Thursday, 27 July 2017

The mill near St Georges sur Erve

We went to look at a house for sale because the advert mentioned in passing that the place has a mill.  I was intrigued, not least because there isn't much in the way of a river nearby.   It turns out that a small stream that rises in a spring some 2 kilometres away passes near the house, where it forms a lake before running off into the fields.   There is a mill wheel in a shed a short distance away, and it takes the water from the lake until, presumably, the lake is empty.

There is no longer any water passage from the lake to the mill, and the wheel is in disrepair.  The wheel takes water in at the top, turning so as to release it at the bottom, which is a more efficient use of the water's energy than the usual type of mill where the water runs underneath the wheel.  The wheel itself is about 7 metres in diameter.

Here's some pictures of the mill wheel and what's left of the mechanism.

Other aspects of the property were interesting: the water comes from a well, so it doesn't cost anything, except the annual analysis that is required since the water is drunk by farm animals (not required if the water is used solely by humans), and the owner owns a lot of hedges, so the wood-fired boiler is also free to run.  He has to pay for electricity but I wonder if the mill could be used to get that for free as well.   Possibly with solar panels as an adjunct.  Hmmmm.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Going Dutch

The Espace Eméraud is a chain of agricultural supply shops.  They do small tractors, lawn mowers, building materials, animal food, various tools, and industrial style clothing.  Perhaps that's why these rather fine acrylic knitted tops didn't sell: not agricultural enough.  Anyway they were on sale, 70% off!  How could I resist?  And they go well with jeans that I wear to the exclusion of almost any other form of trousers.  €17 the two.  Can't be bad.

Saturday, 22 July 2017


A music teacher called François Borne (1840 – 1920) went to see the opera Carmen and afterwards wrote a brilliant fantasy for flute based on its musical themes.  My flute teacher suggested that I practice it during the summer holidays, but she also suggested I make a point of seeing the opera; there are plenty of options on YouTube, or DVD.  As it happens I watched it twice; it was transmitted on France3 television with helpful subtitles, but there was also a live performance shortly afterwards at a nearby village.  I went to the dress rehearsal, being unable to make the official performance.

The performance was excellent, and a was communal effort.  The cast and support team of some 96 people were put up in local houses, and transported to and fro by volunteers.  The event was held in the grounds of a chateau and had an atmosphere all of its own. For example, the opera calls for a bell to announce the shutting of the cigarette factory where Carmen works, and the little bell that you can just about see on top of the chateau roof played this part.

The entire event was in the open air, a risky business.  One earlier rehearsal was interrupted by rain, since the orchestra couldn't play.  You don't want violins getting wet.  But the rain stayed away from the dress rehearsal and the performance.

Apparently, the owner of the chateau wants to make it a centre for performance arts, so I am looking forward to other similar events in future.

No event like this goes without a hitch.  I am told that the guy originally playing Don José had a heart attack on the way to the rehearsal (he is OK) and a last-minute sub (who in the event was a singer of international renown) had to be found.  A performer, feigning being woken up with a start, knocked over a candelabra, which called for some creative extinguishing of candles (not a beat was missed).

The conductor was good, too.  At a couple of places, where the singers were just a tiny bit out of synch with the orchestra, he signalled quite clearly, mouthing the words, and emphasising the beat, telling them exactly where they should be.

It was all excellent.

Update:  I discovered that the last-minute sub was Philippe Do.  I am told that he is a friend of the lady who played Carmen, and that she got him to cut short his holiday in Greece to come and sing on no notice whatsoever - that is, she called him in the morning and he was there the same evening for the dress rehearsal.

There were 1300 paying customers on the night - exceeding all expectations.

Friday, 21 July 2017

The harvesting of potatoes

This is the first year that I have had a serious attempt at growing potatoes.  I grew a few last year, just to see what would happen, and found it very satisfying digging up and eating the spuds at the end of the season.  I had decided not to grow ones that you can easily buy in the shops, and chose the variety called Miss Blush.    It has a blotchy pink and white skin, and tastes excellent, especially in salads.

This year I gave over much more space to potatoes, and have been digging up several of the varieties I planted in the Spring.  It's a bit early to be doing this, but the foliage had died back on these plants, and didn't look like it was going to add anything to the potatoes in the ground.  I think perhaps I didn't water them enough during the recent dry spell - other potato plants that the watering system reaches better are still growing strongly.

I have tried a few of this year's crop, and they taste good.  Varieties are Miss Blush, Franceline (it has pink skin), Institute de Beauvais (Pitted skin with white flesh, makes big potatoes) and Pink Fir Apple (Knobbly, with pink flesh).  The Miss Blush I saved over from last year's crop, but I don't think I will bother saving any this year, I'll just buy in new seed potatoes at the right time.  I found that the saved ones sprouted too early, so I had to plant them out, and then I fretted about the risk of frosts killing them.

I'll definitely make more of an effort to water them next year too.  The difference between the well-watered and not-so-well-watered is quite clear.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The growth of walnuts

Walnut trees grow like weeds here; they are well-adapted to our local conditions.  The soil is a stony clay about 2 feet thick, over well-drained calciferous rock, the summers can be long, hot and dry, all of which can make life difficult for small trees.

The first thing a walnut seedling (nutling?) does is send down a deep tap root to chase the water up from deep in the ground.   Self-seeded walnuts seem to survive the hottest summers, but transplanting them, which cuts the tap root, never works.

The walnut nutling will have a single vertical branch that shoots up quite quickly. However, this represents a tasty morsel for deer, boar and hares that eat the shoot or gnaw the bark off the stem.   But if the upper part of the tree is killed, the root just sends up several more branches to replace it.  These tend to shield each other so the tree has a chance of finding a leader shoot that remains uneaten, until it hardens.

Apparently, it's not good to put walnut shreddings onto compost heaps as they prevent the decay, so they have some kind of bug protection too.

And they make walnuts.  Excellent.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

It's fetch a bucket of water, boys

There have been several new country cycle routes and walks signposted in our area, and I have been doing parts of route no. 3 on my bike.  The motivations are several: a desire to keep fit, curiosity as to where they go, and to check out the accuracy of the signage.   There is an added benefit in that the route takes me to attractive and out-of-the-way places that I would not see in the normal run of events.

Today's route was typical.  I went to the village of Chammes (the farthest point from my place) via the shortest road route, and joined cycle path 3 to get back home.  So it was, when I got to the village of St. Jean sur Erve, instead of following the main road past the front of the church as I normally would, I took the signposted path around the back.

There I saw something that just strikes one as wrong.   That is, a smouldering hole in a garage door.   So I got off the bike, knocked on the nearest door:  "Sorry to trouble you, but...."   Buckets of water were fetched, and, it being impossible to open the doors for the time being, I reached in and used my water bottle to squirt water on the inside that we couldn't get to.

I was wondering how a fire like that starts low down in a garage door.  Someone told me that the council weed eradicators had been around that day with their weed burner.   Oops.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Trampled on with intent

I have/had a perfectly harmless rain gauge, it used to sit in the garden collecting rain, to tell me how much I needed to water the garden, if at all.   And here it is, smashed.   There are tell-tale signs of  wild boar having dug up bits of the garden around it.   Maybe I should start hunting them.

(French for wild boar: le sanglier.  Not to be confused with cendrier (ash tray))

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The rat trap

My Nan had a rat trap.  It worked on the same principle as the weedy little mouse traps that you can get, but it was much bigger, more powerful, and evil.  A spring-loaded bar is triggered by the rat's attempt to take the bait, and it comes down to break the rat's neck.  As a young kid, it took most of my strength to pull the bar back against the spring to set it, and if I accidentally caught my thumb in it, it hurt like hell.

After my grandad died, my Nan took in a lodger.   He was the only person who used the shed where Nan kept the rat trap.   I get the impression that he was not much liked by my family, although I had nothing against him.   So it was more out of childish malice than anything else, that I figured that if I set the trap, put it away on the shelf in the shed alongside some other innocuous items to conceal it, maybe it might get him.

I had forgotten all about it until one day my father came to me, and explained carefully that it was a really bad idea to leave set rat traps where people might find them.   The thing is, he couldn't keep his lips from twitching up at the end, so I knew I had struck gold.

There was one for sale at the car boot today.  Happy memories.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Visit to arboretum

Our last visit was to the Arboretum de Balaine.  It's a bit farther South from where we were staying, so not strictly on the way home, but we incorporated the visit into our journey back.

It's a very different garden from that at Apremont, with a feel much closer to a big (English-style) public park than a private garden.  The route around the garden is signposted, and visitors are expected to follow a specific path that takes in all of the important features.   The ways are fairly narrow so perhaps this constraint is for when the garden is busy, although we were the only visitors that morning, as far as we could tell.

An average tour around the grounds takes about two hours, and we found it very relaxing.

Definitely worth the detour.

Friday, 23 June 2017

The rides

We did two cycle rides on our short break, both on relatively flat terrain along waterways.  We started both of them from the big lock on the canal that runs alongside the Loire, marked by the pointer on the map below.  There is a hotel there (The Auberge du Pont Canal) that serves seriously strong coffee to get you going in the morning, and after one of these, we set off.

The first ride was northwards along the Loire as far as Marseilles-les-Aubigny, and the second one was eastwards along the canal that parallels the Loire, as far as Chevenon.  Each one was about 17Km each way.   Google maps seems to scale the map according to the size of your reading device - you might need to enlarge it.

I find it quite impressive how well-maintained these cycle tracks are - the surface is smooth, not quite as smooth as a metalled road, but pretty good, and well signposted.

We passed a very quaint looking restaurant in Aubigny, but unfortunately it was shut.  I hope that the bowl of cherries they left out was intended as an apology; the ones I tried were very nice.   We rode on and had lunch in the nearby marina on the canal.  I particularly liked the sculpture of the mariner at the wheel of a boat.

Monday, 19 June 2017

The aqueduct

There is a canal that runs alongside the Loire, called the Canal Latéral la Loire, and it crosses the river Allier not far from Km0 on the Loire à Vélo trail, via an aqueduct.

The aqueduct is quite high, and gives spectacular views over the surrounding countryside, and down to the Allier below.   You can walk along it; cyclists are asked to dismount, although not everyone did.  At the western end there is a deep lock, the deepest I have seen, to take boats down to the next level.

I liked the decorative lions on the handrails along the aqueduct, and also the flower boxes on the beams of the lock gates.  Nice touches, both of them.

The river below was glistening in the morning sun.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

La Loire a Vélo

We took a few days' break to check out our bikes, and to ride along a bit of the cycle path that has been created along the Loire valley ("La Loire à Vélo").  This is in fact part of a route that runs from the Black Sea to the Atlantic coast; the Loire bit of it is 800km long.  That should be enough to keep us going for a while.

We decided to start from kilometer zero of the "Loire à Vélo".  This is not at the source of the Loire, but is near Nevers where the Loire is joined by a tributary nearly as big; the Allier.  Looking at a map, the Allier upstream of where it joins the Loire is about as long as the Loire upstream of that point, but I guess it must be slightly smaller.

On the way, however we stopped off near our destination, at the Parc Floral at Apremont-sur-Allier.  It really is a remarkable garden.  Just about every vista is picture-postcard quality, and it is superbly maintained.  It was created by a guy who just wanted to bring some people into the village, and was opened to the public about 40 years ago.  He bought up the chateau and a few houses, had them refurbished and planted the gardens. A fine job.  Here's some pics, although they can't really do it justice.

You will have gathered that there are some water features, and that inevitably means frogs.  They hopped into the water with a small splash as we walked by.  I managed to sneak up on this little guy who seemed braver than the rest.  Or stupider.

And here's something I hadn't seen before:  A wide area watering system.  Water arrives along the hosepipe at the bottom right, goes around the hose reel a few times, and then shoots off down the straight black pipe to the right where it is fed into a sprinkler jet that waters a large circular area.  The sprinkler jet is on wheels, and the water movement powers a mechanism on the hose reel that slowly reels in the hose.  So it covers a very large area, given time.  Neat.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Mill near Mayenne

We looked at this mill the other day, it's about 12 minutes from the town of Mayenne, out in the sticks.   Not for us, but the location is wonderful.  The mill wheel is still present, but needs repair, and is mounted on a modern metal shaft and what I take to be a ball race.

Here's a link to the ad if you're interested.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

The bus

In Britain, you have to get your car tested every year; an MoT test.  The Ministry of Transport no longer exists, but the test they inaugurated for cars lives on.  In France cars have to have a contrôl technique once every two years, and once every ten years the test is a more comprehensive one.

Our Renault Espace has just had its ten-year contrôl technique, and it passed, which is a bit of a relief.  It is a diesel, chosen for the fuel economy, and because the government (French) seemed to think they were a good idea, reflected in the lower price of diesel fuel.  The Renault garage offered a free "pre-contrôl" test, which sounded like a good idea, and when we came to pick the car up, we discovered they had sorted the test with the test centre up the road.  Result.

Frankly, we don't drive it much, but we are in the peculiar position of it being essential to operating the gîte.  We bought it for its seating capacity (6 people + driver) and its carrying capacity (you can take the seats out and fill it with shopping).  The seating capacity was for transporting gîte customers to and from railway stations and airports, and the carrying capacity was for all the food we have to buy to cater for guests.  Food for a gîte full of people for a long weekend, including two chilled hampers, fills it up.  As it turns out we have used it about twice for ferrying people, but use it for carrying food every time we have guests in the gîte (say, 20 times per year).

As a consequence, although the car is ten years old, it has only 55,000 Km on the clock; as a diesel, it's barely run in.  I have been assuming that it will see me (us) out, that I will drive it until either I can't drive or it can't be driven any more, and that will be the end of it.

In the mean time, diesel fuel is dropping out of favour.  A manufacturer been found to be cheating on the pollution figures, others are suspected, and all of a sudden, news coverage is all about what nasty stuff diesel smoke is.  People are assuming that diesels will be banned at some time, which will mean that I will have to buy a new car.  My careful considerations of future utility have been thrown out of the window by changes in government thinking.  It's by no means clear what I should replace it with, should the need arise: electric? hybrid? petrol?  Perhaps, if we're not running the gîte, we won't need it at all.  That might be the best solution.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Pump appreciation week

This week we learn a new fact about each of three different types of water pump.

Firstly, if you have an automatic watering system for your garden, don't leave it in a state where the watering pump can turn itself back on but with no water flowing through it.  It overheats and causes the capacitor to swell and leak its insides everywhere.  The pump stops working.

Secondly, if you have a plumber replace a pump, make sure you re-pressurise the system before he leaves, even if he has used mastic that takes an hour to cure.  This avoids a second visit to fix the new leaks.

Thirdly, if your heating system develops a leak and starts pissing water over the electric pumps, cover them with a plastic bag or clingfilm or anything that will stop the water getting in.  This will avoid your having to try to dry it out with a hair dryer in the hope that you can get it to stop tripping the overload cutout so that it can heat the pool for your next guests who are arriving tomorrow.

Stand by for more useful DIY tips as they arise, here in the "it's-all-happening" heart of the Mayenne countryside.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Something new

I must be getting out of date.

I often browse the hi-tech area of our local supermarket, to see if there are any bargains to be had, and to keep abreast of new developments.  I watch with amazement the continuous lowering of digital camera prices, together with the increase in zoom capacity.  60x optical zoom anyone?

I saw for the first time a range of VR headsets.  Here they are alongside the cameras and GPS systems.

The thing is, I have no idea what I might use one for.  I guess they're good for some games, although I'm not sure my PC is fast enough.  But what would I do with one?  I don't know any VR games nor VR software apps that might interest me.  I'm completely out of touch.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Nice mill

Just had a chat with Mick who has been renovating the mill down the road.  Looks nice, eh?

Saturday, 13 May 2017

An apology

I have really sorted out the watering system for my veg patch this year.   An immersible pump pumps water from the well (27 metres deep) into two one-metre-cubed vats.  From there a different pump sends it to a spraying system made from little red nozzles set into a hosepipe, that makes a fine spray just above ground level.

So it's going to piss down all Summer.  Sorry about that.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Revolving doors

Revolving doors are widely used by shops; they are quite effective at keeping heat in during Winter, and cool, conditioned air inside during Summer.  Since shops are keen on not getting sued by people losing a limb or suffering other injury in doors of this type, the doors are fitted with some kind of emergency stop, whereby they cease revolving if anything untoward is happening.

Around here, a few supermakets have fitted shiny new, larger revolving doors with super-sophisticated safety systems: if you touch the door it stops, and a proximity detector works such that if you get within 30cm, it slows down to a snail's pace.  This works fine if there are only a few people in the door at once, but the fun starts at busy times.

Since the new doors are larger than the old ones, the temptation is to fill them to capacity with people and trolleys.  The problem is then that the proximity detector trips and slows down the door to almost stationary.  Arguments then ensue as to who might be responsible - the people at the front, or the people at the back, each group defending itself vigorously.

To correct the problem, those at the front just have to stand still and wait for the door to move on a bit, but those at the back have to shuffle forwards in the limited space, compressing the people in the middle, until the door catches up with them again and slows down.  Although it's easy to stay 30cm away from a door that is moving away from you, it is remarkably difficult to do the same with a door that is creeping up behind, especially if there are people in front of you.

Meanwhile, since it's a busy time, queues are forming outside of the door, with encouragement to the occupants from people who are keen to get on with their shopping.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Snake on the woodpile

They like the warmth under the tarpaulin.

Sunday, 30 April 2017


At this time of year, the onions are right at the end of season.  We get them in bags of 6 or 7 at our local restaurant supply shop, and often there is one in the bag that is squishy.  You have to choose carefully.

On the other hand, these fennel are maginificent, and I guess we must be right at the start of season.  They're firm, white, crisp and flavourful.  The fate of these is to be finely sliced and sprinkled over a smoked salmon starter for our guests.

I can assure you they were delicious :)

Saturday, 29 April 2017

No bamboo

What I hope was the last frost of the season was last night.  It managed to do some damage to my potatoes, but not too much.

I figure that now it's safe to plant out some of the tender plants, so I set about making some supports for the runner beans.  Failing to find any good straight plant stakes of the right length (at least two-and-a-half metres) I set off to the local garden centre to get some cheap bamboo stakes.  Except they don't have any.  They could flog me some nice, green, plastic-covered metal ones of the right length for a bit over four euros each.  No thanks.

Back to the drawing board, and I raided the hazelnut trees for a few of their longer branches.  Not as straight as bamboo, but functional, and they add a bit of rustic charm to the garden.  And they're free.  Should have thought of that in the first place, I guess.

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