Thursday 29 June 2023

Down into the valley and up to the high castle

Although we've been back for a couple of days now, having arrived home tired but happy on Saturday evening, it's only now that I'm ready for my return to blogland and for making a start with my travelogue.

After all, with only two days until my return to the office on Tuesday, there has been the usual whirlwind of unpacking, doing a wash load or two, putting some food into our fridge, taking stock of the garden's triumphs and casualties and generally re-adjusting to daily life at Dove Cottage. Not to mention having extensive cuddling sessions with Bess, who has been claiming our laps whenever we've dared to sit down!

To put your minds at rest, I will already divulge that we had the most fantastic holiday! The weather was just glorious, and the weather gods were kind enough to only send showers our way when we were  back at the cottage at night.

But let's begin at the beginning, and cast our minds back to Saturday the 10th of June, when we got up at the crack of dawn (4 am Belgian time to be exactly) to start our travels.

Arriving at the LeShuttle (their innovative new name replacing the former Le Shuttle - no kidding!) terminal well on time, we had our one and only hiccup of our journey when we tried to check in and the computer screen kept telling us there was an oversized vehicle in our lane. At the push of a button we were connected to a real life assistant who swiftly arranged the check-in for us. Then, after going through customs - where the UK official looked at us disbelievingly when told we were going to Shropshire - and stocking up on croissants and other delicacies at the Flexiplus lounge, we were able to take an earlier train than initially booked.

Before we knew it we were whizzing along a succession of  UK motorways, where traffic wasn't too bad all things considered. It was just after 3 pm when we made our descent into Adstone valley - consisting of the huddle of farm buildings Byre Cottage is part of - on the by now all too familiar narrow, winding and increasingly potholed lane. 

With temperatures expected to reach the low thirties back in Belgium, we were glad of the more reasonable 25°C in Shropshire, even if it had started feeling a bit muggy by now. Sure enough, shortly after our arrival clouds were gathering, thunder could be heard rumbling in the distance and the odd flash of lightning flared up in the sky above the Long Mynd before a brief but refreshing shower spitted raindrops against the cowshed's windows.

What with our early start and long journey, it wasn't all too long before we climbed into the cowshed's four poster, whose pillow and duvet covers were a testimony to the fact that we were staying on a working sheep farm. No need for counting sheep here, which would have been virtually impossible anyway!

The one-hour time difference between Belgium and the UK meant that we were wide awake earlier than we would have liked on Sunday morning. It wasn't even 5 am when, on my way back from the bathroom, a glimpse through the kitchen window made me grab my camera to photograph the magical light of dawn.

We hadn't made any plans for the day other than to drive over to Bishop's Castle, at just under 20 minutes by car the nearest town from the cowshed with a supermarket. Before stocking up on foodstuffs for the next couple of days, we went for a little mooch around the small but delightful market town and the handful of shops which were open on a Sunday.

One of these was Rosie's, a treasure trove of a vintage and antiques shop where I bought this gorgeous brooch last year. Back then, Rosie explained that the silk woven Heliotrope flowers at its heart were part of a range of such flowers given away inside packets of Kensitas Cigarettes in the 1930's. 

Intrigued by Rosie's explanation, I did some googling after I got home and found that there were whole websites devoted to Kensitas Silk Flowers. Secretly, I hoped that one day I would be able to find one or more of these flowers on their original cards ...

When I mentioned the brooch to Rosie, she not only remembered, but told me that, as luck would have it, she'd recently come across a batch of Kensitas Silk Flowers, which she now had for sale. It goes without saying that I didn't hesitate for one single moment and snapped up several of them. Aren't they absolutely delightful? And to think that she normally doesn't even open on a Sunday!

I also selected these two brooches, the first of many which came home with me this year.

To recover from the steep climb up the 1 in 6 gradient High Street, we had cappuccinos and cakes at Yarborough House, which combines a tiny tea shop with a large second hand book and record shop Then we had a browse at The Poetry Pharmacy, a wondrous independent bookshop which found its home in an original Victorian pharmacy (linking cause I love!).

On our way back to the cowshed, we had a stop the car moment in Wentnor, the village closest to our little valley, as I simply had to photograph the magnificent display of fiery Red Hot Pokers (Kniphofia) in front of the Grade II listed church of St Michael and All Angels. 

We had lunch at the cottage, then after a little lie-down we somewhat reluctantly dragged ourselves from the sofa for an afternoon outing, not wanting to admit defeat by already calling it a day.

Although our weather app insisted it was just 23°C, clouds had once again gathered, some of them angry-looking and heralding the brewing of a storm. The air was quite stifling when we made our way down yet another bumpy lane towards the Bog Visitor Centre. Housed in a 150 year old former Victorian school building, it is one of the few remnants of a once bustling mining village in the shadow of the Stiperstones, part of the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and known for its quartzite tors.

It was a quick visit, though, as we were both feeling tired and a bit out of sorts. Time to go back to the cottage to recharge our batteries. But not before showing you my outfit, consisting of my Think Twice denim skirt, a charity shopped blue and yellow zig-zag top and one of my stretchy belts. 

Oh, and that storm eventually and inevitably arrived that night, the rain having cleansed the air by Monday morning.

A veil of mist was still cocooning the hills when we woke up, but soon the sun was playing peek-a-boo with the layer of grey. It was relatively chilly in our windswept valley, which made it hard to believe the weather people got it right in forecasting highs of 26°C.

But never mind the weather: we had things to do and places to go. Well, one place in particular, that is. Just like we did last year, we'd ordered a National Trust Touring Pass before we left so, armed with our confirmation email, we drove to Powys Castle. About half an hour's drive, and just over the border with Wales, this is one of the properties where one can have the actual Touring Pass issued.

It wasn't the first time we visited the stunning Medieval castle rising dramatically above its magnificent terraced gardens - we were here in 2018 and 2019 and after being rudely interrupted by Covid, back in 2022 - but it certainly wasn't a hardship to come here again. 

In spite of the excellent value for money (the pass costs £84 for 2 people for 14 days), not many overseas visitors seem to be aware of it. In fact, the pass was quite a novelty at some of the properties we visited and we were generally treated like royalty. I cannot stress enough how friendly, helpful and knowledgeable the NT staff and volunteers are.

The mercury climbed ever higher as morning progressed towards noon, so we soon took shelter under the arches of the aviary terrace, where shepherds and shepherdesses are dancing on the balustrade.

While Jos was taking a breather away from the relentless glare of the sun, I climbed the steps up to the terrace at the back of the castle offering a magnificent view across the garden. Here Offa (the late 8th Century King Offa of Mercia - top right) and Edgar (the 10th Century West Saxon monarch King Edgar the Peaceful - bottom left) are guarding the Northern entrance. No fly in the ointment, but there is one on poor Edgar's left foot!

Hunger pangs made us return to the castle courtyard, where we were greeted by Colin the peacock who was drawing quite a crowd by fanning out his spectacular tail feathers.

Almost rivalling Colin's feathers were the wondrous cushions, quilts and carpets by internationally renowned fine artist and textile designer Kaffe Fassett, which were exhibited inside the castle.

Photography is not allowed inside, so the photo of the stunning carpet draped on the castle's stairs are courtesy of the National Trust. The exhibition is still running until 3 September, should you be in the area.

After lunch at the on-site café (and yes, Vix, we both had jacket potatoes) and a tour of the castle and exhibition, we sought some shade in the woodland opposite the castle. 

As we sat on a bench near the pond, we took in the sensory delights we had missed for so long. The air was alive with the verdant scents of early Summer and the buzzing of bees as we walked on the woodland path hemmed in by banks of red and pink Rhododendrons.

There's a sudden clearing in the woods about half-way along the path, offering a magical view of the castle and its terraces in all their glory. Even if I must have snapped the castle from this exact vantage point on every previous visit, I couldn't help zooming in with my wonderful new Sony Cybershot. Isn't it just glorious?

I fell head over heels for this colourful zig-zag patterned maxi skirt when I spotted it in a charity shop in the Summer of 2021 and it has definitely become a holiday staple since.

My red and white floral blouse from the Belgian Wow To Go label is charity shopped as well, as are the black and white chevron patterned stretchy belt and the green beaded necklace. The green butterfly brooch, which has blue and pink sisters, was a retail buy from a quirky independent shop in Antwerp.

The hat, which has seen better days, was a flea market find which I upgraded with a hair band last seen as a #Coronahair solution back in 2020.

Back at the cottage that evening, we were treated to a torrential downpour complete with horizontal wind and a volley of hailstones. 

We could only watch in horror as our car was completely exposed to the elements and we breathed sighs of relief as soon the worst was over and our car didn't seem to have suffered any damages.

The weather forecast for the days ahead was for continued sunny and warm weather. Now, what would we be doing next? I'll be back with more adventures in a couple of days!

Friday 9 June 2023

It's the final countdown

The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of work and holiday prep. However, yesterday I waved goodbye to the office until the end of June, which means that I am officially on vacation. Yay!

Today, we finished the dreaded packing, and with our bags already stashed away into the boot of our car, there's no going back and I can only keep my fingers crossed that I made the right choices for my travelling capsule wardrobe!

Tomorrow we'll be getting up at the crack of dawn, so how about a little catch up before we go?

Right, let's start with Whit Monday, the 29th of May. 

Although it was mostly sunny, the mercury didn't quite reach Sunday's highs and got stuck at 18°C, while a hazy layer of cloud played hide and seek with the odd patches of blue sky.

I was wearing one of my Diolen delights, a sky blue dress scattered with orange, yellow and white flowers. The vintage daisy brooch I pinned to one of its lapels couldn't have been a better match.

My oldest raffia belt - a charity shop find many years ago - came out to play, as did the orange, yellow and white bubblegum necklace I picked up from a long gone vintage shop.

At my feet, the pale blue suede shoes which almost match my beloved Cloudsteppers for comfort.

After a morning of chores, which yet again included a bit of ironing, we were more than ready to go for a head clearing walk.

A short drive took us to Hof ter Linden in the neighbouring village of Edegem, where you have joined me quite a few times before. 

Although renovation of the Neoclassical manor house is rumoured to be imminent, there was still no sign of it. In fact, the poor thing was looking more dishevelled and crumbling than ever.

We gave it and the sphinxes and lions who are guarding its entrance a wide birth, skirting the domain and walking along the reed edged moat where the first of the yellow flag Irises were putting in an appearance.

We stopped for a photo next to a stone plinth, which we suspect once supported one of the sculptures illegally removed by the descendants of the castle's last occupant shortly before the domain was sold to the village authorities in March 2012. 

Handing over my camera to Jos, I misjudged and accidentally dropped it. Thankfully, it didn't fall from a great height - the advantages of being vertically challenged - and made a soft landing, sustaining nothing but a couple of superficial scratches, but its near demise had left me reeling so that I had to sit down on the nearest bench and recover.  

Feeling better after having ascertained my camera was still in working order, we continued our walk.

The path had by now veered away from the moat and meandered along and through wildflower meadows, until we reached the lake at the back of the mansion, which we circled until eventually we passed its courtyard. From here, it was only a short walk back to where we'd left our car.

We'd been charity shopping on Saturday, but apart from the haori I wore to get lost in on Sunday's wilderness walk, I still needed to show you my finds. 

The dove grey flower patterned maxi skirt feels like silk, but unfortunately has lost its contents label to confirm it. It's by Jackpot - a label which featured abundantly in my late 80s, early 90s wardrobe - and,  in spite of missing a whopping six of its ten buttons, I fell in love with it on the spot. I knew my button stash would come up trumps and it did, as the tiny grey shank buttons I used are hardly distinguishable from the remaining self-fabric ones!

There's no label whatsoever to identify the floral magenta blouse, but it followed me home nonetheless.

My final find that day was the cropped orange Zoë Loveborn cardigan with its black trim and buttons, which is part of my travelling capsule wardrobe!

Later that week, I also made a couple of purchases from Think Twice, who appeared to have started another one of their famous sales. On two consecutive days, I found the peach coloured, puff sleeved jumper and the vintage frock in dotty pinks and pale green.

Other lunch time activities included buying a travel hairdryer as I busted my old one back in September, and a visit to my hairdresser, Michel, for a colour and cut on Wednesday. He gave me a bit of a fright when he told me I was his last client before his retirement ... but then he said he would continue working a couple of mornings a week regardless. Phew! It would have been quite a thing having to change hairdressers after 28 years!

Meanwhile, the weather gods kept being on their best behaviour with lots of sunshine and temperatures ranging from 19 to 24°C.

Saturday dawned sunny and the mercury effortlessly reached the forecasted highs of 22°C.

Nevertheless, with a to-do list as long as my arm, our only outing was a walk into the village to run some errands.

The day's outfit was an effortless one as well, combining a black and white striped New Look skirt with a groovily patterned black, white, green and red vintage top, both of which were old charity shop finds. 

The stretchy black raffia belt with its round faux tortoiseshell buckle was a bargainous high street find a couple of weeks ago, while the green birds-in-flight brooch was a holiday souvenir from a shop in Cardigan. Beads, bracelet and ring were charity shop and flea market finds.

First time wearing sandals this year - they're my comfy old red Gabor ones - but I couldn't be bothered to paint my nails.

Our garden's pinks and purples are supplied by - clockwise from top left - a bowl of cheerful fuchsia Busy Lizzies, frothy Lobelias, a glorious Foxglove and the Petunia 'Purple Vein' in our hanging basket.

Meanwhile, the trailing Geraniums in their green enamelled cones have made friends with the purple and yellow Million Bells in the half basket on the potting shed wall.


Isn't the colour of that indigo Delphinium fabulous? They offer a lovely contrast to the delicate lavender blue Campanulas.

After a couple of nail-biting months, we were happy to finally spot the first of the lime green Hydrangea flower heads, which are expected to metamorphose into head-turning Wedgwood blue beauties soon.

Together with the hanging baskets, the strawberries are spending the two weeks of our holiday on Inneke's and Maurice's balcony. With the sunny and warm weather forecasted, they will soon ripen to juicy red berries for our friends to enjoy!

The weather gods cranked up the thermostat to 24°C on Sunday.

Yet again, the day was mostly spent ticking tasks off our list. These included setting up a rudimentary watering system which will hopefully keep our patio pots happy during our holiday. To this end, we grouped them all together in the shady passageway, well away from the wilting heat of the sun.

Sunday's dress was a King Louie by way of a charity shop. I added a modern dusky pink butterfly brooch to flit among the dress's exotic foliage. The pink translucent beaded necklace was charity shopped as well, while the navy belt with its white plastic buckle used to belong to my late Mum.

We had been anxiously waiting for the first of the scarlet Oriental Poppies to pop open and it finally happened on Sunday morning. By Monday, at least six of them had shrugged off their furry bonnets (thank you Vix!) so as soon as I got dressed I popped out into the garden before work to take some photos. 

The pops of red behind the white Foxglove on the top left aren't poppies, though, they're the flowers of Geum chiloense 'Mrs. Bradshaw'!

And you can see some of next door's building materials stacked against the garden wall on the bottom right ... 

So, that's it for now. Obviously, I couldn't leave without a photo of our beloved furry family member, the only and only Queen Bess!

We will miss her, that's for sure!

I'll be back with tales of adventures in a couple of weeks. See you on the other side!

Sunday 4 June 2023

Going wild

While most people, and those who had taken a bridge day on Friday in particular, were rudely awoken by their alarm clocks on Monday the 22nd of May, ours remained blissfully silent that morning. 

And no, I wasn't playing hooky: as I needed to go into the office on Friday, I just took Monday off instead.

We took our time getting out of bed and lingered over breakfast, then we got cracking with the tasks we'd planned for the day. These included playing newspaper boy and shopping for groceries (Jos) and washing my hair and tackling a pile of ironing (me). By then, it was time for lunch, after which we joined forces in thoroughly vacuuming and dusting the bedroom. 

I might not have been playing hooky, but the sun definitely was. Either that, or she'd forgotten to set her alarm clock and had overslept! Whatever the case, it remained overcast until mid-afternoon, when we got a handful of sunny spells. It was quite blustery again, which seems to be the constant lately. It certainly didn't feel like the 19°C insisted by the thermometer.

Short-sleeved it may have been, the cotton knit jumper I opted for that day provided the necessary warmth. Charity shopped in the Autumn of 2021, it is from the Flair Feelgood collection, Flair being a weekly women's magazine founded in 1980. 

I don't remember where I got the floral skirt from but the safest bet is Think Twice. Both the orange wooden beads and the green ankle boots - respectively picking up the orange and green bits in the skirt - were charity shop finds. The celluloid Scottie dogs in a sailing boat brooch came from the indoor flea market, while the belt with its hexagonal faux tortoise shell buckle was found on the high street.

Following our morning of slog, we decided we needed a treat, and a rummage at the charity shop sounded just the ticket. After offering a couple of bags of shoes and books to the charity shop goddesses, it probably won't surprise you that finds were plentiful.

I'm always on the lookout for Breton striped tops, which are a holiday staple, and I couldn't resist the mustard owl printed scarf and the orange, navy, white and khaki striped one.

No more jackets, she said, but then she met this forest green cord one with heart shaped patches. No pockets though, but it fits like a dream. I promise to offer one of my other jackets to the thrifting deities instead! The jacket, by the way, is from the German Oui label.

The groovilious, slinky, cobalt blue, orange and white blouse is by Only, which is believe is Danish.

I can never resist a pair of floaty wide-legged trousers either, especially if their length is exactly right for vertically challenged yours truly. I'd already mentally packed it away for our holiday when I realized that its pattern was Autumn leaves. Surely, it would be tempting fate if I wore it in June!

Leaves and foliage feature on the swishy pleated skirt as well, but I've decided pastel blue, pink and green are far enough removed from Autumn, so it is awaiting its turn to be worn shortly.

My final find was this haori style cover-up, something I've been keeping an eye out for for well over a year. I've got one of these cover-ups in my wardrobe, charity shopped a couple of years ago, which proved to be perfect for those slightly chilly mornings preceding warm Summer days.

We were still far removed from those days in the week that followed. The mercury got stuck around 17°C, clouds often got in the way of sunny spells and a lightweight cover-up wouldn't have been up to the bone-chilling Northeast wind which kept taunting us.

But everything is coming up roses in our sheltered little garden. The Alliums 'Purple Sensation" might be on their last legs, but the Foxgloves, especially the 'Dalmatian Purple' variety we planted in the passageway border, are more than making up for this. And then there's  Dicentra formosa, a.k.a. as Fern-Leaf Bleeding Heart, proudly displaying its heart-shaped flowers elsewhere in the garden.

Meanwhile, our exuberantly flowering Geranium phaeum in front of the bench has taken over bee magnet duties from the Cotoneaster bush.

Both our hanging baskets are in their prime, and  yellow Welsh poppies (Meconopsis cambrica) and red Geum chiloense 'Mrs. Bradshaw' are popping up in the garden proper.

One of the resident wood pigeons is posing for its mug shot on the top right in the above collage. We've been diligently filling up the bird feeder on the far left, providing sustenance for the blue tits and robins, and lately had been wondering at the speed at which the thing was emptied. Turned out that the wood pigeons had found a way to get to its contents. Setting off from the slanted roof of our potting shed, they make a lunge for the feeder, which then proceeds to swing wildly, depositing part of its contents on the ground, where it is swiftly gobbled up by the mischievous couple. We had to stop filling it up as it was costing us a fortune. 

We had another long weekend to look forward to courtesy of Whit Monday, which this year fell on the 29th of May. I was able to make the weekend even longer by taking Friday afternoon off as work was rather slow. I took the tram into Mortsel, where Jos picked me up. The extra time was well spent by having our car washed and ordering our National Trust Touring Pass. At £ 84 for two weeks for the two of us, it is well worth investing in. The only snag is that there's a limited number of properties where you can have the pass issued upon presenting the confirmation email. We're lucky enough, though, to have such a much loved property, Powis Castle, near our holiday cottage.

No outfit photos were taken on Friday, but here's what I wore on Saturday instead. 

It was a gorgeously warm and sunny day, its 22°C for once not too much jeopardized by the neverending wind.  

I'd set my heart on wearing this delicious Summer skirt and giving it its first outing. A charity shop find back in November, it's by Gerry Weber, and I fell in love with its vaguely abstract flower pattern in cheerful red and green. And it's got pockets too!

The green mosaic print King Louie blouse, red shoes, and ditto belt, glass beads and butterfly brooch were all charity shopped as well.

With another sunny day forecasted for Sunday, on which the mercury would climb to 23°C, we had made plans for a walk and picnic in Blaasveldbroek. However, we didn't feel like getting our skates on that morning, preferring to take things at a leisurely pace.

Still wanting to go for a walk, but closer to home, we then hit upon the idea of visiting the nature reserve established on the former clay pits in Terhagen, just a 15-minute drive away. This is the area where Jos grew up, in a tiny hamlet called De Wildernis. There's no longer any trace of the row of  workman's cottages he and his family used to call home, its former location now well and truly living up the its wilderness moniker.

We parked our car and started making our way along a wide path leading down to the first of the now water-filled clay pits which is the haunt of a fishing club, but soon veered off on a narrow path leading into the woods. This path meandered leisurely between the trees until we reached a bridge made of wooden planks crossing a rust coloured brook.  The colour is due to the iron content of the soil here.

I was wearing one of my floaty pairs of trousers, its white and yellow Summer flower print on darkest of green much better suited to the season. To accompany it, a thin knit short-sleeved orange jumper found on the high street last year.  The yellow wooden necklace, by the Belgian Les Cordes label, was charity shopped between Lockdowns in 2020. My orange sunhat was purchased in the seaside town of De Panne in September 2021, funnily enough on a day when I was wearing the exact same pair of trousers (see here!).

There were plenty of numbered walking markers, which of course we didn't need as we have walked here many times before. 

The path eventually ends at a sandy plain, a reminder of the fact that once upon a time this was actually the bottom of the sea. Jos remembers looking for sharks' teeth here when he was a boy. We've got a whole box of these stashed away somewhere.

Following the path on the edge of the plain, this equestrian trio suddenly appeared out of nowhere, like a Far West Fata Morgana.

Time to show you the haori style cover-up I was wearing that day. And no, your eyes are not deceiving you, I did find yet another one on Saturday. Charity shop finds really are like buses sometimes!

Oh, and there's the red leather crossbody bag I charity shopped the other week!

Due to the clay based underground, the area is quite challenging after periods of rain. In fact, the uphill path on the top left is virtually impassible at times due to its rutted surface - caused by mountain bikes - harbouring treacherous patches of sticky mud. It was bone dry by now, so we decided to chance it, the first time in many years that we've walked up this path.

The incessant rain had drowned the forest to our left and the path itself was ambushed by the remains of a storm victim. 

On and on we walked, taking a right turn and then a left before finally admitting that we were lost.

Two men walking their dog eventually pointed us into the right direction but further head scratching ensued when we came face to face with a locked gate, so that we had to make a U-turn. 

Then, finally, I spotted a familiar feature: a set of roughly hewn steps climbing higgledy-piggledy upon a hill. Having walked here in the opposite direction in the past, we knew this would virtually take us to our starting point. Phew!

Well, I guess this was good practice for any walks we do attempt during our holiday. And isn't getting a little bit lost just part of the fun?