We all slept well and celebrated our contentment with a good Irish breakfast. Our sense of wellbeing was somewhat disrupted when Francois received a phonecall with the unwelcome news that his locum had broken his ankle on the first day of surgery and would be unable to fulfil his contract to cover the medical practice for Francois’ two-week absence. Some fruitless calls were made to try and find a replacement locum but to no avail. A covering system was set up with the help of an efficient secretary, and fall-back arrangements with the other local doctor then we all proceeded to get on with the business in hand – our Connemara holiday.
Roundstone is a small village/port on the mainland, across the water from our niche on Inishnee.
Full of energetic enthusiasm we decided to walk into the village to explore our victualing possibilities. Geraldine told us it would take about 40 minutes, but clearly she has never covered the journey on foot. We worked out that it was something like 11 km. We covered the distance in intermittent rain (a constant companion during our Irish days) and enjoyed ever-changing views.
We found two grocer shops, one of which, J. Woods, is a family-run business and which became a regular haunt. I’ve lost count of the number of home-baked soda bread loaves we bought, but it went well into double figures. On that first morning we were invited into the kitchen to meet the business matriarch, Christina, who gave us tips on how to make our own soda scones. Anne and I experimented with cheese and cumin versions and fruit ones too. Soda scones are now a regular part of my diet – brilliant with soups.
Just after the middle of the day we popped into O’Dowds, the bar area of which is open at this time of year. Francois and I chose a gorgeous crab salad with home-made soda scones to accompany. Their scones were the best we tasted in Connemara. I drank glasses of Guinness, too, whilst in Ireland and loved its velvety feeling in my mouth.
Before we left Roundstone Nick spotted the arrival of a small yellow fishing boat. We bought 6 fresh crabs for 8 Euros and cooked them later, back at the cottage.
We started back on foot with a new array of sea- and landscapes and at some point Nick walked ahead to pick up the car and scoop up stragglers.
We roasted a small piece of gammon for supper and relaxed during the evening before the peat and log fire. We all have books and Anne has knitting. We taught Francois how to play Spite and Malice, a card game which seems to engage whomever we teach.
After a handsome Irish breakfast we leave the Kilkenny area and head for the west coast. Our chosen route takes us via Portumna where we find a bar that will serve us coffee and a butcher where we can buy something for our supper. We eventually arrive in Galway, the gate to Connemara and take the north route via Oughterad. We drive along roads with uninterrupted views across to the scenic craggy mountains, expanses of bogs, heaths and grassland, the low-lying land with its laced network of lakes . Francois takes innumerable photos of vistas from all angles. (At the end of our holiday he will have an album of stunning shots.)
Connemara is one of the most scenic regions in Ireland. Situated in the heart of the West of Ireland, Connemara National Park covers some 2,000 hectares. Dominated by the majestic Twelve Bens mountain range, (Na Beanna Beola) and fringed by the deeply indented Atlantic coastline with its expansive sandy beaches, innumerable creeks, bays and little harbours, it is one of Ireland’s most popular and memorable touring areas, enjoyed for its peaceful solitude and rugged beauty which exemplifies The West of Ireland.
We arrive at Island Cottage to be welcomed by Geraldine who owns three properties on her plot and lives in the one adjacent to ours. Since Nick and I last stayed there Geraldine has acquired a flock of hens who live a charmed life to judge from the time and attention they receive. Our breakfast eggs taste wonderful.
Anne and Francois are absolutely delighted with the cottage and the situation, this is clear. Everything is auguring well for a good week.
On Sunday morning we rise and finish our packing. Today we are due to sail to Rosslare in the southeast corner of Ireland. Anne and Francois, who are our holiday companions, bring over their luggage. Much of what we are taking is in anticipation of some peche a pied in Connemara. We have borrowed a roof box but even with this when the car is finally loaded we are packed to the gunnels. Chest waders, nets and collecting baskets take up room!
The weather forecast tells us that a severe storm is brewing in the English Channel and Irish Sea. We get to Cherbourg two hours ahead of our scheduled sailing at 4 pm. It is already raining and windy. We are told it is touch and go whether the captain of the Celtic Horizon will decide to delay the crossing or not. In the event we set sail and very soon find ourselves pitching and rolling in high seas. The weather conditions are described as varying from Forces 8 to 10. Thanks to a ‘magic’ patch that is placed behind the ear I am able to feel well and eat supper although moving around the boat is hazardous. The weirdest effect of the storm is that I find myself sliding from the head to the foot of my bunk as my satin pyjamas glide over the sheet. When I relax into the motion instead of fighting it, it is actually quite pleasant to be thus rocked.
Rising in the morning we take breakfast and finally disembark in Rosslare just after 2 pm, 5 hours later than scheduled. We have booked into a B&B in Freshford, just out of Kilkenny. It is a comfortable farmhouse. After a reviving cup of tea provided by Gretta Power, we find a local pub to eat an evening meal then crash out back at the ranch.
We drive into Winterborne K to find our road closed to through traffic. There is standing water outside our house and a ‘driftline’ which marks the highest point that the flooding attained along the tarmac outside our front gate. Some of the cottages opposite have taken precautions against rising groundwater, banking sand bags along their frontage and elevating some of their ground floor furniture onto bricks.
This is no surprise to us; we have had similar excessively wet conditions in France and have been monitoring the situation in our part of Dorset thanks to the Environment Agency’s Live Flood Map service on the internet. The water sits around for a few days, occasionally receiving a top up from yet more rainfall but our house remains well clear of flooding.
We are glad to catch up with friends and family. Maddy and Andrew come for a DVD, a meal and an episode of Sherlock. I meet up with Book Group to discuss a ghastly read, The Distant Hours by Kate Morton, and the following evening the Cadecs, the Hydes and the McGoverns come for supper which is highly entertaining as everyone lets their hair down over wine and a kitchen supper. It’s so cool living within minutes of each other.
On Saturday afternoon there is a traditional festive jaunt when Christina and I accompany Mum and Cerys to see Peter Pan on Ice at Bournemouth Pavilion. Visually stimulating and requiring no good hearing or concentration it is a perfect treat for the very young and the very old.
The weekend before we cross back to France in anticipation of our Connemara jaunt with Les Poulets, Barney brings the brood to WK. They arrive on Friday night in time to sample the delights of the Sunny Republic, then we repair to TOW for lasagne and a bit of a chill. For Saturday I have booked a Bowling session in Poole which is a great success (although not without its repercussions!!) and we squeeze in a trip to Maiden Newton to pay homage to the celebrated Bertie. Back at the ranch there is time to feed everyone a Roast dinner before they set off for Shillingford.
A trip to Chestnuts for a quiz and a bit of time with Mum completes the current sojourn in Dorset; the following morning we sail for Caen.
Arriving in St Vaast in the early afternoon we have the sumptuous prospect of dinner and a card evening with our dear friends, the Tuttles. We always enjoy Claire’s cooking and playing Spite and Malice with them, at the same time catching up on news since we last met. This is a great start to our festivities which pick up speed with the arrival of The Perrymans, Barns and Lukie on the 22nd. Thereafter we spend happy and convivial days as we approach the big day. I have bought Ted a Michel Roux Jr cooking jacket which he looks really cute in, and with his mother’s help he cooks some delicious bacon and egg soufflés. On the evening of the 23rd Barns and Lukie cook us lamb followed by fondant chocolate puddings. Charlotte bakes a terrific chocolate log. On Christmas eve I poach a bass and on Christmas Day Charlotte and I pitch in and cook the full roast turkey lunch. Charlotte has encouraged me to use Nigella’s roast turkey recipe which involves steeping the bird in a brine laced with all manner of spices, oranges, onions and some maple syrup. This renders the bird wonderfully easy to carve and juicy to eat. During these days we organise some wine tastings amongst ourselves which are great fun. We make some good new discoveries.
On Boxing Evening we have an open house for our neighbours and friends. With the help of the young, including Ryan who is a great hit as the wine waiter, we put on a good show for our English tradition of cold cuts, salads, bubble and squeak, Stilton, mince pies…… even if our French guests are a bit phased by it all. The French have a worldwide reputation as gastronomists but equally they are conservative too.
Our children sail for England on Sunday leaving us to spend 10 more days in France. We celebrate Georgy’s birthday followed by New Year’s Eve which is spent with Daniel and Christine: a meal of brown shrimps from the harbour, scallops fished from the bay, cote de boeuf cooked on the open fire, and a traditional frangipane galette aux Rois which has a lucky ‘bean’, the finder of which gets to wear the paper crown. We have one more special soiree chez Francois and Fefe Taille when Francois serves Coquille St Jacques in their shells encased in flaky pastry. Just exquisite!
All too soon it is time for the decorations to come down and the house to be put to bed. With a wonderful Christmastide behind us we sail for England.
Back in England and I have a sense of acceleration towards our forthcoming festivities. But first we have an important birthday to celebrate. We drive up to Hackney on the 12th and collect Lola and Ruby from school. It is wonderful to see them and a special treat when we take them to the Fish House at Hackney for supper. There they have F and C whilst Nick and I have lobster and chips for the first time. We have presents to leave, and my mysterious Christmas slippers. Back at the house we chill out with Emma and Dan and drift into Nick’s birthday, the reaching of which is marked by a comfortable doze with Rooney sprawled across Nick’s chest.
In the morning Emma is away early for her clients and the rest of us scrabble our way out of the house to drop the girls at school, Dan at his office and on to central London where we park the car. We walk from Piccadilly to the V & A, which museum we have not visited for many a year. They have a temporary exhibition on Pearls which I want to see and Nick prowls round the building taking in many of the permanent exhibits. The museum café provides a very adequate salad mid-afternoon then we take a bus back to Piccadilly and check into the Thistle hotel to await the arrival of Charlotte and Ryan.
Earlier this year Charlotte proposed a surprise for Nick’s birthday: a theatre trip to see The Book of Mormon followed by dinner and an overnighter in London. The show is at one an ’indecently funny and a brilliant musical’. No-one of sensitive religious disposition should subject themselves to the experience but Charlotte, Ryan, Nick and I laughed our way through the show. After we ate a wonderful dinner at Hawksmoor Restaurant in Soho, enjoying the best fillet steak we have ever eaten, cooked to our perfection. The following morning after breakfast we beetled back to Godalming where we dropped CJ and Ry. We caught up with Ted and after a short interval drove back up to London for the Conchological Society meeting at the Natural History Museum. The Christmas meeting is always a convivial affair with many exhibits and short presentations. We didn’t stay in London to eat with our friends, having a prior arrangement to sit Ted at Godalming.
After an excellent Perryman brunch on Sunday we drove across to Barns and Lukie’s cottage where we spent the day with the crew, ate a delicious late afternoon meal and drove back to Winterborne K in the evening. We left presents and Christmas slippers for all the Oxford kin. On Monday we were due to meet up with John and Gill for a walk at Lyme Regis before lunching together. In the event the weather was too unpleasant to walk, but we met for lunch just the same at the River Cottage Canteen in Axminster.
On the day before we crossed the Channel for our appointment with Christmas we drove to visit Maddy and catch up with Lis who took the train from Taunton to Maiden Newton that morning. If I’m honest I was more excited to meet up with Bertie.
I enjoyed the treat of walking him to the station, in company with the dogs Flossie and Teddy. Back home at WK for lunch, we then spent the afternoon and evening packing the car and settling the house before we decamped to France.
Back in Dorset now, until we cross the Channel to prepare for a Family Christmas, we are able to catch up with our fellow Winterborne Walkers over Christmas Dinner at the Countryman Inn in Wool. The following week it’s time to meet up with my fellow readers to discuss a book which has proved to be an unanimous hit, The Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. The following evening we have our lovely friends Eamonn and Celia to supper. In amongst these Dorset days we make a weekend visit to Godalming so that I can go to Mary’s Private View.
With her 90th birthday just days away Mary is a marvel. She did not take up painting and potting until she reached 60 after which she developed her ranges of slipware which are well-known locally. Her work has its devotees amongst which I count myself, being particularly fond of her Quince plates and dishes. Sister-in-law Lis, nieces Harriet and Briony have all received a Wondrausch item from me and I have a some lovely pieces too. Her latest project has been to embark on a series of paintings which are a combination of watercolour, gouache and collage of snippets taken from magazines and other literature. These pictures have two themes. One set of pictures features still life compositions incorporating nature’s harvest: medlars, mushrooms, quinces, globe artichoke. The other range consists of portraits of Mary’s large collection of vases, jugs, pots and glassware embellished with floral arrangements. Five of Mary’s paintings have found their proper home on our walls in St Vaast