Lilies of the Valley for a May Morning

1st May, 4.00 p.m.  The washing machine’s just finished washing strappy tops and shorts, but I’m sitting here in front of a cosy log fire watching the rain scything it down in true British style. This time 2 days ago it was 37 in the shade, today it’s 11.  What’s gone wrong?

As in England, I suppose the reason is that it’s a national holiday, and few people are at work.  In fact it’s THE national holiday, la Fête du Travail.  Only a few neighbourhood shops are open, and then only in the morning: no supermarkets, garages, big stores – no newspapers today either.  But that doesn’t mean there’s no commercial activity.  Oh no!  Today’s the day when everyone offers one another a traditional token of friendship and esteem – a sprig or two of lily of the valley, prettily presented.  In every village, every town, you’ll find people on street corners, outside the bakers’, at the cross roads, selling the flowers that they probably spent yesterday gathering and tying into pretty posies.  Here in Laroque we had groups of children as entrepreneurs.  A friend of mine went to Mirepoix to set out her stall, and she’s made 70 euros.  It’s the one day of the year when anyone who wants to can sell on the streets without a licence – so long as they’re selling only lilies of the valley (muguets).

I must have asked a dozen people the origin of this tradition.  Nobody knows.  ‘It’s simply to offer bonheur’, they shrugged.  But Léonce had a couple of stories to tell.  We all know that lilies of the valley have a strong and lovely perfume.  The nightingale smells them as they come into flower on the first of May, and this gives him the energy he needs to get into the woods and begin courting, nest building, and singing.  And those bell shaped flowers?  Well, they apparently surround the Heavenly Gates, where they come in handy by tinkling musically to announce the arrival of another soul from earth.

Soggy muguets in the garden

Malcolm and the Microlight

Malcolm and the Microlight

..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

‘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.

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.’

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Death of a Shed

Last Sunday evening, not long back from our walk, the ‘phone rang. ‘It’s me, Francis.  We’re coming round tomorrow, l’équipe, to knock down your shed’

Here in our back yard, or whatever you want to call it, was a large outbuilding, brick built, with a tiled roof.  It housed gardening tools, all our winter wood, and all kinds of gubbins.  It had to go.  We could house the stuff elsewhere, and we really needed the space to make a rather ugly back yard into a garden.  Our friends up the road, Francis and family, had offered themselves as demolition squad: we thought we’d take them up on it one day soon, after we’d finished the destroy-the-central-heating project.

But they had different ideas.  About 12 hours after the phone call, at 8.30 prompt on Monday morning, most of the Fourtalin family trooped through the front door.  Francis, Martine, Antoine (19), Eléa (20) and Indhie (15).  By 8.35 the tiles were coming off the roof.  By lunchtime, the shed was down, the yard was full of broken bricks and tiles, and we’d rescued a tiny bat sleeping between the roof tiles.

After 5 trips to the tip, an 11 mile round trip, Henri came round.’ You can’t go all that way!  I’ll ring Benoît.  I think he needs hard core.’  And he did.  So on Tuesday we simply drove to Benoît’s farm, a mile away, and enjoyed being among the cows, hens, ducks and farm dogs as we ditched our trailer-loads of rubble.  8 trips that day.

We had the easy bit though.  After Francis and Martine left on Moday, the three teenagers worked and worked, sorting and barrowing load after load of broken bricks and cement into the trailer.  Great team.

Today, it was soon over.  3 trips with the trailer.  And then…..well, there’s still a long way to go.  But we became Alan Titchmarsh and Charlie Dimmock of Ground Force fame, arranged a few pots of plants and shrubs, popped out the garden furniture….and could see the future of our ugly old yard as a rather restful, even cheerful, garden.  Watch this space.

Terre Rouge – Ciel Bleu

Whenever we think we’re beginning to know the areas near home quite well, something comes along to surprise us.

Take Couiza, for instance, a town in the Aude that has been the centre point for quite a few of our walks.  It can offer, within easy reach of the town, a typical Audois landscape which is almost Tuscan, with rolling hills vineyards and cypresses. Or craggy, scrubby garrigue, almost Spanish looking. Or there’s le Domaine de l’Eau Salee, which I blogged about previously, where the streams are pink with salt washed from the earth, and have been exploited by man for centuries.

Yesterday, however, we went with le Rando del’Aubo to Terre Rouge, an area near Couiza which astonished us with the rich red colour of the earth which dominated the landscape.

It supports a rich variety of plant life which is just springing into flower: Tiny daffodils, less than 3 inches high, bright yellow potentilla, grape hyacinths.  Bluish grasses bind the dry and sometimes sandy earth, and the air is rich with the strong scent of various wild thymes and lavender.

Bugarach

This red earth is all-encompassing.  And then suddenly, it stops. And we’re back again among more pallid yellowish soils, enjoying views of the distant Pyrenees, and the mountain which dominates this part of the world, Bugarach.

The walk was on the hottest day of the year so far, with clear, vivid blue sky.  We shed jumpers, long trousers, and our pasty winter skin turned the colour of that red earth. There was a wide shallow stream at the village where our walk began and ended, and a few of us enjoyed a paddle.  I greatly contributed to the end-of-day bonhomie by falling in…….

Just before the splash....

A Mini-Break at Montauban: Part 2

Waking up to birdsong outside our window, it was tempting to enjoy the serenity of Le Mas des Anges: but it was Montauban we’d come to see.  And what a town it is.  Here’s our day in the town, in a slide show.

Montauban’s got something of a Protestant history, and has had its share of bloody times, even having almost 10 years of English rule in the middle ages.  Now, however, life is more tranquil, with traffic-free streets.  There’s time to enjoy the ancient rose-brick streets and mediaeval squares; the secret courtyards; the slow progress of the Tarn with its central island which is a giant housing estate for egrets and herons; the gardens and open spaces.  For us, there were restaurants to choose between, and later, idiosyncratic tea rooms with calorie-laden cakes, and all sorts of non-chain-shops we’d have liked to explore…. We’ll be back.  We finished the day, tired but content, picnicking above the vineyard at le Mas des Anges, and later, talking with our hosts.  We’ll be back there too

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A Mini-Break at Montauban: Part 1

‘We worked on the house in England.  We’ve slaved on the house in France.  Enough!  We’re going to have a break’.  This was me, stamping my foot, and determined to get my own way, last weekend. And eventually, Malcolm gave in, reluctantly put down his saw, his chisel, his boxes of screws,  and we settled on Montauban, a city often overlooked in favour of Toulouse.

It was an inspired choice.  Getting there took most of the day, because we meandered along miles of country roads, bright with the sharp fresh greens of newly sprouting crops and creamy apple, cherry, almond and hawthorn blossom.

Castelnau de Montmiral

After lunch, we were in wine-growing country – Gaillac – and it was then that we started to hit a succession of picture-postcard-pretty villages:  three of them in fact qualify for the title ‘Un des plus beaux villages de France’: Castelnau de Montmiral, Puycelsi, Bruniquel.  We enjoyed mooching round all of them.  Each was different, but they all had charming mediaeval buildings and alleyways, pots of flowers and shrubs at doorways and windows, and lovely views over rather Shropshire-ish countryside.

Puycelsi

Not for one second did we hanker after living there.  No community notices about Loto evenings, vide greniers, concerts in the church.  No people, actually. In fact many of the houses were shut up (second homes?), and none of them looked as if they belonged to horny-handed-sons-of-toil.  Commercial activity, where it existed, belonged to the artisan potters, jewellery and textile makers.  But I’m glad they were there for us to while away an afternoon exploring.

Bruniquel

The day ended well, too.  Le Mas des Anges, about 5 miles from Montauban, turned out to be a big part of the inspired choice.  It’s where, after our first night there, we decided to stay another.

The wine cellarsJuan and Sophie, our hosts, absorbed us, apparently effortlessly, into their enthusiasm for their life there. ‘Passionate about…’ is a slightly hackneyed phrase these days, but Juan IS passionate about the wine he produces, and we had a great time looking at his equipment and cellars, before settling down to taste what he had to offer.  Sophie has a great talent for making the guest accommodation charming and welcoming, and the breakfasts….yum!

Labouring

Bits of last week were horribly unpleasant. Not as unpleasant as 6 hours on the English Channel in a Force 10 gale, but pretty nasty.

We have been getting rid of our central heating. It’s oil fired, and though it’s in pretty good nick, the radiators are too small for our rooms, and who wants a noisy, smelly boiler in their living room, especially one that caused one visitor to ask why we kept our washing machine in the corner of the room?

So it had to go. We had a keep-fit session that involved our manoeuvring a hundred kilos of boiler out into the garage, while before that, Mal had been curled up in impossible positions on the floor cutting away all the copper piping, then chopping it into lengths suitable to fling out of an upstairs window into the yard below.

The space which held the boiler

The boiler dismissed, we had a large chimney to block off. That was my job (unskilled, you see). Head stuck up the bottom part of the chimney: it fitted rather well, like an oversized sombrero, and with little room to move. I tried to manoeuvre wads of lining and insulating material into place. Every time I touched the chimney, about a pound of gritty, oily soot fell down, covering my head (which I’d not thought to cover), sliding down my collar to coat my skin beneath my clothes, and the clothes too of course. I inhaled soot, chewed soot, was hailed on by small chunks of masonry. What kept me feeling even slightly fortunate was the fact that I wasn’t a skinny little 18th century child chimney sweep who’d actually have to climb up that chimney, and others like it, day after day.

...and part of the chimney's in the yard...

Anyway, the pipes are done, most of the radiators are out, and that space in the living room is liberated. And, despite the dustsheets, dirty. Just now, the tame joiner (Malcolm) is shelving it out as a bookcase and log store. If you think that sounds fairly easy, you still haven’t registered that there are no 90-degree angles in this house, no straight runs of wall, and spirit levels don’t know what to make of our floor.