Ever since we relocated to Verona six years ago, our annual summer 'holiday' in the UK has become a keenly anticipated highlight of the year. As much as we enjoy la dolce vita, there's nothing quite like spending a few weeks at home, gorging on sausage rolls, wallowing in the fantastically mild weather and sinking more pints of over-priced craft ale than I care to remember.
This summer we somehow managed to squeeze in a week in London, a luxury camping trip to Norfolk, an enforced stopover in Leeds, a few nights in Glasgow, a couple of days on the Mull of Kintyre, a day trip to Jura and, finally, a self-indulgent couple of nights in Leith (without the kids), before eventually returning to Verona via Venice.
Aside from the obvious pleasure of spending quality time with family and friends, this trip was also a watershed moment in my youngest son's linguistic journey. Going from virtually no-spoken English (his comprehension is pretty good), he now has an eclectic English vocabulary that includes (in no particular order) "ginger biscuits", "golly gosh" (seriously), "aeroplane" (closely followed by "another aeroplane"), "let's go!", "it's raining again" and "help!". His confidence and pleasure in spoken English is continuing long after our summer tans have faded (okay, so we didn't actually get a tan in Norfolk, but you get the point).
Over the years, our annual trip to the UK has increasingly coalesced around the Lambeth County Show in Brockwell Park, south London. Held every year on the third weekend in July, it is here that, tradition dictates, we kick-start our annual summer holiday.
The Show is an intoxicating blend of fairground rides, sheep shearing, jousting, sport, cider, bouncy castles, a petting farm, horticultural competitions, live music (featuring a mix of dub, afro-beat, disco, reggae, ska and soul), jerk chicken, sunshine and showers. Hugely popular, it has just about retained it's unique character, which somehow reflects both the traditional country show and the diverse inner-city communities of Brixton and Herne Hill.
From concession sales and sponsorship, plus cash donations made on the day, the fair generates over £300,000 for the local council. Such events don't come cheap though (it costs over £600,000) and so the local council tax payer picks up the bill. Whether such expenditure represents good value for money, you would have to ask the council tax-paying residents of Lambeth.
What certainly represents good value for money was the visionary investment that created the park itself.
Brockwell Park was once part of the ‘Great North Wood’, a dense forest that stretched from the Weald of Sussex and Kent to present day Brixton. In the 12th Century the land formed part of the Manor of Lambeth, which belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The land was then used as a monastic retreat until it was seized under Henry Vlll's Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Until the 1650s the site belonged to the Tulse Family. By 1807 the eastern side of the original estate was owned by glass merchant John Blades. The surrounding fields were laid out as a private park for the new Brockwell Hall on top of the hill, and houses in nearby Brixton Water Lane were built for estate staff. During this period this part of Lambeth was dominated by woods and commons, with few villages or settlements.
Joshua Blackburn, grandson of John Blades, inherited the estate in 1860. Taking advantage of the Herne Hill railway station (built in 1862), he added new buildings including Clarence Lodge and a line of houses along the south side of Dulwich Road.
But, in the 1880s the huge estate was put up for sale for housing.
In March 1891, following a campaign led by local MP Thomas Lynn Bristowe, London County Council acquired the land. Bristowe even used his own money to guarantee the purchase. On 2 June the following year, the park was opened to the public. At the park's opening ceremony, Bristowe suffered a catastrophic heart attack and died on the steps of the Brockwell Hall.
In 1883 a huge memorial statue was erected near the main Herne Hill gate, paid for by public subscription. In 1958, in an flagrant act of cultural vandalism, the statue was demolished to make way for a road widening project. The bust itself was salvaged and given to the Bristowe family.
In 2007 the Brockwell Park Management Advisory Committee secured £6 million of lottery funding, to restore and improve its parklands, buildings, play facilities and wetland areas. In 2012, following some extraordinary detective work by local amateur historians, the bust was unearthed in the Bristowe family garden. It was subsequently restored and unveiled in Brockwell Hall, where it was unveiled on the 120th anniversary of Bristowe's death.
London, of course, is blessed with many wonderful green spaces. Hyde Park, Regent's Park, St James' Park, Richmond Park, Clapham Common, Hampstead Heath, Kensington Gardens, Crystal Palace....
One of the joys of exploring the city with young kids is discovering these green oasis in the midst of the concrete metropolis. Places like Queens Park in north west London, Dulwich Park in South London and Coram's Fields, near the British Museum in central London, are just some of the green spaces we discovered this summer.
Coming from Italy, where public green spaces are often under-utilised, inadequately resourced, shabby, no-go areas, Brockwell Park positively bursts with life and activity. Leisure pursuits of every kind, from tennis, to football, boxing, to kite-flying. Imaginative and abundant children's play areas, including an adventure playground, a paddling pool and wet play area, meadows, parkland, woodland and walled gardens, football pitches, tennis courts and a bmx track, a thriving cafè, a vast green space with stunning views over the city of London, all fenced in and well-maintained. Such parks are not just the lungs of the city, they are the beating heart of the local community.
It is the public spirited Victorians who we should thank for the abundance of public parks, not just in London, but throughout the UK. From the Derby Arboretum, to Glasgow's Kelvingrove, these public spaces were set aside by well-meaning public figures, like Thomas Lynn Bristowe, who, in the wake of the industrial revolution, understood the need to provide open green spaces for rest and relaxation.
It falls to us to ensure that they are cherished, preserved and, above all, enjoyed.
After a damp few days spent crabbing, the sun was shining as we made our way towards the pier at Tayvallich, the starting point for our trip to Jura.
The bay (Loch a Bhealaich) was as still as a millpond and we were looking forward to a smooth crossing along Loch Sween, across the Sound of Jura to Craighouse.
The Jura Passenger Ferry provides a daily service between Tayvallich and Jura. It's a popular summer service, so it's advisable to book in advance. The ferry's deep hull, with seating for 12 passengers, and wrap around windows, make for a comfortable and enjoyable crossing, with great views of the passing landscape, wildlife and historical sites, which include Castle Sween, one of the earliest stone castles built in Scotland, and Stevenson's Skervuile Lighthouse, just outside Lowlandman's Bay.
Part of the Inner Hebrides archipelago, Jura is an inhospitable, mountainous island, largely covered by vast areas of peat land. Perhaps unsurprisingly the island is extremely sparsely populated. The main centre of population is the village of Craighouse on the east coast of the island. Craighouse is home to the Jura distillery as well as a number of shops, the island's only hotel and church.
Of course, you can't go to Jura and not sample the local liquor. After a brisk walk along the coastline we return to the distillery for a short tour of the facilities. Unfortunately there is no distillation taking place today, but the massive copper stills still exude the intoxicating foamy wort that they contained. Compared to the sterile cleanliness of other distilleries I've visited, the Jura distillery is delightfully unwashed - there is even a family of swallows nesting in the spirit tank warehouse.
After a wee dram we retire to the hotel for a delightful lunch in the company of another family visiting the island from Italy!
Well fed and watered, the late afternoon boat trip back to Tayvallich is a relaxing affair. With the light breeze, quiet buzz of the engine and gently undulating waves, it isn't long before everyone (including the skipper) is nodding off.
A final thought.
In 1946, following the death of his wife, a 42 year-old writer named Eric Blair came to Jura in search of some peace and quiet in which to write a book. Tall, gaunt and sad looking, he pretty much kept himself to himself, despite suffering some serious bouts of ill-health. He lived in a remote farmhouse called Barnhill on the north of the island. His next-door neighbour lived 6 miles away. By and large, he lived off the land, farming, fishing and shooting the occasional rabbit. Visitors to the farm would hear him pounding away at his typewriter in the upstairs bedroom.
He finally finished writing his book in 1948, but was soon forced by ill-health to leave the island. He died in 1950.
He came upon the title of his book by inverting the last two numbers of the year in which it was completed. It was a huge success, spawning concepts such as Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Room 101 and, of course, that much used adjective, Orwellian.
The reclusive writer is better known by his pen-name George Orwell.
Tasting notes - Jura Prophecy
A smooth, easy-drinking, nicely peated little number, the ideal companion for mulling over Orwell's dystopian society.
On a recent trip home to Scotland I took the opportunity to discover an icon of Scottish Whisky - Dewar's White Label.
I have to admit that when I was planning my trip to Perthshire, the Aberfeldy distillery wasn't top of my list.
From traditional small independents like Eradour and Tullibardine, to iconic brands like Glenturret, (Scotland's oldest distillery and spiritual home of the Famous Grouse, Scotland's best selling whisky), and Blair Athol (one of oldest working distilleries in Scotland), as well as the exciting new micro-distillery at Strathearn, which also brews its own gin, not to mention Dalwhinnie in the north, which draws its water from the famous River Spey, and Deanston in the south, whose water source, the River Teith, also powers the distillery, in Perthshire whisky enthusiasts really are spoiled for choice.
As we were based in Aberfeldy for a couple of days, Dewar's, conveniently located just beyond the town centre, turned out to be a good choice.
Aberfeldy is a small market town located in highland Perthshire, about 70 miles north of Edinburgh. Having flown in from Verona that morning, it was a convenient destination, offering a hint of the more dramatic highland region that lies just beyond.
On this occasion, it was as far north as we were planning to go, but for those who wish to explore the more remote highland region, Aberfeldy is a worthy staging post. Points of interest include the memorial to the famous Black Watch regiment, an 18-hole golf course, a children's park and a thriving town centre, which includes a vibrant cinema, boutique shops, such as Haggart's, a tweed outfitter with a hipster twist, and The Three Lemons, a cafe, bar, grill that wouldn't be out of place in Glasgow's trendy Merchant City. For a town the size of Aberfeldy (population barely 2,000) , the presence of such enterprise is a positive sign of a vibrant town. A hint perhaps of the entrepreneurial spirit that you wouldn't necessarily expect to find in the heart of rural Perthshire.
In 1846, John Dewar, Sr, the son of a local farmer, opened a wine and spirits shop in Perth. In the 1860s he begun blending his own whiskies. When he died in 1880, the popular and thriving spirits company that he had created passed on to his two sons, John Alexander and Tommy.
Aged just 24 and 16 when they inherited the small family business, what the brothers achieved was truly remarkable.
Over the next 50 years, Dewar's would become a truly global brand and the brothers high-profile public figures.
Whisky was little known, let alone drunk outside Scotland at this time. In order to make it more palatable to the global market, the Dewar brothers pioneered the magical world of blending.
They also showed extraordinary skills in marketing and self-promotion, travelling the world to sell their product, boldly exploiting romantic images of Scotland. With his charismatic personality, Tommy set off on a world tour. In 2 years he visited 26 different countries. He kept a journal of his travels which were consolidated and published in a book titled "Ramble Round the Globe", which was published in 1894.
The tour was a remarkable success and Dewar's brand became known as one of the premier Scotch whiskies on the market.
In 1893 the company was granted a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria. The small Tullymet distillery leased by the family could no longer meet demand so in 1898 the brothers built the Aberfeldy Distillery. The following year they released the flagship White Label expression. With Aberfeldy at its heart, Dewar's White Label is in fact a blend of 40 different whiskies expertly blended by Dewar’s first Master Blender, A.J. Cameron.
Despite difficult times, including war and prohibition, Dewar's of Aberfeldy continued to thrive as the brothers' interests expanded beyond the world of whisky.
From 1900 to 1917 John Alexander represented Inverness-shire in the House of Commons. He became a Baronet in 1907 and in 1917 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Forteviot of Dupplin in the Count of Perth.
In 1900 Tommy Dewar, who subsequently became 1st Baron Dewar, was elected as the MP for Tower Hamlets in London. Amongst other things he was involved in the controversial campaign to introduce immigration controls for the first time in the UK (the Aliens Act 1905).
Dewar’s White Label remains one of the most enduring, most highly-awarded whisky brands in the world. For generations, it has been among the top five best-selling brands globally and the number one brand in America.
Pale amber in colour, with a rich honey sweetness that is the hallmark of the Aberfeldy distillery, it also offers hints of heather and a touch of peaty smokiness. It's no limited edition single malt, but after a couple of drams it's easy to see why it has become one of the best selling whiskies ever produced.
While purists tend to favour single malt, it should be remembered that blends like Jonny Walker, Dewar's White Label and Chivas Regal are the foundations upon which the whisky industry is built. Without ambitious pioneers like the Dewar brothers and Jonny Walker, whose vision, enterprise and determination ensured that Scotch Whisky is a drink sold and revered all over the world, the whisky industry would not be the global success story it is today.