Friday, 29 August 2008

The Sound of Evening

As evening starts to fall and even a little while before on these balmy late summer days, the air swells with the sounds of grasshoppers and crickets singing their legs off. I find it hugely relaxing listening to their hard work, there is something almost hypnotic about the sound.

Normally you cannot see any of our thousand violinists, but the other day this large cricket (it must have been 3 centimetres long excluding its antennae and before it extended its legs) flew in through the window and continued his performance on the windowsill next to the bread. I was delighted to have him here, considering the residence of a cricket in the house to herald good luck. But his stay only lasted the evening, when I got up in the morning he had gone. I listened out for him that second evening, but all I heard was the hubbub of song from the yard.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The Swimming Pond

I have mentioned the swimming pond in passing in earlier blog posts, but this wonderful Czech institution deserves a post in its own right. At the bottom of the hill close to the local station you will find our local swimming pond. The pond is a man-made creation, which diverts water from a local stream into a large open-air pond for the summer. The water is heated only by the sun's rays, which given that the temperature here recently has been regularly around 30 degrees is quite enough to warm the water. Indeed given the heat the sight of the swimming pond as I traipse past on my way home is extremely appealing. Were it not for the fact that I am often carrying a rucksack full of “stuff” and always a handbag containing money, I would happily do a Colin Firth and leap in to cool myself down. Readers of this blog who are not acquainted with the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice will not know the reference to the scene which had the women of Great Britain joining Elizabeth Bennett in cries of “Mr Darcy!” I will now leave that to your imagination.

At the weekends there are usually families and youngsters camped on the grass by the pond for the day, playing and splashing. Teenagers, such as my two nieces, amuse themselves playing on the makeshift raft and swimming. But you share the pond with wildlife – a family of ducks have made their home there, swallows skim insects off the water's surface, blue and yellow damselflies dart around you and larger dragonflies cruise the still air at the waters' edge looking for prey. There is something wonderfully natural about the pond – there is not a lifeguard to be seen and not a whiff of chlorine. And yet the pond is managed - there are two water slides, jetties, and a rope swing to pass the time. In the Winter the pond is drained and cleaned.

It reminds me of another summer's day in my late childhood when we rode our bikes to the village of Stanton. Stanton was a real village then, before it became a preserved jewel. There we swam at the last of the Cotswold open-air swimming ponds, the water came from a spring I think and was warm with the sun, grass cuttings floated around us and I loved it. Our town of Winchcombe too had had its own swimming pond, where the Beesmoor Brook had been dammed by the local lady of the manor, but even by the time of my childhood this had fallen in to disrepair and disuse. I did explore it once with my friend Paul. Among the rubble of collapsed walls of cut Cotswold stone I ventured into the water up to my knees, but did not have the courage to do more.

It seems to me, looking at the Czech version, that the loss of the English swimming ponds is a great one. I know the health and safety bods would have a lot to say on the matter, that these Czech ponds must break every rule in the book. But still it seems to me that the Czechs have a better understanding of what makes a healthy childhood than we do and that the swimming ponds are just a good example of this.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Yet More Czech Flowers

Back in May I visited a local nature reserve and blogged about the wildflowers there. I promised at the time to return later in the summer and to report on what new flowers I saw. This time I went with my Czech friend and we spent a couple of very pleasant hours wandering the reserves paths, stopping frequently to admire our finds.

I was mostly in raptures about the wildflowers, whilst she was also taken by the berries and other wild (free) food that the reserve had in abundance. She managed to restrain herself and abided by the reserve's rules of not collecting any of them.

This summer seems to be running several weeks early so sadly we missed some of the reserves more spectacular flowers – the gentians and martagon lilies. Nevertheless there were some wonderful flowers out even in late August, whilst the berries, especially those of the wild berberis, made impressive displays.

Some of the plants I recognised like this wild monkshood (aconite) above.

This sedum.

And this mullein, more slender than the usual robust mullein you find in England.

There were plenty of wild herbs, oregano, mint and thyme in various forms, the scent from which on the late afternoon air was heady and glorious.

And then there were those flowers like this one, which I just didn't recognise nor could I find it in my book.

The Nature Reserve is in the Vysny area, just above Cesky Krumlov town and not far from the station. Although it was a glorious summer's day, we were the only visitors there – amazing seeing as we were so close to a major tourist attraction, but then tourists to Cesky Krumlov seldom allow themselves time to enjoy the natural beauty of the area.

Forced Rest

A fortnight ago I was trying to uncover such cobbles in the yard, when I sustained an injury. At the time it seemed nothing – I simply jarred my leg as my spade hit stone, it was sore that's all. I then compounded this by taking a long walk in the forest looking for mushrooms. It had been my intention to have a brief fungus foray, to gather just enough to give me something special for breakfast, but the farmer had put a bull in the field which the footpath crossed on my way to the woods and I only discovered this when the bull blocked the path behind me. I therefore had a longer trek of it than intended, meeting my friend on the road at the far end of the woods four hours later. During that time the soreness in my shin grew, aggravated by the walking boots I had on. But still I ignored it. On the Sunday I went into Cesky Krumlov by train, this required walking down the hill to the station and down another even steeper one into Cesky Krumlov. By the time I got to the old town gates I was in agony.

So I was forced to respect my injury. I had been half expecting something like this, over the last six months I have worked too hard and experienced too much stress, As I said to my Czech friend this is my body's way of telling me to put my feet up. It was as if I am being told that it is all very well thinking that working on the house, digging the garden and chopping wood, is relaxation, it is not, it is just another form of work. I was being told that dashing off to Krumlov to the internet cafe to check on whether the world out there wants me was and is folly and that even if it does, now is not the time to respond. Instead I must sit in the sun and read and write. Instead of seeking stimulus, I must let it come to me and be open to the little things that would otherwise pass unnoticed.

And so it was that I was sitting on the old sleepers in the yard, when there was a scuttling at my feet. A small lizard with a skin like jewels appeared and disappeared from under the granite flagstones next to me. He scanned the air, his head moving from side to side, tongue flicking in and out as if tasting my presence. I watched him absorbed in his hide and seek, and saw his sides moving as he breathed. When I was a little girl I had a lizard as a pet – I kept him in an old ceramic sink in the greenhouse. His name was Sidney – I can't remember why, only that it was Sidney – and I had won him as a prize for a school project. Despite my feeding him spiders and other goodies, he didn't last very long. This Czech lizard has more of a chance, with a whole garden full of prey and crevices to hide in.

PS After a week in which I have read three novels and watched four films, improved my suntan and my friend's website, my foot seemed to have recovered. I will try and learn from this lesson in listening to my body – of course I won't but one can always try.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Chopping Wood

I seem to be writing about nothing but wood at the moment. I have spent a large part of last weekend chopping up wood for the stoves. I was not alone in doing this – from all over the village came the sound of axes and chainsaws as my neighbours too set about getting the winter fuel stocks into usable sizes. Throughout the summer huge piles of logs rise stacked along the walls of Czech houses, ready for the winter cold.

Most Czechs, certainly ones in rural areas such as this, use wood-fired stoves as their main form of heating. At a time when oil, gas and electricity prices are rocketing, such an approach in this highly forested country offers a relatively cheap alternative. The stoves are very efficient and can put out a great deal of heat, one stove can heat a large room even in the depth of a Czech winter. The downside of this form of heating is the work required - for starters you have to be there to feed the hungry stove, which has meant for us that we have had to also install central heating for when we are in England. And then there is the endless chopping of wood, which is where my weekend's toil comes in.

All the wood is stored in the barn. I say stored, that suggests some order, which is definitely not true. The wood is the by-product of all our building works, there are old roof beams which have been chain-sawed into usable lengths which need splitting, and there are old floor timbers and window frames, all of which need sawing and chopping, as well as off-cuts of various sizes. There are even some thin slats which the former owner used to create some rather nasty wood cladding for the stairs, these require no work on my part to make brilliant tinder. All of these have been thrown into the barn by the builders, together with old sinks, left-over plasterboard, tiles, and the detritus of the previous owners' lives. It is hard to enter the building without climbing over some pile.

And so I have decided that I will this summer make my way through all of this and sort it out. That which I can cut up I will, and I will get someone else to wield a chainsaw on the bigger pieces. I am a coward when it comes to chainsaws, especially as I am on my own at the moment. My second reason for doing all this is of course the dryrot – I want to make sure that there is nothing nasty lurking in the barn. My aim is to get everything sorted into neat(ish) piles before winter arrives, when the light in the barn will be much less than it is now. All of this takes more energy than one might realise, my arm muscles are aching badly. Who needs expensive gym subscriptions when you can come and cut my wood for free?

Sunday, 17 August 2008


This week I have been managing the work arising from an outbreak of dryrot in the kitchen. Inevitably in an old house, which had not had a great deal done to it for years, we had had some water penetration which had resulted in dryrot in some of the roof timbers. In turn their removal meant that spores from this blasted fungus were spread through out the house – I'm afraid the Czech builders were not overcareful about how they managed the process.

We decided on replacing all the roof timbers and some of the ceiling timbers upstairs as well. We also set about trying to prevent any sort of water penetration – digging a drainage ditch at the back (more of that at some other date) and protective soakaway around the other three walls. A well was installed in the cellar and the house's problems with damp did indeed seem to be solved.

However we did not allow for the inability of our plumber to tighten any pipe properly. Time and again we have had to call him back to a leaking joint. One such leak was unbeknownst to us dripping down the back of the kitchen sink unit and into the wooden unit and floor beneath. A month ago we left the house empty in a period of hot humid weather. The result – you've guessed it – a fine display of fungal bloom. Now as regular readers of this blog will know I am a great lover of mushrooms, but my love is limited to those you can collect and eat. I draw the line at dryrot.

My one consolation is that the kitchen unit, which will have to be burnt, also has a sorry history attached to it. It was created (beautifully I might add) by our errant carpenter, who delivered the unit half finished nearly two years ago and has never come back to finish it. I have been battling in my mind whether to give him up as a bad job (and either get another kitchen or get someone else to finish it) or keep waiting. My decision has now been made for me.


When my brother-in-law stayed here with his family he was much taken with the way at dusk the houses on the far side of the village are bathed in the amber light of the setting sun. I know exactly what he means and regularly find myself standing at the front windows entranced. Yesterday the display was particularly impressive, the wonderful light of the setting sun was reflected not only on the buildings opposite but on the sky itself, which was dominated by rain clouds. Add to that a tail of a rainbow and it was quite magical. I rushed outside with my camera and managed only a few shots for you (of which this is the best) before nature's light display vanished.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Roots - A Love of Wood

My father loves wood and he shared that love with me. As a little girl I showed an interest in doing what daddy was doing. For probably my fifth or sixth birthday I asked for a toolkit for a present, rather than give me some toys my dad took me to an ironmongers and together we selected a set of real wood tools – a small saw, hammer etc. I can remember just being able to look over the counter at the selection. He encouraged me to use them too, one day when I was having trouble sawing a piece of wood, rather than do it for me or tell me what to do, he said to me that I should think how he would hold it still and left me to get on with it. When he returned I proudly showed the sawn wood, the other end of which had been kept firm by nailing it to the lid of a nice wooden box of my father's. Rather than be angry with me for ruining the box he was delighted, the inventor in him beamed at his little girl coming up with a workable solution to a problem. He still tells this story with pride forty five years on.

I never fulfilled my wood-filled promise. Going to a girls' grammar school we learnt domestic science not woodwork. Now all those years later I am planning to rectify this omission. I have decided to learn woodworking. I want to learn how saw and fix, to use the grain, to smooth and release shape and pattern. In the Czech Republic with its vast forests wood is plentiful. Here in our Czech home there is space to work – why I could even use the barn as a workshop. The house has need of such work, if my skill proves good enough. There are doors to be made and shelves, and even furniture. But I am getting ahead of myself, first I must relearn the basics and more besides. It is part of a need I feel at this time of life to go back to basics, to use my senses of touch, sight and smell. I have told my father of my plans and he is delighted. He wants to give me his tools, some handed down from his father, which he had thought he would be unable to pass on as no one was interested and in such a case how can I let him down.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Roots - The Shed

When I was very small my parents moved to the house that has been their home ever since. It is in the small Cotswold town of Winchcombe,a terrace house in the street that leads past the church. It is a non-descript house, but one with a long history. All the houses in the street were built on burgage plots – long thin pieces of land with a relatively small road frontage built in the late Middle Ages to house the homes and workshops in a single plot of the artisans who serviced the community that had grown up around the large Saxon abbey. Our house had until recently been a bakery. When my father built the kitchen extension, he found medieval walls of some outbuilding.

At the end of the garden stands the “shed” - a two-storey Cotswold stone stable, where my father and later my sister had their workshops, thus the tradition of craft continued to the modern day. When we moved in, my father found owl pellets and dead snakes in jars at the bottom of the garden, the former owner had kept his owls in the shed. A large lean-to greenhouse ran the length of the shed, in front of it were vegetable beds, before they succumbed to my mother's ever encroaching flower beds. At one end of the shed instead of limestone there was an old brick wall with bricks that were crumbling away, these afforded me, when I was practicing to play backstop for the school rounders team, a surface which deflected a thrown ball in all sorts of directions. At the same end an external staircase led up to the second floor.

As is so often the case the shed was my father's domain, it was where my mother did not attempt to organise his untidyness. It was the place where he invented things – he like his father before him is an inventor and one such invention paid for the kitchen. It was also the place where he kept his wood.

My father had plans for the shed, throughout my childhood he was restoring it. It was a huge adventure – he was delighted to find cobbles in the floor, which he carefully uncovered. One day he returned from the pub with a large piece of Cotswold stone which he had been given. It looked like nothing at first until you turned it round to reveal Norman or Saxon carved stone – it was part of a pillar from the old abbey. The stone was carefully installed in the stable wall. He claimed some oak beams from the demolition bonfires at a nearby flourmill and singlehandedly installed them in the ceiling, whilst my mother watched through fingers standing at the kitchen window, unable to stop him but worried stiff that something might slip and he would be injured. By the time I was at university the shed was now so restored that I was able to have my 21st birthday party there. But somehow that was as far as it got, somehow he never did finish it. The woodturning lathes which were waiting his retirement there have stayed unused.

Why am I saying this in a log about the Czech Republic, why now? Well this morning I caught myself delightedly unearthing granite cobblestones in the yard and I was reminded of Cotswold cobbles in the shed. Looking up I gazed at the barn. As I have said in an earlier post it was the barn that had first attracted me to buy the house and yet it remains unfinished, as something prevents my continuing in its restoration. I wonder whether this is my “shed”, whether I am acting out my father's experience and whether I will complete my dream as he did not.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Czech Weather

I am back in the Czech Republic having let some friends stay in our Czech home for what should have been a couple of weeks. Unfortunately after only three days they decided to leave because it was cold. Now the thing is that at this time of year the Czech Republic is nearly always several degrees warmer than in the UK, right now it is 30 degrees and I could do with it being somewhat colder. We Czechophiles often have problems with Brits who seem to think that the Czech Republic is somewhere up north near Russia, when instead we are actually south of the UK - only marginally - we are approximately on the same latitude as Paris.

I have learnt from bitter experience however not to overegg how the Czech Republic is normally warmer and drier than the UK. If I say this to people visiting us, then the great law of sod kicks in and there is inevitably rain when they arrive, even though the day before will have had glorious weather. Instead I say it is like the UK's weather, it can rain at times but the sunny days tend to be hotter. But clearly even that doesn't work - maybe those preconceptions are just too hard to shake off.

By the way the converse also works. I daren't say to my friends that Czech winters are usually colder and have snow, because as soon as they arrive or rather the night before there will be a sudden thaw.


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