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!
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 can 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; one of the panels is still missing from the 1934 theft. 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.
Despite living only 40 minutes drive from the Chilterns we don’t visit as often as we should. Stretching across four counties, from Bedfordshire to Oxfordshire, they’re less well known than the Cotswolds but a great option for walkers in hill deprived southern England.
The area is characterised by beech woodlands, chalk hills and brick and flint villages. Autumn, when the leaves change colour, is impossibly pretty. It also seems to be the only time of year I remember that I live close to the Chiltern Hills. There is an inherent switch in me; falling leaves equals walk in the Chilterns.
Add into this mix a fantastic cafe whose existence I’d only recently discovered. It was time to head to the Chilterns.
We started in Turville, a small village with an impressive screen pedigree. Scenes from Midsomer Murders, Lewis and Jonathan Creek have all been shot here. And you may even recognise St Mary’s Church, renamed as St Barnabas Church, which featured in the Vicar of Dibley. Of course all of this was lost on my Netflix generation of children.
Leaving Turville we walked up through Churchfield Wood, emerging beside the security cameras of Turville Court.
It’s fair to say many of the home owners round here are rather well heeled. Whilst Google couldn’t name the owner of Turville Court we did discover it was sold for £18 million in 2015. It has 26 bathrooms, 13 bedrooms and interior decoration which is definitely not to my taste.
As we walked on we were treated to the sight of about 30 red kites circling above a nearby field. Kites are common in the Chilterns but I did wonder what was attracting the carrion eaters. Or maybe I read too many crime novels.
The next property, Turville Grange, is the country retreat of an influential American family and has previously been owned by both the Henry Ford family and the younger sister of Jacqueline Onassis. The footpath passes between the house and walled garden so you can sneak a view of the estate. Oh how the other half live!
The Barn at Turville Heath
Pub walks may be popular for beer lovers but I’m not much of a drinker. I prefer a cafe with coffee and cake any day. When I heard about The Barn Cafe in Turville Heath I knew it would be a perfect lunch stop.
One niggling concern was that I wasn’t sure exactly where it was. I was therefore relieved our walking route took us right to the front door. This is one of its great features. It’s a no car cafe; you can only reach it on foot, bicycle or horse.
As befits the name it’s a cafe in a barn; keep an eye out for the old Land Rover in the kitchen! The cafe serves its own Dexter cows in the form of beef burger and ghoulash, along with other home reared and local products. I was pleasantly surprised to find several veggie and vegan options.
We sat inside but there’s limited seating so do come prepared for an outdoor lunch. After our excellent burgers we just about had room for something sweet so shared a slice of lemon and blueberry cake. Rarely get that in a pub!
Onwards towards Ibstone
It was time to walk off our lunch. From Turville Heath we took the footpath leading down to Holloway Lane, and back uphill the other side. Did you know Holloway is another name for a sunken lane? It described this road perfectly.
At Hell Corner Farm, previously owned by the Labour MP Barbara Castle, we turned towards Ibstone and walked a track through the woods. The kids found a rope swing and argued over it for a couple of minutes.
These woods were the reason I wanted to walk in the Chilterns. We kicked through leaves, spotted fungi and watched the sunlight filter through the trees. It really was the most gorgeous day.
We emerged onto the road near Ibstone House, yet another mansion owned by the super rich. After a short road section we headed back into the woods, eventually arriving near Cobstone Mill.
Privately owned Cobstone Mill stands proudly on a hill above Turville. The 200 year old windmill has starred in numerous TV programmes and films including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Somebody from the TV location agencies must really love this area. Or live here.
From the windmill it’s a very steep walk back down the hill into Turville. So steep that it was hard not to run down it. Although I’d probably end up falling over if I attempted to do so.
Back in Turville we mooched around the church and admired the houses. It’s a gorgeous area and we really must make the effort to visit more than once a year. Particularly now I know a great cafe for lunch!
The Barn at Turville Heath offers full service during weekends and a limited menu with self service during the week.
The short grey days of winter do their best to encourage hibernation. Or at least give the kids an excuse to spend all day indoors on technology. Instead I lured them out with the promise of a pub lunch. I may have forgotten to tell them about the walk afterwards but they’re old enough to realise this for themselves now.
Lunch at The Bell Inn, Aldworth
I generally prefer cafes to pubs for lunch (more chance of cake) but I make an exception for the Bell Inn in Aldworth. This tiny traditional freehouse epitomises the classic English village pub; it even has a cricket pitch out back.
Whenever we visit the pub is packed with locals, walkers and families. As you enter there’s a small serving hatch to place your order for food and drink. A room leads off to one side with several tables and a fireplace but we’ve never managed to get a seat indoors yet.
Instead, after placing our order, we retreated to the pub garden to find a seat. There aren’t many places I’d consider sitting outside in the depths of winter but this is one of them. Fortunately we had a picnic rug in the car so I popped back to get it to cover the wet benches.
The food is simple, cheap and delicious. A choice of soup, rolls or ploughmans; I opted for a cheese and onion roll. The warm buttered roll arrived with a huge chunk of cheese, half an onion and various accompaniments. I don’t drink beer but the pub’s local ale offerings are evidently excellent.
Before leaving I squeezed back through the pub to pop to the Ladies. Compared to the men’s open air option this was luxury, although the plumbing looked circa 1930s.
A circular walk from Aldworth to Ashampstead
I had bought my trusty OS map with me so put together a circular walk of sorts, taking us from Aldworth to the next village, Ashampstead, visiting their renowned churches. The area is wonderful for walking with the Ridgeway and many downland options nearby. We were short on daylight though so only had time to squeeze in a couple of miles.
St Mary’s Church, Aldworth
St Mary’s Church is famous as the home of the Aldworth Giants, nine stone effigies of the De La Beche family. The family were local landowners in the 14th Century and were supposedly all over seven feet tall! Sadly the effigies were damaged during the Civil War so many sport broken limbs.
The church is also notable for its thousand year old yew tree. When I mentioned this to the family I was met with howls of despair. A few months earlier we had driven ‘halfway across France’ (so they say) to look at a thousand year old oak tree, which had rather underwhelmed them. The yew tree made even less of an impression than the oak. But at least we hadn’t made a special journey just to see it.
On to Ashampstead
Our onward route to Ashampstead wasn’t the best. It started out well with a muddy wander through the woods. Lots of pheasant feeding stations. Along with pheasants. Always ready to cause a heart attack by unexpectedly flying out of the undergrowth.
The downside was the road walking. There aren’t many direct routes, solely using footpaths, between the two villages so we resorted to using country lanes. These were nice enough and easier walking than mud. But the drivers were making the most of the open road, whizzing by us with little space to spare. Not the relaxing walk I was hoping for.
It was a relief to walk on footpaths again as we arrived in Ashampstead. Fun to spot this re-purposed telephone box cum library too. I’m glad the village managed to keep hold of it when so many are sold off to private owners.
St Clement’s Church, Ashampstead
I’m not a churchgoer so it’s pretty unusual for me to visit one church, let alone two in one day! But I’d read about the medieval wall paintings at St Clement’s Church and decided a visit was worthwhile. Probably painted by a monk in the 13th Century they were covered up in the 16th Century and only discovered again in the late 1800s when some plaster fell off the wall.
Some of the paintings were hard to make out but when you consider they’re more than 700 years old it’s an achievement they’re still there.
I was taken by the wooden bell tower too. I’m sure that when I had an I-Spy Churches book back in the 1970s, a wooden tower would have been worth a few more points than the common stone one!
With only an hour to go until dusk we didn’t hang around on the way back. Although some of the route was through woods we still had to contend with the roads and I didn’t fancy being caught out on them in decreasing light.
Walking back towards Aldworth we passed Beche Farm, once the site of the De La Beche family castle. Nothing remains these days, the only evidence of its existence being a silver seal which was dug up and donated to Reading museum. Onwards past Aldworth’s second pub, The Four Points. How does a village with only 300 inhabitants support two thriving pubs?
Back into Aldworth and the treat of some chocolate chip shortbread that I’d left in the car for our return. You didn’t really expect me to complete a walk without cake did you?
The Bell Inn is closed on Mondays, with the exception of Bank Holidays. Bar food is served at lunchtime and early evening on all other days.
I wouldn’t recommend our particular walking route! If you’ve got a day to spare the circular route from Goring along the Ridgeway is good. Alternatively grab the OS map and devise a longer route that avoids the roads where possible.