Early autumn by the Dordogne


The morning we left home was only the second misty dawn with rain drops hanging on spiders’ webs draped on the bushes we had had in September. The incoming ferry was late arriving and watching all the arriving vehicles drive off, we noticed that there must have been a classic car event somewhere as several old cars appeared, even three 1930’s Rolls Royces similar to the one my father used to have. After a night on the boat we disembarked to endure lengthy security checks just before the sun rose in Caen.

The rest of the journey was easy but we did see long queues of lorries heading north on the N10 south of Angoulême. Foreign HGV drivers have been blocking roads as a protest against the high tolls on the autoroute. Drivers do not pay road tax for their vehicles in France so the tolls are the way money is raised to maintain the network. We arrived in time for a walk by the river near the local château where some sunflowers were still in flower. Many more are drying before harvesting. Persimmons and kiwi fruits are harvested after the first frost.

The village our friends live in is on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, one of the routes in France that converge at St Jean Pied de Port before the path continues on through Spain. There was a crucifix and a scallop shell (worn by pilgrims and a way marker for the trail) on one of the buildings.

Over the next few days we visited markets in Branne and Libourne where these lobsters awaited their fate in the fish market.

Libourne is attempting to control the urban pigeon population by building a dovecot on the riverside and when the pigeons nest there, the eggs are replaced with ceramic ones. The waterfront here is under renovation, due for completion in 2025. Inevitably visit to vineyards and wine buying took place at Château la Sablière and a local wine co-operative and an art and craft exhibition in St Émilion.

We visited Bordeaux in the evening for a dinner cruise along the Garonne. The meal was very enjoyable although it was the first time I have had avocado as a dessert.

Tomato plants were being grown in tubs along the waterfront and I assumed this was free food. A couple of days later while doing some shopping, these were being removed. Other walks were around Lac de la Cadie which is also used for watersports and fishing and around the 100 Years War battlefield and Talbot memorial in Castillon la Bataille. Summer re-enactments are held in July and August involving large numbers of people and horses.

The local grape harvest was underway. Much of it is mechanised but grapes for the better wines are still hand-picked. Château d’Yquem grapes are picked and examined six times before being declared suitable. All too soon it was time to leave on a wet, misty morning with the trees colouring for autumn. Again we were fortunately driving in the opposite direction to the heavy traffic and we did not have too many delays at the port before we were back on the ferry and on our way home. It was still misty when we got to Portsmouth but today we have some warm autumn sun at home to enjoy the colours and catch up on garden jobs.

The end of summer?


The last weekend of August (the hottest August Bank Holiday since records began) saw us back in Edinburgh to catch some of the last music and the Fireworks concert at the end of the Festival. Flagstaff Americana are a mainly Scottish group with an Australian playing bass guitar and a lead singer from Northern Ireland. They play a selection of country and rock music which is right up James’s street and also do regular gigs at the bar & bistro, Biblos. We saw them in the Fringe last year at Henry’s Cellar Bar in Morrison Street and this was their venue on Sunday evening. Here they are getting ready to perform.

On Monday evening, after walking down to town with only one flyer being thrust in our faces, we joined the long queue to enter Princess Street Gardens where there is a seated are at the Ross Bandstand and standing/picnicking tickets for the gardens. I had treated us to seats so we enjoyed the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and guests while watching the fireworks a little closer than I saw them last year from the top of Calton Hill.



The Scottish schools began their autumn term in mid August and the rest of the UK returns to school this week. Monday is Labor Day in the USA and another sign that autumn is on the way. However, although we have plenty of mellow fruitfulness: I am busy making apple juice, damson and sloe gin, passata with tomatoes and soup with cucumbers, we have only so far had a fleeting glimpse of mist before the sun burnt it off yesterday morning. Summer is not over yet and some are saying an Indian Summer is forecast. Traditional recipes state that sloes should not be picked until after the first frost but if we did that now, they would all be eaten by birds as our first frost is still weeks away and they are ripe.

A friend commented recently that we used to pick blackberries in October and now they are ripe in August. I now have figs ripening outside which I could not have done several years ago. We will be extending our summer a little more during a week in southwest France very soon and I am also busy planning more journeys.

Heading south to delay autumn

The cherry tree outside my studio is always the first to colour and drop its leaves in early autumn. The days are noticeably shorter and on Tuesday, my last early start for work, I found myself noting that I will need another layer and perhaps even gloves very soon.

Autumn leaves (1 of 1)

We have planned a trip to the volcanoes of Sicily and the Aeolian islands for some time and tomorrow we drive down to Gatwick before flying out to Catania on Saturday morning. It is always interesting to compare the descriptions of places we are visiting in my antiquarian guidebooks with the situation on the ground in the 21st century. Baedeker’s Southern Italy (published in 1912) does say that July to October is the best time of year to visit the area but describes the mule and horse transport to take you up to the hiking departure point on Mount Etna. We will be using vehicles but having a pony train to transport your equipment and support staff is familiar from trekking in Ladakh a few years ago. I ended up going over one of the high passes (4,900m) on horseback as I got central cyanosis a little further down. Fortunately there are many interesting mountains at a lower altitude and on Sunday we will be visiting Mount Etna. The mountain weather forecast is for a clear sky (they had storms earlier this week) and a high of 5 degrees at the summit (chill factor 0 degrees). Sunday looks like the best day for a view as later in the week it looks like cloud will be coming in. So we are packing from temperatures from 0-30 plus degrees.

Baedekkers southern Italy (1 of 1)

Baedekkers 1912 Sicilia map (1 of 1)

Leaving autumn behind

My busy but newish train slid out of the tunnels near Lime Street and past several local stations this afternoon. The banks on both sides of the track were still full of autumn colour despite it now being November. Today was the first day I have worn my winter coat after a very warm October when it was not needed. The sky was blue with white clouds but as it was late afternoon the light was fading fast. Just as we passed over the M57 there were large areas of vacant brownfield sites: we are in great need of more homes but there is no money for it up here. By the time we had got to St Helens, the Scouse accent had disappeared (there is quite a tight isogloss around Liverpool) and we are into Lancastrian territory. The red sun was slipping below the horizon as we drew into Wigan North Western where I had to wait a while for my next train. Once it arrived I was on board and settled down to read a PhD thesis I have to examine. At Carlisle there had been heavy rain recently and the station was gleaming where the light hit wet surfaces. When I arrived in Edinburgh the buildings were illuminated in different colours – purple for the castle and red for Jenners. A quick walk to the mound and I was on the bus and in the flat very quickly.Beech leaves Smallwood Oct 2014 (1 of 1)

En route to the Emerald Isle 1

Once I had finished a training session on Saturday it was time to drive to Edinburgh as the first stage of the journey to Northern Ireland. After heavy rain overnight the sky was clearing with the sun and patches of blue appearing. The autumn colours were stunning in the late afternoon light and we saw several rainbows over the Pennines and the Southern Uplands. I did a quick sketch with notes as we passed it just south of Tebay, of one particular view that had grabbed me. As we arrived at the service station for a break, the ducks were waddling as fast as they could towards a couple having a picnic at one of the tables outside. I took a couple of photos as a colour reference for the projected painting before having a quick coffee and completing the journey to Edinburgh before darkness fell.
Tebay Landscape 4 October 2014 (1 of 1)

Tebay Landscape 2 4 October 2014 (1 of 1)

Today was spent trying (and failing) to buy tickets for Glastonbury 2015, doing essential shopping and housework here before an early start to pick up the ferry from Troon tomorrow morning.