CHAPTER FOUR TRAVEL NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND
Our autumn trip to Normandy followed a straight line from home. The Barfleur car ferry sails daily to Cherbourg from Poole taking four and a quarter hours, all the fun of a cruise without time to get bored. Leave in the morning and have breakfast on board, return in the evening and have dinner. Regular passengers head straight for the lounges to bag the best seats, but to get the total experience don’t leave your coat in the car, wrap up and stay up on deck as you cruise out of the world’s second largest natural harbour. The boat passes Brownsea Island, avoids colliding with the chain ferry that links the millionaire real estate of Sandbanks with the Isle of Purbeck, then sails out past Old Harry Rock and Swanage and down across the English Channel.
We drove south on smooth roads with light traffic to Mont-Saint-Michel where we stayed at a delightful bed and breakfast for three nights; peaceful, but near enough to the new ‘tourist campus’ to use the free bus shuttle to the island. Everything has been redesigned to protect the environment and cater for tourists. Barriers across all the roads ensure only locals and tourist coaches pass through. Holidaymakers can stroll around the hotels, restaurants and campsite in peace. To walk to the island takes just over half an hour and there are also horses and carriages.
Mont-Saint-Michel is spectacular, a granite rock that became a mediaeval city surrounded by the largest tides in Europe; groups of walkers can cross the vast bay at low tide with a guide. We enjoyed a beach walk at low tide, keeping close to land and a close eye on how far others roamed, assuming they knew what they were doing. Back on land the island is very busy with tourists, but you can branch out and explore and it is a good way to keep fit going up and down the many flights of steps. Reward yourself by stopping at one of the many restaurants and coffee shops and enjoying the views. The abbey is the only part that involves paying, but is worth it for the view from the top terrace.
For the second part of our holiday we travelled back up the coast to Montmartin-sur-Mer and stayed in a lovely farmhouse gite. In contrast to the camping field next to the farm, our outbuilding had been refitted with a super modern bathroom. Our hosts spoke no English, thus making this a ‘real’ experience and my smattering of French quite useful. We sat in their kitchen for petit dejeuner and drank coffee out of bowls. A short walk to the beach provided spectacular sunsets if the weather was fine. The weather was exactly the same as the English weather we had left behind, brilliant sunny days alternating with rain or grey drizzle. We had come prepared and enjoyed walking on the beaches and sand dunes and exploring the bay which changed remarkably with the same huge tides; at low tide the locals go out to pick up the seafood left behind and many tractors and trailers drive out to the mussel beds. There were small seaside towns to explore, all of them very quiet, but with enough places open to find coffee and good meals.
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DOWN TO THE DOCKS JUNE 2017
Family fireworks take on a new meaning when family members are pyrotechnic experts; though we had never heard of the Battle of The Medway we decided at short notice to take the opportunity to see the large display they were working on at Chatham Dockyards. It was the celebration of 350 years of friendship with Holland; the anniversary of an event described by Samuel Pepys; the Dutch Fleet had sailed up the River Medway and destroyed the English Fleet.
We managed to book the King Charles hotel, once a NAAFI club, now a family run hotel, for a bargain two night break. We found it with Sat Nav and parking was easy; as promised it was within walking distance of the dockyards. We needn’t have worried about finding ‘somewhere to eat’ close to the river. The naval dockyards closed for good back in the eighties, a great loss for industry and tradition, but regeneration makes the docks a desirable place to live and a great leisure destination. There were many restaurants to choose from and the whole area was buzzing with people and live music. On the hottest day of the year so far it was a fine evening for the firework extravaganza that was well worth our journey.
Back at the hotel our room was basic but clean and had real windows that opened in both the bedroom and en suite bathroom, a pleasant change from many hotels where windows open only two inches for ‘our guests’ comfort and safety’. Getting air circulating helped beat the stifling heat of the ‘hottest June on record’.
At breakfast the buffet was uninspiring and we opted for a continental which consisted of half a baguette, some reasonable ham and a thin slice of sweating cheese. We recovered from this meal in the very pleasant courtyard garden.
The walk to the docks was much longer in the heat, but worth it. We had already visited the historic dockyard in the autumn and that deserves a whole day, with a submarine and other ships to visit and a rope walk where you can see rope being made. The long rope walk building forms part of the setting familiar to viewers of ‘Call The Midwife’. Scroll down for notes on our September travels in Kent.
This time we walked around the many basins and by the river. There is a big shopping outlet, plenty of pubs to idle by the water or you can stroll around looking at boats old and new. We spotted a boat about to leave on a trip and ended up cruising to Rochester and back. An ideal way to visit this little city full of interesting old buildings; Charles Dickens set his unfinished ( last! ) novel ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ in Rochester Cathedral.
The walk uphill back to our hotel was very hot especially as Cyberspouse decided we could cut through the university campus. There were lots of lovely old naval buildings to see, but no way out and we ended up back where we started at the bottom of the hill.
We had planned to try the hotel restaurant, but had omitted to read that it was closed on Sunday evenings, luckily the bar offered meals and plenty of sofas to flop down on. I had lasagne which was very good and Cyberspouse ordered ‘the worst ploughmans he had ever had’ - the same baguettes and sweating cheese from breakfast!
If you have ever lived in Australia you will know that wherever you go you are usually bound to meet an Australian. We met a very interesting couple; he was from Chatham and had worked at the dockyards before emigrating to Australia as a young man, so had plenty of stories and we gleaned more from him than from our visit.
Would we return to the hotel? Yes, it’s an ideal location to enjoy the area at a budget price and it’s fun to stay somewhere different.
Chatham and Rochester are worth several days' stay.
I LOVE LINCOLN
We finished February with a three night stay in Lincoln for a get together. Lincoln is one of my favourite cities and we have visited quite often, usually with free accommodation; we were happy this time to volunteer to stay in a hotel and I knew which one to choose. Seven years previously we had stayed at The Lincoln, memorable for the bed that was extra small in the forlorn hope of making the room look bigger. From the outside you might think the building was council offices, so why did we want to stay there?
The front of the hotel looks out through picture windows across the road to the cathedral, so you can enjoy the view while eating your breakfast or sitting in the lounge. I love the lounge with its retro look and it was still as fun as I remembered.
I should point out that we had booked a bed and breakfast bargain in a standard room at the back of the hotel. We chatted to the staff and gathered the cathedral view rooms with balconies were larger, so if you are very tall please don’t be put off staying at this great hotel.
The staff were all friendly and helpful, the breakfast was delightful with plenty of choice; menu and cold and hot buffet. The dining chairs were a little strange, looking like they were made of glass, actually plastic, but felt rather flimsy. And what was our room like this time? Still small, but this time we had a little balcony looking over the garden and with a view of the top of the cathedral.
The location of the hotel is perfect; in the Lincolnshire landscape of flat fields and open skies the cathedral stands out in the distance. The old city is on the Lincoln escarpment, not a hill, though the narrow cobbled street you climb to reach the cathedral quarter is called Steep Hill. Nearby is The Collection, a child friendly museum and the Usher gallery. So whether you want to see the castle’s copy of the Magna Carter, explore the cathedral, enjoy art or archaeology, there is no need to wander far.
Of course no visit to Lincoln is complete without a walk up or down Steep Hill, the narrow cobbled street usually thronged with people following in the path of the old pilgrims climbing up to the cathedral. There are ancient crooked little buildings that must have seen many changes, now enjoying life as intriguing shops or delicious eateries.
Keep going through the arch to enjoy modern shopping centres or follow the canal path to England’s oldest inland harbour to find your favourite chain restaurants and cinemas.
And if you are staying at The Lincoln Hotel you will have to walk back up the hill, although we did spot The Walk & Ride 'Steep Hill Shuttle' bus…
DIARY ENTRY AUTUMN 2016
One of the advantages of the internet is the ability to find temporary accommodation at the last moment. Your choice can be made not only by price and location, but by peering into bedrooms and reading reviews by previous guests. The latter may require some caution as the reviewers may only be moved to write because of a terrible experience and be prone to exaggeration. I always expect less than what is promised and fear we might arrive and find they have no record of our on line booking.
Because of the flexible nature of our time away we ended up staying in none of the places we had planned, but made some new discoveries.
We opted for the Holiday Inn, Sittingbourne because the bright orange, lemon and lime décor and modern furniture looked interesting to photograph. Arriving in pouring rain in the car park, the back of the hotel looked like an East European block of flats, but inside was as bright as promised. The receptionist was seemingly helpful and booked us in for dinner in the restaurant, warning that two coach parties were expected. The room was small with a huge bed and a bathroom with glass walls. Opening a drawer there was a blob of red that could have been blood or jam from a donut. We went back down in the tiny lift to report our findings; the woman on the desk seemed unfazed, but promised to send someone. We also remarked that we could find no stairs except those to the ‘gallery’ and the metal fire escapes. We followed directions and got lost, but eventually found ourselves at the front of the original Coniston hotel on the A2, which had a lovely cosy bar, ideal for a rainy afternoon and also served meals. Why had the receptionist made no mention of its existence? On the way back to our room we met the manager and a cleaner who reported without apology that the ‘blood’ had been cleaned up, too late to get forensics in, but a good idea for a story. We had no other complaints, but did notice that outside in the rain sodden wooden bower, presumably used for the advertised weddings, a dirty coffee cup and banana skin remained for the two days we were there.
The next day’s outing to Chatham Historic Dockyard and a brisk guided walk through HM Submarine Ocelot, a diesel electric vessel launched in 1962, was a reminder how comfortable it is to stay in any hotel compared to sharing two toilets ( the heads )among sixty nine men.
The Pegwell Bay Hotel, near Ramsgate was very different; a striking building with views over the bay, though not from our room. This hotel was once a convalescent home and boasted two tiled tunnels under the road that once led to a sea bathing pool, but now led to a pub where we had dinner and also to the Victorian Dining Room with sea views for breakfast. The ambience was spoiled by having a wide screen television stuck above the ornate bar. The only disappointment with this hotel was that we were not allowed up the tower because of health and safety.
A walk around the bay next morning gave us views of salt marsh nature reserves, a Viking ship and a strange discovery; the dystopian wasteland that had once been the hoverport operated between 1968 and 1987.
Our last hotel was Stade Court hotel on the Hythe seafront; boasting itself as a nineteen thirties building, any architectural merit was wiped out by the numerous extensions plonked on the front, sides and top. It must have been the location that kept them in business, certainly not the breakfast buffet with miniature croissants and luke warm tea and coffee poured out of flasks brought round intermittently. But the staff were friendly and the building fascinating inside. The lift had room for one person with no suitcase and after our trip up to the fourth floor with our luggage I refused to go in it again. The only room left to book had been a twin bed with no sea view, but it was not what we imagined. We walked into a tiny room with a single bed and a television, but there was a narrow stair leading up to a bedroom with two beds and a bathroom. Opening the top floor window confirmed we were at the very top of the building. The fire escape instructions indicated a ‘door’ into another bedroom, how we were meant to open it was not made clear, climbing out onto the flat roof seemed a better option. Noises, banging and yelling from the other side of the thin wall the next morning confirmed there was a family the other side and I had visions of the children bursting through the flimsy fire escape door. In the bathroom it was equally noisy with seagulls; you could see their orange feet pattering across the skylight. On our treks up and down the numerous staircases we observed something strange; on the third floor were rooms in the 300s, but also a sign pointing to room in the 100s. the signs led to another stairway that went back down. More ideas for stories.
Hythe itself was delightful and we had our best meals of the whole holiday here. Next to the hotel was the Hythe Bay Seafood Restaurant http://www.hythebay.co.uk/hythe/hythe.html with friendly staff and delicious food. In the town the next evening we strolled into the King’s Head http://www.kingshead-hythe.co.uk/food-drink and enjoyed the pies for which they are renowned. Here again the staff were friendly and enthusiastic.
Hythe is a must to visit again with its promenade, elegant canal and interesting buildings old and new. Perhaps next time we should splash out on the Hythe Imperial.
SEPTEMBER 2015 - LAST MINUTE DOT COM
On the internet you can book holidays instantly. You can view hotels, cottages, B&B, boats, bedrooms, balconies and bathrooms; cast your eyes upon the surrounding scenery, read what others thought of the accommodation. But as you dream and type in the dates required the bubble bursts and you see the whole month is fully booked. So we set off on holiday with an eclectic mix of destinations nowhere near our planned route.
Botany Bay Hotel looked over Botany Bay, Broadstairs, Kent; a balcony room to start the holiday with a touch of luxury, a lovely view out to sea and a footpath down to the cove and sheer white cliffs accessible at low tide. Everything about the establishment was very pleasant, but strangely for a good hotel the television reception was bad and there was no wi-fi.
The price led us to have less expectations of the next place; a country park with a hotel and wedding venue. There was a wedding on the next day, perhaps that was why we were put in the stable block and had to walk to breakfast in the rain across the decking with the warning sign
Slippery When Wet.
Opening the outer door to our accommodation there was a strong smell of damp. Our room was clean, but small and gloomy. In contrast, the bathroom boasted a separate shower and huge corner bath with blue lights. The television and wi-fi worked well. Back at the main hotel for dinner the few staff were very friendly, if a little frazzled, as they had to multi task. The ‘recently refurbished hotel’ looked as if it had been done on the cheap.
A week in a cottage mid holiday is always handy for doing the washing and ironing and eating healthy meals, as long as you go shopping on the way and buy enough supplies. Our cottage was actually a converted calving shed, the directions described a lane and several landmarks to spot the entrance to the farm. No mention was made of how long the lane was, but we were in rural Sussex, so not surprised it was narrow, muddy and blocked by the occasional horse. After a couple of miles, certain we had missed the farm, we decided to turn round at the next opportunity, a muddy gateway which fortunately turned out to be our destination. Lucky we had our food supplies.
The owner was very friendly and spent a considerable time telling us about previous dreadful customers and the damage they had done, all the plans they had for the place in the future (paid for with our money presumably) and the complicated system for using the ‘launderette’ across the yard – there was no washing machine in the cottage and we had to buy tokens to put in the industrial machines, which we couldn’t use till he unlocked the laundry the next day.
The following morning it was pouring with rain, we didn’t buy enough tokens for the tumble driers – the clothes came out steaming wet and had to be hung around the cottage with the central heating on at full blast. But it was a pleasant dwelling and a few yards from the front door a muddy footpath led down through woods, then up across fields till we reached a view of the sea.
Our final destination was far better than we could have dreamed; bed and breakfast at West Dean College, a place we knew nothing about. The stately home’s owner, Edward James, was an eccentric artist and poet who established a foundation to provide education in conservation and the arts. We stayed in the vicarage and strolled over to the ‘big house’ for breakfast and dinner, where there were all sorts of interesting people on courses and numerous leather sofas to lounge around on, writing or feeling artistic. West Dean with its large grounds was exactly the place I had imagined for several short stories; no television, no wi-fi, a wall all around, secluded from the outside world. We were free to explore the fascinating house, given the key code for a back door and entered the galleried hall through a secret door in the wooden panelling.
Our first full day was sunny and we did the prescribed walk up the hill, through the woods, coming unexpectedly across the grave of Edward James. Downhill with the sheep and lunch at the gardens; Victorian greenhouses, orchards, beautifully laid out flower beds full of the colours of autumn. Sitting in the sun with the scent of flowers, buzz of bees and hum of appreciative human visitors, it was the kind of perfect day that cannot be planned.
THE WEBSITE OF AUTHOR JANET GOGERTY