‘I remember, I remember the House where I was born….’ *

The house where I lived in Alne

I don’t actually.  I was only six months old when we moved away from York to Alne, near Easingwold in North Yorkshire.  And today I visited Alne again.

I lived there till I was 4, and my earliest memories come from there.  I remember our house having a long garden, with an espalier apricot tree growing against an ancient brick wall.  I remember my father gardening and growing vegetables towards the bottom of the garden, spending hours doing this hated task because he couldn’t find paid work.  My mother had no choice but to be the only breadwinner, and as a female teacher, earned less than her male counterparts.  Every weekday, she would cycle the 12 mile journey to York, where she taught, with me strapped firmly behind her.
My very earliest memory of all dates from the time when, aged about 2, I wanted to pick my mother a bunch of flowers from the garden.  I chose the best tulips, and carefully snapped them off with about an inch of stem attached.  I couldn’t understand my mother’s fury and the hiding that followed from my father.  I must eventually have been forgiven though.  When I came downstairs on my 4th birthday, there was a home-made swing hanging from the branches of the apple tree.  I used to spend hours playing on it, but then, as now, I never learnt to propel myself up and down in a satisfying rhythmic swinging motion.

The back garden today: not so very different from the back garden I remember.
We weren’t at all well off, but this house, like so many others in the village is now only affordable by someone with means.  When we found it today, the owners were out, but a painter was tackling the garden gate and invited us to look round the garden.  He assured us the owners wouldn’t mind.  The old stone-flagged kitchen, where my mother had to skin the rabbits my father used to catch must have been re-vamped, and there’s a modern extension at the back of the house.  The fields at the bottom of the garden have been built over.
Some things remain.  The Village Hall is still there.  I can just remember that about twice a year, a mobile cinema came to the village.  I was too young to see the films, but I remember everybody turning to to arrange hard wooden benches in the hall so the villagers could gather round the screen.  I remember too the very occasional visit of an ice-cream van.  Cornets or ‘sandwiches’, 2 flavours, vanilla or ‘pink’ (Yes, I do mean ‘pink’.  ‘Strawberry’ doesn’t cover it at all).  There was a wood at the edge of the village, and it’s this wood that to this day illustrates the tales of Hansel and Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood in my imagination.  I used to half long for, half be scared witless by the prospect of being irrevocably lost in this forest, which I now realise was little more than a glade of trees.
Alne’s become quite ‘twee’ commuter country I think.  Back then it was a fairly isolated community offering housing to farm labourers and other country workers.  I’ve just found our old home on Rightmove, because it changed hands some 5 years ago, and there’s not a chance we, or anyone else in our family could afford to think of living there now.
* Thomas Hood

Olympic Fever?

The Thames at sundown

A fortnight ago, our local paper, La Dépêche du Midi had ‘Londres, capitale du monde!’ as its banner headline.  The story was, of course, the Olympics.  We’re unaccustomed to this particular paper taking much notice of anything that occurs outside south-west France, but ‘les  JO’ (Jeux Olympiques) have been big news.

Not as much as in England though. When we arrived in the UK, we were unprepared for Olympic Fever.  Red white and blue banners and flags hang from houses.  Shops have Olympic-themed window displays, and if you want to buy mugs, some paper napkins, or fancy a new cushion, you’d better want them plastered with the Union Flag.

Across the Thames: a view of St. Paul’s Cathedral

Still, we enjoyed staying with Tom and Sarah in Olympic-happy London, and spent an evening round the South Bank area.  Eat near Borough Market and you’re sure of a tasty meal cooked with decent ingredients: the convivial and cheery atmosphere comes free.  Wander along from there to the Festival Hall, and you’ll be in the company of Olympic visitors from just about every country you can think of, as well as locals, just out to enjoy being alongside the Thames and all that this particular stretch of river offers.  Tate Modern and the Globe weren’t open for business at that time of the evening, but there’s still plenty to see.  The National Theatre has a slightly zany pop-up bar, the Propstore, furnished with props from popular productions.  We were aMAZEd by the book maze we found in the South Bank Centre, constructed from some 250,000 books, most of which we found we wanted to read, if we hadn’t already.

The aMAZEing maze of books

And as part of the Festival of Britain retrospective, there was a retro-funfair with fearsomely-clanking roller-coaster as well as all the rides of a traditional 50’s fair.

As night fell, we simply mooched along the Thames-side nightscape.  We felt lucky to be there and  lucky to have shared, if not as excited sports spectators, London’s Olympic August.

Nightfall over the London Eye

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
— Samuel Johnson

Bluebell woods

Bluebell woods at Ripley, North Yorkshire

I was ticked off this week by a Laroque friend in an email conversation.  I’d been waxing lyrical about the woods here in the UK which are starting to be carpeted in that rich blue which indicates that bluebells are in flower.  She pointed out, rightly, that she has a clump in her own garden.  I can’t deny it of course.  But I’m still delighted to have been in England long enough to catch this very special sight of bluebells flowering in such profusion that the whole woodland floor becomes an almost violet-blue which no camera ever seems able to capture accurately.

Bluebells near Ripley
There was room for a few cowslips too

Their presence apparently is a sign of ancient woodland.  Adapted to this territory, the young shoots are good at piercing thick leaf mould before the deciduous leaves of the woodland canopy close in late spring.  They’re native to Atlantic Europe: apparently somewhere between 25 – 50 % of all common bluebells are found here in the UK.  That’s an astonishing statistic for our small island, since the bluebell can be found in so many other parts of Europe, and has been introduced to many parts of the United States as well.

It’s a shame it’s turned rainy and a bit cold.  We need the rain, and lots of it.  But there’s something very special about a walk in the woods at this time of year, with the mild sunshine penetrating through the newly-leaved branches to reveal the bluebells as they march unhindered as far as the eye can see.

An image sent to the BBC 'PM' programme last year during bluebell season

A country childhood

We went to Thirsk, our next nearest market town this week, to the cinema.  Nothing remarkable about that – to anyone but me.

The Ritz: and the queues waiting to see the film

I last went to the Ritz almost exactly 60 years ago, my very first visit to this, or any other cinema. I’d gone with the whole school – about 40 of us – to see the newsreel showing the Queen’s coronation.  I remember queuing with all my classmates, quietly and slightly over-awed, outside this vast building and going up dark stairs to an even darker and cavernous auditorium.  I remember the excitement of seeing that screen, so large it filled our entire view, with its flickering black and white images of the Queen’s horse-drawn carriage processing with regiments of  bearskin-helmeted soldiers marching before her.  But I can’t remember how we got there or how we got back: yet it must have been quite an expedition from our village school in Sandhutton, some 2-3 miles away, normally connected to Thirsk only by a twice-weekly bus.

So it was quite a shock the other day to discover that the Ritz is far from palatial in size.  In these days of the multi-plex, it has room for only one screen.  It feels small, intimate and cosily shabby, much loved by its team of volunteers of a certain age.

As part of our day out, we simply had to visit Sandhutton, the village where I’d spent several years and begun my school career.  It looked much the same as I’d remembered it.  There was the endearingly small parish church (I remember cathedral-like proportions) at one end of the village green, the pub at the other: it’s like a stage set for the Archers.  Nowadays, the farm labourers who were our near neighbours seem thin on the ground.  We called in at the village shop and found it selling an eclectic collection of fine wines, decent cheeses and craft-bakery cakes rather than more workaday essentials.

And my school, originally outside the village, but now joined to it by a street of modern housing, has become a community hall.

The school at Sandhutton

Back in the early 1950’s, my mother was head of a two-teacher school, and we lived in the school house behind.  Now it’s a handsome family dwelling.  It always was, but it looks as though the privy is no longer at the bottom of the garden.  Nor is the school’s row of outdoor toilets still in use.

The school had two classes.  I was in the one for 5 – 8 year olds.  Our teacher was Miss Burnett, and a recently found photo confirms that she was  slender, white-haired and elderly.  The high point of the day for the little ones was when we gathered round the school wireless to listen to that day’s broadcast of ‘Listen with Mother’.  That same wireless broadcast ‘Music and Movement’ twice a week, and we pushed our desks to one side to prance around pretending to be storm-tossed trees, nymphs or dragons.

Sandhutton Board School, built 1892

My mother had the 9 – 15 year olds. Those who passed their 11+ could go off to Grammar School.  Few passed, and none went to the Grammar School in any case, as they were expected to leave school at 15 and get farm work.  There were days designated as holidays from school when the older children went potato-picking.

And in those post-war vitamin C starved days, we would have whole afternoons when the entire school would go rosehip-gathering for the syrup producers such as Delrosa. Expert pickers could aspire to a tin badge for their efforts, but we 5 year olds had no hope of this exciting prize and our work went unrewarded.

I wasn’t at Sandhutton school for very long.  My father was Polish, and like many of his countrymen had fled to Britain and joined the RAF during the war.  Unable to find a job locally afterwards, despite his degree and excellent English, he’d gone to London.   When he found work, he sent for us.  London became my home until I left school.

My father’s work turned into his life-long business.  My mother was able to return to her preferred option, teaching Classics in a Grammar School.  And I tried to keep my head above water in a large inner-city primary school with as many children in a single class as we’d had in the whole of Sandhutton school: oh, and to lose my northern accent pdq.

The Great French Bake Off

I’ve just had The Best afternoon.

Over at Découverte Terres Lointaines, we realised that Fun was sometimes in short supply.  Often busy getting the next event together, with deadlines to meet and crises to overcome, we weren’t getting together and having time sharing our skills for the simple pleasure that brings.

So this afternoon, we had our first atelier to do just that.  We did a little publicity and attracted five women and one brave man, who came along to the CAF (Social Services.  Sort of) with their pinnies to cook.

The work we’re doing this year is on England, Yorkshire in particular, so I was put in charge of the session: though Sylvia did the work of producing a recipe booklet for each participant. What to choose?  In the end I settled for scones, which are unknown here, and crunchy ginger nuts.  Both start with the same technique – rubbing flour and butter together- but end up quite different from each other.  Both are inexpensive and quick to prepare.

Getting stuck into ginger nuts
Everyone rolled up their sleeves, weighed, stirred, mixed, rolled out, organised what they’d made onto baking trays….and waited while the ovens did their work.

Astonishing to see how identical ingredients prepared identically by different hands, with different ovens varied so much.  Some ginger nuts had crunchy crackled crusts, others were smoother, crisper.  Some scones were domed, others, equally well-risen, were flatter on top.

3 cooking squads, 3 sets of biscuits

So we all had to try everybody else’s over – of course – a nice cup of tea. Lots of discussion and constructive criticism (‘Did you add salt to yours?  Which do you think is better?  With?  Without?’).  The scones were a hit, though not everyone chose to have either butter or jam.  The ginger nuts went down well too.

Everyone declared they’d had fun.  Plenty of time to cook, to share, to talk and laugh and eventually sit and eat what we’d made with new friends. We’ve all said we’d like to come and do it again.  Soon.

Puzzled by the title? It’s an allusion to a series which has apparently been popular back in the UK: The Great British Bake Off

Snow 2

Mid morning sun near Laroque

We Brits are famous for complaining when the Wrong Kind of Snow snarls up the networks.  The trains don’t run, schools shut, and there’s a run on store-cupboard ingredients in the shops.  The Daily Mail or some other self-styled Voice of The People is sure to announce that ‘We’re the laughing stock of Europe and America’.

A deserted field

Well, actually, life grinds to a halt when it snows in some parts of Europe too. Here for instance.  There has been no schools’ transport all week: and with many children living out in the sticks, schools have been half empty.  Markets, where we go to shop, catch up with jobs in town and to meet everyone we know, have pretty much not functioned for 10 days or more.  Clubs and walking groups, concerts lectures and meetings: all have been cancelled or postponed.  We’ve all left our cars at home and confined ourselves to doing what we can on foot.

Rabbit cross roads

Don’t we have snow ploughs here?  Well, of course we do.  In big communes like ours (there are 2000 of us you know), council workers do the job.  In more rural spots, farmers may be pressed into service.  But either way, they’ve all been to the same training school.  After they’ve done their rounds, the ploughs leave an inch of hard-packed, glossily polished snow especially for drivers to enable their cars to take up skating.  Lethal stuff.

The fast-flowing River Touyre begins to freeze

We’d hoped to drive to Barcelona this weekend to see Emily.  Reading the local government website’s travel section soon changed our minds.  We were recommended to use snow chains on several of the roads on our route.  On others we’d be required to use them.  Conditions are described as ‘very snowy’, ‘difficult’, and everyone we know says ‘Don’t go’.  So we shan’t: not till the snow goes anyway.

Pollarded plane trees by the church before sunset

As in the UK, radio TV and the local papers are filled with stories of the Big Snow.  The empty roads, the jack-knifed lorries (actually though, HGVs are kept off many of the main arteries and have either to turn back or make use of temporary lorry depots opened up for their use), the utilities failures, the heart-warming human interest stories – they’re all there.  The snow stopped some days ago, but the sub-zero temperatures remain, and so the snow’s till here.  What is different from England though, is the sky.  Through the day, we’ve enjoyed a cloudless duck-egg blue sky.  And that’s something to be relished.

Sunset viewed from la Castella at Laroque

Tourist information: Bath and beyond

We’re back in France, to rather strange mid-January scenes.  Our local skiers’ playground at Mont d’Olmes appears to have only a dusting of snow, though it claims to have 5 pistes open.  Our garden’s full of marigolds flowering alongside the snowdrops, and on a walk yesterday afternoon, dressed in light pullovers, we heard birds singing ceaselessly, apparently to welcome the spring as they busily seemed to be putting winter behind them.

And so it was in England too.  We rarely wrapped up warmly, and enjoyed being out and about in the balmy conditions.

Best of all was our trip to the part of the country that includes parts of South Gloucestershire and Witshire and Somerset, to stay with my daughter-in-law’s family.  They took a dim view of our lack of knowledge of their end of the country, and set about putting things right.

Everyone knows Bath as a Roman stronghold and as a wonderfully intact 18th century city much visited by Jane Austen.  No wonder it’s an UNESCO World Heritage site.  We had to be content with a taster session. And we began with a stroll across Pulteney Bridge, which has shops on it, like Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, and along the Avon to enjoy the views of the Abbey and Parade Gardens.

Bath Abbey’s an ancient church, but what we see today- a light graceful building soaring upwards to spectacular stone fan vaulting – is largely the work of the Victorian Gilbert Scott.  Every wall is covered with memorials: so many people came to Bath to ‘take the waters’ and then upped and died.  Plumbers, admirals, sugar plantation owners, soldiers – they’re all here.

Time for a coffee break.  Where else but the 18th century Pump Room, where we decided a Bath Bun was a good idea, a sulphurous glass of spa water a very bad one?

We can’t recommend the Roman Baths Museum highly enough.  After spending several hours there, we feel as if we’ve had a real taste of the life of a Roman citizen living, working, playing and praying in Bath during that period.  The baths themselves have been very sensitively and imaginatively interpreted.  If near Bath, just go!

After that, a quick stroll round the 18th century.  The graceful symmetry of streets like the Royal Crescent is so impressive: just don’t look round the back, you’re not meant to.

Next day, we were tourists too. England at its most picturesque.  Cotswold villages with solid stone-walled, stone tiled cottages.

Back in the medieval period and beyond, Castle Combe used to be a centre for the local woollen industry.  Now, more often than not, it’s a film set, the scene of many a period drama on TV or at the cinema.  And Lacock is so picture-postcard perfect that almost the whole village is owned by the National Trust. Great for a relaxing visit.  I wonder what it’s like to live there.

We’d mooched happily round these two villages for some while.  But after all that we needed to step out and stretch our legs.  Kennet and Avon Canal anybody?  Brian and Sue chose for our walk the Caen Hill Locks, a flight of 16 locks packed tight together, one after the other, with ponds at the side to store the water needed to operate the locks.  We thought our walk up the canal banks used quite enough calories.  What if we’d been taking a canal boat up the entire flight and beyond, through lock-gate after lock-gate? This 100 mile canal has more than 100 of them in total…..

A wonderful couple of days then, steeped in history and splendid views and countryside.  We’ll be back – if Brian and Sue’ll have us.

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Red kites

One of the daily pleasures of our Life in Laroque is watching the birds of prey, particularly buzzards and red kites, wheeling above our heads, catching the eddying breezes.

One of our pleasures here back in Yorkshire, is doing exactly that, now that red kites have become almost common round and about Harrogate.

It was back in 1999 that red kites were first re-introduced to Yorkshire, to Harewood.  Back then it was a rare treat to spot one, a newsworthy event to share with all your friends.  Gradually they became more common, though no less exciting.  Then last time we were here, we spotted one lazily coasting over the Yorkshire Showground, only a very few miles from Harewood as the kite flies.  Later that day, there were others, this time over the relatively urban Knaresborough Road estate.  This visit, we’ve spotted them for the first time in the part of north Harrogate where we used to live.

And then today, after lunch catching up with a good friend – thank you Cath – I took myself off for a walk.  Soaring above me, then plunging down, so very close that I could clearly see his breast plumage, was a red kite, nearer to me than one has ever been before. It made my day.

Technologically challenged

We’ve been staying with Daughter Number One and family.  It’s a treat for us to have evenings in with the twins, and so one evening we sent Ellie and Phil off  for a rare Night Out. Then we bathed the boys, wallowed in a few bed-time stories together, kissed them goodnight.  And went downstairs to watch TV.

Twenty minutes later, we were still battling with remote controls, switches, buttons and flashing lights.  Incomprehensible messages flashed up on screen, none of them to do with that evening’s viewing. We gave up and read the paper.

‘Oooh, I’m sorry’,  said Ellie when we complained later.  ‘I suppose it’s a bit complicated at first.  You should have got Ben up.  He’d have sorted it out for you.’

Ben’s 6.