Sunday, 22 September 2019

With love and squalor: a French adventure

Are you ready for another ride in the time machine? Well, fasten your seatbelts, as here we go, the time navigator set for the Thursday of the first week of September.

Tentatively lifting a corner of our cottage's curtains to see what the weather was like, we were pleasantly surprised to see the lake illuminated by mellow early morning sunlight. There were some dark clouds about as well, which for the moment we chose to ignore.

And look, here's one of the two resident sheep, coming up to the house for its morning treat!

It was a toss-up between a day at the seaside or a hop over the border into France, but when we learned that rain might be on the menu on this side of the border, while there was a sunny outlook for our planned destination in France, the decision was virtually made for us.

I decided on wearing one of the pairs of wide floral trousers I'd brought. I found this particular pair in a charity shop in Shropshire, and this was actually its first wear. My suitcase contained a choice of tops to wear with it, but I opted for full-on visibility by choosing this turqoise blouse with over-the-top blowsy flower print. It closes at the back with a very long zipper, which is only one of several indications that it started life as a dress. Isn't it wonderful that someone, somewhere, decided to salvage it by turning it into a blouse?

Having decided on a day abroad, our destination for the day was the town of St. Omer, 45 kilometers and a drive of just under an hour away. 

The town, which has medieval origins, boasts a rich heritage with several historical monuments, and - according to its website - is the ideal place to wander, with cobbled streets and lively squares.

We cursed under our breaths when soon after starting out, at the point when our satnav made us turn off the main road and onto her favoured small country lanes, the first drops appeared on our windscreen. 

It rained on and off for a while, then it stopped altogether, with more and more patches of blue emerging and the dove grey clouds being joined by white cotton wool ones.

The road meandered through endless acres of fields, and the landscape, which had been dotted with tiny hamlets and tumbledown farms with ancient equipment rusting away alongside them, was getting emptier by the minute, until we were driving through what looked like an enchanted forest laced with marshland patches. 

A sign told us that this was a nature reserve called le Forêt Dominiale de Rihoult Clairmarais (the Forest of Clairmarais), and soon we saw another one directing us to the Grotte de Clairmarais, a prominent place of pilgrimage. We parked our car and made our way to the grotto, where we burned a votive candle bought from the small white pavillion on its right, a self-service shop with an honesty box, selling an array of saintly goodies.

After this diversion, we finally arrived in St.Omer, our satnav directing us to the town centre. Having seen no car park signs, we parked opposite a forbidding Victorian style school building in the Rue St. Bertin, where we were assured by a passing town official that parking was free and the walk into town would only take 10 minutes.

In order to make sure we'd find our way back, I took a picture of the street name of the nearest side road, which was the Rue de Notre Dame de Patience.

By that time, I was getting quite impatient to go and explore the town.

We soon passed a small square on our right, the Place St. Denis, where the eponymous church (top right and bottom left), orginally dating from the 13th Century but partly rebuilt in the 18th Century, clearly seemed to have seen better days.

Continuing on the Rue St. Bertin, our eyes were drawn to the Italianate tower of the Jesuit Chapel, which the late morning sun was illuminating with an orange glow. We walked into its direction but found its doors firmly locked.

I'd printed a walk off a travel website but, before we could make a start, we wanted to get our bearings, so we went in search of the Tourist Office to get a map and some leaflets.

Following signs pointing us into the right direction, we found it tucked away in a courtyard off one of the town's main squares. Deckchairs printed with the town's name were set out on the lawn, which faces the side of the town's cathedral, and which we will visit in a minute. 

Armed with a town guide, we had a cup of coffee in the on-site café, a small pavillion which had the most fabulous wallpaper ever. Here you can see that, not trusting the weather forecast one bit, I was wearing my famous green raincoat!

As it was still too early for lunch, we thought we'd check out the cathedral first. 

Well, what can I say?  First of all, we were simply knocked over by its vast size of over 100 metres and, in places, a height of 23 metres.

Situated at the heart of its own close, the cathedral has been on the list of historical monuments since 1840.

Even from the very back of the close, and with the wide angle of my camera, it was virtually impossible to capture its full size in one photograph. The best we could do was using the cheapo fisheye lens we'd bought for our phones (top left).

Saint-Omer-cathedral, or to give it its proper name, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saint-Omer, was started before 1200 and was finally completed in the 15th Century.

Due to its magnificent interior, it is one of the richest churches in France. The organ (above, bottom right) is one of its main treasures. There are other exquisite details to explore as well: marble and alabaster chapels, classical and baroque paintings, funerary monuments, wood carvings and ancient floor tiles, this cathedral simply has it all.

There has been an extensive restoration programme in the last decade, and although there is still a lot of work to do, I have to admit that I thought the juxtaposition of the cathedral's opulence and delapidation particularly charming.

Case in point is the genuine Rubens painting, The Descent from the Cross, dating from 1616 (above, top left), in its ornate gilt frame, which is displayed rather incongruently in a grotty corner, behind a makeshift barrier even I could have jumped.

We explored the cathedral's fascinating interior with its endless nooks and crannies, until our stomachs told us it was now definitely time for lunch.

Before we go outside again, however, I wanted to show you the cathedral's innovative way of divesting you of your hard earned money (top, bottom left). No need to despair if you haven't got any cash on you, as you can make a donation or even buy a candle using your bank card!

Walking back towards the town centre, I remembered a restaurant recommendation from the website I'd downloaded the walk from. Called Les Frangins, it is one which is also frequented by locals? which is always a good sign. Looking up from consulting my paperwork for its address, I actually spotted its name at the far end of the square we'd just entered.

We both ordered salmon, which came accompanied by rice and locally grown veg - the area is particularly known for its cauliflower cultivation - not to mention a most delicious sauce.

After a "petit café", we were ready to roll again. 

By then , we had abandoned all pretense of following the walk's directions, deciding to just saunter around the town, following our noses and taking note of the squalor which went happily hand in hand with the splendour, a phenomenon which seems to be typical of the towns of the area.

We then retraced our steps to the Jesuit chapel as recommended by the lovely lady at the Toursist Office. Built between 1615 and 1640, it is no longer in use as a church. After its refurbishment between 2013 and 2016, this architectural jewel's lofty interior is now the place for exhibitions, concerts and seminars. 

We were in luck, as it was the final day of the current exhibition of early 20th Century black and white photographs of the town and the area.

We'd spotted a bakery a little further up the street - Artisan Boulanger, you can see its sign in collage number 5 above - where we stopped to buy a loaf of bread for our evening meal and breakfast. And no, it does not come with a recommendation, as that bread turned out to be quite unpalatable. Oh well, we probably should have bought a baguette. When in France, and all that!

Before calling it a day, there was one more historical site that we wanted to visit, which was at the other end of the street where we'd parked our car.

Close to the edge of town, where it meets the Canal de Neufossé and the marshy areas of the Forest of Clairmarais, lie the romantic ruins of Saint-Bertin-Abbey.

Created in the 7th Century, it was one of the first Benedictine abbeys to the North of Paris and it grew into one of the most powerful abbeys in Northern Europe during the entire medieval period. 

During the revolution, the abbey was closed and fell into ruin.

The site of the ruins, however, cannot be visited, but only admired from behind the iron railings surrounding them. On the square in front of the ruins is a marble statue of Abbot Suger, a benefactor of St. Bertin.

Rather then returning to our car, we took a paralell road leading us back into the town centre, as we couldn't possibly leave without any fortifications.

These we found at a Salon du Thé in the town's main square, situated rather appropriately inside the town's former town hall which due to its shape is fondly called "the coffee mill".

Here we had another "petit café", which was served in gold coloured cups, and scrumptious Moelleux au Chocolat with warm chocolate sauce.

Then it was really time to call it a day and return along those delightful country lanes, accompanied by great big skies full of clouds which appeared to be gliding over the harvested fields.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

The days grow short when you reach September

Although I still have two more episodes of my travelogue up my sleeve, I thought I'd squeeze in a little catch-up of what has been going on and, more importantly, what I have been wearing, since we came back from our short holiday.

As my blog is more or less my online diary, it just wouldn't do to publish a post highlighting the outfits I was wearing in the second week of September only several weeks later. Besides, chances are that in spite of extensive photographic evidence, it will have all but disappeared into the fog my menopausal brain often seems to be wading through.

So, let's make a start and journey back to just under a week ago. On Thursday, I got this glorious, pink-hued bouquet of flowers delivered to the office. It was a birthday present from my lovely bosses, who'd ordered it all the way from Miami.

Taking them home on the tram during rush hour, while simultaneously carrying my handbag and a wicker basket, was quite an undertaking, and it was nothing short of a miracle that they made it home without any casualties. 

That's me wedging them between my knees and the back of the seat in front of me on the top left, where you can catch a brief glimpse of the blowsy floral pattern on the skirt I was wearing.

As you can see, Phoebe was a big fan of them as well! I had a bit of a hard time keeping her away from them.

And here's what I was wearing on my birthday. The circle skirt with its abundance of flowers was a sales bargain from last Summer, but everything else I'm wearing is second hand. The vintage peplum top with its attached belt has already made several appearances on the blog and I'm sure my denim jacket does not need any introduction either.

The raspberry suede shoes were a charity shop find, as was the delightful squirrel brooch, which I picked up in Poperinge's small charity shop on the last day of our holiday.

A quick round-up of what else I've been wearing that week. 

From left to right: plums, pears and hydrangeas are part of the print on this lovely vintage dress I wore on Monday, while Tuesday's going-back-to-work outfit consisted of a vintage Lee Cooper denim skirt (a gift from my friend Ingrid) and a charity shopped short-sleeved King Louie jumper. 

Wednesday was brightened by this fiery orange and caramel, dagger collared vintage dress, topped by an abstract print blue cardigan, which was a charity shop find from earlier this year.

In spite of this being a short working week, the weekend couldn't arrive fast enough.

The week had been a mixture of sunny and dull days, and Friday firmly belonged in the latter category, with the gloom only lifting slightly by the end of the day.

This vintage dress, which skillfully combines several shades of green and blue, is another one which has made it to the blog more than once. I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that it's one of my favourites! I added a white vinyl belt to define my waist and chose a turquoise beaded necklace, but opted for a totally different colour for my brooch, a lovely orchid in a delicious caramel shade, which can also be worn as a pendant.

I went for a quick rummage in one of the Think Twice shops during my lunch break and pounced upon this navy shirt which has the cutest of prints. 

Their sales had started that day and everything was 30% off. Prices will keep going down until at the end of two weeks all that is left is going for € 1 a piece. I'm pretty sure this gorgeous shirt wouldn't have lasted until then!

We'd been promised a weekend of Indian Summer weather and for once they got it right as this is exactly what we got. Hurray!

Too good to be wasted indoors, we combined our usual Saturday charity shopping trip with a walk in the park.

There are several decades between the 1970s vintage skirt I'm wearing and the top, which was a sales bargain a couple of years back, but I think their combined naive flower prints are a match made in heaven. 

I found the skirt, which looked to be in unworn condition, in the charity shop in our village last Spring. In fact, I had to undress one of the shop's dummies for it, leaving the poor thing indecently exposed.

My outfit was accessorized with a red belt and necklace, while the gorgeous weather was asking for another outing for my Clarks slingbacks charity shopped in Bridgnorth when meeting up with Vix back in June. They might very well be my most worn shoes this Summer.

Oh, how I love this time of year! I'm sure there are a lot of you out there who prefer Summer, but I am definitely an Autumn girl!

And although this year's greenery has long lost its freshness by now, I love the mellow sunlight which has replaced the harsh glare of Mid-Summer.

The other thing I love about Indian Summer is that the heat of the days is book-ended by cool mornings and nights, making them all that more enjoyable.

From the park, we walked to the charity shop down the road, which is spread out over three floors.

We usually only have a cursory glance at the ground floor, which mainly has furniture, but I'm always having a browse at the jewellery display near the tills. Then it's off to the first floor, which has everything from household goods and decoration to books and records.

Our final stop is the basement which is completely dedicated to clothing and textiles.

Apart from one or two things you'll get to see later, this is what I found. It's been quite a while since I had such a great haul!

There was a short-sleeved top by Belgian label Lucy Has A Secret, as well as two long-sleeved shirts, which purely by coincidence are all in a similar colour range.

In stark contrast are the neon shades of the green printed cardigan and the massive dayglo pink chain which, after a minor intervention by Jos, I will be using as a belt.

Two necklaces and two bangles (one of them in painted wood) were my other jewellery finds.

A colourful vintage C&A dress was a surprise find, as vintage dresses are few and far between at the charity shops outside of their retro events. Its label was pristine and its polyester fabric still a bit stiff, as if it came straight from the C&A rails, so I don't think it was ever worn.

Then there was some interesting reading matter for Jos (and me as well, of course).

Last but not least, I happened upon this tiny Italian souvenir doll, still in her original box. I picked it up, remarking to Jos that it had probably been an unwanted present, when the illustrations on the box made me realize that this was proper vintage. 

It was obvious that the doll had never been out of the box and, as she is kept hostage by the elastic holding her in place, which has solidified and has permanently attached itself to the box’s back, she probably never will. For € 0,50, however, she has now found her forever home at Dove Cottage.

So, that was it for now. I'll be regaling you again with my travel adventures in my next post. 

Hope you'll join me again then.

Linking last Saturday's outfit to Nancy's Fancy Friday.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

It's raining cats

The sun was still sulking behind a solid layer of grey when we got up on Wednesday morning, which frankly speaking was a bit of a letdown.

Consulting our phone's weather app didn't bring any solace either, as rain would definitely be on the cards that day, putting paid to any plans for a longer walk or a visit to the seaside.

Instead, we thought our best bet would be to go to Ypres, which is the nearest town of any size, and only about 20 minutes down the road. 

As there was still no sign of any precipitation after breakfast, we once again made use of our little balcony with a view to make that day's outfit photos.

While we were packing for our holiday - a job I'm absolutely hopeless at as it forces me to assemble a temporary capsule wardrobe - Jos insisted that I took this vintage navy and white polka dot dress. I'm pretty sure that it has never made it to the blog. In fact, I don't think I've even worn it in the last two years. 

I've really got no idea why I have been neglecting it, as it's such a classic, isn't it? I love its contrasting collar, which has navy dots on white, and the two bands of white piping running down the bodice to the hips.

I pinned my light blue birds in flight brooch to it for good measure and added a cardigan - a King Louie one charity shopped last year - in the same colour. 

Although the dress came with its own belt, I opted for this shiny red vinyl one instead. It's one of my favourites as it has an ususual square plastic buckle. Further dashes of red were provided by my red and white beaded necklace, red plastic ring and my faithful Clarks Cloudsteppers.

Posing on the steps up to our little studio, I thought that this was as good a time as any to show you around. The entrance is up the steps at the front of the cottage which faces the road and the hop fields beyond. Poperinge is the main centre of hop cultivation in Belgium, and the town even has a Hop Museum, which we visted a couple of years back.

The little balcony is at the side of the cottage and faces the lake which is teeming with wildlife and which can also be seen from the breakfast/dining nook part of the studio.

Those of you who have been following my blog for a while might remember my posts from previous years where I've shown you the studio's interior. If you're so inclined, you can have a look here, as I didn't take any inside photos this year.


So, off to Ypres! Or Ieper, as we call it in Flemish. The name of this gorgeous town, which is completely immersed in First World War history, is obviously well known all over the world. During the First World War, Ypres (or "Wipers" as it was commonly called by the British troops) was the centre of the Battles of Ypres between German and Allied forces, and was all but obliterated by 1918. But more about that later.

Having visited the town a couple of times before, we know our way around a bit, and are also aware of the fact that parking is free at the station. From there, it's a straightforward 10 minute walk into town. 

If like us, you are not pressed for time, and would like to approach the town in a more fitting way, there's the 2,6 kilometer ramparts walk, which conveniently starts almost opposite the station's car park.

Here, the former ammunition store (top left) cannot be missed. It was built in 1817 by the Dutch army on the foundations of a French equivalent.

On the bottom right you can catch a glimpse of restaurant which occupies its own island in the moat and is only reachable via an idyllic little bridge. We stopped there for coffee in 2017, when we sat out in the garden on an otherwise gloomy afternoon.

The route then meanders past lakes and ponds, which are the remains of the moat, and the walk is a delight, as it is a perfect combination of history and nature, with the odd work of art thrown in along the way.

Here, Jos is walking along the edge of the Predikherentoren (Preacher's tower), one of two towers which were part of the 14th Century Burgundian rampart. In the French era the towers were lowered and transformed into artillary platforms.

Near the Lille Gate (top right) is the Ramparts War Cemetery, a small British cemetery where 193 Commonwealth soldiers are resting.

Soon we were catching glimpses of some of Ypres' towers between the trees. 

As we were nearing the Menin Gate, and the end of our walk along the ramparts, we passed the Indian Memorial (top right) which is dedicated to the 130,000 troops of the Indian Forces who served in Flanders during the Great War.

At that point, the famous, or should that be infamous, Menin Gate was looming in front of us. 

It is built on the site where, four years long, British troups left for the front, and is a memorial to nearly 55,000 Commonwealth soldiers fallen before 15 August 1917, who do not have a known grave. However many times you visit this impressive monument, you cannot help but be moved to tears upon the sight of the endless columns of names carved into its walls.

We left the ramparts at the Menin Gate and made our way to the town's main square. Glancing backwards, I was struck by the incongruity of the gaily fluttering bunting and the solemn and awe-inspring Menin Gate in the background.

The chocolate cats in one of the shop windows soon put a smile back on my face, although I wouldn't ever be able to eat one.

First-time visitors might find it hard to believe that Ypres' magnificent main square, seemingly surrounded by magnificent Medieval and Renaissance buildings, was almost completely flattened by the end of the Great War. As was most of the town, as a matter of fact.

Virtually the whole of the town as can be seen today was painstakingly reconstructed from scratch, stone by stone, and brick by brick, during the 1920s and 1930s, by referring to the Medieval sketches and diagrams which had survived.

By now, we were gettng peckish and went in search for lunch, at which point the first drops of rain were starting to fall. 

Jos's weather app kept insisting it was just a blip but by the time we had finished lunch, it was still raining on and off, and quite heavily at times, so that umbrellas were needed.

Among all the wetness and greyness and people wearing dark colours to boot, Jos clearly stood out in his mustard yellow trousers and green blazer!

We dashed across the square and into the passage running under the Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall), emerging on the other side in front of the Gothic St. Maartenskathedraal (St. Martin's Cathedral).

We'd never been inside so this was the perfect opportunity to pay it an extensive visit and shelter from the elements at the same time.

Reconstruction has beautifully retored its soaring Gothic interior and it is hard to believe that the church was actually completely rebuilt in the 20th Century!

I was quite moved by this contemporary sculpture by Jan De Wachter called Resurrection, of a man crying in desperation. If you look closely, you can see a teardrop hanging from his chin.

Back outside, we found that it was still raining, so we wandered around the museum shop where I was almost tempted by one of the cotton souvenir bags printed with Phoebes. Deciding not to give in to temptation, we went for a cup of cappuccino instead until we could see the number of umbrellas outside diminishing as the rain had all but stopped.

Not for long though, as only minutes after we'd resumed our tour of the town, the heavenly gates opened and treated us to a heavy downpour, so that we had to make another dash into a church.

St. George's Memorial Church was designed by architect Sir Reginal Blomfield and built to commemorate the over 500,000 British and Commonwealth troops who died in the three battles fought for the Ypres Salient during the Great War. It was completed in 1929.

There was a knowledgeable guide giving a tour to a group of British visitors, and we sat in the back listening in. 

We remained in the church afterwards until the interior was lighted by the sudden burst of sunshine streaming through the windows, signalling our cue to leave.

Once again, we made our way to the main square, passing underneath the Lakenhalle, marvelling at the difference made by the sun's rays on the greyish brick of the square's buildings, and the Lakenhalle in particular.

By now, you may be wondering about the golden figure perching on top of the pinnacled roof and what it is he is holding. Well, no longer keeping you in suspension, I can divulge that it is a cat!

What with the chocolate cats and those on the cotton bags in the museum shop, you might have cottoned on that the town has a link with cats. But what is it? Well, it's not a very nice story I'm afraid. 

Back in the 15th Centurty, when Ypres started to prosper as a reslt of the cloth trade, the wool they imported from England was stored in the Cloth Hall. This inevitably attracted mice, so it was decided to release a few hungry cats in the Cloth Hall. Everything worked well at first but it soon became clear that the plan had a flaw, as the cats started procreating, so that Ypres soon had too many cats. Nothing better was found than throwing the animals off the Cloth Hall tower as a means of pest control. The true reason will probably never be known.

The tradition is still honoured by a triennial Cat Parade at the end of which cats are still thrown from the tower. But don't worry, as these days the cats are of the stuffed variety!

I'm leaving you for now with this autumn flavoured photograph of the impressive Cloth Hall with its 70 metre high belfry tower and the adjacent town hall (the building on the far right) basking in the mellow September sunlight, the row of rust-leaved trees enhancing the patches of pale blue of the sky visible between the white cotton-wool clouds.