Thursday, 23 March 2006

Telephones and Trees

One of the things that failed to happen on the last trip was the reconnection of the telephone line. I'd written to France Telecom but had no reply - it seemed that all the stories about the inefficiency of the organisation were true. However, yesterday I finally got round to opening the stack of post that has accumulated by our front door over the last month. And there was a bill from France Telecom, showing that the line had been connected since the 28th Feb. So I could have phoned home after all. I won't publish the number here but interested parties can apply for it and as soon as we connect a telephone to the socket calls will be made.

Last weekend we made a trip to Buckingham Nurseries where they have a large hedging and bare root tree section. It was bitterly cold and we didn't want to stop outside long. Since the next foray is not yet planned it seemed pointless to buy hundreds of baby plants that would have to be potted up but we couldn't resist starting our collection with some of the trees that will form the backbone of our hedges and coppice. We bought small leaved lime, sweet chestnut, english elm, copper beech, cornelian cherry, myrobalan plum, black stemmed dogwood, wild pear and hornbeam, just two of each. We also asked for two wild cherries but although we paid for them they weren't in the bundle we were given. We also bought a potted liquidamber. They have a wonderful selection there. I was particularly taken with a red stemmed lime, Tilia platyphyllos Rubra, and will probably get one of these next season along with hundreds of hawthorn and blackthorn for the hedges.

Thursday, 16 March 2006

Herbs

This is a list of the herbs I intend to plant in the herb garden this year. I have cuttings, plants or seeds of nearly all of them here and I've grown all of them in the past. It will form the basis of a collection that I hope to add to when it's possible to spend enough time in France to care for properly.

Shrubby - These plants are perennial and structural. They are destined to make an informal hedge around the plot

icedsage

Bay - Well known aromatic. There is already a large tree by the house.
Curry Plant - Mediterranean silver leaved. Lovely smell, not much good for cooking.
Lavender - Lots of varieties. I keep buying tender ones and killing them.
Myrtle - Pretty flowers, strange musky fruits.
Oregano - Essential, needs very sunny spot.
Rosemary - I have six varieties, Miss Jessops, a white flowered one, one described as ‘ginger’ which is probably some other variety entirely, a couple of prostrate versions and a pink flowered.
Rue - Don’t actually have this at the moment but it’s pretty and poisonous.
Sage - Lots of sage, seedlings of the plain variety and cuttings of the purple.
Wormwood - Wormwood also comes in many sorts. I don’t think I have any at the moment but will obtain Artemisias ludoviciana, absinthium, and abrotanum.

Annual - I usually grow the annual herbs in the vegetable plot but that isn’t going to be possible this year as there isn’t one yet.

borage

Basil - Really best in a greenhouse but we’ll try some in a sheltered spot
Borage - This self seeds beautifully once it’s got started.
Chervil - Considered an essential fine herbe this isn’t something I would normally bother with.
Coriander - Needs sowing little and often. Goes to seed very easily.
Dill - Doesn’t like disturbances.
Lambs lettuce - M√Ęche – great winter salading.
Landcress - Spicy and easy to grow, for autumn and spring.
Mustard - Various forms of mustard leaves to add to salads.
Parsley - Flat and curled.
Perilla - The Japanese herb. I find it very difficult to grow against all received wisdom.
Purslane - The thick fleshy summer sort. Fantastic salad vegetable.
Rocket - Everyone’s favourite. Can be tough.
Winter Purslane - Easy winter salad, self seeds and is very hardy.

Biennial

angelica

Angelica - Easy to grow, quite boring to candy but structural.
Caraway - Takes two years to come to seed, always a problem for bed rotations.

Perennial

elecampane

Alecost - Costmary, Bible leaf. Not good for much but I’m fond of it.
Buckler leaved sorrel - I may have lost this, but it’s easy to restart from seed.
Calamint - Shy little herbs, pleasant fragrance, not good for much.
Catmint - This lasts no time at all unless heavily protected.
Chives - Standard stuff. One might add Chinese chives and ramsons in the fullness of time.
Comfrey - Three types of this to move, a Russian blue flowered version, some very vigorous plants from the allotments (basically wild) and a cultivated form that I took from my sister’s garden after she died.
Elecampane - Traditional medicinal herb, striking appearance and Paul’s favourite.
Fennel (bronze) - Pretty and good for bees. Self seeds.
Fennel (green) - Also pretty. Leaves are good in salads if chopped fairly finely.
Horse Radish - Should really be in the veg patch.
Hyssop - These don’t last long but are pretty while they do.
Lemon Balm - Nice enough lemony scent to the leaves but very invasive.
Liquorice - Tender, a novelty. I don’t have any and may not bother this year.
Lovage - A great big bully of a plant, eight feet tall with a great flavour in tiny doses.
Mint - My mints are in disarray. I can probably collect up spearmint, eau de cologne and apple mints but the rest of the collection has gone west.
Salad Burnet - Hardly worth the effort.
Savory - Another in thyme class. Maybe it will like French soil better because it's a useful flavouring.
Sorrel - Easy and great.
Sweet Cicely - My favourite. Looks like cow parsley, liquorice taste to the leaves and seeds. Flowers early.
Tarragon - Mine may have died even though it was in the greenhouse this winter.
Thyme - Not one of my better efforts but we’ll keep trying.
Woodruff - Another woodland groundcover with hay scent and uses in May.

Odds - Don’t really fall into any of the other categories for cultivation purposes.

marigold

Agastache - These are very short lived but wonderfully aromatic.
Babington Leek - A curiosity, never had enough yet to cook them.
Bergamot - This should last a long time but doesn’t for me.
Good King Henry - A chenopod with little to recommend it above others except it is perennial.
Marigold - Like nasturtiums an edible flower. Petals can be used for colouring too. I grow them because they are very attractive.
Potato onion - First year for these collected from HDRA Heritage Seeds group.
Rhubarb - really a vegetable.

Wednesday, 15 March 2006

Dear Diary

When Xtal and Roy were visiting the farm with me in February Xtal discovered a diary tucked away by the fireplace in the building, hovel3, that I plan to make into chambres d'hote. It's a pocket diary, dated 1958, green leatherette with a metal clasp and each day has been completed in pencil.


Diary of a farmer

It's going to be difficult to translate, old fashioned french handwriting, none too neat and of course in colloquial french of the period. Still we have to give it a go. The name is Anne Auguste, this doesn't seem to be any relation to the Lesaulnier-Turmet clan from whom we bought the property. I think we could probably find out more about the previous owners if we applied to the notaire, I'm told they are obliged by law to keep information like this for 400 years although the wartime bombing is often cited as the reason any particular document cannot be retrieved.

Not many of the personal details have been filled in - Anne (and I'm not even sure whether this is male or female) takes shoe size 42 (7.5 -8 in UK sizes). Pretty big for a woman but not unbelievable. As well as the diary there are four extra notes retained at the back. A Dog's Prayer, an insert from a dose of Brucellosis vaccine and two scraps with notes on. One seems to be quantities for a batch of jam, the other defies interpretation for now.

The entry for Janvier Mecredi 1, Circoncision reads as far as I can determine:
J'ai fait des billets et faire cuivre du pomme de terre
conflane est parti se promener
beau temps


which translates easily enough but doesn't quite seem to make sense. I think conflane is a name, it's used in several entries but it's not a name I'm familiar with. More research needed.

Something which confirms what we've been told is that the writer gives her address as village de la Rupallerie indicating that the properties may have been inhabited by several families and not just one extended group.

Anyway, translation of this early form blog will continue, more to come later.

Sunday, 12 March 2006

The Great Primrose Hunt

All over Normandy the hedgerows are springing thick with dainty yellow primroses reflecting the weak winter sun. In fact in the warmer west they've been out since December but that's not important right now. Surely, on our wildlife haven and untouched paradise there would be plenty of these delightful little wild flowers to brighten the boundaries.

primroses

Well, you'd think so, wouldn't you but there's nothing very obvious so I set off to beat the bounds and track them down.

The walk around the edge of out 9.5 ha is about 2km according to some back of an envelope calculations made last year. Primroses are fond of the hedges, nestle on banks and eschew the stronger light. If there were going to be any they would be colonising the borders of the forest.

I think they must be deer food. I saw nary a one despite most carefully inspecting each metre of way, no flowers, no leaves. Other plants were present if not abundant. Broom and Butcher's broom, gorse, foxgloves near the haybarn and a lone euphorbia which I have yet to identify precisely. It's disappointing. I doubt there are bluebells in the wood and if there are no primulas either then spring will be sadly lacking its usual prettinesses.

Waiting for the water man I started to dig the area allocated for herbs. I managed to clear a patch of about 4 sq. metres and covered a further area with some black plastic salvaged from the barn. I was pleased to find that the earth turned easily and there were no obvious buried bones or cess pits. It should make a fine herb garden when planted up and I must take inventory of the plants propagated and destined for export.

From Ouville's front garden I transplanted four oak trees to La Rupallerie's hedgerows. Three were placed in the line where we plan to re-establish a hedge that has been destroyed over time and the last into the boundary hedge with next door. I hope they will survive, oak trees don't like being moved much although we have successfully replanted a couple before. The cold weather is actually a benefit from this point of view, keeping the trees sleepy and sedated during the trauma.

While I was digging them up I dislodged a clump of primroses and took them with me to remedy the lack in the forest. I feel it's important not to disrupt the local environment too much or too quickly and since there is a small garden by the main house with a few cultivated plants of hydranga, camellia and iris along with the obligatory bay tree I decided to pop them into the contained area with the other exotics. And then I found the other primrose!

Saturday, 11 March 2006

Wildlife again

frog spawn

you really need to view the original to get a clear idea of just how much frog spawn that is! I thought it was great to have a tyre full of the stuff a few weeks ago, now the whole drainage ditch is full of it. Hope they can hatch and swim away before the water dries up again.

So, on my last trip to the Rupallerie I found a lot of frog eggs, obviously and sadly they were the only things to sit still long enough to get their pictures taken. However, on the first day I managed to brave the roads and get over there (Friday 3rd March) I saw deer. Four of them, roe deer I think, but I'm going to have to get some travelling binoculars and a camera that's faster on the draw to have any chance of confirming my tentative identifications. The deer headed off across the fields and into the forest on the far side from the house. The same day I saw a grey heron, just sitting around in the field looking for frogs. He took off when he saw me but didn't go far and I found him again in the other field on my way home. Beautiful big bird, but no pictures!

I went back on the Saturday and the heron was there again. From the corner of my eye there was a glimpse of the barn owl, disturbed by my approach and flapping off in a disgruntled way to sit high in the trees.

Monday and I had to be there from early because the water man was coming to turn me on (fnarr, fnarr). Actually he didn't, he didn't turn up all day but the early start wasn't wasted as I saw an otter.

I'm sure it was an otter. Of course, he was a distance away, in the corner of the field where the river leaves the land and the wild mespilus lives, eating something and concentrating intently on it. I watched for about five minutes and then decided no one would believe me if I didn't get a picture so I went for the camera. When I got back he had gone - or maybe there was a flash of him for a few seconds in the hedgerow but no photo call.

We have a buzzard, there are lot of birds of prey in Normandy and so this isn't unexpected but nice to have it confirmed that one is living nearby. Other birds, well, there was a flash of blue I thought could have been a kingfisher but after seeing the otter I didn't trust my vision too well. There are plenty of more common birds, blackbirds, sparrows, starlings, bluetits and coaltits but I didn't see a robin at all, even when I was digging. I think that means the place has been abandoned for so long that the robins have gone back to town. They always seem more prevalent in the comforts of gardens than the wilds. Woodpeckers are busy in the forest but so too were the woodcutters and the crash of falling trees was worryingly close. I hope we still have a forest when I go back next.

Friday, 10 March 2006

Travelling

It has been noted before that I wasn't looking forward to the journey, it really is the getting there that does it for me.

Still, I left on Wednesday morning (1/3/06) well stocked up with wood and warm clothes and a reasonable grasp of the route to Poole. The journey down along the A34 went fairly well although the last eleven miles from Ringwood to Poole must qualify as the longest ever spanning about 18 miles by my count. Poole is a pain too, the car ferry is clearly marked from miles out but as soon as you hit the centre all the signs disappear except for a tiny arrow indicating Port Visitors. Well, I wasn't visiting was I, so around the roundabout I went a few times, eventually settling in the new Asda carpark which was much more adequately indicated. There was nothing there for me, so back to visit the Port. And lo and behold, a ferry terminal. I was only an anxious two hours too early and with Sherlock Holmes and a naff cup of coffee from the kiosk settled down first in the queue.

There was a flurry of hail just as we were being inspected in the security sheds, a very thorough inspection incidentally; it's the first time I've ever been asked if I was carrying scissors onto the ferry in my handbag (!), but I thought little of it because I was heading south. And four and half hours later we disembarked from the scary upper deck on stilts arriving safely in France.

It was dark, but I could remember which side of the road to drive on, and knowing the way so well was soon on the excessively long link road from the port to the N13. The terrain rises steeply from the sea and by the time I'd reached the aptly named La Glacerie I could see slush and few flakes of snow. I pressed on grimly, driving, at night, in France, in the snow, so many things I hate and avoid and they'd all turned out to join me.

Around the roundabout onto the main road proper and immediately chaos, there was a car in the ditch attended by blue flashing rescuers and the unsalted road was thick with confused Frenchmen unable to exercise the machismo given to them as the chosen road users of god being tamely led along by more blues. Acutely aware of the lack of tread on my tyres I followed the jostling, uneasy crowd and was nearly forced off the road by the gritting lorry looming large and irresistible. Still the salt was welcome and as the altitude dropped away from the hill of Cherbourg the road cleared. I thought I was home and dry.

Cannily, I reasoned that the almost permanently closed road through Lessay which ordinarily I would have chanced (road blocks in France almost always seem to get moved overnight) wouldn't have received any treatment so I bowled on down to Carentan and turned right for the road to bed. How foolish was that? The snow which had clearly been elsewhere on a visit remembered its main task, fell large and soft on my windscreen and settled snuggly on the road surface, pre chilled and smooth. In moments my speed was reduced to a crawl as I racked my brain for Jeremy Clarkson type information on driving in adverse conditions. There was no help there so I settled for a steady 30 miles an hour and hoped the snow would find someone else to torment. Many smug bastards in huge four wheel drive jeeps roared past me but my little Rover struggled on and I became more and more panicked. Once or twice I thought I was going to lose it completely as the traction went and we started to slip from side to side but luck rather than judgement regained the road and on we continued.

I don't think I have ever, truthfully, ever been so scared for so long in my life. I didn't know what to do, driving in a straight line towards a killer upward hill on a bend before plunging downhill into the valley where I planned to spend the night in the little house in Ouville. I knew it couldn't be done and finally when passing a lighted bar at about 10:30 p.m. pulled over and made a dramatic entrance. Hysteria gave my french eloquence "Madam" I cried, "are there any chambre d'hotes around here, there is so much snow and I'm so afraid. I can't drive anymore" and I fear I may have sobbed a bit too.

The patrons were slightly taken aback. They hadn't realised it was quite so bad but Madam was kind and got down the telephone directory. Various options were discarded, I believe some the businesses may have already failed, but on establishing I had a working french credit card the local Etap Hotel was contacted. Many assurances that it was just a couple of Km down the road failed to convince me and finally a kind gentleman undertook to lead the way, which is just as well because even in daylight I couldn't find it again when I went back. He rang the entryphone bell, the huge compound gate was opened and I reached safety at last.

It was actually o.k. as formula hotels go, warm, cheap, freshly built so reasonably clean. After a night trying to calm my still palpitating heart the weather seemed improved so I stocked up for a siege at Leclerc and finally reached home about 24 hours after I left Newport Pagnell.

It's difficult to overestimate the effect driving in snow has had on me, twice I was about to leave the house when a few flakes drifted down and I rushed back inside and as far away from the car as possible. Still, eventually I had to do what I had come for and successfully made various small trips backwards and forwards to la Rupallerie and to visit the Cat Lady so that I could explain her website to her.
Cat Refuge site

So time passed and the day for my return to England dawned, soggy and rain drenched with a soft Irish feel, quite pleasant after the icy chills of the preceding week. I cleaned the house, cleaned myself and stepped out to start the car. Which didn't. It just sat, engine turning on the starter until the battery was flat without a spark of ignition. This isn't a new behaviour, I just wasn't expecting it. I dried the leads, sprayed Easystart up the air intake, recharged the battery from an interesting cable made of several extension leads cobbled together with an English/French conversion connector at the end and wrapped around with old compost bags to prevent the persistent moisture from penetrating the joints and tried again. No joy. And so, as they say, to cut a very boring story short, it persisted for another two days.

I ran out of wood, gas, books to read and patience. I spent the time in bed to keep warm and fulminated. And on Thursday when I should have been at the National Gallery with my friend Maggie the sun finally came out. And the car started.

Home now, and this journey which was supposed to empower me with confidence in my simple abilities has proved a number of things but I'm not sure what they are yet. Maybe it'll come to me.