Pumpkins and Pokemons

This article was originally published in The Vegetarian magazine in 2001. 

It sounded impressive to say, “I’m not around this weekend, I’m off to Belgium for a festival”, but it wasn’t to any Glastonbury equivalent that I was speeding through Le Tunnel (do French-speakers call it ‘The Tunnel’?). I was heading to Tourinnes-Saint-Lambert in the district of Walloon Brabant to attend “The Festival of the Pumpkin and Curious, Strange and Forgotten Vegetables”. 

It may not sound like the perfect weekend break to many of you, but as a vegetarian, I felt I owed it to veggie culture to try it out. 

The weekend started on Eurostar and the weather was beautiful as the train chugged out of London, boding well for the following day’s festival-in-a-field experience. Unfortunately the sky was looking less and less welcoming as we came out of the tunnel and headed towards Belgium. By the time the train reached Brussels I was wishing I’d packed wellies instead of fairly useless little boots.

I was met at the station by Sue, from the Belgian Tourist Board, who’d also never visited the festival before. I thought she’d be irritated at the prospect and was happy to suggest she just drop me off somewhere, but she told me she’d been as intrigued as I had by the name and was looking forward to it. I discovered later that her alternative had been doing the round of Belgium’s golf courses with another journalist, in what had been forecast to be steady rain, so maybe my trip was the lesser of two evils….

On the night before the festival we stayed in the Grand Hotel at Waterloo, about a 45-minute drive from the festival site. Being a vegetarian, going to Belgium and France isn’t usually my idea of a great culinary experience. As various friends and relatives have persistently moved to work in Brussels, I’ve visited Belgium a great many times in recent years, and every single time had proved a culinary lowspot in my travel diary. Our dinner that night at the hotel was the meal to change all that. 

As was expected, there was only one vegetarian dish on the menu and that was a starter I had to ask the chef to adapt to a main course, but when it arrived, it was superb. The staff were also extremely accommodating, which, again, isn’t something I usually associate with Belgian restaurants after mentioning the words “Je suis une vegetarienne”. Given my previous experiences of endless pommes frites and watery side vegetables this was a welcome change, as was the menu of wonderful puddings, mostly sans gelatine. Never have I eaten so well and with so little hassle in Belgium. Though I suspect being a guest of the tourist board might have had something to do with that.

The following day dawned grey and wet and a persistent rain was audible throughout breakfast, but we comforted ourselves with such unscientific comments as “rain before 7, fine before 11” and our confident predictions that it was a little squall which would soon blow over. With a hired car and map, we set off confidently, the rain had stopped and all seemed suddenly right with the world. Until we discovered that Belgian roads are congenitally confusing. Seemingly perfectly signposted, you are lulled you into a false sense of security before the road seems to snigger at the ineptitude of the tourist. Having been encourage for several kilometres you will suddenly discover that, although you are certainly on the correct road, you’ve been going in the wrong direction. As Sue drove and swore, turned around and drove back again, then found her way to another road, on which we underwent the same ritual, I sat helpfully in the passenger seat enjoying watching the countryside go past – first in one direction and then in the other. It was beautiful; reminiscent of English countryside, but on a much vaster, more open scale. While the sky kept veering between silver grey and fresh blue we earnestly assured one other that we were definitelyfollowing the blue patch.

By the time we saw our first signs to the festival site, it had started to drizzle lightly (but persistently). I thought of my wellies, safely at home still snug and warm on a dry shelf. The roads became slightly smaller with each turn until we were directed up a dirt track and to a parking area in what looked like a recently furrowed field. The first thing I noticed was everyone else getting out of their cars and putting on sturdy rubber boots (I imagine that in an area so close to the Waterloo battleground they’re probably not called Wellingtons).

The festival itself turned out to be a fairly standard country show possessed of a very clever marketing person with a skill for nomenclature. There was a competition for the heaviest pumpkin – some of which I was gratified to see weighed more than I do – as well as for the best-dressed pumpkin. There were artistic displays of the ‘curious, strange and forgotten vegetables’ most of which seemed to be squashes and gourds of multifarious colours and shapes. They were strangely beautiful. Tim Burton could have taken inspiration for the backdrop of an avant-garde film.

The many stalls sold a wide variety of produce and oddities. Although some were carefully in keeping with the festival, with Hallowe’en items figuring prominently, others seemed merely to have wandered in by chance and set up shop regardless. The more canny of the oddity-sellers stuck a couple of pumpkin-shaped candles or a few amusingly shaped courgettes along the edge of their tables in a pretence of taking the festival seriously.

Wares on sale ranged from home made honey cake (delicious and veggie – ingredients listed on the package) to Pumpkin Liqueur, which was 20% alcohol and felt like it was taking the skin off the roofs of our mouths. It looked like flat Tizer and, after the initial fire-water shock, left a very strange aftertaste of searing pumpkin. 

There were also cheeses – though my French isn’t good enough to be able to discover if they were animal-rennet free – vegetables of all shapes and sizes, packets of seeds, honey, pollen, candles, compost, garden ornaments, textiles and all manner of items made from gourds, including jewellery and hair ornaments.

Amongst the non-pumpkin wares were some of the most unaesthetic ‘handicrafts’ I’ve ever seen, perhaps the most disturbing being rather terrifying pokemons and teletubbies made out of clay. There was, however, a separate area for traditional handicrafts – lace-making, wood turning, metal work, glass blowing, wrought ironwork – and some of these were beautiful. There were kitchen utensils made from beaten copper; lampshades and clocks made from carved gourds; and sinuous oil lamps which we watched being created from molten glass and iron, a mesmeric sight.

Despite what was by now steady rain, by the end of the day Sue and I had spent so much of the day laughing, that the ridiculous inadequacies of our clothing and footwear – just like the rain – washed over us. The kindness of Belgian hospitality continued after we returned to the field that had been serving as a carpark to discover that our once-pristine car had sunk firmly into what was now very dense mud. As we stood looking helpless, a man appeared on a tractor and wordlessly hauled out the car, before cheerfully carrying on to the next one. The hire car that had started out gleaming silver was now firmly battlefield brown, yet, amazingly, when Sue returned it, the car hire firm didn’t even comment. 

28 September 2021 horizontal rule

Dickens in N America in 1842

In 1842, Charles and Catherine Dickens set sail from Liverpool for a 6-month tour of the USA and Canada. In this online event, I’ll be talking about their journey and how it inspired Dickens’s writing. This is the first in a series of talks I’ll be giving over the next year, inspired by the book I’ve just finished writing, Dickens and Travel (which will be published later this year, pandemic permitting!). https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/charles-dickenss-first-trip-to-north-america-tickets-142223553477

Charles Dickens by Francis Alexander, painted in Boston in 1842.

19 February 2021 horizontal rule

Travelling with E.M.Forster

The following article first appeared in The Independent newspaper in March 2016.

On my first visit to Italy I was 13. It was on a Schools Abroad trip, on which we spent a night in the port of Brindisi, where I and my fellow schoolmates were sexually harassed by scary sailors, made sick by the stink of diesel and where nothing could have been further from the Italy of Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson. The next time I went to Italy I was about to go to university – I was in love with life, in love with travelling, in love with love and more than ready to fall in love with the Italy I knew from the works of E M Forster. It is a love affair that has never ended.

The British Institute in Florence, Italy, displaying copies of my book Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards - Facial Hair in Art.
The British Institute in Florence, Italy, displaying copies of my book Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards – Facial Hair in Art.

I first read A Room with a Viewat the age of 14 – and have continued to do so, on a regular basis, ever since. I turn to it whenever I need comfort reading; it’s the literary equivalent of hot buttery mashed potato on a miserably cold day. Despite having read it so many times, I seem to discover something new each time I read it.

Lights on the River Arno, in Florence, Italy, at night.
Lights on the River Arno, in Florence, Italy, at night.

The first time I visited Florence, I felt I knew it already. Seeing the Arno and knowing this was the same river on which Lucy, Charlotte and the Emersons also gazed, gave me a thrill of connection to a past age. In 2015 I gave a talk on my biography of Princess Louise at the British Institute in Florence. Stepping into the building, on the banks of the Arno, was to enter a world where nothing seemed to have changed since Princess Louise’s time (incidentally, a woman whom Forster knew). I felt as though I’d stepped into the Florence the Rev Eager would recognise, and was sure I could discern some of his “flock” in the audience.

There are so many books one should never re-read: books that spoke soulfully to your younger self seldom work when read again (most notably, for me, Paolo Coelho’s By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept).A Room With A View, however, has entertained me at all stages of my life so far. Wherever I’ve travelled, I’ve encountered Forster’s characters. In Jordan, I could discern Mr Beebe and Mr Emerson visiting the temples of Petra. Last year I was in Norway when I saw a family sit down for a picnic – and they actually possessed “mackintosh squares”. I have visited churches, temples and mosques all over the world and have lost count of the times I have been informed “this was built by faith”, to which I always intone in my mind Mr Emerson’s words: “Built by faith indeed! That simply means the workmen weren’t paid properly.” So far, I have managed to prevent myself from saying it out loud. I hope E M Forster would smirk a wry smile at that.

3 February 2021 horizontal rule

Napier – New Zealand’s architectural gem

A vintage car in downtown Napier, New Zealand.

I have been lucky enough to spend a great deal of time in New Zealand, a country that will always be very special to me. The following article appeared in Oberoi Magazine.

On the morning of 3 February 1931, people in the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand’s North Island woke to what seemed like a particularly calm day, although the summer heat felt oppressive, as though a storm was brewing. One peculiarity noticed by several residents of the seaside town of Napier was that the sea was a strange colour. As they ate their breakfast or took early morning walks, they were unaware that their life was about to change forever. At around 10:46am, the earth heaved and shuddered. The second shock was even more violent and the earth seemed to rip apart. Freda Sharp, a schoolgirl in Napier, wrote to her relatives in England that “the ground came up in mountains beneath our feet”.

The earthquake, which reached 7.8 on the Richter Scale, lasted for just under three minutes, but it – and the ensuing fires – devastated the region. 256 people were killed and thousands more injured. Throughout New Zealand, many of the buildings had been created by European architects, settlers who had no concept of the need to create earthquake-proof buildings. 

An Art Deco building in Napier, New Zealand

Before the earthquake, Napier hadresembled other fairly prosperous New Zealand towns, its architecture a mixture of styles, having grown up and been added to with every new influx of settlers. Immediately after the earthquake, with thousands of people in temporary accommodation and so many surviving buildings now declared unsafe, the town desperately needed rebuilding. While much of the world, including New Zealand, was struggling under the Great Depression, architects and builders were starved of work. There was little money to spare and the lavish building projects of the 1920s had been replaced by the belt-tightening of the 1930s. Napier, however, needed to be reinvented. One of Napier’s home-grown architects was Louis Hay, who was enamoured of the very fashionable style of Art Deco. Hay helped to rebuild Napier meaning that New Zealand now boasts one of the world’s most complete Art Deco towns – and a place where, uniquely, Art Deco design incorporates Maori patterns.

Street art in Napier, New Zealand, depictng a 1920s scene of a woman and child waiting for a tram.

Today, Napier makes the most of its iconic 1930s architecture, a time period still redolent of glamour and glitz – despite the Great Depression. The town’s now-famous buildings draw as many tourists as the nearby wildlife and wineries. Every February, the town hosts its hugely popular annual Art Deco festival, which began as a relatively humble affair in 1989, but now lasts for five days and draws tens of thousands of visitors every year. It’s one of those occasions where people notin fancy dress are the ones who look ridiculous. People aren’t the only attendees to arrive in droves: magnificent vintage cars are shipped by enthralled owners from all over the world, just so they can take part in the parade. 

The Art Deco Daily Telegraph building in Napier, New Zealand.

Whatever time of the year you visit, you can join an Art Deco walking tour, or enjoy a journey around the town in a stylish Art Deco-era car, both of which are run by the Art Deco Trust. There are also self-guided walks and driving guides for the region – and if you’ve hired a car, travel on to Hastings, 20 kms from Napier, which also boasts its own post-earthquake Art Deco buildings.

The region is also rightly famed for its wineries. Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s second-largest wine-producing region, and one of the oldest wine-growing areas in the country. The first vines were planted here in 1851, by missionaries. Since then almost 40 wineries have grown up in Hawkes Bay. The region also has beaches, wetlands, hiking trails and it boasts the world’s largest and most accessible mainland gannet colony: the fabulously named Cape Kidnappers. 

The waterfront in Napier, New Zealand

Amongst the historic buildings to be visited in Napier are the Daily Telegraph building, the National Tobacco Company Building, the Masonic Hotel, the ASB bank, and the Art Deco Centre (formerly the Napier Fire Station), which is where the Art Deco tours begin. When you’re walking through Napier, along the pretty walking and biking trail known as Marine Parade, you will also discover a fascinating stucture: the Soundshell. Its design was inspired by the glamour of 1930s Hollywood. The Soundshell was built in 1935 and became a centre of town life and especially of teen life, because its collonaded courtyard provided a dancefloor that doubled as a rollerskating arena. Walk a short distance from the Soundshell to find the tourist information centre, where you can book winery tours, wildlife tours – and encounter possibly the world’s most friendly tourist information staff.

To find out more about Napier visit https://www.napiernz.com

To find out more about visiting New Zealand go to https://www.newzealand.com

3 February 2021 horizontal rule

Street Art in Melbourne

In 2019, before the pandemic hit, I was lucky enough to return to Melbourne, Australia, one of my favourite cities. The following article appeared in Oberoi magazine (unfortunately, with half of the final sentence cut off by the printers!)

Melbourne has a long history of loving art. The first art gallery in Australia was opened here, in 1861, and the city has always had a reputation for being “arty”. Today, alongside all the official galleries, tourists and locals are eager to witness an ever-evolving art – the art of the streets. It changes, sometimes, daily. 

A street artist working in Melbourne, Australia
A street artist working in Melbourne, Australia

The most famous street to visit is Hosier Lane (not far from Flinders Street station), where you’ll witness street artists at work, blithely ignoring all the tourists and clatter and comings and goings all around them, and working just as anyone else would do at their day job. This is because, in Melbourne, street art is now definitely art, not graffiti, and in these streets, it’s not only permitted, but actively encouraged. Gone are the days when street artists had to work furtively, under cover of darkness, risking arrest for their art. Now it’s mainstream, and even the local Melbourne authorities agree that it’s good for artistic expression – and the tourist dollar! 

There are art-covered streets (with varying degrees of skill) all over the city. In the CBD (Central Business District) these include Strachan Lane, Rutledge Lane, Beaney Lane, Snider Lane, Rankins Lane, Caledonian Lane, Presgrave Place, Union Lane, Drewery Lane and Duckboard Place. But for fans of rock and heavy metal, there is only one place to get to: AC/DC Lane. Yes it is actually named after the Australian rock band. Until 2004, it was the much-more conservative Corporation Lane, but that didn’t attract anything like as many pilgrims seeking their heroes as AC/DC Lane does. Here, the art isn’t only painted on the walls, it’s coming out to get you. Former AC/DC singer Bon Scott (who died in 1980), has been sculpted bursting through the brickwork, created by sculptor Mike Makatron.

A street artist working in Melbourne, Australia
A street artist working in Melbourne, Australia

You can download an official street art map and visit the streets on your own, but there are great street art tours, led by working artists, which not only give you far more information that you’d find on your own, but also give you the chance to visit their studios at the end of the tours. Yes, it’s a blatant way for them to sell their work, but surely it’s better to go home with a genuine work of Australian art, rather than mass-produced tourist tat? 

'Real Australian' by Peter Drew
‘Real Australian’ by Peter Drew in Melbourne, Australia

Street art in Melbourne ranges from the simple but pithy stencilled slogans such as “Binge thinking is bad for your health”, to witty works by Stampz, including his kissing Disney princesses, and movingly beautiful images by @n20_jo, her works are so gorgeous that they make you stop, look and then keep looking. As with all the best street art, there are brilliant political works, such as pasted-up posters by Peter Drew, whose “Aboriginal Land Real Australians Seek Welcome” highlights injustices against the Aboriginal community, who are, despite many attempts to pretend otherwise, the original and only indigenous Australians. Another strikingly beautiful work, painted high over Hosier Lane is a massive, haunting portrait of an Aboriginal child, gazing across the top of Melbourne. He looks over what is now the city’s northern suburbs towards what was once a revered and sacred Aboriginal site. The portrait, by artist Adnate, stays in your vision long after seeing it. Long may it stay up there – as far as Adnate is concerned, it will be there until the elements destroy it, which seems a fitting analogy. 

Street art of a child drawing by @n20_jo in Melbourne, Australia
Street art by @n20_jo Street in Melbourne, Australia

There’s controversy here too: the working street artists, who lead the tours, despise over-commercialisation of the area. It might seem like a sweet irony, as they guide paying tourists through the maze of painted streets, but I understood what they meant, as we passed shops charging prices for so-called “street clothing” which only the only those in the salary bracket of a corporate lawyer (or drug dealer) could afford to buy with ease. These shops often pay street artists to create works – but isn’t that selling out? That was the question on seemingly all the artists’ lips. Though, having said that, UK street artist Banksy is still spoken about on the Melbourne scene with awe – yes, his works may be worth a fortune, but the reclusive Banksy still uses his talent to highlight social injustices and, often, to make others’ fortunes. When he paints on the sides of poor-looking buildings in the dead of night, he bequeaths a generous gift to the building’s owners, rather than making money from it himself. The greater irony I found on our tour was passionate way in which our street artist tour guide ranted against single-use plastics – whilst carrying a single-use-plastic water bottle…. 

Street art by Adnate in Melbourne, Australia
Street art by Adnate in Melbourne, Australia

Lucinda Hawksley is an author and travel writer based in London. Find out more at www.lucindahawksley.com or @lucindahawksley (Twitter and Instagram). 

3 February 2021 horizontal rule

Paul O’Grady’s Broadstairs

In between lockdowns, I managed to do some filming, including working with the lovely Paul O’Grady on his Great British Escapes programme, for ITV. It’s available to watch on catch up. https://www.itv.com/hub/paul-ogradys-great-british-escape/10a0768a0003

10 January 2021 horizontal rule

Book now!

The last booking date for my Life Writing course at the Verrocchio Arts Centre in Tuscany is 29 Feb 2020. The course is taking place 25 June-2 July 2020. Find out more here: http://www.verrocchio.co.uk/cms/index.php/2020-courses or email Hannah on [email protected] for more information.

7 February 2020 horizontal rule

Learn to write in Tuscany – book now!

Places are now available for my Life Writing course in the beautiful Verrocchio Art Centre in Tuscany. The course runs from 25 June 2020 until 2 July 2020. Numbers are strictly limited so early booking is a must. Find out more here: http://www.verrocchio.co.uk/cms/index.php/2020-courses and email Hannah on [email protected] with any queries. Please spread the word, thank you.

The image shows deckchairs on the sunny terrace at the Verrocchio Art Centre in Tuscany, Italy.
26 January 2020 horizontal rule

Victorian Radicals in Texas

This week I was lucky enough to be invited to the San Antonio Museum of Art in Texas, which is currently hosting an exhibition entitled Victorian Radicals, including many items from the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in England.

I was invited to give development training to the musem’s docents about the Aesthetic movement and to give a public lecture on Charles Dickens and the Pre-Raphaelites, which was a packed house!

Thank you San Antonio, for making me so welcome. What a beautiful place. If you’re in Texas, make sure you visit the exhibition. You won’t be disappointed.

The image shows the interior of the San Antonio Museumn of Art with the exhibition banner for Victorian Radicals: from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement, as well as a banner showing the image of Medea by Pre-Raphaelite artist Frederick Sandys.
23 October 2019 horizontal rule

Dickens Weekend By The Seaside

Book your tickets now from for a Weekend by the Seaside with Dickens in Manly, Sydney, on 18 & 19 May. Check out the programme here: (https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5cac5e7516b640584a438447/t/5cc1170a58c0ed00012da828/1556158229852/25+April+-+2019+Weekend+Away+Flyer.pdf)  Two of Dickens’s sons moved to Australia and, aptly, this year’s theme is “Dickens and the Family”. I’ll be talking about my books and family history in two talks entitled “The Great Expectations of the Children of Charles Dickens” on the Saturday and “Katey: Dickens’s Artist Daughter” on the Sunday.

25 April 2019 horizontal rule

Plan your next holiday

If you’re dreaming of your next holiday, gain inspiration for your travels, with my beautiful book, The Writer Abroad, published by The British Library. It’s available from all good bookshops and from the British Library shop – either in person or online. https://www.bl.uk/shop/the-writer-abroad/p-922

22 January 2019 horizontal rule

The Project NZ

Last night I had great fun chatting with the presenters of The Project NZ (on TV3) about my book Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards, and about the Auckland Writers’ Festival. If you can access facebook, you can watch this video of the interview: https://www.facebook.com/TheProjectNZ/videos/1223716704431647/


16 May 2018 horizontal rule

Auckland Writers’ Festival

I am doing 2 events at the Auckland Writers’ Festival this month, if you’re coming along, come and say hello and get your book signed! More info here: http://www.writersfestival.co.nz

4 May 2018 horizontal rule

Gibraltar Literary Festival 2017

This November, I’ll be speaking about my book “Charles Dickens and his Circle” at the Gibraltar Literary Festival.



30 July 2017 horizontal rule

Dickens in Carrara

This July, I’ll be one of the speakers at the International Dickens Fellowship Conference in Carrara, Italy. I’ll be talking about Dickens and the Pre-Raphaelites. http://www.dickenscarrara.it/en/programme/

13 June 2017 horizontal rule

Auckland Writers Festival

I am so pleased to have been invited to speak about “Charles Dickens and his Circle” at the Auckland Writer’s Festival in New Zealand. My event will take place at 5.30pm on Friday 19 May; tickets are on sale now. http://www.writersfestival.co.nz/programmes/event/on-charles-lucinda-hawksley/331132/

19 March 2017 horizontal rule

The Writer Abroad

Last night I launched my new book The Writer Abroad, an anthology of historic travel writing, from authors as diverse in time and style as Herodotus and Roald Dahl. It’s being published by the British Library on 23 February, this photo has just been tweeted by the library – the start of the book signing after the event.

14 February 2017 horizontal rule

Sexual Harassment on Planes: BBC 5 Live radio

Last night I was invited onto the Phil Williams Show on radio BBC 5 Live, to talk about my recent experience of being harassed by a male passenger, on a British Airways flight from India (an experience over which BA have really lost my former customer loyalty). Almost no airlines have made an effort to give their staff training about how to deal with, or help, customers who are assaulted on their flights and I was shocked to discover only THREE airlines even bother to record incidents of sexual harassment on their flights! http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08dnpmh

14 February 2017 horizontal rule

© Lucinda Hawksley 2022. Last updated 24 November 2022.