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!

As the winter afternoon darkens, the Christmas street decorations light up the entire length of St Peter’s Street. This year the tree branches are wrapped in bright garlands of red gold, blue and green lights and it all looks so festive.

My Christmas shopping is almost done so I’m out with an old school friend and we’re spoiling ourselves with a few little extras. I love that feeling when all that’s left are a few bits and bobs like the odd box of crackers, there’s nothing like it and that’s when I really begin to feel the Christmas spirit.

I love bookshops, especially during the Christmas season and we linger in Waterstones. I buy The Guinness Book of World Records 2018, it’s absolutely packed with amazingly incredulous human feats; the sort of colourful classic hardback that all of the family, young and old, wouldn’t mind a flick through in that restful week after Christmas.

The booksellers have thoughtfully created a display table filled with the best-seller non-fiction books of 2016/7 and its buy one get one half price. I buy myself a book that came out last year that I never got to read, Wohlleben’s book on The Hidden Life of Trees; it explores why solitary trees have shorter life spans than large tree groups; it appeals to my geeky side and nobody would ever think of buying me it.

We go upstairs to the café for a couple of mega spicy hot chocolates; I bite into a festive mince pie and relax into the red sofa. My friend brings a couple of humorous seventies Ladybird books The New You and The Meeting over and they have us in hysterics.

I’m feeling excited that Christmas is just around the corner as I drive home listening to Christmas choral music mixed in with some Elvis and yes I admit, some Dolly Parton.

I start thinking about my food list for next week. That’s the weirdest shopping experience of the year, when the M&S food hall becomes an urban jungle and only the most determined mums will secure the last few jars of cranberry sauce and brandy butter into their trolleys!

We drive through the gates into the Luton Hoo estate and after a few twists and turns, see a grand neo-classical country mansion in the distance. Grade I listed, it is it is situated on the crest of a hill overlooking acres of beautiful gardens and was built for the 3rd Earl of Bute, then prime minister, who bought the estate in 1763.

We stop outside to look up; I can see why Dr. Samuel Johnson referred to its “magnificence” when he visited in 1781. As we step past the imposing columns we are all smiles as we have come to celebrate my mother-in law’s birthday.

The lounge is huge and the dark green mantelpiece is the tallest and widest I’ve ever seen! The crackling log fire, gives an immediate sense of warmth and homeliness. On the other side of the room is a bounteous flower arrangement filled with vibrant tropical flowers.

At one o’clock, we’re shown into the opulent salon that is the Wernher restaurant. We’re given the seasonal menu for our Sunday lunch. We order some wine. I sit there fascinated to see every wall panelled in marble. The crystal chandeliers cast a shimmering light onto the Beauvais tapestries. I look out of the windows and see miles of rolling parkland as far as the eye can see.

The food arrives. I begin with Parma ham with fresh figs mozzarella and wild rocket followed by a lamb roast. The dessert trolley is filled to the brim with cheesecakes, fruit tarts and chocolate delicacies.

After lunch we take a stroll into the gardens. I take in the frosty December air and smell the evergreen. We walk towards the side of the hotel and stand at the top of the steps overlooking the grand fountain; we pause to face the formal gardens and see a perfectly symmetrical harmony, with a lawn on each side, topiary trees and domed stone garden houses.

As we walk down the stone steps onto the gravel path and draw closer to the fountain, I’m fascinated to see mermen carved in stone, their muscular torsos and fish tails resting against the central column; strange choice of mythic creature, I think to myself.

I look forward to exploring the rock garden and the rest of this thousand-acre parkland next time, maybe I’ll visit the spa and who knows even stay overnight and enjoy some eggs royale in the morning!

It’s a bright Sunday morning and life-size painted figures of gilded angels on wood provide the perfect backdrop to the Childwickbury Christmas fair. In the middle of the courtyard, a huge Christmas tree illuminated with coloured bulbs and decorated with red and gold glittery baubles towers above us; Christmas music jingles in the background and each stable is filled with shoppers.

An old Citroen van is parked further along, covered with poinsettias and roses. Behind it is a stall with hyacinth bulbs planted in neat rows of Victorian teacups on saucers. What I love about this fair is its rustic charm; being here is such a wonderful contrast to shopping on the high street and I stop to admire the twig woodbine angels blowing trumpets.

There’s a stallholder selling handmade log reindeers with friendly faces and big red noses and rather than wanting to buy one I feel as if I’d like to make one; his little Yorkshire terrier is the cutest thing ever, strutting around in a bright red tartan body warmer!

Inside the stables, an abundance of creativity is on display and the merchandise is of a high standard, from watercolours to handmade knitwear.  We chat with a trendy jewellery designer. I admire a pair of black and white asymmetrical leather earrings from her latest collection entitled Morphology; they’re pretty avant-garde and I buy them for my sister, hoping they’ll appeal to her unusual taste.

Whenever I come here, I always visit the milliner and check out his latest display of spectacular hats; he’s hugely talented and also works in many West End theatre productions; he shows me a miniature lion mask that he’s still working on, I love it and he lets me have it at a reduced price.

Just before we leave my daughter runs ahead towards the food barn. I buy a bag of cinnamon sticks to grate into cake-mixes and onto my cappuccino, but it’s the bakery stall that she has her eye on. There are carrot cup cakes and “Boozy Baileys chocolate cakes” with red macarons perched sideways on top! I bite into the best brownie ever, decorated with edible bronze beads and waves of caramel icing; it’s utterly delicious. We leave content, licking our chocolatey lips!

The Hatfield House Frost Fair is buzzing with festive feeling as we arrive. The juggling entertainer is delighting the children with his tricks and visitors are wandering around or relaxing on a bench with a warm drink.

We approach the Palace green and see a group of white marquees lined up and packed with exhibitors. Inside, we enjoy the wonderful displays of Christmas decorations from glittering baubles to miniature glass angels. I buy a Christmas diamante brooch of a leaping reindeer and a Scandinavian style decoration of a winter elf.

I’m beginning to feel Christmassy and can’t wait to see more. We step into the next marquee bustling with shoppers and are bombarded with a huge variety of colourful and sparkling merchandise; from alpaca scarves to well designed leather handbags; from fruit gins to woodcarvings of herons, lions and horses.

I’m drawn to a stall displaying bespoke silver jewellery, and it’s official! I have now started my Christmas shopping and buy my niece a pretty silver necklace with a contemporary design. I spot the perfect pink woollen hat for my daughter; it’s so pretty with sparkles on. My husband smiles kindly and gently breaks the news to me that, as she is no longer ten years old, she would never wear it!

We chat with a stallholder selling football paraphernalia and buy a couple of unusual historic prints of my brother’s favourite football team. He’ll be fascinated to find out that most football strips were an entirely different colour when the teams were founded.

After shopping we step outside into the pale sunlight. Visitors are tucking into pulled pork baguettes and mince pies. We enjoy a freshly made banana and chocolate crepe each. Before we leave I buy a cup of mulled cider; it’s really warming with a sweet apple punch and spicy undertones. My husband has a Cadbury’s drink called The Works, a huge hot chocolate laden with cream and topped with marshmallows and cinnamon.

I sit quietly on a bench, immersed in the festive atmosphere and breathing in the crisp autumn air; we enjoy listening to the rock choir singing out Leonard Cohen’s Hallelulia; my husband looks over at me and notices my eyes well up. That song gets me every time!

I’m thrilled that a bit of the West End has come to the Alban Arena and a new production of West Side Story is about to begin! As we take our seats, the stage is set and smoke spills onto the stalls. I settle into my seat and sip my hot chocolate looking forward to revisiting all those familiar songs.

Inspired by Romeo and Juliet and set in New York’s Upper West Side in the fifties, the Montagues and Capulets are replaced by two rival street gangs battling for control of their territories. Bernardo is the leader of the Sharks and Riff, of the Jets. When Tony, a Jet, meets Maria, Bernardo’s sister, love strikes like a lightening bolt.

This play is a classic with lyrics by Sondheim and music by Bernstein; it became a worldwide musical hit when it first came out in 1957. The film was then adapted from the musical and in 1961 swept up a whopping ten academy awards!

We’re introduced to the Jets in the opening scene. I love the synchronized dance moves, clicking of fingers, and sound of police sirens turning into high-pitched French horns and trumpets just like in the film!

The stage is set for the dance and packed with the entire cast. The music blares out and suddenly Tony and Maria appear at either end of the stage, the lights turn blue around them and silence takes a hold. They are powerlessly struck down by cupid’s arrow. We, the audience enter a timeless space with them both and there is a feeling from that moment on that their intense young love will be doomed.

There are some vibrant complex jazz pieces by Bernstein and modern dance expressing both the joyous and darker side of a passionate love between two teenagers. Their perfectly harmonized voices fill the stage; I’d forgotten that there are so many classic songs like Somewhere, Tonight, Maria, I feel pretty. America is a delight; the choreography is energetic and upbeat, as the ruffled hemlines of colourful dresses crash through the air.

I notice the conductor’s hand become more animated from the corner of my eye, as the dramatic scenes intensify; it is precisely in these moments where the audience gets swept away in emotion that he must concentrate the hardest to deliver the precision of the musical score. After the finale we feel as if we have been on an emotional roller coaster ride and we applaud with enthusiasm, captivated by such a talented cast.