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Winter continued to be unseasonably mild and wet in December with bad floods up in Cumbria and Carlisle flooded. Down in Gloucestershire we eventually saw the sun for two days in a row and seized the chance to get out walking the Cotswold Way.
On the first day we headed up to nearby Crickley Hill Country Park. Neolithic man was here about 6000 years before us. He came over for the day from the continent and liked it so much he stayed, teaching the natives how to farm!
Many flint arrowheads were discovered here indicating a major battle took place and from about 700BC an iron age fort was established but was eventually burnt down during a battle. A second fort was built in about 500BC but was once again destroyed no later than 400BC.
A post Roman village was established here about 420AD but was abandoned by 500AD after being burnt down on several occasions.
We first walked to the most Southerly end of the hill looking over the City of Gloucester then back in a Northerly direction through Beech woodland to where the National Trust are managing a herd of pedigree Belted Galloway cattle and a notice told us we could buy 5kg boxes of mixed cuts of beef from Ebworth Estate so off we went in search of it.
Ebworth Estate is just off the road between Birdlip and Stroud and houses the administrative offices of the National Trust’s Heart of the Cotswolds portfolio of outdoor sites. See the above link for more details.
Here we met the farmer who manages the herd of cattle who told us that the well known poet and author Laurie Lee used to roam the estate. He himself lived in a house one of Laurie Lee's uncles used to own. He explained that the Galloway herd only numbered 90 cattle at the moment so they only slaughter once a year in the Summer. We purchased 5KG of frozen beef for a bargain £60 and will be on the mailing list for the next time fresh meat is available for pre-order.
The next day the sun shone again which was too good to miss so on with our walking boots to knock off another section of the Cotswold Way.
This time we drove up through Charlton Kings and parked in a lay-by on the road to Andoversford, walking across a field to join the Cotswold Way at Pegglesworth.
We then turned West and followed the trail as far as Wistly Hill before retracing our steps. On the way back we were met by a herd of tame sheep who insisted on having their heads rubbed before letting us move on!
I forgot to mention that our faithful Diahatsu car we called Desmond who has been driven all round Europe since 2006 and was transported on the back of our Barge Harmonie, has finally gone to meet his maker!
The Exhaust system needed replacing which would have cost £250 and was more than the car was worth so we traded him in for a Suzuki Splash, now known as "Sydney"!
Sydney Splash then took us in regal splendour over to Stow-on-the-Wold where we did a bit of shopping and admired the community Christmas Tree pictured above.
They must have a very honest community here as in the Somerset village where we used to live the ornaments would have been stripped off by the local gypsies in days!
Stow is to be recommended for a shopping expedition. They have lots of little interesting shops including a chocolate shop and a good bread shop, lots of cafe's, pubs and an unusual gift shop with many different and humorous articles.
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A famous event happened on the 12th December when I reached my 75th birthday. Our friends Margaret and Paull Rowbathan joined us from Somerset to help celebrate. We walked into town to the Christmas Market then round to the Jolly Brewmaster for a beer, Shampoo at home with the prawns followed by a huge beef sirloin roast washed down with a bottle of Amerone and mango possett for pud. Gert lush t'wer!
The next day the Rowbathan's treated us to lunch at The Langton which is a gastropub in Charlton Kings where we all enjoyed another great meal. We will return.
Christmas passed almost unnoticed except for a visit from daughter and family just before but we did finally manage a trip into Gloucester on the 94 bus to investigate the new year sales. We wandered down to the docks and round the retail outlet centre without buying anything. New year had been spent, as usual, watching Jools Holland on TV which is getting increasingly out of our age range. Modern popular music has never been our forté but the current practitioners leave us for dead!
At the local pub quiz we are usually in the running until the final section which is always music and the only one we knew in the first quiz of the new year was Abba's "Happy New Year" to which we wish all our readers!
Early in January we travelled to Marseille for a long weekend with our friends the Hockeys.
We travelled down to South Petherton the day before so Sue could have her hair done specially and Ann Clifford reminded her that this web site was well overdue for an updates. Well here it is!
Apart from wanting to visit a place we had never been to before there was a further objective to visit Toulon on the Sunday where it so happened Bath Rugby were playing Toulon in a European Cup game that had been postponed due to the November 2015 Paris attacks by Islamic terrorists.
We both had pre conceived ideas about what Marseille would be like and imagined that it was a bit of a run down and rough city. Nothing could be further from the truth for it is a very attractive and elegant place with many attractions to interest the tourist including big wheels and floating soap sellers, Marseille being famous for soap manufacture we now have a bathroom smelling of Provence!
We stayed in an up-market B&B in the Vieux Port (old port) area of the city at Les Chambres de l'Abbaye close to the Abbaye Victor, the oldest Abbey in France, which was stuffed with antiques. We asked Madame, our host, for her recommendation for a restaurant to sample the famous Marseille Bouillabaisse and she booked us a table that night at Chez Michel then we set out to explore the town.
The Vieux Port itself was only a few steps away and we walked gingerly along the pavement avoiding the inevitable "barkers eggs" that seem to litter French pavements. It was 16 degrees C and we sat outside a brasserie soaking up the winter sunshine with a few beers and croque monsieurs. Life could not have been improved!
Having been up since 4am that morning we eventually returned to our B&B for a siesta before setting out to Chez Michel. We were shown to our table and handed menus which were really not needed as there was only one thing on them; Bouillabaisse! Even worse, this was one of the top restaurants in the city with prices to match and the price for this one dish was €75. Each!!
Embarrassment all round as we made our excuses and left, walking back to the port and finding a restaurant which served us some lovely soup de poisson complete with floaters, a choice of mains and desserts all for a reasonable €17. Madame was "not 'appy" I don't think but explained that she thought we knew that fish in Marseille was very expensive!
The following day was cool and overcast but dry. Every morning the fishermen land their catch at the head of the port so you can buy your fish straight off the boat. The prices seemed quite reasonable so do not really understand why Michel's bouillabaisse was so expensive but I am sure it was good. We booked an afternoon trip on the Petit Train which would take us up to the Notre-Dame de la Garde and then walked around the Fort St Jean.
All the fortifications, as in most of France, were built or enhanced by the renowned Sébastien Vauban (1633 -1707) the military architect of the Sun King, Louis XIV.
Unfortunately the German army occupied it during WW2 and during the liberation of Marseille in 1944 it was largely destroyed when a munitions dump exploded. It was rebuilt by 1971 and is now part of the many museums around the city. It is completely free to wander around and there are spectacular views to be had from the battlements.
From here we walked over to the Cathedral which was built by the Marseille architect Henri-Jacques Espérandieu who was also responsible for the Notre-Dame de la Garde.
Looking at photographs prior to our visit I was struck by the similarity to the Italian churches in Firenze and Sienna in the use of different coloured stone and it turns out that Léon Vaudoyer, the original architect of the cathedral was inspired by these Italian buildings. Bonaparte laid the foundation stone in 1852 and Espérandieu was the director of construction until his death in 1874. It was first opened in 1893.
We continued our walk through the medieval part of the city called the Quartier de Panier before boarding the Petit Train back on the quay.
The Notre-Dame de la Garde stands on a steep hill called "La Garde" (The Guard) over 500 feet above the port. A chapel was built on the hill in 1214 in honour of the Virgin Mary then in 1524 King Francis 1st built a fortress enclosing the chapel.
The fortress eventually became a ruin until Henri Espérandieu, who was a protestant, designed and built the basilica between 1853 and 1870.
The statue of the Virgin Mary on the top of the bell tower is made of copper and covered with gold leaf, renewed every twenty five years.
Inside the church I was reminded of the mosaics of the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviers in Lyon which we visited in 2009. The mosaics at Lyon were more extensive but without doubt the mosaic behind the high altar here is the most beautiful I have ever seen.
The view from here over the city is tremendous but the weather was not conducive to photography and we were pleased to be back at sea level where our ladies indulged in a bit of retail therapy while we boys partook of the amber nectar.
The name of this nectar was Coq Hardi which fascinated Chris who insisted I took a photo of him drinking it!
Next day the sun got it's hat on again as we set off in our hire car on the slow road to Toulon.
Our first port of call was Cassis where we did not stop as we were unable to find a park, half of France being out and about on this fine day.
Up the hill from Cassis you stand on the highest cliff in Europe some 1300 feet vertically above Cassis at the Cap Canaille. It is reckoned to be one of the best views in France and it did not disappoint although Sue did suddenly sink to the floor with a dizzy spell, perhaps due to vertigo!
We followed the Route des Crêtes down into La Ciotat which is twinned with Bridgwater in Somerset, a place so unlike this classy French resort as to be unbelievable it could be a twin!
We imagined the La Ciotatians visiting their twin town back in the British Cellophane days and wondering why it smelt like a French sewer!
Driving along the seafront past the lovely sandy beaches fringed with palm trees watching the surfers at play, we could have been on Bridgwater bridge over the muddy Parrett watching the Bore or gazing up at Robert Blakes statue!!!
On then to Bandol, a sort of Cassis on steroids! Lots of shops along the front, nice beaches and loads of seafood restaurants plus free parking. We sat in our shirt sleeves outside a cafe and enjoyed a good lunch, even though it took over half an hour to appear.
Toulon was just 15 minutes down the motorway and we found a park five minutes walk from the Stade Felix Mayol and watched the Toulon team arrive in their bus to walk through their adoring fans.
We had good seats in the stand and the atmosphere was great. 16,000 Toulonaise sang their club song followed by this bloke with a mohican haircut leading them an indecipherable chant and much flag waving.
There were a few Barf supporters there but we could not compete with all that French whistling whenever we got the ball. We expected to lose and we did but our scrum was fixed and we almost beat them. In fact a few Frogs suggested we should have won so everyone was happy. We led for most of the game but gave away a penalty at the death so it finished 12-9.
After big delays for traffic leaving the match in Toulon it took about an hour on the motorway and numerous Peage before arriving back in Marseille for really bad pizzas and pasta to round of an excellent long weekend we all thoroughly enjoyed.
We arrived back at Gatwick the next day to the wet weather we have become used to this winter but it has become more seasonally colder and snow is forecast. Never mind, we are off the Vietnam next month!
The cold weather also meant and end to the continuous wettest period since records began, in fact Eglwyswrw in Pembrokeshire saw 82 days of continuous rain so even the sheep became depressed!! We of course saw our opportunity to knock off a bit more of the Cotswold Way, this time between Barrow Wake and Birdlip with the usual spectacular views across the Severn Vale but a biting northerly wind increasing the wind chill to well below zero. The next day there was no wind so we began at Coopers Hill and walked the three miles back to Birdlip, a refreshing pint at the King George pub and then back to Coopers Hill in good time to see Barf Rugby get beaten by Leinster at the Lansdown pub!
We returned to Coopers Hill a few days later and circumnavigated it, walking up onto High Brotheridge then down to Upton Wood to join the Cotswold Way which we followed back to the car park at Coopers Hill.
The view South from the top is down to Cranham and the day was crisp cold and sunny with a sharp frost.
As you can see from the photograph below, Coopers Hill itself is pretty steep and it is where they hold the annual cheese rolling which this year takes place on the Spring Bank Holiday on May 30th. It is a traditional race which originated in the village of Brockworth which has now become a suburb of Cheltenham. A 9lb Double Gloucester cheese is rolled down the hill and a load of suicidal idiots chase it down the hill with the first person down winning the cheese. As the cheese can reach speeds of 70mph the chasers have no chance of catching it and usually lose their footing in the process, tumbling arse over apex down the hill sustaining various injuries where they are gathered up by waiting ambulance crews and rushed off to hospital! It is what makes us all proud to be English!
Hundreds turn out to watch the event and the A46 is jammed with parked cars for miles. A few years ago the local constabulary warned the local cheesemaker that she risked prosecution if the cheese hit somebody and injured them so it was replaced with an soft imitation one. The nanny state is still in evidence as Gloucestershire Council put up notices on the day warning that it is a "dangerous activity" and strongly advising people not to attend. They also erect fences across the hill with notices saying it is to prevent access due to soil erosion but the locals just remove them and carry on with the cheese rolling regardless!
We decided on a change of location for our next walking trip and chose the Malvern Hills, driving through Little Malvern and up to the saddle on the Ledbury road where we parked and walked up onto the Herefordshire Beacon (338m) which is the second highest hill in the Malverns.
We did not have the best of weather for our walk but the views from the summit are spectacular looking acress Herefordshire to the West, across the Severn Valley to the East and the spine of the Malverns running North and South. The Beacon is also known as the British Camp being the site of a 4th century BC iron age fort. The fort is one of the most extensive of any in England with numerous ditches extending down the hill but it is a considerable distance from any water so would not have withstood any long siege and was probably unoccupied from about 50AD after the Roman invasion.
Legend has it that it was the site of the battle between the Ancient British Chieftain Caratacus and the Romans which so impressed the Emperor Claudius that he gave Caratacus a villa and a pension in Rome! The evidence however contradicts the legend and it is more likely the battle took place on the Long Mynd above Church Stretton. Edward Elgar who was from Malvern was impressed enough by the legend to compose his cantata "Caratacus" in 1898.
We walked South along the ridge until we joined the Three Choirs Way, a long distance footpath linking Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester which we followed back to the car park.
Back on the Cotswolds some days later we had intended to explore the Cotswold Way between Cranham and Coopers Hill but the only car park nearby proved to be a sea of mud so we continued further South up onto Painswick Common and then followed the Way back towards Cranham.
It was a nice sunny morning but storm Gertrude was forecast to hit us in the afternoon so we did not have much time for a longer walk. The Met Office has now taken to naming the storms as they approach us giving them alternate male and female names and in alphabetical order so Gertrude will be followed by Henry! We have already had Abigail, Barney, Clodagh, Desmond, Eva and Frank this year and the next ones have already been named Imogen, Jake, Katie, Lawrence, Mary, Nigel, Orla, Phil, Rhonda, Steve, Tegan, Vernon and Wendy! The Irish Met Office is also collaborating as can be seen for the odd Irish name.
Along the top of the hill is the Painswick Golf Course which dates from 1891 and we followed to the ninth green before climbing up to the top of Kite Hill which is National Trust property. We dropped off the end of the hill before turning back towards Painswick where you have a fine view over Gloucester and its cathedral, then climbing back up Painswick Beacon at the end of our walk. The Beacon is topped by the inevitable Iron Age Fort and the view from the top is of course superlative.
Painswick Village itself was recorded in the Doomsday Book as Wyke but from 1121 the local lord of the manor was one Pain FitzJohn and is through to have given his name to the village to distinguish it from others of the same name, hence Pains Wyke which eventually became Painswick.
It is a pretty typical Cotswold village where we slaked our thirst after the walk with a beer in the 16th Century Falcon Inn, quite up market but they wanted £12 for a pie and chips so we descended to the Cheese Rollers at Shurdington where we were served two meals for £10 with a nice pint of Otter to wash it down!
Our next exploration began from the NT car park at Shortwood up on Haresfield Hill where we first walked out to Topograph which looks out over Stonehouse and South down the Severn Estuary. It was a bright sunny day but it was the arse end of storm Henry so a bitter wind almost blew us off our feet!
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Towards the end of February we set off on another adventure with a visit to Vietnam and you can read about this here.