Spring miscellany

A belated happy Easter to you all!

After last week’s text-heavy blog, we thought we would have something of a compensation with very much a photo compilation. After what was effectively three months of total drought, which regular readers will have noticed, worried us considerably, April has been extraordinarily cool and wet. We were in Toulon on Thursday with a guest and everyone was wandering around with winter jackets and rainwear.

The arrival of rain after such a long drought has, unsurprisingly, given rise to an explosion of flowers, buds and foliage. So here are some photos:

Spring foliage in the valley of the River Argens
poppies growing out of a stone wall
Our wisteria is now just past its best, but this year it has had the most flowers we’ve ever seen.
The vines are showing their leaves
swallowtail butterfly on clover
and we are seeing butterflies such as this Swallowtail attracted by all the flowers
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On Notre Dame and the state of the nation

We had planned to write something else this week, but the appalling fire at Notre Dame has dominated French life. We would like to offer you the consensus opinion in the bars and churches of the region but our sample size is a bit more limited; nevertheless, we have had some conversations and kept an eye on the French and international press. It’s clearly been a deeply felt and shocking event across the nation and it has raised a number of issues.

Something that we are becoming increasingly aware of is the French sensitivity, bordering on a neurosis, about religion and religious buildings. In theory, there is a rigorously defined gap between the sacred and the secular. This goes back to the French Revolution – when the church was very definitely on the losing side – and was heightened by a formal legal separation of church and state in 1905. Yet Notre Dame is important in both areas of life. If you ignore the far too recent Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame dominates a Parisian skyline mercifully free from skyscrapers.

Notre Dame from one of the bridges over the Seine

In a similar way it dominates French history, having played an important role for over 800 years in almost every event that has shaped the nation. It has seen moments of transformation: the crowning of Kings and emperors, the celebrations of the end of wars, the funerals that have closed eras. Yet it has also acted as some astonishing point of stability. Geographically, it is an island in the middle of the flowing river Seine; historically and socially it has been a fixed point in the middle of a flowing and turbulent history. Whatever happened – and in France a lot has happened – Notre Dame has always been there. So, its burning has been seen by many as the shaking of foundations. In fact, when Chris suggested to one thoughtful French person that Notre Dame played a similar role to the British monarchy in the UK in offering stability there was only agreement. Given that the nation is already in the middle of a very major upheaval – the angry and widespread gilet jaunes protests having been occurring regularly now for nearly six months – this dramatically visible fire has come as a deep body blow.

Yet at the same time Notre Dame is not just a historic monument but also a religious institution. Even if, bizarrely, it is been owned and maintained by an explicitly secular state for over a century, it is still the heart of the Catholicism in France. And Roman Catholicism is increasingly the faith that people don’t belong to, although their mother or grandma might. Actually, until Monday’s dreadful events, most of the headlines in the press about Catholicism concerned the slow but relentless legal procedures against historical child abuse in France.

We attended an ecumenical service in Notre Dame at the start of the COP21 conference in December 2015

Given this curious double role of Notre Dame that it was interesting to listen to what M. Macron said at the scene on Monday night. Occasionally inclined to say the wrong thing when he speaks off-the-cuff, the president was here careful and his words were well measured. Evoking the long history and weight of heritage associated with the cathedral and its central role in French culture he studiously avoided anything that could be associated with a religious sentiment and carefully offered his sympathies to Catholics without anyway identifying with them. He ended with a very presidential appeal: “We will rebuild Notre Dame because that is what the French expect, because that is what our history deserves, because it is our deep destiny.” It would be interesting to unpack what the idea of ‘destiny’ really means, but it was a good speech.

Yet the fire at Notre Dame has highlighted the hole at the heart of French culture. The problem is that while the secularism of la laïcité is resolutely defended, it generates no enthusiasm and arouses no affection. The result is that while the Catholic faith is widely rejected (almost everyone we talked to about Notre Dame has uttered the phrase ‘of course I’m not a Catholic but…’) there seems to be a lingering and uncritical nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ when priests and moral certainty reigned in the land and France knew what she was. The loss of Catholicism as the focus of belief and morality has left a faith-shaped void in the heart of France. It was that wisest of Frenchmen, Blaise Pascal, who spoke of the God-shaped gap in the human heart that nothing but God can fill. He might have been prophetically speaking of modern France.

One picture has been on almost every front page: in the middle of the dark charred gloom of the interior stands erect and gleaming the great bronze cross. For Christian publicity at Easter it’s been an astonishing success: it’s a pity it cost so much to achieve it.

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Courmettes in April

What with UK family crises and winter, we haven’t been up at Courmettes for some months. Last weekend, however, it was the Conseil d’Administration (think Board of Trustees) of A Rocha France, a body which includes Chris. After unseasonably warm and dry weather in February and March, April has been cold and wet and Sunday morning saw us waking up to a thin covering of snow on the peak.

Coupled with the formal Annual General Meeting, which all French associations have to have, was a day-long discussion of how ARF can best operate, including a discussion of the vexed question of where we get money for conservation from. It is a universal complaint of conservationists the world over that although everyone is in favour of saving the planet, very few people want to pay for it.

The Conseil d’Administration

As it was also a ‘discovery’ weekend at Courmettes, on Sunday afternoon, the weather having slightly improved, Chris led another of his Geology and Natural History walks around part of the domain. What was particularly interesting that both for the walk on Sunday and the activities on Saturday, a number of people had come from a considerable distance to be present: the fame of Courmettes is spreading. It was great to be up at Courmettes even if it was a bit cold outside.

The cloud was down during Chris’ walk and you can see snow on the ridge beyond the marsh area.
Refurbishment in progress!

However the new insulation on the roof makes the interior warmer, and there has been some splendid work done over the past few months. This includes refurbishment – still ongoing – of a number of old rooms in the big house and also some wonderful and beautifully created explanatory panels on the nature and history of the domaine and what a Rocha France is doing there. Well done Esther!

We’re due to go up again just after Easter; let’s hope the weather has warmed up a bit by then.

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Bits and pieces

The slightly disjointed nature of the blogs over the past month or so has been partly because we have been travelling backwards and forwards to the UK, first to see Chris’ dad in hospital and then sadly, last week for his funeral. So in the space of year Chris has lost both his father and mother: all very sad.  It does however mean that we are adjusting to a new situation where we are not constantly waiting for the phone to ring with a crisis that we have to deal with from a thousand miles away. Something, we suppose, of a silver lining.

We got back on last Sunday night and despite lots of things demanding our attention went out on the Monday afternoon walk with one of the many local walking groups. We needed the exercise.

It was a fairly straightforward circuit on the Plaine des Maures not far from us. We have mentioned it before, but it is an extraordinary area which feels like nothing else in this part of the world. It is a very flat plain in the shadow of the range of the Maures hills where the hard pebbly sandstones are covered by soils so thin that the rocks frequently poke out.

The vegetation is very distinctive, generally a thin scrub with sporadic but dramatic umbrella pines. It is a strange, dry region that feels more akin to African savanna than Provence and you feel the odd giraffe or elephant would not go amiss. In reality it does not seem to have a lot of wildlife, perhaps because it is so dry in summer.

Possibly because of thin nature of the soils, the plants make the best of spring. This is one of the hottest areas of southern France and there is not a lot of groundwater to keep plants going in summer. This year, after at least two months without rain, there seemed to be a particular urgency to the plants, with spectacular irises, tree heather and rosemary.

Thankfully however it has rained heavily this week and there is the hope of more rain on Saturday.


Travelling to and from to the UK has of course constantly reminded us of the embarrassing debacle that is Brexit. The failure on the part of Leave campaigners and the government to comprehend the enormous quantity of links and legislation that has been quietly built up over the last 40 years between Britain and Europe is astonishing. Everything from importing a pet to bank arrangements, from driving licences to the validity of healthcare agreements is affected. The present state of the UK being in some sort of bizarre limbo of neither in nor out is not at all helpful. Someone, somewhere should have had the courage to say that if the UK was going to leave Europe then to arrange for it to happen was going to involve an extraordinarily expensive project that would last for a decade at least. So if you are planning your holidays in France this summer – and why not? – it’s probably worth checking the small print on everything from insurance to inoculations. But there is not much point in doing it now – it will probably have totally changed in the next few days.

Lac des Escarcets was created in order to have water to fight forest fires. You can see from the other photos why it was needed.
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Salernes and Tholos de la Lauvre

We are surrounded by many charming villages and a number have appeared in these blogs. What is interesting is that with time, and repeated visits, you recognise that each village has its own different qualities. Salernes, for instance, which is about 45 minutes away from us, is very much in the hinterland, to the extent that you can imagine the locals gawping at the arrival of open-top sports cars and ladies with bare midriffs, matters that arouse not the slightest interest along the coast. Salernes also has the remains of industry about it. There are many shops and workshops selling and advertising tiles; the reason, as so often in this part of the world, is geology. Salernes had large outcrops of tile-quality clays. They are now worked out but the industry lingers.

Clay outcrops are still visible in places.

House in Salernes with a fine display of some of the ceramic tiles the town is celebrated for.

The other Saturday, after our morning labouring at the oppidum, we went to Salernes in search of a stone-age site called Tholos de la Lauvre. In truth, it wasn’t all that stunningly impressive, but it did involve a fairly steep climb up a limestone hill that, typical of this water depleted year, had a bleak and arid feel to it such that the appearance of a camel or two would have seemed unsurprising.

The whole hill is actually rather arid, and nearby there were lots of aloes growing, enhancing the sense of being on a desert edge. Given that there has been effectively now no rainfall for three months (and records are tumbling), we hope this will not turn out to be the case.

The tomb, which presumably once had a mound over it. A sign nearby points out that it’s older than the Egyptian pyramids and is unique in this part of France.

Either side of the path were curious shallow excavations; we couldn’t make out if these were archaeological or half-hearted geological excavations.

There is history here. We wish we knew more about it.

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For everything there is a season

The most important thing first. After four weeks of being in hospital, Chris’ father returned to his residential home, Bushell House and there after a few days, died peacefully of kidney failure. All very sad, although he had been in decline for some time. This is a good point to say how excellent a place Bushell House is; in the year that he had been there since Chris’ mother’s death he had had the best of care and the warmest of welcomes. so as you can imagine, we are busy organising the funeral, etc., and will be travelling to the UK for it.

Really what follows is a continuation of the miscellany theme that we had last week. The weather has continued to be dry although we did have a few drops of rain earlier this week. The result is a rather curious phenomenon, where the countryside appears to be schizophrenic. Parts of it look as if they are still in early spring, with blossom just beginning to come out, and other parts appear to be in high summer. It’s quite significant that near us the undergrowth near tracks in the wood has been cut down to the minimum to give something of a firebreak.

In other news, nine young people from our church are going to Uganda over summer to work with a school there (see here for more details). So last Sunday we had a St Patrick’s Day themed lunch which managed to raise $1,000 towards it. Some of the parents cooked and the young people served and helped wash up.

Finally, just as we were completing this blog, a box of books arrived. They are the newly published Jesus Christ: The Truth, which Chris has co-authored with J John. we are sure you can order copies from the Philo website or Amazon.

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March miscellany

In once sense the high point of the past week has been us collecting our rather nice smart-card-like titre de séjour from the splendid building of the Sous-Préfecture at Draguignan.

When we were there the place was full of British people, all of who it seemed would have happily had Les Brexiters Gove, Johnson, Rees-Mogg and Farage shot.

That this splendid building is now hosting the formalisation of the residence status of so many Britons is fascinating because it owes its grandeur to the British. It’s an odd story.

Although a relatively minor town, Napoleon selected Draguignan to be the prefecture of the Var in 1797 over the much bigger Toulon. His reasoning was that Toulon could easily be attacked and seized by the British who then ruled the seas. (Having made his name in seizing Toulon back from the Royalists and the British in 1793, Napoleon knew what he was talking about.) The full prefecture status was given to Toulon only 40 years ago, when presumably it was felt that a British invasion of France’s chief naval port was now somewhat unlikely. So, being kindly given formal residence status in France in Draguignan is vaguely amusing. However, it’s about the only amusing thing about the whole Brexit debacle, which defies explanation in French and it seems, also in English.

Other events have been some short walks. Spring is advancing rapidly, although alas still without any hint of rain. We heard of someone using a drill to plant flowers in the concrete-like soil.

The ultimate arbiter of what season you are in down here is provided by the supermarkets. How this works we don’t know, but presumably someone in the supermarket looks at the weather forecast, consults seaweed, sniffs the air and then rings around saying “guys, it’s time to get the summer stuff out”.

So, mysteriously, overnight, stoves, heaters and firewood disappear, to be replaced by gardening tools, deckchairs and the vast array of essentials for the swimming pool that every French household must have. In the clothing section duvet jackets, gloves and hats give way to T-shirts and sandals.

Spring is always a brief season down here and this year it may be briefer than usual.

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