Way to prepare for the London marathon

I thought a long weekend in Tuscany would be the perfect place to prepare for the London Marathon. During my athletics career, I won an Olympic silver medal and a string of titles over 400m, but these days I run for pleasure over much longer distances. I also needed this short break because I knew I was about to enter a hectic time at work as I was part of Channel 4’s team presenting the Paralympic Games in London.

Pasta master: Iwan creates his dough during an Il Maggio cookery lesson

With good weather almost guaranteed and a short flight time from the UK, no wonder thousands of Britons head to this part of Italy every year. We flew to Florence, and from there it was a 90-minute drive to our 18th Century farmhouse, Il Maggio, near the delightful city of Siena.

Another of the attractions of this stay was the chance to have a cookery lesson – I was runner-up on the BBC’s Celebrity MasterChef several years ago, and I’m really passionate about food.

Il Maggio was very impressive, with attractive limestone floors, terracotta tiles and original beams. There was underfloor heating throughout the house too, which I particularly liked.

Where the magic happens…the kitchen at Il Maggio

The property had its own spa area, including a Jacuzzi, while outside were lovely gardens, and – this was a nice touch – a small outhouse containing a traditional pizza oven. After a relaxing first day, we headed to the local village for our cookery lesson. We were shown how to make ravioli and other types of pasta (actually, I learned how to make pasta during my stint on MasterChef, but it was great to have a refresher course).

Afterwards, we went to do some food-tasting, and later that evening we went out for dinner. It’s a good job I have a big appetite. The next day I had to remind myself that I was here to get in some last-minute London Marathon training, so I headed into the hills close to our villa. The weather was gorgeous and (believe it or not) I was having such a good time that I ended up covering 15 miles – much more than I had originally intended.

This was my last outing before the Marathon itself and, although it was a harder run than I meant to do, it was great to be able to explore such beautiful countryside.

As an athlete, I was lucky enough to race in Italy several times but this was my first holiday in the country. Wherever I was competing, I rarely had the opportunity to explore a place as much as I would have liked – it was always a case of getting from the airport to the hotel, from the hotel to the arena, and from the arena to the airport for the journey home.

I spent the majority of my career on the athletics grand prix circuit. During the summer months, that meant flying to Oslo, for example, on the Tuesday, racing on Wednesday, going home on Thursday to collect some fresh clothes and kit and then heading to, say, Zurich on the Saturday for the next meeting.

At first, I really enjoyed all the travelling, but eventually living out of a suitcase, queuing endlessly at airports and staying in characterless hotels took its toll.

Competing at a major event such as the Olympics was a more enjoyable experience because we would be based in a host city for longer, which meant we had time to get to know it a little better.

Soul soother: The beautiful Tuscan city of Siena is within easy reach from Il Maggio

I took part in the Atlanta Games in 1996, where I won a silver medal in the 4x400m relay, and I was also involved in the relay team at the Sydney Olympics four years later.

When I was growing up, we travelled a great deal as a family and spent holidays in America and Australia. I’ve also lived in Canada and Germany, while, during my career, I often used to train in South Africa. I’d love to return there, especially for a safari or to stay in Cape Town.

I’m happy to say I finished the London Marathon in four hours, which I was pleased with. That session in the Tuscan hills obviously did the trick.

Ll Maggio sleeps up to seven people. Seven nights costs from €2,000 (about £1,800) in low season. Price excludes heating. To book, contact Tuscan Views on 020 7855 2998 or visit tuscanviews.eu. CityJet (cityjet.com) flies from London City to Florence. Prices start from £83pp one-way.


Belton House

The story of Edward and Mrs Simpson is now largely one of time spent abroad: during the war they lived in the Bahamas, where the Duke of Windsor was Governor General. Afterwards they were in self-imposed exile in Paris and New York.

But it might have been otherwise, and several fine English country houses shed light on their often secret and tangled romance in the years before the Abdication.

Bolthole: Beautiful Belton House where Edward and Mrs Simpson were guests

Approaching Sandringham today, the Royal Family’s estate in Norfolk, it’s impossible not to recall the scene in The King’s Speech where Edward flies up in a small private plane with his own pilot and lands on the manicured lawns. He is on his way to see his dying father, George V, who said he loved ‘dear old Sandringham’ better than anywhere.

Being there, it is easy to imagine how Wallis Simpson would have loved to be its chatelaine. Yet as an American divorcee, she could not even set foot within its walls.

It was suggested that Mrs Simpson should seek refuge at Belton House in Lincolnshire but the eventual Duchess of Windsor baulked at the idea

Within hours, George V was pronounced dead and Edward VIII the new King. It’s an important vignette, for on that January day in 1936, everything changed. One of the first things Edward did at Sandringham was write to Wallis, terrified that the new situation might scare her away. He told her: ‘You are all and everything I have in life and WE must hold each other so tight.’ From then on, their relationship, still largely a secret in Britain, became increasingly fraught.

Politicians were anxious that Edward seemed unable to live without her. That summer, intimate photographs of her with the King started appearing in the international press and, once her second divorce went through in October and marriage to the King looked a real possibility, Wallis became one of the most hated and vilified women in the world. She received bomb threats and poison-pen letters, and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was worried someone might even shoot her.

That’s where Belton House comes into the story. Deep in the Lincolnshire countryside, this 17th Century mansion owned by the Brownlow family would have made a good hideaway from the press or assassins. Edward was godfather to Lord Brownlow’s heir, also called Edward, and you can see the magnificent baptismal font in the opulent private chapel where the King stood in 1936 to celebrate the boy’s birth. In early December, the King told Wallis it was no longer safe to stay in the country and asked Brownlow, known to friends as Perry, to escort her abroad. Brownlow suggested instead that Wallis stayed at Belton as a safe refuge. But Wallis Simpson, an urban creature and shopper extraordinaire, would have hated life in a country home, however splendid.

Regal drama: Sandringham, where Edward visited his dying father, George V. Upon his death just hours later, Edward was declared the new King

It’s a measure of how desperately Wallis felt trapped that she preferred the notion of escaping to China – where she had spent a year in the Twenties – to the Belton Bolthole.

When she and Edward had stayed there,
the lovers were supposedly given a bedroom with exquisite Chinese
wallpaper to make Wallis feel at home. But when you see that the room
boasts only a small bed called a ‘sporting double’, you will probably
conclude that the couple more probably stayed in the newly named
‘Windsor Room’.

Brownlow escorted Wallis from Edward’s Windsor home, Fort Belvedere, to
France. She never lived in England again. Brownlow found the French
escapade an agonising experience and was horrified to discover he was
also responsible for Wallis’s jewels, ‘presents from the King worth at
least £100,000’.

He paid a heavy price for his loyalty
to Edward. On his return it was made clear that if he accepted an
invitation to attend Edward’s wedding in France, he might find his
position as Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk uncomfortable. He declined the
wedding and retired to Belton.

MailTravel.co.uk has an exclusive three-day guided tour starting on May 12, 2013, which includes two illustrated talks by Anne Sebba, private dinners with wine, and visits to Belton House and Sandringham with the services of a tour manager throughout. See mailtravel.co.uk/holidays/royal.

Anne Sebba is the author of That Woman: The Life Of Wallis Simpson, Duchess Of Windsor (Phoenix Paperback, £7.99).