On one of the hottest days of July, Sara and I visited Le Jardin des Sambucs, not far from la Corconne, where our family spent 14 summer holidays
It turned out to be a wonderful escape from the blazing sun: most of the walk is through lush greenery – bamboo, tropical like plants, often surrounding green ponds and waterfalls
Amazingly I had never been before somebody had advised me the walk would be too tricky, but in fact there were handrails at tricky moments.
There is a certain amount of kitsch and whimsy, but much to love and appreciate about this garden, created 25 years ago by its owners, Nicholas, who works with stones, and Agnès, a landscape gardener.
I took home two of their messages, repeated with much passion: the value of wandering slowly through a garden, and the fact that a garden is constantly evolving, with the gardener gently adjusting what nature has determined .
There were frequent places to sit, to drink in the green, smile at the stone columns and structures, listen the sound of water, or catch the odd glimpse of the magnificent Hérault valley, outside this enchanted world .
We have just come to the end (hopefully) of a dreadful few days of wind, rain and cold. As a result I have learnt some new French: “Les saints de glace sont passés”.
First on Monday my lovely cleaning lady, Edith, explained the awful weather was due to these saints, though then I thought she was pronouncing just one new noun that I did not know, something like singdeglas. Then this afternoon, when walking Poppy, I met a woman who repeated the phrase and I asked her to explain.
Apparently there are a bunch of saints days just about now and this can often mark the last patch of cold weather before the summer – though she added there is another saint’s day near the end of May which can also give a brief cold spell.
Anyhow, now that the saints de glace period is over, one can apparently start planting. What’s more, the woman added, today is the last day of la lune rousse – the lunar month after Easter. Tonight we have the new moon, and that is important for growing also. She also said something about the importance of it being a year with thirteen lunar months, but by then I was beginning to lose the astrological plot.
I ventured to suggest that climatic change meant the old sayings about what weather to expect on certain dates were less reliable. For example, when we first came to France we were told that the 15th August invariably brought a weather change with thunderstorms.
Ah yes, she agreed, we no longer have thunderstorms as violent as those of her youth. But for her the importance of the saints de glace seemed unaffected by climate change.
I know she is not the only person to adhere to a strict May growing timetable. I expect to see the tomato plants being staked up everywhere over the coming weeks.
Every winter I have a modest crop of olives, mainly on the three more mature trees. This winter, they yielded much less, but surprisingly some of the 20 plus trees planted three years ago have started to produce a tiny crop.
In the past I have invited Jacky to pick my olives and add them to his. This year, Odile and a friend picked them. The olives all go to the press in Aulas, restored a few years ago by Jacky and some friends.
Last week Jacky called by with a present of a bottle of the new olive oil. I was very touched, particularly as he did not get my olives this time. I will open the bottle shortly and compare its taste with the commercial ones.
Jacky and I then reviewed the extensive upheaval caused by the nightly rampages of the sangliers (wild boars).
Every terrace is affected, every olive tree has earth dug up round it, and many of the plants surrounding the pool will need replacing,
Jacky and Marthe leave today for their annual Asian walking holiday, this time in Thailand. When he returns there is no choice but to instal an electric fence (posts with two or three cables) surrounding the terraces with the olive trees and the pool – with ‘gates’ to allow us access between the two houses, the pool and the children’s cabin below it.
Jacky says I am not the first to react with dismay at this idea – not just because of the cost, but visually and mentally fencing in is not what we would like to have. But with the growing numbers of sangliers invading these valleys, there is no alternative.
Today was a wonderful warm, sunny day. As there is no physio on Wednesday afternoons, I went for a walk. I decided to track down the site proposed for the hapless hardware store, Monsieur Bricolage, burnt down by vandals a year ago.
Last month I recounted the tortuous and unjust story of their abortive attempts to rebuild on the existing site. Today I thought I would go and look at the alternative site suggested by the mayor of Molières Cavaillac, not far from my centre.
Walking along a narrow lane, I asked a man passing by with his dog which was the field for the new M Bricolage. He pointed it out and then implied that the question was very much if rather than when the store would be built. I said knew that they have to raise 200,000 € to buy the land.
Ah, added the man, but then to build they will have to have the agreement of the commune, the communautë de communes, the département, le sous préfet … He shrugged his shoulders and said, with an air of resignation: “C’est la France”.
Proposed site for the new Monsieur Bricolage
And what a shame that the convoluted laws and devious local practises might mean that either the cash can’t be raised and a dozen people will lose their jobs, or that another pastoral enclave will disappear, rather than rebuild on the old site next to the supermarket.
My friend Dessa lives in a magnificent old stone house with stunning views, looking over the Hérault valley and le Vigan-Ganges road far below to the hills to the south.
On Sunday Sara and I took the scenic route, winding through Mandagout and then towards St André de Majencoules – with frequent contretemps on narrow hill roads with hunters returning home, high with the adrenalin of a day out with the lads and their guns and their dogs.
Dessa’s house is in a solitary hamlet strung along the side of a grand randonnée – one of France’s splendid walking routes. She has a lovely internal courtyard – currently sticky with the leaves of the old lime tree – and her little lemon trees tempt me to get some too.
The colours are now distinctly autumnal and the worrying brown landscape, with trees which look as if they may not survive this drought, is somewhat masked by the reassuring rusts, yellows and reds.
In our valley too there has been a sudden change in colours. Here is one of my favourite views, of le Bruel, the hamlet opposite the village of Bréau.
The weather has been perfect all Sara’s visit. Dressed in little more than tee shirts or blouses we have usually had breakfast outside and basked in the sun during the day – knowing this was great for us but not so great for nature.
It is extraordinary how many overheard conversations have been about the weather and now, with mounting anticipation, the news that we might have two days rain this week. The first proper rain for four and a half months.
Here is a story which could have come out of Manon des Sources. Only in the country could there be such a drama centred on rabbits.
Last winter, Alain Bourrié, a well established character in the life of Serres (our local village- smaller than Bréau) died. His carefully cultivated rabbits have unfortunately gone wild. They have discovered there is wonderful juicy food to be had in the middle of the village: flowers, in particular the ones planted by our friend, Margaret, along the path in front of their house. Last week she planted pansies everywhere, by the morning they were all gone. Other neighbours are equally incensed – apart from the couple who feed the rabbits.
Poppy simply loves chasing the rabbits they run faster than the village cats and don’t turn round and attack her. She nearly came to a sticky end last week when I was away in London. She chased a rabbit into the drain beside Hans and Margaret’s entrance and with head and front legs stuck into the hole had to be forcibly pulled out by Hans before she disappeared forever. To stop Poppy returning into this hole Hans stuck a big rock into the entrance.
This is where the story becomes more convoluted. A couple of decades ago the house further up the path belonged to a couple – old village inhabitants – who were good friends with Hans and Margaret. So when they said they suffered from flooding in their cave after heavy rain, Hans suggested they build a drain which would come out down beside his front door, and the neighbours amicably built this drain together.
Fast forward, the house was sold to a couple from Marseille who use it as a second home. For some reason they have never been friendly with Hans and Margaret and the wife even walks past Margaret without even saying ‘Bonjour’.
So we giggled when we realised that a rabbit was trapped behind the rock, in the drain leading up to the Marseilles couple’s cave, where we think they store their apples and onions. Poppy realised this too and now alternates between sniffing at the rock and sniffing at the neighbours’ cave door, or sitting guard outside it.
Yesterday the Marseilles couple arrived. We waited hoping to hear cries of horror. Sadly none of those, but later Margaret saw them talking animatedly with their friend, Serge, who lives further up the path, clearly discussing the cave. Since Serge, who is on the council, was approached by others in the village about the rabbit problem, his response was simply that his plants (behind a wall) had not been eaten. Maybe now he will have to act.
On Thursday I got back from a lengthy medical session to a very local drama: no water, the road blocked and a few metres up from my house the road up.
My English friends and neighbours, on holiday for a week, were very excited and concerned about what to do in the unknown length of time without water. I have to say I was a bit more phlegmatic; this is after all the second time this summer when we have no water.
Apparently water suddenly spouted out of the road and when I arrived they were still searching for exactly where the pipe had broken. Our road is the boundary between the communes of Mars and Bréau and hence a shared responsibility. So, as well as the four or five workers, the two mayors were there. Plus, of course, the usual round of locals come to give them advice.
I asked the mayor of Mars, whom I like, how this joint effort was organised. He replied that Mars had the men and Bréau the equipment (well actually Fred, who drives the bulldozer, lives in Mars but works for Bréau…). I made some guarded comment about how it might be easier if these two little communes were merged (knowing the complex reasons it had not happened, including that the two secretaries don’t get on). He agreed, but said it will take a little while for these ideas to get accepted……
They eventually found the break (caused by stones piercing an elderly pipe which at that time had not been insulated with a layer of sand). Drama over. We have our water back. The road, on the other hand is an ongoing mess.
Somehow I find the phrase “les ainés” less depressing than les personnes agées, or the old folk. But that was what we all were at lunch today.
We were celebrating the 40th anniversary of Lou Rossignol, the local old folks club. All the usual suspects were there, music provided by two of the sons of Lulu Vaquier, a delightful old man who now he is in his mid-eighties, has sadly decided to no longer sing in public. He did however stand up to explain how the club got its name (I was not paying enough attention to follow him) and then Christine Capieu led the singing of a song about rossignols (nightingales) which everybody seemed to know.
Low-key but aimable. I was sitting next to my friends, Charles and Pierre, so at least Pierre and I were able to have a – mutually agreeing – conversion about the lunacy of Brexit, our mistrust of Mélenchon, and our hope that Macron and Merkel might succeed in reforming the EU.
Alain Durand, the Maire, blows out candles, watched by Lena Masseport, president of Lou Rossignol
Alain Durand, the Maire, blows out candles, watched by Lena Masseport, president of Lou Rossignol
I live on a hill called Pied Méjean. Yesterday I was invited to the annual repas du quartier. It was a delightful evening, despite the chilly weather.
Most of the houses on the hill are quite new, very undistinguished architecturally but much more desirable than old stone village houses with their lack of mod cons or reasonable outdoor space. Indeed many of my neighbours have built their own houses.
The result is that almost everyone at the dinner was young – with a vast number of small children running around and competing to throw Poppy’s ball. At least the local primary school will not be at risk of closure through lack of pupils. What a contrast to the Serres fetes, whose elderly participants reflect the average age of its inhabitants
They were all very friendly and welcoming, treating me with a concerned respect which made me feel rather old. Several I already know well enough to exchange greetings, like the baker’s wife, a handsome and clearly intelligent woman, one of the organisers of the evening.
I noticed that very soon the men were standing around the drink table, pastis in hand., while most of the women were sitting in a circle a little further away. I of course stood near the men and listened to their conversation. Lots of talk about who is building what, and whether there was any more land ‘constructible’ in the area.
I moved on to the women’s group, where they were in the middle of discussing some magic cure to smoking. We passed on to chicken pox (my grand daughter Willow is the latest victim) and whether to get the vaccination.
The food was good, albeit the timing chaotic, as always with communal barbecues. There were some delicious sausages, made with sanglier (wild boar), and served by a couple of hunters who had made them.
Even the snails (collected by the small boys) had a good time. Here is one who seems to want a sip of pastis.
This seems the season of roadworks and associated ‘déviations’ at the moment.
I’ve just come back from lunch with friends on the route to Montardier; the main road through the village of Avèze is being rebuilt and the deviation takes you along winding, very narrow back roads. Then there is the main road from le Vigan to Ganges where a whole row of old houses are being demolished, leaving a single narrow way controlled by traffic lights. In the next valley to us, the road between the villages of Aulas and Arphy has been closed for months – work does not seem to have even started on repairing a collapsing bridge.
Here, the road leading up the valley to Salagosse started to subside last year, There was apparently no money left in the appropriate budget. Then the road really collapsed – and another budget takes on responsibility. The work is going to cost a huge amount as they are now having to rebuild foundations starting several terraces down at river level. Much of the work is being done by hand: two builders are painstakingly building huge retaining walls using boulders delivered to them by a bulldozer.
Since the beginning of the year all traffic to Serres and Salagosse has had to use the narrow road on the other side of the valley from my house – and it is now showing signs of falling apart with the heavy traffic of lorries and bulldozers.
Getting to my friends Hans and Margaret is now a tedious drive round the valley, so I can no longer do my morning one kilometre walk to their house. For them life is infinitely more irritating: it is their garden whose gate and steps up are in the middle of the roadworks. Margaret has not been able to plant or care for her flowers and vegetables or just sit enjoying her garden, and nobody knows when it will be finished.