It’s nearly a year since Maddy and Dom came over for a working holiday and helped us to start clearing the gîte garden; sadly they won’t be able to make it this year, but we’ve continued to work on it since, as much as is possible between holidays, cycling, visitors and other such necessary occupations.
In February we planted up the flower bed that we’d unearthed; there was a second one, but we decided it would be more useful, as well as less maintenance for us, to have plenty of parking space. So out came the grasses, the bulbs and the yuccas, to be rehoused elsewhere, as well as the brambles, the rampant honeysuckle and other undesirables, taken to the tip. We bought as many bags of bark chippings as would fit in the car and spread them between the plants in the bed. It was beginning to look like a garden, except for the weeds that appeared everywhere, growing at incredible speed.
We made a small, circular bed around the olive tree, finished with the edging tiles taken from around the second, oval flowerbed, then realised it could link to the picnic area wall by becoming teardrop shaped, so more digging and edging tiles.
Nick constructed a fence to divide our garden from that of the gîte and I painted it with lasure. We spent what seemed forever weeding, levelling and weeding again until at last, we could ask Mr T to deliver some stone. We also contacted Gary, a neighbour who’s always happy to work for a good feed. Mr T brought nine lorry loads of stone over the next week; we shovelled and barrowed and raked under the scorching sun for days on end until, finally, it was all spread and reasonably level. It’s a mixture of grades of stone, from 2cm down to sand, the idea being that when it rains the sand is washed down and the stones stay on the top. It’s still looking quite sandy, so I think we may need another lorry load of just stones. I hope Gary’s still game for a bit of hard labour.
It all looked very bare; a trip to a garden centre saw us return with a climbing rose, 2 oleanders, a bottle brush plant, a trachelospermum, a phormium and lots of other stuff whose names I’ve forgotten. Planting along the side of the fence was slow as the ground was mostly stone and concrete rubble, but eventually Nick dug holes big enough to fill with compost and put the plants in.
We’ve moved lavenders from the bed around the terrace, where they’ve been engulfed by other plants, into the bed around the olive and found slate chippings to cover the soil around them. But even that turned into a bigger job than expected; as I started to dig the spade hit concrete, so I moved left a bit, the same thing and bit right was still the same. Nick came to help, eventually unearthing a gatepost base, a cube of at least 30cm in each direction; it took some shifting, but finally came out. There were also two pieces of an old, concrete wall, but they were small enough to be avoided.
There’s just a bit of grouting of the slabs in front of the gite to finish, after which we can begin the transformation of the third bedroom in the gite from its current state as a building site into a room we can use when the whole family arrives for Christmas. 53 days and counting…..
I’ve not been well for the last couple of weeks, coughing like an old 60-a-day smoker. The days were bad, but the nights worse, waking coughing after an hour or two’s sleep and having to sit up for the remainder of the night. I read a lot and designed a quilt for our baby granddaughter, but sleep remained elusive.
When I finally admitted defeat and saw the doctor, she diagnosed sinusitis; I left the pharmacy with a huge bagful of goodies, which started to help within a couple of days. By Wednesday night, I was sure I’d be able to catch up on some much-needed kip.
It started well enough, but at 3am I suddenly found myself wide awake. Why? I wasn’t coughing. Then I heard it; a scratching, scrabbling, chewing type of sound, coming from the corner. I woke Nick, who, not hearing anything for 10 seconds or so, went back to sleep. While he snored, the other occupant of the room remained silent, but as soon as Nick was quiet, our visitor started again, performing what sounded to me like a clog dance under the bed. Then it seemed to get its claws caught in the rug; what sort of a mouse has claws big enough to do that!? As the noise continued, the creature morphed into some monstrous, man-eating, morris-dancing rodent in my over-active imagination. Eventually, by 5am, the noise woke Nick; he searched the room with a torch, but found nothing. He put out a mouse trap and went back to sleep; the noises continued, including what sounded to me like something sucking the raisin off the mousetrap…….. Sometime after 6, I dropped off to sleep, only to wake at 7, coughing.
Nothing in the mousetrap, its raisin still intact. In fact nothing to suggest that this wasn’t all a figment of our imagination.
Nick set up his special mouse trap; a plank leading up to a bucket of water, across which is a length of dowel, smeared with Nutella at the far end. The mouse goes up the plank and onto the dowel, which spins, landing it in the water. Within a few hours we’d caught two mice, little ones, totally not what I was dreading.
After three holidays in three months, it felt like time to get back to work, to make some progress on the gîte and its garden; apart from anything else, with the current weakness of the pound, we could do with opening the gîte and earning some euros. So on our return from Yorkshire, we started work again.
We expect to be uncomfortably hot in August and sometimes in July too, but we don’t normally experience heatwaves in June; however this year was different. With temperatures frequently hovering around the 40°C mark, it was impossible to work outdoors beyond 11am, even in the shade – and there’s very little shade in the gite garden yet. Of course, we should have got up at 6am to start in the cool, but I’ve never been a morning person…….
Our other excuse for slow progress was a far more welcome one – visitors.
Maddy and Dom came to break their journey to the Pyrenees in July, delivering some geotextile fleece for the gite garden en route. A few days later we joined them at their campsite in the Basque country. We took our bikes and headed off to do a few cols; they felt every bit as hard as the hills in Yorkshire, not helped by the heat which sat heavy on us as we plodded our way ever upwards. At some points, Maddy and I had to resort to walking, pushing our bikes and even that was very strenuous. We caught a couple of stages of the Tour de France on the TV in a bar in the nearby village and bought some delicious local cheeses, so it wasn’t all hard cycling.
When Maddy and Dom left, it wasn’t long till Nick’s cycling friend Glyn arrived for 12 days. The two men went off on their bikes most days as I tried to keep on top of household chores and the veg plot, where the weeds were growing at an almost perceptible rate. Nick took Glyn down to the Pyrenees for a few days, to stay at Ian’s and cycle some cols, along with another friend who turned up. By the time they got back, Glyn was exhausted and in need of a few days rest.
The day we took Glyn back to the airport, we also picked up our 14 year old granddaughter, Izzy, who’d flown from Leeds/Bradford to Heathrow, and from there on to Toulouse, entirely on her own! As we approached the airport (only just allowing enough time as Nick hates paying parking charges), there was a traffic jam. There was no way we’d be there in time. Alex was on the phone, checking that we’d be at the gate and panicked when I had to tell her we were stuck in traffic. I took over the driving while Nick ran the rest of the way to the airport terminus; we needn’t have worried, it was another half hour before she came through, cool, calm and collected, blissfully unaware of the panic that had ensued. I’d been having kittens about her solo journey for weeks, and was so relieved and not a little proud of her, when she finally appeared at the arrivals gate.
The next 9 days passsed in a whirl; she spent a few days at Kieran and Alice’s, meeting her new cousin, Emily, for the first time, we went out for pizza, had trips to the seaside, where she spent hours jumping the waves with Nick and we visited neighbours who have a 14 year old daughter with whom she got on really well. One of the highlights was a day in the Pyrenees, gorge walking; There’s a 2km stretch of gorge by Luz St Sauveur, equipped wih 4 Nepalese bridges, lots of voies ferées and 16 zip wires. Izzy was hesitant about the bridges and coped by closing her eyes to cross them! By the finish, she was shattered, but happy.
On her arrival, Izzy showed me a soft toy character she’d drawn; “he’s called Ryan; do you think we could make him for real?” I’d never made a soft toy before, but she was determined; fortunately, I had all the required bits of fabric in all the right colours, so we spent several afternoons in the relative cool of my workshop and she was pleased with the result, finished the night before she went home.
Nick was away for a week’s cycling around Bordeaux the week after Izzy left, while friends from Harrogate, Anne and Peter called in for a couple of days, helping me with advice and weeding in the garden.
Once the dust settled it was time to tackle the garden again, once again overgrown with weeeds, but that’s a tale for the next post……
It’s long been a dream of Nick’s to take some of the cycle club to Yorkshire and in June it was finally realised.
We started the planning last October; it was a big undertaking and we didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Eleven people signed up, unsure whether they were being brave or foolish; after all, in France the reputation of British food is as bad as that of the British weather and food is a French national obsession. Our friend Dom, from Skipton, sent us suggestions for holiday cottages big enough for twelve, including one whose decor looked a bit quirky, because he thought I might find it “interesting”. His joke was the one we booked, Flanders hall in West Burton.
We booked ferries, hotels for the journeys there and back and held meetings that were always chaotic and never seemed to achieve what we’d hoped. Nick and Dom spent many hours on the phone, discussing route plans, till finally they felt that they’d satisfy everyone, from those who wanted to do about 100km a day to those who preferred shorter rides. We researched bad weather options and tourist visits, exchanged euros for sterling and assured our fellow cyclists that they really didn’t need to take tea, butter or milk with them, that we could buy them there. We suggested that it might be a good idea to have lower gears fitted on bikes as, we explained, Yorkshire hills are a lot steeper than those in the Gers or even Pyrénéen cols!
I had an email from Maïthée and Pierre’s son, who lives in Devon, to ask if there would be a bed free if he drove up for the weekend to surprise his parents; fortunately there was and I even managed not to spill the beans beforehand – quite an achievement for me!
It was a relief when the day of our departure arrived; we could do no more. Bikes and bags were loaded into vans and we set off for the two day drive to Brugge, from where we were taking the ferry to Hull. The plan was to stop in Brugge for lunch and a wander round, but we hadn’t realised that it was Ascension Day; the satnavs took our little convoy right into the city centre, which was mobbed with locals and tourists waiting for the traditional Ascension Day procession. We wove our way through the crowds and down streets made almost as narrow as our vehicles by the rows of spectators’ chairs lining both sides; every car park was full, as were all the restaurants. Time to think up a plan B; head out of town towards the ferry. Being a bank holiday, most shops and restaurants were closed, but eventually we spotted a Chinese restaurant; most of the French looked very apprehensive about our choice, but I suspect, thought it could be no worse than English cuisine. They were pleasantly surprised, on both counts.
On arrival at the port we had a nasty surprise; Alain had noticed his ID card had expired, so had requested a replacement, but the powers that be have recently decided that ID cards will now be valid for 10 years, not 5 as previously, so Alain was told that his card was good for another 5 years and couldn’t be changed unless he moved house. It might be valid in France, but couldn’t be used to travel abroad! We watched in disbelief as poor Alain had to leave us and make his way home, thanks to the idiocy of French bureaucracy.
From Hull our route went close to Harrogate, where we shopped in Asda (yes, tea, milk and butter were available!) and went to Darren’s deli for superb sandwiches, which we ate on the Stray, followed by a visit to the Swan on the Stray for a first taste of English beer; definitely a success. Then on to West Burton. The holiday “cottage” was beautiful, a huge stone built house set in big gardens, surrounded by glorious views of the Dales; Nick and I could finally relax a bit as people happily chose their bedrooms and unloaded the bikes and luggage.
The kitchen was huge, with a gas fired Aga and a big dining table; there was a barbecue and plenty of lockable bike storage and we were only 5 minutes walk from the village and the pub, where we’d booked the first evening’s meal. We’d downloaded and translated the menu as the pub wanted to know our order in advance, but the French aren’t used to such choice and greeted the menu with dismay. “Do we have to choose?”, “Can’t we all have the same?” and “I’ll have what you’re having” were the commonest responses. However, after much coaxing, they finally made their choices. Nobody wanted a dessert, till they saw Nick’s sticky toffee pudding and ice cream arrive, at which point almost everyone ordered the same. All fears and misconceptions about English cuisine soon evaporated!
But where was Maïthée and Pierre’s son? He’d said he’d be there by early evening and by the time we left the pub I’d heard nothing and was getting a bit worried. On the way back to the house I was confiding in Regine and Martine when a text arrived; he wasn’t far away, and had sent loads of messages, but to the wrong number; he should be with us within the hour. Phew!!!
Maïthée and Pierre were tired, they wanted to go to bed, but by now everyone else knew Alain was expected; we women kept Maïthée talking while the men took Pierre for a walk. Eventually my phone rang, Alain was lost in the village, so I directed him to the house and phoned Nick to tell him to bring Pierre back. What a wonderful reunion it was!
The following day we set off for our first ride, visiting Bolton, Richmond and Middleham castles and joined by Andrew and Alan, friends from Knaresborough. The Yorkshire hills came as something of a shock to our French friends, who hadn’t believed our descriptions and a few of whom found themselves having to push their bikes on the steeper sections.
In the evening some of the men went out for a walk and arrived back carrying kilos of mousserons, a much sought after mushroom, wrapped in shirts and any other makeshift bag they could devise. Apparently they sell for around 50€ a kilo here! They couldn’t believe their luck until we explained that the English don’t go mushroom hunting like the French.
On Sunday Dom arrived to stay for the rest of the week; everyone else cycled in the morning while I prepared lunch as Alex, Graham and the girls were coming to see us. It was another hilly circuit, leaving Maïthée expressing the feelings of many, I suspect, on their return, announcing that if it was all like that she wasn’t going out again! Nick and Dom spent the evening rethinking their route plans.
For the rest of the week we cycled most days, the stronger riders riding out from home, the rest of us taking cars loaded with bikes partway and meeting up at prearranged spots. We visited at least one pub most days; the men were very impressed with English beer and everyone enjoyed the food. Wednesday was a day off, when we took the chance to do a tour of the Theakstons brewery and visit the Hawes dairy for Wensleydale cheese and Brymor for ice creams.
On the final day Nick took them up to the Tan Hill Inn, Britain’s highest pub and on the way back the stronger riders climbed Buttertubs; we’d warned them about Yorkshire’s 25% hills and wanted to let those who felt up to it have a go. I think they’ve all got photos of themselves below the 25% sign.
We were very lucky with the weather, only having one afternoon of rain, after which we resorted to drying our shoes in the bottom of the Aga! Various friends, cycling and non cycling, called in during the week; all of them were very welcome, but none more so than Dom, who threw himself wholeheartedly into speaking the best French he could and who seems to have become almost an honorary member of the Nogaro club.
By the time we came home, the cars and vans laden with beer, cheese and other souvenirs, everybody was tired but happy. It had been a successful trip.
Sorry a couple of the photos are the wrong way up; I’ve rotated them, but it hasn’t worked!
Having been introduced to them by Gemma, one of Nick’s current favourite bands is Mumford and sons; when he discovered that they were playing in Barcelona, it seemed the perfect excuse for a mini break in a beautiful city.
Not being an old hand in buying tickets to gigs, I got completely ripped off, falling for the hard sell; I won’t be buying through Viagogo again. But we got a good deal on train tickets, travelling by TGV from Toulouse and found a great Airbnb room in an apartment near the city centre. Daniel, our host, was lovely and a fount of knowledge on everything from which website to use for tickets to where to find great tapas at a reasonable price.
I’ve no idea how far we walked during our stay, but one day I recorded 22km on Strava, just out of interest. The prices of attractions have rocketed in the 15 years since our last visit, so we did a lot of looking at the outsides of buildings and Nick refused point blank to wait in the queues to visit the Sagrada Familia. However, I did finally persuade him to go to Park Guell, which was as beautiful as I remembered it, as well as the Picasso museum, which was mind blowing!
We spent hours wandering around glorious gardens, discovered as we researched the best way to get to and from the stadium for the gig, as well as many hours getting hopelessly lost in the old city, as the tourist map leaves a bit to be desired.
The gig itself was good, though the sound wasn’t great, way too much bass, leaving the other instruments drowned out; but the atmosphere was excellent.
It’s been a long time since our first, disastrous visit to Barcelona, but I hope we’ll be back again before too long.
For the last few years, Nick has joined some friends on a week’s cycling holiday in Mallorca; he’s always raved about how good the cycling is, how beautiful the scenery and how amazing the food in the hotel. While I couldn’t cycle it seemed pointless my going, but this year I decided to give it a try, along with our friend Ian, who lives in the Pyrenees and Francis and Regine, a couple of French friends from the cycling club.
The weather was perfect, dry and not too hot and as there are up to five guided rides a day, all at different levels of fitness, there was something for everyone.
The first day we did a short, warm-up ride out to the lighthouse at Formentor; the views were every bit as breathtaking as Nick had promised, with azure waters around every bend.
We did some rides with the guides, most of whom are ex-professional cyclists; Nick and Francis joined the group being taken by car to the other end of the island one morning and cycling back along the mountain ridge, about 150km with, obviously, plenty of climbing. We met some lovely people while we were there and one day a group of nine of us decided to do sa Calobra, one of Nick’s “must do” list for me and described as being “a perfect col”, with a steady gradient of 10% for almost the whole of its 12km. It’s an upside down col, as you start at the top, descend to the sea and then climb out, so it’s quite committing. I found the start of the descent terrifying, with tight hairpin bends and loads of buses, but, having made it to the bottom, managed the climb back up without too many problems and even beat two of the guys in our group to the top (one of whom has sinced explained to me the concept of being “chicked”: being beaten up a hill by a woman). A total of 110km and 2320m of climbing for the day, I was nearly too tired to eat dinner that evening.
The hotel was as good as Nick had said and the buffet style restaurant was superb, especially for hungry cyclists. There was a spa and an indoor pool and the staff were lovely, allowing me to practice my Spanish on them. Regine and I had a day off to take the bus to Alcudia, where we spent the day exploring on foot, a welcome break from the saddle for me. I’ll probably go back again, though I’ll take my own saddle in future, the one on the hired bike felt like sitting on razor blades!
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.
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.
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!
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.