Expedition into the new normal

Mass of leaves of olive viewed from below looking up.  Righthand side has thick trunk and branches, left hand side has leaves ranging from silvery green to dark green black.  Blue sky visible behind leaves.
View looking up from our breakfast table

Today I feel like an explorer as we venture out to see what is open in Canterbury.  Unfortunately many of our favourite restaurants and cafes are in small narrow premises which make social distancing difficult.  There are still sad signs on their doors, ‘we’re not open yet’.  We’re not able to visit the French cafe, so no croissants and bowls of coffee, no practicing speaking French this morning. 

Next step is to head to the Goods Shed farmers market.  We are early and the stall holders are still unloading fresh vegetables.  Normally we would be inside and deliberating over what to order for breakfast, and debating what combination of freshly squeezed juices to select.  At least we can have a good coffee as we plan what we want to buy.

Having admired the meat, fish, cheese, fruit and veg and made our sensible purchases, we head for Enzo’s stall to indulge in the Italian luxuries and delights.  Two stuffed rice pyramids: the delicious arancini, two delicious doughnuts and two crispy sweet lobster tails or coda d’aragosta.  Finally a granary loaf which is as healthy as it is moreish.

With our shopping trip not quite complete, we head to Faversham and Macknades.  This is a morning for revisiting favourites and we find they have a set up an outdoor coffee area.  It is a beautiful morning for sitting outside and we order bacon rolls to go with our iced coffees.  The best ingredients and the simplest preparation, the freshest, crackly baguettes and bacon which is exactly what bacon should really taste like.  Nothing else is needed.   Sitting outside in the sunshine, with a delicious and impromptu breakfast, this feels perfect.

Wooden table and with two wicker chairs in foreground, background of two more tables with benches, two deck chairs and four empty open fronted black sheds.
Outdoor area at Macknade Fine Foods

A pause, a break from the daily jobs, from the have-to-do-things: this feels like a little holiday.

Our trip into the world of the new normal has been a mixed success.  We haven’t returned to the old world where our  most challenging decision at the weekend was where to go for breakfast but we are  no longer limited to the strictly necessary supermarket trips for essentials.  Al fresco breakfast and arancini for tea.  What bliss.

Macknade Fine Foods – The Deck

The Goods Shed

Easy as ABC

Two donkeys in harness pulling a green cart, with a white canvas roof.  One person on driving seat and two people in cart.  Modern road and signs in the background and several cars travelling on road as well as the donkeys
Not quite Uncle Tom’s horse and trap, but probably the same speed

Aldershot to Kirkcaldy in 15 days, even for a journey of 489 miles that is really slow travel.

I am researching the trip taken by my grandfather’s uncle in 1902 when he drove a horse and trap for the family he worked for from their house in Hampshire to a new home in Scotland.  Taking the train was not an option as the horse got travelsick and as her groom he didn’t want to cause the animal unnecessary distress.

This was a long journey not made any easier by travelling in the winter and without any maps.  His only guide was the ABC train timetable, so his route followed the towns with train stations rather than the most direct path.

He wrote a diary of the journey and the places where he stopped on route, sometimes he took a lunch break, sometimes it seemed he travelled all day without stopping. When the snow was at its worst he only  managed to travel 20 miles from Penrith to Carlisle, almost succumbing to hyperthermia.  On his longest day the journey from Manchester to Preston was a total 68 miles.

In a car, we could make each stage in a hour or less, using the same roads and route.  Overall the trip would be no more than a day or two of travel, and it would be much quicker using motorways and taking a direct route.  But I am interested in re-visiting this meandering route; not travelling with horse and trap, and definitely not taking two weeks to arrive but trying to get a sense of his experience by stopping in each town on the route, to try and find the places he might have stayed in overnight and imagine what he saw.

At the moment, I am researching the route, it’s easy to exclude motorways but there will be other roads too new, so I will need maps from 1902 or around that time, and details of the inns on the route that would offer accommodation to a working man, a horse and a dog.  Part of the pleasure of a long trip is planning, so for now I am savouring this preparation stage.

(Thanks go to my Mum for sharing this and making me a copy of the diary.)

Welcome back

As the day approaches when cafes and restaurants can re-open I find myself consulting my list nervously.  Will they still be there or will the long close down have put them out of business.  I haven’t travelled anywhere for three months apart from the local supermarket and the farm shop. 

At least one of my favourite restaurants in France is now up for sale, but I hope this is part of a planned retirement.  Others are still posting on facebook, sharing their news and making deliveries; unfortunately a few hundred miles too far away.  When I can travel again, I think I will just eat out, I’ve spent too much time cooking in the last few months, it’s time to leave it to the professionals.

dessert on a black and white plate.  Cylinder of black, cream and white on left and rectangle of biscuit covered in green nougatine, with mouse then red glaze on top.  Designed more as art than food.
I love dessert

Where to go? 

Canterbury for breakfast, Rochester for lunch, Faversham for dinner and an overnight stay in our favourite restaurant with rooms.  Old favourites which we visit on a regular basis and which never disappoint  but make us feel safe and secure.

Plate of charcuterie with sheets of ham, salami, choritzo and rosette on a bed of lettuce and cornichons.  Glass of water and butter to the left, basket of bread to the right.
delicious charcuterie

But then I think ‘what about the Italian cafe in Cranbrook that does amazing bacon sandwiches?’.  As you sit and drink your coffee you can smell the wonderful aroma of their home made minestrone soup and wonder how long is it to lunch time.  (We did spend a morning wandering around after a late breakfast just so we could try the soup.)  We haven’t been there for a long time and having just checked online, I’ve found out it closed over a year ago, reminding me how important it is to return and visit the places I love, rather than just hunting for new experiences.  I don’t want to keep listing places I want to go back only to find them boarded up or changed to vape shops.

I think over the next few months there will be the pleasure of returning to some old friends but also sadness at losing others. 

Here are some of my favourites, I haven’t checked to see if they are still open as I am now a bit nervous.   Please share your favourites with me, as it is always a pleasure to discover a new cafe or restaurant and support a local independent business.

Cafe St Pierre, Canterbury (breakfast and lunch)

Don Vincenzo, Rochester (lunch and dinner)

Read’s, Faversham (lunch, dinner, even breakfast if you stay overnight)

PS I have now revisited these three and they are open and as good as ever.

Midsummer

Today, 21st June is the longest day of the year.  Any other year, I would be in France right now, celebrating La Fête de la Musique, or the Festival of Music.  However, the spirit of slow travel is to explore and appreciate each place where I am, so instead I got up at 4.00 to see the sun rise.  I rarely do this, but each time I do I am fascinated by the way sky glows with colour long before the sun shows on the horizon.  The actual sunrise is very short, a golden line on the horizon, then barely a minute later, the whole disc is visible.

In France this year, there will still be a Festival of Music, but mosty online, apart from the a nationwide sing-along at 8pm where everyone is invited to join in from their own gardens, balconies and windows to sing the same song, Chanson sur ma drole vie by Veronique Sanson.  I can’t quite imagine how this work.

For me, I am looking forward to future festivals of music and reminding myself of previous visits where we have watched and listened to all sorts of musicians both professional and amateur play on street corners, in bars, and anywhere they want.  It is a free festival and everyone is welcome to take part.

Our preferred town for the festival is Boulogne, perhaps because we stay in the hotel Metropole, at the heart of the festival, rather than driving into town.  From our room we can hear the music in the street, before we step outside and it is hard to decide which way to walk first.

stage set up in street between two leafy trees.  Conductor facing an amateur choir.  People standing and watching and listening.  Banner adverties boulogne sur mer.
Better than Zoom Choir

The range of music is what makes this festival so amazing.  When we visited in 2018, we had a choir singing in a small square to the left of our hotel.  In the other direction on our street, there was a young man playing drums to a backing track.

People walk along a pedestrianised street of shops.  In front of a clothes shop is a drum kit with a drummer and an amplifier playing although no one appears to be paying any attention.
Keeping the beat

We walked up to the old town and found a keyboard player and vocalist on the street corner, next to the town hall which is usually the scene of weddings at this time of year.  The market square is the scene of the main event with a huge stage and more organised performances but for me it is the more impromptu, non professional bands and musicians which make this such fun.

Duo of man playing keyboard and woman singing on corner of stone and brick municipal building.
Live in the old town

It is impossible to be bored, if you don’t like one style of music, move along to another street and soon you will find something different.  You may be overwhelmed, as the roads flow with people rather than cars but the party atmosphere makes this unmissable or incontournable as the French would say.

Fete de la musique, Paris, 2017

Chanson sur ma drôle de vie by Véronique Sanson

Let me if you have any experiences of the festival of music and if so where you went.

The end of the line

We have been watching a programme called The Architecture the Railways Built, where train and railway enthusiast Tim Dunn, explores stations big and small, signal boxes, forgotten tube stations closed to the public and funiculars which climb up impossible gradients.  His passion for the details of the buildings and places he visits means I will never view a train or tube station in the same way again.  I will be looking up and around to see the overlooked ornamentation and searching for the places where the architect has left a mark rather than just focussing on the arrival and departure times.

On one visit he spoke to a volunteer who had helped to build the Ffestiniog Deviation; an impressive achievement which kept the line open by building a bridge and curving it around a reservoir.  This  reminded me of other railway lines dependent on the efforts of volunteers. 

The Spa Valley Railway which runs from Tunbridge Wells to Eridge only has four stops on the line, but each one has a good reason to stop, so you could spend a whole day travelling from one end of the line to the other.

The starting point is Tunbridge Wells, where you can visit the Chalybeate Spring which brought the visitors and the town into being back in 1606.  The town is a good place to spend a pleasant day shopping and enjoying a wide range of places to eat from breakfast to supper time. 

We only stopped for a  coffee in Woods, one of our favourite restaurants in the Pantiles, before we moved on to the train station, a few minutes from the Pantiles, at the back of Sainsburys.  It’s a strange place to find to start a journey on a steam train, but once the train pulls into the station and you get on board you can relax and forget about supermarkets and shopping and relax as the train pulls out into the countryside. 

red and green steam train pulls up to platform
Train entering Tunbridge Wells Station on Spa Valley line

The first stop is  High Rocks and facing the station is the High Rocks Inn, a country pub with a view of the railway and a garden to enjoy a meal and a drink outside in sunny weather.  For the more energetic, High Rocks is also known for rock climbing and from the train you can see the climbers tackling the sandstone cliffs.

A little distance further is Groombridge Station; this is only a short distance from Groombridge Place and the Enchanted Gardens to be explored by adults and children alike.  I have yet to visit but this has been on my wish list for some time.  Today we stay on the train and continue to the last stop.

Eridge Station is the end of the line and offers another opportunity to visit a country pub with a lovely garden and good food.  The Huntsman is a minutes’ walk from the station and we amble down the road and find a table in the garden.

Several hours and a leisurely lunch later we return to the train station and in three stops and 30 minutes we are back in Tunbridge Wells. 

Woods Restaurant, Tunbridge Wells

The Architecture the Railways Built

Spa Valley Railway, Tunbridge Wells

High Rocks, Tunbridge Wells

High Rocks Inn

Groombridge Place and Enchanted Gardens

The Huntsman Pub, Eridge

A Lost Spa

St Augustine -“the world is a book and those who do not travel only read one page”

When we are on holiday I like to read the local paper to get a flavour of the place I am visiting.  That’s how we found out about the spa at Alvignac; a tiny news story about how this was being restored with an intriguing picture of the pavilion.

art nouveau pavilion
Deserted spa

It took us two visits to find it as it is hidden in the countryside with no signs to direct a tourist.  The first time we drove in and out of Alvignac and all around the town with no success.  The second time we carried out more research and found it was between Alvignac and Miers. 

It’s a long drive from our holiday base, so after the first fruitless trip we started looking out for a lunch spot.  The Petit Rignac cafe in the village of Rignac seemed to be the only thing open.  We ordered some food and two locals hearing us speak in English came over to talk to us.  The conversation soon turned to Brexit and the general feeling that the British must be crazy.  This is part of the pleasure of slow travel, being able to leave the tourist trail and make time for unexpected conversations with people.

When we finally found the spa, the beautiful pavilion sitting in the middle of an empty park was quite amazing.  At the edges of the park are dilapidated buildings which were once part of a thermal waters industry.  The water itself is available from a tap, rather than the grand pavilion, and like all famed thermal waters slightly odd tasting.

tap for thermal waters
Taste the water

Next to the park is a restaurant overlooking a lake, it must be a wonderful view, but we were unable to visit as it had been reserved for a wedding.  But now we have found it we will come back.

Thermal Spa of Alvignac

Restaurant at Alvignac Spa – Au fil de l’Eau

Petit Rignac Restaurant

Not the usual suspects

At the moment I am finding travel programmes really irritating. Recorded in a different time where people jostle together, packed together on trains, crammed into busy restaurants and cafes, part of me wants to scream social distancing, but mostly I feel sad.

Our list of places to visit continues to grow but from more unlikely sources.

We have a passion for French crime series, I’m sure they must be sponsored by the local tourist boards as the landscape is often an important of the story.  We have already visited Le Tréport in Normandy  to ride the funicular down the cliffs and walk along the beach which was a big part of the first series of Les Temoins (Witnesses), a very disturbing story which starts with a inexplicable crime scene in an empty show home.

Cliffs with funicular rail lines and tunnel entrance
Treport Funicular

 We visited in the winter, so the town wasn’t full of tourists.  It felt very local rather than a destination which we liked; especially being asked for directions by a French couple .  Surprising perhaps, but part of slow travel is blending in with the locals and not standing out as a tourist.  We plan to return to investigate a shop which offered 30 different flavours of marshmallow.  Unfortunately it was shut the day we visited but returning in the summer will mean we can see a different side to the town.

Our next thriller inspired trip will be to Le Havre, a town we have passed through many times when we used to take the ferry to France.  We have never been inspired to spend any time in the town but we now have a destination to explore, the amazing modern cathedral.  This was a key site in Maman a Tort (The Wrong Mother), the twisted story of a troubled child and the robbery of a jewellery shop.  The television series is taken from a book by Michel Bussi, a very popular French crime writer.  Another of his books Code Lupin is half travelogue and half thriller, with the two protagonists racing around the Caux triangle in Normandy looking for clues. 

And further afield, the beautiful scenery of Sicily means that every time we watch Montalbano we agree that we must visit Porto Empedocle, the real version of the fictional Vigata. According to wikipedia, this has generated so much tourism they have renamed the town Porto Empedocle Vigata.

Maman a tort

Les Temoins series 1

Montalbano

Michel Bussi

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

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