Lockdown. Travelling at home. Seems like a thousand days to go.

In some parts of the world, day three went by a very long time ago.  I totally salute and honour you for coping – please tell me how you do it.  Am in day three, admittedly in a nice little house, on my lonesome, and everything about it has worn off. Every good intention, gone with the wisp of a ‘bloody hell, Bond never had to put up with this!’  Now even Bond has too … I need him to tell me how. Is there a lifeline number I can call …

All for the greater good, I know.  We are pushing down the curve, I know.  I know.  I also know I spent  my life avoiding prison and right now, seems like I am in one anyway.  Not complaining, not complaining … not complaining.  Need to re-think the strategy, revise, surmise, organise.  I can’t even bring myself to do the ironing. Who the hell wants to do the ironing when you are never going to get to wear the clothes you are ironing in the first place – seriously, who is going to wear the lovely suit, frock and blazer when life is reduced to gym kit and bare feet?

Lasted two whole days being the positive, and tomorrow is another day.  Tomorrow is Monday … is it Monday, is tomorrow  Monday, or another trick?  Is it really Monday?  If it is, I’ll start tomorrow, with the online everything, dress up and put on the make-up, coiffed hair and sunny smile.  Tomorrow for sure. To be fair, I have been self-isolating for the past two weeks in London so it’s really, day what for me now?

Dear diary.  Started the lockdown really well.  Prepared I was.  Well prepared.  Snuck out for supplies, bought the entire food supply for Latvia and stocked.  Dreams of cooking, soup making, baking of bread.  Eggs and Aubergines.  Matters not that I do not eat meat, eggs and Aubergines – they are living in my fridge. In case. One never knows when these are called for in the next millennium, which is what it feels like being here. How long I shall be here?

Even bought the box dye.  One never knows, be prepared young girl guide.  And that ‘just touch the roots’ stuff.  Shall I resort to both when I begin to look like a panda from the top down? Dear God, is it the razor from now on?  Will I ever kiss the ground of a salon again, feel the warmth of wax, of facial and professional blow wave again? Am I a sinner for wondering when the world is at risk? Shallow, shallow woman!

Started well.  First day.  Dressed. Made soup. Pretended to exercise. Walked up and down. Read a book. Avoided the puzzle (that is giving in at this stage). Internet down so pretended I was in a Jane Austen novel – sans sewing box and quill – listened for birdsong and forgave the ants for coming after the soup. Afternoon nap (massive failure on my part as I always believed napping was wasting hours of doing). Timed the wine ‘o clock well.  Contemplated life.

Day two. Thank the Lord the Internet is back on.  I can connect! Dressed. Make up on, tweaked with tweezers and forced the curly hair into irons. Make up done.  Washed the brushes, tidied the cupboards, alphabetised the DVD’s and clipped the roses.  Routine sorted.  An hour of this and and hour of that, like units in ‘About a Boy.’ Put the soup in the fridge, ate pizza, cookies, crisps, bread, more crisps, fruit, more bread, more cookies and rationed the wine.  We are not allowed to buy wine for the next three weeks, and rationed the wine – drank beer.

Day three.  At least I showered. Gym pants.  Walked through the house and did a squat as I put on the kettle.  A sit up after I made the bed. Looked at online everything available and went, sod it. Coffee.  More coffee. A little more coffee. Ten o’ clock and wine called me from the fridge.  Resisted big time. Decided to buy a Chateau in France. Decided how to lose weight when you are in your sixties. Decided to Google that again tomorrow – Monday you know, everything starts on a Monday.

Started tossing dead parsley, bananas and froze the meat instant meals for the next decade.  Is this the time to stop having wine and getting the body back in shape, she thinks?  Will think again tomorrow, it is Monday after all. Today is Sunday, she hopes and checks the totally empty diary for confirmation. Empty diary equals no life as she knows it.

But, it’s day three – a few hundred more to go and rather than become Miss Havisham on steroids, am going to be super positive on Monday.  If perchance a soul walks by, would I do a twirly dance with glee?

It’s day three and I am having serious withdrawal symptoms, as one would early on in withdrawal from anything.  Tomorrow is going to be more positive, I shall not succumb to the gym pants, the soup ( which sans certain ingredients is horrible) and plan for Paris. Do not falter stupid woman, I say to myself, do not succumb to the being alone and isolated – to the wine, for you shall run out, and to the lard that is slowly invading your body.  Do not succumb to watching what you loathe for want of entertainment or stoop to snacking and staring at the wall.

You will be so much better on day four. Do not be complacent or critical.  Think of those who are out there to save your life, make the world better and stop being such silly person.  But you know what, even in times of trouble, all alone, we are allowed the little wallowing for I know tomorrow I shall be a Titan and all will be well.

Just had to put it out there, being locked up, or locked down and finding it really tough. I am being honest, being alone now, is tough.  Am being honest in that I am a little scared. Honest in wanting life the way I knew it. It’s ok to blah, doing it now, but not ok to not make it ok tomorrow.  Stay tuned and promise, no gym pants tomorrow.

Stay safe and I admire all of you who are making this time the most productive time.  Let me know how xxx

Image: know your memes

Planning for Paris 2020 – a special birthday.

It’s what I adore about a New Year.  All the plans and details and filling the diary with ideals and wishes you want the year to bring. Paris is of course, always uppermost.  Paris has been my ‘other love’ for over a decade, since I moved to London and found the ease of visiting Paris a secret loveliness, all of my own.

When the great re-location to London became more of an early coping in a new world, and nothing like I ever dreamed of, Paris offered me the sanctuary I desperately needed.  The London of tourists experience was nothing to the actual landing with the bump kind of experience my family endured.  Life reduced from the beautiful South Africa existence. We managed, failed on some levels, grew, and changed. In the midst of letting go and embracing a small and often daunting different situation, I discovered the great, and achievable passport, via the Eurostar, to Paris.  We have been in love ever since.

This year, the diary is poised for the return. The love affair has not diminished. With my family, friends or on my own, I have grown to know her small streets and captivating nuances. We know each other well.  In the past years, at least two or three trips a year, it has been Paris in the Spring, the Summer, magnificent Autumn, and always in the Winter ( I think I prefer the latter, just before Christmas when the tourists are gone and the bones of this lovely city still has me in awe.) Love the gardens, the parks, the shopping and side walk stopping for coffee – with Hemingway in mind – and the romance of Paris that still exists.

But, it is a New Year!  And a trip with a special person to celebrate her 60th birthday. The brief is such: Four days in Paris, guided by me, and a hotel with a garden or courtyard to return to in the evenings. A very special occasion.  We have done Paris before, my lovely friend and I, many times, only this time it’s going to be even more memorable.

This is the brief and the gift I can give. Four days in June to remember forever as being a milestone and, enchanting. My usual little hotel in the Opera district does not have a courtyard.  But no matter, the research has begun. Should it be on the right bank, close to the Opera for easy access to the Madeleine and Rue Saint Honoré for shopping, Paris style, or closer to the Place des Voges and the Marais?  Then there is the Left bank and all her gifts, the Café du Flore and Les Deux Margots to people watch? Always have to do the custom people watching from the illustrious vantage points. So important n’cest pas?

A visit to Deyrolle. Must be done for it is the ultimate scene in ‘Midnight in Paris’. Hidden gem, though a little disconcerting.

Any suggestions about the perfect hotel? With a courtyard or garden room?

A day to Giverney maybe?  A day to Versailles – most definitely. Got that covered. Restaurants, sorted.

Want this to be amazing!  Memorable.

What a good excuse to go over earlier – to sort of recce the city again. The deals on the Eurostar in February and March are enticing, so perhaps that is a good reason to visit before we go and celebrate.

This photograph was taken when I was in Paris for my 60th with my family. Captured a perfect moment on the bridge.  Paris is all about the bridges over the Seine – the not there anymore lovelock bridge, the Pont Alexandre 111, the Point Neuf bridge, so many to cross. And the parks – the Rodin Museum, the D’Orsay and the Orangerie. Perhaps a trip on the Bateaux in the evening? So many possibilities.

Last time I was there with my lovely friend, we spent hours in Montmatre. Years ago, my mother had my portrait drawn there, on the Place du Tertre – I took my daughters there to have theirs done and finally, on my 60th, the drawings of my son and son in law – all framed and up on the wall in my home. I think we should do this, to make it official, to commemorate her birthday. Sixty years of being there for each other.

So it is a trip to plan for sure, but a trip that will mean so much more. Sixty decades of having each other’s backs, listening to each others dreams, as life happened and has blessed us both. So you can imagine how important this trip is – it is my birthday present to her.

In Paris.

The dairy looks exceptional this year. This is one of those entries. Let’s see what else 2020 brings – keep you posted!

 

A drive to the Cotswolds and two favourite gardens.

It is a generally accepted, as I wish it to be, that driving into the countryside, spilling from village to village, in England,  is about nostalgia. Life still lived the way it used be, many moons ago.  It’s  the  stuff of Jane Austen’s Longbourne, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. Stately manors and quaint hamlets seemingly fixed in time. And for me, it always begins with the church.

Two days in the Cotswolds.  Not too far from London and an effortless drive, my first port of call is Burford. For most, Burford’s main attraction is the high street – rather like a high way from hill to bridge, to which most tourists keep.  You sweep down, stop a little, have some tea, browse some more and leave over the bridge and up toward the next village.  There are many to visit in this part of the Cotswolds, all with antique names like Bourton-on-the-water and Stow-on-the-Wold.  Run off the tongue they do, pretty images they make.

But for me, it is always to the churches.  Such as the one in Burford.  The Church is the lesson of the place.  Those who lie in the grass beside the doors.  The locals lads and lasses who went to war and never returned, their ghostly absences fixed on stone beneath the stained glass windows.  There are stories of hardship and loss, woven into the tapestry that are these little towns and most likely found in the church.

Burford is one of the larger towns in the Cotswolds.  Many, like me, fancy themselves an ochre coloured cottage within her boundaries, or down a country lane.  The prices here are high – quaintness costs.  Bus loads of tourists are tolerated, catered for, and valued for their contribution to the village GDP, but few will ever settle here.  Times I think, of course I could: would work in the Tea Room (have experience), do the Nativity play at Christmas and write poems beside the brook. The simple life for me … until I wonder how this soul will survive the quiet and isolating winters?

Eager to continue to the gardens, I crossed the bridge and swept left toward Stow-on-the-wold.

The view back over Burford.  Sweeping fields of Rape Seed beneath a broody sky.

Spring in England could present you with a confetti of seasons in one day.  The Barbour close at hand, the stripping and cloaking of it, a regular past time.  I don’t mind driving when it’s not too hot, besides, it’s lanes are the prettier for it.  As I have been to these other villages en route to Hidcote many times, I skirt them, swinging in, imagining I shall find the perfect house for the price and sadly, sweep out and onto the road again.  The fact finding is not restricted to the main towns, but stopping by hamlets dotted between.  If I did move here however, the mainline to London would dictate, I say to myself in my pretend looking to re-locate.

Another decision on this little road trip, was to leave the GPS at home.  The beauty of the journey is in fact to meander, drive with a semi idea of destination, tempted easily to lesser roads where more discovery is made.  Coming to a cross roads, shall I go left or right and if so, soon they all join up again, which most do.  Going is circles is possible, only they are such pretty circles to go around in.

I know the Cotswolds well.  I always need to return to Hidcote Manor Gardens.

Many years ago, I think it was 1987 or thereabouts, we first visited Hidcote.  Till then I had only been to the gardens of London, mostly parks, and tried to emulate the ‘English’ gardens I had seen in magazines, into my own patch in South Africa. Yup, always the rebel, none of the gorgeous, indigenous stuff for me, like my mother who wanted only European influence in her home – I wanted to pick the lavender, smell the rose and fall into daffodils.  I had an idea of garden design but it was not until I visited Hidcote, did the idea of ‘rooms’, distinctive colour planting and hedging really mean anything.  There are others, like Sissinghurst, that still have me under their spell, and gardens with less restrictive boundaries, but it was Hidcote where the romance began.

Now part of the National Trust (yay that I am a volunteer), Hidcote Manor garden was bought in 1907 by Lawrence Johnson and his mother, Mrs. Winthrop.  The garden development history is fascinating and today much as he initially intended it.  There are rooms throughout the design, so as to maintain a sense of mystery for the visitor.  Not all is revealed at once.  Rooms are colour co-ordinated, such as at Sissinghurst, or built around a particular theme, such as the Bathing pool.  Hedging plays a large role throughout, to create walls of green and lead the visitor from one reveal to the other.  I love the way we are continually surprised by another scene, as if a play with characters in statuary or water feature.  There is an open air theatre present.  Even when visiting for the umpteenth time, Hidcote is still a as curious as she was on my first visit.

The impressive Cool colours and the historical Cedar of Lebanon – older than the garden.

The view from the top of the Serpentine Hedge.  This walk opens up to the countryside, and on the left, the Wilderness.  Daffodils over but the lilacs in full play.

Pleached Hornbeam and the Hot garden, complete with red tulips.  The beds reveal hot reds, yellows, oranges and purples throughout the year.

A downpour was welcome on the day.  This gave only the determined visitor like me an almost empty garden to enjoy.  Timing is crucial when visiting the famous English gardens, for they can be over run with tourists which makes for single file slowness and hundreds of Instagrammers – if you are like me, the sure fire way to grumpiness.  Love Instagram,  hate the lack of really seeing or enjoying a vision but only to say ‘I was there’.  I remember a single visit to Giverney being totally ruined by non-appreciating, loud and rude tourists who only wanted the evidence of the trip and paid little attention to design, or even the story of the place.  Know when to visit gardens in England and Europe. Anyway, I digress, the shower had a few of us huddle beneath a portico, still getting totally drenched but caring little – you would appreciate the joy of soft, post rain beauty in a garden.  Drops of rain, suspended on petals, on the new lime leaves unfurling, puddles in rock crevices, on ducks in the pond – a bonus, on this visit.

Close, but lesser known that the NT Hidcote Manor House, lies another favourite, Kiftsgate. Kiftsgate is a privately owned garden, a triumph and tribute to the dedication of three generations of strong and creative women.  Much of the gardening is traditional, but where this garden is unique is on the level and clever integration of contemporary garden design.

Driving up toward the house, one is oblivious to the precipice on the left, which drops sharply to a level, far below.  If you have vertigo, stay clear, although there is a pathway that curls and leads you down, knowing that you have to climb back up again, but the walk is worth it.  For me, the cliff is colourful and Spring bright with white, pale yellows and bluebell blue.  It is the pool below: half moon and lying within the crescent that echoes, that takes my breath away.  One wonders at the seemingly incomplete circle, it seems almost lunar, and yet intrigues.  We are used to symmetry in a traditional English garden design and though it seems, well, I am not sure really, it is beguiling.

Love this design.

The house is not open to the public, not when I was there, but the cafe did offer a welcome pot of tea, succumbing to the large slice of cake, and a paging through of their beautifully printed coffee book.  Before exploring the rest of the garden, I knew I also wanted to see the water feature by Simon Allison.  There are times when something just captures your imagination, holds your interest and this water feature had me spellbound, many years ago.  I tried to imitate this in my own home on my return. The movement of this feature raises it to a different love.

Most of the garden lies to the front of the house.  There is hedging and intricate ‘rooms’ also, but not on so much the grand scale as Hidcote.  This is still a family home, a intimate space and we are fortunate to be able to visit.

 

 

 

It was time to head to Chipping Campden where I was staying for the night.  The Cotswold House Hotel and Spa is a luxurious boutique hotel in the heart of the village. The garden here is in itself a treat to explore.  At this time of the year, did not partake of the Spa or pool but spend a happy hour with a glass of wine on the front porch before dinner.  Well, planned dinner and then my inclination turned to the very spoiling of a hot bath, robe and slippers and a feat of room service.  Ending the day with cheesy TV and a tray of eating in, it was apt. I was happy to just spend the quiet time.

Chipping Campden was a market town and all signs of this still prevail.  It is a town lived in with great pride by its inhabitants, and many a garden is a testament to this.  Topiaries, manicured beds, typical thatch cottages with wisteria and roses.  There are ruins, another great church and the quaintest of shops.  Walk the lanes and just beyond, the fields, complete with sheep and being the season, new-born lambs.

Driving back to London, with a quick turn in Broadway, I decided to stop at another NT property, Snowshill Manor and Garden. The orchards are breathtaking, but little else compared to the gardens I have visited the day before. It did not take long to discover before I took to the road again.

The Cotswolds House Hotel and Spa.

For those who love gardening, wanting to visit a few iconic examples and indulge in the quintessential English countryside, the Cotswolds will not disappoint. No wonder so many wish to live there.  It’s the chocolate box version of another time, natural beauty, as are many other parts of this glorious mud island.  Extend your visit to Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon and Blenheim Palace.  Woodstock to meet the ghost of Inspector Morse and follow all the stories close by. Many lovely spots to stay in, things to do and the stuff of stories.

I will return again, perhaps in the Autumn when the gardens don another cloak all together.

For more information, or to plan your own journey, please contact me on the email [email protected]

Image. Own and The Cotswolds House Hotel and Spa

To Our Lady, Notre Dame. Paris.

 

“the essence of Paris is lost if seen through the double glazing of a hotel room or from the top of a tour bus. You must be on foot, with chilled hands thrust into your pockets, scarf wrapped round your throat, and thoughts of a hot café crème in your imagination. It made the difference between simply being present and being there.”
John Baxter,
The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris

I have been in love with Paris, ever since she fell in love with me.

We love each other still. It is a passion ill described to aptly motivate the wordsmith to capture the heart of it all.  What was before a dream, visions and points of exquisite reference, become a sanctuary, a finding of self and many, many walks through her streets by day, by night, but always by way of the heart.

In the last decade in particular, I have to Paris more times than I can remember, but remember each visit as if it were the first, the only and the necessity of it.  And like my mother, Notre Dame was always there, a fixed mark, a point of direction, a comfort at first sighting.

When she burned last night, I felt my heart melting.

We were not exactly friends, the Lady and I.  The more I became accustomed to Paris, the more I felt at home, the less I wanted to intrude – for so many thousands did. The last time I entered, I left vexed, annoyed at the multitudes who paid not homage, but interest and photographed and instagrammed as they edged at a pace of a glacier, one tourist after the other, mystified at the enormity of her cavern, oblivious to the sense of her religiousness.  It was not the place for me to light candles for my family, or sit and be calm, and pray.  It was a spectacle and I found many other beautiful churches to be still in, in Paris.  Yet she was always there.

She is always there.  And the burning, the terror of losing hope and today, finding all is not lost, is the spirit reborn.  I think she sort of had enough of the circus, in a way.  Sort of looked around, touched the gargoyles and fundaments and said, I need cleansing of all this parading and useless reverence. I need to burn to be born again, to remind all that I am a holy place. I am the stuff of Victor Hugo, legends and fortitude.  That will not change, but may become a place of peace again.

So when I went to Paris, when I go to Paris, it is to walk by her side.  In Spring, to see the cherry trees, so often captured, and I thank Georgianna Lane and her book ‘Paris in Bloom’ that I love more when walking past the Notre Dame in Spring.  The pictures capture the essence of Notre Dame at her prettiest season. I walk past the side of the church, to where the children play, and onward to the Ile Saint-Louis, behind the Notre Dame, to my favourite restaurant to view her magnificence from what I believe, is her best view. Quiet view. Reverent view.  The view of a church still holy and the architecture of her 13th Century workmanship, best admired. And she is still there.  Like the spirit of my mother, like the spirit of Hemingway’s Paris, like the romance and loveliness of a city that looks to her for validation of beauty.

 

When Notre Dame caught flame last night, the world wept.  And for a moment, came together in that weeping. United in grief and disbelief.  History was falling into the flames, and losing history that speaks of all of life before, is so very sad.  We need the stories to help us understand, to give us a place in the universe, to allow us to take notes for ourselves and give a sense of purpose.  There are many instances when history is being wiped out, change comes too fast, but we can only learn to move forward when we look back, and in that falling spire, we lost the lives of those who built her. But we will find them again.

I love her most in the winter. When the skies are grey and austere but the season of reflection and comfort, with a scarf around my neck, walking the city and knowing she is there.  When Christmas lights come early in the darkness and the city moves around her.  I love her most then when she is pale and comforting.

And I pray for Our Lady.  For our Notre Dame.  To bring once more the magnificent of workmanship, or dedication to religion and the love of the world.  To be a beacon of light in the city of lights and light up for generations who need to see her, hear her stories and again, be the fixed point for those, like me, who find her, always in Paris.

Three degrees on a Saturday. Sunset 15.51 pm. Wonderful.

‘The constant rendezvous for men of Business, as well as the idle people, so that a man is sooner asked about his coffee house, than his lodgings.’ Samuel Johnson.

If there was ever a need for a coffee house, a warm place, a sanctuary in the midst of winter, I am sitting in one.  The London day of many seasons: bitter with sun, bitter with rain:  bitter with sleet and … well bitter.  

Waiting to take a tour in the bitter outdoors.  ‘The history of London in 4 drinks.’  And it is wonderful, for it is history, and learning, and learning some more.  Two and a half hours of meeting interesting people, being the drama queen, in and out of that doing I love – cold outdoors to warmth indoors – why do I love that so much? and when all is done,  clients wooed and won, to early dinner with friends in Sloane (the place of blue Christmas lights and true selling of steaming chestnuts) to family.  Grayson is leaving on a skiing trip to Austria – a first in many ways.

Some may feel sorry  for me deep in the European gray, and as I know, I feel dreadfully sorry for myself most of the time in the living quarters scenario part of my life, but today I am witnessing a hundred different stories, and I can only say, I feel blessed.  The morning tube ride began with the kindred Christmas spirit of wrapped up children and wrapped up canines, chatting, barking and breaking the normally austere silence of the carriage.  The ‘day out’ thrill was tangible and I do so love seeing little people with fashionable clothes: he is country squire right down to the beret and she in French Rachel Rileyesque prettiness.

Alighting at Temple and a short walk to Somerset House, Christmas well entrenched. Contemplating a skating session (has the hesitation something to do with the fear of falling?) but veer towards Fortnum and Mason’s Christmas – 18th century particular for Tea and Marmalade.  The combination of Wooden floors, fireplaces, baubles and truffles ideally suited to mood setting for the walk up fleet Street.

Have to remind myself that so much of London was bombed.  Between the new edifice of the city lies so many buildings of old, of history with stories I plan to tell on the tour.  If you take the small alleyways, turn the unknown corners, you will find them.  One being St. Brides.

Built by Sir Christopher Wren, the three tired spire was the inspiration for a local baker to create … the three tired wedding cake.  Truth, we get the idea from there.  Close by, the Old Bell, a pub Sir Wren encouraged his workers to frequent to save time on going somewhere else and he could keep an eye on them.  There still.  St Brides was badly bomed, leaving only … the spiral. Restoration was to the original plan but also revealed so much more: an ancient Roman road and Saxon walls, which tells me this church has so many layers to her heyday stature.  She has survived centuries of life.  More poignant, the church is a homage to journalists – alone in her sanctum, I stood before an alter to all those of recent loss, kidnapping, giving their lives to tell the world what was happening.  Haunting photographs of all, including Marie Colvin and now, Jamal Kashoggi. I light candles and think of their parents, their children, their loved ones. Life … oh what diaries we can create about her.

The tour today is about the history of London in four drinks. No, not wine.  Wine is not quintessentially about London – if you think about it, mostly imported.  It is about the history of coffee houses, afternoon tea, beer rather than the disgusting water from the Thames back then, and Gin.  The mother’s ruin.  About poor Judith Dufour.  Pelting rain, gale winds that mock my umbrella, hidden pubs and secret squares. The black cat secret, pineapples and St. Pauls and all goes well.  Interesting guests and new friendships, but I am soaked down to the woollen gloves and soggy socks. 

Suitably sitting in warmth with gin – Sir Christopher Wren gin – I bid them adieu and leave for the tube.  Still raining.  Night.  And I am Bridget Jones on the line, for home.  It is the lights I see as the tube moves through the city, the Christmas lights that needs the dark to dance, on the river, in the puddles and sidewalks trodden by generations before me.  One with it all, with my own story, and it is good.  Christmas is ‘Love Actually’. Love shared in this season, with the bending to offer kindness to the homeless outside Waitrose, the carrying of Pointsettias on the bus.  Passing those dragging the Christmas tree bought, the Father Christmas hats, flashing headbands, the patient faithful.  Jingling songs, choirs in the station and the majesty of spirit at this time.

An ordinary day?  I think not.  An extraordinary day – I call it a London day. Missing the life past, the sun and sea, the easy life, but if I had to be anywhere to feel truly alive, I am there. 

So why do Mince Pies have no mince? Well …

 

 

Borough Market – would I have made a suitable shrimp girl?

 

Interior of Borough Market by Mike Bernard

 

‘Do you know the Muffin Man, the muffin man, the muffin man …  This one lived on Drury Lane, but the song keeps popping into my head when I go to Borough Market.  I am transported back to the days of street sellers, fish mongers, swishing skirts and soot soaked caps – I am not of the present but tripping through the past when I to Borough Market.

Perhaps the cockles and whelks and jellied eels have something to do with it.  Since a fairy friend introduced me to Emma of Coutours, I am learning more about Borough Market.  More about London.  My first tour, ‘The History of Street Food’ had me spilling stories of pineapples, pies and all sorts of doings and goings on in this famous spot that is alive with food and fantasy. I am falling in love all over again.

For years, just admiring the mushrooms was good enough for me.  I love the way they look, cuties all.  Avoided the cheese up close experience: seriously, you have to love cheese to volunteer for the olfactory overture.  As for the seafood – let’s just say a non fish eater was, occasionally, very disturbed by the smell and ghastly, dead eyes staring up at me.  Dead rabbits, dead pheasants … I mean, I liked going there but being a little greenling foodling, happy to amble and hit Waitrose on the way home.

Oh my Word!

The transformation in a short few years.  This growing up, meat, rice and potatoes girl is on a fluffy cloud of food adoration. London does that to you, opens your mind and your soul to the markets of magic in food.  Seasonal Autumn now, risottos in pans, as big as my flat, lure me closer.  I am studying the detail of artichokes, tripping on artisanal caffeine and shhhh, those toasted cheese sarmies are my nemesis. 

Back to yore of shouting sellers, the noise, cacophony of baskets, bales, potatoes and venison.  Sweet cherries licked to dispel the soot. Brine and beer and playwrights and not spoken of.  I am a Londoner now – fully immersed in lore and stories and in these markets, in Borough Market, I think of the Oyster men and the shrimp girls and am grateful to them, and being here to discover more and more each day.

Would I have made a suitable shrimp girl? For the non sea sort, I sort of think I would.  I could sell them, if not eat them. But I think I understand the tale of making the most of what life gives us, how far produce goes from field to fork – the dedication of self to support. 

In Borough, every time, I am happy to be a tourist, a local, a learner. And eater of nearly all now.

In the learning, I am loving the smelliest cheese, the squishiest urchin, the bread, the cured meat, the plums and plaice.  And in love with the idea that I am treading where so many have done before – the ghosts are there, and they are friendly ones.

To the pub she says … to the story.

‘Do you know the muffin man … the muffin man, the muffin man …’ Sort of think I do.

Image: Mike Bernard.

 

All fine travelling alone, but bloody frustrating at times.

Am all good with the travelling solo thing, really I am.  I do it all the time.

The thing is, I do it to familiar places, places I know well.  Get on the train, or the plane and find myself in surroundings of before.  Got it down pat.

The problem is, and you may find this, is when I want to go somewhere and have never been before. If it is in a city, that’s fine, can just Google and deal with the itinerary – cities are friendly places.  Today I thought, maybe I should go to Lisbon and I have no problem with this.  There are many itineraries and bits of advice about Lisbon.

About to go to South Africa again.  Really have my heart set on a few days in the Cederberg mountains, a place I have never been before.  Turns out, this was no easy feat in the planning of it.  No-one seems to have any idea of a woman travelling alone to the area.  The hotels, the hikes, the road maps – nothing seemed conducive to a woman travelling alone.

For sure, if I had won the Lotto, would go straight to Bushmanskloof.  This amazing, five star haven would solve it all.  Game drives, gorgeous accommodation, luxury spa – who would want for more?  But expensive. A little too much for me, so what else I thought was on offer?

There are a few places in the accommodation field, but I know nothing of them.  Would I be safe?  Would I be able to travel on my own? Would my little hired car get me around to the wonderful sights?  I just could not work it out. There are tours, a guided tour with a guide for three days, just me and the guide in a chalet which did not, quite appeal. Oh dear. Am I just being a softy, scaredy cat or should I blow caution to the wind on this one?  If I had someone else, somehow it seemed a better deal.  But I don’t.

So what am I saying here?  Travelling solo is possible.  It’s invigorating and life changing and I have seen the most incredible places, I knew, would be ok to do on my own.  But the unknown destinations still worry me a bit. Am I seeking for another sole traveller’s notes on this? Should I just go and do it? I don’t know.

For some, and I know many women who have travelled to India, Australia, America and the more unknown places, I salute them. Europe has been my solo travelling space to date. I know her well, she is friendly and accessible.  I could go to Croatia, Lisbon, Rome, Paris and anywhere else with total abandon, but when it comes to Africa … my birthplace … my desire to have a road trip of note … is a little worrying. Have I read too many stories, am I just being paranoid? And it not Africa, or South Africa, would I do it to other destinations I have not travelled before? Does it make me feel whatever? Have not done these trips before on my own, now recently on my own.

So I google forever for advice on travelling solo to places I have not been before.  I am the master of European travel and can advise you on most of it – but I want to do something else now, and find myself questioning the solo travel thing.  Like Namibia – would love to go there but on my own? Help me if you know.

In the meantime I am still going to South Africa. I still want to do a road trip to the Cederberg Mountains, through the Karoo and down to Durban – am I going to do it, who knows?  Why do I hesitate to travel, on my own to places unknown?

It is not about being alone. And travelling.  And spending nights in different places.  It is about my safety, and who will help me along the way. New territory for me – and then again, if I have to wait for someone to travel with, it could be me with cobwebs growing from my scalp – so let’s just say, scary or not, I am up for it, maybe I am the one to be the pioneer in this.

If you are a solo traveller, tell me about it. When you plan a trip – do you go for it, or plan it carefully, being alone, being a solo traveller? And if so, how brave are you in doing this? Would love to know.

Image Pintrest

The Chelsea Physic Garden – sanctuary in the city.

 

‘Learn from those whose generosity is given to you.’

In 1673 The Chelsea Physic Garden was established on four acres of land, beside the River Thames, by the Apothecaries in order to gather, propagate and study medicinal plants. In 1712, Sir Hans Sloane, physician, naturalist, collector and founder of the British Museum, bought and offered the Manor of Chelsea to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries for the grand total of £5.00.  This is still paid to his dependents today. Best £5.00 pounds rental ever!

I always knew about this chap from the famous, and often found in Sloane Square, but little of just how much of a legacy this gentleman has left for us to enjoy.  And it was yesterday, admittedly, that I first entered the secret garden that is The Chelsea Physic garden.  Done nearly all the gardens in London, and England, but this little gem somehow escaped me. Guess I was always turning into the The Chelsea Flower Show gates and never really explored this offering. Until yesterday.

Oh dear, you have missed something special, I though to myself as I turned into Swan Street.  Lotto loving maybe one day street.  The houses are elegant, peeps into the gardens alluring, and running my hand along the secret wall that protects the garden, I almost walked right by. The entrance is unassuming, the anticipation like a bride before she enters the chapel. God lives there.

Perhaps she has found her spiritual home in London.  No photographs in 30 degree heat will do justice to the magic, only the gnarled and mighty trees a canopy of cool beneath the beating sky.  The garden is divided into four quadrants, living libraries of medicinal, woodland, edible and historical favours. I took the tour, as I always, do for learning is never wasted. Of course my heart spiked at the sight of atlantic blue aggies, the vivid cannas so often planted as borders to free state farm houses with familiar friends I planted in my own gardens.

Summer colour is everywhere: plump oranges and grapefruits swollen on branches.  Bella Donna, deadly belle that she is, like glass marbles on the bush.  And it does not matter if the latin genus names escapes, a daisy is as pretty called a daisy as any distinguished label.  Edging of Yew and buxus leads one gently from place to place.

A place of peace, and teaching.  Calm reigns. I wished I could bring my friends, and in particular those who struggle with illness, and life to this sanctuary.  Is a garden not the epitome of spirituality then? Plopped sun worshippers with flimsy clothes and broad hats dotted the lawn, rested on benches and conversed in the shady niches. There is a shop and tea room and I instead imagined an evening party to celebrate love here.

In the fading hours of the afternoon, it was to a quiet corner of repose. Softness around, I wished so much that I was an artist able to capture the moment.  I will bring my children here.

 

Let them see coconuts bloom, deserts create.  Let them meander and muse about the power of plants in a garden.  And it has always been my wistful wish to have a garden again, to be part of the seasons and the soil, but that is for another time.  This is a garden in the heart of London that has a heart of curing all stress and replace with sublime sensitivity for life. For breathing in and breathing out easily: to rest and watch butterflies and bees, hear the birds high above and remind oneself of the power of nature in a pretty place.

If I were to have the space again one day, I would plant a garden that tells a story, of healing, of history, of woodland walks and edible fare.  With the sound of water. I would plant a garden just like this one.

Image: The Chelsea Physic Garden.

Romance runs deep in the waters of Lake Como

‘Leave me here with a glass of pink blush, a deep plate of pasta and the view of perfection.’

If hiding were an option from the busy world, it is the lakes that will wrap their mist softly about you, till the ferry horns and feint lights in the distance, are your only companions.  Until you are ready to be found again. Only when the mist rises, the view will have have you spellbound forever.

I return again and again.  Have stayed in Bellagio, Lenno and this time, in Varenna.  The latter is where to alight from when you train from Milan, only long before the quaint station comes into view, your eyes have feasted on the lake, the train curling along her edge for some distance.  It’s intoxicating.

Like most of the towns along the mid-lake, Varenna is carved from cliff, smartie coloured houses clinging till they reach the bluest waters below. She is one of the more known towns, cradling beside and opposite Mennagio, Tremezzo, Lenno and Bellagio. Staying at the Hotel Olivedo could not have been more fitting.  More perfect.  Family run, I felt as if I were staying in a grand home, stylish, grand, my corner room with windows flung open to views of the Lake, I was on a film set about The Grand Tour. Hard to drag myself away in the mornings and delighted to return.  In repose I was, sipping coffee in the morning, watching the ferry arrive, and repose again at night, sipping wine and watching the ferry leave.  In repose I was, in repose.

Time stands still in Como.  Days are passed by wistfully with slow boat rides from town to town, Villa to Villa, Garden to Garden and of course, pasta to pasta. You submerge yourself in the tranquility of Como.  Steep the walks may be, these are taken with gentle walking.  A past era of golden money, lavish parties, unsurpassed views.  Bellagio is the largest of these towns, complete with couture shops and distinct deli’s.  Also in Bellagio, my haunting The Grand Hotel Bretagne.  This is a novel waiting to happen, abandoned majesty that cries of a bygone era.

So, early mornings, post breakfast and a chat to the friendly staff, a Mid-lake ferry ticket and nothing in particular planned.  Get off where you wish, board again when done.  Lenno holds a special place in my heart, a wedding it was that could not have transpired in a more romantic setting.  The Villa Bulbiano, now famous as a film location for ‘Casino Royale’ presents a wedding venue we all dreamed of as little girls. The walk along the water’s edge has one dreaming of lotto’s and estate agents.

The Grand Tremezzo Hotel is a short walk from the Villa Carlotta.  Looking up is the beginning, to look down over views and garden designs, classical and magnificent.  Love and loss story.  An afternoon of cultural beauty.  Of course I am going to create a garden just like this back home.

Swear I could hear the music playing in another room.

Another must see is the Villa Monastero in Varenna.  If you are a garden lover, the tiered walkways and spectacular views into the deepest water, hidden statues and lyrical swathes of flowers will not disappoint. Once a convent, a villa for a wealthy German entrepreneur pre the 1st World War and confiscated, as were many of the villas along these shores, seem frozen in time.  And time is what you need when you explore them, and time is what you have when you visit Lake Como.

Each characteristically infused town leads to a square, and of course, a church.  I light my candles there and read the notifications to young folk who went to war, and never returned.  What peace must have turned to such loss then, how to understand the futility of it all?  I light my candles and one for them too.

Dining on the edge of Lake Como. Perhaps I should have tried the many options, each worthy and enticing, but I found this little place, right beside the hotel, and for me, I was in no hurry to go anywhere else. End of the day repose again. Tranquil setting, deep conversations, life and love and all that happens in between bowls of piping hot spaghetti and chilled wine. Where they know you name kind of place. The Cavallino Ristorante was my chapter place.

 

 

On my last morning, feeling really tearful in the leaving, I waked once more along the edge of the lake.  The painter was there again, as was the man who plays the accordion, and the lady who sits everyday in the shade, right beside the water, knitting. And I also wonder: do they think of it as another day, another opportunity to make a little money from the tourists, or do they realise just how fortunate they are to live there?  It must be difficult during the winter months, when all is shut against the cold and the lake falls silent.  I do not live there but I think they are blessed, they must think I am and I guess, we all are for having touched this piece of heaven on earth.

Oh, and if you have booked into The Hotel du Lac, make sure you know which one … they have one in every town. Love it.

The lustrous beauty of Ville Franche Sur Mer, Cote d’Azur

There are a few places that have captured my heart over the years. Destinations that call me to return, over and over again. In my Silver Street now, I am not so much for discovering new places, but returning to the familiar locations of beauty.

One such is Ville Franche Sur Mer, a town that dips into one of the deepest, natural bays on the Mediterranean and climbs up the cliffs to the Upper Corniche. The three Corniches that pass through the town are roads that travel to Italy, but ideal for cheap bus trips to Monaco, ten miles away, St. Jean de Cap Ferrat, Eze Village and many of the stunning towns that pepper the coastline. Around the corner is Nice, larger, fun to discover and your main entry into the Cote’d Azur.

You will not find sandy beaches here. Hardly anywhere in fact, but the fine pebbled beach that nestles in the bay, is heaven for me. Think the bluest colours of water, swirls of aqua and turquoise – stunning clarity and happiest of lapping waves – all very gentle and my kind of beach experience. This is our summer holiday of getting a tan experience. Without burning. Without funfairs and candy floss, just quaint cafés and inviting restaurants on the edge of the water to while away the hours at sunset with the bottle of Cote de Provence Rosé (summer requirement) and festive fare. Gentle is the operative word, even if your hotel is a mile up the cliff, gentle is the way to get there.

For me, lying on a beach all day, is a little much. I know the places I want to visit again, and first on the list is the magnificent Villa et Jardins Euphressi de Rothschild. I think I must have been part of ‘The Grand Tour’ in a previous life, for the Villas and Gardens of Europe and the United Kingdom are my joy. This impressive Villa and her becoming gardens weaves a story for me. Easily accessible on the 100 bus, for a Euro or two, an afternoon of vistas and glamour is just the thing.

Also on the agenda, of course, is a trip to Monaco and Eze. Monaco for the glamour and glitz of faded days, super yachts and film locations, to view the Pink Palace and remind yourself that the world has super millionaires but not care too much, and Eze, well Eze is where this young girl fell in love with the Cote ‘d Azur. Where this young girl finally realised what her mother had been trying to teach her of places she never dreamed of, this Medieval village that turns and tucks itself away so that each turn is a magical surprise. And the candles are lit in her ethereal church.

‘Upon entering Eze I felt transported back to the Medieval period while walking up the uneven stone streets through narrow passages and under low archways. Such feelings of being in a museum village quickly subsided as an expensive art gallery, gift shop or cafe could be found around every corner.’

Craig O’Sullivan, Huffington Post.

On the other side of Ville Franche Sur Mer, past Nice and a little trickier to get to if using public transport, lies the Artists delight of St. Paul de Vence.

Make a turn at Juan Les Pins and say hello to Scott F. Fitzgerald’s ghost, or Antibes and Cannes. There is so much to do, on the exploring days, and so little you need to do on the languid days. It is a holiday after all.

July and August can be hot, and I would normally recommend early or late Summer, but my flat was let out for Wimbledon and thought, what better to go and swim in the sea, meander through colourful streets and dine with the best company on the edge of the sea – and I did, and I shall return again, which for me, is being happy.

If you would like any assistance with planning a trip to Ville Franche Sur Mer, or the French Riviera, please contact our sister company on www.londongreenafrica.com

We specialise in travel to Africa, South Africa, Italy, France and the United Kingdom. Happy Travelling, be it solo or with loved ones.

Images: Own and pinterest