Friday, 25 September 2020

Fallen buildings - the way ahead

 It's a bit like buses - you wait for ages and then three come at once. My blog is in the doldrums for months, and then I write three long posts in rapid succession!

Following our drive to render our French acre less of a jungle and more of a garden after the months when we were forced to neglect it, I thought I would share our plans for the building that collapsed last autumn. This disaster I covered in a post dated 21 November 2019. But perhaps I should begin by showing you what it used to look like when more or less intact (it's always been a bit dilapidated.)

This is how it looked in July, among the overgrowth. Believe it or not, we had already by this time done a lot of clearance. For example, here's the pile of rescued timbers in our garage, ready to be sawn up for firewood.

We realised we had to do something. Left to itself it would not only have a look of neglect but would be actively dangerous. The mortar used when it was first constructed was little more than mud, and would soon be washed away, so that eventually the wall would fall. So after some deliberation we called in the man who a few years ago rendered our drive passable, digging it out and filling it with gravel, so that it was no longer a muddy farm track unreliable in wet weather. (That's an understatement - when it rained a stream flowed down the track from the lane above and there were times when it took several hours to drive 100 metres. On more than one occasion we almost missed our ferry at Calais.)  
 He took on the idea of developing the old bakery site into something we could actually use and would look good as well. He would cap and repoint the wall to be proof against the weather and therefore secure, remove all the remaining debris, put in a slabbed area using the original footprint and connect it to the patio with a gravelled path. 
Our job meanwhile was to put a tarpaulin over the top of the wall and remove the great pile of mouldy faggots still lurking in the building and burn them. The placing of the tarpaulin (just a big sheet of plastic which we'd saved from a previous roof job) was a  bit of a palaver involving ladders, rope, heavy stones and wooden props - a typical ad hoc job!

 and back. 
The removal of the faggots was hard work, repetitive and dirty. Load after load went on to the bonfire over several days. 

Half way!

 Faggots cleared - phew, what a slog that was!

We hope the work can be done in October or early November, because as the year progresses and the weather gets colder it  it will be impossible to do the pointing, and obviously it would be best to avoid subjecting the wall to another winter.  I am pleased, though, that we can turn the old ruin into something positive rather than simply repair and make good. We feel we have a responsibility to the place while it belongs to us, but there was no way we could afford to fix two old outbuildings, and  this one was of no real use. Now I am having all sorts of thoughts about the refurbished site. It would make a rather good stage or auditorium...perhaps we could have a musical soiree at our house like the ones others have hosted! And this gives me the incentive to clear the area of rampant ivy... When it comes to our place in France, there is no end to work.

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Two against the jungle - Part 2

 Towards the end of August we returned to France. Under the regulations then (and now) current we knew we would have to self-isolate for a fortnight on our return, so we decided to stay for a month to make it worth while.

Now battle was joined in earnest. 

I should note that my husband is not a young man - next week he will be 78. I am younger, but by no means young, and we both have joint problems. But to see him in action in France wielding heavy, awkward machinery and working for hours at a stretch you'd never believe it. First he had to get the worst of the grass down with the wheeled strimmer, which has an engine but still has to be pushed. After that the grass was low enough for the mower. To clear the orchard, which slopes steeply downwards, he first towed the strimmer to the top of the garden on the back of the mower. Then he strimmed down as far as the drive. He then walked back up and mowed down over the roughly-cut strip - a sequence repeated many times over several days. Because the grass was so long, mowing resulted in swathes of hay everywhere which if  left would have killed the grass underneath, so after mowing he had to attach the hay collector to the back of the mower and pile it all up in heaps. Here he is doing just that. The very long untouched grass is visible in the background.

Things began to look a bit clearer; trees and shrubs started to emerge.

All this while I was not idle! I wielded the small strimmer in awkward spots, clearing round the shrubs and making space, as well as cutting back and weeding. We were blessed with the weather: it rained only twice during that month, but it was hot, and we got very sticky and dirty. Here's the bank from which in years past I evicted a huge mass of brambles and on which I then planted other things - invisible till I strimmed it.

What to do with all this hay and clippings? Over the weeks we were there, apart from regular trips to the dump, we must have had 6 or 7 bonfires. Here I am, nattily dressed as always, feeding the blaze.

As well as clearing the garden we were also working on the small outbuilding which collapsed last autumn. This involved getting rid of floor-to-ceiling bundles of mouldy twigs which in decades past would have been used to fuel the bread oven. I lost count of how many barrowloads we shifted.

At the end of the day, a well-earned break and a glass of wine!

Finally, the jungle began to look more like a garden.

And as well as all the work, we managed to find time for a bit of sociable fun. Here we are with friends, enjoying a musical evening and a game of croquet.


Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Two against the jungle - part 1

 We left our French house at the end of February, after a couple of weeks cutting down trees. I am a big fan of trees in  general and we have planted quite a number over the years, but these were almost-defunct cider apple trees which dropped their fruit every autumn creating a slippery mass of rotting apples, dangerous and unsightly. There was a time when our neighbours would pick the fruit and make it into cider, but the only licence to do this was held by our neighbour's mother who died recently, and our neighbours are no longer able to pick the fruit. So we decided to cut the trees down for firewood. Two of them we logged and stacked, leaving just the twigs on the ground. The third we cut and left on the back garden in its entirety, having run out of time. 'We'll be back in a month,' we said. 'The grass won't have grown much.'

How wrong we were.

For this was 2020, the year of rapidly-escalating infections and restrictions on movement.  In normal times we wouldn't ever have left our French garden at the time of maximum growth, but these weren't normal times, and we didn't get back until July.

The grass was thigh-high, dry and brown. My little shrubs were invisible, the bigger ones just battling to get their heads above the rampant growth. It was a daunting sight. Here's the whole cut tree as it lay 

     awaiting our efforts, and the view up the garden before we began: 

                                  July saw some of the hottest temperatures across Europe, and we spent a lot of that trip pulling dead twigs and branches out of long, tangling grass, cutting them up, taking some to the local dump and burning others before logging the big branches and the trunk. We did the whole tree and the twigs from one of the others. It was hard, rough work, and when we had done all we could I said, 'If I never see another twig, it will be too soon.' 

Of course that wasn't all that was horribly overgrown. We turned a blind eye to the towering hedges, but I couldn't let my old enemies the brambles get away with their takeover bid. This is what they looked like sprouting unchecked out of a small hedge adjacent to the covered laundry area:

The lower drive looked like this:
The vegetable patch was a tangle of gone-to-seed leeks and purple sprouting:
The gravelled drive was overrun with weeds, which over several days I pulled up by hand:

And even when strimmed, using the big wheeled strimmer because the grass was too long for the ride-on mower, it still looked rough:

But then our time ran out, and we had to come home.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Website refurb!

In the interests of not letting The Healing Knife disappear into Lockdown Limbo, my trusty web wizard has updated my website. Why not take a look?

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Another interview!

Today Wendy H Jones' podcast  The Writing and Marketing Show featured me being interviewed about my latest novel The Healing Knife, and other book-related things. If you can spare a bit of time, why not have a listen?

Here's the link:

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Hard Times

In the midst of catastrophe, it's an insignificant matter. But to a writer whose book comes out in the middle of a pandemic lockdown it's a disaster on a smaller scale: publishers and marketing teams are working from home, international book fairs have been cancelled, book shops are closed, and my launch has been postponed to an uncertain date. Perhaps there is an upside; perhaps people are having more time to read, and I hope this book is hopeful in tone. I am thankful for the internet and social media too. So if you haven't already got a stack of paperbacks and a lengthening list on your kindle, here's another possibility for you. Meanwhile, keep safe and well.

Friday, 6 December 2019


Today I am a guest on the blog of award-winning Ruth Clemence. Here's the link: