Urban Safari

I have been working at home for a year and a half now, so going back to the office in Maidstone was always going to feel strange, but it’s not just the office, the town where I work has changed as well.  There’s a new railway station, or at least a new ticket office were there was a building site a year ago.  Most of the shops haven’t changed, there are a few, not unexpected closures, but the main thing to catch my eye was the elephants.

elephant coloured in squares with patterns of birds and animal, half tiger face half bird face, zebra stripes and bird feathers, no two squares the same.
Elephant with personality crisis

They are everywhere you look, from one end of Week Street to the other, in the High Street and at least three in Fremlins Walk.  It makes a lunch time walk into town a safari where I’m constantly looking around trying to spot another bright statue.

They seem to attract little attention, but I found myself busily deciding which was my favourite.  I didn’t see all of them in one day; according to the website there are 51 in total, in parks as well as the town centre.  I will need to walk in a different direction next time I come to the office.

elephant in black and white squares with letters like a crossword puzzle
Puzzling elephant

The Art Parade is in aid of the Heart of Kent Hospice and the artworks will be auctioned at the end of August.  Each elephant is sponsored by a different business or organisation and the artworks makes them individual and unique. 

elephant statue in pink bandages like a mummy - gaps show hieroglyphics and eye of elephant.
Escaped from the museum?

My favourite (so far) is opposite the museum, but now I know how many are there I will be taking a notebook with me so can I can count them off.  An art safari in my lunch time, now that’s a fun way to explore a very familiar place.

Elmer’s Big Heart of Kent Parade

Heart of Kent Hospice

A view to wake up to

I’ve said it before, but I love breakfast and it’s one of the things I love about staying in hotels.  You can crawl out of bed, scrape on some clothes and have someone offer you food, hot drinks, fresh juice, all brought to your table.  I know it sounds lazy but I am much more fond of eating food than I am of preparing it.

granite island with white building with pointy red roofs and onion shaped turrets.  Trees partly hide the restaurant and cover the rest of the island.
Restaurant on Helsinki Island – imagine waking up on this island for breakfast.

I have a long list of great places to have breakfast, both in hotels and cafes but today I was thinking about those places where it was not just the food but the whole location that added to the experience, making the start of the day a special treat.

Top of the list is the hotel  Vaakuna in Helsinki and its 10th floor restaurant.   The hotel is set in the very centre of the city and the restaurant had indoor and outdoor tables with an amazing view over the city.  The outdoor terrace high above everything apart from the birds was just a wonderful place to start the day with strong Finnish coffee, delicious breads and all the delights of a breakfast buffet. 

I have to admit there was a seagull problem, you couldn’t leave your table to get more coffee, without huge gulls swooping down to see if anything was left on your plate.  But the view was magnificent.  The only way to beat this would have been to have breakfast in the Ateljee Bar in the Torni hotel, but they only serve breakfast on the ground floor.

The next two hotels share an equal second place, as they lack the amazing height of the Vaakuna, but each have their own charm.

Side of building over dark water, light blue railings and red tile terrace in front of red and cream brick building with blue doors.
Moulin de Connelles, note the tiny balcony upper left.

Moulin de Connelles in Normandy is a former mill and the actual building sits over the river Seine, deep in the countryside.  For one holiday we splashed out on a junior suite and as part of this we received breakfast on the balcony of our room.  It was a cool morning but hot coffee, fresh viennoserie and delicious jams made us forget any chill in the air. 

window with cream curtains, white railing and a view of sky and sea
Straight out to sea, view from Zanzibar hotel

Hotel Zanzibar is on Hasting’s seafront, the road is the only thing separating you from the beach and above the first floor, the sea view rooms look straight out to sea.  When we visited the hotel didn’t have a restaurant so all breakfasts where served directly in the rooms, but this didn’t lead to a basic or restrictive menu.   The discrete knock on the door in the morning brought a huge array of breakfast dishes spread out on the table in our room.  We sat on our sofa, looking out at the sea enjoying one of the best breakfasts I have had on holiday.

City, countryside and coast, three wonderful locations. My top three places to stay for breakfast with a view.

Vaakuna Hotel, Helsinki

Torni Hotel, Helsinki

Moulin de Connelles, Normandy

Hotel Zanzibar, Hasting

Slowing down time

I read an article in lifehacker about how time seems to pass faster as we get older.  When we are young everything is new so every experience is vivid and separate, as we get older we repeat the same experiences and over the last year this has been the same for us all.  Time speeds up as there is no differentiation between one day and the next.

Last year, I explored my local area venturing down every little side street, footpath, dead-ends and cul-de-sacs where I circled round and back to the same path.  I watched the seasons change and celebrated the differences in the gardens and the countryside.  Everything seemed new but this summer is a repeat, I have covered the same steps again and again, searching for the new has become a challenge rather than an expected part of my walks.

wide footpath between high banks and hedges.  Leafless trees with a hint of spring green.  Stone buildings hidden behind trees at end of path
Footpath leading to St Vincent Rive D’Olt

Browsing through my photos, I found this view of a walk on my last holiday in France.  We had stopped in a local village where we often stopped to look at the river, a central spot where everyone, whether  tourist or  local seemed to congregate.  We had never explored further but on that day we decided to follow the river and a few steps later we were in the countryside, woods clustering around us.

The photo looks back at the village, most trees are still bare but one has a flush of green, so I know this is spring.  We walked a distance along the path, through the trees with the river rushing along at the bottom of the bank, travelling beside us.  Eventually we turned back before we reached the next village, but we agreed we would come back in the summer to walk the whole route.

moss covered tree trunks and ground covered in brown dead leaves.  stream runs from left to right across middle of picture
The river rushes along below the path

In my mind, the river and the woodland path are still waiting for us to return, some trees may have fallen, new ones are growing up, but the same shady route and rushing water remain.  Another little adventure waiting for the future when we can start making new experiences and slowing down time.

Lifehacker – how to make time slow down

The Tour de France

For the next couple of weeks I am happy to be at home, not on holiday, not travelling anywhere apart from an early morning trip out for breakfast at the weekend.   The weather is nice, lockdown restrictions are easing, but when I’m not when I’m not working, I’m watching the television.  The Tour de France is on.  I’m not a great sports fan, but I do enjoy the cycling road races and the Tour de France has a special place for me and my husband, as we watch eagerly to spot places that we know or have visited.

high concrete terrace with metal barrier looking over rooftops, trees and in the distance a blue mountain and clouds on the mountain top
A view to the distant Mont Ventoux which the cylists will tackle in the tour this year.

The power, endurance, the sheer indefatigability  of the cyclists astounds me as they climb another a mountain, get back on the bike after a crash, or find a superhuman burst of energy for a final sprint at the end of a stage.  But this is also true of the Giro D’Italia and La Vuelta, and these I watch each year but without the same unwavering attention.

french high street, with plane trees along side of the road, white buildings, and cars parked down both sides of the road.
Main high street of Cahors where the tour visited in 2007

When they travel through France, they are visiting my second home and each year we peruse the route long in advance to see which places we recognise.  We missed their trip through our local town Cahors, and at that time television coverage was only for the later part of each race.

Every day as the helicopter flies over the race, picking out chateaux and beautiful countryside, I am busy making notes in my travel notebook.  These are our future visits, travelling by car not bike but we will have time to explore rather than rushing through in a blaze of colour and speed.  Perhaps next year we will be in some of these new places.

A real holiday

This week I have taken annual leave, but I always find it hard to relax when I stay at home.  There’s jobs in garden,  a never ending list of chores indoors, tasks that nag at me even when I try to ignore them and read a book, watch a film or just sit in the garden. 

I need a change of scenery to enjoy a real holiday, rather than just day trips away.  So we booked two nights away in a hotel in West Sussex.  A nice short trip, a couple of hours away instead of our usual long trip through France.  I really enjoy a two night stay, as it gives you time to unwind on the first night, then the next day, you can to go back to your room after breakfast to potter around before going out to dinner on the second night.  A one night trip just seems to be over so fast; just as you start to relax it’s time to pack up and go home again.

sunny garden with metal tables painted white.   flower beds in the middle, trees at the back with wooden pergola centre back.
The Millstream Hotel garden

We stayed at the Millstream Hotel in Bosham, near to Chichester,  a very relaxing hotel set in a beautiful and fascinating garden.  The gardener pointed out the artworks to us which are part of the landscape, waiting to be discovered rather than overpowering everything else in the garden.

Outside of the hotel and grounds, it’s a short walk to the harbour, and to a number of footpaths leading out of the village and along the coast.  We spent our two days exploring on foot, visiting local shops and the Anchor Bleu pub on the waterfront.

gravel path running down to water, fence on left side and hedge on right side.  Sun on water and green of foliage on bank and low tide mark on far side of water
A short walk to the harbour

Two days and while I probably walked quite a few miles, I never travelled more than half a mile away from the hotel.  I relaxed completely into the rhythm of this laid-back friendly village and leaving felt quite a wrench, but I have plenty of annual leave and it’s only a short drive away so we will be back soon.

The Millstream, Bosham

The Anchor Bleu, Bosham

The new office

The other day I met up with an old friend from work, it seems strange to be meeting with people again, but we were outside, visiting her local park.  Having spent so much time exploring and revisiting my own local scenery, it was a real pleasure to visit a new local place.

grassy meadow with yellow flowers, surrounded by trees, benchs to the left of picture
An open air space

The village of Bearsted seems to be in two halves, one part runs either side of the A20 in Kent, the other part of the village is set around a proper English green, where cricket is played in the summer.  What I didn’t know is that in the middle is a park, the Bearsted Woodland Trust, planted with trees funded by the local residents which surround wide open expanses leading to woody groves, with wide paths suitable for all levels of mobility.

Green bank on left, wide gravel path in centre, trees to right, bright sunshine
Easy to explore on these paths

We spent our lunchtime wandering around this surprising large space, cut off from the noise of traffic on the busy main road and shielded by the trees which enclose this green oasis.  My friend told me this is where she has her team meetings, walking and talking along the wide paths, everyone spread out but able to converse easily.  In the colder months they brought hot chocolate, today we are at the start of the hot weather and iced coffee would be more appropriate.

I have driven through Bearsted many times and never known that this park was there, but I think that is a good thing.  These green places should belong to their residents, the local people, rather than be a tourist destination.  I am happy that my friend shared it with me, but I hope this stays a local place.

Elsewhere

cobbled ground in front of buildings, one corner raised like a carpet.
Entrance to a secret catacomb?

Do you ever just want to be elsewhere, somewhere that’s not here?  I have some time booked off work coming up soon, but it’s hard to allow myself to feel excitement or anticipation. Could it all be cancelled at the last minute?  Our plans have already been reduced from a potential week away in Jersey to a few days away from home but staying local, so I’m focussing on the fact that it is definitely a week off work.

I have a stack of books to keep me sheltered from reality and from the news, so I plan to focus on things that should exist but don’t.  Top of my list are spren from Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight series – a physical manifestation of human emotions such as anger, joy, exhaustion as tiny sprites; or the luggage from Terry Pratchett – a terrifying animated trunk with feet; or scutters from Red Dwarf – every house should have these robot helpers.

giant spiny shell of imaginary animal sitting on the ground next to a tree
Discarded shell of some monster snail?

If we go to London, it’s easy to lose myself in Gaiman’s alternative London in Neverwhere.  Even if we don’t visit HMS Belfast, just travelling on the Underground is transformed by reading this book.  It feels as if my suspicions of a hidden world have been confirmed.

A holiday should be an escape from the everyday reality and I plan to make the most of this.  I intend to explore the wildness that is my back garden, relaxing with a book and a cold drink amongst the tall grasses.  To experience the world as something unfamiliar and surprising as we take a road trip outside our own county,  travelling further than I have been in the last year and a half.

New beginnings

The very idea of doing something new is strangely exciting after all the restrictions.  We have heard that a new market is opening this weekend in Queenborough.  In normal life (what is that these days?) we would visit various farmers markets locally in Kent and on holiday in France, returning to our well established favourites.  But these are not normal times, and this market is very local, which makes a nice change.  The night before I am torn between excitement and pessimism, because I think this a good thing for my local area and I don’t want to see it fall flat. I don’t think I would usually feel this excited, but this is a change from the daily routine.

boats moored next to harbour with line of market stalls, row of houses in background.
Harbour market opens for business

We arrive early, who knows if there will be massive queues or if this will be a damp squib.  The setting is ideal, the bright canvas covered stalls, running along the side of the queue.  For this first week there are jams, cakes, farm fresh eggs (laid the same morning we are told by the stall holder), dog treats (which looked good enough to eat) and various craft stalls. 

We buy some cakes and eggs, and I explore a little further, it’s been a long time since I have wandered around Queenborough.  By ten o’clock there’s a steady flow of people and we have retired to the Bosun’s cafe for a coffee and a sausage roll.  The cakes look delicious but we already have our day’s quota of cakes so we come back another day for sweet treats.

old stone church with with tower, chestnut tree at front of picture
lovely old church in Queenborough

More stalls will be joining the market over the coming weeks and months, we have found a nice new coffee shop, today has been a success.  The nicest thing for me is that this is something new, a positive change rather than just a return to normal.  I’ve got my fingers crossed for a really nice bread stall to join next.

Bosuns Team Room

Queenborough Market

Not like all the rest

They say you should focus on the journey not the destination.  Put me on a plane and I will enjoy the takeoff and landing with the view of the world below in miniature, but in between it’s just time better spent asleep or in a book.  When we’re in the car, at least there is the changing scenery but I still need a break every so often.  In England, the rest stops are focussed on the service station, with a cluster of fast food outlets.  In France, they alternate between the fuelling stops and picnic stops, both which can become unpleasantly busy.  Although I prefer the French stops, they can all be a little soulless.

So I want to celebrate those who make the effort to be a little different, to make the rest stop a real opportunity to recuperate, rather than a queue for toilets and junk food before hurrying back onto the road.

Woman standing on wooden decking surrounded by ducks.  Rectangular pond beyond decking, grass and reeds  beyond water.
Breakfast time for the ducks

My favourite rest stop is the Baie de la Somme in northern France.  It has a long building with a terrace next to a rectangular pond full of carp and ducks.  When we are travelling south we always stop here for a coffee and a duck feeding session.  Early in the morning, when it’s still cool outside, we stand on the deck and watch the feeding frenzy between ducks and fish as the bread hits the water.   There is also a tall belvedere with a view over the surrounding countryside and a series of ditches which encourage all sorts of wildlife.  It’s a breath of fresh air and feels like part of the holiday rather than the journey.

At the other end of our French journey, the Jardin des Causses du Lot, is set high up on the rocky causse or cliffs, with a meandering walk through a hillside garden which makes for a very relaxing opportunity to stretch after a long journey.  Inside the building, there is a glass section in the floor which shows the archaeology below and the remains of a cave lion, which was discovered when they starting building there.  I always think of this as the cave lion stop.

In England, we also have a service station with archaeology at Clacket Lane.  Given the frequency of queues on the M25, it’s always a good idea to make a stop here, but the little of display of pottery makes this a more interesting break.

Finally, a honourable mention to Billy’s on the road, although this is not on a motorway (it describes itself as halfway between the M25 and the coast), it is a perfect stop to enjoy proper refreshment.  It has a huge range of breakfast and brunch options and I have fond memories of dashing in there for a comfort break and a coffee, only to find ourselves settling down for something more substantial.

Perhaps if you do it right the destination is the journey.

Billy’s on the road

Welcome back part 2

It’s 8am on Monday morning.  My favourite French place in Canterbury, Cafe St Pierre has just re-opened and we are there for breakfast, we’re the first ones through the door, sitting at our favourite table,  with two petit dejeuners (a croissant, toasted baguette and jam,  and a bowl of coffee). We indulge in an extra pain au chocolat each, then another coffee, so it’s almost two breakfasts each but we have missed this since last year when the cafe went into lockdown.   It’s wonderful to see familiar faces again.  When we leave, we are loaded with goodies although we know we will return at the weekend.

display cabinet of sweet and savoury pastries
A cabinet of delights

Later in the week, we are still revelling in the delight of revisiting old favourites as we spend a night at Reads.  ‘Is this your first?’ ask the waiting staff.  ‘It is’, we reply, our first trip to a restaurant since autumn 2020, our first overnight stay since last summer.  It feels strange to leave the house with an overnight bag, to be staying out.  The menu retains old favourites but has introduced some exciting new dishes, just the right mixture of comfortingly familiar and temptingly different.  It’s a short stay but just what we needed.

Everything feels like a little adventure at the moment, even the long rambling drive we take home the next day, just seeing different bits of the Kent countryside, knowing we can travel and stop where we want to.

It’s 8am on Monday morning.  My favourite French place in Canterbury, Cafe St Pierre has just re-opened and we are there for breakfast, we’re the first ones through the door, sitting at our favourite table,  with two petit dejeuners (a croissant, toasted baguette and jam,  and a bowl of coffee). We indulge in an extra pain au chocolat each, then another coffee, so it’s almost two breakfasts each but we have missed this since last year when the cafe went into lockdown.   It’s wonderful to see familiar faces again.  When we leave, we are loaded with goodies although we know we will return at the weekend.

Later in the week, we are still revelling in the delight of revisiting old favourites as we spend a night at Reads.  ‘Is this your first?’ ask the waiting staff.  ‘It is’, we reply, our first trip to a restaurant since autumn 2020, our first overnight stay since last summer.  It feels strange to leave the house with an overnight bag, to be staying out.  The menu retains old favourites but has introduced some exciting new dishes, just the right mixture of comfortingly familiar and temptingly different.  It’s a short stay but just what we needed.

Everything feels like a little adventure at the moment, even the long rambling drive we take home the next day, just seeing different bits of the Kent countryside, knowing we can travel and stop where we want to.

I’m starting a list of new places to visit for breakfast, places to stay, or dine.  But first we have to visit our old favourites and check on old friends.  This week has been a good start.

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