Sunday, 28 September 2014

Whitewebbs House to Leila's Shop

"You should go to Whitewebbs," said the nice man at one of the offices I work in. "It's a pub now – they have an all-you-can eat lunch on Sundays." Not sure what this says about his opinion on my appetite(!), but I'm always up for an old house, so off we went last weekend to Enfield to take a look.

Surrounded by well-visited woods (think dog walkers, young families and running clubs) on one side and a golf club on the other, all on what must have been the estate's once-upon-a-time grounds, Whitewebbs House is now a Toby Carvery pub ( I can't offer an opinion on the food or service, since all I did was wander in and take a look at the pretty downstairs rooms, which still give a hint of what it might have been like to live here back in the day (fyi, the mansion was built in 1791 and, as far as I can find out, has no historical significance beyond being a rich person's mansion back in the day, though a nearby house with the same name, which was demolished before this one was built, had 'an association' with the Gunpowder Plot [think Guy Fawkes], but that's really not a lot to do with this!). Still, it's a terribly pretty building and, if you enter by Clay Hill and park in the running club's car park (they didn't seem to mind when we did this), you get to see the matching pretty little lodge, now painted pink, that must once have guarded the entrance to the house.

It's not far from London – maybe a 20-30 minute drive if you're already on the north side – and makes a nice, if quite populated walk – you're not going to stumble over any wildlife here, aside from the ducks in the pond or an irate golfer who's missed his shot.

The best place these days, if you want to find 'authentic' oldie worldie stuff, is probably East London. Just off Shoreditch High Street, on Calvert Avenue, E2, nearly at Arnold Circus – which is a wonderful architectural/city-planning bit of space to sit in and gawp at what is arguably the world's first social housing development – is Leila's Shop (

It's so pretty, you just want to walk around and look at the displays. And, if you like what you see and feel hungry, you can pop next door and eat some of it in Leila's Café (open 10-6, or 10-5 on Sundays).

My wandering companion bought walnuts and a little jar. Not walnuts in a little jar, walnuts and a little, empty jar. To put tea in, she said. It's that kind of shop.

I'm getting fast and loose here with the photos I took, but you get the general idea: food out with it's brothers and sisters, not wrapped up in loads of packaging; the whole looking like a child's version of what a shop should look like. Although it was an idealised version of what we imagine British shops once were, it struck me as very French: the essence being that things should be lovely for the sake of being lovely and enjoyed. At any event, if you're in the area, definitely worth stopping in, if only to take a look. Though you couldn't go wrong buying a couple of those artichokes. We heard they were making soup out of them next door, but – alas – had to go back to work.

And now to thoughts... What a week! Crying tired, my mother used to call it, and she wasn't wrong. Working 'til 6pm in one office, then battling against the commuters of Liverpool Street into central London for an evening shift in another office, where we've been working on a magazine redesign. Yes, it looks amazing. Yes, of course it's going to be a huge success. But, after working weekends as well as evenings, last night saw me unfit for anything. Enough. Done. Kaput. I thought, as you got older, you were meant to work less? Hey ho, it should hopefully settle down this week and then, next weekend? Off to Dunwich, in Suffolk, on England's amazing east coast. Watch this space...

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The American Cemetery at Colville and D-Day Landing beaches, Normandy, France

We started at Sword Beach, near Ouistreham, by way of Pegasus Bridge on our way from Caen, on a whistle-stop tour of the D-Day Landing sites. But of course, you can't really do that. That is, you can drive by and see a gun emplacement here (Juno Beach), a bunker there (Sword), tanks just about everywhere along the route, which is clearly signposted from Ouistreham, but it doesn't leave enough time to visit the museums, which is a shame, as athe films in particular, that attempt to recreate the drama of Operation Overlord, look worth a watch.

What you can get, though, is a bucket full of moving moments. Perhaps the most touching of all was on a wreath fashioned out of plastic red poppies, left on a tank by a memorial inland, with a handwritten note in English that read:

You gave up all your tomorrows and for that we are forever grateful

Making it more touching still, the woman who signed it shared the last name of the man it was left for. Wife? Mother? Sister? Granddaughter?

There were also those along the way clearly making hay, as it were (#giftshops).

And there were some extraordinary sights, like the remaining floating pieces of the 'temporary' harbour made for the Allied Forces at Arromanches. So French that they are there still, where anyone might swim out to them. I said this to a French man I know, this way that in France you can take a walk in woods and discover rusting train carriages left over from WWI even and signs warning you not to step off the path in case of unexploded mines.

"Well, the war took place there," was his explanation, missing the point that, in the USA or the UK, chances are good all traces and relics would have been swept away and put in nice, safe buildings for the public to pay to see – not left scattered about where anyone might – heaven forfend – hurt themselves on them.

I hope I'm making it clear that I prefer the French attitude: we are our own guardians and don't need officials to clean up the world in this way for us.

As we traveled along the coast, there was an unspoken knowing: that the American Cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer, above Omaha Beach, would be the culmination of our day.

Of course, it's quite a sight and you would have to be made of stone not to experience the eyes filling, chest tightening, lump-in-throat sensations. In fact, testament to the fact that most people simple can't trust themselves to speak is how absolutely pin quiet it is around the first memorial you come to, even though there are hordes of people of many nationalities looking, reading, digesting. Though a sign at the entrance asks for respect, nowhere does it request silence, yet that is what there is.

Two American flags were flying high in the pure blue sky. Over and down the bluff was an extraordinarily pleasing contrast of dark blue sea, white sand, green grass and trees, and clear blue sky with a few light clouds. The air was a comfortable warm that didn't require a sweater but wasn't strong enough to raise a sweat. In short, it was beautiful. How was it possible that such a peaceful, pretty spot could have seen so many lives literally ripped apart?

We may have all seen the lines of simple, plain crosses stretching away, but when you stop to read the names, place of birth and date of death on them, it is easy to see the individuals from so little information. So many seemed to come from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, at least in the section we explored, though Ohio, New York, Rhode Island were also represented, as were a pair of brothers.

It is also important, I think, to note that not all the markers are crosses. There are Stars of David and, I found myself wondering, what about those who might not have classified themselves as Christians or Jews? But then, a cross has, I think, possibly jumped the gap and can represent simply that the body of a soul lies beneath.

In fact, it was those with the least information that were the most moving of all, reading only: A comrade in arms, known but to God

Ultimately, though, this was not a depressing visit. It's thanks to these men – and thousands of others like them – that we in the West enjoy the lives we do. I don't condone war, but like the woman who left the wreath, I will be forever grateful these men gave up all their tomorrows.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Brittany Ferries, Eurocamp & Mont St Michel

Left Poole Harbour on a murky morning via a Brittany Ferry bound for Cherbourg, Travelling Companion and I feeling extremely tired from our 4am wake up. Tip: yes, you really will need 3 hours to drive there from London. However, once on board, things brightened up considerably: the sun came out and, being September, the hordes were absent but, best of all, we had a charming cabin to rest in during the 4-hour crossing to Cherbourg.

The beds were comfy, it came with a private bathroom that had a toilet, sink and shower, and was blissfully quiet. It meant that we could actually sleep and wake up in time for a cup of tea before disembarking, feeling fresh and lively for the rest of the driving. Thank you, Brittany Ferries!

We're staying as guests of Eurocamp in the Domaine des Ormes resort near Dol de Bretagne and, having stayed in many campsites, I can report that I've never stayed in one quite as well equipped as this. On the massive site is a full-blown chateau, 18-hole golf course, hotel, various swimming pools, lakes, bars, restaurants, shop, horse riding, playground and high-wire course in the woods, which we discovered when we went for a walk.

Tip: bring insect repellent. We've never encountered mosquitos the way we have here either, and these woods are where they congregate.

This is also where the high-wire course and tree houses are. Being end of season, it was so quiet it was almost eerie in here.

After walking through the tiny town of St Leonards, which was having a Sunday beer-frites-and-music fest, we carried on, meandering down empty French lanes past a jolly hay family, cows (though a particularly beefy-looking one with horns could have fooled us), apple trees heaving with fruit, and fields and fields of corn – though we have seen none in the shops. Very tempting to do a bit of scrumping (that's Brit-speak for taking uninvited), but restrained myself.

Think we ended up walking something like 9 miles, but it was so pretty it just kept tempting us on. Big collapse at the end of it though – so much for our 'do-nothing' day after all the traveling!

You can't come to northern Brittany and not go to Mont St-Michel. It's just a given and, especially as TC had never been, we – and everyone else in northern Brittany – went.

It is an extraordinary sight, looking as if it's floating in the distance. These days too, the French have put a lot of effort into reinstating the original look after years of the surrounding area silting up due to a poorly thought-out dam being put in. Now, they are out-greening themselves, having dismantled the old dam and reused the parts (love this way of upcycling) wherever possible, and put in a new sluice that helps to sift the silt out before it gets to the 'mont'. So, with every tide, the  sea water is moving more silt away and the sluice is preventing more from arriving, so it will become an island once again. Very cool.

Also nice is the new, environmentally sympathetic walkway out there. You can also take the free shuttle bus or, even, a horse and carriage.

Tip number three has to be if you don't like crowds, go as high up as fast as you can. There are literally traffic jams of people inside the ramparts and a very long queue to get into the Abbey, which costs €9 per adult.

We skipped it and headed round the back and onto the slippery clay-like silt. The vast plain of it stretches as far as you can see to the horizon out to sea – you can see those reclaimers back at the sluice have their work cut out – and people and horses were walking about, some heading for the little island further away.

We spent a happy half-hour slip-sliding through the squiggly stuff, before making our way back to the car. Better than an old cathedral any old day.