Cruise Report: Forget the Med and go British island hopping instead

The big ports of Southampton and Dover are popular starting points for cruises to Europe and beyond, so it might be surprising to learn that there are 49 more cruise ports around the UK. Last year, more than 100 ships from 49 different lines brought 866,000 passengers in on day visits (a 20 per cent increase on 2012).

A classic circumnavigation of Great Britain will include a side trip or two – to the Republic of Ireland, often to the Channel Islands and sometimes over to Europe, too – so you can’t leave your passport at home.

* Small, luxury Hebridean Princess is based in Oban for one-week, scenic cruises of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, from March to October, with all-inclusive fares from £2,610pp (01756 704700; hebridean.co.uk).

* Fred. Olsen (0845 421 3719; fredolsencruises.com) has an 11-night Highlands Islands cruise departing Rosyth on 23 August for an 11-night round trip. Black Watch makes calls in Orkney, the Hebrides, the Isle of Man, Belfast and the Shetland Islands, then back to Rosyth. The cost is from £1,199pp.

* Saga Sapphire’s non-stop Coastal Voyager is a six-night round trip from Dover on 13 May – with no ports of call. From £1,216pp (0800 056 8986; saga.co.uk/cruises).

* There will be a more international group of passengers, many American, on the Seabourn Legend, sailing from London on 27 August. The 14-night voyage calls at the Isles of Scilly, Greenock (for Glasgow), Cherbourg and Ostend before returning for an overnight stay in London. It costs from £4,799pp with open bars and gratuities (0843 373 2000; seabourn.com).

* Queen Victoria will celebrate 175 years since Cunard (0843 374 2224; cunard.co.uk) was founded in Liverpool with fireworks and visits to the Clyde and Cobh. The round-Britain cruise departs Southampton for 13 nights on 23 May. Fares from £1,429pp include parking or on-board credit of US$110 per cabin. Book by 30 April and receive John Lewis vouchers for £240 to £990 (depending on cabin grade).

* On a seven-night cruise from Dover to Dublin aboard Crystal Symphony (020 7399 7601; crystalcruises.co.uk), golfers will have the chance to play at clubs such as Faithlegg (from Waterford), Carden Park (Liverpool) and Turnberry (Greenock). The cost, from £2,724pp, includes drinks, gratuities and flight back from Dublin. Golf extra.

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Stop the train, I want to get off: The magic of Britain’s railway request stations

Great was the rubbernecking among my fellow travellers when the train slowed to a halt and I alone arose to leave it. “Who’s he?” I felt their enquiring eyes ask. “Is he someone important?” I wasn’t, sadly, but at that moment I felt pretty special. When I left the next day and put my hand out to make the train stop, the sense that this was my own private railway station had been cemented.

Duncraig, I was to discover, was far from unique. There are 150 or so railway request stops in Britain, which equates to about 6 per cent of all the nation’s stations. Yet, unless you happen to live near one, there’s every chance you’ll never have heard of any of them. That’s a pity, because many of these half-abandoned stops afford a glimpse into a Britain of the  not-so-distant past that has all but disappeared from view.

Some of these stations were built to serve once-thrusting industries such as china clay extraction (Bugle, Cornwall, where the first waggons were pulled by horses ) and iron smelting (St Andrews Road, near Bristol). Others were established for the sole convenience of stately home owners (Dunrobin Castle, Sutherland) and still others were created for day-tripping attractions (The Lakes, Warwickshire) – indeed, the reasons for building them are almost as numerous as the stations themselves.


Tonfanau station in Gwynedd, WalesTonfanau station in Gwynedd, Wales

 

Often a pen’s stroke away from closure,  many of these stations cling on to life for reasons that have little to do with logic: political expediency, labyrinthine bureaucracy and sheer whimsy are often involved or, in the case of Duncraig, an outright rebellion in which local train drivers simply refused to accept that the station had been closed (after 11 years it was grudgingly re-opened).

My travels in search of Britain’s most interesting railway request stops took me from the far west of Cornwall to the far north of Scotland. I drank at the Berney Arms, a pub in the wilds of Norfolk that is only accessible via its eponymous station or by boat; visited Talsarnau, a station that fell victim to a tsunami in 1927 (yes, you read that right – a Welsh tsunami); and witnessed the place where Robert Stephenson blew a massive hole through Conwy’s extraordinary medieval town wall in order to plop two tracks and a station inside what is now a treasured World Heritage Site.

As with the best of trips, one or two misadventures came my way. At Tonfanau in Gwynedd, I brilliantly left the first 10,000 words of notes for my book in the loo of the train. It took a hitch-hike, the perseverance of a policeman called Gareth Edwards (not the rugby player) and the kindness of a train cleaner to reunite me with it some hours later. It was apposite that it was at Tonfanau that I encountered such lashings of helpfulness, because it was here in 1972 that local people rallied round to turn the disused anti-aircraft training camp that was the station’s raison d’être into somewhere habitable for 1,300 refugees who had been summarily thrown out of Uganda by Idi Amin.


Campbells Platform on the Ffestiniog Railway (Dixe Wills)Campbell’s Platform on the Ffestiniog Railway (Dixe Wills)

 

A week or so later, I ended up saving an elderly man’s life, largely by being in the right place (Bootle in Cumbria) at the right time, when he collapsed in the street and split his head open. My return to the station afterwards was less of a triumph. A teenage girl, sitting cross-legged on the platform, stared at me in horror. It was only when I looked down that I noticed that both my hands were dripping with blood (I had held the gentleman’s head together for some time). “I’m not a serial killer!” I wanted to shout to the girl, but since this is a sentence that is rarely likely to reassure an audience, I held my peace.

The story of Bootle is one of great heroism. It was here in 1945 that train driver Harold Goodall lost his life attempting to put out a fire in a wagon loaded with depth charges. Had he and his fireman, Herbert Stubbs, not first bravely uncoupled the wagon from the rest of the train, many more lives would undoubtedly have been lost. It’s a shame that there’s still no plaque at the station to commemorate the men’s selfless feat.

The more that I travelled, the greater the number of oddities that sprang up. For instance, although Greater Manchester’s Reddish South and Denton stations are neighbours, I had to visit them seven days apart because they are served by a single train a week: the so-called Denton Flyer that leaves Stockport station every Friday at 10.13am. Meanwhile, in order to alight at Lympstone Commando in Devon, I had to seek permission in advance from an officer at the eponymous camp.



But for me, the greatest fascination came from what railway request stops said about Britain. Time after time, they highlighted the things that were once important to us but that we have now firmly left in the past (you’ll search for the cavalry camp at Burnley Barracks in vain, for instance), or to serve rural communities that have withered away as their populations have been driven towards towns and cities.

Their continued existence in the shadowy world between the fully functional and the completely closed also stands as testament to the British talent for fudging the issue. However, these quirks of our railway network are to be cherished, for a visit to a railway request stop is, more often than not, a visit to a calmer, more serene and gentler place – a place out of time.

‘Tiny Stations’ by Dixe Wills is published by AA publishing (£16.99)

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Andy Murray: Wimbledon champion and now hotel owner

The Wimbledon champion and Olympic gold medallist bought Cromlix 15 months ago for £1.8m. The house is handsome indeed, with the requisite turrets and castellations for a baronial pile. It was built in 1874 with the finishing touches made by Colonel Arthur Hay-Drummond, who from just before 1900 to 1953 was the Laird of Cromlix.

There is something Harry Potter-esque about the name (and the nearby localities: Dam of Quoiggs, Naggyfauld, Wester Cambushinnie). The most likely origin is the Gaelic crom leac, meaning approximately “curved slab”, as in the hillside on which the house perches nobly. A slab of London SW19 has been transplanted 400 miles north to FK15 9JT, in the shape of a tennis court in purple and green – the colours of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

Murray himself is currently transplanted 1,500 miles south-east to Naples, preparing for the weekend’s Davis Cup quarter-final against Italy. But his mother, Judy, was on hand to meet the first arrivals for the soft opening last week. “It’s been part of the local community for as long as I can remember,” she told me. “Everything about it is aspirational – as is Andy Murray.”

While the exterior stone is looking agreeably mottled with age, by all accounts the house had slipped way beneath its personal best by the time the hotel closed in 2012. A significant part of Murray’s fortune has been invested in restoring it to peak condition – with a twist, because of the new owner’s business plan.

The target guests are the mainstays of upmarket Scottish tourism: wealthy American, Brazilian and Japanese travellers. They will get formality in comfortable abundance, courtesy of the interior designer Kathleen Fraser, who also worked on the refurbishment of Bovey Castle in Devon.


Cromlix: Cromlix: “Everything about it is aspirational – as is Andy Murray.”

The decor and furnishings in the public rooms on the ground floor fill a muted spectrum from ivory to burgundy. The theme continues in the first and second floor bedrooms, which are infused with tradition – and satellite-powered Wi-Fi, as demanded by 21st-century guests who want to escape, but not too far. The suites include bathrooms the size of tennis courts, with claw-foot baths, plus showers designed for doubles. All the sleeping quarters are named after celebrated Scots, from Burns to Connery.

There are surprises, not least on the faces of the deer whose heads and antlers decorate the Snooker Room. One element of the original building survived the 1874 fire, presumably with divine intervention: the chapel, which holds up to 30 guests for weddings; adjacent is a new whisky bar, with appropriate single malts.

The grounds have been lavished with as much care as the interior, with 50 acres of manicured gardens unravelling to the Gate Lodge – now a suite in its own right. And beyond the gates, the surroundings could hardly be more auspicious. The sun in springtime rises over the muscular Ochil Hills; at its zenith it shines upon Ben Clach (a 1,750ft-tall mountain, not a tennis pro); and it sets over the Trossachs.

Bright sunshine, though, is not a permanent feature of the Scottish climate. Murray’s celebrity status has already attracted a volley of interest and custom, including mine, and filling the 10 doubles and five suites at the rack rates from £250 to £595 should not be too tough during the summer. But on gloomy nights in, say, November or January, full occupancy is always going to be a stretch.

So the bar and restaurant were designed by a separate firm, Ian Smith of Edinburgh, to a different brief. The sky-blue and gold of the bar leads into a restaurant of citrus and pine – plus big picture windows that will allow the long evening light of summer to illuminate the theatrical front-of-house kitchen. It provides a dramatic complement to the conservative decor of the hotel, which was precisely the plan. Albert Roux was brought in to oversee the restaurant, with a brief for innovative cuisine using local ingredients – at a price that will attract locals and people from the big Scottish cities. The three-course set menu is £26.50 at lunch, £3 more in the evenings.

“We are proud to support artisan and local producers,” is the boast, and certainly breakfast – included in the room rates – reads like a gazetteer of Scotland: Loch Fyne kipper, Dunkeld smoked salmon and Dingwall black pudding.


Cromlix: Interior view of the hotelCromlix: Interior view of the hotel

Running the hotel is the task of Inverlochy Castle Management International, a multinational “consulting and management service” based at a mansion near Fort William. The chairman, Dr Sin Chai, is as enthusiastic as you would expect about Cromlix, saying “The idea is it’s a house, not a hotel – you’re coming home.”

The reopening of Cromlix has created 40 jobs. Some have gone to experienced staff from outside Scotland, others to local recruits.

During a soft opening, with the staff and systems bedding in, you can expect the odd glitch – but the service was excellent to a fault. We found ourselves in the odd position of experiencing Cromlix before the owner. But Andy Murray told me by email that: “I think I’ve got a long way to go before I start challenging the larger, more established chains, but who knows, I would like to think I’m on the right track.”

Stories that combine celebrities and hotels usually concern deeds committed by the former in the latter: from inappropriate liaisons to trashing rooms or, in extreme circumstances, dying. So it is cheering to report on an abandoned hotel being brought back to life by the UK’s greatest sporting hero. µ

Travel essentials

Simon Calder paid £250 for a double room, including breakfast, at Cromlix (01786 822 125; cromlix.com). A promotional rate of £199 (non-refundable) is available for stays on some dates in June, July and August, if you book this month or next. And if you happen to be a fellow pro on the tennis circuit, Andy Murray says he will give you “a reasonable rate”.

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Breaks with pets: Where B&B stands for basket and breakfast

The Farmhouse at A Corner of Eden, Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria

Within a spectacular valley sits this Georgian farmhouse. Luxurious yet homely, the cosy sitting room has a log fire and the dining room has beautiful beams. There are polished wooden floors and bedrooms with original fireplaces and welcoming beds. Everything has been thought of here, with Barbours, local maps and wellies to borrow; everything to explore the immediate surroundings and the distant Cumbrian hills. There’s a welcome basket with champagne and drinks in the honesty bar, or head out to nearby dog-friendly pubs (there are three in the village).

From £995 per week (sleeps eight), short breaks available (01539 623370; acornerofeden.co.uk).



The Farmouse at A Corner of EdenThe Farmouse at A Corner of Eden

Wriggly Tin, Hampshire

Wriggly Tin shepherd’s huts are two lovely off-grid shacks in a wooded corner of Hampshire, hand built after an inspiring family holiday in the countryside. Butser, a two-person hut, is dog friendly with enough space under the raised double bed for a dog to sleep in comfort. You’re far enough apart to feel on your own, with your personal fire pit, tripod, cast-iron griddle and plenty of wood and kindling for some daring experiments in campfire cooking. Keep a pan of water on the wood-burner for tea and stroll through the surrounding bluebell woods. Dogs get a bag of sausages on arrival.

Three shepherd’s huts (sleep 2-3) from £75pn (0117 204 7830; canopyandstars.co.uk/wrigglytin).

Joiners Arms, Newton-by-the-Sea, Northumberland

The Joiners Arms is a recently renovated little inn with splendid rooms on the Northumberland coast, half a mile from the sea. In the bedrooms, expect antler chandeliers, low-slung French beds and double-ended baths. Some have Juliet balconies, others feature exposed brickwork and all have rich colours, flat-screen TVs and robes in fabulous bathrooms. Dogs are invited with beds of their own and toys to chew on. Downstairs, there are stripped floors, tables in bay windows, local ales and cakes on the counter (or dog biscuits behind the bar). Outside, Alnwick Castle, Holy Island, the magical coast and beautiful hills await.

From £140pn based on two people sharing, £20 per dog (01665 576239; joiners-arms.com).

21 Shoregate, Crail, Fife

Welcome to an immaculate fisherman’s cottage just above exquisite Crail harbour. The inside is small and perfect: cool colours and pretty objects run throughout. The ground floor is open-plan with a Shaker-style kitchen that holds all you need, plus a dining table for four. Find a handy guide filled with dog-friendly beach, pub and restaurant recommendations, as well as dog toys (free to use and lose!). Upstairs are two stylish bedrooms with crisp linen, smart carpets and lovely quilts. Small but beautifully formed, No 21 would suit close friends or a family, or a couple of romancers. Stroll out to find Fife coastal path just by the front door.

From £470pw (sleeps 4), £20 per dog (07879 480529; 21shoregate.com).

Long Cover Cottage, Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire

Stealing its name from the backdrop of ancient undisturbed woodland, Long Cover Cottage and its surrounds make a natural home for frazzled humans and their dogs. Winding up the long track to this converted stable, there are glorious glimpses of the Teme and Kyre valleys; the setting is spectacular. Windows flood rooms with light that bounces off polished elm floorboards; a wood-burner and Aga keep things cosy. Lucky children can find a secret treehouse with hammocks and a barbecue for midnight feasts; lucky pets are promised treats and seven acres to explore. Resting on the borders of three counties, this is prime walking country.

From £900pw (sleeps 6) (01885 410208; a-country-break.co.uk).

The Traddock, Settle, Yorkshire

Those looking for a friendly base from which to explore the Dales will find it here at this northern outpost of country-house charm. Enter through a wonderful drawing room with a crackling fire, pretty art, daily papers and cavernous sofas. Bedrooms range from coolly contemporary to deliciously traditional, with family antiques and the odd claw-foot bath. Up to two dogs can stay in the room with you and well-behaved pups are even allowed to stay in your room during supper time. Spectacular walks start at the front door with miles of national park, forests and extraordinary caves. Dog-wash facilities and towels are on hand to clean off muddy paws.

From £85pn, £5 per dog (01524 251224; thetraddock.co.uk).



Marver HouseMarver House

Marver House, Mawgan Porth, Newquay, Cornwall

All is big, beautiful and filled with light. The décor is eclectic with period furniture and modern pieces. Further treats await up the sweeping stair: six bedrooms, six bathrooms and amazing sea views. The fridge is stocked with drinks; there are books, board games and huge stacks of logs, surf boards, wetsuits and a Victorian croquet set. Dogs are far from forgotten with supplies of handmade bacon-fat biscuits and half-baked pig’s ears.

From £3,750pw (sleeps 12) (01637 861820; marverhouse.co.uk).

Lower Fifehead Farm, Sturminster Newton, Dorset

The dramatic dining room has church pews at an oak refectory table; the log fire will be lit in winter and you can eat on the terrace in summer. Hearty breakfasts include bacon and sausages from home-reared pigs. It’s a gorgeous house that shines with pretty fabrics, antiques, hand-painted furniture, vintage pieces – and seriously comfortable brass beds. Outside, take walking advice from kindly hosts; dogs return to a post-walk hose down and a chewy pig’s ear in front of the fire.

From £75pn, dogs £10pn (01258 817335; lowerfifeheadfarm.co.uk).

The Humble Hideaway, Upper Meend Farm, near Monmouth

Kate Humble and husband Ludo stepped in to save Upper Meend Farm when it was nearly sold off in pieces. They and their team have preserved it carefully. The Humble Hideaway is made up of two huts, a dog kennel, a firepit and a seating area under the trees. It’s an off-grid, cosy space and the surrounding woodland tracks and nearby River Wye make it a doggy heaven. The first hut is the bedroom, with custom-made mattress stuffed with wool from the farm’s own sheep. The second was once the property of Great Western Railways, ingeniously converted into a kitchen and shower room. For four-legged friends there’s a specially made Dog House.

From £80pn (sleeps 2), £5 per dog (0117 204 7830; canopyandstars
.co.uk/thehumblehideaway
).

For more information and booking details for all properties go to sawdays.co.uk. Sawday’s new Special Places to Stay: Dog-friendly Breaks in Britain is out 1 April (£14.99). To buy a copy and for more information go to sawdays.co.uk

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B&B and beyond: East Sussex

The bed

Shabby chic is the clichéd term for such interiors of provençal-style furniture, patchwork blankets, quirky chandeliers and dove-grey-washed everything. Anyone who’s browsed the antiques stores of East Sussex may recognise Blue Door Barns’s four 16th-century outhouses (sleeping two to four) as having a distinctly “Lewes look”.

The “BB” label represents the key ingredients, but here it should be celebrated as a “BBB”– the last “B” denoting a decent bathroom. A slate-tiled en suite shower is a terrific tonic after a deep sleep in the comfortable bed. Two of the barns come equipped with kitchenettes for longer stays.

It’s not just a pretty part of the world: that South Downs air has a soporific effect. If nature isn’t enough to take it down a gear, there’s always the Snug to turn to. Shed on the outside, chic sanctuary within, this micro-spa offers indulgent facials (from £40) from a holistic therapist with magical hands.



The 'Lodge' barnThe ‘Lodge’ barn

The breakfast

The sitting room of the main farmhouse has the same easy elegance as the barns. It is in this lounge-like dining room that breakfast is served. Sinatra crooning, wood-burning stove crackling – it’s a home with heart, but with a hotel-quality menu created from locally sourced farm produce. (Self-catering barns get a welcome hamper, or guests can eat in the house for £8pp.)

The hosts

The genesis of Blue Door Barns is a familiar tale: girl from Eastbourne works in the Big Smoke for 20 years, then sells her successful PR company and moves with her family back to her roots. “I like entertaining and looking after people,” says Bryony Johnson, who couldn’t be more welcoming or friendly. “It’s Emma who makes everything look beautiful,” she says. Emma was previously in property and co-hosted Channel 4′s House Auction as the expert, so it was the ideal project for them when they made the move to East Sussex with children, Sadie (eight) and Rafe (six).



CharlestonCharleston

The weekend

Follow in the footsteps of the Bloomsbury Set. It’s a five-minute drive to Charleston in Lewes, which was the home and studio of Vanessa Bell and her second-husband Duncan Grant. It houses a museum, open April to September (01305 262 538; charleston.org.uk). Virginia Woolf lived at 17th-century Monk’s House (01273 474760; nationaltrust.org.uk). Glyndebourne Opera House is only a few minutes’ drive away (01273 815000; glyndebourne.com); the festival runs from 17 May to 24 August. Your hosts can help with packing you a picnic.

Antiquing is fun in the historic market town of Lewes. Pastorale Antiques (01273 473259) is packed with treasures. Its Buttercup Café is a winner for large-portion tangy salads, cakes and sandwiches.

The pit-stop

The Grade-II listed Ram Inn pub (01273 858222; raminn.co.uk) has been serving ale to the hamlet of Firle for 500 years. Sharing boards are the star – potted crab and whitebait, or Vacherin Mont d’Or and beef-dripping cooked chips. In Lewes itself, visit the artisanal Flint Owl bakery, which also serves a mean flat white coffee.

Alfriston is a village of Enid Blyton cuteness. Moonrakers (01323 871199; moonrakersrestaurant.co.uk) is a suitably dinky dining room ideal for romantic candle-lit three-course dinners (01323 871199; from £35 a head). If you’re heading towards Ashdown Forest, pause for the 12th-century charms of Fletching village, then head to The Griffin (01825 722890; thegriffininn.co.uk), half an hour away. A daily-changing chalkboard features hearty salads and just-baked focaccia sandwiches, or full-on feasts of Romney Marsh lamb and Sussex beef.

The essentials

Blue Door Barns, Beddingham, Lewes, East Sussex BN8 6JY (01273 858 893; bluedoorbarns.com). Doubles start at £100 a night, including breakfast.

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Lee Valley VeloPark: In the laps of cycling Gods

Seventeen months later, the only person in the audience is an unseeing cleaner sweeping under rows of empty seats. But it doesn’t matter that nobody is watching, because the only noise, meanwhile, is the gentle creaking of wood under the tyres – not of Sir Chris Hoy’s or Laura Trott’s bikes, but mine. I am doing, rather more nervously than the pros, what, from next week, anyone else will be able to do: ride in the tracks of heroes around the greatest stage for cycling in the world, at the centre of a venue that gives new meaning to that fraught phrase “Olympic legacy”.

The Lee Valley VeloPark at Stratford is the only place where a cyclist can pedal in four very different disciplines – and on two Olympic courses. Right outside the Pringle-shaped velodrome, the terrifying BMX track has been softened slightly. Around that winds a new, one-mile ribbon of pristine Tarmac, a gift to road cyclists. In and around that: five miles of mountain bike trails. On Monday, the VeloPark opens to the public as the latest Olympic venue to be given back to London (sweaty cyclists might like to cool off in the stunning pool, which opened last month, or, 12 miles north of here, the white-water centre). A hockey and tennis centre opens in May. A week ahead of time, I slipped into something snug for a very rapid, two-wheeled tour.


Simon Usborne on the roadSimon Usborne on the road

Track

“Push on, push on!” shouts Jez Cox, an ex-pro cyclist who is assistant manager of the VeloPark and in charge of cycling development. The 250m wooden track is formed of 35 miles of pine boards (less the chunk Freddie Flintoff took out in a crash during last week’s Sport Relief charity races). Cox assures me they are the “stickiest” of any velodrome, as long as you “push on” to keep momentum going around the steep banks.

Like all the disciplines here, the track is open to riders of any level. Condor Cycles, the well-known London brand, has provided dozens of rental bikes that can be ridden with clippy track shoes (also available to hire) or just trainers. Cox and his coaching team are on hand to help riders take the sport as far as they want to.

What should be as boring to a cyclist as a wheel might be to a hamster, or a bowl to a goldfish, is strangely thrilling. This is the world’s fastest velodrome, and while my speed remains relatively modest, the temptation to go faster than you thought you could is irresistible.

BMX

This is the only Olympic cycling venue where Team GB failed to deliver a medal, but we won’t dwell on that. The giant start ramp has been halved in height to 4m, thankfully, but descending it on a tiny BMX bike remains daunting for a first-timer.

A mini “pump track” neighbours the course so that beginners can learn the “pumping” arm action required to keep momentum over the bumps (and to keep the wheels on the ground, should you wish to). I take no air as I navigate 400m of bumps and banks on the main course, but can’t help grinning, and feeling like a much younger man.

The BMX course is overlooked by the striking velodrome and its open upper concourse, where non-cyclists will be welcome to watch and use the café. Cox says curious tourists have already started coming just to look. There are plans to let them sit inside the velodrome to relive the Olympic races on the big screens as that roar is funnelled back in via the speakers.

Mountain

East London is not known for its mountains, but Olympic-level earth-moving has lent the VeloPark a striking new topography either side of the busy A12 road. A new bridge links up more than five miles of undulating trails, which are graded, piste-style, into blue, red and black runs. I save the big stuff for another time and ride with Cox on some training trails, which are challenging enough for a beginner.

Again, coaching is the priority here, and groups of all abilities and backgrounds will be welcomed and shown the basics of cornering and negotiating a variety of terrain, from gravel to big, rocky drops. The courses have been conceived by Dafyyd Davis, a renowned trail designer, and while east London might be a long way from his native North Wales, this is the closest you’ll feel to wilderness, just six miles east of Tower Bridge.

Road

I must declare a bias here and say that the new road course is, for me and booming numbers of like-minded cyclists, a very exciting prospect. Dedicated, purpose-built roads are very rare things. No potholes, no traffic lights, no lorries. The course winds for about a mile, taking in several tight bends and gentle drops and rises, its farthest loop crossing the River Lea via two new bridges.

The floodlit asphalt is as smooth and grippy as a Formula One track, and, at 6m wide, it’s perfect for recreational riding as well as racing. It is also the clearest nod to the pre-Olympic history of this place. The old Eastway Cycle Circuit, opened here in 1975, became a hugely popular centre for racing, visited by the world’s best pros as well as generations of young British riders, including Bradley Wiggins and Laura Trott. A mountain bike trail called Beastway became a big draw, too, including for Grayson Perry, an amateur now better known for his pottery.

Cox, who’s 36, remembers very fondly travelling across London from Hillingdon in west London, where he grew up, to race here from the age of 12, and the huge sadness that came when it was announced that the circuits would be demolished to make way for the Games. “I was living in France and came all the way back for the last race,” he says. “When I finished, I kissed the track and cried. A lot of people cried, because this was somewhere they’d grown up, that was special. If I can achieve anything with this place it’s to give other people that feeling.”

For information about reservations and prices for sessions at the Lee Valley VeloPark, go to visitleevalley.org.uk or call 08456770603. Easter holiday taster sessions for seven-16-year-olds (12-16 for track) cost from £12. Sessions for adults cost £15 and £30 for track. Booking is essential

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Traveller’s Guide: Georgian Britain

The period is also characterised by a flourishing of the arts and science. The British Museum (020 7323 8299; britishmuseum.org) was founded in 1753, Georgian literary greats penning verse and prose included Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and novelists from Henry Fielding to Jane Austen. The age was also defined by the development of a distinctive architectural style. Names of note include landscape designer Capability Brown and architects John Nash and Robert Adam.

However, the man largely responsible for changing the architectural face of Britain was William Kent (1685-1748), a Yorkshireman who, after 10 years of studying in Rome, returned inspired by the Classical architecture of Vitruvius and the 16th-century Venetian, Andrea Palladio. Kent was to spearhead a revolution in building and landscape design.

“William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain” opens today at the Victoria Albert Museum in London and runs until 13 July, showcasing Kent’s broad portfolio (020 7942 2000; vam.ac.uk). He also turned his hand to interiors, notably Houghton Hall (01485 528569; houghtonhall.com) in Norfolk and the London villa of his patron, Lord Burlington, Chiswick House (020 8995 0508; chgt.org.uk). Kent’s first royal commission was to decorate the new State Rooms at Kensington Palace (0844 482 7777; hrp.org.uk).

The new style included grand estates such as Holkham Hall (01328 710227; holkham.co.uk) in Norfolk, one of the best examples of Anglo-Palladian design, and opulent palaces such as the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, a vision of oriental splendour (0300 029 0900; bit.ly/BtnPav). Town planning also got an overhaul; Edinburgh and Bath, with their sweeping crescents and grand squares, are the jewels in the crown.

Bath (visitbath.co.uk), which is celebrating the Georgian tricentenary with a host of events, has no fewer than 5,000 listed buildings including key Georgian attractions such as No 1 Royal Crescent (no1royalcrescent.org.uk) – recently reopened after a £5m restoration. The city also has World Heritage status.

The Scottish capital’s architecture is similarly protected by Unesco. In 1766, a competition was announced to transform Edinburgh, until then dominated by its castle and medieval tenements, into the Athens of the North. The winner was James Craig, who visited King George III in 1767 to seek approval for his ordered layout of crescents, leafy boulevards and grand squares. Today, those streets still bear their Georgian names: George, Princes and Queen. Rose Street and Thistle Street link England and Scotland as did the squares, St Andrew and St George (later renamed Charlotte after the Queen), at either end of George Street.

In Charlotte Square, you can see how they lived in The Georgian House (0844 493 2117; nts.org.uk) designed by Robert Adam in 1791 for the chief of the Clan Lamont and now run by the National Trust for Scotland.

Go Scotland Tours (0131 258 3306; goscotlandtours.com) runs a New Town walking tour, “Hidden Georgian Gems,” developed with the Edinburgh World Heritage Organisation (each Friday at 11am, April to September; £11), starting in St Andrew Square Gardens.

Capital idea

On 21 May, you can delve into Georgian London on a one-day tour by Art History UK (020 7602 3716; arthistoryuk.com; £78). It starts in the old Foundling Hospital, now a museum, founded by philanthropist Thomas Coram, and sponsored by the artist and satirist William Hogarth and composer George Frederic Handel. It helped save 25,000 children who were either orphans or unwanted. The tour takes in Hanover Square and the church of St George’s and Handel’s home in Brook Street, where there will be a harpsichord concert.

In vogue

In fashionable Regency society, Bath’s 18th-century Assembly Rooms were the place to be seen. Today, part of the complex hosts the Fashion Museum (01225 477789; museumof costume.co.uk; £8) where an exhibition, “Georgians: 18th-century dress for polite society”, runs until January next year and showcases the fashions of the day. It features around 30 original outfits alongside a number of 18th-century inspired creations from five top modern British designers including Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen.



Hampton Court Palace's recently uncovered 18th century chocolate kitchenHampton Court Palace’s recently uncovered 18th century chocolate kitchen

Life was sweet … if you were the king

To eat like a king, head to Hampton Court Palace (0844 482 7777; hrp.org.uk; £18.20) where there’s a recently uncovered 18th-century chocolate kitchen. Here, Thomas Tosier, chocolatier to Georges I and II conjured up delicious creations including steaming hot chocolate for the courtiers.

There are cookery demonstrations throughout the year including Georgian Chocolate Cookery from 18-21 April and Tudor and Georgian cookery, 3-5 May, 7-8 June, 5-6 July, 3-4 August. The demonstrations are included in your ticket.

You can learn more about the period’s cuisine in the 18th-century kitchens of George III’s retreat down the Thames at Kew Palace (0844 482 7777; hrp.org.uk; £14.50).

To dine amid Georgian splendour, visit The Music Room in Lancaster, a 1730 garden pavilion now home to a handsome tea room (themusicroomcafe.com) and a Landmark Trust rental property (01628 825925; landmarktrust.org.uk; four nights from £201 for two guests).

Upstairs, downstairs

At Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire (0845 459 8900; shugborough.org.uk; £12.50), a working historic estate, you can visit the 18th-century stately home along with its farm, where dairy maids and farm hands show you how to produce butter and cheese. In the Mansion House, you can follow the lady of the house through the dining room, with its grand three-foot-high silver candelabra and the sumptuous red Drawing Room with its spectacular chandelier. Within the 900-acre parkland are eight Georgian monuments including an enormous Neo-Classical arch and Chinese House at the entrance to the island garden.

At Beamish, The Living Museum of the North (0191 370 4000; beamish.org.uk; £17.50) in County Durham, you can explore Pockerley Old Hall, a restored Georgian farmhouse, and take a trip on an old steam train on the Pockerley Wagonway.

There is also a Georgian Country Fair, from 29 May to 1 June, featuring traditional entertainment such as Punch Judy, a flea circus and traditional music.

What a performance

The Georgians loved theatre. You can go backstaget at Britain’s only surviving Regency playhouse in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. The Theatre Royal (01284 769505; www.theatre royal.org) is a working theatre that has uncovered a number of lost works from the era and holds periodical performances of these forgotten Regency plays. Tours are offered three times a week (Saturday 11am, Tuesday and Thursday 2pm) between 1 February and 15 May and from 2 September to 15 November; £6, National Trust members free). During the summer, the theatre has an exhibition of its 200-year history. “Backstage Past, Live Encounters” also features some live performances.

Kings Lynn in Norfolk is also celebrating its Georgian heritage this summer and its most renowned Georgian, Charles Burney, the musical historian, organist and father of the novelist Frances Burney. “Georgian Lynn and the Brilliant Burney Family” will be held at the Custom House from 6 June to 31 October (01553 763044; visitwestnorfolk.com). The annual Kings Lynn Festival (01553 764864; kingslynnfestival.org.uk; 13-26 July) will feature classical music concerts, a Georgian masquerade and a Georgian banquet.

Where to stay

One of the most exciting hotel openings this summer will be The Gainsborough Bath Spa (www.thegainsboroughbathspa.co.uk). The hotel , which was originally the Royal United Hospital, spans three historic buildings, each with a Grade-II listed Georgian façade. It will be the first hotel to have direct access to Bath’s thermal waters. Doubles will start at £289.

In Cheltenham, which lays claim to be “the most complete Regency town in England”, No 131 (01242 822939; no131.com) opened recently in a pristine Georgian house, with bold, contemporary interiors. Doubles from £170, room only.

In Wales, the recently renovated Nanteos Mansion near Aberystwyth (01970 600522; nanteos.com) is a grand Georgian country house with doubles from £180, including breakfast.

Cloister House (01981 550753; vivat-trust.org) in the Scottish Borders, is an elegant Georgian house in the grounds of Melrose Abbey with open fires, a games room and a roll-top bath. Three nights’ rental starts at £581 for eight guests and includes welcome hamper.

Or stay in the Georgian House (01628 825925 ; landmarktrust.org.uk; sleeps eight) in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace, built as a kitchen in 1719 for George, Prince of Wales. Four-night breaks from £769.

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5 ways to… Enjoy a British farmstay

And farmers, increasingly turning to tourism for an alternative income, are becoming more inventive, with everything from “glamping” sites to spas diversifying the  farmstay proposition.

Get hands on

Become an honorary “Junior Farmer” – whatever your age – at Swallowtail Hill in Sussex (0117 204 7830; canopyandstars.co.uk/swallowtailhill). Kids (big and small) can help out with the duties, from tending the menagerie (pigs, goats, chickens, rabbits, sheep, ducks) to learning woodcraft or driving a tractor. Accommodation is eclectic too: choose between the two secluded wood cabins (sleeps four; from £80pn); the Meadow Keeper’s Cottage, a crooked shack on wheels (sleeps two plus two kids; from £100pn); or fairytale Woodcutter’s Cottage (sleeps two plus two children; from £100pn).

Self-cater by the sea

Occupying the southern tip of west coast Scotland’s Isle of Bute, the sea laps three sides of Plan Farm’s 1,600-acre plot. You can happily holiday entirely within its boundaries: it has its own hill, the remains of a 6th-century monastery, 8km of coastline and a sandy beach where grey seals are regular visitors. Deer, buzzards and butterflies also flit among the farm’s 100 cows (which calve in spring) and 700 ewes (which lamb in April).

The recently refurbished Shepherd’s Cottage, a wing of the main farmhouse, sleeps four; the lounge is the best room, with its woodburning stove and west-facing windows, ideal for watching sunsets over the sea. Three nights from £329 (01700 831652; planfarmbute.co.uk).

Get on course

Kate Humble knows a thing or two about spring-watching, and her working farm in the Wye Valley – Humble by Nature (01600 714 595; humblebynature.com) – is geared towards teaching others rural skills. As well as courses in everything from animal husbandry to willow pea hurdles, there’s a range of new cookery courses for 2014: the upcoming Teen Cookery Skills  (14 April; £95) and Make Hot Cross Buns (17 April; £20) will keep  children busy.

Families can stay at the two-bed Piggery, a cosy cottage with a private garden from which you can pick salad and collect eggs (from £110 per night). Couples might prefer the Humble Hideaway, a luxurious shepherd’s hut tucked away in the woods (sleeps two; from £80pn).

Indulge with a spa

There’s no reason why farmstays can’t come with a hint of luxury. Cyfie Farm, a 17th-century converted longhouse and restored barns near Lake Vyrnwy on the edge of Snowdonia, offers five-star BB; its three spacious suites have living areas and kitchenettes. But best is the new alfresco spa, with hot tub and sauna. Take a daytime dip for views of the hills, sheep, cattle and Welsh cob horses, or soak at night to enjoy the silence and starry sky. Doubles from £58pn; spa treatments from £20 an hour (01691 648 451; cyfiefarm.co.uk).

Focus on the food

Food miles are minimal at 260-acre Eckington Manor Farm, which ripples across the Cotswolds. Highland cattle, Gloucester Old Spot pigs, Lleyn sheep and the spoils of the veg garden and orchard all make it onto both the restaurant’s menu and the in-house syllabus: the ethos of Eckington’s modern cookery school is “from garden fork to dinner fork”.

Guest rooms are luxury-country-house style, with exposed beams and antique furniture; the farm is ideal for spring strolls, either by the River Avon, to the bird hides or to see the lambing in action. Doubles from £129, BB; Midweek Cook Stay breaks, including BB and a half-day course, from £149pp (01386 751 600; eckingtonmanor.co.uk).

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Walk of the month: The Kiplingcotes Derby

Next to me on the grass verge was a stone post that marks the beginning of what is surely the quirkiest horse race in Britain. The lane stretched out ahead of me towards a crossroads 400 yards away: I was following the route of the Kiplingcotes Derby, arguably the oldest surviving equestrian event in Britain. Conventional belief says the race dates to 1519. More to the point, there isn’t actually a race course, instead runners and riders use country lanes and unclassified roads and, briefly, a major A-road – to gallop the four miles. There’s no formal entry – competitors simply show up on the morning of the race. Even better, the race’s arcane rules mean that the second placed rider receives more prize money than the winner. The drama unfolds over nine minutes or so.

The finish line – at Londsbrough Wold Farm near the village of Warter – is the best place to stand, as you get to see the weighing in, any last-minute impulsive entries, the enjoyably over-dramatic reading of the rules and, above all, the dash to winning post. After weighing in at the finish line, the horses are ridden at a trot to the start. You could start this walk from the village of Goodmanham at 9.30am, as I did, and be at the finishing line – just over half way through this walk – in time to see the winner come home. I walked the course in the morning of last year’s Derby Day and was kept company by Stephen Crawford, who is the lifeblood of the event.

“It all started off as a straight race between two squires to see whose horse was better, and it just got competitive. It’s difficult when there is no course as such – if you argue with half a ton of horse that says it’s going to turn left when you want to go right there’s only one winner.”


The Kiplingcotes Derby, arguably the oldest surviving equestrian event in BritainThe Kiplingcotes Derby, arguably the oldest surviving equestrian event in Britain

Tradition says that if the race is ever cancelled, it cannot take place ever again. In 1947, heavy snow got the better of all, but a farmer lead a horse around the course to ensure the race’s unbroken record would continue. In 2001, Steven walked his horse around the course when foot and mouth prevented the usual race taking place. “I walked the course but they never put my name on the trophy,” he smiled.

My walk turned out to be worth the journey. Leaving Goodmanham I followed lanes that slice through high, flat country before dipping down to a dale and following a path along a disused rail line. There were glimpses of the original chalk grasslands that were once widespread, and the birds include screeching yellowhammers. Hedgerows were made up of lovely blackthorn brambles.

I left the track at the semi- restored railway houses of disused Kiplingcotes Station. More timeworn are the Bronze Age tumuli and long barrows protruding from the surrounding fields. At a crossroads I made a brief detour to the start line, marked by that stone post. Then it was more long, straight, and very empty and undulating lanes. I passed a crossroads to drop down, then up, towards the finish line. When I first spotted it, the winning post – or the treeline that surrounded it – was perhaps two miles away. I got there just ahead of the leaders. The horses were sleek and super fit, clouds of steam rising from their flanks, and there was a clear winner, Woteva.

As the victor and vanquished dispersed, I retraced my steps to the crossroads and followed a quiet lane back to Goodmanham. There were views over much of my route, hedgerows protruding here, a solitary silhouette of an oak there. By the end of my walk I was utterly charmed by the countryside. I caught up again with Stephen after the race in the village pub, the Goodmanham Arms.

“People in east Yorkshire are terribly proud of their country. This isn’t Epsom, or Aintree, it’s the Kiplingcotes Derby, something that’s been going since the 16th century. You’ve been walking along roads and verges that have not changed much since Henry VIII’s time.”

Getting there

The nearest railway station is Beverley, served by Northern Rail trains on the Hull to Scarborough line (08457 48 49 50; nationalrail.co.uk).

Eating drinking there

The Goodmanham Arms (01430 873849; goodmanhamarms.co.uk).

More information

The next Kiplingcotes Derby takes place on Thursday 20 March.

Visithullandeastyorkshire.com

 

Start/finish: Goodmanham

Distance: Eight miles

Time: Four hours

OS Map: Market Weighton Yorkshire Wolds Central 294


Walking the Kiplingcotes Derby: location mapWalking the Kiplingcotes Derby: click to enlarge

Directions: From the Goodmanham Arms pub, in Goodmanham, turn right along the Yorkshire Wolds Way and then left along the Hudson Way, along a disused railtrack. At Kiplingcotes Station bear left and dog-leg across the crossroads. After 500 yards, turn right at the crossroads to the start line for the race. Retrace your steps to the crossroads, go straight ahead for four miles, crossing the A614 to the finishing post. Return across the A614 and, after two miles, turn right at the crossroads past Goodmanham Wold Farm to Goodmanham.

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Walk of the month: The Kiplingcotes Derby

Next to me on the grass verge was a stone post that marks the beginning of what is surely the quirkiest horse race in Britain. The lane stretched out ahead of me towards a crossroads 400 yards away: I was following the route of the Kiplingcotes Derby, arguably the oldest surviving equestrian event in Britain. Conventional belief says the race dates to 1519. More to the point, there isn’t actually a race course, instead runners and riders use country lanes and unclassified roads and, briefly, a major A-road – to gallop the four miles. There’s no formal entry – competitors simply show up on the morning of the race. Even better, the race’s arcane rules mean that the second placed rider receives more prize money than the winner. The drama unfolds over nine minutes or so.

The finish line – at Londsbrough Wold Farm near the village of Warter – is the best place to stand, as you get to see the weighing in, any last-minute impulsive entries, the enjoyably over-dramatic reading of the rules and, above all, the dash to winning post. After weighing in at the finish line, the horses are ridden at a trot to the start. You could start this walk from the village of Goodmanham at 9.30am, as I did, and be at the finishing line – just over half way through this walk – in time to see the winner come home. I walked the course in the morning of last year’s Derby Day and was kept company by Stephen Crawford, who is the lifeblood of the event.

“It all started off as a straight race between two squires to see whose horse was better, and it just got competitive. It’s difficult when there is no course as such – if you argue with half a ton of horse that says it’s going to turn left when you want to go right there’s only one winner.”


The Kiplingcotes Derby, arguably the oldest surviving equestrian event in BritainThe Kiplingcotes Derby, arguably the oldest surviving equestrian event in Britain

Tradition says that if the race is ever cancelled, it cannot take place ever again. In 1947, heavy snow got the better of all, but a farmer lead a horse around the course to ensure the race’s unbroken record would continue. In 2001, Steven walked his horse around the course when foot and mouth prevented the usual race taking place. “I walked the course but they never put my name on the trophy,” he smiled.

My walk turned out to be worth the journey. Leaving Goodmanham I followed lanes that slice through high, flat country before dipping down to a dale and following a path along a disused rail line. There were glimpses of the original chalk grasslands that were once widespread, and the birds include screeching yellowhammers. Hedgerows were made up of lovely blackthorn brambles.

I left the track at the semi- restored railway houses of disused Kiplingcotes Station. More timeworn are the Bronze Age tumuli and long barrows protruding from the surrounding fields. At a crossroads I made a brief detour to the start line, marked by that stone post. Then it was more long, straight, and very empty and undulating lanes. I passed a crossroads to drop down, then up, towards the finish line. When I first spotted it, the winning post – or the treeline that surrounded it – was perhaps two miles away. I got there just ahead of the leaders. The horses were sleek and super fit, clouds of steam rising from their flanks, and there was a clear winner, Woteva.

As the victor and vanquished dispersed, I retraced my steps to the crossroads and followed a quiet lane back to Goodmanham. There were views over much of my route, hedgerows protruding here, a solitary silhouette of an oak there. By the end of my walk I was utterly charmed by the countryside. I caught up again with Stephen after the race in the village pub, the Goodmanham Arms.

“People in east Yorkshire are terribly proud of their country. This isn’t Epsom, or Aintree, it’s the Kiplingcotes Derby, something that’s been going since the 16th century. You’ve been walking along roads and verges that have not changed much since Henry VIII’s time.”

Getting there

The nearest railway station is Beverley, served by Northern Rail trains on the Hull to Scarborough line (08457 48 49 50; nationalrail.co.uk).

Eating drinking there

The Goodmanham Arms (01430 873849; goodmanhamarms.co.uk).

More information

The next Kiplingcotes Derby takes place on Thursday 20 March.

Visithullandeastyorkshire.com

 

Start/finish: Goodmanham

Distance: Eight miles

Time: Four hours

OS Map: Market Weighton Yorkshire Wolds Central 294


Walking the Kiplingcotes Derby: location mapWalking the Kiplingcotes Derby: click to enlarge

Directions: From the Goodmanham Arms pub, in Goodmanham, turn right along the Yorkshire Wolds Way and then left along the Hudson Way, along a disused railtrack. At Kiplingcotes Station bear left and dog-leg across the crossroads. After 500 yards, turn right at the crossroads to the start line for the race. Retrace your steps to the crossroads, go straight ahead for four miles, crossing the A614 to the finishing post. Return across the A614 and, after two miles, turn right at the crossroads past Goodmanham Wold Farm to Goodmanham.

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