Bookmark with Wendy Holden's name printed on the surface

’Oh, Mum, you're such an Ancient Geek!’: Wendy Holden visits Sicily’s historic ruins

Our holidays in recent years have been of the tried-and-tested beach variety. With small children and limited time, you don’t want surprises. On the other hand, there's a big world out there waiting to be explored.

OK, so Sicily’s hardly uncharted territory - history’s biggest empire-builders have made a beeline for it since the year dot. Now, going where the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Normans have gone before, are the McLeod-Holden family from Matlock, Derbyshire.

Sublime: It’s worth visiting the restored Greek theatre near Segesta for the views of the temple on the descent

On our easyJet flight we were full of romantic expectation. Would Palermo be packed with shiny black cars and sinister-looking men in dark glasses? Would the route to our south-coast holiday villa take in sunny hilltop settlements and vine-draped bars in ancient squares?

Perhaps it would, but initially the predominant feature was wind turbines, their huge arms wheeling lugubriously through the air. The link between subsidy-rich windfarms and organised crime has been widely speculated upon, but the number of turbines flanking the motorway heading south from Palermo was astonishing nonetheless.

Turbines do not make for beautiful views, and it turns out that they’re all over the wealthier eastern side of the island too, whereas the land we drove through later took on a distinctly ravaged look.

Dotted all around were concrete developments that seemed to have screeched to a halt, as if a man from the previously ignored planning department had turned up and demanded answers.

Would things improve? We hoped so. At any rate, our villa looked wonderful in the brochure, with white furniture on the garden decking and the warm blue sea beyond.

Alas, the property fell some way short of the palace we had expected. It needed a good lick of paint and already in residence was a stray dog. The nearby beach, meanwhile, which looked so tempting in the brochure, turned out to be full of plastic flotsam. Oh dear.

Who do you blame in such a case? You obviously have to be wary of glossy brochures, but surely it’s not unreasonable to expect some degree of verisimilitude, particularly at a cost of €2,000 a week in late autumn?

On the other hand, we’re Northerners. We make the best of things and get on with it. And there was plenty to get on with. The children were thrilled with the unexpected dog and completely impervious to the detritus on the beach. In any case, we had picked this spot because of its proximity to Sicily’s wealth of ancient Hellenic monuments.

We bent our minds to the glory that was Greece. Selinunte was the nearest site to us, a magnificent seaside spread of temples and town. The most fully restored site reminded me of the place in Jason And The Argonauts where the hero gets harried by the Harpies.

The other sites are mostly eloquent wrecks – great heaps of broken columns stand about like a visual metaphor for a bygone age of glory. In one town I had fun unleashing my inner Mary Beard on streets almost 3,000 years old. And in the remains of almost every house, we spotted what must have been the Kenwood Chef of its day – a large stone hollowed out in conical fashion where wheat for bread was ground.

What were all these Greeks doing here? Unlike subsequent waves of colonisers, they came not in a spirit of bold adventure but because they felt the motherland had nothing to offer them. However, the grudges they brought with them often continued &ndash Greek cities in Sicily were always fighting each other.

Our next port of call was Agrigento, Sicily’s most famous Greek site, a collection of ancient temples overlooking the sea. Unfortunately, they are themselves overlooked by the modern hilltop town of Agrigento, which is mostly a hideous heap of tatty concrete apartment blocks. As an argument against unrestricted development, you'd have to go a long way to beat it.

That said, we were quickly lost in the beauty of the ancient ruins, especially the vast Temple of Zeus, a monument the size of two football stadiums.

At the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the original paintwork on the column tops was visible. Admittedly, my children were less moved by this than I was – ’Mu-um! You're such an Ancient Geek …’ they shouted.

We almost didn’t visit Segesta at all as, by this point of our stay, we were a bit templed-out. We were actually trying to reach Monreale Cathedral, above Palermo but, having struggled through various detours (Sicily’s non-motorway roads are unpredictable), our route was blocked a few miles from our destination. We turned back and by chance found ourselves at Sicily’s other most notable Greek settlement.

What a picture. The single (unfinished) temple at Segesta is up there with Swaledale in sunshine, the fabled Colombe d’Or cafe in France at lunchtime or San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice at dusk. It sits like a perfect jewel against a background of soft hills, a Poussin painting come to life, a roofless Doric playpen for giant cherubs.

Above it is a restored Greek theatre that is worth going to see mainly for the sublime views of the temple on the descent. It was wildly windy during our visit; people back then must have spent a lot of time tugging down their togas. If you have time to visit only one Greek site on Sicily, make sure it’s this one.

The other big invaders leaving a lasting mark on the island were the Normans. Having always thought of them as grim conquerors living in freezing castles, I was surprised to find they had a fun side – positively sybaritic, in fact. The Norman Palace in Palermo is full of breezy marble-floored chambers suggestive of flowing silk robes and comely nymphs bearing sherbets.

Its high point is the 12th Century chapel built by Roger II (don’t you love the idea of a King Roger?). Its interior shimmers with gold mosaic, and on every wall Bible stories come vividly to life. In the scene of Noah’s Ark, people look out of the windows as if on a bus.

Above the altar is the serene face of Christ Pantocrator, Supreme Ruler of the Universe (the handle, meaning the Almighty, appealed greatly to my Star Wars-obsessed son).

Below him are the chapel’s dedicatees, St Peter and St Paul. Which early artist, I wondered, decided that while Peter had a thick thatch of white hair to go with his beard, Paul had only a cow-lick to save him from baldness?

Central Palermo is as chaotic as you'd expect. The Arab-influenced exterior of its great cathedral is worth a look, but the cathedral at Monreale is the one to see – another masterpiece in mosaic and, again, adorned to within an inch of its life.

The Christ Pantocrator here has the same Bee Gees-style hair as his counterpart in the Norman Palace, but there’s also an undeniable smirk on his face, as if he finds something irresistibly amusing about the crowds teeming below. We went up to the roof, from where the view was exhilarating, and out into the cloisters, which boasted scented gardens and carved columns.

In 1860, the Italians invaded Sicily. Marsala, on the western coast, is famous for its wine and for being where Italian unification kicked off. Landing here in 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi and his Redshirts swept northwards, initiating the process that pushed the Bourbon monarchy off the throne and reunified Italy under King Victor Emmanuel. Surely the conflict should have been called The Battle of the Biscuits.

Today Marsala is a backwater. Although there are some pretty streets and romantically rotting former wine warehouse buildings, little about it suggests such a dramatic past.

My (increasingly desperate) quest for a glamorous hilltop town led us to Erice, supposedly Sicily’s most romantic conglomeration of ancient cobbles and turrets. Unfortunately, thick fog during our visit made it impossible to see anything. By then, however, I’d hit upon another hilltop village that was also part literary pilgrimage. All was saved!

I first came across The Leopard, the great novel by Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, after watching the film version in which an Italian-speaking Burt Lancaster stars as the eponymous patriarch.

Picking up the book itself in a gift shop at Selinunte, I was instantly drawn into the decadent world of the declining Sicilian aristocracy. Realising that Santa Margherita de Belice, the setting for the novel, was near our villa, I was keen to visit it. However, the village, where Lampedusa stayed every summer in his grandmother’s palazzo had been flattened by an earthquake in 1968. So we arrived at Santa Margherita de Belice to find a characterless concrete settlement that sprang up after the catastrophe.

The enduring story in Santa Margherita today is less Lampedusa than the corruption and bureaucracy that left people living in temporary and unfit accommodation for decades after the quake. But villagers are rightly proud of their literary son and have opened a museum dedicated to him in the remains of his granny’s palazzo.

The original village may have been destroyed, but the surrounding countryside retains something of the drama and beauty described by Lampedusa – hills like fossilised waves, their lower slopes soft with olive groves where, as we drove past, seasonal pickers were hard at work.

There doesn’t seem to be a mechanised way of picking olives; as they have for centuries, people spread mats under the trees to catch falling fruit. After school finished for the day, local children were roped in to help. But some trades in the area were not so family-friendly: women in tight trousers standing by the road heading west were picking up something other than olives.

South-west Sicily, it has to be said, takes a bit of getting used in gastronomical terms, but there are charming restaurants to be found with true peasant dishes – whole grilled squid, and tagliatelle with rabbit ragu, for instance.

I also made the acquaintance of the island's emblematic dessert – cannoli. They're like giant brandy snaps filled with ricotta and studded with chopped candied fruits – a miracle of sweetness, crispness and freshness, and possibly one of the best things I have eaten anywhere, ever.

Would we recommend this part of Sicily to other families? Unquestionably yes, if you’re prepared to roll with the punches. It’s bold, friendly, chaotic and sometimes utterly spellbinding.

Decorative dividing device

Delighted by Derbyshire: Myths, Matlock and Mary Queen of Scots in a wonderful county

Of the many legends surrounding Mary Queen of Scots, perhaps the most astounding is that she once intended to escape to Matlock. Pleasant though the Derbyshire spa town is, the idea of a doomed monarch flinging herself on its bosom seems unlikely.

But Matlock and its surrounding area is full of sensational links with the past.

Few people know the Industrial Revolution was started at nearby Cromford – by a barber.

But more of that later. Back to Mary Stuart. In the early 1580s, the captive Mary was in the charge of the Earl of Shrewsbury. She was a slippery minx, always hatching plots and must have been the prisoner from hell.

Legend has it that while she was at the earl's Sheffield Castle, a boy called Anthony Babington became her page. Anthony became obsessed with the Queen and when she was moved to Wingfield Manor (just over the hill from his home near Matlock), he moved to try to save her.

The mythical failed plot to dig tunnels connecting the Babington home to Wingfield is the subject of children's book A Traveller In Time, by Alison Uttley. The consequence – Mary and Anthony's execution – is historical fact.

The Matlock area today is excellent for staycationing families or those seeking an interesting weekend break. There's lots of excellent accommodation to choose from, but what's really special is the fact you can stay in houses associated with great historical figures.

It's tricky to see Wingfield Manor now (pre-booked tours only, once a month), but you can stay in the Babington home, Manor Farm. Set in the medieval hamlet of Dethick, it's a child-friendly B&B owned by former Blue Peter presenter Simon Groom and his wife Gilly. It has a lovely garden, a vast Elizabethan kitchen and beautiful rooms.

Nearby is Lea Hall, the childhood home of Florence Nightingale and now a luxury holiday rental. A cheaper alternative is Willersley Castle Hotel in Cromford, the former mansion of Richard Arkwright, who established the world's first water-powered cotton mill in 1771.

In doing so, this former Lancashire barber unleashed the Industrial Revolution on the world. The cotton mills are a World Heritage Site with exhibitions – my children, aged seven and nine, went quiet after reading adverts recruiting factory hands their age.

The hotel, a palace Arkwright built in full view of the factory where infants toiled, has fabulous neoclassical detail and a pool complex. At the Peak District Mining Museum in the nearby village of Matlock Bath, which is housed in the former spa pavilion, displays spell out how much worse a kid's life could be than having to tag along with boring parents.

But Derbyshire is not all doom and gloom – to the west in the Manifold Valley lies some of England's finest countryside and Chatsworth – home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. It has lovely shops, wonderful grounds and art including Freuds, Rembrandts and a Leonardo.

Also unmissable is the lovely Haddon Hall, just a few miles from Matlock. Chesterfield, which is also close, is great fun with its outdoor market, cobbled streets and the famous church with a crooked spire, said to have twisted in disbelief when a virgin went up the aisle.

My husband's favourite sight is in Derby – the Derby County ground at Pride Park. But I'm more inclined to the inside of the city's cathedral (Bess of Hardwick's great Elizabethan tomb) and the work of English painter Joseph Wright of Derby, much of which is on display at the Derby Museum.

No child will ever forget its wonderful Bonnie Prince Charlie Room where, in candlelit gloom, a tartan-clad dummy of the dashing leader sits at dinner amid a display about how the Jacobite army, bent on London, got as far as Derby in 1745 before turning back, ultimately to Culloden.

Doomed Scots royalty, it seems, couldn't get enough of the environs of Matlock.

Decorative dividing device

A Very Civilised Invasion of Normandy

I wrote this piece for the Mail on Sunday travel section in March 2011

Despite living near Chesterfield, we'd been in a Norman place for some time. My daughter, 6, had been 'doing' the Bayeux Tapestry at her primary school (take that, you state education gloom–mongers). My son, 8, had been endlessly watching a DVD of the Battle of Hastings (not the actual thing, as I had to explain. Dan Snow wasn't around in 1066 although Peter might have been). I, meanwhile, was just recovering from re–reading the agonising Madame Bovary, by Rouen's most famous literary son Gustave Flaubert.

For the McLeod–Holden family, the time for invasion had come. The endless Easter holidays offered the perfect opportunity, especially as my husband was looking to escape from the Royal Wedding. Where could be more appropriate than the homeland of the original royal party pooper, William the Conqueror?

And how else to get to Normandy but by sea? The same sea over which came the Norman robber barons, gnashing their teeth at treacherous Harold. And back over which came the D–Day invasion force, preceded by minesweepers and followed by Mulberries. We arrived courtesy of delightful, efficient Brittany Ferries, from the motorway–accessible Portsmouth Port, which boasts a swish new terminal. Travelling overnight, we had a quick whirl around the ship shops and a walk out on deck before being tucked up in our comfy cabin until Caen Ouistreham. Compared with the outrageous price–hiking of trains and planes during school holidays, ferries are amazing value, as well as better fun.

Normandy is big, so getting around makes a car more or less essential. We hired ours from Europcar, the main operator in Caen, who were there on the dot as the ferry embarked, uniformed and all despite it's being 7am. As Ouistreham is outside Caen, it is important to book your car with Europcar in advance. We prefer a left–hand drive in France, but you also, of course, have the option of taking your own car on the ferry.

Normandy has changed since I was last there in the early 1980s. It's become incredibly glamorous. There are parts, especially around Barnville–le–Bertran, where it's all dappled dells and fudge–box half–timber and grass so shiny and bouncy it looks as if Nicky Clarke has been at it. We first stayed at a hotel in this area, The Auberge de la Source, which was so gasp–makingly pretty with its mediaeval–style buildings arranged round a central water–garden that it seemed a shame to spoil it with actual people. It proved a good base for a couple of days; there were other English families there and our long, spacious, attic–like room with its olive tones and stripped wood furniture was a crash–course in restrained good taste. There was more good taste every night in the small, simply–styled restaurant with its delicious fish–centric set menu.

We spent the remainder of our stay a few kilometres away at the lovely La Ferme St Simeon, again recommended for families as there's plenty of space as well as a huge pool and the hotel staff are impeccably helpful and polite. La Ferme was once a rustic inn where the likes of Monet and Boudin gathered for some peasant–chic artist action. There are a great many more swags, spas and minibars now, but the quaint thatched and half–timbered original building is still there, albeit now a garden–tool repository. Today's clientele stay in the large, vernacular but luxurious buildings which have sprung up around it, and eat in the formal restaurant with its chandeliers and heel–clicking waiters. This is high–end Norman dining at its best, with a superb wine–list to match – ready your livers. Honfleur is close by and also has restaurants for all pockets around the picturesque Bassin.

We spent happy times pottering around this cobbled and timbered old port so strongly associated with the Impressionists. It was initially difficult to conjure up the spirit of Monet and Boudin among the tourists shuffling around with numbers stuck to their T–shirts until a visit to the (emphatically untouristy) Musee Eugene Boudin revealed that the old man would have loved them. Many of the paintings from this impressive collection are oil sketches by Boudin of 1890s visitors doing their tourist thing – on the beach in crinolines and bowler hats, seated on curiously domestic wooden chairs. There are also several paintings of la Ferme St Simeon, which was exciting.

There's a folk costume bit to the museum, which might sound dull but Norman traditional bonnets have to be seen to be believed. Like Jodrell Bank with lace on. And the faded nineteenth–century bride's bouquets were pure Emma Bovary. Emma's naughty nemesis, Rodolphe, would doubtless have appreciated the potter we saw demonstrating her craft in Hornflower market place – rubber–gloved, straight–faced and drawing up her clay into a column so phallus–like it had the roguish Frenchmen in the crowd chortling, while the Anglo–Saxons looked impassively on.

Rouen was Flaubert's home city; in the novel Emma meets her second lover, Leon, in the cathedral. They're interested in other things than Gothic architecture, but it's a wonder to see. Especially as French cathedrals, in these parts anyway, are a gift–shop–free–zone. Rouen cathedral now is like a British cathedral fifteen years ago, all stone, sunshine, soaring arches and rush–seated wooden chairs. Thanks to this, I was able to get the children to copy stained–glass windows – they seemed rather to enjoy this – and see how most shapes had been designed with compasses. There's a sobriety to Normandy and its tourism which parents wanting children to learn something, rather than just buy something, might find helpful.

Rouen is of course also the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, the site is marked by a church of stratospheric ugliness, plus an unremarkable statue of the Eric Gill school. Poor Joan, it seems a bit tough. Normandy is obsessed with Guillaume le Conquerant, I'm not saying he wasn't some guy, but he was a noble with connections. While Joan was an uneducated peasant teenager who led the entire, huge, scary French army to victory against the English during the Hundred Years' War. Why the relative lack of fuss?

Normandy is, of course, a tale of two invasions. So first to the Conqueror himself, anyway, and the world–famous Tapestry at Bayeux. The lengthy–but–useful panel–by–panel explanation that used to precede the actual thing had gone from last time I was here. Everyone surrounding us had audioguides, from which tinny bursts of trumpet music came from time to time. You shuffle along in the dark, staring at the miracle of needlework unrolling like the cartoon strip it essentially is. As ever I was struck by the lovely, muted blues and ochres that age has not wearied in the least; the shaved Norman heads compared to the droopy English moustaches; the kebabs and barbecued chicken the Normans have as post–landing tucker at Pevensey; the way Harold goes everywhere with his pet bird (cf Flaubert and his parrot). History is stitched by the winners; I imagined William, who commissioned it, surveying the finished piece, chortling at the memories it evoked. No–one with even the slightest interest in British history should miss it.

No more than they should miss the five D Day beaches, Sword, Gold, Utah, Juno and Omaha, which stretch across the top of Normandy and the invasion of which by the Americans, British, Polish and Canadians in 1944 marked the beginning of the end for Hitler. There were of course heavy casualties, especially on Omaha Beach which was unexpectedly well–defended by the Germans. Up on the pine–screened hilltop stretch the endless white crosses of the American cemetery. Hundreds of people tread these impressive, manicured, sunlit lawns; relatively few seem to bother going down to the beach itself, shockingly evocative though it is with the bullet scars still raw in the bunkers, the wind battering the ears like gunfire and the endless rolling white–tipped waves like the souls of the dead coming in.

After such sober reflection one needs a jolly lunch to lift the spirits and the best place for this is Trouville. Trouville is the action end of Deauville, the resort associated with Coco Chanel,although it was hard to imagine the queen of simple chic among the bizarre nineteenth–century villas that line that seafront; great half–timbered Gothic barns bristling with towers and balconies.Perhaps she spent her time in Les Vapeurs, opposite the fish market, which is one of those sprawling Art Deco brasseries the French do so brilliantly. It buzzes with chat and aproned waiters bearing aloft vast trays; so swept along with the mood was I that I braved some bulots, a kind of whelk, all the time wishing I'd had sausage and chips like the children.

We finished our trip with a visit to Le Mont St Michel, whose reputation as tourist hell is undeserved. Seeing the strange, ethereal, spired mountain in the sea coming closer as you drive over the flatlands towards is a bit like seeing Gibraltar for the first time – more amazing than you imagine. The Bayeux Tapestry shows Harold and William (at the stage when they were mates) struggling past the Mont en route to quell the Bretons, their men and horses sinking in the quicksand. The towering granite monastery on top today (rampart's edge not recommended for the nervous) dates from the 12th century and was built after a vision of the Archangel Michael reputedly appeared to a local bishop. It is an amazingly intact sequence of stone–flagged rooms lit with lancet windows and held up with vast pillars and soaring vaulting. Perhaps inevitably, there is a gift shop here – Mont St Michel is riddled with them, but there are also small, clean and rather chic little bars where you can take a breather and stare down through the windows to those deceptively firm–looking miles of sand where William, all the time plotting to usurp him, once rode by Harold's side. On the day when another king–in–waiting was watching his own eventual successor get married in Westminster Abbey, there was a certain flavour to being here.

Back to the top

Decorative dividing device

My Country Life Diary

Barometer anxiety is not a widely–recognised medical condition. But I've been under pressure in more than one sense this week thanks to a malfunctioning antique weather–glass. In a rush of blood to the head I bought one as a birthday present for my husband, and the dealer from whom I bought it came and fixed it on the wall. After which the needle stayed resolutely put. 'Much Rain' it insisted, even as the sun blazed outside. The dealer came back and moved it to 'Fair'; scarcely had he rolled away in his Mercedes than the rain started drumming on the roof. The needle did not move. The dealer's due back – 'your threads are probably twisted' – he told me on the phone. Which is no doubt true, but what about the barometer? This, and the fact that I'm looking for yet another piano teacher for my children means I'm becoming a repository ofanxieties stemming entirely from my own aspiration. "I'm a character from one of my own novels," I wailed to a friend. "I'm a middle–class cliché."

She replied: "I can top that. This morning I've had a Polish builder, the Ocado man and a gay gardener."

Adding to my concerns was my daughter's birthday party. She wanted a worm party; every invitee was to be presented on arrival with a flower–pot and spoon and sent down to the vegetable patch to dig up wrigglers. But I couldn't see the mums going for it somehow. So what else? It's a jungle out there in the world of infant entertainment solutions – literally. A 'petting zoo' party I once took the children to, expecting bunnies and hamsters, turned out to be snakes and scorpions.One of the fathers got bitten by a tarantula. And everyone's seen the local clown before (the bit when he makes sausage dogs out of balloons always seemed more adult–oriented anyway). In the end we had a very successful party in the garden with games.

I was confident of sun; the barometer was at that point still riveted to 'Much Rain'. I review popular fiction for various organs and have recently noticed the rise of what I think of as 'tax lit'. This is a school of writing in which characters seem to be indulging in the author's own sybaritic tastes; possibly so she/he can claim them as research expenses. I may be imagining it: anyway, there's nothing new, or wrong, in setting stories in exotic locations amongst luxury–lovers. It's just that, increasingly, descriptions of their indulgences seem unnecessarily long and detailed. You can almost see the receipts attached. I daren't give examples in case I get sued, but next time you come across someone doing something expensive which doesn't contribute to the plot, ask yourself if I'm being cynical.

As a reviewer I also get sent many examples of another rising phenomenon, the Fascinating Author. Time was, press releases featured a synopsis of the novel and the barest details about its writer; 'X has two children and lives in Devon'. But these days, X is nowhere if she hasn't got half a side of thrilling personal titbits. In the last two weeks alone I've had releases about authors who also collect phrenologists' heads, are 'hugely knowledgeable about gypsy folklore' and use their psychic forces to assist the police.Makes me feel inadequate in comparison – 'daughter likes worm parties…owns failing barometer…'

And so, for my latest novel, Gallery Girl, I've become a high–concept contemporary artist alongside the day job. Gallery Girl is a comedy about contemporary art, inspired by the fact that most contemporary art is, well, hilarious.

To launch GG I, together with my husband, have hired a glamorous Cork Street gallery. Hiding behind the persona of Zeb Spaw, the bigheaded bad–boy artist who is the villain of the novel, we have produced a series of spoof cutting–edge contemporary artworks. 'Fifteen Metres Of Fame' is Zeb's hommage to Warhol, a fifteen–metre rope hung with pictures of celebrities mounted on cardboard (mostly All Bran boxes). 'Tripetych' is three panels featuring blown–up images of offal. We are quite proud of 'Hunter–Gatherer', shopping lists found abandoned in baskets in the local Waitrose and framed in rows of four. Will I win the Turner Prize? Who cares, it'll be a great launch party.

Our exhibition, angry_with_britain, will be ceremonially conveyed from our Derbyshire studio to Cork Street in our long–wheelbase Defender, a majestic beast we recently bought and christened The Red Baron because of its deep burgundy colour. We crowned the Baron with a roof rack, meaning that we are forever barred from the occasional car park (height limit 2m). But what of that, when the Defender's height means you can see over walls into gardens you never knew existed and look down on anyone who drives a Range Rover? There's also the roar of the engine (you can't hear the children squabbling), that gearstick, those air vents, that subtle lift of the palm from passing Defender drivers. This summer we plan to cram the Baron to its nine–person capacity and drive to north–west Scotland. It will be interesting to see who's still got fillings come Lochcarron.

Back to the top

Decorative dividing device


Written for Daily Telegraph, August 2011

These holidays, thousands of middle–class British families will go camping, possibly for the first time. They will be encouraged to do so by straitened finances, nostalgic memories of childhood under canvas and camping's new fashionability thanks to a predominant retro sensibility and the tidal wave of ‘cool camping’ books and articles giving the impression you can return to some 1950s paradise of fresh air and wholesome fun simply by bashing in a few pegs.

However, camping doesn't take place in the 1950s. It takes place in 2011. I’ve tried it three times over the past year or so and concluded that unless you’re deaf, insensate or under ten, camping in Britain can be a struggle.

Traditional camping, that is. Glamping was never an option for us. We would have felt silly in a tepee, yurt, gypsy bowtop or reconditioned vintage American trailer among people in witty Hunter wellies living the shabby chic dream. No, we wanted to stay in normal tents, on a normal site, with normal people. But is there, I now wonder, any such thing?

Our first effort was at a farm only an hour north of where we live in Derbyshire. People had ghettoblasters. The second site had a large and noisy group of teenagers. Having spent a lifetime laughing at Keith Pratt, the control–freak camper in Mike Leigh’s Nuts In May, it was disturbing to realise I agreed with him. But our children loved it and I was reluctant to surrender the picture in my mind’s eye of waking up in a lung–punching dawn to the sound of birds singing and breakfast sausages sizzling. So last weekend, in third–time–lucky mood, we arrived at a supposedly spacious, smart site in Wales.

We emerged from our vehicle to find the fields reverberating with vast stereos. From the size of the people and the strength of the accents it seemed that the less socially ambitious of Manchester and Liverpool were present in considerable number. Don't get me wrong, I'm working class myself. My mother grew up on a council estate. But that doesn't mean I wanted to holiday on one. Actually, I wanted to get straight back in the Defender and drive the four hours back to Derbyshire. My exhausted husband, however, refused. I sulked as the tents were erected and then climbed inside and cranked Radio 3 and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela up to the max.

Next day, the majesty of the dawn was severely compromised by the sound of revving engines as people charged their mobiles. Outside the shower block a woman was chainsmoking at 6.30am. As the morning progressed, I increasingly wondered why so many enormous people in bathrobes were zooming around in cars. I eventually twigged that they were driving themselves to the loos – evidently uninclined to walk. The site did, as advertised, have sea views, but it was the universal tattoos that caught the eye, as well as large bald men striding around in straining T–shirts with slogans like Eff Off, Are You Looking At My Cock (this legend below an image of a chicken) and Single Man, Double Vodka, Triple Sex (whatever that is). Many were accompanied by small children barely able to restrain devil dogs. Never have I so longed for a glimpse of Cath Kidston.

Were there any middle–class people at all on the site? It was in all the manuals aimed at Boden–wearers. Certainly there were none in the on–site bar where lager–swilling dads hunched over the fruit machines. Meanwhile, their buzz–cut offspring ran screaming round the adjacent playground eating blue ice–creams as Nintendos fell out of their Manchester United shorts. Eventually I spotted some thin people with wetsuits returning late from some outward bounding in an Audi estate. Clearly they’d woken early and got the hell out before the stereos started up.

My husband blames the tents. Once upon a time they were all ropes and poles and erecting one was impossible unless you were Baden Powell or Blashford Snell. Entire swathes of society were defeated by the complexity and went on caravan holidays instead. Now tents explode out of their zip–up bags and are up in seconds (although putting them back is a different matter).

Admittedly I was last in the queue when tolerance was handed out. And as a novelist I work in Trappist silence and live in a peaceful wood. But the issue is less this than the fact that the Great British Campsite has become the place where two mutually uncomprehending cultures meet. It’s where the aspirational middle–class Briton's need to recreate the (possibly fictional) simple paradise of the past clashes head–on with the need of those further down the income scale to have a cheap holiday. Not to mention make a row. ‘Keep unnecessary noise to a minimum’, camp site rules say. But it all turns on the 'necessary'. Some people obviously genuinely can’t function without a decibel level that makes your face fall off

As a professional satirist, a writer of comic novels, it’s my job to see the funny side of all this. I might even put it in a book one day. In the meantime, I’ll carry on looking for that El Dorado, the peaceful, perfect camp site. Probably I’ll have to buy my own farm. I’ll let you know. In the meantime, if you want to camp in Britain, my advice is – do it in your own garden.

Back to the top

Decorative dividing device


Venice is one of my favourite cities in the world. I went recently and wrote about it for the Mail on Sunday. Their headline for it was 'Mum, Can We Go To The Dodger's Palace Now Please?' and you will soon see why!

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!

Back to the top

Decorative dividing device


This is a tale of two types of tourism, the commercially run and the charitable. It wasn’t intended that way; it was supposed to be a gentle tour of the Elizabethan Midlands. But it turns out that Shakespeare Country and Virgin Queen territory are delivered, as the PR speak goes, via two distinct schools of visitor experience. The way of The National Trust and English Heritage, and the way of free enterprise.

Both schools have their critics; even I, a devoted NT–supporter, dislike those stately–home trouts who look at you witheringly over their bifocals if you as much as breathe on the stumpwork. So was it the tasteless fast–buck grabbers versus the respectful custodians? You’ll have to read on to find out.

Warwickshire, where we were headed, is a pretty area of fat silver rivers sliding between rich green fields. Our first port of call was Kenilworth Castle, whose history had been long and glorious even before it was extended and titivated by the ambitious Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He was a man not only desperate to marry Elizabeth I but with the deep pockets, the determination and, he believed, the royal encouragement to succeed. And Gay Lord Robert (as he was strikingly known) certainly didn’t do things by halves. By the time the Queen dropped by in 1575 on her fourth visit in the company of several hundred people and stayed for the best part of a month, Kenilworth had been rebuilt entirely to the Court’s requirements.

Dudley laid on every extravaganza; dramatic entertainments, fireworks, feasts, even a cutting–edge new garden. Funnily enough, he never got Shakespeare involved in his plays, despite his being a local lad, and perhaps this was Dudley’s big mistake. Because the Queen never married him and the fortress that embodied his dreams is now a romantic range of big red stone ruins on a green hillside and in the imaginative care of English Heritage. Recently, a team of their historical horticultural Sherlock Holmeses has fascinatingly reconstructed Dudley’s 1575 garden and the Earl’s enormous gatehouse has also been refurbished; it now contains an interesting exhibition which gives all the necessary information to not only write the above but to fire imaginations and send the panoply of the Elizabethan court rolling across the scene once more. Authentic, exciting and (apart from guidebooks and a pitstop at the stylish and roomy Great Barn café) entirely free for members.

Excited by the glamour of Kenilworth and fortified by the Warwick branch of Pizza Express (highly recommended), we were agog to see Warwick Castle, which we understood to be a more complete building with mediaeval state rooms. What we understood long before we ever got near them, however, was that the castle is in the business of extracting as much money as possible from visitors. In the car park, six pounds in coins was required to berth the vehicle (nb it’s £1.50 round the corner in the council–run spaces). But this is nothing compared to the £48 required for a family ticket into the castle (£78 if you want to go into the dungeons as well). On the day we visited, the state apartments were shut for the nuptials of a couple who had won a wedding through the local radio station. Huge posters advertising said station decorated the inner courtyard, rather compromising the mediaeval ambience, although this was in truth in short supply anyway thanks to a tasteless shop selling pink satin wimples and the kind of admissions gates only previously encountered on the Eurostar, all bleeps and flashing lights.

Inside the castle walls, more radio posters awaited, plus infantile, bright–blue, fake–mediaeval signs announcing the Pageant Playground (crammed and raucous) and the rose garden (beautiful, Victorian, dignified, virtually empty). Crossing the bridge to the impressive castellated keep, one might have caught a wisp of ancient atmosphere, but then came yet another cartoonishly–signed opportunity to pay £7.50 per head for the dungeons. Another sign promising ‘Knight and Princess Dress–Up’ seemed simply to point into yet another shop with yet more pink satin wimples. To cap it all, I overhead someone, possibly one of the management team, pointing at one of the last remaining areas with any dignity – a little terraced garden – and explaining that it was scheduled to be made into a Winter Wonderland train ride with fake snow.

It is possible to go through Warwick Castle; playground, shops, Dungeon, Dress–Up and all and learn not one single fact about this beautiful, dignified and ancient stronghold. While we all appreciate the challenges historic buildings face to survive, surely charging tourists so much yet offering them so little in terms of an authentic experience is not the answer.

And so, fuming rather, to Stratford, where we put up at the town centre’s Alveston Manor hotel, whose off–putting entrance undersells its incredibly nice staff, good rooms and food and wonderful new swimming pool. From here we set forth along the river, past workmen in hi–visibility jackets with the RSC logo on them (something very Shakespeare about that, remarked my husband) working on the vast and very exciting–looking new theatre complex. The small, boathousey Courtyard Theatre, a few hundred yards away, is where the RSC is operating from at the moment, so we popped in there for a spot of thespian ambience and to buy some foam Henry V crowns (as you do). Passing the celebrated actor’s watering hole, the Mucky Duck pub, we reached Holy Trinity Church where the Bard is buried. Here, one of the elderly volunteers declaimed and translated with Gielgudian passion Anne Hathaway’s Latin dedication on her husband’s monument. Everyone’s an actor in Stratford.

From here we tried to walk to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage but it turned out to be miles away. As it was raining we headed instead into the centre of the pretty, half–timbered town and The Birthplace (yes, it really is called that, reverent capitals and all), which you reach via the modern welcome centre. Here you are shut in the dark with booming video clips of crowns, brief candles, looming skulls and a copy of the First Folio in a glass box which lights up at the crucial moment. The children were terrified. But the romantic higgledy–piggledy Birthplace was interesting. It had a beautiful cottage garden, which we tried to enjoy despite the balding American declaiming ‘What’s In A Name’ for the Rotarians’ visit podcast. And while some of the period–costumed resting thesps in each room were slightly over–excited ‘… you are walking on the very stones that Shakespeare himself would undoubtedly have walked on…’ others had useful things to impart. I had not, for example, appreciated the fact that Shakespeare’s father’s being a glover meant the house reeked constantly and disgustingly from the materials he used (leather, in those days, was tanned with unspeakably nasty things like dog poo).

And yet here, too, one wonders ultimately how well the tourist is served. It costs £44.50 for a family pass to see all five Shakespeare Houses; you can’t pay to see less than three of them (£31). The full set comprises The Birthplace, New Place (the look–at–me house he bought at the end of his life), Hall Croft (home of his daughter Susanna and her doctor husband), Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Mary Arden’s Farm (childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother). The latter is a real working farm which is fun for children. But whether they’d be up to appreciating it after all the others is the moot point; getting around them all is arduous on foot, stop–start in a car and otherwise possible only via an ever–circling fleet of open–topped buses which send the price rocketing further and don’t seem that poetic, somehow.

So thank goodness for Charlecote Park, a beautiful red–brick Elizabethan mansion and parkland a mere few miles from Stratford and in the care of the National Trust. Its connection with Shakespeare is that the Bard once apparently poached a deer from here and was hauled up before the beak for his offence; the magistrate in question being Sir Thomas Lucy, the owner of Charlecote. Digs at country magistrates in his plays are thought to be referring to this incident, but it’s unlikely the Lucys would be offended any more. We were lucky enough to stumble across a Victorian Weekend in full fig; a Victorian Job Shop where both my children were taken on as indentured servants; mature ladies in long skirts and flowered boaters dancing with each other Cranford–style, and a really excellent storyteller/folk singer enthralling the crowds with historical anecdotes and ditties.

The children were genuinely absorbed and excited and admission, as with Kenilworth, was free to members. An annual NT family membership at £61.50 allowing free visits to all properties, or English Heritage equivalent at £72.50, costs less than one family (i.e. 4 person) visit to Warwick Castle – £84 including parking and the dungeon experience but excluding any shop or café experience. The Shakespeare Houses plus the bus fare are bound to be in the same ballpark (although you can return to the Houses any time in a twelve month period). Nonetheless, it’s pretty obvious, during this long, hot, stay–at–home credit–crunch summer, where the smart parents – and hopefully tourists too – will be putting their money.

Back to the top