How hunting became the sport of kings

WE’VE been transported back to medieval England.

A quick trip round the M25 and we’re visiting an extraordinary edifice in a “royal” forest, which is why our thoughts are flashing back across the centuries to a time when hunting was something of an obsession for the monarchs of the day.

The building dates from Tudor times but reflects the importance of hunting over the previous 200 years – and not just for those in power.

POPULAR PURSUIT: hunting was important in medieval society

We’ve come to Epping Forest, but although it’s only an hour from home, this is one of only a handful of ancient royal forests which survive around the UK – along with the Forest of Dean, New Forest and Sherwood.

Here, as we discovered in the Forest of Dean last year, is a lost world of forest laws and practices dating back to a time when “kingswoods” that came directly under the king’s control were vast tracts of land covering a third of southern England, including whole counties like Essex.

Following his victory at the Battle of Hastings, King William placed a score of areas under forest law, a Norman institution imported from the continent that was unanimously unpopular with the local population.

FOREST COURT: the Speech House Hotel in the Forest of Dean

It was a separate legal system with its own courts and officers designed to protect and preserve the “venison and vert” for the King’s pleasure – with severe punishments for poaching and taking wood from the forest.

You might think those early monarchs were too busy waging war on France and Scotland to spend so much time in pursuit of deer and boar, but hunting was a favourite pastime for the king and his nobles, offering sport, exercise, entertainment and a chance to practise skills that could be of use in wartime.

By the 14th century there were dozens of royal forests across the land where the ruling class could pursue their sport, whether hunting on horseback with hounds, shooting driven game from stands or using birds of prey such as hawks and falcons.

SPORTING PASSION: Henry VIIII was an enthusiastic hunter

Some two centuries later and Henry VIII’s enthusiasm for hunting took him to deer parks across the south of England – and it was during his reign, in 1543, that a rather extraordinary Tudor grandstand was erected here in Epping Forest, now known as Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge after his daughter.

Henry’s interest in hunting as a young man was useful in helping to project his image as a renaissance prince, but by the time the lodge was erected he had injured himself in a jousting accident and was painfully lame.

It’s not known if he ever even visited the building, though Elizabeth I renovated it in 1589 and legend has it that she actually rode her horse up the stairs in celebration of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

GRANDSTAND VIEW: the hunting lodge today

Although the lodge itself is a relatively basic museum, it’s part of a much larger success story dating back to the late 19th century, when the City of London Corporation responded to public outcry and stepped in to rescue almost 6,000 acres of the ancient forest from destruction.

That means there are countless other attractions to uncover in the forest, but for now we’re just enjoying the view, trying to imagine how Elizabeth’s powerful guests might have looked out over this landscape almost half a millennium ago.

Hounds would be trained to hunt down the stag or boar by its scent, responding to commands on a horn before the huntsmen would circle the animal and chase it back towards the hunting party.

OPEN OUTLOOK: spectators would look out on a Tudor hunt

The nobles and their ladies rode on horseback behind the hounds and chased the prey through the dense forest, potentially for hours, before the prey was finally caught and killed, a song being played to honour the dying animal before a great feast was prepared with the freshly-hunted venison or boar as the main course.

High-status guests would have looked out from wide openings here, possibly even using crossbows to shoot at prey driven towards the grandstand.

And of course in Tudor times there would have been no stinting on hospitality when it came to the array of meats and poultry, Mediterranean fruits and Eastern spices on offer to show off the power, wealth and generosity of the monarch.

FIT FOR A KING: guests could expect unstinting hospitality

Some of the timbers in the lodge date from the 16th century, when timber-framed buildings were made from freshly cut “green” oak that was full of sap and would crack as it dried out.

But the fireplace is Victorian and a reminder of the 19th-century history of the hunting lodge, when the lodge’s wall hangings so inspired textile artist William Morris as a boy that they may have influenced the tapestries he started to weave in the 1870s.

The lodge served as a manorial court before opening as a museum in 1895.

VICTORIAN ERA: the hunting lodge fireplace

Given modern views about hunting, many visitors may have mixed emotions about some of the history they stumble across in Epping Forest.

Just as it’s hard not to get indigestion contemplating the profligate feasting of the Tudor court, it’s distressing to read about animals like lynx and brown bear existing in Britain when the Romans left, or about species like wolves and wild boar being hunted to extinction.

The harsh punishments of the forest courts and oppression of the peasant population may rankle too, along with those gruesome Tudor sports like cock-fighting and bear-baiting.

PERIOD CHARM: the Butler’s Retreat coffee shop

But you can escape some of the darker memories of past centuries just next door, where a beautifully restored Essex barn offers an idyllic retreat with some great coffee and cake, or something a little more substantial.

Butler’s Retreat also boasts outside seating with stunning views over Chingford Plain and an array of tasty home-made food options, making it a perfect stopping-off spot on a sunny day.

AL FRESCO MEAL: the outside tables at Butler’s Retreat

From here it’s also only a stone’s throw to Connaught Water, a perfect place to walk off the cake and ideal for first-time visitors to the area keen to find a popular easy-access path ideal for the whole family.

Take a relaxed ramble round the lake, which boasts a variety of resident wildfowl from mandarin ducks and geese to swans and great crested grebes, or embark on a slightly longer trail, one of dozens fanning out from here that are documented by local walking enthusiasts on their blogs.

EASY ACCESS: the lakeside path at Connaught Water

After a brief wander round the lake, it’s time to head back round the M25, head still full of visions of medieval monarchs and their friends rampaging through the forest in search of a noble hart.

It’s been only the briefest of introductions to a quite extraordinary landscape, but as it’s only an hour’s drive from home, it’s much more accessible than you might think: a fascinating green oasis just a walk, ride or tube journey away from the Capital with a rich heritage and a wealth of attractions for the first-time visitor.

Find out more about visiting Epping Forest here.

Sax in the city, Bristol fashion

SUMMERTIME, and the livin’ is easy down on the waterfront in Bristol.

Tourists are mingling with the locals sauntering around the historic harbourside, many just sunning themselves on the quayside watching the world go by.

It’s a perfect place for a relaxed father-and-daughter reunion, surrounded by the iconic cargo cranes, dockyard railway wagons and historic vessels which provide such vivid evidence that this is a city built on industry and invention.

WATERFRONT WANDER: cargo cranes outside the M Shed in Bristol

During the day, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain dominates the waterfront, dressed with flags and ready for departure, just as she looked at her launch in 1843, welcoming a new generation of visitors aboard to find out more about life on the world’s first great luxury liner.

Brunel built bridges, tunnels, ships and railways that were longer, faster and bigger than anything seen before, but while there’s plenty to celebrate about his engineering genius – and his extraordinary transatlantic steamship – there’s no escaping a much darker aspect of Bristol’s maritime past.

DOCKYARD LINE: the Bristol Harbour Railway

The M Shed is the city’s social history museum, home to iconic objects, documents, photographs, films and personal testimonies that tell Bristol’s story from its prehistoric beginnings to the present day.

Free to visit, it’s one of the old cargo sheds on the quayside that recall a time when the harbourside was a flourishing working dock rather than a trendy leisure destination.

It’s also a reminder that by the late 1730s, Bristol had become Britain’s premier slaving port, with local ships transporting thousands of enslaved Africans to work on sugar plantations in the British Caribbean or in the tobacco farms of Virginia and Maryland.

It was on this waterfront that anti-racism protesters gathered in 2020 after pulling down a bronze statue of the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston, toppling it into the harbour while demonstrating their solidarity with the US Black Lives Matter movement.

The museum doesn’t shy away from that grim legacy, chronicling how profits from the slave trade formed the basis of Bristol’s first banks and some of its finest Georgian architecture, with local ships supplying the British colonies with a wide range of goods and returning laden with slave-produced Caribbean produce such as sugar, rum, indigo and cocoa for refining, processing and manufacturing.

EVENING LIGHT: sunshine on the quayside

Back in the sunshine of the quayside, the restaurants are gearing up for the evening and the huge dockside entertainment venues are mercifully empty on a Monday night, though those who enjoy a more frantic atmosphere can come back at the weekend for the full-blown party vibe.

It’s a picturesque setting in the fading sunshine, but if you fancy something a little more traditional, the 17th-century Llandoger Trow round the corner in King Street has a huge variety of ales on tap and an intriguing history.

CONVIVIAL PINT: outside the Llandoger Trow

Along with allegedly hosting a variety of ghosts, it is said to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write of the Admiral Benbow Inn in Treasure Island, as well as being the place where Daniel Defoe supposedly met Alexander Selkirk, the castaway who was his inspiration for Robinson Crusoe.

Even so early in the week, the tables outside provide a convivial meeting place on a summer’s night, not least for the joyful sounds emanating from the Old Duke across the road, a legendary Bristol jazz and blues venue which hosts free live music every night of the week.

Dating from around 1775, the pub’s heritage lies with traditional New Orleans-inspired jazz, with some regulars having played at the venue for decades.

We’re in luck, because Monday night boasts an evening of traditional jazz, and on this occasion it’s Jeremy Huggett and friends belting out some memorable favourites.

It’s a perfect choice. Monday nights don’t come much mellower than this, even if it’s only the briefest snapshot of just how much the city has got to offer.

From galleries, museums and theatres to live music, seasonal events and that wonderful waterfront, Bristol’s got a huge range of experiences to offer visitors, and a good variety of city centre hotels offering cheaper accommodation on weekday nights if you can manage a short break.

It’s only been the most fleeting of visits, but definitely one to whet the appetite. Don’t worry, Bristol, we’ll be back…

Sleepy setting for a summertime stroll

THERE could hardly be a more iconically English landscape than the Limpley Stoke valley.

This is a world of honeyed stone and chocolate-box villages, sleepy canalside pubs and bustling tea rooms, soaring aqueducts and busy locks where weekend strolls are punctuated by the smell of wild garlic and woodsmoke.

A lifetime ago, it was an evening pint in the glorious garden of the 16th-century Inn at Freshford which convinced me that it might be wise to leave a better-paid job in rain-soaked Glasgow and move to Bath, with its impressive Roman baths and Georgian architecture.

During a decade there, and in nearby Bathampton and Bradford on Avon, the Kennet & Avon canal provided a picturesque backdrop to my daughter’s childhood, so it seems fitting that we’re able to meet up here for a ramble on one of those most magical of summer days when the valley is at its best.

It’s a 10-mile walk from Bath to Bradford on Avon, but most locals have their favourite stretch for a less demanding afternoon stroll. and there’s also the option of taking the train out to Freshford or Avoncliff for a shorter circular or one-way trip, returning from one of the other stops on the route.

Our meander will take us from Bradford on Avon to Avoncliff, the outward journey on the canal towpath, the return route running alongside the river.

With the Avon at its heart, the Wiltshire town lies at the southern edge of the Cotswolds, surrounded by glorious countryside.

The Saxons drove their carts across the ‘broad ford’ that gave the town its name and the staple local industry for six centuries was wool and weaving, leaving a legacy of great riverside mills, with ranks of weavers’ cottages lining the hillsides, punctuated by the grand houses of wealthy clothiers.

A variety of canalside watering holes provide a good start or end point to any ramble, along with a reminder that this is part of an impressive 87-mile waterway linking the Bristol Channel with London.

More than 200 years ago horses would have plodded along towpaths like these carrying cargoes of stone and coal, but competition from the railways heralded the demise of the canal network, much of which later fell into disrepair and disuse.

When the canal opened in 1810, the wharf in Bradford would have been a busy place. Back then we might have seen boats loaded with coal from the Somerset coalfield, or goods like barley and local cheeses.

But its fate was sealed only three decades later when the Great Western Railway opened.

Thankfully a resurgence of interest from enthusiasts and volunteers helped to revitalise and restore the waterway, which was officially reopened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990.

And today, as we make our way past one of the largest medieval barns in England, the towpath is positively bustling with activity.

Indeed, sections of the canal path can get a little too hectic at weekends, when there can be an occasional battle for dominance between the more assertive walkers and faster joggers and cyclists.

But if whirring tyres and tinkling bells can prove distracting at times, for the most part everyone’s here to savour the relaxed atmosphere and most are making a conscious effort to show consideration to others.

Out on the water there are a few day rentals and holidaymakers cheerily chugging up and down, while the longer-term residents are moored up along the towpath, their boats laden with bikes, pot plants and other personal paraphernalia.

There are plenty of wildfowl entertaining the passers-by here, including a particularly large family of ducklings, though a hungry-looking heron shows a little too much interest in these cute fluffy snacks until he’s chased away by an obliging spaniel.

We’re making good time on our 1.4-mile saunter towards the village of Avoncliff, home to one of a couple of impressive aqueducts between here and Bath built to carry the canal high over the River Avon and the railway.

Both were designed by the prolific Scottish civil engineer John Rennie, whose bridges, canals, docks and warehouses have stood the test of time, scattered all over the country.

The three arches of the aqueduct at Avoncliff offer a particularly pleasant outlook over the valley below, and the glorious riverside gardens of the Cross Guns inn.

It’s an idyllic location for a traditional pub meal on a summer’s evening like this, with equally spectacular views back towards Rennie’s aqueduct and little to disturb the peace other than the gentle murmur of a train stopping at the village’s tiny railway station.

Like many of the other villages scattered along the valley, this is a quintessentially English setting, and it’s easy to understand why the tourists love the area so much.

Avoncliff is the perfect starting point for rambles up or down the valley, with its succession of pretty villages with their Bath stone cottages, climbing roses and cottage gardens.

The Cross Guns itself is one of the oldest buildings, a Tudor residence extended in the early 1600s and originally known as The Carpenter’s Arms, providing respite for travellers and drovers using the ford across the river and later used by quarrymen, millworkers and travellers.

Business was booming by the turn of the 18th century when the canal arrived, bargees stabling their horses behind the old cellar and relaxing over a game of cards, smoke curling from their clay pipes as they shared tales stretching the length of the canal.

The name change to the Cross Guns stems from the late 18th century, in recognition of the formation of the local yeomanry in the shape of the 9th (Bradford on Avon) Battalion of the Wiltshire Rifle Volunteers.

Like other hostelries along the valley, the inn has seen its fair share of boom times, though trade was tough in the 1960s when the mills had become derelict and the canal was in disrepair.

Thankfully trade is healthy again now that the canal has been revitalised, whether that’s round a roaring fire on a cold winter’s night or like today, basking in the sun by the river tucking into hearty pub grub like fish and chips or a handmade pie.

It’s still warm, but time to start thinking about the homeward leg of our journey, this time taking a slight detour from the canal to follow the river back to Bradford.

Of course we could have jumped on the train to Freshford or Bath, taken time to explore the villages of Limpley Stoke, Bathampton or Claverton (home to the fascinating American Museum), or taken time just to watch the narrowboats negotiate the locks linking the canal to the River Avon in Bath.

But perhaps those are outings best left for another day. For now, the leisurely stroll back to Bradford is the perfect end to our nostalgic waterside walk through this most beautiful of valleys, carved out of the local limestone over millions of years.

Here, historic pubs and glorious views provide a perfect backdrop to the world of the gongoozler, or idle observer of life on the canal – and it’s hard to think if a nicer way of enjoying a lazy day in the sun.

Christmas comes to life in the south of France

MIDNIGHT mass in the picturesque French hilltop town of St Paul de Vence is a true community affair.

Outside the defensive ramparts, just through the original stone gateway that leads to the narrow cobbled main street, a group of locals are dressed in appropriate garb as part of a living nativity scene.

Christmas lights twinkle in deserted alleys across the historic village now that dusk has fallen, hiding the spectacular views out towards the French Riviera.

There’s an eager buzz of anticipation in the centuries-old village church with its ornate side chapels and Rococo frescoes, the youngsters eyeing up the feast of tasty treats prepared for after communion, older villagers catching up with friends, some quite exuberant at the tail end of an evening of celebration.

Outside, a village cat sits demurely observing the comings and goings. The church has filled up and the surrounding streets are almost deserted.

The priest heads down to lead the nativity procession back up to the church, Mary and the shepherds lighting flaming torches for the short journey. There’s even a disgruntled-looking black labrador in tow, dressed in a sheep’s fleece and clearly unconvinced about the necessity to look the part.

Most of the tourists have gone home, so this feels like one of those rare moments when the locals – total population around 3,450 – have the village to themselves.

That’s something of a special experience to share, because the medieval beauty, rich heritage and artistic legacy of St Paul has made it a magnet for visitors across the centuries, nowadays numbered in their millions.

Back in the 1920s, as now, it was the extraordinary light of the south of France that lured artists here, setting up their easels to capture the richness of the colours and intensity of the contrasts between sun and shade.

The first arrived a hundred years ago and others followed in the footsteps, including Matisse and Picasso, many enjoying the company of Paul Roux, a painter, art collector and restaurateur whose modest inn would become a village institution, its dining room and courtyard adorned with the artworks of those early guests.

Today, little has changed. Earlier in the evening, well-heeled diners were still soaking up the timeless atmosphere of the Colombe d’Or, with its attentive waistcoated waiters and colourful handwritten menus.

Still owned by the Roux familiar, the walls still adorned with the artworks of those early guests, the establishment continues to unite the Provençal way of life with an amazing private modern art collection, leaving diners replete with memories of previous conversations that have echoed around these walls among the writers, poets, film-makers and artists who flocked here in the 50s and 60s, from Jacques Prévert and Yves Montand to Braque and Chagall.

Earlier in the day, visitors wandered through the narrow alleys and tiny squares, gazing through gallery windows or staring out from the ramparts over the olive trees and vines that stud the hillsides from here to the azure of the Mediterranean.

Now, back in church communion is at an end, but the nativity tableau is still involved in some enthusiastic carol singing – even if our labrador friend has determinedly shrugged off his woolly fleece.

A firm favourite is the traditional French carol celebrating Christ’s birth:

Il est né le divin enfant,
Jouez hautbois, résonnez musettes!
Il est né le divin enfant,
Chantons tous son avènement!

It’s time to slip away through the peaceful streets of the hilltop village and leave the locals to their songs and festive delicacies.

The “divin enfant” is safely ensconced in his stable bed and for now, all’s right with the world…

Young pilgrims find the simple life in France

DEEP in the heart of rural France lies an extraordinary monastic community which has become a place of pilgrimage for young people from all over the world.

At Easter and in the height of summer, thousands of young people descend on the Taizé Community to join the 100-odd brothers from Catholic and Protestant traditions who are based in this picturesque corner of Burgundy, themselves originating from some 30 countries around the world.

Young pilgrims are encouraged to seek communion with God through community prayer, song, silence, personal reflection and sharing, living in a spirit of kindness, simplicity and reconciliation, with the distinctive music of Taizé providing a backdrop to their prayers.

At Christmas time, there are far fewer guests, but those still on site regularly gather in the community’s church – designed by Taizé member and architect Brother Denis and inaugurated in 1962 – for services featuring songs, psalms and chants in many languages, emphasising simple repeated scriptural phrases.

Founded in 1940 by Brother Roger Schütz, a reformed protestant, Taizé is best known for its youth work and year-round programme of small group discussions and simple life of prayer, song and communal living.

However over the years the brothers have lived in small fraternities among the poor in different parts of the world from India to Brazil, Kenya and Senegal. Young pilgrims are also encouraged to spread the word when they return to their local churches – and the community has also mounted a series of international gatherings of young adults.

Coast to coast: the best of Britain’s beaches

IT’S damp, drab drizzly day in Norfolk, just enough to deter all but the hardiest souls from the beach.

But in many ways the windswept stretch of the North Norfolk coastline near Blakeney is the perfect escape, whatever the weather.

WINDSWEPT: Cley Beach in Norfolk

This is Cley Beach on the coastal path, a lonely place on a wet day in April but part of an important nature reserve at Cley Marshes, created in 1926 when Norfolk birdwatcher Dr Sydney Long bought the land and established the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

Birdwatching is important to the tourist industry in this part of the world, with the 430-acre site nowadays of international importance for its breeding and wintering birds.

COASTAL PATH: boats drawn up on the shingle at Cley

We are around three hours away from our Buckinghamshire home, but this is a world away from the landlocked Chilterns – and as we discussed earlier in the year, that yearning for a breath of sea air is a regular recurrence.

Luckily this year we have been fortunate enough to indulge with a series of seaside expeditions, and this is one of our first such adventures.

With some 1,500 beaches scattered around Britain’s coastline, we have a wonderful cross-section of coastal scenery to choose from, from smugglers’ coves and shingle spits to sweeping sands and inviting rockpools.

FAMILY FUN: beach huts at Frinton-on-Sea

Further round the coast and Essex boasts an extraordinary range of seaside towns and coastal villages, some of them among the most deprived neighbourhoods in England.

But for old-fashioned family fun, the beach huts at resorts like Frinton and Holland-on-Sea take a lot of beating, while the bigger and busier resorts like Clacton and Southend have been perennially popular with generations of Londoners.

WATERFRONT SNACK: the Beach Haven cafe at Holland-on-Sea

There’s a similarly innocent feel to Avon Beach at Christchurch, one of the closest to the Chilterns and a family-friendly place of beach huts and rockpooling, with the handily located Noisy Lobster providing a range of restaurant and takeaway treats for those who find that the sea air soon stimulates the tastebuds.

FRIENDLY FEEL: the seafront at Avon Beach

Just along the coast at Mudeford Quay, the entrance to Christchurch Harbour is a popular stopping-off point, with great views out to sea and towards Christchurch town.

MUSICAL MOMENT: watching the boats at Mudeford Quay

The quay is the perfect place to watch boats coming in and out of the harbour, as well as proving a popular spot for families crabbing from the quayside.

A busy year-round sailing and windsurfing destination, there’s also a ferry dropping cyclists and walkers over to Mudeford Sandbank, which boasts some of the most expensive beach huts in the country.

EXCLUSIVE ESCAPE: Mudeford Sandbank

From here, the 95-mile long Jurassic Coast beckons, from Swanage to Lulworth and Weymouth, then on round to Lyme Regis, Charmouth, Seaton and Beer.

The world-famous geology draws the crowds here, fascinating by the rocks, fossils and intriguing landforms that make it Britain’s only natural World Heritage Site.

FAMOUS LANDMARK: visitors gather at Durdle Door

Durdle Door on the Lulworth Estate is one of Dorset’s most photographed beauty spots, a magnificent natural limestone arch formed by waves eroding the rock, but also one of the busiest attractions for miles around.

Hardier souls can escape the crowds by tackling a stretch of the South West Coast Path, England’s longest waymarked long-distance footpath and national trail, stretching for over 630 miles from Poole Harbour round to Minehead in Somerset and immortalised in print by Raynor Winn.

CLIFFTOP ESCAPE: the South West Coast Path

Even here, on a section of coast where the car parks are full of day trippers, it doesn’t take long to shake off the other tourists and find yourself alone with your thoughts.

Round the other side of Weymouth, Chesil Beach is an 18-mile long shingle barrier beach stretching from West Bay to Portland, and another of Dorset’s most iconic landmarks.

NATURAL BARRIER: Chesil Beach in Dorset

Unlike the golden sands of Bournemouth or Weymouth, this is a wild, rugged, elemental landscape where the surf crashes relentlessly onto the ridge.

It stretches off for miles towards the horizon, the pebbles graded in size from potato to pea depending on their precise location, allegedly once allowing smugglers landing on the beach at night to judge their position along the coast simply by picking up a handful of shingle.

FOSSIL HUNT: Charmouth beach is world renowned

Next stop Charmouth, a seaside village with a beach renowned across the world for its fossils.

Families fascinated in the life of dinosaurs can immerse themselves in the past at the Charmouth Heritage Centre and even sign up a guided fossil hunting session on the beach, where pyrite ammonite and belemnite fossils can often be found loose among the pebbles.

PERIOD DRAMA: Kate Winslet in Ammonite

This is also the place to find out more about the extraordinary life of English fossil collector, dealer and paleontologist Mary Anning.

Born in 1799, the discoveries she made in the Jurassic marine fossil beds along this coast changed scientific thinking about prehistoric life – though Francis Lee’s 2020 romantic drama Ammonite seems more concerned in speculating about her sex life than in her scientific reputation.

ROOM WITH A VIEW: the Rock Point Inn at Lyme Regis

In nearby Lyme Regis, her home and first fossil shop is now a museum, while a local fossil shop was used as her home in the film.

Head west from here and we’re into Devon and a whole new world of seaside delights, from the picturesque foreshore at Branscombe to the cheerful seafront snackbars of Beer.

TIME FOR TEA: the beach at Beer

Devon attractions range from the heritage trams of Seaton to the sweeping beaches of Exmouth or picturesque quayside at Exeter: but then these delights were more fully explored in our rundown on some of the most intriguing secret hideaways of South Devon.

Highlights included the town trails in Topsham, an intriguing 16-sided house near Exmouth and a step back in time on the South Devon Railway.

SIMPLE PLEASURES: on the beach at Beer

But if there’s one place where the location can justifiably be called spectacular, it’s the extraordinary Burgh Island: an iconic art deco landmark on its own tidal island, surrounded by golden beaches and restored to its 1930s glamour.

One of our favourite visits of the year, the historic adjoining Pilchard Inn is similarly only accessible via a sandy causeway from Bigbury-on-Sea that disappears under the waves at high tide and provides a gloriously laid-back outlook over the surrounding beaches.

GLORIOUS OUTLOOK: the Pilchard Inn on Burgh Island

From here, our final summertime seaside foray of the year takes us to the opposite end of the country and the equally spectacular coastline between Aberdeen and Inverness.

The Moray Coast is a childhood stamping ground where the timeless solidity of the prettily painted fishing villages have a special appeal.

MORAY FIRTH: fishermen’s cottages in Findochty

The sun may not always be shining on the north-east coast, but when it does, there’s no prettier place in the country, even if trains no longer run along the clifftop towards the glorious beaches at Cullen, where the viaduct still provides an imposing backdrop to photographs from the harbour.

But the attractions of the Moray Firth are captured in another article exploring some of Scotland’s most glorious countryside.

IMPOSING BACKDROP: the old railway viaduct at Cullen

Back home in Buckinghamshire, we haven’t exhausted our love of the seaside, but we’ve seen some glorious scenery and met some wonderful people along the way.

The Chilterns is not quite the furthest place in the country from the coast: that honour goes to a small farm in Derbyshire, according to Ordnance Survey, although Lichfield in Staffordshire also boasts a plaque laying claim to being England’s furthest point from the sea – a distance of 84 miles.

CALL OF THE COAST: a seagull in Dorset

But with the waves of the English Channel less than a couple of hours’ away it hopefully won’t be too long before we get the chance to hear the sound of the surf and cry of the gulls again.

Dig deep to discover secrets of the forest

CHRIS Packham would approve. We’re up before dawn on the trail of wild boar and an hour or so later we are actually having breakfast in a “Verderers Court”.

Not that we are in the TV presenter’s beloved New Forest, but a hundred miles north in the Forest of Dean, another of the three ancient royal hunting grounds (Epping is the third) where forest law is still enforced, as it has been since Norman times, by judicial officers called verderers.

COURTROOM SETTING: breakfast at the Speech House Hotel

At one time a third of the land area of southern England was designated as royal forest, and the verderers’ role was to protect venison and the “vert” – the ‘noble’ animals of the chase like deer and wild boar, along with the greenery that sustains them.

At various times across the centuries, they might be policing poaching and illegal felling while overseeing the rights of locals to take firewood, pasture swine, harvest produce and cut turf.

HEART OF THE FOREST: the Speech House Hotel

Staying at the Speech House Hotel immediately establishes a sense of connection with the past, because this 17th-century hunting lodge, erected for King Charles II in 1676, lies pretty much at the heart of the forest and is surrounded by “vert”.

Aside from hosting breakfast in the courtroom, which is still in use, the family-run hotel bristles with reminders of the past, from the antlers on the walls to the Royal coat of arms in the orangerie – and even the two royal spades used by the Queen and HRH Prince Philip in 1957 to plant two oak trees across the road from the courtroom.

REGAL REMINDER: the Royal coat of arms in the hotel orangerie

The Gloucestershire Way passes a stone’s throw from the front door and provides the starting point for our leisurely morning amble. And just in case the fauna don’t oblige us with an appearance, there is also an intriguing sculpture trail here, forged over the past three decades through a partnership between the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust and Forestry England.

Inspired by their specific settings and comissioned from artists at crucial stages in their careers, these huge works reflect the historical tensions in the forest, between industrial and sylvan, man-made and natural, utopian and dystopian, settlement and wilderness.

WOODLAND WINDOW: Cathedral by Kevin Atherton

One of the closest to Speech House is Cathedral by Kevin Atherton, a huge stained-glass window sited at the end of a tree-lined aisle incorporating imagery collated from drawings and photographs which the artist did around the forest.

After seeing the work in the fading light of dusk, it’s a delight to catch it in the early morning sunlight, even if the wild boar babies are choosing not to grace us with their presence.

LOST SPECIES: boar in Britain were hunted to extinction PICTURE: Dušan veverkolog, Unsplash

Boar were once common in the forest and were hunted for food, supplying feasts for the king’s table in medieval times. Given that there’s a record of an order for 100 boars and sows for a Christmas feast in 1254, it’s perhaps unsurprising that they are thought to have become extinct in Britain before the end of the 13th century.

But feral wild boar have become a familiar sight in the forest in the past two decades, and our dusk wander the previous night proved the point. With the light fading, it was clear most of the rustling in the leaf litter came from hungry blackbirds and hopping frogs. Bats were out in a clearing and we paused on a bench to make the most of the last rays.

HUMBUGS: piglets in Hungary PICTURE: Gabor Vereb, Unsplash

By the time we were close to the hotel, it was almost pitch-dark on the path. But then, finally, there was the sound of a snort, a snuffle and we paused, frozen. Inching forward, we could make out the shadows of four or five young piglets rooting about in the ferns that line the path.

True, it was only a brief encounter before the family rustle off into the undergrowth, and unfortunately too dark to see the distinctive stripes that lead the locals to affectionately refer to the young boar as “humbugs”.

IN TOUCH WITH THE PAST: external detail at the Speech House

But it was nonetheless a magical moment and just one of many reminders of the rich and varied history of this remarkable forest.

For a better picture of the changes in this landscape across the centuries and the lives of the foresters, miners and iron workers who populated it, head over to Soudley and the Dean Heritage Centre at Camp Mill.

FOREST STORIES; the Dean Heritage Centre

Looking at the serene surroundings of the centre today, it’s hard to believe the former corn mill and factory was a scrapyard for 20 years before being rescued by the museum trust as a base where the stories of the forest’s social and industrial history could be properly explained.

Forty years on and the museum now houses over 20,000 precious objects and documents relating to the heritage of the Forest of Dean, from prehistoric times to a special exhibition about the life and work of locally born TV dramatist and screenwriter Dennis Potter.

STEP BACK IN TIME: inside a forester’s cottage

There’s plenty for the kids to do too, from nosing round a forester’s home from Victorian times to exploring a Gruffalo Trail, trying on a range of hats and helmets, finding out about the wildlife of the forest or discovering what the life of a freeminer would have been like.

The forester’s cottage was moved stone by stone from its original location and is furnished and decorated in authentic Victorian and Edwardian period style. A typical two-up, two-down property, it features a collection of period china, a kitchen with an authentic cast-iron range, upstairs bedrooms and an outdoors wash-house, cottage garden and pigsty.

FROZEN IN TIME: the cottage was rebuilt stone by stone

As well as chickens to provide eggs and ferrets for catching rabbits, foresters would traditionally keep Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs for their meat, allowing them to graze under the trees on fallen apples or releasing them into the forest to feed on acorns during the late summer, a right dating from medieval times known as pannage.

The youngsters can sit in a period school room too, and regular history workshops help children discover what life would have been like for foresters at different times through history.

BACK TO SCHOOL: a Victorian classroom

For first-time visitors, perhaps one of the most extraordinary aspects of the forest story is the impact of industrialisation on the lives of those living here.

From charcoal burners to freeminers, the forest long provided a range of different trades. But the age of steam and the explosion of local foundries, collieries and railways transformed the area and left it with an extraordinary industrial heritage.

DIRTY WORK: a freemine dug into the hillside

For centuries, individual miners were granted rights to dig for coal and iron in the forest, and archaeological evidence shows that working for ochre pigments began over 4,500 years ago, with iron and coal working extensive by Roman times.

But to appreciate the full scale of the later mining revolution, take a short trip to Clearwell Caves and discover a vast underground world of the caverns and mines which spread for hundreds of acres under the forest.

UNDERGROUND WORLD: inside Clearwell Caves

Large-scale mining operations here stopped in 1945 but telling the story of the caves to visitors became a labour of love for caver, freeminer and verderer Ray Wright from the 1960s until his death in 2015.

Today, his son Jonathan continues the family tradition, still producing ochre pigments for sale as well as managing access to the six interconnected iron mines which plunge up to 600ft into the earth.

HISTORY LESSON: old mining equipment

Day-trippers savour a 45-minute circular tour of nine caverns to get a flavour of the place, while those inspired to continue the adventure can opt for a more ambitious caving experience allowing you to crawl, slither and clamber into places visitors don’t normally experience.

There are even deep-level guided tours for those prepared to gear up with helmets and lamps, get a little dirty and head off with a guide to discover areas last seen by miners centuries ago.

CAVE ART: the 2022 sculpture trail at Clearwell

Back up on the main visitor circuit there’s been an intriguing sculpture trail running this summer giving guests a chance to enjoy contemporary works of art in the atmospheric setting of the cool underground chambers.

Curated by Gallery Pangolin, the display featured more than 50 works by a range of international artists, taking modern art back to its spiritual home underground and creating an almost prehistoric atmosphere with unexpected discoveries around every corner.

PREHISTORIC FEEL: atmospheric lighting adds to the impact

From street art with paleolithic echoes to works which feel as if they have been part of this setting for centuries, choosing and locating specific pieces for the exhibition produced its own challenges and rewards for all involved.

But as Rungwe Kingdon from Gallery Pangolin explains, the extraordinary exhbition also honours the “sheer graft” of the people who went underground to dig out the original metal and stone used to forge the pieces.

STONE AGE: each cavern and crevice provides a unique setting

Outside the caves, there’s an almost sculptural quality to the rusting mining locomotives which once worked the narrow-gauge lines here.

As in similar mines across the forest, railways and tramways were used to harvest the heavy minerals that gave the area its wealth. Stone, coal, iron ore and even gold were extracted from the earth in huge quantities.

RUSTING RELIC: an old mining locomotive at Clearwell

Mining and ironmaking industries were at their peak in the 19th century when they spawned an intricate network of tramroads and railways serving the foundries and collieries scattered across the forest.

By the 20th century deeper mining was abandoned as reserves of ore and coal became uneconomic to work, but across the area traces of the old lines and mines are not hard to spot.

END OF THE LINE: engines and wagons at Clearwell

Of course it wasn’t just getting materials out of the ground that proved a challenge, but exporting those materials around the world.

Proximity to the longest navigable river in England made that a practicality, and the Severn Estuary was known as one of the UK’s principal sea links to the rest of the world and had been since Roman times.


Nonetheless, with its massive tidal range the river posed its own challenges, as a visit to the historic docks at Lydney Harbour illustrates.

A recognised port since the reign of Henry II, the harbour was originally situated inland, served by both the Severn and the Lyd, and had a thriving shipbuilding industry in the 17th century.

But that was before massive silt deposits left the town landlocked, with the dramatic walls of the currently harbour being completed in 1821.

TIME AND TIDE: lock gates open into the tidal basin

Looking at the tranquil upper basin today it’s hard to imagine the sprawling docks in their heyday, but by the 1960s the closure of the local pits saw the demise of its coal trade and the hoists and railway sidings were removed, with many of the harbour’s once ornate structures being obliterated by the time the site was scheduled as an ancient monument in 1980.

QUIET REFLECTION: boats in the upper basin

Thankfully, there’s still one place you can recapture an authentic flavour of the way things were round here in the past decades, thanks to the nearby Dean Forest Railway, which runs from Lydney Junction through four miles of beautiful woodland and countryside to the small forest village at Parkend.

NOSTALGIC TRIP: a diesel railcar at Parkend

Offering a mixture of steam and diesel rides, the line runs along part of the old Severn and Wye Joint Railway, first built as a tramroad over 200 years ago and rescued as a heritage line in the 1970s.

BACK TO BASE: the sidings at Norchard

The main station on the preserved line is at Norchard, in the middle of the line, which boasts a large, free car park as well as a shop, museum and café, and where a clutter of historic engines, wagons and carriages grace the sidings.

SIGN OF THE TIMES: the low level platform at Norchard

It’s a picturesque location, with low- and high-level platforms providing scope for engines to shuttle their way round from the sidings to the main line.

PICTURESQUE: a railcar approaching Norchard High Level

Steam train services run on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from mid-March to early November, with Santa and Mince Pie Specials around Christmas and New Year, along with a range of evening specials, murder mysteries and gin trains, plus brake-van tours for dedicated enthusiasts.

ALL ABOARD: the first train of the day prepares to leave

Priding itself for friendly service and staffed by a dedicated team of volunteers, the line offers a relaxing journey through the forest in a manner that was not seen for many decades.

THE WAY WE WERE: the signalbox at Norchard

The primary function of the forest railway system was always the carrying of freight traffic, with passengers being of secondary importance. Indeed, Norchard itself was a colliery and passenger traffic on the Severn and Wye line ceased in 1929, long before the effects on the railway system of the Beeching cuts in the 1960s.

RAILWAY REVIVAL: passenger services stopped in 1929

With improved road connections and the decline of the mining industry undermining the economic basis of the forest railway system, there was little surprise when freight traffic ended in the 1960s. The Norchard drift mine was derelict by 1968, and the only remnant of the old passenger network was the main line from Gloucester to Cardiff, still in use today.

JOURNEY’S END: the station at Parkend

Dean Forest enthusiasts remain hopeful that the line may once again extend north to Speech House, in the heart of the forest, but for now journey’s end remains the scenic station at Parkend.

PIPEDREAM: for now the line stops at Parkend

The idea of passengers once again being able to reach the Speech House Hotel by train is an exciting one, but still something of a pipedream for the moment. But as the little railcar rattles and rolls its way back through the forest, it’s almost time to head home.

Don’t worry, we’ll be back. The visit may have been fleeting, but this is a forest steeped in history, and there’s so much more to see – not to mention a proper chance to come face to face with those little humbugs…

Glorious glens are the toast of Scotland

THE extraordinary beauty of the Glenlivet Estate is one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets.

This is a land of mountain and moorland hidden away at the edge of the Cairngorms National Park where spectacular salmon rivers flow to the sea.

CLEAR WATERS: beside the Old Bridge of Livet

Here, glorious glens dotted with distilleries produce some of the world’s finest malt whisky – and yet many tourists bypass the area completely in favour of the Highlands and islands.

That’s their loss, though. The lonely roads and isolated moors of this part of Scotland have a host of surprises in store, and perhaps the best way of savouring the vastness of the landscape is to take the picturesque route south from Tomintoul to Perth via Cock Bridge, Braemar and Blairgowrie.

LOCAL LANDMARK: Corgarff Castle

Famed as one of the first roads in the country to be shut by winter snowdrifts, the A939 takes you through spectacular scenery with endless views over mountains and moorland.

With its rich history of military escapades and whisky smuggling, there’s plenty of history to read up on too, but for many it’s simply a chance to savour the isolation of a unique moorland landscape which provides a chance to glimpse the odd merlin, hen harrier or mountain hare, as well as the inevitable sheep and deer.

WINNING RECIPE: Effie’s of Perth

If you savour your home comforts, the perfect place to enjoy a little old-school hospitality at the start or end of the journey is at Effie’s tea shop in the heart of Perth.

Whether it’s wholesome home-cooked mince and tatties or afternoon tea, this elegant and ornately decorated haven in the High Street is ideally located to break the journey south, and a welcome touch of civilisation after the bleak beauty of the moors.

PERIOD SETTING: Effie’s of Perth

Autumn tends to be the best time to savour the journey north, partly because of high hopes that the weather will be forgiving, and partly because this is the time of year when the rare habitat of heathers, grasses, berries and mosses is at its most stunning and colourful.

Take your time to meander through this wildnerness, because this is not scenery you can savour every day: three-quarters of the world’s heather moorland is found in the UK and most of it is located in Scotland, so the management of such unique ecosystems is crucial for the welfare of local wildlife, as well as protecting against climate change.

UNIQUE HABITAT: Scotland’s heather moorlands

Drive on past the Lecht and Glenshee ski slopes to the outskirts of Tomintoul and there’s no let-up in the endless vistas or glorious sense of isolation, not least as you enter the 58,000-acre Glenlivet Estate.

Nowadays it’s part of the Crown Estate, a huge £14bn property portfolio which helps to fund the Royal family, though three-quarters of the £340m-plus annual profits are surrendered to the Treasury.

ENDLESS VISTAS: the countryside around Tomintoul

Once owned by the Gordon family, today the estate boasts a range of visitor attractions, encouraging the development of recreation and tourism and welcoming those who come to explore and enjoy the countryside, helping support local businesses in the process.

Attractions include waymarked walks and a mountain bike centre, while those with a taste for malt whisky can pay a visit to a range of local distilleries for which Speyside is famous.

OPEN OUTLOOK: the Glenlivet Estate

Those wanting to enjoy a more traditional seaside holiday don’t have far to drive to savour the picturesque harbours and fishing villages along the Moray Firth.

At the nature reserve at Findhorn Bay, birdwatchers can enjoy the landlocked tiday bay which is the largest of Moray’s three estuaries and internationally important for its waders and wildfowl.

TIDAL BAY: the estuary at Findhorn

Those eager to explore on foot can enjoy a 50-mile long-distance walking route along Moray’s magical coastline, from Forres to Cullen, which is well signposted and fairly easy terrain, given the magnificence of the views.

Sadly today’s visitors no longer get the chance to traverse the clifftop route by steam train, following the closure of the former Great North of Scotland’s Moray Firth coast route in 1968, but some of the line can still be traversed on foot or by cycle, and the views are unequalled.

FISHING HERITAGE: the harbour at Findochty

Fishing villages like Findochty and Portessie provide a higgledy-piggledy array of brightly coloured coastal cottages interspersed with sandy bays, looming cliffs and rockpools perfect for closer exploration.

Generations of holidaymakers have enjoyed these blue waters, as well as grappling with the distinctive and sometimes impenetrable Doric dialect spoken by residents in “Finechty” and the surrounding villages.

PICTURE POSTCARD: traditional cottages at “Finechty”

Travel a few miles east and the beaches and harbour at Cullen provide one of the most dramatic vistas along this coastline, still framed by the impressive viaducts of the old railway line.


Travelling back inland, a couple of heritage railways hark back to the heyday of rail travel in the north-east of Scotland, with the Keith & Dufftown Railway providing services between the two towns, and the Strathspey Railway offering steam services from Aviemore to Boat of Garten.

BLAST FROM THE PAST: the station at Boat of Garten

Or if you visit in August, you could even enjoy one of the annual local agricultural highlights of the year, when the Keith Show provides a two-day programme of livestock competitions, sheepdog trials and massed pipe and drum displays.

SHOW OF FORCE: massed pipe bands at Keith

Those who favour a more serene environment can visit the monastery at Pluscarden Abbey, joining the community of Catholic Benedictine monks for one of their services, or simply savouring a moment of quiet reflection in the secluded glen where the monks first established their base in the 13th century.

PEACEFUL RETREAT: stained-glass windows at Pluscarden

The 21st-century story of the monks’ efforts to restore the abbey to its former glory is one which has spanned decades, and is ongoing.

Today, Pluscarden claims to be a thriving place of training, worship, work and reflection where the physical labour of rebuilding goes on and when time and funds permit.

LABOUR OF LOVE: Pluscarden Abbey is being restored to its former glory

But if one final story encapsulates an even more awe-inspiring tale of struggling against adversity in the pursuit of one’s faith, it’s the extraordinary story of a secret seminary set up in one of the remotest glens of Glenlivet at a time when Catholicism was outlawed in Scotland.

OUTLAWED FAITH: the Scalan seminary

Hidden deep in the Braes of Glenlivet, between 1716 and 1799 the Scalan seminary offered seclusion to the persecuted 18th-century Catholics, who trained more than 100 priests here, ensuring the survival of the Catholic faith.

REMOTE OUTPOST: Scalan lies along a rough farm track

Named after the Gaelic sgalan, meaning turf roof, the old college lies along a rough farm track that today forms part of the 4.5km Scalan Heritage Trail, a circular walk offering breathtaking views of the Braes of Glenlivet and the Ladder Hills.

BACK TO NATURE: the path to Scalan

As the Rev John Geddes, rector at Scalan in the 1760s and later to become a bishop, wrote: “The time by the goodness of God will come, when the Catholic religion will again flourish in Scotland; and then, when posterity shall enquire, with a laudable curiosity, by what means any sparks of the true faith were preserved in these dismal times of darkness and error, Scalan and the other colleges will be mentioned with veneration, and all that can be recorded concerning them will be recorded with care. . .”

OASIS IN THE BRAES: the chapel at Scalan

Sitting today in the primitive chapel, located so remotely in the only round glen in Scotland, it’s hard to believe what courage it took in the 18th century to train new priests in this stark and majestic landscape, where snow can lie on the ground from October to April.

EXCISE TRAIL: whisky smuggling was once rampant across Scotland

Today, there’s a signposted path leading 10 miles over the hills to Strathdon, once patrolled by prominent exciseman Malcolm Gillespie in his mission to catch whisky smugglers.

ISOLATED BASE: around 100 young men trained at Scalan

How strange then, that this small remote building should have played such a crucial role in helping to keep the Catholic faith alive, with around 100 young men travelling to Glenlivet to train before fanning out across the Continent to spread the word – and to dream of a day when the Mass no longer had to be celebrated in secret.

For more information about Scalan, see the website of the Scalan Association.

Secret hideaways on the South Devon coast

YES, we do love to be beside the seaside. As a maritime nation of explorers and seafarers, it’s perhaps not surprising if we have salt water in our blood.

IN THE SWIM: Bigbury-on-Sea in South Devon

In primitive coracles and majestic Tudor galleons, the British have been going to sea for centuries, our shipbuilding industry springing up in countless small creeks and rivers around the coast from the Severn to the Wash.

From sophisticated modern trawlers and warships to the huge merchant ships of the colonial era, generations of mariners have set sail from these shores.

LIFE OF LEISURE: pleasure craft on the Exe estuary

So it’s entirely predictable how much we Brits love the seaside – and why even here in the landlocked Chilterns we often find ourselves yearning to sink our bare toes in the sand and hear the sound of waves crashing on the shingle.

As we discussed in an earlier column, our closest coasts lie south and east, towards Southampton and Portsmouth, North Kent or Essex, all around 90 minutes’ drive away, depending on your precise starting point.

SMUGGLERS’ TALES: the Pilchard Inn on Burgh Island

But to really feel that you’re on holiday you may need to travel a little further – and where better than a historic inn perched on the South Devon coast almost four hours’ west of the Chilterns by road?

This is Burgh Island, where a cosy wood-beamed hostelry with 700 years of history provides the perfect place to watch the tides ebb and flow while relaxing over a cold pint on a summer’s day.

THIRTIES GLAMOUR: Burgh Island hotel

Accessible only by a golden sandy causeway from Bigbury-on-Sea that disappears under the waves at high tide, this is an inn steeped in tales of pirates, smugglers and pilchard fishing.

Home to a monastery in medieval times, the island today lies on the South West Coast Path, a life-changing long-distance journey chronicled by Raynor Winn in her 2018 bestseller, The Salt Path.

The inn lies beside the luxurious Grade II listed art deco hotel which attracted Agatha Christie and Noel Coward in its heyday, and which has now been meticulously restored to its 1930s glamour.

SEA VIEWS: the beach house where Agatha Christie wrote

Guests can even stay in the beach house first built in the 30s as a writer’s retreat for the prolific author, where she wrote two of her crime novels, though its stunning panoramic sea views don’t come cheap.

But then this really is Agatha Christie country – the writer’s beloved holiday home at Greenway lies a little further along the coast on the River Dart, and is owned by the National Trust and open to the public.

PERIOD FEEL: a steam train at Paignton

To maintain the authentic period theme, you can even travel past Greenway by steam train from Paignton to Kingswear, courtesy of the Dartmouth Steam Railway.

But then this part of the world is a mecca for railway enthusiasts, with an array of picturesque heritage lines offering the chance to meander through some glorious Devon scenery.

NOSTALGIC JOURNEY: Totnes Riverside station

Head north to Totnes, for example, and you can also step back in time on the South Devon Railway, the seven-mile-long former Great Western Railway branch line to Buckfastleigh.

It’s literally a stone’s throw away from the modern mainline express trains, but it’s a world away in time, with the smell of steam and blast of an engine whistle harking back to an era when life moved at a slightly slower pace.

BLAST FROM THE PAST: the South Devon Railway

Like everywhere else in Britain, Devon has its fair share of gruesome holiday parks and garish amusement arcades, but a careful exploration of the “English Riviera” yields plenty of hidden coves, sleepy villages and unspoilt lanes too.

This is the Devon of smugglers’ paths and deserted beaches, rockpools and sandcastles, cream teas and the taste of salt on your lips.

HISTORY LESSON: Exeter quayside

Heading back round the coast towards Exeter, we sidestep the city to enjoy a coffee on the old quayside, where the Custom House Visitor Centre fills in some gaps about the area’s long and intriguing history since Roman times.

From here, a ramble up the side of the Exe estuary takes you towards the gloriously quirky 16-sided National Trust property at A la Ronde, Lympstone, which was built for two spinster cousins, Jane and Mary Parminter, on their return from a grand tour of Europe in the late 18th century.

QUIRKY: the Parminters’ home at A la Ronde

The pair were both independent-minded, unmarried and financially secure women with adventurous spirits, and the intimate design of their unique home reflects their interests.

With its orchard, hay meadow and spectacular views over the estuary, their estate could hardly have had a more glorious location, a perfect place for a summer picnic as well as housing all their intriguing personal treasures and souvenirs, including a spectacular shell gallery.

OPEN ASPECT: the view from the Parminters’ estate

There’s even a small chapel, Point In View, built by the cousins beside their home in 1811 and still used for Sunday services and special occasions like weddings.

Today, the Mary Parminter Charity owns and maintains the three-acre meadow in which the chapel is set, along with five modern alms-houses and an early 19th-century manse. Point in View is a member of the Quiet Gardens Network and hosts Quiet Garden afternoons, art workshops, and music and poetry performances throughout the summer.

SMALL WONDER: the tiny chapel at Point In View

The bustling beaches of nearby Exmouth offer a cheerful contrast to the tranquillity of A la Ronde, but for visitors still eager to savour a slightly slower pace of life, the quaint nearby town of Topsham provides the perfect place to savour a hearty meal and spectacular sunset over the estuary.

Wandering past the elegant 17th-century Dutch-style merchant houses on The Strand, you can take a circular walk around town that takes in both the popular Goat Walk and the Bowling Green Marsh Nature Reserve.

EVENING LIGHT: glimpses of the estuary at Topsham

From Topsham Quay, the ramble heads south along the river to Topsham Museum, which houses furnished period rooms alongside displays about local history and memorabilia associated with Vivien Leigh, the Oscar-winning Hollywood actress.

Leigh met her first husband on Dartmoor in 1931 and visited The Strand in the 1940s and 1950s when her sister Dorothy was living there.

CIRCULAR WALK: the road back into Topsham

From the museum, the narrow Goat Walk path runs along the river with fine views across the estuary before you turn into the RSPB Bowling Green Marsh Nature Reserve, which sits at the confluence of the River Exe and the River Clyst.

The reserve features a range of trails to follow, and includes a bird hide on the marshes and a viewing platform, a perfect spot to watch spring and autumn migrating birds, as well as winter flocks of waders, ducks and geese feeding.

ON THE PROWL: a heron at Bowling Green Marsh

Back in town, culinary highlights include an authentic Italian meal in friendly surroundings at Marcello’s before a well-earned rest in a comfortable bedroom at The Globe, a 16th-century inn owned by St Austell Brewery.

Sculptures lure art lovers to the lakeside

IT’S ONE of the hottest days of the year and Bournemouth beach is buried under an ant’s nest of sunburnt tourists. The A31 is tailed back for miles and everyone is heading for the sea.

Well, almost everyone. Just a few miles away down a Dorset country lane is a perfect oasis of tranquillity, and one of the county’s most unexpected and delightful tourist attractions.

Here, at a seat overlooking a beautiful stream or shimmering lake, you can enjoy a picnic with friends in glorious countryside and enjoy an extraordinary exhibition of modern sculpture set against the most spectacular of backdrops.

True, if you fancy snapping up one of the sculptures on display for your own backyard it could set you back anything from £15,000 to a quarter of a million pounds or more – but if you’re content just to chill out by the lake and enjoy the show, this is the perfect place.

Swans, cranes, pelicans and even a stray polar bear spring out of the water, though it can sometimes be hard to spot which ones are real and which are man-made.

But then the 26 acres that provide the setting for Sculpture by the Lakes have allowed sculptor Simon Gudgeon and wife Monique to create an environment for enthusiasts that blends nature’s beauty with inspiring works of art, free from the space constraints of a traditional gallery.

Carefully landscaped and curated with the aim of enhancing the aesthetic qualities of each sculpture, the park has deep running water, which means children under 14 and dogs are not allowed on site: a disappointment for some families, no doubt, but for other couples it contributes to the overall tranquillity of the place.

Paths meander round the lakes, each turn revealing a different vista and new work of art, many by Simon and some by guest exhibitors.

Born in Yorkshire in 1958, Simon “lived deep in the countryside on the family farm, learning the essential arts of observation, evaluation and interpretation of how animals and birds behave, both with each other and man”.

He studied law at Reading University and practised as a solicitor, starting painting only in his thirties and first exhibiting at London’s Battersea Exhibition Centre in 1992. An impulse purchase of artist’s clay at the age of 40 led into his new career as a sculptor, responding to what lay closest to his heart: the natural world.

He went on to gain global recognition for his sculpture, with exhibitions around the world and his works featuring in numerous important private collections and art museums abroad and in the UK.

The park at Pallington opened in 2011 and is home to some of his monumental finished pieces, as well as housing studio workshops. He sculpts primarily in bronze, and occasionally in marble, granite, glass or stainless steel.

He is particularly known for his sculptures of birds in flight, often with ingeniously engineered bases that seem to launch them into the air rather than anchor them to the ground.

His pared-down approach allows the smallest of details, such as the arching of a neck, to suggest rather than depict a bird or mammal.

The work of a dozen or more guest sculptors adds to the variety, with materials ranging from marble and limestone to forged metal, and subjects from wildfowl and wildlife to abstracts, kinetic wind sculptures or figurative works inspired by the masks of the Venice Carnival.

The park provides an array of benches, tables and other suitable spots to relax and take in the view, with visitors being actively encouraged to bring a picnic and spend the day. As Simon says: “We like to give our guests the space and time to fully absorb and appreciate the sculpture park.”

Scattered around are a number of more exclusive private spots too, which can be hired for £50 – £100 a day and accommodate families or small groups who really want to chill out in style.

There’s even a larger double-storey timber retreat with a roof terrace offering spectacular views over the entire park and situated in its own exclusive area, with room for 60 for lunch or 100 for a drinks, wedding or anniversary reception.

Three gallery spaces exhibit sculptures, paintings and prints by a collection of talented artists, while the cafe offers coffee and cakes, not to mention picnic ingredients sourced from the nearby kitchen garden.

“These are gardens designed to be savoured,” says Simon – and a glance at some of the enthusiastic feedback online suggests there are plenty of visitors who find the tranquil setting a refreshing alternative to those hectic beaches a little further along the Dorset coast.

Day ticket prices cost £12.50 a head and the park is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm. See the website for details, upcoming exhibitions and other news.

Living in a land of impossible greens

Beaconsfield artist Tim Baynes always found West Wales a place of inspiration – and now he lives there. Today he shares some initial impressions about his new life in Carmarthenshire

WE HAVE moved to Laugharne, a town on the south coast of Carmarthenshire lying on the estuary of the River Tâf. Population 1,222.

It is like standing on the edge of a new life, when somebody is saying to you: “Hey, would you like a new life?” And you say: “Yes please, that would be nice, thank you.”

I think I really know the difference between living in a place and loving a place. There is so much ahead of us, probably most of it will be strange. Yet there is so much to see, enjoy and stub one’s toe on. Every nook and cranny seem to have a story.

I am making a drawing or two most days in Laugharne. I make notes each day about what we do all day here.

Our town squats at the end of an estuary. Here the Afon Taf flows into Carmarthen Bay and eventually the Bristol Channel. On the other side of this estuary are deserted churches, small farm fields and narrow roads draped in flowers. Cow parsley, red campion, buttercups, bluebells and hawthorn compete for room to flourish. Hedges are high. In the shade, hart’s-tongue ferns glow in a green haze.

These roads are like some helter-skelter rising up to the sun and plunging down to shady bridges and crumbling cottages. Up, up again, to a field of views across a hundred fields. A line of pylons march across this land.

There is so much green, from darkest viridian to almost lemon. Gates are held together by rust and blue bailer twine. Red rust and turquoise blue the complement to green on the colour wheel.

As we make our way to Llansteffan (St Stephen – often these saints were from ruling families who invaded Wales in the Middle Ages), the land seems to pant in the high sun. We meet villages along the way. Llan-this, Llan-that. There are 630 “llans” in Wales: it means Christian settlement, often a church, conjoined with a local saint.

Llan y bri, through which we pass, has two chapels: Capel Newydd, new chapel, is home now to most of Dylan Thomas’ maternal relatives. Hen Gapel was the only medieval church in Wales to be converted to a non-conformist chapel. Now it is without a roof and God has an uninterrupted view on the congregation.

In November 2020, a series of Tim’s paintings featured in our Picture of the Week feature.

Part 1 focused on the flatlands of the Kent coast and marshes, Part 2 threw the spotlight on West Wales – “a landscape, coastline and places that really inspire” – and Part 3 homed in on church architecture across the Chilterns.

Tim Baynes’ website features a variety of galleries of his work, downloadable minibooks and work for sale. His blog, which includes more detail about his adventures in Laugharne, can be found here.

Rewilding one of London’s lost railways

IT’S more than half a century since a train last ran through Crouch End railway station in north London.

But there are probably more people wandering along its platforms today than at the height of the steam railway era.

That’s partly because this line never really enjoyed a true “heyday” and partly because the route has been a parkland walk for more than 35 years.

It may be only a few miles from the modern transport hub of Finsbury Park, but the line through here to Highgate and the branch from there to Alexandra Palace never really took off in the way the developers had hoped.

It was built by the Edgware, Highgate and London Railway and opened on 22 August 1867, running from Finsbury Park to Edgware via Highgate.

Branches would follow to Alexandra Palace and High Barnet. Swallowed up by the Great Northern Railway and later the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), part of the route would become the High Barnet branch of the Northern Line, but ambitious Tube expansion plans in the 1930s were thwarted by the Second World War.

In some ways Alexandra Palace was doomed from the start. The branch was constructed by the Muswell Hill Railway Company and opened on 24 May 1873 along with the palace. However, when the palace burned down only two weeks after opening, the service was considerably reduced and then closed for almost two years while the palace was rebuilt.

There were other periods of temporary closure too due to insufficient demand, though in 1935 it looked as if it would get a new lease of life when London Underground revealed plans to electrify the branch.

Works to modernise the track were well advanced when they were halted by the war, services reduced to rush hours only as a result of wartime economy measures.

After the war, dwindling passenger numbers and a shortage of funds led to the cancellation of the unfinished works in 1950 and British Railways withdrew passenger services to Alexandra Palace on 3 July 1954 along with the rest of the route from Finsbury Park.

After the track was lifted, most of the platforms and station buildings were demolished but two sections from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace, excluding the tunnels and station at Highgate, were converted into the Parkland Walk, which was officially opened in 1984.

Stroud Green station consisted of two wooden side platforms which were gutted by fire in 1967 and demolished shortly afterwards, but Crouch End was more substantial and both platforms survive.

The line continued to be used for goods into the 1960s and by London Underground for train stock movements until 1970 when it was completely closed. The track was lifted a couple of years later, by which time it was already being used as an unofficial walkway.

A hundred years ago the steam train took just six minutes to get here from Finsbury Park, and another 10 or 11 to chug all the way round to Alexandra Palace.

Today the journey takes a little longer but the 3.9-mile route is designated a local nature reserve, part of the 78-mile Capital Ring Walk round Inner London, and reveals a glimpse of north London life that motorists never see.

From here a glance back at the city skyline reminds you just how far this feels from the hubbub of central London – a green corridor of trees and birdsong providing 21st-century Londoners with a welcome respite from the concrete jungle and rumble of city traffic.

Rediscover our ancient coffin paths

Former Bucks newspaper editor Alan Cleaver explains the fascination of ‘corpse roads’ – and the facts and myths surrounding the ancient footpaths which criss-cross the country

CORPSE roads – the very name conjures up images of ghosts marching over misty fells. But what are the facts behind these ancient paths?

They were used in medieval times to carry the dead from a remote parish to the ‘mother’ church for burial and could be just a couple of miles long or anything up to 20 miles. They are also known as coffin paths, bier roads, lyke or lych ways and by other names.

LOST VILLAGE: the Shap Corpse Road runs from Mardale to Shap, but the village of Mardale was ‘drowned’ in 1935 to build a reservoir PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

The first question has to be: why not just dig a hole in the ground and bury them locally? The answer – as with most questions – is down to money and politics. Mother churches received good money for burials (and baptisms and weddings) and were not giving up that revenue stream easily. 

However by the late 17th and early 18th centuries many rural parishes successfully petitioned the bishop for burial rites at their own chapel.

Many of the petitions still survive in church archives and follow a typical ‘winning’ formula: “…by reason of their distance from the parish church and by reason of inundations and of storms frequently raging in those parts in the winter season, they cannot carry their dead to be buried without great trouble and inconvenience…”

LABOUR OF LOVE: husband and wife writing team Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park

So corpse roads ceased to carry the dead but their route and former sacred purpose survived, not least because of a firmly held belief that once a corpse was carried over a field or path that route was for ever a public right of way.

This belief survives even today but there is no basis in law for it. However, it seems to have ensured that in Cumbria and elsewhere corpse roads survive as public footpaths.

In Cumbria there are seven or eight famous corpse roads that can be found quickly on Google including Shap, Loweswater, Grasmere, Wasdale and Beetham.

Research by my wife and I over the last three years has uncovered around 30 others, some only known by oral tradition (you can view our map of them online. We’ve only studied those in Cumbria but they exist all over the country. For example, fellow corpse road enthusiast Stuart Dunn details one in Oxfordshire in his blog.

TOURIST TRAIL: the Grasmere corpse road runs from Rydal to St Oswald’s Church in Grasmere and has become popular with visitors PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

Perhaps the most famous is the Rydal to Grasmere corpse road which is always very busy with tourists. It is signposted from Rydal and skirts past Wordsworth’s former homes of Rydal Mount and Dove Cottage.

There are even a couple of coffin rests along the way. One of these is very dubious (it was almost certainly erected as a seat in the 1930s) but the other, near Dove Cottage, has a better pedigree.

Many coffin rests survive and are proudly pointed out by villagers but I know of none that were recorded in medieval times, most only being noted in the late 19th century. There is a modern misunderstanding of a coffin rest with many people saying they were large stones on which a coffin was rested by tired pall-bearers travelling the corpse road.

COFFIN REST: the ‘genuine’ stopping point on the Rydal to Grasmere corpse road close to Dove Cottage, former home of poet William Wordsworth PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

But this makes little sense not least because bodies were usually carried on a cart or on back of a horse, the body only being put in a coffin when they reached the lych-gate of the church.

Rather, the coffin rests appear to have marked a spot where the party rested (ie paused) to say a prayer or sing a hymn. The corpse road was as much part of the funeral and any service by the graveside.

WEEPING CROSS: the cross which once stood on the Whitehaven to St Bees corpse road has been moved to St Bees Abbey to ensure its safety PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

You may also see roadside crosses or even holy wells marking the route – or even a ghost. There are a couple of famous ghost stories associated with Cumbria’s corpse roads but for the most part the paths are simply a good excuse to go on a walk with a bit more history than most.

The popularity of the Rydal to Grasmere corpse road with tourists is undoubtedly down to signposts the local council has erected (it’s one of only two in the county to be signposted). I usually point friends in the direction of the Chapel Stile to Grasmere corpse road which is a much nicer walk and has fewer tourists on it!

WALK THIS WAY: the humble wooden signpost at Rydal has succeeded in attracting thousands of walkers every year PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

The parts of Cumbria outside the honeypot of the Lake District are desperate to woo tourists to their part of the county. I am hoping to persuade them to shout louder about their corpse roads (or indeed other ancient paths).

Spending £20 on a wooden sign with ‘coffin path’ painted on it would seem a cheap and easy way to start. Readers may wish to investigate their local corpse roads and do the same.

The Corpse Roads of Cumbria by Alan Cleaver & Lesley Park is £10 from bookshops (please support your local bookshop!) or online. Alan Cleaver is a former editor of the Wycombe & South Bucks Star who retired to Cumbria after a career in journalism which included 10 years as editor of the Hampshire Chronicle.

Mystery of the ship among the trees

Guest writer Tim Pinks discovers how a Royal Navy vessel came to be transformed into an ancient woodland burial ground

SO how does, exactly, one of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy ships (originally one of His Majesty’s) become a beautiful burial ground in an ancient English woodland?

And how did a little piece of coincidence ensure my father, who was alive on the one…come to rest eternally in the other?

And one other question. How did something that was commissioned for war and destruction (but also for our defence and freedom), become something dedicated to nature and renewal, to our natural history, and rebirth?

Well, with a little bit of literary sleight of hand, an abracadabra and a touch of Tommy Cooper (one of dad’s favourites), just like this…

During World War Two (that’s the one after the one that ended all wars), Portsmouth was heavily bombed due to it being the Royal Navy’s biggest base. Among the many operations there was the Signal School. Communications, in other words. It was actually housed near HMS Victory.

So after heavy bombing in 1940 and ’41, it was decided that some of these services had to be moved, and hidden around the country. The signalling school was one of them.

On April 19, 1941, a place called Leydene House was approved to be requisitioned, and by August 16 it was commissioned as a land ship and the Signal School had a new home. They moved into the massive house, set within the lovely Hyden Wood, and the land ship HMS Mercury was launched. It was only a lucky 13 miles north from Portsmouth as the Solent seabird flies.

Leydene House was built for Viscount Robert and Lady Peel in the years after the Great War. Yes, that one, the war that ended all…anyway, once completed it was described by L.H Troyde thus: “No larger house has been built for at least half a century, or has been built since.” Over the years and decades, HMS Mercury was expanded until it was practically the size of a large village or small town.

Also over the years, King George VI (1943), Earl Mountbatten (1956 and ’58) and Queen Elizabeth II and Duke of Edinburgh (1991) visited, the latter on the occasion of its 50th birthday…along with the hundreds of thousands who had of course been piped aboard its woodland setting. Under such a canopy of trees with their resident birds, tweeted aboard, perhaps, would be more apt…

Up to half a million people passed through, it’s believed. Prince Charles was to visit too, in 2006, but by then, that whole little naval woodland world had changed.

Oh, and why ‘Mercury?’ Well, because, like many of the ancient Roman gods, Mercury was a god of many things…including messages and communication.

And then, in 1993…it closed down. Many, many of the old buildings were still there. There was even a cinema. So how did this ship (OK, yes, a land ship…well I did say there’d be a little bit of literary sleight of hand) turn into an ancient woodland? Well, it was already built in the woods, of course, to hide it from German bombing, so there were trees galore.

And so the great metamorphosis began. Most of the land was handed over to the Defence Land Registry and nearly all the buildings were demolished. Some 55 acres were gifted to a newly created Earthworks Trust to help set up The Sustainability Centre. Between then and now, all sorts of things would happen, all green, all good, and all sympathetic to the area.

The Sustainability Centre? Yes, and this is what they’re for, to quote from their own mission statement: “to demonstrate, develop and promote knowledge, skills, technologies and lifestyles that improve people’s quality of life without damaging the local and global environment.” 

There is a campsite which originally was just for ‘traditional camping’ but now has the added attraction of tipis and yurts to stay in.

If you’re an ageing crock like me and find getting up off the floor hard – funny, I find it easy enough to slide off my bar stool to get down there – then one of the few surviving buildings was converted into a green, eco-friendly hostel. So, happily, 2004 saw the opening of The Wetherdown Lodge.

And soon, very soon (work has gone on during the pandemic), the Longdown Wing of the lodge is due to be opened. I can’t wait.

There is more, so much more, to tell you about the old wood that became a ship. About how it is being reconverted into the ancient woodland it once was. About the surviving buildings that became the heart of a green revolution. And about the surrounding woodlands that became a natural burial site.

For this is the one thing I’ve kept secret up to now. As part of the re-rigging of the old boat, in 1997 the South Downs Natural Burial Site was set up and now trees, instead of crosses, stand in memorial over those who rest eternally there.

Among whom is my father, Alfred Herbert George Pinks. Known to everyone as ‘Bill’. You see, like his father before him, he joined the Royal Navy. And apparently, anyone who joined the navy who had the surname ‘Pinks’ was nicknamed ‘Bill.’ Anyway, Dad joined up towards the end of the war, 1944, and he ended up in communications…

… And here is where another twist of fate comes in. My father died rather too quickly, aged 81, in 2006, and it all happened too fast to ask him, if the worst came to the worst, where and how he’d like to be buried. But our mother – I have a brother, Mike – had picked up a couple of items about ‘natural burials’ and the one at HMS Mercury just grabbed us instantly.

It was only after he’d died and we were quickly arranging things and checking places out that we learnt it had been developed in the war for the signals section. And with goose pimples on the skin and shivers down the spine, the possibility that dad had served there was too big a coincidence to ignore.

Also, on a completely different note, the big motorbike I’d bought once I’d passed my test back in 1980 was a 650cc Norton. It was my dad the engineer who rebuilt the thing on his own into the beauty it became. The well-known version of the model was the twin carb ‘SS’ model – the super sports.

But when they took one of the carbs off to make it into a ‘touring’ model, they gave it another name – the Norton 650cc Mercury. Well, well. Sometimes you just can’t script it. I love a good coincidence, even though I do wonder sometimes if they really are coincidences…

One day, if they exist, I would like to view my dad’s service records, and see where he went. Was he, while he was based at Portsmouth, sent with others for a visit to the signal section up at HMS Mercury? Was he based there, but never mentioned it, even after I got a Norton Mercury? It’s of little matter. Dad loved the woods. He loved gardens and flowers and birds and animals, and always the woods.

And he loved walking among the trees. Before his knees got too bad he went on woodland walks with his friends (with a pub as an important part of the outing). After his knees were fixed he kept on going on woodland walks with his friends. Of course, still with a pub somewhere along the way too… So my brother and I have no doubt he’d have been very happy with the site we chose, among this island’s countryside he loved so much.

What else is there, near-abouts? Lots, actually. Apart from beautiful scenery of course, there’s Butser Ancient Farm and Old Winchester Hill, an area rich in Mesolithic archaeology, from those Stone Age hunter-gatherers from after the ice age. There are Bronze Age barrows and an Iron Age hillfort.

There are the remains of a Roman villa nearby at Bury Lodge, and perhaps best, for some, and most English of all, one of the two Hambledons in England. (The other is in Surrey, and there is a Hambleden in Buckinghamshire.) But this one is Hambledon, Hampshire, and it has an oh-so-typically-English claim to fame. It’s the birthplace of cricket.

Up the road, next to the Bat and Ball pub, is the delightfully named Broadhalfpenny Down, where England’s leading cricket club played their cricket from 1765 until the MCC formed in 1787. And the stumps are still standing as they still play cricket there…

But best of all, for my brother and I, a short distance over some fields and hedgerows, and some tracks and woods, is the old HMS Mercury, now the South Downs Natural Burial Site, where my once, always, and future father lies, among the tree-filled woods he loved to walk in so much.

My thanks to one Chris Rickard for his 50-page history of HMS Mercury, and to Christina Seaward at the Sustainability Centre for sending me the Sustainability Centre History booklet, and their permission to use any of their photos that don’t show individuals. Thanks too to Al Blake, the manager, for sending me a load of those photos. There will be more about the place and the people, and the flora and fauna, once we’re unlocked again and can wander, hither and thither, free and happy as clouds….

I shall leave you with a poem, which sums up the beauty of being buried in our beautiful woods. It’s becoming very popular at woodland funerals and it’s going to be read at mine too. Though hopefully not quite yet! I don’t care if it’s one day looked upon as being as common as Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ for a funeral…it’s a lovely poem.

It’s by the incomparable Pam Ayres, and combines not just her humour and heart, but her insightful sensitivity.

Woodland Burial, by Pam Ayres

Don’t lay me in some gloomy churchyard shaded by a wall
Where the dust of ancient bones has spread a dryness over all,
Lay me in some leafy loam where, sheltered from the cold
Little seeds investigate and tender leaves unfold.
There kindly and affectionately, plant a native tree
To grow resplendent before God and hold some part of me.
The roots will not disturb me as they wend their peaceful way
To build the fine and bountiful, from closure and decay.
To seek their small requirements so that when their work is done
I’ll be tall and standing strongly in the beauty of the sun.

Johnson’s cat casts a long shadow

FEW cats can boast such a lasting legacy as Samuel Johnson’s Hodge.

Immortalised in a statue, poetry and various literary references, Hodge was described by his owner as “a very fine cat indeed”, although relatively little is actually known about the favoured feline in question.

The most frequently quoted reference is from his friend James Boswell’s biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791 and unique for the period in that it directly incorporated conversations Boswell had noted down, along with far more personal and human details than contemporary readers were accustomed to reading.

Among such revelations was Boswell’s recollection of how Johnson treated his feline companions: “I shall never forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters.”

He goes on to explain that Johnson’s logic behind this was that if he got his servants to do this job, they would begin to hate the spoilt cat – a scene recreated with a bronze statue outside Johnson’s London home in Gough Square which was unveiled in 1997 and displays Hodge posing proudly on the famous dictionary next to a pair of empty oyster shells.

This is the charming 300-year-old townhouse, now a museum, where Dr Johnson lived and worked in the middle of the 18th century, compiling his great Dictionary of the English Language in the garret.

Although Hodge is undoubtedly the most famous of Johnson’s cats, the writer did have other four-legged friends, including Lily, a ‘white kitling’ who was ‘very well behaved’.

But it was Hodge who was so vividly described by Boswell: “I recollect [Hodge] one day scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this,’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed’.”

Another friend of Johnson’s, the poet Percival Stockdale, wrote an ornate elegy in homage to Hodge in 1778:

Shall not his worth a poem fill,
Who never thought, nor uttered ill;
Who by his manner when caressed
Warmly his gratitude expressed;
And never failed his thanks to purr
Whene’er he stroaked his sable furr?

But that wasn’t the last time that Hodge would be remembered in print. Wood engraver and illustrator Yvonne Skargon wrote Lily & Hodge & Dr Johnson in 1991, juxtaposing a series of engravings of the two cats accompanied by quotations from Johnson.

And the writer William Boyd weaved an even more surreal reference into his 2002 novel Any Human Heart when his hedonistic protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, inadvertently sparks a furious argument in the Pyrenees through a chance reference to Hodge, who happens to bear the same name as his travelling companion.

More recently, Robin Saikia has paid his own tribute to Hodge through a dramatic monologue in which Samuel Johnson celebrates the life of his favourite cat and gives a spirited account of his adventures in London coffee houses.

MC Beaton’s fictional detective Angela Raisin called her cats Hodge and Boswell, while in 2020 a new rescue cat, Hodge – complete with his own Twitter account – was adopted by Southwark Cathedral to replace the late lamented Doorkins.

Back in Gough Square, thanks to the sculptor Jon Bickley, Hodge (actually modelled on his own cat, Thomas Henry) is permanently ensconced with his oyster shells round the corner from Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub renowned for its literary associations and maze of atmospherically gloomy bars.

Historically it’s always been a popular meeting place for writers and journalists, somehow epitomising the spirit of that most famous of all Johnson quotes: “Sir, when a man is tired of London he is tired of life: for there is in London all that life can afford.”

Arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history, the poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer and editor found popularity and success when monumental dictionary was finally published in 1755 after nine years of work.

But for some, his fondness for animals was just another demonstration of his underlying compassion, or as Boswell put it, “the real humanity and gentleness of his disposition”.

Adam roams the Garden of England

A MAJOR problem with exploring unfamiliar territory is knowing where to find the most rewarding rambles.

Where does that footpath lead? How can you discover the best views, magical country lanes or historic villages? How do you find just the right spot for bluebells, butterflies, berries or birdsong, depending on the season?

SPLASH OF COLOUR: Letts Green near Sevenoaks PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

That’s where journalist and musician Adam McCulloch can help take the guesswork out of a day trip to Kent.

Over the past few years, his Kent Walks Near London website has been building up a library of favourite rambles around the Garden of England, and it now boasts handy downloadable guides to more than two dozen walks, all between 2.5 and six miles long.

From wintry rambles on the North Downs Way to sunny afternoons looking out over the Weald, this is a delightful introduction to some of the county’s strikingly different landscapes.

PERFECT DAY: a winter sunset near Dunstall Farm PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

Born in the Petts Wood area of south-east London, Adam spent his childhood gallivanting around the nearby countryside in pursuit of his family’s two English springer spaniels – and, now 58, he’s been enjoying the great outdoors ever since.

You might recognise the byline from the travel pages of The Guardian, but although Adam freelances for a variety of publications writing about everything from farming to finance, his walks website is more of a labour of love, incorporating an occasional blog and slide shows of some of the sights and sounds encountered en route.

He recalls: “I started to write up the routes and add them to the website in 2015. I’d been meaning to do it for several years before that, though. I was working at a large publishing house and a lot of my colleagues were from other parts of the country and some were from abroad. When discussing what people did at weekends I began to realise that a lot of people didn’t really know much about this part of the world and how easy it was to get out here from south London.

WINTRY OUTLOOK: mist over the Darent Valley PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“I was also thinking of university students and tourists who were curious about countryside close to London. I know that when I visit cities abroad I’m never just satisfied with museums, coffee shops, galleries and bars…I want at least one afternoon outside in the countryside.

“I feel strangely happy when I bump into foreign visitors in obscure corners of the North Downs enjoying a walk having ventured out on the train.”

A keen cyclist and golfer, his rambles are focused on that part of Kent south and east of Petts Wood, down to Westerham, Hever and Chiddingstone and out to Shoreham and Otford, with another batch south-east of Sevenoaks.

The walks encompass a range of attractions, from castles, churches, hillforts and manor houses to atmospheric oast houses and monuments, rolling lavender fields or far-flung views over the downs.

ROOM WITH A VIEW: The Mill at Shoreham PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

There are helpful tips about public transport too, along with whether buggies will cope with the route or if dogs need to be kept on leads.

“The good news is that there are beautiful fields, woods and villages to walk in just 30 minutes out of town by car or train,” he says.

Lockdown has encouraged people to stay local and walk more and he has seen a sharp rise in the number of people using the website this year.

“It’s kind of gratifying to think people have found it to be a useful outlet at this disturbing time. Sometimes out on the walks I come across people using one of my routes, either with a pdf print-out or on their phones. It’s always quite a laugh once they realise they’re talking to the ‘author’.”

DISTANT PROSPECT: St Mary’s Church at Chiddingstone PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“One thing that I always knew to be the case and there’s no getting round is that describing walks accurately can be difficult – people look at trails and hedgerows differently. An instruction that seems simple to me, ‘Turn right just before a stand of trees’ for example, is actually really open to misinterpretation.

“My partner certainly thought so when she did one route with me yesterday… she really helped me improve my description. I’ve learnt to really try to nail down directions and be as accurate as possible – I think it’s working, no-one’s had a moan recently!”

Away from the footpath and keyboard, Adam is also a saxophonist and composer in the jazz, funk and soul genres who has been playing semi-pro since the mid-1980s and organises bands for weddings and other events from private house parties to festivals.

ICY BLAST: deer in the thaw at Knole PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

But he’s never happier than out on a walk – either alone or in company – and finding his interest piqued by an unusual wildflower, bird or insect.

“I love a social walk even more than a solitary one,” he admits – at the same time modestly confessing that the fascination with trying to recognise unfamiliar flowers in the hedgerows might just be compensation for him being a “pretty useless” gardener.

Birds have become an interest too, with expert local birder ‘Dave’ obligingly helping to identify bird calls and explain the connection between various species and different habitats and terrain.

IN TOUCH WITH THE PAST: St Peter’s Church at Hever PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

Adam has always paid a lot of attention to what’s happening in the sky, too. “Since I was a kid I’ve always tried to work out what was likely to happen to the weather from reading cloud formations,” he says.

“I haven’t lost this childlike fascination with weather. The sky in the UK is ever-changing, constantly offers up clues and is often as beautiful as the countryside. It’s the greatest art gallery of them all; maybe Turner would have agreed.”

WEATHER WATCH: the sky comes to life as storm clouds gather PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

History still comes alive here too, from following in the footsteps of Chaucer’s pilgrims whiling away the journey to Canterbury with their tales, to visiting Churchill’s home at Chartwell or the Roman villa at Lullingstone.

As Adam says: “These places are still magical, especially now I’ve understood how they chime with some fairly momentous history. Take the unassuming North Downs village of Downe (just 20 minutes’ drive from Bromley), for example.

“Here, a short walk will take you through Charles Darwin’s garden and, 20 minutes later, to the perimeter of an airfield crucial to the UK’s survival in the Battle of Britain, where Spitfires can still be heard and seen.

HISTORY LESSON: Ightham Mote near Sevenoaks PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“And just down the road are the remains of an oak tree – the Wilberforce Oak – under which in 1787 Pitt the Younger and Wilberforce discussed ending the slave trade.”

There you have it, then: medieval pilgrims, old flint churches, soaring birds of prey, big skies, long views and a chance to come face to face with history – what more could you ask for from a quick trip round the M25?

With almost 30 routes described, Adam relies on other walkers to let him know when something has changed.

“The worst ‘change’ I’ve come across was when a beautiful rewilded meadow on my Downe walk was flattened by a farmer all of a sudden with all wildlife utterly eradicated. It had become a wonderful place full of wildflowers, grasses and hawthorn with healthy numbers of yellowhammers, mammals and insects.

KENT SKYLINE: oast houses at Chiddingstone PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“But I guess the land changed hands and suddenly there was a winter crop of something in there, right up to the edge of the woods, and the path became a muddy mess.

“To balance that, a golf course that walkers had to cross on the Fackenden Down and Valleys East of Shoreham routes was closed down a few years back and has rewilded beautifully, a magical chalk downs landscape full of life.

“Those are probably the two walks I do most often – the train stops right where the path starts in Shoreham (Kent, not the West Sussex one!) and so 40 minutes after leaving Peckham you are in a remote-feeling natural wonderland of beech, yew, birdsong and searing timeless views.

ESCAPE FROM THE CITY: a stag at Knole PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“That’s what the site’s all about,” he says. “To take you out of yourself and your neighbourhood and plonk you somewhere very different, yet very accessible.”

Adam’s website welcomes donations from those who find his downloadable guides useful. You can follow him on Twitter @kentwalkslondon.

Autumn adventures on the water

THE trees are changing colour, the nights are drawing in – what better time of year to take a relaxing break away from the crowds and explore Britain’s beautiful waterways?

That’s the message from the Canal and River Trust this autumn, especially for those struggling to recharge their batteries amid the stresses of coronavirus lockdowns.

For a self-catering staycation with a difference away from busy tourist areas, canal boat holidays offer a great opportunity to get back to what matters: spending time with family or friends, enjoying the natural world and being as lazy or as active as you like, walking, cycling, fishing or even canoeing if the fancy takes you.

The canals and rivers are beautiful at this time of year and offer plenty of scope to explore, with hire boat companies dotted around the country who have been working hard to make boats safe in line with the latest government guidance.

Research shows that people can feel happier and healthier by the water, which makes a canal boat the ideal option for a relaxing short-break escape.

You can plan your journey based around how you and your family or friends want to spend your days. If you love visiting attractions and eating out, go for a route that passes through a major city like Birmingham or Manchester. But if you prefer peaceful surroundings and spotting wildlife, there’s a huge choice of rural waterways.

Your skill level and confidence in driving the boat may also play a part in your route decision. If you’re new to boating, you may want to avoid areas with lots of locks. However, if you have energetic children, then locks will help to keep them entertained.

The trust looks after 2,000 miles of waterways and its website contains a host of ideas and resources for anyone new to boating – including free guides to fun local days out and comprehensive advice for beginners and where to find boat hire companies.

As well as offering the prospect of a more tranquil pace of life – and a greener holiday than jetting off to sunnier climes – boating holidays offer a chance for families to spend time together and discover some intriguing insights into Britains architectural history.

For those with a head for heights, the scary-looking Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in North Wales has been recognised with World Heritage Site status and is one of the most impressive engineering feats on the canal network (and one of seven wonders singled out by the trust for special mention). You can walk across or save your legs and go by boat.

To choose a location, you might look for a place that you’ve previously fallen in love with or an area that you have always wanted to explore. 

The trust has plenty of advice for first-timers and advice about circular routes or “cruising rings” which vary in length and could take anything from two days to three weeks without the need to retrace your steps or worry about the return journey.

You can also check out social media posts and capture the excitement of your own boating adventure when you get home by tagging #CanalMemories on Twitter and mentioning @CanalRiverTrust.

The house Churchill called home

FOR more than four decades Chartwell in Kent was more than just a family home for the great statesman Sir Winston Churchill.

It was his refuge from the worries of the world, a place of inspiration for his art and provided surroundings in which he could fully indulge his love of nature.

The country house near Westerham boasts stunning views over the Weald of Kent which were the deciding factor in Churchill buying the estate in 1922.


And for National Trust members in the Chilterns wanting a change of scene, Chartwell is the perfect distance for a leisurely day out.

The legendary wartime prime minister stayed there until 1964, shortly before his death, and a prominent quotation around the property is his assertion that “a day away from Chartwell is a day wasted”.

It’s not hard to understand why the place became such a perfect retreat for the Churchills, and the visitor’s book in the hall reads like a who’s who of 20th-century history.


Those keen to find out more can get a timed entry ticket to the house where Winston and Clementine brought up their young family, and it is decorated pretty much as it was in the 1930s, with the library, study, sitting room and dining room laid out very much as if the family had only just left the room.

Everywhere there are mementoes drawn from different periods in his life, and upstairs there are museum rooms filled with gifts he received from around the world, along with some of his extraordinary collection of uniforms and other memorabilia.

Churchill may have demanded absolute quiet when he was working in his study, but his biographers recount how he joined in alarmingly strenuous high jinx with his children and turned the garden into a place of enchantment with a tree-house for the older children and a  little brick summer house for the youngest that continues to delight visiting children.


In its heyday, Chartwell supported a staff of  indoor servants, a chauffeur, three gardeners, a groom for the polo ponies and an estate bailiff.

Here, dinner parties would be hosted for family and friends, political and business associates, and celebrities from around the world. These were the highlight of the day for a man who inspired so many people through his use of language and went on to become one of the most quoted individuals in English history.

At these dinners, biographers recount how table talk, dominated by Churchill, was as important as the meal and the drinks and cigars might extend well past midnight – even though the great man himself might well return to his study for another hour or so of work once his guests had retired.


A recent addition to the displays at Chartwell, A History of Winston Churchill in 50 Objects contains a fascinating collection of the possessions accumulated by him during his lifetime, from personal mementos to gifts he received from friends, family and political contacts from around the world.

Those intrigued by his art can also find a huge collection of his paintings in his studio in the grounds, a favourite refuge teeming with his canvasses, many unframed and in various stages of completion, his oil paints still out and a whisky and soda poured.

Although he only began to paint in his forties, it soon became an engrossing occupation that would remain with him for the rest of his active life, with subjects ranging from local landscapes to places seen on his travels, from Paris to Egypt and Marrakech.


For those visitors keen to sample a taste of the great outdoors, livelier walkers can set off for a walk in the woods or even embark on a five-mark circular ramble linking the estate with the nearby Edwardian garden at Emmetts, also owned by the Trust.

The less energetic might prefer to loiter on the terrace listening to the twitter of the swifts and house martins, or soak up the buzz of insect activity around Lady Churchill’s rose garden.

The estate dates from the 14th century, but the house itself was largely rebuilt and extended by the society architect Philip Tilden in the 1920s.


In 1946, when financial pressures forced Churchill to consider selling Chartwell, it was acquired by the National Trust with funds raised by a consortium of the wartime prime minister’s  friends on condition that the Churchills retain a life tenancy.

After Churchill’s death, Clementine surrendered her lease on the house and it was opened to the public by the Trust in 1966, becoming one of its most popular properties.

In the 50th anniversary year of its opening, more than 230,000 visitors made tracks for the Grade I listed building – and a new generation may have been inspired to find out more about the wartime leader following the release of two major films in 2017, the biopic Churchill and war drama Darkest Hour.


Today, guests can explore the house, studio and 80 acres of gardens, although check the main website for opening times and individual entry costs.

Anyone prepared to make the journey round the M25 to Kent can also visit a variety of other Trust properties nearby, including the impressive medieval moated manor house at Ightham Mote, the remains of a knight’s house at Old Soar Manor and the 14th-century moated castle at Scotney.

National Trust membership ranges from £120 a year for two adults living at the same address, and £126 for families.