It happened last year, and it’s happened again this year in almost exactly the same way. After a mild spell, early April was marked by temperatures well below zero overnight. One place in Northern France even had its coldest night for 75 years, at minus 9.2C. Frost is not unknown in April. In some areas, prudent gardeners don’t plant out seedlings until well into May. But such late sharp frosts twice in two years are unusual.
Last Friday, a biting Northerly slammed into the rear wall of our house. Even though the back is rendered, we could feel the chill. We dug out our gloves and woolly hats. I was tempted to wear mine indoors.
It snowed overnight to Saturday, a belated April Fool from the weather. In the village, everyone was huddled up and made quick dashes from the car to the shops.
We met Philippe, a neighbour.
“Bonjour. Ca va?”
“Ca va. Fraîchement.” – literally, “freshly”. The standard expression down here when the thermometer dips.
No hanging around for a chat.
The sub-zero overnight temperatures continued for a few days, scorching premature shoots on the buddleia bush and the summer jasmine outside the kitchen door. The plum trees had blossomed early this year and the fruit may already have set, in which case we won’t see many plums.
Disaster for growers
Inconvenient as this is for us, it’s disastrous for growers, having occurred twice in consecutive years. Fruit-growers and viticulteurs had invested in thousands of special candles and wind machines in a desperate bid to stave off the frost.
In some cases, this was not enough to save their crops. In Agen, Lot-et-Garonne, famous for its prunes, growers estimate they have lost 80% of their plums in temperatures that dipped to minus 7C. Despite last year’s freeze, they had stocks of prunes from a bumper crop the previous year. That margin is not there this year.
Record high temperatures and sunshine in March had lulled the trees and plants into a false sense of security. Already in mid-March, we noticed the fuzzy green-brown on the hillsides that is normally a feature of early April.
Le vent qui rend fou
And it was windy. The air is rarely still here, but we had numerous episodes of le vent d’autan, the southerly wind that is nicknamed le vent qui rend fou (the wind that makes you mad). After one episode with wind speeds up to 80 kph, I gathered three wheelbarrow loads of dead sticks ripped from our ash trees. This will come in handy as kindling, so it’s an ill wind etc.
The autan brings mild air, and it normally rains when it stops, only this year it didn’t. We had only 62.5 mm of rain in March (average is 75.5 mm). In addition, the sirocco whipped up Sahara sand into the atmosphere and then deposited it further North. Driving down our lane, we raised clouds of dried mud dust.
Yesterday, central and Northern France battened down the hatches as tempête Diego ripped its destructive way across the country. Down here, we escaped the worst, but it was very windy out there.
On a happier note, I can report that the cuckoo arrived on Thursday. This is comparatively late: earliest we have heard it is 25th March, latest 14th April. I don’t blame it for staying in warmer climes. Friends who live South of us have heard hoopoes and nightingales, but they haven’t got this far yet.
The wild flowers are coming on apace, refreshed by some welcome rain. We took a walk down our lane yesterday afternoon and delighted in the drifts of starry chickweed, yellow cowslips and luminous purple honesty in the hedgerows. Our front lawn is studded with violets and so many daisies that they look like a carpet of snow.
My geraniums are returning to life, the pots having been stacked against the South-facing house wall over the winter. They seem to have weathered the frost without damage. Not all of them will have survived, but I am always grateful to see the green shoots starting up, since I won’t have to buy too many new ones.
The first strawberries (gariguettes) and asparagus have arrived, although our early experience of both this year has been a bit disappointing, as they lack flavour. We hope they will acquire more flavour as the season advances.
When the news from many parts of the world is so disheartening, perhaps it’s more important than ever to appreciate the simple things that are easy to take for granted but so easily lost.
P.S. You are probably aware, especially if you live here, that the first round of the French presidential elections takes place tomorrow. Round 2 takes place a fortnight later. Not being French, I can’t vote (although I plan to rectify that), but I am naturally very interested in the outcome. I hope the French will make the right choice. Interpret that how you will.
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