Freedom of the Line – Dining Along the River Severn

For Christmas 2013 Frank and I received a wonderful experience gift from my sister and brother-in-law. We were given the freedom of the line on the Severn Valley Railway and a dining voucher for two. I’ve always wanted to travel on the Orient Express but this seemed more within our reach! The Severn Valley Railway is a full-size standard-gauge railway line running regular, mainly steam-hauled, passenger trains between Kidderminster in Worcestershire and Bridgnorth in Shropshire, a distance of about sixteen miles.

The journey is full of interest, as the route follows closely the meandering course of the River Severn for most of the way on its journey between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth. One highlight of the trip is the crossing of the River Severn by means of the Victoria Bridge – a massive 200-foot single span, high above the water which, incidentally, features in the film ‘The Thirty-nine Steps’ with Robert Powell in the leading role. Trains have been a source of inspiration for writers for as long as they exist. The most famous being Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.

There being few roads in the Severn Valley, some of the views are only visible from the Railway. The scenery is varied and largely unspoiled, punctuated by the quaint ‘olde worlde’ charm of country stations, each one giving ready access to local villages and riverside walks.

A remarkable feature of the Railway not readily appreciated by visitors is that it is very largely run by unpaid volunteers, with a paid staff of around 70 people responsible for administration and commercial activities, plus regular track and rolling stock maintenance. Throughout the year, volunteers appear on the Railway to perform many tasks, including repairing and repainting stations, reconstruction of viaducts and bridges, and rebuilding locomotives and rolling stock not to mention the operation of the trains.

On the dining car we enjoyed a Jacques Tati type holiday atmosphere with jovial serving staff and passengers all enjoying a carefree day. The carriage aahhed in unison at the sight of a baby elephant gamboling in the safari park, not something you expect to see in the Worcestershire countryside!

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The Prince Who Kept Mum – Delving into Delft

Willem de Zwijger, (William the Silent) was the founding father of the Dutch monarchy. Zwijgen is a verb that can’t be translated directly into an English verb. We have the expression, keeping mum, which means the speaker knows about something but chooses not to reveal the information.

The Nickname
Legend has it that while William was out hunting with the King of France, the King revealed the Spanish Duke of Alba’s plans to get rid of all the Protestants in the Netherlands. By keeping mum and pretending to know of the plans already, William discovered the Duke’s plan of attack. William was the main leader of the Dutch revolt against the Spanish that set off the Eighty Years’ War, finally resulting in the formal independence of the United Provinces in 1648.

He became Prince of Orange in 1544, founder of the branch, House of Orange-Nassau and the ancestor of the present monarchy of the Netherlands. Dutch royals are buried in de Nieuwe Kerk in Delft. What Westminster Abbey is to the English Royal family, de Nieuwe Kerk is to the Dutch royal family. Old Will was a big cheese, quite good looking in his youth and he has one mighty mausoleum to prove it!

Delft is a very picturesque and compact city, a sort of mini-Bruges, but minus the hordes of tourists. The people are friendly and laid back. You’ll notice that the water level of the canals is much higher than in Amsterdam. This is very pleasing to the eye and visually the water is better integrated into the cityscape.

Its connection with the artist, Vermeer also attracts a lot of visitors. Since the book and the film of ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring,’ Vermeer’s popularity has grown and Delft is a pilgrimage for art lovers. You can visit The Vermeer Centre and discover how he mastered his unique depiction of light. We didn’t because my husband said he was getting a bit tired of the endless depictions of ‘The Girl With the Pearl Earring,’ and besides it was beer o’ clock…

Great places to eat, drink and lay your head
de Plantaan Hotel. Huge bar where you can sit for ages in a deep armchair and look out onto the beautiful sycamore tree. Themed rooms offer an exotic sleepover for the very tired tourist.

‘t Postkantoor is the former post office building transformed into a retro restaurant with fifties style decor. Outside there’s a lovely terrace, with Far Eastern-inspired patio furniture. Great food in an unusual setting.


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Yes Sir, Yes Sir, Three Bags Full!

Have you heard my latest? I’ve adopted a sheep! And not just any old sheep. Oh no, this one’s a rare breed. Ouessant sheep are named after the island, 18 miles off the west coast of Brittany. They are mainly black, very hardy and purported to be the smallest breed of sheep in the world! Only reachable by ferry or small aircraft, the island covers six square miles. With harsh weather, strong winds and storms the island boasts six lighthouses and is definitely not a place for the faint-hearted.

For many centuries, the island dwellers lived mainly from fishing and kept the sheep for their wool. The black fleece was popular for weaving because the population was often in mourning for fishermen lost at sea. However, with the dawn of the 20th century the dense, black wool of the Ouessant became unpopular because it was so difficult to dye and commercially useless. The islanders imported paler sheep from the mainland and soon the Ouessant was in danger of dying out altogether. However, a few kindly and determined souls decided to rescue and maintain the bloodline of this now rare breed.

‘My’ sheep lives on de buurtboerderij, Ons Genoegen (Our Enjoyment) in the Westerpark. De Buurtboerderij is a former farmhouse, lovingly converted into a vibrant community centre run mainly by volunteers. For just 50 euros you can help the shepherdess Monique maintain the herd of 23 sheep.  The last weekend in June was sheep-shearing day so I donned my Bathsheba Everdene frock and sashayed down to the ol’ farm to pour out some cideeeer and take a few snaps.

A blast from the past – the two black and white photos are of me and my mum with Mum’s prize-winning herd of Clun Forests and ram lamb champion, Rocky in 1966. Clun Forests are also now a rare breed. Bred mainly for wool they originate from Shropshire in England.

Get in touch with the sheep whisperer
Donations can be made here:
IBAN: NL21INGB 0000008081
t.n.v. De Regenboog Groep
KvK: 41198390 te Amsterdam
RSIN: 003790046 – State donation sheep, or adopt a sheep
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Birthday Swag Bag – Blog Hop

Fill a virtual goodie bag! How could I resist? The plan is to put all my favourite or desired items into a swag bag for a significant birthday including: a book, beauty product, snack food, music album and ‘my choice’. By the way, dear readers, my real birthday is approaching soon so sit up and pay attention ;)

I was asked by my Writers Abroad chum, Louise Charles to take part in this blog hop. Louise has just published her novel, The Duke’s Shadow. Set in mid-Victorian times, if you enjoy period dramas such as Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey you will love Louise’s book!


Book: As Virginia Woolf said, every woman needs a room of her own, or better still a shed of her own! Preferably one without hubby’s tools getting in the way! I mean gardening tools of course. What else? Gill Heriz, author of ‘A Woman’s Shed’ has interviewed over 80 different women, and Nicolette Hallett has photographed their sheds creating this unique insight into why women have sheds, and what they do in them. There are sheds for puppet-makers, sculptors, and writers, as well as farmers, furniture-makers, and woodcutters.



Beauty Product: Who could resist a lipstick called Pudgy Peony? Especially when it’s packaged so perfectly like the Clinique Chubby Sticks. I don’t know who they’ve got naming their colours but he or she is a genius; Chunky Cherry, Woppin’ Watermelon, Fuller Fig, Graped up, Voluptuous Violet, Mighty Mimosa, Whole Lotta Honey, ah it’s sheer retail poetry. Bountiful Blush is my favourite shade, so in it goes!



tyrrells2Snack Food: That’s easy peasy. I’m a Herefordshire lass (That’s HerEfordshire, not HerTfordshire!) and I loves me Tyrell’s Crisps. The spuds are grown in the rich red soil of home and they have nostalgic black and white pictures on the packets. So even when you’ve scoffed the lot you can keep the pic! Plus they’re artisan crisps so you don’t have to feel so guilty…




Music: I’ve always loved Middle Eastern music so I’d pop on my favourite Belly Dance Fantasy CD by Veena & Neena just to cheer myself up if I was feeling depressed about getting so old. I listen to Classic FM while driving the car, it keeps me calm.




My Choice: In ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,’ by C.S. Lewis, the children bump into Father Christmas when they are in Narnia, as you do! He’s the usual jolly, rotund figure and he gives all the children gender appropriate gifts. Some might say he was a bit sexist but hey, it was written a long time ago so get over it. He gives Peter a sword and shield, Susan a bow, a quiver of arrows and a magic horn and he presents Lucy with a bottle of cordial. At first she’s totally underwhelmed but then old Santa explains that a few drops of the magic potion will heal any injury or ailment. Sounds like the best pressie to me, so I’ll have a flagon of Lucy’s Healing Cordial in my virtual swag bag please. Thanks, Santa!


Next week the Swag Bag- Blog Hop passes on to the lovely and talented, Kathy Gamble who blogs about her experiences at home and overseas here Expat Alien

Join in the foray! What would you put in your swag bag?



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Happy Birthday, Vondelpark!

This year het Vondelpark, one of Amsterdam’s best known parks, celebrates its 150th birthday. To mark the occasion, school children were asked to create a sculpture that was inspired by the park. The children followed workshops with professional sculptors and then came up with their own ideas in miniature. Their mock-ups were displayed in het Vondelpark beginning of this year and passers-by could vote for their favourite. I was torn between the girl doing a handstand and the magpie with its chicks in a fast-food container. The pure joyfulness of the handstand girl appealed to me, but I also really loved the way the magpies exploited our throwaway culture; showing the redemptive power of nature. This outpouring of creativity was made possible by ArtZuid. If you have an Iphone you can download the exhibition app from their page or order a souvenir catalogue.

Both of my favourite sculptures were amongst the 20 selected and this morning I photographed the results. Not all the sculptures are shown below, but it’s a general taster, and hopefully you’ll go and have a look yourself! The exhibition runs till 24th August 2014. Try and go on a weekday to avoid the crowds. After releasing your inner child, have a bite to eat at the tranquil and affordable new age centre, de Roos, near the PC Hoofdstraat entrance.


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Off the Amsterdam Track

Because I live in Amsterdam, my special days out – especially in the tourist season – are often further afield. Yesterday, it was a visit to Leiden, a university town about 40 minutes south of Amsterdam.

At the Museum van Volkenkunde in Leiden there is a photography exhibition by Jimmy Nelson of indigenous people from all over the globe.  Nelson describes himself as a Shell child. His father worked for Shell and the Nelson family ricocheted around the world from secondment to secondment. Nelson went to boarding school in the UK from the age of seven but he felt, like so many expat children, rootless. His sense of belonging is something he finds within the human connection he experiences with his subjects. Each photo is planned meticulously, the photographer showing each group or individual at their best. There are no unguarded moments in his pictures. The only element I felt was missing was the vulnerability of indigenous peoples. Perhaps this can be explained by Nelson’s years working in the advertising world, but that aside, this record of the variation and beauty of the different peoples around the world is truly awe-inspiring.

I took a few snaps with my phone camera to share with you. Exhibition runs till 7 September 2014. Don’t miss it! And while you’re in Leiden, if it’s a sunny day, go to the Hortus Botanicus too. One of my favourite special places in the Netherlands.


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Cordially Yours xxx

The first time I ever tasted elderflower cordial was on Christmas Eve, 1998. It was added to a glass of champagne and served in the traditional Drentse restaurant, the Olde Posthuus, as an aperitif.
‘What is this veritable manna from heaven?’ I exclaimed – I often adopt Dickens-speak around the turn of the year – ‘It tastes like sunshine in a glass,’ my husband interjected.
‘Oh, that’s elderflower cordial,’ the waitress said. ‘It’s very popular in England.’

From that moment on, we were elderflower converts. Belvoir (pronounced Beaver) was our favourite brand and we always stocked up whenever we were in England. These days it’s available in Amsterdam at Marqt but with this current trend for foraging and all things home-made, Frank and I decided to have a go at concocting our own. I had to triple all the ingredients as my other half got a bit carried away while picking the elderflower heads. He came home with about one hundred instead of the thirty required for the recipe. It was definitely worth the effort though. The taste is truly sublime and beats the shop-bought stuff hands down.

Mary Berry says it’s also possible to pick the flower heads fresh and then freeze them straight away if you don’t have time to make the cordial. Put them straight in the mix when you take them out of the freezer. Don’t defrost first as they will go brown.

Last Monday I agreed to meet a girlfriend at de Roos. (New Age Centre in het Vondelpark.) I took some elderflower cordial along with me as a gift. And guess what? My girlfriend’s sister joined us for coffee and she also brought along a bottle of home-made elderflower cordial as a present for my friend. Now, that’s what I call synchronicity.

I hope I’ve inspired you to get out there when it stops raining and have a go yourself. I’d love to hear your foraging adventures!


  • 30 elderflower heads

  • 1.7litres/3 pints boiling water

  • 900g/2lb caster sugar (basterd suiker in NL. Yes, that’s what it’s called!)

  • 50g/2oz citric acid (available from Surinamese or Turkish supermarkets)

  • 2 unwaxed oranges, sliced

  • 3 unwaxed lemons, sliced

Preparation method

  1. Gently shake the elderflowers to remove any little creatures. Cut off the thick stalks.

  2. Pour the boiling water over the sugar in a very large mixing bowl. Stir well and leave to cool.

  3. Add the citric acid, the orange and lemon slices, and then the flowers.

  4. Leave in a cool place for 24 hours, stirring occasionally.

  5. Strain through some muslin and transfer to sterilised bottles.

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