“ Venue: Hever Castle & gardens, Hever Nr Edenbridge, Kent TN8 7NG. „
Pushing and shoving each other up the stairs, The Boyfriend and I raced the escalator at a busy, Christmassy, South Kensington tube station. Outside, it had been dark all morning, heavy rain was falling and I'd wrapped up warm in my new tartan coat. Dodging the shopping bags, we burst through the barriers and into the damp shopping parade that tops the station. Always one for free handouts, I took a leaflet from a well positioned lady at the exit.
Reaching the archway that separated the covered shops from a dismal torrent of grey, we stopped to look at the A to Z. I glanced down at the leaflet in my hand and out at the rain. For once, the leaflet detailed something more useful than two for one entry to a distant club night. "Perhaps... we should go and take a look at the French Christmas Market" I said, "Just while we wait for it to ease off a bit."
The French Christmas Market was at the Lycee Francais in Harrington Road, (not at Hever Castle & gardens as stated in the Dooyoo blurb) filling a 1970's space between carpeted offices and upmarket kebab shops. The burgundy glossiness of our leaflet sat awkwardly with the view of the school through the doorway and we hesitated to pay. At £2 each, this would be an expensive look round, but reasoning that it might put us in a Christmas mood for the shopping ahead, we reluctantly forked out.
A cliché perhaps, but it felt very European inside. Most of the shoppers and stall holders were speaking French and much like a typical French school, the foyer opened straight out onto a concrete courtyard with a high spiral of concrete stairs. Entering by the cheese stall, the gagging noises emanating from The Boyfriend forced me to stifle my giggles.
A cake stall with all of ten beautifully glazed cupcakes caught my eye. Glancing at the silver display stand I wondered if the price were in Euros? There was a stall with speciality Nougat in huge pink glossy blocks and we joined the queue to buy a slice for Dad. Seeing the label on it, I realised that at £4.50 a (small) slice, it was out of my price range. Still they were getting plenty of business. As was the mulled wine stall, with a shot priced at £2.50. The Boyfriend exploded; "£2.50?! I'd want at least a PINT for that!"
The stall holders weren't in the least pushy, not in the way you might become accustomed to in Camden or on Portobello road, there were no stall selling cheap leather, knock off handbags or plastic beads. There was nothing as classy as the cutlery I stole when we went on the Eurostar, but nothing too cheap either.
Spotting a doorway across the playground, we made a dash for the other side, finding a wealth of unsignposted stalls packed snugly into a warm and steamy room. Here, there were pastries, brown cardigans for toddlers starting at £89.00 and some nativity figurines which in all honesty looked like the consolation prize from a Bingo game at Shipleys. The Boyfriend and I caught a glimpse of the tags, £40 each. Snorting with laughter, we resigned ourselves to the fact that our only part in this would be as observers. And it must be said, these figurines were not unique or handmade, there were rows of the things. If you'd kicked the stall over you could easily have done ten grand's worth of damage.
The book stall (run by Book People) was reasonable value, we paused for a while to admire a pop up book of the human body with a beating heart and a boxed set of Thomas the Tank Engine. The books were predominantly in English with some French editions. Next to this was a stall selling generic scented soap in hotel sized bars and we dallied long enough to check the prices on some cashmere scarves. Of course, there were expensive candles - nothing says Christmas Market like a few of the overpriced wax fire hazards - and Pot Pourri.
Looking through rails of extremely expensive clothes, handmade bracelets and photo frames, there wasn't a lot that appealed to us. The market seems mainly aimed at those with big appetites and big pockets, the most tempting stalls being those selling pastries. There was also a busy stall making crepes (£4.50 each). The food wasn't exclusively French and I noticed a stall selling Churros and a table laden with the Italian Pandoro.
Most markets have a place to sit and drink, in contrast to the cheap plastic chairs under a canopy approach, this had an indoor restaurant being run by Paul (the UK based French bakers) with another huge range of food. We looked longingly through the doorway, but knowing that we weren't prepared to pay the price or take the time, we moved on.
I have a fascination with places I'm not supposed to be, however mundane. In the Lycee, there was a slight fly on the wall feeling that we were snooping in the very heart of South Kensington's French community. The school is bigger than I thought it from the outside and notable alumni are actresses Jaqueline Bisset, Joely Richardson and Charlotte Rampling, so presumably drama teaching goes hand in hand with the high academic results there.
We wandered the corridors and The Boyfriend cast an eye over the lunch menu posted on the wall of the playground. Oeuf Mayonnaise and Fruits De Saison, without a Turkey Twizzler in sight. I visited the toilets (mainly to see if they were a hole in the ground, my experience of French toilets hasn't been great) which were very nice, though not especially clean.
Having thoroughly inspected the school buildings, we made our way down the damp and shiny Brompton Road, suddenly very aware of the number of French restaurants and businesses. Standing outside Harrods in the dark afternoon with the fake soapy snowflakes blowing around us, we laughed about how cheap the rest of our shopping was going to seem in comparison to the market.
We didn't spend any money at the market other than our combined £4 entry fee, but if you think you might like a slice of French luxury, check out www.frenchfairs.com to find your nearest market. The official website for the Lycee is http://www.lyceefrancais.org.uk/.
Over three days an Anglo-French Fair will celebrate the best of Produced in France as well as locally sourced delicacies. Situated in the grounds the event provides the perfect opportunity to find unusual gifts for Christmas.