I thought I’d time my walk today for lunchtime and, as I thought, I had the place to myself. Being Sunday, I presume most people are eating out or at home tucking into ‘le rosbif’ or even pasta or pizza.
So this is Sandown, Isle of Wight, on a beautiful sunny day in April, looking down from the Cliff Path that runs between this town and the next town, Shanklin, then down a steep path on to the beach. I walked through to the Cliff Path from the main road, it looks quite woody and yes, it is, with hidden niches, wild flowers, primroses and bluebells sheltering under gnarled old trees, and the inevitable folly.
By now, the beach will be full of walkers, the ice-cream kiosks will be doing a roaring trade, and the Pier will be packed with children on the bouncy castle and various other amusements.
The tables that were empty at lunch-time will be occupied with people drinking teas and coffees, snacking on home-made cakes, and perhaps sitting back reading the Sunday papers.
Culver Cliff, the massive white chalk cliff that curves around the edge of Sandown, hiding Whitecliff Bay and Bembridge, catches the light when the sun shines, and out on the horizon are cruise liners and cargo ships bound inward for Southampton, or outward for foreign parts.
Some have been here with me before, but the beaches around the island never fail to please me, and walking on the sands, or on the revetment that runs under the cliff, or even on the pavement where convenient benches make stopping to take in the view even more of a pleasure, makes this my favourite walk – always.
Surprises come in many forms and here are three of mine.
I was totally bowled over by the tame wild-life (well, rabbits, squirrels, peacocks and other birds) which allowed me to get up close and personal on one of Croatia’s islands. This was helped no doubt, by the fact that it was traffic-free. I fear however, that the hundreds of Game of Thrones fans who are invading the islands at the moment, may soon render this a thing of the past.
In Cyprus recently, I was surprised, and pleased, that the island wasn’t trying to hide its revolutionary past. This bronze grouping was perfectly placed to remind people of what the island had gone through to achieve it’s current tentative peace.
The beauty of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto, Japan, should not have surprised me but it did. A cool, calm, oasis of tranquillity in the midst of a busy city it had a calming effect on everyone. I noticed that even mobile phones were less in use here than elsewhere – how’s that for peace!
I’ve written before about Honfleur, my favourite French town, but before this year I’d only visited it in summer. I arrived in France on New Year’s Eve this time, not by car as I had done before, but on a ship which sailed down the Seine from L’Havre to Rouen.
On the journey we looked out on a wondrous scene of frost-covered trees on the banks of the river, trees which at first I took to be silver birch, so thickly covered in frost were they.
I had never seen anything like this before, and it was made more fascinating by the fact that there were also pockets of greenery where the frost had not reached.
Rouen – the Great Clock
Honfleur is no far from Rouen so it seemed a good idea to take ourselves off there for the day, even though I had presumed the town would be mostly closed up for the winter. But no, the town was as busy as ever with cafés, restaurants and bars open and packed with visitors. As usual, the area around the marina, the Vieux Basin, was the most crowded and we had a problem finding a table at lunch time.
Honfleur, an essential stop on any Norman itinerary, is still a fishing port, and despite its sophisticated yacht harbour and fantastic high-rise houses surrounding it, the town has preserved its rich artistic and historic heritage in its traditional buildings and picturesque streets and squares. It is unlike any other part of Normandy, seeming to bear no relation to industrial Le Havre just across the Seine estuary or the Pays dAuge to the south.
The oldest part of Honfleur lies in the area of the Vieux Bassin, a tangle of delightful cobbled streets and alleys known as L’Enclos, the original medieval town of Honfleur enclosed within the first town walls.
Here you will find the oldest church, the deconsecrated 14th and 15th century St. Etienne’s, a Gothic parish church constructed of chalk with flint and Caen stone. The bell tower is covered with a façade of chestnut wood in the local tradition, as indeed, are many of the old houses behind it.
Behind this is the original 17th-century Greniers a Sel (salt warehouses) the royal salt stores that once contained 11,000 tonnes of salt for preserving the locally caught fish and the Atlantic cod and herring which the fleets landed.
The Bassin is surrounded by picturesque narrow houses, and without doubt this is what catches the eye of every visitor upon their first visit to Honfleur. The real jewels (and looking like jewels too because each one is a different colour) are in the row along the Quai St. Catherine, some of the houses being 10-stories high, with slate roofs and half-timbered and slate façades looking as though they might topple over at any minute.
An interesting fact about these narrow 16th and 18th century houses that are squeezed against one another on St Catherine’s quay is that not only are they all different in size, shape, and colour, but that they also have two ground floors: one opening on to the quay and another one, half way up opening behind on to either Dauphin Street or Logettes Street. Because of this, each house is privately owned by two different householders.
Honfleur’s finest architectural prize is the old wooden Church of St. Catherine which was built by shipwrights in the 15th and 16th century just outside the walls of the medieval town, using wood from the nearby forest.
This is the largest wooden church with a separate bell-tower in France. The interior architecture of the church is quite remarkable, as the shipwrights used their naval construction skills in the building of it (stone was scarce but timber was plentiful in the neighbouring forests) and in shape inside it resembles an overturned double hull. Look closely at the pillars and you will see many irregularities pointing to the crudeness of the tools used in the work. The separate bell tower, opposite the church, is an oak construction built above the bell-ringer’s house and this serves as an annexe to the Eugène Boudin Museum – a must for art lovers.
Honfleur has been attracting painters to the area for generations. Boudin, known as the father of Impressionism, was born in Honfleur and painters such as Monet, Corot, Daubigny and Dufy were drawn to these parts by the beauty and quality of the light. Their work is well represented in the many galleries in the area. The painters usually stayed just outside the town at Ferme St. Simeon, then a rustic auberge, now a very grand and beautiful five-star hotel standing in magnificent grounds.
Honfleur was also the birthplace in 1886 of the avant-garde musician, artist and writer, Erik Satie, and there is a Museum dedicated to the man where you can immerse yourself in his quirky world. Unlike any other museum you’ve been to, this one takes you from room to room to the accompaniment of Satie’s music (via electronic headsets). stunning visual effects and extracts from his writing. Even if Satie is not one of your favourites, this is a very special experience which I’d highly recommend.
It is very easy to walk around this small town and you won’t get lost. However, like many towns, Honfleur has a Petit Train Touristique, a tractor-drawn ‘train’ that trundles around the main tourist spots, operating May-September. If only there for a day, I’d recommend this.
A walk along the seafront at Sandown, Isle of Wight, with my friend Steve from London, a brilliant photographer who has brought his camera with him, produced some great images that I’d like to share with you. Sandown shares with Shanklin, the next town, a marvellous crescent of golden beach, perfect for safe swimming – one of the reasons why both towns attract families with young children.
Sandown also has the Dinosaur Museum, this being Dinosaur Island, and Shanklin has a wonderful Chine that leads from the centre of the old town, down through ferny green walks, to the beach and the sea.
But Sandown has something more frivolous – beach huts that make one smile, because the custom here is to give them all peculiar, funny names, a play on the word ‘hut’ more than ‘funny’, clever, quirky, and guaranteed to make one smile.
Steve took these photos for me. I hope you like them too. You may have to click on the images to enlarge the name plaques.
So there you have it, Sandown Esplanade beneath the Cliff Path and along the beach on a delightful walk that leads to Shanklin (well lit during the evening as well) with cafes, life-guards, invigorating breezes and views of giant ships leaving Portsmouth and Southampton for foreign ports, as you walk along.
And for the last photo, well, it speaks for itself.