Wednesday 31 October 2018

Why on Earth?

I have been asked by a number of people why I want to take part in the event in Davos next year.

It's quite simple - I was blown away by the scenery this year, but I know that unless I have something to really motivate me I will never do more than look at it from afar. There are no roads you can drive unless you have a permit, so to get into the proper uplands you have to do it on foot.

The lower sections of the trail look like this

Higher up things get trickier (luckily for the phographer
this trail starts at the top of a cable car)

Tuesday 30 October 2018

L'Art et Lard 2018

Some photos from this year's L'Art et Lard, the annual art and food festival held at Le Petit Pressigny on the second Sunday of October. The weather held, despite a forecast of rain on Sunday and many people who had not got to see everything on Saturday happily returned for a second round the next day.

Patience Scott-Brown, an absolute stalwart of the community, 
finurkling cakes for the English Tea Shop.

The work of painter and sculptor Christine Chastenet, displayed in an old troglodytic dwelling.

Ceramic gargoyles by Charles Leblanc.
These are functional gargoyles in glazed stoneware, every one unique. They are frost and weather resistant and can be used either as water spouts for downpipes, drains and fountains, or purely decoratively.

Giraffe sculptures by Fred Chabot.
The last time I saw (and photographed) these giraffes they were on the Quai at Amboise. The sculptor was the guest of honour at this year's L'Art et Lard.

La Mandragore, a company of medieval re-enactors.

The Millorange stand, selling orange wine-based aperitifs.
Apparently the orange wine is an old family recipe from the Chateau of Azay le Ferron.

An old troglodyte dwelling.

Ceramics by Mark Judson.
Photo courtesy of the artist.
To read about previous L'Art et Lard festivals see our other posts:



Tuesday's Training Tales.

Last weekend winter arrived, with Arctic temperatures and cold wind. We managed 19km of walking and 1350 metres of swimming. Not spectacular, but it's something

Monday 29 October 2018

Centre Aquatique du Lac de Tours

Occasionally we have to visit Tours - it's our Prefectoral city, so matters like tax, residency and most other matter governmental have to be dealt with there. These days, when we are in Tours and have some time to spare, we visit the Centre Aquatique du Lac de Tours.

There are a couple of advantages to swimming here: the centre is open all year except Christmas Day, New Years Day and May Day, they have a heated 50 metre outdoor pool, and there are a number of smaller pools which mean the 50 metre pool can be divided into lanes and reserved for swimmers only.

The centre is about 12 years old, but underwent a refurbishing 2 years ago. It is run by Vert Marine and is particularly well equipped. Everyone we know who uses it loves it. The visitor numbers confirm how good it is, as they are more than twice what the management expected after the refurbishment.

More photos are here, including interior shots I couldn't take.

Sunday 28 October 2018

Rufous Net-casting Spider

I photographed this slender but impressive looking spider on the sliding glass door of a house in Lismore, home to our friends Geoff and Christine. It is a male Rufous Net-casting Spider Deinopsus subrufa, waiting for his dinner to blunder along in the night. From toe tip to toe tip he is about 20cm across. He will make a rectangular woolly web which he flings across any prey walking or flying by. You can see a picture of the web on Ed Nieuwenhuys's website about Australian spiders.

Saturday 27 October 2018

Bavarian Gentian

I couldn't get over the number of species of gentian we saw in Switzerland. I thought we would be just that bit too late in the season by July, and I'd be lucky to see one. Looking on the Swiss InfoFlora website tells me that there are 24 species of gentian recorded for Switzerland. I haven't managed to identify and count up all of the ones we saw, but I reckon it was about half that number.

This one is Bavarian Gentian Gentiana bavarica, quite abundant in the very high damp grassland above 1300 metres. The one in the photo was at the top of Nufenen Pass, but I think we saw this species elsewhere too. As it happens, they were at their peak, being July and August bloomers.

Friday 26 October 2018

A Walk Around Charnizay

Here are some pictures of our walk a week ago with the local walking club in the countryside around the village of Charnizay.

The back of the town hall, Charnizay. Note the sirens on the roof,
used to call in the volunteer fire brigade when there is an accident or fire.

Bread vending machine.

Charnizay no longer has a baker, but is big enough that the law requires there is bread for sale somewhere in the village. So the local authority has installed a bread vending machine which is stocked up twice a day by the baker from Preuilly.

Root Rot fungus Heterobasidion annosum (Fr. Polypore du pin).

A track in the Forest of Preuilly.

A dairy farm.

In the shed on the left are vealers, and those are veal crates for really little calves in a row in the middle. The dairy beyond is apparently completely automated and the cows come in whenever they want to be milked by robots. Across the road is free range hens.

Sheep at la Chiperie.

Frogs on a nearly dried out pond.

A weatherboard and slate vine hut.

A rare Panema racemus fungus.
 I've never seen this species growing on the side of the road before.

The group walks down the road.

Charnizay in the distance.

Thursday 25 October 2018


We've done it again - after the excitement of last weekend we managed to head off to work at 6.45 yesterday morning (in the fog and dark) without having done a blog post.

When we were in Calais we stayed at the Ibis Budget at the Eurounnel terminus. The rooms cost 37€ per night and was perfectly comfortable, the shower worked, and the car park was full of police and customs cars. As well as being a useful hotel for people travelling in the tunnel the hotel seems to double as a police barracks, whi means (as the lady at reception said) they can leave the hotel's front door open all night and it's perfectly safe.

This was the view from our room when we arrived at 5.30pm on Friday evening

And this is the same view at 8.30 on Sunday morning

The weather here has been amazing - it's still warm, and apart from the fog yesterday morning the skies have been clear and blue. Because of the time of year the sun in incredibly glarey: I had to squint all the way home on Sunday even though I was wearing sunglasses. It cools down very quickly after sunset, but it is late October, after all.

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Three Legged Horses Only

Photographed in Charnizay by a sharp eyed Susan.


Tuesday's Training Tales.

Last week we did some peoper walking - over 30km, and 1200 metres of swimming. It's true that 9 of the kilometeres we walked took us 8 hours, but we were on our feet for most of that time.

As a consequence of that and sitting in the car for 15 hours to and from London Susan has had an attack of the sciatics and is getting around like one of the horses mentioned above. I have done better, apart from pinging a muscle in my left calf yesterday. It won't stop me swimming today.

Monday 22 October 2018

A Long Weekend Away

On Friday morning before dawn Susan and I climbed into the car, and drove along the Routes Nationales to Calais, a trip which took about 8 hours (including stops). We had two nights booked at the Ibis Budget hotel at la Coquelles, and a plan...

On Saturday we were on the 06.50 Eurotunnel Shuttle to Folkestone, from where we drove to Swanley in South-East London, and caught the train to London Victoria. My cousin Linda was waiting for us there, and we went to the pub for breakfast, to be joined later by my nephew Kippa (Christopher to his Grandmother).

Checking in to Eurotunnel

We then walked to Speakers Corner, and waited. And waited. There were many, many people of all ages, sizes and shapes, all with one aim -- to demonstrate in protest against Brexit. Eventually (1 hour and 45 minutes late) we set off down Piccadilly towards Parliament Square. We never made it -- there were so many people that Whitehall was full all the way back to Trafalgar Square. Figures range between 700,000 and 1.2 million.

Susan in the midst of the crowd.

The two of us in St James's Street.

Susan and Linda with a not over-stressed policeman outside St James's Palace

We then caught the train back to Swanley, and drove to Eurotunnel at Folkestone (via Tesco). The nice lady at the help desk put us on a shuttle 4 hours earleir than the the one we had booked, so we were back at the hotel in Calais by 11pm.

The Cabinet Office was re-decorated for free.

Yesterday we got back into the car at 9.00am and were home by 4.30pm. In total we travelled 1406km in 52 hours.

I finally got a sticker!!

Sunday 21 October 2018

Fort Denison

Fort Denison is an island in Sydney Harbour, and has long been somewhere I have wanted to visit. When my family moved to Sydney it was something to look at and imagine ghost stories about - it is only relatively recently that plebs like us have been allowed to visit. We didn't get there last year, so I guess we have to write it on our list. My father and brother have been so I feel I am missing out. (To be honest, I didn't even investigate visiting because I didnt think it was possible.)

Fort Denison. Most people only knowing from passing it on a ferry.

The fortress features a Martello tower, the only one ever built in Australia and the last one constructed in the British Empire. It is built from sandstone and the walls are between 3.3–6.7 metres (11–22 ft) thick at the base and 2.7 metres (8 ft 10 in) thick at the top, but the fort was obsolete by the time it was completed. The tower had quarters for a garrison of 24 soldiers and one officer.

Before the tower was built the island was known as Pinchgut and served as a prison (and as the town gibbet) but as far as I can tell only one person was ever sent there. These days there is a navigation light on top of the tower.

Saturday 20 October 2018

Holidaying in Klosters

When we were in Switzerland earlier this year we stayed in an apartment in Klosters. Accommodation in the ski areas of Switzerland is remarkably inexpensive in summer, as the tourist industry tries to turn itself into a year round enterprise.

We rented through AirBnB, and for 945€ stayed in a two bedroom apartment in a newish ski lodge. It had an enormous lounge/dining area, a balcony with amazing views and a fully equipped kitchen (it even had a fondue set) and everything we needed was provided. When we arrived our Davos-Kolsters cards were on the table, along with a welcoming bottle of wine.

The view from our Balcony of the cable car terminus, 3km away

The view of our bacony from the cable car terminus.
It's the large white building in the very centre of the picture

Susan, hard at work

We really enjoyed our holiday (you might have guessed...), and having spotlessly clean, spacious and comfortable accommodation in beautiful surroundings really helped.

We're writing about Switzerland - but as this posts we will be in the car on the M20 heading towards London. Someone has to try stop this Brexit stupidity.

Friday 19 October 2018

The Wind Turbine Project at Le Petit Pressigny

About six months ago I started hearing about a proposal to erect ten wind turbines along a ridge between Le Grand Pressigny and Charnizay. Everyone I spoke to at that point assumed I would be against the project, as they were. I was encouraged to go along to the town hall and look at the documentation for the project and to sign a petition against it.

Members of the Association de protection de l'environnement Pressignois at a local food and art fair.

I never got round to checking it out at the town hall, but slowly more and more information started to be widely disseminated. My natural inclination would be to be for wind turbines, unless they are sited inappropriately. That means breaking up important habitat. It does not mean spoiling my view or being located too close to my home. Nothing I read about the project raised particular alarm bells.

Over the last month or so the wind turbine project has been the super hot topic at social occasions. I know and like many of the people who belong to a new association dedicated to stopping the project. They are quite visible and vocal, to the extent that at a party a few weeks ago my friends Dominique (female) and Denise were delighted to find that I was for the project. Like me, they had been starting to think they were the only ones.

Flora Pastre (second left) answering questions from the public.

There have been a series of public meetings to allow the wind turbine company to inform and consult with the locals. I went along when the representative from the company was at Le Grand Pressigny, answering questions and presenting the project. Of the half dozen people present, four of them were friends and several were against the project. Later that day I accidentally gatecrashed the landowners meeting with the company in Le Petit Pressigny, which was a somewhat different affair. They were offered drinks and nibbles and were generally for the project.

I've now had a lot of contact with both sides and can summarise the situation thus:

Those for the project point out that
  • Indre et Loire currently has no wind turbines at all (the implication being that they are not doing their share -- after all, there are now hundreds of turbines in the neighbouring département of Vienne).
  • We need to start moving to renewables.
  • The land chosen is open farmland.
  • This is a poor rural area and it is an opportunity for small scale low income farmers to earn a bit of extra income. (Here is a link to a blog post that I wrote about one of the farmers in the area of the project.)
  • The venture is low risk as the regulations say that at the end of their 25 year lifespan every part of the turbines must be removed and recycled.
  • 18 months of ecological and biodiversity surveys began in April and will assess impact on the natural environment and inform the placement of the turbines.
  • Wind levels across the site have been monitored to ensure they will be sufficient to make the project worthwhile.
Those against the project say
  • This isn't Berry or the Beauce with huge flat expanses of open cereal culture. The scale of the turbines is too large for the system of small fields that exist on the proposed site.
  • Wind power is too unreliable to be useful.
  • The landowners are being offered 2% of profits, so if there are no profits the landowners will get nothing. 
  • Wind turbine companies have a reputation for gathering in lots of public funding and private investment, erecting the turbines, but then going bust.
  • If the company goes bust then the low income small scale farmers will be left with the responsibility to get rid of the turbines at the end of their working life. 
  • People visit this area because it is an unspoilt small scale mosaic of fields, woodland and villages and the turbines don't fit this bucolic scene. (Note: this is a French viewpoint, where 50% of wind turbine projects are opposed by the public. An Australian friend has pointed out that Australian visitors would much rather see wind turbines than the cooling towers of nuclear power plants.)
  • Wind turbines kill birds and bats. The biodiversity surveys are being done in a period when the population of raptors such as harriers has not yet recovered from a previous vole population crash. The surveyors will not find nesting raptors this year or next because they likely won't return until 2020, by which time it will be too late to take them into account.
  • The project appears to be borderline profitable, according to the wind turbine company's own information.
  • Wind turbines reduce real estate values.
  • Wind turbines cause noise pollution.
My own observations would be that
  • The project has split local opinion about 50/50. Feelings are running high, with the antis going to the effort and expense of setting up a formal association to fight the project, and the pros slashing the antis banners.
  • Some of the anti wind turbine feeling is, inevitably, nimbyism.
  • There is a strong tendency amongst those against the project to simply not believe anything the wind turbine company says and to not accept the project because it isn't perfect.There is no acknowledgement that projects and technologies necessarily develop over time. There is no acceptance that the wind turbine company is acting in good faith.
  • There is a strong belief amongst those against the project that it is a done deal and any consultation is lip service. There is no acceptance that their own arguments might not be relevant, strong enough or have been dealt with appropriately already.
  • The person who has impressed me the most over the course of my various discussions is Flora Pastre, the project manager in charge of prospection. She's young, she's sassy and she answered everyone's questions lucidly, at length and without hesitation. Occasionally she admitted she didn't know the answer, but mostly she had obviously encountered the questions before and had the answers at her finger tips. 
  • The two people on the side against the project whose opinions I find most credible are both retired from careers where they were involved with dealing with wind turbine companies. Neither are French (one's Dutch, one's Canadian). They are both deeply cynical about the wind turbine company's motives and the long term outcome of the project.
  • I've worked in the heritage and nature conservation sector for many years. I am well used to big lumbering consultative projects and the fact that they take ages to get to the action bit. It can be hard to accept that just because your ideas weren't included in the final project it does not mean you weren't listened to and your input considered seriously.
  • It has been a lesson in how important the French concept known as la vie associative is. Joining a club is not just to enhance your social life, it is to achieve change for the better. It is to engage in your community by working together collaboratively and is one of the pillars of French society. It's why when you apply for French citizenship you are quizzed about whether you belong to any associations. There is an expectation that you do and in all likelihood there is a political element at some level. The associations give their members a voice in public affairs. That's why those against the wind turbines formalised their group by creating a legal association. That's why the pro wind turbines mayor of Le Petit Pressigny is muttering about creating his own association to promote the project. 
  • The problems involving wildlife and habitat can all be solved by good consultative processes. The turbines can be sited in such a way as to avoid or minimise disturbance to wildlife once the ecological studies have been done.  This is rapidly developing science and wind turbine companies are well used to dealing with this issue now.
  • Wind turbines, given time, will become industrial icons of our age, just as 19th century railway viaducts did in the 20th century.
  • Studies looking at actual sales figures rather than real estate valuations show that nearby wind turbines have no statistically significant impact on prices overall, although they may impact on individual properties (both negatively and positively).
  • The latest regulations and recommendations regarding noise pollution from wind turbines in France is dealt with in this article (in English). Basically, sometimes there might be a problem, in which case the expectation is that it is monitored and ultimately dealt with.
Note: This post was edited on 27 October 2018 following feedback from several people. In particular, changes have been made to the points about vole/raptor boom/bust cycles and the biodiversity surveying, as well as the partisan nature of two of the people pictured. Other additional notes have been added.

Thursday 18 October 2018

The Big Bang

Seventy-five years ago on this day, at 11:03 am 1943 an immense explosion destroyed the national gunpowder factory at Ripault and the hamlet of Vontes near Monts, just outside of Tours. It seems to have been an accident, but the factory had by that time been requisitioned by the occupying Germans. A crater 40 metres wide and 12 metres deep appeared, revealing the force of the explosion. Flames raged in the warehouses and workshops, followed by eerie silence. A mushroom cloud of smoke and dust obscured the ruins. Dazed survivors staggered out of the rubble of stones, beams, wood and steel.

Overlooking part of the gunpowder factory from the grounds of the Chateau of Candé.

The initial official report stated 71 dead, including 17 men unloading wagons whose bodies were missing. Not included in the figures were the young men of the Chantiers de jeunesse, members of a volunteer civilian labour force formed after the surrender of France. The final total was 345 people injured, 147 of them critically and several died of their wounds. The total death toll rose to about a hundred. They are buried in the cemetery at Monts.

 The ceiling of Fern Bedaux's bathroom came down in the explosion and was only reinstated in 2009.

The explosion was so great it could be heard throughout Indre et Loire, as far away as Chatellerault in the south and beyond Chateau-Renault in the north. You would have been able to hear it in Preuilly. The Chateau of Candé, just across the road, suffered damage. Windows were shattered in Tours.

The Poudrerie Nationale, as it is known in French, was set up on the eve of the Revolution by Antoine Lavoisier on the site of a mill that made saltpetre for Louis XV's navy. By the mid-19th century it was known as the 'most beautiful gunpowder factory in Europe' (!!). During the First World War the facility employed 6000 workers and by the Second World War covered 120 hectares. After the explosion it was partially rebuilt and reopened in 1945. With a reduced need for explosives after the war the site diversified, making furniture, paint and antibiotics until its closure in 1959. Like a phoenix, it rose again in 1961, rehiring most of the former staff and occupying the whole site. This time the controlling body was the Atomic Energy Commission on behalf of the military, and they continue to operate the site to this day (just -- there was a move to close it a couple of years ago, but local protests resulted in a stay of execution).

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Cat on a Canvas Roof

The other day we dined with clients at Les Grottes, a troglodytic restaurant in Azay le Rideau. While we were waiting for our meal to be served I heard a scrabbling noise behind me and realised there was a cat on the umbrella at the next table. The waitress rushed over and flapped a bit. The cat jumped down and confidently sashayed up to diners, including our clients.

 Cat on a canvas roof.

The waitress said the cat didn't belong to them, but it wasn't a stray. It must live in one of the neighbouring houses but she didn't know exactly which. She said she often arrives to open the restaurant to find it snoozing in a sunny corner of their courtyard.

Luckily our client liked cats.

The cat is doing rather well, as in order to get it to stop bothering diners the waitress took it aside and fed it. If that pattern continues, very soon it's going to be too fat to get up to the sort of antics it displayed last week.

Tuesday 16 October 2018

French Restaurant Vouchers

Many French employers offer their employees luncheon vouchers known officially as titres-restaurant, but usually referred to as tickets-resto. The scheme is run by various private-public partnerships such as Ticket Restaurant, Chèque Déjeuner, Chèque de Table and Pass Restaurant and overseen by the Commission Nationale de Titres Restaurant.

There is no obligation for employers to offer restaurant vouchers, nor for restaurants to accept them. Employers can choose to feed their workers by having an onsite works canteen or to reimburse an amount towards meals. If employees wish to eat on the premises the employer is obliged to provide a suitable space, separate to the work space. Effectively it is forbidden to eat your lunch at your desk in France. If there are more than 25 employees there must be a dedicated food storage area with a fridge and means of reheating meals.

This restaurant accepts four different types of tickets-resto.

If an employer offers restaurant vouchers they must cover 50-60% of the value of the voucher. The remainder is part of the employee's salary. So for example, for a titre-restaurant worth €11 the employer must cover €5.50 to €6.60 of the value, and the employee €4.40 to €5.50.

Employers don't have to make social security contributions (up to a limit of €5.43 per titre-restaurant). That means if the employer covers 50% of the titre-restaurant, the value of the voucher up to €10.86 is exempt from social contributions. Likewise, the employer's contribution to the vouchers do not count as salary for the calculation of the employee's income tax, up to a limit of €1350 pa.

Theoretically the value of titres-restaurant is up to the employer, but in practice it is limited by considerations such as the social security contributions, the maximum percentage the employer can cover, and the fact that the employee is only allowed to use vouchers to a maximum value of €19 per day.

Normally all employees receive the same value vouchers, and it is not possible to simply receive the equivalent as part of their salary (except under very rare circumstances). Obviously employees can't use a luncheon voucher and then claim the meal as an expense -- that would be double dipping. The number of vouchers issued to an employee is based on the number of days they are present at their usual worksite. If they are working away they get paid expenses instead.

Titres-restaurant can only be used in restaurants, supermarkets and food shops, and the paper vouchers cannot be exchanged for their monetary value (or the difference between the price of the items purchased and the value of the voucher). The vouchers are transferable and can be given to colleagues, friends, or, as is the tradition in December, just before the vouchers expire, given to homeless people. Nowadays some of the schemes are electronic and involve using a 'tap and go' card which only registers the exact amount spent, leaving the balance in your account. Presumably this will bring to an end the ability to transfer vouchers as a charitable act. Supposedly they cannot be used to obtain non-food items such as alcohol or cigarettes, but I hear that in practice they can, so long as you buy some food as well. They can only be used in the département of their issue and the adjoining ones, and are valid for the year they are issued. Their use dates from the Second World War, when they were part of the food rationing system. Restaurants have 60 days to send the vouchers they have collected to the centralised payment administrator for reimbursement.


Tuesday's Training Tales.

The last week has been a bit of a dud. We walked on one day and swam on another, but work and a couple of late nights got in the way. We do have plans to do better...

Monday 15 October 2018

What Would Villandry Do?

For a couple of years now a serious pest has been present in gardens in the Loire Valley. The invasive alien Box Tree Moth Cydalima perspectalis (Fr. Pyrale du buis) appeared in France ten years ago, but really only made a visible impact more recently. It's everywhere in the forest now and gardens such as Villandry, with their metres and metres of European Box Buxus sempervirens (Fr. buis) hedging, have to be right on top of managing it or the garden would be ruined.

Last week the gardeners were out and about weeding and I stopped to ask one of them how they were coping. He said there had been a major outbreak of the moth in the spring, but the summer had been better. At Villandry they treat once a month with Bacillus thuringiensis and will have to continue doing so now forever unless an effective new organic treatment becomes available and assuming the moth doesn't develop immunity. Bt, as it is known, isn't ideal, as it is not specifically targeted for Box Tree Moth, so it will kill any other lepidopteran caterpillar it comes into contact with. Aerial spraying of it over commercial pine forests to control Pine Processionary Moth Thaumetopoea pityocampa (Fr. Processionnaire du pin) has been banned in France for this reason. I assume, since the garden is organic, they are using one of the naturally occurring subspecies of Bt, not one of the genetically modified strains.