I was blackberrying the other day in the fields above our house. The gleamingly ripe berries were destined for a crumble, but I was reminded of alternative uses. Maybe to make the perfect seasonal sauce to accompany grouse. Alas, that’s now a great gustatory treat forsworn. This particular game bird is off my menu. For ethical reasons.

According to Chris Packham, since 2018 in the UK there have been 101 illegally killed hen harriers, plus tens of thousands of eagles, kites, buzzards, hundreds of thousands of foxes, stoats, corvids all killed, and vast swathes of upland have been ecologically damaged by burning. And all the while, I understand, grouse moor owners have been granted tax concessions.

I’ve been equally wobbly about that other traditional emblem of the hunting, shooting and fishing lobby – salmon. Except wild with its remarkable story is very much the exception these days. It is the industrial scale horror of fish faming that fuels my concerns.

The conservation charity Wildfish claims (and I have no reason to doubt them) that a reported 900,000 Scottish farmed salmon died between June 1 and 30 2023, bringing the total for the year so far to an estimated 5.6 million. That’s 1.6 million more fish compared with the same period last year.

It’s a wake-up call about the environmental, sustainability, and welfare issues connected with open-net farmed salmon. And since Wildfish launched its Off the table campaign encouraging restaurants to take such produce off its menus there has been a strong support from the likes of Fergus Henderson’s St John Restaurant in London and Michelin-starred Old Stamp House in Ambleside, The Palmerston and Fhior in Edinburgh and  Silo in Hackney. More than 100 destinations are now listed on an international directory of ‘refuseniks’.

Tim Maddams, former Head Chef of River Cottage says of the farmed salmon industry: “It’s inefficient, misleading in its advertising, it’s polluting, and it endangers the already massively threatened wild salmon. There are plenty of better, tastier, and far more sustainable options.”

In brief Wildfish’s damning claims about the Scottish farmed salmon industry

Mass production: intensive salmon farming creates a breeding ground for diseases and parasites. According to a WildFish report, in 2022, a single Scottish salmon farm can be infested with as many as 5 million parasitic sea lice at any one time – juvenile lice spread out from the farms, risking potentially fatal infestations in wild salmon and sea trout.

Impact on wild fish: it’s estimated that 440 wild fish are required as feed to produce one farmed salmon OR around 2.5kg (wild-caught fish as feed) per 1kg (farmed salmon). The industry relies on wild fish such as wild herring, anchovies, and mackerel for this feed; 90 per cent of which could be directly eaten by people.

 • Contamination: despite farmed salmon often being labelled as “responsibly produced”, the Scottish salmon farming industry is the only UK livestock industry to report increasing antibiotic usage trends), according to the UK Veterinary Antibiotic Resistance and Sales Surveillance Report published in 2022. The industry also continues to use chemical pesticides, toxic to marine life, that can spread as far as 39km away from the farms. According to an analysis by Inside Scottish Salmon Feedlots, Scottish salmon farm waste is equivalent to the volume of sewage produced by half of Scotland – approximately 35,000 tonnes per year.

Making a decision on what salmon you’ll buy. Go Faroe!

I accept the fact that most supermarkets and even traditional fishmongers don’t have access (or don’t seek access) to ethically reared fish, while punters may not care to splash out the big bucks for the wild stuff when it’s available, but, as with free range chicken, it is worth going the extra mile in your quest for salmon.

You can find wild salmon on occasions on the slab at one of the UK’s finest fishmongers, Out of the Blue in Chorlton, Manchester. They also regularly stock what many would claim is the king of sustainably farmed salmon from the pure waters off the spectacular Faroe Islands (above, out in the North Atlantic between Norway and Greenland,).

Faroes’ surroundings are the natural feeding ground of wild Atlantic salmon, which travel out from the rivers of Europe before heading back to spawn. Perfect environment also for fish farming with a conscience. No antibiotics to treat disease have been used for 20 years. Resulting product, off the back of a couple of OTB purchases, offers a rich buttery taste with a firm texture, the roseate colour the result of naturally occurring carotenoids, not dye. These come primarily from the healthy pigment astaxanthin, derived from a diet of microalgae and shrimp. And it has a high omega-3 content. Herring and eel are also part of the diet, helping build up that healthy fat content and his protein levels.

One obvious benchmark – it is sushi-graded, so can be safely consumed raw. Whatever you do with such quality salmon don’t over cook it. My personal preference is to smoke it gently with beech or cherry wood chips in my Cameron’s stovetop smoker.

Or maybe head down the Iceland route (and I don’t mean the supermarket)

We had to pass through the Cotswold town of Burford en route for Oxford recently, which meant visiting its glorious church to pay our respects to the three Levellers leaders executed there on Cromwell’s orders in May, 1649. His troops had first penned them inside St John The Baptist along with 340 other rebels who shared their ‘socialist’ beliefs. There’s a plaque to the trio in the churchyard.

Two miles away was the other object of our pilgrimage – The Upton Smokery, which has featured in the Financial Times top 50 places to shop in the world. We dropped in to purchase smoked eel. As with the great Jeremy ‘Quo Vadis’ Lee, who created his signature sandwich to showcase its delights, it is a passion of mine. And Upton smoke it on site.

They also stock arguably the world’s most sustainable land-reared fish sourced from Icelandic aquaculturists Silverscale.

Upton founder Chris Mills says: “I have been caught in a trap of supporting an industry (salmon farming) which I simply don’t believe in. Open cage salmon farming at sea is an environmental tragedy with such a low level of husbandry that, if people really knew what happened below water, they would never eat salmon again.

“Silverscale is changing that so I am thrilled to be part of this new initiative. Only good husbandry, pure water and zero chemicals can produce an end product to match its wild cousin. Wild Atlantic salmon is an incredible species in terrible trouble. Open caged salmon farming at sea is having a dire effect on their very existence and the only responsible and sustainable form of salmon farming has to be done in a controlled environment on land. Iceland is the obvious place to achieve this.”

Still in development, Silverscale expect to harvest  500-1000 tons this year increasing to 30,000 tons plus from salmon brood stock entirely raised in Iceland from egg.

You can buy smoked Icelandic salmon and char online from Upton.

Anthony Bourdain called AJ Liebling’s Between Meals (1962) “the benchmark for great food writing”, so there’s palpable excitement among gastronomes that 60 years on it’s about to be republished. This Francophile expat contributor to the New Yorker is an obvious inspiration for Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, quirkiest of odes to La Vie Parisienne mid-20th century (though that movie is set in the fictional provincial town of Ennui-sur-Blasé).

Liebling was more gourmand than gourmet and his unreconstructed attitude to women matched his gross appetites at table, which in turn led to obesity, gout and death at just 59 in 1963. Yet the guy could undoubtedly write. Like his almost exact contemporary also renowned for evocative prose rather than recipes, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. She  survived him by a further 30 years, dying as a feted grande dame in California’s Napa/Sonoma wine country.

As with Alice Waters or our own Elizabeth David, hers is a formidable foodie name to drop. Meryl Streep was never destined to play her. Snooty MFK in an apron for telly demos à la Julia Child? Quelle horreur! All we have is the writing and a certain cult following, of which I’m happy to be a fully paid-up member. If Liebling got Bourdain’s vote, I’m happy to endorse WH Auden’s verdict on her: “I do not know of anyone in the States who writes better prose”.

The great poet died in 1973 (a year after I had dinner with him in Oxford – we disagreed over the merits of the avocado), so that view of his may have dated. Indeed there is a certain antipathy in some quarters towards her legacy and the genre of food-centric life memoirs she initiated. Nadir? Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. 

Yet MFK doesn’t really deserve this diatribe from one Josh Ozersky in Medium magazine, culminating in “Her legacy suffocates us, immobilises us, covers us as tightly as puff pastry in a beef wellington. Food writing today is one great echo chamber, and the voice it echoes must be silenced. M.F.K. Fisher must die.”

Harsh. Contrast it with the unlikeliest of MFK homages in Birmingham last weekend, which sparked this, my own reminder of her greatness as a writer. No, I didn’t attend the supper club ‘Lunch with MFK Fisher’ hosted by Matt O’Callaghan, whose Italophile blog isthe rather excellent MangiaMangia, but I’d like to have shared that menu of tea, bread and honey, sherry, tomato, chicken and wine broth, cheese tarts (with white wine), roast pigeon with herbs and bread (with red), iced fruit, gaufrettes and Tokay, coffee and Armagnac.

This ‘fusion of food and art’ apparently replicated a meal she served for friends and family in her rural Swiss home, Le Pâquis above Vevey, just before the outbreak of World War Two. This was just one stop-off in a peripatetic life that also took in Italy, various parts of France and later, her native America (she was born in Michigan). 

Food was integral but she always aimed to chart her life in its entirety, summed up beautifully in the opening to her most popular book, The Gastronomical Me, “Our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” 

She was a great beauty. Photographer Man Ray worshipped her bone structure. Her determinedly independent life had its fair share of glamour, but also trauma, especially when her terminally ill second husband, Dilwyn Parrish shot himself. Life after the war as a single mother can’t have been easy but those years yielded two of my favourite books of hers on Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. I visited both cities last year and her ghost was there, particularly in Aix along the Rue Cardinale, her base in the Mazarin Quarter.

The area on which she is most evocative is Burgundy. In 1929 she moved there with her first husband, A,l to Dijon, where both studied at the university. Heady days as the newlyweds celebrated its rich food pickings: “We ate terrines of pâté ten years old under their tight crusts of mildewed fat. We tied napkins under our chins and splashed in great odorous bowls of ecrevisses a la nage. We addled our palates with snipes hung so long they fell from their hooks, to be roasted then on cushions of toast softened with the paste of their rotted innards and fine brandy.”

A touch florid, even Lieblingesque, maybe but, especially as her marriage faltered, she grew into her razor-sharp narrations. My favourite of these, set in the Burgundian Avallon region, is I Was Really Very Hungry

It was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1937; I discovered it in a delicious ‘greatest hits’ compilation, As They Were (1982). The centrepiece is a kind of a joust between a serving girl besotted with the cuisine her chef is producing backstage and the solo diner (MFK is always brilliant on the ‘woman who dines alone’).

It starts: “Once I met a young servant in northern Burgundy who was almost frighteningly fanatical about food, like a medieval woman possessed by a devil. Her obsession engulfed even my appreciation of the dishes she served, until I grew uncomfortable.

“It was the off season at the old mill which a Parisian chef had bought and turned into one of France’s most famous restaurants, and my mad waitress was the only servant. In spite of that she was neatly uniformed, and showed no surprise at my unannounced arrival and my hot dusty walking clothes…”

3,000 words later, after being pressed with glasses of marc and settling the large bill, the relentlessly sensuous ‘tasting menu’ is over, our heroine ready to leave…

“Suddenly the girl began to laugh, in a soft shy breathless way, and came close to me.

‘Permit me!’ she said, and I thought she was going to kiss me. But instead she pinned a tiny bunch of snowdrops and dark bruised cyclamens against my stiff jacket, very quickly and deftly, and then ran from the room with her head down.

“I waited for a minute. No sounds came from anywhere in the old mill, but the endless rushing of the full stream seemed to strengthen, like the timed blare of an orchestra under a falling curtain. She’s a funny one, I thought. I touched the cool blossoms on my coat and went out, like a ghost from ruins, across the courtyard toward the dim road to Avallon.”

You’re hooked? You must be. Follow this link to read the full 3,500 words.

The best introduction to Fisher at her peak is The Art of Eating, a compendium of four books, her debut, Serve It Forth, Consider The Oyster, The Gastronomical Me and An Alphabet for Gourmets. Her most recipe-led volume, How To Eat A Wolf, was published at the height of Second World War food shortages and its wryness still resonates. One chapter is called How to Be Cheerful Through Starving, another How To Boil Water, and she helpfully tips us off on creating a life-saving ‘sludge’ for 50 cents, yet the message, echoing the rest of her 25-strong oeuvre, is ‘food is pleasure’. When we “nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy and ever-increasing enjoyment it is a way to “assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains”.

That message was there at the start of her writing career in Serve It Forth: “If you have to eat to live, you may as well enjoy it.”

Main image is courtesy of the Audubon Canyon Ranch, a sustainable nature charity based at Stimson’s Beach, who are custodians of MFK Fisher’s Californian legacy.

PJ Harvey’s wonderful return to form, Inside the Old Year Dying, springs from the epic Dorset dialect poem, Orlam, she published last year. It’s an album I have on constant repeat as it yields its surprises, aural and verbal. I’ve still to tackle the poem itself, product of eight years’ mastering the neglected linguistic heritage of her native county (it has an English translation on facing pages).

Yes, Thomas Hardy remains synonymous with Dorset but the parson poet of Blackmore Vale, William Barnes, is Polly’s literary inspiration A greater poet, Edward Thomas, described him as “the mouthpiece of the Dorset carters, cowmen, mowers and harvesters”. The rustic patois of the region that populates his verse is a wellspring for the raw, supernatural growing-up story of nine-year-old Ira-Abel, whose oracle is the all-seeing eye of a dead lamb, the Orlam of the book’s title. 

The vision of Barnes (1801-1886) himself is altogether more grounded as I was reminded when researching another great Dorset survivor, Blue Vinny – a large newly-purchased chunk of which faces me as I write (Calder Cheese House, £2.95 per 100g.)

Vinny (or Vinney) was apparently Hardy’s favourite cheese, fancifully linked by some to Talbothayes Dairy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where Tess and Angel Clare’s love ripened against a backdrop of its “lush, fertile land” in contrast to ‘starveacre’  Flintcomb-Ash where, in a memorable low point she’s forced to wrench swedes from the rugged terrain. 

Yet I can find no reference to tangy, blue-veined cheeses across Hardy’s extensive oeuvre. Barnes, though, sings of its merits loud and clear in his poem, Praise O’ Do’set, just after a fulsome plug for frothy cider:

“Woont ye have brown bread a-put ye,

An’ some vinny cheese a-cut ye?”

In truth, it’s not one of Barnes’s best, omitted from my browning 1972 selection of his work, edited by Robert Nye. At that time true Dorset Blue Vinny was just a fading memory, even in its Vale of Blackmore heartland. The image of that perfect dairy country was sealed into the English DNA at that time by the ‘boy on the bike’ Hovis ads, filmed on Golden Hill, Shaftesbury. Alas, it was probably processed ‘Cheddar’ going on that processed brown bread.

The Second World War had been almost the final straw for a cheese already in decline when the government concentrated essential dairy production on a few key hard cheeses. By the Seventies with a revival of interest in traditional British foods, the cause was not yet lost, though. 1978’s groundbreaking In Search of Food by David and Richard Mabey desperately turns the search for any existing Blue Vinny farmhouse producers into a two-page ‘Detective Story’. They toured all the villages of the Vale, including Barnes birthplace Bagber, Glanvilles Wooton, Buckland Newton and beyond to Piddletrenthide and Cerne Abbas. Ultimately the quest was all frustrating dead ends but they set the bar.

From them I learned ‘“The Vinny of the name is a corruption of ‘vinnid’ or veiny, referring to the mass of blue veins that run through the cheese. The milk for the cheese would be hand-skimmed, since mechanical skimming takes away too much of the cream from the milk…”

It was all a bit hit and miss. In unhygienic cold, damp dairies cheeses were left for months while spores of penicillium roqueforti would grow. “In some dairies, farm hands would dip harness leathers in the milk churns when the day’s work was over, and they might leave mouldy bread or old boots in the cheese room. The final trick was to store the cheese at the bottom of a vat of cider; it might take months but eventually the cider would clear and the cheese would ripen. What a harmonious and practical partnership between two foods.” For a current similar symbiosis of booze and blue cheese check our my recent report on Oregon’s Rogue River Blue.

By the time the legendary Patrick Rance updated his The Great British Cheese Book in 1988 a Vinny saviour was at hand. The monocled Major had charted various small scale attempts at revival, plus the the passing off of second-grade Stilton off-cuts as the real thing, but finally he welcomed what has proved to be a successful champion for four decades now and the source of the creamy and crumbly, intricately-veined specimen in front of me. Bravo Mike Davies and his family at Woodbridge Farm, Sturminster Newton.

It all came about as a means of using up surplus milk on the family farm. Trained cheesemaker Mike unearthed a 300-year-old recipe. bought a second-hand vat and set to work in the pantry, where – learning curve – soon everything from the walls to marmalade jars turned blue. Production today is still based around their own pasteurised milk and the cheese, lower in fat than most, matures at the farm for 15 to18 weeks.

I can’t better Ned Palmer’s evaluation of it in his A Cheesemonger’s Compendium of British and Irish Cheese (Profile Books, £14.99): “With a rough, fawn-orange rind and a deep, well-distributed indigo blue, the cheese has an aroma of digestive biscuits, a satisfyingly chewy texture and a long, hot peppery finish.”

Their Blue Vinny has won numerous awards and has been recognised by the European Commission as one of a select group of foods worthy of carrying its “Protected Geographical Indication” (PGI) mark.

Like Lancashire crumbly It’s a great cooking cheese. A decade ago River Cottage, just across the border in Devon, created a ‘Leek and Dorset Blue Tart’ that is a stalwart of the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall rustic repertoire:


For the shortcrust pastry:

250g plain flour

125g unsalted butter

Pinch of sea salt

1 medium egg yolk

25-50ml cold milk

For the filling:

2 large or 3 medium leeks (about 500g), trimmed of tough green leaves, washed and sliced into 1cm rounds

Knob of unsalted butter

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

100g Dorset Blue Vinny grated

2 medium eggs

2 medium egg yolks

350ml double cream


First make the pastry. Put the flour, butter and salt in a food processor and pulse until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk, then pour in the milk in a gradual stream. Watch carefully and stop adding the milk as soon as the dough starts to come together. Turn out and knead lightly a couple of times, then wrap in cling film. Chill for half an hour.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the pastry out quite thinly and use to line a 25cm loose-based tart tin, letting the excess pastry hang over the edges. Line the pastry case with greaseproof paper, fill with baking beans and place in an oven preheated to 70C/Gas Mark 3. Bake blind for 20 minutes, then take the tart out of the oven, remove the paper and beans, lightly prick the base all over with a fork and return to the oven for five minutes, until the base is dry but not too coloured. Carefully trim off the excess pastry with a small, sharp knife. Turn the oven temperature up to 180C/Gas Mark 4.

To make the filling, put the leeks into a saucepan with 100ml water, the butter and some salt and pepper. Bring to a low simmer, then cover and cook gently, stirring once or twice, for about 10 minutes, until just tender. Drain well, reserving the cooking liquor. Spread the cooked leeks in the tart case and cover with the grated cheese.

Put the eggs and egg yolks, cream and leek liquor in a bowl and beat until smooth. Season to taste, then pour this custard over the cheese and leeks. Put the tart back into the oven and bake for about 30 minutes — the custard should be just set when you gently shake the tin. Serve warm or cold.

Big birthdays demand a blow-out. For my 70th last year it was unforgettable Ynyshir. Playing catch-up this, my bluestocking wife required Dreaming Spires and the Forest of Arden – so off to Oxford (where we met several decades ago) and to Stratford-upon-Avon for a rather apt staging of As You Like It (in the main theatre below right, image by Stratford Computers).

Theresa’s own version a few years ago tapped into youthful enthusiasm; the current RSC adaptation regroups a cast of grizzled veterans, supposedly 45 years on from the original production they were in. Cue all kinds of riffs on time passing. The best summation from another Shakespeare play, The Merchant of Venice: “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.” Occasionally creaky, this As You Like It was all a rather joyous self-indulgence. As was the rest of our Stratford leg.

Familiar territory this half-timbered town, yet it never loses its allure. Top advice is to get to the major Shakespeare attractions early or, for those out of town honeypots, later in the day when the coach parties are dispersing. 

Before filling you in on all those must-sees a mini-guide to more modest off-the beaten track discoveries we made on this recent visit. Just stray off thronged Sheep Street, Henley Street and the like to a Stratford shorn of Edinburgh Woollen Mills, Harry Potter shrines and shop windows rammed with tourist tat and you might encounter… 

Ya-Bard – ‘a quart of ale is a dish for for a king’

The quote is from The Winter’s Tale (1611); of rather more recent vintage (2020) is Dave Moore and Sam Thorp’s splendid craft beer bar/bottle shop at 13 Rother Street (next to the Playhouse). The narrow space is lined with Belgian lambics and serious sharing bottles, but the five beers on tap are witness to Dave’s preference for hoppy pale ales and IPAs. Manchester’s own Track Sonoma was just about to go on when we dropped by. This is the real beer deal in a town whose bars and pubs don’t really cut the mustard. Falstaff would give them the sack!

Shakespeare Hospice Bookshop – ‘Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnish’d me From mine own library with volumes that I prize above my dukedom’ 

The Tempest this time. We think its hero Prospero would approve of the good deeds of The Shakespeare Hospice, which runs a range of fund-raising shops, this gloriously well-stocked shrine to the printed the word the pick. We browsed there for the best part of an hour, relishing the generous prices… for quite recent review copies in many cases. I snapped up John Kampfner’s Why The German’s Do It Better for £4 and my wife a tome on moles for a quid more. If you visit don’t miss the quirky upstairs display of “Things we found in books”.

Box Brownie – the curtain’s down!

Coffee didn’t arrive in England till the mid-17th century (according to Samuel Pepys, England’s first coffee house was established in Oxford in 1650), so understandably there’s no mention in Shakespeare. Chocolate, in liquid form, was probably familiar to the Bard but the brownie is a late 19th century American invention. They do a delectable version at Ben and Hayley’s bijou coffee house at 20 Henley Street. An antidote to all the chains infesting this tourist town, their brilliant brews from locally roasted Monsoon beans.

Four Teas – ‘When the hurly-burly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won’

Wartime home front style at this 1940s-themed tea room/English brasserie, which offers arguably Stratford’s best cream teas. Spoiler alert: the icing on the cake may be a soundtrack of Vera Lynn and Glen Miller. There’s always the garden to escape to, which comes complete with an authentic Anderson shelter. It being ‘Taking Back Control Britain’ the Classic Ivor Novello Afternoon Tea will eat up a lot of your ration cards. £27 per person, £32 with prosecco. Pass the tin hat, Captain Mainwaring.

The Kingfisher – ‘Marry, here’s grace and a cod piece’ (Lear)

Best quality sustainable fish from Grimsby, proper chips from Lincolnshire spuds at this Ely Street chippie. Lots of thesps (the likes of Patrick Stewart, John Nettles and Judi Dench) have ordered fish and chips from this low key gem, along with a certain Princess Diana apparently. It was in the same family’s hands for 42 years until 2020. The good news: it’s as good as ever and reasonably priced.  Round the corner is Salt, Stratford’s only Michelin-starred restaurant. The tasting menu is the inevitable focus here, but it offers affordable lunch options. Chef patron Paul Foster is currently opening a second restaurant in Camden, so may not be at the mothership every day. A wonderful Salt alternative is just further along Church Street, located handily in our hotel base, the Hotel Indigo, a beautiful melding of a 1500s original building with contemporary lodgings set around a hidden garden (central Stratford car parking, too!)…

The Woodsman – ‘Why let the strucken deer go weep’

Hamlet quoting an old ballad there. Venison was very much a Tudor staple, so it is appropriate that a restaurant specialising in deer and other game sits squarely opposite the site of Shakespeare’s house, New Place (our bedroom looked out upon it). Exec chef Mike Robinson, whose other restaurants include the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms in Fulham, The Elder in Bath and Chester’s The Forge, sources venison from his own private deer park in Berkshire. A dinner that featured chicken terrine, octopus and exquisite lamb as well as venison (loin and faggot) was a feast fit for a Bard, Recommended, as is the hotel.

So, what’s to see at New Place across the road?

Bought by Shakespeare in 1597, the largest house in town was where he lived with his family and later died in 1616. It was controversially demolished in 1759, but the ‘footprint’ of the razed property has been restored evocatively – notably with the creation of the Great Garden and the Knot Garden. Helping explain the history is the adjacent museum in the Grade I listed Thomas Nash House. This was owned by Shakespeare’s granddaughter’s husband and features a fascinating exhibition of archaeological finds from New Place.

Roman Catholic palimpsests in the Holy Cross Guild Chapel

The debate whether the Shakespeares were covert Papists has never been settled, but this unassuming medieval church on neighbouring Chapel Lane offers some clues. Notably the vestiges of Catholic murals. These were ordered to  be wiped out in the Reformation and John William’s father John was given the task of doing this but chose just to whitewash over the paintings, perhaps in the hope of preserving them for prosperity. 

Thus we can still make out over the chancel arch Jesus presiding in Judgement, with the souls of the elect rising from their graves to be greeted by St. Peter in Heaven. Meanwhile, the damned (whose sins of pride, luxury and gluttony are labelled) are rounded up by demons and dragged through hell’s mouth to unspeakable torments beyond. Elsewhere Popes to peasants parade in a devilish ‘Dance of Death’.

Shakespeare’s last resting place – ‘Alas poor Yorick’

Far overshadowing the Guild Chapel is the beautiful Holy Trinity, where the Bard and other members of his family are buried in the 15th century chancel. His memorial offers the famous curse “blessed be he who spares these stone and cursed be he that moves my bones”. That may not have deterred 18th century grave-robbers. AGPR (ground penetrating radar) has suggested the skull may be missing. Entry to the church is free but there is a £1.50  a head charge.

Avon calling – join the swans on the river 

Avon Boating by the Clopton Bridge offer all sorts of ‘self-drive with oars’ opportunities on the river. Cruises, where the skipper takes the strain, are the most laid-back trips. Downriver there are unparalleled views of Holy Trinity and the RSC theatres, including a sneak peek into the balconied dressing rooms of the RST and, our guide informed us, it can be a bit of a shock to see Julius Caesar consulting the Ides of March on his iPad. Then head upstream in pursuit of kingfishers and the idyllic back gardens of Tiddington Road, the most expensive street in Stratford.

The Play’s the Thing – ‘All the world’s a stage etc’

You can’t go far in this town without stumbling across quotations emblazoned on the pavement and statues contemplating skulls. All this bardolatry would, of course, be pointless without the hub – the RST, the Swan and The Other Place. Stratford is about theatre and there is a host of exciting Shakespeare performances currently playing and lined up for the near future. For details visit here. For true theatre geeks there’s also a selection of backstage tours. Starting in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Cloakroom, you will learn about the history as well as exploring a production in more depth to learn about the theatre making process.

Your Shakespeare pilgrimage – further places to visit

But then many visitors are happy just to bathe in the aura of our greatest playwright. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust manages the five very different properties relating to the playwright with a mission to reach out to all ages. Its website features videos and virtual tours to whet the appetite. And at the moment it is offering a great value special ticket covering all the houses.

In the town itself, besides New Place, there is Shakespeare’s Birthplace, the comfortable Tudor house where young Will grew up and (alas closed to the public at the moment) my favourite, Hall’s Croft, home to the surgeon John Hall and Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna. High-ceilinged and furnished to show wealth, it has a magnificent formal garden with herbs that would have been used in Hall’s remedies. Alas, it is currently closed to the public.

As both houses have the original flagged floors there’s a frisson to know you are literally walking in Shakespeare’s footsteps. Knowledgeable guides in costume loiter in rooms with intent to draw you into the experience of 16th century family life. In the Birthplace guest room a woman playing a harp explains about the mouldy oranges – bought for show and  never intended to be eaten. 

A costumed glover stands in John, the playwright’s father’s workshop amid an array of his wares, all designed for different purposes. In the window hang a range of “pockets” or Tudor man-bags, the must-have accessory for any Stratford dandy. We learn also about the less pleasant side of glove making – urine used as bleach and the noxious smell of human and animal waste from the tannery in the backyard.

Country Matters with Anne Hathaway and Mary Arden

The two out of town properties with their land and gardens offer great family entertainment. The family home of Shakespeare’s wife-to-be, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage at Shottery, is beautifully preserved with the settle on which William and Anne did their courting and, again, a minor life-enhancing detail of a descendant who reputedly chipped splinters from it to sell for sixpence to tourists. Knowledgeable volunteers fill you in on period language and customs. You want to know the origins of upper crust? You’ve come to the right place.

The gardens are a delight, in high summer a riot of sweet peas and lavender. Don’t neglect to take in a sonnet in the Sonnet Arbour, its trellises channelling the surround sound of the actor’s recorded voice.

Mary Arden’s Farmhouse, (the home of Shakespeare’s mother) has been developed into a fascinating period attraction where costumed guides and volunteers cook Elizabethan feasts using authentic ingredients and care for the heritage animals and poultry without mod cons. We watched Kate the English longhorn cow being milked by hand into a wooden pail while her calf (Quickly) looked on. Why “Quickly”? Because all the cattle must be called after Shakespeare characters and the names (rather like hurricanes) have to go through the alphabet. The calf may have had designs on being Viola or Titania but she ended up named after a brothel keeper. 

You can also stroke the cute black Mangalitza pigs, learn to herd geese and groom the resident horse. The period feel is enhanced by groups of schoolchildren in costume, the only incongruous detail their trainer-clad feet. There are also birds of prey displays.

Enough period charm – let’s close with some Horrible History

A very different slice of period life was delivered up in Tudor World. Lurking down a cobbled alley in the old Shrieve’s House off Sheep Street, this is a hands-on fun experience for all the family. On the way in you are given a Tudor ID card with details of ‘your life’; on the way out you learn how you died – usually painfully and by execution. In between are chances to dress up, sit on the throne, pose in the stocks and glance in at some gruesome period practices. In one installation the barber surgeon extracts a patient’s tooth with no anaesthetic and much blood. 

In another the magician and alchemist, John Dee, sits surrounded by the paraphernalia of his trade. On the wall behind is the fascinating fact that he was a spy, code-named 007. And Ian Fleming took the moniker for what must now be the most famous secret agent ever.

Main image of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and subsequent images of Birthplace, Hall’s Croft and Mary Arden’s Farmhouse from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

The above is wagyu steak on sourdough toast. Charred thick slices, smeared with mustard mayo, scattered with radish discs, IPA pickled gherkins and those tiny capers that explode on your tongue. The wagyu? Marinated in (making a welcome return to the limelight) coal oil. I was expecting an ashtray element from the coal oil marinade, but, no, the flavour was all subtle mesquite. It’s a kind of delicious homage to Simon Rogan’s signature dish at The French a decade ago. The one that has Times critic Giles Coren swooning: “I tell you what, I would walk to Manchester barefoot in the rain for one more mouthful of the chopped raw ribeye of ox in coal oil.”

Did the wagyu on toast  make up for the absence of Squid Bolognese on my return to Fold in Marple Bridge near Stockport? Most definitely. That ‘deconstruction’ was touted as their signature dish back at their March launch, but it has obviously not stood the test of time as the menu has evolved. Maybe it had vague roots in the great Pierre Koffmann’s fishy riff on spag bol, but here ribbons of squid mimicking pasta in a rich ragu with garlic bread didn’t quite hit the mark. Still there’s langoustine scampi fries (in a scampi fry crumb) with lobster aioli and chip shop croquettes to champion Fold’s playful nostalgic takes on  snacks and classic dishes.

All this and my vote wasn’t enough to leapfrog this smart addition to Marple Bridge into the Good Food Guide’s 100 Best Local Restaurants 2023 list.In that particular bunfight a place called Tallow in Kent was national number one. And I’ve no quibble with Manchester’s rather lovely The Spärrows scooping the top North West award with Fold just missing the 100 Best cut. Still I did feel that various city centre establishments that squeezed it out didn’t qualify as ‘local’.

Sean Finnegan’s self-styled Bistro and Bottle Shop on Town Street certainly does. It attracts the morning coffee crowd as much as the wine aficionado seeking a leftfield bottle.

Certainly you can snack on a roster of small plates or make a special evening occasion of it. Just five minutes (steep) walk to Marple Station and it’s a rapid 20 minutes to Piccadilly. Though if you make the trek, as I did for this second time, you’ll find yourself jostling with a seriously local clientele. That’s my definition of neighbourhood. Fold’s exec chef Ryan Stafford actually hails from Marple, but the culinary palette he works from is the opposite of parochial. This former Masterchef finalist is often back in London for his lucrative day job as a private chef (for world leaders, rock stars and folk with expansive yachts). That means that head chef Craig Sherrington (Great British Menu) has the dominant say in the upcoming autumn menu. 

I hope he keeps those croquettes, in particular. On the outside they could be any old fried object on a corporate menu. Bite into them and they are a delicate thing of wonder, a chippie madeleine (sic) moment when shards of monkfish, a Champagne chip shop curry sauce, smashed peas and malt vinegar dust cohere. 

There are so many joys among the cold plates and snacks, but don’t ignore the hot plates. Maybe £21 for Exmoor caviar on baked jersey royals with mashed potatoes brings a touch of Paris’s Kaspia Caviar to Marple Bridge but I’d recommend instead a generous helping of salt marsh lamb with a classic summer accompaniment of peas, beans, gem lettuce and tarragon (£22) or ‘China Town’, a sensational salt n’ pepper sea bass dish (£24).

All this and a terrific drinks selection from craft beer to natural wine and beyond. That wagyu on toast found its perfect match in Thistledown She’s Electric, an organic old bush vine Grenache from South Australia’s McLaren Vale. A Fold plus that sets it apart from many other casual small plate rivals is that bottle shop wine list.

For the record, this is my Best Local Restaurant (even though it’s trek away from my locality).

Fold Bistro and Bottle Shop, 14-16 Town St, Marple Bridge, Stockport SK6 5AA.