Category Archives: Travel

The Bull at Sonning: a perfect example of a great British pub

If you were to try and describe a classically British pub, then you’d probably come up with something like The Bull Inn, Sonning, in Berkshire. It’s got roaring fires and low beams, it is more than 600 years old, does great food and drink and is at the heart of the village.

The Bull at Sonning pub
The Bull at Sonning pub is full of charm and character

Writer Jerome K Jerome wrote of the pub in his book Three Men in a Boat, saying: ‘If you stop at Sonning, put up at the Bull behind the church. It is a veritable picture of an old country inn, with green, square courtyard in front, where, on seats beneath the trees, the old men group of an evening to drink their ale and gossip over village politics; with low, quaint rooms and latticed windows, and awkward stairs and winding passages.’

bull at sonning pub
The pub is more than 600 years old and is owned by the church next door

It has barely changed in the hundred or so years since those words were written, although the green, square courtyard in front is now more concrete than green. However there are still tables outside giving a nice view of the church next door (which owns the pub and leases it to Fullers brewery). There’s also a handy hatch to the bar from outside through which you can order drinks, and nice touches such as blankets in case the weather is also classically British.

bull at sonning pub
Blankets to warm the determined outdoor drinkers

The Bull even has the approval of Hollywood superstar George Clooney, who presumably can drink anywhere he likes but chooses to pop into The Bull whenever he’s back at his English home, which is just across the river. His very own brand of tequila, Casamigos, which George set up with his chum Randy Gerber (aka Mr Cindy Crawford) before selling for $1 billion (nice work if you can get it) is sold here and Mr Clooney has not only brought chums such as Bill Murray and Matt Damon here but has praised The Bull on various US talkshows, calling it ‘a great pub.’ Continue reading The Bull at Sonning: a perfect example of a great British pub

How to declutter your wardrobe and give yourself (and your stuff) a chance to breathe

‘Clutter makes you reach for a biscuit,’ says Anna, as she looks around my bedroom. I can think of no better way to convince me to embrace the popular decluttering trend which takes in everything from Marie Kondo to the tradition spring clean via newspaper articles on how to declutter your wardrobe. Clutter is distracting, clutter is stressful and clutter stops you from achieving your goals, so the theory goes, and I can’t be the only one who’s ever sat at my desk to work and found that the piles of paper/clothes/washing-up/to-do-lists have totally put me off what it what I was supposed to be doing.

Adds Anna, rather alarmingly: ‘Your house is a mirror of your mental and emotional state’, which makes me wonder what impression my bedroom is making on her. It isn’t messy, but because I share my flat and often work from home there are certainly a lot of things packed into a rather small space – a bed, wardrobe and chest of drawers jostle for space alongside piles of books, files, a desk and a printer. However after an intense couple of hours with Anna, not only am I feeling rather proud of myself for filling up not one but two black bin bags (one full of rubbish, one for the charity shop) but I’m also I’m feeling strangely liberated.

How to declutter your wardrobe
Professional house manager and ‘declutterer’ Anna Rodic specialises in helping people manage their environments to get the best out of their possessions

As someone who moves house every few years and who therefore tries not to acquire too much ‘stuff’, I’m surprised at how much I’ve still managed to acquire. But Anna’s approach isn’t just about getting rid of unnecessary items (and I’ve always viewed the ‘oh no, I’ve got way too many things’ crisis as a bit of a First World problem) but about better organising the things you have, so that they are more efficiently placed and easier to find and will thus reduce the stress and tension which builds up when you are constantly losing things or simply feeling overwhelmed in your own house.

‘I’m interested in the psychological effect of our surroundings’, says Anna. ‘It’s an extension of you and your emotional state. It needs to have a calming effect and not for you to get more stressed about it.’ If your possessions are badly organised or buried underneath other items then you can become demotivated and uninspired, she adds: ‘You will start to procrastinate and your time management will be poor and it competes for your attention.’ Continue reading How to declutter your wardrobe and give yourself (and your stuff) a chance to breathe

A food-packed 48 hours on the Isle of Wight including blue cheese, garlic beer, beautiful beaches and charming B&Bs

‘We just fell in love with the Isle of Wight,’ said owner David Barrett as he showed me around Haven Hall, one of the newest B&Bs on the Isle of Wight. ‘It’s exactly like England was, 40 or 50 years ago.’

Now this could be a positive or a negative depending on your point of view, but there’s no question that the Isle of Wight has a unique charm which has made it a popular place in which to live or visit – especially during the summer months when the beaches really come into their own. I went mid-week at the end of March and while it was pretty cold it was beautifully sunny and showed off the coastal walks and the rolling hills inland to their best.

bed and breakfast isle of wight shanklin
The views from Haven Hall are stunning on a sunny day

From the Easter holidays onwards the pace really picks up, but with Easter a few weeks away it felt as if I had the island almost all to myself. This meant that popular places such as gastro-pub The Taverners in Godshill, which consistently features on Best Pubs in Britain lists and consequently is hard to book, was practically empty when I turned up on spec and so was able to enjoy an excellent meal without the crowds.

Isle of Wight bed and breakfast shanklin
An excellent meal of New Forest venison and roasted root veggies at The Taverners pub in Godshill
Isle of Wight bed and breakfast Shanklin
It was followed by a portion of the delicious Isle of Wight Blue cheese which is my current obsession

I also had the run of two charming B&Bs during my stay as both were gearing up for the summer season. Both were in the town of Shanklin, on the east coast, which has pleasant beaches, gardens, a town which has possibly seen better days and an quirky Old Town where the pubs are thatched, the streets winding and which is probably packed with tourists in summertime.

Isle of Wight bed and breakfast Shanklin
Haven Hall is a luxury B&B with self-catering flats perched high on the cliffs overlooking the sea

My first night’s stay was at Haven Hall, a grand establishment on the clifftop with spectacular views along the coast. The coastal path is just yards away making it an ideal place for walkers and with seven self-catering apartments as well as six bedrooms in the main building, you can arrive back from a bracing walk without disturbing anyone.

Isle of Wight bed and breakfast Shanklin
All the rooms are individually styled – mine, called Seagulls, had sea views, (including from a porthole window), a fully-stocked kitchen, wifi and TV and was a very relaxing place to stay

I stayed in the immaculate Seagulls Suite which had great views, including through its porthole window and a large bedroom which led through to a fully kitted-out kitchen. There was a microwave, Nespresso coffee-maker, hob oven and all the utensils you could wish for (as well as restaurant recommendations if you didn’t want to do the work yourself) and the whole place was very quiet and relaxing, a little bolt-hole of calm.

Isle of Wight bed and breakfast Shanklin
The kitchen meant you could cater for yourself although David will also recommend some excellent local places to eat

David and his wife Arielle bought Haven Hall some years ago and re-opened last year after a multi-million pound refit, buying the property next door, individually styling each of the rooms and apartments and landscaping the gardens which contain an open-air swimming pool, grass tennis court and a pagoda, licensed for weddings. (The gardens were named Isle of Wight’s Best Commercial Garden by Alan Titchmarsh last year).

Isle of Wight bed and breakfast Shanklins
The award-winning gardens are licensed for weddings and have great views across the bay

As well as a luxury B&B, Haven Hall plays host to all sorts of events including yoga weekends and lunches (as I left the following morning the house was filling up with attendees of a gardening lunch) and has already attracted a celebrity fan base with previous guests including Colin Firth and Abby and Peter Clancy.

Isle of Wight bed and breakfast Shanklin
My (self-catered) breakfast has arrived…

To not disrupt the lunch guests David dropped off two vast baskets of breakfast goodies the night before, including bacon, eggs, sausages, cereal, fruit, bread and even chocolate eggs so I made use of the kitchen and emerged replete to explore the coast including the charming and quirky beach at Steephill Cove.

Isle of Wight bed and breakfast Shanklin
The walk down to Steephill Cove is rewarded by great views and some quirky buildings including a cafe and restaurants serving freshly-caught fish
Isle of Wight bed and breakfast Shanklin
Just below Haven Hill is Small Hope beach with its colourful beach huts
For dinner I went to the newly-furnished Crab and Lobster in Bembridge and enjoyed an excellent Fish Stew

My second night on the Isle of Wight was at Foxhills of Shanklin, just a few minutes’ drive away. Run by Ray and Ann Snook, who formerly ran restaurants in California before returning to the UK, Foxhills is a classically-decorated eight-bedroom B&B with a lounge, breakfast room and even a jacuzzi hot tub on the ground floor, which is very popular with guests returning after a long day’s walking round the island.

Isle of Wight bed and breakfast Shanklin
Foxhills is a five-star rated B&B just a few minutes walk away from Shanklin town centre
Isle of Wight bed and breakfast Shanklin
The indoor spa is popular with guests returning from a long day’s hiking across the island

The rooms are all light and airy, with all the necessary amenities such as kettles, hairdryers, toiletries and wifi, and even though it’s on a main road there is no hint of traffic noise. I was also pleased to see not just information about the hotel in each room (which are all named after local towns) but there were also useful hand-drawn maps of the local area and local walks with recommendations of places to visit.

Isle of Wight bed and breakfast Shanklin
The eight rooms are all light and airy
Isle of Wight bed and breakfast Shanklin
The downstairs lounge at Foxhills (there’s even a piano)

There are gardens at the side and rear of the property for al fresco drinks and dining in the summer months, and over breakfast you might even be lucky and catch a glimpse of Cyril, the friendly local red squirrel.

 

As a chef himself, Ray is justifiably proud of his breakfasts which cater to vegetarians and vegans as well as meat-eaters and fans of a Full English: I had an excellent avocado on toast with a poached egg and liked the little individual carafes of orange juice served to each person. Ray is currently considering opening the restaurant in the evenings to guests and locals but is waiting to gauge interest before taking the plunge: with his cooking and hospitality I think it would be a great idea.

There was just time for a quick visit to excellent The Garlic Farm in the middle of the island before my ferry back to the mainland but I made the most of it by stocking up on my current obsession – Isle of Wight Blue cheese – and taking a leap of faith with garlic beer. Can this be a good thing?

Isle of Wight bed and breakfast Shanklin
The Garlic Farm is stocked with everything from garlic beer to garlic ice-cream and has a lovely cafe too
Isle of Wight bed and breakfast Shanklin
Some of my purchases…

However places like The Garlic Farm and The Taverners certainly show that there is a lot more to the Isle of Wight than just the seaside – and there’s the 50th anniversary of The Isle of Wight Festival this year, a great excuse to return!

Haven Hall, 5 Howard Road, Shanklin, Isle of Wight, PO37 6HD
info@havenhall.co.uk
Tel: 07914 796 494

Foxhills of Shanklin, 30 Victoria Avenue, Shanklin, Isle of Wight, PO37 6LS
enquiries@foxhillsofshanklin.co.uk

Tel: 07845 101351

The Garlic Farm, Mersley Lane, Newchurch, Isle of Wight, PO36 0NR
Tel: 01983 865378
contact@thegarlicfarm.co.uk

The Taverners, High Street, Godshill, Isle of Wight, PO38 3HZ
01983 840 707

Crab and Lobster, 32 Forelands Field Road, Bembridge, Isle of Wight, PO35 5TR
Tel: 01983 872244

Isle of Wight Cheese Company 
Email: rich@isleofwightcheese.co.uk
Tel: 01983 402736

Visitor information at Isle of Wight tourist board www.visitisleofwight.co.uk

What’s it like to drive a £150,000 Aston Martin DB11?

It’s the car marque of dreams (and Hollywood folklore): Aston Martin cars have been super-cool ever since James Bond fired up an Aston Martin DB5 in Goldfinger. While Britain’s top spy has also driven an Aston Martin DBS, an Aston Martin V12 Vanquish and even the Aston Martin DB10 (made specially for Spectre) he’s so far yet to drive Aston Martin’s latest super car, the DB11.

So move over JB – it was time for me to ditch my £1,000 Fiat 600 and head to South Devon for a week in what is most definitely the coolest (and most expensive) car I’ve ever driven. So what’s it actually like driving an £150,000 Aston Martin DB11?

For a start, I’d never driven a car that roared before.

‘It’s all about that sound,’ said the man from Aston Martin as he delivered the DB11. He was only half-joking. ‘People know about all the specs of a car like this and what it can do, but what what really gets them is that sound.’

drive an aston martin DB11
The Aston Martin looked incredibly cool, even in the windswept Dartmoor countryside

With the Aston Martin DB11 coming with a starting price of £150,000, that’s a lot to pay for a roar, but when I heard it for the first time, I too was hooked. (Aston Martin itself calls it a howl, but it’s definitely a roar). The DB11 is too cool for car keys, of course, so with your foot on the brake pedal, you press the big button in the middle of the car with the Aston Martin logo on it, and the car will start. With a ROAR. There’s first a pause – which builds up the anticipation – and then it roars like a tiger. Or a jet engine. Or anything which is cool and exciting.

drive an aston martin DB11
Thankfully the sun soon came out and it was time for some serious posing

I did this so often on my driveway that I thought my neighbours would start complaining. Still in the driveway, I filmed the roar, hoping to turn it into my ring tone. (I haven’t yet). And then, best of all, I discovered that the engine cuts out in stationary traffic to save fuel, so when the traffic moves and you put your foot on the gas, the engine comes back to life and the car will roar again, but this time where everyone can see and hear you. Heads will turn. You start seeing the upside to bumper-to-bumper traffic. Continue reading What’s it like to drive a £150,000 Aston Martin DB11?

14 wines at dinner and a spa to recover in: a memorable stay at The Vineyard, Newbury

Halfway through our meal at The Vineyard hotel and spa, Newbury, I was beginning to wonder if I knew as much about wine as I thought I did. Not only could I not guess what grape variety I was drinking or what country it came from, I couldn’t even work out what colour it was, this particular wine being served in a black glass which made the wine inside completely invisible. Was it rosé…? Or maybe it was red? No, it was definitely rosé.

The answer was white. This was worrying. If my judgement was all over the place now, what on earth would it be like after I’d tried all 14 wines scheduled for the evening? Thankfully by the end of the meal I was so replete and content that my success or otherwise in identifying the wines no longer seemed important – the evening had been so interesting and memorable that my lack of wine knowledge could be safely overlooked.

Vineyard hotel Newbury Judgement of Paris
The Vineyard, Newbury, site of a nightly recreation of the Judgement of Paris wine-tasting

The Vineyard – which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary – is a hotel serious about its wine. Privately owned by the Michael family, which also owns the highly-regarded Peter Michael Winery in California – it has an award-winning cellar (with a mere 30,000 bottles), offer 100 wines by the glass in its restaurant, hosts wine-tastings and wine courses and even wine-themed treatments at its spa (including its Red Grape pampering body wrap).

However it really stands out for its epic ‘Judgement of Paris’ wine-tasting dinner which aims to replicate the notorious (for wine buffs) event in 1974 when Californian wines went up against French wines in a blind tasting. To the shock of the French, and indeed much of the wine world, the Californian wines won the day, and oenophile Sir Peter Michael has recreated the experience at his hotel. Continue reading 14 wines at dinner and a spa to recover in: a memorable stay at The Vineyard, Newbury