A day out to Hidcote, Glos.

Like all of the celebrated gardens in the UK, Lockdown has had an effect on their care and maintenance programme. With few volunteers to help alongside the gardeners and no visitors to admire them, the gardens aren’t quite up to their usual standard. Worse still for organisations like the National Trust they’ve experienced a huge drop in income.

We belong to the National Trust and during the periods between Lockdowns we went to The Vyne twice, also The Courts Garden,and Stourhead and other places not owned by the National Trust. This year so far we’ve enjoyed the snowdrops at Newark Park and had a wonderful time with our daughter, husband and grandchildren at The Vyne celebrating my husband’s birthday with an al-fresco picnic.

We decided to go to Hidcote as we hadn’t been for a few years and it’s one of our favourite gardens. A great place for taking pictures too. It had been a Bank Holiday that weekend and true to form on the Monday the weather was awful – cold, blustery and wet! No wonder the Hidcote gardens looked a little bedraggled in places when we visited the next day but the gardeners were out there tidying up. It still looked lovely as you can see from the pictures. How they get the lawn to look that good I don’t know although mostly they were pretty sodden after all the rain and were cordoned off

So let me take you on a tour …

I’d like to say that it was a warm, sunny May day but actually it was breezy and cold although the sun did come out from time to time. To warm ourselves up we headed back to ‘Mrs Winthrop’s Cafe, where we bought a warm drink and found a seat back round by the Italian Shelter. It’s just to the side of what was the Bathing Pool and is a wooden, thatched structure. It’s a strange building and on the back wall has two watercolour paintings. I suppose in days gone by the owners and their guests would sit in there sheltering from the sun and looking through to the Bathing Pool or maybe the croquet set was stored in there? If it was used as a changing room it would have been very draughty!

A warming drink and a rare glimpse of the sun.
The two panels along the back wall of the ‘Italian Shelter’. Anyone for croquet?

Spurred on by the sun coming-out, although it soon disappeared again we walked out to the perimeter of the gardens through an area called ‘The Wilderness’. It’s a little wild and full of bluebells at this time of year. From the edge of the garden there’s a fine viewpoint across the hills. I also like the view of the ‘Long Walk’ looking through the wrought iron gates.

We then walked round to ‘Rock Bank’ to look at the view across to the Malverns. The lambs were having a great time playing in the corner of the field where there was a pile of branches.

Then we followed the winding pathway along the stream with lots of large Calla Lilies growing alongside it and headed back to what’s called the Stilt Garden. It has two splendid gazebos either side of the steps at the top end.

Gardener at work doing a great tidy up job in the Stilt Garden.

From here we walked across to the Kitchen Garden and the Plant House. We paused to look for newts in the Lily Pond and were delighted to spot one. The Plant House is closed at the moment but I managed to take a picture through one of the windows. I particularly liked the potting shed with its array of terracotta pots and display of dried grasses. And here vying for attention by one of the benches was yet another tame robin happy to pose for a picture.

Plant House, Potting Shed and another tame robin.
A perfect place to sit.

Once we’d wandered around the kitchen garden we felt we’d covered most of the garden. I bought a plant from the well-stocked Plant Centre and a few things from the shop and then it was time to head to the nearby village of Mickelton for a pub lunch at The Kings Arms. – Highly recommend it. We’ll look forward to going back to Hidcote as it’s gardens are delightful throughout the whole year.

A mini break in Somerset Part II

The first part of this account of our few days in Somerset ended where we’d just walked around the picturesque village of Dunster. Now picking up again to continue the second part of this Blog …we left Dunster after walking back to the castle to pick up the car and drove over to Porlock Weir.

It’s a scenic drive as you get nearer to the little port. Narrow winding roads made all the more interesting as that day they were trimming the hedges. Not much room for cars coming the other way and no chance of overtaking. At least there’s a large car park when you get there and because of the lovely weather, the place was buzzing, or maybe it is most times. I was hoping the tide would be in but you can’t have everything.

Porlock Weir

The wooden, re-inforced harbour gates are very impressive and were built to keep the inner harbour free of stones. We walked over the harbour bridge across to the comically named, ‘Turkey Island’ where in front of you is the cute, thatched ‘Quay Cottage’. Most definitely worth a picture.

Porlock Weir, Somerset

It was great just wandering round and of course we walked along the beach for little way too. Loved the old wooden breakwaters known as groynes. It had been a while since our tea and cake in Dunster and with The Bottom Ship looking splendid in the sunshine we felt it was time for a pint. And very pleasant it was too! The good news is that the pub will be re-opening on Monday April 12th for outdoor seating only but table service for food and drink – I’m getting excited just typing this!

Feeling refreshed we drove over to Watchet and had a wander round. Oh dear! I didn’t take any pictures of the harbour as I remember it being full of small ships and having lots of character. Sadly it was converted in 2000 to a modern marina and well …it was disappointing. The town was very quiet with a few shops open and dare I say -it just felt sad. Perhaps we didn’t see it at its best …

Time for another picture.

St Andrew’s Church, Lilstock

A couple of guys in the pub where we were staying in Crowcombe had said that we must go over to the hamlet of Lilstock to see the little church of St Andrews. “Its off the beaten track,” they said, and they weren’t kidding. As you can see we did find this ancient church which was declared redundant in 1980 and threatened with demolition. The Rector in the Benefice personally paid for the repairs and restoration which was completed in 1993. The chancel is all that remains but this does include a 14th century arch just inside the present doorway.

As most of my friends know, I enjoy taking picture of churches both inside and out and love a good graveyard. The graves were well spaced out and most of them very old. One notable grave there is that of Sarah Perrett who was lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria.

The other reason for driving over to this side of the Quantocks was just down the road from Lilstock is a beach, not at all touristy which has a treasure trove of fossils. Reading about the beach doesn’t entice you to go; it’s waters are murky and polluted apparently and the only sand is beyond an expanse of rock. There’s a certain irony about a beach with lots of fossilised remains that is within sight of a power station, Hinkley Point. Not surprisingly there was just the two of us down there that afternoon and yes we did bring one small rock home.

Lilstock Beach, Somerset
Lilstock Beach – a fossil hunters’ paradise

For our last night, as requested, the chef cooked me an excellent curry. They really did look after us at The Carew Arms. Unfortunately the pub and hotel is not open at preset due to the Lockdown restrictions but we do wish them well and hope they will be able to open up soon. Such difficult times for the hospitality business and others too.

And so it was our last morning, but before heading back home there was just a couple more things we wanted to do …the first to walk up to Cothelstone Hill. It’s said to be the best vantage point in Somerset where you get a 360 degree view over the Blackdown Hills and when its clear to the Bredon Hills and Exmoor National Park. There are two earthworks at the top which might be bronze age burial mounds and also a clump of beech trees known as ‘The Seven Sisters’

View from Cothelstone Hill on The Quantocks
View from Cothelstone Hill on The Quantocks

As you can see from the picture it was a wonderful day to see the spectacular views …all we wanted now was to spot the ponies and it wasn’t long before we did.

The resident herd of Exmoor Ponies.

Originally a group of Exmoor ponies wandered over to The Quantocks and decided to stay. They are wild but obviously used to walkers because even though they knew we were there, they didn’t show any sign of moving on. While I was (excitedly) taking pictures a land rover drew up with a couple of wardens just checking that the ponies were ok.

Part of the Herd.
A splendid beast.

What a magnificent, photogenic lot! I just loved taking these pictures.

And so they wandered on.

All too soon the herd moved on so we continued our walk across the heathland and then through the woods following the escarpment and back round to the car.

Walking through the woods with fine views across to the Blackdown Hills

There was one last place we wanted to visit before heading home and that was Fyne Court, owned by the National Trust. We weren’t sure if the cafe and loos would be open, but they were. We couldn’t resist buying a hot drink and a (huge) piece of cake. We’d deserved it after our walk.

There isn’t a house there but the walks are interesting especially as some of the features give a few clues as to what the garden would have been like. The walled garden is now a haven for wild flowers and bees whereas originally the owners would have employed gardeners to grow fruit and vegetables. The Boat House is now a ruin but the Folly is being restored – we were there to enjoy the stunning autumn colours and we certainly weren’t disappointed.

One of the woodland walks.
Just magical.
Autumn is a wonderful time of the year.

It’s interesting that Fyne Court is quite understated with few attractions as such except for the woods and walking trails. I’m sure they are worth a visit at any time of year but I think we chose the best season.

Wandering along, just the two us was a great way to round off our ‘mini-break in The Quantocks. We’d packed quite a lot in and both us said we would come back another time. It’s an interesting part of the country and there’s lots more walks we would like to do. Maybe this Blog and the previous has inspired you to visit this area too?

A mini-break in Somerset Part 1.

It was a superb autumn last year and we were lucky enough to have a few days away in Somerset before the second Lockdown. We decided to stay in the area of The Quantocks as most people go further west to Exmoor or Dartmoor.

Once again we were lucky on our second mini-break as the weather was warm and sunny throughout the three days we were away. The evenings were chilly but the sunsets were wonderful.

Sunset taken from the car park of ‘The Carew Arms’.

Driving down to Somerset we had been recommended a place for lunch and it couldn’t haven’t been better –The Kitchen at Quantock Lakes was an excellent stop. The home-made soup was very filling and was so huge, I had to cancel my toasted tea cake, I just couldn’t manage anything else! We would throughly recommend this restaurant if you’re ever near that part of the world.

Suitably replete we drove onto the Quantocks to start our circular walk and what better place to park than somewhere called ‘Dead Woman’s Ditch’?! It’s a large open clearing by a shallow stream and during the summer is a popular place to bbq and you could probably go for a paddle too.

The Quantock Hills, Somerset
Ramscombe Circular Walk from Dead Woman’s Ditch on The Quantocks.

The Ramscombe Circular Walk is about 4.5 miles, mostly flat at the beginning but after you have descended into Ramscombe it is a steady climb back to the top. You walk across the moorland first of all, between the bracken and gorse hedges and then into the woods. We hadn’t expected to come across the wild ponies which live on The Quantocks but there on the open land were a group of five. Although they are found on The Quantocks they are actually Exmoor ponies who migrated across to Somerset years ago and never went back. These ponies may not have been the wild ones as they seemed fairly undisturbed by us but we were delighted to see them all the same.

Ponies on the heath and the woodland walk.

Walking through woods in the autumn is definitely my favourite time and as you can see, this wood was magical. We didn’t see a soul all the time we were walking along – no traffic noise, just the sound of birds singing. When you come out at the bottom there is a path which takes you to a minor road, past the Christian Study Centre then up onto the heath and back along to the car park.

Not a soul in sight! (Shot on the r.h.s. was taken with the lens of my sunglasses over the camera lens!).

If you would like details of the Ramscombe Walk, copy this link to print off the details. https://www.quantockonline.co.uk/tourism_leisure/activities/walks/circularwalks/ramscombe01.pdf

Village of Crowcombe, Somerset
Church of the Holy Ghost, Crowcombe with the 16th century Church House. (On r.h.s.), view of the pub garden from our room.

Arriving back at the car it was time to drive down off the hills to Crowcombe where we were staying for three nights. The village itself is very old dating back to 854 and is mentioned in The Domesday Book. The village cross dates from the 14th century as does Church House. The tower of the Church of the Holy Ghost dates back to the same time although most of the imposing church was built in the 15th century. We popped inside to have a look inside the church and peep through the windows of the rather splendid Church House before going back to The Carew Arms to check out their beer.

Like all pubs, 2020 was a tough year for this small hotel/village pub. Functions cancelled including the regular skittles matches and event nights. This current year hasn’t been any kinder so far and you can only wonder whether a place like this and dozens more similar pubs and small hotels will survive.

Despite lean times, the staff at the pub were great; so friendly, we couldn’t have been looked after better. The beer was well kept and the home-made food was excellent. A huge breakfast is included in the price and sets you up for the day and as for the curry …I couldn’t do better myself. We spent our evenings in the ‘snug’ sat on the old settle by the wood-burning stove. No need for a TV or live music – the customers kept us entertained.

Unfortunately the first thing that you notice when you arrive is the look of the place from the outside. You have to bear in mind that the main building is very old and to be truthful both the outside and interior need a great deal of money spending on it. Our bedroom was in the accommodation block which joins the main building. Whilst our room was clean, the only heating was from a free-standing electric fire … with no double-glazing at the windows, it was hard to get it warm. The bathroom was an ice box! I don’t want to be anymore disparaging than that as it must be hard these days to afford to update guest bedrooms but 21st century they are not. Whether all the rooms lacked central heating, I don’t know. All I do know is that as I write this on a freezing cold day in February I would not want to spend a night at The Carew Arms! Having said all that …if you are looking for a decent pint, good home-cooked food and a very warm welcome don’t drive past, you will be well looked after.

I mentioned the village church earlier on as it’s well worth a look. Along the nave the carved bench ends have unusual carvings which depict such pagan subjects as the Green Man and the legend of the men of Crowcombe fighting a two-headed dragon. Across the road is the Church House; one of only two in the country still in use as was first intended. It is believed it was built in the early 1500’s as a single storey building. Originally it was used for parish functions and later to house the poor of the village on the lower floor and a school on the upper. It has now returned to community use and a venue for functions with the ground floor used as a village hall and the upstairs room to house exhibitions.

Dunster Castle including a shot of the downstairs sitting room.

Day two of our trip and we drove over to Dunster. We obviously came to it on the right road as the view of this medieval castle on top of the Tor is very impressive and definitely worth pulling over in a lay-by to take a picture. The castle itself is owned by the National Trust. We arrived just after opening time so had the house to ourselves. All the guides were very friendly and happy to tell us more of the castle’s history. We were lucky the house which was formerly owned by the Luttrell family who lived there for 600 years was open although there wasn’t a great amount to see. The castle grounds and gardens are very interesting with stunning views from the top terrace together with the formal gardens. There seemed to be several terraces snaking around the gardens each offering a variety of shrubs and plants. along the borders. Our favourite area was down by the river; it’s a wild, wooded area, a little like ‘The Lost Gardens of Heligan’ but on a smaller scale. The river Anvil runs through the garden, alongside the working watermill and under an 18th century double-arched stone bridge. This was built by the Luttrell family to replace a mediaeval mill bridge. I love the way a small waterfall has been created just down stream. This area is so peaceful and a perfect place to have a cup of tea at the tea rooms. Sadly both the watermill and tea rooms were closed. No problem …there are plenty of tea shops in Dunster which is where we went next.

Grounds of Dunster Castle, Somerset
Lovers Bridge (top picture) and castle gardens.
Mill Gardens at Dunster Castle, Somerset
Mill Gardens with the River Avill flowing through.
Grounds of Dunster Castle, Somerset
Grounds of Dunster Castle with stunning views.
The medieval town of Dunster with its iconic octagonal Yarn Market.

We left our car in the castle car park and walked down the back street into the village. Dunster feels more like a small town but as it claims to be the most intact medieval village in England, I am not going to argue with that. I have fond memories of Dunster and it’s fine church as I photographed a wedding there about twelve years ago and remember that day with great fondness. I was pleased to be back and also to be able to pop into one of the shops in the High Street to say hello to ‘my’ groom. At least he remembered me which was nice.

After taking a picture of the iconic Yarn Market and checking out a few local shops we were ready for a warm drink and a piece of home-made cake. Spoilt for choice we opted for a tea-shop where we could sit outside on the pavement and enjoy the autumn sunshine. It felt great to be able to do that in mid-October and yes, we did feel like tourists …and we were!

I am going to finish the first part of our three-day trip in The Quantocks as there’s more pictures and narrative to come. I hope my account so far of our visit will tempt you to read Part 2 which will be coming soon.

The beautiful Gower Peninsular.

It’s a while since I wrote my last Blog so now as we’re into another Lockdown it’s time to bring it up to date.

Rhossili Beach and the Swansea Bay coastline

This year because of Covid19 and the restrictions that have been placed on us all we haven’t been able to go on any long holidays since early February 2020. Yes we were lucky to go away when we did and during our week in Laos and ten days in Thailand we felt pretty safe. Since then we haven’t travelled abroad but we have been away on a couple of mini-breaks. Three days on The Gower Peninsular in mid September was the first one and as luck would have it, the weather was perfect.

It’s about two hours drive from here to Swansea Bay although it was a little longer as we stopped at The Gower Inn on the way to have a pint of Gower Gold, a locally brewed beer. Suitably refreshed and armed with a couple of M&S sandwiches we ate our lunch sat on a cliff-top overlooking Rhossili Beach. As you can see from the picture above, the bay is breathtaking. We were to find out that this is just one of many areas on The Gower that has the most breath-taking scenery.

Worm’s Head

Although there were only a few people on the beach the cliff-top area was quite busy but then it was a warm, Sunday afternoon. Most people were walking in the same direction to look at Worm’s Head which is the furthest westerly point on the Gower Peninsula. At low tide you can walk across but leave it too late as the tide is coming in and you’re stranded on the headland for quite a while.

There are lots of walks in that area and we chose one that took us around the coast and then inland across the field back to the car park. Hardly any people seemed to have walked further than Worm’s Head which surprised us. Once back to the car we headed for the hills to a little village where we were going to stay.

King Arthur Hotel, Reynoldston

Following a recommendation from a Welsh friend of ours we’d booked three nights at the family-run King Arthur Hotel in the village of Reynoldston. Looking at the picture above takes me back to our stay there and reminds me of sitting in the garden enjoying the wonderful weather … and a glass of beer. It was a perfect place to stay; good food, helpful staff, reasonably priced room and a quiet rural setting including free to roam sheep.

We didn’t have a meal at the hotel that first night as we were celebrating our wedding anniversary and thought we’d go a little ‘up market’. It wasn’t our best decision. Yes the restaurant has a Michelin star and a very good write-up with a lovely location on the beach but it didn’t do it for us. Don’t even ask how much the bill came to and that was without having a bottle of wine! What it lacked in atmosphere was matched by the small, beautifully conceived dishes – even the Welsh lamb lacked flavour. Enough said.

Overlooking Pobbles Bay and Three Cliffs Bay.

Our first full day and the weather was amazing. We didn’t expect to spend a couple of hours on the beach or go into the sea but that’s what we did. The walk down to Pobbles Bay is really interesting. Lots of people practising going down the craggy rocks using climbing gear which tells you how steep it was to walk down to the beach. We were happy to walk down the path. By the way, it isn’t us sitting on the rocks in the picture above, made a good shot though.

The tide coming in to Three Cliffs Bay

Having scrambled down the steep, sandy path to the beach we settled ourselves down by a line of rocks and a rock pool – a little area all to ourselves. The beach wasn’t busy anyway but it was nice to have our own private area and the rock pool was handy for keeping the drinks cool. We just couldn’t believe how hot it was – who’d have thought!

The plan was to walk to the next bay and then back up to the top of the cliffs however the tide had other ideas! We hadn’t realise it would come in quite so fast and we weren’t the only ones. As you can see from the top picture, there was no way we were getting round to the next bay. What you can’t see is a group of people around the other side of the rock scrambling in the water rescuing their belongings. They’d gone for a swim not realising their things were being submerged under seawater!

Our cliff top walk to Pennard Castle

As we couldn’t walk along the beach to the next bay we had no choice but to walk up to the top. Yes it was quite steep in places and although we hadn’t planned to walk to the ruined Pennard Castle it was more or less on our way. What a great place to build a castle although it was only in use for two hundred years before it was abandoned in the 14th century. There’s not a lot left but it was worth walking up to it and the view was fantastic.

The ruins of Pennard Castle

By the time we’d walked across the golf course and into the village we were ready for a sit down, a piece of cake and then an ice cream. What a handy pit stop it was! We were quite tired by the time we got back to our hotel but it was great to just chill out in the pub garden and enjoy the last warm rays of the sun.

The Japanese Garden, The Bee Hives, The Butterfly House and the Walled Garden.
The tranquil Japanese Garden

On our last full day we drove our of The Gower and headed for The National Botanic Garden of Wales which is located in Llanarthney in the River Tywi valley, Carmarthenshire. It wasn’t until we left Reynoldston by the top road that we realised quite high up the village is. You are quickly onto wild, barren moorland with lots of sheep everywhere. It almost seemed strange leaving The Gower as we’d got very used to the area but I particularly wanted to visit The Botanic Gardens. It’s established itself as one of Wales’ main tourist attractions and is also a centre for botanical research and conservation.

Because of the first lockdown and also because gardens start to look a little bedraggled by mid-September we felt there were areas that had been left and perhaps another year would look very different. A place like this would depend on volunteers as well as paid staff and probably there just weren’t enough people to keep the gardens looking at their best. Our favourite areas were the Japanese Garden which is pictured above, the  several fascinating water features along The Broadwalk and The Great Glasshouse.

The Great Glasshouse

On the complex is the world’s largest single-span glasshouse designed by Norman Foster, measuring 110 m long by 60 m wide. It’s very impressive and houses some of the most endangered species of plants on the planet. This was definitely the main attraction.

As it was only mid-afternoon by the time we drove back onto The Gower we decided to walk along the coastal path from Caswell Bay to Langland Bay. Our Welsh friend had recommended this walk which follows the headland around from one bay to the other on a neat, tarmaced path. We were so pleased we took his advice. It’s an interesting walk and late afternoon was very quiet until we got to the village of Langland. The bistro cafe had just one table left outside which we nabbed and enjoyed a very large glass of wine.

The coastal walk from Langland Bay heading towards Caswell Bay.

As the sun was getting quite low by now we didn’t dally over our wine too long and got going again to walk back to Caswell Bay. As you can see the light was fading but the orange glow over the water was beautiful.

Near the brook in Reynoldston

Wednesday morning and time to head home. The breakfasts served at the hotel are excellent and there’s plenty of it so we felt in need of a walk round the village before getting in the car. Reynoldston is an attractive little village with wide expanses of common land on which sheep roam everywhere, including the pub garden when no-one is there! The King Arthur hotel was a perfect place for us and we shall definitely go back there and explore more of this beautiful coastline.

The Grounds of Blenheim Palace.

Some interesting features around the Palace Courtyard.

Blenheim Palace is a monumental country house in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. It’s the principal residence of the Dukes of Marlborough and the only non-royal, country house in England to hold the title of Palace. It would be an understatement if I said it wasn’t impressive, this is a huge stately pile.

We had to wait a little while before going into the Palace so I took a few pictures around the Great Courtyard and one of the ‘Column of Victory’. It was built in 1730 by the 1st Duke of Marlborough to commemorate his victory in the war of the Spanish Succession.

Column of Victory

After walking around the wonderful interior of the Palace we went over to the East Courtyard to the Oxfordshire Pantry to grab a sandwich and a hot drink. Because of the current Covid restrictions all the tables were outside but thankfully it wasn’t raining.

Suitably refreshed we walked past the gates of the Courtyard towards the Formal Gardens. You can’t fail to notice the ornate bridge on the right between the Great Lake and the Queen Pool, which is called Vanbrugh’s Grand Bridge. You can imagine carriages driven across the bridge when the Marlborough’s were touring their estate. Perhaps they still do?

Vanbrugh’s Grand Bridge
The Boathouse by The Great Lake.

Just by the entrance to the formal gardens we paused to look down the lake by the the boathouse where you could see work going on in the area of the Cascades. We were intrigued by a remote-controlled lawn mower which you can see in the left of the above picture. It was going up and down the grassy bank but there was no sign of anyone about!

The Temple of Diana built in the 18th century.

As you go into the gardens the first building you come across is the Temple of Diana. It’s famous as being the place where Winston Churchill proposed to his future wife Clementine Hozier. Wish the sun had been out when I took this picture but that’s the way it is.

Despite it being a grey old day the rose garden looked beautiful. We really enjoyed sitting in there for a few minutes. There are scores of different varieties of roses and no sign of any black spot!

So many rose varieties.

We eventually dragged ourselves away from the rose garden and continued along the path through the Arboretum. There was hardly anyone about and so we meandered through the trees and across the South Lawn towards the back of the Palace.

Here there is a small formal garden which has a very Victorian feel about it, probably because of the central fountain you see in stately homes. This area was cordoned off but it was easy to get over the chain and take this picture. Hopping back, we continued across the South Lawn to the Secret Garden.

It must be quite a secret as we were the only ones there. The pond was surrounded by lots of ferns and had a Japanese bridge at one side. It was very damp in this area so the ferns were doing well. As we came out of the garden I spotted this little statue which I thought had a lovely, sweet face. We then headed back to towards the house as we didn’t need to go on to the play area.

Back to the house I just had time to take some pictures of the Italian Garden before leaving the formal gardens and heading to The Orangery for my birthday treat.

The Italian Garden

In my previous Blog I explained why we visited Blenheim when we did …my lovely friends had given me a wonderful birthday present – afternoon tea for two in The Orangery. What an absolute treat! A glass of fizz got the high tea off to a good start and then an array of sandwiches, scones and cakes arrived. We worked very hard to get through all this sumptuous food but we didn’t quite make it. Doggy bags are provided.

Afternoon Tea in The Orangery.

What a fantastic tea! I’d thoroughly recommend it – not just the food, the setting was lovely and the staff couldn’t do enough for us.

As the weather was closing in we decide not to walk over the bridge to the Column of Victory. It was a good decision as it started to rain as we walked back to the car.

The Queen Pool – slightly lower water levels than usual due to the works on The Cascade.

Our visit to Blenheim had been a truly memorable one. The admission charge isn’t cheap but you can go back as many times as you like during the following twelve months. At the moment not all the rooms in the Palace nor the exhibitions are open but there is still a lot to do and see. Hopefully it won’t be too long before everything is open again …

Inside Blenheim Palace

I celebrated a very special birthday in late spring which despite Lockdown was a truly special day.

Presents included a Paragliding flight which I have yet to take and lots of other treats including a voucher for Afternoon Tea at Blenheim Palace. I am very lucky to have so many wonderful friends including Sally & Chris who gave me this fabulous present.

Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire.

As I write this we are in the middle of another Lockdown so the Palace is currently closed although the gardens are open and the woodland walks. When we visited Blenheim just before this preset Lockdown, the Palace was open but some of the areas were closed including ‘The Churchill Exhibition’. Notwithstanding that, you could walk through the stunning gilded State Rooms and The Long Library. As you can probably tell from the pictures above it was quite a grey old day when we were there but it did brighten up in the afternoon when we walked around the grounds.

I decided to split this Blog into two so the second part will be pictures of the formal gardens and our meanderings around the grounds before going into The Orangery for Afternoon Tea.

Whenever we visit a National Trust place or any other stately home I love taking pictures inside preferably avoiding any people in the shot. If I see a great painting or photograph, I just have to take a picture of it and so you’ll see a few of those here.

A little bit of history to start with …Blenheim Palace is one of England’s largest houses with 187 rooms. It was built between 1705 and 1722 on land gifted by Queen Anne and is the principal residence of the Dukes of Marlborough. It’s the only non-royal house in England to hold the title of ‘Palace’. It’s famous for its unique Baroque style of architecture and in 1987 was designated a World Heritage Site. Today’s it’s the home of the 12th Duke & Duchess of Marlborough. The Palace is also famous as the birthplace and ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill.

Because of the Covid restrictions we had to queue quite a while before going into the palace. We hadn’t realised that we could have booked a timed slot but despite some very dark clouds overhead it didn’t rain on us so we weren’t too worried.

Centre-piece of the ceiling in The Great (entrance) Hall.
A superb painting depicting Churchill’s life.

As we entered the Great Hall which is very impressive, the first thing we noticed was the painting on the ceiling and then the very large painting depicting the life of Sir Winston Churchill. It’s a fantastic montage covering all aspects of Winston’s life but turning to go down the corridor the painting below was the one that caught my eye. It depicts the society beauty Consuelo, formerly a Vanderbilt who married Charles Spencer Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough. This lady deserves a paragraph all to herself along with Gladys Deacon who became the second wife of the Duke …

Consuelo 9th Duchess of Marlborough.

Consuelo Vanderbilt was born 1877. Her mother was determined her only daughter would marry the highest-ranking aristocrat possible and set her sights on the 9th Duke of Marlborough. Consuelo had no interest in him and was secretly engaged to an American. Eventually she had to marry the Duke because her mother appeared to be at death’s door and told her daughter it was all because she was refusing to marry this English aristocrat. Sadly for Conseulo she did marry him as it turned out to be an ill-fitting match and a loveless marriage. The Duke, not surprisingly turned elsewhere for affection. He fell in love with Gladys Deacon, another American beauty who had little money but great intellect. He brought her to Blenheim Palace in the late 1890’s and she became friends with Consuelo even though Gladys was clearly the Duke’s mistress. The 9th Duke and Consuelo didn’t divorce until 1921 whereupon he married Gladys the same year. Once again the marriage didn’t turn out too well. Later in their unhappy, childless marriage the story was she kept a revolver in her bedroom to warn the Duke from entering. Consuelo died in 1964 and is buried in St Martin’s Church, Bladon.

Portrait of Consuelo, the 9th Duchess of Marlborough.

When Gladys and the Duke began drifting apart she became increasingly erratic and started retreating from the world. Her mental state was a great cause of worry to the family and she was forcibly moved to a lunatic asylum were she died in 1977 aged 96. There is a biography written by Hugo Vickers entitled ‘The Sphinx’ about the life of Gladys Deacon which tells of …’scandal, misery and madness marking the life of this society beauty’. The striking thing for me is the picture chosen for the front cover looks so like the late Princess Diana.

Portrait of the socialite Gladys Marie Deacon, second wife of the 9th Duke.

Moving down the first hallway you turn into the bedroom Churchill used when he visited Blenheim. Sir Winston was born at Blenheim Palace on 30th November 1874. His mother, Jennie Randolph Churchill was visiting Blenheim when Winston decided to arrive two weeks early. He was born in a cloakroom near the entrance after Jennie went into labour prematurely during a ball being held there. Sir Winston always loved Blenheim and proposed to his future wife, Clementine Hozier in the grounds, at The Temple of Diana.

Winston Churchill’s bedroom.

There is a permanent exhibition at Blenheim which follows the life of Sir Winston, ‘The Churchill Exhibition’ also in the West Courtyard is ‘Churchill’s Destiny’ which tells the story of two great wartime leaders. Sadly both exhibitions are closed at the moment as they are unable to meet social distancing requirements. It would have been interesting to see the exhibition but at least we were able to walk through the magnificent Palace State Rooms.

These rooms are full of sumptuous wall hangings, carpets, gilded furniture, paintings and interesting artefacts – hardly a square inch anywhere that doesn’t smack of opulence.

One of the State Rooms.

There’s another painting in one of the State Rooms which I really liked. I think it’s of the 1st Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchhill. She was a great friend of Queen Anne’s who was instrumental in donating the land on which Blenheim Palace stands.

The 1st Duchess of Marlborough.

Walking through the State Rooms then takes you through to The Great Hall with its central table laid out for an evening dinner party. If the guests felt they were watched whilst eating they were quite right. Set back between the faux doric columns are paintings of people. These are superb examples of the ‘trompe l’oeil effect.

The Great Hall.

And before you know it …you have arrived in the last room which is The Long Library. It certainly lives up to its name! There are some interesting artefacts in here as well as the 10,000 books. I love the set-up with the tables for afternoon tea with delicate sherry glasses and sweet little china cups.

The Long Library.

Once again I was drawn to the photographs on the side tables and the ephemera alongside them.

Pure Victorian.

I was delighted to spot a photograph of Gladys Deacon ; it’s the picture which was used for her biography. I think the photograph alongside that one is also of her.

Photographs of Gladys, 9th Duchess of Marlborough with a picture of the Duke positioned at a distance.

The picture below, which I’ve enlarged shows just how similar Diana looked to the Duchess even though Gladys wasn’t part of the Spencer bloodline.

Gladys, 9th Duchess of Marlborough.

And finally before leaving the Long Library I must mention the giant 125-year old organ. It was built by ‘Father’ Henry Willis and was transported in sections to the estate in 1891. The organ was commissioned by the 8th Duke who was Winston Churchill’s uncle. Sadly the Duke died just a year after the organ was installed.

The giant ‘Willis’ organ.

During the First world War the Long Library was used as a convalescent hospital and the organ was played to entertain the troops. There’s no doubt it is magnificent but like many of these fine things its in need of restoration.

My final picture is a close up of one side of the organ showing the stops. Apparently not all of them work at present but its hoped when concerts can begin again that the £400,000 needed to restore this beautiful instrument will be raised.

Stops and more stops!

So that’s finished this Blog on the inside of Blenheim Palace, I imagine there’s lots of skeletons in the cupboards of the Marlborough family hidden from Wikipedia where I ‘lifted’ some of these facts. I hope you found them interesting along with a little history about this magnificent house. The next Blog will have less text and (probably) even more pictures.

Our last week in Thailand

We’d just spent a couple of nights in Sangkhlaburi in the north west of Thailand having hired a car in Kanchanaburi for our trip. John had enjoyed driving as the roads had been really quiet and the car was virtually brand new. We felt like seasoned travellers driving around but now it was time to return the car and get a lift back to Oriential Kwai. It was so good to be back. Once we’d checked in, there was just time for a quick dip in the pool before going down to the river to watch the sun setting whilst enjoying a beer.

Bungalow No 11 waiting our return, not to mention the fabulous pool. Who could resist?
One of the most peaceful places in the world with the river gliding by, the birds going home to roost and the sun setting on this idyllic spot.

The next day was Sunday and as we’d done quite a lot the previous two days we thought we’d have a fairly lazy day. John went for a bike ride whilst I took some pictures in the garden and had a swim.

Taken by John out in the country on his bike.
The garden is full of the most wonderful flowers.
Beautifully tended gardens at Oriental Kwai.

It was around mid-afternoon when Evelyn, who co-owns Oriental Kwai with her husband Djo asked if we’d like to go to the local Sunday market. One of the chefs was going to buy vegetables and we could have a lift with him on his tuk-tuk, this was actually a small motor bike with a sidecar. This is a big local market but even so we weren’t ready for how huge it was. Before now we’ve walked into Lat Ya the local village on market day and so we thought this market was in the same place, we were wrong. It was much further, the other side of the main road out of town, quite honestly we would never have found it.

The young chef seemed very pleased to chat to us as he drove along in the searing heat. Our eyes were burning from the dust and hot air even though we were wearing sunglasses, the chef wasn’t though. Dropping us off at the market he quickly disappeared into the crowd obviously heading for his favourite vegetable stalls.

Lots of interesting things to buy.

I wouldn’t say we stuck out as we walked around the stalls but we were definitely the only people there who weren’t local. Fortunately no-one seemed to mind me taking pictures and some stallholders were quite amused to see two European tourists.

Everything looked such good quality, even the jumping toads on the fish stall (bottom left picture). The guy on the right seemed a little out of place with his array of knives and machetes for sale. We weren’t tempted by the knives or the toads!

We eventually found a stall selling bottles of water as our meagre supply had run out. It was just too hot for us so we escaped from the hustle and bustle of this busy market and sat in the park opposite. Only now were we realising we had quite a walk ahead of us to Oriental Kwai. We didn’t want to think how far …! We eventually made it back but not before stopping at a cafe for yet another cold drink. Djo was in reception when we arrived. He took one look at us and couldn’t believe we’d walked all the way from the market. Two very cold beers were quickly put in front of us – we’d earned them!

The next day we got a taxi into Kanchanaburi. There’s a tourist shop not far from the bridge which I like going into. It’s family-run and although most things are covered in layers of dust there are some Thai crafts in there a little more interesting than in the other souvenir shops.

We were so close to the bridge and as it wasn’t crawling with lots of coach parties we walked across. It’s an iconic landmark. I hope that people walking across think for a moment of all those men who lost their lives building the bridge and the infamous Thai – Burma railway.

The Bridge over the River Kwai with a water monitor swimming underneath.

It was time for a spot of lunch so we walked down to the cafe by the river. We had a prime spot overlooking the bridge with free entertainment courtesy of a water monitor. I’m pretty sure that for the rest of the day we lazed around at Oriental Kwai, swimming, reading, enjoying the sunshine, the wonderful food and the peace and quiet of this wonderful place.

With our holiday almost over we decided to make this day a memorable one and booked to go to Elephant Haven, a sanctuary which opened in 2015 for seven rescued elephants. Elephant Haven is located in Sai Yok, a thirty minute drive out of Kanchanaburi. A mini bus collects you and you join other tourists for the day. We’ve been to several elephant camps before but this one particularly appealed to us as it’s on a small scale. The herd have the freedom to roam, socialise, enjoy a mud bath and cool down in the river Kwai which runs through the sanctuary. In this beautiful setting you can observe the elephants behaviour and learn more about their complex social structure. The emphasis is more about educating the visitors about the needs of the elephants and the work the project is doing to highlight the plight of the Asian elephant.

As you’ll see from these pictures, the elephants are very happy here and not surprisingly we had a fantastic time. It’s the perfect ending to this Blog on our trip to Thailand. We can’t wait to go back and hopefully we will be able to in 2021. Thank you for reading this, the following Blogs will, for a while, be about our trips nearer to home.

Lining up ready to eat as much sugar cane as possible (that’s the elephants).
Getting up close with the elephants.
Cooling off with a swim and a mud bath.
Thank you Eli for letting us share the day with you.

Ten days in Thailand

Yes we were lucky to go on holiday before Lockdown. Having flown in from Paxi in Laos to Bangkok we got a taxi straightaway after getting off the Airport Rail Link. Before now we’ve had to wait quite a while. Thankfully this driver didn’t keep falling asleep every time we stopped at traffic lights! A bit scary as the traffic in the city is quite manic.

We have stayed in Baan Manusarn, which is a small guest house a couple of times before. As Bangkok goes it’s a fairly quiet area. The pier for the ferry is at the end of the road and there’s quite a few good restaurants nearby. Once we’d dumped our bags we had an afternoon to spare so we headed for the iconic temple of Wat Arun. Last time we were there we had horrendous jet lag and just about managed to drag ourselves around. This time we didn’t pay to go into the main temple as there’s plenty of other buildings you could go in for free. I’m saying ‘could’ as now you have to pay to go into the temple complex. Can’t imagine there’s many tourists visiting there currently or anywhere else for that matter – Thailand isn’t letting tourists in at the moment. Seems to be working as since the pandemic hit the country they’ve recorded just one death. That’s the official figure …

Wat Arun by the Chao Phraya River

It was a fairly early start the next day as the train to Kanchanaburi leaves Thonburi station at around 8.00. There are just two services each day. You have to allow plenty of time to get to the station as Bangkok wakes up at 4.30am every day and the roads are busy. The huge market by the station teems with life and is where the taxi drops you off. You have to have your wits about you wheeling you case through to the station. The train journey takes about three hours and is an interesting trip but the exciting part for us is arriving! A quick call to our resort and a taxi is organised and we’re on our way heading out of town.

Just a quick journey from Kanchanaburi station to Oriental Kwai Resort – heaven!

This for us is the most perfect place to stay. We love it here at Oriental Kwai. No wonder it’s Kanchanaburi’s number one hotel on Trip Adviser. It’s a 15 minute ride from the town and as soon as the taxi turns off the quiet lane into the drive, we feel at home, well our home in Asia. There are just twelve cottages and we like to stay in number 11. We enjoy the walk through the beautiful gardens, across the little bridge, past the immaculate swimming pool to the main reception area and restaurant. Late afternoon we like to sit by the river, have a drink and stay there until the sun goes down over the River Kwai.

Djo and Evelien who own and manage Oriental Kwai are lovely people and make you feel so welcome. They opened the hotel in 2007 after clearing quite literally a jungle! Together with help from their families they achieved their dream and their success story continues today. As I write this in the year of a pandemic my man and I are just hoping it won’t be long before we can go back again.

“Our’ cottage and the grounds at Orienal Kwai with the river running by.
It’s all there at Oriental Kwai

Although we know this area well we still like to do some sightseeing and lots of walking and John did a cycle ride whilst I stayed to take some pictures in the superb gardens. We’d also decided to hire a car this time and drive up to the lake town of Sangkhlaburi in the west of the province.

Picking up the hire car in the town was very straightforward, we’d booked it before we left home. Once you get out of the town the roads are very quiet although this route continues up to Three Pagodas Pass and the Burmese border. It also takes you past the entrance to the Visitor Centre and starting point for visiting The Hell Fire Pass, the name of the infamous railway cutting on the former Burma Railway. Although we have been before we wanted to see the changes they’d made to the exhibition centre.

The Visitors Centre and the Museum had been re-vamped however we both felt that the new layout of the exhibits didn’t have the impact we remembered from our last visit. It’s quite a steep walk down to the railway cutting itself but the impact of this area never changes. It is an emotional experience and the Memorial Walking Trail following the route of the ‘Death Railway’ is a sobering hike albeit with magnificent views over towards Burma. Don’t expect to hear any birds singing as you walk along – there are none. On this visit the walk was closed which was disappointing but we have walked it a couple of times before.

Back in the car and still heading North West we started looking for somewhere to eat. After an hour or so we were beginning to wonder if we’d have lunch at all when I spotted a cafe by the side of the road. No one spoke English – well why would they (?!) and the locals having lunch pretended we weren’t there. We hadn’t a clue what was going to be served up but the main thing was it was all going to be freshly cooked. I believe we had chicken, veg and rice but I honestly can’t remember, we enjoyed it with no ill affects so that was the main thing.

Floating raft houses on the Vajiralongkorn Lake.

The journey after our pit stop became more interesting as we drove up through the forest and then down to Vajiralongkorn Lake. It’s actually a reservoir that was created when a dam was built in 1982. It’s a huge expanse of water and very impressive. The other thing you notice about this area of Thailand is the diversity of the people. Sangkhlanburi is a small town, traditionally the Karen people lived there. Now there are Burmese people, many refugees having left Burma for the safety of Thailand and people from the Mon tribe and other minorities. Apparently they live together in perfect harmony although there are defined districts with some living in the hills or on floating raft houses and the Mon people who live across the other side of the lake which is spanned by a huge wooden bridge.

As usual once we’d arrived in Sangkhlanburi and found our hotel, Kingfisher House, we chilled out for a while over a well-earned beer – ‘Chang’ as it happens. Time then to walk down to the lake and check out this famous wooden bridge which is Thailand’s longest. It is quite a landmark and was built in 1986 although it looks much older. Unfortunately the bridge known as the Mon Bridge partially collapsed after bad weather in 2013. As the bridge links the main town of Sangkhlaburi with the Mon area of the town, the locals quickly got together and within weeks rebuilt it. How’s that for teamwork? Although it wasn’t late the bridge was deserted as you can see from this picture. This is a very sleepy non-touristy place.

The next day we started off by exploring the town and headed up to see the reclining Buddha. Buddhists try to do a good turn every day, especially on Friday, to gain merit and that’s what a group of locals were doing outside a temple. There was a lot of painting and chattering going on and when they saw us we were invited to do some painting too!

Gaining Merit as in performing a good deed, act or thought is a fundamental concept in Buddhism.

There wasn’t much to see in the town itself and the market was pretty unexciting so we headed down to the bridge again. By now the temperature was in the high 30’s, very hot for walking across the bridge to the Mon village. Most of the shops were just closing but fortunately we found a cafe and I discovered the refreshing merits of Lipton’s iced tea! I managed to find one souvenir shop that was still open thinking there would be lovely Mon crafts to buy, sadly that wasn’t the case but I did manage to buy one or two little things.

Walking back over the bridge the heat was unbearable hence the rather natty headgear (bottom left picture). The little girl with the decorated face is Burmese. The yellow paste is called Thanaka made from ground bark . Its a traditional cosmetic often worn by Burmese people to protect the skin from the sun. The picture top right is of two local women laying out the freshly caught fish to dry.

Very few people in Sangkhlanburi speak any English so going into a cafe or anywhere is quite an experience. Once again we had no idea what we were going to get for lunch at this family-run cafe overlooking the bridge but the omelette and chicken was delicious. The cold drink which took quite a while to make was a real sugar rush job but we drank it of course. They were so kind to us, as though we were the first tourists they’d had there for a while.

After our lunch we drove up to see this rather splendid temple with the equally splendid name of Wat Wang Wiwekaram. The picture below is my favourite from our stay in Sangkhlanburi. It was a beautiful temple and although there would have been lots of monks we didn’t see any until we drove away. There was a group down the road sweeping the street …gaining that all important merit with Buddha.

Wat Wang Wiwekaram
A few more people on the bridge to watch the sun setting including two monks.

When we went back to the bridge in the evening to watch the sunset the family from the cafe where we’d had lunch came out onto the balcony to wave to us. We felt very honoured.

We enjoyed our couple of days in Sangkhlanburi but felt that was long enough although we would visit again. We’d seen most of the sights and enjoyed the peace of the place and marvelled at the Mon bridge and the beautiful lake but it was time to get back to Oriental Kwai!

On our journey to Kanchanaburi we stopped at this interesting temple which was clearly a mix of Buddhist temples and Hindu. Quite unusual I think. Amazing statues and once again, no-one around.

The last part of this Blog on Thailand will include pictures from the market we went to which was fascinating and there will also be some pictures of elephants (irresistible), as we spent a day at an Elephant Sanctuary. I thought I’d do this as a separate account otherwise the Blog becomes a bit too long. I suspect this one might be so if you’ve read this to the end – thank you!

A week in Southern Laos Part II

After two nights in the sleepy village of Champasak we caught a bus down to Muang Khong. That’s as far as you can go by road so we joined hoards of tourists leaving the bus station and headed down to the waterside. It was quite obvious as we got onto the ferry that most travellers were young backpackers, in other words we kind-of stood out! Seems that one of the islands, Don Det is known for its hippy party scene and is a backpacker’s Utopia. It’s part of the beautiful 4000 Islands archipelago on the Mekong Delta. But Don Det wasn’t our destination, we were heading for the quiet village of Don Khon, the southern-most island and as far as you can go in Laos.

It’s a little confusing as normally you can get a ferry direct to Don Khon but because the Mekong was so low they were not running and so the only ferry was to the neighbouring island Don Det. These two islands are connected by a bridge and the only way we were getting to our guest house was by motorbike taxi. Neither my man nor I had been on a motorbike since the ’70’s! I was a little apprehensive but was assured that my young driver was very experienced. Did I enjoy the twenty minute trip down the unmade sandy tracks – you bet!

A handsome chap to hang on to!

The Pomelo Guesthouse is run by Olivia who is Swiss and her Thai partner, Tan. It’s a very laid-back friendly place with excellent home-made Thai & Lao food, basic but adequate wooden stilted bungalows and an endless supply of Lao beer. There was a friendly cat as well so all needs were catered for. The village has around 50 houses and 250 people live there. It’s very peaceful but you can hear the partying going way into the early hours on nearby Don Det.

An excellent place to enjoy a beer and watch the Mekong slowly drifting by.

Before we had our meal we decided to hire a boat to see the freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphins. Again a little confusing as they live in the Mekong close to the shoreline. These dolphins are so endangered that WWF estimates that in the river between Laos and Cambodia there are only around 90 left. It costs about 9USD for an hour’s trip and together with the possible sighting of a dolphin or two, you get to see a beautiful sunset. The boatmen know exactly where to take you. There were only a couple of other boats around and when a dolphin is spotted everyone converges to that spot. They say sightings are pretty certain and especially when the river is low because the dolphins stay close to the shore. It’s so hard to take a picture of them as you’re excited when they appear and of course they dive back into the water quickly. However it was magical to see them and what a precursor to an excellent Thai curry at the guesthouse.

An Irrawaddy Dolphin.

Now any guide book will tell you that the way to discover this area is by bike. There’s the remnants of the old railway line which link the island to Don Khon and is the main route now. It’s called the Don Khon cycle loop and includes a temple, the French bridge, a decrepit old French steam locomotive and the Khon Pa Soi Falls. Cycling is the obvious way to travel and most people do, however that’s all very well if you can ride a bike. Well I can, but I’m rubbish and despite several attempts over the years, I’ve given up on it. They were quite surprised at the guesthouse that we were walking to the waterfalls and in hindsight they were right. It was only a few miles and it was interesting walking along the paths away from the main route but unfortunately after an hour or so the searing heat affected me. What seemed like miles from anywhere we sought refuge in the shade of a disused wooden shelter, drank copious amounts of warm water (it was cold when we left) and ate several polos. After a while I was able to carry on and and thankfully just down the road was a sign to the Khon Pa Soi Falls.

The falls aren’t the largest on the island but they are pretty impressive. It is on the tourist trail but apparently it never gets too crowded. I can’t tell you if you have to pay to go in as we somehow got swept through the entrance with a tour group. There is a wooden suspension bridge to the island which takes you to the main waterfall but that was closed when we were there.

The old railway route which connects the two islands and the Khon Pa Soi Falls

With the temperature still hitting 40 degrees we stopped at the little cafe there to get more water and to ask about a tuk tuk to get us to Ban Khon Tai. The guy at the cafe said something to his lad who was obviously none too keen to cycle to the village in this heat but he did and came back with a Tuk Tuk and we rewarded him for it. Hope we gave him good enough tip?! I’m glad we went to this village because it made us really appreciate where we were staying. Ban Khon Tai was very touristy with cafes and restaurants either side of the street. We had lunch in one of them but it wasn’t anything special and the service was rubbish … our next challenge after that was to find a tuk tuk back to our guesthouse. It wasn’t easy and no doubt we paid over the odds but at least we didn’t have to walk all the way back. It took a couple of beers back at Pomello to sort us out.

If that wasn’t enough excitement for the day, it wasn’t over yet. First of all we decided to take another boat trip to see the dolphins. Our boatman, a real character and a man of few words with a cheroot permanently wedged between his lips took a while to spot any dolphins. We’d booked the sunset trip so we were slightly later than the night before, however seeing dolphins a second time and the most impressive sunset was just perfect.

Sunset on the Mekong silhouetting the hills of Cambodia.

Once again we had an excellent evening meal complete with the resident cat on the look out for food. Olivia and Tan had left their young assistant in charge as they had been invited to a party in the village. I might have mentioned how quiet and peaceful this island is but tonight they were rivalling Don Det. The only difference was the party was for the locals. They were celebrating the completion of a new house, similar to the ‘Rickfest’ which Germans have when the roof is finished on a new house, only party was on a much grander scale.

We’d seen the tables being set up earlier together with the erection of a large stage so we knew this was going to be some party. Olivia had said that most islanders would be going as it’s expected. What surprised us was how many people were there and how much food was put out on each table plus an endless supply of Lao Beer. For the entertainment there was a compere and a couple of singers accompanied by very loud music. How do we know all this? Well after our meal we decided to be nosy and walk round there to see what was going on. Even though we weren’t standing that close it wasn’t long before a very smartly dressed woman came over and led us to a table full of young people. Whatever she said they quickly moved their chairs so we could join them. What a hoot!

Although only one or two of them spoke a tiny bit of English we were made very welcome and given the flimsiest plastic glasses I have ever seen with Lao Beer and lots of ice. Every few seconds you had to clink your plastic glass which is not easy when they’re so flimsy and you say “Nok”, Laotian equivalent of “cheers”. We didn’t have anything to eat as we had already eaten and to be honest we had no idea what most of the dishes were. As this is Lao everyone and I mean everyone was drinking Lao beer. We didn’t want to let the English side down by refusing too many top-ups but we were also aware that if we stayed too long we wouldn’t be able to walk back to our guest house! These people know how to party!

We slept well that night and were pleased to hear when we checked out that Olivia knew an experienced boatman who could navigate the low waters of the Mekong to get us back to the mainland. We were so lucky as if it was a week later the river would have been too low. Our young ferryman really knew the river and only scraped the boat once. Don’t know how he managed because all the way along you could see the bottom of the rocky river bed, just inches away it seemed.

Our two-hour bus journey back to Pakse was less eventful and quite a boring journey so we were pleased to arrive back at Residence Sisouk and be welcomed back like long-lost friends.

Not sure I should include this last picture. We went back to the same cafe that evening where I polished off a plate of Morning Glory washed down of course with Beer Lao. I love this vegetable but on this occasion it didn’t love me! Fortunately by the time we boarded the plane for Bangkok my tummy had settled a little. Can you spot all the garlic? I didn’t need the side dish of chillies!

So that’s the account of our week in Laos. Next stop Bangkok.

Southern Laos

We were very lucky to get away before ‘Lockdown’ and got back home just in time. Heathrow seemed surprisingly normal with a few sanitiser bottles dotted here and there. I don’t think at the time we were ready for what was to come …

Our holiday started off as we flew into Bangkok and then after quite a wait in the airport we boarded a ‘twin-prop’ plane to Pakse in Southern Laos. Although we’d been to Laos a couple of times this area was new to us. Our hotel, Residence Sisouk was built in the colonial style with an imposing teak staircase weaving around the building up to the bar and breakfast room. It’s a small, family-run hotel and was perfect for us. It’s true, there’s not a lot to do in Pakse but we enjoyed wandering round and found a lively bar/restaurant just down the road for our evening meal. Lao Beer, was in much demand! It’s definitely the national drink.

Beer lao bottles and Laotian menu
We love beer Lao and so it would seem so does almost everyone else in Laos! Not so sure about some of the Laotian delicacies though …

For our first full day we hired a tun-tuk to take us to the small village of Ban Saphai on the edge of the Mekong – very sleepy and that included the cows. It’s described as a having a Handicraft Centre which is definitely nothing to get excited about, not much activity there! We then took a short boat ride to the island of Don Khon which did live up to the description in Lonely Planet. It’s a weaving village and yes almost every house has a loom. We stopped and chatted to one lady who was working away and of course I bought something. Interestingly whenever I wore the skirt, it was much admired.

Don Khon island, southern Laos.
Ban Saphai is the main picture. Don Kho Island is mainly a weaving village.

Back to Pakse for lunch and a siesta before getting the same tub-tuk to Pakse’s main tourist attraction, Wat Phou Salao. There is a road up to the giant Buddha and temple but there’s also scores of steps to the top. We like a challenge especially when the taxi driver looked at me and asked if I was sure I wanted to do it! Blinking cheek! If there’s steps to climb, then we’ll always go for it.

When you get to the top there’s great views over Pakse and the mighty Mekong. The Buddha is striking and also the rows of smaller Buddha statues all donated by the people of the town. There are hundreds of them. The best time to go up to the summit is either sunrise or sunset. Unfortunately the smog was pretty thick that evening so there was no sunset, but a nice golden glow. We enjoyed our walk around at the top and were especially pleased to receive a blessing and buddhist bracelets from a monk in the Wat (Temple). It’s always good to be blessed when you’re starting your holiday.

Wat Phou Salao
Wat Phou Salao

The next day we travelled by boat along the Mekong to the village of Champasak. It’s not on the tourist trail although it has a certain charm with its traditional Laotian houses and colonial villas. Our hotel was right by the river and we were luckily enough to be given the best guest suite in the place. Nakorn Cafe Guest House was excellent and the food, superb. It was a great find.

After a late lunch we explored the village which was very sleepy. Maybe it’s always like that? The handicraft shop run by a French lady was the one and only interesting shop we came across. School was out so we chatted to some children who were playing in the grounds of one of the many temples dotted along the main road. My man was asking the children the name in Laotian for elephant but every time he tried to pronounce it, it just sent the children into fits of giggles. One thing though, they loved having their picture taken which was great for me.

Children in Champasak, Southern Laos
Children in Champasak
Children in Champasak, Southern Laos
And more Champasak children.

The next day we started early to try to beat the heat of the day. It’s hard to walk around ancient sites or anywhere else for that matter in 35 degree heat. Most tourists staying in Champasak are there for one reason and that is to visit the world heritage site of Vat Phou complex and temple and we were aiming to do that but it wasn’t our first stop.

Wat Muang Kang in Champasak, Southern Laos
Wat Muang Kang, in Champasak, the oldest temple in Southern Laos, being prepared for a festival.

It just so happened there was a festival starting that day at Wat Muang Kang. The older ladies were decorating the temple whilst children were trying their luck on various sideshows – much the same as home really. I’m sure if we’d gone there any other day it would have been a peaceful tour round this ancient temple but this day it was just manic. Great to see everyone enjoying themselves.

Our next stop over very bumpy back roads was to a ruined 11th century temple which is undergoing extensive restoration. Basically Hong Nang Sida Temple is a building site. We had to sign a form as visitors although frankly there was little opportunity to to explore the temple ruins. We chatted to a couple of workers who were from South Korea. This country is working in partnership with the Laotian cultural heritage department. Slightly disappointed that our driver had brought us along miles of dusty track as apart from a buddhist shrine there wasn’t much to see except piles of stone slabs. It’s going take some time to re-build this temple!

And then it was on to Vat Phou, the ruined Khmer Temple complex and the main tourist attraction in Champasak province.

Vat Phou World Heritage Site
Shrine at the Hong Nang Sida ruined Temple (top picture), and below, entrance to the Vat Phou World Heritage Site
Vat Phou World Heritage Site
Vat Phou World Heritage Site a combination of Khmer architecture and Hindu religion. The picture top right is an example of the stone ‘staircase’.

This is a vast site at the foot of the Phou Lao mountain built along similar lines to Angkor Wat. By the time we arrived here it was almost midday and 35+ degrees and no shade. Fortunately you get a mini bus to the start of the first complex of temples. After walking through the first section you’re faced with the Phou Lao mountain in front of you …it’s uphill all the way from now on.

I’ve already mentioned that we like a challenge and getting up to the top wasn’t going to be easy but we had to go for it. Steps to each terrace are tricky; apparently there are seven tiers to the top although we didn’t count them. The views of the Mekong and surrounding countryside are stunning and at each terrace there are shrines to both Hindu gods and Buddha. So much to explore at each level and take pictures of course. Reaching the top we certainly weren’t disappointed. Water from a nearby spring comes down the mountain where there’s a makeshift channel so you can cup your hands and drink the wonderfully cold, water. You need reviving after this climb! The covered area by the side of the cliff is recognised as a spiritual place and the buddhist monk in front of us waiting in line to drink made the experience even more special.

Vat Phou World Heritage Site
Vat Phou World Heritage Site celebrating Hinduism and Buddhism.

Climbing down the hillside wasn’t too bad until we got to the flat area where the sun was at its harshest. Our water by this time had got very warm so we were thankful to arrive at the excellent Visitors Centre where a peculiar green drink revived both of us. The moral of this visit is …avoid going to a large temple complex in the heat of the day.

I’m going to end this Blog here as from Champasak we travelled by bus, boat and motorcycle to the southern-most tip of Laos, a spit away from Cambodia. There are more stories, more pictures to go into the next Blog and it probably won’t be quite as long as this one! I hope you stuck with this first account of our holiday in Laos and thank you if you did.