A Devon Writing Retreat, and the River Cottage Canteen

Having gadded about the country for a bit, Tom and I booked ourselves into a Landmark Trust property in deepest Devon for the last week of our holiday.

© Jade Everingham

We discovered the Trust last year, and delighted in staying in the 16th century Swarkestone Pavilion for a weekend. No internet, no TV, no immediate neighbours… absolute heaven. We chose Shute Gatehouse near Axminster this time as it’s a bit bigger (it sleeps five), and being starved of space in our otherwise-lovely little London flat can get quite trying. It’s a very different kind of luxury to the hotels we’ve been staying in recently. More spartan, obviously, and Tom has been trekking over the not-inconsiderable hill to the nearest village every other day for supplies, but just as lovely in a different way. It’s wonderfully relaxing to be so isolated, and to have complete agency over our time.

Before arriving, however, we didn’t have time/ forgot to read the information pack, so spent one freezing night wrapped in blankets and staring at the smokeless-fuel-only wood-burner (there was no smokeless-fuel provided), and then a second freezing night wrapped in blankets staring at the it-only-lights-with-fire-lighters-you-idiots fuel we’d bought (we didn’t read the instructions on the smokeless-fuel either, so didn’t get firelighters). Finally, on our third day, we united smokeless fuel and firelighters and got the wood-burner cheerfully flickering with warmth.

© Jade EveringhamHere’s me drinking a mug of very strong Devon coffee, very, very happy that I finally managed to get the fire lit.

© Jade Everingham(Skirt from Really Wild, jumper French Connection, shoes Hobbs)

© Jade EveringhamTom finally managing to usurp me in front of the fire.

© Jade EveringhamWe also finally managed to get a photo of the two of us together where we don’t look like serial killers. Which is a plus.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time staring at the ceiling so far. Not out of yellow-wallpaper madness, but because it is captivatingly beautiful. Although the gatehouse was built by William Pole in 1560, when he bought the nearby Shute Barton, the Jacobean plasterwork that currently adorns the ceiling was acquired more recently from the North Devon County Council. Don’t worry, it was taken from a house in Barnstaple that had been demolished in the 1930s, it wasn’t ripped from a National Trust house on the sly. “So… how long would it take to do that?” Tom asked, feigning an innocuous tone. Sigh. “I could do it. It’s only plaster. But it would take me a long time to perfect the design, and I’d have to look into the process of creating moulds and securing it to the ceiling as I don’t know enough about it” I replied. “Oh, that’s alright – you’re good at that sort of thing” he responded. I guess I’ll be ornately plastering all the ceilings in our house when we finally buy one then. Could be worse.

© Jade EveringhamBy daylight

© Jade EveringhamBy lamplight. Apparently the pomegranates, roses and thistles symbolise the newly united dynasties.

Anyway, to celebrate the long-awaited immolation of our bricks of desiccated peat (smokeless-fuel), we decided to head into Axminster to have lunch at the River Cottage Canteen. A pilgrimage, and one which did not disappoint.

Tom and I are big fans of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottaging exploits. Particularly the early series, A Cook on the Wild Side,  in which he transformed a landrover into a travelling kitchen, flirted his way around the UK and slept under a boat. This was TV gold, and should not readily be forgotten, as these were the days when Hugh was experimenting with youthful, wide-eyed enthusiasm, and his meals often turned out wonderfully shit. It’s great watching him eat them.

Hugh and a FishHugh with a fish (image source here)

His focus on conservation, organic produce and back-to-basics philosophy really appeals to us, and I’ve often mentioned his recipes and ideas in former blog posts (though of course I’ve given them my own twist.) As we happened to be staying nearby, therefore, we decided to pop in.

River Cottage Canteen and Deli is located in bustling Axminster. The space is airy and light, and the metal lighting-frame suspended above you contributes to  a sense of being in a particularly clean barn (a barn also full of cider, which sounds like the best kind of barn doesn’t it). The menu was varied, and impressed us both, which is pretty good considering we are a carnivore and a vegetarian-who-eats-crustaceans team.

© Jade Everingham

For a starter I went for the Portland Crab on Toast, Boiled Egg and Tartare Sauce. It looked great when it arrived, crisply presented and a nice combination of colours and textures, and it tasted even better. Tom had the Higher Hacknell Ham Hock and Fava Bean Broth, which disappeared before I even had time to enquire after it (it was good, evidently). For a main I chose the Double Baked Goats Cheese and Walnut Souffle, with Spiced Celeriac, Pearl Barley Broth and Parsley Pesto. It was almost too good; mind-blowingly well thought-out and detailed for a vegetarian dish. Tom had two starters for a main course, the Portland Crab on Toast and a Smoked and Cured Venison with Hazelnut and Apple Dressing.  Despite preferring his meat red Tom actually favoured the crab dish, which is testament to its excellence. Although I enjoy good food I’m really not a ‘food person’, so I’ll sum it up without being too effusive : every aspect of the meal – the flavours, the textures, the presentation, the service – was of the highest quality.

It’s a beautiful part of the country, and will be even more spectacular when the floodwaters recede. Hopefully before too many more buildings are swallowed by the rising tide.

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Gang Warfare: The Sisterhood Versus The Tomboys

Arya Stark

I just read Christa D’Souza’s article on ‘The Sisterhood’ in March’s edition of Vogue, and it intrigued me. I know, I know, Vogue doesn’t quite count as a book, but I found the ideas touched upon in the article interesting, so I thought I’d share them with you lot.

The general premise is the rise in popularity of the ‘girl gang’ – women-only parties, pats on the back on Twitter etc. The article is more an exploration than a clear thesis, but it draws on the theories of a number of high-profile and outspoken women, so it’s a useful springboard to the discussion format that blogging allows.

My initial response was to instinctively wrinkle up my nose at all of this, and treat it with suspicion. It feels dangerous to say it, in the current climate, but I cannot help but be wary of modern feminism. One of my ten year old students said to me the other day that he didn’t want help with his homework from anyone, as if he did well it wouldn’t really be his achievement, so he’d be more pleased just to do okay and know that he’d done it all on his own. That’s sort of how I feel about feminism. Women are NOT the weaker gender, but saying that we need extra help only proves otherwise. I’m sure other people will disagree, in fact I’m certain of it, but my opinion is based only on my own experiences.

I was always a tomboy when I was growing up, preferring to climb trees and generally do dangerous, challenging and muddy things outside rather than play at tea-parties and dolls. Not that I didn’t like wearing pretty dresses! I still remember the battles I had with my mother (between the ages of 4 and, oh, 18?) when I wanted to wear my best clothes out to play in, and she knew they’d come back covered in mud, permanent paint, and generally completely destroyed. Being sporty and active, getting straight back up if you fall over, even if your knees are bloody, having strong opinions, subverting or ignoring societal and fashion rules… these maxims are what make a tomboy, and in the world we live in today none of these prevent you from also being feminine. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for company, it’s usually going to be boys who want to risk their lives for adventure and build dens all over the place.

I do have a handful of close female friends these days, but they’re all tomboys in their own way. They’re tough. And I love them for it. I’ve found them all over the place, often in the strangest places, so we’re not a gang as we’re all very different people on very different journeys. We all demonstrate characteristics that society typically positions as being very male though, and I think we understand each other better as a result of sharing these. Our drive, our eagerness to try new things, our ability to switch off our emotions in order to get the job done, the fact that we typically prefer male to female company!

Tom was very surprised by this side to me when we first met, and I think he still struggles to get his head around my being more comfortable hanging out with his male friends than with other women. I just find them easier to talk to! They’re not playing games, or being driven by neurosis; they won’t take offense at my many unintentionally-offensive comments, but see the intended humour instead. My gang-that-isn’t-a-gang of tomboys are the same, but we’re thin on the ground. Girly-girls often seem perplexed by us, even frightened. My instincts tell me that we’re doing just fine being ourselves, but I am vaguely curious about the benefits of being one with the sisterhood.

I’ve been organising my ‘hen do’ recently with my maid of honour (well, I’m organising it, she’s sort of cheering me on), and the issue of girls-only came up. We paused for a moment, a little stunned to realise that there wouldn’t be any men present (male strippers will NOT be invited, as I’m keeping the precise address we’re staying at under lock and key. Unless Steve Backshall wants to pop in for a cup of tea. And then, you know, if he wants to strip that’d be okay). Then I realised that, actually, I’m sort of looking forward to being part of a girl-gang, just for a weekend! I’ve never done it before, so maybe it’ll be fun?! Katy looked at me suspiciously when I voiced this thought.

One point that struck a chord from D’Souza’s article was voiced by Laura Bailey, regarding her dependence on “a virtual creative female sisterhood via Instagram”, which provides, amongst other more utilitarian benefits, “support for a friend’s cause or a new business venture, and [says] I like what you stand for, I like your style, I like your pictures (I just like you)”. Women are the experts at this form of support.  Not that we need validation for who we are, but it’s quite nice isn’t it. I see this in blogging all the time, when likes and thoughtful comments are left by people you’ve never met. They’re not just left by women though; many of the detailed and thoughtful comments I’ve been sent were from male bloggers.

What do you think? Do you have a girl-gang, or does the very idea make you run for the hills? Do women provide each-other with a very special kind of support, or are we stronger as individuals? Are we giving support to strangers more readily today than the internet-is-the-death-of-society brigade would have us realise?

The Imaginarium

© Jade Everingham

A fairly new shop has opened in York, and I love it. It’s like Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, but for grown-ups. Or at least for those of us children masquerading as grown-ups.

Despite already being wrapped up in the magic of trotting through the past as you wander along York’s twisting, medieval streets, when you come across The Imaginarium you can’t help but pause. The gleaming gold carousel horse in the window makes the child in you say STOP. That’s quite far enough. We’re not going another step until you let me go inside. The giant hare in the other window whispers an invitation to you to jump down the rabbit hole so, with a quick glance to either side in case you’re never seen again, you step inside.

© Jade Everingham

The interior is both beautiful and enchanting; full of shadows, treasures and jewel-like colours. Like Alice in Wonderland, you can’t help but skip between displays, gasping in delight and coveting everything you see. The paraphernalia associated with the science of magic and the fictive fantasy of it is everywhere, inviting you to lose yourself in the world of The Imaginarium. Glass bottles for potions, bell jars for displaying specimens, candles, incense and antique books, ornaments both utilitarian and decorative of toads, snails, owls and toadstools, ferns bursting through the walls as if an enchanted forest is trying to break through from the other side. Ibride’s theriocephaly trays adorn one wall, creatures caught half-way through enchantment, and  sculpted human hands reach through to hold out silk scarves for your perusal.

© Jade Everingham

© Jade Everingham

© Jade Everingham

© Jade Everingham

© Jade Everingham

There’s a wide spectrum of prices, with items for sale ranging from gift cards to unique sculptures, so you’ll be able to afford something whatever your budget. With a wedding to pay for I had to draw the line at paying £600 for one of Mr. Finch’s giant toadstools (I will be back one day though, never you fear). I was particularly enamoured of the potion bottles with labels like Aphrodisiac, Love Potion No. 9, A Solution for Everything, Joy Undiluted and Elixir of Youth (I would fill them unimaginatively with alcohol, obviously, but they’d make a great talking point when brought out during a Night Circus style dinner-party.) The miniature bell jars also took my fancy, and I loved these snail sugar-caddies.

© Jade Everingham

© Jade Everingham

The staff are lovely, and ever so well turned out (I wish I could wear a velvet jacket to work).

If you find yourself in York, do make sure you pay a visit to The Imaginarium. Get lost for half an hour, and purchase something magical that will make you smile every time you see it. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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Impressed by the Prestonfield

I’ve mentioned The Prestonfield before, so I’m very glad to finally be able to show you around.

© Jade EveringhamThe main entrance.

© Jade EveringhamSomeone’s lovely leather luggage awaiting collection.

Built in 1687, this gorgeous manor house was originally the private home of Edinburgh’s Lord Provost. By the 1960s, however, it had fallen out of use, so was converted into a boutique hotel. It sits in twenty acres of gardens and parkland, at the foot of Arthur’s Seat, and the view from every window is breathtaking. With only eighteen bedrooms and five suites, you’re also guaranteed a personal service, and indeed the hotel prides itself on this. There are also a number of drawing rooms, complete with roaring log  fires, so even if you’re not a guest there are plenty of beautiful rooms to while away the hours over a glass of scotch or afternoon tea.

The first time we stayed at The Prestonfield it started snowing just as we drove up the main driveway, and we spent an incredibly romantic couple of days there. It was a wonderful introduction to Scotland. The best part, however, was being upgraded to a suite completely free of charge! There’s a big difference between the £170 price tag for a double room, and the £375 you usually have to pay for a suite. The complimentary bottle of Champagne that awaits, the his and hers bathrooms, the separate drawing room just for hanging out in…

© Jade EveringhamHere’s Tom looking very pleased with himself for finding us the most incredible hotel to stay in.

© Jade EveringhamAnd here’s me discovering the complimentary champagne and chocolate truffles.

SO. This time, we thought we’d see if it would happen again. We booked a normal double room and, lo and behold, on arrival we were indeed upgraded to a suite again for free! Apparently this is perfectly normal at The Prestonfield if they’re not already booked up, so if you’re able to go midweek and off-season then for goodness sake do.

© Jade EveringhamPosing in the Ben Franklin suite (shoes L K Bennett, dress French Connection).

© Jade EveringhamThe bedroom.

© Jade EveringhamLounging around on the chaise lounge.

© Jade Everingham

Not a renaissance oil painting, but the reflection on one of the windows of the room’s interior.

© Jade EveringhamPosing in our private drawing room. The leopard print carpet and draped-satin wallpaper may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly makes an impact.

© Jade EveringhamThe Yellow Room

After we’d changed for dinner, we sat by the fire for a while in the ever-so-decadent Yellow Room. All gold and yellow Baroque patterns and black leather sofas, the log fire sent shadows darting around the room, and we were able to write in peace for a couple of hours. A fantastic range and array of scotches are also available, and the knowledgeable staff are happy to offer advice based on your preferences whenever they pop in to stoke the fire.

© Jade EveringhamI took a couple of photos the next morning, so you could see all the gorgeous details.

The Prestonfield is also the location of Rhubarb, a very decadent and very delightful restaurant. It’s located in a pair of oval rooms at the heart of the hotel, each hung with a large gold chandelier. The walls are papered in bold red, black and gold stripes, black candles glitter on every table, and oil paintings watch over you as you explore the menu. It put me in mind of dining in the captain’s cabin on board a pirate galleon.

© Jade EveringhamAlthough it looks like a mirrored reflection, the second chandelier you can see is actually suspended in the second dining room.

© Jade Everingham

© Jade EveringhamPoor Thomas, looking very tired!

The food was very impressive, and beautifully presented. We asked for a cheeseboard to be brought up to our room so we could relax, and this array of delights arrived soon after (hot chocolate for Tom, port for me). I can’t remember what all the cheeses were, but they all disappeared pretty quickly!

The next morning we skipped breakfast so we could have a much needed lie-in, and had tea and coffee in The Yellow Room instead after we’d checked out. As we were waiting for our taxi I spotted something through one of the windows, so I grabbed my camera and ran outside…

© Jade EveringhamCan you see them?

© Jade EveringhamPEACOCKS! Sunning themselves on the lawn.

© Jade EveringhamThis is clearly the king of the peacocks.

The Prestonfield was wonderful, as ever, and I’d highly recommend it. Even just the one night is worth it as a treat, especially if you’re able to go mid-week!

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Riding in Rivers and Afternoon Tea With the Brontës

The best riding is to be had in the countryside. Not pootling around Hyde Park with untrained lapdogs snapping at your heels, because they’ve had all intelligence bred out of them and think chasing a horse’s tail will have no skull-crushing consequences. Not going round and round in circles in a sand-school with ten other grumpy ponies trotting nose to tail. You can do what you want in the countryside.

My friend with horses, Hannah, decided it was high-time we went on a good three hour hack, and whispered The Water Meadows to me, like we were going to Shangri-La. For most people, this would sound crap I’m sure. A watery field would mean only surprisingly deep and unpleasantly freezing water pouring over the top of your gumboots, mud sucking off your shoes, and generally ruining any nice clothes you foolishly decided to wear. With horses, however, this means riding through water, and this is just about the most fun you can have on a horse.© Jade Everingham

Hannah and Padraig in the middle of a river (he is over 17hh, to give you an idea of how deep it is.)

Going very, very fast is also fun, jumping is of course fun, but if you consider the ratio of difficulty/ danger to pleasure, plain old riding through water is just as good. Something happens to a horse’s gait when they move through water. The extra energy they have to put into moving is transferred through the saddle and into you, and you get an extra bounce. Not the sort that propels you from the saddle or rattles your bones either, but the sort that makes it feel like you’re riding a dinosaur that’s running. You can also very often see them thinking ‘seriously? You want me to do what?’ Are you completely insane?’  which is very, very funny. Then they get in and realise how much fun it is, and you’re off.

© Jade Everingham

River ponies. Me on Sampson, and Amy on Freckles. I wish I knew what Sampson was thinking here… caption suggestions are welcome.

The river here has swollen with flood water, and is now even deeper and much wider than usual. Riding through flood-water is particularly exciting, as the landscape has temporarily changed. Solid ground has suddenly become water, and wading through it on horseback feels like you’re exploring new territory. You can tell that the horses find it interesting as well – they’ll snort at it with their ears pricked up, and plunge forward once they’re sure they’re not going to be attacked by water demons.

© Jade EveringhamSampson looking particularly disgruntled here. Shortly afterwards Amy made it to the far bank, but Freckles, presumably fearing he would be left behind (though this isn’t really logical as Hannah and I were chatting in the middle, completely stationary, so goodness knows what he was really up to), made a run for it and galloped back through the river at top speed. Amy was completely drenched but managed to stay on, luckily, as we were laughing too hard to fish her out.

© Jade EveringhamMy photography skills here. This is what happens when you try to take photos whilst sitting on a horse in a river.

Despite being a bit wet, quite muddy, and smelling distinctly of horses, Hannah had suggested we do something a bit different in the afternoon. We popped back to my flat to de-horse, and jumped in a taxi to the Renaissance Hotel. We had cocktails here for my Birthday, but they’re currently serving a Brontë-themed afternoon tea, so we thought we’d check it out and make an attempt at being ladylike for a change.

Billed as the ultimate Yorkshire Afternoon Tea, it is designed as a tribute to the famous writing sisters.  We started with finger sandwiches, of course, which included a Wensleydale and pickle option in honour of the Brontës’ love of the Lake District. These were lovely, though we could have done with more sandwiches and fewer cakes to be honest. We then moved on to Yorkshire puddings with mash and gravy, in lieu of the traditional scones, as often cooked by Emily Brontë (apparently). Hannah said these were excellent, though as they contained beef (not made clear on the menu) I had to take her word for it. It was a nice touch though, and made for a more interesting afternoon tea than the usual insipid affair that some hotels try to pass off.

Alongside these were delicious mouthfuls of pistachio cream, and then we moved onto the wonderful cake selection. A mouthful of Yorkshire Parkin (from an original recipe devised by the Brontë ’s faithful servant Tabby), Pontefract liquorice and chocolate cupcakes, some sort of mini tart thingy, and a Rhubarb Eton Mess which was definitely my favourite.

© Jade Everingham

Here’s me (accidentally looking sulky – I promise  I was enjoying myself immensely) wearing an Alice Temperley shawl.

© Jade Everingham

Hannah looking all fresh-faced and innocent (don’t believe it) wearing Hobbs.

© Jade Everingham

We also went for the Victorian gin cocktails, aptly titled Bramwell’s Ruin (Brontë brother Bramwell was an alcoholic) which were served in lovely 1920s coupe glasses. They were made from gin, sloe gin, orange bitters, rhubarb bitters I think, and… more alcohol. It was delicious, but very, very strong. 

Tom and I haven’t had a proper holiday for months, as even over Christmas we ended up having to work most days (emailing and organising tutors and clients on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Years Eve etc). As the first proper day of our two week holiday therefore, horses and afternoon tea made a wonderful start, so thank you Hannah for suggesting it!

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