Sunday, August 25, 2013

Wind in the Willows be blowed!

Kenneth Grahame has a lot to answer for. Having read and loved The Wind in the Willows as a child, I grew up with a roseate image of Mole which I’m now telling you couldn't be further from the truth. If a small, short-sighted, furry creature were ever to show his nose in my Normandy garden, I’d probably chase him away with my garden fork, that being the implement which barely left my hand for much of this summer.

When we arrived at the end of June, the grass in the garden was approaching knee-high, which meant putting my sturdy mower on its highest setting to prevent it clogging up completely. At first all went well, though emptying the capacious grass collector at the end of every couple of passes was hard work, but then I came to the area under the trees. Instantly my relatively smooth progress was punctuated with sudden bursts of metallic clinking as earth and stones spattered the underside of the mower. Yes, I’d hit yet another hidden mole-hill!

Who knew what was lurking beneath the green?

After much cursing and sweating the first cut of the grass was finished and the full extent of the devastation was revealed. I don’t know why the long cold winter and spring were so conducive to mole activity in southern Normandy, but the fact remains that the grass under the fruit trees looked like an ancient battlefield, full of humps and bumps and bare patches of earth. If I wanted to get the grass shorter than the five inches I’d already achieved, I’d have to get down and dirty to clear the concrete-hard mounds laboriously by hand.

No faking here and this was only one corner

It was scant comfort to find at the next garden club meeting that I was by no means the only victim of mole subversion. Garden owners preparing for a visit by the club sent out warnings to the members to wear stout shoes and be prepared for less than perfect lawns this time. The otherwise welcome hot weather didn't help either, as the sun baked the mole-hills to an even stonier consistency, making their levelling a form of not-so-subtle torture to my aching back.

However, Perpetua is made of stern stuff and I refused to let myself be beaten by Monsieur Taupe and his works. By the time DD and her family arrived in early August, every one of the three dozen or so mole-hills which had greeted me had been flattened more or less and the garden could again be used to play our version of crazy boules, though with a few more obstacles than usual.

Because we are only here for a few months of the year, my garden in Normandy will never be more than an expanse of uneven grass and a rather small flower border by the house, which is why I so enjoy the garden visits arranged by the garden club. I only managed to make it to two of the monthly meetings this time, but hopefully a small selection of the photos I took will give you a taste of the wonders achieved by others with far more time, skill and stamina than I possess.

First came a visit to the Manoir de Saussey near the west coast.

The Manoir de Saussey and its wonderful garden

I do like a good vista

Such noble limes

Lost in a green shade

A very French courtyard garden

I love the hidden corners

The next visit was to a private garden only a few miles from our cottage, but in a different world of age and scale.

Mirror image

A French knot garden

My kind of kitchen garden

Granite - the bedrock of southern Normandy

P.S. With many thanks to Kerry Dwyer, who gave me the link, here is the inimitable Jasper Carrott with an animated cartoon of his famous mole sketch. Enjoy.......

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Like swallows leaving

After a very full and happy visit, DD and her family headed north this afternoon for the second week of their French holiday. Since then I have been busy stripping beds, starting on the mountain of laundry and realising that we only have 4 days left before we too will be taking wing. They aren’t even full days either, as we have visitors tomorrow afternoon and I’m out on Monday. Help!!!

Any hope of a longer post before we leave has vanished, so while the soup for supper simmers, here are a few impressions of a very enjoyable week.

The Abbaye-Blanche in Mortain - 12th century foundation

The abbey cellars - definitely 12th century

The abbey church - mother and daughter browsing

Mortain church - misericorde

Mortain church - font. Primitive carving

A family absorbed - Hill 314 memorial plaque

The grandsons - monarchs of all they survey

Mont Saint Michel - the marvel of southern Normandy

Water dodgems - a father and sons moment

Not quite Hawaii, but Grandson#2 doesn't mind
Grandmas have their uses - Grandson#1 has a siesta

The sea's bounty - DD's beachcombing trove

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Rising from the ashes

One of the many perennially fascinating aspects of spending part of each year in this particular part of France is the way in which the past still so tangibly impacts on the present. Two years ago I wrote a post reflecting on the irony that a lover of historic buildings like myself should have bought a house in an area where so much of the built past was wiped out in a few short weeks in the summer of 1944.

Almost every week during the summer there is a report in our local French newspaper of one commune or another holding its annual commemoration of the day it was liberated from Nazi occupation. The town or village dignitaries and a rapidly decreasing number of old soldiers gather at the war memorial, together with the school children and a good sprinkling of the population not at work, to lay flowers, make speeches and stand in silent tribute.

Some of the communes are able to give thanks that their buildings were largely or completely spared by the fighting.  Others in our immediate area hold their ceremonies of commemoration in surroundings that their ancestors would not recognise, so complete was the devastation.

On top of the ridge to the north across the valley from us is a little village called Gathemo. Sixty-nine years ago today, on the 10th of August 1944, it was virtually wiped out in just one day of violent conflict. It wasn't a particularly pretty little place and after the war it was rebuilt as quickly and efficiently as possible, with no attempt to imitate or restore what had been lost.

To the east of Gathemo along the ridge is the small market town of Sourdeval on its high plateau. It too was almost obliterated from the map when fierce shelling caused a catastrophic fire which rapidly spread out of control until the old town centre lay in ruins. It too was rebuilt, largely on the old footprint, and when we go to the market there it is a pleasant little place to be. But there is none of the mingling of different periods of building, none of the quirky mixture of old and new, the secret little bits of history, which make most towns and villages in France and elsewhere so rewarding to explore.

Pre-war Sourdeval

A town reborn

Like so many other places on all sides of the conflict, these courageous little Norman communities had to create new identities for themselves in the aftermath of war, mourning what had been lost, but turning their faces resolutely towards a new and hopefully peaceful future.  Our Normandy idyll is rooted in a landscape that has suffered, and amidst all its quiet beauty I can never forget its turbulent and sometimes tragic history.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The lull before the storm

Actually, after this afternoon’s little meteorological display, I should perhaps say the lull after the storm, but I’m speaking metaphorically here. I’m pleased to be able to report that I finally finished reading The Book at 12.15 yesterday morning, just in time for us to reluctantly hand it back to its kind lenders later the same day, when they came here for a long and leisurely lunch.

Now DH is putting the finishing touches to the redecoration of the front bedroom, always used for visitors. (Note to self – can one redecorate a room which has never actually been decorated before?) Meanwhile I’m taking a breather prior to rushing round like a whirling dervish, with duster, mop and piles of bedding, getting the house sorted out ready for DD and her family to arrive on Saturday to spend a week of their French holiday with us.

It’s three years since they were last here and it will be good to go out and about with them, seeing the area through the eyes of two rapidly growing grandsons, whose interests have developed a lot in the meantime. We’re crossing everything crossable that the weather will be kinder than on their last visit. It’s hard to have to go to work or school in a heatwave, only for the weather to break just as your summer holidays begin. Nevertheless, whatever the weather, the house will be full of activity and laughter and the week will go by far too quickly.

Before it all starts, here are a few snapshots of life in the French countryside over the past few weeks.

Anyone for cider?

I told you we had cherries!

Flyer for an afternoon of discovery - all in French

Our journey ended with tea on the farm

Making hay while the sun shone ...and shone...

And you thought Tolkien's Ents were imaginary?

Caught out reading - what a surprise.....

Our occasional visitor, who knows a mug when he sees one.