At the end of half term week we take the girls back to Hackney. Emsie cooks us a delicious roast chicken dinner then we head back to Winterborne Kingston. A sustained interval of visitors and visiting has drawn to a close. We face a month in our Dorset home before we repair to St Vaast at the beginning of December to prepare for Christmas. I have many tasks I would like to tackle, some are long-standing and involve rooting out cupboards, weeding out drawers, organising and arranging the trappings of my life. Above all I want my garden back. I began to lose it in April and May. By the end of June when we returned from France after our three week sojourn in the south of France I had acquired a wildflower meadow. The borders had run rampage. Fortunately I had made the decision back in May to vacate many of my pots and leave them with montages so I did not have many dried out and shrivelled plants to dispose of once autumn arrived. There is a resident in the village who is a keen gardener and grows an assortment of plants which he sells and gives the proceeds to charity. I walk round to Broad Close to see what he has to offer and buy small Viola, Primula, Wallflowers and small Cyclamen. I spend £40 and get all the plants I need to populate the pots I have waiting in the wings, some of which, with bulbs, will be overplanted.
Out of the blue I get a message from Barns enquiring whether we will be about over the weekend of the 12th. Fortunately we will although I have committed the Saturday morning to a pro-EU group who are running an Outreach stall in Bournemouth. This will be my first experience of lobbying, in a minor way, out on the streets. Meanwhile Barney and the children will join Nick for the village walk during the morning. After my ‘reaching out’ I get home before the others return after their pub lunch. The rest of the weekend is spent playing games, eating good food and on Sunday we do a walk in the morning which does push me to my limits. Barns proposes we drive to Worth Matravers, walk to St Alban’s Head, along the coast to the cliffs above Chapman’s Pool and back to the car. This entails those nightmare steps which need to be negotiated in order to cross the deep valley running down towards the coast. We count 217 down and about 180 up the other side but there is a stretch of unstepped slope on the up side. I complete the ‘crossing’ having found it extremely taxing. (My leg muscles will ache for at least four days afterwards). After a delicious slow-roasted shoulder of lamb Barns loads the kids into the car with all their clean laundry and drives the back to Oxfordshire ready for school the next day.
A relatively uneventful week ensues, culminating in a pleasant inaugural lunch at The Old Workshop to launch Splinter, a somewhat conspiratorial group of erstwhile village book group members. Four of us eat my quick version Paella followed by Lemon mousse, choose our first joint title to read for discussion and decide on other titles that we have variously either read, or intend to read and which we will talk about as and when. The following day I am going to drive to Sandford Orcas to forage for a basket with Kim.
After a very short interval in St Vaast after our French Riviera sojourn, I hotfooted it back to Winterborne K. My sister is going to be staying with me for a few weeks whilst her knee heals after surgery for a replacement. And my dear mother is now installed in her new residential home and after a month’s absence I am keen to find out how she is and whether she is settling in. When I came to book my return journey to Dorset I nearly failed to get a ferry crossing on my chosen travel date because our neck of the woods in Normandy has been the focus for the Tour de France and many Brits have chosen to make long weekend of it. Fortunately I can cross to Portsmouth and Liz picks me up on Monday evening. My sisters are in residence.
Liz offered to mow it for me before I get back but I suggested she leave it for me to sort out. .elty and a treat. On my first night back we three go to our separate beds, sharing a house on our own for the first time for goodness knows when. Maybe ever! My home is ideal for convalescence – Chris can function on one floor level with her bedroom and adjacent bathroom. In the end she will stay with me for another two weeks.
Liz has already warned me that our lawn is overdue for a mowing. Arriving at the house I glance out of the kitchen glass doors and such a surprise greets the eye. In our four week absence a transformation has taken place and I have a wild flower meadow consisting of yarrow, white clover, black medick, Medicago lupulina and self heal, Prunella vulgaris. There is a certain amount of zoning of these plants which creates a patchwork of the low-growing, creeping species – the yellow and purple of the black medick and purple self heal, and the more upright flower stems of yarrow, together with the white clover carpet creating a third medium. Overall I could not have planned a better planting arrangement. Nature has given my garden a makeover. When Nick returns he mows a small wavy diagonal path across making it all look very proper .
After my return I am very keen to visit Mum in her new home. When I arrive she is sitting comfortably in the lounge with the large picture window. She is in good spirits and manages to accompany me, using her zimmer, to look at her room which has been beautifully organised. My visit is a pleasure for us both and how much nicer her living environment is now.
It is going to be Open Gardens weekend in our village in a couple of days. The front gravels are looking very untidy and uncared for with scattered weeds across the open area and a greening around the edges. I have to get down on my hands and knees and attack the worst offenders. After some hours and satisfied that the gravels look reasonably presentable, I go to Homebase and buy some plants to dress the porch to my study and freshen up the large glazed pots. Because we will be away at the weekend I ask Chris to stick the chicken wire mouse fork into a pot on Sunday and I then feel that our frontage will present a respectable face to visiting passers-by.
With a view to temporary abandonment of my gardens I have been scurrying around dealing with the largest and most persistent weeds, and have been taking remedial and cosmetic steps to keep things looking pretty. There has been enough rain in the most recent weeks to ensure lushness and healthy green growth. Now, more and more splashes of colour are appearing around the borders.
I’ve had pickings of sorrel, globe artichokes and rhubarb. Last year’s runner bean seeds which Nick happened upon in the workshop have germinated. There are loads of figs on the tree – surely enough for us and the greedy blackbird who sets up residence. There is a reasonable crop of gooseberries. Nick and I cannot agree whether to pick them whilst unripe to freeze for pies and the like. I fear the wood pigeons will steal a march on us.
All in all things must take their chance. I’ve taken a few photos so we can see how things are looking in three weeks’ time….
Since March Nick and I have been living a restless life. Never in one country for more than a fortnight at a time, with intervals sometime less than that, our weeks have been peopled with friends and family in both our countries of residence. We like visitors, and I at least, enjoy a shifting stage on which to live my life. Nick is less convinced so some of my exploits have been solo efforts. Like Orkney, and my time in Godalming when I cared for Ted whilst Demi was on holiday.
With the arrival of Jenny and Lesley in St Vaast we then find ourselves at the end of our hosting activities for the time being. When we shift our location next time we will be going to join some dear friends on their boat at Frejus with a 3-week sailing spell in view.
In recent weeks I have been crossing the Channel on the Barfleur for a mid-week interlude, in order to visit my mother, play some bridge and when I can, tidy up the garden, notably the pots. Although the winter in Dorset was not generally severe, there were a couple of very cold snaps when the temperatures descended into the minuses and I lost quite a lot of tender plants which I had raised in St Vaast. All the tulips and daffodils I grew in pots are spent too so they need to be placed in a sheltered place and fed. With summer in view I need to be pragmatic. Things in pots do well during autumn, winter (if I choose the plants wisely) and spring. Because there is enough rain. Trying to have summer bloomers in pots only ends in tears when the weather is dry and I am not there to water. So my new strategy is to leave these pots fallow and set ‘arrangements’ on them. No shortage of shells, pebbles, boulders and other objets d’art chez moi! And if a few pretty weeds sprout around my arrangements well that’s ok. Whilst I am at it I haul out jugs which I keep in various cupboards and create a random.
On one of my visits with Mum I take some of our holiday scrapbooks. When my children were young in the late 70s and early 80s we had a series of hols in Cornwall and my parents joined us. These were happy times of the classic seaside holiday and we made scrapbooks using pictures, bits of writing, postcards and assorted tickets, pressed flowers and the like. I thought these would be fun for the children to look back on in adulthood and their own children love looking at them too. That this is an activity which gives so much pleasure to my mother is a real bonus. When we first started going to Cornwall our first couple of visits were based at Port Isaac but then we discovered Prussia Cove and we never looked back.
We’ve felt a bit like Mecca these past weeks with a succession of ‘pilgrims’ fetching up at our establishment. Latest in the line of travellers are Jenny and Lesley who have come to France for a week with a stop-over at 104 at the beginning and end of their sojourn. I am lately back from England when they arrive at our house having spent 3 nights in Carnac near the Quiberon Peninsula. They are full of the rocks, the countryside, wild plants they don’t know the names of, the Madame who ran the chambres d’hote at which they stayed.
My role and pleasure is to welcome them, feed them and as it turns out, listen……… and listen again and then a bit more. Jenny is Nick’s sister and they are long-standing sparring partners when it comes to social issues, politics and above all, feminism. Nevertheless Lesley and I get a generous look-in when it comes to conversing. Whilst we have our visitors Nick is on the final stages of transporting the fully logged beech tree that he and Francois cut down earlier in the spring. All our storage allocation at the rear of the house is now full so a neat stack is built along the wall on the front drive. It is a pretty neat and regular structure but I learn that Nick has some fancier ideas for a wood-pile which he has gleaned from the award-winning book, Norwegian Wood. This is the definitive handbook on the art of chopping, stacking and drying wood in the Scandinavian way. He’d better get on with his project because where the wood is stacked at the moment the agapanthus plants, which have seeded themselves along the wall of our property are shielded from the sun and unless they receive some good light and sunshine I fear they may not flower this summer and they will be much missed.
I make a flying trip to Dorset to fulfil a few engagements. Firstly my crown needs some attention and Mrs Ilankovan does the honours with minimum intervention and I hope it will hold. There is a gathering of Book Group to discuss The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver about which I feel a bit ambivalent but am willing to, in a sense, give her the benefit of my doubt because it is a first novel and this novelist has gone on to write some storming stuff. I manage a short visit to Chestnuts to see Mum and am a bit dismayed to find her off kilter, an angry personage and so I bundle us both into the car and we drive to Swyre to gaze at the boisterous sea, to watch a fisherman togged for cold and wet weather trudge back to his car with a codling on a string and to simply enjoy the greenness of winter fields full of sheep and the rolling slopes of Dorset countryside as we drive the coastal road between Weymouth and Bridport. That evening there is a gathering of my bridge coterie at the Workshop. On Thursday I give my sisters a lamb curry and we have a board meeting. The following morning I am expecting a lift with Eamonn to catch my ferry from Poole but am nonplussed to arrive at the cottage to find he has already left for work. Fortunately Cybs is able to put things right with a phonecall and he turns around to come back and fetch me.
Back in France I now have a good two weeks in view with the prospect of time to choose, and one choice is to catch up with our entertaining schedule. We have been on the receiving end of delicious hospitality in recent weeks and it is payback time.
A particularly enjoyable lunch has been eaten chez Taille. Francois seemingly lives to cook. Along with fellow guests Andre and Francoise Burnouf we are regaled with escargots (‘les petits gris’ = Cornu aspersum) prepared by Taille neighbours, followed by Francois’ signature dish of Coquille St Jacques en croute – we’ve had these before chez Taille. The meal is wrapped up with a Galette des Roi.
As it happens I have recently taken a Jamie Oliver recipe for Chicken Tikka Masala on board. Cooking curries for our French friends works well generally speaking, with the exception of certain people who should most appropriately eat at the fussy boys’ table. In particular my dear friend Fefe has expressed a liking for this dish so I am going to master it and cook it at least three times before the end of the month. My guinea pigs are F. and la Poulette, hotfoot from Burma where they have spent two weeks travelling under their own steam and look very well on the experience. It goes down well and even better three evenings later when I regale the Daniells and the Tenorios with the same recipe. All bodes well for the Sunday lunch we will offer the Tailles and the Andres.
Meanwhile in the garden there is enough of break in the seemingly endless cold, wet and windy weather to enable me to get outside and achieve. I remove the dead Cycad from a large terra cotta pot which frees it up for a Skimmia. The little red cyclamen which gave good decorative service for our Christmas in Winterborne K can be pot-planted as companions to larger shrubs. There is plenty of cutting back and dead-stemming to do and in the process I find nice Echium plants to fulfil orders from Liz, along with young Acanthus and Geranium madarense which will also find favour at Hawkchurch. There are scattered flowerings around the garden, plants which have refused to go to bed seemingly and some which have woken up far to early. I am thrilled to see that the Melianthus major which Paul gave us has continued to grow and is sporting three flower heads. Its potential is significant and I begin to have a vision of a garden which is evolving to feature fewer, but choice, plants in the future.
Six days into the New Year and still it rains. The outlook from the house is a grey one but I must be undeterred to take myself out for fresh air and exercise. So the day after our Baie d’Ecalgrain jaunt I make a short trip to the north coast of the Cotentin and park by the blockhaus site at Neville sur Mer. I’m to see what sort of strandlines there might be there.
The tide is coming in and washing before it tangles of fucoids and kelp. Little else. Even looking at the strandlines at the top of the beach they are remarkably clean of other detritus. Which is a good thing, in a way. So little in the way of plastic, decaying organic matter and nothing to excite the attentions of a hopeful beachcomber. So I walk the waterline eastwards and the upper driftline back. Two solitary fisherfolk and a walker or two are the only other human presences on that windswept beach. Nearing the end of my walk I catch sight of a splash of pink. It is a Pecten shell, chipped at the edge but a bright item to enliven an otherwise drab substrate. The pink matches the other splash of pink that caught my eye this morning as I walked across to the storeroom to look for some ingredients. The camellia which I potted last year, because it was clearly failing in the flowerbed where all the Hellebores are, has rallied: the leaves have re-greened and there are a few buds and some flowers already open. I now think I will pot the other two camellias to keep on the terrace too.
The following day I choose to investigate my beach pockets at Pointe de Saire and Nick accompanies me. The wind has come up but the rain holds off for the duration of our ‘balade’ across the middle of the day. My so-called beach pockets appear to have been swamped by sand. It is evident from the sweeps of sand creating irregular sand waves and ridges that large amounts of sediment are being moved around those rock outcrops where the beach pockets occur. The fresh deposits of colourful shells are not where they ought to be, but I find them. At the foot of a slope before the shore flattens out to the area of gravels and shallow standing water there are two of three sweeps of shelly material containing lots of whole shells. This is where I place my kneeler and look for all the usual suspects which are markers for the possibility of a wentletrap. I find the Calliostoma top shells first then Trivia and just as Nick strolls up I say to him that I am finding all the indicators that I am searching in the right place, sweeping my hand gently over the surface to turn up shells just below the top layer as I do so, and there lying on the surface is a large white wentletrap absolutely on cue. I have written elsewhere on my blog about wentletraps, check out this post of June 2013.
When the car pulls out of the drive at 6 a.m. I have my two young passengers in the back with their breakfast jam sandwich. We are bound for Ouistreham, Caen, a journey that will take us about one hour twenty minutes. They chatter away and occasionally engage me in conversation. Ruby out of the blue tells me that sometimes she tries to imagine what nothing would be like if the universe were not there. Wow!!
We park up outside the ferry terminal and check in and wait to board the Normandie. This is a larger vessel than the Barfleur having two small cinemas and a small stage in the bar where entertainments are staged during the passage. On this day there will be a quiz, a magic show, face-painting and pumpkin-carving. It is, after all, October 31st.
Arriving in Portsmouth and disembarking we come through passport control to find waiting parents. It has to be a quick handover as I will need to check right back in for the return crossing during which I am able to sleep in the very comfortable recliners. We are half an hour late docking and I am a bit apprehensive about the drive back to St Vaast, not being a great night driver. But it’s fine as I tune into a French radio station and try to follow rugby final babble. It is 11.30 p.m. when I pull back into the drive.
We are only going to have 4 days in St Vaast before it is time to travel back to the UK for a couple of fixtures. I am booked for an AEA conference at York University, an archaeology meeting to mark the retirement of Terry O’Connor. And in the week that follows there will be meetings of my bridge group in preparation for our class with Barry on the Friday. For the time being however there is a yoga class in Quettehou on Monday morning, a brief visit to see Fefe who faces a hip operation in the next couple of weeks and a brief catch-up with la Poulette. My friend Bibi delivers the galet which I have commissioned her to paint using a photo of Fefe’s Siamese cat, Rachel. It has turned out really well and I hope she will like it. The tulip, daffodil and iris bulbs left over from my Winterborne K planting are potted up and I plant the Fritillary corms deeply around the bee orchid plants which have re-appeared, leaving just a few of these to plant with the ‘bees’ in our Dorset garden. I take a few photos of the colour we are still enjoying, including the raspberries which continue to ripen and sprays of the fragrant lemon blossom.
We are weary peeps when we board the ferry on Thursday. I face a day of scurrying before I must board an early train at Wool bound for York. I enjoy the meeting very much and renew some connections with former ‘clients’ and associates. Despite my hang ups over bridge, when the class with Barry is over I don’t feel too wrung out although I cannot stop yawning my head off. On Saturday Nick and I join the village walk followed by a pub lunch. After a very long nap I make a batch of Indian pickle and start to think about readying ourselves and the house for our departure for France, storm Abigail permitting, on Monday morning.
After our busy weekend Nick high tails it to St Vaast and I face a fortnight of life as a singleton. I plan to achieve a lot. Two forthcoming weekend activities have shaped my decision to stay put, even though I have not been to France since the end of August. I hope to make some progress with shell curation, and I have a backlog of blogs to write. I’m going to make Piccalilli, spiced pears for Christmas, pear chutney. I make two batches of fish cakes, green and red Thai, for forthcoming entertaining. On the first weekend I take in a Conch. Soc. meeting, staying at Godalming to have some Perryman time before they fly out to South Africa.
With the second weekend looming I finally manage to get outside to get through tasks I want completed before going out to France to join Nick. After the success of the parrot tulips I bought last autumn, I have ordered some more, also packs of mixed Iris reticulata. There are lots of lovely coloured cyclamen on sale at Homebase, so I buy some polystyrene trays of plants for the wooden plant troughs. They look really good along the side passage.
I end up working against the clock because early Friday afternoon I must lock up the house and make for Whitchurch Canonicorum where the Bonhays Meditation Retreat Centre is hidden away. I have booked a place on Pam Steele’s weekend retreat. It is going to be a time of yoga, meditation, calm and delicious vegetarian food. Evie the Cook provides such tasty food with her use of spices. There is a small swimming pool and I find the whole experience thoroughly restful and undemanding. If I don’t come home feeling entirely at one with everything then it is entirely my own fault 😉
When I leave Bonhays at 4 on Sunday I must drive back to the Old Workshop to prepare to receive my two sons, a friend and two grandaughters who have had a weekend of climbing. We share a large chicken hotpot before the men head off leaving a mountains of dirty dishes, and the girls and me to get our acts together so we can get up early on Monday ready for Eamonn who will drive us to Poole ferry terminal. We enjoy the ritual of Lucy Micklethwait’s art books on the waterbed. (We still have two of the original four left after Dan has reversed over a bag of uneaten picnic, a carton of orange juice and books for the girls to enjoy whilst they waited their turn at the rock-face!) I settle them then scuttle round so that all we need to do is get up and dressed for the off. It is the midnight hour before everything is done.
Summer is upon me, that is to say that for the time being I can remain put and concentrate of summery things like going to the beach and gardening. I have looked forward to a lengthy interval in France for numerous reasons but one of which is that I hope, during the 6-weeks planned, to lick the garden into shape.
It is a huge treat that our lovely Tuttles invite us to supper the day we arrive. Claire cooks something called Company Casserole which is divinely comfort food and I must try this on the family. She serves a dark rich chocolate and red berry torte for pudding, laced with chilli. An interesting experience!
On Bastille Day, La Fete Nationale, we potter around at home during the day then go down to the port at 11p.m. for the fireworks. Claire posts an enchanting drawing that her granddaughter has made to mark the coup d’état which took place on July 14th 1789. The following day brings a phone call from Francois Taille inviting us to drinks at midday. We have Anne’s nephew Lucas with us during the day, working for some spending money for his forthcoming trip to London. He comes in the morning. Lunchtime drinks roll into a fest of crab claws and grilled lobster and we roll home afterwards for a bit of kip.
Thursday brings a day of mixed weather when a swim at Le Dranguet with Anne is off, then on, then off and in the end I take myself to Pointe de Saire at the end of the afternoon to rummage in the beach pockets for holed shells and wentletraps and I find one of the latter. There is always one! Meanwhile Nick has been fishing and brings home raw material for smokerel pate and ceviche of sea bream.
Friday arrives and I have still not achieved much in the garden. Nothing immediately evident that is, although I have started to work on a long and varied list of tasks that will need to be completed to lick it into shape by the end of August. We are eating globe artichokes, rhubarb and sorrel – useful ingredients which are able to wait until I get round to picking them. I make a fabulous seafood bisque that I am unlikely to be able to recreate: it has Pollack stock, crab and lobster stock with bits, mussels in their juice, crab eggs, female Pollack roe pieces. Thickened with a bit of flour and some cream and soya yogurt. Trop bon! In the evening Nick goes fishing with Georgy off Utah Beach and I settle down to my Oxbow paper.
On Saturday I spend more time in the kitchen than I had reckoned but ceviche of bream, lentil, butter bean and sorrel salad and rhubarb jam roll off the production line. In the evening we have an apero soiree with the Poulets and the Bougouins and munch fish contributions from the Light household, Thai and Indian snacks and pate crostinis from the Poulet kitchen. With champagne and an Irish Coffee to wind it up, it is enough. I hope the bathroom scales will tell a good story tomorrow.