15 minute neighbourhood

Rob Walker in The Art of Noticing No.55 recently mentioned the 15 minute neighbourhood.  The phrase was new to me but the concept has always been part of my ideal place to live – somewhere you can walk or travel by wheelchair to all the necessary shops and amenities.  The interesting point is that it’s not the same for each person, so for me having a school five minutes away is an inconvenience rather than a necessity while the lack of a good restaurant is a downside of the location.  (Although there are rumours this may be due to change.)

painted map of countryside with a river running almost in a loop.  paraglider to far left of picture above countryside.
Ideal if you like paragliding (Douelle, France)

I’m lucky as I have a grocery, takeaways and a lovely coffee and cake shop in walking distance. I also have a lot of open space for walking which I have only learnt to fully appreciate this year, spending time exercising outside of the house.  In the time of lockdown, it really makes you think about what is close to home and what requires a journey by car or public transport. 

My dream 15 minute neighbourhood is Kemp Town, in Brighton.  We stayed there for a week providing a cat sitting service for a friend and I fell in love with the area.  A short walk from the house was an amazing bakery, a coffee shop we visited every evening after work, countless places to eat (always a plus point for me), butchers, antique shops, stationery shops and even a book shop.  It felt like everything we needed was in easy reach.  And as a bonus, the sea front was only five minute’s walk away. 

green foliage of garden with tabby cat staring purposefully at someone or something outside the photo.
The boss making sure the house sitters know their duties

Despite commuting to work each day this felt like a holiday.  If it had happened this year, I would have been working from home every day and going out for lunch, instead we ate out in the evenings trying out every restaurant close by.

I hope as more people continue to work from home for at least part of the week, this will lead to more local shops, cafes and restaurants opening  and making each neighbourhood the place where you want to spend your leisure time.

Where is your ideal 15 minute neighbourhood and what makes it perfect?

Kemp Town bakery

The Abbey Cake Shop

The Art of Noticing

The 15 minute neighbourhood

Shorter days, longer walks

As dawn and dusk draw closer together and the days get shorter, I have changed my daily walking habits from three lots of ten minutes to either fifteen minutes or thirty minutes.  My route has changed to explore a wider area and as I hate walking the same road going out and coming back, I try and make this a loop. At the moment my paths through the countryside and along the cliffs are not much fun as we have had so many on rainy days leaving everything sticky and unpleasant, so I have been sticking to the roads.  Once it gets cold and the ground freezes I will explore the winter landscape.

Today I walked down a road which I must have driven along hundreds of times and noticed a narrow house which I have never seen before, completely covered in ivy, it was squeezed in between two much larger houses. I have time to admire the gardens as I pass and in one I notice some decorative paving which makes a grey parking space in front of the house into something a little more appealing. 

black and white cat in centre of tall grass and woody sticks from bushes.
Cat paradise

Turning off the main road and into a side street, I am surprised to find a wild green space.  More and more houses are being built in my area, so I wasn’t expecting to see this and I am a little shocked that I didn’t know this piece of land existed.  What I like best is that the ground has been left completely wild, there are tracks for bikes and dog walkers but no one has been trying to tame this place.

bush covered with red berries
Autumn bounty

It’s only when I continue and reach a new housing estate that I realised I have passed this rough ground from the other side, I just didn’t recognise it.  It’s a grubby green lung in amongst so many houses and a pleasant surprise to me to see something unexpected so close to my home.

Wimereux All Year Round

I’ve just read a short story about Wimereux in France; at the moment this is the closest I get to travelling anywhere.  It’s a town we have visited in various seasons as it’s a short trip for us, just the other side of the channel.  We’ve even stayed in a in seafront hotel in the summer, with a room that opened out on to our private terrace looking over the esplanade.

two outdoor chairs in front of an esplanade and sea  with waves crossing a low wall of rocks
Summer time

All through the summer months, this is a perfect seaside resort for a short holiday, with hotels, restaurants and cafes all facing the sea.  It’s impossible not to stop and have a coffee or a beer, an ice cream or frites and something.  When you come back to the main street through the town, there is an equally good choice of restaurants and cafes but more often than not we end up at La Vie Est Belle,  for their delicious food and warm welcome.

We have visited in December, just before Christmas and woken up to find snow falling.  Walking through the high street we heard the Nutcracker suite filling the air and the whole town lit up by a Christmas vibe.

In spring we have parked the car and headed for the sea front for a walk along the esplanade only to be confronted by massive waves crashing on the pavement and sending spray and sand flying into the side roads.  Back to the main road and warm cafes.

hotels to right of picture, esplanade in centre, sea on right, high waves coming over wall on to esplanade
Spring tide

On Fridays there is a market, which is home to a cheese van with a great range of very local cheeses as well as the usual favourites.

And no visit is complete without a visit to our favourite shops, La Sablerie to buy biscuits which are like little works of art, Ma Normandie to stock up on cheese and butter and the greengrocer which reminds me of my childhood, with its beautiful array of fruit and vegetables. Of course there is also an impressive choice of butchers and bakeries for the staples and an excellent fishmonger. 

When you visit a place in different seasons, you make a bond with it that’s not possible when you travel as a tourist checking off the must see sites.  There is always more to discover and each location becomes a friend, rather than a location.   

Hotel Atlantic

Ma Normandie

La Sablerie

La Vie est Belle

Helsinki Beach

When I go to a new town or city, I like to explore but it’s easy to find myself on the same familiar routes.  When we go to Helsinki we head into the city centre or to the harbour, following the tram tracks and the wide boulevards that lead to the market.  Sometimes I need to turn my back on the familiar paths and choose a different direction.

large castle like hotel with small circular tower in the centre, tall square tower block on left and lower block on right.
Hotel Torni

I don’t have a great sense of direction so when I go walking on my own, I like a route that doesn’t have too many junctions, staying on the same road allows me to return when I want to by just turning round, without remembering turns and sidetracks. 

The day I found the beach, I wasn’t looking for it, I was just trying a different path; I had walked past a large cemetery and found myself in a park, with a wide path for walkers and cyclists that invited me to keep going on, to see what was round the next corner, and the next corner.

People on sand, water looks like a river, green reeds and trees on the far side.  Tall blue tower with electrictity lines on far bank
On the beach

I kept thinking I should start to turn back, but curiosity pulled me forward and finally I found myself on a road where sand filled the gutters.  I walked through the trees and found myself on the beach; out of season and too cold to go in the water, but still an exciting discovery.  It felt like I was the only one who knew it was there.

Unlike the bendy footpath which I had been following the road ran in a straight line and buses travelled along it, towards what I guessed should be the town centre.  I followed the road and in much less time found myself back in the city and at my hotel.

I returned to the beach in the summer, when the once empty sand was filled with people making the most of the short Finnish summer.  

A visit to Teapot Island

I have said it before, but I do love going out for breakfast.  

on left footpath and seating area in front of cafe, trees in the centre next to the river on the right.
Teapot island next to the river

Sometimes it just has to be a full English, although you have to find the right place as this can range from the pile-it-high greasy spoon, to the gourmet with more plate than food.  A good Full English should never be too fancy; it needs good sausages and real bacon, ripe tomatoes are worth paying a premium for but are not essential, black pudding is a choice and one I will always add for that delicious crispy outer and soft inside.  Toast, baked beans, mushrooms are all standard items and if the chef can mess them up, then there’s no hope for the rest of the breakfast.  My choice of egg is to have none, but I do like a portion of hash browns or bubble and squeak.

Full English breakfasts that add exotic ingredients or try to be too “cheffy” should be avoided at all costs.  Tea or coffee should be in mugs, this is not a meal to be served with lattes or cappuccinos.

Probably my favourite place for a Full English is the Goods Shed at Canterbury, although at the time of writing they are not serving breakfast.  Their freshly squeezed juices, mugs of coffee and fresh ingredients from the butcher and the veg stall mean everything is top quality.  Madame Fifi’s in Maidstone also offers a magnificent Full Irish, which is a meal to leave you full for the whole day.

For the warmer months of the year, one of my favourite places is Teapot Island, which allows you to have an outdoor breakfast next to the river Medway. The food is unpretentious and good, and we take our time sitting outside in the last of the summer sunshine with the cyclists and dog walkers, who make sure they include a stop here on their routes.

Window full of shelves of teapots of unbelievable and unfeasible shapes and colours
Just a few of the teapots

There is a small inside area which is full of the teapots which give the cafe its name; it’s fascinating but the menu is what really interests me.  As well as a good breakfast, (I have yet to test their pancakes), they offer lunch and to my great delight, high tea which I have never seen on a menu before but makes me think of children’s books from the earlier part of the twentieth century and knickerbocker glory, a glorious reminder of a treat from my own childhood.  Next summer, I am coming back for icecream.

Teapot Island

The Goods Shed

Madame Fifi’s Brasserie

Queues aren’t what they used to be

I used to get excited seeing a nice long queue when I visited a new French village or town.  Nowadays, everywhere you go there is a queue following the spaces marked on the pavement so I don’t stop to look.  I try and do all my shopping when it is quiet.

But the right kind of queue is worth the wait.  It is usually found in markets or in villages and towns that are not focussed on tourist trade.  When you say to yourself “Why is there a queue here, what is everyone waiting for?” you have found a line worth joining.  As you stand on the end of the queue, you will notice that everyone knows everyone else and they are chatting while they wait.  This is not a problem or an inconvenience, it is a chance to catch up with friends and neighbours before buying from someone you know by name and who lives in the same town or village.

wooden circular crate filled with sardines neatly organised radiating out with tails in the centre and heads at the edge.
Fish at Prayssac market

For me, the queue usually leads to great bread and unforgettable cakes.  I’m the puzzled English person in a line of French women stretching down the street outside a tiny shop.  (The best ones are always tiny, only big enough for two customers at a time.)  Sometimes it is a butcher, a traiteur or a cheese shop, which becomes part of a regular shopping trip on the way home to the UK or at the start of a holiday.

edge of black car, trestle tables stacked with bread and cakes, with one whole table covered with crocodile made of bread.
Market at Montcuq

In Cazals, the queue led to the baker who had come 2nd in a competition for the best bakery in France.  The queue was all locals, apart from me but they knew what they had and valued it.    For the slow traveller, the wait is worth it, for it brings you into the local daily life.  You can’t rely on  the guide books, you must use your eyes and trust your senses and you will be rewarded with your own slow travel experience.

Another Time, Another Place

Sometimes it’s not where you go, it’s when you go that makes a difference.  Have you ever driven or walked through a familiar place at night and found it completely changed?  Sometimes you don’t need to travel to somewhere remote, you just have to find a different way of viewing your surroundings.

We often visit Wildwood wildlife park and we enjoy the walk through the trees as much as looking at the animals.  (When finding a place to sit and have a short break is part of the walk, it’s good to know there is a cafe and toilets, and the design of the pathways allows different length walks.)

Chestnut trees, with elliptical leaves and silver trunks.  Thick undergrowth of leaves.
A walk in the woods

Each trip is an adventure as there is no guarantee which animals we will spot, perhaps the bears are playing in their pond, or we might see a flash of pine martin darting through its enclosure.  The herbivores; the deer and bison are usually visible and in the summer you can smell the wild boar before you spot them.  If we visit at opening time, the reptiles are often still hidden away, they won’t appear until the sun has warmed their favourite basking places.

This time we visited on one of their limited evening sessions, so we wandered through the park as the light slowly faded away.  The storks and cranes were all settling down for the night, as we passed they groggily lifted their head from under a wing to stare at us confusedly.  The wild boar were sleeping outside enjoying the last of the sun and the bison lay on the ground like a grey-brown mountain.  The only sign of movement was a cloud of dust thrown up from the soil near its nostrils each time it breathed out.

front half of wild boar sleeping on dry mud, tree trunk to left in front of boar.  Fence and foliage behind boar.
Boar sleeping peacefully

The lynx were chasing one another and looking ready for action, they prefer dawn and dusk for hunting, the owls were also alert, staring out at the strange visitors who normally would have left by this time.

The whole wood seemed to have a different atmosphere from day time when everyone marches around trying to spot as many animals as possible.  People stopped to talk to one another, as they looked at the wolves having a nap before full night time descended.  They pointed out the ripples left in the beaver pond, where the resident had swum into cover, hiding under the bridge as he realised the woods were not as empty as they normally would be for this time of night.

Three wolves lying on the ground, each in own space.  Leaves from trees at edge of picture.
Let sleeping wolves lie

We finished with fish and chips from the kiosk, an unexpected surprise, as I was only expecting a limited serving of coffee and perhaps a sandwich.  Sitting out in the woodland, enjoying the peace and quiet, and a nice meal, this felt like a totally different Wildwood and a wonderful experience.

Wildwood Trust

On the Crab and Winkle Way

The other day I found myself in Canterbury with a spare hour or two to kill while I waited for my car to be serviced.  Too late for breakfast and too early for lunch, I wasn’t in the mood for shopping, so I decided to walk to Westgate Gardens and sit outside in the sunshine.

I watched the punts travel soundlessly along the river and wondered if I had time for a boat trip as it looked incredibly relaxing, but I decided this was a better left for a day with no time constraints.  Instead I set out to explore the park in more detail as I had passed it many times, but never walked around the whole park.  As I followed the river away from the more formal gardens at the Westgate entrance, the foliage became more wild until I reached a set of railings, with an open gate. 

metal railings and gate under a concrete bridge.  Path running through bushes and brambles, under bridge and through second set of gates.
Slightly sinister – what if someone locks the gate

I was slightly worried about being trapped if someone locked the gates; perhaps they weren’t meant to be open, but I went through regardless.

Beyond the fence, the park was replaced by a path that led through trees and bushes and opened out into a empty clearing, perfect for picnicking.  Walking further, I found signs directing me to the Crab and Winkle way, a walking and cycling route and I realised I was exploring part of the riverside route I saw whenever I drove through Canterbury.  This has been on my visit list for a long time but I had never known how to get to the footpath I could see running alongside the river. 

Wide open grassy space, with dark green trees and bushes making a wall around the edge of the space.
Ideal of a picnic

Unfortunately this time it could only be a short visit, so I turned back and crossed the river, so I could walk back on a different route.  This time I didn’t pass through a fence between the park and the footpath when I travelled under the road was made more interesting by artworks brightening the concrete struts supporting the overpass.

Concrete v shapes supporting overpass, painted with leaves and flowers and abstract designs.  Blue painted horizontal bar at top.  Water dark shadow between the two pathways.
Not a gloomy underpass

Heading back to the entrance, I spotted a strange overflow from the river, where the water left the main course of the river and ended at the edge of a street.  Again I was surprised by how easy it is to miss these things.  I have been to Canterbury countless times and passed this little side street without ever noticing this outlet from the river.

stream running out of main watercourse and up brick paved path.  Main watercourse running from left to right of picture.  Walkway on far side of water with trees and railings.  Iron bridge at right edge of picture.
Side street looking back at Westgate Gardens

Further research shows me the Crab and Winkle way is a 7 or 8 mile walk taking about 3.5 hours to walk, so I think I will probably travel this in sections.  I’m a ambler not a rambler, but I look forward to continuing this exploration.

Crab and Winkle Way Walking and Cycle Path

Canterbury Punt Trips

Around the Canal St Martin

This week I’ve been thinking about cancelled holidays and hoping that next year we will have a few more getaways.  We were due to go to Paris for a short break this September, following up on my first visit several years ago.  That trip was just a long weekend and as we were meeting friends for part of it, I wanted to make sure I spent the rest of the time exploring.

flower bed and green lawn at front of picture, bushy trees and behind them glimpses of paris buildings and skyscrapers.  Dark cloudy sky.
View over Paris

A big city can’t be squashed into a three day visit and I have a horror of tick box travel.  This meant planning local and luckily the arrondissements of the city are perfect for a slow travel itinerary.  Our hotel was in the 10th arrondissement and this is where we spent most of our time.

At  the planning stage, the key landmark that caught my attention was the Canal St Martin which runs through this district, with its lovely old iron bridges crossing the water.  This became the focus of many walks and its restaurants and bars offered a variety of options for dining and nightlife. But equally pleasant was picnicking beside the canal.

Looking down onto crossroads, trees on street corners, greengrocer on left of picture.  Tall typically french appartment buildings on each street.
View from our hotel room

We found the 10th arrondissement to be a neighbourhood type of place; from my hotel room window I could see a greengrocer that stayed open until about 9pm every day.  Two minutes walk took me to excellent butchers, cheese shops and bakeries.  (Tempting but extremely impractical for taking home by train.) 

Our favourite bakery Du Pain et Des Idées was a slightly longer walk from our hotel, but still in our arrondissement and well worth the detour.  When we first visited the shop had a queue snaking out the door and along the street.  People squeezed in past the queue to look at the rows of cake and racks of bread then returned to wait in line.  It was so good that we came back on the Monday and bought some treats to take home with us before we headed to the Gare du Nord.

We didn’t visit the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, or any of the must do tourist spots, but we felt we entered into the daily life of the city.  At some point, we will come back and visit another arrondissement and perhaps get to see some of the more famous sites, or perhaps we will just continue to explore the city as a living place rather than a tourist attraction.

Lost in Cheeseland – guide to Paris by arrondissements

Du Pain et Des Idées boulangerie

And the winner is…

This has not been a summer for visiting gardens, unlike last year there’s been no opportunity for tulip festivals, bluebell walks which I have enjoyed in previous years.  I was planning to visit Riverhill Himalayan Gardens at rhododendron time but that will now have to wait for next year.

Staying very local has made me focus on what is in front of me; in place of these specialised and professional displays, I have spent much more time admiring the front gardens which are close to home.  I imagine some people have had more time to work on their  gardens, but others are consistently good year after year.  Such as the sunflower garden (my name for it), which always has a marvellous display of sunflowers in front of their house.

tall sunflowers reaching out of garden with golden blooms.  Pale peach coloured roses.
The sunflower garden

Thinking about and noticing these gardens has lead me to design my own competition for best front garden  which entertains me on my daily walks.  Everyone is included and everyone wins as I make sure that each garden has its own category.

The sunflower garden wins for best display of sunflowers and also longevity, each year it provides a beautiful spectacle.  Other categories include best for sitting outside and people watching, or even hosting a garden party.

large green lawn with white metal chairs and table.  side of tudor style house, shady areas at side and front of lawn
Seamead B&B

One garden has square planters sitting on wooden struts resting on wooden rails, it’s probably just my imagination, but they look like the trucks in a mine, planted with flowers instead of loaded with coal.

There are categories for the widest range of shades of green, most luxurious vegetation, best geometric design, best work in progress.  There are wildlife friendly gardens, festooned with bird feeders hanging from branches and one has a tree which erupts with sparrows every time I walk past.  

Finally there are the quirky gardens, one with a coastal theme, another which wins my award for most unlikely garden ornaments.  The picture describes it better than I can.

shingle garden with purple and green foliage, rocks, two plastic dinosaurs
Not your usual garden visitors

Finally, the best thing about my garden awards is that I am the final arbiter, unlike watching Chelsea Flower on television and disagreeing with awards I can make sure each one is appreciated.

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