Downton Abbey has the X Factor

With the Autumnal weather setting in here in Britain, and the Summer holidays well and truly over, many people dread their Sunday evenings at this time of year.  For me however Sunday evenings just got a whole lot better as I can once again indulge in a guilty pleasure with the return of Downton Abbey to our television screens.

The period costume drama, set in Edwardian middle England, has just returned to the British television schedules for its third season and appears to be going from strength to strength.  Whilst it wouldn’t do my street cred much good to admit I’m a fan, I can’t be the only one tuning in; last Sunday’s episode saw it watched by over a third of the viewing public with figures at times reaching levels achieved by the latest series of Simon Cowell’s X-Factor which precedes it in the schedules.

Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey
Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey

One of the show’s attractions has to be the top class acting; Maggie Smith has just scooped a grammy for her role and there is a raft of other young British talent in the cast.  For me though, the main appeal is the escapism, the opportunity to lose myself in a bygone era of smart dress suits and frilly dresses and all set against the magnificently grandiose back drop of the Abbey itself.  The show is filmed at the magnificent Highclere Castle, a Victorian manor in central England which is still privately owned by the Carnavon family whose generations have lived there since the 17th century.  The family however open their home and gardens to visitors throughout the Summer months and next year it is at the top of my list for places to visit.

Downton Abbey is currently screened in over 100 countries around the world, so if you haven’t seen it yet, don’t miss a chance to tune in when it comes to a network near you.  Or if you fancy the real thing, why not come over to England and wander the gardens and grounds of Highclere Castle yourself as you pretend to be one of the Crawley family – I won’t tell anyone if you won’t!

A Stirling Day Out!

Central to much of Scotland’s tumultuous history, Stirling Castle has seen its fair share of battles over the years but now it can celebrate another victory as it has been rated the UK’s top heritage attraction.

Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle

The castle, located in the charming town of Stirling in central Scotland, has topped a recent survey conducted by British consumer group Which? who have taken up the challenge to try and rate Britain’s wealth of heritage sites.  The survey which took place between 2009 and 2011 asked people to rate their experiences of British visitor attractions they had been to and covered a range of criteria including the value for money, customer service and information provided at each site.  The recently released results show that Stirling Castle topped the list across the categories fending off challenges from other favourite heritage highlights including the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and a number of other historic Castles across England, Scotland and Wales.

Recently Restored Palace Apartments
Palace Apartments

Stirling Castle is Scotland’s second most visited heritage site behind its close neighbour Edinburgh Castle which overlooks the Scottish capital city.  Stirling, the lesser known of the two castles, has played a key role in Scottish history; it was once the ruling seat of Scotland, saw the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots and was the preferred residence of the Stewart dynasty.  Last year however the castle saw the reopening of the palace apartments which have seen a £12 million restoration to their historic splendour and how they may have appeared in the reign of Mary Queen of Scots.  It is thought that this investment has helped Stirling Castle reach its full potential which has now been recognized by its visitors in the results of this survey.

A Brave Attempt to Recreate Scotland

With the Olympics now over and no longer filling our television screens 24/7 and the Edinburgh Tattoo and festival in full swing, there has been no better timing this week for Disney/Pixar to launch their new Scottish set animation, Brave.

Princess Merida - Brave
Princess Merida – Brave

I am a secret Pixar fan, so with the excuse of entertaining my young niece and nephew, I grabbed the kids and trundled down to our local cinema to watch it on the big screen.  As you would expect from Disney, the film was a solid fantasy adventure story with endearing characters and a good splash of humour – the kids were engrossed.  But having lived in Scotland for 3 years, what I was intrigued to see was how the look and feel of Scotland would be captured in their animation?

The remote and rugged landscapes of the Scottish Highlands have provided an ideal back-drop for storytellers throughout the ages but I was concerned that they might lose their appeal when converted in to animation.  I must say however that Brave didn’t disappoint.  It seems that capturing a genuine look and feel of Scotland was a labour of love for the production team and director Mark Andrews, who actually spent his honeymoon vacation in Scotland.  The animators made a number of visits to Scotland whilst working on the film to experience themselves the Scotland that they were to recreate and immerse themselves quite literally in the Scottish landscapes (reportedly rolling in heather and swimming in

Callanais Standing Stones - Isle of Lewis
Callanais Standing Stones – Isle of Lewis

Highland lochs!).  The result is some enchanting images and sequences which truly capture the colour, texture and atmosphere of the Scottish Highlands.

The film features a number of Scottish traditions and icons including Highland Games, tartan clad clan leaders, ancient castles and mysterious standing stones.  Whilst, it seems, none of the settings and backdrops are based on specific locations in Scotland you can see that the producers drew inspiration from some key landmarks they visited such as Dunottar Castle, Eilean Donan Castle and the Callanais Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis in the remote Scottish Islands.

The film impressed and the kids were entertained however it must be said that whilst the stunning animation of Disney is a good taster, there is really no substitute for coming and experiencing the enchanting landscapes of Scotland first-hand.

Olympics Fever!

As a rather self-deprecating nation, the Great British public had been looking forward to London 2012 with some cynicism and quite frequent grumbles regarding the cost of hosting the games in tough economic times.  It is quite safe to say however that all of that has now been forgotten as Great Britain have come down with an incurable case of Olympic Fever.

Whilst I have had mixed feedback from my friends and colleagues overseas regarding the opening ceremony, at home we were generally impressed with Danny Boyle’s vision of Britain through the ages taking viewers from the quaint Cotswolds countryside through the industrial revolution to the swinging sixties and popular culture of today.  And indeed, the Queen of England’s cameo role

Olympic Stadium during spectacular Opening Ceremony
Olympic Stadium during Opening Ceremony

(which she apparently nailed in one take) as parachuting bond-girl went down a treat both at home and abroad.

Since then however Britain has been glued to its television screens watching as the wealth of stories unravel and medals roll in for team GB.  Yesterday, or “super Saturday” as it has now been coined, saw a mini-climax with our best Olympic day since 1908, as the home nation won no fewer than 6 gold medals in one day!

I was lucky enough to have received tickets for a couple of events and got to visit the Olympic Park this week.  The park itself was stunning and the atmosphere was absolutely electric and the party atmosphere was apparent throughout the city which made the metropolis of London feel somewhat like an English Cotswolds village where everyone knows everyone.  The day was made all the more enjoyable by the volunteers or “games makers” who were always on hand to welcome visitors, assist and generally keep the crowd going.

Party Atmosphere at Beach Volleyball Even in Horseguards Parade
Party Atmosphere at Beach Volleyball Event in Horseguards Parade

The Princes William and Harry have been present at the Olympics all week, watching a range of events and leading the support for local competitors.  In an informal interview with BBC presenter Sue Barker they demonstrate their ease in the public eye with some good British banter and revealing that they were unaware of their grandmother, the Queen’s, role in the Games’ opening sequence.  If you can find the interview on youtube it is definitely worth a watch if only for William’s embarrassment about potentially being caught on the “kiss cam” with his wife and Harry quipping of the Queen that “Both of us were slightly surprised with our grandmother’s secret hobby of parachuting”.

As Britain looks forward to another week of breath-taking Olympic events and a potentially unprecedented haul of medals, we are unlikely to shake this case of Olympic Fever any time soon.

Every cloud has a silver lining.

Britain is renowned for its weather – or more accurately its rainy weather – and our obsession with it as a topic for social conversation, so this Summer we have had lots to talk about!

2012 to date has been one of our wettest years on record with the rainy weather hitting all areas of Britain even through the “Summer” months when we should be experiencing some sunshine.  Music fans have seen concerts and festivals interrupted and sporting events have been affected at the British Grand Prix (where the car parks werewaterlogged) and at Wimbledon where almost every day of the tournament saw interruptions of play due to rain (thank heavens for the roof on centre court!).

Wild Bee Orchid in English Meadow.
Wild Bee Orchid in English Meadow.

However, always one to focus on the positive, there has been one winner comeout of all this: the British countryside!  England, Scotland and Wales are renowned for their lush green landscapes and the rain fall this year has seen our woodlands and meadows come out in bloom with an unprecedented vigour.  Horticulturists have been in their element as their gardens have blossomed and as a host of new and rare wild-flowers have flourished in our countryside.  In particular a number of rare species of Orchid have thrived including the unique and beautiful bee orchid whose colourful bloom appears like a small bee insect perched in the centre of the pink and purple petals.

The 15th of July in Britain is known as St Swithun’s Day, a day dedicated to the 1st century Bishop of Winchester.  According to folklore the weather that occurs on his day each year will continue for the next forty days.  It is a bright morning today here in Cardiff so I will be selectively superstitious and hope that the next month or so will bring some sunny weather, not least for the Olympic games which is coming to London in a couple of weeks time!  But whether the weather rains or shines, if you’re walking in the countryside this Summer, make the most of the colourful array of rare flowers and keep an eye out for the bee orchid!