Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Gliding over Oxfordshire...

It is, I venture to suggest, very important to force oneself from one's comfort zone from time to time.
Yesterday I did just that when I took part in a gliding lesson over the Oxfordshire countryside.

 I was apprehensive when I arrived at the airfield.
I do not like heights, which makes skiing down steep mountains challenging at times. Although it's the going up that terrifies me, the coming down is fabulous and definitely worth it!

This was my glider...

It is as small and fragile-looking as it appears in the photo.

Before taking to the air I watched a short video that explained how to control the glider, how to communicate with the instructor and what to do in the event of a bail-out, although I'd already realised that in the event of an accident there was no way I'd have the time to open the canopy, undo my seat belts, clamber out of my seat, manoeuvre myself onto the wing and leap to safety before I hit the ground, so I'd decided to go down with my ship, as it were.

I was also acutely aware that taking off would be the worst part of the experience because the glider is catapulted into the air by a winch and that appeared to make the going up fast, steep and quite, quite contrary to the laws of physics.

And I was right.
Taking off was not nice.
I think I said Flip at least a hundred times as I tried very hard not to say the 'F' word.

And then we were up and the winch cable dropped and we were gliding over Oxfordshire.


It wasn't my first time in a small aircraft.

Years ago, back in the days when I had a good career and lots of spare cash, I took a flying lesson in a Cessna.

That experience was delightful and I found flying the plane easy. Perhaps I had more confidence in myself then?

The lack of thermals meant that the first flight was short.
Which meant that we had to repeat the take-off.
The second time that we were catapulted into the air I made the mistake of closing my eyes and so, of course, I was overcome with motion-sickness.    

I simply didn't find the experience fun.

I took the controls briefly and then relinquished them. I feel safer with an engine, gliding is not my cup of tea...

 And landing again was a relief....

So, I did it.
I stepped, or rather, I was catapulted, out of my comfort zone and into the unknown.
I survived.
And now I have a certificate to prove it.

I learned a lot from my gliding experience. Aside from the obvious how to fly a glider etc, I learned that the biggest obstacle to being confident, competent and successful is, probably, my own inner fears.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Walking with Walnuts...

I had to use that title, it's so alliterative

The house that I rent here in England is small, so small that I call it The Doll's House, it's about one fifth the size of my house in France and very, very expensive. I know, it's a little crazy, this situation, but it is as it is and for now it must be tolerated.

There are compensations.
Here is the principle one...

Welcome to the green...

As seen from my bedroom window which I keep wide open for most of the year, even in winter, so that I can sit in bed and gaze at the green

  At four o'clock on a June morning when the green is shrouded in mist the dog and I are out early, too early for other walkers, we have the green all to ourselves.

I always try to walk into the mist and the mist always eludes me. I love that! Maybe one day I'll catch the mist.

In winter I sometimes wake with the scent of snowflakes in the air and I leap from bed and look out on this scene...

This is my favourite weather, I am addicted to snow and should probably live north of the Arctic circle.

When it snows we spend a lot of time on the green, of course.

Those trees are walnuts. When I first moved here I was delighted to discover them, partly because I am a faithful forager and in autumn I love to return home with my pockets full of walnuts, and partly because they are such magnificent trees.

Walnut trees are good for us.
And all parts of the tree are useful...
The leaves have laxative, astringent and detergent properties. They can be used fresh, when their oily aroma is delicious, or dried, seeped in water and drunk daily or applied externally. I have to admit that I haven't tried them, not being in need of them medicinally, but now I'm curious...   
The bark can be dried and crushed and used as a purgative. I think not... 
The nuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, B vitamins and antioxidants, they help to lower cholesterol and keep blood vessels supple and free of deposits. All of which adds up to wonderful mood-enhancing, brain-boosting, heart-healing goodness.

Walnut wood makes beautiful furniture, but years ago we British fell in love with mahogany and our walnut plantations were abandoned when we preferred to import that hardwood from the ravaged rainforests of its native lands. Mahogany makes strong, sturdy furniture but it takes a long time to grow, it costs a great deal to transport and it's felling causes a lot of damage to its forests. I think it's better to stay local, to grow the food, to make the clothes, to manufacture the goods, that a community needs, close to home.

If I had the means, I'd have a walnut plantation. I wouldn't be able to chop down the trees, I'd be too sentimental, they'd have to grow until I am no longer around and someone else would have to harvest their wood. Which reminds me of my former partner in France and the irony of a fate that brought together an unashamed tree-hugger and a skilled and enthusiastic carpenter. 

But science and sense aside, walking with the walnuts does wonders for my well-being.
I can't even begin to describe how relaxed and happy I am when I'm out there on the green, or how much better I am because I live next to it. It's unquantifiable. Suffice to say that I am grateful to have found this place.   

So I adore the walnut trees
And I worry about them
Last year the weather was so wet and so cold that the trees succumbed to a nasty blight, the leaves rotted on the branches and fell much too early. And, having unfurled their flowers in the midst of a monsoon, they were unable to produce any nuts. Last year the walnuts suffered and I fretted...

 This year winter held us in its icy grip for a long, long time. It was the coldest March on record. Some days it felt as if spring would never come. I watched the walnuts and I worried...

And then, suddenly, it was spring...

The tight little buds on the bare branches of the walnut trees burst open...
Delicate red/brown leaves unfurled...

The male flowers appeared...   

And the small, yellow female flowers could be seen sheltering shyly in the tips of the branches....

And every day as I walked among the walnuts I watched over them, as anxious as a doting parent

And the sun continued to shine and the rain was light and infrequent, and the walnuts flourished and I breathed a sigh of relief.

And now the walnut trees are growing well in the sunshine that we've enjoyed for the last few weeks. The nuts are swelling nicely, the leaves are glossy and strong and I am content, although I still watch over my walnuts and I still inspect them during our thrice-daily walks.

Life isn't always easy and often it doesn't go the way we'd planned
Some years are good, some years are bad
We have to have faith that finally, tout serra bien

Last summer was not kind to the trees on the green...

This autumn there will be walnuts to gather...

Sunday, 16 June 2013

L' Abbaye de Beauport

Today my Black Dog has appeared, snarling and snapping and sapping my energy. He's an occasional and very unwelcome visitor, he usually shows up when I've been working too hard and neglecting my needs, and no matter how much I try to tame him, when he's around it's always tough. So, while I'm wrestling with him, I'm going to write about a day in July 2007, partly to break the silence, and partly to remind myself that tomorrow the sun will shine again....

L'Abbey de Beauport

On Friday Brittany was treated to a dazzlingly sunny day brushed by the kind of bakingly hot wind that brings to mind Saharan dunes and the bleached bones of long-dead animals...

The heat in the village was intense, by midday it seemed as if the glare of the sun had leached the colour from the flowers in the tubs around the mairie, flies hovered and buzzed and a haze shimmered and danced above the road

My zen friend CG and I had been talking of taking a trip to visit the Abbaye de Beauport   at Paimpol, so yesterday, to escape the heat, we headed north to the coast.

At this time of year, and when the sun shines, Brittany is intensely colourful.
There are thickly wooded valleys of rich shades of green through which the road winds under dappled shade. Grey-brown granite cottages or bright cream modern Breton villas, decorated with pots and tubs and boxes of tumbling red geraniums, sit in flower-filled, fragrant gardens.
Patchwork fields of maize, their leaves glossy green spears, mellow yellow stretches of rippling wheat and lush pastures with contented cows grazing and dozing and lazily tail-flicking flies.
Small villages clustered round a medieval church display brightly painted posters announcing their Fest Noz, a crèpe soirée, a concert of harp music or the exhibition of someone's artistic aspirations. And then, suddenly, like a jewel uncovered in the bottom of a box of brass buttons, there is the sea...

On such a day the sea is a brilliant azure blue.
Almost too blue to be real.
As we twisted and turned following the winding road, we kept catching tantalising glimpses of the distant sea and each time we called out excitedly, "It's SO blue!"

I thought that I had seen everything beautiful that Brittany has to offer during the drive to Paimpol but when we entered the abbey grounds we were met by this perfect picture...

The most beautiful flower meadow that I have ever seen outside of an impressionist painting

We sank to our knees and drank in the beauty of the flowers, the sound of bees buzzing, bird singing, the muted voices of other visitors.  
And then we wandered off to explore... 

Inside the abbey...

Probably the most beautiful and cherished 'ruin' that I have ever explored, and I have, trust me, explored my fair share of ruins!

Even without the vaulted roof, the soaring columns and stained glass windows my eyes were drawn to heaven

Even now, an empty shell, the abbey is filled with an intense feeling of spirituality, as if the prayers of hundreds of years had been absorbed and held by the solid stones.

Wandering, mostly in silence, we felt calm and soothed and at peace.

During the darkest, most desperate days of the Middle Ages, when famine was rife and pestilence stalked the land, when life was short, mean and hard, people sought safety and security in these abbeys and monasteries.

Today, when we are starved for Time and stress stalks us, when life is frenetic and unsatisfying, it seems that people again seek the safety and security of holy places.

Plus ça change...

We left the abbey and drove into Paimpol in search of refreshing drinks and ice cream at a table by the harbour.

An orange pressée, sweet, freshly-squeezed juice over clinking cubes of ice to quench our thirsts as we sat and watched the world pass by.

This is Brittany at her best...

Sunday, 9 June 2013


When I wrote my profile for this blog I included the two towns closest to the villages in which I have homes, Abingdon in Oxfordshire and Guingamp in Brittany. I'm more comfortable living in a village where I know most of my neighbours, than a large town or, heaven forbid, a city. And the nearest town, the one to which I go for shopping and visits to the doctor, coffee-and-cakes and exploring, well I'm happiest if that place is old and characterful and not so large that I feel over-whelmed.     

So, let me introduce you to the town in France where I shop for groceries, buy flowers and gifts for friends, occasionally browse the bookshop and sometimes have too-close encounters with the French health system.

Guingamp is very old and quite beautiful.

Actually so are many of the inhabitants, older and stylish at least. The women like to wear those cute cropped trousers and very chic little jackets and they look smart because the French tend to be slim and toned. And of course they are beautifully accessorised with scarves draped just so around shoulders, a very good handbag clutched under an arm, tasteful earrings dangling at just the right length etc etc

If you look up, and it is very important to look up when in France, you will see fairy tale turrets and shingles and beautiful windows. I have always been fascinated by windows and many of my older holiday albums are full of pictures of flower boxes and lace curtains fluttering in Tuscan breezes...

Yes, that is a chocolaterie underneath, and yes, their truffles do melt in the mouth...

The Ragazza recommends their chocolate seashells, which are divine

The Black Madonna in the Basilica of Notre Dame de Bon Secours.

Once a year pilgrims come to pay homage to her, it's a tradition to be found in many parts of France where there are almost two hundred Black Madonnas.  

The mairie is very French, n'est-ce pas?

The French like things to be propre (neat and tidy) and correct. Whether it be the hedge or the paperwork, everything is clipped and trimmed and held in its place.

The mairie kind of shows that business-like air, yes?

Next door is a park.

There are musical events held here from time to time, children run across the grass to play on the swings, couples sit on benches gazing intently into each others' eyes, lone walkers wander reflectively. 

I have done all three at various times...

This is my favourite flower shop where I buy the gifts for the hostess when I go out to dinner.

 The shop owner will wrap your purchase beautifully and added a tiny ladybird peg to secure the customary greeting card.

A very, very old doorway, the entrance to an architect's office, how wonderful it must be to enter your workplace through such a door.

My first job, years ago, was as an analytical chemist in a chocolate factory. My role was to check the quality of the raw cocoa beans and compare those from different African countries to ensure good quality and future purchases, so this display of cocoa pods, beans and the finished products brings back memories.

This old timber-framed house is now a clothes shop

It took me months to pluck up the courage to walk into a French clothes shop and try on a smart sweater, trendy trousers, chic clothes.

The very old fountain in the centre of the town.

There's a free parking area nearby, which is often full, but a little patience if often rewarded, if you are adept at squeezing your vehicle into small spaces.

I think you can understand why I like Guingamp?

It's not without its own urban sprawl, over-sized supermarkets, dingy back streets and modern housing complexes. But it does have a small and picturesque centre, some lovely quirky shops, a wonderful bookstore and a bakery with a cafe at the back that sells the best raspberry macarons in Brittany...

The Friday morning market is great for seafood and pretty pink quilts, as well as fresh, local meat and vegetables and the kind of stalls that sell random goods.
In addition there are fantastic medical facilities, a university, a very popular football team and a station from whose platforms you can catch the TGV to Paris. There used to be three castles but Richelieu ordered them to be destroyed and now only three towers remain. Even without a trio of chateaux, as local towns go, Guingamp is pretty much parfait in my opinion. 

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Zoo at Tregomeur

 When we return to Brittany the Rags and I like to visit the zoo at Trégomeur. We're rather fond of zoos, at least those that treat their residents well, take part in conservation projects and attempt to educate their visitors, which is a far cry from the zoos that I remember from my childhood.

We're soft-touches when it comes to adopting animals, we've supported polar bears, tigers and giraffes, bats and owls, a scorpion and a snake.

The Ragazzo was once given a year's sponsorship of an orangutan, a rather free-thinking individual that was last seen using a leaf as an umbrella before vanishing into the rain forests of Borneo. Hopefully to meet a nice lady orangutan and make lots of babies. 

The Ragazza  is particularly fond of snow leopards. There's a pair living at the Trégomeur zoo and yes, we also sponsor their relatives in the wild, and the communities who once made a living from their beautiful skins, but who are now encouraged to protect and preserve them instead. Such projects gladden our hearts.

It's quite thrilling to stand and gaze into the eyes of a tiger, and even if you're thinking "What a beautiful animal and how disgraceful that they're still hunted to make useless, so-called medicinal concoctions for ignorant people" while he's thinking "hmm, given half a chance I'd eat her!" it's still wonderful to encounter a tiger.

It's a good indication that the animals are happy when they breed. Last year the otters had had babies....


And here they are....

If you are very lucky your visit will coincide with a quite fantastic floor-show, courtesy of the siamangs.

All of a sudden one of the siamangs will suddenly start to strut and whoop and holler. He will throw his long arms up, as if he's surrendering, and run around shrieking, and then the others will join in a loud and lively display.

It doesn't happen often and it only lasts for about twenty minutes, but it's great fun. We've witnessed it a few times but, as I said, it's an infrequent event so most of the time you'll just see them as dark shapes in the trees...

The park has an Asian theme and is beautifully laid out in an area that is easily explored in an afternoon without causing that exhausted, fractious behaviour that often follows a day out with children.

And the landscaping is almost as wonderful as the animals...

And of course, being French, it caters very well for fresh-air inspired appetites with a pleasant restaurant and a cafe that serves lovely sausage-in-baguettes and fries, as well as waffles, crèpes, ice-creams etc.

And there's an authentic Vietnamese (I think) farmhouse that was dismantled and transported to Brittany to be rebuilt at the zoo...

Complete with furnishings and the most wonderful wooden carvings...

The trail leads through the flamingo enclosure, it's necessary to remain on the path in order not to disturb the birds, which look as if they'd fall over if startled, but you can still pick up feathers

But not from the peacocks, they bring bad luck, as my daughter always reminds me... 

Wild horses...

Tempting as they may be, especially for one who never outgrew those pony-mad years, these horses are untamed and so can be dangerous. 

 At certain times of the day a keeper appears to give a talk about both them and their camel-companions. In French, of course, but quite fascinating even if you're not fluent.

If ever they need an English interpreter they can contact me anytime!

I do worry when I see bears pacing...

It's not always a good sign, is it?

But these guys seemed to be happy enough...

Can you believe that bears were once baited for fun? Or that dancing bears were made to perform in circuses? Or that in some countries bears are still kept confined in cages and milked for their bile?

A perfectly-adapted desert-dweller.

If you've ever seen a camel in a bad mood you'll know to steer clear of it's front end when it decides to spit!



The Ragazza wandering next to a banana bush.

From which you can get an idea of how relaxing and zen is the zoo's landscape.  

We're always fascinated by this beast

But we rarely see it... 

It prefers to hide in here...


Unlike this guy who's happiest sunbathing and doesn't mind who stops to chat...  

At the end of the visit there is a shop.
It's a very nice shop and we always stop to buy wooden buddhas for my collection, and DVDs of African women singing, and elephant-poo writing paper, and wind chimes, and cuddly snow leopards and...
Well, it helps to fund the zoo and their work and so is a good cause, n'est-ce pas?

Of course there are lots more to see...
I could post pictures for hours, but this is just a taster, something to wet your appetite and encourage you to go visit the zoo and see it for yourselves...

When I return to Brittany to run a B&B from my home you'll all be most welcome to come and stay, and if you want to visit the zoo I'll provide all the information you need, including English translations.

Info from the zoo's website:

Le Zoo de Trégomeur en quelques chiffres

Le nouveau parc zoologique de Trégomeur est sans doute l’un des premiers zoo de France a être aménagé une seule fois, sur un site quasi vierge (presque tous les abris de l’ancien Zoo ont en effet été démolis).
Cet aménagement, qui a duré 2 ans, a constitué un véritable «tour de force».
Il a fallut en effet transformer totalement le site pour :

Aménager :

  • 13 kms de réseau enterré.
  • 6 kms de sentiers de découverte et voiries
  • 300 m de passerelles bois suspendues
  • plus de 10 ponts et passages pour visiteurs 

C'est dans cet esprit qu'ils ont retenu le principe d'une collection d'animaux organisée autour du thème de la faune asiatique.

C’est plus d’une vingtaine d’espèces d’animaux rares, protégés pardes conventions internationales (notamment la CITES) car menacés dans leur milieu d’origine, qui seront présentés au public :
Panthères des neiges, tigres, chameaux de Bactriane, chevaux dePréwalski, loutres asiatiques, entelles, siamangs, porcs-épics,pélicans, grands cormorans, gibbons, tortue asiatique, grue deManchourie, flamants roses, cerf du père David, nilgauts, antilopescervicapres, ours malais, dholes, lémuriens…