A new Cawthray project

The French have a very different attitude to houses from us, the English; when an elderly person dies here, it is quite normal for their house to be passed on to their children, one of whom moves in, keeping everything exactly as it was.

So when Alice’s uncle died, leaving no children, his house passed to his brother and sisters, who knew they’d have to sell it, but who wanted it to stay in the family. Alice and Kieran were the obvious choice, so they were made an offer they couldn’t refuse. 

Built in 1934, it’s a beautiful, art deco house in a village not far from Dax. It has arch topped windows, spacious rooms and a big, but manageable, garden.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, yes, in a way. Uncle B had lived in the house for 30-some years, but had done zero maintenance in that time; in fact, all he’d done was to fill the place with junk and memorabilia of his many voyages to far flung places. There was almost no room even to walk in the house, due to “stuff” absolutely everywhere. It’s taken the family months to clear the majority of it and even now there’s enough furniture, crockery, glassware, paintings, books and more besides, to furnish another two homes. What remains has been claimed by various family members, but until this weekend was still cluttering the house, making it impossible to do any work.

Kieran and Alice invited us over for a couple of days busman’s holiday, so we packed the camper with working clothes and tools. It’s great to see Kieran so fired up about the project; he, of course, has all the skills he’ll need, having worked with Nick for so many years. Alice, on the other hand, has never done any DIY, so it’s going to be a steep learning curve for her. She’s keen to learn, however, which is a good start.

Nick and Kieran spent Friday doing what they love best – demolition. The big kitchen had been divided into three small rooms, so the walls came down, leaving us better able to see what will be a beautiful dining kitchen. That done, they spent the rest of the time clearing furniture etc. into the garage.

My job was window renovation; the frames are oak, and so are solid even after all the years of neglect; however, there’s almost no paint left on most of them and very little putty around the glass. Several panes were broken and had been patched up (for years!) with old calendars. Kieran got glass offcuts, as you have to order in advance if you want glass cut to size, and putty, so I set to work replacing the broken panes and starting to reputty the rest. Kieran assures me I’ll have some help, which is just as well as I could spend the next 5 years just working on the windows if I’m on my own!

Alice started sanding the inside of windows; I think the poor girl has just realised the enormity of the task they’ve taken on.

We came home on Saturday night, tired and feeling our age after a heavy couple of days. The weather had taken a nosedive while we were away, from a sunny 27°C on Thursday to a wet, windy 10° on Friday, but nothing had prepared us for the journey home. The rain became heavier and heavier as the wind got stronger and stronger, the wipers couldn’t cope with the deluge as we crawled along, the sides of the camper buffeted by the wind. In one village every road was under water, the drains couldn’t cope at all; there were huge plumes of water spraying from our wheels all through the village and some houses looked as though they may well have been flooding. It had eased off a bit by the time we arrived home, but the rain gauge had recorded 76mm in the preceding 48 hours. Very strange weather for September!

Coup de foudre

It was that time of year again; so much to harvest and process from the garden; tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, peppers, beans……… And it’s been so hot for so long, seriously hot, 45°C in the shade one day. So we get up early to work in the garden for as long as we can, then spend the afternoons blanching, freezing, drying and bottling our produce.
It was also the season for thunderstorms.

And so it was that I was in the arrière cuisine one day, chopping veg for ratatouille, vaguely aware of a bit of thunder rumbling around, but it didn’t sound very close; when suddenly there was the most enormous crack. I dived for cover, wondering who’d been shot. When I’d recovered a bit I had a look out of the window; everything looked quite normal and two men walking up the road were unarmed and harmless looking. One of them asked if I was ok, as apparently he’d just seen one bolt of lightning land just in front of the house and another just behind; oh, and had I seen a white cat anywhere?
We looked around the house; no burning smells, the only apparent damage was to the internet box, which was completely dead. Later that night we discovered that most of the lights in the house had been frazzled and two days later that the water heater had also suffered and was no longer working.
Of course August, when this happened, is holiday season; businesses are closed and it’s impossible to get anything done. Everywhere I phoned I had to leave a message, most promising to ring back at the beginning of September, though only two actually did so. Fortunately the electrician who wired the house had taken his holiday early and rang back within a week; he fixed the lights and was able to repair the water heater when the part arrived; he ordered it with express delivery so it “only” took 10 days. Thank goodness we’ve got a second water heater in the gite, so we didn’t have to visit neighbours, begging for showers.
All in all, we were lucky, it could have been a lot worse. It rained a bit here, but some places nearby had hailstones, leaving fields full of maize shredded and vineyards, almost ready for the harvest, stripped bare of both leaves and grapes; such a sorry sight.

I wrote this blog weeks ago, before we’d discovered that the lightning had also fried the mother board on the PC I use to post it; so I had to wait for Kieran to visit and replace the damaged part.

A few days of cycling and weaving

A couple of weeks ago we went to St. Gaudens, in the camper, for a few days. Various people have found this a strange choice of destination and admittedly it’s not the prettiest of towns as, whereas its geography is similar to that of Pau, where the “Promenade des Anglais” has breathtaking views of the Pyrenees, the foreground to the view in St. Gaudens is a big, ugly quarry. There are some interesting parts, though, if you look hard enough, such as the old cloisters with computerised fountains. Hardly the Bellagio in Las Vegas, but pretty nonetheless. The town also seems to have more than its fair share of eccentrics and oddities wandering around the town centre, accosting the clients of the bars and restaurants, before being chased off by the proprietors. However, it does have a good selection of restaurants, a lovely market, a good camping car site and access to some very quiet roads, with enough cols to keep even Nick happy.
We noticed a signpost to the chapelle de St. Jacques, no longer a church, but a centre for contemporary art; a pleasant way to pass some of the afternoon we thought. We weren’t impressed with the exhibition, but there were some women outside the front door doing weaving, something I’ve been wanting to try my hand at for quite some time. It transpired that they had an artist in residence for a month, a weaver, who was working on a large woven artwork for the chapel, a sort of community piece as she was teaching courses and all the students’ work would become part of the project.

She invited me to join them the following morning, and asked if I could bring any old bits of clothing, T shirts, etc. I explained that we were camping, so all my old clothing was brought to be worn; so I was excused, though I did find a second hand clothes shop in town, so was able to make a contribution.
The technique doesn’t use a frame, but lengths of warp fibres, attached to a hook in a wall, running through a “lices” ( I don’t know how that translates to English), which holds the threads in position;  the other ends of the warp threads are tied to a piece of dowel, held on the wearer’s lap by a belt around their back. This means that the piece of work can be any length.
The 2 hours passed so quickly as I learnt how to use the lices and shuttle to weave strips of T shirt, then how to introduce a bit of pattern. I was the only one on the course, though other people, friends of those who work there, called in for a chat during the morning. I was very pleased with the result of my labours and took photos and measurements so that Nick could reproduce a lices for me at home.
I’ve done a small piece, using wool, denim and organza and I want to make some bedroom rugs as ours are falling apart, but I can’t find anything I like in the shops. It will also be a very useful technique to incorporate into my textile art. 
I think we’ll go back to St. Gaudens soon, to see how the big artwork turned out.

The photos have come up in reverse order and I can’t work out how to alter them; sorry!

This is my piece of weaving, done at home.
Lices and shuttle
Work in progress
My contribution
A good feed after a hard day’s cycling
The cloisters at St. Gaudens


Lockdown has now been over for 3 weeks; shops are open, but cafes, bars and restaurants remain closed for the moment; we can travel up to 100km from home and we’re allowed to cycle again, though if in a group, at a distance of 10 metres from each other. It hardly seems worth going out in a group under those conditions, if indeed the rules are adhered to, and if they’re not, it’s not worth the risk, so we just go out on our own.

Kieran and Alice are both back at work, so we’re involved in babysitting duties and the garden needs a lot of attention right now, so life is, as usual, pretty busy. I’m glad to say that we finished grouting the terrace and it looks good.

We worked very hard throughout lockdown and are feeling the effects, so are trying to get away in the camper for a few days fairly regularly as this seems to be the only way of turning off and winding down a bit. The 100km limit gives us a good excuse to explore the local area and our first trip was to Roquefort in the Landes, a mostly pan flat area, covered in pine forests. We’d driven through Roquefort a few times, but never stopped there before. We set off late morning, ate lunch and went out for a bike ride; mostly the roads around are surrounded by forests, but we spent the first few miles riding past cleared areas, where the trees had been harvested. It was definitely not pretty, resembling a post holocaust landscape of rough, bare earth, baking under the unseasonally hot sun. Nick rode the following day, clocking up 105km, but I stayed at the campsite, partly because I’m not up to riding on consecutive days (I have a tendency to collapse on day 2 if I try) and partly to allow Nick to do a decent ride at a decent speed, instead of pottering along at my pace. We rode together on the third morning, coming home to water the parched garden in the afternoon. We went for a walk one evening, coming across a forestry nursery – lots of varieties of pine trees. I don’t know if it was due to lockdown, but there was a huge pile of discarded baby trees outside the gates; Nick cannot resist the chance to rescue neglected plants, so we came home with a washing up bowl stuffed full of about 4 different varieties of pine. He’s potted them all up, but if they all survive we haven’t got room for them all, so I think our neighbour, Mart, who loves to save/rescue/propogate plants as much as Nick does, will receive a donation.

Apart from gardening, Nick did no exercise during lockdown, whereas I did my best to stay fit, walking or running almost every day; so it seems unfair that it’ll take me months to recover my fitness, whereas Nick seems to be straight back on form. He claims to be finding the hills hard, but you’d never know it! We’d had a fortnight to get back to fitness, so he decided we’d have a trip to the hills.

Nick’s part of the 100 cols club, a group of people who’ve cycled at least 100 cols (mountain passes); they can be anywhere on earth and there’s an official list of the recognised ones. He’s done 225, including many of the big ones in the Alps and the Pyrenees and recently had the bright idea that I might like to join too, but I’ve only done 50-something. No problem, he announced, as I’ve done 3 of the required 5 over 2000 metres for each 100 cols; I can soon pick up another two biggies and for the rest we can do little cols. I can’t say I’m entirely convinced, but I went along with it as I didn’t want to be a wet blanket.

So we set off from the campsite in Oloron Ste Marie, on another scorching day; Nick had marked a dozen or so “little” cols on the map and we’d “just see how many we can bag”. We arrived at the bottom of the first one; it wasn’t even tarmacced; I don’t do off-roading, I’m too much of a wimp, so I waited at the bottom while Nick made the most of his new cyclo cross bike. The second one wasn’t as bad, a bit rough and gravelly, and with cattle grids at regular intervals, but I managed it. At the start of the third one, I was delighted to see proper tarmac and set off with a will; but at a farm a little way up, a woman working on a tractor looked at us askance; “are you going up there?” she asked. We replied that we were; “Bon courage! You’re going to need it, there’s a long way to go!” she remarked. She wasn’t wrong; it was only about 3km, but so steep, 19% at one point! Nick soared up, while I gritted my teeth and pushed with every fibre of my body. I made it in the end, but ready to drop. We descended and turned for home, but soon met another cyclist needing some help with a mechanical problem; once Nick had helped him to fix it, he suggested that we ride back together as he too was going to Oloron, so he and Nick set off down the hillside like greased lightning. I caught up with them when they waited for me at the bottom and we rode along for a while, then he announced that he just wanted to do a couple of little hills here, so why didn’t we come along. My heart sank; I was just about on my last legs as it was. But the hills really were little and he didn’t climb anywhere near as fast as he descended, so I was able to keep up without a problem. We stopped to look at a historic chateau and the French cyclist, whom I hesitate to call elderly as he probably wasn’t much older than us; but he was of another generation, and congratulated Nick on how well I ride. It would be so easy to take offence in situations like these; so many Frenchmen of a certain age simply don’t talk directly to women, but refer to us in the third person, almost as a posession. However, I didn’t take offence as I know none was intended; it’s just a cultural difference which used to shock me, but no longer does. We parted company as we got to Oloron and we went back to the camper for a well earned beer.

First col of the day
It was worth the climbs for the stunning views

Day 2 saw Nick attack several more of these little cols and I joined him again on day 3; though I still hadn’t fully recovered from the first day’s riding and felt unwell at the top of the second climb, so we came home.

Since then it’s been nearly non stop gardening; the weeds grow faster than I can remove them, but at least Nick’s new watering system is better than last year’s was, making that task a bit easier. We’ve been out for a few rides locally; it’s such a lovely time of year for it as the wild honeysuckle, which grows everywhere, is in flower, so that as you ride along you find yourself enveloped in wave after wave of its exquisite perfume.

The heat wave finally seems to have broken and it’s thundering and raining this evening, such a welcome sound. I hope we’ll have some more normal weather for a while now.

A tiled terrace at last

The problem with older workers is their (or should I say our) joints; be it wrist, shoulder, knee or back, they always have somewhere that hurts. The French have a name for this type of person; les tamalous, derived from the phrase “tu as mal ou?”, meaning “where do you hurt?”. We’re both feeling rather tamalou-ish at the moment.

Nick having finished cementing the terrace, the obvious next step was to tile it; we’ve had the tiles for years now, so we dug a box out and were relieved to find that we still like them. They’re fairly plain, so we decided to do a border around the edge with a herringbone pattern in the middle. But when we took out the rest of the tiles, there didn’t seem to be very many boxes, in fact the area of tiles was very little more than the area to be covered; so I drew out the planned design to scale – there certainly wouldn’t be enough to do a herringbone. The only explanation I can think of is that we bought them on a whim, without measuring properly first, as it usually takes us months to find tiles that we like; we obviously underestimated.

Not willing to wait till lockdown is over in order to find toning tiles that would work as a border, we went for plan B; a brick design, with a border around the edges if possible. I drew it out and it looked possible, provided we had no breakages, but whether or not we’d have enough to go into the two doorways leading off the terrace remained to be seen.

Since he tiled the downstairs of the house, Nick’s knees haven’t been as good as they might be and the tiles were too big and unwieldy for me to spread with tile adhesive, so Nick buttered while I laid them in place.

Day 1 saw the border done, and found a broken tile in the first box; day 2, just a long morning, saw us about halfway through the middle, with only 40 something tiles still to fit. I know it’s never a good idea to compare yourself with others, but I had to think of Rob, our neighbour, who can lay 65 square metres of tiles in a day, single handed! He really makes me feel inadequate as we were only laying 24 square metres. On day 3 we thought we should be able to finish in another long morning, but there was a lot of cutting to do, not to mention the carefull planning to use as much of every tile as possible; we had no room for error or unnecessary waste. Somehow it was after 6pm by the time we’d packed everything away. It was a nailbiting finish, in tiling terms; the middle section completed, we had two tiles left. Our bedroom doorway needed 4 large halves; if we turned the tiles the other way, two would do, but there’d be a 3cm wide gap behind them, to be filled with cement or grout, not an attractive finish. Nick had just about convinced me that we had no option but to use the indoor tiles, a similar shade, for the doorway, when I spotted the bucket of waste. There were enough left over strips to fill in the gap. Problem solved. The door to the chaufferie had to be done in chaufferie tiles, but that’s not too important. And looking at the bucket of waste pieces, I have to think this must be one of the meanest bits of tiling ever!

The total waste from 24 square metres of tiles.

Now there’s just the long, slow task of the grouting to do, a bit at a time and for this it’s possible to work either sitting or stretched out, but definitely not on our knees. We’ve lived with the concrete terrace for so many years now, that we hardly noticed it any more; it’s a treat every day to look out at the tiles.

We really should have stopped at lunchtime on day 3; I’m sure that one day soon we’ll both stop aching, but at the moment Nick’s back is a bit creaky and my knees object to my going downstairs – a real couple of tamalous!

Happy as a sand boy

At the end of my last blog, I was wishing for rain; the ground was so dry and hard and we were already having to water every day. My wish was granted the following evening, in spectacular style, with a huge thunderstorm and buckets of rain. We sat on the balcony for a couple of hours that evening, watching the near constant lightning and enjoying the sound of the rain, until it started blowing in onto us, when we beat a retreat. The rain continued for four days, a total of 56mm fell, doing the garden so much good and by the end of it, the new grass had sprouted in the garden.

Nick was getting pretty fed up even before the rain arrived; he couldn’t do any more in the bathroom till I’d done the joint filling, only likes doing “big” gardening (ie with the digger) and had finished all the remaining sand and cement. He’d dug out the base for a false well he wants to build, to conceal the water tub that collects treated water from the septic tank, before it’s pumped to the other side of the garden for use watering the veg plot; but until we got sand and cement, he could go no further. At last I managed to get in touch with the man who can deliver building materials and yes, he could do it the following day. 2 cubic metres of sand and 10 bags of cement later and Nick’s a happy bunny again.

A few weeks ago, I painted the drawers Nick had made for my workshop and for years I’ve wanted to make the plain white cupboard doors more interesting; this felt like the right time. We took the doors down and put them on the gite kitchen tables, where I set to work. Many happy hours playing later, we rehung them. It may not be to everybody’s taste, but I’m pleased with the result.

Boring doors
No longer boring

Once that was out of the way, I was able to start filling the plasterboard joints in the new bathroom. This must rate as one of my least favourite jobs; hours and hours of filling, sanding down, refilling, sanding again, again and again and by the end, if you’ve done a decent job, you don’t even see it. It makes my back, arms and shoulders ache, especially the ceiling. It’s not far off finished now though, so Nick will soon be able to lay the floor tiles and apparently some DIY shops have reopened, so we can soon go looking for wall tiles.

The weather’s been lovley again this week, so while I’ve continued the never ending task of weeding, Nick’s been mixing up heaps of cement to lay a screed on the terrace. He hasn’t got enormous stocks of the wood needed to frame it, so is doing one section a day; another 3 days and it should be finished and we can start tiling it, using the tiles we bought about 3 years ago.

In the meantime, the grass is growing and from ground level you can hardly see the join; it’s beginning to look like a proper garden at last.

Two years ago…..
The faux well, work in progress

Day Tripper

Oh, the excitement! I‘ve been out! And not just once, but three times! It feels like a major expedition each time, making sure I have everything I need, mask, gloves and signed, dated attestation. I was amazed at how many people were queueing for the supermarket, when, by ordering on “Drive”, I could simply arrive at my appointed time, have all the shopping packed in the boot for me, and leave. I’ll be doing that again.

During one of our long distance conversations with our neighbour, we learned of a garden nursery not too far away, that’s very much open; unlike in Britain, anything to do with gardening is considered essential to life here. They’re delivering to collection points in various villages or you can pick up from the business. By doing that, I could collect my tomatoe, aubergine, courgette and lettuce plants the same afternoon. I enjoyed the drive along empty roads, put on my mask when I arrived, but it wasn’t necessary; there was a table by the entrance, on which were several boxes of veg plants, labelled with people’s names and how much they owed, next to which was a box to put your money in. Couldn’t be better.

This morning was market day and I needed veg, so got up early to beat the queues. Or so I thought. The market stalls are now barriered off, so the traders have to serve you, which is, of course, slower than the normal, self service system. The queue for the veg stall I use stretched all the way to the next road, one person every 2 metres; the man has taken on extra staff, but it still meant a wait of 40 minutes to arrive at the stall and by the time I got there, the queue was even longer. Veg bought, I joined the queue for the cheese stall. Fortunately, it’s all very good humoured and I saw a few friends as I waited my turn.

Apart from that, we’ve done more gardening, spending hours weeding the veg plot, which was totally overgrown after winter; some bits look quite good now and we’ve planted lettuce, beans and onions, as well as an experiment on Nick’s part. I bought some sprouting seeds before this all started, which are great, as beansprouts, in salads and stir fries. Nick decided it would be a good idea to become self sufficient in these so soaked and planted chick peas, mung beans, aduki beans and two types of lentil. I’m growing the sunflowers separately, as flowers. We’ll see how they do, but the garden is starting to look good.

We’ve cleared weeds from under trees and shrubs and Nick’s used the last of the cement to start building the “ruined wall” in the back garden; we thought we’d found someone to deliver us more sand and cement, but he hasn’t called back, so we’ll have to wait for that. Some of the new grass under the tilleul is growing and I keep watering the most recently seeded bit every day; there’s a mole living under there, which is causing us a lot of frustration as it keeps throwing up new molehills; Nick digs up its holes and stands over them till they move again, then smashes the growing hill with a sledgehammer. So far, he’s had no luck, the mole seems totally undeterred, but at least it keeps Nick occupied for a while. He’s also built a little roof for the well in the garden; when first we moved in here there was so much greenery in this part of the garden that it was months before we even knew we had a well, but now we use it to supplement our water supply to water the garden when things get dry in the summer. Up to now we’ve had to lower the pump in in spring and haul it out in winter by hand, the well’s 17 metres deep, so it’s a strenuous job, but part of the roof is a housing for an electric winch system, which will make things easier.

Nick has finished the table he’s been making for the sculpture we bought a couple of years ago. We were very used to the prototype, but the finished product is beautiful, with a quite rough hewn top and a very original design for the legs. The finish on it is fantastic, the legs feel like silk; well worth the wait.

I’ve finished decorating the entrance hall now and just need to put up some pictures; if the rain they keep forecasting ever materialises I’ll start filling joints in the new bathroom, but so far the weather’s just lovely. I shouldn’t complain, but the grass is already yellowing and we could really do with a bit of rain, just overnight, ideally!

Lockdown week 4

As the days and the weeks pass, it seems difficult to remember what day it is; one just blends into the next, with no Saturday trips to the market, Tuesday English classes, Wednesday or Sunday bike rides, or anything else to differentiate one day from the next. I’m not complaining though; there are plenty of worse places to spend our time of confinement and we have more than enough to do to fill our days.

Nick was looking for something in the garage yesterday, when he came across two bags of the tile adhesive he needs for the new bathroom floor, so hopefully he’ll get on with that soon. A very pleasant surprise.

I’m still finishing the varnishing of the doors in our entrance hall; it’s been a very long job, but is nearly done, just leaving a couple of coats of emulsion to put on the walls and it’ll be finished.

We’ve flattened the soil under the tilleul tree and scattered what grass seed we had over part of it; the first blades of grass appeared today, so it’ll soon look good. Sadly, we only had enough seed to do about a quarter of the area, but a friend has just told me that there are no official cases of coronavirus in Nogaro, so, as the garden shop is said to be open, I might go and get some more seed there. Maybe some lettuce seed too, as none of last year’s packet of lettuce seeds has germinated so far.

The rest of the garden is starting to come to life now, in the warm sunshine we’ve had this week; the wisteria on the gite looks and smells glorious, bulbs are coming up all over the place, the fruit trees are covered in blossom and the banksia rose is just beautiful. In our winter greenhouse, on the terrace, just outside the bathroom window, the citrus trees are covered in blossom; it could be a very good year for lemon marmalade and lime pickle, but for the time being, I’m just delighted to be able to open the bathroom window in the morning and soak up the wonderful perfume that fills the room.

I’m still enjoying my daily walks, though I’m beginning to wonder if taking up running at my age is a good idea, I seem to have aches here and there, so a few days off and I’ll see how it is. Nick has decided not to leave our property at all throughout lockdown; he’s working hard in the garden and doesn’t seem to feel the need to get out. Surprising, but that’s his decision.

Lockdown week 3

We’reinto our third week of lockdown; it’s amazing how quickly new situations become the norm, as anyone in Britain, reading this, will be well aware.

When it started, I searched the internet for guidance on what we could and could not do, but was unable to find anything. So I rang the maire of our village; no, he said, we couldn’t cycle; but if Nick wanted to take his mountain bike into the forest, that would be OK; and we could go for walks around the lake. So we went for walks around the lake, but Nick didn’t go mountain biking. Then we had an email from someone in one of the cycle clubs we’re part of, an email sent out to all members, complaining that he’d seen on Strava that some people had been out cycling and others walking 10km and more! This was strictly forbidden (even though we’d seen not a soul on our walks) and must stop immediately.

Eventually, thanks to a friend’s help, we found the information we needed online, including a form to print out, fill in, sign and date, specifying your reason for being out. The guidelines and form have changed twice, but it seems to have settled now; we can go out for one hour a day for exercise, as long as we stray no more than 1km from home; the newest form even requires you to fill in the time you left home. I haven’t been asked to produce it yet; I don’t suppose I will be, we don’t often see gendarmes around here, but I’ll take it with me. I don’t want a 135 euro fine.

An hour doesn’t seem much; time for a 6km walk, but that’s all, so I’ve started jogging. Only very slowly and not very far, but I’ve worked very hard over the last 3 years to regain some of the fitness I lost in the 10 years I couldn’t cycle and I’ll be very upset if I have to start from scratch again when all this is over.

Apart from trying to keep some fitness, we’re making the best of the confinement to get on with the house and garden. I finished the sitting room in the gite and attached false panelling to all the downstairs doors, but couldn’t get on with either the hall or the kitchen for all the tools etc. that Nick was using for the new bathroom. So I decided to tackle the entrance hall in our house instead, thinking it wouldn’t take long. How wrong I was; one single door and three sets of double doors lead off the small space and all the double doors were bought second hand, so need a lot of work, especially the pair with 21 small panes of glass in each door, which felt as though the last person to varnish them finished off by sprinkling them liberally with sand. I spent every morning last week sanding, this week I’m varnishing.

Nick’s spent his mornings getting on as far as he can with the bathroom, but has now ground to a halt; we successfully stocked up on food, but didn’t think about supplies for DIY projects. We’re kicking ourselves as we now find ourselves short of tile adhesive, crepi and cement, so there’s not an awful lot more he can do in the bathroom. Instead, he’s built a roof for the well in the front garden, is making noises about mending the mower that’s not worked for the last year and is driving me mad with suggestions of tasks I can do.

In the afternoons, when it’s dry, we’re busy gardening. We’ve sown plenty of seeds, but as they’re all last year’s packets, I don’t know how successful they’ll be; we’ve mown and strimmed the grass and dug up hundreds of molehills, and we’ve started levelling the ground under the big tilleul tree, ready for grassing. At last the grass is growing in the little triangle that we worked on last autumn, so things should begin to look good soon.

In the evenings I’ve painted the drawers Nick built for my workshop and soon want to do something along the same lines on the wall cupboard doors; Nick’s been clearing up some of the mess in the gite kitchen so that I can work in there.

The sun is shining, the birds are singing and the wisteria is coming into flower on the front of the gite. It’s hard to believe, at the moment, that there’s a global catastrophe unfolding around us; I think that, until something happens to touch us personally, it will continue to seem a little unreal.

Bored? Us? Not a chance!

Reflections from lockdown

Last Tuesday France joined Italy and Spain and went into lockdown due to coronavirus; we can only go out for medical reasons, essential shopping, to help family and friends in need and for exercise. Cycling is forbidden, on the grounds that, if you have an accident, you’ll take up the bed someone with covid-19 could use. So we walk.

To be honest, I can’t think of many places I’d rather be holed up at this time; we’re reasonably isolated, have a large garden and our bookshelves and freezers are full. Until our stocks of paint, filler and other DIY supplies run out, we can use the time to do work on the house and there’s more than enough gardening to do to keep us occupied for months. The only problem is stopping at a reasonable hour!

However, reading and listening to the news is so depressing; it’s easy to get maudlin about things and in darker moments I’ve found myself wondering how long it will be before the whole family is together again, if indeed we ever will be. We were all together at Christmas; Gemma spent a week at Alex’s, to get her fix of British pre-Christmas hype, before they all flew over together. It was the first time several of them had met Emily, Kieran’s daughter, now 11 months old and Artie and Immy enjoyed meeting face to face instead of online, a rare treat.

Nick and I had worked flat out to get the house ready for so many guests; the third bedroom in the gite was, if not completely finished, very useable and I even tidied and cleaned my workshop to allow us to put a bed in there for Izzy.

Unbeknown to us, Gemma and Alex arrived with a whole case full of Christmas decorations; they waited till I was out of the way, then set about decorating the house. There were snowmen hanging from light shades, Santas stuck to windows, twinkling fairy lights wound around bannisters and “Merry Christmas” banners proclaiming their message from the top of the stairs. Even the bathroom didn’t escape the seasonal treatment!

We had a few trips out, one to the Christmas market at Pau on Christmas eve, where we met a gendarme with Christmas tree baubles in his beard, which looked pretty incongruous with his machine gun. We even saw Father Christmas, much to Immy’s delight. At Graham’s suggestion, we rode on the big wheel, with brilliant views of the Pyrenees; but Graham doesn’t do heights and looked pretty sick throughout, much to everyone’s amusement. We went to a favourite restaurant another day and they loved it so much they insisted on going back on New Year’s Day. We spent a day walking in the Pyrenees, there was very little snow, but the weather was lovely and it allowed Izzy and Immy to burn off some energy. But mostly we just stayed home, eating (everybody mucked in with the cooking), drinking, playing silly games and enjoying being together.

We had no plans for New Year’s Eve, but Alice offered to stay home and babysit so that Kieran could join us; Graham took himself off to bed early as he’d be getting up at the crack of dawn with Immy, which left just the five of us, Nick, myself and our three kids. We had the most wonderful, spontaneous, fun New Year’s Eve I can ever remember, full of silly games, general chat and laughter.

One day, fingers crossed,when this pandemic is over, we’ll all be together again. They all seem so far away at the moment, though they’re being great at keeping in touch on an almost daily basis. All we can do is wait.