Opening up trips for those with special travel needs

On safari in South Africa with Accessible Travel and Leisure.

On safari in South Africa with Accessible Travel and Leisure.

Val Baynton talks to GTOs who specialise in planning holidays for groups of people with a range of special personal needs.

Alongside planning the usual elements of a day out or holiday  – transport, visits to attractions and destinations, accommodation and refreshments – GTOs working with groups of people who use wheelchairs, who require physical support or who live with mental health or other specific emotional problems have to take other factors into consideration to ensure everyone has a safe and enjoyable time. In speaking to GTOs involved with three different types of such groups, we learnt more about the complexity of their experiences, how they find suitable destinations and accommodation, and discovered a number of specialist suppliers ready to help meet their particular needs.Though making the arrangements and ensuring the trips go smoothly is a challenging task, the rewards in enabling people to enjoy group travel experiences are clearly significant.

WHEELCHAIR USERS GO TRAVELLING

Dave and Debbie Jepson

Dave and Debbie Jepson.

Based in North Wales, Dave and Debbie Jepson have more than 25 years of experience in organising holidays for wheelchair users. In setting themselves up as organisers of small group holidays, Dave and Debbie drew on years of experience. Dave formerly worked as overseas tour manager for Winged Fellowship, organising their European holidays as part of the charity’s mission to provide short breaks and holidays, as well as respite care, for disabled people and carers. Debbie was a volunteer carer helping on the breaks – and this was how she met Dave.

When Winged Fellowship’s direction changed (it’s now known as Revitalise) and they stopped running overseas holidays, Dave was made redundant. He and Debbie, however, were encouraged by the many friends they’d made to carry on organising a holiday or two for their wheelchair user friends and this has blossomed into Makin’ Tracks. Debbie explains, ‘We said, “we’d do it for one year and see how it goes”, and here we are, nine years and two children later, still organising holidays.’ Dave adds, ‘We do it because we love it.’ Dave’s insider knowledge of European cities and fluency in languages is key to their success, and Debbie’s degree in Travel and Tourism has been very helpful too.

Dave is extremely hands-on and can apply his huge knowledge of each destination, its culture and history, and a sensitive approach to accessibility issues to ensure each group discovers a place to the full. Breaks regularly take place in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Croatia, Austria and Germany, and this year’s programme has included Rome and Sorrento in Italy, and Northern Greece.

Dave Jepson explains the view to the group on this year’s trip to Italy.

Dave Jepson explains the view to the group on this year’s trip to Italy.

The outline itinerary is made in advance, with hotels and activities requiring advance tickets booked, and fine tuning takes place in the week before the tour. Dave drives out alone from the UK in his specially adapted minibus, taking out a wealth of equipment including hoists, which he then stores at the hotel to use as required. The first task is to check the bedrooms are all suitable. Next, he explores the area thoroughly, visiting restaurants, checking toilets and working out accessible routes. He says, ‘Experience has shown me that it is best to do these checks and bookings close to our tours because then our needs and the access complications are fresh in everyone’s mind – including mine!’

He adds that it is important to remain flexible throughout the time away, as he tailors the holiday to suit the abilities, specific interests and ages of each member of the group to take in both academic and more general approaches to information and, during the holiday, he will change the programme to suit an individual’s needs. He sees each trip as an ‘unfolding story’, so the order that attractions are visited in is important; he believes, for instance, it’s best to go to Pompeii and to Herculaneum before a follow-up visit to the Archaeological Museum of Naples.

When arriving at a city, he tries to drive in on a route that allows a panorama view to whet his group’s appetite for what’s in store, and with a small vehicle he can get close in to city centres too. In Florence, for example, large coaches have to drop off a mile out of the centre, but his minibus can get right up to the pedestrianised areas, which is, of course, essential for wheelchair users. Dave also plans routes to avoid driving the same roads twice and plays appropriate music on the minibus to give a subtle background to the trip. Dave stresses, ‘The one thing I avoid is seeing the tour as a list of places to be ticked off. I want to do things well and ensure the group enjoys the whole experience.’

A delicious lunch is served during the Makin’ Tracks Italian holiday this year.

A delicious lunch is served during the Makin’ Tracks Italian holiday this year.

Sorrento has been a popular destination over the last two years. This year, the group stayed in the Hilton Sorrento Place hotel – with fully accessible bedrooms including roll-in showers – and trips included the stunning Amalfi Drive, a ferry to the Isle of Capri, a trip to Pompeii and Naples as well as time to explore Sorrento itself. Meals were taken in the hotel and in restaurants in the town. The one part of the holiday Debbie and Dave regret that they are not able to include are air flights as the cost of ATOL regulation is too great for them. However, the upside is that people can fly from whichever regional airport is most convenient for them and the Jepsons will help identify the best and cheapest options. For further information, visit www.makingtracks.eu.

DEMENTIA-FRIENDLY HOLIDAYS

Carol Sargent and Jo Harris work in the East Midlands and run MindforYou for those living with dementia and their carers. Jo is a community psychiatric nurse and for the past 20 years has specialised in working with older adults. Carol has experience with dementia through supporting her mother and mother-in-law and as a befriender for the Alzheimer’s Society. This changed her perspective and career path from a scientist to establishing MindforYou with Jo, after being unable to find suitable holidays that offered support for her parents.

Carol Sargent ­(front left) with a MindforYou group.

Carol Sargent ­(front left) with a MindforYou group.

Carol found that most existing holiday support for people living with dementia and their carers was of a respite nature and was targeted at the person with the illness, who is then isolated from their carer, which can have negative effects on both people in the dementia partnership. She and Jo set up MindforYou to offer holidays to people living with dementia and their carers in relaxed, dementia-friendly environments, with experienced and compassionate support staff – so that both the person living with dementia and the carer can relax, meet new people and be supported by professionals.

The holiday breaks take place in Scotland, the Peak District, Norfolk, Leicestershire and Yorkshire, and are for groups of up to 12 people. As part of ensuring holidays are as dementia-friendly as possible, Carol or Jo assesses each property beforehand. Carol explains, ‘We make sure that accommodation has a simple layout, ensuite bathrooms, good lighting and accessibility, and we reduce or eliminate any potential hazards such as rugs. Where possible, we provide assistive technology – for example dementia clocks giving the day and month as well as the time.’ The timing of the trips is important too; they run from Sunday or Monday for five nights, so that each couple can settle in and then return home before the weekend to get back into a routine before the start of the next week.

The break begins as soon as people leave home, as Carol and Jo include personalised transport options and, if required, a travel companion to assist on the journey. This is an important part of each holiday, and every break can also be tailored to suit the needs of each couple. Jo continues, ‘MYTime is available during all of our activities and gives the carer the opportunity to choose how they want to spend their time. For example, during their trip to Norfolk this year, a group enjoyed a nostalgic steam ride on the North Norfolk Railway and then one of the carers explored old haunts in Sheringham while his wife went shopping with one of our experienced staff.’

IMG_0338

Enjoying a MindforYou holiday.

This year, three successful holidays in Norfolk, Pitlochry and the Peak District have taken place so far. Part of the holidays is providing support to allow people to do things they would normally be unable to do; in the Peak District, staff helped a couple in their 80s travel up the Heights of Abraham cable car! Meeting like-minded people is also an important aspect of the work that MindforYou does, with people on their holidays saying that they felt as though they had ‘found a second family’.

Carol and Jo are working with Loughborough University to generate evidence of the benefits of a supported holiday and to give people living with dementia the confidence that they are still able to have an enjoyable holiday together. Additionally, MindforYou aim to use the information to make the case for carers of people living with dementia to have one week’s paid holiday a year. Carol says, ‘Jo and I have been overwhelmed by the feedback from people who have been on our holidays so far, and the responses of each group have been humbling, with everyone wanting to re-book in the future.’ For further information, visit www.mindforyou.co.uk

TRIPS FOR SPINAL CORD INJURIES NO BARRIER

Ally Ward.

Ally Ward.

Ally Ward has been Courses Manager for leading spinal cord injury charity, Back Up, for seven years. Previously, she was Princes Trust Team Leader at Warwickshire College, where she led 12-week personal development courses for young people aged 16 to 25, designed to boost confidence and gain qualifications.

Back Up helps thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds rebuild their confidence and independence after a devastating spinal cord injury. Ally’s role includes planning and managing residential courses for groups of people with spinal cord injury from all over the UK and Northern Ireland. In most cases, she supports people to make their own travel arrangements but she also organises annual courses and the group travel arrangements to a winter park in Colorado and a ski school in Sweden. Her goal is to encourage participants to see that life doesn’t have to stop because they’re paralysed. Spaces are based on individual applications and places are allocated to those with the greatest need. Ally explains, ‘Our aim is for people to realise they can still do activities and even take up new ones. By trying things out in a supported group situation – such as art and crafts, abseiling, flying or skiing – we aim to give people the confidence to go on to do these things with families and friends or on their own.’

Part of a group enjoying a winter adventure  with Back Up.

Part of a group enjoying a winter adventure
with Back Up.

The participants on these courses can be wheelchair users and some participants have no movement below the shoulders and require breathing assistance. This means there are many logistical issues to be thought through for each course. Back Up groups also take part in activity courses at the Calvert Trust centres in Exmoor and the Lake District, which are led by Back Up’s trained volunteers. There are specific courses at these centres each year for people aged under 18 and over 50.

Over 20 adults travel each year to take part in Back Up’s ski courses in Sweden and the USA, and Ally works with Meon Valley Travel in Petersfield, Hampshire, to organise hotels and flights. She says, ‘Their support is invaluable in getting the best deals, and in providing back up when flights are delayed or cancelled. This can be a particular issue when flying to and from snowy destinations, and it’s good to have the Meon Valley team’s support in emergency situations.’

Even though the support from the Meon Valley team is important, Ally thinks that it is still essential to make direct contact with the manager and staff at the airline to make sure all are totally aware of the needs of the group. ‘This prevents possible breakdowns in communication that can cause issues,’ she explains. For further information, visit www.backuptrust.org.uk

IMPROVING ACCESSIBLE TOURISM

Across Europe, there are campaigns to improve accessibility for all tourists. In 2013 and 2014, VisitEngland ran a pilot project, Access for All, with the destinations of Bath, Leicestershire and NewcastleGateshead, to develop and promote each destination for visitors with access needs. Deemed successful, the initiative has been expanded and, since October 2014, VisitEngland has partnered with seven further destinations – Kent, Birmingham, Lincoln, Northumberland, the Peak District and Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Brighton.

The launch of Tourism Disability Access Day  in Edinburgh.

The launch of Tourism Disability Access Day in Edinburgh.

Another initiative, Disabled Access Day, first took place on 17th January 2015 and saw 200 organisations across the UK encourage disabled people, their friends and families to visit somewhere new to raise the profile of what was on offer. Amongst attractions taking part was the Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh (see above), which promoted their hand-held tablet for deaf and hard of hearing visitors, their audio guides for visually impaired visitors and the wheelchair access provision throughout the yacht. The next Disabled Access Day is 12th March 2016. In the meantime, in September, VisitEngland will launch a national marketing campaign to showcase what is on offer for visitors with access needs.

Across the channel, Germany has also been campaigning for disabled provision and the Barrier-Free campaign by the national tourist office highlights the extent of choice on offer through the country for people living with a disability, whether a wheelchair user or partially or fully deaf or blind.

FINDING THE RIGHT SPECIALIST SUPPLIERS

Those groups with very specific needs will often require the services of operators or organisations used to dealing with particular types of requirement. Here are a few ideas.

Tourism for All UK is a national charity dedicated to making tourism welcoming to all and overcoming barriers that might prevent older people, wheelchair users, carers of young or older people or those living with illnesses from participating in tourism. The website www.tourismforall.org.uk provides information about the charity, and outlines advice and assistance that can be offered to businesses, and the linked website www.openbritain.net gives comprehensive accessible tourism information on places to stay, visit, eat and drink, and activities and events, in the UK.

CanalAbility in Essex is an established charity with over 20 years experience dedicated to providing affordable canal boat holidays and day trips in the UK for people with disabilities and their families, friends and other community groups. www.canalability.org.uk

A group on a wildlife photography holiday with Go Provence.

A group on a wildlife photography holiday with Go Provence.

In France, Go Provence specialises in running rewarding, fun and safe holidays for adults and children with learning disabilities in the Gorges du Verdon in Provence. Typically holidays combine outdoor adventures, excursions and relaxation, with trained and professional staff providing high levels of support for each group member. www.goprovence.co.uk

Accessible Travel and Leisure of Gloucester is a specialist tour operator providing holiday accommodation and holidays that are accessible to wheelchair users, and those less mobile or who travel with carers. Holidays take place worldwide and include many different types such as skiing, river and ocean cruising, and safari trips in South Africa. www.accessibletravel.co.uk

NOT ALWAYS A SMOOTH RIDE

All three groups we spoke to have had some disappointing experiences due to the specific access needs of their groups. Ally Ward and David and Debbie Jepson both say that airlines provide a bad service to wheelchair users. Individual staff are extremely helpful but the system itself is poor. Every other type of transport – train, coach, ferry – has to make provision for people to stay in a wheelchair but airlines do not. This means that wheelchair users are manually lifted from their own chair into a smaller chair that can access a plane’s aisle and then the person is manually lifted again into their allocated seat. Ally has spent time with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) Working Group to try to improve the experience of disabled people at airports, which, she says, has been a successful initiative.

David Jepson also comments that, when new hotels are built, accessible bathrooms are often created by taking space from the bedroom so the overall unit size of accommodation is maintained. This means there might be room for only one bed and therefore the carer cannot support their wheelchair user in the night and has to stand the cost of an additional room.

Parts of Spain provide good accessibility – for example, since the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona has vastly improved its understanding of wheelchair user needs. Other countries have pockets that provide good facilities, but it seems, Dave observes, to be down to how local authorities are prepared to enforce EU directives.

Carol Sargent points to the lack of staff specifically trained and experienced at supporting people living with dementia as being one of the main issues in making tourism accessible for all.

An expert organiser

Clive Richardson wears his Blue Badge with pride.

Clive Richardson wears his Blue Badge with pride.

Clive Richardson is one of those special kinds of GTO that organises both a holiday programme for other groups and his own itineraries. Val Baynton discovers how he gets the balance right.

Sometimes there’s a thin line between the role of a group organiser and the person who helps them put on a successful and well-prepared trip. Clive Richardson sits firmly on that line – a knowledgeable and experienced specialist who can combine the skills of tour planner, coach operator, guide and administrator for both trips he arranges himself and the ones he helps put on for local organisers in his East Sussex locality.

Battle-based Clive is typical of a specialist type of GTO in the way he plans trips and organises group travel, always looking to add value and a personal contribution – whether in designing an unusual itinerary or acting as a guide or courier – to ensure the tour is successful and enjoyable. Many of the larger or more corporate coach and tour operators are not able to add this personal touch, and so he has evolved Clive Richardson Tours to fill this ‘gap in the market’. His role is very much to be the GTO for the duration of the trip from its initial inception to return home, whether it’s made up of individuals, small groups travelling together or, indeed, a single larger group.

After nearly 30 years of organising trips, Clive has learnt a thing or two about what makes a good day out or short break, not that that means he doesn’t still get nervous before a big trip, as he says, ‘Even though I’ve so much experience and I always try to foresee what could go wrong, and eliminate these issues, there are always some elements outside of my control.’ Despite these risks, Clive takes much satisfaction from organising group travel – numbering some 80 days out and 20 longer breaks a year – and tries to cultivate an atmosphere of an extended family for the participants (usually between 25 and 45 people), where everyone can relax and get to know each other. A special ingredient is Clive’s in-depth knowledge of lesser-known places to visit – and how to get access to them.

 

EARLY ORGANISING EXPERIENCES

Clive’s first experience as a GTO was when he worked at an international language school in Hastings in the early 1980s, and was responsible for organising itineraries and transport for the students. Visits to Canterbury, Brighton and London were regular parts of the programme and he gradually built up a network of contacts in the travel trade. When he spotted an advertisement in The Times Educational Supplement inviting people to train as a Blue Badge guide, he was immediately interested. The training was rigorous, Clive recalls. ‘It involved attending lectures in Eastbourne and Brighton, and studying three days a week for a year, and usually one of these days was spent on a coach giving commentaries. There were 19 subjects on the curriculum, ranging from history, gardens and church architecture to the monarchy.’ Clive qualified in 1987 and Kent, East and West Sussex, and Hampshire became his specialities, although he is able to guide anywhere in the UK and travels across the country including to Wales and the Scottish Borders. He doesn’t have to re-qualify to continue as a guide but he does attend professional development days, which take place at a range of historic properties, gardens and visitor attractions. On such days, the attending guides are usually briefed about the attraction by the resident expert as well as receiving additional information covering health and safety legislation and so on. Clive also points out that many Blue Badge guide updates are received electronically too.

After qualifying as a Blue Badge guide, Clive worked part time for the local Hastings and District Bus Company, preparing itineraries and acting as a courier guide for their day trips. When the company was taken over by Stagecoach, who were not so interested in the excursion programme, Clive was encouraged by local residents, who frequently went on the trips and didn’t wish to see them end, to set himself up as an independent organiser of trips and short holidays.

The fish market in Whitstable. © Visit Canterbury

The fish market in Whitstable. © Visit Canterbury

His first trip as Clive Richardson Tours was in 1988 to Folkestone Market. His second trip to Whitstable, to the annual oyster festival in July, was very popular and he is still organising trips there. Clive comments that it makes a good day out as it’s a pleasant town and there’s lots to see including a ‘Cushing’s Whitstable Tour’, which takes in locations linked to the actor Peter Cushing, who lived in the town. He adds, ‘Events such as the oyster festival make a good focus for a day out. Oysters are landed on the beach by fisherman dressed in traditional costume and are carried to the town’s restaurants where they are cooked using classic recipes; an Edwardian tea party sometimes takes place in the castle garden too, so there is lots to see and do.’ The next festival takes place from 25th to 31st July 2015. See the panel opposite for more on events and festivals.

Rochester Dickensian Christmas Festival.­­­  © Medway Council

Rochester Dickensian Christmas Festival.­­­ © Medway Council

Another staple of his annual programme are the Dickens festivals in Rochester, Kent, to which Clive has organised trips for 26 years, attending both the summer and Christmas events. He thinks he is the only organiser to have attended so many consecutive festivals! Clive finds that the same people often book for the day and many people get into the spirit and dress in Victorian costume too. Since the early days, Clive has commissioned Rambler Coaches in Hastings to provide the transport for his tours. He says, ‘I have used them ever since the language school days; they are reliable, friendly and the coaches are comfortable and clean. There’s no need to change.’

Clive has public liability insurance and a trust account for people’s money to cover any problems that might arise on trips, although he admits that making sure you are following the correct procedures can be a minefield. He comments, “My reading of the Package Travel Regulations, which are in place to ensure customers are covered if something goes wrong on a package holiday, suggests that they are contradictory and definitions are vague and not clear, particularly in relation to GTOs.”

 

THREE-PART OFFER

Clive liaises with a wide variety of groups he helps, from Probus Clubs and Women’s Institutes to historical or sporting societies, and offers three types of service. He organises day trips or longer breaks for private groups, planning and arranging the itinerary and excursion options, working with the members to ensure the day or the break is perfectly tailored to their needs. Secondly, he will assist local groups to combine to share a coach or take a block booking on one of Clive’s publicly promoted tours. ‘This is quite a popular option,’ Clive says. ‘It allows groups to develop interesting and good value activities because they don’t have to fill a 45 or 50-seater coach on their own.’ His third activity is as a Blue Badge guide to groups coming into 1066 Country, as the town of Hastings and surrounding area is known. One of his most popular tours is the ‘Foyle’s Walk’, which takes in locations in Hastings Old Town where the first five series’ of TV’s Foyles War were filmed.

 

ADVICE FOR OTHERS

Over the years, Clive’s programmes have developed to reflect his particular approach to organising and to fill what he perceives as a gap left by the traditional coach tour operators. Personal interaction is important; he takes time to get to know the people on his trips to build up relationships with individuals, and tries to create a community group spirit on board the coach. He dislikes the anonymity and impersonal contact that controls much of 21st century life and he aims to add value to the day through the guiding and courier experience he can uniquely offer. ‘Guiding is something of an art,’ he says. ‘You have to know when to be quiet and not be tempted to speak all the time. But if there’s something of interest to say, then I like to share this with the group on the coach!’ He also makes a point of offering limited pick-up points for the tours so that the day can get started quickly and so, within an hour of departure, the coach is off somewhere interesting for an early coffee stop.

One of Clive’s groups walking around the gardens at Anglesey Abbey.

One of Clive’s groups walking around the gardens at Anglesey Abbey.

He feels he bucks a trend by regularly returning to popular places – such as to Cambridge in spring, where he often plans a full day’s programme taking in a snowdrop garden such as Anglesey Abbey. He finds that an itinerary that offers choices often works well with groups with mixed interests so some of the coach party can opt for a self-guided day browsing around a town’s historic centre whilst others might choose a special tour of a nearby historic house or garden. One recent trip was for the Hastings Ramblers who stayed in Sherbourne, Dorset for a week last year; they enjoyed several walks in the area as well as attractions in Glastonbury and Wells.

Every GTO has their own unique recipe for success; in Clive’s case it’s a mixture of flexibility in itinerary planning and a ‘can do’, personal approach that have been key elements. It’s a model that will ensure Clive Richardson Tours will remain in demand!

 

CLIVE’S HIDDEN TREASURES

Hadlow Tower, near Tonbridge.

Hadlow Tower, near Tonbridge.

Clive’s Blue Badge training combined with his own extensive interest in what he designing is Hadlow Tower between Tonbridge and Maidstone. Built in the late 18th century by Walter May, the folly is taller than London’s Nelson’s Column and gives amazing views across Kent’s North Weald. There is a lift nearly to the top, which helps with access.

Another Kent curiosity is close by in Offham. Here, the medieval quintain on the village green was used by knights to practise their jousting skills and it is believed to be the last remaining example in its original place in the country. ‘Buildings owned by the Landmark Trust also make interesting and unusual places for visits,’ Clive explains. These buildings are let out to people for accommodation but, on ‘change over days’ and on the free open days, groups can visit and find out more about these extraordinary and diverse historic buildings.

For longer breaks, one of Clive’s favourite haunts is Rutland and, again, he makes a point of including the county’s numerous hidden treasures in the itinerary. He points to places such as Clipsham, in the north east of Rutland, where an avenue of yew trees is a remarkable place to visit. The one third of a mile avenue, once the carriage drive to Clipsham Hall, is lined with 150 yew trees trimmed to depict birds and animals. Nearby, Greetham has an extraordinary Stone Mason’s Cottage, which is made up of remnants of historic buildings such as churches, and, in Wing, south of Rutland Water, there is an old turf maze said to date back to medieval times when it was used by penitents who would follow the path on their hands and knees. Perhaps the most remarkable place in the county is the Norman church, St Peter’s, in Tickencote, close to Stamford, where there is an elaborate Chancel Arch decorated with imagery including bears, cats and monsters. Clive comments ‘It’s one of the most perfect arches in the country, let alone Rutland, yet I’ve never seen another coach there.’

Tasty trips for wine lovers

One of the wine classes run by The Local Wine School.

One of the wine classes run by The Local Wine School.

Wine tourism is a growing trend, with specialist groups focusing on tasting and appreciating wine and visiting vineyards to learn at first-hand from the professional growers and makers. Val Baynton checks out the experiences of organisers of different types of groups, and learns how both specialists and non-specialists can enjoy discovering more about wine.

Since 1971, Howard Hunter has been nurturing his passion for wine, joining the local branch of the Yorkshire Guild of Sommeliers in that year and continuing his interest in his retirement. Howard is also involved with other local groups such as Rotary and he regularly meets with a group of good friends for private wine tastings too

Since 1971, Howard Hunter has been nurturing his passion for wine, joining the local branch of the Yorkshire Guild of Sommeliers in that year and continuing his interest in his retirement. Howard is also involved with other local groups such as Rotary and he regularly meets with a group of good friends for private wine tastings too.

Howard Hunter, a former electronics engineer in Scarborough, has a passion for wine, which now forms the basis of his group travel activity. Howard is an enthusiastic member of the Yorkshire Guild of Sommeliers, founded in 1962, which brings together wine lovers from Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire to enjoy wine tasting events, overseas trips and social events throughout the year. There are nine sections and each one has its own chairman and committee.

Over the last 12 years, Howard has shared his passion by organising overseas visits to Europe, primarily France, for his local group, the 47-member Scarborough section. The seven to 10-day wine tasting breaks usually take place in September or October, with around a quarter of the places booked by members from Scarborough, and the rest filled from the 500-strong membership of the whole Guild.

Wines tasted during the monthly meetings often inspire a particular trip. As Howard says, “Having tasted a wine and enjoyed it, it’s then most instructive to go and see where and how it is made.” Having decided on a vineyard, and thus region, Howard plans other parts of the itinerary partly by consulting books written by experts. “I also talk to the wine importers we have become friendly with over the years to find out what they would recommend in that area,” he adds.

Howard also researches hotels and makes some selections. Venues such as the Best Western Shonenberg in Riquewihr are praised by his group for the quality of the accommodation and friendliness of the staff. To finalise the arrangements, Howard hands over his draft itinerary to Pamela Edwards at specialist tour operator Golden Compass (see page 47). “I’ve worked with Pam for a number of years,” he says. “She always gives a great service, coming up with further suggestions for hotels and local restaurants. Over the years, she has come to understand just what our group wants from the trip, and liaises with the coach operator to ensure a good value package.” Howard points out that because Golden Compass also operate their own Wine Tour itineraries, as well as specialising in tailored and personalised tours overseas, they have the exact type of expertise his group requires.

Howard books a 49 or 50-seater coach, but the tours are actually restricted to 20 people; a core of around 10 members always come, and he’s found that giving everyone enough space on the coach, so they can sit on their own or move around, makes the journey far more pleasant for everyone. And, since the group likes to bring back wine, the large tri-axle coaches thus have sufficient storage space for numerous cases! Howard also says, “Twenty is the maximum number that smaller vineyards can welcome on a tour. Sometimes even this is too many, and we have to split into smaller groups.”

Yorkshire Rose Coaches is Howard’s transport choice. “The Mills family who own and run Yorkshire Rose are superb,” he says. “The coaches are immaculate and the service they offer is second to none.” For trips to France, the group travels by P&O Ferries from Hull to Zeebrugge and, if the destination is southern France such as the Rhône or Bordeaux areas, they stay overnight in Reims. Last year, the group visited Spain, and sailed with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Santander.

WINE TASTING ITINERARIES

Howard and his group enjoying lunch at Bistro Des Grand Crus Chablis during a trip to the Loire region.

Howard and his group enjoying lunch at Bistro Des Grand Crus Chablis during a trip to the Loire region.

Howard’s trips have been made to the Alsace, Rhone, Bordeaux, Loire and Champagne areas of France and the 2015 trip will be to the Champagne, Macon and Beaujolis regions. Itineraries have also focused on visits to bodegas in the Rioja and Navarra regions in Spain, and the group has also called at German vineyards whilst in Alsace. The group was very impressed by wine made at Germany’s largest co-operative winery, Badischer Winzerkeller in Briesach. Howard recalls, “We were surprised to learn that the wine from each of the producers in the co-op was vinified separately, hence the reason for its quality.”

Wine tasting takes place every day of a trip and, in total, 10 or 12 vineyards will be visited on each tour. Viewing the cellars and vineyards is an important part of each individual visit, as well as meeting the wine maker. When the sommeliers arrive at a vineyard showing their enthusiasm and that they have more than a basic knowledge for wine, they are often invited to taste older, more exclusive vintages. Howard is anxious to point out that at vineyards the etiquette is to taste a wine and not to drink it. “We are privileged to sample some very exclusive vintages,” he says. “Some can cost over £200 a bottle.” He continues, “The time for ‘drinking’ wine is in the evening at meal times.” Usually, Howard plans a mixture of pre-booked meals in the hotel or local restaurant, as well as nights for ‘free-style dining’.

He makes notes during each vineyard visit about both the wines they have sampled and what the group thought. These notes are great reminders of the trip and can be used at future monthly tastings and presentations.

Howard has lots of ideas for the future, but is looking forward to the Champagne trip, where the group will taste some of the best of the region’s wines. He is particularly anticipating his first sip of a Laurent-Perrier champagne!

CHRIS TAKES WINE SCHOOL SCHEME NATIONWIDE

Chris Powell  Prior to setting up the first Local Wine School in Newcastle upon Tyne in 2000, Chris Powell, a fully qualified engineer, had a 20-year career in petrochemicals and commercial management. As well as an engineering degree, he also has an MBA,  which he studied at Durham University.

Prior to setting up the first Local Wine School in Newcastle upon Tyne in 2000, Chris Powell, a fully qualified engineer, had a 20-year career in petrochemicals and commercial management. As well as an engineering degree, he also has an MBA, which he studied at Durham University.

In 2000, having been a professional engineer for some years, Chris Powell decided it was time for a change. Inspired by an enthusiasm for food and wine, he set up The Local Wine School in Newcastle upon Tyne. His objective was to make wine accessible for everyone and to offer a range of fun, friendly wine tastings, courses and experience days. The concept was quickly successful and so Chris has replicated the idea, establishing franchises for the schools, and there are now 26 Local Wine Schools throughout the UK, with some 60,000 clients. The schools’ courses are run by tutors who have qualifications from the Wine, Spirit and Educational Trust (WSET) and students can opt to attend professional courses that will lead to the WSET qualifications, or join the more informal tasting evenings or days. All schools are run independently of any retailer or wine merchant.

Chris has also organised five-day wine tasting holidays for students from the schools to visit vineyards in France’s Rhône Valley. The breaks are put on in conjunction with the Auberge du Vin, a wine school based in a converted 18th century farmhouse in rural Provence, near Mont Ventoux, run by Linda Field and Chris Hunt. Linda is a qualified wine educator and she helps Chris Powell plan a varied itinerary for each of his holiday groups, and provides essential support such as interpreting.

A local wine school trip.

A local wine school trip.

Around 12 to 14 people are typically on each trip, and Chris has found it works best if group members make their own way to France. Individuals or couples can then opt to make the wine break part of a longer holiday, or to use their own transport if they also want to buy wine to take home. “The emphasis is very much on wine and food,” Chris explains. “We may visit three different vineyards or chateaux in a day but there is also time for relaxation, and the Auberge has excellent facilities including a swimming pool.” The group tends to visit specialised vineyards that Linda and Chris have developed relationships with over the years and, usually, the group will meet the wine makers or owners, and frequently enjoy a special lunch with these experts whilst sampling the wine.

Originally the holidays were restricted to members in the Newcastle area, but since the school network has expanded, participants come from all over the UK. Last year, for example, a group of six students from the Hertfordshire Local Wine School, run by David Rough, joined the Rhône party. David says, “It was great to take part in this trip and it was very well organised with a good balance between discovering more about Rhône wines, such as the Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Rasteau and Beaumes-de-Venise appellations, and being extremely relaxing. There was lots of added value to the tour because it was customised to our specific group needs and made very personal to us. Elements such as visits to private vineyards were included that would not have been possible to experience if visiting the region as an individual.”

David also organises visits to vineyards in the UK. These trips take place a couple of times a year and typically there are around 20 in the group. Because members come from all over Hertfordshire, people make their own way to the vineyard, although quite a bit of car–sharing does take place. A recent visit was to Frithsden Vineyard, near Berkhamsted, which makes red, white and rose wines. The group had a tour of the vineyard and also enjoyed a tasting session and an informal supper. David says, “Going to a vineyard and meeting a wine maker helps to bring the theory we’ve talked about during the courses to life. Members also appreciate the chance to socialise with each other too.”

U3A WINE APPRECIATION GROUPS

Many branches of the University of the Third Age (U3A), in Britain and overseas, include wine appreciation groups that, alongside regular tasting sessions, organise trips to vineyards. In Jávea, located between Alicante and Valencia on Spain’s Costa Blanca, Geoff Woodward is the leader of the town’s U3A wine appreciation group. Geoff organises regular meetings with wine tastings for the group’s 85 members and, once a year, usually in June or September, he arranges a trip to a bodega so the group can see and taste at first hand some of the wines they have learnt about. Generally, the group visits bodegas that are within two hours travel, and 50 to 55 people go on each trip. Geoff reports that the last two trips have been unusual.

In 2013, they went to the Unión Vinícula Del Este bodega in Requena to learn about the production of the sparkling wine Cava. “We saw many parts of the Cava making process including the bottling line and we enjoyed seeing how it differs to wine making. We also had tastings of various Cavas, learning about the different qualities of each,” says Geoff.

The Jávea U3A at the Bodegas Mustiguillo in Utiel, Spain.

The Jávea U3A at the Bodegas Mustiguillo in Utiel, Spain.

In 2014, following a presentation at a meeting by the oenologist (or specialist in wine making), Paco Masia, from the Bodegas Mustiguillo in Utiel, which specialises in the Bobal grape, the group were invited back to visit the bodega later that year. Geoff states, “The bodega is one of the most prestigious in Spain, being only one of 15 in the country that are allowed their own wine denomination. We felt it was a real privilege to be invited, especially as they asked us to come at one of their busiest times – during the harvest in September.” During the visit, the group were led around the vineyards by Paco, who described the hand cultivation and watering system. Geoff continues, “We also toured the bodega and saw the wine making process from start to finish, including how grapes are sorted by hand, and we were introduced to the bodega owner, Toni Sarrión.” The group then visited the Wine Museum in Utiel, where members were guided around the displays with information about the history and origin of wines in the Utiel-Requena region, as well as the historic collections of wine making equipment and farming implements. The visit concluded with a fine lunch in Requena’s Fortaleza restaurant.

In Britain, U3A wine appreciation groups can be found all over the country from Matlock in Derbyshire to the Exe Valley in Devon. Fetcham & District in Surrey is one of the most active U3A branches, with over 80 different groups – including no less than eight concerning wine appreciation! The leaders of its wine appreciation group 7, Adrian and Jenny Coulson, explain that wine tasting is a popular activity as it allows members to socialise as well as learning about wine. Tastings take place in members’ homes so 15 is the maximum number for any one group and thus to cater for demand, additional groups have been set up. Adrian and Jenny’s group is particularly active, visiting a French vineyard at least once a year as well as English ones. A favourite trip is to the pretty and historic town of Ardres, about 15 miles south of Calais, where the group enjoy a wine tasting organised by wine expert Guy Boursot – sometimes in his own cellars in the town, or whilst taking lunch in the nearby Le Relais Restaurant. “Either way, we are able to taste a wide variety of wine and learn from Guy about each one,” Adrian says. “We also have some delicious food and, after the meal, there is a chance to buy wine to bring back home.” The Coulsons have organised the trips since 2009, and this year they are planning a visit to the Champagne area too.