Burns night, French style.

The monthly cycle club dinner being the last Friday of the month, this January it happened to coincide with Burn’s night; what, we wondered, would the French make of haggis? It’s a standing joke here, due to a very amusing sketch that was televised a number of years ago and which seems to have been watched by the entire population.

We suggested a Burn’s night supper; cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, tatties and neeps, followed by cranachan. There was much sucking of teeth, after all ; January is poule au pot – had we offended by introducing the possibility of something different?? They mulled it over for a few days and finally decided to let us go ahead, though we had to promise to cook sausages for some people.

We ordered the haggis, researched recipes for the soup and the dessert, got friends who were visiting Britain to bring some Cheddar and Stilton back, had a trip to Spain for the whiskey and made sure that the veg man on the market would have plenty of swedes.

Josette and Dédé, who usually cook the meals, offered their assistance, which was invaluable as they knew such things as how long the potatoes for 50 would take to come to the boil, how many baguettes we’d need and where to order them. We peeled, chopped, sliced and cooked for a couple of days, I made the dessert at home and Jacques sorted the wine.

I found a length of tartan fabric in a charity shop, to make two kilts, which, if you didn’t look too closely, looked the part, with the tartan hat( orange wig attached) that I bought for Nick and our hair sprayed bright orange too. I hardly dare mention what I made for Nick to wear under his kilt; suffice to say it was impressive and caused more than a few “oooh la la’s”!

I liked the idea of doing the “address to a haggis”, but on listening to it, found that I couldn’t understand a word of it – this would be no good for the French, but a bit of research unearthed a French translation; I knew just the man to ask to read it. Christian agreed immediately and spent several days not only learning his lines, but studying videos to get the gestures right. He borrowed Nick’s hat on the evening and did a brilliant rendition accompanied by bagpipe music courtesy of YouTube.

All in all, it was a great success; everybody enjoyed their first taste of haggis and went home very happy.

The workers’ return

Our friends Maddy and Dom came over in 2017 for a week’s working holiday. And just to prove their insanity, asked if they could do the same last autumn! We were hardly going to turn down such an offer, so Nick went to pick them up from the airport.

This time, their challenge was the gîte garden; it’s been pretty much neglected since we moved in and was totally overgrown. Nick and I just didn’t know where to start, so the week with Maddy and Dom, who, unlike us, are “real” gardeners, was exactly what we needed.

I was mostly on domestic tasks, keeping the troops fed and watered, but the rest of them worked solidly from morning to night, digging out brambles and honeysuckle, mimosa and pyracantha, pruning the huge bay trees that were threatening the electricity cables and unearthing hundreds of bulbs, whose existence we weren’t even aware of, hidden as they were in the dense undergrowth. Day by day, a garden started to appear.

One of the big discoveries was that of at least one oval flower bed, surrounded by Victorian looking edging tiles; this was cleaned and weeded and by the end of the week, ready to plant. There may well be another similar on to the other side of the path.

In total we filled, jumped on and refilled the trailer seven times; the man at the tip was sick of the sight of us. Once they left, Nick and I continued the work, removing the rest of the pyracantha from the wall by the roadside, digging out the remaining tree stumps and planting up the oval bed, by which time, winter had arrived, so we had a good excuse to take a break from gardening.

The plan had been to finish the gîte garden by the end of November, then concentrate our efforts on the interior of the gîte during the winter, but, as usual, these things take longer than planned. Our thanks, however, must go to Maddy and Dom, without whom we would still be looking at a jungle.

Reflections on a busy summer, 2018, part II

Apart from lots of cycling and masses of gardening, we managed a few short breaks in the camper van last summer. We went to Spain a few times, to the Pyrenees and to the coast, depending on where the weather looked best. We spent a weekend in Arreau, in the mountains, when a big, organised walk was being held, meeting up with the rest of the walking club. At the end of the Saturday night meal, for several hundred walkers from all over France, someone came over to our table, commenting that they could surely find some armagnac here……. but nobody had thought to bring any! Until we remembered that we had a little bottle in the camper, which saved the day!

Gemma was going to Harrogate in July for her friend’s wedding, so she came to stay with us for a couple of weeks first. We had a great time, cycling, eating out and generally enjoying life; the house felt very quiet and empty when she left.

After 18 months’ work, Artie’s quilt was finally complete; the design had been a closely guarded secret, from Kieran and Alice at least and was a great surprise. Kieran’s first question, of course, was whether the QR code works, and I was very pleased to be able to reply that it does.

One job we wanted to get done last year was to lay a drive behind the house and parking between the garage and the cabanon. A friend recommended Monsieur T, so we went to see him, bought a load of stone for around the terrace and the olive tree and asked about the drive. No problem; he’d deliver the stone and has two friends, one with a digger, to take away to top layer of soil, the other with a steam roller to level the stone. He could have it done by June 15th. We now know better than to believe such predictions and promises; he delivered the first lorry load in June, but we didn’t see him again till November. But it was done, ready for winter, so no problem!

We also built a greenhouse for the lemon trees to spend the winter in and Nick built a wall between the house and cabanon, to cut down the wind from the west. He built it using old roofing tiles, of which a large part of our house is built, so it’s in keeping. The gate is made of some of the very few sound planks from what was the upstairs floor in the barn, so it’s almost completely made from recycled materials!

Reflections on a busy summer, 2018, part I

Once the coldest, wettest spring in living memory finished in June, it turned overnight to summer. And what a summer! Within a few weeks our water stocks for watering the garden were already inadequate, so we had to top up, using the well.

The main job for the summer, though, was the installation of our hot tub and landscaping around it. Nick dug out a curve around the terrace, using the digger, as well as another to house the tub and built a plinth to sit it on. He built a retaining wall around it and we lay weed proof fleece and covered it with stones. We dug out a flower bed and planted it up. We decided we needed a step leading to the gîte, where the ground level drops and another two up to our garden. Then came one of those ” you know what would look great there……” moments, which inevitably lead to serious work for the other person. Nick’s idea…… my job. To do pebble mosaic steps.

We visited builders’ merchants and DIY stores, eventually finding useable stones in black and white, bought several different grades of sand and drew up designs. The first, and largest step would be a lizard design, we’d think about the others later.

We started work early one morning; we wasted more than enough time trying to repair the big parasol, but eventually decided I’d just have to wear a hat; by 2pm I’d be working in the shade of the house anyway. We’d already dug out the base to 20cm and had laid increasingly fine hard core; now we mixed different grades of sand with cement and lime, filled the space and tamped it down well. Nick brought over the bags of stone and I started the mosaic, carefully tapping each stone into place, constantly checking the level of each one. Because you’re working with a dry mixture, the project has to be finished in a day; it took 13 hours, by the end of which I thought I’d never walk straight again. Once finished, I gently watered the stones, covered it with a plastic sheet and left it overnight. The following day I made up the grout mixture and carefully brushed it in between the stones, sprayed it with a fine garden spray, then covered it again to cure for the next week.

For the other two steps, we wanted a different theme and I fancied doing a compass on one of them. We’ve got quite a few tomettes, thick terracotta tiles, as well as some slate slabs, which would work. We also went to the seaside a couple of times, to collect interesting stones and visited a friend whose garden is more stone than soil, from where we got lovely golden coloured stones. Using a design taken from patchwork, I explained to Nick how I needed him to cut the tomettes and slate; he made a lovely job of it and I had my starting point. The compass is quite accurate, with an N pointing north, also cut from tomette. Another two days in the baking heat, (by now we’d bought a new parasol), and the steps were done. I’m pleased with the result and hope they’ll last for years to come.

Catch up coming

I’ve just found a few drafts of posts for the blog, dating back several months! I couldn’t get photos on to them previously, so I’m going to have another go. They’re very out of date, but I hope you won’t mind that.

A hard weekend’s cycling

The cycle club had organised a trip to St. Lary in the Pyrenees, a two day event, riding the 135km each way, including a col, the Hourquette d’Ancizan, on the way there, staying the night and riding back over the col d’Aspin the following day. Nick and Maïthé talked me into going and set up a training programme; by the end of June, when we set off on the Saturday morning, I felt quite confident.

It was an eventful ride, with two riders touching wheels halfway there; they both came off, but were fortunately unhurt. The main problem was the heat; it was already well into the 20’s when we left Nogaro at 8am, but surely it would be cooler in the mountains, we thought. By the time we arrived at the lunch stop at St. Marie de Campan at the base of the Hourquette d’Ancizan, it was 41°C, one person had already abandoned and climbed into the support van. Suddenly, over lunch, Laurent started screaming and rolling around on the floor – a pretty severe case of cramp; we got him some salt and he joined Pierre in the van, not starting again till near the top of the col on the Sunday. I managed half the col before giving up; the heat was just too much for me. Gilles, the club president, had stayed with me as I lagged further and further behind the group; when I finally decided that I could go no further, he tried to call the guys in the support van, but had no reception, so he set off up the col so that he could call from the top. I sat and waited, never thinking for a minute that he’d come back down to let me know the van would soon be there to pick me up, as he set off to ride the col a second time! Most of the party suffered from the heat, many of them getting bad cramp. Bruno had a problem with his gears near the top and had to be pulled along by Martine, who rides an electric bike; unfortunately this used up her battery and both of them ended up walking the last part. Bruno called his sister, who came to collect him and took him back to Nogaro.

Sunday was slightly cooler, but still 39°C by late morning. We set off early after a good breakfast and tackled the Col d’Aspin in the relative cool, Laurent joining us near the top. Down in the foothills of the Pyrenees, a familiar figure appeared, in the form of Bruno, who had changed bikes and set off very early that morning from Nogaro to rejoin us, doing more kilometres than anyone else.

As we approached Tarbes, I began to feel a bit strange, as if I were looking at the world through a veil; I gave myself a good talking to and carried on till the lunch stop. I parked my bike and headed towards the tables and chairs, put out by Christian and Jeanneau, our very competent support team; but I never reached them and collapsed in a little heap, a victim of the heat.

People removed my helmet and shoes, poured water over my head and massaged something cool into my feet and I was soon fine again, but my ride was over for the day as I once again joined the guys in the support van.

Everyone else finished day 2 without a problem, the general consensus of everybody involved being that it had been a very good weekend.

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the……. hills

I didn’t realise just how long it’s been since I posted a blog until a friend complained a few days ago. No, we’re not dead; no, I haven’t got bored of writing it; we’ve just been sooo busy this year that we hardly seem to have had time to draw breath! So my apologies to anyone who’s missed it (there might be a second person I suppose!) and I promise to try to catch up; here’s the first installment.

Every so often, the walking club organises a holiday. This year it was to the canyons of the Spanish Pyrenees at the end of May, which sounded superb; a week of having nothing to do but look after myself and walk, so I signed up for it.

The scenery around the village of Torla, where we were staying was indeed spectacular and the hotel very comfortable. Everyone we came into contact with was lovely, bus driver, hotel staff and guides. The only slight fly in the ointment was the weather; while Britain had been basking in sunshine for the previous several weeks, we’d had nothing but continuous rain and it was no different in Spain.

We had walks organised most days, but for most of the week our sunhats and suncream stayed in our bags in the hotel as we made our way through spectacular scenery, up the sides of waterfalls, through forests and along beautiful valleys. Many of the waterfalls tumbling down the sides of the valleys should have been a mere trickle by now, but we had 3 guides to help us across them, they were running so fast and so deep. Sometimes you could barely hear yourself think between the noise of the water cascading down the rocks and that of the thunder overhead. We were pelted with hailstones and drenched with torrential rain, in spite of wearing cagoules with waterproof capes over the top. We did have one dry day, when the sun shone and we were able to appreciate the spectacular scenery. And on the day we visited the beautiful village of Aínsa, with its Roman church and medieval chateau, it only rained for the part of the day we spent outside! While we were in the natural history museum, it dried up.

But in spite of having to put our boots in the drying room every evening and being able to wring out our socks at the end of each walk, we had a great week. The bonus for me was being able to practice my Spanish with lots of native speakers, the guides, the hotel staff and shopkeepers in the village.

Back at the ranch, Nick had similar weather. His hopes of finishing the work around the terrace were completely scuppered as the rain filled up the excavated ground, leaving it looking like a moat. Instead, he got on with building the office in our house; once home, I got on with decorating it and we were soon able to move the computer in.

The Friday and Saturday of my week away were dry in Caupenne, so Nick took the camper to the Pyrenees and joined 800 other cyclists, following the lorry carrying the statue of the “géant du Tourmalet” to the top of the col and even managing to make a brief appearance on French television!

Lack of blog

I’m sorry there haven’t been any blog posts for quite some time now; initially it was lack of time as we’ve had a very busy summer, but now, since Kieran updated our computer, we seem unable to put photos up and a blog without photos is of no interest to anyone.

As soon as Kieran comes over and sorts the problem out, I will start catching up on our summer’s activities, so please keep checking.

Missionary soup anyone?

We called in to see Kate and Rob a couple of weeks ago; they used to own a huge gite near us, which they sold last year. They had an infinity pool at the gite, but when asked if they’d be putting a pool in the new place, they were emphatic that no, it’s far too much work, besides Kate doesn’t like the shock of the cold water and had hardly used the pool at the gite, something I can definitely empathise with. She told us about a wood fired hot tub she’d seen on eBay. It’s made of wood, like an overgrown barrel, and has a wood fired furnace inside – so the fire is effectively in the water. We were intrigued and started to do our own research.

I found a supplier in Germany who would do us a very good deal on two delivered to the same address. Kate and Rob, being Yorkshire folk, were very interested, so we ordered them. Rob brought his big trailer round to ours, ready for the delivery and we sat and waited…. No, of course we didn’t!

We decided where our tub was to go and drew plans; we laid roof tiles out on the ground to show where the soil needed removing, then Nick got the digger out. He excavated a huge mound of soil at the end of the terrace, made a former in the middle of the space, put in some rubble and concreted a base. Next he started building the retaining wall around the edge, behind which will be plants and small trees for privacy.

The tub was meant to arrive between Monday and Wednesday; the driver had our number and would phone us in advance. We stayed within earshot of the phone, but by Wednesday night had heard nothing. I emailed the supplier, who couldn’t get in touch with the delivery company because it was a bank holiday; of course – France has no fewer than four bank holidays in May, no way were they going to arrive on time. Thursday passed, Friday morning came and went and we were beginning to wonder if they’d ever arrive when the phone rang. It was Neil and Jacqui, who bought Kate and Rob’s old house; the delivery lorry was at their house, and had asked if this was where Jackie lived, to which the reply was yes, just not the right Jackie! They showed the driver the way to our house, arriving a couple of minutes later. So much for having plenty of time to get Rob and Kate round to help with the unloading!

We got both tubs off the lorry, ours into the garden and Kate’s onto the trailer, and by the time Rob arrived, Neil was en route, driving very gently, to deliver Kate and Rob’s to them.

We unwrapped it and put it in its temporary position, had a celebratory beer and left Kate and Rob unrolling hosepipe to fill it with water. The following morning Kate phoned, ecstatic; the kids had loved it when they got home from school, Kate and Rob had spent the evening in it and the kids were back in now, the water still being warm from the previous night. The only problem had been that the water got too hot! A smaller fire next time and Kate reckons she’s found heaven on earth.

We’re waiting a few more days for our concrete base to dry properly, but hope to be able to use ours by the weekend.

Cycling with the Agen club

Our fellow cyclist, Maithé, is one of those people who knows everyone, in Nogaro and much further afield, as well as being aware of everything that’s going on. Some of her friends from the Agen cycling club wanted to ride in the Gers, so Maithé organised a weekend for them. The sixteen Agen cyclists stayed at the cycle club gite, from where they rode with Maithé and another couple of Nogaro members on Saturday, visiting various places en route and eating together in the evening.

On Sunday there were two routes on offer; the usual club run and a route that Maithé had sorted out, with visits to a “palmeraie” and a mini brewery, as well as various villages.

Nick and I were amongst those who went with Maithé’s group; the Agen club are true cyclotouristes, so the pace was gentle as we made our way through the undulating Gers countryside. We hadn’t been to the palmeraie before and were very impressed by the vision and hard work of the owners, who, 40 years ago, grew their first palms from seed as they couldn’t afford to buy trees. As well as a wide variety of palms, the gardens also boast an amazing array of bamboo and other plants that I didn’t recognise; there are sculptures and other works of art hidden round corners and in unexpected clearings, ponds full of water lilies and a wonderful atmosphere at peace and calm. We ate our picnic on the veranda before heading off to Termes d’Armagnac and the mini brewery, where everyone was delighted to put the beer they bought into the support van to be taken back to the gite.

The cyclists from Agen were all very happy with their weekend, Maithé received well earned praise for her organisation and a reciprocal weekend in Agen is on the cards for the future.