Ancient Memories

A short story

It was an hour after dawn when the young man opened the front door and went down the little drive from the house, past the clutch of bright red roses on the wall and the hollyhocks by the little gate. Clinking it shut behind him, he crossed the cobbled road and walked purposefully down the side-street to the river. 

It was a morning of golden light; steam rose off the current under the far bank and the swifts and swallows screeched as they swept up and down the cool green mass of water that flowed, slowly and stately, to the great ocean in the west.

His backpack slapped on his shoulders as he went downstream along the bank, until he reached the small stone jetty under the ancient Portuguese oak that stretched out its canopy across the bank towards the water. The trunk of the tree stood behind an old wall, tipped with a section of classical iron-wrought railings, the whole a clue as to the history of the house up on the low slope. 

Upon the third of its storeys lay a cloak of slate, a signal of wealth, and although its roofline was tired and needed repair, graceful ironwork on its ridge pointed upwards from it to the new morning. The young man paused by the railings, looking up at the quiet house, and he wondered at its provenance and age. It was many years since the house had been truly inhabited, but there was a car parked by the side door, as though hiding from the grandness of the street-side facade.

He turned away and went down to the water’s edge and the jetty, where a small piece of flat ground held the marks of his previous visits. Putting his pack on the ground, he opened it to reveal a folding stool, and a board with a piece of water-colour paper taped to it. He was home on holiday from his art course at university, and this was his third morning back in his most favourite of places on the river. 


Perching on the stool, his long legs confidently kept the watercolour board in place and he worked steadily, sketching out the first strokes of the image he held in his mind. There was the radius of the mighty bend of the river in from of him, the boating pontoons on the right under the lime trees, and then the opposite bank, where a wild hedge of bushes and small trees leaned down to the water, many of them in full blossom; white, yellow and a faint tinge of pink flared occasionally at him as the breeze moved or a bird alighted.

It was a scene he returned to again and again, and each time the results were different. On the right of the picture was the path towards where he sat, with the great houses behind and out of sight. A dove crooned contentedly above him in the oak, and his fingers moved with purpose upon the paper. He was a good draughtsman, and it was an hour before he stopped, and with a few corrections he decided the time was right for colour. The pencil in his right hand was replaced by a brush, and a small palette of watercolours appeared in the left, steadying the watercolour board at the same time. It was a balancing act, but the long legs helped to keep the board at the right angle.

It was an hour later, just after a pause for half an apple and a sip of water, that he heard the gate in the wall behind him open slowly. Surprised, he turned his head to see an old man with an immense beard step through the gate and down onto the ground. The man looked across at him, and nodding his head in silent greeting he turned to shut the gate, age and rust eliciting a slow sigh of metal on metal as he did so. Then he stood there, looking out over the river with his hands behind his back, as though drinking in the very joy of nature. The young man dropped his glance and went back to the colours. 

He was slowly adding light to the surface of the green river under his fingers, when, several moments later, he became aware the man was standing right behind him, unafraid of the proximity between them.

He turned to the man and his look of question was answered by the old man, who simply said, “You have a good eye, boy. The perspective is cleanly done,” and he leaned forward to indicate with a finger where this was true. 

The young man nodded in appreciation, blushing slightly, and the old man continued. “It’s good to see someone so young here on the bank, drawing. Most of you don’t seem to give much appreciation for arts nowadays,” and this was said in such a sorrowful way that the young man leaned back and looked at the old man again.

“May I ask what you mean by that?” he asked, a little more than annoyed. He had many friends of his age who were artistic and he thought the old man’s comment was slightly patronising. 

“I do not get many visitors your age,” said the old man, “I’m in residence for the summer up at the quarry, and it’s mostly old people who come to see what we do,” and he looked at the young man, knowing that he would be only too aware of what he was talking about. There was an old limestone quarry to the south, set in some woods, where every summer sculptors came to work and socialise. It was a society that had existed for over twenty one years, and was now world famous, despite the small number of works and artists.

“What’s your name? Do you live here?” The old man asked, his beard nodding vigorously with each word.

“I’m Stephane,” the young man replied, and he continued, “And yes, I live in the village.”  There was a pause before he continued, “Are you working on something up at the quarry?” 

“Yes I am!” replied the old man, beaming a little at Stephane’s reply. “I paint too, but working with stone is the most satisfying thing. Stone lasts longer than paint, for thousands of years if the conditions are right. With stone you can stay alive in people’s memories for ever,” and he stopped, waiting for Stephane to refute the fact. 

“A bit like graffiti,” Stephane cunningly replied, inviting the argument and happy with knowledge. The word had dropped into the conversation like a stone into water, causing  a circle of widening ripples.

“Graffiti? What?” And the beard twitched alarmingly in discontent. “Graffiti is nothing but the work of idiots, what do you mean?”

Stephane stood up and looked squarely at the face before him, enjoying the moment he had created. The piercing blue eyes set in the network of wrinkles and weather-beaten skin before him flickered in argument.

“Graffiti is horrible, it disfigures and alters, it is the work of hooligans and malcontents,” continued the old man, and Stephane waited for the outburst to come to a halt. 

When the old sculptor had finished, Stephane asked, “Is this your first time here?” And there was a shake of the beard in reply.

“No, this is the third time I have been invited here,” said the old man, and he suddenly smiled at the thought. “I came here first about fifteen years ago – the figure I carved then is in the square by the school,” and Stephane wondered silently how remarkable the history of the quarry really was.

“Have you been down here by the river many times?” he asked with intent, and the sculptor shook his head. 

“Not really,” he replied. “This year the house,” and he indicated with his head the old building behind the railings, “Is to be renovated at the end of the summer. The owners have kindly let a couple of us use the kitchen and rooms for lodgings while we are here. Of course, I know the river, but I have never really had time to spend much time here…” and his voice trailed off as Stephane moved towards him.

“Come with me,” the young man said and he crossed the few paces towards the wall on which the railings stood. The old man followed, his face full of query, and Stephane led the way towards the end of the wall, where the railings ended and great blocks of sandstone climbed the slope above the bank, their shape obscured by greenery of great age. They were obviously part of the original embankment, when the river and its village had paid host to traffic rich in stone, cognac, salt and clay.

Stephane stopped in front of the stonework and waited for the old man to reach him. “You work in stone you said?” And the sculptor looked at him with interest, knowing there was to be a revelation of some sort. He nodded in reply.

“So did the ancients in this village, and the next along. Much of the stone quarried here is part of some of the greatest buildings in France, you know that, no”? And the sculptor nodded again, waiting. 

“So, imagine what someone would have done on a hot summer’s day to reflect what they saw here, perhaps a graffiti artist of some sort,” and with that Stephane leaned towards the wall and pulled back the hanging ivy. 

The old sculptor’s mouth opened with amazement and he exclaimed with a note of appraisal as he saw what the ivy was hiding. There, scratched and riven into the sandstone, was an image of a galleon, complete with gun-ports and masts. 

“Oh my goodness!” was all that came first. Then there was more. “How old is this? Goodness, this must be ancient, this vessel is from the sixteenth century, surely?” And he turned to Stephane for answers. The young man was grinning, for he always enjoyed any reactions to the ancient carving. He had come across it when he was a child and he cherished the fact that few had ever seen it.

“It has always been here,” he said. “No one in the village knows how old it is, for it may have been done before there were even any houses here. There were always fishing boats along the river long ago, and some trading boats in the very early history of the jetty. It may be that a galleon came here to refit, perhaps, before Rochefort, further down the river, was built,” and at the mention of the old fishing village that became one of France’s most important naval bases, the sculptor nodded slowly in agreement. 

“It’s impossible to find out when the jetty was built for the first time, for transporting the stone, but it is probably from that date..” And Stephane stopped, aware at the vast amount of time he was talking about. 

“Oh my, you could be right,” the man with the beard said. “It may well have been just that,” and he leaned closer to examine the carving in more detail. “This is fascinating, someone put some time into this,” and turning to the young man, he said, ”They may have just used a nail, I suppose. I wonder who it was?”

And Stephane replied easily, for he had thought of this for many years, “I suppose it was a stone-worker, perhaps one of those who built the wall. But I do know something, this is maybe one of the oldest examples of graffiti in France,” and he turned to the sculptor with the beard, happy with his argument. 

The sculptor, in turn, noted the rise of the shoulders and the clear unblinking gaze on the face in front of him, and he knew he had to change his words. “You like graffiti, then?” he asked with a soft smile, and Stephane nodded in front of him.

“Yes. I do. I think it’s an art form, just as sculpture or fine art is. I’m at university in Bordeaux, and my girlfriend there is a graffiti artist. She painted the end wall of the teaching block last year as an assignment,” and foraging in his pocket he took out his phone. A few seconds later he was showing the old man a photograph, and the sculptor’s face lightened in appreciation. 

“Oh my, I confess you might have persuaded me,” he said in an even tone. “You have shown me two examples of graffiti, each of them as worthy as anything I have worked on, and perhaps one of them,” and he pointed at the carving of the ship on the wall, “Rather more important that anything I will ever do.”

There was a pause as his words sunk in, and then he softly asked, “Do we hide it again?”

Stéphane reached forward and pulled the ivy gently back in reply, and the ship was gone again behind a wave of green. “I always hide it,” said the young man. “I worry that someone will come and damage it,” and the sculptor nodded in agreement.

“A good idea, I am surprised it is not encased in armoured glass,” he said, and then he looked at the young man. “Will you come and visit me in the quarry? I’ll show you what I’m doing this year and we can talk some more. You have enlightened me this morning to something I have never really thought about, and I would like to talk more with you.” And the beard cracked with a nervous grin.

Stephane smiled broadly in reply. “Of course I will. I would love to see what you’re doing,” and so they parted, the young man going back to his stool, and the old man going back through the gate, pausing to look back at Stéphane as he picked up his brush again. 

Behind the ivy, the ship settled back into the dark, as it had done for hundreds of years, dreaming of a high tide in a summer long ago when gnarled fingers and an old rusted nail had given it life for the first time. Stories set in stone are immortal , so they say. 


Building a Potager

As any of you who have followed me over the years will know, I love our potager. I am absolutely no expert but I’m a willing amateur gardener, happy to take as much advice as anyone can give me and learning all the time. One of my biggest pleasures is providing healthy organic produce for the family. Maybe it is my motherly instincts kicking in, but sitting down to eat the simplest of foods; some salad leaves, tomatoes, cucumber, maybe some carrots or green beans, perhaps aubergines and courgettes, I’m not fussy. But knowing that I have grown them, harvested them and that they are now sitting on our table feeding our children is one of the best feelings I know. It is such a simple pleasure that it is hard to put into words why this exactly brings me so much satisfaction and happiness, I only know that it does.

When we moved house back in March one of the things that preoccupied my spare moments was where we would build the potager. As the days sped past at an alarming rate, April crept up on us and we were no closer to even starting to put any sort of plans, (even though they were only in my head) into action. Eventually I took out a piece of the children’s school graph paper and drew some sketches, mapping out where the existing fruit trees were and where we could possibly add some beds for vegetables. The problem was I wanted it to be practical but I also wanted it to look pretty and we needed to work around trees and the existing soft fruit.

With just some rough plans I set out one afternoon and gathered the old pieces of planking that were lying outside. I laid these out into long rectangles where I thought the new beds could go. Once satisfied that it might work, Roddy and I got to work with the help of the children when they were home from school and we organised a delivery of several tonnes of topsoil from a local farmer.

The topsoil turned up several days earlier than was originally planned and rather unceremoniously dumped in the top entrance to our garden. One that we never really use and one that is situated along a small little lane. Our topsoil was now blocking access to two other properties. Admittedly no one else ever uses these back secondary entrances either, but we still had to move fast to clear it in case, on the off chance, that someone decided to use this little lane.

We were determined to build these beds with only reclaimed timber that we already had, leftovers from old projects that the previous owners had just stacked beside the stone walls. When we got close to finishing but ran out of wood, a neighbour who had been watching with interest walked over with several more planks, he too had some he didn’t need and was more than happy to let us have them.

In the interim our little greenhouse was a godsend. Already here when we bought the house, a friend called it a delightful garden apart from the ugly greenhouse. Of course they were right, it is not particularly pretty and certainly neither stylish nor elegant but it is practical and it works and gosh I have had so much fun already, in just a couple of months with this little greenhouse. It may be an ugly duckling but I’ve grown very fond of it in a very short space of time!

With the beds taking shape we were able to start filling them with the topsoil. We made sure the layer was at least 20cms deep and put it directly on top of the existing grass. Then we added several bags of good quality compost to each bed to enrich the soil. It will be a long slow process slowly getting this soil to where we want it to be but this is a great beginning.

We also had several currant bushes and raspberry canes, all in much need of some TLC. We bought many bags of organic hemp which we have used as a mulch around the base of these and during this winter we will use a lot more on the vegetable beds to help improve the soil.

I then came up with this crazy idea that I would like an obelisk in the potager. I started out suggesting one and quickly changed that to three! As it is not as large as our previous one I was a little concerned about space. We grow a lot of cucumbers because we eat so many, one a day without any problem but they require a lot of room. However, last year I did a little research about growing these vertically as a friend had done so with great success. I knew they would need a tough support system and thought the obelisks would be ideal. Roddy, my brilliant husband, willingly set to work. I showed him a photo I had found on instagram of what sort of thing I wanted and he began to build them for me. Within a couple of days we had the basic design.

With the obelisks in place it was time to start emptying the greenhouse of all the tiny vegetables I had been watering every day. Some bought from the local garden centre and others sown from seed.

As the days turned into weeks everything started to take off. Is it just me or does anyone else study their garden day and night, looking for any tiny signs of new growth, watching as things start to grow.

I’ve purposefully added herbs; lavender, borage and oregano into the beds. I’ve done a lot of reading about companion planting and have tried to use plants that will grow well together. I’ve also planted nasturtium and marigolds and dotted here and there are cosmos. It’s a mixture of a semi formal orangised potager with a typical English cottage garden, a little bit of the unexpected because I absolutely love mixing flowers with the vegetables. It’s not entirely conventional but at the end of the day, I’m the one who works in this potager and if it makes me smile and makes me happy then honestly, I’m planting my flowers with my vegetables!

I’m now researching old fashioned perennial vegetables with plans to add some of these in the autumn and I’ll keep you up to date with anything interesting I learn on this front.

Now another two weeks down the line, some rain followed by a lot of really warm sunshine and the tomatoes are producing plenty of green fruit

and the cucumbers are so far behaving exactly as I hoped. With a little help they are climbing upwards.

And away from the potager in the courtyard garden our biggest success story has been the basil. We have failed miserably with basil year in year out. The only time we had any success was nearly fifteen years ago when it grew in tubs in a sheltered spot. This year we had a few excess tomatoes and so I thought it would be fun to have a couple of cherry tomato plants growing in the courtyard right next to the kitchen. I planted some tiny basil plants in with them not particularly hopeful that they would survive. But they have thrived, they seem to increase in size overnight, finally we have found a spot that they love! Everything I read tells me basil is the perfect companion for tomatoes. So I’m already dreaming of plates of sliced tomatoes still warm from the sun generously sprinkled with leaves of basil, some olive oil and pepper and yum yum, simple food straight from the garden.

VIRTUAL BROCANTE THIS WEEKEND

Come and join us this weekend, Live from France in our courtyard for our Virtual Brocante.

Today and tomorrow, 29th and 30th May.

From 1pm French time onwards.

Every item has been hand picked and carefully sourced here in France.

Cut price worldwide shipping, everything sent priority, tracked and signed for.

Every purchase enters you into our raffle for a chance to win one of three raffle prizes.

Free French Market Bag with every purchase over 250 euros (excluding shipping cost).

Ask as many questions as you want via email frenchlife17@gmail.com or direct message on instagram @ourfrenchoasis

Everything will be live in the online shop from 1pm French time today. Just click on the link HERE.

WWW.OURFRENCHLIFESTYLE.COM

Monday Inspiration in the Garden

So now we’ve got to that time of year. When we think about moving outside into the garden and for want of a better term, exterior decorating. I like to think of our garden as very much a continuation of the house and a really good indoor/outdoor flow is absolutely vital. In winter I like bringing the garden inside with whatever greenery is still available but once spring arrives it’s time to fling open the doors and let the inside out. Our outdoor areas are very much an extension of the house and I remember my mother in law always told me to think of the garden as a series of different rooms. However, I do always try to have something that connects one area to the next so that you can wander effortlessly along feeling totally at ease, the eye being constantly drawn forward to what lies beyond.

One of the great things about moving to this new house was the garden was already well established with lots of different areas which was a great starting point as it was not at all a blank canvas. Fortunately though it had an air of neglect and was missing enough that we felt we could put our own stamp on it.

Over the past two months we’ve worked endlessly both inside and outside to get the look we want. Let’s start by walking out of the kitchen and into the courtyard. Every room in the garden has a name because it just makes life easier when you’re looking for five children or three dogs and a cat or two to know which room you’re talking about!

So originally, the courtyard garden was literally used as a wide walkway between the house and the barn by the previous owners.

They did have an outside plastic table but it was not a place to linger. However the moment we first viewed the house with the agent we knew what we wanted to do. Both Roddy and I had the same vision of how it could be.

We brought nearly all of the stone from the old house with us which was a backbreaking job. For the first four weeks here I kept roping someone into helping me move the stone around to create the look we wanted. This was actually much harder than it sounds because each large piece of stone takes four of us to move it just a few inches so when I then said that I don’t quite like it there, I would like to move it a foot in one direction or the other it was really a very very big deal and my quest for perfection made me less than popular at times! But eventually we got it exactly as we wanted.

Once we were quite sure we put down a layer of biodegradable organic weed matting with an enormous amount of help from the girls.

Then we ordered 10 tonnes of gravel to be delivered. Spreading the gravel was another back breaking killing job. This was a rigorous bootcamp fitness session every day!

From the courtyard we go through to the south facing terrace of the guest house which we are renovating and for some reason one of our daughters nicknamed this quite delightfully “the fairy garden”. This overlooks the Pool and the garden beyond. We’re waiting for the ‘abri’ (a huge retractable cover on sliders for the entire pool) to be delivered this week as it is a wonderful way to heat the pool by creating a greenhouse effect.

Leaving the pool behind us we head into the orchard garden which is dominated by cherry trees. We’ve done quite a lot of work here to give it some definition because for me it was very much a long rectangle that didn’t really create much interest. Here, for me they had made one of the biggest garden mistakes in my opinion by planting everything on either side and nothing down the middle. All this did was exaggerate the long narrowness. What I wanted to do was lead the eye around so you don’t quite know what you’re going to see next, making you look at the sides and not down the centre. I wanted to create some magic. With this in mind we worked with our neighbour from our old house who is a landscape gardener and we planted a series of semi-mature shrubs in select places to create some curves to make you stop and look at whatever is blooming at the time, which right now is Iris and lilac.

We also had 6 tonnes of topsoil delivered by a local farmer mostly for the new potager beds. However, there was plenty leftover and we put this on top of the spartan grass in many areas around the edges of the garden. Then I have sowed lots of wild meadow flower seeds having carefully chosen the mixtures with what I hope will go with our climate and our soil. I have planted wildflower seeds nonstop for the past five or six years and I have never been successful! I think I know why! Because they’ve always been suffocated by the grass and have never had a chance to germinate and thrive and also I think through lack of water. So this time I am hoping with a bare layer of topsoil and little to no competition and with my diligent watering keeping them moist that this time they might grow! This morning I noticed seedings are emerging everywhere and I am cautiously hopeful.

We have also left the grass under the largest of the cherry tree’s unmown as a natural wildlife habitat for the insects. Leaving so many areas to grow untamed is vital to this garden and I believe the juxtaposition of wild and manicured makes a visually pleasing and more interesting garden.

From here we arrive at the potager which we have built from scratch with raised beds made from old timber we have found lying around. It is now starting to come to life but that is going to be another entirely new post next time when it will be that little bit further forward. But for now I just wanted to show you around and I hope it gives you some inspiration to think that it doesn’t have to be perfect to give you pleasure and that is the most important thing. And of course no garden for me would be complete without a potting shed! I’m still working on it, but for the moment I’m content to stand inside and look out!

This last photo was taken at the weekend, an easy salad lunch out on the terrace right outside the kitchen door, in our newly completed courtyard. Simple perfection and utter bliss.

Just Another Sunday!

Thank you so much for all of your fabulous comments, private emails and messages in response to last weeks post. Honestly, I was overwhelmed by the good wishes and the encouragement. It was very humbling to read how much the blog means to so many of you. I promise I will answer each and every one of you in turn. But now I find it is Sunday again, how do the weeks turn around so fast? The days fly by merging into one another. Most importantly I wanted to write again this week. Just a few short words and a lot of photos.

The weather’s been strange, after the heatwave of March, April has remained dry and sunny but the warm southerly breeze has been replaced by a biting north easterly wind, the termpearture has dropped by at least 10 degrees celsius and we’re wrapping up warm once again. We’re also crying out for rain, the farmers are irrigating their crops and we’re watering anything in tubs several times a week. Indeed, much of the country’s famous wine harvest seems to have been irretrievably damaged by late frosts for the this season, too.

It’s still full steam ahead on the house and guest cottage with things coming along at an impressive pace. We’re reaching that fabulous stage when we can start to work on the finishing touches, the fun part!

However today, it is Sunday and whilst I left my patient and ever fabulous husband bent double under the kitchen sink, finishing the plumbing, cursing as he hits his head for the umpteenth time, we, the girls, (for Jack is still in Bordeaux at University), headed out with the dogs. We’d planned a real hike, a 10km circuit we’d seen marked out on the notice board by the river and son – armed with a thermos of soup, a crusty baguette and some water for both two and four legged people – we set off heading out of the village down familiar roads past stunning grand riverside homes built for wealthy shipbuilders in the 19th century.

There is always some excitement with new paths to tread and new sights to see.

One thing we have noticed since we have been here is how so many more people walk and cycle. We went from one village to the next and then headed out into the woods. We had honestly no idea quite where we were going but the footpaths were well sign posted and we had no problem finding our way.

Emerging back through the woods we came to a small clearing and then stumbled across this beautiful stone cottage, isn’t it just gorgeous? Then from there we headed home, back to the riverside Bourgois homes.

I’m Back and There Have Been a Few Changes!

After a long silence I’m back. And back with some pretty big changes. We have bought a new house! Just 20 minutes down the road. And I have to admit that with the enormous work involved in moving and with the deteriorating situation with covid in France and some distressing news with friends not coping with the pressures of life in these times I had to take a break from the blog which I hope you will understand.

However, despite the fact that we are now in lockdown number three here we remain very upbeat and positive for the future. I’ve really missed writing and filling you in with all the news. I’ve spent weeks pondering the age old question “is there a future in blogging”, I’ve read numerous articles and done some quite extensive research and I’ve come to the conclusion that there certainly is a place for the blog and so I’m really happy to continue and to look forward to the future here.

So to kick things off, I’ll start with news of the house. We have moved to a village that has been a dream location of ours ever since we first came to the Charente Maritime. A place we have visited very often because we love it so much here and when this house came on the market we leapt at the chance. We had been considering a move for a while because we wanted to do more with our gîte (the cottage we rent out to guests). When we first opened our doors to our first visitors seven years ago we had no idea how much we would absolutely love welcoming people here. But we wanted to offer them more and there were things that we simply could not change where we were.

Here we are, once again, in a central village location, but it’s a village with less traffic but more going on! People walk, in the middle of the road! There are three restaurants within a minute’s walk and a fourth daytime cafe in summer months. There’s a boulangerie of course, and a river that is less than 100 steps away. Here there is swimming, kayaking and paddle boarding.

There are stunning walks along the water’s edge, with the most beautiful riverside houses and chateaux along the way.

We’re renovating the perfect small gîte which has a south facing terrace shaded by vines overlooking our gardens and 8 metre inground swimming pool ready to share with our visitors from this summer onwards when hopefully France will once again welcome you all.

And this is what we wanted to offer our guests that we were unable to before. Somewhere to relax in wonderful laid back simple luxury. Somewhere you can toss away the car keys for a few days and not get behind the wheel once. For here you can walk to a choice of restaurants, enjoy a couple of glasses of wine and take a leisurely stroll home not thinking about drink driving and who has to abstain that night. You can rent a paddle board or kayak. You can visit chateaux. And you can do it all without needing a car.

It’s a really exciting move. The house is also in need of modernisation! It’s an ongoing process but I think the worst is over. We’re still living with a tiny old kitchen, a typically French affair on the side of the house, but it has a sink, an oven and a dishwasher that is so old and so awful that it’s a waste of time using! However the new kitchen, which was the dining room is coming along well.

Our entire theme for the house is one of peace and tranquility. We are taking our cue from the river and our surroundings. Using a totally organic approach and natural materials and colours that we would find in nature. We’re questioning where products are made and how they are made and using as many reclaimed, vintage and antique things as possible. It’s a fun journey and one I’m looking forward to sharing with you.

But for now, here is a peak of where we are and what we’re doing.

I spent ages finding a pair of matching, or as near matching as possible old zinc tubs for these Yew topiaries which took even longer to source!

The garden is divided into several areas, different ‘rooms’ which add so much more interest. The first is the courtyard garden between the house and the barn. We brought a vast amount of the old stone from our old house with us. A job that caused many painful limbs, stiff backs and a lot of swearing, but was so worthwhile! This courtyard garden will be gravelled and is slowly taking shape as we move things around and get the perfect positions.

What used to be the dining room is now being turned into the kitchen and has the benefit of a wonderful old fireplace. For now any cooking centres around the kitchen table! But we do finally have our new range cooker up and running and very slowly it is all coming together. We are using solid ash wood cabinets and quartz counter tops with a Sarreguemines French ceramic butlers sink.

Our bedroom is a place of calm, the one room that is almost finished and that is much needed at the end of the day!

We’ve had the most glorious spring weather, really warm days and whenever possible I’ve tried to sneak out into the garden to get things underway outside. It is much smaller than our previous garden and we’ve had our ex neighbour, the best landscape gardener in the region, helping us this week plant some large shrubs and it is really starting to get that magical feel. There are many more fruit trees and the main part I refer to as the orchard! It is surrounded by old stone walls on three sides. Our cats and dogs seem very at home which is of the utmost importance.

So that’s really all our news for now! I hope you are keeping healthy and safe and I’ll keep you posted as we progress and I’m so happy to be back in contact and looking forward to our weekly chats once more. And don’t forget you can follow me on Instagram for daily photos and stories. Susan xx

Rain, Floods, Water

It’s been a week of intense floods here in south west France. So many people have had lots of snow and I have to admit I’ve been more than a little jealous of the gorgeous squares I’ve seen all over Instagram! Stunning photos of incredibly pretty scenes, with perfect powder snow on rooftops and branches. But here we’ve had to contend with icy cold rain and then even more rain, not even a hint of the white stuff in the forecast. I love snow, but I hate the cold. Here we’re normally so mild that the past couple of winters we haven’t even had a frost. This year has been a little different in more ways than one!

We have never seen our village under so much water. Fortunately the worst of the flooding was in the low lying part of the village, farmland where there are a few very old buildings but no inhabited homes.

Route Barrée, literally translated as route blocked became a common sight wherever we went.

This photo above is the entrance to a wonderful park with a car park at the very end nestled amongst the trees. No cars are going to be entering for a while. And this house below in Port d’Envaux, shows how the River Charente has risen well up into the walled garden. Fortunately here the river floods to the other side and the village is spared.

And then just like that we woke yesterday to the weak rays of sunshine filtering in through the house. Not a cloud in sight, instead a pale blue sky looking innocently calm.

And so today, not content with the amount of water that has surrounded us in recent days we headed to the coast. It’s just a short drive and no matter how still the weather is at home there is always a keen wind blowing in from the Atlantic at this time of year on the beach. Enough to totally blow away the cobwebs and bring a rosy glow to the cheeks. There’s something about walking along a beach, somehow it makes everything seem just that little bit better.

Hope you’ve had a lovely weekend wherever you are and whatever the weather, summer in the Southern Hemisphere or winter here. But above all Stay safe xx

The Power of Flight (PART II)

(all photos by Tom Little)

Nathalie’s father had always told her that she was surely the smallest and quickest seven year-old girl in France. And if not the whole of the country, he would add with a smile, then surely in the Départment? She had certainly run fast that morning, she knew that; along the low wall to the shadow of the great pot which held a small olive tree. She crouched there, on her haunches, waiting patiently for the man to leave the fence. It was the same place she always fled to when she thought he would see her watching through the cracks, but this was the first time he had really noticed her. Her heart beat soundly, slowly losing its rapidity, and she breathed quietly in the silence.

The olive tree was down along the side of the wooden fence, and she could reach it without disturbing the gravel that lay in great tracts about the rest of her home’s little corner of Provence. She knew the man would have heard little to give away her whereabouts, and as the moments passed she gradually regained her composure. As she did so she thought about the butterfly she had watched the man photograph with his enormous camera. She was certain she had never seen a camera like that before, not close up. 

Another minute passed, and hearing nothing untoward, she slowly raised her head until she could peer over the rim of the pot, her face obscured by low branches. The fence was clear, there was no one there, and she stood up a little ungainly as blood eased back into her joints. Then, watching carefully for any sign of the man from the fence, she flitted from pot to pot, bush to bush, back up the slight incline towards the steps of the terrace of her home. Reaching the door, she slipped inside and then quietly made her way upstairs to her room where she crossed quickly to her window which looked out on the gravelled garden and down to the fence. Over the other side she could see the man’s lawn and the back of his house, a view she had been carefully watching now for four months since he had arrived in the spring. She stood there quietly, half hidden in the shadow the summer sun threw across the window frame, and wondered about that huge camera a little more. 

_______________________________

It was the flash of colour in the late afternoon light that attracted Tom’s attention. He was working at the little island unit in his kitchen, a small slab of marble on wooden legs with castors that he chased the sun with each day, moving it each evening next to the west window for a view of something other than the road that appeared through the window’s twin at the east end of the house. He was re-building the gear-train for his bicycle on a bed of absorbent paper, his fingers deft as a surgeon amongst the cogs and ball-races when a glimpse of metallic blue fluttering across the lawn instantly drew his attention. 

Startled, his fingers stopped in mid air, a hex-nut in one hand and a hex-driver in the other, and his mouth opened in surprise as he saw clearly the visitor to his garden that had flitted over the fence from the gravelled garden of his neighbour. Instinctively he noted the size of it, a butterfly with a wingspan of perhaps six inches, and then he realised what he was looking at. Throwing down the tool and the nut, he ran for his camera in the bag in the hallway by the door, where it was always ready for action. It is a practice many macro photographers around the world share, for opportunity never lingers long. His bare feet slapped on the floor as he moved, and his brain was racing, eliminating species he knew, leaving a sole candidate for the insect that was now scribing a flight pattern over his lawn.

Morpho helenor,” he muttered to himself as he grappled with the bag and withdrew the big Canon camera. “It has to be a blue morpho – it cannot be anything else, but what on earth is it doing here?” 

And as he attached the big Sigma macro lens to the camera he was already listing the details he could remember of the species, a butterfly endemic to central and South America. It was a species he had last seen in Mexico, four years previously. Moving easily for a tall man, he ran quickly to the back door and gently slid it open, turning on the camera as he did so. He scanned the garden for the splash of blue, but also well aware that if the butterfly was now perched it would be a figure of brown.

There was no sign of it, and he went down a step onto the burnt summer grass, aware of the feel of it between his toes. Drawn towards the buddleia bush he headed in its direction, but already his brain was reminding him that the morpho was not a nectar feeder. He tried to remember something as he moved cautiously across the grass his eyes scanning all the plants he could see. There was a detail pricking at his consciousness, even as his eyes searched in vain for the intruder. 

“Come on, Tom,” he urged himself, knowing he was forgetting a detail that was important. “Come on,” and he clenched his fist in annoyance, still looking in every direction. At that moment he saw the bird-feeder in the short flowerbed,  a purchase he had put up when he had first arrived, a wooden roofed perch with a floor on a pole that attracted all manner of birds for his camera. Even though he had cut back the food he put on the perch as winter waned, there were still some seeds and fruit on the wood, and instantly he yelped inwardly with joy, for on the rotten banana that lay there was a brown shape, arched in outline. The morpho is a fruit-feeder, and as Tom slowly came closer, one step at a time, the shadow of the butterfly tilted into sunlight and he saw the unmistakable line of ‘eyes’ along the rim of the wings. He gasped in delight and closing in, put the camera to his eye and started to take photographs at that distance before going any further, his long legs shaking a little with excitement as they inched him closer.

Across the burnt grass, past the buddleia, over the fence and at the end of the gravelled garden of the white house next door, the blind at the corner of an upstairs window twitched, as though someone was watching. 

_____________________________

“Probably an escapee, Tom,” said a nasal voice at the other end of the Facebook chat. It was his brother, Alex Little, a Doctor of Biology at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, and the distant brother continued, “Which is why it did not survive the night, I assume,” and Tom remembered how he had felt the next morning when he had found the morpho quite dead, lying gracefully on the wooden floor of the feeder, with not a scale on its wings out of place. Its corpse was still in the house, perched on the mantel of the fireplace. Tom had never mounted an insect in his life and so had simply arranged the beast so it seemed to be alive, standing on a piece of cork in which he had pinned two wooden tooth-picks to keep it upright. Happily, it had provided some extremely detailed close-up photographs which had proved a talking point on several Internet forums Tom liked to visit, and even before he talked with Alex he knew that the insect had most likely been an escapee, perhaps from some butterfly fanatic in the neighbourhood, or even the zoo to the south east of Issac. There had never been a morpho record in Europe, and it was a one in a billion chance that Tom could have seen the first one. An escapee seemed to be the only solution, but Tom was happy to have had the chance to record the species with his Canon. 

“Have you still got the specimen, Tom?” asked his brother, and Tom replied down the internet, his voice across the ethernet but one star amid a twinkling twilight of trans-Atlantic callers.

“I’ll keep it for you, Alex, don’t worry. I’ll be home for Christmas, I hope, so I’ll bring it then unless you want it posted?” and the two brothers talked into the evening, maintaining the close contact they had always enjoyed, even when separated by the distance of their different disciplines. From the mantelpiece, the dead morpho seemed to listen, its lifeless eyes unaware that its future was under discussion.

(PART III will follow next week)

The Power of Flight

SHORT STORY TIME: I’ve had this tale on the burner for a couple of years, but thought it was time I finished it and give you all something else to think about for a change. It’s been cold and wet this week so hope you have a fire and a coffee to curl up with. This is Part 1, there may be more than a Part 2.

As you can also see, Roddy has been invaluable for some advice and a couple of the photos!

Read more

2020, We Stood Together but Apart

Looking back on 2020, a year we’ll never forget. This time last year we were all celebrating the start of a new decade, everyone was talking about the roaring twenties, the decade that would be incredible, amazing, the best. So this year, I’m starting off far more cautiously, but the word I keep coming back to and I insist on using is ‘positivity’/pɒzɪˈtɪvɪti/noun: the practice of being or tendency to be positive or optimistic in attitude. This is how I am looking at 2021. And following along with that vein of thought I want to kick off the first blog of the year with a look back at the best parts of 2020. Our year in photos, not perhaps the ones that were instantly popular on social media, but the ones that really tell our personal story, about our family and our life here in a small French village. So get yourself a cup of coffee, a warming tea, or a glass of wine and enjoy the show. I hope above all else this brings a smile to your face and encourages you to also be positive and to look on this year as a year of hope, with many positive steps.

2020 dawned as it often does, seemingly unremarkable in any special way, just another winter’s day.

A time for warming soups and home made breads for lunch.

Then suddenly there are bursts of yellow at every turn, and yet amazingly it’s only the beginning of February. Spring comes early to this part of France, starting with the mimosa and then hot on its heels the daffodils. Meanwhile in 2020 the world was starting to panic, but we still did not know what was in store. Our second daughter was in Vietnam, we watched the news endlessly for every bit of information we could glean.

There was talk of lockdown and panic buying took over, supermarket shelves were stripped bare. Our eldest daughter in London sent me these photos, we were scared for her on her own in a tiny apartment with no outdoor space. Millie, our second daughter, had returned early from Vietnam at vast expense, and was safely tucked away in the Channel Islands.

And then France was in total lockdown. Overnight everyone became a recluse within their own small enclave. In so doing we stood together, but safely apart.

It happened so fast, everything we took for granted seemed to disappear, slowly we cancelled guest house bookings, one by one we had to contact and turn people away. The cottage stood empty.

We were allowed to exit the house for walking the dogs or exercise, one hour a day within one kilometre of the house and only with a signed attestation.

But our lockdown life was blessed with the warmest spring days on record. We knew we were enormously lucky, we had space to roam and we had five out of seven of us at home. We scarcely left the property, we picnicked in our own garden to change things up a little. Once a week one person would collect an online ordered shop for the basics and visit our local greengrocer for fresh produce. A local family had gained permission to drive trough the village in their truck each evening, playing loud music and dancing in the street outside houses where young kids lived. 8pm each evening, little children would be giggling at their gates, super excited to see the clown truck pass.

Roddy built me a mini greenhouse from old windows donated by our neighbour, the morning before lockdown commenced. And our little seedlings thrived.

We gardened as a family, starting new projects, involving our three teenage children who were at home with us. Schools were all closed and the classroom was our kitchen table.

Our hens were laying prolifically and the garden flourishing.

Our baby chicks hatched

and the hoopoes made their annual return for their spring courtship.

The days were long and warm, evenings spent eating outside under the stars.

And then by mid May we were finding our way again under the new rules of deconfinement. It felt strange to walk free from the house without any attestation, there were still plenty of restrictions and we were enormously careful. But slowly we ventured just a little further afield. A cycle ride to a neighbouring village; it was amazing how different everything looked, the last time we had seen these country lanes and houses the trees had been bare!

We started to reap the rewards of our hard work in the vegetable garden, newly extended with an extra bed under the wall.

And all the time, you, my amazing followers kept on buying brocante from us. Even during lockdown with post offices closed, you ordered, happy to wait until we could ship. We were and still are so enormously grateful for all of your incredible support.

By now it was the beginning of July. Our eldest daughter had been furloughed, like so many. She finally felt able to travel without risk to others and came to join us after months of waiting until case numbers were low enough. We celebrated with a giant brunch on the terrace!

By mid summer everywhere was putting on its most colourful show. These are the tiny French villages which surround us and every day make me pause to take a photo, to capture a moment, and so frequently make me late! Because all around there is so much natural beauty in the simplest of things. A half closed shutter, an errant vine, roses, hollyhocks, peeling paint and old stone.

Our leisurely wander to the Sunday morning village market.

Our new village boulangerie finally opened, welcomed by everyone and just a couple of minutes walk from our house.

The new cutting garden, a first time venture, began to pay dividends. The cosmos flourished, other things not so. It was a steep learning curve.

At the beginning of September the Tour de France came within a few kilometres of the house. Our first time we had seen this in real life. We cycled to an out of the way spot, and waited. A spectacle that passed by so fast when it arrived that I wished I had just watched and not photographed, but the noise of the wheels and the sheer excitement was amazing.

And slowly the summer came to a close as autumn nudged her out of the way. The leaves started changing colour and the first began to fall.

And still we stood together and yet well apart.

Squash and pumpkins appeared in stalls at the market. Our daily salads for lunch started to be replaced by soup.

Once more France went into lockdown. This time more businesses remained open, although anything public related was firmly shut, including all non essential shops. The attestation for leaving the house came back into force. The maximum one kilometre rule from the house for walking and exercising was once more one of the rules.

Mid November, we hosted our first online virtual brocante. Spread over two days, we chatted live on Instagram and talked to so many people. We never imagined it would be so successful. It was so much fun and it was really great to be able to show people specific items, talk about them, have you join us for a glass of wine. We’re going to make this an annual event and we’re already planning the next one!

By the beginning of December the weather was still mild, leaves clung to branches and finally we could walk slightly further afield, within a 20 kilometre deadline.

And then by Mid-December thoughts turned towards the Holiday Season and Christmas. Shops reopened and the lockdown was replaced by a nighttime curfew.

Our decorations were very simple and very natural this year, it felt the right thing to do. It was such a hard time for so many people, a Christmas without family, without loved ones.

As the year drew to a close, we had a moment of great personal excitement. The release of our first book. A collection of 8 short fictional stories all based in France. It took us all year to get this off the ground, along the way there were far more hiccups and problems than we had ever anticipated, but we’ve had so many positive comments that we’re really delighted. If you haven’t bought a copy yet, it is available on Kindle from Amazon worldwide. To buy from Amazon.com you can click here. For other countries simply type in Audrey, Susan Hays into the Amazon search engine.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my look back over the past year. Now I want to wish you all the happiest of New Years. Stay Safe and above all STAY POSITIVE. Together we can do this. Big hugs and lots of love xx