It's November in Normandy, north western France. We have had a home here for almost twelve years, and it really is a second home: we come perhaps nine or ten times a year, sometimes for just a week, as now, and longer in the summer when there is so much to do. We have land of a little more than an acre, most of it a rough, steeply-sloping orchard of old cider-apple trees. Every year, as the westerly wind whips across the garden, another tree will be damaged, eventually to fall altogether, and every year the mistletoe encroaches, a sure sign of the tree weakening. When the apple tree comes down, we chop it up for firewood: apple burns well. While the remaining trees keep fruiting, our friend and local farmer gathers the apples for us in October and takes them away to be made into cider.
As we travelled down from Calais a few days ago we saw the advancing of the year: some trees already bare, others in their autumn dress of red and brown and gold. In the garden the coarse, tussocky grass is wet all day, so the mowing that keeps us busy in the summer won't happen. There's still outside work to do: clearing weeds, cutting wood, sweeping leaves; but in the winter we have more of a rest, more time to read, to see friends, and the hardest work is keeping warm. The house is old, parts of it more than 350 years. Over the fireplace is a massive piece of granite which bears an inscription, telling us that it was taken from a priest's house in a nearby village in 1653. The walls are a meter thick, slow to warm up, but retaining heat.
'Off on holiday again!' some folk marvel as we prepare to come to France. In November it is, perhaps, more of a holiday, compared to the spring and summer when we battle with rampant growth, when the grass can be knee-high or higher, the brambles encroach, the nettles thrive, the weeds choke smaller plants and sprout from between the stones on the terrace; but even though we aren't doing much this week, except visiting supermarkets to fulfil the commissions of our UK friends (wine, mostly!) I don't think of our times here as a holiday. It's our home in France, where we know people, where we have a church family, where we take an interest in the developments in the town, where we have favourite eating places.
I'm thinking of posting from France each time we are here. There's usually something to report, sometimes dramatic: a big conifer fallen across the drive, or our dog Rosie chasing four hares in our garden and the farmer's adjacent field when I let her out first thing one morning. Meanwhile I am thinking I will visit our local market on Friday. Things tend to be very seasonal here, and I don't know if it will be the right time, but I want to buy a plum tree to plant where we had to chop a cider-apple down. For now our little trees are very small and vulnerable, but year by year we are planting our own orchard for the future - most of which we will not see.
Here's photo of our French bolt-hole, taken in the summer.The tree on the right is a magnolia, three feet tall when we planted it, now well over our heads.