A collection of 500 year old thatched cottages, set around a cobbled farmyard, Red Doors Farm in Devon has all the chocolate box charm that you’d wish for in a holiday cottage. However, we’ve learned from past experience that a centuries-old thatched cottage, picturesque though it may be, does not always mean warmth and comfort. Thank goodness the owners Gill and Adrian seem to have that cracked, with Byre Cottage where we stayed being kept at a cosy constant temperature by the biomass wood-pellet fired boiler.
Our stay was arranged through Premier Cottages who specialise in luxury holidays cottages and this one certainly lived up to expectations. Having arrived in darkness on a Friday night from Bristol, we wake up to glorious views of the Blackdown Hills and spot the red doors of all the cottages that seem to epitomise the cheerful spirit of the place.
In the morning while the boys are cooking the bacon and eggs, Gill offers to show me around and tells me their story. She and Adrian gave up busy jobs in London to follow their dream of a calmer life in the country and took over the holiday cottage business of Red Doors Farm three years ago. “If we’d realised how much work it would be, we probably wouldn’t have taken it on!” Gill told me, since they have gradually worked through all of the six cottages, renovating them one by one.
I hope you enjoy my video below of our weekend at Red Doors Farm
Our cosy cottage at Red Doors Farm
Furnishings have been upgraded, bathrooms modernised and now all the cottages meet Visit England’s exacting 5 star Gold Standard. Although Red Doors Farm is very popular with young families, it seems there’s a cottage for everyone down on the farm. The Swallows Loft is a one bedroom apartment on two floors with stylish mezzanine kitchen, luxurious modern bathroom and a four poster bed with an “Out of Africa” look, which suits professional couples looking for a relaxing country break. Meanwhile Holly Cottage is popular with older couples, or couples with a baby, since it’s all on one level with a terrace overlooking the croquet lawn, perfect to sit with your sundowner admiring the views of the Blackdown Hills.
We’re staying in Byre which is a 3 bedroom cottage, sleeping 6 people in comfort, a spacious master bedroom for me and Guy and two twin bedrooms for my teenage son and two friends to spread out. No queues for the bathrooms either, since there’s a family bathroom upstairs and a shower room downstairs. We really can’t fault the cosy furnishings, well equipped farmhouse style kitchen and best of all the log burning stove in the sitting room. Since all men seem to love stoking up a real fire, and Guy is no exception, this is something we always love to see in a country cottage and we make the most of it with a fire in the evenings.
Feeding the goats at Red Doors Farm
Saturday morning is crisp but sunny with winter-blue skies and views over farmland to the valley beyond. Across the lawn is the swimming pool in a separate building for those (relatively) early morning swims which quickly become a favourite with our teenage boys. After breakfast and the swim we’ve arranged to meet Adrian and Gill for the 10.30 morning ritual of feeding the animals.
For younger guests the farm keeps guinea pigs and rabbits in the covered play area but our teenagers are more interested in the goats, Charlie and Dora. “These are the most spoiled goats in Devon”, Gill tells me, since they have their own heated shed, decking walkways so their feet don’t get wet on the grass and a climbing frame which comes into its own at feeding time.
Once Charlie and Dora have enjoyed their breakfast it’s time for the Muscovy ducks to have theirs in the next field. The ducks all have names beginning with D; there’s Dick, the alpha male of the group and Daisy, although we joke that Dyson might be a better name based on the speed at which they vacuum up the grain we hold out to feed them.
Hunting for ammonites at Lyme Regis
Feeding time over, we decide to make the most of the glorious winter sunshine and drive the 25 minutes to Lyme Regis, the heart of the Jurassic Coast. Last time I was here with my blogging friend Barbara Weibel who is a rock hound and fossil lover if ever there was one and am determined to show the boys the ammonite pavement that we visited together.
Lyme Regis is a holiday town that I am continually drawn back to, having just the right balance of Jane Austen charm and fish’n’chips holiday fun, as well as being one of the top places on the Jurassic coast to find fossils. From the harbour, locally known as The Cobb, we walk along the rocky beach, with cliffs looming above us. The cliff face reveals the layers of sedimentary rock that were built up in pre-historic times containing the fossils, especially ammonites for which the beach is famous. “Don’t get to close” I call to the others, since there are frequent and dangerous rockfalls from the cliffs, especially after storms, revealing new fossils that have been trapped in the rock.
We clamber awkwardly over the boulders and squish through the black mud until we reach the ammonite pavement, a flat plate of rock where millions of years ago a shoal of ammonites settled on the bottom and were pressed down for eternity. Now at low tide you can see numerous little coils in the bare rock and spot them pressed into larger rocks along the beach. The local fossil hunters are to be seen tapping at the rocks with small hammers, splitting them open to reveal the ammonites trapped inside. As I walk, my eyes scan the pebbles that crunch under my feet and then suddenly I spot it, an ammonite on a smooth round pebble just lying there!
A walk on the Cobb at Lyme Regis
We walk back to The Cobb where a broad wall casts a protective arm around the harbour and the colourful fishing boats are lying on their sides at low tide. It’s fun to walk along the broad top of The Cobb wall although the stone pavement slopes like a tipsy sailor towards the sea to catch out the unwary. It’s a steep drop on both sides and our friend tells us that their dog once fell off and rolled down the wall but luckily survived with nothing broken.
The stormchasers might emulate Meryl Streep with swirling cloak in the film The French Lieutenant’s woman, standing on the end of The Cobb looking out to sea, although it’s not advisable or even allowed. Walking along to the end of the wall there are store houses for the fishing boats and we get the feel that this is still a thriving fishing community with plenty of notices advertising fishing trips and the blue and green nets piled up along the quayside. The notice above the door promises that ‘The Gods do not subtract from the allotted span of mens lives the hours spent in fishing”.
Back on the quay, we check out the local fishmonger’s where I can’t resist buying some fresh squid while the boys browse in the second hand bookshop next door. Later that evening I fry it up in butter to eat with some of the orange, pepper and chilli chutney that we found in our welcome pack, although the boys turn their noses up at it. Guy has already drunk the bottles of Otter Bitter and Norcott’s Somerset cider without giving me a look-in but we all enjoy the local chocolate fudge and award winning ice cream that we bought from the freezer in the games room, made just across the valley. The fire is stoked up and the boys have a noisy monopoly game in progress, just as it should be.
A climb to Dumpdon Hill Fort
Sunday morning and we take a last chance to explore some of the countryside around Red Doors Farm. Armed with instruction found in the Games Room, we walk up the lane towards the Dumpdon Hill Fort, an iron age fort which takes us on a steep and muddy climb up from the road. From the flat area of the top we can survey the many shades of green making a patchwork quilt of fields, then we turn back towards the farm and with rosy cheeks and lungs full of fresh air ready for our drive back to Bristol.
- The high quality furnishings and amenities with attention to detail and everything you need on the farm (even ice cream and meals in the freezer!)
- The cheerful and helpful approach of Gill and Adrian who live on site.
- Feeding the goats and ducks was a fun experience, even for our teens!
- Lovely to have an indoor swimming pool on site and we made full use of it.
- The beautiful Devon countryside and short drive to the coast at Lyme Regis or Sidmouth.
What you need to know;
- The setting is quite rural so you do need a car and we didn’t find any shops within walking distance.
- The free wifi is provided through a mobile in each cottage and you’ll need to give your credit card details as a deposit.
Booking at Red Doors Farm
Red Doors Farm have six luxury holiday cottages which sleep between 2 and 8 people, in the Blackdown Hills of Devon, set in beautiful countryside and only 30 minutes drive from Lyme Regis and the Jurassic Coast. A week’s stay in Byre Cottage at Red Doors Farm for up to six people starts from £775 and a short break starts from £540. Book Red Doors Farm through Premier Cottages here
Premier Cottages‘ collection features almost 1,000 four and five-star self-catering cottages across the UK. Properties range from small, romantic boltholes to large family-friendly country estates. The collection includes pet-friendly accommodation. It also offers the widest range of accessible properties in the UK and many properties have onsite facilities like swimming pools, gyms, spas, indoor games rooms and children’s play areas.
Follow Premier Cottages and Red Doors on their Social Media channels below;
Premier Cottages: Website | Twitter @premiercottages | Facebook | Google+ | Pinterest | YouTube
Red Door Farm: Website | Twitter @reddoorsfarm | Facebook
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Sir Francis Drake was born on a farm just a few miles from Buckland Abbey in Devon, a National Trust property that we visited while staying for the weekend at the Moorland Garden Hotel. From modest beginnings, ‘El Draco’ had grown up to become a buccaneer (that’s a polite word for pirate), great Elizabethan naval commander and scourge of the Spanish Empire in Central America where he attacked their ships and stole their gold at every opportunity.
Since Queen Elizabeth I was one of his backers, she was thrilled when Drake returned to England in 1580 with his ship, the Golden Hind, laden with Spanish treasure, of which she would take the lion’s share. Drake was knighted as a reward and bought Buckland Abbey with just a small part of his bounty, adopting as his motto ‘Sic Parvis Magna’ – from small beginnings come great things.
Buckland Abbey’s more recent claim to fame is the Rembrandt self-portrait which came to the property in 2010 as a legacy. Until recently the painting was thought to be a portrait of the artist by one of his pupils or a copy of one of his originals. A visit by the Rembrandt expert, Professor Ernst van de Wetering, prompted a reconsideration of the painting and investigations started to see if it could be a genuine self-portrait.
The now confirmed Rembrandt ‘Selfie’ is housed in a ground floor exhibition room at the abbey, with fascinating information about all the detective work that went into establishing that it was the real thing. The portrait has an element of the dressing up box about it, with the artist in a flamboyant cap with ostrich feather, flowing velvet cape and gold chain, using the ‘Tronie’ style of Dutch painting in which people were portrayed as historic or mythological characters.
We watched a video explaining the reasons that the portrait was agreed by art experts to be genuine, such as the fact that the signature had been made when the rest of the paint was still wet, rather than added afterwards. It also appears to have been written rather carelessly, with the artist running out of space so that he left off the D in his name, something you might not dare do if you were a forger.
Xrays and infra-red photography showed how the shape of the figure was blocked out on the canvas, which was a typical technique Rembrandt used and an analysis of the pigments showed they were consistent for the period.
After painstaking research, analysis and cleaning, the self-portrait was found to be genuine and now takes pride of pace in the centre of the exhibition room, where you can see the back with original labels and markings, as well as the front.
On arrival at Buckland Abbey we walked down into the Ox Yard, where old farm buildings now house craft workshops and a room where you can see a video about Sir Francis Drake. The shop and restaurant are in what was once the old monastic guest house.
Buckland Abbey was, as the name suggests, originally founded in 1273 as a monastery by Amicia, the Countess of Devon, in memory of her son who had been murdered. She endowed the monastery and large estates in Devon to the Cistercian order who divided their time between spiritual devotions and agricultural labours, especially sheep farming.
The Great Barn, which sits right beside the main house, was built at this time and is one of the largest of the period with oak roof beams arching 60 feet above you as you enter. It was built to store the farm produce, its sheer size indicating the wealth and productivity of the abbey estates and is often used for workshops and events like carol singing at Christmas.
Since we were there in the late autumn, we found that apples from the estate were being pressed to make cider, the group of volunteers only taking up a small space of the huge barn.
After King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, the abbey buildings and estate were sold to Sir Richard Grenville whose heirs converted the monastic buildings including the church into a private home. Sir Francis Drake moved to Buckland in 1582, the same year he became Mayor of Plymouth aged 39, already famous for his 3 year circumnavigation of the world and his exploits in the New World.
We enjoyed a look around the various galleries in the house where portraits and objects from the house’s history are on display. Pride of place in the Treasures Gallery on the first floor is taken by Drake’s Drum, which he took on his naval voyages and is said to sound whenever England is in danger. To the side of this main display room was the oak panelled Drake’s Chamber, filled with oak furniture and portraits of the period, just as it might have looked in Drake’s day.
Along the corridor we moved on 200 years as we walked into the Georgian Dining Room, while up the stairs to the top floor was the Long Gallery, dominated by a huge statue of Sir Francis Drake. This long, open space was used in Tudor times for the inhabitants to get some indoor exercise and we found information about life on board the ships that Drake might have sailed and the lives of the Cistercian monks.
Back on the ground floor were the Tudor kitchens, laid out with 18th century cooking utensils and foods as if preparing for the dinner party upstairs. The final part of the tour was through the Great Hall, created in 1576 by Sir Richard Grenville when he converted the monastery into a house. Apparently the nave of the old church where the monks were buried sits under the pink and white tiled floor of the Great Hall.
Our tour finished, we came out of the house and back into the beautiful formal gardens, inspired by Tudor knot hedges filled with roses and a small orchard of apple trees. If we’d had more time, we could also have taken a walk around the Buckland Abbey estate through the great deer park and woodland where wild garlic and bluebells bloom in the spring.
If you are on the western edge of Dartmoor visiting Tavistock or Plymouth, do stop in to Buckland Abbey for a big slice of Devon’s history and to find more about Sir Francis Drake and the Rembrandt selfie.
If you go: Buckland Abbey, Yelverton, Devon, PL20 6EY, Tel: 01822 853607
Closed in January, re-opens 14 February 2015. Open daily 11-4 in winter, 10:30-5:30 in spring/summer. Admission Adult £11, Child £5.50. (check website for more details) Follow on Social Media: Twitter @BucklandAbbeyNT | Facebook | Instagram |Thanks to the National Trust who gave Heather and Guy complimentary admission to Buckland Abbey.
Where to stay:
Heather and Guy stayed at Moorland Garden Hotel which is close by at Yelverton – read my review here. The hotel is an ideal base for those wanting to explore the area for walking on Dartmoor or to visit the Ocean City of Plymouth. The rooms are all decorated in colourful style using a garden and moorland theme and the award winning Wildflower restaurant is highly recommend for lunch, dinner or cream teas overlooking the lawns.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey
Milan, Italy’s second city, is a complex paradox, the capital of Italian commerce, industry, finance and fashion (its design and fashion shows are actually big business trade fairs) yet for the cognoscenti it offers easily discovered cultural and epicurean treasures.
Perhaps this constant eye toward commerce is what makes the city, as a tourist destination, a little understated, a little too northern European with high-rise towers and banks that outnumber the churches. Yet when you walk the city’s streets, immersing yourself into a culture that is firmly rooted in fashion, art, opera and delicate aperitivos eaten al fresco atop cobbled streets, you come to realise that Milan is much more than the sum of its sometimes shallow parts.
The city hosts a little bit of something for every type of person – not just world-class shopping but a well-wired and vibrant cultural scene too. The undeniably creative atmosphere is a pleasure to explore and when you do, you’ll note that Milan has more history than the shiny skyscrapers, grimy backstreets and freshly manicured nails of its denizens tend to remember.
Fashion in the Rectangle of Gold
If it’s fashion that you want then point your Louboutin’s towards the Quadrilatero d’Oro – otherwise known as the Rectangle of Gold, to explore everything from Dior to Versace and all the usual suspects all within easy walking distance of each other. Be sure to take a well-heeled walk around the Gallerie Vittorio Emanuele II, which amongst other things is one of the oldest shopping malls in the world – with Prada’s flagship store now celebrating its 101st year there. Bargain hunters should take a look around the area for the outlets that stock floors of past seasons bargains. However if your tastes are slightly more avant garde then take a walk to Via P. Paoli 1, where you’ll find the Antonioli concept store – a unique space where you can shop contemporary designers such as Ann Demeulemeester, Rick Owens and Yohji Yamamoto in a beautifully designed store.
The shows in spring and summer are, to many, the highlight of the fashion calendar, with starlets from all corners of the world, heading to the Palazzo Reale or the Palazzo Serbelloni, to get a first look at the designs of the elites of Italian fashion such as Dolce & Gabbana, Marni and Moschino. If you don’t have an invite to a show then there are still plenty of opportunities to strut your stuff – whether outside the venues (prepare for the street-style paparazzi) or in one of the city’s trendy bars.
Culture in Milan
To some it’s surprising that this sometimes-grey city is where Leonardo da Vinci found the perfect setting to exercise his brilliance. You could spend days here retracing his footsteps – from the Sforza Castle with his painted Mulberry tree frescoes, to the various exhibits of both his work in art and science in the city’s museums. Best known is the breathtaking Last Supper fresco, which hides on a refectory wall behind the antique façade of the UNESCO listed Santa Maria delle Grazie church.
Aesthetes should dedicate time to the astounding gothic beauty of the Duomo. Its size is staggering, a construct which took 5 years to complete – it is the largest cathedral in Italy. Inside the looming façade, the numerous works of art and icons on offer create a brooding atmosphere – the most striking of which is the statue of Saint Bartholomew Flayed, by Marco d’Agrate.
The saint stands, muscle and tissue exposed, holding a book, his flayed skin thrown over his shoulder like a robe. Those with a love of opera should make reservations to the Teatro Alla Scala, though any one with even a passing interest in the arts and architecture should make an effort to see the impressive stage, which first raised its curtains in 1778. Art lovers shouldn’t miss Tiepolo’s frescoes at the Palazzo Clerici or the works of art concealed within the Pinacoteca di Brera.
It goes without saying that Italy is well known for its food – but Milan often, rather unfairly, slips under the radar. Let’s make it simple. When in Milan – sate your hunger with local cheeses, butters and milks – note that rice is more popular than pasta in many circles, it does absorb the creams and cheeses that bit better – and try local greats like gorgonzola, polenta topped with mushrooms and of course the famous Panettone cake – originally from Milan and generally reserved for Christmas in these parts.
Now let’s set the scene: Milan, 6pm, the bars and restaurants of the city are filled with locals and tourists alike for Aperitivo hour. Where do you go? For the classic experience I’d suggest the haute bars around the Piazzo Duomo, especially Zucca in the Galleria, which is where the likes of Giuseppe Verdi and Arturo Toscanini would dine after performances at La Scala next door – the historical ambience, and the view of the Duomo completes the authenticity. For those in need of a slightly more stylish setting then try Brera district, or, for something a little more elaborate, try the Navigli district, where the da Vinci designed canals wind along the narrow streets. Try one of the houseboats docked in the canals, where Aperitivo is often accompanied by live music.
But what is Aperitivo you ask? Aperitivo is a well-established northern Italian culinary tradition, and Milan (from the 1920’s anyway) is the capital of it. It’s about drinks and food. A harmony of flavours propelled to sainthood, through offers of after work relaxation and the pleasure of conversation paired with great, though simple food. Try a spritz or a Negroni sbagliato (a delicious mix of prosecco, red vermouth and Aperol instead of gin) paired with a smorgasbord of olives, nuts, bruschetta, cheeses and other stuzzichini (finger food).
Drinks cost anywhere from 7 to 15 euros and come with either a table mix of the above or, in some cases, all you can eat buffets – perhaps the last thing you would expect, when all around you, the Milanese strut in precision heels, pristinely turned out with perfectly pinched waistlines.
Take a few days to experience what the city has to offer – stay away, if you can, from the bustling Milano Centrale Station area, and instead stick to the Piazzas where you can sit in the company of history and simply watch the (Milanese) world go by, sipping your espresso, nibbling on a biscotti and absorbing the very special magic of Milan.
About the author: David Jacobs is a travel writer and editor of Euro Travel Magazine – an online publication which focuses on the whole of Europe, from the mysterious Orkneys to the wine dark seas of the Aegean.
Photo Credits: Shopping in Milan – Mike and Annabel Beales on Flickr, Castello Sforzesco, Milan – Mike and Annabel Beales on Flickr, Rooftop of Milan cathedral – Stefan Karpiniec, Saint Bartholomew – Antonio Trogu, Milan at night – Alex LA, Milan station – Richard Evea
For more tips on travel in Italy:
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey