As 2010 draws to a close, with Arctic weather and the promise of a white Christmas, my thoughts drift back over the past 12 months to some special places I've happened upon this year. Two cafes, two countryside walks, a cinema and a dream of a pub - here is a selection of my favourite discoveries of 2010, in no particular order ...
1. A walk around Much Wenlock, Shropshire, England
We discovered a walk in the country around the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock, along Wenlock Edge, that takes in not only a disused railway line but a disused windmill. How romantic can you get! The lightning-damaged, 17th century windmill is under the care of - who else? - the Much Wenlock Windmill Preservation Society.
2. Coffee#1, Chepstow, Monmouthshire, Wales
If you take the scenic route from Worcestershire to Bristol, you pass by Tintern Abbey and then it would be rude not to stop in the lovely town of Chepstow. A short walk from the castle up to the town and you happen upon Coffee#1, an elegant, relaxing coffee house that does scrummy food and, inevitably, wonderful coffee.
3. Yorkshire Lavender Farm, Terrington nr York, Yorkshire, England
On holiday in York, we visited Yorkshire Lavender - an award-winning attraction that is free to visit, although you can repay the owners' hospitality by savouring a pot of Yorkshire tea and lavender scones and by buying some blueberry and lavender conserve and lavender sugar - to make your own lavender scones when you get home. My great delight, apart from the tea and scones here, was being invited to rub the leaves of a some pineapple sage between my fingers and enjoying the childlike pleasure of my hands smelling of pineapple. The sights, scents, tastes and touch of this place are unexpectedly therapeutic.
4. Jaffé & Neale Bookshop and Café, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, England
En route from Worcester to Oxford, in the Cotswold town of Chipping Norton, it's almost compulsory to stop at Jaffé & Neale. Two things I love - brilliant independent bookshops and fantastically friendly coffee shops - are here rolled into one. Life doesn't get much better than home-made cake and coffee surrounded by an intriguing selection of books.
5. Irish Film Institute, Dublin, Ireland
On a recent trip to Dublin, I stumbled across the Irish Film Institute in Eustace Street. Under one roof, a cafe bar selling Guinness and food, a specialist bookshop that would be a film studies student's heaven and an impressive range of films on show. When I was there in November they were showing a season of Powell and Pressburger films. That doesn't happen every day so I just had to return the following evening for a viewing of the 1941 classic 49th Parallel. Inspirational.
6. Pivni, York, England
Every once in a while, I am lucky enough to happen upon a dream of a pub. When I lived in Brittany it was Le Pressoir in St Brieuc. For a few years in North Wales it was The Kings Arms in Bangor. On two recent visits to York, the Pivni in the city centre met all the criteria to join my list of dream pubs.
Pivni was formerly called the Pivo bar (taking its name from the Czech word for beer) but was changed to Pivni after a copyright dispute. Housed in a timber-framed building dating back to 1190, it couldn't have more character. The bar sells a selection of the finest cask beers from the UK, and draught and bottled beers from around the world. It's cosy enough and friendly enough for a man to sit with a newspaper and a pint without feeling self-conscious, but equally comfortable for couples of a certain age to chat together without feeling too old. In term-time, it becomes a student pub, in summer time a tourist pub, but neither of these things exclusively.
Pivni combines the best elements of a snug European bar with the charm of a traditional English pub. It has the world's best jukebox and, upstairs, board games are provided to amuse groups of drinkers in need of an ice-breaker. A pub like this is, to me, the pinnacle of civilisation and, if I were prime minister, I would make it government policy to ensure every town had a place like this. I could spend hours simply soaking up the atmosphere - and the beer ... and I probably did. Cheers!
2010, like every year, has been full of surpises, unexpected journeys and unforeseen discoveries. As the year draws to a close I would like to take this opportunity to wish all of you - fellow passengers in time - a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.