I love the autumn. It’s my favourite season, especially now, when the trees are starting to turn. Despite the summer and early autumn drought, they retained green leaves longer than normal. Strong winds and rain have already brought down cascades of leaves along our lane, a fleeting flash of gold and ochre before they crumble.
Wednesday was a beautiful day sandwiched between showery weather, so I took advantage of it to take a short walk around here. My husband was in Paris renewing his passport, the only way you can do that for certain nationalities.
This walk is short, only 3-4 km, but it’s a satisfying mixture of footpaths and a short stretch of road, open fields and woodland. When we bought our house, the estate agent’s particulars said that it is set in “glorious countryside”. We all know about estate agent hyperbole, but in this case it’s true. There are no spectacular river gorges or mountain ranges in the distance, but the rolling landscape with tantalising hills is enough for me.
It was some time since I had taken the path behind our house, mainly because the farmer had blocked it off with heavy metal gates. There was no way around them, only over them. This time, however, I managed to haul them open – and shut again, thankfully.
The sun was warm enough to have enticed out a few butterflies, which flitted about in the hedgerows. The wonderful perfume of autumn leaves, an aromatic, almost burnt, scent, accompanied me.
I rounded a corner and found this makeshift scarecrow guarding sealed bales of silage. I imagine the murder (appropriate collective noun) of crows that congregates around here had been pecking at them. I guess wild boars’ tusks could also do considerable damage. If the bales are punctured, the silage goes off.
A couple of old CDs attached to the scarecrow flashed in the sunlight. I have used the same trick to repel the deer that eat my shrubs, but they have got wise to it.
This prominent fungus halfway up the trunk of a walnut tree drew my attention. It looks like a flying saucer, but my internet search tells me it’s a Hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius). Apparently, it’s very common throughout Europe, but it’s inedible. I had guessed that. Had it been edible, the mushroom hunters would already have consumed it.
Onwards to the little hamlet of Fintou, which consists of only two houses, one of them abandoned. When we first moved here, a delightful old man lived alone there, his single room lit by one naked light bulb, his only heating from the hearth. Sadly, he died during the long, hot summer of 2003.
A sister inherited his house. Another sister already owned the uninhabited one. We went to visit the first sister. Unfortunately, she was stone deaf, and we had to bellow to make ourselves heard. We managed to explain that we were neighbours, this being an elastic concept, since we were about 1 ½ km away.
“Well, if you have any problems,” we said as we left after an unsatisfactory conversation, trying to be neighbourly.
“What problems?” she said sharply.
We left it at that.
Sister No. 1 eventually sold the house, and the present owners have restored it up to a point. Sister No. 2 put the uninhabited house on the market for a while, but it failed to find a buyer. It now stands empty, with the front door and windows open to the elements.
The house itself is rather pretty, or it could be, but it would take a lot of work to make it habitable. The date 180- is inscribed on the lintel above the door, but I couldn’t make out the last digit.
We normally walk past without stopping. This time, I decided to investigate inside, as no doubt others have done, given the open door. However, I stayed on the threshold. I didn’t know if the floorboards were sound.
This small house was built in the typical style of the locality. Caves took up the ground floor, where they stored things. A stone staircase led up to the front door, which opened into the living area. This was one room with a fireplace at one end. You can see the niche by the hearth, in which they stored ash from the fire for use in washing the laundry, and the cupboard to the side, which would once have had a door.
I’m not clear what was the purpose of the shelf suspended from the ceiling. It can’t have been to keep food away from mice and rats, since they could have climbed up there. Perhaps it was to prevent hungry cats and dogs from helping themselves.
The other side of the room was partitioned off with a wooden panel. No doubt this was the bedroom. A ladder led to the upper floor, le grenier, where they stored items to keep dry. Behind the ladder in the back wall, you can see the évier (sink) where they did the washing up. Eviers were always very shallow. Water was precious.
Outside was a citerne for water and a small building with a pig-shed on the ground floor and a poulailler for the hens above. Life not so long ago was simple and no doubt harsh at times. We are spoilt by comparison.
I continued onwards along tracks that were trodden for centuries, musing as I often do on how it must have been to live here before the advent of running water, electricity, cars, computers, all the things we take for granted. What would they say if they could see me wandering about taking photos of run-down houses and old fungi? Would they be envious of my leisure time or simply bemused by it all?
I have to confess that, for all its problems, I am glad to have lived in this age and not a century or so ago. And while my husband was battling with crowds on the Paris Métro and paying for mediocre but overpriced meals in brasseries, I was where I like to be best. Here.
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