Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Sun, sea, sand but no sangria - Spring sojourn to Spain

The basics

San Juan de los Terreros, a small town in Almería (Andalucia), not far from the border with Murcia. A Facebook friend (one of those FB friends I've never actually met) let slip that he owns an apartment in San Juan and that was it. My yearning for some sunshine after the long, grey, wet winter had its solution. A week in May was available and so was Sid. Within a couple of days of our conversation, the apartment was booked and so were the flights and car hire. 

Finally, departure day came around and an uneventful flight from Gatwick to Murcia delivered us to warm, lovely southern Spain. The hour's drive from the airport to the town was fast and unbelievably quiet. Ian had told me the roads would be quiet but I didn't expect us to have kilometre upon kilometre of toll motorway to ourselves.

We met up with Ava, who handles meet and greet on Ian's behalf, she took us to the apartment and off she went. A bit of unpacking and it was time for a trip to the supermarket and a little look round. 

The accommodation

Milenio 1 is a two-bedroom, two-bathroom, ground floor apartment in a block of nine apartments. It's clean, airy, bright and nicely decorated, has WiFi, a fully equipped kitchen (including a washing machine) and a spacious patio. There's a communal swimming pool (not heated) surrounded by a small area of interestingly springy grass! With so many beaches to choose from every day, I only used the pool twice but it's a good facility to have.

The location

San Juan de los Terreros is very much a holiday development without being a huge area of high-rises and hotels. There are small, narrow original streets closer to the beach but the new development starts about half a mile back from the beach. The rows of houses reminded me of Portmeirion, with their pastel colours. The town is surrounded by mountains, behind which the sun sets quite spectacularly. And they do like a roundabout!

The town itself is small, easy to navigate and, in May, like a ghost town! There is a relatively new wide, palm-lined boulevard which runs from the central fountain, out along the back of the beach for a couple of kilometres, which then turns inland for another couple. To the back of the boulevard are several chiringuitas - cafe/bar structures, great for a drink or a snack when it gets too hot on the beach. 

The beaches

There are plenty of beaches within walking/driving distance of San Juan. The town itself has a huge long stretch of beach starting at the centre of town and running along in front of the boulevard. On the first day, we plonked ourselves down on Playa Mar Serena, the longest and widest stretch in town. It was clear that it was very early in the season - in fact, it turned out it is considered to be pre-season. It looks like no-one is employed to clean the beaches before July and even without many visitors, the detritus in some stretches is quite obvious.

Our favourite haunts, though, were Cuatro Calas (Four Coves), about a five-minute drive outside town. The beaches are La Carolina, Los Cocedores, La Higuérica and Calarreona. Ian had recommended them but didn't say which one specifically was his favourite. It was good to learn that ours (Los Cocedores) was also his. Each cove is sheltered with gently sloping sand into shallow, blue, warm water. (Well, I think Sid might argue with the "warm" description!) And to add to the excitement, there are loads of fish in the shallows so as you walk into the sea, you're surrounded on all sides by them. At the weekend, the beaches got much busier with the temporary visitors but during the week, we had pretty much any one of them to ourselves. With the exception of Los Cocedores, there are no facilities at all, so you have to make sure you take everything you need with you - plenty of water, sunscreen etc. 

We also spent a day in the Cabo de Gata National Park, which has some of the most well-known "best beaches" in the south of Spain. Now call me picky, but I probably preferred the ones local to town. Our first port of call was Los Genoveses, a rough drive down a dirt road. The beach stretches round a long arc of slightly crunchy sand and when we arrived, there was no-one else there. I went for a dip and we settled ourselves on our towels. And then the tornado arrived! That might be a bit of an exaggeration but it certainly was windy. We stuck it out for about 20 minutes, being whipped by flying sand, and with it finding its way into our noses and mouths before admitting defeat and fleeing to the car. We headed to Playa Playazo next where we found ourselves a little alcove created by rocks and settled down for a very nice few hours in the sun. 

We stopped off one day at the small town of Las Negras which has a small but sweet beach, dotted with fishing boats and a wonderfully old man who spent a long time rearranging some of them, to the chagrin of the group of older ladies who had set themselves and their umbrella up inches from the biggest boat. 

On our last day, we went to a small town called Bolnuevo which turned out to have a gorgeous, long, white-sanded (empty) beach and is definitely deserving of a return visit. And finally, before heading to the airport, we stopped at Santiago de la Ribera, which also had an unexpectedly nice beach. 

All in all, there is no way you could be short of gorgeous sunbathing spots in this part of Almería/Murcia.

The food and drink

The important stuff! Despite having lived in Madrid and shopped at Mercadona regularly, I still love a wander round a "foreign" supermarket. On our first evening, we stocked up on goodies (OK, mostly alcohol!), but we did eat somewhere other than the apartment patio occasionally, although breakfast at home every day was a lovely mix of bread, cheese, yoghurt and melon! And we ate chickpea stew and tortilla (handmade by Sid) on a couple of evenings, when we felt like just eating in the apartment (and watching the Eurovision Song Contest!)

Our introduction to San Juan's lunchtime offerings was at one of the chiringuitas at the back of the main beach. We ordered a media ración (half portion) of both patatas bravas and patatas ajo. When they turned up, we wondered if perhaps he hadn't heard the request for only a half portion. Both were huge! And very tasty. The questionable highlight of our meal though was being very badly chatted up by one of five Belgian golfers sitting at the table behind us. I don't know who they normally encounter but throwing "My ex-wife was Australian ... And she was a bitch" into the first thirty seconds of a conversation doesn't generally make me go weak at the knees! 

The chiringuita on Playa Los Cocedores was very helpful and twice made us a huge salad but without the tuna which normally comes as standard. 

In Las Negras, we stopped for lunch at Los Barcos, a nice little place overlooking the sea. We had queso manchego (delicious, served with sweet, salted almonds), and they served up probably the best plate of grilled vegetables I have ever tasted. The combination of courgette, aubergine, pepper, onion and tomato just melted in the mouth. Needless to say, the use of copious amounts of olive oil and a ton of salt in the cooking process just served to make them even tastier. We were joined by an inquisitive cat who seemed to forgive our lack of meat and fish upon being thrown small scraps of cheese. 

In Mojácar, we ate at two Italian restaurants! The first - Pizzeria de Muralla, was a lunchtime stop, delivering a delicious, huge veggie feast pizza for 2. On our final night, we ate at Ristorante Pulcinella, right up on their top terrace, overlooking the huge plain that stretches as far as the eye can see. The restaurant has won awards apparently, and you can see why. The food was delicious, the service impeccable and the location is stunning. We shared a gigantic pizza bread, and mozzarella and tomato for starter, followed by veggie lasagna for Sid and cream cheese and spinach riglione for m. 

We tested out almost every eatery in San Juan de Los Terreros during our stay, although we didn't eat at La Venta, just had post-dinner drinks there (huge and cheap!) Lunch on our final day was at El Mesón and we just might have over-ordered. We had pimientos picantes (which weren't spicy), tortilla española, another plate of grilled vegetables (the second best I've had) and patatas a lo pobre (soft slices of potato, with peppers, onion and oil). 

We shared a huge veggie paella at L'Escala, which is clearly a popular hangout with the locals. It was full of chatty Spaniards, eating, drinking, watching the news on the huge screen and ignoring (in a good way) their children who were playing football outside the shop next door. The food was tasty but I felt that using tinned vegetables in a "made-to-order" paella that we had to wait 45 minutes for was cheating just a bit. 

The pièce de résistance (or el plato fuerte) came from Mi Cortijo, on the main street in San Juan. It had great Trip Advisor reviews and we'd already called in to check out the menu and had a chat with the owner. We arrived at 9pm on Saturday evening, assuming it would be quite busy but we were the only customers. Undaunted as ever, we started chatting again with the owner, Alain (French, and lived in France for the first 30 years of his life). He assured us that his wife (Belgian) could turn her hand to anything so we invented a vegetarian dish, ordered starters and Sid's main of fish and drinks, a large red wine and a gin and tonic.
The starter, cauliflower soup, turned out to be a hundred times tastier than it sounds and came with a happy message written in cream! The invented veggie dish was buffalo mozzarella in a leek bechamel sauce with roasted vegetables and it was gorgeous! We also shared a side salad and a huge bowl of homemade fries. At the end of the meal, we were treated to a new (to us) liqueur - Guajiro or Ronmiel (rum and honey). Yum. 
We were pleased to see that we weren't the only customers of the night. At 10.30, a large family of 8 turned up to eat (I still forget how late the Spanish eat), followed by a few more people coming in for drinks. 

For one of us, at least, the best food in town was to be found at Luz Azul - an artisan ice-cream place on the main street. Twice we treated ourselves to dessert there before we'd even had dinner. Their Ferrero Rocher and pistachio combo was a winner, but the cheesecake and cherry cream came a close second. 

Other things to do

Tempting though it was to spend all day every day on a beach, we had hired a car for the week and there were things to do and places to see! 
The castle overlooking the town is reached via a long, hairpin-bend road which we considered walking up but ended up driving. It's a small fort which appears to be open to the public in the summer, but there are great views over San Juan, over Águilas and out to sea, making it worth the climb (or the drive). 

Águilas itself is a cute town, with two or three beaches, plenty of shops and eating places, and a classic square (called, of course, Plaza de España). We spent our final morning in the town, just wandering round and stopping for a drink and a cake from La Pastelería Katy in the square. It feels properly Spanish, at this time of year, at least. Every Saturday morning, there's a large market just by the bypass which goes round the back of the town. Loads of fresh fruit, veg, meat, fish, snails (!) and the usual range of household goods and clothes are on offer. It was teeming with fierce-looking Spanish housewives, filling their wheelie baskets to overflowing with goodies, and vying with each other to shout louder than the stall holders! 

We spent a morning investigating the small nearby fishing villages of Villaricos and and Garrucha, both deserted but sweet. There is a definite feel to the beach towns of Almería - they seem to like the long wide boulevards and I'm sure in the summer, both the locals and the tourists can be found having a leisurely stroll in the evening sun. 

Our day in and around the Cabo de Gata National Park simply wasn't long enough. It deserves a more thorough investigation at some point. Our best find that day was the small town of Nijar, right on the edge of the National Park. It's a small town with a few streets of shops, a much older residential area with steep, winding cobbled streets to the back and its a centre of arts and crafts, particularly pottery, weaving and rug-making. We could have spent hours in the pottery shops and if our luggage allowance had permitted it, I'm sure we'd have come back with a million terracotta dishes! We spent a rather hot 45 minutes in the old part of the town following signs uphill to a water mill but it eluded us! I liked Nijar. A lot. To the extent that I looked at properties for sale there when I got home! 

Along similar lines, being a Moorish whitewashed village, is Mojácar Pueblo. Not to be confused with Mojácar Playa which is the new, purpose-built tourist resort stretching along the sea to the south of the hilltop pueblo. Another long, winding drive takes you up towards Mojácar, with the car park based just at the bottom of the village. It's very pretty, and the Moorish influences are clear. However, much of it is not as old as it first appears, given that it was gradually abandoned over several centuries, with its resurgence beginning in the 1960s. That explains why some of the buildings look as if they'd be happier in Croydon! It's where we had our first glimpse of the Indalo - an ancient symbol now considered a lucky charm and which can now be found painted, daubed and for sale all over Andalucia. I'm glad we went in May as I imagine in July and August it's very crowded and the road up to it is probably one long line of cars and coaches. It was in Mojácar that we treated ourselves to some local goodies from an artisan shop - some local olive oil, a bottle of Spanish amaretto and a bar of cinnamon chocolate. 

On our last day, we visited Las Erosiones de Bolnuevo, a very strange group of wind-eroded sand "sculptures" behind the beach and in the middle of a town! 


What? You didn't think I'd finished, did you?! Randomness that didn't fit anywhere else. 

I was very happy to discover that much of my Spanish came back to me. Very few people in the area speak English (good) and I was mostly understood and I don't think I made a complete tit of myself. 
In Andalucia, they don't pronounce the final "s" on any words. 
Property is really cheap down there at the moment. 
There are lots of cats, dogs and caged birds (sadly) in the town.
The vans for Pastelería KATY in Águilas have a picture of a man on them. Is he Katy?
The cheesy pooooofs here are almost as good as the ones in Madrid.
We didn't see a single golf course the whole time we were there, despite this being a huge golfing area.
Sid had never driven abroad before this trip. Well done, especially for driving back from Mojácar on winding roads in the dark! 

That's it. Honest. Except ...

My photos of the week can be found HERE

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Cute spring lambs

Yay! March is (was) here which means it's time for the cuteness of lambs. I took myself off to the Seven Sisters Sheep Centre for an afternoon of loveliness.

I'll make it a short blog post - I can hear the sigh of relief from here. I went on a weekday, fairly certain that there wouldn't be too many kids there. And I was right. I had the place practically to myself for a couple of hours. Suffice to say, the pens was teeming with tiny orphans, happy newborns and gambolling balls of fluff just a few days old. This year, I didn't see any actually being born but that's fine. I spent more than my fair share of happy minutes at the orphan pen while a 2-day old male attempted to suckle my finger.

But since a picture is worth a thousand words:

My photos can be found HERE

Friday, 4 April 2014

36-hour flying visit to France

After nearly two years, it was finally time for me to go back to Cathy's house in Magnac-Laval in the Limousin. Cathy had already booked a quick trip to check on the house before the start of the summer rental season but it had initially looked like I wouldn't be able to join her due to work commitments. That turned out not to be the case so I grabbed myself some cheapy Ryanair flights and looked forward to a brief sojourn one of my favourite places in the world.

We arrived at Limoges airport at 4pm on Sunday and went to pick up the hire car. Because it was such a short trip, we had decided not to fork out for an extra driver but the very sweet lady behind the counter heard us talking about that, peered at Cathy's driving licence and said "It's your birthday in a few days. I offer you a present - the extra driver for no extra money"! Fortunately, I'd taken my driving licence so I was added to the paperwork and we were off, in a very shiny new Renault Clio. Well, we were off after we'd worked out how to actually start it. It was so new that it had a smartcard and a Start/Stop button instead of a key. However, it took us a while to work out that it was impossible to start the engine unless the car was in neutral and the footbrake was depressed!

By 6pm we were at the lovely Étoile de Mer. The village was completely silent and deserted, just as we expected on a Sunday. We sorted out a few things in the house and then went for our requisite constitutional round the village. Very little, if anything, had changed. All was quiet which backed up our suspicion that we would have to go further afield to find any dinner. We drove to Le Dorat where a restaurant we had been to before was open but seemed to have doubled its prices so we carried on to Bellac, convinced that even on a Sunday evening in March, there would be somewhere open for food! We were wrong. Well, almost wrong. Seemingly, the youth of Bellac are responsible for just one place staying open on a Sunday evening - a kebab shop (Matine Kebab, 9 Place de Palais, Bellac)! Until now, I had managed to avoid crossing the threshold of a kebab shop even once in my entire life but I have now broken my duck. Back home, we tucked into our enormous toasted feta panini and chips, washed down with the only alcohol in the house - vodka! It was, given our long day of travelling and what felt like an even longer search for food, absolutely delicious!

Tuesday dawned bright and sunny, neither of us having been awoken by the 7am church bells. We wandered to the supermarket to stock up on the small amount of food (yet alarmingly large amount of alcohol) we needed for the next 24 hours, then headed to Chez NouNou for breakfast and WiFi. Well, in my case, just breakfast. I have to say it does frustrate me that my (by no means cheap) iPhone regularly fails dismally to connect with free WiFi, especially abroad. Anyway, a lovely croissant, butter and jam filled a hole and we headed back to the house for a few housekeeping jobs and then off we went into the sunshine. First we went to the lovely Pont Gothique, between Le Dorat and Bellac, which was one of our early discoveries on our very first trip in 2004. Our standard delicious picnic lunch of Emmenthal-stuffed baguette moulée and (perfect) cheap greasy crisps set us up very nicely for the next part of our afternoon.

We drove to Roumilhac, a tiny winding village where the only people we encountered were a small group of farmers standing in the road staring at us as if we had just landed from outer space. The ensuing 7km walk made for one of the nicest days I've had for a long time. We had struck gold with the weather. We had blue sky and 25 degrees all day, with not a cloud to be seen. Our walk took us through tiny villages, along the banks of the Gartempe, over wooden and stone bridges, under a huge but now unused viaduct, up hills, down slopes, past a disused railway station and finally, back to Roumilhac. It was a wonderful, relaxing three hours during which the only sounds were birdsong, the rushing of the river, the snort of a wild boar (or so we thought - it turned out to be a crow!), the occasional dog barking and the sound of our own voices. I forget just how tranquil this part of the world is until I get back there.

Once we'd finished our walk, we had planned to head to a local lake to lounge on the sand in the evening sun. However, just a couple of miles outside Roumilhac, at Balledent, we stumbled across an enticing little café, Chez Isa - the front was fairly unprepossessing, it just faced the small track we had driven up. However, sneaking a peek round the side of the building revealed a rear terrace on stilts which was flooded with sunlight and overlooked the river. The lake idea was discarded and we ventured in to the café and out onto the terrace. It was such a beautiful spot, a real sun trap and, for a little while, we were the only customers. A cold drink, comfy outdoor seating and a chat with the very friendly owners made the next hour or so fly by. Eventually, we had to concede that it was time to head home and make some dinner. Magnac-Laval on a Monday evening is no busier than a Sunday! We rustled up a ginormous pan of pasta and veggie sauce and then opened a bottle of fizz to celebrate the fact that Cathy has owned this little slice of paradise for ten years!!! The first couple of Kir Royales slipped down far too easily so we moved on to normal fizz and then (!) on to 2 bottles of wine! It was probably just as well that we had enough pasta for half a dozen people to soak up all that booze. We played very silly board games, giggled a lot and sang along with the well-used 80s CDs (whilst noting which would go well for a forthcoming karaoke night in Brighton). At just gone midnight, despite the fact that we had learnt on our day of arrival that there had been a murder just down the road in January, and no-one had been caught, we decided to go stargazing. It was a beautifully clear night and we wandered over towards the very dark streets at the back of the hospital. We had our fill of constellations (no shooting stars though) and wended our way back home, just possibly singing a few 80s numbers a little too loud - bloody Brits abroad, eh?!

We crashed out as soon as we got home and were rudely awakened by our alarms the next morning, a bit too early! We completed the rest of the tidying and cleaning of the house, popped out to grab a couple of little pressies, dropped the recycling off and then drove over to see a friend of Cathy's. She lives in a lovely house with a huge garden and we spent a nice hour or so there, chatting and drinking tea before having to face the fact that it was time to head to the airport and go home. We had a brief fright when Cathy's sister texted her to say she hoped that the French Air Traffic Control strike wasn't causing any problems with our return. Er, strike?! What strike?! It was true, but fortunately, it was only hitting Paris, Marseilles and a couple of airports on the south coast apparently. So we headed off to Poitiers airport which, should you ever go there, has pretty dreadful signposting both to the airport and to the car hire dropoff. Still, we made it in time and before we knew it, we were back at Stansted and heading home.

It felt like we'd been away for a week. It's amazing how relaxing just a couple of days away from home can be, and how much we always manage to fit in to such a short space of time. I'm looking forward to my next visit, whenever that might be.

My photos are HERE

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Wilmington Priory with Wonderful People

In spring last year, I went to an Open Day at Wilmington Priory, a beautiful 11th century building not far from Polegate/Eastbourne, owned by The Landmark Trust. Despite it being only half an hour's drive from Brighton, I had never noticed it, even on previous visits to The Long Man of Wilmington. When I discovered that it was possible to rent the whole place out for 6 people to stay in, I realised it was the perfect venue for the next annual get-together with some of my best friends.

I contacted The Landmark Trust, paid the £632 rental and within a few weeks, it was all sorted. I was off to stay in a (haunted) priory for three nights in January with Cathy, Ed, Sid, Julia and Mike. We're the final hangers-on of what used to be a fourteen or fifteen-strong group of friends who all worked at Gatwick Immigration (or were connected to someone who did). Over the years, naturally, people have moved away, had kids, emigrated or simply fallen off the radar, leaving this small group of reprobates to keep up the drunken shenanigans of a weekend away!

So last Friday afternoon, we packed our various cars and converged on Wilmington (well, once poor Sid had found her car which had been helpfully moved by the council to a different street after they'd suspended the parking where she'd left her car!) Despite all coming from different directions, we pulled up outside the property within about 15 seconds of each other, found the cunningly hidden key and emptied the contents of the cars into the flagstone hallway. Strangely enough, there seemed to be much more alcohol than anything else in our packing! We tucked our cars away in the private car park down the lane and went back for a good old explore of the house. I'd seen it before, of course, but had honestly forgotten just how marvellous it is!

Much of the priory itself is in ruins but there are parts of it still standing both outside and within the main walls of the property. The beamed ceilings in the kitchen and two of the bedrooms are original and there is a high vaulted beamed ceiling in what is now the table tennis room. And then of course there's the crypt (or undercroft, depending on which guide you read). From the garden, a tiny flight of stairs disappears down into the darkness, leading to a vaulted cellar which is, especially if you don't turn the lights on, a little bit spooky!

We claimed our bedrooms (Sid and I shared the twin room in the oldest wing, walking through part of the original priory wall to get to the room). It's a great room if you don't mind the freezing walk from the room and down two lots of stairs to the nearest bathroom but it does have this view:

Once the nice man from Tesco had delivered all our breakfast goodies, crisps, dips and snacks, we squirrelled them all away in the kitchen and settled ourselves in for the evening. Sid made a delicious veggie shepherd's pie, Cathy had brought divine tiramisu, apple crumble and cream, so we chatted over dinner and drinks before retiring to the living room in front of a roaring fire for more chat and several games of cards. Before we knew it, it was 2.30am and time to hit the sack.

Saturday dawned a little dull but at least not pouring with rain. After a bleary-eyed breakfast feast of veggie sausages, Quorn bacon, fried eggs, baked beans, toast, Marmite, mushrooms, tea and fruit juice, we were ready to head out. Ed had identified a host of walks which went right past the door so we didn't even have to take the cars anywhere. From our front door, we headed cross-country, walking the three miles across partly flooded fields to Alfriston where we had planned to have a cream tea. However, we'd only finished breakfast a couple of hours earlier and none of us could manage more food so we had a wander around Alfriston and then continued the circular walk. Another three miles brought us up to the head of the Long Man of Wilmington, where we met a man who was out walking his dog and exercising his Harris Hawk! That's not something you see every day. It was a magnificent bird, swooping about in the sky and then elegantly coming back to rest on the ground nearby or on his hand. From there, a thigh-muscle-killing steep walk down brought us back to The Street and to the priory.

After tea and crumpets, showers and several games of table tennis, we headed off to The Giant's Rest, a pub just at the end of the lane. It was, without question, one of the best pub meals I've ever had - mine was a shared baked camembert followed by sweet potato, mushroom and peanut stew, which were so huge there was no room for the treacle tart I'd been eyeing up most of the evening. Everyone was very happy with their food - huge portions at very acceptable prices. The pub had a lovely atmosphere, wasn't overly busy for a Saturday evening and I look forward to going back at some point.

We walked back by torchlight to the house, lit a fire and spent another late evening/early morning playing cards and chatting.

Sunday delivered unexpected bright blue skies and sunshine. I was awake at 8 so I left the others sleeping and snuck out to take some pictures of the grounds, and then to the church next door. The 1600-year-old yew tree in the churchyard looked stunning in the early morning sunlight and I spent a happy 15 minutes in the small church reading up on the history of both the church and the priory. In July 2002, the church suffered a fire which destroyed an entire section - the cause of the fire has never been ascertained but the local papers and the guestbook at the priory talk of between one and three mysterious American guests who could not be located after the event!

Soon after my return, everyone was up, we had another giant cooked veggie breakfast and planned the rest of our day. We drove to Birling Gap, parked up a couple of miles past it, and then walked the breathtaking clifftop path back to Birling Gap for a drink and a cake in the newly-refurbished National Trust café. We then walked back the other way towards the car but continued on a little further in the direction of Beachy Head, before turning back to the cars. As Cathy, Julia and I headed back in one car, we spotted the start of a gorgeous sunset so we pulled over and went to watch and photograph it. It had been a lovely day from start to finish. It's easy to moan about living in the UK and how it rains a lot and it's a bit nippy in the winter but on a day like this, with the winter sun beating down from a bright blue sky, shining on the undulating hills and clifftops of the South Downs and with the gleaming white cliff faces, offset by the red and white stripes of the lighthouse, I can honestly say there's nowhere I'd rather be.

On our return to the priory, it was time for tea and crumpets again, and for me to finally take two games of table tennis off Mike! After a delicious dinner of baked potatoes with veggie chilli courtesy of Julia, we retired yet again to the living room to toast marshmallows and chestnuts over the fire. Cathy and I had also finally got around to lighting candles in the combination inside/outside room (part of the old hall) and it was a beautifully clear night so we took ourselves off to stargaze and to drink wine and look for hibernating bats in the ceiling of the hall. It was a shame we didn't use the opportunity to have at least one meal out there as it was really atmospheric and cosy under candlelight. A bit chilly perhaps but that's what coats are for! Outside, the skies were twinkling with stars and constellations and with help of my NightSky app, we realised that one of the brightest was actually Jupiter! Mike spotted a bat flitting around our heads but Cathy and I didn't see one until we went back into the candlelit al fresco room where one was zooming round and round before finally heading out in search of insects.

We realised there was one thing left to do from our list of planned activities - the séance! Whilst there aren't any specific reports of hauntings at the property, we worked on the assumption that an 11th century priory must stand a pretty good chance of some activity. There were plenty of entries in the visitors' book about dogs refusing to go in certain areas of the house too. It wasn't really practical to take ourselves off down into the crypt with its freezing and slightly damp floor and no even surfaces. So Mike set up the Scrabble letters alphabetically around an upturned glass, we lit two candles and then four of us sat around the table to see what happened. And? Nothing. Nada. To be fair, I'm not sure we were all taking it too seriously and there had been quite a lot of wine drunk so the questions we posed to the ether weren't exactly, as Mike later said, conducive!

Far too soon, the fire had died, we'd run out of marshmallows and chestnuts and, shock horror, almost run out of alcohol so we headed up the various wooden hills for our final night's sleep.

Monday morning consisted of scoffing toast, packing, clearing up, divvying up the leftover food, sorting out what we owed the housekeeper for kindling and firewood and settling up our food bills with each other. The weekend had gone far too fast as usual but it had been fun, relaxing, laughter-filled and a lovely way to spend a long weekend with good friends. One thing I will say is - if I ever hear "the Barbara Streisand" song again, it'll be too soon!

All my photos from the weekend can be found here.