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It rained for a solid three weeks then on New Years Day the sun came out so we headed for the hills, the Cotswolds.
The last time we walked from Wotton to North Nibley where we looked across the valley to Stinchcombe Hill from the Tyndale Monument. On this occasion we decided to walk around the edge of Stinchcombe Hill following the Cotswold Way as we reasoned that this was likely to be less muddy than at lower levels.
In 1964 I joined Lister Blackstone Marine and for several years was based in Dursley where the range of Lister engines were then manufactured so it is an area with which I was familiar. Much had changed in the interim. They have knocked down the old Lister service school but the pub I frequented for my daily ploughmans lunch was still upright.
I managed to find my way up onto Stinchcombe Hill and parked beside the golf course with many others who were probably regretting their earlier revels. Sue and I saw in the new year with Jules Holland on the TV while we consumed a celebratory bottle of Shampoo. We retired at 1-30am so were relatively fit. We walked in glorious sunshine in a clockwise direction around the perimeter of the Golf course which took us about two hours.
The shot on the left is taken from close to the car park looking South West over the Severn Valley.
After our exertions we retired to one of the main tourist attractions of Dursley, the Old Spot Inn, one of the best pubs you can find anywhere and a CAMRA winner of the best Gloucestershire pub for many years. A delectable pint of Butcombe was served by a landlord who was still suffering from the previous nights festivities and drinking a non alchoholic beverage! The pub is named after a rare breed of pig called the Gloucester Old Spot which is highly recommended to eat if you can find it. As we returned to the car it began to rain.
The weather remained dull and overcast for the next week or so but at least it was mainly dry so the flooding here in the West Country was eased.
We went to see "Quartet", a film starring Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtney and Billy Connelly, an eclectic bunch of elderly actors directed by 75 year old Dustin Hoffman! The first film he has directed. It had us both laughing as it gently lampooned the problems of the elderly. It is set in an elderly peoples home for retired musicians, the finale being a money raising musical gala for Verdi's birthday culminating in the singing of his Quartet from Rigaletto. Most of the other actors were retired musicians in real life and the whole film was a delight with Wilf (Connelly) urinating at will around the grounds of the house and propositioning anything in a skirt!
On the second sunny day of the year we set off again for the Cotswolds, this time a little further North of Dursley and joined the Cotswold way at Cam Long Down. It was a little misty as you can see from the photo above looking back to Peaked Down but quite a hot sun had me sweating up the hill and regretting my heavy winter waterproof.
A couple of days later we were charged with dog sitting Tilly the Wonder Dog (TTWD) which coincided with yet another sunny day but this time it was much clearer. TTWD's Mummy Jan dropped her off in the morning while Sue was busy down at the leisure centre at her Pilate class (9-15am start!) and on her return we decided to go walking again. It would be no fun at all wandering around muddy fields and having to wash down TTWD afterwards so we decided to head for the hills again as we knew that the tops were relatively dry.
For anyone interested I use a program called Musescore to write the score, capture the result by screen grabbing using Paintshop Pro and save it as a jpg file, then saving the musescore file as a midi which I edit with a program called Anvil Studio. Unfortunately different browsers do not play all types of file in embedded media players. Windows media player works for the coding I have used in the latest IE and Firefox browsers so if it doesn't play in your browser, try changing to Windows media player.
Above is the view from the top of the hill. On the left is the edge of Stinchcombe Hill and you are looking West over the river Severn towards the Forest of Dean where the Iron age inhabitants of this area found their iron ore. Directly below in the valley is the small town of Cam which borders Dursley.
We then walked back down the hill and up on to Cam Long Down, which gets its name from the town below, with TTWD bounding ahead. We met up with other dog walkers and there is no doubt that having TTWD meant we would stop and pass the time of day with people who otherwise we would not engage in conversation so dog walking can be a good way to meet people. Being a Wonder Dog, Tilly is very well behaved and when I asked her to pose on top of Cam Long Down for the camera she dutifully obliged.
Here you can see Sue walking down off Selsley Common towards the church. We walked down the road towards the village and resisted the temptation of the Bell Inn which required a short detour!
At the bottom of the field, through a kissing gate and the Cotswold way has it's own traffic light controlled pedestrian crossing across the busy A419 road from where we walked along the cycle track, past Ebley Mill before turning right across a field and a river bridge to arrive at the Stroudwater Canal. This canal was opened in 1779 and linked Stroud with the River Severn. Ten years later the Thames and Severn canal was built from Stroud to Lechlade on the Thames, climbing 350 feet by 56 locks through the Cotswolds. In 1972 the Cotswold Canal Trust was formed to promote the restoration of this navigation. Over £20 million has already been spent from local and district councils and the lottery fund. The original canal was filled in at the A38 crossing and the M5 motorway and £16 million is required to tunnel under these roads and link it again to the Sharpness canal but one day it will be done and you will be able to navigate once again between the Severn and the Thames providing your boat is no longer than 6o feet.
At Ebley where we joined the canal a very attractive new housing development had been built, enhanced by the newly restored canal flowing through it. Further along the towpath we passed the Ryeford double lock which has been completely restored. A little further on the river and canal run close to each other only separated by the towpath.
From here it was back across the A419 and just under a mile back to King Stanley, a total of 5 miles which took us about 3.5 hours of moderately difficult walking.
The weather had to change after so many good days and it did change with a vengance; snow in prodigous quantities! The old M48 Severn Bridge across to Chepstow was closed with the heavy snow and blizzard conditions and the forecast was for more of the same. We were supposed to be travelling down the next day to Hampshire to help my daughter and her family move in to their new home. Pickfords said the day before that the move would go ahead despite the forecast weather conditions so the family started from Devon at 6am and drove through the snow for six hours to arrive there and be told that conditions were too dangerous for the removal truck to make the trip.
The main delivery was made a few days later and we spent a "happy" couple of days erecting and screwing various items of furniture to walls and unpacking boxes. There was no place for us to sleep so we booked in to a pub in Portsmouth right next to a busy road so we did not sleep. They served a good breakfast but the less said about the rest the better! We bought fish and chips for everyone which were also a minor disaster but on the final night treated everyone to the usual Pizza Express in Port Solent enhanced by a 40% off voucher from the web!
Later with the Harpers, Les was waxing lyrical about a pub called The Victory Inn at a place called Staplefield on the Sussex High Weald so we ended up there for lunch the next day. The pub seems to be run by two ladies and the cooking is highly recommended as is the beer. Les and I had Moules in a creamy Pernod sauce with Frites of course and the girls had Scotch eggs with a difference. Duck eggs were soft boiled then chilled to stop them cooking, wrapped in a smoked haddock, dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and deep fried. When cut open the egg yolk was still soft and runny and they both said it was delicious. Nice atmosphere and inexpensive as when I paid the bill and said 'dank-u-wel', as you do, the serving wench said 'alstublief' which was rather a shock. Turns out she had a Belgian mother and a Dutch boyfriend!
The snow had largely gone during our drive back and the sun shone for a few hours so we went the pretty way, stopping for half an hour at Marlborough, a picturesque market town and it was market day so we stocked up with vegetables and broke the bank in Andrews, the local butchers with a rib roast.
We had booked a month previous for a symphony concert in Birmingham which meant we had to stay the night so Sue was all prepared for a shopping expedition whilst we also planned some further research on where we might live in the future. We booked a room at the Hampton by Hilton in Broad Street not far from Symphony Hall for £58 bed and breakfast. After our experience in Portsmouth we did not expect anything special for that money which even included secure parking in the middle of England's second biggest city. What a surprise then when the room was five star luxury on the sixteenth floor and the breakfast was the full monty! We will certainly use these hotels again when we can.
I was born just outside the city but moved with my parents to Somerset at the age of nine. I remember well the old trams, which like many other cities they are in the process of reintroducing, and the names and geography of the main streets. We came here on a canal boat last over thirty years ago and it is now barely recognisable. The town hall, where my parents brought me to concerts, used to dominate the surroundings but is now one of the smallest buildings in the area!
We found Symphony Hall and decided on a pre-concert meal at Pushkars, an up market Indian which Sue had researched on the web. We then managed to find New Street which has been completely pedestrianised as has most of the shopping streets. We ended up at the Bull Ring which I remember as a sea of market stalls and of course was destroyed years ago with the building of a huge shopping centre. The church of St Martins is the only remnant of the old Bull Ring and the shopping centre has the same old international chains you will find in similar places throughout the country. I watched loads of women sorting through tops at Zara, one of the most successful fashion shops, which were just chucked on a table in a pile at twenty quid each.
When we booked the concert on the internet there were only two seats left in the area we wanted to sit but when we were actually seated we were the only two people in the same row and there were quite a few empty seats around. We had come to see the Labèque sisters play concerto's for two piano's by Mozart and Poulenc with Nicholas McGegan conducting. There have not been that many such concerto's written and here we were to be treated to two at the same time.
The concert began with Poulenc's Suite française, written in a medieval style for woodwinds and brass which is McGegans acknowledged speciality. Our seats were perfect for admiring the pianistic skills of Marielle Labèque and Mozart's concerto was performed with the usual sensitive interpretation you would expect from the world famous CBSO and it's conductor. The fireworks really began in the second half with Poulenc's concerto. Poulenc often composed using various others styles and Prokofiev, Ravel, Stravinsky and Mozart could all be heard in this work. Additionally he used Parisian dance music and gamelan sounds so the concerto is a kaleidoscope of different musical textures. One minute you were listening to lyrical romantic Rachmaninov type of music, the next Marielle was hammering out complex rhythms, leaping off her piano seat in her enthusiasm for the music reminiscent of Prokofiev. The applause was equally enthusiastic and demanded an encore.
We slept well high up on the 16th floor and ate a hearty breakfast before checking out. We told reception we wanted to do some more shopping and they said we could leave the car in their car park as long as we liked. We wanted to buy a CD of Poulenc's concerto from the Symphony Hall shop. First it was closed until 11am then when we returned there was a sign on the door saying "back in 10 minutes". Twenty minutes later he appeared but did not have any CD's left! We wandered into the Bachus bar for coffee which is a replica of a cathedral crypt before walking back to the car and driving to Stourport-on-Severn.
Stourport grew with the completion of the Staffs and Worcester Canal in 1772 and declined after the completion of the Birmingham and Worcester Canal in 1815. We were here in a canal boat 30 years ago but continued on down the River Severn without stopping so wanted to check it out. The town is a complete Georgian canal town but has, as they say, "been let go", so not a "des res". After a brief wander down the main drag and a contribution to the local economy with the purchase of a T-bone steak, dry cured bacon and black pudding, we asked Daphne Satnav to take the scenic route back to Bradley Stoke and off we went across the Severn through glorious Worcestershire countryside into Herefordshire. The stunning views across to the Malvern Hills continued as we turned South until we arrived at the little town of Bromyard.
Now my geography is pretty good but I had never heard of Bromyard and when we took afternoon tea here with Mrs Flowerdew at her nice old tearoom, she told me that, up until she found it six years previously, neither had she, so I didn't feel so bad. It is a town of about 4,500 souls and has a good collection of shops, half timbered pubs and houses, even a theatre. It is 12 miles equidistant from Worcester, Leominster and the county town, Hereford, set in the midst of spectacular countryside and well worth a visit if you are passing as the A44 from Worcester to Leominster by-passes it.
The next major town travelling South was Ledbury and Sue fell instantly in love with the place. At the centre of the town is a timber framed market house and it has a wide main street typical of market towns.
Gloucester was about half an hours drive away where we hit the M5 motorway and an uneventful run down to Bradley Stoke after a most enjoyable couple of days.
The Saturday after was the first games of the 120th Six Nations Rugby. Last years champions Wales kicked off against Ireland at the Millennium Stadium and had a disastrous first half. They were 3-30 down shortly after half time. They finally got their act together but the lead was too great and it finished 22-30.
The day after saw us back down in Somerset at the invitation of the Rowbathans. After one of their extended lunches with the Cliffords, for which they are renowned, the gentlemen retired with the port to watch the last six nations game Italy v France in Rome. What a good game, nip and tuck for most of it with the Azzurri playing out of their skins to stay ahead. It was 23-18 in the last few minutes with Italy down to 14 men and France camped on the Italian try line and that was the way it stayed, an historic win.
Regular readers may have noticed that a Twitter logo had appeared on our home page. I signed up with Twitter to try and discover what attracted people to participate in this inane activity! After several weeks of reading a load of useless short messages from the twitterati, I have deactivated my account after deciding it was a complete waste of my bandwidth but was unable to discern why other people do it?
The next Friday the weather looked promising so Jan brought TTWD round and we set off down the M5 for the Mendips. The weather turned nasty so we diverted to Clifton Down but Tilly was not 'appy with a half hour romp so I scoured the map for somewhere else. We managed to find our way to Dingle Coombe, part of the Blaise Castle estate owned now by Bristol City Council. It was described in Jane Austin's novel Northanger Abbey as being "the finest place in England" and even in the grip of winter is a lovely place to wander around. The house was built in the late 18th century by a wealthy Bristol merchant and banker and is now a museum with the estate grounds open to the public.
We walked up the coombe on a paved road then crossed the brook and quickly found ourselves up to our ocksters in mud, arriving eventually at the castle in the photograph above on the top of the hill which is actually a folly but was inhabited for most of it's history, the manor house being further down on the other side of the hill. There is a great view down the coombe and across Westbury on Trim from the top of the cliff known as Lovers Leap.
The next weekend of Rugby saw Scotland at Murrayfield easily beating Italy 34-10 who failed to produce the same performance as the previous week against an immaculate defence, meanwhile Our gorgeous Bath boys trounced Worcester 32-9 rolling in four tries at the Rec. Wales performed a minor miracle on a ploughed field in Paris beating France 16-6 clinching it only in the last few minutes with a spectacular try in the corner by George North intercepting a perfectly judged kick by Dan Biggar. The Ireland England match in Dublin was held on a wet and cold day so you knew it was never going to be a great game by two evenly matched sides. The Irish handling was poor, their penalty count high and their discipline atrocious, not helped by poor French refereeing. Cian Healy stamped on Cole's ankle in the ruck which could have finished Cole's career and in front of the referee who ignored it. He later sent Haskell to the sin bin for interfering with the ball as he tried to extricate himself from a ruck, not IMHO a sending off offence unlike the earlier incident. No worries though as England added 6 more penalty points while Haskell was off and won the game 6-12. England are now the only unbeaten side capable of a grand slam and lead the table.
Brean Down is a promontory extending out into the Bristol Channel about 1.5 miles from the Somerset levels towards Wales on the other side. It is a National Trust property which is uninhabited now apart from a few goats and on a fine day, lots of people walking their dogs. After climbing the 100 metres to the top you are rewarded by spectacular views across to Weston-Super-Mare, the 10 miles long sandy beach to the mouth of the River Parret across Bridgwater Bay and the Quantock Hills. To the North West are the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm with the coast line of South Wales beyond.
Brean Down is really an outlier of the Mendip Hills and the photo above looks inland with the Mendips on the left, then the Somerset levels and Brent Knoll on the extreme right. The island of Steep Holm is also an extension of the Mendips which the sea cut off from the promontory. The Victorians also built a fort on the island and the old gun batteries and cannons are still largely intact. Again during WWII heavy guns, rocket launchers and searchlights were installed against air attacks and it is now a nature reserve administered by a trust. Regular trips are made for tourists to the island from Weston during the summer months by the trust where there are the remains of a medieval priory and they even issue their own postage stamps!
We enjoyed renewing our acquaintance with Brean Down as did TTWD who, as usual, covered about three times the distance than us, quickly asleep on our return to the car.
It was a weekend off for the Six Nations Rugby sides but I am happy to record that our beautiful Bath boys triumphed yet again, beating London Irish at the Rec 40-16 for yet another bonus point in the Premier League.
The England Rugby team continued it's winning ways at Twickers beating France 23-13 who turned up for the first time in the competition. Wales put Italy to the sword 9-26 in Rome and Scotland managed a 12-6 win at Murrayfield despite having little possession.
We repeated our Birmingham trip again, staying once more at the Hampton by Hilton Hotel but this time on a Sunday night so it was even cheaper plus Expedia offered a further 10% discount so the room and breakfast was only £45! We had a meal at the Celebrity Indian Restaurant in Broad St. which had a pre 7pm deal of £13 for three courses. Not as good as Pushkars across the road but very acceptable.
The concert at Symphony Hall was the CBSO Youth Orchestra and we were first treated to Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Ravel lost his right arm fighting for Austria in the first world war after which he wrote this piece but also commissioned more such scores for the left hand from many other famous European composers.
On the drive up we explored the area around Stratford-on-Avon including Chipping Campden (too precious) Warwick and Henley in Arden (thumbs up), returning via Tenbury Wells (nice town), Leominster and the Wye Valley, then across the old Suspension Bridge across the Severn from Chepstow. The brackets contain Sue's opinion of places we might live in the future.
Dundry Hill is just south of Bristol and has been quarried extensively since Roman times. Much of it's stone was used to build Bristol, even Cardiff Castle and Dublin Cathedral used it. The church of St Michael at Dundry was built by Bristol Merchants in 1482 and used the stone perhaps to illustrate what the local stone was like as it has an unusually ornate design of tower which can be seen in other Bristol churches. On one bitterly cold February day we parked at Winford and with TTWD followed with some difficulty Monarchs Way to the top of Dundry hill which we circumnavigated taking a different route back. We had navigation problems all the way as the route was either badly waymarked or farmers had removed them when paths were shown on the map as going through the middle of a newly harrowed field but lacking local knowledge we made many detours, the last one due to a deep muddy pool which could not be avoided, necessitating a detour round a main road which had Sue complaining "how much further" much more than usual!
The West Country Derby between Bath Rugby and Gloucester at the Rec was a triumph for Bath 31-25 which put us 7th in the premiership table just 4 points behind Wasps and Gloucester and 7 points behind Northampton in fourth place so we still have a chance to get into the top four who play off for the cup final.
The cold weather improved for a couple of days and the thermometer registered double figures for the first time in weeks! We explored the Cotswold Way from Old Sodbury, walking up onto the escarpment to the iron age fort, recorded in the doomsday book as "Sopeberie". It was a large encampment as the earthworks surround an area of 11 acres. The Romans strengthened the defences and used the fort as part of their western frontier. It was subsequently used by Anglo Saxons and by King Edward IV prior to the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.
Bath Rugby lost to Quins in their LV Cup semifinal, same as they did last year so nothing new there. More surprising was Sale beating Sarries in the other semi, but then I suppose most of Sarries top men were away playing badly for England!
We were treated to a visit from Sal and Les Harper during another spell of extremely cold weather which caused them to delay their visit by 24 hours due to being trapped in snowdrifts at their Worthing home! On their arrival we gave them a tour of Wells in Somerset, driving back through Cheddar Gorge which did not fail to impress.
The following day was cloudless so we headed to where I lived during my formative years; the Quantock Hills in Somerset. The hills were designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the first AONB named in England in 1956 and is the place where I first began to appreciate the outdoors as a Boy Scout and later as the leader of the first Quantock Senior Scouts troop to be formed.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived in Nether Stowey, the village near our home, and wrote much of his more famous work there. He became friends with William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy who rented Alfoxton Park at nearby Holford and together they published a volume of poetry in 1798 which is considered to be the start of the English Romantic Age. The Quantock scenery inspired all of them as it does those who visit today.
We drove up to Dead Woman's Ditch where we left Les to drive the car down to Holford and the rest of us set off West towards the sea. Dead Woman's Ditch was rumoured locally to be named after a the wife of John Walford whom he murdered in 1789 but it features on earlier maps so that is unlikely. I knew locals who claimed Walford pushed her down the old copper mine shaft at Dodington but what is certain is that he was hanged and gibbeted on the hill just above Dodington known today as Walfords Gibbet.
We walked as far as Bicknoller Post then dropped down into Hodders Combe which looked as though a hurricane had been through with so many trees having broken branches. It looked like many trees had been uprooted, probably as a result of so much rain over the last few years weakening the steep ground and then the roots unable stay rooted to withstand a high wind. We eventually arrived at the Plough Inn at Holford where Virginia Wolf spent some of her honeymoon and Les Harper had managed to remain sober waiting for us.
After lunch we set off back towards Bristol via Clarkes Village at Street where Sue and Sal acquired the third Dan for their black belts in shopping and I even succumbed to a half price pair of Ecco shoes!
The next day we visited Lacock in Wiltshire, a village almost wholly owned by the National Trust. Nothing in the village centre was built much later than the 18th century and the Doomsday book records a population of 160 souls. The village has featured in many films and TV productions, notably the Harry Potter films, the TV series Pride and Prejudice and Cranford. There is also an Abbey here established in 1229 which was converted to a private residence after the dissolution.
We continued to Corsham for a very good lunch at the Hare and Hounds then on to the farm shop at Neston Park nearby whose produce features on the pub menu. The rain was back so we abandoned walking around Corsham which is an attractive town.
It was a hell of a game, despite the ref, and both sides played great Rugby with no quarter given. At half time there were no tries and the score was 12-3 with England under the cosh and giving away more penalties as a result, but in the second half England completely lost the plot. On paper England had the stronger bench but it was not the case. Wales ran in two tries, England heads dropped and Wales smashed them 30-3 with many Welsh fans experiencing heart failure, English fans wondering what happened to the team that beat the AB's a few weeks ago and thousands of young Welsh girls experiencing their first orgasm's!! A well deserved win by a dominant and experienced Welsh side over an inexperienced England. There would have been very few teams in the world that could have beaten Wales the way they played in the second half in every department and they all deserve a Lions place on that performance. France beat Scotland in Paris 23-16 but still finished with the wooden spoon so that was some consolation for England's defeat!
It was time to say our farewells to Bradley Stoke so we travelled down to Tichfield to see daughter Becky then on to Dover and the ferry to Calais, arriving back at Eeklo to discover we had left the door open on Harmonie the whole winter!!