Friday, 24 February 2012

A Small Miracle

Taking over other people's garden is always an interesting experience, not least because they may not have the same taste in plants.  I remember when we first moved to our house in Sussex, the following spring was a huge shock as the garden burst into a riot of clashing rhododendron and azalea colours - bright pinks shouting alongside strident yellows.  Coming from the cool, pale, everything must blend, school of gardening the effect made my eyes ache.  When we left seven years later, the spring display was one of my favourite bits of the garden.

Our first summer here, I grumped somewhat at the sight of the pale lipstick pink rose hedge that runs the length of the swimming pool. Such a girly colour. I much prefer roses in deep reds and dark purples.  But now, five winters on, I have just been pruning them and my heart lifts at the thought of their bursting into colour in May and blooming right through til the first frosts.

I love pruning.  I follow my father's practice of pruning to within an inch of their lives.  My mother was always terrified when my father set out into the garden with a set of secateurs in his hand.  But I know that heady feeling. Suddenly everywhere I look there are twigs and branches just crying out to be brought under control.

The lipstick pink rose bushes were planted by someone before the previous owners. So that makes at least twenty winters someone has marched into the garden and attacked those bushes with a set of secateurs.  And every year they come back and send up long green wands of new growth smothered in blossom.  We take it for granted that pruning works, but it is one of nature's small miracles.

And I now have a great pile of cuttings that I can pop into pots that in time will give me new (free) roses for this large, unruly garden.

Must go now, got the wisteria to prune!

Monday, 20 February 2012

A Hard, Bitter Lesson

In the middle of the cold snap we were contacted by the mayor of our local commune. As a result of his call, I walked across the snowy fields to meet our neighbour; to be told our dogs had killed their baby goat.

No, they did not see it happen. But they had previously seen the dogs, Bertie especially, roaming their fields and teasing their livestock.  My heart bleeds  for the family and for our dogs.  Kind friends give us the benefit of the doubt and Tod does not want to believe it. Maybe it was a fox during the depth of the cold.  I fear though that it is all too possible. Anyway it is my complacency and naivety - letting Bertie wander and thinking it was okay because he eventually came home - which has placed us all in this dreadful position. We cannot prove otherwise. We have to take responsibility for it.

We've paid for the goat, of course, but that is only part of it and barely touches their anger and distress.  We are fortunate our neighbours went to the mayor.  The husband belongs to the hunt and it would have been quite possible for him to have shot the dogs the next time he saw them.  We promised that from now onwards the dogs would always be on the lead when we walked them and we would find a way to fence them in.

It has been a harsh new world for Bertie who walks four miles to our one, nose to the ground, tail wagging frantically, zig-zagging backwards and forwards chasing enticing smells or racing after blackbirds in the hedges.  Now he is forced to walk alongside us. Every few minutes he runs the length of the lead to be brought up short and held back to our slow speed.

Our land covers two hectares (that's about five acres) and includes garden, field, bushes, trees, hedges, banks and old buildings to explore.  Somehow we need to give him / them (though Vita's less fussed) freedom to race and chase through this terrain but keep them constrained and our neighbours' livestock safe.

We cannot afford to fence the entire boundary and the nature of the land, with its access points for tractors to cross the fields, plus its steep banks and gulleys, would make fencing a challenge.  So we're opting for "electronic fencing" where we will have a wire on the ground and the dogs will wear a collar that gives them an initial warning buzz and then a mild shock if they go too close to the perimeter. Hopefully that way they will gain a controlled freedom.

In the meantime, we do have the garden up at the house fenced and as it's a warm sunny day, I went round checking that the fence was secure and took both of them up on the lead.  They could play around safely while I pruned some roses.  It took Bertie thirty seconds to disappear behind the wood store, jump over the gap I thought I'd plugged and reappear the other side of the fence heading for the bank and Monsieur F's field beyond.  Fortunately, if called early enough and with sufficient enthusiasm before he gets "in the zone" of the hunt he can be persuaded back.

I went round the other side of the wood store and realising where he was getting out, I fixed some chicken wire across the gap.  He watched me do it from the safe side of the garden.  As I finished, I turned round to find Vita standing grinning behind me!  She'd found a way out of the garden (heaven knows where) and was checking on my handiwork. So I hauled her back inside, restored calm and started pruning.

Ten minutes later a small truck climbed towards the brow of the hill between Monsieur F's fields and the two of them raced the length of the garden fence.  But Bertie didn't stop.  He dived across the garden and disappeared under the honeysuckle covering the well to re-emerge the other side of the fence heading up our chemin rural.  In the  four and a half years of being here (with dogs) he is the first to have discovered that the fence stops short of the well and there is a gap under the honeysuckle.  And what's more, he's taught it to Vita. So that's how she got out.

After more excited calling from me he came back.  I decided this was all too much for my already jangly nerves. We've come back down to the cottage (on the lead) for a cup of tea.  I do so hope that the electronic fence works!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

It's Nearly Over

The snow is now reduced to long grubby streaks in the furrows of the fields and a few crunchy remnants between tussocks of wet, straggly grass where we've been walking the dogs. Seems that we're due for a heady plus nine degrees this afternoon.  Almost gardening weather.

Tod is setting off for a French lesson.  The Batmobile is on its way up our slushy, still slippery drive.  Hope he makes it to the top and freedom.

Friday, 10 February 2012

The cottage is struggling ...

... to keep us warm.

The temperature is minus eleven when Tod goes out with the dogs and was minus thirteen during the night - the coldest yet..  I light the gas bottle fires that we have going now on the landing and in the hall and only open the shutters facing south as the sun comes up.  Although the underfloor heating is on full blast we're wearing thermals and several layers on top to keep warm.

We learn that France is having to import German electricity because the French have so many electric fires.  Yesterday the washing machine ground to a halt at the rinse cycle, dismally flashing its warning lights. The pump was struggling to work with the waning voltage.  We've been here before.  I go round turning off the underfloor heating in every room and the extra radiator next to my desk.  The washing machine chugs back into life.  We're not getting our share of the German stuff!

At the moment our electricity meanders across the fields on wires from a neighbouring farm. EDF has promised us our own new mini electricity sub-station - just for us - and a new set of wires down our chemin along the edge of Monsieur F's field.  The work was due to start in November, but no sign of them yet.  One wonders how upgrading the grid to give customers a better service squares with having to import power from an "almost at maximum capacity" Germany when France has a cold winter. We may need to buy a few more gas fires.

How our electricity arrives

Tuesday, 7 February 2012


The chemin rural that runs from our house up to the road along the ridge has a thick layer of pristine snow - except where Bertie and Vita have been playing tag.  We've been eyeing it anxiously and we'd decided we were going nowhere this week: no French lessons, no bridge classes, no photo club and (importantly) no food shopping. And no one getting down to us either. So no post and no delivery of internet-bought dog food.

Then George phoned and said they were going into town and could drive past along the ridge, picking us up on the way.  Carrier bags in hand, wrapped in five layers of clothing, I stomp in my wellington boots up to the barn at the top.  We inch cautiously into town on a mixture of packed down snow and slush.  George had tried to fit snow chains but the "three minutes to fit" marketing claim proved to be a little optimistic and after half an hour of trying he decided to go for the tried and tested "thick piece of rope tied round one wheel" solution.

Looking at the météo and seeing another week of this, I decide not to stint on the stocking up and include with the usual comestibles a big sack of salt, replacement dog food for the non-delivered bag, a set of snow chains spotted in Leclercs, flour for Tod's home-made bread and a fat cabbage and large butternut squash.  It didn't seem much when I was buying it, but I finish up with half a dozen heavy packages. George gallantly insists he's not leaving me at the top of the chemin.  The piece of rope round the wheel had coped with the worst that the route into town could throw at us. He would get his car down the slope, at least to the front of the house.

He then improvises a sled from a pallet he spots in our garden and rope round his waist like a Sherpa slides all the shopping down the last steep bit to the cottage.

By the time everything's indoors, he's gone and I hurry back up to the chemin, to watch his small green car in the distance like a beetle on a white tiled surface, hanging almost motionless, inching its way slowly and painfully up the final incline onto the road.  He tells us on the phone later that this was the moment the redoubtable piece of rope gave up the ghost, as the car slewed dangerously sideways towards the ditch, before heaving up onto the ridge and disappearing with a cheerful toot.

I don't think anyone else will be driving our chemin any time soon.

Monday, 6 February 2012

The Right Kind of Snow


... and crisp

... and even: like walking across a newly iced Christmas cake

... and dry: so dry that when bits get trapped inside my new too-short calf length boots, with special fancy toggles at the back for pulling them on, the snow stays snug and doesn't melt

... and fluffy: just right for burying noses into and pushing along like a miniature snow plough

...and crunchy: so every step is a delight

Wednesday, 1 February 2012


Vita, Bertie and I crunch our way through the thick tussocks of frosted grass that border the field down to the stream. The frozen water droplets trapped in the whirls of the young thistles gleam in the torchlight.

The internet is full of photos of snow elsewhere in France and Europe and there are dire warnings of the bitter winter weather driving down from Siberia over the next few days.

And yet in the dark, we hear the promise of the tipping of the seasons - high above us, the cries of cranes heading east and north.

According to the pagan calendar the first of February is Imbolc.  The first day of spring.