Friday, 26 May 2023

Good year for the roses - as Elvis sang (Costello)

It is in fact the most incredible year for roses as well as all other blossom - here certainly, and I hope where you are too.

The crumbling garage is blessed with a pale yellow tea rose which ambles slowly up its stonework, usually giving up with an almost audible sigh as May moves towards June. This year it is as showy as a Liberace rhinestone suit - blossom deeper in colour, almost golden with a faint scent of darjeeling. I've tried to capture its beauty on film but it's almost impossible - maybe just something to place in the memory drawer of the mind.

All flowers seem twice as big as usual. We must have had enough rain, no heavy frost and sufficient sunlight over the last couple of months. I'd love it to stay like this but glancing at the garden hoses while trying to locate a paintbrush this morning, I suspect we'll be in for another summer of heat and dryness.

Camper vans have started to emerge like angular, swaying white snails along the main route to Saumur, the Loire already at a late summer level. Business as usual while the climatologists rightly state for perhaps the 40th year or so that we are heading in a more than worrying direction.


Thursday, 11 May 2023

Modern 'agriculture'

Our rampaging garden/land is situated between several large fields - some of which I think can no longer be termed 'fields' more stretches of ground utterly devoid of anything natural - including the soil. 

The ground to our left has been scraped away, levelled; rows of raised 'soil' created, sprayed, layers of sand and fertiliser added, industrial radishes grown and removed - incidentally, the abandoned plants, of which there are many - sometimes around a third of the plants - never get touched by the local rabbit and deer population - all of it ploughed up again, faffed with, more fertiliser added, plastic put on, thrown away, irrigated during hot, windy weather, and so on . . . and so on . . . the sheer amount of diesel used, roundup, and general wastage is astounding.

The 'fields to our right are mainly corn which are cattle fodder and require astronomical amounts of water as soon as summer gets going, but at least the 'farmer' who owns or rents that land is trying out a 'no dig' policy and so far no spraying has occurred. 

The fields to the back of us are thankfully mostly pastureland and are left to grow along with many wild species of flower/insects etc. Cattle grazing has its own problems but at least the land is mostly left alone, and trees/hedges left in tact. Between the pastures are other fields which I have been observing with growing incredulity since the winter months. Ok . . . so . . . the farmer has employed no-dig so that the maize roots have been left in the ground, so far, reasonable; then they sowed broad beans which I assumed were for cattle, sadly not for humans. The beans grew to late flower stage then the farmer sprayed the whole lot with round-up before planting a new maize crop between the dying bean plants. Uh? I assume he'd heard that no-dig was a new thing and employed it, and that beans add nitrogen to the ground, so had sowed them to improve the impoverished 'soil'. But to add weed killer on top and then sow corn . . . all destined for cattle which will then be slaughtered having dined on round-up . . .

                                                               round-up and new maize plants

Thank the Lord of green stuff that we have pockets of sanity in the form of excellent organic veg growers in the locality. And . . . when I get more time, we shall have a bit more than beans and lettuce in our own veg patch. 

our back garden/wildlife zone 

a few meters away next door - the next crop of radishes, plastic and non-soil

Sunday, 7 May 2023

Work in progress, and the tenacity of nature

Finally, the main work has been done on our annex accommodation project - which has cropped up on this blog from time to time.

Now it's down to the outside details - ponds, courtyard, rampaging garden, etc. To remind me, wonderful family, and friends who have helped so much with this ongoing project, here are a couple of before-and-afters.

Below. Remainder of dilapidated bread oven with tree firmly rooted in it, to home-made, rustic and actually very functional BBQ area.

With regard to the tenacity of nature - this hazelnut tree was cut back drastically four times, then torn out by its roots (sob, but we had no other option) from the old bread oven, then to sit on the ground for about three months while we dealt with the rest of the building. 

A while back, our lovely workaway helper (Christopher) suggested re-planting it - just in case it would re-grow, despite having no real roots left. He went ahead and a couple of weeks later the second photo demonstrates how keen the tree was to continue its life!

BBQ area

Below, back courtyard with very damp and unpainted wall to nice sitting out place - still work to do but the main stuff has been dealt with

Monday, 10 April 2023

Small things of beauty and simplicity in a complex world

While visiting our son in his shared house a couple of days ago I was struck by the things his house mate had made to add convenience and use of space to the otherwise fairly un-ergonomic dwelling.

The coat hooks could easily have been displayed in the Conran shop; his shoe rack and key storage meuble an item of creativity and ingenuity. My favourite of his ouvres was the kitchen accoutrements housing arrangement - featured below. If he decides against roofing/major carpentry after his apprenticeship , I think he could certainly find a ready market for personalised house organisation. William Morris would certainly have approved . . . beauty and function. 

Thursday, 30 March 2023

Forsythia and chicken outfits

The lovely lady who previously owned our house had a forsythia foresight and planted a great circle of them in the back garden. Their splendid lemon to yolk yellows - according to the variety - punctuate the greens of the garden in every direction during March and early April, more so this year as we failed to get much pruning done in the winter . . .

The chickens are also in full blossom with fine new feathers after a molt period. This is Rod, after Rod Stewart, one of two in our flock who I always find difficult to imagine as female, her rockstar 'hair' and leopard skin more akin to stage and microphone and strutting rather than straw, egg laying and worm-hunting.

Sunday, 19 March 2023


Just putting this here as I'll be making another 'blog book' soon and I was quite pleased with this photo of Mark I did for a card recently.

Mark Lockett, pianist, composer, cellist, excellent cake maker, accordionist, world music specialist; polymath generally.


Saturday, 11 March 2023

A pair of boots, a pair of trousers, and fate

I'd nearly thrown out Mark's ancient walking boots but as I was about to hurl them to the dump pile we'd decided they might be useful . . . for something, so, they'd returned to the dark place under the stairs and I'd though no more about them.

A couple of months ago Mark had bought a pair of brown jeans from our favourite charity haunt without trying them on. They were just a little to large - waist wise, so I was about to put them in the bag for the next trip to afore-mentioned shop, but wondered if they might be useful, for something . . . so they remained in a drawer and I'd thought no more about them - until, our latest Workaway arrived almost a month ago. Christopher had noted on his profile that people call him the gentle giant, and he is, almost as tall as Mark - 6ft 6 - and just a little wider in the waist, his feet the same size 13!  As some of the work I had lined up was muddy garden/rock moving stuff and Christopher was traveling very light with no work boots or rough clothes the put-to-one-side garments suddenly had a purpose, as if they had been waiting for our visitor.

I've probably mentioned before on this blog that I think I do rather believe in fate. I'd approached Christopher on the Workaway website along with a few other people to come and work with us on various large garden and reconstruction projects. He'd declined at first saying he was looking further south, and I'd concentrated on trying to get one particular traveller to come and help as his profile looked perfect. After much chasing and stupidly long useless texts, etc, I realised it wasn't going to work and gave up, or perhaps decided to go with the flow a bit more, let the idea drop and see if anyone else approached me.

Then I had a response from Christopher saying he'd changed his mind about the south and would like to visit us. We had a brief chat and then a few days later I picked him up on a freezing morning at a motorway péage at 5:30 am. Fate obviously had stepped in, or maybe it was me just letting go a bit and stopping trying to make something happen. From the moment he'd reemerged from his room following a much needed sleep, it was clear we were not only all going to get on but he would very quickly become a member of the family.

We said goodbye to him this morning with great sadness but with the knowledge that we will certainly see him again, maybe often, maybe in his home country of Sicily, maybe here with his new family in France.

I must recommend Workaway. We've met some wonderful people through the site, moved forward with many projects but never quite as successfully as this time. The garden has in many parts been transformed, much wood has been cut, rubble cleared, a pond dug, a rustic BBQ made, walls pointed, a garden shelter made, the dog walked even more extensively; we have played rumba in the kitchen, been taught how to make Sicilian dishes, discussed world politics, history, literature, language, nature, environment, music, art, cooking . . . He has learned much too - that vegetarian food is actually really good! new music, life from perhaps a different perspective, improved his English, learned the names of plants, birds, and many other things. 

Happy travels, Christopher; good luck on your long hike, and I hope we see you again very soon. 


Friday, 10 March 2023

My tree

I recently started reading a book given to me at Christmas named, 'Être un Chêne' - to be an oak tree. The author talks about having one's own tree, in his case an incredibly ancient oak tree. Having a tree to mean a special tree, a companion tree, a tree that you sit under, feel the bark, talk too, and perhaps hug, if no one else is about - or even if they are.

We are surrounded by trees in our garden. I like them all. I like all the trees that feature on our daily dog walks, but there's one in particular that I have homed in on as being particularly outstanding in its noblesse - an oak, perhaps two hundred years old, rather on its own standing at the edge of a large field with distant views of other oaks. Perhaps that's why I notice it so much. I rather feel it should be with others of its kind which it probably was before many of the hedges and trees were ripped up/chopped down by zealous farmers wishing to gain a couple more meters of sunlight - something they may slowly be understanding is not such a great idea as the summer heat increases each year... 

Hugging the oak is tricky as a ditch separates walkers from the field but I always stop and admire the tree's shape, observe the sparrows and tits hopping around its structure and perhaps have a word about the weather, state of the world, etc. How interesting it would be to be able to see what changes to the landscape the oak would have witnessed over the passing decades.

I have yet to photograph my tree with its new spring foliage, heavier summer canopy and lastly its yellow and brown phase but here it is in midwinter, and on a milder day when the snakehead fritillaries are just starting to emerge - one of the early signs of spring in our region of France.

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

Friday, 24 February 2023

Nearing the end of a project

A building project that occupied much of our time over the last year. Fearful moments, wonderful moments, great satisfaction, and a collective feeling that we'd probably never want to do anything like this again...

Everything used has been hunted down at recycling places, charity shops, boot sales, online junk exchange, skips and the various local dumps, only the unavoidable basics bought - insulation, plaster board, the electrician and plumber skills/materials, etc.  

It's down to the small stuff now - unearthing the tile cutter to do the one skirting tile we were short of, a couple of curtains to finish, a bit of missed grout, a touch of repainting here and there; and a few bigger items, like pointing the exterior back wall and finishing off the courtyard BBQ area. 

Thanks to our our wonderful Workaway, Christopher, said BBQ area has emerged from a huge mound of earth and rocks at the back of the building which was once the bread oven - sadly neglected and allowed to collapse over time.

A few recent photos, and top one from what now seems a very, very long time ago...



The original door knocker from the main house.

remains of the old bread oven - with tree growing out of it...

cleared away, and wall partially pointed 

new rustic BBQ made of reclaimed bits from our local charity emporium. 
Total cost: six euros

Monday, 20 February 2023

One man's rubbish . . .

Is another woman's gold. Or in this case, two, not at all valuable but highly serviceable objects that I narrowly stopped said man hurling into the 'tout venant' - general rubbish - at the tip/dechetterie/dump a couple of days ago.

I'd swerved the car to a Starsky and Hutch style halt as I'd seen an arc of unwanted glassware glinting in the afternoon sunshine headed for the afore-mentioned container, and ran up to the man to ask -as politely as possible - if he could stop throwing useable glasses away. He'd smiled benignly and said, too late. 

You'll want to keep the basket, I'd said, assuming he would want to keep a handmade, good nick whicker basket. 

He shrugged: Non - c'est pour le poubelle aussi . . . you want it? 


And this old wooden box?

Indeed. The old wooden box was actually a purpose made and delightful carrying container for holding new plants to be planted out. I briefly peered at his car that was full of less interesting stuff.

Ah. Shame he said, noting my surreptitious glance, I have many more things like this which will come here.

Due elsewhere I stopped myself asking for his address and a RDV in order to trawl his house, and unloaded my car of real dump garbage - unusable bits of plasterboard, broken glass, damp cardboard etc and set off again wondering why he hadn't bothered to take the useable items to our not-far-away excellent emporium of second hand everything; or at least leave the things to one side for someone else to re-home. 

Judging by the employer at the place however anything that was left would be swiftly binned anyway, unlike at the dump I had tried to go to before getting my dates mixed up, where they positively encourage folk to re-house stuff and recycle absolutely everything from china, sinks, all different types of plastic, paint, furniture and of course, perfectly serviceable whicker baskets...

Saturday, 11 February 2023

A perfect day

Not on a sun-drenched beach, exploring the hot springs of Iceland, or snow-boarding in the Alps. just a half hour journey up the road to meet my son at a half way point we use when meeting for a hike or exploration of the area.

Château le Vallière is relatively unremarkable apart from the scenic lake that sits below the town within a bowl of green hills. As this was an 'insolite' (quirky) wanderings day rather than a serious striding out walk we started by clambering up to the disused railway track - or rather, tracks, as there would have been two lines usefully connecting many of the small - now rather dead- villages and towns of the area - and walking quite a distance before skirting back into the town from a different direction.

As all the cafés I had pinpointed as possible quick lunch stops were inexplicably closed - restaurant strikes? (unlikely!) - a supermarket picnic sufficed which we enjoyed sitting on the disused and impressive old metal train bridge spanning the valley. 

Map banned, we strolled on, seeing where we would end up - with a rough knowledge of where the car had been left. The February sun shone brightly on impossibly green pastures, the white bulk of the local gravel factory and our three selves as we rather reluctantly made our ways back to the walk's starting point and the separate journeys home.

Thanks, the lad - great day.


Tuesday, 7 February 2023

Chega de Saudade - No More Blues

Live from the teatime sessions kitchen, our take on this bossa classic.

Enough of all that homesickness... the English version of the 1957 song, first recorded by the great Brazilian actress and singer, Elizete Cardosa. Music by Antönio Carlos Jobim.

Monday, 30 January 2023

Fundamental stuff

Last summer on a ragingly hot day I did that thing we probably all do, mention to whoever is with us - or to ourselves, (yes, I do this) how impossible it is to imagine a the same place during a spell of extreme cold. Mark had stared across the parched grass and nodded: "Yup. Fires, hot water bottles . . . wood cutting..." 

I'd gathered a clutch of dead silver birch branches and gone to look at the wood shed and its depleted stocks of dry kindling. Delving more into the images of soup, socks and breaking ice from the bird baths I'd done more gathering and duly stacked the waiting boxes. 

This January morning while sawing up logs for the smaller wood burner, I stopped and did the thought in reverse - watering relentlessly, getting in any nearby river to cool off, sleeping outside, and . . . gathering twigs in preparation for the cold; not high on the summer agenda but if relying on wood for heat, imperative. Nothing worse than fumbling about with a torch for a bit of damp kindling on a freezing morning.

When we found this house and its attached wood on a baking August day, the thought of fires and managing wood was a just a vague idea. I think Mark did say, do you think we can manage all this? I may have said, Yes, course we can, or probably . . . hopefully! Can't recall now, but as we'd already spend ten years or so in another house fuelled by wood it didn't seem impossible. We used to have deliveries of oak and chestnut as everyone did in that region. Here, it's our own ash trees, mixed with a bit of oak, silver birch or anything that's fallen over in the garden. Free fuel as long as we can cut and stock it. This year our helpful occasional gardener seems to have vanished; I'm on the trail of another, or possibly a handy workaway person to help. We just need to keep the system rolling - cut, stock to dry for a year and a half, burn, repeat. We have plenty for next year and some stocked for the year after, but the large branches that could theoretically fall across the train tracks need to be pollarded (étêtage in French), at the least.

Pollarding is so incredibly sensible, a practice started in the middle ages - a way of creating a sustainable firewood source, making shade, encouraging healthier tree growth, even cattle feed. Our ash trees were all pollarded about seven years ago and need doing again, but, of course its expensive so we are doing it bit by bit, and letting the wood do mostly its own thing - much appreciated by the woodpeckers and owls that inhabit the older trees.

This year, I've become a wood burner nerd - arranging wood in branch sizes in the barn, stocking kindling next to both fires so it drys completely, doing the fire cleaning first thing in the morning - ashes to the chicken sand pit (they like to bathe in it to discourage mites, etc), getting the days wood in, and so on. A minor recycling triumph was cutting the dead reeds from the reed bed and using them as first stage kindling - best ever!

It's all time consuming and dust producing and sometimes muscle aching, but somehow, as the post title suggests, fundamental, and oddly life-affirming in these times of more, faster, easier. Not exciting perhaps, but satisfying. On one of the coldest days recently when more dystopian thoughts ranged around my mind, I did a try out of what could be achieved on the bigger wood stove, the result: drying washing, stew cooked from scratch, dog food and chicken food cooked up, and a pan of water heated inside the stove for tea.