Saturday, November 25, 2023

London past and present

As a child in north London, I was fascinated by the gasometers, more formally known as gas holders, that were scattered around our environs. These massive circular structures stored the gas that used to be made from coal right up until the last quarter of the 20th century. As a small thing, I used to love watching how the holders inflated and deflated according to the demands made on them. Sunday lunchtime, for instance, was a time when they would always deflate, as the whole of London cooked their roast dinners – with gas, of course.

When my father moved into sheltered housing in the 1980s, the view from his flat looked over the rooftops to a gasometer, and I have a watercolour sketch he painted of it, which is very dear to me.

My father's watercolour of the gasometer in Redbridge

Imagine my delight, then, when we arrived at St Pancras for a day trip to London this last Wednesday and the first thing we saw after heading for the Regent's Canal was the newly renovated area behind King's Cross with its transformed gasometers. The story of how the area came to remain home to these landmarks from my youth can be found here. However, I didn't know that when we arrived.

As is always the case when Koos and I go somewhere, we head straight for the waterside, and coming into London on the Eurostar made this easy for us. The Regent's Canal is just a short walk from the station and it was in the area around St Pancras and King's Cross that we spent the day, absorbing the canal, the locks, the new developments and the old Battlebridge Basin with the London Canal Museum.

Our first sight of the canal was limited to a short stretch of towpath where a number of residential boats were lying. I always enjoy seeing these somewhat motley collections of liveaboard craft, so here are a few 

Looking west from St Pancras

A liveaboard? Hard to imagine, but who knows?

These two were definitely home to their owners

The floating garden

And more boats

I loved this old mooring ring

Realising we couldn't go further along this particular stretch, we headed back off the towpath and almost immediately found our way into a shopping complex created from the re-purposed Coal DropsYard. This was the name for the warehouses where coal was received from South Yorkshire for both the nearby gasometers and for transhipment onto the narrowboats on the Regent's Canal. The yard had fallen out of use over the years with the increased use of electricity, as had the gasometers, so it was wonderful to see how these old 19th century buildings and structures have now been renovated to serve another, more modern, function. The gasometer frames are being used to contain apartment buildings as well as a very special small park.

What I loved was that you can see them from so many places and angles, just as we could when I was a child.

Here they are behind the Coal Drops Yard where we had lunch

And again as we entered the shopping centre

A view from the towpath that we reached from Coal Drops yard

The original mechanism for raising and lowering
the holders

And lastly, the park in a gasometer frame,
which is there for everyone to enjoy

The gorgeous old St Pancras Waterpoint 

The lovely St Pancras Waterpoint above is also visible from many different angles. It has a special history as it was designed by the famous architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott and was built in 1872 as the water tower that served the King's Cross steam engines. However, its existence was threatened when the Eurostar tunnel to St Pancras was planned, but being such a historically important building, a decision was made to move it. The story of its relocation is here. I have to say I so admire British historical societies for their determination to maintain their heritage even at what, in this case, must have been considerable cost.

And, of course, we cannot have a canal without a lock
This is St Pancras Lock

After lunch, we took a look at King's Cross Station, which is one of my favourites. We didn't get to see the Harry Potter Platform, unfortunately, although I believe the fact it was at King's Cross was a mistake on JK Rowling's part. Apparently, she was thinking of Euston Station a bit further along the road. What's in a name, eh?

Our final stop of the day was at the London Canal Museum on Battlebridge Basin. I think it deserves a post all of its own, so I'll finish here with a photo of the residential moorings in the Basin. If I ever had the chance to live in London again, this is where I'd want to be. What a lovely, tranquil spot it was and right in the heart of the city too. Heaven on a boat!

So that's it for this time, allemaal. We only had six hours in London, but we had a wonderful day. Next time, I'll tell you all about the Italians who brought ice to the city. Now that's another story...

And this is for Rebecca, an entirely gratuitous
photo of Zoe.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Haute-Marne, the height of French rural loveliness

Well, here is the post I promised you all about our new destination in France. To recap, my daughter has bought a house in the Haute-Marne department of France's Grand-Est region. According to that wonderful source of all superficial knowledge, Wikipedia, Haute-Marne is one of the 83 departments created during the French Revolution in 1790. It was made up of parts of the Champagne, Burgundy, Lorraine and Franche Comté provinces, but is dominated by the beautiful Marne valley which runs through the department from its source just south of Langres to Saint-Dizier in the north before continuing out of Haute-Marne west on its way to Paris. The map below shows the course of the river along with all the tributaries that feed it.

The Marne and its feeder rivers

All the department's major towns are on the Marne. I say 'all', but there are only five of them: Langres, Nogent, Chautmont (the prefecture), Joinville and Saint-Dizier. Of these, only Saint-Dizier and Chautmont have populations over twenty thousand. The other three boast numbers well below ten thousand, with Joinville being the smallest at just over three thousand. 

Koos and I visited Chaumont and Joinville and were impressed by the sense of important urban life that both places exuded. Just as an example, our local town on the Dutch/Belgian border, Sas van Gent, has a larger population than Joinville but still feels like little more than a village. Joinville, on the other hand, seems to have bigger muscles and has more self-assurance as a town of substance. 

It also has a more aristocratic history than our Sas van Gent. Joinville was originally the site of an important castle in medieval times and gave its name to the title, Prince of Joinville, adopted by the renowned House of Guise. Its heritage is visible, giving a nod to classical French urban architecture in the centre and the delightful shuttered houses lining the Marne’s banks. There is a formal park, the remains of the castle and some gorgeous ancient backstreets, all the more delightful for their air of shabby chic.

Chaumont, a much larger city as well as being the department capital, also has a long and noble history. Dating back to the 12th century as a seat of the Counts of Bassigny and later of Champagne, there is not much remaining of its early origins, but the basilica dates from the 13th century and there's also the Tour Hautefeuille, an 11th century castle keep, the only morsel left from the chateau of the Counts of Champagne. I was sorry we didn't see as much of Chaumont as we'd have liked, but we've promised ourselves we'll redress that situation next time we go. That said, we had a good look at the amazing 19th century viaduct (as mentioned in my previous post) and had a drive around the town before Karen, our Google Satnav lady had a digital meltdown and got us lost (also in last post). The photo below was the view from the city at the top of the hill where we stopped to give Karen time to reflect on her shameful loss of control. 

View across the Marne valley from Chaumont's
city heights

I liked Chaumont back streets too. The local stone in Haute-Marne is limestone and I loved its pale colour with the gorgeous traditional shutters.

One of the back streets in Chaumont

Closer to where we were staying, the commune centre of Colombey-Les-Deux-Églises is a picture-perfect, very well maintained village famous for being the home of Charles de Gaulle. His family home was there, it’s where he is buried, and the Cross of Lorraine just outside the village commemorates his distinguished wartime career. I was expecting a town of some size, but it’s small, cosy and very pretty in a neatly manicured way – probably because it attracts so many tourists to the museum that bears De Gaulle's name. The memorial was inaugurated in 2008 by Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, presumably as an act of reconciliation. I remember my parents talking about De Gaulle when I was a child, but their comments weren't generally complimentary. 

For me, coming from the red brick environs and eclectic architecture of the north, Haute-Marne offered a serene uniformity in its villages and towns. The overall impression they gave me as we drove through the region was an uncluttered grace, even though many of the rural houses were run down and some were completely dilapidated. 

It took me a while to notice something else too: the sweep of the land is unbroken by farmhouses or barns. I can only assume the farmers have their homes and 'granges' in the villages and go out to their farms by tractor. Almost every house in my daughter's hamlet has a barn next to or at the back of it; many of them seem to be full of hay and machinery. Maybe this is the Haute-Marne way? If any of you reading this know, feel free to fill me in. The lack of buildings on the land adds to the impression of remote tranquillity, which I loved. In fact, I am itching to go back again. 

So that's it again allemaal. Hopefully, by next week we'll have some dryer weather and I can report on  outdoor activities that don't involve replacing broken roof tiles or placing buckets to catch the drips from our leaky sunroom roof. For those who haven't seen it yet, I'll finish with a photo of the Legend of the Ladder himself, Koos, doing the final touches after replacing five tiles that went west with the wind.

Thursday, November 02, 2023

Autumn: normal service resumed

Since we came back from France on October the 22nd, life has reverted to the usual autumnal offering of wet, windy weather. We were blessed with some gorgeous sunny days down in the Haute-Marne, but it's true to say that the day before we left even the weather there changed and our drive home ended in ploughing through the back spray from speeding cars on the highway north to the Netherlands.

From that day on, it's been hard to find moments to walk Zoe without getting drenched. My poor little pup doesn't enjoy being wet, so even though I've got her a raincoat, she runs so close to ground, she's pretty much always  a soggy, mud-spattered sausage by the time we get home. This sad and sodden state is usually brightened somewhat by the great game of 'fight the towel'–a romp she enjoys with gusto – but it takes ages for her to dry, by which time we have to go out again and repeat the process.

Of course our dug-up road, which is still not finished, isn't helping matters. The company doing the work is supposed to have completed laying the new surface by the 10th of November, but owing to the daily downpours, they can't do much other than turn up every morning, inspect the sandy base, decide it's too wet and go away again. Sometimes, like today, they scrape the sand smooth and do a few more metres, but then the rain starts again and off they go.

Maybe I should explain why the process takes so long. Here in the Netherlands, almost everything is built on sand and that includes the roads. Being a country that was largely wrested from the sea, our soil lacks the kind of substance that 'real land' has. While the tarred main highways and through routes are constructed on solid bases of hardcore that has to be added to the sandy loam, our village street is made up of bricks laid straight onto sand. There is a layer of rubble-type material to give some firmness to the base, but  above that is thick, smooth sand onto which the bricks are laid in a sort of hounds-tooth pattern. It looks great when it's finished, but it takes forever to lay when the weather is inclement. The men tell us they cannot work on wet sand because it has no 'give', which seems to be important. I admire their skill, however. It's fascinating to watch them work so neatly and speedily when they have the chance.

The current status, but they still have about 300 metres to go

They first dug the road up at the end of August, two long months ago, but I honestly don't see them finishing it before the end of November. And so we trudge through our own personal beach every day, bringing mounds of it into the house every time we come in. Such is life.

Boat work has also reached a hiatus. There's nothing that can be done when it rains at least part of every day. My dearest wish would be to have something like a large boathouse where we could just work on under cover; wouldn't that be great? If anyone knows of one for hire in this area, do let me know.

By the way, I know I promised you all some more on the area around my daughter's new French home, but work has been very busy this last week, so I haven't had time to do any further research. Next time, I promise. For now, we're just waiting for storm Ciarán to move on. Like a hyper-active child on the rampage, he's made something of a mess on our country roads, but so far, no other damage. My thoughts are with all those on the French and British coasts who've taken the worst hammering.

That's it for this time then, allemaal, so here's a gratuitous photo of Zoe, courtesy of Koos, and a boaty pic or two to remind you of where my interests really lie.

Update on the storm: we've lost most of the edging tiles off one end of our roof, one of which also smashed the windscreen on Koos's scooter as it went flying. Fingers crossed Ciarán has finished with us now as we'll need to get up there and replace them asap.

On the tidal Schelde/Scheldt in April
What a wonderful trip that was