The silly season

A local friend remarked this week that Mayenne seems to be moving from having four seasons in a year to just two: summer and winter. I understand what he means. Spring can be pitifully slow to arrive, especially if April is dominated by glacial drying winds blasting down from the north-east whilst come October ~ and particularly this year ~ it seems that summer is extremely reluctant to slip away. With a current daytime temperature of 23°C falling only to 16°C over night, we are enjoying a soft, wrap-around warmth that feels anything but autumnal. The ash trees have made some sort of seasonal effort, fading to yellow and dropping their leaves, but apart from the cherries, nothing else is hurrying to join them; in fact, the mature oaks which form the greater part of our boundaries are still sporting a deep summer green. The single chestnut tree has made no move towards its beautiful coppery autumn tones but it is at least dropping a bounty of fat nuts onto the carpet of ash leaves which makes for very lazy foraging. Halved and peeled, drizzled with a little olive oil and seasoning, tucked through with sprigs of rosemary then roasted, they make a simple but fabulous dish ~ truly seasonal, even if the weather is anything but.

The garden is looking so lush and green that it reminds me of Asturias; even the squash and courgette plants that were caught by a frost a couple of weeks ago have put on lots of new growth and the globe artichokes and cardoons have grown so much new silvery foliage that I fear for their survival should the winter be hard. The Not Garden which I partly cleared some weeks ago, scattering rocket and landcress seed as I went, is a carpet of growth, with plants like New Zealand spinach and oca which really should be winding down now looking more enthusiastic and abundant than they have all year. Even the little fig tree is giving a second crop of sweet fruits. It’s complete madness, if I’m honest.

In the main potager, Roger has been planting white garlic and broad beans this week, the main problem being trying to find appropriate spaces for them amongst all the vegetation. There are already several volunteer broad bean plants where the crop was grown this year, plus peas, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, coriander and lettuce (which are literally everywhere) and I’m pretty sure that those tender individuals are in for a very rude awakening as soon as the weather turns. There’s also a mass of self-set buckwheat and I can’t even begin to describe what is going on with phacelia, which really should have had a growth check by now to hold it as a sensible winter cover crop but it’s romping away so quickly that it’s in danger of flowering. I’ve had to chop it with a hoe from around the young Savoy cabbage plants for the second time in a month as it was threatening to completely engulf them: part of me suspects I may have to do it again before we’re finished.

Then there’s the polytunnel. We’ve just spent a week in the UK and on our return, I couldn’t quite believe what had happened in our absence. The winter salad crops have exploded into a mass of colourful peppery leaves, punctuated by enough self-set lettuce to feed an army but more astoundingly, the sweet pepper and aubergine plants have all decided to have another go and are literally dripping with heavy fruits. No chance of clearing the plants out and prepping the soil for next year just yet, then! The tomatoes have finally given up the ghost in the mandala bed but there are peppers and aubergines still for the picking plus a bonus crop of borlotti beans that have appeared on plants I almost pulled out last month. At this time of year, we really should be starting on the starchier winter vegetables along with leeks and kale but it seems there is still much of summer to be had on our plates.

Wonderful though this might be from a culinary point of view, there is a more sobering side to this unseasonal weather. In the UK, which like mainland Europe is experiencing unusually mild weather, environmental experts are expressing concern about the effect on fragile ecosystems such as chalk downs and the future of the rare and seriously endangered dormouse. Certainly, there is still an unusually high level of animal activity on our patch of land. Normally by now I would be setting up bird-feeding stations but there remains an abundance of natural foods for the avian population to tuck into so no need for fat balls just yet; the garden is still full of flowers which in turn are heaving with insect visitors; lizards continue to skitter about the stone walls and I almost tripped over an enormous grass snake winding its way through the grass earlier in the week. Arriving home from our UK trip late at night, we were unable to park the car in its usual place because a very large hedgehog was busy snuffling through the gravel! What a complete treat to see this beautiful nocturnal creature going about its business, and a poignant reminder of why we don’t use slug pellets (or any other toxic substances, for that matter) in the garden. On a sadder note, the next day we found a small juvenile hedgehog dead in the garden, quickly followed by a live one the same size ~ a sibling? ~ bumbling about near the Oak Shed. It looks like, in keeping with many pairs of birds this year, the hedgehogs had a late brood and I can’t imagine that seeing a young hedgepig like this out and about in broad daylight at the end of October is a good thing. That said, I don’t like interfering with the way of nature unless absolutely necessary as it’s possible to end up causing serious problems and distress. A little research told me that this youngster was above the critical size and weight deemed necessary for survival and as it wasn’t apparently ailing, I only hope it has the maturity and fat reserves to make it through the winter. I haven’t seen any trace of it since ~ dead or alive ~ and I have my fingers crossed that’s a good sign.

I’ve recently treated myself to a copy of Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden, an esteemed permaculture bible, and I love the way he talks about an ‘ecological garden’ because I think it sums up exactly the approach we practise. There is no shortage of places for creatures great and small to overwinter here as we make a conscious effort to leave plentiful piles of natural materials such as logs, brushwood, stone, hay, leaves and grass clippings in every corner of the patch and no official autumn ‘tidy up’ means there is a jungle of dried stems favoured by so many insects. Roger has been catching up with some mowing this week ~ the grass is growing at a phenomenal rate! ~ and the clippings are truly lush, full of clover and wormcasts and mixed with chopped dead leaves which makes for an excellent soil improver, mulch and compost ingredient. Under normal circumstances, I would be cutting things like the French beans off at ground level now, chopping the spent plant material over the soil surface and then mulching the lot but as I can’t get down down to the soil thanks to my dratted back problem, I’m gently trampling the plants under my wellies instead and then raking a thick pile of mulch over the top. We’re also piling the mulch straight on top of the courgette and squash plants in the lasagne and Hügel beds; it’s a bit rough and ready but will have to do for this year and as long as winter and the worms do their job, it should all help with building good soil for next season.

I smile to see how the master mower leaves large swathes of uncut grass where fungi are blooming; it’s quite a job avoiding them and I tread carefully on the grass paths so as not to crush any. It has certainly been an incredible year for them and their varied colours and often strange forms continue to fascinate me.

One light gardening job that I managed (and thoroughly enjoyed) this week was planting a few pots of spring bulbs and revamping the window boxes to bring some colour and interest to the front of the house. Roger emptied and shifted the large plastic pots of spent tomato plants, leaving a few glazed ones that I’ve planted with mixed tulips and a double narcissus called ‘Cheerfulness’ which we’ve placed right by the front door ~ beats a ‘welcome’ mat in my book any day. I’m not a fan of bought bedding plants but with circumstances having prevented me raising my own winter-flowering pansies this summer, we bought a few trays from the tiny nursery in St P; Monsieur Verraquin, who is very friendly and chatty, sells a good selection of quality plants quite literally from his front yard and I’m happy to support a local business like this that serves the community so well. The pansies look lovely and should flourish, no doubt seeding themselves all around the gravel and still going strong next May when I’m champing at the bit to put some summer colour in the boxes. This year, I decided to experiment with some different ideas in an attempt to get away from the ubiquitous and somewhat sterile pelargoniums, and planted the boxes with zinnias and violas raised from seed with a few nasturtiums poked in amongst them. The result was a bit underwhelming, in all truth. The violas made a lovely early show but faded away rapidly as soon as the hot weather arrived; the nasturtiums hated the heat and never really got going, producing a few pathetic leaves at best before promptly dying. The zinnias were the definite stars, they have flowered for many months and have been a-buzz with insect attention, but they grew way too tall and so looked more than a little odd without the underplanting I had hoped would balance their height. Well, nothing ventured and all that. There are still many zinnias flowering in the garden and I have collected and dried plenty of seed for next year; they might not be perfect candidates for window displays but they are worth their weight in gold when it comes to colour, resilience and sheer cheerfulness ~ the narcissi definitely don’t hold a monopoly on that one.

No sooner were we back from our travels this week but Joël the stonemason arrived to start his bit of the upper barn renovation. It’s an exciting time, since once he has worked his magic, we will have the shell of a large family guestroom at last; there will be much for us to do, all the fiddly finishing bits that take so much time plus laying a floor and applying numerous coats of paint, not to mention sourcing some furniture (Depot Vente, here we come again . . . ). That’s fine, we have all winter and I’ll share more about this project in a later post when the days are dark, cold and miserable. I’m assuming we’ll have a winter, of course, but in the meantime it’s far too warm and pleasant to be indoors. We’re squeezing every last minute out of this incredible weather while it lasts and it’s a joy to be busy in the garden ~ even if it does feel ridiculously unseasonal. 😊

Indian summer

It has been the most beautiful week in this little corner of Mayenne, the sort that makes my heart sing with joy. The weather has been stunning and unbelievably warm ~ hot, in fact; I have spent several afternoons stretched out on a lounger in shorts, vest and suncream, indulging unashamedly in some solar therapy, and enjoying the very best of this lovely season. I must confess, this is a benefit of being out of action (well, there has to be something, doesn’t there?) . . . the normally fit and active me wouldn’t dream of lazy sunbathing like that at such a busy time of year. Mmm, but it’s truly idyllic. 😊 The trees are just on the turn, painting warm autumnal colours against the clear blue sky, and there is an abundance of nuts and bright berries woven through the hedgerows. It is perfectly still and calm, the air as soporific as the sleepy butterflies floating through the flowers or the leisurely wingbeats of the grey heron heading sedately to fish in a neighbouring pond. Days like this are such a bonus, a bright memory to be stored and visited in the dark, miserable months of winter.

The warm weather is not the only bonus: many things in the garden are having another crack at summer, too, and it is a riot of lush green and colour. A friend commented in August how sad it was that the garden looked so different compared to the same time last year, so brown and burnt up and lacking the floral rainbows I love. He was absolutely right . . . but my goodness, it’s a different story now.

Many of the perennials are having a second flush ~ the roses in particular are putting on quite a show ~ but a large amount of the colour comes from annuals that have self-set; they might have been over in a flash and run to dry seedheads far too quickly in summer, but the second generation of plants is more than making up for lost time. We have mallow and borage, calendula and cornflowers, poppies and cosmos in broad drifts and bright pops, as well as a few newbies like coreopsis that have suddenly appeared for the first time. It’s a crazy, chaotic jungle buzzing with insects, lizards and bird life and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

We know we live in a bit of a frost pocket but we weren’t quite expecting a frost sharp enough to take some squash and courgette plants just yet ~ one of the prices we’ve paid for such gorgeous afternoons, I suppose. Not that it matters, the courgettes had finished fruiting and the squash are ready for harvesting so there’s no harm done. In more sheltered spots, tender plants are still thriving and producing; in the jumble of growth that is the mandala bed, the bright crimson of sweet peppers makes an eye-catching palette above trailing orange nasturtiums, blue borage and magenta mallow.

We’re still picking oodles of tomatoes out of that bed and the climbing borlotti beans have decided to have a second crop, their speckled red pods adding to the celebration of colour. The rainbow chard, which we almost lost to a plague of aphids in spring, has been a real trooper all summer and goes from strength to strength, so pretty in the autumn light. Here it nestles happily with Welsh onions, flat-leaved parsley and Asturian beans in the kind of exuberant and productive polyculture I love.

I’ve managed to do a few more units of study from my permaculture course, including one about preserving food: well, there’s no problem putting that one into practice at the moment! The biggest issue for us is finding enough space in appropriate places to store everything because despite having plenty of outbuildings, they don’t all tick the frost-free, dry and beastie-proof boxes, so much of this week has been spent getting more organised. As much of our harvest ends up in the freezer, we have been using up what we can to free up space for new things such as eating frozen peas alongside fresh veggies from the garden and turning several bags of cherries into jam. It’s very easy to get sucked into the classic storeman’s mentality and keep preserved food that would be better off being used; sweet summer peas (especially with gravy, I think) are lovely with a winter meal but we will have leeks, cabbages, chard and kale for greens then, so what are we saving the peas for? In the same way, I’ve been making a pile of cabbages into sauerkraut this week but we will eat it sooner rather than later, as we already have a good store of pickles and chutneys . . . and there will be plenty more cabbages to come for future sauerkraut moments.

One of our best storage spaces is the cave that adjoins the kitchen and Roger has been busy this week giving it a much-needed spring clean, evicting things that don’t need to be in there (like my dyeing equipment) and freeing up shelves and floor space for more important things. It’s a great place for jars of preserves and the bottles of apple juice that have been pasteurised, for crates of potatoes, carrots, oca, onions and garlic, strings of dried chillies and of course, the squash. Mmm, they are going to need some room; we haven’t even harvested half of them yet . . .

Our apple harvest just goes on and on, but again we are making sensible decisions about what to do with them as it is a pointless waste to spend time and energy (plus the cost of any additional ingredients) processing, preserving and storing food we will never get round to eating. Where the permaculture principle of ‘produce no waste’ is concerned, I think this is an important consideration; we need to stand back and look at our waste stream in a completely holistic way. We’re making as much apple juice as we can but 50 or so litres will do us for a year; we’re freezing pots of compote but I’m also keeping a large bowl of fresh stuff going in the fridge, perfect for my cold ‘porridge’ breakfasts. If the weather ever cools enough to light the stove ~ and I’m not wishing that on us just yet ~ we will dry several jars of apple rings and I will make a few trays of apple and cinnamon leather. We will store as many of the best hand-picked fruits for as long as they will keep but we have to accept that we simply can’t use them all and the last of the windfalls will feed the birds and the compost heap. I don’t see that as waste, just natural recycling.

In my last post I mentioned the tremendous amount of self-setting that is going on around the patch and this week has seen the trend continuing, with peas being the seed of the moment; there’s even a very healthy plant that’s popped up between the paving setts outside the kitchen door and I have no idea quite how it got there. The first row of outdoor peas I sowed in spring were a disaster and needed replanting several times due to patchy germination and the fact that something (small and furry, I suspect) dug them up and scoffed them. It seems nothing short of ironic that we now seem to have a far more enthusiastic row that have self-set in their place! More and more, I find myself thinking that it makes increasing sense to let nature get on with these things and we’ll just harvest bits and pieces whenever and wherever they decide to grow. I do have a cunning plan where next year’s early outdoor peas are concerned, though, and I’m collecting the cardboard tubes from toilet rolls to do a bit of pre-sowing; given that we buy eco-rolls, recycled and compacted so that one goes a long, long way, I doubt I’ll have enough even by spring but it’s a start. I’ll be planting some early peas in the tunnel again as they were highly successful (despite the mice transplanting them), and I’m also going to put in a few broad beans this time which will crop ahead of the outdoor ones, which by all accounts were pretty disappointing this year. Belt and braces all the way . . .

April peas ~ the benefit of growing under cover.

Another plan we have for next year is to extend the existing Hügel beds as well as create at least one new one. It’s been interesting so see just how successfully they retain moisture and support growth even in their first season and next year I intend to branch out from planting squash on them and experiment with other food plants as well. As the ‘Crown Prince’ foliage dies back to reveal a bumper crop of blue-skinned squash, an unexpected and very welcome bonus has appeared in the shape of some huge and very beautiful field mushrooms growing beneath them.

It is a tremendous year for fungi and every morning sees more and more blooms around the garden and in the verges along the lanes; the local woodlands are always brimming at this time of year and Roger tells me that amongst other things, there are parasol mushrooms in our coppice ~ interesting, as I have only ever seen them growing in pasture land before. They are every bit as edible as field mushrooms, although slightly different in texture, and along with the current abundance of chestnuts they offer an opportunity for some satisfying seasonal foraging. Mushroom hunting is a very popular pastime here and one day in the future, I’d like to head into the woods on an organised foraging session with an expert and learn to identify more of the kinds that grow locally. Anyone feeling unsure about fungi they have collected can take them to the pharmacy for accurate identification but personally I prefer to leave them well alone unless I know for sure they are safe to eat (and touch). It’s an interesting exercise trying to put names to the fungi around the garden, but even using comprehensive and detailed guides, I end up with many labelled ‘No Idea’ ~ and they are definitely best left to do their thing undisturbed.

A huge blessing of the current weather is that we have not wanted or needed to light a fire in the house yet. There has been no question of lighting the kitchen stove since because of the way the system was installed, it means having the radiators on upstairs and the house is so warm, we would cook in bed! With sunshine streaming in through the windows for several hours each day, we are still enjoying passive solar heating so that even when it goes dark, we haven’t felt the need to light the sitting room woodburner either. All this will change soon enough but in the meantime, every day where we are not burning logs is a bonus and helps to keep our log store looking healthy. Roger has spent some time in the coppice this week, cutting fallen deadwood to season for future winters; it’s an ongoing task, but there are enough fallen trees to last us several years and although burning wood is currently being much maligned by certain governments, we like the independence it gives us, especially in the light of the current energy crisis.

We have just changed electricity providers and had quite a time of it trying to persuade them that our consumption is next to nothing; despite the proof being there loud and clear in nearly two years of bills, no-one seems to want to accept that we can survive on so little! In some ways, we are a bit of an anomaly as our electricity consumption falls over the winter months when we use the stove for cooking and heating water as well as a space heater. The French government has capped electricity price rises to 4% and strategies are being put in place to safeguard supplies but to be honest, if there are power cuts over winter they won’t bother us too much. Keeping the freezer functioning is our biggest priority and we have a generator to hand for that should it become necessary, otherwise we are well-provisioned with logs, candles and matches and dab hands at rustling up hot meals over wood. It pays to be prepared for all eventualities but at the moment, it’s hard to imagine those long, dark days of howling wind and lashing rain or snow and ice and winter storms . . . for now, I am more than happy basking in this rather beautiful last blast of summer living.

October already?

I can’t believe it’s October already, the months seem to be slipping away far too quickly. Still, it is a gorgeous time of year as we begin to tiptoe softly through autumn; the landscape and garden are still green and full but there is a definite change in the air and subtle hints of what’s to come. The dry, sun-drenched summer could possibly herald a season of spectacular autumn colours, but not just yet. Let’s not rush. Please.

The dark mornings have hurried in far too quickly and caught us unawares, the sun not rising until 8am now although the robins start their silky serenades well before then. There is a cool freshness to the mornings, too, with everything cobwebby and drenched in dew; in the low light, the silvered garden is transformed into something quite magical.

We’ve even had the tiniest touch of frost but nothing that could do any damage, and as daytime temperatures climb quickly in the sunshine to the high teens or low twenties, the garden is still thriving. It’s all looking a bit jumbled and tumbled but I love that sense of chaotic fullness, the mad mix of food and flowers which continues to produce so much for the wildlife and the kitchen. There’s no question of an autumn ‘tidy up’ here, I’m just happy to let everything do its own thing in a way that epitomises my whole approach to gardening these days, especially in my current hobbled state. For instance, in the circular bed that had been used as a bonfire patch before we moved here, there is a lot going on. The tardy brassicas, which hated the heat and drought, are going at it full tilt, giving us plentiful helpings of calabrese and kale. Behind them, Jerusalem artichokes are a show of sunny flowers, their long stems waving at crazy angles or lying on the ground ~ but even down there, the bumble bees love them, and they are welcome to tuck in as we won’t be lifting the tubers for a long time yet. There are a few annual flowers left in the mix along with dill and coriander seedheads which will guarantee volunteer crops next year, and the whole lot is being perfectly mulched by a carpet of self-set phacelia. Some people might call it a mess but to me, it’s just perfect . . . and a million miles from the plastic-infested mound of scorched earth we inherited.

In the Strawberry Circle, it’s much the same story. The strawberry plants, which are still fruiting, have got totally away from me over the summer; my plans to peg down a few healthy runners for new plants went completely awry but needless to say, they’ve done it themselves rather too enthusiastically and I am going to have to get in there and sort things out at a later date. The annual flowers I sowed around the edge look a bit past it from a distance but seen up close, they are still quite stunning, a rainbow of mallow, cosmos, borage, calendula, French marigold, echium, cornflower, zinnia, annual chrysanthemum and dill, all a-buzz with insect life. It would be utter sacrilege to pull them out in the name of being tidy when they still have so much to offer.

It seems strange to still be eating strawberries and the last few melons when apples are so obviously the fruit of the moment. As I wander through the trees, their perfume is intoxicating and every bit as sweet and delightful as the blossom was earlier in the year. I suppose we are at a bit of a crossover point where food crops are concerned; we can still pick lettuce, baby leaves, cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, spring onions, young courgettes and a wealth of fresh herbs and petals for salads . . . but this week, the call of ingredients with a more robust crunch like cabbage, carrot, onion, beetroot and black radish has seen us enjoying the first colourful slaw of the season. We are probably moving towards the last of the aubergines, courgettes and red tomatoes which have been reliable troopers for many months but that’s no problem: the indomitable squash are waiting in the wings . . .

We’ve been bagging and labelling the last of our saved seeds this week and I’m really thrilled with just how well-provisioned we are for next year. As well as drying and storing in the conventional way, I’m experimenting with a few other ideas, too, such as burying a whole leek flower head in a pot of compost to see what happens. There’s also a tremendous amount of self-set germination going on all around the patch; as well as rocket and landcress, the Not Garden now boasts a carpet of young chive plants and a drift of young lettuces. The latter, in fact, are popping up everywhere which has me smiling given how I’ve struggled for years to save lettuce seed properly; this year has suited them so well, and given that many of the volunteers are ‘Merveille des Quatre Saisons’, I’m interested to see if they live up to their name and survive the colder months. One of the most abundant patch of seedlings has appeared in the gravel just outside the front door: well, that could well be a talking point for visitors!

I’ve always liked it when visitors turn up on the doorstep unannounced. I know it’s lovely to welcome expected guests, making an effort to clean the house a bit, bake biscuits and bring in fresh flowers, but there is always something sweetly informal about surprise visits that I also enjoy. Anyone who pops in like that is always happy to take us as they find us and if the house is a tip bit messy and the biccy jar is empty, no-one’s bothered ~ in fact, I would say it’s a sign of a comfortable and genuine relationship. So it was that I was delighted a few days ago when my friend Rolande turned up out of the blue; a sprightly 77 year-old who lives several kilometres away, she had fancied doing a ‘petit tour‘ on her bike and called in to say hello and check on progress in our jardin anglais. I love chatting to Rolande, she has a wicked sense of humour and talks nineteen to the dozen, something which is a bit of an issue for her English neighbours who tell her she talks too fast. Did I agree? Well, I replied diplomatically, I think we all tend to rattle away in our mother tongue, and anyway keeping up with her tsunami of words is an excellent workout for my conversational French. To be fair to the Brits, there is also a marked local accent and a patois spoken by some elderly people which can take some tuning in to. When we first lived here ten years ago, I couldn’t for the life of me work out why our neighbour Daniel spent so much time talking about le bouton, pronounced ‘boot – on’ (the button) until finally the penny dropped: what he was actually saying was le beau temps (good weather) in the local accent which was totally lost on my (then) untrained ear!

Anyway, back to Rolande who usually has a little something to tut about whenever we meet and this time it was the fact that she has had an official house number imposed on her. French addresses are blissfully simple: house number and street name, postcode, then village, town or city. We country dwellers live in what is referred to as a lieu-dit (literally a ‘place’) so instead of a number and street name, the place name is the first line of our address and I love how so many of them reflect the historic busyness of these rural areas (the haberdashery, the basket weavers, the log store, the butcher’s shop), as well as the natural world (the foxes’ den, the rocky place, the hill of periwinkles). The problem with the system is that without numbers, all properties in the same lieu-dit have the same address ~ not so much an issue for the post people who are local and know where everyone lives but a bit tricky for anyone else making deliveries, something which is (sadly) becoming more frequent with the rise in online shopping. Most people have an external postbox but the name labels tend to fade which isn’t much help to delivery drivers who start their day in depots as far away as Le Mans. The upshot is that we have all recently been given a number, a state of affairs Rolande is finding totally absurd given she has lived in her house for decades and no-one has ever struggled to find her. It’s a small thing, really, and makes no odds to us whatsoever, but there is something that has left us a bit baffled: we live in splendid isolation, we are literally the only house in the lieu-dit . . . so how come we are now officially number two? 😕

One visitor we are definitely expecting is Joël, a local stonemason who we have known for years and who is going to start some work for us any day now. Like Rolande, he has a wonderful sense of humour and is always on a (hopeless?) mission to have me speaking flawless French, so that our conversations tend to be part chat and banter, part grammar lesson ~ it’s certainly a great way to learn. Joël is a true artisan, a master of his craft who takes an immense pride in his projects; we have been waiting more than a year for his arrival as he is snowed under with work . . . great for business, but the reason isn’t a happy one. He has always had at least one apprentice under his wing but now he says that young people just don’t seem interested in training anymore; the work is physically hard and doesn’t hold much attraction when there are easier alternatives on offer. As the old masters retire ~ as Joël intends to do in the next couple of years ~ stonemasons are becoming scarcer all the time with no younger generation following on behind, hence the inundation of work requests. I think this is a very sad situation particularly as, along with many other people, my preferred vision for the future is of a move back towards these practical, worthy and sustainable crafts within local communities, the often ancient knowledge and skills being passed on to the next generation. I’m now wondering what the future will bring and who will care for the beautiful stone buildings that are such a part of the local heritage and landscape?

I have a friend running in the London Marathon and I shall be cheering her on in spirit as she tackles the iconic 26 miles / 42 kilometres for the very first time at the age of 61 ~ what an inspiration! It wouldn’t do for me, however: I don’t like London, I have no intention of ever running a marathon (a half-marathon five years ago was more than enough) and I hate crowds, but I know for many people it’s a huge celebration of running and humanity. Before we travelled to Norway in June, I was training to run 5k ~ far more my sort of distance ~ as Stavanger has a weekly Parkrun and Roger and I thought it would be a great thing to do while we were there. Parkrun is a brilliant concept and something we like to support when we can, and the route looked truly beautiful, going all round the lake at Mosvatnet and climbing to the viewing point at Vålandstårnet. Having not run for some time, I stuck religiously to my training plan only to find out shortly before we travelled that the Parkrun was cancelled because a weekend music festival would mean some of the paths were closed. Who’d believe such bad timing?

Ah, well . . . we walked up to enjoy the view from Vålandstårnet anyway.

The situation with my back has meant I haven’t been able to even think about running since our return from Norway, and as in all honesty it’s never exactly been my best thing, I haven’t felt too sad about that. 😆 Walking, though, is another matter and I am so frustrated that for three months now, I’ve been unable to stride out and enjoy a few decent local hikes. It seems like such a waste of the season, especially as we are enjoying some beautifully warm, sunny days now and the countryside looks so very lovely. Roger came home from a run this week with a handful of meaty chestnuts, huge glossy treasures that grow in such abundance here; we reach for them often as a winter comfort food, so good roasted with vegetables and chopped into crumbles or stuffings. Last year, we had some wonderful wanders through the local woods, foraging as we went, in a way which always feels to me like a true celebration of the season. This year, I have to be content with following the fairy trails of fungi round the garden and leaving Roger to go further afield on his own ~ there will be chestnuts to store, but no thanks to me. Sigh. Things are improving, but only very slowly. I just have to be patient . . .

Unlike me, Roger has been running like a demon and, with his fitness back, he has started taking part in races again. He’s still not as fast as he’d like to be, but he’s already qualified for the French 10k championship next year on the back of his results so I’m impressed, even if he is calling himself Captain Slow. He’s joined the local running club so now has a French athletics licence, a new green club vest and, although he’s always preferred to run alone, he’s really enjoying the club training nights. They are a friendly and welcoming bunch who are meeting him halfway with language ~ it’s a great incentive to learn and improve ~ and he has entered plenty of upcoming events as part of the team. A recent evening race in Alençon followed a route through the historic centre of the town and involved running through several buildings: definitely a first for Roger, that one!

As well as running this week, Roger has been cutting the wide swathes of long grass that we purposely leave around the margins of our patch. It’s a hefty once-a-year job but as much as anything, it means we can find and check all the young trees that we planted in these wilder areas at the beginning of the year. Keeping them watered through the drought was a labour of love and, inevitably, they haven’t all survived, but we’re hoping a few of the ‘doubtfuls’ will grow back from their roots. There’s plenty to celebrate, though, and I’m particularly chuffed with the red dogwoods grown from cuttings which should make a splash of winter colour mixed through with various willows.

Elsewhere, other young trees that went in as nothing more than bare-rooted twigs are looking healthy and happy as they start to make an impact with their autumn colours.

In contrast to the wild margins, where the grass has been mown this year we have seen an explosion of fungi over the last few days; so many different species in mushroomy blooms and trails, they are completely magical. Their presence makes me want to jump for joy since all that wonderful mycelium threading and weaving its way underground is evidence of a healthy soil and ecosystem; far from being feared or maligned, they are to be welcomed with open arms and their transient beauty enjoyed every day. Well worth a morning wander ~ even if it does feel a bit late these days!