Vindolanda, shoes and loos…

We were really sad to leave Horncliffe this morning. Trevor and Fiona are a lovely couple and run one of the best b&b’s we’ve ever stayed in. Anyone that offers you a menu for breakfast which includes porridge with cream, honey and a small slug of whisky gets my stamp of approval.

Though we were heading back to my Mums, we made a detour towards Hadrians Wall. Driving in the general direction of Bardon Mill and Housesteads, our detour naturally became ‘getting lost’. As luck would have it, we found a roadsign to ‘Vindolanda’.  This is one of the most outstanding excavated Roman sites on Hadrians Wall, if not in the north of England. It’s popularity was reinforced by the overflowing car park, in which we were lucky to shoehorn the car.

The reception staff were brilliant, chatty and enthusiastic. We grabbed a quick drink in the small cafe, while waiting for a guided tour. Our guide was knowledgeable and eager to answer questions, even ones from an obnoxious person who decided to try and prove he knew more than the expert.

We were shown how complex and expansive the site was. (There are still digs ongoing) Latrines for up to 25 people where strangely, leather shoes had been recovered. It was supposed that if you were using the latrine and your shoe slipped off, the last thing you’d want to do is search for it. However, over 6,000 leather shoes have been unearthed from the site (not all from the latrines), some of them in a remarkable state of preservation.

It’s a unique site, with a well laid out museum displaying the recovered artefacts and warm and welcoming staff. The only part the spoilt our visit was the weather, which had turned wet and blustery when we walked back through the site to our car. If you’re in the area it’s a must see.

It wasn’t too long before we arrived at my Mums and we quickly popped out for fish and chips. Tomorrow we’ve planned a visit to Beamish Open Air Museum. That’s over 1,000 years of history in two days….



A day on the ocean waves..

The boat trip to Holy Island was going to be a highlight of our trip. We found the excursion website to be impossible with which to book online, so arrived early at a packed Seahouses (at the rear of an overflow car park) and stood hopefully at the booking office window. “Sorry”, we were told, “it’s full”. She even rang and checked for us, then Neptune must have smiled on us, as the phone rang and suddenly they’d had a cancellation.

We mooched about to fill in the time till departure (sorry Seahouses but unless you want to stuff yourself silly there isn’t a lot to do) and then we assembled in the green ticket line. The weather was beautiful, the sea calm and we sailed out of the harbour, firstly for the Farne Islands and their extensive sea bird population, then Lindisfarne.

Truthfully, we were a bit deflated on exploring Lindisfarne. It has a certain mystique but also an eerie empty feel, which may have been caused by high tide and most of the tourists leaving before they were cut off. For the most part it was closed and far too late to easily get a hot meal. Ok, two huge toasted teacakes helped stave off the pangs of hunger.

We boarded for our return trip in gusting rain, which made the sight of Bambrugh from the seaward side even more foreboding. I think we could be referred to as ‘weatherbeaten’ when we got back to Seahouses and we decided to drive on to Berwick for a meal before returning here. We really enjoyed the day and it was an unforgettable experience, though for both of us it was something to be ticked off the bucket list rather than to be repeated.

Tomorrow, we drive back to my Mum’s. Though not before a diversion to look at Hadrians Wall and Corbridge.


In which Mr.Toad arrives in Duns..

It wasn’t until I studied a map the other night, that I realised how close we were to Duns. It may not mean much to my readers but Duns is the site of the Jim Clark Museum and given my past love of, and connection with motor sport, it was a must see. It really is super, though quite specialist. Only opened a few days ago, the new building hosts memorabilia from Jim’s remarkable career, his many trophies, a Lotus F1 car and a Lotus Cortina. It also has an F1 simulator, into which I was semi reluctantly shoehorned. I wish I could say I fitted comfortably (perhaps if I lost 10kg) and my skills are only up to two laps of Silverstone, crashing three times, including one which required a simulator reboot. It was great fun however and I’d cheerfully do it again. Perhaps it’s an incentive to go on that long promised diet..

Leaving Duns, we stopped in Kelso, having lunch in one the hotels on the market square. We wandered round after and noticed a stage set up outside the town hall. It appeared that we were present during ‘Civic Week’ and subsequently a quaint ceremony took place which I took to be a form of riding the bounds, a way of marking out the town boundary. There were lots of horses, a police car, an ambulance and a road sweeper, because after horses….

A short drive from Kelso is Floors Castle which exhausted my puns on carpet, lino and tiles. Sadly we were only allowed to see round the ground floor and strictly no photographs of the interiors. There were three super young guides, well informed and very approachable. It’s fascinating to walk round, especially as it’s still a family home. Sadly we arrived somewhat late in the afternoon, and didn’t have enough time to look round the walled garden and to have a coffee and cake. The cake won…

Tomorrow we take to the waves, looking for puffins, seals, dolphins and on Holy Island a sample of mead..Perhaps a ‘full English’ isn’t a good idea tomorrow morning.

62B or not 62B?….

We drove into Berwick on Saturday, not once but twice. I wanted to change my phone sim to a nano sim which would fit the new phone. However the Vodafone shop needed to scan my passport before this highly secure transaction could occur and of course I don’t carry my passport with me. Honestly, we have less trouble flying out of France.

Though Berwick is an attractive town and prettily situated on the Tweed, it is suffering from the high street malaise of empty shops. We found a long stay car park and almost immediately passed the above renumbered house, which tickled our zany sense of humour. It was a bit downhill from then on. Berwick isn’t unpleasant at all, it’s historic and has interesting buildings but hasn’t any ‘wow’ factor. Maybe it doesn’t pretend to..

We found somewhere for lunch which left us underwhelmed and we drove back to our B&B in Horncliffe, where we collected the passports and drove back to Berwick. The girl in the Vodafone shop sorted out the phone very quickly and pointed us to a cafe for some much needed coffee and cake. Mielle Patisserie is a bit of a hidden gem. Speciality teas and coffees (Espresso Bonbon, coffee on top of condensed milk) and super cakes. We’d definitely come back to Berwick for this place..

Today, we’d decided to visit Bambrugh Castle, which is really outstanding. We toured the interior and had a less than outstanding lunch in the cafeteria. However, the castle is really worth a visit…just take sandwiches.

It was early afternoon by the time we decided we were ‘castled out’ and despite a desperate need for indigestion tablets we thought we’d push on to Craster, further down the coast. Craster is famous for it’s smoked kippers, though we read some tourist info that nowadays the kippers are imported and only smoked in Craster. It’s a very pleasant town, with a tiny harbour and even tinier beach where two children seemed intent on paddling in freezing waves. We even found a cure for our indigestion, a cream tea at a charming little cafe..

Tomorrow we may cross the it too much to expect Nicola Sturgeon to welcome us in person??


Wallish Walls..

Yesterday was given over some shopping, of the clothing and hi tech variety. Susie was impressed by my Mum’s new tablet (not oral but Samsung) and I’ve updated my mobile to a Galaxy something or other. Sadly the sim card from my previous phone probably won’t fit so a visit to a Vodaphone shop is in order.

Today we moved on to the Northumberland leg of our trip. I’d decided we could stop in Rothbury for lunch on the way. Rothbury is very attractive town and the Turks Head not a bad place for ‘pub grub’. We wandered round a little after (mainly to walk off a huge helping of sausage and mash) then got back on the road to Horncliffe.

Driving towards Coldstream I passed a road sign to Wallish Walls, which made me wonder if it was twinned with Roofish Roofs or Doorish Doors. However, we made it to Horncliffe and are now comfortably cosseted in the Old Church. Yes, it really is an old United Reform Church, wonderfully renovated and converted into sumptuous bed and breakfast accommodation.

We had a short walk round and were struck by the unusual red shaded stone the houses were constructed with. Apparently, there’s a music festival here this weekend which will be interesting, though we are going to Berwick in search of a Vodaphone shop and probably lunch….

The wedding, the shops, the food, the drive, the museum.

The wedding was wonderful, a lovely ceremony (a civil celebrant, then a female rabbi with added elements of Iranian culture). Needless to say Tiffany and Amir made a stunning couple in a stunning setting, The Belvedere Lodge in Richmond Park with it’s panorama of London. We crept away after the wedding ‘breakfast’ but here’s a few photos from the day.

The day after, we had time to do a little shopping for our trip North and have lunch at Hallys which serves the most delicious burger with sweet potato wedges. After, we window shopped in South Kensington and had afternoon tea in the Daylesford Farm Shop . We also had a table booked in the evening at Nanban in Brixton, the brainchild of a Masterchef winner. Staff wonderful, decor quirky, great atmosphere, food a bit disappointing.

Unsurpringly, we were a little full after that day and had trouble sleeping. There was a reasonably early start on Tuesday to collect the hire car from Hammersmith and drive almost 5 hours to my Mum. Paulo kindly dropped us off and helped us lug in the suitcases, bags, cool bag, carriers and a cardboard box which Susie had previously left with Paulo and Dominic. I did ask the guy at Sixt if we could upgrade to a Ford transit, but quickly added that I was joking (he half believed me I think). The drive out along the A4/M4 to the M25 was surprisingly easy and after a couple of comfort and sandwich stops we were here.

Today we caught the park and ride service into Durham, carried out some essential bank business, called into Bells for fish and chips (because you have to when you’re in Durham) and had time to check out the new exhibits in the Oriental Museum. There was a small section of jade objects including the most stunning bowl, carved and polished to an almost Lalique opaqueness. The Oriental is becoming our Northern pilgrimage….another day of food and shopping beckons tomorrow..

Possibly Parson’s Green…

Firstly, apologies that there are no photos with the blog today. Not to protect the innocent but there simply wasn’t a subject worthy of a photo before we left France and things have been…well, let’s say full on since we arrived at Stansted…

We left France with our favourite airline Ryanair (there’s a touch of irony there) from Tours International (also some irony) after spending a comfortable night at a Campanile near the airport. The hotel is so new that it’s surrounded by a building site and I swear the paint on the walls was still wet.

I thought it was impossible to find an airport with a departure lounge smaller than Dinard, however Tours managed it. Nevertheless, we got through quite efficiently and were soon on our sleek, spacious Ryanair jet to Stansted (irony etc…) Our stewardess excelled in making garbled announcements and we thought she was perhaps Polish or Czech. It turned out she was Spanish…

We’d arranged an ‘executive car’ transfer to our friends in Parsons Green, which was about twenty minutes late and took 2 hours to drive 45 miles. How I’ve missed London traffic…

Our dear friends Dominic and Paulo have a wonderful, warm and welcoming home, in which we are staying for three nights. On Saturday evening we walked to a gastro pub for dinner. The food was lovely but we’d both forgotten how noisy a crowded restaurant could be on a sticky summers night in London. I think we were a little overwhelmed and quite tired.

So today, we will all attend the wedding of Susie’s stepdaughter, Tiffany and Amir. I hope there’ll be photos of that in the next blog…

Tummy says no….

It seems ages since we left Sare. Jean is a strange mix, charming over serving you breakfast but after paying the bill he couldn’t wait to get you out of the place. Though the house and area have lots of charm, I don’t think it’s enough to draw us back.

We managed to fill the tank and got on the road for Ile de Re. Charles threw a slight wobbly and had us trying to ‘turn round where possible’ but once we got on to the autoroute towards Bordeaux he was fine, in fact he seemed to nod off. But south of Bordeaux we hit a traffic jam, there must have been an accident as the autoroute was closed and had an hours tour until we reached the next junction. It threw Charles into a right tizzy.

So, we arrived here in the late afternoon. Gosh, what a wonderful hotel this is and St Martin de Re is really charming itself. I think it only took five minutes for us to decide this was somewhere worth returning to. Service here is exemplarary, the breakfast is yummy but special mention must go to the cocktail barman, Stephan. Great to talk to and he makes a mean mojito.

Our evening meal was in a very busy, touristy, but excellent port side bar. The portions were huge.

Today was probably the best weather we’ve had since coming away. Perfect for a wander round the town. We had a huge galette each for lunch and then couldn’t resist a whopper ice cream tub. Well it had to happen, neither of us could face going out for a meal tonight. We settled for a last short tour of the port and cocktails and nibbles with Stephan. I even had a Manhattan…

Tomorrow, we set off for home. This has probably been the most dissapointing trip from the weather point of view but the last two days have made up for it….I think my burnt head would agree…



South of the border…down Erratzu way.

Thankfully this morning was dry, there was even a hint of sunshine when we set off for our ‘international’ tour today. Three pretty towns, buy some wine, hop into Spain for a bit, then back into France, sounds easy doesn’t it? Actually it was, apart from the hairpins up and down the mountains.

We began at Ainhoa, a lovely small Basque village with white houses and red shutters. The skies were still mostly grey which muted the colours and sadly, I was impressed but not wowed by the setting. A quick walk round and on to Espelette, white houses, red shutters but additionally red peppers hanging on the exterior of the houses. Espelette has a pepper festival in the Autumn, after the pepper harvest, and well, it was a bit touristy….and white and red…

We had to drive a little longer to reach Saint Etienne De Baigorry where we hoped to buy some wine. We stopped and had a quick lunch in one of the bars, which for some reason was painted white with red shutters. I think it’s only fair to point out that some buildings are white with green shutters but it must be awkward giving directions. “You can’t miss us, we’re the house with the red shutters”.

After lunch (incidentally, the bar had some of the cleanest loos I’ve ever seen) we got directions and arrived at the ‘cave’ or wine store. Susie sampled some red and I, some white. Choices made, we bought six of each, plus a local cheese and got a free corkscrew from the really charming young manager of the ‘cave’.

Now, for the perilous mountain passes over the border. Well, I suppose that may be overstating matters but it was quite a challenging drive to the very top of the Col d’Ispeguy (672m) where in the parking area a bus had just disgorged todays load of tourists. It is a wow spot, though we only stopped long enough to take a few photos.

We wound our way back down the Spanish side of the mountain and Charles kindly took us on the road back to Sare. Crossing from Spain back into France we drove through Dantxarinea, which contains multiple roundabouts and multiple retail outlets.

After a couple of hours back here, we drove over to St Pee-sur-Nivelle for a lovely dinner at Ttotta. Yes, you read that correctly. I think originally it was called Totta but the signwriter had a stammer and it was going to cost too much to redo so they just left it as it was.

Well tomorrow, we drive to our last destination on the Il de Re. Yes, it’s by the sea so I’ll be breaking out my bucket and spade…

Bienvenue a la Maison Whacky…

Before checking out of our hotel this morning we had a walk by the river towards the Guggenheim. Yes, it was still raining. The river was low, grey and muddy. Next to the Guggenheim a lonely sax playing busker was giving passers-by his version of ‘All By Myself’. Hearing him play, never has a melody been more aposite…

We returned to the hotel and extracted the car from the subterranean depths and began our journey over the border and back to France. Charles was in a bit of a dither as we again ended up on autoroute that didn’t appear on his map but after a stiff G&T he calmed down and directed us properly.

It poured, the heavens opened and a deluge followed us all the way past San Sebastian, across the border into France, into the foothills of the Pyrenees and made mountain streams into raging, boiling torrents. Our final destination, just out of Sare, was not known to the sat-nav, so we had to resort to asking a local. Ten minutes later we were driving down a potholed track to our b&b for the next two nights…

There’s no reception here, in fact it’s rather like popping into your slightly off beat relatives house. We were met by a very camp and very drunk proprietor, who said we should have rung 48 hours before to confirm. We showed him the reservation on which he’d agreed to provide two nights accomodation, breakfast and two evening meals. Sorry he said, the restaurant was closed Sunday and Monday. On closer inspection he noticed we’d booked in December last year, so that explained the mix up….ah, only in France.

The hotel initially reminded me of Fawlty Towers. We were shown a room without a key, but a bolt on the inside, the wiring is from the 1970’s and it looks as though their interior designer had swatches from Laura Ashley, Harrods, Burberry and Selfriges and decided to use them all. Jean (the owner) offered us two coffees by way of compensation for no evening meal and phoned his cousin in the village to reserve us a table for this evening. All this time a party was going on in the restaurant, a couple of steps down into another room. Jean was carrying a small wooden drinks tray which kept falling out his grasp to the floor. I expected Jean to follow it soon after..

But…the hotel is in a beautiful situation, the room is quaint but warm and cosy and we had a lovely meal in his cousins hotel restaurant…..Let’s see what breakfast is like…