With much excitement for what lay ahead we boarded the train from Paddington to Bristol which was the closest station to Thornbury Castle – the destination for Mum’s 80th birthday weekend. Amazingly my cousin, who had flown in that morning from New York, saw us struggling down the platform and we all ended up travelling together which was great. It was raining of course but even a grey wet day couldn’t detract from the childish wonder I felt on entering the gates of Thornbury. It was all very Harry Potterish yet warm and welcoming to boot. As usual our party was the loudest group there and we quickly seemed to overtake the place with our excited shrieking as various family members arrived piercing the calm of The Castle. Our rooms were simply divine. We were like kids in a candy store as we explored all the nooks and crannies and ooohed and aaaahed at the thickness of the huge stone walls and the height of our amazing 4 poster bed.
Thornbury has been in existence in some form or another for over 1000 years. In 1511 it was improved to the grandiose house it is today and in 1535 Henry 8th brought Anne Boleyn here when he was still in love with her and before thoughts of her beheading were on the cards and history simply oozes out of the walls. The wonderful Valerie engrossed us with the tales of yesteryear in a history tour like no other. She brought everything alive with her amazing knowledge and her talented storytelling made it feel anything but a history lesson! We could see the dips in the stone hearth of a huge fireplace where men from years gone by had worn a groove when they would have stood taking a warming stirrup cup on entering the castle to meet with The Duke. Apparently adopting the leg on hearth stance gave their calves a fine curve that was much admired in the 1500’s!! She ended her tour with some stories about the obligatory ghosts one would presume may still wander the rooms and halls of Thornbury and there was more than one of our party that had a sleepless night imagining they could see or hear all sorts of unusual things in the shadows of their rooms that night……..
Mum had reserved the Baronial dining room for her birthday dinner and we spent a couple of hours decorating it with all the paraphernalia you would expect for an 80th. My sister had organised as a surprise to have Mum’s family tree on both sides drawn up, which we displayed on the walls along with a slideshow of all the photos we could discover of Mum going back through her life all the way back to her childhood in the 1930’s. It was lovely to see her as a beautiful young woman and to be able to share it with her sister and her oldest friend who were celebrating alongside her. A suitably delicious meal and many beautiful wines completed our dining experience together with a cake (representing her time in the Navy as a Wren, a time which she holds very dear to this day) cleverly concocted by my talented sister.
Over the next couple of days we had plenty of opportunities to catch up with all our different family members and remember old times, it was really wonderful as we never get the opportunity to all be together, ever. It was especially nice to see the younger family members get to know each other and reconnect and we are very thankful to Mum for her generous gift to us all. Her first big birthday party – and what a way to do it!! The hotel was just lovely, warm, inviting and grand to boot.
I seriously think I will never be able to have a better a hotel room in my life. Everything about it was amazing. The size. The bed. The walls. The decor. Look how tiny I was in my ginormous bed – like a real life Princess and the Pea!!!
We all parted company for a couple of days until the girls reunited in Milan for 5 days together relaxing in Varenna on beautiful Lake Como. It is my second time on the Lake and I loved it just as much the second time around. It is packed full of every charming and picturesque thing you could ever imagine with a photo opportunity on every corner. A sensory overload of beautiful scenery, colour and an overwhelming sense of peace and relaxation. I cannot recommend it highly enough. To sleep at night with our gorgeous old doors flung open to the lake with the moon shining on the water and not a breath of wind or a mozzie to spoil it all was intoxicating. The rooms, simple and cool with their terrazzo floors and a ceiling fan lazily circling and with a little balcony to sit and watch the world go by was everything you could wish for. The church bells were the perfect backdrop to a town that has barely changed in hundreds of years.
We spent our days discovering various little towns on the lake. This was easy as the ferries criss cross the lake all day long and we could hop on and off at our pleasure. Bellagio, Mennagio, Lenno – all became familiar names and after a pootle around the various markets and an old villa or two we would invariably end up in the delightful village squares with a coffee or an aperol spritz and while away an hour or so before deciding where to lunch. The prosciutto and melon was out of this world, the wines cheap and cold and the pizzas thin and crispy. The lake fish was plentiful and tasty and every terrace offered views that took your breath away. I wish I was a painter as I wanted to replicate the views at every turn. The ochre coloured houses stacked on top of each other in a topsy turvy avalanche of gelato colours covered in blazingly bright bouganvillea all tumbling down to the lake made me want to whip out an easel and some paints. The fact that I was sharing this with some of my favourite people in the world only enhanced the experience and is one that I will treasure forever. Mum was amazing and never balked at the steep steps up to our hotel or the chunky cobbled lanes that dotted the town or the 30+ degree heat ( a great excuse to sample the local gelati of course!!) I can only hope to be half the woman she is at 80!!!
We discovered some beautiful little towns on the lake, lunching at most of them and we decided we could probably come back here a dozen times and never be bored – there is something here for everyone and it’s supremely relaxing. There are gorgeous villas to explore, castles and churches to trek to ( they are always at the top if a hill) and a gazillion cafes, bars and restaurants in which to while away the afternoons. An intoxicating mix of things “to do” and things to love.
Beautiful Varenna – a little bit of my heart shall always lie there.