Along the river

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

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

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

Cormorant on the bank next to water

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

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

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

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

The Old Boat Cafe

Whatman Park

Remote Tourism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love thy neighbourhood

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

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

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

Apple tree on cliff edge

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

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

Going to the Source

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

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

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

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

loiret source

The Séoune

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

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

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

Parc Floral de la Source

Journey around my room

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avignon and the Homer of insects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too local part 1

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

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

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

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


Stone bridge over stream running betwween field and grassy bank

Slow travel is stopping on a journey because somewhere looks interesting instead of driving past and saying, “perhaps sometime we will come back and visit”.  You know you never will so those passing towns and villages remain fascinating, none of the mystique is dispelled by examining reality.  They stay dreamlike pictures outside the car.

There’s a risk of disappointment when you stop, like the film trailer that contains all the jokes, all the best bits for the film, perhaps if you visit this town there will be nothing to see.

Be brave, take the risk, the opposite of disappointment is the pleasure of an unexpected discovery. And  have the smug satisfaction of being an explorer not a tourist.  This place is not in guide books, it is not in the 100, 1000 or even 1 million things to do before you die, so you are not surrounded by other people with bucket lists marking off each completed item.

My favourite discovery is Labastide du Vert.  A dusty village with dusty houses and a cafe that never seems to be open.  The boulangerie is the only reason to stop, where we stopped once and bought an enormous loaf the size of a small child, then drove on. 

Today we have stopped off with no plans except exploration.  The car park is in the centre of the village which is simply a line of houses either side of the road, beyond the car park is trees, river, greenery. 

An ancient washing area or lavoir, common in every French village, but still charming to see in place, a traditional shape fed by the water of the river Vert.  The ox shoeing frame, that looks like a device for torture or medieval punishment is in reality a support to hold the oxen steady while they are given iron shoes like horses.  In these rural places before the age of tractors, oxen worked like horses pulling carts and ploughing fields.

two stone walls at right angles and inside them a old wooden frame with iron hooks
Oxen shoeing

The artefacts of history sit here unremarked, no labels of explanation, too common for a museum.  They are a part of this rural landscape that shows the comfortable relationship between past and present.

We walk down a side street and stop at the astonishing sight of a large stone church hidden from the road view.  Lush vegetation in back gardens line this side road.

We walk around the outside of the church and find an old stone bridge with cold clear water rushing underneath.  Wildflowers cluster on the banks, water plants line the bottom of the river and tiny fish dart from shadow to shadow.

Iron cross next to shallow stream and overhanging trees

The path over the bridge leads to a wide open area for summer time fetes and celebrations.  It’s not hard to imagine this space with trestle tables and benches circled by the food stalls and barbecues of a Marché Gourmand when all the village comes out and dines together, picnic hampers and carrier bags filled with cutlery, plates, glasses, napkins.  Perhaps bottles of water, a knife for cutting melon, bread or sharing other food.

The meadow is peaceful now, but the sound of voices, music, clatter of plates and glasses is a ghostly echo.

The next time we drive through the village I see a sign for a soiree gourmand for the week when we return home.  Too bad, but in an hour’s visit we have got to know this little village, made friends with it and will visit again.  Maybe when the cafe is open.

The road to slow travel

Stone doorway with red wooden door.  Horizontal metal structure in the shape of a lizard.
Cathedral door, Cahors

Two things led very slowly to my concept of slow travel.  One good and one bad.

The bad one was poor health, low energy levels, the inability to spend all day, every day of the holiday sightseeing, doing everything on the list.  Time to recuperate became an important factor in my vacations.  Rest days, short trips, different ways of exploring are now fundamental in my planning.

The positive was a book I read a long time ago, but which had rooted itself in the back of my mind – “The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel“. This book turns its back on the approved tourist routes and destinations, it offers suggestions and ideas but most importantly it doesn’t dictate to you, it doesn’t tell you what you should do. It lets you adjust and alter the ideas to fit your own life, your own situation.

This book has sat untouched on my bookshelf for many years now, but the original ideas have mutated and spread so my concept of travel always refers to this as my touchstone.  When I opened it today, I was surprised and startled by how little I remembered but filled with new ideas to try.

As I re-read the experiments feedback,  I felt old, I am no longer the person who would have considered trying out everything in the book, but I still find new suggestions and it remains a reminder that tourism may be designed for stereotypes, but travel can tailored to any budget and still be personal and bespoke.

Welcome to my slow travel story

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