An unexpected palace

You know when you’ve lived down the road from a local attraction for years but never visited? Safely home from France we awoke to a glorious sunny Sunday, the last “official” day of our holidays. Out of nowhere we decided to hit Eltham Palace, an arduous six miles away and 15min drive in Bernice.

I sternly instructed Scott not to let them sucker us into joining English Heritage. We had been at the place less than four minutes before we were signing the direct debit form. It seems very good value and SC does love a castle you know….

Eltham Palace was absolutely fabulous and splendid for the short trippers. I knew shamefully little before we left and was expecting a “standard” stately home, four poster beds, oil portraits, ponderous commentary etc.

The original palace was built in the 14th century and was where Henry VIII spent his childhood.  The only remaining part of the original palace is the Great Hall built in 1470. I had no idea that the majority of the building is a perfectly restored 1930s Art Deco mansion.

Stephen and Virginia Courtauld bought the shell of Eltham Palace in 1933. They were filthy rich and spared no expense on all the mod cons of the period and an extremely understated bathroom…. I’m not much of a design buff but it is literally jaw-on-the-floor stuff and controversial at the time. They incorporated the stunning Tudor Great Hall into the design (which had been used as a stable, a barn and a tennis court in the interim) .

Very similar to our washing facilities in Bernice….

The Great Hall

Highlights for SC included seeing the luxury quarters for Mah-Jong, the Courtauld’s pet lemur and trying on 1930s frocks. There’s a free audio tour of the house and garden with a family tour option. The family tour is actually very good, fun but informative with a game for each room.

The palace has jazz on the lawn on a Sunday afternoon and listening to it floating up while in such a beautiful setting was pretty magical. We’d bought an austerity picnic so we abandoned the tour as it returned to the entrance hall and hurried out to listen.

The grounds are equally lovely but quite disorientating over a number of different levels. If you blindfolded me and span me round I’d probably still be there now.

Eltham Palace features on English Heritage’s list of most haunted properties. A staff member who died the week after his retirement is said to give tours to visitors. There’s a fun article here about spooky occurrences in Eltham and other EH properties (sorry about the link to the Daily Torygraph).

By the time we’d completed the tour, investigated the giant fish in the moat, played in the playground (all tasteful English Heritage wood, not a garish piece of plastic in sight…) and had an ice cream it was getting on for 4pm. It’s not a cheap day out at nearly £40 for a family but I guess it takes more than a few quid to keep it running. It was great to visit somewhere so local and I’m sure we’ll be back soon.

A small château and a giant telescope

Camping fatigue is setting in, I can feel it. The rules are slipping.  Yesterday I ate a meal with broccoli in and I’m not sure how many more rounds of Junior Monopoly I can take.

The weather has turned a bit. Intermittent torrential rain with dazzling hot sun has meant that we’ve done a few more trips. Here are the highlights…..

Château de la Ferté St-Aubin

You can’t come to France and not take in a chateau or two. A castle has stood in this spot since the11th  century and has had bits added on ever since.

The entrance fee seems a bit steep until you read that it only covers the cost of five new roof slates. 400,000 have been replaced so far with many more to go.

The rooms in the castle are suitably impressive and furnished in an 18th century style. For children (or childish adults….) there are loads of different parlour games to try.

I took this opportunity to try and teach SC to play chess. With my chess skills she was a worthy opponent until she had a total meltdown claiming I had moved my king two spaces….. (I hadn’t, I swear!!). I blame a lack of lunch so we headed to the park adjoining the castle.

We spent the afternoon in the “Parcours des poisons” which is a terrific treasure hunt style game in the grounds of the castle.

As “Madeleine d’Egennes” you have to follow clues through the woods, collect the names of poisonous plants, traverse obstacles and solve riddles in order to find the witch La Voisin to assist you to poison your husband.

Completing the barefoot section of the hunt….

Now I’ve written that down it doesn’t sound very suitable but it was really good fun and the weather  was lovely. If you return to the apothecary with all the clues completed they give you a vial of “poison” which has been a highlight of the trip for SC 😀

Pôle des Etoiles

The weather was due to be awful on Tuesday so we headed to this space research centre and planetarium in Nançay.

It’s pleasantly creepy in a vast, middle-of-nowhere space research centre Dr Who-y kind of way. The English commentary is not for beginners: “The radiographic heliotrope was installed in a decametric quandrant in 1958….” but the exhibition was interesting and had enough buttons to keep SC mainly happy until her end goal – the gift shop.

You can walk out from the car park to see the awesome radio telescope which monitors the activity of the sun.

It’s 40m high – Scott & SC for scale!

As always there are loads of other enticing things to see and do in the region, there’ll  never be quite enough time.

We’d like to come back…but there’s so many other places to go! Soon we’ll be heading back to Greenwich but we’ve already got a couple of shorter trips in the diary.

I’d love to hear about your summer trips, leave me a comment below!!


Busy doing nothing

It’s been a tough few days. We’ve been very busy enjoying the view…

The little white hut is a glamping pod on the lake. It’s tethered on a long rope so when you want to go to bed you have to find it and then row there. Very cool and good entertainment.

Between swimming, napping, trampolining and spending time at the kids club it’s been hard to fit in much else.

The swimming pool is the local municipal pool adjacent to the campsite. You get free entry but, boy, does everything about it scream municipal pool. It’s a bare, square, industrial joyless affair. No sun loungers, no umbrellas, no ice cream stall….

SC, with her slavish devotion to all things waterbased still thinks it’s amazing. We arrived on the first morning to find it’s compulsory for men to wear the teeny tiny Speedos that the French are so fond of. Scott, more of a board shorts man, left muttering regretful noises clearly delighted at the prospect of a coffee and his book by the lake.

It’s also pretty nippy. After 30 min of SC barking out orders (“catch me”, “carry me”, “push me” etc) I felt more like I’d had a stint in a 1950s Swiss therapy pool having rehabilitation for TB than a relaxing dip.

I digress, pool aside, the campsite is awesome and the village is only about 200m walk through a beautifully maintained park for croissants and essentials.

We’ve planned to take the train to Orleans tomorrow. Will we get there or will the power of doing nothing keep up sat by the lake?  We’ll see…..

Going Dutch at Camping Grande Sologne

One of my good friends is Dutch and is keen for her kids to speak the language. For Dutch tuition you could do worse than to stay at Camping Grande Sologne. I reckon 80% of the people here are Dutch as are the songs at the kids mini disco at 7pm every night. You know that song you sang when you were in the girl guides, in English the lyrics went “a Pizza Hut, a Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut”? I’ve had the Dutch version of that circling my head for nearly 48hrs and we only arrived two days ago…..

After an uneventful drive down the campsite is absolutely splendid. Even I liked it straight away so it must be good…! We smiled sweetly at the lovely reception staff and they  kindly (albeit slightly exasperatedly) let us switch from our nice-but-nothing-special pitch to a fab spot overlooking the lake.

Spot the Bongo

The facilities are good without being scary, in-your-face holiday campish. There’s a shop, a little snack bar open in the evening, mini golf, ping pong and activities for kids (in Dutch) throughout the day 😀

The mini golf has seen better days with twigs, sticks and uneven paving causing your ball to ping off at all angles. I did wonder if it would be less painful to club myself in the head at one point as SC insisted on completing every obstacle…..

10 days here will be just the job, more to follow…..

Dragons and porcupines

A disparaging Google reviewer described the dragons of Blois as “robots come out of the windows”. That is factually correct in the same way you might describe Buckingham Palace as a large detached house. The six golden dragons which come roaring out of the windows of the Maison de la Magie (House of Magic) in Blois on the hour, every hour, complete with glowing red eyes, massive claws and blowing smoke, are an amazing spectacle. They are so unexpectedly good we saw then five times in two days.

My photo doesn’t do it justice so please do have a look on You Tube.

After the jaw-dropping (free) spectacle of the dragons the actual museum was a bit disappointing. We queued for over an hour to get in and the combination of school holidays + rainy day meant it was absolutely heaving inside and noisy enough to induce hearing loss.

The illusions on the first floor are pretty cool, you can see yourself trapped in a tower and have a look at your own brain (apparently). My brain may need some work as I thought the toilets were a kind of clever puzzle initially but it turns out I was just trying to get into a store cupboard – the cubicles are further along than you think ladies…

The upper floors were difficult to feel engaged with but that may have been the vast number of people gathered round each exhibit. The museum celebrates the life of Jean Robert-Houdin, the illusionist, clockmaker and inventor from Blois (this is AS WELL as being the home of Denis Papin the inventor of the pressure cooker!). In addition there are four shows per day in the summer. The show was good for children, it’s just the right length but nothing spectacular. After the show you are squeezed through the little gift shop and pop back out into the Place Du Chateau.

My top tip: stick with the dragons and spend your euros on ice cream and postcards while you wait.

Blois is a really beautiful city nestled next to the Loire. There’s free convenient Bongo parking at the Prom. Edmond Mounin and we fuelled up for our next activity at the amazing Cake Concept. Friendly service with great bagels and cup cakes (I know, I know, it’s sacrilege in France, the home of the patisserie!).

Our afternoon activity was the cheapest and our favourite (it’s often the way, eh?). At Tourist Information you can pay €2 for a map and quiz of the Blois porcupine trail which takes you through the city’s districts and the beautiful royal gardens.

The trail is marked by brass porcupine markers, frequent enough to keep small children amused shrieking “there it is!”  with an optional playground stop at the castle.

(Pink socks and red sandals model’s own choice….)

Our trip was rounded off by just one more viewing of the dragons (and maybe another ice cream..) and a lovely day was had by all.

A day (or five) on the farm…

After a lovely week at Le Moulin Fort our next stop was only 30 min down the road at Ferme du Prunay, a teaching farm (ferme pedagogique) and campsite in Seillac.

If Le Moulin Fort was family friendly then Ferme du Prunay is kid-tastic. The child free camper would be advised to give this place a wide berth during July and August. We started the week as typically buttoned-up, middle class Brits tutting over how late other people’s kids were allowed to stay up. By the end of our stay we were in the bar every night catching occasional glimpses of our daughter tearing past barefoot and shrieking in a big gang of kids until it got dark.

The farm runs daily activities for children and has donkeys, goats, a pig and chickens which you can visit at any time.  Some of the organised activities are more unusual than others. The “meet the animals” session began with each child being photographed with a chicken on their head…. More successful was the lengthy tractor ride through the forest where the passengers had to shout in French to go faster. There’s also a play room, a book swap and a boat you can take out on the lake on site.

It’s hard to find anything negative to say about the campsite. Maybe the surface around the pool is a little rough for my delicate feet…? Maybe the service is a little “relaxed” in the lovely Kon Tiki bar? We stayed an extra night rather than moving on to rainy Rouen and you get the feeling it would be easy to stay there for the rest of the summer surrounded by sunflowers.

Le Moulin Fort

Being a rookie parent of a school age child, and fearing that there may not be a single camping spot free in the whole of France during August, we booked our spot at Le Moulin Fort in the dark days of January. This early booking meant that we rolled into a coverted riverside pitch when we arrived at Le Moulin Fort following a one-night stopover in Rouen.

The campsite is set in a beautiful spot and it is clean, tidy and well run. There’s a nice pool for a bracing dip (it’s unheated) and a toddler pool, an impressive playground, a book swap, crazy golf and a cosy brasserie and bar serving pizza and all things with chips (bit stingy on the mozzarella at times…).

Ten minutes walk down the river is the beautiful 16th century Chateau du Chenonceau. It’s definitely worth a visit although we just admired it from the bank.

It’s really worth being by the river if you can book early (or get lucky!) enough. There’s beautiful views, boats for hire opposite and you can take a picnic rug right down to the riverside.

My only niggle with Le Moulin Fort is that the many, many notices, rules and posters plastered all over every surface are all a bit…reproachful. You constantly feel like you’re being told off for something you haven’t done and had no intention of doing.

Aside from that this campsite is a real gem. Although it was full you never felt like it was unbearably busy, there was usually a spot to sit at the pool and the service is friendly and quick at the bar and brasserie. I’m sure we will return next year (if I can get over my fear that going back to the same campsite is the first step towards wearing matching outfits and refusing to eat foreign food…).