Wednesday 30 December 2015

Tuesday 29 December 2015

Good book

I am suspicious of literature prizes; I often find the books disappointing.   Not this one.  Read it, it's good.

Thursday 24 December 2015

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Surnames first

The French tend to write surnames first, especially in offical documents.  They tend also to be capitalised, so I'm often referred to as MILLS, Mark.  Nothing wrong with that as a convention, of course, like most others, but sometimes it can have quirky side-effects.

Monday 21 December 2015

Christmas choirs

It's that time of year again, and our little village of St Pierre sur Erve has held its annual Christmas concert.  A collection of carols, interspersed with secular songs, and sprinkled with a little flute tootling.   I like these little village celebrations; informal, friendly and sincere.  Unfortunatly I couldn't stay for the vin chaud (mulled wine) afterwards, since the event ended at the same time that a concert in Evron (normally 20 minutes away at least) was due to start.

So, after a little sprint in the car, a choir and orchestra of different magnitude, for Monteverdi's Vespers at the basilique in Evron.  Fine performance too, by Volubilis, of this difficult work.  I get a cheap ticket, being a student at the music school.  Can't be bad :)

Friday 11 December 2015


Cliffe is a suburb of Lewes, and it's famous for Britain's worst avalanche that killed 8 people in 1836. It's also where the brewery is located, along with a number of lunching places.  We strolled briefly along the High Street and settled on a Bill's, a bustling restaurant, one of a small chain, just opposite the brewery's retail shop.

Bill's was everything I like in a lunch place.  Busy, but not too crowded, with an excellent menu, and options for a two-or-three-course lunch for less than fifteen quid.  The soup was delicious and the fish grilled to perfection with a spicy covering.  And a jar of the local beer to wash it down.

Of course, since the brewery retail outlet was just opposite, it would have been a shame to walk past. After all, how could I possibly live down the idea that I hadn't been able to organise buying a bottle of beer at a brewery?   Fine stuff it is too.

Thursday 10 December 2015

Lewes Castle

We stayed a night in Lewis, visiting a friend who has moved there from Maidenhead.  I liked Lewes; to start with, it has a brewery, and even better, a castle as well.  Plus, as well as the usual range of chain stores, it has plenty of little artisan shops where people sell things they are enthusiastic about, and where they do their best to enthuse you about them too.

The castle costs money to enter, but is well-signposted and the gardens generally well-managed.  It was built in the time of William the Conk, so there's not too much left of it, but it commands a spectacular view from the tops of the towers that you can climb.  The spiral stairs all go anticlockwise (looking down from the top), to give (right-handed) defenders the advantage.  You could never get away with that these days, of course: the lefties would complain about being "excluded" and demand that a stair of opposite spiral be built.  That this would lead to the defeat of the castle and ruination of the local peasantry would matter not a jot.

I liked this trompe l'oeil painting of spears in one of the castle rooms.  I went in the room and thought "that's a bit daft, leaving metal-tipped spears where schoolkids can get at them", and it wasn't until I was a foot or so away that I spotted my mistake.  The lack of shadow on the leaning spear gives it away to sharper minds than mine.

Monday 7 December 2015

The Savill Garden

We used to visit The Savill Garden near Egham several times a year; it's a wonderful garden, and attractive all the year round.  We stayed a night in Staines to have a look around at the town where we used to live, and to pay a visit to the garden.

The first thing that struck us was the new "Saville Building", a grand entrance to the garden housing the reception, the shop and a restaurant.  This replaces the somewhat quaint arrangements that we were used to, and seemed to me to work well.  Looked at from the garden, the wavy roof of the building is reminiscent of distant undulating hills.

The sky was mostly blue with a few clouds, and the weather was chilly.  The ducks were approaching anyone who looked like they might have food, but I preferred the reflections of the sky and gardens.

The garden had of course, changed over the ten years that had passed since we last visited.  The tree plantings seem to be recovering from the damage of the Great Storm, and I remember when these yew hedges were planted, just lines of straggly plants a foot or so high.

And here's some free extra pics, of views around the garden, including some photos for my portfolio for my upcoming career as a BBC Wildlife Photographer.

England trip

The usual end-of-year trip back to England has turned up a bit earlier this year.  It means that I can play in all the local concerts in France, and we get a bit longer in England, both generally Good Things.

Some observations:

I was surprised to note that one of the things I was looking forward to before going over, was the food.  And rightly so, too.  Thai, Indian in restaurants, proper roast pork and crackling with friends, and a perfectly rare filet mignon cooked by the Brother-in-Law, featured highly in the culinary delights.

Shouting at the telly.  I paraphrase: "My brother went to fight for isis so Britain shouldn't bomb Syria in case they blow him up".

Difficulty of recruiting the right person for the job, or, in fact, not recruiting the wrong one.  The checklist the interviewer has to fill out covers things like "Does he/she have the following qualifications?", and the candidate looks great on paper.  The trouble is, he is known to be utterly incompetent in the rôle, since he has been doing it (or, rather, screwing it up) on a temp basis for the last 6 months.  There's nothing on the checklist form for "Can he/she do the job?"

There are more and better coffee bars in English towns than French ones.  The French ones are dying on their feet, English ones are everywhere.  And the English are muscling in on the quick fixed price lunch too.  We got very fine two-course meals for under a tenner.  Three courses if you want, for 14 pounds.  The Brits are out-Frenching the French.

Property prices.  Nearly half a million quid for a lovely but small one-bed cottage in Lewes.  Wanna buy my place?  800K pounds, bargain.  (Offer expires 1st Jan 2016)

The Savill Garden is still lovely, even in December.  And the entry was free; 18 pounds off, for two.

A Christmas Fair in Wimbledon village, with free mince pies and mulled wine, and people singing Christian Christmas carols, as opposed to "holiday songs".

Tuesday 1 December 2015

'Avin' a larf?

Spotted at Sparky Marky's in Fareham today.

Monday 23 November 2015

Friendly concert

It's not uncommon for Harmonie wind bands in France to stage joint events, combining two or more Harmonies into a single, multiple-concert event.  They're always a bit competitive, in a friendly way, and our conductor at Ste Suzanne had been polishing us up for the joint event last Sunday with the Harmonie at Chateau Gontier.

The event was at the ex-convent Les Ursulines, a fine building, recently renovated, and featuring an excellent auditorium where we played.  First, Chateau Gontier, then us, then finally the two of us together.

Security was tight as you can imagine.  In fact the concert nearly didn't happen, since the town had decided that only one event per week could be held, and ours would have been the second in a week.   Our conductor persuaded them that Sunday is the first day of the next week, so we went ahead.

I suppose I shouldn't have, but curiosity drove me, before the concert started, to open an unmarked door at the edge of the stage.  I followed a narrow unlit spiral stair to the 1st floor balcony, where some of my colleagues were already installed waiting for Chateau Gontier to start the proceedings.  The door I came through was marked "Interdit au Publique", on the balcony side.

Since I had gone up that way, and it was much shorter, I ignored the sign and went down again when the time came to prepare for our part of the concert.  Missing the bottom two steps, I clattered against the wall at the bottom, then staggered out of the door.  The look of fear then relief on the face of the poor sound engineer was something to behold.

Friday 20 November 2015

Mill for sale near Mayenne

The place here at Le Domaine des Hallais is not small, and needs a fair amount of maintenance and attention.  The guests can also be quite tiring.   Given that we're not getting any younger, we're keeping an eye open for a smaller place to move to, this time for a real retirement.  I'd like to have a water mill, not least for its electricity-generating potential, and today we went to look at one not far from the town of Mayenne.  It's a lovely place, dating from the 15th century, but too big for us.

The mill complex has been split into two parts, and it was a friend of mine who told me that both are currently for sale.  The smaller part is on the market at about €130,000 euro, the bigger one that contains the water wheel, the big house and two large outbuildings, at about €540,000.

I liked the place a lot, and I think that if we had seen it at the time we were looking for Les Hallais, we might well have bought it.   As it is, I think it would suit a younger couple who want to run gîtes, chambres d'hôtes, or B&B, etc.  At current exchange rates, it's up for about £400,000 for the bit with the water wheel.

The buildings with the pink shutters are the outbuildings that were operated as gîtes in the past.  The mill building itself is the yellow one on the left of the right-hand photo.

Tuesday 17 November 2015


I met my friend Lucie at the Ste Suzanne harmonie, where she organised my reception into the group, and ensured I had the necessary support to properly integrate.   She left the band a couple of years after I joined, in a storm of personal and political upheaval.

I remain grateful for her help, and we're still in touch.  We plan to play some duets from time to time, as she settles into a new life, with promotion at work and new partner.  She alerted us to a free concert given by the Harmonie at Laval, and we went along to cop an earful, and to meet her and her new partner.

A good time was had by all, and perhaps she will join the Laval group, and integrate regular harmonie concerts and practices into her schedule.

Monday 16 November 2015

Sunday 15 November 2015


Red and white Fucshias  in full bloom in mid-November.  A bit late in the year for them, I think.  I have Delphiniums in full bloom too, for the second time this year.  Frosts expected the week after next, so it'll be all downhill from then on.

Sunday 8 November 2015

The Arboretum National des Barres

Our last stop on this holiday was Fontainbleau, to visit the chateau, of course, but between Sens and there is the Arboretum National des Barres.    It could even be considered to be on the way, if you don't mind driving two sides of a triangle.  ;)   So, we have an arboretum, they have Maple trees, and it's Autumn.  What's not to like?

There was also a temporary mushroom exhibition at the arboretum.  The thing I don't like about wild mushrooms is that at exhibitions like this one you get descriptive panels saying things like "This mushroom here is delicious, ideal for beef soups and stews.  Not to be confused with this identical-looking one over here, that if you as much as sniff it, will cause a lingering and painful death".  On average about 30 people die in France each year from eating poisonous mushrooms.  That's even more than die in France each year when hunters mistake people for deer or wild boar or some other thing with four legs.  Nah.

Saturday 7 November 2015

Sens cathedral

Moving on from Villeneuf l'Archeveque, we stopped for a flying visit to Sens.  The cathedral there is quite special, being essentially a model for many of the gothic style churches in France.  It's famous for, amongst other things, sheltering the turbulent priest Thomas à Becket for a time, when he had to distance himself from the English king Henry II.

The story of this visit, and of other scenes of religious importance are depicted in some of the fine stained glass windows around the building.  This site shows them better than my photographs, so I'll let you read about it there.

To bring us down to earth, a local brewery has capitalised on this piece of history, and is marketing Becket beer.  I took a photo from the car as we whizzed past.

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