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  • Carol Duval

West Country

From one side of the country to the other--Kent to Wales. This time we're staying in a converted barn deep in the Welsh countryside, looking after a Labrador retriever, aptly named Barney and rescue cat, Ruff, who sleeps all day and prowls all night. Barney is a woodland walker with exemplary toilet habits, making sure to position himself with butt facing into the brambles or over ditches. He's great off the lead, bounding through the trees and leaf litter, occasionally chasing after a deer and later at home patiently awaits his next woodland adventure.

For example, a long walk in the Forest of Dean with some interesting sculptures (though Barney was somewhat dismissive.)

The house is surrounded by fields and woods and at night we can see the stars --when it's not misty--through the skylight.

Our closest pub, the Fountain, sited in a hollow next to a spring, is a hive of activity with locals, walkers and cyclists. One local who comes three times a week with his friendly dog told us that at Christmas he brings his little Shetland pony, complete with unicorn horn and tinsel, for the kids to enjoy. But even more bizarre was finding the best paella ever in the Welsh countryside.

The nearest town, Chepstow, has great bones being on the river Wye, with Norman castle, interesting winding streets and an atmospheric sunny square but was weirdly empty. Abergavenny and Monmouth were happily buzzing though. Abergavenny is probably the funkiest of the two towns with its huge weekly market and hilly setting while Monmouth with its ancient bridge is more sedate with playing fields bordering the river Monnow.

One disappointment was the city of Newport. A mess of impossible roundabouts, empty lots, building sites, with some new apartments and modern university buildings built right on the edge of the river, ready to be swept away in future floods. There were some bright spots though, with a handsome high street and its indoor market with trendy bars, boutiques and restaurants--a successful reimagining of a heritage property.

Then there was Tredegar House, with a fascinating history and grounds with snowdrops, ferns and mosses providing winter beauty. Always interesting to me is realising the difference between upstairs and downstairs--the grinding misery of the kitchen maid compared to the opulence of the Morgan family upstairs.

We were lucky to find a snowdrop and outdoor sculpture exhibition at nearby Tintern. A crisp sunny day, gentle guitar music, carpets of snowdrops and the local pub made for a perfect day.

Our Welsh highlight though, was meeting up with my cousin Graham and wife Tracey at the Old Black Lion, Hay on Wye, town of second-hand books.

From Wales we headed south, via Wells--the perfect small town for a pit stop with its heritage buildings, to visit friends who've built an eco- house in Chulmleigh, a village that reminded us of so many French villages that aren't so much picture-perfect as reflective of daily working lives.

The Lost Kitchen, recommended by our friends as a great lunch spot, was the complete opposite--an oasis of gorgeous gentrification in the middle of farmland, fields and muddy footpaths.

Nearby National Trust property, Knightshayes, was a good meeting spot with another friend and just went to prove that late winter isn't such a bad time to visit the UK with its display of jagged tree limbs, snowdrops, crocuses, hellebores and early narcissi. A lovely end to our time in the west country.

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