Category: Journalism

How to get a taste for autumn on a cider-tasting trip to Herefordshire

James Marsden is keen to introduce me to Big Mama.

She stands tall in the middle of a restored orchard, looking good for her 300 years, with her mother-tree branches heaving under the bounty of late-harvest perry pears.

I’ve joined James to gather the harvest by hand in Gregg’s Pit orchard, located near Ledbury.

The harvest [pictured above] starts in late September and, depending on the weather, lasts four to six weeks.

Herefordshire is the historical centre of Britain’s cider-making industry — and is in rude health given the renaissance of cider as a premium, organic product.

UK cider represents 45 per cent of the global cider market with orchards generating over £33m annually, according to The National Association of Cider Makers (NACM).

‘It’s labour-intensive work,’ says James, ‘but I work with nature, using the sun to influence the sugars.’

Historic connections 

Cider has been produced in Herefordshire since the medieval period with references to ‘sidir’, meaning ‘a strong drink’ found in the 1420 Wycliff Bible at Hereford Cathedral.

As cider challenged wine in fashionable circles during the 17th century, most Herefordshire farmhouses installed grindstones to press the Herefordshire Redstreak apples popularised by the area’s cider pioneer, Lord Scudamore.

Today the region remains the largest cider-producing county in the UK with around 20,000 acres under orchard, growing high-quality cider apples and perry pears.

I set out on an autumnal morning, the countryside dappled with spotlight sunbeams and bursting with ripe fruit, to explore the southern Redstreak Cider Circuit, a self-guided tour of the region’s apple-harvest heritage between Ledbury and Ross-on-Wye.

There’s also a Newton Wonder trail, a northern loop around Hereford, with both 45-mile circuits making for a gentle weekend exploring by bike or car.

The southern circuit pivots around the village of Much Marcle, with its 14th-century church dedicated to Saint Bartholomew.

It’s also home to both Gregg’s Pit and Westons Cider, the latter selling brands like Stowford Press and exporting to 40 countries.

Westons is the new face of the cider business: modern, large-scale and based around a visitor centre with a family restaurant.

I join the tour, poking my head into the distillery where huge wooden vats groan under the weight of fermenting fruit, and the visitors’ centre, which explains the history of British cider through historic cider bottles and labels.

Country roads

I later drive on along the country B-roads, the circuit leading me through villages made up of black-and-white buildings.

Many of the cider and perry producers on the circuit welcome visitors for orchard tours followed by an al-fresco or farm-barn tasting. Local cafes, restaurants and hotels, meanwhile, offer apple-themed menus throughout the harvest season.

Orchards have been part of Herefordshire’s landscape throughout history but while some producers have scaled up for the mass market, there are plenty of small-scale operators rediscovering the region’s organic cider-making origins.

Back at nearby Gregg’s Pit, I find James on his hands and knees, collecting pears with a headtorch as the light fades.

He makes a small volume of single-variety and blended ciders and perry drinks each year, using pure fruit juice and traditional methods, including a stone press in his garden.

When I pop my head around the door of the Vat House, the heady waft means the fermentation process is in full swing.

James, who is fond of cooking up an autumnal bean stew using Toulouse sausages and cider:

‘I’m trying to create a complex, distinctive drink and see it primarily as a food-pairing product.’

‘Herefordshire feels deep rural and that’s why I’ve made it my home,’ he adds as we sit in the back garden, the sun setting over the fields overlooking May Hill and the Cotswolds, with a glass of méthode champenoise bottle-fermented perry.

Cheers.

* This story first appeared in the Daily Mail.

Wales has a new Unesco World Heritage Site. Let’s use it wisely then.

Wales has a new Unesco World Heritage Site.

The industrial heritage of North Wales has just been named as the UK’s 33rd Unesco World Heritage Site.

The award reflects the international significance of Welsh slate in “roofing the 19th century world”.

It’s the fourth site in Wales alongside the castles of Edward I, the Blaenavon industrial landscape and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen.

The pockmarked, post-industrial landscape had been ‘slated’ for Unesco status since it was first nominated by the UK Government in 2018.

The bid focused on six disparate slate-mining areas, divided by mountain ranges.

These include the Penrhyn slate quarry at Bethesda, the Dinorwig quarry near Llanberis and Blaenau Ffestiniog’s slate mines [quarryman turned guide Brian Jones at Llechwedd pictured above].

Some of the attractions fall within the boundary of the Snowdonia National Park, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.

Roland Evans of Gwynedd Council, which led the bid partnership, is keen to use the win to entice visitors away from the national-park honeypots:

“The bid champions the social and economic regeneration of our slate valleys, restoring pride to those communities, and documenting their social history through community tourism.”

Read the rest of my feature via Telegraph Travel, Move over Taj Mahal, these Welsh slate quarries are just as fascinating.

Why Liverpool could survive loosing its Unesco World heritage status

It looks like an own goal for Liverpool — not Klopp’s team facing the wrath of The Kop but the announcement by Unesco that it could strip Liverpool of its World Heritage status.

The port city of Liverpool is currently one of 32 Unesco World Heritage sites in the UK. The area stretching along the city’s historic waterfront and onto St George’s Hall was granted World Heritage status in 2004.

Yet controversy has raged in recent years about a series of dockland developments, leading to Liverpool being placed “at risk” by Unesco in 2012.

The heritage body this week expressed further concerns about the Liverpool Waters regeneration scheme and plans for the new Everton football stadium in a former dockland site, citing the developments had resulted in

“serious deterioration and irreversible loss of attributes”.

The City Council hit back, saying some £1.5bn had been invested in upgrading Liverpool’s heritage assets.

Living city

The delisting would be a blow to the city, of course.

Post-industrial Liverpool has reinvented itself as a city of tourism, culture, and nightlife. Some 37m visitor arrivals each year contribute to an annual economic impact of £3.3bn for the city, according to pre-Covid figures from Marketing Liverpool.

The Covid-battered cruise industry has just set sail again with around 80 cruise calls planned this year, including Anthem of the Seas amongst other.

Liverpool has a proud maritime history, serving as a global port during the Industrial Revolution and a hub for transatlantic crossings at the turn of the 20th century. The city boasts 27 Grade I-listed buildings and is touchstone for Britain’s seafaring story.

In 1912, the Titanic disaster was even announced to the world from the balcony of what is now room 22 at the Signature Hotel, the former headquarters of the White Star Line company.

Laura Pye, Director of National Museums Liverpool, says the Unesco debate is more nuanced than a simple heritage-versus-regeneration trade off.

“We want future generations to learn about the city’s maritime heritage, of course, but Liverpool is a living, breathing city. It’s about finding new ways,” she says, “of using heritage to evolve.”

So, can sites survive a delisting? Two places so far met that fate: the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman and the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany.

There are currently 53 locations on its heritage danger list, including the Bolivian city of Potosi and the Everglades National Park in the United States.

Unesco also warned that Stonehenge could be added to the danger list at its 2022 review if plans to reroute the A303 road in Wiltshire are not modified. Yet, Covid aside, these destinations continue to draw visitors.

Moreover, Liverpool has an innate ability to rise phoenix-like from the ashes.

As a teenager, growing up in the Northwest of England, I saw Liverpool through the wilderness years of the Eighties, bowed and monochrome.

I also witnessed the green shoots of recovery when the International Garden Festival converted a former household tip into the UK’s first ever garden festival in 1984.

And I watched from the crowd gathered in front of St Georges Hall as the former Beatle, Ringo Starr, played live on the roof to launch Liverpool’s transformative tenure as the European Capital of Culture in 2008.

I find the city reborn these days. Tate Liverpool will host a summer-blockbuster Lucian Freud exhibition from July 24, hotels are relentlessly booked out for Premiership home games for both city teams and Bold Street bars are buzzing again with post-pandemic revellers.

Liverpool has some fight in her yet.

Seeking solutions

There’s one month left to reach a compromise before the final decision. Joanne Anderson, Liverpool’s newly elected mayor, says heritage and regeneration are not mutually exclusive and has invited Unesco to see the developments first-hand. She wrote on Twitter:

So, can Liverpool salvage its status as a maritime-heritage hub?

I hope so. It would be a shame for cruise arrivals, disembarking from the Cruise Terminal on the waterfront this July, to find that their gentle stroll through Liverpool’s Mersey-docked history, walking from the Three Graces to the Merseyside Maritime Museum in the Albert Dock, no longer gets the Unesco nod.

But I’m sure that Liverpool would rise again.

As Peter Colyer, Chair of the Liverpool City Region Tourist Guides Association, told me:

“Liverpool moves onwards and upwards. We would be saddened but the loss of status, but it would not impact significantly on visitor numbers.”

“The regeneration of Liverpool,” he added, “is an ongoing work in progress.”

So Unesco be damned. As any football fan knows, Liverpool may go one down at home sometimes — but they always fight back.

Read the edited story at Telegrpah Travel.

How to drink to English Wine Week at the Carden Park Hotel in Cheshire

Cheers! It’s English Wine Week.

I went to raise a glass at my nearest vineyard, nestled in the Cheshire countryside at the Carden Park Hotel and Spa estate [pictured above], for a national newspaper feature.

* The edited article was published yesterday in the Sun on Sunday. This is my original version.

The vines stretch out across the estate, the grapes ripening in the sunshine. By late October, they should plump and ripe to pick for the wine-making harvest.

But we’re not in Bordeaux or the Barossa Valley. With English Wine Week starting today, we have given up on the amber-list lottery in favour of a grape British staycation in rural Cheshire.

Wandering through the three-acre vineyard at Carden Park, the Cheshire country-estate hotel around 30 minutes from the city of Chester, feels like a walk in the Napa Valley wine country — without the airport scramble.

Carden Park is home to one of the more northerly of the 770-odd vineyards in England. The majority are found in the Southeast but there are also over 30 vineyards in Wales and nearly 90 across the Midlands and the North.

The vineyard produces on average 7,000 bottles of sparkling Carden Park Estate Reserve wine each year from its two grape varieties, Seyval Blanc and Pinot Noir.

“The sandy soil and microclimate in this part of Cheshire suit those grape varieties to produce the best yield,” says Estates Manager Peter Pattenden.

WINE TRAIL

English wine travel is also booming with an average of 4,449 monthly visits to vineyards according to Wine GB, the national association for the English and Welsh wine industry.

Some larger wineries, such as Chapel Down in Kent and Llanerch in South Wales, have championed wine weekends away, combining meals and accommodation with winery tours.

Carden Park currently offers a more informal, self-guided stroll through the vineyard. There are plenty of options, however, for a wine-pairing weekend of Great British food and drink with wide-screen Cheshire countryside views.

After we had explored the estate, we headed into nearby Chester to meet local wine expert Richard J. Smith. He founded the Wine School of Cheshire and recently opened The Tasting Room in Chester, offering tasting events and wine-appreciation classes.

English wines are, he says, finally give the French and new-world winemakers a run for their money at international tastings.

Traditionally, English wines were sparkling but Richard champions still wines, favouring new grape varieties, such as white-wine Bacchus, that grow well in cooler UK climates.

“The Romans brought vineyards to England but, when I tried my first English wine around 1990, I simply poured it down the sink,” says Richard.

“English wine has transformed in recent years with new winemakers, technology and, of course, the effects of climate change,” he adds, opening a bottle of Pinot Noir with hints of burnt raspberry from the Gusbourne Estate winery in Kent.

We also taste a glass of Atlantic Dry from the Camel Valley winery in Cornwall. It’s fruity and fragrant — perfect with white fish or goat’s cheese.

“Our wineries are often family owned and the grapes are hand-picked,” adds Richard, who has four tastings planned for English Wine Week, and runs regular summer-evening wine cruises on Chester’s River Dee with the local boat company, Chester Boat.

“I love the sense of personality this brings to the new generation of English and Welsh wines.”

FINE DINING

Back at Carden Park, it’s time for dinner at The Vines, Carden Park’s new fine-dining restaurant inspired by the estate’s vineyard. The plush-green decor and starched tablecloths create a genteel atmosphere, complemented by a fine collection of wines from around the world.

The hotel also recently opened Vertigo at Carden, new aerial adventure course, while the Spa at Carden is ideal for some next-day recovery after a glass of vino too many.

But, for now, we tuck into lemon sole with local asparagus and roast beef, all washed down with a bottle of Carden Park Estate Reserve Rosé, priced at £47 in the restaurant.

The speciality coffee-bean ice-cream, served with amoretti biscuit, is our new favourite desert.

As the sun sets over the vineyard, we finish our stay by raising a glass to the new breed of English winemakers taking home-grown wines to the world.

Read the story at Sun Travel.