From tasting delicious Dorset-made chocolates and glimpsing Britain's rarest flower, to going behind the scenes at the International Sustainable Restaurant of the Year, enjoying astounding artistic performances on the Isle of Canna, and discovering new mountain bike trails at Glenlivet, here's a selection of our favourite experiences from 2014, as chosen by our team of contributors Paul Bloomfield, Sarah Barrell, Rhiannon Batten, Paul Miles, David Atkinson, Helen Voce, Rob McDaid and Beccy Jeeson, Yvonne Gordon and Richard Hammond.
Best Slow Travel experience The longest and highest navigable aqueduct in Britain is in Wales. Cruising at 4mph across the Dee valley in a trough of water with just a few inches of iron between this ‘stream in the sky’ and the river, 126ft below, is thrilling. Paul Miles recommends taking a train to Chirk from where you can take bus 64 or 64a to Llangollen, taking 20 minutes. (The energetic can stride – or cycle – eight miles along the towpath and over the aqueduct.) From Llangollen, join a narrowboat trip along a twisty stretch of canal then across THE aqueduct, Pontcysyllte (Pont-cus-uth-teh). Book in advance. After the crossing, disembark and walk the remaining three miles along the towpath to Chirk station. Alternatively, return to Llangollen where there’s a steam railway – Berwyn stationmaster’s house is a grade-II listed self-catering property - and horse-drawn narrowboat trips.
Best cocktail A delicious Dirty Beets mix (house-infused beetroot vodka with apple syrup and crème de cassis: £6.50) that Rhiannon enjoyed before a fabulous meal of perfectly pan-fried plaice (£11.95) and loin of hare (£13.95) at Norse in Harrogate. Richard also visited Harrogate later in the year for the Inntravel Discovery Day and stayed at the excellent Acorn Lodge, a great place to stay (free wifi, honesty bar and fab breakfast including local Masham sausages) just a few minute's walk from the town's international conference centre.
Best food discovery Flower and herb waters used in cooking to add subtle flavours to dishes at the wonderful Les Orangeries (for example, sage water added to apple sauce for a delicate herby hit), which was the winner of the International Sustainable Restaurant of the Year 2014. Rhiannon and Richard were lucky to be given a behind-the-scenes tour with Nicole, who has built up a huge outdoor kitchen garden where she grows herbs and flowers for the hotel's kitchen.
Best Slow Travel Destination Richard loved the Alentejo region of southern Portugal. It's a huge area covering almost a third of the country, from the Rio Tejo to the northern area of the Algarve, and from the eastern border with Spain to the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean to the west (see map). He stayed at the Hotel Moura near the wonderful medieval walled town of Monsaraz. You can book the hotel through Alentejo specialist tour operator Sunvil. Richard is not the only one who thinks it's a great find; Isobel Choat wrote earlier this year in the Guardian: "Forget Ibiza. Forget the Riviera. In fact, forget the Med altogether. Portugal’s Alentejo region is lined with glorious beaches – but not many people seem to know about them". Richard tweeted this short vine video of the glorious swimming pool when he was there in November saying: "Now's a great time to be in the Alentejo, Portugal. 24 degrees today (over 30 last week)".
Best Flower Discovery Professional photographer Diana Jarvis was lucky enough to get a glimpse of the rare Lady’s Slipper Orchid while on a photographic assignment for our Greentraveller's Guide to Arnside & Silverdale. She saw this beautiful orchid (Britain's rarest flower) at Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve - here you’ll find rare limestone-loving plants such as the rigid buckler fern, dark-red helleborine and limestone fern within the sheltered grykes, as well as an array of woodland birds, rare butterflies and wildflowers.
Best Walk Walking the Herriot Way. September proved the ideal month for Helen Voce to tackle the 55 mile circular Herriot Way walk in the Yorkshire Dales. The 4 day route took in varied terrain - tin mines, rivers and waterfalls, heather topped moors peppered with black grouse and Swaledale Sheep and at its highest point, Great Shunner Fell. Stuart W. Grieg's guide book with detailed route maps, descriptions of landmarks (including a rusted tractor!) and excellent local knowledge was permanently at hand. Every narrow gated style was noted and climbed through diligently. It was a wonderful way to take in the Dales and meet fellow walkers on the Pennine Way and Coast to Coast which the Herriot Way intersects.
A night in Keld luxury Yurts was an excellent reward for completing the Herriot Way. A half way point on the Coast to Coast and an overnight on the Herriot Way it caters marvelously for walkers; home made food is available all day including warm breakfast baguettes served in your Yurt, washing and overnight boot drying facilities. We didn't indulge in the Private Hot Tub but it is good to know it is there for next time!
Best artistic performance Air falbh leis na h-eòin, Eilean Chanaigh/Away with the Birds, Isle of Canna turned out to be the perfect reason for Helen to explore in late-August the island of Canna, one of Scotland's small isles. Conceived and composed by Hanna Tuullikki and performed by a female vocal ensemble, Away with the Birds explores the mimesis of birds in Gaelic song. The performance was sited on the shore of the island's historic harbour and embraced the rising tide. The small, vibrant community of the National Trust for Scotland island welcomed cast, crew and audience members with tours of Canna House (gifted to NTS in 1981 by then owners John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw, renowned folklorists and ethnomusicologists and home to their extraordinary collection of Gaelic material), home made cakes before the performance, a beach BBQ at Café Canna and a fully stocked honesty shop featuring much local produce.
Best low impact local tour company Sarah Barrell says Foot Trails walking tours "are a great way to get off the beaten track - and the oversubscribed national trails - with walking tours tailor-made for all ages and abilities". The couple that arrange these trips - owners Alison and David Howell have trail-beaten the routes themselves, often with their kids in tow. Each trip comes with walking notes rich with local stories and historical facts, maps, and reading material that outlines flora and fauna - plus accommodation is in independent hotels. It’s a great, low-impact way to explore England. Sarah's daughter, Ella (8) and Sarah loved the two-day hike that took in Bath’s hills and outlying hamlets, followed by a day in the city itself. It was Ella's first proper walk - she lasted six hours each day, at a sustained pace and now considers herself a “real hiker.” Result!
Best Video Greentraveller's team loved the videos produced by the Wilderness Scotland this year. They get across the true essence of wilderness, be it walking, cycling, sailing, kayaking or canoeing. Wilderness Scotland is one of Greentraveller's founder members and this year, they were the winner of the World's Leading Green Tour Operators in the World Travel Awards. As one of their head guides Myles Farnbank explained, what they are trying to do is about "making green products seem normal rather than making normal products seem green". Here's their video on wilderness walking... enjoy!
Best new cycle trail Helen loved the new Glenlivet mountaing biking trails: "The drive out to the purpose-built MTB trails on the Glenlivet Estate is worth it whatever your ability". The 9km Blue Trail is very family friendly offering young mountain bike enthusiasts a taster of trails to come. If your kids are more confident on an off road bike then quite a bit of the Red Trail is accessible, just be trail-savvy and listen out for speedier riders whizzing up behind you. The 6.5km single track downhill on the Red Trail is a great reward for getting to the top as are the spectacular views of Cairngorm. The Coffee Still Cafe at the end of the Trails has a menu of tasty home made cakes, tray bakes, soup, breakfast rolls, sweeties and ice cream (for adults and kids!).
Best step-back-in-time experience Striding between the Bronze-Age burial cists and homesteads around dramatic Bellever Tor on Dartmoor – in this wild landscape it's easy to imagine life 4,000 years ago. Read Paul Bloomfield's article: Walking through the Bronze age on Dartmoor
Best local pint Cleric's Cure at The Three Bridges pub in southern Shropshire - one of the pub's own microbrews.
Best sausage rolls Made to a secret recipe and served oven-warm from The Hidden Hut cafe on Porthcurnick Beach in Cornwall (hiddenhut.co.uk). Just the thing after a swim in the sea.
Best local cheese Paul Bloomfield recommends a specially matured Wyfe of Bath cheese from the Bath Soft Cheese Co in his home town of Bath - he says it's a bit firmer and stronger, but still nutty and rich. You can pop up to the creamery door at Park Farm in Kelston and pick one up - after a lovely country walk over the ancient Round Hill, and before a pint of Butcombe in the Old Crown!
Best Chocolate Find Harriet O'Brien discovered Chococo while researching for our Greentraveller's Guide to Dorset. The company is run by husband and wife team Claire and Andy Burnet creating some of the best chocolates in Britain (they’ve won more than 40 top awards), all handmade using sustainably produced raw chocolate from Venezuala, Grenada and Madagascar, along with fresh cream from family-run Craig’s Dairy Farm at Osmington. The fillings are for the most part a terrific celebration of Dorset: Chococo creates a special chocolate for each month, such as Dorset Blue made with Blue Vinny cheese, and Black Garlic, a product from South West Garlic Farm near Bridport that has been causing waves of excitement in the food world. Chococo’s workshops are in Wareham, but the company started up in 2002 in Swanage, where it continues to run its main outlet, a shop and café that despite being tucked away down narrow lanes inevitably draws steady streams of people.
Chococo is just one one a large number of local food outlets in Dorset that Harriet wrote about in her article on Dorset Food & Drink: "Wild boar salami, gooey goat cheese, black garlic, walnut and rosemary soda bread… From the Cranborne estate chalk lands of northern Dorset to the coastal riches of the south, over the last few years a real-food revolution has been gaining momentum across the county."
Best train trip Paul Miles loved the train up from coastal Flam to Myrdal, Norway, where, even in summer he says you will see snow, and then cycling back down. The steep, twisty train ride up passes magical waterfalls and has views to ochre farmhouses. The free-wheel down is a white-knuckle ride through a waterfall-laced valley with a goat farm at the bottom where, if you stop, you have to watch the cute nannies don't nibble your brake cables.
Best Garden David visited Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, the family home of the Cranford author, reopened to the public in October, restoring the Grade II-listed Regency villa "as if the family had just popped out and left the table set for dinner". As part of the refurbishment, a team restored also restored the gardens with popular plants and shrubs from the 19th century to reflect the way Gaskell was inspired to write by the view across the garden from her desk.
Best Ferry Round Trip Plymouth to Roscoff and Le Havre to Portsmouth with Brittany Ferries. Highlights: a superb meal eaten on board before the ferry departed (compared with having to spend hours holed up on your car queueing to board), a calm overnight crossing (kids loved the cabin and slept through until breakfast), then arrival at Roscoff, a surprisingly charming town and surely one of the best arrival ports in Europe. The return journey was a calm, sunny, quick channel crossing; Richard tweeted: "no wonder ferry travel is booming".
Best ferry-trip-with-a-view Yvonne Gordon loved a trip on the MV Glenachulish from Kylerhea on the Isle of Skye to Glenelg on the Scottish mainland. It's the last manually operated turntable ferry in Scotland, and one of the most hardworking crewmemebers is a sheepdog called Nak who takes charge of the ropes.
Best India Summer Moment A sunny, summery walk around the National Trust's Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire in late autumn.
Best city break in France by train Exploring Le Mans' Cité Plantagenet – the compact medieval centre, with timbered houses, fascinating carved door lintels and might cathedral (Paul Bloomfield recommends looking for the musical angels in the Chapel of the Virgin).
Best Cycle Kit: Over the last 3 months, Rob and Becky have travelled across France, Spain and Morocco predominantly by bike, using public transport when necessary and hitchhiking occasionally. In November, Morocco saw the worst rain and floods it has had in 20 years that meant cycle touring and wild camping "was quite a challenge" but they say they are "eternally grateful" for their waterproof cycling jackets (Pearl Izumi Men's Select Barrier WxB and Women's Elite Barrier WxB) that "have kept us dry through the worst rain we have ever encountered... the jackets are lightweight, breathable and are such a good fit you don't feel like you're wearing a cycling jacket when you're off the bike and exploring the sights".
Best view Paul Bloomfield loved the sweeping vista across the Mendip Hills to Glastonbury, while rambling in Somerset. This year, Visit Somerset launched a new series of downloadable wildlife walks that give information on walks to six hilltop views that provide far-reaching views of the Somerset levels, including the wonderful view of Brent Knoll and the Bristol Channel from Draycott Sleights Nature Reserve.
And finally... a few things we're looking forward to in 2015:
The extension of the Coleridge Way from Porlock to Lynmouth, adding a beautiful section (via Oare and lovely Watersmeet) to what's already a fantastic multi-day walk. Combine with a return to Porlock along the South-West Coast Path for a superb four- or five-day trip. The extension of the Norfolk Coast Path from Cromer to Sea Palling is also great news. >> coleridgeway.co.uk
Confirmation of extra government funding to speed up opening of England Coast Path by 2020 - all 3,000 miles of coastline accessible to walkers! >> ramblers.org.uk/what-we-do/news/2014/december/coastal-path-funding.aspx
The successful five-year Great Crane Project is to reintroduce cranes to the Somerset Levels finishes in 2015. >> thegreatcraneproject.org.uk/project
Improvements to the Eurostar services:
New Eurostar service to Geneva, which means it is just 6 hours to Geneva for access to the Alps... the journey travels from London and Ashford to the centre of Lyon in just over four and a half hours, to Avignon in under six hours, and Marseille in just over six hours. Tickets for the new year-round route start at £89 return for Lyon and £99 return for Avignon and Marseille, with up to five services a week, depending on the time of year.
Eurostar's upgraded fleet that will boost seat numbers by 20%:
Posted by Richard Hammond
A VERY HAPPY 2015 FROM ALL OF US AT GREENTRAVELLER