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.