Although I’m happy living in a town there are days when I imagine upping sticks and moving to a village. Not just any village though. It would have to be one with a thriving community, plenty of amenities and postcard pretty houses. A village like Ewelme. But I’d probably need to win the lottery first.
In the meantime there’s no harm in window shopping. Checking out the houses, deciding whether the locals are friendly and monitoring the cake quality in the village cafe.
Aside from sheer nosiness we were in Ewelme to walk another route from our AA 50 Oxfordshire walks book. The four mile Ewelme Chaucer’s walk was the perfect distance for a late morning stroll, and just the thing to work up an appetite for lunch. I’d even learnt from our mistake the previous month and came equipped with an OS map, no getting lost this time!
The walk started and finished in Ewelme, with a circular route that attempts to take in many of the local long distance trails. This included parts of the 65 mile Swan’s Way, the 125 mile Chiltern Way and the 110 mile Icknield Way Trail. Makes my feet ache just thinking about them.
Truth be told it wasn’t the most exciting of walks. Out in the countryside everything had that late winter feel. The mud, bare trees and grey sky didn’t help. And it was cold, so very cold. There’s joy in a winter landscape but in March I want spring sunshine, lambs and blossom.
Instead the star of this walk was Ewelme itself.
Ewelme village store
Starting with the village store. Perhaps not an obvious visitor attraction, Ewelme’s community run village store is well worth visiting. Primarily for its small cafe. It’s nothing fancy, simple rolls, soup and cake, but netherless it was busy on a Sunday morning with family groups and cyclists. The shop itself was packed with a variety of fresh food, household basics, local products and quirky gifts. It’s not surprising it won a best store in the south east award last year.
The watercress beds
Ewelme is famous for its watercress beds, which flow through the village for almost a mile. This was once a thriving business, producing watercress for over a hundred years before its closure in the 1980s. The beds became overgrown and the site derelict until villagers helped with their restoration and the Chiltern Society purchased the land.
Nowadays the beds are run partly as a historical site and partly as a nature reserve, with open days and talks on the first Sunday of each month. Although the watercress is no longer sold commercially (due to strict water regulations) the water looked crystal clear and the beds well maintained. Not that there was much watercress growing in March!
Saint Mary the Virgin church, Ewelme
From the watercress beds it’s a five minute walk, past the duck pond (another tick on my village requirements list), up a steep slope to the church and almshouses.
Inside the church are the tombs of Thomas Chaucer and Alice de la Pole, family of the poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer. I love reading but have never tackled his works; I fear I would be well out of my literary depth.
Outside there are more literary connections. The graveyard is the final resting place of Jerome K. Jerome, author of Three Men in a Boat. I resorted to Wikipedia to find out more about him. An English writer and humourist he sounds like the Tony Hawks of the Victorian era (hope I’m not doing either a misjustice). And the K in his name stands for Klapka. What did we do before Wikipedia?
Lastly, and most excitingly for me, the church was also used as a filming location for Les Miserables. Two hundred and fifty crew descended on the village for five days to film three sequences (in the mayor’s office, the tavern and home of the Bishop of Digne). I can only imagine the excitement that would have caused!
From the church we walked back to the car park, passing the primary school. Built in 1487 it’s the oldest functioning maintained school in the country.
The PTA runs Sunday afternoon teas in the school once a month between March and September. Between these, cake at the watercress bed open days and the village cafe I think my cake requirements would be met living in Ewelme!
There were two over-riding themes to the month – snowdrop walks and city sightseeing.
February is snowdrop month. I cannot resist the lure of a snowdrop stroll. And, even better, they often come as a package, with coffee and cake.
The granddaddy of snowdrop locations in our area is at Welford Park, near Newbury. If you want to see a woodland full of snowdrops this is the place to come. It’s also full of people. Luckily the snowdrops are fenced off to stop the masses trampling them.
There’s another side to Welford’s fame too as later in the spring it becomes the filming location for the Great British Bake Off. As befits the GBBO location I’m pleased to report I had an excellent piece of fruit cake after our walk.
The snowdrops on our next walk at Braziers Park are on a much smaller scale than Welford. More of a side show really. Braziers Park is a community run mansion house, once lived in by Ian Fleming. Nowadays the volunteers and long term residents look after 55 acres of land, maintain the house and host courses and events.
The guided tour around the house (yes, I counted these steps) provided an interesting peep into life at Braziers Park. I think perhaps I’m too happy with my comfortable life to consider alternative living these days.
Afterwards we walked through the gardens and woodland. An unexpected hail storm blew in so we hid behind trees whilst the icy white stones bounced around us.
Last but not least, we visited Milton Manor. There were only a few snowdrops left so the main attraction turned out to be more cake. And walking through a field with llamas in.
Dotted throughout the grounds are a variety of play areas, including home made forts and tree houses. I’m not sure Health & Safety would approve but the estate grounds offer a Famous Five type of existence for children. The ‘Teenagers only’ rope bridge looked great fun!
Away from the snowdrops we managed some impressive miles on our half term trip to Ghent in Belguim. We walked 18 miles during our two full days of sightseeing.
I’ve driven past Beacon Hill many times whilst travelling north on the A34, but have only just got around to climbing it. On the summit, at 860ft, is Lord Carnarvon’s grave. Together with Howard Carter he famously discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in the 1920s. His subsequent death, from an infected mosquito bite, contributed to the story of the Curse of Tutankhamun. The summit offers fine views of Lord Carnarvon’s pile, Highclere Castle, better known to TV viewers as Downton Abbey.
After climbing Beacon Hill we attempted the High above Highclere Walk from the AA website. I’m a fan of the AA walk books but learnt the hard way that it’s best to take an OS map too rather than rely on basic diagrams. Yes, we got lost. On the positive side, it meant we walked further than I’d originally planned!
Chalk pits, Blewbury
Our final February walk was an after lunch stroll to the viewpoint overlooking Blewbury, a local village. A very muddy climb up past an old chalk quarry to a well placed bench. Our walk back to the village took us past a Grand Designs style house building project. Wow.
After the success of our short break to Lille a while back I was keen to explore other destinations accessible via Eurostar. Ghent fitted the bill perfectly; a Belgian city just a couple of hours from London.
What did we do in Ghent?
We travelled as a family of four; two adults and two teenagers. With this in mind you’ll appreciate our sightseeing and food choices were attuned to pleasing the whole family. Or attempting to at least!
So, how did we spend our time?
1. Climb the Belfry
I always make a beeline for the highest viewpoint in any new city. In Ghent it’s the 91 metre belfry, the highest one in Belguim.
A lift can take you part of the way up but we climbed the steps (to offset the waffles later). At the top there’s a 360 degree viewing platform with excellent views over the town centre, churches and cathedral. You’ll also discover how much building work is happening in the city.
Aside from the views check out the Roeland Bell (which was chimed to warn of approaching enemies) and listen to the carillon which plays every 15 minutes.
2. Wander the streets around Graslei and Korenlei
In the Middle Ages this area was a busy port and the centre of the Flanders grain trade. Nowadays it’s tourism central but for good reason; cobbled streets, historical buildings and, in the summer at least, pavement cafes. It’s a good place to take a boat tour or simply wander.
After dark it’s a completely different view with the illuminated buildings reflected in the water. Visit it as part of the Ghent light tour (see below).
3. Visit Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts)
This medieval fortress has seen many changes of use in its lifetime. From the seat of the Council of Flanders to a prison to cotton mills; at one point it was even going to be demolished and the land sold for development. Fortunately saved by locals it was restored extensively and is now one of Ghent’s main attractions.
Don’t expect lavish decorations inside the castle. For me the appeal was very much around the physical architecture, the towers, turrets and staircases. Although, thanks to those restorations, it was rather weird to walk up a heated staircase; the last thing you expect in a castle.
One room that is decorated, in a macabre way, houses the torture equipment. A reminder of the castle’s gruesome history. I found this fascinating but you might want to avoid it if you have younger children.
4. Ghent by light
We missed the Ghent Light Festival by a few days. Held every three years this would have been a spectacular sight but sadly it didn’t correspond with half term.
Even though we’d missed the festival Ghent illuminates many of its key buildings and monuments after dark, making an evening stroll obligatory. We followed the route on the Ghent light plan which took us to parts of the city we hadn’t seen in daylight. I highly recommend the walk but wrap up warm in winter.
5. Eat frites with mayo
A Belgian classic. We got ours from De Frietketel, a student hangout famous for its fries and burgers. Oh my word, the portion size! We ordered two small portions with mayo between the four of us and couldn’t even finish one portion.
It’s not haute cuisine but is tasty and cheap. Veggies and vegans can have their fill of junk food too; there are loads of options for non meat eaters. Indeed Ghent is known as the veggie capital of Europe.
6. Discover the city history at Stadsmuseum Gent (STAM)
I really enjoyed STAM, a museum covering the history of Ghent. I’d suggest visiting as early as possible during your visit to get an overview of the city. I’ve chosen my highlights below.
The first room houses a huge map of Ghent printed on the floor. Once you’ve donned protective shoe covers visitors ca walk across it. It gives a sense of scale and geography of the city, particularly outside of the main tourist area.
The museum also includes a room dedicated to the Ghent Altarpiece (evidently one of Europe’s premier art works) which is in St Bavo’s Cathedral. I discovered it’s the most frequently stolen artwork of all time. Indeed following the most recent theft in 1934 one of the panels is still missing. It was really interesting to read about the police investigation and conspiracy theories, even if, ahem, we didn’t visit the actual painting whilst in Ghent.
The family dived into the huge pile of white Lego bricks left out for visitors to enjoy. Experts can attempt to recreate Ghent’s towers. Mere mortals can build small block houses.
7. Enjoy some warmth at the Botanic garden
If, like me, you prefer warm weather then head for the greenhouses at the University botanical gardens. It’s a little way out of the city centre but you can combine it with a walk through Citadelpark.
The outside garden didn’t contain a huge amount of interest in February but there was plenty to see inside the tropical and sub-tropical greenhouses – and they were warm!
8. Eat waffles
Another Belgian speciality. I realised halfway through my chocolate and cream covered concoction that I’d never eaten waffles in Belguim. It bore no resemblance to any waffle I’ve ever eaten before. It was sweet, light and slightly chewy, delicious!
Waffles cost a couple of euros from most street vendors, more if you cover them in melted Nutella. Ignore the calories, you’re on holiday.
9. Saviour the view from St Michael’s Bridge
This is the quintessential Ghent view, described as the Manhattan of the Middle Ages. Or, in non-tourist talk, it’s the opportunity to see three towers in a row; those of the Belfry, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church. I think it’s the one picture all tourists attempt to take even if it does mean getting mown down by a bus whilst you’re standing in the road.
10. Wander the streets around Patershol
This trendy neighbourhood is a small area of cobbled streets and restored houses. A place to wander aimlessly.
We visited during the afternoon when it was very quiet. Lovely to look at but almost deserted. I assume the restaurants liven things up in the evenings.
11. See the vineyard at St Peter’s Abbey
We stopped here on our walk back from the botanical garden as I wanted to see another city centre garden.
This garden is unique as it contains a vineyard. In the middle of a city. Although only planted in the 1980s there are references to earlier vineyards onsite from the 9th Century. The monks must have loved their wine. I wonder what it tasted like?
12. Graffiti street, off Hoogpoort
This is a pedestrianised alleyway full of graffiti which gives you a break from the medieval-ness of Ghent. It is as its name says; full of tags rather than street art. The teens liked it.
13. Ride a tram
The centre of Ghent is easily walkable so there’s no great need to use the trams. However my son was desperate to ride one so we took a tram to the railway station on our final day. It would have been cheaper to use a taxi but nowhere near as novel.
14. Little noses (cuberdons)
These cone shaped sweets (like noses) are a Ghent speciality. You can buy them for around 3-5 euros from street vendors. Fruit flavoured, with a hard shell and soft filling, they were an acquired taste but my son insisted he liked them.
15. Visit the cathedrals and churches
I’m not religious but do appreciate the history and architecture of churches, particularly ones as huge and ornate as those in Ghent. That said, with teens in tow visiting the cathedrals and churches was never going to be top of the sightseeing list.
Despite this we visited St Bavo’s Cathedral, where we spotted a whale skeleton but missed out the Ghent Altarpiece.
We also popped into St Peter’s church (next to the Abbey) and admired several others from outside.
Ghent – the verdict
We loved Ghent and I’d highly recommend it as a short break destination. We easily filled two full days with sightseeing. Another day, or even two, would have been ideal so we could see more museums and perhaps take a boat tour.
Ghent isn’t as overtly pretty as Bruges but I preferred it. There are far fewer tourists (in February at least) but lots of students which gives it a different feel.
We travelled by Eurostar to Brussels. From Brussels we took a train to Gent-Sint-Pieters Station. The train takes about 30 minutes; we’d already bought a Eurostar ticket which was valid to any Belgium station so there was no need to purchase a separate ticket.
We stayed in a studio apartment which you can see on the Stay at Ghent website. The second floor duplex studio was perfect for us but had a mezzanine and is reached via a steep staircase so not suitable for those with mobility difficulties or young children.
Belguim has two official languages; Flemish and French. Whilst I can get by in French Ghent is in the Flemish speaking area. It pains me to say but you’re better off speaking English.
There are different ways to approach the 1000 mile target. Some participants count every step, others include only miles in walking boots. I’ve chosen to include all purposeful walks, including my lunchtime strolls along with more rugged mountain walks. I’m excluding the mundane miles; shopping, walking around the house or trips into town. No pleasure in those.
My challenge got off to a slow start as I only decided to take part halfway through the month. Whilst you can start anytime I decided to back date it to the beginning of January so that all my miles are completed in 2018. This gives me an average weekly mileage target of 19.25 miles.
I’m not a winter person so I always knew getting outside in January would be tough. Give me warmth and sun over drizzle, mud and grey skies. I also run several days per week so when I’ve got wet and cold once there’s less incentive to go outside again.
It’s therefore no surprise that most mileage in January came from my daily lunchtime and other regular walks. We walked longer routes at the weekends, although sometimes it was just a loop around a nearby nature reserve.
Favourite January walks
A couple of walks stand out. My favourite was a nine mile circular walk from Goring-on-Thames to Pangbourne. The outward route took us up onto the hills where we stopped for a winter picnic. Battling muddy woods, muddy farm tracks and muddy fields (spot a theme?) we dropped down to Whitchurch and on to Pangbourne for a reviving cup of coffee. We walked back to Goring alongside the River Thames, enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. It’s an area I often visit in summer to see the rare orchids at Hartslock Nature Reserve, but this time we kept to the Thames Path trail and didn’t deviate into the reserve.
In Goring we stopped briefly at George Michael’s house. The lane outside has become a shrine for his fans, with flags, photos and mementos left from all over the world. It’s an impressive display but I wonder what the neighbours think!
Another weekend took us from Badbury Hill to Great Coxwell Barn and back through the woods. It was a drab, cold and muddy day, made interesting with a visit to the 13th Century Great Coxwell barn. This huge stone barn still has its original timber framed roof and it’s amazing to think of all the historical events that have taken place in its 700 year life. More muddy farm tracks took us back to Badbury Woods. In May these are awash with bluebells and visitors. In January there are clusters of snowdrops. Not enough to bring the serious photographers out but they still brightened up the day.
Despite my efforts, January ended with a mileage deficit. I’m not too worried as I’ll catch up in spring. I’m looking forward to some warmer mud free walks!