New Year Resolution: Bath More Often

This is not really a post about washing and personal hygiene although I suppose, in a way, it is.  Where can you sit and watch the steam rising from warm bath water whilst having liveried waiters serve you tea in a highly polished silver tea service along with traditional English afternoon tea of scones and cakes?  Add to this scene, chandeliers and a pianist playing at a grand piano and you could be forgiven that it is fantasy.

But, of course, it isn’t for this is England and is just another example of the crossing of eccentricity, tradition and commercialism to create the Pump Room in the city of Bath.  In the photo below, the Pump Room is in the further building, the nearer one being the entrance to the Roman Baths themselves.

Bath developed soon after the Romans had invaded Britain giving it the name of Aquae Sulis about AD60 although the hot spring had been a sacred place even before then. Over the next three hundred years the waters were gradually enclosed and then abandoned two hundred years after that with the fall of the Roman Empire.


photo: view of the Roman baths from the Pump Room tea rooms

During the eighteenth century the Grand Pump Rooms were built where it was possible to ‘take the waters’.  At this time, the dandy Beau Nash became Master of Ceremonies and made Bath the most fashionable resort in Britain – the future of the Pump Rooms was assured.


Photo: Beau Nash (statue) still presides over the social gatherings in the Pump Room

Today the Pump Rooms are the perfect place to relax and just absorb the genteel atmosphere.  It is very easy to imagine  Catherine Morland visiting here in the hope of meeting Mr Tilney in Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey.  Although the rooms are steeped in tradition they are not an intimidating place to  visit and all are welcome – it isn’t necessary to be wearing formal clothes! They are open every day for lunch and tea or, if you really want to be exclusive, you can book them for your private party in the evenings.


Photo: even the stairway to the cloakrooms has style!

In the YouTube video below, the music is performed by the Pump Room Trio, the longest, continuous playing  ensemble in Europe.  The fountain is shown in the clip where you can try the water yourself for which, I believe, there is no charge even if you don’t stay for tea.

Bath is a fascinating city to visit and a World Heritage Site.  This will be one New Year’s Resolution that will be easy to keep: visit Bath more often.


Photo: The Royal Crescent, Bath


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A Year In Review: 2012 The First Six Months

One of the signs of getting older is that the days, weeks, months and years go by ever faster – this seems rather unfair as you are likely to have relatively few ahead of you.  Not that I plan to leave this world just yet (well, not if I can help it), it is just that 2012 was the anniversary not just of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee but also of mine which has focussed the mind, rather.

As the time has sped by so fast I thought I would review the year, if only to remind myself what I’ve been doing the past twelve months.

January:  To London for the New Year.  Whenever we visit ‘The Smoke’ (I wonder if anyone still calls it that now that the days of dense smog have long gone) it always ends up rather ‘foody’.  That trip was no exception; we ate our way up the Kings Road, ate our way around Sloane Square and finally ate our way to Fortnum & Mason arriving in time for afternoon tea.  Fortnum’s is the most wonderful grocery store on the planet – whereas, most people, especially those from overseas, visit Harrods, Fortnum’s is the one place you really shouldn’t miss.  Everything about it is delightful and its afternoon teas are legendry.  We did squeeze in a visit to the National Portrait Gallery but why show you images of great works of art when you can see photos of Fortnum’s?  Add it to your list of ‘places I must visit before I die’.


February:  A visit to Snowdonia staying at a friend’s isolated chapel house on the side of the mountains.  The weather was quite kind to us considering the time of year so we were able to do a lot of walking.  To our dismay, our favourite spot that we had christened ‘The Enchanted Forest’ because of its lichen encrusted trees and great mossy hummocks had been clear felled and all signs of it destroyed.  This may sound like wanton vandalism but the trees had been planted for timber production regardless of the impact they had on the scenery.  Now years later, there is a move to restore the mountains back to their original state which is, I’m sure, admirable and an ecologically sound thing to do.  The trouble is that we loved this silent, brooding woodland that no-one, it seemed, apart from us ever visited and now it is gone.  And with it has gone our desire to return but, who knows, perhaps we shall one day.

March:  Recording the life of a hedgerow seemed like agood idea at the time.  It was supposed to have become a month by month photographic notebook of the changes that took place during the year but sadly March turned out to be the first and only entry.  As April arrived I took more photographs but when it came to blogging them they had disappeared (reappearing months later – one of the mysteries of computer technology).  Then came the rain – and it has rained ever since – and the project was abandoned, apart from a vain attempt in May.  The hedge, which is in the little lane that leads from our cottage up the hill out of the secret valley, is an ancient relic from the time of the Wychwood Forest, cleared in the very earliest days of British history.  It is mentioned in the Domesday Book, that great list of the plunder of William the Conqueror, written in 1086.  Although the forest has retreated by many miles there are still some fine trees standing and wild flowers that would normally be found in woodland still grow on its grassy banks.  I shall make a resolution to resurrect the project in 2013.
April:    Part of my everyday job as a practical gardener is pruning, a subject which is a mystery to many people and often fills them with terror at the very thought of wielding secateurs to a treasured shrub.  Mahonia is one of those useful winter flowering plants that so often look dreadful as they become ever more gaunt and ungainly.  This was the case with one in a client’s garden so it seemed a good idea to photograph the process of restoration and blog about it.  That post has rapidly become my most read and I am glad to be able to report that the plant is thriving.  Now covered in new flower buds and almost ready to open, it will welcome the New Year with the scent of lily-of-the-valley.  If you have one in your garden, cut a few flowers for a shallow vase to fragrance the house.

May:   Despite the rain that seems to have fallen incessantly since April, we had a fine, dry day for the most important day in my social calendar of 2012 which was also an important one for the Queen too.  The Pageant of the Horse was held in the grounds of Windsor Castle and celebrated the Queen’s sixty year reign through her association with and love of horses.  Horses, riders and other performers representing every country from around the world that the Queen has visited gave us a show that both we and she will never forget.  It was a quite remarkable and memorable experience; apart from the showmanship and being so close to the Queen and Prince Philip, we had a private ‘Haka’ from the Cook Islanders when they noticed us still seated after the bulk of other visitors had left.  Very exciting!

 
June:  The Jubilee celebrations continued withthe River Pageant held in London on the Thames in pouring rain, this time.  A much smaller river, the Coln, featured in a post ‘The Most Beautiful English Village’ about the exquisite Cotswold village of Bibury.  With its clear, trout-filled waters fast running past ancient stone cottages, it is hardly surprising that it is protected by the National Trust and much visited by sightseers.  It is said that visitors often don’t realise that it is not a living museum and sometimes walk into people’s private gardens or houses to be surprised to find the owners eating their lunch or watching television.

 


To read any of the posts mentioned above, just click on the links in green.  July to December will appear soon.

 

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New Year in London

Perhaps it is because London will be hosting the Olympic Games later this year that the capital seemed rather quiet and devoid of people and traffic when I visited it at the beginning of the month.  Although it lacked its usual ‘buzz’ it did mean more comfortable walking and it was definitely easier to catch a taxi.  I imagine when the Games are in full swing you will not be able to move for people and public transport of any type will be crowded.

 We tend to follow the same plan when we visit; not because we want to play safe, it is just that we cannot bear to miss a morning coffee and an almond croissant at the Bluebird cafe.  A slow walk up the King’s Road with it’s exclusive shops and boutiques brings you to Sloane Square – just in time for lunch.  This time we found, to our dismay, that our usual dining spot had closed down so we tried the Botanist, almost opposite, instead.  It proved to be a good choice for the food was excellent, as was the service.  My biggest criticism of it is its name which, of course, with me being a ‘planty’ person had rather appealed.  The decor consisted mostly of pictures of insects so we now refer to it as The Entymologist instead. 

A taxi ride took us to the National Portrait Gallery.  One of our New Year resolutions is to take in a bit more culture as we are becoming rather reluctant to move out of the secret valley, generally preferring the peace and quiet of the rural life.   A trip to ‘the smoke’ from time to time is just what’s needed to stop us from becoming complete country bumpkins.  We hadn’t allowed enough time to look at the pictures in any depth –  we really need to visit when we are not being dictated by the thought of food.  A mental note has been made to visit again quite soon, that time bypassing the restaurants ….. Mmm, we’ll see.

When we came out of the gallery daylight was fading fast and London appeared to have renewed energy.  Somehow a city at night with all it’s lights seems a more exciting place.  I seemed far more aware of statues, theatres and red buses – I’d forgotten just how much I like cities!  I’ve never lived anywhere other than in the country and I’m not too sure how I would fare if I suddenly found myself in one permanently.  Not too well, I would think.

Another taxi ride took us to my favourite London store; favourite perhaps because it is another food place.  Forget Harrods, which I’m afraid I dislike intensely, give me Fortnum & Mason’s anytime. The Christmas windows and decor were still in place but even without those, F & M exudes quality from every pore – or do I mean from every chocolate? 

Who could possibly bite into these white chocolate bears, though?

The first thing I do when I enter the store isn’t to think of my stomach, surprisingly, as I am surrounded by goodies to eat.  I always go to the central circular staircase and lean over to look down which is dramatic, then descend down the old wooden staircase which is equally full of character.

A wander around the coffee and tea halls with their wonderful aromas is another must.

The store has a reputation for making some of the best hampers in England.  I was lucky enough once to be given one for a Christmas present and it was such an exciting treat unpacking it and seeing what all the tins and shiny wrappers contained.  I was rather taken with their picnic hampers but there would be no point in us having one: although we picnic rather a lot because of our outdoor life, they always end up big social events.  What starts off as a casual chat with a couple of friends snowballs and it is not unusual to find twenty or thirty arriving to enjoy the feasting.  Fortunately they usually bring food and drink with them too.  If we had a Fortnum’s picnic hamper it would have to be a quiet, small affair – just the sight of the baskets conjures up images of check tablecloths laid on the grass, eating in the shade of the willows down by our little winding river.

And what would a visit to Fortnum’s be without having one of their splendid traditional afternoon teas?  By the time I had forced down two scones with strawberry jam and Cornish clotted cream and cake, all washed down with a pot or two of Orange Pekoe tea it was time to think about returning home.

If we were lucky and didn’t get held up in traffic jams we would be back in the secret valley just in time for supper.  I think a belated New Year’s resolution ought to be excercise more and eat less …..

PS  Don’t forget you can find me on Facebook now and get regular updates from the secret valley

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A New Year

The snow has all but gone from the secret valley, thanks to a sudden thaw, after the temperature rose from -15 centigrade to +6 centigrade. Some still clings to the gullies at the sides of the fields and on the colder banks of the hillside but elsewhere, in its place, is the battered appearance of a landscape after attack.
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Last night, New Year’s Eve, was seen out at our neighbours and good friends 3/4 mile up the road, at the farmhouse that is the centre of our farming life here. Although a cold night it was good to be able to walk there effortlessly (after ploughing our way through snow for several weeks or sliding around in the car). As the chimes of Big Ben in London struck twelve o’clock we all sang ‘Auld Langs Syne’ to the traditional sound of a lone piper – in this case lone because there was only one Scotsman present and he could play the bagpipes. And a couple of hours later I stepped out into the cold, still air to walk back down the hill to home.
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The secret valley at night – and some nights especially so – is a silent and dark place. Never menacing, it is a good time to reflect on times passed and to breathe in the air which seems to take on a different quality to daytime. Walking down the lane, with bands of snow periodically reminding me to watch my feet, I was aware that there were others on the move too. An alarmed rabbit shot across the road in front of me, diving into the hedge, it’s path being highlighted not by moonlight, for there was none, but by the sounds of leaves rustling and twigs breaking beneath it. The fox was far more discreet, the only witness to its passing, its distinctive musky scent.
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Our little river, now thawed out from the frozen state that it had been in gurgled and splashed its way into the distance. It had seemed odd not to be able to hear it when it had its lid of ice and snow for even in the hardest winters past it had not been known to freeze over.
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However, a touch of frost had given a magical dusting to the plants and fruits that had survived the onslaught of our early winter, for snow is rare at this time of year. January and February can be snowy and often we have none at all so who knows what the start of 2011 will bring?
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Approaching home, the reassuring smell of wood smoke drifted from the chimneys towards me. Warmth at last! And, as always, She-dog, our best companion, was there to greet us but not before raising a bleary eye from her bed, as if to say “what are you doing out at this time of day and at your age?”.
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And so to bed tired but with a warm, contented feeling both inside and outside. To live in the secret valley, isolated but surrounded by beauty and good friends, is such a privelege. Who knows what 2011 may bring but if the first days sunrise is to go by, it should be a good one!

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Happy New Year to you all…..
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