Travel

Spring in Amsterdam

Back in May, Mark had a work trip to the Netherlands. Fancying a short break, I decided to go over with him for the first long weekend, before leaving him to knuckle down for the rest of the week.

I strongly believe in avoiding air travel wherever possible. There is no excuse for that level of environmental impact when you can take the train, and Amsterdam is perfectly accessible by train from the UK if you are not too far from London and not in too much of a rush. We headed into London early on a Thursday morning and a Eurostar with a change in Brussels later, we were soon pulling into Amsterdam just in time for cocktail hour.

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We headed into De Pijp for dinner, my favourite area of Amsterdam and full of all manner of bars and restaurants. We decided on pizza at De Pizzakamer, followed by a gander into the central red-light area of the city for some beers at Brouwerij de Prael, a chilled out bar and microbrewery, despite its location. I tend to find the centre of the city, with its raucous groups of tourists, stag and hen parties a bit much, but it’s fun to dip in every now and again.

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On Friday we were up early for a train ride to Utrecht, a smaller university city about 30 minutes from Amsterdam. Mark gave a lunchtime seminar at the philosophy faculty, but before and after we took some time to look round the city.

Utrecht is a little like a smaller, quieter Amsterdam, and had lots of lovely canal-lined streets, interesting shops and lovely cafes. Unfortunately, it was rubbish weather: a bit moist and really dark and cloudy all day. So we spent a lot of time hopping in and out of the cafes, such as the lovely Gys, in the photo below.

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Back to Amsterdam that evening, for Italian food and cocktails back in De Pijp. It was at least warm, so we sat out on the pavement of a cafe and watched the bicycles racing past.

I absolutely love how bicycle-orientated Amsterdam is. The great thing about the Amsterdam story is that it wasn’t always like it is now. Amsterdam was a very car orientated city until the 1960s, when a rising number of road deaths sparked a huge overhaul in public opinion. The cycling culture feels like it has been that way forever, but is actually the fairly recent result of mass human intervention to change the way they live. It is like a glimpse of how life could be everywhere, although sadly I feel we are a very long way off that much mental adjustment in the UK at the moment.

Saturday saw a bit of sun in between a few showers, so we headed for a walk around the Vondelpark, which is huge and lustrous.

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I am just about to sneeze in that photo, not posing.

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We headed to Koffie Academie for lunch: delicious goats cheese toasted sandwich and a little flat white to keep me going for our next stop, which was the Van Gogh Museum.

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Sunflowers in the flowerbeds around the museum! The museum is excellent and very much worth a visit. It traces the whole history of Van Goghs’s career, including one of the famous ‘sunflowers’ paintings, and gives lots of information about his life, family, friends and of course his illness. It was a really inspiring, engrossing couple of hours.

We emerged into beautiful sunshine, so headed back into De Pijp for a glass of wine, followed by a lazy walk along the canals before it was time to head for dinner with friends.

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On Sunday, it was time for me to head for home, but not before a delightful kiwi-brazilian style brunch at Bakers and Roasters. Eggs and toast and coffee and juice…mmmm. Until next time, Amsterdam!

Norfolk discoveries

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Back in April we spent a week in North Norfolk with family. Although I’m quite familiar with various parts of the North Norfolk coastline, I didn’t really know the area we stayed in, near Holt and a few miles inland of Sheringham. I didn’t manage to do a great deal of research before we set off, so our days were rather on the spontaneous side. Holt itself proved to be a lovely little town, full of interesting cafes, antique and vintage shops, independent grocers and even a record shop!

On our way to Pensthorpe Nature Reserve (which is also well worth a visit) one day, we drive past a sign for Binham Priory. Out of interest, we pulled in and discovered this fascinating English Heritage site. The extensive ruins of a Benedictine Priory, founded in 1091, are a brooding presence on the gentle, rolling landscape and are well worth a visit. The ruins also have a sign stating my favourite ever opening hours: “any reasonable time”. This prompted a lengthy discussion on what would not be a reasonable time to be found at Binham Priory…

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Weekend in the smoke

Mark and I went to London for a couple of days over the May bank holiday weekend. After a super-busy week I was so looking forward to getting away on an adventure.

The main purpose of the trip was actually to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic, which I bought tickets to after seeing Daniel Radcliffe (Rosencrantz) and Joshua McGuire (Guildenstern) on Graham Norton a couple of months ago. It really was excellent: so funny and well done. I love the humour in Tom Stoppard’s plays, it’s so clever.

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After the play, we ambled over the bridge to Embankment for a half-bottle of wine at Gordon’s Wine Bar, before heading just a couple of minutes further up to Charing Cross for dinner at Barrafina, one of my absolute favourite restaurants. We had amazing monkfish tail from the specials board, and a glass of pedro ximenez sherry over dessert. After dinner, we travelled up to Camden to watch a band at the Lock Tavern before heading back south of the river for slumber. Perfect day.

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Sunday morning was beautiful, sunny and peaceful. We wandered over to Bermondsey Street and had a spot of brunch at the Garrison, before continuing on up to the river.

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We were due to meet my parents and sister at the Tate Modern, but we stopped off to see so many things on the way: Borough Market, Southwark Cathedral, the Golden Hinde, Winchester Palace… When we eventually got to the Tate we had a good nose round, and I spent a long time in the Rothko room for old times’ sake (and because it is soothing).

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From the Tate we went for pancakes and all-day veggie breakfasts with the family at the Breakfast Club, then headed for our train home, back to the provinces. It pains me sometimes that I can’t wake up in London every day, but perhaps it’s better to just visit regularly and so always experience the best of it? That way it can never be harmed by the fog of real life…

Paris at Christmas

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Paris is always a good idea

A couple of weeks before Christmas, Mark and I took a little weekend trip to Paris with his mum. It feels as though we are so often in Paris these days, but that is certainly no bad thing and Paris at Christmas time is always particularly lovely.

I love to see the Christmas lights, and the decorations in the department stores are so stunning. This year, the decorations and window displays at Galeries Lafayette were all made from paper and so were beautiful, sparkling white. The windows told the story of a family of polar bears who made the trip from the North Pole to see Paris, and who ran amok in every department of the store taking Miu Miu shoes, Chanel No 5 and all manner of other treats.

We also popped in next door to Printemps, where we stopped for tea under the dome, next to a rather more traditional tree! Our day of Christmas shopping was rounded off with a trip to Sephora on the Champs-Elysées, where I treated myself to a bottle of Yves Saint Laurent’s new perfume ‘Mon Paris’, as well as a couple of treats from Urban Decay (eyeshadow in ‘Backfire’) and Benefit (powder blush in ‘Sugarbomb’).

As Mark’s mum was with us, we also did a few more traditional touristy things. We visited the Sacré Coeur in beautiful winter sunshine, and decided on an afternoon boat trip down the Seine. We chose an hour’s cruise on the Vedettes du Pont Neuf, which took in the Ile de la Cité to the Eiffel Tower and everything in between. We were sceptical but it was surprisingly good fun and had some unexpectedly interesting moments, including the restaurant that was used as the model for the restaurant in the film Ratatouille!

On the morning before we returned home, we walked to Père Lachaise Cemetery. The whole place was bathed in glorious early morning sunshine and it was so quiet, so peaceful. We didn’t have a lot of time, and we’ve visited most of the famous graves on previous occasions, but we eventually managed to find Jim Morrison before it was time to head back to Gare du Nord and the Eurostar home.

Paris, tu es toujours dans mon coeur. A Bientôt!

 

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Capri life

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Our honeymoon trip to the island of Capri seems like such a long time ago now, but I often find myself thinking about it when I need a little sunny thought or a bit of inspiration.

We visited Capri on a day trip from Sorrento. The ferry takes about an hour, and rolls gently over the Tyrrhenian Sea before the island’s rocky peaks loom into view. You dock at the bustling harbour, filled with hoards of arriving tourists and day-trippers.

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We headed straight for the funicular, which in a few short minutes hauls you up the steep path from the harbour into the heart of Capri town.  We stopped at a cafe in the main square (“la Piazzetta”), enjoying a Caprese salad (I know, I know… but how could you not!), chilled mineral water, and a bit of people-watching to restore our energy for an afternoon of exploring the island.

Capri is like a fantasy world. It is one of the most evocative, intoxicating places I have ever been. It is like a world where mundane, real-life concerns don’t exist. Villas gleam on the lush green hillsides, walkways run through perfectly manicured gardens, and the streets in the town are lined with high-end designer stores. It is like a total escape from the real world, geographically, psychologically, completely.

But of course all fantasies must come to an end and after a lazy day of wandering, exploring and consuming copious amounts of lemon granita we sadly had return to the harbour to board our ferry back to the mainland. Oh well, the pasta and wine which awaited us in Sorrento made up for it a little!

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A Day in Naples

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The night before we went to Naples, Mark and I were sitting on the terrace in the Foreigners’ Club in Sorrento, looking out as the sun set over the glorious Bay of Naples, enjoying an aperitif. Suddenly, Mark announced that he didn’t want to go to Naples, and spent some considerable time trying to talk me out of the trip. We had done a lot of reading about Naples, and talked to a lot of people who had been there, and heard all the usual things: crime rate, mafia, rubbish crisis, poverty… Also, an hour each way on the Circumvesuviana train (remember that from going to Pompeii?) in 40 degree heat was not an enormously appealing prospect.

But when I travel, I like to see a slice of real life. Also, I had had two Aperol spritzes and became quite strident, and so it came to pass that at 8.30am the following morning we were boarding the Circumvesuviana to Naples.

The main thing I wanted to do in Naples was visit the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, which contains the majority of the archeological artefacts taken from the ruins of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other ancient Roman sites. So this was where we headed first, after a relatively straightforward trip on the metro across the city from the main station.

The archeological museum is a pleasingly cool, calm space of white marble in the middle of the city. Aside from Pompeiian finds there are a good range of other antiquities, including the Farnese Marbles, an assemblage of ancient Roman copies of ancient Greek sculptures. Some of these are absolutely, staggeringly massive, such as the so-called Farnese Bull, which towers above you:

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We then headed up to the Pompeii collection, which is as amazing as you might expect. The mosaics are so incredibly detailed and artistic.

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There is also a special room full of rude things found in Pompeii. The Pompeiians loved rude things. This is Pan and a goat. Pan was half-goat so it’s not quite as inappropriate as you might be thinking. Probably.

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After the Museum, it was time for a wander through Naples in search of some lunch.

Our first glimpse of Naples was back when we first arrived in Italy, as the coach from the airport wound its way through the suburbs before heading off down the coast. It was, to be perfectly honest, a bit of a shock. The standard of living certainly did not seem to be what you would expect of a large, Western European city. We saw the same again on the way into Naples on the train, grungy suburbs proving quite an eye-opening experience.

The centre of Naples was in many ways in line with these initial impressions. Walking into the Centro Storico through narrow streets, past run-down, graffiti-covered buildings, we did wonder a little what we were walking into. But by the time we left, I grew to love it. Naples is lively, bustling, and full of people who, nobly or otherwise, just seem to be trying to have a good life in what are perhaps not the easiest of surroundings.

And what enhances life more than good food? I would argue very little, and then just to round off I would argue that you would struggle to find better food than in Naples. We headed, predictably, for pizza, bypassing the queues at Sorbillo to seek a table at I Decumani. What followed was one of the greatest meals of my life: never has pizza tasted so glorious. We both opted for cheese-less pizzas (I love cheese but melted and in large quantities? Not so much.), Mark for a classic marinara (€3, tomato, olive oil, oregano, garlic) and I went for the Siciliana (€5, tomato, anchovies, olives, capers and basil). They were staggeringly good.

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After our pizzas, we ambled through Naples a while longer, stopping at a cafe where we found the promised land of the €.90 espresso (90 cents!) and then a bakery for pastries (50 cents!). Then before too long it was time to return to board the Circumvesuviana back to Sorrento, happily full of wonderful food, excellent memories, and the sort of deep elation it is only possible to feel after spending a day in close proximity to one of the world’s most powerful mafia organisations and coming out unscathed. Win.

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Visiting Pompeii

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Vesuvius dominates the Bay of Naples skyline. You can see him from almost everywhere: a constant reminder that at practically any moment, life as we know it could be brought to a sudden and dramatic end by one of the world’s most powerful and dangerous active volcanoes.

Nowhere is Vesuvius more apparent than at Pompeii, looming over the ruins of the city he destroyed in AD79. Viewed from the forum of the old city, he appears staggeringly huge. But in a strange way, when you visit the ruins of Pompeii, you can’t help but feel a little bit grateful to Vesuvius (whilst of course maintaining a general fear of impending doom). For without Vesuvius, we would not have this insight into life in the Roman Empire, almost 2000 years ago.

Visiting Pompeii was one of my most favourite days in my life so far. It is simply fascinating. What struck me the most was how advanced and civilised life seemed to be in the city. The infrastructure, the technology in plumbing and heating at the baths, the decor and creature comforts at the villas, the services available (restaurants, laundries, two theatres, a brothel with built in beds)…it all seemed so modern! It also felt so much like a real city in that it varied so much from area to area – from the big, luxurious villas on the Western side, to the business and religious orientated buildings around the forum, and the mix of smaller houses and retail premises moving towards the East.

I would absolutely recommend a trip to Pompeii, it really felt like a once in a lifetime experience. I would however not necessarily recommend a trip in the height of summer! It was hot. I mean seriously, off the scale hot. The site is very exposed, with barely any shade, and the sea breezes don’t quite seem to make it in. Add to that the fact that most people visit from Naples or Sorrento, and that means a trip on the Circumvesuviana train, which is old, overcrowded, and lacks any kind of air conditioning. But if you do find yourself in the area, even in summer? Don’t miss it.

A few tips on visiting Pompeii:

 

  • Unless you really want a guided tour, don’t be swayed by the people who gather outside the station directing you into the tours office. They ask if you want to visit the site, then when you say yes, try to funnel you into buying a tour at the station office. Make your own way down the road to the Pompeii main entrance to buy your tickets.
  • Take plenty of food and drink. There are limited options on the site. I brought a takeaway calzone with me that I picked up from a cafe in Sorrento that morning, which was perfect. And lots of water, although there are drinking water taps across the site for refills if you don’t want to carry huge bottles.
  • As I said above, the site is very exposed. Bring a lot of suncream. If you need a shady, breezy place to have your picnic/a rest, the rear of the Triangular Forum has places to sit and a lot of tree-cover.
  • The site is BIG. And everything is fascinating. But you can get a bit ruined-out. The guidebook leaflet thing they give you at the ticket office is brilliant, but has way too much information for you to take in whilst you are there. We followed the Rough Guide recommendations for the highlights, and then just walked around to get a feel for the rest. If you can, work out which bits of the site you really want to see before you arrive, and plan your route.
  • The brothel seems to always have a big queue and you get funneled through a bit. But it is worth it! Perhaps try to go earlier or later in the day to avoid the crowds. Otherwise, despite the huge visitor numbers every day, the site didn’t feel overly busy, which was nice.

 

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More photos under the cut…

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Sorrento and Sant’Agnello

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After our whistle-stop visit to Paris, we jumped on a plane from Paris Charles de Gaulle to Naples. Which makes it sound easy. It in fact involved an hour standing on a packed RER B train in rush hour, followed by 2 hours at Charles de Gaulle with no seats, no announcements, rubbish food, and an incident in the toilets in which a large woman whacked me in the stomach with her bag so hard the entire queue winced and did an audible intake of breath. And once boarded, we sat on the runway for over an hour without moving due to an air traffic control strike.

Fortunately, just a couple of hours later we had arrived in glorious Italian sunshine and blistering heat, and were on a coach with some glorious air conditioning, whisking our way down the windy coastal road, complete with stunning views, to Sorrento. That evening, we were drinking Aperol spritzes at the Foreigner Club, overlooking the Bay of Naples.

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We actually stayed just outside Sorrento, in the neighbouring village of Sant’Agnello, at the Hotel Crawford. It turns out the hotel and street were named for the novelist Francis Marion Crawford, who wrote my all-time favourite ghost story, ‘The Upper Berth’, and who lived in Sant’Agnello. But that aside, I would entirely recommend staying in Sant’Agnello, and indeed in the Hotel Crawford, which is a lovely, calming, white marble paradise. We had a slightly upgraded room, with a little balcony.

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The best bit about staying here? The beach at the end of the road! We spent 3 full days down here on sunloungers, which you can hire for €10. For an extra €4 you can also keep shady under a nice big parasol. It’s a bit of a steep hike down from the top of the cliff, but there is a lift if you need a hand. They have built a jetty out into the water, which is where the loungers are, so you can have a view both ways: back over the little beach, or out into the bay of Naples towards Vesuvius (which you can see behind Mark and I in the photo below). There is also a brilliant little restaurant and bar, La Marinella, so if you fancy a coffee or a Caprese salad or an Aperol spritz, all you have to do is amble over and it will be provided at a remarkably reasonable price. There was a lot of Aperol spritz involved…

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Sorrento itself is about a 15 minute walk from Sant’Agnello. As Sant’Agnello has its own train station and a little centre with shops, restaurants etc, you don’t necessarily need to go to Sorrento, but we walked in each night for dinner, after the sun had gone down and the heat became slightly less vicious. Sorrento is a busy, crazy resort town, but it’s a fun place to be. Staying in Sant’Agnello is far more peaceful though, and you can take advantage of all Sorrento offers without the all-consuming noise and bustle and excitement.

The action is based around a large square, the Piazza Tasso, which is surrounded by all sorts of restaurants, cafes and bars. In the streets off the square are numerous shops and yet more restaurants. We ate at a few different places and to be honest, I think it would be quite hard to get a bad meal in Sorrento. Even the most touristy places had reasonably decent dishes for a very reasonable price. You can get a pizza for €5-6, a bottle of wine for €9 and a huge bowlful of spaghetti alle vongole for €8, if you hunt around a bit, and the quality is amazing. Even so, we had a few of favourites:

  1. Ristorante Da Gigino was down a little side-alley. This was a lovely, homely restaurant with friendly service and a simple but excellent menu of pasta, seafood and pizza.
  2. La Fenice was over the far western side of town, and we would have eaten here more than once had it been closer to our hotel. This place did some superb seafood and delicious black squid ink spaghetti.
  3. Bar Ercolano is right on the Piazza Tasso. We didn’t eat here (although they do serve food), but it became a regular stopping point on our way home, standing at the bar for a little glass of local speciality, limoncello.

There are also some fantastic gelaterias in Sorrento, ranging from a choice of 10 or so flavours right up to what must be well over 50 at Bougainvillea.

As the Rough Guide describes it, Sorrento is a town which has given itself entirely over to the pursuit of pleasure. At the same time, it has retained a not-inconsiderable amount of charm and tradition. We loved it.

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Honeymooning down by the Seine

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Way back when (well, in November 2004), Mark and I were sat outside the Cercle cafe opposite the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris drinking wine. This was during the months I spent as a student in Paris, Mark was over to visit and so we’d gone for a bit of an evening out. A friend of mine lived just around the corner, so we used to frequent this area and this cafe in particular because it did nice soupe à l’oignon with tons of bread and cheese for a reasonable price.

As we sat there, an american lady walked past, turned to us, and said, loudly and excitedly, “ARE YOU HONEYMOONERS?!”. No, we replied. But ever since that day, we agreed that in the event we were ever honeymooners, we would go and sit outside the Cercle again, drink wine, and see if she walked past again.

And so, almost 12 years later, there we were. Sadly, the lady did not reappear, but we nevertheless had a nice glass of wine.

Otherwise, Paris was its usual marvellous self for the one and a half days we stayed there. I have spent more time in Paris and know it better than most cities in the UK, so it’s always nice to be back. We arrived on rather a wet Sunday night, but the Bistrot du Peintre, just up the road from our regular hotel, kept us warm and fed and well wined, before a break in the rain just long enough for a walk down the Seine to Notre Dame.

Monday began with much better weather, and we headed over to my favourite cafe in a backstreet in the Marais for a croissant, coffee and an orange juice. Some ambling around Rue des Rosiers and Place des Vosges was followed by falafel for lunch, a metro trip and some more ambling around the Latin Quarter, Boulevard St Germain and the aforementioned Jardins du Luxembourg. I bought Poirot novels in French for 50 cents, which some days later into the honeymoon turned out to be a good call when I almost ran out of books.

In the evening, we returned to one of my all time favourite places to eat in the whole world, Chez Imogène, for galettes and crêpes, followed by a trip to the Eiffel Tower, where we sat on the grass and watched the sun set and the lights twinkle. A trip to the bright lights of Montmartre and Pigalle followed that, before we realised the time, remembered we had to be up at 6am the next day for our flight to Italy, and sensibly retired to our bed!

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Norfolk

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for us moving house, so we took a little jaunt up to Norfolk for some relaxation this weekend.

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My aunt and uncle, Andrew and Bridget, run a B&B in Shouldham, near Kings Lynn: the Chalk and Cheese. The old, red-brick Victorian building used to be the village school, which they bought after it closed and converted it into a rather unique and amazing home. The next change, to B&B and restaurant came later (although they still live in one corner of the building), and later still came an on-site antiques emporium.  The next stage includes two self-contained little cabins in the gardens, which are coming along well!

I absolutely love the main room, the old school hall. Not all the antiques make it into the emporium, and every corner in here is filled with oddities and curios.

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A more recent (although well-established now) addition is the huge glass conservatory, where we enjoyed our meals and a never-ending supply of Earl Grey tea in the sun.

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After a cosy Saturday night in front of the fire, drinking all manner of different gins (SO much gin!), we headed out for a walk across the fields with the dogs on Sunday morning (luckily avoiding the unexpected hail storm). We are back home now, feeling rather tired but quite refreshed from our little break!

 

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