Saturday, May 12, 2012

Day 36 - Stonehenge, Old Sarum, Somerset Levels, dinner at the Swan Wedmore

Tuesday 1st May 2012
Morning comes and we have had a very comfortable night in a delightful room.  I still feel quite fragile this morning but I pick up a bit as we get going. Conversation over brekkie with Richard (our host) and fellow guests, also Australians who are on their way to Italy after a few days driving around in England, next stop Weymouth. Richard clearly loves Australians and loves having Aussies to stay.  “If they don’t have it they don’t need it!”  It’s hard to imagine what someone could possibly want beyond what is provided for us.  Sedgehill House is wonderful. I wish we didn’t have to leave.

We’re reasonably late, not getting away until after 10 am. Without really thinking I tell tomtom to take us to Stonehenge. I’m not much fussed but Hubby wants to see this… a bit like the Mona Lisa.. just something you “have” to do.  It’s a dull rainy morning, fat rain Richard calls it, as it is falling straight down, but the scenery does not suffer for it. I don’t think I could ever tire of touring this beautiful countryside. 
With the navigation taken care of, the driving is easy and pleasurable.  As you would expect Stonehenge is well sign posted and crowded with people. Hubby has suggested that perhaps a drive past is enough. Neither of us is motivated to get out in the rain and pay money to see the famous stone circle.  For some reason I am skeptical about the likelihood of success for this approach however I am forced to eat crow when we make the final turn and discover that beyond a high, chain mail fence the circle is clearly visible through the ring of people gathered to ooh and aah. The car park is similarly crowded with coaches and cars and people heading to or returning from their walk in the rain.
Perhaps the stones are far away from the people. They look close. They look smaller than I expected. Much smaller than I expected. They must be a long way off surely. Neither of us is up for a closer look. We do a circle in the car park and head on. Tick.
Where next? Do you want to see Old Sarum. An explanation of what that is follows. Tomtom says it’s only 11 minutes to get there so why don’t we drive back (it would have made a good deal more sense to stop there on the way to Stonehenge but we’re just making one choice at a time today rather than a plan).  Old Sarum is constructed from, or on top of, a hill and consequently is easily spotted as you approach past a large and muddy pig farm.  We are delayed slightly as we stop in a dead end to make sure we have a photo of pig farm paradise to show the family.  I guess some people would find it odd that I’m way more interested in the pig farm than Stonehenge!
The car park at Old Sarum is empty bar a couple of cars which seem to belong to the staff here.  The rain continues to fall as I climb across a wet stile to read the sign post and admire the views down from the hill, and out across the fascinating pig farm :o).  The sign post is about a big surveying project for the whole of England that was undertaken from a marker installed at some point which we can allegedly observe in front of us. I carefully step across a series of mosaics of small glass bricks which make up the skylights in the roof of some toilet facilities which have been built into the edge of the embankment and take a look at the views across towards Salisbury. It’s wet and slippery up here and discretion dominates valour as I clamber carefully back across the stile to the car park.  Hubby takes his turn as I wander across to check out the signage located outside the entrance to the English Heritage site. The signage continues on what seems like a circular walk around the outside of a deep steeply sided moat. I wonder what’s around there and am tempted to continue but I’m still feeling pretty weak.  Ability for exertion is limited and will need to be managed carefully today.
We reunite and consult on whether we think we should go in.  May as well.  The signs outside have been interesting. I think I can manage it if I don’t do too much.  We cross the wide bridge up to the gates and reception centre. This is a slow business as we stop to read the sign posts along the way.  Old Sarum was the location of some well known historic events: where Henry II kept his wife locked up and where nobles were summoned to swear allegiance to the King. It’s also theorized as the location of the court at Avalon of Arthurian fame. I am pleased to be here and the illustrations provided help you to imagine what it looked like in it’s heyday, when it was considered the most beautiful castle in Britain.  
As we come to the entrance proper, we are subjected to the now almost expected enthusiastic sales pitch for membership of whatever organization manages the site. This time it is English Heritage and we are encouraged to acquire one of several options for passes which we are assured would be the most economic means to see this collection of properties. Worthwhile if we’re planning to see only three and look, we give you this great stack of information to go with your membership. Aaghh. Don’t we know it…and they weigh a ton too. That’s the last thing we need.  We settle for the free map of English heritage properties, pay our entrance fee €3.80 and head on in.
The rain continues light and steady as black clad we clamber up grassy slopes and wooden stairs to read the various information boards and put our imaginations to a good test.  The remnants of the castle are primarily flint and I’m busily imagining a big flint castle when a sign points out that during the reign of Henry VIII an assessment determined that Old Sarum was derelict and could never be made habitable again, so the King let some bloke have it for the purposes of demolition and reuse of the stone in other projects.  Apparently they don’t know what other projects the stone was used for.  Now I begin to notice the areas where a small amount of stone facing on the flint remains.  What a shame the castle was not left standing. What an awesome thing to visit it would have been.  English Heritage point out that their approach is to conserve without rebuilding.  I suppose a lot of people like myself must stand on this site and think how awesome it would be to be able to explore the castle as it originally was.
One of the prominent things I noticed in commentary about Old Sarum while planning our trip was that the site has excellent views back to Salisbury Cathedral. Indeed it does. In fact there are excellent 360 degree views over beautiful countryside.  Perhaps the view I enjoyed best of all was the view of the foundations of the old cathedral in the outer bailey of the castle.  Ah, so that’s an “outer bailey”.  It was great to be able to see a birds eye view of the layout and read the information about the politics and relationship between Church and Crown and the consequences of this for the location of the cathedral. Salisbury was founded as a market town to finance the rebuilding of the Cathedral. The bishop wanted it in a more modern style and on land owned by the church, located further away from the Royal domain and interference.
Just as we’re ready to go we notice that a coach load of what look like high school students, has arrived. They are congregated in the outer bailey near the information plaque. We’re happy to be making our way back to the car. Through some strangely bizarre circumstance those kids are back on their bus and the bus is inching it’s way back down the narrow road and round tight little corners before we’re ready to drive away.. What the?  It seems odd to drag a coach up here just to stand in the outer bailey in the rain and then leave.
I have decided that we should put a little time into souvenir shopping so the next stop will be Wincanton. Apparently there’s an antique store that sells old tools. Or so sayeth the internet. The internet is behind the times and we find that Green Dragon Antiques Centre has closed down.  We came a bit out of our way to get here, but it doesn’t matter. The driving was easy and the scenery delightful. No harm done.  Wincanton seems a nice little village.
So tomtom where next?  It’s nearing lunch time and looking at the manifesto I have suggested that we should have lunch at the restaurant at Brown and Forrest Smokery.  It’s about an hour away.  I direct tomtom to the nearest town and sit back and relax as we meander down delightful country A and B roads. Hedges. Green. Spring flowers. Dandelions. Oil seed rape in flower and an increasingly blue sky.  There’s not a lot of pleasures that would beat a country drive such as this.  With the golden yellow crops and rolling hills southern England does bear a pretty good resemblance to the central west of NSW in springtime. Different trees of course, but the overall look of the place is not dissimilar. If the pioneers had this in mind, then they did a pretty reasonable job recreating the home country, all things considered.  Hubby hasn’t spent much time at all in the Central west. Usually I go on my spring walkabout out there with Mum.  As he comments on how pretty the scenery is, I suggest this lack of experience at home is a situation we should redress.
Once we arrive in the village signs help us to locate the smoker which is located in a fairly new, small, industrial development that enjoys lovely views across the Somerset levels. 
The sun is shining. The light is clear and bright. Water on the levels glistens and the green of the grass glows. It’s a beautiful scene. I can hardly wait to explore the levels. We wander in and claim our table, having rung ahead as we were leaving Wincanton.  There’s a few tables of happy diners settled at red checked table cloths, but the phone call was clearly un-necessary other than to make sure they would be open.  Menu is on the board. I have collected some leaflets for local nature reserves and attractions from the counter as we entered. As we wait for our food after ordering and as hubby has a course before mine, I decide to save time and wander over now to check out the shelves of goodies in the shop area.  There is a fridge section with the various smoked products for sale which would be handy if you were self catering or planning a picnic.  There is also a range of crackers and dry breads, biscuits, preserves, chocolates and sweets. I’m a sucker for preserves but they are heavy. Sigh. Happily there are a few small jars of fruit preserves for eating with cheese. I’m only interested in varieties I can’t get at home. Damson. Gooseberry. I’ll have those.  Real hickory smoked nuts, not just nuts with fake flavor applied to them. Cashews and almonds. Macadamias. Both varieties become souvenirs.  We’ve been pretty slack on the sampling of random junk food since being here. A situation that must be addressed and I correct the situation by acquiring a pack of Honey baked ham with cranberry crisps.  These turned out to be the usual “kettle” style .. couldn’t detect much of any difference to the similar varieties at home.. except for the last few shreds of chip in the packet corners, which seemed to have more of a cranberry tang.
So… what did we eat? We weren’t competing today:
Brown and Forrest Smokery: Hubby: smoked eel on rye followed by Gravadlax served a dressed green salad and garlic potatoes followed by syrup bread and butter pudding served with Somerset clotted cream. Me: Smoked chicken served with a dressed green salad and new potatoes followed by a spoon for sampling. Lunch is fresh and light and delicious. Dessert was hot and rich and intensely sweet.  I only sampled a little bit and left most to hubby.  I’m still sickened by the thought of anything rich or fatty. Probably ice cream would have been a better choice as an accompaniment rather than the clotted cream.
With the sun shining, some nature reserve visiting is a high priority.  We meander across to Swell wood. .. well… I wouldn’t want to offend tomtom.. she took us as directly as possible to Swell wood but it required travelling along lovely little rural byways.  At the reserve, around the car park wire sided bird feeder tubes dangle from likely branches.  The feeders are empty as we arrive, but none the less a nuthatch is hanging around on spec. Tits also flit here and there.  There’s a about half a dozen cars in the car park and a big information board which has a section of whiteboard where a list of the birds known to be around at the moment is provided. It’s quite a long list. Oh god how I wish I had my binoculars, but I’ll just have to make do.
We take a little wander down the path as far as the lookout over the levels.  The view is largely obscured by vegetation and you get better views from high points just driving around the district. Not to worry, that’s not what the walk was about.  I’m still quite fragile and tired, so rather than do a full circuit I decide to have a little look at the other path. I’m determined not to overdo it today. We retrace our steps and explore a little way down the hillier path and turn back along the service road.  This is rewarded by a lovely view of two goldcrests who sit and flit and flick their wings on a branch just near the road. Their gold crests shine in the sun. I study them for some time to be sure that they do not have the white strip across their eye which would make them a fire crest.  It’s hard to see for sure without bins (binoculars) and they don’t sit still for a moment. Finally I am satisfied and move on. Goldcrests. TICK.
Back at the car park, hubby dozes as I loiter and observe the action at the feeder station, which has been replenished with seed while we've been gone. I wish there was a seat but have make do with a perch on the disabled parking sign which puts me with the sun behind me.  Oh. That’s a blue tit. Definitely blue. I consult my little pocket guide that I picked up at Blickling Estate.  Hmm.  These are the diagnostics for telling the difference between the blue tit and the great tit….  Hmm.  Not long before a great tit comes around Ah ha. Tick. And a couple of chaffinches. Cool, but I’ve seen those in NZ.  Now another tit. But hmm. What sort. Willow tit? Coal tit? I bone up on what to look for. Black and white head with white on nape of neck. That makes it a coal tit. Tick tick tickety boo. Nothing shabby about the birdwatching for a complete UK newbie at Swell Wood, even without binoculars.  Time is a tickin’ away and I figure we’d best tick off some things other than birds.  Early morning is a better time for birdwatching anyhow. Maybe tomorrow morning I will come back while hubby sleeps in.
Our next priority stop is John Leach aka Muchelney Pottery.  No issues finding this as it is well sign posted around the area.  There is parking on site and we wander in. I would really love one of the casserole dishes, or the chicken brick. I’m sure the daughters would like them too. Weight is an issue though.  My browsing is featured by standing, gazing, picking up and feeling for weight. Sighing (internally at least) and putting the item back down. We could really use a salt pig and butter dish in earthy tones that would look more attractive in our kitchen. Hubby agrees so that’s what we go for. When we finally get back home to Australia and we start telling daughter 2 about the pottery she pipes up "You know we really need a new salt container"  Da da.... look what we bought!
Before arrival I have noted that each of the potters here has their own mark.  None of these are on the general items which are simply stamped “Muchelney”. I wander down into the “gallery” section which features mainly glazed items and a few art works on the walls. I lift the items. Ah ha. These ones have the mark of the individual potters on them. They are more expensive.  Unfortunately I don’t like those ones nearly so much, but I would pay extra for one of the standard range with the mark of the potter on it. Too bad I guess. Our purchases completed we offer our farewells and head back to the car, but not without asking about whether they ship internationally.  Perhaps for a big order, but not worth it on an individual piece.
It’s now 5 pm. Another happy situation. Nearby is the Somerset Distillery and it doesn’t close until 5:30. Excellent.  We have more difficulty identifying this property, partly because we missed a sign and partly because it’s a very modest outfit.  The antithesis of winery cellar door slick.  
 As we park we pull up facing the orchard with sheep grazing happily.  An old cider press is on display nearby.
There’s a long history of sly distilling of cider in Somerset and it seems appropriate that the Somerset Distillery is a very informal place. You feel like you’re just ducking out the back into the old shed.  Indeed I think that is exactly what you are doing!

There’s no shortage of customers and they’ve come a long way to be here.  Others in the room today are South African, other Australians also visited recently.  As it is such a talking point I got a sense that this must not be the usual situation.  Looking around, we see that different vintages of cider are on display. The 2011 vintage labeled as the best ever.  2010 slightly sweeter.  I would dearly love to take home some cider, but due to weight we have to limit ourselves today.  We are after Somerset Cider Brandy which has, in the face of objections from other regions in Europe, been granted European Union Protected Geographical Indication status. Ie you can only call yourself Somerset Cider Brandy if you’re produced in this defined area.
We enquire about international shipping, but they don’t really do it.  We settle down to the decision about what to get.  We’ve already got a pretty good idea, but now we need to check it’s right. We both tried the aperitif and Hubby tried the cider brandy. Smooth. Both are in the gift pack. We buy that.. and a pack of crisps flavoured with cider vinegar and sea salt and a bottle of Tracklements Apple and Cider Brandy Chutney.  I’ve was tempted by the Tracklements range at the smokery. Ah. I give in. They seem like a bit of a legend and I like their philosophy.
We wander back to check into our accommodation before heading to our dinner reservation in Wedmore.  We pass Muchelney Abbey and there’s a blacksmith near the pottery.  There’s a lot to do around Muchelney and it’s very pretty.  The whole of the levels is very pretty. I’m really glad we made staying here a priority.
We have the devils own job finding our B&B.  It’s address is given as Stoughton Cross, but that locality doesn’t appear on any of the maps or markers. Tomtom is completely stumped too. She’s never heard of it. Thankfully we have a phone, so we ring for help.  Ah ha.. mmm  right… yeah.. got that.  Thanks. We set off.  Before long we find ourselves facing a track of boggy mud.  Hubby explains the directions he was given. I have overheard some of them and seek further information.  Hubby has done what was suggested, but this is clearly not where we should be. I suggest perhaps that the directions were given on the assumption that we were on a particular road facing a particular way rather than where we actually were.  Ring ring.  A long and detailed conversation ensues and then we set off once more.  
On the second attempt we get there OK. Phew. There’s a lovely yellow laburnum in flower by the porch and birds are flitting around the yard. We are shown up stairs and get the run down on all the usual things. How things work, what’s provided and so on.  
Our reservation is upon is.  We tell Tomtom to make a note of the location for Nut Tree Farm, and then she takes us back into Wedmore for dinner at the Swan.
There’s a generous amount of parking at back of the Swan. We are among the first of the diners to arrive.  Hubby takes a fairly excessive amount of satisfaction in observing cars coming into the car parking area and leaving again when they find it full.  Ah, men… that competitive streak can be hard to quell sometimes. Before long the place is packed and only one table for two not occupied.  The Swan is clearly very popular.
Competition results in a draw tonight. We each prefer our own. I’m not into offal and I’ve concluded I just don’t like the lamb over here. It’s very different to lamb at home. Much stronger in flavour. So the meal:  house made bread served with dukkah, oil, and butter; Snodge: devilled Cornish crab cakes served with tartare followed by slow cooked pork belly served with seasonal greens and new potatoes and for the dessert Lemon possett with vanilla shortbread.
Hubby: Spring Lambs liver served with red onion followed by slow cooked shoulder of lamb with marrow peas and fresh asparagus with ice cream dressed with toffee sauce and walnuts.
Our meal concluded we head for home. Tommie take us to Nut Tree Farm please.  Darling darling tomtom. :o)

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