Breton Stripes & Gripes

Summer feels a long time off, but I was determined to get another blog under the belt this month, and I didn’t want to let our summer holiday go by unnoticed.

It was a first time abroad for the smaller girl, a proud holder of an EU passport for a while longer, the first time we’d been on Eurotunnel since 2014, and a different kind of holiday in many ways – the first buggy-free, but at the height of a heatwave, the idea of doing the kind of hikes we are used to in UK holidays was off the table. Oh and there was going to be camping. That was new.

We got stuck in a horrible tailback at the tunnel – the hot weather meant it couldn’t run at full capacity, but after a few hours hanging around we were across the channel and heading to our first stop in Rouen.

I remember being very impressed by Rouen as a teenager, and the cathedral is certainly epic. It didn’t quite have the romance I remembered, but then that’s probably what 25 years difference makes. The hotel was outside the old town and was fairly unglamorous, but if I’d known it was one of the better nights sleep of the holiday, I would have given it more credit!

The next day certainly delivered on romance and drama, as we drove to Mont St Michel – somewhere I hadn’t been for even longer, a holiday when I was 4 or 5. I knew it was a tourist trap and crowded and on a full-on heatwave day, likely to be hellish, and yet, and yet, how could you not want to go into a place like that?

The winding lane up through the ‘town’ was not quite as I remembered it – it had become my childhood blueprint for ‘medieval citadel’ and I’d forgotten how much of it was actually tourist tat shops, and restaurants that were all full (we had lunch in a place a bit like a French version of Upper Crust – although of course the baguettes were much better – as it was the only place not turning people away).

It was still ridiculously pretty, and thanks to the narrow streets and high walls, there was some welcome shade. Plus, I’d worried the girls would find it dull and too hot to enjoy themselves, but luckily they loved it as much as I had at the same age. (Phew!)

I failed to take any photos of the winding lane or the cute alleyways – minus points to me, it must have been the heat- but I did take one of the view across the sands which was rather impressive:

From there we went to the campsite – one of those sprawling enormous ones which the Eurocamp brochure would have praised for its family-friendly facilities and fabulous entertainment, whereas my parents would have gone for the ‘quiet, shady sites with larger than average pitch size’ and given this one a big swerve.

Luckily, our tent was on the very edge of the site and a long way from the night time fireworks and open-air live music – although a bit dwarfed by an enormous hedge around the perimeter which made it feel a bit like we were next door to an angry Leylandii neighbour.

We were also cheek-by-jowl with some very tiny shoddy-looking caravans, though with a sunset and rainbow like the ones below, you can’t really complain, can you?

Well, of course you can complain, and we are born middle-class grumblers who would like to be well away from other people and not have to use toilet blocks, but the girls loved the water slides and sleeping in the tent.

Eurocamp give you proper beds rather than camp beds these days, but beds that have sat in a tent for a while get a bit rickety and creaky, and over-excited children take a long while to get to sleep, so we all slept badly the first night, and as we were so shattered, fairly well the second night – that was the second good nights sleep of the holiday.

Then it was on to the gîte, the bit we’d been really looking forward to after the camping – proper beds, proper showers, a hot tub – and it really was idyllic. (First photo is the instagram moment, a moss and fern-covered staircase leading to nowhere).

It was also the place to go if you like hydrangea (luckily, I do).

At this point, the heatwave receded for a few days, in Brittany at least, but if you’re staying in a thick-walled farm building with bedrooms in the attic with tiny velux windows, at night it’s beautifully cool downstairs but hot as an oven upstairs.

It felt like a terrible con to be staying somewhere so lovely and to sleep so badly every night.

We managed to make the most of our days, despite the disturbed nights – the most memorable place for me was Huelgoat – probably because it was most like our typical British holidays – and it was shady.

It’s an amazing wooded gorge which is full of weird rock formations, including one of those mythical rocking stones you can supposedly move with one hand (you can’t). This was probably the longest walk we did the entire holiday, very different from previous years.

Our other major day trips included Carnac – amazing to see the standing stones and very doable with small children, despite the heat, thanks to being able to go round the site on a small train. You can also get off and walk, though as at Stonehenge, you can’t get too near the stones.

Then we did the afternoon on the beach at Carnac, but the lack of shade made it a bit of a struggle – the same with Le Pouldu which had been recommended as a good beach. Found myself wishing for a good old British windbreak…

On the last day in Brittany, we found the perfect balance – another scorching day, but we went to Lac le Guerledan, where you can hire pedalos, and swim, and afterwards (oh joy!) sit under a tree in blissful SHADE to eat ice creams.

Then we stopped for one night en route home in lovely Honfleur….

– if there is a more chocolate-box perfect (or Normandy biscuit-tin perfect) place, I don’t want to hear about it.

And the B&B place we’d booked rather uncertainly after failing to find a ‘family friendly hotel’, turned out to be an amazing apartment to which we had our own private entrance, and beds which delivered a final heavenly night’s sleep, followed by breakfast cooked by the owners in a courtyard garden below.

That was the point I started to wish we’d booked another night or two – but it was time to go home. À bientôt, Bretagne.


Even Further West

This is a post I’ve been looking forward to writing, but also putting off – because I’m going back to one of my favourite places, but I’m also not sure I can do it justice.

When I went to Cornwall in 2002, I stayed right at the very end. Ok, not the very end, but in one of the last villages before Land’s End.

It was one of those holidays memorable not solely for idyllic and relaxing moments – I remember a lot of mist, fog and rain – and a holiday barn which you might call bijou and atmospheric, but could also have accurately been called basic and somewhat uncomfortable.

But something about the far west of Cornwall got under my skin, and it hasn’t ever really left me. This time round, when we stayed squarely in the centre of the county, I noticed a difference – we were surrounded by cornfields, not to mention acres of cauliflowers (if we’d got cut off from Truro and Waitrose by a flash flood, we could have survived quite well on caulis).

It was charming and scenic and bucolic and so on, but it wasn’t the wild, rugged Cornwall I remembered – where the recall of magical names like Sennen, St Buryan, St Just, Lamorna, Treen and Mousehole can still cast a spell over me.

So, with only a couple of days left in Cornwall, I wanted to go back to my favourite place. The weather didn’t look promising, but crucially it did look like it would improve the further west we went – so we set off, and as we passed St Michael’s Mount and Penzance, I felt my spirits rising (and the sun did come out!)

It is impossible to put my finger on it, but beyond Penzance, the landscape did change subtly. Narrower lanes, definitely, less trees, (and those there were more obviously shaped by the wind). Houses seemed to get smaller and more hunched into the ground.

Everything slightly less lush and green, as if all the vegetation had been scorched by salt. We drove slower, the roads got narrower. I was convinced we’d missed a turning: it didn’t feel like a place I ought to be using a smartphone. Back in the day, I would have had a road atlas on my lap, but some of these lanes were too tiny to be on an atlas.

Then, finally, the lane turned abruptly downhill and we got a glimpse of the beach I lost my heart to all those years back – Porthcurno, home of the famous Minack theatre.

I hadn’t visited the theatre last time, and we didn’t plan ahead well enough to arrange to see a play this time, but we could pay to look around, so this is what we did first. The cliff top location is every bit as dramatic as I imagined, the sheer scale of it impressive – and quite terrifying if you have any problem with heights or cliff edges.

Quite how you’d manage to watch a play there without being completely distracted by the surroundings – let alone the issue of audibility, which is often a challenge for me – but there was a fascinating exhibition on the site explaining how theatre companies deal with the, um, unique performance conditions.

Then, we went to the beach. I’m not sure I can quite explain why I love Porthcurno beach so much, but these things probably contribute:

– it’s a perfect horseshoe curve of a bay with the dramatic Logan Rock (see far right in the picture above) at one end, and towering cliffs on either side.

– the sea is the colour above (ok probably not in February) and the clearest water I’ve ever seen in Britain.

– it is simply the best beach for swimming outside of the Caribbean I’ve ever been.

The waves are not so huge that you can’t get into the water easily, but once you’re in, the ground shelves away quickly and you’re comfortably out of your depth (just enough for it to feel slightly thrilling, but not dangerous, provided you’re a confident swimmer).

I must have spent a good hour, on and off, with my feet up, sculling with my hands, bobbing up and down in the waves and feeling in complete heaven. (Btw the last time I was there, a shark swam into the bay. It was exactly like Jaws, the speed with which everyone got out of the water. This time, fortunately, no shark).

The other joyful moment was taking the big girl for her first proper swim in the sea. (The toddler’s verdict was that the waves were ‘too scratchy’).

The big girl loved it, though, and I hope that she remembers the first proper time she went in the sea was at Porthcurno, the one of the best beaches in the world, and her mum’s favourite place in England. (Not my favourite place in Britain – that can be saved for another day).

A West Country Round-Up

Autumn has blown itself in very promptly, with rain and winds accompanying the return to school, but seeing as we aren’t facing hurricanes here, I am resolving not to grumble too much.

Still, our summer holiday does seem rather long ago now, and I did want to capture a bit of it before I forget too much. This may wind up being a two-parter, though.

This was a fairly different holiday from the last two – we almost exclusively did without the buggy this time round. The scooters didn’t come out of the car boot a single time. This meant, a slower pace, a lot of children carried on shoulders and stopping and starting, but on the plus side, we could now tackle stiles.

Our first proper walk was to try and get down to the beach where we were staying, near Sidmouth in Devon. This was the first bit of sunshine after a morning of rain, so we were determined to make the most of it.

It started easily enough, from the donkey sanctuary (nice cafe), a steep path through the woods which turned into this seemingly idyllic stroll across a field. It looked like another stretch of woodland below us, and the sea not terribly far away.

The reality was quite different though – that lovely green field was actually soaking wet and muddy, and once both children had fallen on their knees, we began to lose hope. Another walker toiling back up the hill warned us that it got a lot more slippery further down, so we turned back at that point.

I did get in a walk by myself that evening, though – down to the nearest hamlet (barely more than 2 farmhouses and one of those was half-ruined), and I got to experience a true deep Devon lane. Plenty more lanes like this were to come, but I think this was the only one I got to walk down blissfully all by myself.

We got a nice sunset that evening, too.

The next day was forecast to be the Good Day of the week, so we decided to go to Lyme Regis. Unfortunately (or otherwise) it was the Lyme Regis carnival with Red Arrows display that evening.

We found a parking space by the skin of our teeth, and headed into town to find it crawling with people, and the beach even busier. I knew that the proper beach – the fossil bit – was further down, so once the kids had paddled and we’d had lunch, I dragged them all down there.

It took quite a lot of hunting, but we found some of the ammonites eventually. Really quite a thing! The looming, crumbling cliffs were slightly terrifying though, especially seeing people scrambling around and excavating bits (why would you??)

We ventured back to the hordes in town, watched the lifeboat launch on what turned out to be a false alarm, and walked out to the end of the Cobb for the views back along the coast.

Lots of people crabbing, but we thought the two year old was much too great a liability to be allowed near any big drops – I warned the children what happened to Louisa Musgrove in Persuasion, not that they were much interested – we just admired other people’s crabs instead.

By then we had pretty much decided it was too hot and exhausting to try and last until the Red Arrows display, so after another paddle, and tea, we headed home. A good move, as it turned out – with so few routes in and out of the town, it was gridlocked trying to leave later on.

Still, crowds or no, Lyme remains one of my very favourite places and I’m very glad we went.

Our last day in Devon was spent at Branscombe, a much cloudier day, but a proper chocolate box place (National Trust of course) and some very impressive cliffs with holiday cabins and mobile homes clinging to the sides in terrifying fashion.

The pebbly beach was quite hard going walking with children, so I abandoned the attempt to get up close to the huge rock pillar at the beach end, but contented myself with hunting out some marine flora.

We ended the day in the neighbouring village of Beer, which if anything I liked even better than Branscombe – it was still a proper fishing village, but with no quay – boats pulled up on the shingle alongside the beach cafe.

Here we were able to buy fresh fish to cook at home – though it didn’t come cheap – and there was a cabin right down by the beach set up as a tiny, free exhibition about all things marine (seemingly so tiny and obscure I can’t even find a reference to it on Google, but it was well worth a visit!).

This was the end of the Devon leg of our holiday – next day, on to Cornwall. To be continued…

Stormy seas and retro rummaging

Well. I’ve been rather slack, haven’t I? I was aiming for a blog post every two weeks, but every week since early August (when we got back from holiday), it was a case of ‘ooh I’ll do one next week’ followed by ‘perhaps I’ll get a chance on Friday night’, but one thing led to another and here we are in bloomin’ November.

What’s been going on? Voluntary work, juggled with trying to set up a business of my own, and parenting an actual human toddler. I’ve even managed to start a sewing course, dance at a ceilidh and, most recently, witnessed the St Jude’s Day storm at close hand.

We had planned a weekend on the south coast a while ago – wanting to revisit favourite old haunts, and explore new places, we picked Hastings as our base, as I had heard good things about the vintage and junk shops in the Old Town.

On first view, it didn’t disappoint.

Hastings fishing sheds and boats,

Hastings fishing sheds and boats, East Cliff behind

The seafront was a proper working fishing beach, with net-drying weatherboarded huts and shacks selling fresh fish alongside boats hauled out on the shingle. It felt real, with ropes and lobster pots piled up everywhere – but just one street back, you find yourself in a weird mix of chocolate box pubs, overpriced ‘vintage’ tat and sweetie shops.

Sweetie shop, Hastings

Sweetie shop, Hastings

Hidden amongst the gimmicky shops, though, were some genuine junk emporiums piled high with the weird, the wonderful, the forgotten and unloved, and a fair few bargains to be had. I was most impressed with the legendary Robert’s Rummage, and a shop over the road from it (have forgotten the name, sorry!) which not only had a basement full of glorious junk, it even had a second basement below the basement.

After splashing out with my tenner on several choice items, we caught the funicular railway up the West Cliff where we had a prime view of St Jude’s storm brewing, and saw the ant-like figures of daredevil people standing right on the promenade as waves broke right over them.

Hastings from West Cliff

Hastings from West Cliff

From there, we decided to drop back down into the Old Town, and the real glory of Hastings revealed itself. I’ve always been a fan of the alleyway, the ginnel, the cut-through, the switchback and dogleg, and the Old Town is full of them.

Alleyway, Hastings

Alleyway, Hastings

Everywhere we looked, there were stairways twisting away from us, archways to peep through and paths leading invitingly round corners.

Pedestrianised lane, Hastings

Pedestrianised lane, Hastings

On top of this, each cottage was cuter than the next (and yet not too chocolate boxy)….

Half-timbered cottage, Hastings

Half-timbered cottage, Hastings

…and of course there was garden after garden to admire; as we descended towards the high street, I found we’d saved the best till last. There was a flight of stairs with tiny cottages on either side, a plant perched on each tread of the stairs…

Staircase view, Hastings

Staircase view, Hastings

…and it led to the most beautiful, perfect wee jewel of a courtyard, crammed with flowers and even the obligatory friendly cat.

Staircase and flowers, Hastings

Staircase and flowers, Hastings

Cottages, Hastings

Cottages, Hastings

Courtyard, Hastings

Courtyard, Hastings

Cat, Hastings

Cat, Hastings

To find this fairytale courtyard, with its Goldilocks cottages and witches cat, was like stepping into a dream world, just a stone’s throw from a touristy thoroughfare full of DFLers (Down-from-Londoners) like us buying expensive nick nacks we don’t really need. There were even reports of secret smuggling caves and tunnels, which would have been the icing on the cake for me, but we didn’t have time to investigate those further.

There was more to the weekend, though – a trip to Eastbourne and Birling Gap where we saw the St Jude’s build-up at even closer hand, lashing against the Seven Sisters…

Seven Sisters from Birling Gap

Seven Sisters from Birling Gap

…a flying visit to Bexhill to see the De La Warr Pavilion at sunset…

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

and of course the experience of the storm itself; surprisingly calm overnight, as the bedroom we were staying in faced away from the sea, and stayed relatively quiet. The next morning we drove along to Brighton – again, seeing little damage as the Weald countryside inland had been sheltered by the Downs – and I had a happy 30 minutes browsing the perfectly-named Snoopers Paradise on North Laine.

Throw in a proper seaside chippy tea and some good coffee & walnut cake, and you have my perfect weekend pretty much to a T.

Hut with a view

A recent article in the Guardian about the joys of living in huts and cabins reminded me of the various small dwellings I’ve stayed in and visited, from the huts belonging to my relatives in Wales and the Lakes to a tiny gem of a converted barn in Cornwall, and perhaps best of all, a bothy on a beach in Orkney, which had barely any furniture but a fire burning to warm any passing hikers.

However, one thing missing from my childhood was a beach hut. Whenever we went to the beach, I used to long for a hut of our own – although I was disappointed to learn you weren’t allowed to stay overnight in them, and subsequently struggled to understand what they were for.

If all you could do was sit in them during the day, and not have a fire on the beach at night, toasting marshmallows, before going back to drink hot chocolate and sleep in cosy bunks in your beach hut, what was the point?

Blinged beach hut, Felixstowe

Blinged beach hut, Felixstowe

On a recent trip to Suffolk, however, I was reminded, via the joys of the British summer, what the real purpose of a beach hut is. As we battled along the windy Felixstowe sea front, and eyed a dark cloud that threatened to break before we reached the nearest cafe, I saw smug people in beach huts who were able to brew tea on their Primus stoves, hide from the gusts behind wind breaks, and (if the clouds burst) retreat right inside to play cards or Cluedo, while those of us without beach huts had to pay to sit in a cafe and stare glumly at our smartphones.

Shoreside cabins and boats, Waldringfield

Shoreside cabins and boats, Waldringfield

In the nearby village of Waldringfield we saw even larger huts – proper cabins – with curtains at the windows, verandahs and everything, which presumably could be slept in overnight. (although we spotted one with a Portaloo cabin behind it, so evidently full plumbing is not part of the works).

What I was not able to photograph, without being too stalkerish, were the cabin interiors – but from the casual snooping I did as we walked past, I began to realise why the perennially popular ‘nautical style’ is so beloved (it’s not a design trend I’ve ever really understood).

Nautical flowers and cabins, Felixstowe Ferry

Nautical flowers and cabins, Felixstowe Ferry

The beach huts which are properly kitted out, not just used as a dumping ground for deckchairs, really are a joy – the snug little kitchen units straight out of a ship’s galley, the padded benches on opposite sides, the checked curtains at the window and the shelves of driftwood, shells and other seaside nicknacks would all look dreadfully twee if they were in Homes and Gardens or Elle Deco, but in a beach hut they look just right.

And for a really glamorous hut with a view, this one overlooking the estuary at Waldringfield, complete with sun deck and bunting, really got me drooling…

Hut with a view, Waldringfield

Hut with a view, Waldringfield

We were only there for an afternoon, but I was pleased to discover beach huts at Felixstowe are available to hire by the day – some council-owned, surprisingly – so anyone can become king or queen of their own beach hut for a day.

No, I won’t get my daydream of sleeping in a beach hut overnight and drinking hot chocolate while watching for shooting stars above the North Sea, but I can still be one of those people sheltering from the rain on a British summer’s day, brewing my own tea and eating my own sandy sandwiches, and you can bet I’ll be as smug as anything about it.