Wednesday 28 August 2013

It's not easy being green ...

.... you run quite a risk of getting quished!

One morning earlier this week, while Niall was having a cup of coffee, this very green little frog emerged from the parasol stand we have at the front of the house.

A snug fit
The parasol pole it holds is an old model and much thinner than the stand so we use the little clamp to wedge it as securely as possible. This is by no means perfect and the little green frog was very lucky indeed! It stayed around long enough for Niall to get the camera and take a few photos before jumping down and disappearing behind the pots where it's nicely dark and damp.
We did some searching on the internet and checked with friends who know about these things and our guest was an European tree frog [Hyla arborea]. Online information states that females have white-ish coloured throats while a male's is golden brown. Females are also slightly larger. Based on that information it looks as if we had a lady visitor. Their diet includes spiders, flies, beetles, butterflies, and smooth caterpillars.

Thursday 22 August 2013

New visitor

Went into the barn earlier this week to start up the ride-on mower. There was a flutter in the rafters. I called Niall and we had a closer look. It turned out to be a much larger bat than the tiny pipestrelles we have roosting behind the shutters. This one was hanging upside down from one of the battens in 'classic' bat manner. Hoping it would stay put Niall went and got the camera. It did, and started to do a quick clean as it was obviously wide awake. The photo isn't great as I couldn't use flash and had to rely on low light setting, but meet our new bat.

New visitor in the barn
We did some checking on the internet and think it is a greater horseshoe - going by the ears and the curved nose shape which gives the horseshoe its name and its size; but please let us know if we've got it wrong. There's no way one can start a ride-on mower quietly, but I did back it out as fast as I could and headed out to mow!
Looking roughly south from a sunny open spot to the east of the house
Looking north-ish from about the same spot -- one of the paths
With the hot sunny weather we've been having recently the grass hasn't grown as quickly so cutting it isn't quite a weekly job, more every ten days or so and we don't mow it too short. We have 2 1/2 acres of 'green' [can't call it lawn, it's too full of other assorted weedy "stuff"] dotted with a variety of different trees. We counted them once and we have about 15 different species. 
Looking towards the SE corner of our 'parc'
It's what the French call a 'parc' and slaloming in and out of the trees on the mower keeps your arms fit! This year with the very wet spring/early summer we couldn't get out to mow very often and with all the rain the grass grew like crazy and went the greenest it had been for years. It was as if the clouds had poured on a dose of 'super grow'. As a result, we could only mow when there was a small window of opportunity and all too often we couldn't get round to all of it [prob. about a good 4hrs for the whole]. Therefore, we decided to leave sectors wild and un-cut, and create paths through to the mown areas. We feel this has worked really well and hopefully has benefitted the wild life too. In fact, we might do the same next year, but with different parcels. In the autumn we'll give all the un-cut areas a good mow so that they too are short going into the winter.

Saturday 17 August 2013

Sky lantern aftermath

They are beautiful when all lit up and floating off - sky lanterns that is. However, earlier in the month we saw spent lanterns rather than their fairy tale flight.

The classic view of sky lanterns [photo: Wikipedia commons]
Out on the edge of our land Niall spotted something blob-like closely resembling a large plastic carrier bag. It moved sluggishly in the light breeze. Now even wayside litter in, and around, Charnizay is pretty rare, so to spot something like this was a tad odd. Closer inspection revealed that it was a burnt-out sky lantern. It was a lot larger than either of us imagined. More like a mini hot-air balloon.
Really a mini-hot air balloon: you can see the open flame [photo: Wikipedia commons]
It didn't take long to put two and two together. The previous night party music - a live band - had drifted up from the plan d'eau alongside the Aigronne until about 4:30 am. The commune uses the 'chapiteau' [large marquee] there for the 'quatorze Juillet' [Bastille day] celebrations and also rents it out for parties and functions. Obviously there'd been a bash.

The party goers must have set off the sky laterns as part of the festivities and although they must have looked lovely rising in the air, we doubt anyone gave much thought to what happens when they finish burning and where they land.
Just some of our collection of spent lanterns
By the time they'd cleared the valley and drifted towards us the little sponges drenched with fuel had run out. We found 7 on, or close to, our land and disposed of them. We didn't think either of the two farmers whose fields border us would want them left snagged in their crops any more than we wanted them billowing over our grass.
One of the spent sky lanterns, blackened burnt-out sponge at centre
Happily, none of them caused any damage that we could see. However, since then we've had quite a dry spell and the thought of what these lanterns could do to crops and woodland is quite unsettling. British readers may recall an enormous fire at a re-cycling center [1 July] in the UK which was started by a sky lantern falling on re-cycled plastic bales. The blaze also re-ignited the discussion on whether or not these lanterns should be allowed in the UK; they currently are.

There is a growing concern about their potential to cause crop or building fires and harm animals that may eat/get caught up in the wire frame remains. Several countries in South America have banned them. In Brazil launching sky lanterns is an environmental crime. They are illegal in most parts of Germany and in Australia retail sale has been banned since 2011 - though not their possession or use. As far as we have been able to find out there are no restrictions on their use here in France.

Sunday 11 August 2013

Castles in the air

Over the summer the Château de Fougères-sur-Bièvre, which we wrote about in our last post, is hosting a small exhibition about imaginary castles in literature, art and popular culture.
Entitled "Si les chateaux m'étaient contés" you'll find it meanders along the route of your visit, beginning in the salle d'honneur. According to the leaflet [our translation]: "since the Middle Ages castles have been the stage for legends, fantastical stories or unsettling tales filled with knights, magicians, princesses and fairies".
The French call it a BD [comic book, or graphic novel if you prefer]
The exhibition is split into three themes: castles of legend, castles of mystery and fairy-tale castles. First up is a small slide show of mediaeval illuminations showing some wonderful 15th century castles depicted in contemporary manuscripts.
Slide from the show in the salle d'honneur
There are models and toys made of materials ranging from paper to plastic and everything inbetween as well as vintage movie posters, comics and more modern video clips. Some of the early toy castles are from the 1920's and quite rare. Interspersed are interpretations of each of the themes by young artists and almost inevitably there's also a model of Harry Potter's school Hogwarts.
Sandcastle - literally - with ghostly projections. Behind, on the right, you can see a bi-shuttered window with window seat
The exhibition is quite fun and you can take as little or as much notice of it as you like while you visit the castle. Further along you'll also find a small collection of scale models of mediaeval war engines. These give a good idea of what the mediaeval army leader could call upon if he was settled in for a siege.
Niall catching his own reflection while photographing a model trebuchet
However, you might find yourself distracted by the superb structural woodwork which supports the conical tower and loggia roofs.
Above the loggia: The structure of the roof beams resembles an upturned rowboat
The exhibition runs until September 8th.
Update: we've revised the information on the wall paintings in the church at Lignières-de-Touraine, which we wrote about here.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

Twilight of the Middle Ages

Fougeres-sur-Bievre is an amazing place. A very late mediaeval castle it was built in the last quarter of the 15th century, not long before the kings and queens of France -- and their senior courtiers -- begain building their pleasure palaces in the Loire Valley. The original 15th century building is largely intact and it is an imposing place right in the heart of the village of the same name.

Original square keep on the right, mediaeval inspired potager garden away on left
Square keep on the left, machiolated round tower on the right, entrance gate in the centre
Slightly off the well-worn tourist trail, it was empty barring one French couple when we arrived; and during our visit few other people joined us. It seems to be an overly well kept secret despite it being only a stone's throw from Chaumont-sur-Loire, not too far from Cherverney and close to the town of Blois.
Square keep with its external spiral staircase; Renaissance loggia
We think this is a real shame as it offers a great opportunity to see a 'proper' mediaeval castle. As it isn't in ruins and hasn't been modified too greatly you don't have to do too much imagining to get a sense of what it looked like in its hey-day. Just mentally add moats, a drawbridge and then remove the loggia and the slate roofs - the original would have had flat roofs and wall walks.
Looking across the cour d'honneur to the entrance gate
The first mention of a castle at Fougeres is in about 1030 when it was held by a vassel of the Counts of Blois. During the Hundred Years War [1337 - 1453] the castle was occupiied by the English. They were booted out in 1429 leaving the castle in ruins. Forty years later, in 1470 one Pierre de Refuge, advisor to Prince Charles of Orleans and treasurer to King Louis XI, turned it into a proper fortress complete with defensive towers, machiolations, moat and drawbridge.
Mediaeval defensive arrow/firearms slit
Renaissance door pediments

His grandson, Jean de Villebresme added Renaissance elements between 1510 - 1520. He is responsible for the larger windows and the decorative framing of both them and the doorways. Around this time too the loggia was built which enclosed the cour d'honneur [inner courtyard] on the east side.
Renaissance loggia seen from the great round tower
Apart from the alterations to the roofline, by adding the steeply pitched & concial slate roofs, the changes have been minimal. The military/defensive aspects were softened as moats were filled in and the drawbridge removed -- though you can still clearly see the grooves where it slotted in when raised when you pass through the entrance gate.

Spiral staircase with Renaissance embelished windows
Renaissance window detail
In 1812, the then owner destroyed the ribbed vaulting in the chapel so that a paddle wheel for his spinning mill could be installed. Today the ceiling is made of flat wooden beams, but the original corbels, in the shape of angels, remain. We also spotted a mischevious wee corbel lurking under the spiral staircase which leads up to the grande salle.
Cheeky corbel
The castle is unfurnished, but hosts permanent displays on how the conical & ptiched roofs are constructed and the wattle & daub walls are made, as well as models of mediaeval war machines. The rooms and attic space also host temporary exhibitions. More about these in a later post.

Friday 2 August 2013

Early August garden

You can tell it is August as, at the front of our house we have a Rose of Sharon [Hibiscus syriacus] bush, and it is now in full flower. Originally they hail from India and China and they do very well here -- you can see them in most gardens. One of their advantages is that, once established, they are very drought resistant so you don't have to include them in the evening pot/window box watering routine.

Rose of Sharon by the path leading round to the kitchen door
This year the bush has put on a particualrily spectacular display and its mauve flowers work well with the petunias in our window boxes in front of the bread oven and kitchen windows.
Petunias in the kitchen windowbox
Elsewhere in the garden the wind gusts we've been getting with the recent thunderstorms have meant that we've had to support our little Melrose apple tree, which is bearing its first fruit this year. With five apples ripening we might just manage a small crumble once they are ready! Sadly our cherry dropped its 1st fruit early on and the pear and greengage have yet to produce fruits--perhaps next year.
1st fruit on our Melrose apple tree
Our peche des vignes tree, after a bumper crop last year, has fewer fruits so we will have less peach jam, which is a shame. However, our walnut trees are doing very well, much better than last year when they suffered from frost damage. A couple of days ago we gave a host of green walnuts to Susan as she is making walnut liquer. With at least 4 mature walnut trees all bearing fuit we have far more than we know what to do with!

Emptied hazelnut shells
The red squirrels are in enthusiastic action as the hazel tree-bushes [they are enormous, more like coppiced trees] have produced a bumper crop this year. The squirrels are hard to spot dashing through the foliage, but we certainly hear them. Sitting outside we frequently are aware of a low-level but continuous "ying-ying-ying" like sound which means they are gnawing their way through yet another hazelnut.
Yet to be eaten....
Underneath the hazel tree-bushes the ground is heavily littered with empty shells, evidence of their appetite! There are still some to be found on the branches, but we doubt they'll last long!