The Epicurean Club – New Forest

It was my pleasure to be able to collaborate with The Epicurean Club on this blog post, but, as always, all views are my own.

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The New Forest is reminiscent of my childhood – free-roaming ponies, long country walks and an endless sky. I’ve always felt at home in this gorgeous national park, and have recently taken the time to visit it more and more. With over 218 square miles to explore and 141 miles of footpaths, I’ve never felt like it could get boring.

When I heard that The Epicurean Club had listed a number of hotels in the area, I immediately knew that I had to visit again – there’s something about exploring childhood memories as an adult that adds a new magic to them.

The Epicurean Club lists a collection of the very best boutique hotels, pubs and inns across Britain. Each place is situated in beautiful surroundings and boasts superior food (just wait ’til you see) and interiors. One of my favourite features about The Epicurean, however, is the ease in which they allow you to make the most of the local surroundings. We see so many images of foreign lands and white sandy beaches on social media, forgetting, somehow, that we have so much of our own culture and beauty (and yes, white sandy beaches) just on our doorstep. The Epicurean Club hosts experiences in each location, designed to help you get the most out of your stay, be it riding in the New Forest or a helicopter flight over the South Downs. There really is something for everyone.

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Nothing like an evening stroll to relax after a long drive!

The Mayflower, Lymington

Our Epicurean experience took us first to The Mayflower in Lymington, a harbourside inn known for its al fresco dining and delicious local food.

Upon arrival, Fiann and I took a walk around the local wetlands, tucked behind the yacht harbour. It was amazing to see the yachts, but I loved the fact that despite all the wealth, the wetlands were preserved and protected. If you’re a bird-nerd, you’ll love it here.

Our room was beautiful and cosy – who doesn’t want a huge bathtub in the room? Despite the antique feel, everything was beautifully presented and modern, with a traditional twist. Think low ceilings and wooden beams, but walk-in rain shower, huge double bed and espresso machine. Win-win.

By far my favourite part about our stay at The Mayflower was the food. Forget what you know about pub food – this was deserving of a Michelin star! In fact, the hotel has a one-rosette restaurant, which sources many of its ingredients locally – a big selling point for me, as sustainability is something I’d like to see thought about more in the hospitality industry.

If you’re vegan, fear not. We were handed the vegan menu which is extensive (rare for a British pub anywhere!) and aided in choosing a vegan wine. Our waitress really knew her wines, and we ended up with a gorgeous red and one portion of everything on the vegan menu (I’m not joking).

The food was impeccable, possibly the best vegan food I have ever tasted. We ate three courses each, so it was great that the food wasn’t too heavy, but rich enough to be immensely satisfying and warming. My favourite dish was the smoked celeriac and mushroom orzo (centre image above), which tasted so much like a smoked-salmon dish I nearly sent it back. The sorbets could do with tasting a little more natural, but they were the perfect end to a rich and delicious meal.

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We ate dinner in front of the cosy log fire – perfect for a winter’s evening!

Experience

The Epicurean Club’s specialty is the experiences they combine with local stays, chosen to make the most of the surrounding countryside and towns. As Fiann and I are pretty active, we decided to head out on a self-guided bike ride with Cyclexperience.

Booking includes bike hire for a full day, and we were blessed with such amazing weather we took full advantage of this! Jon and the rest of the helpful crew at Cyclexperience helped us choose a sufficiently challenging route and send us on our way, complete with map, GPS, mountain bikes, helmets (optional) and toolkit. Thankfully they provide a breakdown service for free, so it was good to know we were safe if we got lost/anything broke!

We had so much fun exploring the woods and grasslands on the bikes, saying hi to the ponies and, of course, sampling the recommended local pubs (thanks Jon!). It was also nice knowing that the majority of the route was off the roads – as an unconfident road cyclist, I much prefer sticking to trails so our route was perfect.

I love the pictures we took – it was such a fun day and the perfect way to build up and appetite for what was to come!

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Am I a pro photographer now?

The Mill at Gordleton

After handing back the bikes shortly after the sun went down, we headed off to our final hotel stay, The Mill at Gordleton. After hearing from a few friends this was the place to go in the New Forest, it’s fair to say I was pretty excited!

The Mill is beautifully situated next to a river (hence its name as an ex-mill), with ‘secret’ gardens and lovely interiors with ‘country-house’ charm. Our room was the perfect mix of the original 17th-century cosiness and a totally modern bathroom (the one place you maybe don’t want 17th-century vibes!).

We were luck enough to be able to experience a suite in the main building, which had a bedroom, ensuite bathroom and a living room, complete with a smart TV (we spent our time after dinner enjoying some Netflix in front of the fire).

We moved our dinner earlier simply to be able to enjoy more of it, after experiencing the delights at The Mayflower. We were not disappointed!

Sadly the fresh bread on the menu was not vegan, but we were instead offered fresh focaccia and butternut squash ‘bread’ – more like a cake, but who’s complaining. I could have just eaten the bread all evening, but we moved onto starters and mains after devouring the contents of the bread basket.

In contrast to The Mayflower, the food at The Mill did not feel ‘healthy’ as such – it was a great recreation of British pub-food made vegan. We were pleased with the number of options available, and once again got one portion of everything. As someone who prefers some ‘lighter’ options, the meal was a little more fried than I’m used to, but my boyfriend loved it a lot! Regardless of the level of frying, the food was delicious, which is what I’ve come to expect of hotels in The Epicurean Collection! I have to make a special note here to please try (and devour) the vegan ice-cream. It is without a doubt the best I have ever had.

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We were given a ‘taster’ of each of the sorbet flavours, as well as the new vegan ice cream – the best I have ever had!

Our stay in the New Forest was the perfect getaway from city life, and I truly feel like i could return again and again across all the seasons and explore something new each time. Next time I would go horse riding and perhaps head back to my former stomping grounds, Salisbury Cathedral (I was a chorister there for 5 years).

Thanks again to the wonderful and helpful staff at The Mayflower, Cyclexperience, The Mill and The Epicurean Club for making this stay so perfect – I hope to be back soon!

 

The mental health benefits of sport

Exercise has lots of known benefits – improved cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, increased bone density etc., but the mental health benefits are, if not ignored, rarely celebrated as much as the physical – there’s no ‘before and after’ transformation photo, little obvious outwardly change… and yet for me, the mental health benefits of exercise are SO much more important than anything else. Better still than simply exercising, SPORTS can have an even larger positive effect. Initiatives such as England Athletics’ #runandtalk and Sport England’s ‘Get Set to Go‘ have started to open up the conversation about mental health, as well as make social sports more accessible to all.

Countless studies have linked physical activity to lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress, even improving conditions such as ADHD and PTSD – and there’s a particular class of exercise that does it better than any other. Sports – the kind of exercise where there’s a particular goal – has helped me and countless others both physically and mentally.

Throughout my life I have gone through various sports, training consistently, motivated by the daily mental improvements it helped me feel. When I was 15 I got into squash in a big way – it was the antidote to all negative emotions I had been feeling for many years. Constantly exhausted, depressed and feeling powerless, with low self-esteem to boot, I disliked school and struggled everyday, sadly assuming that that was just how I was meant to feel. As a teenager at a top school, I felt pressure to perform in academics whilst excelling in my social life, physical health, looks and home life – an impossible task that left me always feeling like I was running in a hamster wheel just to stay in the same place.

Getting up and doing things wasn’t always on the front of my mind during the time I was depressed. Although I was at boarding school and had little choice in the matter, I would sometimes zombie my way through the days, and sports was initially a real struggle – I hated it until I was 15 because I was bad at everything I had tried. However, school did teach me the discipline of getting up and out even when I didn’t want to. Especially when I didn’t want to. Being semi forced to play a sport 3 times a week was so tough at first, but once I paid attention to how it made me feel, I would start to look forward to the times I could leave the classroom and head to the court, ready to set aside the day’s worries and fall into the rhythm of training. For anyone struggling with depression and/or anxiety, one quick piece of advice is to get out into nature. Walking is good, running is better. Just keep moving forwards – it does wonders for your mind.

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Vitamin D deficiency is common in the UK and can worsen depression – get outside!

Through daily squash training I was able to see myself improving, getting stronger, fitter and faster whilst spending time with a community that was entirely focussed on enjoyment and improvement. There’s nothing better for your self-esteem than working hard to reach a goal and your hard work paying off. If it’s possible to get addicted to exercise I did, training up to 7h a week on top of other sports. The intensity at which I worked meant that over the following 2 years I became good enough to compete in the national schools championships as the number 1 player for my school. But it wasn’t the winning I cared about – the best thing about it was the way it made me feel. It was that high that I was chasing. When you feel totally out of control with your life, having that one thing that you can control is a godsend.

I also started horse riding in a serious way at this point. The unique thing with horse riding is that horses are terrifyingly good at mirroring emotions. It is impossible to feel stressed or distracted whilst jumping around a ring if you actually want to get very far. So every time I headed to the stables I learned to leave my fears and worries at the stable door and spend an hour without focussing on anything but me and the 17hh (huge) muscle machine beneath me.

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Nothing beats the feeling of horse riding

After I left school I wasn’t able to play squash or ride so much – frequent travel before heading to university meant that it was impossible to find a routine, but the discipline training taught me translated well into other areas of my life. I still revelled in playing squash when I got the chance and picked it up any time I had the opportunity. Being good isn’t the point – it’s all the other benefits that are there regardless of your standard. My year away from the stresses of education tempered my obsession with exercising, allowing me to enjoy it for what it was every time I played. I learned balance and the importance of working on all aspects of health and happiness, including taking care of my body, resting and fuelling it properly. No more 10h training weeks and hello rest days.

Once I arrived at university I picked up running and whilst I loved it, it didn’t hold the same mind-clearing properties that squash and riding had before. I spent university mixing up weights in the gym and running, but I was missing that little extra something you get when you really ‘click’ with a sport. Leaving university led me to boxing, which I now practise weekly. I’m not the first person to talk about the benefits of boxing for mental health – Prince Harry alerted the nation of the power of boxing for coping with mental stress back in April. Multiple professional boxers have done the same, despite the history of corruption in some areas of the sport. Ellie Goulding, too, voiced almost exactly my sentiments about the sport:

“It wasn’t about any change in my outward appearance; it was about seeing and feeling myself get better and stronger. It carried over into other areas of my life, and now I truly feel that exercise – however you like to work out – is good for the soul,”

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The university athletics club kept me busy and fit

What all of the above sports have in common, I have now realised, is that they don’t allow any space or time for outside emotions and negativity to join. Focussing your attention on your goal – the next shot, the perfect line into a jump, the rhythm of your punches – leads to a sense of power and achievement at the end of a session that isn’t found anywhere else. It’s a kind of enforced mindfulness not found in all forms of exercise, banishing dark thoughts whilst simultaneously releasing endorphins and shifting your focus from the future in the outside world to the now in your personal world.

Above are three sports that have helped me more than I can tell you. The combination of the physical, mental and emotional benefits beat any pill or any diet, and now that I feel I have achieved the perfect balance of exercise, nutrition and rest, I have never been so happy.

Everyone’s go-to sport for relaxation will be different – some will find this with weights, others with running (runners high is a real thing) and still others walking round a park. The trick is to find what does it for you and do that.

I really hope you have found this article useful – I feel so lucky to have been able to find so many sports that I love throughout my life, and now want to spend time spreading the word about the benefits of sport and exercise. You don’t have to be depressed or have a diagnosed conditions to feel the benefits. They’re there for all of us. What does exercise do for you?

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Further reading:

If you struggle with depression this is pretty helpful (it’s the little steps that make all the difference!)

This goes into some depth about benefits for sufferers of OCD

See infographic below for some more benefits for everyone!

“Studies conducted on mice have shown that exercising on a running wheel helps them sprout new connections between neurons in their brains. Exercise may cause the release of “growth factors,” which trigger neurons to make new connections. These new connections may help to reduce symptoms of OCD. Exercise also promotes the release of endorphins, “feel good” neurochemicals, boosting mood and fending off stress.”

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