Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Tours v Blois No contest

It's been pretty amazing travelling through France in May. We had a fair distance to travel, in less than a week, from Calais down to the Dordogne, then on to the Tarn-et-Garonne, and back again. We chose to use the péages quite a lot, stacking up about £100 of tolls, but enjoying these magnificent smooth roads almost empty for the most part, and able to cover great distances without worry.

On the way south, I was struggling to make sense of the various satnav information available to us on one ancient dedicated machine and one modern phone, trying to avoid data costs – by June, the use of data will be normalised (at least until Brexit bites, I suppose), but the Navmii app is a pre-loaded map which is supposed to give you up to date routing information. But it just creates anxiety. In fact, using a good old road map, and the brilliant French road signs, you can make faster decisions and get across country more efficiently. The satnav tripped us up more than once, leading to interesting but time-wasting diversions in forests, suburbs, and new industrial estates. Sigh.

Some highlights. I have already described our visit to Tours which remains a shining light in my mind - a wonderful city with all-round great qualities. It loves itself and it loves its visitors. 

Setting off to the Dordogne was ok, though bugged by the silly belief that satnav would help. But we reached our campsite – the Municipal Camping at Tocane St Apre, by the R Dronne, in good enough time to set up the tent in daylight. We almost had the place to ourselves. Our pitch was right beside the river, with the roaring of a weir nearby. Songbirds were carolling everywhere, and something croaking – maybe bullfrogs. We walked a short mile or so to the nearby supermarket to get supplies – a stroll through glorious meadows with all the local horses and ponies enjoying the pasture and friendly enough to accept a tuft of grass if offered over the electric fences. As we sat with our simple evening meal, we noticed that there was a family of otters playing under the bank across the river... they swam, scrambled up onto the grass, hopped about, for about an hour. Behind them, the golden cattle wandered in the huge meadow with its beautiful trees, and a kingfisher darted about. It was magic.

That night, our airbed gave up the ghost so first thing in the morning we drove round to the supermarket to get a new one. Phew. Then off to explore the Dronne valley – Perigueux, St Jean de Cole where there was an amazing Floriale – a flower festival arranged in such a way that you had to pay to get into the village. There were 10,000,000 geranium and tomato plants, fantastic flower stalls, cactus displays, temporary gardens laid out, automatic lawnmower displays, dreadful art and flower arrangements in the church and the chateau, two lady gendarmes on horseback to keep the peace, and a great time being had by all. The gendarmes - with their hats and pistols made it seem like a mad version of the Wild West. 

The skies were constantly seething and rearranging themselves, with various distinct layers of white or eventually black masses of cloud.  As the heat generated new cumulonimbus towers, the base of these became fantastically threatening and dark and then we had torrential rain - sometimes over just a small area - one village, say - or over a wider mistier district.  The effect was mesmerising, and caused a certain amount of anxiety because the tent was new and we didn't know how waterproof it would be.  In the end, it proved to be more or less ok. 

The whole point of our trip was a 70th birthday party – Mike knew there was going to be a gathering but had no idea who was coming. He actually cried at one point as he realised that a couple of dozen people had travelled in secret from the UK to be there.... It was a lovely party, and we met up with various long-lost old friends. The party was in a marquee in his courtyard, lavishly lit with sparkly lights and the entertainment provided by a truly excellent singing trio called Candy Stripe – three English women who sing close harmony and who have a really impressive repertoire. Bravo!

Back to the tent to crash out on the new airbed. It lasted 3 hours. We discovered that it is possible to sleep on the cold hard ground..... (Sob).

On Sunday, we had to strike camp – luckily it wasn't too wet, and we took the split airbed back to Intermarche, and got our money back. One seam had just failed to seal. Then we headed for the Tarn-et-Garonne.... and my sister's house. Once again the satnav led us a merry dance but overall our journey was through blissfully beautiful landscapes, forests, rolling roads, tiny hamlets, with rivers all names and roadworks being briskly managed. How organised! It makes you wonder, at what point in time did someone decide which bits of forest to clear.... One thousand, two thousand, ten thousand years ago?   Modern French forestry techniques look pretty brutal, and we didn't see any bluebells at all, although there's some coppicing among the pine groves and the older oak forests with their larger trees. 

It's odd staying with relations – so much is just normal, but so much is at a distance – the ways in which we differ, the old rivalries put aside in the interests of adult enjoyments and new insights. My sister and her husband are working on their old farmhouse and making it absolutely beautiful – the plasterwork, the wiring, the décor. We'd visit more often but it's such a long way away from home.

Chris made us a lovely meal - a deconstructed prawn cocktail, he called it, and then a roasted chicken and ratatouille thing. Nom nom.  We didn't stay up very late due to two nights of not much sleep.... I hope we were forgiven. 

 In the morning we set off again to the north and bashed up the main road to Limoges and eventually Blois where we stayed last night. Oh, how our thoughts stray back to our evening in Tours – not that far away in kilometres, but a world away in experience. This city – with its 'most royal' of chateaux – is more beaten-up than Tours, rougher, duller. The tourists have less choice. The push to spend spend spend is not concealed. Whereas in Tours our car was safely stowed in a carpark, and we found music shops and saw students from the conservatoire carrying their instruments, and heard them practicing, and the cathedral gave us shelter from the storm, here in Blois it's less accommodating. The carpark is behind a barred and circuitous route, and the entry to too low for the height of our car. The menus are all plasticised. The bank machine had run out of money. The pavements around the chateau dwindle to nothing so you have to walk in the road. Somehow, it's less friendly (though the pretty young lady verger at St Vincent's did let us in to have a quick look inside). The meal last night was pimped up as artisanal, but was (I think) mostly a theatrical sleight of hand....

The most interesting thing is that the sitting right on the R Loire, the city has two completely different characters, which make me think of how London must have been from Roman times right up to the age of concrete. One bank has its huge chateau-fort, churches, money, squares, buildings, history, height, royalty, tourism, complexity, and money. The other bank, on the south, has a single row of low houses – maybe two storeys high at the most, strung out like the fishermen's cottages at Deal beach. Presumably no rock for foundations, just mud, and so no tall buildings, nothing to defend, just a muddy swampy village, sitting facing the glamour and power of the other bank. In London the city was on the north bank, and a small huddle of brothels and dives existed on the southern end of London Bridge - until they learned how to create artificial foundations in the 17th and of course later the 19th century.  Christopher Wren lived in some of the old brothel buildings when he was building St Pauls - he could look across the water and see his creation rise over the skyline. Apart from the fact that the water here flows to the west, and in London of course it's to the east, you could see this same scenario at Blois. 

Just as we sat and watched the otters on the Dronne, the peasants on the south bank at Blois must have watched the gambolling of kings and gentry on the north bank. Somehow I don't suppose the aristos paid the slightest attention to the farmers and lackeys on the other side. Of all the riparian watchers mentioned in this blog, I think we were the most fortunate. The otters were wondrous.  

Friday, 12 May 2017

Pleasures and a huge storm

Shocking how easy it is to forget how wonderful France can be. 

Leaving Faversham early in the morning with the mists draping the roads, then a calm ferry crossing to Calais (meeting up with friends on the boat). The design qualities on these vessels is calming in itself.

Then onto the roads - so smooth and (because we're paying tolls) empty and easy. There are the signature tokens of being French - the repeats of trees, the art along the motorways, the well-designed aires, the businesslike activity of road gangs who seem to make light of their sometimes massive challenges, the naming of all the rivers, tunnels and viaducts. It's organised.

We stopped for lunch at one of our old haunts, the Aire de la baie de Somme, where we bought packets of our favourite sweeties - the macarons d'Amiens - a fantastic medieval meld of almonds and honey.  The view from the cafe window is of the brutally designed little lake and grass planting, looking particularly unlovely at the moment. But the seven drakes and one duck were happy enough bobbing into and out of the water.

We had booked into a hotel in Tours for the night - getting round Rouen was much easier than before with all the traffic jams on the other side of the road - how satisfying.  When the sun was out, everything was far too hot. The windows in the new car are too big - eh!  When the sun disappeared into the huge wintry cloud sequences it was all too cold - we had to have the heater on. Maybe the jet stream is too far south. It's very odd weather this year.

Tours of course is lovely - our hotel has a parking at the back. We walked out in sunshine and with only light clothing - and then the rain started. Tumultuous.  Luckily for us, this being a Catholic country and a tourist city, the huge doors of St Martin's cathedral were open. We ducked inside with two purposes. To avoid the monsoon and to see the church.  

Oh height! oh stained glass! Oh chanting!  Such beauty! The thunder storm raged outside - even high up in the nave we could hear the weather bashing against the roof. The rain hitting the pavement and steps outside made a loud hissing splashing splatting noise.  People were sheltering in the porch like us.... Some monks started their plainsong up at the altar..... The sound itself - this combination - was magic.

As the rain gradually came to a stop, the skies cleared, and then more rain came.  We had a drink - everyone was waiting to see if the rain had really stopped. 

The atmosphere is uplifting - the book shops and antiques shops, bric-a-brac, ethnic cafes and restaurants - Ethiopian, Lebanese, Syrian, Turkish, Chinese, Indian, and of course a lot of French ones including the regional specialists and a cheese resto (le Souris Gourmande). The bar-tabacs are stashed with fags. There are so many tiny shops, not chain stores.  Music everywhere - people carrying cellos, practice sounds coming from the conservatoire, posters for gigs, and unusual brass instruments for sale. 

We found a restaurant, family-owned, where the cooking is like the old days - absolutely superb, everything about it done with pride, not very expensive, but full of respect, flavour, pleasure, grace and love.  

Do not hesitate to eat there if you visit the city. The waiter - a young man - is the son of the owner and a sommelier in his own right. Does anyone in England aspire to be a waiter?  

When we came out, to wander back to the hotel, the sky looked beaten up by the storm, with a strange orange light, and there was a huge rainbow in the sky - double, triple. 

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Junk and Disorderly

In Devon, near the River Dart, the lanes are deep and completely convoluted.  The banks on either side are filled with flowers - bluebells, buttercups, ragged robin, cow parsley, wild garlic, toadflax, and more, and also a mass of ferns and wild clematis, and lords and ladies.  What life was like before the age of the motor car I can scarcely imagine. The work and care involved to get a horse-drawn wagon, or oxen along - up and down, and how to drive sheep or cattle along, must have been highly demanding. Even driving a car require the utmost attention, because the roads are so very narrow and enclosed for the most part with stone work. Meeting anyone coming from the other direction requires fast reflexes, skill, respect and patience. The passing places are just about adequate but only if you manoeuvre through them very slowly.

We came a higgledy-piggledy way to Dittisham in order to take one of the minute ferry services - the Dart Higher Ferry - across this beautiful tidal river.  The crossing cost us about £5 and took roughly10 minutes. Charming.

As I sit in the conservatory of our friend's friends' house, I can see an expansive bay of calm silvery water, with woodlands coming down to the water's edge for the most part and a couple of dozen yachts moored and almost motionless in their safe anchorages. Across on the other side, Agatha Christie once lived. The area is now protected but only because locals fought to prevent industrial estates being banged in onto what must have been seen as 'cheap' farmland. The house we are in is one of a set of what were originally council houses built with these superb views, and covenants prevent them from being flogged on for stupid amounts of money.  The rectory up the lane, not so protected, was done up by one family who made it look beautiful and offered it for sale for £1.2m, and had a fight on their hands with more than one bidder - so it went for about £8m.  Its swimming pool which used to be the playground for local children is now private. The house is now mostly unoccupied and has electric gates. It was probably just one banker's bonus.

Last night we went in convoy down these winding mysterious lanes to F*****s, a hotel-cum-restaurant, where about 20 people gathered as the preliminary event for the weekend's party. These were all friends and family of our friend Wattie who has had varied and interesting career in the BBC and in the restaurant and hotel trades, and so there were some very amusing stories about friends who'd got too involved in the cocaine trade and ended up in jail, or who'd set up a new resto and made a success of it, and ended up with a chain of them in London. The hotel itself is an old, long low stone building with a lot of original panelling plus extra decor brought in, and furnished with family pictures and the rest, all very beaten-up looking and comfortable, an amazing eclectic blend of beautiful and useful, and in no style at all. Completely inimitable I would have thought.  Our hostess is the sister of the owner. Their grandfather had an antique business in Edinburgh (I suppose about 100 years ago) and amassed a large collection of very fine things from various estates, and so some of this is now in use in the hotel and in the house where we are staying.

This morning we went into Dartmouth to buy socks, and there we saw a shop called Junk and Disorderly.  (This was funny enough to prompt me to create a new Facebook page called Funny Shop Names).

Then we followed our host Patrick who kindly led us by more of these amazing lanes into Totnes.... a steep and arty town which has banned chain stores so it is consequently filled with proper shops - butchers, bread shops, lots of hippy things, art galleries, grocers, delis, bookshops, shoeshops, all that.  The great disciplines of the mass market are not imposed in Totnes. There are some fairly professional-looking homeless guys sitting about. The market is thriving with every kind of garden plant, clothing, antiques, bric-a-brac, hot food, furniture, books etc on briskly run stalls.  The church of St Mary has an astonishing medieval stone screen across two chapels and the chancel with corbels and tracery. The Puritans took the Rood from the top of it but the main work is outstanding. We climbed the wrong hill to find the castle but then went back up to where it's been since 1068 - a Norman motte and bailey, grim place, frequently rebuilt but still with nothing much more than bare stone and grass and a memory of masculine aggression and possession. Power. That period of English history when the Norman Vikings took us over is one of savage oppression which is barely mentioned in heritage sites like this. Castles and kings are exalted. But they were brutal, kept to their own language, treated the English natives as scum and feudal slaves. It wasn't till the Black Death in the 14th century that market forces gave the English people some sort of leverage to regain control of their lives and land. The view of the town from the walkway at the top of the walls is pretty amazing, and you can see the way the town land had been portioned out in Saxon times - long strips giving each property a frontage and then space at the back, like smallholdings. The slate roofscape is very beautiful and sculptural. The town is jolly and bustling and friendly.

Altogether we bought socks of two types, a T-shirt, 4 marble coasters, a basket, a wrap-skirt, a pink purse or wallet and lunch. Very fine day.  Tonight we go back to the hotel for the real party.  I fear I should have reported on the glories of yesterday's drive through the New Forest, into Dorchester, and then out past Maiden Castle and the brilliant red-earth fields of Devonian Devon, but it's already slipped into a past which is barely retrievable. Time passing.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Happy birthday

For us, this is the season of 70th birthday parties. Friends have been kind enough to invite us to rather special gatherings, and the first is this coming weekend in Devon. We have escaped our responsibilities and chores and are making a long weekend of it.  So, although the party starts tomorrow, we left home a day early to maraud around part of the New Forest, en route.

Satnavs are marvellous, of course, giving their directions in whichever voice or accent we've selected and can be pretty reliable. But they have all the disadvantages of a tiny screen and a mind of their own. If you want to divert, or go through a particular waypoint, it's not always easy to set that up. We wanted to go via Maidstone to cut a corner. We could see the road numbers ahead of us and were led through a wonderfully downbeat part of town, a kind of townscape almost wiped out nowadays with small shops, lots of converted buildings some dating from the 18th century but all covered in diesel grime, narrow pavements, everything looking as if it's waiting to be demolished but struggling on meanwhile. Very Dickensian.  The route petered out. The signage and the speed of the satnav's instructions do not really tally and we were on the wrong road in no time, heading for Hastings instead of Tunbridge.  An exciting BANG happened when a passing lorry knocked the wing mirror off another lorry waiting in a traffic queue behind us. The culprit rushed off. The injured party set off in pursuit, two large vehicles heading for some kind of dustup.   We tried to get back to where we should have been. The traffic lights took ages.  Our new road turned out to be a building site, with Road Closed signs everywhere.  This diversion cost us about 40 minutes overall.

The landscape is stunning - not quite in full summer leaf, and ash trees still denuded of any kinds of greenery, but the hedges and woods filling with brilliant pale greens and yellows, the distant views still almost intact, and birdsong flooding the air if you stop to listen. The lambs and sheep look happy and calm. The white blossoms of hawthorn and cow parsley are frothing along the roadsides. The bluebells are spread like hallucinogenic clouds through the woodlands. England in early May is just breathtakingly beautiful.

We sauntered on through the paradise land, the lanes and roads twisting and winding, the trees meeting overhead, the greenery fresh and scintillating.

Eventually the idea of coffee (and a wee) came to dominate our thoughts and we did that thing of spending a long time trying to choose where exactly to stop.  Not one but two pubs with large signs outside saying 'OPEN' and 'Food served all day' turned out to be CLOSED and with nothing doing.  It's irritating because you have to stop, safely, and lock up, and gather your bags and bits, and all that and really the pubs either ought to sign their true opening times more clearly or show some decent human and commercial sense and say (as the man did last week at the exemplary Fox Inn at Bucks Green near Horsham) 'We're not really open yet but if you hang on a moment yes of course we can serve you a coffee.....'.

So BOO to the pub in Langton Green, and BOO to the Gallipot at Hartfield for their inhospitality.  We got to Forest Row in the end, and there was Taffel's Deli-Cafe with free parking opposite and a most excellent arty atmosphere, with free wifi and nice service and good coffee - so that we stayed on for lunch and they had £30's worth of business from us and a mention on Facebook.

The A272 is quite a characterful road, running parallel to the south coast but a way inland , and not so plagued with traffic as the coast road, leading through a succession of plump Anglo-Saxon townships now glittering with antique shops and the like, and with very pleasing acute turns and corners forcing the traffic into exquisite manoeuvres which force your mind into contemplation of times past, rather like the grimy relicts of Maidstone, only better brushed up. By the time we got to Midhurst we'd had enough of sauntering and bashed southwards towards the motorways and a speedier arrival.   We were heading to Hampshire's Hythe.

This ancient place name means 'a safe harbour' and there are many of them around the coast.  As far as Andrew was concerned, this one has been on his list of places to go for many years because a) it has a pier, and b) it has a railway on the pier, and c) it has a ferry service from the end which goes across the Water to Southampton.  Hythe itself has been done up a bit, pavement level raised (with a Georgian doorway looking ridiculously squat), and it has a useful modern shopping centre and lots of modern housing at reasonable prices, in comparison (say) to Emsworth which we visited last September and where house prices are at millionaire level.    

We got to the pier. It's brilliantly ramshackle looking, a bit chaotic and spindly to be honest, and with a wealth of posters and leaflets on hand and a slightly disgruntled man selling tickets and trying to explain the intricacies of the train timetable and the ferry timetable to idiot visitors like us.   £10 bought us a return ticket all the way to Southampton by train and ferry.... and so we clambered into the tiny wooden coach with varnished slat benches, and not too long to wait before the whole caboodle set off along the pier.  700 feet to the end, clickety-clack, clickety-clack. It rocks and sways. The doors need not be shut. The sea swishes about underneath. It's ridiculous and marvellous.  At the far end, there are piles of lumber and old oil tanks and sheets of rusty iron and coils of rope. People have paid to have their names inscribed into the stout teak planks, part of the fundraising which keeps the whole thing going.  

Down a ramp, a small open modern boat is bobbing about - the ferry, called Jenny Ann.  We go aboard, wait a bit and eventually with a great roar of the diesel engine we set off the couple of miles across the water. We saw tug boats and fast ferries for the Isle of Wight. The landscape on either side is low and flat.  The sky was dull and the sea calm.  At Southampton we swung round onto the berth and everyone got off.... We walked up the ramp, strolled along the quay with completely anonymous modern buildings and carparks and over to the remnants of the city's medieval walls, apparently the largest of their kind in the country.  These scraps of lovely stonework incorporate an almshouse and college, a huge dovecot, a Franscican friary and various towers and a chapel.  Labelling is intermittent - some boards having faded to nothing.   We had 20 minutes or so to take it all in and then back to the ferry and back across the water.   All calm and good fun. The trip back was much more crowded with at least 4 bicycles stacked against the simple seating and three times as many passengers. No-one was talking, either way.

We had twenty minutes to go through the New Forest then, to get to Sway and our bed for the night. The Forest looked utterly lovely with horses and foals, some cattle, deer in the woods, and blossom and fresh greenery, and not much traffic.  

Sway has one truly remarkable thing. A Tower.  It is 14 storeys tall, and almost pointless. Of course it has marvellous views from the top, but no lift. It is the largest structure in the world made of non-reinforced concrete, built by Lord Peterson who was a barrister in India in the 19th century and came home to spend his fortune on his estate, employing 40 people for 6 years and building cottages and houses for them too.   This extraordinary thing is not in any way beautiful, looking rough and scratchy though it has tall windows up its sides and a cupola on top. It also has a whole section bearing a mass of telecommunications equipment which apparently brings in a tidy income.  The first four floors are arranged as bedrooms, each with en suite bathrooms. There is a swimming pool and two fine reception rooms and other spaces. The whole thing is for sale for £2 million pounds. Quite cheap really (if you don't mind stairs).  There is a much smaller puppy tower about 150 yards from the big one, maybe a practice structure. It looks like a campanile.

Our B&B is ok, with a patch of plastic grass outside the terrace (looks ok and presumably stops mud being walked into the house), and two happy Gloucester Old Spot pigs in a field being fattened up, and a distant view of the Tower.  Now we are in bed, tired and happy after a pub supper along the road. I think Andrew has had a good birthday. He looked so happy on that train.