Who needs a fancy portrait artist to immortalise their family? And who, in the age of austerity, can afford it anyway? Here's my answer – capturing the family (son 10, daughter 8, husband, 47) in my daughter's Christmas Hama beads set! Simply stick the plastic beads on the background, run an iron over it and hey presto, you've got a portrait and a drinks coaster in one! Kate Middleton, take note…
Latest Artwork from House of Holden. The first on the left is by my son Andrew, a dino obsessive. The middle drawing is a self-portrait by my daughter Isabella who is a keen Brownie. She also did the orchestra pic while watching the Proms in the summer. My favourite detail is the bust of Sir Henry Wood up on the right hand side!
Who doesn't? Here are some pictures from a recent visit: statues in the Parc Monceau (in which Proust once played with his hoop and stick) A visit to the Opera Garnier, the most over-the-top-glamorous theatre imaginable. Views from the flat in which we stayed – stupendous!
It was on a sunny Friday morning in Majestic Wine Warehouse that my problems began. I’d popped in to replenish our stocks of Cotes de Provence rose. When I handed over my debit card at the till, the assistant asked for all my details – address, phone number, email, mobile phone - to put on computer. When I asked why, as I didn’t need credit or to have the stuff delivered, he said it was so I could receive information about Majestic events, plus a copy of the magazine.
Luckily, my social life is full enough not to require recourse to things run by wine retailers and I buy more magazines than I ever get through, even if the Majestic one has Catherine Zeta Jones on the cover. So I politely turned him down. His evident amazement was less surprising than the implication that my act was unprecedented in the history of the store.
But why? Why should retail outlets casually expect us to divulge personal information; even more amazingly, why do we go along with it? We have, as a nation, fought for personal freedom and the rule of law in two world wars, we have fiercely resisted the onset of ID cards, we see our homes as our castles and we fanatically shred every last supermarket receipt.
And yet in the shops we’re expected to hand over our e mails, addresses and phone numbers like sheep. It even happens in John Lewis! Yes! That national treasure of a store, byword for all that is best and British and decent! But the other day I couldn’t even buy an ironing board there without relinquishing name, rank and serial number. “It’s a customer requirement,” said the assistant. But as I was taking the board with me, why? Is there something innately suspicious about people who iron?
What’s fine in the doctor’s surgery or passport application office is not fine in the high street if you’re not asking for credit or not arranging delivery. Yet, for refuseniks like myself, shopping is becoming a Stalinist nightmare. And while I doubt any genuinely nefarious use of details thus garnered, I may have spotted a link between giving info willy nilly and those tidal waves of junk mail and Nigerian banks in one’s inbox. Why should we hand over our privacy for others to profit?
It all came to a head, as it were, in a hair salon in Cornwall last week. Having a rare hour by myself (husband and children having gone off to see Toy Story 3), I decided to get my hoary locks trimmed. Scene as follows:
Me (entering salon) Could you trim my hair please?
Spiky-haired middle-youth on reception desk: Yeah, sure, no problem. I’ll just take a few details down on the computer (fingers poised over keyboard) Name, address?
Me: Do you mind if I don't? I just want a haircut.
Him (clearly stunned): But we always take people's details. We need them to keep in touch with our customers.
Me: I'd rather not. All I want is a haircut.
By now the whole salon was staring at me and it was tempting to turn on my flipflopped heel. However, I felt my position was reasonable and I wanted my hair cut. Whereupon the following conversation took place:
Haircutter (called Don, snip-snipping with his scissors): Look, about that computer thing, we only take personal details to keep in touch with our customers, okay? Build up a relationship. Keep them informed.
Me: Yes. But I just didn't want to, that was all.
Don (still agitated): We're not going to do anything with it. This information you don’t want to give us. Nothing funny or anything.
(I don't reply)
Don: So, you on holiday?
Me (relieved he has changed subject): Yes
Don (sarcastically): Incognito, eh?
Me: Look, Don, I think you should just get over me not wanting to give you all my details. It isn't necessary.
Don (aggressively): OK, OK, I am over it, OK. I am. Over it. Look, I'll just cut in complete silence, shall I? Happy with that?
As Don’s sharp scissors were millimetres from my neck, I actually wasn’t that happy. I didn’t want to be the first martyr to the cause of the right of the individual to shop without full disclosure. The cut was finished in sulky silence. I paid (in cash) and left.
I will go on with my campaign against this invasive lunacy, however. And I invite you all to join me. Just say no. Shopping is a thing of beauty, a joy for ever. It should not provoke an identity crisis.
(Published Daily Express, August 2010)
How do you make your children like art? Many parents, these school holidays, will take the most obvious route. They will lovingly transport their offspring to museums and galleries and dutifully park them before famous works. They will then feel miffed and resentful as said offspring yawns, wriggles and exhibits interest in only one aspect of the institution – the shop.
It can seem sometimes as if an anti-cultural firewall exists between children and their senior relatives' efforts to educate. And yet we parents persevere, driven by the knowledge – perhaps the dread – that a working familiarity with art, both contemporary and classical, is essential for anyone educated.
Especially these days. Never has art been so huge. Visitor numbers are up on all the major galleries, auction prices regularly go through the roof and contemporary artists constantly hit the headlines for reasons both personal and professional. And yet, for all the hoo ha, despite the obviously enormous public interest in and appetite for art amongst grown-ups, it can be difficult to light the blue touchpaper when it comes to small children.
Not for lack of trying among the galleries themselves, most of whom, these days, have children's corners, quizzes and craft tables in an attempt to draw in, as it were, young art lovers. But sometimes these praiseworthy efforts seem merely a distraction while the adults apply themselves to the real business of the place.
Recently, I had this problem in spades; I had endless galleries to visit for professional reasons. My latest novel, Gallery Girl, is a comedy about the lust, loot and lunacy of the art world. The research took well over a year, encompassing many school holidays, and so the children (6 and 7) had to come with me, whether they liked it or not.
At first, they didn't. But I'm happy to report that by the end the initial horror that struck whenever a picture frame was spotted had settled down into something definitely approaching enjoyment. My son, the seven-year-old, now actually wants to be an artist.
How was this miracle achieved? Quite simply, death and gore. Children love nothing better than staring at highly-coloured scenes of terrifying violence and presenting them with a couple of martyrdoms in action is so much more intellectually satisfying than something on the X box. During a trip round Venice's flagship art collection at the city's Accademia galleries, my children gasped at St Sebastian full of arrows (but always with salon-fresh hair), St Mark bound and dragged in chains through mocking crowds and St Laurence bound for the grill. The agonising variations on the Crucifixion, meanwhile, were endless and thrilling. All painted hundreds of years ago to instill fear into the faithful – the faithless, even more - and having much the same effect now.
But you don't have to go to Venice to do this. Most British settlements of any size have a large nineteenth-century art gallery whose collection (literally) groans with visceral scenes from history and myth. Most have free admission. In London's National Gallery, to start with the obvious, you can see, among much else, the blinded St Lucy with her eyes on a plate, while the mediaeval galleries of the British Museum have some stomach-churning predictions of what awaits the godless in Hell. Birmingham's wonderful art gallery, one of the nearest to where I live, has a truly spine-chilling series of Perseus in jet-black armour rescuing the terrified Andromeda from the rock to which she is chained, and subsequently fighting the huge and ghastly sea monster.
Of course, making all this come alive depends on the parent knowing the story behind it. And boning up on, say, Greek myth may seem burdensome to mums and dads already faced with six solid weeks (four now!) of entertaining their children. Which is where contemporary art comes in. People often ask what the point of all these unmade beds, pools of wax and knickers nailed to chopping boards really is; ladies and gentlemen, it's to entertain the kiddies. Seriously, however rubbish you think it is, however it might annoy you, children think it's truly hilarious. They love it. Recently, on a trip to the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, I was muttering darkly about the pickled menagerie by Damien Hirst on display in the upstairs rooms; my son, however, told me to lighten up. 'Oh, come on Mum,” he said, walking between two halves of a sheep, 'it's funny, isn't it?” I'm still not so sure how funny, but I'm prepared to cut Hirst a bit of slack now.
And if you walk away from a contemporary art exhibition thinking that you could do it just as well (or badly), well, why don't you? I recently whiled away a number of happy weekends creating an entire spoof art show with the children's help. The anti-hero of my novel Gallery Girl is a bighead bad-boy artist called Zeb Spaw, and I thought it would be fun to pretend to be him and create some actual works in his style. I called the exhibition angry_with_britain; it features, among many others, 'Flash In the Pan', a meditation on celebrity culture in the shape of a gold-sprayed loo. 'Pants' is another thought-provoking piece, a contemplation of the human condition through the means of a large white pair of Y-fronts. You can see it all on my website, www.wendyholden.net.
The other thing about children and art is that they love making it. They adore drawing. The other day I bought mine some coloured chalks and they didn't come inside the house for hours – the outside, mind you, looks like an accident in an ice-cream factory. It's not very far from this to showing them a Howard Hodgkin, although it helps to have the reference books to hand. To this end, I've recently bought quite a useful manual called '1000 Paintings To See Before You Die', although my small daughter, who thought the title a little doomy, has corrected it (in wobbly metallic pen handwriting) to '1000 Paintings To See Becorse They Are Nice'.
It is possible for parents to get small children interested in art. But it does have consequences. Once they know about Tracey Emin, it's downhill all the way on the getting-them-to-make-their-bed front.
I have always loved art. I drew endlessly as a child and as a teenager was fixated on (Tudor portrait painter) Holbein; I adored history and historical novels and those pictures of the flat-faced Tudors and their courtiers became almost as familiar to me as my own family (a couple of years ago Tate Britain had a big Holbein exhibition; I was moved and thrilled to see the gang all together again). In time, from being hooked on the ruff stuff I became potty about the pre-Raphaelites – those bright colours! Those strange subjects! Those crazy artists and their intense Gothic lives! (I really enjoyed Desperate Romantics on the telly. And I'm now lucky enough to be nearish Manchester and Birmingham, both of whom have cracking collections of PRB stuff).
As I began to travel about, especially during regular visits to the South of France, I began to develop a wider appreciation and in particular to get my early modern art eye in. There are, it has to be said, few better ways to really get your head round Miro or Giacometti than standing on the wonderful terrace of the Fondation Maeght, the fantastic modern art institute in St Paul de Vence on the Riviera. Ditto the various amazing collections in Venice, Paris and Rome. And of course London, but there's no point me listing endless galleries that everyone knows about anyway. Just let me say that I love twentieth century British art; Frank Brangwyn, Ian Grant, Ben Nicholson, Terry Frost and Tom Monnington are big favourites and every time I go down to Cornwall I make sure I pop in to see Barbara Hepworth in St Ives (she is of course long gone, sadly, but her fantastic sculpture garden is a must-see for any cultured Cornwall-visiting soul, however bogged down with children or wet weather). I can only occasionally say the same for Tate St Ives, with its emphasis on the type of contemporary art which often borders on the ludicrous; last time I was there I tried to add my wet and crumpled coat to a collection of similar ones on the foyer – you've guessed it, it was art, complete with fierce room guard.
My own art career got a certain distance; being able to draw is pretty useful, it has to be said. At university I regularly got free entry to May Balls by working as a portrait artist (it was while drawing vicious caricatures of harmless ball-going couples that I actually met my husband Jon!). After Cambridge I wanted to go to the Royal College of Art and study illustration but the necessity of making a living rather got in the way; as luck would have it, however, the prestigious art monthly Apollo was the first to offer me a job. This turned out to be the start of a career not as an artist, but in journalism; but I continued to be fascinated with art and the art world and kept up the illustrating. I contributed to Vogue, The Independent and Private Eye among many others. These days I don't draw so much, preferring to buy other people's. I collect twentieth-century British painting and especially love going to auctions. My first port of call in any new town is the art gallery if there is one, not least because they always have good cakes. Sheffield, the nearest city to where I am, is a case in point – its wonderful Graves Art Gallery has a Matisse, a Pissaro and a Gauguin, and it does a top flapjack too. Nottingham, with its dreamy Lowry, is another one.
There is of course a connection between the visual arts and the literary ones; all writers have to be able to picture clearly the people and scenes they are writing about and depict them in a certain way to create a certain effect. In my case, my flair for cartoon drawing became the facility of describing amusing people or situations in novels. But now, finally, my love of art (and slight scepticism about contemporary art) has gained full expression in the writing of my new novel Gallery Girl; I'm even working on an exhibition to accompany the launch, and will be displaying a full catalogue on line in due course. Be afraid…
TRACEY Emin claims her art is credit-crunch proof; Damien Hirst is the richest artist in British history. And Tate Modern, which expected 1.8 million visitors a year when it opened a decade ago, saw more than 4.6 million drop by in 2009. Collector Charles Saatchi, who launched pickled sharks and unmade beds in 1997's Sensation exhibition, has just fired another BritArt broadside with Newspeak.
What began in Docklands in '88 with Hirst and a handful of fellow Goldsmiths' students has become a worldwide phenomenon centred on London. Here, the gravitational pull of fame and money has not only attracted dealers and artists - there are more of the latter in London's East End than anywhere else in Europe - but also the private jet set, the party people for whom art is the social glue. Galleries have been anything but slow to respond, particularly the Serpentine, what with Dasha Zhukova sponsoring its party and a council including Guy and Andrea Dellal, Charles Dunstone, Tim Jeffries and Tamara Mellon. Basically, if you're rich, trendy and want some fun in London, you've got to swing with the art crowd. Art has the best parties, the prettiest people and gets the best headlines.
All of which offers some clue as to what Meredith Ostrom is doing here. She likes the parties – singling out Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst's Sudeley Castle artfests for particular praise. And she's certainly had headlines, even in a city where the crazier reaches of high-concept art don't tend to get a second glance.
Meredith is a 33 year-old American blonde who paints with her breasts. Diamond-covered breasts at that. For her latest work, a series called 'Diamond Dust Bust', she painted herself, rolled her torso in diamond dust and pressed herself up against a large canvas.
DDB (it even sounds like a bra-size) is going down a storm. According to Ostrom, the President of Georgia's just snapped one up and Nicolas Sarkozy's brother has one as well. Her work goes for thousands in galleries in New York and her adopted city of London.
Even so, is it art?
"I don't philosophise," she sidesteps. "I just do it."
But what is she doing, I wonder.
"I'm kind of making fun of Hirst and Warhol," she says. And Damien doesn't seem to mind. She says he 'smirked' when she told him about the diamond paintings.
Actually, she doesn't seem to take her art too seriously. Perhaps because Meredith herself is her own most interesting creation. Her life intersects with famousness in a way that is compellingly bizarre. Her Blackberry contains close-ups of Ronnie Wood's nose and herself in armadillo-skin heels.
A New Yorker, she'd been in London a mere two days before being asked to a Mario Testino party. En route, she grabbed a taxi from under the noses of four blokes she didn't recognise, but who turned out to be Duran Duran. The result was a seven-year relationship with Nick Rhodes which ended in 2009.
Meredith says that crowds of middle-aged Italian groupies outside the front door didn't help the relationship. "I thought it was mad. But Nick would go out and stand there for hours signing autographs. He was always so nice to them. He'd say, remember that the fan that John Lennon pissed off was the fan that shot him."
As it happens, she knows Julian Lennon who she says has a houseful of Dalmatians (dogs) and lives next to Bono in Eze. She's had tea with a vampire (Christopher Lee). "He's cool. We had little biscuits. Every night, at 6pm, his wife gives him a shot of.."
I've just written a book called Gallery Girl, a comedy about sex, money, huge egoes and contemporary art. I'm still recovering from some of the crazier reaches of my research and so to me Meredith's life seems like one great big Turner Prize entry. Take our meeting arrangements, which changed all the time. She was in LA, shooting with Rankin, flying to Cannes, expected in Paris. But in the end she turned up as planned.
She's a nice girl, pretty even without make-up, appearing among the polished blondes in the Berkeley hotel bar in bare legs and Birkenstocks. She's more subdued boho than the high-camp figure I was expecting from her red carpet appearances in skyscraper heels and clinging leopard print. She is patient and polite, speaks fluent Swedish and is part German, Lithuanian and English. She grew up in New Jersey and her parents are a nuclear physicist (Dad) and an interior designer (Mum). She trained as an artist, at New York University's Tisch School, where she also trained as an actress.
It seems she kind of fell into painting in her birthday suit. What started as an experiment for a group show in New York a couple of years ago has become a career. She does solo exhibitions and occasional special appearances; last year, at London's Sketch Gallery, and in front of a crowd (including, for some reason, Michael Portillo) she painted naked behind a backlit screen in a 'Tales of the Unexpected' sort of way. "I find it empowering', she says, adding spiritedly that she couldn't care less what people think of her art.
I ask Meredith what painting naked feels like. "Cold! And yes, there are certain bits where you don't want to get paint." She applies it with surgical gloves and gets it off with Fairy Liquid (what would Nanette Newman say?) and a bucket of warm water. "Or I run into my local gym and use the showers. They wonder why there's paint in the drains, I guess."
Meredith's acting career runs parallel to her art one. It is equally eclectic and sometimes crosses over. Take her most recent film outing, as a painter's pneumatic lesbian muse in the art comedy Boogie Woogie. You might have seen her in Love, Actually (playing drums in the Robert Palmer spoof) but possibly not in films called Naked in London and Bizarre Love Triangle. Her latest part is as a trustafarian called Miriam in a film where Michael Madsen plays a producer who comes to Europe and pretends he's gay. Or something like that.
She strikes me as sort of contemporary Anita Ekberg – she's got the looks, that's for sure. She needs the new Fellini too, because, while she's very nice and polite about the films she's done, I sense that her talent for attracting the oddball, the indie and the spoofy may run slightly contrary to what she would prefer. She admits she'd love a Hollywood blockbuster. "A big trailer," she says wistfully. "No-one had a trailer for Boogie Woogie. The crew built this funny tent and Heather Graham would be in there doing yoga, and Gillian (Anderson) and Amanda (Seyfried) would be listening to tunes on their iPods."
Meredith's biggest bite so far of the celluloid cherry was playing Velvet Underground singer Nico in 2006's Factory Girl. She got the part through its star, Sienna Miller, who she met on an American sitcom. "I really like Sienna," she says. "She's smart and very professional."
Meredith possibly likes actors more than some artists. Tracey Emin, she tells me, never seems to remember she has met her. "She always introduces herself again. Probably does it on purpose."
Afterwards, I get a free newspaper shoved in my hand as I pass the tube; there's a picture of Tracey on the cover. She's sporting a terrific shiner. I doubt if it's Meredith that's done it though. She's a good girl, raising money for children's charities with her exhibitions. She seems intellectually curious; she had a shot at reading the Koran (more than I've done) because she 'wanted to understand extremism'.
"Get out there," she advises all would-be contemporary artists. "Don't be famous just for being famous. Do something and get known for it. And if you ever feel down, help a person."
Amazingly, Wendy Holden and Jilly Cooper have never met before. Yet both are doyennes of humorous romantic fiction and have recently written novels with a 'back to school' theme. In Jilly's Wicked!, headmaster Hengist Brett-Taylor hatches a plan to share his posh school's facilities with a down-at-heel comp. Wendy's The School For Husbands tells the story of a man so desperate to save his marriage that he enrols on a course for hopeless spouses. They're going to have a lot to talk about…
GH How would you describe what you write?
JILLY; Someone once said I was Barbara Cartland without the iron knickers! Wendy and I both like to make people laugh but we're also journalists, so we take the subject by the throat.
WENDY; Exactly, it's not just 'woman in a bedsit waiting for Mr Right'. It's entertainment, but there has to be something at the core to keep you going.
GH You both specialise in larger-than-life, colourful characters. How do you create them?
W: Anything can set me off. I was reading an interiors magazine the other day – they are always a total joy. One article said; Camilla urges you to look outside the obvious when researching your home fabrics – her curtains are made from Hungarian linen-.cart covers.' Does that mean that Hungarians have their linen delivered in carts. I trawl the papers on a Sunday evening and there is always an absolute gem. The weddings in Hello and OK magazines are another rich source of fodder, as the celebs are encouraged to say the most unbelievably intimate things. An actor was asked 'What's the secret of your marriage?' and he said 'Learning to endure the hard times.' And you can imagine his wife reading it and thinking; What hard times?
J: Wendy's writing is brilliant because she is so contemporary. Because I didn't know her, I had a vision of her living right in the middle of Chelsea.
W: It's funny… I thought I wouldn't be able to write about glamorous things as I'd moved to the country, but it has its own glamour. Unlike Jilly, though, I'm alone all day at home and don't see anyone.
J: I don't see anyone for months!
W: Oh, I can imagine you surrounded by a coterie of terribly glamorous people. Walking down to your study, flanked by admirers…
J: No, just dogs and cats!
W: I have to say that if it wasn't for Jilly, I'd never be writing now. She was the first person who wrote funny romances – there were an awful lot of turgid authors out there at the time. When I was a girl I was obsessed with historical novels but all that ended when I discovered Jilly. It's not just one generation of novelists she's inspired, it's two.
GH Where do you get all the juicy plots that you use in your novels from?
J: We make them up! At Wendy's age you have all your girlfriends who are always doing the wildest things – you get your inspiration from them.
W: Well, yes, but that can get a bit tedious sometimes. People tend to think that you are always going to write about them in a book. I used to pretend that I wasn't doing it but now I say: 'I have a character that does your job and I want to talk to you about it, but I'll make sure you see everything I've written.'
GH Your books contain a healthy smattering of sex. How easy is it to write saucy scenes?
W: Well – increasingly in my case – less is more. But, of course, that was one of the great appeals to me of Jilly's books as a teenager. The sex keeps you there the whole time.
J: I know Riders was outrageous – I read it again recently and shocked myself! My children read it and they were absolutely sweet but said 'Mummy!” in an 'Oh my goodness!' way.
W: Someone I know has a very shy husband. When they slept together for the first time she was really surprised that he was so good in bed because she thought he was going to be a bit… shall we say, rustic. Later he confessed that he had learnt everything he knew from reading Jilly.
J: That's so nice I think the best sexual line I ever wrote was from my book Apassionata. Marcus was gay but went to bed with Abby anyway and they had terrific sex together. Afterwards he was so pleased he said: 'I felt the clitoris was like one of those lovely French restaurants one discovered on holiday and could never find the way back to'!
The thing about the sex is that it is so different these days – I just can't imagine it with anyone else but my husband Leo and I can't imagine it with him, I'm sooooo old! It gets more difficult to write about as those experiences get further away.
W: I find that if you're really stuck for inspiration, the News of the World generally refreshes your memory.
J: I had a scene in Wicked that didn't work. A beautiful boy and girl were having sex and it didn't work because the editor said I must mention condoms.
W: Yes, you have to say: 'Writhing around, she reached for the…' and that kills it. There should be a foreword at the front of the book saying 'All men having sex in this book will be wearing a condom'!
GH Any stories behind your new novels?
J: One day my secretary said to me, 'What's going to happen to the children in your books when they're teenagers?' So I decided to send them to boarding school in Wicked! My daughter, Emily, went to a very respectable school – but the stories that came back! I've put most of them in. It's marvellous having children because they're always an inspiration.
W: My book came about, ironically, because my husband is very good. I had some friends round when he came in with this delicious, steaming, hot casserole. One said, 'Jon, you're marvellous, you should start a school for husbands'. I'd been looking desperately for an idea, and there it was! The difficult bit came next – creating characters that you would care for. It's a romantic comedy but also a sad story about a marriage breaking down. I wanted to show that most marriages don't fail for spectacular reasons – they crumble because of lots of small grievances. Couples who are working and raising children are tired and, crucially, they don't always see the other person's point of view. I know that because I've felt it myself.
GH You both invent marvellous names for characters – how do these come about?
W: Sometimes I find names, or parts of names, in newspapers. You also sometimes see a photograph and think 'That's what the character looks like'.
J: I have to admit, I like beautiful people! Everybody says there are far too many in my books and the only thing I'll say in my defence is look at Tolstoy and Homer. All their characters were delicious. I'm obsessed with heroism. Hengist was heroic but I really can't decided whether or not to bring him back again.
W: Oh you should. I love him and his wife – she's very rude. Under her chaste Jaeger knits, she's red hot!
J: I like those sorts of women!
W: And you have to have at least one character who aspires to goodness. You can't just have a comedic maelstrom where no one emerges with much credit. Jilly's heroines are always fabulous too. They glow, and you're desperate when you shut the book because they're not in your life any more.
J: The world is very frightened at the moment and people take themselves very seriously. Women of Wendy's and Emily's age are thinking 'I'm bringing gorgeous children into the world and what future have they got?' You need to try and cheer people up. That's what we both want – to make people happy.
GH Location is crucial to both your books. How do you decide where to set them?
W: For me it's usually London or the north of England, as that's what I know. But I want to write a book set in Gloucestershire next. I know it's Jilly's stamping ground but there's such a lot going on. All those rockers, actors and celebrities – Damien Hirst, Liz Hurley, Kate Moss. It's just too priceless. Jilly,you must see them hanging out all the time?
J: Never! But people can go on bus tours round Gloucestershire now past all our houses. I found out the other day that there's even a 'Jillywood' tour. It's rather bizarre, I must say…
By now the pair seem to have been friends for ever and have worked up a substantial appetite. They head off for lunch, arm in arm and still nattering. Don't forget to put 'they're friends for life' when you come to write about us!' Jilly says to me. 'And Wendy, darling, when are you coming to stay?'
JUST as every corner of Venice has supposedly been painted, every possible word about the place has probably been said. However, as those who get to La Serenissima via rail from the Midlands with two small children have probably said less than most, I thought my experiences worth recounting.
It's many years since my family and I have flown anywhere on holiday. This is partly a green initiative and partly because I dislike lifting off from the airport in a tin can full of fat people in tracksuits arguing. And that's just us.
So the family – my husband, myself and Isabella and Andrew aged five and six, went from Chesterfield station to St Pancras, thence on the Eurostar to Paris's Gare du Nord. Taking the Metro across Paris in the rush hour proved both exhilarating and quicker/cheaper than waiting for a taxi. At the Gare de Bercy (near the Gare de Lyon) we picked up the sleeper to Italy and arrived at Venezia Santa Lucia station twenty four hours after starting.
There are two ways of overnighting on the Venice sleeper. The wagon-lit is the poshest, the sort of neat, warm, well-lit travelling bedroom one gets from Euston to Scotland. The cucchette (sic) is altogether a more basic, old-fashioned, do-it-yourself experience. You construct the beds by pushing the very heavy existing seating into shelves on which you then lay your bedding. This comes in plastic bags; a pillow each, a picnic-rug-style woollen tartan blanket and two narrow white sheets stitched together to form a long envelope. When unpacked these eerily resemble the Turin Shroud; an impression reinforced by the bier-like beds and mausoleum-like lack of heating. This last was underlined by the mocking display over their entry doors of the temperatures in the wagon lit coaches (tip from the bottom; the wagon-lit's loos and bathrooms are infinitely preferable to cucchette).
The Victorian art critic John Ruskin, a passionate admirer of Venice, described he moment he fell in love with the city as when he saw the tide sink to reveal small brown crabs twitching on the marble wall of a Grand Canal palazzo. Something about this juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary appealed to him. For me, it has always been the glamour of Venice; the ice-cream-coloured, arched-and-balustraded campness of the place, the way it has of making you feel, whatever you are doing, as if you are moving through a painting. Which indeed you are; the Accademia, the Venetian art gallery which holds the biggest and best collection of Venetian art anywhere in the world (but without hardly any Canalettos, sadly) shows how the cityscape painted by Carpaccio and Veronese over five hundred years ago is substantially the same. Which can be oddly hard to grasp; given its frivolous and fanciful appearance, one has constantly to remind oneself just how old Venice is.
Venice with small children is a different thing from Venice with adults. By this I don't mean that museums, art galleries and serious sightseeing are ruled out. Rather, they are ruled in. My past trips to Venice BC (Before Children) were a hedonistic whirl of Bellinis in Harry's Bar and merrily ignoring the museums in favour of speeding across the lagoon in the Cipriani's water taxi, en route for a cocktail or three. But this time, with impressionable tots in tow, I was in messianically pedagogic mood.
Anyone who imagines it a waste to take children as young as ours to Venice could not be more wrong. The Line 1 vaparetto (the busiest, stopping everywhere on the Grand Canal) contained, at any time of day, parents of all nationalities trying to enthuse their teenagers. 'Oh Maxi,” sighed one well-to-do French mother blazing with Chanel to her fifteen-ish son. 'Why don't you look at the palaces? I must say it's a disappointment.” Maxi, however, no doubt the recipient of an eye-wateringly expensive education, didn't even glance up from his Stephanie Meyer novel. 'Shall we go to the Guggenheim next, see the modern art?” suggested a British father we passed near the Frari church. 'Curb your enthusiasm!” he snarled seconds late, as the miniskirted daughter between him and his wife merely shrugged. It seems that too-cool-for-school teenagers with eyes only for their iPhones are way too cool for Venice.
If, unlike Maxi, you spend your time on the Grand Canal wondering what lies behind the facades of the palazzos, Ca Rezzonico is the place for you. This enormous gilded box was once home to Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and their son Pen ('was he going to call the next one Paper?' my son wanted to know). Unfortunately Robert caught a nasty cold and died of it here; Pen, however, married an heiress whose loot, presumably, helped make Rezzonico what it is today. Huge gilt-framed portraits, massive chandeliers rioting with Murano glass flowers, marble balustrades and tasselled thrones; they're all here, plus the most wonderful collection of rescued Tiepolo frescoes on the top floor.
The palazzo I was personally desperate to see was the Palazzo Mocenigo, former gaff of Lord Byron; but this, sadly, is not open to the gawking public. Still, chugging past it on the Line 1 was an opportunity to tell the children how he had kept a zoo on the ground floor and swum the length of the Grand Canal in four hours, whilst carefully avoiding what else he got up to (Byron once claimed his list of lovers in Venice ran into the hundreds – and he was only there a couple of years).
The children, who have been much immersed in Oliver Twist recently, initially thought the vast pink Gothic cake of a building in St Mark's Square was called the Dodger's Palace, conjuring up satisfying images of Dickens' spirited child thief having a glamorous post-Fagin life in Venice. More satisfying anyway than trying to recapture Byron on the Bridge of Sighs: 'I stood upon a bridge/A palace and a prison on each hand”. Now, thanks to Venice's endless program of rebuilding and the massive posters covering the scaffolding that help to pay for it, it's more ads for Geox and Armani on each hand.
Enjoying Mediaeval and Renaissance art may seem a big ask of small ones, but it's possible thanks to the wealth of saints who suffered gruesome deaths. In the Accademia, the children's favourite was St Sebastian, bristling with arrows like a porcupine's quill and yet always with smooth, shiny, salon-fresh hair. John the Baptist, on the other hand, is always painted as a scruff for whom personal hygiene seems an afterthought. Another five or ten minutes before the Carpaccios and Bellinis was gained by getting the children to spot various dogs, musical instruments and other children, as in Titian's beautiful Presentation of the Virgin, featuring Mary as an adorably fair little girl in sky-blue silk and a glow of golden light.
We also managed the art-crammed church of the Frari – the sculptor Canova's spectacularly gloomy tomb with the spooky half-open door was the big hit here – as well as the church of the Madonna dell'Orto, with its giant Tintoretto canvases, tucked away in the delightful, peaceful backwater of Canareggio.
Venice is of course equally famous for modern art; the relatively unknown Ca'Pesaro has an excellent collection, as does, of course, the very well-known Peggy Guggenheim collection, where the canalside terrace was a useful holding pen for the small ones while Jon and I took turns viewing the Picassos.
We also braved the Biennale; this modern art exhibition, which takes place every two years, is based in a large and rather unkempt park at the Lido end of Venice (although various churches and palazzos elsewhere have exhibits too). It consists of national pavilions which, in different architectural styles and scattered about either side of a canal, reminded me of London Zoo. And indeed, the Biennale is a bit like an art zoo; you walk from building to building and not all the contents – featuring supposedly the brightest and best of the nation's artists - are as interesting as you might hope. I tried to suspend my occasional disbelief, but it was hard when the children were laughing at the stuffed cat on top of some unpainted kitchen cabinets (Germany), or being scared by huge black rubber flags flapping in the dark (France). We passed altogether on the British contribution – a half hour film by Steve McQueen that you needed timed tickets for; so much for spontaneity.
Free, off-the-cuff entertainment was, anyway, easily available every day under the great mediaeval arches and red blinds of the Rialto fish market. Here the children gasped at the still-moving crabs (shades of Ruskin!) and watched with awe as men with mediaeval faces ripped scallops from the shells so fast their hands were a blur. By night, we wandered narrow streets full of brightly-lit shops selling everything from masks and improbable glass objects to lavatory brushes shaped like huge pencils and chess sets themed on the American Civil War.
Food and drinks-wise, Venice is famously expensive, but across the water at Guidecca, cafes are cheaper, calmer and the view of the city stupendous. In Venice itself, the most expensive of all, the ornate Caffe Florian in St Mark's Square, is a great treat justified by the fact that everyone from Proust to Dickens (perhaps visiting the Dodger's Palace) popped in at least once; you are therefore drinking the prosecco of greatness. But these people weren't just drinking; on the Riva degli Schiavoni, the paved quayside to the left of the Doge's Palace, a mere few doors separates the building where Tchaikovsky finished his Fourth Symphony from that where Henry James finished Portrait Of A Lady. Wagner, meanwhile, was finished full stop – breathing his last in the building which is now Venice's Casino. Further down the Riva is La Pieta, the church of the foundling home where Vivaldi, famously, was music master and where a plaque on the side of the building warns people not to pretend their children are orphans just to get them into the school. Telling porkies for the sake of a good education is not, it seems, a modern phenomenon.
A plus for our mini-palaentologist son was the discovery that Venice has a dinosaur, a real, big, scary, bony, twelve-foot-high Ouranosaurus skeleton, in Fondaco dei Turchi, aka Venice's Museum of Natural History, near the top of the Grand Canal. It's available to see, free and without anything remotely resembling South Kensington crowds, any day but Monday.
Cycling on the Lido is a must for families. The good old Line 1 goes there too; the cycle hire, Gaudin, is across the road from the stop and just to the left. It must be the best value in the lagoon; a mere eight euros each got Jon and I a bike for the whole day, complete with roomy seat behind to strap the children to (they were mildly indignant, but succumbed). Off we went along the straight, flat, villa-lined roads bordering the sea, past the grand white palace of the Hotel des Bains, where Visconti famously filmed that most quintessential of all films about this place, Death in Venice. Humming Mahler's Fifth, we continued along the mainly deserted road to the one tiny scrap beach right at the end of the island – the rest being controlled by the hotels – where the children spent a happy hour collecting shells.
I should mention that our Venetian experience was made infinitely easier by the fact we hired a flat for a week through the holiday rental company Venetian Apartments. This wasn't cheap at nearly fourteen hundred euros (there are cheaper ones), but incredibly useful as a base to return to after a morning's exploring to make lunch (small children hardly ever, in my experience, eat properly in restaurants). We could also cook dinner for some friends who happened to be in town. Our very pretty, newly refurbished apartment additionally had a garden, a rarity in Venice and a wonderful luxury.
Less of a recommendation is to do as we did and buy a full week pass for the vaporetto for all four of us. This cost 200 euros (meanly, the Venetians make small children pay full fare) and turned out to be a very expensive way of doing it, as you needed to make lots of vaporetto trips a day to break even on the pay-as-you-go two euros each alternative. Especially as (sad to tell) the excitement of going everywhere by boat has slightly worn off after the first four days and maintaining the required rate of usage, especially in the mid-day Grand Canal crowds, can be tiring.
The best until last, however. Walking past the Fenice on the Sunday morning, we saw posters for Il Lago dei Cigni (Swan Lake). What could be better for our ballet-mad daughter; I, in addition was desperate to see the glamorous, gold inside, refurbished four years ago after the last disastrous fire. We bought the last four tickets at 20 euros each; in the gods, restricted view etc, but a must-have nonetheless. Our last night in Venice therefore saw us excitedly weaving our way through the narrow passageways, golden with the light from the shops, up to the great pillared front of the famous theatre and into the glittering, mirrored inside. Italians go full length and fabulous for such occasions, and one man even wore bronze shoes. The three intervals of the wonderful performance – our view was fine - were delightfully passed with cake and prosecco at a mere five euros per generous glassful. The ballet at La Fenice – certainly compared with dinner out for four - represents some of the best value in town. Bravissimo!
Eurostar 08705 186186
RailEurope (for Venice sleeper) 08448 484064
Venetian Apartments 0203 178 4180
La Fenice Box Office 041 24 24
The guidebook we used was Dorling Kindersley's practical and well-illustrated Venice and the Veneto. You should get the most up to date guide possible, as vaporetto numbers and routes especially can change and you can waste time squinting at the signs wondering where your (now obsolete) conveyance is. You will find all the main sights in the guidebooks, but here are a few to get you going.
Frari (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari)
Campo dei Frari
Vaporetto stop San Toma
041 275 04 62
Vaporetto stop Accademia
Tel: 041 522 22 47
Vaporetto stop Ca' Rezzonico
041 241 01 00
Hotel des Bains (open mid Mar-end Oct)
041 526 5921
There comes a time in the life of every seaside resort. For the Cap d'Antibes it was when F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald came sauntering down la Plage de la Garoupe to hang out with their rich friends the Murphys. For Penzance, my guess is that it's now.
Ten years ago, when Cornwall was newly fashionable, Princes William and Harry rocked down to Rock and hedge-fund manager wrestled hedge-fund manager for Padstow's most prestigious waterfront residences, the county's wilder west was largely neglected. Only the brave, or, as in our case, those who had relations in the area, spent much time in Penzance, an intensely atmospheric town with a distinctive spike-topped church, dome-capped main street and multifarious secret alleyways with more of a whiff of piracy about them.
In those days, the striking thing about Penzance was its cheapness; the shops were unexceptional and frequently of the pound persuasion, the pubs were loud and scary, the Chinese restaurant was frankly weird and one encountered a variety of rackety characters rolling up and down its steep granite streets. But in the past few years the place has ridden a wave of smartification, or perhaps artification. New galleries have sprung up everywhere. The Exchange (an outpost of the venerable Newlyn Art Gallery) is the most celebrated, a converted telephone exchange with the biggest exhibition space within 180 miles, plus a very nice café. It evidently attracts the smart set; I once saw a tanned, spare, elderly gentleman in a three-piece suit of buttermilk linen complete with violet silk tie, handkerchief and cufflinks; a positive vision of Cecil Beaton.
Penzance also boasts the Rainyday Gallery and Cornwall Contemporary, a palace of minimalist modernism with frequently-changing exhibitions. This explosion of culture is fuelled and framed by smart bistros and fashiony interiors shops now mushrooming all over the town. Frankly, I wonder what kept them.
For they are not building on nothing, these new places. Take the art. Not a lot of people know this, but Penzance had an art school in the mid-nineteenth century; the first town west of Bristol to do so. Video installations of people tangoing with pencils on their heels may pack them in at The Exchange these days, but the town's true artistic centre of gravity has always been the wonderful Penlee House Gallery, a graceful Victorian mansion in Morrab Park which features in its handsome, intimate rooms a superb collection of works by the celebrated Newlyn School of artists; Laura Knight, Samuel 'Lamorna' Birch, Stanhope and Elizabeth Forbes among them.
These late-nineteenth/early twentieth century painters were drawn to the area's light and picturesque subject matter. Their exquisite evocations of fisherfolk life range from the cheerful 'School's Out'; children peeling happily off into the sunset, to the staggeringly mawkish 'Among The Missing'; a weeping young fisherman's wife being comforted by a crone on the harbour wall. But there's a nice sticky-cakes café to cheer you up afterwards, plus a very good gift shop selling improving toys, books on local subjects, and postcards from the collection.
Penzance's most famous son was the Victorian scientist Sir Humphry Davy, President of the Royal Society and inventor of the miner's safety lamp; his statue looks down from the top of the town's main street. There is no statue, however, of Penzance's most famous daughter; Maria Branwell, mother of the Bronte family of writers, who lived before her marriage in a pretty little house down by the church. One imagines her packing up to head north for the Rev Patrick and the wuthering moors of Howarth. How she must have missed the sea and sunshine. Nor was she the only one of her family fated to go there; after Maria's death, her sister, the redoubtable Aunt Branwell, went to the parsonage to help the bereft rev cope with the kids. Her tales of colourful Penzance life, with its characters, noise, street festivals and so on apparently held the children rapt as the candles flickered in the quiet northern vicarage.
And Penzance life is definitely worth getting rapt about these days. Food is on a roll in these parts; most likely an artisanal tomato bread one. The Bay, on Penzance's Briton's Hill, is well-thought of and does modern British using regional produce – modern Cornish, really. It is hoped that the Abbey Restaurant, the former Michelin-starred dining room next to Jean Shrimpton's romantic, blue-painted Abbey Hotel near the harbour front, will open under new management in the next few months; in the meantime, you can eat amid the seventeenth-century, creaky-wood-floored charm of the hotel itself. Along the road, in Newlyn, a new Seafood Café has flung wide its blue-painted French doors and brought some much-needed fun and style to the village. It's jolly, light and informal, with tables outside in the summer and a fabulous fishy menu. I had a huge portion of squeakily fresh hake, preceded by a delicious lobster bisque, and will definitely be back. A hop, skip and a jump from Newlyn is the picture-postcard villageof Mousehole, where the French bistro-style restaurant 2 Fore Street opened a couple of years ago and has carried all before it since.
There's more dash just up on the hilltop above here. At Zennor (more historic literary connections; D H Lawrence lived here with Frieda and Katherine Mansfield plus husband) the Tinner's Arms (est. 1271) does a mean crab sandwich as well as delicious curries. And the Gurnard's Head, a rambling moortop inn on the coast road from St Ives to Lands End, has recently been entirely transformed into an outpost of trendy Hackney, complete with artfully mismatched chairs, white onion soup, rosemary oil and sparkling rose by the glass. It's groaning with awards, The Good Hotel Guide's 2009 Best Dining Pub among them, but whether this is your sort of place depends on whether you like being surrounded by people straight out of a lifestyle supplement (or think they are). But it will certainly appeal to some.
And it's another sign that the days when Padstow was the beginning and end of the Cornish hospitality scene are over. St Andrew, on St Ives' St Andrew Street, with its low-lit boho ambience and gently exotic food is another aiming for the on-trend middle-youth market, but it's an interesting recent addition to the scene and ranked in the Good Food Guide. A more classical experience is to be had at St Ives much-lauded (and incredibly hard to get a table at) Porthminster Beach Café, which rises like a white wedding cake over among the lifeguards and lolling families on the 'To The Lighthouse' beach. Lit up at night, the romantic stucco balustraded building looks like something from The Great Gatsby. It's just a shame F Scott Fitzgerald never came to this part of Cornwall, really. He'd have loved it.
The Abbey Hotel and Restaurant 01736 366 906 www.theabbeyonline.co.uk
The Bay Restaurant Penzance 01736 366890
Newlyn Seafood Café01736 367 199 www.newlynseafoodcafe.co.uk
2 Fore Street 01736 731164 www.2forestreet.co.uk
The Gurnard's Head (01736) 796 928 www.gurnardshead.co.uk
The Tinners' Arms 01736 796927 www.tinnersarms.co.uk
The Porthminster Beach Cafe 01736 765352
St Andrew's Street Bistro 01736 797074
Romantic couples will love Penzance's rambling, Gothick Abbey Hotel (and the restaurant's red-painted concept Sixties bar). The Gurnard's Head emphasizes its soft linens and doesn't mind (or charge for) dogs/children in rooms. The Tinners also has pretty guest rooms in the adjoining Grade II listed building, while 2 Fore Street does self-catering accommodation. Cottages are fun, and a good bet for families. Unfortunately the National Trust's fantastic holiday cottage network only has a couple of outposts this far down the peninsula, but there are plenty of other places. Enter Holiday Cottages Cornwall into a search engine and have a look. Mousehole in particular seems to be almost entirely composed of HCs. Or you could buy somewhere; Penzance is a large town with a lot of property, much of it Georgian or at least picturesque, and none of it expensive. Given the town is on the up, it could well be a wise investment
I love a hot holiday, but it's the food that really makes the break for me. A hot holiday with great food is heaven on earth and the heaven on earth that I have been going to for the past twenty years is the South of France. No matter that, in the two decades since I first went there, Nice Airport has grown from being a dinky little box to which you walked across the tarmac, swinging your valise like Doris Day, to the vast concrete monster it is now. No matter either than the road along the coast is now so choked in traffic in August that you are more likely to be sitting among the cross people in their cars than watching, from your beach towel, the beautiful people on their yachts. For me, the romance of the place is still there; it is, under all the new growth, the same South of France that I discovered in the mid-Eighties with my husband.
He was a student, and I had just stopped being one. He was studying French and Russian and the choice for the obligatory teaching year out had been between Vladivostock and Cannes. Guess what, he chose Cannes, and with the very first trip, the love of a lifetime was born.
We adored the sea, of course, an impossible blue, with fantasy yellow sand. And the heat; I vividly remember being in the ocean at Cannes in November, up to my neck in the warm water and gazing in amazement at the snow-covered Alps over towards Italy. We admired the glamorous Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau hotels, with their shades of Fitzgerald and Gatsby. But most of all we loved the food.
Gastronomic revelations were, quite literally, around every corner. Being students, we started on a budget; an early favourite was Rene Socca, down the shady, winding streets of Nice Old Town, a snack bar specialising in the chickpea pancake known to the Nicois as socca; a soft yellow mass with a crisp brown coating that, freshly-cooked and hot, is transportingly wonderful sprinkled with plenty of salt and washed down with a glass of chilled, slightly rough, rose. In Antibes, you could always find The Brulot by the bursts of laughter and chat emanating from its wide-flung wooden doors. We went there for our birthdays and had the bouillabaisse – a great vat of tomatoey fish soup, with the great pile of fish that had been cooked in it arranged ceremonially beside it on a great oval platter. In Biot, the Restaurant des Arcades was Provencal heaven – wooden tables covered with bright checked cloths and great vases of colourful flowers, all set out under the mediaeval arches of the perfect fantasy village square with ivy, shutters and higgledy-piggledy roofs.
The food here was (is – all these places are very much still up and running; more so, if anything) as matchless as the setting. Garlic lamb with ratatouille, melting roast peppers, fried courgette flowers stuffed with mince, courgettes in a cream tarragon sauce; the excitingly-named 'nude ravioli', which was balls of spinach served with a meat sauce. All eaten under the thick-walled arches as the sunny evening deepened to cool dusk and strings of coloured lights came on. All washed down with that dry, thin, perfect rose gris which you just can't get anywhere else, at least not without paying champagne prices for it.
Did I mention champagne? That brings me neatly to the Colombe d'Or, another great favourite restaurant of ours, and terribly celebby of course, but, like all truly wonderful places, not in the least conceited. To sit, on a hot day, under one of the vast white parasols in its yellow stone courtyard and order from that menu where each dish is written in a different colour is fun in itself. But to watch, sipping champagne, while the impeccably polite and friendly waiters bring out the epic hors d'oeuvres – about fourteen different dishes (the black pudding's the best)– and follow it up with a classic local aioli – steamed vegetables, cod and a tastebud-exploding garlic mayonnaise – is to experience the ultimate bliss. Frankly, if Brangelina walked right by me, I wouldn't even notice.
VIEWS are of course about more than just water, hills, or whatever it happens to be. They are about connotations too; the people and events you associate with them. The sea view from Ravenscar, on the north Yorkshire coast, is for me all about happy times with my husband and our two small children, staying in the little National Trust cottage there, as we have every February and November for the last three years. The coastline here, protected by the National Trust, is mercifully sparsely populated; here and there you come across thick-walled cottages with red-tile roofs, all facing out over the North Sea. Outside the cottage, a wide grass slope sweeps to a cliff edge and a broad tongue of blue sea pokes into the land. The arm of Robin Hood's Bay curves protectively round from the left and to the right are the Ravenscar Terraces, a romantic Victorian-mediaeval castellated wall marking the boundary of the nearby hotel. There's history here as well as aesthetics; the hotel (then a house) was built by the doctor who saved George III from his Madness, but who subsequently succumbed to some madness himself when he lost the house betting on how fast two beetles could crawl across a saucer. And Ravenscar is known as The Town That Never Was; planned as a Victorian holiday resort, it failed to materialize when the developers ran out of money, or conviction, or both. Speaking selfishly, I'm glad they did. To arrive at 'our' cottage, get out of the car and be immediately knocked over by a great, buffeting, ozone-filled ocean blast is, for me, the essence of holiday. And to be in the cottage at night, look out of the deep-silled windows and see the lights of Robin Hood's Bay winking back in their characteristic V-shape is the essence of romance.
For a real, let-it-all-hang-out breakfast; say if someone is staying, we will do the full Derbyshire special, and it is special too, as Derbyshire has at least two wonderful breakfast innovations to its name, the flat oatcake, which is a bit like a pancake, the size of a plate and made with oatmeal. After you have warmed this in the oven a bit it is the best possible base to put your fried breakfast on as it soaks up all the juices. The other must-have item is the noble Derbyshire tomato sausage, which is made with tomato puree mixed in with the pork meat. Some butcher told my son that God eats tomato sausages for breakfast; he never fails to mention it if we're having them. My son also believes that God has a breakfast cloud, and another for lunch and dinner. A great place to get sausages, eggs and oatcakes is Wilsons' butchers in Matlock; they also do game and the queues outside at Christmas stretch almost to Bakewell.
In summer, we love to eat outside as we have a large garden and love to show it off. We have two young children, and our friends mostly have children too, so the garden is the best place for big parties as people can get up and run around and let off steam (I'm talking small people; obviously the adults just sit and drink). For big lunch parties we normally do something simple that feeds a lot, such as chicken and ratatouille with salad, followed by, of course, our famous local Bakewell pudding (never say Bakewell tart). No-one has more respect for Mr Kipling than I – his French fancies are unarguable – but Bakewell pudding in its true form isn't anything like the icing-topped, cherry-anointed variety, but instead a yielding, buttery caseful of almondy, eggy filling with jam in the bottom. People can never believe how delicious it is, especially served warm with clotted cream. The last time I went to a meeting at my publisher's I took everyone a Bakewell pudding each – I went down on the train with ten tarts. To wash all this down we are fortunate in having a great local wine supplier, The French Wine People in Matlock, who are particularly hot on rose, which I have been a fan of for years, long before it became trendy. I prefer very pale, dry Provencal ones in curvy bottles, and Jean-Claude and his wife Suzanne can usually see me right.
My husband, Jon, loves cooking for great numbers of people, so if friends are staying, we encourage them to arrive Sat morning and then we go to Chatsworth Farm Shop with them to get the stuff for supper, We will have a scrappy lunch so as to be really hungry for Sat night dinner. Bits and pieces we pick up locally; Peli Deli in Matlock is good for local cheeses (Dovedale Blue is the one, a sort of local Roquefort and, I once read, Tom Stoppard's favourite). They also sell nice chocolates to have with coffee as well as lovely Yorkshire crisps to have with drinks. When some friends from Paris came to stay they developed an obsession with Hambridges' butchers in Matlock where you can get a very tasty and substantial baguette filled with pork, apple, stuffing and gravy. Our friend was so struck by them he took one of their (empty) paper bags home and still walks about Paris with it folded in his wallet.
The tearoom in the gardens at Chatsworth, by the Flora temple, does the most astonishing pork pie. It's sort of free-form, made with flaky pastry and served warm. I feel faint just thinking about it. It's probably one of the best things you can eat on Earth. Accompanied by a good cup of Earl Grey and perhaps followed by a brownie, it's as good to taste as the gardens are to look at.
Max's Indian in Bakewell is really good, his meat is all organic from the butcher across the road and all the sauces are fresh and delicate. It's one of the best Indians I've been to; none of that pink soup with a few bits of chicken floating in. Also Felicini, a great pizza restaurant in Bakewell, very big thin pizzas like you get in Italy, in a vibrant, trendy setting. I prize informality in restaurants, anything too stuffy turns me off. Which is probably why another place I like to eat is the great fish and chip shop at Longnor, a lovely village in the Manifold Valley. In the summer, there's nowhere better after an evening walk (this was before we had the children, obviously)
The Devonshire Arms at Beeley doesn't really need me to plug it, this smart country pub-cum-boutique hotel, about five miles from us on the Chatsworth estate, had not one but two Hollywood stars in when I went in one night earlier this year. First a small, tweed-clad man with piercing eyes – Ralph Fiennes – and then a lanky woman in a knitted cap who turned out to be Keira Knightley. They were up here filming The Duchess. All fwightfully glamorous, but the best thing about the DA, apart fro being chic and cosy with real fires, stone lintels and the rest of it, is that it does Perrier Jouet by the glass, which is quite a rare thing round here. The other place you can get that locally is the very pretty Peacock Hotel at Rowsley, which belongs to the Haddon Hall Estate, and has the most atmospheric bar, all dark oil paintings and oak-panelled corners; you expect to see Dr Johnson or someone sitting there. They do nice olives, too.
We always have a roast dinner on Sundays, even if it is just us two. Usually it's a free-range chicken roasted atop two large sliced organic carrots, accompanied by roast potatoes cooked in goose fat. We had a goose last Christmas and the wonderful, snowy-white fat, preserved in jars in the fridge, has been sticking to our ribs ever since. Goose fat is the most wonderful thing to roast potatoes in, it really permeates and softens in the most unctuous fashion. To accompany all this we might have a really garlicky salad (we're often dangerous to approach on Mondays). The chicken carcass is always made into stock – to have as ravioli in brodo during the week, and the remaining meat cut up for the children, who might have it as a curry one day after school.
Our favourite Sunday lunch pub is the wonderful Barley Mow in Bonsall, a hilltop village near Matlock. We have known the landlord, Alan Webster, for years and he is a great character, full of hilarious stories, as well as an accomplished musician who often performs in the tiny front room of the pub. His wife Ann makes wonderful chips, amazing ham rolls and shockingly delicious chocolate sponge pudding. In the summer you can sit outside on the sunny terrace and sample the many excellent local beers – anything from the Leatherbritches brewery is brilliant, despite the rather rude names like Hairy Helmet. Hartington is another great local brew. Besides being a world-class raconteur, Alan is a connoisseur of the unexplained and does UFO walks on the local moor, where apparently NASA has taken an interest in the extra-terrestial activity spotted and in some cases, filmed.
A wonderful place to take children locally is Siam Corner, a Thai restaurant in Glumangate, Chesterfield. The staff are lovely, the food wonderfully fresh-tasting, full of herbs – I love the green curry especially. And – also vital for littles - the décor is just thrilling, lots of carved red-and-gold screens, throne-like chairs, plates with pictures on and bronze bamboo knive and forks. It's great for kids because they do rice and nibbly things, but mostly because the staff are very relaxed. We come here sometimes for Sunday lunch if we've been to St Mary's (the famous church with the crooked spire Chesterfield is famous for). Another childs' must-stop in Chesterfield is Aunty Dot's Sweet Stall in the covered market, it's been there since the Sixties. A nice lady in an overall and her male assistant sell aniseed balls, licquorice allsorts, Midget Gems and every sweet you have ever dreamed of by weight in white paper bags, from glass jars.
A great place for home-made cakes is the WI weekly cake stall in Matlock's fabulously-named Imperial Rooms on Friday mornings. Forget the stripping, prostitution-policing WI, this is the full-strength jam-and-cake-baking variety. You have to get there early for the best cakes, such as the Tunisian semolina one studded with almonds and soaked in syrup, but whatever time you arrive there's usually a chocolate cake, a lemon drizzle loaf and (my favourite) butterfly buns. Also something called Millionaire's Slice which is caramel shortbread with chocolate on top. Judging by the labels, the same woman makes most of the cakes, she must have her bottom eternally in the air, peering into the oven. I'm full of admiration for her.
There are plenty of farms around, and plenty of farm shops. The most glamorous is Chatsworth, where you can get wonderful meat, especially lamb, from off the estate; you can eat the sheep you drive past on your way to visit the place. We love to buy a gigot and lace it with rosemary and garlic for that Mediterranean-in-Derbyshire experience. But you can also get great sausages, including something called the Duke's sausages, and very fancy burgers – pork and apple, lamb and mint, for elegant barbecues. I particularly love the cakes they make there in their bakery; there's a Victoria sponge with so much filling it gives you palpitations. Always the sign of a good cake in my view.
I love the market in Sheffield, about twenty five mins away. All human life is there as well as fabulous fish stall Anthony Andrews. They have wonderful seabass and great cod for aioli, one of my favourite things. My husband makes it for me, it's a Provencal speciality, something I developed a taste for over twenty odd years of visiting the South of France (they do a particularly fine version at the Colombe 'Or in St Paul de Vence. As well as the steamed cod you have a boiled carrot, boiled egg, steamed courgette and a potato, and a great dollop of garlic mayonnaise. I don't make my own I cheat by adding lots of extra garlic to the French mayo you get in tubs from Waitrose.
The traditional village is changing. Some settlements may still harbour the blue-rinsed parish councillor, the white-haired vicar, the patrician Lady of the Manor, the gothic publican and the horny-handed son of toil. But many others are gentrifying, barn-converting and handing over the Big House (and lots of the smaller ones too) to new owners, some of whose only previous glimpse of the country was a walk in Hyde Park. Debate rages over whether this is pushing up prices and driving out the locals; the realities of the modern economy versus the claims of the indigenous and so on; what seems certain is that it's irreversible. And so we had all better get used to the new village types. Wendy Holden, whose new novel is set among new-style villagers, introduces us to the ones to watch.
Every Friday night Beth swaps the delis and designer shops of Holland Park for simple weekends at the bijou country cottage in Wellover husband Alex's bonus has just bought. They only paid a little over the asking price, so why don't the locals like them? Alex says she's being paranoid, but there were muddy tyre-marks all over the latest package from Cath Kidston, left outside to await their arrival, as if someone going up the lane had deliberately tried to drive into it. But Beth can always forget her worries in contemplation of Bijou Cottage, all stripped wood and artfully distressed paint, full of genuine rustic touches such as framed pictures standing around on easels and underfloor heating. Oh, and proper dustbins outside in genuine old-fashioned aluminium which they've had painted a tasteful Farrow and Ball sage. Sadly, not everyone in Wellover appreciates the beauty of their surroundings; the rackety family in the cottage above seem to have three three-piece suites; one for the inside, one rotting in the back garden for the kids to jump around on and the other rotting out the front next to the permanently-installed skip. "It's like living next door to the world's smallest council estate," grumbles Alex, who notes that neither parent seems to work. "People shouldn't be allowed to live in nice places if they can't appreciate them," says Beth.
Toby's been running The Peppercorn at Wellover for the last two years and has overseen its transformation from gloomy village boozer to permanent fixture on 'Britain's Best Pubs' lists. In its former incarnation, The Plough, a collection of morose locals spent all night nursing pints of Stella beneath the striplights, but now it's all candlelit corners, waiters in long white aprons and stubby oak stools. Toby's got twenty whites, twenty reds and three roses by the glass at any one time. The food's Modern Traditional and all about local produce; local lamb, beef 'and if this isn't Britain's best sausage, I don't know what is,' Toby says of the pub's 'witty modern take on nursery classic toad in the hole', retailing at £17.25. "Witty? Bloody hilarious," the farmers who actually supply the meat grumble to each other. A bowl of chips ('thickly-sliced, hand-selected Maris Pipers, lovingly fried to order in award-winning beef dripping and served with a scattering of Maldon sea salt') costs £5.95, which is obviously out of the reach of the teenagers who congregate in the chilly bus shelter to sniff glue, just as it's out of the reach of The Plough's former patrons. And that's the way Toby likes it. The Peppercorn may be, as it boasts on the website, 'a real traditional village local', but the locals it's after are anything but.
Kate's a sub-editor on a lifestyle magazine. She lives from Monday to Friday in Palmer's Green but on Friday nights she heads for Paddington and the hot and overcrowded train to her own corner of Paradise. She emerges into the starlit night at Wellover station, throws one leg over the saddle of the sit-up-and-beg bicycle she keeps there and sets off to her tiny cottage. It used to be the village shop, which Kate feels a bit guilty about, but it was cheap and now she's hit it with the Farrow and Ball it looks a treat. She's desperate to be accepted within the village and has joined everything from the bellringers to the allotment society, although unfortunately her plot's next to Bert Sidebottom's. He's an unreconstructed sexist septuagenarian, a sort of rural Alf Garnett, and sneers at her floral wellies. Kate's 36 and single and was hoping for better things, but decent men seem even rarer in the country than in the city. It would be so much easier if she were a lesbian.
It's been years since Wellover had its own boy in blue on the beat, but now it's got a girl in green. Despite Morag stopping them in the street about it and pushing leaflets through their door, the Kensington weekenders have obviously no intention of swapping their gas-guzzling people carrier for one that runs on corn oil. Morag herself has kept her transport carbon footprint low with a converted ambulance, although it takes up to ten minutes to get it started, exudes toxic black fumes and still has its blood-red stripe down the side. The old lady down the street objects to it being parked outside her cottage, saying it makes her feel nervous, but that's just typical of the me, me, me attitude to the environment, Morag reckons. Having got on the village Allotment Committee, she's managed to outlaw pesticides and is now mooting that all plots must be ploughed in the traditional way, with a horse, although there's resistance to this among the mini-tractor-owning classes. Nor is this the only resistance Morag is currently facing: her daughter Merlin, nearly eight, wants a Disney birthday party with plastic glasses, MacDonalds and the type of pink nylon princess dress that takes four centuries to biodegrade.
Nat was big in the Nineties – well, his Britpop band was. Nat was on drums and a bit more in the background, but he's certainly the highest profile of all the lads now he's reinvented himself as a country gentleman. The newspapers and magazines are rushing to do pieces about his restored farm, especially the outhouses where he and his best mates Damian Hirst and Kate Moss were having a laugh one day when they came across this, like, ancient bread oven. Fast forward six months and Nat's running his own speciality bread business 'BreadHead', taking the ancient art of breadbaking back to where it came from. Authenticity is its USP; Nat may have been permanently out of his box in the Nineties, but he gets his biggest kicks now from a really banging stoneground wholemeal. And BreadHead's breads have been a huge hit, possibly bigger than some of Nat's bands originals; sold in Harrods, Harvey Nicks and Trudie Styler's hampers. Nat's delighted to be part of the movement in which small producers reinvigorate their local area, even if his bread's way out of the reach of most of the locals. Although it is served in the Peppercorn.
Olly wasn't happy at school in London, and Anna and Henry weren't happy with the cost of living there, so they decided this was the moment they'd sort of been waiting for. Anna packed in her part-time at a publisher's and they flogged the Stoke Newington terrace (just after the house prices plunged) for a former vicarage in Wellover three times the size. Oliver goes to a local prep school which didn't seem far when they first went to see it, but Anna now spends up to five hours a day in the MegaCruiser, dropping him off, picking him up and generally ferrying him around.And it was all going to be so wonderful; gardening in the sunshine, stews on the Aga, new friends in the village, but thanks to the school run, the lawn is as much a rambling wilderness as Anna's social diary. It's all Henry's fault, flouncing off to London every Monday-till-Thursday and having all that fun and social stimulation (which he has the cheek to moan about) while she's home, alone. She's starting to dream about the Oxford Street John Lewis and never thought she could miss Pret A Manger sushi like this.
Monty is the last of the ancient Longshott line, holders of the ancient estate of Wellover Manor. There's been a Longshott here for six hundred years, enduring the worst that history could throw at them. But nothing's been as bad as the Noughties. The place is falling down and they can't afford to repair it. Frankly, they can't afford anything. They live off marked-down ready meals from NicePrice and new clothes are a distant memory. But they're determined to stay and are raising funds any which way. Themed weddings in the Great Hall have been reasonably successful, although fat bikers from Birmingham dressed up as King Arthur (not to mention Guinevere) are hardly covering the heating costs. There is, Monty thinks, a certain gallows humour in the fact the poorest people in the village are the ones at the manor. His father would be unable to believe it, just like that awful Morag woman obviously doesn't, muttering about outdated antidemocratic patriarchal face-grinders whenever he sees her in the village.
a) Enter every single category, marking all your things 'ORGANIC' in planet-friendly black marker. You've been hand-picking the slugs off your brassicas for weeks and no-one's going to deny you your big moment
b) Enter the carrot and baking categories, but buy the vegetables from Waitrose and the cakes from Baker and Spice.
c) Intend to enter the Baking Competition but then get side-tracked by a cleaner crisis
d) Enter a selection of your speciality breads and organise a film crew and The Guardian to cover this fabulous little local event. It's good publicity for the area; the fact it doesn't do you any harm either isn't the issue.
a) Say you don't go in churches. It's all an oppressive patriarchal conspiracy. God was the original absentee father, right?
b) Refuse. You're a red-blooded heterosexual male
c) You'd love to but all your evenings are spent laying out your son's rugby kit and cattle-prodding him through his piano practice
d) Accept with delight, you've always wanted to have a go at bell-ringing. In fact, you're thinking of including it on your next album, a collaboration with Sting
a) The increasing number of rich incomers threatening the rights of traditional villagers like yourself, arriving from Surrey two years ago
b) The fact there aren't holes big enough for magnums in the village bottle bank
c) The local kids hanging around the bus stop just outside your house. You're alone with your little boy in the evenings a lot. Isn't there anywhere else they can go?
d) Getting support for planning permission for your helipad
a) Bringing back the ducking stool and putting all the four wheel drive owners in it.
b) An oyster and Chablis bar
c) Your son has suggested a rifle range with real bullets
d) To think big, think global as well as local. Why not absorb the whole thing into a 'Save The Earth' concert? You're sure you could persuade the boys to reform. And it would be great publicity for the area
Mostly (a)s – calm down! You're heading, not to a glorious, greener future, but high blood pressure and getting up everyone's noses; mostly (b)s – dah-ling! You're not taking it terribly seriously, are you? Be a spot more sensitive; mostly (c)s – Either tune in and turn on, or go back to London; mostly (d)s While you're rich and very possibly famous, the locals may well be laughing at you rather than with you.
IF you had limitless money, where would you go to have dirty fun? In honour of my novel, Filthy Rich , I went in search of the filthiest, richest experience that was on the right side of legal. Which is why, one Friday morning a couple of weeks ago, you'd have found me naked and face down on the bed, being rubbed all over with chocolate. And then all over again with cream.
Welcome to Pennyhill Park, a hotel in Surrey whose spa has been named the best in Europe. As indeed anyone who offers an all-body moisturising and exfoliation treatment involving organic chocolate, shea butter, sugar and vanilla cream should, frankly. It was every bit as filthy as I wanted – I looked like a mud-wrestler, and the deep and guilty joy of mucking up enormous numbers of lovely clean towels was all part of the fun. It was rich too; the shea butter and vanilla cream left me feeling supple and smooth. It was, however, a bit tricky to wash off and I was glad to complete this process without a fire alarm drill.
PP specialises in the sort of ultra-pampering that has leading WAGs and film stars gliding practially non-stop up its winding drive through a parkland of mature trees. Nicole, Jude, Justin, Kate, Cameron and Joan Collins have all popped in recently and, from the sound of it, you can hardly keep Daniel Craig away. Zara Phillips enjoyed a spa day and Madonna is rumoured to be a member of the £50,000 a year gym. On the WAG front, Abigail Clancy and Peter Crouch have been spotted lately and the week I was there I only just missed Ashley and Cheryl Cole who had just dropped by for a his and hers hot stone treatment. The couple who spa together, stay together, obviously.
January, of course, is the traditional month for self-improvement, detox and the rest of it. And, if you want to, you can self-deny beautifully at Pennyhill Park. But much better news for sybaritic types like me, who find January depressing enough without taking away wine, chocolate and everything else that makes life worth living, is that you can also self-indulge, and on a scale that's hard to imagine if your idea of a spa is mineral water, lettuce leaves and exercise classes. Pennyhill Park's the type of place where you're offered a lie-down on a heated gel bed to recover from your massage. It's the ultimate spa for softies.
Purpose-built five years ago to the tune of £27 million, the Pennyhill Park spa is enormous. The look is basically white waffle upholstery contrasting with deep brown teak furniture and shutters. Wall-lights are muted and vaguely classical in style, mosaics abound and candles flicker on every windowledge. There's marble, marble, everywhere; the marble-lined showers are big enough to park a car in (admittedly more of a SmartCar than one of the vast silver Bentleys with personalised plates that crowd the hotel parking area).
There are lots of fun touches; there's a swing in the ladies changing room and you can change the shower settings from Niagara Falls (overhead) to Spa Falls (sprays from side) to Highland Mist (gentle steam). For saunaphobes like me, there are jolly variations on the basic steam and sauna combo including a Schnapps Room and an Ice Room where the freezing air tastes zingingly of mint. Oh, and some tiled thrones offering DIY foot massage.
PP (as I now think of it) even has a Michelin-starred restaurant (although frankly, everything round here has; Heston Blumenthal and his Fat Duck are just up the road) where I enjoyed a delicious three-course lunch for a stunningly bargainous £28. Each course was an affair of bonsai perfection served on plates the size of car tyres and interspersed with wonderful extras such as truffled ricotta and celeriac mousse. There were no WAGs in the restaurant sadly; rather, an old couple straight out of Sue MacCartney-Snape. The man talked endlessly while the woman said nothing until, at the end, she dramatically exclaimed 'Jesus!' I looked over in surprise to see she was actually saying 'Cheeses' – the large trolley of which had just arrived at their table. The wine list has endless champagnes, all of which are available by the glass. So it was bye bye Badoit for me, I'm afraid.
After lunch, it was back to the grind again; time for my champagne and mandarin pedicure. I was, I confess, looking forward to this least thanks to an acute case of toenail shame. The pedicurist assured me she had seen worse (I think she was lying) and, after forty or so minutes of deft work which saw my feet being rubbed with champagne and mandarin cream, wrapped in cellophane and placed in electric bootees, hey presto, I had ten coral-tipped and thoroughly St Tropez toes.
PP has no less than eight pools in its 'Thermal Heaven'. If you froze over the massive main swimming pool it could be a winter Olympic venue. The other seven pools are a combination of different-sized Jacuzzis, plus an outdoor swimming pool and a ice-cold plunge pool. The latter was the only one I didn't go in; it was just after lunch and I was worried my heart would stop. But in the interests of journalistic thoroughness I went in all the others and can report that they were wet, warm and some of the Jacuzzis had giant bubbling towel-rail-like things you could sit on.
And yet, for all this, you don't have to be a WAG, a film star or even filthy rich to come here; PP does incredibly good value special offers combining treatments with overnight stays which anyone wanting a pick-me-up right now should look into. Because, darlings, you're worth it.
Isabella's 7th birthday cakes from a patisserie in Antibes
Who can resist macaroons? (or make them, come to that?!)
From a small friend's birthday party, cakes by our local yummiest mummy (in every sense),
My Dad's birthday cake - you can see what sport he's into!
I'm no domestic goddess, but I do love nice buns! So at weekends my 6 year old daughter and I often put our mixing bowls through their paces. Here are some of our most recent efforts. I am particularly proud of the icing on the small cakes - done with a nozzle, although, being a very cheap plastic one, it soon broke under the sheer force of our creativity...
Some shots from a recent holiday: the view over the sea at St Michael's Mount, magnolia in the gardens at Trengwainton, the beach at St Ives, lunch with friends at The Gurnard's Head, Zennor, an onion apparently named after our LandRover Defender, The Red Baron....
A spooky bedroom in the creepy Palais Lascaris in the backstreets of Nice.
Good advice for pianists (do it softly, not violently). Good advice for anyone, come to that!
Isabella and I looking at the wonderful Villa Ile de France, Cap Ferrat in the South of France.
I love merry-go-rounds. This one is in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris, where we usually go for New Year with friends.
Virginia Woolf's Lighthouse from Godrevy Beach, Cornwall.
Slightly flatter Derbyshire landscape!
Cake! Especially like this decorated by the children!
Chocolate Sundaes at the Harbour Bar, Scarborough, Yorkshire.
A glass of something chilly and fizzy!
Slightly rude I know but this road sign in Scarborough never fails to make me laugh.
Paintings. This is one by Sophie Macpherson, one of my favourite contemporary artists
Posy Simmonds is a comic genius and these books are masterpieces
Sue Townsend is also a comic genius and these books are also masterpieces. I drop everything to read the latest Adrian.
(all by Richmal Crompton)
Proving, as with Simmonds and Townsend (and Mitford) that no-one writes comic fiction like British women!
Another great British humorist - and romantic - the irrepressible, inimitable, fabulous Jilly Cooper.
Unmissable, wonderful, heartrending, and warning to us all about the dangers of reading too many novels! I especially love the bit when Emma wants a torchlight midnight wedding.
Kitty and Levin are far and away my favourite literary lovers; they leave Lizzie and Mr Darcy standing
The Wind in The Willows
Adorable Ratty, the kindest and least snobbish friend in fiction, paired with the irresistably pompous Toad.
Love in a Cold Climate
Funny, romantic, glamorous take on how the other half lived, packed with brilliant characters
This is a hilarious send-up of fashionable people in 1960s California. It made me laugh so much I cried and so I had to stop reading it on trains
The Great Gatsby
What happened when a poor boy could not marry a rich girl. Heartbreaking, romantic and so, so glamorous
A Woman of Substance
Quite simply the most magnificent British women's commercial novel ever written. Wish I had!