Monday, 24 November 2014

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.
Cheltenham (3)   copyright
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.
Cheltenham (4)   copyright
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.
Slide1
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.
Slide2
Our Italian waitress, Chiara, who was both charming and efficient, guided us through an extensive menu.  For the starter my partner selected the cheese soufflĂ© 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.
Slide5
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.
Slide3
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!
Slide4
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



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Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Scottish Pineapple


The statement “I have been living in a Pineapple” may give cause for surprise but is, in fact, quite true for I have just returned from a brief trip to Scotland.  To stay in a building that puts a smile on your face whenever you catch a glimpse of it ought to be on everyone’s ‘to do’ list – if it is, The Pineapple is the place to go. 

Originally part of the Dunsmore Estate, it was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1974 and leased to the Landmark Trust who undertook its restoration.  Neglected for very many years, the Pineapple proved to be in remarkably good condition for every ‘leaf’ was designed to prevent water collecting within it and damaging the stonework.  The remainder of the property was very unstable and derelict.
When the two walled gardens were enclosed at Dunsmore in the mid 1700’s there was no ‘big house’ attached.  They were purely used for producing a supply of fruit, vegetables and flowers to be sent to the Earl of Dunmore’s home in Argyll. It was some years later (it is thought) that the Pineapple was added as a folly and summerhouse, probably after the Earl’s return from Virginia and the Bahamas where he was Governor.
Why a pineapple?  In the eighteenth century, pineapples were a rare luxury that had become associated with wealth and hospitality.  They began to appear on pillars, railings and weather vanes and, indoors on fabrics and wall coverings.  The building of The Pineapple was, perhaps, the grandest of all grand gestures. 
 Although the building is of such high quality in both its materials, cratsmanship and design it was barely recorded in contemporary writing and its designer remains unknown.  One possible reason for this is that it may have been just a little too ‘over the top’ even for flamboyant Georgian taste.  The doorway of the undercroft is a very accurate timber carving of Ionic pillars beyond which stone steps lead to the raised northern lawn.  From this lawn there is level access to the summerhouse.

Either side of the Pineapple are two small cottages, formerly gardener’s bothys.  These have been fully restored by the Landmark Trust to create holiday accomodation with living room and kitchen in one and bedrooms in the other.  The north garden and the Pineapple room are for the private use of guests, the south lawn and gardens are open to the public.

To be able to grow pineapples required specialist knowledge and skills as well as additional warmth.  Glasshouses flanked the south wall and were heated by the use of specially constructed hollow walls.  At the foot of these, fires were lit and flues within the wall drew the heat upwards, warming the brickwork.  The four decorative urns to either side of the Pineapple conceal chimneys and because of there similarity to those at Casino Marino in Dublin (to read about this extraordinary building click here), it has been suggested that the designer could be Sir William Chambers although there is no documented evidence to suggest this.   At intervals on the southern side of the walls I found sliding stones which could be removed presumably to control the temperature by allowing the heat to escape.



 






























 
In 1820 William Wilkins, architect of the National Gallery in London, designed a house in the Tudor Gothick style.  Dunsmore Park’s glory was, however, short-lived for by 1911 the family had left although it remained occupied until 1964 after which it was abandoned.  It is now a ruin visible across the fields from the Pineapple.  Another ruin, now very unstable, and also visible from the Pineapple, is the Elphinstone Tower.  Of earlier origin, built about 1510, it became the family vault of the Dunmore family in 1836 with a church built alongsidea few years later.  This was demolished in the 1960’s.  Their fascinating stories will be subjects of this blog in due course.

With so much history and beautiful scenery close by – Loch Lomond is only a short drive away – the Pineapple makes a great and intriguing place to use as a base for exploring the area.  The grounds are open free to the public all year but the building is at its best during the hours when you are alone to enjoy its eccentricity and splendid isolation.

The Pineapple at night


Links: 
The Landmark Trust
The National Trust for Scotland




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Saturday, 8 November 2014

Gwen Raverat


I have published on my website this review commissioned by the Raverat Achive:

A retrospective exhibition of Gwen Ravarat hosted by Winds of Change Art Gallery, Winchcombe.

The grand-daughter of Charles Darwin, Gwen Raverat's engravings are both fascinating and intricate.  I was completely enthralled by them.

Click on the link here to read about them and to see images of some of her work.

The River Darent 1939


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Friday, 24 October 2014

The Story of Lorna Doone - just a myth?

 Lorna Doone is the tale of a young boy, John Ridd, whose father is killed by Scottish outlaws – the Doones.   Exiled to a remote part of Exmoor (which is in England’s West Country and now a National Park), they rob travellers and local farms.  Living amongst them is the pretty Lorna Doone, kidnapped by them as an infant.  John enters the forbidden Doone Valley by climbing a steep and difficult waterfall, the ‘waterslide’, and meets Lorna for the first time.  Some years later he rescues her and as they marry Lorna is shot through the window of Oare church by the wicked Carver Doone.  John pursues him and after a struggle Carver perishes in a bog.  Lorna recovers from her wounds and so the story has a happy ending.
Oare Church

But is it true?  The simple answer to the question is that the answer isn’t simple.  When Richard Dodderidge Blackmore wrote his historic novel in the late 1800’s he mixed fact with fiction and local legend with the names of local people.
Blackmore placed the Doone stronghold beside Badgworthy (pronounced ‘Badgery’) Water.  There is a deserted medieval village beside a tributary in Hoccombe Combe and it is very probable that this is the site for the ruins were still visible in Blackmore’s day.  However the Waterslide is not found there but in another side valley, Lank Combe. Nowhere as sheer as described it is, however, an impressive sight with its three smooth slabs of rock especially when the river is in spate.  I like to think that he also had in mind the waterslide at Watersmeet a few miles further downstream which would be much more of a challenging climb.
The waterslide at Watersmeet
 
Because the precise location of the Doone Valley is uncertain it is no longer described as such on maps, the Ordnance Survey now describing the area more accurately as Doone Country.  A rewarding walk can be taken along the whole length of Badgworthy Water starting from Brendon Common by parking the car at Brendon Two Gates.  Here there are wide views of both the open heather moorland and also the grass moor of the Royal Forest ‘improved’ in the nineteenth century.  Badgworthy Water changes in character along its length from fast running rapids to smoother, deeper pools.
Badgworthy Water

The above walk is rugged and long but a more gentle approach is from Malmsmead with its much photographed packhorse bridge and ford that also denotes the county border between Devon and Somerset.
Malmsmead where Badgworthy Water crosses the road
 
Further along the lane nestles the village of Oare and the church where Lorna and John wed.  Inside is a memorial to Blackmore, a smaller copy of the one in Exeter cathedral.  A memorial can also be seen to the Snow family who lived at Oare manor and also feature in Lorna Doone. It is recorded that as Blackmore didn’t write kindly of the Snows he was afterwards much disliked by them.  Other local characters also existed: Tom Faggus, the highwayman was – in real life – from nearby North Molton and Ridd is still a local surname. 
Oare village and church nestle in a deep combe
Is Lorna Doone a story based on truth?  That is for the reader to decide, perhaps after visiting Mother Meldrum’s cave in the Valley of Rocks, for both are mentioned in Blackmore’s book.
The Valley of Rocks



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Thursday, 25 September 2014

Respect Your Elders

Of all trees few can be held in as much contempt as our native elder, Sambucus nigra.  It grows almost anywhere and in such profusion that it is dismissed as a ‘weed’ and it is true that its habit of self-sowing and growing through treasured garden plants can be a nuisance.  Despite all of this, however, it is also one of the most useful of plants both in the wild and the shrub border.

This variegated form of Elder is very useful for brightening up a shady place
 
Search any hedgerow and the Elder can be found.  It is easily identified, even in mid-winter, for its bark is dull, dry and scaly, with prominent pairs of leaf buds; these are some of the earliest to open in the spring.  Young leaves can even be found during mild spells in the winter although these are replaced if damaged by frost.  Perhaps the simplest way to identify a leafless plant is to break off a stem for the centre is hollow and filled with whitish pith. Generations of country children hollow out these stems to create ‘cigarettes’ to smoke; in fact I can claim only to have smoked elder – and that stopped once a spark burnt the back of my throat!

Perhaps the glory of Elder comes in spring when the trees burst into flower. Large, flat heads (corymbs), consisting of hundreds of tiny scented flowers smother the plants and for a short while the countryside carries their pungent odour.  These have traditionally been the first crop to be harvested, their flowers steeped in water to make Elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’, these days now sold commercially. Elderflowers can be used dried in herbal teas or, when fresh, swirled in a light batter and dropped into hot oil to make delicious and unusual fritters.  Adding the flowers to stewed gooseberries or when making jam is a very old method of counterbalancing the tartness of the fruit.
Within weeks the flowers which were held upright will have faded and drooped as berries form.  Even when green, streaks of colour hint of their ripeness to come.  By late summer, the clusters have turned almost black and make a welcome addition to fruit pies or, used on their own, in jam and wine making.
The medicinal uses for Elder are equally varied.  According to the herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy all parts of the plant can be used: roots for kidney problems; bark against epilepsy and the leaves, when mixed with geranium and garlic, to soothe eczema and rashes.  The flowers and berries are used for relief of coughs and colds and it has also been claimed that the flowers can restore blindness.  As with all herbal treatments caution and common sense should be used – I’m not brave enough to suggest that you try any of them out!
The dark berries  of the elder - the red ones are hawthorn
For a tree with so many uses that has been part of country lore for so long it is not surprising to find it has many names.  A widespread alternative is Judas Tree for tradition states that it was the Elder that Judas Iscariot hung himself from.  It is from a derivation of the name Judas that Jew’s Ears fungus which commonly grows on elder gets its common name.
 
 
 
 
 

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Stop That Horse!

The first week in September doesn’t just herald the start of autumn it also heralds the start of the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials.  Held each year in the grounds of Burghley House - a magnificent, Elizabethan stately home located just outside Stamford, Lincolnshire - it attracts the top names in equestrianism.  Also known as three day eventing, the trials combine different elements of horsemanship: dressage, cross-country and show jumping which tests the strength, stamina, skill and bravery of both horse and rider.  It is a popular and unique sport with crowds of over 160,000 coming to watch.
The cross-country course is very demanding with thirty-two fences over a distance of 6500 metres (four miles) to jump, ideally under twelve minutes.  The Cottesmore Leap is one of the largest and scariest looking of the fences although the horses rarely seem fazed by it.  
 

Eventing is a high risk sport and accidents do occur.  More often than not, this is when a fence is misjudged and the rider parts company with the horse or a fence is damaged during the jump, for they are designed to fall apart to reduce the risk of injury.   So what happens when something goes wrong?  On the course there are ‘stopping points’, placed for good visibility so that the next competitor has plenty of warning to apply the brakes if there is a hold-up further on.  A red flag is waved to tell the rider to stop and the time of stopping is recorded by a steward.
If the stop is likely to be short the rider will continue to ride the horse at walk to allow it to cool gently; if longer they dismount, remove the saddle  and lead the horse at walk to keep active. 

If the delay is lengthy the horse will be washed down to cool it further and the rider also given the opportunity to take a drink of water.  Although this is frustrating for the rider, competitors understand the need for total safety to both themselves and their horse. 
Once the all-clear is given the horse is remounted and gently exercised to warm up its muscles before resuming the competition.  When the rider is satisfied the horse is ready the timing is restarted as they canter past the yellow marker post so that no competitor is disadvantaged.

Like all large events, sporting or otherwise, contingency plans are in place for all types of emergencies and spectators are rarely aware of these ‘behind the scenes’ procedures even when, as in this case, they happen on full view.  Over many years the stopping point has proven its worth, and it is an interesting place to watch, for it shows a top performance horse go through the stages of change from full competitive action to rest and back again.
The Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials 2014 take place from 4th – 7th September; visit the website for more details by clicking here.
 
For daily updates from Life in the English Cotswolds click here
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Monday, 18 August 2014

Purple Haze

Ask those that know Exmoor – England’s smallest National Park – to conjure up just one image of it and you would get a number of different answers.  For some it is the wild ponies, others the rushing streams but mostly the answer would be the sea or the moorland.  On Exmoor you are never very far from either.

At this time of year the moors are, perhaps, at their very best: awash with a purple haze of heather in bloom, speckled with the yellow flowers of furze – the local dialect word for gorse.  During the cooler months, however, the heather looks very different, drab browns and greens giving no hint of the glory to come.
The heather is an important resource for animals whether it is food for the ponies, sheep or cattle that roam the open spaces or the deer.  In the past – they died out in 1969 – black grouse fed here too, the record of their existence recorded in place names such as Heath Poult Cross, heath poult being the dialect word for the grouse. For other birds that nest close to the ground the heather protects them with its cover.
Although at a glance the heather all looks the same, there are three types, quite easily distingushable when in flower.  Cross-leaved Heath (Erica tetralix) has paler flower clusters at the top of the stems; Bell Heather (Erica cinerea) is a rich crimson-purple in flower whereas the true Heather or Ling (Calluna vulgaris) is softer both in colouring and appearance.  Together, they blend to create a colour mix of shadow and light.
To keep the heather moorland in good order, controlled burning is carried out once the plants have become old and woody, an ancient method called swaling.  Only selected areas are burned, usually on a five to ten year cycle between October and early April.   
The fires are watched carefully, not just to prevent their spreading to other areas but to ensure that the rootstock is not damaged from which the new, tender shoots soon grow.  The burning of the moor is both exciting and interesting to watch for the smoke can be seen for many miles.  It is difficult to imagine when the stems are blackened and charred that life will ever return. The photograph below shows the regrowth after four years.

Exmoor has the highest cliffs in England and these are made even more dramatic by the moorland which extends to their edge, the heather even clinging to the steep sides as they tumble to the sea, caring little for the salt-laden winds that continually buffet them.  On a sunny day in August the combination of blue sea, purple heather, yellow gorse and blue sky, combined with Exmoor’s splendid views, is a sight rarely forgotten.




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