Celebrating the Winter Solstice with the illuminations at Abbotsbury Gardens

It’s the Winter Solstice today – the Shortest Day.

I was before the sunrise but it was disappointing in the grey gloom. Never mind, I’ll go up the hill with Ruby another day.

With just days before Christmas, I took the opportunity last night to visit Abbotsbury Gardens while they’re still illuminated. The event, which runs until 23 December, is now sold out.

This magical, annual happening sees this subtropical paradise subtly floodlit from the ground, turning the landscape into something from a fantasy film or a magic mushroom trip.

I didn’t take Ruby, I left her home in the warm, although plenty of other people took their dogs. She’s such a puller on the lead, I wanted to enjoy the lights at a leisurely pace and soak up the atmosphere.

So I took Mr Grigg and the littlest granddaughter instead who, at eight years old, believes in magic as much as I do.

Having booked our tickets in advance, we headed along the coast road between Bridport and Abbotsbury. In the light, this is one of the most beautiful routes I know. But it was dark and the first bit of beauty hit us when we descended the steep Abbotsbury Hill and glimpsed pink and fluorescent green trees in the valley below.

Car parking spaces were at a premium – it seems everyone else had the same idea – but once we were inside we just followed the trail and gazed at the wonderland around us, the birds gaily trilling as if they didn’t know their Christmas from their Easter.

Just magical.

Enjoy your Christmas, wherever you are.

That’s about it.

Love, Maddie x

Ruby’s happy place down at West Bay

With Storm Barra battering the country just ten days after Storm Arwen left a trail of havoc in its wake, now is not a good time to visit the coast.

Usually, I would have been down at West Bay this morning, letting Ruby run wild on the farthest beach on the Esplanade to the west, which is open to dogs all year round.

This part of the little resort on the Dorset coast is my girl’s happy place.

But the tide is high today and and the field and hills are wet with mud and rain. So she’s restricted to a quick scoot around the village before we hunker down at home.

On her beach at West Bay, Ruby loves to chase seagulls along the shore. It’s lovely to come here first thing, just as the sun begins its daily journey west.

I’m impressed by the sea swimmers who jump into the water quite often at this time of the morning. But that’s not for me.

At this time of year, though, when the hill and the fields are muddy, the beach down at the Bay is where you’ll find Ruby and me.

I love West Bay. I have done since I first arrived in Bridport as a young reporter nearly forty years ago. My brother, though, just doesn’t get it, preferring instead the beauty of Lyme Regis. My late father used to call West Bay ‘that place with a hole in the middle’ (meaning the harbour). But I love the Bay for its cliffs and shoreline, although I steer clear of going anywhere near East Cliff, which is prone to landslips without warning.

I love West Bay for its harbour, its eclectic mix of buildings of all styles, its mix of chi chi and pleb, the caravan site and its food kiosks, although I would recommend avoiding the two operated by convicted puppy farmers.

There’s nothing quite like starting the day down on the beach with Ruby, feeling the wind blowing through your hair and watching the sun coming up over the water, casting rays of light like an advert for a spiritual awakening.

And then popping into the Windy Corner Cafe for a very nice coffee and cake – or breakfast if that’s your bag. Dogs are welcome here, to the extent that they’ll be offered a biscuit or five within seconds of walking through the door. Lovely. They can have my custom any day.

But today, we’re confined to the house as we watch Storm Barra doing its business outside.

That’s about it.

Love, Maddie x

A walk on the wild side in West Somerset

It’s probably my age but I’m sick and fed up with seeing on pub and restaurant menus home made burgers in a brioche bun.

When did that become a thing? A burger in a sweet bun? What’s that all about?

Call me a pleb but give me a burger in a bap any day, with lashings of fried onions and tomato sauce, like the ones you used to get at the funfair. Back in the days when brioche had never been heard of this side of the Channel.

Honestly, some of the descriptions on menus are so pretentious, with a price tag to match. And don’t get me started on places that make you pay extra for vegetables. It’s an instant boycott from me.

The reason I’m telling you this is that we’ve just come back from a night away in West Somerset. Dinner, accommodation and service at the hotel was great, particularly as it was part of a fabulous Travel Zoo deal booked to coincide with my Masters result.

It was either going to be a celebration or commiseration. Two years’ studying creative writing with The Open University deserved to be marked, whatever the result. As it was, I passed with a merit. I was happy about this but cross I hadn’t matched the distinction I achieved in the first year.

Still, I now have a collection of short stories just sitting there, ready to be honed.

The burger in the brioche bun thing came about while we were in a cafe-cum-gift shop in the seaside town of Watchet. Sitting at a table, surrounded by peg boards and feeling like I’d gone back in time to the 1970s, the man at the shop till popped around to the kitchen to cook all-day breakfasts to order.

We’d only come in for a coffee but we perused the laminated single sheet of A4 menu in any case. Everything on it was ordinary, wholesome and incredibly reasonably priced.

And not a burger in a brioche bun in sight.

Later, we walked along the harbourside, soaking up the history of this little port, where Samuel Taylor Coleridge was inspired to write The Ancient Mariner. We gazed out across the grey water to the Welsh coast and the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm in the Bristol Channel.

And then we strolled down to the beach to let Ruby run wild and free.

I was very taken with the place. It’s big enough to be a town but small enough to be a community.

And then, the next day, we went down to Kilve Beach, which I had last visited in 1978 on a geology field trip. Beautiful, wild, very special and full of ammonites. No sign of burgers in brioche buns, ice cream kiosks or amusement arcades. Just bottles of fresh apple juice by a kissing gate and an honesty box for your money.

Driving back across the Quantocks, the trees still in their autumn coats but not for long, I began to think ‘Ooh, I could live here.’ Which is always fatal.

The last time I did that we ended up living in Corfu for a year.

That’s about it.

Love, Maddie x

Tout Quarry, Portland, England

We’re at Tout Quarry on Portland, Dorset, for a wander with Ruby. It’s an absolutely fascinating combination of geology, nature, history and art, where creativity and the elements meet in all their glory.

And fantastic views of Portland Harbour and the sweep of Chesil Beach to the west.

Portland is a strange place. An island connected by a causeway to the end of the Chesil Beach and the sweep of the bay at Weymouth. There is something about Portland that is compelling and other wordly, especially on a grey day.

Forget the fact that it’s exposed, bleak and known for its prison for sex offenders, young offenders institution and former naval base. There are parts of Portland that are really pretty and dramatic.

It’s that whole island vibe and the way the past has shaped the way of life over the years. The Isle of Portland was full of great quarries producing Portland Stone, the stone that St Paul’s Cathedral is made of.

Take a look at this lovely piece of old film, which is part of the Windrose Rural Media Trust archive.

Tout Quarry is not that easy to find but, if you’re up for being a bit adventurous and you’re an off-the-beaten track kind of person, it’s well worth a morning out, with dogs or children or just on your own.

It was worked commercially from 1780 to 1982. These days, limestone remnants left over from this work have been used to create sculptures all across the site. The more than sixty sculptures include Still Falling by Angel of the North sculptor Antony Gormley. 

Here are just some of them. The Still Falling sculpture is the last photo:

Entrance to Tout Quarry is free and the reserve is open at all times.

To find out more, visit the websites of Portland Town Council and Dorset Wildlife Trust.

That’s about it.

Love, Maddie x