We see Osprey signposted on our drive back from Welwyn and turn right into a country lane. We walk along a gravel path and Osprey London is the first barn we enter. Leather handbags of every colour are neatly displayed in the window. The smell of good quality leather and wooden display units give a natural warmth, and it feels welcoming.

The front of the store is divided into men’s and ladies’ sections. My husband has a look at the wallets and belts while I have a browse on the other side. Absolutely everything is discounted from make up bags to heart-shaped coin purses.

A purple crocodile-effect purse catches my eye and it’s reduced to £35, but when I unzip it I notice that it’s not leather inside like the one I currently have. Mmm I think I might be getting fussier in my old age!

At the centre of the shop is a huge wooden table with more luxury leather handbags and purses with Osprey embossed in gold. A tall glass vase filled with winter flowers decorates the display. I love the vibrant rainbow of colourful leather from tangerine orange to forest green. If you wore any of these boldly coloured accessories with the right outfit to a wedding or a summer fair you’d make a stylish statement.

We then walk through the courtyard to Osprey Home. What an amazing space, brightly lit and filled with home accessories and curios from silver sculptures to leather notebooks, and paperweights to sheepskin rugs.

The showroom feels chic and rustic at the same time, arranged with large pieces of furniture, two armchairs decoratively upholstered in hessian and a long wooden dining table. As I leave a wall lamp decorated with dark wooden antlers catches my eye.

We walk back through the courtyard to the Saddlery Café, a rustic old barn-come-tearoom. We sit on a bench filled with cushions at a round wooden table. Tea is served in a huge teapot for two with vintage cups and saucers. As we’re still on our post-Christmas diets we share a home baked slice of banana and salted caramel cake.

I look forward to my next visit when we can lounge on the on the rattan sofas and linger in the courtyard, enjoying the lush greenery before having a browse in the vintage market and art gallery Three wise monkeys in the stables just across the way.

I have a relative visiting from Italy for a few days; he’s been exploring London but as it’s his last day here, I decide to show him around St Albans, including Verulamium Museum and some of our wonderful Tudor streets; of course I leave the best till last, the jewel in the crown of our city; the Cathedral.

 On our way there I explain how the Cathedral used to be a Benedictine Monastery. I look forward to showing him the beautiful complex mix of architectural styles from Romanesque to Gothic, the longest Nave in the country, some medieval wall paintings, and the Shrine of St Alban.

 We walk along the cobblestone path, opening the heavy door into a darkened side aisle and head towards the Quire and the Crossing. We approach a guide who tells us his tour will begin in five minutes and go and join a small group sitting at the back row of the Nave.

 The Guide arrives with a smile and begins the tour. We sit and listen in fascination as he recounts St Alban’s life story and how he came to be martyred.

 After our three fascinating stops in the Nave, we have learned a little about the Early English Gothic style of pointed arches in stark contrast to rounded Norman arches and about the seven new statues that were erected in 2015, 900 years after the Consecration of the Abbey.

 We’re then led into the richly carved wooden Quire and stalls dating from 1903. My cousin sits there noticing some detail, such as the faces of the ‘green man’, deriving from pagan times and quintessentially British. I’ll have to explain that later. I’m beginning to wish I’d paid more attention in those school history lessons!

 We end our tour in the Lady Chapel. The January light diffuses through the stained glass tracery of the Gothic windows and into the sacred space. I then encourage him to go and spend some time in the Shrine in private prayer. Ten minutes later he steps out seeming peaceful and is silent. I let his silence fill the space and try to suppress a smile, after all it’s not everyday that an Italian is quiet!

 As we walk home, I have a little rant about Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries. My cousin can see how frustrated it makes me but assures me that the Cathedrals of England are very beautiful and that there is still so much to admire. I’m comforted by his compliments, as I’m perfectly aware of the magnificent gilded Cathedrals that he’s used to in Italy.

Back in the late seventies when I was a child, I remember the Italian mobile deli turning into our street. It was a huge blue lorry with a noisy engine and would park right in the middle of the road. My mum would dash out with her purse, along with a few other Italian neighbours, ready to shop. It felt amazing to step inside, like being in Dr. Who’s Tardis, disconnected from the outside world. Many of the foods were the same as all of these authentic foods that I’m surrounded by today in Buongiorno Italia.

Trading since 1978 as Franco Stores, Tony, the son of Francesco and Immacolata is in charge now, taking over in 1991; he’s doing a fine job and has won a number of local food and drink awards. This is just what we need in St Albans, an Italian Deli that provides fresh produce and good value and there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the city!

My husband realizes that in about two minutes time Tony and I will be talking very loudly to each other and gesticulating – this is simply the way Italians communicate and can’t be helped. Outside, vibrant fresh fruits and vegetables are neatly displayed in a kaleidoscope of colour. Fuller and shinier than anything you’d find in the supermarket, from Sicilian aubergines to bright oranges.

Inside, it is choc full of fine Italian foods and Tony prides himself on the uncompromising quality and freshness of his produce. Behind the counter is a wide range of cured meats such as Mortadella and Milano Salami and a host of Italian cheeses from provolone to Gran Padano; there are also stranger foods like wild boar pasta sauce!

Behind us is an entire wall of authentic wine and spirits such as Amaretto, Marsala and Grappa; further down are my favourite chocolates, Baci from Umbria and Gianduja from Piedmont.

The coffee machine steams loudly and Tony talks over it while serving customers. To the right is a small bar where we sip our cappuccinos. Needless to say the illy coffee is exquisite. We stop for lunch and our paninis arrive, mine is filled with Mortadella, Pecorino cheese and roasted red peppers.

After that, we shop. Tony slices coppa followed by some pancetta. Our basket is getting full now with ricotta, cantucci biscuits and porcini mushrooms for my risotto. Finally, we take our baskets to the till.

We walk out with two full carrier bags and a huge Panettone certain that we’ll be back soon.

“Ciao Antonio! E Buon Anno!”

“Ciao, al prossimo!”

The shops all feel a little topsy-turvy at the moment and practically everything in sight is discounted in the January sales. The window displays are screaming out over 50% off, trying to draw more money out of our meager wallets after Christmas indulgences.

I step into Oliver Bonas; I enjoy peering into their jewellery cabinets and flicking through a wonderful selection of glossy lifestyle books with generous discounts. I love this shop and it always feels as if it is strictly girlie territory! Then there’s River Island packed with rows upon rows of summer tops and spinners covered in bold and brash jewellery that you’d probably never wear; then again at 70% off it’s worth a thought.

I find the perfect dress in Oasis reduced by 30%. At last, a shop that has genuinely discounted seasonal merchandise, and hasn’t transported a huge quantity of sales stock from some warehouse. With that find in the bag I leave the shops and step out into the cold January morning.

I decide to walk home and cut through Clarence Park. The cold wind blows and sleet gently flurries around me. As I approach the gates there are fewer passersby and as I walk deeper into the park I can hardly hear the traffic, and silence descends.

In the distance, the bare trees stand tall behind winter’s chrome filter.

As I draw closer, I realize that I’m also surrounded by a wealth of evergreen.

Pine and Cedar trees, dark winter roses and scarlet holly berries are a striking contrast against the icy backdrop. Nature has begun her quiet sojourn into spring.

Birdsong resonates through the wind and I wonder how these tiny sparrows and robins feel, swooping and fluttering in the blue air. I see a squirrel, still frantic, and wonder why it isn’t hibernating somewhere by now.

2018 lies outstretched before us, uncharted, undiscovered and as empty and spacious as this quiet winter’s morning.  As I walk through these dark weeks of winter I think back to the year gone by and all that came with it, having to let some things go and feeling a profound gratitude for others.

It’s that extra-special relaxing week where we all step out of our usual space-time continuum and stop to smell the roses. The turkey has been carved, the presents unwrapped and the champagne sunk. Our bellies more flabby, our brains with fewer cells but content. We have caught up with family members, for better or worse.

Outside, there’s a cool stillness and its time to relax at home in our sheepskin slippers and loungewear. It’s that strange time of the year when grown ups are left alone to start on 1000 piece puzzles; or start that novel that has always been struggling to see the light; or pop down to the charity shop to donate a pointless present or two!

I generously spray myself with a new perfume and wrap my new scarf around my shoulders and go for a late afternoon walk, cutting through the park before it gets dark. My husband joins me out in the fresh winter air, helping us to digest our lunch as the day closes.

The pressure is off and we chat about silly things on our walk. As usual, my sister-in-law remains undefeated at Scrabble and my Italian mother has drunk a fair amount of wine over the last couple of days to celebrate having her family together. I have made a seriously spicy mulled wine for everybody, and managed to sing the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas, from beginning to end, as it is a Christmas family tradition.

Soon it will be the beginning of a new year when we are given an opportunity to reevaluate our lives; when the media bombard us with images of impossibly fit bodies and when we’re asked about our new year’s resolutions. It’s hard to resist the hype and I quite like it when the odd person tells me “My new year’s resolution is not to have any new year’s resolutions!” I like the Zen attitude of letting the New Year arrive and just wash over you, of finding a little me-time, such a rare state of affairs in the crazy fast-paced world!