I’ve got five shiny conkers sitting on my desk. They were deposited by the six fine trees that overlook the town war memorial, right across from the bar-tabac to which they gave its name: Les Marronniers.
The trees are long-established – pre-war, I would say – and maybe twenty metres high. Most of the chestnuts that fall each year around this time end up in the carpark of which the trees, next to the church, are the centerpiece and get crushed by the passing traffic. But this year, I have rescued five that I intend to plant in the hope that they will grow and prosper on the edge of our garden, to be enjoyed not by me and my wife, but by whoever comes after us, and the generations that follow.
My nephew in Northern Ireland tells me that I should plant them in well-drained pots and keep them in over the winter before releasing them into the wild in the Spring. They prefer a mixture of sand and loam, apparently, and thrive best where there is lots of sunshine. I’ve chosen what looks to me to be a perfect site, next to a path, facing south, that in good weather is visited by groups of ramblers setting out on our local Circuit des Trois Rivières.
Having said all that, my poor cheesers, as they are known in Ireland, will probably die. Either that or I’ll put them in when the weather picks up and then forget all about them. It will be up to Nature after that. It is a mystery how trees grew in the old days before there were flowerpots and conservatories.
The circuit so beloved of our rambling community rises behind our house and continues uphill, past fields now newly ploughed, for about half a kilometre before dividing three ways The first way continues straight ahead to the road beyond – the road we take on our way to the pub; the one to the left, behind the new-builds, disappears in the direction of Callac; and the third, to the right, called by my wife the Hobbit Run, winds past the spot where I was nearly run down by a herd of goats and all the way down to the house of our friend Joel, guarded by a peacock and a King Charles spaniel.
There are two rivers. I’ve never found the third, but it must be there. The bigger (or biggest) of these flows through an entirely detached part of the circuit, on the far side of the main road, trapped in a landscape straight out of the Brothers Grimm. Once, having crossed the road just past Joel’s house, I found myself lost in a primeval world, thick with undergrowth, crammed with trees that looked as if they might grab hold of me and do me harm, like the Whomping Willow in the Harry Potter saga. I kept catching my feet in clumps of ivy, nettles and bindweed while avoiding low branches and clambering over broken boughs and rocks slick with lichen. It was only after three quarters of an hour had gone tortuously by that I found my way out, emerging next to the bridge no more than a minute from our front door.
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As I have had cause to remark before, I am a city boy, adrift in the country, and I couldn’t help thinking that if I had knocked myself out, I might never have been found.
There is another path close by our house that is less travelled than the Hobbit Run. It rises steeply. At the near end is a cluster of huts used by our neighbour Jean-françois, a mechanic, to store his vehicles and machinery. Further on is a large tree locked in a life and death struggle with ivy. When I go past, I pull at the creepers, hoping to give the tree an improved chance of survival, but I doubt that I am having much impact. The view across the valley below is well worth the effort, but the real reward is at the summit, where the fifteenth century Manoir de la Boissière, after decades of decay, is once more a going concern.
I am in awe of people who buy up wrecks in this case little more than a ruin, and spend years doing them up. Renovation is not only tricky and expensive, it is hard work and can carry on forever. The manoir, with its stone arches and metre-thick walls is a triumph, but not far away, commanding one of the finest views in the district, is another work-in-progress – a handsome longère – progress on which has stopped. The new roof, put in place less than ten years ago, is already sagging and the solar panels – the first to be installed for miles around – have grown dim, as if clouded by cataracts. We’ve never met the owners but have heard that they were getting divorced and had given up on the the project. It could be yours, I imagine, for one-hundred-and-twenty thousand euros, cheap, as my father would have said, at half the price.
Our own little house dates all the way back to … 1951. Built of breeze blocks on a mud base, it boasts huge windows (very rare in the Breton countryside) and a basement that we are told once housed rats being bred for scientific experiments. Today, with the memory of the rats long-since exorcised, we are more or less content with the many changes we have made – “we” in this case being anyone but us – and after a blazing hot summer are hunkering down for our seventh Breton winter.
But now, if you will excuse me, it’s five-forty-three in old money. Time to get in the wood and light the fire. Bloodlands is on the telly tonight and if I can get iPlayer to work I might yet find out why the detective played by James Nesbitt manages so successfully to moonlight as a mass-murderer. The French just wouldn’t get it.