Last news from Laroque

Our removal men travel weekly between northern England and southern Spain with all stops - including Laroque - in between.
Our removal men travel weekly between northern England and southern Spain with all stops – including Laroque – in between.

You’re making your last visit to Laroque today, for the time being.  We left 3 days ago, and now we’re in Ripon.  Those last days were a furore of packing, cleaning, ‘goodbyes’ (though never, never final farewells), and two visits from the removal firm, who couldn’t fit everything in, first time round.  At this moment, perhaps, the person who bought our house is planning his own removal to Laroque.

I never told you, probably out of sheer superstition, the story of the house sale.  The housing market’s incredibly tough in the Ariège just now.  House prices have tumbled 25% since 2008.  Properties remain unsold for one, two, three years, as unhappy owners reduce the price of their homes in hopes of at last attracting a buyer.

Whereas we had nothing but luck.  A man from near Paris, house-hunting here, in the area where he’d grown up, saw our house, arranged to view, and said he liked it.  A week later he came again, showing his ‘coup de cœur’ off to his mum and dad.  He made a low-price offer, as you do.  We refused it, as you do.  But we offered him our non-attached garden, being sold separately, at a generous discount, and said we’d include some of the furniture in the house sale.  Reader, he offered full price, and the rest is history.  Vue-vendue.

We'd just locked the door for the last time.  And helping us wave 'Goodbye' are Martine, Francis and Anaïs, almost the very first friends we made when we arrived.
We’d just locked the door for the last time. And helping us wave ‘Goodbye’ are Martine, Francis and Anaïs, almost the very first friends we made when we arrived.

So here we are in Ripon, ready to house hunt and begin our new lives here.  Oh, and there’s the Tour de France starting in Yorkshire too, in a couple of months.  We’ll keep you posted.




Janus in the Vatican: an image from Wikipedia
Janus in the Vatican: an image from Wikipedia

We’ve all heard of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, endings and transitions.  He’s the one with two faces: the grizzled lived-in one looks back towards the past, while on the other side of his head is the younger version, looking with optimism and hope to the future.  He puts himself about at this time of year, and indeed gives his name to January.

He’s been putting more energy at the moment however, into clambering inside our heads, mine and Malcolm’s.  He’s got us at our own game, as we look both forwards and backwards at every moment

The grizzled half of my head is fully occupied in reminiscence.  It doesn’t even try to understand why anyone would want to look at a  future in England.  It thinks about our walks, particularly our Sunday walks with our Laroque friends. What scenery!  However characterful, green and lovely English scenery might be, nowhere is going to provide the snowy summits of the Pyrenees as a backdrop to every walk.  And there’s something about those midday picnics too which I’m not expecting to see repeated at an English walker’s lunch spot.  The aperitif that gets handed round, the bottle or two of wine,  two or three home-made cakes, coffee and digestif…..  And last Sunday, a mid-December Sunday, it was so warm that one of our number  stripped off his tee-shirt to get the sun on his back.

The Pyrenees: always there.  The constant backdrop round here
The Pyrenees: always there. The constant backdrop round here

The grizzled half of my head realises that tomorrow’s concert with the choir will be my last one ever and makes sure that my eyes mist over and my throat constricts as I try to follow the music.  It points out that those summer evenings spent in our back yard over a leisurely meal and  glass of wine are now things of the past.  Those moments with friends, those trips to explore, discover and re-discover the area we’ve called home these last few years area are all but over.  Grizzled Janus is holding all the cards when he’s in the mood.  He knows very well that we’re finding it tough to say ‘Goodbye’ to all this.

Ripon Canal in spring (Nigel Homer, via Wikimedia Commons)
Ripon Canal in spring (Nigel Homer, via Wikimedia Commons)

But Janus has two equally potent faces.  The young version is optimistic and cheerful.  He points out that we’ve never fancied growing old, much less infirm in France, and this is the moment to get involved in life in Ripon,  a community where we already feel comfortable, but where there is so much more still to discover.  Much of what we most appreciate in France is available to us there too: wonderful walking scenery and an active community that welcomes people who want to join in.  Theatre and concerts will be within easy reach and we’ll be able to mix small-town life with easy access to bigger towns too.  And do you know what? I’m going to appreciate those English summers, if not the winters so much.  I can’t be doing with those days when the temperature is in the high 30s: and I used to be a sun-worshipper.  It’ll be good to return to speaking English and to understand most cultural references : though I expect we’re dreadfully out of touch.

Thwaite in the Yorkshire Dales  (David Dunford, via Wikimedia Commons)
Thwaite in the Yorkshire Dales (David Dunford, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dear two-faced Janus, you’re a terribly mixed up sort of chap.  We expect to be terribly mixed up too.  We made a decision, and we believe it’s the right one.  But we don’t think  we’re going to get through the next few months without periods of excitement, periods of mourning, periods of confusion.  Often all on the same day.  It’s probably all going to be a bit exhausting….. and it might end in tears.

Country mouse

We were Christmas shopping in Toulouse yesterday.  A day in this, the fourth largest city in France, is always a treat.  It’s affectionately known as ‘la ville rose’, because of the predominant building material, a deep pink brick.  Elegant long tall terraces of town houses, public buildings, hidden courtyards wait to be discovered and re-discovered on every visit.  We have so much more still to find and explore.  There are fabulous churches and museums, wonderful and often quirky independent shops, appetising restaurants and bars to suit every budget and taste.  The River Garonne and the Canal du Midi pass though the city offering a feeling of space and fresh air.

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 always a city girl.  Raised in London, 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.

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.

This is the Valley Gardens in Harrogate.  I must say it doesn't look too crowded
This is the Valley Gardens in Harrogate. I must say it doesn’t look too crowded

Then 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've got used to
These are the kind of traffic conditions we’ve 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.

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

To travel – slowly – is a better thing than to arrive – quickly…..

RL Stevenson: Travels with a donkey

Robert Louis Stevenson knew a thing or two about travelling slowly – and hopefully – what with hiking round the Cevennes with only a donkey for company.

But yesterday, arriving back in Laroque rather quickly having left Bolton only a few hours before, I felt he’d got it right. Our usual way of travelling between England and France is by car.  We can’t claim it’s particularly slow, not with maximum speeds of 130 k.p.h on motorways.  But it does take the best part of 3 days to do the pretty-much-exactly 1000 miles between Laroque and Ripon, and that’s fine.


We detour to take in delightful towns like Cahors or Vendôme, and make sure we have time to explore a little.  Early morning starts may find us startling deer in the still misty fields, while at lunchtime we’ll be on the look out for a ‘menu ouvrier’, or a rural picnic spot to have a lengthy break.  We’ll enjoy a night at a chambre d’hôtes, and usually have an interesting time chatting to the owners or a fellow guest.  Breakfast with home made jams and maybe breads and cakes comes as standard. A trip on a channel ferry. A night in London with son-and daughter-in-law.  And finally, back up north.

And all this time, we’ll be adjusting between a life in France and a life in England: watching the scenery gradually flatten as we drive north, then begin to undulate again as it passes through Normandy and the Pas de Calais, linking with the similarly gently rolling hills of Kent.

This trip to England though was by plane each way.  It’s quicker and it’s cheaper too.

But the whole business of packing luggage into the required dimensions, checking the weight, hunting for a clear plastic bag for those creams and liquids: then at the airport emptying pockets, removing shoes, belts, is just a bit stressful.

Airport security: an image from the Guardian

And somehow it addles my brain. Three hours ago I was in a traffic jam on the outskirts of industrial Liverpool, and now we’re driving through vineyards in the Aude? The clothes which worked in the morning don’t do in the afternoon, and I’m having trouble adjusting the language coming out of my mouth.  I’m all discombobulated.

We’re lucky we have the time to be more leisurely.  I’m not against taking it even more slowly and walking some of the way down, maybe along one of the pilgrimage routes towards St. Jaques de Compostelle.  Anyone want to come too?  Barbara?  Sue K?

‘So British’. A French view of life in England.

Well, our French friends have been and gone.   It was a busy week full of discovery for us all.  Despite the almost unrelievedly awful weather,  Yorkshire’s sights, both rural and urban, gave a good account of themselves.  But here are one or two of the more unexpected discoveries our friends made.

Harvest Festival.  Saturday evening found us in church for a very special concert by the St. Paulinus Singers, a Ripon Chamber choir.  As we entered, our friends were struck by the celebratory pile of pumpkins, cabbages, carrots and Autumn fruits assembled for harvest-time celebrations in church.  They’d never heard of  such a thing.  Oh, and the concert began dead on time too.  Another first for them.

Harvest Festival

Charity shops.  The French have little other than away-from-town-centre large warehouses given over to the sale of donated goods and run by Emmaus.  The often carefully dressed shops we’re so accustomed to on the British high street are unknown to them.

St. Michael’s Hospice shop, Ripon

Closed for business: open for business.  As we know, shops here tend to be open through the day.  But what a surprise for our French friends to see them closing for the day at 5.30 p.m. rather than around 7.00 p.m! To find supermarkets open in some cases 24/7 was even more astonishing.

Closed at the moment

Houses without shutters.  Evenings walking round town fascinated them.  Instead of shutters there were curtains, which might or might not be drawn.  How exciting to have glimpses of another set of lives!  This is denied to them in France as shutters are usually firmly closed there as night falls.

A night-time window

Buttered bread.  As born-and-bred Ariègeoises, our guests were unused to the idea of having butter AND cheese or ham or whatever on their bread.  They rather felt it was gilding the lily.  But they weren’t keen on the fact that bread is not produced routinely at the average British dinner table.  It’s odd,  we too have come to expect bread as part of a meal in France, but never in the UK

Milky coffee and tea.  The default position for both in France is black (strong coffee, weak tea)

At the butcher’s. Of course our guests wanted to cook a slap-up meal for us.  We all struggled a bit with this one, as French and English butchers cut their beasts up in different ways.  As a recently-lapsed vegetarian, I’m re-learning slowly all I ever thought I knew, and starting at page 1 in French butcher’s shops.

A Friesian: until recently, these were the cows I most frequently saw in England

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.

Six weeks: a souvenir

Dear reader, perhaps you are feeling quite short-changed.  You subscribe to a blog called ‘Life in Laroque’, and for the last 6 weeks or so, have had nothing but news from England: Yorkshire, to be exact.

Well, we’re back in Laroque, where in our absence they’ve had bitter cold, driving rain lasting for days, and astonishing heatwaves in which the thermometer has topped 40 degrees.

But just before we abandon postings about England, here is a souvenir slideshow of our time there.  It’s a reminder for me really, so if dear reader, you decide to skip it on this occasion, I quite understand.

Normal service will be resumed in my next post.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

‘Except ye Lord keep ye cittie ye wakeman waketh in vain’

Ripon Town Hall

That’s the  verse from the Psalms, inscribed above the town hall in Ripon, where we’re spending the next few weeks to avoid the cold and rain of the south of France (no, really, they’ve got the heating on over there).  It reminds us that every evening – EVERY evening – for well over a thousand years, the Ripon Wakeman has sounded his horn to the 4 corners of the city to announce that all is well.

I had to go and check it out yesterday evening.

George Pickles, Wakeman, on duty

Promptly at 9, a smartly dressed individual in buff coloured hunting coat, tricorn hat and white gloves took his place before the obelisk on the Market Square and sounded his horn 4 times, once at each corner of the obelisk – one long mournful note each time.

Then he grinned at us, a small crowd of 20.  ”Want to hear a bit of history?’  Well, of course we did.  He made us introduce ourselves, and we found we too came from, well, about 3 corners of the world: Catalonia, Italy, Australia, even South Shields and Merton.  And here’s some of what he told us:

In 886, Alfred the Great, 37 year-old warrior king, was travelling his kingdom to defeat the Vikings, and to drum up support .  Arriving at the small settlement of Ripon, he liked what he saw and granted a Royal Charter.  He lacked the wherewithal to produce an appropriate document, and so gave a horn which is still safely locked in the town hall.

‘You need to be more vigilant, there are Vikings about’. Alfred warned.  So the people appointed a wakeman to guard the settlement through hours of darkness, and he put that horn to use by sounding it at the 4 corners of the Market Cross to announce that all was well as he began his watch.  The town’s now on its 4th horn.

If you want to know more, our current Wakeman, George Pickles,  has written the whole tale for the BBC website.  It’s a good yarn.  Read it when you have a moment

This is the obelisk the Wakeman visits each evening. It was erected by the then MP, William Aislabie in the 19th century, to commemorate his ….60 years as an MP