This isn’t Italy ! August 2020

It seemed a good move to organise a short break in the run-up to the Bank Holiday, and as it wouldn’t be a holiday if we didn’t visit a few wineries, we pottered east across the South Downs to visit three very different English Sparkling wine producers, en route for Romney Marshes.

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There are dozens of recently planted vineyards along the southern strip of England from Kent to Cornwall, all producing increasingly high-quality and expensive wines, for what at the moment seems a relatively small market. What would a sparkling wine lake look like? A huge jacuzzi or bubblebath?

It is unsettling seeing vineyards grace very distinctively English-looking countryside which until very recently were either arable mixed farming or grazing land, and the grey, wet days we travelled re-inforced this mildly jarring effect. We arrived at Wiston in a deluge, (eventually; it’s not just Italians who don’t do signage!) but unlike Italy the swirling ground water wasn’t going anywhere for days.

The view from Rathfinny of Cuckmere Haven, and the Seven Sisters beyond

We were the only guests staying in the George, a very traditional pub in picturesque Henfield, newly open for visitors post-lockdown, and trying so hard to keep us all safe that the beer in the evening as well as the tea next morning tasted of Milton sterilising fluid. Covid didn’t stand a chance!  

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This must be a worry to maintain – and sweep!

We were heading for Dungeness and beyond to stay in the small, vaguely art deco Romney Bay House Hotel on the sea’s edge at Littlestone. Our room had views in all directions and the constant sound of the sea.

The couple who bought what had once been the home of an american heiress, built in 1927, both have an haut cuisine background, moved away from London 20 years ago and have run the hotel with its very fine food tradition since 2003. The salt and the wind make the marsh landscape bleak and its sheep (and golfers) hardy. A fantastic birthday venue!

We took the folding bikes – it’s VERY flat – and cycled up and down the tidal defences and then south to Dungeness, towards the two lighthouses and the power station. We had visited the area a dozen years ago to admire Derek Jarman’s fisherman’s hut and the extraordinary garden on which he had worked during his slow decline. And of course we wanted to see it again.

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We moved on from this well-preserved and touching monument towards the power station, passing the tarred Britannia pub, the two lighthouses – one tarred, one pristine white – both de-commissioned)  and the terminus of the Dymchurch narrow gauge railway, enjoying the following wind and sea air as we cycled. 

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I wanted to see Rye Bay (on the other side of the huge gravelspit which is constantly eroded by the tide and reinforced by the Council.) This gave us a very fine view of the power station, David, the RSPB hide as well as the sea.

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This meant of course securing the bikes and clambering up towards the RSPB hide, inconveniently locked ( to keep covid out of course). It was the August Bank Holiday weekend, and as the photos show, the weather was succeeding in keeping infection rates low and beaches relatively quiet.

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We returned to where we had left our bikes, securely locked to a convenient  road sign. And guess what happened next? 

The lock – of ‘gold’ standard and its diameter easily a centimetre of hardened steel  – refused to open. Yes, we had the key, but it didn’t work. After ten minutes of trying we considered our options. Very limited. No oxy-acetylene cutter to hand; no car; ten miles from a very small town; a dodgy signal and a bank holiday under way. Just how much would the Fire and Rescue Service charge for a call-out?

In the end, we phoned a very kind bike shop owner in New Romney  who heroically set off towards us in his van, armed with his trusty hacksaw, a large hammer and some UB40, though as he said, without much optimism.

As David awaited him by the landmark lighthouse (black, not white) I resorted to an old-fashioned technique: a very large cobble dropped on the mechanism from a very great height. Several times. And then miraculously the key worked. 

As a friend said – a stone age technology for state-of-the-art bikes in clear view of a twentieth century Nuclear Power Station. And nobody stopped to ask if they were mine to liberate! 

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Relieved, we watched the Dymchurch small gauge railway come and go. The next challenge was finding food. God bless enterprising fish stall holders, fresh fish and camping cooking equipment. Delicious. 

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The wind in our faces made the homebound journey very, very hard work but our spontaneous lunch, good fortune and narrow escape kept us going. 

We arrived back at the hotel; changed and headed off for Great Dixter, and the late Christopher Lloyd’s former birthplace, lifelong home, and garden.

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Having booked a time to visit we were loathe to be late, and re-entered a world we have admired several times before – now in the capable hands of Fergus Garrett, Lloyd’s last and faithful Head Gardener. The influence this garden has exercised over our own garden styles is all too obvious…

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After all this excitement we headed for The Curlew in Northiam, reviewed recently by Grace Dent in The Guardian. Eating at 18.00 did seem odd, but as life has become very strange lately it’s wise to roll with the punches. Small dishes; any number, any order; innovative and very enjoyable.

The following day we drove home via Hastings to have lunch with and to congratulate a newly qualified MW and his partner, both of whom were raised in Easingwold in North Yorkshire. Mike had provided us with some of the introductions to the wineries we had visited.

Thank you and congratulations, MIke!

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