24 August 2012

Events & Entertainments in England

England is having an event-led recovery this year: first the Queen's Jubilee, now the Olympics. I have never seen so many Union Jacks or so much bunting. Our aim was to enjoy England without bothering with either of the above, in particular to stay as far away as possible from the Olympic frenzy. We planned to hug the south coast en route to Devon, then travel to Yorkshire keeping well clear of London. But we forget to take the torch relay into account and when we arrive in Dover it is heading towards us. We manage to pass it in Hastings as we and the torch stay there on the same night, but we avoid getting caught up in any of the waving and cheering.
Nevertheless our time in England is full of events and entertainment. It begins with a trip to Glyndebourne to see La Boheme. I joined the Glyndebourne Returns Club in Australia in the hope of nabbing some returns for the performance on the Thursday after we arrive, and achieve this by phone from the ferry terminal in Calais. As we haven't packed Peter's dinner suit or my tiara, we then have the challenge of equipping ourselves with the appropriate apparel and accoutrements to attend a performance and have the traditional picnic in the gardens. A day in Lewes is spent going to all the op shops, or charity shops as they call them here, and we acquire, for a modest outlay, a dress shirt and bow tie for Peter to wear with his reefer jacket and grey pants, a velvet jacket for me to put on over my black and gold top and black pants, a picnic rug, real glass champagne flutes, smoked salmon, chicken, salad, cheese, strawberries and a bottle of bubbly. Amazingly, it is the first day that it hasn't rained for months, and although it isn't warm, I don't actually need the black throw I've bought for extra coverage. It serves to hide our French supermarket bag into which we've packed the picnic goodies. The uncertainty in the weather means that most of the audience that night choose to eat indoors, so we have our choice of prime picnic spots. And not only is the performance wonderful, but we have three empty seats in front of our seats in the fifth row of the stalls. It was Peter's first experience of Glyndebourne, so I am delighted that everything goes so well, especially the weather.
During our stay in Devon we manage a series of events, first of which is an art show and reading of poetry, all inspired by the local scenery. We later visit some of the beaches and walk on Dartmoor to see the places captured in words and paint. We have an amazing eight days of unbroken fine weather at this stage of our trip and it is so warm I even brave the sea for a swim. A "Round Robin" trip from Dartmouth to Totnes and back by ferry, steam train, bus and ferry is a highlight, as is watching our host perform as one of a bell-ringing team in the local parish church. But the best day for me is my birthday, when my step-daughter takes me sailing on her yacht in Salcombe, with our respective husbands, and we finish the day with a splendid dinner in an excellent local restaurant.
In our travels to Devon and from there to Yorkshire, we visit five of England's wonderful cathedrals: Salisbury on the way there, and Glastonbury (ruined), Tewkesbury, Ely and Lincoln on our way north. In Salisbury our visit coincides with a special evensong and we stay to enjoy that, but as a result we miss the opportunity to see the copy of Magna Carta held there, which particularly disappoints Peter. However we discover that there is an even older one at Lincoln so are able to go and gaze reverently at that one instead. Lincoln also holds an equally ancient and significant document called the Charter of the Forest, so we get two for the price of one. We also manage to tick off another one of the things I've always wanted to do by stopping in Stratford to see a Shakespeare performance there. It is a performance of Much Ado About Nothing, set in India and with an all-Indian cast (English Indians). The transposition works beautifully, even with Bollywood-style dancing. We love it, and the walk along the Avon to and from our B&B, rain-free despite heavy showers during the afternoon.
Our stay in Goldsborough in Yorkshire is planned to be a quiet wind-down to ready us for the transition home, with a bit of pottering around nearby North Yorkshire areas, and so it is. But we do have one event when our hostess throws a "Welcome the Aussies" party in the middle of our stay. Her lovely garden is decorated with Aussie flags and bunting, and an assortment of small stuffed marsupials. The guests have been asked to dress up and there are a plethora of hats with corks, one with stelvin seals instead, the odd boomerang, a whingeing pom hat, a Ned Kelly outfit with "Winner of the Gold Medal for Shooting, 1880" stuck on the back of his "helmet", an inverted gold paper shopping bag with appropriately placed slits. They are a great crowd and have put much effort into the outfits. Much wine is drunk and a good time had by all. And so we finish a wonderful three month trip with a host of memories.

La Baule

La Baule is what Surfers Paradise might look like if it had been developed 50 years earlier by people with taste and discernment. A very wide, very long, south-facing beach curves between two headlands. Two hundred years ago, there was just a line of sand dunes separating the Atlantic and a salt swamp, just like Queensland, except that the swampy bit, the Marais Salant, has been turned into salt pans and farmed for salt for centuries. Early in the nineteenth century, the unstable dunes finally buried most of the tiny fishing village of Escoublac, and a forest of pines was then planted to stabilise the dunes. In 1879 a train line was built. The journey from Paris took just 7 hours - enterprising developers decided this was the place for a resort. The first built dozens of villas with their own particular style, part traditional Breton, part mock medieval, with an overlay of Art Deco. As with much French architecture, the consistency of style makes the whole development singularly attractive. The second developer added grand hotels and a Casino in the 1920s and had the railway moved from the beach to the back of the town. Some time in the 1940s or 1950s La Baule became so popular that a string of apartment buildings was built all along the beach front. It sounds appalling, but because there is a height limit of about 5 stories and the architecture is again consistent, it is actually OK, although I bet the owners of the villas who lost their view of the beach were upset at the time.
The quality of the cars driving around in La Baule indicates that this is still predominantly a playground for the wealthy, but most people living there don't drive at all. Streets were laid out before the advent of the automobile, so they are narrow and now part of a complex one-way system. As it is fairly flat, everyone walks or rides bikes. Our host, whom I met a year ago in Melbourne, inherited an old villa from his parents, but his normal residence is an apartment in the heart of Paris. He doesn't own a car, comes to La Baule by train (now a three hour journey), and then uses the bikes he keeps in his garage, and which we now use to go places that are too far to walk. His villa Colibri is near the Avenue President Charles de Gaulle, the main shopping and restaurant strip set at right angles to the road that runs along the beachfront, and is also within easy walking distance of the market, so most of our exploring is done on foot. The market is wonderful, and open every day, so we alternate between eating out and eating at the villa. Our host comes for the weekend to get us set up and show us the way to the market and favourite shops, then returns to Paris, leaving us to the care of his friends who live in one of the beachfront apartment buildings. They provide advice on where to go, so we bicycle to the Breton fishing villages of Le Pouliguen and Batz-sur-Mer, looking at the Marais Salant en route, drive to more villages: Le Croisic and La Turballe, and to the mediaeval walled town of Guerande. We also pursue our canal exploration and research, driving to Redon where a canal intersects a river via a couple of locks, then to Messac to look at second-hand boats.
For the first time on our holiday, the weather is less than perfect. After looking as though it was improving for the first two days, it deteriorates into cool and showery, with one day of non-stop rain. With no beach weather, even I am not tempted to swim, and nor are the rest of the La Baule inhabitants, although there are plenty of people sailing and windsurfing on the bay. We are very pleased that our new found friends invite us to their apartment on the night of Bastille Day, as we can watch the absolutely splendid display of fireworks, let off from barges moored off-shore, without having to freeze sitting on the beach. At least it doesn't rain during the evening, and there is a big crowd on the beach despite the weather.
On the less clement days, we do a bit of gardening and maintenance on the house (which is a bit neglected as our host has a very demanding job and can only rarely find time to visit). After a week we feel quite part of the community of La Baule, especially as we have been so well looked after and made so welcome by his friends. It is high on the list of places to come back to next time, maybe when we have fulfilled our canal barge dream and are travelling the rivers and canals of Brittany.