Monthly Archives: July 2017

Britain’s best manor houses to visit within 90 minutes of London

England is truly a magnificent keeper of its heritage, one that lives in the bricks and mortar of these amazing manor houses. And you can visit them. If only walls could talk:

1Ightham Mote, Kent

Igtham Mote, Kent was hailed by David Starkey as “one of the most beautiful and interesting of English country houses”.

Six miles south of Sevenoaks, this 14th-century moated manor house is one of the Garden of England’s hidden gems. A former home to Medieval knights and Victorian society figures, it’s surrounded by the most tranquil of gardens with an orchard, small lakes and woodland walks that meander off into the surrounding countryside.

The historian David Starkey, impressed by its atmospheric central courtyard, the house’s Great Hall, crypt, and Tudor painted ceiling, has described it as “one of the most beautiful and interesting of English country houses”.

Owned by the National Trust since 1985, it’s worth a visit for the estate that surrounds it alone. Three designated walks take in all the flora and fauna of the Kent countryside, through an ancient bluebell wood or past 19th-century hopper’s huts and even the natural spring that feeds the moat.

A particular delight is to wander south, away from the house, climb a five-bar gate and stumble across one of the most charming village cricket pitches imaginable. The English countryside at its best.

Tickets: vary but up to £11 for the whole property during peak times of spring/summer.

2Hatfield House, Hertfordshire

Hatfield House featured in blockbuster films such as Harry Poter and Shakespeare in Love

It’s all too easy to step into what was the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth I and imagine you’re on a film set.

The grand Jacobean manor house has served as the backdrop for scenes from major movies including Harry Potter, Tomb Raider, Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech.

It sits in a vast swathe of land only 20 miles north east of the capital and a few minutes’ drive from the A1, encompassing formal and informal gardens complete with a maze, a children’s farm and play area, endless acres of rolling countryside to lose yourself in and even its own 12th century church.

The house itself promises everything you’d expect; from chandeliers and tapestries to a vast library and armoury and one of the finest examples of a Victorian kitchen in the country.

But the hidden bonus here is the fabulous stable yard and the period roads and buildings that lead to it. Flanked by an eclectic mix of buildings converted from the days when the royal stud lived there, is a café that spills outdoors when the weather’s fine and sits among cobbles and a circular fountain in which children toss coins to make wishes.

Tickets: Free for restaurants and stable yard, £11 (adult) includes the west garden and park (£19, incudes entry to house)

3Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire in the fairy tale town of Woodstock

Blenheim is an awe-inspiring 18th century country house in the heart of the fairy tale town that is Woodstock. It is the principal home of the 12th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and, more significantly, the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.

A true Baroque masterpiece, the house, seen by many as the greatest of its kind in Britain, sits amongst more than 2,000 acres of Capability Brown parkland and the most elegantly landscaped formal gardens. There’s a miniature train that transports families to pleasure gardens with its adventure playground, tall-hedge maze and butterfly house.
But everything about the palace is vast; from its 180ft library to its 67ft high hallway.

And outside, it’s on the same scale; big enough, in fact, to host events like the International Horse Trials. So if you’re looking for room to ramble, be warned: you’ll need to be fit to enjoy it fully and have serious amounts of time.

Best time to visit? Other than Spring when the daffodils are in full bloom, it’s Christmas when for more than a month the gardens are turned into a wonderland of light to create an hour-long circular walk past singing trees, a scented fire garden and lawns set ablaze by thousands of colourful fibre optics.

Tickets: Adult £24.90 (£13.50 for children over five)

4Syon House, Essex

Panorama of The Great Conservatory and Fountain at Syon House Pic by Maxwell Hamilton

This is where the Duke of Northumberland lives when he’s in London and the closest of the country houses in terms of distance from the city centre. Built in Tudor times, it underwent a thorough transformation at the hands of the neoclassical architect Robert Adam and bears many of his hallmarks. Portraits by Van Dyck and Lely hang on the walls on what is the last surviving ducal residence and country estate, in Greater London.

Only nine miles from Charing Cross, you can quickly find yourself immersed in gardens renowned for their extensive collection of rare plants and trees, all of which surround a spectacular conservatory which dates back to the 1820s and was long known for housing plants from all over the world.

There’s even a frozen spectacle that is an ice house, built over 48 hours when the lake froze over, a formal Italianate garden and a Capability Brown lake overlooking water-meadows. So, even if you don’t want to step foot inside the house, it’s worth the trip for the chance to stroll in 100 acres of parkland and among some of the most spectacular trees in the country, including ancient oaks that date back to the 1600s.

5Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire

Woburn Abbey has spectacular views of the deer park

Woburn itself is about 40 minutes from drive up the M1 and about five miles south of Milton Keynes. It’s best approached from junction 12 where you can head towards Flitwick and detour off through some of the most charming villages in the county.

That’ll bring you to a small rise that opens up to spectacular views of the deer park. There’s a 20 mph speed limit to help you avoid them and enjoy the view. The Abbey entrance is on the left (the wildlife park is on the right) and, once through the entrance, you’ve a two-mile drive through the grounds, past the house, a lake and an avenue of trees to the main entrance.

Again, there’s no need to go into the house to enjoy the most relaxing of times strolling a multi-faceted array of landscaped gardens, visiting the various historic exhibitions housed in the courtyards, or taking in the scents from the orangery.

The far corner, over a wooden bridge, houses a maze and the entrance yard houses one of the most charming cafes where ducks will snap at your feet for scraps on the terrace on warm days.

Having come all that way, it’s probably worth doubling back through the deer park afterwards into the town, just for a stroll through the high street. A bonus: the car park is free.

On the Road: The Tour de France

This summer the world’s most famous cycle race pedals off from Dusseldorf on 1 July. For the next three weeks, elite cyclists will compete stage by stage as they loop around Germany, Belgium, and France. Glory awaits whoever crosses the finishing line first in Paris on 23 July. All those who come behind can at least say they completed the gruelling 104th Tour de France.

The Tour de France itself is open only to professional cyclists, but that’s not to say that you can’t get a taste of the action. You can bike the same route, or follow stage by stage as a spectator. Here are the highlights you can expect to see if you follow the route, plus our practical tips to make it happen.

Dusseldorf

The very first stage of this year’s Tour de France starts and ends in the German city of Dusseldorf. It’s a flat 13 km time trial through the city streets, mostly along the banks of the Rhine and therefore wonderfully flat. You can follow a similar route on a guided bike tour of the city, or meander your own way through the Old and New Towns. The parks and tree-lined promenade by the riverside are particularly pretty, and a great way to ease yourself into cycling, especially if you’re not terribly fit.

Liège

Stage 2 of the Tour de France is a long distance stage: 203 km from Dusseldorf across the border to Liège in Belgium. There are two short climbs along the way, and you’ll see a great deal of western Germany’s countryside as you cycle.

Though this section of the route is not overly arduous, you will be spending a lot of hours in the saddle. It’s essential you wear the right shorts or tights to avoid chafing. Jack Wolfskin’s Gravity Flex Tights are stretchy and breathable, and importantly are also waterproof — helpful for the unpredictable weather in Northern Europe!

When you arrive into Liège, don’t be deceived by the first industrial appearances. Climb the Montagne de Bueren steps for a rewarding city view, and treat yourself to a well-earned beer at the top.

Troyes

Cycling and drinking wine may not always go together, but there are few things more pleasurable in life than biking through French vineyards. The organisers of the Tour de France know that well, and so Stage 7 runs 213 km through the vineyards of Burgundy from Troyes to Nuits-Saint-Georges. Champagne and Rosé des Riceys are just two of the local specialities: you can also keep your energy levels up with Troyes andouillette, Chaource cheese, and Prunelle de Troyes, a particularly potent prune-based liquor.

Bergerac

Competitors in the Tour de France take a much-needed rest day in the Dordogne before starting on Stage 10, the 178 km leg from Perigueux to Bergerac. The terrain here is a little hillier, but the rewards for visitors are ample: the famous cave paintings of Lascaux, truffles and foie gras for the foodies, and the attractions of Bergerac.

Bergerac’s Old Town looks as if it was made for tourism. The timber framed houses are medieval, there are lively markets in the squares, and you can wander along the bank of the Dordogne River down to the historic quay.

Rodez

By the time you reach Stage 14 (182 km), you’ll need to raise your game. The hills here might look photogenic, but as they rise higher and higher, your legs will start to burn.

Be grateful that you’re on a modern, lightweight bicycle. The first time that British riders competed in the Tour de France was in 1955, and their equipment and clothing looked very different indeed. The Wearwell Cycle Company, who sponsored riders in that first British team, have relaunched their collection in 2017, combining a hint of 1950s vintage style with the latest materials and designs. You can look the part whilst riding in complete comfort.

When you do get to Rodez at the end of the stage, inevitably you’ll be exhausted. Once you’ve recovered, do allow some time for sightseeing, however. Rodez’s cathedral is a masterpiece of gothic architecture; there’s an excellent circular walking tour around the Old Town; and the local park, Domaine de Combelles, covers 300 acres.

Salon-de-Provence

The longest stage of the tour, Stage 19, runs through the lavender fields and olive groves of Provence. It might look utterly idyllic but it’s tough on the legs, especially in the first part of the day. Even the pros are hard-pushed to complete the 223 km in under 17 hours.

You are heading for Salon-de-Provence. This year is the first time that the Tour de France has ever been through, though the town is a regular feature in other long distance road races such as the Paris-Nice Peloton. Come here to visit the 12th century Château de l’Empéri and the tomb of Nostradamus in the Saint-Laurent Collegiate Church. If your trip coincides with the Du son au Balcon festival in August, you’ll also hear the central square pulsing as DJs mix the latest tracks from the balcony of the town hall.

Paris

Everyone’s heard of the Maillot Jaune — the yellow jersey — of the Tour de France, and on the final race day, that’s what is on everyone’s mind. It’s considered bad form for other riders to don that colour shirt, but if you want to feel like a winner on your own bicycle ride, by all means flash some canary yellow.

The 21st and final stage of the Tour de France is from Montgeron through Paris to the Champs-Élysées. It’s a 103 km ride and when the roads are cleared for the race, classed as a sprint. If you’re competing with the Parisian traffic, however, your pace will inevitably be curtailed.

It’s in Paris that the excitement of the race builds to a peak, and where as a spectator you’ll find the best vantage points. Arrive in good time if you want a spot on the Quai d’Orsay or Pont Alexandre III; you stand a better chance in the grounds of the Grand Palais where there’s rather more room.

Bring my date to Club Chinois in Mayfair, London?

Glitzy, spritzy, sexy and highly entertaining are the words that spring to mind when I think back to my evening at Club Chinois last week.

Located on the lower level beneath the already well-established Park Chinois jazz dinner and dance restaurant on Berkeley Street, it’s an altogether different style of evening out.

The simple brown doors are held open by a curiously dressed door man and give no hint to the immediate change of scene once you enter.

Lots of deep red, plush fabrics, smiling faces, a world apart and reminiscent of a bygone age once lived during the 30’s in Shanghai. We followed the red carpet downstairs to Club Chinois where the shimmering space stretches out to the dimly lit yet dazzling dining area.

Club Chinois is the latest creation by Alan Yau, the gourmet maestro who produced diverse and highly successful establishments such as the Michelin-starred Hakkasan and Yauatcha, Soho’s Duck and Rice and, yes, Wagamama. Yau’s vision for Club Chinois is to get away from the jarring atmosphere of modern club culture. It certainly does that.

Once seated on a purple velvet banquettes aside a gold mirrored table, it wasn’t long before a lady wearing a trench coat and a pink bob hair-do indicated to say nothing. Then she whispered “have you brought the money”.

Beside her was an opium smoking vixen who passed by every so often, as did a pair of usherettes selling who-knows-what. All were smiling knowingly. It was ridiculous but so funny. And unexpected.

I double-checked and no this wasn’t a Mayfair speak easy – we were blending into the entertainment. Huge columns of gold leaves reached from wood floors to carved wood ceilings, while subdued lighting and well-mixed DJ music in between acts, all worked to create a highly ambient boudoir-style décor feel.

Food is delicious and as appetising as its heritage would suggest. The style was a blend of Chinese and French dishes that were ideal for sharing. It was a tad dark, so I had to get my iphone torch out to get a better look at the menu. I felt less embarrassed when I saw others doing the same.

Throughout the evening a tapas of entertainment come and went, sometimes a singer – a Sam Cooke sound-alike, or a sexy lady who comes out of a suitcase with an array of magic tricks and even a suggestive flamenco dancer.

It seems anything goes, entertainment-wise. But a word to the wise: it becomes more raunchy as the night wears on. If your date is faint of heart, choose an early evening dinner booking and move on.

But my date was enthralled. So after dinner, we gave up our table and we stayed on milling by the gilded bar for a long, heady night drinking cocktails (from £15 each). Mine was a Mochito and Manhattan served by suave men in white tuxedos. His, a tomato juice – he was driving.

From this vantage we continued to watch the show and chatted happily to others who, like us, had also slipped into a sort of nirvana.

Hoteliers: Please don’t banish all UK travellers from your resorts

There’s always been plenty of talk about protection for holiday-makers in case holidays go wrong. But now it seems that holiday providers need protection too; from UK travellers.

According to ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents) there has been a 500 per cent increase in sickness claims since 2003 and companies have been bombarded with tens of thousands of them in the last year alone.

Many of these have turned out to be fake claims fuelled by a bevy of touts and claims management companies (CMCs) who encourage holiday-makers to become dishonest, even coaching them about how to get the “evidence” they need to make a claim. This would include eating in a hotel simply to blame the venue for the supposed food poisoning.

People have reported receiving cold calls from claim companies suggesting falsely, that “a fund has been set up to compensate for deficiencies in hotel hygiene”.

Let’s face it, it was only a matter of time before this scam was rumbled. The day of reckoning has come and we Britons have been identified as the biggest culprits and even been dubbed the “the fake sick man of Europe”.

As Nick Longman, managing director of Tui – the parent company of Thomson and First Choice – so succinctly said: “it’s totally embarrassing”.

Mr Longman, who was the first to create a black list of fake tummy bug claimants, said: “A hotel will have customers from four or five markets of Tui and it will only be the British Tui customers who are complaining.”

Recently a hotel in Greece fought back. One British couple from Darlington found themselves facing a £170,000 counter claim by the Greek resort hotel after making a food poisoning allegation. The couple later withdrew the claim saying that they only did it when contacted by a claims company.

The industry is now toying with ideas to deal with this “British problem” and this may well result in banishing UK travellers from all-inclusive resorts leaving all of us with far less choice – and having to dole out more dosh too; remember how bogus whiplash claims made insuring our cars more expensive?

Spanish hoteliers have come out fighting saying that bogus claims by British tourists have cost them £42 million. It turns out that the Costa del Sol, Costa Blanca, Costa Dorada and Benidorm have seen the highest number of scams.

In the meantime the Hotel Business Federation of Mallorca wants Brits barred from popular all-in breaks saying that if the compensation culture is not stamped out it will only allow UK sun-seekers self catering and bed and breakfast accommodation.

The group’s president Inmaculada Benito told Spanish newspaper Diario de Hora: “The only way to address this once and for all is by taking drastic measures.”

Since spring 2016 travel firm Tui has recorded around 15 times more illness claims than in previous years. They are typically worth around £3,000 to £5,000, sums that are often more than the cost of of the actual holiday.

But this has a knock-on affect as the operator has to revert to the hotels to claw back some of the money paid out. Naturally this leads to friction leaving hotels feeling hard done by, unsupported and reluctant to welcome UK visitors.

Operators such as Tui and Thomson are now inclined to stop selling to the British market. Tui’s Nick Longman, said “There’s a distinct risk that if this carries on as it is unabated, the hoteliers will say to us either ‘We don’t want to work with the British market at all’ or ‘We’re not going to offer you all-inclusive’.”

Thomas Cook’s UK managing director, Chris Mottershead, also warned that the scam could lead to the end of such holidays. ”It’s a very serious situation because it has the effect of stopping all-inclusive holidays for the UK market,“ he said. ”It has the potential of putting hoteliers out of business. They will stop British customers coming into their hotels.”

I applaud the effort made by ABTA, the Association of British Travel Agents who have launched the “Stop Sickness Scams” campaign urging the government to legislate in order to curb the incidence of bogus claims.

Easy money for one, means banishment and higher holiday prices for all.