Carpenter Bee

We often see these large black carpenter bees in The Dordogne region – beautiful black insects seeking nectar from the flowers.

They have relatively short mouth parts, as you can see from the photos, so are only suited to certain types of flower.

Glancing at a quick web search, carpenter bees have a bit of a reputation of ‘nectar robbing’ by drilling holes in the side of petals and avoiding pollination, and of being a pest that can be a threat to houses and gardens by making holes for nests in the timbers. I guess there may be some truth in this, but they are solitary nesters, and could the problem be perceived in part because of their colour?

Photographs taken in the Dordogne region of France, September 2017

Hummingbird Hawk Moth

We occasionally get the odd hummingbird hawk-moth in Cheshire. They’re much more plentiful in the Dordogne. Just like a hummingbird, they hover over a flower and reach the nectar with that long proboscis you can see on the photos.

The insects, and particularly their wings, move so fast as they dart to and fro, they are difficult to photograph. The wings are usually in some state of blurr-dom. They beat at a frequency of about 85 per second, so practically the only way to get a clear picture of them in motion is to use electronic flash. Must try that sometime, although at the time the moths are flying it seems irrelevant, as it’s usually very sunny. Actually, I quite like the blurred effect – it seems more natural.

Photographs taken in Dordogne region, France, September 2017

 

 

Speckled Wood

As its name suggests, the speckled wood butterfly is often found near woodland. There are nice patterns on the wings and an unusual glint in six apparent eyes on the wings. These butterflies are much more prevalent in the Dordogne area of France than in Cheshire UK, probably because of the much greater tree cover.

speckled wood

Photograph taken in the Dordogne region of France, September 2017

Damselfly

damselfly

This damselfly was just basking in the sun. The ones with vibrantly coloured bodies tend to be more striking, but the rather more muted body colouring here helps to show off those beautiful lace wings.

Photograph taken in the Dordogne region of France, September 2017

 

Conques

The village of Conques in Aveyron, France, has been a target of pilgrimage since medieval times, lying as it does on the route from Le Puy en Velay to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. The isolated position of Conques in hilly terrain means that it has never been subject to much modern development, so the medieval streets are essentially as they were.

conques rainbow

This view is the first the pilgrim coming from Estaing sees of Conques, nestling in the treed valley. We were lucky on our recent visit when, after a day of rain, the sun came out as we reached Conques. The dramatic welcome became spectacular when this rainbow appeared over the village.Read More »

The French Village

During over 40 years of driving in France, we have seen, stayed and shopped in a large number of villages and small towns in France. Many of these places are nondescript, but quite a large proportion are quite charming or beautiful, due to their geographical situation – often by rivers, on hillsides or in valleys. The apparent changes in village life over those years have been marked.

salles la source
Salles la Source, Aveyron, 2017

In the 1970s I think we just caught the end of an era. As well as its war memorial, pretty well every village had its own boulangerie (baker) and a bar. French bread does not last more than a day, hence the boulangerie ensured fresh bread every day. And I got the impression that the bar featured in many everyday country lives. Indeed, we used to stop for a breakfast of delicious pain beurre (yes, bread and butter) with coffee at a bar in Normandy about an hour’s drive from our overnight ferry crossing to St Malo.

The one thing you did have to remember, was that everything closed over a lunch time of at least two hours between 12 or 1230 and early afternoon. Vital to remember when you needed to pick up fresh bread, but often forgotten!Read More »

Driving in France

Somehow it got to be over 40 years since we first drove to France, and being francophiles we’ve done that most years since then. The driving experience has changed somewhat!

It’s the early 1970s. We arrive at Dover for the cross channel ferry. The time waiting on the dockside is busy – cleaning the headlamps, putting on beam deflector stickies, then applying yellow paint to the glass. All headlamps had to be yellow in France, a law designed in wartime to distinguish French civilian vehicles, but retained until reversed by EU conformity standards in 1993.

There was a magic in sailing away from the White Cliffs and seeing the French coast gradually coming into view, followed by the unfamiliarity of driving on the right.

The most scary part was knowing that French drivers treated priorité a droite as a sacred right and, particularly within towns, would zoom out from any old side road without even looking. It was easy to forget, and the odd fright ensued.Read More »

Swallow

swallow dranseThis swallow was just asking to be photographed, perched on a cable at Thonon-les-Bains, France. The photo was taken about a month ago. By now this bird is probably well on its way down to South Africa for the winter, part of the great seasonal bird migrations.

We’ll miss that ceaseless flying to and fro over open ground or water catching insects, and look forward to next year’s return.

Cormorant

We often see cormorants in the UK, usually the odd specimen perched fishing from a log or rock, sometimes in small groups. It was quite refreshing, then, to come across a large group of hundreds of these birds, perched in trees around a lake at the Dranse estuary nature reserve near Thonon-les-Bains on the southern shores of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva).

cormorants dranse.JPG

There was a constant to-ing and fro-ing, with a smaller number of them directly fishing from the lake surface or in characteristic wing-drying pose.

The size of this population is a testament to the health of the waters and fish populations in Lac Leman.

Of course, you will also see cormorants by the sea, as they can live with both salt water and fresh water.

Shy Grebes

Great crested grebes are reasonably common in the UK, but not usually as numerously evident as the ubiquitous mallards, coots and moorhens. So it was refreshing to come across a large group of around 30 of these birds at the nature reserve on the Dranse estuary near Thonon-les-Bains on the southern shores of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva).

It was noticeable that, as soon as they became aware of our presence, the grebes moved further away, out of decent range of our 300mm-lens-equivalent travel zooms. The featured image was the best shot I could manage.

So the crested grebes seem to be fairly shy birds, which is the reputation of the little grebe, of which there were also some specimens present at the Dranse. The history of being hunted for their feathers probably explains why these birds are so wary of human beings.

Ghent

The Friday SquareIn the square of the Vrijdagmarkt in the delightful medieval centre of Ghent in Belgium, there is a statue of a local luminary – Jacob van Artevelde. He is so honoured because Ghent survived the 100-year war between England and France due to his efforts at ensuring neutrality and maintaining links with England. The statue points towards England.

Of course England has always had close ties with Europe, and periods of major influx of Europeans, such as the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Normans. And we’ve been involved in so many continental wars over the centuries, culminating in the World Wars of the 20th century, when we took in many more as refugees.

The wise men of the immediate post-war world decided to link the countries of Europe together to avoid the possibility of future pointless wars, encouraged by the British, and Winston Churchill in particular. Of course this led to today’s European Union.

Strange then, that unscrupulous UK politicians have fostered the very nationalism that potentially leads to wars to engineer the UK’s exit from that Union. Something about ‘taking back control’ and ‘making Britain great again’ – the freedom to go off on our own, ‘do deals’, form alliances, and repeat unlearned lessons of history.

They should be ashamed of themselves.

Hopefully the duped UK populace will support a change of course in time.

Inline image by Sergey Ashmarin, via Wikimedia Commons

J’accuse

officer and spyReview of the historical novel An Officer and a Spy by Richard Harris.

There are many examples of group think and injustice in the history books. Few are quite as dramatic as the Dreyfuss Affair that gripped France in the late 19th/ early 20th century. The story is told as a historical novel in Richard Harris’s book, from the perspective of Colonel Georges Picquart, a key central character in the story of uncovering the antisemitic conspiracy and subsequent cover-up.Read More »

The History of Modern France

history-of-modern-franceHaving visited France regularly for over 40 years, I really felt that, although I’ve picked up a fair mount along the way, I didn’t really understand much about how modern France came into being after the Revolution of 1789. This recently published book by Jonathan Fenby seemed to offer just what I needed, so I read it.

I found it very good, with details right up to early 2016. But there is perhaps a bit too much detail on the toing and froing of various governments and politicians over the years. France certainly has a turbulent history, with regular revolutionary periods, dominant leaders, wars and much more.

Strikingly, many of today’s themes, such as immigration, xenophobia, and the close relationship with Germany, have their roots in these earlier events.

Do read it if you want to know more about this subject. If you’re interested, it has inspired my own very brief history of modern France in the following.Read More »

Mega farming

I’m standing on a country road by the edge of a rather large field in Picardy. Nothing stirs, apart from a tractor in the distance, slowly wending its way across the field.

It seems like a desert. Except that, in my experience, most deserts actually support a fair population of vegetation and wildlife – probably much more than this godforsaken space.

How is the fertility/ biodiversity/ microorganisms/ health of the soil maintained in this space where fertiliser and weedkiller are probably the only inputs, apart from sun and rain? And should we really be surprised if heavy rainfall, increasingly common, causes run-off, flooding and loss of topsoil? And if long dry spells lead to dust storms?

picardy-field-edgeThere is no alleviation, even at the roadside. A thin strip of grass is all there is – no hedge, no trees, no ditch. No environment for small mammals, birds, insects – no space for the natural world. All confined to the nearby small village and woodland.

This shows quite clearly the alienation of the money economy from the nature on which it is dependent – and the alienation of European politics, such as in the Common Agricultural Policy that would appear to have encouraged this sort of thing.

Just imagine the difference if each field could only be so big, and had to be surrounded by hedges with trees, and space for grasses and wildflowers – well you don’t actually have to imagine it, as there are still plenty of examples in England and the rest of Europe. We spent millennia learning how to farm sustainably alongside nature. Yes, crop yields might be less in the short term, but I suggest they would be much greater in the long run.

Economy cannot win this battle with ecology. We will all be the losers.

Please note that I am not criticising Picardy itself –  a mostly charming part of France with many examples of small farms and rolling countryside. However, this mega farming is quite prevalent in that large area of northern France you drive through as quickly as possible to get to the nice bits! Having toured in the USA, I know where it came from.

Genius at the Château du Close Lucé

Some men and women show such prodigious genius, standing head and shoulders over all their fellows, that they almost seem part of a different race. Leonardo da Vinci was such a man.

After a leading career in Renaissance Italy, where his genius sparkled over many fields of endeavour, Leonardo spent his later years in Amboise,  by the River Loire,  at the service of the French king François. At this time he lived at the Château du Clos Lucé, now a museum that we recently visited.

We found this museum interesting in giving some insight into Leonardo’s later life, and particularly his innovative designs and engineering that prefigured many modern inventions – helicopters,  bridges, flying machines, pumps, armaments etc etc. This is reinforced by walking around the surrounding gardens, really a rather splendid shady park, containing examples of modern realisations of his designs.

However, there is little emphasis on his contribution as artist. Luckily, there was an exhibition From the Clos Lucé to the Louvre, in the exhibition hall, focusing on the three major works of art that Leonardo brought with him when he came to Amboise – La Giaconda, The Virgin, The Child Jesus and St Anne, and St Jean Baptist … and that enigmatic smile. This gave a much more balanced picture of this supreme Renaissance genius.

So, the Château du Clos Lucé is well worth a visit, but even more so while the exhibition is still there (until 15th November 2016).

Bourges Cathedral

Approaching Bourges from the west, the city is overshadowed by the great bulk of this massive gothic building. It’s an old favourite that we have visited a number of times on our way through France. Friend Alf had introduced me to it when he was just ‘plus de soixante ans’ and got his first age-related reduction in climbing the tower.

The apparent thick walls and large number of flying buttresses visible externally are testimony to the massive engineering needed for a building of this scale.

bourges_nave
nave

As we entered the nave, I was immediately drawn upward by the sheer height of this soaring gothic space – 37m high by 15m wide. This, I believe, was the intention of these spaces, drawing you ever upward into the higher mental/ spiritual areas of the                                                                                                                                           mind, away from the the concerns of the day-to-day ‘monkey mind’. Towards that ‘clerestory’ level of the top windows of clear light, symbolising the clear inner light of spirit.

bourges_aisle
inner aisle

There are two side aisles, the inner aisle having similar upward drawing qualities, being rather narrow but still 21m high. The overall effect of these two and the nave is for me the most special characteristic of this particular gothic masterpiece.

Around the ambulatory at the back of the choir are some magnificent stained glass windows, reminiscent of those at the roughly contemporary Chartres cathedral, but here more predominantly red than the blues of Chartres.

There is a combined ticket for a guided tour of the crypt and climbing the tower, but sadly no longer any reduction for ‘plus de soixante ans’. The large crypt contains stonework defaced and broken during the wars of religion and the revolution – in common with many religious buildings. Alf was always amused by the human buttocks that were carved into one of the pillars down here, opposite an image of a rather shocked face on the other side – unusual humour in one of these deeply religious buildings.

Despite its height of nearly 400 steps, the climb of the tower is relatively easy – even Alf made it with his damaged knees. The steps are wide compared to many, so there is not that tight enclosed feeling, with adequate space for passing anyone going the other way. Surprisingly, the view from the top, over rooftops and the surrounding countryside, is little changed over the past 27 years.

Yes, we’ll definitely visit again when we’re in the area.

 

 

 

More wagtails

The  River Dordogne at Beaulieu is quite similar in a way to the River Ure at Redmire Force. Fast flowing, shallow water over a variety of stones and rocks.

Here too, wagtails are in abundance, no doubt attracted by the insects hovering over the water. Today I’ve seen yellow, grey and pied wagtails. They seem to go around in small groups, so there are usually a small number together. This one’s a pied wagtail.pied_wagtailbeaulieu

As it happened, along came a Dipper, happily dipping into and out of the water  – very difficult to catch a photograph other than with tail sticking up out of the water. This was the best I managed. dipper_beaulieu

 

Changing France

We’ve visited France regularly for over forty years, mainly on camping holidays. Over that period many changes have become noticeable. 

First there was the annual ritual of getting the insurance green card, the GB sticker, the headlamp beam converters, and painting the headlights with special yellow paint, just for France – all now gone apart from the beam benders. But now there’s the yellow jacket, the alcohol detector and adequate warning triangles. 

Then there was the dreaded ‘priority to the right’ at almost any junction, now just on non-priority roads and in towns. And the very frequent ‘chaussée déformée’ and ‘nids de poule’ signs on most country roads, where you found yourself on an extremely bumpy road surface with an alarming camber – which explained those ‘rock ‘n roll’ Citroens, but are mercifully mostly gone today.

The great thing was that each town and large village contained a bar for coffee, a tabac for Le Monde and the weather forecast, and a boulangerie where you could buy baguettes and not much else – but all but the bar closed for at least two hours over lunch. And there was probably a small restaurant. The towns would also have grocer, butcher, chemist and so on.

It was with dismay that we watched year by year the spread of the now-ubiquitous hypermarkets and smaller supermarkets, and the gradual closing of most of those earlier conveniences. Yes the new outlets are more convenient with greater choice, but the heart and bustle was gone from now-deserted towns and villages, just to return on the weekly market day that has still retained a foothold in many places.  

Nowadays, the roads into towns are lined with commercial/industrial units, just like the US. And you have to drive everywhere, just like the US – progress?

Featured image of artichokes on a market stall, Nonancourt

Field of stars

It’s Alf’s funeral today – a good neighbour and friend for 30 years. Always ready for a friendly chat and a great fund of terrible jokes. I remember with particular fondness the two weeks we spent together in 1990.

During our chats we had discovered a common interest in the pilgrimage of St James, from various starting points in Europe to Santiago de Compostella (campus stellae = field of stars) in northern Spain. I had been captivated by the idea when I first heard of it – taking time out from the everyday grind to follow an essentially spiritual objective seemed right. Perhaps I had been a pilgrim in a previous life. In Alf’s case it was less easy to understand, as he professed to be an atheist, despite his many religious friends.

In a busy working life it remained a pipe dream for me until one day just after Alf had retired from his work at the BBC. He wanted to follow the pilgrims’ route to Compostella in his caravan, but wife Janet had herself not yet retired, so did not have the time. Eventually, Alf came up with a proposition – why didn’t I come with him on the route as far as Burgos, and Janet would go out to meet him and complete the trip. Could I get enough leave from work and family?

So it was the two of us set out in Alf’s caravan, complete with bicycles so that we could at least cycle small sections of the route.

Alf had travelled the route before, so he knew the places to visit. This included his own favourites – such as Pegasus Bridge, which played a key part in the Normandy Landings – the small village of Putanges, where Alf said ‘bonjour’ to the Madame who ran the restaurant – and Bourges Cathedral. I just had to climb the cathedral tower, much to Alf’s disgust, but in the end he did climb up with me to enjoy the view, the first time he obtained a ‘plus de soixante ans‘ reduced entry fee.

We joined the pilgrim route proper at Le Puy. At St Michael’s church, Alf was most put out that two nuns took him to be my father. He enjoyed telling the tale for ever more. Here began my education into the many magical churches that await the pilgrim: Estaing, Conques, Moissac, Sauveterre be Béarn and St Jean Pied-de-Port. We had a restaurant meal here near the Spanish border – welcome relief from both our attempts at cooking in the van.

Travelling with Alf was an education in itself as he introduced me to various wildlife and flora – I particularly remember the many red kites and celery flowers by the wayside. And, of course, Alf knew all the tales and legends of the pilgrim way, unfailingly recounting them at the appropriate point.

Then came the pass of Roncesvalles into Spain, and on to Puente la Reina, Estella, Torres del Rio, Najera, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Burgos. Stopping to pick up something for lunch at Puente la Reina, Alf enjoyed chatting up the pretty lady selling olives, and then proceeded to eat the whole packet one by one as he drove onwards. At Burgos, we chained our bicycles to railings outside the magnificent cathedral and I was overwhelmed by  the magnificent exterior, but somewhat underwhelmed by the oppressive interior.

We then cut across to Santander to pick up Janet and deposit me for the ferry back to England and everyday life. Thank you Alf for sharing this journey, for being a good friend, and for the great pleasure you have given to many along your way.

I think you’re now up there in the field of stars, even if your professed atheism would have denied the possibility…

Featured image shows Alf at the top of the tower of Bourges cathedral