Reflections on a busy summer, 2018, part I

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

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

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

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

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

Catch up coming

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

A hard weekend’s cycling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lack of blog

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

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

Missionary soup anyone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cycling with the Agen club

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

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

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

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


When Alex, Graham and the girls stayed with us at Easter, they were lucky; their first week was the first for as long as we could remember that it didn’t rain. We had a lovely day at the seaside with Kieran and Artie, where we played on the beach, drank beer in a few bars and bought Izzy a skateboard; but it was a lot of driving, especially with a 3-year-old and Graham and Alex were tired, so we decided to do very little for the rest of their stay. So the girls did painting and baking, Izzy played on her skateboard and tried her hand at archery and we went for walks. By the time they left, I think they were well rested, having had a good break. Graham took some amazing photos, but they’re a bit big to load up here; I’ll post them next time Kieran’s over to help.

Now it was our turn; we set off for Jaca, in northern Spain for a few days, bikes fixed to the back of the camper.

The lady in the tourist information office didn’t think much of the cycle route Nick had chosen for us; we only went in to ask if there would be somewhere to eat en route, but we came out with a completely different route to try, one which visited some very pretty villages and was somewhat longer than the one Nick had planned. She said it would be 90km, but could be cut short at a couple of points; she didn’t mention the hills!

I have to say it was a spectacular route, climbing and descending through the foothills of the Pyrenees and we found a bar for lunch, where we ordered two platos combinados. We weren’t sure what we’d get, but eggs, croquettes and chips, washed down with beer, went down very well and the owner was very happy to let me practice my Spanish. The village of Hecho was certainly beautiful, with its ancient buildings overlooking the hillside, but we took the shortcut from there instead of continuing to Aiso, doing 96km instead of what would have been around 120km. As it was, we did 1239 metres of climbing, not a lot for Nick, but I had tired legs by the end; on the final climb into Jaca, on the main road, I had an impressive queue of cars behind me, unable to overtake on quite a narrow, but busy road. They must have been cursing me, by now riding at a snail’s pace!

I must confess to having been relieved to wake the next morning to grey skies and rain; a good excuse for a gentle day spent reading, playing guitar and knitting. Nick rode up el Puerto de Oroel, the nearby mountain pass, in the afternoon, but came back rather bedraggled.

We were heading home the following day, but the morning dawned clear and sunny with beautiful blue skies; we’d have a ride in the morning and go home later in the day. This was Nick’s original route, a circuit ending with the Puerto de Oroel. The climbs were steeper than our first ride, making it very hard work (well, for me, anyway) and there was very little by way of civilization, but Nick had spotted a likely looking village on the map where we hoped to eat and refill our water bottles, by now almost empty. We climbed up to the village; no restaurant; no bar, we couldn’t even find the cemetery where there might have been a tap. I knocked on doors, but there was not a soul in the entire place. We ate our emergency rations of peanuts and flapjack and set off again, finally finding a mountain stream halfway up the col. I’d worried about not being able to ride the col at the end of a very hard day, but in fact, it was the easiest gradient we encountered all day, having covered 76km and 1277m of climbing.

Arriving back in Jaca at 3.30, we found a lovely little restaurant for much needed lunch then packed up and headed home.

One bedroom finished

As part of the renovations of the gite, I decided to redecorate one of the bedrooms. Eventually each bedroom will be decorated on the theme of an artist and we’ve chosen Paul Klee for this one. I could have just given it a quick coat of emulsion, as was suggested by several friends, but never one to make life easy for myself, I took a different course.

We found some IKEA furniture in unfinished wood that I could varnish to match the built in wardrobe, bought a tin of yellow emulsion for one wall, Nick made skirting boards to cover the tatty join between walls and floors, repaired the wardrobe and we ordered some Klee prints.

I painted most of the room white, then did the yellow wall. I stood back to admire my work; it was the most vile colour – hi-viz yellow! That wouldn’t work! So I mixed it with a bit of white and a bit of terracotta and finally got the sunflower yellow I wanted.

Matching the varnish on the wardrobe was no easier, requiring another mixture of various pots to get the right colour, but eventually I got there and varnished the IKEA furniture, part of which Nick had by now altered to make a dressing table.

Then came the fun bit; I didn’t want plain white doors and woodwork. I knew how to do a distressed finish, but wanted some crackled paint too; how I love YouTube – you can learn anything, from felting to how to play the guitar accompaniment to a song, to how to do a crackle effect on paintwork.

I set to work. The door had obviously last been painted before the availability of non drip paint and was a real mess. I sanded it, then applied primer and two coats of dark grey emulsion and rubbed the edges and “worn” sections with a candle so the next layers of paint would be easy to remove. I then liberally applied PVA glue to the bits I wanted to crackle, waited till it went tacky and painted the cream emulsion over the top, taking care not to disturb the PVA; next I attacked it with a hot air gun and like magic, cracks began to appear. Three coats of the cream over the rest of the door and it was ready for distressing; I rubbed the cream off the waxed edges and finally gave it a coat of clear varnish. Then I went through the same process for the skirtings; I have to say I’m really please with the results, even if it was a bit time consuming.

I cleaned, woodworm treated and waxed the old wooden floorboards, spray painted the light fitting, we hung the posters and put together one of the twin beds. The second bed, having been posted with the first, courtesy of DPD, still hasn’t arrived and Graham, as the sender, is in dispute with the company. Fortunately he bought insurance, but this doesn’t seem to be a lot of help as it’s now 6 weeks since the first bed arrived and very little progress seems to have been made. Very frustrating!

One day I’ll make quilts for both beds on a Paul Klee theme, but for now what we’ve got will have to suffice.

We’ve spent the last week cleaning (more here about perfect cleaning) and sorting what looked like a bomb site and finally, the gite is beginning to look habitable, just in time for the family’s Easter visit.

An open letter

Dear son in law,

In less than 2 weeks you’ll arrive here to spend the Easter holidays with us. You know how much we look forward to your visit and that we try to make your stay as comfortable as possible, being well aware that, where tidiness is concerned, you and Nick are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Do you remember last year’s visit, when you had a look around and announced that you’d never seen the place so clean? Well, hang on to that memory; there’s no chance of it being reinforced this year!

We’ve been rather over ambitious in what we thought we could achieve over the last few weeks; there’s still a huge hole in the chimney breast in Immy’s room as, in spite of their best efforts, Nick and Kieran have so far been unable to fit two flues in the chimney, meaning that the wood burner in the gite kitchen can’t be used, though I’m still hoping this will be sorted before your arrival as the weather’s unseasonably cool at the moment.

Being bored with twiddling my thumbs (as if!!!), I decided to redecorate Izzy’s bedroom. Yes, I suppose a quick coat of emulsion would have tidied it up, but you know me – if there’s a more complicated way of doing something, that’s the route I’ll take. Having worked on it for the last two weeks, I’m nearly done, so one room should look good.

Then, rather than just renovate the downstairs bathroom, we thought it better to knock down the wall between it and the débarras to enlarge the bathroom. It seemed like a good idea at the time and on paper, finishing it looked possible, but it’s still an empty shell. Don’t worry though; the other bathroom just needs a good clean and Nick’s still hoping to reinstall the washing machine in the débarras.

Speaking of cleaning; having emptied four rooms into the rest of the house, there’s stuff everywhere. Your bedroom is full of spare beds and mattresses and the bed is covered in paintings; the landing is only passable with great care, as it now houses furniture from the other bedrooms, dust sheets, pots of paint and varnish as well as numerous tools, power and otherwise. The sitting room is currently home to all the towels, sheets, etc. from the cupboard in the débarras, along with almost everything we’ve bought for the new bathroom; shower, basin, toilet, cupboard, tiles…. You can get in there to open the shutters, but only just! And as for the kitchen – well there’s a bit of everything in there, including the shower screen.

Between demolition and sanding, you’ll understand that we’ve produced not a small quantity of dust, which is piling up nicely on every surface.

So please be warned; it will be as clean and tidy as I can make it, but I’ve never been known as much of a domestic goddess!

Love from your rather harassed, slightly panicking mother in law.