Posted in Travel, places to visit, mini-adventures

Ladies who spa: A weekend of luxury at Appleby Manor Hotel & Garden Spa

Appleby Manor Hotel & Garden Spa

Sometimes ladies just want to pamper themselves (even ‘crazy chicken ladies’ who wear wellies and clean out hen coops like myself!) And after 18 months of lockdowns and Covid restrictions, my friend Caroline and I decided to take advantage of a special offer we spotted – three course dinner, bed and breakfast, a 25-minute spa treatment and use of the spa facilities. For a four-star hotel, it was surprisingly good value.

The venue was Appleby Manor Hotel in the Lake District, the Eden Valley to be precise. Even though the Lakes aren’t far from me, this was a location I had never visited before. Our treatment was at 3pm and we met at 12.30pm, assuming we would have plenty of time, judging by the distance. It was just as well we met early as the M6 was busy with traffic. What a difference to earlier in the year and last year during the lockdowns when roads were silent. After a brief stop at Truckhaven (which seemed to have more much personality than the bland but convenient service stations of these modern days), we continued on the journey up the M6 and off an A road, where, not too long after, we came across Appleby. Noting the castle, we made a note to come back the following day. But right now we had an appointment to make.

Appleby Manor Hotel & Garden Spa

I was delighted with my first sight of Appleby Manor Hotel. It was a beautiful old house surrounded by Eden Valley countryside. Lake District mountains could be seen in the distance. It’s also not far from the North Pennines and Yorkshire Dales. I thought the building was very old, especially when we went into the reception and was greeted by traditional, cosy surroundings. It actually dates from 1871 (hence the name of the 1871 Bistro) and was built for a wealthy solicitor, John Alcock Heelis. Its original name was Garbridge House.

We beat the traffic to get to our beauty treatment in time. Mine was a Skin Booster Facial and was very relaxing. My face felt so refreshed and revigorated afterwards! We had an allocated time of 5pm to 7pm to use the spa facilities, so after a relaxing cup of tea in our room, we ventured to the Garden Spa. Because of the time allocation system, it wasn’t busy. I suspect this was put in place because of Covid but as someone who doesn’t like crowded places at the best of times, it suited me very much indeed.

After the weekend, I looked at the website and it explained that each heat experience is taken in turn ‘to slowly raise your body temperature whilst you relax, repeating the holistic and therapeutic benefits of water and heat’. Apparently the experience started with the ‘gentle heat’ of the aroma salt inhalation room and finished with the ‘intense heat’ of the sauna.

Well, there was no order to what we did. We enjoyed the pedidarium (a warm bath for the feet), sauna, salt room, jacuzzis (although we did have trouble finding the start button. Thankfully another spa user helpfully came to our aid!) One jacuzzi was in a courtyard garden which was a very nice setting indeed. The hydrotherapy pool with its water jets and bubble pools was our last stop.

After our lovely afternoon, we got ready for our meal at 8pm. The menu had prices attached but as our meal was included in the special offer, we didn’t have to think about the cost. (Although the bottle of wine wasn’t included).

After a leisurely breakfast the next morning (we could have spent more time in the spa facilities during our second time allocation but we decided not to), we set off to explore Appleby.

Appleby

As it was Sunday morning, everything was closed but the castle was open. It was a little pricey to look around, so we only paid to look around the grounds. One day when I have more time I will look around the castle as I think there’s a lot of history here.

Appleby Castle
Appleby Castle

At one point, Caroline pointed and said, “look a squirrel”. I expected to see a cute but frequently seen grey squirrel but was excited to see a rare red squirrel darting off. Phone camera in hand, I followed, taking a photo where, if you squint, you might just see him or her.

Spot the red squirrel…

The 27-acre grounds were beautiful and it was very pleasant indeed to wander around. But all good things come to an end, as they say, and we were soon back on the road. First a stop at a chocolate shop in Orton (we had thought there may have been a chocolate factory open to look around but it was closed) and then back to our favourite service station – Truckhaven, where to mark the occasion we bought Yorkie bars.

People in the UK may remember that Yorkie bar adverts once had the tagline ‘it’s not for girls!’ (For some reason, it seemed to be marketed at truckers). Well, in this case we decided to defy gender norms and enjoy a delicious bar of chocolate. The right ending for a weekend of luxury I’d say!

Fact of the Day

The Keep (which can be seen in my photos) is one of the few intact Norman Keeps in Great Britain and at over 900 years old is the oldest part of Appleby Castle. The castle has been held by Kings of Scotland and England.

https://www.applebycastle.org/

Posted in Nature, Travel, places to visit, mini-adventures

A trip to Butterfly World

En route to Pembrokeshire in Wales, Simon and I enjoyed spending time in a wondrous world where the unusual, exotic and vibrant reigned supreme. We humans were giants wandering through a cloud of fluttering and gliding butterflies, who went about their everyday business of travelling, feeding, mating and often simply resting.

It was well worth stopping off at the Wye Valley Butterfly Zoo at Ross-on-Wye, near the Welsh/English border. After paying a reasonable entry fee at the reception-shop, we were loaned laminated identification sheets about butterflies and a magnifying glass.

As it was October, and nearing the end of butterfly season in Britain, Simon enquired, “Will we still be able to see them?”

“Oh yes, there’s plenty to see,” was the response.

Malachite butterflies come from Central and South America and have green markings underwing
(hence the name)

Before we entered the world of butterflies, we watched a short information film (did you know a butterfly landing on you meant good luck?!). It also urged us to look in the mirror before we left to make sure there weren’t any butterflies clinging on to us. We then walked through the plastic screen into a warm, tropical environment, akin to a hot greenhouse with pathways and tropical flora. The minute we stepped onto the path, we were met by bright blue butterflies fluttering by, so many I lost count.

“They’re blue morpho,” I concluded, looking at the info we were given. I’m disappointed that despite the morpho being the most numerous and the most iridescent, I hadn’t taken any pictures of their radiant colours. Typical!

The vivid blues were the most obvious but as our eyes acclimatised to the world of butterflies, we encountered more camouflaged varieties flying past or sitting among the foliage, most notably the almost transparent glasswing. This unusual variety comes from the rainforests of Central and South America. They lay eggs on nightshade plants, which glasswing caterpillars eat. Needless to say, both adult and caterpillars are poisonous.

The Flame – reminiscent of a superhero’s name – was another colourful type, while a group of blue morphos (the under side can be seen in the picture below, with their owl-like eye spots) were spotted gorging on a ripened banana feast. Yum!

We saw pairs mating, butterfly eggs and young caterpillars – many of the important stages of life for these fascinating insects could be seen in this hot house. I have no idea what variety of butterfly the eggs and caterpillars are but I think it might be great yellow mormons mating?

Alas, it was time to leave and say our farewells to the beautiful creatures, making sure we didn’t take any new friends with us. It was an uplifting experience and it made me realise how butterflies always bring a smile to my face – and judging by the other visitors, I’m not the only one.

I think this may be a Mexican longwing… If I’m wrong, please correct me!
Pictures: Simon Hunter

Fact of the Day

Lepidopterans (butterflies) pass through four distinct stages in their life cycle: egg, larva, pupa and adult.

The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Butterflies and Moths by Sally Morgan
Posted in Reblog, Travel, places to visit, mini-adventures

A Dirty Dancing Weekend in Llandudno – Part 2

This is the second part of my look back at my Llandudno theatre trip, back in 2017. 🙂

Facts of the Day

1. Llandudno Pier (2,295 feet/700m) is the longest in Wales.

2. The pier was opened in 1877.

3. Alice Liddell (the inspiration behind Alice in Wonderland) first holidayed in Llandudno in 1861.

Will They Make It? 

It was a lovely meander up the hill of Great Orme via the quaint heritage tram. We had, it was thought, enough time to fit in this charming journey before our 7.30pm trip to watch Dirty Dancing.

Our brief trip was a reminder we were here for such a short stay and a pity we would have to miss many attractions, such as the intriguing bronze age mine which we passed by.

Here’s what we could have gone to see…

A quick changeover at the half way station (and if you do have the time, do check out the history on the display boards) and we boarded our second tram for the next chapter of Great Orme.

At the summit were scenic views, a visitor centre and wildlife garden. Alas, no time to ponder. A few quick snaps and back on board, along with a much larger, noisier crowd than the one which came up with us.

But Llandudno, we have a problem.

The driver’s voice broke into pleasant thoughts, telling us there was a failure with the emergency brake on the tram below us. It would only take 10 minutes, the driver told us.

Those minutes stretched…

The horn honked. Our hopes raised.

The horn blasted again. Our hopes raised again.

But we weren’t going anywhere.

We speculated on whether we had enough time to leave Great Orme (by tram or by foot), get changed, eat at a restaurant (devouring fish and chips on a seafront bench in our theatre finery was rapidly becoming an option) and find Venue Cymru, our destination for Dirty Dancing?

The horn tooted again and this time we were off. A cheer resounded in the carriage. If wine was available we would have raised a glass. Cheers!

After a tasty fish and chips meal at the restaurant across from the tram station, we quickly dressed and headed down to the Promenade for a scenic walk beside the sea towards Venue Cymru. With the sea, wide prom and beautiful grand buildings, I would rate it as my number one walk to a theatre of all time.

And as for Dirty Dancing? Magnificent. So much energy and passion. How wonderful it would be to dance like that. Or just be able to dance…

Back to Zumba for me!

(Pictures showing various scenes of Llandudno, including a delightful pot of tea for two at the Alice in Wonderland inspired Lemon Tree cafe)

Posted in Reblog, Travel, places to visit, mini-adventures

A Dirty Dancing Weekend in Llandudno – Part 1

This is another look back at a fun weekend in Wales, back in 2017. It actually fits in quite nicely with my fourth blog anniversary as this is one of my first posts! 🙂

Facts of the Day

1. The tramway up Great Orme is the only cable-hauled street tramway in the UK.

2. It’s a one-mile journey to the summit of Great Orme (which is a country park and nature reserve).

3. Back in 1901, the tramway was built. In 1902, the first paying passengers travelled on the tram.

We gazed out through the open air ‘window’, a cold breeze chilling our faces and hands. In the distance, behind us, as we climbed steadily up Great Orme,  was the under-rated splendour of Llandudno Bay. We passed pleasurable scenes of hardy sheep grazing, hikers clambering up along the path, pretty little lopsided cottages, a long-defunct bronze age copper mine…

Yet there was a tense feeling in the air as we changed trams at the half way station. A cloud had emerged over the journey…

It started from my friend’s desire to watch Dirty Dancing. The popular musical had already been and gone at theatres closer to us. But it was due to be performed at Llandudno, some three hours away. Too far just for a day at the theatre, but we could always make it a weekend adventure?

Following our Thelma and Louise style Road Trip (perhaps with fewer exploits than our Hollywood duo, unless they too queued for half an hour at a Costa Coffee for a tea and toastie), we arrived at our seaside destination.

Llandudno, nestled between scenic hills and a beautiful sea backdrop, is a town of interesting historical buildings, Alice-related statues (apparently Alice of Wonderland fame used to holiday here), quaint cafes and independent shops galore, and a close proximity to stunning Snowdon.

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Five minutes away from our Victorian hotel, which was the old town hall no less, was a path to Great Orme. And a tram for those who were pressed for time or too weary for the climb. We opted for that as we had an appointment at 7.30pm with Johnny and ‘Baby’. Calculations told us that a 45-minute round-trip, leaving at 4.20pm, gave us plenty of time to get back, get changed, eat at a restaurant near the Venue Cymru and be on time for the show.

So we thought…

To be continued….

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Pictures showing journey up Great Orme

Posted in Travel, places to visit, mini-adventures

The Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond – a wee Scottish break: Part Three

Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond was the highlight of our short break and on Sunday we had the full day to discover Luss and Balloch, which sit next to the lake. Loch Lomond is the entry point to The Trossochs National Park and not that far from the urban metropolis of Glasgow (roughly one hour and 20 minutes by car). Saying that, when you’re at Loch Lomond, thoughts of city life are very far away indeed.

And if you’re ever asked what’s the largest loch in Scotland, Great Britain even, the answer is Loch Lomond (27.5 square miles). This is handy to know if you’re taking part in a pub quiz. It also crosses the Highland Boundary Fault, a geological zone which divides Scotland into the lowlands and the highlands. So many interesting facts about such a beautiful lake!

The village of Luss was simply idyllic with old fashioned cottages, cafes and shops. These cosy little homes were actually built for slate quarry and cotton mill workers of the 1700s and 1800s.

Our path from the large car park outside the village took us to the water’s edge where we could see the pier. The views of Loch Lomond were absolutely stunning, the mountain of Ben Lomond can be seen from the shore.

Judging by the numbers of people enjoying the loch, it’s a popular place and no surprise.

We had a delicious cream scone and pot of tea at a lovely little cafe, served by a waiter wearing a kilt, and explored the little parish church.

One fact I didn’t know until later was that the Scottish soap Take the High Road was filmed here in the 1980s and 1990s. I used to watch it as a teenager with my parents many years ago. I’m happy to find that episodes are now on YouTube so I can rewatch episodes when I feel nostalgic.

River Luss

We strolled along the beautiful river and came across a charming faery trail for children. Luss is home to faeries and their homes can be seen here. I didn’t come across any faeries today but maybe given more time, who knows? 🙂

The Faery Trail

I was asked by blogger The Electric Contrarian if Loch Lomond had its own distinctive critter living in the waters? Nessie of Loch Ness is famous but she’s not the only unusual inhabitant possibly living in Scotland. According to Wikipedia, there are possible monsters lurking in several of these lochs. The website https://livedinopedia.fandom.com/wiki/Loch_Lomond_Monster says: “Two descriptions exist, one of a plesiosaur, the other of a large crocodilian, unique of Scottish lake monsters.” Is there a large crocodile living in Loch Lomond? Or an ancient plesiosaur (a large extinct marine reptile with a long neck and small head, a bit like how we imagine Nessie!) Whatever the case, on this occasion I’m afraid I didn’t see Lomo the Loch Lomond Monster, but again, maybe next time? 🙂

Balloch is a recreational wonderland for families with a Sea Life Aquarium, boat trips, stalls, a shopping complex, among other facilities. There were plenty of woodland trails dotted around and an aerial Go Ape type adventure which my godchildren may have loved but wasn’t really my thing, or my mum’s for that matter. Sculptures were placed around the trails too.

Maid of the Loch

We saw the Maid of the Loch, the Clyde-built steamship my mum went on a school trip many years ago. It’s actually open to visitors to look around but looked closed when we were there, maybe because of Covid. The Maid was built in 1953 and was the last paddle steamer built in the United Kingdom.

That was our last excursion and the following day, after our little three-day trip, we headed home. After the last year, I feel less like taking little breaks for granted. We don’t know what’s around the corner and so, when the little things feel good in life, I like to make the most of it.

Posted in Travel, places to visit, mini-adventures

The Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond – a wee Scottish break: Part Two

The view from Ayr

Thanks to two previous holidays – one with the school and another with my family, both times at a Butlins Holiday Camp – I tend to associate Ayr with seaside fun. But because of the Covid restrictions only recently lifting, there felt a sense of shops, cafes and restaurants in the town centre just starting to reopen again. A sense of emerging from a spell of hibernation.

Ayr is not just about sea, sand and shops though. There’s a lot of history here too. The Scottish Bard Rabbie Burns was born in nearby Alloway in the 1700s. And the story of Ayr itself stretches back to 1197, when the Scottish king, King William the Lion, demanded a new castle should be built between the Rivers Ayr and Doon. Eight years later in 1205, the same king established Ayr as a royal burgh and market town.

Ayr

There were a lot of curious heritage signs which illustrated Ayr’s long history. One such noted the oldest house in Ayr, an early town house, tucked away off a side street. It was called Loudoun Hall and dated from the 1500s. A plaque said Mary Queen of Scots stayed here in the 1560s.

Loudoun Hall
Loudoun Hall history
Loudoun Hall
The oldest pub in Ayr

Unlike Loudoun Hall, the thatched-roofed Tam O’Shanter Inn is situated prominently on the High Street. It’s the oldest pub in Ayr, dating from 1749, and could well have been frequented by Rabbie Burns himself. (One of his poems is actually called Tam O’Shanter, was his eponymous character drinking here?)

An old passageway takes the visitor from the main street to the 1650s Auld Kirk (parish church). Before one enters the churchyard, there is a lychgate with iron grave-covers. A sign explains that these were to deter body snatchers which were common in the 1800s. Why would anyone want to steal bodies of all things? Well, these grave robbers wanted to sell them to medical schools. More grisly horror than Butlins fun but fascinating to discover.

There’s a lot more to see in Ayr, we only had a quick preview over a couple of hours, but we still managed to fit in a wander along the wide esplanade, enjoying the scenic sea views. After all, this is why tourists come to Ayr in the first place.

Ayr

Our next stop was a little seaside town called Troon, famous for its golf course. We didn’t have loads of time so the choice was explore or have a bite to eat. But it was lunchtime and our stomachs won the battle – it was time for food. We ate at the popular Swan Restaurant where we had a very reasonably priced lunch and dessert. The potato soup was nice but a little too spicy for me personally. The apple pie was scrumptious. Mum was rather startled to see the rather large size of her trifle dessert! My stomach was pleased but I will have to venture back to Troon to explore the town in more detail.

Loch Lomond was the highlight of our short break and the next day we would have the full day to discover Luss and Balloch, situated on the shores.

To be continued…

Posted in Travel, places to visit, mini-adventures

The Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond – a wee Scottish break: Part One

Loch Lomond

Originally my trip to Bonny Scotland was going to take place at Easter, but the holiday was delayed to the end of July thanks to the coronavirus restrictions at the time. With all the uncertainty going on, I wasn’t sure if the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon would even let us through the border from England to Scotland! But a confirmation letter from National Holidays arrived 10 days before our leaving date and it looked like there would be no further rules during that time that would stop us from going.

I had a conversation with a friend beforehand and she agreed that before her ‘staycation’ holidays to Bath and Glasgow, it was difficult to get excited too far in advance just in case rules changed. But the week before my trip, I started to look forward to it more, even more so as I hadn’t been away since September last year.

Gretna Green piper

We stopped off at Gretna Green, just over the Scottish border and off the M74. And who did we see but a tartan-clad bagpiper serenading a wedding party celebrating their happy day. He then played a celtic tune for us coach trippers and other travellers.

It was no surprise to see a wedding taking place as Gretna Green is famous for being a venue for the Big Day. It was the go-to place for young eloping couples. Back in 1754, the 1754 Marriage Act came into being and this banned couples under 21 marrying in England or Wales without the consent of their parents. However, in Scotland no consent was needed to marry so it became quite the location for ‘runaway weddings’. The couple we saw getting their photograph taken looked older than 21, and as they had a happy gathering surrounding them, I suspect this was no traditional Gretna Green wedding of the olden days.

I have fond memories of Gretna Green from my childhood when my family would stop off en route to caravan holidays at Wemyss Bay and Edinburgh. True, the most vivid memory I have of this famous and historic location is of cuddly soft toy haggises (and yes, my parents did buy me one, a small slate-grey hairy round blob with stuck-on pretend eyes, it’s probably still lurking somewhere in my parents’ house). I also remember the tartan-costumed dolls with glassy eyes in plastic cubes, I had one of those too. Alas, there were neither of these to be found on this occasion. (We only had time to visit one store so maybe the iconic haggises and dolls were somewhere else?)

The Museum

The old blacksmith’s shop museum was still there, albeit closed, as were various eateries and shops. The museum houses the oldest wedding anvil in the world. According to the museum’s website: “It is protected by a glass case near to the original marriage room. View this precious historic artefact that is now legendary: legend has it that if you touch the Gretna Green anvil it brings you good fortune in affairs of the heart”. The Blacksmith’s Shop was the first venue couples would come to in Scotland and the blacksmiths (or ‘anvil priests’) would conduct the marriage ceremony.

The Sculpture Garden opened in 1994 and was opened by Britt Eckland. The most notable and impressive is The Big Dance. The weathering steel structure shows two hands clasping and stands at 13 feet tall.

One of the sculptures at Gretna Green
Our hotel

Our hotel, Adamton Country House Hotel, was located near Prestwick. It was an unusual mixture of grand and historic – a late 1800s sandstone red mansion built for an industrial magnate – and a plainer grey-white 1980s extension.

Adamton Country House Hotel

The hotel has a lot of history packed in its 100-plus years and the grounds – which go back even further back in time – even more so. The land belonged to the Monastery of Paisley and, according to a sign in the hotel, a house has been on the site since the 1100s. It seems one of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s children was hidden in this location (not sure of the circumstances) and apparently the mansion even has two ghosts called The White Lady and Old Tam! During the mid 20th century, American servicemen stayed at the venue when they were stationed at Prestwick, one of these men was called Clark Gable.

Despite the grandness of the old section, the hotel isn’t posh inside but is more functional and practical. But our holiday was very, very reasonable so I am certainly not complaining about a lack of super deluxe facilities! It was just wonderful to get away. The hotel is set in a beautiful remote setting. On the one hand, this meant fewer options of an evening (although the hotel did have a bar). On the other, it was very peaceful which I appreciated. We also had two friendly neighbours nearby, one of whom I have taken a photo of.

One of our friendly neighbours

And now we could look forward to our day trips, including one to the Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond.

Posted in Reblog, Travel, places to visit, mini-adventures

When in St Albans… Do what the Romans do

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Back in 2017, a friend and I enjoyed a trip to the historic and fascinating city of St Albans. Like many of us, I haven’t been away much this past year so thought I’d revisit the places I’ve been to, at least in a virtual way!

For the weekend, my friend and I were ladies of leisure… with a hefty dose of culture, history, luxury and relaxation.

It’s rather apt that the Romans enjoyed their Baths, St Albans is synonymous with that era and we stayed at Sopwell House, a spa hotel on the outskirts of the city.

The hotel obviously wasn’t around in that era (although it’s fun to think of the Romans in their togas mulling around, eating grapes in the spa area), but it still has a fascinating history.

Dating from the 1600s (the earliest reference is 1603 in the deeds as a newly built house), it was later leased and developed in the 1700s by a master mason who worked on St Paul’s Cathedral. Two centuries later, in 1901, Prince Louis of Battenberg leased the country home – his daughter Alice later became mother to Prince Philip.

Fast forward to present day where it is now a hotel.

We travelled by train from Preston, changing at London Euston. One stop on the tube from Euston took us to London St Pancras and our third and final train to St Albans City.

There are two train stations in St Albans. City is a 10 minutes walk from the city centre. St Albans Abbey is situated between our hotel and the city centre, about 15 minutes each way.

We had a pleasant wander into town, stopping for lunch at Gail’s Bakery (lovely soup, very busy) and passing through the bustling street market, and then to our hotel. The route from City station to city centre to residential suburbs to countryside takes about 45 minutes altogether. But to drive or take a taxi will only take 15 minutes or so.

The country road took us to a sweeping driveway and a grand white building. We had arrived. Even as we walked into reception, our senses were captivated by aromatherapy aromas from the spa. A doorman politely greeted us as he held the door open, the ladies at reception were very helpful and attentive, and our first floor room was easy to find.

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And oh the room! What a room. It was a twin room, beds were spacious and comfy and there were the usual TV, wardrobe, bedside tables…

… And a settee, two armchairs and a table with a plate of two slices of marzipan cake, a bowl of strawberries and a bottle of water with two glasses. This was the life for us!

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Overlooking this scene was a window facing a picturesque country scene of fields and a large house.

The bathroom was clean and modern. To remind us we were in a spa hotel was, hanging up in the bathroom, a robe and slippers.

Our dinner that evening was in The Restaurant (no, I haven’t forgotten the title, that’s its name 🙂). When a pianist is playing, you know you’re in a classy venue. We had two waiters, a sommelier (wine) and food waiter. Both were very attentive and we didn’t have to wait too long for food. 🍷

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We had delightful little canapés and a cheese mousse with a French name I cannot remember. I had a white onion and thyme veloute (a little like a soup). My main course – Gloucester Old Spot pork slow cooked belly, cider jus, mousseline potato and glazed parsnips was delicious. C had pan fried halibut, broccoli puree, tender stem broccoli, nori gnocchi and herb emulsion. To finish off, I chose homemade ice cream while C opted for warm almond and pear tart.

The following morning’s breakfast was one of many choices – cereals, cold meats and salmon, toast, rolls, fruit, cooked breakfast buffet… (I chose melon and a small cooked breakfast while C had a cooked breakfast).

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After breakfast, we ventured out, walking to the city centre, past the intriguing remains of an old nunnery. Sopwell Nunnery is believed to have been where Anne Boleyn secretly got married to Henry VIII.

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The cathedral had a service on so we only saw part of it, namely the 85 metre nave (the longest one in England according to the cathedral website), the nave statues and the medieval wall paintings dating from the 1100s to 1500s. The cathedral dates from 1077 and you can see the Norman influence with the archways. Alas, we missed out seeing the shrine of St Albans.

There was a Christmas Market outside with wooden stalls, fairly small but very seasonal and cosy with festive tunes in the air. On our way back we each drank a mulled wine – the first of the year!

Now let’s head to Verulamium. A trip back in time, even further back than the cathedral. Our route took us past some of St Albans’ olde Tudoresque black and white houses, the pretty village of St Michael’s, complete with former water mill and parish church. The Verulamium museum in the village looked promising but alas, closed on a Sunday – or certainly this particular Sunday. The nearby park and the museum is actually situated on the site of the ancient Roman town of Verulamium – one of the first Romano-British towns to be built and, by AD250, the third largest in the country (London and Cirencester being larger) but we decided to go to the theatre instead.

We crossed a main road, entering the rural estate of Gorhambury. At the ticket booth, it cost £2.50 to enter what was an intriguing archaeological site. The path to the theatre – the only example of its kind in Britain – follows the edge of Watling Street, the main road built by the Roman army joining London to Chester. We could see the foundations of the dressing room (AD160), a town house, the base of a pier from an arch, the shops (the Romans enjoyed a bargain too), the stage… With the mind’s eye we could conjure up the sights of the Greek plays and pantomimes (actors dancing and miming rather than Cinderella and Aladdin) and, less charmingly, fights of the gladiators.

Our minds crammed with this new-found knowledge, we ventured back to 21st century luxury and enjoyed a pot of tea and sandwich at the hotel’s comfortable cocktail lounge. By the looks of it, it’s a popular venue for afternoon tea.  I thought the price for a sandwich looked a little expensive (£9) but what a sandwich. We chose salmon and cheese and they were on ‘doorstopper’ chunks of bread. And so tasty… And the crisps were not the standard potato crisps but vegetable ones. Crisp, crunchy, red-tinted beetroot varieties. Yum.

Later in the afternoon (after a rest from our massive sandwiches and our culture-packed time-travelling morning), we tried out the spa. Two warm, bubbly Jacuzzis, a hot dry sauna and steamroom and a swim in the pool (Sunday afternoon was a good time for us to come as it was relatively quiet so plenty of space to swim)… Bliss.

It was cocktail time, again in the, now candlelit, cocktail lounge. My Candlemaker was a Sopwell Signature and was ‘in memory of Sopwell Cotton Mills’, with brandy, port, cinnamon stick and caramel. C opted for a strawberry mojito. Both were delightful. By 8pm we were ready to eat in the Brasserie which is the same venue where breakfast was held. Two courses later of, yet again, sumptuous food, we simply had no room for dessert.

Unfortunately, the next morning our weekend as ladies of luxurious leisure came to an end and it was back to work and the real world. It was delightful while it lasted!

So long Sopwell House, St Albans and Verulamium! Until next time!

Visit http://www.sopwellhouse.co.uk for latest prices and deals.

Thanks to Sopwell House for our little taste of luxury, The Roman Theatre of Verulamium by Dr Rosalind Nibley for being so informative and St Albans for being a fascinating city.

I’ll be back – I haven’t explored the cathedral properly so a good reason to come back! 🙂

Facts of the Day – St Alban

1. St Albans is venerated as the first recorded British Christian martyr.

2. It is traditionally believed he gave shelter to a priest fleeing persecution.

3. He was beheaded in the Roman city of Verulamium in the third or fourth century.

Historical information also from St Albans Cathedral and Sopwell House websites

Posted in Environment, Nature, Travel, places to visit, mini-adventures, Walks

A nature stroll through Grimsargh Wetlands – one of Lancashire’s newest nature reserves

Grimsargh Wetlands – The Island Lake

Grimsargh Wetlands is one of Lancashire’s newest nature reserves, having been created by transforming three decommissioned United Utilities reservoirs into a fairly small (it’s a 30-minute one-mile stroll around the reserve) but highly important nature reserve. Back in 2003, it was designated a Biological Heritage Site but it was in 2017 when it was formally handed over to the parish council. Grimsargh Wetlands Trust now runs the site.

The Island Lake

We hear much of a housing crisis for people, but there is also a ‘housing crisis’ for nature as humans take away more and more wildlife habitat so when I hear of new nature reserves being formed or current ones being protected, it gladdens my heart. I first heard of Grimsargh Wetlands through a newspaper article this year after the Grimsargh Wetlands Trust, which maintains the reserve, received a £10,000 grant. This inspired me to pay a visit.

It’s only a few miles away from Preston, in the village of Grimsargh but, after parking in a side street, off the main road, we were unable to find the reserve at first. There appeared to be no signs but, strangely, once we left, we kept coming across signage! (Isn’t it always the way?)

Annoyingly, we forgot binoculars but we still saw geese and swans with the naked eye. On the website it says there is a colony of ringlet butterflies and a possibility of hearing the distinctive curlew or glimpsing roe deer through the reeds. Bats have also been spotted here too.

The Mere

Directions on the internet stated it was at the back of a new housing estate. We found a path and followed, crossing a field. I think we took a wrong turning early on but our encounter with a group of children and their teaching assistants confirmed that we were heading in the right direction – especially when we came across a hide in front of The Island Lake. This is a shallow lake with mudflats. Following the path around, we came across The Fen. The Trust is hoping to create at least three ponds and increase the extent of reed beds in this marshland. There are also plans to grow more wildflowers at the reserve, especially by the viewing platforms.

Our walk took us back to the road and it was now when we noticed signs to the reserve!

We took another turning, away from the main road towards The Mere, another reservoir turned lake. Here we saw volunteers carry wooden boxes – tern nests – to an island on the lake. They were hoping terns would come to live and breed there. Interestingly, one of the volunteers said that Preston Docks – an urban location – has a colony of terns.

The reserve is next to the former Preston/Longridge railway embankment. I learnt that Longridge stone was taken from the quarries in Longridge, a small town near Grimsargh, to be transported to Preston and further afield.

It may not be the largest reserve but its habitat will be of great importance to wetland birds and other wildlife. And it is a very pleasant scenic walk for us humans too.

The Island Lake

For more details, visit: Grimsargh Wetlands | A Haven for Wildlife

Watch stunning drone footage of one of Lancashire’s newest nature reserves, which is being opened up to the public | Lancashire Evening Post (lep.co.uk)

Posted in Nature, Travel, places to visit, mini-adventures, Walks

Secrets of Preston: Conway Park

A riverside walk
Conway Park
The entrance – and exit – to Conway Park

Preston is full of surprises. In a previous post, I’ve told of my Highgate Wood mini adventure. A woodland I had walked past many a time and never once got round to venturing in until this year. At least I had heard of that particular beautiful spot but Conway Park was a place I had never even heard of. And when I did hear the name, for some reason I got it into my head that it was an area of open space, maybe a park for children to play, a grassy field with play equipment to one side. And that would be it. Fun for children, respite for parents but not of particular interest for walkers and explorers of secret nature havens and mini beauty spots.

Work being done on The Village Parklands

But one day, meeting up with a friend for a local walk, she told me about a map given to her by someone she knew. On it was our local area and mapped out was a walk. Conway Park was mentioned.

‘It looks like our normal local walk ‘, my friend said. And it did. But we set off anyway, following the map. Everything looked familiar until…

‘I think we go right here,’ Caroline said.

And that was when our usual suburban trek turned into more of a mystery trail. For there at the end of that cul-de-sac of houses was a signpost and, behind it, a park.

Conway Park

The sign said Conway Park. There was a path to the right and one to the left. We turned left and followed the woodland trail past a sports pitch with a pavilion, and then along a river.

A riverside wander

We came across a sign for a new 80-acre nature reserve/public open space, The Village Parklands, being created. I love it when I see natural spaces being protected or created instead of being destroyed.

The Village Parklands

We continued our walk along the river and finally ended up along a narrow wooded path, ending up at a different part of our usual walk! We had wandered past the public footpath many a time, never realising the secret behind it. As a child, I had a thing about secret passageways, and here was one I was discovering as an adult!

A secret passage …
The Friends of Conway Park, formed in 2015, is made up of members who work for the benefit of the park. The park itself is owned by Preston City Council. Currently the Friends has a crowdfunding campaign  (50K by May fundraising campaign) to improve the children's playground, create a dry standing area for watching football, and a new path along the length of the park. The park will eventually join up with the new Village Parkland.