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

HAPPY CHRISTMAS & HAVE A GOOD READ!

Audrey & other tales from the French Countryside by Susan Hays

I hope you are all taking a little time to relax. It probably won’t be the same for most people but I hope you are able to enjoy some special time.

I also hope that you might find a few quiet moments to curl up with a good book and to take time for yourselves.

I am so incredibly excited to finally announce the publication of my first book with Kindle. It’s a collection of 8 short stories based here in France. It has taken so much planning and an enormous amount of effort to get to this stage. I take my hat off to everyone who has written a book and self published, because now I know what you have gone through!

If you would like to buy a copy here is the link, it is available on Amazon around the world. Please enjoy, leave a review and escape to France with us and most of all HAVE A VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS. Susan xx

Audrey & other tales from the French Countryside by Susan Hays

A Few Simple Ideas for Christmas

It’s hard to believe that Christmas is a week away. We’ve just come out of our second lockdown, to be replaced by an 8pm curfew. Shops are open but restaurants and all places for entertainment, theatres, museums, cinemas etc remain closed. This has been an undeniably tough year for everyone and I know, like many people, we’ve really enjoyed decorating and bringing some festive cheer into the house. I wanted to share a few of my easy and inexpensive ideas for this year that might give you a little inspiration if you need some. Although I know so many of you are far more talented than I am!

I am a huge fan of sticking to natural materials as much as possible, not just during the holiday season but at all times and this year more than ever it seems right to keep things simple. We’ve gone back to my childhood in many ways when aside from our beautifully decorated tree everything else featured greenery cut from the garden and the farm. Mostly copious amounts of holly and ivy, and if there were red berries on the holly too, well that was just the icing on the cake! Once cut this was draped over every picture and mirror, above doors, filling spaces above corner cupboards and surrounding the mantel. Then there was mistletoe hung in huge great big bundles over doorways. It was terribly practical and very beautiful.

This year I’ve tried to replicate this down to earth and back to basics approach as much as possible with the addition of a few twinkling lights, because I just love a few sparkly lights!

I wanted natural candle holders and so out came the glue gun and a little creativity. I had bought these candles in wooden pots weeks ago thinking I could make them a little more unique. Using some of our hazel sticks, again from our garden, Roddy cut them for me into short differing lengths and I simply glued them to the wood.

Very quick, very easy but I’m really pleased with the result.

Our Christmas table is going to follow the same theme, simple and sustainable. Sticking to natural materials I’m going to use a natural hemp runner down the centre of the table and then use this bronze stag and the deer that I found at a brocante during the autumn and instantly snapped them up picturing exactly where they would be used on our table. Then I shall add the candles and finally entwine lots of cut foliage from the garden amongst everything.

Next comes the place setting and this is certainly a time of year to use the special stuff! I always use real table napkins and I thought about tying some cinnamon sticks together to put with them, but that would mean more buying and inline with trying to simplify things and keep it inexpensive and closer to home I decided to cut some fresh rosemary and lavender from the garden. And yes, the lavender is flowering at this time of year! The Charente Maritime has this wonderfully mild temperate climate and things don’t always do what we expect them to! So fresh lavender and rosemary it is. Tied up with a simple bow of natural hessian ribbon. But really any herbs or leaves that are not poisonous would look lovely.

I’m thinking of using circular seagrass placemats and some special glasses, but I want to keep a few secrets for my Christmas table, hence no photo today!

Whilst thinking of Christmas, now of course being mid December is the time to be thoroughly enjoying our fabulous British tradition of mince pies. Quite a few people have asked me to share the recipe for these on Instagram and so I thought I would add it again here. I first wrote about these a couple of years ago, but I’m really happy to share again. Trust me they are delicious. Mincemeat is mainly made from just dried fruit, although some bought varieties (and many recipes) still use suet; happily I find the trend is turning slowly away from this altogether and I use butter.

Just before we get started you will also need a simple shortcrust pastry, if you haven’t the time to make it, a good organic store bought one will suffice, because at this time of year time always seems to be in short supply.

For 24 mince pies you will need :

75g currants
100g raisins
75g sultanas
20g finely sliced or chopped almonds
45g butter chopped
2 apples (cored and chopped into small pieces, but not peeled)
70g brown sugar optional (I don’t add any sugar at all as I think they are sweet enough without it)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ginger
The juice and grated rind of 3 large oranges
The juice and grated rind of 2 lemons
2 tablespoons of cognac (rum or brandy) (if you don’t want to add alcohol you can substitute a little more orange juice)

Place all the ingredients except for the alcohol in a large heavy based saucepan and very gently bring to the boil, stirring all the time. Then turn the heat down as low as possible and simmer slowly for about 25 – 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. If it appears too dry add a little more orange juice. (store-bought is fine!)

After the thirty minutes or so, take off the heat and allow to cool a little before adding the alcohol and mixing well.

You can either cook with this straight away or you can store in clean sterilised jars in the fridge for several weeks, just remember to bring to room temperature before you want to use it.

Roll the pastry out and cut into rounds and place inside greased cupcake tins.

Fill each uncooked pastry base with a good teaspoon of mincemeat, I like to cover these with a pastry star, but you can choose a complete covering hat if you prefer, or you can make a latticework out of strips of pastry, you see the choices are endless.

Bake in a medium oven, 180C/350F for about 15 minutes.

Enjoy! And watch this space, there should be a special surprise for you on Saturday, fingers crossed!!

CALMING THE SOUL

Yesterday some new rules for our current Lockdown came into being, and for the first time in a month or so we are allowed to go further afield using the car for exercise. In need of some spiritual awareness and a desperate urge to see something different, I headed for one of my favourite waterside villages, where the sight of its river, and all that it conveys, never fails to lift my spirits. One of the girls came with me, and we obeyed all the rules as we walked to the water’s edge to revitalise our souls, masks carefully in place and staying very clear of anyone we met. 

In a country with many scenes of bucolic solitude, Port D’Envaux is just another ripple on the consciousness, a cluster of old stone buildings where the Charente flows peacefully on its way downstream, as it has done since mankind first set foot on its banks. It’s always a calming influence, perhaps because there’s a sense of continued history, where the passage of time is mirrored by the Charente’s stately progress. It is certainly easy to stand looking out over the water and feel the ghostly wakes of barges and cargo boats under stately sail passing by. Nowadays in summer the traffic on the river is slightly different, but perhaps no less valuable to the residents of the village.

Many waterside villages in the region grew rich and prospered on the dividends the currents provided, and Port D’Envaux was no exception. It sits on the south bank of the watercourse, and there is a cobbled main street high above the shoals of perch and the odd solitary heron, gaunt wraiths that hunt the shallows under the oaks. From the road grand houses sprawl down to the river, safe from any winter flooding that washes away over the northern bank instead, sending pike and roach inland to distant poplar roots when the rainfall is heavy. The street is called Rue des Armateurs, the road of the Shipbuilders, and it gives those who know its provenance an understanding of the importance of the river and its cargoes.

Here’s a view from the street down to the water, a September scene of calm and warmth. It’s a view suitable for the brushes of Monet.

Looking back the other way gives the viewer another aspect, and an appreciation of the riches that once made this village so important.  

Today, at the start of winter, the visitors are long gone, but the great houses and the trappings they bestowed upon the village stand watch, waiting for summer to return. 

There is little on the northern bank except for overgrown paths that lead to forgotten boat houses. On slow bends there are moorings for boats that belong to people further inland. 

But on the village side there is far more life and a lively boating season in summer, where a pontoon provides a safe mooring for both the small tiny boats used by local anglers, and the large cabin cruisers that come down from the city of Saintes, five miles upstream. The river is the main artery of the life in the village, and everything seems to centre about the water, in summer and in winter. Perhaps it is its easy familiarity to anyone who has spent a holiday in a seaside village that makes Port D’EnVaux so appealing. There may be no seagulls, but there is always the sound, scent and movement of water…

Today was no exception. There was a COVID queue outside the bakery, and down on the river a man eased his way across the current to do some raking of weed-beds, a winter task when little would be disturbed on the river bottom. I could tell from his nonchalant rope-handling and easy stance on the small deck that he was totally at ease with his environment, the tools on the boat a testament to the work the vessel undertakes each day. 

Heading home after half an hour of bright sunshine and riverside air, I felt completely rejuvenated. It might have been a sense of peace brought about by the good weather and the water, softly calming my soul, but then I realised it was also because of the reassurance the quiet solidity of buildings gives the spirit, always a demonstration of the resourcefulness and endurance of humans.

It was a quiet reminder that all will be well, sooner than we think. Stay safe, all of you.