Discovering a small corner of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex
The remarkable Horton Tower looms down from the hill opposite as I turn into Drusilla’s Inn car park.
This eye-catching mysterious 18th century red brick folly was thought to be used as an observatory, stargazing in the Dorset night sky.
The Inn, a traditionally thatched Wessex free house, started life as workers’ cottages. It built around the same time as the tower. The pub’s perfect setting, having uninterrupted views of the rolling Dorset countryside, actively invites me to discover more about the area.
Needing an energy boost prior to exploring, I entered the inn by the small cottage door bringing me into a cosy bar leading to an attractive round shaped restaurant.
The food offered everything I was looking for, good healthy portions of home cooked and locally sourced served with a cheerful smile and friendly banter. The menu was varied, old favourites often with a modern twist.
I chose an appetising starter of local smoked mackerel followed by scrumptious honey and soy breast of chicken stir fry, all attractively presented.
Drusilla’s is a great pub with a character – all in keeping with the surrounding Wessex landscape.
It has a local community feel too. It is well known for hosting an August charity event – ‘Steam up’. This lively weekend features steam engines (stopping off on their way to the Great Dorset Steam Fayre) – live music, real ale and hog roasts.
Surrounded by pastures of grazing sheep, it is not surprising that it also offers quirky accommodation in the form of Shepherd’s Huts – one minute walk from the pub. These have altered since the first shepherd huts which appeared in the countryside in 1596 – not sure they would have had recognised the luxury of king sized beds and en-suite facilities. A great idea for a rural experience.
There was a warm soft breeze as I ambled across the adjacent fields and downs to explore the tower. The ancient landscape has changed little since Hardy’s time, so fitting that it appears in the classic 1967 film ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’.
Horton heath has a curious place history as it was here that James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, disguised as a shepherd, was captured in a ditch following his defeat at Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685.
To me great country inn’s such as Drusilla’s are intrinsically linked to the local area as they are intertwined with the history and secrets the landscape has to offer.
St Helena is a small island with a big history. Founded in 1502 it was made famous for hosting Napoleon’s in exile.
It is now about to start a new chapter with the opening of their first airport in 2016.
This 47 square mile volcanic island is a UK Overseas Territory situated in the South Atlantic. It is one of the world’s most remote destinations being 1,200 miles from the nearest land mass off the West coast of Africa.
Currently getting there is by a five day high-sea adventure on the last serving Royal Mail Ship in service, which as much an experience as the visit itself.
St Helena has stunning natural beauty and a contrasting spectacular setting. From the exterior, it is largely formidable volcanic terrain. The interior boasts contrasting lush emerald green vegetation. Making some area resembling moon landscapes and in the undulating green pasture of the interior – you could be back in Surrey.
According the St Helena Development agency there are approximately 1500 visitors at the moment – this is expected to quadruple in the next ten years following the airport completion.
Currently there is one modest main six bedroom hotel plus a few guest houses and a spread of self catering accommodation. There are plans afoot to build two exclusive 5 star hotels with a 110 rooms to accommodation the new visitors in 2016.
The islanders have is mixed feelings about the social and economic changes the airport will bring. I visited five years ago and found it a delightfully unspoilt. A British time warp, as it had a relaxing, safe, friendly and slow pace of life.
“We are really keen to get the word out about St Helena and come see it before the planes arrive!” Gillian Moore, a restaurateur on the island.
Denmark’s most northerly destinations – Aalborg and Skagen
I was woken early by bright morning light, signalling the beginning of my spring holiday at the very top of Denmark aptly named, ‘the Land of Light’. The sunlight seemed to gain extra brightness as here it bounces off the Baltic and Northern seas
The vibrant city of Aalborg in North Jutland is less than 2 hours flying time from Gatwick.
My wander through the city’s cobbled lanes revealed a fifteenth century monastery, cathedral, castle and a fine collection of Viking monuments.
In contrast the modern lively new waterfront is home of the spectacular new Utzon Centre, an iconic building designed by the world-famous architect, Jorn Utzon – designer of the Sydney Opera House. It is in typical of his raw style and use of natural colours. Not to everyone’s taste but well worth viewing.
The Danes take the use of their local food very seriously. I tucked into the typical Danish delicious Smorrebrod, open-handed sandwiches of local herring and snow crab,
They take their drink seriously too. Famous for its aquavit and beer the city has a fun ‘Beer Walk’. Joined by many Norwegians I was given a specially designed beer glass and walked between city centre pubs tasting the local specialities.
Leaving the city lights I had an easy drive north to the contrasting destination of Skagen to find the wildness I was looking for.
Nearby at Grenan, the most northerly tip of Demark, the Baltic and Northern (Kattegat and Skagerrak) seas meet. It is fascinating to see changing mood of the restless seas as waves collide.
In June and July it is a trendy holiday spot frequented by young Danish royals. In the spring, bird watching, walking and cycling are all the possible activities on offer and if you are really brave winter swimming.
Rita, a resident, told me she swims daily in the North Sea along with many fellow enthusiasts, some well into their 80s. She organises an International Winter Bathing Festival there every January – anyone interested? How cold must that sea be?!
The migrating sand dunes hold their own secrets as the shifting sands have buried whole villages over the years and left a lone church tower stranded on the landscape. It really is an extraordinary place.
Guide books certainly have changed. This rather stern looking black and white cover photo of women dressed in national dress would have not encouraged anyone to visit. However, the 50’s and 60’s were the golden ages of driving; great cars, MG’s, Austin-Healeys, Triumph TR’s – little congestion, wayside cafes – the open road.
“Why don’t we replicate and recapture the excitement of travelling in our 1960’s MG and TR6 classic cars?” said friends. “The freedom of the road, – the adventure!”
The idea grew, took on legs or should I say wheels. We planned to explore the area in convoy. A variety of hotels had been booked, raincoats, tee-shirts, shorts had been jammed into the small space available in the cars.
Using the guide book as our master plan, we gingerly headed for St Malo on Brittany Ferries. The car immediately needed some last minute tinkering prior to boarding – all part of the fun.
The suggested itinerary took us on country lanes, twisty roads and through normally quiet villages. It was a Saturday; a hive of activity as Tour de France was due to arrive the next day and there was many village wedding celebrations. The cars were liberally sprinkled with confetti by the time we reached Vannes.
The circular tour took us to some wonderful unspoilt beaches and historic cathedral towns in the south. The highlight though was the remarkable northern pink granite coastline which led us to wild beaches and rocky outcrops.
The hotel rooms and facilities have certainly improved over the years to match our modern expectations; however they still offered good old fashioned service.
Brilliant blue sky, the heat from the road, seagulls’ squawking overhead and sadly the exhaust fumes from the car in front all sum up our classical Brittany road trip. The weather matched our memories of 1960’s summers – hot and sunny the whole week.
We recreated the childish joy of picnicking alongside country streams with traditional Breton delicacies. I can still the taste of the delicate crispy gallettes served with cidre.
Brittany really is timeless.