actors which she chosen. Simon spoke very warmly and affectionately about Sue, and how she looked after everyone in a series of stories which made everyone smile.

Then it was time to remove our bottoms from the lecture theatre seats, buy books and make our way upstairs to celebrate Adrian's 50th birthday with bunting, party food from the eighties (sandwiches, vols au vents or cheese and pineapple on sticks anyone?),
cheesy music, and above all, a birthday cake. This wasn't just any birthday cake (cue Fleetwood Mac music and imagine me doing a deep husky intro) this was a Frances Quinn, winner of the Great British Bake off, birthday cake.

There were even goodybags!
What a lovely afternoon celebrating Adrian Mole's 50th birthday - the  intellectual who sprang from the mind of a ordinary Leicester girl who endured ill health and poverty, to become an extraordinary writer whose work will not be forgotten.

Mind you, Penguin Books have no intention of letting that happen...not only are there delightful new editions with anniversary covers of all of the Adrian Mole books, which I am re reading with such great pleasure , there's even a new book out by Mole Press "The Collected Poems" by Adrian Mole. Inspired brilliance. Penguin, I adore ya...


*five of these photos are mine, the others are by courtesy of The University of Leicester.