Autumn Drive

When it feels like my small town is getting smaller, there is only one solution – ESCAPE – an escape to the country – a glorious autumn drive through mighty forests, golden vineyards, sleepy villages, smelling of sweet woodsmoke – and finally down to the banks of the Loire. Thought I’d share a few photos. though not all the world his yet in its full glorious autumn hue.

Sancerre rising from the Vines

Out on the highway, destination, the world famous wine town of Sancerre – half an hour’s drive from home, the highway starts in the flat plains round Bourges and rises, twisting like some kind of nonchalant corkscrew  to the vineyards.

In the woods

Textures

Through the woods from La Borne and Henchrichemont to Sancerre. Sleepy villages, nonchalant outposts bathed in glorious autumn sun and the air filled with sweet woodsmoke

Woodpile

General store

The store, open when the owner feels like it, and those hidden back years and gardens where we like to peek

Hidden places

Meeting the Messiah at a crossroads. The countryside is peppered with crucifixes

Meeting Jesus

Boat on the banks

Moored on the Loire

Advertisements

Road Trip from Cabourg to Quiberon

Last leg of our road trip along the north and north western coast of France. From the English Channel at Cabourg to the shores of he Atlantic on the Quiberon Peninsula – from Normandy to Britanny, via the Mont St Michel.

Month St Michel

On the tourist road to Quiberon, another vital stopover on the tourist trail – the standing stones at Carnac – miles of menhirs dating from 5000BC and no one knows what they are there, other than to attract tourists.

Standing Stones at Carnac

The Road to the Stones

Stone-spotting tourists

And on to Quiberon – a popular family holiday resort at he end of the Quiberon peninsula – who says peninsula also says one road in and the same road out – huge traffic jams and a lengthy wait for the delights of Quiberon

Quiberon

Black and Whire Quiberon

On the beach in Quiberon

And from Quiberon we head home to an empty fridge, empty bank account, utility bills and mountains o lessons to prepare before heading back to school. We’ll be back next year.

Up through the vines

Blue skies, brilliant sunshine, crisp and invigorating cold, a hint of frost on the ground – a perfect day for a drive – Off again on my ramblings round my corner of rural France. Up through the vines to Sancerre, down to the might Loire at at St Satur and then home across field and forest. There is a hint of Christmas in the air. Even in the smallest villages, the lights are up. As day turns to dusk, there is a slight mist and a tinge of woodsmoke in the air – I love this time of year – the vines laid bare by winter, the golden autumn forest is now skeletal – all is minimalist, but not barren. I love driving cross country on such days and coming home really does feel like a homecoming.

Sancerre in the vines

Sancerre rising from the vines

The banks of he Loire at St Satur

The banks of he Loire at St Satur

Running parallel to the Loire for quite a part of its length is the Loire canal – a fully functioning commercial waterway and part of the vast European canal. Given time and patience, it is possible to navigate from here on the Loire down on to the Canal du Midi, or even head north to Holland, Belgium and Germany. There are a fair number of Dutch boats at local canal ports. Even the occasional British narrow boat.

Canal basin at St Satur

Narrow boat at St Satur

English narrow boat

A fully functioning commercial canal, complete with grain silos.

Grain silos

Home through the fields – a conference of cows

Conference of cows

Skeletal sunset in the woods. Something evil this way comes??? I hope not.

Sunset

 

 

Looking for Luçay le Libre

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After the events on Bastille Day in Nice, I decided to head off into the French countryside and find if the real France was still out there somewhere,  In times of crisis, we tend to unfurl the flag and fall back on our Republican bedrock, but we also like to hark back to out traditional “douce France” – within every Frenchman there is a dormant peasant. Deep down All Frenchmen and women have rural roots and perhaps still a few traces of mud on their boots. So it was on a hot and lazy summer Sunday that I went drifting.

Drifting, true drifting, is difficult. We are conditioned by a time ethic and structured by our life routines. It is difficult to just cast off and go where the current takes us – like a message in a bottle cast into the ocean – where will it go, if it actually goes anywhere?

I can’t drift, I need a destination, however random that may be. I unfold a local map and try to be as random as possible – close our eyes and point … ah, I’ve already been there. Drifting is one thing, but this is also a “voyage of discovery” – the whole point of undertaking such an enterprise is (as they say in Star Trek) “To boldly go where no man has been before,” or in my case, to go somewhere this man has never been before. In my quest for rural France, I find an obscure village on the map “Luçay le Libre” – an intriguing name and what is more, it lies beyond the local county boundary – not only shall I be discovering a new place, but I shall be crossing frontiers. So, camera in hand, it is time to hit the road.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A good day for photos – clear blue skies, and in this corner of my little world, vast, flat landscapes – fields of wheat or sunflowers stretching into the interminable distance to eventually meet the sky on a far but clear horizon. Straight roads and clean cut clear horizons – the dividing line is definite, the contrasts are clear and everything stands out – very much a contradiction to those troubled times we are living in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You might have this common misconception that the French countryside is all small, enclosed fields, separated by charming hedgerows and each field full of Charolais grazing nonchalantly on sweet verdant pasture – and this is certainly true of the Normandy region for example – fields, hedgerows, orchards and herds of dairy cows contentedly chewing the cud – Normandy all cider and cheese – I however live in the “grain basket” of  France – vast “intensively-farmed fields” and not a hedgerow in sight.

This place used to be all hedgerows, but in 1949, the French government undertook huge agricultural reforms – France needed feeding and so the government embarked on a paternalist “collectivization” of French agriculture – small family farms were encourage to merge, hedgerows got ripped out to make larger and more productive fields and farmers got cheap loans to invest in modern machinery – some still say that theses reforms ripped the heart out of rural France, but the country needed feeding and agriculture was still a case of many farmers working to near subsistence-level, selling off what surplus that had at the weekly village market. Besides the late forties and early fifties marked a massive migration from the countryside to the cities – there was no money to be made on the farm, so youngsters headed off to work in factories.

I suppose that there is no better indicator of French historical, social and economic change than the countryside – and now these rural wastelands are a sign of technological change. Out in the fields there is more growing that just wheat – wind turbines are sprouting everywhere

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At this harvest time, hay bales are juxtaposed with wind turbines -modern France.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And so to those far flung villages – once thriving communities – autonomous communities who bothered little about the goings-on in the big cities. There was the café and the market and what more did you need?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’ve ended up in a village called Vatan, until you actually reach the main square, the place looks like a ghost town – houses shuttered up against the searing afternoon heat and shops and businesses closed for the duration -in the main square, a handful of cafés open for business – mostly passing tourists, a few motorcyclists on an afternoon run and errant souls like myself. Villages like this were once the hub of thriving agricultural communities, but now everyday seems a slow death, the place has lost a great part of its raison d’être.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And then there is the Tour de France – the world’s greatest cycle race and perhaps one of the few things that still truly unites all Frenchmen – Cycling apart, watching the lengthy TV afternoon coverage of each stage of the Tour de France, all those people who rarely head into deepest France actually have the opportunity to see what the place really looks like – watching the Tour is truly worthy it, if only to see real France. Looking at the signs in Vatan, I don’t think the Tour has been here for years.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And when I finally get to Luçay Le Libre …. four or five houses, a church and ….. the twilight zone that is the French countryside.

Finally on my return, I did google my final destination and … nothing, not even an explanation of the name.

More Fun with Less. The joys of driving a Crap Car and Thoughts on Downsizing

First, some thoughts on downsizing

Downsizing – consumming less, spending less, the adoption of a more modest lifestyle be it out of choice, necessity or circumstance.

Choice – the choice of those ( often with a comfortable lifestyle) who decide to consume less or at least consume in a way that equates with their principles.When you have everything, less is more – ridding yourself of the burden of possessions and finding true happiness in a more spiritual mode, rather than à la mode.

Downsizing out of necessity. A job loss that might lead to a lifestyle reappraisal. Cutting back or just cutting out because you are now living in reduced circumstances. Downsizing to survive.

Sacrificial downsizing – once again, cutting down, cutting back, cutting out. Privation for a higher cause. No more expensive holidays so you can afford to put your kids through university. Saving up for the downpayment on a house, or simply saving now so you can live later – putting money by for your twilight years.

Make do and mend. A kind of downsizing because you are not upgrading. Do you really need a new laptop ? The old one works fine. Flat screen, wide screen, curved screen – do you really need a new TV ? It’s always the same crap on screen, no matter what screen you watch it on.

When circumstance forces downsizing. Chance happenings, those annoying but not life threatening incidents that oblige us to adopt temporary cheap or retrograde alternatives until normal service/lifestyle can be resumed.

It started with a smash

It started with a low speed collision with a low level traffic feature. A moment of absence, distraction, and inattention during a parking maneuver. Backing out of a space and reversing into a bollard. OUCH.

At the garage, the panel beater / bodyshop man, walks slowly and pensively round my car, inspecting every inch of the bodywork. There are a few other minor scratches as well as the fractured back bumper. He announces a fair price for the work to be done , says i twill take a couple of days and announces he can take the car straight away.

AH ! I’m going to need a car. « Do you have a courtesy car ? » I ask in pleading tones.

« Courtesy car ? » muses the mechanic with some vigorous head-scratching. « We can lend you a car, » he finally anounces, after more pensive cranial massage. Hi stone suggests though that there is something slighlty discourteous about the automobile in question.

« There’s the car » says the panel beater with a vague sweeping gesture that appears to fall upon a shiny new Citreon C4. « That’ll do for a few days,» I chirp happy and relieved that I won’t be driving a heap of crap.

« Oh no, it’s not the citroen » laughs the garage man, « your car is behind. »

Crap but roadworthy

Behind the Citroen is a Renault 5 – a mid 1980’s white Renault 5 TD – a wreck, a rustbucket, a heap of crap on wheels that only looks fit for the crusher. I am assured that the vehicle is roadworthy. I am shown all the paperwork to prove the fact.

P1020345

P1020346

First thing I notice as I get behind the wheel – there are 313,000 kilometres on the clock. « Yeah, you don’t want to drive too far in this, » says the man. « Just local journeys. » I scan the Dashboard – it’s all broken switches, though the indicators, windscreen wipers and headlights do appear to be working.

Manual aircon

Where’s the aircon ? Temperatures have been in the low 30°c for the past couple of days. « It’s got manual air conditioning » announces the mechanic « just wind down the driver window » No electric windows !! In fact almost no windows at all, the driver window is the only one that works and out of the four doors, only the driver door will actually open. I am advised not to take any passengers. The interior is also very grotty, and the smell – well take your pick – a hint of wet dog with a soupçon of stale Tobacco and a strong « eco » like someone has been using the car to ferry round dung, compost and damp garden refuse. On the upside the car does have five gears and a full working radio, there’s even a cassette player. No kidding, as I head off, I switch on the radio and Kim Carnes wth her Betty Davis Eyes comes crackling out the tinny speakers. This ain’t a car, it’s a veritable time machine. A trip back to when four gears was the norm. This car though actually has five gears and the remnants of power assisted steering.

So, keys in the ignition. I say goodbye to my Volvo and jolt off in my rattling retro Renault rust-bucket.

A few words on speed.

As the nation’s politicians prepare to legislate to reduce speed limits on the nation’s roads, and motoring lobbies moan about our existing measly speed limits, I am having serious problems getting any speed up at all. For sure, I won’t be braeking any records in this car unless it is the one for causing the world’s longest traffic jam. I press my foot down on the clutch to chage gear. It creaks like a bad sound effect from a B movie. The steering wheel has a similar sound, like a door in a Hammer Horror film. I’m fighting with the gears and the effort is bringing me out in rivers of sweat. Time to activate the manual aircon. I’m driving slow enough to wind down the window without serious coordination problems, but the sindow only goes a quarter down before the handle nearly comes off in my hand. After some effort, I get the car up to about 40kms per hour and into third gear.

Out of town and on to the dual carriage way. Maximum authorised speed on this stretch – 110 km. I’m accelerating with all the ease of an overweight, asmathic snail trying to crawl uphill. I get the car up to 60, then 70 and … I hit 80. FIFTH GEAR, but then the car starts to dangerously shake and rattle – looking for a suitable simile – it’s like an epeleptic with Parkinsons dancing under strobe lights in a discothèque. Back to 60 and back into fourth gear.

I LOVE this car

Well, time has come to give back my crap car, and I’m actually going to regret it, because driving his wreck has actually been great fun. The sheer joy of owning a lousy car. After this enforced circumstantial downsizing, perhaps I should sell my posh car and buy a wreck, because wrecks are great. I can park this car anywhere and who cares if the door doesn’t lock ? No one would be mad enough to steal this car. And what about all the time, effort and money we waste keeping our cars clean, only for them to get dirty again ? Drive a crap car and save valuable time and money. After a few hours it feels pretty good to be driving round in this dustbin cum ashtray on wheels.

Inspiring Adventure

You are what you drive – goes the saying. Driving round in this I feel kind of shabby and liberated. I feel young again. I’m a student, a teenager. I don’t care what I drive, I just have my own personal mobility. I have my own space on four wheels, and this car might be a wreck, but it is the kind of car that inspires adventures, because getting anywhere in this car give you the sense of achievement you might get from climbing a mountain, trekking to the North Pole or paddling down pirhana infested rivers in an inflatable canoë. I want to drive down to the sea in this car. I want to drive there on a hot day. Sweltering behind the wheel. Trundling along at the speed of a tractor, and when I get there, I want to throw myself into the waves.  I want to drive somewhere far away just for the sheer hell of getting there in this crappy car. I love this car. This is true carefree driving. This car is not a statement. It is not a display of weatlth. I’m not screaming at the world to look at my beautiful car!  I’m not competing with anyone. I’m just a dude driving a dustbin on wheels and I don’t give a ****. If you don’t like it, just overtake me. And one guy in a huge SUV did, followed by another in a BMW – and they screeched to an abrupt halt at the traffic lights, and they waited for the lights to turn green. They fumed with impatience, they tapped their fingers on the dashboard, they looked at their cell phone they … so much stress, whilst I trundled up behind in my wreck , just as the lights turned green and trundled past them.

Yes, I subscribed fully to that aspirational automobile dream. I hankered after bigger, better and faster. After three days of rolling around retrograde, I’m seriously starting to wonder about downsizing. A cheap, carefree car that I can bump about and bash around in. Where every journey becomes a road movie. Guess I just want to be young again.

Having less has been more fun, but I’ve probably only enjoyed it because I know I can go back to more.

Just for the record, I actually learned to drive on a car like this.

Journey into Christmas.

IMG_6253

Christmas used to be a true destinaition. A gaudy, magic, tinsel town. A place of glistening, snow-covered, candy dreams. It was last place on the long hard yellow brick road through the year. It was a safe and reassuring place. How many times did mum and dad say « Don’t worry. It’ll all be right come Christmas. »? So, as a kid, I was always glad to get to Christmas, because mum and dad always made sure that everything was right. Of course, as a kid, the road to Christmas wasn’t too hard. You just had to sit in the back seat, stare out the car window at the landscape, and try not to get too bored or to annoy mum , who was navigating and dad, who was driving.

Then one day you grow up, and it’s you in the driving seat. Christmas is no longer a destination, just a stop-over on life’s long road. Christmas becomes a night in a cheap hotel with broken air con and a lumpy bed. It’s a refuelling stop in motorway service station – filling up at the pump, a lukewarm ersatz coffee from a vending machine, a trip to the loo, and then a saunter round the shop for chewing gum, cigarettes, paper tissues and something to keep the kids happy.

Christmas is a name on a map, somewhere to break your journey. You’re sick of driving, but you’ve got to carry on until Christmas. Then you see the signs. Christmas is getting closer, but the last miles are the hardest. The road seems never ending. Finally though, you pull into that blob on the map you’ve been aiming for all year. No magic tinsel town, just a one horse town, that no sooner you’re in, than it’s gone. A drive- through festive blip.

Eventually, you give up caring what Christmas is like. As long as you can get a shower, a cold beer, some food and a decent night’s kip, you’re happy. Usually, Christmas is that cheap hotel, occasionally though, you might get lucky and have a five star festive stop-over. For sure, these are the Christmases you cherish.

Never been away. Been away forever.

DSC_0010

The long road home from the sea.

It starts in the early morning on the quayside at a small port on a small island. Travellers seated on their bags waiting to embark, waiting to cross the few miles of rough seas that separate us from the mainland or « Le Continent » as the French call it. We are in France though, and I haven’t forgotten, it’s just that coming from an Island myself (yes Britain is an Island) you always have to cross seas to go anywhere and very often the crossing of seas implies the crossing of borders. So, here I am on this Island with my insular mindset whereby anything across the water is another country.

Time to embark. Dragging heavy bags to the ferry. I feel awkward in my jeans and sweater – long trousers and long sleeves after long hot days of shorts and T-shirts. « Wrapped »in layers of clothing to keep out the cold morning air and my feet encased in real shoes. I am plodding, moon walking with gravity.

I have my passport at the ready. Old reflexes die hard. «Put that way, we’re in France » my wife reminds me, with an indulgent smile.  But I am crossing the sea to another country. I am almost disappointed that there are no officials on hand to inspect – no police, no customs officials I almost miss the tinge I get down my spine when I pass though customs wondering if I’ll get stopped or not. This just doesn’t feel like real travelling.

The boat leaves the port on time and plies out at full speed into the choppy waters of the Atlantic.  Not a true Atlantic crossing though, just a few miles back to France. However the seas are rough enough and the crossing is long enough to make half the passengers seasick. The flimsy paper puke bags disappear fast, as travellers throw up their breakfast and outside the toilet there is a long line of queasy voyagers waiting to give their all.  Each time the toilet door opens a stomach wrenching odour escapes into the passenger area. As the crossing gets rougher, the family behind me are having a whispered conversation about life jackets and muster stations.

« No safety warnings … where are the life jackets … we’d better change places if we’re going to capsize. »

The French are a great maritime nation, France is surrounded on three sides by sea, but the passengers on this boat are certainly not sailors.

At the end of our Atlantic crossing, it would have been nice to see lady liberty, instead though we chug into the port of Fromentine – a second-rate, down-at-heal seaside resort, the kind of place where generations of families have been coming for generations, always to the same holiday house or campsite – a tradition, a reflex or pure « no-questions-asked » simplicity – it’s the nearest stretch of sand, and an easy, straight-line drive from home to their home from home.

This stretch of the French Atlantic sea board is full of small resorts such as Fromentine –  St Giles Croix de Vie, Les Sables D’Olonne, St Jeans de Monts, St Hilaire de Riez … their names are redolent of traditional and simple family holidays that have hardly changed since the late fifties.  Families sitting on the beach, eating sandwiches from Tupperware boxes, mums nattering, grannies knitting, dad snoozing, kids running, shouting, screaming, their beach noise blown back into their sandy faces by the Atlantic wind. Building sandcastles, flying kites, playing pétanque, volleyball – a family day at the beach as it has been for generations.

Back on the road. Back behind the wheel after a week in the saddle, and nothing more than pure pedal-power to get around my holiday island. It’ feels strange being motorised again.

John King

It’s almost the last Saturday of the holiday season. The road home is thick with traffic – jams, tailbacks, gridlock, bumper-to-bumper. Families in cars loaded up to the gunnels with all their holiday rubbish. In most cases it was a mad last minute rush to get everything in the car. Bags and boxes piled high from floor to ceiling, blocking out all vision through the rear window. In between the bags – beach balls, buckets, spades, deflated inflatables, food, bottles, shoes, parasols – all shoved in anarchy in every available space.

In the jams cars edge along at the pace of a lethargic snail. At the wheel, dad bides his time, trying to remain patient, trying to stay awake. Mum looks up alternative routes on the GPS and the kids – oblivious – plugged into the PCs, DVDs and games consoles. Super Mario is doing a super job of keeping the kids occupied. So much better than « I Spy with my little eye something beginning with C. »  CAR – in front and behind.

We have decided to take an alternative route – those winding country lanes that no one takes because they take too long to take, so everyone takes the motorway, which on this national Saturday homecoming is like one giant car park.

I far prefer motorway driving, but I’m curious to drive these country roads, a chance to see those parts of deepest France you only hear about in small ways, in curious ways – like the woman on the radio phone-in programme ringing in from Cholet – or the man on the TV game show from Montaigu – or the a dairy farmer from Thouarcé venting his anger against the large supermarket chains and the pittance they pay him or his milk.

They are those places you never knew existed; yet they do, in the same work-a-day way that your town exists. They are places you drive though once and will probably never drive through again, unless you come back this way on holiday. Or they are the places you drive through every year to get to the coast without ever stopping or wondering about them. Theses places are where they are because they are nowhere else, yet everywhere else is full of places that are exactly the same.

The small « lost » towns, villages and hamlets of deepest France.

The backbone of France.

Forgotten France.

Those places that I love to drive through just to see what France are made of.

Those places that leave you wondering, why in heaven’s name are people living there in the first place? What do they do and how do they survive in these nowhere places?

One-horse towns and villages with boarded-up shops, bars and cafés, closed down for the duration and those places of business that are still in business look out of business and out of time. Yet, in these dead places, people are living, working.

Driving fatigue sets in. I’m not tired of driving, I’m just tired of driving this road. There’s nowhere to stop because there’s nowhere you’d want to stop. This is not “la douce France” of songs and lifestyle magazines. No shady tree -lined squares with beret-coiffed peasants playing pétanque. No quaint café , with a warm welcome and cold beer for the weary traveller. At best you might get a supermarket car park or a piece of waste ground where you can piss behind the recycling bins. Over the years travelled roads like this from North to South and East to West and every time I come home, I feel glad to live where I live.

This long, lousy, never-ending, nowhere road home from the sea, dulls the post holiday pain.  It makes it easier to come home to reality – the letterbox overflowing with mail: utility bills, tax demands, postcards from friends who have been away, always further, better and sunnier than where you went. Most of the mail is just junk – glossy brochures and flyers from local supermarkets advertising all the crap your kids will need for their impending return to school. It’s depressing.

And though you have only been away for a week, when you arrive home, you feel as if you have never been anywhere. However, small, but visible changes make you feel that you have been away forever. Your neatly manicured garden has transformed into a jungle. Your next-door neighbour has painted his front gate. Someone new has just moved in down the street … It’s good to be home though.