A Roman odyssey in deepest Gloucestershire.

Individually, there are many things that make Barnsley House worth writing home about: the rooms, the spa, the food, the countryside, the service and the general atmosphere to name a few.  Together, these delights conspired to make our 2-night inclusive break in this little 18-room Cotswold charmery one of the best New Year’s Eves I can remember.

Barnsley House, Gloucestershire
Barnsley House, Gloucestershire

But what really made it for me was a 5 mile jog through driving rain taking in a 2-mile section of ancient Roman Road at twilight.  I tried to discover its name (it’s only marked on the map unimaginatively as “Roman Road”) but concluded it’s a cattle droving route better known as “The Welsh Way”.

The village of Barnsley is easily commutable from central London but it’s 100% pure Gloucestershire countryside once you’re there.  Set in a small cluster of butter-coloured stone cottages, the Barnsley House Hotel team under Charmer-in-Chief Michele Mella has got everything right.  They grow their own veges, lay their own eggs and pamper for England – albeit at a price!

I struck out west on the main road from the front gate for a few hundred yards before taking another left and heading south on a small unmarked by-road. Ten minutes later I reached the intersection with the Roman Road.  Here, I took yet another left and stuck to the route for some twenty minutes.  It’s not completely straight like you expect a Roman Road to be and it undulates gently past wide, rain-sodden arable farmland.  In my mind, I pictured Roman cohorts on their way to St Albans and rag-clad cattle herders who must have used the route in years gone by but although I thought I saw some it may have been light and shadows….

No Roman cohorts in sight
No Roman cohorts in sight

At Ready Token Covert I doubled back left again towards my origin.  Markers and signs are non-existent and by now it was almost dark but I had a local map and judged distance by passing farms.  It’s an all-road 5.4 mile loop, not too challenging a run but the Hotel has no gym so it’s a good alternative.  Barnsley House and its famous Rosemary Verey garden is a treat and the countryside is deep England and a joy to behold – strongly recommended.

http://www.mapmyrun.com/routes/view/162225436

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Cyprus in sixty seconds

An island of two halves, we just spent 10 days in the half (well, 65%) which is Greek Cyprus. We were hosted by Greek Cypriot and firm friend Stavros and his lovely wife Maroulla in Larnaca but with a loaned Honda plus a free beach villa we got to see a lot from the glamorous Anassa hotel in Latchi in the West to the listening posts of Cape Grecko and fleshpots of Agia Napa in the East via the Turkish front line in Nicosia.

Looking towards Kythrea from bunker in Nicosia

Sharing a holiday in Cyprus with a native is a unique experience.  One is as obliged to learn the history. Stav fought for independence and was wounded in 1974 and we saw his village (Kythrea) from the border as we stood on a bunker in Nicosia to view it. We felt his pain.

Cypriots are friendly; each citizen has a thousand cousins all of whom will invite you to dinner.  A barby for a Cypriot involves a whole sheep and a Fish Meze will feed a small platoon for a week. Eating is obligatory at all times.

The Venetians got thirsty too

Cloudless blue skies bore a fierce sun and running conditions were not ideal as midday temp was around 40 degrees every day but I managed one early morning sortie (temp a cool 27 degrees at 6.30am) which took in a Venetian aqueduct and a bamboo forest skirting a massive salt lake. http://www.mapmyrun.com/routes/view/132811263

There was much talk of property and many Cypriots (those that can) buy or inherit plots for themselves or their children.  Land and property prices have soared since the troubles but the rental market is in the doldrums.  Cyprus has some amazing beaches (many of the best ones in the Turkish North) and if you take the trouble to go inland to the mountains you can ski in winter on Troodos Mountain or pick cherries there in spring.

Shrimpers on the salt lake

When you’ve explored a little history inland check out top hotels Anassa in Latchi and Grecian Park at Konnos Beach near Protaras. Shop in Nicosia but never at midday.  Eat Koulouri bread and fish meze at Zephyros in Larnaca. Drink Keo beer followed by Zivania and party till dawn at Agia Napa.  Smile and say “Yasas” a lot.

Mallorca in 60 seconds

Holidays.  Blink and they’re gone – well, the good ones are, anyway.  Just back from a week in the sun on the Island of Mallorca.  Took a small villa with a few chums on the outskirts of Puerto Pollensa where we used to go when the kids were small.  Two hours from Luton, Palma airport is big and efficient and the route across the island to the North-East and Pollensa is now much easier thanks to a new motorway.

The “Pine Walk”, Puerto Pollensa

The sun was hot and the euros were cheap so the week passed in a blur of San Miguel, Sangrier and early morning runs along the Pine Walk, a lazy 2-miler that hugs the seafront round the old port.  I also climbed the 365 steps to the Calvary Chapel in Pollensa town with my daughter and read Nigel Farndale’s “The Blasphemer” which is a top pick.

On a historical note, on August 2nd there is a massive Fiesta every year in Pollensa which is well worth seeing.  The central event is a mock battle between Moors and Christians, to commemorate when the people of Pollensa fought 1,500 Moors led by the pirate Dragut on May 30 in 1550. The battle was won thanks to one Joan Mas who went out in the main street, warned everyone of the danger and ran heroically into battle against his adversaries. The battle has been celebrated since the XIX century and practically the whole town takes part, the Christians dressed in white and Dragut’s followers in multicolours.  Some say personal and long standing scores are still settled in the back streets that night and certainly any real injuries would be hard to distinguish from those inflicted by the cardboard scimitars and drunks.

Sketch of Church in Puerto Pollensa

Mallorca is a beautiful island and one of my fave holiday destinations.  There is rich variation between the bohemian hill towns of Deja and Soller and the waterparks of Alcudia.  There’s architecture, cathedrals, beaches and a treacly local rum called Amazona which you slop into your coffee.  You can eat well and feel welcomed wherever you go.  And for the budding Bradley Wiggins-es it’s a perfect cycling training ground too and Mallorca sports more lycra than Lillywhites in the sales.

Never mind the rowlocks

This year is quite obviously a year of big events and celebrations.  The first British Olympics since 1948, a Diamond Jubilee for her Majesty, but more importantly for my other half, it’s the tenth birthday of her business.

So move aside Mo Farah, excuse us please Ma’am, we’re off to celebrate so we headed for Amsterdam on the Eurostar for a social. Choosing the train not only saves a few pounds in these austere times but is a very sociable way to travel allowing not a few drinks, nibbles and a lengthy Yahtzee championship to take place over the four hours it takes to get there.

Despite being a tad chilly, the weather was dry and the team were welcomed with open arms by the town’s shops, bars and restaurants.  In fact we had trouble leaving some of them.  Our Hotel, The Rembrandt would not win a top award in a poll for food or comfort but it would have fared well in one for warmth and convenience.

One of the team, who had contacts there, kindly fixed up a canal boat ride with his chum “Captain Dan”.  Our imaginations quickly ran to powerful engines, sleek lines, sundecks and a well-stocked bar.  So it was something of a surprise to be ushered onto what could have past for a 9-yard skip with a motor attached.

“Can you swim?” asked Cap’n Dan hopefully as we gripped our packed lunches and slid aboard down the greasy ladder.  Originally a rowing boat, now diesel-powered, we were asked to sit two heavyweights at the back so the prop could actually reach the water.   But what our boat lacked in glamour and safety standards it made up for in heritage being a former world war two lifeboat with many a story to tell.  But past bravery counted for little as a large seagull with poor toilet habits chose to relieve itself from a bridge onto Billy’s shoulder to the sound of “Roxanne” as we cruised through the red-light area (watch the video at the end of the slideshow above – you can just see the bird flying off as we go under the bridge!).

Nicky tried the Vermeer Dutch Maid pose with a shopping bag

Our gastronomic highlight was dinner for eight at achingly trendy BO Cinq.  Cuisine is French/Arabic fusion, lighting is low and prices high.  Drop this baby into Knightsbridge or Dubai and there would be a stampede for bookings.   Four hours flew by and the bar (and many others nearby) carried (most of) us through to morning.  Service was impeccable and as if to prove the point our waitress even (foolishly some might say!) joined our party for after-meal drinks.

And so we headed for home, sleepless but satisfied.  We left Amsterdam much as we found it but with fond memories and safe in the knowledge that nothing was left in the Hotel…or was there?….