Monday, August 25, 2014

Au revoir to Normandy

…for this year at least. The van is almost completely packed and I’m getting down to the final cleaning and tidying.  However, before the phone line is suspended, I just want to give you a few snapshots of this varied summer in France, with details to follow once we’re safely back in Wales.

It began with gardening 

and went on to involve making bread 

and jam (and, of course, socks).

It included a couple of fetes 

and a lot of awareness of the 70th anniversary of D-Day 
and the liberation of Normandy.

There were meals with friends and enjoyable chats with our French neighbours,
together with a gift of her lovely roses. 

There was some lovely sunny weather, but also rather a lot of rain.

And it wouldn’t have been a summer in Normandy without kittens in the woodshed 

and on the doorstep.

So until we’re unpacked and sorted out, I’ll say au revoir and leave you with the latest antics of Simon’s wonderful cat.

P.S. I’m afraid the dratted spammers seem to have latched onto my blog again, so until they give up and go away, I’ve reluctantly switched on word or number verification for the time being.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

History repeating itself

You may remember that, back in the spring, DH and I had to cut short our stay in the far north of Scotland in order to return to Wales for the funeral of our elderly farmer neighbour. Our long and much-valued friendship meant that this was the only possible course of action and we were so glad to have returned in time to say goodbye to him.

Last Friday evening I was deeply shocked to receive an email from the husband of one of my oldest and dearest friends to say that she had died and giving us the details of her funeral. We knew last year that she had been diagnosed with a life-limiting illness, but the end had come far more quickly than any of us had anticipated. Indeed DH and I had been making plans to visit her after our return home next month and were looking forward to seeing her again.

The college where T and I were students

Now, almost 49 years after she and I met as freshers in our first week at university, DH and I will be going home in a week’s time to attend her funeral. Since we heard the news DH and I have talked a lot about her. Amid my sadness and the accompanying tears there has been a good deal of reminiscent laughter, as we looked back over the long years of our friendship and remembered our eventful years as students and the later mutual visits which were always so enjoyable, if never frequent enough in our busy lives.

The next few days are going to be very hectic, as DH and I try to deal with the outside commitments already on the calendar, plus all the packing and closing-down which accompany our return home every autumn. Summer has come to an abrupt end for us and even the weather is suitably autumnal, being cold enough for DH to have lit the wood-burner today. Unless I am quite unusually organised, the descriptions of our doings which I had been planning to put into my posts over the next couple of weeks will have to wait for a quieter time and I know you will forgive me if I don’t manage to visit your blogs as often as usual.

C’est la vie – that’s life, as my French neighbour would say - teaching me yet again never to take anything for granted and to cherish the good things, like friendship, while I can.

Image via Wikipedia

Friday, August 08, 2014

Lake in danger

Six years ago, as we started to look forward to our second summer in Normandy, I posted a query on a Normandy internet forum, asking if anyone could advise me where DH could make use of his newly-acquired kayak. I had a couple of general replies and a very friendly one from an English woman, who with her American husband had just bought a summer cabin on the north shore of the Lac de Vezins, about 15 miles south of us. Not only did she assure me that it would be fine to use the kayak there, but she also invited us to visit them to take advantage of the jetty which belongs to their cabin.

Fast forward a couple of months to a Sunday in July, when DH and I set off in the very small campervan to meet J and M for the first time. We arrived for after-lunch coffee and struck up an instant rapport with them, which resulted in us spending a long and very enjoyable afternoon there with much conversation and a lovely trip out on the lake in their boat.

This was the start of a very rewarding friendship and hardly a summer has gone by since without us getting together at least once, mostly at their cabin overlooking the lake. We’ve taken our children and grandchildren there, with meals on the deck looking down the hill to the water and leisurely trips on the lake in J’s boat. The two older grandsons had their first lesson in fishing from the ever-patient J, while DH revelled in trying out his kayak in beautiful surroundings, usually managing to get rather wet in the process.

All very idyllic you would think and in many ways it has been. Yet year after year we’ve taken huge pleasure in this glorious spot with the sad knowledge in the back of our minds that it is scheduled to disappear forever, probably by the end of this year.

For the lake is not a natural lake but a reservoir, created by the double damming of the river Selune, first during WW1 and then at end of the 1920s, to supply water for a hydro-electric scheme. The river valley is narrow and winding, giving a lake almost 12 miles (19km) long and nearly 100 feet deep by the dam.

After the lake was emptied for dam maintenance in April1993

Because the hydro-electric scheme is so small by modern standards and because the Selune was formerly one of the premier salmon rivers of France, the powers-that-be have taken the decision that the dams are to be demolished and the river re-established in its bed, in the hope that almost 100 years after the first dam was built, the salmon will somehow find their way back to their former spawning-grounds.

No matter that almost 800 jobs, mainly in the holiday and leisure industries, will be lost when the lake with all its water activities disappears. No matter that the experts still don’t know how to handle the nearly 2 million cubic metres of accumulated sediment with its load of pesticide and heavy metal pollution. The dams will come down.

Downstream from the lake lies the World Heritage site of Le Mont-Saint-Michel in its unique bay and no-one there, least of all the shell-fisheries, wants yet more pollution. The towns downstream, protected from the risk of flooding for the past 100 years, are also not looking forward to the river Selune running freely again. It will take a good number of years, and probably far more money than is on offer, for the valley to be regenerated fully, which is why the many local people opposed to this decision have still not given up their desperate fight to have it reversed.

There are no prizes for guessing which side DH and I are on. The lake as it stands is a huge asset, even if it never generates another kilowatt. In this poor area, with little employment, tourism is vital, and the lake with its sailing, kayaking, swimming and coarse fishing is very attractive to visitors. It’s also the only body of water of any size in South Manche and sits beautifully in the landscape.

A week ago we sat on the deck in front of the cabin having lunch with J and some of his family (M being back in the UK on grandmother duty) and looking out over the water for what may well be the last time. On our way home we stopped at the viewpoint overlooking the lake, where protest banners demonstrate so clearly the anger of the local inhabitants at this decision that affects them so strongly, yet which was made far away in Paris.

Will there still be a Lac de Vezins when we return next summer or only a wasteland of mud and bare rock? We don’t know and can only cross our fingers and hope…

The lake-bed after emptying in April 1993

Photos of the dam and the emptied lake via Wikipedia Manche

Saturday, August 02, 2014

A plum by any other name…

As most of you probably know by now, our garden here in France is the remains of a small orchard planted by farmers of the past. I’ve written before of the pleasures of picking fresh cherries in July and taking home with us a supply of apples for the winter, leaving behind the tiny cider apples which only the birds and wasps will enjoy. What I don’t think I’ve written about before is our plum tree.

It stands, or rather leans away from the prevailing westerly wind, in the corner of the garden next to the entrance from the road. It's small and old and only fruits erratically, but this year it has been laden with fruit which we know from past years is always wonderfully sweet and juicy. The fruit is light green, with a yellowish tinge when ripe, and has the most beautiful bloom.

Being the kind of gardener who knows by name only the most common varieties of fruit and flowers, I’ve always just called this our plum tree. To my deep pleasure I discovered  a couple of weeks ago that it's actually a greengage, so this has memorably become my greengage summer. 

There is something so old-fashioned, so evocative, about the name greengage. To an English woman like myself it conjures up images of old houses with walled gardens full of gnarled fruit trees, with boughs bent under the weight of fruit. It also makes me think of jams and jellies and pies and puddings, greengages having the reputation of being one of the very finest-flavoured plums.

Thanks to the recent warm weather, the fruit ripened early and all at once. With rain forecast for today, yesterday afternoon DH and I sprang into action. DH brought out his wonderful French fruit-picking ladder and climbed up into the branches, while I trotted back and forth to the kitchen with bags of fruit until he decided he couldn’t safely reach any more.
Not all the fruit made it to the kitchen

Now I had to decide what to do with over 20 pounds of fruit. First we had the ripest poached for supper, then I sat listening to my favourite French radio station while I stoned a bowlful for jam and left them to macerate overnight, as instructed by my favourite jam recipe.  

Plums to the left of me, plums to the right of me...

With several pounds of delicious and delicately-coloured greengage jam to add to the stock of apricot I’ve already made this summer, I don’t think there’s any chance we will run out of jam in the foreseeable future. Now all I have to do is to stone and gently poach the rest and we will have fruit for dessert from now until it’s time to pack up and go home. Greengages, anyone…?