High days and holidays

This year I am determined to be more aware of the passing of time.  Last year birthdays, anniversaries, public holidays, all the times when I would celebrate with family or friends passed without note.  The year was punctuated by the changes between lighter restrictions and more serious lockdowns.  The seasons passed but nothing changed.

Starting in January I intend to make the most of the dates which offer a chance to celebrate and think about the places that are connected, in my mind and memories, to these places.  The first is Burns Night, on 25 January; I plan to have haggis, although there won’t be a piper leading it into the room or any fuss.  It’s good cold weather food.

twigs covered in feathery white hoar frost
It’s cold out there

The Scottish connection reminds me of Loch Torridon, a beautiful hotel which we will return to in better times.  It is a gloriously remote and wonderful place, where I remember watching the Highland cattle wander down to the Loch and eat seaweed.  The whole experience is about getting away from your average day to day life and staying somewhere special.  And the haggis connection?  Well, I peeked at the breakfast menu and you can even have haggis as part of your fried breakfast with other Scottish delicacies such as Lorne sausage and potato scones.  Luckily haggis is available anywhere; Lorne sausage and potato scones are regional so they will have to wait.

February abounds with festivals starting with 2 February and Chandeleur, the French pancake festival.  I think about the creperie in Wimereux, always busy, offering simple and hearty food. The menu has a lot of savoury pancake choices, but also tartines which I thought would be be a smaller dish.

white plate with giant size piece of bread covered in cheese, tomatoa, ham and slices of goats cheese with a bowl of green salad
I thought this was going to be a small meal!

As you can see I was wrong.

For a pancake lover like me, February is a double treat as Chandeleur is followed by Shrove Tuesday on 16th February.  Normally this would be a chaotic family pancake tossing session, but this year, we will all be making pancakes separately at home.

Chinese New Year is celebrated on Friday 12th February, so we will be starting that weekend with a takeaway.  My travel thoughts don’t run to China at this time, but much closer to home, a visit to Calais, to ride on their wonderful mechanical Dragon that travels along the sea front.  I have only seen this online so far and l have to wait until I can visit it in person.

Right now, the weather might be grim and cold, but we have plenty to celebrate.

The Company of the Dragon, Calais

Loch Torridon, Scotland

Au Comptoir, Wimereux

Deluge

Today has been the first dry day this week and I have been glad to get out of the house for a long walk. From the high point where I live, I can see over the rooftops to flooded fields shining silver in the afternoon sunlight.  I’m fascinated by how the landscape changes at this time of year with no leaves on the trees to block the view.  In the summer it will be hard to remember where these temporary lakes were.

landscape of green fields flooded with silver water and beyond fields the river and a bank of hills
Waterlogged fields

The waterlogged landscape is beautiful but it keeps me to the roads and paved tracks so I am lengthening my walks and finding new places to explore.

In other years, we have often been on holiday in France at this time of year and the normally dry gutters and ditches around the local roads overflow with water rushing along, the fields flood and the sheep that live on the low ground in the summer have to move to the higher ground.  I love seeing these little rivulets and streams appear as the trees stand in a temporary swamp.  You can hear the water rushing through the narrow channels in a noisy gurgle.

woodland with trees standing in a flooded area.  Catkins on trees.
The woods are flooded in the Lot

In a few weeks time everything will burst into bloom, primroses will appear on the roadside banks and anemones in the woods.  The floods will disappear and for the rest of the year, it will be dry as if there had never been any rain.

I am looking at the photos of the spring floods and it seems hard to imagine this all happening, that life goes on unseen, but I know if we return in the summer, the trees and fields will be lush and green, living off the water that has seeped deep into the ground to sustain them.  And at home the mud will be replaced by cracked paths along the cliffs and through the fields.  This has been the first bright day in a while and it reminds me that spring will soon be here.

New year, new resolutions

This year I am determined to be more relaxed, to not get (so) stressed about the things I can’t do at the moment.  I am taking my inspiration from a town in Bulgaria called Plovdiv.  I read about this in a travel article and if you search on the word “aylyak” there are plenty of writers explaining this concept of savouring life, rather than worrying about the rat race.  The shortest definitions include dawdling, idling, but it’s hard to translate accurately.

 Several times I have come across a joke used to explain the idea, which goes something like this.

A Spanish tourist asks a Plovdiv resident what aylyak means.  He replies, well it’s like your concept of manana, manana, but without all the stress.

two black cats sitting on rough concrete path surrounding by plants, and rough stone walls.
Taking my example from the cats, just sit and watch

I do miss sitting in cafes sipping my coffee and watching the world go by, but for now I am going to indulge in planning holidays for the distant future.  I don’t want to focus on the places I know I will visit as soon as I can travel.  There are places which I must return to, to see friends, revisit restaurants and landscapes that I miss.  As soon as the world reopens, I will book those trips, little or no planning is needed, it’s just make time in my diary and book the travel.

What I will do now is plan for the non bucket list sites, places that don’t compel me but suggest ‘why not?  For example, Plovdiv.  I know nothing about Bulgaria  apart from the fact it is in Europe.  What time zone is it, what currency does it use, how far away is it, these are unimportant questions.  What I am interested in food, savoury and sweet, city life and country escapes, weather and seasons for visiting.

I’m not in hurry to answer any of these questions, I am going to savour the planning process  for various holidays I might never get round to.  There is no pressure, no disappointment, I am just banking potential holidays for a sunnier time, in the same way as putting aside money for a rainy day.

Plovdiv 

All roads lead to home

Over the last ten months I have explored the local roads, alleys and footpaths around my house.  Despite living in the same place for twenty years or more, I found I knew far less about my neighbourhood than I thought.  I have made it my mission to walk down every side street, cul-de-sac, unmade road and footpath within a mile or so of my house.

White bricks make a rough path between weeds and brambles.
Follow the white brick road

As we start a new year and I continue to pace along the same, now familiar roads, I have decided to make a record of the places I have walked on a local map.  Each road coloured in to show the network of paths around my home.  While my main reasons for taking a walk are exercise and to get some time away from my computer screen, it makes it more interesting having a wider value, being able to see the area I have covered displayed in a picture.

Years ago, we were in a local bar in Helsinki when we got talking to a man who was visiting every country in the world.  He had a map where he had highlighted the countries he had visited.  I was fascinated and overwhelmed by this undertaking.    This was a grand plan and he was carrying out in a methodical and patient way.  I wonder if he is still working through the countries of the world or if he has completed his tour.  

Unmade road running between tall bushes and trees, tarmacked road with park cars in the distance
All roads adopted and unadopted

As all my travel is local for the foreseeable future, I plan to make the most of it.  My favourite countryside walks are unbearably muddy at the moment and will have to wait for snow or dry weather, but I still have plenty of paths to mark off on my map. 

Christmas

Travel is one of my favourite experiences but for one day of the year, I insist on being at home.  My Christmas Day is always shared with my whole family.  A few years ago I went to a wedding in Bournemouth on Christmas Eve. After a very chilly night in a hotel somewhere along the sea front, we got up early and went for a walk along the beach.  The only other people up at that time of the morning were the dog walkers but everyone we met said hello and merry Christmas.  It was a lovely experience and a wonderful start to Christmas Day.  We then drove home to the big family Christmas party.

Christmas tree in front garden at night.  Streaks of coloured lights.
The brightest and most impressive tree in my neighbourhood.

This year has been different, as we live in the newly created tier 4, so it was Christmas Day at a distance.  I went out for a local walk at sunset and enjoyed the same friendliness from others like myself outside braving the cold.  Despite feeling I have walked the same roads and streets too many times this year, there are always changes to be found: the sunset, the Christmas lights, the way the world after dark becomes a different place. 

A triangle of blue christmas lights strung from a house and over the garden.
A blue curtain of lights hangs over the garden

It has been a challenging year, but I hope I have learnt to develop my sense of curiosity and awe to see what is special in the familiar and commonplace.

The shortest day

Tomorrow is the shortest day of the year, which for me is a point of celebration.  After this date the days begin to get longer; a welcome impact on my working day which currently starts and ends in darkness.  The need for brightness, such as Christmas lights and for celebration at this time of year, is more than just a calendar date, more than a festival which is either religious or commercial depending on your point of view.  It is a subliminal need to push back the cold and dark and look forward to the spring, to new life, green shoots and recovery.    

Grey sky, horizon, grey sea and edge of green field
Sunrise viewing spot

Having worked at home nearly all year, I have found myself more involved with the changing seasons.  From my home desk I have watched the spring days extend into summer, then contract through autumn into winter.  I never noticed the changes as much when I worked in an office or felt so connected to light and weather.  As my daily commute was home, car, office, the only time I paid significant attention to the weather was when it snowed and the roads became treacherous.

Dark orange sea, coloured by dawn light, brighter orange horizon, with tiny white ball of the sun.
Sun rising over the sea

Starting from tomorrow, I plan to take photos of the sunrise from the same place every week.  I accept that weather and maybe even holidays might interrupt this sequence, but I want to track how the sun rises in slightly different places on the horizon across the year.  This is travel in time rather than in space, but it is still exploration and at this time next year, I should have an interesting selection of photos.

The challenge will come as the days start to get longer.

Night Walks

The nights are drawing in and my good intentions of going for a walk every day are challenged by the weather and the fact that it starts getting dark so early in the afternoon now.  But this month I have been tempted out in the evening to visit the neighbouring streets and admire their Christmas lights. 

Street at night, wide space lined by trees.  Net of white christmas lights over the whole road.
Christmas Lights brighten the darkness

Usually I drive past and notice a few brightly lit houses on route, but there’s never time to enjoy the whole spectacle.  A brightly coloured stream passes outside the car windows but I can’t point out my favourites or stop to admire a particularly impressive light show.

This year I am taking my time and exploring a few streets at a time.  Not far from my house is a Christmas tree growing in a front garden which must be about 20 foot high. This has been covered in lights that stream up and down, stars which burst into light; a rain of colour.  It’s a joyous celebration that pushes back the dark and cold of the December night.

Another house has a huge silver star illuminated on the side of the building, very simple but equally effective.  Nearly every other house, has some sort of display either outside or shining through the windows.  All these lights are a free spectacle to be enjoyed by anyone walking past and this fills me with a warm feeling.

Black street with cars at side, trees on either side of road highlighted in eerie green.
At night the streets are a different place

I’m learning to love night walks; I hope I will continue when the Christmas lights come down, and I can look up at the night sky to admire the stars, but I’m not sure.  There is a slim book by Charles Dickens called Night Walks which describes his long walks at night, due to insomnia.  While I loved reading these short essays, I never understood the attraction, but I think I understand a little more now.  Walking at night, the world is a different place, and you feel like an explorer in your neighbourhood.

Night Walks by Charles Dickens

Travel without expectations

Ask me what I enjoy doing and travel is going to be in my top three activities; seeing new places, exploring and finding the places where the locals go makes me happy.  Waiting for the world to re-open has been challenging, especially without any sense of when things will get better.  To cheer myself up, I have been looking through old photos and this has reminded how many times our unplanned rambling has led us to see sights we might not have expected.

Over many years holidaying in France, we have been lucky enough to see wild boar, deer, hares and badgers, closer than we would ever have seen at home.  Living in a heavily populated area of England, in a place where new houses are bursting from the ground like the dragons teeth in the myth of Jason and Argonauts, we are lucky that at least we have a wide variety of birdlife.

On holiday, part of our daily routine is a trip to one of the local villages to buy fresh croissants and bread for breakfast.  We drive slowly through the built up areas, always watching out for errant dogs running into the road.  We weren’t expecting to see a hoopoe on the grass, cheerfully pecking at the soil for insects, but there it was. 

Hoopoe pecking grass, near edge of cobbled path
Hoopoe in the village

Other animals appear in the garden at dusk or dawn, or are spotted from the car as we drive out to dinner, but the noisiest animal and potentially most populous proved incredibly difficult to spot.  Sitting out in the summer, the sound of cicadas can be deafening, they seem to shouting out from every tree in sight.  We have walked around the garden carefully staring into each tree, but as soon as we start searching, silence descends and the rowdy insects become invisible. We were excited and amazed to actually get a photo as it hid on a branch, trying to blend in with the bark.

Close up of tree branch, locust like insect, the cicada on top of branch
The mysterious cicada

The fact that it took years to get a picture of this creature, is a reminder to me be patient, that things will get better and that life goes on while we are waiting for change. For now I am not planning any holidays for next year, but I am keeping my travel bag packed and ready to go.  We got the pictures of the hoopoe and the cicada by being ready with a camera and open eyed to possibility.  When the future comes we will be ready for it.

Finnish Christmas Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finnish Church Shop

Heritage Trees

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

Between Rochester cathedral and castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kent Heritage Trees

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