France in the Slow Lane

Everything about the compact town of Lombez oozes history and Gallic charm; its narrow streets are lined with ancient buildings. Discovering it as we did by chance confirms the principle of always taking the slow route – drive along motorways and you miss so much.

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Walking through Lombez takes you back to a time when life too was slower; amongst its buildings are images that conjure up the France portrayed by the great artists – rich colours, faded paintwork, closed shutters keeping out hot sunshine.Lombez (22)   copyright.jpg

Dominating the town, the pink and white octagonal bell tower of the fourteenth century cathedral is in ornate contrast to the austere façade of the brick built body of the church. The severity of the style accentuates its height and gives no hint of its splendid interior.

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Fine stained glass, some dating back to the 1400s, marble altars, decorative carvings and statues all demand careful exploration and give good reason to linger inside away from the summer heat.

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The cathedral is a listed monument historique and preservation work of the exterior was being carried out during our visit. With such an ancient building, work is on-going and there are areas of the interior that still have to be restored, although they do have a special charm and serenity about them that may be lost when renovated.Lombez (11)   copyright.jpg

Stepping back outside, the sun appears to be even brighter than before and gives an excuse to find a bistro for a cold beer. Unlike the UK, where bars and coffee shops crowd the pavements to draw in the visitors, outside the cathedral there are few signs of life and very little traffic. This part of France remains true to its laid-back style and does not woo the tourist: when in Lombez behave like a native – stay calm, slow down, relax.Lombez (6)   copyright.jpg

Lombez is in the Gers region of southwest France, 55km west of Toulouse and within sight of the Pyrenees Mountains.

2014 in Review: July – December

Christmas has been and gone, even the New Year is a few days old.  A time of old traditions and also some new ones – one of which is the review of the year past.  The first six months can be found by clicking here; now for the next six.

This is the time of feasting, of plenty but in days gone by the essential time of year was harvest.  Without a successful gathering of the corn life during winter would be tough for country folk. Harvest, which starts here in July, is still one of the busiest times of the farming year and despite modern machinery replacing many of the labouring jobs in many ways the task remains unchanged. As a young man I helped on what must have been one of the last farms to harvest in the ‘old way’.  Working from dawn to dusk, it was hard but we didn’t stop until we knew “all was safely gathered in”…

All is Safely Gathered In?

I tend to avoid Exmoor, England’s smallest National Park, in August for it can become quite busy with visitors (I’m selfish and don’t want to share it with others).  This year was different and I arrived in glorious sunshine, the perfect time to see the heather moorland which is in full bloom this month, a purple haze.  To keep it looking as perfect as in the image below, the moors are set alight, an ancient practice known as ‘swaling’. The resultant new growth provides food for the sheep, the wild ponies and the other wild birds and animals that roam the moor…

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Horses play an important part in my life and in September the Burghley Horse Trials take place.  The trials feature three elements of horsemanship: dressage, show jumping and cross-country.   It takes a brave horse and rider to tackle the latter element for the course is very testing and some of the jumps huge.  Accidents do occur, fortunately rarely seriously but when there is a problem with perhaps a fence needing repair, part of my job is to prevent other competitors from running into them. Stop That Horse! lets on what happens ‘behind the scenes’…

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The story of Lorna Doone and John Ridd, the man who saved her is a well-known and much loved tale of romance and treachery, set on 17th century Exmoor.  Many of the places and people – but not all – that feature in the book do or did exist.  In October I explored what is fact and what is myth? Click here to find out…

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There can be fewer more bizarre buildings in the world than The Pineapple in Scotland.  In November I was lucky enough to stay there and to explore the other fascinating and ruined buildings associated with it.  I also found time to travel further afield and take in the spectacular scenery around Loch Lomond…

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Rummaging in a cupboard at home in December I  came across some old photographs that had been inherited many years earlier.  Noticing a signature and doing some research turned into something far more exciting than I ever could have imagined – it turned out to be ‘a great game’…

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2015 looks to be a good year with a number of exciting projects and travel ahead giving plentiful topics for blogging.  May it be a good one for you too.   Thank you for your support and may the New Year bring you all health and happiness.

HAPPY NEW YEAR

2014 in Review: the first six months

So another year is almost over and it certainly has been a busy one for me.  Living and working in the spectacular Cotswold countryside, a classified area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is a great treat and one of which I never tire.  It’s also nice to go off exploring other places so 2014 found me in other parts of the UK and  Ireland too.  One of the first places I visited, however, was only twenty miles down the road but light years apart in reality!

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typical Cotswold countryside

Like many people that live close to tourist attractions I don’t often visit the ones on my doorstep but last January found me walking the streets of Oxford.  I hadn’t come to explore the colleges but the covered market which dates back more than two hundred years.   The history of the market and the building is fascinating and is well worth making the time to visit – especially if you like a bargain.  To read more about it and to see other photos click here.

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One of the fathers of ecological writing died tragically young and in February I matched quotations from his work to images I had taken (to see them, click here).  My favourite was noticed by the Society that bears his name and reprinted in their journal.  I felt very honoured!

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Wild and rugged scenery is often best appreciated over cake and coffee and at Watersmeet in Exmoor National Park you can do just that.  Two rivers collide spectacularly besides the Victorian fishing lodge that is now owned by the National Trust and run as a café. March found me walking through beautiful scenery as well as indulging myself and the link to this remote but very accessible place is here.

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Dublin, the capital city of Ireland is a favourite place of mine and in April I visited the Casino Marino, one of the most impressive and perfect neo-classical buildings in Europe.  Everything about it was designed to deceive so although you only see one window on each side you actually have – well, click here to find out what plus all the other deceptions the Georgian architect managed to fit in.

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Planting trees is a long term project for they rarely mature during the life of the planter.  Of all the hundreds I have done in my professional life none has given me as much pleasure as this particular one.  I have waited for years for it to flower and in May it did so for the first time.  I felt quite emotional – it was a case of finding a handkerchief.  Take a look by clicking the link here.

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The Cotswolds are world renowned for their ‘chocolate box’ village scenes and Lower Slaughter must be one of the contenders.  Despite its name it is a beautiful and tranquil place to visit for it has everything from crystal clear trout streams to olde-world stone cottages to a mill complete with working water wheel. If you choose the right time to explore you can have the place to yourself.  To learn more click the June link here.

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Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham

Cheltenham, on the western edge of the Cotswolds, is full of historic Georgian buildings which make it an interesting place to visit if you are readily bored by the now characterless towns that have had their hearts ripped out in the interest of modernisation.  Although it has all the major chain stores there are still very many smaller, independent shops which help to make the centre busy and vibrant.  There are, however, plenty of opportunities to escape the throng of shoppers by relaxing in its parks and green spaces which are close to hand and beautifully maintained.  With so many positive attributes, it is not surprising to find that there are also numerous cafes, bistros and restaurants – great news if, like me, you prefer your relaxation to revolve around food and drink.

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One street that incorporates all of the above elements is The Promenade, a wide tree-lined boulevard.  We made our way to the top end of it, walking past the splendid Town Hall with its fountains, to reach Brasserie Blanc where we had booked a table for a Saturday lunch.  Set in a delightful Georgian townhouse, it has very recently been completely refurbished and, judging by the number of diners there, has retained its loyal clientele.

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Any culinary venture that has Raymond Blanc’s name attached to it is bound to be a good choice and Brasserie Blanc didn’t disappoint whether in its understated interior design, the friendliness and efficiency of the staff and, most important of all, the quality of the food.

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The huge arched windows and high ceilings give a feeling of space and natural light, both of which prevent the L-shaped marble bar, which runs almost the full length of the building, being too dominant.  It is visually impressive and imparts a delightfully informal atmosphere to the dining area.

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Our Italian waitress, Chiara, who was both charming and efficient, guided us through an extensive menu.  For the starter my partner selected the cheese soufflé with a rich cheese sauce which came with the most wonderful, crispy outer crust.  I went for the salt beef salad, chosen to test the chef’s expertise for, having a Jewish grandmother, I consider myself to be rather an expert when it comes to salt beef.  It didn’t disappoint, the combination of flavours being both subtle and mouth-watering.

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For our mains, I chose the slow-braised Scottish venison casserole.  I was impressed when Chiara advised me that it was both quite gamey and rich which wouldn’t suit everyone’s taste but was just perfect for me.  My partner had scallops with poached, smoked bacon.  In the interest of research, I insisted upon tasting and it was beautifully soft and tender.  Puddings also didn’t disappoint.  My pears with salted caramel would be worth a special trip to Cheltenham just for those and my partner’s meringues were just as they should be, soft and chewy.

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Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham is one of twenty mostly situated in London or the south of England.  This does, for me, create rather a problem: do I return to Cheltenham or do I try some of the other locations?  One thing is certain, I will definitely be returning!

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Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham is located at The Promenade, Cheltenham GL50 1NN

All photographs of Brasserie Blanc are taken from their website.  More information including booking details can be found here