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.

Beyond the white cliffs, below the castle

My apologies to anyone who lives in Dover, but I have never thought of it as a town to visit for itself.  The castle is magnificent, but perched above the town it feels rather apart and somehow separate.  I have travelled through the ferry port many times and admired the iconic white cliffs but again my focus was always on leaving Dover, either to go on holiday or to return home.

blue sky for top half of picture above the white cliffs of Dover as a horizontal white strip across lower half of picture.  Blue sea below cliffs and green of French cliffs at bottom of picture
White Cliffs of Dover seen from France

One of my tenets of slow travel is to find something special in any place, and starting with a negative impression only makes the challenge more interesting.  As part of my job, I sometimes have to travel around the county and if I have time to take a lunch break, I make this the time to explore.

A while ago (before working from home became the new normal), I had a two day training course in Dover, so I decided to explore the centre of the town.  Dover suffered from bombing in World War 2 followed by a rush of building work focussed on functionality.  Understandable and necessary but it did produce a rather unattractive townscape.

My training course was held in a college building with grounds that backed on to the town centre.  As I stepped out the gate separating the college grounds from town I found a bridge over a little river running through the centre of town, hidden between shops and office buildings.  This is the River Dour, as this is a chalk stream the water is amazingly clear and clean; walking along the path feels like being in another place. 

Leafy green branches at top hanging over dark water with bright patches of sunlight.  Darker shapes of fish in the water.
A chalk stream

The second day I followed the river further and ended up in a green park.  Full of locals, taking a break with their pushchairs and shopping bags, not a tourist space, just a breath of fresh air in the middle of a dreary town.

Following the river further will have to wait for another visit because I need lunch as well. Part of my exploration is checking out the restaurants and cafes for quick snacks.  On the first day I went to the Mean Bean coffee shop (great name, great coffee, great food), the second day I checked out the Allotment.  Two great discoveries which I have returned to after my first visit to Dover.

The beauty of this sort of slow travel is that it doesn’t require a week’s holiday to discover something different, just a challenge to my assumptions and exploration with an open mind. Only one hour out of a working day, but a little adventure, an escape from my normal life and a new view on Dover.

The Allotment

Sadly the Mean Bean will not be re-opening, a reminder that these are difficult times for independent businesses, which give character and shape to their communities.  However, the Mean Bean will continue to be a reminder to me to look for the hidden gems in each place I visit.

The River Dour Walking Trail

Stay Local

I hate the word ‘staycation’, meaning a holiday spent in your home country.  Somehow this seems to  mean avoiding anything local and taking a long journey of motorways and traffic jams to travel from the comfort of your own home to somewhere packed with tourists.  Ironically from where I live I can travel by car to many parts of France in less time than it would take me to get to Cornwall, Scotland or Wales.

Why not stay local, spend local, explore local?  Avoid that traffic jam and spend the money saved on travelling all day on a good meal, a bottle of wine, an overnight stay in an expensive hotel or an additional night or two in a local campsite.

The ideal distance is no more than 30 minutes drive from home.  You want to be close enough that if you forget something important – wallet, hair straighteners, medicines, whatever  – you could go home again to collect it without any major interruption to your holiday.

Two trunks of a large tree spread out from the middle and left of th picture.  Below the tree is a parched lawn and behind the tree are green shrubs.  Building partially seen behind branches on the right.
Magnificent trees dominate the gardens at Read’s

Our stay-local holiday-from-home takes us to Read’s in Faversham.  Described as a restaurant with rooms this is a favourite destination for us and as soon as we step through the big front door we feel relaxed.   Each room is different and named after different trees in the garden.  Wisteria, Cedar, Laurel, Chestnut, Lime and Willow; a description of the view from each window.

There is a also a pantry, which provides kettle, coffee machine, milk frother, bottles of wine and soft drinks.  The cupboards are full of cups, glasses and teapots.  In the fridge are individual bottles of milk for each room.  Visiting the pantry to make a pot of tea or coffee, makes this feel more like a stay in a family home than a hotel.

Courtyard with brick flooring, various garden chairs with cushions around different tables.  A large pot plant with lilac flowers.  Parasol hanging on post, not open.  One brick wall of building and hedge.  Oast houses behind the building and hedge.

Our stay starts with drinks in the walled garden, slowly unwinding and forgetting about the day’s work.  We ponder over the menu, which is a combination of old favourites and new delights.  It’s always so hard to choose, but in a way it doesn’t matter as everything is delicious.  As usual.

The next morning, we indulge in the full breakfast menu, a plate of beautifully prepared fruit with a pot of yoghurt; cooked breakfast of bacon, eggs, tomato and sausage; toast and homemade raspberry jam, marmalade and lemon curd.  I do love a good breakfast and this is really first class.

Before we leave I go for a walk to explore a little further.  Normally we visit Macknades farm shop which is next door, but today I head off in the opposite direction and walk past the farm and continue on to the cricket ground.  There is an impressive range of trees planted around the edge.  I pick up a walnut still in its green outer case and a couple of beech nuts, and admire the horse chestnut covered in spiky shelled conkers.

Back to Read’s for a final cool drink in the walled garden before we leave; there’s no hurry, no rush to get on the motorway to start a long journey home.  It’s so relaxing, we’re tempted to stay another night…

Read’s Restaurant

Macknade Fine Foods

A French breakfast

I love going out for breakfast.  Don’t confuse this with brunch, which to my mind, is a kind of artificial meal involving a long wait before having an early lunch.  I love the casual nature of breakfast, no need to book in advance, no dress code, no difficult choices of starter or dessert, no pressure of second sittings waiting to take your place.  For the slow traveller, breakfast can be a mini holiday, with none of the challenges of booking a hotel, packing, and travelling. 

The pursuit of a good breakfast has long been a quest for me and my husband.  For him, the perfect Eggs Benedict, for me pancakes, although I am easily distracted by a indulgent granola (yes this is quite possible, plenty of fruit, nuts, thick, thick yoghurt) which is more like dessert than a healthy food choice, or some sort of hash, which sadly is far too rarely seen on menus. 

Artist's impression of Cafe St Pierre, watercolour with a cafe on the corner of a block, windows to front and side with door on the angle.
Cafe St Pierre

Today one of my favourite breakfast places has reopened and I get to enjoy the French petit dejeuner at St Pierre Cafe in Canterbury.  This is a little piece of France in England, where the regulars practise their French with the owner and tourists from around the world practise their English and wonder what country they are in.

When we are here we always order the same thing; the standard breakfast with a bowl of coffee, toasted baguette and jam, and a pain au chocolat.  Today as we have missed visiting the cafe for so many months, we indulge ourselves and have a croissant as well.  Then a second bowl of coffee.  Maybe we should have just ordered a second breakfast.  Sitting in the garden, enjoying the sunshine before it gets unbearably hot, this is one of our favourite places to unwind and contemplate the weekend.

Bowl of coffee in centre, with toasted baguette,croissant and pain au chocolat on the plate arranged around the coffee.  Basket of mini jams to the left and basket of butter to the right.
Petit dejeuner

Once breakfast is over we stock up on patisserie, croque monsieur and bread.  Today we have had a little bit of normal in this troubling new world and we feel strangely content.

Going blackberrying

frame filled with blackberries, mostly green some red, one ripe black blackberry

I have been working from home for over four months now and I thought that this would make me more in tune with the seasons but I find myself surprised by the realisation that it is nearly August.  When I worked in a office, the lengthening and shortening days were a part of my journey.  The early days in spring when it stops being dark when I leave home, the extra light at the end of the day when the clocks go forward, allowing me to travel home at night in daylight are always eagerly awaited.   In autumn, there’s always a little gloom as the days contract and daylight time is spent in an office so I drive there and back in the dark.

Over the last few months, I have made sure I take local walks and get out of the house each day and I have seen the seasons change from hawthorn and apple blossom in the spring, to the blackberry covered brambles all along my usual walking routes.  And unlike other years, where I would have to make an effort to go blackberrying and pick anything I could find that was ripe enough, I now carefully choose the best paths and select only the biggest and best fruits.  Away from the road, as the roadside blackberries are not a glossy ebony, but a disturbing cloudy grey.  Out in the fields, the bushes are full of gleaming fruit and I can fill my bucket without any trouble. 

This morning I heard a small child telling her mother she was going to get raspberries, but I think she will be disappointed if she sticks to the red fruit.

mass of different green leaves, three small mauve circles which are damsons below a prickly bramble

I have also noticed hedges full of damsons; I had no idea I was surrounded by so many damson bushes, but now I am watching them carefully as the colour deepens from a pale blueish mauve to dark purple.  They’re not ready yet, but I am waiting for them.

The apple trees which I photographed in blossom earlier in the year, are now fruiting but they are wild apples and no one is interested in picking their fruit.  That will be left for the wasps.

Travelling over the same paths day after day, I have seen changes I would never have noticed before.  I find myself looking forward to the discoveries of autumn and winter.

Celebrate summer

Bottom half shows cars parked in a row in a French town.  Upper half shows garlands of paper flowers in pink yellow and white radiating out from a central point.  Backdrop of an intense blue sky.
Fete time in a French town

I know it is good to stay at home and shop local, but I am wishing I was in southwest France at the moment, in our usual summer holiday home.  July and August are the time of fête when everyone celebrates summer and even the smallest villages has its own weekend of celebrations.  Last year, our neighbours invited us to attend the local fete and although we felt a bit nervous as we didn’t really know anyone we found it hard to refuse.

At seven in the evening, we walked to the field next to the Mairie, or local town hall.  Rows of tables were set out along the length of the field and all around the edges were stalls selling cured meat, cheese, melons,  bread, bottles of wine, several industrial sized barbecues roasting ribs, chops, chunks of duck, and various cakes and tarts for dessert.  We had come prepared with plates, knives and forks.  Nothing for opening bottles or melons, so a quick trip home was required before we could join in the festivities.

The village fete is a simple process, you find a space on one of the long benches, then wander round buying food from the various stalls.  Everything was so tempting I had to walk round once without buying anything and make my choices, to avoid buying more food than we could eat in a week.

Music blares out and a hundred different conversations bellow in competition with it.  The whole community is here, all the stall holders are local, wine comes from the fields all around us, the baker has shops in all the neighbouring villages.  A very local celebration but also welcoming to us as visitors.

This year, I know there won’t be the same level of celebration, but maybe this will be more local than ever.  We were once invited to a local picnic, where our neighbours simply set out their garden furniture in road outside our house; we all brought food and sat outside together.  (Luckily the house where we stay is at the end of the road.  A celebration of the simple pleasures in life, good food and good company. 

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