My life has come full circle. Many of my earliest memories come from Sandhutton, current population 260, where my mother was head teacher of a two-teacher school which educated all the village children between five and fifteen years old. These days I visit the village weekly – it’s less than ten miles away. The school no longer exists, but my Spanish teacher lives there.
When I was five, my life changed a bit. We went to live in London (current population 8.13 million).
I was a student in Manchester (538,000). Then I went on to live in Portsmouth, in Wakefield, in Sheffield, in Leeds: all cities numbering their citizens in the tens,or even hundreds of thousands. I loved city life. I relished the opportunities only a city could usually offer, and the diverse populations living in them.
Thornton’s Arcade in Leeds.
No, just …don’t. A shoe shop in Leeds.
When we moved to Harrogate, some twenty years ago, I announced we were moving to a small town. A mere 75,000 people lived there.
But that was before we went to France. Laroque d’Olmes has a population of some 2,000 people, and its county town, Foix, has only 10,000. We came to appreciate small town life: its neighbourliness and our sense of belonging – the space to appreciate the countryside and mountains beyond.
When we came back to England, that small town of Harrogate suddenly seemed horribly large, traffic-infested and in every way untenable, despite its green spaces and lively community life. So here we are in North Stainley, population 730.
In fact we’re not even in the village, but in a little enclave just outside, with that walled garden I showed you last week. Population 8. It’s perfect.
Shock! Horror! Unheard of! Today we could be found (a) watching day time television and (b) it was a cycling programme.
The Tour de France, to be exact. Normally we only display an interest in this or any other cycling event if it passes our front door: as it did twice when we lived in France, and once, in 2014, when memorably, the Tour began in Yorkshire.
Today however, stage 15 of this year’s Tour took place in the area we called home, the Ariège. We had to watch. The struggles of the cyclists passed us by as we grew nostalgic, even damp-eyed as familiar roads, familiar landscapes appeared on screen.
Foix: today’s almost-finishing point.
But as I watched, I was reminded of an incident that took place in Laroque, back in 2012.
Every year, just before the Tour, another cycling race takes place in the Ariège: L’Ariégeoise. It’s divided into three levels of difficulty: the Ariégeoise itself (160 km,3,500 m. of climbing), the Mountagnole (118 km, 2,500 m. of climbing) and for wimps, the Passejade, a mere 68 km, and 750 m. of climbing.
That year, the route passed our way. That year, the routes of the two main races parted company in Laroque. And that year, there were no signs to say so…. and nor were there special marshalls for the Mountagnards.
As the riders arrived at the crossroads in town , they didn’t know where to go. Ariégeoises followed Mountagnards. Mountagnards followed Ariégeoises. It was hopeless. Riders tried to turn round, collided with those behind them, swore, and swore again as they saw their hard-won perfect timings being swallowed up in the chaos. With extraordinary presence of mind, I shot some video footage.
I heard later that following the event, the race organisers used my little clip for training purposes, to demonstrate How Not To Organise a Cycling Event. I’m guessing it’s part of every year’s Tour de France training too. That’s why it always runs so smoothly.
Everyone knows I’m a Christmas Refuser. Oh, I enjoy Christmas alright. I made our cake weeks ago, and Malcolm and I regularly ‘feed’ it with doses of brandy to make sure it’s good and sozzled. I’ll happily rehearse Christmas music at choir too.
But that’s about it. I do an about turn in any shop belting out Christmas Muzac and leave immediately. I haven’t bought a single card or present, nor shall I until …. oh…. about the end of next week . Then it’ll all get done in a flurry of cheerful activity, and I’ll enjoy it, because I haven’t been thinking about it since September.
Then the other day, I came across this six-years-old blog post, written in France. Simpler times, simpler customs. I wonder how often the window displays I wrote about here are seen these days? Innocent pleasures….
December 9th, 2012
Christmas on the High Street
It was 5 years ago when we were first in Laroque round about Christmas time. There were no signs of its coming until well into December, and we thought it wonderful: no decorations, no adverts, merchandise or muzak, just a bustle of festive activity from about two or three weeks beforehand.
The first signs, as in England, were in the shops. Unlike England however, most shopkeepers didn’t usually buy tinsel, baubles, and several packs of cotton wool to introduce a Christmas theme into their window display. Instead they had a seasonal design applied directly to the window. We once saw a scene-painter busily decorating a local window, and wondered what he did the rest of the year. Shops in small town high streets like Laroque’s would all be unified by being the same but different. The same folksy interpretations of Christmas motifs, the same limited palettes of white, red, greens and yellows. Some would choose scenes of reindeer amongst the Christmas tree forests, others Father Christmas, snowmen, or radiant candles.
Five years on, hardly any shopkeepers are keeping up this tradition. They’re decorating their shops, but in their own way: dressing up their window display with baubles, snowflakes and Santa Claus figures. They’re nicely done too, but I miss the particularly French idea, which I’ve seen nowhere else.
Here are the few traditional window scenes I’ve been able to find this year. Maybe next year even these will be part of the past.
Goodness. Who’d be a British citizen at the moment? We’re in need of good cheer. And I’ve found some, in a post I wrote from Laroque in November, seven years ago. Times were much simpler then …. read on.
Little Donkey: An Everyday Story of Country Folk:November 26th 2011
Every now and then, in among all the banns of marriage and planning notices on the information board at the town hall here in Laroque, there’s a poster about a stray dog that’s been found. Not cats or hamsters. Just dogs.
Last week, though, my eye was caught by this:How does anyone lose a donkey? And what do you do with it whilst you put out an appeal for the owner? ‘Oh he’s fine’, said Thierry, our Community Copper, ‘We’ve put him to work in the office in the Mairie’. I decided against saying the obvious, that he would be bound to be doing a far better job than the Mayor.
It took a week for his owner to show up. He – the donkey that is – had an exciting time. First of all he was rounded up by the three blokes who first spotted him in the road just outside town, but who had no idea how to set about the job. Then he was frisked for tattoos or identity chips. None. Next he was sent to stay with our friend Henri’s donkeys (Thierry was fibbing about the office work). That had to stop when Henri’s female donkey got all excited at the new arrival and came on heat. Then he went to stay with the vet’s partner. He escaped. Amateur detectives all over Laroque and Lavelanet tried to find out where he came from. Eventually, after a week, his owner showed up, really rather cross. ‘Why didn’t anyone think to get in touch with me?’
There we are. That’s our excitement for November over.
For non-British readers: Little Donkey is a Christmas song much favoured by UK muzak producers at this time of year. One reason to avoid shopping there during November and December. Whereas ‘an everyday day story of country folk’ is ‘The Archers’, a daily radio soap opera full of story lines such as the one above. It’s been a permanent part of the BBC schedules since 1951. You could join the fan club.
My last post showed a sunrise over Corrèze. This is the sunset from our friends’ house in Laroque d’Olmes. You can’t see the Pyrenees from here, but the foothills, the Plantaurel.
Here’s the view from town.
Lovely as it is to see our friends (five hour lunch, eating, drinking, talking and laughing on a shaded terrace anyone?), Laroque has been a horrible disappointment.
Since we left, quelquespetitscommerces have closed. InterMarché has come to town. And McDonald’s. They’re building a Lidl, so I took a picture of the town through the webbing and netting of the building site. It’s not a small town any more. It’s one of those out-of-town roads lined with out-of-town stores. I’m just glad we no longer live here.
This is the last Snapshot Saturday. WordPress has decided to discontinue its weekly photographic challenges. I’m a bit sad about this. It’s been fun tussling with choosing images for each week’s idea, and through it, I’ve ‘met’ fellow-bloggers and made virtual visits to all parts of the globe.
This week, we’ve been invited to bow out by posting our all-time favourite shots. That’s far too difficult. Instead, I’m taking you to the Ariège in France, where my blogging journey began when we lived there for some years, and offering you some favourite shots from there.
A less snowy day near Foix.
Montségur one snowy March day.
Montségur, our nearby landmark and Cathar stronghold, one misty morning in July.
One super-dramatic sunset at Laroque d’Olmes.
Just outside Laroque d’Olmes, our home town.
Snowy days near Montferrier.
Walking in the Aude, there were vineyards, always vineyards.
Another view from le Cap du Carmil.
Another much missed treat. Shared meals in the sunshine, with old friends and new. This is in Mirepoix.
Views from le Cap du Carmil in June. Still snowy on the peaks.
Tabariane, near Mirepoix.
Le lac de Montbel, our nearby water playground.
The summer solstice at Montségur.
Springtime in the Dolomies, near Foix.
The Pyrenees viewed from Saint Julien de Gras-Capou.
The best of times. Picnicking at lunchtime on our regular Sunday walks. Shared food, shared wine, shared landscapes.
I’ve shown these photos before. I’ve even shown them in a previous WordPress Photo Challenge. But I’ll never forget this February sunset from a few years ago in Laroque d’Olmes. ‘Dramatic’ doesn’t seem an overstatement here.
This is my contribution to this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge inviting shots of a sunrise or sunset. Click on any image to view full size.
We had quite an arresting sunset the other night. As with all sunsets, it was evanescent: here at one moment and gone the next. I’ll show it to you at the end of the post, together with the rainbow that briefly accompanied it in a rainless sky.
That sunset though reminded me of another sunset, even more dramatic, which we experienced in France in February 2014. Evanescent it might have been. But it’s etched in my memory forever.
Now then. Here’s our English sunset, from just a couple of weeks ago. Which do you prefer?
We’re just back from France. Specifically, we’re just back from Laroque d’Olmes, the town which we left exactly a year ago, and which for six and a half years, we called home.
We felt anxious about this trip. What would we feel? Would we find we’d made a horrible mistake in leaving Laroque? Would our now rusted and un-exercised French measure up to a week or more of more-or-less constant use? Would people want to see us as much as we wanted to see them?
What actually happened was that for the first few days, we barely had time to think at all. As soon as we got there, we were launched into A Social Diary. We’d have lunch here with one set of friends, our evening meal there with another. We’d slot other friends in for morning coffee, or afternoon tea. One morning we even commandeered the local bar and held court there, in order to catch up with people whom we couldn’t see in any other way. We started to flag. We simply couldn’t keep up the pace.
And luckily, we didn’t have to. Saturday was the day the walking group had suggested we set aside for them. The planned ‘rando’ had to be kicked into touch because of the promise of rain and wind. Instead, a dozen or so of us walked for a couple of hours whilst Jean-Charles, as clerk-of-works, organised a team to transform a roofed shelter outside the church in nearby Fajou into a banqueting hall. As ever, this turned into a magical occasion in which home-made tarts and pies, home-cured sausage, cheeses, bread, wine, more wine, cakes and puddings of every kind were crowded onto picnic tables for us all to feast upon as we gossiped and sang and reminisced, trying not to notice the cold and wind only inches away from us. It felt as if we’d never been away. Part of our time was spent making plans for the group to visit us here in Yorkshire. Watch this space!
Malcolm’s been lent an Ariegeois beret, and here we both are with our friend and hostess, Tine at the end of the feast.
It’s the south of France, it’s Easter Saturday, it’s freezing… but really, we ARE having fun.
The walk home afterwards. It’s suddenly got sunny.
After that, life became so much more leisurely. Lunch in Foix on Easter Sunday with friends, then a lazy Easter Monday with our hosts, getting sunburnt in the garden, cooking and eating the traditional Omelette de Pâques.
It’s memories of all those moments with friends that we bring home with us. Memories too of the much-loved scenery of the foothills of the Pyrenees. Would we return there to live? Not a chance. Laroque itself is going through very tough times, and it shows. The shop, the once-thriving music centre, children’s services – all are struggling. Some of our French friends commented that perhaps we could have made our lives easier by not getting ourselves involved in day-to-day life there, and they could have a point. We plugged into the local networks that talked and acted against corruption here, services closing there, money talking somewhere else, when instead we could have been sitting in our little bubble on a sun-dappled terrace drinking wine and sun-bathing. But by getting involved, we hope we made friends for life, and understood a little more about the society we briefly became part of. But never fully part of. Our very different background, our lack of real understanding of certain basics of French culture left us always feeling to some extent outsiders, however much we were accepted and made to feel at home. It feels as if this is the right time to be involved in life in England once more.
And anyway, who could bear to be anywhere else but here when the daffodils are in bloom?