A Provençal Summer

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I’ve always wanted to go to Provence; to smell the lavender, to see the swaying fields of sunflowers, to walk in the shaded, cobbled lanes of medieval villages, to taste sun warmed tomatoes fresh from the market stall, to feel the glorious heat of a southern summer on my skin. Everything I’ve ever read about Provence has promised a land of dreams to a sun-starved, concrete-circled Londoner, and the thought of drinking wine in a shady courtyard, vines casting a greenish, dappled hue across the sun-bleached cobblestones, sustained me all through the grey and chilly July I had to endure before I boarded the Eurostar to Avignon. From last summer, Londoners can now catch a direct train to the sun-soaked south of France – hop on at St Pancras, and just seven hours later, after a blissful ride through the heart of France, where tiny villages appear beneath the folds of green hills, and the wheat fields shimmer as far as the horizon, you can get off the train in the blazing heat of Avignon or Marseille, with none of the stress of dealing with an airport. I will definitely be availing myself of this opportunity every summer for the rest of time, because Provence exceeded every single one of my expectations. It is a land of pure bliss.

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On arriving in Avignon, we picked up our hire car and made straight for the small village where we had hired a house for our week’s stay. We found it nestled in one of the tiny cobbled streets that meandered away from the main square; a thick walled medieval house with the vine-covered courtyard of my dreams. Our host explained that there was plenty to do in the village; there was a castle, and a windmill, and all the shops we could need were in the main square or opposite the church. We promptly set off for a walk to explore, and after seeing the Café du Commerce, boules pitch, tabac, boulangerie, mairie and church, I was inwardly bursting with joy at actually finding myself in the village from Chocolat. Every stereotype about rural France was alive and well in Boulbon, and as we wandered down the cream-coloured streets that glimmered brightly in the afternoon sun, I felt that time had truly stood still here for centuries, and nothing bad could ever possibly happen in such a peaceful place.

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We used our marvellous little village as a base for exploring the many amazing sights in the surrounding area. Driving along dusty roads bordered by fields of sunflowers, we visited the medieval market town of Tarascon; the wonderful former Papal city of Avignon, with its glorious medieval palace, stately shopping streets and glorious gardens; the Roman stronghold of Arles, also home to Van Gogh, where we saw an excellently preserved ampitheatre and bath house, and enjoyed some delicious local produce; the awe-inspiring Roman aqueduct, Pont du Gare, where I cooled off by swimming in the river beneath its arches, and the incredible abandoned Roman city of Glanum, which gives Pompeii a run for its money. Everywhere we went, we saw beauty and history, all set against the backdrop of a breathtakingly blue sky. I loved every moment, and I have never felt so relaxed in my life. I’m already counting down the days until next summer!

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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I’m not normally one for buying new books, as regular readers no doubt know, but when I saw the beautiful William Morris inspired cover of The Essex Serpent on the shelf in Foyles, I knew this was going to be something right up my street. A quick read of the blurb confirmed my first impression: a Victorian setting, featuring amateur naturalists, a mysterious legend, troubled vicars and bleak coastal countryside? It was as if Sarah Perry had looked into my soul and written a novel just for me! I skipped off to the till and happily parted with my money, filled with delight at the prospect of a neo-Victorian gem to lose myself in.

Stretched out underneath the almost mediterranean levels of sun in Hyde Park last week, I immersed myself in Perry’s beautiful prose, and almost felt I was in the bleached, barren village of Aldwinter, Essex, where much of the novel’s action takes place. Cora Seaborne, an intelligent, unconventional young widow, moves there after her controlling husband’s death, desperate to escape the house in London that she associates with him. After reading about a section of the coastline where a cache of dinosaur fossils has been found, Cora decides that Essex will be the perfect place to reinvent herself and indulge in her fossil collecting hobby. Shortly after her arrival in Colchester, a friend introduces her to the vicar of nearby Aldwinter, William Ransome, and his beautiful wife Stella, and it is the meeting of Cora and William that will prove to be the driving force of the novel. For William is not the staid and dour clergyman Cora expects, and neither is Cora the fastidious, melancholy widow in black bombazine he anticipates. Despite neither sharing in the other’s beliefs, and viewing the world from completely opposing angles, they share a deep and inexplicable intellectual and emotional understanding that draws them irresistibly to one another. Both are in need of something, both searching for meaning and understanding outside of themselves; William is trying to defeat the rumours of the mythical ‘Essex Serpent’, who is driving his parishioners away from God and towards superstition, and Cora is trying to carve out a sense of self after spending so many years in the shadow of another. However, as the hold of the serpent asserts itself over the bleak, isolated village of Aldwinter, leaving tragedy in its wake, Cora and William find themselves struggling to make sense of their relationship, and to reconcile their views of the shifting world around them.

There are also many other characters and many other subplots, and much that is interesting and thought provoking, and all written in a wonderful, lyrical and highly evocative prose that I very much enjoyed. However, the issue that I have with most modern fiction is the trend to have several plots happening at once, with a wide cast of characters doing things that are entirely unnecessary to the main story and are merely there for some sort of metaphorical significance. Such is the case with The Essex Serpent. What could have been a marvellously thought provoking novel about the conflict between faith, science, reason and doubt in the nineteenth century became a series of diluted romances between people who didn’t really seem to interact with or be necessary to one another at all, and the actual story of the serpent did get rather lost somewhere along the way. The characters felt very much like they were there merely as metaphorical representatives of societal change and scientific progress, and I never felt like I had really got to know them on anything more than a superficial level. I closed the pages feeling that a wonderful central idea, which offered such opportunity, had not been used to its best advantage, and that I had been introduced to lots of characters and stories that had no real conclusion or coherence. Even though it was an entertaining read, it could have been something really brilliant with a little more focus, and I was disappointed that it fell short of what I had been hoping for. I was also disappointed at the fact that no neo-Victorian writer seems to be able to resist the lure of the dreaded consumption doing away with one of their characters. I don’t want to read about any more blood spattered handkerchiefs! Surely there must be some other way of killing nineteenth century people off?!

In short, this is a beautifully written book, with some startlingly gorgeous descriptions of nature, and I think Sarah Perry is a marvellous writer with a wonderful imagination. If you don’t mind the lack of coherence, it is definitely worth reading for the writing and for the historical setting alone. There is much within to delight and fascinate, though it did leave me ultimately rather cold.

Countryside Pursuits

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Last week I took a French friend back to Kent to see the joys of the garden of England. I love playing tour guide, and put together an action packed schedule of activities that took in the glories of my home county, along with a few neighbouring attractions. At this time of year, rural Kent is at its best; the country lanes and hedgerows are brimming with Queen Anne’s lace, there are stalls selling cherries and strawberries on the side of every road, the cottage gardens are overflowing with gorgeous, colourful flowers, and there is a haze of green everywhere you look. It doesn’t have the drama of the Yorkshire Dales or the Lake District, but it has its own quiet beauty of undulating green hills, chalky escarpments, and rolling fields of yellow rapeseed, golden wheat and purple lavender. If you go high enough, you can even see the glitter of the London skyline, hazy on the horizon. Nestled in amidst all of this nature are dozens of interesting places to visit, from quaint villages to medieval castles, and Roman villas to Victorian mansions. In fact, there is so much to do that we couldn’t quite fit everything in!

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Our first port of call on arrival was Knole, childhood home of Vita Sackville-West and famous for being the inspiration for her novel The Edwardians, as well as Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando. It’s a seriously impressive stately home that has existed since the Tudor period, and is situated within one of England’s last remaining deer parks. I’ve been many times before, but this time I was delighted to find that the National Trust have been doing a huge amount of restoration which has enabled new parts of the house to be opened to the public. We were able to go into one of the towers, and see the rooms of Vita Sackville-West’s cousin Edward, who was a very active figure on the cultural scene in the 20s and 30s and wrote a number of now forgotten books. You can also climb to the very top of the tower, from which there are magnificent views of Knole’s rooftop, grounds and the surrounding countryside. Seeing those views was worth the visit alone!

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The following day we went to Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn, and heavily restored by Lord Astor in the Edwardian period. It’s a gorgeous building, surrounded by a waterlily filled moat and a beautiful series of gardens that Lord Astor designed to complement the setting, including a beautiful Italian garden that’s filled with his collection of Italian statuary. The gardens are the main attraction, but inside the castle there’s plenty to see, especially if you’re interested in Tudor history. The tragic story of Anne Boleyn is told through some of her personal belongings, and it’s also very impressive to see the skilful restoration programme carried out by Lord Astor, which made what was a crumbling castle into a comfortable home. The church next door to the castle is worth popping into on your way out, as you can see the Boleyn (or ‘Bullen’) family graves, and do stop at the Henry VIII inn opposite for lunch; the food is delicious.

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Not content with seeing only one house connected with Vita Sackville-West, the next day we went on to Sissinghurst, which is one of the most breathtaking places I have ever been and would definitely be where I would live if I had the chance. Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson transformed the dilapidated remains of an Elizabethan castle and some Victorian farm buildings into a magical garden and beautiful home, where roses and wisteria climb the mellow red brick walls, the scents of hundreds of different colourful varieties of flowers fill the air, and every nook and cranny is crammed with delight. It is a truly magnificent spot, surrounded by beautiful, unspoilt meadows filled with wildflowers. You could wander amidst the flowers for hours, though it does tend to get quite busy, so going early is best. My only wish is that they would open more of the buildings so that it was possible to see how Vita and Harold lived, but their library is open to view, as is Vita’s tower study, and you can climb to the top of the tower and take in the incredible views of the surrounding land and an aerial view of the garden, so there is still plenty to see. Sissinghurst is definitely a must-visit if you’re in the area, and don’t stay and eat in the cafe; the village contains an excellent restaurant, The Milk House, or you can go on to the beautiful neighbouring village of Goudhurst, where there is a lovely pub and an impressive church with a tower you can climb for free.

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Within a short drive of Sissinghurst is Scotney Castle; a very interesting blend of Victorian gothic manor house and ruined medieval castle, nestled amidst more beautiful gardens and gorgeous countryside. I love the house; its last owners only left it to the Trust ten or so years ago, and it was in the same family since it was built, so there is much of the original decoration preserved, which makes for a really interesting insight into changing fashions in interior design. In a hollow at the bottom of the garden are the remains of a medieval castle, half overgrown with nature and half still perfectly useable as a dwelling; it’s a magical sight and slightly surreal to think that this was ruined on purpose by the man who had the new house built in 1837 – it was perfectly habitable until then!

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Our final ports of call before heading back to London were actually in the neighbouring counties of Sussex and Hampshire. I couldn’t resist taking my friend to Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, which I’ve written about before and found just as delightful on this, my third visit, as I have done every other time I’ve been. It’s so wonderful to be able to see the world Austen inhabited and understand the range of people she would have interacted with on a daily basis – it adds so much richness to the reading of her work. It’s a beautiful place and makes me so happy whenever I go, as I can imagine how much pleasure Austen took in living there. On our way back to Kent, we stopped off at the Watts Gallery in Compton, near Guildford. The Victorian giant G F Watts, a painter and sculptor who achieved enormous fame during his lifetime, built a house and artist’s village here with his sculptor wife Mary in the late 19th century, and it has all recently been refurbished and opened as a wonderful series of museums that give a fascinating insight into the life of Watts, his wife and the community of artists who worked with them. There is a vast collection of Watts’ paintings and sculpture, and though he is not so well known nowadays, it is easy to see why his heavily symbolic, often sentimental images spoke so strongly to the Victorian imagination. The highlight for me, however, was the Watts Chapel, situated up a country lane and perched atop a hill. Designed by Mary Watts in a very unique art nouveau style, it is a breathtaking piece of architecture, and the decoration inside the chapel truly is astounding (impossible to photograph – it has to be seen to be believed). In the surrounding graveyard there are some excellent examples of the work of the pottery the Watts’ founded, and you can also see Aldous Huxley’s grave, which was a pleasant surprise! The Watts Gallery deserves to be better known and offers a fantastic and fascinating day out; I highly recommend it.

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So, we had a whirlwind few days, taking in so much historic, cultural and natural beauty. Now I’m back in London, looking out of my window at chimney pots, tower blocks and cranes (view below), I’m missing those green hills and orchards already!

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ps. I’ve joined twitter! You can follow me here.

 

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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I’ve been meaning to read the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard for years, ever since I watched the TV series that aired on the BBC back in 2001. Somehow I never got around to it, but 15 years later, I have finally begun reading, and I can’t believe I waited this long to read something so utterly marvellous. I steamed through the first in the series, The Light Years, and am now on the second, Marking Time; they are completely absorbing and so evocative of their period that I can’t put them down, and the characters are alive in my head all day, waiting for me to rejoin them as soon as I get on the tube home.

Over five books, Elizabeth Jane Howard (who was a fascinating person) tells the story of the Cazalet family; a large, sprawling upper middle class clan who span several generations and all have very different outlooks on life. We are first introduced to the family in the summer of 1938, when they are gathering, as usual, at the Sussex home of the ‘Brig’ and the ‘Duchy’, who are the now elderly parents of four very different children. Hugh, the eldest, was badly injured in the first war, and is sensitive, kind and very much in love with his intelligent and homely wife Sybil. They have two children, and another on the way, and spend most of their time in London, where Hugh works in the family timber company. In a neighbouring house to Hugh and Sybil live Hugh’s brother Edward; strikingly handsome and wonderfully charming, he has a charmed existence. He is married to Villy, a former ballerina, with whom he has three children. Edward, however, has a dangerously roving eye, and Villy, with her exceptional intelligence and artistic talents, is frustrated by the limits of her life. Rupert, the third son, is a failed artist, forced to take a job as a teacher to make ends meet. His much loved first wife died in childbirth, and he and his two children now live with his new wife, Zoe, a decade younger than him and breathtakingly beautiful, though incredibly selfish and resentful of his relationship with his children. Rachel, the only daughter, has remained unmarried and still lives with her parents; completely devoted to her family and indispensable to them all, her life is subsumed by her siblings, their wives and children, though they are completely unaware that she is desperately in love with her female friend Sid.

When together at the country pile of the Brig and the Duchy, the family live an easy, relaxed existence, spending long afternoons lazing around in the gardens, evenings talking and listening to the gramophone, and happy days picnicking at the beach. All their needs are taken care of by the army of servants, and the descriptions of the colossal meals prepared by the indefatigable cook are marvellous. However, fault lines run beneath each of the relationships, and as we flit between the viewpoints of each character, including delightful forays into the minds of the Cazalet children, the reality of their seemingly charmed existence is brought into repeated question. Rupert and Zoe’s marriage seems to be heading for disaster; Villy is desperately bored; Rachel longs for a way to be with Sid; Hugh’s son is terrified of being sent away to school; Rupert’s daughter hates her stepmother. And bigger than all of this is the looming threat of war, which has the potential to destroy everything they hold dear. Amidst the seeming idyll of a long, hot English summer, plenty of storm clouds are brewing. Every member of the family has their own battles to face, and Howard is brilliant at being able to dip into each of their consciousnesses in turn, making every character, no matter how young or seemingly insignificant, come wonderfully to life.

This is exactly the sort of book I love; full of the minutiae of the everyday that is far more engrossing than any adventurous, action packed plot, with characters who are so real you feel you know them as friends, all set amidst a background that is marvellously realised and so evocative of its period. I know I won’t rest until I’ve read my way through all of them; if you’ve never read them, you must. They are pure reading pleasure, and are set to become absolute favourites that I know I’ll go back to time and time again. Especially in these uncertain times (I am another frustrated Remain voter…sigh), a good book like this is a very welcome balm to the troubled soul.

 

Rome

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I am pitifully poorly travelled in Italy; my trip to the gorgeous Amalfi Coast a couple of years ago was my first foray into this beautiful country, and it left me desperate for more. As such, two weeks ago, I boarded a plane to Rome in order to finally see the sights that had impressed upon my imagination the romance of Italy since childhood; the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Vatican, the lavish churches, the narrow winding lanes, the endless, surprising piazzas, the hilltop vistas…I couldn’t wait!

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As the wonderfully named Leonardo rapid train from the airport neared the city, I had my first gasp of amazement as I realised we were passing through the almost two thousand year old Roman walls, around which are clustered the distinctive stone pine trees that so conjure up visions of the Italian countryside for me. On exiting the station, we hopped on a tour bus to enable us to quickly see the main sights and gather our bearings for the days ahead, and every turn along the streets had my eyes growing wide in awe. The beautiful streets lined with ochre buildings that were centuries old, and decorated with gorgeous carvings gave way onto squares with lavish churches, Roman temples, Roman monuments and gushing fountains. Medieval houses nestle amidst Roman ruins; modern day shops and restaurants stand side by side with buildings their thousand year old ancestors would still recognise. History lives in Rome in a way I have never seen it truly live elsewhere; the Romans’ footprints are everywhere, their cultures, traditions, every day habits, still in plain view. In London most evidence of this time has long been buried, but in Rome the colossal, indestructible edifices have been left standing, in varying conditions, a living testament to their belief that their Empire would stand forever.

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I saw so much beauty that I thought I was at risk of developing Stendhal syndrome; there really was too much to take in. I was lucky to be visiting with a friend who not only reads Latin, but is an expert in Ancient Rome, so I was wonderfully well informed as we trotted through the streets of the city. In terms of favourite sights, there are simply too many to mention; of course the Colosseum was utterly amazing, as was St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican, and Trojan’s Column was a real wonder for me too, as I had seen the cast of it in the Cast Courts at the V&A hundreds of times when working there, and always longed to see it in the flesh. The Pantheon is truly incredible when you realise that the very modern looking ceiling and perfectly preserved decorations are all original and 2000 years old, and walking around the Forum was a pure delight. However, many of my truly most memorable moments were the unexpected ones; stumbling through the dark doorway of a church to find a masterpiece of Renaissance painting and sculptures by Michelangelo; wandering through an alleyway and finding a piazza where one side was held up by Roman columns; visiting the Palazzo Barberini after finding it down a side street and discovering the famous Caravaggio painting of Judith and Holofernes in one of its spectacular rooms; walking through a park and finding the gargantuan remains of the biggest bathhouse ever built; watching the sunset over the Rome skyline from the terrace of our hilltop hotel. Rome is a breathtaking, magical place that has to be seen to be believed. I have visited a lot of cities in my time, and it is the most beautiful I have ever seen – even more so than my beloved London, I will admit! If you haven’t been, you must go. And if you have – where should I go next time?

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