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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.

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…

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 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 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 October?

If it’s deemed the month of mellow fruitfullness, then October certainly lived up to its billing. This has been a hectic research and writing period as everyone gears-up for their big Christmas issues.

I’ve had the privilege of taking some wonderful behind-the scenes tours. From visiting the choristers of Winchester Cathedral – who’d have thought a bunch of 8 to 13 year-olds could muster such a magical sound whilst rehearsing in their rugby kit? To a day out amongst the vines at Denbies, Britain’s largest winery. Where, I can happily report, this year’s harvest looks extremely promising and based on previous successes in the Surrey Hills, could be a vintage to savour.

And I should also mention my scene-by-scene journey through the atmospheric Wintershall Estate, the location for the forthcoming Nativity and next Easter, the awe-inspiring Life of Christ performance. Thanks must go to owner and impresario Peter Hutley for taking the time out to explain how he’s managed to grow a simple family entertainment into a global phenomenon of truly Biblical proportions. If you haven’t already booked for Christmas, don’t delay, it’s always a sell-out.

Interviews have also been coming thick and fast. David Nussbaum the WWF’s CEO gave me an inspiring insight into the vision behind the charity’s new Woking HQ – watch this space for news of Surrey’s latest visitor attraction. Just to walk in the footsteps of none other than Sir David Attenborough, at the official opening of the ground-breaking building earlier today, was extremely humbling. And I’ve had the delight of speaking to the two stars of TV’s Homes Under the Hammer, Lucy Alexander and Martin Roberts, about their fund-raising challenge for this year’s Children in Need Appeal. By the sound of it a great time was had by all. Again, it’s all under wraps, for now, but will soon be revealed!

With the nights drawing in, it’s tempting to think about hibernating, but there’s some wonderful events taking place in the region. Guildford’s popular Ghost Tours are in full swing, while Farnham has a new Festival of Textiles as part of it’s Craft Town status. Over the border in Hampshire both the Southampton Film Week and the Winchester Short Film Festival look well worth a viewing. And of course, with the Christmas light switch-ons towards the end off the month and festive markets taking over our towns and cities, the count-down’s well and truly on. Just need to hit some more deadlines before I can even think about buying presents.

What’s been happening in September?

Who’d have thought it? We got the Indian summer that’s on our annual wish list. One man who’s really appreciated the warm weather is Hampshire’s very own Beaulieu Beadle aka artist Stephen  Turner holed-up in the Exbury Egg and its environs for another 9 months. Skyping Stephen for the first time it was great to share in some of his ‘experiences’, including watching moths swimming and making his first pot of Exbury conserve from hedgerow pickings. I’m looking forward to the next instalment in a couple of months from now, meanwhile the live web cam and Stephen’s blog are well worth tuning into.

Also enjoying some mellow fruitfullness is the team at Dorking’s Community Orchard. My piece on their first harvest made the front page story of The Surrey Hills Magazine.

Staying on the theme of reviving a bygone era, this year’s Heritage Open Days were a great chance to discover some of the hidden gems in our neighbourhoods. The revitalisation of The Farnham Pottery was a revelation, with both established artists and beginners taking advantage of the courses and facilities on offer. My paltry attempt at fashioning a clay house number won’t win any awards But I enjoyed making it.

Taking a heritage walk with a Godalming Town Guide gave even the locals something to talk about. Who’d have thought this sleepy Surrey conurbation harboured so many hostelries on the once busy London to Portsmouth stagecoach route? Or, that it could have genuinely been called an industrial town in former times?

Having enjoyed a couple of events at last year’s Guildford Book Festival the dust covers are off for 2013’s celebration of all things literary. Judging by the ticket sales so far, I can see I’m going to have to get my skates on if I want to bag some front row seats for the likes of Jennifer Saunders, Matt Dawson, Joanna Trollope et al. Thanks be that sun bathing is no longer a distraction from more meritable pursuits.


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