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Trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc

Covering 170km and 10,000m of ascent, and taking in France, Italy and Switzerland, the TMB is one of the world’s greatest walks, offering trekkers a tough challenge with spectacular scenery

I am standing stock-still on a twisting path high above Chamonix, open-mouthed and agog. All around me are the soaring peaks of the Mont Blanc massif, but they are not the reason for my astonishment. Just ahead of us on the trail – which has risen thrillingly through cliffs, pinnacles and precarious paths – two ibex are mating, each notch of the male’s enormous curving horns lit up by the afternoon sun.

Wild alpine goats weren’t the only exotic creatures I met on the Tour du Mont Blanc, one of the world’s greatest walks, a high-altitude trail around the entire massif that takes the hiker anti-clockwise from France to Italy to Switzerland, then back into France for a climactic ascent to the beautiful Lac Blanc. As well as jumping fish, lizards and snakes (one practically slithered over my boot), there were so many marmots I eventually stopped taking photos of them.

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The Flint Barns, Rathfinny Estate, Alfriston, East Sussex: hotel review

This Sussex Downs hostel and B&B was built to house workers on the estate’s enormous vineyard, but there’s nothing basic about these digs – rooms are high quality and the scenery is superb

In Peter Mayle’s novel A Good Year, which was turned into a Hollywood movie starring Russell Crowe, a disillusioned London banker discovers a new sense of purpose running a vineyard in France. Give or take a few plot twists – and swap Provence for the chalky downland of East Sussex – and this is a reasonable synopsis of Mark Driver’s story. After a high-flying career as a hedge fund manager, Driver found himself looking for a new direction. He bought a 600-acre arable farm and signed up for a viticulture course at Brighton University, with the aim of planting a vineyard. But any notion that this is a hobby career to ease him into retirement evaporates as we drive through the gates of the Rathfinny Estate. This place is enormous, rows of young vines unfolding in every direction as far as the eye can see.

Rathfinny is one of the UK’s largest vineyards and the plan is to produce sparkling wines of a quality to rival the finest champagne. Driver is obviously not a man to do things by halves, a fact which becomes even more apparent when we pull up outside the Flint Barns. This imposing brick and flint structure was built on the site of the original 19th-century farmhouse to house the pickers and pruners who work on the vineyard in autumn and winter. The rest of the year it will function as a posh hostel and B&B. As we walk into the lofty and light-filled dining area, with its reclaimed oak floors, exposed beams, long trestle tables and open kitchen, I’m tempted to apply for a job myself. I don’t have much experience of agricultural workers’ digs but I’m guessing this is not typical.

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