It feels like a long, long time since I took part in The Propagator’s Six on Saturday as in -ahem- July 2019 😮 and so much has happened in the interim, including us moving to a new home in a different country (not an easy one to pull off given the Covid-19 situation – talk about stress). Anyway, we have left our vertiginous mountainside in northern Spain to return to Mayenne in northern France where we are trying to carve a new and interesting garden out of a flat field. After five winters in the blissfully mild Asturian climate, we have been battling through one of the coldest, driest, wettest (not at the same time, obviously), stormiest springs on record . . . but then I do enjoy a good challenge and on the bright side, I no longer need wellies fitted with crampons, we can use wheelbarrows once more, the soil stays put and the squash won’t go rolling off down the mountainside. Thanks for having me back, here are my six offerings of the week:
I love a wild garden which is probably a good thing as there’s very little other than wild flowers in bloom here at the moment, mostly because that’s pretty much all there is in the garden full stop. There’s much planting to be done and I’d like to say, I’ve made a more than enthusiastic start in supporting local nurseries! The exquisite yellow flag iris have unfurled their radiant silky petals this week just in time to welcome the sun back. Spot the red and black froghopper lurking under a petal, they seem to be everywhere at present.
One ‘formal’ plant we have inherited is this glorious peony, it’s loaded with blooms and the scent is mind-blowing. I have no idea which variety, but it’s a beauty for sure.
I won’t bore you with the saga of our polytunnel but suffice to say, we ordered it at the beginning of March and several replacement parts and weeks of far-too-windy weather later, we only managed to finish installing it this week. What a happy bunny I was to finally have 32 square metres of warm, covered ground after months of carting tender plants in and out of the house twice a day to protect them from frost; in a normal Mayenne spring they could have gone into the ground outside some time ago, but that’s another story. After five years of fighting and cursing blight, I may have gone a little OTT with the tomatoes: 27 in the tunnel and 9 outside for insurance purposes. Oh, and another 3 in pots by the kitchen door. Think I’ve got it covered. 😉
Unlike the pampered toms, the courgettes got to the point of no return and really had to go into the ground last week, do or die. We’re sticking with tried and tested varieties of everything this year while we get the veg patch established so these are ‘Black Beauty’ which are usually pretty reliable if not very exciting. Given that the strong gusts of wind had morphed into gales threatening to rip them out of the ground, I decided to repurpose a pile of abandoned slates into protective sheepfolds for them – think Andy Goldsworthy, but a thousand times less talented. As for the grass clippings and chopped leaves, mulch mulch mulch is definitely mantra of the month.
We’ve done a fair bit of fruit tree planting since we arrived in December but there were already a few mature specimens here including this whopper. I shall miss the abundance of peaches we enjoyed in Asturias but this is cherry country and despite the shocking spring, they’re promising good things to come. Will they be red, yellow or black, sour or sweet? Half the excitement of a new garden is seeing what happens in the first year, which at least makes up for the war on weeds and lack of flowers.
Gardening for wildlife is a top priority and we are sharing this space with a wide range of characters including red squirrels that sit under our picnic table scoffing acorns, a huge hare that visits daily to ‘fertilise’ my sweet peas (why them, I wonder?) and more species of bird than we’ve ever had in a garden. We’re planning to create or enhance as many different environments and habitats within the patch as we can to support the wildlife already here and encourage a wider range to visit. Didn’t quite expect to find this on the postbox a couple of days ago but it beats a letter from the tax office, I suppose.
Time to stroll over to The Propagator’s site and be inspired by what other blogging gardeners (or is it gardening bloggers?) have been up to this week – why not come too? Happy gardening, all! 😊
One of the benefits of having a husband who turns out to run every day without fail, generally notching up something between 90 and 110 miles (145 to 177 km) a week, is that he comes home having explored a wide swathe of the local area and full of ideas for new walking and cycling routes we can try together. So it was we found ourselves embarking on a five-mile loop close to home one afternoon last week, a lovely wander along tracks that took us through a range of contrasting landscape, starting in a sunlit tract of ancient woodland.
There is something astonishingly beautiful about deciduous woodland in May, walking through a leafy tunnel of the most intense greens with carpets of wildflowers below and the birds singing their hearts out at the energetic, burgeoning, joyful vitality of it all. I know just how they feel: if I could only ever have one environment in my life, it would most definitely be this one!
In places, the path skirted the edge of the woodland, opening out into apple orchards, small meadows full of wildflowers and butterflies and larger crop-filled fields punctuated with coppices and hedges so typical of the bocage landscape.
Leaving the fields behind, we climbed up onto a high ridge and followed the route of an old Roman road through a section of landes or moorland which is being regenerated as part of an ecological project I wrote about in an earlier post. The drystone walls and stone domes that are being built as wildlife habitats have inspired us to do the same in our own garden; sitting on a log to share a flask of coffee, we drank in the views and watched as a buzzard flew low passes across the clearing and a skylark did a vertical take-off from a dome. This will definitely be the place for a spot of whimberry (bilberry) foraging later in the year.
The path continued along the ridge – the high banks and an ancient milestone reminding us of its immense history – then turned downwards through leafy woodland once more and eventually picked up the trail we had started on. What a gorgeous walk and we didn’t see another soul: well, actually, just the one . . .
In many ways, the hare neatly brings me full circle to where I started this post: running. Regular readers will know that I am, at best, a reluctant runner; I don’t really enjoy it but I know it does me good and I like to write the occasional post about running in the hope of maybe inspiring and encouraging other ploddingslowbies aspiring athletes like myself. As I have a tendency to blow hot and cold about the whole thing, running for a few weeks then stopping again (this is the only thing that is actually consistent about my approach), I find myself searching for motivation and inspiration on a pretty regular basis. Back in March, having read The Happy Running Habit, I started a running journal as a draft blog, writing a paragraph to log each run and adding an uplifting photo from my media library. So, how has that been going? Well, here are a few excerpts to set the tone . . .
Friday 23rd April: Well, 15 days between runs isn’t so bad, is it? OK, it’s shameful but I’m full of excuses as always. The weather has been horrible, very hard frosts and an icy easterly wind that has made the idea of going out for a run unpleasant, yet alone actually doing it; I’ve been a bit chesty which makes it hard and we’ve been busy in the garden with some quite hard physical work so my energy levels have been down. Also, no motivation once again. However . . . I’ve committed to making some changes for the better, and this week isn’t as bad as it looks: first session of yoga since we moved here, a couple of brisk morning walks, miles walked round the garden during the day, reduced wine consumption, increased water consumption and at last, this morning, a run. Round The Block Plus (I deviated along the woodland track a bit as Roger heard hoopoes up there earlier) 5.3k on a beautiful sunny morning, blue sky full of swallows.
Total distance for April: 9.3k 😬(Hangs head in shame . . . 😖 )
Monday 3rd May: So, this whole running journal thing really isn’t working, is it? I seem even less motivated than usual, too idle, too many cakes, too much wine . . . time for a kick up the backside, so here goes. This week, I intend to run 3 times NO MATTER WHAT!!!!! 😮 Today is possibly the last day of sunny weather before the storm sweeps in but if I end up getting wet, so be it. It is time to get a grip so I got up early with the intention of having a run before a video chat with T. What a beautiful morning, frosty start but bright blue sky and sunshine all the way. The verges are still beautiful, bluebells, orchids, buttercups and stitchwort everywhere. Had my hair parted by a buzzard swooping down at me twice, obviously not impressed at me running past its nest, I could hear the chick calling but didn’t linger to look! Did Round The Block then decided to carry on past the house to the B junction and back – 5.7k.
Thursday 6th May: wet, cold and miserable . . . and then there’s the weather. 🤣 To be fair to myself, I wasn’t miserable at all, just kept focusing on the birdsong and flowers, but I have discovered that my new trainers aren’t remotely waterproof. Enjoyed close encounters with a pheasant, hare and squirrel. The good thing is that I got up with the intention of going for a run whatever and on a big shopping day, too, which is unheard of. Didn’t want to venture too far from home so ran to the first B junction and back, then to Town Park Garden and back; one pass is just under 2.5k so it’s a useful route, it will be perfect if I ever feel the need to do tempo runs again (!) as it’s fairly flat. I’m going to call it Home Stretch. I did 6.4k, and I’m still on target for three runs this week.
Saturday 8th May: I’ve downloaded the book Running Made Easy for a bit of motivational inspiration and I’ve decided to try the recommendation of recording some measurements each week to help track my progress towards fitness and better health – can’t do BMI/weight as we don’t have any scales, but body measurements and resting pulse rate are possible so here goes for the first set of four weeks:
(Editor’s note: dear readers, the table of measurements has been removed – some things simply aren’t made for sharing! 😁)
Slightly horrified at my waist measurement, that’s the middle-aged spread that definitely needs to go! 😆
So, a longer run today, out through l’A and anticlockwise round my old original run which I’m going to call the Nostalgia Route – 7.1k, ran all the way. Grey and a bit drizzly but warmer today, didn’t see a single vehicle and enjoyed the flowers – orchids and Solomon’s seal are gorgeous. Feeling far more positive this morning and my legs were definitely stronger. It’s the first time I’ve managed three runs in a week since my first few runs in Asturias back in March so I’m VERY pleased, 19.2k in total is a start. Progress has been made . . . now I need to keep it up!
Monday 10th May: goals for this week . . .
Run at least 3 times
Increase distance, especially of longest run
No wine until Friday!
Opted for Home Stretch as video chat booked at 9.30 and didn’t want to be too far from home. Did three repeats, 7.3k in all, and tried the stretch between TPG and home at a higher level of effort. Glowing when I got home! Not hugely pleasant in the strong wind but the flowers are so pretty, the paler pink orchids taking over from the dark ones and the hawthorn is out. Green haze of maize emerging. Good start to the week.
Wednesday 12th May: I didn’t feel particularly inspired this morning (and it was cold AGAIN) but had promised myself to run Round The Butte for the first time. Not too chuffed to meet R’s dog on the loose but it barked at me madly and ran away! Lovely through the wood, hard work up the hill from the crossroads, definitely the toughest run I’ve done since we moved here in terms of hills. Still, I felt comfortable when I got back round to our wood so decided to carry on down the main road and turn to do Round The Block clockwise – glad to see the buzzard chick has fledged! A figure of eight run, 6.9k, and more enjoyable than I had thought. Need to find a route close to 8k for my longer run on Friday.
Saturday 15th May: a day later than intended (vile weather yesterday) but did Nolsatgia Route plus TPG and back – 8k. Cold and wet, had to play ‘jacket on, jacket off’ all the way round to keep dry. Flowers are still amazing, though, also I was overtaken by two hares (not at the same time) who really showed me how it is done. I doubt they were too impressed with my plod. So . . . two out of the three goals met, no prizes for guessing which one I didn’t quite manage! 🤣🍷 Ah well, another week, another try. The good news is I’ve run 22.2k this week, 3k further than last week so my distance is building. Can I try for 25k next week? Let’s see!
Monday 17th May: goals for this week . . .
Run at least three times
Increase overall distance to 25k
Reduce wine consumption (memo to self: think waistline!😆)
Chose Home Stretch today as weather was wet and windy: after thunderstorms and torrential downpours yesterday, I thought it was wise not to be too far from home. Did four passes which measured 9.95k – if only I’d known that before I’d ditched my trainers, peeled off my soggy socks and caught the whiff of freshly-ground coffee beans, I’d have gone back out there and done another 50 metres – honest! Still, it’s the longest single run I’ve managed since starting this journal so that’s something to celebrate, and it’s a big step in the direction of achieving one of my original goals (being able to run 10k). Also, it’s a good chunk of my 25k target already under my belt so a pretty good start to the week. After no rain in April, it seems to have done nothing else so far in May and everything is very soggy. We’re planning a long run down the old Mayenne railway path (R running from home then down the path, me driving to the path – with flask of coffee on board! – and running from there) but things need to dry up a bit first. Plus warm up, as I’m fed up of wearing that coat.
The one thing I’ve learned about this running lark over the years is that in many ways, it’s a metaphor for life. There’s no such thing as a perfectly smooth, problem-free, linear journey, it’s all about good days and bad days, ups and downs, smiles and frowns. For me, it feels like two steps forward and one back much of the time, I’m still not a huge fan and yet it has taught me some of the greatest lessons of my life. One of the routes I’ve started using includes the 5k loop where I originally cut my running teeth; in fact, eight years ago I was exactly halfway through a 12-week ‘0 to 5k’ training plan in preparation for a Race For Life at the end of June. It’s quite nostalgic retracing my steps and remembering just what a physical and emotional rollercoaster ride those three months were. Forget ‘walk for two minutes, run for one’ . . . I couldn’t run for 30 seconds without collapsing in a heap when I started. I constantly lagged behind the programme in terms of how long I should be running for in any session and it took me weeks to be able to run up a long hill, a stretch of the route I hated with a passion. Towards the end of the programme, hot weather (hard to believe at the moment!) meant crack of dawn runs and, try as I might, I never once managed to meet the 30-minute time challenge I had set myself (as an aside, I passionately believe that if I am asking people to sponsor me, there has to be a decent element of personal challenge involved; wearing the tutu didn’t count, it was just a frivolous extra).
On race day, I felt sick with nerves despite having an amazing support team around me; I don’t like crowds, I don’t like running and I don’t like time challenges. I clung to Roger on the start line. I wanted to go home. I really, really wished I had never agreed to put myself through the stress and pain . . . but that is where those valuable lessons started. Did I manage to run and finish? Yes. Did I beat the 30-minute time monster? Yes! Did I enjoy it? No, but I did manage to smile as I ran, smile at the fact that there I was doing the unthinkable, cheered on by my loved ones and raising £500 to help fight a disease that has touched our family and so many others. It was the first time in my 46 years that I had ever run 5k and the next day, our first beautiful grandchild, Ben, was born. Quite the weekend!
Many people say that running has changed their life; I’m not sure I could claim that, but it has definitely changed my outlook on life if nothing else. It has shown me that I am capable of doing things I never thought I could, of finding inspiration, motivation and self-discipline to apply myself to challenges (yes, I can go for weeks refusing to run but I always go back to it) and of taking a firm and active responsibility for my own health and well-being. It has taught me how to dig deep and persuade courage, grit, determination and perseverance to leave their deep hiding places, and to deal with success and failure in a balanced, pragmatic way. It has taught me that it’s absolutely fine to be slow or last. It has brought me new friendships and inspiration from some truly incredibly warm and generous people; the real value of runners isn’t measured in marathons, GPS watches or ‘personal bests’ anymore than the true worth of people is measured in money, status and material goods. Above all, it has stopped me taking myself too seriously, encouraged me to smile and feel an immense gratitude for all the positive things putting one foot in front of the other in the fresh air brings. I might have gone grey, gained a few wrinkles and another four precious grandchildren over the last eight years but I’m still out there running (well, some of the time, at least).
So, to end where I began: that lovely walk through the woods. I’ve told Roger I’d like to go and run it when things are a bit drier underfoot, not the whole loop but the woodland stretch at least. He wholeheartedly agrees with my plan but pointed out I will probably spend more time tripping over tree roots and rocks than running as my attention will be anywhere but where I’m putting my feet. He’s right, of course, but the benefit of being a plodder is that I can let my gaze and mind wander, taking in the beauty of nature around me, without the risk of doing myself too much damage if I stumble. I shall leave him to zip off with the hares while I trail along behind, one very happy woodland tortoise! It will be a few more kilometres to notch up in my journal . . . but then, distance is irrelevant, really. It’s the doing it and smiling that’s important. 😊
I think that May must surely be one of the loveliest months of the year. Despite so many frustrations as gardeners in recent weeks – overnight frosts right up until a couple of days ago, no rain for almost a month, a bitterly cold wind – there is at last a feeling of heading full tilt towards summer, even if the weather remains changeable and decidely cooler than normal. We have moved through plum, peach, pear and cherry blossom to the very last of the apple; viburnum has given way to lilac, blackthorn handed over to hawthorn; the trees, including the tardy ash, are singing out in a chorus of a hundred different greens. Farmers have cut the first grass, the sharp green blades of maize stand in regimented rows against the red soil and in the field next to our garden, the breeze ripples through the grain like a sea of silver.
The verges are still a riot of colour with carpets of pale pink spotted orchids and the lacy froth of cow parsley piling into the mix, while the garden literally smiles with flowers, both cultivated and wild. Yes, it is all really rather lovely.
We have been crazily busy in the garden once again. The weather hasn’t helped, trays and trays of tender plants still having to be moved under cover every evening and far too many seeds planted a second time because of failed germination. Too cold, too dry – who can blame them?
Thursday 29th April: sowed sunflowers, mixed and pink Californian poppies, double red poppies and two French seed mixes in big border. Calendula, French marigold, coriander and dill in bean circle. Potted on squash (Casa V specials) and courgettes.
Friday April 30th: bought perennials – purple and red iris germanica (bearded iris), salvia superba rosa (flowering sage, drought resistant), echinacea (coneflower), centaurea montana (mountain cornflower), veronica gentianoides (gentian speedwell, good nectar plant). Two dried roots of alchemilla mollis.
Saturday May 1st: planted all six new perennials plus two verbena bonariensis from Asturias; sprinkled some mixed Californian poppies and calendula in borders; lifted daffies; potted up herbs for back door sitting area – mint, chives, lemon balm, red sorrel and coriander (seed). Potted on aubergines. Pricked out remaining squash. Just the cukes to go!
Monday 3rd May: seed parcel arrived! Sowed purple sprouting broccoli, romanesco broccoli, Brunswick cabbage and Russian red kale. Water butts are empty.
Wednesday 5th May: put up hazel quadpod in front flower border, sowed climbing nasturtiums, red double poppies, shade-loving annual flower seed mix. Two water butts are full again.
Friday 7th May: planted Spanish dwarf beans (own collected seed, variety unknown) and Stanley; sweet corn (own seed); curly-leafed parsley from new seed in pot; pricked out 11 cucumbers (possibly 8 too many!); re-sowed celery, beetroot Chioggia in Secret Garden and Potager and flat-leaved parsley; planted out first lettuce.
Sunday 9th May: planted hanging basket with ivy-leaved geraniums and trailing lobelia; planted three large pots at front of house with determinate tomatoes – Orion’s Belt (green/purple), Alaska (semi-det, red cherry) and Black Sea Man (purple / black) – and basil; planted out cardoons, cosmos and annual rudbeckia in big border; resowed nasturtiums and black-eyed Susan; sowed Spanish onion seed; finished mulching both soft fruit beds with grass clippings. Did lots of weeding – really essential this year, next year hopefully I can do lots of mulching and get back to my laissez-faire approach.
Tuesday 11th May: added more small perennial plants to Oak Tree Border – astilbe Pumila, achillea Coronation Gold, catmint Six Hills Giant and sedum Brilliant plus several cosmos; planted up 3 window troughs of pink and white ivy-leaved geraniums to replace the pansies (if they ever finish flowering, they’ve loved the cool weather); mulched the onions and garlic with grass clippings.
Although growing food is always our top priority, flowers are important, too, and it’s been good to reach a point where I can spend some time starting the restoration work on the existing flower borders. I use the term ‘border’ loosely as in many cases, they are just vague areas roughly demarcated with a line of stones, many of them facing north or tight up against a hedge and all of them in need of serious attention. The memory of what was certainly once a pretty garden lingers in the shape of some truly lovely plants but years of neglect have rendered it a complete mess project-in-waiting. Time to get stuck in! I’ve started with the areas at the front of the house; one is north-facing against a hedge, the other dominated by a large oak tree, so neither makes for easy gardening. A few perennial thugs like lemon balm, rudbeckia, arabis, hardy geranium and Michaelmas daisies have run riot, their unstoppable roots creating a spaghetti of complicated tangles intermingled with brambles, nettles, ivy, couch grass, dandelions and a thick invasive mat of celandines, the like of which I’ve never seen. Progress in sorting that little lot out has been slow to say the least.
With the weeds gone, I can see just what plants are here and worth saving and that has led to a few surprises. What I had thought to be a small clump of winter aconites smothered by the celandine carpet a couple of months ago has turned out to be a rather beautiful deep blue monkshood; pulling out brambles and huge swathes of wood avens (which I’m happy to have as a woodland herb but not acres at a time!), I’ve discovered several clumps of lilies. I’ve been wondering why the butterfly bush looks so unhappy; growing in the shade of the oak tree probably doesn’t help but if there is one plant that should have responded well to the ‘prune everything in sight’ habit that prevailed here, surely it’s that one? On peeling back the mass of weeds at its base, I solved the mystery: the poor thing had been planted in its pot! It’s quite a mature shrub and has obviously managed to push a main root out through the bottom, but with the pot lying almost on its side and still very much intact, the rootball was almost non-existent and dry as dust. I cut away as much of the pot as I could, gave the exposed roots a good watering and then covered them in a deep mulch of homemade compost. Fingers crossed for a swift recovery.
Buying plants can be an expensive hobby, especially with a large garden to fill. I’ve brought a few bits and pieces grown from small roots or lifted as seedlings in our Asturian garden, things like granny’s bonnets, verbena bonariensis, pulmonaria and Jacob’s ladder, which all seem to have settled well into their new home. I’ve also started raising some perennials from seed but it’s a slow process and occasionally there’s no harm in having a little spend around a nursery to help matters along – even if I do go into child-in-a-sweetshop mode! The great thing about perennial plants is that small ones grow very quickly into big ones so I’m happy to opt for the smallest (cheapest) plants and fill the gaps with annual seed while they grow.
Removing several ornamental conifers and recycling them into a hügel bed opened up the back of the Oak Tree Border, letting in light and some new planting opportunities. I decided that the clump of peonies, just on the cusp of opening their showy wine-red blooms, was crying out to be paired with the bearded iris that grow so well locally – they are one of the contenders for the original fleur de lys, after all. I chose a deep violet but then fell in love with a second one that starts with buds of deepest purple satin, unfurling into flowers of startling red with a splash of yellow in the centre. It was impossible to choose, so I bought both; maybe child in a sweetshop doesn’t come close? Anyway, I relish the business of building colour and shape in the borders and I’m hopeful of creating something beautiful that draws the eye through that gap left by the ex-conifers to the garden beyond; hidden corners, glimsped vistas, the urge to wander and discover . . . all essential ingredients in the kind of garden I love.
With the trees and hedges leafing up and creating more intimate spaces around the garden, I find myself weaving a sinuous route several times a day to check on progress in the Secret Garden and Shed Patch; those vegetables are so important to us, after all.
The Potager still remains relatively open and exposed but we hope to create more of a feel of an enclosed space there over time; at the moment, we’re still extending it with yet more digging . . . and the big job of the week will be finishing the polytunnel if the weather is kind enough to grant us a still day – large sheets of polythene and high winds really don’t mix! Although it all still looks a bit bare, the potatoes are well through the ground and too big to cover (no more frosts, pleeeeeease), the first of the dwarf beans and climbing beans have germinated, two rows of peas are romping away and a few brave carrots and spring onons have finally emerged. It’s interesting that everything planted from our own saved seed has germinated well and in some cases, faster and better than bought seeds; it’s also encouraging that at long last, there is the promise of food in the garden once again.
It’s been quite a week for wildlife in the garden. The red squirrels continue to entertain us with their antics and a hare has taken to lolloping in and doing its toilet business under the sweet pea wigwams (not quite sure what the attraction is). We watched a pair of mice moving their babies from one end of a stone wall to another while we ate our lunch on the picnic bench, and a pair of black kites wheeling over the garden one afternoon as they pulled grass snakes out of the neighbouring (cut) field. A shrew literally ran across my foot as I sat outside with a mug of tea and, shifting trays of plants out of the outhouse one morning, I found they were being guarded by a rather splendid toad. On mornings when I’m not running or don’t fancy a long walk from home, I’ve taken to walking circuits of the garden instead . . . and why not? It’s a beautiful spot to wander in and about 400 metres all round the perimeter, so four passes make a mile and it’s amazing how quickly the distance mounts up with so much to see and enjoy. Crunching through frosty grass early one morning last week, I heard what sounded like a soft and rather strange frog croaking until I realised it couldn’t possibly be, seeing as it was most definitely coming from high up in an oak tree! On closer inspection, I discovered that it was a turtle dove and stood enchanted by the sweet lullaby of its gentle purring song, the turr-turr-turr that gives it its name. Turtle doves are summer visitors whose populations are declining rapidly; little surprise, then, that they are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In Wilding, Isabella Tree describes her overwhelming joy when turtle doves returned to Knepp Estate in West Sussex and I certainly share a sense of that wonder and gratitude to find there are several of these dainty, precious birds in our corner of Mayenne.
From wildlife to wild flowers, and one of our long-term goals here is to increase the number and amount of species of native wild flowers all over the garden. It’s a bit frustrating that unlike so many local verges, gardens and orchards, we are missing the Big Three – cowslips, bluebells and orchids – that are causing such a colourful splash elsewhere. Imagine how excited I was, then, to uncover two clumps of bluebells from the weedy depths of a flower border. Well, there was good news and bad news: one clump is the native ‘English’ bluebell we are after, with its dainty flowers on arching stems, white pollen and evocative scent, the other is the Spanish variety, much chunkier on straight stems with blue pollen and no perfume. It has none of the charm of the native species and is a thuggish, invasive pest – the grey squirrel of the botanical world, perhaps? So, the first clump will be moved to the Woodland Edge to make a start on what eventually we hope will become a blue haze of Maytime beauty, the other clump will, er, just disappear. The good news is that we do at least have a decent range of other species and of course, more are appearing as we move through the seasons; it was a lovely surprise to find a large clump of Solomon’s seal buried in a hedge bottom this week. Now it’s a case of encouraging them to set seed and spread whilst raising new species to add to the mix.
We love to use natural materials in the garden, so Roger has been turning a pile of stone dumped under a hedge into a drystone wall ‘folly’ which marks part of the Flower Garden boundary and offers a new habitat for wildlife. A sunburst of oxeye daisies and buttercups has appeared in front of it this week . . . nature artfully creating exactly the wild look we are aiming for. There’s still so much to do here but it feels good to be making some progress hand in hand with nature and leaving ourselves time to enjoy the beauty of this lovely month, too. 😊
A mere stone’s throw from the Canyon des Toyères which I wrote about in my last post is Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei, officially one of the prettiest villages in France. Nestled in the picturesque Alpes Mancelles, it is a gem of a place and beautiful in any season but I have a particular soft spot for it at this time of year when the wooded hillsides are bursting with fresh leaf and carpeted with a soft haze of bluebells. We haven’t visited since our return to Mayenne so it didn’t take us too long to decide where to go for our walk this week!
This is one of our favourite jaunts, a comfortable three-mile loop that starts in a pretty spot by the side of the Sarthe river. It’s a tranquil place, the river wide and lazy after so little rain, and flanked by meadows full of buttercups. There are picnic tables here, and several old buildings converted into gites; you could pick worse places for an al fresco meal or holiday, that’s for sure.
A wooden footbridge beyond a former mill took us across the river, leaving Mayenne and into the neighbouring department of Sarthe, although still in the Pays de la Loire region. The path then starts a long, slow climb with sweeping views of wooded hills on one side and a teasing glimpse of St Céneri on the other.
We had just been discussing how everything still seemed familiar to us and nothing had appeared to have changed since we last walked here (which must be seven years ago) when what we had expected to be an orchard delivered quite a surprise: it is still an orchard, but now also the home of a large herd of free-range pigs! It was lovely to stand and watch them for a while, enjoying the outdoor life as surely pigs should, some busy rootling about in the baked earth but most of them snoozing away the afternoon in the sun. Talk about chilled! I suspected they would be happy to see the rain forecast the next day, their wallows being as far removed from mud as is possible . . . but they seemed a pretty contented bunch all the same.
After passing through a small hamlet of pretty stone houses, their gardens billowing with iris, tulips and forget me nots, the path turned back downhill, meandering through woodland towards the village. Here the bluebells were at their most beautiful, dense carpets creating a colourful haze in the dappled sunlight beneath the trees; whether simply massed in deep blue, or daubed amongst white stitchwort and creamy Solomon’s seal, they were stunning. As for that heady perfume . . .
Emerging from the woods, the path levelled out a little and water meadows appeared to our left. It’s hard to believe we’ve walked here before as if along a stream bed, with water literally flowing beneath our boots; I’m not sure we’ve ever seen this path so dry. At a point just before reaching the village, we passed from Sarthe into the department of Orne and at the same time into the region of Normandy, a reminder that our little corner of Mayenne is very much border country.
At the end of this path, we emerged from the trees and found ourselves at the picturesque stone bridge that leads into the village. There is a stunning view of the 11th-century Romanesque church perched high above on a cliff, a scattering of lovely old stone houses and pretty sweeps of blossom and spring flowers. We have seen kingfishers here previously, darting close to the water in bright flashes of metallic blue; not today, but there was a lone wader-clad fisherman trying his luck on a bend in the river.
Wandering up into the village, I realised that I’d forgotten what a delightful place it is with its winding streets of higgeldy-piggeldy houses, dripping with clematis and wisteria. The only thing that seemed strange was the fact that the bars, cafes and restaurants were all shut, their terraces devoid of the usual buzz of activity; that is set to change on 19th May when the next phase of relaxing restrictions will allow them to open once more, much to the relief of owners and customers alike. It’s no surprise that St Céneri is a popular destination for visitors and is particularly bustling during the summer holidays, yet I’ve always felt it has retained a strong sense of itself. There has been no slide into the dark realms of tacky gift shops, caravan parks, double yellow lines, extortionate car park charges and the like; tourists are welcome, but it is still very much a ‘local’ village. I love the little hidden nooks and crannies, the quaint human touches coupled with unfettered nature; the wonderful informality and unashamedly wild character of this garden is exactly the sort of thing we are hoping to create in our own patch.
We climbed the street that leads to the church, knowing that a narrow path goes right around the building, the perfect spot for a beautiful bird’s eye view back down to the stone bridge. However, looking for a photo of the said view, I realised we didn’t have an ‘unadulterated’ one so the time has come for me to make an introduction (apologies for this rather ridiculous diversion): ladies and gentlemen, meet Kitchen Ted.
Who? Well, he’s a little character I knitted up in the final days before we left Asturias; you’d think navigating an international house move through the shark-infested waters of Covid-19 and Brexit would have been more than enough to be concentrating on at the time but maybe this was a little bit of self-indulgent, stress-busting madness! I contemplated a tiny skein of homespun Southdown fleece dyed with onion skins and a scrap of rather luxurious jade Merino / silk blend and before I knew it, a small bear had been born. For the best part of eighteen months now, the only contact we have had with our young grandchildren is via video calls; I am so grateful we have the technology and our weekly chats are very special, but never the same as spending time together and making simple mischief. Enter Kitchen Ted (he’s called that because he, um, lives in the kitchen) who behaves very badly on our calls, generating peals of giggles at the other end and generally bringing a lot of fun to our chats. He also gatecrashes our days out, sending photos to the littlies to show what he’s been up to and most especially, anything delicious that might have been lurking in the picnic or cake box. Perhaps we should have called him Yogi? In short, it’s one of those mad family things, totally daft but rather lovely at the same time. However, the next time he muscles in on all the panoramic photos, I shall be leaving him in the kitchen where he belongs . . .
From bears to bees, and the protected bees’ nest that is hidden deep within the church wall. The story goes that in the year 898, a colony of honey bees saw off a group of soldiers bent on sacrilegious destruction on this site, sending them packing over the steep cliff. Ever since, they have continued to protect the church and are themselves the object of special protection; they were certainly fizzing out of the hole in the sun-warmed stone and, even as former beekeepers used to being close to bees, it seemed wise to keep our distance and treat them with the complete respect they deserve.
From the church, the path leads down to a tiny chapel sitting in a wide meadow which is bounded by a loop of the river; in contrast to the dappled light and blues and whites of the woodland, it was alive with the bright sunshine of buttercups and cheerful whirring of crickets.
This is a place of utter tranquility, scattered stone benches offering the chance for visitors to sit, rest and simply drink in the beauty of the place and complete immersion in nature. We shared a flask of coffee, faces turned to the sun as a chorus of birdsong ricocheted off the wooded valley sides and butterflies floated idly by. There were a few others doing much the same thing there; no problems with social distancing and no-one wearing masks – it felt like a glimpse of the normality we used to take for granted and one we will hopefully be blessed with again.
The meadow is a hard place to leave and the temptation is certainly to linger but as it is only a few miles from home – a decent bike ride, in fact – then we will certainly be back before too long. The only decision on leaving was whether to wind our way back through the village down streets we had missed or to wander along the river to where we had started our walk.
In the end, we plumped for the river option, still hopeful for a glimpse of those elusive kingfishers; no such luck, they were definitely playing hard to get. Maybe next time? What a lovely walk it was and a gentle reminder of just what treasures we have on our doorstep; it was time to head back to jobs in the garden . . . but here’s to the next little excurson! 😊