A visit to Witley Court and Gardens

We’ve talked about joining English Heritage for ages, every time we visit one of their sites actually, but we always put it off for some reason. Back in August we visited Witley Court in Worcester, as we were staying at a campervan site not far away. As this was post lockdown we had to book tickets in advance, for a timed entrance (ah, remember the days when you could just rock up somewhere whenever it suited you? Good times for disorganised people like me!)

On arrival one of the lovely volunteers explained the new one way system to us (ah, remember the days when you could just wander freely in whatever direction you fancied? Good times…) and also talked about the merits of joining, which included a refund on what we’d paid for our tickets that day, and a special offer of 15 months for the price of 12, which will cover us all through next summer as well.

Now I know that the pandemic is bad and sad and horrid, but there are some benefits to it (sorry) and that includes fewer people visiting tourist attractions. Which meant that we barely passed anyone else as we walked through the grounds towards Witley Court itself. The grounds alone are incredible; very well tended, clear pathways, huge trees and shrubs, and a big lake.

And then you walk up a big gravel driveway, and the ruins of Witley Court loom large.

100 years Witley Court would have been one of the great country houses in the UK. It hosted banquets, parties and welcomed royal visitors. Sadly it was ruined by a fire in 1937, which tore through the building and destroyed the interior, although the grand scale of the building is apparent even in it’s ruinous state.

The Perseus and Andromeda fountain, which has been restored in recent years is a magnificent sight to behold. The fountain displays for 20 minutes every hour, on the hour and the main jet reaches a height of 30 metres.

The gardens are incredibly well kept and manicured – the green fingered side of me was in awe at the accuracy and neatness of the curated planting!

Due to the layout and location of Witley Court, it’s one of the sites that English Heritage have managed to keep open safely during this second lockdown. Adult tickets cost £9 each (£9.90 with gift aid donation).

Campervanning – what I’ve learnt so far

If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram you’ll have seen that, after a lockdown start to Summer 2020 and not being able to go anywhere, we threw ourselves into it wholeheartedly from mid-July to mid-September.

It seemed cruel that, having bought our van in October last year, with plans for 2020 to be the summer of roadtrips, Covid came along and stopped everything in its tracks. Not to sound selfish and self centred, as I’m aware there are a lot LOT worse things going on for people, but here we were with £12k of van sitting outside our house and nowhere to go. Even daytrips became out of the question.

We could have spent that time getting prepared for when the situation changed and we could get on the road, but that would have been too sensible. Instead, when restrictions were lifted and we felt safe enough to venture out for our first overnighter, we had a mad rush to buy plates, dishes, glasses, cutlery, a duvet cover, mattress topper, screen cover, tent pegs for the awning and a porta potti. Yup, if we were going camping we were doing it properly.

Our first overnighter, in Much Wenlock, was a learning curve. Our set up was easy thanks to our pop up tent which is so easy to assemble. Everything went pretty smoothly, I congratulated myself for the ease with which I had accustomed myself to life on wheels.

Alas it all went a bit wrong when we realised the screen cover was in the cupboard, behind the bed, after the bed was all set up ready for us to get into. I had a meltdown, cried, stormed off, said everything was shit and this wasn’t the life for me.

In short, I was a drama queen.

Not one to give in, I insisted we try again ASAP, doubling our chances of me losing the plot by going away for 2 nights. This time I forgot some of the ingredients for our Saturday night dinner so instead of being logical and making do, I threw everything away and we went to bed hungry.

If you think you can see a pattern emerging, I’m glad to say you’re wrong. From shit beginnings we have now absolutely nailed it, having completed two 4 night trips without incident.

More importantly, I love it!

So, what have I learnt so far?

We could not exist in a campervan alone

All credit to people who can live purely from their van, but we have stuff. We like stuff. Stuff makes us happy and comfortable and more likely to enjoy ourselves. When we go away the living space is packed to the rafters so we need somewhere to put it all. A stand alone awning (basically a tent) means we can unload. We have a dumping ground where bedding, dried goods, shoes, clothes etc can sit so it doesn’t get in our way during everyday life.

For us, comfort is key

We have a thick mattress topper, full size duvet, and we take our own bed pillows. A decent night sleep is key, especially if you’re short tempered and highly strung like me!

Organisation really does help

The first time we went away I put all of our eating and drinking utensils in a bag, then got really irritable when I couldn’t find things easily. After that I bought a set of 4 plastic drawers which keeps everything in it’s place. It’s lightweight enough to get in and out easily, and sits in the corner of our awning when we’re set up for ease of access.

A porta potti isn’t as grim as it sounds

The idea of peeing in anything that isn’t a toilet didn’t fill me with glee, but they really are pretty good and hygienic. We bought one with a proper flushable tank and with the right chemicals and specific loo roll even emptying it isn’t awful, because everything dissolves. Plus, if it’s a choice between that and walking to the toilet block in the middle of the night – no brainer.

Mundane tasks feel more fun in a camper

Cooking breakfast, making up the bed and even washing up have a novelty element to them. Not to mention having drinks from our well stocked bar!

A serviced pitch is good for longer stays

For us, an electric hook up is essential regardless of how long we’re staying, but on our one and two night trips that’s all we’ve needed. We can fill a water container from the central tap and make do without washing up by having enough crockery and cutlery and bringing it home in a black bag to stick in the dishwasher. For our 4 night trip we booked a serviced pitch, which means that, as well as an electric point, you also have your own water tap and a drain to empty away waste water. That way you don’t need to use the washing up facilities or walk to the tap which just makes life a little easier (this may sound precious, but I don’t care).

Camping people are both friendly and trustworthy

From sites not taking pre-payment, to other visitors leaving their deckchairs outside all night and people actually making eye contact and saying hello, there’s a feeling of camaraderie and all being part of something. It’s nice.

I’m far from an expert, and we’re not the type of people who can just pack up and go at a moment’s notice, but I’m loving the whole experience WAY more than I expected to. In truth I thought we’d go away every few weeks and I would grin and bear it for my husband but, if anything, I’ve been the driving force behind planning more trips, looking at destinations, and booking our stays.

Certainly, with our personal decision not to get on a plane this year, being able to still get away has been an absolute lifesaver. Mentally we’ve felt less trapped, medically we’ve felt less at risk by being more or less self contained, and financially that £12k van has earned it’s keep by being our home on wheels.

We’re pretty much fair weather campers; autumn winter camping isn’t for us. But I’m already excited for what next year will bring and where we’ll go. It really does feel like a whole new chapter of life.

Gluten free findings

Hey! Earlier in the year we came to the conclusion that my husband is gluten intolerant, and it seemed like a really big major deal. Oh the innocence of life before Covid…

Not that I’m belittling gluten sensitivity. I know for some people it can be hugely debilitating. With a process of elimination we’ve worked out that there are only certain things that cause the physical discomfort, pain and bad tummy for the husband but, that said, there’s obviously something that triggers him and, just because not all wheat products cause a tangible effect, it’s probably not doing his insides any good.

The journey to gluten free was an immediate one – as soon as we recognised the signs our house became gluten free. That included a new toaster and wooden kitchen utensils in case of any pesky gluten hiding away on surfaces.

Here’s what I’ve found:

  • Gluten free food is expensive. A bag of pasta is easily twice the price of a standard one. Biscuits three to four times the price. At a time when some people are losing their jobs or having their income reduced by furlough, I can see that some people couldn’t afford to buy GF products. And that sucks.
  • Gluten free bread is rubbish (as well as expensive). You don’t get a choice of thickness – it’s just one standard naff slice size (we’ve always been thick sliced bread people, and thick sliced it is not). The slices are teeny tiny, like they’re made for children. It has no rigidity or strength, so if you use it for a sandwich it falls apart. It’s ok toasted. My favourites are the Genius White sliced, or the Warburtons seeded sliced. Buns aren’t much better, again not having the strength to hold a burger, but the best I’ve found are the Asda white buns. Still not cheap (£1.50 for 4) but cheaper and better than others I’ve tried (and I’ve tried a lot!)
  • Own brand items tend to be more GF than branded. Pringles contain gluten, but Lidl do their own version call Snax which are GF, and much cheaper than Pringles, albeit only in 3 flavours. Many Walkers crisps are now out of bounds, but Asda own crisps in the same flavours are wheat free.
  • Some “standard” items are already GF. For example, Asda do a “free from” white sauce for lasagne (no, I don’t make my own!) but the Dolmio one doesn’t contain any wheat anyway. In this case the “free from” refers to dairy, which I didn’t realise at first.
  • Wheat and gluten is in things you wouldn’t expect. For example, frozen chips, just potato and sunflower oil, right? Actually in many cases they’re dusted with a coating for crispiness. I can highly recommend Lidl’s own brand french fries, which are delightfully crispy, super cheap, and use rice flour which is GF.
  • Pizza was kind of a big deal for the husband, and he was very upset at not being able to eat it. We tried the GF options from Pizza Hut, but the dough was claggy and a bit naff. We’ve never been fans of frozen pizza cooked at home, but I gave the Goodfellas GF ones a try and OMG. They’re just so good. Not “good for GF pizza” just “good” full stop. We usually buy a margarita which we pimp up with peppers and onions, and a pepperoni which we add mushroom too. Break a ball of mozzarella over the top for extra ooze and I defy you not to love them.
  • Most of the Asda range of sausages are gluten free, and say so on the label, which I found surprising as I assumed supermarket sausages would be full of breadcrumbs. On the flip side, I went to a local butcher to source some sausages, thinking they’d be higher quality, and was told they weren’t GF. More expensive isn’t always better.

My best advice for anyone who is newly gluten intolerant is:

Labels, labels, labels – you’ll soon get used to scanning ingredients quickly to identify whether something is suitable. Do check items you buy regularly though, in case they’ve changed the ingredients

Google, google, google – there are some great GF food bloggers out there who have come up with alternative recipes for gluten containing favourites.

I’ll leave you with this recipe from Slimming Eats, which is so accurate in terms of taste and texture that it’s hard to believe it isn’t the real thing – “fakeaway” kebab. It’s also much healthier and lower is calories and crap than anything you’ll get from the chip shop! Seriously, try it!

If anyone has any GF suggestions, alternatives or supermarket foods, do let me know in the comments.

Thanks, as always, for reading. x