Wednesday 30 September 2020

Remembering September

With my travelogue finished, there is nothing for it but to return to the order of the day, starting with a big catch-up as I'm obviously lagging far behind.

To jog your memories as well as mine, I finished my last non-travel post with those strange little creatures at Castle de Renesse, which we visited on my birthday. Yesterday's newspaper, by the way, contained a piece of good news: it seems that, paired with some interventions, the heavy rains of the last couple of days are slowly but surely filling up the castle's lake again!

The next day, 13 September, was a Sunday, and once again my journal had to come to my rescue, telling me it was another warm and sunny day. 

With Summer slowly but surely coming to an end, and Autumn about to make an entrance, I have been  trying to make the most of those Summer clothes which are still languishing unworn in my wardrobe.

That morning, I fell for this leaf-patterned coral Diolen delight dotted with blue and lime green flowers, which has been a wardrobe staple for many years. Taking my lead from the splashes of blue in the print, I added a cropped blue cardigan and accented my waist with a blue fabric covered belt. Even my shoes were in the same shade of cobalt blue. 

Further accessories were a blue beaded necklace and a green-petalled and turquoise-hearted flower brooch, which was part of my recent charity shop haul.

As we wanted to buy some flowers to welcome a new neighbour, we drove down to a small local garden centre after lunch. But as garden centres as well as charity shops are my undoing, we obviously ended up buying things for ourselves too!

To fill some of the gaps in our collection of patio plants, a pot of cheerful pink Cyclamen, some pale yellow small flowered Chrysanthemums and a dwarf Sunflower came home with us. We also found the glazed square terracotta pots which are home to the latter two. They were end of range and slightly chipped and thus reduced to € 2 each.

The garden centre in question also has a discount homewares and decoration department which is well worth a browse, resulting in a tartan throw and some textured velour cushions for our sofa.

Summer's last hurrah came on Monday and Tuesday, when the temperature once again soared to 30°C and beyond. Thankfully, it significantly cools down overnight at this time of year, so that at least we were spared the uncomfortably sweaty nights!

Tuesday was the perfect opportunity to wear that gorgeous green blouse I'd picked up from the charity shop in Poperinge. With its sugar pink buttons and rick-rack trim at the collar and cap sleeves, it was nothing short of a miracle that it was still on the shop's end-of-summer rails. On its collar, I pinned the Bambi brooch I'd found in the same shop.

My hand-made green cotton circle skirt with its tiny white checks and red dots, multicoloured wooden beaded necklace and pink, yellow and white woven belt were all charity shop finds as well.

In fact, only my Gabor sandals were brought brand new. They were a sales bargain last year and are super comfortable.

I just love this time of year and keep popping out into our little patch, my attention caught by the slant of the sun, intensifying the colours of the late Summer flowers and hangers-on or making them appear almost transluscent.

I don't think there is any month of the year when the light is so beautiful yet tinged with bittersweet nostalgia as September.

The bees are a-buzzing, feasting on nectar as if there’s no tomorrow, which their instinct seems to tell them is exactly what will happen. 

One day soon, the last of the flowers will have wilted, the last of the leaves turned brown and brittle and, tired of hanging on, they’ll join the crispy carpet beneath them. The sun will still be shining, but her warmth will diminish and daylight will become a scarce commodity, darkness coming sooner with each passing day.

For now, my eyes are feasting on Summer’s grand finale as, handing over the torch to Autumn, she’s winking at me, whispering I’ll be back after next Spring. 

The world keeps on turning, and seasons are whirling by, one following the other as they always have and always will. Or will they? 

But before I'm getting too morose, let's have a look at Thursday's outfit.

The temperature had taken the tiniest of tumbles on Wednesday and a mild breeze helped to cool things further down on Thursday.

With so many unworn Summer dresses clamouring for attention and hoping for an outing before they are whisked away until next year, deciding what to wear is harder than ever.

The lucky winner that day was this blue, lilac and grey watercolour print dress, which was among my earliest Think Twice finds. Adding red as an accent colour seems to come naturally where this dress is concerned, so I picked out a belt, necklace and cat brooch in a rich ruby red. To liven things up, my red bangle was joined by a blue on white polka dot one and a multicoloured bracelet.

The day was spent doing mundane tasks, such as cleaning kitchen windows and bathroom and cutting back some of the rampant ivy and other climbers in the garden.

For Friday, we had something quite different in mind. Our plans required getting up a bit earlier than usual on one of my non-office days, as we wanted to be in Antwerp by the time the shops opened in order to beat the crowds. 

We were going on a Think Twice trawl for my birthday!  

My celebratory outfit consisted of another as yet unworn Diolen dress, in a wild navy, bright blue and yellow on white print, with a neat tie bow at its notched collar. 

At my waist, I wore my Mum's white buckled navy belt. Further accessories consisted of blue and yellow bangles, a yellow necklace and a sky blue cat brooch. The latter was a recent addition to my collection, bought from a newly opened shop opposite my hairdresser's, selling all manner of cat related things!

Think Twice, here I come! Can you imagine how excited I was? A regular lunch-time haunt not all that long ago, post-lockdown only saw me visiting one of the shops briefly back in June. How times have changed!

After parking our car, we made our way to the first shop, which is located in a side street of Antwerp's main shopping thoroughfare. Due to its location, we wanted to go there first, before the arrival of the masses. And if initially I feared I wouldn't find anything, this first shop proved me wrong already.

On the top left is the shop in question. I'd planned to photograph the others too but, typically, I forgot once I was in the throes of browsing their rails of vintage stuff.

As Jos hadn't yet had the opportunity to savour the grandeur of the newly restored and re-opened former Stock Exchange which is just around the corner from the first shop, we paid it a short visit before proceeding to the next one on our agenda, located in what used to be one of Antwerp's most famous alternative shopping streets.

In-between shops, we ate the sandwiches we'd brought sitting on a bench in a largely empty back-of-beyond square. After visiting the third and final shop, we ended our outing by walking along the promenade beside the River Scheldt, where we selected another bench to watch the world go by from.

But I'm sure you'll be on the edge of your seats by now, so I'll keep you in suspense no longer and show you my finds!

This jersey polyester A-line midi skirt was waiting for me in the first shop.

As was this long-sleeved frock, which is joining my collection of black florals. It's from Mac Scott, which I believe was a Scandinavian label.

A browse in the almost empty second shop yielded three dresses, one of which was this navy flower drenched beauty from the Finnish Karelia label, which came with a self fabric tie belt.

This knee-length short-sleeved mod dress has a hard to photograph orange, purple, teal and olive green checked print and a solid burnt orange collar. The belt is one of my own. You will see the dress in action in one of my next posts, as I've already been wearing it in the meantime.

The second shop's final dress is easily the most spectacular, with its groovilicious print and massive bell sleeves. It's in a warm Tricel fabric, so excellently suited for those as yet unmentionable December festivities. If they are allowed to happen this year. 

And if no food is involved as that would be virtually disastrous with those sleeves!

Obviously, there was no way I could leave this gorgeous tapestry bag behind in the third and final shop!

Making my way to the till, I came across a bowl piled high with all manner of costume jewellery, from which I soon extracted this large Cameo brooch.

Quite a decent haul, don't you think?

I'll be back with a further September catch-up soon. Until then, my dears, keep on staying safe and as sane as possible!

Saturday 26 September 2020

Out of the woods

Thank you for joining me for the final episode of my travelogue! 

As our adventures are now several weeks behind us I had to have a sneaky peak in my journal for some of the details, and I'm particularly glad of all the photographs I've taken, each and every one having its own story to tell.

Take this one for instance, snapped near the end of Friday's walk. There's nothing special about what I'm wearing, as you've seen it all before. The glorious floral wide-legged trousers, which I'd only worn two days before, combined with the same flower-embroidered vintage denim jacket. The only difference a short-sleeved green sailor-style jumper, originally from Belgian label Who's That Girl. Charity shopped back in 2016, it has been worn quite a lot over the years, and what's more, it has accompanied me to our west country retreat many times before.

The story this picture tells, however, is written in my tousled hair and smile, one of those smiles which effortlessly reaches the eyes. Taken near the end of yet another gorgeous walk on an equally gorgeous day, it speaks of happiness and contentment in the face of adversity, the blush on my cheeks not just due to that morning's application of make-up, but kissed by fresh air and the rays of the late Summer sun.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's rewind to Friday morning. The weathermen kept trying to spoil our prevailing good moods by forecasting rain for the end of the week, and indeed we'd initially woken up to a bit of a dull grey day.  However, by the time we were ready to go, the sun had come out of hiding and fluffy white clouds were drifting across a blue sky.

Our first mission of the day was stocking up on provisions in a small supermarket in the neighbouring village of Proven. We were surprised to see that apparently our Satnav knew the location of the shop, so we sat back and, against our better judgment, let her lead the way. Easy-peasy!

Well, what can I say? Having instructed us to make a right turn instead of a left, we were once again left to our own devices, the upside being that we were able to walk past and admire the village's pretty church and vicarage.

Mission accomplished, we dropped off our purchases at the cottage, and then - in spite of fearing the worst - entered our next destination, which was the nearest address we could find for the car park of the nature reserve we'd picked for the start of our walk.

I'm sure that by now you can imagine our surprise when our journey went smoothly and that for once we reached the car park without having to drive around in circles.

The reserve, which is called Hellegatbos (bos is the Dutch word for wood) lies on the slopes of the 129 m high Rodeberg, one of a range of hills the area to the south of Poperinge is famous for.

Again, this is somewhere we've been before, but the walk we did about three years ago mainly concentrated on the wood itself, where woodland paths and steps endlessly climbed and descended.

This time, after admiring the slightly hazy view towards Poperinge and beyond, we decided to keep the wood on our left and descend into the valley towards the village of Westouter.

Country lanes took us past idyllic ivy-covered farmhouses and between acres of fields and meadows. The first of the many chapels lining the roads here (there are an estimated 200 of them in the area) was almost hidden from view by shrubs and creepers, its grimy window effortlessly hiding its interior.

As our walk took us firmly outside the reserve, benches were few and far between. We were starting to get seriously peckish by now, so these two garden chairs couldn't have appeared at a better time. They stood next to the entrance to an exclusive domain with a vineyard and a luxury holiday home, so it is doubtful they were meant for mere passers-by like us!

Thus fortified, we continued until we reached Westouter, which we strolled through, briefly visiting the St Eligius church and halting in front of the little chapel honouring the Black Madonna of Czestochowa (bottom right), commemorating the liberation of Westouter by the Polish 1st Armoured Division in September 1944.

We left the village, walking back in the direction of the wood via the Schomminkelstraat, a small but seriously steep country lane, where a challenge is set up for any would-be cyclists.

Our route thankfully went off-road here, so that our climb to the top was gradual and more gentle. 

Before we did so, however, we paused at another little chapel, with Mary and baby Jesus brightly lit by the afternoon sun.

At one point, the lane was lined with blackberry bushes, their juicy fruits ready for the picking. Alas, we didn't have a suitable container with us, so that we had to limit ourselves to the handful we could safely carry home inside our sandwich wrappers.

Upon reaching the wood, we still had a serious climb ahead of us, so about half-way we took a breather on a conveniently placed bench. Ah, doesn't it feel good to breathe in that typical end-of-summer woodland air and savour its sensory delights!

All too soon, we were back at the car park. However, that didn't mean the day's adventures were over. Helped by our Satnav, we pointed our car into the direction of Poperinge, and in particular its small edge of town charity shop.

Pickings were slim, as they were about to do their seasonal changeover, but I still managed to find a red H&M coat, as well as a green sleeveless top trimmed with pink rick-rack from Belgian label Who's That Girl, on the almost depleted but seriously reduced rails. A quick glance at the jewellery display at the till yielded the cutest Bambi brooch, which obviously had to come home with me. All this for a mere € 7!

A chilly wind heralding a drop in temperature and the imminence of rain on Saturday made me re-wear Monday's green trousers and dotty Phase Eight raincoat, the latter a Shropshire charity shop find.

It looked set to remain dry in the morning, so we wasted no time in going for the final walk of our holiday, opting for another nature reserve, Helleketelbos. This being only a ten minute drive or so from the cottage, we were there really early.

After parking our car and having a look at our walking map, we set off, soon coming across a wooden shelter and adjoining picnic table with built in sun lounger. 

We were intrigued by this tree stump with the words breathe, feel, see, hear and smell carved into its surface, accompanied by small pebbles bearing the corresponding words. The one on the bottom left says adem which means breathe. And that's exactly what we did: breathe in whole lungfuls of soul-restoring, fragrant woodland air.

Bearing yesterday's experience in mind, we'd come prepared this time and were carrying a plastic tub, which was soon filled to the brim when our walk took us past some well-laden blackberry bushes. 

Emerging from the woods, we briefly walked off-map to the Fazantheuvel (Pheasant hill), with its 62 meters the highest point of Poperinge. No sniggering, please! Flanders is, after all, a relatively flat part of the world. 

There's a panoramic view across the surrounding countryside and into France which is an almost literal stone's throw from here. A helpful orientation table pointing out the various landmarks was erected back in 2000, together with bench to rest one's weary feet. It was here that, in spite of the blustery wind, we had that day's picnic.

The bump on the horizon on the top left in the below collage is the delightful French town of Cassel, which we visited back in 2017.

It is said that on a clear day you can even catch a glimpse of the sea but in spite of having binoculars with us we never did. 

Having made an early start, the afternoon was still young when we finished our walk. On this final day of our getaway, this was the perfect opportunity to visit another chapel.

A short stroll from our cottage along a bumpy unsurfaced path, the whitewashed chapel of  Ons Heerens Boompje (literally translated as Our Lord's little Tree) would have been visible from our balcony if a clump of trees hadn't been in the way. 

It is a so-called "fever chapel", where people come to pray for the relief of fever and pain as well as miracles in general.

The bushes and trees surrounding the chapel are hung with ribbons, handkerchiefs and other pieces of fabric - indeed in some cases whole garments - since legend has it that this would make fever or pain go away.

I wasn't in the least surprised to spot a face mask among the cacophony of textiles.

As usual, we burnt some candles and, as we only had a € 5 note, we even took a votive candle back with us as a souvenir to get our money's worth and perhaps invoke the odd little miracle.

We spotted Poperinge's water tower - a landmark visible from miles around - peeking out above the ripening maize fields on our way back to the cottage, where blue-eyed Chablis was waiting for us.

Sunset that evening provided the grand finale of our holiday week, the sinking sun scattering gold dust and then painting the evening sky with pinks and purples. 

And so, our holiday had come to an end and we would have to return to the daily grind once more.

But not before posing on our little balcony one last time on Sunday morning, looking wistful and prone to a serious case of the end-of-the-holidays blues.

Monday 21 September 2020

Far from the madding crowd

Hello, and welcome to the third episode of my latest travelogue! 

We have now arrived on the Wednesday of our week away, which the calendar told us was 2 September. With schools having restarted the previous day, the worst of the tourist season was well and truly over, but we still opted to spend our time as far away from any lingering crowds as possible.

The weather gods kept treating us kindly, so that we could continue to indulge in one of our favourite pastimes and go for socially distanced rambles in the beautiful countryside surrounding us.

What's more, the weather forecast insisted that this would be the best day of the week, with balmy temperatures well into the twenties. 

That morning, I pulled another pair of wide-legged trousers out of my suitcase, in a cheerful cherry red strewn with blowsy flowers in pink, peach and green. Same as my other pair, it is from New Look, this one bought brand new in the sales a couple of years ago. 

They were actually not the only retail item in my outfit, as my Clarks Cloudsteppers, my blue crossbody bag and my necklace were all bought on the high street. My King Louie top was charity shopped, though, while the flower embroidered denim jacket came from Think Twice.

We'd picked a walk starting from De Palingbeek, a provincial estate of about 250 hectares on the outskirts of Ypres. We'd done the same walk six years ago, but when I was googling the exact address of the estate's car park, I saw that the walking map of the area had recently been updated. So, before we set off that morning we went into Poperinge, our nearest little town, to get a new map from the tourist office located in the town's stunning neo-Gothic town hall (top left). 

Since we were there, we went to a local bakery and bought a loaf of bread which came packed in a very Polyester Princess-worthy paper bag!

Armed with our map and the picnic Jos had prepared that morning, we entered the car park's address into our car's Satnav and were on our way. Easy-peasy! Or so we thought. But no: the bloody thing took us to a golf course on a single track road and announced that we were there. Of course, there was no car park in sight, so there we sat, hemmed in by the golf course which stretched out on both sides of the road. In desperation we drove around the area's myriad of country lanes until, propelled along by a stroke of luck and a good look at the map, we ultimately made it to the car park.

By then, it was past midday, so after having parked our car - which was further thwarted by on-site construction work - we made our way to a picnic site for a bite to eat.

Then, after making use of the on-site hand sanitizing station at the edge of a playground, we were finally ready to start our walk.

The estate offers a varied landscape of sloping woodland, orchards and meadows, marches and pools.

The latter are often not quite the peaceful pools they appear to be at first sight, owing their existence to mines which were detonated underneath the German positions at nearby Hill 60 in June 1917.

Our walk eventually took us to the most famous of these pools, known as Caterpillar Crater, but once again this had seriously suffered from the ongoing drought, which left the 79,2 meter wide and 15,5 meter deep crater (bottom left) only partly filled.

The return journey passed the impressive art installation Coming World Remember Me by artist Koen Vanmechelen. Originally consisting of 600.000 clay heads sculptured by thousands of people from across the globe, representing the 600.000 victims who lost their lives as a result of WWI in Belgium, it was displayed in the estate between March and November 2018.

Many people went home with one of the hand-sculpted heads, but the central sculpture (the egg) as well as 200.000 heads have now received a permanent resting place here.

With our walk finished sooner than we'd expected, we thought we'd check out one of the many military cemeteries which are such a feature of the area.  While we were lost on those country lanes that morning, our attention had been caught by the sight of the ubiquitous rows of white headstones nestling in the gently rolling countryside, punctuated by two gazebo-like structures and shimmering like an oasis in the glaring midday sun. Intrigued, we tried to find out its name and exact location, which we soon did. It turned out driving there was only a matter of minutes.

Bedford House Cemetery is one of the largest British cemeteries in the area. It stands in what was once the park of Rosendael Castle, which the British troops renamed "Bedford House" during the war, when it served as a headquarters and a medical aid post. It never fell into enemy hands, but the house was gradually destroyed by shell fire. 

The magnificent garden architecture, and the fact that the castle's moat and the remains of its ice house are incorporated into the design, makes Bedford House Cemetery a unique and poignantly beautiful site.

The next day, Thursday, was a total contrast on the weather front, with a dull grey sky and significantly cooler temperatures greeting us when we stepped out onto our balcony.

I was wearing my other pair of wide-legged trousers again, this time combined with a pale green floral vintage skirt, topped by a charity shopped coral polka dot cardigan and accessorized with a vintage necklace and leaf brooch. 

No rain seemed to be on the horizon, so we picked another walk for the day, for which I exchanged my ankle boots for my boring yet comfortable walking shoes.

For the start of our walk, we drove down to a different provincial estate, called De Blankaart, which lies just outside the town of Diksmuide, and is about half an hour's drive from our cottage.

Its visitors centre is housed in a picturesque castle, originally built in 1860-1870, although the current construction dates from the 1920s as the destruction of the First World War had only spared its façade.

Located on the edge of the River IJzer's flood plains, the castle is surrounded by a magnificent park. The castle has a permanent exhibition on the area's fauna and flora, but its doors were firmly closed. Free walking leaflets, however, were readily available, as was a hand sanitizing unit cleverly built into a tree.

The picnic area was deserted so, while eating our sandwiches at one of the tables, we proceeded to study the map supplied with the leaflet, opting for the 5,6 kilometer walk instead of the longer 10 kilometer one. The shorter walk would follow the longer one's path for a stretch, and would then require a right turn instead of a left at some point. Easy-peasy, no?

Confidently, we started our walk, following the hexagonal sign posts which initially lead us through some woodland. It didn't take long until we came to the first of many bird hides offering a view of the area's watery grass and reedlands, with the vast IJzer wetlands behind them. 

The weather had turned quite windy by now, so that by the time we made it to a decorative iron bridge offering the most enchanting of views of the castle across a waterlily pad filled lake, we were almost blown away in both senses of the word.

It was here that we met a couple walking their dog, whom we would later meet again at a turning, looking at the rather rudimentary map and scratching their heads. They told us they were still debating whether to do the shorter or the longer walk, and that a right turn indicating diagonally across the meadows would take us to the shorter circuit. With our impressive track record of getting lost, we took no chances, agreed that this was the anticipated right turn, and went ahead, soon followed by the dog-walking couple.

Much to or surprise, though, we found ourselves back at the castle within minutes. Surely we couldn't have walked 5,6 kilometers already, only about a kilometer at a rough guess. The dog-walking couple didn't seem to think anything was wrong, and were last seen cycling off with their dog in one of those carts, but after studying the map once again, we decided to recross the meadow and continue left instead of right at the turning.

From here, the walk was getting more and more adventurous, leading us through meadows and along stretches of boardwalk, one of them quite higgledy piggledy, with some of the wooden slats broken or missing. Fortunately, the whole thing was supported by sturdy iron grilles! At one point, a gnarled old tree was doing its best to catch careless walkers unawares and reward them with a bump on the head.

Not us, I hasten to add, but on our way back we did meet a lady who was clutching her head after a painful collision with the tree in question.

At this point, we still weren't sure we were on the right track and hadn't inadvertently missed the elusive right turning. Stubbornly, we plodded on, alternately propelled along and hampered by the wind which by then had greatly increased in force. When we spotted the tower (bottom right), which apparently was another bird hide, in the distance, we decided to make this our goal and then see if we could climb it and make out our exact location. 

The wind blowing through the open structure was making our ears sting and our eyes water, but climbing to its top floor, which thankfully was not in the open, rewarded us with the most stunning of views over the wetlands. Studying the map once more, we determined we were still on the right track and proceeded until, hey presto, we came to the very spot where the two paths diverged. 

Here, the shorter circuit initially took us along a narrow tarmacked lane until we reached a path leading to another meadow, which we had to cross to arrive back at the wonky boardwalk. 

We were quite proud of ourselves for having persevered and finished the walk without actually getting lost a second time. As the visitors centre had opened by now, we even treated ourselves to a celebratory takeaway coffee.

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time."
-   T. S. Eliot,  Little Gidding

Then it was back to the cottage, where much to our delight, hop picking had started in the fields opposite. 

We watched proceedings for a while, while in our turn being watched by the owner's cat, Chablis, who was making the most of the last rays of the sun, which had suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

Another day gone by, and how we wished we could have stopped time, but alas, two more days and it would be all over.

Please do join me again for the final episode of my travelogue in a couple of days. Until then, do stay safe, my friends!