For Margery and Hazel
It's been a time to remember good people we've lost. Here is a tribute two very different women who inspired me to travel
Margery Rees and Dan the dog
In this blog, I want to remember two women. In very different ways and many years apart, they both helped me enjoy some of the best travel experiences of my life. Yet neither were conventional travel industry people.
It’s the first holiday I can properly remember.
We’d been driving all day from the Midlands to South Wales. As we approached the Pembrokeshire village of Laugharne, my mother told us the landlady at the farm where we were staying was a Mrs Rees.
For some reason – I’d read too many comics, probably – I pictured this seaside landlady as a cross, thin-faced woman in an apron with a rolling pin ready to bash disobedient six-year-olds.
Instead, Mrs Rees had twinkling eyes, greying dark hair and a lovely, soft voice like country butter. She was the very ideal of a farmer’s wife: strong, calm, capable and kind. She cooked wonderful farm suppers and made the best biscuits in the world (no McVities for her).
She was married to Illytd, a talk, wiry, slightly eccentric farmer whose habit of nude bathing on our trips to their secret beach – even today, I’m not telling you where it is – was a bit of a shock for a suburban boy of sheltered habits. The Reeses' three children, Des, Heather and Tony, were like characters in the adventure stories I read: healthy, curly-haired, tanned and not designed to spend much time indoors.
At her farmhouse on Gosport Road in Laugharne and later, after Ilytd’s death, at the guesthouse Margery ran in nearby Pendine, we had the best holidays kids could dream of: bringing in the harvest, riding ponies, playing with new-born kittens and messing about with Dan, the biggest, doggiest, blackest Labrador ever to sit on your foot. The smell of the houses comes back to me so strongly now: a fresh, soapy, seaside smell, a smell that said ‘holidays’. You sank into the bed with its old-fashioned counterpane and slept as you’d never slept before.
One hot summer, and now a teenager, I went back with my best friend Simon and we pitched a tent in Margery’s garden. Dan was delighted he had company. He’d waddle in and flop down between us, increasing the temperature in the tent by around 20 degrees and decreasing the available living space for half. We’d walk along the coastal paths, play cards, drink beer and eat Margery’s wonderful suppers.
One day, Dan went for a walk by himself in Pendine and returned with a metal wastepaper bin on his head.
In later years, I returned to Laugharne as a travel writer. I now saw it as one of those strange, Bohemian towns that evolves now and again in these isles. This was Dylan Thomas’s Milkwood, and home of Dylan’s long-suffering landlord, Richard Hughes – another writer of genius, whose novels are now unjustly forgotten. Of course, I expected the magic to have gone: but a place like Laugharne never loses that – the lonely estuary, the ruined castle, the stern, stone houses made cheerful by the sun and salt spray. Now Laugharne has a super-swish spa/resort to go with the sublime views of Dylan’s estuary. I wish Margery could have seen it and remember the days when the visitors were a little less well-heeled. One man, a Palmolive executive, tried to pay his room bill in bars of soap.
The Dylan Coastal Resort: let’s hope it has a good bar
Mrs Rees, Margery, died aged 95 earlier this month. My deepest love goes to Des, Heather and Tony and to her and Illytds’ memory.
In their quiet way, Margery and Illytd were pioneers of farm holidays and what we now call ‘experiential’ travel.
I didn’t go abroad until I was 12. Every year we were down on the farm: and that’s the best holiday a child can have.
Heather, unnamed cat, Margery, Illytd and the inevitable Dan at Gosport Road
Hazel first asked if she could see me – or rather announced that she would – in the late 90s when I was editing High Life. She wanted to talk to me about Australian wine. I didn’t see what this had to do with a travel magazine, but I liked Australian wine, so I said ‘okay’ – not that anyone ever said anything else when Hazel was on a mission.
Hazel was little and Northern. She looked as if she spent every spare moment she had walking the Pennines and Dales: which indeed she did. She was chief executive of the Australian Wine Bureau in Europe, and she wanted to do an advertiser-funded supplement about Australian wine. I said thanks, love to: but did she know a) That we were a travel magazine and b) What our page rates were? Don’t worry about the money, she said. She’d get all the wineries to chip in. As for the travel thing, that was why she was speaking to me.
I didn’t realise then that Hazel was in the middle of orchestrating one of the great marketing triumphs of all time. I’m really not exaggerating. When Hazel took up her post, Australian wine in the UK and elsewhere was somewhere between a joke and a nonentity. France was sitting nonchalantly at the top of the market share league table, as it had forever. By the time Hazel and her mates were done, Australia was top and France was third. The Daily Telegraph wrote: ‘She was almost single-handedly responsible for the staggering growth of Australian wine exports to Britain, from fewer than 100,000 cases in 1985 to more than 20 million in 2002’.
The full story is told in this terrific and rambunctious documentary – in which Hazel has a starring part. It’s mainly about how she won over the British wine establishment by, first, getting them to try the wines in the first place; and second, getting them to try the wines in the place they were from. She organised hugely popular press trips for wine writers, and then started inviting the travel mob. She grasped, and the Aussie winemakers grasped – as the French still seem, amazingly, not to fully grasp – that people want to visit the land the grapes are from. You want to see the stills, taste the vintages and, ideally, have a terrific lunch overlooking the vines.
And just as the reputation of Australia's wine began to grow in the 1980s, so did the quality and allure of Australian food. They were aided by a vigorous and creative publishing industry. The much-missed Vogue Entertaining has an approach to styling, photography and art direction that was 10 years ahead of our stuffy, staged, elitist food and wine magazines.
Here’s how to sell wine: Chester Osborn of D’Arenberg, McLaren Vale (he also designs his own shirts)
We tried to capture the flavour and vividness of the Australian food and wine revolution in High Life: Hazel rounded up the advertisers as promised, and I got our annual wine supplement.
Australian wine, like Australian culture, is still a divisive thing in my country. You still get boorish English types who think it’s clever to sneer at the country and Australia and its exports, human, cultural and viticultural. Some publications (The Daily Telegraph prominent among them, I’m afraid) still seem eager to accommodate that especially British brand of boring snarkiness. I’d often lament that fact to Hazel. She’d say, having given those people no more than the nanosecond’s thought they – well, they’re the ones missing out.
We both moved on, but kept in touch down the years. We’d have lunch or she’d call about some mate I should be seeing, some venture I ought to follow, some experience I should be having. You didn’t say no.
I hadn’t heard from Hazel for a while, which was unusual; and as I sent out one of these newsletters and went through the usual bounce-backs and out-of-offices, I saw the one to Hazel couldn’t be delivered. This was odd. Hazel had had the same email address forever.
I Googled a bit and discovered the awful truth in an article by Jancis Robinson: Hazel had died.
But what a happy, colourful legacy this doughty little woman of the moors and fells leaves. And it's quite right that Britain's best wine writer should have written that tribute.
Songs that take you places
Albatross by Fleetwood Mac
Peter Green: a different kind of beat
As the youngest in the family, I had to go to bed earliest, even on holiday. One night in Laugharne, I was drifting off to sleep when I heard some dreamy chords being played on the guitar. I crept downstairs and the Reeses’ eldest, Des, was strumming Albatross.
In that quiet night-time house, the sea just audible in the distance, Peter Green’s instrumental had a special magic. The rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie has a stroke of genius they way they mimic the beat of giant wings across an endless sea.
Envy Corner: Rory Stewart
In my recent three-part series, Whose country is it anyway?I had some hard words for the way the British farming industry has managed our land; and why they resent anyone else having an opinion about it. But I recognised, too, that farmers, downtrodden by the mega-retailers, have been forced to find new income streams. Their move into farm holidays has greatly enhanced the British tourism ‘offering’, as I reported in last Saturday’s Daily Mail (link not yet live).
I’d also like to point you to an eloquent defence of farmers over environmentalists in Rory Stewart’s book The Marches. As he walks the borderlands between England and Scotland, Stewart laments the coming rewilding craze (he’s writing in 2011/12) he sees begin to take route in the Cumbrian mountains. He sees centuries of patient work by monks, farmers and shepherds, draining the land for crops and sheep, being undone by well-meaning but blinkered outsiders:
For a new generation of ecologists, the rich farmland, the tall trees and the hundred different plants and birds which I had noticed in the hedgerows were an abomination. They felt there had been far too much agricultural improvement, and this land was too fertile. In the place of the dry fields, they wanted to recreate sale marshes, mires and nutrient-poor, waterlogged soil….instead of birds that nested in trees and hedges, birds that waded in mud.
An earlier book about a very different environment, Ian Mitchell’s Isles of the West also laments the way a rich and successful charity, in this case the RSPB, marginalises human habitation and industry.
Even allowing for the somewhat loaded language – Stewart was a politician until very recently, after all – the human tradition, the needs of people have to be remembered as rewilding becomes ever more fashionable. The wilders and environmentalists will make mistakes, and they can’t let passion and ideology stop them from admitting them. But it would also help if the farming business and political apologists far less thoughtful than Rory Stewart were a bit open to confessing their past and current sins.
Let’s finish with Dylan Thomas on the strangest place in Wales
But when you say, in a nearby village or town, that you come from this unique, this waylaying, old, lost Laugharne where some people start to retire before they start to work and where longish journeys, of a few hundred yards, are often undertaken only on bicycles, then, oh! the wary edging away, the whispers and whimpers, and nudges, the swift removal of portable objects:
‘Let's get away while the going is good,’ you hear.
‘Laugharne's where they quarrel with boat hooks.’
‘All the women there's got web feet.’
‘Mind out for the Evil Eye!’
‘Never go there at the full moon!’
They are only envious. They envy Laugharne its minding of its own, strange, business; its sane disregard for haste; its generous acceptance of the follies of others, having so many, ripe and piping, of its own; its insular, feather-bed air; its philosophy of ‘It will all be the same in a hundred years' time.’ They deplore its right to be, in their eyes, so wrong, and to enjoy it so much as well. And, through envy and indignation, they label and libel it a legendary lazy little black-magical bedlam by the sea. And is it? Of course not, I hope.