22 October 2018

The other day a viper (Vipera aspis) fell on my head. I opened the french doors in the living room, then pushed the heavy outside shutters open. The top edge of these shutters is a favourite haunt for sunbathing lizards, which often manage to cling on as the shutters swing back towards the wall of the house – or alternatively drop themselves at a strategic point from which they make a dash past me into the house.

But snakes, I suppose, don’t have those scrabbly lizard toenails, the ones that drive me up the wall at night when some imprisoned reptile is cavorting on our stone floors. And so they can’t cling on so efficiently. I flailed and flapped and yelped as the flying object hit my head then plopped on to the brick paving of the outside terrace. But my blood ran cold when I saw not an undignified lizard scrambling back upright but a thick bootlace with its very distinctive markings lying there stunned, its head snaking (haha) up and down in that “duh, what happened?” way that vipers have.

Now each time I approach that particular door I crane up to see what horrors might be lurking before opening, closing, or passing through it, which is of course completely irrational: why on earth would the viper choose that spot again? It made me realise, though, that – even more irrationally – I still tend to peer upwards as I exit through the front door too. When was it that I went out, then turned back to discover that the little head peering down at me from above was not the lizard I thought it was, but a viper cleverly suspended right above where I had just passed? So many years ago! Some part of me is still expecting it to return. Odd.

It says much about this warmth of this remarkable October that there are still snakes about to terrify me. They should be tucked up in their winter hidey-holes by now but I’ve spotted several in the past couple of weeks – to date rather less traumatising grass snakes.

Today is grey and cold, and there’s a north-easterly slamming into the house in angry gusts. I had a fit of “that’s not fair! I want my lovely days!” when I looked out on the miserable scene this morning. And with just one measly millimeter in my gauge, there wasn’t even the comfort of inclement weather blowing in lots of rain after what must surely count as a drought.

Planting large trees last week in two of my on-going garden projects, it was quite remarkable how deep you could dig without finding the least trace of damp. Granted, one project is on sandy terrain, where water drains away rather too freely. But the other is on clay which is still hard-baked like high summer. All our weather averages are being turned brusquely on their heads.

We have a large group of far-flung friends coming to stay in a couple of weeks’ time, so I’ve been taking advantage of the balmy days to restore something like order in my garden. My capacity for turning a blind eye to things that I simply don’t want to see quite amazes me, in those rare moments when I snap out of it and try to be objective.

What was that upturned broken bench doing there among the weeds by the compost bins? And why were the compost bins weedy, wonky and overflowing, in full view of the carpark which everyone – including myself, obviously – uses? And what about that bank as you drive into the place, the one where bullying clary (Salvia sclarea) – pretty when in flower for about two weeks in early summer but otherwise unremarkable and in the end quite smelly – had beaten everything else into submission to rule as sole, scrappy occupant: why had I left that to its own devices?

I could go on. Some of these faults have now been rectified but it’s a slow process, especially as my occasional garden ‘help’ Indi has bought himself a house and is dedicating weekends more to his own property than to mine: understandable perhaps, but unhelpful too.

So I’m thinking (as, admittedly, I often have done before) if my garden were less (faux-) spontaneous and more structured, would I be better placed to keep it looking as it should be? Is it time to put those plans which have been being honed in my imagination for so long into action? I am certainly planning to make a start this winter – though of course I’ve said that before.

This time I’ve already asked a builder for a quote for work around our wonderful concimaia – that beautifully crafted brick manure-heap floor, almost imperceptibly sloped to funnel run-off from the mounds of dung into an underground tank at one end: solid and liquid fertilizer in one easy move. These were made obligatory by a 1926/7 law, in which Mussolini dragged Italy into the early 20th century by banning farmers from dumping manure any old where, such as on the doorstep where children played.

1022AThey had to be ten metres from the house, far from water sources and wells, rectangular on a north/south axis and on the opposite side of the house from most doors and windows. Ours, with its runnels direct from what we call the chicken house but which certainly once held larger animals, followed these rules to the letter.

The barbecue which I rather over ambitiously built there many years ago is yet another one of those abandoned, crumbling monuments to my gift for turning a blind eye, bits falling off steadily. And how the hydrangeas planted beyond have survived since the whole watering system around that bit of garden gave up the ghost a few years ago is anybody’s guess: presumably it’s their water-retaining weed-cover that has saved them.

And that’s what I see beyond my bank of sweet-smelling Felicia roses (once again splendidly in flower, I must point out): neglect and disorder. Let’s see if I can rectify the situation.


Our first boar of the season (bottom left) – sadly dead

We had my least favourite people lurking in the fields and valley yesterday: hunters. After last year’s tragedy there was a noticeable charm offensive – on their part, of course, not mine.

I was stopped as I drove up to town by one of their number who pointed out that he hadn’t come down early in the morning to warn me that they’d begin shooting mid-morning “because I didn’t want to wake you up.” When did that ever stop them before? Winter Sundays for me are synonymous with being startled out of bed by sun-rise gunfire.

And the old-timer they posted a couple of levels down in the field to ‘protect’ me was singularly disquieting. “We won’t shoot towards the house, I promise we won’t,” he repeated, swinging his gun round and pointing it in my general direction each time I emerged on to my terrace. Well thanks guys. That’s very reassuring.

It was this outlier who in the end got the beast – or at least one of the beasts they shot yesterday. It was a weird noise which shot (haha) me out of my seat: a very old-fashioned shotgun noise as opposed to the echoing boom of the high-precision weapons that the younger hunters favour. When I looked out a massive boar was rolling in the bottom field, dogs worrying it as it writhed. At times boar are a regular sight on our field but I hadn’t seen any down there for months – a very sad way to see the first one of the season.

Thirty six non-stop hours in London last week were just about enough to sate any desire I might have felt for a bit of dirty air and urban crush. It was warm there too, and unseasonably sunny. Semi-naked Brits were much in evidence in parks, and immediately post-work all streets outside pubs were completely impassable.

1822GWe snatched our chance to compare and contrast Bellini and Mantegna which was superb and fascinating but of course we are spoiled for art.

So it was our trip to the National Theatre which stood out. Because for all that our little theatre here does its very best (and theatres in Rome and Florence of course have rather more to offer), when I do finally get to the theatre I realise how much I miss it.

Antony and Cleopatra: a superb Ralph Fiennes, a truly marvellous Sophie Okonedo. Shakespeare could have tightened up the second half a little, but this production was so fantastic that even the on-off to-fro battle scenes were acceptable. It brought home – as any good production of Shakespeare does – how amazingly relevant he remains. In modern dress, exploring the temptations and foolishness of declining masculinity, and the machinations of politics, especially when mixed with passion – there was much to take home.

24 July 2016

Our big oak is magnificent. We’ve always known that, but now we know it more. The elms – then more recently Dutch-elm-disease-ravaged skeletons – that hemmed it in have been removed. We’re slowly learning to cope with our wide open spaces, wondering how the sheltering hydrangeas will cope with their sudden exposure. (It’s amazing how much shade even bare elm branches cast.)

Seen from the higher level, the oak has a remarkable symmetry. And a remarkable, noble breadth.

I’ve been trying to find out how to eradicate the elm tree stumps. The answer seems to be… well, one answer is glyphosate but there’s no way I’m doing that, and anyway, apparently the vile poison needs to be applied to the trunk within seconds of cutting. The my-kind-of-answer seems to be… there is no answer. Just resign yourself to years, decades, of lopping off suckers as they try to colonise your whole garden. Either that or get a bloody great bulldozer and destroy most of the garden to grub out stumps and their endless root system. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

I see people on online forums suggest putting an upended bucket on each trunk, to encourage the kind of damp conditions where wood-eating mushrooms might go on the rampage. But that sounds like a long long process and as we have ten or 12 mighty trunks, now cut down to ground level, I would need to get giant-sized buckets and it would turn that whole area into an odd site-specific bucket-themed installation. I don’t think so.

Now we face the problem of what to do in the empty spaces. I’d love to plant new, different trees – some limes, perhaps, and a couple of almonds. But in the back of my head I keep thinking “what if we win the lottery? What if one day we really do find the money to fix up the chicken house?” If that day ever comes, I would push the whole structure way back up the hill, and the only way into the building site without destroying much of the existing garden would be down Mario’s old farm track on the far side, outside our property… and it’s that side where I’d like to plant new trees. So do I leave the area untrammelled for a major construction project that may only ever exist in my dreams? Or do I just stick some trees in? A quandary.


0724BAnd while I’m on the topic of major building sites, my project in town continues to throw up the kind of surprises that make me tingle.

Rather than plaster the bumpiest of ancient walls, previous owners have simply lined them with a veneer of thin hollow bricks. This reduces the overall square metrage of course, but it also makes passing electrical wires and plumbing pipes through the spaces between real wall and wall lining a doddle. I’m finding spots now, however, where leaving this extra layer makes no sense, as in the ground-to-first-floor stairwell, where working with (rather than eliminating) an existing ceiling beam would mean an 85cm wide staircase with hollow brick wall and a 100cm wide staircase without it.

0724ASo off came the lining wall. And out came… another hidden door. It’s the house of hidden doors.

My previous hidden door, on the first floor, is now completely exposed and looking rather wonderful.

This second one is a beautiful brick arch, filled in now but once passing, I presume, from my house to the one next door. These were all stables, I’m told, for the fortress/castle at the top of the road. It makes sense that you could pass from one part to another. It’s not only the archway that’s brick: the whole wall is rather regular, rather perfect and totally brick – an anomaly in houses where any old rubbish that came to hand was used for construction. Elsewhere the uncovered walls are a mix of stone and bricks of all sizes. Here, it’s relatively uniform and extremely elegant.

This will now become the backdrop to my staircase. To howls of disapproval from L (who hates exposed walls) I will have it repointed and leave it as is. The doorway, unfortunately, will disappear in part, hidden by the stairs themselves and the under-stair space supporting them. But the arch will be part of the long wall at the back of the stairs – disappearing intriguingly into the rising steps.

This is a great consolation. I had an idea of very essential, very see-through metal steps ascending in that point. It was, I admit, a kind of silly whim of mine, seeing as only a small sector of the stairway would actually have been visible in the way I wished it to be. But it was what I had envisioned, until I came up against the massed pessimism of my builder, my geometra and even the metal worker Paolo who usually backs me up in my crazy schemes. So I’ve had to re-think, and compromise. I’m insisting on the thinnest possible masonry-built steps, resting on the thinnest allowable metal beams which will disappear into the structure, to form a narrow diagonal white line up the brick wall behind. Or at least, that’s how I see it.


Each summer brings its snake episodes and this year I had two in the space of two days (over and above, of course, the postbox snake).

I suddenly got it into my head, early one morning when we had guests staying, to make scones for breakfast; but so as not to heat up the house too much (this was before the big storm three weeks ago which cooled down our scorching air, only for temps to rise again) I opened the back door wide, and remembered to prop up the 30cm-high piece of plyboard which I wedge into the doorframe to keep out crawly things and the less intelligent/agile scurrying lizards.

I harbour few illusions about this line of defence: I know most things could get over it if they were really determined. But it sets my mind at rest.

When the scones were ready and the oven off, I went to shut the door but as I bent down to remove the plyboard, I found a grass snake – a lustrous black, flecked regularly with greeny-gold – lounging up against it, sunning itself. Its tail was off towards my office. Its head, I couldn’t see: it must have been somewhere around the stairs on the other side. The door is 1m20 wide. This beast must have been well over 1m50. Thank goodness he didn’t take it into his head to slither over my defensive wall.

0724FThe following day, I walked through the front door then thought: what was that on the front step? I opened the door a crack then slammed it shut, sweating. There was a little viper, neatly coiled on the threshold.

Now, I don’t like snakes of any variety, but at least my common sense tells me that grass snakes (a) don’t kill you and (b) run away. Vipers (a) do and (b) don’t. What’s more, they’re very territorial and if a viper decides your front step is his home, it’s his home.

Much as we both hate killing things, we couldn’t see much alternative. L rushed around the house to grab a spade, and dropped it on the poor animal. But to kill a snake you need to get its head, and this angry thrashing poisonous thing was now pinned ineffectively to the earthy bit between the bricks of the front path. L had to keep it there. While I sped around to grab another spade (and put on the longest thickest rubber boots I could find) and finish it off. I trembled for about an hour afterwards.


0724C0724DEarlier this month, on a very quick dash to Venice, we spent a night on Burano (and another in a rather fantastic room-with-a-view at the Europa & Regina  right on the Grand Canal – a panorama temporarily rendered dramatic and depressing by the Sunday evening parade of departing cruise ships).

0724M0724KCrazy-coloured Burano is the kind of place we avoid in anything like high season: a seething den of hot and tetchy tourists, snapping up ‘real’ Burano lace quite probably produced in sweat shops on the other side of the globe. So staying here – in Venissa’s brand new suites – was a revelation.

0724LIt’s a jolly, buzzy place when the visiting hordes have gone. Yes, there are boarded up houses and ‘for sale’ signs a-plenty. But there are also cafés with locals catching up – probably after hiding for the rest of the day. And the quirky little gardens with their odd outsider-art-ish pebble, shell and tacky statue arrangements are certainly not there by order of the tourist board.

On the train crossing from the mainland to Venice proper, there was a French family next to me – slightly older parents (or were they grandparents?) and a child of about nine or ten. “Wow!” said the little boy as Venice hove into sight. “C’est comme les Hawaii!”

I’m still racking my brains for similarities between the two.

In a pleasant little B&B I took a look at in the northern Santa Croce area of Venice, I noticed two serious bicycles parked in the courtyard. Not only are bicycles absolutely useless in a city without roads and with endless bridges with steps to cross, they’re also illegal. I asked the B&B owner what they were doing there, and she shrugged.

“They’re Brits. They didn’t realise they couldn’t ride around the city. It happens quite often.”

I mentioned this to a British friend of mine living in Barcelona, still reeling from the Brexit referendum, and she was livid. “That people whose powers of research are this limited can vote for my child’s future is wrong, it’s just all wrong.” Exactly.

0724GOur winding route home took us to the Labirinto di Masone in Fontanellato near Parma, the folly of publisher Franco Maria Ricci . We had lunch with Ricci and his wife in their extraordinary house next door – an end-of-empire feeling place, both for Ricci’s advanced years and poor state of health, and because the whole place, swathed in his beloved bamboo, felt more Indian jungle lodge than Emilia Romagna wealthy bolthole.

0724HHis bamboo obsession extends to the massive maze, which, yes, includes many varieties but only an expert would recognise this. For the layman it all looks kind of same-y. No one expects a maze to be variegated, of course, but the bamboo here is so tall and frondy that at times all sense of perspective is gone. You lose sight of the fact that you’re in a maze at all: you could simply be wandering along a very eccentric garden path.

At the heart of the complex is a forbidding pyramid, a red-brick temple to who-knows-what.

I sound disapproving. And perhaps, in some ways I am. But in fact the dedication to making a dream come true, and the passion obvious in the adjoining art collection – beautifully hung however you feel about the works on show – are infectious.


At a wedding party last week, our wonderful neighbour Maria – the one who never married because she couldn’t find a man who could repair a tractor as well as she does – was looking incredibly smart, in bright red platform heels which made her only slightly taller than her usual height of half way between my elbow and my shoulder. She was wearing the shiniest imaginable gold necklace.

“Two ladies whom I looked after when they were old and ill left me some money,” she told me. “I didn’t need it, so I went and bought a gold necklace that cost the amount they left me.”

It’s strange that Maria would have thought of a necklace. She’s definitely not a jewellery type. It was pretty in its way, but I suspect it was the gold rather than the aesthetics that mattered to her: an investment, not a fashion statement.

“This is the first time I’ve ever worn it.” She had told me the value in lire, so she must have purchased it before 2002. “And I’m going to tell you where I keep it because if I die, I don’t want them to throw it away by accident.”

Maria being one of the most remarkably full-of-life people I know, and only ten years (and one day) older than I am, I really don’t think she’s about to leave us any time soon, as I pointed out to her. But she was having none of that. “It could happen any day.” All right Maria, anything you say.

I’d love to think that this was a sudden outpouring of confidence in me, a need to share her deepest secrets with a treasured neighbour. But I suspect she has told her big secret to most of town: that would be very like ever-trusting Maria, to whom everyone is a treasure (with the exception of her ghastly brother who has brought her lovely agriturismo business to a halt with his grasping manoeuvrings). The funny thing is though, that I’m quite sure everyone she has told will defend her property staunchly. Maria’s the kind of honest contadina who inspires absolute loyalty.