Back to rain and grey skies again; though we need the rain…
A fortnight ago I was standing on Etang-sur-Arroux station in the pouring rain, waiting for my TER-Bourgogne-Franch-Compté train for Nevers and Vierzon in mid-France. It was cold. The trees waited to come fully into leaf. A week later the weather was hot, dry; and when I came down here last Monday I arrived with the temperature at 21ᵒ. And it has risen two or three degrees since then.
What all that means is that with plenty of moisture in the ground, followed by unrelenting sun, the wild flowers and grass have burgeoned. I feel there are more wild flowers than last year; and I am certain that in the ten days that I was away the grass grew three times, or more, of its mid-May height.
Meanwhile, my hoopoe is back for his or her June run. He’s been outside three or four times every day this week pecking up what he can from the grass and stones in front of my window. I am just sorry that the quality of the picture is so bad.
Paris is opening up again. This will probably not happen in the same way England with the pusillanimous Johnson and his inefficient dealing with the coronavirus version from India; and despite the high vaccine rate in England. I fear it will be sometime before we can go to England without quarantining there and on our return to France.
From a couple of weeks ago, bars and restaurants were open outside here. From next week they will be open for inside service as well. Suddenly life in France scrambles back to forms of normality. Masks are worn everywhere – or are supposed to be. Distancing is expected in bars and restaurants. The special French feature of the curfew (couvre feu) from 9 pm is still on (limit drinking time the faster people get drunk: a slightly different point, and maybe mostly only applicable in Britain and Australia); though the reasons for it are as opaque as ever.
To my taste Ivry has not got too many congenial bars and only a couple of restaurants. My favourite bar/bistro is optimistically named Le Village (it’s a long way from any village). It is on the Place de l’Insurrection de Août 1944 (the date when the French in Paris liberated their city from the Germans and installed a French government again). There are three bars there. Each have the feeling – for a foreigner like me – of a Paris bistro. Yesterday we drank a glass of kir, and then had cous cous with house red wine. And it felt so good to be able to eat out in Paris (OK, Ivry) again.
To the Brenne region of Berry in central France, this week-end. It is a rolling wooded and hedge-lined area south of the Loire, cut through by streams and dotted by small lakes and ponds. The streams all find their way north to the Loire.
The rock of the cliff behind our friends’ house by the Anglin is a form of limestone, between vey hard carboniferous rock and much softer chalk. It is quite friable. It was material for a now defunct, once substantial, four berth lime kiln. The machinery which once pulled the lime from the kiln to a higher level and the narrow tracks to it now nestle in the woods above our friend’s house. Jean-Paul has had built a set of steps up the cliff.
I was advised to wear a hat in the woods to avoid ticks; though one got inside my shirt and enjoyed burrowing into my skin for three or four hours. Dotted everywhere in the woods were wild asparagus which we collected and ate for Sunday lunch. (Saturday had provided a more conventional, cultivated asparagus.)
The Anglin is dotted every couple of kilometres with one-time mills. To judge by the photo below milling must have had a prosperous side to it; though – a mystery – this miller’s house (the mill was separate) had been extensively restored and then left. It had surely had little attention for two or three years I would guess: moss had recolonised the roof, and pebbles which had been spread in the garden had become over-grown by various forms of vegetation. The path on the left – including some slippery sloping clay – seemed to be the only access to the house.
Towns and villages were all built in variants of gentle stone – not all, though mostly, of limestone. The delightful, if sombre, romanesque church (below) is at Saint-Benoit-du-Sault and I was able to tell my French wife that Sault is old French for jumping: hence sauté potatoes, somersault and resulting trusts. (Yes, really. If Fred and Mary buy property, each put in money, but the property is conveyed to Fred’s sole name, then a trust jumps – or re-saults – onto the property to ensure that each get back a share equal to what they paid).
The local population has declined over the past seventy years, but some shops remain. Will on-line working begin to reverse that receding countryside tide. It will need more investment into the shops in the middle of small towns and villages if the gargantuan supermarkets are to be kept back.
At the road-sides and by the paths forget-me-nots and speedwell mix their blues and delicate blooms. Pink campion and occasional white campion are scattered. Stitchwort nestles beneath the emerging hawthorn buds of May. Marguerite are flowering in this grey, cold May.
Is it my imagination, or are the wild flowers more prolific than in most years in the midst of this strange Spring. April was dry and clear, with sunny days and very cold – even frosty – nights. We sat and ate outside then, even in evenings, and for a couple of days. I worried as another drought threatened. Then came May: sunny and dry at first, then wetter and colder than the previous four weeks. Heavy cold showers and – here – strong south west winds blowing cold and persistent from the Morvan.
Through all this, wild flowers are everywhere truly abundant. In the fields the buttercups spread a glowing yellow everywhere. They sprinkle – drench, almost – the sides of the Épinac voie verte (cycle track). The fields are a gently billowing, golden yellow. Back towards Paris (on the northern boundary of Burgundy), yellow rapeseed (colza) could be seen everywhere from the motorway. But its yellow is flat, dusty, lifeless. I have seen no rapeseed in the fields around here.
Buttercups, in smiling contrast to the rapeseed, shine through the fields, and the road- and track-sides. They are a bright and warm yellow – boutons d’or in French – and reflect the sun when it shines.
They shine in our meadow (below); and I am sure Lucie’s bees – who till today have had a harsh time in the prevailing harsh south west wind – welcome the buttercups.
As the rain fell, intermittently, on Épinac this afternoon I sat under an awning and drank my first beer at Épinac’s – or any – local bar. It was a strange event. Will it be part of the tentative beginning of the old pre-covid19 life, at least here in Burgundy?
Three or four weeks ago I was in Paris. It was not itself at all in times of ‘confinement’ (lockdown). I had to go to an appointment on the edge of the city. I walked along the Boulevards des Marechaus (Marshals). It was a fine spring day. It was the type of day in which Paris sings. Trees were on the point of coming into full-leaf. Wisteria and clematis were in flower. And every five minutes or so a tram glided past.
And yet almost all the cafés – such an essential part of Paris life – were closed, their seats stacked abjectly inside. Meals to take away (emporter) were on sale in some restaurants and bars; but that was it.
Since then, and back here in Burgundy, we bravely face rain and wind, and look steadfastly to the south-west and the prevailing Morvan wind. And Paris’s abundant wisteria – the example here is from Ivry-sur-Seine (94200) alongside Paris – are almost impossible to imagine here. Last year’s flowers, at the beginning of May, are – this year – still small stunted growths, like tiny pine cones still waiting for a chance to flower against the cold west wizening wind.
The tangle of twigs (below) is a young fig plant – and at present the question for me is whether it will survive drought (I have watered it) and a very cold spring. Just visible on my poorly focussed photo is evidence of green; but will this be enough to enable some life to be preserved till the summer.
The cherry blossom provides a contrast. I still hope our cherries will have survived the recent frosts. It looks as though this blossom has set. We wait to see whether fruit will follow if no further frosts bights us.
The fig was layered – a marcotte – from his Brittany tree. It has survived a couple of winters; but this cold dry spring may prove too much for it. We’ll see.
The fig is a fruit which, as a child, I had not heard of. For example, for me, peaches only came in tins as did apricots. Both were in a thick treacly sauce. I didn’t think about what fresh peaches or apricots would look like; or even, when young, of the existence of a fresh fruit.
And figs: as a child I had a bible which had lots of line drawings peppered around the text. To accompany Judges 9, 10 was a picture of a branch of something; and in the text is reference to the fig tree being asked by other trees to reign over them (yes, really). Frankly, knowing what I now know of figs trees – which I did not know aged ten or eleven – I don’t think the drawing of the fig is very realistic. But at least it gave me an idea of what a fig looked like.
Later – in my twenties – I had dried figs. I cannot remember when I first had fresh figs, a fruit I now love. And I do not propose, here, to enter into the DH Laurentian debate – which he puts in the mouth of Rupert Birkin, in Women in Love – as to how a fig should be eaten.
Mont Frivaut is a local iron age fort, lying quietly beside our nearby village of St Leger du Bois (here shown in wintered greys). At least I am sure it must be. It has the flat top of a fort, and is surrounded by ramparts now wooded. There is no clue to its history on the local IGN map; and Denis Grivot’s Autun – a history of Autun since Gallic times – has no reference to Mont Frivaut in its index.
Lucie and I climbed up onto its small plateau area last summer. There was mining of schist there more than a hundred years ago. Now the tracks passed around the hill, but not onto its flattened summit. To get to the top, you must walk through fields and clamber over fences and up a couple of the modest ramparts. The plateau was an other-worldly spot: rock, small pine trees and – at that time – carpeted with wild thyme and low growing thistle. It was grazed by sheep which rare around here.
The shape of the Mont and its ramparts are the give-away, surely? The Eduens, a Gaulish Celtic tribe, controlled this area. It was rich farming country around the valley of the Drée (as now). Their capital was at Bibracte thirty kilometres (twenty miles) from here. (Bibracte later give way to Augustodunum (now Autun)).
The Eduens fought Julius Caesar in his 50BC Gallic wars, but later allied themselves with the Romans. They were a powerful tribe. They controlled, as against other Gauls, the area between the Soane and Loire, to west and east and the Serien and Allier, to north and south. Frivaut would have been day’s walk from Bibracte, so why not a local stronghold; and close to the local water source of the River Dree, but a kilometre away?
The researches of a Sully friend shows that the small pink geranium mentioned a couple of days ago, is erodium cicutarium (Common Stork’s-bill) (bec de cigogne). And that research has been propped up by her copy of William Keeble Martin, Concise British Flora (1965) which I had completely forgotten as a flower book.
That was the wind that was. Through a biting north wind – yet in mid-April – I have had two cycle trips to my local village today.
It was a bright clear morning; but my trip from here starts off down-hill and north. I rode into that biting wind and profited almost nothing from the down-ward slope (or so it felt). When I turned along the voie verte (former railway line) with trees still bare of leaves either side, and therefore no wind-break, it was much the same. When I got to the market and despite my gloves my hands were frozen. The baker in the market kindly insisted on lending me some skiing gloves which were in his van and which, he says, I can take back when he’s there again on Sunday.
I went to Épinac again this afternoon, this time to get my corvid jab; and that, I am pleased to report, is done. My age is with me there. The return date is towards the end of June. By this time, if anything, the wind was colder. The clear morning had clouded over, so there was little warmth from any sun-light. The trees were still in their strange interim phase. A few were in tentative leaf. Blossom still to come on some trees. On others – such as sloe and wild cherry – I fear the blossom is frost damaged beyond recall.
Lucie’s bees are still working. In the cold this morning they were profiting from the sun-light. Dandelions, cow-slip and red deadnettle – and other wild flowers – are in flower for them. And, despite all the strange behaviour of the weather, the blossom on our doughty pear-trees – just above the hive – looks to be in confident bloom.
I’ve just been to collect my milk from local Sully cows. True, there are intermediaries in this process; but I get the milk at milking time with the farmer’s machinery (see photo: that’s our bottles being filled) milking the cows and passing on very fresh still warm full milk to those who turn up to buy it – as I did this evening. The cows are milked in the small modern dairy shed. (The other photo is of the neighbouring farm and its ford.)
By bicycle it’s a couple of miles (4 kms), for me to get there there – all down-hill. This evening I took an extended round trip along the voie verte (the one time railway track) and then back along lanes and up the hill through Noiron (around eight kms).
Tastes in milk divide my family. Lucie praises the taste of cappuccino made in England with proper milk; and she will tell you of her full English breakfast in a Derbyshire village which included milk in her tea automatically (French drink tea and coffee, almost invariably without milk). My son James likes the taste of French milk because of nostalgia for French holidays.
Whether all that cream is healthy, I don’t know – but it is lovely to taste real fresh milk with breakfast and coffee.