About Grace Lessageing

Writer of novels, short stories, flash fiction, blogs. Leader of a creative writing group. Ex infant teacher. Living in Christchurch UK.

A Tiny Touch of Luxury

The village of Sonning in Berkshire, UK is a small chunk of old England sitting beside the River Thames, chocolate-box-ful of red brick, period houses, huge, half-timbered piles, tall, hexagonal chimney stacks and a multitude of leaded light windows.

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In this showcase village The French Horn hotel, nestling by the river, is a centrepiece and the Mill at Sonning, with its dinky theatre is the topknot.

Into this home counties haven I arrived with Offspring for our shared birthday treat-a small slice of one-night luxury.

Regular readers of Anecdotage will be familiar with my customary mode of travel-[a campervan]. Hotel stays are rare and are usually taken for practical reasons like pre-flight nights; and even then the option tends towards budget. Once in a while, however it is fun to splurge and bask.

Next to a busy road, the main hotel is a grand old building, full of hunting trophies, squashy armchairs and faded rugs, a huge log fire burning-in August! We were shown across the busy road and along a path, dodging weeping willow strands as we went, to a row of terraced cottages, one of which was to be ours for the night. It consisted of a downstairs living room complete with fireplace, river view, TV and minibar, a bedroom with river view and TV and a vast, shiny bathroom-also with fireplace-and with large, fluffy towels, shower, bath and two basins.

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I searched everywhere for tea/ coffee making equipment without result, but we were to cross the bridge to the mill quite soon and determined that a pre-dinner cocktail might suffice…

The tiny theatre inside Sonning Mill is almost unique in being a ‘dinner theatre’, so an evening spent there constitutes a substantial package of enjoyment, especially when you include a well-stocked bar and a post-show pianist into the mix.

Thespian lovey and larger-than-life National Treasure Brian Blessed directs a number of the plays at Sonning Mill but though his rounded tones can be heard on a tannoy instructing us to turn phones off we are not graced with his huge physical presence on this occasion.

The pre-show meals are delicious and the service friendly and so it was with an overstuffed sensation that we took our seats in the small auditorium for Agatha Christie’s ‘Towards Zero’, a period detective romp.

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Then it was off to the bar for a quick drink,  serenaded by a pianist before we stumbled back across the Thames to our cottage. There we found a tray resplendent with kettle, cups, milk and tea. Hooray! We had a quick cuppa while we selected our breakfast items on a card to hang outside the door. Then slept.

Having discovered that checkout time was at the civilised hour of 11.30am, we lolled about, taking our time over breakfast, which arrived on trays to our accommodation [this is a first for me] and embellished with gleaming silver covers to the plates.

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At last we felt ready to leave, trundling up into the village and marring the upper class dream slightly by finding a bus stop for our return to Reading. Back to reality!

 

 

 

 

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Towpath Tales [part 3]

We were down to our last two days of cycling before we’d need to trek back up to Caen for the ferry.

There was a convenient parking spot at Pont d’Oust, where a bend in the canal is host to a few houseboats, a picnic place and a mooring for leisure boats or smaller craft.

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We lunched, squeezed into paddy-pants [essential cycling gear], applied sun block, applied insect repellent and set off towards Redon. It was a busier day on the cycle path, being a Sunday, especially in an area where the canal and river merge and there is a gorge with steep cliffs, popular with climbers, leisure boats, picnickers and the rest.

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On our arrival to Redon we were treated to the surreal sight of a parade of amphibious vehicles around the town, followed by their launch [as we set off back] into the canal. We’ve seen collections of Citroen 2CVs and various other vehicles in France before but never a sight such as this.

The municipal site at Saint Martin d’Oust is immaculate, with sparkling new showers and a quiet, canal-side location. Better still, a busy, picturesque bar-restaurant by the flower adorned bridge serves delicious Breton cider. As often the case, reception was closed when we arrived but we followed the instructions to choose a pitch and pay later. We parked, made a meal and went for pre-dinner drinks.

Next morning, having visited the boulangerie, we left the site and breakfasted at the canal-side.

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Then it was off back to Le Roc St Andre for our very last cycle of the trip, short, breezy and not too difficult.

We’d come to the end of our trip. When I reflected on it I realised that one of the aspects I’d enjoyed was seeing the numbers of entire families out on their bikes, carrying or pulling all their camping gear and cycling together; trailers with small children or a dog, paniers loaded, heaped up cycle carriers. Sometimes there were young children riding bikes piled high with sleeping bags and mats. They would arrive at a site, the parents unloading and putting up dinky tents and their children still with energy to burn, cartwheeling over the grass, racing to the play park or cycling round and round as if they’d only just risen from bed. The parents made meals using rudimentary cooking equipment, sitting at a site picnic table or setting up lightweight, fold-up chairs-or simply sitting on a blanket.

I was in awe of these parents, who were confident and competent to undertake travel this way with their kids.Those children made no complaints. They played, ate and slept. Next morning they were up, packing, ready for the new day. When they return to school they will have towpath tales of their own to tell-and memories to last them into adulthood.

Tales from the Towpath [Part 2]-The Re-appearance…

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Last week’s episode described how, like an old Brian Rix farce, Husband beetled over the canal bridge and I, in my ever-present need to take the easier option, scooted around a narrow, lumpy path that wound underneath, resulting in each of us losing sight of the other.
I ploughed on towards Josselin, searching the verges and benches for Husband, or at least his bike. When the turrets of the chateau appeared above the trees I felt sure he’d have stopped at the fence where we’d locked the bikes on our previous visit [from the opposite direction, you understand]. But no-neither Husband nor the bike was there, neither was he installed in the nearby bar, cold beer in hand [an obvious place to look for him].
I gulped some more water-the temperature was continuing to climb at 8.00pm-and turned back. I stopped a few people and asked if they’d seen ‘un homme avec un T-shirt noir et un velo rose’ and was met with negative responses from all. I’d spot the glint of a lone helmet in the distance and think it was Husband but many lone cyclists passed by and still no sign. I cycled back-and back.

After what seemed an interminable peddle back towards Le Roc St Andre, and after seeing no-one as the sun began to dip I caught sight of a cyclist approaching-dark T, black helmet and sweat-soaked-and yes-it was Husband.

We downed what was left of the water, by way of celebration [we are still able to celebrate finding each other after all these years] and peddled slowly back, stopping at a hostelry not far from our site, on a bend in the canal, to throw back a medicinal cold beer or two.

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The following morning, following a sticky, uncomfortable night, rather than easing, the temperature at Le Roc soared higher, climbing through the 30s and tipping over into the 40s. Many resorted to the site’s tiny pool, many others [including ourselves] squidged into any bit of shade available, lounging, sprawling, sleeping. It was a disquieting insight into how things may become as summers heat up. Cycling seemed less appealing, but we gamely prepared in the late afternoon and set off in the opposite direction to Josselin, achieving, perhaps, 100 metres or so before Husband’s bike, the improbably named Charge Cooker came to a standstill, the back wheel having seized up.

Reception directed us to a repair shop up the road, which turned out to be splendid at repairing lawn mowers, ‘le patron’, a humourless, moustachioed gent, redirecting us to a cycle shop at St Congard-a small village that was easily included into our itinerary. We returned to the site, me gliding down and over the bridge, Husband half-carrying the recalcitrant Charge Cooker on its one functioning wheel. At this point an ice cream seemed a fair alternative to a cycle in 40 degrees. We spent another uncomfortable hot night and moved on next day to St Congard-first stop the bike shop.

Here, the proprietor, a jovial woman who clearly loved her job dealing with everything bike-related told us that the extreme temperatures had caused the brakes to swell and jam the wheel; that we should pour cold water on it. Simples!

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We stayed at St Congard’s small municipal site for 11E and I undertook a short, solitary cycle to Malestroit, all of which was unremarkable except for the pair of beautiful otters I spotted on the return. Tiny St Congard’s one and only bar was firmly closed.

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En route to St Martin sur Oust we paused to look at Rochefort en Terre, alleged ‘most beautiful village’, which was indeed beautiful, but also wanted 5E to stay in a car park without water, emptying or anything else. We’d have liked to have purchased items in the shops but came to the conclusion that the stores must be part of the decor, since nobody seemed inclined to serve us. The poor citizens of Rochefort en Terre must be starving, since baguette availability was nil [we were offered a half of a baguette in a restaurant and decided to scarper before we were told the price]. After a quick look we moved on to a less pretentious place, and back to the canal!

 

Tales from the Towpath [part 1]

From Cherbourg, the French ferry port, it is a moderately easy drive to our first camp site on the Nantes-Brest Canal, at Grouerac.

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The site is sandwiched between the canal and the river and consists of 3 flat fields dotted with pyramid tents, tiny caravans and shepherds’ huts for hire. It is beautiful and has nearly everything; fully equipped kitchens, a large gazebo with picnic tables for diners to use, a bar, a small nook with armchairs and well-stocked bookshelves as well as the usual showers and so on. What it does lack is internet, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

After starting dinner off I wander across the field to stand by the river bank and am startled to see a kingfisher on an overhanging branch, near enough for me to reach out and touch. It is a bright, iridescent turquoise, like a bejewelled toy bird. It spots me and plops down into the water and I wait in vain for it to reappear.

Next morning we set off on our first cycle up the canal almost to Glomel. The canal is astonishingly gorgeous, a riot of green reflections, herons, water fowl, butterflies and wild flowers. The towpath ride is not entirely flat as locks and bridges must be ridden over, but is not too arduous.

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The following day’s section takes us away from the towpath and up an old railway track that rises-and rises as it goes towards Mur de Bretagne, a much harder ride. When at last we arrive to the town, which is itself situated on a steep hill, very little appears to be open except for one hotel bar, for which we are thankful.

Then we move on to Rohan, an unpretentious but pleasant enough town and the municipal camp site is again right by the towpath. We are invited for ‘aperitifs’ outside Reception and drink a convivial glass of cider with the other campers. There are two fairly straightforward, though long stretches to cycle over the next two days. The first day we cycle over 114 locks and cover 31 miles.

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The next stop is to be a rest day, at Josselin, a small medieval city with a fairy-tale chateau on the canal-side. We stay in the aire, at the top of town, with all services provided and saunter down to lunch in the centre before returning for a snooze in the van and to prepare for dinner-also in the centre of town [and if this seems self-indulgent the day is my birthday]. Tourists jostle in Josselin, a poster-town for the region.

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By the time we’ve enjoyed a delicious meal, slept soundly and risen next day the weather has begun to heat up, so that when we get to Le Roc St Andre ready for our next cycle it is clear that some effort will be involved and clearer still that waiting until late afternoon will be a sensible option. When we set off, to ride back to Josselin at 5.00pm the temperature is still fierce.

Along the way we come across a bridge with a fairly steep ascent, which Husband decides to ride up. I, however have spotted a tiny cycle short-cut underneath the bridge, which, being up for the easier option, I take. When I emerge on the other side I expect to see Husband pulling away in the distance but he is nowhere to be seen. I wait. Perhaps he is still on the other side? I return to the top. He isn’t there. I wait, have a drink of water.

A couple come past. I ask if they’ve seen Husband. They have not. I deliberate then decide to plough on to Josselin and perhaps he will be waiting further along the path…

Exchange- not always Fair

The cross channel ferry, in this last week of summer term is full of excitable teenagers; two groups, seemingly, occupying every part of the ship, circulating round and round, galumphing through the bars and lounges, spreading over seating areas, thronging into the tiny shop, the games area and the restaurant, exclaiming, playing music, shrieking when they see each other. They rush past us in twos and threes. ‘I wanna buy something!’ ‘Let’s go outside!’ ‘What shall we do now?’
After coffee we descend to the salon with its recliner seats to catch up on some sleep, but it is full of adolescents, rucksacks, sweet wrappers. We are rushed at by their beleaguered teachers, whose dubious pleasure it is to shepherd their charges and bring them back unscathed.
Foreign exchanges were available when I was a schoolgirl, too; only as my parents were unwilling to pay for them, I’d be among the handful of girls who stayed behind and attended school. I can’t recall what we did, we leftovers. Revision, perhaps or some extra language study and conversation. I pity the poor teachers who were saddled with us, who had to find us something to do!
I offered my own offspring an exchange each, which was rejected by Offspring One, who harboured fears of being incarcerated with a strange family and having to eat a sensible, healthy diet. He chose to be a leftover. Offspring Two, however waited for the optimum moment to remind me I’d agreed to a French exchange, then when I enquired the destination, coolly told me ‘Canada’.
The exchangee came to us first. Catherine. She was not Canadian, but American, from Texas originally. She was tall, world-weary, unimpressed. She was an ocean away from my daughter. We served meals, attempted chat, remained polite while she chewed and made acerbic remarks.
Husband suggested a weekend trip to Paris. We packed our tiny Peugeot 5 and took a ferry across the English Channel then drove down, stopping on the outskirts of France’s capital in a budget hotel and taking two rooms. We got a double decker train into Paris to take in the sights: The Louvre, The Tuilleries, Notre Dame and The Tour Eiffel-sending the girls up and staying down ourselves to save money. They trudged after us as if dragged on leads. Next day we visited Fontainebleau and Versailles before heading home the way we’d come.
On the return ferry we bought meals from the self-service restaurant, where Catherine [and also Offspring, who followed suit] chose a meal and a desert. At the table our protégé ate one or two mouthfuls of the meal and pushed it away before tucking into the pudding.
‘Are we gonna eat again on the ferry?’ she drawled, chewing.
Husband frowned into his newspaper. ‘No’ he said, without looking up.
At last we arrived at Portsmouth. ‘That was cool!’ she suddenly said as the wheels rumbled down the ramp, showing enthusiasm for the first time. If we’d known she was to enjoy our descent from the gaping mouth of the ferry so much we could have saved ourselves a packet.
We did nothing else with Catherine, leaving entertainment to the school to provide. Offspring confided that Catherine had raved and boasted to her classmates about her French trip.
After she departed, Offspring prepared to make her own visit to the host family-Catherine’s own parents and sister. I sat down with her to share my hopes for her ambassadorial role, expressing my desire that she behave with impeccable manners, a desire that she asserted she understood very well. She went.
Catherine’s parents were charming to my daughter, taking her out and about, to Niagara, amongst other places. Offspring got on very well with Catherine’s younger sister as well as most of the Canadian schoolgirls and had a most enjoyable time.
And that was that; many lessons learned-and not only French!

Escape to [another] Country

On Monday we are to escape this troubled isle for a couple of weeks. For although the current political squabbles in the UK are akin to observing a satirical comedy there will be some relief to be away from it all for a while.

Underneath the farcical antics of our politicians, however there is a ghastly, seeping horror of gradual decline; while they continue to wrangle, argue, bluster, lie and boast, most of us are powerless to intervene, still less to mitigate.

We know what our closest neighbours think. The Dutch, especially are incredulous at the decision of [some of] us to leave the European family. The French have held up their hands: ‘Zut alors!’ and then washed them of us-and who can blame them?

And then there is the USA. Those who’ve squawked about ‘slavery’ in a ridiculous diatribe about the EU [the increasingly mad witch-like Anne Widecombe] seem to think nothing ironic or wrong about enslaving ourselves to America; accepting their disgusting bleached chicken in exchange for the NHS? Where is the so called ‘freedom’ in all of that?

I’m still waiting to hear ONE explanation or ONE benefit that will be gained from leaving the EU. Meanwhile the buffoon who is most likely to become our next prime minister continues to stutter, pretend and joke his way to success amidst an unwavering, simpering, ignorant band of supporters, in true Trumpesque fashion-an echo of US, dogged ignorance.

Now, because of the so-called ‘special relationship’ we are to be drawn in to the row with Iran- having to be allied with the US instead of Europe. Why must we have the ‘special relationship’ with the USA, when our closest neighbours are within shouting distance? Surely those on our doorstep are the best allies? We must tow the line with America because we have to beg for trade deals-where’s the ‘freedom from slavery’ in that, Anne Widecombe?

So despite the plummeting pound [again] we are off  to cycle our way into the relative peace of the French countryside, free of news, interviews and debate. And there is still time for a couple of trips before the [next] supposedly definitive date when the UK ex-communicates itself. After that-who knows what we’ll need to do to leave these beleaguered shores? Our wonderful, efficient E111 health cards may not apply. We may need special driving permits or visas. We may be compelled to join a special queue for outsiders going in or coming out.

Above all I’m hoping that within my lifetime we can return to some kind of rational, measured, cooperative political system that doesn’t pander to rich, white middle-class old Etonians and their fawning, job-hungry cronies. One that favours reason, fairness, empathy and basic humanity.

Will populism become wearisome? Will the drawbridge be cranked back down? Will human rights begin to matter again before I croak? What do you think?

Answers on a digital postcard [below in the comments box]. Au revoir!

 

 

Festival Fever

Glasto

The Glastonbury Festival, at Pilton in Somerset, south west England, is the mother of all music festivals-the largest in the world.

I went to it once, in the nineties. Bjork was headlining and Elvis Costello was near the top of the bill. From where I stood, Bjork appeared as a miniature doll in a pink dress about half a mile away, beyond a sea of surging festival-goers. And while I liked much of Bjork’s avant-garde material she was not best suited to the venue. Elvis Costello and the Attractions were thrilling, though, ‘Pump it Up’ throbbing out across the crowd in a stirring morass of sound.

We watch snippets of Glastonbury on TV each year, although more and more of it elicits incomprehension or snorting derision as current tastes in music diverge further from our own. This is a time-honoured process and guaranteed to both irritate and delight the young; the ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ tradition.

But they aren’t what they used to be. The festivals and outdoor music gigs of my youth were attended by the young. I could go and watch the most popular and biggest-selling bands on my Saturday job pay. I got to see Fairport Convention, 10cc, Chicken Shack, Led Zeppelin, John Heisman’s Coliseum, Pink Floyd and very many more iconic musicians and could afford it all [including transport, food and drink] on my meagre toy shop salary of twenty five shillings per Saturday.

The crowds flocking into Glastonbury and all the other festivals of the summer are twenty and thirty somethings or older, middle class and often with their children in tow. The festivals have changed, become more corporate, more mainstream, more media-led. They are gargantuan circuses of food, entertainment and marketing. Am I alone in feeling nostalgia for the crude outdoor setups of my teenage years?

Glastonbury is still a phenomenon, a treasure of the English summer-this year’s event mercifully mud-free. And for 2019, supposedly ‘plastic-free’ too; except that it wasn’t. Photographic images of the mountains of refuse left from the event are testament to the failure of this lofty ambition. Yes-there were water stations [so woefully stretched that campers were unable to use the showers], saving a few plastic water bottles, but the burger vans and bars were clearly not on board with the plan. There is also an issue with tents being left-in a condition rendering them un-recyclable. One cunning Dutch entrepeneur has invented a ‘cardboard’ tent, which may be a solution in the future, although it seems doubtful.

This weekend sees the staging of our town’s own, homegrown, humble music festival, free to attend this year and hopefully funded from stalls and sponsorship. Most of the musicians are local, as are the stalls, the volunteers and the attendees. The weather [which can make or break the event] is set to be fine. The women’s football final does not include our home team [the football having destroyed last year’s attendance]. What can go wrong?