Friday 31 December 2021

Not everything is black or white

In just a handful of hours, it will be time to say goodbye to this funny old year. I expect it to fizzle out rather than go out with a bang but, well, let's face it: there's not much cause for celebration, is there?

The hopes we might have had at the start of this year have fallen by the wayside, all but crushed into oblivion by the force of an invisible enemy. 

As the days go by, it's not just hard to remember what the Before Times* were like, sometimes it's almost impossible to get one's head around the fact that such times ever existed. 

And yet, I've picked myself up again, and again, and continued living through the wasteland of days, which have knitted themselves into weeks and then months, until they completed the tapestry of another year.

* Thank you Sheila for this very apt term!

Christmas was still in the future when we set out on a wintry walk on Friday the 17th of December, and so was negotiating the manic Christmas shoppers which would frazzle my nerve ends in the week to come.

The solid greyness of the day had been joined by a lingering fog, and a fine drizzle was coating my glasses as we ventured into the park after that morning's charity shopping.

Too miserable for a walk, our aim was to look for a suitable spot to take some outfit photos.

Crossing the park's overflowing brook, we squelched through the sodden mulch towards a gnarly multi-stemmed tree which seemed perfect for the job. It even had a handy hook to hang up my cork handbag. 

I'll show you the details of the rest of my outfit in a minute, but for now a look at my outerwear will have to do. I wore a plaid wool jacket in delicious shades of chocolate, cinnamon and cream. It's got the softest furry collar ever and I found it in a vintage shop opposite my hairdresser's in November 2019. Due to its rather boxy shape, I always wear it belted, this time opting for a burgundy leather one. Both the green beret and the pink boa were charity shopped and need no further introduction as they've both appeared here countless times.

Apart from the odd, tenacious hangers-on, most of the leaves had joined the thick layer carpeting the ground, leaving the trees gaunt and bare. 

Pink winged Spindle berries (Euonymus europaeus) decked the shrub like festive bunting. I wonder if it flowered early this year, as legend has it that this signified an outbreak of the plague was on its way.

As a final hurrah, Goldenrod (Solidago) regaled us with clouds of fluffy snow-white seed heads.

I was wearing last Summer's roses on my jumper, blowsy pink ones cavorting among a profusion of fresh green foliage. 

The jumper is King Louie and was yet another charity shop find, as were the pink tie-neck cardigan and the cerise belt I'd added to accent my waist. Both my necklace and my brooch, on which a flapper lady is echoing my choice of headgear, were flea market finds. Only my skirt, in a super soft forest green faux suede, was bought brand new from Mango a couple of years ago.

The drizzle had petered out by the time our photo session had finished, so we decided to walk towards the hump-backed bridge where the brook meets the pond. 

Here, we were accosted by the customary gaggle of ducks and geese clamouring for a handout. Alas, we'd come ill-prepared and empty handed. The geese in particular were not amused and loudly honked their discontent. At the back of the pond, a flock of gulls was pretending they belonged in this landlocked part of the world.

We'd come ill-prepared indeed. 

As we ventured deeper into the park, negotiating muddy and waterlogged paths, it dawned on us that there was no turning back and that our photo session had turned into a walk. But not only was I wearing the most unsuitable footwear in the form of my bottle green wedge heeled ankle boots, we hadn't had the forethought of bringing our walking sticks, which were in the boot of our car!

Beyond the pond, the world's edges were blurred by a bank of fog, cocooning the park and us, the sole explorers of the magical world it contained.

The bridge and the grassy field bordering the pond were glowing with the feathery, fiery foliage of Taxodium distichum, the bald cypress,  It was as if a flock of fairies had simultaneously cast a magic spell and conjured up this unexpected splash of colour in a world otherwise leached of it. 

Rags of fog were caught in the branches of the trees, which looked forlorn and ghostly grey, their bleakness a sharp contrast to the odd one out which had stubbornly kept hold of its Autumn finery and was vainly preening itself in the mirror-like pond.

And yet, there were signs of a future Spring, with clumps of gently nodding Snowdrops and the fresh green foliage of some Hellebores which, as a rehearsal for their fat juicy buds, had caught a perfectly formed, coppery Oak leaf in their midst.

Not everything is black or white
Some things are lonely grey
Like windows looking out on rain at dusk
Or the bitter pain in winter skies
when all the birds are gone…’
~H. Joanne Hardee, from “Some Things Are Grey”

This atmospheric poem captured the mood of the day and those which would follow perfectly.

From the park, we climbed to the towpath which runs paralell to it, the river a colourless ribbon running towards the horizon.

We spotted a white heron, but it had spotted us too and took flight, the blur caught by my camera a cross between ghost and angel.

Back in the park, we passed the bench we often use for picnics. Judging from the knee-deep carpet of fiery leaves and the haphazard heaps left on its seat, the last ones to have had their sandwiches here were those spell-casting fairies before they fled for the imaginary monsters in the undergrowth.

Perhaps they were still hiding in the wreckage of the water feature taken over by nature and neglect?

And so, we have come to the end of our walk, and the end of yet another year. 

Pandemic or not, there are still things to be thankful for. If the year got off on the wrong foot by having to say goodbye to Phoebe in February, welcoming Bess in March has more than made up for this.

Happy New Year!

Monday 27 December 2021

The ghosts of Christmas past

I might have left you with a bit of a cliffhanger after ending my previous post with a picture of this year's Christmas tree.  As many of you have guessed, the furry creature who became part of our lives back in March has not been able to resist the tree full of potential cat toys which had suddenly appeared in our sitting room.

She had been fast asleep in her Snooze Bay while we were setting it up and decorating it, and it was only after we were sitting down and admiring our handiwork that she finally walked in. She briefly stopped in her tracks in the doorway, then cautiously advanced upon the strange contraption full of tiny lights and dangling objects.

She'd dislodged the first of the latter - a felt icicle - within minutes, soon followed by one of the rag angels, a raffia teapot and a resin gingerbread man. I must have redecorated the bottom half of that tree dozens of times in the past two weeks! Apart from when she starts chewing the branches or the fairy lights, we just let her be and have her fun.

Christmas has come and gone by now but although my blog's ramblings haven't actually reached the festive season yet, I don't think it would do to post about Christmas in January. So, let's get that done and dusted, shall we. Not that we did much on the day. We never do. Although we no longer stay in our pyjamas all day like we did years ago, as the weather was a wet affair we didn't go for a walk like we did the last couple of years either.

Instead, we lounged around, reading and listening to our three Christmas albums, which got their yearly outing, as did my parents's best dinner service, which they got as a wedding present in 1957.

You're getting a sneak preview of my outfit too, which was built around this sage green crochet skirt which I'd found in a charity shop the previous day. More details, as well as a closer look at the rest of my outfit, will follow in a later post! 

With that out of the way - phew! - I'm taking you back in the bloggy time machine to the week before last. In spite of the reasonably balmy temperature, which would remain between 10 and 12°C from Monday to Thursday, clouds kept getting the better of the sun for most of the time.

On top of that, as usual in the the run up to Christmas it was getting busier in Antwerp by the day, although it wasn't yet on a par with the mad crowds I would have to negotiate a week later.

For now, all was right as long as I avoided Antwerp's main shopping thoroughfares in favour of the city's quieter spots during my lunch breaks. One day, as I was on my way back to the office, I passed "den Cleynen en den Grooten Biecorff” (transl. the small and the large beehive), a restored historical complex built around a central courtyard, now housing a selection of luxury boutiques and other exclusive businesses. 

According to their website, the Biecorff complex is a beautiful fusion of the remnants of old architecture and contemporary design. In other words, the partly plastered walls are a design element and not a sign of neglect. In spite of its obvious pretensions, I couldn't help but be charmed.

From here, it's only a stone's throw to my office building in the middle of the concrete jungle. The arrow helpfully points to the 5th floor windows behind which I'm spending my office days. Antwerp's main shopping street stretches out just around the corner.

On Thursday - we were the 16th of December by now - I decided to throw caution to the wind and walk to Think Twice for a long-overdue browse. Imagine my delight when I found not one but two vintage dresses in such a pristine condition that I doubt they have ever been worn.

My Friday off started grey and mizzly, a persistent fog accompanying us through most of the day. With the temperature having dropped several degrees as well, our plans for the day didn't exactly involve a walk in the park. Nevertheless, that's what we ended up doing after that morning's charity shopping trip.

In fact I think the impromptu walk and the outfit I was wearing deserve a post all of their own, so again I am just treating you to a sneak preview, which actually captures the walk's mood perfectly.

But I did mention charity shopping, so how about I'll show you my finds instead? 

The above all came from the charity shop near the park. Both the coloured wooded beads and the teal plastic ones were deadstock, the latter still retaining its tag from haberdashery and accessories shop Veritas. The black and white patterned item of clothing is a pair of slouchy trousers which didn't photograph well on a hanger. Nor could they be modelled by "legless" Angelica, obviously! They are by Essentiel Antwerp and I'm wearing them as I'm typing this. Much better than pyjama bottoms or - god forbid! - athleisure wear!

Lots of little treasures found their way into our basket in the first shop. 

Sometimes, it is obvious that people's painstakingly accumulated collections have been donated by relatives who just want to be rid of them. This time, there were several of these instant collections, one of them being a motley collection of owls. They were priced between € 0,30 for the malachite one on the bottom right, and € 0,60 for each of the Italian made alabaster ones on the top left.

On the top right, another addition to our collection of souvenirs plaques, this one from Belgian seaside resort Blankenberge. Finally, on the bottom left, a brass replica of the basilica of Scherpenheuvel, a famous Belgium place of pilgrimage. 

Oh, and this vintage wool and polyester blend dress came home with me as well. What's more, after trying it on when I got home, I couldn't wait to wear it the very next day.

I fell for its mix of leopard and zebra print in shades of charcoal and white. Can you believe that, apart from a handful of accessories, I haven't had any animal print in my wardrobe since my punk days?

I used berry shades for my cardigan, belt, opaques and orchid brooch, added a magenta beaded necklace and pinned a grey felted flower corsage to my cardigan.

It was yet again a matter of being all dressed up with nowhere to go, as the weather gods continued being badly behaved, treating us to dark and dismal weather for the rest of the weekend. In fact, we only made it to our garage based photo studio on Saturday as we had an errand to run.

The only sunshine on Sunday came courtesy of our daylight therapy lamp, which we basked in during our breakfast of omelettes with ham and mushrooms.

It was another day of pottering around the house, doing this and that and nothing very much at all.

I did curate my collection of necklaces, though, as my display rack was buckling under their weight and it was becoming quite problematic finding what I was looking for.

It still boggles my mind that it was almost twice as full before the cull! The rack, by the way, used to be a shop display rack for zips in its previous life, and was found in a vintage shop in December 2017.

The orange Better-Maid party dish is home to my rings, 

Pottering activities done and dusted, I finished the book I was reading. This was another non-taxing read which seems to be all my brain can cope with lately.  The novel explores the ties of loyalty and friendship that unite the women in a quilting circle in Depression-era Kansas, 

Oh, and I almost forgot to show you what I was wearing.

My black midi dress with its pattern of flower baskets is another vintage find from Think Twice and another wool and polyester blend. 

The snuggly faux sheep vest came from a high street shop, as did my white plastic ring. Together with my opaques, these are the only retail items in my outfit.

The green wooden necklace was charity shopped last year, while both of my brooches came from the "Brooch Lady", and eighty-something lady who used to sell her collection of 2000+ brooches on some of the flea markets we frequented.  What with the pandemic, I often wonder what has become of her ...

If all goes well, I will be back with one final post this year. Until then, please do stay safe!

Thursday 23 December 2021

We are nowhere and it's now

There was no improvement in the weather in the week after our visit to the crumbling castle. It was just one day after another of gloom and the temperature, which kept flitting around 5°C, was accompanied by a raw East wind. Weather conditions which didn't exactly tempt me to go out exploring during my lunch breaks. 

If I'm honest, the lack of daylight combined with the lack of perspective has been making me feel quite lethargic.

With nothing much apart from a day at the office to look forward to, dragging myself out of bed in the morning has become a bit of a struggle lately. It doesn't help that Bess often sneaks into bed with me minutes before I am supposed to get up, purring loudly as I stroke her belly. She's quite annoyed when eventually I have no choice but to leave the warmth of my bed and that of her snuggly feline body.

But look, I made it through another working week, as here I am on Friday the 10th of December. 

The corner of the kitchen outfit photos indicate that it was yet another one of those days on which daylight was almost non-existent. The rain was non-stop, too, and at just 4°C, it wasn't a day to be gallivanting about outside.

My vintage chocolate brown velvet midi skirt with its trails of cream lacy flowers was charity shopped last December. It is very strokable, but while ease of movement is aided by its lining, at the same time it is slitless which can be a bit of a hazard when walking at my usual brisk pace.

The blouse, with its funky yellow, green and brown pattern, is by Belgian retro label Wow To Go, and was another one of last year's charity shop finds. My green, short-sleeved cardigan is vintage and came from Think Twice. Accessories were a faux tortoiseshell necklace and a forest green leather belt, both courtesy of the charity shops, and an enamelled butterfly brooch which I believe was a flea market find.

My faux fur trimmed slippers were thrifted too. In fact, the only retail items in my outfit, apart from my underthings, were my ochre opaques. 

Is a selfie made of one's feet a feetie, I wonder :-)

Our weekly charity shopping trip had been a short one that day, as Jos was due for his booster jab in the early afternoon. A quick dash to our local charity shop that morning yielded a handful of things, brought to you by my faithful assistant Angelica. If you are wondering who the hell Cléo is, well that was Angelica's real name until she was adopted by us and called after my great-grandmother Angelica, better known as Zeleke, who was a dressmaker.

There was a lilac addition to my growing collection of long-line cardigans, and an argyle patterned V-neck jumper in shades of blue on a sandy background. OK, beige would probably be a better word for it but I'm loathe to use such an ugly word! I picked up the crochet flower brooch as well, and promptly pinned it to the green cardigan I was wearing.

While Jos was out for his jab, I kept myself busy by hand-washing a batch of face masks. Although I will never ever accept this as normal, this is yet another one of those things which have crept into our daily routines. 

The rest of the day was spent dutifully following in Bess's paw-steps, and although I didn't go as far as taking a cat-nap, I spent the afternoon reading and catching up with blogland.

We were treated to rays of sunshine on Saturday so, after lunch, we went for another cobweb clearing walk in one of Antwerp's cluster of parks.

At just 4°C, layering was required, particularly since my dress, by the Ein Fink Modell label, is unlined. Yet another one of last year's charity shop finds, I fell in love with its tiny pink flowers drifting down towards the hem. However, its lining had been partly removed by its previous owner, leaving only the top half which kept bunching up in such an annoying fashion that it had to be taken out completely.

Consequently, I'm wearing both a t-shirt and a slip underneath, as well as a chunky green cardigan on top. My choice of green for the latter, as well as for my belt and - another - enamelled butterfly brooch was prompted by the flower stalks in the dress's print.

I struggled a bit finding a necklace which was able to compete with the dress, eventually settling for a string of chunky wooden beads in multiple colours including pink and green.

Arriving at our destination, we parked our car in the designated car park on the avenue which separates the parks. Our initial idea had been to explore the part of the sculpture park called Middelheim-Low and the formal Hortiflora garden to its West.

However, upon entering the park, our feet veered off to the left instead of to the right, taking us towards the third of the parks, which is called Vogelzang (transl. Birdsong), the other two being Middelheim and Den Brandt.

This is actually the oldest of the three parks. There used to be a small castle here as early as 1457, but it was not until the 17th century that a park estate was added. The current park, laid out in typical English landscape style, dates from 1850. 

The castle itself was demolished in the early 20th century and only the orangery and stables remain to this day. 

I was tempted to do another statue impersonation here, but the soggy mass of leaves had made the bluestone plinth far too slippery to climb on top of it.

The park also contains an impressive First World War memorial, which was unveiled in 1930. 

The former dairy, or melkerij in Flemish, was preserved and turned into a tavern where, from 1920 onwards, milk, lemonade, beer and sandwiches were being sold to visitors and hikers. 

These weary hikers were glad to see that it was still in business and what's more, after whispering Open Sesame - or rather, scanning our CST's - we were allowed to enter and enjoy cups of cappuccino and huge waffles with oodles of whipped cream!

Thus fortified, we started our return journey which eventually found us making a short cut through Middelheim-Low after all. 

Here, we narrowly escaped being abducted by aliens, who seemed to have made an emergency landing in the middle of a lawn. Their spaceship is called Never Mind and is a work by the Welsh artist Richard Deacon.

Never mind the aliens, we made it home in one piece!

On Sunday, the rain returned with a vengeance, with dark clouds putting paid to the sun getting a look-in. The temperature, which has been yoyoing a bit lately, was now back to 11°C. 

Again, we only stepped outside for outfit photos. I was wearing the dress I'd found during our charity shopping trip the previous week. The lovely Lulu commented that its pattern reminded her of a Gustav Klimt painting, and you know what, I think she's right!

It was an absolute joy to wear, too. As I'd had a couple of things to tick off my domestic to-do-list, I kept my accessories simple, just adding some silvertone jewellery. The 1960s style necklace is modern and came from the high street, although I can't for the life of me remember which shop. The brooch, with its dangly little chains ending in tiny pearls, was a flea market find, and one of my very first vintage brooches.

My wine red opaques are a well-worn pair I'm keeping for chores around the house, and I only added the recently charity shopped cardigan and the burgundy boots for stepping out into the garden.

The afternoon was spent putting up and decorating this year's Christmas tree. Due to the arrival of a certain furry creature, we had to put it up in a different place, for which we needed a smaller faux fir.

In addition, using our beloved vintage and heirloom baubles was out of the question, so that our tree is looking quite a bit different this year. The decorations included felt icicles, fabric hearts and angels, fake apples, wooden bird houses, resin wrens and gingerbread men, all of which were already in our collection. Oh, and the same 150 LED lights we used in our big tree, so that it's looking quite flashy! The fabric hiding its base is a remnant of the 1960s tablecloth which used to grace my parents' table on Christmas day.

Wishing you a wonderful Christmas, whichever way you prefer to spend it. Or not!

Stay safe, everyone!

Sunday 19 December 2021

The crumbling castle

In these endless days of leaden skies and steady downpours, we have to make do with small mercies  which we'd better grab with both hands.

Initially grey and rainy, it looked as if it was about to clear up in the early afternoon of December's first Sunday. This was duly confirmed by our weather app, which claimed that the rainclouds would be taking a breather for a couple of hours. 

Tired of being cooped up inside the house, we grabbed our coats and stepped outside, where all that unaccustomed fresh air instantly rushed to our heads.

However, with only a small and all but perfectly formed park within walking distance, any cobweb clearing outings involve a short drive at the very least. So, our first task was to pick up our car from our rented garage about 400 metres or so from Dove Cottage. 

While our car has got a garage box all of its own, there's a communal parking area as well. Offhandedly referred to as our photo studio, it's here that the white-painted brick wall we're using as a backdrop for outfit photos can be found.

My dress, with its glorious mix of abstract stripes on an burgundy background, is an old Think Twice find acquired pre-blog on a Friday afternoon shopping trip with my friend Inez. I remember falling in love with two dresses that day and ultimately settling for the other one as it came with its original belt. Needless to say, I soon regretted not buying this one too and went back for it on Monday.

Although it does not feature any blue in its stripes, it turns out to be the colour I most often accessorize it with. As the temperature had dropped to 5°C by now, I layered a blue t-shirt underneath, and wore a chunky blue cardigan on top. With its fan-like ajour pattern and orange buttons it is one of my collection of cardigans by retro label Zoë Loveborn, the majority if not all of which were charity shopped.

The fabric belt belongs to another dress, but turned out to be the exact shade of blue I was after. The mottled blue beaded necklace came from a long-gone vintage shop and, if I remember correctly, the enamelled brooch with its purple bearded Irises and cheerful yellow butterfly was a flea market find.

You can catch a fleeting glimpse of my opaques, which I happened to have in a matching shade of blue. Finally I donned my chocolate brown walking boots, as due to the incessant rain we expected things to be fairly waterlogged and to be faced with lots of mud.

In fact, it was the latter that ultimately decided our destination as it ruled out any of the local ex-clay pit nature reserves, where the mud would have consisted of sticky clay. 

By the time we'd finished taking photos and were ready to go, it briefly looked as if that weather app had got it wrong after all, as clouds were blanketing the sky once more.

Indeed, it was an almost black and white landscape which was waiting for us when we stepped out of our car after our ten-minute drive to the castle domain in the next village. 

Walking up the cobbled linden avenue towards the castle beckoning like a white beamed beacon in the distance, I can never help but think of my Dad, whose playground this was when he grew up here.

A rather illicit playground, I should add, as the castle as well as its gardens and parkland, which lay beyond the magnificent black wrought iron gate with its coat of arms and gilded finials, were obviously out of bounds for small semi-feral boys.

Not that this deterred them as, judging from my Dad's wartime childhood stories, they knew the grounds and those of the adjacent, equally forbidden fort, like the backs of their hands.

More black and white awaited us at the tastefully restored coach houses flanking the courtyard beyond the gate, now invitingly open to the public after the castle's last occupant died in 2011 and the domain was sold to the village council and Nature Conservation in 2012.

The cobbled courtyard ends at a painted bluestone balustrade with a central bridge crossing a moat and ultimately leading towards the castle itself.

Leaning over the balustrade, a leftward glance revealed a grayscale landscape stretched out beyond the reed-filled moat. Most of the deciduous trees had shed the last of their leaves, some of them conspicuously displaying last Spring's bird nests. The last of Autumn's russets and yellows provided some colour, as did the bank of evergreen Rhododendron bordering the castle side of the moat.

Stoical stone lions have been guarding the bridge across the moat since the castle was built in the 1770s, and I'm sure they could tell a story or two. Perhaps they even turned a blind eye to my Dad's mischievous adventures, although somehow I doubt that he and his friends ever ventured this close to the castle.

What I'm absolutely certain of is that they and the haughty sphinxes guarding the castle side of the bridge have watched the castle's decline with weary and worrying eyes.

Before crossing the bridge and taking a closer look at the castle, we took advantage of this photo opportunity to show you my warm Winter coat in alternating shades of brown and fudge. This was another Think Twice find, as was my burgundy woolly hat. My scarf, with its multicoloured stripes, was supplied by the charity shops.

While from afar the dazzling white castle still looks like the lavishly iced cake I once likened it to, its crumbling and decaying state seems to have become worse with each visit.

It is currently being used as an event location, and it just beggars belief that its ultimate restoration keeps getting postponed. Judging from the company's website, the castle remains available for events until the end of 2022, so it seems that its well-needed refurbishment won't be on the cards for next year either.

One can only hope that it won't be too late by the time the council finally gets around to it.

While the castle's website boasts of the wide range of beautiful halls and authentic castle rooms, time, tide and neglect have conspired in creating a sad case of rotting and crumbling woodwork. The castle's icing is cracked and honeycombed, and I'm sure the roof will have sprung a leak or two. Even the semi-circular bluestone steps leading down from the shuttered French doors at the back have subsided in places, lying in wait to trip up any unsuspecting ghosts from the past.

The steps lead down to a gravelled terrace with a panoramic view over the beautiful castle lake now filled to the brim as a result of the incessant rainfall.

It used to be a different story altogether, as back in the Summer of 2018 the lake's water level was at such a critically low level that a group of worried villagers had been making plans to rescue the resident fish. 

If you look closely at the photo on the top left, you might spot the thatched Summer house which was built on a small peninsula across the lake. Like the coach houses, this too has been restored, only for vandals to smash its windows and deface its interior with graffiti soon after it was finished.

Again, the tales those sphinxes could tell! I'm sure they are pining for their glory days, when crinolined ladies were being rowed to the thatched Summer house for secret rendez-vous.

We walked on the slippery paths circling the lake, glad of our walking sticks to keep our balance on the carpet of rain infused leaves or to test the water level of the marshy grassland whenever we needed to circumnavigate the flooded paths.

The view of the castle from the top of the lake is always a sight to behold. From here, it is looking particularly fairy-tale like, meeting its reflection in the placid water of the lake.

Although it was only just gone four o'clock when we arrived back at the courtyard, the Winter-low sun was already making its descent into dusk, the golden hues of the sunset reflecting in the coach house windows.

Time to call it a day and go home ... but not before performing my duty as a statue, replacing one of those which had once been placed at regular intervals around the lake. 

Not sure what those lions and sphinxes must have thought of my efforts ...