Teas and Trees

(Dordogne Cycle Touring 6/6):

A visit to the upper Dronne isn’t complete without a visit to Brantôme – or so the friendly locals in the village bar at St.Pardoux-la-Rivière told us.

It didn’t look too far, so we decided to follow their advice and cycle there the next day, taking only small roads, as usual. An idyllic lane ran parallel to the river on the far side of the main road. It was perfect cycling territory and we even took chances on some tracks. This Abandoned Parent Training (APT) was heavenly!

Brantôme, like many picturesque towns in summer, was crowded with tourists. Despite this, it was worth the visit.

It’s the kind of place you want to visit on a crisp, winter’s day. In fact I’ll definitely be going back this winter because I found treasure there.

My treasure was a little shop called BookStop. It sells English books, holds art exhibitions, hosts visiting authors and even an English writing group.

Best of all, given the morning’s cycling, it has a tea room. The owner, Howard, was serving tea in its little garden overlooking the river. Not any old tea: cream tea! Along with fish’n’chips, cream teas are one of the things I miss about the UK.

Howard’s cream tea was delicious and I loved the British feel of the garden. If you’re in Brantôme, call into 19 rue Victor Hugo and say ‘Hi’ to Howard.

To vary the return cycle ride from Brantôme, we decided to take a series of lanes a little higher in the hills. Our large-scale map didn’t show all the roads but, luckily, my partner navigates with the sun and the lie of the land, (meaning that when the sun sets it’s night and that downhill is towards the river) so I knew we’d be fine.

It was hilly but we were here to train. And then it was even hillier and the sun didn’t seem to be in the right place. There was a distinct lack of roads heading in the direction we wanted. The tracks didn’t lead anywhere either.

At last, we arrived at the campsite, exhausted, with 56.1km on our counter.

Luckily, the two bears were having a party that evening, which meant there were at least six of them waiting for us.

The highlight of the following day again revolved around refreshment. It was hot so we headed along the cycle track to Thiviers, stopping for lunch at St.Jean-de-Côle along the way.

We found the former railway line rather boring because there weren’t many unexpected sights. Thiviers, at the end of the line, was a disappointment too.

But St.Jean-de-Côle was stunning! With its rustic buildings, car-free centre (almost), narrow alleys and roman bridge, it’s a village stuck in a time warp.

We were charmed by the setting of a restaurant called Le Temps des Mets and decided to treat ourselves to lunch there. The tables are on the village green under plane trees and the quality of food was excellent.

Restaurant lunches were something we’d rarely done before, and we certainly couldn’t have afforded it with the kids in tow. You see how our APT senses were sharpening? Thanks to days of hard training, we were finding new possibilities.

Our last day of training took us northeast, with an attempt to find a passage across the River Dronne upstream of the unimpressive Saut du Chalard. We gave up when the track turned into brambles and tree stumps. Our circuit took us past the Arboretum de Montagnac, so we stopped for some contemplative tree-bathing before heading back to the campsite to pack up.

We had successfully spent four days without contacting the kids and had hardly even thought about them. OK, that last part is a lie, since they featured largely in our conversations. Still, I felt fully qualified in APT, ready to become an Abandoned Parent at the beginning of September. My partner and I would join a rock-climbing club. We would cycle together. We would eat at restaurants and leave on long camping weekends to discover new guinguettes and local breweries.

Our car packed, I phoned my daughters to tell them we’d soon be home. It was only fair to give them some warning so they could lay the table and demonstrate the life skills they’d learnt during our absence.

“Oh good,” said my youngest.

I was pleased to know we’d been missed – until she added that her older sister had a fever and was in bed.

We jumped in the car and raced home (though we did stop to buy a few boxes of Two Bear beers).

We were ready to be abandoned, but abandoning our children was a different matter.

 

***

Thank you for following my cycle touring ‘adventures’ in the Dronne valley.

If you enjoyed them, you may like to read about my ‘Doorstep Cycling’ trip along the River Charente, which you can find here, or my ‘Writing Residency’ experience discovering the Val d’Azun in the Pyrenees mountains here.

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The Two Bears

(Dordogne Cycle Touring 5/6):

Our weekend at Lisle in June was a great start to learning to be a couple again, having been parents for 20 years. We considered it so useful in terms of Abandoned Parent Training (APT) that when we had the chance to progress further via a second APT weekend, we seized the opportunity.

This time, we would do it in style. For starters, we’d leave for four days instead of two, and we’d take our roomy teepee rather than the little tent we use for party sleepovers. Our daughters were busy with their summer jobs and claimed they’d hardly notice our absence. I’m sure they were just being brave and would miss us terribly.

Without the kids’ belongings, the car seemed empty, so we found some items of comfort to fill it – such as a folding table and deck chairs – as well as our bikes. We were cycle touring on a different level to our week in the Charente in 2019, when we’d been towing a bike trailer.

We decided to discover the River Dronne upstream of Bourdeilles. The village of St.Pardoux-la-Rivière seemed a good base because, as a meeting place of five roads, it would give us five different directions to explore.

When we arrived, we discovered that the village was perfect. Not only did it have the necessary shops and a market, but it also boasted access to the Flow Vélo cycle route along the former railway line to Thiviers.

 

The campsite, La Font Pissole, was perfect too. Quiet and friendly, it sold the local beer made by ‘Les 2 Ours’ (The Two Bears) brewery at Nontron.

Keen to cycle (rather than falling into a guinguette trap), I suggested we begin as soon as our tent was pitched. So, at 4pm we left the campsite and headed towards a landmark on the map that intrigued my partner: the Saut du Chalard.

“A saut is a kind of waterfall,” he told me. I’d already translated saut as a jump, and now I envisioned a steep hillside with a dramatic waterfall and a ledge at the top from which someone called Monsieur Chalard must have jumped or fallen. The local legend would be described in detail on one of those information panels I like so much.

The day had been hot, and although the first five kilometres were uphill, it was shady and we even saw deer in the woodland. We passed an unlikely wedding group in the tiny village of Champs-Romain, and this, coupled with a bagpipe-player blowing his heart out in the middle of a field near the cemetery, made us wonder whether we’d ventured onto a film set.

The footpath sign to the Saut du Chalard indicated a 1.5-hour walk and a 100m descent. I was a little surprised that we would view the waterfall from the bottom, rather than the narrow ledge at the top. But perhaps we’d be able to walk behind it, like in those Enid Blyton adventure stories.

“Is the path suitable for bikes?” I asked a family returning on foot from the waterfall. They assured me it was.

It was suitable, to begin with. But it soon became obvious that we’d have to dismount if we wanted to spend the weekend cycling rather than nursing broken limbs in hospital. Or maybe that was because we took the wrong path at the fork? Anyway, it didn’t matter that we’d have to push our bikes back up the steep hill afterwards. The sight would be worth it.

The young River Dronne, when we reached it, was as impatient as a mountain stream. There was a good bathing spot with a little rush of water about a metre high between two rounded boulders, making a jacuzzi pool (you can see some photos at the bottom of this page here). I put down my bike and started to walk along the riverbank.

“Where are you going?” my partner asked.

“To find the waterfall. It’s probably upstream,” I said.

When he gave me a sideways look, I realised I’d miscalculated.

“This is the waterfall,” he said. “It’s a saut, a jump, not a chute, a fall.”

That was it: no narrow ledge. No information panel. No broken-hearted Monsieur Chalard jumping to his death in despair.

However, we did complete 16.6km, a record for a couple of hours’ cycling.

Best of all, when we returned to the campsite, there were two cold beers (or two cold bears) and two deck chairs awaiting us.

That was the point I realised that what I love about cycle touring is the arrival, the moment you can refresh yourself with local beer and reflect on the day’s highs and lows.

Carrying the logic of that idea further, did we have to wait until the end of the bike ride to refresh ourselves? I would test this theory the very next day.

It’s Nuts

(Dordogne Cycle Touring 4/6):

Our first Abandoned Parent Training (APT) weekend could be summed up with the saying ‘All Roads lead to Rénamont’, followed by ‘Especially when my partner is in charge of the map’.

Today, Sunday, I was determined that we would cycle further than yesterday’s 13km, a plan that seemed entirely possible given that we weren’t in the least saddlesore. We had to drive home that evening but most of the day was free for cycle touring.

I took charge, which meant that the tent and most of our belongings were packed into the car before we left for the day’s explorations. Wasn’t that efficient? My plan was to cycle in the opposite direction to Rénamont.

Our circuit took us along more little lanes beside the River Dronne, past plantations of walnuts – which grow everywhere in the area – until we arrived a watermill museum called La Maison de la Dronne near the village of Tocane-St.Apre. We stopped to explore, disappointed to find the exhibition on watermills closed, due to Covid.

We continued up the hill on the opposite side of the river – a safe distance from Rénamont – and cycled towards the château of Fayolle and its viewpoint across the Dronne valley.

The cycling was pleasant, but we made no interesting discoveries during the ride. So when my partner suggested we abandon the south side of the river and visit the village of Montagrier instead, I agreed.

Then I looked at the map. Montagrier was dangerously close to Rénamont.

But I was in charge today.

I’m glad we changed routes. Montagrier is a pretty village on a hill, with an outlying church that has a wonderful avenue of plane trees leading to it, coupled with a great view.

Time was passing and, after a coffee on a terrace in Montagrier, we continued in a loop back towards the campsite. I kept my eye on the map and when we reached the turning to Rénamont, I rode blithely past it. I don’t think my partner noticed the signpost. We even managed to beat the previous day’s 13km by, well, by 8km, making a grand total of 21km for the day. It was lucky we were doing APT and not fitness training.

The gain of time by not stopping at the guinguette meant we had time to visit a walnut farm shop. When we entered the barn, the smell of concentrated walnut was incredible. Even better, the farmer kindly took time to demonstrate his traditional method for making walnut oil.

And so it was that, surprisingly, we brought home walnut oil rather than BAM beer. I was expecting our children to be pleased – after all, walnut oil is a wonderful ingredient for cooking. But they seemed disappointed. As for their weekend of practising life skills, their friends must have taken home the results, because there was no sign of a meal waiting for us on our arrival.

Six months later, we still have half a bottle of walnut oil left. Each time I open it, my senses are flooded by memories of our first weekend of APT training at Rénamont Lisle.

As for our second APT weekend, which took place at the end of July 2020, I’ll tell you about that tomorrow.

Flowering Cars

(Dordogne Cycle Touring 3/6):

The first full day of our Lisle APT training weekend, Saturday, dawned bright and sunny, perfect for a long day of cycling. We were sure we could beat our 2019 record and manage a hundred kilometres. Today was our best chance, since we weren’t yet saddlesore.

We set off towards Bourdeilles, a riverside village that the people at Rénamont had advised us to visit. There was plenty to admire along the pretty country roads, from a 400-year-old oak tree to a flowering car.

We stopped to ask a gardener whether the wooden building in his garden was a tobacco-drying shed (it was). Half an hour later we were still discussing politics and the environment with him, and had been invited to share an aperitif with his family. It would have been easy to stop there, just 2km from the campsite. But we didn’t. We valiantly continued our journey, fascinated by his self-sufficiency project and glad to have put the world to rights.

Bourdeilles is beautiful and not too big. I recommend a visit if you’re in the area. We cycled through the streets, took photos and generally behaved exactly like the tourists we take pains to avoid.

After a quick coffee on a terrace, we continued cycling along the most delightful series of shady lanes. Predictably, I fell in love with rural Dordogne and daydreamed about selling our house and launching ourselves into self-sufficiency here.

My partner was in charge of the map – not that he seemed to look at it very often. We followed the river, stopping to take photos and caress the overhanging rockfaces, remembering our former passion for rock-climbing. Once our daughters had abandoned us, our evenings would be free! We could join clubs. We could start climbing again.

(You see how well the APT training was working?)

I was a little surprised, after just a few more kilometres, when we turned onto a familiar-looking track and headed down a steep hill.

“Let’s check out the standing stones,” said my partner.

He was referring to a ring of stones we’d spotted the evening before, at the entrance to the Rénamont guinguette.

We waded through long grass and examined the stones, speculating as to their origin.

 

“We could ask about them at the bar,” said my partner.

I saw the gleam in his eyes again, and understood. It was only 3pm and we’d cycled the grand distance of 10km.

“OK,” I agreed.

Six hours later, at dusk – after some games of pétanque, a paddle and walk along the river, a siesta, some convivial aperitifs and an evening meal accompanied by BAM beer – we wobbled our way back to the campsite. We’d only cycled 13km but we’d found a place we knew we’d return to.  As for the standing stones, they were installed and sculpted during a festival held on the site.

It didn’t matter that we’d done more socialising than cycling. We would rectify that the next day. At least, that’s what we told ourselves.

Snow in June

(Dordogne Cycle Touring 2/6):

The weather forecast promised perfect cycling temperatures for the June weekend reserved for our first, 2-day session of Abandoned Parent Training (APT).

Our destination was the Dordogne – but not the touristy areas of Sarlat and its surroundings. We chose to explore the Dronne valley. This minor river runs in a southwesterly diagonal south of Angoulême and north of Perigueux through (or near) settlements such as Brantôme, Ribérac and Aubeterre-sur-Dronne.

We chose the River Dronne because it was on the page of the map book when we opened it. Also, it seemed to be rural and without particular interest: perfect for peaceful cycling without tourists. We chose our campsite in the same way. The village of Lisle appeared to be large enough to have a bakery and charcuterie for picnic supplies, and the campsite was small.

On arrival, we weren’t disappointed. Lisle is a quiet village and the campsite lay between a pétanque court and the Dronne river, which is about eight metres wide at this point. We pitched our tent in the furthest corner.

And that’s when it started to snow. Look! Within minutes, it was everywhere.

We tried to catch some and keep it to show the kids, then remembered we were on APT training and shouldn’t be thinking about them, about how they were busy studying and learning life skills. They certainly wouldn’t be thinking about us. The snow seems to be pussy willow blossom but maybe you can correct me?

Our major discovery on this part of the Dronne river came on Friday evening, before we’d even mounted our bikes.

A couple of weeks before our trip, some friends had told us about a cool place to hang out on the River Dronne. It was called La Guinguette de Rénamont. Those particular friends are also cool, so we suspected we’d like it.

Are you familiar with guinguettes? They’re a basic riverside bar/restaurant with outdoor tables, festive, often temporary and open only in the summer. I think they might be my new passion.

As usual, we only had a large-scale map with us, which is why we decided not to risk cycling and getting lost in the night time (we’d forgotten our bike lights). Instead, we drove to Rénamont. This was just as well, given that we found it at the end of an unlikely track about a kilometre long and down a steep hill.

What a find! It’s the kind of place where customers talk to each other, where you don’t have to dress up, where people bring their guitars, where you can swim in the river, play pétanque and make new friends.

Needless to say, we dropped our plans for a campsite dinner of tinned lentils. Instead, we ordered food and – after a long discussion about kefir and fermentation with the barmaid – a couple of glasses of the local beer.

The beer in question came from a brewery in nearby Marsac called BAM – Brasserie Artisanale de Marsac – and was delicious. We’d have loved to drink more, but we were driving. At least, my partner was.

“Would you like me to drive?” I offered.

He hesitated and then refused. I thought he might suggest buying some bottles to take back to the tent but he didn’t, though I did notice a gleam in his eye.

I should have paid more attention to that gleam. Why? Come back tomorrow and you’ll understand.

Abandoned Parent Training

(Dordogne Cycle Touring 1/6):

January is a good time to think about summer, a time to look back at the sunny highlights of 2020 and to anticipate the warmer months of 2021.

January is also a time for New Year’s Resolutions. One of mine is to get fit for next summer. I’m sure you agree that doing a blog sprint definitely counts, especially as it’s far too cold outside to do any real sport. So here is the first of six daily, light-hearted posts featuring pictures of summer.

My favourite moments of 2020 revolved around my bike and – by strange coincidence – a couple of local breweries along the River Dronne in the Dordogne.

These weren’t planned as bike ‘n’ beer trips. Far from it. The aim was to develop a new skill.

Let me begin at the beginning. In June, my youngest child finished high school and enrolled at university. Faced with the prospect of becoming abandoned parents in September, my partner and I decided we needed to do some training to prepare for this change in our lives.

We’re not very good at training. In 2019, for example, we failed miserably to train for our cycling trip to discover the source of the River Charente. We thought that Abandoned Parent Training (commonly known as APT) would be easier to achieve.

But what does APT consist of? And would we be apt for APT? (sorry).

Basically, APT teaches you how to stop your life revolving around your darling offspring.

We’ve always dragged our daughters around with us. Like most parents, we prefer sharing our activities with our kids. This is purely selfish, of course. Discovery is great but when you discover through the eyes of children, it’s ten times more exciting.

So, as part of our Abandoned Parent Training, we decided to make an effort and choose an activity to deliberately exclude them. Come to think of it, our first attempt at excluding our children was the aforementioned River Charente cycling trip in 2019. As I only invented APT ten minutes ago, I’m now wondering whether I devised the Charente trip subconsciously as an APT activity.

Whatever. We had such fun at the River Charente in 2019 that we decided to begin our 2020 APT sessions with another cycling and camping weekend. 

Our daughters – who have no idea about APT – just thought we’d finally accepted that they had better things to do with their time than to accompany us. We understand they have important things to do, such as studying and learning how to cook. When they heard our idea, I’m sure they planned to work on those life skills. It seemed they wanted to give their friends the opportunity to develop their life skills alongside them, too. My daughters have exemplary social consciences.

(You see why I need APT? Hardly a sentence goes past without me mentioning my children.)

Anyway, in June, soon after the first Covid lockdown was over, we packed our tent, bikes, face masks and hand gel into (and onto) our car.

We drove across the deserts, mountains and forests of… Well, of the Charente. We thought it best not to be too far from the local hospital in case the kids’ cooking went wrong. 

An hour and a half later, we arrived at our first APT destination. 

If you’d like to know more about the two Dordogne APT sessions we managed in 2020, come back tomorrow and I’ll share the first instalment with you. There will be photos, I promise.

 

Free Writing Workshop

Have you ever written creatively in another language?

Several years ago I took part in a series of regular writing workshops in French. I was very nervous before the first one. My French is fine for everyday life and work but I was sure I’d never be able to write anything decent.

What I wrote during those workshops was pretty basic. But it wasn’t a waste of time. I discovered that taking part in them activated my creative mind. I wasn’t able to write flowery, detailed sentences of exquisite beauty (hey, I can’t even do that in English), but I could still build a structure, develop a voice and create something in my mind that I then expressed on paper. It was a great way to pare down to the essentials of what I wanted to show.

My experience in these workshops is one reason why I have offered to do a free creative writing workshop in English for French speakers. I’d like other people to discover the satisfaction of creating something in your mind and then seeing it on paper in another language.

courtesy of Le Texte Libre

The bookshop in Cognac, Le Texte Libre, will be hosting the writing workshop. They have also organised a Meet the Author session led by Christine Clamens afterwards.

If you like, you can simply come to this second part.

My two novels, Tree Magic and Tree Slayer, are already on sale at Le Texte Libre. I’m happy to do book signings – as long as you promise to ask easy questions and clap loudly at the end!

While I’m being silly, here’s a link to a short video I made for Le Texte Libre’s facebook page.

The event is being held on Saturday 16th January 2021 from 3-6pm. The workshop will run from 3 – 5pm, and the Question & Answer (Q&A) session will begin at 5:15pm and finish at 6pm.

You don’t have to be bilingual to take part in the workshop, but you do need to be able to write basic sentences in English. If you don’t want to write, why not come along to the Meet the Author session and practise listening & speaking in English?

Reservations will be necessary for the workshop part, since we can only have 12 participants. Of course there will be a lot more room for an audience at the Q&A afterwards. You can call Le Texte Libre on 05 45 32 20 52 to reserve or leave a message on their facebook page.

If you know of any non-native English speakers who may be interested, please let them know. Of course, native English speakers are also welcome. If you’ve never written anything before, this may be a good way to try.

Finally, if you’d like to know more about me and my books, you can listen to this radio interview at RCF Charente, which I did in October, or this youtube video with the CEO of Impress Books, my publisher, which dates from June.

Look after yourself, have a happy Christmas and I hope to see you on Saturday 16th January.

Tree Slayer meets the world

WARNING: this is a post all about Tree Slayer. It may send you to sleep…

At the end of October 2020, Tree Slayer went on tour with Love Books Group for a week, stopping at different reviewers’ websites.

Sometimes the hosts shared an extract, sometimes – if they’d had time to read the book – they shared a review, and other times they interviewed me.

Just before the tour, Jacqui at French Village Diaries read and reviewed Tree Slayer. You can find her full review here and her interview ‘France et Moi’ here. You’ll find some great questions and silly answers there.

I’m not going to bore you with all the reviews, but here is a selection of my favourites.

I loved the continuation of Rainbow’s journey and the development of her gift, and also the introduction of a new character Eole who I thought was a great addition to the book.” Mandy_87

As lyrically and magically written as the first book, we are given a beautiful and thought provoking adventure. We see Rainbow grow further as a character and watch as she faces further challenges and new unlikely friendships along the way.” Reader of Rivendell

I recommend both books Tree Magic and Tree Slayer as you won’t find anything quite like this kind of unusual magic anywhere other than from the perfect imagination of Harriet Springbett.”  BookRead2Day

Harriet’s writing is beautiful throughout and some of the parts of the story are quite thought provoking. This book is a young adult read, but just like Tree Magic it is a book anyone can enjoy. It is unique, perfect for nature lovers and a good way to escape reality for a little while.” Hannah May Book Reviews

Harriet Springbett has a way of taking words, adding a touch of her own magic, and laying them on the page to form a lyrical prose which I thoroughly enjoyed.” Booky Charm

I found the narrative imaginative, beautifully written and easy to visualise. Eole was a very interesting character and comes with his own personal backstory and journey. He added a good balance to the story opposite Rainbow.” Living In My Own Private Library

This book is a really well crafted story, a perfect follow on from Tree Magic, the same descriptive writing and strong characters. A compelling tale of magic and strength. Loved it. A great read.” Daisy Hollands

 “Harriet’s imagination is wonderful and these books are just small masterpieces created from her mind. And yes, they’re worth the read!!” The B00kreader

If you have already ordered and perhaps read Tree Slayer, thank you very much! The size of a readership determines whether a publisher is willing to invest in an author or not – i.e. publish their next book – so sales are obviously important to me. I hope you enjoyed it – if so, please let me know.

If you haven’t read Tree Slayer, you may like to order it from the new internet platform for independent booksellers at uk.bookshop.org. On this platform you can decide which independent bookshop receives a percentage of your purchase – and you still pay the same price as you would on Amazon. I love this idea of supporting your favourite bookshops while still having the advantages of ordering online.

Within uk.bookshop.org I have set up a shopfront. If you order books via my shopfront, I will get a small percentage of any purchases you make. This is a new system so I’ll be testing it for a while.

It’s also available from any independent bookshop in the UK, including Blackwell’s (as you can see in this picture on p58 of their Christmas catalogue).

For readers in France, you can order both Tree Magic and Tree Slayer from Le Texte Libre in Cognac and Bradley’s Bookshop in Bordeaux. During the lockdown, both shops are delivering orders.

Another way of helping authors is to order their books from your library. We receive a tiny payment (about 6p) each time our book is taken out of a library. So you can see why I’d be grateful if you could ask your library to stock both Tree Magic and Tree Slayer. Then you can read the books without having to buy them!

Finally, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of leaving a comment on Amazon and / or Goodreads, and of sharing posts on Social Media about the books you’ve enjoyed.

A comment only needs to be a single sentence saying (hopefully) that you enjoyed the book and giving it a generous number of stars! The more comments a book receives, the more visibility it has on Amazon.

Thank you, as ever, for your support.

This is the end of my post, so you can wake up again now!

Final Day (8): Hide and Seek with Bears and Boys

Writing Residency Day 9 (last day *sobs*) – June 2017

I understand now why mountainy people get up early:

1st photo: from my room at 7:30 am.

2nd photo: from the office window 7:35 am.

3rd photo: from my room again at 7:45 am.

So what does a writer do on the last day of a writing residency at Arras-en-Lavedan?

Easy: instead of doing one research trek, the keen writer does two. Especially when it’s so misty that there is zero visibility at the top of the mountain.

The first trek took me to the Col d’Arras, where I was sure I’d be able to find a path onto what looked like summer pastures under the Pic d’Arragnat. I wanted to know whether Eole, my protagonist, was hanging around up there.

Perhaps he was. But with heavy bracken vegetation and little grass, I didn’t think it was likely. OK, I admit I wasn’t very persistent. Nor would you be if you heard a kind of growly-barky roar in the bushes and you were very much alone on the mountain.

I hot-footed it back down the non-path, got lost, panicked, struggled over a barbed wire fence and landed on my butt in the mud. I felt much better on the other side of the fence, despite the ripped trousers, and even a bit silly. After all, I could easily have defended myself with my swiss army knife. Couldn’t I? That’s what the bloke in the shop said, anyway.

(Don’t tell my sisters about this: they already split their sides laughing the time, aged 10, I was chased by a herd of cows and ended up clinging to a pole in the middle of a field).

As I write this, I’m listening to brown bear noises on Youtube, and I must admit that the noise is exactly what I heard. Though I guess that’s like looking up illnesses on the Internet to check your symptoms.

On the subject of bears in the Pyrenees, the original race of Pyrenean brown bear died out and Slovenian brown bears were introduced in the 1990s. In 2016 there were 39 bears, of which 2 in – omigod – this area… perhaps its just as well I’m leaving tomorrow! And, reading on through my informative source, if you come face-to-face with a bear you should retreat progressively. Not panic and run. Oh dear.

My Col d’Arras mission had aborted but, happily unaware of the real possibility of meeting a bear, I decided to attack the mountain from further along. There was definitely a path from Arcizans-Dessus up to the Col de Liar, and it passed straight through the said pastures.

Arcizans-Dessus is a tiny village that hugs the flank of a mountain – and boasts 22 watermills. Here are a few of them, lining the Anisaous stream and looking like a Pyrenean version of a housing estate. Some of the cute mills have been restored as cottages, while one serves as a demonstration mill.

The photo below resumes my morning’s research.

It took me an hour and a half of walking up steep z-bends to reach the silent, deserted Col de Liar. I did hear the eerie ring of bells through the mist on my way up, and there was a cold bonfire spot in the flat land at the top – but there was no sign of Eole and his sheep.

At least I determined that what looked like lush green pastureland from a distance was actually bracken (animals don’t eat bracken), so I guess that’s why this land isn’t grazed.

Coming back down, I was struck by a change in the mist. High up, its cold fingers creep down your back, soak your hair and drip dewdrops onto your eyelashes. But lower down it feels warm and steamy, like a Turkish bath, and the sappy, green tang of bracken gives way to the sweet aroma of elderflower. I’ve never experienced this with mist before – so my morning wasn’t a total waste of time, after all.

Back in the village I visited the church (Eole’s mum is dead religious) and found this guy sitting outside looking at MY mountain. He was made by Pedro Frémy, who also made the village carousel I mentioned in Day 6’s post as well as the other metal beasties around the Maison des Arts. Cute, eh?

Finally, I went to Le Kairn for my 5pm talk about my novel Tree Magic. Once again, I had to struggle through the crowd to get inside (actually, there was a crowd, but they weren’t interested in me).

It was lovely to catch up with my Lumineuse writing group friend Min, and I was delighted to see Bob from Laguépie, who I met at the Parisot Festilitt last year, and who had driven for 5 hours to see me.

Maybe they’d heard I’d be serving Pineau after the talk?

Pineau is the traditional aperitif in the Cognac area, and I’d brought a bottle for a farewell drink with all the lovely people who have hosted and befriended me this week: Françoise Gourvès, stained-glass artist extraordinaire and also my host at the Maison des Arts; multi-talented Karine from Le Kairn; Dominique Gainza with the strong, cheese-stirring arm muscles from the Val d’Azun sheep&goat farm; and Véronique the costume queen.

Many thanks to you all, and also to those who couldn’t make it: Alex from the mairie & Maison des Arts, Pascal Gainza, Valentine from Le Kairn, Caroline the costume-maker, Charles the Mayor and all the individuals who answered my (sometimes strange) questions.

And thanks to you who have followed these writing residency blog posts and those of you who came to my talks.

I’ll calm down now, and go back to my monthly posting habit.

Bye-bye, Arras-en-Lavedan. I’ll be back to say hello (with more bottles of Pineau) before too long.

Day 7: Twilight in the Pyrenees

Writing Residency Day 7 – June 2017

What have Transylvania and the Pyrenees got in common?

It’s easy to find an answer, but can you find my answer? Admit it, you’re struggling, aren’t you?

The answer is Dracula: vampires (hence this post title), although unfortunately not of the Robert Pattinson variety.

Of course, Dracula is no more indigenous to the Pyrenees than marmots and granite, but this summer, from 25th July to 6th August 2017, you will find the Prince of Shadows at Gavarnie.

The theatre company Fébus have been producing outdoor plays with the Gavarnie cirque as a backdrop for 10 years, including Le Cid and Beauty & the Beast.

This year, they’re preparing their own version of Bram Stoker’s novel with their 12 actors, and I was lucky enough to be party to one of their preparation meetings. This involved the costumes, which Véronique Strub has been in charge of for the last 5 years.

If you’ve followed my writing residency posts, you’ll know that Véronique and her assistant Caroline are on a residency here at the Maison des Arts with me. This means that instead of writing in my room in the company of my mountain, I can be distracted and learn all about costume making instead. For a future story, of course. Everything counts as work when you’re a writer.

I was astonished by the rail of clothes already installed, particularly by the flowery frock. I expressed my surprise to Caroline.

“That’s Dracula’s summer dress,” she said.

And I knew we would get on well together. (I was later told that the dresses had just been stocked there in transit for some sale).

Today’s meeting was with Fébus production & admin boss, Anne-Lise. On the table were the sketches Véronique and Caroline had produced so far, and they proceeded to explain their ideas to Anne-Lise.

Caroline has costume-making qualifications, and told me, as she modified her sketches in line with the discussion, that drawing was an important part of her course.

Véronique has done a huge amount of research, including collecting Balkan costumes on Pinterest and visiting the scene of the play so she knows how close the audience will be. This is vital for dimension decisions.

She has, of course, read Bram Stoker’s novel, concentrating on descriptions of the characters and their clothing. She even pulled out a Dracula picture book at one point during the meeting.

I was surprised to see to what extent the costumes were designed according to the physical build and the personalities of the actors. One character is new, added by scriptwriter and director Bruno Spiesser, and it was obvious that this made it more difficult to create a costume for her.

Bruno’s script was to hand, as was a summary of each act, showing who was on stage for each scene. As I listened, I realised that not only the physique but also the physical actions of each actor must be taken into consideration for the design.

For example, the vampires, who have to crawl on the ground at one point, have knee protections incorporated in their leggings. And the material covering their arms must be solid enough to take the weight of the wing supports.

Even the colour of Dracula’s climbing rope posed a problem, as its fluorescent colours didn’t match the décor.

Other parameters to be taken into account include the lighting, since a spotlight on a distinctive part of a costume can help the audience understand what’s happening.

Most surprising of all – yet completely logical, having heard the discussion – was how the style of costume has to correspond to the style of any music the actors play.

All in all, I realised how important it is for the costume makers to be involved with all parts of a play, from music to décor to the stage movements. With a fabric budget of 3000€ and three experienced costume makers working from now until 25th July, the visual side of the show, at least, looks promising.

If you fancy seeing the show, contact www.festival-gavarnie.com. There’s even a shuttle bus from Pau laid on for those who reserve in advance.

 

 

 

 

 

It was all very well sitting indoors with sewing machines and mannequins, but outside it was 30°C and the air smelt of newly-cut hay. I left the seamstresses and went to walk and think of writerly things in the shade of the forest above the little village of Sireix.

Since Eole and his sheep weren’t around, I took the opportunity to admire some beautiful trees, some curious insects, an interesting man-made feature – and some rare flowers, thanks to a botanical group I bumped into.

 

See you tomorrow for the final day of my writing residency.