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T is for topical

Okay, there are inevitably times when a piece is submitted weeks ahead of the publication date and you just have to cross everything that the eatery so enthusiastically recommended hasn’t closed its doors overnight, a heritage restoration project didn’t suffer a loss of funding or a beautiful walk isn’t suddenly blighted by fly-tippers.

Fortunately a good chef usually stays in business, audience development keeps visitor numbers growing  and a cherished environment remains preserved. Whilst always on the look-out for the next scoop, more often than not as writers we give voice to those who’ve already given their silent approval and make those yet to make a discovery aware of what they’re missing.

Tweets and social media in general do a great job at getting word out instantly, but what I still love about old-fashioned print is the chance to stumble across a feature several months (or in the case of my dentist’s waiting room, perhaps years) after it’s been written, and the recommendation still holds true. You’ve not missed the boat, in fact the experience might be even better than was first reported.

This month’s recommendations
Beaulieu: not only is there a Hot Rod & Custom Drive-In this father’s day, a Vintage Village offers something for the non petrol-heads.

Epsom Racecourse: you might be dusting down the hats and tails for The Derby but thanks to an ancient law, The Hill is free whatever happens betwixt the rails.

Farnborough Air Sciences Museum: you don’t need to be a boffin to enjoy a visit to this once hush, hush site. Anyone who recalls Concorde will love it.

Surrey Artist’ Open Studios: with over 300 artists throwing open their doors between 6-21 June the whole county celebrates the talent that’s on display.  

Romance at every turn

It’s strange how commissions covering apparently diverse subjects can suddenly throw-up some common themes. Whether it’s the steady bombardment of St Valentine’s Day messages in our high streets or the nagging reminders arriving in our mail to remember the ones we love, I’ve certainly been looking at the world through rose tinted specs lately.

A visit to Lymington’s St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery revealed a cavalcade of romantic local ‘celebrities’ over the centuries. From naval hero Admiral Sir Harry Burrard Neale who foiled an infamous mutiny to the once small-time boat builder Thomas Inman, who designed a world-beating craft for the inaugural America’s Cup race; from amateur footballer Gilbert Oswald Smith who went on to become the David Beckham of his generation to Barbara Marchioness of Hastings, the trowel blazing fossil hunter whose prized discoveries are now held by London’s Natural History Museum. January’s issue of Hampshire Life lifted the lid on this rich local heritage.

And while a recce of the recent restoration work at Fleet Pond revealed an altogether different landscape, what a labour of love this has been. Watching volunteers from the Fleet Pond Society turn out in force on a wintry weekend to assist their local countryside ranger, I could only applaud their dedication. A front page feature in February’s issue shows the transformation achieved and in the stunning photography, the wonderful sights that can now be enjoyed at this north Hampshire gem.

But it’s little surprise that what’s really got me in the mood is sniffing out 50 Ways to Treat Your Loved One for this month’s issue of Surrey Life. Despite having lived in the county for over three decades, there’s clearly so much more going on than I’d ever realised before. St Valentine’s Day or not, I’m sure I deserve to treat myself to a supersonic ‘flight’ at Brooklands Museum, try a llama trek in the Surrey Hills and maybe sample a night in a shepherd’s hut. Okay, so this last suggestion definitely sounds one to share – perhaps if I leave a copy of the magazine out my other half could ‘surprise’ me yet!

New territory and familiar stomping grounds

the_ship_inn_langstoneCrossing borders into a new county always throws up a few surprises and a couple of commissions for Chichester Harbour Conservancy this autumn has been no exception. Briefly swapping the Surrey Hills and the Hampshire valleys for the West Sussex coastline I had the pleasure of meeting some of the small businesses that call this area home. From marine suppliers to farmers, and from publicans to artists all have a story to tell which will be shared in the CHC 2015 Guide.

wickham_bridge_streetWhat came across was how much they all loved where they called home, not that earning a living has all been plain sailing in recent times. Wherever they are based today’s entrepreneurs need to keep attracting customers. Which is just what the shopkeepers in Wickham appear to be doing very successfully. The archetypal Hampshire marketplace welcomes locals and visitors alike, and with new attractions like the Wonky Pot tea & herb company brewing-up a fresh range of products to tempt us, hopefully our smaller towns villages will continue to thrive. Hampshire Life online carries this story.

P1100245Back in Portsmouth for a Dickens Christmas review, it never fails to amaze me how much we take for granted right on our doorstep. This is still a city that’s steeped in heritage, you just need to scratch beneath the surface sometimes. The Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum might be bypassed by major traffic routes but is well worth a detour especially if, as December’s Hampshire Life reveals, there’s time to pick up the trail of the famous author’s landmarks. You never know what you might discover.

In fact, the same looks true for audiences this Christmas at Kingston’s Rose Theatre. A backstage piece on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for Surrey Life brought the magic of CS Lewis’ classic flooding back. With an exuberant young cast and director bringing festive cheer this season, let’s hope our small businesses have plenty to celebrate too.

Summer sizzlers

Okay so it’s not original but this headline seems appropriate for what (in the most part) has been a British summer to remember thanks to the mercury rising and some fascinating interviews.

Prepared to do their job whatever the weather are the pilots at RAF Odiham and a recent sortie to the UK nerve-centre of the Chinook helicopter squadrons was just awe-inspiring. Regaled with tales of front line duty in Afghanistan and emergency flood operations closer to home, the highlight was to actually step foot inside the cockpit of one of these aviation monsters and thanks must go to everyone for being so welcoming. To get the full story, my feature on the base has just been published in September’s issue of Hampshire Life.

A repeat visit to the charming New Forest village of Lyndhurst proved no less interesting as I sought to uncover some of its lesser known attractions for the day or weekend visitor. Despite being beleaguered by traffic congestion, it’s still a relatively easy place to walk around and definitely worth a stop-off before heading deeper into the wonderful countryside that’s on the doorstep. Great to see, was how much pride the Lyndhurst shops and businesses are taking in keeping it local, be it food and drink, or arts and crafts. Hampshire Life carries this spotlight feature in October’s issue.

And while the raw ingredient can never be sourced on our doorstep, one product that always delivers a smile is chocolate. The newly re-opened Royal Chocolate Kitchen at Hampton Court Palace is both a lesson in Georgian decadence and cookery. Small but perfectly formed, the rooms on display are attracting considerable interest, especially as there are regular chocolate making demos. My tour was made all the more entertaining thanks to the Royal Historic Palaces’ resident food historian Marc Meltonville and curator Polly Putnam who provided the low-down for this Surrey Life feature (out in October’s issue) – and yes, I enjoyed trying to decipher the saucy William and Mary period graffiti too!  

June team talk

As this year’s summer of sport kicks off with the World Cup, and the England team catches an early flight home, if there’s one thing that’s obvious is the importance of team work.

The same is surely true when it comes to running one of the south east’s most successful visitor attraction. So it was with interest that I headed down to one of Hampshire’s biggest: Beaulieu. Thanks go to everyone who agreed to be interviewed – it’s not always easy to be put on the spot in the workplace. But I was really struck by the enthusiasm shown, whether they manage the gardens, organise the autojumbles or are a professional curator for the world famous Motor Museum. No matter if they are recent recruits or had already notched up several decades of service. They all have a part to play at this award-winning venue.

Someone who’s used to taking on a variety of roles is actress Sarah Parish. But it wasn’t just her latest TV show that we had arranged to chat about over a cuppa (incidentally it’s the second series of Atlantis). An ‘at home’ feature was a chance to meet Sarah on home turf – a treat in it’s own right as most celebs are protective of their personal space. Ever the pro she was incredibly welcoming and happy to talk about both country living and The Murray Parish Trust, a brand new charity founded with husband James Murray that’s currently fundraising in aid of Southampton’s new children’s hospital.

August’s issue of Hampshire Life will have the low-down on both these stories.

Meanwhile, the volleys flying over the SW19 nets vie for my attention with Brazil’s penalty shoot-outs…

May mashup

It’s true to say that most months are pretty varied when it comes to writing matter and May proved no exception. Two years ago when I stepped on to this merry-go-round who’d have thought that one minute it would be a case of donning hiking boots to walk the footprint of a new Surrey woodland, while the next it would be all aboard for a harbour cruise in Hampshire. Or, that in a single week I’d be meeting both members of the Ancient and Honorable Guild of Town Criers, immediately followed by an aspiring Bollywood actor-come-model.

Memories of World War One are rightly in the spotlight this year and credit goes to the Woodland Trust for initiating plans to plant four new centenary woods as a lasting memorial to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Due for coverage in Surrey Life, the flagship site at Langley Vale near Epsom, should prove a big draw for locals and visitors alike. In the meantime, thanks go to the WT’s John Brown for sharing his passion for our ancient woodlands – it sounds as if sometimes turning back the clock is no bad thing.

If a reminder’s needed of the lessons to be learnt from the nation’s tumultuous naval history, then a tour of Portsmouth harbour packs a punch. At less than an hour long, there’s only a teasing glimpse of Nelson’s flagship Victory, and there’s no guarantee which of the modern fleet will be in port, but seeing things from out on the water brings a whole new perspective. The sight that sticks in my mind is of some of the most famous names from the Faulkland’s campaign now waiting to be consigned to the scrapyard. Surely we shouldn’t forgot these heroes either?

One group of individuals who continue to make their presence felt are town criers. Guaranteed to turn heads whenever they appear it’s interesting that despite social media, a man (sometimes a woman) dressed in an historic costume and shouting at the top of their voice still grabs our attention. Vantage Point will have the local low-down in a month or so.

And someone else who’s trying hard to make themselves stand out from the crowd is young actor Kiran Rai. The interview for Hampshire Life proving if you don’t believe in yourself, you can’t expect anyone else to.

Me I’m staying for the ride.

Postscript: the blog’s re-skin is still in progress…watch this space!

What’s been happening in April?

It might have felt as though the Easter break was never going to arrive this year, but having scoffed the last of the chocolate eggs, in a matter of days British summertime seems to have announced its arrival. This, I’m sure, has been prompted by researching two recent features.

As the sun goes down, open-air theatre has to be one of the best ways to spend a balmy evening. Whether it’s a Shakespearean classic (and with offerings from the likes of Guildford Shakespeare Co and The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, there’s no shortage in this the Bard’s 450th anniversary year) or Commedia dell’Arte from Rude Mechanical Theatre, many of us don’t need too much persuasion to pack a picnic and head for the nearest patch of green space. A round-up of what’s happening and where for next month’s Surrey Life, really proves that live theatre still packs a punch.

I’ve also been impressed by taking a seasonal look at Hayling Island. Gone is the misconception that as the mercury rises it’s all kiss me quick hats and holiday camps (not that there’s anything wrong with these). But actually, there’s a whole lot more on offer – particularly if you’re inclined to stray off the well trodden paths and head to the north and east of the island. All is revealed in the June issue of Hampshire Life.

Digging deeper is certainly the theme in the Finding Farnham archaeology project. Speaking to project leader Dr Anne Sassin ahead of this week’s Open Day there’s growing excitement at the prospect of giving the local community the opportunity to get hands-on (quite literally) on their home turf. July’s issue of Vantage Point will have more details of dig sites and dates.

Finally, with the first anniversary of this blog approaching I’m planning to refresh things a little bit. So watch this space…

What’s been happening in March?

Some might say it’s foolhardy to be writing a blog on the 1st of April but hey ho this is being posted after midday so believe what you will!

March brought another eclectic mix of topics and travels. Standing in the jockey’s weighing room at Epsom Downs Racecourse I could almost imagine Frankie Detorri celebrating after another famous victory. My visit to meet general manager Simon Durrant was fascinating research for a behind-the-scenes feature about not only Surrey’s but the world’s most famous flat race, The Derby.

Another trip into the unknown, although it felt like an altogether more covert operation, took me to Europe’s first wasabi farm. I’m giving nothing away by saying that Hampshire’s remarkable spring waters have worked their magic once more. And having been known for so long as the capital of watercress, there’s definitely another green revolution underway. My thanks to Tom Amery of The Wasabi Company for showing me around (thank goodness I packed wellies) and for entrusting me with a wasabi plant of my own – fresh wasabi is a revelation, trust me.

While I was prepared for getting my feet wet, down on the farm, it was a nice surprise, to see the sun returning this month. And writing-up a feature on beaches in the south certainly put me in a holiday mood. As I discovered though, you don’t need to take a week’s holiday – some of the best sandy spots are right on our doorstep, it’s just a case of thinking outside the box. Coastal areas could be getting some competition from riverbanks, ponds, even pop-up city beaches when the bucket and spade brigade set off this summer. All will be revealed inside the next issue of parenting magazine Baby Surrey / Hampshire / London.


What’s been happening in February?

I need to start with a quick confession. As a writer, interviewing people is probably the part of my job that I love the most. You never know what surprises await particularly when meeting face-to-face. On paper there might be slim pickings – but once you start to unravel the back-story it’s often fascinating.

It was with some trepidation however that I hooked-up with Steve Hewlett in his home town of Basingstoke. This rising star in the world of ventriloquism (and a finalist on last year’s Britain’s Got Talent no less) is currently on his first national tour. Automatonophobia aka the fear of anything that falsely represents a sentient being – including but not exclusively ventriloquist dummies, put me on the back foot immediately. But I needn’t have worried, Steve’s tales of treading the boards, working the holiday camps and end of the pier shows, and of one day seeing his name in lights at The London Palladium was completely enthralling. And by the time the much celebrated ‘little’ Simon Cowell eventually emerged from a trunk, even I was happy to share a handshake.  So thanks Steve, and good luck with the rest of the Thinking Inside the Box tour.

Someone else who is probably looking forward to spreading his wings is artist Stephen Turner. Not that he isn’t well travelled, but for the past nine months Stephen’s been holed-up on the Exbury River as part of a year-long residency. As many (with good reason) bemoaned the wettest of wet winters spare a thought for life inside a wooden egg. Stephen’s own blog continues to sum up the whole experience beautifully and hopefully will pick-up a few more followers now that my feature on this extraordinary man is in print (Hampshire Life March 2014).

Perhaps though with spring upon us and the rains abating we can finally all spend a bit more time outdoors. Last year, a morning spent on a foraging workshop at the Sustainability Centre was a revelation, but there’s plenty in nature’s larder wherever you live. The latest editions of Baby Surrey, Baby Hampshire, and Baby London have more.

What’s been happening in January?

Us Brits seem resigned to braving the weather whatever’s thrown at us. Which this month has certainly meant plenty of the wet stuff. And that’s just as well, because the more I explore some of the local towns, villages and countryside in pursuit of a story, the more I love what I see.

A visit to Southsea never fails to impress and certainly, in my eyes, this Portsmouth suburb gives its big brother a run for its money. How many places are there, where street after street can boast independent shops that seem to be thriving? Whether it’s bookshops, antique emporia or vintage bazaars, they’re here. Add-in a huge range of eateries serving-up dishes from across the globe, a slice of history at some fascinating military museums and, of course the good old seaside. It’s a winning combo and hopefully a few more people will be inspired to head down to the south coast after reading my Spotlight feature in the March issue of Hampshire Life.

A bit closer to home, well virtually on my doorstep in fact, are the Hindhead Commons. In years gone by this tract of ancient heathland was renown for being besieged by highwaymen, and, more recently, had been blighted by the A3 trunk road. Thankfully now, one of the National Trust’s earliest acquisitions has been returned to its gorgeousness. My article on the Commons for BBC Countryfile magazine’s February issue looks at how walkers, 4×4 drivers and nature CAN live in harmony.

However, if the recent tempests have left you feeling decidedly bedraggled, Surrey now has a brand new indoor attraction. I’m keen to give a shout-out for the WWF’s new Living Planet Centre in Woking which opened its doors to the public for the first time last weekend. The four interactive zones that make up the WWF Experience, give a unique insight into the natural world and there’s no need to wear wellies!


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