It had stopped raining yesterday evening, when I set off for a stroll on the lane to Noiron; but not for long. The grey got greyer; the damp in the air got damper; and then rain fell again. The wild flowers smiled a little; but many were bedraggled by the rain: poppies were flat on themselves, daisies closed, buttercups weighed down in the field.
Many farmers were out making hay a week ago, while the sun shone. Our neighbouring farmer who takes the hay from our field is waiting still. I hope the now damp grass dries out for him.
This evening it’s been time to pick cherries; and still we’re in May, which worries me a little. A wild cherry tree grows by the path alongside our back field. At least I think it’s wild: certainly it belongs to no-one standing as t does on the bank to the track. And now its branches are rich with bright red cherries. Just one branch yields a comfortable crop for two or more (those that aren’t eaten as they’re picked). I’ve not ever picked cherries like that as they hang ripe from the branches
Our own tree in the garden – planted fifteen years ago – is full of fruit. I am sure there is a branch which overhangs a little. Now brushes my head as I pass. Can cherries, as they ripen, weigh down enough a branch for it to droop? Or am I imaging it? Can that only happen with heavier fruit such as apples and pears and quinces?
Now – later – as the light dies and a near half-moon hangs in the sky, I can see the remains of the day burning across the valley from the barn. Oranges and reds smoulder in the late evening sky. The nearby hills are black, in contrast to the remains of colour in the night sky. Further away that black fades into a soft, almost sultry, dark, dark grey in the Morvan distance. The fresh wind of the day has dropped, so that now the night is still; the dark and glow of the evening are still; and only crickets disturb the deep dusk night. The orange fades. The light softens to a soft ochre glow. The light will stay in the sky for sometime yet as mid-summer waits not long away.
This must be the finest time of year to see nature. An open blue sky, trees a deepening green, the fields a rich verdant beneath the clear wind-brushed skies. Wild flowers are everywhere. Today elder flower (sureau) can be added to the list of trees in bloom which are emerging towards summer.
There are more cars on the road again as the lockdown lifts; and this evening I saw what may be my first sight of a vapour trail for a long time, like a rent in the evening sky. It will be sad if we go immediately back to the rich person’s access to easy air travel. Yet after covid19 it may never be quite the same again. Flygskam – ‘shame of flying’ in Swedish – may yet take a greater hold, as it was beginning to do last year. Perhaps only the most essential flights will be taken in the future. Our lives need not be poorer for much less air travel. Plenty of journeys – most distant holidays and other inessential luxuries – need not be taken at all. Many quite distant journeys can be taken by train. The train journey can be part of a holiday and much more relaxing than interminable air terminals and cramped flight conditions….
Covid19 may yet change work travel – with a little imagination – for many of us. It may encourage more people to find they can live outside cities and communicate from their homes. And finally, could it yet encourage us that distant travel can be more modest?
And back to local earth: a cycle ride, again, along the local one-time railway line from here to Épinac market. Here – taking vestiges of transport back over 180 years – is a modest snap (fuzzy quality) of a level-crossing keeper’s house. It only occurred to me then that the order of transport development would have been, first, a modest local track (not much more than a farm track, probably from medieval times and before), crossed then by the steam railway (around 1840). Most of another 70 to 80 years would have elapsed before there would have been any need for tarmacadam and a level-crossing, and therefore for a crossing keeper. Who can remember the level-crossings with a keeper who emerged periodically – half-hourly, more or less – to open and close the gates to stop cars getting in the way of the trains?
Verges of the lanes are rich with wild flowers and vigorous green grass in the glowing evening sun: forget-me-not, corn-flower, red campion and scabious and many more. Horses in the fields stand in an undulation of rich green and sun-drenched buttercups. Ox-eye daisies wash and sway in the grass. Hedges are dotted with honey suckle and dog rose: in French, chevre fieulle and eglantine (a word which is also eglantine in English, and rosiers des chiens in French, I think). I’ve tended to prefer the expression chevre fieulle to honey suckle (though it’s a close thing); and eglantine has a touch of gentleness over dog rose. (On a quite separate point, I definitely think the English mistletoe scores over the French gui – which is everywhere here, clinging insidiously to trees.)
I used to go to a ferme auberge near here. It was on the limestone cliffs which circle above Nolay (on the edge of the Cote d’Or). They had a kir with a licquer of grate-cul (as of crème de cassis for a genuine kir). I had no idea what gratte-cul was at the time, but I used to drink the kir. It was a pale orange pink colour, with a taste which told me nothing. It was only some years later that I found out that what I was drinking came from rose hip (the fruit of a rose). Mostly it applies to the fruit of the wild rose (eglantine or dog rose). I shall try to buy some of the liqueur, and of the other things made from rose hips; and collect the hips from the hedges as they ripen and find out what I can make for myself…
The sun rises behind trees opposite the front of the house, and sets on the horizon provided by the hills above Vergoncey at the back. When the moon is full it rises as the sun sets and follows the same trajectory over the house.
When you can see the sun set – as is mostly the case now – it moves slowly along the sky-line each day. It will slow now and stop on 21 June, before moving slowly back to the south. My question to myself is where will be its summer solstice point on the hills to the west of us?
What I also realise now is how the light of the sun continues to move, as it glows and its red deepens and darkens. It continues to move north along the sky-line in the hour or two after it sets. If I think about it, it is obvious that it would move like that. It dips deeper below the horizon and then rises towards tomorrow; but it’s only been as I’ve watched that light move toward the Morvan hills in the view beyond us that I’ve fully appreciated the fact.
Looking from the barn the field below us is a sea of deepening meadow grass, ready for cutting in a month or so. Go down the field and look back and the field is rich with ox-eye daisies, marguerites. It is like one of those Turkish rugs whose colour changes according to the direction from which you look at them. Here and everywhere fields are studded by these elegant, gentle flowers, a statement of summer to come.
Hawthorne has shed its blossom, but now – higher in the trees – acacias are shrouded in flowers. Each have the faint sound of bees in them collecting for the hives which dot the area. Up the road, tucked away against a low wall by the small chateau, there is a line of fifteen hives or more.
And, as ever, the road sides are rich with wild flowers: all colours and types of flower, changing slowly as the season changes. My favourite for this time of year remains scabious. We have a few in the roadside outside.
Across the road in front of the barn here is a lane that runs to the main road (Autun-Beaune), and across that to a small forest road. The road – not much more than a track, and only rarely used by cars – climbs and winds up through the woods. Eventually – three or four miles (6 kms) later – it comes out again on the main road (having passed a mysterious small Carthusian nunnery – le Prieuré du Val Saint-Benoît – tucked away in the woods).
On top of the first climb of the forest road, almost hidden in the trees, is a substantial medieval stone tower. One wall, perhaps a little more, is all that is evident at first. It is easy to miss it. It is hidden by trees. On the map it is described coyly as Tour de Grosme. My local historian source M Roland Niaux describes it being the share of Sully lands (where a substantial chateau still stands) which in the late thirteenth century came to Girard de Chatillon.
As a castle Grosme must always have been modest; but there is much more there in the undergrowth, I suspect, than the tower. When I last explored the site the ground was shrouded with periwinkle (pervenche), which cloaked mounds and old workings and the evidence of a short outer wall. A smaller tower and outbuildings are there. You could see then, before the trees were in leaf, why the position for the castle had been chosen. It looks across the opening valley of the Drée river towards the castles at Sully and Épinac, though with a deeply forested – perhaps impenetrable – hillside behind. No one now seems to care much for it – poor sad secret place as it slowly crumbles back into its periwinkle carpet.
In his paper on Rule of law Lord Bingham defined what for him were the eight bases of the ‘rule of law’. (Under the name Tom Bingham he later wrote an excellent short paperback with the same title expanding on his paper, and for the lay reader.)
Bingham’s first rule was that ‘the law must be accessible and so far as possible intelligible, clear and predictable’. He went on to refer to a 1979 European Court of Human Rights case which had said that a law must be ‘formulated with sufficient precision to enable the citizen to regulate his conduct: he must be able… to foresee, to a degree that is reasonable in the circumstances, the consequences’ of what a person is doing.
If you think about it there is nothing surprising in any of this. If I am to be prosecuted I must know what law it is said I have breached and what I am said to have done wrong. I must be able, as far as possible, to understand the law on which I am to be charged.
Looked at from the other end of the telescope for the police officer who may think she or he should arrest me, that police officer must know what is the law on which I may be charged. Otherwise the police may be wasting their time; and may be infringing such rights as I may have not to be arrested.
As things now stand with corvid-19 this is a serious point. If the Government want to control spread of this virus they must be clear on what terms, otherwise many people will take no notice; or others will be wrongly prosecuted. At present we have a prime minister – who relationship with precision is imprecise (ie he can’t cope in any real way with detail) – who stands behind a lectern which says ‘stay alert’, ‘control the virus’, ‘save lives’. How vague is all that? It says almost nothing. The first and third of the slogans are what most of us do every day of our lives; and the second we have limited control over, save to wash our hands etc. It tells police officers nothing.
‘Stay at home’ was clear. We knew what the exceptions were. Mostly the police knew those exceptions and what were their powers of enforcement (where needed). Bingham’s first rule of law, given the time to frame the 2020 legislation, was broadly complied with. Now we have drift; and the bitter irony is that the man who understands what is needed – who once headed the Crown Prosecution Service – leads the opposition (Kier Starmer), and is not really listened to; whilst the man who waffles imprecisely over it all leads the government (Mr Johnson).
Till this year I had not heard of Les Saints de Glace (‘Ice Saints’). Each of my neighbours here have mentioned them as if it is a given: that on 11, 13 and 14 May as a matter, almost of inevitability, that the temperature drops and that the nights of those days may still produce frost. Sure enough, the rain – still much needed – came yesterday. Colder weather is promised for the next two or three days, though not frost. Already the temperature has dropped more than ten degrees overnight since yesterday, and it is still dropping now, even during the day-time (from 15˚ to 5˚ projected by midnight tonight: more wood for a fire I think, is called for…).
Les Saints des Glace, on whose feast days these cold days fall, are St. Mamertus, St. Pancras, and St. Servatius. Except for the famous eponymous station – now grandly St Pancras International for incoming Eurostar trains – I have not before heard of two of the ice saints….
I shan’t be observing a holiday today (although I live in France where they have one anyway; but where a victory in Europe day was all that directly concerned them). ‘Victory in Europe’ for the British, as a public holiday? It is a politician’s con. The Tories want us out of Europe; but at the first opportunity they chose an extra day off when Europe does. And why, if you are British, do you celebrate only the end of the war in Europe?
The French have had VE day as a day off for many years. Normally the British do not; for victory was not complete for us in May 1945. If you’d asked me a couple of years ago, I’d not have known the exact date of the end of the war in Europe. Why should we have it now?
For Britain victory in Europe (VE) was only the beginning of the end of the Second World War. There was still a nasty war in the Far East to be dealt with. My father with many others was amongst those who were embroiled in a vicious fight with the Japanese. Many on both sides were being killed and maimed. Till that was resolved there was no real end to the Second World War; and to forget that is truly an insult to those who had to fight on, mostly US people, but many British, Asians and Australasians as well. (Whether or not the US should have dropped the atom bombs is a quite separate issue? Churchill alone, without the assent of his cabinet, formally consented on 2 July 1945 to the later US action.)
My father survived the war, but died young (at 55), probably as a result of some of the illnesses he contracted in Myanmar (then Burma). He was so ill at one point that he was invalided out of the fighting and told by medics that that was the end of the war for him. He was given an easy job in India, but – on the way to take up his post – chose not to take it and to go back to fight with Gurkha’s in the jungle.
I have no idea what he would have thought about our politicians ignoring – as they appear to be – the continued, and very real, war being fought by people like him. He was later passionate about Europe; but just to recognise VE day and to overlook the true end of the fighting? I think he’d have been disappointed. If the end of war must be celebrated at all – why must it? – the time for a holiday is in August.