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.

JOIN US FOR OUR VIRTUAL BROCANTE

We really hope you will join us for our huge two day Virtual Brocante. None of us can travel right now and so we want to bring you to France, virtually of course. Come and join us for our two day virtual brocante. Starting at 3pm French time today, Saturday and running through to 9am Monday morning.

www.ourfrenchlifestyle.com

We have incredible giveaways. Live chats on Instagram. AND half price shipping on absolutely everything for the entire weekend.

We ship worldwide priority, tracked and signed for mail.

If you follow along with me on Instagram you will be able to join in the live chat, tour the brocante via video and if there are things you see that are not listed on our website you can send a message, ask some questions, even haggle about the price, just as if you were at a real French brocante.

We are making this fun. There are three exceptional prizes, shown below. Every person who purchases an item, will be entered into each of the three prize draws.

There are two of these gift baskets. One has an antique spoon whilst the other has a pair of antique napkin rings.

Come and have some fun and escape to France with us this weekend.

www.ourfrenchlifestyle.com

Looking Ahead and Staying Positive

Today is Remembrance Sunday in the UK. Not yet the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, but the closest Sunday to this date and therefore a day when many stood still at 11am and marked a minute’s silence. We’ll observe another minute of silence on Wednesday of course, a public holiday here in France. With so much which is so awful in the world at the moment it is a time when we absolutely must remember what our ancestors fought for, what they suffered for us so that we might live freely. We’re struggling with a pandemic, but it will come to an end, we must remain vigilant and we have to remain positive.

Today dawned bright and clear in France, it felt more like a beautiful spring day than mid-Autumn. The temperature steadily climbed and after a lazy Sunday brunch on the terrace we took a family walk. We’re in lockdown once more in France and so we have only one hour, within one kilometre of the house and we have to carry an attestation downloaded on our phone as to the time we left the house and the reason for our leaving.

We took the dogs, the sun warming our skin and we walked. It lifted the spirits, we filled our lungs with good clean fresh air, we reminded ourselves that despite all that is going on, we are still so incredibly lucky. We have so much to be grateful for. Yes we live a lovely life here in France, but no it’s not a fairy tale. Life goes on as normal, there are still bills to pay, a living to be made which is almost impossible with Covid, there are enormous worries with the latest confinement. Our autumn and winter bookings in our guest cottage are of course cancelled. I never want to give the wrong impression here. I don’t want things to be saccharine sweet and a false representation of life in France. But I do believe in being positive, in realising that although it may be a struggle we are so very much luckier than so many. We have this,

we have fresh air and space, we can walk without fear. We are Lucky and I am proud of our children for appreciating this too.

So on this positive note, let’s look forward to the holidays and the festive season. It may be a little different this year and many of us will be forced to be apart from loved ones. But we can all make the very best of it we can. Many of us will have to shop online for our gifts with current lockdown restrictions, but I urge you to please try and support small businesses if you can.

We’ve been busier than ever with our small brocante shop, which you can find online HERE. We have individual gift baskets which are totally unique and each one is a one off. They are selling fast and I shall keeping adding new ones as and when I can.

I’ve been lucky enough to acquire quite a lot of fabulous antique Christofle flatware.

I’ve put together a 4 person place setting consisting of 12 pieces. All hallmarked, all antique, all Christofle silver plate. If bought new this would cost upwards of 700 euros from their website today! So I’m super excited to be able to offer this for just a fraction of that price available on our website.

We’ve salad servers, Christofle spoons from the 1800’s, a 24 piece set of spoons and forks, silver handled knives. So much which will honestly make the holiday table so incredibly special, things that will give that festive celebratory sparkle.

Imagine this incredible pair of bronze Napoleon III mirrored candle wall sconces. Twinkling in the background, genuine, individual and utterly stunning.

Perhaps my piece de resistance is this utterly gorgeous gilded Bronze Church Alter Candelabra from the 1800’s. It holds seven candles and stands well over two feet tall without candles. It is the perfect mix of religious and celebratory, beautiful and also practical. It would have been used for special occasions but also for weekly communion. It is incredible. Decorated with Fleur de Lys. I have not listed this on the website yet but will do so in the next couple of days.

We deliver worldwide with priority, tracked and signed for shipping and we guarantee delivery in time for those who celebrate Thanksgiving.

www.ourfrenchlifestyle.com

And finally another thing to look forward to and something I am so incredibly thrilled about. Remember our planned first book, “Audrey and other short stories” which we first gave you the heads up about a few months go? Well, it is finally about to happen. The hold up has been with Kindle. But finally everything is in place. I am hoping the launch date will be next weekend. It will be available with Kindle on Amazon and there will be a limited number of signed print copies available too. I will keep you fully informed, this is a dream come true and to say I am excited would be an understatement!

Have a good week and please stay safe xx

Autumn, A Season of Contradictions

Autumn now has us firmly in its grip. The lazy days of summer already seem but a memory, thoughts are turning towards winter and the holidays. But there’s a lot to enjoy about this month and I don’t want to rush it.  Despite the chill in the evening air and the lashing rain which can beat seemingly relentlessly against the windows the sun, when it makes an appearance here still has some real warmth to it. Enough to make an outdoor lunch a pleasure, when and only when the weather is feeling kind!

But it is a contradictory time of year. The harvest is over, vineyards here are quiet after the hive of activity of grape picking. Everywhere trees are changing colour and the leaves are beginning to fall. Intense greens are giving way to russets and reds, oranges and yellows, the colours of autumn. It’s a time for the gourds to take centre stage, pumpkins and squash.

Yet at the same time our cosmos are still flourishing, providing a constant supply of flowers for the house, I cut fresh bunches every few days and they still keep on giving. The pastel shades of violets and purples, the whites and hot pinks which we took for granted during the summer now seem at odds with their surroundings.

And elsewhere roses are still blooming against sheltered walls.

Lighting the fire in the evening has become a regular feature. A wonderful cosy feel which encourages us to slow down and relax with a glass of wine.

But on a fine day by mid morning when the sun is relatively high we can open the doors and fling wide the windows, letting in as much fresh air as we can. Banishing the scent of woodsmoke for a few hours until dusk returns.

It’s the season for soups, thick country hearty potage, perfectly accompanied by a good crusty baguette or warm toast.

However, our vegetable garden is still producing salad leaves, tomatoes and cucumbers. This makes salads still very much a part of our menu. Although now we add some mozzarella or hot pan fried halloumi with warm freshly made croutons. Just enough to turn the summer staple into something a little more suited to autumn.

Soon the days will be considerably shorter when the clocks change at the end of the month. Soon winter will be upon us, but just for the moment we can enjoy everything autumn has to offer, she may be rather contrary but she’s also a season drenched in tradition. It is the perfect time to reflect and to embrace change. Autumn is a time for letting go of things that have troubled us. In fact everything one reads about autumn reminds us that it is a spiritual season to relinquish unnecessary burdens. Right at the moment I think we are all troubled in these increasingly challenging times. However a brisk walk, breathing in huge lungfuls of fresh air, kicking up leaves, taking a five minute pause and watching them silently fall goes a long way to recharging the batteries. I wish you all a safe and happy week. xx

Autumn Orbit

Autumn is here. I can smell it each night as households along the village road light their first fires of the season, and each day when I go down to the chicken garden the fallen leaves across the grass seem more numerous. After a day of wind I find twigs scattered across the driveway and in the corner of the gîte garden the smell of fermenting figs is only now starting to fade. Despite the number of fruits we harvest, our dear tree always gives us more figs than we can deal with.

Roddy seems to be everywhere with the barrow and the rake, tugging green bins of waste down to the compost heap and in the summer kitchen the biggest spiders of the year are out and about, finding mates in the final scurrying of their lives, tip-toeing to arachnid tunes across the limed walls and in amongst the pots and bags of compost. On the one hand there is decay and death on the air, and yet life is still frenzied in its rush to oblivion. 

With Halloween in the air, and the holiday of Toussaints a handful of days away, it’s still warm enough to light the fire-pit and roast marshmallows when needed, and each morning now when I go down to the kitchen I pat the small wood-stove in anticipation. Soon we shall be lighting it before breakfast, and the dogs will lie on the wooden chest alongside it, sharing its warmth.

Life is completing another long slow elliptical circuit through the universe, and our planet, whirling through the vacuum of space, is showing our side of it to the cold outer edge of the galaxy. In just two months we will have reached the nadir of our winter orbit, though and the days will start to become shorter yet again as the lives of all living things on earth teeter on the seasonal axis.

As our home soars across the great void, it is still carrying the curse we call COVID; it’s a virus that is not going away soon, and the human race has adapted to it in many ways, even if we are no nearer to defeating it. COVID will be here for a while, but I have no doubt we will – eventually – find a way to contain it, and hopefully defeat it. It’s just one of many obstacles that our species has struggled against over half a million years or more. It is not the first catastrophe we have faced, and nor will it be the last, but I sincerely hope that this time, when we come out on the far side of this crisis, we will remember it as a herald of change. In the great context of stellar history, COVID is but a short, sharp blip, and I really hope it may jolt our race out of complacency and into a new future. COVID and climate change are the two major issues our children may be facing soon, but it is fascinating to think that conquering one may lead to the defeat of another. 

Have a wonderful week, everyone, and stay safe. I hope you enjoy the pictures – they are what they are, images of life in France at this end of a strange year. XXX

Finding Comfort From The Past

Times are challenging for a lot of people right now, and while I’m certain there are some who have made plenty of money out of this pandemic I’m also sure there are many of us for whom times are harder than they were this time last year. Along the way a lot of you will have spent a great deal more time at home than you have in the past and I think all of us are looking at both the way we live and our houses a little differently. For me it’s become a good time to find comfort in surrounding myself with well-loved and well-worn objects, things that have a history behind them and a story to tell. I find that it doesn’t have to be an expensive antique, but perhaps something as simple as a very comfortable old chair that has seen better days, or something that just needs a bit of a makeover to give it a new lease of life. A little touch of TLC is often all that it takes to make something to keep you company for a few more decades.

I’ve often found it’s not just a quick mending with some super glue that’s needed, but sometimes something a little special, a repair or renovation that matches the value of the original workmanship of something and extends its life exponentially. I always think that’s why it pays to buy quality: both new and old. One of the first things I did during ‘lockdown’ in the spring was to repaint all of the garden furniture. Any rusty parts I first did with a coating of anti-rust paint and then I gave everything two coats of Farrow and Ball’s Exterior Eggshell in Wimborne White. I love F&B’s paints as they are eco-friendly and so lovely to use. Now this old garden furniture which has certainly seen better days should last another few decades I hope.

And if you can’t afford good quality new things, then look for second-hand.

Whatever I do, I always add a touch of vintage, a touch of nostalgia, as a nod to the past when many things were made by hand, when a pot was thrown down the road by a local artisan, and if something was bought from the other side of the country it was considered an enormously long way.

I think by surrounding ourself these things like this, it can reassure the soul and comfort the artist that resides in every human. Take, for example, a simple evening weekday meal. You’ve had a long hard day and you’re finally sitting down with your partner or children or a couple of friends. You’ve rustled up a quick supper, maybe just a hearty country vegetable soup that you made over the weekend – all you’ve had to do is heat it up and pick up a crusty baguette or country loaf of bread on the way home. Now you sit down at last, the soup is steaming in the middle of the table in an old French soupier. The bowls are classic French vintage lions head soup bowls, the flatware is heavy and amazing quality and again antique. As you swirl the red wine around in the glass you can admire the pretty crystal. Somehow everything feels right. Even this most casual of meals has an elegant tone to it.

I can’t describe it any other way, using these beautifully made items changes everything. There was a time when the best china stayed in the cupboard only to be used at Christmas or on special occasions. It gathered dust and sometimes was not even seen for a year. I know that was certainly the way in our house.  Now, however, we’ve changed all of that; we use it for breakfast, and lunch, and dinner, and if it gets a crack or a chip or the glaze is covered in tiny lines known as crazing, we don’t cry we embrace it, it’s a part of the history, another story in the look book of short verses. At least we enjoyed it.

The photographs below show some of the major renovation of our garden chairs this past month. They were plastic ‘rattan’ and rather expensive, but after eight years the rattan was falling apart, literally disintegrating after so many years exposure to hot sun. However the frames were as solid as a rock, very well made and rigid and we didn’t want to just throw them out, to become another thing in the landfill. But a new pair of similar chairs would have been really expensive here in France and I couldn’t work out how to repair them. Thankfully, someone did – Roddy removed all of the old rattan and put that in the recycling so we were left with just the iron frame.

Then he set to work with some panels of treated outdoor timber fencing panels which are very inexpensive. Some were new and some had been already used for a now ended project – he never throws anything away (which although it drives me crazy, does have its eventual benefits). He took apart the panels and cut the small planks to size, one by one, attaching them directly to the frame with self-tapping screws.

And that was how he remade our chairs, which are now totally unique, bespoke garden chairs, that will hopefully last another decade or more.

I love this sort of thing, the resurrection of goods and chattels that not only reflect the original work that has gone into them, years or sometimes centuries ago, but new love and care that anyone with time and patience can put back into them, too. All of this just enriches the story behind them, and it’s the special care that we put into this resurrection that I think gives us the comfort we need in these troubling times.

I hope you are all safe and sound wherever you are, and manage to find some beauty in the little things this week! I would love to hear about what items bring you special comfort.

Susan x

The September Garden

As the days grow shorter and the nights turn cool there’s no mistaking that autumn is just around the corner. We’re saying goodbye to summer. She’s lingering on for as long as she can, indeed this last week was as hot as any days in mid July but all the tell tale signs are here. The trees are starting to think of their winter hibernation, leaves are just beginning their change in colour and the first few are falling gently around our feet. The air smells completely different, it’s too soon still for fires here and so there’s no lingering aroma of woodsmoke in the air, indeed there’s no particular thing to describe it, it’s just that unmistakeable scent of autumn.

September is a month of tranquility when the light softens and we appreciate our time in the warmth outdoors knowing that it’s slightly more precious. It’s been an interesting few months in our garden with both highs and lows and we’ve learnt a lot along the way. I love being able to wander across the lawn and cut bunches of fresh flowers, arranging them haphazardly in vases all around the house and so this year we started our cutting garden for the first time. A dedicated area of the vegetable garden where we sowed a mass of seeds and bulbs, nothing too complicated for the first year; clarkias and zinnias, cosmos and dahlias and malope trifida commonly known as annual mallow. The zinnias were an utter failure and the clarkias only faired slightly better. The mallow and cosmos have been fabulous and are still going strong and the dahlias are beautiful and I really wish I had planted more! I think next year I need to be a little more adventurous and I certainly plan to do a lot more homework in the coming weeks, I have a lot to learn!

The vegetable garden, perhaps one of my favourite places, got off to a flourishing start with a very warm early spring. But the carrots appeared to fail to germinate, I thought it was just too dry and so I resowed and again they were a failure, but this time I noticed that the tiniest of seedlings did appear but were immediately eaten. Only on the third attempt did things go a little more smoothly. The green beans suffered a similar plight, as soon as they appeared they were eaten by slugs and snails and in the end I sowed these in pots in our mini greenhouse where I could keep a very firm eye on them and then transplanted them when they were about six inches high and it worked, they’re still going strong!

Apparently it was the worst spring anyone can remember for gastropods, we were not the only ones to suffer, they caused endless problems for every gardener we know.

Our tomatoes by contrast flourished, or so we thought, by early June we already had a few starting to show the first hints of orange on their solid green flesh, things were looking great until disaster struck. Within a matter of days they were all suffering from blackened leaves and stems, it spread at remarkable speed and I immediately assumed it was blight. Jeff, our American friend and amazing gardening guru told me it wasn’t blight but a pathogen in the soil. Actually he gave me a wonderful long name which I have of course forgotten! It appeared there was little we could do but cut them down to the ground and hope they would regrow or pull them out altogether.

But stubborn as I am I didn’t want to give in quite yet. I was prepared to try anything to save them. Refusing to use any form of chemicals because our garden is completely organic I ended up making up my own concoction from an amalgamation of ideas I had read on the internet. I took a half litre empty spray bottle and added about half an inch of Organic Neem Oil. Then half an inch of all natural washing up liquid followed by a couple of tablespoons of bicarbonate of soda and finally I then filled the bottle all the way to the top with water. I shook it vigorously for several minutes to make sure everything was really well mixed and then I sprayed it all over any part of the plant that was affected and then I said a few silent prayers. This was not a cure but something that I hoped would stop the spread of the fungus. Within a week I was positive my prayers had been answered and within a couple I knew for sure. The plants were growing, I cut off any dead leaves and continued to feed and water them. We gorged on tomatoes all summer and now in September we are still harvesting a fairly decent crop on a daily basis.

Our aubergines and cucumbers have been a huge success with none of the problems suffered by half of our vegetables, they’re still going strong and we’re thoroughly enjoying them. The melons on the other hand were ok but not abundant despite the long hot summer.

Finally the carrots are big enough to start pulling up and eating, they are late because they got off to such a terrible and delayed start, but it’s been worth the wait. We’re still digging up potatoes and feasting on our autumn raspberries which are smaller than they were in the summer but just as sweet.

Elsewhere, as always we’re overrun with figs! Fresh figs for breakfast and lunch, figs wrapped in prosciutto and gently roasted, fig confiture, fig chutney, the list is endless!

The latest problem has been our olive trees which have suddenly been attacked by the dreaded olive fly. I have sprayed them with the same Neem Oil concoction and again I’m crossing my fingers, it appears to have worked but only time will tell.

However, there’s none of the urgency of spring in the garden, instead everything has taken on a slower feel. The chicks which hatched at the end of May are now nearly fully grown.

Late blooming roses and asters have now taken over a good chunk of the border. I know if I keep deadheading we’ll have things flowering for a few more weeks. The grass is still parched and dry.

The black woodpecker is busy at work with his beak in one of the old plane trees and the house martins are still circling overhead. No doubt beginning to think of their winter migration further south. We saw our first red squirrel here a few days ago and we’re about to start feeding the hedgehogs to give them a helping hand to prepare for their winter hibernation.

It’s a time to stand and listen. A time to appreciate the stillness of the garden as it slumbers lazily in the evening sun.