2014 in Review: the first six months

So another year is almost over and it certainly has been a busy one for me.  Living and working in the spectacular Cotswold countryside, a classified area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is a great treat and one of which I never tire.  It’s also nice to go off exploring other places so 2014 found me in other parts of the UK and  Ireland too.  One of the first places I visited, however, was only twenty miles down the road but light years apart in reality!

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typical Cotswold countryside

Like many people that live close to tourist attractions I don’t often visit the ones on my doorstep but last January found me walking the streets of Oxford.  I hadn’t come to explore the colleges but the covered market which dates back more than two hundred years.   The history of the market and the building is fascinating and is well worth making the time to visit – especially if you like a bargain.  To read more about it and to see other photos click here.

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One of the fathers of ecological writing died tragically young and in February I matched quotations from his work to images I had taken (to see them, click here).  My favourite was noticed by the Society that bears his name and reprinted in their journal.  I felt very honoured!

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Wild and rugged scenery is often best appreciated over cake and coffee and at Watersmeet in Exmoor National Park you can do just that.  Two rivers collide spectacularly besides the Victorian fishing lodge that is now owned by the National Trust and run as a café. March found me walking through beautiful scenery as well as indulging myself and the link to this remote but very accessible place is here.

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Dublin, the capital city of Ireland is a favourite place of mine and in April I visited the Casino Marino, one of the most impressive and perfect neo-classical buildings in Europe.  Everything about it was designed to deceive so although you only see one window on each side you actually have – well, click here to find out what plus all the other deceptions the Georgian architect managed to fit in.

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Planting trees is a long term project for they rarely mature during the life of the planter.  Of all the hundreds I have done in my professional life none has given me as much pleasure as this particular one.  I have waited for years for it to flower and in May it did so for the first time.  I felt quite emotional – it was a case of finding a handkerchief.  Take a look by clicking the link here.

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The Cotswolds are world renowned for their ‘chocolate box’ village scenes and Lower Slaughter must be one of the contenders.  Despite its name it is a beautiful and tranquil place to visit for it has everything from crystal clear trout streams to olde-world stone cottages to a mill complete with working water wheel. If you choose the right time to explore you can have the place to yourself.  To learn more click the June link here.

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Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham

Cheltenham, on the western edge of the Cotswolds, is full of historic Georgian buildings which make it an interesting place to visit if you are readily bored by the now characterless towns that have had their hearts ripped out in the interest of modernisation.  Although it has all the major chain stores there are still very many smaller, independent shops which help to make the centre busy and vibrant.  There are, however, plenty of opportunities to escape the throng of shoppers by relaxing in its parks and green spaces which are close to hand and beautifully maintained.  With so many positive attributes, it is not surprising to find that there are also numerous cafes, bistros and restaurants – great news if, like me, you prefer your relaxation to revolve around food and drink.

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One street that incorporates all of the above elements is The Promenade, a wide tree-lined boulevard.  We made our way to the top end of it, walking past the splendid Town Hall with its fountains, to reach Brasserie Blanc where we had booked a table for a Saturday lunch.  Set in a delightful Georgian townhouse, it has very recently been completely refurbished and, judging by the number of diners there, has retained its loyal clientele.

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Any culinary venture that has Raymond Blanc’s name attached to it is bound to be a good choice and Brasserie Blanc didn’t disappoint whether in its understated interior design, the friendliness and efficiency of the staff and, most important of all, the quality of the food.

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The huge arched windows and high ceilings give a feeling of space and natural light, both of which prevent the L-shaped marble bar, which runs almost the full length of the building, being too dominant.  It is visually impressive and imparts a delightfully informal atmosphere to the dining area.

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Our Italian waitress, Chiara, who was both charming and efficient, guided us through an extensive menu.  For the starter my partner selected the cheese soufflé with a rich cheese sauce which came with the most wonderful, crispy outer crust.  I went for the salt beef salad, chosen to test the chef’s expertise for, having a Jewish grandmother, I consider myself to be rather an expert when it comes to salt beef.  It didn’t disappoint, the combination of flavours being both subtle and mouth-watering.

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For our mains, I chose the slow-braised Scottish venison casserole.  I was impressed when Chiara advised me that it was both quite gamey and rich which wouldn’t suit everyone’s taste but was just perfect for me.  My partner had scallops with poached, smoked bacon.  In the interest of research, I insisted upon tasting and it was beautifully soft and tender.  Puddings also didn’t disappoint.  My pears with salted caramel would be worth a special trip to Cheltenham just for those and my partner’s meringues were just as they should be, soft and chewy.

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Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham is one of twenty mostly situated in London or the south of England.  This does, for me, create rather a problem: do I return to Cheltenham or do I try some of the other locations?  One thing is certain, I will definitely be returning!

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Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham is located at The Promenade, Cheltenham GL50 1NN

All photographs of Brasserie Blanc are taken from their website.  More information including booking details can be found here

Cheltenham: a Regency Treasure

From the moment you enter the town of Cheltenham you are struck by the number of Georgian and Regency houses and municipal buildings – there are hundreds of them dating back to the late 1700’s. In fact, the town has one of the largest concentrations of listed buildings in the country. The style of building is as pleasing to the eye today as it was 250 years ago: clean, fresh lines, mostly built of local, cream coloured stone.

The most prestigious street in the town is Promenade, situated in its heart, in the area known as Montpelier, a mix of designer shops, offices, bistros, sculpture, flower bedding and fountains. The photographs below demonstrate the grandeur of the area – the large building is the Borough Council offices.

Montpelier came into existence in 1808 when a new well was discovered there. A hundred years before, salt springs were discovered and, after George III visited in 1788 to ‘take the waters’, the town became even more popular. Montpelier’s well ensured the success of the area and Promenade was laid out as a wide, tree lined walk in 1818.
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Today, Cheltenham still thrives, busy and loved by both local residents and tourists alike. The Town Hall, below, is the centre for many exhibitons and concerts and each year the town plays host to both literary and music festivals attracting a world wide audience.

It is not just the grand buildings and streets that contain architectural gems. The photographs below demonstrate the houses and apartments that can be found down many of the side streets. These photographs are of original buildings; many new buildings are also built in the style and blend in so well that, in many cases, they have to be sought out. Not many new buildings can afford the elaborate iron work railings as in these genuine, Regency flats. Ironwork is another major architectural feature of the town.

Cheltenham is a place that really has to be explored on foot to discover all of its secrets and eccentricities. Sitting in a street cafe on Promenade I realised I was looking out onto a cluster of red telephone boxes – a very traditional, English sight, rather akin to red double decker buses. These boxes are almost a thing of the past now, having been replaced by modern kiosks that look the same whichever city in the world you might be in.
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The Wishing Fish Clock is totally eccentric! The tallest mechanical clock in existence, on the hour the fish blows bubbles while the clock plays the tune ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’!
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The Cotswold Hills rise steeply from the edge of Cheltenham and driving back to the secret valley through unknown country lanes, I came across another eccentricty. This stream that runs through the tiny village of Compton Abdale has had a witty crocodile waterspout added to it. There was no sign to explain the reasoning behind it: another case of British humour, I imagine!
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