Goodbye Nick

My plan to post a monthly blog didn’t get off to a very good start, but here’s a roundup of recent events.

Nick and Kieran went on a boys’ road trip to England, paying Alex a surprise birthday visit and collecting an old motorbike that’s been in boxes in my brother’s garage for many years; the idea is that Kieran will rebuild it.

Two weeks later Alex, Graham and the girls came over for the Easter holidays and of course Kieran, Alice and their children joined us. We had no idea that Gemma and Chris, her partner, had planned to fly in to surprise us. We certainly were amazed when they appeared at the kitchen window. We only had a few days all together, but what a few days, full of love and laughter, before people had to go their separate ways. It was made all the more special after two and a half years of COVID restrictions.

This time became all the more poignant on Saturday 30th April, when I came home from a day out to find Nick dead on the floor. He’d had a heart attack.

We’re all devastated, he was always so full of life and love, of plans for us and for Kieran’s house. He was my rock and I can’t imagine living without him. 

I’m so pleased he and Kieran had done their trip to England together, that we’d all been together for Easter and that Nick had met Chris for the first time and wholeheartedly approved of Gemma’s choice of partner.

The day of his funeral was the hardest day of my life, but it went smoothly and was attended by over a hundred and fifty people, many of the cyclists in lycra at my request; the salle des fetes was full. I couldn’t be prouder of my children, who arrived as soon as was possible, who have supported me in every possible way and who together wrote tributes to their dad, which the girls read during the ceremony and somehow kept their composure. 

The house has been bursting at the seams with up to 13 people, family and friends, staying. Obviously we’ve shed a lot of tears, but there have also been moments of laughter, when I could almost imagine that Nick was still here with us.

Our hearts are breaking, but his legacy is one of a united, strong, loving family who will continue to pass on his values to the next generation.

A house number at last

I thought I might try a slightly different approach to my blog; if I wait to write about an important happening, I could be waiting a long time as, since we finished the major work on the house and especially since COVID hit, life just trundles on and nothing much happens here in Caupenne.

So I’m going to try to write on a monthly basis, including the few little newsworthy items that occur.

So here goes……

February 2022

The major event of this month was that we now have a house number! Yes, I can hear the groans of “get a life”, but just imagine sharing an address, which doesn’t appear on any GPS system, with 7 or 8 of your neighbours.  I don’t know how many times I’ve either stood outside the gates, ready to flag down a likely looking van, or even sent Nick into the village on his bike to meet up with a delivery driver who couldn’t find us.

 Now, however, following a government dictate, we have a house number! We still have a few official bodies to inform, but it’s already making life easier as I don’t have to describe the house and its location to every delivery driver who rings, but can tell them it’s number 11, Route de Laujuzan.

Apart from dealing with the paperwork involved in modifying the address, we haven’t been idle. We were looking to introduce some shade to our garden; some friends have a gorgeous, wooded area, where they’ve installed a table and chairs. It’s a lovely, cool space in the summer, perfect for sitting with a glass of something.

We were thinking of doing something similar when I read about micro-forests, which are apparently springing up all over the world. Small areas,  densely planted with native trees, it seems they grow very quickly and can look like a 100 year old forest after only ten years.

So I put the word out that we were looking for little trees and friends responded; Steve arrived with a trailer containing oaks and troènes, a variety of privet that grows as a tree; Christine arrived at the textile arts group with a huge box full of baby trees, mostly oak, hawthorn and wild cherry, between 5 and 30cm tall, 20 or so to a pot, all labelled, and Nadine has invited us to take whatever we can find in her garden, mostly shrubs to go between the trees.

It seemed a good idea to improve the soil before planting; we have a huge compost heap behind the banking, but as it’s where I dump the nasty weeds, celandine, oxalis, etc, we don’t dare use it on the potager or flowerbeds. However, celandine and oxalis would be perfectly acceptable in a woodland, so up to now, Nick has dug and I’ve barrowed about 80 wheelbarrows full of compost to where the woodland will be. The heap has shrunk, but there’s still quite a lot left, which we’ll gradually shift.

We’ve planted all the trees and must get the shrubs in soon;   most of the trees look as though they’re still alive. I think we’ll need more in the autumn, but it’s a start.

Apart from that, I was voted president of the textile arts group at the AGM. It doesn’t mean an awful lot of work as there are only six of us, but every association in France must have its president, secretary and treasurer. As it’s often me who comes up with ideas for techniques to try and projects to undertake, not much has changed.

Spring is fast approaching and Alex, Graham and the girls have booked to come over for the Easter holidays; it’s over 2 years since last we saw them, so it’s going to be great! Gemma is hoping to get over from Australia in August too, so this could be a wonderful year of reunions.

The bluebells under the fig tree are lovely this year.
A wild cherry, one of the bigger trees.
A little oak, more representative of the size of most of the trees in our Micro-forest.

We’re old – it’s official!

Back in the autumn Maria, our elderly neighbour, came to see me. She looked uncharacteristically sheepish as she said she had something to ask me, on behalf of her son-in-law Fred, who’s a conseiller du maire, like a town councillor. 

I wondered what on earth it could be; Maria is such an outspoken sort of woman, so full of life that it’s hard to believe she’s 80.

Eventually she asked; how old are Nick and I? Not the question I’d ever have expected. I told her we’re 65, but why did she (or Fred) need to know? 

It’s because the elderly of the village are given a present every new year, from the commune, and yes, we are now sufficiently elderly to qualify!

It arrived this week; a hamper containing 2 bottles of wine, foie gras, confit de canard, cassoulet, a box of hand made chocolates and 2 packets of luxury biscuits. Perhaps it’s not so bad, being old, after all!

Not again!

Six years ago, November 1st 2015, Nick had a horrendous accident while cycling, smashed his shoulder and ankle and totally wrote off the car that hit him. 

A week last Sunday, October 31st, while cycling with the club, he touched wheels with someone, fell off and broke his hip. The other hip, that is; not the one he broke 15 years ago, while cycling, of course. He claims it didn’t feel too bad at first, so, refusing all offers of help, he got back on his bike and set off to ride home, stopping in Nogaro to call me when he realised he could go no further. By the time I got there, he’d diagnosed a broken neck of femur.

We went to A&E at the local hospital, where the staff were very amused by us turning up with his pyjamas, toothbrush, etc, but where his diagnosis was confirmed.

It being Sunday, the surgeon wasn’t around, but we were pleased to learn that Nick would have the same surgeon this time as last. Monday was a bank holiday, but the surgeon appeared in the afternoon; he’d operate on Wednesday.

For me, Wednesday was the longest day ever; Nick went to theatre at 9am and the anaesthetist had told him the op would take about an hour, so I called at 11, but there was no news. I called again throughout the day, until he eventually got back to the ward after 5 pm. What a relief!

So all is well, they found some evidence of osteoarthritis in the joint, so gave him a replacement hip.

He was allowed to come home on Wednesday, looking very thin after 10 days of hospital food. Kieran came over, cooked us delicious, highly calorific “smash burgers”, and left us with his deep fat fryer.

Nick’s making amazing progress and hopes to be off his crutches soon. He hasn’t mentioned getting back on his bike yet, but I’m sure it’s not far from his mind.

Every day since he came home we’ve had so many visitors and have had to start asking people not to arrive with cakes, biscuits and other edibles as we’ve had to freeze some of the gifts that friends have brought round, even a packet of chocolate muffins, left on the door handle – from whom we haven’t been able yet to discover!

One friend has even invited him to a village lunch on Sunday, a great piece of babysitting, which will allow me to do the craft fair where I’d booked a stand months ago.

I can’t say the last 12 days have been much fun, but it could have been far worse and Nick will soon be back to full strength – the bionic man rides again again!

before
After
Before
Home at last

A trip tp the Vosges

Not having had much time off this summer, we decided to go to Sainte Marie aux Mines in the north east of France, for the big patchwork and textile arts exhibition; I bought a ticket for the full 4 days of the event and Nick packed a bike; it’s close to the Vosges, where he’d be able to bag some more cols. It’s about 1000km from home, so we booked a little apartment on Airbnb and went in the car.

The exhibition was fantastic, there was just so much to see, from traditional and antique quilts to contemporary quilts and textile art pieces; the quality and variety of the work was amazing. I especially loved the work of a group of 21 artists from all over the world, Texnet 2, who’d worked collaboratively on a 365 piece project, marking each day of 2020 in the form of 12 large calendar month pieces and another 12 made up of smaller quilts for each day. They couldn’t meet up, due to covid restrictions, so all the work was coordinated online and many of them only met in person for the first time at the exhibition. Except the two Australians, who couldn’t attend.

There weren’t as many exhibitors as usual and the number of visitors was well down on normal, which did have the advantage of allowing you to see the pieces without being swamped by the crowd, as well as being able to chat to the artists. Sadly, the commercial part was also much reduced; there were plenty of fabric stalls, but if you were looking for something slightly obscure or specialist, you were unlikely to find it.

Nick too, thoroughly enjoyed himself, cycling 430km over the 4 days and adding 42 new cols to his collection. He went into Germany on the last day and found some very pretty villages.

We set off home early on Monday morning and made good progress until a warning light came on in the car and it lost power. Looking in the handbook, it seemed serious, so I phoned the insurance, only to be told that we have no breakdown cover. I checked with our agent, who, as surprised as we were, confirmed this, though he was helpful in finding us a tow truck and a garage, albeit at our own expense. While on the phone to him, we saw a sanglier (a wild boar) run past, chased by four large dogs; the sanglier disappeared into the bushes, leaving the dogs to stand about, seemingly unwilling to follow it, then to wander off.

I phoned the recovery driver; he wasn’t the easiest person to understand, but suddenly it became a lot more difficult when a huge 4×4 pulled up right in front of us. Three gun-toting men in orange jackets got out and surrounded our car – hunters – shouting questions at us – had we seen a sanglier? How big was it? Where had it gone? How many dogs were there? Which way had they gone? How long ago?……… Eventually they left and I could get back to my phone call, feeling more than a little stressed.

An hour later the recovery lorry arrived and towed the car up the ramps. For a while things went from bad to worse;  you had to pay the driver before the journey, but Nick’s card wouldn’t work and when I looked in my purse, my card wasn’t there. I had what I think must have been a panic attack; I couldn’t remember where I’d last used it and had visions of being left stranded in the middle of nowhere, unable to get home. Eventually we found the card in my coat pocket, where I’d put it while filling the car with fuel the previous evening. Finally we got to the garage, I googled hotels nearby and the driver of the tow truck kindly offered to take us there.

It was an interesting hotel, though certainly not a classy one; each room had an ensuite, but I think they must have been purchased when a ferry company renovated its cabins –  tiny and made from preformed plastic, with a shower curtain that clung to you while you showered.

The rhythmic creaking noises from the room above ours were repeated regularly all evening; somebody had stamina, I thought, until Nick pointed out the succession of workmen’s vans in the car park!

The garage owner looked at the car the following morning; the problem was an injector, but his friend up the road had one in stock so he could do the repairs during the day. From the garage we walked into Vichy, where we found a great little café for lunch; I think I was the only woman in the place, which was full of workmen and lorry drivers. The owner and chef were delightful and the food excellent, which set us up for the walk back to the hotel and later to the garage to pick up the car.

An interesting and memorable journey, but we were so pleased to get home.

Here are a few photos of the exhibition and for anyone who might be interested in seeing more, a link to a google photos album.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/sKKbLc1p7cWgd6L6A

Ten years on and our gite is open at last!

The end of August marked the tenth anniversary of our retirement and moving here; in some ways it’s passed so quickly, but we can’t imagine living anywhere else now, it’s really become our home. We have made so many friends and become part of the fabric of the local community; it was a decision we haven’t regretted for an instant.

Purely by coincidence, the anniversary was also the week in which we finally opened our gite. It’s taken far longer than we imagined, (integration takes time and is so much more fun than working!) but at last the work is done, from building new bathrooms from scratch, to installing double glazed windows and totally landscaping the garden; the countless hours of painting, plumbing, plastering and the 1001 other tasks required are over. 

We’re working on a website; once it’s done I’ll put a link here, but in the meantime, we’re taking bookings for next year, so if you or someone you know is interested, please get in touch, at jackie@cawthray.co.uk.

The gite will accommodate 6 people. There’s a fully equipped kitchen/dining room, a sitting room, 3 bedrooms (2 double, 1 twin), 2 bathrooms and a laundry room. There’s parking for 3 cars, an outdoor eating area with barbecue and use of a large park.

We’re just 3km from the motor race circuit at Nogaro and 30 minutes from Marciac and its renowned jazz festival, in the beautiful, rolling Gers countryside, surrounded by vineyards, ideal for walking and cycling and only an hour and a half drive from the Pyrenees. There are wonderful, vibrant markets to explore as well as Armagnac producers to visit, some of whom even do tours in English.

So if you’ve never explored the Gers, it would be great to welcome you to our adopted home and show you around.

Soap making

One Saturday nearly 2 years ago, not long before the world as we knew it changed from one of freedoms that we really didn’t appreciate to one of lockdowns, masks and quarantine, we were at the market in Bagnères de Bigorre. It’s a great market with stalls selling everything from Pyrénéen sheep’s cheese to handmade jewellery, marinated olives of every size and shape to second hand books, organic fruit and vegetables to loaves of bread so big that you only buy a couple of slices. I bought some hand made soap and got chatting to the lady selling it; she told me she had a shop and workshop in Arreau, a town in the next valley and she ran soap making courses. I took a card and promised to be in touch; I’ve long fancied learning to make my own soap.

We didn’t go back to the Pyrenees before covid hit, but I kept the card and contacted her earlier this year; she said she’d be doing courses this summer, so I signed up.

We went to Arreau in the camper, the forecast wasn’t great, but a few days break would do us both good.

We had one lovely, sunny day, when I went to Arreau market and Nick did a full day’s cycling. He managed to collect several cols over the three days, in spite of the thunder, hailstones, rain and low cloud for the rest of our visit.

Arreau market
The weather wasn’t great

On the Friday I spent a fascinating 4 hours, the first two learning about saponification indices and the different properties of various oils, whether they’re hardening, give good lather, moisturising, etc and how to work out if a specific combination will make a decent soap. 

Eventually we got to the actual soap making process, working in gloves, safety glasses and white coats as the caustic soda that’s mixed with the oils is obviously not a nice chemical. We weighed our chosen oils, caustic soda, essential oils to perfume the soap and colourants, mixed them all up and poured them into moulds. They had to solidify overnight, before we could unmould and slice them, so I went back to the shop the following morning to finish off and collect what I’d made.

Everything weighed out
My soap looks like fudge!
The end product
Curing

It has to cure for 6 weeks, open to the air, so I’ve put it in my workshop, which smells gorgeous. 

Nick was keen to see the process, so I made a small batch of “mechanic’s” soap with oils I had in stock as it took a few days for what I ordered online to arrive. Olive oil, coconut oil, coffee grounds for exfoliation and lemon oil to remove grease. It’s not a pretty soap, but I hope it’ll work. As I didn’t have a mould, I used an empty orange juice carton, which worked fine!

My friend Mart is keen to make her own soap too, so she came round and we made a second batch of mechanic’s soap for her; all we need now is the time to put our new found knowledge into practice – oh, and some interesting moulds!

Mechanic’s soap

One sunny Sunday

While having a look around the stalls at a village fête a few weeks ago, I bumped into one of my old students, who had a stand showing the paintings and pottery she’s done. She invited me to share her stand at a craft fair a couple of weeks later and, as I’m not cycling much at the moment, it seemed a good idea.

Dominique came round to help me select a few pieces to display, insisting that it didn’t matter that I didn’t have anything to sell; she didn’t either, it was more a case of simply getting our work seen.

I’d need some sort of poster to tell people who I was, so I made one in patchwork and machine embroidery and put it in a frame. 

The day dawned grey, but it was going to get hot and sunny, so I wore a top that I made from bits of reclaimed lace, the trial run for another lace top that I put on the mannequin that Gemma sent for my birthday. I had the textile arts book that I made last winter as well as a few other bits.

My end of the table

It was a great day, with dozens of artists of every type displaying and selling their wares, potters, painters, stained glass makers, poets, and all of a very high standard.

The local journalist was quite taken with the fact that I could actually wear my particular type of art, earning me a mention and two photos in the local paper.

https://lejournaldugers.fr/article/49955-artistes-dans-la-rue-a-aignan-vif-succes

I bumped into plenty of friends as well as lots of folk I didn’t know and had a lovely, relaxing day in the shade of the trees (Dominique had bagged a really good spot for us). Next time I might have a stand of my own and maybe even have the time to make a few little items to sell.

Sardine tins!

Tour de France 2021

We love to watch the Tour de France; it usually involves cycling for several hours to spend just a few seconds watching the world’s greatest cyclists wizz past, then several more hours cycling home again. It might sound insane, but the atmosphere is always fantastic, making it a great day out.

Obviously the best place to see the Tour is in the mountains, where the peloton might be a bit split up and will certainly be moving less quickly than normal. 

With this in mind, Nick organised a club run in the Pyrenees on Sunday, days before the Tour would come through. As I can’t cycle much at the moment, he’d go in the camper on Saturday, ride Saturday and Sunday, then ride home on Monday, leaving the camper parked at a friend’s house. We’d then both go back in the car on Tuesday to watch the Tour Wednesday and Thursday, before heading home. A much needed break. 

It didn’t quite go to plan, however, as rain clouds gathered on Sunday night, depositing their contents very generously on Monday morning. Nick set off to ride home, but within a very few kilometres was soaked through (his shoes took a full 3 days to dry!). The forecast was for more of the same for the next couple of days, so he turned back, came home in the camper and we watched the mountain stages on the internet.

Wednesday’s stage saw them leave the mountains and the weather improved; Nick cycled to Montgaillard, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, while I painted the gite kitchen (more later).

The following stage was going through the Landes, which is fairly flat; feeling deprived of my usual TdF fix, we drove to the little village of Brocas and joined most of the village’s population on the roadside. We’d both had appointments in the morning, so missed the publicity caravan, but saw the Tour come through at incredible speed, causing the sort of air turbulence normally associated with express trains. The local Bandas band was playing, the bar was doing a roaring trade and even the Gendarmes were friendly and chatty, in addition to which, Kieran and Alice joined us. 

The Tour finished the following Sunday; sadly, Mark Cavendish didn’t manage to break Eddy Merckx’s record for the number of stages won in the Tour, but there’s always next year.

If you look closely, you can spot the yellow jersey wearer in the middle of the group – pure chance!

A long awaited weekend away

It was the weekend of the annual cycle club trip to St. Lary, in the Pyrenees, deferred from last year due to Covid. I’d signed up, but as I can’t ride far at the moment, I offered to help with support. I was very nervous about driving Bernard’s big van, but needn’t have worried as my co-driver, Robin, the 21 year old son of a farmer, has been driving tractors and bigger since he was 16 and was more than happy to do all the driving if I’d navigate. That suited me perfectly.

We left Nogaro at 8 o’clock on Saturday morning, the van loaded with overnight bags, picnics and bottles of water and headed for the first stop at Gensac, where we supplied coffee and cakes. The group looked great on the road, with virtually everyone in club strip.

Morning coffee and cake
Time for a natural break

Then on to St. Marie de Campan for a picnic lunch; it was quite warm, but fortunately nothing like the 41°C of two years ago. Everyone set off again in good spirits, except Bernard, who didn’t feel up to doing the climb of the Hourquette d’Ancizan, so he joined us in the van. Laurent isn’t a great climber, so we expected a long wait for him at the summit; we didn’t expect him to turn up in a big 4×4, though, having hitched a ride for the second half of the climb!

Lunch stop

At the centre de vacances in St. Lary, the rooms were clean and comfortable, the beer warm and the food unimaginative and insufficient, but that did nothing to dampen our spirits; it was great to be riding together again, especially as this was our president’s first club run in over two and a half years, since he had a horrendous accident, falling off a roof and breaking almost every bone in his body.

Sunday morning dawned grey, foggy and drizzly; Bernard was on his bike again, but we had Bruno for company in the van for the first stretch, the climb of the Col d’Aspin, as he had a hip replacement recently and had found the climbing uncomfortable the previous day. 

Riding out of the cloud

We collected unwanted layers of clothing when we passed the riders as they warmed up on the ascent of the Col and after a few kilometres the heavy cloud started to thin. I hadn’t realised till then that I’d only ever seen this col from my bike, which in my case means I’d only seen the bit of tarmac in front of my wheel. I was blown away by the sheer beauty of the landscape around us, enhanced by the fact of seeing it in inversion conditions, blue sky above, white cloud below. I think Robin must have stopped the van at every possible spot, to allow me to take photos.

The clouds begin to thin
Top of the col d’Aspin
Afternoon coffee stop

From the top, where Bruno rejoined the peloton, we stopped the van about every 20km on the way home to enable the riders to put on/take off waterproofs as the weather remained changeable, but it was a happy group that arrived back in Nogaro, ready for a beer or three in the clubhouse.