Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Sherborne Estate, Gloucestershire

A lovely circular walk with some added extras!

The Sherborne Estate is cut in half by the section of A40 that runs from Cheltenham to Oxford. It is about 18 miles to the east of Cheltenham and about a mile from the A40. On one side of the road you have Lodge Park, now owned by the National Trust and on the other is the main part of the estate, car parking, the village of Sherborne and the walk I am talking about here.

Sherborne House was built for Thomas Dutton after he bought the manor of Sherborne in 1551. Elizabeth 1 stayed at the house in 1592. In 1624-40 John 'Crump' Dutton acquired land 2 miles south-west of the village to create a deer park. He had Lodge Park built as a grandstand to watch deer being coursed by greyhounds and to fuel his passion for gambling, baqueting and entertaining.

It became the National Trust's first restoration project in 1998 and relied on archaeological evidence to return the building to its former glory. It is situated two and a half miles from Sherborne village and the wider Sherborne estate, the other side of the A40.

Ewe Pen Barn Car Park

The three marked estate walks all begin from Ewe Pen Barn car park. There is plenty of parking here and the National Trust ask for a donation of £1.00. It is worth mentioning that there are no toilet facilities here.

Before you begin your walk, you may want to go into the barn where you will find some useful information about the estate.

We have been walking here for several years, since our children were quite small. It is popular with families because the walks are not too long. We tend to follow the circular family trail which is about 3 miles long. Along the route there are two rope swings to find, a see-saw, several climbing structures and also some sculptures to spot. You will need to look for these (in the case of the rope swings, just listen for the squeals from other children!) because they are not all immediately visible from the path.

The walk begins through open farmland before descending into woodland for a short while. Here you will find two sculptures along the route. It emerges from the woodland onto the road that passes through the village of Sherborne (please be aware that there is no gate or stile at this point so nothing to prevent eager children or dogs from running out into the road).

You then walk for about half a mile along the pavement, passing some beautiful old Cotswold stone houses, former workers cottages and estate buildings, until you come to the village church and then the war memorial. This section provides some lovely views of the river Windrush. Here the walk turns a sharp right, heading almost back on itself, through a gate in a high wall.

At this point you might want to make the short detour, by continuing along the road, to the Sherborne Village Shop & Tearooms which are definitely worth the very short detour from the route. The shop sells ice creams and sweets for weary travellers (!). There are three tables inside if you are unlucky enough to have bad weather but plenty of tables in the pretty garden to the front. There is also a toilet at this point. The food here is simple but delicious and it is well worth a stop. It can't be a coincidence that all of our walks here seem to fall over lunchtime! The owners are incredibly friendly and welcoming and are very popular with the round brown spaniel because they have a stash of doggy biscuits that they offer to well-behaved dogs!

Resuming the walk, you will follow a field boundary for a few hundred metres. A glance to your right will reveal the back of Sherborne House. The walk then turns right into more woodland along a well-trodden path. It is in these woods that you will find the swings, see-saw and climbing structures and also the ice-house that once stored ice for the occupants of Sherborne House.

You will pass through the woods before entering more open farmland. As you continue you will see the buildings of Ewe Pen Barn car park ahead of you.

If you are looking for an easy to follow, short. circular walk through some varied Cotswold countryside with the opportunity for extending it with a nice lunch or cooling drink and an ice-cream then this could be the one for you.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Making Halloumi Cheese at Home

Great Fun & Very Easy

Whenever we camp we have a tradition of starting our meal with griddled Halloumi cheese - sometimes we serve it with a side salad, occasionally it is on skewers, often it is just griddled and served with a squeeze of lemon juice or some sweet chilli sauce. I find it a really useful thing to have in the fridge for impromptu trips because it has such a long shelf life. It does have to be refrigerated or kept in a cool bag with ice blocks but that doesn't really pose too much of a problem.

The other day, our love of 'the squeaky cheese' as my kids called it when they were younger, got me thinking. Is it possible to make Halloumi cheese at home? It turns out it is not only possible but really very simple. It is also great fun and it will leave you feeling like a slightly mad professor as the milk reacts with the rennet, turning the milk into jelly which then turns into cheese!

I should say that it probably works out more expensive to make Halloumi at home in small batches than it does to buy it from the supermarket, but where is the fun in that? Also, if you make it yourself you know what has gone into it (no added preservatives for instance) and you will feel unbearably smug when you serve it up!

The one thing to remember when you make cheese at home is that everything you use must be very very clean. For the most part this just means pouring boiling water over utensils and muslin cloth before you use them. That is about as complicated as it gets.

Before I get started, I should mention that, until you actually get to the point of cooking your cheese, it will look very unappealing and you will start to question your efforts and your sanity - have faith, it will all be worth it!

So, here goes with the recipe.........


Halloumi Cheese

2L Whole Milk (can be pasteurised but mustn't be homogenised - it needs to have a layer of cream at the top like milk used to)
2 tsp Rennet (available in vegetarian or animal-based versions from good supermarkets and Lakeland Ltd)
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
Dried herbs (optional - we like mint and oregano)


1/2 L Whey (left over from the cheese making process)
1/2 L Boiling water
100g Salt


In a wide-bottomed pan gradually brink the milk up to 32-36C. I use a meat thermometer for this part.

Add the rennet and stir gently. Cover the pan with a tea towel and leave it alone for an hour. It will set like a jelly - amazing! The 'jelly' is called curds.

Cut the curds into 1 inch cubes with a knife by making a grid pattern.

Leave it for another half an hour to settle. The curds will come away from the watery whey and you will feel like a genius!

Next, bring the entire mixture up to 38C over a gentle heat over a period of about half an hour.

The next step is to scoop the curds into a perforated container such as a sieve lined with muslin. Make sure you have another container underneath to collect the whey. At this point, add any herbs you want to use, sprinkling them in as you go, along with some salt.

Leave it all to drain for about an hour (longer won't hurt).

Now you will need to poach the curds. Heat the whey to 85C in a large saucepan or deep frying pan. Add 1 tablespoon of salt.

Turn the curds out and cut them into slices about 2in thick (please don't measure them though - it isn't that critical).

Once the whey is at 85C, add the curd slices and watch and wait. When they rise to the top of the liquid, they are ready. Remove them with a slotted spoon and put them back into your draining container (sieve). At this stage, I use a plastic takeaway tray into which we have poked some drainage holes because it is rectangular and so it creates a block of halloumi that is easier to slice.

 It will feel very wobbly at this stage but it will firm up as it cools down. Make sure you pack the soft cheese in and squash it down a bit.

Once cool and firm, it is ready to cook.

 Put a little oil in to a hot pan and fry slices of the cheese for a couple of minutes on each side until it is brown. Alternatively, cook it over a hot griddle pan or a BBQ. Sometimes, if I can be bothered, I lightly coat the cheese slices in seasoned flour before frying them as this makes them a little crispier, giving you both crunch and squeak in each mouthful!

Brining the Cheese

If you want your cheese to last for longer, you will need to brine it. It will then keep for about a month in the fridge. Just add the 1/2L of the whey to 1/2 L of boiling water and 100g salt. Stir to make sure the salt has dissolved and then leave to cool. Pour the cooled brine over the cheese and keep it immersed in an airtight container in the fridge.

Best served with a large glass of chilled white wine!

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Bon-fire Cooking System - The Mobile Bonfire!

My New Toy!!

In June I finally got around to spending some money I had been given for my birthday the previous November by my very generous in-laws and my sister-in-law who lives in Jakarta and has no time for shopping but always sends much more money than she should to make up for it!

I nearly spent the money in February on a wood fired camping stove but, for a variety of reasons, decided against it at the last minute. Since then I have pondered other options.

I should say, at this point, that my desire to acquire camping stoves, BBQ's and other food-related paraphernalia is something of a standing joke in our house. My husband doesn't appreciate why we need so many cooking options but then I don't fully understand why he needs so many golf clubs!

We have been finding an increasing number of campsites that allow either campfires or firepits in recent years and, whenever we could, we have taken advantage of this and very much enjoyed the social experience of sitting around a fire and also the 'back to basics' element of cooking over one.

So, I decided it would be nice to have a firepit of our own to play with. A quick Google search reveals that there are very many different types of firepit available to purchase online. Many are intended to be used at home but a few are portable enough to be considered by campers.

I knew I wanted a portable firepit that I could use with a grill on top as a BBQ and I also wanted to be able to use it with a tripod from which I could hang a cooking pot and a kettle. I wanted something well made so that it would last many years but it was very important that the whole lot was easy to transport.

After doing my research, reading lots of reviews and talking to one or two owners, I settled on the Danish made Bon-fire Cooking Set. There are various UK suppliers who offer different combinations of parts at various prices so, if you are interested, it is important to think carefully about what accessories you might want and then shop around for the best deal available.

I bought a raised firepit, a 175cm tripod with hanging chains and grill, a solid hanging 'frying pan' for cooking smaller items that might slip through a grill or for frying something like an egg, a 6 litre cooking pot that hangs from the tripod and, finally, a kettle that can either be hung from the tripod or placed directly onto the grill.

So, what are the advantages of the Bon-fire cooking system:-
  • It is really solid and well made
  • The tripod breaks down into shorter lengths to make storage easier
  • The various parts mean you can build a set, over time if you prefer, that will meet your specific needs. You don't have to buy something you don't want simply because it forms part of a set.
  • It is really fun and sociable to use - far more so than a gas stove! You never see campers sitting around their Campingaz stove, strumming a guitar and singing songs!
  • The different accessories make it a very versatile cooking set - you can fry, grill, make curries and casseroles and even boil water. You can even buy a popcorn accessory!
  • The height of the grill, cooking pot and kettle above the flames can be adjusted by lengthening or shortening the chains, giving greater control over cooking temperatures.
  • The tripod can be used independently (i.e without the firepit) over a campfire if preferred.
  • Most campsites (even those that do not allow campfires) are happy for you to use a raised firepit because they do not cause any damage to the grass and the fire is contained.
  • Protective covers/carry bags can be bought separately for most of the pieces.
And the disadvantages:-
  • It isn't cheap but it will last.
  • The raised firepit is a perfect height for cooking but the legs are fiddly to fit. Some sort of integrated, folding leg would be an improvement.
  • It is fairly large - definitely not for backpackers!
  • The manufacturers do not make a carry bag for the 175cm tripod, only for the 140cm tripod. Had I realised this I may well have gone for the smaller one because a carry bag would be very useful. I have emailed the Danish owners to ask about this and they replied very promptly, in perfect English, that they would look into it - so I am keeping my fingers crossed!
I am delighted with my set and I am looking forward to using it more and getting better at controlling the fire and the temperature. There is no doubt that, just like cooking on a charcoal BBQ, it is a skill that takes practice to learn. That having been said I managed to cook a whole piece of sirloin of beef on my first attempt and it was delicious! The important thing is to be aware of the heat and move things around if they are cooking too fast. It is also a good idea to have a hotter part and a cooler part of the fire. This is easily achieved by having more or less charcoal or wood in one area of the firepit. That way you can give a piece of meat an initial sear over high temperature before moving it to the side where it is cooler to finish cooking more slowly.

As with all open fires, it goes without saying that you should keep children and animals away from them and always keep a bucket of water close by just in case. The very first time we used ours we were all sitting around the roaring fire, the stars were twinkling above us and we were sipping hot chocolate and thinking that life doesn't get any better than this when we became aware of a truly unpleasant smell. In the darkness, the chubby brown spaniel had crept under the firepit which was just the right height above the ground for her! She was apparently oblivious to the smell of singed fur but the rest of us were not! You have been warned...!

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Our First European Road Trip - Day 8 & 9

The Town of Annecy

As we drove around the shores of lake Annecy the day before to get to our campsite, our first impressions were that it felt very different to lake Thunersee. Firstly, it lacked the 'real' mountains of Switzerland and also felt busier, more cosmopolitan, more developed. None of these were complaints, just observations. Lake Annecy is beautiful and very popular with tourists from all over Europe and rightly so.

Annecy is an alpine town in the Rhone-Alps region in Southeastern France, where the river Thiou meets Lac d'Annecy on its' northern tip. It is 22 miles south of Geneva. It is known for its Vieille Ville, or old town, with cobbled streets, winding canals and pastel-painted houses swathed in geraniums. Overlooking the city, the mediaeval turreted Chateau d'Annecy, once home to the counts of Geneva, now contains a museum.

The lake is brilliantly turquoise, overlooked by wooded mountains. With such a breathtaking backdrop it is hardly surprising that everyone seems to be outdoors - sitting in pavement cafes, mountain-gazing along the lake shore, swimming in the lake or cycling around it.

We woke on our first full day to glorious sunshine and what promised to be a lovely day. I shuffled off to get some baguettes and we enjoyed a lovely breakfast of French bread, meats and cheeses outside in the morning sunshine.

We had decided to go into Annecy to explore the mediaeval streets and waterways that make up the historic old town area. We had two options for transport. A short walk back to the main road to the bus stop where buses went hourly into Annecy of hire a bike from the campsite and use the traffic free cycle path that goes all around the lake. Unfortunately, we had left it a little too late to hire a bike that day so we set off for the bus stop. If we had been staying for longer than three nights in this region we would have bought our bikes with us because the opportunities for cycling are great and it is clearly very popular. As well as the cycle path around the lake there are many trails up in the hills and forest areas to explore.

The bus took us on the 15 minute journey into the old town of Annecy. It turned out to be market day so the little cobbled streets were even busier than usual, crammed with stalls selling fresh produce, cheeses, meats, fresh seafood, artisan breads, that looked amazing.

The old town is full of lovely little shops and restaurants, all with outdoor seating, protected from the fierce sun by colourful umbrellas and canopies. We had wonderful savoury crepes for lunch at one of these pavement cafes.

We managed to spend the whole day wondering round, dipping in and out of shops, exploring the waterfront area and eating wonderful French ice creams. The lake was busy with boat trips, small pleasure boats, swimmers, paddle boarders, windsurfers and little sailing dinghies. We could have spent hours just sitting watching all of the activity.

After a hot day exploring, we happily boarded the bus and went back to the campsite for a cooling swim in the lake before a BBQ, too much wine, some rather competitive rounds of 'Grab a Pig' and bed!

What a difference a day makes.......!

We woke the following morning to some very unwelcome and heavy rain. A quick chat with the campsite staff confirmed that it was likely to stay for most of the day. Not too surprisingly, that meant that there were some bikes available to hire. Somewhat more surprising was the fact that my lovely husband decided to hire them! So that is how we found ourselves a little while later pedalling along a fairly deserted cycle path through puddles with rain plastering our hair to our heads and thinking that there must be other ways to pass the time on wet days!

The cycle path really does hug the lake shore and it is almost entirely flat which is great if you lack any physical fitness or stamina. The views all along are wonderful and there are lots of little cafes to stop at if you need re-fuelling. It was about 6 miles from the campsite to the centre of Annecy. I can't pretend that it wouldn't have been nicer in the sunshine but I have to say that we all really enjoyed our very wet ride.

 By the time we reached the town the rain had eased and we spent a few hours wandering the streets again. With the market gone the town had a completely different feel to it too. It rained on and off while we were there but, as we set off to cycle back the heavens really did open and the journey home was something of a feat of endurance. Nothing that a mug of hot chocolate couldn't put right though!

We liked Annecy and the immediate area and wished we were staying a bit longer. It has certainly left us feeling that we may visit this beautiful region of France again one day.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Our First European Road Trip - Day 7

The Drive From Interlaken to Annecy

Day 7 dawned and the sun was shining on us. It had rained for most of the day before and intermittently during the night so our day shelter that we use for cooking, eating and keeping dry if necessary was wet. Fortunately things warmed up quite quickly and we were able to pack up quickly to get on the road by 8.30am.

Our journey to the next site was 160 miles through some stunning scenery. Briefly, the route took us from Interlaken to Bern, the capital of Switzerland. From here we continued south-west to Lausanne and then followed the edge of Lake Geneva and the Jura National Park for most of the way into Geneva. At Geneva we turned due south and continued over the Swiss border into France and down to Annecy. We took the journey slowly, stopped a couple of times for a break and arrived at our campsite early afternoon.

We had chosen to stay at the Solitaire du Lac Campsite just outside St Jorioz. St Jorioz is about 6 miles from the town of Annecy and is located on the lake shore. I had chosen this site after doing a lot of research on the internet. It was one of a very few sites that provided direct access to the lake for swimming and boat launching which was something we wanted. It also had direct access to the traffic-free cycle path that goes all of the way around the lake.

The Entrance to Solitaire du Lac
The site was full during our stay and initial impressions were that everything was a bit squashed in. Having said that, our pitch was more than adequate (the pitch was allocated to us with no option to choose one when we booked). It had good shade from mature trees and was clearly marked out. We also had an electric hook-up. The whole site is on level ground which makes pitching very simple.

Pitches arranged between trees for shade
The Reception also serves as a little shop which was open until 9pm each night and sold soft drinks, wine and beer, ice creams, sweets and, in the morning, bread and pastries. There was a supermarket about 5 minutes drive away too.

Takeaway food is also offered every evening by a lovely man who cooks homemade pizzas from a converted Citroen van. They were made to order and were very good.

Solitaire du Lac offered free WiFi in the vicinity of the Reception if required.

The pitches are located about 100m from the lake edge. The site owners have kept the area immediately adjacent to the lake as a grassy area for ball games, sun-bathing and so on. There was a small children's play area here but it looked as though it could do with some repair.

Play area with the lake just visible through the trees
Lake Annecy itself is beautiful. The campsite has a couple of 'beach' areas providing easy access to the water for swimming or boating. The lake bottom is sandy and it is shallow for quite a long way out, making it ideal for children.

The temperature was in the early 30's by the time we had pitched up so we went off for a dip - very nice it was too!

One of the 'beach' areas

We liked this site because of it's location (and pizzas!) but we did find it to be a bit cramped and we were not too keen on the toilet/shower arrangements which were completely uni-sex. Also, and it is a small point, the toilet cubicles did not have their own supply of toilet paper. Instead there were dispensers located at the entrances so you had to estimate the quantity of paper you required in advance! Towards the end of the day the dispensers often ran out and were not re-filled until the morning, meaning you also needed to take your own supply with you just in case. Maybe I am just being picky.

The toilet/shower block was large and also provided several clothes washing sinks, a covered area for washing dishes, a laundry room and disabled facilities. Adjacent to the block was a motorhome service point for water and taps for drinking water too.

Aerial view of the campsite
After a BBQ, some wine and a few rounds of Bananagrams we were ready to retire for the night with plans to head off into Annecy the next day.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Our First European Road Trip - Day 6

A Trip Around Lake Thunersee to Spiez

On our last full day in Switzerland we decided to make use of our free travel pass and head into the town of Interlaken (literally meaning 'between lakes' because on one side is Lake Thunersee and on the other side of town is Lake Brienzersee).

With the option of a free bus or a free boat trip, we chose the latter and headed off to the little jetty situated in the grounds of the adjoining Hotel Neuhaus.

 The boats run hourly from here and the trip into Interlaken takes about 30 minutes. Passengers using their free travel pass  into Interlaken sit downstairs while paying passengers travelling around the lake are allowed upstairs into first class. We hadn't realised this and attempted to go upstairs for the better views - we only made it to stair 5 before we were politely intercepted!

The boat takes you into Interlaken right next to the train station. From here we traveled by double-decker train to the town of Spiez, a journey around the lake of about half an hour. For most of the trip the railway line follows the lake giving wonderful views.

Nestled between hills and vineyards and dominated by a magnificent castle, Spiez is a lovely destination. Above the lake the Niederhorn Range stretches as far as the Bernese Alps and forms a beauftiful panorama.

Spiez offers an outdoor pool and lake swimming cove. You can take a cruise on Lake Thunersee from the little harbour or, as we did, just stroll along the lake promenade. There are also no shortage of hiking and biking trails for the more energetic, fishing, windsurfing and sailing are also all available.

The station in Spiez is set up on a hill outside of the old town and harbour areas so it does involve a pleasant walk down and a rather less pleasant walk back up again!

The town  is situated on the lake with a very pretty harbour surrounded by restaurants with flower-decked terraces. The very attractive, small, mediaeval castle with a thousand year old castle-church  is open to the public.

The harbour area was bustling with activity and is a great place for watching the comings and goings of little boats. The lake really does dominate this area of Switzerland and it well used by both individuals and the big lake steamers for transporting people from one town or village to another.

The weather was kind to us and we returned to Manor Farm Camping ready for our last dip in the lake before our journey the next day to Annecy in France.....

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Our First European Road Trip - Day 5

Day 5 - To the Top of Europe!

The entrance to the Ice Palace
OK, so this was the big one, this was the main reason I wanted to go back to Switzerland. The town of Interlaken is dominated by three mountains, the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau. The Jungfrau is the highest of them all and it can be accessed by a funicular railway that passes through a 4 mile tunnel carved through the Monch and the north face of the Eiger.

There is no doubt about it, this is an expensive trip. This is the reason that we had to watch the weather forecast like hawks and get up at the crack of dawn on our chosen day to make the most of our day to justify the cost.

Our journey began by bus from our campsite. This was the only part of the trip that was entirely free! We caught an early bus into Interlaken where we caught the first train from Interlaken Ost and journeyed to Lauterbrunnen. The journey was very pretty as we climbed up through the Lauterbrunnen Valley with mountains on both sides to a height of 2,686 ft. From Lauterbrunnen we boarded another train that took us up to Kleine Scheidegg, at 6,770ft. The train passes through the attractive village of Wengen before reaching its' destination. At Kleine Scheidegg we swapped trains again for the incredible ride up inside the mountains to the top of the Jungfrau. Despite the exorbitant price of the tickets there is no guarantee of a seat on the train. When we went it was very busy and we had to stand for the final 45 minute ride in fairly cramped conditions. In recognition of our suffering, the Swiss ticket collector gave us a voucher for a free cup of tea!!

The final train ride takes about 45 minutes, passing through the Monch and the Eiger. It stops twice inside the Eiger for passengers to get off and take photographs from vast viewing windows that are set inside the north face of the Eiger. The views over the glacier are breathtaking. The station inside the Eiger was completed in 1903 but it wasn't until 1938 that the North face of the Eiger was finally conquered.

The train finally arrives at the Jungfraujoch Station at a height of 11,333ft. There is a complete underground complex here with restaurants, an ice palace, a museum tour with information about the creation of the railway and an outside ski, toboggan and zip-wire area. There is also an opportunity to visit the highest Lindt chocolate shop in the world if you feel so inclined! Once you are at the top you can go out onto the snow-covered plateau for wonderful views over the mountains.

The only thing left to do after all of this is to take the lift to the Sphinx (11,723ft) for the highest panoramic view of the surrounding lakes and mountains. This really is the top of Europe. If you are bothered by heights you will struggle with this bit but the rest of the trip is fine. My husband decided to sit this part out! I gave it a go and I was fine for the most part. The only section I had to concede defeat on was the walkway that goes around the outside of the Sphinx. It is made of open mesh grating bolted to the sheer rock face and it moves as you walk around it! I made it half way round before my legs stopped working!

The Sphinx viewing tower just visible
Note the walkway of terror on the right hand side of the picture!
The children loved the outside 'play area' where, for a small additional cost, they could toboggan, ski and go on the highest zip-wire in Europe. My daughter opted for the zip-wire and my son kept his feet firmly on the ground with a bit of tobogganing. We sat in the sunshine and watched!

We all enjoyed the ice palace - everything apart from the handrails (which are there to stop you breaking your neck as you walk around) is carved from ice and it is all very beautiful.

The total journey time for the return trip, allowing time to visit all there is to see and do at the top, is around 6-7 hours. It is a long and tiring day but one that you will never forget.

All of the guide books tell you to take warm clothing, sun cream, hat, scarf and gloves. Having said that the teenage boy spent the day in shorts and a t-shirt and complained of being too hot! To that list I would add camera (obviously) and binoculars if you own any. I would also add painkillers - the altitude may not agree with you (it didn't agree with me and I spent the rest of the evening with a splitting headache). You may also want to take some food and drink with you for a picnic in the snow.