What a difference six months make…..

Look.  Here was the scene in the field near our house, in January this year.  Fields and roads flooded, impassable pathways, rocks and earth tumbling into the River Ure.

Near Old Sleningford, January 2016.
Near Old Sleningford, January 2016.

This was the same field yesterday.  Barley, barley everywhere, all fattening up nicely for the harvest.  Nearby, fields of poppies.  Really hopeful, cheery sights on a sunny and blustery day.

The same field, July 2016
The same field, July 2016

Will all our present political crises end so well?  I wish I could feel more optimistic.

PoppyFieldsJuly2016 013

A walk with added history

This was a fine day for a walk, and a fine day to have a few history lessons thrown in

This is what we did.  Here’s our starting point at East Witton, about 15 miles from home. It’s a lovely small village of about 250 people, where most of the houses were built in the early 19th century round the extensive village green.

East Witton
East Witton

We passed through fields with views across the Dales.  We walked along a green lane, through woods, and eventually reached a wooded gorge through which the River Cover runs, and where we crossed over the charming stone bridge known as the Hullo Bridge.  It was quite a climb up the hill on the other side, and we were hoping for glimpses of Braithwaite Hall.  Too many trees in full leaf. We hardly glimpsed it.

It’s built on the site of a grange belonging to Jervaulx Abbey.  After the Dissolution of the Monasteries it continued as a sheep farm, as it had been under the monks.  This is an area where the monks of both Jervaulx and Fountains Abbey extended their influence widely: enormous numbers of sheepall over the region were managed from local granges where the lay brothers who cared for them lived.

The ruins of Middleham Castle.
The ruins of Middleham Castle.

We were nearly in Middleham now.  This is above all a horsey town.  The monks of Jervaulx bred horses, and brought them to the Moor to exercise them.  When the monks eventually went, the horses remained, as did the training tradition .  Middleham these days is home to around 15 racehorse trainers and 500 horses, yet it’s a small town of hardly more than 820 people.  It was too late for us to see the horses out on the Gallops this morning, so instead the first thing we saw was the castle, which dates back to 1190 and was the stronghold of the powerful Neville family from the 14th century.  Richard Plantagenet, later Richard III was sent here as a young man to be trained in arms by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, his cousin.

The earliest known portrait of Richard III (Wikimedia Commons)
The earliest known portrait of Richard III (Wikimedia Commons)

Warwick had the bad habit of changing sides throughout the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) depending on whether the Yorkists or Lancastrians had the upper hand.  Eventually he came to a bad end when he was killed by the Yorkist King Edward IV and his younger brother Richard.  Edward gave Middleham Castle, and much else to Richard who lived there with his wife, virtually ruling the North of England, for 11 years.  When Edward died, Richard seized the throne and reigned for only 2 years before dying in August 1485 in the final battle of the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire.  And there his body remained for 517 years, before being exhumed from a car park in Leicester in 2012.

For us, Middleham was the site for a rather good picnic, followed by a visit to a teashop for an indifferent cup of tea, and even more indifferent cake.  But the calories were useful.  There were stiles to cross into fields deep in cut grass, waiting to dry off into hay:  a fine walled track Straight Lane – to walk along before reaching the River Cover, languidly passing over bleached white stones on its way to meet the River Ure.  We briefly touched the road once more as we passed Coverbridge Inn.  This dates from 1684, and was owned by the same family – the Towlers – till 1930.  Local legend has it that when the monks of Jervaulx were forced to disband in 1537 at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, they shared their secret recipe for Wensleydale cheese with the Towlers.  We shall never know.

A final walk along woodland paths, open farmland, fields enclosed by characterful drystone walling and we were back in East Witton.  A grand day.

Harvest home…..

Fields near Villelongue.  A grey summer's morning.
Fields near Villelongue. A grey summer’s morning.

….. next month.

We were walking in the Aude today, and with every step we took, we realised that harvest season is well on its way.
Sorghum grains for animal feed swelled in fields where last year sunflowers had grown.  A few seeds had escaped the Autumn harvest, and so this year a few cheeky sunflowers raised their heads above the more lowly winter feed.
Sunflowers among the sorghum.
Sunflowers among the sorghum.
Grapes cluster  on the vine. They’ve grown almost as much as they intend, but they still have work to do.  Most are still a bright acidic green.  A few are starting to blush a bruised pink.  Some have even achieved a classic purple: but they’re not ripe yet.  We know.  We tried one or two.
And those fields of sunflowers,  Apart from one field’s worth, they no longer look like those cheerful images you see on postcards from our region.  Their bright sunny faces no longer track the movement of the sun as it travels across the sky.  Instead, they’ve developed a hang-dog look as the weight of their maturing seeds pulls their heads earthwards.
Then there were almonds.  We found a few had fallen already, so made a handful of creamy nuts into a small 11 o’clock treat.  Walnuts are a different matter. They’re still heavily enclosed in their thick green fleshy coats.  It’ll be a few weeks before this protection dries and splits to reveal the ripened nuts within.
Apples?  Yes, a few, but they’re still green, with white flesh that browns as soon as it’s bitten into.  Blackberries?  Hardly any have turned black.  They’re still very small and green, or rather small and pink.  We’ll have to wait.
So far then, only the hay bales sit plumply at the edges of the fields, ready for winter. The other crops soak up the remaining summer sunshine, fatten, ripen, and wait for the moment when they too will be gathered in.
Fields of vines and sunflowers near Villelongue d'Aude
Fields of vines and sunflowers near Villelongue d’Aude

June is the new May: a springtime nosegay

We’ve all had it.  Months and months of horrible weather.  Especially rain.  Even now, when things are slowly picking up here, we expect to have all kinds of weather within a single day.  Beautifully hot skin-warming sun may be followed by lashing winds, summer showers, or deluging  heavy downpours.  Glance up at the sky, and it will be in turn a cloudless azure, or bright blue patched with blowsy puffs of white cumulus.  Or it may be grey, or even black.  If the clouds aren’t coursing lazily across the heavens, they may be tearing across the sky so swiftly that they’ll have disappeared from view if you glance away only for a few moments.  The rivers are still full to overflowing.

June sky from Roquefixade
June sky from Roquefixade

Farmers are in a mess.  They’ve only just begun to cut their hay, when normally they’d be onto their second harvest.  Seeds have failed to germinate in the cold and wet.  Often they haven’t been planted at all in the sodden and waterlogged fields.  Preparations to take cattle and sheep up into the highland summer pastures have had to be postponed, with snow still on the ground at higher levels.

At last though, we walkers are once more getting out and about.  We choose our routes with care, because thick sticky mud has made some of our favourite walks unuseable.  Where we can walk though, spring has at last sprung. Familiar paths have become narrow passages edged by massed armies of knee-high grasses, shocking in their vibrant greenness.   And our favourite spring flowers that by now should be sun-shrivelled and long past their best romp across meadows and pastureland, and spread across their favourite sun-warmed stones.  Here are a few that we’ve enjoyed finding  in the last days and weeks.

UPDATE:  After she’d read this post, a kind friend, AnnA, wrote to a botanist friend of hers enlisting help in identifying the flowers I’ve shown.  Here’s some of what she said. Reading from the top, left to right:

2. Globulaire rampante – Globularia repens (Creeping Globularia)

3. Hélianthème – Helianthemum Alpestre (Alpine rock rose)

5.  Perhaps from the Linacée family.  She needs a photo of the leaves.  Watch this space

6.  Céphalanthère à longues feuilles – Cephalanthera longifolia (Sword-leaved Helleborine)

8. Oeillet – Dianthus – (Dianthus).  She needs more info. to help her be more precise.

She’s asked to see more of the leaves, and to be told as well where the flowers were found and at what altitude.  There’s such a lot to it.  I had no idea and am so grateful for all this help.

From the Pyrenees to the Pennines: a Quiz

That exhibition, ‘From the Pyrenees to the Pennines’, about Yorkshire.  It’s over and I’m not sorry.  I loved working with the children in schools and in Centres de Loisirs, but the whole business of getting the exhibition for the general public up and running was stressful and exhausting.

Still, it’s good to remember why we did it.  We wanted to introduce Yorkshire, particularly North Yorkshire, to local people here.  We wanted to show how much these two areas have in common.

Both North Yorkshire and the Ariège are largely rural areas, where sheep have an important part to play.  In no small part, they contributed to the development of the textile industry.  Once the most significant part of the economy in the communities where the industry once thrived, now textiles have largely left Europe for the Far East.  Formerly prosperous areas such as Bradford and Lavelanet are now struggling to find a new role.  At the same time, immigrant textile workers have changed the face of these communities for ever: Spaniards in southern France, those from the Indian sub-continent in northern England.

Mining is similarly in decline. Coalmining in the north of England is the most obvious casualty, but industrial archaeologists in Yorkshire and the Ariège can point out many signs of a mining past – in disused and decaying workings of lead, alum, potash and talc.  Jet, the black gemstone popular in the 19th century was worked here too, and a local historian here in the Ariège has uncovered correspondence between manufacturers here and in Whitby.

Both areas owe much of their character to limestone scenery.  That’s why I’m going to give you a little quiz.  Have a look at these photos.  Where were they taken do you think?  Yorkshire?  Or the Ariège?  It’s not always easy….

1. Limestone rocks.  But where?

2. And this?

3. Does this sheep baa in English or French?

4. And these?

5. Where’s this?

6. And this?

7. More scenery.

9. And a typical market in, er….

10. And a bridge.

11. And a ruined house

12. Last one

13. Oh, an afterthought


1. Rocks near Marc, Ariège

2. Goredale Scar, Yorkshire

3. Herdwick sheep

4. Tarasconnaise sheep in Troye d’Ariège

5. Axat, Ariège

6. Bridge at Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

7. Grassington

8. Cap de Carmil, Ariège

9. Otley Market

10. Bridge at Grassington

11. Le Taulat

12. Roquefixade

13. A Yorkshire terrier.   Often seen here in the Ariège.  I wonder how many owners know these little dogs were originally bred in the 19th century in Yorkshire to catch rats in the textile mills?

Once upon a time, in Benac….. Le Cami des Encantats

Today we visited Benac, one of those  small and almost picture-postcard-pretty  villages outside Foix.  I think it’s unlikely that too many horny-handed sons and daughters of toil live there these days.  Too many freshly painted facades and cheery boxes of geraniums at the windows. Too many sleek and highly-polished cars.

But once upon a time it was a busy working community. For the last few years, every summer the villagers here and in nearby hamlets arrange carefully constructed and dressed figures into appropriate corners of both village and countryside.  These figures celebrate the way of life that persisted here – and throughout France – for centuries, and only died out some time after the First World War.  They call the paths you follow to hunt out all these scenes Le Cami des Encantats: Occitan for something like the Enchanted Pathways.  Come with me and take a look.

An Everyday History of Country Folk

Yesterday afternoon was fascinating.  We went to Belesta library for a talk by Paul Garrigues, a local historian who collects old wooden artifacts. He’s such a good speaker, and gave us an insight into a way of life which only finally drew to a close about 30 years ago.  He’s pretty much my age, but his childhood was spent around ox-drawn farm machinery, distaffs and a host of things that formed no part of my rural infancy.  Now that most Ariègeois farms look pretty much like anywhere else’s, with tractors, silos and irrigation systems, it’s rather hard to believe.

Paul’s childhood was spent in the next village to here, Aigues Vives.  Later, he met and married a young woman from a tiny community in the Couserans, a part of the Département to the west of here.  He was surprised to find how different the tools in his wife’s village often were.  There too, the villagers spoke Gascon, rather than the Occitan traditional in our part of the area.

And so his interest began.  He started to collect mainly wooden artifacts: agricultural items, kitchen tools, playthings.  To him these things tell a story of rural life here as it was lived over many centuries.  Yesterday he came to Belesta Library to talk and show part of his collection.

First of all, a simple wooden torch, looking something like a charred rounders bat.  This interests him because items just like this were in use – almost daily – since man first populated the area in Stone Are times, right up until the First World War, and in a few cases, beyond.

Next, a distaff.  This item too remained unchanged almost from those early days until the early years of last century. Any female over the age of about 8 living over the last 1000 years and more, whether rich or poor, would have recognised it. Spinning would have been a constant part of her daily routine, whether she was managing a fine estate, or supervising a few sheep on the mountainside.  And do you know what?  Constantly licking your finger and thumb as you handled the wool made your mouth dry, so beside you, you might have a little wooden box, filled with snuff, to help your saliva to flow: he showed us samples.

A couple of millas stirrers

We saw long wooden balloon whisks and three-pronged forks used to stir the great vats of millas (a sort of porridge made from cornmeal) beloved of the Ariègeois, wooden spoons and forks, large wooden bowls.  He showed us wooden clogs.

Wooden clogs with metal horseshoe-style heel strengtheners

We saw wooden roof tiles.  All these things are made from unplaned wood, so the implements can follow the natural grain of the wood and be strong and sturdy.

From the Couserans he had savage long thick knives, looking like swords in their wooden or leather scabbards.  Their design was directly descended from the instruments of war the Gascons often saw in their battle-rich past, but in fact they were used to cut rough grass, crops, and the long straw required for thatching.

A yoke. For safety reasons, it can quickly be divided in two

There were other differences between that part of the area and ours.  Here, terracing was a feature of upland farms, and it was male beasts who worked the land.  There, the farmers worked directly on the steep slopes: the cows who ploughed the land (it was female animals who did the work here) had to have specially designed wooden yokes so that they weren’t strangled as one worked at a higher level than her work-mate.

But it wasn’t all hard labour.  Anyone who’s ever been to a bowling alley would recognize the bowls and skittles he showed us (made from wood, naturally).  They were a big feature of life round Biert in the Couserans, but inter-village tournaments were rare.  They all played to different rules, which tended to make contests rather difficult.  But it was over here, in nearby Le Sautel, that a game was bought to a sudden end at the end of the 19thcentury.

Wooden skittle and bowl. Confiscated from the church at le Sautel?

One Sunday, the women went obediently to Mass, and as usual, the men played with their bowls outside, getting argumentative and noisy as the morning wore on.  Eventually, the priest in church could take no more.  He stormed out through the church porch, confiscated the bowls, and hid them in the sacristy.  Evidently completely unchastened, the men simply produced other bowls when it came to their next match.

Paul’s keen that we should regard these tools and artifacts as living objects, part of a traditional way of life extending back hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.  He doesn’t want them consigned to the cemetery of history.  If you live round here in some old-style village or town house, you’re almost certain to find quite of few of the things he talked about in your outhouse or attic.  Perhaps I should have another look.

Wooden fork and spoon. A good strong shape. The short handles ensure a long and useful life.

From the Pyrénées to the Pennines: Chapter 1

Today, three friends from Lavelanet are coming to stay in Ripon (with friends of ours: we can’t cram them into our tiny flat).  They’re members of Découverte Terres Lointaines coming to Discover Yorkshire in Six Days.  Over the next few months, you’ll find out why.

But Yorkshire in 6 days?  That’s quite a challenge isn’t it?  Especially as it would be good to show something of what the Ariège and Yorkshire have in common: dairy and sheep farming, a textile industry long past its glory days, mining and quarrying ditto, a religious past coloured by conflict…. If you were Tour Guide, what would YOU choose?

York: The Romans, the Vikings have all been here: a day won’t be long enough

The Dales?  Swaledale, Wharfedale, Nidderdale….etc.  Which is your favourite?


Hawarth: A chance to see a bit of the wonderfully bleak landscape, and visit the home of the Brontë family.


Bradford: its textile industry brought the workers from Pakistan and India who are now such a significant part of the town’s population

Textile Machinery at Bradford Industrial Museum

Saltaire: a model village built by philanthropist Titus Salt in the 19thcentury as a decent place for workers to live.  Philanthropists like Salt built others in the UK – such as Port Sunlight on the Wirral and New Earswick  inYork.

Salt’s Mill, Saltaire

North York Moors:

Rosedale, North York Moors

we’ll see the views on our way to……………

Whitby: fishing port and holiday resort


Leeds: the city centre – a mix of Victorian civic pride and modern business district.

Many of the Victorian Arcades are now an up-market shopping destination

Harrogate Turkish Baths: time for us to relax and re-charge our batteries.

The Turkish Baths at Harrogate

Fountains Abbey: this Cistercian monastery is, like Saltaire, a World Heritage site.  And a beautiful and peaceful place.

Fountains Abbey

We’ll need to include a pub, fish and chips, preferably eaten on the seafront out of soggy paper.  Curry too.  But why is the totally inauthentic chicken tikka masala apparently now our national dish?

I’m so looking forward to being a tourist in my own birth county.  I hope our friends enjoy it too.

Coteaux d’Engraviès

Last week, we had a morning at an organic vineyard, one of only 2 commercial vineyards in the whole of the Ariège.  The vineyards at Coteaux d’Engraviès appeared on maps as long ago as 1310, and on later maps too, though eventually they disappeared.  So the owner of the Domaine, Philippe Babin told us, anyway.  He was the one who decided once again to cover the hillside in vines.

He introduced us to an Ariège from a time we couldn’t recognise.  Now, we’re used to seeing fields of maize, sunflowers, food and fodder crops  in addition to pastureland.  Back in the Middle Ages, when Catharism was at its height, the area was covered in vines.  Everyone produced wine for their own use.  It wasn’t strong, maybe 5% or so, but it provided refreshment and nourishment for men, women and children alike.  No neat rows here, the vines grew unsupported by trellising, higgledy piggledy.  Over in Pamiers, from where any exportable wine was shipped, the notorious Bishop of Pamiers, later Pope, Jacques Fournier, received the taxes he imposed in the form of wine.

The Ariège was prosperous and, for the period, densely populated.  Men made their living from mining and the forges, and their women and children reared stock in the high pastures.  Only the Industrial Revolution, which arrived later in France than in the UK – just before the First World War in fact – put a stop to this, as the small scale of local operations were not suited to large-scale mechanisation.  This, and the de-population that occurred when men failed to return from the trenches, began the Ariège’s descent into a less populated, often deprived area.

Philippe shares his expertise

Phylloxera saw the end of wine production in the Ariège.  Vines, decimated in the 19th century throughout Europe, were gradually replaced elsewhere by resistant American varieties.  The local domestic vines, most of which were fairly low quality, weren’t worth replacing, and people simply walked away from them, leaving them to die.  Only within the last 30 years have a couple of producers recognised that parts of the area are suitable for developing once more a high-quality product, and with modern and traditional savoir-faire behind them, worked towards developing businesses of which they can be proud.  Philippe Babin is one of these.

Philippe went on to tell us more about the vines themselves.  They need rain, and they need sunshine for their leaves to absorb and enable the fruit to mature.   Vines put roots deep down into the soil and rocky earth, particularly in the first 15 years of life. Philippe chooses to grow his vines organically, because he recognises that the particular composition of the soils and rocks beneath in the area – ‘terroir’ – inform the character of his vines: fertilisers and other products would change this balance.  The vines themselves change as they mature, and those plants which are 80 – 100 years old (his are a long way from this) produce little, but what they do is very fine.

Pruning forces the vines to produce grapes, and therefore seeds.  Unpruned, they grow hundreds of metres long, and see no need to seed themselves.  Wild vines are therefore innocent of fruit.

Examining grape pips for maturity

Then he showed us how to research a maturing grape.  Does the skin peel easily from the fruit, and is it loosing its elasticity?  If so, it’s ripening nicely.  Have the seeds broken away from the ‘umbilical cord’ of the stalk and taken on a woodier appearance?  Once that happens, the seeds are nearly ready to fall and have a go at germinating (they have a low germination rate).  From now on, they’ll nourish themselves, like embryo chickens in an egg, from the flesh of the grape, which will wither as the seed digests it.

Barrels full of wine waiting to be bottled

Lesson over, we went back to the Cave.  A small band of workers were working to bottle the last of the 2010 vintage to free up space for the harvest which will take place in maybe a fortnight or so.  The barrels in which the wine matures must never be left empty, so this is a last minute job.

And finally….the tasting.  An opportunity to compare three of the wines he produces.  Every year his blends are slightly different, to arrive at a consistent product.  Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon…all have their part to play in blending wines to make a perfect complement to an enjoyable meal, whether roasted, casseroled or preserved meats, or a plate of local cheeses.

Wine waiting to be tasted

Le P’tit Marché d’Is@

If you live within the long oval that has Mirepoix at the top, and Tarascon at the bottom, you might be lucky enough to get your fruit and veg. from Le P’tit Marché d’Is@ – Isabelle’s Little Market.

Isabelle, a young woman from Montferrier, has recently started a vegbox and grocery business, and it really is ‘the business’.   My memories of veg.boxes a few years ago in England are of worthy offerings that always included rather more soil-encrusted swedes than anybody could reasonably want.

My panier, last week

This isn’t like that. Her fruit and vegetables are organic or Agriculture Raisonnée, (limited use of drugs, fertilisers etc. permitted, within strict guidelines) all locally sourced: this week’s panier included potatoes, carrots, radish, celeriac, cabbage, spinach, chicory, lettuce, kiwi fruit, oranges and apples, all organic, and squeaky fresh. Last week’s, apart from the basics of potatoes, carrots and apples, was quite different.

Sorting out the shopping

Besides this, she’ll sell individual quantities of various fruit and veg , and she also has other lines. Poultry, pork, dairy products including various Ariégeois cheeses and yoghourts, all from farms no more than a few miles away.   Groceries include wonderful organic flour from a mill near here, pasta, beers, and from slightly farther afield in the Pyrénées Orientales, oils, dried fruits, nuts,tapenades etc.

Just arrived and ready to deliver

It’s very simple: you order by Monday midday for delivery later in the week.

Now I really look forward to 11 o’clock on Thursday mornings when her little white van swings into the parking space outside our house, and she cheerily hands over her bulging panier of shopping for us to unpack and plan the menus for the next few days (she even has a recipe idea or two tucked in the bottom of the basket). It even beats market shopping.  AND it’s made me feel not quite so unhappy about deciding not to grow my own vegetables this year.

Her morning's work all lined up in the van
Isabelle's morning's work all lined up in the van