Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Royal County of Berkshire Show: 20/21 September

There’s a hint of autumn in the air, which can mean only one thing – The Royal County of Berkshire Show is nearly here. The show represents a fantastic day out for all ages with lots going on to delight all members of the family.

This year’s show is being held over the weekend of 20 and 21 September at the fine Newbury Showground – easily accessible and well signposted for those arriving by car, East–West via the M4 and North–South via the A34. (You are advised to follow the AA signs rather than Sat Nav as the organisers put a special traffic management system in place to ensure you reach it by the best possible route and keep traffic flowing.) 

The Newbury and District Agricultural Society held the first Newbury Show, as it was originally known, on 28 September 1909 at Enborne Gate Farm, establishing its new home at the showground in 1984. For over a century the show has provided locals and visitors alike with a wonderful spectacle. The show has grown and became a two-day event in 1976; it is recognised as one of the UK’s leading agricultural shows and welcomes around 65,000 visitors each year.

Many people come to The Royal County of Berkshire Show to enjoy events that link to its grass roots – the livestock. As well as admiring the animals and watching judging for a variety of categories, a grand parade of prize-winning cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, llamas and alpacas takes place on both days.

Horses are always a popular feature: whether you prefer watching elegant show jumpers in the BSJA International Showjumping Series Final or the majestic heavy horses in the National Heavy Horse Driving Championships, all are great entertainment.  Or what about the farriers’ display, with farrier competitions for both apprentices and experts in horseshoe making and fitting? Equally entertaining, and often hilarious, is the on-stage sheep show where you can learn about the different sheep and be fascinated at the shearing skills of the team.

The Food Fayre is always a must, with lots of local producers selling their wares and many offering the chance to have a taste before you buy.  Lots of people are fans of TV cookery shows, and now is your chance to see it happening live in the The Cookery Theatre. Several local chefs will be entertaining the crowds with their culinary skills, so make sure you check out the timetable of all the different goodies being conjured up so that you don’t miss out on any favourites.

The Craft Marquee gets bigger and better every year and is always full of fascinating exhibits – and it’s not too early to start putting something special aside as Christmas presents. All the tradestalls around the ground are a shopper’s paradise too; there is so much to see – from hats to cars, from furniture to wellies – definitely worth a wander around! And don’t eat before you arrive because there are food and drink stands aplenty.

Something especially exciting for thrill-seekers this year will be displays from the Honda Bolddog Lings motorcycle stunt team (seen on TV’s Britain’s Got Talent) who are topping the bill and will surely have everyone on the edge of their seats as their riders leap across 75 foot gaps and fly up to 35 feet in the air.
The adventurous will love the chance to have a go in the Sports Zone, with all sorts of different sports to try out. Or what about 4x4 Land Rover training, den building, or testing your ability on the assault course in the Army Zone?
For those who prefer something gentler, the Vintage Area will have displays of tractors and other farming machinery through the years, and a chance to see different farming tasks being carried out, such as bailing, log splitting and water pumping.  And don’t miss out on the Flower Tent which always has the most wonderful displays of flowers, fruits and vegetables – it’s great fun to see who’s won what and read the judges’ comments.

A special ending to the day on both the Saturday and Sunday this year takes shape with a mass hot-air-balloon ascent – this promises to be a perfect, tranquil and beautiful finale to a full-on day!

You can save money by purchasing tickets for the show before 19 September – available on-line and from lots of different outlets in and around Newbury, including Newbury Visitor Information Centre, Newbury Building Society, Carter Jonas and Camp Hopson to name but a few in the town centre – but there lots more places too, including in the surrounding towns and villages. For details of all the outlets selling tickets, to buy them on-line or to find out more about the Royal County of Berkshire Show 2014, visit

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Biddy in the Kennet Centre

If like me you delight in bagging a bargain, there are many to be had in Newbury’s Kennet Centre. Not only is it easy to park in the spacious car park, but you can do all your shopping under one roof. 

There are lots of different retail outlets here – I always go to Timpsons for key cutting and shoe repairs (the husband collected my red high heels recently, he was worried the staff would think they were his!).

My intention when going to Poundland or the 99p Store is of only buying what’s on my list – but inevitably I am tempted by so many fantastic bargains that I come away with my shopping bag full.  Then there are books galore at The Works, and for greetings cards the Card Factory offers great deals; check out the Hallmark Outlet too!  And if you’re buying cards you might need presents: Wiggler has loads of sensibly priced toys – including great jigsaws and construction kits to keep the children busy. For bigger boys’ toys, Cex Entertainment Exchange is the place for buying or selling computer games, phones, electronics and the like.

Hair salon options include the Cutting Bar and Celly’s Hairstyle International – where everything is £9.50 which makes life easy. And you don’t need an appointment at either salon. The Beauty and Brow Bar offers threading, tinting, waxing and so forth. And if you are treating yourself or someone else, follow your nose to the Body Shop … always such gorgeous aromas wafting as you pass by (and I love their body butter, mmm!). Talking of scents, in the wide open space in the Kennet Centre is Mon Cherie Flowers.  

There are lots of lovely clothes in Roman Originals fashion shop; did you see the pretty green and white dress on display this summer? That’s been one of my favourites of the season. And just popped up (quite literally) in August is pop-up boutique Luna – funky, fresh and affordable fashions! The husband in particular is a master at finding bargains at TK Maxx (he is a bit of a designer label fiend!). Then there is Peacocks who always have fashions at great prices … and, just outside their store, who can resist the automata by artist Keith Newstead of the little man riding his bike? I cannot pass by without pressing the button. (If you don’t know what I’m on about, it’s time you went and explored …).

So, what else? Well, specialist shops include Mobility Direct – ideal for everything to help those who cannot get around so easily: wheelchairs, rise and recline chairs, bath lifts, stair lifts, household and walking aids – they’re all here. For hobbyists, the Wool Shop is packed with not only wools but embroidery silks, sewing aids and the like, and Treasure Hunting is a metal detector enthusiast’s paradise!

For nuts, dried fruits, lentils, green teas and the like, head for Grape Tree Health Foods and stock up on such essentials at low prices.  And if you have food in mind (and I normally do!) there are plenty of places to eat in the Kennet Centre, including Boswells cafĂ© – ideal for a coffee, snack or something more substantial; they have a huge menu (generous portions too), very reasonable prices, plenty of seating and lovely, friendly staff. And have you tried the Cake Boutique yet? Tucked away near the entrance onto the Market Place, this is a pretty tea shop with all sorts of teas and coffees available, and a very tempting array of cakes (I was totally torn between the apricot frangipane tart and the almond and chocolate torte … decisions, decisions.) If it’s something savoury you fancy, and if you love chicken, no doubt you know about Nando’s, who are ideally placed for Vue cinema. As well as all the latest films, if you haven’t experienced the live theatre broadcasts at Vue yet, I can thoroughly recommend you do. For example, coming in September is Billy Elliot: The Musical from London’s West End (where I saw it several years ago and can’t wait to see it again). There are also productions coming up from the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre … how lucky are we? (Check out the Vue website for dates and details.)

There is so much in the Kennet Centre – this is just a flavour of what’s on offer so you really need to explore to find out what else is here. Oh yes, and they even hold special events from time to time: look out for the Monster Show on 31 October and Hello Kitty’s 40th anniversary birthday party on 30 November – fabulous family entertainment!

Biddy x 

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Visiting Berkshire's Castles

If you are looking for a great day out in or around Newbury and Berkshire, you can’t go far wrong by visiting one of our historic castles. We are richly blessed with three, all of which are completely different to each other.

Highclere Castle
On Newbury’s doorstep is Highclere Castle – which has particularly come into the public eye since it became ‘Downton Abbey’ in ITV’s award-winning period drama of the same name.

Fiction aside, it is the real-life home of the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, who open it to visitors on around 60–70 days annually (traditionally over Easter, on the May bank holidays and for two months during the summer) but special tours for groups are arranged regularly at other times and several charity events are held in the grounds each year, such as the Battle Proms.

The Victorian building might not look how one traditionally imagines a castle, but it is certainly a beautiful structure, and was built by Sir Charles Barry, the same architect who designed the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. As well as the rooms in the magnificent building, there is the Egyptian Exhibition to be enjoyed. Many people link the name Lord Carnarvon with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Indeed it was the 5th Earl, the present Earl’s great-grandfather, who, along with Howard Carter, made the amazing discovery in the 1920s. Here at Highclere you can see antiquities from their excavations, as well as replicas from the Egyptian boy-pharaoh’s tomb itself.

But there is other Highclere history to be enjoyed, too: very recently, Lady Carnarvon has written two books on two of her predecessors, the 5th and 6th Countesses. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey and Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey have been carefully and lovingly researched, and make fascinating reading.

The Castle nestles in the countryside on the outskirts of Newbury in 1,000 acres of parkland. The grounds are well worth a visit, and visitors can enjoy the tearooms here for refreshments and lunches, and browse the gift shop.

You can now even stay in the grounds of Highclere Castle in London Lodge, the spectacular Georgian entrance lodge to the estate. Built in 1793, it has recently been restored by Lord and Lady Carnarvon and is available to rent for one or two nights.

Find out full details of what Highclere has to offer at

Donnington Castle
Centuries older than Highclere Castle is the one at Donnington, just a mile north of Newbury and offering fabulous views over the Lambourn Valley. It is free to visit Donnington Castle to view the exterior ruins, and the car park is open all year round during daylight hours.

Donnington Castle is now in the care of English Heritage, and although all that survives of the 14th-century building is its twin-towered two-storey gatehouse, it has a rich, and at times royal, history.

It was Richard II who granted permission to Lord of the manor of Donnington, Sir Richard Abberbury, to build a castle here, in a commanding position on major routes heading north-south and east-west. Even today, one has a sense of the luxury that Abberbury would have enjoyed in his private quarters here. In the early 15th century the Castle was purchased by Thomas Chaucer, whose father was the famous poet, Geoffrey, before becoming the property of the Crown. It is reported that Henry VIII stayed here in 1539, as did his daughter Elizabeth I almost 30 years later.

Donnington Castle came to prominence in the English Civil War, when Charles I instructed his troops to take possession from the Parliamentarians. The fortress was attacked many times during the two year period spanning 1644–46, eventually being surrendered to the Roundheads. Parliament chose to demolish the badly damaged castle in 1646, leaving only the gatehouse standing, though the Civil War defences survive around the slopes of the hill. It was to be another 300 years before the remains of the Castle came into guardianship of the state. 

There are footpaths that take in Donnington Castle, so today it is much enjoyed by walkers and cyclists.

Windsor Castle
Just 45 minutes drive from Newbury is a jewel in the county’s crown: Windsor Castle, one of the official royal homes of none other than Queen Elizabeth II, who spends many weekends here. When the Royal Standard is flying from the Round Tower, visitors know Her Majesty is in residence.

Berkshire is proud to be home to this, the world’s oldest – and indeed largest – inhabited castle, open to the public on nearly every day of the year, though some parts of it are closed on certain days for ceremonial or state events. Full details are available from the website:

The splendid ramparts of Windsor Castle dominate the town and river. The original building was founded by William the Conqueror around c.1080 and it has been used by British royalty ever since.

The Castle building itself covers an area of approximately 13 acres, set within grounds of 26 acres. There is much to see within the walls of the Castle, including the State Apartments, Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House and St George’s Chapel, one of the finest examples of late-Gothic architecture in England.

With its 4,800 acres, much of Windsor Great Park, stretching south from the Castle, is free for visitors to wander at leisure and enjoy picnics, walking and cycling. The area was once a hunting ground popular with Saxon kings and for hundreds of years stories of the ghostly Herne the Hunter have been told. The spectre, wearing antlers, is said to gallop through the park on a black stallion with hounds at its heels, before disappearing into thin air ...

And there you have Berkshire’s castles: isn’t it time you visited?