Refurbishment work after the fire at Station Mill Antiques in Chipping Norton was nearing completion. I went over to sign my new contract and have a look at progress, stepping over pots of paint and around men in hard hats up ladders. The place looked good and felt bright and spacious. Old concrete beams had been sandblasted and the roof void exposed. It was full of possibilities. I still had the lovely space downstairs but with better lighting and better amenities.
Always in pursuit of the beautiful, the time worn and exquisitely distressed I set off to foray into Belgium for a change. Graham was with me on this trip. The white cliffs and sea breezes at Dover reminded me of the many ferry crossings I’d made back and forth in my twenties, when trains departed from Platform One at Victoria and clanked in alongside the ferry port; and the old French train compartments had little framed black and white photos of Le Gouffre de Padirac or the beach at Deauville just below the luggage racks. The excitement of being in France has never really dwindled.
This time the ferry took us to Dunkirk, and we drove directly to Ghent for an overnight stop in a B&B. A tall, narrow house with a shiny red door and plants in galvanised washtubs out on the pavement. This “Gastenkamer” was run by Tom, a delightful musician and composer. In the late afternoon we walked out across the canal, found a café in the balmy sun on Friday Market Square, and then had supper at a place recommended by Tom – “Avonden” on Ham Street. A romantic, easy going, wabi sabi place, with a small paved back garden overgrown with vines and nesting blackbirds. It wasn’t France of course, and it seemed odd to be at a loss with the language, but we were taken by the quiet of Ghent, the gable ended buildings, and people on large wheeled bicycles everywhere.
There was a flea market the next morning – so I was up to enjoy the sunrise as it played on the facades of pretty painted houses by the canal. By 7am people were more or less unpacked in a tree lined square next to a church. I only bought three little things – a metal jardiniere, a metal bowl and an alarm clock – probably not enough to justify how tired I felt the rest of the day! We left Ghent and spent a couple of hours snarled up in traffic around Antwerp. Our accommodation for the next two nights was in the home of a retired caterer who delighted us with a marvellous supper in his courtyard with its espaliered pear trees along brick walls. He later walked us through his barn, and down his long garden with hens pecking enthusiastically and a goose on her nest. It backed on to a wooded river valley and the melancholy cry of peacocks echoed in the still air.
The weather was glorious the following day and Belgium, they said, was the hottest place in Europe. It was to be a major day for me. At last here was a deep vein of stunning furniture and decorative pieces. We visited five dealers – one who I had bought from at Le Mans previously, two who were recommended by English contacts and then two more who were in the local network.
We drove first to a tidy, quiet housing estate – it looked an unlikely spot, but a van was parked outside. The small front garden was in perfect box-hedged symmetry with a vine growing across the front of the pristine house. All exquisitely tended. A white picket gate led on to the white front door. We were welcomed in and ushered into the living room which was set out as a showroom – I could have bought 80% of the pieces then and there – what a contrast to picking through a mass of items to come away with just one or two things. Gilded and painted decorative panels, girandolles sparkling, flickering candles, portraits, heavy glass domes and butcher’s tables. And a first encounter with Maastricht domestic ceramics that had formed a staple in Dutch households for many years. Low, very wide white ceramic cake stands were characteristic, jugs and bowls in perfect simplicity. We saw a lot of this through the trip. I bought some stunning and unsual things, and indulged my love of 18th century gilded carving. We had coffee in the garden. So interesting to talk to new dealers who operated on a different geographical axis – from Berlin to Avignon.