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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 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!

What’s been happening in December?

With the build-up to Christmas, December gets a bit truncated on the writing front, and a combination of interviews and impending deadlines made for a busy few weeks before the crackers could finally be pulled and the silly hats worn.

Early in the month, my favourite ‘Egg Man’ Stephen Turner once again invited me into his ‘world’. Although our planned Skype call had to be replaced at the last minute by a chat on the mobile, thanks to ‘technical’ issues with the Egg’s solar power system i.e. it had packed-up, nevertheless Stephen provided another evocative insight into life on the Beaulieu Estuary. His adaptation to the seasonal changes happening around him are an intrinsic part of the daily experience, the minutiae  of which can also be enjoyed by viewing the regular Exbury Egg blog posts.

Two men very much in the thick of things during the festive season were Steve Jacob and Ben Errey, aka Petersfield Festivals. Having masterminded another successful Christmas event their thoughts have now turned to a brand new Beer & Cider Festival which they plan to bring to the town in February. Talking to these young entrepreneurs you have to admire their enthusiasm and get-up-and-go attitude. And researching deeper into the local real ale scene for Hampshire Life it doesn’t take long to see that from established microbrewers like Triple fff to new start-ups like Alfred’s Brewery the glass is definitely half full. I also discovered the exciting news that the county’s first micropub, The Butcher’s Hook is set to open in Southampton this year. Cheers to everyone for making such a positive contribution to the local landscape.

Another launch that’s already happened is the new Vantage Point community magazine. Best wishes to Stefan, Marcus and the whole team for a successful 2014. My first article for this title appears in the February issue and writing -up the piece about local rose grower Seale Nurseries (there’s a St.Valentine’s link there somewhere) brought back instant memories of warm summer days.

And as the first shoots of spring tentatively break cover, ahead of the inevitable frosts, a family foraging piece for the spring issue of Baby Hampshire (plus Surrey and London editions) also gave cause to look forward to the New Year with relish. Although having spoken to some of the hardy experts, I now realise that to take full advantage of nature’s larder, you need to be prepared for whatever the weather throws at you. Me, I think I’ll wait for the rain to stop first before I break cover.

What’s been happening in November?

If there’s one word that sums up the stories I’ve been focussing on during recent weeks, then it would be ‘courage.’

For the past 11 months I’ve been following the highs and lows endured by one amateur sportsman as he attempts to complete a year’s worth of challenges. This is no walk in the park mind. We’re talking about some of the most arduous events in the UK running and cycling calendar – from the physically punishing Iceman and Tuffman duathlons to all-out endurance events like the Brighton marathon and Snowden’s Man vs Mountain. Did he make it? And in the process raise much needed funds for the charity Operation Smile? Mark Johnson’s inspiring story is published in the January issue of Outdoor Fitness.

Doubtless the impact of World War One will touch us all strongly in 2014, so it was a privilege to look into the role of the Royal Victoria Military Hospital on behalf of Hampshire Life. Who’d have thought one of the largest and most important hospitals in the world once stood on the banks of Southampton Water? Yet if you scratch beneath the surface, a visit to the Royal Victoria Country Park today provides an intriguing glimpse into the past. For their invaluable assistance on the research front, a special shout-out goes to the Army Medical Museum in Aldershot (who supplied the wonderful archive photography), historian and author Philip Hoare and to the descendants of former artist and soldier Paul Smyth for sharing the tale of one man’s war with me. Humbling.

Often working to deadlines several months ahead of publication dates, it’s still a surprise to suddenly see a flurry of articles appear in quick succession. Usually it’s a case of grabbing the latest copy off the shelves and rushing home before taking a peek at the final layout and any subbing. On the latest trip to my local supermarket however, I couldn’t help myself. Four articles published in three regional titles – Baby Hampshire: sledging; Hampshire Life: Winchester’s choristers and Celebrity Antiques Road Trip; Surrey Life:Painshill Park‘s Crystal Grotto, were all on display in a single display. Apologies to my fellow shoppers for pulling my trolley up short and whipping out my camera phone, I just had to capture the moment!

What’s been happening in June?

It’s not every day that you get to speak to the ‘Quadfather’ of British tennis, or to one of the biggest names on cycling’s world stage. So catching up with Hampshire’s medal winning heroes from London 2012 was a real thrill. Peter Norfolk OBE and Dani King MBE were just two of the athletes that shared their memories from last summer and it was a real honour to gain an insight into their world. For Team GB’s next rising star, look out for seventeen-year-old Paralympian Olivia Breen, she’s already got a bronze medal under her belt and has her sights firmly set on the Rio Games. The latest (July 2013) issue of Hampshire Life has the full story.

Talking of inspired, master stone carver Simon Keeley turns his hands to some challenging assignments. I interviewed the artist for June’s issue of The Guildford Magazine ahead of his month-long exhibition at the National Trust’s Clandon Park. From gargoyles to green men, Simon’s commissions include both heritage and contemporary pieces, all of which demonstrate his passion and skill for this traditional craft. And Simon’s stone carving courses are very popular too.

Keen to hone my own skills, earlier this month I signed-up for a workshop with travel writer Peter Carty. I may not have recognised the significance of a ‘gherkin’ beforehand, but I certainly do now! Seriously, it was a really worthwhile day, spent both in the classroom and out on the streets of central London. Challenging, yes, yet immensely helpful to be on the receiving end of such objective feedback. This satisfied ‘customer’ promised the travel writing workshop a link,  so here it is.

A mention should also go this month to the Dorking Community Orchard. Who’d have thought wandering amongst fruit trees in the Surrey Hills would reveal such tales of rampaging pillage and destruction – well that’s rabbit for you. Undeterred the orchard’s management team is confident the first apple crop will hit the local High Street this September. That’s certainly one in the eye for all those South American imports occupying our supermarket shelves. Demonstrating, once again, that home grown in whatever form it takes is worth nurturing.


A community website for the residents of Parwich, Alsop-en-le-Dale, Ballidon and Pikehall in the Derbyshire Peak District.

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