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What a difference a day makes...

Not a bad day for the first day of summer...

Roche d'Oestre: image by Steve Mansfield-Devine

Well, what a glorious day the first day of summer-time turned out to be. We overslept, of course, as even with all the clocks changed, it just wasn't light enough for our body clocks to wake us up, so instead of getting up for my usual Sunday morning swim, we had a very nice lie-in and a leisurely breakfast. 

We'd also decided it would be our first hike of the season, so we decided to go to the Roche d'Oetre, a craggy outcrop in the Suisse Normande, have lunch and then do a short trail. 

The dog duly fastened into his harness, the backpacks stuffed with Lion bars and orange juice, we set off around 11.00 for the one-hour trip, knowing that we'd arrive just in time for lunch. 

Only problem was, nothing was open. The thermometer might say 27 degrees in the sun, and there might be daffodils and primroses everywhere, but it was still March and the visitors centre was on its winter schedule, so no loos, no drinks and no snacks. At the restaurant, meanwhile, we got the Gallic shrug: no, they weren't serving outside, no they couldn't say when in the year they would start, no we couldn't come in as they were fully booked, yes we should have called in advance. In other words, fichez le camp as the French say when they mean bugger off. 

Much disgruntled, as we were quite ravenous, we set off for a local auberge we'd seen advertised, but although we drove through the town where it was meant to be, we couldn't find it. 

The DH being pretty crochety by this time, and myself fearing one of his food-deprived migraines coming on, I was very glad when we saw an 'Open' sign outside a local restaurant. It was right on the roadside but there was no traffic about, so we quickly parked up and I went inside. 

"Can we get something to eat?" I said. 

"No, we don't open on Sundays," said the thin young barkeep. 

"Can we get anything to drink, then?"

Yes, they were open for drinks so I got us a couple of beers, then returned inside. "I was really hoping for something to eat," I said, "We're ravenous. Is there anywhere else open?"

"Well there's the epicerie next door," he said. "You could buy something there and eat outside here - that would be OK."

"Oh, is it open?"


I popped out and gave the DH the news, grabbed 10 euros and went into the epicerie. The thin young man walked through from the auberge. "Yes?" he said. 

Perfect. Another classic French experience. 

I bought Boursin, a baguette (from a paper sack resting on the floor), garlic sausage, crisps and Milka chocolate, which did us a pretty good feast. In the car we had paper plates and napkins, and the barkeep gave us a couple of knives so we made a pretty good fist of it, seated by his planters with their single brave camellias. 

Once we'd had our fill we headed back to the Roche and set off on the shortest trail, the 2.5km Sentier des Gorges. This has a very steep descent of about 125m, so you need a hiking stick, and your knees really feel it, but it was bliss itself with the sun pouring unfiltered through the leafless trees, echoing with birdsong. The dog went completely bozo, although we didn't dare let him off lead just in case there were other ramblers about. But we turned out to be pretty much on our own. 

Down in the valley bottom, the meander chuckled away to itself and the ground was strewn with wood anenomes and wild narcissus dancing in the breeze. Zola went for a paddle, searching for ragondins (this, a dog who is terrified of the hosepipe), and we wandered along for half a mile or so before having a quick drink and readying for the ascent. 

This was something we'd managed to miss the last time we were here, and had ended up taking the 7km long way round by accident, so we were keen to find it this time. But it was a good job we saw people huffing and puffing as they came down it, because I would not have realised that this steep, rocky path was intended for human traffic at all. 

The first bit of the climb was purgatory and it was at this point that i realised quite how wrongly dressed I was. Anticipating a bit of light and level trailing, I'd made the mistake of wearing thick cotton jersey layers, which were now soaking wet and clinging to me unpleasantly. Even stripping down to my singlet didn't help much as we pounded on upwards with the sun beating down. 

Fortunately, the steepest bit of the climb gave way to a section that was more moderate, which enabled us to get our breath, but it's not a trail you want to stop on when you can see the top of the ridge still a long way above you, in case you can't get started again. Hiking sticks were needed once again on the top bit and I felt at every step that wintery, out-of-puff feeling of having not done enough physical exercise for a long time. Nevertheless, we had done the trail in 40 minutes instead of the hour recommended. 

We stumbled out into the sunlight and I collapsed onto the grass, cursing my teeny female body which despite all my dog-walking, yoga and swimming, still can't keep pace with my lazy-arsed couch potato husband when he does actually decide to move.

Nor, on the way home, could I get my temperature right at all - freezing in the air-conditioning as my sweat dried on me, I don't know why I didn't think to change into the microfleece I'd brought with me and carried in my pack along the whole hike. 

So, that is me taught. Never again will I go hiking without wearing wicking base layers. Sitting here in the garden, I'm trialling my 5 Seasons undies as wicking tees, and my mulberry silk thermal tops also seem to work pretty well. But I still see something like a Nike Dri-fit teeshirt in my future, with its mesh panels and wicking technology.

Once home, though, it was back to a more traditional form of air-conditioning. I peeled off my cold, damp layers and got into a kimono made of cotton ro - a thin Japanese leno weave with rows of tiny holes to allow the air to penetrate. And then we snored away in the garden for the rest of the afternoon. On the 25th of March? Unbelievable. 



A week off fashion

One great thing about a rambling holiday is being able to dress entirely for comfort.

We're on holiday in Brittany at the moment.

One of the things I most enjoy about being on holiday is the complete lack of any need to dress up. Time was, I'd bring a 'nice' outfit with me to go out to dinner (we usually go away in winter), but the past couple of years, I haven't even bothered with that - it's not as if the French dress up for anything.

Our days here consist of rambling on cliff tops, walking on the beach, visiting old chapels, forts and whatnot along the coast, and chilling out at the gite. There is no requirement for our clothes to be anything other than comfortable and practical, and that entails a whole new set of rules from the usual nonsense.

As a woman, it is very pleasant to feel free of the responsibility to be 'on' all the time. John Berger said that women were the observed sex, that right from our infancy we are the subject of the male gaze and we learn, even as little girls, to be aware of it. That means we dress accordingly - to be a pleasure for others to look at, not for ourselves to feel.

Dressed as I am at the moment, however, I become, every year, aware of the ease and comfort that attends male dress - the thick-soled, comfortable shoes that are easy to walk and run in; the windproof coats with numerous pockets; practical finishes that enable me to sit cross-legged, slide on my backside down rocks or get covered in sand.

I know, I know - men, in their work suits at least - have to dress in a uniform that is neither comfortable, nor practical. But no man suffers the degree of discomfort that the average woman does, especially with regard to footwear. I speak as someone for whom heels are fast becoming a thing of the past, and even flat shoes if they don't offer sufficient support for my orthotic insoles.

Today, I'm in Five Seasons Climate Control thermals; waterproof walking trousers with zip pockets and knee vents (from Lidl); Ecco shock absorber trainers that are a joy to walk in with my poor scarred feet; a zip-neck Craghoppers microfleece (my favourite new garment, courtesy of the DH); a lovely hooded aran sweater with handwarmer pockets from two local ladies who make to order; my trusty old microfibre balaclava, microfibre gloves, and a padded bodywarmer (Lidl again) with a 'fur'-trimmed hood.  

These clothes could not be more perfect for the day we have had: driving through the country lanes, playing on the rock pools at the beach, rambling along the vertiginous pathways of the Pointe du Raz - windproof, waterproof, wicking, comfortable.

As every year, I think to myself, this is the way to dress - I feel more human in these clothes and I am now determined to devote more of my budget to serious microfleeces, waterproof parkas and proper walking shoes. It probably means being in trousers for the rest of my days - shoes like this aren't really pencil skirt material - but so be it.

Yellow parkaSo, I have started with this parka from a new favourite company, Land's End, which will replace my old waxed jacket and Guy Cotten yachtsman's jacket, which is showing its age now. Land's End is a great company, with pretty good eco-credentials, and these parkas, importantly, have underarm vents, which the Guy Cotten doesn't (it makes me sweat like a pig in a sandwich bag). This bright yellow makes me feel cheerful in winter, looks great on the beach, and is practical for walking the dog in our Normandy drizzle.


The happy wanderers

We went hiking in a local beauty spot yesterday - cue comfort clothing as a priority.

I had one of those great non-fashion days yesterday.

Not that I give much thought to getting dressed on a daily basis, you understand - it's pretty much a uniform of jeans and t-shirts. But the great thing about going walking is that it is absolutely positively nothing to do with fashion. 

When there was a push recently to make fleece trendier, journalist Emily Matliss said: "Isn't the point of fleece precisely that it's not fashion?"

It's true - fleece is what you wear when you just want to be practical. And so are climbing boots, walking shoes, all kinds of outdoor gear. Sure, a bit of colour or pattern is all very nice, but practicality and comfort come first and foremost. 

Since we were hiking down a local gorge we hadn't visited before, we didn't know whether we'd be wet or dry, so I wore walking boots and a pair of denim leggings that serve as jeans but are far more comfortable. A cotton vest, cotton t-shirt and two-layer cotton jacket from Orvis gave me lots of layers and accessible pockets, while my little backpack, really designed for schoolkid's books, is just about enough for my kagoul, sarnies and water bottle.

One other important thing is that these are all things I can afford to write off, given that there might be mud to walk through or streams to ford. The t-shirt was a gift, the leggings are literally falling apart and the vest and jacket must have clocked up 25 years on the planet between them. The walking boots are Trex, available at Lidl - lightweight, sturdy and cost about a tenner.

I could not have been more comfortable and as it happened I didn't look bad either, not that I gave a stuff. We encountered maybe half a dozen other people all day, most of them cyclists, and the others were French walkers. How good do you need to look for the birds and the bees? It is the equivalent of slobbing out at home. 

It is an interesting point, btw, that cyclists here have ALL the kit - every French cyclist looks like they're heading for the Tour de France - but no French walker seems to have anything except boots. I reckon they just keep them in the car, because you see people out and about in pretty frocks and work suits, but with proper walking shoes on, going for a wander down the country lanes. Walking is just part of life here rather than something you 'do' - possibly one reason the French stay so thin.


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