An icy walk and dolomitic limestone outcrops!

It had been a cold and frosty start to the day so we had a slow morning in our cosy camper van.

Our pleasant spot outside Sainte-Eulalie-de-Cernon

We were in a very pleasant spot on the outskirts of the medieval village Sainte-Eulalie-de-Cernon in Southern France.

Sainte-Eulalie-de-Cernon from our campsite

The village was tiny and we had explored the fine buildings in this historic settlement the previous day so that morning we decided to explore a little bit of the surrounding countryside.

We walked first to the far side of the village, following a road which had a signpost with directions to “the station”.

We walked first to the far side of the village
The original village water supply

There was no evidence of a railway and we thought it unlikely that there would be a station for a population of less than 250 but our interest was piqued so we started to walk in the direction indicated by the sign.

Walking out of the village

We crossed a beautiful mill stream and met a very friendly marmalade cat that followed us for a while.

Looking at the mill stream
Our new friend who walked us out of the village
The bridge had an intriguing bend to it
The entrance to the village from the far side

It was surprisingly chilly but we were still amazed to come across an incredible wall of massive icicles sparkling in the sun at the roadside.

We couldn’t believe this incredible wall of icicles!
I don’t think I’ve ever seen them as large as this
The icicles were incredibly long!
So beautiful

Shortly after seeing the icicles, a narrow track tempted us off the road and we walked for about 20 minutes along this picturesque incline.

Walking along the ancient track

As we crunched along the silver frosted grass we both felt the ghosts of travellers past – this was obviously a very ancient thoroughfare along which many pilgrims and other travellers had made their way over the course of many hundreds of years.

The village from the top of the hill

The path ended when it came to the road which had curled round the hill in a series of bends. Crossing over, we continued along the track which was still white with frost even though it was two o’clock in the afternoon.

The second part of the track was still really frosty even though it was after 2pm
Crunchy frosty grass
Loved these frosted leaves
Amazing that they looked like this despite the warm sun and the time of day!

At the top of the hill we caught sight of a long viaduct which stretched across the valley below. Perhaps there was a railway?!

This sight was totally unexpected
Maybe there is a railway here?

As we reached the base of the viaduct we saw a notice for a “vélo-rail” which means “bike rail” in French. We wondered if the rails had been ripped up and a bike path built in its place but further along the road we discovered that our assumption was incorrect.

Lovely view from the viaduct

First we found a small 19th Century station building that had been faithfully restored to its former glory (so strange as it was literally in the middle of nowhere!)

The renovated station
Restored to its former glory
Complete with station clock

We then saw some strange contraptions that looked like flatbed rail trucks but had bike pedals fixed on top to propel them along the rails.

The vélo “trucks” in storage mode

There were also a couple of little passenger trains but like the vélo trucks, they were laid up due to Covid restrictions. What a wonderful view we would have had if we’d been able to cycle a vélo “truck” over the viaduct!

The cute little train

The following day we moved on to our next destination – a strange, isolated and tiny medieval village called Mourèze, built in the middle of a spectacular dolomitic limestone outcrop known as the Cirque de Mourèze.

The village of Mourèze, surrounded by spectacular limestone cliffs
The view from the other side of the village
The landscape was extraordinary

It was very misty (really foggy in parts!) when we first started our journey but luckily it soon cleared up.

Driving through the mist/fog
It felt a little creepy

Soon we were enjoying fine views of vineyards as far as the eye could see, interspersed with minute villages, some with very narrow streets that were somewhat nerve wracking to drive through in a camper van!

Soon the visibility was fine
There were some narrow streets through some of the villages

We were able to park just outside the village of Mourèze (population approximately 150) and once we were settled we set off to explore.

Not too far to Mourèze from here

The village consisted off a collection of mostly quite ancient cottages, a massive Church, a few Bed and Breakfast places and the ruins of an ancient castle.

The village consisted mostly of ancient cottages
A massive Church built on an outcrop
The ruins of an ancient castle

Walking through the village didn’t take long and soon we were on the other side on one of the many hiking trails in this area.

It didn’t take long to walk through the village
The gate to the unruly Church garden
There appeared to be quite a lot of artists and artisans in the village
View of incredible rock formations from the Church
On the edge of the village

As we walked, everywhere we looked we could see the amazing 160 million-year-old limestone giants, which had been eroded into strange shapes by wind and water over the millennia.

One of the amazing limestone giants
The views were spectacular

At first the trail resembled a dried up river bed but soon we were rock hopping our way up a more rugged path.

The trail looked like a dried up river bed at first

The landscape reminded us of the movie “Picnic at Hanging Rock” when the school girl Miranda and her friends disappear without trace!

The landscape reminded us of the movie “Picnic at Hanging Rock”
We turned back when the sun started to go down

We weren’t sure how long the the trail was or where it came out and as the sun was beginning to dip in the sky we decided to retrace our steps rather than risk getting lost in this mysterious landscape.

Heading south and SNOW!

After a night of absolutely torrential rain we left Amboise, and headed out of the Loire châteaux and river country towards the South of France.

Heading South!

Perched high up in our van we have a wonderful position to view the countryside as we drive along. This is perfect for us as we prefer to take the “scenic route” every time rather than the faster toll roads.

There was plenty of beautiful scenery on this leg of the trip but the constant rain over the previous week (and probably during the weeks before that) had created extensive flooding. Large ponds had developed in the fields by the side of the road and every small stream and river had burst its banks.

Large ponds had developed in the fields

Along the way we went through a number of charming villages and once again, as during our previous visit in 2019, we were struck by how deserted most of them were. You could have shot a 12-pound cannon ball up the main street of each of them and no one would have stirred. It seems very sad that so many of these lovely French villages are in such dire circumstances.

The villages we drive through seemed deserted
It was sad to see lovely villages in such dire circumstances

We arrived at our stop for the night in the very romantic location of the supermarket car park at Ainay-Le-Château in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of central France.

The reason for our stop here was the large commercial washing machine in the supermarket car park which allowed us to catch up with our laundry without having to visit a normal laundrette. It was also a good opportunity to restock our pantry and fridge.

Our romantic stop for the night!
At least the “chariots” were disinfected!

We were surprised to find that there was no Château at Ainay-Le-Château! However, there were some remains of 15th Century fortifications including the Clock Gate below.

The 15th Century clock gate
Hotel de Ville in Saint-Eloy Les-Mines

We had been driving about an hour and a half, the following day, when we caught a lovely view of the snow-covered alps glimmering on the horizon. As far as I was concerned that was as close to snow as I wanted to be!

The snow-covered alps sparkling in the distance

We had no snow chains, no snow tyres (although the ones we had recently bought were described as “all weather tyres”) and no spade. Apparently these are the minimum (legal) requirements for winter motoring in the Alps!

I had said before we started our trip to France “No Snow!” but less than two hours after that distant glimpse we started to see a covering of snow on the fields we drove past.

No snow I said!

Not very long after that were in the middle of a snow storm!

So before long we were in a snow storm

The visibility was quite poor and the road started get rather slippery – just as we started to wind our way upwards on a series of alarming hair pin bends!

Visibility was quite poor

This was a bit of a worry to say the least but with great care and carefully ever upwards we managed to stay on the road it was great to see families sledging down snowy hills and having fun making snowmen.

It was great to see families enjoying the snow
People were sledging down hills

We climbed higher and higher and it got snowier and snowier! Eventually we arrived at the small medieval village of Murol at an elevation of well over 1,000 metres!

More and more snow!

As we drove up towards the village we caught site of a mighty looking 12th century fortress perched on a basalt outcrop. It looked very forbidding but apparently in non-Covid times it is a charming castle to visit.

The forbidding 12th Century fort in Murol

Driving gingerly we arrived at the supposed location of our site for the night but it was nowhere to be found! We drove further along the snowy road but no camp site was evident so we retraced our steps. We then drove round the small town, still with no luck.

The snowy road was quite slippery!

Eventually we gave up. We would have to stay the night in the car park! We counted our blessings that we didn’t need to plug in to get power due to our new and excellent lithium battery. We also had enough water so all was well.

The car park where we were to spend the night

The only concern we had as we settled down to a glass of wine was whether we would be snowbound the following day!

Settling down for a glass of wine – hoping not to be snowbound the following day

During the night it did indeed snow but the fall wasn’t too severe and the roads weren’t too bad – fortunately a snowplough had cleared some of our route.

There was fresh snow the next day but it wasn’t too thick
It was icy getting out of the car park

As we worked our way downwards the snow disappeared and we breathed a sigh of relief!

Luckily the snow ploughs had been at work
An excellent view of Murol fort
The snow started to thin out ….
….and disappeared completely for a while

It wasn’t long however, before we were driving past fields of white again but as we approached our destination – the historic settlement of Sainte-Eulalie de Cernon – it disappeared once again although it was freezing cold!

The snow looked beautiful on these fir trees
The roads were pretty clear so we could just enjoy the snowy views
This way to Sainte-Eulalie de Cernon

Despite the chilly temperature we decided to explore the historic centre which is famous for the Commandery of Saint Eulalia – a medieval “hospital” established by the Order of the Knights Templar.

This time the camper van park was easy to find
We were the only guests!
The picturesque village of Sainte-Eulalie de Cernon

This was built in the 12th Century to provide hospitality to travellers and pilgrims.

The Knights Templar built the hospital…
…. it provided hospitality for pilgrims and travellers

The village is really tiny and was absolutely deserted that evening.

The village was deserted that evening
It was great wandering the ancient lanes and alleyways

Unfortunately nothing was open but it was still very interesting to walk around the ancient lanes and alleyways and imagine how things might have been in the time of the Knights Templar.

It was a pity that nothing was open. It would have been great to try this restaurant!
We intrigued to see the trees wrapped in crocheted blankets
Lucky trees, they were probably warmer than us!
Seeing the village while it was so quiet meant we could easily imagine how things might have been in the time of the Knights Templar

From châteaux to cave dwellings – and everything else between

Our journey along the River Loire continued. We left the elegant city of Saumur and followed the wide fast-flowing river to the little village of Chouzé-sur-Loire, where we stayed the night in an Aire close to the local Church.

Our journey along the Loire continued

We arrived early enough to go for a lovely walk by the river where we saw some traditional working craft of the area.

We arrive in Chouzé-sur-Loire, carefully avoiding these turrets that jutted out into the narrow street
We saw some traditional working boats

Until the end of the 19th Century and the advent of the railways, the waterfront was a hive of activity with a bustling port and boats being loaded with goods such as wine, slate and cereal crops. From here water boatmen transported goods along the length and breadth of the River Loire and joining other rivers and canals to move the goods to the sea and more far flung places.

The waterfront was once a hive of activity
A beautiful watercolour illustration of the life of the port

There was a small mariners museum which we would have loved to visit but unfortunately it was closed due to Covid.

Sadly the Mariners’ museum was closed
Even the Church told the story of when Chouzé-sur-Loire was a busy port
We had a lovely walk along the river bank

Walking back along the river bank we were lucky enough to see a lovely sunset which lit up the Loire in layers of reds and golds.

On our way back we experienced a beautiful sunset

On the road again the next day we stopped in Langeais — attracted by the promise of another château.

On the road again, driving alongside the River Loire
Châteaux to the right and to the left of us.

The town was gracefully laid out with rows of three storey terraced town houses in wide avenues that reminded us slightly of the English spa town of Bath.

Langeais reminded us of Bath
The Château was really stunning

We walked through a narrow alley where we gazed longingly at the pre-Covid menus, wishing we could go into a gorgeous restaurant with crisp table linen, attentive (and handsome) French waiters and eat some wonderful food. Alas! It was not meant to be.

We we gazed longingly at the pre-lockdown menus

At the end of the alleyway stood the commanding Château de Langeais which has a manual drawbridge – one of the last in existence. The château was built around the middle of the 15th century and is famous for being the location for the marriage between Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany in 1491.

So many turrets
The commanding Château eau de Langeais has a manual drawbridge – one of the last in existence

That afternoon we arrived in Amboise which also boasts a stunning château, once home to the French Court. Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots also spent her early life there.

The glorious Château d’Amboise

Part of the town is on an island (called Or Island) in the middle of the River Loire. This is where we stayed!

View of the Château from Or Island

On the island there were also a few small cottages, a restaurant, a large park (next to our camper van site) and an ancient chapel – Chapelle Saint Jean.

There were some small cottages on Or Island
This narrow passage hardly deserves the title of “road” but it’s called “Port Road”

This lonely rather stark chapel was once part of a large monastery built by Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in the 12th Century.

This lonely chapel was once part of a large monastery
We could see where other buildings had once been attached to the chapel walls

Amboise itself was a delight to wander around – there were many half timbered houses, interesting architectural features and cobbled streets but of course the Château dominates the town.

Amboise was a delight to stroll round
With many architectural features
The castle was the dominant feature

We climbed up a long flight of steps at the side of the Château and ended up on the same level as the top of the tower. The view was amazing!

At the top of the stairs we had an amazing view

Rather than take the stairs down again we walked down a lane where we discovered a long row of houses carved into the rock face. These cave dwellings, known as “troglodyte homes” were the result of widespread quarrying of the building material called tuffeau which began in the 11th century.

One of the spaces left by quarrying – this one and the one below were probably used for storage

Some of the caves are now empty or used for storage but many of them are still cute (but dark we imagined) little homes.

One of the “troglodyte homes”
They were like little hobbit houses

Further down we came to another small 15th Century château called Château Clos Lucé where Leonardo da Vinci lived his last years until his death in 1519.

The Château Clos Lucé

We were very sad that we were unable to go round the Château and even more disappointed that we couldn’t see the models of some of Leonardo da Vinci’s most impressive and inspiring machines in the château grounds.

We were disappointed we couldn’t visit the house and grounds
All the 2020 events still advertised but I wonder how many went ahead

We walked back through the town to the old centre where we bought some delicious bread and really wonderfully fresh baked apple tarts to eat back in the van.

We walked back through the old centre
Jonathan inspecting the delicious cakes and pies
Lovely crusty bread and delicious apple tart for our dinner

Beating the curfew and other highlights

The trip from Trébeurden to Huelgoat was only 65 kilometres so we left at 4.30 pm thinking that would be plenty of time to make it before curfew started at 6 pm.

5.59 pm and curfew is about to begin!

What we didn’t anticipate how much the narrow country lanes and the twists and turns could slow you down when driving a camper van.

So there we were, driving along at 5.59 pm behind a very slow car with still quite a way to go! Would we get stopped for breaking curfew? Would the camp site we were heading for close its gates on the dot of 6pm?

After 6 pm and everyone else is behind closed doors

The sun was setting as we passed through the village of Huelgoat and for a moment the spectacular sunset put the anxiety of breaking the curfew out of our minds.

By 6.10 we had made it to our stop for the night, thankful for not getting in any trouble and happy to see the gates still wide open!

Phew! Arrived at the campsite without incident and with a beautiful sunset!

The next day we followed the walking path out of the council “Aire” (parking where camper vans can stay overnight) through a wooded area alongside a lovely gurgling brook.

This beautiful brook was right next to our campsite
We noticed there were some big boulders

It wasn’t long before we started to notice some massive moss-covered boulders scattered along the way. These exceptionally large ancient rocks gave the woods an ancient mystical quality and we weren’t surprised to find out later that the area had many Arthurian legends attached to it.

Many of them scattered along our pathway
Some were in the water

We also later learnt that these woods, containing oak, beech and chestnut trees, are among the last vestiges of the ancient forest that once covered inland Brittany.

These woods are among the last vestiges of the ancient forest that once covered inland Brittany

Some of the trees, like the boulders, were covered in the softest of green mosses – it was an enchanting sight.

Some of the trees were also covered in moss

As we continued our walk through this magical setting we came across a clearing at the centre of which was an amazingly beautiful evergreen tree.

Such a handsome tree

Curiously, it had a fence round it but there was no information about it at all. Two things piqued my interest – firstly, there was a definite atmosphere created by this tree, the type of feeling that gives you goose bumps, and secondly there was a deeply worn path round it forming a perfect circle. We wondered if there were locals that could tell us if there were some kind of rituals associated with the tree but there was absolutely no one around and an Internet search has come up with nothing.

Our path took us to a group of old stone cottages on the outskirts of the village.

We came to some old stone cottages
We saw boulders even in the cottage gardens
In this garden the owners had incorporated the boulders into the garden design

Crossing over the road we continued our tramp along an ancient trackway which we followed as it circled round through the village and back to the stone cottages.

We walked along an ancient trackway
We imagined a time when this would have been a main thoroughfare
We met some nice ponies along the way
And saw an old mill stone on the outskirts of the village

Our next stop was in a commercial site near Vannes a medieval walled town which sounded lovely. Unfortunately the town was much larger than we had thought with sprawling suburbs and lots of traffic and people. We stocked up with a few essentials at the supermarket and spent the night in an official site with power and water. The next day we set off for somewhere quieter.

Plenty of vans in Vannes!

We decided to head away from Brittany to take a look at the Loire Valley for the first time in our lives. Our first stop was a very quiet spot called Juigné-sur-Loire.

Our first stop in the Loire Valley

This was a small village – not far from Angers – famous for its slate quarries that date back to Roman times. Throughout the centuries the quarries have provided slate for roads, piles, stakes for vines, walls and for building houses.

There were slate walls everywhere in the village

In 1348 slate from here was used in the reconstruction of the Beaufort-en-Vallée castle, and in 1367, slate quarried at Juigné-sur-Loire was used to repair the castle in Angers.

Also slate houses

We were surprised to learn that after The Great Fire of London in 1666, slate from the quarries was also used in the reconstruction of London.

Walking in the now disused quarry

Considering 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St Paul’s Cathedral, and most of the municipal buildings of the city were destroyed, that would have required a lot of slate to be dug out of the ground, shipped down the Loire and across the Channel to London!

The slate quarries are closed now and the 27 hectare site has been turned into a fabulous recreation area. Paths meander through forests of beautiful trees and around undulating open areas where you can see the remains of the slate that had been mined there over the centuries.

It was a lovely place to have a stroll

Some of the trees growing in this beautiful area are unusual for this part of the world as a microclimate exists due to the mounds of slate warming the earth. This warm earth allows the growth of trees such as Lebanon Cedar and Corsican Pine – more normally found in Mediterranean regions.

I don’t know what kind of tree this is but we liked the shape of it
Remains of the slate that had been quarried here for hundreds of years

We walked for a long time and got a teeny bit lost, then realised we didn’t have long to get back to the van before the 6 pm curfew. The last part of our walk was at a smarter pace than previously and fortunately we arrived in plenty of time in the end.

Ooh better hurry – nearly curfew time (time on my phone – the screensaver is Lucy the boat dog from Polykandros and Jonathan)

We stayed the night for free in the parking area of Le Potager de Garennes (Garenne’s vegetable garden) part of the Domaine des 2 Moulins (Two Windmills property).

The two windmills property – the second one just visible in the background
Curfew time at the two windmills

The farm shop was open when we arrived and walking in we realised that as well as selling delectable fresh fruit and vegetables, there was a small winery as well. Sadly we weren’t able to do a tasting but of course we did buy a bottle or two (very drinkable!) as well as some delicious fruit and vegetables.

Lovely fresh vegetables to stock up with
Jonathan is examining pumpkins and behind him are wine vats
Of course we had to buy some wine
It was more than fine

The following day we were driving alongside the wide and very full River Loire. The Loire is the longest river in France and surely must have the fastest current judging by the incredible flow of water rushing along while we were there.

Driving along by the River Loire

The road winds right alongside the river and takes you through some lovely typical “shabby chic” villages, past wine cellars advertising tastings and cliffs with caves where amazing homes and wine stores have been built. The caves were the end product of the cliffs being quarried for tuffeau stone.

A typical “shabby chic” village along the Loire
Some amazing houses too
The Loire in flood

We arrived at town of Saumur which has been a major equitation centre since 1783 when the military cavalry school was built. The very first thing we saw was the famous French military riding academy. This is one of the most prestigious classical riding academies in the world.

One of the indoor arenas of the Cadre Noir

Fortunately there was some training being conducted over the jump course so we were able to witness an instructor from the famous Cadre Noir putting one of the cadets through his paces.

A cadet being put through his paces
The Cadre Noir is one of the most prestigious classical riding academies in the world
This building is the original military academy

As we drove through the town we could see the famous Chateau de Saumur perched up high in a hill so we decided to drive up there for a closer look even though we wouldn’t be able to go in. Sadly we missed out, among other things, on the Museum of the Horse inside the Chateau.

We could see the famous Chateau de Saumur perched up high in a hill so we decided to drive up there for a closer look
It didn’t disappoint

Even though we were unable to go inside the Chateau, it was definitely worth the detour as it was lovely to have a close view of this fairytale castle and the glorious views it commands over the mighty River Loire.

The detour was worthwhile to have a close view of this fairytale castle
The chateau commands glorious views over the mighty Loire

Ain’t got no….. got Life!

We feel so grateful that we have the freedom to travel through France in our camper van during these Covid times.

We feel thankful to wake up to a view like this

Having the opportunity and the privilege to walk somewhere different every day and drive through beautiful countryside is very special and it’s hard not to feel rather guilty when so many friends and family in the UK and the Netherlands are stuck in their homes unable to leave except for local walks or to go food shopping (or to go to work in certain situations.)

Another day, another new place to walk

In France there is currently a 6pm – 6am curfew but that doesn’t affect us as we are happy to be back on our home on wheels during those hours – besides, there is nowhere to go as all pubs, bars, restaurants etc are closed.

Primroses and it’s only January!

During the day, we only venture out for daily exercise and have managed to keep food shopping to the absolute minimum by stocking up very well in the Netherlands before we left.

Of course, visiting chateaux, museums, or art galleries, going on wine tours or having tastings, etc are not possible so there’s no sightseeing to be done in that way but we are content to enjoy the ever-changing countryside and the wonderful sea views. In the words of that wonderful Nina Simone classic “Ain’t got no……got Life…”

Ain’t got no museums but what a view!

After staying near St Malo for a couple of nights, we headed inland to a very nice sounding village called Plesin Trigavou where there was an old disused railway track which had been converted to a walking/cycle path.

Perfect cycling and walking on the site of a disused railway track

When we drew up to the car park, we realised that we had already stayed in this rather out-of-the-way village in 2018! The reason we had headed there the first time was because the area boasts a wonderful collection of 65 megaliths probably dating back to 2000 BC.

A wonderful collection of 65 megaliths
We were definitely getting that feeling of
déjà vu

On our previous visit of the site we both felt it had an extraordinary atmosphere and returning there, we still felt that same sense of mystery, it is quite an astonishing place to visit!

We still felt that extraordinary atmosphere

Our daughter Hannah and husband Pieter had recommended a free camping spot on the coast of Brittany near Trébeurden, a former sardine port.

The port of Trébeurden

We couldn’t believe how beautiful it was and that we could park for free in a place with such glorious views. France is definitely the number one country for camper vans!

We couldn’t believe we could camp somewhere so lovely for free!

We had a fantastic walk from the headland (called Bihit) where we were parked, to the town, marvelling at the sea views and as we approached the town, the endless stretch of sandy beach.

The lane next to our van which led to the cliff walk
Lovely vista on our walk
So much beauty!
The endless stretch of sandy beach

We met quite a number of others having a stroll or on a serious walk and without fail, they were very friendly and said “Bonjour” as we passed by. Not all the walkers wore a mask but everyone maintained appropriate social distance.

Tides go out a long way here – hence the steep climb up the gangway from the floating dock

We ended up (as we so often do) gazing at boats in the small marina, at the other end of the long stretch of beach. It might have been small but it was protected by an amazingly mighty sea wall. We imagined how ferocious the weather and waves must be in stormy weather to require such an edifice .

The sea wall was very mighty
The amazing piles of granite reminded us of Cornwall

Just next to the marina was the entrance to the headland which was connected to Ile Milliau (Milliau Island) – only accessible when the tide is out.

A view of Ile Milliau
The pink granite was wonderful
There were many strange shaped rocks

There wasn’t enough time to cross over that day so we contented ourselves with a walk around the fabulous headland where we marvelled at the wonderful shapes of the wonderful pink granite rocks found in this part of the world.

This one looks like it had been carved in the shape of a face
…but all the shapes are entirely natural
Late afternoon – time to get back to the van

We walked back in time to enjoy a fantastic sunset. That night was the last night before the six pm curfew began. It took a while to dawn on me why a constant stream of cars was drawing up and parking next to us. Then I realised with the start of the 6 pm curfew the following day, this would be the last time locals would be able to come and view the sunset for who knew how long. You really don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone!

Starting the trek home
A doggy enjoying his afternoon romp on the sand
Capturing the evening light
Almost home!
Just in time for this glorious sunset

The following day we drove round to the car park near the marina so we could hike over to the Ile Milliau.

One last glance at the view towards town before we leave
….and in the other direction
The Ile Milliau in the distance (far left)

The tide was still on the way out when we arrived but the sand spit between the mainland and the island was clearly visible so we started to clamber over the massive boulders and rock hop our way down to the beach.

Jonathan leading the way over the boulders
Rock hopping isn’t my strongest suit

Rock hopping is not my strongest suit but with Jonathan’s occasional steadying hand, I made it to the beach in one piece.

Going outside my comfort zone was well worth it as the island was glorious. A narrow path skirted its circumference and we walked past wonderful, oddly shaped, granite boulders glowing pink in the sunshine and lots of golden gorse in full flower.

Looking back at other visitors clambering down the rocks to the sand
This area was covered with water
earlier that day
The causeway up to the Ile Milliau
Gorgeous golden gorse
More amazing rock formations

The rocky northern tip of the island reminded us very much of Cornwall – just over the water in the southern-most tip of England. All part of the same original land mass we supposed.

The rocky northern tip of the island

It was a great place to feel the wind in our hair and to gaze out to sea.

Beautiful soft grass – a lovely spot from which to gaze out to sea
How did those folds in the rock get there?

Circling back on the other side of the island we came across a row of cottages which have been renovated for paying guests. The oldest parts of these buildings stem from medieval times. In the north-eastern gable-end is a relatively well-preserved but very small medieval monastic cell (3.5 metres (11 ft) by 4.5 metres (15 ft) and its height is 2 metres (6.6 ft)).

The cottages have been renovated for
paying guests
At the end of the row is a relatively well-preserved but very small medieval
monastic cell

Just behind the cottages is a spectacular example of a gallery grave which was built in the Neolithic era. In an adjacent field to the grave (called locally Ty Liac’h) aerial photographs have shown traces of about twenty prehistoric circular huts.

The gallery grave Ty Liac’h
The grave dates back to the Neolithic era

We arrived back to the beach in plenty of time before it was covered again by the high tide, and walked across the short distance to the mainland. As the tide was further out than when we made our earlier crossing, there wasn’t quite as much rock hopping to do!

There wasn’t quite so much rock hopping to be done on the way back

Our stay at Trébeurden was the highlight of our stay in Brittany – thanks for the tip Hannah and Pieter!

Mud, mud, glorious mud, nothing quite like it for….getting bogged!

Mud seems to be a bit of a recurring theme in our travels recently. After leaving Ferme L’Horloge, near the tiny village of Tardinghem, 20 kilometres from Calais (where we got bogged on our first night), we headed south towards Veules-les-Roses, in the Normandy region of France.

On the (icy) road to Veules-les-Roses

Although we didn’t leave the farm until midday, the ground was still covered in a beautiful thick frost which looked like someone had painted everything with a sparkling silver magic brush.

The grass was beautifully frosted in sparking silver
A brave little daisy in the frosty grass

As we left we saw a group of people in the field behind and wondered what they were up to. The previous day we had seen model airplanes being flown so thought that’s what was happening this time.

We wondered what these people were up to

Then we heard a engine leap into life and realised that one of the people was about to take off in a microlight aircraft!

And then an engine leapt into life

Up he went into the frosty air while his poor family were left shivering watching his progress. It must have been freezing up there!

It must have been freezing up there!

Leaving the enthusiasts to their devices we left for what turned out to be a three and a half hour drive (including a stop for some lunch). In places there were still patches of ice on the road so we took it very slowly and carefully.

We arrived at the “Aire” (car park that allows camper vans overnight) just outside Veules-les-Roses and found just one other van and a number of cars parked.

Hmm looks rather too muddy to me….

The surface was mainly grass and the remaining spots where we could potentially park looked extremely soft and skiddy. We were determined not to get bogged this time!

So we sat at the entrance for a few minutes waiting for some cars to leave before attempting to park. Quite soon two cars left so we started to move towards the place one of them vacated.

We back into a space successfully but our front wheels were spinning!

Suddenly our wheels started to slip and slide and Jonathan tried to ease the van out of the soggy mud. We were stuck again!

Damn! Stuck in the mud again!

Fortunately he had an idea! Find two pieces of wood and put them, crossed over each other, under the tyre that was really bogged. The top stick redistributed the weight of the van allowing us to roll off the the larger stick underneath, stopping it from sinking into nasty, muddy mess. Thank goodness Jonathan went to Boy Scouts when he was a boy!

But Jonathan’s ingenious Boy Scout idea got us out!

After another wait more cars departed and we were finally able to find a nice dry spot and relax.

Finally we could relax

The reason the car park was quite busy on a cool winter’s day was that there was a lovely walk from there to the beachfront at Veules-les-Roses.

There was a lovely walk to Veules-les-Roses.
The view in the other direction

We set off to explore and were surprised to see imposing white chalk cliffs on the shore – almost identical to the famous White Cliffs of Dover. A very grand sight.

The beachfront of Veules-les-Roses.
The chalk cliffs looked very like the White Cliffs of Dover

Having walked along the beach on the way we decided to circle through the village to get back to our camping spot. We saw some very beautiful cottages, some super elegant houses and an interesting 13th Century Church.

There were some lovely houses in the village
And a 13th Century Church

Our next destination was a lonely beach in the romantic sounding place St Martin-de-Varreville, not far from Omaha and Utah Beaches, where the D-Day landings took place.

The D-day landings took place very close to here

The beach was long and lonely, the weather was blustery and it started to rain as we walked along the sand so after a bit of a tramp we headed back to the comfort of the van.

The beach was long and lonely
The weather was blustery and it started to rain

That night our van shook and trembled as the wind howled around it. It was very cosy in our warm bed and we felt so grateful we weren’t in a boat, having to get up and check our anchor at frequent intervals!

The van shook and trembled all night

Although we had just installed a brand new (and expensive!) lithium house battery which means we can have the heater on whenever we want and not fear we will run out of power, we decided to go to a “proper site” for a day or two where we could plug in to mains electricity and boot up our laptops and other electrical equipment that need mains power.

We could also fill up with water and drain away the grey waste water there, as well as empty our chemical toilet. We found one not too far away that was still open in the winter months (and during Covid restrictions) in a village called Rothéneuf about five kilometres from St Malo.

Our route from St Martin-de-Varreville to Rothéneuf

For those of you who love to read, St Malo is the city in the wonderful book All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, where one of the main protagonists, Marie-Laure, and her father flee to during World War II. (Very highly recommend this book!)

Such a wonderful book

Rotheneuf is just over five kilometres from the centre of St Malo and is famous for being the birthplace of Jacques Cartier, the first European to map the Gulf of St Lawrence and the shores of the St Lawrence River which he named “the country of Canadas”.

Arriving at the campsite in Rothéneuf
This was where Jacques Cartier prayed before setting out on his expeditions
It’s no longer a chapel but at least the building is mostly intact

Sadly, because of Covid, we were unable to go round the museum or see the famous “rochers sculptés” (rock sculptures carved in the cliffs of Rothéneuf by a hermit in the late 19th century/early 20th century). In the course of 49 years the hermit carved over 300 grotesque and bizarre faces and figures into the rock.

The beach at Rothéneuf
The strange little building on the beach

The first evening there we were contented with a stroll round the town but the following day we decided to do a more significant walk to St Malo.

Wind blown cedar trees on the headland
More mud!

It was an interesting route that first took us along the road for a while but then we were soon on the massively long and wide beach leading to St Malo.

On our way to St Malo we passed the Church at Rothéneuf
And some lovely cottages
Then we were able to get on the beach

The tide was out which left hundreds of metres of firm sand to walk on. We had forgotten how massive the tidal races were in this part of the world – apparently St Malo experiences some of the biggest tides in Europe.

It was very long and very wide!

The tidal range can vary between low tide and the open sea by over 40 feet (about 12 metres). We didn’t witness it but the intensity of the incoming waves are apparently a wonder to behold, a sight much beloved by photographers and artists.

Stock photo of the waves when the tide is high

To cope with the onslaught of the waves, Saint-Malo equipped itself with breakwater defenses that have become emblems of the city. These are more than 3,000 wooden piles, roughly 10 feet high, installed originally at the end of the 17th century (and replaced over time) to absorb the impact of the waves and protect part of the citadel.

These breakwaters had a strange atmosphere
They were stark but rather beautiful
I loved the patterns that the wild ocean had carved into them
The wooden piles were first installed at the end of the seventeenth century

It was great to see that even on a cool winter’s day, the beach was being really well utilised with scores of people out walking their dogs, dozens of kite and wind surfers and even land yachts skimming over the golden sand. It still felt gloriously uncrowded!

Approaching St Malo, the beach looks empty but there were many people utilising it
The kite surfers were having a great time
A kite surfer on his way down to the surf
The walled city of St Malo

Of course there were no cafes open in St Malo so we came prepared! After a walk on the glorious 17th Century ramparts we found a seat and cracked open our thermos and made a nice strong cup of tea!

One of the gates into the old city
The city ramparts
We enjoyed walking on the ramparts
These stairs lead up to one of the bastions
Lovely views
Statue of Robert Surcouf, the privateer (pirate!)
Enjoying my cuppa within the city walls

On the walk back we kept mostly to the promenade which again was well patronised but we felt safe as everyone wore masks and were careful to keep their distance.

Hotel France et Chateaubriand – one of the many elegant hotels in St be Malo
The entrance to Hotel France et Chateaubriand
A square rigger in the port
Loved seeing these children playing in the rock pools with their fishing nets

Law-abiding Dutch go crazy and late night tow

New Year is the one time that the normally law abiding and dutiful citizens of the Netherlands go absolutely wild and act just a little bit crazy.

Happy New Year everyone!

It’s as if on that one night they let off all the pent up energy they have accrued but sublimated over the course of the previous year.

This energy is expended by setting off the most amazing, incredibly noisy, colourful and numerous fireworks that I have ever seen. In every part of the country – even the most sedate suburbs and the normally quietest of villages – massive explosions fill the air, making it sound like you’re in a war zone.

Two second video of fireworks

Fireworks are fired off continuously by seemingly almost every household – and this goes on for hours and hours. Young and old take to the streets to experience what appears to be to outsiders, as total mayhem.

Fireworks from down the street

At the start of 2020 we experienced this crazy chaos for the first time and were totally blown away by all the explosions that went on for hours!

Fireworks were banned this New Year

This year the Dutch Government totally banned householders from letting off New Year’s fireworks and naturally because of Covid, public displays couldn’t be held either.

Despite Covid people were on the streets to watch the fireworks – socially distanced of course!

The normally well behaved and obedient citizens rebelled and although the fireworks weren’t quite as loud and didn’t go on for quite as long, there were enough deafening explosions and beautiful displays of colourful rockets lighting up the skies to feel that 2021 was well and truly welcomed in.

Welcoming in 2021

Our New Year celebrations were a lot more low key than the previous year but we had a great time anyway – playing games in the early part of the evening and then sitting outside for an hour before midnight and into the early hours. Even though the night was very frosty we were warmed by a cosy log fire and an overhead gas heater (and some red wine too!)

We were toasty warm even though it was a frosty night

We were allowed two adult guests and it was great to share the evening with Hannah and Pieter’s friends Ryan and Jess who were obliged to leave Australia when the restaurant they worked in at Melbourne Casino “Dinner By Heston” went broke around the time of the Covid outbreak. Under 13s aren’t included in Covid restrictions at present in the Netherlands so happily Ryan’s son also joined us.

Sparklers and champagne – perfect way to bring the New Year in

The days after New Year were quiet – we spent a lot of time at home, leaving the house only to go for walks – short ones on very rainy days and longer ones when the weather permitted.

Spring is on the way! Some lovely snowdrops flowering already
Some people take their horses for a walk as well as their dog!
Gorgeous winter light filtering through the bare trees
Pieter and Hannah and their nephew/godson
Look out, someone is going to wobble that bridge!
Another lovely winter scene

Just before the 12th day of Christmas we took down the Christmas tree and the rest of the decorations. The poor tree was dropping needles profusely if you so much breathed in it so it was well and truly time.

The poor tree was dropping its needles at the slightest touch
Out it goes!

Putting away all the Christmas ornaments always feels like the real start to the New Year and it was with this in mind that we decided we should try to venture a bit further afield in the campervan.

Sweeping up all the pine needles

We had read that people who live permanently in their campervan had been travelling through France successfully so we decided that’s where we would head.

There are so many spots where you can wild camp in France and unlike in many other European countries, quite a number of official campsites stay open over winter.

So on 8 January 2021, we set off for our first destination, a remote farm deep in the French countryside situated midway between Calais and Boulogne – roughly 20km from each.

The farm was equidistant between Calais and Boulogne

Considering how remote the farm was, we found it very easily even though it was dark by the time we arrived. There were no other customers there so we followed the neatly spaced line of cones thinking they indicated where vans could park.

Whoops! Moments later we realised that the cones were indicating where not to park! Yes we had that sinking feeling – our van was bogged!

Uh oh stuck in the mud! The farmer’s dog comes to help.

After a few futile attempts to get out of the ever deepening mud ruts we decided to stay put and see if we could get help from the farmer the following day as it was already getting late.

The next thing we knew, another van had arrived and seeing us parked on the grass must have thought like us, that it was safe to park between two of the cones. Of course before we could warn them they became bogged too.

With our broken French and their equally broken English we ascertained that they had the additional problem of their water pump not turning off and all their water had drained away so they badly needed to fill up. They decided to call the farmer who very kindly came out straight away to pull them out of the mud and then gave us a tow too!

Looking for the towing point
Getting ready to pull the van out of the mud
Pulling our neighbours out of the mud
We came out backwards

Once we were on a flat piece of gravelled land behind the farmer’s enormous shed we settled down to dinner and a great night’s sleep. The following day we woke up to a beautiful crisp and frosty morning and a lovely view!

A beautiful crisp and frosty morning
Lots of mud in our wheels
Evidence of the muddy mayhem
The farmhouse at La Ferme de l’Horloge

After examining the muddy mayhem of the previous night we went on an excellent walk along the leafy country lanes to the tiny village of Tardinghem (population roughly 150).

Tardinghem Church
The “local” in Tardinghem

It was a glorious day and despite everything being closed (including a lovely microbrewery and brasserie near to the farm) it was great to have a change of scene and have a really long walk in the beautiful French countryside.

Would have been great to look round the Craft Brewery
And even better to have a meal at the Brasserie
No guests allowed because of Covid
Loved the sign

From the village we took a footpath through the fields towards the beach.

Great views across water meadows to the English Channel

From the beach we could see the nearby Cap Gris Nez ( Cape Grey Nose) one way and Cap Blanc Nez (Cape White Nose) the other.

In the distance is Cap Blanc Nez, France’s most northerly cliff
A closer view of Cap Blanc Nez
Again, in the distance, Cap Gris Nez, the closest point of France to England

More amazingly though, the day was so clear that the White Cliffs of Dover were clearly visible – more than 30 kilometres away over the Channel. Apparently the cliffs of Cap Gris Nez are the closest point of France to England from their English counterparts at Dover.

It was such a pristine day we could clearly see the White Cliffs of Dover
Not easily seen from this photo but the White Cliffs of Dover are there!

Another narrow escape – just in time for Christmas!

We really couldn’t have been luckier- just a couple of days before European countries closed their borders to travellers from Britain we made it back to the Netherlands in the nick of time for Christmas!

Christmas ready!

We had gone to England from the Netherlands because our Schengen visa-free period on our Australian/NZ passports was almost up. To avoid being penalised for overstaying we went over for a little more than two weeks in order to return to Europe using our UK passports.

We couldn’t have been luckier to make it back to the Netherlands

After our two-week quarantine was up we headed for the ferry terminal in Harwich. Fortunately, we were allowed to stay the night in the car park at the terminal so we couldn’t have been closer to the queue to get on the ferry.

We woke up in the dark before 7am and were shocked to see cars and trucks already lined up at Border Control – the ferry wasn’t due to depart until 9am – and the queue was moving already!

7 am and the cars were queuing for the ferry

We dressed hastily hoping that we hadn’t got the time wrong or the ferry wasn’t leaving earlier than advertised. We were in the queue within minutes and were through passport control by 7.30am.

The officials at border control were very thorough, inspecting underneath the van with powerful spotlights, checking through the interior and filming the whole search! Finally they were happy and we drove through into the queue for boarding which happily was at a standstill and gave us time to enjoy a cup of tea and eat breakfast!

The Stena Hollandica

We were on board before 8.30 but 9am came and went with no sign of departure. At 10 am a message came over the public address to say they were still loading trucks onto the ferry. Finally at 11 am – two whole hours late – the engines fired up and we slowly moved out of the harbour into the murky grey channel heading for the Hook of Holland.

Finally heading for the Hook of Holland

We wondered why on earth we were so delayed but once back in the Netherlands we realised that there must have been a rumour that European borders would be closing and some trucks had made a run for it out of Harwich.

The queues that started to build up just after we got away

The irritation of being delayed two hours faded completely when we realised how fortunate we were to have escaped getting trapped in a British port car park over Christmas along with the many thousands of truck drivers trying to get back to their families.

Dusk at sea

The day before we left England we had a quick visit to the pretty historic town of Bury St Edmunds – our first and only opportunity to buy some Christmas gifts.

The historic town of Bury St Edmunds

It felt quite strange and a little bit weird to be wandering around the shops after two weeks of being confined to barracks but good to experience some “real life” again.

It was fun to do some window (and actual) shopping
A British icon – a pillar box from the reign of King George (reigned from 1936 to 1947)
Posting Christmas cards

The following day we left our spot at the bottom of Simon’s garden in the depths of the Norfolk countryside and before heading for Harwich drove to Cambridge where we had a wonderful visit with my sister and her husband.

Simon and Ruth’s kittens bid us farewell

Unfortunately due to the new Covid restrictions, my other sister who lives in London was unable to join us as planned but it was great to also catch up with my nephew, his wife and their daughter.

Beautiful Christmas holly in Cambridge

As we were not allowed to meet inside we wrapped up warmly and had hot soup in the garden – luckily it was a very sunny and reasonably mild day.

Hot soup and a delicious chocolate Yule Log

Our two hour delay aboard the good ship Stena Hollandica meant that we arrived late for Jonathan‘s birthday celebrations.

We were talking so much that I completely forgot to take photos but we took away some precious memories instead.

Our daughter Hannah and her husband Pieter had organised some very special food to be delivered and Hannah made the birthday boy’s special favourite- apple pie!

Captains favourite – home made apple pie

The following day we had our first Christmas celebration with two friends of Hannah and Pieter’s which was a lot of fun.

Christmas celebrations!
More delicious food
Hannah and her friend Rosa

As all the shops except for supermarkets were shut there was no last minute shopping to be done so we wiled away the days before Christmas with wrapping presents, more entertaining, going for lovely walks and watching our favourite Christmas movies.

Parcels wrapped and ready for Christmas Day
Watching our favourite movie at this time of year – “Muppet Christmas Carol”
More entertaining

Christmas Day itself was a whirl of eating great food, present giving and games. We were so immensely grateful that we were able to spend the festive season with Hannah and Pieter. Our original plan was to spend this time with our son and daughter-in-law and other family and friends in Australia but getting back there was almost impossible.

Happy Ccristmas?!
Loved this candle holder (in the corner) that Hannah made
Big breakfast on Christmas Day
First Christmas as a married couple
A beautiful heron on one of our walks
Exploring a new path

We counted ourselves extremely fortunate that we not only had a welcoming family in the Netherlands but also narrowly escaped getting stuck and spending a lonely and miserable Christmas in a traffic queue of thousands of vehicles in England!

A walk on Christmas Day
A Christmas rainbow
Of course it rained
Back home in the dry with a glass of wine

A dash over the Channel to England and experiencing the Spirit of Christmas

After an unusual and rather sparse birthday lunch in Valkenberg in the southern province of Lindberg in the Netherlands, it was time to celebrate rather more grandly at our daughter and son-in-law’s home in Pijnacker near Delft.

Birthday presents

We knew there was going to be something special for dinner but it was the most wonderful surprise to find out we were going to have a gourmet meal prepared by the Chef from the very swish (and our favourite) Restaurant Calva.

A beautifully set table for the birthday dinner

With restaurants in the Netherlands having been closed most of this year due to Covid, the team at Calva hit upon the idea of preparing inspiring meals to a certain point and delivering them to their patrons’ homes with videoed instructions on how to finish off and “plate up” each course.

Dinner has arrived

A unique aspect to this different type of takeaway is that each weekend one of the “guests” receives a bonus – Tom, chef and co-owner of Calva makes a personal appearance in their kitchen and cooks an extra course – free of charge. On this particular occasion we were the lucky ones! As an extra bonus, Tom generously gifted us with a celebratory bottle of delicious red wine!

Tom working his magic
Pieter has been set to work as sous chef

The meal was superb and Pieter and Hannah did an amazing job of putting the finishing touches to the rest of the courses after Tom left. What a great celebration!

Pieter receives instructions for plating up the rest of the courses
Tom serves us our bonus course
What a fabulous birthday celebration!
Delicious food and wine
Great company too!

I was also lucky enough to receive some generous and fabulous gifts including a token for a massage treatment, a hair “makeover” and a very special Advent Calendar from the Body Shop.

And a very special birthday cake

For those who have never seen an Advent calendar, they have 25 “windows” and each day before Christmas, starting on 1 December, you get to open one. When we were children the calendar had a Christmas themed picture, often the Nativity scene, usually with lots of glitter over it, and behind each window was another picture of say, Santa’s sack, a reindeer, a Christmas tree or other symbol of the festive season.

My very special Advent Calendar

More recently some Advent calendars have had a Christmas themed chocolate behind each window but the one I received was on a whole different level! Behind the “windows” were a whole range of fabulous Body Shop products.

One of the gifts behind the 25 windows

Such an excellent gift for a late November birthday girl as every day during December I received a lovely gift – for example, a hand cream, shampoo, or a gorgeous shower gel, a moisturiser, body butter or a cleansing face mask! It was truly “the gift that keeps on giving”!

What an excellent gift

Our stay with our daughter and son-in-law was rather short this time as we realised that our Schengen visa-free 90 day period on our Australian/NZ passports was almost over. A dash across the channel to the UK was required so that we could reenter the EU on our British passports in time for Christmas. We feel very fortunate to have dual citizenship!

The day we left the Christmas tree was erected in the town square
It was made from crocheted pieces – even the decorations were crocheted

Early in December we drove to the Hook of Holland in our camper van and boarded the Stena Britannica for Harwich.

The Stena Britannica

The five and half hour journey felt quite relaxing – probably because we didn’t have to navigate or steer or do anything at all in fact! Quite a change from other ocean passages on our boats “Bali Hai” and “Sunday”!

The border patrol checks before boarding were thorough and there was a film crew too

We had fairly rough seas and heavy winds but you could hardly feel a thing on the massive nine-storey car ferry.

There were very few passengers on our way to the UK
Fortunately there was plenty of space to spread out and everyone wore masks

Arriving at Harwich in the pitch dark was fine until we came to a diversion which took us on a long traipse through wet, dark and narrow country lanes. No fun in a left hand drive camper van late at night!

Driving through the pitch dark country lanes and coming across another diversion

We ended up being diverted from our diversion because the road had flooded and ended up going through some extremely dodgy and tiny back lanes before finally arriving at Jonathan’s brother’s house in darkest Norfolk very late at night.

Because of Covid the UK was in tiered lockdown and we were obliged to quarantine for 14 days. Thankfully, Jonathan’s brother Simon and his partner Ruth generously allowed us to camp at the bottom of their back garden and share their cosy home during the day.

Our van parked at the bottom of the garden
The village green with our van in the distance
All cosy watching old time Christmas movies

The first morning we were there we had a beautiful surprise when we woke up – it had snowed!

Such a delight to wake up to!

There was only a little sprinkling of white but it looked so beautiful – there is something very special about waking up to snow and it made us feel very Christmassy!

A sparkling carpet of white

The following day there was a rare air frost – freezing mist all around that turned the bare tree limbs to shimmering silver. The little village looked like an old fashioned Christmas card!

The trees were shimmering but it was hard to capture the beauty in a photograph

It was really lovely to spend time with members of our family but particularly as there were some gorgeous Bengal kittens to play with!

Three of the kittens all snuggled together
Cute kitties

Sadly, while we were there, two of these cute little kitties went to new owners but on the bright side, their Mum, a young male cat from an earlier litter, and one of the babies stayed behind..

Each of the kittens had a distinct personality….
….this little one was so curious and playful
Brothers from different litters but still great friends

Two weeks of quarantine went quite quickly despite being confined to the very tiny village of Rushford – population of around 60 people, no shop, no pub but one very ancient (14th century) thatched church.

The Rushford sign
The tiny Rushford Church with thatched roof

We went for some nice walks around the village most days and also went for a couple of drives around the country lanes in Simon’s new electric car.

The former school in Rushford now converted into a beautiful home
Fields surround the little village of Rushford
The village green
View from the 13th century stone bridge in Rushford

Despite the short days and the often drab and grey weather, the English countryside has a stark beauty during the winter months.

A walk down a country lane
The old gate to the manor house
The manor house in the distance
A rural scene in Rushford

The day before we left to return to The Netherlands we were fortunate to attend a traditional Christmas service of Nine lessons and carols in the village church.

The thatched roof of the church lych gate

The Church was completely lit by the glow of hundreds of candles arranged on ledges around the walls and a gigantic Christmas tree (donated by the local Manor House) in one corner. It was so atmospheric!

Hundreds of candles around the walls lit up the Church

The service was meant to start at 5pm but by 5.20 there was no sign of the vicar. It started to feel a little like we were in an episode of the TV series the Vicar of Dibley!

The massive Christmas tree inside the Church

Just after 5.20 the rather eccentric female vicar fell through the door and puffed up the aisle saying “I’m so sorry I’m late but thanks for waiting. I was sure we were starting at 6 not 5!”

Beautiful candlelight

The rest of the service went without a hitch although none of us were allowed to sing – due to Covid of course. The nine carols were sung by the four person choir – three ladies and one very ancient gentlemen with a very loud but strong and reasonably melodic voice. They actually sang quite well but it was sad not to be able to join in although the vicar did (rather subversively we thought) encourage the congregation (about thirty or forty of us – with three to a pew almost a full house!) to hum along (behind our masks) to the last carol “Hark the Herald Angels sing”.

It wasn’t easy to hit the high notes with our mouths closed but we all appreciated the opportunity to join in and sort of sing communally for a change.

The traditional service of Nine lessons and carols

This traditional service was such a wonderful example of the English spirit. We especially loved the way the organisers broke with tradition and decided to read a poem or a piece of prose as well as their allocated “lesson”.

Our friend the ancient chorister read “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Edward Lear although, as he said, it didn’t have much to do with Christmas except it “mentions traditional seasonal fare – mince and quince – and was about love”!

The owl looked up to stars above and sang to a small guitar….

Another person read a section about Christmas from that great favourite of so many The Wind in the Willows and someone else read the poem called King John’s Christmas from A.A. Milne’s “Now We Are Six” that starts

“King John was not a good man

He had his little ways.

And sometimes no one spoke to him

For days and days and days.”

The traditions that began in the time of our forefathers, poems that reminded us of our childhoods, sentimental readings, the smell of candle wax, the scent of pine needles, the fairy lights on the enormous tree, the familiar carols, the ancient readings and the mince pies and mulled wine in the open air after the service, all combined to evoke the spirit of Christmas in us.

Mmm mince pies!

As we walked in the direction of home along the lane in the velvety darkness we felt delighted to have been part of such a quintessentially English start to Christmas.

Returning home, following the glow of the Christmas tree

Making mountains out of molehills and marvelling at Maastricht

We were in Maastricht, the city where that treaty was negotiated in 1992 – the one where EU members decided to introduce a common currency, the Euro – which was eventually fully adopted in 2002 – except by the British of course!

Our lovely camping spot in Maastricht

The city has a reputation for being a thriving cultural hub – second only in the Netherlands to Amsterdam for national heritage buildings – so it sounded promising.

Maastricht is second only to Amsterdam for the number of heritage buildings

We stayed at a lovely marina with very grand entrance gates and the ruins of a medieval castle rising high up behind the spot where we were parked.

The grand entrance gates to the marina
View from our van to the ruins of a medieval castle above

The marina was an easy and interesting bike ride away from the city centre and once on the outskirts we left the bikes and walked through the quaint pedestrian lanes and alleyways.

A fortification on our way into the city
Look carefully and you will see the remains of a medieval building incorporated into its modern incarnation
The town hall, one of the many heritage buildings in Maastricht

The Het Vrijthof is a beautiful square in the center of old town Maastricht, paved with old cobblestones and surrounded by trees. Sadly the many very nice restaurants and cafes that encircle the square were all closed so it looked rather drab and uninteresting.

Sadly the Het Vrijthof looked very drab with all the restaurants and cafes closed due to Covid

We walked from the square and came upon the St Servatius Basilica, a Romanesque cathedral with atmospheric crypts and many treasures which unfortunately we didn’t get to see.

An ancient gateway into the Basilica precincts
St Servatius Basilica, a Romanesque cathedral

As we walked through the beautiful arches to the west of the basilica we were surprised to see another church right next door.

We loved these stone arches on the laneway between the two churches

This was the medieval Church of St John which was originally built as a baptistery for the Basilica of St. Servatius. After the 17th century it became a church in its own right and is now a Protestant Church whereas the Basilica is Catholic.

The Church of St John alongside the Basilica of St. Servatius.

We were fascinated by the ox-blood red paint on the 15th Century tower of St John’s Church and wondered why the beautiful stone work had been covered.

The ox-blood red paint on the 15th Century tower of St John’s Church

We discovered that the tower (and much of the Church) had been built in the local yellow marlstone which is extremely soft and porous so the paint was applied to protect it from the elements.

A tiny roadside chapel we passed
An installation in the Church grounds

One of the highlights of Maastricht was coming across an enchanting water mill apparently owned by one Godfrey of Bouillon in the eleventh century AD and which after his death, passed into the hands of the Prince-Bishop of Liège.

A water mill has stood here since the eleventh century
The mill is still used to grind grain to make flour
The mill race

As we walked down the little alley from the water wheel we looked through a big window where we saw bakers busy baking bread and delicious looking pies- apparently from flour ground in the mill we had just seen.

Round the corner was a baker’s shop

We walked round the corner and found a wonderful bakers shop full of delicious treats and bought some lovely crusty rolls and a fantastic traditional Dutch apple tart.

The Bishop’s Mill
Delicious tarts in the shop window

The following day was my birthday and to celebrate the day we decided to ride our e-bikes to the picturesque and historic town of Valkenberg aan de Geul.

How now black cow

It was apparently only 11 kilometres away (roughly seven miles) which sounded perfect as it was a fairly nice day. Unfortunately it took us twice as long as we had expected due to our reliance on Google maps! Note to self: download a Dutch cycle path app. before our next bike adventure!

I thought this animal was a deer but Jonathan thought it was a goat – what about you?

The ride itself was very pleasant but I have to admit to feeling a tiny bit sad that because of Covid we couldn’t stop at one of the pretty inns and restaurants scattered along our route for a relaxed and cosy lunch.

I wished we could have stopped off for a cosy lunch

I don’t want to make mountains out of molehills but it was quite surprising to see some quite steep hills on our route! Most of the Netherlands is flat as a tack but not the province of Lindberg – it most definitely has hills!

A hill on the way to Valkenberg

Valkenberg is a really pretty town that depends heavily on tourism. Sadly the place was almost deserted when we were there and the many colourful restaurants and cafes were closed.

One of the impressive buildings in Valkenberg
The place was almost deserted due to Covid
Such a pretty town

My birthday lunch turned out to be takeaway frites with a huge dollop of frite sauce eaten on a bench outside. Not the usual long lunch but the frites were absolutely delicious!

Birthday lunch!
Our lunch time view – one of the recently restored city gates in Valkenberg
The gate from the other side

Valkenburg proudly boasts the remains of the only hilltop castle in the Netherlands – hardly surprising as it also has just about the only hill!

Looking up the hill to the remains of the hilltop castle
Steps up to the castle ruins

There are also underground caverns in the town created by the Romans when mining marlstone. These can be explored by foot or “slow train”. Other attractions include spas where normally visitors can bathe in natural hot springs but of course, were closed because of Covid.

Marlstone is so soft that graffiti has been carved into buildings for generations

We climbed up to the castle and enjoyed the hilltop views from the base of the ruins.

The base of the castle ruins
A model showing how the castle looked in medieval times
View from the top
A commanding view

It was interesting to find out about the work of the Dutch resistance during the four year and four months German occupation in Second World War and to see how parts of the city were rebuilt after their destruction in the war.

Another recently rebuilt city gate
On guard at the city gate

Our return trip also took rather longer than anticipated as our “quicker” route home included a massively long and winding hill which was a struggle even with the help of a our e-power.

Illustration of the destruction in the town during World War II
Same view, rebuilt after the war

After what seemed ages Jonathan noticed his battery had lost a lot of power and he was concerned that we wouldn’t have enough to get all the way back “home” again. So we toiled up the rest of the hill pushing our bikes and after a long haul to reach the top, wound our way through the suburbs to arrive back to the van in the pitch dark!

Sunset in our camping spot

Meet the Coddiewomplers

Coddiewomple: The dictionary definition is “To travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination” – I suppose that means we are definitely coddiewomplers!

The sun setting as we coddiewomple towards our campsite for the night

Unable to travel further afield due to COVID restrictions, we decided to “travel in a purposeful manner” to get to know the Netherlands more thoroughly.

From Overloon we made our way towards a “vague destination” – in other words, somewhere interesting to stay.

We were the only visitors to the campsite
in ‘t Zand

The first place we meandered our way to was the unlikely named ‘t Zand, a small hamlet in North Holland.

We had arrived in the dark and had to phone up the owner of the site to get the code to plug into the keypad at the gate. It was so dark we almost ran over a low fence but eventually we found a good spot and plugged into the power.

The following morning we woke up to a magnificent site – a beautiful windmill, just metres away from where we had spent the night.

A magnificent sight to wake up to
Originally built in 1631 the windmill was restored in 2011

The elderly owner of the land came to see if we had settled in OK and told us that the windmill, which was originally built in 1631 in the neighbourhood of Leiden, had been purchased in 1865 by his grandfather and moved to ‘t Zand where was used as a flour mill until the 1920s.

An old millstone and other parts of the now restored windmill
The wheat field next door gives a clue to what the mill was used for

It gradually fell into disrepair but in 2011 it was moved to its present position and restored by a team of volunteers.