Thursday, 5 November 2015

The saga of the owls: the final chapter...possibly

The roof is done on our house in France, and all that remained was to cap the chimney - open for four years because of the resident owl, who this year raised two offspring in a bedroom fireplace. All this, as well as our efforts to provide the owl with an alternative nesting-place, has been reported in previous posts on this blog. We counted it a success that the two young ones grew and thrived and eventually left their unusual home and flew away to find their own hunting-ranges. There remained the problem of the adult owl. The open chimney meant that rain water came in, and we wanted to avoid another year of hosting nestlings, when there are so many other places to live and breed undisturbed in our ramshackle outbuildings. So we asked our builders to find some time to come and close the chimney off, and we provided ourselves with long rods to persuade the owl (gently) to depart.
One young man arrived with new chimney-pots and buckets of cement, and up two ladders he went, scaling our steeply-pitched roof and leaning precariously across our very high chimney, many feet from the ground. He flashed our torch down into the darkness, and reported that the owl was in residence. But the rods proved useless - the owl retreated down the other side of the chimney (the side where our own fire is) and was lost to view.
What to do? The last thing I wanted was to incarcerate the owl. But I also had no wish to lose this precious opportunity (our builder's a busy chap.) So we formulated a plan, took a deep breath, and told the young man to go ahead - having established that there was a big enough space at the top of the chimney's inner dividing wall for the owl to escape.
It was a fine, sunny, unseasonably warm November afternoon. The young man had the job done in a couple of hours while the light lasted. Where was the owl meanwhile? Had he flown away while we weren't looking? Or was he lurking inside the now-dark chimney, wondering what the heck was going on?
As it started to get dark that evening, about six o'clock, I took the cover off the bedroom fireplace and opened the window. Then I planted myself on a rather uncomfortable tree-stump a short distance up the garden, and as the light faded fixed my eyes on the dimming rectangle of the open bedroom window. Would the owl take his chance?
We have a colony of bats in one of our our outbuildings, and one by one they started to circle round. Our experience over the summer led me to expect that the owl would soon be hunting. I waited. I heard some tiny scratching sounds, but I wasn't absolutely sure where they were coming from. By this time it was almost dark. I could barely see the window, and the house was a grey smudge against the sky.
I didn't see him emerge, but suddenly, there he was - flying over my head, silhouetted against the darkening sky, unmistakable on those great silent wings, up over the garden and away towards the maize fields : homeless, but free.
Even though we have evicted him from the house, I hope he comes back -
perhaps to roost somewhere in our outbuildings, or even to raise young in the nest box under the eaves of the old bread-oven. But that's probably a story, if at all, for another year.

Monday, 5 October 2015

A slightly mad birthday present

My husband already plays banjo, trombone, bass trombone. He can also play clarinet, guitar, trumpet, piano. He plays in three bands. Between the three of us currently at home we have a piano, an organ, three banjos, four trombones, a clarinet, a guitar, two ukuleles, assorted recorders, a double bass, two flutes and a trumpet. Why would we want any more instruments?
He's said from time to time, 'I'd love to have a go on one of those'. If he hears one bumping along at the bottom in a band he enthuses about its sound. It's the only instrument I know of that you have to wear. In case you don't know what it is, it's a sousaphone. This is in E flat, on the small side; the B flats are bigger.
I managed to keep this thing a secret for many weeks while it was being put together from disparate parts. I know next to nothing about brass instruments, but had the good fortune to know someone who does, and who himself plays (among other things) the B flat sousaphone.
I had no doubt that my husband would be able to play it, with a bit of practice, but he surprised even me by making perfectly acceptable sounds within minutes. What a clever-clogs.
There were moments when I doubted: Have I done the right thing here? Will he think I've gone quite mad? No musical instrument is cheap.
But as you can see he's smiling as he plays, and most of this evening he's been walking around chuckling (if a trifle bemused.)

Monday, 14 September 2015

My new web site

My new web site went live this evening! Please do take a look.

A new book

My writing group The Write Idea has published an anthology of stories and poems: eight contributors with very varying styles. For every book sold there'll be a donation to Ellenor Hospices, helping families coping with terminal illness. We're very excited about our newest venture, which is the result of a lot of hard work, and are looking forward to launching it next month. Copies can be ordered from

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The owl saga continues

For the past nine days we've spent a great deal of time, one way or another, battling with the owl-house.                            
The decrepit outbuilding we thought would be most suitable used to be a bread-oven, and is still full of bundled twigs and ancient logs. Now it's an owl roost (potentially.)

 We found a piece of timber (there's a lot of old wood lying around here)

...and thought it might fit.
 The hanging festoons of ivy were removed, and the timber screwed to the roof-beams - no easy job when teetering at the top of a ladder twelve feet from the ground.

The labourer lugged the box across the garden.Minus the lid, it weighed about 11kg. Then, unfortunately, there was a technical hitch, so back it went to the workshop for modifications.

Until, at last, the final version was complete (we fervently hoped.)
Back across the garden struggled the labourer.
 Between the photo on the left and the one on the right, you will just have to imagine two old-timers, each on a ladder, manhandling a heavy, awkward box into position: no mean feat, and done with a minimum of altercation. On goes the lid, and the final image is from the window, a low-flying owl's-eye view.

As to the owls themselves, there have been developments. We decided to leave a full week before we disturbed them again to get an updated photo, but when we lifted the cover off the fireplace there was nobody home! 
That night around midnight I saw at least three owls flying around our roof by the light of my torch, and last night there were two - I suspect the youngsters - perched on top of the concrete post which carries the electric cables serving us and our neighbours. After a moment they flew off back to the chimney. It seems that's where they are roosting during the day; with the aid of a mirror I can see the chimney top from the fireplace and I think I can see a bird's tail feathers up there.
Now we just have to hope they find their palatial new home. After all the efforts we've made the blighters had better use it!

Saturday, 8 August 2015

A home for our owls

The owl nest-box takes shape. Now for the tough part: getting it secure on a beam at least 10 feet from the ground in our falling-apart and cluttered outbuilding!
Some great excitement late last night, though: I went out on the off-chance of seeing an early meteorite (no show) and took a torch with me. It was very dark, with just a small light-spill from the house, and countless stars in a clear night sky. (One of the great advantages of very little light pollution here in the deep sticks.) I flicked the torch along the roof-line, and caught a movement. At the far western end of the building, perched on the telephone wire, was the adult owl. It saw me, gulped, and took off across the stubble fields. Ten minutes later I trained the torch on the roof again, and saw an owl on the chimney. It disappeared very quickly so I don't know if it was the adult returning or a baby about to embark on a test-flight; but there were more downy white feathers on the lawn this morning.

Friday, 7 August 2015

The owl saga: 3

When we gingerly lifted away the fireplace covering, this was the sight that greeted us - two very recognisable barn owls. One is bigger and has less white fluff, so is probably a week or so older. The bigger one may even be beginning trial flights; we have found downy white feathers on the lawn, and our fine new roof is already bearing the inevitable signs of owl-fouling! As we took this photo, a loud menacing hiss came from somewhere up the chimney. One parent was close by, and warning us off. We will keep an eye on them, but only about once a week while we are here. It may be that at least one will be flying away before we leave. Meanwhile my intrepid husband is rising to the challenge of constructing a nest-box, which we hope to put in place in one of our decrepit outbuildings. First we have to move a great quantity of ancient bundles of kindling; then fix in place a heavy beam across the highest point, to which the box will be attached. And we have to avoid falling off the ladder!

I'll post again soon with the progress of the box.

The finished roof

Our roof is done, and here's how it looks: at the front, at the back, and inside:

Monday, 20 July 2015

Baby owl update

This is how the owlets looked the day before we left France - getting more like barn owls. I have more information now, and am more hopeful that these fellows will be able to get out of the chimney once they can fly. Persuading the parent to leave may be a tougher challenge, but I'm hoping we can tempt it with a palatial nestbox in one of our outbuildings.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Barn owls in the chimney

We have known for three years that there's a resident owl in the unused section of the chimney in our French house - it was the reason the chimney couldn't be capped when a new liner was put in. Sometimes we hear it in the night, and it sounds uncannily like human snoring!
A few weeks ago friends came to visit, and occupied the second bedroom which is now rarely used. There's a fireplace there with a board in front of it. One night the noise kept one of our friends awake, and she decided to investigate. Here's what she found, to our astonishment: two baby barn owls.

Now we have a worry - can they get out, once they fledge, assuming they survive? Will the noise of the roofers climbing about over their heads frighten the parents? Will we be able to let them fly free and, choosing our moment when the mother or father is absent, take advantage of the scaffolding to cap the chimney at last? Can I have life and freedom for these handsome creatures as well as a more guano-free and hygienic bedroom? So much for the delights of French rural life!I'll report on their, and our, progress. 

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Major work

 Our house in France is at least 350 years old. The granite lintel above the fireplace (taken from a priest's house in a nearby village) bears an inscription dated 1653, and we know that parts of the building are older. The roofspace is particularly fine with its ancient oak beams. I'd love to convert this space into another room, perhaps for me to write in! But it would be hugely expensive and so far we haven't done anything except put in two roof windows, from which the views are delightful.

Originally there would have been a thatched roof, but now battens rest on top of beams, and slates on top of battens - no felt, no insulation, and with daylight now visible through many holes, no real weather-proofing either. So we have taken a deep breath and decided to re-roof the main house. We've chosen a material that includes insulation and has a white interior, so avoiding the necessity for plasterboard and painting, and keeping visible all the internal wooden structure, with its A-frame and wooden pegs.

For the last few months there's been scaffolding up back and front, while the builders wait for the opportune moment to start work - mainly waiting for good weather. The scaffolding makes opening shutters almost impossible, so we have been in the dark and rather cold! On our last visit roofers appeared and started to strip off slates and battens. The roof is very steeply-pitched, so it was dangerous work, especially as the wind was particularly brisk.

Once the roof was open, they covered it with a temporary green felt and rough battens. It looked vulnerable and exposed. Now in our absence more work is being done, and when we next go down to France in a few days' time we hope to see progress - perhaps, even, no scaffolding!

Monday, 27 April 2015

Age is no obstacle

When we are in France we try to visit a friend whose freedom is limited by the needs of her husband who is in poor health. She is a remarkable lady in many ways. We knew that this would be our last visit to her in France because she is moving back to England to be closer to family members who can help her as demands on her inevitably increase. A few months ago she acquired an elderly upright piano and was teaching herself, and her six-year-old granddaughter, to play. This time when we walked in I saw that the piano had gone. She told us that her neighbour, learning of my friend's imminent departure, had asked if she might have it, and the piano had been duly moved across a few metres of gravelly courtyard to the neighbour's house, where it resides just inside the front door. 'I am making progress,' the neighbour said to my friend. Nothing very remarkable about that - except that the neighbour is 101. I found this story quite uplifting as well as funny, and I have related it to my own oldest piano pupil, who is a mere 86.

Unrelated, but beautiful - here are some of the plants that were in flower in our French acre.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

New life

We shouldn't, perhaps, rest too heavily on symbolism - but this beautiful little Pasque flower, having miraculously survived two British winters outside, opened its first flower to the sun on Easter day.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Is it spring yet? France in February.

The trees are still skeletally bare -  dead-looking, if we didn't know better. Globes of mistletoe hang from leafless branches, and tiny birds are visible, hovering hopefully, waiting for a turn at the seed-and-fat balls I distributed around the big magnolia that grows not far from the kitchen window. The blue- and great tits hang perilously, blithely upside down, the robin is more tentative, and the chaffinches don't even try; they're content to peck in the sodden grass for fallen treasures. The greenfinch, though, while a shy visitor, is surprisingly adept at managing a tremulous fat ball, and the bold wren perches on the edge of my plant pots and eyes me beadily.
Several mornings dawned to a mantle of crackling frost, slowly melting as the sun rose, and dripping from the twigs. On two days it rained almost unceasingly, turning our steeply-pitched long drive (truthfully, a track) into a muddy stream. It was cold enough for many warm layers outside and a good fire indoors. But there are signs: a clump of snowdrops, a few brave daffodils hesitantly showing their colour, a solitary primrose protected by the house wall; and in the field next door a batch of noisy energetic lambs, two white, four black, with their dams.

 In our water-meter pit the fire salamander that I wrote about a few months ago has acquired a - what? Visiting relative? Consort? Offspring, even? I couldn't get a picture because they were lurking in the pipe, showing a tantalising tangle of shiny black-and-yellow legs, heads and tails.
 I don't know much about these curious creatures. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.