Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham

It seems that the older we get, the more our holidays revolve around food – much to our waistlines’ detriment! After two fantastic Michelin-listed restaurants in Alsace we decided to use one of our days in Cheltenham to book lunch at Le Champignon Sauvage, a two starred restaurant since 2008. The head chef is David Everitt-Matthias, who has released several cookbooks, although I hadn’t heard of him or the books until we looked up the restaurant.

We walked across town from our glamorous Holiday Inn accommodation and I changed out of my grotty trainers into my heels just around the corner from the restaurant. I’d bought a new handbag to hide them in and Luke had had a haircut and shave that morning – we were looking our best! I only wish I’d asked them to take a photo of us out of our normal jeans and T-shirt ensembles.

As is my habit, I misread the time and we arrived half an hour early, so we had a drink in the pub just down the road and relaxed before arriving at the restaurant right on 12:30.

The restaurant is quite understated but very comfortable.

Double-covered tables, good spacing and comfortable chairs. The staff were very welcoming and I was very happy to be seated near a bright window so I could be one of those awful people who take photos of every course.

The menu had several options but we chose three courses from the £35 set menu.

Before we had ordered we were brought a small plate of savory bites that looked like truffles and biscuits.

We have our order taken and then were presented with a warm celery amuse-bouche.

Delicious! I have never had a celery soup and would never think to order one but this was creamy and refreshing. It also had a pretty mix of spices floating on top, including rose petals, I think.

We both decided to start with the breast of wood pigeon (warning – may contain lead shot).

Neither of us had tried pigeon before and both thought it was delicious. The whole flavour effect reminded me of an autumn forest (if I can dare to be so pretentious about it). Nutty granola, sweet blackberry and mango, green flavour of saxifrage and earthy pigeon with a hint of Christmas in the vegetables and chutney. Possibly my favourite course as it was so evocative! We shared a half bottle of a fairly heavy red that was exceptionally plummy and matched well.

Next up, I chose the Cornish ray (like sole) and Luke chose the beef blade. I had quite a bit of food envy as his dish looked incredible and tasted great. Mine was less powerful but the mushroom flavours were lovely and very well matched by the wine. I’d asked the waitress to choose a wine pairing and it was a Brescou viognier that reminded me strongly of the very unusual white we’d had with our mushroom dish at l’Agneau.

With the savory courses we had a choice of bread. Luke once again made a great choice with a brioche, while I chose a white roll that had an outer consistency of rock and shattered everywhere as I hacked into it. When I was given a second choice I went for the onion brioche. It was the lightest, crispiest bread roll I’ve ever had!

I didn’t need to eat two bread rolls with three courses but I did anyway.

Dessert!

We both chose the lemon verbena and strawberry sorbet. I grow lemon verbena in my garden and have clearly not been using it to its full potential.

Gorgeous! The strawberry sorbet was the prime flavour but the verbena was a delightful citrus note. The combination of textures was a pleasure to experience.

We decided to have a fortified wine with our dessert. I chose the champagne ratafia because the characters in Georgette Heyer books are always drinking it and I’ve never tried it. Luke chose the Pedro Ximenez and once again he made the best choice because it was quite the richest liquor I’ve ever tasted – and we’ve tried quite a few. My ratafia was also lovely with burnt toffee and raisin flavours.

I’d had quite enough by that stage but Luke had a coffee to finish and it came with petit fours.

We left a bit after 3 and I was full to bursting. Even though fancy restaurants do serve small quantities, there are lots of little extras that fill you up. The bill came to £132.60, which is about $260 AUD. It was almost twice as much as our lunches in Alsace and about $200 more than we’d spend on a pub lunch but well worth it for the experience.

A Day In The Cotswolds

Luke signed us up for a ‘Secret Cottage’ tour of the Cotswolds and so we arrived at Oxford station ready to catch a train to meet our group, only to find that, for the second time in a week, someone had been hit by a train and thrown the network into disarray. After hanging about for a bit a delayed train was rerouted and we jumped on and actually got to the meeting point a bit early.

We were met by two black vans and two drivers – ours was a local man named Jeremy who turned out to be an almost inexhaustible font of knowledge with a perfect BBC accent. He was the first (and probably the last) person I will ever hear using ‘one’ as an entirely unselfconscious personal pronoun.

Along with two girls from California who had arrived by the same train, we jumped in and were driven to a tiny village called Chastleton. There we admired a Jacobean manor which, up until quite recently, housed a lady who own 21 cats. Apparently the smell was quite something.

We also had a look in the church next door before heading around the corner to the ‘secret cottage’. The family who organise the tours live in the cottage and provide morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea throughout the day. Before eating we had a tour of the cottage.

Those mushroom shaped objects are ‘straddle stones’ used to elevate storage sheds so mice and rats couldn’t climb up.

It was originally three living spaces with families of up to 15 in each two room space. One room downstairs and one upstairs, reachable by a ladder. In winter the family pig and chickens would live inside too. These days it’s much nicer, with just four people living in the cottage rather than 45!

Morning tea was a delicious selection of biscuits and cakes.

On each excursion out we visited different villages in the Cotswolds and admired many thatched cottages and learned a great deal from Jeremy about the area’s history, geography, language, animals and social goings-on. For example, did you know that Patrick Stewart lives in the Cotswolds and writes many peeved letters to his local council about the shooting range near his property?

We visited Upper and Lower Slaughter – two gorgeous villages with rather dramatic names. However ‘slaugh’ meant ‘marsh’ in an old language, which makes it all less sinister. One of the villages is one of Britain’s ‘doubly thankful’ villages. This means that not one person was killed in either world war. Jeremy explained that the wars had quite devastating effects on some villages as all the young men would want to join the same regiment and so, if that regiment was in serious action, they could lose a generation in one blow.

We learned that while thatched roofs may be beautiful, they are also expensive. They cost about forty thousand pounds to restore (for a medium sized cottage) and a thatch last about 50 years. Some thatchers make signature animals along the roof line – often birds but sometimes cats, dogs and foxes.

Lunch!

The name ‘Cotswolds’ come from ‘cot’ meaning a fenced or enclosed space (from all the sheep pens) and ‘wold’ meaning ‘hills’.

A newly thatched cottage.

We saw a village named Great Tew that had been abandoned last century then revitalised when an heir to the estate had been found. It was a beautiful village filled with gorgeous buildings.

And a very cute pub!

Jeremy had worked as a geologist and as we walked through the village he found a brachiopod fossil!

It doesn’t look like much here but I could tell it was a shell, I promise!

He also had a little wallet of things he’d found while walking around the area, including a Roman coin. It’s the tiny blackened one.

Afternoon tea!

It was a lovely day. Not cheap, at £95, but it didn’t feel at all rushed and we had a very nice group of people to chat to, in fact four others from our group caught the same train back towards Oxford so we chatted the whole way. Lovely!

Blenheim Palace

I wanted to visit at least one grand house while in England and they don’t come much grander than Blenheim. Built in the 17th century by the Marlborough family, it is a vast building with extensive gardens and over 9000 acres of grounds. It is the only non-royal or non-episcopal palace in England and a UNESCO-listed building.

We arrived a little earlier than the building opened (the grounds open at 9, the building at 10:30) so we had a look around the gift shop.

Compared to the gift shops that spawn alongside Australian attractions, English gift shops of the National Trust variety are models of elegance and good taste. They sell hand-dyed silk scarves, embroidered cushions and cashmere cardigans – all at fairly outrageous prices, of course. There’s also mugs and tea towels but even these are fairly understated.

We availed ourselves of the ‘free’ (included in the somewhat steep entry price – although if you catch the bus there rather than drive you get 30% off which isn’t bad) audio guide and set around the interior. Well, some of it. As the Duke was in residence all the upstairs tours were not available. Still, what we saw was quite grand.

There was an exhibition of modern art sensitively interspersed between the historical artifacts. Did I say sensitively? I meant hideously. Despite this I managed to find a few angles that didn’t include all the bright blue paintings and statues.

As the palace was Winston Churchill’s birthplace there was an exhibition of his work and achievements that was very informative. I particularly enjoyed seeing his paintings.

We took a walk by the lake and rose garden on one side of the palace. The roses weren’t in their best condition but the few that were still out had a beautiful perfume.

Last, a walk to the pleasure gardens, which didn’t seem to actually have any gardens. There was a large playground and a butterfly house. As is always the case, the butterfly house was uncomfortably hot but also full of gorgeous butterflies that I could’ve spent all day photographing.

We lazily caught the 50p train back to the palace rather than walk, then headed out to the village of Woodstock, that sits right by one of the gates. The village is very pretty and full of tea shops and pubs. Below is the Bear Inn, which must look absolutely magnificent in autumn.

A good day out from Oxford, Blenheim is certainly interesting if you like history and old houses and whatnot. Googling the current Lord Marlborough was also very interesting – something of a jailbird whose father did not trust him not to squander the family fortune and so left a board of trustees to oversee his management of the estate. Apparently he was known for driving too fast around the local area in a pink sports car.

Next: a tour of the Cotswolds!

Oxford: Authors, Ancient History, and Artifacts.

We caught the bus from Cambridge to Oxford via Milton Keynes. There was a man on the bus who smelled so strongly of cigarette smoke that we had to move away from him. Still, at least he wasn’t cutting his toenails like the guy on the bus we caught to Heathrow a while back.

We arrived in Oxford around 1:30 and paid to leave our bags at the Oxford Backpackers. Four pounds per bag wasn’t a bad deal and the staff let us use the toilets too, which was nice of them.

We set off for a wander around town. Obviously I had to take a photo of this pub, almost next door to the school Ronnie Barker attended and named after one of the most famous Two Ronnies comedy sketches. We would’ve stopped in for a drink but it’s a Wetherspoons – urgh.

First stop was lunch at the Eagle and Child, the pub frequented by the illustrious Inklings, who included JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

It’s a smallish, dark and pokey pub that was heated to a startling temperature, but at the very back was a room that was less like a Saharan midday and had enough light to read the menu. We shared a chicken and chorizo pie that wasn’t half bad and left feeling fairly satisfied.

Next was a walk around the Natural History Museum. It looked a lot like the one in London but on a much smaller scale and was also free to enter.

There are a lot of interesting things to see. One of the exhibits that grabbed my attention were a gigantic wasp nest that was grown deliberately by some psychopath.

They had a good insect display with a few cases of live bugs including giant cockroaches. Another good section was a history of British culture with some great graphs showing immigration patterns across the centuries and one showed how different languages affected place names.

Our last stop was a Tolkien exhibition in the library that is opposite the Radcliffe Camera. Although it wasn’t large it did have a good number of original items on display and I thought the artwork was most interesting. Tolkien designed the dust jackets and illustrations for early editions – and drew all the maps of course. I had not known that he was born in South Africa, although his family moved back to England when he was three. Sadly photography wasn’t allowed so here’s a photo of the Radcliffe Camera instead.

We had a short walk through town before picking up our bags and heading to our Airbnb. As we booked this trip quite late we’d decided on just a room in an apartment. When we arrived the owners told us we’d have a continental breakfast provided every day – a nice surprise!

Next: Blenheim Palace.

Two Days On The Essex Way

As Luke’s aunt and uncle live in Dedham we decided to incorporate a visit with a leg of the Essex Way, a long distance walking trail that stretches from the English Channel to the eastern edge of London.

Dedham sits close to the middle of the Way. We decided to walk from Great Horkesley to Dedham on the first day, stay the night then walk from Dedham to Manningtree the next as it would be easy to catch the train back to Cambridge. Also the part around Dedham is considered one of the prettiest on the Way as it’s an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

We left Cambridge mid morning and caught the bus from Bar Hill into town then a train from Cambridge to Ipswich then another train from Ipswich to Colchester. The train to Colchester was supposed to go on to London but due to a fatality on the track it was delayed in Colchester indefinitely.

From Colchester we caught a bus to Great Horkesley where we shared a steak and ale pie at the amusingly-named Half Butt Inn.

I had about a quarter and Luke had the rest, primarily because I’d weighed myself at Andrew’s and been mightily displeased with the results.

Anyhow, a little bit of pie was just as delicious as a lot and it’s good not to set out with a bursting stomach.

We set off up the road looking for the Way markers and were soon on the right track.

The Essex Way turned out to be much, much better marked than the Cumbria Way. Almost every time there was a turn it was clearly signposted. We only missed one marker and took two wrong turns, each of which only cost us a few extra minutes. I wouldn’t recommend doing it without a map but we coped quite well with a combination of a printout from from the website and google maps. On the Cumbria Way I would recommend the full OS maps but they weren’t necessary here.

A lot of the Essex Way seemed to be through fields.

A lot of them weren’t particularly scenic.

Maybe it wasn’t the best time of year to do it? We saw a lot of onions and beets, anyhow.

Essex is also very, very flat. We only walked up and down perhaps three small slopes in the two days of walking. This would make it an excellent walk for people with little experience doing long walks, plus you’re always within sight or sound of a road so it would feel a lot less daunting than being out on the moors or up a mountain. The trade off, off course, is that it’s nowhere near as beautiful. If the Lake District was a ten then most of what we saw on this trail (which admittedly wasn’t much) rates about a two. There are some pretty vistas across gently undulating fields with church spires in the distance but half the trail is between hedges and you can’t actually see anything.

Also not great if you’re a bit nervous of cars. Good for snacking on blackberries though, of which there was an abundance!

The little villages are very picturesque and if you like that he’s cottages you’ll be in heaven.

I particularly like all the churches and their fancy lych gates. Lych gates originated in the medieval period as a place for mourners to bring the corpse (litch) to be accepted by the priest. The lych gate was a covered place for them to wait.

This part of England is known for horse breeding and racing so we saw a few horses along the way too.

As we neared Dedham our feet were aching so we stopped for a drink at Milsom’s, the fancy restaurant that we’d visited on our previous visit to Mark and Sue. They didn’t bat an eyelid at our sweaty clothes and red faces, which was awfully good of them.

After a half pint and a rest we felt slightly refreshed and didn’t find the last kilometre too taxing. We walked nearly 19 kilometres on our first day, a good effort after a number of weeks of slacking off. We also managed to get in just before the clouds opened. Lucky!

The following day we had a delicious cafe breakfast that was as good as anything you’d get in Melbourne and had another look at the renovations of Mark and Sue’s place. It’s really come along since we were last there! It’s all going to look amazing when it’s done and there’s lots of neat little aspects, like windows that close automatically when it starts raining.

I took a few photos of Luke with his cousins Alice and Isabel. Luke is the oldest of his generation of cousins as his mother is the eldest of nine Dempsey children. Luke’s uncle Mark is the youngest of the nine (and only four years older than me!) so his children are the youngest of that generation of cousins. Does that make sense?

It was lovely to see them all again!

Our second day of walking was from Dedham to Manningtree. It wasn’t anywhere near as far as the first day but that was probably just as well as we were a bit stiff. The views on day two were a bit better and we only went off track once right at the end. It did mean climbing a fence and crouching through some trees but we emerged on the footpath only a couple of hundred metres from Manningtree station.

We stopped off at the surprisingly nice Station Hotel in Ipswich for lunch (surprising because hotels that are next to train stations are often rubbish) and then continued on the Cambridge.

All in all, a good walk for our level of fitness and experience but not terribly scenic. Perhaps it would be better in Spring? It did seem like a walk that wouldn’t get too muddy (unlike the CW) and is much more accessible. That being said we only saw one other walker in the whole two days and he was also doing the Essex Way. We stopped for a moment to chat and he expressed surprise as well that we were the first people he’d seen and he’d been walking all day. I’m glad we saw at least one other walker so Luke could have a small taste of what I’d experience on an hourly basis in Cumbria. Often chatting to other walkers took up several hours of my day! How strange that, this close to London, we only saw one person.

A few more photos to finish with – and could someone tell me what plant this is?

Crabapples?

Eltham Palace, a Medieval Festival and NEON!

I spent a rather varied day yesterday. I discovered a medieval tournament was going to happen not too far away so I caught a train, then light rail, then a bus, and arrived at Eltham (pronounced elt-am) Palace just after the event started. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that the thing was going to be held in a field so I only ended up staying for two hours (hay fever) but they were very enjoyable!

Tickets to the tournament also entitled everyone to wander around the buildings.

Eltham was originally a church, then a royal residence for one of the Henrys, then fell into disrepair. At the beginning of the 20th century it was bought by a very wealthy couple who restored it and built on a stunning art deco house.

They were keen entertainers and everyone from politicians and royalty to movie stars came here to get away from it all. The ceiling in the photo above was my favourite part – not lights, it’s a glass and cement dome.

However much of it was damaged in the Second World War and the owners moved away. Eventually it was taken on by the National Trust and is used today for a range of events including weddings.

The tournament was happening in a field out the back and so I had a wander around, watched the falconry show, and chatted to the guys in the beer tent who told me that rubbing nettles on myself might cure my hay fever. Nice try, I said, and didn’t.

I drank some rhubarb cider…

And ate a traditional medieval burger…

And listened to some story-telling…

Then it was time for the main event! The jousting!

The jousting was an entirely authentic experience (well, as much as could be). The four men and horses who performed the jousts were professional jousters, which I didn’t realise was a thing, and I learned ( in the beer tent) that each horse cost a thousand pounds to insure for the day.

The jousting, once the talking-it-up and the make-the-crowd-hoarse-with-cheering bit was over, was quite fast paced and very impressive. The rules were explained and everyone in the crowd got right into it.

If my eyes hadn’t been filled with pollen or grass seed or whatever I would’ve stayed all day.

Before I left I had a walk around the interactive tent-displays and chatted to various stall holders about how they got into doing what they were doing and historical accuracy and the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism, a global medieval revival group that I was once part of) which is not very big in the UK, since they probably had all their historical recreation stuff in full swing before the SCA got going in America.

After leaving Eltham I caught a dizzying array of public transport to Walthamstowe. Even though I had to change buses and trains a bunch of times the longest I had to wait was 10 minutes and having Google maps to direct me at every stage made the whole thing so painless I couldn’t help but reflect on what a difference technology has made to travel in the last two decades.

I was in Walthamstowe because I’d read there was a neon store that was Instagram-tastic.

And there was.

God’s Own Junkyard was terrific.

It was glorious. I love lights and colour and this place immediately lifted the spirits.

I think I heard someone say all the signs were for sale!

When I win the lottery I will come back.

There was also a craft brewer and a gin place next door. If you have time and you’re in east London on a weekend I highly recommend making the trip and trying the apple pie, which I feel goes well with something as all-American as neon.

The Museums and Galleries Of London

I have been to so many museums in the last week or two that I hardly know where to begin. I had no idea London had so many and I didn’t even make it to all the ones I wanted to go to – I haven’t yet been to the Garden Museum and I saw a poster for a Goscinny and Uderzo (who created Astrix and Obelix) exhibition at the Jewish Museum and I didn’t make it to the Geology Museum or the Foundling Museum either.

I’ve already written about the London Museum and the Natural History Museum (both worthwhile and both free entry) so here are the others.

The Wallace Collection (fine art and armoury)

The WC (an unfortunate abbreviation) is an excellent collection in an outstanding building and, if you like design, worth a visit for the wallpaper alone. Check these rooms out!

It is home to some very famous artworks, my favourite was The Swing. When I was little we had one large book in our house on the history of art and I loved this painting most of all. To come upon it unexpectedly made me very happy.

Although the building isn’t huge it is like a jewellery box, fully of shiny and delightful things.

I could’ve posted a dozen photos but this entry is going to be long enough as is. Just trust me, if you like fine art get to this gallery!

The Wellcome Museum (medical history)

This museum is just over the road from Euston Station and free to enter so if you’re interested in medical history I’d recommend going, just be warned that despite being in a big building the displays aren’t huge, possibly because the Science Museum is about to open a big medical exhibition using items from the WM collection. Either way, the real draw of the Wellcome is the gift shop, which has a fun range of quirky things I haven’t seen elsewhere.

The exhibitions that were on while I was there included one on …

It was kind of gross but interesting.

… and weird. Pretty weird.

There was also a small display about obesity and an art exhibition. I couldn’t tell you what the theme of it was, but one room had giant pictures of cows wearing artwork woven out of insemination straws. I’m not kidding.

Another room had a display on HIV and gay culture. I liked the wallpaper. The art was mainly messy paintings that didn’t really appeal to me.

If I had to pick two themes of my photography in the last fortnight I’d go with stairwells and wallpaper, which is not what I would’ve expected on arriving in London, but there you go.

The last Wellcome exhibition piece was a group of films by a woman who learned to free-dive and each film was a single dive. It was very atmospheric and doesn’t translate well to photography but if you’re reading this and in London, it might be up your alley. I liked it but it felt quite claustrophobic after a while.

Anyhow, go browse the gift shop!

The British Museum (ancient history)

I’m doing these all out of order – the BM was the second last museum I visited. Another great piece of architecture but it didn’t take me long to wander through and recall why I didn’t spend long here when I visited last time. I love ancient history but I have almost zero interest in sculpture or historical relics. I read through the displays in the Alexander room and that was about it.

Going to all these museums has really made me think about what interests me and what is worth my time. Admittedly I’ve had heaps of time in London thanks to my hay fever but if I only had a few days I’d think really hard about what I wanted to see because there is an almost endless variety.

The Victoria and Albert Museum (um… everything?)

I was a bit blurgh on the day I went to the V&A and the thing I liked best was putting my feet in the pool. The V&A is a weird museum, it has a bit of everything and I think I would’ve had a better visit if I’d researched and gone to see a specific thing. I did admire the William Morris dining room but otherwise I wasn’t terribly inspired. I’d certainly give it another go when I felt a bit more energetic.

The Science Museum

I wandered in here on the same day I did the V&A and therefore wasn’t probably in the best frame of mind. However I can see the SM would be an amazing place to take kids and there’s something there for almost anyone.

I didn’t even take many photos in the SM. it was certainly deserving of more attention than I gave it.

Tate Britain (art through history, excepting whatever goes into the Tate Modern I suppose).

This was the first place I visited on this trip and I loved it. LOVED IT. I love fine art and the TB (another bad acronym) has a large Pre-Raphaelite collection. It was like a ‘greatest hits’ parade of romantic paintings.

There were lots of people sketching artworks and it made the gallery feel very lived-in… if that makes sense.

The thing that tickled me most in the TB was the entry hall installation. The artist had covered the entry in tiles…

And scattered sculptures around but also had a person dressed as a squash lounging around, just stretching and wandering.

Watching people watching this person-vegetable was terrific. People smiled, made eye contact with strangers, wondered out loud what it could possibly mean.

The TB, while not as outrageously fabulous as the Natural History Museum, had its own architectural beauty.

The John Soane Museum (architecture and Victorian life)

The JSM is an unusual museum on several levels – literal and metaphorical. It is the collection of one man and displayed in his house. John Soane was an architect and I wish I’d learned a bit more about him before going to his house because there aren’t labels on anything, to help preserve the feel of the experience. Photography is not allowed in the building, however I did take this sneaky shot in the toilets.

First time I’d used an original!

There were a lot of staff around who were happy to explain things but I wasn’t feeling talkative that day. Plus most of the collection is sculpture so not entirely my thing. The house itself was quite interesting with much of the original furniture in place.

The Cartoon Museum

The very last museum I visited! Almost over the road from the British Museum, the Cartoon Museum is quite small and costs £7 to enter. However if you are interested in cartoons I’d recommend dropping in.

Danger Mouse! One of my childhood favourites.

Some of the displays were familiar, some new. Some were one page of a book or series, some were one-off pieces.

The Saatchi Gallery

More like an Australian art gallery than any of the others, the SG has big white rooms and big artworks. When I went there were four or five exhibitions. I particularly liked one by a collage artist who did huge works on photographed backgrounds.

So my advice, if you want to see museums and galleries in London, is to do some research and think about what you like. Don’t waste time on a big name if you don’t actually like that style or period – for example I think the Tate Modern is outstanding, but don’t go unless you like modern art or you’ll waste half a day and walk five kilometres around the gallery for nothing. I’ve learned not to bother with miles of rooms of statues.

I enjoy variety when I travel and I think I’ve had my fill of high culture for now – the next week is all about visiting family, Luke arriving (yay!) and then back to Andrew’s and a visit to Luke’s family before Lauren arrives and we’re off to sun ourselves on Croatian beaches.

But first I need to finish writing up what I’ve done in London. I hope you didn’t think this was it!