Saturday 16 December 2006

Queens Speech

This is the last entry in the blog for this year. We will be leaving for France soon and it won’t be easy to connect for a while. We’ll be back in the New Year and normal service will resume.

I’d like to wish everyone reading a Joyous Yule. I also have a few other things to say but if you don’t know me or feel you know me too well, go now, find your dear ones and treat them kindly. May love, peace and happiness walk with you always.


Still here? Well then, please indulge me while I make a silent scream in the echoing conch shell of cyberspace.

This blog, what’s it all about? After nearly two years of blogging I still don’t know. It started as the usual simple narcissism prevalent across the whole of the world wide web and was an attempt to provide me with an outlet for some of the words that bubble and won’t be suppressed. Naturally, that didn’t work out too well or I’d be standing on a street corner now spouting my stuff and scaring passers by. Inhibition, even in an empty room, is too deeply embedded to ever be stripped away.

Then came the French farm and some sort of theme was established. Having taken a few stats in the last weeks I am surprised to discover I get quite a lot of hits for the more practical entries with viewers from all over world stopping by for a few seconds to learn about medlars or coppicing. It shows potential for a good direction to take. I can share these experiences and my knowledge and that might be a contribution worth making, but that doesn’t satisfy my need to create – it is reporting, not invention. And it carries no scope for commentary outside of its subject.

Which brings me to my writing style – I hate it. It reminds me of myself at age 10 reading my first prize winning essay to the school. My teacher, the adorable Mr. Benny (was that his name? I forget but it fits) said I sounded like the Queen with constipation. It is only too true in this blog. It is constrained for no reason, pedantic, slow. A true reflection of me maybe but writing is like acting, it should be possible to assume a new persona for as long as it takes to produce an impression. Where has my ability to perform gone?

I had some correspondence recently about writing. During the discussion it became clear that for me the most successful moment to write is when I’m raging angry about something. And I have been suppressing anger for too long now. Temper gets the better of me but the injustices that really make me angry are too terrible to face, bring physical sickness and total despondency. Something like that happened two and half years ago and although it has no place in here it has been destroying me ever since. Can I write about that, no fucking chance. Even now I am incoherent in my mind, screaming hysterically, ripping myself to shreds. So it’ll have to stay sedated in the darkened padded room for a while longer yet.

There are things that make me angry in the open world of course. I was watching an episode of M*A*S*H last night, the show set in the 1950s and made in the 1970s was about a group of children in the care of the Red Cross. As I watched the actors, adults and children, happily interacting physically, tickling, cuddling, innocently depicting normal human relations my 21st century sensibilities were triggered. Surely it wasn’t right for middle aged men to invite 5 year olds to sit on their laps or offer them sweets.

The media and a few horrific cases have made all affection between adults and children suspect. Our children are suffering now from a lack of community love that must surely have adversely affected their connection with society. It was enough to reduce me to tears and fills me with dread for the way our world will develop. We need to fight the manipulation of our natural instincts by the greedy attention seeking press. We need to show our love for children and be worthy of their trust.

Future plans then are to continue here with the French blog, making it more practical and trying to capture some of the wonderful times we have there. Next year I hope to finish the cider making records and describe a year in the vegetable patch (words to conjure with ) but maybe I’ll also find the time and words to write something more fulfilling and temporally pertinent. That would be a good aim to take.

Manda Gwinn 2006

Tuesday 12 December 2006

Tree Nursery


When I got back to England in November I planted 50 sweet chestnut seeds, one of which might be coming up already. There will be acorns to plant at xmas and plenty of self seeded small trees from around the farm to transplant to make another coppice area. This coppice will be for green woodworking and will supply fencing, bean poles and other bits of treen.

The other great thing about coppice is that it is a very dynamic environment for wildlife, which is maintained by the regular management of the trees. As usual the biggest pests will be the deer who much prefer tender young tree shoots to the abundant grass and herbs available to them.

Of course, we hope to do all this from first principles with a pole lathe, traditional tools and a flat cap. Paul fancies making furniture and hurdles, I'd love to be able to turn bowls but doubt I'll ever achieve the necessary skills.

Probably the biggest problem facing us is the lead time for these materials to become available. Between 7 and 12 years will have to elapse before the baby trees will be harvestable. We might be dead by then. If so, I hope someone will carry on where we left off, and enjoy the head start we've given them.

I haven't found many useful web resources for green wood working but the books of Mike Abbot are required reading.

Monday 11 December 2006

Strangely blue


One of the last pictures I took before leaving France, the moon through the pear tree with a mist rising.

We're going back to France for the holidays - must get on and book that - so I suppose some of my mood can be attributed to the stress of the travel looming. Really want to get back there but this time it will mean sacrificing seeing the family because nobody seems to have time to join us.

I'm a bit worried about the prospective state of the place. Each time it rains the water comes in under the front door and puddles in the inner hall. There has been so much rain in the last month it's a frightening prospect. The wind has also been very strong and even though the place has clearly stood several hundred years of weather I can't help feeling pessimistic.

We'll be able to find out if the cider worked too. That should be good for a laugh.


Saturday 9 December 2006



The winter solstice this year is on Dec 22 at 00:20.

Thursday 7 December 2006

Beta Blogger

Just moved the blogs to the beta.blogger account. Not sure what the benefits will be but I was tired of the nag screen...

Need to change the template too, had a play last week and broke the lot, then rebuilt it back to how it was. Maybe I'll remember what I'm supposed to be able to do for a living and create my own from scratch. None of the templates cut it for me.

I think the paint fumes are making me sick.

Monday 4 December 2006

Going Nowhere

festive cake

I've been back from France for a month now, and beginning to get twitchy.

We planned to make another trip at the end of November but the difficulty of placing the cat for a short break, the weather, depression all combined and we didn't get it sorted in time. Now in the run up to the midwinter break all our weekends are booked for gladly anticipated meetings with friends in the UK but that means another three weeks before I can see my home from home again.

In the meantime we're trying to keep busy here, redecorating rooms left untouched since we arrived nearly 8 years ago now so that the abominations of DIY left by the previous owners can be removed and the place returned from a badly executed Changing Rooms folksy style back to the simple fixings of a budget Seventies estate build. Clean and plain is good. Faux Victorian skirting boards and wonky picture rails are not.

And I've made a cake for the midwinter festival.

Wednesday 22 November 2006

Cider Making Pt. 2.

Apple Prep

Having gathered about 120 kg of apples we sat down to prepare them. It was lucky that we had the most beautiful weather whilst we did this, it meant we could sit outdoors and soak up the sun as we worked.

After washing the fruit down with a hose we discarded any rotten apples and cut the rest into quarters and slices to enable them to go through the antique crushing machine in the pressing house. Our hands quickly became blistered even using the supersharp Opinel knives beloved of the french handyman. It took us about an hour to chop two plastic trugs of apples into pieces.

The Scratter

Although the crusher is clearly designed to take a hopper full of fruit and turn continuously either driven by a belt or some more direct sort of motive force we had to turn the teeth by rotating the wheel by hand. This is very hard work and if the apple pieces were too large or the teeth overfilled it was beyond our strength to turn it. The only way to make progress was for one of us to rather pathetically drop the apples bits one by one into the teeth while the other turned the wheel. The apples were put through the scratter twice in an attempt to crush them nice and small for maximum juice extraction. This was exhausting and taking turns it still took another hour to crush two trugs of prepared fruit.

Small Juice Presspressagain

Once we had our nicely crushed pulp it was time to extract the juice. With much regret we decided not to attempt to use the huge ancient press that came with the house - our tiny quantity of pulp would have been lost even if there hadn't been other issues of rot and missing parts to address. We'll have to resolve those problems over the next year whilst gathering bodies to help for a full harvest.

Luckily we have a small press that was crafted by Paul's Dad, originally for grapes from his back garden but sturdy enough and sufficiently capacious to take a trug's worth at a time. As each variety of apple was processed the juice was gathered into a clean container and a minimum amount of camden tablets added to discourage fermentation and kill noxious bacteria and moulds until we were ready to start the ferment. This stage of the process took about another hour per two trugs, with picking making slightly more than 20 hours back breaking work to process the whole lot. Far too exhausting to do all at once we took about 4 days to stage ourselves through the work.

We taste tested each batch as it was done. The juice was muddy brown and not particularly attractive but we needed to know if it was worth our effort to continue. Beatrice was lovely and sweet but Katherine too sharp for comfortable drinking. We thought this was a hopeful sign although we had yet to test the juice for acidity it seemed we might have sufficient variety in our juice to make a good cider.

The next section of this Cider Making blog will show how we tested the juice more formally and the way the ferment was started, watch this space.

Monday 20 November 2006

Cider Making Pt. 1

In the last week of October, using apples from the farm, such equipment as we had and our own hard work Paul and I started to produce what we hope will finish up as 20 gallons of quality Normandy cider.

Cider on the Tree
Picture of Phyllis.

Many of the trees produced fruit, but some of them are clearly biennial bearing and had no fruit and some had finished and fallen before we started so we settled on four varieties that were heavily laden and ready for picking when we needed them. We still don’t know the names of the varieties and were going to send samples to Brogdale for identification but they have let us down. It’s not a cheap procedure and I emailed their information address first to check that there was a reasonable chance the experts could name fruit from France. I had a speedy reply from a PA who said my query had been passed onto the identification team but no reply from them and a reminder sent to the PA has not been answered.

So, we’re still using our working titles for the trees; Beatrice, Katherine, Lisette and Phyllis. Beatrice is a crisp red apple with a light bloom. Her tree was covered in fruit. Katherine ripened slightly earlier, another tasty, slightly acid fruit. Lisette apples are small and golden, quite dry fleshed and with almost the flavour of toffee. Phyllis has similar fruit to look at but the taste is more tannic, not quite so sweet.

Picture of Beatrice.

It was taking too long to pick the fruit manually and we settled on a system of climbing the ladder, hooking a rake into the branches and shaking the apples down to land on a spread tarpaulin while the other held the steps to stop them falling over. It’s easy enough but apples raining down induce more than thoughts of the theory of gravity and a principle of never looking up was soon adopted. Later on we started using the chainsaw helmet but it did look ridiculous.

Picture of Katherine in the hand.

Cider apples differ from eating apples as a good cider consists of a blend of juices, some sweet, some sharp with edges of bitterness and tannin that give a refreshing full flavour to the brew. This means that even though many of them are full of sugar they’re not particularly nice to eat raw. In fact our chosen varieties were all quite pleasant when fully ripe although none of them could compare to a decent Russet or Blenheim Orange.

Picture of Lisette.

We worried about this a bit, fearing our finished juice would lack the acidity and tannin necessary to inhibit noxious bacteria and give a good finish to our cider. In order to get reassurance we armed ourselves with indicator papers and a hydrometer to assess the sugar content of our finished juice. We also decided that to minimise risk we would make all our cider of blended juices in the hope that deficiencies in one juice would be compensated for by the excesses of another. This is standard practice in cider making and most commercial brewers work with several apple varieties to produce their speciality.

Picking Pears
We also picked some pears to make some perry.

After the fruits were picked they were washed and prepped ready for the next stage.

To be continued…

Wednesday 8 November 2006

Medlar Jelly


Take medlars, ripe, soft and bright and wash them. Then cut into pieces, removing any bruised or damaged parts.

Put the fruit with just enough water to cover them without floating into a large pan and simmer slowly until they become a glorious pulp. Set up a jelly bag and pour the pulp and cooking water into it. Leave until all the juice has dripped through. Don’t squeeze.

For each pint of liquor add 12 - 16 ozs of sugar plus a tablespoon of lemon juice per pint. Make sure all the sugar dissolves and bring gently to the boil.

Boil rapidly till the setting point is reached. When a teaspoonful dropped on a cold plate wrinkles as you push a finger across it, take the pan off of the heat and quickly pot up into beautifully clean warmed jars. Close while hot.

If liked set the jelly in small straight sided moulds and serve as a very sweetly rich pudding.

These fruit came from the “Nottingham” medlar in the garden at Newport Pagnell. There are wild medlars in the hedges in France, fruit much smaller but bearing heavily in this excellent fruit year. It is said that the flavour of the variety Nottingham is only average. It will be interesting to compare this jelly with jelly made from the wild bushes.

Update 10 Dec 2006

This has been quite a popular entry so I though people might like to know how the batch looked when it was finished.

medlar jelly

Not quite as clear as last year's (remember what I said about not squeezing the jelly bag) and for a horrible moment I thought it wasn't going to set after I'd put it in the jars, but everything turned out fine.

Update 04 November 2007

Last year's jelly stored well and is still tasty and spreadable now but the beautiful clearness has turned to an unappetising murky brown so I recommend you don't make too much of this and give a lot away as presents.

Have now made the jelly for this year and I was particularly careful not to crush the fruit even while it was still in the pan. With a very fine jelly bag this gave an extremely clear juice but I think it may have reduced the overall pectin content because this time I did have to reboil it.

I was in a bad mood and a hurry, gave it only 20 minutes of serious boil, poured it into pots and hoped for the best but the next day it was as runny as a runny thing. So there wasn't much else I could do but tip it back into the pan and boil it up again. After ten minutes more boiling it was setting, almost too well and is back in its pots looking ruby clear and glorious.

Thursday 2 November 2006

Fungus Foray

It's been a fine autumn for mushroom hunting.

In the fields near to the house we have shaggy inkcaps (picture taken by Paul) and puffballs. Sadly we've not found any field or horse mushrooms yet.

Shaggy Ink Caps

On the margins of the forest there are parasol mushrooms, not many so we left them to spread their spores for next year.


Once you enter the forest there are plenty of fungi to examine but the place is so severely hunted by dedicated mushroom lovers that most of what is easily visible is likely to be inedible or frankly poisonous.


These woods are good for ceps and on our last long walk we found Horns of Plenty, delicious fried with a small crushed clove of garlic and served on warmed french bread to soak up the juices.


Wednesday 18 October 2006

One day in History

A Blog about a Blog.

Paul heard about this and told me and a load of veggies on Cix, so now I’m telling you.

It’s a project by the British Library to collect blog/diary entries for the 17th October 2006 and store them for future reference. Make the 17th October HISTORY. Record your blog here

This is my entry:

It wasn't a great day yesterday - I saw no news, heard no radio, talked to nobody in person. I wasn't even in the UK but at my farm in Northern France. I dug out some encroaching brambles, planted some bulbs and did a little tidying up but the weather was dull and I lacked motivation to achieve many of the week's goals. I spent a good deal of time on the Internet, mainly in a private conferencing system (Cix) and partly on the flickr photo archiving service. There is a problem with my internet email which I'm trying to track down with the help of Cix support but we're not getting far. I took part in discussions about lack of butterfly habitat, driving and ferry ports in France, Avicenna's proof of God. And I cursed the fact that I don't have broadband and must do all my internet connections via a slow telephone line and modem. I did no painting at all.

It’s possible to read other people’s entries although I haven’t done, that old lack of bandwidth problem. You have until the end of the month to record your day.

Monday 16 October 2006

Apple Picking


These lovely days of Indian summer are ideal for collecting the harvest from the 40 or so apple trees in the fields. These trees were planted for cider making and are mostly very old and decrepit, struggling under a burden of mistletoe and neglect.

Without being able to identify the varieties and having no one to ask what was planted we have resorted to giving the trees working code names. Amelie, the first tree named is a yellow fruited sort, early ripening and only pleasant to eat. She’s also had a drastic haircut in the recent past and has only a tiny mop of short branches on her trunk. Beatrice on the other hand has exceeded all expectations. When I tested her a month ago I found her rather ordinary, now she is beautiful. Her branches are laden with delicious crimson fruit with a slight bloom. I picked two large buckets of apples from her today in only an hour. Other trees of note that I have taken fruit from are Katherine, crisp and sweet and Phyllis subtitled the photogenic tree for her glorious crop of golden orange fruit carried on a lollipop shaped tree straight from a story book.

Apple picking isn’t all that easy. The trees are a long way from the house over rough meadow and I have only a step ladder and a wheelbarrow. The stepladder is far too short for reaching 7/8ths of the tree and the wheelbarrow cumbersome in the long grass. Once you have your step ladder positioned securely, not easy on the soft uneven ground there are the obstacles of twigs in your ears and the low sun in your eyes. As you reach for the apples, teetering on three legs of the ladder, you are obstructed by earwigs, snails and drunken hornets. Desperate to reach more apples before having to move the steps, you drag on branches unbalancing yourself even more. Your hands become full of apples and the picking bucket becomes unreachable. As you tug at some small unworthy specimen a perfect ripe example falls from the branch and bruises itself as it bangs its way all down the ladder. Then your hair becomes caught in the branches. It can only be a matter of time before I come crashing to the earth and I’m waiting anxiously for Paul to get here so I can go a little higher and reach a little further secure in the knowledge someone will collect my broken bones when the inevitable happens.

Tuesday 10 October 2006

The last day of Summer


Today is another last day of summer, glorious sunshine, late butterflies, a surprising quantity of dragonflies, gentle breezes and warmth.

I’ve gathered some sloes to make a drink called Patxaran, a Basque liqueur, from a recipe recounted to me by my friend the Archdruid. I’ve formalised his suggestion thus:

Take two thirds of a litre of anise (buy a litre bottle and drink the rest, you’ll need the space for the other ingredients). Pick your sloes and give them a good rinse in plenty of warm water to remove bits of leaf, bird shit and dead spiders. Allow to drain for a couple of hours as you don’t want to dilute the alcohol with unnecessary water. In the bottle mix 100g sugar, lots of sloes, ten coffee beans and a vanilla pod. Allow to steep for several months.

I’ve never made this before so I’ve no idea how it will turn out but I’m hoping it will match my recollections of a superior sort of cough medicine served on ice which I drank through the night in Valencia many years ago.

Today is also my daughter’s birthday. Happy Birthday Xtal. She’s had a terrible week so far when lousy thieves entered her room and stole her laptop and several hundred pounds worth of other personal items. I can’t be with her but I hope everyone will join me to send out warm fuzzy thoughts to her and sharp vicious bolts of pain to destroy the lives of the scum that have hurt her.

Tuesday 3 October 2006

Better than Conkers


We’ve more than half a dozen sweet chestnut trees around the farm, mostly in the boundary hedges. A survey today reveals that although all the trees have fruit only two trees are producing anything of harvestable quality although it’s possible the other trees will mature later.

The two most excellent trees are in the big entrance field on the boundary with the forest near to the house. One tree is dropping heavy crops of small nuts which are ripe and ready now and most delicious roasted. Each prickly seed case has three or so potential nutlets inside but usually only one has developed leaving barren shells where the nut has failed. The husks are splitting on the tree and dropping the nuts out of the husks making them very easy to gather. The other tree is producing much bigger husks than I’ve ever seen before with just one or two large nuts in each case. This tree isn’t quite as ready as its neighbour and although the wind has brought down many prickly green balls they are not opening to reveal the nuts inside. These prickles really hurt.

These two types correspond to the horticultural definitions of marrons and chataigne, the larger nuts are the marrons, used in the eponymous marrons glaces.

I’ve gathered nuts and a big pile of the unsplit cases. I have noticed a few maggots in some of the nuts but generally the quality of these chestnuts is far better than those I bought in a major supermarket last year.

The nuts will be eaten roasted, boiled, dried (if I can rig a dehydrator) and made into candied chestnuts. Unfortunately chestnuts don’t store well or for long in an unprocessed state, needing cold, humidity controlled conditions and still being prone to drying out or going mouldy.

I’m hoping the green cases will finish maturing and split open naturally because they are almost impossible to open otherwise, and of course, there are loads more to come on both trees so there will be plenty of time to gather nuts again.

A useful resource: The Australian Chestnut Growers has been helpful.

Sunday 1 October 2006


Today, I shall eat cake.

Today is my birthday. It’s possibly the first birthday I have ever spent entirely on my own without family or friends. It’s not so bad.

Yesterday I went shopping for my presents. I got a non-stick frying pan with glass lid, some slippers and some small ready prepared canvases for oil painting. Yes, dear reader, I went to Aldi.

My cake is a carrot cake, I’ve no idea how I will eat it all but it’s hard to make a cake small enough for one.

Later, if the wind drops, I will have a bonfire. As well as feeding the pyromaniac in me this will be symbolically cleansing and afterwards I shall make new year’s resolutions.

Happy Birthday Manda.

Saturday 30 September 2006



The deer are very active at the moment, it’s the time of year when a young deer’s thoughts turn to sex. Each night the forest echoes with the amazing roars and calls of the animals as they stake their turf, castigate their enemies and discipline their women.

Normally all you can register of this activity is the sound and I wish I could record it, it is easily as impressive as whale song, varied and surprising. Last night I noticed a herd with stag had wandered into the near field (by that same old perry pear tree) but the light was quite insufficient to photograph them, I got a lot of black frames.

However, they were still here this morning. No battery in the camera and I thought I’d lost my chance but the males are supremely confident and with them around the females are fairly calm. I had time to get the battery and go back out to where they were. They had only moved about 150 metres away and I damn my camera for being inadequate.

Still if proof was needed we have deer, here it is.


Thursday 28 September 2006

Puff Ball Feast

Giant Puffball

A while back I found an enormous Giant Puff Ball near to the eucalyptus patch. I weighed it, photographed it and sniffed it and decided that it was too mushroomy for me. (I can be ambivalent about mushrooms, blame it on a misspent youth). Less subjectively it was full size and just about to go over from firm flesh to spongy. It tore rather than sliced and was dry. You can see the picture above.

Today while trying to clear a patch of rough grass that will form another vegetable bed for next year I ran over two young puff balls with the lawn mower. Sadly they were completely minced by the blades but while investigating them (one was enough to stop the motor in its tracks) found they were really quite appetising and I was brave enough to eat a little bit raw. It tasted good. So when I’d exhausted myself mowing I went back to the eucalyptus grove and looked where I had found the fungus before. And I was in luck. Another puff ball about a quarter of the size of the first one but still firm and only slightly attacked by slugs.

Cleaned, sliced and fried in a batter made of cornflour and water it was delicious. Really good, barely needing salt or pepper although I had both and a squeeze of lemon juice too. They’d better beware out there, I know where they live.

sliced puffcooked puff

Wednesday 27 September 2006


Two days ago I gathered windfall pears from around the small perry tree, the one in the field where most of the campers were in the summer. The hunting season is now fully open and more than once I was surprised by nearby bangs, wondering if my neatly displayed bottom had driven some frantic killer to loose his shot into me. However, I gathered a plastic trug full without harm, about 12 kgs.

The authors of the various books we have on cider and perry making are not agreed on the greatest risk to the amateur fermenter. One warns of the dangers of patulin, another of possible e.coli or salmonella poisoning from livestock in the fields, others of mysterious organisms that will spoil the brew and turn it to slop if the fruit isn’t perfect in every way. Each one emphasises the risks of their preferred peril, then reveals that fermentation is expected to kill the bugs anyway. These dangers are all more serious in the windfall fruit. Mindful of this I discarded the worst damaged but as this was a first try and likely to be wasted anyway I wasn’t too particular and just gave them a good wash off under the hose.

Then I spent an hour chopping them in half to make crushing easier. We’ve spent a long time agonising over the press and how it’s damaged by rot, lost various appendages, weakened by wood worm and age. I’m here to tell you that that may be a problem but we’ll never know unless we can crack the crushing phase.

For the first attempt I put my halved pears in a big bucket and used a heavy length of beech branch as a mortar. Half an hour bumping this unwieldy weapon up and down barely made small boulders of the pears, nothing like the fine gravel of fruit I needed. My arms were aching and my head spinning. I decided to give it a go anyway.

For this tiny amount of fruit there was no point in using the full sized press in the pressoir. We are fortunate to have a small amateur construction put together by Paul’s father one year after a bumper crop of grapes in his garden, which as far as we know had never been used before. I dusted this off and assembled it, nearly all interference fits that had to be hammered into place with my fist. Then I shovelled half the lumpy pulp into a pillow case and popped it into the press. The first thing I discovered was that none of the juice created came out through the spout positioned at the bottom, the second was that it did come out from every other nook and cranny and because I had stood the press over its receptacle instead of in it all the juice was lost into the gravel. I sat the press in a plant tray and chucked in the rest of the pulp, no need for a bag, then pressed again. About 3 pints of juice was my reward but it could have been so much more. The juice was very sweet, disgustingly cloudy and probably lethal with bugs from the barely washed tray. It was at that point I discovered I had no Camden tablets to sterilise the extract. The left over pear pomace had many barely crushed pear halves in it. There would have been much more juice if these had been properly pulped.


So today I thought I’d have a go at using the crusher that came with the farm. Like everything else in the cider house it was filthy dirty and encrusted with the detritus and insects of years past. We’d had a go at cleaning it last week when Paul was here and this morning I brought the hopper over to the house so that I could give it a good scrub down with a wire brush and some water under pressure. That cleaned up well enough revealing rather a lot of wood worm holes but enough fabric left for the job. The main mechanism was brushed off again. It has been well greased in the past a good thing, but it has attracted dust. The crushing blades are rusty but there isn’t much that can be done about it without risk of contaminating the fruit. The crusher rests on a wooden ‘coffin’ which is designed to catch the pulp as it falls through. This is so dirty, full of broken glass and cobwebs and in such a poor state that it seemed better to sit a plastic bucket under the grinding teeth to catch what came through. I chucked in a few kilos of pears and turned the wheel.

The pears were whole – that was mistake number one. They are just too big to slip easily into the jaws of the machine or if they do too dense to turn the wheel against them. The second problem is that if the pears don’t go into the teeth then they roll out the ends of the feeder and slip out down the sides without being ground at all. The bucket was not broad enough to encompass the wide spread of falling fruit and pulp and a lot of it landed in the dirty box below. I suspect the grinder can be set to different positions to allow several passes of the fruit through, getting tighter each time and finally producing the necessary fine paste but the adjustments aren’t clear and the bolts and springs rusted up. It will take more of an engineer than I am to work it all out.

Overall, not much progress but I suppose issues have been discovered that can be thought about. We have to decide if we’re doing this for fun or as potential income. Will it be too much hard work to be fun or too inadequately remunerative for business? There need to be further investigations.

Wednesday 20 September 2006



Frightening sights for autumn nights. These wasps are strong. Big. Very persistent and they love the light.

Friday 15 September 2006

Pears and Walnuts

The pears are nearly all ripe now. We have eating and perry pears, the eating pears are mostly behind the cider making house and the perry pears distributed around the grounds. The big perry tree has crisp, juicy clean growing pears, russetted and reddened with the sun. The other perry pears are small, hard pears of the wild type except for one on the wall of the cider house which is almost apple shaped, heavily russetted and with a long stalk. Research suggests this is a very ancient type of pear. Certainly I have never seen a pear like it.

I’ve picked about 20kg of the fruit from the big tree today. When Paul comes next week we will have a trial run with cleaning, mashing and pressing as best we can to extract enough juice for a gallon or so. I’ll pick some more before he comes but the ground is uneven and the ladder wobbles alarmingly so I’m reluctant to go too high on my own.

The eating pears are in a sorry state, all the trees have been badly neglected but the smallest most beaten up specimen which has produced ugly, small black spotted fruit is a pear of delicious flavour and texture, ready now in mid September. The largest tree has larger fruit, still green and badly spotted but not quite ready yet. They will be nicely flavoured if not as good as the earlier pears. Of two other trees, espalier trained along a wall and almost unreachable through the nettles and long grass, one is still vigorous with large crisp red flushed fruits and the other is nearly dead with small misshapen fruits that may not be much use for identification because they are so stunted. The last tree is clearly diseased and will probably have to be destroyed before it affects the others.

While stomping through the long grass to get to the dessert pears I found three small walnut trees, probably seedlings from last year or the year before. I must transplant them somewhere where they are less likely to be mown to death before they can make decent sized trees. Someone in the future will value the wood even if the nuts never come to much.

Wednesday 13 September 2006

Alien Invaders

Weird Gourd

I never realised before how easy it is to transport common plants from one locality to another without intending it. It’s easy to sneer at the fools who released the grey squirrel or marvel at the stupidity of the cane toad infestation in Australia until discovering that with the pots of small trees and herbs we brought over intentionally to furnish our new gardens and hedgerows have carried seeds of other less welcome plants which I would have hesitated before importing to this new environment.

In the gravel by the tree nursery there is a plant of Chenopodium “Magentaspreen” which we bought as an exotic vegetable seed several years ago for the allotment at Newport Pagnell and which has vigorously self seeded itself ever since. It is a pretty plant with vivid magenta young growth, hence the name, edible young leaves and a magnificent habit reaching 6 ft or more in a healthy plant but just like its cousins the fat hen and goosefoot almost impossible to eradicate. I don’t think it cross fertilises with the native species but I’m reluctant to make the experiment without a bit more certainty than that.

I’ve also discovered a plant of buddleia, that butterfly beloved weed of railways and abandoned car parks. I can’t be certain that the seed for this came over with us, but there are no other plants of it within miles and it is suspiciously close to the potted trees.

Normally I enjoy the serendipity of discovering these tiny seedlings and make good use of the free propagation but now I’m wondering if it may be taking things too far too fast while we are still learning about what we already have.

The picture is of a gourd at an interesting little garden open to the public at Isigny-sur-Mer. Les Jardins de la Decouverte are near a sewage works but have an interesting selection of gourds, pumpkins and exotic plants from around the world. The garden also has a therapeutic function for the adults with difficulties who work there. Well worth visiting in August and September if you’re in the area.

Sunday 10 September 2006

Willows revisited

The basket willow coppice project has been running for a while now. The planting was done back in early spring in a rather slapdash fashion because it was so cold and the ground so hard and lumpy. Pest protection wasn’t carried out in a fully effective manner either and the net result after six months is that we have lost about a third of the cuttings inserted. However, most of the others look as if they will survive with a little care and of these the most successful varieties have been the recommended basket willows

I will take some small cuttings this week and keep them as named references as the original labelling is fading, then in the late autumn cut back the existing plants to the ground for their first year of coppicing and use the material gathered to replace the missing stock.

In the spring I also planted a weeping willow in the hollow near the stream behind the house. This has done extremely well and must have made several feet of growth this year. This tree will be left to its own devices, I’m hoping it will grow tall and majestic and shade out the nettles and brambles currently inhabiting the ground there.

The eucalyptus are mostly doing well, even though they were started from seed this year they are nearly all a metre high and bushy. They’re quite pretty too but are surrounded by a veritable sea of fierce stinging nettles so can’t be seen without extraordinary danger. Other trees planted throughout the year have had a mixed fate. Two silver birch have been swamped by brambles and I may not be able to rescue them, the oak trees planted over winter from Ouville have nearly all died or have been reduced to tiny shoots from the base, hopeful for the future but not the four foot saplings I transplanted, the willow cuttings in the hedge gap have mostly rooted but have also suffered die back and the newly planted hornbeam and field maple further along that hedge are grimly hanging on. One or two other small trees seem to staying alive but haven’t made much growth this year.

There are still many trees in pots waiting for their chance, another month and the time will be perfect for planting them out if I can break holes in the unyielding earth for them.

That fish – I saw him briefly today – can be seen in the photo below.

Wednesday 6 September 2006



Picking blackberries on your own land is an enjoyable task. There is still the feeling of foraging from the wild without the worry that a farmer with a shotgun will appear looking for trespassers or that the berries have been contaminated with some arcane agricultural spray designed to kill 99% of all known pests. Today in a little over an hour I picked enough fruit for several pots of jam and I think, although it depends on the weather tomorrow, that I will pick again and gather enough for a gallon of wine. Blackberry wine is luscious and worth the effort.

The plums are all but finished now, all that is left is the debris of rotting and fallen fruit gently decaying down beneath the trees. This wild jam is beloved of Red Admiral butterflies and there is no way to capture the experience of stepping beneath the tree and being surrounded by a cloud of twenty or thirty beautiful, strong flying and slightly tipsy colourful insects whirling away around your head. You really have to be here.

All this autumnal bounty has a dark side. The hornets, which have behaved impeccably well all summer, are now stupid with the early darkness and chillier evenings. They batter their heads against the glass all evening trying to get into the light and when they do find a chink they force through it to drive themselves mad with frantic beating against the bulbs. This hasn’t been quite so bad the last couple of nights as we have had clear skies and a nearly full moon to tempt them away from the house but they are fearsome creatures and it’s not nice to find one has made ingress.

The swallows left on the 30th August. We have had one small group of late travellers stop by for a morning but it is strangely quiet in the yard, even the other little birds seem quieter and less sociable. I have plans to make a bird table for the back garden, but this is something that keeps getting delayed by the simple tasks of living.

We also have rats. Well, of course we have rats but yesterday I watched the cutest rodent running backwards and forwards to the compost bucket collecting old cat food and rice for her young and having a wonderful time while she did it, squeaking and chattering with excitement. I’ve no intention of finding them and killing them, we have snakes and owls for that but it’s silly to encourage pests near to the house. I shall have to get a lidded bucket and start emptying it more frequently. The cat is no help. While Mrs. Rat was collecting her groceries he slept the sleep of the good just five feet away, entirely oblivious.

Paul has managed to take a picture of the fish in the pond. Surprisingly enough it is a trout! It certainly moves fast and you are much more likely to see a dust trail of stirred silt than the fish itself but sometimes if you creep very quietly to the edge of the water you can catch a glimpse of it as it swims along the wall side. I don’t know if Paul has managed to upload the picture yet, it wasn’t great photography but notable for existing at all, but you can look at all his photos here

Wednesday 30 August 2006



This is a picture of the cat Paul took, it’s better than any I’ve done. The cat is a very important part of my life here, like the Hologram in Red Dwarf he provides the necessary stimulus to stop me going entirely mad, he is demanding, ungrateful and leaves small mounds of the body parts of voles everywhere he goes. I don’t know what I’d do without him.

The other part of my life here, with which I have a love / hate relationship of some proportions is my computer. The internet has been a very important part of my life for far too long, too long to give it up now but how I wish it wasn’t so time consuming.

This has the makings of a very introspective entry, especially as I’m trying to compose it online!

Other news, the middle room downstairs has had a lick of paint and a tidy up. I’ve moved the single bed into it (via the window in the roof and the front yard) and I’m ready for visitors. Like buses they’re all turning up at once, Paul and his Mum, Roy and Xtal.

Roll on tomorrow!


Friday 25 August 2006

French Beans

“Picked the first beans from the patch I sowed in June today. About 8 weeks from sowing to harvest by my calculations, not bad.”

That was Wednesday, today I picked another good handful and there are plenty more to come. Lots of pumpkins and squashes too and the leeks I planted with Maggie are making good growth with all the rain we’ve had.

sweet dumpling

Not having broadband is beginning to be a big problem. It’s been a while since I had a telephone bill and I’m worrying that it will be enormous, so much so that I’m reluctant to spend the time online uploading pictures and updating this blog. I don’t think I’m spending much more than 2 euros a day but it soon mounts up and that barely gives me time to blink for Cix and email, with no time to browse the web or spend hours online with the web communities as I used to. My problem wouldn’t be so great if I could control my need for constantly checking to see if I’ve received any mail. There is nothing more disappointing than to discover cents wasted on downloading spam when personal mail is expected. I’ve also been prey to false hopes for telephone calls with several wrong numbers and a cold caller today. If I sound suspicious when I answer the phone, don’t be offended, it’s just that I am!

Paul’s Mum is coming over for a visit at the end of next week. Suddenly it’s become important to make the place look homely and comfortable. Not much chance of that but with the help of my last house guest, Anne, who kindly stripped the wallpaper from the middle downstairs room for me I shall have a go to get the walls painted cleanly and put up some curtains to make a downstairs bedroom for her.

At last the weather has become more summery although it’s terribly cold in the mornings. The wind has dropped, the sun is out and the clouds have stopped threatening and become fluffy and friendly again. It may even be dry enough to cut the grass. Wonder why I thought having a lawnmower was such a good idea.

Saturday 19 August 2006


greengage damas dronet

I've been doing plums. It's a thankless task. First you pick them, then you wash them, then you check for maggots. To begin with I was removing the stones at the same time but the recipe I found in the Farmhouse Cooking book suggested you could remove them during cooking, so I started leaving them in. Trouble was it was about 1 a.m. when I finished preparation and I couldn't face staying up any longer so I thought I'd give them a quick boil up to stop them fermenting and do the rest in the morning. Of course they cooked in the residual heat over night and all the stones sank to the bottom.

Next day I put them back on the heat but that was a mistake, because I was busy making tea and attending to cats and when I went back the bottom was burned quite badly. So then I had a lot of very pulpy wet plum puree, filled with stones and black bits. I spent an hour sieving to get the stones and burnt bits out and then running it through my new food mill (11 euro, LeClerc). It’s not going to win prizes at the WI but this batch turned out a pleasantly flavoured and well set spread. I'll try again more carefully and probably with a smaller quantity next time. I had a full big pan, about 9 litres and I think that was probably half the trouble.

Interestingly, although I've said before that the plums are all the same they are not. I have tentatively identified them using Robert Hogg’s book the Fruit Manual (ISBN 1-904078-08-7) The ones near the woodshed are greengages, Reine Claude flavour, small, juicy, quite green even when fully ripe. I would confidently identify it as Reine Claude or Greengage but according to Hogg the flesh should be free from the stone and these do not separate easily unless the fruit is almost overripe. The plum near the tractor shed has egg shaped, yellow mature fruit, a drier texture and the stone is free. The closest match in The Fruit Manual is Damas Dronet. I think these plums would dry well, and I wish I had a drier but there’s always next year. The one near the coypu field has round fruits which are ripening yellow with a red speckle, almost like an apricot but it's not of course. This may be Drap D’or also known as Mirabelle Grosse. There is another tree, in the hedge behind the gite/studio building but the weather today discourages forays through wet grass.


Wednesday 16 August 2006

Robins and Jam

A friend drew this article in the Guardian to my attention, another in the continuing series of easy money makers on Brits in France. His comment was ‘dreadful people’. This is the same friend who referred me to a piece about the self obsessions of bloggers, so I’m really beginning to wonder what his true opinion of me is. I read it, my egocentricity wouldn’t allow otherwise, but I’m not entirely sure what his point is.

Yes, the people in the article aren’t the sort I’d be likely to make a close personal friend of but is there so very much more wrong with them than the same people hammering out their chosen lifestyle in Essex or Edinburgh? Why is it considered de rigueur upon emigrating to another country to become more native than the natives? In the UK I’ve eschewed any number of customs, rituals and expectations to create a lifestyle that suits me – it may not be the best way to do things even by my own benchmarks but form has shaped the person and the person shaped the form. It would barely meet any standard form of British cultural cliché and I wouldn’t expect to suit anyone but myself and very close family. If the expectation is I will offer the sincerest form of flattery to the French by becoming indistinguishable from them (to the British eye at any rate) then I feel that both the French and I will have lost something in the deal.

It is important to recognise that other cultures have other rules, law, taxes and to accommodate them gracefully, I do not think it’s necessary to become a clone of any part of the culture of a foreign country unless it is natural to do so. In fact, I think those that do risk becoming risible as a result of it.

The plums are getting ripe. We have four trees in total and the fruit is delicious. All the trees are some type of greengage, probably Reine Claude or something very similar. It would have been nice to have some prune plums so those will have to go on the list of fruit trees to buy. Unfortunately many of the fruits are infested with maggots but I shall get around this by making jam.

We have tried making plum wine before with little success so that’s probably not worth the effort this year when we hope to make about 100 gallons of cider. I have to say I think that’s a rather optimistic aim, but there is plenty of fruit and it’s beginning to ripen satisfactorily. Anyone who wants to come over for a fruit picking party is very welcome.

There has been a robin in the garden for about a month now. We’re very pleased, makes us feel like we’re real inhabitants and not just holiday homers and Paul is convinced he’s seen a fish in the sheepdip pond. I saw a trail of stirred mud but it could just as easily have been a frog or a crocodile because I couldn’t see what had caused it. When the jam is setting later today I’ll stake out a place by the edge of the water and see what I can see.

Sunday 13 August 2006


Laetiporus sulphureus: Chicken of the Woods

The weather has lost its summer shine, temperatures are cool, the skies grey. Really this should make working around the farm much more pleasant. There is less chance of overheating, no need to worry about sunburn or heatstroke, enough energy to complete tasks before exhaustion sets in but it is depressing nonetheless. We have started to worry about keeping warm through the winter and whether the buildings are wind and water tight.

The main house has a few slates missing which it should be possible to replace with a ladder and some strong nerves. If we can repair and replace parts of the gutters it should come through another winter with little further degradation. The other buildings are not so well cared for. The tractor shed urgently needs a lot of slates replacing, the facing building has reasonable roofing but no proper gutters, the gite/studio building is still with a gaping hole in the roof, evidence of some wicked weather that has ripped the flashing from the apex and scattered the tiles leaving it open to all downpours. At the very least we must get a tarpaulin over this before autumn.

The new lawnmower is a success, even though the battery starting is a dud. The 12V battery had been left discharged for so long it was past the point of recharging. We will get a new one and replace it at some point but luckily the engine is very easy to start so this is no longer a priority. The mower is tremendously powerful and has chomped its way through the long grass in the back garden, a large patch around the wood shed and pear tree and cut paths into fields and gardens that were becoming overgrown with brambles and nettles. It should be possible now for me to keep most of the areas around the farmhouse tidy and free from unpleasant weeds.


Monday 7 August 2006


Today I bought a lawn mower. This is man’s work as far as I’m concerned, engines are messy, lawn mowing hard work but anyway without a man to take over I had no option but to do without.

I did my research last week at M. Bricolage where there is a fair selection of machines from the smallest and cheapest available to frankly oversized and overpriced amateur tractors, not quite fitted with cigarette lighters and air conditioning but well on the way to it. We needed something tough, able to leap tall grasses in a single bound, unfrightened by nettles or the ubiquitous ronce and robust enough to truck across uneven ground and face down chunks of concrete and discarded metalwork hidden in the undergrowth. And for myself I need something reliable, easy to maintain and easy to start. Of course, we needed all this for tuppence ha’penny. Today, after discussing it with Paul, I went back to claim my prize.

The trouble with the cheapest models, as we’ve found in the UK, is they are unreliable, difficult to start and the wheels fall off which may be a function of the treatment we give them. The fear of buying more expensive sorts is that they won’t be any better. This time I’ve decided to give expense a chance as I fell in love with a sleek Italian beast, bright red with a 5CV Briggs and Stratton engine, metal body, a 51cm cutting width and, the real reason I bought it, electric ignition. There is a tiny sealed 12V battery and starter which I hope will make it possible for me to just mow grass instead of getting hot, sweaty, frustrated and eventually disappointed when my feeble efforts with a pull cord yield no results. It also has a single control to change the height of all the wheels at once and a biggish grass box if ever we achieve sufficient lawn to make collecting the clippings worthwhile. It cost just under 400 euros.


The little man designated to help me in the shop was charming. Aware of my pathetic command of the language he jollied me along with baby talk, cheerfully advising on the correct oil and how much, the proper fuel, the need to charge the battery before it would start. Unusually I hadn’t chosen the last item in stock, so there was a cleanly boxed and sealed piece of merchandise to take to the checkout. Unfortunately it was on the top shelf of an extremely high storage area. He got the ladder and tried the box, he went and got a fork lift trolley and then he went and got another man to help and finally they got the box down.. He tenderly opened it and checked everything was in order, found me the instruction booklet and entreated me to read it well. After negotiating the checkout, where everyone advised me to retain my proof of purchase even the people in the queue, we tried to fit it in the car. Alas, that beautiful box was too much volume and all the parts had to be decanted around the boot and passenger areas. I don’t think we left anything behind.

Instructions for the engine are in English as well as 10 other languages. This is comforting, despite my little chevalier’s exhortations over the correct places for oil and fuel I shouldn’t like to get this wrong. Instructions for assembling the grass collector, stone guard and controls was in French translated from the Italian. I think I’ve got it right, there was a tiny circlip destined to secure the stone guard in place which pinged away from me as I tried to fit it. I can retrofit it if I ever find it, and for the time being at least the stone guard shows no sign of falling off. The grass box is two pieces of plastic that need to be clipped together to form a cat basket, I’m sure Bagheera will get more use out of it than we do.

Now all that is left to do is charge the battery. There is a small wall wart supplied which should do the job in 24 hours, I’m not sure I can wait that long, it’s all so exciting.

Tuesday 1 August 2006


Is a bit of a misleading title for this entry. It seems after 9 weeks of being here that almost no part of the journey has been definitively completed. We have had a party, house guests, time to ourselves and yet in all that time the few small indicators of change within the home environment have stagnated or even degraded.

The longest day has been and gone and the weather, which has been gloriously dramatic with enormous peaks of heat and magnificent explosions of storms, has become mundane. Today is windy, showery, neither warm enough for nakedness nor cold enough to make the cosyness of a fire appealing.

The toilet still runs on constantly wasting water, no repairs have been made to the cob or woodwork, the garden is weedy with the tomatoes succumbing to blight and the beans bent and snapped by the winds. The last huge electrical storms destroyed my new computer and I’ve lost mail and irreplaceable photographs unless Paul can recover the hard drive, the actual machine will almost certainly never run again as we think the motherboard is shot. I’m making do with an aged machine, unreliable and out of date which I’m unable to update over the modem line. The pleasure at being freed from slavery to the technological has been destroyed, replaced by anxiety over the risks of similar accidents and frustration with the noisy reduced facilities.

In short, it’s all very depressing. We find ourselves counting the days until I can return to England because the separation is dragging and demotivating but that is a failure in itself, wishing our summer away. I hope the wind stops soon, perhaps I’ll feel happier then.

Monday 24 July 2006

In the Garden

I’ve had friends Robin and Maggie Tredwell to stay for a few days. They are artists, bohemian, old friends and beachcombers and I’m going to have to shake Robin down before he leaves to retrieve any number of little objets trouvé and scrap metal from around the farmyard that ‘would make a great bit of sculpture for the next show’.

Having people here is an excuse to sit around in the sunshine and make dire predictions about the progression of the weather from tropical heat to tropical storm. Gratifyingly we had a humdinger of a storm with a continuous light and sound show and hail the size of ice cubes rattling on the corrugated iron roofs.

Part of the tourist trail is a trip to St. Lô Market, held every Saturday morning and comprising of all the usual market stalls packed with stuff from sweatshops worldwide, a fish, meat and dairy section and a surprising number of little old people each with a couple of rabbits or a handful of beans to sell for their supper. From a stall loaded down with bare rooted celeriac, laitues feuilles de chêne and cabbages we took a bunch of a 100 leeks for 5 euros to plant in the garden for next winter. The variety was Carentan, named for the nearby town where sand grown leeks and carrots are a major industry. The stallholder had another variety but I didn’t recognise it so went for familiarity, just like every other customer. The baby leeks are planted a little closely but should make fantastic soup to warm ourselves with in the cold.

sarpo mira

While planting the beans I noticed that one of the two potato plants had become diseased. The leaves were small and misshapen, and there was some die back. I suspected a virus but when I dug the plant found the stem was blackened and some of the new potatoes rotten. Blackleg, probably brought in on the tuber, bought from a retail outlet in Newport Pagnell. I would urge anyone contemplating growing potatoes to buy from a specialist source and to buy the highest quality of seed available. The so called disease free potatoes available from garden centres and DIY stores are at the bottom of a scale of seed potato grading and little better than a handful of eating spuds bought from a supermarket.

And for the one that got away – I was so busy attempting to capture the Painted Lady below that I waited too long before trying for a picture of a magnificent Silver Washed Fritillary browsing on the bramble flowers…


Monday 17 July 2006

I don’t like Mondays.

Mostly, that’s a lie. Monday is a great day, time to gird the loins and really get on with stuff. So that’s what I did, having sorted through the post yesterday into piles of rubbish, filing and to do, I picked up the to do pile and worked through it.

I had half a dozen letters to post and a cheque to pay into the bank at the end, just before lunch. There’s no point in flying in the face of convention, so I popped my neat pile into my handbag and took a three hour break with my book under the pear tree.

And at about 3 o’clock in the baking heat I started the little white car and trundled down to the village. We know the baker is shut on a Monday but so were the bank and the Post Office. There was no chance of stamps. Not even a vending machine but the cash machine was still working so I had some. So my immediate tasks delayed by 24 hours I jumped back into the car intending to go to Le Molay Littry , check out the Point Vert and fill up with petrol at the SuperU.

The car chose this moment to exhibit its occasional failure mode; an inability to stay running when half warm. There is no solution I’m aware of except to allow it 15 minutes to come to its senses. So I sat, and after a while I tried the engine. Then I sat some more. And tried the engine some more. Then I locked the car and got out, just because I had to.

The bar was shut, well, it would be, the rest of the town was dead, where would there be any customers, but the Epi grocers was not. Some relief, I bought a can of Canada Dry from the fridge and a dried up old baguette more as an excuse to stay in the cool than because I wanted them. Madame agreed with me that it was hot, very hot.

I went back to the car and got in, threatening the breakers and all the usual charms to solve its problems. Hurrah, we started.

I felt a run would do the car and me good, so we went to Molay Littry but because a refusal often offends and the car park of the Point Vert was entirely empty I didn’t chance it but headed straight to the petrol station at the supermarket. “24h/24h” screamed the signs and my card was good. With joyous heart I pulled up the pump to read a handwritten notice – out of Sans Plomb 95. Reversing I joined the queue for the pay at the kiosk pump – 2 minutes later I was facing the same sign.

Home was calling. I didn’t bother with garage at the Embranchement, their service is casual at the best of times and I was melting in the heat. I stopped the car in the shade and as I walked across the courtyard a butterfly that was undeniably a White Admiral pranced to meet me, nearly landed on my chest and then glided away insolently. Naturally by the time I had found my camera it was no longer in a mood for posing.

I’m utterly defeated. Back to the pear tree with a cold drink.

Sunday 16 July 2006

A Tale Too Far

The weather today is stunning, calm bright with the sort of heat that makes butterflies glide and blackbirds bask. The plan, such as there is one, is to sit under the pear tree barely dressed in a sarong and read but first there have been a couple of events here that are worth recording.

My problem is that the first is so horrific that readers of a sensitive disposition might suffer from nightmares after reading of it, so with reluctance, because it was not without humour within the terror I’ve decided to censor myself. If you really want to know then mail me, but I reserve the right to withhold the story if I think it will adversely affect your quality of life.

And so, moving on, the next catastrophe to strike started innocently enough. Paul has been making an all too brief visit this weekend and amongst the gifts he brought for me is a rather good quality water lily, a Barbara Davies, fragrant flowers of yellow flushed with red and suitable for shallow to medium depth pools. We planned to put it in the sheep dip pond. This artificial water feature is fed from the stream and the outflow forms part of the original privy plumbing. It’s a lovely spot with dragonflies, damsels, frog and newts, currently shaded by some Leylandii which will be coming down eventually.

We had rather more on our minds than gardening though and it wasn’t until the end of his 28 hours with me that we decided to plant the lily in its chosen spot. Suitably dressed in nothing at all and with Paul’s oversized wellies because mine have a leak, I stomped to the end of the pool with water lily in hand, stepped off the concreted edge and into what was apparently six inches of water. But my feet went down and down and eventually came to rest on firm ground a good two feet lower than expected. I was in the water up to what, in anticipation of a family audience, I can only describe as my leg pits. My noble lover and companion wet himself laughing and took several pictures, now suitably archived under lock and key, before offering to give me a hand out. Even then he was more interested in rescuing his wretched boots, now filled with six inches of sludge, than helping me regain terra firma.

At least we know the pond needs dredging now, and although the silt was brackish it didn’t smell badly or seem unhealthy so we’re reasonably sure the septic tank, wherever it is, doesn’t discharge into the pond. Barbara Davies was dispatched to the middle of the pool to find her own level. I think conditions should be perfect for her.

Other cheering news is that La Poste have finally come up with the goods, including post from the Notaire dating back to February and containing a welcome cheque for 438 euros, refund from the sale charges. I seem already to be on a Readers Digest mailing list and there are several irritated and irritating letters from various tax offices wanting to know our inside leg measurements (about a boot and half) before telling us how much money we’ll be owing them. I don’t know where they’d been hiding all this post until now but I commend them of their efficiency in keeping track of it over the last seven months.

Wednesday 12 July 2006

Wild Life

red admiral

There has been nothing like the structured approach to watching the wildlife I had hoped for. The best I can come up with for the time being is a list of things spotted, few of which have been confirmed with photos or other witnesses. Still, our presence here doesn't seem to be putting the non human inhabitants off too badly and with as low impact a lifestyle as we can manage I hope there will be plenty more opportunities to record the variety of lifeforms around here.

Insects are in abundance, plenty of ants and ladybirds, daddy longlegs, flies and other familiar sights but also mysterious creatures that defy identification, wispy flying hoverflies with improbably long protuberances, strange weevils, odd looking spiders. Some of the larger ones are very beautiful indeed, a rose chafer, iridescent green with white markings, the size of a 50p coin, huge stag beetles, a privet hawk moth, tiger moths, all sorts of butterflies including something newly hatched that was either a White Admiral or a Purple Emperor, I could only get a picture of the underside of its wings and need a better book to help me identify it accurately. I think it was the Emperor, if so only the second time I've ever seen one. Bees, wasps and hornets all too busy about their business to bother humans. Many sorts of dragonflies and damselflies, very difficult to photograph. We had a glow worm, flashing her lonely light for a mate. I don't know if she was lucky. And there are less desirable insects, the wood boring beetles, mosquitoes, midges and the wholly intolerable horsefly.

There are lizards and newts, frogs and already a toad has moved into my tree nursery to hunt slugs and worms. We saw a slow worm in the hay field under a piece of discarded black plastic and an adder, not here but in Ouville, which hurried into a vole hole to avoid us.

So many birds, we've had swallows since April and now they've been joined by house martins. Several sorts of wagtails, bluetits, greenfinches, goldfinches, chaffinches, bullfinches and sparrows. Blackbirds and thrushes, wrens, spotted flycatchers, crows and in the spring you could hear woodpeckers and cuckoos marking territories in the forest. Little brown birds I have no hope of identifying. We have a pair of buzzards, one day I saw three over the house, a big kestrel (we think) and one afternoon I'm sure there was a commando attack by a sparrow hawk over the courtyard but I've never seen him again. The barn owl is regularly out at night. Still no robin.

Apart from the coypu, which seemed to have moved on, there are deer. Red deer, who bark terrifyingly when startled and roe deer, much smaller. There is a feral cat and quantities of voles, providing food for owls. We haven't seen any boar, and that's not such a bad thing really nor any rabbits, which I think is surprising. Two types of bats, a small fast one that comes out when there is still a little light and a heavier type, that comes out when it is fully dark and makes sounds even I can hear. I'm sure there are other mammals but we've not seen any of them yet.