Leafy wellness: A week at Sherwood Pines

The treetops are etched on a charcoal sky, tips of branches gilded in moonlight. The moon, bright and round, is concealed behind the pines. There is no sound but the gentle rustling of leaves and the gurgling of water. The steam rising around me belies how cold the night is; but my body is deliciously cocooned in the water. From the hot tub outside our Forest Holidays 'Golden Oak Treehouse' at Sherwood Pines Forest Park in Nottinghamshire, we can scarce see a sign of civilisation. It is as if we have landed in our own secluded bubble of luxury and calm.

What could in fact be better than a log cabin kitted out with a hot tub at the heart of a dense forest (3,300 acres of it) that absorbs any noise? It wasn't long into our stay - a week away to celebrate Mum's wedding - that I realised how much stress the never-ending sound of traffic in Zurich had put me under. From the first night, I felt my body exhale a sigh of relief. Here, instead of the roar of nighttime engines, from our bed we heard animals scraping around outside. Each day we awoke to glorious sunshine piercing the treetops then shattering in a starburst across the golden mosaic of leaves on the forest floor.

Days were spent in the outdoors - one walking around Sherwood Forest, another at Cresswell Crags, a limestone gorge moth-eaten with caves that tell a story dating back 50,000 years (archaeologists found tools and animal remains from the last Ice Age there). We also went further afield, to Chatsworth Park near Bakewell, Peak District, where a delicious slice of salted caramel cheesecake at Edensor Tea Cottage set us up for a lovely walk through an oil painting-like setting.

Another day, Tim and I hired mountain bikes and went out into the forest - it was sold to me as a "step up from the route that is Segway-accessible", but turned out to be a rangy course of ups, downs, mud and leaves. But it was amazing fun! After a year of what has quite literally been 'the dark ages' in Zurich (perpetual fog, cloud and rain - deeply depressing), it was a revelation to spend a week in the sunshine - and in England. Tim and I shared a treehouse separate to the main cabin: inside it was topsy turvy with an Alice in Wonderland theme.

And 'wonderland' was where we had landed, I thought to myself each morning, as I opened the curtains onto a seemingly endless curtain of tree trunks. The only thing better than the view in daylight was the view after dark, from the hot tub - like now, where I have not a care in the world save how I am ever going to drag myself out of it ...

Burn the rat: Bonfire Night in Eyam

Glowing embers are dancing overhead, lifted by the breeze blowing our direction from the bonfire. The sky is as if illuminated by the powerful flames. And there is a jazz band playing a happy melody, while the crowd chants along: "Burn the rat, burn the rat..." For there, atop this magnificent bonfire, sits a huge rat, the flames slowly eating into its willow-and-paper body, its eyes still glowing red.

This is Bonfire Night in Eyam. A torch-lit procession with the band on a float at its helm led us to the playing fields via the village, which is known for its sad backstory of the Great Plague. Here, the ceremonial burning of the rat began, to commemorate the Plague-infected fleas that arrived in Eyam in the 1600s in a bundle of cloth from a London tailor. This evening there is certainly a happier story to tell.

Faces are lit up by handheld torches, which are glowing - if a litte precariously - among the crowd. Horse boxes serving refreshments (pumpkin soup, hot dogs, bonfire toffee and similar) are lined up along the periphery. As the bonfire finally reaches its full force, flinging warmth out among us, the fireworks display kicks off in a riot of colour above the beautiful Peaks landscape. The chants of 'Burn the rat' have been replaced by crackling and hissing. "Me no like fireworks," protests Tim's three-year-old niece Charlotte, her fingers firmly stuck in her ears. But even she looks in awe of the spectacle before us - that has certainly turned out to be one of my more memorable November 5th's... 

Photo: Above Eyam, in daylight

Newport tip: A contradiction in terms

The crisp morning air pinches my nose, despite the warmth coursing through me on my brisk walk. It's the kind of autumnal morning on which you want to gulp lungfuls of the air - but you wouldn't want to do that here. Newport, the East Yorkshire village I grew up in, is cloaked by agricultural land. With its ponds and canal, it's a pretty spot. For me, it conjures memories of childhood. The setting is certainly different to the one that provides a setting for my brisk daily walks in Zurich. It's flatter, more unkempt and has unruly hedgerows that, today, look glorious set against the one-shade-of-blue sky.

But there's that problem of inhaling. If I mentioned the landscape were flat, that is true but for one patch of land to my left. Here, a grassy bulge rises beyond the field. It is covered in grass, as if to disguise its revolting nature. It cannot disguise the smell: a faint tinge of rot in the air, stronger when the wind gusts. The M62 rubbish tip operated by City Plant Ltd is filled with up to 70,000 tonnes of waste a year. Fresh waste is supposed to be covered by soil daily, but is often left open. The smell makes you want to hold your nose, or worse, vomit. It is unbelievable that waste is still being dumped there despite a ban by the environment agency. I feel so sorry for the people who live even closer to it, whose lives have been ruined by human wastefulness. The great irony is that to the left of the tip stands an army of wind turbines - an effort to clean up the energy in a country that fills its ground with rubbish.

Rural heaven in the Ariège, France

Sunshine is warming the sheer mountainside, gilding the rooftops far below in the valley and the dense woodland around. But I am standing 900 metres inside a vast cavern, delving my hands into my pockets for warmth. The Grotte de Niaux, close to Tarascon in the French Pyrenees, is home to cave art dating from around 12,000 BC. It's a cool 12 degrees Celsius inside, to preserve the exquisite line drawings in manganese oxide on the walls. Seeing the bison and horses, admirable representations even by today's standards, was high on my wish list for our holiday to Foix in the Ariège region.

We'd arrived late on Saturday evening after driving through Switzerland and France, via the striking Roman aqueduct Pont du Gard, to our base in La Mouline. La Scierie gites, run by a friendly English family, provided an ideal base and a quaint, if basic, rural retreat with a vast garden and a bakery within walking distance.

Waking to sunshine every day, we soon set about exploring the sights the region has to offer. Chief among them are the Cathar castles, many of which provide ideal start- and end-points for mountain walks. Roquefixade, a crumbling ruin perched above the eponymous village with awe-inspiring 360-degree views, was a nice introduction to the area, while Lordat castle provided an elegant gateway to a mountain walk up to the Etang d'Appy in the Massif de Tabe. The gently ascending route took us past grazing donkeys and cows with jingling bells, finally culminating in a tempting lake (paddling was irresistible) with views across the Pyrenees.

We also hiked up to Montsegur, the last Cathar stronghold, precipitously perched on a ledge. If the scenery was made to be hiked, the Bains du Couloubret at Ax-les-Thermes provided the antidote to aching legs. Relaxing in the up to 38-degrees Celsius water while gazing at summits did away with tension in the muscles. Well-deserved eclairs from one of myriad patisseries in the area were literally the icing on the cake. (Our favourites were from Mazas in Foix).

Indeed food was - as you would expect in France - one unforgettable aspect. From the fresh ingredients served up in restaurants (La Barguillere in Saint Pierre de Riviere being the finest we tried) to the bread from local boulangeries and the local wine and Dutch cheese (yes, really) from Marcel next door to La Scierie, it was all mouth-wateringly good.

How the French have their values sorted: we spent evenings sitting in the garden listening to the gurgling river, feeling the sun warm our faces. We enjoyed conversations with the really friendly locals, and spent days on the mountains without encountering another soul. And those humbling sights we saw - like the cave art I am now looking at - remind you what life is really about. The perfect relaxing week in a rural corner that I would like to return to again and again, and certainly every time I need a breather from the hectic everyday.
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