MUD MONTH & OLD FRENCH HOUSES

Perhaps we have to endure the wind and the rain and all that winter can throw at us in order for us to enjoy the spring and the summer?

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We have been attempting to forecast the weather since the beginning of recorded history. Long before the invention of radar and other meteorological tools, people relied upon nature to give them a clue as to what the weather would bring.

“Is it going to be sunny today?” – “Maybe”

“Is it going to rain today?” – “Probably”

“Why does it have to rain?” – “Because we need the rain”

“Can you get some strawberries when you go shopping today?” – “No, it’s winter!”

These are the same questions I get asked every week by our two smallest people at varying stages of the day; the weather-related ones usually arise as I am trying to get the two teenagers out of the door for school, put on my coat, pick up Evie to take with me, find my phone, grab an umbrella and remind the same two little ones that if it should be fine they are walking home.

I answer on auto-pilot, “It’s winter.”

But don’t get me wrong, much as I hate winter, I also love winter – not for itself as I can’t pretend to love the bare trees and dormant garden or the quiet streets where not a soul can be seen, and nor can I pretend to adore the empty markets when all that is on offer never seems to change: winter greens, potatoes and carrots. No, what I like about winter is the promise it offers of spring and summer; for surely winter is just the prelude to the months that I love so much? If we did not go through winter we would not revel in the first cherries, the first meal taken outside, and spring and summer would become normal rather than ‘special’. So I have come to an agreement with winter, I’m ok with it.

December was gorgeous, December was one long Indian Summer; but then December is always good no matter what the weather, it’s a festive month. January normally starts with a bang but fades into insignificance, which this year has been a very wet and soggy insignificance. This year February is continuing in the same vein with severe gales added into the mixture to spice things up a little. I am reminded of the ancient proverb “If in February there is no rain, ’tis neither good for hay nor grain.” I of all people, as a farmer’s daughter, should understand the importance of rain, so long as it rains at the right time of year.

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The past week 105 kph winds battered our coast. The garden looked like a war-zone with scattered branches littering the lawn and I was staring out at the sodden landscape whilst cleaning up after breakfast when the rain commenced again; not a gentle drizzle but a torrential downpour that saw the terrace turn into a river before my eyes. At the bottom of the kitchen window where the two sides join in the middle is the most tiny gap and in through that gap water suddenly came streaming in as if someone had opened a tap. Water poured around the sink and was soon pooling all over the counter and down the front beside the dishwasher. Grabbing tea-towels I stuffed them as hard as I could against the tiny hole and then as quickly as it had started the rain ceased and the water stopped. Another job for Roddy to do, and another reminder about living in old houses. Why this had never happened before and why it should start now we had no idea, but there is never a sensible solution, it just happened and that’s life here in an old farmhouse!

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The truth about living in an old house built in 1790 is we live with it ‘day to day’. The windows and doors can be draughty, but I’d rather live with the draughts than lose the house’s character. Nothing is truly straight, walls slant this way and that; there are no perfect right angles, the roof slopes, the beams are bowed and cracked, but the very same things that can sometimes be irritating are also part of the charm. Our property hides a wealth of old features that have become so commonplace we don’t even notice them. Our barn for instance has this ladder with which to climb to the attic above; it’s easily as old as the house, but it’s sturdy and it works and we have no idea what the numbers signify.

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Frequently things need fixing. The older the house, the more opportunity for things to go wrong; but no matter the inconveniences, no matter the hardships, living in an ancient farmhouse is a privilege. Certainly the best balance is to combine charming period features with modern amenities, but we must restore sympathetically; we cannot seal up every hole and crack for the house must be able to breath. We have to treat it as a living creature, as it has stood for centuries and will no doubt still be standing long after our lifetime; in effect it is an honor to live here. The other day I passed this centuries-old farm which is for sale, complete with barns, lots of land and amazing views. I would arrange to go and have a look but I would hate to waste the time of what I am sure are elderly owners, so we will have to be content with a little day dreaming from the outside.

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I wish I could move this old stone trough. It stands in the corner of the grange attached to our house which we call the ‘boot-room’. Unused and quite unnoticed by all, it even has drainage; perhaps this is where previous inhabitants used to wash in times gone by? Or is it something as mundane as a horse trough?

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Living in an old house might change your life; it will certainly change your perspective.

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A major preoccupation of house-owners in France is the heating. In virtually every old home you go into the fireplace will be a feature. It can be an open-fire with logs crackling in the hearth, flickering flames licking at the grate and the mellow fragrance of burning wood filling the air, or it can be a wood-burner, safer and easier to keep alight throughout the day. Either way there is nothing better nor more inviting when you’re coming back from a walk than seeing the smoke gently coming out of the chimney. I can’t imagine a property without a fire; they can be messy and dusty, and it’s hard to regulate the temperature as we know all to well, alternating between wearing thick jumpers to wandering around in a t-shirt – but nothing captures rural living better than a fire.

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Come to think of it, winter hasn’t been that bad at all, I don’t mean the weather I mean winter in general, and I am sure that’s all down to the new wood-burner we installed in the kitchen last October for nothing beats a cosy country kitchen. It’s true I’m slightly bored of washing dirty dog-towels, the boot-room is constantly littered with wet coats, wet umbrellas, wellie-boots and mud. But as is always the way in the Charente Maritime, just when I can’t stand the rain any longer, the sun comes out, and even in February it’s a powerful sun, strong enough to actually create some warmth. It beckons us outside and away from the fire. Whilst doing some research I learnt that in Olde English the name for February was Solmonath, which literally means “mud month” – I think I shall be calling it this from now on!

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It is indeed a truly fabulous life, but nothing is ever simple. A few days ago, right after I published the post about Evie, she killed one of our chickens; the victim was our dearest little silkie, Constance. Why Evie would suddenly kill a chicken we have no idea; she has grown up around them since she was two months old, and sure, she chases them for fun, but there has never been any intent to harm, or none that we could see; it was always just a game. I actually walked around feeling rather numb for a couple of days, and the garden and our dog walks temporarily lost their appeal. I know my ancestors would tell me I’m becoming “soft” – maybe I am. Still Mother Nature tried really hard to cheer us up. One of our plum trees is already in blossom, the daffodils are fabulous, and the aubretia and camellias are starting to work their charm. We’ll work out what to do, I know. But our immediate questions of that day already seem over-dramatic; do we sell the chickens, do we fence them in, do we re-home Evie? Most likely we’ll do nothing for now but keep a vigilant eye on her whoever she is outside, hoping it was a one-off, however unlikely that may seem. We’ll keep training her and right now put it down to one of life’s cruel moments.

But for now, the rain has stopped, it’s a perfect sunny French day, and the children’s winter holidays are looming; just one more day to go and then two weeks with them at home – I can’t wait. We have tennis tournaments for the girls in La Rochelle, and then we’re off to the snow and mountains for a few days; there is so much to be thankful for and I certainly am extremely grateful for all of it.

38 thoughts on “MUD MONTH & OLD FRENCH HOUSES

  • I adore the stone trough. My grandmother had a similar one in her house in the north of France. She lived there in the 1920s and 30s but the house dated from the 1800s. It was used to do the laundry. Before days of running water and electricity. Aren’t we lucky nowadays?

    • Hi Nadia, I cannot even begin to imagine laundry for a family of 7 without all the modern machines. I know what we call the summer kitchen in the garden was the old wash house, as that is where they had the water from the well and the fire to warm the water, which is why this confuses me. I think it was most likely a feeding trough for animals. Either way I would like to move it, somehow!!! Susan x

  • So sorry to hear about the shock of Evie killing your small silkie. Such an event is bound to be so upsetting for the whole family. But, I am sure that these many and various pets are worth the effort to find a safe way to move forward. We had a pet mallard – Mr Mill – and Irish setter – Shannon – growing up and the setter would regularly pick up the mallard in her jaw and walk around with him but no harm. Still, every time, we would run around yelling and fussing since we knew it had to upset the mallard. I loved the earlier post you did of Evie; it brought back these memories powerfully. We also had a dachshund and cat and rubber and rosy boa constrictors and a gila monster all in a suburban Los Angeles house. With that menagerie, things went wrong. But my brothers and I learned so much from taking care of all of these animals and making sure that they and we could live in harmony. Thinking of you as you move forward with these same challenges.

    • Hi Anne, there are so many positive things about keeping animals, I think it is one of the best things for children, they learn to be responsible, they learn to take care of them, they learn all sorts of things. I adore all of ours, each and every one of them. Susan x

  • How well you have so succinctly summed up the last month or so. I too am quite fed up with the mud and dog towels that accompany the grey and damp and wind days that we have had here in the UK. But …..today…..we have the bluest sky and sunshine and everything is well in my world again ! My JR, Tinker will chase anything that runs, and if she catches her prey, normally a Partridge, it’s instant ‘curtains’. I have friends, like you, whose Terriers live very happily alongside their cats and chickens, having gown up with them. Not so with Tinker, and a couple of days back I saw her dancing and prancing and pouncing so elegantly and thought she had spotted a mouse, then I saw something larger, a rat ? No, it was the tiniest baby rabbit, straight out of a Beatrix Potter book. I pondered on why I would feel such dismay when, had it been a rat, I would have just thought eew …… but seeing this little miniature rabbit lying there was heartbreaking. I had to wait nearly an hour while Tinker walked off with a spring in her step, with her catch, and then did what most Terriers do, being used to dried kibble, she now had a real delicacy. She wouldn’t let me near her to clip her lead on, so we could carry on with our walk. She ran off every time I approached, no amount of cajoling or coaxing was going to fool her. When she had eaten her fill she ran up and sat beside me …..good as gold, ready to continue our walk, and it brought it home to me that, I have, in my mind, ‘humanised’ her, and she had shown me she is a little dog, doing what is hard wired into her for her survival. Two lessons learned for me that day, don’t judge anything by how it looks…..baby rabbits may look a thousand times cuter that a rat, but ……and, to remember that my cute little darling, is actually…..a cute little dog ! I am sorry to read about your little Silkie, but I hope you’ll understand that reading about Evie has made me feel ever so slightly better ….and that it’s not just me that has this ‘stuff’ going on !

    • Hi Susie, how I would love to go walking with you and Tinker and Bentley and Evie, can you imagine the trouble they would get into! But you are so very right, it’s what terriers do. Bentley has no hunting instinct whatsoever, he’s really rather unusual for a terrier, but Evie makes up for that ten times over, and yes we praise her for catching a mole and if it had been a rat we would have been thrilled; so you are right why would she understand, she’s just doing what she is bred to do. I am not cross with her, it’s not her fault. Just trying to decide how to keep the chickens safe! Susan x

  • I had a Jack Russell for 17 years. She was very clever and stubborn. Difficult to train. She only learned if we were very tough on her for going wrong. It took a lot of time. I wouldn’t expect the death of a chicken to be a one-off unless you made it extremely clear to her at the time that it was not something you wanted her to do again. Even then i would keep her away from the chickens…

      • We caught her in the act! I would never ever tell a dog off after an event, they just cannot relate to what we are talking about. But as you so rightly said, she is a terrier, just doing what terriers do, it’s not her fault and I cannot be too cross with her. Susan x

    • Hi Barbara, thank you for telling me about your Jack Russell. Evie is highly intelligent and she believes she was very very clever too. Of course she was only doing what she was bred to do. We did make it very clear to her at the time that it was wrong and she knew she was in trouble, but it hasn’t changed a thing, her hunting instinct is too strong, but we will keep working on it and keep training her, it is just going to take time and patience and a very firm hand. Susan x

      • It’s horrid I know …..even worse that it was a ‘family member’ …I hope you are feeling a little better now ….. ..I know she’ll get the hang of it all in the end. She’s such a darling, and the irony of it all after ‘her’ delightful blog the other day about her escapades …..x

      • Oh indeed the irony of it all, what terrible timing! Still she’s a good little girl really, she is terribly obedient for a 9 month old terrier, she always comes when called, she’ll learn. Have a great weekend, gales again here today! Susan x

  • Good for you for making them walk home. I was so surprised to see parents pick up their kids by car–even from the same block as the school.
    We also are dealing with crooked walls and leaking windows. We’re renovating a 17th century apartment in the middle of Carcassonne. All nine gigantic windows (which are over 300 years old–they aren’t the originals from the 1600s, but the Batiments de France says they’re from the 1700s) have to be replaced, because of rotten frames. And the replacements have to meet the criteria for historic preservation. But I’m happy that we are preserving history, frankly.

    • Hi, I am going over to have a read of your blog, it sounds fascinating and Carcassonne is such a beautiful city. I am sure at times it will be very frustrating but as you say, you are preserving history and in the end it will be worth it and anyway it will be summer soon!!! I too cannot believe that people don’t walk more, our girls absolutely love it, it’s a big new adventure for them and it gives them a little bit of independence. Have a lovely weekend Susan x

  • I’m always impressed with picture of the roof structure of old French buildings, the same principles as well-built boats. Some of those timbers are of amazing size.
    So sorry about the chickie, but Evie is probably just doing what comes naturally. And she’ll do it again if she can. Terriers are like that.

    • Hi Emm, I like the reference to French roofs being like well built boats, very true and especially at the moment as we are swimming in a pool of water having just had another torrential downpour! Seriously though, our roof is so wonky, but you only have to look at the internal beams to see why, they too are not straight, but it all adds to the character. Evie, is as you say, a terrier, it’s not her fault. Susan x

  • I truly sympathize about chicken Dogs love to chase things and catch things. Our son’s dog once chased one of our cats and caught him. He punctured the cat’s face but didn’t kill him. He certainly could have. Lesson learned. Don’t put temptation in front of the dog. I think it would be so much easier to build a pen for the chickens. Dogs truly love and attach themselves to their people. Re-homing Evie would be truly awful for her. Thank you for sharing your beautiful home and life with us. 🙂

    • Hi Carol, I do agree with you and it was only one of those fleeting comments in the spur of the moment. Evie is a very integral part of the family, wherever I go she comes with me. We shall find a perfect solution but rest assured Evie will not be going anywhere, Susan x

  • Really sorry to hear about Constance. As your ancestors might say, we are soft, but we just can’t help feeling the sorrow of it all.

    As for the changeable weather, well, two weeks ago we had temps around -5C and 15″ (roughly 38cm) of snow with places around us getting even more (30-40″ or 76+cm). Then two days later we 13 degrees C and it has been up and down since then. Torrential sleet fell off and on Monday and now we face weekend temps of -13C along with 38kph winds. So I certainly understand changeable weather. And I am grateful we have a wood stove.

    Here’s to Spring.

    • Hi Mary, where would we be without our wood burning stoves, we praise our new one we installed in the kitchen every single day, it has totally changed winter for us! We have not had any snow this year which is rather sad and only literally two very light frosts, some of the geraniums that I didn’t take inside are still flowering! But as you say it is nearly spring. Susan x

    • Hi, don’t you just adore the sea when it rough and raging in winter, it is so dramatic. There is nothing quite like a long bracing walk along the beach, sand blowing in all directions, eyes streaming from the cold, sounds awful, but it’s truly fabulous!!! Have a lovely weekend Susan x

  • You and mimi manger have both written virtually the same thing, just re arranged the words. Especially about the weather description, the lack of market products.

    • Hi Jo,I think it just goes to show how we live through the seasons here in SW France and by the time we get to February we are all desperate for a change in the weather, it’s all anyone talks about at the moment, it is so so wet; old houses leak, our very local Friday market, where we have become regulars and which I have just returned from was empty apart from the usual dozen or so people, the fish stand struggles as the boats can’t get out, no one lingers for a chat, we run back to our cars and houses, the weather truly does dominate our lives here in SW France, my point being though, that I actually really quite like it, it feels good to live truly through the seasons, to learn to adapt.The children struggled at first but they too are realising the pleasures of living through winter to enjoy the spring and summer. Have a lovely weekend, Susan x

  • I always used to find that, when out and about in the mountains on a cold or wet day, people hurried by. Snow, on the other hand, seemed to bring out the smiles and happy greetings. When we moved to France, we went from winter in the southern hemisphere, bypassed a summer and back into winter. By the time that summer came around, we were longing to be hot and sweaty again. A girlfriend did this in reverse and missed a winter. Through her second summer, she dreamt of being able to cosy up in front of a fire with a bowl of hot chocolate! Enjoy your snowy break!

    • Aren’t people funny, we moan about the cold, we moan about the heat and I know I am guilty of both! Can’t wait to trade the rain for a little snow, the children are beyond excited – no doubt I shall have to write about it!!! Have a lovely weekend Susan X

      • Oh I can imagine you would be, time you came back and then headed over to the coast whilst you are here! I will take lots and lots of photos, I promise! No doubt I will bore everyone silly with them! No one has been in real snow since 2009, it’s rather exciting! Susan x

  • The things I adore about winter (and appreciate more every year) are exactly the things you mentioned that you don’t like – the beautiful bare trees exposed and revealed, their statuesque structures all so different one from another not to mention their dark and dramatic silhouettes against the pale winter sky making visible every branch, every twig, the intricate artistry of their spectacular “bodies” hidden behind foliage the rest of the year. Quiet streets seem like such a welcome relief after the bustle of the other seasons, the general peace of winter, everyone gone indoors, the world having stopped – shhhhh. Creativity/fertility/activity needs it’s downtime to replenish and refuel – yin & yang. Winter is a time for going inward, for meditation, pondering, planning, resting as all the energy is needed/conserved in order to give birth to the new which one can spy bud by bud slowly coming to life. Go slowly, look hard and you will see it’s extraordinary perfection.
    .

    • Hi Linda, what beautiful words. I shall look again at the bare trees for some of ours are 1000 years old if not more. Thank you for making me stop and think, I shall keep in mind your comments for they make perfect sense. Have a lovely weekend Susan x

  • I too, enjoy the structure of bare tree limbs, especially the oaks. strong but so free in their forms. As all has mentioned, terriers do what they were made to do. Time for a large pen or coop.

    • This morning these bare limbed trees are looking quite dramatic bending this way and that as we are yet again buffeted by 100 kph gales. Working on the chicken fence today, dear Evie, it’s not her fault and she’s running around helping us! Have a great weekend, Susan x

  • Hi Susan. Oh poor little Silkie, poor Evie and poor you! It’s such a dilemma. We don’t have a dog, but my feelings are that, as others have said, she is following instinct. However, a neighbour has a Jack Russell and when we first met them, we commented on how obedient he was for a JR. He told us that he came down really really hard on him at the outset, when training, so that he knows definitely who’s boss. it seems to have worked and his dog trots along happily around him and responds to his commands – all things are possible. But for now, you could make a large pen for the hens maybe? Make it attractive and part of the garden? I don’t think there’s any need to get rid of the hens. Nature has to get along and sometimes things happen that we as humans find hard to accept, but nature just gets on with life and doesn’t dwell. Evie will learn more, but it is possible that her instincts for catching will never lessen. You will find a way. She is too full of character to send away! And I’m banking on those childrens’ books!! – maybe minus the latest event!!
    On old houses – we live in a late 17th century timber framed cottage. Very small and full of all the things you have mentioned! We love the wiggly walls, the uneven floors, the feeling of age and times past, even if it does also give us some worry and angst along the way! I’ve just lit the log burner – never had one before – I LOVE it! dust and all! I just couldn’t live in a modern house again, even though it would be cheaper!!
    Trough – would it have been used for making bread? Kneading the dough? Or were they always wooden troughs? Saw a series recently on TV about bakers through the years. Really interesting, and they had two men bending over a huge trough full of flour etc and kneading it into dough. Back breaking work until mechanisation came along. Just a thought.
    Lovely blue skies again here today after mud and rain yesterday – I hope it’s the same for you. It’s half term here this week and I looked after my 4 year old Grandson on Tuesday – another blue sunny day – and we had such a wonderful day, walking in the park, showing him the new leaves unfolding, the bare red branches of cornus and then on to a cafe for Hot Chocolate and marshmallows!! He ran up to me as I left later, jumped into my arms and said “We had a lovely day Nanna, didn’t we?” How I love those moments!!! So enjoy your lovely children and together work out a way forward for Evie and the hens! It’s what it’s all about.

    • Hi Marian, don’t worry Evie stays and the chickens stay!!! I could never rehome either, I love the chickens an Evie is a part of the family. Bentley, our other Jack Rusell never goes near them and is also supremely obedient and well behaved, I have lost count of the number of people who have asked me if I would give him to them! But Evie is only 9 months and already she is a very good girl. Meanwhile the rearranging of the garden and the fencing has started! I’ll no doubt post some photos at a future date, The chickens should still have about 1/2 acre to roam in. Enjoy every second with your grandson, what a lovely boy he sounds. Susan x

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