Autumn has come a little earlier than I’d like, but it’s been a good summer. I look back fondly on a selection of mini-adventures and want to share with you here some of the memories made.
Three is company this year. No longer just Lucy and me, but little Ethan as well. Much as I would like to meet Frodo, Sam & Pippin and go hiking through the Woody End, I’d choose my own trio every time.
Ethan is an exceptionally well-travelled five-month-old, having been on the road quite a lot since he came home with us. We’ve whizzed him around different parts of England – from Warwickshire to Suffolk and from Surrey to West Yorkshire – and he’s even been abroad, using his very first passport.
Travelling with a baby certainly brings its challenges – not least the sheer amount of space required by the buggy and other accompanying paraphernalia. All’s well when he’s asleep, blissfully unaware of the motorway miles zooming by, but when awake it can be quite stressful. It either entails a lot more stops than planned for, or significant stretches of time stuck in the front seats, unable to pull over and comfort the screaming little hitchhiker. Worst of all, his bouts of yelling tend to coincide with a stationery vehicle – say, in a traffic jam – which adds up to not much fun.
Still, for the most part he has coped wonderfully well, and we’ve loved having him with us as we’ve explored, visiting family and exploring a network of National Trust properties. Thus we’ve been to Anglesey Abbey, Wimpole Hall, Ickworth House, Polesden Lacey and Claremont Gardens.
There’ll be more about our National Trust discoveries in a later post, but for us the summer really kicked off with a celebration of our sixth wedding anniversary at Ardencote Manor in Warwickshire. What was supposed to have been a pre-birth pregnancy pampering experience actually turned into a mini-honeymoon getaway with a three-month-old in tow. With a careful tag-team system of handovers we managed to relax, enjoy the hotel’s facilities to the full and savour the charms of beautiful Charlecote Park, a beautiful Elizabethan manor nearby on the banks of the Avon.
Next came a jaunt around the West Country in which we introduced our firstborn to no less than three great-grandmothers, who were all thrilled to see him (even if he was unwittingly indifferent). The weather could have been better, but even under leaden skies with the smell of drizzle still hanging in the air Stourhead Gardens is a fabulous place. Breathtakingly beautiful and impeccably-designed by the far-sighted Capability Brown (a name ubiquitous in our visits this summer), this may just be one of my favourite places in these islands of ours, up there with Striding Edge in the Lake District, Land’s End and the wooded vales of Wiltshire.
After that it was across the channel to charming Les Hirondelles, where, nearly a year ago, one of our best ever holidays was crowned with the news that Lucy was expecting. Knowing that our little passenger wouldn’t cope with the full 6-hour drive from Calais, we arranged a stop-over half-way down, and where better than Versailles? It was one of the big Parisian attractions that we didn’t manage to chalk off on our whirlwind tour the previous summer (A Weekend in Paris), and a destination I’d been eying up for a while.
Louis XIV’s masterpiece was every bit as stunning as expected, a soaring edifice of baroque grandeur, every railing and interior decoration dripping with gold in an opulent display of Ancien régime decadence. I swiftly learned that trying to follow an audio-tour whilst taking photos and cradling a sleeping infant is impossible, so I ditched the former and managed to have a thoroughly enjoyable walk around the palace, all the while making sure that my son wasn’t crushed or suffocated.
The ceiling of the chapel rivals that of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, and the Hall of Mirrors is impressive (though the glasswork is not as polished as the mind’s eye would assume), but my highlight was undoubtedly the Battlefields Gallery, a long corridor festooned with depictions of France’s military triumphs, from Charles Martel fending off the Moors at Tours in the 8th century to Napoleon’s catalogue of 18th and 19th-century victories. I’d love to see the as-yet-un-built equivalent that would be even longer: France’s military defeats.
The gardens at Versailles are absolutely enormous, so big that a mini-train is needed to ferry visitors around, and far more than we could hope to get round in a day. We explored a few of the fountains and tree-lined avenues, drinking in the classical imagery and the superb craftsmanship, and had lunch by the side of the Grand Canal. One of my many unanswered questions on departure was why on earth this giant rust-coloured monstrosity had been dumped right in the middle of the otherwise flawless lawn between the palace and the canal? Clearly someone thought it was a good idea, but I suspect Louis XIV, the visionary tyrant, about whom there is as much to deplore as to admire, would have liberated his/her witless head from their shoulders.
As on the way down, so on the way back up we broke up the long drive by visiting some of France’s historical treats. Having been inspired by our visit to Valencay last year [link to previous post], we went one better and stopped at Chambord, of all the Loire chateaux surely the most extravagant. Although begun by Francis I, a contemporary of Henry VIII, it has been added to so much that it really reflects a later style. A masterpiece of architecture and set amidst stunning parkland the size of central Paris, what is perhaps most astonishing is how little time any one person spent living there. If I owned the place you’d need a crowbar to get me out.
Whoever designed it, however, seems to have had tourists like us in mind, for the unique double spiral staircase in the chateau’s heart is a wonderful anti-congestion feature, allowing you to stop off at whatever floor takes your fancy without being held up by hordes of others. Only problem is, the symmetrical quarters leading off from the stairs were so alike that it was impossible not to get lost. But I was happily lost, enjoying the architecture, the paintings and the little vignettes of historical life from many different eras.
Our final stop was in the historic cathedral town of Chartres, which boasts one of the world’s great churches – Notre Dame de Chartres. Our accommodation was a snug little bed and breakfast nestled on the side of a leafy plaza, just a leisurely stroll from the cathedral through a honeycomb of old cobbled streets. We dined well at Le Petit Serpente in the shadow of the cathedral, and then I discovered to my delight that Chartres en lumières was going on all summer, meaning all the highlights of the city would be lit up at night.
What I saw surpassed my wildest expectations – not just the cathedral was lit up but the smaller churches and most of the old bridges along the Eure river as well. Nor are we talking bog-standard lights either – this was a vivid and multi-media treat for the eyes. The history of the cathedral, its construction and patrons, was beamed onto the magnificent architecture with an enchanting soundtrack playing in accompaniment. It was a magical experience, all the better for being unlooked-for.
Next morning I did a more conventional exploration of the cathedral by daylight, savouring the majestic carvings inside and the intricate details of the heavily-decorated portals outside. Finally I shinned up the 300 spiral steps to two-thirds of the way up the 115m gothic steeple, for vertiginous views down over the old city and the copper-plated cathedral roof. Thus I added breathless exhilaration and birds-eye panoramic views to the venerable atmosphere and fantastic craftsmanship I’d already encountered.
In short, Chartres was as nice a city-break as I’ve ever had, and it capped a summer of golden memories. We’ve proved to ourselves that having adventures with a baby is possible, so I’m already looking forward to the next ones. Thanks for reading. I wonder what the autumn and winter of 2015 have in store?