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It’s quite a long journey down to south Devon, even though the train seems to go pretty fast. So the journey back to Paddington from Exmouth, with one change at Exeter St David’s, took three and a half hours.Fortunately the tube went straight from Paddington to Kings Cross/St Pancras and there was a lift down from the main line station to the Underground and lifts up again to street level. Then it was only a short walk across the road from St Pancras to Kings Cross.

I think there are eight main-line stations within central London going to various parts of the country and they always seem to be heaving with people, most of whom are looking up at the departure boards!

Kings Cross has been modernised and it’s possible to go up an escalator to the mezzanine floor, where there are lots of cafés, and look down at the platform level from above. I’d allowed a good changeover time between my two journeys so it was great to buy a snack and some coffee and settle down to some serious people-watching.

During its upgrade, Kings Cross included disabled access which is wonderful for people with very heavy suitcases, people with push chairs and for the disabled themselves. And the signage is great too.

Newer lines, like parts of London Overground and Docklands Light Railway (DLR), which has disabled access at every station, are a joy to ride on. It’s so much easier to ride on escalators or lifts than to have to trudge up and down countless stone steps.

The much shorter journey to Grantham (easier, Elissa told me, for picking up and setting down than Nottingham itself is) only took just over an hour. The weather forecast for the day had promised gales and heavy rain but there had been no evidence of it between Exmouth and Grantham. However, when Roy picked me up at the station he said that only a few hours earlier, Nottingham had been subjected to incredible downpours, the streets were flooded and he wondered at one point whether he’d be able to get to the station. But when he did arrive, the sun was shining, the streets showed signs of rain but the water had drained away.

Elissa and Roy have been friends since the early 1970s and they were our neighbours until we left for New Zealand in 1979. Among their many joint talents, Elissa is a Cordon Bleu cook and Roy is a wine broker so meal times are always a great experience. On Sunday evening, after a lovely drop of champagne to celebrate our reunion, Elissa produced wonderful bacon-wrapped prawn kebabs served with poached fennel, broccoli and new potatoes, followed by fresh strawberries soaked in Grand Marnier – not your usual Sunday evening meal! It’s just as well she’s promised ‘casual dining’ for the rest of the week, otherwise I was going to find it hard to bend over my expanding girth to do some of the all-important ‘split rolls’ (no pun intended for the croquet initiated!)

And so the week began. As has been the case on past visits, Elissa (yet again) very kindly lent me her nippy little Honda Jazz for the week while she and Roy unselfishly shared Roy’s car – an inconvenience at times I’m sure but they always shrug off this kindness.

Nottingham Croquet Club is a favourite of mine. Not only are the lawns beautiful to play on but the people are unfailingly friendly and welcoming. And they told me proudly that they will be hosting the next Women’s World Championships from 25 Jul-1 August 2015. I’m sure that any of the players coming from New Zealand will definitely enjoy the surface and the environment enormously – not to mention the hospitality.

Looking back over previous years’ blogs, I see that this is the fourth time I’ve played here since 2008 so if you want to check back and see more views of the lawns and the personalities, particularly for women croquet players from New Zealand who may choose to enter the Women’s Worlds, these are the links for:

2008
2010
2012

The flower beds leading up to the University building in the background provided a splash of colour. At the end of the drive is a beautiful river, well-populated with swans and other bird life. A number of people are always strolling around, enjoying the environment. The gates to the club house are on the right of this photo.

Meanwhile, the surrounds to the ‘back’ three lawns (and they are in the process of developing a fourth) are a joy to behold. If you look really hard, you can see Charlie, who takes care of the lawns, in the background. On this occasion he’s ‘sweeping’ the lawns to remove the dew and the worm casts. Can you imagine doing that on nine lawns every day during a tournament? In addition to that, he puts in all the hoops (six to each lawn) and checks that they are the right width. And, as play can start any time after nine in the morning, he’s obviously up very early!

As in Budleigh, so at Nottingham, the weather was very kind and there were only two days when we had to play through a shower or two. Mostly we were able to sit and relax while we waited for our opponent to ‘break down’.

As reported in a previous Nottingham blog in 2012, David wore his ‘croquet socks’ which he now says he wears especially for me because I’ve admired them in the past. He was wearing long trousers on Friday so John (left) and Bob (right, and my wonderful doubles partner) thought they’d better ‘show him up’ so they took a leg each and hoisted his trousers up so that I could record the moment!

David partnered Beatrice (one of England’s top women players) in the handicap doubles and reached the finals, in their matching pink caps. They actually lost to the couple who beat Bob and me.

On Thursday evening, Elissa booked us dinner at Langar Hall, a country house hotel that has a reputation of being somewhat up market. It was my opportunity to return some of their wonderful hospitality.

I wondered what effect dinner would have on my bank balance when we arrived to find not just one, but two, Ferraris in the car park! Elissa parked her little car beside one of them and we wondered if some of the kudos would rub off on it while we ate our dinner!

Inside it was real old world charm and it was delightful to sit and wait for our orders to be taken in such genteel surroundings. I recommend a visit if you are in this part of the world. 

Langar Hall was originally the owner, Imogen’s, family home which has been converted into a restaurant. When Elissa and Roy first dined there many years ago, the atmosphere was very different. Imogen is something of a local celebrity. She was an actress at one time and used to hold soirées where her actor friends performed.

She has been cosseting visitors for more than 25 years and still finds time to meet and greet, a personal detail that is much appreciated by everyone who arrives at this country mansion.

The Good Food Guide describes the experience as ‘the quintessentially English idyll begins as you head up the long drive and continues amid crystal chandeliers, statues and marble pillars, although this is no stiff-collared country pile’.

Michael from Ghana, the ‘front of house man’, took Elissa and me on a tour of some of the rooms, including a bedroom suite – bedroom, bathroom and sitting room. The property is situated very close (indeed) to the Church and during the recent extension many bones were discovered under the ground outside the walls of the Church, possibly, we surmised, from paupers’ graves.

Imogen’s personal service didn’t just involve taking our dinner orders. She discussed every aspect of what we wanted to eat and to drink and made suggestions about our choices to make sure that we had the best dining experience. It was charming.

Produce out of the garden finds its way into the kitchen along with bountiful regional produce and home-reared lamb. There is also game from Belvoir (pronounced Beaver) Estate, such as fallow deer, char-grilled with cauliflower and caramelised chicory. Or one could choose seared scallops with roast chicken wing, Jerusalem artichokes, chestnuts and Brussels sprouts, while desserts included such delicacies as poached autumn fruits with gingerbread crumb and star anise ice cream. For all of us the double baked cheese soufflé was our choice of entrée, a favourite of both Elissa’s and Roy’s.

And so we enjoyed a charming meal and each other’s company.

The tournament was over for me on Friday evening because I hadn’t managed to get into any of the finals. The experience was, however, as lovely as ever. The good news for me was that I had beaten a sufficient number of people during the two weeks for my handicap to be reduced – a good position to find myself in considering that I’ve played very little croquet in New Zealand during the past eighteen months.

So Elissa and I had a chance to enjoy Saturday together and she recommended a visit to Belvoir Castle.

One imagines that if stately homes are open to the public, they would be open every day of the week but this is apparently rarely the case, often because weddings are held on a Saturday. Belvoir, we found to our dismay, is only open to the public on Sundays and Mondays. Next time I come up to stay with Elissa and Roy I will make sure that I choose a much later train back to London on the Sunday so that we can visit it again.

Sad as it was, we felt we had to overcome the disappointment by going up the drive entrance, for people who hold their weddings there, to get a closer look. Both the approach to the front and the slightly closer-up view from round the back were tantalising and convinced us that we would return.

Belvoir, meaning beautiful view in French, dates back to Norman times. The English pronunciation ‘Beaver’ was built up over many centuries through the inability of Anglo-Saxons to master the French tongue. No surprise there!

Belvoir has been the ancestral home of the Manners family for five hundred years and is currently the family home of the 11th Duke and Duchess and their five children. The present Castle is the fourth to have stood on the site since Norman times. The existing Castle was completed in the early 19th century after previous buildings suffered complete or partial destruction during the Wars of the Roses, the Civil War and a major fire in 1816.

Unfortunately, because we were unable to gain access, we were deprived of being able to enjoy the interior, particularly disappointing when we read that Belvoir possesses one of the most stunning interiors of the period. Apparently, in contrast to the grandeur of the State Rooms, the Old Kitchen and Bakery ‘fuel the imagination of below the stairs life in 1825, while the School Room and Nursery allow visiting children to experience games from Regency times’.

We didn’t gain access to the gardens either but we were told that when Elizabeth (the 5th Duchess) commissioned James Wyatt to build the Castle in 1799 she undertook the design and landscaping of the gardens, park and grounds herself. She saw the entire Vale of Belvoir as her garden and was merely framing the views with her valley gardens. In fact, the Belvoir estate doesn’t just own the Castle but acres and acres of land and buildings for many miles around.

Apparently Elizabeth’s design and feel of the individual gardens encompass many ideas brought back from the Grand Tour of an Italian terraced garden. The gardens facing Belvoir are a natural amphitheatre left by the moraines of two glaciers, and she used this to her advantage.

In Edwardian times there were 40 gardeners but now there are only three, so restoring the gardens is a slow process. However, the present Duchess is apparently passionate about the gardens and their ongoing development.

Elissa knew a vantage point on the main road from where we could see the castle sitting on a rise (not really a hill) overlooking the surrounding countryside. It’s very imposing and definitely merits a closer view.

And after all that hard work – not being able to be a real tourist and walk through the interior and the gardens – we were sufficiently worn out to stop at one of Roy and Elissa’s favourite pubs, The Chequers, and enjoy a very pleasant snack lunch.

Neither of us wanted to eat too much because Elissa was intending to serve a scrumptious, gourmet dinner of home-made Chicken Liver Paté, Confit of Duck and Brandy Snap baskets, filled with Madagascan Vanilla Ice Cream, served with raspberries and a raspberry coulis.

It’s no wonder she’s been in such demand during her life for her sensational catering for a wide variety of people and organisations. She makes one feel very spoilt.

Before I left on Sunday morning, I took a stroll round their beautiful garden in the early morning sunrise.

The bright light of the rising sun didn’t really bring out the beautiful colours that are more evident in the evening light but I’ve spent so many hours with them that these photos bring back very happy memories.

The front door is somewhat obscured at the moment by a profusion of lavatera, battered and bashed a bit by the torrential rain that fell just before I arrived a week ago.

Around the back of the house there are two distinct areas – the ‘sit and enjoy’ part that Roy tends faithfully where one can just chat inconsequentially or partake of al fresco meals.

And the special Japanese garden that Elissa has created and which has grown in all sorts of directions since I was here two years ago. This photo is taken from the house, looking towards the Japanese Maples in the far corner, and this one is taken from behind the Japanese maples looking towards the house. The river effect, running through the middle of the garden is made of flat grey stones sitting on their ends in tight formation and it really does look like a river at first glance.

It was particularly sad to say our goodbyes but we’re already conspiring to organise our next get together which may turn out to be in England, New Zealand or South Africa, a country I haven’ t visited yet … Now there’s a thought!

Nottingham, England - 10-16 August 2014

 
 
 
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