Thursday, 23 September 2021

View from the hill

 I am currently reading Alan Bennet's Untold Stories - I think a present from Andy if you read this.

As I turned the first few pages I found myself thinking different things: why should anyone be interested in the minutiae of someone else's life and childhood? But then why not? All experiences are interesting, to me, anyway. Some folk stifle a yawn as a relative or friend turns pages of a family album - 'that's Aunty Bess in about . . . hmm, 1978, perhaps . . . when she had that job at the first Sainsbury's in East London'; or recent photos lost in a technological maze on an iPhone - 'us in Paris', 'the best pudding I ever had' or, 'Your Dad and me at Sarah's wedding when the cake collapsed.' All human stories, things we can relate to or not; things that provoke memories, cause tears to rise or a smile to stretch.

As often the case, an idea surfaced as I walked the dogs and filled holes in walls this morning, which then refused to be packed away again. My own London child/adolescent-hood. All those little memory chinks that wend their way into most of my writing. How much more would be buried behind the so-many-times replayed recollections. So, between the jobs, Gite construction and editing, I'll write out some of the memories and see what occurs. Bitty, no format - no time for the foreseeable.

The view from the Hill.  

The view being Muswell Hill. One of London's high points and very much my world between the age of whatever age I was when memories started forming until about thirteen when we moved from North London to the gentle rounded hills of Dorset. 

Muswell Hill was the center of everything - school, the pet shop, buses to the West End, the road where Nichola Stott's family lived in their rather handsome Edwardian semi. She was one of my best friends, freckle-faced, long red hair and as tom-boyish as I was. I don't recall much about the house other than the attic where we played and once decided it would be fun to scratch off a large portion of the polystyrene cladding. It had fallen as gently as snowflakes, and we had laughed until almost peeing ourselves. My mother, always feeling in the shadow of house-owners and seemingly established couples generally, had come to remove my seven or so year old self, red faced, apologies streaming. Maybe that was the last time I visited the Stott household. I don't recall Nicola visiting our more humble abode on Colney Hatch Lane. 

                                                            Colney Hatch lane in the 60s

And it was quite humble. A one bedroom, rented ground floor flat in what is these days a prestigious 40s (I think) block, surrounded by, for London, ample and well treed grounds. Mum shared the front room with her precious piano, table, large armchair (which I recall sitting in and crying while listening to Yesterday by the Beatles), second hand jade green Wilton carpet and her single bed which doubled up as a sofa - long before the days of Ikea Click-Clack. I had the bedroom which was crammed with jumble sale finds, cages of various rodents (depending on the phase), toy cars, and later walls adorned with the usual poster pop beings of the 70s - except mine were all of Rob Davies from Mud. I think I was probably the only teenager in London who preferred his flared cat suits and dangly earrings to Donny Osmond or David Cassidy's toothy grins.

Our kitchen, always warm from stews Mum concocted involving such delights as pigs heart or the marvellously termed, scrag end of lamb, had generous built in cupboards, a china sink, an old green enamel gas stove with chrome metal 'taps', a table and two chairs and a fridge being bought on instalments. Mum, being Mum encouraged my various manias for bringing more wildlife into the already crammed space; often a sweet jar of stick insects or butterfly pupae balancing on the table or sink side.

The bathroom was small, dark and purple but furnished with an ample bath and never ending hot water as all the flats' heating and water were fuelled by an enormous boiler somewhere in the grounds. Mum's stack of 'I'll read them all one day' old Guardian newspapers were for some reason housed in that room. Perhaps she read them in the bath. Those odd knowledge gaps that appear now as I think. Did I know why they were in there? Did she? It's just how it was. Just as we never mused over the spelling of the Fuck Of  that had been shakily scrawled in black paint above the bins at the back of our flat. It had been there for years - part of the block's ornament along with the black crittal window frames and brick framed door entrances.

There, I digressed already. Not so much about the hill or the view but here's a picture for now, although the skyline would have been a little different.


Thursday, 16 September 2021

Real stuff

So, unable to stare at a screen for more than a very short while (see last post) I decided to get on with something requiring scaling ladders and handling raw materials; also something which was on the to-do list anyway: re-doing the mortar in our stone walls.

Having earmarked an outbuilding as a gite we'd already got some of the hefty work done - concrete floor, electricity supply ready etc, the rest of it is done to us as the budget is running low. Our son has taken a year out of his studies to help, partly as a learning experience for himself. Luckily, a stone mason friend of his came to work and teach us the basics for a week - valuable time indeed. We now know how to mix correctly the sand and chalk, how to free up the old joints, dampen them, whap in (sometimes with great skill) the new mortar and sponge/brush it out to provide a satisfying surround to the old stone.

It's a rewarding and tiring occupation - I sleep very well after several hours of the process - but something that can be done between preparation for our bed and breakfast room, and small bouts of computer stuff (hello!) My agent and I having amicably parted ways I am now starting the pernickety and occasionally exciting process of finding a new one. Watch this space as they say...  back to the wheelbarrow and tools now.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

A short post on finding new ways

Many, many posts back I wrote about a neuralgic pain that appeared in my face; it returns from time to time, always shifting slightly, always a slightly new unpleasant sensation. It has a connection with a throat issue I've also had for years, even though various 'specialists' more or less told me to stop informing THEM about stuff I knew nothing about. But it's MY pain, a jabbing,  a sly little knife that prods away at my unsuspecting tissue; not theirs. 

Anyway, 'bref' as the French say, I saw someone remarkable the other day; a very young woman neurologist who actually listened, actually examined the afflicted areas with care and interest. Not that she could draw any real conclusions without further scans (being trapped in a tube with Japanese Noise Terrorism playing over well intentioned carpet ads and local news), but it was a huge relief to actually talk to someone genuinely helpful and knowledgeable. 

Anyway, anyway . . . the point of the post . . . one of the things the pain really gets going on is me looking at screens, including my writing on the laptop. So, I haven't for a month - sob. After a brief hunt on 'le Bon Coin' I found an old and very cheap 70s Tippa typewriter; not as beautiful as my old black 30s one I wrote my thesis on and then sold for a pittance at some later date (VERY pricy now, dammit!)

It arrived a few days ago, swiftly followed by the new ribbon spools. We set it up and I've 'launched' - slowly and with many mistakes into the new book, at present called, Outcrier.

Stopping now as the pain has woken up and is threatening to indulge itself on my overuse of screen time. Back to the slower but rather interesting writing process.

A bientôt, j'espère.

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Ever since I was a child....

Yeah, yeah . . . didn't we all have a dream of going into space etc . . . weird that both Branson and Bezos said exactly the same thing. Not terribly original.

This is a brilliant and very funny analysis of the Branson et al space jaunts - Aka, astronomical waste of time, money and resources PR exercises, and the media responses.

Tuesday, 13 July 2021


 After Blur's 1994 track, Parklife. 

Ponds could be the new therapy; certainly works for me... Overcome by the enormity of the world's problems? Build a pond, even a titchy one. There's something reassuring and meaningful about taking a dull bit of lawn, digging a hole and inserting an overlooked sink/water trough/washing up bowl, introducing water, a few plants, stones etc and watching a whole new, small scale, and without vast problems, world unfold before you. 

Our local organic veg producing friend gave us a large round plastic tub which had been destined to be part of a reed bed idea, now rather put to one side. When our own reed bed was installed I asked the man wielding the small yellow digger if he could make an extra hole, which he did. I filled in the drainage hole with silicone, let it dry and we filled the pond from the river via many hosepipes joined together.

For about three days it looked like a disappointing muddy mistake then the water started to clear due to the oxygenating plants Mark had bought, including an extraordinary floating nomadic 'water lettuce' plant that trails its roots and requires no permanent fixture. The first visitors to our watering hole were about 4,000 mosquito larvae - eek! . . . I scooped a few hundred out then gave up - something would surely snack on these? 

On our favourite forest/lake walk we stole three baby frogs, and later from a river, a few minnows. They seem to have happily taken up residence and the mosquito population has vastly reduced. The latest arrivals are a huge water beetle and many small ones, various snails, a family of pond skaters and several dragon fly larvae. I can happily spend several minutes just staring into the now-clear depths of the tub, delighted at the glimpse of a fish or a new addition to this small universe. Watching from our back window in the house gives also glimpses of the bird and animal life that have started to view the pond as a good garden addition. 

We have now installed an old kitchen sink and will be adding a bath I got from the local recycling emporium. A biodiversity corridor, I heard it called on one wild gardening channel. And . . . if one day I get a film deal, win the loto, whatever, we'll add a natural swimming pool . . . pond is fine for now.

Friday, 9 July 2021

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Road trip number . . .

No idea. I've lost count of them over the years but they take up (welcomely) a large amount of memory space in my head.

As our lad will be coming back home in a few weeks after his studies in carpentry and will cram his current belongings into a small white Clio with no room for his bike, it was the perfect excuse to go and collect said item and have a . . . holiday. A what? Yes, one of those things where you go off somewhere else and don’t carry out all the usual day to day home stuff. I love our new house but haven’t actually left it for ten months for more than about three hours at any one time.

I arrived in Périgueux and located my titchy air b and b flat at the top of an interesting 1930s/40s block and was delighted to be in the middle of a city for a change. Ezra joined me and we wandered at length savouring the unusual experience of choosing a restaurant. A restaurant! I haven’t as many people haven’t, sat outside a restaurant and glanced over a menu for maybe a year and a half? We ate and chatted and discussed what we might do the following day, which would of course involve a lot of meandering in the car and stopping at mostly overlooked and unsung villages and towns. We are still keen to one day jointly produce a book of places that would never be mentioned in any usual guide book - got a good stock of photos ready….

 hallway of my B and B building

                                                   Home is where the tea is - my fave old teapot 

After a good sleep, apart from a fruitless mosquito hunt in the wee small hours, I did the usual morning routine and then went to meet Ezra at his college – the Compagnons du Devoir; I’ve probably blogged about the place before but in case I haven’t . . . the C de D is an extraordinary institution which exists to provide intensive and incredibly good quality tuition in practical skills such as carpentry, roofing, plumbing, locksmithery (is that a word?) landscaping, leatherwork, shoemaking, etc. It is intensive with the apprentices working for local companies and learning in the evenings and at weekends but well worth it if you are committed to taking up a trade. 

                Indescribably complex structures being built by a student at the Compagnons du devoir

Kate n’ Ezra road trips generally consist of no planning other than a brief look at a town to head for and then see what transpires, with the proviso that all tangents and derivations are allowed even if the ‘plan’ is altered by noting a roadside sign to an abandoned mine, clump of disused factories, a lake/pond/river that could be get-in-able, etc. The weather should be preferably not bright and sunny but atmospherically misty or drizzly; good for walking and bringing out the best in any insolite (quirky/unusual/bizarre) attributes of a town or village.

                                            House martin nest with several years of poo history


The weather was in fact, hot sunny and better suited to straight forward tourism so we opted for a visit to Sarlat le Canéda, a ridiculously pretty Dordogne town, stopping at St Cyprian which was magnificent with its honey stone buildings and narrow back streets, and a vide grenier! (boot sale). I was restrained and only acquired a fanciful late Victorian, Stoke on Trent, two euro, cheese dish – imagine the journey in time and distance this object has made to end up in rural France . . .

Salat was bulging with camper vans, tourists and a few miles of market – mostly dream catchers, knock-off bags, racks of the same clothing, etc and very little local stuff so after a quick tour we moved on. Picnic by a river, lots of exploration of quaint villages, rolling hills and forest, then back to base via a detour to look (no photos) at a bizarre series of cave entrances and serious-looking metal doors where police ‘practice’. The signs didn’t say what they practiced but there certainly wasn’t a visitor center or gift shop.

Supper was chips and deeply suspect meat in batter things at a beer n’ chips emporium that Ezra frequents on a Sunday evening with his college mates. Enjoyable, but a one off for me . . .

The second day dawned promisingly overcast and a lot cooler, ideal for a more random driving day.

I breakfasted first in a small Périgueux square, sketched and listened to the locals as they ate seafood and drank white wine (9 am) . . .

                                                           Lovely rock paving slab in Périgueux

I met up with Ezra and after a brief map-inspection, Brantome was chosen as the start point, not a ‘plus beau village de France’ which seemed odd as it was extremely beau with its abbey (oldest bell tower in the country) wide river, old bridges and parklands. A walk around in the mizzle (mist/drizzle) revealled a gentle unkeptness to the rest of the town which obviously didn’t qualify it for the hallowed badge of PBVDF.

                                                                   Brantome, not a PBVDF

From this point the spontaneous road trip began, wandering across country via an abandoned hamlet, mill and waterway which could have featured in Andreï Tarkovski's Stalker, but a little more picturesque, then onto Riberac, a non-touristy town with two churches, one Romanesque and a larger concrete 50s (I think) small version of the Périgueux cathedral which was experiencing structural problems either due to being made of concrete or being on a hill, or both. Small delights of the unplanned trip - a ‘chemin des abeilles’ – lane of the bees, behind the older church; lovely herb and flower filled gardens, hives and a small building containing interesting info about bees and a glass hive so one could observe the insects' comings and goings.

The day's picnic was enjoyed under the open car boot lid with requested atmospheric drizzle being a little too forceful to sit out in. Roast chicken, tomatoes and strawberries from the Périgueux morning market.

The next town was a Plus Beau village Aubeterre, and was so - ancient stone houses tucked into the hillside, pretty market square, lots of busy restaurants and antique shops and impressive chateau. The rain had morphed from melancholic drizzle to medium downpour so we stopped the wanderings and returned to collect Ezra's bike from his college via villages with intriguing names such as Festalemps and many, many ending with AC (Bardenac, Rouffiac, Brossac, Douzillac, etc,  - apparently ac means water source.

                                                  Magnificent church doorway in Aubeterre

Bee comings and goings


        Unusual 50s/40s? concrete and mosaic pillars in the worryingly unstable-looking concrete church

The day ended with cakes eaten in my micro-flat and a hunt for an open restaurant which seemed unlikely on a rainy Sunday evening, but joy of joys, we came across a small Indian/Afghan takeaway, the patron of which warned us that the food would be piquant! Spicy Indian food in France? Nah . . . but it was piquant, and excellent, eaten in the rain overlooking the Dordogne river after a perfect road trip day.






Thursday, 24 June 2021

A tornado's walk


 A few days ago we experienced, in this usually placid agricultural region of the Loire Valley, a tornado . . . well, I say experienced. I was asleep with a pillow over my head after several insomniac nights. People who were staying with us said they saw, through a top floor velux window, what they thought was a murmuration of starlings in the distance; a twirling dark mass which as it came closer was revealed to be branches, slates and bits of roofing. The noise must have been tremendous as it ripped through nearby trees but I heard none of it. On waking, I realised what had happened and that somehow our house and garden had been spared.

Over the afternoon we realised how much local destruction had happened, especially in a village a few kilometres away called St Nicholas de Bourgueil. The bell tower of their beautifully restored church had been chewed away by the whirling winds, as had many roofs of houses and shops. I took a drive around to see where the tornado had passed and it was as if the tunnel of cloud had indeed walked - down roads, through wooded pathways, passing through people's yards, via cycle routes and on to the unsuspecting village.

The saddest thing was that the beast had lingered on the land of two local organic farmer's land. It had ignored the giant greenhouses of the huge multi-corp agricultural company nearer the river who are no doubt insured to the nth degree but had decimated the small greenhouses and trees of the two small producers. I say lingered, it had probably been a few minutes but enough to pulverise ancient plum trees, chicken houses and hedges. The roof of Julian's house was actually momentarily lifted off and replaced - of course with structural consequences. 


                                                                  wind-torn poly-tunnels 

We have been up everyday, dividing time between our two friend's places, helping them reconstruct what they can. It was heartbreaking on the first day to see Jean-Paul staring at the floored trees with a look of utter bewilderment, but a few days on and with much help from various friends the place is beginning to look a little more organised. I've learned a fair amount about poly-tunnel re-construction, how to tie up mature tomato plants, the best way to attack bramble hedges, and spotting Colorado beetle eggs. 

                                       Colorado beetles collected from Jean-Paul's potatoes.

I usually love storms, the low rumbling precursor and following light displays, rain, wind, all of it but now . . . well, there's an added frisson which is rather less welcome; the thought of another tornado's walk. Apparently there was a smaller version about twelve years ago but no one had ever seen anything like this before in the region. The insurance companies - all the evaluators out in force - will, I assume, mark it down to an 'act of God'. Sadly, it must surely be seen as an act of Man along with all the other increasingly weird and damaging weather patterns.

Thursday, 17 June 2021

After the storm

And it was an impressive one... 

I don't think I've ever seen so much continual lightning over an hour or so - almost strobe-like. I looked out of our top floor velux windows and considered, as you do when confronted with the full force of nature, how terribly small we and our daily concerns are. Yesterday afternoon I was worrying about the seething mass of mosquito larvae in our new pond, and the fact I had lost the smaller 'tic fork' for removing unwanted guests from the older dog. Seeing the trees bent over at an alarming degree as the wind lashed our home reminded me of the rather bigger picture, part of which is increasingly bizarre weather patterns, or no patterns in fact. 

My current novel has reached the point where Londonia residents are leaving the lower flooding states and re-settling on the various higher points of the city - Muswell Hill, Angel Islington, and where my hero and narrator (a fanciful French 18th century couch) currently resides, Hampstead Heath. Living with various dystopian scenarios does make one a little, not exactly gloomy . . . speculative, thoughtful, scared, sometimes. 

Anyway, the garden wasn't flooded by our little river that passes through and the only major catastrophe was that the fabulously blousey 'Rambling Rector' rose had parted company with the wall and was bent over itself like a seated someone sleeping off a hangover. Luckily it had been showing off madly over the last few weeks, brightening our days with its pink blooms, and I had taken many photographs. And it will do it all again next year as a friend pointed out. 

The thing that made me feel most sad was seeing the birds hopping about on the bowed branches looking for their nest. I found it as we cut the rose back; a beautiful construction of wound long grass, moss and feathers, and four little white/ grey eggs... I put it back in a nook of branches but I doubt very much they will return. I don't possess their delicate skills.

I think I've posted this animated film that I made with son, Ezra before, but it seems most fitting to re-air it on this post-storm morning. The Nest Apprentice. Inspired by a dream of a future time where the relationship between us and the rest of the animal world is somewhat different.

The Nest Apprentice. Story written by Kate A Hardy. Animation by Ezra Lockett.

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Tea n' jazz at le Jardin Insolite

So, after many days, probably more like weeks, of preparation we opened le Jardin Insolite for tea, Mark's marvellous cakes, music, and celebration of all things floral and fauna of which there is an vast abundance within the boundaries of the garden. Having not completed a year of living here yet, each day reveals new plants which Anna, the previous owner and botanical super enthusiast had introduced over the years. 

Our new sign featuring official LPO bird and nature reserve panel  

Thanks to our local Emmaüs we had managed to find enough old chairs and tables needing a loving home to provide the seating and a random pot of blue paint from the same establishment started off a vague blue theme which was then carried on into seat cushions, table cloths, etc. I've always loved miss-matched crockery and this was a perfect excuse to spend time mooching around all the local charity shops and re-house many, many, tea time accoutrements. 

Interesting melange of Victoriana, dutch blue and German 90s china

As if requested the weather was perfect: blue sky, hot but with a breeze. Swallows and house martins swooped and dived into the outbuildings, river frogs chorused, and the odd train passed - Sunday hours so not too often. Our resident and intermittently vocal dogs next door were silent for the afternoon - our neighbours had taken my plea for tranquility seriously and not so much as a whimper was to be heard from over the hedge.

Mark excelled himself and made, starting at four in the morning (insomniacs? us?), citrus cheesecake, shortbread, chocolate cake, rich fruit cake and a mysterious gluten-free gateau which was also delicious. He hopped into piano mode and regaled us with a laid back jazz set, interspersed with me singing a few songs from our jazz duo set and the odd dog disagreement between our usually silent greyhounds.

Our friend Jean-Paul, local grower of organic veg par excellence set up a stall of his produce under the lime tree along with part of our red and gold Gamelan, (Mark was going to assemble the whole thing but the effort of doing so in the afternoon heat had suddenly seemed an effort too far . . .) If we do another similar event I'd like to invite other local producers to join in, maybe some crafts, basket makers, pottery, anyway, many ideas surfacing . . . and many other things to catch up on.

Special thanks to our lovely friends Mike and Tracey at Les Peupliers, and Béa, who helped in so many ways and dramatically reduced any lurking panic inherent with any new project. 

Monday, 31 May 2021

Tea time at le Jardin Insolite

A try-out for a potential jardin/salon du thé with Mark's incredible cakes, live music, brocante and local produce. 

Mark's cakes need a wider audience, we have jazz sets ready to go, and boxes of brocante collected over the years so, why not? 

Just got to investigate the bureaucracy for such an idea...

Le Jardin Insolite

Last year during lockdown we sold up in the South of France and headed to an unknown-to-us region of France, the Loire Valley. After two viewings and a 'YES- we'll have it', the house, garden and immediate area were also unknown to us. Such was the coup de coeur, or literally, blow to the heart; in English . . .? Mm, love at first sight?

As we are planning to set up a gîte and jardin du thé a name had to be found. After a few 'err, what about this', sessions, Mark suggested Le Jardin Insolite which is in fact perfect. Insolite is a difficult word to translate: curious, unique, quirky, unusual, veering towards weird and even eerie and downright odd. Anna, the previous owner and master architect of the garden, created from a field - starring not a single tree - a verdant paradise crammed with roses and herbaceous borders that even Capability Brown might have nodded at and said, yeah, not bad, or something more akin to mid 1700s speak. 

So, the insolite part . . . we will over time add to the garden: bizarre sculptures by Leonora Carrington (I wish) and home made little cabins, groovy chicken houses etc, but for the meantime it's a verdant paradise with the occasional TJV/freight train passing at grand vitesse just past our boundary, AND, sadly, a bunch of bored dogs who bark and howl at intervals thus crushing somewhat the lazy, contemplation as one wanders, admiring Anna's, and our, work. We've got used to it now and they (the dogs) do respond to the odd shout, and we get on with the neighbours - and that, especially in a rural community, is valuable to say the least.

I recall that particular amble around the garden on the first viewing; a hot, mid-summer day; the buzzing of insects, the peaceful sound of the little river that runs through the property, the scent of roses, and then the roar of a train on its straight run from Tours to Nantes passing by the line of ash trees that forms the land's delineation. The estate agent had eyed me carefully, no doubt gauging the reaction. It was a slight surprise but our last house had a railway line nearby so not out of the question - and it isn't something likely to appear even on the most honest of estate agents details: hectare of mature garden complete with minor earthquakes at irregular intervals. I like trains, but if it had been a busy road . . . it would have been a brief viewing. 

It's always a lot to take in on two viewings, especially a largish house with outbuildings and a lot of land but luckily we were both in agreement and knew our son (and dogs) would approve, so, here we are gradually tackling the larger house projects and tending the garden as much as possible. Watching a garden develop through the months is fascinating. Our old house was very different - starting with a baked wasteland and creating something verdant was a challenge but it worked, and luckily our buyers are keen gardeners too so I don't feel sad at leaving what we created there. 

The months here have been marked by leaves changing colour and falling, the spiky tree outlines of winter; the first strident forsythia blossom, daffodils, hundreds of different irises, japonica, and now the roses; waterfalls of pink, peach, yellow, red and white. Anna planted two hundred rosebushes and climbers and each day we are seeing new varieties blossoming. My favourite name so far: Rambling Rector. We have started to add a few things such as a pond (under construction) area in the back garden and various trees planted in the early winter but for now it still is very much the garden that Anna planned and planted. 

She has now moved to a house with enormous undeveloped garden about twenty minutes away and is bravely starting on the planning and planting of it. We wish her well, and thank her everyday for making this unique and insolite, bird and insect flower-filled Arcadia.