27 July 2011

Seaside adventure

I was commissioned to write a feature on the Whitstable Oyster Festival for Caravan magazine. I was delighted to get the assignment! I grabbed the DEB, my beach hat and my wellies, we jumped into our little Mercedes camper van, and away we went...!!

“The world is mine oyster!” – Shakespeare

There are few pleasures in life better than a lazy, Sunday lunch of fresh seafood and chilled wine at a table by the sea. A pleasure made all the more divine as a capstone to a pleasantly epicurean weekend at the Whitstable Oyster Festival.

The Whitstable Oyster Festival has a remarkable history dating back to Norman times, when hard-working fishermen held an annual ceremony of thanksgiving for their survival and  harvest. Today, the people of Whitstable symbolically recreate the  ‘Landing of the Oysters’ - the Whitstable Sea Scouts bring oysters ashore for a formal blessing before being presented to the Lord Mayor. The oysters are then distributed to inns and restaurants throughout the town as part of the vibrant Oyster Parade.
The Festival’s positively effervescent atmosphere permeated every corner of this tiny, historic town. And, there was something to appeal to every taste and age. There were tons of activities for families and children; oysters galore (of course!); plus an amazing quayside ‘epicentre’ offering a wide variety of delicacies (with and without seafood), from piping hot paella, and Portuguese sausages, to local hog roasts and Kentish cheese. There was also an array of entertaining and informative cookery demonstrations in the main marquee. Truly, a food-lover’s paradise!
However, oenophiles and ale enthusiasts needn’t have felt left out as there were booths and tastings dedicated to a range of local and international beverages: local ciders, regional wines, as well as master-class tastings of Taittingers champagne – the perfect oyster accompaniment. To the sheer delight of my husband, The Whitstable Brewery ran its own Beer Festival in tandem with the Oyster Festival. Two delights on one beachfront! With a selection of over 30 real ales and beers – and featuring several homegrown brews – The Whitstable Beer Festival was a real hit. These beers were best enjoyed in the sea-salted breeze, with fresh rock oysters, served alfresco on the beach outside the Brewery Bar.  

Leaving the driving to public transport, we camped at Bragg’s Lane Farm Caravan and Camping Site outside Herne, about 4 miles from Whitstable. Derek and Doreen Newman’s small, secluded site is a well-kept secret, and perfect for a quiet get-away. Each night, we staggered back to the campsite under a canopy of stars, and could hear the sound of sea birds calling in the distance, reminding us how close we were to the sea. Finding tranquility such as this, on the first weekend of the schools’ holidays, is nothing short of a miracle!

All credit to Derek and Doreen for their superb management of the site. Toilets and showers were always very clean. There’s only one shower cubical per toilet unit, but as this isn’t a huge site there weren’t massive queues, though sometimes there was a bit of a wait in the mornings. There’s plenty of hot water for showers and the washing up station. Local transport is plentiful and reliable, so venturing off to the seaside is a doddle.

We ended our Whitstable adventure at the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company restaurant, purveyors of the Whitstable Native oysters. Appropriately, we dined on fresh rock oysters and grilled local dabs to start, followed by local sea bass, stuffed and grilled with garlic and rosemary, served with new potatoes, and two fresh salads (green leaves with fine beans; tomato, basil and red onion). Looking out over the sun-drenched sea, sipping chilled rosé and Whitstable Pale Ale on one of summer’s hottest days, we felt replete and slightly decadent - nothing could be finer!

Pictorial Essay - 
Whitstable Oyster Festival, 2011

Fresh seafood galore!

Paella on the quayside

Young Festival revelers enjoying the sights and sounds

Landing of the Oysters

The Oystermen

Best seat in the house to view the proceedings on the beach

Oyster Parade in full flow

Oyster Procession through the town

Sea Scouts bearing the oysters 

Colorful Whitstable shop

Colorful Whitstable characters

A picture postcard view

Darling Boy in the brisk sea breeze

Stunning view



Bragg's Lane Farm, Bragg's Lane, Herne Bay
CT6 7NP PRICE: £14.50

Why Stay Here: An idyllically peaceful little site, down a secluded lane outside (about a mile) the village of Herne, with four pubs serving local ales. Lovely rural woodland walks, delightful seaside towns (Herne Bay Whitstable) and the cathedral city of Canterbury all close at hand.

Getting Around: Site in easy accessed from the A29. Excellent regular bus service runs past the site on the main road - the “Triangle” runs between Canterbury, Herne/Herne Bay and Whitstable at regular intervals throughout the day and late evening.

Suitable For: With just 20 touring pitches set on 1 acre, surrounded by fields, this site is perfect for couples and adults looking for a quiet get-away or a tranquil retreat. Great for walkers, ramblers and anyone who enjoys being near the seaside and historic sites.

09 July 2011

Special assignment: Horses

I adore my column in Warwickshire Life magazine! This monthly assignment affords me the opportunity to explore some quintessentially British experiences and write about them. And, recently, the penny finally dropped, and I realised my column is a great means to just having a bit fun!

 Red House Proprietress,
Nikki Shakespear
So, I am allowing myself a few English indulgences. This month: Horses. With the goal of uncovering the great British love affair with horses, I had a very nice lunchtime meeting with the Head of the British Horse Society in the Midlands; have a visit scheduled to a Warwickshire-based horse sanctuary; and yesterday, I was treated to a lesson at the Red House Riding School.

And, what an amazing day it was! Tucked snugly between Leamington Spa and Lillington, Red House Riding School, was a bit tricky to find. I trundled through housing estates, disbelieving my iPhone's insistence that I "turn right", but when I did eventually "turn right", the wide open spaces of Red House Riding school opened before me, offering the most unbelievable and 
breathtaking views of the Warwickshire countryside.

Between intermittent squalls and dazzling sunshine, I spent a glorious afternoon atop a gorgeous Welsh Section D - Cob called "George". Welsh Section Ds are known for their hardiness and gentle nature, and this sweet chap was like a version of my dearly missed and dearly beloved Lucy, in equine form!

Gorgeous Welsh Cob, George
Having grown up in the country, in the southern part of America, my association with horses -- and proper riding -- have been surprisingly limited. Of course, when I was little, there were obligatory pony rides at state fairs, and magnificent displays of cowboy prowess at rodeos; but the serious pursuit of riding and horsemanship was something different entirely.

My middle sister (9 years my senior) attended boarding school in the heart of very horsey, bluegrass country in Kentucky. There, she excelled and won numerous white ribbons for riding. As riding was "her sport", my interest in that activity remained closeted. I merely wondered at it from afar.  

How nice now, to be free from silly constraints and have a go, finally! Interesting, according to Andrea Jackman of the British Horse Society, the fastest growing group amongst riding enthusiasts are the over 40s and beyond! No longer merely the domain of horse-mad adolescents, adult first-timers are making up for missed opportunities, and turning to riding as a delightful means of exercise and recreation.

And, I don't blame them one bit! Although, I woke this morning with a slightly achy lower back, and sore thighs, the experience has left a permanent smile on my face. There is something so soothing, almost mesmerising about being in the company of a horse. Their serene calm and majestic gentleness completely overwhelms your senses. 

Rider Rachel & her beautiful chestnut, Prince
As I sat atop George, out in the fresh air, with Warwickshire stretching out beautifully before me in the foreground, all my stresses melted away: The column deadline I'm absolutely frantic to meet; the crazed week I have ahead, with back-to-back Shakespeare lectures Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday - on three different plays! The impossible train journeys I need to make this week to take a group to see Merchant of Venice in Stratford, after a full day lecturing in London! On and on...None of that mattered as I swayed from side-to-side on this magnificent Cob.

Ironically, my wonderful instructor was most aptly named Nikki Shakespear. Nikki is a gem, and takes a caring, friendly approach to teaching riding. I will confess I was very nervous when I arrived at Red House - more anxious about the people, than the horses.

Undoubtedly, there are more than a few preconceptions about riding circles; and (also undoubtedly) in some cases these preconceptions probably ring true. Like many a newcomer, I'd expect, when I arrived at Red House Riding School, I feared that I would be walking into a very exclusive, closed and uninviting club. However, my actual experience there could not have been farther from my expectations! 

Having a go!
Everyone at Red House was welcoming, friendly and keen to help and encourage me. Nikki provided all the gear I needed -- and tea and jaffa cakes after! Nikki and her assistant, Mel, were patience and supportive during my lesson. I felt empowered, and not the least bit awkward, uneasy or out of my depth. 

They even gave me a few small challenges to complete on my own within a very well-supported context (walk, trot, dismount). In addition, the social side of things is clearly at the heart of this riding school. Everyone was jovial, smiling and laughing as the mucked in, and out, together (quite literally).

Another myth dispelled by my experience yesterday - the cost of learning to ride, at least at Red House Riding School, is not as dear as I'd have thought it would be. Nikki favours Group Lessons over private ones, and offers them for a range of experience levels and age groups. Comraderie and kinship is key to this fellowship of the horse. And, I have to say that yesterday was a truly remarkable day. A highlight of my life here in Warwickshire that I will never forget!