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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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”!
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!
Early in December we drove to the Hook of Holland in our camper van and boarded the Stena Britannica for Harwich.
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”!
We had fairly rough seas and heavy winds but you could hardly feel a thing on the massive nine-storey car ferry.
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!
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.
The first morning we were there we had a beautiful surprise when we woke up – it had snowed!
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!
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!
It was really lovely to spend time with members of our family but particularly as there were some gorgeous Bengal kittens to play with!
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..
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.
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.
Despite the short days and the often drab and grey weather, the English countryside has a stark beauty during the winter months.
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 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!
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!
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!”
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.
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”!
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.
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.