Go, don't go, go, and don't go...a frustratingly familiar pattern for travel destinations in 2020.
As Covid-19 continues its rampage plunging people’s travel plans into chaos, more and more of us are opting for a staycation. Apart from the horrific impact on the travel industry what better way is there to support our UK businesses than to holiday at home? Since our pre-quarantine trip to the Champagne region of France this summer I’ve heard more and more about the recent successes of English wine production. With a family visit to southern England coming up I wanted to know more.
Not many of you will likely have tried a premium English wine, you’re unlikely to find them in mainstream supermarkets however this may very likely change soon due to the speed in which the industry is now developing. It seems the chalky south-facing slopes of our southern English counties are ideal wine-growing territory, including wine that in France would be called champagne.
Having recently won a haul of awards in international competitions English wine is now very much in the spotlight, even famous champagne brand Taittinger now own swathes of prime land in Faversham, Kent where 140,000 vines now grow. Taittinger aren’t the only interested party buying up land here but roll-on 2023/24 for full maturation and bottles that will be ready to drink. This trip we’d be basing ourselves in Andover, handy for family and the visits I’d planned to local producers. We booked up at the cosy White Hart Hotel, an inn that is part of Marston’s pub chain, basic comfortable rooms and excellent staff at incredible value marstonsinns.co.uk
We set off on a very rainy bank holiday Friday to Andover and en route our first wine producer a’Becketts. This idyllic boutique vineyard sits in rural Littleton Parnell, Wiltshire run by husband and wife team Paul and Lynn Langham. The wine-producing journey for the Langhams started in 1999 when Paul frustrated with corporate life announced wine in hand ‘we must be able to do this’ and so it began. Their beautiful vineyard now produces a wonderful range of still white wine, rosé, red and a sparkling cuvée which of course I was delighted to sample. Each wine held their own, impressing with flavours that would certainly appeal to the many, I particularly enjoyed the Rosé just bursting with intense strawberry flavours. Available to buy online abecketts.co.uk
Continuing our staycation, Saturday was to be a family day and what better than the next stop, seafront legend Bournemouth, a day at the seaside with sun…we couldn’t have timed it better. After relaxing on the stunning beach and losing substantial coinage to the seaside arcades, lunch beckoned, and a seaside tradition of fish and chips at Harry Ramsden’s. While enjoying my ultra-light battered cod overlooking the stunning sands I became fascinated by a less familiar view, four magnificent but empty cruise ships anchored in the bay, a sad reminder of the ongoing pandemic but a truly magnificent sight to behold.
Invigorated with sun and sea we headed back to Andover clocking the gorgeous scenery all around. If there was ever a more perfect picture of England it would be those thatched houses and quaint village pubs. As evening arrived we grabbed a quick Pizza Express from the many available options and headed for liquid refreshment. Seeking out something different we headed to the independent micropub The Andover Tap. Sourcing real ales and ciders from in and around Hampshire this place is a delight and after some delicious rather strong flat ciders it was time to retire for the evening.
Our next stop was Hampshire Downs Fine Cider Company, producers of Chalkdown Fine Sparkling Cider with Owner/Director Piotr Nahajski (Peter). Having started this journey some 15 years prior inspired by the romance and hard work of the champagne industry he was inspired to create champagne quality sparkling cider with English apples. The inspiration led to lengthy studies and after perfecting the purest method his light, sparkling cider was born, an elegantly light and zingy apple tart in a bottle. Available online www.chalkdowncider.com/buy-online or at selected retailers including Waitrose and Laithwaites.
It was now time to move on from Andover and so we began heading north towards home and our overnight stop of Cheltenham but first one more quite special visit, a producer of quintessential award-winning English gin.
Longparish, Hampshire is home to The River Test Distillery, as the name suggests it’s located on the River Test famed for its ‘gin-clear waters’. This place is truly special, a river so clear it’s magical, and of course, it was this that was the inspiration that Sarah and John Nelson, newbie distillers, used to launch their business. The river, in fact, runs right through their brand, from the glistening green-tinted bottles to a fishing inspired bottle stopper it’s a snapshot of ‘that view’ in a bottle. What’s even better is after just one year the business scooped a prestigious award, Best English London Dry Gin category in 2020 World Gin Awards. This newbie gin infused with handpicked meadowsweet flowers stole the show, definitely one to watch and available to buy online rivertestdistillery.co.uk/shop.
Peeling myself away we now continue to our final destination, the Montpellier District of Cheltenham. Once again luckily bathed in glorious sunshine we checked into the comfort of Cheltenham’s Malmaison hotel. The quirky plush surroundings of this former private villa offer fine food and experienced staff making for a very pleasant one night stay. As evening fell we admired the stunningly elegant architecture of this former spa town, home to so many quality eateries. Given a re-visit, I’d be booking into Bistro Blanc by revered French chef Raymond Blanc. The following morning we enjoyed our Mal breakfast, perfect Eggs Benedict and a host of continental sides, delicious. Sadly we’d run out of time and left Cheltenham knowing a return was required with so much left to explore, this was one action-packed fascinating staycation.