Reconnecting with nature - and keeping old traditions alive

Brexit threatens to unravel many of the close links forged between the EU and UK over the course of their 40-year relationship but,hopefully, town twinning isn’t going to be one of them.

The town twinning movement started very soon after 1945, with the passionate support of mayors and citizens who vowed that Europe should never again be torn apart by war. 

Since 1989 – and following a successful initiative of the European Parliament – the EU has provided important financial support for twinning and it is fair to conclude that the twinning movement has for over 50 years made a key contribution to the peaceful development of Europe.

Lots like to know who their local town is twinned with and, for this writer and long-time resident of the Belgian town of Braine l’Alleud the answer is Basingstoke in the UK.

Of course,it’s even better to visit your “twin” and, anyone visiting Basingstoke (whether or not they hail from its Belgian partner) won’t be disappointed.

The town, only about 50 miles from London, has a historic past, being the birthplace and home of Jane Austen,one of the UK’s greatest-ever writers.

But this also has lots to offer modern-day visitors,including some great family-friendly attractions like Flip Out Basingstoke, an indoor trampoline park and ideal for a rainy day (and any other time) where you can let the young ‘uns bounce and flip to their hearts content.

Managed by the very friendly Andy McEwan this is one of several in the UK. This place, though, has greatly benefitted from a £2.5m investment in the last 14 months and now features the latest technology and an enormous trampoline range.

Another great local attraction is iFLY, an indoor skydiving centre which gives you the chance to soar like a bird in its 4.3m diameter, super-fast wind tunnel.  The column of air totally reproduces the feeling of freefall as you float on a smooth cushion of air and, like Flip Out. The actual flight takes only about 60 seconds but is great fun.

Don’t forget to smile – your instructor will take snaps of your mid-flight (the images make great profile pictures). Available for anyone from 3 to 103 and for fliers of all abilities, this is the only centre of its kind in the south of England.

From Basingstoke you can explore the surrounding area and a great base for any visit is Blackwood Forest, a tranquil woodland escape operated by Forest Holidays, a company which has a network of such places right across the UK.

Situated just one hour from London and just off the busy M3 motorway, the site has 60 lovely cabins dotted among the tall beech trees in a secluded  corner of the forest and really is the perfect place to get away from it all.

Home to rarely seen dormice, a native British mammal, Blackwood Forest is bathed in golden hues in the autumn and carpeted in bluebells in spring. The architect-designed and soundproofed cabin accommodation is fully self-contained and features all home comforts, including satellite TV and wi-fi. A highlight of any stay here, be it a weekend, short break or full week, has to be the bubbling hot tub located outside each cabin which are regularly drained, cleaned and refilled.

The “forest retreat” is the hub for all activities where a friendly team provides info on the local area (including the forest, of course) and where guests can book everything from a forest activity and cycle hire, walking and hiking trails to "forest bathing" and ordering takeaway meals. There's also forest ranger guided activities such as forest survival basics, forest night vision and (for the kids) mini forest rangers. The views, of course, are great as well!

If you’re after a bit of real R&R, you really can’t beat a forest holiday (don’t forget to pack a torch if you fancy a bit of night-time forest exploring) and 2019  is particularly timely as it’s been designated “Year of Green Action” in the UK. Forest Holidays (seven of whose sites are nestled in Forestry Commission forests) says it is “committed to protecting and enhancing” the country’s forests and you can read more on this via

If you fancy a spot of cycling this can also be done via the forest retreat and one recommended local route is to the cathedral city of Winchester.

Located on the edge of England's South Downs National Park and with close links to King Arthur, Winchester (the ancient capital of the UK) is well worth a visit, not least for the its terrific science centre and planetarium, the leading discovery centre in the south of England. An independent educational charity, it helps families experience the wonderful world of science and technology and strikes the perfect balance between having fun and building knowledge.

Don’t leave without taking in a screening in the planetarium which boasts a 360 degree domed screen showing high-quality digital films.

Nearby and also worth a visit is Marwell Zoo, also run by a charity, which has hundreds of animals, from endangered Amur tigers to giraffes and penguins, in a 140-acre park, a train and 5 adventure playgrounds.

After expanding so much energy you may have worked up quite an appetite and the good news is that this area of Hampshire has a great choice of places to sate any hunger.

One such place, wonderfully located directly opposite the fantastic Winchester cathedral, is Three Joes, a pizzeria first launched in 2017 in Fareham by three pals (Peter, Emma and Tim) which prides itself on offering good quality and affordable food (the name comes from the founders’ desire to worked for the “average Joe”).

The sourdough is made fresh every day using 4 simple ingredients. It is given 18-20 hours to rise and the end product - the pizza – comes straight from a wood-fired oven.

This very pleasant restaurant seats 120 and everything is expertly overseen by James and Maria, the two welcoming managers.The two branches have proved so popular there are plans for another couple to open in 2019.

Another “must-visit” place to eat locally is Manow Thai, a fine restaurant owned by Winchester-born Shahid Abdul (affectionately known as Shah) who, with his long-time Thai-born chef, serves some of the best Asian food you’ll find anywhere. Having worked at another resto nearby for eight years, the charming Shah decided to take the plunge and go it alone by opening Manow (roughly translated as “fresh food”).

It may be situated in an otherwise ordinary-looking 1970s building but this totally belies the quality of the food served here which is rightly locally renowned. “The idea,” says Shah, “is to replicate the food you’d find if you went to Thailand.”

Shah has worked in kitchens  in different capacities since he was 14 and, now aged 33, is deservedly winning plaudits for his efforts here.

He’s fast making a name for himself locally but would be the first to admit that he still has a little way to go to match the fame of Jane Austen, the 19th century novelist whose novels such as 'Persuasion' and 'Emma' are still well-loved today.

The Basingstoke-born Austen lived with her parents at the Rectory near the Church in Steventon and Oakley Hall was one of her closest neighbours and she often liked to walk to there to see her friends.

Oakley Hall is mentioned fondly in her letters to her sister Cassandra. Today, it is a hotel and conference centre with a 2 AA Rosette restaurant where guests can partake in that most English of traditions – afternoon tea.

Afternoon tea was popularised in England during the 1660s by King Charles II though it wasn’t until the 17th century that the concept first appeared, having been introduced in England by Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, who would become hungry around 4 o’clock in the afternoon and asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter and cakes be brought to her room. 

The pause for tea became a fashionable social event and this quirky old custom is kept alive today at Oakley Hall which serves a delightful traditional afternoon tea (which can be adapted to meet dietary needs such as vegans) every day in its delightful Glasshouse restaurant. The cakes and scones are handmade and the teas come from a Winchester supplier.

It’s just one of many excellent reasons to explore this terrific part of the UK which is easily accessible via the Eurotunnel, the fastest connection between mainland Europe and the UK.

You can travel from Calais to Folkestone in just 35 minutes and there are up to 4 shuttles per hour with direct motorway access at both ends.

When the UK leaves the EU, some preparations for travel may change and the UK Government has set out the details of various options, depending on the nature of the deal it strikes with the EU. Eurotunnel Le Shuttle says it has looked at the options and provided a series of article to help plan trips after 29 March.

It says, “Whilst there is still no complete certainty of what a deal or no deal looks like, we advise those wishing to travel to mainland Europe to have the most up to date travel information.”

So, if you are looking for ideas for a nice Easter break, look no further than a forest holiday in Hampshire. It's where you can leave the noise of life behind and still have lots to do.

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Martin Banks

Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a highly qualified journalist with many years experience of working within the EU institutions. He is an occasional, and highly valued, contributor to EU today, writing on a wide variety of issues.

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