I was walking through Newton Wood on the banks of the River Yealm in Devon, my dog stirring up the scent of wild garlic as he scampered through the undergrowth, when the sound of a large bird breaking cover stopped me in my tracks. A black shadow swooped over the wood’s gnarled Monterey pines, dived low across the water and skirted some expensive looking yachts before disappearing into the trees on the other side of a small creek, offering up a tantalising glimpse of white plumage as it did so. An osprey? I wondered.


The River Yealm

‘Buzzard,’ said a voice behind me, as if reading my non-ornithological mind.

I turned to see a bearded, grizzled local leaning on a stick, an equally battered-looking collie at his feet.

After a few minutes conversation about local wildlife, I asked him who owned the moorings for the flashy boats anchored in mid-stream. ‘That’d be those bastards at Kitley,’ he said, before ambling off.

I was taken aback. Rarely had I encountered such coarseness in the decade I had been coming to the village of Newton Ferrers on holiday. The Kitley Estate, I knew, was situated upriver on the Yealm, home to a rather grand, if austere, house, mainly used for weddings and conferences, which had been recommended for its cream teas. I determined to investigate what sort of bastards lived there. Which meant nothing more arduous than going for scones and jam.

The waterside village of Newton Ferrers is just about the last hurrah of the South Hams before you come to Plymouth. Popular with the yachting fraternity, it has nevertheless managed to avoid the overcrowded fate of Salcombe to the east. No clothing or gift shops dominate the main street of Newton Ferrers – there’s a Co-op, a butcher, a village-owned post office, a pharmacy and the Dolphin pub. All the essentials, none of the fripperies. It sits on the northern bank of a tidal creek off the Yealm estuary, facing its sibling Noss Mayo, which occupies the (slightly) more shaded side of the valley. The path over to Noss – known as the Voss – may not be one of the village’s most attractive features, but is certainly one of its best assets.

The Voss is a concrete walkway that is only uncovered at low tide, meaning you can cut out the twenty-minute or more walk around the creek via Bridgend and stroll across from the Dolphin to the Swan Inn on the southern side. From there is a second crossing (‘The Noss Voss’) which cuts across to the Ship Inn. All three pubs have outside seating areas where you can watch the tidal rhythm that dominates village life – low tide brings out the shoppers crossing from Noss, the kids for crabbing, walkers heading for National Trust forests to pick up part of the South West Coastal Path and, of course, the pub crawlers who will try and knock off all three inns before the waters claim the walkways once more.


The Voss

If there is a drawback for the holidaymakers to this bucolic spot, it is probably that there are no sandy beaches on the immediate doorstep, although you could argue this has been something of a saving grace. In fact, for sandhogs (and walkers) a seasonal ferry operates from Newton Ferrers harbour across to Wembury Point and the coastal path which will deliver you to Wembury Bay, where there is a marine life centre, a café and a series of sandy and rocky bays with excellent rock pooling.

But for me the best of the beaches is the brace of privately owned ones at Mothercombe, about four miles from Newton Ferrers, which are only open at weekends and Wednesday in season (parking: £4.50). The part of the beach with facilities (refreshments, toilets) is out-of-bounds for dogs from Easter-October, but I think the second pooch-friendly option on the estuary is the more dramatic of the pair. I still recall the first time I saw it at low tide, the sands marbled by a skein of sun-sparked rivulets and the air freckled with sand thrown up by the hooves of a half-dozen galloping horses.

I subsequently made enquiries about riding on the beach at the stables in Newton Ferrers ( and was told the outing was reserved for experienced riders, as the horses like to have their head once they realise it’s a day at the beach. My own style of riding being very regal – i.e. comparable to a sack of King Edwards – I have never actually tried the Mothercombe hack. It looks like fun though.


Newton Ferrers

On my recent trip I discovered that Kitley House ( does indeed offer a decent afternoon cream tea that is best taken out on the small terrace, overlooking the water and fields with rabbits, pheasants and geese. Whilst unwisely tackling my second scone, I glanced over the brochure outlining the history of the estate. “The Pollexfens (pronounced Poulston) resided at Kitley until 1710, when Edmund Polloxfen died,” it read. “Anne, the heiress of the estate, married William Bastard of Gerston Manor…”

Well, the estate is still family owned, and so I realised my fellow dog walker and I had been talking at cross purposes when he told me who owned the moorings. The Bastards of Kitley do. With a capital “B”. And very nice they seem, too.


  • The Ship Inn (01752-872387/ is the best bet in Newton Ferrers/Noss Mayo. Excellent fish and chips, lovely views. Cream teas at Kitley House (01752-881555/ from £7.50.
  • Toad Hall Cottages (01548 202020/ has a selection of self-catering cottages in Newton Ferrers/Noss Mayo, many that welcome dogs and offer short weekend breaks (three nights from around £300) out of high season.
  • Visit South Devon ( has detailed information on the South Hams, including accommodation and dog-friendly beaches.


This is an extended version of the obituary of John Debenham Taylor that appeared in The Telegraph. John helped me with several novels, notably Early One Morning, The Last Sunrise and, especially, Dying Day. There will be a memorial service for him at St Paul’s in May.

Like the majority of the officers of his generation who had served with the Secret Intelligence Service (popularly known as MI6) John Debenham Taylor, who has died aged 95, was famously tight-lipped about his time with “the office”, as he referred to it. However, shortly before Christmas, in his last interview, he was filmed for Legasee, a splendid project to record on camera the memories of those who had been involved in the Secret War, as Debenham Taylor had, in the 1939-45 conflict. (See www.legasee,  During the filming he admitted that, post-war, some (in fact, all) of his career had been with SIS.

       Off-camera he talked about the early years with the organisation, but only events which he no longer considered sensitive, including three years in the Control Commission for Germany in the late 1940s, This was a time when the Cold War was at boiling point, with West Berlin blockaded, supplied only by an Allied airlift. He spoke of the twin perils of visiting the opera in the East (this was well before the Wall went up)  – the unfeasibly tall hats of Russian officers’ (which they refused to remove, thus blocking the view) and the suffocating pall of body odour, thanks to the chronic shortage of soap. “A bar of Lifebuoy went a long way in securing whatever you wanted over there,’ he said.

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       Under some gentle probing from the Legasee cameraman, he told of a remarkable operation involving a stable of prostitutes that he was ‘running’ in the hope that the girls would persuade (for substantial bonuses) Russians to defect or spy or, at the very least, obtain some pillow talk. Did it work? “Not really, but we probably gave them some terrible diseases,” he said.

       It was typical of Debenham Taylor, a noted raconteur, to finish such a story with a self-deprecating punch line. In fact, his family-eyes-only memoir reveals a much darker cat and mouse game. “We were using a White Russian as head agent.. and I recall nights spent on stations and road junctions keeping rendezvous near the Russians sector to which we hoped one girl or another would turn up, complete with a Russian. None was ever forthcoming, however, and I have often wondered if the whole thing was an elaborate con – either by the head agent, or the girls, or both.”

       If all this sounds like something from Len Deighton’s Game, Set and Match trilogy, this is hardly surprising, as Debenham Taylor’s life was the stuff of fiction, from Alistair-Maclean-like secret missions to Finland, through the Quiet American-era Vietnam, to the politics of what Le Carre dubbed ‘The Circus’. His career in subterfuge spanned from the beginning of World War Two to the collapse of the Soviet Union, making him, perhaps, HMG’s longest-serving secret servant.

       Major John Debenham Taylor, TD, OBE, CMG was born on April 25, 1920. His father, John Francis Taylor was from Suffolk agricultural roots and, after schooling at Aldenham, Debenham Taylor joined the Eastern Counties Farmers Cooperative Association Limited in Ipswich (where he played rugby for the YMCA) in 1936, before moving to Great Yarmouth. There, convinced a war in Europe was inevitable, he joined the Territorial Army in February 1939; when war broke out in the September he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the regular army (Royal Artillery) and was assigned to an anti-aircraft battery at RAF Duxford. This was the “Phoney War” and he described his time as “agreeable but unexciting” (apart from losing his virginity in a telephone box in Tenby). And then, on November 30, Russia (allied at that time with Nazi Germany) invaded Finland.

       There was great sympathy for the beleaguered Finns in the UK. An International Brigade of volunteers was raised (which included in their number the future actor Christopher Lee) and Great Britain surreptitiously sent Blenheim bombers and a consignment of antique field guns and howitzers across. The Finns, however, had no experience in using the WW1-era weapons and RA volunteers were requested to travel to Helsinki. Debenham Taylor was selected and, as it involved travelling through neutral Sweden, was duly de-commissioned from the army and re-born as an employee of Vickers Armstrong. Kitted out in warm winter clothing from the Army and Navy Stores in Victoria Street, a small group travelled to Stockholm and then on to the Finnish capital, arriving as an armistice was signed.

       Debenham Taylor stayed for several months, with visits to Jyväskylä and the Karelian Isthmus, demonstrating the guns and time in Helsinki compiling manuals and “picking up local girls in the café above Stockmann’s department store”. The trip gave him a taste for travel and clandestine work that remained with him for the rest of his life.

He subsequently left Finland by cargo boat from above the Artic Circle, carrying with him via “diplomatic bag” a variety of captured Russian weapons, including an anti-tank gun, for the War Office to analyse. The boat passed within miles of the Norwegian coast just as British troops were being evacuated from Narvik and the aircraft carrier “Glorious” was sunk, but Debenham Taylor knew nothing of this. He was in agony below decks, having an enema administered. As he says in his private memoir: “I had become terribly constipated on a diet of reindeer and porridge with no fresh vegetables.”

The full story of the Finnish adventure only emerged some seventy years later when Debenham Taylor was interviewed by an author writing a novel about the early days of Special Operations Executive, the sabotage and subversion unit primed by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze”. The novelist wrote to the Finnish Embassy suggesting Debenham Taylor’s efforts be recognised and a new Winter War Commemorative Medal was struck and he was invited to the embassy to receive it from the Finnish Military Attaché. Thanks to a similar intervention by his brother-in-law, he later received the Artic Star for the voyage back home to Liverpool from northern Finland, in a cargo boat carrying captured Russian ordnance.

Quietly posted back into the army, Debenham Taylor served in gun batteries in Aden (where he shot down an Italian bomber), Egypt and in the Libyan desert. In the latter he was part of Operation Battleaxe in mid-1941, designed to raise the siege of Tobruk, which he was convinced failed “in large measure due to the use of the German AA 88mm AA guns used in an anti-tank role, as I have always believed our own 3.7-inch AA guns should have been.”

However, Finland had given him a taste for intelligence work and in 1942, using contacts in the War Office, he was duly accepted into the Secret War. Although he hankered for an operational post, initially he was used as an instructor on an intelligence course at Oxford – a course he had only recently graduated from. In 1943 he moved into Carlisle Mansions, a large apartment block off Victoria Street in London, where he became part of the planning for OVERLORD, the invasion of Europe.

His ambition at the time was to move to SOE (although it was never referred to by that name) and in particular the “Jeds” or Jedburghs, three-man teams (an SOE operative, an OSS officer and a Free French agent) would be parachuted behind enemy lines to co-ordinate the French resistance in acts of sabotage. His request was refused, however, because, in the event of his capture and torture, he knew too much about the OVERLORD strategy.

Instead, by now a captain, he took a posting to Beaulieu, which was SOE’s ‘finishing school’ for agents in the New Forest, although still with one eye on active service abroad once his D-Day knowledge was no longer relevant.   He described this as instructing on: “burglary techniques, mostly copying or making replacement keys, and a technique for opening handcuffs of certain types, using a clove hitch knot of catgut.”

In late 1944 he was offered a staff appointment with promotion to Major     at SOE’s HQ in Colombo, Ceylon, the base for operations in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, mostly monitoring Japanese troop and naval movements. After peace was declared his war continued in Surabaya, mounting intelligence operations against a nationalist uprising intent on violently resisting the returning Dutch colonialists.

       When SOE was hastily wound down, Debenham Taylor let it be known he would welcome the opportunity to move across to SIS, which he duly did.  He then became something of a Zelig-like figure, popping up in pivotal moments of late 20th Century history, as this sketchy summary of his career from an intelligence website suggests:


This discreet officer, former SOE agent during the 2nd World War, is successively stationed in Germany 1947 50, 50 in Thailand and 52 in Hanoi from 52 to 53 .It is back to Bangkok 54 to 56 and then to Singapore from 1958 to 1960 where he meets Maurice Oldfield (later Director or ‘C’ of SIS). He is chief of station in Kuala Lumpur from 1964 to 1966 and Controller of the Asia division from 1966 to 1969. He is posted to Washington (1969-72) and when he left Washington he was appointed head of the station Paris, still under embassy counsellor coverage.


From witnessing the defeat of the French in  Vietnam to fighting the Malayan uprising, from the height of the Cold War in the USA, the declaration of independence by Rhodesia and onto negotiations for the UK to enter the Common Market, Debenham Taylor was in the thick of it. Happiest of these postings were Washington (where he was befriended by J Edgar Hoover and was instrumental in a number of high-level Russian defections) and Paris with his wife Gillie (Gillian May James), a family friend whom he had married in 1966. He said of Paris: ‘It got off to a rather drama-laded start, with the imminent arrival of the Queen and Prince Philip, which meant going through the packing cases of our newly-arrived possession from Washington in a frantic search for my medals, as the visit inevitably involved both white- and lack-tie functions”. These medals included an OBE (1959), CMG (Companion of St Michael and St George) and Territorial Decoration (both 1967).

       When asked directly, of course, he would always claim to be a Foreign Office diplomat, which was indeed his official status, although in later years the mention in passing of people he had met (Kim Philby, Nicholas Elliot, Jomo Kenyatta, J. Edgar Hoover, Dick White, who was MI6 chief 1956-68) suggested the truth of the matter. He struck me as a far less gloomy version of John Le Carre’s George Smiley – one who was happily married and with a fine line in self-deprecating anecdotes – yet who shared the fictional spy’s discretion, doggedness and sharp intelligence.

It is little wonder he found his later career behind a desk at SIS in London a little tame. There were those who tipped him for the role of C, but his horror of what he witheringly called  “admin” probably precluded him from the post. After several false starts, he finally retired in 1990, firstly to a wing of Gunton Hall in Norfolk and latterly to part of a splendid Arts and Crafts House (originally built for Lord Tate of Tate & Lyle) in West Sussex.


John, Christmas 2015, shortly before he died.

       He gave his recreations in Who’s Who as “walking, reading, history” and he devoured any books on areas where he had served, with an unforgiving eye for inaccuracy or exaggeration. He was particularly pleased to discover in James Holland’s detailed account of the North African campaign (Together We Stand) that the historian agreed that the failure to use the British AA guns was a great tactical error.

       His final task with SIS before retirement was extending the official history of MI6 but, as befits the man, that story, and his remarkable role in it, remains under lock and key. He is survived by his wife Gilly, daughter Catharine and two grandchildren, Saskia and Charles.


John Debenham Taylor (April 25, 1920- January 30, 2016).




If you have handled a letter recently you will be aware that the current commemorative stamps issued by the Post Office feature Ernest Shackleton and the 2016 Endurance expedition, one of the great tales of Antarctic survival. I featured Shackleton in a novel about Captain Titus Oates called Death on the Ice (it was big in New Zealand, where Captain Scott is still revered). During the research for that, I came across a snippet that has finally surfaced in my new book, The Sign of Fear. Ernest Shackleton had a brother, Frank. And he was a master thief. Allegedly.

160107_Shackelton_setNot that the more famous Shackleton was any saint. The family seemed to have a blind spot when it came to handling money, and Ernest often set sail with creditors on his heels. But Frank took this flirting with legality one step further – he stole the Irish Crown Jewels. Or so some believe.

The Irish Crown Jewels were not like the version held in the Tower of London. They were not there for any monarch – there was no actual crown – but were ceremonial regalia mainly used when investing Irish peers (also known as the Order of St Patrick, now defunct). They consisted of heavily bejewelled star, a diamond brooch and five gold collars, and all were property of the Crown, hence the name.

This collection as held in a strong room in the Office of Arms at Dublin Castle and in 1907 they disappeared, thanks to what looked like an inside job – there was no sign of forced entry and all the doors and the safe were unlocked. Suspicion fell on Frank Shackleton who, thanks to a friendship with the Duke of Argyll, the King’s brother-in-law, held an honourary position at the castle and lived within its walls. Why Frank? Possibly because, although famously charming and witty, he was also a practicing homosexual and was deemed, according to one newspaper, to keep company unlikely “to inspire confidence among the police or the public”. In fact, there was no solid evidence against Shackleton, just plenty of prejudice, and he was exonerated by the subsequent investigation.

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But Shackleton did fall foul of the law. In 1910 he was declared bankrupt, owing £10,000 thanks to some dodgy business dealings, and in 1913 he was convicted of defrauding a young woman who had foolishly entrusted her inheritance to him. He was sentenced at the Old Bailey to 15 months hard labour.

In fact, according to Irish historian Tomas O’Riordan, Shackleton was already badly in debt, mostly to London moneylenders, in 1907 when the jewels were stolen. He  was also implicated in the theft by Sir Arthur Vicars, the man in charge of the keys to the strongroom, who claimed Shackleton must have taken impressions when a guest at his house. However, O’Riordan suggests that Frank was immune to prosecution thanks to his royal connections – and possible knowledge of potential scandals, such as the rumoured orgies at the castle involving the Duke of Argyll and other notables – and states that “Shackleton still seems to be the most likely mastermind”.

On release from his hard labour, his brother Ernest secured Frank an office job in London and he changed his name to “Mellor”. He lived in Sydenham and subsequently Chichester and died in 1941. And the jewels? They have haven’t been seen since the night of June 11, 1907.


* The Sign of Fear, which features cameos from both Ernest and Frank Shackleton, is out now from Simon & Schuster (



Ian Shaw has won the BBC Jazz Awards “Best Vocalist” twice and is critically lauded by the press – “Has few rivals” (Sunday Times); “Our finest jazz singer” (Time Out); “A recipe for bliss” (The Telegraph). Is he really that good? Listen to John Fordham at The Guardian:

“Shaw’s humanity, technique, wit and willingness to take an insane gamble has always kept him in the jazz loop. What you get with Shaw is always really him – sometimes funny, sometimes resigned, sometimes wounded, sometimes over the top, but always technically perfect.”

Ian Shaw (with the fabulous Liane Carroll at the piano)

Ian Shaw (with the fabulous Liane Carroll at the piano)

Yet these days when he packs up his music at the end of a gig (charts for The Great American Songbook, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, as well as his own compositions), Shaw is likely to be heading for a place that sees few UK musicians of any stripe – “The Jungle” in Calais, the multinational camp for refugees, migrants, call them what you will, who hope to cross to the UK.

For the past three months he has been visiting regularly, initially because he was outraged by the conditions in the camp he saw on television. Once out there – having taken out much-needed clothes and sleeping bags – he discovered there were decent players among the refugees who had lost their instruments along the very tough way. So later he loaded his car and took over drums, guitars and basses (including one that once belonged to Jack Bruce of Cream, donated by Jack’s family). But he now also helps build, fund, organise and raise awareness of what is going on just a few miles from the Kent coast. And he has put his money where his mouth is. There has been one benefit already, at The Vortex in Dalston, with Sarah Jane Morris and Carleen Anderson, and another is due at Phoenix Artist Club, Soho (Nov 18th, two shows, fabulous line-up, £25, see All the money raised goes directly to helping the refugees (“I’ve spent all my own,” Shaw confessed from the stage of The Vortex) in practical ways.

Ian Shaw with Georgia Mancio, who will appear at one of the Phoenix shows

Ian Shaw with Georgia Mancio, who will appear at one of the Phoenix shows

Shaw is keen that people know about life in The Jungle, to share the story of the people he has met and the sometimes terrible things that have happened and are happening (the camps are being de-populated, but the refugees are being moved to windowless containers). He is also keen to refute what he calls the “vile lies” about the camp, such as the inhabitants having so many clothes from charities, they burn them for fuel. In fact, charities are very thin on the ground – there isn’t a large UK one active in The Jungle at all. Just an ad hoc group of musicians (as well as a larger contingent of non-musicians) who aren’t doing it for the cameras or some high-profile telly marathon.

From the creation of sublime music in a slum camp to the building of a church from bin bags, from professors to war-battered paupers, Shaw has seen all sorts. And he will be over there in the coming months because, to quote Game Of Thrones, Winter Is Coming, and things aren’t going to get any better. If you wish to help, and get a great gig in to the bargain, head for the Phoenix next week. And he still needs musical instruments.


Why SPECTRE (and Bond) is at home in Austria

You may have noticed that a new James Bond film has opened. You may also have noticed that part of it was filmed in the Tirol, in Austria, in an Alpine village called Sölden. Of course 007 and snow have a long history, going back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (poor Bond, decent film, great soundtrack), so Spectre is continuing an 007 tradition which goes back to Ian Fleming’s love of the sport.



Fleming skied at a time when it was elitist, glamorous and dangerous. The glamour remains to some degree and as for the danger – you might have more forgiving skis and boots that don’t snap your ankle, but there’s still  whiteouts, avalanches, treacherous driving conditions and rogue cable cars. But that is all grist to the Bond mill – isn’t putting the spy in peril in a spectacular setting the essence of a 007 movie? It certainly is of the globetrotting Spectre.

But there are plenty of countries that have snow, so why did Mendes and crew choose Sölden? Well, the cynics might suggest that it was a village willing to close its main ski slope in peak season in return for the sort of publicity money can’t buy. Or possibly the Spectre scouts thought that the glistening glass cube of its mountain-top Ice-Q restaurant might rival Piz Gloria on the Schilthorn in Switzerland as an iconic Bond location.

The Ice-Q restaurant, Sölden, which isn't a rerstaurant in the movie

The Ice-Q restaurant, Sölden, which isn’t a restaurant in the movie

It is also possible that the scriptwriting team, always in search of a backstory these days, knew that, although Bond was not born or conceived in the Tirol, his DNA is all over it. thanks to his creator.

Ian Fleming was forced to resign from Sandhurst after contracting gonorrhoea from a prostitute and in 1927 he was despatched by his formidable mother to the town of Kitzbühel (having spent some time there the previous year) in the Tirol. He arrived in a place that eschewed stuffy Anglo-Saxon sexual mores. Which, once he had shaken off his initial torpor, suited the testosterone-fuelled Fleming just fine.

Fleming’s mother had sent the 19-year old to be tutored, alongside other English boys, by a very influential pair – the Forbes Dennises. Ernan Forbes Dennis had been the British ‘Passport Control Officer’ in Vienna, which if you speak spy, you will know is code for resident MI6 officer, although he was indeed also a keen educationalist and proponent of the theories of Adler. His wife Phyllis was a successful author who encouraged the young Fleming to write. Together they represented two cornerstones of Ian’s future life – espionage and writing.


     In the thirties he would also meet the splendidly named Conrad O’Brien-ffrench in the Tirol. He was an adventurer, explorer, an excellent skier and.. a spy. He worked for the Z Organisation, a kind of shadow MI6 that was sympathetic to Churchill’s insistence that Hitler wanted war. He set up a network of agents across Austria and Southern Germany. Ian and his older brother Peter (at that point a very successful author) often bumped into O’Brien-ffrench, as the man’s cover was that of a travel agent looking to open up the region to British tourism. When war broke out O’Brien-ffrench escaped from the Nazis by hiking over the Alps into Switzerland. Some claim he was later very influential in securing Fleming a post in Naval Intelligence during WW2.

Oetztal Alps credit Tirol Werbung.Aichner Bernhard

Fleming had learned to ski in the Tirol (and even today there is a downhill event in Kitzbühl named after him), although he always said it was a toss up between summer and winter as his favourite time – he loved the skiing but also appreciated that the girls weren’t so bundled up in their thick clothes in the warmer months.

The war put paid to Fleming’s sojourns to the Tirol. He would return to Kitzbühel when he was 50, with wife and son in tow, to try and recapture something of his youth, but according to his biographer Andrew Lycett the trip was something of a failure, even though the writer professed to have enjoyed himself. He was no longer an athletic young man who could have his pick of the locals, but an aging dyspeptic author in a failing marriage, with his bored wife and tragic son Caspar (who later committed suicide) in tow.

But Kitzbühel was never far from his thoughts and what he called his ‘golden years’ there made many appearances in his fiction. He decided that, as he had, James Bond would learn to ski in Austria. In Octopussy, the story of the Nazi gold and the mountain refuge was surely based on the wooden huts you can see dotting the Alpine meadows of the Tirol. And when James Bond marries Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, they are on their way to an idyllic honeymoon in Kitzbühel when she is murdered. He also left £500 each to three people in the town in his will when he died in 1964, exhorting them to “do something exciting” with it. Among them was Lisl Jodl, one of his many Bond-like romantic entanglements from the ’20s and ’30s.

So perhaps it was just serendipity and/or finance that brought the makers of Spectre to choose the Austrian Tirol  for the snow scenes (spoiler: Bond does not actually ski in this one), but conscious or not, they chose well.


You have to work hard to reach the finest view of New York’s Hudson Valley. The trailhead to the aptly named Overlook Mountain can be found just outside Woodstock, opposite a Buddhist Temple and you soon find yourself praying for good karma on the hike up. It is a rocky and relentless two-and-a-half mile climb, with barely a flat section until near the top, when you reach the spooky, eerie husk of a once-glamorous hotel. Its roofless hallways and public spaces are now full of trees and creepers and (a warning sign suggests) timber rattlesnakes. Take it as a waymarker that the end is nigh and move on, rather than explore its unstable interior.


       At the summit of the trail is a small sign pointing through the undergrowth. “Scenic Outlook”, it says, and you damn well hope so after that climb, where you have mainly been looking at a solid wall of trees on either side. You struggle through the brushwood until you find yourself on a rocky outcrop, with the valley spread out below you, the wide, silvery ribbon of the Hudson itself on the left, the glistening waters of the Ashokan reservoir on the right and what feels like the whole world at your feet. It is both sudden and breathtaking and I can’t recall such a sneaky reveal of a fabulous view outside of the Grand Canyon.


       You can gild this particular scenic lily by taking the steel staircase (if it is open – it’s manned by volunteers and usually weekend-only) to the restored firetower, which adds in a portion of the Catskill mountains to the north, humped like a series of green-backed cetaceans. I asked my wife if she thought the view was worth the long hike and the rickety steps up to the tiny cabin of the tower. “It’s worth the plane ticket over,” she replied. It was an opinion she was to revise on the return leg.

       The walk down was not that much easier than the ascent, but we were elated at having made it to the top on a hot, enervatingly muggy day. We were talking loudly and joking about rattlesnakes when two hikers who had halted some way ahead waved for us to stop. We did so. The man drew a finger across his throat. I instantly thought of Cabin In The Woods or any other number of city-folk-in-the-wilderness movies.

       But my wife hissed in my ear: “Oh my God, it’s a bear.”

       And so it was, a handsome black bear, inspecting the ferns, shrubs and trees that lined the side of the road about twenty metres to our right. Not a huge bear maybe, but when it reared up against a tree trunk, large enough to make knees knock. Every now and then it glanced our way or at the other hikers. It gave a few desultory sniffs of the air. It was a fine time to remember the half-eaten sandwich in my backpack.

bear photo

       Discounting the grizzly, which this was definitely not, there are two types of bear you are likely to encounter in the US, the brown and the black. “With one of them you make as much noise as possible and wave your arms,” I authoritatively whispered to my wife. “The other you climb a tree or play dead.”

       ‘Which one do you do for a black bear?” she asked.

       “I don’t remember,” I replied.

       Quietly, so as not to disturb our new ursine chum, she gave me a dead arm.

       All I could really recall was that a black bear can run at 35mph. A rough calculation suggested this was about 30 mph that I could manage uphill, even with a bear on my tail. We were stuck on that path for the time being.

       I subsequently discovered that there are at least 8,000 black bears in New York State. The population is growing and interactions with humans are increasing. So this year the autumn hunting season was extended into what amounts to a cull. Until the end of September, hunters were allowed to kill bears with “bow, crossbow, muzzle-loader, shotgun or rifle” in areas designated by the Department of Environmental Conservation. But I didn’t have any of those particular weapons on me and, besides, the innocent bear was mostly minding its own business. Mostly. Every now and then it would wander onto the track then, as if catching an elusive fragrance, it would be drawn back to a particular tree and start inhaling and snorting loudly.

       We were standing there for close to twenty minutes, waiting for this tree-junkie of a bear to get bored. Eventually, it looked up into the branches of its favourite trunk and, with an ease I still can’t quite comprehend and a speed that was both impressive and terrifying, it began to climb. With the crack of claw on bark and the odd grunt, it was soon in the upper branches, swaying like an overgrown, swarthy koala.

       ‘Not the climb-a-tree-to-escape species, then,’ I offered to my wife, whose expression suggested she thought my zoology degree was a waste of three years.

      It was time to go. We set off using a speedy gait that was a combination of Olympic race-walking and Lee Evans at his most hyperactive. We warned those coming from the car park that there was a bear in the air. Several, who had encountered bears before, turned back. Others, including a pair with what looked to me like a tasty morsel of a dog, carried on regardless.

       Later, nursing a slightly unsteady beer in a bar in Woodstock, I asked my wife what she made of the experience. “I was wrong about the view,” she said. “It was the bear that was worth the price of the plane ticket.”


  • I travelled as a guest of Virgin Holidays (0844-573 0088,, which has a week’s fly-drive to New York from £929pp, including flights and Alamo car hire. Advice on what to do when you encounter a bear can be found on The best course of action is to back away slowly. Attacks are rare. If you are attacked, with brown and grizzly bears, you play dead. With black bears, you shout and make yourself seem as large as possible. Don’t climb a tree.




I have just returned from a week touring the Hudson Valley and the Catskills in upstate New York. Most of it was for a piece for The Times and it was a very successful trip – good food, dramatic modern art, fantastic scenery, Robber Baron’s grand historic homes, and some possibly too close encounters with local wildlife. But one standout was the hotel we stayed in on the last night, mainly because it was so unexpected (it was the result of a tip-off from a native New Yorker who said: ‘Don’t ask questions, just book in’).

If you read a lot of the US travel press you might think that the recent renaissance of the Catskills – which is a few hours’ drive from Manhattan, up I-87 or 90 – means it’s a Williamsburg with trees and mountains, with a farm-to-fork restaurant at every junction, an antique Americana collection on every porch, a cool bar beside every creek. This isn’t true, there is a lot of driving around (by our standards at least) to sample the best of, say, Delaware County.

The town of Andes in The Catskills is good for Americana

The town of Andes in The Catskills is good for Americana

After a slightly disappointing first turn through district, the highlights being Andes (quaint, good vintage clothes, antiques, coffee and cookies) and Delhi (bookstores, covered bridges, more antiques) but not fly-blown Bloomville (Table on Ten restauarant and not much else), I thought maybe The Roxbury might not live up to its billing. However, there is often something about the typography and colour scheme of a place’s signboard that tells you that you are in safe hands. “Contemporary Catskill Lodgings” this one teased in limegreen and black and it delivered.

The Roxbury and backdrop

The Roxbury and backdrop

The Roxbury is a themed hotel, in that each of the 28 units is decorated to a particular brief, in this case a TV show or movie. Now, I’m not always a fan of themed rooms. Sometimes hoteliers think that all it takes is a hideous shagpile carpet, a lava lamp and a couple of DVDs and bam! The Austin Powers Suite. Or a bit of gold MDF and organza and you have the Arabian Nights room. That isn’t the case at The Roxbury Motel.

The owners, Greg Henderson and Joseph Massa both have theatrical backgrounds and it shows (Greg does concepts, Joseph is the craftsman) in the outlandish concoctions. What makes The Roxbury different is the attention to details – every room is done with passion and panache. Most are based on the sixties TV shows that were on constant re-run when the owners were growing up. So there is a Star Trek room, where the ceiling becomes the galaxy of dopplered stars as seen in warp drive, created by a massive coil of fibre optic lights in the roof space, and where the bathroom tiles glow to recreate the holodeck. For I Dream of Jeannie, the pair used an ancient Roman technique to create a perfect spherical space to represent the genie’s bottle. Gilligan’s Island is basically a huge inverted coconut cream pie as baked by Ginger and Mary Ann.

The understated Amadeus-themed room

The understated Amadeus-themed room

Best of all, though, is a three-bedroom stand-alone single-story house called The Digs. It was inspired by the purchase at auction of artifacts that were previously owned by a man who claimed to have worked for the Board of Education. Greg and Joseph discovered that they were from places such as Persia/Iran, the Far East and various destinations not open to the usual US tourist in the 50s and 60s. They decided the vendor had been a spy-cum-archeologist and so created a huge backstory which means The Digs is filled with the sort of items that might be boxed up at the end of Indiana Jones – and indeed there is a room with a ceiling full of bullwhips, snake wallpaper, a Mayan temple hiding a pull-down bed and a giant boulder above the lobby in homage to Indy. There’s also a fish tank so special it has featured on Animal Planet.

The Digs' ceiling lamps - from Cairo.

The Digs’ ceiling lamps – from Cairo.

But here’s the thing: despite all the frivolity, the hotel work – the products are excellent, there are bathtubs as opposed to mere showers, the fabrics, tiles, lamps, ceiling fixtures are sourced from the best suppliers in the world, there’s a two-part spa (hot tub and sauna in one wing, steam and treatments in another) and the sheets are as good as those in the Four Seasons.

As if this wasn’t enough, the pair have also bought a slightly sagging antebellum mansion down the road (see, which sits right next to a dramatic gorge and waterfall and they plan to do much the same with it (albeit more in keeping with the estate’s history than, say, The Jetsons room). Having toured the site, their plans are either insanely ambitious or just… No, I suspect The Roxbury at Stratton Falls will be ready within the two to three years they have allowed themselves. And I’ll be back.

The Digs living room

The Digs living room

See for rates. I flew with Virgin Atlantic ( and hired a car through Alamo. The ins and outs of a Hudson Valley fly-drive will be dealt with  in The Times Travel piece.