Finnish Christmas Market

The box of Christmas decorations has come out and I am starting to put the house into a Christmas mood.  Each time I go out for a walk I count how many houses look festive; I should really go for a walk after dark to enjoy the lights, but I’d rather get out when there is a little sunshine.  I am happy to see the bright colours brightening up the winter days, but I miss the markets I would normally visit at this time of the year.

outdoor christmas tree covered in strings of lights and white stars
It’s looking like Christmas

November should be the time for the first of my Christmas markets. What used to be a small event at the Finnish church in London has now expanded into a Scandi fair extending to the Norwegian church.  In between the two churches is a corridor of stalls from Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland.  Clothes, slippers, glass, wood, seasonal decorations and all sorts of wonderful things to eat.

If I lived in London, I would visit for lunch and come back for tea for each of the three days so I could try more different things.  It’s probably better that I only get to visit once a year, as there’s only so much I can take away: Christmas chocolate, rye bread, cinnamon buns, bottles of gloggi.

As this annual event is as much pilgrimage as shopping expedition, there are certain things that have to happen, coffee and cinnamon buns, and lunch of reindeer, mash and lingonberry jam.  Pea soup is lovely as well, but I can get tins of soup to take away.

This year the market has been cancelled and the Finnish church has had to go online with its festivities.  Some things are available by post, but anything fresh requires local collection, so I will probably treat myself to some geisha chocolate and try and get organised enough to try and make cinnamon buns at home.

But food aside, what I really miss is the friendly people at the market, all sharing a little of their homeland and their culture with curious visitors and homesick countrymen alike. Locked down and unable to travel, the world feels very small and restricted.

Finnish Church Shop

Heritage Trees

The autumn glow has made me notice the trees around me more than the summer when they are just a green backdrop to my walks.  Now the surge of colour appears in tiny bursts in gardens, or at the end of side streets.  I have been reading about heritage trees and the work done to map them in Kent.  Apparently there are four fairly near to where I live, but I haven’t been able to track them down yet.  I think they are on farmland from the look of the map but a quick drive by didn’t show anything I thought worthy of the title.

Between Rochester cathedral and castle

I’m pretty sure the Catalpa tree next to Rochester cathedral must be a heritage tree; a quick Google suggests that at 150 years old, it’s the oldest one of its kind in England.

tall spreading tree in front of houses dwarfed in the distance.
In a small residential street

In the meantime, I decide to look for local trees that are not listed but that should have at least an honourable mention.  When I was young, there used to be lots of elm trees growing around my home town, but they were taken down by Dutch Elm disease.  Now we have a new woodland, but there are also a lot of individual trees, that I have walked or driven past without considering.

very large willow tree in back garden, shed at right edge of photo
A back garden

As autumn is fast moving into winter, and there are more leaves on the ground than on the trees, I have been in a hurry to capture some photos of the most architectural or colourful trees.  Next spring I will watch impatiently to see them return to green and see the blossoms that I barely paid attention to earlier this year.

tree branches all curving down covered in tiny golden leaves
A front garden

Kent Heritage Trees

On the edge

There is a hotel we have visited in previous years, which in the autumn and winter months offers hibernation breaks.  It’s a wonderful idea when it’s cold, windy and wet to go away for a weekend or a mid week break to be coddled and cosseted.  Somehow it’s never quite the same staying at home; I still need to cook, I see the same surroundings that have been my workplace all week, and all the little jobs waiting to be done nag at me, stopping me from truly relaxing.

road passing over mill stream in front of the Millstream hotel
Ducks admiring the Millstream Hotel

The Millstream Hotel at Bosham is a lovely place to stay and relax and the surrounding village is perfect to explore on foot.  For me, the most interesting part is the estuary and how it interacts with the built up area.  When we first visited, the staff in the restaurant told me I would be able to see the sea coming up the road as it was high tide. 

After we had eaten, I went to explore and found water lapping up the road.  It was too dark to investigate properly, so I had to wait until the next day to check this out properly.  I returned at low tide and found the sea runs into a harbour which becomes marsh at low tide.  All the gardens have walls that separate them from the path which runs around the marsh. 

road with a sign that warns that the road floods each tide 150 yards ahead.
Be warned, this road ends in the water

There is also a short cut across the marsh, a type of causeway, which is only visible at low tide.  Once I’d checked the tide timetables I took the raised path across the muddy expanse and came back following the longer circular path at the edge.  All of this is covered at high tide, no path, no causeway, just water lapping at the bottom of the garden walls.

mud and puddles with a thin narrow path running down the middle to houses on the far side.
The waters part to allow a short cut

And as I had seen the previous night, water creeping up the road into the village.  This blurred line between land and water fascinates me; I live on the coast but I am used to cliffs, beaches and a clear delineation between the two elements, here the water floods and retreats as a normal occurrence.  It is a special place.  I have my fingers crossed, hopefully we can go back soon.

Millstream Hotel at Bosham 

Following the elephant

I’ve mentioned the elephant notebook before and how it is a collection of our travel hopes and dreams for the future.  As we go into a second lockdown, it feels like the to do list is likely to expand from a single elephant to a whole herd.  When we last visited Paris, I got to tick off one of the earliest items added to the notebook.

Bicycle covered in knitting on frame, leanign against a stone building
The right way to travel now it’s getting a bit colder?

Shakespeare and Co bookshop is a place I have long dreamt of visiting, it is a English bookshop established in Paris in 1951 and has been the haunt of many great writers.  Most exciting was its concept of ‘Tumbleweeds’: writers, artists, travellers could stay overnight in the shop in exchange for a day’s work and a short bio.  Over the years, I have thought about visiting this shop, meeting the cat, browsing the shelves and losing myself in its history.

When I finally reached my destination, it was surrounded by crowds of people and every room was filled with tourists and cameras.  It was a shock as I had imagined a dusty, quiet sanctuary not a stock exchange full of noisy people.  I did met the cat who was unbothered by all the visitors, it had its own chair and could decide whether to be friendly or indifferent to customers.

I didn’t spend a day there, I browsed, bought a book and a coffee, then escaped the crowds.  Feeling a little chastened, we carried on to the next destination on my list.  Worn down, tired and jaded I was nearly ready to give up and return to the hotel when we finally found what we were looking for.

A little restaurant called Le Bougnat, which we had seen on one of our favourite French programmes (Paname) which sent its presenter all over Paris on a bicycle to find the most interesting places in a different part of the city each week.

And in contrast to my bookshop experience, this was perfect, a local’s restaurant with a simple menu beautifully executed.  My steak and frites was the best I have ever eaten, while my husband had an indescribably good plate of sausage and aligot, which set the standard for aligot.  (If you haven’t had aligot, it is a sort of creamy cheesy mashed potato; this sounds dull and heavy, but when made well it is delicious, unctuous and totally transcends its simple ingredients.)

Sadly the restaurant has now shut, but I will return to Shakespeare and Company, I just need to make sure I pick a quiet time to visit.

Shakespeare and Company Bookshop

Le Bougnat

Paname

Bunny and Pony, a love story

Yesterday I was looking at an old notebook and it reminded me of my last visit to Helsinki, more than a year ago.

The first time we went to Finland, it was to see the reformed Hanoi Rocks play at the Tavastia in Helsinki.  As it was the middle of winter we chose our hotel, the Radisson Blu Royal, based on its location,  as close as possible to the venue.  This was the first of many visits to Finland which started with a love of music, but became more about meeting up with the friends we had made.  Whenever possible we returned to the same hotel where even the staff had become our friends.  The summer terrace of the hotel was the scene for many meet-ups in the warmer months, the gathering point before we headed off to gigs or bars for the evening.

two out door chairs, a blue square of outdoor furniture and a black and white jackdaw.
Waiting for friends on the terrace of the Radisson Blu Royal

All of our friends in Finland are either musicians or music lovers, so it’s not surprising that many of our visits are timed to see our friends perform, from Ember’s Flame playing on the fringe of AnkkaRock, to Naked at Nosturi, it is always a special pleasure.

The last visit to Helsinki was to see the Holy Ones play Semi Final, but as this was a last minute booking we ended up staying at the Torni Hotel (very friendly and beautiful, but doesn’t feel like our own Royal hotel).  However it did have something special of its own.

Blue stained glass window with image of sailing ship and light from lighthouse reflecting on the water
Stained glass window in Torni Hotel

A guestbook with entries from Finland, Sweden, Milwaukee USA, England, Scotland, Singapore, France, Spain, Russia and Taiwan.  All these people had stayed in this room and left messages, drawings and even a wedding photo.

One entry stood out for me, written in English and Chinese (so I could only read half of it), the love story of Bunny and Pony.  The first entry was for 2015 and in 2016 another entry celebrated their first anniversary.  And then nothing; when I read the book in 2019 I wondered what had happened to them, hopefully a guest book in another room continues the story.

The magic of slow travel is that it allows time to build friendships with people and places, and I feel as if the romantic Bunny and Pony are friends I have yet to meet. 

Radisson Blu Royal Hotel

Torni Hotel

Ember’s Flame

Naked

The Holy Ones

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

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