Eymet decorated

Last summer there was a flower festival at Eymet (pronounced as French ‘aimer’), one of the Dordogne area’s picturesque bastide (fortified) towns. We thought the decorations were quite striking against the background of the old buildings.

Crossing feature

Limeuil is just one of those pretty little Dordogne villages. notable for its dramatic location overlooking the confluence of the rivers Dordogne and Vézère. The bridge over the river Dordogne was asking for something to feature crossing over. The cyclists were first to appear. (Featured image.)

Next came the walkers.

And finally, a horse and rider.

I wasn’t quick enough to capture the 2CV!

Chatellerault abstract

On a long journey by French autoroute, we’d detoured into Chatellerault to eat lunch by the river Vienne. Something about the pattern of weeds under the water surface caught my eye, resulting in this photograph, taken quickly but long forgotten, until I eventually caught up with the backlog.

At least, I think that’s what it was!

Bracket fungi

This rather striking bracket fungus is, I think, a giant polypore, found recently in a wood in Surrey.

Giant polypore

Here are a few more brackets seen recently. Identification is difficult, despite having the Collins Fungi Guide!

Any ideas?

St Jacques, Aubeterre

The church of St Jacques at Aubeterre sur Dronne is a typical pilgrimage church on one of the routes through France to Compostella in northern Spain, approached by a long climb up through the village from the river Dronne. Romanesque simplicity is the keynote, remarkably beautiful.

West front and tower, wide angle lens

I passed through many similar churches over 20 years ago, as I followed the route from Vezelay to Compostella in our motorcaravan. The basic plan is the same.

Enter, there is no one there, you find a haven of peace, the atmosphere shared with so many thousands of pilgrims since the 12th century. Profoundly moving to tarry awhile, part of that historical stream of seekers.

Nave and side aisles

The tradition of pilgrimage lives on, not only in the so-called Christian world. Yet so many today appear to have forgotten about the interior dimensions of life, focusing only on the external – money, business, science, technology, politics, war… Yet the interior journey is the true journey of life – how we deal with the challenges thrown up by the external, how we learn from it and grow…

I should add that Aubeterre is perhaps better known for its Church of Saint Jean, an underground, Monolithic church built into huge caves in the rock of the hillside – also well worth a visit.

Aubeterre is in Nouvelle Aquitaine, France’s largest region, administered from Bordeaux.

French reflections

Along the French rivers Loire and Vienne are quite a few castles/chateaux that make good use of reflections on the slow moving waters. Those at Chinon and Amboise are particularly striking after it’s fallen dark – a great time for a walk with the camera.

Chinon chateau by the Vienne
Amboise chateau by the Loire

If you’ve seen the Amazon Prime series Bosch, this will remind you of the introductory scenes.

Featured image shows a bridge at Amboise.

Purple Emperor

What on earth is that butterfly doing on that jam buttee, I mused to myself, as I munched into my own. Then she-who-knows-a-lot-about-butterflies got really excited. It’s a PURPLE EMPEROR! Well, yes I did wonder if that might not be correct – it doesn’t look very purple, does it? But then apparently it is a female, and they aren’t purple.

Now, purple emperors usually swan around in the treetops and only come down to eat dung and rotting fruit – unlike most butterflies they don’t go for flowers and their nectar. So this was a most unusual event, and the females are even rarer than the males.

She stayed there awhile, sucking up jam, mostly with wings closed. They almost opened once.

Not a great shot, but then it is the first purple emperor I’ve ever knowlingly seen!

I double checked the jam – it was certainly not rotten.

Carpenter bee 2

It took a beautiful sunny day after a cloudy period, and out came the carpenter bees that had apparently disappeared in one of our favourite haunts, in the Dordogne region of France.

Because of their short mouth parts, these bees are most suited to quite open flowers.

What a wonderful contrast to these bright red flowers, and I never ceased to be amazed at just how furry are the bodies of many insects.

Covid-19 in England and France

Having recently spent a few weeks in France, I can confidently say that the experience of life is currently very different from that in England. This is simply because the way that the covid-19 pandemic is being managed differently in the two countries.

France was easy to visit in September, all that was required was to demonstrate double-vaccinated status using the NHS app. To return to England we had to take two covid tests, one in France and one in England (now it is just the one in England) – despite the fact that the French covid statistics were much lower than the UK rate. So English measures are apparently more strict, but actually less effective.

While in France we never felt in great danger from covid-19, simply because mask wearing is widespread, and public spaces such as restaurants require either proof of double vaccination (the NHS app is accepted) or proof of a recent covid test. It became apparent that this is policed by the restaurants themselves, as we witnessed the exclusion of someone whose test had expired just a couple of hours before.

Returning to England, we were shocked by the low level of mask wearing and lack of social distancing in public after ‘freedom day’, particularly at large social events where no vaccine passport is required. For the clinically vulnerable and the elderly, this has now created a two-tier society where these groups are effectively excluded from many forms of social discourse. 

The current daily rate of new cases is now below 5000 in France and over 40000 in England, which does suggest that the French ‘control’ approach is keeping the virus under much better control than the English ‘hands off’ approach.

Of course, the French approach is not universally approved of in France, particularly by the large population of French anti-vaxxers – but it works. The English approach is or course applauded by that constitutuency that objects to receiving any instruction from the state, even if it is for the general good – but it seems not to be working.

I know which approach I prefer.

Chinon

One of the joys of motorcaravanning is to stay overnight in some small town, often French, sample the atmosphere, perhaps enjoy a local restaurant or visit a tourist attraction. Chinon, on the River Vienne, is one such place.

The town’s raison d’etre is the restored 11C Chateau of Chinon, which became the favoured residence of King Henry II of England and much else. Henry’s tomb lies at nearby Fontevraud.

The castle came under French control in 1205, as it has remained since. In 14C it was used to imprison some of the Knights Templar, in 15C it was used as a residence for French King Charles VII, and in 16C it became a prison, after which decay set in. The restored building is now a fine visitor attraction.

The riverside setting makes for good photographic opportunities.

The heavily tree’d promenade by the Vienne provides for a popular and atmospheric evening walk, to build up an appetite for a meal in the town. The route includes the spectacle of a number of fiercely contested boules matches (featured image).

Click on images to enlarge.

Chinon is well worth a detour, as the old Michelin Green Guides used to say.

Fontevraud, Royal Abbey

The historic Benedictine abbey of Fontevraud lies between Chinon and Saumur, in the area just south of the River Loire. We were lucky, it was an annual French jour de patrimoine, when entry to national museums is free – a great way for a government to encourage interest in local culture and history.

The necropolis

Fontevraud is designated a royal abbey because it was here that Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of the first Plantagenet King Henry II, established in the church a necropolis containing recumbent statues of the dead Plantagenets (from bottom, left to right, then top) Henry II, Eleanor herself set higher than her then-dead husband, their first son Richard I ‘the Lionheart’, and Isabelle, wife of Richard’s brother John. This was intended as a similar idea to the necropolis of French Kings in the church of St Denis in Paris, celebrating the continuity of Plantagenet reign over England/parts of British Isles/Normandy/Aquitaine (the so-called Angevin Empire). The necropolis never really developed after John, then king, ‘lost’ most of the French possessions to the French King Philip in 1204 – an early forced ‘Brexit’ which led to decades of scheming and warfare. The Plantagenets remained kings of England until the death of King Richard III in 1485.

A major feature of this abbey was that it contained both male and female monks/nuns, and was always overseen by a woman. Close links with French royalty ensured its survival until the French Revolution, when the abbeys were dissolved and taken over by the State, and where possible sold off. This was 250 years after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in England.

The abbey at Fontevraud was founded in 1101 by Robert d’Arbrissel, 3 years after founding of the Cistercian movement. This soon developed into a similar chain of monasteries across France, with a few in Spain and England. So controversial was the involvement of women, that  Robert was never canonised by the Catholic Church.

Evraud Tower

The architecture is quite remarkable, as you can see.

After the Revolution Napoleon decreed that the buildings be converted into a prison containing prison workshops. Even the abbey church was adapted to contain first 3 then 5 storeys. The experience of this prison is well described in exhibits at the abbey. The prison was only closed in 1963.

In the meantime, restoration work was recreating the essence of the original abbey. The kitchen/ Evraud Tower was rather imaginatively restored early on. Today, most traces of the adaptation of the abbey buildings to serve as a prison have been removed.

As well as being a tourist attraction in their own right, the abbey buildings now serve as a cultural centre for Western France, with many events and exhibitions.

Today Fontevraud looks magnificent. It provides a great day out to immerse yourself in this aspect of French/English history.

Featured image shows tombs of Henry and Eleanor.

Incredulous, amused, bonkers, sad, insecure

We finally made it to France, for the first time in 2 years because of covid. When talking to our European friends, their view of Brexit is pretty well unanimous, as indeed it was two years ago. They cannot understand why UK chose to leave the EU, why we would choose to erect borders, checks and tariffs, when previously there was free flow of trade with our main trading partner, why we would choose to make it difficult to take our pets on holiday, why we would choose to lose freedom of movement across the whole continent, why we would choose to make it difficult for Europeans, even spouses of Brits, to come to UK, why we would choose to risk a resurgence of the troubles in Northern Ireland by leaving the customs union. Why did you do this self harm?

This incredulity is supplemented by amusement at the antics of the Johnson government in trying to justify its extreme interpretation of the Brexit vote, which did not itself mandate all these unfortunate results.

Personally I have seen just one possible benefit of Brexit – leaving the Common Agricultural Policy, which has over decades decimated European wildlife, as we have observed on our travels. That policy is in great need of reform. Other than that, all we Brits have ‘gained’ is a lot more bureaucracy, expense and restrictions on our lives, compounded of course by an insistently different approach to covid.

Basically, our European friends think that Little England has gone bonkers and is taking the UK Union with it. It is difficult to disagree.

They are also sad that we, who they regard as friends, have left. We and they feel a little more insecure in these troubled global times, when we Europeans need to stick together.

Featured image is based on that at forexop.com

Not the yellow headlights

The first time we took the car to France was in the early 70s. There was a bureaucratic routine you had to go through before we could cross the channel: get travel insurance, get car insurance, GB sticker and a green card for the car, pay the Automobile Association a fiver for an International Driving Permit, purchase beam benders and yellow transparent paint to be applied at the port.

Then we joined the EEC in 1973, which eventually became the EU. The French stopped insisting on yellow headlights, car insurers tended to include Europe cover, there was no need for green card or IDP. We still needed beam benders – some things never change. We got a dog and the pet passport scheme eventually made that easy. Mobile phones became ubiquitous and the EU eventually forced an end to yellow headlights and outrageous roaming charges. GB stickers bacame unnecessary.

And we never had to worry about how long our trip would be, we could stay as long as we wanted.

But today we’re finally out of the EU. All that bureaucracy is coming back, the pet passport is gone, there may be new roaming charges. We can only stay for 3 months out of six. We’re effectively excluded from free travel in ‘our’ Europe, the Europe that is our history.

These freedoms have been taken from us in the name of an abstraction called ‘sovereignty’, an anachronism in the modern interconnected world. They’re intended to ‘make Britain great again’, harking back to the days when renegade Britons roamed the world, stole land and riches from indigenous peoples, eliminating them or turning them into slaves, and made an inglorious ‘Empire’.

Fortunately, the law of unintended consequences means that unexpected benefits will turn up, and needed change may eventually be forced on the EU itself.

But at least we won’t need the yellow headlights again. Unless there is a Frexit.

Featured image shows one of the first optic headlamp lenses, the Corning Conaphore made of selective yellow “Noviol” glass (public domain via Wikipedia). So-called ‘selective yellow’ gives better visibility than white light in poor conditions and is still permitted in fog lights.

The Magic of Vézelay

After a recent visit to a favourite town, Vézelay in Burgundy, I dug out this unpublished article I wrote in 2002. Here it is with a bit of editing to bring it up-to-date, and a few photos.

The small town of Vézelay is a special gem. Visit here, and allow yourself to be entranced by its beauty, inspired by its spiritual quality, fascinated by its history, and restored by its natural surroundings.

Vézelay owes its existence to the tradition of pilgrimage. Its Basilica of Mary Magdalene has attracted pilgrims from all over Europe for over a thousand years. The main attraction was the relics of Mary, brought to the then monastery in the 11th century from St Maximin in Provence, where she was said to have been buried. Vézelay became one of four major starting points for pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostella in north west Spain (Paris, le Puy and Arles are the others).

Set along a hilltop, the Vézelay skyline offers an enticing perspective as you approach from any of several directions. If you park at the bottom of the hill, the main street winds picturesquely upwards past a selection of shops offering, among other things, provisions, crafts, wines, souvenirs and books, also galleries, bars, and restaurants.Read More »

Shooting Wildlife

We’re driving through the Limousin countryside on a Sunday morning. I become aware of strange goings-on.  A man is sat on a chair on his own on the edge of a field. A car is parked in a field entry. A man is striding along with a shotgun. Two men are in a raised wooden platform in the middle of a field. All men. All with guns.

Yes I’ve heard that shooting anything that moves is a French country pastime, this is the real thing.

Now, as far as I can see, there is no great preponderance of wildlife in this part of France. It’s much like the rest of Europe, over-cultivated and lacking in the huge biodiversity of some other parts of our planet. Even perceptibly over a lifetime, nature’s abundance has been reducing, notably with declining populations of insects and birds.

Yet still many thousands of country dwellers continue their ‘traditional’ pastime, once essential for feeding the family. Some of it is no doubt to keep down exploding populations of wild boar, due to lack of top predators. But I cannot see that this requires so many shooters, and suspect that they shoot anything that moves, rather than just what the authorities approve.

Other countries face similar problems from this apparent male bloodlust – migrating birds shot in Malta, hunting and nature conservation are almost synonymous in the US, imported birds systematically shot by ‘traditional’ grouse shooters in the UK, and on and on.

You could say it’s in our blood, the old hunter-gatherers – that is how we once survived. But now, it seems perverse to increase the stress on natural populations already struggling. There are surely now too many people on our planet for these old ways to be sustainable.

If only more people would abandon the gun for the camera. Similar skills can be deployed to ‘shoot’ the wildlife, while leaving natural populations relatively undisturbed.

Featured image of hunters by FOTO:FORTEPAN / Ebner, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51244418

Five or six spots?

This post shows the benefits of just leaving a bit of land fallow, to become a wildflower meadow. What a profusion of butterflies and moths take advantage, including this five spot burnet moth!

Eyes in the back of my Head

P1080129

I recently photographed this burnet moth in the Dordogne, at a place on a walk we enjoy in the hills near the river Vezere. We’ve dubbed this place Butterfly Corner. It’s where the path through the woods opens out and joins a road which leads down to the nearby village.

Why is it Butterfly Corner for us? It’s because the patch of land belonging to the house there has been allowed to go wild and be natural, and it attracts a large number of insects – we saw bees, a hornet, and plenty of butterflies. It’s no great hardship, after a walk uphill, to hang around for a while watching and photographing what we see there, busy in the wild flowers.

I was quite excited to see this burnet moth as I’ve not seen one in the UK for several years. I said, with the confidence of the incorrect…

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Ruddy Shelduck

No, I’m not swearing at the duck/goose known as the common shelduck. We saw this pair of a different variant, the ruddy shelduck, while in transit at a park in Chauvigny, near Poitiers.

ruddy shelduck 1ruddy shelduck 2

The pair kept well out of the way of the large number of more common birds on the lake, including mallards and coots.

Also known as the Brahminy Duck, these birds are common in Asia. This is not the case in France, and these are probably escapees.