Valentine’s Day the Welsh way: Taking a cue from star-crossed lovers in wonderful Wales

By
David Atkinson

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Stuck for something romantic to impress your loved one this Valentine’s Day? I was – until I discovered the patron saint of Welsh lovers, her folklore-rich domain in Anglesey and the wonderful appeal of an away-from-it-all, romantic break in North Wales.

The country celebrated St Dwynwen’s Day on January 25th and there’s plenty to learn from the quirky Welsh equivalent to February 14th.

The event in Wales is no commercial free-for-all; it taps into the poignancy and romance of the Celtic soul.

St Dwynwen cross and Twr Mawr lighthouse in silhouette on Llanddwyn Island at sunset

Remembered: Two crosses stand near Twr Mawr lighthouse, close to St Dwynwen’s church

Dwynwen was a 5th-century beauty, the daughter of the King of Powys. She fell for a dashing young prince called Maelon, but her father would not agree to the marriage. Maelon attacked Dwynwen in a fit of passion and was turned to ice by an angel.

Dwynwen pledged that if the angel were to bring Maelon back to life, she would devote herself to God alone. She then crossed the mountains of Snowdonia on horseback to find a site to establish her simple church and begin a life of spiritual devotion.

She settled on Llanddwyn Island, a remote tidal islet off the west coast of Anglesey. Young lovers from across Wales would seek out Dwynwen for saintly blessings for their forthcoming marriage until she died in 497AD.

Yachts moored in a bay off Llanddwyn Island

Isolated: Llanddwyn Island is a tidal isle cut off from the mainland at high tide

The medieval love poet Dafydd ap Gwilym first popularised her story in the 13th century, writing: ‘Dwynwen your beauty is like a silver tear. Your church is ablaze with candlelight.’

Even today, Welsh lovers will exchange gifts of love spoons or jewellery engraved with love poetry on St Dwynwen’s Day. Some may even take their sweetheart to the beach, close to the ruins of Dywnwen’s church, to pop the question.

I decided to follow her trail, strolling a seven-mile walking route through the Newborough Warren National Nature Reserve.

I made my base in Beaumaris, the visitor-hub town of Anglesey. It was a cosy spot to soak up some great Welsh hospitality with a clutch of brightly painted hotels, cosy pubs and funky shops strung out along Castle Street, the main thoroughfare.

Beaumaris

Tranquil: Beaumaris is the town most visitors head for on Anglesey

On the boat-bobbing quayside, I drank in panoramic views across the Menai Strait to Snowdonia.

After a comfortable night at The Townhouse, the contemporary-styled sister hotel to Beaumaris stalwart Ye Olde Bulls Head Inn, and a slap-up breakfast of local delicacies that included cockles and lava bread, I was ready for my day’s walking.

The walk lead me through Forestry Commission land, where red squirrels frolicked with early-spring fervour amongst the Corsican pine and silver birch trees. There was a chill in the air but my heart was warmed by the closeness to nature and a delicious sense of tranquility.

Dropping down to Newborough Beach from the sand dunes, the wind engulfed me in a fine veil of salty sea-spray and gritty sand. But I pushed on. After all, Dwynwen didn’t shirk from her saintly duty, nor bow down to the elements. Neither should I.

St Dwynwen's church

Legacy: There are few remains of St Dwynwen’s church but her story lives on

My reward as the beach opened up
before me was a glorious yomp across the tide-washed pebbles, the sea
crashing on the beach beside me with a throaty roar. Further ahead, a
weathered sign marked the perimeter of Llanddwyn Island, the headland
stretching out into the Irish Sea, and weathered stone steps led
through a series of elaborately carved gates to the saint’s inner
sanctum.

Dwynwen’s ancient, moss-covered church may have long since fallen into ruins, but the stone altar still stands proud, while a stoic Celtic cross dominates the eerie landscape. As a testament to the church as a place of pilgrimage even today, I noticed a faded bouquet of blood-red roses atop the ancient altar.

The Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William have been living just a short distance from here while he serves as a search and rescue helicopter pilot. I wondered if they sometimes strolled this stretch of sand. It seemed a perfect spot for some time together away from the public gaze.

A view through the dunes of Newborough Beach towards the Llyn Peninsula

Dreamy: A view through the dunes of Newborough Beach towards the Llyn Peninsula

Along the headland, there is a small exhibition about Dwynwen and the geology of her remote outpost in a series of stone-built pilots’ cottages. Inside, it is stark but cosy, a wood-carved effigy of Dwynwen, depicting the saint with flowing robes and cascading blond ringlets, standing guard by the door.

The afternoon sun was fading and the elements gathering force for another Biblical storm. It was definitely time to head back to Beaumaris.

I was looking forward to a pint of local ale in the snug at Ye Old Bulls Head Inn, a browse through the seaside-inspired prints at the Janet Bell Gallery and dinner that evening at Cennin (which means ‘leeks’), a smart new restaurant offering signature Welsh black beef and lamb dishes.

But first I cast a wish into the wave-washed cove below, evoking the spirit of Dwynwen to watch over me and my loved one from her holy resting place.

So, you can keep your flowers and chocolates this Valentine’s Day. I’ll be whisking my cariad (sweetheart) away to North Wales. When it comes to romantic gestures, I’ve got a bone-fide Welsh saint on my side.

The Townhouse, Beaumaris (01248 810329; www.bullsheadinn.co.uk) has doubles from £120 BB.
Cennin, Beaumaris (01248 811230; www.restaurantcennin.com) has mains from £17.95. For more about romantic breaks in Wales see www.visitwales.co.uk/romantic-breaks.

On the trail of Dracula in Translyvania

By
Elinor Goodman

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When you go to Transylvania you could be in for a big surprise. I’d expected fairytale castles, beautiful churches, a way of rural life stuck in the last century – but not bears. Not in Europe. Yet here I was in a clearing in the forest, watching 11 wild brown bears eating the equivalent for them of Coco Pops – a highly pungent mixture of cherries, oats, chocolate and dead mice.

We were in the relative safety of a hide halfway up a tree. But rather alarmingly, the door was kept open and you could hear the protective growl of the mother bear as she tried to stop her cubs wandering.

Bran Castle (Dracula's Castle), Bran, Transylvania

Horribly interesting: Bran Castle is an eerily good match for Dracula’s fortress in the 1992 film

We had arrived just before dusk, having driven about ten miles along a track that was so bumpy that even a 4×4 had come to grief earlier in the day. We walked the last 300 yards, seeing bear-shaped shadows behind every tree.

As we took our seats in the hide, the forest ranger began emptying the food into hollowed-out logs. Five minutes later, there was the sound of something large crashing through the trees. The mother bear came first, followed by her cubs. She was dark brown, with a slightly lighter ruff, and stood about 3ft high at the shoulder when on all fours. At intervals, though, she would stand on her back legs, reaching up to about 5ft 6in, while looking around menacingly.

Next to arrive was a pregnant female and two adolescent males that burst into the clearing like football hooligans to be met by a distinctly unwelcoming growl from the mother bear. Eventually all 11 bears were snuffling around in front of us. But by that time it was almost totally dark and we had to leave the hide, which meant walking through the trees about ten yards from them. We didn’t need much telling to keep quiet because, though the bears are fed every day, they are definitely wild and females are very protective of their young.

Wild bears in the woods, Translyvania

Travelling club class: Elinor spotted these wild bears in the woods

There are about 6,000 bears in the forests of Romania. I was in Transylvania, which means ‘beyond the forests’, but, nevertheless, large parts of the region’s Carpathian Mountains are wooded – and they’re very much off the beaten track.

Indeed, many villages are still connected only by mud roads. Even the main roads, like the spectacularly winding Transfagarasan Highway, are potted with holes. The other hazards on the roads are stray dogs, and horses and carts.

Ceausescu’s communist regime fell in 1989, but Romania, now in the European Union, remains a very poor country. Many peasants still scythe fields by hand, loading the hay on to wagons that seem in imminent danger of collapse. Coming down one perilous road, we saw a man fast asleep on his hay as his horse plodded home.

The villages now have electricity but in most respects they seem virtually untouched by the modern era. Many old ladies wear full black skirts and headscarves. On feast days, some wear elaborately embroidered village costumes, and many still pride themselves on keeping alive the traditional dances. Often, on the edge of villages and in the markets you see gypsy women in brightly coloured skirts and with plaits down to their waists.

Dracula restaurant sign

Fancy a bite? A Dracula sign in Sighisoara

Main streets are lined with houses built in pairs, connected by wide barn doors, with yards for the animals behind. Stretching behind them are fields laid out in strips, as they were in medieval times.

The highlight of many of these villages is a fortified church with a pointed steeple and double walls. They were built by the Saxons, and fortified against the Turks.

The quiet in these villages is wonderful for anyone trying to get away from it all. Many don’t have a shop and you have to search for a bar, let alone a restaurant. If you do find somewhere to eat, it will serve only traditional peasant food such as the ubiquitous meatballs and a very heavy kind of polenta.

Some have tiny museums tucked away, like one near Sibiu where the orthodox priest had hidden hundreds of icons from the communists at great risk to his own life.

In another of the fortified churches, there was a room in the wall which used to be the old ‘matrimonial court’. Couples thinking of divorcing were locked in it together with only one bed and a knife and fork between them, until they saw the error of their ways.

But there is another side to tourism in Romania – much of it thanks to Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula in the 19th Century, very loosely based on the bloodthirsty 15th Century Prince of Wallachia, Vlad the Impaler.

The real Vlad wasn’t a vampire, of course, but he did enjoy impaling enemies on stakes. Some 600 years later, any town that can claim a remote link with him does, and thousands of tourists make a pilgrimage to sites associated with him – however tenuous the link.

Bran Castle, with its fairytale turrets, was only a brief stopping-off point for Vlad but makes the most of the fact it looks just like the one in the 1992 Dracula film. All around it are stalls selling Dracula memorabilia, mugs, face masks, crossbows – and toy Kalashnikovs.

Another hill town nearby, Rasnov, is similarly surrounded by tat with a wooden vampire set up for photo ops, yet it is in a spectacular position, as is the real Dracula’s castle at Poenari.

I admit I didn’t climb the 1,480 steps as it was raining so hard it felt as if the Hollywood special-effects department had gone into overdrive. But the family staying in my hotel did. They had chosen to come to Romania partly because their daughter was a Goth.

Transylvania was perfect for them as they could go for long mountain walks and Hayley could satisfy her curiosity about vampires. When they went to Sighisoara, the medieval citadel where Dracula was born, people queued up to photograph her in her black make-up, alongside an image of the impaler.

The Transfagarasan Highway, Transylvania

A nice twist: The Transfagarasan Highway is a thrill for petrol heads

We went to Romania with Secret Transylvania, a small travel company set up by a couple who first went to Romania to help out in an orphanage and fell in love with the country.

They have eight guests at a time to stay in their home near Sibiu, and drive you around the countryside. Di, a wonderful cook, provides a delicious breakfast and one homecooked meal a day. The other is included in the price but is eaten in a restaurant that is usually pretty basic.

It’s incredibly good value – I spent about £750 for the week, including spending money and an additional fee for the bear trip.

Included
in the price was one excursion I would never have done on my own. They
said we were going to the salt lakes to swim. I imagined an isolated
lake in the middle of fields with perhaps a few fishermen on it. Far
from it. We rounded a corner, and to me it looked as if we were gazing
into the bowels of hell.

All
around were muddy pools full of semi-naked figures, some smothered in
black mud. I felt like running away, but Di’s husband, Jez, insisted it
was part of the experience. So we covered each other with mud and
slithered into the ponds. They are apparently more than 100ft deep but
so salty you couldn’t turn over on your front, let alone drown.

The only danger was being crushed by other bodies. I found myself hanging on to a man’s trunks as I struggled to get out of the water with another woman trying – unsuccessfully – to hold on to me.

Another day, we drove over the Fagaras Mountains, past numerous Romanians cooking on open fires right beside the road, and down into the town of Curtea de Arges. It was the feast day of the local saint and the monastery was surrounded by people, mostly gypsies, determined to touch her coffin as it was paraded.

I was almost knocked over by women behind me as a boy tried to rub a toy gun on the coffin. Another woman was rebuked by the priest for trying to kiss the coffin while on her phone.

It reminded me of nearly being knocked over as a TV journalist by the crowds closing in on Tony Blair.

But it seemed a very, very long way away from England.

Secret Transylvania (secrettransylvania.co.uk) offers a seven-night holiday from £490. This includes meet-and-greet at Sibiu airport, transfers, full-board accommodation with meals in restaurants, drinks, excursions with guides and entrance fees.

Lufthansa (0871 945 9747, lufthansa.com) offers return flights via Munich to Sibiu from £169.

 

Ski holidays: Going off piste in Villars is like hiring your own private mountain

By
Neil English

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It’s snowing through shafts of sunshine as I look for the ‘snowbow’ that often graces Villars in the Swiss Rhone Alps. I feel cheated. Last time it snowed through a thin cloud layer, with dazzling brightness above, a multicoloured arc cascaded into the valley dividing the Grand Muverans and Dents du Midi mountains. It’s undoubtedly scenic, but the Villars-Gryon ski area has plenty of detractors.

‘Not enough skiing for a week’, ‘nothing challenging’, ‘too low to guarantee snow down to resort’ are the common accusations, coming mostly from people who have never been to Villars.

NEIL ENGLISH WITH FRIENDS AND FAMILY

Sloping off: Neil, his girlfriend Isabelle, left, and a group of friends during their stay in Villars

But already this snow season, I’ve enjoyed skiing in Villars to rival anywhere in the Three Valleys or Verbier.

And I am not even counting the spiritual, moonlit run I took down to Villars with my girlfriend at 1.30am on New Year’s Day after a gourmet dinner at Lac des Chavonnes, one of Villars’ finest mountain restaurants, run by the noted chef Medou Rebzani.

Villars ski resort

Expert view: The skiing in Villars this season easily rivals the popular Three Valleys, says Neil

Something’s going right because on one day between Christmas and New Year, a record-breaking 11,000 skiers purchased lift passes. Geneva is only 90 minutes’ drive away, which makes Villars highly weekendable.

One morning, I set out early with a group of friends, led by our guide Andreas, to the chairlift that transports you silently through a tranquil canyon to the Diablerets ski sector.

After another short skilift, there was a long and thrilling run from the Meilleret ridge down through Les Mazots, on the impeccably groomed piste that weaves through forest all the way to Diablerets village.

Breakfast in Villars ski resort

Leisurely breakfast? Artificial snow-makers and a new lift have cut queue times on Villars’ slopes

But fresh powder beckoned higher up. We kicked off our skis where the bus stops to take eager passengers on the ten-minute ride to Col du Pillon, where a two-stage cable-car system whisks skiers to the 10,000ft peak.

From here it’s possible for novices to ski on the very gentle, wide blue graded runs on top of the glacier – and for strong intermediates to ski on a mix of red and black pistes on a sevenmile descent, broken by just one short chairlift, all the way to Reusch.

But we were here for the untracked snow, off-piste on Combe d’Audon. You must take a qualified guide, best organised through villars-experience.ch. It was incredible to think that while thousands battled for space on the pistes, we saw perhaps 100 people all day. I felt as if I owned the mountain and the snow was soft and quiet under ski.

Mother nature has played a big part in Villars’ success, but it has been aided by a stream of innovations, including the Under Nines Ski For Free policy. A fast telecabine to Roc d’Orsay, and artificial snow-making, have cut queues and ensure all but novices can ski down at the end of the day.

Start at 9am and it is possible for a strong intermediate to ski ten laps from Roc d’Orsay to the bottom of the telecabine before 11am – by then the most hardened of critics will be wondering where they are going to find the energy to ski the rest of the day.

A planned chairlift from Bretaye to Chaux Ronde will take further stress off the Lac Noir chair, which is already benefiting from the faster six-seater Petit Chamossaire chair.

Snow-making guns on the La Rasse liaison to Alpes des Chaux make this a more rewarding run, while skiers enjoying the open pistes from Croix des Chaux now have a pit stop at the restaurant L’Etable (etable-gryon.ch).

A range of tailor-made trips are available from momentumski.com (020 7371 9111), including three nights’ BB in the five-star Chalet RoyAlp Hotel departing March 17, for £688pp based on two sharing, including Gatwick to Geneva flights and car hire.

A range of week-long, fully packaged holidays are available from main-stream operators skisafari.com, crystalski.co.uk and neilson.co.uk/ski. See villars.ch for more details and snow webcams.

 

Iwan Thomas: The perfect way to prepare for the London marathon? A Tuscan diet of pasta and hills

By
Iwan Thomas

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I thought a long weekend in Tuscany would be the perfect place to prepare for the London Marathon. During my athletics career, I won an Olympic silver medal and a string of titles over 400m, but these days I run for pleasure over much longer distances. I also needed this short break because I knew I was about to enter a hectic time at work as I was part of Channel 4’s team presenting the Paralympic Games in London.

Iwan Thomas making pasta

Pasta master: Iwan creates his dough during an Il Maggio cookery lesson

With good weather almost guaranteed and a short flight time from the UK, no wonder thousands of Britons head to this part of Italy every year. We flew to Florence, and from there it was a 90-minute drive to our 18th Century farmhouse, Il Maggio, near the delightful city of Siena.

Another of the attractions of this stay was the chance to have a cookery lesson – I was runner-up on the BBC’s Celebrity MasterChef several years ago, and I’m really passionate about food.

Il Maggio was very impressive, with attractive limestone floors, terracotta tiles and original beams. There was underfloor heating throughout the house too, which I particularly liked.

Il Maggio interior, Tuscany

Where the magic happens…the kitchen at Il Maggio

The property had its own spa area, including a Jacuzzi, while outside were lovely gardens, and – this was a nice touch – a small outhouse containing a traditional pizza oven. After a relaxing first day, we headed to the local village for our cookery lesson. We were shown how to make ravioli and other types of pasta (actually, I learned how to make pasta during my stint on MasterChef, but it was great to have a refresher course).

Afterwards, we went to do some food-tasting, and later that evening we went out for dinner. It’s a good job I have a big appetite. The next day I had to remind myself that I was here to get in some last-minute London Marathon training, so I headed into the hills close to our villa. The weather was gorgeous and (believe it or not) I was having such a good time that I ended up covering 15 miles – much more than I had originally intended.

This was my last outing before the Marathon itself and, although it was a harder run than I meant to do, it was great to be able to explore such beautiful countryside.

As an athlete, I was lucky enough to race in Italy several times but this was my first holiday in the country. Wherever I was competing, I rarely had the opportunity to explore a place as much as I would have liked – it was always a case of getting from the airport to the hotel, from the hotel to the arena, and from the arena to the airport for the journey home.

I spent the majority of my career on the athletics grand prix circuit. During the summer months, that meant flying to Oslo, for example, on the Tuesday, racing on Wednesday, going home on Thursday to collect some fresh clothes and kit and then heading to, say, Zurich on the Saturday for the next meeting.

At first, I really enjoyed all the travelling, but eventually living out of a suitcase, queuing endlessly at airports and staying in characterless hotels took its toll.

Competing at a major event such as the Olympics was a more enjoyable experience because we would be based in a host city for longer, which meant we had time to get to know it a little better.

Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy

Soul soother: The beautiful Tuscan city of Siena is within easy reach from Il Maggio

I took part in the Atlanta Games in 1996, where I won a silver medal in the 4x400m relay, and I was also involved in the relay team at the Sydney Olympics four years later.

When I was growing up, we travelled a great deal as a family and spent holidays in America and Australia. I’ve also lived in Canada and Germany, while, during my career, I often used to train in South Africa. I’d love to return there, especially for a safari or to stay in Cape Town.

I’m happy to say I finished the London Marathon in four hours, which I was pleased with. That session in the Tuscan hills obviously did the trick.

Ll Maggio sleeps up to seven people. Seven nights costs from €2,000 (about £1,800) in low season. Price excludes heating. To book, contact Tuscan Views on 020 7855 2998 or visit tuscanviews.eu. CityJet (cityjet.com) flies from London City to Florence. Prices start from £83pp one-way.

 

Travelling with a disabled child: Happiness is a dolphin and a golden ticket to Disney

By
Sally Phillips

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When Olly was born, was determined that life was going to carry on as normal. So we travelled as much as – possibly even more than – we might have done had he not had Down’s syndrome. By the time he was three, we’d lived in Melbourne, Toronto and Devon.

At first it was great: Olly loved
flying – crawling circuits of 747s became a favourite pursuit, he ate
everything the airlines could throw at him and he never cried.

Two bottlenose dolphins swimming underwater together

Diving buddies: Olly and his brothers loved swimming with the dolphins

He
also seemed to enjoy sampling foreign cultures – even coping with
Gymbaroo, Australian Gymboree, the most hardcore baby group on the
planet. It’s basically the Iron Man Challenge for under-twos. But in
recent years, holidays have got harder and not just because there are
now five of us: my husband Andrew and myself, Olly and his two younger
brothers.

One disaster was a package trip to a
resort with a pool and pirate ship. Olly hated it so much he asked to go
to Granny’s house every 30 minutes, stopping only when he fell for a
five-year-old blonde on day ten. Even then he cheered when we said we
were going to the airport. Definitely no more than a holiday fling.

Sally Phillips

Win-win situation: Miranda star Sally found Florida offered more than enough to keep the children entertained…and allowed the actress a rest too

Next we tried a hotel with self-service ice cream. Olly gained half a stone, broke out in eczema and suffered chronic flatulence.

Then we had a week among lovely families in a lovely family-run hotel in Cornwall.

Olly loved the lovely waiters, and somehow purloined a waiter’s notepad. That was it; every night he spent dinner going round the other families taking their orders. Then he sat down with them and ate their child’s pudding.

Everyone was kind, but then they always went on to ask me all about Miranda Hart. At the end of the holiday, Andrew and I hadn’t spoken to each other, but were on first-name terms with every other family.

It seemed that holidays with Olly were destined to be a fortnight of feeling different and wishing we weren’t. But last year, instead of carrying on as normal, we decided to hunt down a break tailored to Olly, then seven.

If you Google ‘holidays+disabled’, up pops ‘swim with dolphins’. Now, I enjoy lentils as much as the next hippy but I don’t believe dolphins are magical spirits, beamed from space to give humans physio. Nor do I believe my child is ‘not whole’ and that being rubbed by a marine mammal will complete him. But I liked the idea of a holiday at the beach where my son might be allowed to be as eccentric as he wanted.

However, after checking out a few sites, we began to feel uneasy about the dolphins. Even if it helped Olly, Andrew and I didn’t want to watch some Fish Fagin pimping sad-faced sea mammals round a tank.

Panama City Beach, Florida

Beach boy: The white-sugar sands of Panama City Beach left a huge impression on Olly…who could swim and snorkel until his heart’s content

Then I came across Water Planet USA, which offers swimming in the open sea with dolphins that turn up because they feel like it. It runs programmes in Florida tailored to those suffering numerous conditions. A dolphin encounter has ’emotional impact’, we read. It couldn’t be that bad. And in case it was, we booked a week at Walt Disney World to follow.

For the first time, we used Virgin’s Special Assistance team. We’ll do it every time we fly from now on. While we fiddled with passports, they made sure Olly didn’t check himself into the hold via the tempting baggage chute. The kids loved their free rucksacks full of toys, and when I left my notebook on the plane they sent it on to me.

On arrival in Florida, we drove seven hours north-west from Miami to Panama City Beach, a gentle curve of pure white sand on the Gulf of Mexico. We checked into the Inn at St Thomas Square, a terracottaroofed home-from-home where we sat on the balcony overlooking a lake and marvelled at American apples as big as ten-month-old Tom’s head.

Lightning McQueen at the Wheel Well Motel

Ideal brake: The Cars wing at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort

Water Planet USA’s website was full of rules and regulations, so it was a relief to find its Swiss founder Denis Richard laid-back and rather cool. There was nothing Olly or any of us could do to stress him out – except perhaps touch the dolphins. We didn’t.

Denis so strongly disapproves of people feeding and hassling wild dolphins that he hassles them back. That’s why we chose him, of course, and the kids soon started calling a dolphin-molesting tourist boat ‘the naughty ship’ because it was feeding them. The only downside to our conscientious objecting was we spent a morning cruising around looking for dolphins that weren’t interested in us as we didn’t have fish for them.

But the hunt became part of the fun – we all took turns on the binoculars. When we did find a pod and got close, we rushed for the snorkels and flippers and waited for Denis to signal that we could go in. I’ll never forget five-year-old Lukey screaming ecstatically: ‘I saw one, I’ve seen one, I can see it, I can still see it!’ Once in the water, Olly didn’t want to get out, even when stung by jellyfish. We were all overwhelmed.

I stared in awe at a mother and baby dolphin surfacing together – they swim no more than a foot apart for the first three years. Now there’s a guilt trip for a working mum.

It was a memorable week. Finally I got my kids to love being outside more than TV. I’d like to say they ‘reconnected with nature’, but ‘connected for the first time’ is closer.

As the holiday was designed around Olly, there were enough adults on hand for it never to be unsafe and for us never to have to apologise for him. Olly was allowed to be Olly and, after a week under Denis’s influence spotting crabs and sea birds, his self-esteem was through the roof – he was a marine biologist and wilderness explorer. But the real highlight for him was being allowed to drive the pontoon boat. At heart he’s a speed freak and it blew his mind.

Even the weather was exciting.

Darth Vader and a young fan

Heaven for little boys: A battle with Darth Vader

We were marooned on an island waiting for a hurricane. On the last day, we sat at Morrison Springs nature park among deer and woodpeckers, danced like idiots to Shakira and then packed for Disney World.

Disney are used to people like us. So from the second we checked in at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort we were happy. The kids went bananas: we were in a section themed after the movie Cars – a truck-sized model of Mater sat outside our room. The Finding Nemo salt-water pool with music piped underwater, kids’ games morning and afternoon and kids’ film screened every night were beyond their wildest dreams – and all this before we actually got to the theme parks.

After a few days latched on to the fibreglass bosom of Disney, we realised everything – from breakfast with the Neverland Pirates to the Jedi Training Academy where your child can defeat Darth Vader – is designed to create the feeling that you are having the happiest time possible.

It works. On the last night, the fireworks pushed Lukey over the edge. He burst into tears. ‘Why are you crying, Lukey?’ I said. ‘Because I’m just so happy,’ he choked. ‘It’s all ending and I never want it to! I just want to do it all over again.’ If I can advise one thing, it is never to go to Disney World without someone with a disability.

The queues were airbrushed out for Olly. It was wonderful to hear Lukey thank his big brother for getting us all a golden ticket – his disabled pass. Months later, we’re still talking about it.

Luke has already mounted the campaign for Disneyland 2016 but the rest of us talk more about Panama City Beach. When you have a child with additional needs, you don’t let them more than an arm’s length away. Yet in Panama City I could let Olly swim in the sea, snorkel, wreck-dive, wave-jump and drive a speedboat, while resting myself.

Our holiday tailored to Olly benefited all of us; he was the star and we were his ‘plus one’.

Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859, virginholidays.co.uk) offers seven nights in Orlando from £935 per person. This includes return flights on Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick to Orlando, accommodation at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort on a room-only basis and car hire. The Virgin Holidays Special Assistance Team can be contacted by email at special.assistance@virginholidays.com, or call 0844 557 3998 (Monday to Friday, 9am-5.30pm).

For information on The Inn at St Thomas Square at Panama City Beach, visit basicmgt.com/TheInn.php. Water Planet USA (waterplanetusa.com) offers a range of dolphin swim programmes. A one-day course costs from $105 (about £66).

 

Belton House in Lincolnshire, where Edward and Mrs Simpson’s romance gathered pace

By
Anne Sebba

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The story of Edward and Mrs Simpson is now largely one of time spent abroad: during the war they lived in the Bahamas, where the Duke of Windsor was Governor General. Afterwards they were in self-imposed exile in Paris and New York.

But it might have been otherwise, and several fine English country houses shed light on their often secret and tangled romance in the years before the Abdication.

Belton House

Bolthole: Beautiful Belton House where Edward and Mrs Simpson were guests

Approaching Sandringham today, the Royal Family’s estate in Norfolk, it’s impossible not to recall the scene in The King’s Speech where Edward flies up in a small private plane with his own pilot and lands on the manicured lawns. He is on his way to see his dying father, George V, who said he loved ‘dear old Sandringham’ better than anywhere.

Being there, it is easy to imagine how Wallis Simpson would have loved to be its chatelaine. Yet as an American divorcee, she could not even set foot within its walls.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor

It was suggested that Mrs Simpson should seek refuge at Belton House in Lincolnshire but the eventual Duchess of Windsor baulked at the idea

Within hours, George V was pronounced dead and Edward VIII the new King. It’s an important vignette, for on that January day in 1936, everything changed. One of the first things Edward did at Sandringham was write to Wallis, terrified that the new situation might scare her away. He told her: ‘You are all and everything I have in life and WE must hold each other so tight.’ From then on, their relationship, still largely a secret in Britain, became increasingly fraught.

Politicians were anxious that Edward seemed unable to live without her. That summer, intimate photographs of her with the King started appearing in the international press and, once her second divorce went through in October and marriage to the King looked a real possibility, Wallis became one of the most hated and vilified women in the world. She received bomb threats and poison-pen letters, and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was worried someone might even shoot her.

That’s where Belton House comes into the story. Deep in the Lincolnshire countryside, this 17th Century mansion owned by the Brownlow family would have made a good hideaway from the press or assassins. Edward was godfather to Lord Brownlow’s heir, also called Edward, and you can see the magnificent baptismal font in the opulent private chapel where the King stood in 1936 to celebrate the boy’s birth. In early December, the King told Wallis it was no longer safe to stay in the country and asked Brownlow, known to friends as Perry, to escort her abroad. Brownlow suggested instead that Wallis stayed at Belton as a safe refuge. But Wallis Simpson, an urban creature and shopper extraordinaire, would have hated life in a country home, however splendid.

Sandringham, Norfolk, England

Regal drama: Sandringham, where Edward visited his dying father, George V. Upon his death just hours later, Edward was declared the new King

It’s a measure of how desperately Wallis felt trapped that she preferred the notion of escaping to China – where she had spent a year in the Twenties – to the Belton Bolthole.

When she and Edward had stayed there,
the lovers were supposedly given a bedroom with exquisite Chinese
wallpaper to make Wallis feel at home. But when you see that the room
boasts only a small bed called a ‘sporting double’, you will probably
conclude that the couple more probably stayed in the newly named
‘Windsor Room’.

Loyal
Brownlow escorted Wallis from Edward’s Windsor home, Fort Belvedere, to
France. She never lived in England again. Brownlow found the French
escapade an agonising experience and was horrified to discover he was
also responsible for Wallis’s jewels, ‘presents from the King worth at
least £100,000’.

He paid a heavy price for his loyalty
to Edward. On his return it was made clear that if he accepted an
invitation to attend Edward’s wedding in France, he might find his
position as Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk uncomfortable. He declined the
wedding and retired to Belton.

MailTravel.co.uk has an exclusive three-day guided tour starting on May 12, 2013, which includes two illustrated talks by Anne Sebba, private dinners with wine, and visits to Belton House and Sandringham with the services of a tour manager throughout. See mailtravel.co.uk/holidays/royal.

Anne Sebba is the author of That Woman: The Life Of Wallis Simpson, Duchess Of Windsor (Phoenix Paperback, £7.99).