None so Beau as Chenonceau

Just a glance at the aerial shots of this stunning Chateau, which you will find on the Chenonceau website, are enough to remind me of the grandeur of this special chateau which arches over the River Cher.  With more time to give to our visit today (and why should one ever dare to rush such excursions) Georgy, Nick, Brigitte and I explored the chateau interior and I marvelled at the sumptuous furnishings and there is some stunning art including the oh-so-pleasing Three Graces” by van LooThere are fresh flowers everywhere and when you visit the gardens later in your visit you can see that most of the raw material for the arrangements is grown on the estate.  I remember this chateau, too, for the kitchens with gleaming copper everywhere.  And lots of decadent four-poster beds.

Despite the grand and noble impression, the splendour, you gain from Chenonceau, it has a notoriously autocratic and permissive past.  The chateau was host to skullduggery, debauchery and its documented history is revelation that, where prominence in affairs is concerned, women aren’t necessarily a whole lot sweeter than men.

Henri II bought Chenonceau for Diane-de-Poitiers, once his governess, now his mistress and, though 20 years his senior, still bewitching. She bathed often in asses’ milk, apparently. Diane created gardens and put the bridge across the river, so that she might hunt on the other side.

On Henri’s death, his widow Catherine-de-Médicis (stout and not beautiful) evicted Diane, and took Chenonceau for herself. She added the gallery to the bridge. She also threw world-class garden-parties (transvestites, nymphs, satyrs) to showcase the monarchical power of her three sons.

The formal gardens are lovely but cannot match the structured and precise exuberance of Villandry.  The box hedged area is very pleasant to walk around but the gardens at Chenonceau keep their best behind the scenes, where many of the plants that have been on show in the house, including the autumn fruits, not least the gourds, are being cultivated.  Especially the Curcubitaceae: all shades of orange, yellow, green………. they are smooth, ridged, knobbly, spiny, quite otherworldly.  As if they have a mind of their own and take flights of fancy and imagination in their growing.  Everyone slightly different from its fellows on the same plant.

In the grounds there are massive and ancient trees and widespread carpets of autumn cyclamen form the blush of pale pink that is the ground flora of the tree-lined avenue to the chateau entrance.  Over decades, centuries indeed, they multiply and are incomparable in their contribution to the autumnal flowering.

The afternoon draws on and in the end you reach saturation point.  Legs are heavy and the iPad is overloaded with images.  Time to retreat to our very agreeable gite and wind down.  Tomorrow is another Chateau.




Villandry…………..that is all

At 8a.m. sharp Georgy and Brigitte arrived at 104 ready to scoop us up for a small road trip.  We are going to visit the Loire Valley to see the Chateaux and the wine growing areas.   Georges is going to be our chauffeur as well as our companion for the trip which is a huge treat for the Lights.  We make good time on the excellent French roads and arrive at Chinon in time to find a good restauration location where it is evident the working French retreat at lunch time.  We eat the menu of the day, my only disappointment being the inferior Paris Brest which isn’t a patch on our boulangerie back home.

After lunch we drive to Villandry and how divine an afternoon I spend.

The Château de Villandry is a castle-palace constructed around the original 14th-century keep where King Philip II of France once met Richard I of England to discuss peace. The château has passed through several owners and in 1906, Joachim Carvallo bought the property and poured an enormous amount of time, money and devotion into repairing it and creating what many consider to be the most beautiful gardens anywhere. These famous Renaissance gardens include a water garden, ornamental flower beds, and vegetable gardens. The main gardens are laid out in formal patterns created with low box hedges. This being a Renaissance garden there are layers of symbolism – love, sex, corruption – apparently a quality of cabbages. Meanwhile, the chateau itself, whose interior we did not feel we had the time to visit,  falls under Spanish influence.   In 1934, Château de Villandry was designated a  Monument Historique. Like all the other châteaux of the Loire Valley, it is a World Heritage Site.

Still owned by the Carvallo family, the Château de Villandry is open to the public and is one of the most visited châteaux in France.  We bought tickets for the garden only; how wise this was.  The gardens are vast, terraced and laid out with geometric formality; they could have been created with set-squares, protractors, compasses rather than garden tools. The lines, the swirls, the colours, the designs, the precision feed the eyes and leave almost all the senses exalted. Seen from the château battlements above, the gardens resemble a gigantic puzzle-page from a colouring book, brilliantly filled in.

Here are the masterly plantings of vegetables in geometric shapes bordered by low box hedges.  At the time of our visit, where beds have been emptied of an earlier crop, plump princely pumpkins are ranged in orderly fashion, each perched on a flat stone tile.  After what has probably been a clement growing season cabbages are kings, huge, regal and perfectly formed.   Aubergines, purple, green and white grow alongside several varies of chilli pepper.  Leaf and root celery.  In the herb garden perhaps dozen varieties of mint, several of sage.

Come time to go, just a quick look along the racks of plants for sale.  It is a modest selection and really, what a let-down!  Very ordinary offerings of the everyday plants that have been used for edging here and there and some of the common herbs.  None of the unusual varieties of Tradescantia, for example, offsets of which I saw elderly French ladies nicking as they passed by.  Oh well, honesty doesn’t always pay!!!

We drive back to Huismes near Chinon where we are booked into a gite Georgy found on the internet.  This is a nice pad, tending to shabby chic in the bedroom department certainly, with a nice terrace where we can sit and take apero.  We cook what we brought for supper, good Cumberland bangers and follow this with a hand or two of Spite and Malice and take to our beds ready for another day.



Six Go Summerly in St Vaast

Four very dear friends came to stay with us in St V.  We go back to the days of babysitting groups when we paid each other in plain postcards, each worth one hour.  In those days we stay-at-home mums would commit to sit for each other, counting on our husbands’ return from a day at the office in time to abandon our own children to their respective fathers.  We had our babies in our 20s and they are now in their 40s with their own offspring.  Now our daughters have their own careers and the couples engineer their own arrangements. Grandparents often feature………..

What we all did in St Vaast is we walked, we visited Chateau Toqueville, we bought a bit of wine, we read our books (4 of us are book groupies), we ate au bord de la mer and at Hotel Fuchsias and Nick and I feted our friends and their French opposite numbers with an evening of Entente Cordiale chez nous.  French and English banter circled the dining table and amongst memorable moments I treasure Georgy’s compliment to William when he said that William had something of Winston Churchill about him.  With his impeccable accent and affable gravitas William is a gift to Anglophiles like Georges.

On the day of departure we went to Le Dranguet where brave souls bathed after which we repaired to Le Debarcadere to complete the St Vaast experience.  Au revoir lovely people…..

36 Hours in Hackney

I don’t get to Hackney as often as I would like, nor do I manage to get to the theatre often either.  So it is with a real feeling of excitement that I bundle myself  into our car on Tuesday afternoon, our destination being a Light household in east London.   I have tickets for a double bill at the Aldwych Theatre in the Strand.  Hilary Mantel’s two novels based on the life of Thomas Cromwell have been scripted as plays.  The two full-length plays are being performed to run concurrently and on Wednesdays you can see Wolf Hall as a matinee and Bring Up The Bodies as an evening performance.  I am to be accompanied by Emma to one play and Dan to the other.  To enhance the neat symmetry I have even booked the same seats for each play at the front of the Circle.  The plays are described as ‘a familiar tale with a thrilling originality of storytelling’.   The sets are cleanly simple, the cast shifting from one scene to another by walking to a distal point on the stage, turning and re-entering in another frame.  As with the novels the dialogue imagined between the protagonists has riveting verisimilitude.

On the Wednesday I walked a good distance of Dan’s daily route into Scrutton Street with him.  We stopped at Betty’s café for coffee, then I completed my journey to Tottenham Court Road by bus.  I meandered down to Covent Garden, found a water hole for lunch which was disappointing, and, because it was chilly, I bought a colourful wool scarf to go with my new royal blue top.  I then met up with Emma for the play.  Lovely mother and daughter-in-law treat.  After Wolf Hall I killed a bit of time then met Dan in The Delauney for a light supper before the second play. I think both my guests were taken with the performances. I enjoyed every moment. Dan and I took a taxi to Betty’s for a night cap, then a bus to Downs Park Road. On Thursday morning we bade our farewells, not forgetting my beloved tabby Rooney who now lives in Hackney, and took the girlies to school before heading for Dorset.

Guests, Guinea Fowls and Giant’s Footsteps

During our week at Hutton Buschel we have enjoyed our time on the shore and in the lab.  We have also shared conviviality around the kitchen table, something that has featured in all the houses we have rented in this first week in September.  Mid-week we invite Simon, John and Ian to supper and our numbers swell to 11.  There is lots of conversation and mild debate.  Nick finds he has met his match in Ian when it comes to dialogue.

On Saturday morning we pack and vacate the house.  It has been an amenable base, despite a shortage of bathroom facilities for a group of 8 people.  But the chickens and guinea fowl have been fun to observe, all of these birds roosting in the apple tree just outside the front door.  Their low murmurings and purrings have been fun to listen to late in the evening.

We set off with some scrumped plums and some purloined martagon lily seed heads.  Before we start the haul south Nick and I swing into Market Weighton to pay homage.  This is the birthplace and home town of William Bradley, known as the Yorkshire Giant.  After some genealogical research which I have carried out with Maddy there is strong evidence, based on my grandfather’s line, that he is an ancestor.  But I have yet to confirm this.  However whilst in the area I cannot help checking him out: his wooden statue in the town, his former house which is now a gift shop, his place of burial under a section of the pews in the church, his footsteps.  At 7ft 9ins he was the tallest known Englishman until 1999.  The next step in my search for a definitive answer to my possible relatedness to this man is a trip to York to look up parish records.

After a quick café snack we resume our journey to Oxfordshire where we will catch up with the Cholseys.  They are all based at Shillingford for the weekend and we join in with some useful activities: a recently constructed wood store is filled by the collective efforts of menfolk of all ages.  Amelie introduces me to the piglets in the woods and Hug the horse.  Hug and Wolfie now live at North Farm and it must be a real plus for Lukie to have the horses on site.  Amelie helps with their care, mucking out, and is beginning to ride.  Petite, like Lukie, I imagine she has the ideal build to be a horsewoman.

With some apples and pears from the orchard in the boot, we set off for Winterborne Kingston late Sunday afternoon; soon we will be on the road again……


Highlight at North Landing

The peaceful cove beach at North Landing, set snugly within the Chalk cliffs of Flamborough Head, was to provide the sort of excitement which I hope for when recording on the shore.  The narrow beach is bounded by cliffs with many sea caves including one spectacular one on the east side of the inlet.


The beach is composed of sand and pebbles and there are rock pools on the platforms which bound the cove.  Taking a torch and a few specimen tubes I investigated a narrow cave cutting obliquely into the cliff on the east margin.  The north-facing wall offered all the geological, geomorphological and biological features I have come to associate with ‘the crevice fauna’.   I wrote about these, and figured them, in my Marine Recorder’s report to the Conchological Society for 2009.

The micromolluscs which inhabit the zone of the shore, known as the upper- and supralittoral, have been an ongoing interest of mine since the mid-80s.  Some of the members of this microfauna are rare and elusive but I have developed a nose for them.   With sustained searching in the cave, involving close examination of the fractures and fissures in the Chalk with a torch beam I managed to find a handful of specimens of Otina ovata,  an air-breathing snail with a shell length of 2-3mm.

Before I leave the shore I investigate an adjacent cave whose small entrance belies the dimensions of the cave within.  It opens out into a wide, high-ceilinged gallery.  Initially confronted with gloom, you are then aware of a source of daylight round the corner of the small entrance chamber.  This is coming from another entrance at right angles to the access point on the upper shore.  The second entrance gives out onto the sea-facing lower shore kelp zone.  The floor and walls are evidently subjected to high wave action, being more or less smoothly worn and bare of life.  You can only appreciate the dimensions of this cave by searching for the human figure, dressed unhelpfully in greyish blue,  in this photo:


Subsequently I learn it is the first record for the east coast of Britain in 100 years.  That’s what biological recording is all about.


Filey Brigg and Hayburn Wyke

Field work continues with a brand new shore each day.  Filey Brigg is a long narrow peninsula on the North Yorkshire coast.  Its steep cliffs are 20 metres high and consist of a variety of Jurassic rocks containing fossils of dinosaurs and ammonites. In 2001 the substantially complete skeleton of a plesiosaur was found by an amateur collector, Nigel Armstrong in the Speeton Clay.  The well-preserved skeleton was removed from the clay in one block weighing about one and a half tons. The skeleton was identified as being that of an elasmosaur, a long necked plesiosaur of which there are several types and the Filey specimen is about 140 million years old.  As we scramble over the large blocks on the north side of the Brigg trace fossils are conspicuous and abundant.

Ian finds the tiny sea slug Limapontia capitata in the grazed green algal turf at the top of the shore.  He is a very competent ‘finder’.  At Hayburn Wyke later in the week he uncovers a young lobster in the kelp zone of the boulder shore.  You can’t help admiring the brilliant Prussian blue carapace of the live animal.  There are still quite a few people who believe the animals sport their red colour in life.

Talking of red we have a great treat in store when we leave the shore.  We trawl ourselves up the cliffs and wooded slopes above Hayburn Wyke to rejoin our cars parked at the Hayburn Wyke Inn.  Just before we leave the woods to cross the fields we come across a clearing with a cluster of Amanita muscaria, Fly Agaric.  Continuing on our way we repair to the Inn for welcome refreshment.