You might have noticed that this column rarely ventures west of Heathrow airport – particularly on the ground. Over the years I’ve written about Cornwall (lovely place but complicated to reach) and some disappointing visits to country hotels (the worst being one that had its windows bolted shut for “health and safety” reasons) – and that’s pretty much the extent of my English countryside coverage.
Admittedly, I could have made more of an effort to explore the delights of Devon, Sussex and Dorset after 20-plus years of on/off London residency – but Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and points further east have always been more of a draw. Besides, other contributors to this section of the FT do a fine job of chronicling everything from stately home renovations to pub lunches and the joys of cultivating subtropical gardens on the south coast.
A few weeks ago, I decided to give the countryside another try after a fellow radio presenter invited me to her house in Wales. After a bit of diary-juggling, I touched down from Tokyo on a Friday and let myself be abducted by Mats and my colleague Gillian. There was a brief pit-stop just beyond customs to leave my phone and laptop with my assistant Tommy (so as to reconfigure them for a new email system – a tedious exercise). Then we piled into a smart-looking Toyota Land Cruiser and set off for the wilds of Wales.
According to the car’s satnav, we would be able to make it reasonably close to Nancy’s house in about three and a half hours. Then, from the nearest village, she’d need to guide us the old-fashioned way, with directions involving crooks in the road, curious landmarks and Welsh road signs filled with consonants. Thanks to a slight head-start on the bank holiday traffic, we made it to the highlighted village almost to the minute (the occasional tractor throwing us only slightly behind schedule) and then ventured off-road to find Nancy’s house.
Over a few livestock grates and up and down some steep terrain, we entered a netherworld of long-tailed sheep and scraggly vegetation. We then turned into thick tangled forest, which opened up into a deep valley with beautifully tended fields, more sheep and well-kept farms. After 30 minutes of following Nancy’s precise directions, we pulled into her driveway.
At that moment, as I took in the surroundings, I reckoned I couldn’t have been farther away from Tokyo if I tried. The sheep were chattering in the late afternoon haze, birds were squawking and diving for insects around an inviting-looking pond down the slope and Nancy was already hosting a guided tour for Mats and Gillian.
Nancy used to be a radio journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and now hosts the odd show for me on Monocle 24. While she hasn’t completely traded in her microphone, her main gig is running a lavender farm-cum-lab about half an hour from Hay-on-Wye, where she makes lotions for feet and hands. By the time I caught up with the tour, Nancy was in her distillation and packaging room, showing her guests how her equipment worked. On the floor, fluffy bees buzzed in and out of a freshly cut pile of lavender and at this point her husband Bill chimed in about the precision performance of the filling machines.
As the set-up is actually more ranch than farm, we were treated to a weekend of barbecuing, perfect wines enjoyed in various little seating areas around the property and bracing dips in the spring-fed pond. The deluge that soaked London on the Saturday thankfully gave our stretch of Wales a miss and we were able to enjoy an afternoon of sun, books and the papers while Bill selected fine bottles from his well-stocked cellar.
On Sunday we piled back into the Land Cruiser and charted a roundabout course for Wiltshire that involved a swing through a Hay-on-Wye, coffee in Cheltenham and a cut through Bath before reaching our friends’ house just beyond Semley. As the low, rolling clouds burnt off and the sun dashed in and out, we settled in on the terrace for what was supposed to be a general catch-up but turned into a command performance by Wicklow the dancing Irish terrier. Paul and Matt on the barbecue and Ariel and Yolanda in the kitchen delivered a perfect dinner and the following morning Matt returned to the barbecue to smoke the trout he caught earlier for a late, lazy breakfast.
On the way back to London, we made a slight detour to scope out a modernist housing enclave in Esher, said hello to some friends around the corner in Cobham and discussed the plague of country hotels that have all decided to go contemporary with acid-green walls, lumpy overstuffed furniture and ridiculous tubs plunked in the middle of bedrooms. Thanks to some fine hosts and co-operative weather, there just might be a few more dispatches from the English (and Welsh, and even Scottish) countryside.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
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