Saturday, 22 July 2017

Don't Panic!

Yesterday was the first day in ages (probably 6 or 7 years) where we didn't have a blog post. This was because we went out for a pre-lunch apero at 11.00am on Thursday, and didn't get home until 8.30pm, and then had to do office stuff before going to bed early in order to leave home at 6.45am yesterday to work.

Then I was going to do an "on the road" blog post from Chenonceaux using our "smart" (it isn't) phone, but I couldn't remember my password,

But here's a photo of Claudette in Amboise from yesterday afternoon instead...


Tomorrow is our monthly apero evening. If you're in the area (Preuilly sur Claise) and haven't received an invitation drop us a line using the links on the right (click on Susan's name)

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Le Gros Chillou

One day a couple of years ago I was driving to Chinon and I happened to take the route which runs parallel to the north bank of the river from l'Ile Bouchard. On reaching the tiny hamlet of Briançon, in the commune of Cravant-les-Coteau, I saw to my astonishment an enormous prehistoric ruin on my left. I didn't have time to stop but vowed to look it up on the internet to find out exactly what it was and to return with Simon.

Last week when he came up to Chinon to pick me up after I had spent a few days there working with Walking Adventures we took the opportunity to stop off at Briançon and check out the monument.

The dolmen, made of Turonien sandstone probably sourced 2-3 kilometres away on the Vienne valley slopes, is at least 15 metres long and 3 metres high. The name 'gros chillou' means 'big rocks' and it would have taken considerable effort to move them from the valley sides to their site near the river. It is the biggest dolmen in the Touraine.

It is right on the roadside, on the D8, on the left if you are heading for Chinon, tucked up against a house. Unable to move the stones, the 19th century owners simply partially incorporated it into their house. Nowadays, tipped up and ruined, it was uncovered in August 1956 by a group of amateur enthusiasts. A local archaeologist said at the end of the 20th century, 'like all those on the right bank of the Vienne, it was constructed in the valley, and not much above the level of the water. It must have been submerged more than once by floods. The opening is oriented towards the east.'

The two front supports remain in place, about 3 metres apart. The slab which they supported was broken into two parts, one of which, almost vertical, rests on the right-hand support, the other, which exceeds 6 meters in its largest dimension, remains raised obliquely on the left-hand support. Beyond that, we can identify 3 other slabs, a support on the right and the bottom, in two parts, joined on each side by buildings 4 meters apart. 

Archaeological investigations were undertaken in the 19th century, but found nothing of interest.

Further reading: The Touraine Insolite page on the monument, in French, but with maps and diagrams.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Doors of le Mans

Last week Susan had a couple of days work starting in Mont St Michel, so we drove up and took the opportunity to spend a day in le Mans on our way.

Here are 1% of the photos we took that day:

Le Mans is excellent, and we will be returning with experts to tell us what we are looking at (hi Niall and Antoinette!)

Monday, 17 July 2017


I photographed this woman outside Saint Pierre des Corps railway station. I thought she was extraordinarily stylish (and apparently impervious to hot weather...) The shoes in particular caught my eye.

Sunday, 16 July 2017


These unassuming leaves belong to a Corkwood Duboisia myoporoides tree that I photographed in Ravensborne National Park, close to where I grew up in Australia. The tree was used in traditional Aboriginal medicine, but the knowledge of what it treated was almost lost. Luckily, modern science picked up on the qualities of the plant and now it is grown for the commercial extraction of hyosine, a muscle relaxant used to treat stomach problems, the side effects of cancer treatments and eye trauma. It is also effective against travel sickness. Beware though, hyosine is produced by the plant to protect itself, and in the quantities present in the leaves and berries make them toxic if ingested.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

What Happens When You Open Windows

The wildlife comes in -- pigeons, swallows, bats, the neighbour's cats, all sorts of insects...


As regular readers would be aware, we are involved in the scheme to have the Chapelle De Tous Les Saints in Preuilly (and in particular its Danse Macabre) restored. We have reached our first target for public donations, but there will always be a need for more money to push the project on.

The Maison de Pays (also known as our tourist office) in the Grande Rue is holding an exhibition and sale of patchwork items for the next couple of weeks, with the proceeds going towards the restoration funds. Get down there, buy something, because every little helps.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Last Night

We had this

followed by this

followed by this

and then the sensible ones amongst us were in bed by 1.30am.

It's awful quiet around town this morning!

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Floral Extravagance

As most readers probably know, the chateau of Chenonceau has huge and magnificent floral arrangements in every room. It is one of their USPs. No other chateau wants the expense or dares take such a curatorial risk (flowers stain, vases get knocked over...) I rarely photograph the arrangements, mainly because I am concentrating on my clients when I see them, but also because in museum level light with no flash allowed they are impossible to photograph well with a point and shoot. This arrangement, which particularly appealed to me, was photographed on a very hot day when all the windows were open, so although it's not sharp by any means, you get the idea. I am always amused when they use duckweed to float orchids in.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Two Stage Grapes

Chenin blanc grapes photographed in Vouvray on 19 June, 
showing developing grapes left and flowers on the right.
This year, because of the frosts in April that occurred after an initial warm spell, the grapes didn't know whether they were coming or going. Many vines have grapes that are pea sized from flowers in late May along side tiny newly formed berries that have developed from a second flowering in mid June. This is potentially a problem at harvest time, as they could still be at different stages of development.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Where is the Ant Spray?

Every spring ants troop into our house and are impossible to discourage for a couple of weeks until the weather changes. Obviously Cheverny has the same problem. These appeared in June and are part of the second annual exhibition of Lego at the chateau, which illustrates the fables of La Fontaine.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Sanctuary at the Abbey

The large House Martin Delichon urbica (Fr. Hirondelle de fenêtre) colony which is nesting between the corbels at the Abbey in Preuilly seems to be doing well. There were little faces peeking out of every nest in late June.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Tracks on the Track

A rural track on the Darling Downs in south-east Queensland.

A close up of the wallaby tracks that can be seen in the photo above.

Goanna tracks just around the bend.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Through a Glass

An arty shot of the chapel at the Chateau of Cingé, taken from the attic of the main chateau building.

The chateau of Cingé is the private home of my friend Hélène, and is not open to the public.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Bucolic Side of Chateau Life

The geese, the old limestone barn, the blue shutters, the terracotta tile roof -- what more could the image want? This is the basse cour (farmyard) at a friend's place. It may be a chateau, but it's also a working farm.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Summer Bat Survey

The local summer bat survey took place on 23 June and we didn't see very many species, but it was an enjoyable day out in the field (with convivial lunch provided by Jean-Claude once again).

 Virginie's notes.
 The note says:
Count with the local history association
Friday 23 June 2017

1. Cingé -- the Lesser Horseshoes are in the latrines and the cellar.
21 adults
3 juveniles (still nursing)

Natacha, Valentin, Axelle -- League for the Protection of Birds (LPO)
Virginie -- representing two bat groups and the LPO
Melanie and Coline -- Claise Living Heritage in the Touraine.
Dominique, Jean-Claude, Susan -- local history association.

No Barbastelles.
1 Greater Mouse-eared in the stairwell.

2. The Doucet's cave in Preuilly
-- nothing -- wet.

2a. LPO La Guerche
1 Geoffroy's.

Water flows down the cave walls.
Despite how hot and dry it was outside, inside the Doucet's cave (a former limestone quarry) it was positively dripping. Water is percolating through the ceiling and forming stalactites and staining (the yellow colour will be iron brought by the water). I assume all this water is still working its way through the geology after the floods twelve months ago.

Local vermouth maturing.
We were reminded in a jokey way not to touch Monsieur Doucet's private stash of homemade vin d'épine, a local vermouth flavoured with blackthorn sprigs. My friend Paul has given me his family recipe, which makes 30 litres. Probably more than I really need...

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Horses Eat Walnuts

I bet you didn't know that! I didn't until I witnessed my friend Hélène's horse doing so.

He's a lovely animal, and he wasn't just having an idle nibble. He reached up several times and pulled some leafy twigs off to munch on.

European Walnut Juglans regia leaves are used in herbal medicine. They are aromatic, astringent and bitter tasting, from the tannins and a substance called juglone that they contain. It is the juglone which gives the brown stain to everything walnut leaves touch, and it is used in the food and cosmetics industry as a natural brown colourant. The substance is similar to the colour contained in henna. Juglone is toxic in high quantities, but very unstable once exposed to the air (as evidenced by the staining changing colour from yellow to black). It may turn out to be effective against cancer -- research is ongoing.

(The American species Black Walnut J. nigra contains much higher levels of juglone and can cause nasty problems for horses, most notably if walnut sawdust is used in their bedding.)

Monday, 3 July 2017

Surveying with a Student

A female carder bee Anthidium florentinum (Fr. un abeille cotonnière), 
resting on a dead flower by holding on with her mandibles.

Last week I got to go out in the field with Coline, a young woman who is studying environmental protection at Vendôme. She is spending the summer doing work experience and has funding to survey some of the ZNIEFFs in the valley of the Claise and its tributaries. She is being mentored by me and Marc Fleury amongst others. We are helping her with species identification mostly, as this is an aspect of natural history and ecology that is no longer taught at university level. Modern ecologists often emerge from their studies knowing how to structure a biodiversity survey but not knowing how to identify what they see.

 Coline photographing a rather cold and damp Common Blue butterfly.

We decided to focus on two limestone ridges, one at Civray and one called le Moulin neuf near Le Petit Pressigny. The two sites are similar, and quite close to one another as the crow flies, but involve a much longer detour if you drive between them on the public roads.

  A cleared slope at Civray, covered in Branched Saint Bernard's Lily Anthericum ramosum 
(Fr. Anthéricum ramifié), the star species of this site.

The Civray site is described as an assembly of relict calcareous habitats -- juniper heath and thermophilic woodland on a slope in the valley of the Aigronne. There are some grassy clearings, but much reduced from in the past and the site is threatened by the clearings being invaded by woody plants. A large part of the site is occupied by a plantation of pines.

 Mountain Germander Teucrium montanum (Fr. Germandrée des montagnes), much rarer than the pink flowering Wall Germander T. chamaedrys (Fr. Germandrée petit-chêne), which also occurs.

The Moulin Neuf site is described as limestone formations on the north slope of the Aigronne Valley (the Aigronne is a tributary of the Claise) and the eastern slope of the Rémillon valley, near the confluence of these two streams, south of the village of la Celle-Guenand. The area is a mosaic of Downy Oak Quercus pubescens, Juniper Juniperus communis heath, semi-dry neutral grassland dominated by Upright Brome Bromus erectus (known in the trade as Mesobromion grassland) and calcareous semi-natural dry grassland dominated by fescues, wild oats and bromes (known as Xerobromion grassland). Mesobromion grassland is notable for its rich diversity of wild flower species, especially orchids. It can only be maintained with human intervention (mowing or managed grazing) as it is prone to reverting to scrub and then woodland. Xerobromion grassland is rather rare, with an interesting assemblage of small plants adapted to arid, sub-Mediterranean conditions.

 Lulworth Skipper Thymelicus acteon (Fr. Hespérie du Chiendent) on 
Small Scabious Scabiosa columbaria (Fr. Scabieuse colombaire).

Both sites are interesting, but the Moulin Neuf site in particular is a real treasure trove of rare plants, and is considered amongst the most representative of how the grasslands and Downy Oak woodlands of the Claise and its tributaries valleys should be. (If you are interested in botany, entomology and a bit of social history, I will be offering walks at this site throughout the year. Contact me for prices and further information. Note that both these properties are privately owned, so it is necessary to get permission to access them.)

Probably a female Downland Villa Bee Fly Villa cingulata, a rare chalk grassland species.

We managed to schedule our field work for the two worst days in the recent outbreak of stormy weather that we've had, so on the first day we got absolutely drenched and didn't see much. The weather threatened the whole time on the second outing, but we managed to mostly dodge the rain and recorded a lot more species. 

Looking out from a track on the hillside through the Downy Oaks towards the Rémillon.

Coline was an absolute delight to work with, but I must say that keeping up with a 20 something French woman physically and verbally was slightly challenging! She comes from a farming family in Loir et Cher and it was good to hear about her father's work creating beetle banks on the farm and how he created a network of 25 local farmers who have installed nest boxes for Barn Owls. None of this work is rewarded by any sort of government grant or subsidy. He does it because he believes it is the right way to care for the land.

Six-spotted Burnet Moth Zygaena filipendula (Fr. Zygène de la filipendule).

Several of the species I've chosen to illustrated this post I'd never seen before, so it was an exciting and worthwhile two days in the field for me.

An abandoned limestone quarry full of old farm machinery.

 The south facing limestone escarpment at la Moulin Neuf.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Whiptail Wallabies

I encountered these Whiptail Wallaby Macropus parryi early one morning in south-east Queensland. In my youth this species was known as the Pretty-faced Wallaby, and you can see why.

Their range is south-eastern Queensland and north-eastern New South Wales. They tend to be rather paler coloured overall than other wallabies, with a bright white stripe along the muzzle, white ear tips and a pale stripe on the hip. Males are about twice the size of females.

This grassy wooded ridge where I spotted the small group is typical habitat for them. They are grazers and most active at dawn and dusk. A small mob of fewer than ten animals of different ages is usual, and this one was two adult females and an adult male. I couldn't tell for sure if the females had joeys in their pouches, but I suspect one of them did, and the male mated with the other while I was observing them.

 The male making a move on one of the females on the right, another female far left.
Numbers of Whiptail Wallabies seem to be stable and abundant, but they are loosing a lot of habitat due to urbanisation and agriculture in their natural range.

Still standing guard over one of the females.

And off they all go.