Tag Archives: Charente

Fessing Up…

It’s time I confess…

The place I live is so bloody gorgeous I don’t want to share these photos with you because I’m a little ashamed of just how gorgeous it is. It’s like having admired pictures of other children only then to reveal that you’ve got the Gerber baby at home. And the worst part is that I get to see this practically every day. Sorry! You’re going to hate me by the end of this post if you don’t know La Rochefoucauld at all. If you like, feel free to press play on the video – it’s the Amelie soundtrack, certified to put you in French spirit. You can imagine me riding down through the town on an old bicycle if you like.

Firstly, I must confess, it’s not so much of a Blois or a Chenonceau of a castle. We’re not talking UNESCO castles here. But that makes it even better, because, most days, we don’t have to share this town with every one else.

So… let me take you on a guided tour of my local town and introduce you to the wonderful La Rochefoucauld…

This is our high street. Pretty much everything you might need in life is on this street. There are two bakers, two chocolate shops, two pharmacies, three charcuteries, a pizza restaurant, several dress shops and clothes shops and shoe shops. My two favourite shops are the sewing shop and the Phildar wool shop. There are of course the usual array of banks, tabacs and estate agents. There’s a dusty old book shop that has nothing you need and everything you don’t, with lovely hand-made cards. There’s a toy shop complete with wooden toys, and there’s even a little fruit and veg market.

This corner is just by the Phildar wool shop. I love the Phildar wool shop and I love the Phildar wool lady. You can see the sign for one of the two local restaurants. There’s the much more popular Chez Steph’s further down by the river. The restaurant advertised on the sign was part of a recent scandal – the former manager murdered someone apparently – we may only have 2,000 inhabitants, but it’s still the real world filled with petty jealousies and drunk men in charge of rifles.

All year round, the town is remarkably well-dressed, florally speaking. I love the floral displays around the town. They just make it look so much nicer. Not that these beautiful shops and buildings aren’t enough on their own. This is heading down the high street towards the focus of the town: the chateau.

You can just see the turret of the castle in the distance above the trees. I love this street. I could hang about on this street all day long. The thing that amazed me first about it is that parking is free. In the UK, you’d have to pay about £2.00 for a 30 minute stop here. The first time we arrived, I looked for the pay and display machines, and I’ve been stopped twice by English tourists who can’t believe parking here is free. Most people on the high street don’t stop long though. You pick up your bread, your tomatoes, your charcuterie, your prescription and then you zip off again.

At the bottom of the road, it opens up into a square. It’s got a little café on it, and a boulangerie all of its own as well as the tabac. This square is right in front of the La Rochefoucauld cinema – a small little theatre with about 20 seats – and the library. Also, on the right is the convent and the day hospital. I love this hospital. At first glance, there’s no way you would think it was a hospital.


The gardens have all been put into place this year and they go a long way to making the building look even more beautiful. They’ve put the huge pots along the front, filled with gorgeous flowers. There are some very clever gardeners at work in our town.

Finally, you walk down the tail end of the high street and get to Chez Steph’s – the local restaurant. It’s always busy and does a great menu for 15€ at lunch time.


You can sit and eat on the patio over the zebra crossing – and the waiters and waitresses scoot over the road with plates of food, occasionally pushing the cheese cart in front of bemused tourists who’ve stopped to let pedestrians cross.

And then… there it is… the pearl of the Angoumois region. The chateau de La Rochefoucauld, sitting on a promontory overlooking the Tardoire.

And if you want to see inside the castle, as I did today for the very first time, you’ll have to pop over to my blog at Anglo-Info where I’ve put my photos from inside. It’s open to the public, but I’ve always been too mean to pay the entrance price. Today it was 2€ because it was the national heritage day. I’ll say nothing about it other than it’s completely gorgeous and splendid. I felt like a total peasant. If my life were a Monty Python film (and it sometimes feels like it is) I’d be Terry Jones at the bottom of the hill saying ‘Ooooh Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down ‘ere!’ and prattling on about being an autonomous collective. Of course, it would be lovely to be Miss Chatelaine.

Anyway, I rummaged through the castle, gawped at the stair cases, gawked at the library, thought about how hard it would be to heat and then went back out into the bright sunshine.

Back down in town, I decided to make the most of the day – and even though the convent is always open, I popped in to take a photograph of the cloistered square too…

So now I’ve exposed my town as a potential tourist trap – if this town were in England, it would be over-run by tea-shops and antiques shops (well, we’ve got two) and tourists and old people on coach trips – I hope you don’t feel too jealous. It’s hard to live in a place like this. For one thing, I’m not sure it can cope with a scruffy little urchin like me.

Much Love Monday will be with you tomorrow, if I’m not overwhelmed by people who want to give me a piece of their mind for keeping La Rochefoucauld to myself all this time.





There’s nothing so nice…

… as messing about on the river. Especially when you do it with friends and family.

Yesterday, seven of us went canoeing down the Charente. The Charente isn’t a well-known river, like the Loire or the Seine or the Rhone. It’s got a quiet beauty and it is such a very leisurely river, meandering this way and that through the local area. It’s not the jaw-dropping Amazon, which so amazed me in Brazil that I must have stood for a good half hour wondering just exactly how anyone might get across it. The Amazon is a nation in itself.

I spent a bit of time destroying the silence in the Pantanal on a boat. We went fishing for piranhas. I flung my piranhas about like you wouldn’t believe. You’d have thought I’d have caught Jaws and that he had the power to move and chomp me at random. Still, it was quite lovely.

In the Pantanal

I managed to catch a few, and it was definitely one of my highlights of Brazil.

Heading in towards Iguzu Falls

^ This picture is one of my favourites from Brazil. We were heading up into the biggest waterfalls in the world (widest? longest? Definitely not the highest!) and it is one of my all-time favourites of me full stop. Nothing beats exhilaration like the kind of exhilaration Mother Nature gives you. You can keep your theme park rides. Nothing is as fun as taking on a big river. I wonder what ever happened to that corduroy hat though. It was one of my favourites. I’ve not seen it for ages.

But the Amazon is just in a world of its own. It’s magnificent. Nothing compares to it in terms of jaw-dropping wonder.

This is not the sea… it’s the River Sea

And so the rivers of France, by comparison, are less dramatic maybe, though perhaps a little less wild and frightening, and a little more refined. So it feels to me, anyway. And you don’t have caiman sitting on the banks waiting for a snack, or a river filled with piranhas who’d like some lunch.

In many ways, the Charente is my first real experience of the area in which I now live. We’d stayed at the Beau Rivage in Mansle, which is, as its name suggests (Beautiful Shore) on the bank of the river. And it is beautiful. Whether it’s riverside castles…


Or quiet days alongside the river at Jarnac


… the Charente is a gorgeous river.

Yesterday, though, it was nearly the scene of me almost wetting my pants.

Opposite the Beau Rivage is a canoe and bike hire place where from time to time I think ‘it would be quite nice to potter about on the river with a little canoe’ and so I find some people to go down the river with. It’s quite lovely. Usually.


So yesterday, my sister, Madame V, Mme V’s daughters, Mme V’s friend and son, we all went down the river. Firstly, it was much more successful than any canoeing I’ve ever done. I’d say  this is because it was 6:1 female:male ratio. Secondly, Mme V’s friend seems to have been a gold medallist in some Olympic rowing or other. Third, we’d done the sensible thing and all children were in with an adult, and we didn’t bring argumentative people with us, like I did when I took Jake and Steve and the three of us blamed each other for why we zig-zagged all over the river. Mostly, we went in straight lines on the easy bit.

Then we got to a weir.

“Oh, we can go down this,” said Mme V’s middling daughter. “We’ve done it in school. You just pull yourself back up by pushing along with your hands. It’s very easy.”

So we went down it. Cue some merriment. It was as sprightly as the Charente gets. Then we seemed to get bogged down in a lot of reeds and duckweed, which reminded Abi of rivers in Southern Africa, and me of rivers in the Pantanal. And plus, it twisted. A lot. We ended up in a lot of trees.

And whilst boys might have got frustrated by this, we laughed and laughed. Mostly because every single one of us ended up in duckweed, or in a bend we couldn’t get out of.

And, in a very beautiful spot at St Groux, we stopped. There was a low-low bridge and we had a little paddle. The kids splashed about.

Steven said “See ya, suckers!” and tried to dive in to swim off, only to be held in position by the current. Cue more laughter.

Then some other people came along. Some went under the bridge, by lying back in a kind of limbo position. I think some of us thought we could do that.

“No.” said I. “My boobs would get in the way.” And I’m sure they would. I’d be stuck there, pinioned by my life jacket and my boobs. And to be fair, most people in the canoes got out, lifted the canoe over the bridge and then carried on.

We decided to paddle back. It was harder going than it was coming. Especially when we got to the weir.

“Well, this isn’t like the weir we went over with school.” said middling daughter. After discussion, it was a ‘get out and pull it up’ decision. Only that was fine on the weir itself. It even had little inverted Vs so you didn’t slip back.

Not so fine on the drop on the other side, where middling daughter went in up to her shorts, then Mme V seemed to drop down about three feet further, above her chest. I nearly died laughing. I know it’s not kind to laugh when your friend drops three feet down into fast-flowing water, but it was funny. What was more funny is that it’s the closest I’ve come to wetting myself laughing in all 40 years of my existence. I had crossed legs and everything.

It was as much her expression of astonishment at where the river bed had gone than anything else. And the fact we’d struggled to get the canoes back up the weir in the first place.

Next time, we’re going down to the nearest town and getting a minibus back. Forget any turning around to paddle back upstream. It wasn’t that it was hard going, more that going up a weir, well, it’s not the way you’re intended to go over it.

But it was a lovely, lovely day and except for the bit where I nearly wet myself, we didn’t run into much trouble at all. Plus, we went twice as far as I ever went with moaning men. Not only is Abi an instinctively good navigator, she’s also pretty good at steering when we’re heading towards trees. But even if you’ve had a twenty year hiatus between going in a canoe, the Charente is a very easy place to do it. Just don’t go down the weir.




Spring has sprung…

A lyric from one of my favourite songs ever.

I had such a crush on Ian McCulloch and his debut solo album Candleland is just amazing. As is the album this is taken from. I love a man with back-combed hair, it is true.

Anyway… Spring has sprung. It’s maybe a little later than last year, since this time last year, my ornamental plum had flowers  on March 1st and yesterday it had its first flowers of 2012 and that’s one of the beauties of having a diary or a blog is seeing what you were up to this time last year. I notice my flower garden did not do so well – combination of repeated trips to the UK in May and then again in July – and because it was so dry. Also, I tried a few packets of seeds, but they were very old and came to nothing.

Evening plum blossom

One of the things I love very much about this life is the renewed life that spring gives you. I just didn’t feel it the same in the UK – mainly because there are still arctic breezes that cut through and stick a knife right in your ribs. Yesterday, I got in the car and it said this:

It sank to 22 degrees, but it was still a bit of a shock to see!

I thought as I drove to my afternoon appointments that all the winter cold is forgiven just for one day like this. I can live with it knowing that the landscape goes from one under snow to one bursting with life in a month. And it is true, winter did give me a time of rest, hibernation and a time to earn a little money indoors.

Yesterday's drive to work...

This is what I came here looking for… proper spring, wide-open countryside, empty roads, greens and blues. You can see why I don’t miss the traffic and the M60 and the M61 and the traffic lights through Bolton and the sitting and the waiting for four turns of the lights to actually move up far enough to get through to the next bit. I miss many, many things about the UK, not least that Bolton feels like home and when I need to retreat, this place still feels like somewhere I’m visiting rather than somewhere I know like the back of my hand.

I think that’s partly to do with the fact that in England, by and large, most of my routes involved six or seven main ways to get there. Even when I worked in Clitheroe and had to drive 30 miles from my house to work across some beautiful landscapes, mostly it was fairly bleak – though I always loved the drive across from Preston to Clitheroe – which is a straight, fast road  (not unlike the ones we have here) that slipped through Pendle Vale in the shadow of Longridge Fell and then Pendle Hill. On a good day, you can see all the way up to the Lake District – and yes, I would have loved to have lived in the Lake District and maybe one day I will be able to buy a house in the Lake District – one day when I am a millionaire. One of my great aunts and her husband had a house in the Lake District – I still remember that house. It was amazing. They live outside Penrith now, and I love it up there too, but it’s not the same as having a house in the shadow of a huge hill.

Beautiful photograph from Geoff Rollinson. Click to visit his gallery

So yes, I miss this. I miss those days when we had training up in Cumbria and I had an overnight stay in Grange-over-Sands or Ullswater. I miss our training days in Ambleside. When I was an English teaching consultant, we often had our meetings up around the lakes. My very first one, fresh out of teaching in Clitheroe, was in Grange. It was May – our meeting started at 10:00 and having been used to setting off at 6:50 to make it to school for 7:30, then teaching all day before rolling in back at my house around 6:30, after all the traffic had gone – it was a complete shock to the system. My predecessor, Mary, who had moved to be an English consultant in another county and was thus at the meeting, had been for a run before the meeting. Two ladies sat drinking tea and reading the paper. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

Whilst I think it’s true that you are probably only appreciated in paid employment for about six months (the time it takes for your bosses to grow accustomed to your efficiency and talent and then just to expect it, before, finally, getting frustrated if you do anything remotely human and non-robotic) I think maybe the same is true of jobs. I did work too hard at that job and invested far too much in it. Maybe I should have been a little lazier and enjoyed it a little more? That morning, I’d set off at 7:00 from Bolton to drive up – most people stayed over the night before. I ate in a Little Chef and they had breakfast in the restaurant. I was far too decent to take £15 for a breakfast from the tax payer. More fool me. I still am like that. There are some people in life from whom the tax man makes money just to support those others. I guess that was me.

Our hotel, that first meeting

So there were times I enjoyed my drive to work. There were times my offices were conducive to creativity. For the rest of those times, I had an office at the end of a dark corridor, or in a musty old building, or an office in an under-stairs cupboard formerly used for cleaning materials. Now I always stop to make sure I appreciate what’s around me – and even in the winter, I have the privilege of always finding beauty around me. I could have stopped in fifty places yesterday just for a little look about and to snap a photograph. Perhaps I should.

Les Grottes de Queroy

It was a toss up today between Roman ruins and some caves. We opted for the caves – not entirely sure why – and set off cross-country. I think the dog had something to do with it – we could take her for a walk in the forest around the area and then have a look at the caves. There were some impressive-looking photos of the stalactites that reminded me a little of the hall of knives in the Darren Shan stories and I kind of thought it would be cool. Plus, the boy and I had done a little limestone experiment yesterday, dissolving limestone in vinegar as we were talking about why the valley bed of the Tardoire was lower than the countryside around it, and why the stones were filled with holes like cheese. So it fitted in with a little amateur geology.

We got there at a very-English mid-day. There was a camper van there and very little else. The sign for the grottes seemed to point through someone’s back yard. It was all a bit odd and dilapidated. It seemed to suggest that you should talk to the person in the golf shop if you wanted the key to the caves, yet the ‘golf shop’ was a very run-down hut with not a soul to be seen. There was a family playing on the crazy golf, but in all honesty, it was shabby and very bizarre. Everything was overgrown or collapsing.

So we wandered a little further down, coming to the caves. They were locked. Not unusual. The fosse de diable near us also is locked and you have to pick the key up at the restaurant if you want to go in. A little casual, but fair enough. Guess it stops men trying to bury their father-in-laws in holes, as the legend suggests.

Nevertheless, we decided not to let this be a waste and followed the boy down a path. The path of poo. There were several piles of fecal matter that would no doubt entrance the Ray Mears type. And me. It was absolutely heaving with blackberries, sloes and butterflies. We wandered further and further, coming across a strange abandoned hut, a house in the middle of nowhere and not a soul to be seen. If this were England, we’d have met at least 20 other people. You can’t escape the crowds, unfortunately!

The butterflies were crazy. There were blue ones, black ones, ones with eyes on them, admirals, white ones – an absolute disco of butterflies.

But, by then, we were a little bit lost. We were wandering a bit aimlessly. The dog was hot. There were no signs. It was very Hansel and Gretel, and maybe the boy should have been dropping little stones along the path so we could find our way back.

We managed to find some houses and a road, and then a village, and then a signpost and then the car – by some stroke of luck. I was just about praying as we turned the final corner. Moll had been dragging her feet for the last half mile and I was beginning to wonder if she’d need a ‘cochon’ ride, as Jake calls it. Or a cushion ride. Not quite the same, but a piggy back to you and I.

Still, it seemed a bit of a waste to have driven 10 minutes out of our way, had a bloody long wander and then not gone down the caves. Some other cars had turned up and there seemed to be about ten people or so. Enough to make it worthwhile to trek back through the deserted garden, past the abandoned restaurant/bar and see if the golf shop proprietor had materialised.

We left the Moll and went back to the Stephen-King-esque golf kiosk where a very old woman (who I can’t help but think of as the witch in Hansel and Gretel now!) was giving out stuff. I took a moment to have a look, wondering if we’d have to pay, having left my purse in the car, and seeing the ‘tarif’ sign. 7 € for adults and 5 € for children. Almost 20 quid, then, to go down a hole.

Now I like a hole as much as the next man, but it seemed a bit steep, especially since Lascaux II (the replica for the cave drawings’ grottes) and Rouffignac with its electric train are only the same price. And they were guided tours. Surely this ancient old crone wasn’t about to take us down the cave??!

Anyway, by that time, we were hot, tired, thirsty and at the end of our patience, so it seemed a bit much for a trip into the dark. Unless the cave had cave paintings, a train, a museum and a guided tour, it seemed a bit of a rip-off. Now I might go back on my own sometime but Mr Stephen isn’t going to let a 20 € trip pass without some kind of amazing stuff, not when you can go down the grande fosse (or Grand Canyon as Jake likes to call it) for precisely 0 €

This really needs scary Twilight Zone music playing when you look at it

I think a trip to Rouffignac might be in order instead, if we want to look at a cave! I guess, with Blue John Cavern being £8, I would expect something a little more ‘cave-bling’??!

So… Grottes de Queroy: Grotty.