Last week was a high-achiever. I caught up with family and friends including two ladies who live in southwest England in the loveliest cottage I know. They are octogenarians, have very few family members and have shared their lives together, one of them having been married for many years until her husband died some years ago. Their cottage has been a constant Mecca for their numerous friends in the natural history world. One is a renowned conchologist, my mentor; the other a renowned and accomplished botanist.
Their garden, which has a strong Japanese theme, has been maintained with relatively little help from others and is as beautiful now as it was when I first visited their home 30 years ago. Age takes its toll on us in a multitude of ways but my friends continue to enjoy visitors and have their team of special friends, their proxy family, who come to the cottage regularly to lend support. Nick and I made the drive there and back in a day, having lunch with Pam and Andrew before I visited the tiny hamlet where my ladies live. Nick enjoyed a bracing swim at Godrevy before he picked me up for our journey home. A full and memorable day.
We crossed the Channel, arriving at 10 p.m. at Poole. It takes only 20 minutes to reach home where we find the Cholseys are installed for what promises to be a fun weekend. As I stand at the sink emptying stale water away, Sam appears noiselessly at my side and I jump out of my skin when he whispers “Hallo Granny”!
The next morning we have a gentle start because the four school-children are beginning to see the benefits of not leaping out of bed at crack of dawn to disturb sleeping adults. I coast gently into the day, aided by a cup of tea and chill for a while in bed with Joel, Charlie and Dragonvale;) After a breakfast of croissants and pain au chocolat a beach plan is proposed – we will drive to Ringstead Bay where there is easy parking and quick access to the beach. There are lots of people already there when we arrive and for the next three hours we enjoy some boating in the stretch of water between the shore and the narrow reef which is exposed as the tide goes down. I wade out with Charlie in the small inflatable to supervise and by the time I realise the water is beyond my midriff I feel very much like a swim. How delightful it was – the first of the year. I didn’t even manage a sea swim in 2012!
We have pastries and biscuits and flasks of hot tea and coffee to tide us over until we get back to WK. There Claire cooks sausages and chicken on the BBQ and I prepare some salad and pull out a kilo of crevettes roses from the fridge. We finish with a Tarte Normande. In the evening I play Newmarket with the children. I have developed a great fondness for playing cards and Newmarket is straightforward and fun with the ‘betting’ element for which we use little cowry shells.
On Sunday we are going to rendez-vous with Barns, Lukie and Wolfie in the New Forest for a 4pmish picnic. So a late brunch is in order and before we know it, it is time to compile our picnic, load up and set out. We find the horsebox without difficulty and Barns and co turn up a few minutes later, he on his bike and Lukie on Wolfie. We picnic in a shady dell then wend our separate ways.
We love having the Cholseys – they are such good value – and we love them all.
Trips to France in the past month have been disjunct and we have gardened whenever we could. Particularly Nick who spends much time outside, especially processing his compost. We have so much material now that we do not put spent weeds in our compost bin anymore; the seeds persist through out composting process and we know that it will be several seasons before we can get on top of our weed community, or at least reduce it significantly. Most pernicious is the Convolvulus as the roots go so deep.
The other thing we have had to contend with is dry weather so that has made it more difficult to work the soil but we have done our best. Ideas are evolving as we come to terms with the fact that we need to grow plants that like what we have to offer in terms of growing conditions, and the time available to give our attention to what needs to be done. We also need to restrict the number of pots we can maintain. Leaving the garden unattended for 3 or 4 weeks at a time costs dearly – should we consider getting a gardener?…..
Nick and I also need to agree to a maintenance strategy for our gravel areas, a large one at the front and another area at the bottom by the potager. We love the fact that at least a dozen Agapanthus have set themselves in the front gravels against a stone wall. Also an Echium is growing by our front gate, between one of our horse chestnut trees and the front hedge. I have a dispensation to keep one corner in my own way, allowing self setters like Aquilegia, chives, cornflowers and others to grow in dwarf form. We even found 3 new self-set bee orchid plants in the gravels this year but we moved them to greener pastures in the lawn!
Nevertheless we had a delightful flowering of bee orchids which are all now forming fat seed pods, the delphiniums were stunning although they developed mildew unfortunately. I have cut them right back, we hope for a second flowering. One of the Geranium madarense flowered and seeded, we are assured of plenty of plants to choose from next year. The banana tree has put on height although because of winds it looks very untidy. We have three Echiums in flower which the bees adore. It has been a great year for Roses.
So all in all it’s not too bad and our neighbours continue to compliment us on our garden, but I think they admire the tradition of English being talented gardeners. We do not claim this for ourselves however, we just do our best and there are still bits of flowerbeds which need rethinking and this autumn some plant-moving is likely to happen.
After Nick’s cousins left and before we left on Friday we had a calm evening on Thursday with Anne and Francois chez nous, where once again I wooed them with a chicken curry.
Nick’s cousins Joy and Trisha and Tony came to spend a couple of nights with us during mid-July. They are en route to a Breton gite which they have booked to share with a wider family group. Joy has 3 sons and Trisha has 3 daughters. These latter and Trisha live in Pretoria but Trisha has been in England for an extended visit. Nick was happy to plan their visit chez nous and our associated activities and he made a very good job of it. We ate Plat du Jour in the Debarcadere on the day of their arrival and a short boat trip during which we tried to catch a few mackerel whilst enjoying a view of our stretch of coast. On the way back from the marina we had a good view of the oyster park at low tide and Trisha mentioned that she loved oysters. Thus we bought some to add to our other seafood and had a very marine feast on our terrace in the evening.
On Tuesday we again ate lunch out, at the Café de France in Barfleur. We had a brief look at this famous port from which William the Conqueror’s fleet set sail, walked around inside the cool, still church and then filled the afternoon with visits to the Gatteville lighthouse and to Neville sur Mer where the bunker art project (Memoires en Couleurs) can be seen. We finished the day at Chateau des Ravalet in Tourlaville on the outskirts of Cherbourg, where you can walk round the gardens and if inclined, look at the macabre exhibition in the four rooms of the chateau which are open to the public. There is also a smaller exhibition, L’Estivale des Ravalet running through the summer where 4 different artists have an interval to show their work. We took liquid refreshment in the small Salon de The then drove home to eat again, on the terrace. After, we played several games of Pool, Trisha displaying a long-standing talent for the game!
On Wednesday our guests took the road to south to find the B&B we had managed to book for them near Granville. Nick and I started to ready the house for the next visitors.
During our visit to the garden belonging to Stephane Marie I told Christine about the Jardin du Chateau at Vauville on the west Cotentin. We have visited this garden more than any other since we bought our house in France, and took Pam and Andrew Tompsett on one occasion and Lis and John when they visited us, just before the house was dissembled for the dry rot treatment.
Nick and I drove across one afternoon taking Christine with us. She mentioned that her aunt who lives on the west Cotentin had said that the garden is not as beautiful as formerly. Sadly we found this to be the case. Admittedly there has been little rain in recent weeks so the ground beneath the plantings seemed particularly bare but it seemed to me that many of the plants that form the lowest storey were simply not there. Sure enough there were ferns and some other hardy ground cover plants but no specialities. You could argue that we had timed our visit at an unfortunate time. The rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas were over, the hydrangeas were only just beginning with flower-heads being largely green, and the Hemerocallis and Agapanthus which form an important element of certain displays were all in bud. The net result was a noticeable lack of colour except in the small area of exotic perennials. Nevertheless it was a pleasant afternoon rounded off perfectly with a cup of tea and a lemon pancake at the Salon de The!
Our friends Tanou and Jean Pierre invited us to a Vernissage one Friday evening at the end of June. A vernissage is essentially an opening event for an exhibition or similar, what we in England might call a Private View. The event in question is the unveiling of a series of massive canvases which have been painted by a joint team of German and French teenagers at higher education level, from Carentan and Magdaburg. The artwork was conceived by the artist Eberhard Matthies who divides his time between the Cotentin and Germany. Tanou and Jean Pierre have been involved in the committee which has overseen the project which was proposed and initiated in July 2010.
With the completion of the canvases and their erection at Neville sur Mer, the object of these brightly coloured panels is to mask the darkness of a wartime past in a spirit of peace and fraternity. The panels are liked and approved of by some, and disliked by others. This is understandable; the coloured panels are arresting for sure. They will remain in place throughout July and August and add a kaleidoscope of colour to the more subtle beachside palette of typical seaside hues.
Nick and I took a late afternoon walk the other day. Driving out of Bere Regis we took the Poole road and turned down Sugar Hill which goes to Wareham. A short distance along we pulled into an unmarked parking area where tracks into the Wareham Forest lead northeast and southwest. The southwest route is a ride and as we walked along there was much evidence of logging of the pines, with wood piles of some maturity still stacked by the trackway. We noticed a long trail of wood ants scurrying in both directions along the side of the ride and found a nest soon enough. Not long after Nick noticed an orchid and the rest of our walk as far as the pylons was a delight as we found many plants, several well past their best, but enough bearing flowerheads to capture their beauty. Walking back to the car we noticed many plants on the same side as the ant trail, that we had failed to notice on the outward journey. The orchids are Marsh Orchids, Dactylorhiza incarnata, probably a mix of the Early and Southern subspecies.
On a wet Saturday at the end of June I went to visit a garden with my French neighbour Christine and her friend Martine. The garden in question is just outside Briquebec and belongs to a celebrity gardener who hosts a programme called ‘Silence Ca Pousse’. What the programme is about is best summarized on the translated Wikipedia entry. Stephane Marie is a bit of a cult figure in France, rather as Alan Titchmarsh is, or was, to the British viewing gardeners, females so I’m told, in particular.
At 10 a.m. Stephane Marie emerged from his house and proceeded to give us a guided tour around the different areas of his garden. I was struck by the number of perennials in his collection which feature in ours. He clearly likes the large showy Oriental poppies, foxgloves, Hellebores, Phlomis, Iris, Alllium, Astrantia. He even had one clump of the graceful grass, Briza media, just as we do in St V. I noticed an absence of Delphiniums and asked him about this. He said he could not get them to succeed. As with a visit to any garden I came away with ideas. Hellebores can do well if planted in a large enough pot. A Trachelspermum jasminoides can be trained in a very structured form. I love what he has done with the area of gravels outside his kitchen, living area. I will negotiate with Nick to allocate a small area of our rear gravels to allow more desirable self-setters to establish.