When most people think of the South of France – at least those that don’t live here – perhaps the first images that come to mind will be of deep red wine and brassy sunflowers
charming, higgledy-piggledy villages basking under an azure sky and lazy lunches on shady terraces ….
And you wouldn’t be wrong. These are just some of the many reasons why France is the most visited country in the world and why people like me have been seduced to leave their colder, greyer homelands to journey south and stay.
But, as in any attractive tourist destination, the people who live here all year round – and often survive by purveying and perpetuating the dream from one holiday season to the next – see a very different side to their area out of season.
Most places the well-off go on holiday, the less-well-off live in relative isolation and dare I say it, pleasant tedium, once they’ve gone home. Villages echo like ghost towns. Shops, restaurants and cafés often take an extended break; the festivals and fêtes, dances and displays pack up and hibernate once the sun has dipped in the sky and life becomes ordinary and humdrum, just like any other rural place. And mostly, I rather like it like that.
For me, the greatest joy of living down here in the south-west was the wonderful climate, with four distinct seasons, the coldest being the shortest, and almost enjoyable for being so. The sweetest – the ”bel arrière saison” – the beautiful late season, when a clement late summer seemed to last almost until Christmas. The garden would revive after the heat of high summer and the long, low rays bathed autumn evenings in a golden glow. Winter was usually a short, sharp blast, then spring would start early and ripen to a glorious garden riot in May. Summers were reliably sunny and hot with a rainstorm every couple of weeks to refresh the air, which was ideal for the summer lettings we used to do back then.
And, as a bonus, the climate in the nineties and early years of the twenty-first century was well suited to keeping horses.
When we bought our first horse here, in summer 1990, we had 25 acres of land, but only about an acre of it was fit to be called grazing. Over the long years, in our spare time, (aside from renovating our own home, restoring houses for other people for a living and letting our house to holiday visitors in the summer!) we cut back overgrown scrub and thickets to bring farmland, long abandoned to nature, back into use.
Eventually we had several acres of decent grazing and woodland fenced off for the horses and they always had enough shade or shelter. For the sharpest of cold spells I asked a friend to bring me a rug from England as there were none available locally. It was a classic, green canvas New Zealand rug with a wool lining, which Aly probably wore thirty-odd times in his life. By the time the Pie arrived, they had a polytunnel-like shelter in the woods which they occasionally used, (Aly never used the first shelter we built, probably in the wrong place!) and as the Pie grew a winter coat to resemble a flokati rug, he was fine without a blanket.
For the kind of riding I did, with no chance of, or incentive to compete, it was easy to let the horses lead a very natural life, charging up and down the wooded ”terraces” cut into the hillside by some ancient farmer to get to their various paddocks, which we changed with electric fencing to preserve grazing and keep the boys from pigging out! Accidentally not too far from the notion of ”Paddock Paradise” astutely developed by Jaime Jackson.
But now our climate has definitely changed.
In more recent years our summers have been drier and our rain has come in longer spells in spring, autumn and winter. And then we have had more and longer harsh spells in winter which seems to begin sooner and end later.
As Aly and the Pie got older, we cleared space in our lovely, old stone barn and built quite rustic loose boxes. (And that’s another story entirely – if you’ve spent much time in French ”Brocantes” you’ll have an idea of the sort of things we found and couldn’t bring ourselves to throw away!) Initially we used the boxes when Aly had bouts of colic, then with the longer and snowier spells of weather, the more we were bringing the boys in most nights in winter. A further box was added when we bought Pom, blankets were bought for extra cold days outside and extra cold nights in the barn and soon our easy, natural way of horse-keeping got a lot more complicated. And I haven’t even got going on feeding and shoeing!
And so we do the winter dance. Blankets tonight or not? Is it going to sleet or snow? Outdoor lightweight or heavyweight blankets? Will they get too hot if the weather warms up while we’re out shopping? Shall we bring them in until the blizzard stops? Ah, there is more too-ing and fro-ing than the hokey-cokey.
This next week’s weather forecast is another mix of snow and sub-zero temps. and warmer wet days. Frankly I’d rather be dancing to the Rites of Spring!
Meanwhile the odd treat keeps up equine morale ….
How are you and your animals coping with winter conditions?