Spring finds me driving the rural backroads of south Cheshire.
I’m here on assignment for Telegraph Travel, writing a postcard from Cheshire as part of a series of articles by writers around the UK.
Each one is about an under-the-radar destinations for UK staycations with a sprinkle of celebratory stardust.
My journey took me to Nantwich, the historic market town, and the Combermere Estate on the Cheshire-Shropshire border.
I also visited the new Three Wrens gin distillery, where I met distillery dog, Rocky [pictured above].
Here’s a taster of my article:
The historic market town of Nantwich has all the history of county-hub Chester, albeit on a smaller scale.
The jumble of cobbled streets and half-timbered houses have hosted Norman lords, survived medieval fires, and been occupied by the Parliamentarian forces during the mid 1600s when Nantwich defied Chester, coming out against Charles I during the Civil War.
The Market Hall has been singing the praises of Cheshire Cheese since the town’s genteel Victorian era.
“I think visitors appreciate the slow-travel tranquillity of South Cheshire while being surprised by the quality of its local produce,” says Sarah Callander-Beckett, the owner and current lady of the manor at Combermere Abbey.
“This region is steeped in rural heritage but has moved with the times to offer high quality and an individual experience.”
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.
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.”
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.