Goodness. September went by in a flash, and I didn’t even have the chance to finish showing you the glories of my summer in France!  Though it now seems years ago, I was utterly enchanted by the south of France and all  it has to offer. Provence was like going back in time to a simpler and slower-paced world, where life revolved around lunch and afternoon naps to escape the blistering afternoon sun. I felt I could have stayed forever, but at the same time, I know I would have been bored after about two weeks. However, a couple of hours on the train whisks you to one of France’s largest cities, which benefits from a sunnier climate and a smaller population than Paris, and yet has just as much history and charm. Lyon was definitely a place I felt I could happily live, spending my weekends wandering through the perfectly preserved medieval streets of the old town, riding the funicular railway up to Fourvière to enjoy the breathtaking view, strolling in the glorious Parc de la Tête d’Or, with its free zoo, and eating my way around the many delicious restaurants, famous for their hearty cuisine.


Much like Paris, Lyon has three distinct sections, with the Rhône splitting to form a central peninsula that can only be reached by bridge. On one river bank you can find Vieux Lyon, which is one of the most perfectly preserved medieval city centres in the world, with some fantastic architecture, winding cobbled streets and hundreds of tempting restaurants and shops. From Vieux Lyon you can either climb up or take the funicular railway to the top of Fourvière, one of Lyon’s two hills, which is crowned by the amazing nineteenth century Romanesque cathedral. A short walk from the cathedral are the very well preserved remains of two Roman theatres, and an excellent Roman museum, and the views from the top of Fourvière across the city and its surrounding landscape are remarkable.


On the central island is nineteenth century Lyon, looking much like Paris with its grand Hausmann style apartment buildings. leafy shopping boulevards and spacious squares. Here you can find Lyon’s wonderful Musée des Beaux-Arts, housed in a gorgeous former convent, and the Opéra, Théâtre and Hôtel de Ville. This area gives an excellent sense of what life in nineteenth century France must have been like, and this is the place to be for people watching, fine dining and shopping. You can also have lovely strolls along the river bank, taking in the marvellous views of the city.


The other bank of Lyon is more residential, with streets of modern apartment buildings, the large centre commercial, the main station, and the jewel in Lyon’s crown; the magnificent Victorian public park, botanical gardens and zoo. This is called Parc de la Tête d’Or, so called because there is supposedly a golden head of a statue of Jesus buried within the park grounds somewhere, and it is, unlike most French parks, a true English style landscape, with rolling green lawns bordered by avenues of trees, flower beds, rose garden, a boating lake, gravel paths and greenhouses. What makes it so magical is the free zoo at its heart, one of the first in the world, and I loved the fact that you could spend all day in the park doing all manner of different activities and feel a world away from the bustling city at its edge. It’s a glorious place!


Lyon is a real gem of a city, and somewhere that is definitely worth a visit. It’s accessible directly from London via the Eurostar, and would be a wonderful place to spend a long weekend. Lyon is known for its hearty, cheap cuisine in its ‘Bouchon’ restaurants, and for those who love classic French dishes, it’s a foodie heaven. There is also much to feast the eyes on, from medieval churches to nineteenth century townhouses, and for those interested in history, there is a rich past to explore within the streets of the city. I already can’t wait to go back, and I can’t recommend it highly enough!


Summer Reading


I’ve been steaming my way through books this summer; there’s nothing quite so conducive to reading as hot weather, I find, and in my almost two months of generally lazing around France and England, I’ve had plenty of sunshine under which to lie down and lose myself within the pages of a book. I’ve read so much that it would take me forever to write reviews of them all, so I’m going to cherry pick the best to tell you about.

Probably the best book I read was the enormous non fiction tome, The Victorians, by A N Wilson. At 600 pages long, it does seem quite intimidating at first glance, but it’s so entertainingly written that the time speeds by. Wilson discusses the political, social, scientific and religious debates of the day, alongside the cultural life of the Victorians, the press and its influence, overseas wars and their reception on British soil, and the notion of the Empire. He places the nineteenth century in Britain in its wider historical and global context, making it clear how British people at the time viewed the recent past as well as their place on an ever-increasing world stage. Wilson is a highly intelligent, wry and stylish writer, regularly inserting his tongue in his cheek when passing judgements on various absurdities of the time, and choosing excellent quotations to bring the great and good of the era to frequently pompous life. His greatest skill, however, is in revealing the modernity of the Victorians, and showing how very similar they were to us. Their concerns may have been different, but their attitudes certainly were not, and Wilson makes excellent parallels between modern day British society and the nineteenth century equivalents we are apt to dismiss with smugness as corrupt, prejudiced or nepotistic. I loved every minute, and closed the pages feeling incredibly educated and eager to learn more. This is a good thing, as I am about to start my Master’s degree in Victorian Studies part-time this autumn, and this book has given me an excellent head start!

The piece of fiction I most enjoyed was Anna Hope’s new novel, The Ballroom. I thought her debut, Wake, about the aftermath of WWI, was excellent when I read it a few years ago, and I am pleased to say that her second novel is equally engaging and well written. Set in an asylum in Yorkshire during the long, hot summer of 1911, it tells the story of John and Ella, who are both very far from being insane. Ella finds herself in the asylum after her frustration at being trapped inside a hot, noisy, hopeless factory boils over one day, and she smashes a window to let in some air. Her fury at being treated like an animal, day in day out, is, of course, taken as madness by the male overseers, and she is carted off to the asylum in the blink of an eye. John, broken by the death of his daughter and his wife’s subsequent rejection, finds himself in the asylum after he sinks into depression. Both are desperate to escape, and it is during Ella’s first failed attempt to flee that the two meet. They go on to form an intense relationship, made possible by the weekly balls for the inmates that are held in the cathedral-like ballroom, its beautifully painted stained glass a painful symbol of the beauty of the world they are no longer allowed to be a part of. As they dance, they dare to dream of a future outside of this place, but the doctor in charge of their care, Charles Fuller, has other ideas. Obsessed with his own insignificance, and slowly growing disgusted by the inferior quality of humanity he sees in the inmates, his dreams of transforming them through the power of music erode as his own sanity starts to ebb away. As the summer grows ever hotter, the tension inside the asylum builds to boiling point, promising tragedy for all involved. There is much more to the novel than just this brief description, and it is a fascinating exploration of the treatment of the mentally ill in the early 20th century, as well as a brilliant piece of characterisation in its portrayal of Charles Fuller, whose troubled upbringing and repressed homosexuality have made him a far more broken man than the patients he is supposed to be looking after. Though I found the ending a little twee, I thought it was a wonderful, involving book with none of the creative writing course shenanigans I so often find irritatingly distracting in modern novels. I highly recommend it, and I’m looking forward to what she writes next!

Finally, I was the delighted recipient of a gift subscription to Persephone Books this summer, after the parents of my form class clubbed together to buy me one as a thank you present. I was shocked at their ability to find something that suited me so well, not knowing that I was already a Persephone fan, and I pored over the catalogue with excitement at finally being able to get to some Persephones that I had been meaning to read for a while. The first book arrived last month, and it’s also the first ever Persephone book published; William – An Englishman, by Cicely Hamilton. Set in 1914, it tells the story of William and Griselda, two middle class, politically active Londoners, whose shocking ignorance of the world and everything in it does not stop them from being strident campaigners for the most fashionable of unfashionable causes. Easily swayed and with limited intelligence, they repeat the words of others with fervency and delight in the busyness of their committee-attending, pamphlet-waving lives. William is a socialist, Griselda is a suffragette; they agree on everything as they share each others’ limited worldview, and read of nothing that does not agree with them. As such, when they marry in the summer of 1914, they see nothing wrong with going to a secluded countryside village in Belgium for their honeymoon, and proceed to spend many days of leisure hiking and reading political literature, before a longing for their London lives takes over and they make plans to return home. However, the woman that does for them is nowhere to be found on the morning they wish to depart, and her hastily scrawled note is written in French, which neither understand. Horrifyingly, they find a freshly dug grave in her garden, and her house is turned upside down; when they are confronted by aggressive soldiers on the road to the station and taken prisoner, the reality of their situation becomes horribly apparent. The war they have dismissed and mocked for months has actually happened, and they are now in the midst of it. Their honeymoon becomes a terrifying ordeal as they are taken to a captured village and trapped as it comes under fire. Suddenly, the causes William and Griselda believed in seem entirely irrelevant in the face of reality, and their ignorance will prove to come at a terrible price. This is an incredibly shocking book, of the type that haunts you for a good while after you read it. I’ve read a lot of war literature, but this is unique in its perspective and incredibly powerful in showing the sheer cruelty, pointlessness and devastation of war. It’s not an easy read, but it is a necessary one, and I can see why Persephone chose it as their first book. I highly recommend it.


A Provençal Summer


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!



The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry


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



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!



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!



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.


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.


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!


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.



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!


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