A Letter to Bill Bailey……


……only I don’t suppose I’ll actually send it

Dear Bill Bailey-

Now that you’ve followed Bill Oddie, and become known as a twitcher as well as a comedian, can you to be an Agony Uncle too? On the subject of birds?

Here in our back yard in Laroque, we’re doing our best to keep our local birds happy. The usual suspects visit us:  sparrows, blackbirds, various tits, robins, wagtails, redstarts: once, but only once, on 14th February last year, a whole flock of goldfinches descended and ate all we could offer.

We offer a great menu.  There are suet blocks, fat balls and feeders crammed variously with peanuts and all kinds of seeds.  I even bought – at great expense – dried mealworms endorsed by Bill Oddie. Last year, all our birds fluttered, perched, fought, queued, squabbled, scoffing everything (apart from the suet blocks) that we put out.  This year, they’re ignoring the whole lot, apart from the stale crumbs I chuck out after every meal.  Which seems a bit like choosing a bag of crisps instead of a decent meal.

What’s up?  There isn’t a cat within range, and the dog next door probably wouldn’t manage to catch a slug on the loose. Last year, disgusted that our birds ignored the suet blocks, I gave them all to a friend who lives out in the wilds of the Seronnais.  She reported that HER birds were fighting over these goodies within hours.

So perhaps I should give all the bird food to her.  But I don’t want to.  They’ll give in eventually.  Won’t they?  Any ideas?



Lexique pour mes lecteurs français:

Bill Bailey : Stand up comique anglais

Bill Oddie: comédien et ornithologue anglais

Twitcher : observateur d’oiseaux amateur

Agony Uncle : journaliste responsable du courrier du coeur

The Big Snow: History


If you turn on the radio these days, or look at the inside pages of the daily paper, you’re likely to find reminiscences of the big freezes of last century, 1947, 1960, 1963 and 1979.

Well, I don’t remember 1947. My mother had bitter memories of it, but I was rocking gently in a warm bath of amniotioc fluid, and didn’t have to worry about the cold.

In 1960, I was at girls’ grammar school, and becoming, with my class mates, a sulky teenager. My main memory is of long frozen January lunch hours in the school playground (unthinkable that we’d be allowed to remain inside in the warm). Considering ourselves too old to have fun chasing each other with snowballs, we stood around in morose groups, comparing our newly fashionable long johns with each other (they were long legged bloomers really, in garish colours. But they helped a bit).

By 1963, an even starker winter, we were sitting out mock O Levels. The school heating system broke down, and we sat several exams in our winter coats, and sometimes even our velour hats. We had to write with our woolly gloves on. No ‘manifs’, no walk outs, and no line of indignant parents outside the headmistress’ office complaining about Health and Safety. The stroppiest of us (and I wasn’t stroppy in those days) just got on with it as just one more thing to be endured in those gloomy January days. We must all have been raving bonkers.

Things were very different by 1979. Elinor was born in late ’78, and Thomas was just under 2 years old. We lived perched towards the top of one of Sheffield’s (allegedly) 7 hills (‘Same as Rome, see?’), and getting up and down that steep slope of ours with a pram was unthinkable. It WAS a steep slope. Occasionally, a hired coach would try to take a short cut down our road. It would find itself marooned at the bottom, the driver’s cab already on the level main road, while the back of the bus remained suspended on the 45 degree tarmac behind, to the unbridled delight of all of us who lived in the street: we’d all turn out to watch the fun.

So we stayed at home as the snow fell, and continued to fall. For 6 weeks. No shopping, no walks in the park or toddler groups or visits to friends (apart from the family next door, in exactly the same position as us). For someone like me, always looking for busy things to fill the day, it should have been utterly unthinkable. But it wasn’t. My memory of that time is of spending hour after hour, the three of us, cosily curled up on the sofa while I breastfed Elinor, reading one story after another to Thomas. Children’s picture books were just taking off in those days, and we had our supply of Picture Puffins… Farmer Fisher, Wonky Donkey, Bread & Jam for Frances, Maurice Sendak…. Whenever I remember that long and rather lazy winter, it’s always with simple pleasure.

This winter is a little more complicated. We’d like to be in France, but since we can’t be, we’d like to be seeing our friends. We can’t do that either. Either we can’t get up our hill, or they can’t get down theirs. Or their children’s school is closed. Or something. So instead we worry about feeding the birds: They’re pretty hungry, but it wouldn’t do to have them depend on a supply of food which may disappear at any moment. We compromise, and put scraps, but only scraps, scattering them in different places. And then we worry about weather forecasts. If it’s not snowing here, it is in the south of England. How’s northern France doing? And further south? It depends which forecast you listen to or read. What to do……? Watch this space

The Big Snow: Chapter Two

England, Harrogate

Another day, another freeze.  The other evening, we were with some friends.  We watched the 10 o’clock news and saw satellite images of a totally white UK.  Then a friend in the Ariège told us that the snow’s reached there too – not sent from our end though, but driven northwards from Spain.  By lunchtime, the news on the French channel TF1 had made the snowy Ariège its special feature.

 We might as well stay here then.  The papers and radio repeat regular warnings of the ‘is your journey really necessary?’ variety, and they’re probably right.  With grit and salt in short supply, the roads aren’t getting any easier, and the temperatures are dropping.

 Here’s a miscellany of Harrogate photos: the town centre, chilly allotments, chillier birds, snowmen and similar, icicles….all a record of this extraordinary January

The Big Snow

England, Harrogate

‘Christmas shopping in the snow. A white Christmas. A whiter new year. Christmas in the Ariège? No, apparently not. It was mild and sunny there. Instead, this was Christmas and New Year UK style. The days in England were very odd for us. We’d wake up to glittering, powdery snow on the streets, and hungry birds scavenging for crumbs. We’d fail to drive the car up the road, because we live at the bottom of a hill, and the poor thing couldn’t get a grip: 4x4s, usually so derided in our urban setting, had the last laugh, because only they could go anywhere much.

From our window.....


Visits to friends were cancelled. Their visits to us were abandoned. All because of the snow. It wasn’t so very deep, admittedly, but in urban and suburban England, we’re just not geared up to dealing with it. No snow chains on the cars, not enough grit, not enough salt. And it’s not so surprising we were unprepared. Until last year’s freak snowstorms, many English children had only seen snow on skiing holidays or Christmas cards, so why would local authorities plan for anything worse than the occasional sleet shower?

So here are some pictures of life in cold and snowy Harrogate. Emily and I even made a mini snowman. He’s mini because making him was like trying to model something in very cold granulated sugar. The snow wouldn’t stick together. We had fun trying though, and though he was very small, he was a little monster’

All that was written before The Big Snow. The Big Snow suddenly descended here sometime after 4.00 a.m. on Tuesday 4th January, the day we were due to set off back for France. The Big Snow decided otherwise. Harrogate; like much of Northern England, was closed for business. No buses, no schools, few people at work …. but lots of snowmen suddenly populating the streets and gardens –even an authentic looking igloo in the next street along. It was fun at first, and lovely to look at. Then reality began to bite. Slogging to the distant shops through 8’’ of snow, with streets and roads ungritted isn’t much fun. Not everybody can work from home, and too many of those who couldn’t get to work, either had their wages docked, or had to take a day from their annual leave allowance. There’s still a bit of a holiday atmosphere, but the novelty’s worn off, especially as the Big Snow has become the Big Freeze and is going to continue, it seems.

Franklin Road, Harrogate

When will we be able to leave for France? Who knows. The South has taken over from the north as Snow Capital of the UK, and we’ve been very firmly advised against travelling (anyway, we still can’t drive the car up our hill). From what we can see, northern France is a winter wonderland as well – with added fog.

I’d like to add more photos – I will later.  But I’m working with a dongle, and if you’re geek enough to know what I’m talking about, you’ll know it’s not ideal

Another Day, another Festival

Ariège, Festivals, Music

Foire au Gras!

Today has been really good fun.  Singing morning and afternoon with four other choirs in a Choral Festival – performing to each other and with each other.  And of course after a hard morning’s singing, there’s only one way to spend the hours between 12.00 and 2.00, especially when you have 200 people all gathered together intent on having fun.  A big community meal, which the town, appreciative of our singing, treated us all to.  

The accordian player at the feast

We were in Mazères, which is on the third day of its Foire au Gras, a celebration of the pleasures of those meats that are so appreciated down here – pork, goose and duck.  So forget the vegetarian option.  We ate garbure, a deeply meaty vegetable broth, followed by a richly pungent stew with every duck’s leg in the Ariège apparently popped into the pot, and the most delicious plain boiled potatoes I have ever eaten.  Perhaps because they weren’t really plain boiled, but cooked in a light flavoursome stock.  Kir and red wine a volonté.  And a great deal of singing and laughter as everyone gave their attention to the accordion player who seems to be at every event we’ve been to.  Men and women scuttled up and down the rows of diners, carrying scalding heavy pots, more bread, more wine. It was no surprise to anyone that we began our afternoon session at 3.00, rather than the scheduled 2.30.

Just a few of the diners

Somehow, however, we all heaved ourselves up from the tables and ambled back to the church, the scene of the concerts.  And there we stayed, singing or listening till 6.00 p.m.  Some hardy souls stayed on for yet more partying, sharing the ‘pot d’amitié’, but our little group called it a day, and came home, watching the last of the sunset over the Pyrenees as we drove back towards Laroque.

A visit to Fontfroide

Aude, Patrimoine

Yesterday, the day here in Laroque started with the threat of snow, finally realised this morning.  But with our Rando group, we set off for the brighter if bracing Corbières.

The Corbières are of course well known for wine production.  As our mini-bus reached the area, we saw no cows, sheep, donkeys…or any animals at all.  What we did see was acre after acre of vineyards, along the narrow plains, scrambling up the hillsides, with each Domaine favouring a different style of pruning, from the wild and wiry abundance of tendrils clearly being left alone till the spring, to almost knobbly stumps sticking bare out of the ground, scalped of any living shoot.

The Abbey, as we first saw it

Walking here is so very different from the Ariège.  The scrubby garrigue, so reminiscent of Spain, is covered in tough herbs such as rosemary and thyme, tiny wiry green oak trees with richly burnished brown acorns, and olive trees.  The soil is sandy, shot through with red ferruginous deposits.  There were views of the sea, of distant castles, and of the monastery we’d come to see, Fontfroide. We loved it as a change, but this scenery simply seemed lacking in the variety that our own patch offers – map reading was a nightmare, so we’ll stick with it as a holiday destination, we think.  Still, our trek was invigorating in the bright winter sunshine, and it was a good way to spend the morning before an afternoon devoted to cultural matters.

The elegant courtyard, once the scene of manual labour

The Abbey of Fontfroide was founded as a Benedictine abbey in 1093 and affiliated with the Cistercians in 1145.  It began its history then, as a Romanesque gem, though it was added to in Gothic, Romanesque and elegant 17th and 18th times.  It’s been privately owned since it ceased to be a monastery in 1901, and in this last century, accomplished craftspeople have continued to restore and add to it.  Quite simply, it is an architectural gem.

It looks old - but it's Catalan and early 20th century

Right from its early days, the monastery flourished and soon became a centre of orthodoxy.  The murder in 1208 of Pierre de Castelnau, a Fontfroide monk and legate to Pope Innocent III, led to the Albigensian Crusade, which is such a living part of our history over here, at nearby Montségur.  After peace was restored, construction on Fontfroide Abbey continued. The influence of the abbey soon dominated the entire region, all the way to Catalonia, and a daughter monastery was founded in Poblet.  After the Black Death, the monastery had a chequered history, but it always escaped physical damage, and was often added to and improved with taste and elegance.  Nowadays, it’s almost unique among Cistercian abbeys in being in such wonderful condition.

The cloisters

The Abbey of Fontfroide is an excellent example of the kind of monastic town prescribed by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, in which the buildings and surrounding gardens and land contain everything necessary for simple living. The monks devoted themselves to hard work and worship, and had no contact with the lay people who worked there too, physically separated from the monastic community.  This is only apparent now whenpointed out, but despite the Abbey now being in private hands, many ecclesiastical references remain, especially in the cloisters and church.  If you ever have the opportunity, do visit this very special place.

A qui profite l’orgue de Laroque?

Ariège, Laroque d'Olmes, Music

This is the church that houses the organ

The church at Laroque d’Olmes has a very fine organ.  It’s an instrument with an illustrious history.  Built in the 18th century, it was moved from its original home in the Chapel Royal at Versailles in 1989.  For the last 4 years, it has been the subject of a Battle Royal.

 You’ll know that France is a proudly laïque (secular) nation.  In the UK, most of us perhaps became aware of this through the foulard controversy, when Muslim schoolchildren were no longer allowed to wear headscarves or other symbols of their faith in school.  It was easy for the British to interpret this as racism, but in fact Christian symbols such as crosses are equally frowned on unless very discreet.  Religious studies are not taught in school, and the very idea of a Christian school assembly seems completely bizarre to the French – as it increasingly does in the UK too of course.  Because of this laïcité, church buildings and furnishings are the property of the community in which they are situated, and that community pays for much of their upkeep.

 Over the years then, communities such as Laroque have had the responsibility for buildings that may be in poor shape, even to the extent of being a public danger (towers in danger of subsidence – that sort of thing).  In addition, Laroque, keen at the time to see such a prestigious organ installed in its midst, has over the years, together with other public bodies,  made available 74% of the monies need for its upkeep.

 The council in Laroque didn’t want the organ simply for the regular congregation, or even for the draw that it represented to renowned organists, keen to accept concert engagements enabling them to play on such a prestigious instrument.  Small as the town is (2000+ inhabitants), it has a School of Music, with the usual range of after-school classes, bands and orchestras.  With such an organ as this, what a chance to give a new generation of young people the opportunity to learn to play this very special instrument!

 They made the decision that the School of Music should appoint a well-qualified teacher of the instrument.  A protocol (2003) and a convention (2006) was worked out between the École de Musique and the curé, allowing access for up to 20 hours per week  to the teacher and pupils; a highly qualified young musician was offered the post, and accepted.

Earlier this week, posters appeared round town

Since then, it’s all gone wrong.  Quite simply, the curé refuses them admittance to the church: no reason given.  He HAS offered very limited access from time to time, but at periods that are quite simply impossible for either the teacher or her students.  So she now teaches the basics on – a synthesiser. He no longer permits the free concerts staged in the church at Christmas and on St. Cecilia’s day (patron saint of music). Parents, pupils, town councillors and many parishioners and citizens are enraged by this turn of events, but nothing so far has persuaded the curé to change his stance.  Nor has the Mayor demonstrated any leadership over this issue.

And this is a poster for Sunday's concert

The magnificent organ has its Society of Friends, who organise regular concerts with prestigious musicians.  These draw audiences from far afield.  There’s one of these concerts on Sunday.  And this time, there’ll be a protest to go with it: letters to the musicians themselves, asking for support, and leaflets to the audience – general awareness raising. We’ve all been writing letters to the Bishop, to the press – anyone with possible influence.  A State Mediator’s been requested.

And today, the lead story in our local paper tells how the Mayor and the curé plan to work together to solve the problem. Nobody much believes it.  Quite simply, the commune’s entitled to keys to the church, and the curé’s not letting them out of his hands.  The Mayor’s within his rights to demand those keys, and use them to let the musicians in.  If he’d done this in the first place, Laroque’s young would-be organists wouldn’t still be practising on a synthesiser, and the École de Musique would still be giving regular – free –  concerts in the church

‘Do They Know it’s Christmastime At All…..?’


This blog is especially for my English readers.

 I suspect you can identify with one of the following:

 1. You’ve bought, written and probably sent your cards, the presents are organised, and wrapped and sent if they need posting.  Wrapping paper’s sorted, the food for the holiday’s under control


2. You’re in panic mode because you’ve only done some, or worse, none of the above.

 Consider this.

Mirepoix market, Monday December 7th.  I met an acquaintance, a young French guy.  I explained that I’d come, although it’s a market I don’t usually visit, to do some Christmas shopping, but I wasn’t being very lucky.  ‘Ooh, it’s a bit early yet’, he said.  ‘Don’t you think?  I expect there’ll be more stuff next week.’

 And he could be right.  The street decorations might be switched on in the evening too.  Just.

 It does seem a better way. I really appreciate visiting shops that not only fail to play Jingle-Bells-Dreaming-of-a-White-Christmas on a never-ending loop, but get through the day with no musak at all.  Energised by the lack of pre-Christmas stress, I’m actually looking forward to the festival.

 Love from a Grumpy Old Woman

If you go down to the woods today……

Ariège, Food & Cooking

Deep in the forest, somewhere near here, vanloads of dastardly Italians are despoiling the woodland floor of every single mushroom.  Some hours later, they’ve driven back across the border to sell their countless kilos of plunder on some Italian market stall.

This tale is a variation of the Great Doryphore Scandal.  Elsewhere in France, doryphores are Colorado beetles.  Here in the Ariège, Doryphores are Toulousains, who used to leave the city at dead of night to strip our fields and woodlands of anything edible, returning home before dawn to stock their own larders – or their market places.

It was our friend and near neighbour M. Baby who told me the tale of those Italians.  We have a great deal of affection and respect for M. and Mme Baby: they’re an elderly couple, very old school, and we’ll never be other than ‘Monsieur’ and ‘Madame’ to them, but they’ve always been very kind to us. Yesterday he reminisced about the secret field where, every year, he used to pick quantities of ceps.  He shook his head regretfully. ‘But I’m too old now.  I can’t get there any more’.  Was he going to tell me, his good neighbour, where to find them?  Not a chance.  His secret will go with him to his grave.

It’s all part of the great Mushroom Mystique here in France.  At this time of year, mushrooms are a hot topic.  The weather’s too dry, too wet, too hot, too cold…. It’s a poor year.  But someone’s always found some somewhere.  And they won’t tell you where. ’Ooh, over near Campredon somewhere’ is as good as it gets.

Notices appear in the papers forbidding the collection of more than 2 kilos on any one day (2 kilos?  I’d be glad of a small basketful).  Landowners have permanent notices forbidding the gathering of mushrooms on their land.

Until now, we’ve had to be content with collecting a few field mushrooms from a rough field just outside Laroque.  Yesterday morning though, Henri arrived.  ‘Get Malcolm.  He’s got to come now.  We’re going mushrooming.’  Malcolm was painting the study – he’d just got stuck in really.  But invitations like this don’t come twice, so he changed into boots and trousers that were even grottier than those he wears for painting, and off they went, baskets and mushroom knives in hand. 

Waiting to be gathered....

They returned, nearly 2 hours later, with a large bag of delicate ‘gris’, so fragile that they crumbled delicately as I excitedly unpacked them.  So many!  Thank goodness I remembered  Kalba’s posting on her wonderful blog  Slow Living in the French Pyrénées .  She’d had a mushroom glut too, and wrote about duxelle, made by cooking down slowly a mixture of chopped mushrooms, shallots and herbs until there’s a small amount of a sort of paste that is quite simply, essence of mushroom.  Slow cooking, but worth it.

Waiting for the pot.....

And Henri was prepared to share with Malcolm where he’d found those mushrooms?  We MUST have arrived.