February 22, 2015

My rubbish Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ3

When I first bought and started using my new little Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ3 camera back in September 2013 I was quite fulsome in my praise for it. It was fairly inexpensive yet was quite capable of producing excellent images with its 16 megapixel resolution, 10x optical and 20x digital zoom and smart panorama facility to name just a few of its features. And with the Panasonic name behind it, it seemed reasonable to assume that it would continue doing so for some time to come if the old Pentax Optio that it replaced was anything to go by, which was still reliably performing after five or six years and having been bashed, scratched, dented and generally given a pretty hard time during that period.

Wrong. I first noticed that I was having problems with the Panasonic less than a year after buying it but didn’t understand why before it was too late and the warranty had run out. Here’s a pic I took with it of the vineyards outside St Emilion last September.

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I didn’t spot the large blob marked with an arrow until afterwards and at the time I kicked myself because I thought that I’d been careless in not cleaning the camera lens. However, shots that I took later after carefully doing so showed that that wasn’t the reason after all. Here’s a pic that I shot of the valley across the road from my house in January.

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Now not only were more blobs visible but they also became more pronounced if you zoomed in a bit to enlarge the image in the viewfinder.

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So that’s when I contacted Panasonic support in the UK, as that’s where I’d originally purchased the camera. After going through the silly rigmarole of resetting the camera and trying again, which any thinking person would know would have no effect as the problem was obviously to do with the lens or picture-taking system, I was then asked to send some sample pictures after the re-set had been carried out. The following are two of the several that I sent that showed the problem and how it got worse when you zoomed in.

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Since then all I’ve heard from Panasonic is a deathly silence, and I think I know why. If you do an internet search of say, ‘dark blobs panasonic photographs’ or something similar, you open a door to what is probably thousands of links from people with the same problem as I had. The problem is due to dust being sucked into the camera whenever it is turned on and the lens bellows operate, which then settles onto the CCD sensor. And not only that, if you do a more general search it seems, to me anyway, that Panasonic compacts are much more prone to this problem than other makes, so could this be why Panasonic support are now so reluctant to communicate with me?

But in any case, I’m not holding my breath. After completing my internet searches, I decided that as I already have a miniature screw-driver set, I’d have a go at following the instructions that have been posted by lots of people on how to take the camera apart and clean the CCD sensor. After all, it was unusable in its then present state and it hadn’t cost a great deal in the first place, so there was not a whole lot to lose. Here are a few shots that I took of it on my table in pieces. To get to the CCD sensor you have to take it apart and swing the viewing screen back out of the way, on its connecting cable.

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The CCD sensor is mounted on the underside of the black plastic cover shown in the next shot and I hoped that I’d be able to get at it by removing the screws that are shown arrowed.

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But it was not to be. The cover did indeed lift, but the CCD sensor was still attached to it in some way that I could not easily fathom. I carefully cleaned it, however, by reaching underneath the cover with a soft cloth and blowing a jet of air, and then I put the whole lot back together again and tried it out. The result was useless – the pictures that resulted were totally out of focus.

My conclusion was that the CCD sensor hadn’t properly seated when I’d screwed the black plastic cover back on again and that it was probably attached to the cover by the tiny torx head screws that are ringed in the above image. Victor kindly loaned me a miniature torx set but when I took the camera apart again, apart from finding that most of the securing screws that hold it together, which screw into plastic, had stripped nearly all of their plastic threads, I also found that the tiny torx screws just turned without coming out.

By this time I’d decided that such a cheap-and-nasty plastic design was just not worthy of all the effort, so whatever the outcome was of trying to align everything as best I could and carefully reassembling the camera, that would be it. Sure enough, although this time the test shots were in slightly better focus, they were still totally unacceptable for a 16 megapixel camera.

So what could I do? No-brainer, that one. Ditch the Panasonic and buy a Fuji Finepix JX660. It has less zoom that the Panasonic but for what I mainly will use it for, taking pictures from the aircraft, I don’t use zoom anyway. I liked the Panasonic smart panorama feature, which used the camera’s video system, but the Fuji has a different, albeit manual one that stitches together three separately shot images of the panorama, that seems to work pretty well. After my experience of buying a new Panasonic and being so badly let down, I got one second-hand from Ebay for peanuts and here it is.

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So far, so good, although I’ve not yet had a chance to try it in the air where its image stabilisation system will come into play. When it arrived, I found that whoever owned it had only take 500 shots with it. When I checked, I was gob-smacked to find that I’d taken more than 10,000 in a year with the Panasonic and 5,000 in four or five years with my old Optio, so it just shows the effect that the internet/digital picture age has had on photography. I would guess that formerly, most cameras owned by ‘ordinary’ people, as distinct from photographers, wouldn’t take over 10,000 pictures in their whole lifetime, let alone in just a year. Even so, I don’t think that’s any excuse for the Panasonic Lumix to let me down after such a short period of time.

My conclusion – I’ll not be buying another Panasonic product of any sort, let alone another camera or video product. If they can’t make the effort to communicate with and support me when things go wrong, I sure as heck will not be going out of my way to support them 😐

February 20, 2015

Five airfields

It’ll probably come as much of a surprise to anyone reading this in the UK as it did to me, to find out that just in my local area alone, there are loads of little privately owned ULM airfields. And that just includes the ones that are officially listed and shown on the charts, because there are also many others that are not. The weather was lovely yesterday, albeit with a layer of bluish ground-hugging haze, so I decided to set up a flight that would allow me to discover five of the ones to the south-east of Galinat that I knew were there but had not seen before. Here’s a pic of the chart showing the route I had planned and the five airfields in question.

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As an added bonus, my planned route would also take me past the town of Gourdon, which I flew to a few months ago when the weather was more favourable, but not close enough to to get any decent shots of, and I hoped to partially rectify that during my flight.

The quality of the pictures that I shot unfortunately leaves a lot to be desired. That’s because for the time being, I’ve had to revert to my trusty old Pentax Optio camera that’s a bit lacking in the megapixel department by current standards. The reason for that is because my rubbish ‘new’ Pansonic DMC-SZ3 has had to be consigned to the scrapheap after just over a year’s use (the faults it suffers from actually first became apparent within the year but unfortunately I didn’t recognise them for what they were) and I’ll be going into that in more detail at some other time as a possible cautionary tale for others possibly considering a camera purchase.

One thing I would say is that I found all of the airfields that I was looking for with absolutely no problems. The reason for that, of course, was that I was using my trusty GPS system which has proven its worth time and time again and on this occasion brought each airfield and waypoint up ‘on the button’. I now never fly without it, except for very short local excursions, because I know that with it in the cabin with me I’ll never be uncertain of my position, no matter what transpires during the flight.

Airfield 1 was only a short five minute hop from Galinat. I easily spotted it as I approached, and here are a couple of shots of it.

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It looks as though whoever flies from there has got it made, with his house at one end of a fairly long, flat grass runway and a very tidy looking hangar at the other 🙂

Then on to field 2, which only took another three minutes or so. It consisted of a very long, slightly undulating grass runway that was neatly cut out of the trees and nicely outlined with white markers. I think that this was the one that Wim told me about before the flight that’s owned by an Englishman who has gardens that are open to the public during the tourist season. I’m pretty certain that it was the right place because after flying past the runway and main house, I did spot what looked like a large specially laid-out decorative garden of some sort.

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Then on to airfield three, which was the one that gave me the biggest surprise. As shown in the following picture, it consisted of a fairly long grass runway cut onto the side of a steep hill, and when I say steep, I mean it! Although there was a run-off area at its bottom end, I do seriously wonder whether, given the runway’s gradient, it would be possible to pull up before, or on it even, in the event of an aborted take-off.

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Airfield four couldn’t have been more different, as the following pictures show. It was just a short, flat, rather untidy looking runway outside a small house that looked from the air to be a good match for the runway! I do wonder, actually, if the house is a holiday or secondary home that the owner hasn’t visited for a few weeks or months and if it and the runway are both now due their spring spruce-up.

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And finally airfield 5. This was just a large bare field containing a long, slightly sloping grass runway. The reason for why it was so long became clear as I approached it, for as the following picture shows, under covers close to the road passing the field was a Robin Group A aircraft.

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So that was my main mission accomplished – five small airfields and all of them located – and then it was time to continue on towards the town of Gourdon. Unfortunately, neither the direction from which the sun was shining nor the camera I was using did me any favours, but in any case, here are a couple of the best shots that I managed to take.

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When I took off, the ground temperature was around 13 degrees Celsius and I found that the air aloft was quite a bit warmer than I’d expected. For example, I was quite comfortable flying with my glove off for quite long periods in order to take pictures. I also found that there was quite a lot of lift about and as a result, lots of large birds of prey soaring over the areas that were tree-covered. The whole flight lasted for 1 hour and 45 minutes and at the end of it I felt very pleased with how it had gone.

It was a pity, however, that when I’d uncovered 56NE earlier I’d found that the mouse, squirrel or whatever it is that has taken up residence in it while I’m not there is now not only using it as a winter home but is also enjoying its meals inside it and using the seats as a toilet. For the time being I’ve tried moving the aircraft to a different parking spot but I fear that ultimately, as recommended by various local people who, being country folk, are less sentimental about such things than I am, more drastic and direct measures will be necessary in order to deal with the problem more permanently 😐

February 17, 2015

Chutney

Look, I don’t claim to be a Gordon Ramsay or a Jamie Oliver but I can turn my hand to a bit of gastronomy if I have to. At this time of the year I like to make my own recipe winter vegetable soup and when I came to assemble the ingredients for the last batch I found that it was actually much cheaper to buy a 5 kg ‘filet d’oignons’ (5 kg of onions in a string bag) than the much smaller quantity that I actually needed. After I’d made the soup, I was then left with something of a problem – what to do with all of the onions left over so they didn’t go to waste?

Then I had a bit of a brainwave. As I’ve just bought a new gas barbecue for the summer, what if I made some lovely onion chutney that I could treat my guests to with their bangers and burgers? So then I poked around on the internet and came across just the recipe I needed on the Tesco web site, and the answer had to be, ‘Yes!’ Well, to cut a long story short, I got the ingredients together, most of which apart from the brown sugar and fresh garlic I already had, and made a batch according to the recipe on Sunday. I don’t have such things as weighing scales so I have to do a lot of things by eye but I was fairly gob-smacked when I’d finished to find that the resulting product was delicious! And not only that, after being kept for a few months, it’s supposed to get even better with age.

The only disappointment was that after starting with what looked like a ruddy great pile of onions, I only came out with just over a single largish jar of chutney. But not to worry – I still had at least the same amount left in the ‘filet’ as I’d just used, enough for another run. And that’s when my mind started to go into overdrive. If chutney is that easy to make, why not try adding a few extra ingredients – like for example figs and tomatoes? So off I went this afternoon to buy some more sugar, as most of the last 500 gm bag of brown had been used in the first run, plus some dried figs (fresh much too expensive) and some large tomatoes.

I used the original as the basis for my new own-recipe Onion, Fig and Tomato Chutney. It was time-consuming chopping up all of the ingredients but I found after the first run that it was better and less hectic to have everything prepared and ready to go into the pot. It took a couple of hours or so and this time, with the extra ingredients, I ended up with a heck of a lot more product than after the first time. Luckily I’d anticipated that and got all of the old jars that I had clean and ready, even resorting to tipping some old jam in the bottom of one away and emptying the marmalade in another into a cup. Here are a couple of shots showing the results of my labours.

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The chutney I made on Sunday is in the large jar over the back on the left in the first shot. All of the other jars contain the new recipe from today. The second shot shows a close-up (slightly out of focus, sorry) of today’s batch, which tastes great just out of the pot and will be lovely with cheese or cold meat, for example. I don’t have another sealed container for it so I’ll just have to eat it over the next few days – a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. All in all, I’m pleased with what I’ve come up with and quite proud too, in a way. The real test though, will come in a few months time and I just hope that it proves to be up to the job when my guests give it a proper trial run.

February 13, 2015

La gestion du bois de chauffage

My management of my wood-burner wood, which is what the title of this post is about, hasn’t been as good as it should be lately. When I cut and split my last batch of wood, I knew that it would only last for a couple of weeks and now that time has come. And inevitably, after quite a long period of dry weather, rain is now forecast going into next week.

I was going to go outdoors today, cut and split all of the remaining wood that’s still dry under covers outdoors and stack it all in my wood store. However, I got a phone call from Victor before I’d even started suggesting that as he had to visit the Bio Co-Op store in Plazac, we might meet up for ‘coffee’ in La Marjolaine. I have to say that the offer was far too good to turn down, especially as today was my birthday, and so fate found us sitting at the bar later on with two small coffees and two large cognacs in front of us, a very pleasant way to pass an hour or so.

So let this be a warning to anyone contemplating retirement in rural France. Unless you take heed, time passes far more quickly than you would ever anticipate and there are also far too many things to attract you away from the straight and narrow path and distract you from doing the things that you know you ought to do. It was therefore my own fault that I was out in my garden late this afternoon just as the first showers were sweeping in, stacking the last of my uncut new wood in my wood store to keep it dry. Hopefully, as I’ve only got enough ready-to-burn wood to last for another couple of days, there will be sufficient breaks between the showers over the week-end to get enough of it cut and split to last me until the cold days draw to a close, but I’ll just have to wait and see.

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But I’m not too worried – it’s my birthday after all. And while Madeleine is still away, Victor has found a double boeuf bourgignon in the freezer, so we’re going to tuck into that this evening. I’ll try to hold back on the red wine that will inevitably accompany it, but I’m not making any promises 😉

February 10, 2015

Very interesting flight

I thought that today would shape up to be a carbon copy of yesterday, but it didn’t. Sure, we had wall-to-wall blue sky and sunshine again, but whereas the visibility yesterday was so good that you could see for miles, today the haze didn’t lift. That was because the temperature stayed a couple of degrees or so lower, with a high of around 12 degrees Celsius at best. Nevertheless, that wasn’t going to stop me flying today and after I’d given him a call, my pal Victor tagged along too.

I’ve had a flight in mind that I’ve wanted to do for some time, namely a complete circuit around Brive-la-Gaillarde, and that’s what we decided to do today. Take off was just after 2.00 pm after I’d had a chance to stick some patches over yet more holes gnawed into 56NE’s seats by the resident rodent that I’m afraid I’m going to have to deal with by setting some traps in the aircraft. I don’t like the idea but I can’t risk the little blighter chewing through something more important, which it seems capable of from the chunks that it previously gnawed out of the heavy plastic that I made the aircraft’s covers out of. Here’s a shot showing the route that we took.

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As before when I flew up towards Brive, we could clearly see the runway of the new Brive airport, Vallée de la Dordogne, away off our starboard wing, while we were flying directly towards the city’s old airport, Brive Laroche. This was closed in 2011 because its runway could not be extended to take regional jets like Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s and it’s now unused with the large white ‘X’s on its runways and taxiways clearly visible from 56NE. At this time of the year, there are only three return flights a day to Paris Orly at the new airport, so there was no traffic to worry about, but we remained well outside the airport’s CAS boundary in any case. As Brive Laroche is closed, we were able to fly right up to its southern boundary, tucked as it is in the south-western corner of the city, before turning right on the course I’d planned to circuit the city as a whole.

This was the first time that I’d flown this close to Brive and I was quite surprised to see just how large and sprawling it actually is. And also surprisingly, while we were flying around it, off to the north-east we could also see the plumes of white cloud hanging over the snow-capped mountains of the Massif Central. After 15 minutes or so, we’d completed our tour of Brive and we found ourselves back at Brive Laroche, but this time just off its northern boundary. That was the time to change course to head back on a south-westerly heading towards Terrasson.

As we passed to the east of Terrasson, I was also able to show Victor the local ULM field that I found on my last flight and we dive-bombed the hangar before breaking off and climbing back up to about 1600 feet so as to clear the hills to the town’s south-west. I would like to have taken some pics during the flight, especially while we were flying around Brive, but didn’t as I didn’t feel like removing my gloves. However, Victor was snapping away all the while and will be sharing the fifty or so shots that he made tomorrow. Until then, here are a few samples that he took.

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Soon after flying past Montignac so Victor could take a few shots, we arrived at Thonac. Then it was just a matter of turning onto the usual 151 degrees for a long final into Galinat, where we made a safe landing with the flight having lasted 55 minutes. This equated to an average speed of 105 kmh (65 mph) including take off and landing, which I didn’t think was too bad considering 56NE was carrying two hefty passengers all wrapped up in multiple layers of clothing to keep warm. It was time well-spent I think, and definitely a flight that I’ll have to repeat later in the year when the weather is better and I have a camera in a hand that doesn’t have a thick glove on it.

February 9, 2015

A lucky break that’ll make the summer

If ever a day was a reminder that spring is just around the corner, then that day was today. We’d been expecting a high of 10 degrees Celsius with a northerly wind possibly gusting up to 20 mph (30 kmh), but what we got instead was 12 degrees in my garden, 15 degrees when I nipped down to Montignac, and a balmy spring-like day with hardly any wind at all. It could have been a perfect day to go flying, but I had something else that I had to do today.

I was the lucky recipient of a stunning piece of good fortune this week-end just past, which I’ll go on to explain in a moment. But first a little bit of background detail. When I was clearing my house in England that I’d just sold to come to France, it was impossible for me to bring all of my possessions with me. For several weeks beforehand I’d been selling what I could off on Ebay but many items I’d just given away by advertising them on Freecycle and such like. I had a good set of white plastic garden furniture complete with seat cushions and a matching sunshade and also a gas barbecue that I hadn’t used for a couple of years, which was all never going to fit into the 7.5 tonne van that I’d hired, together with a Calor gas cylinder that wasn’t suitable for France anyway. So before I left, I offered the whole lot to a single mother who lived close by who I knew had an empty back garden and not a lot of spare cash to furnish it with.

She was very pleased to receive them so I wasn’t too sad after all about leaving them all behind, but this still left me without a barbecue in France, of all places! I’ve got through the last two summers without one, not that I wouldn’t have bought one if the need had arisen when first when my mother and family came to visit followed by my son and his girlfriend last summer. We managed without on both occasions but I was thinking that it was about time that the situation was rectified as I didn’t want to face yet another summer with the smell of barbecued burgers, steaks and sausages wafting over from my neighbours’ gardens as soon as the weather improves!

Every Monday, ‘la facteuse’ delivers a wad of promotional literature into my letterbox. Most local people have stickers on their boxes saying ‘No Pub!’ but I like to receive it because it lets me know what’s going on, helps with my French and the paper is also handy for lighting my wood-burner! Last Monday there was a flyer from Leroy Merlin and one of their special offers was for a couple of gas barbecues.

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This pricked my interest and although I’d had all week to go across to their store in Chancelade to see what was cooking (pun, geddit?), I hadn’t bothered until Saturday afternoon. After dealing with one or two domestic chores, I thought that I’d then go over there to have a look at the special offers. When I arrived, because it was a lovely sunny day, albeit a bit chilly, the car park was heaving. There was a marquee outside the main store with a large sign up saying ‘SOLDES’ (sales) so I thought that that would be a good place to start. And lucky I did!

As I entered, I asked a young lady just inside the entrance if this was where the ‘barbecues sur promo’ were but she didn’t know. I’m surprised if she’d have known what day of the week it was actually, bless her, but fortunately she then asked a young man who’d just come in. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘But there’s only one left, a 79€ one!’ So I told him to take me to it but quick, which he did, and sure enough, there it was standing alone at the back of the store with a price sticker on it. I told him to make sure that he didn’t sell it and that I’d be back in a trice with ‘un chariot’ as the box that it was in was about the size of a medium size coffin, and as I went off I saw him pushing it into the back where no other customer would be able to find it. Five minutes later I had it on a trolley and was paying for it at the checkout. So what a bit of luck, to get the very last one 🙂

I left the box on my kitchen floor on Sunday but decided that today would be the day to assemble it. I’d already peaked inside and knew that there were quite a few components to deal with, so eventually got onto the job after a late brunch, or early lunch, whatever term you deem more appropriate. Pretty soon I had plastic wrapped bits and pieces on every horizontal surface and leaning up against my kitchen walls and here’s a shot of the main body which I found also had more bits inside it when I lifted the lid.

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It took me about two hours to finish off the assembly, which turned out to be more time-consuming than difficult, and when I’d finished I was more than satisfied with my lucky purchase. Although not quite up to being able to cater for the whole of the First Battalion of the Royal Marines, it’s bigger than my old one and I’m sure that it’ll more than meet my needs of feeding my friends and family when they come to visit this summer. Here are a few shots that I took of it outside while I was wheeling it round to my ‘cave’ where it will now remain under a plastic cover until it is called for duty when the weather gets warm enough to eat outside, and I’m eagerly looking forward to when that happens in the coming weeks.

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After I’d finished, I went off to Intermarché to fill my jerry-can with 20 litres of fuel. The forecast for tomorrow is for the weather to be at least as warm as today and with a little bit less wind, so it should be very flyable and with nearly full tanks already and with another 20 litres ‘just in case’, I should be ready for anything. I dropped into Galinat on my way back from Intermarché to check on 56NE after the high winds of last week, but all was well. The runway was also good and firm, so with a bit of luck, tomorrow should be a great day to go flying 😉

February 8, 2015

Fresh air day

The day started off with a really strong northerly wind and when I went out to get wood in for tonight as part of my usual morning chores, I made sure to put on both a scarf and a warm coat. However, as the morning progressed the wind began to abate and by just after lunch time had almost totally dropped, making the day much more pleasant even if it still couldn’t really be described as warm outside. So bearing in mind the decision I took a week or so ago to do a bit more walking this year, I decided to wrap up warmly and get a bit of fresh air into my lungs.

I initially had in mind just a walk up the road past Le Bos de Plazac and back again, but as I approached Le Bos I decided to become a bit more ambitious and walk down the top part of the off-road track that I drove last time until it joined the track that I’d walked down previously from home when I went to Le Camping du Lac. I’d then turn up that for the climb back up the hillside to return to my house. It turned out to be a refreshing walk in good conditions even though the sunshine did disappear half-way round and I was glad that I’d decided to do it and felt better for the exercise.

I took my old Pentax Optio camera with me as my Panasonic Lumix has let me down in just over a year of use, of which more some other time. Enough to say that for the time being I’m exceedingly disappointed with it as the little Optio has been subjected to much tougher use under more extreme conditions, and shows it too with the dents and scrapes it has, but is still going strong. Anyway, here are a few shots that I took along the way.

As I was just beginning to descend the hill from Le Bos, there was a clearing to my left on the hillside with a small stone building on it. I have no idea what the building is or was used for as it was far too small to be a house. The best ideas that I’ve had are that it might be for housing animals in, although there were none on the hillside today, or might even be for the use of hunters. But whatever its purpose, the land around it is being kept clear as can be seen in the couple of shots that I took of it as I passed by.

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The track from that point on then began to descend quite steeply, as I’d found when I came up it in the other direction in the Kia. Here’s a shot that I took looking down the hillside, which gives some idea of how precipitately the hillside falls away to the left of the track that I was walking on.

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There are quite a few tracks on the hillside many of which disappear off to I know not where. Some lead to remote houses that are still occupied and some, as I found a few minutes later, lead to buildings that used to be there and are now ruins. As I was walking that’s what I came across slightly higher up the hillside to my right, and here are a few pictures of what I found. I took the first shot from the rear corner of the ruins after I’d climbed up level with what had once been a building about half the size of my house and the others as I walked across what had been its back but which had long ago collapsed down to the level of the hillside.

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I have no idea whether this building once had anything to do with the one that I’d passed earlier in the clearing higher up the hillside, although I suspect not as clearly these ruins were quite ancient – probably hundreds of years old. The front looked as though it contained a wide opening, which supported the ‘animals’ idea, yet to the side of the opening there were the remains of windows, suggesting some kind of human occupation. The only way I’ll perhaps ever know will be by asking someone local who’s knowledgeable about such matters, and as my neighbour Jean-Claude’s family have lived in the house next door to mine since the 16th century, he would obviously be a good place to start. I’ll tell more if I can get more information.

The climb back down from the ruins to the track that I’d been walking on was an experience in itself as the ground fell away very sharply and I found myself hacking a path through brush and brambles as I made the descent. I made it down safely, however, and not long after as I continued walking, I came to the junction with the track on my left that I wanted to go up to return to my house. A few minutes after I’d begun the upward climb, I noticed something which I found very interesting. I was at a point that was a hundred or more feet below the track that I’d earlier been walking down that vehicles can drive on, as I’d shown previously in the Kia. However, the hillside up to my left had been levelled off by placing layer upon layer of stones in order to make some kind of terrace. I couldn’t take a picture of it because of the conditions but it was very clear that the terrace would serve absolutely no modern purpose, so when was it made? Yet again, I suspect that its construction was quite ancient, which says an awful lot about both its builders and the reason why it was constructed, which remains a mystery to me for now, as it must have required many weeks, or months even, of laborious effort to get the stone up the hill to that location and placed in position.

I’d noticed some similar terracing when I’d driven the Kia off-road the first time over on the other hill and hadn’t thought much more about it but I would really like to know more about who built it and why. The mystery deepened even more when just a few dozen metres further on from the terracing, lo and behold there was another set of stone ruins in the trees on the hillside. Common sense tells you that if the terracing and the ruins are ancient, the hillside will have changed beyond all recognition in the meantime. If the ruins were indeed houses, they would likely have been built in areas cleared of the bushes and trees which have now taken them over again. And possibly the flat terraced areas were used to grow vegetables and other crops or even, if they were large enough, to keep animals on. Maybe I was looking at the remains of a community who lived on the hillside hundreds and hundreds of years ago, who knows. Fascinating and deserving of more research, I think.

By the time I got to the top of the hill I’d managed to work up quite a sweat so I was glad when I got to the part of the track which turns to run along the bottom of the field below my neighbour’s house that is behind mine. It was then that I heard the chugging of an engine and what should come round the bend towards me down the track but a small, white, elderly Renault Express van. These are farmers’ workhorses down here and whereas I’d baulked at driving the Kia down this track, this driver had no such concerns even though it had little ground clearance, narrow wheels and was only front wheel drive. We waved at each other as he went past and I allowed myself a wry smile as I imagined him sliding and bouncing over the mud and ruts that awaited him further down the hillside, which I’m sure he must have known about. It’s good to know that all’s well in rural France and life goes on just as it always has 😉

February 6, 2015

Goldcrest

Earlier in the week, snow had been forecast for today and when I looked out just as I was going off to bed some time after midnight last night, the view that I saw was of flakes of the white stuff lightly descending and blanketing the ground. It wasn’t up to very much, though, and although it’s still there this morning, it won’t do much to disrupt life in these parts. As I was lying in bed earlier thinking about stirring myself to get up and clear last-night’s ashes out of the wood burner, I heard a tell-tale ‘ponk’ sound on my bedroom window.

When I got up and looked out, there was an exquisitely coloured, tiny little bird on the windowsill looking rather stunned, rocking back on its heels and breathing heavily. When I opened the window, it allowed me to pick it up and bring it inside to warm up, as where it was it was receiving a back-draught from the northerly wind that had brought us the snow. After a minute or so it became more lively as it recovered from its collision with my bedroom window and quite happily perched on my forefinger as it looked around and took in its unaccustomed new surroundings.

One of my step-sons, Nick, is a keen and highly knowledgeable amateur ornithologist and I knew from the times that I had spent browsing his considerable library of books on wild birds that the little creature that I was privileged to be holding was a female Goldcrest. Here’s a picture of one exactly like her that I found on Wikipedia.

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I knew she was a female because she lacked the flash of gold on the top of her yellow crest that the males have but apart from that, I know little of the differences between the sexes. She was tiny with an exquisitely tiny black pointed beak and bright shiny little eyes. As I moved my hand she held on tightly and moved her position to get more balance, so she clearly had no intention of jumping off the secure perch that my finger had become, which presented me with something of a quandary.

At this time of the year, especially when there’s snow on the ground, tiny wild birds like her desperately need to be out and about during the hours of daylight foraging for enough food to get them through the cold nights, and I had absolutely nothing for her to eat if she decided to stay on. However, I needn’t have worried. By this time she was looking much brighter than when I’d brought her indoors, and with the window open, after a few moments, she hopped off my finger back out onto the windowsill. Then she took one brief look back and flew off with the swooping style of flight that Goldcrests have, landing in the small trees opposite my bedroom window.

There she cleaned her beak on the twig that she was perched on as though she was sharpening a knife, before then flying off again and disappearing in one of next-door’s pine trees. So no harm done and what a lovely start to the day. Except for one thing. After she’d gone I could feel a warm wetness on my hand where she’d been perching and yes, you’ve guessed it, she’d left a small present behind as a token of her gratitude. And I have to say, not the first time that a female’s done that to me, either 😐

February 4, 2015

The north wind doth blow

But although we’ve got a series of cold nights lined up from now going into at least the middle of next week, it doesn’t look as though we’re going to get any snow just yet. However, the cold draughts don’t make it any easier to keep the temperature up in my house.

Most of my last wood delivery is still outside under plastic covers and although we had a bit of rain shortly after it was delivered, it didn’t get very wet and it doesn’t now look as though it’ll come to any harm until I can get round to cutting and splitting all of it and getting it into my wood store. I came to the end of my old stocks a day or so ago and have already started on the new wood and I’m glad to say that M. Dumas has come up trumps yet again. It’s good seasoned dry oak, ready for burning just like my other deliveries from him were, so he’s a good find I think.

Just to be on the safe side, as I knew that I was coming to the end of my ready-to-burn stocks, I cut and split some of the new so it could stand for a few days in my wood store to make sure that it was totally dry. And I also moved several uncut lengths in as well, just in case the weather decided not to play ball and caught me out. But it didn’t, and today I was not only able to cut and split that wood but also quite a lot more from outside, and I now have enough ready-to-burn wood to keep me going for a couple of weeks at least. Over the next day or so, I’ll do the rest of the delivery too, and then I won’t be a hostage to anything that the weather might decide to throw at me.

The new wood store is proving itself to be a boon and it was definitely worth the several weeks of effort that it took constructing it. I’m also pleased to say that there’s now no sign of any leakage through the roof, and I’m just hoping that it stays that way 😉