Off the beaten track

Bolsover Castle Derbyshire

It’s not often that I really see anything beyond the tarmac when I’m zipping up and down the motorway. I’m so focused on the destination that I don’t take that much notice of the scenery beyond the carriageway.

Yet on the stretch of the M1 between South Yorkshire and Derbyshire it’s impossible not to notice the imposing Bolsover Castle, which sits high up on the hill overlooking the passing traffic.

It was only after recently spotting newspaper photographs of the castle looking particularly moody and mysterious that I finally decided that it was about time to go and see what it was like.

Turning off the motorway and driving to the top of the hill found me at the castle gates. Set in the most surreal surroundings, it was nothing like I’d expected. It was pretty impressive close up and even on a gloriously sunny autumn afternoon the atmosphere was almost tangible.

Forgive the cliché, but if walls could talk this is a site that sure could tell some tales. The original castle, I learned, was built in the 12th century by the Peveril family and was later to play a part in many a battle. For some time it was in the hands of the crown until a revolt against the King saw the castle transformed into a garrison against the crown. Fast forward a few years – and several battles later – it found its way back into the hands of the crown. By the 13th century though the castle and the manor had been given to local farmers and it gradually fell into disrepair.

The land was bought in the 16th century by Sir George Talbot, one time keeper to the exiled Mary Queen of Scots, and also husband to the famed ‘Bess of Hardwick’. Sir George made his mark before it was passed to the next generation. Its next owner, Sir Charles Cavendish, employed the architect Robert Smythson to rebuild the castle.

Charles’ son, William, later took on the mantle of improving the castle and basically turned it into party central as he extended the buildings and added grand murals, painted ceilings, panelling and elaborate fireplaces. The former garrison was soon transformed into a stately home worthy of the movers and shakers of the time.

The story didn’t end there though as during the reformation of the Monarchy, Sir William was forced into exile and surrendered the castle to Parliamentarian troops. On his return he found the castle in ruins but managed to not only restore it to good order but also added a new hall and staterooms. He was also responsible for the creation of an indoor riding school – incidentally now the finest of its kind in the country. After his death his heirs chose not to live in the castle and instead made their home at Welbeck Abbey just a stone’s throw away across the county border into Nottinghamshire.

Today the castle is now in the ownership of English Heritage and despite the passing of time the past really doesn’t seem that far away. Walking along the castle walls overlooking the courtyard, it’s easy to imagine how it once was despite the fact that the long gallery is now minus its roof with abundant weeds growing out of the stone.

The interior of the castle itself though offers a glimpse of the opulence of the Cavendish era as some of the rooms have been returned to their original state. The huge, dark and imposing paintings of Hercules in the vaulted grand hall and the painted blue ceiling and gilded stars of the Star Chamber only make the empty and desolate neighbouring rooms all the more evocative.

Step back out into the fresh air and walk along the terrace and you’re rewarded with magnificent views for as far as you can see. Bolsover Castle sure is incredibly atmospheric even on a bright and sunny autumn day when it is teeming with visitors. It’s definitely well worth taking a detour to visit.

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The highs and lows of the gym

Shhhh, don’t tell anyone…. I’ve joined a gym. Yep, having always promised myself I would never don lycra nor lift weights, here I am.

And, oh my, do I look out of place! My bobbly trackie bottoms and mismatched vests are found sadly lacking amongst the sea of co-ordinated lycra. But if I’m to fight the battle with my thyroid issues and boost my health then it’s got to be done. No pain, no gain as they say.

So despite my better instincts I’ve signed up for three gruelling visits to the gym a week for the foreseeable future. Yikes!

‘How much weight do you want to lose?’ The instructor asked when I arrived for my induction. ‘A stone? One and a half?’ Ouch that hurt!! Really? And I signed up for this? Nice.

‘Erm, no,’ I countered. ‘Well, yes, I’d like to lose some weight but really I just want to tone up,’ I admitted ‘And … you know, get healthier.’ I added lamely. Well I do. Oh seriously I ask myself, what had I signed up for? I’m no athlete and certainly no gym bunny.

The first day was hard. The challenge of walking confidently across a busy gym is not to be under estimated. Had I the choice, I’d rather have walked across hot coals then run the gauntlet past uber fit women and testosterone fuelled weight training men. I virtually ran, head firmly fixed to the floor, across the room to the cross trainer. Then on reaching said machine found it difficult to negotiate the settings and, too embarrassed to ask, I instead tried out the nearby treadmill. Within minutes, however, that soon beat me as it became clear just how unfit I was.

No, this can’t be! I inwardly squealed. Despite regular attendance of Zumba classes the gym was proving too much already. I could barely keep the pace. I was on the lowest setting and yet my calves were screaming out to stop almost instantly. I managed to do a whole six and a bit minutes of running before deciding to slow down to a fast walk.

The following day my legs were aching and heavy but I knew if I had to get to grips with it and get into a routine otherwise it would be pointless. Again within minutes my muscles were protesting but I pushed through and managed to run for eight minutes this time before faltering and easing the pace to a tentative jog. Small steps and all that.

I have to admit even carving out a bit of time after work for the regular gym sessions proved to be problematic at first. It would have been so much easier to jump into the car and go straight home for an evening chilled out on the sofa. But I’d signed up and I couldn’t give up that easily no matter how tempting.

During that first week I did the rounds of the rest of the gym and since then have discovered, perhaps not a love, but certainly a ‘like’ for the cycling machine. The machine allows me to cycle away to my heart’s content while watching a film of flower filled lanes in the beautiful Dordogne. While I’m never quite fooled enough into believing I’m cycling down those said lanes, it at least takes my mind off the burning muscles.

By the second week it became a little easier to walk across the room – and not just because I ached less. I even managed to make eye contact with fellow gym members and received a few surreptitious nods of acknowledgement. Who knows maybe one day someone will actually speak to me?!!

I’ve now completed my fourth week and while I haven’t lost any weight at all, I’m not deterred in the slightest. It’s still very early days but already I have noticed a change in my health. My metabolism has speeded up a little, which has been a problem for me since my thyroidectomy, and already I have more energy. Time spent at the gym straight after work is also a great stress-buster. All the hassles of the day really do fall by the wayside as I pound the treadmill.

Surprisingly I’m getting quite addicted to the treadmill as I secretly swap channels on the TV screen and tune into BBC’s quiz show, Pointless, to accompany me as I run. OK maybe that makes me the least coolest person in the gym, but, hey, it works for me. I’d like to think I’m exercising my mind as well as my body. It’s multi-tasking at its very best as I keep up to date with my TV viewing, and keep an eye on my progress while watching the calories melt away. Maybe it’s not so Pointless afterall.

School reunion – to go or not to go?

An invitation to a school reunion arrived in my inbox this week. A bit of a shocker, I can tell you. Well, it’s more than 20 years since I left school and I’ve not seen the majority of my classmates since walking out of the gates after my final exam all those years ago.

Ooph way too many years have passed. So when I got the invitation I was filled with curiosity combined with more than a smidgen of fear. It’s a pretty scary thought sharing the same room again with those I spent my growing years.

Before I could even think it through though, I noticed my face gracing the pages of a reunion group on Facebook. Suddenly my past was flashing before my eyes as old school photos were posted online on an almost hourly basis. Former classmates, who I barely remembered, let alone recognised, swapped memories of days gone by, recalling teachers, fellow classmates and tales of school trips.

It was so strange to be reminded of times gone by with the regular updates and get messages from people I’d not seen for such a long time. It was addictive as I spent my online time deciphering names and squinting hard at blurred photos as I tried to work out who was who. I decoded surnames, translating married names to maiden names, and calculated how they were all linked. As for the boys, I barely recognised some of them as I tried to work out what they might have looked like when younger – with hair. (Sorry guys but time hasn’t been as kind to you as it has us girls.)

Some I only recognised by looking at pictures of their children and, would you believe, grandkids?! Grandkids!! *Wince*. How old am I feeling now?! Who are all these middle-aged people of which I am now one? A quick glance at the date of the reunion and my first thought was whether I’d have time to get match ready. Is it possible to drop a dress size in time? Can I get my life in order? Wow, there really is nothing like a reunion to focus the mind on how time has passed.

Since getting the invitation I have wondered how all our lives have changed and what classmates have become. However, philosophical I am about my own life – and I’m pretty happy with my lot actually – I can’t help wondering how successful my former classmates have been.

“I’ll go if you go,” said one friend, worried about how much she had changed since school despite the fact she has a lovely family and thriving career. Another classmate, now with a high profile job and well respected in her field of work, said she’d go but only if she could lose some weight first. Haha! So it’s not just me that’s been sent into this massive vortex of insecurity! It seems we’re all a little nervous about the prospect of coming face to face with former friends and adversaries. It’s like all those years have miraculously slipped away and we’re reverting to our former teenage selves. We’re all still measuring ourselves up against each other.

So, the jury is still out as to whether I’ll go. I’m not sure how I feel about spending time with people I’ve not seen for such a long time and whether I really want to take a step into nostalgia. Really, what do we have in common other than we all set out into the world at the same time? After that we all went our separate lives, scattered around the world and did our own thing. OK, so maybe I am a teeny, weeny bit curious. Just a little. Maybe I will go. Well, I guess I do have some time to slim down a little.

Bring on the new season

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‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,’ so the William Morris saying goes. That’s all well and good but with a home now full of belongings that I find both useful and pretty damn gorgeous, it does make it difficult to start any kind of mass clear-out.

Since moving into my house eight years ago I seem to have steadily accumulated tonnes of items that I now can’t bare to part with. As the domestic goddess that I am (ahem!), I’ve never been keen on clutter and so I’ve always got around this dilemma by temporarily hiding items away. I regularly swap lamps, pictures, vases and candle holders around so each get to see the light of day before being stored away again. Somehow they never get thrown away or recycled. Spotting this sign though (above) in a National Trust property made me chuckle.

Things really are beginning to ‘accumulate’ to dangerous levels in my cupboards. To the untrained eye, the house may look fairly tidy but open any cupboard and you take your life into your hands. Negotiating the rather full cupboards and drawers is quite a skill; Get the timing just a little bit wrong and there’s the danger you’ll be injured by an errant falling item. The kitchen cupboards, in particular, could certainly benefit from a bit of a ‘spring clean.’

This weekend being a Bank Holiday is as good a time as any, I guess, to tackle the issue. In fact what better time could there be as we’re on the brink of a new season. Yep, before you say anything, I haven’t gone completely mad quite yet and I do realise that we’re running headlong into autumn and that it’s not spring.

Don’t you think autumn though is a much better time to have a clear-out? For many of us this time of year still heralds the start of a new term and fresh start. Even those of us whose school years have long gone, that September feeling still brings with it a sense of the new and that urge to plan ahead and make lists. September? Bring it on! Today you’ll find me clearing the decks and making space.

Life’s a picnic

Rufford Notts

It’s been a summer of picnics. That’s not to say we’ve been blessed with the best weather this year, only that we’ve taken advantage of every bit of sunshine that’s come our way.

As soon as there’s been just a teeny hint of summer in the weather forecast and a break in the clouds, we’ve dashed out with picnic blanket in one hand and cool box in the other. A quick trip to the supermarket to grab the essential ingredients enroute and then we’ve been off in search of the perfect picnic spot.

Admittedly our outdoor feasts have been more makeshift than Henley Regatta: Think egg-and-cress sarnies, salad bowls and lemonade rather than picnic hampers, champagne and candelabra. But that’s more than ok as we’ve had a ball finding the perfect parkland spots with the best views.

There’s more to a good picnic than the food. We’ve enjoyed outdoor feasts in various spots across the Midlands including Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire with games of cricket our soundtrack. We’ve set up camp in wild meadows in Rufford Abbey, found a quiet spot in Yorkshire’s Nostell Priory and relished the peace and quiet in a small corner of Belton Park in Lincolnshire. Then there was the time we watched deer grazing on the glorious Chatsworth House estate in Derbyshire.

There have been times when we’ve just chilled out with the Sunday papers, others when we have taken our picnic to enjoy at the end of a long walk. Then there have been times when it’s been an opportunity to get together with family and have a real good catch-up. Picnics: what’s not to love?

Belton Lincs

A snapshot in time

photographs

The other day I had a mass clear out. Or at least that was my intention. Honest guv. Ever the procrastinator though, it wasn’t long before I went off at a tangent. Within 15 minutes I’d discovered a huge box of photographs and that was it; all my plans were forgotten and I was off scooting down memory lane.

A series of snaps took me instantly back in time taking me through different stages of my life. There were numerous envelopes filled with photographs taken on sun drenched childhood holidays in Cornwall where summers really were hotter and drier. (Hey, you can’t argue with photographic evidence!)

They brought back hundreds of deliciously, happy memories of camping, sunny afternoons on the beach, gorging on pasties, evenings of endless card games, and sisterly bickering. Then there were packets of pictures documenting the epitome of my teenage angst – including a dreadful photo of me on a school trip at the age of 14. Even after all these years I could recall the insecurity of my teenage self hiding behind others at the back of the group.

A picture taken a few years later on my first ever foreign holiday and the face staring out of the pictures was equally as self conscious. I vividly remember how much I envied the local girls, wishing I too could be like them as they swished their long, dark hair and dived into the sea; all legs and confidence. I failed to notice back then that I was a tiny size 8 with long, dark hair myself. Strange how we see ourselves. Perhaps it’s only at a distance that we spot these things.

That’s one of the beauties of flipping through old photographs. It’s so easy to see things from a different perspective. A series of yet more envelopes catalogued numerous beach holidays, weddings, birthdays and family celebrations, and adventures to far flung climes. Lots of memories of great times came flooding back. Then it all came to an abrupt end. Not because the happy times came to a close but simply because post 2005 the photo albums and photographs were replaced with carefully edited digital images. While before I religiously took rolls of films to be processed, today digital images now languish on laptop, phone and memory sticks.

It’s oddly quite sad that the days of flicking through photo albums and reams of glossy photographs are disappearing. I can’t quite see myself losing hours reminiscing over snaps recorded on my mobile. Perhaps I’m being a bit sentimental but you’ve got to admit that sifting through digital pictures and anonymous lists of numbered jpgs on screen just doesn’t feel the same. On the plus side though there would be no diversions and I might, just might, get around to my mass clear out.

Memories of Portugal

Portugal, coast, travels

We first visited Portugal some 24 years ago: a lifetime ago. Yet getting off the plane almost a quarter of a century later and we were instantly taken back to that time as we were hit by the same beautifully, delicious scent of spices that we haven’t found anywhere on our travels since.

I’m not sure why we’ve never returned to Portugal before now. I guess with so many countries to visit we’ve been somewhat distracted. Over the years holidays have taken us instead to numerous Greek islands and across Europe and America. We’ve also been lucky enough to go on bigger adventures including a journey along the Nile, hiking through Australian bush, driving the coast of New Zealand and watching whales in the Cook Islands.

Amongst the list are a myriad of memories and mental snapshots of beautiful and extraordinary places and I’d almost forgotten what Portugal was like. Returning to the Algarve was like seeing it afresh as we revisited transformed fishing villages and travelled the coast from Faro to Lagos. One trip to the picturesque Ponte de Piedade – probably the most photographed area along the Algarve – reminded me how pretty it was.

During the holiday we also returned to the history-filled Silves, which will remain firmly in my memory as we climbed the worn and cobbled streets in soaring temperatures to reach the Moorish castle at the top. It was worth the climb if nothing more than to soak up the breathtaking views of orange groves and vineyards from the castle walls.

A trip into the Monchique mountains though really was the best part of the holiday. And finding Caldas, nestling in the lush landscape, woods and streams, was a real treat. I could easily have stayed there for the remainder of the holiday. What an unexpected little oasis! Lizards crossed our path as we walked through a peaceful wood lined trail past colourful flowering shrubs and to an idyllic square. The path led to a shaded spot under a canopy of trees that was perfect for a picnic; fresh, warm bread baked in the oven in the village square.

It was such a far cry from Sagres and Cabo De Sao Vincente, over in the most south westerly point of Europe, which is all rather wild, barren and forbidding. While we had visited there before, this time round we were greeted by a cold wind and mists, which was quite refreshing after the high temperatures of the past fortnight.

Coming back to my original point and our return to Portugal, it wasn’t exactly how I remembered. The old fishing villages have grown and been joined by modern hotel complexes and time has moved on for some places – as it should. But the stylish marinas, promenades and sun drenched beaches sit comfortably alongside all that history, old architecture and cobbled lanes. Let’s hope it doesn’t take so long to visit again.

Lagos, Portugal, street scene

church, blue skies, Portugal