Ophelia

With no business to be writing, given familial arguments and copiously consumed glasses of red wine, way past the aperitif benchmark, I sit outside in the autumnal darkness of my tiny garden claiming the final breaths of evening air. The gentle sea mist has evolved into a heavy-duty fog that appeared when no-one was looking. The temperature is sufficiently warm to warrant open doors but the dampness clings to the very soul that was believed lost in time a few sad hours ago. It’s almost fearsome to close those doors and invite the night to do its worst. The honking geese have made their evening’s journey to Brownsea Island; my multitude of sparrows is hiding in the hedge whilst the brave fat robin has forsaken my company until tomorrow.

The other day, nature, or something purporting to be normal, frightened twenty-first century folk. In the middle of the day, having spent the morning trying out various shades of yellow, the sky suddenly turned black. At the surgery, undertaking a prosaic pneumonia vaccination, Nurse Judy exclaims, ‘thank-you for coming in on such an auspicious day’. And it’s as if ‘such a day’ is an omen of terrible things to arrive imminently. The receptionist says, ‘have you seen the sky?’ A woman in the waiting room claims, ‘I just want to be home’. Radio 4 interviews a soothsayer.

Back from disease prevention, I stare blankly at the darkness through my French windows. Suddenly, the fierce red sun appears like a terrible omen. A portent of things to come. Well, they arrived. Hopefully, they will pass but I doubt it. The world is spiralling downwards. But the door’s still open.

 

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A reading

An unexpectedly warm day sees quite a few folk gathered at the local library where I am to offer a reading of my last book, The Road That Runs. Once again, it’s set in that fruit growing area of Provence where one can expect something meteorologically consistent. So much so, in fact, that it’s easy to write against a backdrop of the seasons: the almond blossom of spring; the seemingly endless heat of high summer; the chilly winds of autumn and the sudden arrival and even more speedy departure of Christmas.

An age ago, I stayed in Provence during what passes for winter. The only thing that marks this temporary hiatus between the end of one level of warmth and the beginning of another is the somewhat fabular Mistral. Emulating the hand of Satan, it shuts down the electricity, the internet and sometimes the water supply. Depending on its strength, it closes the motorway or, at the very least, forces mad truckers to travel more slowly than they would like. It makes ladies’ hair stand on end, literally. And people seeking refuge in Avignon, where the wind reaches a climax alongside the Rhône, down which it has hurtled, are accosted by flying placards. But this is a picture of Dorset!

On that long-ago sojourn, having succumbed and adjusted to the nuances of what they like to call winter, I was appalled to wake to snow on the morning I’d planned to go home for Christmas. It won’t last, they said. And it didn’t.

Inevitably, having given a reading, folk always ask whether I have a house in Provence; and if not, would I like one. Well, no actually. Of course, if I was a rich woman, I would. Who wouldn’t? That instantly reviving warmth, the vibrant Provençal markets, the lost-in-time antiquities, the never-ending aperitif and, naturally, all those eclectic friends made over the years. It’s all so – reliable. But I wouldn’t stay all year in that hypothetical house because what’s even more reliable, and more demanding, is home. Some folk seek a warmer winter but I can understand those who hurry home to the grey dampness of England.

Global warming may have led to the English seasons being less discernible than those of childhood but, regardless of temperamental weather, they still exist. The Provençal autumn is marked by gunshot: the onset of the hunting season where anything moving is fair game. The English autumn is signalled by the sight of random berry collectors along the hedgerows. In my books, Madame Martin and Madame Lapin become entrepreneurs selling confiture and pickle made from the goods that Monsieur Martin grows. In my real world, everyone is making crumbles, jam and chutney. Those of us devoid of sterilised jars and inherited know-how, shovel their sloes and blackberries and damsons into brandy and gin.

In France, no-one talks about Yuletide until about half an hour before the Christmas Eve celebrations. In England, we’ve started purchasing gifts in October. Because, largely, we love it. In France, there are beautiful crêches to be seen in December but the nativity comprises a tiny part of the scene which depicts the year-round culture of Provence. In England, which, for me, is Dorset, there is story-telling, Dickens and the Bournemouth Symphony and Chorus performing The Messiah. As I said, it’s all so wonderfully predictable.

I read my stories of Provence aloud and they always say, ‘it’s so evocative; I must go’. Maybe I should write more about Dorset. And maybe you should stay.

On the lash

Last Saturday evening, five of us set out on the alternative pub crawl around old Poole. The rationale is to visit hostelries that are not normally frequented by any of our number. For example, although The Queen Mary, our starting point, is just around the corner from my son’s house, none of us had ever been inside previously.

 

I don’t know why it’s been disregarded; maybe because it’s away from the Quay, isolated amongst traffic lights and junctions. It wasn’t always that way: before the so-called town regeneration of the 1960s, there were many more pubs along West Road and up to Towngate. The Queen Mary is the last survivor and, as such, the excellent Town Centre Heritage Report notes, quite rightly, that this Victorian pub, wearing original Carter’s tiles on it’s façade, should be cherished.

It’s really nice inside with quite a few interesting artefacts. This photo is a copy of the framed picture that Palmer’s brewery gave to Lizzie, the landlady. She also has very old photographs of Poole and a map of the harbour with all the named buoys – I didn’t even know buoys had names. You can tell this was our first port of call as all the photos are sensible. Into this tiny space, 35 folk were expected for Sunday lunch the following day so, clearly, we weren’t quite the pioneers we might have thought.

Next, we’re off to The Blue Boar which is in Market Close and not, as you might’ve thought, in Blue Boar Lane. Actually, I’m having trouble locating the latter so perhaps the owners did too. The Blue Boar pub is housed within the former building owned by the Adey wine merchant family and was re-opened in 1996.

In truth, we shouldn’t really be here: we’ve all been before, some of them on many occasions, so it doesn’t fall within our remit. They like it, however, and it has very good reviews so I’m on my own in finding it all a bit soulless. It boasts a bunch of diving memorabilia and is famous (or infamous) for being the venue for the post-New Year’s Day bath tub race on the Quay. You can see we’re slightly more organised as now someone’s remembered to record our visit. You can also see that the joint is not exactly jumping.

And now for something completely different. We’re definitely in the High Street and most probably in a pub called The Brewhouse. Finding reviews is tricky as Poole also has a hostelry called Brewhouse and Kitchen. This isn’t it. This is Pub of the Season, Spring 2017. No comment.

This converted shop looks like a long, narrow mock Tudor joint. Others in our party claim it reminds them of Disney, whilst the one in the new leopard-skin coat (also mock) says it’s like a place they visited in Bratislavia or some such place. No matter, we’ve a couple under our belt and this pub, compared with the previous two looks like a pub ought to on a Saturday night. Sort of. Mine host seems a jolly salt.

Conversely, Christy, landlord of The Butler and Hops, seems a bit down in the dumps. He’s only been in the job a week and is currently surveying his vast emporium which is largely empty. Maybe folk have never heard of the place as it changes names for a pastime. And maybe he doesn’t know it’s history which is more than a tad interesting.

 John Butler built the pub in 1761 when it was called The Angel. Within five years, due to the trade with Newfoundland, it was one of the most valuable properties in the High Street and, for reasons unknown, he changed the name to The French Horn and Trumpet. By 1777, it had become The London Tavern, a staging post for coaches between Southampton and Weymouth. In 1936, it was demolished and rebuilt in the art deco style, decorated with the friezes that are now on display in our wonderful museum. Bombed in WW2, it subsequently opened in 1961 as The Old Harry, and finally as the Globe Café. Too late: it had gone right downhill and gained notoriety.

 

Poole is a Royal Marines’ base and the headquarters of the Special Boat Service. This fact is reflected in many of the town’s pubs, not least the Foundry Arms in Lagland Street. It regularly wins awards in the ‘pub of the year’ contest specifically in the ‘knowing your community’ section. It’s a pub run by and for marines.

This is me, your adventurous reporter, trying to get the low-down from landlord, Moz. I’m standing next to another former marine who we previously met in The Blue Boar. What I’m trying to discover is where the foundry, whose name the pub takes, was sited. It’s tricky: I’ve had quite a few of those little glasses of Guinness you can see but at least I’m still standing. The rest of my party has fallen over.

 

Moz reckons the foundry was sited where Sainsburys is now located. The bloke from The Blue Boar says it was on Baiter. Well, maybe there was more than one but my subsequent research shows that the Dorset Iron Foundry was initially located in the early nineteenth century on West Quay Road, directly opposite my son’s house. I should’ve asked him. The goods railway actually ran past his house and down onto the Quay to where the foundry expanded and subsequently became Hamworthy Engineering.

I didn’t particularly want to go to The Foundry and I still think we hit the joint at the right time. The place was exceptionally busy with a coach party of men dressed as hippies on a day tour. This was their eleventh stop so they made our lot look pretty sober. There’s a veritable shed-load of Royal Marine memorabilia proudly displayed in this pub so it’s not a joint for pacifists: it’s a place for objective observers who don’t mind a television showing a screen of constant scenes of instruments of war. Nonetheless, with my woozy academic head on, Moz is interesting and welcoming and eager to speak about his establishment.

And so to my very favourite pub in Poole: The Cockleshell, which, in times past, used to be The New London Tavern. presumably after the old one became The Old Harry. The cockleshell heroes were, of course, the first small group of the now SBS force that went to occupied Bordeaux in WW2 with the aim of destroying the German fleet. Six of them were executed and two died of hypothermia.

I love this pub. Walking through the door is like stepping into a time warp. There’s no fancy dress but everyone is dressed from the eighties. As my son says, ‘are we in a scene from ‘Life on Mars?’ The smoking laws haven’t yet arrived: the landlady has a cigarette and the DJ is smoking. Our party, now quite the worse for wear, are drawn easily into the fray.

 

Some of them attempt the karaoke. At 10.50. last orders is called. At 11pm, there’s a change of plan and there’s an announcement stating that the bar will stay open, followed by a loud cheer. At 11.20, I’ve decided that, if I want to see another day, I should find a taxi. It’s been a great way to discover some history of our beloved town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

French style

Ten years ago, whilst staying up in Valence, Katy took me to what was my first French car-boot sale in a nearby village. She bought a crate of melons for a very good price in response to allowing the vendeur a glimpse of her own melons; I purchased an old photograph of a group of even older men outside some sort of small factory for one euro. Madame, who was selling the photo, demanded, ‘what does she want that for?’ ‘She’s English’, said Katy with that infamous French shrug. Madame was disdainful which makes me wonder why she had the photograph there in the first place. I gave my dad that photo and he had it on his desk for some years – an unusual souvenir.

I don’t even think that sale had a name.The French have since caught up and things have moved on, although now there’s nomenclature. Largely, the difference is between Brocantes, Vide Greniers and Marchés aux Puce. In translation, they all mean much the same – flea markets. The reality, however, doesn’t really reflect this.

I would say that a Marché des Puces falls at the bottom end of the scale and might well be avoided. In Avignon, for example, you can find a Marché des Puces almost any day of the week, especially in the square nearest to Les Halles. The goods on sale are of a poor quality, at ridiculous prices, just for the prestige of being slap bang in the centre of antiquity. I’ve never seen anything that I wanted to purchase and have moved on quickly to lunch.

On the other hand, the Brocantes are well worth a visit. These are more up-market and are the haunts of those UK programmes that centre on the benefits of buying abroad. However, the French have caught on. In my humble opinion, one of the most famous – Ilse sur la Sorgue – is to be avoided at all costs on a Sunday if you’re from the UK. There are permanent antique businesses here which predominately target Americans. They even arrange for goods to be shipped which says something about the price. Ok: the town is really pretty but it’s a crush. Far better, after church, to head on over to Carpentras. Settled just underneath the Ventoux, it means you have the opportunity to drive through vine-ridden villages and seek a more authentic venue for your Sunday lunch. Further, the sale doesn’t commence until 10am so there’s no anxiety-inducing need to get up at stupid-o-clock after Saturday night exertions.

Even so, the stall-holders in Carpentras are increasingly canny and you have to be prepared to barter; and for them to know the game. Along with a variety of friends, I’ve found good deals on things ranging from ostrich feather fans to model wooden horse-driven carts. But my very favourite Brocante is the Saturday morning show at Villeneuve-les-Avignon. The English programmes, such as French Collection, will tell you that this is the best in the South.

What makes it particularly interesting is the buvette in the far corner. A buvette is a small establishment, such as a shed or a caravan, selling liquid refreshment. Options are generally limited: tiny paper cups of the strongest expresso you’re ever likely to taste aimed, presumably, at the stall-holders who’ve arrived at une bonne heure; Pastis for the next stage; beer to keep them going and Orangina for the lightweight tourists. If you go to the counter to purchase a drink, etiquette is maintained and one is told brusquely to find a table and wait to be served. And photographs are frowned upon.

The other week, Elle and I came across a bunch of really interesting looking stuff laid out on the ground. A youth of indeterminate description sat in the back of a nearby truck studying his phone. ‘Monsieur’, I ventured, ‘how much for this?’ He looked up and tried to focus but, having forgotten how to speak, stumbled away to return with an older man in a very sad state of affairs. Stumbling is a good word. The new ‘monsieur’ was having trouble standing, although seemed adept at keeping his beer in the glass. He mentioned a price and I mentioned one lower. Evidently, he’d forgotten how the game works as he then gave an even lower price. Reader, this isn’t normal but who cares? We got some fine bargains and he seemed delighted. Much winking and shaking of hands ensued.

The brocante is done and dusted by 1pm in Villeneuve which enables us to wander up into the little town for lunch in the square. This isn’t a piece on where to eat – however, you could do worse than Aubergine which has tables inside and out, a clean toilet and great food at very reasonable prices. Just saying.

Vide Greniers have come a long way in the last ten years. There’s even a website to tell you when and where but, in practice, it’s easy to find them in the summer as advertising signs are placed on nearby roadsides. Inevitably, as in the UK, they’re held on a Sunday but, unlike the UK, they last all day. Close to the Bricomarché in Tarasçon, you’ll find a weekly one which is still quite unusual. Tarasçon is, unfairly, a much derided town. Sadly, I feel that part of the reason is the preponderance of Arabs… France is a pretty racist type of place. Up in Pierrelatte, there’s a predominately Arab market every Friday and it’s vibrant with colour, high quality material being prime stock in trade. I thoroughly recommend a jaunt north just for the experience.

However, Tarasçon on a Sunday isn’t a market: it’s a boot sale. Nonetheless, it’s interesting as all things Provençal are sold alongside old and new goods of Arab origin… a veritable mix of cultures. But if you want French goods, go to a village vide grenier. I’d say pick a wealthy village such as Mausanne but even the lesser known places have good finds. Don’t go for traditional stuff such as French lace or so-called ‘shabby-chic’ furniture because prices are extortionate; look for the things that the sellers haven’t yet cottoned on to. Happy bargain hunting.

Irene

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone better-behaved, self-effacing and reserved than my friend, Irene. If one was asked, what does she have opinions on, we’d say ‘nothing that I know of’; apart from buses.

Irene doesn’t do cars. So, if we plan a walk a little off the nearby tracks, we must journey to and from the starting and end points by public transport. Nothing too bad in that you might think, especially as we have old folks’ bus passes, but today we’re going somewhere for which I have an almost exclusive parking permit. This fact is disregarded: if you want to be really ambitious, I’m advised, I can get the number 9 from my house into Poole where I can then change to the number X5 on which she will eventually embark. I don’t. I have to go to Tesco and I don’t have enough hours in the day.

We arrive at Longham Lakes, one of my favourite places for a variety of reasons: peaceful, calm, beautiful scenery, lots of birds, well-cared for paths and so on and so forth. Irene hasn’t been before which is surprising for one who never travels without binoculars. And she loves it. Well, why wouldn’t you? We take a leisurely stroll around the lakes, remarking on a passing heron and the number of coots.

Every now and then, a swan or two departs in a noisy flapping of wings. In the distance, the geese honk their way to who knows where. Paddy O’Connell has a ‘slow radio’ slot on his Sunday morning programme where all one hears are the natural sounds of the landscape and I suggest a recording of this place might fit well.

In front of us, a large rabbit suddenly hops onto the path. It’s so big that, for a moment, we think it might be one of the brown hares that frequent these parts; but Irene says it’s just a big rabbit. Yes, all is well in our world.

 

 

But, being prepared, Irene has a map which indicates we may leave the path. That sign says no entry to unauthorised persons, I remark. Well, the gate’s open she says with a previously unseen radical hat on her head. We go through the open gate and pass a sign warning of quicksand. That sign must’ve been moved here says the intrepid explorer. Then we pass another quicksand sign. Strange. I’m a little on edge.

We arrive at the exit bridge but there’s no exit. I’m all for going back but then we spot the river and have a little wander until our progress is halted and we turn back.

 

 

We are accosted by angry men with rods by the waterworks. ‘What are you doing here, they demand? Didn’t you see the signs?’ One of them shows us his permit for which he’s paid £120. ‘You’re probably on CCTV’, he threatens. ‘And you probably have Japanese Knotwood on your feet’. Since retiring, I’ve noticed that I’m less inclined to get into a confrontation. Thank goodness for Irene who bats the aggressiveness to one side with a previously unseen sneer.

Finding our way out, we jump on a passing bus. ‘Shall we go upstairs?’ And we’re like two kids gaining the front seat. She’s right: you can see a lot more up here.

 

Back from the other side

I’ve been away again. It was just an overnight trip but it was to the other side: Wiltshire. First stop, Trowbridge to bring a little joy and succour to the walking wounded. Well, not really walking, more sitting around. No change there then. I only went out of guilt and the promise of liver and bacon. They were a bit too poorly to organise the liver and bacon so we had a Chinese. I only ever have Chinese in Trowbridge. It’s what passes for multiculturalism in those parts. Deep-fried duck in plum sauce and Malaysian rice. Allegedly. It was quite nice but the thirst that followed it made me feel lost in a desert. Say no more.

 

Afterwards, we spent a happy three hours discussing the following day’s route to Pewsey, which you’d never guess was in the same county. Worse, we then considered options for the journey home to Poole. My hostess had warned me of an impending weather warning. ‘What’, I ask, ‘is the cloud over Trowbridge finally lifting after all these years?’

You went to Pewsey before, they say. Yes, but I was on foot during my trek along the Kennet and Avon Canal. And I caught a train out of the place toute de suite. And why am I going to the back of beyond again? Because it’s the fourteenth annual convention of earth mysteries of course.

There’s about 150 of us gathered in the Bouverie Hall. If you have a picture in your mind of what the delegates at an earth mysteries conference look like you’ve probably understated the vision. One advantage of going anywhere as a single is that it’s easy to get a good seat. Although I turned up at the last minute, I still got front row. Which isn’t a good seat. There’s no hiding place. With the lights dimmed and 150 bodies breathing minimum available air, it’s tricky not to start nodding off. Suddenly, Celia, who’s trained with the North American native Indians, begins drumming and wailing and I am launched back into reality. I am SO glad the Trowbridge contingent isn’t present because I know we’d have been ejected from the premises.

The first speaker, Eric, is soporiphic. I have no idea what he’s talking about. At a point where I awake, he seems to be discussing fridge magnets. I drop off again. I used to love all this stuff but Eric’s gone right over my head. After, I’m somewhat pleased to hear my neighbours being terribly polite whilst asking each other what the talk was about. The lady next to me engages me in conversation and I learn she’s travelled all the way from Nottingham. She’s had a nervous break-down. Well, not since she arrived in Pewsey but I can’t help but feel she might not be in a good place. Literally.

Just then, a woman wearing Sherwood green, with a large floppy feather in her hat, walks past. ‘Looks like she’s come from your part of the world’, I remark; but wish I hadn’t as I have to explain my idea of a joke.

‘Anyway’, I continue, ‘I’m Alison. What’s your name?’

‘Nave’, she says. ‘I changed it by deed poll’. I misheard.

‘Wave’, I ask, tuning into something along the lines of sun and moon?

‘Maeve’, she clarifies.

‘What, MAEVE’, I spell thinking of that Irish writer?

 

‘No, MAVE’, says Mave. ‘I thought I’d be different. Why stick with something you don’t like?’

There’s a very long silence.

‘I’m sorry’, I say, ‘but it does beg the question: what were you called before?’

‘Mavis’.

It’s lunchtime and I peruse the stalls. I always have money for the esoteric. Frankly, they’re a bit of a disappointment. There’s no-one to heal me or get me in touch with my inner soul. Or even smooth my chakras. Just a bunch of folk on the make. A bit like Glastonbury really. All the hippies grew up to be good capitalists, disinterested in chatting if you’re not in the alternative market.

I leave early, pleased to be back on the road to reality. I feel a bit cheated. I’m back to my own alternative lifestyle in Dorset. Last night, we watched the ghastly Jonathan Ross with a bunch of folk intent on selling their latest books. Not so different.

 

Flying in style

So, another sojourn in Provence is over. Leaving is always difficult but this morning it’s particularly tricky. My billet is fifteen minutes’ drive from the tiny airport: generally, one rocks up about half an hour before the plane leaves. Today, however, it’s Avignon Air Show and I receive a text saying I must be there two and a half hours before the flight. Et pourquoi?

Friends advise me traffic may be heavy so I’m duty bound. There is absolutely no traffic on the road but, on arrival, the way is barred by copious numbers of gendarmes and security folk. No entry. I have a rental car to dispose of, I explain. Sorry, says the first officer, no idea what you’re talking about. The second gendarme says I may enter but the third, in charge of the barrier, is not in agreement. If Paul Russell was here, he’d be in a state of ragged disrepair by now. Anyway, he’s not so I press on and eventually gates are temporarily dragged aside.

I dump the car. Of course, there’s no-one to take the keys so I dump them also. I’m shocked to find the check-in open. Normally, they also appear at the last moment. The bag is given over, a seat number is allocated, and it’s back outside in the sunshine with Northanger Abbey. And a prime bench from which to watch the aerial activities. Is this the best thing to see when one is about to take to the skies?

Jane Austen is rudely interrupted by two jets from the French air force doing inexplicable things directly in front of me. Over the loudspeaker comes a pre-recorded speech relating to how they won WW2 and every other thing since, even if, like the Brits, no-one asked them to. Then, the band plays La Marseillaise and two people on the next bench down dutifully stand up. I return to the Bath Pump Rooms but Madame from the check-in ventures outside with news for folk travelling to Southampton: you must go to ‘departures’ toute de suite because the customs people are going home.

We trundle inside dispiritedly but it’s not too bad. The transport has arrived early and the crowds have flocked to the perimeter to watch the idiots who intend to fly away on a prop plane in the middle of the loop de loops.

 

When I arose this morning, I put my coffee on and went down to the village to purchase croissants. Now, I’m back in Blighty looking at my overgrown grass and, having visited my parents, I’m contemplating a proper curry. A couple of hours on the plane and another life. But, if you look closely, you might see one of my dream catchers hanging in the summer house at Mas Sainte Antoine conjoining my two homes.