For our season opener in 2014 we have come to The National Forest in the East Midlands. There were no trees here a few years ago. Now they have planted over eight million of them, and it seems to be a fantastic idea. Could there be any better way of revitalising a blighted, industrially scarred area? I can't think of one.
There’s a visitor centre a short walk from the site where we're staying, called Conkers. Costs about eight quid each to get in, thirty quid if you are a family of four. This gives you access to the trees, the coffee shop and to an indoor virtual forest walk. They have to make money somehow, but, wow, eight quid a head seems a bit heavy. I didn't realise I'd have to pay to see the trees. Some niggling worm is beginning to call attention to the potential for a gap between grand vision and reality. But okay, deep breaths. The short walk through the young forest to the visitor centre was pleasant enough and we don't have to do the commercial stuff, do we? The visitor centre itself is magnificent from the outside. I'm wondering how much they had to pay the architect. How many more trees they could have bought. But this isn't meant to be a moan. I am applauding vision,
But we chose to stay outside and do the three-and-a-half-mile way-marked Conkers Circuit. This takes you along the car park access road, down a trail beside the main road, then up the main road itself to a view-point overlooking the busy landfill site on the right and a pond on the left, that used to be a gravel pit. I’m being unfair. It is February. Maybe in the summer...The pond is okay, really. It is a good effort at turning something ugly into a recreational amenity. The path goes around the pond and when the trees grow and mature it could be quite pleasant. But half way round we’d seen enough so we took a lesser way-marked path to avoid the full pond circuit, and ended up in the access road between the landfill site and a quarry. There are signs all over warning of the need to wear work boots, hard hats and high-viz jackets; and telling walkers that they must stay off the road and use the path, which was a mud-slimed channel with a wire fence segregating it from the gravel trucks.
The warnings about the work boots were not made in jest. This is serious industrial terrain, and I'm wondering if the visionaries in DEFRA haven't quite covered all the bases yet.
We escaped with our lives, despite our lack of foresight in the high-viz department, then rejoined the main path alongside the goods railway back to the Conkers Visitor centre. A cup of tea would have been nice right then, but there’s still this thing about having to stump up over sixteen quid for both of us to get inside before gaining access to the cafe.So we made a cuppa in the caravan and saved a few bob.
Next day was better. Much better. We walked along the Ashby canal to see the Moira Furnace. They have done wonders with the canal, it's interesting and picturesque, and although I am not a fan of canal walks because they tend to be a bit straight, this walk was lovely. The furnace is impressive but the museum was closed (I would have been happy enough to pay the £2 to go in) But hey ho, there was plenty to see outside.
Sudbury Hall, is one of several National Trust properties around here. It is about half an hour away with a lovely tea room, beautiful grounds, a fascinating Museum of Childhood (with stuff from my own childhood, which is always a bit chilling to find in a museum), and a hall interior that was chock full of delights. And, as National Trust members, it was free. Wonderful. Here's the main staircase. The detail in the stone carving is breathtaking.
We did Sudbury on Friday afternoon. Then next day we went to Calke Abbey, and this is a strange and enticing place. The National Trust has decided to keep it in the decayed and crumbling state in which they found it, to show how some of the old stately homes went down the nick fast. There are rooms full of stuff. Collectable stuff. Hoarded stuff. Downright strange stuff. There's a room full of lamps, another with an alligator skull, and rooms crammed with stuffed birds and animals in no particular order. I loved some of the dark and moulding corridors with peeling paintwork. There's bags of atmosphere at Calke, and potential for stories. A creepy and wonderful place, worth visiting again and again, I think. Nice scones in the cafe, too.
Calke Abbey, looks normal from the outside.
A room full of old lamps
Underground passages leading to the brew house
...and a head in a box
So yeah, Calke Abbey. A winner. Must go back sometime.
I’m going to wind back, now, and mention our journey here. I know, I'm all out of sequence, but, just outside Nantwich there’s a giant straw Dalek in a field. I nearly ran the car off the road when I saw it. I had to do a U-turn and go back just to make sure I’d seen what I thought I’d seen. It’s a thing they do at Snugbury’s Ice Cream farm. Each year they build something big and amazing out of straw. They’ve had a straw Angel of the North, a straw Big Ben, a straw Meercat... It is inspired. The car park is free. Access to the Dalek is free. And it’s nice ice cream, too.