It’s not always easy to take four full days away from our work, life and commitments and it can be hard to justify leaving our partners, children, friends and dogs to manage without us. But the more I run these experiences the more I see how incredibly important it is to do just that. To take a moment to pause, to reconnect with nature and open our minds to different conversations, people and perspectives.
This chance to take some time away is what my Bleak House Experiences are all about and I was thrilled in April that eight inspirational women decided to put their trust in me and do just that. I’m still bubbling with joy at how wonderful those few days spent in the wilds of Wales were and this trip will stay with me for a very long time.
West Wales is such a magnificent and joyful place and Annabel shared the best of it with us in Pembrokeshire. This is the second place in the world where I have audibly gasped at the landscape and views (NZ South Island was the first) and picnicking at the beach with our magnificent chefs, an open fire and local produce is one of my favourite memories of the year. Bleak House Experiences are all about the details and the people. Stunning.
The Wonder of Wales
On this very special Bleak House Experience I wanted to give my guests a taste of modern Wales, a part of the UK I feel is often overlooked as a holiday destination. I wanted to showcase some of the magic of this vibrant, contemporary country with its wild, deserted beaches, lyrical language, proud history, incredible local food and fantastic places to stay.
Our home for the week was the brilliant Grove, one of my favourite hotels in the whole of the UK. Nestled in a pretty valley above the elegant market town of Narberth, this splendid neo-Gothic Arts and Crafts house emerges enticingly as you pass down a winding drive flanked by banks of bluebells. From the vernacular styling complete with an oak panelled room lined with Welsh love spoons, to the wicker wall and wallpaper made from fern fronds from the garden, you couldn’t be anywhere else but Wales. The staff are incredibly friendly and welcoming and it feels more like staying in the house of a good friend than a hotel. With roaring fires everywhere (including a log burner in our room), and lots of squishy sofas it was the perfect place to come home to and rest for a while.
I built in lots of time on our Experience for us to enjoy the surroundings of the hotel and make the most of our time there. From games of croquet on the lawn to scones and tea by the fireside, afternoon naps and early morning walks through the fields and along the lanes, there were plenty of moments to share with new friends or to carve out a little time alone with just our thoughts for company.
I’ve just experienced by second Bleak House experience – this time in beautiful Pembrokeshire. Lovely company, luxury accommodation again and lots of activities to enjoy. Though the relaxed atmosphere meant that if you just wanted to curl up and read a book, or wander round the grounds and breathe in the fresh air, that was fine too.
I loved the swimming in the Irish Sea, the pop up choir, the cook out on the beach. Not to mention the Welsh language and culture ’taster’ from someone passionate about her country. And the entrepreneurship talk. And having the rules of croquet explained lucidly for once! Annabel’s organisational skills meant I just had to turn up, relax and enjoy – which was fine by me. Looking forward to my next Bleak House trip.
Learning in Inspired Surroundings
It can be hard in the hectic pace of our lives to find time to devote to learning new skills and trying out new activities. Signing up to an evening course can feel like a commitment and piles of educational books lay untouched by our bedsides. The chance to try something new or improve an existing skill is a key part of my Experiences and it’s brilliant to see guests return home and join a choir, take up wild swimming or share their newly improved photographic skills on Instagram.
Photography is a passion of mine and so I invited my dear friend and talented photography teacher and educator Lauren Keim to come and teach a workshop. On this Experience Lauren’s workshop was based around capturing our travels in a creative way, resisting the urge to take what she calls ‘I was there’ photographs. As part of her workshop we had a fun scavenger hunt around the beautiful gardens at the Grove where a few of us returned giggling with dirty knees from crouching down in the greenhouses to capture the ‘pop of red’ of a poppy or crawling through the grass to take the iconic image of the house through the carpet of bluebells.
We also had a little Welsh pronunciation lesson from Ceril Rhys-Dillon, who talked to us about how the Welsh and English languages work together in modern Wales. I’ve been holidaying in Wales since I was a child and have always felt rather embarrassed that I can’t even pronounce the names of most of the towns. The words are unfathomable and inpenetrable to non-Welsh speakers and it’s amazing how much help a one hour lesson can be. It was fun and illuminating and I feel I can now hold my head up high asking for directions at the motorway service station.
A Foodie Paradise
Food is, of course, a hugely important part of a Bleak House Experience and it’s something I put a huge amount of effort into getting right. At the Grove we had the full fine-dining experience, including a fabulous seven course taster menu on the final evening. On top of this there were scones for tea, poached pineapple and pancakes for breakfast and the best buffet lunch I’ve ever eaten.
On the Wednesday evening, after an invigorating swim at Marloes Sands, we were treated to a delicious family style meal at Runwayskiln, a sweet little restaurant on the cliff tops over looking the beach. I’d arranged with the owners Charlie and Claire to have this cosy restaurants to ourselves for the evening. After post-swim drinks we sat down along the long table and shared plates of baked onions and goats cheese, bowls of roasted new potatoes and tabouleh and washed it down with excellent wine. Having an entire restaurant to ourselves was wonderfully intimate and it was such a special evening. Charlie and Claire’s food is hyperlocal and seasonal and we ate overlooking a field of potatoes that will soon be on their menu. You can’t really get much more local than that. If you are in West Wales this summer I can’t recommend Runwayskiln highly enough, do stop for lunch, it’s just brilliant.
The next day we took a walk down past the famous Victorian lily ponds at Bosherton to reach Broad Haven South and Barafundle beaches, two of the nicest sandy beaches in the world. Although my guests knew vaguely that we were having a picnic, I tried not to give too much away so that there were still some surprises. I realised on seeing the delight on some of my guests’ faces when they saw our gorgeous picnic nestled in the base of the sand dunes that they might well have been thinking that I had some cheese rolls and bags of Wotsits in my tote bag.
Our picnic was laid on by Derw and Hannah from the brilliant outdoor food company Tân a Mwg. We had a sweet little table with wild flowers and a checked table cloth. We dined on toasted sourdough and fried duck eggs, laverbread and the most delicious homemade wild garlic pesto and elderflower cordial. The pesto was so incredible that one of my guests, Janet, returned home to London and made her own batch from garlic foraged at the Tower Hamlets Cemetery! Derw and Hannah (and Mabel the dog) were the perfect hosts. The whole event was so chic and stylish and I am still dreaming of the food.
Pembrokeshire feels truly far away from London – by the time I was on what felt like a “holiday train” to Narbeth station, I felt a world away from the stress and rush of London. The Grove feels almost magical, tucked in a hollow surrounded by green Welsh hills. The trip felt like true luxury – tea and scones around every corner, armchairs to sink into with a book, and a wonderful group of women to get to know on coastal walks and delicious meals. The only problems were how tight my jeans felt after all the amazing food we ate, and having to go home at the end.
Learning to sing for the terrified
If you’ve been following me for a little while you might remember that last year I overcame one of my most deep rooted fears to join a choir and learn to sing, after a break of more than thirty years. Singing has brought so much joy into my life and it’s something I try as hard as I can to encourage my friends and family to try.
My own singing journey began when my husband Richard attended a singing workshop at the fantastic Do Lectures last July. The workshop was run by James Sills and, as he doesn’t live a million miles from Pembrokeshire, I asked him if he’d like to come and run a session for us and I was thrilled when he agreed.
James is a big advocate of singing outside and so we sang in the beautiful walled garden at the Grove. I’ve never sung outside before and it was incredibly moving hearing birds pipe up as our own voices quietened. I intentionally planned our session for the final morning of our Experience, right before our farewell lunch. I knew that having the chance to sing together and overcome a real fear, would form a tight bond between us and would send us home on a real high. Such a high in fact that Lauren and I sang one of my guests, Jenna, onto her train at Narberth, much to the amusement of the train driver.
(If you’re interested in learning to sing, I thoroughly recommend starting with James’ book ‘Do Sing: Reclaim Your Voice. Find Your Singing Tribe.‘ from the brilliant Do Publishing Company which is being released in September but is available now for pre-order.)
A time for friendship
The chance to make new friends is one of the most important things I offer on all of my Bleak House Experiences. I know from experience that it can be hard as we get older to make new friends. Many of us have moved homes many times and find it hard to stay in touch with our old friends and perhaps no longer have so much in common with them and if we don’t have children we don’t have the ready made school gate network available to us. Many of us work in corporate environments where we may not ‘click’ with our workmates and if we work at home alone (as I do) there are no work colleagues to hang out with at all.
This is why friendship is the overriding theme of all of my Experiences. Spending a few days with people whom you’ve never met but with whom you have an incredible amount in common means making friends becomes easy and natural. Occasionally my guests are nervous about sharing a room with someone they don’t know only to find later that having a roommate become a good friend in a just a few days is their most treasured part of the whole experience. Seeing guests make plans to meet for lunch, weekends away and even meeting up on business trips abroad long after we’ve returned home is incredible and is absolutely the most rewarding part of my job.
I am so happy with how my first Welsh Experience went and hugely grateful to the inspiring, smart, fun women who came. It was the most wonderful adventure and I can’t wait for the Autumn ones.
All photos by either me or Lauren Keim.
Patricia Highsmith’s compelling novel about a talented young architect who meets a stranger on a train and becomes embroiled in a nightmare of deceit, depression and murder.
Join me on a monthly walk where we will discover the atmospheric streets and gentle parks that sit behind the relentlessly fast-paced facade of this magnificent global city.