Summer this close to the coast is a time to chase the shade. The gentle warmth of May and June has transcended into a season of heat, when days are warm at each end but a glare to bare eyes at midday, burning unwary shoulders. Time passes slowly as insects drone among thirsty plants, and any traces of life are a shuffle of noise behind shutters ajar to block the sun. Lunches last a long time…
For those who live here, summer is also confirmation of the circle of life, as dusty corners bloom with growth, and colours nod softly at head-height in the sun. The Charente Maritime has a climate so suitable for certain perennials that every street is gaily decorated by valerian, mallow, hollyhocks and swathes of roses, a flower so widespread it seems to permeate every thought with colour and scent. New tendrils of every plant reach out and caress old stone, reaffirming with their touch that special relationship some plants have with ancient buildings.
The season dries out the damp places, and each turn of a lane reveals a serene scene to contemplate. The area’s sandstone sings with purpose, and every shutter seems to have come from a palette of pastel shades.
Among the houses, along the quiet cobbled lanes, I walk gently past the hollyhocks, gentle spires of flowers that seem to reach for heaven like a legendary beanstalk. There are purples and blues, whites and reds, but the pinks are the ones I enjoy most, translucent in the setting sun when the light is in the right direction. I adore their spontaneity, an approach to life that seems to follow a rule that simply says, “Grow, grow tall, as quick as you can.” and so they do.
The ancient builders used stone in all manner of ways, but when I see the lintels they created I never cease to be amazed at the ingenuity of the masons so many centuries ago. Man’s love of cut stone stretches back into antiquity, but it never lessens my awe of its intricacies.
Summer also works on the grape-vines, stretching creepers out along wire stays, un-furling leaves and gently burdening each branch with a cargo of ripening fruits. It’s a scene that has been re-enacted hundreds of times, and some of the plants have perhaps been in the soil almost as long.
Blue is a favourite colour in the area for shutters, and the use of it is as varied as the many shades a pot may hold. Every household seems to favour a certain colour – I doubt it rarely changes from year to year.
Walk softly through that hour after lunch, when babies sleep in shadows behind closed shutters, and old men nod under the shade of a garden tree. It sounds almost rude to scuff a stone so close to a window, and it is certainly a clue for an alert dog, perhaps snoozing just behind a closed gate, ready to warn a family of a visitor. Not a lot should be heard, just the sound of swallow’s wings, perhaps, or the call of a cricket.
Grey shutters and grey stone, a shared destiny from a cart that came from a different quarry perhaps, centuries ago. Many farmers dug the stone out of their own land, using whatever they found. Much of the stone used in Parisian public buildings came from this very region, eased across the country on wide green waterways, carefully loaded into flat-bottomed barges. By this house a brilliant red hollyhock nods gently, a reminder of where we are.
One of the wonders of any French provincial village is the thought that all roads were once built at a width sufficient for a cart and horse to pass another. Here we are, centuries later, still regulated by that width, and the same flowers and plants that bloomed then most likely bloom now, a heritage in situ passed down from family to family. I can forgive the odd plastic recycling bin if it means we can still feel the spirits that linger at each doorway.
Hidden down even smaller alleyways are the most intimate of scenes, some so narrow the grass must be cut or progress is impossible. The hollyhocks, their roots stretching back under the wall into a crack where the seeds are blown by wind and rain, lean out over humans as they pass. The one below was over 10′ tall.
The hose lies in plain view, a sign of guardianship and ethics, its user almost certainly replete after a long lunch and perhaps busy sewing or reading, waiting till the mid-afternoon sun starts a slow descent into a western sea.
Rain is intermittent in this season, and short grass dries and turns yellow quickly unless watered – a routine typically reserved for the prettier things in a garden.
As the afternoon progresses, so clouds pass by, offering a respite to those working outdoors. Today, the church in the background has a service every third week, a far cry perhaps from the activity that may have surrounded it 900 long years ago. It is a place of worship, comfort, refuge and safety, and like all of the churches in this region it is massive in construction and character; each of them is a reflection of the devotion and sacrifice of the small populations that painstakingly built them, month by month, year by year, one bag of coins after another.
I wonder how many lanes there are in France labelled “Rue de L’Église”? I think it may rather a lot!
And this, the former vicarage, now a comfortable family home, where time is marked by the ringing of the church bells next door.
Have a wonderful week and in these turbulent times, stay safe. XXX