This is the first time I've visited Portugal and it may well become an annual feature.
I've lost count of the number of Guitar Retreats I have been on over the years - must be about a dozen - and one thing that they have all had in common - apart from expert tuition from the likes of Paul Nicholas - are the terrific venues. The venue for my most recent retreat in Ross-on-Wye was spectacular. Glewston Court is a beautiful 18th Century Country House set in the wonderful Hereford countryside.
The weekend centred around Americana and the music of artists such as Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, The Eagles, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. The tuition from both Paul and Stu was to its usual high standard and the elegant surroundings of the house and grounds made this a truly memorable weekend.
I came away with a fistful of new songs and techniques which I have been busily practsing since returning home and hope to have these perfected for my next Guitar Retreat in January - this time in Portugal!
When I go on a Guitar Retreat anywhere in the South of England, my good friend Paul Nicholas is kind enough to put me up for a couple of days before and after the weekend. Paul is a singer songwiter from Tredegar in South Wales and a regular tutor on Guitar Retreats and I've stayed with him many times. I had booked a Guitar Retreat in Ross-on-Wye for the weekend after my trip to Minehead and didn't really fancy a trip home and back after the ukulele weekend so I stayed with Paul for a couple of days.
When I visit, Paul always takes me to a local Folk Club or venue where he plays and I get a spot. This time it was The Redhouse in Merthyr Tydfil where I played a couple of songs on my ukulele and accompanied the resident band on a blues number at the end.
We also had a lovely drive and walk around the Abergavenny area and a trip to a local luthier - Richard Meryck - to get my guitar set up. We visited the ruin Llantony priory, before having lunch at the brilliant Bear Hotel, Crickhowell. Ii have a friend who is a fan of Half Man Half Biscuit, an 80s rock band of minor success. One of their songs is called "Lord Hereford's Knob" - we drove there just so that I could get a photograph of it for him!
I've been on a number of Ukulele Weekends over the past 3 or 4 years and last year my friend Alan and I took a trip on the Uke Express from Pickering to Whitby on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. We enjoyed it so much that we decided to return again this year. The train journey is the highlight of the Ukulele Weekend when up to 300 ukulele players take a trip on a steam train. This year the weekend was based in Minehead and the train was running from Minehead to Bishops Lydeard on the West Somerset Railway.
It was a long journey south from Edinburgh and we eventually arrived late in the afternoon after numerous hold-ups on the way. We were staying in a small hotel in the centre of Minehead. First impressions of Minehead weren't great with Butlins at the end of the main street and many tired looking hotels and shops, but as we later found out, a short walk along the promenade will take you to the very picturesque harbour.
As well as the train journey there are various concerts over the weekend and on the Friday evening, after spending an excellent time in the Queen's Head we walked to the Beach Hotel to see a couple of acts which included Dead Man's Uke a brilliant father and son duo.
On Saturday we took the train to Bishops Lydeard and the Quantock Brewery where they had laid on an Open Mic Stage, food and some excellent beer. We had met a really nice couple from Seaton in Devon on the train and I persuaded them to join us on stage for the Open Mic. We played a couple of songs - great fun.
After a leisurely start on Sunday morning, we took a stroll along the promenade to the lovely little harbour which was a very pleasant change from the rather run-down main street. We spent some time in the RNLI station where I tried to get a flag for the boat - it must have been my accent, but the two old ladies behind the counter thought I wanted a budgie.
We were travelling to Bristol where we were spending the night - Alan was flying back to Edinburgh on Monday afternoon and I was continuing my tour of the South of England and Wales.
Each year I like to book some ukulele or guitar weekends and holidays where I can meet up with old friends and have the chance to play music together.
Earlier this year I booked a Guitar Retreats course to Tresco Island and spent 4 terrific days on this small island, part of The Scilly Isles, learning from my good friend Paul Nicholas who was the tutor for that week. My second guitar related trip of the year was to take me all the way to The Dordogne in south west France.
I was meeting two friends who had also been on Tresco at Edinburgh Airport where we took a direct flight to Bergerac. The flight was delayed and as we waited I got chatting to a fellow passenger who regularly took the flight and was extremely sceptical about it to the extent that she was convinced that delay after delay would be announced and finally it would be cancelled, which, according to her, was not unusual with our carrier FlyBe. Fortunately, her gloom and doom were completely unfounded and we took off some 30 minutes late.
When we arrived at Bergerac we were met by Johnny, our host for the week, along with his two dogs Teddy and Babou who went with him everywhere. We had a short wait at the airport for our tutor Colin Wilson who was flying from Exeter. Colin has produced over seven albums of published songs so far both as an individual and collaboratively, including an album with Phil Beer from “A Show Of Hands”. I've been on his courses before and knew him to be an excellent tutor. When we arrived at La Perdrix in St Martin de Riberac around quarter past ten in the evening I was pleased to see a number of familiar faces as well as a few new ones. I was looking forward to this week.
Being a peely-wally Scot I was a little apprehensive about the sun and heat in the Dordogne, but I needn’t have been so anxious as our accommodation, La Perdrix a wonderful 13th century monastery, has thick stone walls which keep the rooms cool even in temperatures around the mid 30s and grounds with many leafy nooks and crannies so it is always easy to find shade. The monastery has been added to many times over the centuries and along with alterations and improvements carried out by Johnny, it's now a rambling maze of a place spread over three floors and three buildings crammed with the most interesting of stuff.
On the first morning the group was divided into three smaller performance groups and after a typically leisurely French breakfast prepared by Dominic, the most fantastic chef for the week, tuition started. The format for teaching days was very much the same, Colin would give a song to each group to practise and learn. Whilst the songs were familiar we were given the additional task of coming up with our own arrangements based on ideas from Colin and Stuart (the owner of Guitar Retreats). Each evening after dinner we would perform these songs to the tutors and the other groups and the following morning we would watch videos of the performance and discuss how we might improve them. Stuart had arranged for us to perform at a local cafe, The Cafe du Palais, in Riberac on Friday night to a local audience so there was a wee bit of pressure on us and him.
It wasn’t all guitar and singing. Stuart and his wife Sharon had organised a couple of outings during the week for anyone who was interested. On Tuesday we spent the day in Aubeterre sur Dronne, a beautiful little village with an underground church cut from the rock which wasn't just a fascinating, remarkable place but was blissfully cool and a welcome break from the 35⁰ heat outside. After the visit to the church we made our way down to the River Dronne where Dominic had prepared a picnic for us and where we could cool off in the water and enjoy the artificially made sand beaches common to many French rivers. I had taken my guitar and there was also a ukulele so we spent part of the time entertaining (or annoying) ourselves and the locals.
On Thursday evening we had our final practices and advice from Colin and Stuart to help us make the performance go as well as it could. Each group had chosen their two strongest songs and along with contributions from individuals, pairs and other grouping as well as from Colin and Stuart, the playlist was written up. We were ready to go.
On Friday morning we had our second trip of the week to the local market in Riberac where we also had the chance to check out our gig venue. On Friday afternoon some of us had decided to take a walk in the woods around Le Grand Etang de La Jemaye, just south of Ruberac and enjoy the cool of an ice-cream in the shade by the lake. Then it was back to La Perdrix to give some time to practice individual performances have an early dinner, gather up the gear and make our way to the venue.
After a couple of minor hiccups at the start of the set, the show went extremely well and was much enjoyed by our audience, which included the grand-daughter of Sir Clive Sinclair. Every group and individual performed brilliantly, so much so that the owner of the Cafe du Palais has booked The Perdrix Players for next year!
The week was one of the best Guitar Retreats I have been to. It was great to meet up with old friends, catch up with their news and enjoy their music, playing and company. I also met some great new friends who I know I will keep in touch with. In fact I am to visit one of them in Moscow either later this year or Spring next year! They really are a great bunch of people from all walks of life including a wonderfully eccentric, mad, Welsh/French writer Jean Bonnin whose equally eccentric and mad, surrealist novels many of us purchased.
I’ll be back next year for more!
The world famous sub-tropical Tresco Abbey Gardens lie to the South West of the island.
In 1834, Augustus Smith left Hertfordshire and took up residence on the Isles of Scilly as Lord Proprietor and leaseholder of all the islands. He chose to live on Tresco and selected a site adjacent to St Nicholas Priory - which had fallen into disrepair in the sixteenth century - to build his home.
On a rocky outcrop above these ruins Augustus Smith built his house, which he named Tresco Abbey. In addition to constructing the house, he started almost immediately creating a garden based around the priory ruins.
The gardens are are often described as a perennial Kew without the glass, it shrugs off salt spray and Atlantic gales to host myriad exotic plants, many of which would stand no chance of survival even on the Cornish mainland less than 30 miles away. Even at the winter solstice, there are more than 300 plants in flower. All in all, the tropical garden is home to more than 20,000 species of plants from 80 countries, ranging from Brazil to New Zealand and Burma to South Africa
The Gardens also house the Valhalla Museum which features the Valhalla Collection containing some 30 figureheads, as well as name-boards and other decorative carvings from the days of sail.
In the winter months, when I am not sailing, I like to take a few weekends away on either a Ukulele Weekend or a Guitar Retreat. I have been using a company called Guitar Retreats for some time and in recent years they have started using more exclusive and unusual hotels and venues.
When I saw that a week long retreat was being held on Tresco Island I booked.
I researched various ways of getting there but both flying and train turned out to be either too expensive, long waits for connections or just inconvenient times. So I drove to Gloucester, stayed the night there and then onto Bude in Cornwall to stay with Stuart and Sharon, who run Guitar Retreats and then finally on to Lands End.
However, this wasn't the end of the journey as I still had to get a plane, a taxi, a boat and finally a short walk to The New Inn on Tresco.
It was a long journey, but well worth it. Tresco is a beautiful island with a sub-tropical garden at Tresco Abbey, long sandy beaches and some great walks around the island despite it only being 2 miles long and just over a mile wide.
A couple of weeks ago I travelled to Cumbria to take part in a ukulele weekend. Last year a friend and I went to Pickering on The Ukulele Express - a steam train from Pickering to Whitby - which was great fun, so I was really looking forward to this.
The venue was a Country Hotel, The Gilsland Hotel and Spa, just outside Haltwhistle. Nice place and as well as the entertainment and ukulele playing, the surrounding area was really nice and I managed out for a couple of short walks.