19 September 2018

IT’S STILL SUMMER HERE

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August disappeared in a blur.  We returned to the UK in order to get our back garden “fixed”.  It was a mess of worn out patio tiles, hugely overgrown shrubs, little paths, low crumbling walls and a leaking pond.  We came to the conclusion that it would take us months of work if we tried to sort it out ourselves and in fact hardly any of it was worth saving.  What we needed was help to turn it into a very low maintenance garden so that we could spend our summers in France not worrying about it.  We hired a firm of landscape gardeners and after two weeks of intense building work followed by two weeks of watering, planting and tidying, it is now the garden that we wanted. At last the place feels like home.  All the major work both outside and inside is done and what’s left is down to us – some decorating and a bit of DIY.

On 2nd September we returned to France, our August mission successfully completed.

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We have had a lot of visitors this year.  Our last visitor was our niece Joanna, who usually comes with her dad (my brother) but was by herself this time.  She travelled to France with us – quite a car full with Joanna, the dog and cat - and the trailer full of all our luggage.

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We had a great time showing her round some of our favourite places – above at the château at Rivau.

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We also took her to the châteaux at Islette, Bouges and Loches, and to many other places.  She was very lucky with the weather which was fantastic for her whole stay, which always makes anybody’s holiday so much more enjoyable.

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Now our last visitor, like the swallows, has flown.  We did a little calculation and worked out that if you add one day to both sides of the stay of each set of visitors for the getting ready and clearing up afterwards, it comes to seventy days this year.  If you add to that the time that both of us have spent in the UK by ourselves that comes to ninety days.  Which means that since we arrived here at the end of March we have had very little time here together, just the two of us.

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Luckily, it is still summer here. We still have warm, sunny days but with cooler evenings and nights, the perfect combination and the reason that September is probably my favourite month of the year.  It rarely disappoints it’s lovely to have some time and the house to ourselves.

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The garden suffered badly in spite of occasional watering during August but a couple of weeks of TLC have brought it back to life and restored a bit of colour.  The grass is still brown, the only green patches being weeds or where Hugo has “watered” it.

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We have eaten outdoors as often as we could, making good use of our picnic shelter which always provides shade at any time of day.  There’s nothing quite like a long, lazy lunch in the sunshine to make you feel completely relaxed.

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Lazing around is something we have had little time for so far this year so now we’re making the most of it, using all the sitting areas that we have placed around the house.  We can sit in the shade somewhere at all times of day.

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Daisy settled in straight away after her month back in the UK, jumping out of the car as soon as we opened the door and making a quick check of the premises and the wildlife.  Hugo loves it here, having so much more space to run around in and play.

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And this week we took the motorcycles out for a lovely long run in the sunshine, stopping for lunch at the little restaurant in St. Flovier, something we have not been able to do for a long while.  We have been too busy to ride them and the restaurant has been full the last three times even though we arrived there just after 12.00pm, holiday makers filling up the tables not taken by the usual clientele.  This time there were just a dozen or so workers taking their lunch break and us.

Life in France is back to normal !!

8 July 2018

A CHÂTEAU AND A HARVEST

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The Château de L’islette

With what seems like an endless stream of visitors after our brief holiday in the Dordogne and a flying visit back to the UK last month I now find it’s more than a whole month since my last post!

I WILL post more about our holiday at some point but on the whole it was not a huge success.  The gîte was horrible, utterly charmless, uncomfortable and right next to a very noisy road.  The weather was not great and when it’s raining is when you need a nice gîte to relax in – either that or you drive around in the rain.  We didn’t last the whole week and gave up on the Thursday – returning to our own lovely home in France and to better weather too.  Hey ho.

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One of the good things about having visitors is that in order to entertain them we visit places we haven’t been for a long time or ones that are completely new to us.  So it is that we went to the Château de L’Islette.

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It’s not far from Château de Azay-le-Rideau along the road in the direction of Langeais and although we must have driven past it dozens of times it’s only recently that we noticed it was there.

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There is a reason for this – that it has only been opened up to the public in recent years and I think it was probably previously hidden behind tall hedges and trees.  The family that have restored it now live in it for seven months of the year, moving out to the farm on the estate over the summer months so that visitors can see it.

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It is truly delightful, obviously a family home as judged by the furnishings and the kitchen.  It seems both funny and charming to see Ikea furniture and other bits and pieces amongst antique furniture and fittings.  So normal yet truly grand at the same time.

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The bathroom is heavy on wow factor and utterly fabulous.  In fact the whole house (or the bit you are allowed to view) is just gorgeous.  Everything you would like your own château to be if you were lucky enough to own one.

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You can only think that the owners must be very nice people indeed.  Everything for the visitor is provided thoughtfully and carefully, even down to the little pieces of prickly holly placed tactfully on the chairs you should not sit on and very comfy cushions on the ones that you should.  So much nicer than the stern notices in other houses declaring that one should not place one’s bottom here or else!

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As a day out it is very worth the €9 entrance fee AND it offers the free visit as well as the dreaded guided tour. 

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We thoroughly enjoyed our time there and will go back again for a second look before long.  There are always things you don’t take in on the first visit.  We went on a blisteringly hot day and it was lovely to spend time inside where it was cool – next time we might feel more like exploring the outdoors too.

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Back at home we are pleased that the fields that surround our house on three sides (all four sides if you include the fields across the road) have been harvested.  We dread the actual day that it happens as the noise and dust are intense.  We shut all the doors and windows as well as the cat flap and the house vibrates as the machine comes right up to the back wall.  In reality Daisy usually heads for a hiding space under a bed or in the wardrobe as soon as she hears the tractor coming and shows no sign of wanting to venture outside until well after it has gone.

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Our famer – that’s how we think of the farmer who owns the land which surrounds the house – alternates between corn and rape (colza) crops and this year has been rape.  It’s an unattractive plant.  Bright and cheerful briefly when in flower but untidy and smelly afterwards.  It grows to about shoulder height and smells like boiled cabbage when damp – and damp is something we have had a lot of this year. 

It takes the farmer less than a full day to get the whole lot in, finishing off by emptying the black seeds into another tractor which then takes them to the grain store.  He leaves behind a thick layer of dust which lies between the rows of dry stubble but the view and the smell are dramatically improved.  As are the reduction in the number of flies and the increase in Daisy’s supply of mice – they must be easier to catch when she has no thick undergrowth to fight her way through!

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And so life in rural France goes on.  The harvest is in, the grass is growing slowly due to the heat and needs only occasional mowing and the day to day business of shopping, cooking, eating and entertaining visitors continues.  The summer is flying by.

27 May 2018

OF CHALK AND CHEESE AND A WELCOME TO THE KING.

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Roughly this time last year we spent a week in the little town of St Emilion, staying in a lovely little gite in the middle of town.  I wrote about the holiday at length and the gite was beautifully appointed and very stylish.  What it lacked in the practical it made up for in bucketfuls in style and presentation.

We now find ourselves back in the same area, this time just outside Bergerac, for another week and in another gite.

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  Chalk and cheese is the expression that immediately springs to mind!

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When choosing somewhere to stay, we were led by the needs of our puppy Hugo.  Daisy is in the cattery (wearing her best “we are not amused” expression) but we had to bring Hugo with us, so we looked for safe enclosed garden and somewhere nearby to be able to take him for a walk off the lead without having to get into the car and drive a long way.  This gite has a small enclosed garden and a nice walk in woodland and around a small lake close by.

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The style of the gite was described as traditional French so it’s full of big old fashioned furniture.  The kitchenette and bathroom are basic, which is fine, although some of the motley collection of crockery, pots and pans have seen better days.

The disappointing thing is that the gite is right by the road which at times can be very busy, including Sunday morning when presumably people are heading for the nearby boulangerie which opens very early!   

However, Hugo loves it!  The nearby walk around the lake – the reason why we booked the gite in the first place – suits him just fine.  Hey ho.

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Changing the subject completely, we recently managed to solve a longstanding problem with our house in France.

The house is in an area where we have very hard water.  We have had to use filtered water in the kettle and coffee machine to prevent the visible bloom of white limescale that eventually causes them to fur up.  Also water softening tablets in the washing machine and salt in the dishwasher to avoid the unseen build up of limescale that would inevitably cause them to stop working too.

Years ago, when we lived in our old house in the UK, we had a koi pond.  Blanket weed is a problem with koi ponds.  The koi love it but what any koi keeper wants is to be able to see the koi – just knowing that they are there under a thick layer of blanket weed is not enough!  This problem was solved completely when we fitted something called a Water King, a magnetic device that structurally alters the calcium in the pond water so that the weed cannot attach to it and therefore can’t grow.  Now that we have been reminded of it, in the promotional material for the device it was mentioned that it can also be used for removal of calcium in domestic water supplies.  Also that larger scale versions are used in municipal buildings and institutions, such as hospitals, to keep the water pipes free from build up of limescale.

A recent conversation with a friend who told us he has something similar in his water supply jogged our memory and so we looked into it and sure enough – the Water King is still available for use in domestic water systems.  No need for a water softener and constant use of salt or chemicals – you just fit it to an existing piece of inlet pipe and the job’s done.  Not only does it prevent the formation of limescale, over time it will also remove limescale deposits from items already affected.

It has been a huge success.  A month after we fitted it we no longer get build up of limescale in the kettle so we can assume that all our other appliances are free of it too.  Our wine glasses are sparkling and clear instead of bloomed with white spots.  Not least of all, our three toilets, which have taken me years to get clean, scrubbing and treating with anti-limescale products, look positively pristine.

Long live The King!!

30 April 2018

TULIPS, VISITORS AND GETTING BACK INTO THE SWING.

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Having spent the first few weeks chez nous mending things and recovering from an exhausting six months in the UK, and a dreadful journey back to France (with my second cold of the year so far in full flood), we are beginning at last to slip back into our French way of life.

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Our tulips soon came into full bloom and what a joy they were.  They are finished now of course, but every year I marvel at their shapes and sizes, filling the garden with a riot of colour just at the time when we need it the most to cheer us up and reassure us that it is, at last, Spring.

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Nick had planted them during his flying visit back to “close up” the house last November.  The bulbs had been lifted after the flowers had finished last spring and he stuffed them into flower beds and pots.

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Hugo has taken to his new surroundings like a duck to water.  We have resumed the daily walks that we used to do with Lulu and he is loving every minute of it, exploring the sights, sounds and smells including so many things he has not encountered before.  In the picture above he was standing completely motionless (not a common occurrence), fascinated by the frog chorus at the lake at La Celle-Guenand.

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Daisy is delighted to be back in her real home.  She instantly reacquainted herself with her old surroundings and with the rodent population, quickly losing the weight she gained over the winter and becoming her old sylph like self.

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For the first couple of weeks we declined some invitations to events, feeling that we were not great company and needed to catch up on our sleep and reorientate ourselves.  Gradually we began to get back into the swing of things.  One of our first outings was to a concert by local choirs in the church at Preuilly, a spectacular event in fabulous surroundings.

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At the “foire à l’oignons” at St Branchs we enjoyed a slice of delicious onion tart and a glass of rosé as well as buying some lovely early season strawberries for our dessert later.

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We resisted most of the bargains on sale, including a selection of old typewriters and a pile of plates that matched our UK dinner service – the one that was my mum’s Sunday best china back in the 80’s.  I wonder how they got there.

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Since we returned we have got on with all the chores that are inevitable when a house has been empty for a long spell.  As well as repairing things, sorting out the garden and getting it ready for summer use, we had a lot of indoor cleaning and preparation to do for the arrival of our first visitors - my brother, my dad and his lady friend, Sybil.  We had decided to let Dad and Sybil have our bedroom for their stay so that they would be able to use its “ensuite” shower room, much safer than the shower over the bath in the bathroom, not to mention the two steps down to it.  The idea of either of them falling in the middle of the night as they tried to remember the steps on their way to the bathroom was not worth risking.  The only problem was – what to do about the open shower and toilet facilities in the bedroom that pass for the said “ensuite”.

This facility deserves a blog post of its own later but suffice it to say I didn’t think Dad and Sybil would be too comfortable with the view of the loo from the bedroom so as a temporary measure I screened it off using some curtains.  Nick says it looks “very French” but personally I think it looks daft and a bit too shabby chic (or home made) for my liking, but it will do the job for now.

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Our visitors have arrived and we’re enjoying showing them around the sights and the places that we love.  They’re having a great time.

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It is good to be back.  A whole six months away has been way too long but it certainly makes me realise how lucky we are to have a home in this beautiful part of France.   They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder but we were in the UK for so long that I was beginning to forget what it was like here.  Now that I’m back I wonder how I could ever have torn myself away.

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In reality I think I’m going to enjoy living in two countries.  The best of both worlds and how wonderful to be returning to France at such a lovely time of year, when everything is bursting into life and with the prospect of long summer days not far ahead.