In the Company of Seasoned Conchologists

On Tuesday when Esme and Dick returned to Portsmouth they boarded the ferry at Ouistreham that had brought our friends John and Celia to stay until the end of the week.  They last came to St Vaast several years ago, before the dry rot episode which was to prove such a trial.  Then their visit was part of a week of shore searching and shell-collecting with fellow Conchological Society members.  This time with inclement weather and Celia’s reduced mobility we were happy to sit and talk shells, conchologists and tuck away delicious seafood.  John has always been adventurous in the kitchen and especially with such delights as the sea can deliver.  One evening he presented us oysters three ways and he also served ‘Praires farcies’ – Venus clams dressed with butter, garlic and parsley and eaten out of their shells.

Excursions were made by car as well as short walks around our neighbourhood.  One day popped into Maison Gosselin and I took the opportunity of a nearly empty shop to take some photos.  Even so it was not easy to capture the Aladdin’s cave feel of a store overflowing with beautifully displayed goodies of every kind.

It is rare for John to fail to capture a shelly treasure wherever he goes.  On this occasion he visited the small Musee run by another Gosselin individual and persuaded its owner to part with the distinctive scallop shell lamp which has graced his window certainly since we have lived in St Vaast, and probably for much longer.  It was a snip at 20 Euros.

At the end of our very agreeable week John and Celia crossed the Channel, homeward bound and we followed a couple of days later for an important appointment.

A Bit of a Bulletin

It’s time for more St Vaast days…. but not many on this occasion. Nick has been in France for a week already. He travelled over to rendez-vous with our builder, and his two insurance agents and an expert on dry rot. We found the evil ‘champignons’ earlier this year and removal of plaster below the windows in our bedroom and the second principal bedroom shows the insidious tendrils creeping laterally along the walls to who knows where? Who will pay for the eradication and remedial works that will be necessary? Fortunately we have all the invoices and guarantees the Lecanus handed to us the day we completed on the purchase of our French abode. It clearly states that water-proofing was applied to all the exterior walls at the time of repointing etc. So it should be ok, but you never know. The meeting takes place and Nick tells me with justifiable pride later, that he is fairly sure he followed all the deliberations. Given that French spoken between themselves can sometimes sound like bursts of machine-gun fire I’m impressed. Before treatment can be applied the builders will have to remove plaster from exterior walls in all rooms of the house to check the extent of infestation. However as far as we are concerned business at 104 will continue as usual.

But let’s not be worrying about this. For the immediate I have met up with long-time friends John and Gill on the Cap Finistere which is crossing from Portsmouth to Cherbourg. We happen to have booked on the same ferry and they are going to take me to St Vaast and stay overnight before continuing to Monaco. Nick and John occasionally worked together and the friendship has continued into retirement. Gill and I get on well. It’s great to welcome them to 104 not least because we have had some good stays at their home on the Somerset Levels. I am treated to a ride in John’s vintage E-type and arriving find Nick has done a sterling job. The house and garden are beaming, as well as the sun – in which we sit to have afternoon tea.

In the evening we go to Au Moyne de Saire for dinner which is fine because we have good dining company although it would have been great to take our guests to Fuchsias if the hotel were open on Monday evenings when the choice is limited.

Before they leave we take John and Gill on the customary walk around the Hougue. It’s a fine slightly breezy day and all six of us enjoy the trot, not least Gill’s girls – Esme and Blossom the little white terriers – who lead a charmed life and have managed to behave well in their short time with us. We can even forgive them for chasing Rooney because we have never seen him shift so fast and the exercise must have been beneficial!! There is just time to whistle round Maison Gosselin and show Gill the delights of our local grocer before he shuts for lunch. It’s a great place to shop at Christmas if you want to give friends consumables as a present. It seems more and more of our contemporaries prefer such gifts.

We’ve got pate and cheese at the house, so buy baguettes and have lunch in the sunshine. After a conference over the GPS and who will have it, they are off, he in his Jag, she in her hired Mini Cooper.

Most of these St Vaast days are spent gardening. But I do get a phone call from Imprimerie Charon telling me that the crepe paper that Anne has ordered on my behalf awaits collection. On July 18th the ten-yearly Fete de la Mer will take place in this small coastal town. It’s a Festival to the Sea and the St Vaastais decorate their houses with garlands of paper flowers. Each road has its colour scheme andmany of the local women join forces to make the simple flowers and string them on cords. This is only required for the heart of the town and as it happens the Poulets and Lights have houses the other side of the crossroads which mark a limit. It’s not de rigeur for us. But not a bit of it, we are going to decorate our houses in any event and Anne things a glorious riot of colour would be a good scheme. So I collect my order – a large box of pre-cut crepe paper which sets me back 60 Euros. When I calculate the many hundreds of flowers to be made, and each flower will take at least 2 minutes to make – that’s a lot of fiddly finger-work.

To my huge relief when the Poulets and Daniel come for a Red Thai Salmon Curry (thanks to Waitrose recipe cards) later, I learn that the box contains paper for a quartet of adjacent houses: ours, the Poulets, Daniel and his mother, Genevieve. Well that is better…… and Genevieve – a seasoned crepe paper flower maker – is going to help. Better every minute. After the meal is over Francois suggests pool, and I get my lesson in paper-making. It’s a mountains of flowers that needs to be made, and the volume will be vast at the end. In the year we are juggling houses and belongings but, tant pis. When in Rome, When in France……….

As I go round and put the garden to bed for the next three weeks or so I stop to enjoy blooms current, and gaze at the buds of blooms to come. I find the Solomon’s Seal which I bought at the nursery in Penzance has three lovely stems. A favourite of mine and my Mums’ we always think of Lear’s inventive cartoons. The Lewisia plants I bought with some trepidation with Anne last autumn have budded stems. I’ve not succeeded with these before. The surviving Echium, plundered from the gravels in the garden on Ile Tatihou, is a giant who will surely flower in this third summer. I think I am going to miss the Dutch Iris and the bulbous lilies I rescued from the narrow bed and potted up. This year I have seen the Camassia in their prime and the dwarf bearded Iris too. Definitely a case of swings and roundabouts.

I Truly Love Ma Bicyclette

These winding down days French side have been spent readying the house and garden for a longish absence.  We won’t be back for a while and May is critical month for all the plants which are beginning to put on a spurt for the summer months.  This means the weather needs to be kind, a meli-melo of warmth and adequate rain.  A surfeit of the former will jeopardise all the plants which either live permanently, or are temporarily, in pots.  They normally live in small congregations all over the garden but if I am lucky enough to arrange a waterer, they will have to be grouped.

But we still have work to do.  Nick is constructing a netted frame to put over the strawberries.  They are covered in flowers and have grown amazingly since Rosie put some time in weeding between them, then laying straw.  He is also digging along the wall leading to the woodstore to give us a continuous narrow bed to plant up.  I will need to edge the extension with scallop shells to match the existing patch.  I’ve got plants waiting to go into this bed: Acanthus, a different (wild) Echium, Tournesol (sunflowers), Libertia, Sisyrhynchium.  When I remove one of the wild Echium for planting I notice a seedling of the cultivated species in the same pot.  I love bonuses and plant this tiny plant near the Chicory.  With luck it will grow amazingly during the year.

On the old thyme bed where the Yucca stem might at last be showing signs that it has rooted,  I planted out annual poppies around the trunk and some Ipomoea (Morning Glory Heavenly Blue) around a cane pyramid.   There are also various creeping Campanula on the corners and two relics of the original thyme plant. When the Hunters were with us Dick bought some Mange Tout seeds and gave me some to sow.  The plants are ready for planting out and two rows have been made next to the broad beans.  Another task to get done is earthing up the few potato plants which were set for the Cholseys to dig up in August.

Another job that was on my list is the tidying of the potting shed.  This was spick and span when we inherited it but we had failed to keep it clean and tidy.  Nick has done a marvellous job of restoring it to order and cleaned and oiled the tools.

But mostly it is a question of potting on some large plants into even larger pots and, after Anne has been over to see the extent of the task, I assemble all these pots into groups and site them where they should get rain and some sunshine.  When there is a string of dry days it is as much as one can do to keep up with one’s own containers without having to look after those of a neighbour who probably has more contained plants than is sensible!  Fortunately it looks as if there will be plenty of strawberries for her to pick and some Globe Artichoke heads to cut.

On Thursday night we were invited to supper with the Poulets.  Their mature garden has had some serious attention recently, some thinning of the trees and shrubs has taken place and the view from their conservatory is delightful.  Anne has some lovely specimen plants including a Boule de Neige Viburnum which carries large white snowballs of flower and a tree peony with dinner plate size blooms.

The family was celebrating a happy event, their daughter Chloe and son Victor were there, as was Daniel who had provided an entree of poached cuttlefish.  The flesh had been meticulously skinned (a very fiddly job) and cut into pieces, body bits and tentacles, and laid out on a plate with no garnish or dressing.  The sole accompaniment was a pot of Daniel’s homemade mayonnaise.  In truth the white meat looked unappetising –  just like tripe and potentially just as rubbery.  In reality it was tender, with a delicious flavour and rather rich.  With a chicken casserole to follow, cheese, dessert ………..we talked till midnight.

Our day of departure was May Day.  In France May 1st is a public holiday and they give Lily of the Valley to their nearest and dearest.  You can buy nosegays and rooted flowering plantlets in clay pots from supermarkets and street stalls.  I cycled into St Vaast to buy a baguette (Boulangeries are open 365 days a year) and it is a buzz of activity.  Much of this activity is focused around Maison Gosselin with its beautifully dressed windows where people cluster to greet each other, and buy from the flower stall outside.

But as we approach midday the crowds diminish.  If not your watch, you could at least set your sundial for the middle of the day by observing the melting away of  ‘du monde’ when the lunch hours kick in. The French are very respectful of that interlude between 12.30 and 2.30 when, traditionally, French households come together to eat lunch, including the school children.

Fifty years ago I remember learning that Madame would spend the whole morning in the kitchen preparing the meal.  These days more families eat more frugally at lunchtime, and perhaps faster food too,  but the 2-hour interlude remains immutable.  Even the supermarkets shut for lunch!

I’ve cycled into the port several times this week on my Raleigh Sports.  Nick thinks it must be getting on for 60 years old and I love it.  The saddle is at its maximum extension to accommodate my long pins.  As I glide  around the streets and along the quay I see everything from a higher level and at a speed that gives its own perspective, different from walking or driving.  It is a surprisingly soothing experience.

All day it has been tidy up/shut down time.  I don’t enjoy the unrelenting stream of tasks that must be carried out.  Until now we have simply worked through all the things that needed to be done, in no particular order, with no structure as to who does what.  This must change.  It is not cool either for Nick to disappear in the middle of the afternoon because his mate has invited him in, ostensibly to inspect his paintwork, and coincidentally for a beer.

Even though our ferry has an 8.30 pm departure (but we need to be at the port an hour and a half before so that Rooney can be processed), and we have had all day to get ready for the off, we end up throwing the last bits into the car including ourselves.  Daniel comes to our gates to wave us off and lock our gates up.  Unfortunately he does not notice, as we pull away from the drive,  that Nick has left his mobile phone and travel wallet (containing his passport and holiday Euros for Croatia) on the roof of the car……………….