17. Phallus impudicus

This is not phallus impudicus as you will have guessed; scroll down further

Some mushrooms appeared on our lawn. Well, that’s too grandiose; weedy grass would be more accurate. They looked like those you can buy in the shops, white on top, pink underneath and they peeled easily. Living in foreign parts we decided on caution and took them to the local pharmacie. The chemist looked at one closely, turned it upside down, sniffed it then said he wouldn’t touch it. With thirty deaths a year in France from eating poisonous mushrooms he had every reason to be cautious.

To the unwary, or those who are long-sighted, there doesn’t appear to be much to choose between these two sets of white mushrooms. You would probably suffer no adverse reactions from the first, but would be unlikely to survive the second. With a name out of a Harrison Ford film le calice de la mort is the chalice of death. Just one Death Cap mushroom could kill you.

If you go down to the woods today you will find, despite lockdown Mark II, the occasional car or van discreetly hidden among the trees. Conditions are ideal here at the moment; a warm, damp end to October has prolonged the foraging season and mushrooms are abundant in the oak forest. Those who know where to find the les cèpes and les bolets make sure that nobody else does.

Pre-Covid Madam was often often given a basket of cèpes. They are an acquired taste and we did not appreciate them as much as we should have. Maybe it’s their unappealing look that doesn’t set our taste buds tingling.

This easily recognisable mushroom is known for its foul odour and shape. Despite its obnoxious smell immature Stinkhorns, as they are commonly known, are eaten here in France. A 16th century botanist referred to it as the pricke mushroom. You don’t need to forage for long to find them; the stench ensures that. Victorians were so disconcerted at their shape and tried to destroy them to stop the spores spreading. A waste of effort; the purpose of course was to avoid impressionable young ladies being embarrassed if they came across them during an early morning walk; presumably those same prudes who covered piano legs to preserve their modesty. This has been debunked as a myth by the author of The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners. Impudicus? from the Latin for ‘immodest’ or ‘shameless’.

Even if we had permission from our local Mairie we couldn’t just go and forage. We would have to make sure we weren’t on propriété privée; the landowner owns the mushrooms. We would have to carry the mushrooms in a wicker basket (plastic bags ferment and damage the mushrooms), they must be picked only when they are a certain size and they must only be cut with a special knife with a curved blade. What’s more, we would have to leave some of the mushroom behind (cut so that you leave the stem and spores in the ground) so that they can regrow the following year. Are these rules adhered to? Maybe.

If we were fortunate enough to find truffles some must go back in the ground for the same reason. Pity really as they are not called Black Diamonds for nothing. We would have to go north to Périgord as they’re not found here. Well, not as far as we know. We don’t own a truffle hunting dog or tame pig to help either.

‘Journey into a blissful state of mind exploration as a myriad of flying colours dance in front of your eyes. Embrace the happy feelings and let your senses flourish to awareness levels never experienced before.’ So says an advertiser of magic mushroom Growkits. Le champignon hallucinogène is not hard to find here. But, a word of caution; whatever ‘benefits’ people say they might have, in France psilocybin mushrooms are listed as a narcotic. The possession, use, transportation, sale and collection are illegal.

Let’s finish on a more agreeable note again. Stuck for a Christmas present? We met Perry a few years ago when he had an exhibition at Sauveterre de Béarn. His humorous drawings of life in South West France capture the essence of rural French life. He has books, prints and cards on sale on his website http://www.perrytaylor.fr/en

Next post 18. Black Friday 13th.

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16. Toad’s tool

Forget playground jokes about how the fairy became pregnant. This is a serious post.

Toad’s Tool is the first, and only, graphically oriented Super Mario 64 level editor. Does that mean anything to you? Me neither.

An acclaimed scientific journal claims that ‘mankind has hankered after a tool that can detect impending seismic activity’. It seems the common toad (Bufo bufo to you) could fit the bill. The evidence comes from a population of toads which left their breeding colony three days before an earthquake that struck L’Aquila in Italy in 2009 (BBC report).

Why write about toads, which are abhorrent to some of you, in a way that frogs are not? After all, frogs’ legs are a delicacy here (for some). Haven’t seen toads’ legs on a menu in France though. A man did die from poisoning after eating toads he had mistaken for edible bullfrogs. You can make frog soup according to the Google recipes , but, if in doubt, avoid! Those that know about these matters tell me that, technically, toads are a classification of frog. An apostrophe slipped into the title where it shouldn’t have so you’ll have to wait for the next post about toadstools (and mushrooms).

Toads deserve a more sympathetic press. Attracting them into your garden is a natural way of reducing your pest population. They live exclusively on insects, so encourage them. Autumn can be a hazardous time for them. Leaves are falling by the barrowful in our garden and have to be cleared. Raking a pile that had blown into a corner disturbed a toad which presumably thought that there was a safe place to shelter from the winter. It was picked up carefully and given a safer home. It had a dry, bumpy skin unlike the occasional frogs we see.

In the warmer days of spring we can hear them calling to each other. One evening we disturbed a toad carrying eggs on its back. It’s the male that has this job apparently.

Our Australian family tell us that not all toads are universally appreciated. Cane toads were brought to Australia from Hawaii with the intention of controlling the cane beetle in the sugar plantations in north Queensland. The beetles live high up on the upper stalks of the plant. The toads can’t jump that far so…… it was a wasted exercise. Scientists estimate that there are more than 200 million of them hopping around Australia causing havoc to the ecosystem. (Fact: Female toads can lay up to 30,000 eggs, twice a year!)

Did you read Wind in the Willows when you were young? If so, you could not forget Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, a character lacking in even the most basic common sense and with a reckless interest in cars.

Next post: 17. Phallus impudicus

15. Pigeon pie

Well, here we are, again, back at square one; maybe square two as the schools are open this time. It makes the title of this blog, freefromlockdown.com, look increasingly jaded. Not that many people actually read these posts, although there is one stalwart from China who rarely misses a day, but never comments. We are not free, not even remotely and won’t be until a vaccine is perfected. Will the French way of life ever recover? Optimistically yes, but maybe the traditional French greeting will be less intimate.

It took a world war to put a stop to hunting. Posters were nailed up in every town square after France’s occupation declaring that persons who failed to turn in their firearms within 24 hours would be subject to the death penalty. Not all obeyed of course; many guns finding their way into the hands of the resistance.

Fast forward to October 2020 and our local préfet (the state’s representative in the department) has just issued this order ‘la chasse est fermée sauf les battues aux nuisibles‘ , in other words no hunting except of pests, which might, in true Gallic fashion, be generously interpreted. In this SW corner of France the sanglier, or wild boar, is the number one pest. What Covid-19 has done is shorten the hunt for the palombe, the wood pigeon, on its annual migration south. In the narrow mountain passes between France and Spain the flocks become denser and easier to snare.

Guillaume, our plumber, came to investigate an unpleasant smell from the bathroom. One problem of living in an old house is that ancient plumbing can be dodgy, more so if you’re connected to a fosse septique, basically a hole in the ground with a tank in it. Aucun problème he said, just run all the taps in the house and the smell will go away, which it did. We were fortunate to catch him this month because la fièvre bleue strikes men of hunting age. His fellow plombiers had succumbed to this ‘blue’ fever and could be found self isolating in discreet locations up in the hills.

Not so discreet
You can cook and sleep in this one. Shooting of partridges forbidden; not that there are any left here

Last year Madam and I were driving back from Saint Jean Pied de Port by way of the Le col des palombières. There’s a long straight stretch of road leading up to the col and there was a barrier across the road manned by hunters who made it plain that they were not pleased to see us. Hunting, after cycling of course, is sacred in France but we live in the country and you accept the traditions that go with it. The fact that a public road was blocked would not have been factored into the equation. We were content to wait until a whistle blew from above and the barrier was lifted. At the top men were removing, reluctantly, a net that had been suspended between two trees on either side of the road.

Strung along the col were these towers
Some higher than others

The two traditional methods of hunting palombe here are with shotguns or, much more complicated, with nets. This link http://www.gourmetfly.com is to a company which organises hunting and fishing trips in France. They published an article which explains the origin of this practice. A monk from Roncevaux Abbey some 700 years ago observed that hawks were waiting for the pigeons as they flew through the passes. He noticed that the pigeons were too tired to gain altitude when attacked but dived down and flew close to the ground. If you’re ahead of the game you will have realised by now that the Basques use the hawks’ method by forcing the palombes down towards the ground and into waiting nets.

To do this high towers were erected; the skilled individual at the top, the abatari, throws white paddles or bats high into the air which, theoretically, cause the pigeons to dive down. Those that aren’t trapped in the nets will be caught by the guns further on; that’s the theory.

Guillaume suggested that we go up to the nearest col before dawn at the weekend and see the the action. The air was sharp so we took refuge in the hotel for a hot drink. Over the door to the kitchen was a stuffed pigeon; very realistic we thought. It was so authentic that it proceeded to relieve itself. It would have the authorities in the UK jumping up and down.

By the time the sun was up a sizeable crowd had gathered and we did not have long to wait before the first wave of palombes swept down the valley. Horns blew, there was much shouting, the abatari threw his bats and down they swooped. Just two were caught in the net but there was much popping of shotguns on the other side of the wood.

A carpet of feathers

In the woods near our house we came across this elaborate contraption. A pigeon is strapped to the perch, called a stool (useless fact: origin of the expression ‘stool pigeon’ i.e. one who betrays colleagues). This is then raised to the top of the tree and the unwary migrant sees the tree as a safe place to land. If the thought of hunting disconcerts you it may be better to stop here, but country people had to hunt to eat in the days when they did not know where their next meal was coming from.

Pigeon on the menu today will set you back at least 40 euros in the humblest restaurant. Roasted wood pigeon flambéed with Armagnac is a favourite. Personally I find the birds rather tough!

WARNING: gruesome picture!

Further north in the Landes where the land is flat hunters devised alternative methods to snare the pigeons. Adult pigeons were fed alcohol soaked grain and used as decoys.

You were warned! The practice of temporarily sewing the eyelids of the decoys was common practice until the 20th century. The cries of distress of the restrained bird was supposed to attract the unwary.

Let’s finish on a more cheerful note with one of Perry Taylor’s humorous drawings of life in South West France.

Don’t go mushroom hunting under a tower when the abatari has been up there all day!


Next post 16. Toad’s Tool

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14. Oh deer………

We were having breakfast on the terrace when we heard the hounds baying among the trees up on the hill in front of us. We have nothing against hunting per se because we can see the damage that farmers have to tolerate. The main culprits around here are the sangliers or wild boar and it seems impossible to cull them. But we take a proprietary interest in the deer. For some weeks now there has been a small family of parents and fawn down in the corner of the field below the house. We need not have been uneasy because they were not in danger, but they didn’t know that. After a lengthy horn blast they came leaping gracefully across the field directly away from the hounds and disappeared.

Arnaud, our nearest neighbour, owns several hectares of land including woodland which abounds with wildlife. He was brought up on the family farm in the heart of the Pays Basque and understands animals, wild and domestic. He came across a very young fawn which had been abandoned so took her home and fed her. Bambi (yes, banal I know) became so tame that children could pet her. For reasons best known to him he preferred us not to talk about her to anybody. He never found out what had happened to the mother but it would not have been (or should not have been) because of the chasse. There are very strict rules for hunters  in France and only selective shooting of male roe deer may be allowed in late summer and a specific permit is needed from the mairie.


She thrived under Arnaud’s care but inevitably one day she leaped over her paddock fence and returned to the wild. Two years passed and we forgot about her but out of the blue she reappeared near Arnaud’s house with a foal. He knew instinctively that it was Bambi and he likes to think that she returned to show him her youngster as a way of expressing her gratitude for his rescuing her.

Late one evening Madame and I were driving back from town where the cinema had been showing an English language film. It was pitch black and the trees on either side made the road even darker. Without warning a deer leaped into the centre of the road about 50 metres ahead of us. It stood and looked at us, temporarily blinded by the headlights, then jumped the ditch on the other side and vanished.

This unfortunate deer (Bambi’s mother?) was not hit by a car nor accidentally shot by the hunters. Nobody could explain how she came to be trapped between the bars of the gate. She had not been injured so the consensus was that she had tried to leap over the gate but didn’t make it.

Usually the deer keep their distance and it’s almost impossible to film them, hence the poor quality of this photo. Walking down the track beside the house early one morning a stag leaped over the hedge in front of us. He looked at us enquiringly with his large, gentle dark eyes then jumped into the trees. Needless to say neither of us had the time to film him. They are nervous animals and sense your presence before you even see them. Only once has one strayed into our garden, a young and spindly legged foal, but the visit was brief.

Living in the country during the lockdown had its advantage when exercise was limited to a kilometre from the house. We could leave the garden and walk down to the river then follow it round in a horseshoe. One’s senses were heightened during the confinement, at least ours were, and we became more aware of what we were seeing, like the tracks made by the deer for instance.

Why was there a bridge in the middle of a wood? There is no track to show where it might come from or where it might go

yet it was constructed of well-proportioned blocks of

If you walk two kilometres downstream you come across the ‘laundry’. The parents of a ninety-four year old acquaintance once owned our property. She was not born in this house but eight of her siblings were. There was an outdoor privy and no bathroom. We are talking twentieth century here. Somewhere there was a well but we’ve never found it. Going to the river was not an option; somehow family laundry was dealt with here.

One Sunday at the start of the lockdown we went for a longer walk, down to the river then climbed up to Marc’s farm and back, about 4 km. No rules were broken because at no point were we more than one kilometre from the house (well, that’s how we interpreted it). It meant that the last twenty metres to our house were by road. Almost at the front gate and a police car materialised from nowhere. My attestation didn’t pass muster as the date was in pencil (it did save the ink cartridge when you had to change it daily). Anyway, it was their lunchtime so they didn’t linger.

Next post 15. Pigeon pie

13. Murder hornets

We were lingering over a long Sunday lunch when there were two loud bangs which shook the windows. The military don’t fly over us at weekends so they weren’t the culprits. Beside the house is the orchard and opposite, on the other side of the country road, is a converted barn – the home of Arnaud and his wife.

He had fired both barrels of his 12 bore across the road from an upstairs window at a frelon’s nest in the top of one of our trees. The shotgun pellets seemed not to have stirred up the residents nor had any effect on the nest. Maybe he had had a good lunch too and his aim was suspect. If he had aimed slightly lower he could have hit the electricity cable and then there would have been fireworks.

During the strict lockdown I went to collect the eggs one sweltering day. Didn’t have time to lift up the lid of the nesting box before I was savagely stung by a wasp (and don’t they pack a powerful sting). The nest had to be sprayed when we found it as there were young children about.

The structure of the wasp’s nest was interesting; made from chewed wood pulp and saliva it had thin, papery walls. Nests are usually built in sheltered spots with easy access to the outside, like another one we found (only because we were stung) in a hollow gate post. When you opened the gate they resented being disturbed. As gardeners, we are reluctant to spray. A garden without wasps would be one with a much larger number of pests such as greenfly and caterpillars.

The Asian giant hornet has no such fan club. It is thought to have come to France from China in a container of pottery. For anyone with allergies the frelon’s sting could be fatal and they can penetrate clothing. Generally it’s best to avoid them. Official advice to anyone who has a nest in their garden would be amusing if it wasn’t serious.

Forget that alluring perfume ladies (and aftershave, men). The frelons become over-excited at the scent.

Don’t run away from them – they can outpace you.

They are attracted to bright clothing.

Hide the alcohol.

Have a jolly BBQ!

Madame and I were having supper out on our terrace last week. It was yet another balmy evening and a few frelons were circling around an outside wall light but seemed harmless. I made the mistake of going into the kitchen and switching on the lights. Within seconds half a dozen frelons had swooped in behind me. It was not amusing to be in a room with them flying around your head. Madame had the foresight to switch the light out and give a powerful shot of wasp spray. We have not yet discovered where their nest is which concerns us.

National Geographic reports that the hornets have arrived in Washington State and scientists are concerned that they could spread. ‘Murder hornets‘ earned that name for their ability to behead honeybees, an entire hive of them, raising worries they could decimate entire colonies. There are moves to stop them spreading but it might be as effective as putting your finger in a hole in a dyke to stop the water.

We had to do something about our nests; we had discovered a second under the eaves at the back of the house near a bedroom window. First port of call was the fire station. The girl in the office said she was désolée but the pompiers did not deal with pests any more and we would have to try a private contractor. She did recommend the only likely one. Yes, he would come for 100 euros a nest!

It has to be said that he was very efficient. Whatever he sprayed them with was to make them sleepy, or kill them. He then wrapped a big plastic bag around it, cut it off and brought it down for us to see. They are a work of art inside but you do not want that kind of art in your garden.

Next post 14. Oh deer

12. The fastest game in the world?

If you’ve driven through towns or villages in this south west corner of France you must have passed a fronton, like this one adjoining the church in the captivating village of Ainhoa. Look for a church and you’ll probably find a fronton, maybe sharing one of its walls. This is the playground of pelote (pelota over the border in Spain). A variation of this is Jai alai, traditionally played in an indoor fronton but our local version of pelote is Joko Garbi, played on the open court. Cancelled at the start of the lockdown our annual tournament restarted this month.

Other local events were not so fortunate and have been postponed until 2021. The Basque Games, that demonstration of masculine prowess (tug-of-war, bale carrying and so on) is not just a pleasurable afternoon’s entertainment; it provides valuable cash for the local church and parish. Traditionally our parish priest chairs the panel of judges. The proceeds of the annual village petanque (boules) competition go to the local primary school. Even lone cyclists were banned, not just the lycra clad pelotons that labour up the hill in front of our house.

Log sawing
Lone cyclist

Village petanque

Primitive balls have been hit or thrown since recorded time but 12th century French monks are credited with inventing a game hitting an improvised ball against their monastery wall with their bare hands and which developed over the centuries into the pelote we know. Whether this is authentic is not significant; someone had to invent it so the monks may as well receive the kudos. What they could never have foreseen was the abundance of games that were spawned from this. It was the French, again, who devised the game of Jeu de paume, literally ‘game of the palm’ and played with bare hands, a more sophisticated variation of that played by the monks. La pelote à main nue is alive and well in our village. It’s not much different from the game of ‘fives’ we played at school but, being British, we wore leather gloves! It is a game of precision and wits and where hard hitting is not an advantage.


When I said to an acquaintance that a version of pelote was the fastest game on earth he dismissed the idea saying that it had to be real tennis. There is a grain of truth in that because real tennis is descended from jeu de paume. Somewhere around the 16th century someone hit on the idea (apologies for the pun) of hitting the ball with a racket, either a solid bat or a rudimentary affair with a wooden frame and strung with sheep gut. The game then took off, particularly with the aristocracy. To list all the games that have proliferated since our monks started the ball rolling, as it were, would make your head spin.

This august bible of statistics is in no doubt that the version of pelote known as Jai Alai is the game with the fastest projectile speed of any moving ball game at 302km/h 188mph. It is also one of the most lethal as Madame found out when we were watching our local team.

It also has the distinction of having been an Olympic sport. The winner of the gold medal in 1908 was an American, Jay Gould II, while the silver and bronze went to Great Britain. The Basque region obviously could not provide a competitor, probably for financial reasons. Moreover, it is the oldest ongoing annual world championship in sport, first established over 250 years ago.

Its high speed makes the ball (the pelote) capable of causing serious injury. The spectators are sometimes protected by a chain-link fence, but this is rare in the villages. The players on the other hand have no such protection, and injuries are not uncommon. You should never, ever, take your eye off the ball when it’s in play.

Last year Madame and I went down to the fronton to see the regular Wednesday evening joko garbi game. Entrance is free but a former player comes round with a basket for contributions. A villageois, Gerard is our deputy mayor and the local undertaker. Young players give you a ticket which could win you a gateau basque. The winning team is the first to score 40 points. The accruing score is first sung in Basque then repeated in French.

We tend to sit on the highest concrete level trusting that it is safer up there. There is chain link fencing but it’s not to protect spectators from random balls but put there to stop people falling back and rolling down the slope to the car park. It was one of those calm, sultry evenings and the ball was being hit higher up than usual, so high that its flight was obscured by the line of tree on the opposite side. The next we knew was the ball hitting the iron stanchion next to Madames head with a resounding crack then ricocheting off the post on to her shoulder. The game came to a standstill. Hundreds of pairs of eyes swivelled in our direction, the anxious players gathered round and Gerard came to assess the damage. A few centimetres to the left and Gerard might have been looking at a potential customer. Fortunately the iron post had taken the sting out of the trajectory but had still left an ugly bruise.

It is the Chistera (cesta in Spanish, meaning basket) that gives this version of pelote its appeal. The Basque word is xistera. It doesn’t begin with a ‘c’ because there isn’t one in the Basque language. (Nor will you find q,r,v,w or y). The long, curved basket (starting with a leather glove) ideally is made from steamed chestnut wood and woven reeds. The genuine article is not factory made. Tests showed that plastic chisteras cannot cope with the temperature changes that they undergo during a game. Players are able to put enormous spin on the balls which makes them less predictable. Needless to say they are expensive. I looked for a secondhand one last year for a present and it was 100 euros.


It requires strength and good eyesight to handle the chistera. During World War II Ernest Hemingway suggested that jai alai players should be used to lob grenades down the hatches of German submarines. He didn’t explain how they were to approach near enough.

Not far from here is a memorial to Victor Iturria who was evacuated to England during the battle of Dunkirk where he joined the Free French Forces. In 1944 he parachuted into occupied France and fought with the French resistance and was killed in an ambush. This memorial shows him throwing a grenade adding…. exécutant le même movement comme un joueur de pelote basque.

Madame and I went to town for the final. While the linesman always has to touch up the boundaries we have never seen the court watered. Still, it was the final and we have had a drought for two months. We were warned to wear masks – a warning that most people ignored. History repeated itself. A high ball came dropping swiftly in our directions – but was fortunately caught by me! Years of youthful cricket practice paid dividends. During the game four gendarmes appeared. Masks miraculously appeared. They watched the game for a while then went away. Maybe it was too much hassle to interrupt a final. Result: Baïgorry 40 Navarrenx 29.

Should you ever find yourself in Madrid try and find time to visit the Prado Museum, Spain’s national art museum, widely considered to have one of the world’s finest collections of European art. Unlike French museums Spanish ones are bilingual and English is used for all exhibits. There you should find this masterpiece;

Goya’s ‘The game of Pelota 1779

Once somebody had the idea of putting a net across a court then the dynamics of ball games changed dramatically.

Tennis was born and, for the first time, there was a game that ladies could play. Come to think of it, in all the years we have been here, we have never seen a female pelote player.

Anyone for tennis?

Next post 13. Murder hornets

11. Knobs………and nobs


Multi-coloured and vibrant, but what are they? Just  decorative baubles at an Eco Fair?Perhaps we all need some colour in our lives these days. The title of this blog freefromlockdown.com now seems dated. No sooner do we think the corner has been turned than we’re told it hasn’t been. We’re not free yet and no date has been pencilled in as to when we might be. Governments everywhere are damned if they do and damned if they don’t and us piggies in the middle just hope for a vaccine and then all will be well.

Some people say that their senses are more acute since the lockdown; they can see and hear more distinctly, for instance. If you’ve been in virtual imprisonment for weeks that’s not as unusual as it might seem. Even here, in the country, the air is purer. Bird song seems more persistent and the changing colours on the hills more vivid. The new moon a few nights ago seemed more dramatic and it’s not all in the mind. Today there was one contrail in the brilliant blue sky; there have been none over the house for weeks. Usually there are several aircraft a day Atlantic bound. It left a ragged cloud pattern behind in an otherwise flawless sky.


Back to the subject. Once, if you were upwardly mobile socially, you installed the avocado bathroom suite and a bidet, soon to be overtaken by the en-suite. If you could afford them crystal glass doorknobs were de rigueur  but reproductions are now so good any house owner can afford them. We did need some porcelain door handles last year; the original ones were not robust after years of use  and a couple cracked. You can just see the faint fracture on this one.

Door handle

So, down to the local brocante to see what they had in the warehouse. This is an Aladdin’s cave and it’s pure euphoria spending a hour or so perusing without being hassled by the owner, who discreetly watches the front entrance from his glass cubicle.

Junk shop

What we did see, at a price, were antique glass door knobs. If push came to shove we could have substituted those but they’d have looked out of place among a house full of straight porcelain handles.

Antique door knobs

Have you heard of The Antique Doorknob Collectors of America? Nor had I, but this is a thriving society holding annual conventions (last year’s took place at North Little Rock) and which publishes a regular magazine entitled, predictably, The Doorknob  Collector. Look at their website for nearly 3,000 colour photographs of knobs.

It’s a change from philately or model railways. It’s always problematic what to put on a CV under ‘hobbies and pastimes’ and do prospective employers really need to know? Claiming to like ‘hill walking’ or ‘spending time with my family’ might sound like a safe bet but it also risks making you seem on the dull side.  Boris Johnson claims to paint model buses made from wooden crates, although it’s open to conjecture as to how he finds the time with his other extra mural activities.

A frisson of excitement ran through the ranks of Britain’s ‘gridders’ when Jeremy Corbyn disclosed that his hobby was photographing manhole covers. With such a high profile devotee  they could come out of the shadows. There are clubs dedicated to the hobby but drain-spotting is not a recent phenomenon. More than half a century ago an American newspaper declared that Britain  was ‘full of operculists’. Yes, I needed the dictionary too.  This is not the place to become involved in the niceties of the hobby e.g. covers versus drains.

Roman manhole

It’s improbable that the Romans were in to drain-spotting. A cover slab like this would have been used by them to cover the drains, which were unsanitary and probably smelled bad, or to stop anyone falling in.

Today’s worthless fact. Pre-1600, or thereabouts,  the face of a pocket watch was glassless. As timekeepers they were futile and were not carried to tell the time but to show the world how eminent and wealthy the owner was. It had  raised knobs on the hour markers so the time could be read without looking.

The germ of this post about knobs started during Mass. A local village church has a small staircase leading up to the altar. At each end of the balustrade is a crystal knob. It’s a sad reflection on society that churches are locked, but items like these have value.

orsanco knob

You’ll find these in many of the older, substantial houses. Not ours, which has a wooden knob which has been nibbled at by the destructive Capricorn beetle. For unalloyed colour and beauty the balustrade below is in a class of its own.



Even the patisserie is not to be outdone


If you live in the south of England you may have encountered this gourmet food. These small, crumbly, door knob–sized morsels are unique to West Dorset. Rock hard from three separate bakings, they can explode into a thousand crumbs but are the perfect accompaniment for cheese (preferably Dorset Blue Vinney). I say ‘may’ have encountered  because these crispy balls do not travel well.

Dorset knob2

Dorset’s knob-throwing competition will not take place this year, (yes, it does exist) not because of Covid-19 but because the organisers are searching for a new venue; 8,000 people attended last year! The competition to hurl the county’s traditional biscuits as far as possible has been running since 2008 as part of a food festival.

Other attractions include knob-based games such as a knob and spoon race, guess the weight of the knob and pin the knob on the Cerne Abbas giant. 


No prizes for guessing the bull’s eye.

Knobs (2)


One final knob, if you want to get away from it all


Yorkeys Knob  in Cairns Region, Far North Queensland, Australia.

Let’s move on………

Nob: A person of wealth or high social position

The jack of the same suit as the card turned up by the dealer in cribbage (scoring one point for the holder)

Nobs Crook; an area close to Winchester near where our family used to live


In 1880 there were 14 Nobs families living in Missouri.

This was about 45% of all the recorded Nobs’s in the USA.

Another worthless fact.



NOBS help get you involved with beating and picking up……….

Politicians often complain that they are quoted out of context. The above is open to misinterpretation so, to put the record straight, NOBS is an honourable organisation (if you’re keen on blood sports and Barbours). Let them explain; ‘Beating is an essential part of any successful shoot. If you are unfamiliar with what beating actually is, basically a beater is a person who has the job of flushing birds such as pheasants or grouse from cover in the direction of the guns.

Picking up is vital on any shoot where a large number of birds will be shot. Pickers up are people who stand behind the line of guns on a shoot and use their dogs to retrieve all the shot game.’

Now you know.


NOB1 (2)

That’s it folks (if you’ve reached this far)





Next post 12. The fastest game in the world

10. We’re having a heatwave…….



…. a tropical heat wave, the temperature’s rising, it isn’t surprising, she certainly can can-can….Irving Berlin wasn’t referring to the weather when he composed this. It would not be PC to write this many years on when the summers seem to get hotter and hotter and the damage to property and wildlife is more widespread ( and the danger to life).

Not so far from here 100 hectares of pine forest were blazing yesterday near Anglet by Biarritz. How did it happen? That is what the authorities need to establish. It only takes a spark to cause a conflagration. Almost exactly three years ago a discarded cigarette end is believed to have caused a massive forest fire that destroyed 800 hectares of land in the south of  France. More than 800 firefighters and 210 fire engines were drafted in to tackle it.




Three houses near Anglet were completely destroyed and 100 people evacuated. Firefighters from Gironde, Landes and Lot-et-Garonne were called in and reinforcements later arrived from other departments. Two water bomber planes from Bordeaux made 18 drops.



On a more mundane level our  garden is bone dry and the grass various shades of brown. The high point was 42°C, a temperature not reached before in our years here. There is no sign of the heat dissipating any time soon.




Marc’s field just below us is drier than he’s ever known it. At first we thought a fire had started in the corner, until we saw his tractor come out of the cloud of dust.


Madame went into town and the car was parked for an hour. When she returned the temperature inside was nudging 50°C. Just before the lockdown the air con stopped functioning. The garage closed for the duration and was so inundated with work when it re-opened that it took three weeks to make an appointment. It has, mercifully, been repaired but at considerable cost.

The hens are looking dishevelled. They pass the day in a copse at the end of their run venturing out to lay, which they are doing with surprising regularity; 140 eggs in July from 5 birds is remarkable in this heat. The nesting box has a metal roof, designed to withstand the fierce hail storms which can hit you without warning here; trouble is that it gets so hot you could fry one of their eggs on it. Not advisable to leave eggs there all day in case they become hard-boiled. Bizarrely the speckled grey has taken to producing large, corrugated eggs that an ostrich would be proud of.


The advantage of living in an old Basque house is that it is cool in this weather. With walls nearly a metre thick at the base, and with heavy shutters, the heat is kept at bay (and the warmth in during the winter). I say ‘old’ because the house is to us, but 200 years means little here. Its name has berri tacked on to the end which means ‘new’ in Basque.

Madame and I went to lunch recently with a French couple who live in a modern house, well-built, double glazed and with all the bells and whistles you’d expect.  When we arrived all the curtains were drawn, blinds down and the lights on. What the house lacked was air conditioning, but you need a deep pocket to keep that on.



These two scented candles, which had been lit the previous evening to keep mosquitoes away, changed shape during the day. 42°C was more than they could cope with.


The cats are splayed out on the terrace hoping for any breeze that may come their way. The vegetables are wilting but we’re not allowed to use the hose. The only effect of a brief shower was to kick start the weeds which are taking over the garden. One plus is that we have not cut the grass for more than three weeks. At this time of year it’s usually once a week. The acorns and beech nuts are dropping early and crunch underfoot when Madame and I  walk down the lane, something we’ve done on a daily basis since the first day of lockdown.

Next post 11. Knobs……and nobs


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9. On parade

IMG_7023 (Edited)

What do these people have in common? Charlotte Church, the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Sting with Pavarotti, and  Kiri Te Kanawa?  Not much you might say, but they have all recorded César Franck’s captivating setting of Panis Angelicus, part of a hymn  written by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi (the body of Christ for non-classicists). Even the most sceptic must surely be inspired by this moving  hymn. If you are Catholic you will appreciate the significance of this day, but the celebration of this feast is not restricted to the Catholic church.


The main feature of the celebration is the triumphant procession in which the sacred host (the wafer which has been consecrated during the Mass) is carried out of the church for all to make their public profession of faith.  The host is displayed on a ‘monstrance‘ protected from the sun by a canopy (as below).

End of sermon.

Fete Basque








This year Covid-19 has succeeded in postponing or proscribing this centuries old celebration, performed worldwide from eastern Orthodox churches to the Church of England to Catholic South America. One country intent on honouring the day was Poland, which was determined it should take place (and masks were worn).

Poland fete

It is down here in the far south-west of France, in the devout Pays Basque, that this celebration is in danger of withering on the vine. In a perfect world the priest would be local, and Basque. The days of  large families are no more and there are few, if any, surplus sons destined for the priesthood. Last year it was touch and go as to whether our local village could celebrate it; one priest can contend with so much and no more.

1935 fete

A celebration that started in the 13th century will  have been modified over the centuries and the protocol of  la Fête-Dieu (or Besta Berri) depends on where it is held.  It is still a predominantly male occasion, as this old picture shows, but  a concession is made to young girls who scatter flower petals before the monstrance. Even the uniforms vary between villages. The significance of the uniforms and the role of the wearers has  blurred over the centuries. There is a hierarchy for entering and leaving our church; normally the mayor accompanies the priest but not in our village where he is a ‘sapper’.



fete dieu


We asked monsieur le maire what the significance was of the leather apron, the axe and the mirrors on the majestic  bearskin, or busby. He hesitated but it was generally agreed among them that they represented the sapeurs, or engineers. That doesn’t explain the bearskins or mirrors, although there were bears in the mountains and the mirrors may symbolise the sun. There must be a long forgotten reason for them to stand guard at the altar.





claudeThe captain in command of the soldiers, leads them in to the church, accompanied by drum beats and, in our village, an accordion or pipe, and where they line up on two sides the length of the aisle. The baton carrier then leads in the flag bearers who execute a dance as they progress towards the altar.  At crucial moments of the Mass the captain barks out orders to present or shoulder arms. Some call them Swiss guards and others Napoleonic soldiers, who reputedly guarded the priest in the days when churches were attacked.


Fête Dieu Cambo 2010 8

Flag bearers







Music and dancing is a crucial part of the celebration. As they parade in front of the fronton, or pelote court, the drum major (makilari) throws his baton into the air hoping he will catch it when it falls.


Watching these jubilant celebrations one is left with unanswered questions about the protocol and the uniform, and so on, but does it really matter? It’s a religious festival to be enjoyed. Christianity came late to the Pays Basque but was embraced with fervour when it did.  In Basque mythology the main figure was the female character of Mari. It’s a short step to Mary. The rituals of the ancient Basques did not survive the arrival of Christianity, but you do speculate if there is something of the pagan past in the present.

fete dieu2



Chino Bloise

On the other side of the Atlantic, in centres like Boise and Bakersfield,  the Besta Berri tradition is prospering.  Where Basques have settled there will always be music and dancing, kept alive by groups like the renowned Chino Basque Club.

Basque dancers USA

US basque

Next post 10. We’re having a heatwave……….




8. The bank with no money

money pink coins pig

Is cash out and the contactless card in? The French bank notified us that we can tap up to 50 euros, which is a giant leap forward in a part of the country where people delve into their bags or pockets for their cheque book.  Technology moves slowly in the deep SW and a cheque-less society is not anticipated any time soon. That doesn’t mean that someone could steal your card and go tapping around the country. Haven’t ascertained yet whether ‘tapper‘ is now a French verb. ‘The immortals’, as the members of the Académie Française are known, will no doubt lose sleep over that one; the “deadly snobbery of Anglo-American”, as one member mocked last year.

IMG_2342 (2)

The local ATM ejected an unwanted 50 euro note which was not requested from the machine. Went into the bank to change it and were confronted by Monsieur Maggot. When we opened the account it entailed signing several sheets of paper, and a written affirmation from monsieur le maire that we existed. The manager’s signature was unreadable. It looked like ‘maggot‘ so subsequently that was how we knew him. Please could he change the note for smaller amounts for the local market.

‘Mais, non.


‘We ‘ave no money.’

‘But you are a bank.’

‘Ah, but we keep no money ‘ere – sécurité.

There was no answer to that. This negative reply is not unusual when, say, one is trying to order an item in a shop that is not in stock. Someone who had made a study of the French psyche said that it gave the respondent time to think. To say ‘oui’ allowed for no w(r)iggle room. While we’re on fatalism who was it said that France was paradise inhabited by people who think they are in hell? Google it and you’ll get plenty of response. Apparently it’s all to do with France’s generous social security system.

The government was offering grants for home insulation plus an interest free loan spread over ten years. We asked Monsieur Maggot for details but he said the issue was so complicated that we would be better off taking a loan from his bank at 4.5%!


This  is the eusko; over €1 million worth of euskos were in circulation here in the Basque region of France by the end of 2018. Why? Ostensibly to support local businesses but also to generate enthusiasm for Basque culture. It’s hard to find reliable statistics but there are supposedly more than forty micro-currencies dotted around France.  According to the BBC the eusko is the most successful local currency in Europe putting it  ahead of the Bristol Pound. Paris toyed with the idea of introducing its own micro-currency but haven’t yet seen evidence of its use; appealing designs though.


Suppose you are now allowed to go on holiday where micro-currency is used; how do you know that the banknote in your hand is genuine? Well, there are involved instructions for you to follow. As briefly as I can make it here are two of them:

TOUCH: there are tactile marks for the sight impaired

LOOK: there is a water mark and a thread, visible if held up to the light.

http://www.ertzaintza.eus will give you the full monty.

By the way this is not where the expression originated.


Two explanations will do; there are probably more

The Sunday best three-piece suit from a high street tailor (the full Montague Burton) or the full English breakfast insisted upon by Field Marshall Montgomery.  Anyway, we seem to have drifted off piste.

Money laundering has taken on a whole new meaning. Allegedly people have been putting banknotes into their washing machines to cleanse them of the virus. Maybe apocryphal but you need to live where notes can stand that treatment. Australia prides itself on its dollar notes that can tolerate a day’s surfing. They’re totally waterproof and resistant to water and dirt. China, on the other hand, destroyed or disinfected thousands of banknotes to eliminate the spread of the virus.

So, where will all this take us?  Went down to the garden centre today to buy one small item. Confronting you at the entrance:


It was superfluous though because some customers still paid cash. I tapped in my paltry  €5 which was quicker. Went into Carrefour but used real coins; the first time for nearly three months. It was an odd feeling rummaging for the correct cash after so long. For virtually three months Madame and I have done our supermarket shopping  on-line and driven to collect it. No home deliveries out in the sticks.

Where now? None of us knows but a cashless society is now more probable than possible. We shall see.

Next post 9.  On parade

IMG_7023 (Edited)