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Saturday, 1 September 2018

Animal Magic

Picture the scene. You’re in rural France surrounded by a collection of tethered animals. Gently lowing cattle mumble to bleating sheep, neighing horses natter to their braying cousins. Goats, are chipping in from time to time, they always have something to say. Then there are the humming alpacas – nobody seems to understand what they’re going on about.

Now you can smell the ironic cocktail of beasts mixed with smoking barbecues and tissue paper crepes sizzling on hotplates. Giggling youngsters and gossiping adults compete for air time with mechanical belches coming from smoke covered ancient machines. And there you have it; the rural French livestock fete my sister, Di, and I visited a couple of weekends ago.

This event was a festival of pulling, though not in the modern-day colloquial sense. It was a celebration of those animals traditionally used for drawing machines, and also motorised traction equipment. Advances in technology have meant that many of these specifically bred animals no longer have a practical use, and several of the machines are now obsolete. Today was an opportunity to admire these workers.

We ambled along a line of portly backsides – docile cattle, every one in perfect condition. Most snoozed in the blazing afternoon sun although some had a spot of bother with flies. Circling to the front end, we were met by liquid brown eyes. Their expressions spoke volumes. Did we have anything to nibble on? Ah no, shame. Never mind, a mouthful of hay will do. Feel free to admire us and scratch our ears, they are a bit itchy.

Adjacent were a collection of metal corrals. Individually, these contained sheep, goats and a different breed of cattle. These were brown with particularly pointy horns.

“Ooh come and have a look at these ones,” I called to Di, weaving my hand through the cylindrical bars to give one a forehead scratch.


“Don’t touch though,” I winced unsquishing my hand from between the rail and the animal’s head, “think this one’s had enough for the day.”

“Ouch! I wonder if they were used for pushing rather than pulling things?!”

“Very funny.”

We walked over to the horses. Huge heavyweight draft livestock welcomed us with pleasurable snickers and lazily swishing tails. Bays, roans, blacks, all with hooves the size of dinner plates and proud countenances, each wanting attention. And we were the pair to give it.

We were brought up riding ponies and horses. We learned very early that the smaller the animal, the greater the risk of being shipped off the top – or mauled. Tiny Shetland ponies were quite the worst offenders in our experience. Big beasts like these tended to be less mischievous. Their gentle kind eyes said it all. I was busy fussing a particularly handsome giant when Di gasped theatrically.

“You have to look at this one!”

I joined her at the side of a black beauty.

“Wow, what a gorgeous animal.”

“Ooh, I’d love to have one of these, just think, I could ride it through the orchards and in the forest and…”

“It’s a big broad across the back for you, Di, you’re only little. Your feet would stick up either side of the saddle. Think rider from a Thelwell cartoon.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Besides which, with your stiff back you’d need a stepladder to get on it.”


We discovered it was a Mérens pony (Google image below). Also known as an Ariégeois pony, it a small, rustic horse native to the Pyrenees and Ariégeois mountains of southern France. They were traditionally used for draft work or pack horses and are known for their sure-footedness. This was a trait I felt might come in handy if my sister were to acquire one.

We moved onto the youngsters. Foals peeped bashfully, calves crowded around their mums looking for a quick snack, each one impossibly adorable.

The sheep, goats and donkeys were penned in small enclosures, all looked perfectly at home, enjoying the human spectacle passing by. I wondered what they thought about us – we were a motley old crew.

Our final pen contained a group of alpacas. Normally incredibly beautiful, one jet black specimen tried his best to buck the trend. That boy needed serious dental work!

We stepped out from the shade of trees into bright sunshine and what looked like a Romany encampment. Stalls stacked with bric-a-brac lined one side of the field the other was filled with a fantastic assortment of vehicles, some motorised, others not. Sensing a buying opportunity, my sister dragged me to the first stand and started digging around in a pile of material.

“Look! You must buy that tapestry.”

“Why, it’s tiny?”

“That medieval scene with a bit of Carcassonne in it would go wonderfully well in your place. You can make a cushion out of it.”

Being a sucker for ‘old’ things I approached the trader and asked how much he would consider selling the moth eaten treasure for. He looked so nonplussed I wondered whether I was supposed to open the bidding. In an effort to kick things off I started wafting it about looking suitably disappointed.

Erm, 50 cents s’il vous plaît,” he blurted, apparently plucking a price out of thin area.

Bargain. Buy it!” hissed the retail addict beside me.

I produced a 50 cents coin just as a commanding looking lady joined the young man.

20 euros, madame, s’il vous plaît,” she rapped.

This was embarrassing. I looked appropriately confused while the youngster confessed he had just sold it to me for, ooooh, a fraction of the price. The lady scowled and shrugged her shoulders, I shrugged mine and Di beamed inanely. We scurried off with said tapestry leaving the poor lad to his fate.

We passed trestle tables groaning with old signs, another with tools. Then a basket maker, a saddler, a rope maker demonstrating the technique involved. And if you wanted to buy a hat – no problem. There was a mountain of them from which to choose a special fave. After all, it was a boiling hot day.

The machines and tackle were equally intriguing. Old tractors, rollers, ploughs, motorbikes from WW2 (we weren’t entirely sure why they were there, nevertheless they were fascinating), all gracious and intriguing in an old fashioned way. There were carriages and carts of different sizes, then a wall bearing yolks used by horses. These were superb exhibits from the past, and not so distant in the case of our area.

We turned back towards a grassy arena where they were preparing for the main event. We were dying to see this. It was to be an equestrian show with Festibérique, a local team of riders and performers. Our pal’s granddaughter was performing. I had seen Léna ride before and knew her to be a highly skilled horsewoman.

We headed towards it via the horseboxes to wish Léna good luck as she prepared for the show. The mounts were ready, saddled up and relaxing in the shade. They were all stunning. But it wasn’t all horses. Di drew my attention to a very unusual artist. It was the tallest cow I have ever seen in my life. I had no idea what this fine animal was expected to do.

Hunger and thirst had got the better of us by now. We decided to satiate both before the display began. Di trotted off to buy drinks and I made a beeline for the ice cream man.

We settled down on the grassy mound that formed our seating for the arena, dribbly ice cream in one hand, water in the other, waiting for the spectacle to begin.

On came a duo of greys, stunning horses ridden by men with lances who executed a series of intricate movements. Horses in perfect harmony to the complex manipulation of the props – we were gripped.

An interlude of fun came next with an impossibly cute Shetland pony and its human sidekick. That well known film theme blared across the showground from speakers close by. Yes, we were in the company of Pirates of the Caribbean. They were alternative, they were brilliant.

The feisty pony swaggered and cavorted around the arena, plainly loving the fun. We suspected it wasn’t doing exactly as its co-performer asked, but that’s Shetlands for you. As they tumbled out in came the enormous cow. I’ll admit I haven’t seen a performing cow before.

I suspect it really wouldn’t have mattered what its owner commanded, this animal was going to do its own sweet thing come what may. That said, it obliged with several very un-cowly slow motion manoeuvres before discovering the arena base material. Grass. Lovely lush green grass.

The audience roared with laughter at this amiable monster as his master tried his best to divert its attention but it was always going to be a losing battle. Finally the act came to an end. The pair strolled out of the arena to the sounds of cheers and uproarious applause for the cow with attitude and a mouthful of the green stuff.

Then came the performers we were really waiting to see. The music changed. Silence fell among the spectators as ethereal notes filled the air. Léna rode in on her beloved Swany, a majestic grey horse who loves to perform.

They moved in perfect harmony, both horse and rider utterly in tune. Dressage movements, movements one naturally associates with those famed Lipizzaner horses, Léna gave the subtlest commands and Swany responded.

This beautiful horse glided, side-stepped, high-stepped and pirouetted. Her elegance was remarkable as was the grace with which she executed each move. We could have watched for hours.

As their performance came to an end, both Léna and Swany bowed to the each section of the audience. Cheers of admiration rang out, the audience were in love with this talented pair – the bond between them as obvious as their demonstration of equestrian excellence.

We had time to see one more act before leaving and this had a wow factor all of its own. On came another big grey horse with its male rider using a saddle but no bridle. They began by executing a series of death-defying acrobatics. As the horse thundered around the arena the rider slid off the saddle, under the horse’s belly and back on the saddle the other side. It was an unbelievable stunt, and just the start.

The rider vaulted either side of his mount, made handstands on the saddle, reached horizontal, you name it – he performed it, all the time while the horse was in motion. We couldn’t believe our eyes.

Their piece ended to huge cheers of admiration for both rider and his fantastic mount. But that was not the end of it.

As spectators excitedly gossiped about the rodeo-like show we had just witnessed they returned. This time without saddle or bridle, the mighty horse, refreshed with water, came back in with his master to dazzle us with a series of fantastic moves that showed the true athleticism of this wonderful animal.

The horse reared, it bucked, it spun, it danced. It made a capriole-like move by leaping into the air, tucking his fore legs under his chest, and kicking out with his hind legs at the top of the jump. It must have taken years of training to achieve. We watched, spellbound as this partnership entertained. Finally, under the beating sun, their act was complete. It had been another stunning performance, one that reinforced our love for these noble animals.

A final bow from this great steed signaled the end of our visit. We returned home, Di chattering excitedly about owning Méren horses (she was up to a small herd by now), and me about Léna and her co-performer, we were both still in awe of what we had just seen. There’s no doubt about it, we really do reckon animals are magic.  

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Inglorious Mud

In defence of the gentlemen concerned, before you begin rolling your eyes in despair at this account, it’s only fair to assure you that they are all expert off-road drivers. No really, they are…

So far we’ve had a funny old year weather-wise. As many of you know, the heavens opened in our pocket of south-west France in mid-December and forgot to stop. Flash floods, deluges, mud slides, we had the lot.

Crops were threatened, giving farmers reason to moan more than usual, which put the wind up insurance companies. They retaliated by reaching for their small print disclaimers stating: sorry, no payout for Acts of God. This fuelled Jack’s (my grumpy husband) conviction that there exists an even tinier print which reads: we find a way not to pay whatever the circumstances.

By the second week in June we were understandably a bit cheesed off with constantly wading through our clay-based mud. Take a bucket of that lot home and I’m sure I could have knocked up a couple of decent kiln-ready pots in no time at all.

Happily there were one or two respite days. The sun shone down, sizzling sodden crops, reminding us that it really does get pretty hot here at this time of year. It was on one such day we decided to spend the evening nature watching.

With Jack at the wheel of our aging 4x4, we shimmied and skidded into the forest to my favourite observation hide. He temporarily left me to unpack our picnic and drove on to complete his deer food dispensing rounds.

I watched as the car slewed from side to side, taking its own route through deeply bevelled, muddy tracks. As it disappeared from view, sideways, I heaved a sigh of relief that it wasn’t me driving. There’s no doubt Jack really does know how to handle these conditions, I’d have had us in a ditch in no time at all.

With the final feed done, Jack was on his way back via another innocuous-looking trail. I glanced over and was surprised to see he had stopped on open ground. This was strange. I quickly realised why. Mud spats, glistening in the evening sun, were flying up either side of the car. The tyres were spinning on the level surface – but there was no forward movement at all.

I peered through binoculars, secretly grateful I wasn’t there to hear Jack’s commentary. (To say my husband is easily frustrated would be a mild understatement. Okay – gross understatement.) It took him about ten minutes, working the gears, before he finally managed to get the car moving.

Jack reversed back to the deer feeding point and took a new route via the meadow edge. This seemed sensible. The undergrowth is high and should have had root systems to provide firmer going. Not so. The car ploughed ahead a short distance and stopped again. This wasn’t a good sign.

With growing tension I watched Jack amongst the weeds battling the conditions, but the car wasn’t going anywhere. There wasn’t much point in me spending the evening gawping through my binoculars so I climbed out of the hide and walked the short distance to join him.

Sticky stuff, clay-based soil. The more Jack tried to free it, the more the car glued itself to the mud. To add insult to injured pride, a roving mushroom picker popped out of the woods.

Gilles, a neighbouring farmer, when not moaning about failed crops is ever so chirpy. He kindly offered to fetch his tractor to tow us out. Nooooo, that was far too simple. Jack, puffing out his chest, thanked him and refused. He’d had an alternative idea. We complimented Gilles on his magnificent fungi and he disappeared back into the woods to find his lost wife.

Jack’s masterful scheme was to use the Jobber’s (mini truck) winch to pull it out. But the Jobber was back at the house – a long way away.

Sometime later, as night was chasing in, we were organised. The Jobber winch hook was snugly wrapped around a tree and tow rope attached to the car. Point of information here: Range Rovers are very heavy vehicles.

As the tow rope and winch cable took up the strain it was clear something had to give. It wasn’t the Range Rover, or the tree. A rifle crack twang signified the end of the cable as the hawser snapped. This was an awkward moment. I looked nervously at Jack, assuming he was ready to blow.

“H’m, thought that might happen,” he mused, sounding remarkably balanced under the circumstances.

With nothing else to try, we abandoned the car to the forces of nature overnight.

The following day brought Nathan, our French forester and all round treasure. We explained the situation.

Pas de problème,” he quietly murmured. Nathan was practically born on his tractor, has spent years wielding it around the forest pathways and was supremely confident it would drag the car out in no time at all.

That afternoon we traipsed back into the forest. Jack and I in the Jobber, our dogs, Aby and Max, galloping joyfully alongside. Nathan trundled along behind in his prehistoric tractor.

We weren’t overly surprised to find that the car was a little lower in the ground, but at least it hadn’t been mauled by a wild boar. The men surveyed the site – evidently deciding it was going to be a cinch.

Nathan attached a long towing line to the car and planted his forester’s winch blade deeply into the ground as an extra brake. Jack fired up the Range Rover and the rescue attempt began. Mud flew, engines roared and tempers flared, but no progress was made. Instead, the car was now tilting backwards where the rear tyres had sunk even deeper into the mud.

Temporarily foiled, but never defeated, we eyeballed the damage. Max tested out nearby ruts to confirm that they were deep – no need, Max, we knew they were. Soon a new plan of attack was hatched, it was a simple case of physics. To avoid dragging the car deeper into the mud the tractor had to pull the vehicle upwards. Easy-peasy, Nathan had a lovely big chain that would yank it out in moments.

The dogs were dismissed to the Jobber tailgate for bad behaviour. I joined them and we watched as the tractor took up its new position. More engine screams, ash clouds of mud filled the air, as did expletives while both vehicles laboured under the strain. All too soon it became clear what was going to happen. Nothing positive.

Engines were cut.  Nathan got out of his cab, and Jack climbed out of the window as the door rim was below the ground now.

Merde!” (bit sweary), Nathan exclaimed, morosely surveying his sunken charger. The tractor had joined the fate of the Range Rover and was well and truly stuck. Now we were in a pickle. We had nothing else that could attempt a tow and were fast running out of vehicles.

To avoid exposing any macho embarrassment, I stared at my toes while the dogs looked away, busying themselves with rabbit spotting. Resigned to the inevitable, the men concluded the only way forward was to dig out the vehicles. Brilliant. They went to fetch excavation tools while the dogs and I tested the site for further wet spots. There were lots.

This time Nathan returned on a quad bike. I’m still not sure why. All we needed was the tractor mower and we’d have the complete mechanical portfolio out. We spent the next half hour splashing around with spades, pieces of wood, branches, anything to enable the tractor tyres to gain purchase. Those babies weren’t having any of it.

Wheels with no visible tread spun gaily in the mud. Meanwhile, the Range Rover was gently sinking.

It may have been a touch emasculating, but there we are. We were well and truly scuppered. The guttingly awful truth had to be faced. We needed Gilles after all.

Gilles was telephoned.

Ah oui bien sûr,” he cried, thrilled to be invited to save the day. He was shopping but he and his tractor would be with us within the hour.

We reassembled to the sounds of distant rumbling. Out into the clearing came Gilles in his tractor. It was positively enormous. Pulling up into the carpark of assorted vehicles and dogs, he threw open the cab door and zoomed down the ladder. Wearing his customary ’70’s shorts and wellies, I couldn’t help wondering whether he had stopped off to change en route from shopping. Probably not.

Absolute gent that he is, Gilles condoled about the general merde-ness of the conditions, it could have happened to anyone. We all sagely nodded in agreement. He continued by assuring us he’d have our vehicles on terra firma in no time at all. And he did.

New lengths of tow rope were attached to Nathan’s tractor, which now looked like a Dinky toy. Gilles gently eased the gears of his magnificent monster and plucked it out of the ground to safety. Now it was the Range Rover’s turn. This wasn’t quite so simple as it was semi-submerged, or at least well and truly planted.

My girlie concerns that the chassis might become detached from the rest of the vehicle with one good yank were dismissed as a new angle of attack was established. Gilles’ mighty machine scored another blinder by gently easing the car out of its mud bath and pulling it onto the hard stuff. What a relief.

Finally we had all our two vehicles operational and it was all thanks to Gilles in those dashing ’70’s shorts. Who would have thought an innocent open forest track could be the cause of so much hassle. That’s inglorious mud for you!