Catherine loves painting and photography as well as the great outdoors. Cycling, kayaking, pack-rafting and hiking are favourite activities as well as scuba diving when the location permits. A self confessed geek, she’s the reason details are included in our stories!
Location: Harby & Newark-on-Trent – Nottinghamshire, & Ripon -Yorkshire, UK
Wednesday: We left Milton Keynes early and by 9am were in Newark in Nottinghamshire dropping Truffy off at our dealer for some warranty work. One of the reasons we love Fuller Leisure is that they’re a small, friendly family business, and they don’t hesitate to loan us a little runabout for the period of the service. We took the opportunity to drive into Newark-on-Trent, just a 20 minute drive from the dealer.
We knew nothing about the town as we drove in, but almost immediately saw Newark Castle ruins alongside the River Trent. It’s extremely picturesque, and given it has free entry we couldn’t resist an explore.
Leaving the castle we wandered into Newark’s market place, delighted to find it bustling with market day activity. We picked up some fruit and vegetables before exploring the rest of the town. We just love to buy produce fresh from the local farmers, appreciating the fresh taste as well as the opportunity to support local suppliers rather than supermarkets wherever possible.
After some shopping we returned to the car and drove up to our friends’ house in Harby for the night. There we had a delicious meal and shared some of our wine purchases from across Europe….enjoyed post a glass of the 1066 Hastings gin we gifted to Catriona.
Thursday: My cousin’s daughter Hannah has just started a law degree at Lincoln University, just a half hour’s drive from our friends in Harby. Mark and I decided to drive up there to buy her breakfast and ensure she’s settling in alright. Lincoln is a small and friendly city, reminding me of Chester where I spent my university days.
After farewelling Hannah off to a lecture, we drove back to Newark to pick up Truffy.
We were amazed how much the team had completed in a relatively short period of time, consistently good. By 3pm we were on our way again.
When you grow up in the far south of England, anything past Watford Junction seems a long way away. Yorkshire, for example always appeared to be a mysterious place with lots of green on the map where people talk with the most intelligent sounding accent in the UK.
So when our Nottinghamshire friends agreed to a weekend away in an AirBnB together in Yorkshire we were quite excited. Mark, Truffy and I skipped our way up the country, arriving in the city of Ripon on Thursday evening. There’s a carpark right in the middle of the city near the cathedral and Sainsbury’s that allows free overnight parking for motorhomes, and £2 for parking all day. It suited us perfectly and we settled in.
After a peaceful night’s sleep, we decided to stick around the next morning and explore Ripon. Ripon is the oldest city in England and the smallest city in Yorkshire.
Ripon Cathedral was originally founded in the 660s by Scottish monks and tweaked and adjusted over the years.
Today it is still a living and active space, with lots of activity and full of people. Despite being an autumnal Thursday morning outside of the school holidays it was busy and bustling with an art and sculpture exhibition. I couldn’t resist a look.
Not far from the cathedral is a river and canal, so Mr A and I decided to stroll down. The canal was originally opened in the 1700s and restored in 1996. Today it’s clean with a walkway alongside it with several bird hides looking out towards wetlands.
We had a great afternoon’s walk around the waterways before returning to Truffy. We drove off to our AirBnB near Jervalaux Abbey to check in and await the arrival of John and Catriona as the sun set. A great first day in Yorkshire. We will be back!
Sunshine is never guaranteed in the UK, particularly during September, but we were very fortunate to get a glorious weekend served up. Despite having a bad reputation, Friday the 13th dawned bright and sunny and mum and I left Hastings and drove over to my sister’s home in Brighton.
After a little shopping, mum and I met Helen and niece Isabel for lunch in a local pizza restaurant, Fatto A Mano. Named as one of The Guardian’s top independent pizza restaurants in 2015, they are well known in Brighton and Hove for their light pizza bases and delicious toppings. They even had three choices of vegan pizza meaning I could join in with a flavoursome meal!
We had a lovely afternoon around the shops in Brighton and North Laine, after which mum drove back to Hastings.
Saturday morning, Helen and I said goodbye to Stu and the kids and went up to Brighton Station to catch a train to London for a sister escape. Helen and Stu both work so hard with their children and work life, and H really deserved a break. For me, selfishly perhaps, I adore my sister’s company and over the past two decades have not enjoyed it enough, and so wanted just one night for the two of us to chat, enjoy and just be together.
Our intention was to whizz up to London, leave our luggage at our hotel and explore. Unfortunately the trains had other ideas, and what should have been an hour journey took around three hours and three trains! It seems Friday the 13th’s reputation has transferred to Saturday the 14th.
Finally we did make it to our hotel near Earl’s Court, and St James’s Park was our next destination. We have memories of visiting this area as children on day trips with our mum, feeding the sparrows with pots of seed bought from little old men, now long gone. The weather was spectacular, and perfect for walking through the gardens.
St James’s Park is the oldest of the royal parks and is surrounded by three palaces – Buckingham Palace is the most famous, St James’s Palace, built for Henry the 8th in 1532, and the Palace of Westminster (dating back to the 11th century) – better known these days as the Houses of Parliament (which has been held there since the 1300s).
Horse Guard’s Parade remains part of the park, created during the 18th century, and too are the golden ornate gateways dedicated to the dominions – Australia, South Africa and Canada.
From here, we crossed into the cool shadiness of Green Park and made our way over to the Canada Memorial for a sit down, watching as wood pigeons flew down for a drink.
After all this exploring we went back to the hotel for showers and to get ready for our night out.
We had an early dinner at a delicious Thai restaurant near Earl’s Court Station (Siam Secret – definitely recommend for authentic Thai food) before catching the train to Piccadilly Circus and the Princes Theatre for our evening’s entertainment – The Book of Mormon. This show is one of the most successful musicals of all time, and the 14th longest running show on Broadway (as of July this year).
We really enjoyed the show, packed full of laughter. Maybe don’t go along if you’re sensitive to the odd swear word, a Mormon or not open to thinking slightly differently about religion (apparently 10-15 people walk out of the show each night)) but for entertainment value it was fabulous.
We exited the show on an absolute high, wishing the show could have continued for another hour, and strolled around to Leicester Square, Chinatown and Covent Garden, just people watching and lapping up the atmosphere of a Saturday night in London.
Sunday: Our night in the hotel included breakfast, so we feasted to get our money’s worth before rolling out of the door on Sunday morning for a stroll. We had no plan as to where to go, but explored the streets of Earls Court and Kensington, deciding it would be an area that would suit us quite nicely, if anyone out there would be willing to donate us a house or apartment!
We wound our way through the streets to Kensington Palace, which has been in the royal family since the 17th century. Presently it is the residence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Catherine) among others, but like the Queen, they didn’t invite us in.
We enjoyed strolling through Kensington Gardens and through into Hyde Park, finding ice creams on our way through. We stopped at the Princess Diana memorial fountain, a circular water feature made from Cornish granite, full of children playing and visitors cooling their feet. We of course had to join in.
As our afternoon led to a close we were sad to head back to the hotel and collect our luggage, and make our way in separate directions home.
It was a fantastic weekend – so special spending time with my mum and sister, every moment and memory treasured. Helen headed back to Brighton, while I travelled north to meet up with Mark and his daughters in Milton Keynes.
Location: Scotney Castle, nr Lamberhurst, Kent, UK
The earliest records of a building at the location of Scotney Castle date back to 1137 with the current ‘old castle’ dating back to the late 1300s. These days there are two castles on site – Scotney Castle is the newer building, built in the early 1800s for the Hussey family from Worcestershire who made their money in the early industrial revolution. They had originally moved into the old castle, which became too cold, damp and drafty.
Mum and I came to visit this National Trust location about 10 years ago, so were due another visit. It was a mostly overcast morning, but not too cold for autumn. Last time we came it was July, and I remember the flowers being incredible. This time it is definitely the beginning of autumn, with plants seeding and drying out, leaves starting to fall and the colour palette decidedly more subdued.
The new Scotney Castle was first opened to the public in 2007 after the death of the Betty Hussey. Her husband Christopher had died in 1970, bequeathing the house, castle and estate to the National Trust. Since mum and I visited in 2009 the whole house has been preserved and opened up to the public as well as the old castle.
Tenants of apartments on the estate include Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who rented the Belfry flat for a time during the 1970s and 1980s to escape Westminster.
The gardens are considered prime examples of the Picturesque style of landscape design – basically gardens which were designed specifically to be painted. As such, the old castle was partially dismantled to create a ‘ruin’ as a centrepiece to the garden, surrounded by a water lily filled moat and viewed from the ‘new’ Scotney Castle.
The National Trust has plenty of paid gardeners and volunteers working on the grounds, using old papers, paintings and photographs to restore the gardens to their former glory and adding planting which fit in with the original plan.
We toured the gardens, admiring the views in all directions.
We were given a 15 minute slot during which to explore the house, but took 40, it was so interesting. It has the feeling of a living home rather than a museum, with lots of quirky details from the most recent residents sitting alongside the old furniture and 19th century interior design.
The volunteers in the house were passionate and excited to share their learnings too, pointing out a bookcase which is really a secret door, and a Dutch masterpiece above the dining room fireplace bought from a local pub for the princely sum of £30 in the early 1900s (even then it would have been far more valuable)…the Tate Gallery in London is apparently keen to get hold of it! How the local pub ended up with a Dutch masterpiece is a story we didn’t learn, but I bet there’s an interesting tale there too!
Scotney Castle is definitely worth a visit if you are in the East Sussex/west Kent area – just a 40 minute drive from Hastings.
Tuesday: We arrived in Hastings mid morning and Mark was off into town right away on his bike for an eye pressure test…the first since before we headed to Europe in May. Thankfully the results were great – his eyes stable and healthy – such a relief. Meanwhile, I got busy tackling the washing mountain, pleased to be able to hang it out in warm sunshine and a gentle breeze.
After a light lunch with mum, Mark and I jumped on the bikes and rode into town, taking a flask of herbal tea with us. We called into Waterfalls, a local tea room and gift shop with a fabulous home cooked menu to pick up cakes (they always have a dairy and gluten free options available along with their ‘normal’ ones) and continued our ride.
My sister and I used to always take our bikes out along Hastings seafront, loving the exhilaration of riding in the fresh salty air, the promenade offering a safe haven from the cars. These days it is a designated cycle-pedestrian shared path, so we don’t have to feel guilty for riding along. We headed to Hastings’ Old Town. This area of Hastings was mostly built prior to the 1760s (before bathing in the sea and drinking sea water(!) was made popular for health reasons).
Hastings has been home to fishermen (fisherpeople?) for more than a thousand years. These days there are 25 fishing boats at The Stade, making it the largest land-based fleet in the UK…needless to say the seafood in Hastings is deliciously fresh, and there’s a wide variety to choose from.
We rode to the extent of the seafront, an area called Rock-a-Nore. Here we could see right along the coast looking towards Dungeness in the distance, albeit with a chilly autumn breeze off the sea. There we enjoyed our tea and cake before heading deeper into the Old Town. Hastings Old Town is split almost in two, with All Saints Street (being headed by All Saints Church) being traditionally the home of the poorer residents, the fishermen’s cottages and workers in the fishing industry, and the St Clement’s Church area being the better off, wealthy area of Old Hastings. These days both have their charm, with the older housing on All Saints Street being in different states of repair, and many houses dating back to the early 1500s.
Like many of the French towns and villages we have visited, Hastings Old Town used to have a wall as defence against attack from the French. It fell into disrepair and was pretty much all gone by the 1800s. There are still several pubs in the old town, many of which have interesting historical takes linked with them. One of the pubs on All Saints Street (The Stag Inn) has a tunnel linking its cellars to a cave in the cliffs, where smuggled spirits were brought in from France (or pirated from ships attacked in the English Channel).
A brief ride down George Street, still decked out in rainbow flags from the fourth Hastings Pride (25 August) and we headed back home for the evening.
Wednesday morning looked very wintry in comparison to Tuesday, with heavy grey skies and drizzle. It would have been easy to stay indoors and do not much but instead mum, Mark and I headed back to the Old Town by car for more of an explore on foot. It was very cold and windy there so we didn’t linger on the seafront, instead ducking off down High Street, long been the hub of the town (originally known as Market Street). Today it is still full of little interesting shops, old antiques alongside gift stores and delis.
I follow the Hastings Old Town Appreciation Group on Facebook and a few weeks ago I had seen my friend Emma mentioning a 1066 Hastings Gin sold in Penbuckles Delicatessen where she works part time. We decided to call in. What a great deli! This is the type of location we dream of finding, packed full of produce from local farms and businesses, ranging from cheeses, wines, milk, jams, pickles, sauces, cakes and savouries. They have a real focus on the environment, minimising waste and utilising biodegradable products where possible.
It was a cappuccino for mum, a 70% dairy free hot chocolate for me and a white hot chocolate for Mr A, accompanied by a vegan pastry roll and a St Leonards Pasty. All delicious. And we mustn’t forget the gin tasting – we tried samples of the 1066 Hastings Gin and also the award winning Haswell Gin. Both very tasty with and without tonic. We bought a bottle as a gift for friends…hopefully they’ll let us taste a drop!
We bought some cockles (boiled molluscs in vinegar) from the fish market on our way back to the car and headed home for the afternoon.
Mr A waved goodbye and headed off for the first time driving Truffy without his co-pilot. He’s off to catch up with some old friends from Australia who have moved back to the UK, before heading off on biking adventures with some more friends this coming weekend…I’m sure he’ll be back soon to share more about that!
Friday: We farewelled mainland Europe and after a four hour cruise from Dieppe to Newhaven were soon pulling up at the campground in Brighton, now very familiar being our third visit in Truffy.
My sister Helen soon arrived with our niece and nephew for a visit, and presents were exchanged – a birthday gift for Elliot and a little something from Slovenia for Isabel. Our next stop was one of the many fish and chip shops along Brighton seafront, where a feast was purchased and taken to the Hilton Hotel. There we joined Mark’s daughter Hayley and her children Luke and James who’d travelled down to join us for the weekend. We munched on our goodies before helping put the kids to bed for the night.
Mark and I strolled the 4km back to camp along the seafront, welcoming the chance to walk off the fish and chips and stretch our legs after a big day of travelling. We’ve gone back an hour on our journey across the English Channel too, and are feeling the jet lag!
Saturday morning we were off back to catch up with the family in Brighton.
Mark joined Hayley, Luke and James on an open top bus tour, then I met them at Brighton Pier, soon to be joined by Helen, her fiancé Stu, and their kids. Officially I think we worked out these are step-second-cousins, but we decided to just call them cousins. They all got along just fine given it’s their first visit. We hope it isn’t the last.
We had a lovely morning with them, and in the afternoon Mr A and I both had hair cuts to make ourselves more presentable!
All this family action has not only been to welcome us back to old Blighty, but also to help celebrate Mr A’s birthday. We concluded our Saturday with a celebratory delicious curry and some fine wine with Helen and Stu.
Sunday morning dawned clear and crisp, and Mr A was soon back on another open top bus with Hayley and the kids doing another tour of Brighton. I joined them later for a spot of lunch on the beach.
It was great seeing the boys enjoying their time on the seafront. Having grown up near the beach just along the coast, I was able to share all the games and adventures Helen and I had enjoyed in our childhood, and soon had Luke and James hunting for sea glass amongst the pebbles.
Before long it was time for us all to catch the train up to London. Hayley, James and Luke were heading home to Milton Keynes, while Mr A and I had booked a hotel for the night and were meeting Zoe, Mark’s oldest daughter for a birthday eve dinner in Chinatown. We ate a delicious Vietnamese meal at VietFood, coupled with a bottle of French red. It was great to spend some time with Zoe minus children, lovely as they are.
It always amazes me how the streets of London are never quiet, even on a Sunday night. Especially around Leicester Square there were street artists, break dancers, buskers and many visitors, all vibrant and exciting. By the time we farewelled Zoe, however, we were exhausted and ready to go back to the hotel and crash.
Monday morning was Mr A’s birthday officially, and we were at the location of his chosen birthday gift bright and early. He’d chosen a Tudor watch – the sister company of Rolex. He’d been wanting a watch since his 60th birthday but it has taken until now to select the right one. The chosen option looks fabulous and makes for a very happy Mr A.
There followed a little browsing around the shops before meeting up with ‘best man’ Martin for a spot of lunch…
Mark and I have not had cold weather for around four years, so do not own any suitable clothing for the dropping temperatures. We decided that wearing all our clothes at once was getting a little tiring and that we ought to invest in warmer coats. The streets around Carnaby Street helped us out there.
After a successful afternoon’s shopping, we travelled back to Brighton, bidding farewell to Helen, Stu and the kids on our way back to Truffy.
Location: Bayeux and Longues-sur-mer, Normandy, France
Growing up in Hastings, in the south-east of the UK, it was hard to avoid mentions of the battle. In fact I have to say that all my life , when asked where I grew up, I tend to answer ‘Hastings, as in the battle-of, 1066’. It seems there are few people in the world who havent heard of the famous arrow-in-the-eye end of King Harold and the subsequent taking of the throne by King William.
During the 1980s, the mascot of Hastings was even ‘Harold the Hamster’, a cute furry character in Saxon clothing…I wonder what happened to him. Google seems to have no answers on that count…
The Bayeux Tapestry was all but a mythical item, we knew it existed, way across the waters in France, but were unlikely to see it. Instead we had the Hastings Embroidery, commissioned in 1966 to commemorate 900 years since the battle, and depicting scenes throughout British history since 1066. I remember seeing that in the town hall, wondering at the hours of work involved and the stories it involved. But it wasn’t the tapestry.
So today was the day. We drove to the little town of Bayeux, half way up the Normandy coast, inland from where the D-Day landings took place during WWII. We wound our way through the town’s old cobbled streets, dominated by the huge cathedral (consecrated in 1077, eleven years after the battle), where the tapestry was shown for two weeks every year for several centuries.
Today the nearly thousand year old tapestry is stored in a museum, carefully preserved under special lighting and atmospheric conditions. No photography is allowed, but to give you a feel there are some reproduced tapestries for sale in the gift shop.
So, according to the French, the story goes like this…
There once was an Anglo-Saxon king of England called Edward the Confessor. He had no children and was reaching his last days and so had to choose a successor as king. He decided that his distant Norman cousin, William should be the next king of England, and so his brother-in-law Harold was sent over to France to give William the good news.
Once Harold got back to England and King Edward died, Harold decided that he should in fact be king, and announced it, supported by the noblemen. He was crowned and enjoyed a few peaceful months on the throne.
Meanwhile, William was a bit miffed about this and got his people building and preparing boats, horses and supplies to take across the channel to contest the throne.
By October they were ready and headed off across the English Channel, landing on Pevensey beach. They did a little pillaging of the peasants there and enjoyed a good feast in preparation for a fight. English spies ran to Harold and told him William had arrived, and so he got his armies ready.
There was a bloody and violent battle, with massive losses on both sides, but on 14 October 1066 King Harold was slain. According to the tapestry this was from an arrow which fell from above (perhaps a reference to the hand of God) and into his eye, but other records suggest his death was by sword rather than arrow. Two months later, on Christmas Day, WIlliam the Comquerer was crowned king of England.
Not in the tapestry, but incidentally King William ruled for 21 years until his death aged 59, falling off a horse. His third son William (the second) then took the throne.
So basically the tapestry was publicity to spread the word to the peasants in Normandy that England was theirs for the taking and depicting how powerful the Normans are. Most of the peasants couldn’t read or write, so pictures needed to tell a thousand words, and indeed they did. We can only assume there is some ‘fake’ news in the tapestry to make it a good story…after all, history is in the hands of the teller.
A quick look into the cathedral on the way back to Truffy and we were on our way to camp for the night, just a short drive away.
We pulled up on the clifftop at Longues-sur-mer along with one or two other campers, enjoying the fresh sea breezes and amazing views along the coast.
This coast, while beautiful and peaceful today experienced much violence in the Second World War, when the area was occupied by Nazi Germany. There remains much evidence around, with huge gun emplacements just behind where we camped and remains of the Atlantic Wall, built as a defence against the Allied Forces.
We did a lovely 8km evening walk before settling down for the night.
Location: Dinan, Léhon and Saint-Malo, Brittany, France
We realised we had very little time to explore Brittany and so decided to speed past a good chunk of the region, heading north towards the town of Dinan.
Dinan was created as a strategic town by combining three villages in the 1100s and much of the city from the past five or six hundred years still remains. The old fortified wall is still intact, stretching for 3km around the city and there are several half timbered houses remaining, carefully protected. Unlike Concarneau’s old town, Dinan is still a living city, with more than just provisions for tourists. There are several art studios around, as well as jewellers, sculptors and other crafts.
We parked up in a free motorhome camping area in the nearby village of Léhon, and strolled up to the city. It was fairly peaceful on Saturday lunchtime, with none of the crowds of Concarneau. Crepes (savoury pancakes) are a regional favourite with several restaurants around the town offering them for lunch…all heavily filled with dairy products, not suitable for me.
We decided to stop at a burger joint for lunch, seemingly the only place to offer food I could eat. They also did an interesting French menu. Mr A bravely decided to go for the plât du jour, which the waitress described as ‘like sausage and chips’. It sounded harmless enough, but once Mr A had cut through the ‘sausage’ I could tell it was anything but! He struggled through a single bite, and offered it to me to smell. Utterly disgusting was the answer. We were soon enlightened by a French couple beside us – Mr A was in fact eating (or not eating) Andoilette – pigs intestines and colon. His face was so horrified the waitress took it away and served him up a chicken burger like mine for no extra charge!
We explored the cobbled streets of the town, enjoying the peace and quiet, and incredible views from the city walls, looking down over La Rance River.
The following morning we were in no hurry to rush off, and the sun was shining again after a showery evening, so we got out the bikes and went for a ride. It was Sunday morning and in France this means family day. Most of the shops are closed too, so people head to the countryside for some fresh air.
We found a shared cycle-walking path alongside the Rance River which started just a couple of minutes from where we were parked up. In no time at all we were riding through beautiful scenery calling out ‘bonjour’ to other cyclists, walkers and joggers as we headed towards Dinan marina and beyond. There is something so lovely about connecting with another human with not much more than just a smile and bidding one another ‘good day’ transcending all differences. This is something that is really missing in towns and cities when often people don’t even look at each other, and frequently are more focused on their phones than what is going on around them. I think people would be shocked in London or Sydney if I went around saying ‘good day’ to strangers!
We rode along through the port of Dinan, past people enjoying their crepes and coffees, yachts moored up for a day of exploring.
We rode as far as possible along the river until the path petered out by a railway bridge. Down here it seemed time had stood still for decades, with old fishing huts teetering on rotting planks and poles that nobody dare cross onto or repair. They look like strange sculptures hanging over the water.
We rode back to the village of Léhon following a path on the other side of the river. Léhon itself is well worth a visit, with its 12th century abbey and very pretty cottages.
We even found an interestingly named restaurant – La Marmite de l’Abbaye…no Marmite on the menu though, sadly!
(Incidentally ‘marmite’ means cooking pot in French, not referring to the salty brewers yeast you spread on toast!)…
After a light lunch back at Truffy, we jumped back on the road, heading towards the coast and the town of Saint-Malo.
Saint-Malo sits on a strategically important location, with a settlement having been there since Roman times (around 1 BCE). After being the home of Saxons and people escaping troubles in England, it was inhabited by monks in the 6th century and became known as Saint-Malo.
During the Middle Ages the walled city became a stronghold for pirates, known as privateers (officially employed by the king of France). It became a very wealthy city from all the loot captured from around the world, and from (mostly English) ships which were forced to pay a ‘tribute’ for passing up the English Channel in safety.
Despite its history, Saint-Malo looks fairly modern today. This is due to the post World War II rebuilding that took place in the 1950s and 60s, using original stone but more modern techniques. It is also a city with money – attracting more than 7.6 million visitors per year with an average of 78,000 visitors a day.
The city was certainly bustling on this Sunday afternoon, with the cobbled pedestrianised roadways full of boutiques, jewellers and restaurants. There was even a boulangerie open for business. Mr A popped in to purchase a Kouign-amann, a sugary, buttery layered pasty cake, native to Brittany. He approved, but tells me the weight of it suggests it had quite a few buttery calories!
We avoided the shops and explored the quieter backstreets, finding our way to the city walls. From there we could see for miles across the sandy beaches, past the fort and on the horizon the islands of Jersey, Guernesey and on to the south west of England…okay, so England was in our imaginations only, but it’s only a ferry ride away from Saint-Malo (just under 9 hours to Portsmouth and about £180 one way with a car and two passengers, in case you’re wondering!).
We had a bit more of an explore and I ducked into the cathedral for a quick look. Built in 1146 on the site of an old church from the 6th century, it too has been restored in the past 50 years after WWII bombing damage. The late afternoon sunlight shone in through the stained glass windows and gave a magical light, showering the walls with rainbows. It was a fine conclusion to our visit as we farewelled Saint-Malo and returned to Truffy to find camp for the night.
Having dipped our toe into 7,000 year old history it was time to return to the mere 900 year old historical towns that are more accessible in these parts. Our first stop was Concarneau, a fishing town on the coast. Tuna and sardines are the main business here, and it is France’s third most important fishing port, along with tourism, of course. To some extent it reminded me of my hometown of Hastings in the UK, the smell of fish, salty air and seaweed coupled with the sweetness of ice creams.
We arrived as the Friday morning market was closing up. We were sad to have missed it – it looked to have been huge and pretty good. We managed to buy a couple of things from stall holders before they finished completely and then crossed the bridge into town.
Concarneau is very pretty, particularly when the sun is shining, and the old town almost entirely dedicated to tourism. It has been a while since we have seen rows of souvenirs for sale, gift boxed tuna and sardines, butter biscuits and toffee from Brittany, blue and white painted pottery (probably mass produced in China). In between these shops there were a few nice stores selling more authentic produce, and strangely an amazing smelling spice and tea store. We also found the crowds of people who have been missing from our past few weeks…well, they felt like crowds to us, but apparently French schools go back on Monday so visitor numbers are actually down on the past few weeks!
It wasn’t too hard to escape the crowds, however, stepping a few metres off the main street and up onto the walls. These have been well preserved, and offer fabulous views around the working harbour. Outside of the old city, it feels like an authentic working town. There’s a long distance coastal walk that starts here too, for those with more time.
We had a walk around town, made a few purchases as gifts for friends back in the UK (look out for your white and blue china, folks – ha ha!) before heading off .
We selected another France Passion site for the night, this time just half an hour inland from Concarneau on a peaceful farm. We were greeted by three teenagers in their halting English, keen to show us where to park and give us a tasting of their grandparents’ cider home brew.
Of course we purchased a couple of bottles, it would be rude not to!
Location: Coulon, Parc regional du Marais Poitevin, and Borgneuf-en-Retz, France
We farewelled the eastern Loire Valley and continued on our way west, heading towards Brittany. We visited the Loire region extensively three years ago, and the memories of the beautiful chateaus and cycleways are still fresh in our memories – we don’t feel the need to renew them quite yet with so many places we have not seen.
After a brief overnight stop to tackle our washing, on Tuesday we arrived in the small town of Coulon, in the Marais Poitevin regional park. The regional park has quite a unique look and feel to it.
Looking at Google Maps you can see a web of waterways criss-crossing the countryside. The regional park stretches across 112,000 hectares all the way down to the coast, but we were here to explore the section around Coulon which comprises of two main areas – the dry marsh (which is used for agriculture) and the wet marsh (known as the ‘Green Venice’) which floods during winter. The park is important for migratory birds and rare wildlife such as the European otter and is France’s second largest wetland.
Five hundred years’ of work has gone into creating and managing this area, with the efforts of monks from five abbeys across the region responsible for the initial creating of the waterways in order to create viable land for farming and agriculture.
After setting up in the municipal campground, we jumped on our bikes for an explore. Coulon clearly does see itself as a Green Venice, with barques (a style of punting) and rowboats lining the waterways, but the tourist numbers on this Tuesday afternoon were not quite filling the capacity.
There is a good network of cycleways around the area, with well marked trails on boardwalks over the marshes and cycle paths off road and along quiet lanes into local villages. We did a short 20km circuit before returning for the night.
The following morning we decided it would be the ideal opportunity to inflate our pack rafts and head out for an explore by water. We launched from just in front of our campsite onto La Sevre Niortaise, the main waterway going through Coulon. But instead of heading into the throng of rowboats and tourists we turned right, and went into the quieter waters upstream, hoping to find some unsuspecting wildlife.
We found an opening in the river bank and set off down it, hoping we would find our way out of the maze at some point, but excited to see what was beyond.
And what a scene awaited us. The waterways are lined with poplars and ash trees, the still waters creating incredible reflections. Moreover, it was only about ten minutes into our paddle that we saw our first otter, swimming along the water’s edge and climbing out to retreat to safety. Our strategy had paid off!
After this magical experience of seeing a rare otter in the wild, we chalked it up as luck, until Mr A cried out again ‘look, is that a cat running along through that field?’. The answer was ‘no’! It was actually another otter bounding along through the grass. Are these things rare or what?
We saw our third and final otter not long after, swimming across the channel in front of us, head held high. It seems we were very fortunate. We excitedly told a local boat guide what we had seen, and he said he very rarely has seen one, let alone three. I guess otters are not used to the stealth like approach of us on a pack raft compared to the chattering of tourists on rowboats or barques.
Over a late lunch we debated whether to stay another night or move on, and settled on the latter. More adventures await us! We hit the road and continued on our journey west, aiming for Brittany, the region of France closest to the south west of England. After our 8km paddle we had worked up a thirst, and thought a wine tasting and stay on a vineyard as part of our France Passion membership might be in order.
It was around 5pm that we pulled up at Martine and Gérard Padiou’s western Loire Valley vineyard ‘Domaine des Priés’. We entered the cellar, as is typical in France, situated below the main house.
Martine welcomed us and offered a degustation from the wide range of wines grown and produced on their property, including the grape typical of the Loire Valley region, grolleau. The name grolleau is derived from the French word for crow, and is said to describe the deep black hue of the grapes.
We purchased a couple of bottles of wine, both very reasonable (the Grolleau Gris at €3.80 and the Abouriou Grolleau at €3.40) and headed off to the vineyard for the night.
There we found ourselves a level parking spot between the rows of grapes and settled down for the night to listen to owls hooting and hunting among the vines.
Location: Morvan Regional Natural Park, Ousoux-en-Morvan, Bourgogne, France
Thursday: When we saw a green patch on the map not far from us we couldn’t resist heading there to visit to hopefully do some hiking. We succeeded in our mission… In fact over the last two days we have walked more than 32 kilometres (or 20 miles in old measurements)….and our legs are feeling it too! These have not been flat kilometres either – we are staying on top of a hill, which means around half a kilometre of ascent and descent each day too!
Morvan Regional Natural Park (RNP) is a designated rural area with a strong identity derived from a rich natural and cultural heritage. The goal of an RNP is to encourage sustainability in development while preserving the natural and cultural environment. It’s a large area, so we picked a random campsite with good reviews and drove on over. It turned out that the village we picked, Ouroux-en-Morvan, is the official centre of the Eurozone (the 19 countries adopting the Euro as legal tender)…not that we saw much evidence of that.
We arrived around lunchtime, and were not long set up when we headed out for a hike. Given my broken toe, we have avoided hiking for the past month and a half , but the pain has now dulled to feeling just like a bruise… we’re not used to hiking!
The scenery is very rural, rolling hills, fields of cattle, corn and hay, forestry evident everywhere. The walking paths are mostly old farm tracks, been around for so many centuries they are even marked on Google Maps.
We hiked over to the Chapel of Banquets, a small church built in the mid 1800s on the grounds of a Château. It had commanding views over the countryside and was a great spot to rest and have a cup of tea.
The circuit walk then proceeded to follow trails through beautiful woodland, across streams and passing via tiny sleepy villages.
We concluded our walk at our campground after 15km (9 miles), where we ordered two plates of fish and chips, enjoyed with a bottle of wine purchased at a cave in our nearby village of Ousoux-en-Morvan. Yes…we combined hiking with wine tasting, not something we do every day!
Friday: After that successful walk, we decided to repeat our efforts the following day. This time the circuit took us down to a reservoir and back up – a 17km hike. The day was even warmer, topping out at 31°C, so the final kilometres uphill were pretty exhausting.
After showers and lots of rehydrating we still managed to go out to dinner in our local village. In the main, Ouroux-en-Morvan looks fairly run down and abandoned, weeds in the gutter and a general feeling of neglect. It was pretty quiet on our visit despite being peak holiday season in Europe, with plenty of room on our campsite for spontaneous visitors. We can imagine it would be fairly bleak during the winter months. That said, our dinner at Le Lion d’Or was delicious, and their excellent reviews well deserved.
We had four courses for €25 (AU$41/£23) plus a carafe of house red (which was really good). Despite dairy being an issue for me, I was able to eat something from every course (other than the local cheeses – this is cow country), including a marvellous poached pear and home made blueberry sorbet. A fabulous end to our visit in the region.