L’Armistice – De peur qu’on oublie (lest we forget …)

IMG_3638Despite the weather today, John and I were determined to make a little pilgrimage to the tiny Anglo Canadian Cemetery at the Clos de Douly (1400m), both as a mark of respect both to the airmen who were killed on the night of 13th July 1944, and to honour those who tended the graves and eventually created this remarkable little memorial. It is now officially recognised as the highest war grave in Europe. Three maple sablings have been planted between the cemetery and the heap of rusting metal that marks all that remains of a Halifax bomber.

IMG_3651Whenever we happen to be in France on 11th November we try to visit. But always before, we have bumped into other walkers on the path. Today we had the place to ourselves. The barrier to the car park was down and a sign warned that the road was off limits except to foresters or ‘those with the right’. I got out of the car and raised the barrier. We had ‘the right’. After all, if you can’t pay homage to the war dead on Armistice Day, when can you?

IMG_3639Even in the rain, the 2-3km walk up to the cemetary is beautiful and evocative. Today we walked up in silence, hearing only the birdsong, the rain and the crunch of the beech leaves under our feet. I signed the Livre d’Or with the same words that appear on the memorial’s brass plaque, “De peur qu’on oublie” (lest we forget).

So, how did these airmen come to be buried on a wooded mountainside at the Clos de Douly?

On the night of 13th July 1944, a Halifax bomber crewed by an Anglo-Canadian crew of seven, took off from Algiers on a mission to parachute arms and munitions to the local resistance fighters, the Maquis.

Navigation systems were not what they are today, and only a few specialist crews would be capable of executing the low-level night flight into the mountains close to the border with Spain. Even with a highly experienced crew, perfect weather conditions were necessary. Tragically for this mission, a thick fog descended near the drop zone, and the plane crashed into the eastern flank of the Pic du Douly, killing all on board.

Due to the remoteness of the area, the crash was not discovered until a few days later, when some shepherds came upon the wreckage. A boy was sent down into the tiny village of Haut Nistos to warn a local schoolteacher – a founder member of the Maquis de Nistos Esparros.

It took three hours the following day for a detachment of Maquis, accompanied by a number of villagers, to reach the crash site. One of the members of crew had survived for a while after the impact and, though fatally injured, had managed to salvage the boxes of weapons and munitions from the burning fusilage before dying a few yards away.

The men spent the day carefully collecting the crew’s identity tags and other personal effects, overseen by Maquis commanders. They then used the munitions boxes to bury the seven members of crew at the crash site, marking each grave with a small pile of stones. When the burial was complete, the commanders distributed the new weapons and ordered the young Maquis to present arms in a salute to the dead men.

Remember that this was Vichy France. There was a Gestapo base in nearby Lannemezan and news of the crash or the distribution of weapons would certainly have resulted in swift reprisals. All involved in the recovery and burial, some as young as 15, were sworn to secrecy.

The authorities were informed of the deaths of the crew members, and their personal effects returned. But there was no official action concerning the makeshift cemetery on the mountainside. The bodies of the dead were not repatriated.

Throughout the next 46 years, the villagers never forgot the bravery of the Halifax crew, who lost their lives in the name of French liberty. The graves were carefully tended and each year, on the anniversary of the crash, a solemn group of English veterans, villagers and veteran resistance fighters, would make the three-hour ascent to hold a small memorial ceremony and place flowers on the graves.

IMG_3637In 1989, a new road opened that passed within an hour’s walk of the burial site, and plans were hatched for the creation of a formal cemetery. Work began in June 1994. Local rock as used and other materials were airlifted in by helicopter. Water was piped from a nearby source. The inauguration, held in August 1994, included surviving relatives of the English crew members, RAF veterans, the British Consul and several veteran members of the Maquis. At this time, the relatives of the Canadian pilot, Leslie Peers, had not been traced.

In 1998, Jean Bordes, one of the surviving Maquis who had helped bury the airmen, met Alain Gaudet, a Canadian who had been living locally for several years. Alain Gaudet had no knowledge of the existence of the cemetery or of the Canadian pilot buried there, but was deeply touched by the story. He immediately offered to help trace Commander Peers’ relatives. In 1999, two further memorial ceremonies were held to honour the Canadian officer. The 40-strong Canadian delegation included Peers’ son and daughter-in-law and grandson from Ontario.

The Anglo Canadian Cemetary at Clos de DoulyIn 2000 the cemetery was officially recognised by the War Graves Commission, and Alain Gaudet was appointed its local representative.

For many years a mass was held on 11th November at the cemetery to commemorate the dead and celebrate L’Armistice, the cessation of hostilities that effectively ended the First World War. The mass no longer takes place on the mountainside, as there are few veterans still able to manage the precarious walk to the cemetery. A ceremony is held instead at the base of the mountain at the Mairie in the village of St. Laurent de Neste.

A detailed account of the Halifax crash, construction of the cemetery and history of the Maquis can be found at L’histoire du Maquis de Nistos Esparros.

April 7th – From Russia With Love

I doubt it will have escaped anyone’s notice that John and I are participating in a charity motorcycle ride to Russia this summer. There is plenty of information elsewhere on the Internet about this trip, so I won’t bore you with details here*.

Our journey will take us through many countries and will, naturally, bring us into contact with speakers of a variety of languages. Now, while it is true that English is the most widely spoken second language in Europe, it is also true that we will be spending the majority of our trip in countries where Russian is the principal or second language. And, since I have a particular horror of not being able to communicate or even read road signs, I have equipped myself with a mini Russian language course from the BBC.

When we moved to France in 2007, it had been so long since I had visited any country whose native language was neither English nor French, that I was quite taken aback when, on a day trip to Huesca in Spain, I couldn’t read the restaurant menu. And, when John’s mum came over at Christmas, a trip to the Boya supermarket just across the border, turned into pure farce after she offered to buy us lunch.

The thing was that, although Betty had booked herself in for 10 days with us, she doesn’t really like France. Or perhaps I had better qualify that as she doesn’t much care for things French. She likes the wine, of course. And, food-wise, we were safe as long as the principal ingredients were eggs, cheese, potato or bread. Even so, my efforts to entice her with a traditional raclette dish failed spectacularly. It may have been a coincidence, but use of my “Jour de Fête” electric raclette machine resulted in a street-wide blackout, so omelettes became a staple feature of our daily menu.

Options for entertainment were dwindling and nerves were beginning to fray, so I suggested a booze run to Spain. Betty, I knew, liked Spain, having once owned a timeshare Tenerife …Thus, having bought up as many litre bottles of vodka and cheap brandy as we could justify bringing back in the car, we set out to find a restaurant for lunch.

We were guided to a sunny table on the enclosed terrace and given our menus. Betty studied hers with a degree of irritation, before asking me to call the waitress back for “the English menu”. I said I wasn’t sure that there would be one. “But all those holidays, Betty, don’t you understand a bit of Spanish?” “Of course, they will” she insisted, “all Spanish people speak English!” Well, in case any of my readers are under a similar misapprehension, let me assure you now, they don’t.

Eventually we ordered our meal by touring the dining room to peer at what was on other people’s plates, but even that wasn’t fool-proof. We tried a variety of Latin-sounding words for water, only to be served lemonade. Betty’s misery was compounded still further when, as usual, she attempted to improve her meal with a liberal quantity of salt – only to have the lid of the salt pot fall off in mid-sprinkle. Cue a lot of raised voices and gesticulation.

Determined that we should not repeat any part of that embarrassing exercise, I trawled eBay for a second-hand Spanish course. Needlesss to say, it remains quite a long way down my to-do list.

So, back to the present. I’m pleased to report that I can, with reasonable confidence, say “hello” and “goodbye”, “how are you”, and “I’m fine, thank you”, in Russian.

“I’m fine, thank you”. Why is it that, no matter what language you are learning, you are always taught “I’m fine, thank you”? On almost every foreign holiday I’ve ever been on, there have been mornings when I was anything but.

Alongside, “I’m fine, thank you”, any decent holiday vocabulary ought to cover “my head feels as if it is about to explode, and my mouth feels like the bottom of a parrot’s cage … thank you”. Mind you, my Russian phasebook does thoughtfully include “I think I’m going to be sick” and “Where’s the toilet?”. Additionally, if I’m arrested by the police, I now know how blame someone else.

My favourite, under the “Safe Travel” section, is a page devoted to Bond films. I’m not quite sure how useful phrases like “So we meet again, Mr Bond, but this time the advantage is mine”, or “Your plans for world domination are sadly mistaken”, will be, but I might learn them just for fun.

*To learn more about our 6,500-mile ride from Moscow, Scotland, to Moscow, Russia, visit www.offonaweeride.com.

March 8th – Tall tales from the bar …

i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

You’ve probably seen this email circular before. Looks as if it could be Gaelic or otherwise someone’s been on the sherbet. Bet you could read it though, couldn’t you?

It has to be said, there are precious few advantages to being slightly deaf. Under normal circumstances it is pretty annoying, for everyone concerned, to have to keep asking people to repeat themselves. On the other hand, there are times when one catches a few random words from a sentence and, rather than put the speaker to the trouble of repeating, it is easiler, albeit risky, to feign comprehension. And there are times when the random words add up to too much information! In these cases, the “phenomenal power of the human mind” can be guaranteed to fill the gaps with improbable and often hilarious substitutions.

Picture the scene. I’m sitting at the end of the bar, hemmed in by a wall on one side and one of the town’s many harmless drunks on the other. Michael has already told me – and several other women before me – that I have the face of an angel, before turning all teary-eyed and launching into an emotional tale about his prize bull. He’s difficult to understand at the best of times but now his voice trails away to a whisper. I’m none the wiser about the fate of the bull, but I do my best to empathise.

He looks at John. “Have we met before? Are ye married?” We have, in fact, met many times and had more or less the same conversation on each occasion. However, for Michael, every meeting is like the first. He shakes his head. “Ah, if ye were my wife, I’d ………” Ah, here we go. I can’t hear what he said, but my mind has already filled in the blanks. I’m thinking that Michael has probably never had any sort of sexual relationship with a woman so “… Eat properly? Take his medication? Stay sober?” Like I said, all equally improbable. And then he surprises us with a tale of unrequited love for “Bridget”. The only words I pick up are “buttermilk”, “bed”, “marry” and “flying out the window”. The tears reappear and he takes a wad of foreign notes from his pocket and looks as though he might be about to order another pint. The hope is, of course, that we will take pity and buy him a round. Only, John and the Landlord are giggling too much to take any notice, and I have temporarily retreated into a world of my own while my brain processes these fragments into a cohesive story.

The Landlord pours the pint and leaves it to settle. He’s still laughing when he asks me, “Did Michael show you his ………?”

I was startled. His what?! Michael is only a couple of years older than John, but looks 70. He did once unbutton his shirt in an effort to prove his relative youthfulness, and I have no desire to see anything else that might be hidden under his clothes!

It must have been evident from the expression on my face, that I hadn’t heard what the Landlord had said.  “His penny whistle”, he repeated. I was speechless. “No, really”, he persisted, “he keeps a penny whistle in his pocket for American tourists”!

February 19th – Do you wanna dance?

If you put “Knockliscrane” into Microsoft’s spell checker you get “knocking shop”. Best we add our rental address to the computer’s dictionary, to avoid any awkward misunderstandings …

The build is currently being hampered by the weather, but John and I have been far from idle. Aside from route planning and writing (and rewriting) press releases for the Moscow ride, we have planned our new kitchen, researched important stuff like satellite television and home movie systems, started golf lessons, learned to make soda bread and joined two dance classes.

They are big into social dancing here in Ireland, at least in Co. Clare they are. Not just “dad dancing” , i.e. rhythmless swaying, accompanied by extravagant hand gestures while miming to the lyrics. I mean proper ballroom dancing: foxtrots, waltzes, quicksteps, and the like. Dances of which I am embarrassingly ignorant. Strictly … two left feet!  John, at least, remembers learning a waltz in his youth, and although slightly less orangutan-like in its execution than his efforts in the disco … oobee doo, hoopdeewee, I wanna be like yoo-hoo-hoo, it is still less than elegant.

To be unable to dance is not only a social handicap but can, I have discovered, prove physically hazardous. Try explaining that you can’t to a man who has spent the last four days at a wedding, who has lost the power of speech and hearing, and whose only hope of staying awake is to keep moving. No such word!

Thus, John and I spent an enjoyable Wednesday evening being taught Jive at extremely grand Woodstock Hotel and Country Club in Ennis.

I said two dance classes, didn’t I.

We came away from Wednesday’s class, determined to practice what we had learned at home. And we might have done, had we not confused matters by signing up for a Set dancing class at the local church hall.

Equal in popularity to the foxtrot and the waltz, around here, is the traditional Irish Set dance. Sets are a bit like Scottish reels but, in my experience, far more likely to be seen in pubs and at parties throughout the year.

It was a mixed ability group but, as our teacher, Tom, said, there wasn’t much to the steps – as long as you got them right – and you could learn the figures out of a book. Well, that’s the theory anyway. Women out numbered men 4 to 1, so two or three of the women were conscripted to dance as men. It’s actually quite a skill – being able to mirror the movements of your partner if you are used to being the female half of the couple!

So off we went. In twos to start with: advance, retire, step left, step right …easy. Much easier than the Jive anyway. I could get the hang of this …

Inspector ClouseauUnfortunately, I had only just got the hang of this, when Tom (a man whose teeth bear an uncanny resemblance to Peter Sellers’ Hunchback of Notre Dame),  started arranging couples in the middle of the room for the “first figure”. Uh?! The music started and, watching intently, yes, I could still make out the steps we had just practiced. Only we hadn’t been warned that we would need to move around the room with our partners – at speed! At this point it helps to know your right from your left and the difference between clockwise and anti-clockwise. It also helps to have a smaller room (John) and shorter legs (me) … Then came the second figure.

“You’ve picked a nice tempo, Tom”, commented the woman next to me, as I was recovering my balance, “nice and easy …”!!! Having danced several of these practice figures, I learned two things. First, don’t look at your feet, or you will eventually fall over them; and, second, bring a bottle of water with you.

So, tell me, alcohol and dancing … how does that work?!

February 6th – trailer for sale or rent …

I’ve had Roger Miller’s tune in my head since Friday last.

Since we sold our London house in October, we haven’t been settled anywhere for more than three weeks … and mightly tiring all this travelling is getting. I haven’t exactly helped matters by buying a second motorcycle: a 2002 BMW R1150GS, the “Yellow Peril”.  However, it gave John the excuse he needed to buy a big multi-purpose trailer … I need to have the new bike inspected by the DRIRE (déjà vu?) before it can be registered in France, and we need to get the car and all three bikes over to Ireland in May, prior to our wee Russian trip. Besides which, a trailer will probably be handy if I ever make good on my threat to buy a Harley!

We left France on 20th January. John was determined that we didn’t need to use the roof box. The argument was logical. We were picking up a trailer in Birmingham, en route to Ireland, so would have so much more space next time. But, by the time I had loaded up various kitchen items, a suitcase full of linen, the cats, and a larger than average quantity of cheap booze from Spain, we had run out of room for clothes … So we departed with roof box: the car low on springs and heavy on fuel.

After a week in the UK, it was time to leave for Ireland. The original plan was for JR to pick up the cats from Leafy Oak and for him to drive, and for me to ride the Yellow Peril, up to Waltham St. Lawrence for a meeting to discuss our Moscow ride … then drive/ride from there to Birmingham to pick up the trailer. Sadly, due to unforeseen circumstances, we ended up attending the funeral of one of John’s ex-colleagues* instead. I donned a reasonably smart knee-length black woollen coat, and hoped that no one would notice my m/c leathers underneath.

Anyway, we left Hanwell about 2pm …

Phoenix Trailers closes early on Fridays, so the owner had kindly suggested that we pick the trailer up from his home in Bridgnorth. We arrived at about 5pm, just as it was getting dark … The temperature on the way up had varied between -1C and +2C. I was bloody freezing!

Before we could hitch up the trailer, John had to fit the removeable towbar. So I parked on the pavement with the bike’s newly-fitted French headlight trained on his rear bumper. The towbar is conveniently stowed in the spare wheel, which is neatly located under the carpet in the boot … which was full. So we had to unload it.

The trailer salesman looked on bemused as John fitted the phallic-looking towbar in place and tried to lock it. He pushed and pulled. He jogged it up and down. He took it out and gave it another go. No dice. “Trailerman John” went back inside and fetched a hammer. John gave the tow bar a smart tap and the head of the hammer fell off. He examined the locking mechanism, and tried again but it became perfectly clear to the assembled audience, that for all the wriggling, jiggling and lubrication it was definitely “not tonight Josephine” for the trailer.

John’s mood was not helped by my suggestion that we would not, in fact, be able to fit more than one motorbike on the 9’ x 4’ trailer anyway. “It’s up to you”, he said, “but do you really want to be riding all the way to Co. Clare in this weather?” He was right. I didn’t. At this point, Trailerman reappears with a tape measure. “Are you able to remove your screen and wing mirrors?” he said, “That bike is too tall for the trailer as it is”. It was obvious. The multi-purpose trailer comes with rails to support a tarpauline cover, and the 1150 enduro was much too tall to pass under them. This particular problem was soon remedied by removing the rails. However, with John no closer to fitting the towbar, we agreed that the problem would probably be easier to solve in daylight, and we might as well to find a hotel for the night. Luckily for me, there was a pet-friendly Travelodge in Wolverhampton: twelve cold, dark, miles away. We rebooked our 8.20am ferry and reloaded the boot.

In the morning, we were delighted to find a Skoda dealer … back in Bridgnorth. The area is popular with bikers and it was easy to see why. It was quite sunny, and the twisty and undulating roads through the frosty countryside actually made for quite a pleasant ride. Gratifyingly, the problem with the towbar wasn’t just us being cackhanded. The guys had to put the car up on the hoist to clean rust out of the receiving mechanism.

Over a curry and a beer the previous evening, John and I had agreed that the multi-purpose trailer was a waste of money if we were unable to use it for more than one bike. But Trailerman John was a decent fellow and offered to swap it for a big 3-bike trailer and refund the difference. “You have straps, don’t you?” he asked.

The bike trailers were not stored at his factory, but at a remote farm about fifteen minutes away. Trailerman led the way, followed by John in the car and me on the bike. It was Saturday morning, and he wasn’t meant to be at work. Once he was sure we were satisfied with the three bike trailer, he made his excuses and left us to hitch it up and load the bike … something we have never had to do alone before. But there’s a first time for everything.

We lined the bike up with the steel ramp and John managed to operate the throttle and clutch efficiently, while keeping the wheels straight. The process was actually far simpler than we had feared it might be. The front wheel lodged neatly in the metal hoop at the front of the trailer and John was able to easily hold the bike upright until I strapped it down.

Unfortunately, the straps were in a side pocket of the boot, so he had to wait while I unloaded it again …

We had two sorts of straps: two inch-wide red ones and two longer two-inch wide black ones. Unfortunately, the red ones were too short and the black ones, aside from being ridiculously long, had no ratchet system. In other words, both were completely useless.

So there we were, on a farm in the middle of nowhere, now running late for the 1.50pm ferry, with a bike on a trailer that we couldn’t secure. The best we could do was to unhitch the trailer and lock the bike up while we went to find some suitable straps. Getting the bike off the trailer was a piece of cake – except that the trailer was no longer attached to the car, so it tipped violently as the weight of the bike took over. No damage was done other than to John’s underpants.

Now all we had to do was repack the boot …

I got in the car and we drove to Phoenix Trailers’ factory in Deuxhill where we knew that Trailerman John had had an appointment. When we got there it was locked up and deserted but, before we had time to use the phone, yer man had pulled up behind us. “I saw you drive through Bridgnorth without the trailer, so I knew you must have had some sort of problem”, he said. He opened up his store and sold us 8 beautiful two-piece straps with hooks on the ends: purpose-made for bikes, four for my bike and four for John’s. Then he was gone again.

I looked at John. “Did you take a note of where that farm was?” I said. John looked momentarily aghast. In all the panic, neither of us had a clue even what the name of the village was. We could, conceivably, get completely lost trying to find our way back to the bike and trailer.

In fact, it is a testament to the beauty of the area, that we were able, quite easily, to retrace our steps using various noteworthy buildings and views as waypoints. And, once reunited with the bike and trailer, we quickly loaded up and got underway. The next ferry was at 9.30pm.

We eventually arrived home in Co. Clare at 5.30am last Sunday.

*RIP Garath Davies. Remembered for his quick wit and one-liners, I’m sure he would have found something apt to say about our trailer saga.

“No good deed ever goes unpunished”

This was the motto of a former boss of mine: a successful marine arbitrator with fingers in all sorts of other business pies, whose dubious associates and disastrous home life never failed to add a touch of levity to a dull day in the office.

Over the next few months, I expect this site might take on a new usefulness to Roynie and myself – as a pressure valve! Comment if you like, but sometimes it is just helpful to have a place to say the things you want to but, for one reason or another, cannot. The elephant in the room, if you like.

We  have become involved in a charity ride next summer.  There are, presently, just three riders and we each have a personal involvement with the charity, through a friend or family member. We also have the potential participation of a certain VIP, about whom I can say little (mainly because he may yet decide not to ride with us), but for whom Roynie and Jim (not “our” Jim, before you ask) are having to dust off their Sunday suits for a posh meeting in London.

The VIP – and the ride – are my fault.  The result of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread.  One day I got an email from my cousin suggesting that we might like to participate in a 6,500 mile round trip from Scotland to Russia and back and, without giving it much further thought, I said “yes”.  Potential costly mistake one. Then I mentioned it to a fellow motorcycle fanatic at our local sailing club and he suggested that said personality enjoys the odd boys’ bike trip.  Anyway, having sent him an email via a mutual friend, we were slightly relieved when he said “no”, and then slightly worried to receive a second email response, a few days later, saying “may be”. Potential mistake two. He doesn’t have a bike of his own so, while making sponsorship overtures to a well-known British manufacturer, in the meantime I have acquired an extra bike: a bright yellow, 2002, BMW R1150GS. Costly mistake three? I truly hope not.

The organiser, Jim, is a great guy.  He is a retired engineer with absolutely no experience of motorcycle touring at all and his longest ride to date has been about 400 miles from his Berkshire village to Scotland.  His chosen bike is a BMW F800ST (a sports bike). But, as John and I well know, lack of experience and unsuitable bikes are no barrier to adventure.  (Those of you who rode with us in 2001 will remember that the Triumph Tiger was John’s first bike, and previously he had only ridden about 300 miles in total on mine.) Unfortunately, having no experience of a ride of this distance/duration, and clearly having been watching too much TV, he decided we needed a support vehicle: a mobile “garage” in the form of a modified horse box.

Thankfully, I doubt there will ever be any need to vent about interpersonal issues on this trip.  However, the horse box is a different matter. And it is precisely because Jim has taken such a pride in doing it up and finding a driver to accompany us across fourteen international borders, that we find ourselves unable to suggest that his mobile garage might be a teensy-weensy bit of a liability.

The makings of a book?  May be.  Anyway, if you are of a masochistic nature and have a hankering to visit Europe, you could always link up with us (as Len has promised to do) somewhere along the trail. It might be a laugh.

If you want to know more about the mission or even donate to the cause, click here to have a look at our official website.

November 7th – Home is where the craic* is

I’m writing again. This is a good thing – for me if not for you! After months of worry over the sale of our house in London, I rather lost the motivation. It wasn’t that blog-worthy stories didn’t occur, it was simply that any flashes of inspiration seemed to vanish as quickly as they had appeared. Anyway, a lot of what I wanted to write was just so damn depressing that no one would have wanted to read it. But that’s all in the past. Now we’re in Ireland.

Ireland? To bring you up to speed, one of the incentives for selling up in London (quite apart from not having the tedium of repairing damage caused by our charming, but careless, young tenants), was to use some of the equity to rebuild John’s family home in the West of Ireland. This has been a dream of ours since he and Mike bought back the ruined farmhouse from the forestry company in 1998. Why the farm was sold in the first place or how the house came to be destroyed by fire, makes for an interesting story in itself, but it would be too long in the telling. Suffice to say that John’s father passed away happy in the knowledge that his childhood home would be rebuilt and that the “new” flagstones, laid by John’s grandfather during the 60’s, might once again ring with the sound of music and laughter.

People around here remember the flagstones. They were the best in the neighbourhood and perfect for dancing.

The ruin is a sad sight now. One gable end was deliberately pushed in shortly after the fire and, as the years passed, wind and weather have gradually taken their toll on the weakened structure. Brambles and rushes have now overwhelmed what remains of the internal walls and chimney breast.

Rebuilding was never a realistic option. The farmhouse had a traditional layout consisting of a large central living room in which all cooking and entertaining took place, a large bedroom at one end, and two smaller ones at the other (one of which was also used to store salt pork, and sides of bacon hung from the ceiling). John remembers Aunt Gret cooking in a cauldron or on a bakestone over an open fire. There was no bathroom. Water for was brought up from a well each day and the surrounding fields served as a latrine. Even so, the family home is remembered for its craic.

The original house was, as our architect put it, a tad on the tidy side. Too small for modern-day living. In any event, planning regulations did not allow us to use the old footprint, as it was too close to the boundary. So we designed ourselves a spacious new three bedroom bungalow. The old cow cabin and cart shed together provided enough stone to level the site and, weather permitting, the foundations should go in this week. And, yes, we do hope to salvage those flagstones for our new living room.

In the meantime, John and I have a house-worth of furniture on our hands. Contemplating the cost of a year or so’s storage in the UK, coupled with a few weeks’ tourist accommodation, we decided it made economic sense to rent a house locally for the duration of the build. And here we are.

Having lived like a nomad out of suitcases for the last few weeks, I found myself having a Maureen O’Hara moment.  No sooner had John turned the key in the front door, than I was complaining that I wanted “me tings about me”*. In particular, having set off the smoke alarm twice cooking breakfast on Saturday, I needed my own pots and pans. A functioning washing machine would be a bonus too, along with an address …

Yes, it’s true. We have no idea of our address or, indeed, whether this house actually has one. Quite possibly, it doesn’t. Our building site is known locally as “Johnny Paddy’s”. Before the old house came to John, it belonged to his uncle, Johnny. So why “Johnny Paddy”? Rural Ireland was, until recently, populated by enormous families (John’s father had 16 siblings, 13 of whom survived into adulthood). Over the centuries, cousins have necessarily married cousins, albeit distant ones, and local surnames proliferated, with many instances of the same surname appearing in both sides of a family tree. John, of course, is a popular boys’ name. Since roads and houses didn’t have names, in order that the postman could differentiate between men of the same name that lived locally, it was customary to add the father’s name, in this case Pat or Paddy, John’s grandfather. Hence, “Johnny Paddy’s”. Perfectly logical. Even today, it isn’t necessary for a house to have a name. A friend of ours routinely found his mail on the front seat of his (unlocked) Volvo.

* Craic is an Irish term variously translated as fun, entertainment or gossip, depending on the context.
* From the 1952 film, “The Quiet Man”, where the plot revolves around the refusal of O’Hara’s “brother” to hand over a dowry of furniture and money, having discovered that he has been duped into allowing her to marry John Wayne.

September 12th – Under pressure …

“Before” (old kitchen)If love means never having to say you’re sorry, fear is having an eastern European demolishing the back wall of your otherwise comfortable and well-insulated house with a Kango hammer. We’ve got the builders in …

Costa’s guys have only been here a week and, already, I am lamenting the fact that they don’t flush and leave the seat up, and the house is full of plaster dust. The old kitchen units are on eBay and John and I have retreated to the first floor of our Fulham house: washing up in the bath and cooking on two rings in the “living room”: previously the front bedroom. It is almost as if we have entered a time warp and stepped back 14 years!

Actually, I am not sure whether our current conditions are better or worse than when we first bought the freehold and started to convert the two flats back into a house. At least we are only dealing with one room this time, even if the room in question comprises half the ground floor. Back in the day, we stripped out the entire first floor: ceilings, walls, everything in fact, except one bedroom. I have fond memories (not) of arriving home from work and finding John and Bob Masterton looking like a pair of coal miners and the entire house being coated in a fine film of dust from the lathe and plaster. And here we are 14 years later doing the same thing. “It’s what you two do …”, commented John’s exasperated daughter.“After!” (Work in progress)

The plumbing problems are reversed. Now instead of having no water on the first floor, we have no water on the ground floor, meaning many tedious treks upstairs for the plasterer and much ill-humoured hoovering for me. It also means weekly trips to the launderette – from whence I write, with a row of churning machines for entertainment. Every now and then I get a wave from a very large pair of purple knickers (not mine … or John’s either, before you ask) twirling around in the machine opposite!

I did, however, have a complete sense of humour meltdown over our clean linen, after dust funnelled up into the airing cupboard from downstairs. So I left it for a service wash with the Freddie Mercury look-alike who runs the launderette.

All together now, “I want to break free …”!

I am perfectly sure Mum also wants to break free. She has, and I hesitate as I write this, made a sustained improvement over the last two weeks or so. The CT scans don’t show much change, but her infection markers have been down and her temperature has been more normal. Gradually she is regaining her strength.

Nice “Dr Tim” says that Mum’s progress is remarkable, considering her age. I hadn’t previously taken in that Critical Illness Neuropathy can take 6 months to recover from. So the fact that Mum can smile, wave, clap and make thumbs up signs is very encouraging.

Mum still cannot talk as the plumbing for the ventilator bypasses her voicebox. However, the hoses are now only connected at night. During the day Mum is doing all the breathing work herself with minimal support from an oxygen mask slung loosely over the trachy pipe. A bonus of this arrangement, is that the nurses can wheel her up to the roof terrace, swathed in sheets and blankets, for a dose of early autumn sunshine … which reminds me, I must go and look for a pair of sunglasses.