Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Quintessential Provence

After sweltering heat, a cool breeze is playing and the days are rolling by. I will try to write something more interesting soon, I promise, but for now I have been pottering around the garden. This pot of very fragrant lavender from Roussillon is perfect on the table under the olive tree in the courtyard.

In years gone by, the glossy-leaved Diamantina, with its never-ending profusion of white bell flowers has always done well up sunny walls here, and so I have high hopes for this one. On evenings when we have guests for dinner, I'll light the lanterns in the courtyard. It makes a magical setting.

One day, I fantasize, I will have a garden beyond as luxuriant as this one at the Chateau La Verrerie at Puget-sur-Durance.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Two for the Road, driving through France

Driving south through France in summer. For a certain kind of British holidaymaker - Francophile, wine-drinking, book-sun-and-food-loving (I am all of these) - the popping of the car, like a cork, from the ferry or tunnel terminal onto the northern French autoroute is the start of another adventure.

And every year, as Rob and I barrel through Amiens, or Rouen and have the inevitable "Are we going to avoid Paris?" debate (we usually end up doing battle with one or other of the capital's gridlocked ring roads because he says the road to Chartres and Orleans is "too boring" and too far to the west to have any chance of finding a perfect hotel for the night in Burgundy) we recall other journeys, other years.

When was that first disastrous stay in Versailles? It was 1997; our daughter was one year old; and I don't know why, but I just don't like the atmosphere at Versailles, no matter how grand the hotel we stayed at. But wasn't there another time there? Yes, in 2005. We'd had a tyre blow-out, in the faithful old silver BMW convertible we kept for sentimental reasons, viz: 1991 (Dordogne, Aveyron and down into Spain), and 1994 (unforgettable stay at the Chateau Eza above Cap Ferrat, followed by a farmhouse in the Tarn). Which was the year we drove down with my old friend Chris, stayed in a weird old hotel in Tonnerre and spent rather longer than intended tasting wine at the Chateau de Pommard? (Answer: 1986, and a wine-themed relais is beginning to emerge.)

Remember that old film, Two for the Road (1967), in which the married couple drive from England to St Tropez, remembering other trips over the same ground, other stages in their marriage? Well, we're getting to be a regular Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn (in an ever so slightly less Hollywood great, elfin beauty way) bickering our way through the dull northern fields and industrial estates.

But it's actually quite useful, having the marital spats about, for example, which hotel it was where our friend Richard reduced us to tears of helpless laughter at breakfast with his observations about his sleepless night in a room next to two antique dealers. Several kilometres pass as I persuade Rob that it was the Hotel de la Gare near Macon, and I remember the name of the hotel because Richard began his account, with ominous pomposity, "I realise that, as this is the Hotel de la Gare, one should be prepared for a certain amount of noise, let us assume of shunting on the tracks..."

I should make it clear, just in case anyone wants to be over-sensitive, that the source of our hilarity was not so much Richard's ever more lurid tale but his Victorian Englishman abroad delivery of it, as he calmly spread jam on his croissant, having expressed disappointment at the lack of Oxford marmalade. We were all about 24 at the time. The good news is that Richard is one of the few people I know who has become less pompous with age.

Actually, I have an authentic memory of being driven the Dijon-Lyon-Montelimar-Avignon route more or less contemporaneously with the making of Two for the Road. The Sixties may have been swinging for Audrey and Albert on their drive south, but my family on the road from Brussels to the Costa Brava in Spain cut an altogether less fashionable picture.

We were Four for the Road: Mum, Dad, younger sister Helen and I, in a Ford Cortina with suitcases lashed to the roof-rack. It was May 1968, and while students were manning the barricades for the Paris revolution and strikers disrupted the rest of France, the imperturbable Lawrensons of the British Embassy were setting off for Spain come hell or high water. Dad had done some calculations and worked out how much fuel we'd need to get to Spain if no service stations were open in France. The jerry cans full of petrol were in the boot. As a concession, Dad took the hard decision to stop smoking his customary Rothmans while he was behind the wheel and we set forth at dawn smelling like an oil refinery. My sister and I were both sick before we crossed the border. No doubt, these days, our parents would have been arrested - on any of several counts - but we made it in one piece, though rather green around the gills.

What all this accumulated experience - Rob has his own decades of family trips in camper vans and back-up tales of horror - means is that we have quite of directory of tried and trusted hotels and stopping places for the first night of the journey.

Sometimes, the joy is in booking a treat for ourselves, like the Chateau de Vault de Lugny, in which case there will have been pleasurable discussions beforehand and a reservation made. But this time, we decided to take pot luck, like we always used to. It was getting fairly late, when we arrived at the town of Auxerre in Burgundy, one of those time-honoured halts for the British hurling themselves south from Calais. We weren't particularly hopeful - we've stayed in Auxerre before, and neither time was a great success. But we were later than normal, as we'd taken the four-hour Newhaven-Dieppe ferry due to all the disruption at Calais. It was past eight o'clock, and even the chain hotels on the outskirts had packed car parks.
The first hotel we saw close to the centre was the Hotel Normandie, a solid, ivy-clad hotel, of the kind you always hope to find. I went in. Not only was the welcome warm, but we were lucky: they had had a cancellation. Up the staircase, just like the staircases always used to be in French hotels, we were shown a spacious room overlooking a quiet garden.
There was no restaurant, so we walked out into the town for dinner. We could have gone into the main square, but - perhaps because of Two for the Road - we noticed the Bistrot du Palais, in what was once a cinema.

It was our second piece of luck. Not only was the interior a cinema-lover's delight, with what looked like original movie posters all over the walls, but the food was fantastic: again very traditional French, the kind that makes you wonder whether you haven't just walked into a dream. (If you go, try the tarte poireaux et chevre - it's heavenly.)


After dinner, feeling replete and slightly tipsy - Auxerre is very close to Chablis - we wandered around the town for a while, lingering under the fifteenth-century clock tower, originally built on the Gallo-Roman town walls.

It hardly needs saying, given that this was one of those times when everything worked out beautifully, that we slept like logs, and woke relaxed for another day on the road, heading into the sun. Definitely an evening for the archive, to be recalled in the future - and to be revisited.

Monday, 29 June 2015

A sense of place

Not a French garden but a very English one, on a midsummer evening in Kent. I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering at Long Barn in Weald near Sevenoaks, the former home of novelist, poet and gardener Vita Sackville-West. This is where she lived from 1915 to 1930 with her husband Harold Nicolson, and laid out the garden, learning as she went along, before moving to Sissinghurst Castle to create the famous gardens there.
The house dates from the 14th century - the attached barn is a couple of centuries younger - and on a quiet evening in slanting sunshine, it is possible to feel the history in every stone and slate. The garden wraps around it, crammed with border plants, divided into lawns and hedged outdoor rooms. It is a private property, and the gardens are not open to the public except on special occasions.
This was a very special occasion, on several levels. It was organised to celebrate the amazing work of the Haller Foundation in Kenya, originally in regenerating cement quarries there, and showing what can be achieved by restoring a scarred landscape. Led by UNEP Global Laureate Dr Rene Haller and my friend Louise Piper, the foundation has pioneered a model of environmental regeneration that aims to bring economic security to poor, smallholder farmers living on inhospitable land.

The Haller Foundation offers integrated education programmes in water, farming, education, health, alternative energy and nano-enterprise. Not quick fixes, but long term, life-skills training which empower farmers and their children to lead self-sufficient and sustainable lives. And although the work done by the Haller Foundation is thousands of miles away, there are still natural connections with a garden in Kent. The garden at  Long Barn was once a dull field. Its beauty is the result of Vita Sackville-West's vision, passion and determination.

The landscape architect and lecturer Marian Boswall stood on the terrace overlooking the main lawn and spoke about Sackville-West's aristocratic, rather bohemian background: she was born at grand Knole House at Sevenoaks, the only child of Lord and Lady Sackville; the property and title could not be inherited by a female, and so went to a male cousin. She was only in her early twenties when she arrived at Long Barn with her new husband. She and Harold had an open marriage, with relationships with their friends in the Bloomsbury Group - famously, Vita's affair with Virginia Woolf.

Marian also painted a glorious picture, supported by Vita's own writing, of the practicalities and joys of finding a way to achieve the garden she had in her imagination.

As the sun began to drop behind the hill, the poet and novelist Sarah Salway reminded us that the British have always been travellers and collectors from foreign shores, especially of plants and seeds that were brought back to our small island. The plants we think of as mainstays of English "cottage gardens" are settlers from more exotic countries. Sarah read some of her poems, and I thought this one was particularly appropriate:


Down in the root ball of the ship
the plant collector is making a nest.

He counts his catch, tucks each seed
up in its own handwritten box, an ebony

cabinet ticking with paused hearts.
He dreams of growing a fresh desert

one day, of these dried moments
in the old land coming back to life.

His bones ache as he waters
the dust, while on the deck above,

sailors sleep, the wooden mast dances
again in perfect tune with the winds,

until reaching for water, it leans
too far, loses balance. White sails,

like baby gowns, christen the sea.

As a former Canterbury Laureate, Sarah Salway visited some of the most intriguing gardens of Kent with poetry in mind, and explores what she found in her book Digging up Paradise. More gardens, poetry and photographs can be found on her website The Writer in the Garden.

For more wonderful gardens, you can click on Marian Boswall's website.

And for true inspiration, to see what can be achieved from a starting point of an old cement quarry in Kenya, not only in the landscape but making a difference on the ground for the lives of people who work hard for themselves, please do visit The Haller Foundation and the Bustani Urban Garden.

Monday, 22 June 2015

In search of the Lavender Field

There are many true stories within the pages of The Sea Garden, though all are filtered through the distorting mirror of fiction. The area of Provence I know well was a stronghold of the French Resistance during the Second World War. It’s the kind of country place where people are proud of their past and stories are passed down in everyday conversation. The Resistance years are spoken about – to British, American and Canadian visitors in particular – with considerable pride and a sense of shared history.

One of the most exciting stories concerns the clandestine airdrops of arms and agents by the RAF, and the secret landings of planes while France was under Nazi Occupation. When I began research into these air operations, I discovered a poignant detail in the memoir We Landed by Moonlight written by one of the RAF’s finest Special Operations pilots, Group Captain Hugh Verity. On the makeshift landing strip known as “Spitfire”, close to the great lavender fields of Sault, a Dakota was flown in carrying key French personnel just before the Allied landings on the south coast in August 1944. The plan was to land, drop the passengers and collect a group of escaping American airmen who had been on the run.

But the Dakota was too heavy, and the makeshift runway too short. On the run-up to take-off, the undercarriage snagged on a wide strip of lavender that had been planted to disguise the length of the field from the ever-vigilant occupying authorities. Before another attempt could be made, some of the US airmen had to disembark. Promises were made to come back for them the following night, but it was too late. The botched operation had taken too long, the Nazis and their Vichy enforcers, the Milice, were now aware of it and took brutal reprisals. The next night, the Dakota returned but there was no Resistance reception team waiting to signal it down.
This was the starting point for The Lavender Field, the mid-section of The Sea Garden. In the present day, on the ground, there are no indications of the drama that took place but a hunt for its setting and exact location has a certain satisfaction, even so. It sits on the Albion Plateau, south of Sault (where the top photo was taken), north of St Saturnin-les-Apt and west of St Christol.


The village of St Christol is quiet and shuttered. Like so many hill villages in Provence, it is a place of narrow streets that offer shade from the sun and for secrets. You can't help but wonder how many people looked up at this clock on a night of vital activity.

Not far outside the village are little-used roads and fields of lavender that are relatively flat. The landing field codenamed "Spitfire" would have been very similar to this one, long enough for an RAF plane to land and take off again with only torches held by the "reception committee" on the ground and the moonlight to navigate by.

The actual field is known as Champ Long (Long Field) to the locals, and the exact co-ordinates for a walk to find it from the small village of St Jean de Durfort can be found in this lavishly illustrated guide I've found online: Balades dans les lavandes. There is some very good information about the wartime operations, too, including verses by the poet Rene Char, mainstay of the Vaucluse Resistance.

If you don't read French, here is another guide in English from the En Provence website, though it only mentions Champ Long in passing, and gives no indication of its fascinating history.


PS. Not perfect, this post, with the spaces between text and photos, but Blogger has driven me crazy this afternoon - giving me strange fonts and type sizes, refusing to place the photos in the centre with text aligned left as usual. After I finished writing, publishing this post has taken an hour and a half! Something not quite right.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

An old postcard from Céreste

To celebrate the paperback publication today of The Sea Garden, I'm taking you to Céreste, a quiet village at the eastern end of the Luberon, on an intriguing trail.

This charming backwater plays a crucial part in the middle section of my novel, where we renew acquaintance with Marthe Lincel, the perfumier who first appeared in The Lantern. Just up the road, the Vaucluse ends and the signs announce the department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. In real life, as The Sea Garden, Céreste was a Resistance stronghold during the Second World War, secret headquarters of "Captain Alexandre", the poet René Char, as I wrote here in a previous blog post.

A couple of years ago, while I was writing the novel, I found a stall selling old postcards at a market in Simiane-la-Rotonde. Naturally, I stopped to sift through the boxes marked with the names of places I knew, and pulled out this one of Céreste:

Now this may sound a bit crazy, but when I'm writing a book, I always look for signs that I'm on the right track. I'm sure there are plenty of people who will say that we see what we want to see, and it's all a lot of nonsense. They are probably right, but that doesn't stop me enjoying a nice moment of coincidence, synchronicity, call it what you will. But look at the name on the right: Monsieur Gabriel Brachet, Marseille. If you haven't read the book, I'm not giving anything away, but be sure to make a note of the first name. If you have read the book, I hope it gives you a pleasant frisson!

The words were written on July 23, 1931, and they're not terribly interesting - it seems to me they could well have been written to a child, as the sender urges "Gaby" to take care to fill in a form and to write with news of what he's been doing. The intriguing part is that the sender gives his own name, "Mr Et. Paul" - Etienne? - and address as the Château des Guis at St-Martin-de-Castillon.

St Martin de Castillon is another lovely, quiet village that sits opposite the ripples of the Great Luberon, a few kilometres along the road and higher in the hills than Céreste. I know it well, but I'd never heard of the Château des Guis. Of course, I bought the postcard and scoured a large scale map when I got home. I couldn't find the château. An internet search found nothing, either.

But I never like to give up...and when I was looking at the my files of photos and background info the other week, wondering what I could use for my blog, I remembered this postcard - and this time, with a bit more online detective work, I managed to find the property in St-Martin. It is a grand old residence, though it's not called a château but a "bastide", which is denotes an imposing old house, possibly once fortified.

And here it is, The Bastide Les Guis:

The Bastide Les Guis is even available to rent, and there are details and more pictures on the Janssens Immobilier site and on Made in Provence

Saturday, 13 June 2015

A box of lavender

I saw this old box of dried lavender at the Friday market in Bonnieux during a flying visit last month, and I post it here as an article of faith that I will be getting back to regular blogging over the next few weeks. The US paperback edition of The Sea Garden is due out on Tuesday, and I have been saving a photos and few intriguing background insights to add to the read. Watch this space...

I'd also like to say a big thank you to all my blog friends who have written such generous and supportive comments here over the past months. I'm sorry I haven't always replied, but I have appreciated every word.
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