Doing Christmas differently
Our immediate family decided that we would do Christmas differently many years ago. Both my children have lived abroad, either working in an industry where Christmas was a key busy period (skiing) or in out of the way places where travel back home wasn’t necessarily available. As a family we approach each new year afresh, not expecting anything of each other and not projecting our own demands onto the other. We also gave up giving presents (although we are generous to each other at other times of the year) and I cannot recommend this highly enough. I have to say this approach has transformed our experience of Christmas vastly for the better. We have none of the frantic chase round shopping malls or internet sites, and none of the secret disappointment when opening presents that aren’t quite right. And each Christmas, each year, is unique, different from the one that went before.
Somewhere around September/October the emails started to be exchanged with the same usual message “what are you planning, where do you want to be, what might you do”. Anyone with adult children will know exactly what I’m talking about! The net result this year was that both families wanted to be in their own homes, making their own memories, building their own new traditions. I’m very supportive of this so no disappointment was involved. In fact it meant we were free to decide what we wanted to do and we decided that we would spend our first Christmas together in France. Work commitments meant that we could get out there a couple of weeks before Christmas and so we decided to drive over (2-3 weeks minimum stay being our rule of thumb for driving rather than flying).
The long drive
Having tried out the long ferry from Portsmouth twice last year, once overnight and once in the daytime, and not liking it either time, we decided that we would give Eurotunnel Folkestone-Calais a first try. We’d resisted it previously because the route added about 300 extra kilometres to the drive, but other people we know swear by it so we knew we had to make up our own minds.
At 6.30am on my birthday, a Friday, we left the house and headed off for Eurotunnel. The car was loaded up with a variety of pretty random things destined to live permanently in France, including all the Christmas decorations that I have collected over many decades as the scale of the French house is better for them.
We were briefly delayed but the short delay allowed us to get a sausage butty so all was not lost.
The route is motorway almost all the way from one house to the other, both sides of the Channel. I avoid driving after dark if at all possible (long story containing the words “detached retina” …) so my turn at the wheel was restricted to the middle portion of the day. And that was the time that the weather turned particularly nasty with driving hail and snow … But we made it in one piece The car’s computer told us that we had covered almost exactly 1,000 kilometres in almost exactly 12 hours of driving time. It was a long and tiring journey but great to arrive, with a three-week stay ahead of us.
Sadness and a silver lining to the cloud
Well, a three week stay had been the plan. Sadly my father died a week before our departure. He had lived a very long life (aged 92) but it does of course cast a shadow. And we had to return to the UK for a couple of days the week before Christmas for his funeral in the midlands (where my parents moved a few years ago).
The silver lining to that cloud was that we decided to fly from Toulouse to Bristol so we could see my son and his family. Every minute spent with Gorgeous GrandBoys is time well spent and hugely appreciated.
Time to put frustration behind us and start planting
Having planned to be in France for three weeks over Christmas we had decided that we would plant some trees and hedging in the front section of the garden. We’ve held ourselves back from planting for too long and it was time to start. Originally we had been waiting for our design master plan but when it became apparent that wasn’t going to materialise we decided to go ahead anyway. We didn’t want to miss another winter planting season for structural elements (trees, hedges) and there was no time to lose as the planting window is shorter than the UK.
A bobbly hawthorn hedge, frustrated by fireblight
Having seen a “bobbly” hawthorn hedge at the rear of Arne Maynard’s garden at Allt-y-Bela a year or so earlier I had set my heart on replicating this at the front of the property. And I also planned a mixed edible hedge along part of the east boundary alongside our neighbour’s drive. After a couple of false starts with possible suppliers I began talking to a well-known UK hedging supplier who confidently assured me they could supply everything on my list to France except for hawthorn which couldn’t be imported to France because of fireblight. I quickly adjusted the order to allow for mixed edible hedge along the front boundary too, gulped a little at the final price on the estimate (but it was more than 150 metres of hedging), handed over my credit card details, and the order was confirmed. I was excited to be at last making some progress. However …
Frustration beyond frustration
To cut a long and extremely stressful story short, the French distribution network let the supplier down very badly indeed and the pallets were lost in transit. After many days of (what seemed like) hourly phone calls, when not only the Sales Director but the Managing Director also became closely involved, it was accepted by all that the game was over and the company initiated a refund. Because we are only part-time in France our time for planting is inevitably limited, and we had our trusty gardening couple on standby to help us. So their lives were disrupted too by not knowing from day to day whether they would be called or not.
An honourable response
And then, long after all hope had been lost, as if nothing had happened, a couple of lorries turned up and the deliveries were made. By then the consignments had been in transit for so long that no one could be confident what condition the plants would be in. Nevertheless I got in touch with the company, offering to pay again, but they insisted that they would honour their refund. For this we were grateful, and have come out of the experience feeling that they are indeed an honourable company who we would use again. They have now suspended all deliveries to France.
We had to decide what to do. Should we burn or compost it all, or should we try and get them all in the ground and take a chance on whether or not they were still viable. We decided on the latter and had to work in an incredibly concentrated way to get as many plants into the ground as possible. We inevitably had to work faster than we would have wanted and weren’t able to finish before returning to the UK so our gardening couple finished off after we had left. Who knows what the outcome will be.
We buy some trees
On the first day after our initial arrival, after our very long driving day, we went off to a wonderful nursery/garden centre about 30 minutes away from us called Jardinerie Jay. M Alain Jay founded it about 40 years ago and it is still run as a family concern. Beside the nursery is a garden, the Jardins de Beauchamp, beautifully planted and laid out and featured as one of France’s Jardins Remarquables. I had a list of about 25 trees that I wanted to plant. M Jay had 23 of them much to my amazement! So we went around with him, tagging them for delivery the following week.
Preparing for planting
Planting holes for the trees had already been created by Steve, our groundworker, with one of his big machines. Steve had also been along the boundaries where we planned to plant hedging “jiffling” a line which loosened the soil and made it easy to stick a spade in, wiggle it about, place a hedging bare root plant, and then tamp it down with a boot. The soil hadn’t been worked for decades, if it ever had been, so it would have been impossible to achieve what we did without Steve’s initial input.
The new car parking area
Steve was onsite with a number of his machines, and his helper son, creating a new car parking area. Until now the place for cars to park has been in front of the house. We have always wanted to change that and the new area is on the east side of the house. Because the ground rises in that area it was necessary to dig out a large volume of soil to level it off. Then a thick layer of coarse calcaire was laid, followed by a layer of much smaller calcaire, and the final layer will be a top dressing of river gravel. But that final layer has to wait until it has all dried out a little after the extraordinarily wet weather which has left everywhere completely sodden.
Filling in “the pond”
The layer of topsoil from the car parking area was carefully kept to one side after scraping off, and then the subsoil from that area was transferred to the other side of the drive where it will be used to fill in a wet dip, historically known as a mare (where cattle used to drink) and known by us as “the pond”. We will continue to call it “the pond” even when it has been filled in! Originally we had planned to make a pond there but decided not to while we still have small GrandBoys visiting.
And Christmas Day …
Christmas Day itself was spent gardening and having a rather delicious bubble and squeak featuring some left over roast rib of beef from the day before. Our Christmas Eve was more like a traditional Christmas Day, with a visit to church in Monteton (part of the Anglican Chaplaincy of Aquitaine) where we sing in the choir when we can.
We had already bought our own tree and put some decorations up.
It was a slightly unusual Christmas, but I did say each of our Christmases is unique!
I will write a separate short blog post about visiting the quarry to look at the gravel. And I will also write another post listing the trees and hedging plants that have gone in. And having looked back through my photos there are one or two other posts I ought to write!!