Feeding the elephant

As the world starts to cautiously re-open, I have been making a list of places I want to visit or revisit in the future.  Writing everything down, rather than keeping it in my head makes it feel more believable, we will get back to a world where we can go and visit gardens, restaurants, castles, museums.  I have been in this place before where we were unable to travel and I consoled myself by writing everything in a special notebook.

Pale blue notebook shaped like an elephant
Elephant notebook

As the notebook was shaped like an elephant, we got into the habit of saying ‘we’ll put that in the elephant’.  Organised alphabetically and cross-referenced, this might seem excessive, but in a way the formality of recording these wishes and desires made them more achievable, not just talk.

As I go for my local walks each day, I am using the local sights to link to remind me of the places I want to return to.  When I see my rhododendron in full flower, I am reminded of Exbury Gardens with its astounding range of rhododendron in different colours which must be looking wonderful right now.  Maybe we will go back next year. 

pink rhododendron in flower
Rhododendron in bloom

I walk past the house on the corner which always has a beautiful display of sunflowers and think about the golden fields around Montcuq in France, which are such a part of our summer holidays in France; perhaps we will have a chance to see the sunflowers later this year.  Tidying my clump of bamboo and planning a pond reminds me of exploring the Jardin de l’Eau, where the bamboo has been grown in a dense circle to provide a shady retreat at the centre of its towering stems, and the water lilies had leaves bigger than my proposed miniature pond.

Giant water lily leaf and smaller leaves to left.
Water Lily

Making a list of these future hopes takes the pressure out of my mind.  It’s too soon to think about actual holiday.  For now, I am feeding the elephant and waiting.

Exbury Gardens, Hampshire, UK

Les Jardins d’eau, Dordogne, France

Too local part 2

Today I visited the little wood not far from my house.

wide path through bushes and trees

There’s a car park at the edge of it and the wood backs on to a new housing estate, but as soon as we start moving along the wide path through the trees, this all retreats.  I had expected the wood to have a single path around the edge, but there are a variety of routes which make the space seem surprisingly large.  As we reach the top of a slight hill, we come to an open space with a view that stretches out over the trees to the far horizon.

The grass is cut short making it easily accessible and there is a circle of equipment for a green gym with wooden benches  and frames.  Despite the sunshine and the other cars in the car park we only see one person with their dog.

Down the other side of the hill and again paths run in all directions, brambles that will be thick with blackberries later in the year cluster thickly on either side of us, but the paths are well maintained and we find ourselves in another glade, again with green gym equipment, but this time mechanical.

We take a narrow path, that looks less travelled, deeper into the trees and see the remains of a den built by children in the school holidays.   Finally the path rises taking us through a corridor of trees back to our starting point.

path through trees, sun shine on leaves and shadows on path

This has been a short walk and many of the paths remain unexplored, but next time I drive by it will be a familiar wood, rather than a block of trees.

My Summer Book

I’ve been reading the Art of Noticing by Rob Walker and decided to try the experiment of drawing something with eyes closed or from memory. As my artistic ability is somewhat limited, I have used words to paint a picture of the beautiful place where we have stayed for the last few summers and hope to return to when we can travel again.

Lavender bush in full bloom, swallowtail butterfiles, bees and hummingbird hawkmoth on flowers.
Lavender bush on a busy morning

In my mind, it is a hot summer morning, as I step out the front door and walk past the lavender bush humming with bees and swallowtail butterflies.  I take the steps down into the garden.  To my side a steep flower covered slope hides the road, but today I don’t stop to look to see what is in bloom, I am heading for the bamboo jungle.  It is an impenetrable thicket, although there seem to be paths which disappear into darkness amongst the thick stems.  Through the gaps  I can see hints of where the paths continue but I am never brave enough to enter this maze.

So I go past the bamboo and follow the stone wall marking the boundary, staying inside the line marked by cypress which stand tall like sentinels.  In the middle is the conifer that looks like a friendly troll with green shaggy head, brown foliage for eyes and mouth, and branches stretching out from the sides like arms.  A thick chunky body guarding the garden and watching who travels up and down the road.

As I walk through the grass crickets spring away from my feet while above my head the trees are full of invisible cicadas who fill the empty air with a buzz like wooden ratchets.  I stare into the branches of the nearest trees and instantly they are silent.  Inaudible and invisible.

Further down the garden, the grass grows taller, and the landscape becomes prairie.  The wild animals pass through here at dusk and dawn; deer and hares  sometimes creep into the main garden foraging or sheltering.  At the point where the tall grass meets the dark woodland, the badgers have their crossing point, where they march intrepidly across the road and into the neighbouring field.

Stag sitting on grass back against wall, looking at camera.
View from back door (through glass)

Today, I stay in the prairie and head up towards the abyss, a deep rocky hole, large enough to trap a deer or a human. Luckily the steep sides are lined with branches to escape, although I take care to walk around it at a safe distance.  To the side of the abyss is a stone cairn, big enough to house a hermit but there is no entrance, only a small gap between the stones allowing me to peer into the dark interior.  I imagine it was once an ice house and kept the big house supplied for banquets and parties.

I pass the covered well, as always wishing I could see inside, although the stone is far too heavy to move.   I am nearing the end of my journey, the slope under the hazel tree leads me safely back to the house and the welcome shade as the heat rises and the cicadas hum ever more shrilly.

The Art of Noticing

The Summer Book

Along the river

When I worked in Maidstone, I used to escape from the office at lunchtime and take a mini holiday.  This was surprisingly easy, as the river Medway runs through the centre of town but the riverside feels totally separate from the busy roads and crowded streets.  Take the underpass or the bridge depending on where you approach the river and the world retreats, above you at road height is a stream of cars and lorries, but the riverbank from the Archbishops Palace to the Gallagher Football Stadium is a wide path lined with grass, trees and flowers. (At least in summer and autumn, when the river floods in winter and spring, the path disappears.)

river flooding over pathway.  leafless trees line path.
The riverside walk in winter

When I step on to the leafy tree-lined path beside the river it feels as if I have been transported to another world.  It’s quiet and so rural that I once saw jay fly out of a tree, startled as I walked by.  Another day I saw a cormorant drying it’s wings on the bank, almost close enough to touch.

Cormorant on the bank next to water

In the space of an hour, I can cross the Millennium Bridge and explore Whatman Park which stretches out alongside the river.  I can follow the path from concrete in the town centre to a dusty track that leads through the trees and away from town..

If I feel lazy, I can walk to the Old Boat Cafe, which is a barge set up as a cafe in the centre of town.  Descending in to the boat takes me another step further from the workday world.  Sitting by the window, feeling  the gentle rocking of the boat, and gazing into the water just below the window it’s hard to believe in deadlines and deskwork.  As a I watch a swan sailing across the water or a cormorant diving and resurfacing unexpectedly far from its original place, I briefly imagine life on a houseboat.

Interior of barge and view out on to river.  Buildings and bridge across the river.
View from the Old Boat Cafe

Time stops briefly.  This is only a micro escape;  my hour comes to an end and I return to the office, but I feel refreshed as if I have been away for days.

The Old Boat Cafe

Whatman Park

Remote Tourism

background of cliffs and water, foreground hiker, overlay of countdown and control panel

I have spent the last week in the Faroe Islands, no I haven’t broken house arrest, I have been indulging in remote tourism.

The Faroe Islands tourist board have set up a website to allow tourists to view the islands remotely, but this isn’t a static experience, every day at a specified time a guide takes you around different places.  Over the last few days I have been on a boat, I have climbed hills, and visited a harbour.  But what makes this experience quite unique as far as I know, is the interactive nature of the website.

Each day the countdown clock shows the time to the next trip and when the tour starts each person viewing the website has access to a virtual control panel  They can make the guide walk forwards or backwards, turn left or right, run or even jump. Each person gets a minute to control the guide. 

Sometimes there are clashes as one person sends the guide in one direction, then the next controller spins them round and returns back the same way.  I watched for a few long minutes as the guide ran around outside the empty airport, while explaining they had been given special access inside.  There is a strange lack of power as you wait your turn and wait and see where the guide goes.

At the end of one session where we had wandered around a tiny village and the surrounding hills, there was a mad dash to return to see the waterfall. 

 ‘Ask me to run’ said the guide ‘and I will see if we can get there in time’.  We reached the viewing point for the waterfall seconds before the  end of the hour then the screen froze and the countdown returned. 

It’s a very hypnotic site, the first day I watched for the whole hour, as the guide went to and fro driven by instructions through an earpiece.  Since then I have made a daily trip for ten minutes or so, just checking in.  I guess when the tourists return the virtual tourism will stop and I will miss this escape from daily life.


Love thy neighbourhood

This new commandment to stay home has made me focus on what it is all around me.  Taking my daily walk for exercise, but being restricted to the area in walking distance of my house has pushed me to explore every side road and path.  I have even found a row of houses I didn’t know existed, just minutes away from my home.

one red tulip, three pink and white tulips, mauve osteospermum and green foliage

Walking past gardens that I would normal drive past allows me to see so much more.  Instead of a blue flash of agapanthus or a yellow blur of mimosa in according to the season, I can enjoy the riot of colour from springtime bulbs.  And part of the pleasure of repeating the same walk is seeing the subtle changes.  I have walked over the hill near my house two or three times a week for the last month and I have seen the May blossom appear first on one side of the hill, slowly extending to the hilltop, then finally flowering on the colder slope, moving like slow motion photography.

Apple tree on cliff edge

Instead of visiting gardens for their spring displays I have narrowed my focus and celebrated a mini tulip festival in my front garden, and my bluebell walk starts and finishes with a pot just outside my backdoor. 

Instead of visiting Brogdale for the Hanami festival, I am searching for the flowering fruit trees around me and some are in the most unexpected places.  I found an apple tree covered in blossom on the edge of the cliffs.  I don’t thing I had even noticed the tree before, but now it is flowering it is unmissable and when the autumn comes I will be looking to see if it actually has fruit.  Hopefully some nice apples to go with the blackberries that grow around it.

Going to the Source

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the source of a river, not in the sense of a great explorer seeking the source of the Nile type of expedition but finding the birthplace of more humble rivers.  This isn’t always possible, sometimes the source is on private land or just difficult to access, but sometimes this becomes a way to explore places overlooked or disregarded.

So far, I have visited two French rivers at their source, the Loiret at Orleans and the Séoune in the Lot.  There is a strange sense of accomplishment as these places are not highlighted in guidebooks, so the discovery feels more personal.

Normally when we go on holiday we take the motorway past Orleans and I have always assumed this was a fairly boring town.  It was only when we decided to have an overnight stop and I started to research on the local sites that I discovered the Park of the Source of the Loiret. 

When we drove through Orleans my preconceptions were challenged, it is not a touristy city, but it has a lively welcoming feel, tramways lined with grass, open spaces in the city centre.  The park is on the outskirts and is a beautiful place to visit.  The source itself was barely signposted, tucked away at the edge of the park.  A deep mysterious pool with water gently bubbling up.  I imagine in spring  after heavy rainfall this would be a turbulent mass of water.

loiret source

The Séoune

The second source we went looking for was closer to our normal French destination in the Lot.  The Séoune is a tributary of the Garonne, but it starts outside the small town of Sauzet.  We tracked it down using maps on and offline, but searching for the source of a river in late summer is probably not a good idea.  We found a dip between fields, with a few trees that looked as if they had better access to water than their neighbours.   Probably the right place but not a hint of water. 

two fields separated by trees in a dip
the source of the Seoune River

However, one of the pleasures of slow travel is to treat visits to places like reading a book, chapter by chapter.  We will return in a wetter season and see the source of the Séoune at its best. 

Parc Floral de la Source

Journey around my room

View from hallway, three tall windows looking out to green folio, three small round stained glass windows above.
Sadly not my room or Maistre’s but a staircase in Torni Hotel, Helsinki

Long before we all became prisoners in our own homes, I had been planning to write about the authors who manage to make the familiar seem remarkable and travel without leaving home.

First in this category is Xavier de Maistre, an 18th to 19th century soldier who lived in France and Russia.  In 1790 he was put under house arrest for six weeks for fighting a duel.  During this time he wrote a memoir entitled ‘Voyage Autour Ma Chambre’ or Journey around my room. 

He recommends this form of travel as inexpensive, available to all regardless of age or state of health.  Although limited to one room he writes as this vacation is a great luxury and makes the most significant objects and events appear extraordinary.

On a larger scale is Tove Jansson’s ‘The Summer Book’, although she has a whole island to explore, in reality it is a tiny space just big enough for a house to perch and a boat to moor alongside.  But in the child’s imagination, becomes a whole world.  She explores and lays claim to each tiny bay and hillock on the island and a short walk feels like an intrepid expedition.

I’m unable to manage the imaginative feats of Maistre; when I look around the rooms in my house, I see jobs rather than adventures.  But with the coming of spring, I am planning to explore my tiny garden with new eyes.  The bamboo is close to being a forest already, and one rhododendron in full flower is no less lovely for being alone.  And best of all, after spending a day like an explorer in this familiar space, I can return home in an instant.



Avignon and the Homer of insects

View over railing looking down on Avignon rooftops, coniferous trees and distance mountain
View from Rocher des Doms

Jean-Henri Fabre, the Homer of Insects.  This was the sign on the side of a building in Avignon, with no explanation or indication of what this meant.  I had to know more.  We had travelled to Avignon by train, so all exploration was on foot and this leads to a slower form of travel, exploring the local parks, museums, twisting streets rather than heading for the tick box destinations, like the impressive Mount Ventoux visible in the distance or the amphitheatre at Nimes only a short drive away.

Please don’t think I am dismissing these sites, they are on my list of places to be visit, but this was a short break to relax and unwind.  We wanted to spend the weekend in the town, on foot, seeing the local sights.  We climbed to the garden of Rocher des Doms to be rewarded with an  impressive view of Mount Ventoux and the surrounding countryside. 

Just down the hill the magnificent Palais de Papes dominates the square where we sat with cool drinks and drank in the architecture.  We didn’t have time to explore beyond the city.

Palais de Papes in Avignon, immense stone building
Palais des Papes

But to return to Fabre, perhaps he is well-known to French visitors, for me this name was totally unfamiliar.  A little research showed him to be an entomologist and naturalist, but also a writer and poet.  His book on the Life and Love of Insects, showed his patient study and ability to animate the daily life of unconsidered animals such as dung beetles.

He didn’t travel the world searching for exotic species, he focused on his home and garden, to deliver a deep understanding and affection for the objects of his study.  My copy of one of his books shows this 19th century naturalist, his wife and children all digging in the garden to find living specimens which he would then take back to his study.  He didn’t see his surroundings as mundane and something to escape from, but a place to explore.


Too local part 1

Two tall trees and a mass of green leaves and smaller trees and bushes.
My local woodland

Not far from my house is a little woodland which I have watched grow from an empty field, to a dense thicket of trees.  I drive pass it on my way to work, see the leaves bud in Spring and turn red in Autumn.  Once I even saw a kestrel sitting in a tree.  I have never visited this wood, although I can see from the road that there is a path that weaves through the trees so it is obviously mean to be used.

Why haven’t I visited it?  Perhaps it’s too close to home to be interesting?

This is the secret of slow travel, recognising that places close to home can be as interesting as those on the other side of the world.  Each person experiences a place in their own way, so for a dog walker, this is somewhere to exercise  their pet, for a child it could be exciting or scary, the possibility of getting lost after stepping out of their back garden.  For me, it is an undiscovered place and that means that one day soon I will need to park the car and go and explore.

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