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DIARY 2010

Our Tour of Thailand 2010

17 February 2010 15:18

(More photographs can be found here and the video is here.

The Sukhothai Buddha images are serene and ethereal, not meditating but already enlightened so they are often depicted standing up or walking. They are set in a Historical Park that is a long way in all senses from the noise and pollution of Bangkok. The park is big – the locals hire bicycles to tourists – quiet, beautifully landscaped and endowed with the same serenity as the Buddhas.

Sukhothai is about halfway between Bangkok and the northern borders of Thailand, our little group of French travellers had journeyed North to Ayutthaya before stopping overnight in Phitsanuloke. Ayutthaya had taken over as the first Siamese kingdom on the demise of the principality of Sukhothai, only to be sacked by the Burmese and replaced by Bangkok. All the temples were torched so that the gold leaf could be riddled from the ashes, so both capitals show the redbrick, ruined cores of the original temples. While still reeling from Ayutthaya we were hit by Wat Tha Sung, a temple with the interior covered entirely by mirrors. Very impressive, on reflection (ouch!).

There was some discussion on whether a new French verb was needed; “surtempler” – to visit an excessive number of temples, but the temples were spaced out by a river cruise and lunch on an old rice boat at Uthai Thani, a tour of Phitsanuloke by cyclopousse (bicycle rickshaw) and a tour of Lampang by horse-drawn calèche.

Chang Rai made a pleasant stop with its wide, leafy boulevards – by now we were used to the routine: “Réveil à six heures, valises avant la porte à six heures trente, petit déjeuner et départ à sept heures”. We swapped our coach for a gaggle of 4x4s and headed up into the hills to visit some of the hill tribes, to hopefully buy some of their arts and crafts and thus dissuade them from growing the opium poppy. Then another boat ride on the Mekong river at the junction of Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos where a footfall on the Laotian island of Done Xao adds one extra to the “countries wot I ‘ave visited” list. There was just enough time to cram in yet another temple on the way to Chang Mai, this time Wat Rong Khun, a modern white and silver creation looking like a wedding cake.

Chang Mai is also a pleasant town; we had a two-night stop there so we had a lie-in of about half an hour; good news - only one temple (Doi Suthep), bad news – it’s an top of a mountain and there are 200 steps, but more good news – there’s a funicular (but we walked down the steps!). That afternoon we were bussed around the tourist shops selling laquerwork, silk, silver, gems. I almost escaped but then we saw these nice earrings… That evening was a rather naff Kantoke (folk night) with lovely Thai girls dancing but production-line tourist feeding – outside we set off paper lanterns into the approach path of Chang Mai airport.

No temples the next day, but ephalumps at the local Elephant conservation centre, using elephants from the logging industry which is just about defunct due to over-logging; we saw ephalumps playing football, ephalumps painting pictures and ephalumps giving people rides through the jungle – all quite fascinating.

After a visit to an orchid nursery and lunch we were delivered to Chiang Mai railway station for the overnight sleeper back to Bangkok – yet another mode of travel and an experience not to be missed!

That afternoon enabled us to explore Bangkok further. In some ways it’s a dreadful city; 11 million people in the metropolitan area, all of which seem to be driving their cars at once and creating nightmare pollution. On our first day we’d stumbled, jet-lagged, around Wat Pho and the sleeping Buddha, which we’d done before on a stopover en route to Australia. But we hadn’t seen the Grand Palace, which is mind-boggling in its size and variety of styles and is a definite “must-see”. Our afternoon gave us a boat tour of the rivers and canals of Bangkok – and yes, another temple – we called in the dock housing the royal barges and wandered through some of old Bangkok in the area of the vegetable and flower markets – my photographs just don’t do the area justice with its colour, sights, sounds and smells.

The last day of our tour took in the floating market at Damnoen Saduak – worth seeing but saturated with tourists – and deposited us at Bangkok’s excellent new, modern Suvarnabhumi Airport for the flight to Phuket – a Boeing 747-400 for a domestic flight of just over an hour! I didn’t like Phuket, or at least what we saw of it. The hotel was pleasant, as were all our hotels (far better than we could afford in Europe!). But it seemed to be full of grumpy and corpulent Russians and Germans lying on sun beds frying gently in Ambre Solaire. I swam in the pool, swam in the sea and found both too hot and not refreshing, then retreated to the shade and a book. I could do that at home! But it was only three days – maybe I should have found a few temples to visit?

So our memories will be of the gentle, friendly and polite Thai people, the beauty of the countryside, the fascinating history and strong British links with Thailand, the cultural diversity, the wonderful food, all contrasted with the awful warning of the effect that pollution can have on cities like Bangkok and the effect that mass tourism can have on places such as Phuket.

I’d have no hesitation in recommending “Jet Tours” the tour company and once more we thoroughly enjoyed the company of French people abroad, as we have before in Morocco and Egypt.

Tragic Demise of a Saw Horse

15 March 2010 22:12

It was a good, faithful saw horse; built from oil-soaked chestnut from some ancient machine base, found in the barn and recycled into a sturdy helpmate - when a large log needed a firm hold while I administered the coup de grace with the big Stihl chainsaw, it was always ready for support duties, no snorting or whinnying in protest.

Peter and I had spent a good morning in the fresh, clean air and brilliant sunshine of rural France, felling, limbing and bucking a medium-sized ash tree and the logs were stacked in the barn ready for winters yet to come. Peter at 26 was able, of course, to contribute at least two-thirds of the work, leaving just a manageable one third for the newly 71-year old. Now I'd been very careful to avoid some poor daffodils that were growing at the base of that tree - so the felling cut was made above daffodil-level.

It wasn't until I'd planned the fall-line, cut the Humboldt notch and rigged the Blondin tackle on the security rope that I realised that the tree I was about to fell would fall on the newly-protected daffodils. So I dragged the old faithful saw horse into position and laid it gently down, daffodils snugly protected by its strong timbers. Checking that my knickers and bra were correctly adjusted and that buttered scones were ready for tea, I was ready for the felling cut. The "tronçonneuse" howled as it bit into the tree, making a long cut across the tree toward the notch. Finally that first, almost imperceptible, movement as the felling cut opened, the chainsaw quickly withdrawn, the sharp "crack" as the "hinge" breaks and directs the falling tree with an almighty "whoompf" - straight on to the poor saw horse!

Alas one leg was driven so hard into the ground I almost had to dig it out - but the daffodils remained intact!

So the bits of broken saw horse have been reverently transported by express garden trailer back to the saw horse intensive care and orthopaedic department in the atelier, where his poor broken limbs will be replaced with new ones, eschewing nails and using only the finest multi-start Posidriv screws to ensure that our saw horse will live on in his old age, grazing gently in a warm and comfy barn in South-Wast France.

The Fosse Way

16 March 2010 21:45

When I bought Tessel Bas I knew that something had to be done about the distinctly non-compliant sewage arrangements; when asked where was the septic tank the proprietor said “Il n'y en a pas – ça s'en va à la campagne”!

But it worked, there were no nasty niffs and I saw no reason to change it.

But all houses now have to be inspected and we didn't pass – so something had to be done. Last year we went through the process of getting competitive quotes for the job and plumped for a plumber who wasn't the cheapest but who I felt I could trust.

The man in question M Le Plombier arrived today with a 3,000 litre plastic fosse septique and several boxes of miscellaneous plastic plumbery. He's going to come on Friday with an engin to dig a big hole. The good news is that he's negotiated with the SPANC (Service Public de l'Assainissement Non-Collectif) man to create a 3m x 7m champ d'épandage, instead of the more usual 4m x 5m. The bad news is that we may need to have rather a nice, venerable old oak removed so that there's no trees within 3m of the drain field. It's big and it will have to be taken down piecemeal, so it will cost. He's coming on Thursday to measure up, so there's still a chance or reprieve.

Danger - Unsupervised Old Git at large

18 March 2010 18:36

I put my beloved and our little boy on the afternoon Paddy Air flight from Bergerac to Stansted today. Since there is now only three pussy cats to control my more extreme behaviour, I cannot be held responsible for any pedantic extremism or grammatical errors.

When I returned from Bergerac International Airport the fosse man and the SPANCy man were drawing crosses in orange paint on my grass - they think that no trees have to be felled, which is a relief - the oak is probably the biggest and nicest-shaped of my trees. The SPANCy man talked me into an extra bit of plastic; it's a 60-litre flushing container that releases the fosse rejets into the champ d'épandage in bursts, rather than a trickle that stays near the input end. Apparently this improves the efficiency and prolongs the life of the sand filter. I might as well gild the lily while it's accessible!

The big digger arrives tomorrow!

Fosse Farce Day 1 - Diggin a Big 'Ole

20 March 2010 18:00

There are some pictures to go with this and subsequent fosse fuss here and yes, there is a movie too!

The Kubota pelle (mechanical shovel) stroked the turf with the delicacy of a finger nail scratching the head - we were looking for the plastic sewage and rainwater pipes emerging from the house, hoping not to break them in the process. Like many things associated with Tessel Bas the layout was old and complicated with elbows in strange places - at least dashing up and down to flush the loo gave me something useful to do, but finally the layout was understood.

The fosse man had arrived in the morning with a "chasse à auget" - "chasse meaning "flush" and "auget" meaning a trough bucket of the sort you get on a water wheel. This devilish device sits between fosse septique (septic tank) and the filtre à sable (sand filter); it fills up with 60 litres of digested effluent then releases it in one go, thus using all the sand filter piping and not just the bit near the input. The SPANC man (the sanitary authority) strongly recommended it - he got quite excited about my installation because of all the constraints of space, rocks, tree roots and regards it as almost a prototype installation - so I didn't like to disappoint him.

Fortunately he's doing the official inspection!

After a revision to the layout in orange marker the digger arrived in the afternoon, annoyed the cats and cut the first sods and stored them separately to re-cover the installation. When we got to the subsoil there were sighs of relief when it proved to be separate boulders mixed with soil, instead of solid rock. A little further down some friable rock layers were no problem for the pelle.

Because the digger needed to dig from each side and the hole occupied all the width of the access road, at one point we had the digger sitting in the bottom of the proverbial hole it had dug for itself - no problem; build a ramp with a few bucketfuls and let it haul itself out with its own digger arm!

To dig the ditch that takes the filtered effluent pipe down the slope the pelle took to the woods, lurching drunkenly between oaks to get into a position to get its narrow shovel in position - what a good thing we only had space for a small one!

Finally, stranded at the other side of the big hole, the Kubota escaped up the slope on the other side of my petit dépendance.

We had a few spots of rain - a downpour would have been disaster - but it was warm and the forecast for next week is warm and dry, so my fingers are crossed!

Fosse Farce Day 1 and a bit

21 March 2010 12:47

So I settled down to a leisurely read of the newspaper after my Sunday breakfast when the digger driver turned up on the doorstep. "But the French never work on Sunday" I exclaimed in my fractured French. He explained that the fosse man wanted the exit trench from the sand filter moved - he'd had second thoughts about it - then he could complete the pipework and sand fill during the week. An hour or so later the job was finished and they departed for their Sunday lunches.

Fosse Farce Day 2 - The Drain Layer

23 March 2010 09:36

Big lorries laden with pea shingle driving on my lawns invoke the mental equivalent of a wince. I'll give my fosse man his due; he did his best to save my environment by letting the big lorry back into the park and drop its load, enabling him to load his little three-tonner using the pelle and drive it along the pussycat's promenade to the big 'ole.

Earlier he'd installed the network of slotted pipe that acts as the drain from the bottom of the sand filter. This forms what is called a "filtre à sable vertical drainé". Normally such a filter is surrounded with impermeable plastic; however the SPANCy man has advised sealing on the slope side only, the other sides and bottom are open to minimise the outflow from the drain.

The expert digger driver had gone back to his day job, so I found the fosse man trying to lower the exit channel with his funny French spade and lots of perspiration. So I got my pick axe and fencer's graft, put on my old clothes and got stuck in - a pleasure to be working outside on such a lovely, sunny day that got to 21°C in the shade (I bet I wasn't insured!). Of course I won the end that had some solid rock and got some blisters for my pains. What a stupid French system that doesn't encourage tradesmen to employ sturdy youths to share the graft and pick up the trade!

So on Day 3 the gravel will be levelled off and a permeable barrier installed, prior to the addition of some 15 m3 of river sand - oh my poor lawn!

Fosse Farce Day 3 - Tessel Bas Plage

24 March 2010 11:06

When looking for a French house we avoided the coast because that's where everyone else goes, particularly in the summer. Now, however a big truck turned up and deposited 17m3 of river sand on the park, creating our own temporary mini-plage!

Earlier the pea shingle in the drain layer had been levelled and a plastic grille put over it to separate the sand from the drain layer.

After delivery of my plage the rest of the day was taken up with the transportation, load by load, in the small truck, each load necessitating the moving of the (non-Australian) digger between pick-up and drop-off and spread points.

Towards the end of the day the SPANC man (it stands for "Service Publique d'Assainissement Non-Collectif) dropped in - I was able to discuss with him the pros and cons of the different systems and confirm the following:

There are two basic types of sand filter, drained and undrained. In the drained version, the output from the fosse septique is distributed over the top of a bed of sand and drained away as (more or less) clear liquid by a pipe at the bottom which feeds into a local ditch or other rainwater system. The undrained system spreads the sand filter over a wide area and lets it trickle through and into the soil. There are sub-types such as the mound of sand where the input is pumped up from the fosse and allowed to trickle through and create the greenest and stinkiest tuquet in the garden!

In my case the site constraints meant that the sand filter had to be long and thin with fewer but longer pipes but the situation on fractured calcaire meant that a non-drained system might work.

However the compromise reached is to allow the effluent to trickle into the soil and also to provide drain pipes. So the system is a hybrid between "drainé" and "non-drainé". The "non-drainé" is theoretically cheaper, but, if chosen, needs a soil permeability test to be carried out by a hydrologist; this involves the hire of a digger and can cost as much as €600 which negates the saving. As an extra (non-obligatory) precaution I've opted for the "chasse à auget" (dosing tank) which fills up with 60 litres before flushing them through the sand filter - this extends the efficiency and life of the filter.

I am most impressed by the professionalism of all concerned; the SPANC man was reactive and interested in the technical problems and yet he had people skills in a potentially unpopular requirement authority job that could find him buried at the bottom of the 'ole like the man in the bowler hat. He dropped in to give advice and encouragement as well as to monitor progress and is clearly motivated by a strong interest in sanitary systems. He should go far. Similarly my installer is intelligent with good problem-solving skills and is hard-working and enthusiastic - he left at 19:20 last night. No 35-hour week for him!

Ian's Fosse Farce - Day 4

25 March 2010 08:34

The pussycats really enjoyed my patio laying in 2005 - when the sand layer had been levelled and graded and was smooth and pristine I would find little paw prints and a little tumulus in the middle of it. So they were really looking forward to going in daddy's big, new sandpit. So the pit was filled with sand, smoothed and levelled; then the fosse man put big, blue pipes on it. And, to compound the sin, he then filled it with pea shingle, which is difficult to scratch into little piles. When, finally, the pea shingle was filled to the top of the pipes they gave up and went in the flower border as usual.

Ian's Fosse Farce Day 6 - All Systems GO!

30 March 2010 14:01

Digger man used his "engin" to deftly pluck a tonne or so of tree stump from the lawn, then delicately replant a little group of daffodils that had been next to the tree with gentle care and precision (yes, it was the same daffodils that the Saw Horse nearly gave his life to save!). This "artiste de la pelle hydraulique" had returned to dig the deep hole for the fosse septique and was filling in his time for a few euros on the side.

Back at the chantier the water was flowing well after a plastic bag from the new stop valve had been cleared from the meter, and the brown colour of the water (due to works elsewhere) was slowly clearing. In the time it took me to nip down to the shops for a baguette the fosse hole was dug - great relief to all concerned that we struck no hard rock - just large boulders. The digger gently lowered it into its hole and its comfy bed of sand. As the sand was added to the outside so the fosse was filled with water from my citerne, as it was free (I later worked out that I'd saved all of €4!).

Since the fosse has a higher level input, the input connection to it passes through the flower bed and slightly above the path, this requires some remodelling of the path and a short earth-retaining wall. The sand filter was connected via the dosing tank and the stink pipe run up the house wall; then it was possible to quickly change over from the old system to the new and it was all systems GO as the new fosse was used as intended.

Tomorrow the SPANC man comes to inspect the installation before it's covered over!

Saw Horse - medical bulletin

30 March 2010 15:15

A number of fans have enquired about how Saw Horse is getting on these days.
I'm pleased to report he has had his operation and is convalescing nicely. One fractured leg has been pinned with surgical cadmium-plated 5mm pozidriv screws and a permanent splint and a triangulating strut transplant was successful and has not been rejected.
Interviewed in his operating atelier, the Saw Horse doctor said that prognosis was good and that the patient will live to support many more bûches, providing no further attempts to use it to stop a falling tree are made. It is understood that the atelier is considering reporting the operator and his young assistant for aggravated Saw Horse abuse.

Fosse Epilogue

17 May 2010 22:00

I sent the link for my fosse video to the friendly SPANC man - here's his reply. How nice!

"Cette petite vidéo nous permet de mieux appréhender les difficultés liées au terrain (manque d'espace, accessibilité, pente, arbres, rochers, etc). Chez vous, il était important de bien cerner l'ensemble de ces paramètres pour parvenir à réaliser le système d'assainissement dans de bonnes conditions.

Bien que ce projet était trés délicat, tous les acteurs ont travaillé

dans la bonne humeur...

Le résultat est trés bon voire même saisissant, c'est le principal!

Pour ma part, j'en garde un trés bon souvenir et je compte bien venir vous saluer dès que l'occasion se présentera...

Félicitations pour votre film ; pour moi, il a plus de valeur que le meilleur film du festival de Cannes 2010...

A bientôt, portez vous bien."

Mortier Batard

28 April 2010 22:20

I needed to skim the earth-retaining wall of my fosse system which is two parpaings high on an old concrete base. Normally I'd use an enduit of cement, chalk and river sand with about 2/3 chalk to 1/3 white cement. However it's exposed to damp and I know one shouldn't use chalk in damp conditions.

How little chalk can I use and still get the benefit of the extra plasticity but not get damp problems?

Well, experience is the best teacher: I used a 2:1:6 mix of ciment blanc; chaux hydraulique; sable du rivière and added some plasticiser (brought from the UK).

I soon found that there was a very narrow range between too dry and too wet in which the mixture stuck to the parpaings - which had to be well wetted. A number of rude words accompanied the learning process and a lot of mortar hit the deck!

I also found that the southern exposure of our house is a hot place to be - I had to move into poofter Rambo mode with a powder-blue headband from Xine to stop sweat falling on the inside of the glasses.

I've done one side and some of the other side - should finish tomorrow, orages permitting. Then I've just got the dessus du mur to fit. I'm getting too old for this game!

La Vie Villageoise

14 July 2010 15:55

A couple of weeks back Xine came dashing to find me - she'd heard a slithering noise, a bump and someone moaning and thought it was me. A quick search found the Mad Neighbour had been cutting the trees on his boundary and had fallen off the ladder. As I approached he got up - he appeared shaken, contused, confused and grazed but otherwise OK - no evidence of concussion so I asked him if I should call an ambulance but he refused. I thought that was the end of story...

Christian, the Maire's adjoint called round the other day - we were specially and personally invited to the "Cérémonie de Medailles" where various people, including the ancien Maire were honoured for public service. "Oh, and incidentally, while I'm here, would you mind trimming some of your trees so that the pompier's wagon can pass easily". This, of course, was the main reason for the visit.

My boundary to the road consists of a two-metre laurel hedge where every few metres one of the plants has been allowed to grow into a tree and trimmed like a poodle's tail.

So last Thursday I set to work with chainsaw, bowsaw and billhook, creating a vast quantity of dismembered cherry laurel. Marie-Claire opposite was also at work on her hedge with a pathetic pair of secateurs, so I took over with my long-reach Stihl petrol-driven hedge cutter to trim along the top of her hedge. Not wanting to be left at a disadvantage she insisted on helping me pile up my laurel mountain over on my side of my hedge.

While we were working, Christian passed by and stopped to talk to us - I asked if I was a “bon garçon” and did I get “quatorze points” which produced some hilarity - but I passed! He then told us that what he really wanted to do was to apply pressure to "Le Fou du Village" (a neighbour to Marie-Claire and he that had fallen down his ladder) who has an enormous amount of vegetation and other rubbish still to clear, and is being difficult. So Christian wanted to say that Ian and Marie-Claire had both done their bit, it was time he did his bit too, or they'll employ a contractor and charge him.

At the Cérémonie de Medailles last Sunday the new Maire made a special point of greeting us.

Maybe it's not so much typical of French life as of village life anywhere, but I thought that sort of quiet diplomacy is what makes a friendly community - and I'm really glad to be here!


29 September 2010 22:41

(For photos to go with this text, see here – a video can be found here).

Corsica is French - comfortably French - all the roadsigns are in the French pattern and the transition is no more than driving into a different départment. It's only 6 hours of autoroute to Toulon and a comfortable overnight cabin in the ferry to Bastia. But then you notice place names such as "Pianottoli-Caldarello" and see the bullet holes in the sign saying "Ajaccio" while the Corsican version "Aiacciu" (say "aye" then sneeze) is left unperforated - and you realize that it is grudgingly French, heavily spiced with Corsican and dredged with a big pepper mill full of Genoese.

Its strategic position in the Mediterranean seaways means that it has been a political and military football kicked and occupied by Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Pisans, Genoese, French, British, Italians and Germans, often by opposing factions on the island at the same time.

For the tourist, however, all of this is just extra spice to add to the stupendous scenery and the mild climate - the chances of being hit by a stray bullet are vanishingly low.

Corsica is shaped like a clenched fist hitching a lift - the thumb is Cap Corse, a long rocky promontory pointing north towards the parent Alps and a jagged East coast formed by the knuckles.

Our Tour de Corse started at Bastia and skirted Cap Corse before circling Corsica in an anti-clockwise direction to return to Bastia.

How wide is your car? Like me I expect you regard anything nearer to it than half a meter as being too close. The morning trip around Cap Corse is a salutary lesson in width perception - and I learned to appreciate my electrically-retracting wing mirrors! Much of the road is lined by thin slabs of rock marking the precipitous drop to the sea far below, and an irregularly-bulging rock face on the inland side.

Our road book suggested that some with nervous passengers might prefer the driver to cross the Cap from Bastia and round it in a clockwise direction so they are on the rock face side. In the event I found that I preferred to keep away from the mountain and Christine was happy with the drop. We were to complete almost 1000km, an average of about 140km per day, on roads that tired the arms from so much turning of the wheel. Bikers get the most out of the roads - Corsica is full of wonderful roads for motorcycling and we met several mature couples playing on their bikes and following our route.

As I parked on the ferry coming home I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn't scratched The Beast. Ironic, considering what was to happen on the way home from Toulon.

We stayed at six hotels at St Florent, Porto, Ajaccio, Propriano and Pinarello (two nights) and there were lunch stops at intermediate towns such as Centuri-Port, Calvi, Porto-Pollo, Les Isles Sanguinaires, Aullène, Bonifacio, Porto-Vecchio and Corte. All the hotels were clean, comfortable and adequate two- or three-star establishments with en-suite facilities. All the stops were interesting and different, from beach resorts through large towns to mountain retreats, so we saw a good and representative cross-section of Corsica.

Our favourite places were Centuri-Port - like a little Cornish fishing village - Ajaccio - lively and cosmopolitan with a good atmosphere and Bonifacio - a picture-postcard town.

The food, frankly, was a disappointment; in general it was expensive and of poor quality. Some of this may be due to bad luck - we often smelled beautiful things cooking as we walked through places, but they were never from the restaurants we were in. It was possible, however, to buy provisions en route - the bread and charcuterie was wonderful and I didn't taste any poor wine - it was all eminently drinkable, as was "Pietra", the local lager beer made from chestnuts. We carried a small plug-in fridge for the car which was very useful. As could be expected from the strong Italian influence, pizzas from the ubiquitous pizzerias were good and relatively inexpensive. Our hotel at St Florent wasn't in walking distance of a restaurant so we pic-nicked with some lovely local cheese, bread and wine.

The weather at the latter half of September was excellent, generally hot days (upper 20s, lower 30s) and cool nights. We had just a couple of showers of rain in the 7 days, and it was quite cool in Propriano. Ajaccio is reckoned to have a very mild climate; its yearly average temperature is 17°C.

We thoroughly enjoyed our holiday in Corsica and would recommend it for anyone who wants a place that is easy to get to from France without air travel and ash clouds, that is part of France and doesn't need any special travel insurance or foreign currency, that has magnificent scenery and excellent weather. We could even have taken the pussycats!

The details:

We stayed at St Florent (Hôtel Thalassa), Porto (Hôtel Cala di Sole), Ajaccio (Hotel Albion), Propriano (Hôtel Beach) and Pinarello (Hôtel U Paesolu). The booking of the ferry (Corsican ferries) and the hotels was by the agency "Twintours" who also do bookings for motorcyclists - thoroughly recommended.

Oh, and what happened on the way back from Toulon, you ask?

Picture this - autoroute A8 skirting Aix-en-Provence; an urban bit of autoroute, congested so speeds only 60/70 kph. I'm driving steadily in the centre lane when I suddenly feel a bash in the rear offside - which slews to the left, vigorously corrected by me with some help from the ESP and we manage to regain an even keel. A mirror check reveals the culprit as a Volvo semi-trailer who apparently wanted to leave the third lane and occupy the space in my lane which I'd already occupied.

Heart thumping - we both managed to find a refuge to exchange details - slight scratch on truck - rather more serious modification of my Audi - remodeled rear offside passenger door and a shredded alloy wheel that had met its rusty steel counterpart bristling with bolts on the truck.

Nice friendly truck driver - freely apologised, said he didn't see me and admitted on the Constat Amiable that he was changing lanes and that I was in his "angle mort" - blind spot. A careful check revealed that the Audi was drivable and we managed the further 500 km home. But a bigger nudge or a higher speed could have produced a spin and a roll.......

A sad end to a lovely holiday.

ICE Lyon Weekend

5 October 2010 17:36

(There are some associated photos here)

The A89 is a superb autoroute, running generally east from Bordeaux, crossing the main arteries linking Paris with the Mediterranean. It swoops across Limousin and the Auvergne, crossing lofty viaducts and attractive bridges, before grinding to an unceremonious halt short of a connection to the A6 and Lyon. It was fitting that we should take this route on Friday, from just North of Bergerac, since we were later to see at close hand the extension of the A89 towards the A6 at Lyon. Without it we had a slow crawl through St-Etienne and the Lyon rush-hour traffic, which turned a six-hour run into seven hours.

On Saturday morning we were to join the "Vieux Lyon" city tour - where I learned several new French words. "Traboule" - an alleyway or passageway giving access to the rabbit-warren of old dwellings. "Bouchon" - not a cork or a traffic jam but a small bistrot serving traditional Lyonnaise cuisine - its etymology is from the name of a bunch of straw used to groom horses and which was used as a sign to designate a restaurant. "Guignol" I knew from "Grand Guignol" (horror show) and "Les Guignols de l'Info" (= "Spitting Image") but Guignol was a XVIIIth century marionette invented to entertain the Lyon silk workers and whose troupe included "Gnafron" - red-nosed boozer and symbol of the "bouchons" - and "Polichinelle" - the original Mr Punch. I liked Old Lyon and the tour changed my view of a town that I have always avoided in the past because of the horrendous traffic it generates.

After lunch in Tarare we got down to the real engineering, being kitted up with fluorescent vests, green wellies, hard hats and earplugs. We waded welly-deep in glutinous mud to the rock faces of two tunnels being driven into solid rock, crossing between the two tunnels at one of the inter-tunnel escape routes. In the second tunnel we watched a three-arm rock drill preparing to drill a complex predefined pattern of shot holes, to a carefully-controlled depth, in the face of one of the tunnels. It occurred to me that without the combined effort of electrical, mechanical, metallurgical, hydraulic, explosive, computer and software engineers that wouldn't be possible and that all these big projects only succeed because of the confluence of complementary technologies. For once I felt proud to have been an engineer- who learned another French word - "marin" a tunnelers' word for the "déblais" or spoil and equivalent to the English tunneller's word "muck".

Saturday evening saw yet another plunge into Lyonnaise cuisine and we slept well ready for another "confluence" on Sunday morning; this time the site of the new "Musée des Confluences", being built in a prominent brownfield site at the confluence of the Saone and the Rhone. We travelled on the Lyon tramway and Metro systems which was interesting in itself. I'm not too sure about the architecture of the museum; it's certainly unusual - someone likened it to a cockroach!

The visit finished with a lunch delayed by the late finish of the ICE AGM, so we weren't able to start back until after 1600hrs; fortunately the traffic was light, we had a good run and were back in 47 just after 2200. At least, should we have run into a "bouchon", then we would have had something pleasant to think about!

Visit to Cantal & Eiffel's Garabit Viaduct

20 October 2010 22:16

(NB: for relevant photos please see here - the video is here.

Novices Arrive.

The Massif Central is a vast monolith covering one-sixth of the area of mainland France and rising to almost 1900 m. It's the source of the Loire, the Dordogne and the Charente and it feeds the Seine, the Loire, the Rhone and the Garonne. Our visit was to Saint-Flour in Cantal(15), easily reached from North or South by the gentle slopes of the A75 autoroute. For us the easterly journey from the Lot & Garonne was via Cahors, climbing the cracks in the limestone plateau of the Causses du Quercy and then via Figeac and Aurillac to the Volcans d'Auvergne. We drove through the ski resort of Le Lioran on the slopes of the Plomb du Cantal at 1885 m, with the autumn colours of the trees at their best in the brilliant afternoon sunshine, on a real drivers' road with fast sweeping bends and little traffic.

Our monastic cell in the former seminary of the Maison des Planchettes in Saint-Flour had thankfully been upgraded with central heating and en-suite facilities, the Eighteenth Century basalt staircase showed some wear from the 258 years of shuffling feet, but there was a lift too and both led to a room with a magnificent view of the Cantal countryside. To earn our supper we attended a fascinating presentation by rail buff Eric Fargier on the history of French railways, showing the first, isolated lines, then the frenetic creation of new lines, with difficult areas like the Auvergne being the last to be reached, but finally resulting in an extensive network which then decayed as road transport took over.

Garabit of Cheese, Gromit?

Next day the Cooperative Laitière de Valuéjols enlightened our knowledge of the processes involved in the production of "jeune", "entre-deux/doré" and "vieux" Cantal cheese, the merits of pasteurized or raw milk and the benefits of the cooperative approach to cheese production. Dressed up and sanitized in hairnets, plastic coats and overshoes we followed the manufacturing process from milk to the large cylindrical blocks of cheese.

In an appropriate conjunction of railways and cheese, we then visited one of the three local storage and maturation areas for cheese, housed in disused railway tunnels. Each tunnel accommodates up to 2,500 cheeses in a controlled environment; once more we dressed up in the plastic suits to view the cheeses maturing quietly in a haze of ammoniacal fumes.

At lunch at St Chély d'Apcher we were able to choose the cheese with a degree of acquired confidence! At this point the programme scheduled a train ride across Eiffel's Garabit Viaduct, with a talk from the Saint-Flour stationmaster; unfortunately the French unions and the railway workers had other plans and the stationmaster had the job of reuniting umpteen travelling schoolchildren with their parents. Nevertheless we were able to visit the viaduct: it was truly impressive; the pinkish paint contrasting sharply with the blue sky, the green backdrop and the blue of the water in the lake held back by the Grandval dam in the Gorges de la Truyère. Massive in size, the unsupported span is 165 m and the arch height was 122 m when first built, reduced to 90 m now the dam has raised the water level. Conceived in 1878 by Ingénieur Léon Boyer, who suggested the architect Gustave Eiffel following his successful Maria Pia viaduct project in Porto, the design was an audacious but ultimately successful project which undoubtedly paved the way for the Eiffel Tower which was completed five years after Garabit was completed in 1884.

Back in our temporary home in the seminary we were treated to a visit to the adjacent diocesan library where some 20,000 ecclesiastical books dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries are stored, conserved and archived; the archivist described her work. An interesting point was the evolution of archive media from microfiche to floppy disk to CD to DVD to ? Is there a storage medium which lasts indefinitely and for which there is perpetual support? Patricia Vergne-Roches is a historian and an expert on the life and work of Eiffel - and drop-dead gorgeous to boot. Unsurprisingly she is also a French TV star, having appeared on the France 3 television programme "Des Racines et des Ailes" in April 2009. She gave us a fascinating talk on the background and the repercussions of the Garabit Viaduct project.

The steep climb to the mairie was rewarded by an aperitif at a civic reception, where we were amazed to find that Patricia was also our host, in her röle of town councillor. The mairie is perched on top of the columnar basalt outcrop that supports the high town of Saint-Flour and affords wonderful views over the surrounding Cantal countryside. After dinner at the seminary we rejoined the coach and returned to the Garabit Viaduct, this time to admire the floodlit and illuminated viaduct.

The Skirl o' the Cabrettes.

Saturday morning was scheduled to be a return to the viaduct, this time to view it below and to climb into the structure and "kick the tyres"; this was cancelled since we'd already viewed it from below and the French rail strike prevented the visit. So some had a further talk from the valiant Patricia, some walked a little and others drove along the scenic Gorges de la Truyère.

Lunch was at the Hotel Beau Site which was indeed beautifully situated - even before the viaduct was built - and we had tables overlooking the beast in all its grandeur.

The afternoon was occupied with a guided tour of the Saint-Flour Cathédrale Saint-Pierre - notable for its Black Christ figure and some disturbing Judgement Day frescoes - and the Musée de la Haute Auvergne. The latter had a display of French musical instruments including French bagpipes (cabrettes) with a drone and a chanter and blown by small bellows beneath the elbow. After dinner at the seminary two local musicians played the cabrette and the accordion, with a delightful demonstration of the bourrée auvergnate by a troupe of local dancers dressed in traditional costumes and headgear. When played with the accordion the drone of the cabrette is not used. I felt grateful and humbled by the fact that some 16 people had made a real effort to put on all that clobber and spend their Saturday evening entertaining our motley crew of engineers and spouses.

Snow Use Moaning.

Saint-Flour is a picturesque town but the Sunday morning weather didn't do it justice; there was ice on the cars in the morning and as we started the town tour it started to snow quite heavily. One or two gave up but most brave souls braved the weather but the wet, dark grey, basalt stone and slate-tiled roofs had me yearning for the limestone walls and red roman tiles of home!

The autoroute A75 to Massiac and our destination the Musée Elise Rieuf should have been no problem, but it crosses the Col de la Fageole at 1114 m, so the blizzard conditions were not pleasant and the speed camera on the way was having a lean time. However everyone arrived safely and a real treat was in store for us. The curators have assembled a magnificent collection of works by Marguerite Jeanne Carpentier (the maitre of Elise Rieuf) - paintings, engravings and sculpture - with some magnificent large Rodinesque canvasses. See the museum website and a wiki on Marguerite Jeanne Carpenter. The husband and wife team were so charming and welcoming and so dedicated to their passion for the art that the visit made a wonderful finale to the Cantal visit.

Vachement Chouette!

At the final lunch at the Hotel l'Ander I reflected on the weekend; it was a pity that a couple of the highlights were missed due to the retirement strike action, but the programme was bursting with other interesting events, we had time to chat with our Civil and Mechanical engineering friends and the Saint-Flour town council and the Cantal cheese industry will all not forget the IET in a hurry! Gold star for organiser Mike Wrigley and his manager Jitka! But please can I have a rest from Chou Farci and Aligot until my waistline contracts a little?

Welcome Visitors

End November 2010

David and Ré Johnson paid a welcome visit of a few days – lots of memories were refreshed and lots of glasses drained and we had a pleasant walk on the new path into Villeneuve from Broval and a quick tour of Toulouse including lunch in one of the quaint little restaurants above Les Halles. David took lots of pictures – we were sad to see them both go.

Wayne's World or High Noon at Tessel Bas

24 November 2010 22:36

Our house has a kind of entrance hall formed from the hole in the [-shaped layout which has been roofed and double glazed to form an extra room. It's never had any heating and normally the spill-over from the open doors to the other rooms is sufficient to heat it. However the pussy cats have been using it to sleep overnight and when it's opened up in the morning the room is quite cold and I put on a paraffin heater to heat it up quickly.

The obvious answer is to add a radiator; but this required teeing off from the existing 25mm steel pipes, which was beyond my plumbing skills. So I asked our chauffagiste - a Brit also called Ian who has taken over from an unreliable French tradesman. He said it was beyond him too, but he knew a bloke who could; "Wayne" - a man of apparently legendary welding skills.

So Ian turned up this morning - of course it was the coldest day so far this winter so I'd switched off the central heating and lit the wood-burner last night, kept it in all night and topped up the warmth with the paraffin stove. Ian did the preparatory work such as draining the system, mounting the radiator and drilling holes through thick stone walls.

Then Big Wayne turned up - a man with a girth to match his welding skills and a motorised mouth to boot.

We had a family conference on the best place to tee off from the existing pipes before I made a strategic withdrawal to the Porcherie while the pipes were cut with an angle grinder then had threaded tails welded on by the redoubtable Wayne using a TIG (tungsten + inert gas) welder.

So Wayne left leaving a sudden vacuum of conversation and Ian carried on with his copper knitting, encountering the usual problems of finding firm points in the mud & stone walls to fix pipe saddles and the inevitable leak that only shows up after you've refilled the system.

He only charged his quote of 4.5 hrs labour despite having spent the whole day chez nous and Wayne was happy with a few notes in his hand.

Now I've got some decorations to make good but the pussies will be toasty warm tonight - and with the cold spell forecast to carry on until the end of next week, with snow mid-week, it's an opportune time to upgrade the heating!

Quelques Flocons de Neige

16 December 2010 10:27

-3°C this morning and a light dusting of snow - the first snow we've seen.

The -3°C is on our terrace and usually warmer than that reported by the capteur mounted on the tree outside the bedroom window which has "gone wrong".

It was reporting -LL.L°C which means that it was detecting temperatures below -50°C - so I replaced the batteries - no improvement. Thinking it had got damp I put it on a warm radiator, which caused several ants to wake up and poke their heads through the tiny ventilation holes in the base of the sensor. So I took the cover off and the whole case was crammed full of shiny, black, wriggly ants spilling out of the case and on to the bench. So I left it open overnight and brushed them all out next morning. However it still wouldn't work - I had a look for any signs of formic sabotage but couldn't see anything, so it's been consigned to the dustbin.

So now I've got two display units but only one outside sensor. I'm beginning to think that all this wireless stuff is more bother than its worth - a max/min mercury thermometer for a few euro from Auchan needs one to brave the cold to read it but at least it's reliable and doesn't become a winter retreat for the ant population of Tessel Bas!

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