Natural diversions

I’d just parked up my push-bike after riding up to the village to collect fresh bread for breakfast. (‘up’ being the operative word as it’s  10 minutes uphill all the way – but the return journey is fun. I’ve decided that French bread is a super food as I’ve got to be burning off as many calories fetching it as I consume in a day!)

I could hear Colin calling “Quick, come here. Quick!  QUICK!” Wondering what on earth the urgency was all about, I hurried to where he was standing at the living room French windows.  Just below the window a water vole was busily swimming along a little way off the river bank. As we watched he (she?) repeatedly swam along to a certain spot on the bank, climbed up the steep slope into our back garden, ran to the thickest clumps of lush grass and tore out great bunches of the stuff, with the calm efficiency of a Friesian cow. Then he dragged his harvest back down the bank to the water, towed it along behind him to his burrow a metre or so down the bank (about 15 feet from our window!!), and disappeared.

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Our resident water vole at Moulin de la Roche

Kenneth Grahame, author of Wind in the Willows based his character Ratty on the water vole, but they really are nothing like rats. With his round furry ears and snub nose this little critter looked more like a floating teddy bear than nasty vermin.

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image courtesy of Peter Trimming, Flickr

Since Wind in the Willows was published in 1908, the shy water vole has become the most endangered mammal in the British Isles. Apparently his European cousin is faring a little better. I’m an absolute sucker for wild animals. It doesn’t matter how common they are,or how many times I have seen them before – there’s just a real magic about being close  and watching them go about their daily lives. Or is it just me that can just forget everything I am meant to be doing when a robin comes up close in the garden?

This was our second day back in France and this wasn’t the first time that the long to-do list of jobs to transform this old water mill into the home of our dreams had been put off while we observed the wonderful natural entertainment,  just outside our window. Yesterday it had been me who had dragged Colin down from the bathroom, where he had been attempting to have a shave, to watch a Little Grebe fishing in the river right outside. I had glanced out of the window at what looked like a small brown bird sitting in a beige rubber ring on the water.

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Little grebe or dabchick in our mill stream

As I watched she suddenly dived and from my vantage point, looking straight down into the river where it flowed out from the water wheel under the house, I could see her ‘flying’ underwater, darting back and forth at lightning speed as she chased small fish – just like those natural history films you see of penguins whizzing around in the sea. Colin and I stood and watched her for ages as she dived, came back up with a wriggling silver fish, tossed it back down her throat and then set off again. She was soon joined by the male, a bigger and more elegant bird, whose technique was more spectacular as he leapt out of the water before piercing the surface in pursuit of his meal. The pair of them fished for hours and must have eaten more than twice their body weight each before paddling away. I don’t hold out much hope for Colin’s plans of raising baby brown trout in the mill stream with that pair around!

T’is the season to be…FREEZING!

Our Christmas New Year break at the mill was never going to be a lazy one, was it? We had originally intended to set to and rip the upstairs bathroom out. I had even brought over the new floor tiles that I wanted to put down. We had managed to strip the heavily embossed blue vinyl dolphins leaping over their pink lily-pads from the walls on a previous flying weekend visit and now we had a blank canvas to get started on. Except…

During the last couple of weeks in England we had had a chance to reflect on the mixed reactions of people who had visited and had come to the conclusion that if friends were ever going to feel comfortable dropping round for coffee or apéros, let alone dinner, we would need to do something about the disgusting state of the open-plan living area.

Years of nicotine and grease had transformed the once white walls and ceiling to a mucky, cobweb-coated brown textured finish.

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Kitchen – before

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Living room wall – before

I’d already spent a full day scrubbing every surface in the kitchen clean, and although I now knew it was not actually going to poison anyone, it certainly didn’t inspire a sense of confidence in anyone being offered tasty delicacies prepared in it. There was nothing for it, but to whitewash the whole living area. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But the paint wouldn’t take, the walls were that greasy and dirty, so the pair of us spent a good 3 days scrubbing down every square metre of wall and ceiling (approximately 140 m2 in all) . As we are now the rooky owners of a fosse septique, septic tank, in this rural property, we had to Google what we could use for this job as we were worried that strong cleaning agents might have a detrimental effect on our good bacteria. (Sounds like a yoghurt advert!) It took several passes to first start dissolving the yukky layer, then going over it again and again and finally rinsing it all down with clean water.  Colin definitely drew the short straw as he volunteered to attack the ceiling with a mop. After 3 days he had built up an impressive set of upper arm and shoulder muscles – just in time to start the first of several coats of white emulsion, wielding the roller on its long pole, back and forth over his head.

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Last rinse of the ceiling

By the end of the week, we had managed one coat on the walls (my job, but I had all the cutting in to do round the windows, doors and skirting boards which took ages – my excuse and I’m sticking to it!) and 2 coats on the ceiling. We still need to go over it a few more times but at least we now know “it’s our dirt”, as my Nan used to say. And when Marianne and Jean-Paul dropped round unexpectedly for a coffee on New Year’s Day, they were suitably impressed.

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The kitchen after its spruce-up. Not to our taste, but clean at least!

Monsieur Monnet, the window guy, also dropped in to give us his quote for the shutters and explain all the figures and details of what he was proposing. Gulp! Does it really cost that much to effectively board up all your windows and doors when you go out? Having already done a bit of research into how much it would cost to build and install them ourselves, we know that it was a reasonable quote, and as he was the only one of the companies that we had asked, who had actually bothered to come back with an estimate (I guess they didn’t fancy hanging over the river to put them up!) and he seems like a really nice guy, we will probably end up using him.

But it wasn’t all decorating over the festive period. We spent one particularly lovely evening with two lots of neighbours from our old village, who had invited us round for drinks when they heard we were back in France. One of the couples, now in their 70’s have lived in the area all their lives and regaled us with stories of our mill’s previous owners, who had apparently been part of a large and notorious family. Several of the brothers had left to make their fortune, installing telegraph lines in Guyana and had returned to the Sarthe where they proceeded to buy up farm after farm, often gazumping prospective buyers of more modest means, offering more than twice the market value to get what they wanted. Whether Monsieur had been one of these adventurous entrepreneurs was not clear, but the family certainly hadn’t made themselves popular and the locals watched with mixed feelings as one by one they went bust.

This was one of the coldest Christmas’ in the area for years, with temperatures dropping to -10, according to the local radio station. It was FREEZING! For the first two days of our stay we had every radiator going full whack and even risked the open fire in the evenings, cuddled up under a duvet on the settee to see in 2017, on New Year’s Eve. Despite having had the chimney swept as soon as we moved in, we were very dubious about the state of the fireplace, which had been another of Monsieur’s projects. Having decided to remove the plaster board panelling around the flue for a closer inspection our fears were confirmed – a bodged, half-finished job. So the bathroom has been shunted back on the schedule again to allow us to concentrate on a new woodburner and fixing the central heating. Hey ho! I guess we’ll just have to let the house dictate the renovation.

We hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Year. Did you do anything a bit out of the ordinary? Do leave a comment and let me know what you got up to!