I’m a great fan of charity shops. Apart from anything else one can often stumble across old books related to farming, the countryside, and hunting and shooting – all subjects I find fascinating, and about which I write on a frequent basis. Many of these; particularly the Oxfam book shops, are as well, if not better stocked than many designated second-hand bookshops.
We are lucky to have such an ‘Oxfam’ near us in Winchester, but it was in a small charity shop in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, where I made my latest find – a pile of The Graphic newspapers/magazines ranging in date from 1897 to 1907. They made for wonderful browsing and I was momentarily tempted into buying the whole pile. In the end, I restricted myself to just one published March 2, 1907 (well, they were priced at £3.00 each!), and that mainly because it contained an account of ‘A Day with the Woolmer Draghounds’,
Although the exact location of their kennels was not explained, the fact that the writer talked of cavalrymen from Aldershot and a Col. Alec Godley from Longmoor Camp, lead me to suspect that they were based somewhere near the Hampshire/Surrey border. The account in The Graphic further mentioned the fact that: “Most of the field were mounted on infantry ponies” – thus reinforcing the idea that the drag-hunts (where hounds and their mounted followers hunt an artificial trail laid some minutes previous by ‘runner’) were for the express enjoyment of army officers.
Newspapers of the time rarely included photos… and only a few illustrations. The Graphic was the exception – hence its name, I suppose – and the drag-hunt account was accompanied by atmospheric line drawings penned by one Angus McNeill.
There was undoubted professional artistry in McNeill’s work – so much so that I went online in the hope of finding out more about his illustrative skills. I wasn’t disappointed.
Seemingly, Angus John McNeill, of the Seaforth Highlanders was a ‘side-kick’ of no less than Winston Churchill (and, by coincidence, they were both born in the same year – 1874). McNeill contributed 50 drawings to Churchill’s book, The River War, and, in addition, his pencil sketches appeared in the Illustrated London News and The Graphic during the Anglo-Boer War.
Already known by the editors of The Graphic as a result and, with his obvious military connections, it makes total sense that he should have illustrated the Woolmer Draghounds hunting report.
As a professional freelancer writer and author, despite the fact that, in the days before the internet, there was undoubted satisfaction in finding something relevant in the reference section of the local library, I can’t help but be grateful for the ready access of the internet – and for the existence of charity shops!
How I enjoy the freedom of emails and text messages… you can write what you want, when you want, and pick up relevant information in reply when convenient to do so. It’s not the same with phone calls.
From a selfish point of view, the telephone always seems to ring at the most inopportune of moments… whether it be because of me being in full-flow of my latest writing commission or, in the evening, just as we are settling down to supper and an evening on our own.
Many won’t believe it, but it’s almost a phobia. There’s very little that makes me cringe but, hearing the phone ring always sends trickles of trepidation to my brain. I’ve been like it all my life. Unlike some children I know who dash to answer the ringing menace at any and every opportunity, I’ve always preferred to leave it to someone else and, as an adult (in years, if not behaviour), to either delegate its answering to a willing child or, in their absence, ignore it altogether.
It took many a year to be persuaded into buying a mobile phone – and now I have one, it’s for emergency use only. You’ll never find me almost literally glued to this tiny block of technology as is the case with so many … in fact I use it so rarely that I quite often forget where I used it and have to resort to dialing its number on the landline in order to locate its current position. In such instances, at least I know who is calling!
The only other thing that causes me phobia-like feelings are rats. As much as I might hate the telephone and dread its ringing, they are in a different league entirely … were I ever to be asked to participate in a ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’ type of programme and forced into a pit in which, once I was safely ensconced, families of rodents would be released to wander all over my prone body, I couldn’t do it no matter how much prize-winning money was at stake.
I can, though, answer the phone – but only if I have to!
Despite having lived in France for almost 14 years – and therefore, you’d think I’d have got used to it – I never ceased to wonder at the number of ‘bank holidays’ enjoyed by the French during the course of a year. Not content with any officially designated by the calendar, if they happen to fall anywhere near a weekend, then it’s a good excuse to take a break on the 24 hours either prior or post the day as well. Known as ‘faire le pont’, the expression quite literally refers to the bridge between normal work time and the official holiday.
With three in the month, May is quite busy on the bank holiday front. When it comes to August, though, the French really do excel as the whole of the month is generally accepted as being legitimate time off and you’re on a hiding to nothing if you hope ever to get a plumber to call, official paperwork completed, or your car serviced anytime between Aug 1-31st.
How different things are in the UK. One of the greatest bones of contention regarding bank holidays throughout most of Britain is their spacing in the calendar. Like the proverbial bus, you wait fifteen weeks for one and then four come along at once.
When Easter arrives, the last official day off prior to that will have been New Year’s Day some three and a half months before. Good Friday and Easter Monday are followed within six weeks by the May Day and Spring bank holidays' but then, after this feast of two in a month, comes a long famine with just one statutory day off – the August bank holiday – in the seven months between the end of May and Christmas.
August Bank holiday: simply the mention of it to some of a certain age engenders memories of childhood trips to the beach, picnics in the countryside and blue sky days when (in our minds at least) the sun always shone. But how did bank holidays start – and why do they often involve some extremely suspect and very definitely curious country customs such as maypole dancing and rolling eggs and truckles of cheese down rural hillsides?
Although any breaks from the daily grind were generally synonymous with ancient rites and, once Christianity appeared on the scene, religious festivals, rather than for pure recreational reasons, the significance of such a correlation is most likely due to the fact that government- introduced holidays allowed extra leisure time.
For example, the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 designated four holidays in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (the ‘May Day’ or early May Bank Holiday is a relatively recent addition) and five in Scotland. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, both Christmas Day and Good Friday were already traditional ‘common law’ holidays and did not, therefore, need to be included in the legislation. Interestingly, when the Act was first created, the August bank holiday was the first, rather than the last Monday of the month – and it remains that way in Scotland.
In addition to the creation of bank holidays, further 19th century legislation made several other changes to the working life of our forebears. The 1833 Factory Act, for example, regulated working hours and the reduction of hours (albeit initially only small) which, when combined with the coming of the railways, meant that, for the first time ever, families could take a break – and indulge in some late summer frivolity before the autumnal arrival of the shorter hours of daylight and the long nights of winter.
It goes without saying that the world would be in a pretty poor state without trees. They store carbon, help absorb air pollution and are a valuable home to wildlife large and small. Their roots help bind the soil structure and prevent erosion and, over millennia, Man has used them as a source of building material, fuel and, through their fruits and seeds, food.
The crucial element of any wood is a diversity of species – blocks of one type will never be as well-populated and favoured as those with plenty of variety. The size of a wood will also have an effect on its popularity: there’s always more to be found around the edges of a wood than there is in its centre; especially if it’s commercial forestry consisting of quick-growing softwoods.
In places where there’s no option but to have vast tracts of woodland, the cutting of wide rides through its centre and further dissecting the remainder gives more edges – and there will be more to be seen in the way of flora and fauna as a result. Butterflies and insects are extremely fond of grassy woodland rides and their numbers multiply greatly in such situations.
In mature woodland there can often be found at least a couple of specimen trees. Of what variety will depend on the acidity/alkalinity of the soil in which they grow, but it would be unusual not to find some type of oak that has been growing there for generation after generation – in fact it’s commonly said that ‘an oak takes 300 years to grow; lives for 300 years… and spends 300 years dying.’
Some regions of Britain favour yew trees – and what momentous events a few of these ancients must have witnessed. More generally, yews were often grown as deliberate parish boundary markers… and they were sometimes planted along the old ox-roads down which the drovers used to take their livestock from one place to another (frequently over considerable distances) as, whilst other tree species shed their leaves, they could easily be seen and gave some indication as to the route from quite a way off.
Many trees are considered symbolic of religion. There’s the Glastonbury Thorn in Somerset, for example, and, in the Caledonian Forest, a great number of Celtic legends are connected to several species growing within its boundaries. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a believer in spiritualism – and was also convinced of the existence of tree fairies. Should you have ever seen any of the latter (and been sober at the time), please do let me know.
In the early 1950s, French author Jean Giono wrote the tale of The Man Who Planted Trees, in which he recounted how a shepherd during the course of his wanderings in the somewhat tree-starved lower Alps, made a hole in the ground with the end of his crook and into each one, dropped an acorn gathered from where oaks were more plentiful. Returning years later, saplings abounded where once there was nothing – and that, I think (the possibility of fairies notwithstanding), is the real magic of trees.
Scattered throughout southern England are images of horses cut into the chalk downlands. Amongst the most famous of these are the White Horse of Uffington and, at Westbury, Wiltshire, the horse carved into the hillside there is thought to have been made in order to commemorate Alfred’s victory over the Danes at the battle of Ethandune in 878AD.
Even more than the horses, hill-figures of human form capture the imagination – and probably none more so than the infamous Cerne Abbas Giant of Dorset. His huge, ‘attributes’ have, over the years, been the cause of a great deal of schoolboy sniggering, but what exactly did the carvers have in mind as they toiled away cutting the turf in order to expose the chalk (and much else besides) underneath?
Seemingly, a sight-line taken directly up this particular part of his anatomy on May Day points directly at the sun as it rises over the crest of the hill, so it may be that it is do with sun-worship. More logical, however, is the far more commonly held belief that the giant’s erection (forgive the pun) by people some 2,500 years ago, was connected to fertility.
It makes a good story but archeological evidence via soil probes suggests that what we see today is not exactly as it was first created. There are, for instance, certain irregularities appertaining to the area below the giant’s left wrist and when probe readings were monitored by computer a few years ago, an image of what looked like a severed head with dangling dreadlocks appeared. The Cerne Giant may, therefore, not only be brandishing his obvious masculinity, but also evidence of successful conquest of a military nature.
It’s all very well to make educated guesses based on modern scientific techniques but will we ever really understand exactly why communities of long-ago took the time and trouble to carve the shapes of enormous men and horses into the chalk hillsides of southern England?
Returning to the White Horse of Uffington, due to a procedure known as ‘optical stimulated luminescence’, it’s now known that this 400ft long stylized figure has been galloping across The Ridgeway in Berkshire for at least 3,000 years. But quite why it was cut and created where it is makes absolutely no logical sense as it is most definitely not best positioned to make any outwardly obvious kind of statement.
Whilst fertility, ancient worship or ways of commemorating significant events or battles might be at least part of the purpose of these figures, maybe our predecessors could think of no better way to spend their time – and that’s not as flippant as it may at first sound. There have, over the years been many follies and seemingly pointless constructions built in order to keep people occupied during the slack times of winter… after all, as the old adage has it, “the Devil makes work for idle hands”.
Whatever their true purpose, chalk figures; particularly giants and horses, are a fantastic legacy that will survive through ensuing centuries – and will, I have no doubt, continue to cause wonder, amazement and speculation.
It was Shakespeare who first wrote of “the darling buds of May”. Then, in 1958, H E Bates used it as the title for his first book in a series of five about the Larkin family – which was subsequently turned into a television series some decades later.
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May” goes Shakespeare’s sonnet but, as April drew to a close and May approached, it was more the late frosts in some parts of the country that did for the spring-flowering buds – and for a row of my planted out and previously hardened-off lettuce.
Although we all talked about it at the time (and what else do most British people talk about if not the weather?!), those late frosts; as inconvenient as they may have been to the gardener – and how garden centre owners must love such occasions due to the fact that over-keen gardeners who rushed to purchase bedding plants over the Easter weekend, then needed to replace those irretrievably nibbled by Jack Frost – are not all that unusual.
My diary notes from our years’ of living in France record that, in 2016, there was a severe frost on April 29 and, in 2003 (a year which then produced one of the hottest summers in recent times), one sufficient enough to knock back hardy perennials as late as May 13. No wonder countrywise rural neighbours were forever trotting out dire warnings regarding the folly of beginning any serious gardening too soon in the season.
Fond of their saint’s days (if you buy a French diary, each and every daily date is suffixed by a saint’s name), it’s interesting to see that those who have their name affixed to the dates of May 11, 12 and 13 are traditionally thought of as the ‘Ice Saints’ – and, as such, are likely to bring cold weather but, most importantly, the last frosts of the year. For this reason, most of our French neighbours’ would never consider planting out until the days of the ‘Ice Saints’ have been and gone.
For the viticulteurs’ – and, despite the ‘New World’ take-over of the regular market, French wines in general do have a certain following; particularly those from certain regions in which international buyers are willing to take a risk in purchasing young wines en primeur – late frosts can result in disaster or, at the very least, a much reduced harvest.
Although Shakespeare’s “rough winds” may well have shaken the ‘darling buds of May’, the cold weather of late April could, despite some vineyards resorting to the traditional setting light to bonfires in an effort to keep the air temperature above freezing, affect this year’s output. But, if as happened in 2003, a good summer then follows, limited though the amount of bottles may be, we might all very much enjoy drinking some excellent quality ‘2017’ wines in the future.
There comes a time in everyone’s life when they begin to enjoy trips to the garden centre – even if it’s only to avail oneself of afternoon cream teas in the café.
There’s an age too when membership of the National Trust becomes almost compulsory. Whilst I don’t agree with absolutely everything the latter does, there can be no doubt that they are wonderful custodians of properties and land that would have otherwise suffered irretrievably, or even become derelict without their intervention. A year’s membership soon pays for itself – and membership makes one more inclined to visit places you might otherwise ignore as you drive past en route to elsewhere.
Walking the countryside as I love to do, it never fails to amaze me as to how many old and often tiny churches are tucked away in sequestered parts. Some are classed as Ancient Monuments or have been given Grade I or Grade II status, while some are only nowadays used for occasional worship. All, however, remain consecrated. And who looks after them? Well, at local level, a small band of dedicated volunteer ‘caretakers’, but nationally, it’s likely to be either The Churches Conservation Trust or the Friends of Friendless Churches – the latter owning almost 50 ancient churches, half in England and half in Wales. The Churches Conservation Trust are, however, responsible for seven times that number and have ensured that a unique (and eclectic) mix of parish churches – some of which date back to Saxon times – are kept in a reasonable state of repair.
Garden centres, National Trust properties and old churches? It’s undoubtedly an age thing… but a very enjoyable age thing nevertheless!
Although other areas of the country have not fared so well, as of the end of February, our bantams have been reprieved and can now once more wander at will.
They have had a hard time of it lately. Because of Bird Flu and the resultant DEFRA restrictions compelling everyone to keep their poultry inside – or at least away from anywhere where wild birds who might be carrying the disease could have access – they’ve been locked away in the greenhouse since last December.
Actually, that’s not perhaps as bad as it sounds. It’s quite a large greenhouse and we moved them in there in their portable house and run so they’ve always had their home comforts. In addition to which, they’ve been able to scratch and dust-bathe in the borders that have previously grown tomato plants and other kitchen produce so, on reflection, I guess they don’t feel too hard done by at all.
Without the DEFRA edict permitting their ‘release’, they would, this month, be facing an eviction order. Firstly, as the weather warms up and the sun hopefully shines more frequently, a hothouse environment would not have been not good for their health as, even with the sky-lights open, just an hour of sun on a glass roof is likely to amplify the internal temperature quite considerably. Secondly, now that spring is just around the corner, I needed my greenhouse back!
Their house and run is wild bird proof but it’s not very big and I don’t like the idea of keeping them confined in there without access to the garden. Without the recent reprieve, short of constructing a wire mesh run to surround it and covering it over with nylon netting, there would have been no apparent solution.
They deserve the best. They have, after all, kept us adequately supplied with eggs during their confinement – and I’m very much looking forward to seeing just how well this summer’s crop of tomatoes fare as the result of the border soil being worked by their constant scratching and earth excavation – and the natural addition of some extremely fine chicken manure!
Every February, book authors’ who have joined up to it, receive money through the Public Lending Rights (PLR) scheme each time one of their titles has been borrowed from a public library during the previous year. The money is not a gift – it might well be a bonus in addition to royalties or one-off payments made via the publishers’ but, in every instance, it’s been hard earned and justified.
Hopefully those who have borrowed books will have enjoyed them – or at least benefited by their reading. They will almost certainly have enjoyed the ambiance of the library… it’s calm relaxing environment and wall-to-wall spine titles promising escapism, adventure, biographies and practical ‘how-to’ knowledge.
Despite giving immediate access to knowledge, accessing that knowledge obviously requires the individual to make a journey in order to gain it and, as we all know, research can nowadays be done far more easily through the worldwide web. You can even keep up-to-date with newspapers online – but I’d like to think that there are still some who pop into their local library to read them in the traditional manner. And who wants to read a book online or in e-book form? There’s surely nothing to beat the pleasure of holding a ‘proper’ book in your hands?
Sadly, though, at least according to an article in The Guardian (which, ironically, I must admit to having read online!), it appears that: “Library book loans continued a downward trend in 2016” and that, “loans for the year to 10 December fell on average by 14%, with loans to adults’ worst hit at 15% down. Loans of children’s books fell by just over 12%.”
Some public libraries are housed in buildings of great architecture and, as was the case of the library which I used to visit with my father every Saturday as a child, can on occasion, house great works of art as well as books. Today, a trip is, for many, an opportunity to use wi-fi facilities, or even to meet up with friends in the library café and, particularly during the school holidays, libraries are the ideal places in which to hold a great variety of organised fun activities for children.
Nevertheless, despite their diversification, those libraries that remain are as under threat as ever and require innovative ideas (and subsequent finance) in order to survive. So, with cutbacks and closures forever in mind, when did you last visit your local library? As the expression has it: “Use it or lose it…”
Quite where the tradition of mince pies and Christmas cake intended to be eaten over the Christmas period came from, I’ve no idea. I do, though, think that the latter could well have its origins in the Epiphany Cake which, several centuries ago, used to be baked in order to celebrate ‘Twelfth Night’ (January 6th) ... which was, of course, the day when the Three Wise Men were said to have visited the infant Jesus.
Up until the 19th Century, Epiphany was as great a celebration as Christmas is today but, compared to modern Christmas cake recipes, one baked for Epiphany was a relatively simple fruit cake which would have been unlikely to have been awarded many points were it to ever appear in The Great British Bake Off. Soggy bottoms notwithstanding, superstition dictated that, as well as fruit, such cakes should contain some good luck charms or ‘favours’ such as cloves, twigs, or even a piece of rag (imagine what Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood might have made of thier inclusion!).
The most common addition to the mix was, however, a bean and a pea; the idea being that whoever got the bean was ‘king’ for the night and the recipient of the pea, the ‘queen’. Actually served on Twelfth Night, for the rest of the evening, they ruled supreme over the household and guests.
In order to ensure that a member of the right sex received the correct favour, the bean and the pea were strategically placed in the cake mix immediately before baking and, once cooked and ready to eat, the ladies present were served from the left-hand ‘pea’ side, the gentlemen from the right. What happened if the cake was not presented facing the correct way and a man got the pea, or a lady the bean, is not recorded!
Despite the disappearance of the Epiphany cake in the UK, it is, nevertheless, still an important part of January tradition elsewhere in Europe – particularly in France where the gateaux or galette des Rois is to be found in every village bakers.
Nowadays a small pottery figure takes the place of the bean or pea and it is, I suppose, ‘unisex’ in point of view of the fact that no matter whether its finder be male or female, the gold paper crown that always accompanies the purchase of such a cake is theirs to wear as either ‘king’ or ‘queen’. As to whether or not their autonomous rule of the subsequent proceedings is a successful one is probably down to the loyalty or otherwise of their ‘subjects’ who, from personal experience, can get a bit raucous and decidedly unruly as the evening progresses!
I have stones in several of the hand-warmer pockets of the coats and gilets I wear on a daily basis. They didn’t get there by accident, nor am I intending to, as did Virginia Woolf, fill them completely before then walking into the river in order to end it all. No… it’s just that, for some reason, I find it comforting to feel the tactile, smooth and rounded shape of a small stone or pebble picked up during the course of my travels around countryside, riverbanks or during a visit to the beach.
I lost the most perfect stone from one of my pockets a couple of months back. I threw my coat onto an outdoor chair, the stone flew out and, despite hearing it hitting the deck, I couldn’t find it. And what constitutes the ‘perfect’ stone or pebble? Well, to be worthy of addition to my collection, it has to be weathered sufficiently so as to possess no rough edges or surfaces; be unusually coloured; small enough to articulate between thumb and the first two fingers as I twist and twirl it in my pocket, and, perhaps most importantly, engender memories of the place from whence it came.
By pure good fortune, I recently picked up a replacement for my lost and most perfect stone not all that far from where I found the original. Unlike the original, however – which was perfectly smooth, rounded and about the dimensions of a £1.00 coin – its successor is slightly larger, egg-shaped, and has a tiny concave depression on one side that corresponds to the exact shape of my thumbprint.
It’s smooth from its years in a river, but not quite polished enough for my liking yet. The other, from its time in my pocket – and from my constant, almost sub-conscious fingering as I rolled it round in idle moments – had developed a wonderful patina such as could never be created artificially.
I’m helping it on its way by the use of a little trick learnt from a very old countryman whom I met in my early teenage years. He had an amazing bird egg collection gathered in his youth – and used to add a ‘bloom’ to his most precious eggs by gently wiping them in the shallow gullies to be found at either side of the human nose. This area secretes a slightly oily sebum which is perfect not only for bird’s eggs, but the natural polishing of pebbles too!
Despite the clocks going back at the end of last month, it’s dark when I take ‘The Dog’ out for her early morning walk. I could, I suppose, wander out later but I like to get on with my writing in the mornings – a time when I seem to be most productive – and I get my best thoughts and ideas whilst out walking… so that obviously has to come first in order to make the system work.
When I’m in France we wander at will, but when in Hampshire I have a couple of favourite walks, one of which incorporates ‘The Ox Drove’ – a track that begins near the Leckford Hutt on the A30 and runs parallel and eastwards towards Odiham and beyond.
It’s no coincidence that, for a part of the way, the Ox Drove runs alongside the main road – it, like many others, originated both as a means of cattle and sheep drovers avoiding having to pay tolls at turnpikes and as a way of avoiding animal hoof injuries from the stoned and flinted road surface.
Even at this time of year when most of the deciduous leaves have dropped, there’s still a heavy overhead canopy from the predominantly beech trees that line its edges. Dotted along the way there are, however, the odd holly, Scots pine, yew and other evergreens.
It’s unlikely that many of these have been planted by nature – most were probably placed there as way-markers; their year-round greenness making them easy to see from a distance. Clumps of such trees growing round an inn or farmstead would also indicate to the herders that these were places where they could rest their stock overnight and also find themselves somewhere to eat and sleep.
The route makes for an interesting one in daylight – but is even more so in the dark. Actually, the last time we walked it, even at six in the morning, there was a quite bright ‘Hunter’s Moon’ which, with its quite spectacular surrounding halo, meant there was absolutely no need for a torch.
In that light, it was easy to see how the road had formulated over the centuries – bizarrely, the old banks and ditches and places where older trees once grew were more clearly defined in the moonlight than ever they are in daylight.
How many must have passed that way before us. And what tales they would have to tell. In their absence the drove road is all that’s left to relate the story of its history; nonetheless, with the clues still there to read, it does so extremely eloquently.
But have the drovers, the livestock in their charge and their herding dogs really gone? Walking in their footsteps on an early autumn morning, it’s easy to imagine their presence still lingers and I’m never surprised when, on certain stretches, The Dog occasionally stops and looks to back and front as if she’s just become aware of fellow travellers’ from a bygone age!
Forget ‘Viagra’ as the need arises (or doesn’t) – all you seemingly require is a plate of oysters. People have been adventurous in love, and with aphrodisiacs, for as long as history has been recorded… and oysters have long been considered Nature’s aphrodisiac.
Oysters live in the sea (no… really?!) and as sea water contains various elements of life-enhancing ingredients, it’s perhaps no surprise to learn that the creatures which live within it (particularly shellfish), contain the likes of phosphorus, calcium, iodine, iron, vitamin B and glycol—phosphates. Life-enhancing they may be, but they are, according to scientists and people who study human behaviour, also basic essentials in encouraging loving, sexual feeling.
The spur for sexual desire begins in the brain - in the hypothalamus, which also governs our appetites for food and drink. No wonder then that several pleasantly alcoholic drinks (champagne, for example) are considered necessary by some in order to get ‘in the mood’, or that oysters are classed as being one of the world’s best food aphrodisiacs.
History has it that Casanova ate fifty of them raw every morning – and, if his CV can be believed, he was certainly no slouch in such matters!
And why am I talking of oysters in October’s blog? Well, it’s all to do with the fact that, traditionally, one should only ever eat shellfish when there’s an ‘R’ in the month. The calendar does, it must be admitted, give plenty of scope – we can eat all from September to May – but it is October that’s long been considered the optimum month in which to get the best out of oysters.
Having said that, in French living – which I’ve enjoyed for almost 14 years – it’s not actually until Christmas and New Year that oysters really come into their own. At that time of year they feature prominently on menus and fish counters, and almost half of the country’s oyster consumption slithers down the nation’s throat during and between these two holidays. I’ve not checked whether, as a consequence, France’s annual birth rate peaks at some point the following September but it might be interesting to find out!
Apparently, for the greatest sexual potency, one should eat them raw, on the half shell. Far more practically, when buying oysters, make sure that the shells are firmly shut. If any are slightly open, tap sharply; those that don’t close immediately should be discarded.
Unlike your ardour, very fresh oysters will keep for almost a week if correctly stored in the bottom of the fridge. Cover them loosely with a damp cloth (or preferably seaweed), with the flattest side of the shell uppermost so as best to retain the juices.
Weather forecasters, for convenience, apparently consider the first day of autumn to commence on September 1st (and continue through until the end of November). But, in this month’s mini-blog, I’m not going to follow that statement with the oft-used clichéd quote of, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as penned by Keats in his poem, ‘To Autumn’ (Oh… wait… I just did…!)
No matter how autumn is defined, September has always been a very important month in the traditional rural calendar; particularly around Michaelmas Day (September 29th) – a period that marked the end of harvest and was, therefore, a time when farmers could calculate how many animals they could afford to keep through the winter without running low on fodder.
Livestock surplus to requirements would either have to be slaughtered and smoked or salted in order to preserve the meat, or sold on at one of the many Michaelmas fairs.
In addition to such events, country dwellers; especially itinerant farm labourers’, also attended hiring fairs in search of winter employment. Originally however, hiring fairs were not fairs at all (at least not in the sense we understand the word today) and were, in medieval times, a public gathering at which, local magistrates, empowered by law to fix the agricultural workers’ expected set wages, would make those rates publicly known at the Sessions or Statute Fair.
By the time that the legal necessity to declare such rates had been abolished, the Statute Fair had become such a well-known place for everyone to gather that it was the perfect place for farmers to employ their workers – and for workers to seek work. The name of such fairs eventually also changed; becoming variously known as either Hiring or Mop fairs where those seeking employment would stand in the town square carrying the tools of their trade in order to be identified by would-be employees: a crook for a shepherd (think Gabriel Oak in Hardy’s, Far from the Madding Crowd!), a whip for a carter, a milking bucket for a dairymaid and so on.
Michaelmas was also one of the regular quarter days for paying rents and settling accounts. Often, since this was a time of the goose ‘harvest’, a farmer would pay off his debts with a brace or more of young spring-hatched geese. A few weeks later, many Goose Fairs would be held – to which birds would be driven from all parts of the county to be sold.
Almost as an aside, wherever people gathered at fairs, it was not long before tradesfolk would gather in order to show off their wares – it being far more economical to take products to a certain point rather than ‘hawk’ them around the scattered hamlets and houses in the off-chance of a sale. A fair had the definite and obvious advantage of concentrating potential buyers from miles around – and thus, the weekly rural market became the place at which one could buy one’s weekly shopping, together with all manner of other items considered necessary for day-to-day living. In more recent times, modern trends dictated change and caused many traditional market stall traders to, quite literally, become redundant.
The concept of a place at which one can buy locally produced foodstuffs is, however, making a dramatic comeback in the shape of Farmer’s Markets and the like. Long may they continue to flourish no matter what the season – and irrespective of whether or not it is, “full of mellow fruitfulness”!
As is well-known, the French go on holiday every August – for the whole of August. Should you be thinking of getting anything important done at the notaire’s, the tax office, or anywhere remotely official, you can forget it… nothing stands in the way of the French and their summer break.
Parisians move south towards the middle of the country – and those living in the middle of the country move even further south. Some say that they do so to avoid the influx of Parisians, but I couldn’t possibly comment.
No wonder then that the roads are busy – if not impassible at times. The famous bison-fute system is in action: its route colours of orange, red or black depending on the likely severity of traffic congestion.
Orange suggests that “delays are likely in some places”; red that traffic is likely to be “dense, to very dense” and, should a black route be indicated, you might as well stay at home and drink wine because you’re not likely to be going anywhere fast if venturing out on the roads. Technically, black indicates that your chosen route is “saturated and delays are certain” – and that’s enough excuse for me to get out the corkscrew and stay in the garden.
It’s not as if there’s any shortage of official holidays for the French. The calendar is full of them throughout the year and, when it comes to the merry month of May, it’s possibly easier to point out which days are not bank holidays than to select ones that are.
Added to all that is the fact that, should a holiday fall on a Thursday or a Tuesday, then many don’t think it at all a sensible proposition – bearing in mind that a weekend is conveniently tucked somewhere in between – to go back into work on the Friday or the Monday. Known as a “Faire le Pont”, it quite literally ‘bridges’ the day between weekend and the public holiday.
In Britain, public holidays are not quite so free and easy. Apart from taking one’s annual holidays (most commonly for a week or a fortnight rather than a full month as do many of the French) in August, the most the average UK worker can expect is the bank holiday at the end of the month.
Unlike in France, British bank holidays are not evenly spread throughout the year; in fact, one of the greatest bones of contention is their spacing in the calendar: like the proverbial bus, you wait fifteen weeks for one and then four come along at once.
When Easter arrives, the last day off the majority of workers will have enjoyed would have been three and a half months previously, on New Year’s Day. The two at Easter are followed within approximately six weeks by the May Day and spring bank holidays. After this feast, however, comes an even longer famine; just one statutory day – the August bank holiday – to break the monotony of the seven months between the end of May and Christmas.
Make the most of it… unless you’re in France when there’s more official holiday to come between now and then, it’s a long time until the Festive Season!
Generally I try to hit on a light-hearted or plain quirky topic for my mini-blog but some subjects are far too important to be treated lightly – take, for instance, the flurry of fly-tipping, the dumping of dog poo and the scandal of sky lanterns.
Quite rightly there’s much written on the subject of fly-tipping in the countryside. It’s despicable, selfish and, most importantly, harmful to wildlife. It’s always easy to find someone to blame but I do think that local councils in the UK actually encourage such irresponsible behaviour by making it difficult for what one would hope to be normally law-abiding householders to get rid of their rubbish.
There are so many restrictions imposed by councils; some even going so far as to instructing their refuse collectors not to do so if the bin is over-flowing and the lid unable to sit flat as it should. Municipal recycling depots and rubbish dumps are not always easy to access and in addition, anyone who turns up in a van and looks as if they may possibly be professional builders/plumbers/electricians are likely to get charged.
Ringing your local council for an extra collection is easy enough but at what price – it’s almost as cheap to hire a mini-skip (and those are horrendously expensive too). No wonder then that some see the only option as being fly-tipping.
Not only is fly-tipping a problem in the countryside. There have been several cases of horses dying as a result of eating plastic bags containing excrement that have been tossed over the hedge by a dog owner. Apparently it’s the smell of the cereal content to be found in some dog food that attracts a horse’s interest. The danger is not however, restricted to equines and other farm livestock, and wildlife are likely to be similarly affected.
If the dog owners are responsible enough to have taken the trouble to pick up their dog’s faeces, why are they not as equally responsible when it comes to taking the collected dog-poo home with them – or at least finding a suitable bin rather than chucking it randomly into a field, or, as I’ve seen recently, hanging the bag from a barbed wire fence or bush. Where, for heaven’s sake, is the logic in that?
Whilst on the subject of potentially harmful things left littering the countryside, I’ve long had a personal vendetta against the use of sky lanterns. Why anyone would let loose a naked flame attached to paper and a bamboo frame with no control over where it will land, or whether or not the flame will extinguish, is beyond my comprehension.
There have been so many instances of damage caused by such a thing, just two of which are a garden fire in Devon and a heath fire in a nature reserve in Dorset. Elsewhere, a lit lantern floated into power lines, resulting in an electrical fire and power lines being knocked out.
Sky lanterns are not just a fire hazard either. Their bamboo and metal components can be ingested directly by grazing livestock or at a later date as a result of being inadvertently baled in hay or silage. They are then, like fly-tipping and plastic ‘poo’ bags, a definite danger to livestock, wildlife and the environment.
There’s no wonder some of our foreign friends think the British are a tad weird!
Picture the scene: the archetypal British village green and ‘olde-worlde’ thatched inn, outside which dances a group of strangely attired, bell-bedecked, handkerchief-waving men and women. Yes, it’s the Morris dancers and nothing could be more typically English.
As entrenched as it now is in British folklore, Morris dancing actually originated abroad and although that fact is known for certain, there are some doubts as to what particular group of people were actually responsible for its name and eventual transition to the pub car parks and rural market places of the UK.
Seemingly, the most commonly-held theory is that the name is derived from ‘Morisco’, the word used to describe the Spanish Moors driven out by Ferdinand and Isabella in the 15th century – and subsequently forced to travel through Europe in search of a new life. Another possibility is that it comes from the Romany or gypsy culture and that the word ‘Morris’ is a derivation of ‘Romish’.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the type of dancing now known as Morris is thought in some circles to have possibly been introduced into England by John of Gaunt and some aspects of earlier Celtic dances using sticks (long linked with winter and death and resurrection rituals) and folk dancing (associated with spring and early summer and representing the victory of the summer sun over the winter sun) incorporated.
Yet another alternative might be that Morris men were originally dancing beggars performing for money. It has also been suggested that participants were poking fun at the Roman Catholic Church; their meretricious dancing intending to imitate and scorn the posturing of the cardinals and bishops. If the latter is true then that could well be the reason that some Morris dancing sides have their faces ‘blacked’ as obviously those involved would have been unwilling to be identified for such blasphemous actions and a smearing of soot or similar would have helped retain their anonymity.
Accompanying the dancers could sometimes be seen ‘mummers’; small groups of actors who presented short dramatic pieces based on pre-Reformation rituals. Their costumes related to the character they played and were often highly decorated with brightly coloured strips of paper or ribbons, their hats covered with long strips of rushes and scraps of fabric – the vestiges of which can still be seen in the attire of some of today’s Morris dancing sides.
Generally, the dances, costumes and the numbers in each ‘side’ vary depending on the type of Morris dancing being carried out and the region of Britain from which they derived. Top hats and bizarre headgear still abound; usually adorned by flowers, greenery and pheasant tail feathers – whilst the musical accompaniment is most commonly provided by accordions, penny whistles, recorders, violins… and a drum to beat out the necessary rhythm.
In times past, the teams of Morris men and mummers danced and played their way through all the village streets. Nowadays, however, the dancing is usually performed outside the local hostelry – presumably in order to cut down on the lack of drinking time that the moving from venue to venue would entail!
In France, I wanted to close my existing bank account and transfer what money was there to my wife’s account. Consequently, we made an appointment with The Man in Charge of Such Things.
After explaining our intentions we were told that would be no problem – and I could, in fact, in future, put any cheques made in my name to Melinda’s account. I was even given an official letter saying exactly that, and was told to bring in the self-same letter on any occasion that I may be doing so… “Just to save any problems and misunderstanding”.
A couple of weeks’ ago, I sold my car and, in order that there could be no possible hiccups, arranged to meet the purchaser at my bank so that I could pay in his banker’s draft – which was, of course, already made out by his bank in my name (I hope you’re paying attention at the back, there may be questions later)
As it happened, the person who served me at the counter was the self-same man we’d met a few weeks back. Proffering the draft and asking for it to be paid into my wife’s account, my request was met with Gallic incomprehension…
“But it’s not your account – and the draft is in your name…”
“I know”, said I, “but you said it would be okay… and even gave me this letter to prove it.”
Flourishing the same in the manner of a magician successfully performing the most difficult of tricks, I passed it over for his perusal. Giving it scant glance, he handed it back as if he’d never seen it before.
“No, it is impossible… you’ll have to get another banker’s draft made out in your wife’s name.”
The car buyer and I went to a corner to confer – and decided that the best course of action was to go to the local branch of his bank to see what they could do. Off we went and, after explaining the situation and a couple of phone calls to Someone in Higher Authority, a new draft was issued, this time in my wife’s name.
Back we went. “Yes, that’s good” said the teller, “but first, before I can enter it, you’ll have to sign the reverse of the cheque.”
“But my wife is not here so she can’t sign it…”
“Oh, that’s no problem… just sign your own name and that will be fine.”
I signed – and left speechless and confused.
Close by Le Malineau, here in France, there is an old oak tree, halfway up which is a small model of a deer’s head on a shield, under which is a homemade wooden plaque. At the base of the tree, is a discreet concrete bench. On the plaque, studded with brass rivets, is written; “Le Chene… Tintin” – the oak [of] Tintin.
Now, just in case you may be thinking that it might be a reference to the comic strip character of the same name, made famous by Belgian writer Hergé, it is not. It was, or so I’m reliably informed by the local shooting ‘mafia’, erected in memory of a local chasseur who loved hunting these woods with his friends – and would often sit at the tree’s base for a cigarette and a natter.
It’s a lovely idea and, although he was dead and gone long before we moved here 13 years ago, it doesn’t stop me thinking of what sort of person ‘Tintin’ might have been, and I often sit on the seat in order to just listen and look at what is going on around me as I pass by whilst walking the dog.
A bench in memory of someone in a public place out in the wilds of the countryside is not unusual. It’s not only humans that are remembered in public places either. With the Grand National being run this month, it’s appropriate to remember that, after his death in 1995, three times winner, Red Rum was, as a Horse and Hound journalist has it: “laid to rest in the shadow of the winning post at Aintree, the course he had made his own” – and a statue commissioned in honour of his remarkable racing achievements.
On the occasions we are back in England, we are lucky enough to live not a five minute drive away
from Farley Mount in Hampshire. At the top of the ‘mount’, there is a well-known monument erected in memory of another horse which, whilst perhaps not so famous as Red Rum, was, nevertheless, a
remarkable animal. The inscription on the accompanying plaque reads:
“Underneath lies buried a horse, the property of Paulet St. John Esq., that in the month of September 1733 leaped into a chalk pit twenty-five feet deep a-foxhuntiing with his master on his back and in October 1734 he won the Hunters Plate on Worthy Downs and was rode by his owner and was entered in the name of “Beware Chalk Pit”.
There’s something tongue-in-cheek about the re-naming of that horse – as there was, I’m sure, when the Rev. Alexander McGowen penned the following words for the headstone of gamekeeper (and obvious fisherman, musician, drinker, raconteur and all-round bon-viveur), John Murray, way back in 1777:
“Ah! John, what changes since I saw thee last –
Thy fishing and thy shooting days are past;
Bagpipes and hautboys thou canst sound no more,
Thy nods, grimaces, winks, and pranks, are o’er;
Thy harmless, queerish, incoherent talk,
Thy wild vivacity and trudging walk
Will soon be quite forgot; thy joys on earth,
Thy snuff and glass, riddles, and noisy mirth
Are vanished all – yet blessed I hope thou art,
For in thy station thou hast played thy part.”
Now that we’re into March, the weather should take a turn for the better – the old proverb: “In like a lion; out like a lamb” springs to mind (see what I did there?!).
With spring in mind, more and more of us are likely to be out-and-about. Whilst a walk in the countryside without a dog is considered incomplete by many, should you decide to take your beloved pooch along; not only is it obviously important to take care that he or she doesn’t disturb farming livestock, it’s equally vital that they cannot disturb any ground-nesting birds or, along the stream bank; dig at holes which may be home to small mammals such as water voles.
Apart from anything else, a noisy, boisterous canine will disturb any wildlife one may hope to see. In addition, should your chosen route take you in the direction of water – an element which most dogs, particularly those of the ‘sporting’ persuasion (Labradors, spaniels, terriers, et al) love – their rumbustious approach will, quite literally, muddy the water.
A century ago, J. E. Marriat-Ferguson, writing in his book, Visiting Home, recounted an intended ditch-dipping expedition with his godson James – which described how the best-laid plans could very easily go wrong in that respect:
“I’d not long been back at Audley Hall when the opportunity arose to educate The Boy into the countryside’s springtime resurgence. Planning our walk carefully, we came by Grove Wood … and then to the ditch which fed the Lake. It was my intention to show him much in the way of frog spawn; the vole holes I remembered vividly from my youth… and possibly even catch sticklebacks (for which we’d come well equipped with jar and nets). I’d not, however, anticipated the extra company from James’s dogs which he insisted joined us on our journey.
“‘Dauntless’, the foxhound puppy (being walked by the family for the local hunt), was here, there, and everywhere and, despite continual admonishment, was determined to do as he would. So too was James’ pair of terriers, ‘Pippin’ and ‘Grip’. Together, the trio were as efficient as an army in clearing the ditch banks of any form of wildlife either avian or four-legged. When we got to the water, all three were in with a splash and there was no choice but to change the intended nature walk into nothing more than hound exercise.”
According to Webster’s Dictionary, a folly is a “foolish and useless but expensive undertaking” while the Oxford Pocket Dictionary describes the term as suggesting a “fanciful ornamental building created for display.” In the French language, the word ‘folie’ may variously mean “light-hearted”, “to be madly in love with” or, in psychiatric parlance, “a disorder of thought or emotion” – any one of which might usefully describe the thinking of those who instigated the building of structures that, by definition, are ornate and extravagant in design, yet serve no actual practical purpose.
Credited as being the builder of the last traditional folly tower (Faringdon Folly, situated between Oxford and Swindon) in 1935, Lord Berners was said to have remarked that “the great point of this tower is that it will be entirely useless.” He then celebrated its completion by releasing several dozen fantail pigeons that had been dyed red, white and blue – which Nancy Mitford, present at the ‘grand opening’, described as “a cloud of confetti in the sky”– and, as final proof of his eccentricity, had a notice placed at the entrance that read: “Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk”.
Eccentricity is almost a prerequisite as far as folly-building is concerned but, as well as a fertile imagination, landowners of that particular mind-set had to be in possession of fat wallets. Although labour was cheap at the height of folly-fashion, materials and decorations were often of the finest quality and included imported stone and even stained glass windows. Some were, though, altruistically commissioned to provide work for labourers during long periods of unemployment – there being a belief that “reward without labour” was unacceptable and demoralising. At the beginning of the 19th century eccentric businessman Joseph Williamson took on a huge team of builders to construct houses on what is now the outskirts of Liverpool and then, when the practical work was complete, employed them to build a series of purposeless underground tunnels which he said, ensured that they “all received a weekly wage and were thus enabled to enjoy the blessing of charity without the attendant curse of stifled self-respect”.
Despite Lord Berners tower at Faringdon being thought of as being the last ‘traditional’ folly, there are still some people around who are willing and able to build follies to be enjoyed in centuries to come: take, for instance, the retired school teacher who created a combined tower and grotto in his back garden at Goring as his own personal Millennium project, or the folly garden created at Pelham Place, Alton, by Vernon Gibberd and Derek Bruce.
In these days of planning applications and restrictions, it’s impossible to approach building a modern folly in the same gung-ho manner as those landowners of the past. Imagine the look on the face of your local planning officer were you to submit drawings for a high castellated tower or a sham ruin situated on the nearest prominent hillside.
Back in the 1980s, artist Gerald Scarfe built a folly in his West Sussex garden. Hidden from public view and well away from any footpaths, it was originally intended to be a round tower of sorts, but, for no particular reason, gradually evolved into the rough shape of a camel. Scarfe then asked Bob Geldof to take up (very) temporary residence in it as a hermit and, as part of a television series he was filming at the time, organised a procession (which included a live elephant and camel) down the lane to the folly.
Despite being built without planning consent, the local parish council were; “all quite happy with it; thought it a good laugh and no harm to anybody.” However, as is the way with such things, one interfering local contacted the District Council in order to enquire whether permission had been sought – as a result of which, the council then had to ask Scarfe to apply retrospectively. He did, and, in the true spirit of the project, permission was granted!
There seem to be a lot of curious country customs take place in the month of January. Most have their origins going way back beyond Christianity and more often than not, stem from fertility rites and sacrifices offered to the gods in the hope of good harvests later in the year.
Nowhere near as old as some traditions, ‘Blessing the Plough’ services are still held at some churches on ‘Plough Sunday’ – the origins of which go at least as far back as medieval times when, on the first Sunday after Epiphany (which marked the end of the Christmas holidays and the subsequent return to work for all agricultural workers), the parish ploughs, bedecked with ribbons would be dragged to church in order to be blessed. Nowadays, a single symbolic plough is used in the service, which is still very much intended as a service of prayer and blessing for all those involved in agriculture.
The service in all churches follows pretty much the same format; part of which involves the minister reciting the following words:
“God speed the plough and the ploughman, the farm and the farmer
God speed the plough, on hillside and in valley; on land which is rich, and on land which is poor; in countries beyond our seas, and in our homeland
God speed the plough, in fair weather and in foul, in success and disappointment, in rain and in wind, in frost and sunshine.”
To which the congregation respond; “God Speed the Plough” – a wish for success and prosperity – and is taken from a 15th century song sung by ploughmen as they customarily went from door to door soliciting ‘plough money’ on Plough Monday.
Sadly, with the weather being as is in much of Britain at the moment, water-logged conditions and flooding make it likely that it will be a long while yet before any land is fit enough to walk on, let alone plough.
Hotels, inns and public houses have always been associated with country sports. Hounds have met in front of them for years; shooting parties and fishermen stay and dine there and various affiliated clubs find them a useful venue at which to convene meetings. Their names also often have obvious links, perhaps the most common being the ‘Fox and Hounds’. There are others such as ‘The Gamekeeper’ or ‘Keeper’s Arms’ and ‘The Compleat Angler’ named after Sir Isaak Walton’s famous book of the same name.
Much of Walton’s book deals with fishing in Buckinghamshire – and there is a well-known hotel of the same name at Marlow. ‘The Trout’ at Lower Wolvercote, near Oxford has been famously portrayed in Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse stories – as well as by writers such as C. S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll; the latter of course, being famous for writing Alice in Wonderland.
Some establishments which, from their name, you might justifiably think have a fishing connection, have not. There was, for instance, a pub in South Shields that was known as the ‘Balancing Eel’ which actually came by its name as a result of a verse in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “You are old said the youth one would hardly suppose/That your eye was as steady as ever; /Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose –/what made you so awfully clever?” Sadly, the place is now apparently known by the far less interesting name of the ‘Bizz Bar’.
As well as the obvious ‘Fox and Hounds’, there are also several pubs named the ‘Hare and Hounds’ and, at Brendon, Somerset, can be found the ‘Stag Hunters’. The ‘Stag Hunt’ in the village of Ponsanooth in Cornwall supposedly gets its name from Roman times, but in actual fact it is unlikely that the Romans ever hunted deer during their occupation of the British Isles.
At Swimbridge, North Devon, is located the ‘Jack Russell’ pub; the sign for which, the last time I was there in the early 1990s, depicted a portrait of Russell’s original terrier ‘Trump’. Before that, however, it showed a portrait of the parson himself. At Bowness on Windermere in the Lake District, John Peel, another famous huntsman, is remembered in the name of the local inn, which also houses what are purported to be Peel’s hunting crop and stirrups.
There are also plenty of ‘Dog and Duck’ public houses and, in connection with hawking, many drinking and eating establishments known as the ‘Falcon’. There are various theories about the name ‘Hawk & Buckle’ which is found in several parts of the country. The most likely is that the word buckle is a corruption of the French ‘boucle’ meaning buckle or swivel. ‘En boucle’ in French can also mean imprisoned and, as a hawk when not flying is often tethered to a perch or block by means of a leash at the end of which is a swivel, it seems quite likely that an imprisoned or tethered hawk would be termed a “hawk en buckle”; which in time, could have been further anglicised to create the pub’s moniker.
Another drinking house with a strange name was the ‘Wig and Fidgett’ at Boxted, Colchester, Essex. It is sadly no longer trading, but by far the most plausible explanation for its name is that the words stemmed from old English: wig deriving from whicken, meaning white, and fitchet, being an old name for a polecat.
Some sporting links remain in pub names long after what they originally commemorated was made illegal. Cock-fighting was banned in 1847 but there are still several references in names such as the ‘Gamecock’ and the ‘Cock’. In the ‘Cockpit Tavern’, London, customers at the bar stand on what was originally the cock-pit floor. The famous ‘Bear’ hotel at Woodstock is not, however, as one might suppose, the past venue for bear-baiting, but was, quite bizarrely, used for bull-baiting – as was the more obviously named ‘Bull Ring’ in Ludlow, Shropshire.
Many of today’s pub signs are works of art, but in times gone by, they were simply a way of the mainly illiterate general public identifying a particular building. In 1393, Richard II decreed that all public houses must have a sign in order that ale-testers would know the location of each property. Ale-testers…nice work if you can get it!
I’ve just lost yet another pocket knife. Quite how or where, I have no idea, but the fact remains that the latest loss is merely a long line of many. When working in the UK, it was an easy matter to cut the strings of straw bales out on the feed rides or on a bale of hay for my horse – and then leave the knife stuck in a fence post, tree trunk or in another bale.
On other occasions, I’d stick the knife in my shirt pocket and lose it bending over to pick up a bag of feed or topping up a water trough. By the time I’d realised it had gone, I’d invariably forget where I’d last used it and, despite much wandering up and down in all the likely places, hardly ever managed to find it.
Still, if nothing else, it made the problem of birthday and Christmas presents easier for my family and friends and it was always a safe bet if they chose to buy me a knife. At first they would select a replacement with great care and even go to the trouble of having it embellished with my initials or other form of personalisation but, as the years wore on, they learnt such attention to detail was a waste of time as their gift would most likely be mislaid within months, if not weeks.
My most recent lock-knife is probably the oldest I’ve ever had and its easy familiarity means that I shall grieve its loss even more than usual. The reason for its longevity is probably because I nowadays have less cause to use a pocket knife; unlike in the old days when it would be in constant use. Now, apart from cutting the odd piece of string with which to tie up a piece of rose bush in the garden, the only other use it ever had during the latter years was to sharpen a pencil – not much of a job for a ‘macho’ tool.
As a replacement, I’m seriously considering the purchase of a Laguiole (pronounced ‘ley-ole’). After all, when in France, do as the French do!
Originally this particular style of knife was brought back from Spain by French workers who would travel over the border in search of seasonal employment. The blade was long and curved slightly upwards and the handles constructed wide from side-to-side and could be made of bone, antler, ivory or wood.
Since those early beginnings, it is probably no exaggeration to say that millions of these knives have been made by countless knife makers in France and, although the name is not patented, the shape and style of the knife does have to conform to certain criteria: for example, the length of the blade should be wider than the width of your palm; the back-spring forged in one piece and, on the more expensive types, hand-filing or ‘guillochage’, is evident on the back-spring and spine of the blade. Traditionally, a Laguiole knife should also feature the emblem of a bee and a cross of inlaid metal pins.
I might, though, be tempted elsewhere. Like the Laguiole, a ‘Nontron’ pocket-knife has some unique trade-mark features; the most notable of which is that each boxwood handle is decorated with a unique, somewhat mysterious-looking symbol. In years gone by, the acquisition of such a knife was considered a rite of passage from boyhood into maturity – it’s a good job no-one ever considered giving one to me on the occasion of my 18th birthday as I would undoubtedly have lost it well before the party had ended!
It is always as well to know what the weather conditions might be over the coming months – and if the ditches and waterways are likely to flood or freeze. October is a month bursting with weather sayings and traditional verse; just how reliable they prove to be is another matter entirely!
‘If ducks do slide at Hallow-tide,
At Christmas they do swim;
If ducks do swim at Hallow-tide,
At Christmas they will slide’
Many weather predictions for the month seem to be based around birds. If, for example, field-fares and red-wings are seen during October, a hard winter is sure to follow. Tradition also has it that if a squirrel has a bushy tail, it indicates a cold snap. In reality, a bushy tail is simply a balancing aid and, on occasion, an early warning system to other squirrels – but don’t let that spoil a good story.
Likewise, a plethora of fruits such as blackberries (and don’t forget to pick them in early October otherwise the witches will have spat on them – or so says traditional folklore!) is reckoned to indicate some inclement weather: botanical evidence, however, suggests that the amount of berries on a bush or tree depends entirely on the weather conditions during the preceding spring!
‘Rain in October
Gives wind in December.
If the October moon comes without frost,
Expect no frost until the moon of November.’
I’ve always liked keeping chickens, and not only for their eggs. In fact it’s probably more because of the pleasure they give. ‘Experts’ have it that it takes less facial muscles to smile than it does to frown: if that’s true, most chicken-keepers of my acquaintance must have some face muscles that are virtually redundant.
Asked what it was about her chickens that made her smile, one commented that they made her laugh and that she enjoyed them “clucking around.” Another said that his were “great fun – each having their own quirky ways.”
Perhaps that’s it: it is their quirky ways that amuse us. It is so easy to anthropomorphise when it comes to chickens, but it is very hard not to when your favourite matronly hen wanders up to your feet, lifts her head quizzically to one side and appears to be making serious critical comment with all her clucking and chirruping!
Why they do what they do is often a mystery known only to themselves. Whilst some chicken antics can be attributed to flock behaviour which has evolved over millennia, other quirky and often one-off habits cannot. Why, for instance (as recently experienced by a French friend of mine) would a free-range hen with access to a half hectare of land and several cosy, clean, inviting nest boxes, suddenly decide to lay a clutch of eggs on the top of a very uninviting pile of rough gravel chippings?
Similarly, there are accounts of chickens laying in even more bizarre places. Off the top of my head, I can think of birds that have done so in amongst plants in a hanging basket some two metres from the ground and on a pond island where, to get there, the hen needed to tight-rope walk, Blondin-style, over water on a plastic pipe.
Perhaps most strange of all, however, is the one that risked life and limb by entering an occupied dog kennel each morning in order to lay her eggs. More bizarre is the fact that the dog didn’t mind – perhaps he, like many others I know, also enjoyed the company of chickens!
The nights are drawing in! Or is it more that the mornings’ are getting darker?! Only a month ago, it was almost full daylight at 06.00am and the birds were clearing their throats in order to begin their chorus dead on the dot of 05.13am. Now it’s barely light at six and even the blackbird – normally the first to set things off – appears to be having a lie-in and isn’t surfacing until around the time I go out for a walk with ‘The Dog’.
Here in France, the locals seem to treat mid-August as being the unofficial start of autumn. In a way I can understand their thinking as, in a ‘normal’ season, cereal harvests have long been ‘gathered in… ere the winter storms begin’.
This year, for instance, the last was cut around our immediate area by the beginning of July and ever since then, the fields have either been left as stubble or chisel-ploughed pending further cultivation. Traditionally, stubble equals autumn – and, to my mind at least, autumn is a precursor of winter.
Despite my various rural interests – most of which take place during the darker months – I’ve never really liked winter. Whilst autumn is undoubtedly lovely and, calendar-wise, August is nowhere near its real beginning, this month’s arrival has always felt as if it’s the start of a slippery slope.
Every month I buy a copy of the French magazine, Le Chasseur Français – at the front of which is always included the daily times of sunrise and sunset. Being of a somewhat SAD nature, I cannot help but look with trepidation at August’s entries… why I do so I’ve no idea because every year is the same and, by the end of the month, I just know that someone, somewhere, will have absconded with more than an hour and a half of precious daylight hours when I wasn’t looking!
Despite the month, there are, though, still other harvests to be taken here. The sunflowers will be next and then, after that, the arrival of the grape-picking machines will indicate that autumn has well and truly arrived – and then, can winter really be far behind?
On July 25th, I noticed some wag on my Facebook page had posted that it was only 22 weeks to Christmas Day. With that in mind, I’ll look out for the first of the festive-based adverts appearing on television in early September…!
Having just returned from a walk with the dog, there’s a definite smell of wild boar permeating the room! Quite where and when she managed to roll in their excrement, I don’t know but roll in it she must have. Still, it could be worse; it could have been fox droppings, the smell of which are, I think, far more difficult to eradicate.
If such smells are strong to the very poor olfactory nerve of a human, imagine what they must be like to other wild animals whose sense of smell is far greater than ours. No wonder so many use scent as a way of marking out their territory.
As far as domestic dogs are concerned, in scientific tests, their noses have been proven to contain at least four times the amount of olfactory cells than a human’s. Rather like a satellite dish or similar, the outside of a dog’s nose is designed to pick up scents which it collects and breaks down into individual particles for easier identification.
Also, when a dog detects a particularly desirable scent, it reacts by salivating, and the wet tongue also helps to pick up and dissect even more scent particles.
Anyone out with a sporting dog of any description may have wondered why, when on the scent of one type of trail, it doesn’t deviate if it crosses the scent of another.
The answer is that each has a distinctive smell and a dog’s scenting ability is strong enough to differentiate. Not only that, what an animal is doing can also affect the availability of the microscopic particles that provide its scent – for example, a rabbit’s scent is emitted from points between the toes and when initially flushed, more scent is generated when it’s on the move. As it tires, however, the scent begins to weaken.
Interestingly, the occasions when a rabbit gives off least scent is when stationary. Also, pregnant females emit hardly any – presumably as Nature’s way of protecting both the mother and her unborn young.
With such things in mind, how does a human presence affect wildlife when it comes to the subject of scent? Generally, they must be very aware of chemicals sprayed on the fields by farmers and, despite modern-day vehicle emission controls, areas close to roads surely smell extremely polluted?
More specifically, does a would-be observer of wild animals have less chance of success if they smoke, or are wearing after-shave/perfume? Country lore always has it that one should keep downwind of any intended quarry in order that your scent is blown away from that which is being watched.
Some maintain it doesn’t matter while others are emphatic that it does. I even know of one trout fisherman who claims that, during a period when he had very chapped hands and used a medical cream, he never caught a fish – and when his hands improved and the ointment was no longer necessary, he began to catch fish again.
Even the best biologists and most astute of countrymen admit that scent and scenting is still something of a mystery… for the moment though, I just wish that someone could tell me how to get rid of this smell of wild boar!
Maybe it’s an apocryphal story, but most know the tale of how the WWI army instruction; “Send reinforcements, we are going to advance”, eventually became “Send three and four-pence, we’re going to a dance.” ‘Chinese whispers’ are one thing… simply mishearing is another subject entirely.
My hearing has never been that brilliant. I well remember the tests at primary school when, on hearing a ‘ping’ in head-phones, you were supposed to transfer a marble from one dish to another. I could sit there for the length of the test and hear nothing at all – nevertheless, the time wasn’t entirely wasted as I usually managed to sneak some of the more unusual and visually attractive marbles into the pockets of my shorts and thus become the talk of the playground at break-time!
In later years, I’ve blamed my hearing difficulties on my shooting interests. When I first became involved, no-one bothered with ear-defenders and by the time they did, it was too late. So it is that I nowadays hear some interesting comments and observations – or at least I think I do.
During last month’s General Election coverage, I was somewhat alarmed to hear a BBC reporter (on the well-respected Today radio programme, no less) mention the “saddo Home Secretary”. Only later did I realize that he’d actually said “shadow Home Secretary” and hadn’t actually succumbed to trendy urban diction.
On another recent occasion – and another radio programme, I distinctly heard the broadcaster tell me that; “chain saws were getting less common on the High Street.” What? Was he talking of areas of Britain about which I know nothing… streets which are mainly populated by Channel 4 film crews in search of material to fill their Monday evening nine o’clock spot?
Drugs, guns, big dogs and an aggressive attitude seem to be the main-stay of that particular documentary genre – in which case, rampant chain-saw wielding did not seem so out of character. I was, therefore, actually quite disappointed when I subsequently learned that it was only “chain stores” which were under discussion.
Possibly mishearing is hereditary. Woody Allen reckons that he learned about sex from his mother. “I asked her where babies came from and she thought I said rabies. She said from a dog bite and a week later a lady on our block gave birth to triplets. I thought she’d been bitten by a Great Dane.”
What’s that you say? Would I strike a tin and frolic? Yes please… with ice and a slice of lime!
‘The Dog’, always anxious to paddle in a puddle or ditch, quite literally muddied the water as I approached. Excited and exuberant; she did, as she always does, explore the banks – occasionally stopping to look quizzically, head poised to one side and ears cocked in order to see and hear what might have developed in the interim.
Every week, for over a year, she and I have made a point of visiting this particular ditch. It’s not a particularly special ditch for anyone else but me and her. But we’ve now got an attachment…. It’s personal.
How old is this ditch? From where did it develop? Did the Romans’ first dig it? (They might well have done… its straight enough). Was it a Norman feed-off from a moat?
Perhaps, without any sense of history, a local just took out his spade and made a sloping channel from wnere the water of his sodden land could drain into the nearest stream, river… and onwards to the sea.
It was, of course, simply me thinking these thoughts - I had an ulterior motive; a means to an end – the needs of a book commission.
‘The Dog’, on the other hand, enjoyed the ditch for what it was: a place of fulfillment; an area of immediate interest. Did she care about the frog-spawn in which she wallowed... or the kingfisher she disturbed? Was she aware of the sound of the first cuckoo to arrive in spring, or the leaving of the swifts’ in September? I doubt it.
What she must, however, have been aware of, was the fact that, as spring foliage turned into a summer badinage of density and colour, her jump and subsequent paddle in the water became ever more difficult to achieve. Undisturbed ditch banksides grow quickly!
A splish, a splash, a paddle in the water (on her part, not mine!) What follows? Invariably, reasonably well-trained as is ‘The Dog’, there is a return to heel at my side.
What do we do next? In the winter, it’s a quick glance and then home to the fire- in the summer, the times spent, eyes down, looking at the effects of a year in a ditch, are far more lingering.
We sit together, shoulder to shoulder (she’s a big dog!) knowing that the bubbles observed must be from latent gas at the bottom of the ditch – or maybe it was simply a water vole passing by. Either way, it was nothing to do with me or her… it was, though, a a moment to be enjoyed. As Merriman, a late 18th Century poet, had it:
‘Beat out as I was and in need of a doze,
I laid myself down where a grassy bank rose
By the side of a ditch, in arboreal shade,
Where I stretched out my feet, and pillowed my head…’
It’s my birthday this month. No, please … it’s very kind of you but no presents! Maybe next year when I reach 60. Yes, I know … it doesn’t seem possible, does it?
I doubt that any of us feel that we are ever getting any older. I certainly don’t. Maybe it’s because of having a physically active lifestyle over the years as, ever since a child, I’ve been out and about in the countryside with plenty to do and much to occupy my mind.
There’s always been projects to accomplish, chickens to tend, dogs to walk, horses to ride and, in connection with work, fence posts to bang in, trees to cut, bending and stretching, pushing and shoving – and heavy feed bags to carry.
Things have, however, changed quite a lot since coming to France some twelve years ago. In an effort to keep the proverbial wolf from the door, I’ve mainly been occupied by making a full-time career out of what was, for many years, a ‘hobby’ and very definitely an ancillary to my main job.
Writing articles and authoring books is, although stimulating and satisfying, not, by any stretch of the imagination, at all physical – unless one counts the effort involved in stepping over The Dog on one’s way to the ‘office’ each morning and the energy expended in crashing clumsy fingers reasonably accurately onto the computer keyboard.
Apart from a few odd gardening jobs, creating a vegetable patch, a chicken run that needed building and, on one memorable occasion (memorable purely and simply because, at the top of the ladder, I suddenly got a severe case of vertigo), the rendering of an outside wall; much of my most recent life has involved no more exercise than that required to walk the dog, type – and lift many more than the occasional glass of red wine.
Going on 60, yet still thinking 26, how you might have laughed when, just a few days ago, I went to pick up a couple of bags of compost and a single fencing stake from the local garden centre.
Ambling in with the cockiness of a Wild West gun-slinger walking into a bar, I gave the chariots’ provided for such purchases, scant glance. Like a police witness to a crime, I went up and down the rows of compost as if each were unwilling members of an identity parade.
I singled out, amongst the 30, 40 and 70 litre bag options, a type and composition that would suit my purpose well. “50 litres”, thought I; “I’ll take two – and pick up the stake at the same time”.
Grasping the bags and the stake (they were, after all, no more than I would have carried without thinking a decade and a half or so ago) I marched towards the till operator. Actually I struggled; the bags slipped, the stake wouldn’t stay balanced as I wanted it. The cashier smiled sympathetically as I raised my eyebrows in acknowledgement and embarrassment.
Once all was paid for, it was time for the final humiliation. Age and a lack of physical capability kicked in: between the shop exit and my car, I shed my purchases. The stake there, a bag of compost here. I arrived at the boot of my car holding just one bag – and that held by the scuff as if it were a Shakespearian child being taken “unwillingly to school”. A quick pick-up of the remainder soon followed but I’m most definitely not as young as I was!
It’s quite uncanny. We live in France for much of the year – in a quiet backwater never likely to suffer a ripple of disturbance. For work and family reasons, I do, however, traverse the Channel on occasion: more so, it must be admitted, between November and February.
In recent years, I have, I must admit, been somewhat tardy in returning afterwards: a little like Hitler’s would-be arrows as portrayed on the opening credits of the BBC’s Dad’s Army series, my heart arrows have been increasingly aiming towards the British south coast.
Whilst I never know quite when I might return (it is all flexible work dependent); ‘someone’, ‘somewhere’ in France seems to know my exact movements! How can it be otherwise that, that, on my return… on the day after my return; whether it be early February or, more recently, March, I get a boiler maintenance card, a health payment demand… and a visit from both the water and electricity readers – and, within minutes after that, the farmer who rents our field?
Eager to keep his field, currently arable as far as his needs are concerned, but potentially far more financially viable to ourselves due to the fact that it has, in the past, been designated prime viticulture land – one suspects the latter visitor has a vested interest in handing over his annual cheque. How, though, does he know with such precision, the day we arrive back home?!
As Robert Palmer once famously sang ‘Your lights are on, but you’re not home’. At Le Malineau, we have a reasonably complicated system of electronic timers. Whilst it’s not Oxford Street at Christmas, the changing effects are, I think, more than sufficient to persuade people that our home is well occupied at any point of our absence.
Our post box is emptied by friends – the house periodically checked over likewise… their car is, therefore, likely to be in the yard at any time. The absence of our own cars cannot possibly be noticed or worthy of comment – particularly bearing in mind the fact that we get many family and friends visiting the year.
Forget CCTV – just surround yourself with French neighbours’!
When used properly, a decent stick is any country person’s third leg and arguably their most useful accessory. It can prevent many a slip; test the unknown depth of a muddy stream; anchor a less than steady dog should the need arise; temporarily push down a barbed-wire fence whilst people cross and, in the autumn, hook down those out-of-reach blackberries and wild fruits from the hedgerows. There’s much written about country etiquette – but nobody ever mentions ‘stick style’!
Many have turned leaning on a stick into an art form. Psychologists might learn a great deal about human nature were they to make a study of how many countrymen and women seem to rest on their sticks in a particular way.
Much does, of course, depend on the type of stick. The shepherd’s crook and taller types of thumb-stick are often the choice of those of a certain age. There are some who tend to favour the ‘two hands on top, stick leaning towards the chest’ stance when involved in earnest conversation or observing things from a distance. A variation on this is when the two hands on top form a pad on which to rest one’s chin. Others adopt the ‘casual’ approach whereby the crook is held at arm’s length away.
HRH the Prince of Wales seems to give royal approval to the aforementioned ‘two hands on top, stick leaning towards the chest’ technique; as does writer, countryside ambassador and past presenter of One Man and His Dog, Robin Page. The late and much missed Clarissa Dickson Wright was a noted crook-leaner and would often stand arms folded across the top of her chosen stick.
Two styles regularly seen when watching events unfold at a distance are; firstly, where the fork of a thumb-stick is wide enough to be able to position a forearm within its jaws and secondly, the ‘hold with one hand whilst the elbow of the other arm rests on top’ method. That hand can then be tucked under the watcher’s chin or, on a sunny day, used to shield the eyes in order to obtain a better view.
Shorter sticks have their devotees too – and once again the stick stance varies tremendously. Some lean forward onto their stick, which, on muddy ground, quite often suddenly sinks into the soft earth causing the leaner to go off balance and much mirth and merriment to all the onlookers. Others vary this by having the stick and their hands behind them but on wet ground, the risk of sudden collapse (and subsequent colleague amusement) is just the same.
Any casual observer walking over soft land sometime after a group of country people have stood around chatting for any length of time might think they have come across a strange natural countryside phenomena. For some reason, it seems compulsory for anyone standing around in such a situation to push their stick into the ground and then, almost sub-consciously, wiggle it round until a wider, perfectly circular hole is left. After a couple of days of wet weather, any human footprints have washed away but the unexplained, water-filled holes remain!
A huge part of the pleasure derived from a walk in the countryside is the observation and identification of wildlife; particularly birds. Some species are more frequently heard than seen –and recognizing a bird from its song alone is sometimes a difficult task. With all this in mind, and ahead of their second annual count which takes place next month, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) are organizing ten countrywide farmland bird identification days during January.
When it comes to birds, particularly wildfowl, there have been many terms used to describe a gathering of avian swimmers – none of which are as ordinary or as straightforward as a ‘flock’!
According to C. E. Hare, who compiled his book, The Language of Field Sports way back in 1939, a group of ducks on the water are known as a ‘paddling’ but in flight they are more correctly referred to as a ‘team’. Generally they might also be known as a ‘trip’ or ‘plump’ but specific terms for widgeon, for instance, include a ‘flight’ – or, when they are on the water, a ‘bunch’; ‘company’ or ‘knob’.
It’s possible to observe a ‘tiding’ of magpies, a ‘scold’ of jays and a ‘murder’ of crows; a ‘kettle’ of hawks in flight (a ‘cast’ when not), a ‘host’ of sparrows, or a ‘team’, ‘bank’, ‘wedge’, ‘herd’ or ‘bevy’ of swans. A group of pheasants are spoken of as being a ‘nye’ – and a young family of the same, a ‘brood’ or ‘bouquet’.
Old provincial names for snipe include ‘heather-bleater’ in Scotland; ‘kid of the air’ in Ireland and ‘kid of the spring’ in Wales. In addition, in some parts of the country, a woodcock is given the name of ‘timber-dick’.
It is not, however, just the colloquial monikers attached to birds that leave the outsider scratching their head in puzzlement. Depending on where you live in Britain, a fox could be variously known as ‘Toby’, ‘Reynard’ or ‘Charlie’ (the latter after the 18th century MP, Charlie James). Rabbits are often called ‘conies’ in the plural and ‘coney’ in the singular whilst, in certain places, a mole is better known as a ‘mouldewarp’.
Someone once said to me “there’s a lot of sky in France” and, until coming to live here twelve years ago, I never really understood what they meant. In our part of the country at least, the horizons are reasonably flat or, at the most, undulating, so there is indeed plenty of space between heaven and earth.
At night, the skies are often so clear as to be able to see all the stars and constellations one has ever read about and many, many more one hasn’t. Looking skywards for too long can, however, cause a certain amount of dizziness – particularly if returning late at night from the local restaurant and bar. There is a solution, though, and one of my happiest memories is of when my son, daughter and I laid flat on our backs at almost midnight in the middle of a quiet country lane (still warm from the hot August sun) and simply ‘star-gazed’.
Some of the world’s most famous artists’ loved France for its sky: in the south-east, the likes of Matisse, Picasso and Dali were attracted to places such as Collioure because, as Matisse said; “No sky in France is more blue…” At the opposite end of this vast country, Normandy is inextricably linked to ‘Impressionism’ and its cliffs, beaches, topography and vast areas of sky were inspiration for Monet, Manet and Boudin.
Slightly closer to home, Henri Rousseau lived and painted at Laval – and claimed he had “no teacher other than nature.” The skies must surely have helped give inspiration!
Ditches are far more interesting than one might at first suppose! One dictionary definition describes a ditch as being “A narrow passage to carry water away” and a dyke (or dike) as “a wall or bank built to keep flood water back and prevent flooding” – behind which there may, or may not, have been a drain.
Many drainage systems, particularly in the fenlands of East Anglia, were developed by Dutch engineers and their influence may well be the reason why ditches are sometimes known as dykes (the Flemish word being ‘dijk’). In Anglo-Saxon times, a ditch was known as a 'dik' so there is an obvious connection there too. Throughout history, however, ditches have been given many other names depending on their purpose, region and local topography.
A 'ha-ha' is a carefully designed and landscaped dry ditch and retaining wall built so as not to obstruct the view accross the parkland of a stately home or magnificent country pile. A straight, uncomplicated ditch that takes water from one place to another in the low-lying lands is sometimes called a 'culvert'; particularly when piped underground for a part of its way. On the moorlands and uplands of northern England, small open furrows used for draining what is, at any time of year, relatively poor grazing, have long been known as 'grips'.
Even further north, in parts of Scotland a ditch was (and still is) often referred to as a 'clap dyke' for the very simple reason that when dug, their sides were 'clapped' hard with the back of the ditch-cutter's spade in order to make them solid and less likely to collapse.
In Lincolnshire, because a low-lying, likely-to-flood area was known as a 'carr', a ditch or drainage channel dug to help prevent flooding was called a 'carr-dyke'. Elsewhere in the county, though, such a ditch might simply be a 'drain' - and a drain dug at the base of a boundary enclosure, a 'delph': apparently a corruption of the Old English word 'delfan' which means 'to dig'. You see... I told you ditches were interesting and not, as the old saying would have it, "as dull as ditchwater."!
The humble ditch does, in fact, appear in many well-known sayings, just a few of which include: ‘die in the last ditch’; ‘last ditch attempt’, and ‘looks like he/she slept in a ditch’. ‘Leg in the ditch’ might be called out to a child who stumbles (possibly whilst skipping with a rope) and ‘in a ditch’ could indicate the state of mind of someone either drunk or unsure of what to do next.
The Dutch have a warning: “Don’t walk in seven ditches all at the same time”; meaning do all you can to avoid getting into trouble (Presumably, because much of the country is low-lying; the ditches will most often than not be full of water – and who knows what hidden dangers lurk below the surface).
Across the ‘pond’, some American hunters refer to the pheasant as a ‘ditch chicken’ due to its love of marshy places, whilst a slow or stupid person might be rather unkindly referred to as being as ‘thick as a ditch’. Then of course, there is the very every day, almost universal use of ‘ditch’ to indicate that one is discarding something or someone.
Not all that long ago, my wife and I were in the French town of Nantes and came across a junk shop. In such places I always look for paintings, bronze sculptures and anything field sports related. Most are priced unrealistically but occasionally there are bargains to be had.
Outside this particular establishment, and hidden well amongst the rubbish, was a very old, but extremely serviceable three-legged shooting stick with a leather seat and complete with a carrying strap. The price was only 15 euros.
Being a fan of any piece of sporting equipment that might have a history and imagining it as perhaps having been sat on regularly by some big-bottomed well-to-do French Count, I offered 10 euros for its historic interest, but the proprietor was not prepared to negotiate any sort of deal.
Despite it being a quirky talking point, I had no real use for it and left it where it was. Had I have realised that, for its antiquity value alone, a similar thing in a more up-market shop elsewhere in France would have cost 70 euros and in England, considerably more, I might well have been tempted.
Oh well, you win some, you lose some!
I’ve really been embracing new technology of late… but not through choice I might add!
The computer here in France has been making its “death rattle” for many moons now but, as I do on all such occasions (like, for instance, when the car makes an unpleasant noise and I simply turn the radio volume up a notch or two), I chose to ignore it and just hit the keyboard with greater ferocity in order that the sound of my typing drowned out the calls of pain and anguish emanating from the hard drive.
Eventually, though, ‘Old Faithful’ – who has given active service day-in-day-out for over a decade – decided that enough was enough and, hearing its Mother (board) call from another (PC) World, shuffled off its mortal coil with a sigh, a whimper and a final flicker of recognition briefly lighting up the monitor.
After a suitable period of mourning (about an hour actually, as time, tide and publisher’s deadlines wait for no man), I headed the funeral cortege towards the shops – and a more up-to-date replacement.
What a minefield that proved to be. In no time at all I was being persuaded towards a lap-top by one salesman – and in the direction of a ‘tower’ by his colleague. The tower-toting technician eventually won but not before I’d totally confused my browser with my byte; the cloud with a cluster; a default with a dongle and my system tray with my storage capacity.
Eventually, with decisions and payments made: back home, the new computer fitted quite literally into the void left by its predecessor – in which it sat gleaming and full of promise. Feeling like a concert pianist ready to perform in front of thousands, I flexed my fingers and flittered them gently along the keyboard… and in doing so awakened a veritable herd of previously hidden ‘apps’ which rushed across my home-page with the alacrity of gazelles scenting new grass after a particularly dry, dry season.
Quelling some of their exuberance with a well-aimed delete or two and corralling the rest into some sort of order before then lining up my sub-menus as if they were Olympic swimmers at one end of the pool, I began to realize just how far computer technology has come since Windows XP… and, since you ask, no I wouldn’t like a new iPhone, thank you very much.
Just before last Christmas, whilst in England for the shooting season, I was faced with a bit of a dilemma as I required a new pair of smart, waterproof boots for a shooting day – and a pair of riding boots in order to safely ride a horse out hacking.
After a great deal of deliberation in an extremely well-stocked agricultural suppliers, I decided to go for a boot which would, because of its design, look the part, be good in mud, waterproof when wading through a stream – and was also narrow and low-heeled enough to be safe in the stirrups. In effect, two pairs of boots for the price of one; a factor which always appeals to an old Yorkshireman like me!
Despite being on offer (or on ‘promo’ as such deals are known here in France), they were still far more expensive than I wished, but I consoled myself with the fact that they would, if carefully cosseted, last for at least two or three years. Before I even wore them, I vigorously coated them with ‘Renapur’ – a dressing I use for all my boots, shoes, cartridge bags, saddles and anything else that might possibly benefit from a coat of natural protection – and then again at every opportunity whenever clean and dry.
Last season’s shooting days went well; my feet remained both dry and warm and, out riding or just walking the dog, the boots were perfect. Back home in France I continued to use them until just a few of weeks ago when I stepped into a ditch in order to take some water-level photos for a current project. Was that a damp foot I felt?
At the house, I investigated further and discovered that all the care and attention I’d lavished on them had come to naught as the seam at the heel between sole and uppers had parted company. A Yorkshireman and his value for money are not so easily parted and so I did no more than contact the company concerned via their website. On accepting my email via their automated ‘contact’ page, I was told that all such things were dealt with in chronological order but that I could expect to hear back within ten working days. Ten working days have now been and gone several times over and I’m still waiting... it might soon be time to ‘name and shame’!
There’s something indefinably exciting about the potential of a woven willow hamper. For some, the sight of an old-fashioned laundry basket evokes memories of childhood places to hide. To the sportsman, a fishing creel, or pony pannier suggests days at the loch-side or the heather-clad hill. Yet more might drool at the prospect of what a well-filled picnic hamper could possibly contain.
At this time of year, the latter are likely to be in full use: the crumbs might only have just been dusted out after Royal Ascot last month and now it’s time to get ready for Henley Regatta!
Lunchtime food hampers are so much a part of the ‘Season’: Charles Dickens wrote of one Epsom Derby; “Look where I will ... I see Fortnum & Mason. All the hampers fly wide open and the green downs burst into a blossom of lobster salad!” Literature is littered with references to hampers – not only did Dickens make mention of them in such circumstances, so too did P. G. Wodehouse, Henry James and Wilkie Collins. Elsewhere they were traditionally essential in bringing out the lunchtime ‘bait’ for the workers in the field (think Laurie Lee’s, Cider With Rosie) and were also the perfect thing to strap on the back of the touring MG for a romantic picnic in the countryside.
The use of picnic hampers was not, therefore, confined solely to the racecourse or any of the other traditional summer season events: they were (and are still) the perfect receptacle in which to transport lunchtime provisions onto the grouse moor. Harold Macmillan was apparently famous for discussing affairs of state over a grouse shooting lunch taken ‘al fresco’!
Wicker hampers were also useful on the moors as a means of transporting shot grouse back to the game larder. The majority were rectangular but on some upland estates, the wicker baskets used to transport grouse down from the hill on the backs of ponies were more of a traditional fishing creel shape; contoured in such as way so as to be attached comfortably one either side of the animal.
The word ‘creel’ has been around a long time – Webster’s’ dictionary says it is a Middle English word and dates from sometime between the years’ 1250 and 1450. They have not always been made of wicker as, in the late 17th century, many were made from leather and it was at least a century later before the designs we recognise today began to appear. In fact I might technically be wrong to describe fishing creels as being wicker at all because ‘wicker’ is; strictly speaking, strips of split bamboo – and most creels are made from willow!
Some of the old hunting and riding books show very young children (between the ages of six and 18 months) sitting in a wicker basket saddle fitted on the back of a family pony. They were, in essence, very like a small chair with a back and arm rests. The best were padded with horse-hair and all generally had a lap-strap similar to an airplane safety belt. You would be lucky to find one nowadays and, if you did, I’m willing to bet you’d have to part with quite a bit of money in order to buy it!
Fewer and fewer of the French motorway toll booths are manned … and it’s all down to automation. Generally it’s a simple matter of pressing a button upon entry to the motorway; receiving a ticket and then, at the end of the particular stretch upon which you happen to find yourself, inserting the ticket, reading what you owe and paying your dues by either cash or credit card.
There are, though, exceptions – on the outer lane (which, just to confuse matters, would be the inner lane in the UK… oh, come on, do keep up…) – it is possible to, if equipped with a certain gizmo (which is pre-programmed with your credit card details), just to point this particular piece of wizardry at the overhead camera and sail through without stopping – provided, that is, you ‘hit’ the camera at a sensible speed (30mph/50kms)… otherwise there could be quite a nasty accident. Personally, I prefer to play it safe and go with tried and trusted methods.
In well over a decade of motoring on French auto-routes and péages, I’ve mourned the loss of human contact when needing to pay at the exit (thankfully, the lovely lady at exit 14 of the A11 is still there – does she ever have any time off, I wonder?) and become quite used to the automated system used by most. Until, that is, my most recent trip.
Heading back home from Holland (how disconcerting it is to be landed upon by a Lufthansa aeroplane as one negotiates the Paris ring road tunnelled under the Charles de Gaulle airport!), I eventually arrived back at my required motorway exit to Saumur – and inserted my ticket into the un-manned booth.
Because the sun was reflecting on the booth screen, I couldn't see anything so inserted my credit card as normal. My card stayed in the machine but the ticket was returned saying it couldn’t be read. I tried to re-insert it several times but on each occasion, it was spewed back.
By now I had five drivers behind me and couldn't reverse to get out of their way. I panicked (being a Yorkshireman; mainly at the prospect of losing my credit card!). I wondered if I’d inserted the wrong billet (from an earlier stretch of the motorway) and scrabbled about in the car for another one – then I realised that was impossible as, when a successful transaction is made, the machine keeps the ticket.
Now there were seven cars waiting – so I pressed the ‘appel’ button situated right of the screen and, from some point in France, a very nice lady’s voice eventually answered. I explained and she told me to read the first four digits of the motorway ticket. I did... my credit card was returned and the barrier opened. Panic over.
Exit Jeremy with an apologetic wave to all those who were queuing behind!
If you like bank holidays, May is a good time to be living in France as there are three of them; the 1st (May Day), the 8th (Victory in Europe) and, in 2014, the 29th (Ascension Day). None should be forgotten as if, like Old Mother Hubbard, you happen to go to the cupboard and discover it bare, there is absolutely no point in thinking of trundling out to the shops – they will not be open. Nor will some of the café’s, bars and restaurants’ where one might, not unreasonably, expect to get a meal.
Unlike other countries, in particular the UK, such dates in the diary are not greeted by an over-indulgence in consumerism and are, instead, spent mainly with family and friends. Roads are, as a consequence, relatively empty and, on the first of this particular month, I travelled northwards for four hours on the motorways encountering not much more than an obligatory caravanette, cars equipped with bicycles attached to their boot lids (where were they going to ride… or did they fear running out of fuel and having to pedal the last part of their journey?) and trailer-toting vehicles carrying trotting horses and gigs to various venues. Trotting is a national sport followed by many on a daily basis – but particularly on weekends and bank holidays.
Most bizarrely, however; although the main roads were relatively barren, the two service stations at which I attempted to stop were chock-a-block with cars and punters of a different nature and it was most definitely a case of there being ‘no room at the inn.’ Did some French families, I wondered, treat a trip to the service station as a bank holiday day out and once there, stay for the duration before wending their weary way homewards in the evening?!
The French attitude being as it is, a bank holiday which falls on a Thursday (as all do this year) is excellent news as it means that there’s no point in the next day getting in the way of the up-coming weekend. An official day off on Thursday is, for many, followed by a similar yet unofficial break on the Friday – et voila! – the perfect four-day break… a ‘faire le pont’ of the finest order!
“Do you know any of Kennings’ poetry?” I asked a French-living friend (himself a published poet of note) way back in 2005. “Actually” he said kindly, obviously not wishing to make my ignorance too apparent, “‘Kennings’ is a style of poetry and not a poet at all – it’s where obvious words are replaced by other, far less obvious ones.”
The conversation continued until one of us had the bright idea of making what had previously been only a writing style into a real person – and so William Hardy Kennings was born.
“Let’s make him a tortured soul of the late 19th/early 20th centuries” said one of us... “Yes... and let’s ‘find’ his lost poems and publish them together with a brief biography of the man” replied the other. And then – by now completely carried away – “let’s see if we can get him taken seriously”… as we both scuttled away to begin our various tasks: my friend to write the poetry and I to create the biography.
In a very short space of time, the deed was done: the verse was written in true ‘Kenningesque’ style and the poor man’s history made as tortured as might remain believable.
Copies were printed and, just for the fun of it, a book launch organised for a summer’s evening in France; quite what the invitees made of it all is open to speculation but sufficient food and drink was consumed for them not to care. An ‘agent’ sent review editions of The Lost Poems of W. H. Kennings to the editors of various poetry magazines – and my friend and I sat back and waited to see what might happen.
The answer to that was “nothing” – at least in the first instance. A short review did appear online but it was a year or so before there were any further developments – in the shape of an email.
Goodness knows how the writer (a London-based second-hand bookshop owner) found us, but it appears he’d discovered a copy of The Lost Poems as a result of sorting through the books and items left for sale from the offices of a poetry magazine: presumably one of the ones to which our ‘agent’ had some time before, submitted a review copy. Interested, but possibly suspecting a spoof, the book-seller wanted to know if there were more copies available. There were… and he snapped them up for his shop.
Far more ‘spooky’ than ‘spoof’, were the many strange coincidences that my co-author and I subsequently discovered over-lapped fact and fiction. They were many and varied – not least of which was that the address of the London bookshop owner who contacted us in 2008, was but a street away from where we had the infamous William Hardy Kennings working for a publisher in 1903!
NOTE: For those like me who once didn’t know; a ‘kenning’ is a type of literary trope, specifically circumlocution, in the form of a compound usually two words, often hyphenated, that employs figurative language in place of a more concrete single-word noun. Ancient Anglo-Saxon poetry often contains a ‘kenning’ or two – the epic poem Beowulf is full of them. Examples are when blood is called “battle-sweat”; the sea, “the whale’s way.”
Did you know that the word ‘pocket’ is a corruption of the French word poche – which means bag? And so too is the term ‘poacher’ – as poachers often had special pockets sewn into their clothing in order to hide their illegally-gotten gains: mind you, another theory has it that the name is derived from a nowadays obsolete French word, pocher – meaning “to intrude, thrust or trespass” (but that doesn’t suit my current mode of thinking so we’ll put that particular hypothesis to one side for the time being).
Modern-day outdoor clothing has so many pockets that it’s virtually impossible to find anything when you need it urgently. For example, my hearing is so bad that whenever I do eventually identify the ringing tone of my mobile and locate its whereabouts, the caller has almost always rung off by the time I’ve got the damned thing to my ear – and the fact that it’s on ‘vibrate’ is no help either as the density of most of my country coats’ means that I sense no vibration!
Not only is it the number of available pockets that is the problem – pockets also have an alarming tendency to hold more than you might think they are able and in that, they are not dissimilar to the carpet bag belonging to Mary Poppins; Hermione Granger’s satchel in the Harry Potter series and of course, Dr Who’s Tardis.
Recently standing in the middle of a muddy field with a group of friends (don’t ask!), conversation turned what we kept in the pockets of our country clothing – yes, I know, our debates are not exactly Newsnight or Jeremy Paxman incisive – and, on turning out the said pockets, in amongst the odd bundles of string, sticky boiled sweets, single gloves (whatever happens to the second of a pair?) and other things that perhaps ought not to be mentioned, the one thing we all had in common was a pocket-knife.
Maybe it’s a ‘Man Thing’ but the merits of each were discussed and ‘bragging rights’ awarded. Then someone pointed out that, were we to leave our knives in our pockets, walk down the High Street and, for whatever reason, end up being searched by the police, we were all quite likely to be arrested as none complied with what is nowadays permissible in a public place.
Kept in the right environs, though, no country person should ever be without a pocket-knife: their uses are manifold – and range between cutting bailer twine to tie up a fence or gate, opening feed sacks, removing thorns and splinters (from both you and your dog/horse/partner) and – look away now if you’re at all squeamish – gutting a shot rabbit or freshly caught trout. Then, after that... if the blade is not too disgusting (and a quick wipe on the grass is all it takes for a real country person to consider such a thing surgically sterile), possibly cutting up a lump of cheese or slicing an apple during an al-fresco lunchtime break!
Much as we might pretend otherwise, we all like to be recognised. However, being a writer, although my name is quite well known in certain circles, my face is less so – and when it is, it is usually because of a by-line photograph that appears atop of some of my regular columns.
Unsurprisingly, it is the readers’ who are interested in the topics about which I write that manage to put a face to a name – and usually do so at a shoot, out hunting, at an event connected with poultry-keeping, smallholdings, or France where my presence is in context. Having said that, I was once hailed across a busy Waitrose car park and was suitably flattered – until that is; it became obvious from the person’s conversation that he thought I was someone else!
Recently, whilst in Hampshire on a visit from France, I took The Dog for a walk in the woods – and got into conversation with a man on a mountain bike. Whether he would have chosen to stop and chat had The Dog not been busily engaged in ousting out a pheasant and nearly had him off his mount as she careered from one side of the muddy track to the other is another subject entirely.
No matter, during the course of conversation, the topic of our living in France came up... and the inevitable question, “Whereabouts in France?” was closely followed by the guaranteed “What do you do out there?” Such Q & A sessions tend to take something of a set format over the years and, despite any attempt to appear spontaneous, I now cannot help but answer in a stylised way – indeed, not all that long ago I answered one of the usual queries before it had even been asked! But I digress.
On the particular afternoon of which I speak, the usual questioning took an unexpected turn as, when it came to the point in the conversation when, in answer to the “What do you write about” question, for some reason, despite what my brain might have been thinking with regards to playing things down, my mouth said otherwise and I became unusually verbose – as a result of which, my newly acquired bike-riding friend suddenly exclaimed, “I know who you are” and, unlike my previous experience in the Waitrose car park, proved it by correctly telling me my own name.
However, surely the most bizarre occurrence of my being recognised by a stranger in an obscure place must have been when, many years ago, I met up for lunch with two old college friends at a country pub. As he prepared the drinks, the bar-man ventured to enquire, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but have you got a brother that writes for the Shooting Times?” “No” I replied, “I’ve got a brother who is a school teacher – but he’s got a brother who writes for the Shooting Times.” “Ah” said my interrogator nodding his head sagely; “I thought so.”!
I must admit that I’ve been known to spend time in our local bar/tabac in France! It’s a PMU bar and because of that, the television screen constantly shows various trotting race meetings... and its waste-bins are generally full of torn betting slips flung in disgust by regular bar frequenters whose chosen horse has failed to bring in the money.
It is an interesting and motley crowd who bet there. At one end there’s the local maire plus his friend – a lecturer at a nearby lycée, and at the other, a veritable miscellany and rogue’s gallery of fascinating characters to whom I find myself irresistibly and inexplicably drawn!
What is now often described as the ‘Sport of Kings’ was once an unscrupulous world of shady characters and political dissidents. In fact, in England, the word ‘jockey’ was at one time used to describe anyone of an untrustworthy nature and had no connection whatsoever with the high-earning, helicopter-flying, horse-leaping heroes of today’s racecourses.
Even when racing did begin to be considered respectable, the various meetings attracted those who wished to indulge in subsidiary sports such as pugilism – an illegal but nevertheless, popular activity in the 1840’s (prize-fighters apparently particularly favoured the Newmarket meetings as, if pursued by the authorities, they could quickly escape by crossing the county boundary into Cambridgeshire!) At York, the site of today’s racing is Knavesmire – which was once the location of the town’s public gallows on which highwayman Dick Turpin was hanged.
It’s not all bad news, though. Many racing tales have a whiff of pure romance and, were they to appear as part of a modern-day film plot, would no doubt be considered too far-fetched to be plausible. Take, for instance, the story of ‘Rubio’, a retired racehorse who had been pulling a farm plough for three years before being returned to training and going on to win the 1908 Grand National.
Four years prior to that, a New Zealand horse named ‘Moifaa’ was being transported to England (also to compete in the Grand National) when his ship ran aground. The intrepid thoroughbred swam ashore – and was returned to his trainer in time to be entered into the great race. Film producers would no doubt have him winning but facts dictate otherwise and the winner that year was a horse named ‘Kiora’.
Not so fortunate in achieving a racing career was an Irish thoroughbred who, but for the intervention of the Boar War – to which she was sent for use as a charger – was originally destined for the English race-track. She did, however, give birth to ‘Warrior’, the First World War cavalry mount of General Jack Seely... and the inspiration for the book, stage play and film, ‘War Horse’.
And would modern-day cinema audiences ever give credence to the true story of ‘Never Mind II’ – the holder of the slowest time ever for a winning horse? This dubious record was achieved when, during a two mile steeplechase on December 29, 1945, ‘Never Mind’ refused the fourth hurdle and was pulled up by his jockey. On returning to the unsaddling enclosure, the rider was told that all the other horses in the race had either fallen or been disqualified – so he did no more than trot back onto the course and finish the race as its unchallenged winner. No doubt some of the regular punters at my French bar would wish for such a miracle on occasion!
Ever since reading Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome, I’ve always had a hankering to call a dog ‘Montmorency’ after the book’s canine hero. The names people give their animals has always fascinated me, particularly those given to sporting dogs as they often seem to have a theme. Many gundogs, for instance, have a name associated with the countryside – Briar, Barley and Bramble appear traditionally popular with Labrador owners, while Teal and Bracken have long been used for spaniels.
Safe and staid though they may be, sticking with such thoughts might, nevertheless, be a better bet on a shoot that has more than its fair share of military amongst the regular guns, as to call your dog Colonel or General could well lead to confusion. I well remember a Yorkshire grouse moor keeper with a great booming voice, who, against everyone’s advice, insisted on naming his new yellow Labrador, Major; as a consequence of which, whenever he exasperatedly shouted its name anywhere near the butts, at least half the shooting party turned to see what was amiss.
Hounds are often blessed with military monikers, or even aristocratic titles such as Viscount and Countess – as well as a whole host of others based on ancient writings, such as Halcyon and Actaeon. On reflection, the latter is, perhaps, not the best name to give a hound as, in Greek mythology, Actaeon was actually a huntsman dismembered by his members of his own pack.
In addition, hounds are sometimes given the names of professions’ and it is common enough to hear a huntsman call out for a Fireman or Barrister without there being a need for either a ‘999’call or a litigious law suit.
A number of old hunting books have a chapter, or at least several pages devoted to the subject of hound-naming. Peter Beckford, writing in his 1810 book, Thoughts on Fox and Hare Hunting, opined that; “Pipers and Fiddlers for sake of their music, we will not object to; but Tipplers and Tapsters your kennels will be much better without.”
Canine sitters in an 1814 portrait of the Raby hounds painted by H.B. Chalon included a Craftsman, Benedict, Merryman, Baronet, Mahomet, Modish, Symphony, Maynard, and Governess, but changing times must surely mean that some with imagination are now giving puppies more modern names and it would be good to think that, somewhere out in kennels, there lives at least one Linkedin, Twitter or Google!
Some owners, though, apparently, have no such imagination. Sir Walter Scott, noted the time when a Scottish farmer told an English visitor that, “I have six terriers at hame…there’s Auld Pepper, and Auld Mustard, and Young Pepper and Young Mustard and Little Pepper and Little Mustard.” Then there is the tale of a past master of foxhounds who, when complimented for naming a hound after his daughter, replied, “Actually, I named it after a terrier I had…as I did my daughter.”!
I don’t think I’ll ever get totally to grips with the ‘social media’ – and as far as such things as Dropbox and Instagram are concerned, I might just as well forget it. Despite being at the keyboard all day and almost every day because of my work, I was most certainly not born to be of the computer age.
If only I could understand how Facebook private-messaging, time-lines and home-pages work, and who sees them… I just think I have it all sorted in my mind and then something appears somewhere where it shouldn’t and I’m left scratching my head once more.
Linkedin is another mystery. Surely, whenever I want to ‘post’ something and am given the option of doing so either to the ‘public’ or to my ‘connections’, it ought to be a straight forward choice? However, last week, I decided to send something to my connections and thought it would be seen by all of them – and yet, checking later, I had a message saying it had been viewed by just 38 people rather than the full 258 on my Connections list.
As to Twitter and ‘tweeting’, that’s another media I’ve not yet managed to perfect – oh yes, I know all about when to add an @ or a # but other than that, I might as well be talking to the birds. In fact, that’s exactly what I thought I was doing during a recent visit to our local ‘Jardiland’ garden centre!
There I was; quietly minding my own business admiring the canaries, budgies and parakeets when one of them spoke to me in a very clear French accent and asked if I was looking for anything in particular. Somewhat startled, I looked around and there was no-one at all anywhere near. However, without thinking – and, being a naturally polite sort of person – I automatically said “err... no thanks...just looking...”
It was a while before I realised that the voice had not come from one of our avian friends at all, but from a lady behind the scenes who was feeding and cleaning out from the non-public access area at the back of the cages. Observing my confusion and bewilderment must have made her day and I wonder how many other customers she’s caught out with her ventriloquist skills?! Who says the French have no sense of humour?
It is a strange thing but even though, mileage-wise, this part of France is closer to London than London is to Edinburgh, it is several weeks apart in climate.
The French farmers harvested their cereal crops literally months ago, and, as yet, there’s been no sound of the rumbling of combines and the clattering of farm trailers – indicators of the sunflower harvest. All is now temporarily quiet in the Loire countryside until the un-stable and gangly looking picking machines commence the grape harvest.
Walking the dog on the first day of autumn – officially the 22nd September and the day that both daylight and night time hours are of equal length, I recently reflected on the strange ironies of life. Never, in my wildest schoolboy dreams, did I ever imagine that I would be spending a lazy morning wandering the fields from which the famed Anjou wines originate. But here they are; huge bunches of purple and black, luscious looking – and languidly awaiting their appointment with the pickers.
At school, all those years ago, careers masters could not ‘pigeon-hole’ my ambitions, - the usual options were of no interest to me and so I was left to my own devices. I knew that I wanted to be a gamekeeper, and subsequently worked on the grouse moors of Yorkshire and the estates of southern England. Never in my life have I have to witness the dawn of autumn (or any other season for that matter), through the window of an office or factory.
Purple heather and ripe blackberries were the indicators of autumn long before coming here to witness the grapes slowly ripen on the vines.
When the harvest eventually happens, our neighbour, Christophe, will use the latest technology and allow his grapes to be picked by machines which span the rows of vines like some avian predator protecting its kill. Rubber fingers pluck the fruit with great tenderness and amazing efficiency but it is not enough for his father; one of the ‘old school’, who will then wander up and down the rows, removing any that are left by hand.
Within hours, the sweet smelling and pulpy mess begins its miraculous transformation from being just a pleasant backdrop to my morning walk, into a precious commodity on which France builds its economy and which is exported world-wide.
Strict laws govern how much wine is made and where it goes, but the authorities are not insensitive to the needs of the ‘viticulteur’ and his family – permitting a certain amount to be processed and stored for home consumption. I am sure the taxman turns a ‘blind eye’ on many an occasion; which is just as well in a country where the majority of its inhabitants think that “laws are a good idea but not for us”!
Many times have we been invited to a neighbour’s house and enjoyed their wine before then daring to ask if it is home produced. A nod, a wink and a finger to the lips, tells us the answer and often results in a couple of bottles being handed over as we leave!
Autumn in France seems to come round earlier each year: its onset is heralded not by falling leaves, but by great wodges of official papers that thump into the letter box at the end of the garden. You know you’re safe from them in August as the whole of France officialdom goes on holiday then. Once September arrives, however, there is no respite.
It is well known that the French love forms. There are various forms to fill in duplicate, or even triplicate throughout the year. There are even forms to say that you don’t need to fill in a form – and I kid you not. Friends of ours recently approached the Maire offices of our local village to ask if they need planning permission to add a couple of ‘Velux’ windows to their grenier. “Oh no, of course not” said the charming lady on the front desk. “But”, continued the lady just as they were about to leave the office, “you will need to fill in a form and bring it back to us here. If we approve it, we can then send you a form giving you permission not to need to seek permission to fill in a planning permission form.”
Early September brings (amongst others) perhaps the most ridiculous form ever and it concerns the Carte Vitale which allows you health cover under the French system. The card itself runs from year to year, but the amount you have to pay next year depends on how much you earned during the past twelve months. To work out the actual amount owed, the French health authorities quite sensibly need to know the income you submitted to the revenue (more form-filling), on which they will base their final figures. Now, bearing in mind the fact that information is really all they need to know, you would think that a photocopy of your most up-to-date approved and officially stamped tax form would be sufficient.
Not a bit of it: along with another form comes a request for various items; to whit, a copy of your passport (which is exactly the same as the one you sent last year…and the year before…and so on ad infinitum), proof that you’ve lived at the address for more than three months (I would have thought that, as they’ve been sending the same form to the same place for several years now, such details can be assumed) plus a copy of your attestation (here you must bear in mind that a Carte Vitale is automatically issued with an attestation – details of which, they must know, otherwise they wouldn’t be writing to you). Finally, they ask to see a photocopy of your Carte Vitale, which their own department issued in the first place!
But all is well – I’ve just been down to the post office and sent everything off. And, would you believe it, the man behind the counter saw what it was and asked if I’d like a form to fill in as proof of the fact I’d posted it!
Nothing stops the French nation from having a good time. Despite the fact that August is the busiest time for the tourist industry, it is not unusual to see shops and restaurants close down for the month and their owners head off for the countryside and beaches.
Once their holiday goal has been reached, it is time for some serious ‘chilling-out’, entertainment and fun. Almost every village or commune organises a fête of some description during August and, in case the name conjures up some genteel image of a garden fete at some English stately home or crumbling vicarage, you are, l am afraid, sadly disillusioned.
In keeping with the average Frenchman’s priorities, all possible forms of food are saluted, honoured and celebrated. But, even for a country that prides itself on being able to find any excuse for a party, what goes on at Tric-sur-Baisc in the Hautes-Pyrenees is a unique masterpiece of over indulgence. Fifty years ago, the town was France’s biggest pig market and, despite the fact that trade has diminished; to the holidaying French family, its annual one-day pig event, ‘La Pouncailhade’, is well worth the pilgrimage.
Held on the second Sunday of August, the place develops swine fever. Cartoon characters of pigs reflecting the owner’s profession grace each shop window and, in the old market, hundreds of visitors tackle a lunchtime plateful of roast pork. Regular visitors know that it pays not to have their snouts in the trough for too long as there is more swining and dining later in the evening. For those who cannot face too long a period between meals, there is the opportunity to indulge in the black pudding championships. Judging is simple, based merely on how many metres of boudin noir can be consumed in the shortest possible space of time.
Yes, the French, as a nation, have their priorities sorted. August is time for the family and that time is to be enjoyed in many and varied ways!
A couple of months ago I discovered that my tetanus injections were out of date and so made an appointment with the doctor.
When such things are required here, it’s normal procedure to see the doctor in order that he can write out a prescription for the vaccine. After that, you toddle off to the pharmacist who gives you whatever is required (plus needle and any ancillary equipment). The vaccine is then housed temporarily in amongst the cheese and wine bottles of the refrigerator at home (a nutritionist would have had a field day exploring the contents of our fridge) whilst yet another rendezvous is negotiated.
At the end of it all, I had the initial tetanus injection, after which I was given a second prescription – this time for the booster vaccine, together with instructions to return two months later. Last week I did just that and the following ensued.
“What do you want?” asked the doctor (not known for his bedside manner). I explained (or thought I did) and handed over the booster tetanus vaccine. He looked at it and threw it back across the desk telling me in no uncertain terms that it was the wrong stuff and demanding to know who had prescribed it. “You did” I said quite forcefully pushing the offending box of drugs back to him. “No I didn’t” said the ambassador for Anglo/French medical relations as he flung them back to my side of the table. “Oh yes you did” I rallied… and manoeuvred them just far enough to be technically on his side of the battleground.
Now feeling more like I was in a pantomime audience than a doctor’s surgery – and beginning to worry that this could very well go on all day, I asked what was wrong with the proffered drug. “It’s for a booster tetanus jab, not for the initial one” he snarled as the fated box of vaccine entered my territory one more. “But that’s what I’m here for – you gave me the main one two months ago” I countered. “Well, why didn’t you say so” saidFrance’s answer to Dr Kildare as, for the first time since I arrived, he checked his computer notes and, grudgingly, took back the, by now, much agitated liquid.
I watched him carefully as he prepared all that was needed – I most certainly wasn’t going to risk him turning away out of sight and blunting the needle point as punishment for my defiance. All went well, but the contest seemingly wasn’t quite finished as, at the end of it all, he insisted on taking my blood pressure and then gloated when it registered as being quite high. Quelle surprise!
A while ago I brought two paintings back from England. They had laid propped against the wall for long enough and so, last evening, I decided to ring the changes and put one up in place of a picture that had been hanging over the sofa for several years.
Removing the old painting, I discovered that the wall behind it had become discoloured (well, when I say discoloured, I mean really filthy) and, as the frame that was going to replace it was smaller, I set to with a damp cloth and cleaner.
After some vigorous scrubbing all looked well – until I stepped back to admire my handiwork and noticed that my efforts with that bit of the wall had the effect of showing up just how stained the remainder had become as a result of the log-burner over winter.
So, nothing for it but to wash the whole of the wall and, some twenty minutes later, things were looking pretty good and it was time to offer up the new painting for inspection. Catching the picture hook wrongly as I did so, I inadvertently removed one of the nails which fell to the floor, seemingly lost for ever.
“Ah-ha”, thought I, “there are more hooks in the tool-box; I’ll go and get one”. Off I trundled to the shed and returned with hooks, nails and hammer. As is usual with such things, the first nail drove home sweetly but the second met with resistance. Tapping it harder than perhaps was wise, I merely succeeded in removing a small piece of plaster, so, after hoovering up the bits from the carpet – during which operation I heard a loud and ominous clanking sound as the much-looked-for-but-failed-to-find nail rattled up the vacuum cleaner pipe, it was back to the shed in search of filler.
I’m sure that there was some in the shed but, looking only in the way that a man is reputed to do, I failed to find it and so instead resorted to Plan B. Chewing up a piece of gum (well, if it was good enough to mend damaged fuel tanks on wartime aircraft, it would surely be good enough to fill a hole and secure a small nail), the job was soon completed – and done so well that I’m thinking of changing my profession to that of painter and decorator.
At last, with The Dog looking anxiously on, it was time to hang the new painting… and, do you know what… it looked so totally wrong that I removed it and replaced the one that has hung there for years!