Today was the funeral of my grandmother - Gladys Emily Beatrice, known to me, ever since I was a baby as Nan1. It was a small family affair at the crematorium, followed by a small gathering at my sister's house. The local vicar led us in with the usual prayers, but the eulogy and readings were from myself and my sister's two daughters...

This was what I wrote, and more or less, what I said...

Gladys Emily Beatrice

Today, we celebrate the life of a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt, sister, and wife.

Gladys Emily Beatrice – to those who fill in forms; just Glad or Gladys to her family & friends, Mum to her children; Nan or Nanny to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

I suppose, in honour of one of her habits, I should call her Maud, Em, Lucy, Valerie, Deborah, Karen, Gladys2, but to me, she was, and always will be, Nan. The sweetest, gentlest and kindest person I ever knew.

How can you possibly sum up, in so short a time, a life that spanned over 99 years? A life that saw four monarchs, 24 prime-ministers and two world wars? A life that spanned the electronic age, the space age and the information age?

I could talk of memories. There are so many of them. For me, the strongest ones would be the times that we lived with Nan & Papa in Ardrossan Gardens. Mum, Ron, Deborah & I, and later, Karen as well. All of us packed together in that two-bedroom maisonette. There would be Papa snoring during the day and then getting up and going to work at night3. Nan coming home from work of an evening, with sweets for us kids on Fridays. Nan & Papa doing their tins, putting money aside for the bills, for the insurance, a shilling for the electric, a shilling for the stamp, a shilling towards the phone and so on4. There would be fish-fingers, crisps and coleslaw for Friday supper. Z-Cars, Crossroads and Emergency Ward 10 on the TV. And, of course. a bowl of Fox’s Glacier Mints always on hand. Evenings would be interrupted by the intercom from Maud, Ted & Richard downstairs going beep beep beep beep-beep, beep-beep, which they told me stood for “telephone’s ringing, come down”, when there was a phone call, until the time that they got a phone of their own, on the wall5. I remember Nan sitting up in bed with her glass of stout, as prescribed by the doctor. And I always remember Nan sitting drying her hair, with the hair dryer in her lap and the plastic hood thing over her head, because Nan always liked to look her best, with her hair properly styled. And she did always look her best, no matter what the occasion, or lack of. Always elegant and beautiful.

Those are memories that are long in the past, but, there are many similar memories since. Travelling by train, via Effingham Junction to visit them, and then later, driving there. When we left, they would always wait and wave to us until we were well out of site. Like all of these memories, they are about family. And that, if anything summed up the person that Nan was, a family woman. A woman who was immensely proud of her family, this family, gathered here today. She was a woman who loved her family, with all its foibles and complications, no matter what else occurred. To me, she never seemed happier than at family gatherings – Christmases, birthdays, wedding anniversaries etc., when we would all gather together, especially when those she hadn’t seen for some time were there. Whatever else was going on, she was always pleased to see her family, to have them around her. In recent years, when Ellen and I came to visit, I would always notice that her smile on seeing us could light up the whole room. Just as it would when any family member came to visit. Because, that was Nan, a woman who loved her family above all else.

Even more so, she was a woman filled with love. Aside from her love of family, there was her love for her husband, Don, or to many of us, Papa. That was a love that endured many more years than I have been alive. More years than most of us here. It was a love that was always evident when you saw them together. When Ellen and I got married, my friends remarked to me afterwards, how lovely it was to see Nan & Papa together. Holding hands, smiling and giggling together like teenagers in love. Speaking with Deborah recently, she said that many of her friends had said the exact same thing. A love that endured, and a love that shone like the sun.

And that, I think, should be the most abiding memory of Nan. A loving great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, aunt, sister and wife. I don’t know if they have Glacier Mints or fish-fingers and crisps up there, or whether you need tobacco tins to do the accounting, but I do know that Nan & Papa are together again at last, doing whatever they want to do, together, with love. And, they will be smiling and giggling and holding hands once again while they do it. Because Nan, among many things, exemplified love. A love that we all experienced and will never forget.

And so, I say to her, on behalf of us all, we love you Nan, and we will never, ever forget you.

On that note, I will now hand you over to Emily, with some words from the Songs of Solomon on the nature of love, followed by Victoria with some words on hope from Lois Lowry.

Thank you.


My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past; The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; The time of the singing is come, And the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land;
The fig-tree puts forth its figs, And the vines are in blossom;
They give forth their fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away

Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love all the wealth of one's house,
it would be utterly scorned.

(Song of Solomon - 2:10-13 & 8:6-7)


"Time goes on, and your life is still there, and you have to live it. After a while you remember the good things more often than the bad. Then, gradually, the empty silent parts of you fill up with sounds of talking and laughter again, and the jagged edges of sadness are softened by memories."
Lois Lowry

[1] Nan or Nanny when I was younger. Her husband, my maternal grandfather was named by me when I was very young as Papa, and it stuck, even when we were all adults. Paternal grandparents were Gran(ny) & Granddad, so it was easy to work out who was meant. We couldn't use GrannyX and Granny Y as they were both called Gladys.
[2] A family habit. Whenever she greeted somebody for the first time, she would always run through the various family names before she got to the right one. So, in my case, I would be David, Alan, Richard, Andrew, Kevin, Ian.
[3] He worked in the print trade and worked nights to get more money. He had the loudest snore ever.
[4] That was how they did their accounting and managed their money. They had a box of 2oz tobacco tins that lived on top of the wardrobe in their bedroom. All of them were labelled - gas, electricity, insurance, rent and so on. Every Friday, they would sit and empty out their wage packets (cash in those days) and divide the money among the tins. For those not of British extraction or born after 1972, a shilling was equivalent to 5p in current money.
[5] Maud was Nan's sister, Ted Maud's husband and Richard was their son. They lived in the ground floor maisonette. When we first moved there, they had a phone, but Nan didn't. They did have a simple intercom between the two dwellings. When there was a phone call for Nan, Maud or Ted would just buzz "shave and a haircut" on the intercom, and Nan would put on her slippers or whatever and go down to take her call.
I had a great fondness for my mother's Chestnut Stuffing. So, some years ago, I obtained the recipe from her. Since then, I have experimented somewhat, varied it a little according to my own tastes, but the basic recipe remains the same. I added things like garlic and chilli, extra herbs, and, on occasions additional vegetables or even fruit. This year, I decided to use apricots. If I say so myself, it is rather tasty, and it is always a great disappointment, a few days after the main Xmas meal, when we use up the last of the leftovers.

Given that we might be wandering off in the direction of a cinema tomorrow, I decided to make the stuffing in advance. This works well, as it only needs a few minutes in the microwave to get it nice and hot for the table.

And, since I had the camera nearby after photographing the brining of the goose, I thought I would document the process of the stuffing. Since this is rather longer....
(note, it is down there somewhere, I have no idea why it is rendering with such a big gap)
I thought I would put it behind a cut )

So, there you have it. One bowl of hopefully delicious chestnut stuffing, ready for the table on Saturday.
luis_mw: (cook)
It's that time of year again...

Sadly, Warborne Organic Farm closed their farm shop after the holidays last year. It wasn't making enough money, so they have decided to revert to growing organic crops for the wholesale market.

Fortunately, their butchers, John & Les, decided to carry on. They took over another farm shop in the area and re-opened, mostly selling organic meat, but also stocking some vegetables and and fine comestibles. It's a bit further out, and doesn't have such a wide range, but we still pop in for stuff now and again. Way back in the summer, we asked if they were going to be doing geese for Christmas, and they said they would, as they thought they had a supplier sorted out. Back in October or so, we were up there again, and saw they were taking reservations, so we placed an order.

Yesterday, I called to make sure it was ready for collection. It was, but only because a friend of John's kindly drove down to Devon in his estate car to collect them. Otherwise, they would have been stranded down there by the snow. I drove up there, collected the goose and a few other bits and pieces, chatted with John & Les for a while until the shop got busy, and headed on home again...

To prepare for the annual ritual of brining the goose...

Watch, watch, the brining of the goose
Watch and see the spices flowing
See the goosey in the bath
Brining for my Yuletide meal

One organic goose, fresh from the butcher

One plate of ingredients for the bath

One goose, suitably submerged

And protected from the elements

[1] To the Tune of Shaking of the Sheets...

A question I never thought I'd ask:
"Did last night include me drinking something black and sticky[1] out of a glass skull[2]?"

Much less, receive the answer, "Yes, you did. So did quite a few of us."

[1] A Finnish[3] pre-mixed cocktail drink called Salmiakki Koskenkorva. It tastes of largely of licorice which means that you totally fail to notice that it is also 40% ABV

[2] I don't know who it belonged to, but it was a very cool bottle.

[3] One of the rules I learned very early on in the SCA is "beware of Finns offering drinks". Lovely people, great fun to party with, but some of the concoctions they offer can be wicked. Aside from the above-mentioned, there is also one that tastes rather like orange soda. Until you try to stand up :)
Forward then, to Cucugnan and Queribus.

The village of Cucugnan is a small cluster of buildings, winding up the hillside. Typically of the region, the buildings have pale-coloured walls with the usual terracotta coloured roof. There seem to be a couple of hotels and restaurants, assorted shops and a recently restored windmill. We saw a small assortment of shops, selling all sorts of useful things like books, postcards, souvenirs, various stone castings and such like. There was even, supposedly, a general store, but when we eventually found it, after enquiring at the tourist office, it was closed. Looking at the village website now, it seems to keep very limited hours. The village even boasts a theatre, which supposedly presents a version of the story of the Curé de Cucugnan, hero of Alphonse Daudet's book Lettres de Mon Moulin. We were unable to verify this as there was a notice stuck to the inside of the door, apologising for the theatre being closed due to some local problems.

Cut for your page length... )

It was a very splendid trip. It was certainly the best birthday present I have ever had, so thanks to my lady for that. I certainly fell in love with the area and look forward to going back some time. Part of me almost wishes I could go live in one of those villages. I don’t know what I would do there. Maybe I could learn to cast knights out of stone and resin, or learn history enough to give guided tours of castles. Heck, I could even get to speak the language properly. But that’s just a dream. But, I would like to go there again, someday…

But in the meantime, some photos to assist the memory
So, farewell to Villerouge and onward to Aguilar…

Onward and upwards, it seems, as we head further into the foothills. The scenery was just getting better and better, and the roads even more fun to drive. By now I was well used to being on the wrong side of the road, and had settled comfortably into the driving or our little (one-eyed) Peugot 207. By now, the roads were reminding me of an old TV car advert where the sat-nav kept seeming to direct the driver in the wrong direction for Glasgow until it finally brought him to the top of a long and winding road down through the hills, with the final instruction of “Enjoy!”

We did have a secondary mission, to obtain basic supplies – snacks and drinks – but none of the villages we passed through seemed to be possessed of anything resembling as shop. One did have signs promising a Spar, but it was evidently invisible that day. Never mind, there would surely be something at our final destination that evening.

The turn-off to the Château d’Aguilar did not seem promising – a very narrow road that seemed to disappear in between the rows of grapevines, almost seeming like a farmer’s access track than a real road. However, it rapidly became much more interesting. While I consider myself an experienced driver, unlike my dear [ profile] silme, I have limited experience of narrow roads that climb up the sides of mountains. Looking ahead, it seemed scarcely possible that we could get anywhere near the castle itself, standing at the top of the crag ahead.

Despite my doubts, each twist and turn and climb brought us a little closer. I don’t mind admitting that I was more than a little nervous. My hands were sweaty and I was biting my lip all the time. [ profile] silme did offer to take over, but I was determined to see if I could do this, despite the perceived lack of anything material between me and a rather more direct route to the bottom of the hill. Deep breaths were taken, more lips were chewed, low gears were engaged and the steering wheel was gripped, perhaps a little more tightly than necessary. At least I didn’t close my eyes, although I very much wanted to. That might have been a bad idea. At last, the car park loomed. It wasn’t much, it wasn’t well surfaced, but it was at least a patch of horizontal ground. I switched off the engine and paused a few minutes to catch my breath and let the heart rate slow down a little. Part of me was trying very hard not to think about the journey down, but for the most part, I was glad just to be on a flat surface. When I climbed out of the car, I didn’t fall and hug the ground, but it was a close thing. Camera, spare batteries and hat were gathered from the car and we set out on foot.

Château d’Aguilar sits atop a hill above the Tuchan plain, looking towards the Corbières mountains. It’s only 1050 feet, but it seemed a long way up at the time. Dating from the 12th century, it seems to have had somewhat of a chequered history, and once the border between France and Spain moved, its strategic importance was gone and it was eventually abandoned. Of all the castles we visited on our trip, this was the most decrepit. It is still a historic monument; though not one that yet rates a visitor centre. It did have a lady in a wooden hut about the size of a garden shed who took Euros from us, gave us the guidebook (please bring back when you are finished) and later sold us postcards.

The castle loomed above us, up a somewhat straggly path. I was awfully glad I had chosen to wear proper shoes instead of my Crocs. This was definitely not a wheelchair-accessible site, or even a granny-accessible site, unless the granny concerned was of the breed that dons hiking boots and takes a gentle stroll to the top of Snowdon. As I remarked to [ profile] silme at the time, I couldn’t imagine it being allowed as a public attraction back home. The pathway was, at times, little better than loose scree and often quite steep. There were no handrails or proper steps and only a few hand-painted signs. Even those were few and far between, so it wasn’t entirely obvious which bits you were supposed to go into. The little chapel on the hillside, a little below the keep was quite charming, with spectacular views. It also provided welcome respite from the breeze, which, up here, was quite brisk. The rest of the castle was, well, a bit more like some back home, little more than broken walls and rubble. Except I doubt that much of this was robbed to build somebody’s cottage, unless they were really, really keen. Photographs were taken, but a few suffered from me not noticing the camera was on the wrong setting for outdoors. We didn’t explore the interior of the central keep itself. What we could see looked somewhat overgrown and anyway, getting to it looked like it required one to be a mountain goat.

The descent back to the car park was a little easier than the ascent, though possibly slightly harder on the knees. We gave back the guidebook, purchased some cards and a bottle of water, and the nice lady gave us a free rolled-up poster. I couldn’t put it off any longer; it was time for the drive down. Loins were girded, sweaty palms wiped, and first gear engaged. Despite my fears, the journey down was easier than I had expected, and somehow seemed shorter. We stopped halfway for some good views up the hill. Soon, much to my relief, we were back on the flat bits and heading back to the road. The scenery continued to impress, necessitating a couple of photo-stops, including a brief pause in the village of Padern, to take a couple of long-distance shots of their castle. Had we had more time, we would have stopped and explored it also, but later afternoon/early evening was looming, and we wanted to get to our hotel, get ourselves booked in, and then explore just one more castle before dinner.

As ever, there are photographs...

Forward then, to Cucugnan and Queribus...
First, Villerouge...

Well, Villerouge-Termenès to be more accurate. To avoid confusion with any other Villerouges there might be out there (at least one other, according to Google Maps). Our journey took us further south, further into the foothills, further into countryside that could have made our journey very long indeed had we stopped to appreciate it each time we saw something nice. It was evident we were in wine country, with every other side road promising a vineyard or winery at the end. With more time and more money, we could have had a very happy journey – well, at least, until the point at which I fell asleep from too much tasting (yes, I know you’re supposed to spit, but what a waste).

Villerouge-Termenès proved easy enough to find, and the castle therein was clearly signposted. They seemed to take it quite seriously, with each signpost drawing us further into the history of the castle, of the Cathars, and in particular, one Guilhem Belibaste - the last Cathar Perfectus.

This theme continued inside the castle, with the audio guide and assorted film segments telling us about the castle, related through the story of Belibaste and his persecution and eventual burning by one Bernard de Farges, Archbishop of Narbonne. It was an interesting story, and I would have liked to learn more, especially the section of film that showed Farges dictating his final memoires before his anticipated death. From my brief Googling, I think I may have to learn a lot more French before I can research it more. The audio guide was less annoying than most, since the appropriate segment was activated by walking into the room, rather than driving you around in lock-step, point by point, painting by painting etc. Once again, there was the bonus of some wall paintings, even if some were restorations/reproductions.

It was a smaller castle, so not so many photos - what I did take can be seen here...

There was a pleasant looking tavern/café across the tiny bridge from the castle. A cold beer was an awful temptation, but we had some more kilometres and at least one other castle to explore before we got to our hotel. So, farewell to Villerouge and onward to Aguilar…
The next morning, onward, via assorted castles and abbeys...

Wonder of wonders – a day that was planned. Maps were consulted, distances were estimated and an approximate timetable was achieved. Pausing only to acquire pastries for breakfast at the local patisserie, off we set, down the A61.

Once we were off the motorway, we began to really appreciate the countryside. The previous day, we had arrived in darkness, so didn’t really get the chance to see. The roads wound gently through the hills and along the sides of valleys. While the landscape was plentifully green, it was a dry green, the green of trees and shrubs and vines rather than the green of meadows. Fields of drooping sunflowers alternated with the regimented rows of grapevines. Around these, the beginnings of the Corbières mountains, and in the distance, the edges of the Pyrénées. When we stopped to admire the view, the air was soft and warm, scented occasionally with bay. Though quite warm, it was a comfortable, dry warmth, tempered by the breeze. With the motorway behind us, there was very little traffic on the road and the general feeling was that life round here took little notice of any time division below that of morning, afternoon, evening or night.

Our first stop was the village of Lagrasse, supposedly one of the prettiest villages in France, there to see the Abbey of St Mary of Lagrasse. It certainly looked pretty enough as we swung down the road into the valley, with the terracotta coloured roof tiles that seem so characteristic of the region. A sign pointed us to the visitors’ car park, which proved to be only a short walk from the main part of the village itself. All was quiet, though we noted that the patisserie and a retro shop were open. Our walk took us over the more modern bridge over the river Orbieu, which gave us good views of the more ancient town bridge and the houses adjoining the river. This view alone was worth a few minutes of contemplation. It was but a few minutes from there, past the older bridge and the cemetery, to the abbey itself.

The monastic community at the abbey dates back to the 7th century and was granted abbey status in 779. Part of the abbey is still occupied by a religious order, but the rest is open to the public. It is small and has a lovely atmosphere, particularly in the central courtyard. As an additional bonus, the chapel features several preserved wall-paintings. Sadly, these were only viewable through glass windows, as the chapel was closed to protect the tiled floor, but the windows were well-placed for seeing them. It would have been too easy to sit and fall under the spell of the place, but the morning was moving on. The abbey’s café turned out only to serve drinks, otherwise we would have had an early brunch there. Instead, we opted to see what the village had to offer.

I’ve not been to many villages in France, so it was hard to judge if the “prettiest village” claim was justified. It certainly had a quiet charm, with the narrow streets and the small covered market-place in the centre. It was very quiet, with hardly anybody around, and such shops as we could see were closed. One restaurant looked hopeful, but didn’t really have much in the way of lunches in our budget range. As we headed out to the village edge, we found ourselves by the patisserie again. It was still open. Sandwiches and pastries were soon acquired and we repaired to a nearby bench to eat our lunch and watch the world go by. Again, it would have been easy to sit there for ages, but we had several stops planned, and a very approximate deadline to get to the hotel to book in. First, Villerouge...

As ever, there was time for photographs...
So, camera and sun-screen in hand, off we went…

The road from the hotel looked like many of the roads on the edge of a town. Not quite far enough out for the gentrified suburbs, not quite the inner city. Jut rows of town houses, occasionally converted into apartments, the odd shop or other business and the grounds of some kind of school. There was a slightly shabby, abandoned feel about it, but that could be due to the wooden shutters on every window making the houses look as though they had been boarded up. After the advertised 10-15 minute walk, turning at the advised traffic-lights, we got our first glimpse of the city walls.

It was a curious contrast. Leading up to the walls, some strictly utilitarian roads and roundabouts, serving the assorted car-parks and feeds to a couple of hotel, with all the charm of an out-of-town business estate. Then, rising above these, at the top of a grassy slope, was the outer curtain wall of the city, broken at intervals by fairy-story castle towers (complete with the obligatory pointy roof – a 19th century addition, we later learned). This is what we had come to see – not the Ville Basse that clustered around the bottom of the hill and on the other side of the river Aude – but the fortified city of Carcassonne.

There are a number of fanciful myths about the naming of the city, involving dead pigs and ringing bells, but these are of relatively recent origin. Evidence for settlement dates back to 3500BC, but the area became important as a trading centre in the 6th century and the name mostly likely dates from them, via the Romans.

At first sight, you might be outside any large castle – curtain walls, pierced with arrow slots and topped with crenellations; the occasional tower; heavily fortified gatehouses approached by a narrow bridge across the dry moat… All good castle-y stuff you might think. And you’d be right. But, it is much more than that. Once you get through the gateways, instead of finding yourself in the bailey, as one might expect, you find yourself in a bustling town. The streets are narrow and winding, and quite often steep, but you might easily be in the “arty” part of any historical town. Of course, being a major tourist destination, almost all of the shops are selling gifts and souvenirs. In our rambles, we only encountered one “mundane” shop – a small convenience store. Otherwise it was cards and t-shirts and plastic swords and shields, plus a fair scattering of classier establishments (metal swords, tapestries and such like). In some parts, every third establishment was a café or restaurant of some sort. Many had the prix fixe menus displayed at anything from €11 to €38. Despite the huge choice of eateries, the menus all seemed remarkable similar, at least in the lower price ranges. Inevitably, almost every one had cassoulet somewhere on the list. We thought we might have a leisurely brunch, but the English guided tour of the château part of the city was scheduled for noon, so we opted for a toasted sandwich, eaten while we walked.

There was a brief stop in which we discovered that the public toilets, despite being hi-tech self-cleaning ones (a la London super-loo), were still the old-style shower-tray with footrest variety. Admittedly, it did also have a fold-down basketball hoop thing that you could sit on, but I still didn’t think I could manage the thing safely and opted to wait. Fortunately, the ones in the château were more civilised.

The guided tour was the only part of the city that cost money to get into, but it was worth it. Our guide took us into the castle buildings, into various towers, round the ramparts and the open-air theatre, all the while telling us of the history of the city, the castle and the Cathars. For a sect that was fairly comprehensively exterminated in the past, the area seems awfully proud of them – indeed, much of the tourist promotions seems to be centred on the idea of Cathar Country. Our guide told us a lot about them, sufficient to pique our interest into researching them further. It was a good tour, taking in many of the more interesting parts of the castle, and affording lots of good views for the photographers. It was also very windy up on the ramparts, and in some places, the wind blowing up the machiolations caused several of the ladies to emulate a certain well-known Marilyn Monroe scene. It was certainly a healthy tour – funny thing about these castles – all those steps and spiral staircases.

We also learned that the pointy-roofed towers are completely wrong – being created during the restoration in the 19th century. The chief architect of the restoration, Viollet-le-Duc, was from the north of France, so based his reconstructions on what he was used to there. Down in the south, where it doesn’t snow so much, the roofs are very different, not as steep and using clay tiles rather than slate. It is rather alarming to think that, had it not been for this work, the city might have been demolished.

After the tour, we found ourselves by the main church, which gave us an opportunity for a break from the wonderful sunshine, and a chance to sit down (well, you need a long exposure to take pictures of the stained glass...) However, there was still much to see. Our walk from there took us out into the enclosure between the inner and outer walls. While this was a good chance to study the architecture of the castle, it was also very windy – and dusty! After a few minutes of being sand-blasted, we opted for the nearest gate through to the relatively sheltered inner parts. We explored shops, bought a couple of shirts for me, purchased postcards, then sat and had a slushy each while postcards were written.

We continued to explore until we felt we had pretty much covered the most part of the city. By now, limbs were beginning to ache. So we returned to the main square, which seemed to have become the food court for the city. After much debate, we settled on one of the open-air cafes and sat down for our evening meal, featuring, surprise, cassoulet. The local beer was nice.

Suitable replete and rested, we headed back down the hill to our hotel. The room in the Etap was basic, but comfortable enough, even if it did have somewhat eccentric light fittings (a vertically mounted tube that could be rotated to illuminate the bed or the handbasin) and pod-like shower and toilet facilities (kind of like being in an indoor Portaloo). The free wifi was made of use of and sleep was had.

Many photos were taken - you can see them here...

The next morning, onward, via assorted castles and abbeys...
onwards to Carcassonne…

Darkness had fallen when we got back to the car. Once we got outside the bounds of the city (all of two minutes) and the attendant street-lighting, I noticed something was off. Specifically, the driver’s side headlamp. It worked on full-beam but not on dipped. Oh joy. At least it wasn’t a long journey on the winding country roads back to the motorway, and, according to the map, it wasn’t far from the motorway to the city centre at the other end. So, on we drove, looking a little one-eyed, and hoping we wouldn’t get spotted by the gendarmes.

Getting to the city centre proved easy enough, even if relating the Google directions to reality was difficult (what do you mean, you want the street name signs to be easy to spot?). Fortunately, the big Ibis sign was easier to spot. There was a single parking space outside (presumably for loading and unloading only), so we used that. The next bit was the least pleasant part of the holiday.

The receptionist didn’t speak English, so it all had to be done with my halting French. So far as we could understand, because Silme’s credit-card number had changed since the booking was made, they didn’t confirm the booking and there was no room for us. The receptionist called the other Ibis hotel in town and they had a room. She also marked its location on the little street map, using a high-lighter. We still weren’t happy with the explanation, so she called in the hotel owner/manager. He turned out to be a very unpleasant little man, told us it was all our fault and when we protested, threatened to throw us out of the hotel and call the gendarmes.

The receptionists sketch map proved less than accurate, taking us the wrong side of the main road. After a few dead ends, I enquired at the reception of another hotel. He gave us more accurate directions, so we made it.

The receptionist there was much nicer, and spoke some English. They did have a room for the night, but not the following night. He kindly called the Etap hotel nearby and confirmed that they had a room for the following night (neither could accommodate us for both nights) and then made the booking for us. This somewhat restored our faith in the Ibis chain. The room was comfortable enough, and at least it had free wifi.

In the morning, we packed our stuff back into the car. I called the local Eurocar rental office to tell them about the broken lamp, but all they could offer was that we should drive out to the airport and exchange the car. Not wishing to waste a couple more hours of our trip, I said we’d call them back. The Etap was indeed very close by. The receptionist there was very friendly. She told us we couldn’t book in yet, but that the room was confirmed (they took the credit card number the night before), so we could check in any time, even late in the evening. We asked if we could leave the car there and get a taxi in to the city. She told us that was fine, but that the city was only 10-15 minutes walk and gave us directions. So, camera and sun-screen in hand, off we went…
(No, that isn't a shout-out for our local satellite TV provider, or John Williams' erstwhile band - merely a sort of translation of our next destination)

Eventually, though, we had to stagger out into the daylight again and continue our journey, onwards to Cordes sur Ciel...

Cordes sur Ciel (or just plain Cordes until 1993) is a small fortified town built on a rocky hill above the river Cérou. We were visiting in the evening, so missed the sight of the village rising above the clouds in the valley (the source of the “sur ciel (above the sky)” part of the name). However, despite the best efforts of the French road signage failing to tell us where to go, we eventually found it with sufficient daylight to appreciate the view. Of course, being a small town, we found we had gone past it in no time at all, so had to turn back and find somewhere to park at the base of the hill. This was just fine because we needed to be facing that direction anyway, in order to head down to Carcassonne.

It was but a few minutes walk to the bottom of a narrow street that rose, rather alarmingly from the point of view of my unfit self, between quaint houses and shops to the market at the top. The town dates from the 13th century and, thanks to its fortifications, survived much of the destruction that went on during the later centuries. Thus, there are plenty of older buildings to appreciate. This also gave me plenty of excuses to stop and catch my breath on the pretext of taking pictures. After many winding turns and a couple of gateways, we found ourselves at the top, by the old market square.

We were too late for the Museum of Sugar, but there were a couple of shops still open. We didn’t want to shop so early in our trip, but did obtain some biscuit-like items that would serve as breakfast in the morning (having decided not to opt for the over-priced hotel breakfasts). After some wandering around, we picked one of the restaurants that had tables in the covered market. We both opted for the duck cassoulet, which was very enjoyable (and I got extra meat because [ profile] silme had to fish the pork sausage bits out of hers). A glass of wine was a suitable accompaniment (and a small one at that, since I had to drive after), as was a cheese-board selection after.

Lots of photos were taken, which can be see here...

By now, it was getting quite dark, so we made our way back down the hill (much less work than coming up it) back to the car. Back, then, towards Toulouse and onward to Carcassonne…
Our first stop was Rabastens…

Rabastens - a small commune in the Tarn Department in southern France - was on our list because of the church of Notre Dame du Bourg. [ profile] silme came across the place in her researches for the holiday and put it on the possible itinerary just because of the wall paintings. When I finally let her tell me where we were headed in general, and showed me some of the possible places we could visit along the way, one look at some photos she had found of the interior was enough to convince me that this was a definite on our journey.

Rabastens itself was easy to find, just a short journey from the motorway, and the church itself was just as easy to find once we got there. We parked nearby in a narrow street (narrow streets came to feature a lot in our journey) and walked back. The exterior seemed a little plain, aside from the arch around the entrance. At first, the place looked deserted, but the door opened well enough...

... into almost total darkness. A sign on the door advised us to look to the right for the lights. Sure enough, there was a panel into which one could insert a Euro coin, and, as promised, this did activate the lights. It makes sense. In order to preserve the paintings, illumination should be kept to a minimum, and why not earn a little money towards the electric bill on the way?

Once the lights were on, you could truly see the place in all its glory. Most of the church, and the paintings, date from the 14th century. The paintings themselves had disappeared some time in the 16th century and had been hidden under multiple layers of paint until rediscovered during some restoration with in the mid 1800s, and restored by Joseph Engalière from 1860 to 1853.

Most of the wall paintings we have previously seen have been fragmentary - parts of walls, bits of pattern here and there etc. This was completely different. Every surface aside from the floor was a riot of colour and pattern. Scenes from the scriptures, local heraldry and lots of pure decoration cover every wall and the roof. It was enough to take your breath away, even in the relative gloom of the low-level lighting. It's in places like this that I wish we could splash out on a more professional camera. Particularly one that can deal with low light levels and operate at film speeds above 400. I did my best, with wide apertures, fiddling the camera settings every which way I could, bracing myself against the walls and furniture for the longer exposures, and letting the flash do what it could where it had a chance of illuminating everything. Out of some 120 pictures, around 40 came out as usable.

You can see them here...

There was so much to see, so much to try to photograph, that we stayed for several euro's worth of lighting. Eventually, though, we had to stagger out into the daylight again and continue our journey, onwards to Cordes sur Ciel...
...It was a journey that started in Toulouse...

Well, actually, it started at home, but there is not much that can be said about the motorways from home to Bristol airport, or the plane journey from there to Toulouse. The only excitement came at security, where my bag got pulled over for inspection. “Uh-oh!” I thought, “Here comes the wand of shame.” But wasn’t the case after all. They needed to inspect the bag because they had detected “something organic” in it. The security guy delved down into the bag and pulled out – a black pudding. They sell a rather nice black pudding in the shop at Dublin airport, and I frequently buy one on the way home. I had done so the previous weekend, but with all the excitement of my suitcase being lost in transit, I had quite forgotten to unpack it. Indeed, I had forgotten about it completely until the guard pulled it out. He was very nice about it, and even offered to let me keep it. I explained that it had been without refrigeration for over a week, so could he possibly dispose of it somewhere. At least he didn’t treat it as a hazardous substance.

Toulouse is much like any other regional airport, except for the presence of Airbus, which makes its presence felt as the plane taxis to the gate. On the way, we even got to see the Airbus-Beluga transport plane that they use for transporting the wings from the plant in England. With its bulbous body and projecting nose, it looked a little like a dolphin with wings. It certainly provided excitement for the young children in the rows behind us.

Since we had flown on a budget airline, we naturally pulled the most distant gate in the terminal, but at least that wasn’t as long a hike as it might have been at a larger airport. Before long, we were installed in our hire car and trying to work out where to go. Our first stop was Rabastens…
It is, perhaps, a common thing that places close by have less appeal than those far away.  Certainly, for example, it rarely occurs to me to enjoy London, except when showing off for visitors. So, it seems only right that France, the closest foreign country to home, is the one I have visited the least, even though it is the only country whose language I can speak.  There was the time my grandmother took my sister and I, when I was ten years old, on a day trip to Béthune. It seemed, at the time, a dreary and rain-sodden town in northern France whose sole reason for being a destination was that it was twinned with Gran’s home town of Hastings. I remember little of it aside from exercising my schoolboy French in pursuit of a box of matches for my Grandmother and one of those concertina booklets of postcards that she used to collect.  I remember being very proud of remembering the words for matches and traffic lights, but that was it.

Years later, after university, there was a week in Paris with my then fiancée, and years later still, a couple of short trips there via the Eurostar with my wife.  Aside from that I had seen nothing of the country.

Today I can say that I have seen a lot more, most of it relatively rural and covered in grapevines or sunflowers, most of it somewhat less than horizontal, and a lot of it medieval in nature.  From Toulouse to Carcassonne to Cucagnan and back via abbeys, châteaux and the legacy of a mindset that looks for the tallest lump of rock and builds a castle, or indeed, a city on it. I have learned about Cathars, eaten cassoulet, climbed on ramparts, slithered on pathways that might make a goat blink and dredged grammar and vocabulary from the deepest depths of my brain’s archives, occasionally succeeding in making myself understood.  It was a  journey of some 500km, with many bends along the way.  It was a journey that started in Toulouse...

(Actually it started even earlier than that, with a cunning plan on the part of my wife, [ profile] silme, who decided to do something different for my 50th birthday)
After much agonising with corset ties, buttons, safety-pins etc, we managed to get ourselves into our Steampunk Ball outfits. Fortunately, since it was a chilly evening, it was only a short walk to the convention hotel. I was a little concerned that my "Fangderbuss" might attract undue attention from security cameras (being so close to the airport runway), so I let it dangle nonchalantly from one hand. I think I got away with it.

Taking a moment to adjust our dress, we made our way up the stairs to the ballroom. We were noticed! OK, I seemed to be the only one there in informal wear, and certainly seemed to be the only one carrying an enormous weapon. That certainly helped get us noticed.

The ball seemed somewhat empty at first, and only a few people seemed to have come in garb, but it started to fill up. Music was supplied by Ghostfire, in several sets over the course of the evening. Occasionally, people seemed to be dancing. My lady did drag me up for a waltz, with limited success. While my alter-ego - Maj. Betram James Beresford-Winterton (Retd.) would almost certainly have been versed in such gentlemanly pursuits as ballroom dancing, I regret that I have no such ability. Perhaps this is something that needs to be rectified for the future.

I am usually somewhat shy at parties and such like, tending to hide away a little and not get noticed. This was not an option this evening. Much to my surprise, I found myself very much the centre of attention, with lots of people admiring the Fangderbuss and insisting on taking photos of it, and me. At some point, I got given a card for another Steampunk event in September, but I wasn't sure why. I had missed the announcement earlier about the costume competition. Apparently, assorted judges had been sent out to circulate and give cards to those thought worthy of entry into the competition. In all, six entrants (one a couple) were called up for the competition, me included. We were each given a chance to introduce ourselves, and were then subjected to a "clapometer" judging. I made the first cut (down to the final three) and came third in the final. No prizes, but it was pleasing to have even been considered (even if it was mostly on the size of my weapon, rather than my hastily assembled shorts and shirt costume).

More people came to see the Fangderbuss, many seemed very impressed and gave high praise - even those experienced in the construction of steampunk gadgetry. More photographs were taken, and eventually, we managed to persuade somebody to take pictures of us with our camera, so we would have some to bring home. There are about a dozen of them after the cut, so only click if you don't mind the download.

Tired, but happy, we wandered back to our hotel. Extracting ourselves from the costumes proved a little quicker than getting into them, and was accompanied by sounds of pleasure and relief, rather than the pained sounds that accompanied getting dressed.

It was tremendous fun. I think we will be doing this again...

And now, without further ado, I present Major Bertram James Beresford-Winterton (Retd.) and the Lady Emma Hyde...

cut because I care - 11 pics past here )
I have the hat, I have the goggles, I have the gun. Somewhere in the depths of the wardrobe, I have appropriate shorts and shirt. I would have had boots too, but they were out in the garage and it was raining.

But, thanks to some pics by my beloved [ profile] silme, here is what I will more or less look like...

Of course, as well as a name for the gun, I will need a name for myself. Something suitably pompous - Captain Bartam Millthorpe III, Gentleman Adventurer and Vampire Hunter... or some such.

Suggestions for that too, please.

Behold the brave vampire hunter )
After all the sawing and cutting and staining and painting and glueing and stuff, the gun is complete.

The general idea is that it fires stakes, and, if necessary, flame... for hunting vampires, of course...

But, it needs a good steampunkish name. So far, all I have come up with is Fangbuster or Fangderbuss

Suggestions gratefully received...

There might even be a prize, if I can think of one.

Behold, the Fangderbuss )
And the process continues

The main body more or less complete, it's time for some embellishments...

The pierced handles off a couple of brass love-spoons, some bits of plumbing, half an empty bottle of Ecover washing up liquid, some bits off an old spot-light ceiling fitting, an old brass compass with a replacement dial, an old leather belt, a couple of bits of bent brass strip and the bowl of one of the spoons...

Behold the final stages of construction... )
OK, getting there...

Worked out a way of attaching the sprayer, the barrel and the cooling cowling...

Almost there... )
Now that the goggles are complete, I can get on with the vampire gun...

The ingredients are:

A length of two-by-four, the impeller from a dead fan, an old light fitting, an old pump-action plant sprayer, assorted bits of plumbing, a length of wardrobe hanging rail...

It's taking its time - shaping the wood for the stock took a while until I went and got me a bigger Surform plane. Various bits are stained/painted and awaiting assembly. I still have to fathom a mounting for the plant sprayer and how to attach the light fittings to the barrel...

The state of the gun, or at least, its components )



June 2012

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