Monday, October 13, 2014

Sublime Sweden is Full of Surprises

Tracing the steps of the notorious 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared, discovering sublime Swedish cuisine (the best kept culinary secret in the world), soaking up idyllic countryside in Sormland, jumping aboard a boat and zooming across the tranquil Baltic Sea to hike in a lush island forest, staying the night in an historic castle, visiting grand palaces, viewing the world’s largest collection of sparkling vintage cars and antique juke boxes, delving into the intriguing history of the Swedish monarchy (Britain is not the only country with a colourful royal lineage!) and to cap it off visiting the famous Cake Castle (yes we died and ascended to heaven!) added up to a magical mystery tour, a feast for the senses, I will be raving about for years to anyone who’ll listen!

To let you into a little secret, I didn’t know much about Sweden before this illuminating foray into the Nordic paradise, but now I’m hopelessly hooked and yearning for more!

What made this four-day sojourn so extraordinary? We were a group of seven wide-eyed gals on a press trip writing for various publications and privileged to have an eloquent and knowledgeable tour guide, Elisabeth Daude, who brought to life Swedish culture and history with captivating charm!

So you want to know more, right? Of course you do. So here goes…

I am still awe-struck by the fact I can happily sit and read on a plane and in just two hours I am transported to another country! This is not the Magic Faraway Tree fantasies of my childhood but the reality of our 21st century lifestyle. So with childlike wonder, courtesy of the sleek Arlander Express, we find ourselves wandering the cobblestone streets of bustling Stockholm, set right on the glistening harbour. Right away I learn that Sweden is an archipelago of thousands of islands on the Baltic Sea (Who knew?)

The Old Town is peacefully free of traffic so tourists and locals can stroll through charming
laneways lined with colourful shops bursting with traditional crafts and aromatic bakeries. The famous Nobel Museum is a Stockholm favourite and we view the city palace of King Gustaf and Queen Silvia. Like our British royal family, the Swedish Royals have several magnificent palaces throughout the country, many open to the public.

As we scurry across the bridge to the elegant Hotel Reisen, swarms of tall, slim, good-looking Swedes on bicycles cheerfully glide past on their evening commute. We discover many hundreds more locals, towering blue-eyed blondes with perfect posture, enjoying a late summer Thursday night out in the lively, immensely popular Taverna Brillo restaurant where we are delighted to find ourselves that evening dining on the tasty creations of award-winning chef, Magnus Nilsson.

From this gourmet initiation, the irresistible Swedish desserts become my downfall, as I plummet spectacularly off my Diet perch into the hedonistic pleasure of rich chocolate mousse with homemade salted caramel ice cream! Bliss!

On Friday morning, after a Scandinavian breakfast banquet, we gather in the lobby to meet Elisabeth, our guide with Sormland Tourism, and our kindly driver Sven-Gunnar who loads our luggage into the neat little 22-seater bus for the drive to the impressive Sparreholms Castle on beautiful Lake Baven.

 Another form of bliss, as we cruise through the genteel countryside, a pastel patchwork of meadows, forest and lakes dotted with cheerful yellow timber cottages and rust coloured farm houses, I am absorbed in the amusing adventures of Allan Karlsson, the mild-mannered centenarian who escaped out the window of the Old People’s home in Malmkoping, wearing his pee-soaked slippers. It turns out that Allan throughout his long life of accidental travel around the globe managed to change the course of history!

What double pleasure to be reading this quirky novel in the very same region where the decrepit hero and his gang of cohorts drove their yellow get-away bus crammed with Sonya, the circus elephant!

At Sparreholms Slott we are warmly welcomed by the manager and shown around the opulent castle brimming with exquisite furnishings and unique pretty hand-painted ceramic stoves. The massive dining room, superb conference room and beautiful guest rooms treat visitors from all over the world to an experience of pure luxury with the added bonus of some surprising museums.

We stroll through the oak groves on the tranquil lake to a huge showroom that houses a rare collection of vintage and classic cars and carriages lovingly collected by proud owner, Helge Karinen over four decades. The gleaming vehicles, in impeccable condition, are a sheer delight. Car enthusiasts would be in Seventh Heaven spending hours purring over these beauties!

And there’s more! We explore the fascinating juke box collection, which takes us on a journey through the musical eras of the Antique Age, Silver Age and Golden Age through the development of music boxes, phonographs and gramophones to the jukeboxes of the 50s. These polished machines are, like the cars, in immaculate condition and working order and a treat for any music lover.

And for horsey people this grand estate even offers a celebrated equestrian centre with world-class training and competitions.

Over a tasty lunch our group enthuses about how this unique attraction would appeal to British tourists of all ages and special interest clubs; car enthusiasts, music lovers and horse riders would have the time of their lives!

The lovely Asa Malmqvist from Swedish Tourism has joined our group. It is Asa who designed our tour and full marks for the fascinating variety and interesting attractions she has managed to draw together.

Well-sated we pile in the mini-bus and head for Malmkoping, a close knit community of 1700 residents put on the map by author Jonas Jonasson who chose this quaint little village for the setting of his wildly popular novel, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window and Disappeared. The captivating book has sold eight million copies in 45 languages and been made into a $50 million movie! 

We meet dedicated local, An-Louise Olsson who works as a volunteer showing visitors around her beloved village. She leads us to the Old People’s Home where the rebellious birthday boy stepped feebly out the window and shuffled his way to the Bus Stop where the misadventure began!

We travel to the Byringe train station in the forest, today the home of a delightful couple who cheerful pose for snaps. There’s something about this endearing novel that brings a smile to your face! You just can’t help but get caught up in Allan’s escapades! 

On the way to our next destination we make a lakeside stop-off for ‘fika’, the Swedish tradition of afternoon coffee or tea and delicious cake!

What comes next is so unexpected! We are staying overnight at a castle no less! The Hedenlunda Slott in Flen is a magnificent stately mansion offering luxurious accommodation just a stone’s throw from what has to be the finest restaurant I’ve ever experienced!

Discovering a Food and Wine Paradise

Kung Blacke restaurant sits on a shimmering lake surrounded by bountiful farmlands, which provide fresh daily produce for the table while the idyllic Blaxsta vineyards and superb winery produce award-winning wines and guests can stay at the exclusive Blaxsta hotel!

This impressive estate is every chef’s dream. It is, in fact, the dream come true and creation of master chef and wine-maker extraordinaire, Goran Amnegard who has transformed the historic buildings over many years into Sweden’s first winery and vineyard.

We are delighted to have Goran, dressed in his fancy wine print pants and chef’s coat, as our flamboyant and charismatic host. He has us enthralled enthusing eloquently about his unique method of wine-growing in Sweden.

Huddled in the vineyard at sunset, Goran explains that Swedish wine rivals French wine due to the combination of long hours of daylight over summer and mineral-rich soil. Blaxstra winery produces ‘icewine’ from grapes harvested in December when the temperature is minus seven degrees.

He also sheds light on why some ‘industrial wines’ result in thumping headaches and harrowing hangovers. Many cheap wines are concocted in a matter of minutes and loaded with sulphur and other additives. In contrast, Goran allows the pure grapes to ferment naturally over many months in oak, chestnut or cherry barriques in his 16th century barn to produce complex layers of exquisite flavours.    

We were treated to Goran’s award-winning Vidal sweet dessert wine along with silk-smooth Merlot and sensational Chardonnay to accompany the tantalising four-course meal of fresh, unique delights I have never eaten before!

For starters, our palates were teased with creamy truffle mousse made from the delicacies sourced from nearby forests followed by an exquisite array of scrumptious seasonal vegetables, just some of the 700 varieties that grow in the surrounding lavish vegetable gardens.

The meat eaters dine on succulent venison while the vegetarians savour 
moose milk pie! I didn’t know it was possible to milk a moose however Goran explains that a lady farmer from north of the region runs a herd of the mighty beasts and supplies him fresh creamy moose milk and cheese! 

Chef Goran joins us to regale us with fascinating tales of his international career from Italy to Canada to the heartland of Sweden and if I was a talent spotter I would say this entertaining character with his twinkling blue eyes and charming wit could be the next famous Celebrity Chef! Move over Jamie, Gordon and Gino!

I heartily recommend that chefs, gourmets and wine connoisseurs from every corner of the globe make a trip to Sweden to see this splendid culinary heaven and experience the Goran magic!

The trip could have ended there and I would have floated home euphoric however after a snuggly night in the castle and another royal breakfast, we hit the road for something completely different.

Our lovely Asa had organised a boat ride to the island of Savo for a hike through the picturesque Somerlandsleden Trail. The hike was invigorating but not overly strenuous taking in the pristine forest and views across the steely bay. We capped off our exertions with a lunch of creamy carrot soup and freshly baked focaccia prepared by the charming couple whom manage the immaculate cottages on the island where Swedish families and international visitors spend their tranquil summer holidays.

Our handsome boatman zooms us giggling girls across the vast expanse of the Baltic Sea to stay at relaxing Trosa Stadshotell and Spa at the picture postcard harbour town of Trosa. Our guide Elisabeth is excited to lead us to Marsipangarden, her favourite café bursting with lavish cakes and chocolates for a spot of Swedish Fika. I choose the chocolate nougat slice while coveting the blackberry cheesecake! After such indulgence, it seems only right to try out the sauna and warm pools in the soothing spa. The sumptuous turn on a gourmet meal of seasonal delicacies and fine wine before a heavenly night’s sleep. 

Sunday, the final day of our magical tour, we reluctantly depart the pretty, tranquil town but there are more delights in store! Sven-Gunnar guides our little bus into the banks of Lake Malaren in Mariefred for an awe-inspiring visit to the Gripsholm Castle, built in 1537, to view the stunning rooms and thousands of intriguing portraits of the Swedish royal characters going back centuries. Elisabeth cleverly brings to life every portrait with stories about the eccentric personalities and politics. British history buffs would relish a tour of this fascinating castle brimming with priceless artworks.

There is just one culinary challenge left. A tough assignment but someone had to do it! So we all bravely volunteer to visit the Cake Castle! I kid you not. Such a fairytale place really does exist. In fact 250,000 visitors from around the world every year flock to experience the sweet delights of
Taxinge Slott. After a filling lunch we are faced with the agonising dilemma of choosing from a lavish array of luscious cakes and slices from Northern Europe’s largest cake buffet!

Our charming hostess shows us around the beautiful castle, which is open for weddings and conferences and lazy Sunday afternoons where, just an hour south of Stockholm, visitors can taste the best cakes in the world!

Our beguiling adventure in Sweden was full of warm hospitality, luxurious accommodation, culinary pleasures, colourful history, beautiful countryside and almost all the unexpected twists and turns of our 100-year-old hero who climbed out the window. When will you escape to Sweden and be pleasantly surprised?

Sörmland factbox

(Visit Sörmland website is currently only in Swedish but the UK version is launching in November)
Getting there
British Airways, SAS and Norwegian all operate flights from London to Stockholm Arlanda. SAS also operates flights from Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh to Arlanda.
In addition, Ryanair flies from London Stansted to Stockholm Skavsta in the heart of Sörmland.
Hotel Reisen
A double room with breakfast costs from SEK 1,276 per night
Hedenlunda Slott
A double room with breakfast costs from SEK 1,990 per night / +46 157 754 00 .
Trosa Stadshotell & SPA
A double room with breakfast costs from SEK 1,990 per night
Spa entry costs SEK 275 per person / +46 156 170 70
Taverna Brillo
Mains start from SEK 175  / +46 8 51977800
Blaxsta Vineyard
A four course tasting menu with wines costs SEK 1090 / +46 70 483 46 90
Marsipangården (Trosa)
Taxinge slott – the “Cake castle”
Sparreholms Slott
The museums cost SEK 80 per person for a guided tour of one museum, SEK 150 per person for two museums and SEK 230 per person for three museums. 
Double room with breakfast starts from SEK 1,745 per night. 
100 Year Old Man tour in Malmköping
Tours cost from SEK 200 per person and are offered as required by the tourist office in Malmköping. To book a tour, call + 46 157 43 09 96 or visit for more information.
Sörmlandsleden trail
For more information on the walking trail, see
This is the Sävö island section:
Trosa Shipping Company
Boat tour around the Trosa archipelago starts from SEK 250 per person
Gripsholm Castle
Adult entrance to the castle costs SEK 120, children aged 17 and under are free. See here for information on opening times and guided tours.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Seven Wonders Are Closer Than You Think!

Together with a group of journalists on a press tour, I visited these delightful attractions in the summery month of June 2014.

Check out my feature on 50 Connect, an online publication for active people over 50. The popular site boasts 1.6 million unique visitors a month! 

Retired or semi-retired couples can enjoy interesting day trips through the week instead of being chained to the desk, as Diane Priestley discovered!

A “wonderful” mid-week treat for outdoorsy Over 50s is exploring the Seven Wonders of the Weald! You don’t need to traverse the world to discover these marvels; they are as close as the beautiful southeast county of Kent, on the High Weald, officially recognised as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. 

My husband and I enjoyed a jaunt to two of the awe-inspiring Wonders: Groombridge Place in Royal Tunbridge Wells and nearby Scotney Castle in Lamberhurst, the newest additions to the stunning line-up of Weald Wonders.

Groombridge offers mature-aged visitors the tranquillity and fascination of strolling through beautiful, award-winning walled gardens with elegant statues and water features surrounding the impressive 17th century manor house.

The magical, well-tended gardens are dazzling with the colours and fragrance of roses, wisteria, tulips and pink cherry blossom and much more. 

The Apostle Walk, bordered on each side by 12 drum yews, dates back to the original planting in 1674.

The delightful White Rose Garden, featuring over 20 varieties of white rose, commemorates the 200-year ownership of the estate by the Waller family while the Secret Garden is a reflective sanctuary of azaleas overhanging a tinkling stream.

After roaming the gardens, we took a leisurely boat ride on the canal with cheery boatman Nick to view some of the more adventurous attractions, ideal if you are entertaining the grandchildren. The kids can play on giant tree swings, explore Crusoe’s World and compete on the giant chess set.

The grandkids will love the animals including peacocks, goats, alpacas, Shetland ponies, the world famous zedonk (half donkey, half zebra) and wild deer in the 220 acres of forest, carpeted in bluebells in the spring.
Perhaps the most exciting attraction for all ages is the Birds of Prey display featuring eagles, hawks, owls and falcons. The spectacular shows are staged twice daily Tuesday to Sunday and Bank holiday Mondays.
After all that action, you will be ready to relax and dine at the friendly restaurant and browse the shop, full of interesting home wares and locally grown wines.
Replenished with a hearty Ploughman’s lunch and refreshing Biddenden apple juice, we drove to the next intriguing attraction, Scotney Castle. The 14th century moated castle,
prized by the National Trust, is recognised as the fairytale image on chocolate boxes, surrounded by romantic gardens.
The glorious wild gardens are a magnificent example of the ‘picturesque style’; bursting with vegetation of varied colours, shapes and sizes over many levels. Keen gardens will be in heaven! We were lucky to be shown around by Head Gardener, Richard, who has worked at Scotney Castle for 32 years.
And visitors who come prepared for a decent walk can explore no less that 770 acres of enchanting woodland and venture inside the original castle, now considered an extravagant “folly” to the new country house built in 1837 by the Hussey family. Visitors can also explore the eclectic rooms, which are full of family history and captivating tales.
We explored the walled garden that grows a luscious range of vegetables, fruits and flowers for the restaurant and house, inspiring everyone to grow their own!
We finished off a delightful day with afternoon cream tea in the charming tearoom, while planning a return trip to explore the vast woodlands. It would indeed take many visits to Scotney Castle to fully appreciate the beautiful gardens and fascinating castle.
And my husband and I have five more of the Seven Wonders of the Weald to explore over the summer; the Biddenden Vineyards, Marle Place Garden and Gallery, the Kent & East Sussex Railway,  Chiddingstone Castle and Gardens and the historical spa town of Royal Tunbridge Wells.
As all these attractions are too much to do in one day, visitors from other parts of the UK and abroad can stay at a delightful Freedom holiday home.
Now that’s summer sorted! It’s hard to believe that these Seven Wonders are right on our doorstep in the idyllic Garden of England. How wonderful! 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Soaking up the Delights of Devon and Cornwall in sunny May

We took a jaunty four-day car trip, kicking off on Tuesday May 13th to delightful Devon and quaint Cornwall with my sister-in-law Christine visiting from Australia. We were blessed with the most glorious Goldilocks conditions (not too hot, not too cold) with dazzling blue skies and gentle sunshine and a crisp breeze (to combat any risk of overheating us mature-aged ladies!) Who says England does not have beautiful weather?

First stop was Stonehenge in Wiltshire. The ancient monument is classed as one of the wonders of the world and the English Heritage has just completed an impressive new Visitor Centre and audio tour that we were lucky enough to experience crowd-free mid-week.

With Andrew at the wheel we drove on to the charming fishing village of Ilfracombe that sits right on the cliff facing the Atlantic Ocean. We were stunned to see the new addition of Verity, a dramatic 66-foot bronze statue of a beautiful pregnant woman representing truth and justice, created by sculptor Damien Hirst. She is simply breathtaking and inspiring!

That night we stayed at The Towers with charming and friendly hostess Tricia, which really added to the pleasure of our stay. I totally recommend this charming guesthouse with such lovely décor and mesmerising views overlooking the ocean.

Tricia suggested we call in on the delightful village of Boscastle near Bude for Devonshire tea, which was an excellent idea as the indulgent morning tea/early lunch was yummy and we wandered along the tinkling stream that flows through the historic shops and homes.

We drove to the enchanting Port Isaac, made extra special by being the setting for the popular BBC series Doc Martin. As we are all keen fans of endearing show we were thrilled to walk the narrow cobblestone streets of the village and see the Doc’s cottage, the familiar harbour and climb the grassy cliffs to capture the magnificent coastal views and swirl in Julie Andrews-style singing a hearty rendition of the Sound of Music under the vivid blue skies!

That night we dined at the sumptuous Camelot Castle  in Tintagel, the birthplace of King Arthur, and we were unexpectedly entertained by a couple from Liverpool at the nearby table. Amateur comedian Ross regaled us with stories of his travels and celebrity encounters and we laughed until our full tummies ached!

Our final destination was the captivating Cornish coastal village of St Ives, where Andrew and Christine’s mother spent many happy childhood holidays. It was a nostalgic and emotional visit for them seeing where their mum played as a child on the sandy beach, the colourful fishing boats and lazy pier, the cobblestone streets and pretty shops and cafes, still buzzing with seaside visitors.The Wallen family would ride the train from Crewe in Cheshire for some fun in the sun in the 1930s.

We stayed at the grand Treloyhan Manor Hotel set amid tranquil gardens and a short drive to bustling St Ives. I confess we indulged in chunky Cornish pasties on the beach!

That evening we took glorious sunset photos of the harbour and as a special treat for me we ate at the superb gourmet vegetarian restaurant, Spinacios. Even the meat-eaters agreed that the super healthy plant-based meals were divinely delicious! Even so, Andrew insisted
on an after-dinner ice cream cone and a cheeky seagull swooped over his shoulder knocked the glob of icecream to the ground and swallowed it in one gulp!

Andrew was keen to head straight for home on Friday so we drove seven hours straight, with a brief stop for lunch at Stonehenge, back to Ashford Kent in time to pick up Honey from the kennels. And a jolly good trip it was!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Paths of Remembrance Evoke Powerful Emotions

I joined a group of writers for a weekend tour in Nord and Pas de Calais in Northern France to commemorate the start of the First World War 
We toured historical sites from Friday April 25th to Sunday 27th, 2014. Visitors from around the world can share the commemoration of WW1 in France from 2014 to 2018.
 Here is the feature I wrote for 
50 Connect

The misery and insanity of war can seem like an inaccessible, nebulous thunder cloud of black statistics until you focus on one specific reckless battle and the poignancy of the personal perspective of a sensitive young soldier from Shropshire.

Wilfred Owen, just 25, felt safe and secure holed up with other officers of the Second Manchesters Regiment in the smoky, rowdy cellar of a cottage in the tranquil French village of Ors when he scrawled an eloquent letter to his fretful mother, dated October 31, 1918.

Usually maudlin, this cheerful letter was full of joy and comfort as the horror of war was coming to end and the men were dreaming of home.

Owen writes: “It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas yourself, dearest Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside and the hollow crashing of the shells. There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines. I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here…you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.”

But four days later the gifted young poet and forty other youthful English soldiers were dead, tragically, needlessly, just a week before the Allies’ Victory on Armistice on November 11. 

Soldiers must obey dumb decisions by commanding officers. When ordered to construct a floating bridge and cross the Sambre-Oise Canal, the soldiers were hopelessly exposed to the German units entrenched on the opposite bank at La Motte Farm, who opened fire with machine guns. Amongst the fatal causalities was Wilfred Owen. 

Here we are, almost one hundred years later, a group of seven curious British travellers, dangling mobile phones, cameras and gadgets, standing mesmerised and teary, in that same cellar listening to the resonant voice of acclaimed actor Kenneth Branagh reading Owen's last letter. His innocent words land like bricks on the heart.

We are transported back a century and emotions are raw. Our minds are racing with images of terrifying battle scenes and courageous young men living their last moments with gusto, before sacrificing their futures for unborn generations. That’s us; the grateful living.

The jolly little rural cottage was red brick with jaunty window shutters when Owen sheltered in the smoky cellar but these days the memorial is stark white with a dramatic curved ramp leading to a modern museum with illuminated clear walls adorned with the hand written lines of Owen’s evocative war poetry. And there’s that aching audio again turning eyes wet with tears. 

Our little tour group of whimsical writers led by Sara from PR agency, four bgb and Ellie from MYFERRYLINK crossed the English Channel to Calais in style and comfort on Friday afternoon and drove in two cars to the Hotel d' Angleterre in Arras, a charming, resilient city lovingly rebuilt after being severely bombed in both wars. 

My spacious, elegant suite with a giant, comfortable bed ensured I woke up fresh and eager to walk in the footsteps of Wilfred Owen, one of the Remembrance Trails of Northern France, created for the Centenary of the start of the First World War in 1914.

After our emotional experience in the La Maison Forestiere, the kindly Mayor of Ors, Jacques Duminy, devoted to promoting the unique memorial, accompanies us on the seven-kilometre hike through pretty woodlands to take in the languid canal where the tragic battle was fought.

We stroll through the village where the soldiers, including Scotsmen in kilts, Aussies in slouch hats and Indians in turbans, fraternised with locals. We visit the simple graveyard where over a hundred Allied soldiers are buried and the local cemetery where Owen’s modest headstone is one of many.

The easy trails weave through idyllic woodlands of skinny trees knee-deep in carpets of bluebells; their branches shimmering with delicate new leaves in crisp air filled with birdsong. In this peaceful sanctuary, we contemplate the aberration of war’s chaos and destruction. The Wilfred Owen walk has transformed us all into poets!

With a stinging blister on my toe and rumbling tummy, I hobble off to join our group for a hearty lunch of traditional dishes in the rustic cafe, l’Estaminet de l’Hermitage in Ors.

And then we change gears into art connoisseurs to visit Louvre-Lens museum, a modern regional art gallery with an astonishing collection of antiquities, a regional annex of Paris’ famous Louvre.

A fascinating day is capped off with a superb, delectable dinner and much lively discussion and laughter at La Faisanderie, a Baroque-style restaurant set in a brick-walled cellar in elegant Arras. 

If immersion in the pathos of Wilfred Owen was a profound experience, I am completely taken by surprise on Sunday morning. Nothing could have prepared me for the emotional impact of what came next!

At the Wellington Quarry we slap on audio headsets and safety helmets and, led by our knowledgeable guide Francois, descend 20 meters to a secret underground city.

In the winter of 1916, work gangs of 500 determined and courageous New Zealand Tunnellers, using only picks powered by muscle, sweat and hard labour, dug out 12 miles of tunnels over six months. These tunnels, cut through chalky stone, are not tiny rabbit warrens but cavernous corridors and rooms that housed 24,000 Allied soldiers from all over the world for eight days before the most surprising attack of the First World War.

At Exit 10, the Tommies, multitudes of brave young men suppressing their terror, emerged from this secret underground base to burst into No Man’s Land a few meters from the German camps in the morning of April 9, 1917 to fight and win the famous Battle of Arras; a mass slaughter. Over two gory months, 4000 men lost their lives every day. The hard-won victory stopped the German troops advancing into France.

Visitors are enthralled to watch black and white films of life underground and hear the
accented voices of soldiers as they bantered, trying to preserve humour and optimism, normality and dignity, living off canned ‘monkey meat’, smoking pipes, playing cards, taking turns at icy showers and shaving their whiskers, lining up for stinking latrines and sleeping huddled with army rugs in timber bunks set into freezing stone walls.

With our imaginations in over-drive visualising this heroic super human mission, my fellow travellers and I are gob smacked and intrigued by Francois’ vivid descriptions as we weave through the eerie, illuminated labyrinth. The sombre mood is lightened by colourful displays of provisions, graffiti and funny drawings and the nostalgic mixture of Kiwi and English place names the tunnellers and soldiers gave the myriad chambers to conjure the comforts of home.

Feeling emotionally and mentally drained, I’m not sure if I can take much more of this historic heartache. But there’s more. We meet up with two charming young women from the Tourism Office Notre Dame de Lorette Church at Artois.

The impressive memorial commemorates the Battle of Lorette that lasted 12 months and claimed 100,000 victims. The imposing Lantern Tower, erected in 1921, is 150 feet high and at night it’s beacon-light revolves five time every minute across the surrounding countryside.

The Chapel is a massive, stark building from the outside but inside the Romanesque and Byzantine decor is awe-inspring; full of grace and beauty, with immense mosaic images and vivid stained glass windows.

Surrounding the two impressive buildings, the French National War Cemetery contains the bones of over 40,000 soldiers, marked by dramatic rows of white crosses.

Luckily a delicious lunch at the convivial, rustic Estaminet de Lorette provides respite from the daunting vision of graveyards. My blueberry tart is heavenly!

By mid afternoon the weather is turning bleak with a cold blanket of grey haze and drizzle providing the perfect atmosphere to visit Vimy Ridge to experience life in the trenches during the bitter winter of 1917 where all four Canadian divisions, fighting together for the first time, stormed the seven kilometre long Ridge, a strategic German stronghold.

The victory came at the enormous cost of over 10,000 casualties including 3,598 Canadians,
whom are remembered amongst the 66,000 Canadians who died in the First World War at the Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada. The astonishing Monument of twin white pylons is carved with thousands of names of brave soldiers.      
Our weekend tour packed in so much and opened my eyes and heart to my grandfather’s courageous generation who sacrificed their lives for freedom.

Wearily we pile in our cars and drive to Calais port for the pleasant return trip across the Channel, chatting about our impressions and insights and somehow feeling older and wiser.

I recommend the World War tours in Northern France to humans of all ages in the hope that enough empathy and compassion for the brave victims of war and the loss and grief suffered by millions of parents, siblings, sweethearts, wives and children will lead to a passionate commitment to a love of humanity and peaceful co-existence.   

- Fact box – 

MyFerryLink operates 16 daily crossings on the Dover-Calais route. Fares for a car and up to four passengers start from just £36 each way online for any duration travel and from £29 return for a day trip. To find the best fares, visit or call 0844 2482 100 

Nord-Pas de Calais Tourist Board

For more information on the Nord-Pas de Calais, visit

Wilfred Owen / Maison Forestière in Ors
Entry to the house is free of charge. Open Monday to Saturday (except Tuesdays) from 10am to 1pm, and 2-5pm. Also open the first Sunday of every month from 2-5pm.
For more information on the Maison Forestière in Ors, and to download the Wilfred Owen trail, visit

Louvre Lens
Entry to the Galerie du Temps is free. Other exhibitions may be payable.
A new temporary exhibition dedicated to the ‘Disasters of War’ will take place from 28 May – 6 October 2014 and costs €3.

Wellington Quarry
La Carrière Wellington runs regular guided visits daily for €6.80 per adult and €3.10 per child. To buy tickets, visit

Vimy Ridge and Notre Dame de Lorette Necropolis
Entry to all sites are free of charge, and Canadian volunteers will act as a guide to Vimy Ridge free of charge. For information on these and other war sites in the Nord-Pas de Calais area, visit

Another good site is

War history enthusiasts and techie people will be thrilled with the new Diaries 14-18 app (

Hôtel d’Angleterre

We stayed at the Hôtel d’Angleterre. A double room starts from €104 per night on a bed and breakfast basis.

La Faisanderie
On the Saturday night, we ate at La Faisanderie in Arras.

Estaminet de Lorette
On Sunday lunchtime, we ate at the Estaminet de Lorette