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Stately homes.  Back in the day, they were home to the landed gentry, and were local employers par excellence, what with large households to cook, clean, furbish and refurbish for, ornamental and vegetable gardens and even farmland to nurture, children to rear and educate, hunting grounds to stock and maintain, guests to cater for.

Nowadays, they’re where the English like to go on a Bank Holiday.  They provide the chance to get a glimpse of other, very different lives, to learn a little history and to enjoy a stroll round gardens on such a different scale from that little patch you potter around back home. And because it’s a Bank Holiday, a little entertainment doesn’t go amiss either.  People arrive in their hundreds, expecting to spend the entire day exploring house and gardens, snacking rather well in one of several tea rooms, mooching round the gift shop and having a little bit of extra fun too.

Castle Howard

Castle Howard

Emily had come over from Barcelona to visit, with boyfriend Miquel in tow.  Castle Howard seemed a good place to spend a day. Thanks to its frequent starring role in TV costume dramas and films, there can be few Brits who aren’t familiar with Castle Howard, even those who haven’t ventured north of Watford Gap.  Me, I’m the ‘Brideshead Revisited’ generation, and back in 1981, Tuesday evenings (I think) were put on hold for weeks and weeks as we turned the television to ITV and followed the Evelyn Waugh saga, feeding our nostalgia for a very different  pre-Second World War Britain.  Castle Howard was pretty much star of the show.

And really, why not? You can read its history here, but just spend a little time strolling round with us, as we re-discovered the parkland; the woodland; the walled gardens; the splendid 19th century Atlas fountain;  The Great Hall – where columns & arches covered with carved decorations rise towards the splendidly painted dome; the chapel decorated by Burne-Jones… and so on.

 

But because we went on a Bank Holiday we had extra things to do.  There were sheep dog displays.  We admired the skill of those so-well-trained dogs as they expertly rounded up not only sheep, but a gaggle of geese and a fussy line of ducks.

Sheep dog rounding up geese for a change.

Sheep dog rounding up geese for a change.

There were falconry displays.  Here is the splendid and majestic Ferruginous Buzzard who made a break for it and got away: last seen in a distant field, regarding us all with thorough disdain.  I hope handler Ben found him again: he was a very handsome beast indeed, as were all the birds of prey we saw that afternoon.

Ferruginous buzzard, contemplating his get-out plan.

Ferruginous buzzard, contemplating his get-out plan.

A final wander round the grounds, the walled garden, then we too made our excuses and left, just before closing time and the mass-escape for the car park.  We’d had a fine day.

A final glance at the parkland surrounding the house.

A final glance at the parkland surrounding the house.

A new address

You’ve probably given up on me.  I have been silent.  But life has not been silent or tranquil.  We’ve been in England a month now, and since then, we’ve found somewhere to live, moved in and started, but not finished, unpacking.  We’ve started to explore our new neighbourhood, and begun, tentatively, to put down roots.

All of which has been complicated by our being somewhat incommunicado.  We had, until today, no land-line or internet connection.  Our (shortly to be ex-) mobile provider offers no connectivity whatsoever for several miles in every direction, so the whole business of communicating with the outside world has been put somewhat on hold, at a time when whole swathes of people and organisations require to hear from us, or to contact us.

From today, however, we’ve rejoined the 21st century, as BT came to install a phone line, bringing with it access to the internet and TV.  So here’s an update.

We arrived in England with a ‘must-have’ list when it came to house-hunting.

We wanted:

  • to be in Ripon itself, within walking distance of its shops, library, cinema and so on.
  • to have a house with a small garden or courtyard: apart from anything else, how else do you hang the washing out?
  • to have a garage.  Not necessarily for the car, but to accommodate the mountains of  ‘stuff’ we still seem to have despite our efforts to downsize.

On the first Monday back we found:

  • a flat at the edge of a village without a shop, about four miles from Ripon
  • with no personal outside space
  • and no garage.

It was perfect.  We signed immediately.

You see, this was no ordinary flat.  It’s the oldest part, tucked at the back, of a largely Georgian country house, set in gardens and grounds which include  formal lawns and borders, a secluded walled garden, woodland and grassland.

In fact, it’s not even a flat.  Downstairs, beyond the entrance hall, is an enormous room which we plan to make into our library and study, and which currently is our warehouse.  Upstairs is generously proportioned living space.  Every window offers views of those gardens, and the fields and countryside beyond.

Looking out of the kitchen window towards the walled garden

Looking out of the kitchen window towards the walled garden

Our landlords are the charming and generous owners of the Georgian house, and other members of the family live in nearby buildings converted for their use.  They insist that they want us to enjoy the gardens which give them so much pleasure – and hard work.  They even provide us with extra storage in part of a stable.  We’ve spent the little ‘down-time’ we’ve had exploring the gardens, the adjoining country walks, and getting to know a little about the village: more later about all of this.

We’ve decided that being four miles from Ripon, and just a little further from Masham is a very small price to pay for living in such utterly idyllic surroundings, with delightful landlords and neighbours.  Here’s just a taste of our new surroundings:  we shan’t invite you inside just yet – we’re still unpacking.

We’ve been back in England exactly a fortnight.  In many ways it’s been so easy to slip back into English life.  We’re quite fluent in the language and cultural mores, after all.  In other ways, it’s been a honeymoon, despite our difficulties in re-registering , re-taxing and insuring the car, which continues to be a frustrating, irksome, time-consuming and frankly ridiculous task.

We’re rediscovering sights and experiences with the eyes of a lover, both blind to faults and delighted by characteristics which may one day exasperate rather than charm.

For the time being, we’re discarding the pleasures of French food in favour of a cheeseboard that includes a sharp, crumbly tasty Lancashire or a creamy blue Cropwell Bishop.  When buying vegetables, we have to include handsful of purple sprouting broccoli, still unknown in southern France.  We’ve gone native.

Purple sprouting broccoli at Masham Market

Purple sprouting broccoli at Masham Market

We’re going back to old haunts. For instance, having gone to Harrogate (to try to sort out car insurance, grrr), we found ourselves with an hour or so to spare to visit the Valley Gardens.  This park has always charmed us, and yesterday we fell in love with it all over again.

It was developed for visitors to the spa town as an attractive place to walk as part of their exercise regime after taking some of the many waters on offer.  36 of  Harrogate’s 88 mineral wells are found within the park, and no two have exactly the same mineral composition.  Back in the later 19th  and early 20th centuries, visitors arrived in their thousands, attracted by the apparently curative powers of these waters. A boating lake, bandstand and tea room were built and still exist, but the Parks Department has chosen to focus on developing spectacular floral displays, formal in character towards the town centre, and becoming increasingly natural as the visitor walks upwards towards the pinewoods.These days, there’s a children’s playground, a skateboard park and visitors can play tennis and crazy golf too.  Somehow, though, these attractions don’t dominate.  The gardens are a place to visit to be at peace with nature, to spend quiet moments with a few friends or your dog, to enjoy the trees and flowers, both formal or less organised displays.  Come and share our walk with us.

When I realised that we were likely to move from France to England in the Spring, I immediately became anxious – no – panic-stricken, at the thought that this year we might be too late to enjoy one of the glories of English life: daffodils.  Of course, there are daffodils in France, and spectacularly so in hidden woodlands such as the one we visited last April.

But whilst the French have daffodils, they don’t do daffodils as we do here.  All over England, they’re in pots in urban courtyards, crowded into suburban gardens, rambling over country gardens.  They form part of the roadside verges on tiny D roads, march along urban by-passes and ring roads, line dual carriageways, and romp across traffic roundabouts.  Householders buy them two and three bunches at a time and place jugs and vases full of them all over their homes.

I shouldn’t have worried.  Since the moment we arrived, they’ve been at their spectacular best.  It’s impossible to feel anything but joyful when passing by whole armies of those bright yellow flowers nodding cheerfully in the breeze.

And goodness knows, we’ve needed distracting from the tasks in hand.  Since we arrived ten days ago, we’ve found a home to rent,  started the daunting process of re-registering our car in the UK (you can’t buy a tax-disc without having an English MOT, you can’t get an English MOT without an English number plate, you can’t get an English number plate until….. you get the picture), organised moving our goods, registered ourselves hither and yon, started the process of catching up with British friends, tried to maintain contact with French friends…..

…and finally, of course, I’ve changed the title of the blog.  The header, showing our transition from the Pyrenees to the Pennines, was master-minded by our friend, the talented amateur photographer Richard Bown.  He already has a family history blog, but I really hope he’ll begin a photography blog soon and share some of his fantastic images with you.  If he does, I’ll let you know.  Because you will want to subscribe.

*William Wordsworth: ‘The Daffodils’

Our removal men travel weekly between northern England and southern Spain with all stops - including Laroque - in between.

Our removal men travel weekly between northern England and southern Spain with all stops – including Laroque – in between.

You’re making your last visit to Laroque today, for the time being.  We left 3 days ago, and now we’re in Ripon.  Those last days were a furore of packing, cleaning, ‘goodbyes’ (though never, never final farewells), and two visits from the removal firm, who couldn’t fit everything in, first time round.  At this moment, perhaps, the person who bought our house is planning his own removal to Laroque.

I never told you, probably out of sheer superstition, the story of the house sale.  The housing market’s incredibly tough in the Ariège just now.  House prices have tumbled 25% since 2008.  Properties remain unsold for one, two, three years, as unhappy owners reduce the price of their homes in hopes of at last attracting a buyer.

Whereas we had nothing but luck.  A man from near Paris, house-hunting here, in the area where he’d grown up, saw our house, arranged to view, and said he liked it.  A week later he came again, showing his ‘coup de cœur’ off to his mum and dad.  He made a low-price offer, as you do.  We refused it, as you do.  But we offered him our non-attached garden, being sold separately, at a generous discount, and said we’d include some of the furniture in the house sale.  Reader, he offered full price, and the rest is history.  Vue-vendue.

We'd just locked the door for the last time.  And helping us wave 'Goodbye' are Martine, Francis and Anaïs, almost the very first friends we made when we arrived.

We’d just locked the door for the last time. And helping us wave ‘Goodbye’ are Martine, Francis and Anaïs, almost the very first friends we made when we arrived.

So here we are in Ripon, ready to house hunt and begin our new lives here.  Oh, and there’s the Tour de France starting in Yorkshire too, in a couple of months.  We’ll keep you posted.

P1110781

What to do next?

One of the views from our walk last Thursday.  In the distance, the ruined castle of Lagarde.  In the far distance, the Pyrenees.

One of the views from our walk last Thursday. In the distance, the ruined castle of Lagarde. In the far distance, the Pyrenees.

It’s come at last.  The week we move back to Yorkshire.  On Saturday we did ‘The Long Goodbye VI’.  This time next week, we’ll have been back in England almost three days.

So that’s it for ‘Life in Laroque’.  Maybe one more post.  Maybe not.

So what do I do about it?  Shut up shop and start again?  Or simply change the title and keep writing?  I don’t know how things will change for me once I get back to Yorkshire.  I’m fairly sure I’ll want to keep on writing a blog.  I’ve enjoyed the discipline of getting memories recorded.  I’ve loved having feedback from friends.  At first, these friends were people I’ve shared part of my life with, people I’ve worked with or spent time with socially.  Increasingly, they’re cyber-friends: people who take the trouble to comment, criticise, offer suggestions and memories of their own, and whose blogs interest me.

Yesterday, though, Malcolm made a suggestion, remembering the exhibition I’d had a hand in organising here, comparing the Ariège with Yorkshire.  Why not change the title of my blog to ‘From the Pyrenees to the Pennines’?  That’s what we’re going to be doing after all : exchanging one set of hills for another.  For quite a while, having been away so long, I expect to be something of a foreigner in my own country, and this might be reflected in what I choose to write about.  Or not.  I just don’t know.

I’m sure I’ll lose some of you, dear readers.  Perhaps your interest is in France, specifically this part of France.  But I’d love it if some of you choose to continue the journey with me, as we settle back to life in the UK and travel further afield from time to time.  We’re bound to come back to the Ariège too.  There are favourite people to see, favourite places to visit, and  new places still to discover.

So ……. new blog?  Continue with this blog under a new name?  What do you think?   I’d love to hear from you, especially if you’re one of those bloggers with whom I have cyber-conversations.  Thanks for coming with me this far.  I’ve enjoyed your company.

The Yorkshire Dales.  They're not bad either, are they?

The Yorkshire Dales. They’re not bad either, are they?

 

…. which is, being very roughly translated, our pot-luck picnic on the Resistance trail.

Posh picnic?  I think not. But it's the taste  and the company - that counts.

Posh picnic? I think not. But it’s the taste and the company – that counts.

Jean-Charles has long wanted to get us up to Croquié, a village high above the road between Foix and Tarascon, for a walk with a 360 degree panorama of the Pyrenees, and a very moving monument to some of the Maquisards who died fighting in the French resistance in World War II.  This really was the last Sunday we could go, and the day was glorious: hot, with clear blue skies and views for miles and miles in every direction.

Neither Malcolm nor I is particularly on form at the moment, so while our Laroquais friends yomped up a semi-vertical path, deeply slicked in mud, we went part-way up the mountainside from the village of Croquié by car, and then walked on up by road (a road, however, closed to cars) to meet the rest of the group.

Our first destination was the Monument to the Resistance.  This site, with views across to the mountains dividing us from Spain, far-reaching from west to east, was chosen as a memorial site not because it was a war-time battle ground.  Instead it was a training school for resistance fighters from France, Spain and beyond.  There are no barracks, no lecture-halls, no buildings of any kind.  Instead the men led hidden existences among the forest trees and rocks.  And now there is a fine memorial to them.  Singled out were two men who died in nearby Vira (the area where we walked last week) a Maquis stronghold, one who died in our neighbouring town of Bélesta, and one who died following deportation.  There is a statue to these men, who are nevertheless depicted without facial features.  In this way they stand representative for all the men – and women – who died whether through fighting, by acting as liaison workers, or by offering essential support by giving shelter, clothing and food.  Individuals did not pass over to Spain from here: the border is too far away.  Instead they were driven to one of the freedom trails such as those near Oust and Seix.  Petrol?  It could be organised, albeit with difficulty.  A key man ran a garage.

The sculptor of this monument is Ted Carrasco.  A native of Bolivia, pre-Columbian art  is a clear influence on his work.  He seeks always for his pieces to be in harmony with the environment in which they are placed.  His monumental granite figures look over to the Pyrenees which were the scene of their fight against fascism and the Nazi occupation of France.

Time to move on, however.  Our path took us slowly upwards through forest, along a track which became increasingly snow-covered and tough going.  However, it was only 3 km. or so until we reached the top, where there’s a refuge dedicated to the memory of its original owner, Henri Tartie, known as ‘l ‘Aynat’ – the elder, in Occitan.  The original structure is tiny, but served as shelter to many a Maquisard .  Now it’s a wood store, because a newer concrete annexe has been added with cooking facilities so that hardy mountain walkers can rest, make a meal, and warm themselves up.

We commandeered a circular concrete table outside, with apparently unending views of those Pyrenees, and somehow squeezed all ten of us round.  We unpacked our food:  as ever there was wine to share, rhum baba à l’orange, galette charentaise, biscuits – all home-made, of course.  Malcolm and I knew it was our last walk with our friends.  The fine views, the fine company, the cheerful conversation had a predictable effect.  We became tearful.  But so grateful that this walk was a bit of a first.  Extra-special views, extra-special weather for March, the chance to get close to an important slice of Ariègeois history, and our extra-special friends.  We shan’t be with them next Sunday: there’ll be too much to do.  It doesn’t bear thinking about.

The two of us, just after lunch.

The two of us, just after lunch.

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