Flashback Friday Looks Skywards

Eight years ago, none of us knew that five years later, our local tracks – the only ones permitted to us during our Lockdown Daily Exercise – would become almost as familiar to us as our own garden path. This is a post I wrote about a nearby walk on January 27th 2015, when I thought that I’d seen all there was to be seen locally. I was wrong as it happened, and later realised how very much more there was to discover when Lockdown provided the incentive. For Fandango’s Flashback Friday.

Only Sky

The days are short
The sun a spark
Hung thin between
The dark and dark.


John Updike, 'January', A Child’s Calendar

A bright winter’s afternoon.  Just time, before the evening cold sets in, to get out for a couple of hours of brisk walking: 5 miles or so along familiar paths.  So familiar that this time, I focus on the sky: changeable, unpredictable.

Sometimes it’s moody, sometimes cheerful, sometimes simply rather grey and colourless: at other times dramatic, particularly towards sunset.  Come and walk with me to watch the clouds.

Three favourite photos?

Choose my three favourite photos? What kind of a task is that? Hopeless, I’d say, because so many favourites rely on the memories that surround them, that only matter to those who shared the moments.

But Sarah, of Travel with Me fame, has asked us to do just that for this week’s Lens-Artists Photo Challenge.

Anyway. Let’s go. This photo dates from years ago, when we lived in France, and once, just once, there was an astonishing and dramatic sunset which we’ve never forgotten, even ten years after the event.

You can perhaps guess from the cross on the right that we’re looking up at the churchyard on the hill above the town, edged with the heavily pollarded plane trees you can see silhouetted against the sky.

Living as now we do near Ripon, we have two ‘back yards’. One is Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, where I volunteer. And the other encompasses the paths, fields and woodland near our home.

Because I’m so often in both these places, I’ve been able to photograph them in every season, and at every time of day. Here’s an autumn favourite of Fountains Abbey.

I like how the beech leaves frame Huby’s Tower, while their warm russet tints contrast with the austere grey of the abbey’s stonework.

Meanwhile, during the summer months I like to photograph the drifts of poppies in the fields of crops near our house. It was hard to choose just one, but in the end I settled for this one. I like the poppies tumbling about in the foreground, set against the much more organised stems of wheat in their vertical serried ranks.

Ask me to choose three favourites tomorrow though, and you can bet they’d be entirely different shots.

Monday Portrait meets Post from the Past

With what joy we greeted the lizards we encountered on our recent Balkan Journey! How we miss the companions who shared our daily life in France, during the summer months, at least.

Here‘s what I wrote about them, ten whole years ago:

Summer’s arrived: well, this week anyway.  So from before breakfast until long after the evening meal we’re spending as much time as we can out in the garden.  And we have plenty of company.  Lizards.  Common wall lizards, podarcis muralis.  They are indeed spectacularly common here.  We have no idea exactly where they live, but there are plenty who call our garden ‘home’.  We’re beginning to get to know a few.

Easily the most identifiable is Ms. Forktail, she of the two tails.  She’s the only one we’ve been able to sex conclusively as well, because we caught her ‘in flagrante’ with Mr. Big behind the gas bottles recently.  And then the next day she was making eyes at a younger, lither specimen, and the day after that it was someone else.  She’s lowering the moral tone of our back yard.

Then there’s Longstump, who’s lost a tiny portion of tail, and Mr. Stumpy, who hasn’t got one at all, though it seems not to bother him.  Redthroat has a patch of crimson under her chin.  There are several youngsters who zip around with enthusiasm and incredible speed.

Longstump

In fact they all divide their time between sitting motionless for many minutes on end, and suddenly accelerating, at top speed and usually for no apparent reason, from one end of the garden to the other, or vertically up the wall that supports our young wisteria. On hot days like this  (36 degrees and counting) they’ll seem to be waving at us.  Really they’re just cooling a foot, sizzled on the hot wood or concrete.  Sometimes you’ll see them chomping their way through some insect they’ve hunted, but often they’ll step carelessly and without interest over an ant or other miniature creepy-crawly in their path.

‘Our’ lizards on their personal sun-loungers

Mainly they ignore one another, but sometimes there are tussles.  These may end with an uneasy standoff, or with the two concerned knotted briefly together in what could scarcely be described as an act of love.

Happy hour for Longstump

We could spend hours watching them, and sometimes we do.  But there is still a bathroom to build, a workroom to fit out, and a pergola to design.  The kings and queens of the yard have no such worries.  They can do anything: they choose not to.

From the Pennines to the Pyrenees

You’d have to have been following me a long time to know why I call my blog ‘From Pyrenees to Pennines‘. I began writing it in 2007, to record our big adventure in moving to the foothills of the French Pyrenees, to a small town, Laroque d’Olmes whose glory days as a textile manufacturing centre were long over, and where we were (almost) the only English . There we stayed till 2014, involving ourselves in local life from politics to choirs to walking groups, and falling ever deeper in love with the Pyrenees which formed the background to our lives.

Through the walking groups we came to know the mountains in every season. The abundance of meadow flowers and orchids in the spring: the relief from lowland heat in the summer: rich autumn colours that could compete with any on the planet, and deep snow in winter. We welcomed the physical challenge of yomping upwards to some high peak or plateau, and earning our panoramic picnic, and learnt to respect the mountains’ moods.

Here’s a selection of virtual postcards, which may help explain why the Pyrenees will always remain for us our Special Place.

And finally …

The view from our roof terrace. Going up to hang out the washing was no hardship.

For Karina’s Lens-Artists Photo Challenge #188: A Special Place

Start Walking – Keep Walking!

I’ve only been a walker – a proper walker, yomping over moor and mountain, hill and dale – for the last fifteen years or so. It happened when we went to live in France. What better way to discover the secret paths of the Pyrenees, and get to know our French neighbours, and improve our French too, than join the local walking group?

So we did. At first it was les Randos de’Aubo in nearby Mirepoix. We explored the foothills and higher slopes of the Pyrenees, we investigated the nearby Aude, and enjoyed the fellowship of scouting new paths together. What I remember most was the achievement of climbing, climbing, often through seven or eight hundred metres before lunch, while constantly rewarded by mountain views, colourful plant life and changing vistas. Because of these calorie-busting achievements, we might walk as few at five or six miles. But it was harder – much harder – than walking ten to twelve miles round here, and I know I couldn’t do it now. But after the effort, there was a shared picnic lunch with a splendid view thrown in, a downhill walk back to base, and a convivial drink, in whatever bar was to hand near the end of our walk.

On Thursdays I went walking with a smaller group – mainly women – who’d got to know each other either through walking or singing together – I ticked both boxes.

Then we were among the founders of the walking group that developed in our own community, Laroque d’Olmes. We had the confidence by then to offer to reconnoitre and lead walks ourselves. And this group had even better picnic ideas than the last one. Marcel, our local butcher brought sausage to share, as did a local amateur charcuterie enthusiast Michel. Sylvie’s daughter was a sheep farmer, so she’d bring along sheep’s cheese. Someone brought a few baguettes, Yvette and I always had homemade cake. Jean-Charles had a bottomless bottle of wine in his rucksack. And everyone brought sugar lumps. Sugar lumps? Well, yes. Someone or other would bring a bottle of grandfather’s home-made digestif, heavy on alcohol and locally harvested fruit, and would dribble just a few drops of it onto your sugar lump for you to finish off your feast in style. And we would sit for an hour or more, chatting and relaxing before continuing our hike. I miss those moments as much as I miss the countryside and mountain views we shared together.

Now we’re in our local walking group here in Yorkshire. Again, we wanted to discover Yorkshire better by walking its footpaths. At midday, we eat our own pack of sandwiches and that’s that. But the comradeship is as good as it was in France.

Since lockdown, I’ve appreciated the pleasures of walking alone. Undistracted by companions, I notice the sounds around me – the calling birds, the running water, the sighing wind, and observe more closely the changing seasons. While I’ll always enjoy a walk with a friend, I suspect that my love of solitary walking will continue.

It was Amy who invited us to Keep Walking! for this week’s Lens-Artists’ Photo Challenge #143. Thanks for this opportunity to indulge in a spot of nostalgia, Amy.

Flashback Friday: Malcolm and the Microlight

We’re going back eleven years today: not to Malcolm’s actual birthday, which is In The Bleak Midwinter, but to an April day when we were still living in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and when a bunch of amateurs – the friends and family of Malcolm – formed an impromptu production company to deliver, for one day only – Malcolm and the Microlightto celebrate his birthday.

Malcolm and the Microlight

23rd April 2010

… celebrating in style for a 70th birthday

Starring Malcolm and Jacques.

Director: Henri

Producer: Margaret

Assistant Producers: Léonce & Brigitte

Script: Malcolm

Wardrobe: Jacques

Shot on location in the Ariège by Jacques, Malcolm & Margaret.

A Lawrenson-Hamilton-Clift Production MMX

Jacques’ microlight

‘Curiously, I had no feelings of fear or apprehension, perhaps because of what our friends had told us about Jacques, the pilot, and his machine – it’s his pride and joy, and he takes great care of it.

There was a sharp feeling of exposure after take-off – we were not in a cabin, there was no protection from wind, we were just vulnerable beings in a powered shell under a giant wing – it reminded me of riding pillion on a motorbike, but this was in the air.

Malcolm in the bright morning air

The various destinations came up quickly – not like travelling on the ground, even though our speed was only about 80-85 kph.

Over the mountain peaks, it was very cold – temperature had fallen from 13 or so on take-off to minus 1 over the snowfields and the flat white surfaces of isolated frozen lakes were still clearly to be seen.  And suddenly, directly underneath, a herd of Pyrenean chamois, running and leaping, disturbed by the engine’s sudden sound in their snow-quiet world

A few minutes more and we were at 2600 metres, when the mountains seemed so empty and cold, even in the lovely morning sunlight.   We could see long distances in the clear air at this altitude – 200 km away, we could see the Pic du Midi

The warmth after we left the mountains behind and lost altitude was welcome, and I could concentrate on the views of walks we had previously done, and which had sometimes seemed long and meandering, but were now clearly visible with their beginnings and ends.

Then back to the field and the short grass runway.  As we flew over, I could see Margaret far below, waving.  Then it was down, very smoothly, and a turn, and back to rest.  What an experience!  And how kind of my family to make this possible.

Flashback Friday

Bright Square

And finally … thanks so much Becky, and everyone who brought such joy in a month of Bright Squares. Here’s a Bright Bouquet.

Rain, rain … up north and down south

I bet you’ve been thinking, in these gloomy rainy days, that a bit of a break somewhere like the south of France might cheer you up. But not necessarily. In honour of Flashback Friday, I’ve found my post from 29th January 2013, written in the corner of Southern France that we used to call home.

RAIN RAIN …

The banner headline on this morning’s regional paper, La Dépêche du Midi, told us what we already knew. There’s been twice as much rain this month as is usual.  Of snow, we’ve seen hardly a flake.

Driving back from Foix yesterday, we saw meadows that have become mini- lakes.  Even more fields glistened with water as the water table has risen to the very surface of the soil. It’s made the month a somewhat gloomy one, even though the days have been pretty mild.  The mountain peaks are snow-capped, as expected, but the white stuff barely creeps down the mountainside and with all the low cloud and zilch visibility, it’s sometimes hard to know where the Pyrenees have disappeared off to.

The Pyrenees seen from up on our roof terrace

Our regular yomps into the countryside have been a bit curtailed.  Walk after walk has been rained off, and when we do go, we choose our routes with care.  If we don’t, we’ll be lugging kilos and kilos of glutinous heavy clay with us as it clings to our boots and the bottom of our trousers.

Muddy boots … up to our ankles in mud.

Roll on the 2nd of February, Chandeleur (Candlemas), the day when Winter decides whether to stick around or push off.  Last year, it was icily cold, and Winter stayed and made his presence felt with several weeks of constant snow, ice and bitter cold.  This year, he‘s looking much more half-hearted about it all.  We blame ourselves. We invested in snow-tyres and snow chains for the car.  We clothed our olive tree and a few other plants in white dresses of horticultural fleece.

Olive tree in a winter coat.

So Winter laughed in our faces.  We daren’t change the tyres or undress the tree though.  We all know what will happen if we do.

Square Up

A Nation of Shopkeepers?

These days, while travelling’s discouraged, and normal day-today life often seems difficult, many of us have come to rely on our local shops, recognising what a blow it would be if they were to disappear. Here’s a post I wrote ten years ago in France, celebrating independent shops. It feels dated in some ways. ‘Saturday girls’ seem to belong to a different era.

A NATION OF SHOPKEEPERS…OR A SMALL TOWN WITH SMALL SHOPS

11th December 2010

Depending on your point of view, it was either Napoleon or Adam Smith who first called England ‘a Nation of Shopkeepers’. But it was only after I came to settle here in France that I started to think of shopkeeping and market trading as skilled occupations, and realise just what is involved in keeping the customer happy.

It’s probably because it was just so much easier, where we lived in England, to nip down to the supermarket.  There weren’t too many independent shops on our daily round:  so much for a nation of shopkeepers.  Mind you, we loved it when Emily was a Saturday girl at the French patissier who was then in Harrogate, Dumouchel. She would often be sent home with a couple of unsold petits gateaux for us to enjoy,  or some slowly-fermented sourdough bread.  It was small shop, and quite expensive, so she learnt quickly to value customers and to treat them well, so they’d come back.  She learnt too that while most of the people she served were friendly and appreciative, customers could be curmudgeonly too.

So who are the good commerçants here?  Well, down at the bakers, they’ll often put aside our much-loved pain noir without being asked if I’m not in bright and early, knowing we’d be disappointed if they sold out.

The baker’s shop, closed since 2018. Though there are other bakers in the town still.

Today at the market, madame who runs the cheese and charcuterie stall had printed off some recipes specially for me, because she knew I might enjoy trying them out.

Down at Bobines et Fantaisies, the owner goes to Toulouse most weeks to seek out unusual scarves and accessories, so there’s always something new and worth trying at her tiny shop. ‘Let her try it on.  If she doesn’t like it, bring it back!’, she’ll insist, as you dither between a couple of scarves and a chic but cosy winter hat.  These shopkeepers remember us, our tastes, our whims and foibles. They welcome us, and chat cheerfully with us, even if we leave the shop empty-handed.

Madame at Bobines et Fantaisies

There’s just one shop here that doesn’t cut the mustard. ‘Il n’est pas commerçant’ we all grumble.  Those of us outside the select band are routinely ignored, and as we feel our custom isn’t valued, some of us now go elsewhere.

But not to the supermarket.  Oh no.  Yesterday we DID pop into one, but as the muzak system was belting out a schmaltzy version of ‘Auld lang syne’ in what passed for English, we very soon shot out again.  Small Shops Rule OK.

The featured image is of a cheesemonger in Toulouse.

This post is a contribution to Fandango’s Flashback Friday. Have you got a post you wrote in the past on this particular day? The world might be glad to see it – either for the first time – or again if they’re long-time loyal readers.

Country Mouse again

I keep on referring to myself as Country Mouse. That’s because I am, and have been for the last thirteen years or so. But it’s not always been like that. Here’s my back-story, written during our last weeks in France, back in 2013.

We were Christmas shopping in Toulouse yesterday.  A day in this, the fourth largest city in France, is always a treat.  And yet….By about half past three, we’re footsore, weary and confused like Aesop’s poor dear Country Mouse who decided the simple, yet safe country life was preferable to the riches and dangers of life in the city.  We want to go home.

A couple of more recent Pearly Kings
A couple of more recent Pearly Kings

I was nearly always a city girl.  Raised in London, after pre-school years in rural Yorkshire, I had a childhood enriched by Sunday afternoons at the Natural History Museum or frenetically pushing buttons at the Science Museum.  We’d go to watch the Changing of the Guard at Horseguards Parade, nose round hidden corners of the city, still scarred in those days by the aftermath of wartime bombing.  We’d go on our weekly shop to Sainsbury’s:  not a supermarket then but an old-fashioned grocery store, with young assistants bagging up sugar in thick blue – er – sugar paper, or expertly using wooden butter pats to carve up large yellow blocks of butter.  If we were lucky, there would be a Pearly King and Queen outside collecting for some charity.

It was Manchester for my university years.  I loved those proud dark red Victorian buildings celebrating the city’s 19th century status as Cottonopolis, as well as the more understated areas once populated by the workers and managers of those cotton mills, but developed during my time there as Student Central.  I loved the buzz of city life, the buzz of 60’s student life.

The not-so-crowded Valley Gardens, Harrogate

Then it was Portsmouth.  Then Wakefield, and Sheffield, and Leeds.  City life meant living with up to 750,00 neighbours.  And I thrived on it.  I never felt too far from wide open spaces, yet a short bus ride brought me theatres, cinemas, exhibitions, shops, choices of schools for my children.  When we moved in 1997 to Harrogate, with a mere 75, 000 inhabitants, it felt small.

In 2007, we came to the Ariège, to Laroque, population just over 2,000.  The largest town in the whole area is Pamiers, with a mere 19,000 inhabitants.  How could we still think of Harrogate as really rather tiny?    So we needed to change the way we saw things.  We’re accustomed now to at least recognising most of the people whom we see round and about.  We enjoy the fact that we count many people in the community as friends, and that we all turn up to the same events.  We relish the space, the more relaxed pace of life, the sense of belonging that we have here.

These are the kind of traffic conditions we got used to

Now, as we plan our return to England, the idea of the clogged roads of the Harrogate rush hour is unattractive, the busy streets unappealing. Ripon, where we more recently lived is much more like it: 14,000 people.  But we ask ourselves – is even a town this size too big and scary for Country Mice?  Should we continue as we’ve started?   Perhaps we should look at Galphay, Gargrave, Greenhow or Grewelthorpe, average populations about 400?  Or Masham, about 1,250? All of these are near our centre of gravity, Ripon.

So much to think about.  But wherever we end up,  we’ll still want the odd sortie to The Big City.  Toulouse hasn’t seen the back of us yet.

And reader, we did end up in a village near Ripon. North Stainley. Population 700

Photos 4, 5, 6 0f the Toulouse series; the Pearly Kings and Harrogate’s Valley Gardens courtesy of Wikimedia Commons