Back on the road.
When does an adventure start?
I reckon it’s as soon as you get into the van.
If you’re driving to the end of the world, or simply staying out at a favourite local beauty spot, it’s always an adventure, an event to remember.
I didn’t intend to start writing again until next week, but our first stop in Belgium was too good to ignore.
Before we get there…
England was generally wet yet mostly beautiful.
That’s the great thing about home. You can spend a whole journey noticing things that you think are better than they are in England. Then you get back and a combination of familiarity forgotten, and the comfort of cultural norms embrace you and fill you with love.
There was plenty to write about, but no time for pause.
Here’s a super short summary of 1800 miles in the country we call home.
Off the ferry at Newhaven and over the South Downs in late summer sunshine. Already the green calmed the country’s troubled times.
At Angmering, near Brighton, an overnight in the car park of the Spotted Dog and the quaint old flint and brick cottages worked their charm.
In Chichester the cathedral delivered all those points above. An architectural familiarity despite having never been before. Truly awesome skill, wrought over centuries, and the smell of an English church.
Across the New Forest, past ponies looming through the drizzle to Barton on Sea to visit to a friend with a view across to the Isle of Wight (thank you D&D).
In Somerset, with Janice, my sister, to The Newt.
Wherever you live in the country please go to The Newt. If your pockets are deep you might stay at the hotel, or like us take the modest option of lunch and a walk through the most beautiful apple gardens and orchards you’re likely to find anywhere in the world.
In Cornwall the rain fell most days, but a new project was launched that I’m sure I’ll soon expand on in the blog.
Van nights were mostly spent in the romantic setting of St Just’s recycling area, part of the town car park. Bottles smashing into their bins provided our alarm call, and friends banged on the side of the van as they passed.
The Star, of course we went to The Star.
We got back to Cornwall on 8300 miles for the last six months. Pretty good against our 8000 target.
In the weeks to come we’ll be clocking up miles at a less comfortable rate. We’re keen to escape the autumn and find the last of the sun. We’ll still research our route and only spend a few hours driving each day, even that gets exhausting.
And here’s our English tour in a diary of food.
On Dartmoor I had a solo night near Mortenhampstead and ate at The Horse. Superb as ever.
A curry in Birmingham. I’d eschewed other opportunities of a balti, holding out for the best (Acrams, Stirchley).
A roast in Ripon (thank you R&D).
Dinner at Middleham in the Dales (thanks J&J, good to see you again).
And still England stretched north. Past Newcastle, past Ponteland and finally we got to Rick’s in Kirkharle.
In Wakefield we missed the Hepworth, but saw G&J for another great curry.
Then in Manchester the magnificent Double Zero served the best pizza for Minty’s delight.
Another Brummie balti, in Quinton this time, and our over eating tour had nearly ended.
In Derbyshire’s High Peak we pulled into Crompton Mill, the world’s first successful water powered cotton mill. The canal through the Derwent Valley where the trees displayed their best colours was calm, misty, enchanting, but this was just a stop over for a morning visit to Wirksworth.
Wirksworth is self styled as The Gem of the Peak, and while slightly immodest, its strap line is apt. This quaint English rough brick and stone village has all the tourist could ask for, and apparently it’s great living there too. Literature, dance, food, and beer festivals through the year keep everyone busy and together, as well as bringing trade to the town.
Tiny mill workers’ cottages sit alongside grand sandstone mill owners’ houses. Several pubs, great coffee shops (the best coffee I can remember from the Upcycle gallery and shop), and our destination, a fabrics design house called Black Pop. All this set in the heart of the High Peak with its excellent walking and caving.
Filled with inspiration we continued south to eat our final English feast with cousins T&M in Hitchen.
Happy if damp memories of England can begin to fade now that I’ve committed them to type. We might return to eating what we need, rather than all that’s put in front of us, and we might fade back to slimmer selves.
The journey can start for real. And our first stop was better than we could have hoped for.
Who has heard of Tournai?
We hadn’t, and yet this Wallonian town is one of Belgium’s best.
Ruled by many nations, including England’s Henry VIII for a few years, Tournai melds the styles of so many periods and influences in its interesting architecture. Some of my favourite buildings are the subtle 1950s post war rebuilds, but also expect to see Romanesque, Gothic and the occasional Art Moderne siting alongside each other in the harmony Belgium pulls off so well.
Belgium’s most famous export may be its chocolate, but it’s frites and beer that we seek here.
The bars and restaurants (of which there are hundreds) did not fail us, nor did we fail them. At lunch we tried the truly exceptional, and phenomenally strong, Bush beer with our croque monsieur and frites. We moved on to a lighter Saison Du Pont in the evening and the strange Scotch CTS which is Stella’s version of the 80 Schillings ale you might enjoy in Scotland.
At L’Imperatrice the local game of Jeu du Feu is alive and well. Known elsewhere as Tournai Billards, it combines bar billiards with bowling on a three metre table. I love that such truly individual games still survive, but after a bottle of 12% Bush I wasn’t about to ask for a go.
It the past I have been rather scathing about this little country, but we’ve learned to love it and it has got better with each visit, although there are still axle breaking potholes in the motorways.
It delivers most of that which I love about France, but with better beers and better prices. France has become so dreadfully expensive, Belgium feels a little cheaper than home.
Our route to a small campsite south of Namur was predominantly on motorway, but with trees lining the three sides of the road (left, right and middle), and those trees displaying their best autumn colours, the drive was a delight.
I now firmly believe that the houses of Belgium are my favourites in Europe.
I tried to tell Minty why I think this is so.
The consistent element is the fenestration. The windows are often larger than might be necessary, and unfussy. This seems to be the case whether you’re looking at a modern flat or an old farmhouse.
Actually unfussy might be the key to their delight.
Even new architecturally designed million pound places have a subtlety rarely seen elsewhere.
Overhangs are minimal, and often non-existent. Guttering is often integral.
Belgium brick features in most. Slim, elegant bricks, that come in every shade from near white through to deep black.
Our favourite place to stay is John Pawson’s Life House near the Brecons in Wales. There the outside is of black Belgium brick, the inside of white.
Up the road from our little campsite is the village of Hogne. A single street of maybe fifty houses dating from the late middle ages (oak frames and red brick) to not quite built (timber frames clad in black brick). Despite the 500 year time frame there’s a consistency that connects each leaving a pleasing whole that most folk would probably pass without even noticing.
Back in April ArchieVan had the roof windows replaced and a new expensive opening side window.
Since then each of them has leaked.
It seems normal silicone sealant can’t cope with constant huge temperature changes – that does lead you to ask why it’s used at all. I guess it’s cheap and easy.
The fitters have been brilliant, but the last leak sprung just before our drive to the Channel Tunnel. It is currently repaired with waterproof tape. I’ll need to do a more permanent job when we get a dry spell and I can commandeer a ladder.
Beyond that inconvenience, we have a fresh MoT, ready for a year on the road. Greece is our winter destination. We’re favouring a route via an Italian ferry, in part as it’s difficult to find insurance to drive through the Balkans.
We’ll get the blog back to its Saturday morning schedule soon.
Next up will be the first industrial site to achieve UNESCO listing, a German Iron Ore plant. We’re outside it now. It’s angry, scary and has massive scale.
The only I note that didn’t get published from our drive home in early September…
Allershausen, near Freising (Freezing), north of Munich, tiny, manicured, friendly, a joy.
Places like this sometimes leave me wondering why we chose to live in England.
Thankfully, I soon remember that if I lived here this would be the new normal (and I’d be bored in no time).
And Austria? Well, if the incredible mountain scenery were to become the new normal then I’d create a whole new set of issues. If you live in paradise where are you to go?
Then I think of St Just. Rough around the edges. Scruffy. Often shrouded in cloud. Full of delightful oddballs. And I utterly love it. When we’re back in the far west of Cornwall I’ll remember how lucky we are to live in such an interesting place. Whether it’s beautiful or not is subjective. It works for me.
As Polly staggered around this morning in the thick mist we wandered through the woodland and fields, past ponds, and charming old barns, looming out of the low cloud.
An old couple had laid out their breakfast by a large lake. They ambled around the water throwing food to greedy fish. Their granddaughter poured coffee. A bottle of schnapps stood ready to kick start their morning. The scene couldn’t be further from anything at home.