Monday, 3 December 2018

The city that's very much Alive After Five

It’s been a torrid few months for the UK high street, so I was very pleased to meet a man who’s helping the city of my birth to buck the trend…

An annual budget of barely £2 million may feel like loose change in an era when billion seems to be the new million. But for a small team in Newcastle it’s been enough to transform the life of the city centre.

It’s an achievement that’s just been recognised in the most emphatic way: businesses have voted by an overwhelming 88 per cent in favour to renew the city’s Business Improvement District (BID), whose third five-year term begins in April 2019.

When the BID was launched in 2008, it was on the back of a 67 per cent vote in favour; that rose to 78 per cent in 2013 and now the BID company, NE1 Ltd, is the most strongly supported of about 300 such ventures nationwide. It has also been named the best BID in Europe by the German Chambers of Commerce.

The Business Improvement District concept originated in Canada and revolves around the idea that businesses pay an additional levy so they can work together to improve trade. In the UK, businesses vote to pay additional business rates and, in the case of Newcastle, it’s an extra 1p in the pound.

The man who will steer the BID through its new term is Chief Executive Adrian Waddell, above, who joined the original NE1 team as Operations Manager in 2009, via the unusual career path of 25 years in the Army, followed by a degree in Fine Art. He moved up from Operations Director to take over the reins from outgoing Chief Executive, Sean Bullick earlier in 2018.

I meet Waddell in his office on the “top deck” of Milburn House – a Grade II Listed Newcastle office block, overlooking the castle, whose interior is modelled on an ocean liner.

After service with the Royal Artillery in Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands and Afghanistan, Lieut Col Waddell left the service in 2004 and returned to his native North East England with his wife, Corinna.

“I loved soldiering, but it was time for a change – my wife would have agreed to almost anything and so I found myself sitting in Kabul filling out UCAS forms for a Fine Art degree at Newcastle and, quite extraordinarily, they gave me a place.”

While studying, he set up a business dedicated to helping local artists to get their work displayed in offices, but trade dried up when the banking crisis hit in 2008.

When he got the chance to join NE1 Ltd early in 2009, it was as Operations Manager in a team of just three. “It turned out I was working with really interesting and talented people – it was all about delivery and making new and different things happen in Newcastle,” says Waddell.

“As a result of NE1’s initiatives and the way that we work in partnership with other organisations, we have allowed Newcastle to buck the national trend on the high street. That said, it’s a competitive environment and we are in a fight.”

The weapons that NE1 has deployed in that fight have been, says Waddell, defined by quality and ambition.

They’ve included opening a city centre marina, above, and a series of events, such as removing all traffic from busy Blackett Street to create a green “park” in the heart of the city for ten weeks in summer, featuring games and rides and family activities. Then there’s Restaurant Week, the Motor Show and Quayside Seaside, the city beach that now features nightly as national BBC link with sausage-dog walkers from the city, below. All told, the 2018 Events programme drew an additional 340,000 visitors into the city centre.

But the real game-changer has been Alive After Five, which began in 2010, when NE1 persuaded the majority of city centre shops to stay open every day until 8pm. “Alive After Five has been transformational for the city centre,” says Waddell. “It’s attracted 13.7 million additional visitors, which is equivalent to £839 million spending.

“Most significant, I think, is that it’s changed the behaviour of people using the city centre and it accounts now for 20 per cent of the city’s daily footfall.”

That in turn has led to 78 new restaurant openings, giving Newcastle the highest number of eateries per head of population outside London. And, refreshingly, the offer reflects a healthy mix of both national chains and locally-based operators. The city continues to add new hotel beds at a dizzy pace, as visitors flock to major sporting events, like four Rugby League Magic Weekends, or to three Ed Sheeran concerts.

Central to Waddell’s role is the continuous process of ensuring all key stakeholders – including two universities, a Premier League football club and a major teaching hospital – remain on board.

“We value the sense of scrutiny and the fact that every five years we get the chance to prove our worth to the city centre,” he says. “The whole renewal process keeps us very focussed on what we are doing, keeps our ideas fresh and ensures we are talking to our partners.”

The pay-off for institutions like the universities and the hospital is in helping to attract staff and, of course, students; ensuring they can all enjoy a better quality of life, with a vibrant city centre on their doorstep.

CGI of the new-look Bigg Market
For the future, NE1’s key focus is on strengthening links between the city centre and the emblematic Quayside. At the same time, a £1.6 million Heritage Lottery grant has helped a £3.2 million transformation of the public realm in the Bigg Market, once celebrated as young people’s drinking circuit.  A similar amount is being spent on Northumberland Street, the principal shopping street.

The public realm work has, in turn, helped to stimulate multi-million pound hotel and leisure investments by regionally based groups, including Malhotra, Ladhar and Tokyo Industries, which wants to create an event space and rooftop bar in the North Tower of the iconic Tyne Bridge.

All these, alongside external investment by such as German Motel One Hotels, and Ireland’s Dalata – whose new 265-room four-star Maldron Hotel, is the first in the UK – helps to breed confidence and achieve the wider goal of placing Newcastle firmly on the map of major European cities.

So plans for a major international convention centre across the river in Gateshead and a huge scheme to build the Whey Eye – Europe’s largest observation wheel – as part of major new attraction a mile downriver from Newcastle city centre, are just as welcome as investment in the heart of the city.

Says Waddell: “Businesses don’t pay much attention to political boundaries – success for Newcastle city is indivisible from success for Newcastle city region.”
  •  A version of this blog appears in the May issue of Flybe's magazine, Flight Time.
  • See also my author blog

Thursday, 16 August 2018

A right royal welcome

Classic double room at the Rubens
In the year of a Royal Wedding, I decided to pay a visit to a London hotel that prides itself on its regal pedigree…

With its proud address on Buckingham Palace Road, the Rubensat the Palace can feel justified in boasting just a bit of a swagger.

But it achieves in central London a level of guest intimacy and sense of belonging that are usually the preserve of a country house.

This is more than worth valuing, for nowhere in the UK is it easier to pay a lot of money for a lousy hotel room than in London.

At the Rubens, the good things began at the moment of my arrival – or rather even before it – as the bright and friendly receptionist demonstrated an uncanny knowledge of my likes and dislikes, including my taste in cocktails and my preferred newspaper. “It’s all the guest preference form you completed, Mr Abbott,” she reminded me, detecting my look of incredulity. I had quite forgotten about that special little touch.

Outside, the hotel reflects its regal nomination – it’s proud of being the closest hotel to Buckingham Palace – while inside it oozes both the best of modern design and tradition: I think there was one staff member on perpetual duty polishing the brass lift doors.

My room, however, was ultra-contemporary, though not in the annoying minimalist sense – and the décor echoed my favourite colour, as per the aforementioned preference form.  The bed was sumptuous, the free Wi-Fi efficient, the iPod station ready and waiting beside a hand-written welcome from the manager.

Unusually for a large hotel, each room is individually decorated, with hand-picked works of art and antiques.

This corner of London is handy for museums and galleries (including the fascinating Churchill War Rooms), not to mention trendy bars and restaurants. But why would you, given that the Rubens has recast its dining to offer a choice of the two-Rosette English Grill and the Curry Room, offering dishes from Durban’s Curry Box in the intimate downstairs space that used to be the Library Restaurant? Meanwhile, afternoon tea in the Palace Lounge remains an institution, while the Cavalry Bar has morphed into the New York Bar, complementing the brand new Leopard Bar, with its 200 whiskies and 30 champagnes.

To underscore the rich vein of pedigree, all meats are supplied by Royal Warrant holders, Aubrey Allen – so diners can boast that they ate like the monarch, too.

Although the wine list is extensive, the hotel’s pride is its close association with the Bouchard Finlayson estate, in South Africa, and I noted that the Rubens charity arm supports the Amy Biehl Foundation, which is involved in programmes aimed at empowering young people from impoverished townships in that country.

Corporate social responsibility extends outdoors, where the towering end wall was both a pioneer of the “living wall” concept, and, at 350 square metres, remains one of the largest in the capital.
  •  I was a guest of Red Carnation Hotels during my stay at the Rubens

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

No ordinary ghosts in sight

I make some some unexpected discoveries during a short stay at the Earl of Scarborough’s second seat – the four-star LumleyCastle hotel, above.

Lumley Castle must be one of the most familiar hotels in the UK. Thanks to magic powerful TV lenses it appears to tower over the Lumley End at the Emirates Durham County Cricket Ground, highly visible to international match viewers the cricketing world over.

In reality, its hilltop situation is probably half a mile away, even as the most enthusiastic crow flies.

Its vantage is on high ground between the River Wear and its tributary, the Lumley Park Burn and stands where Sir Ralph Lumley upgraded his manor to a castle in 1389, but was subsequently executed after seeking to overthrow Henry IV and the castle confiscated.

It was later returned to the Lumley family, ultimately passing to its present owner, the Eton-educated Viscount Lumley, Earl of Scarbrough [correct], whose “other” and principal seat is at Sandbeck Park, set amid Capability Brown gardens, in south Yorkshire.

Down the years it has been home to the bishops of Durham and students of Durham University but has been a hotel for the better part of half a century, most of those under the stewardship of the No Ordinary Hotels, alongside Coombe Abbey, in Warwickshire.

In that time it has become something of a regional institution, not least as one of the first venues in the country to stage Elizabethan banquets, which still remain a regular feature on its calendar.

It s a frequent venue for business events and business dinners, especially discreet ones and so, I might have ventured the few miles from my home in Durham City with the feeling I had little to discover about it.

In the interests of deeper investigation, therefore, I requested a room in the castle keep, rather than a courtyard room in the more recent Georgian extension, attributed to Vanbrugh, of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard fame.

Bedrooms in the castle transport you to a different world
 This, I judged, would significantly increase the possibility of brushing shoulders with one or more of the ghosts who reputedly haunt the gravity-challenging inclines of its higher corridors. There’s Lady Lily Lumley, allegedly murdered by Catholic priests in the 14th century for refusing to convert. She’s supposed to rise from the well down she was thrown and so terrified one of the Aussie team in 2005 that he ran to Reception in just his undies. The West Indian, even more perturbed, checked out early during their stay in 2000.

Or maybe we’d encounter the prankster ghost, Jack Black, who’s said to slide glasses off tables and hide guests’ belongings.
Our room overlooked the dene of Lumley Park Burn and so we took a walk in the parkland  – and what a treat: the largest expanse of wild garlic I have seen anywhere, and a tranquil haven in heart of the Durham Green Belt. Having supped gin and tonics in the beautiful castle garden until the sun dipped below the turrets, we returned to our room – probably higher than wide or long and yet as cosy as you could wish – before dining in the Black Knight restaurant.

This proved a quite exceptional treat, with near perfect starts of curried cauliflower soup and smoked goat’s cheese. I then chose a blackened salmon fillet and my wife the sirloin, both washed down by a very interesting French chardonnay-viognier.

The library bar is great little place to relax in the evening and it stocks the two best local gins: Durham and Poetic License (sic), from Sunderland, with its rich mix of botanicals.

Saddened at having failed to encounter either Lily or Jack, I paid a visit the following morning to Chester-le Street town centre and the parish church and former cathedral of St Mary and St Cuthbert and the small but fascinating Anker’s House museum next door dedicated to the sect of that name, next door.

The original church was established by the followers of St Cuthbert, who occupied the site of the former Roman fort, whose remains are confined today to a small piece of exposed archaeology between the Sally Army and the community centre.

The church, though, is magnificent and I struggled to work out why I had never been inside before: there’s a gospel window, a facsimile of the Lindisfarne Gospels and one wall is lined with huge effigies, known as the Lumley Warriors. One of them them, fittingly, is said to represent the builder of the Vanburgh castle extension, which seemed a fitting place to end.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Victor Hugo used to buy his bread at my hotel…

Paris attracts more tourists than any other city in mainland Europe – more than 16 million overseas visitors last year alone. But choosing where to stay can still be bewildering…

There must be thousands of hotels in Paris – a huge proportion of which remain independently owned and run.

With the big chains you do know what to expect, but for character and a closer feel for the city, I go independent every time.

My most recent was the Hôtel du Petit Moulin, in the increasingly popular district of Le Marais. It is distinguished by its officially protected 1900 baker’s shop façade but this does no more than hint at its quirky, yet opulent interior.

I’ve stayed in many small hotels across Paris but, for me, Le Marais – which has been slowly transforming itself in recent years – is the best choice if you want a characterful with plenty going on.
Don't let the sign confuse you – the quirky exterior of l'Hôtel du Petit Moulin
What sets Le Marais apart from much of central Paris is that it remains largely unchanged, having not been reshaped by Haussman and his grand boulevards. Once the playground of royalty and aristocracy, Le Marais fell on hard times for more than a century until it was designated a conservation area in 1965. Its subsequent renaissance has gathered pace more recently.

All of the Hôtel du Petit Moulin’s 16 rooms and one junior suite have been individually conceived by the fashion designer, Christian Lacroix, and while some are bright and super-brash, my own was almost monochrome: a wallpaper pattern featuring castles, galleons and mariners and covering even the doors (which can be a little confusing!).

Teh bedroosm are a riot of different patterns!
In marked contrast, above the bedhead was a stylised night sky, complete with shooting star and moonscape. The air con was discreet. The bathroom shabby chic, with a large and inviting tub.

The cosy bar runs with an honesty box if no-one is around, and breakfast features croissants worthy of the hotel’s origins.

Guests also enjoy use of the spa at sister hotel, Le Pavillon de la Reine, also in Le Marais. Indeed this hotel is one of a set of three created by the Chevalier family, the third being Le Pavillon des Lettres, which I enjoyed on a previous visit.

The immediate area is home to some of the capital’s most enticing museums and galleries, including the Picasso gallery, which is currently (to the end of July) hosting an excellent exhibition on the story behind the artist’s iconic work, Guernica. The hotel will sell you a ticket to save queuing.

Just around the corner is the Carnavalet museum, celebrating the history of Paris, while the Pompidou Centre and Victor Hugo's wonderfully eclectic house (he's said to have bought his bread here) are close by.
Overnight rates, including breakfast, from €215 per room represent good value for the location and the rather special experience. 

Thursday, 22 March 2018

A sea view to die for and service to bring you alive

At art deco Saunton Sands Hotel we enjoyed some of Devon’s best sea views at a hotel that skilfully satisfies both family groups and couples…

The most exciting thing about arriving somewhere new after dark is the next morning – I felt like a child at Christmas as I drew back the bedroom curtains at daybreak.

SauntonSands Hotel enjoys a commanding position above Braunton beach
My “present” was the kind of sea view you dream about but rarely witness. Saunton Sands Hotel comfortably delivers on the promise of its website: “World class sea views that few hotels can match.”

Before me stretched five miles of sandy beach, backed by the rolling grassy dunes of Braunton Burrows. These are the focal point of the North Devon Biosphere Reserve – a Unesco designation that recognises the balance between a rich ecosystem and sustainable human activity.

Saunton Sands is popular with surfers, both with and without kites!
To my right, as I gazed south, robust Atlantic breakers provided a playground for half a dozen kite surfers. Yet the fearsome looking sea seemed respectful of the beach, as the waves spent their fury before edging quite gently across the sands to where the morning dog-walkers were out in force.

We’d chosen Saunton Sands, with its meticulous attention to art deco detail, as a base for exploring a slice of Devon’s north coast, which these days tends to lure surfers (with or without kites) more than it does families – or indeed, couples seeking a romantic Valentine’s break by the sea.

The hotel seems to have succeeded in squaring the eternal hospitality circle by creating a relaxed, indeed luxurious, environment in which both youngsters and empty-nesters like us can feel equally at home.

We happily shared the indoor pool (outdoors one, perhaps not for February!) with the families, before enjoying indulgent treatments in the spa. Though, in a nod to those looking for quieter down-time, the hotel’s new extended spa provides an adults-only outdoor deck and more treatment rooms.

There’s perhaps a very good reason why Saunton Sands seems to understand both its couples and families markets: it enjoys four-star pride of place in a wholly family-owned collection of 11 hotels and seven restaurants across Devon and Cornwall, named AA Hotel Group of the Year 2015-16.

Director Pete Brend, a third generation Brend Hotels man, puts it like this: “We try and treat everyone, whether customers or members of staff, as if they were family whom you would welcome into your home.”

These are no empty words: the barman shared his knowledge of local gins, while the waiting staff help us to create our “bespoke ice cream sundaes” in a dining room that effortlessly (once again) pleases both younger and older guests.

We can hardly wait to return: for the views; to explore the dunes; for the pretty thatched pubs and cream teas. But above all, to enjoy the hotel’s easy luxury and lovely, attentive staff.
  • We were guests of Saunton Sands Hotel, which is a little over an hour's drive from Exeter Airport
  • We flew to Exeter with Flybe
  • The immense beach overlooked by the hotel serves as occasional airstrip, including in the film, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, in which nearby Ilfracombe stood in for St Peter Port
See also my author blog.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

In praise of the Shropshire Hills in England's (fairly) wild west

When I was a kid we used to often bathe in the North Sea and cold rivers. Now such activity has a special name: wild swimming!

I guess that adding the  word “wild” injects the idea of a bit of free spirit, and so it was that I found myself enjoying said wild swimming in a small but quite perfectly formed lake – Boyne Water, a few miles from Ludlow, in the Shropshire Hills.

My companions in this brave autumn exercise were three journalists I’d invited to sample the delights of this wonderful area and our guide for day, a lady called Jules McRobbie, who apparently thinks nothing of slipping into the iciest waters in mid-winter .

I first met Jules a year ago, when she was organising a launch event for Shropshire Hills Art Week, in the lovely little town of Bishop’s Castle. Like many of those involved in tourism in the Shropshire Hills, she proved something of a human dynamo, full of ideas and energy – including crazy ideas, like swimming in water so cold it would make even a hardy Finn pause before diving in for her après-sauna.

The raw enthusiasm of Jules and others hereabouts is a big part of what I like about this slice of England, tucked along the Welsh border.

That I came to appreciate the special qualities of its rich and varied landscape, as well as its people, only six or so years ago is down to the same reasons shared by many who STILL haven't visited the Shropshire Hills. The area may be a playground for people living in the Black Country and other conurbations within an hour or so’s drive, but they are relatively unknown by the country at large. You might pass through on the way to Wales – and note that the countryside looks very nice – but too few realise just how great are the rewards awaiting those who take the trouble to stop and spend a few days.

My wife and I are typical of those who see enough on their first visit to want to return. In our case our first foray was for an Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild AGM weekend and we then returned in February 2014, when we chose a gourmet weekend in Ludlow for our honeymoon. Ludlow: a perfect small English town, blessed with lots of local shops selling local produce and, at that time, no fewer than three Michelin Star restaurants.

When, last Autumn, we spotted an opportunity to tender for a tourism project in the Shropshire Hills, we naturally jumped at the chance and were delighted to find ourselves working throughout 2017 with many wonderful hotel owners, restaurateurs and others to help develop a range of new tourism products, focussed on cooperation and sustainability.

It was to showcase a few of these new products – including a guide to wild swimming – that I found myself beside that alluring little lake. Never let it be said that, when I don my PR escort’s hat, I simply stand on thesidelines and chuckle at the discomfort of my charges.

So, was I suggesting that the world hotfoot it to the Shropshire Hills to go wild swimming? Well, however fond I may be of the area, I’m not going to suggest that the Shropshire Hills stand head and shoulders above other potential wild swimming venues. But I will say that those places where you can swim – listed on the new website that we are promoting – do have a quite special quality, not least for being generally quiet, secluded and just a little bit romantic.

The swimming trip came at the start of Day Two of our visit, which had begun with lunch and a brewery tour, courtesy of the Ludlow Brewing Company. This small but perfectly formed little brewery is just one of half a dozen in and around the Shropshire Hills and it epitomises Ludlow’s core message: drawing on the best of local craft expertise to create fantastic food and drink from local produce.

At Ludlow Castle – the striking venue for Ludlow’s biggest food and drink festivals – we clambered to the vertiginous battlements of the seat of the Dukes of Monmouth and once de facto capital of Wales. This is, as I said, border country and, as with so many borderlands, the border has slipped back and forth over the centuries.
Before us stretched the rolling farmland around the town, punctuated at its horizons by the various distinctive massifs of the Shropshire Hills. After calling en route at the delightful medieval manor that is Stokesay Castle, we enjoyed a Landrover tour of one of these– the remarkable heather-clad upland of the Long Mynd. Our host was the hugely knowledgeable Pete Carty, who goes by the rather grand title of Countryside, Gardens and Parkland Manager at the National Trust. The Trust owns the Mynd and its precipitous flanking valleys, including the picturesque honeypot of Cardingmill Valley, and Pete explained how, under its management, the number of grazing sheep has been cut since 1990 from 17,000 to just 2,000, with huge consequent gains for its distinctive flora and fauna.

Ludlow may be sans Michelin Stars at the moment, but the two-AA Rosette Cliffe at Dinham – our riverside destination for the evening – feels like it’s knocking at the door, with its beautifully and imaginatively presented seasonal local produce, relaxed atmosphere and attentive service from Ollie Brooks, son of owner, Paul.

Ludlow’s food treasures are its local producers, most of which are small, family concerns. The exception to the rule is the big and busy Ludlow Food Centre, just outside the town, where we met Paul Hill, Commercial Manager, and Jon Edwards, Managing Director. Here we were privileged to sample their “new” Shropshire cheese, revived from a 100-year-old recipe by head cheesemaker, Dudley Martin. The cheese is just part of the 50 per cent of everything sold that is made on the premises. Beef, lamb and Gloucester Old Spot pork comes from the 8,000 acres of the Earl of Plymouth's Oakly Park estate, along with a selection of game and vegetables. Blood orange and gin marmalade was popular with our gang.
Having enjoyed a hearty plate of some of the above, our next stop was well chosen: after collaborating with Wheely Wonderful Cycling on the idea of Slow Food Cycle Tour, what fun to work off those calories with a gentle backroads ride to the village of Bucknell, calling en route at the Grade II listed parlour pub (one of the last in the country), the Sun Inn, which, although just over the border in Herefordshire, is the brewery tap for another classic Shropshire Hills real ale producer, Hobson’s Brewery, over at Cleobury Mortimer.
More delights on arrival at the Baron at Bucknell. Last time I stayed here, owner Phil Wright had the diggers in on what had been the pub’s campsite. Now, the transformation was extraordinary: three wonderful cabins, all enjoying access to an exclusive natural swimming pool. With each boasting its own decking and hot-tub, this was very definitely the luxury end of the wild swimming experience!
That evening we made the short drive to Clunton Coppice to meet Stuart Edmunds, of Shropshire Wildlife Trust’s Pine Marten Project. Seen in the area for the first time in recent years in 2015, these elusive animals were thought to be extinct in England until the sightings here and, more recently, in Yorkshire.

Pine marten – picture by Stuart Edmunds
Armed with night-vision and infra-red cameras we set off in search of our elusive quarry. Unsurprisingly, we tracked down nothing more exciting than a muntjac deer and a Norwegian forest cat, belonging to a nearby farm. However, Stuart is planning more such night walks that will, in the future, be open to the wider public.
The following day began with a visit to the Shropshire Hills’ only vineyard, Kerry Vale, right on the Welsh border. This young vineyard’s wines are already medal winners and you can enjoy a tasting, as well as admiring archaeological finds, at the attractive little visitor centre.

Nadine Roach, our host at Kerryvale Vineyard
Then it was back to the top of the Long Mynd for another journey requiring minimal mechanical input. I watched delighted as, one by one, my charges were winched steeply into a perfect autumn sky. With the wind from the south-west and cloudbase at perhaps 3,000ft, conditions were perfect for gaining height above the steep flanks of the Mynd, before exploring more widely in the thermals.
Founded in 1934, the Midland Gliding Club is not only one of the oldest gliding clubs in the country, but one of the highest airfields – so (although in principle flying takes place here daily from March to November and at weekends in mid-winter) such good flying conditions in October were another good omen. Gliding remains one of the purest forms of flight, though you might say it’s been outflanked a bit in recent decades, first by hang gliding and microlight aviation and, more recently, by paragliding and paramotoring.
The great Amy Johnson was once a member of the club and features on some fantastic early film that you can find on the club website. Conscious of the need to attract more younger members and more women to the club, marketing guru Sarah Platt is a dynamic force striving to build a solid future for the club and its dramatically located clubhouse and staying accommodation. I was pleased that more than 66 per cent of those I introduced to gliding that day were young women!
Sabi – in the slipstream of Amy Johnson…
One the club’s sponsors is the Three Tuns Brewery, at Bishop’s Castle, so it seemed fitting that this should be our next stop, in the company of Steve Wilmer, Head Brewer, who regaled us with tales of the town’s history as a “rotten borough” in the 18th century, after Clive of India acquired the Castle Hotel and bought votes to ensure seat at Westminster.
Today’s landlord at the Castle is as warm and gregarious as I suspect Clive was mean and money-grabbing. Henry Hunter runs a super-friendly house, and we enjoyed afternoon tea with local artists who’ll participate in Bishop’s Castle Open Studios in June this year. The Castle also delivers real top-end pub dining, a great bar and fantastic touches, like a daily route for walkers and giant condiment pots in the shape of a bishop and a castle.

Our final day dawned with my “surprise activity” still under wraps and I was delighted to find Deb Alma, the area’s celebrated Emergency Poet, already stationed in the car park
… and receiving therapy from the Emergency Poet
with her converted ambulance. From this she gave consultations and “prescribed” poems to lift our spirits. Among my own “medication” was one by Brian Patten, about what makes cats tick. I didn’t know then that our own cat menagerie would be dramatically halved with the sudden death of Ralph, just a few days later.

“Take poems with a good single malt; put your feet up and cover yourself in a cosy blanket,” wrote the EP. That, though, would have to be for much later: first to Acton Scott Historic Working Farm, location for TV's Victorian Farm, and where you could so easily lose a day. I think the biggest hit with the team was the heavy horses, Clive and Joe, cared for by Simon Freeman. Though the newly hatched chicks came a close second.
Chicken therapy at Acton Scott, and heavy horse (below, right)
Another iconic attraction is the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre, at Craven Arms, where you can see a reconstruction of the Shropshire Mammoth, discovered in 1986 just up the road, at Condover, and some rather lovely aerial footage of the area. For us, it was also the ideal start point for us to sample the first stage of the new Heart of Wales Line Trail, with which I have a very personal empathy, having been involved in a similar venture based on the Settle & Carlisle Railway.

The idea uses existing rights of way to create a 150-mile walking trail between Craven Arms and Llanelli. At present, only the first bit, between Craven Arms and the Welsh border, at Knighton, is fully readied, having been thoroughly checked, fettled and waymarked by Shropshire Council’s Rights of Way team. Having previously been privileged to join the opening day hike from Broome Station to Craven Arms, today I could retrace my steps back to Broome, where we had parked the car, before catching the train to Craven Arms.

We were accompanied initially by Mike Watson, coordinator of this ambitious project since its inception. It was a fine walk, taking us across meadows, thourhg woodland and up and over Hopesay Common, a grassy upland, managed by the National Trust, that gazes down on sleepy villages, like Aston on Clun, with its ancient Arbor Tree.

For us, this is almost journey’s end – just another half-mile to the station. And, as we now near the end of our work in the Shropshire Hills, I reflect today that this bottom-up project is the epitome of everything we set out to achieve a little over a year ago – a walking trail that supports local accommodation providers and helps to sustain this dramatically beautiful railway – all while also giving walkers an easy route home. I’ll certainly raise a pint of local ale to that!
The team – from left, Katy, Sabi and Roger
• With me on the trip were Sabi Phagura, Katy Dartford and Roger Butler. You can read Sabi’s coverage here and here. I’ll add the others as they follow.