Tuesday, December 29, 2015

New Year greetings

After a very enjoyable and rather memorable Christmas visit to DD and her family in Yorkshire, DH and I made our way home across the Pennines yesterday, but only for a couple of days.  After doing the laundry and making extra supplies of mince pies to take with us, DH and I are off again tomorrow, heading south this time, to see the New Year in with his mother and brother and then to spend a few days with DS and his family.

I have a post about our eventful Christmas brewing, but no time now to commit the thoughts to keyboard. So before I head upstairs to pack the suitcase again, may I wish you and your loved ones a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year. Here’s hoping 2016 will bring the UK rather more sun and considerably less rain.

Image via Google

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas wishes

The presents are wrapped, the decorations have been hung and I’m about to start packing for our journey tomorrow to spend Christmas with DD and her family. Outside, on this shortest day, the sky is leaden and the ground sodden, and from the forecast we are likely to arrive in Yorkshire with a very clean car.

Before I go, I would like to wish you all the happiest of Christmases and a peaceful and healthy New Year. When I come to look back over 2015 on New Year’s Eve, I will have to admit to having become a somewhat erratic blogger this year, but I am still extraordinarily grateful for this wonderful activity and all the lovely people it has brought me into contact with. I wish you all everything you could wish for yourselves and look forward to continuing our friendship in 2016.

Image:  Nativity, an illuminated capital from a Book of Hours in Dutch. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA.
Carol:    O Holy Child (Cantique de Noël)
                 Words by Placide Cappeau (1808–1877), translated  by John Sullivan Dwight (1812-1893).
                 Music by Adolphe Charles Adams (1803-1856, arranged by John Rutter.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A temporary lull…

…metaphorical as well as physical. After yet another bout of high winds, heavy rain and raging river, today is still, grey and drizzly and the hills around our valley are shrouded in mist. Indoors it is warm and rather untidy, with the dining table piling up with presents to be wrapped and cards to be hung when I get round to it.

In my study the card-writing table has been put away until next year and I’m taking a break from sermon writing and service preparation before going out again to a service of carols by candlelight in the smallest church in our group. First I need to head off to the kitchen to make the soup for supper, which will simmer gently as I sing carols.

As I go, I’ll leave you with a somewhat different carol, sung by the inimitable Tom Lehrer, who as ever can be relied on to put his own idiosyncratic slant on the activities of the festive season.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The year rolls round

…and before we know it Advent is here again. I know it’s a sign of advancing age to comment on the fact, but I truly don’t know where this year has gone.  And what a year it has been.

As I write this on a dark November evening, with the wind battering the rain against the window by my desk, I am again filled with gratitude for my safe and cosy house and deeply aware that many are not so fortunate. 

I think of the thousands of refugees seeking shelter and sanctuary from the ravages of war and with foreboding of the many more who may be driven from their homes as the conflict in the Middle East intensifies. I remember with deep sadness the many lives lost or damaged in cruel attacks.

We are living through dark and difficult times and yet, as a Christian, I cannot help having hope as Advent begins. This wonderful season of anticipation, of promises made and fulfilled, of the coming of Emmanuel, God with us, reassures me that there will always be light in the darkness and that the darkness will not overcome it. This message of hope and encouragement is wonderfully summed up in one of my favourite arias from Handel’s Messiah, to me the very spirit of Advent.

Image via Google

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A sense of déjà vu

One of the many advantages of writing a blog is the way it acts as a useful record of what has been happening in the life of a non-diary-keeper like me. Go back to this time last year and I am reminded that after a very busy October we had visits from my dear mother-in-law and DD and her family, with lots of board games and music practice, conversation and laughter. I’m also reminded that DD brought with her, and generously shared with me, a cold which gave me a persistent cough which lasted until the middle of November.

Now if you want to know what has been happening to me since my last post, you only need to go back and reread my first paragraph. Granted the busyness this October wasn’t due to moving house but to helping out every week in the parish plus a few other activities, but the rest is almost word-for word the same as last year, right down to the cold and cough.

The big difference from last autumn is that we’ve almost reached the middle of November and are still in Wales. Just like last year, we had been planning to head north as soon as our visitors had returned home. However when the time came we had no choice but to reassess the situation. On the one hand there was me, feeling distinctly under the weather with my bad cold, on the other was DH with an urgent and unavoidable series of dental appointments if he wants to be able to eat his Christmas dinner in comfort.

Very reluctantly we came to the conclusion we had to cancel this autumn’s visit, which is why we have been enjoying our first November in the new house instead. Not that the weather has been cooperating with us. After a wonderfully calm, mild and colourful October, November is now doing its best to add to our electricity bills with leaden skies that necessitate keeping the lights on all day and copious rain to ensure that the area doesn’t run short of water this winter.

Looking on the bright side, I’ve stopped coughing and can again blow hard enough to practise my sadly-neglected clarinet and I’ve finished not only my great-nephew’s sweater, but also yet another pair of socks for myself. I have all the ingredients for this year’s batch of mincemeat and, best of all, my recent mammogram came back clear. It will be a quiet winter here in Wales, but I’m looking forward to it.

The sweater finished at last

And the boy himself wearing it

Grandson#1 doing organ practice in a nearby village church

The view from my study on a calm, misty day in October

The last rose of summer safe on the kitchen windowsill

Friday, October 02, 2015

A moving anniversary

Oops! I really did mean to squeeze in a post before the end of September, but somehow it just didn’t happen.  The three weeks since our return to Wales seem to have flown by, with days full first of unpacking and sorting out, then of gardening, appointments and meetings, sermon-writing and service planning. In the evenings I’ve been busy knitting a sweater for my new great-nephew to the accompaniment of some favourite TV programmes.  I really don’t miss TV at all when we’re away, but it is definitely fun to catch up once we’re back home in Wales.

Talking of home, it was a shock to realise at the beginning of the week that it is already a year since we moved down from the hills into the valley. This time last year we were gradually transferring our furniture and other possessions from the old house to the new and struggling at times to work out how to fit everything in. I find it reassuring to realise that the overwhelming  sense of newness and strangeness I was so conscious of last October has long since worn off.  Now when I talk or think of home, this is the house I mean.

It has been a year of discoveries – gradually getting to know our kind and friendly neighbours and enjoying the little treasures of a new (and flat!) garden and the pleasure of being within walking distance of the village. The county council is even in the process of constructing a proper footpath from our road junction to the edge of the village centre which will save me having to leap onto the grass verge out of the way of oncoming vehicles. I can’t wait for it to be finished! It has also been lovely to discover how hospitable a house this is, able to absorb visitors comfortably and enjoyably, with three different visits on the calendar for this month alone.

Is there room for a little footpath?

My tiny flowerbed in June

And in September after 3 months away

As it happens there is another anniversary early this month, one which I am even more grateful to be able to mark every year. Ten years ago, on the 4th of October 2005, I had a mastectomy after my second diagnosis of breast cancer. For a few frightening weeks after finding that second lump, I had to face the possibility that perhaps this time the prognosis wouldn’t be as good as it had been after my first diagnosis 8 years before. Thankfully my worst fears weren’t realised and I am fortunate enough to have ten full and happy years to look back on since that significant date.

Now I’d better post this and finish getting ready for an all-day meeting tomorrow and the service I’m taking on Sunday. I may be starting to wear out here and there (don’t mention the word ‘knee’ at the moment) but I’m not going to rust if I can help it.  Life is too precious to be wasted.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

On the cusp of autumn

I’m writing this in the warm, humid twilight at the end of what is forecast to be the last hot day of our summer here in Normandy. It’s over two months since we arrived and only just over a week before we return home to Wales. In all that time, for a variety of reasons which I won’t bore you with now, I’ve only managed to publish one post.

Oh, I’ve often thought about doing so, and have mentally sketched out several posts, but none have come to fruition. Today I realised that if this went on much longer I would imperceptibly become an ex-blogger and I’m really not ready for that to happen yet.  So what has been going on over the past couple of months in our French neck of the woods?

The answer is not a great deal. It’s been a very quiet summer, with no visitors staying this year. DH has been busier than usual at times, dealing with clients’ problems, while I’ve been occupying myself with the usual pleasant round of gardening and knitting and cooking, with the occasional garden club visit or village fete thrown in for good measure.

Over the past few weeks I’ve spent rather a lot of time with my feet up, nursing a sore leg, and not enough time practising my sadly-neglected clarinet. Because sitting at the computer with my leg up isn’t easy, reading has tended to be novels, rather than blogs and I’ve missed too many of your posts. Perhaps I should treat myself to that tablet after all!

Nevertheless it’s been another contented summer in our beloved small corner of Normandy. On the whole the weather has been much better than last year, often sunny and warm, particularly in July, and occasionally far too hot for us native Northerners. After the last busy year, with the house move and my broken wrist, we feel rested and ready for our return to Wales and our autumn activities. Who knows, I might even manage another post before we leave…

Morning mist

Midday haze

Evening clarity

Apple picking time

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

A time of adjustment

My last post was written just 3 days before we set off on our journey to Normandy and since then a lot has happened. After spending a couple of days with my dear mother-in-law, we visited DS and his family for the weekend and finally arrived here just before midnight a couple of weeks ago.

As soon as we arrived we made the unwelcome discovery that, for the first time in 12 years of ownership, we had been visited by mice over the winter. Spiders and their webs are always here to greet us, but mice have been conspicuous by their absence until now. Thankfully they appear to have departed, having obviously decided that our settee cushions aren’t to their taste, after having sampled all but one of them.

The next discovery was that it now takes us longer than in previous years to recover from the preparations and the journey. No longer do we spring from our beds the morning after our arrival, ready to do battle with the cobwebs and unpack the van in less time than it takes to tell. We were very tired and knew it, so the cleaning and unpacking stretched over a couple of days or more before the last box and bag were emptied and the contents put away.

After that it was the turn of the garden. The third discovery was that the tree surgeon had done a wonderful job of cutting down and clearing away the three big poplars and our beloved cherry tree, leaving us only a pile of cherry logs and yet more ruts in the grass where his heavy equipment had unavoidably compressed the winter-wet ground. Cutting the grass in some parts of the garden now feels like pushing a mower over corrugated iron and DH has just invested in a mattock to help level the worst of the ruts.

On the positive side, we’ve discovered that even without our magnificent cherry tree the garden still looks attractive and my little flower border is flourishing as never before.  The garden table and chairs sit well in the lesser shade of the cherry tree on our boundary and we are discussing with the tree surgeon the purchase and planting of not one but two trees to replace the coeur de pigeon – a black cherry and an eating apple.

Another positive is the weather, which has been warm and sunny almost all the time since we arrived and indeed last week became very hot for a few days, though nothing like as sweltering as further south in France. It has been lazy weather, conducive to sitting in the shade with a book, rather than racing around the garden with a mower, and my mental processes almost went onto standby for a while, hence the lack of posts.

Today is cool and rainy, freshening up the vegetation and making me feel awake enough to string more than a couple of thoughts together. I’m starting to plan ahead again and look forward to our normal pleasant summer pattern of meeting up with friends, knitting and chatting happily at the weekly craft afternoon, and getting lots of healthy exercise in the garden. We’re even getting regular visits from last year’s kittens, now lithe and wary young cats who recognise a couple of mugs when they see them. Oh, and the jam apricots are now in the shops again…

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Lament for a cherry tree

It’s hard to believe that it’s now more than twelve years since DH and I embarked on a house-hunting trip to Normandy one chilly and damp week in February.  We’d done a fair bit of research on the internet and had made appointments with a number of French estate agents to view likely-looking (i.e. cheap) properties.

After my Sunday-morning services we packed the very small campervan and took the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Ouistreham, which decanted us, after an almost sleepless night, neatly onto the Caen péripherique or ring-road in the middle of the morning rush-hour! DH turned pale, gripped the steering-wheel with white-knuckled hands and begged me to find the first suitable turn-off.

During the next couple of days we criss-crossed southern Manche from one appointment to the next, trying to find polite ways of telling one agent after another that what had looked possible on the web was impossible in reality. Finally, having told yet another agent that the house we’d booked to see wouldn’t do, we asked him if he had anything else in our price-range.

He produced two photos of houses for which he had not yet had time to compile details and took us off to see them. One was a complete non-starter, being both miniscule and in the middle of a remote field without an access road, but the other had distinct possibilities. To cut a long story short, after much discussion over supper in the van, we went back next day to see the agent and agreed to buy it.

We’d noticed of course that there were several trees scattered around the nearly half-acre of land on which the house stood, but in their February leaflessness they were not easy to identify. When we went back in late August to complete the purchase, it was a different matter. The apple trees and espaliered pear were full of ripening fruit,  but we still couldn’t work out what the other, larger trees might be.

Bare bones, but no identity

It was the carpenter, who came to look at the house and discuss the necessary renovation work, who broke the news to us that we had three very large cherry trees in our newly-acquired garden. I still remember the thrill his words gave me at the thought that we would one day be able to pick our own cherries instead of having to buy them in small and very expensive quantities.

Because I was still working at that time, our visits over the next few years were short and infrequent and somehow never managed to coincide with the cherry season. It wasn’t until after I retired in the spring of 2007 that we were able to make our first long summer visit and discover that we had three different varieties of cherry tree, the largest and most impressive of which was a yellow Coeur de Pigeon which stood in the middle of the front garden and in the shade of which we had parked the van in the years when the house was still being made habitable.

In subsequent years we have eaten its large and juicy cherries, revelled in its generous shade in hot weather and admired its statuesque beauty, as it dwarfed not only the house but also every other tree in the garden, except for the leggy poplars in the hedge.

Huge and luscious cherries - far more than we could ever eat.

In a green shade...

Then, two summers ago, disaster struck. One afternoon, while picking cherries, I looked up to where the three very large main boughs, each as big as the trunk of a medium-sized tree, spread out from the enormous main trunk, and spotted a tiny sapling growing out of the hollow between the boughs. On investigation it became apparent that a cherry stone had become lodged in a crack between the boughs and had germinated and grown.

We removed the sapling and saw that the crack wasn’t very big and didn’t seem to be a problem. Nevertheless DH measured it just in case and we agreed we’d keep an eye on it in subsequent years. Last summer we measured the crack again and saw to our horror that it was definitely bigger. Given the height and weight of those three main boughs and the mass of smaller branches each carried, the thought of what might happen if one of them split away from the main trunk in a gale was very worrying.

So small, yet so deadly.

Luckily for us, our nearest French neighbour up the hill from us is a landscape gardener and tree surgeon and we asked him to come and give us his opinion. However, before he could do so, we had to return home early because of the death of my friend, and we agreed that he would come and inspect the tree as soon as he could after our departure.

This he did and in fact was so concerned that he called in a friend who specialises in fruit trees for some expert advice. The consensus was that the cherry tree was by then so top-heavy that it was only a matter of time before one or more of the boughs would split away and come crashing down. Unfortunately full-grown cherry trees don’t respond well to pruning or pollarding and the only sensible solution was to fell it, along with the three leggy poplar trees which were badly interfering with phone and power lines.

Poplar with mistletoe

All this means that when we arrive next week for our usual summer visit, the garden will look very different and I must confess I’m not looking forward to the prospect. I have no strong feelings about the loss of the poplar trees, which had a bad habit of dropping twigs and even branches in the slightest wind and were always full of mistletoe which DH had to try to remove.

However the thought that the magnificent cherry tree, which has for so long dominated the front of the house and given us so much pleasure, will no longer be there to greet us, really saddens me. Trees have character too and our Coeur de Pigeon was strong, friendly and generous. I will miss it very much.

We ate in its shade...

.. and read in it.

It gave welcome shade to the house...

... and to the garden.  It won't be quite the same without it.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Life in the great outdoors

No, not wild camping in the hills or trekking across a desert somewhere, but days on end in the garden, as I try to pack a summer’s worth of gardening into a few weeks, before we head off across the Channel in a fortnight’s time. The cool, showery weather in my last post was followed by a surprisingly windy few days, but things have now settled down to be warmer, dry and calm – ideal weather for gardening.

Once DH had fired up the ride-on mower and tamed the hayfield that our lawn had become, it was time to tackle the flowerbeds. For some reason the delightful previous owners of our house seem to have had a love affair with privet, with the result that two out of three of the flowerbeds were dominated by disproportionately large privet bushes.

To get my hand in, I decided to tackle the smaller one first, so on a day in May, I roped in DH to help. After a titanic struggle with the aid of a winch (yes, really!) we succeeded in dragging the privet bush out of the ground, roots and all, and I set to work to make the bed ready for more ornamental occupants. These I largely acquired at the village church’s plant sale last Saturday and they are now safely ensconced in their new home with plenty of space to grow and spread.

In between times I've been making inroads on the much bigger privet bush which takes up nearly half of the larger bed at the far end of the garden. It’s far too big to repeat our previous uprooting success, so I’m hacking it back until we can see the roots and decide how we want to tackle their extraction.

For light relief I’ve also started work on the other half of the bed, which is a mass of mint run wild, creeping buttercup and nettles. There is no way this bed will be ready for planting before we go to France, but if I can at least get rid of the great mass of invasive weeds, it will be much easier to work with when we get home in September. This garden has the potential to be a really lovely place and I’m enjoying starting to get it into shape and planning for the future.

If there were any justice I should be sylphlike after all this hard work, but failing that I am at least more flexible and I sleep like a log!  The morning mist has lifted now and the sun has come out, so if you’ll excuse me I’m off out into the garden…


Where to plant them...?

Safely bedded in

I may not be able to kneel, but at least I can still bend.

Grrr... Those dratted mint roots!

An unexpected crop of ready-minted potatoes!

Just to prove we DO have colour in the garden...

Friday, May 22, 2015

The month that vanished

To my horror I’ve realised that it’s nearly three weeks since my last post and I simply do not know where May has gone! When I last posted we were still in the far north, with the General Election looming, closely followed by our planned return south. Since we arrived home, almost a fortnight ago, life has been a blur of unpacking, garden tidying, service planning and general catching-up with people and commitments and it’s only now starting to slow down to a more manageable pace.

It has been good to realise yet again that the new house is a very welcoming place to come home to. It’s also been fun to come back to a garden which was still almost dormant when we headed north and see what is now making its presence felt. I even managed to remember to take my camera with me on a walk to and from a church meeting in the village to capture something of our rather different surroundings and perspective down here in the valley.

So here, from a still cool and showery Mid-Wales, is a glimpse of our new normal.

Half-timbered Mid-Wales

Hedgerow country

Hills to the right of me

Hills to the left of me

On the bridge looking upstream...

...and across the road looking downstream

Along the winding road to home