Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Blue on Blue


Sadly Temporary PM as Beaker in the Muppets
Well, that's not taken long. Less than 12 hours after becoming PM, Liz Truss has ditched anyone who isn't in tune with her fantasy of a brilliant Britain, including any MP who had the temerity to support Rishi Sunak. Given that she only received 113 votes (31.6%) from the Tory MPs, she effectively fired the starting gun on the Blue on Blue war within the Tory Party.

This was confirmed within hours when she upset Felicity Cornelius-Mercer, the formidable lifeguard wife of Johnny Mercer who was sacked as Veterans Minister within hours of Truss becoming PM.. As well as tweeting a picture of Liz Truss as one of the muppets, Cornelius-Mercer also reported her husband's denouement with the PM. The sacking conversation went: 

JM - "which of your mates gets the job, you promised a meritocracy?"

PM - "I can’t answer that Johnny." 

FC-M 'This system stinks & treats people appallingly' 
Best person I know sacked by an imbecile

Civil servants, quango bosses and other government appointees should expect similar treatment if they fail to observe the fleeting adopted positions of the PM. She has adopted the Boris Johnson approach to appointments, keep it close with your chums. Her brave claim to deliver is hardly consistent with her previous form as a minister, as schools, farmers, prisons, trade partners and foreign politicians have discovered. Whether anything will be delivered seems as deluded as her policy assumptions. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Next Please

As we wait for 0.34% of the UK electorate, mainly senior citizens and fellow travellers from the bowels of the Conservative Party to decide who is the next Prime Minister, there is widespread cynicism from all quarters. Do we have any candidate who truly represents the views and values of the large majority of the UK? Boris Johnson's government only gained the vote of 29% of the electorate and that was despite being against much ridiculed Jeremy Corbyn, who on Europe contrived to deter voters even from his own party. Since then the Tory party has transgressed a long way towards a dark right-wing ideology and, hopefully, obscurity. 

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have been playing to the gallery of English Nationalism and vying to be the most committed to cutting taxes and attacking public services from the BBC and Channel 4 to the civil service and regulatory bodies. According to the Local Government Association, English Councils have already been emasculated losing £16bn of core funding from central government in the decade from 2010 to 2020. The first round of the levelling up funding in 2020 allocated £2bn to councils across the UK. £1.7bn was set aside for a group of to English councils, many of which hardly justified the funding other than having a Tory MP, £170m to Scotland, £129m to Wales and £49m to northern Ireland. In crude terms, this suggests that levelling up has provided less than 11% of the core funding taken away from English Councils. On top of this, the removal of core funding has disproportionately impacted the most deprived councils, the very areas where levelling up is required. Despite both Truss and Sunak vowing that they believe in levelling up, there is no acknowledgement that they will have to deliver a lot more to safeguard public services. But there again they have failed to give any assurance that they will tackle climate change, on the contrary, new drilling for oil, fracking and a distaste for onshore wind turbines and solar farms seem to curry favour.

Boris Johnson suspended 21 Conservative MPs who had voted for the EU Withdrawal Bill after he had attempted unsuccessfully to prorogue parliament in October 2019. Many were deselected from standing in the December 2019 general election. Only 3 were re-elected as MPs and none of these was included in his cabinet of wannabees. The experienced and principled 'One Nation' Tories were lost. There were some talented MPs who had served in the cabinet like David Gauke, Ken Clarke, Rory Stewart, Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve, Nicolas Soames, Alistair Burt, Oliver Letwin and even Philip Hammond. Many of them have gone public in their despondency about the shift towards populism, deregulation, and latent nationalism. Rory Stewart has been very vocal about the shift of the Tory Party and is scathing in his critique of Johnson and his cabinet of flunkeys in his excellent podcast with Alistair Campbell, The rest is politics, .

Boris Johnson has bequeathed his successor a country on the cusp of meltdown as he holidays and attempts to big up his legacy by claiming he has 'got things done'. The bigger the damage, the bigger the lie. His final flourish as the energy crisis becomes a catastrophe for millions of households and tens of thousands of businesses was to go nuclear and announce a £20bn project for Sizewell C on the Suffolk coast. It will not be completed for 15 years, that's even longer than the 40 hospitals that were promised during the life of the present administration but are still languishing on the trolley in the corridors of power. We know that delivery is an alien concept during his time as PM, which explains why his true legacy is being the worst post-war Prime Minister. It will be a difficult act to follow but the two candidates are well equipped to challenge him.

Truss is a flippity gibbet, has an ego big enough to support several moons but seems to lack any principles, or if she does they are likely to be jettisoned as soon as some more popular scam is brought to her attention. The electorate considered Boris Johnson to be a likeable rogue and therefore he was given enough rope to hang himself, Truss appears to have no such endearing qualities other than her chameleon-like values, She has shown in the low-key hustings that she will bend her comments to keep those who have a vote satisfied. She has avoided any direct interviews with the media for fear of her flimsy policies being shredded and her wooden delivery mocked. Her infantile diplomatic skills are legendary and, even in the campaign, she has insulted President Macron and Nicola Sturgeon, two of the leaders she will have to work closely with if she is elected. Her bellicose utterings as the Foreign secretary have offended many nations and her tendency to speak before she thinks could have dire consequences for the country and her longevity as PM. I cannot see her getting past the first few months without the mood of the country, the ire of the media and a collapse of her support in the Tory Party as opinion polls trace her popularity resulting in her removal from office and another General Election.

Sunak has the gravitas and the experience to perform the role as PM but is encumbered by his personal wealth and, possibly, some institutional racism amongst Tory Party members. He is instinctively a neo-liberal and would not be inclined to adopt interventionist policies to rescue the country from the cost of living crisis. Moral competence would be less of an issue but the dire state of the cost of living crisis, the bickering in the Tory Party and world events allied with his ideology would make it highly unlikely that he could survive. He has the advantage of the backing of more MPs than Truss but they don't decide who gets to be the leader of the party. The timeworn party members do that. It is the cluster of English Nationalists, neoliberals, and the wealthy in search of tax advantages who have been vested with the responsibility of deciding who is next in line to be deposed.

Friday, 12 August 2022

Ben More/Stob Binnen

Ben More from Stob Binnein

Friday, 12 August 2022

Ascent:      1306 metres
Distance:   15 kilometres
Time:         4 hours 32 minutes

Ben More          1174m        1hr   51mins
Stob Binnein     1165m        2hrs 59mins

The fourth day of the August heatwave with near cloudless skies and excellent visibility persuaded me to tackle the two highest Munros in this part of the world. Despite, or perhaps because of their proximity, I had not climbed them for over 13 years. They dominate views from so many locations like a pair of salt and pepper pots often poking into the clouds when lesser hills are flaunting their peaks. I was away by 7am, this would hopefully avoid any traffic hold-ups and allow me to climb the steep northern slopes of Ben More whilst they were still in shadow. It was a good call and I was the second car to park by Ben More farm and begin the initial climb up the flip-flap track until it reaches the stairway that climbs relentlessly for the next 850 metres to the trig point of Ben More. Much of the path is man-made with large stones and provides a good footing at a gradient that never knowingly gives you a break.

I was right about being in the shadow but even in shorts and a T-shirt, the exercise was keeping the sweat glands active. I kept a surprisingly steady rhythm to the summit, stopping only once for some water and a few photos. Only in the last 50 metres of ascent did I emerge from the shadows and draw some energy from the sun to reach the summit cairn. The nearby trig point that looks like its foundations are being eroded. I had made better time than expected and decided to continue almost immediately after another drink and some photos. Stob Binnein was calling and, in the amazing clarity of the morning sun,it looked a mere shuffle away. 

As I began the descent, I passed a couple who had camped at the summit and we chatted for a few minutes as they eulogised about the experience. There are a couple of scrambles over some crags at the start of the descent and it was slower than I had expected. I remembered from eight previous walks on these hills that the climb to Stob Binnein was a lot longer than it looked. Once again I was surprised to find that I could keep a reasonable pace without the need for any rest. It was 303 metres of climbing and took just over 30 minutes. Another young couple was sitting by the summit, they had bivvied there and were in a state of excitement about the large red moon that had been bright enough to read a book at midnight. It was only 11:00am so we chatted for 45 minutes or so, they were already hooked on the great outdoors and I could discern from our conversation that they would have many years of adventures ahead in the hills.

They had ascended from Balquidder and had decided to give Ben More a miss and return by the south ridge. I wished them lots of days in the hills and set off in the opposite direction on the descent to the bealach below Ben More. It was a lot easier than the descent from Ben More. From the bealach, I took a traversing descent down to Benmore Glen. It was a narrow and at times boggy path, even in the heatwave conditions but quite hard on the feet with boulders and uneven drops. I reached the track within an hour from the summit and then it was just an easy tramp down the track to Ben More farm where the path to Ben More begins. There were still very few cars parked despite the perfect conditions. It was good to be down by lunchtime and I was home by 2pm after a jaunt on these tough hills that had been just about as pleasant as it is possible to get.

Temperature inversion over Glen Dochart at the start of the stairway

Crianlarich from Ben More

Ben More summit

Wobbly Trig Point

Stob Binnein from Ben More

Ben More from Stob Binnein

South ridge of Stob Binnein

Track along Ben More Glen

Tuesday, 2 August 2022

An Argyll Refresher

Clyde Puffer at Crinan Basin

July 31, 2022

Last year at this time, the roads to Argyll were bloated with staycation visitors and people escaping after eighteen months of lockdowns. We had a free Sunday and scanning the forecasts told me that Argyll offered the best of the weather. I had had a morning run so it was 10:30am before we set out with no particular destination in mind other than to go to the Argyll coast. 

Despite it being a weekend at the height of the holiday season and the first decent day of the week, the traffic was light. It may have been the price of fuel, the desire of families to seek out warmer holiday destinations or just the pending recession. I turned off at Tyndrum on the Oban road, unusually as I am normally heading towards Fort William and the mountains of Glencoe, Glen Nevis, Knoydart, GlenShiel, Skye and Torridon. I had not used the minor road to the south of Loch Awe for several years,  it is a 21-mile slow twisting single-track road through native forest. It took almost an hour with a couple of incidents with an impatient motorcyclist for whom I stopped to allow pass and then an oncoming Porsche driven aggressively by someone who thought he was entitled to have oncoming traffic reverse into a passing place despite being only a few yards past one himself. By the end of the drive we decided to head to the Crinan for some refreshments. 

Crinan was quiet with the odd yacht returning after the Tobermory race a couple of weeks earlier. The hotel served mussels and had a canopy to protect us from the lunchtime sun. We pottered around the canal locks and the canal basin built by Thomas Telford. The basin had some large yachts, including Swedish and French yachts and a Puffer that provided some climate denying nostalgia with black smoke issuing from its funnel. 

I suggested a drive to Tayvallich on Loch Sween, a place I had often visited at weekends in the 1970s to camp in the forest and sail my dinghy trailing a mackeral line in the hope of supper. Tayvallich had not changed much but the large caravan site and numerous holiday cottages confirmed that its charm had worked on many others. We walked along the front and had a coffee in the cafe by the pier. The proprietor told us that visitor numbers were well down this year, people were travelling abroad for holidays and weekends had been affected by fuel prices.

It was time to head north and we spent some time at Kilmartin in the afternoon sun to visit the prehistoric sites in the Glen including the Nether Largie standing stones and the burial chambers. We headed north and decided to visit the massive yacht marina at Ardfern, which is a reminder that Scotland has many wealthy residents. We went as far as the Galley of Lorne, a busy hotel and restaurant which Aileen had visited on a yacht holiday before returning to walk around the moorings and goggle at the yachts. 

A little further south and we were at Loch Melford, the place where we stayed in 1982 for a glorious July week in a cottage by the pier. My parents came along and our two young children, 4 months and 2 years old spent most of the week in a paddling pool and we tried to learn to windsurf. The place was now awash with holiday properties that sullied the intrinsic natural beauty of the estate. I had wanted to stop at the old pier but private property notices prevented this and went against the spirit of the Access Scotland legislation.

We decided to head up to Oban and find somewhere to eat before heading back via Taynuilt. Alas, there had been a major accident and the road was closed so we were redirected via Glencoe. I was not too concerned despite the extra 50 miles, there would be a chance to travel through Glencoe on a perfect evening and, if lucky, find a place to eat at Port Appin. The Pier restaurant was fully booked but we found an outside table for a drink and the manager kindly found a slot to serve us a meal as we gazed out over Loch Linnhe towards Mull. It would be hard to find a better view at this time of day. 

The waitress told us that there had been another accident on the Glencoe road, also involving a motorcycle and that this road was also closed. It is a regular occurrence on summer weekends when the bikers emerge in their hundreds to enjoy the outstanding scenery and overtake the snake of motorhomes, lorries, cars and cyclists. We had witnessed 50 or 60 of them in their unzipped leathers at the Green Welly in Tyndrum as we passed through in the morning. Guys who had probably owned a Honda 125cc in the 1980s and were now reliving their youth on a BMW 1250 or similar road weapon. The availability of money and speed are not well synchronised.

I asked the friendly waitress to check the road report as we were about to leave. The road had reopened and we were soon on the road to Ballachulish. It was 8:30pm as we reached Glencoe. The Pap of Glencoe was mesmeric, a hill that punishes me every time I pass. I am always on the way back from a walk and never have the time or energy to climb it. As we entered the mouth of Glencoe, Bidean nam Bian was tantalising with the route up the gulley to Dinnertime Buttress revealing every detail. The traffic was light, and the leather-bound bikers were long gone so we cruised along with no tailbacks just the best of Scotland displaying its wares. 

Loch Crinan from the Hotel

Crinan Canal locks

Crinan Canal Basin


Kilmartin Standing Stones

Ardfern Marina

Port Appin Hotel

The view across Loch Linnhe to Mull


Saturday, 30 July 2022

Escaping Brexit Britain

Parler  de la merde

On the final evening of our two weeks in France, we visited a favourite restaurant that we had found five or six years ago. Nestled in vineyards about a kilometre from the sleepy village of Issirac, it is owned and run by a young couple who have built an upstairs and outdoor eating shelter since our last visit pre-Brexit. Le Mouton Noir encapsulates many of the characteristics of the area. The beautiful stonework in the local limestone, and simple but elegant timber finishes created by local joiners. The menu is dominated by local food products including cheeses, fruits, lamb and wines. Above our table was a picture that probably sums up what the young French restauranters think of their politicians. I only wish we had such a relatively harmless view of the candidates seeking to be our future prime minister as they excoriate each other in the honour of completing Boris Johnson's world-beating trashing of the UK.

There was no surprise that the restaurant with its friendly customer care is fully booked despite its isolated location off a paved road and 20 kilometres from the nearest town. We always return to this tranquil oasis as do many others who visit this secluded haven in rural Provence.  Even the food prices seemed about the same as on our last visit pre-Covid, although the pound has collapsed by 21% against the Euro since Brexit. 

The restaurant is an example of how localism prevails in this part of France. The roads and schools are maintained with local pride by the municipalities that are vested with powers that give them some autonomy from the distant centralised control. It is this that has allowed local ideas, projects and businesses to flourish and services to be held to account. What a contrast to top-down Britain where Westminster and Holyrood hold all the cards and are reluctant to allow priorities to be decided locally. Accountability is to government quangos and inspectorates that guarantees a plodding reluctant subservience to central diktaks with little encouragement to innovate.  
We spent a lot of time talking to a another couple staying at the chambres d' hotes, a French wife and German husband, who lived in Switzerland where inflation was still below 3%. Like most other people we spoke to, they regarded the UK as a broken state, incapable of making rational decisions or behaving with the decorum that might be expected from a mature democratic country. They were intrigued by the Tory Party shenanigans in finding a new leader to replace the disgraced Boris Johnson. They likened it to a game show and could not understand why there was no political debate on climate change or any attempt to rebuild trust with the EU. They explained how decision-making by the EU had been hijacked by the never-ending Brexit negotiations. They explained how decisions on Horizon funding for scientific research that was crucial for the company he worked for had been held up because of the UK not following the Northern Ireland protocol. This had serious consequences for Switzerland and other non-EU countries who considered Horizon to be vital to ensure the cross-fertilisation of research. It was another reason to distrust the UK government that seemed unable to understand the basics of diplomacy.

Inflation is running at just over 5% in France compared to 10% in the UK. This is predicted to rise to 15% for the poorest households in the UK as a consequence of a threefold increase in energy prices over the year. The contrast is mainly because the French government has frozen gas prices and limited the increase in the annual cost of electricity to 4%. EDF, the state-owned power company, has to sell electricity at a price cap, The French government has also restricted energy use and reduced fuel taxes. The consequence has been a steadily growing economy with citizens and businesses able to recover from the Covid pandemic. The anxiety and fears that are gathering momentum in the UK are absent. The paradox is that the French government has intervened to reduce the increases in the market cost of energy whilst a member of the EU. The UK government, despite taking back control after Brexit, has shown no such concern and let the markets rip. It was a reminder of what it is like to be in a civilised country that is more concerned about its citizens and businesses than safeguarding the wealthy and their tax havens.

France has a constitution that enshrines powers to the regions and municipalities that have used the period of the pandemic to reflect, plan and invest in upgrading the infrastructure. There was visible evidence that this had been significant. Our nearest village with a population of about 1000 had seen a dozen or so new houses built in the vernacular style, an upgrading of the primary school, a new business hub, a new boulangerie and landscaping work in the village centre. Many roads had been resurfaced so cycling was a pleasure. The local hotel had had a makeover and a new restaurant had opened. All this positive development convinced me that localism and the need to have a constitution that embeds power in councils is essential. It is patently obvious that the Westminster government is failing in so many ways. Not least is its perilous attempts to control and dictate services from London. I would prefer Westminster to shed the vast majority of its assumed powers to the devolved nations of the UK, England's regions, the councils and local communities. Some powers would be better transferred back to the EU, which despite often torturous negotiations in setting standards and regulations, provides a more sustainable and ethical framework and prevents the flimflammery of Westminster politics. With this exemption, the principle should be to devolve to the most local level possible. Westminster should focus on truly national issues like monetary policy and regulation, foreign policy and defence, international aid, trade, and climate change.

As we left France, there were no delays in the airport other than the plane from Edinburgh arriving three hours late. Despite Liz Truss attempting to blame the French for delays at customs being the cause, there was no such problem. It was just that there were insufficient baggage handling staff at Edinburgh.
It made me despair at all the comments that Brexit is done, let's get on with it. Brexit has been an utter disaster and I would certainly vote for any party that promised we would apply to rejoin the EU. The only way we are going to stop our Luddite politicians from allowing sewage to enter the rivers and sea is to follow EU regulations, which reminds me that I trust the EU far more than the UK government to be responsible for environmental regulations and taxing global companies. They are less likely to succomb to the intensive lobbying and deals that have become the underlying curse of Westminster ministerial manipulation by the city, oligarchs and their acolytes. 

France is not perfect but it does recognise and support its communities as vital cogs in determining and delivering services. President Macron, when interviewed at the end of a stage of the Tour de France, showed how to speak with a humility and respect for all nations. Whilst he displayed a deep empathy for French culture and its environment, there was no attempt to politicise or castigate others. He was statesmanlike and a genuine fan of international cycling. There was none of the gratuitous triumphalism that is the curse of the UK's clueless government politicians.


Friday, 29 July 2022

Ard├Ęche Encore

Our place in the sun
We had a day to kill before our rooms at Malataverne by the Ardeche Gorge became available so we travelled across to Les Vans, a town that is the gateway to the Ardeche Regional Park. It was a late booking made whilst in France. It was worth a visit to this busy town that sits aside some wonderful limestone country in the Ardennes dissected by deep gorges. It was also the weekend after the Bastille Day celebrations and as such part of a long weekend for the French. The hotel was more of a motel with a small pool spilling over with children, bikers and hikers. Fine for a night and providing a stark contrast to the stone edifices of hospitality that became even more attractive in comparison.

I decided to travel by the D roads, across the country via Lussan, one of the Beautiful villages of France. It is a fortified village situated on a limestone outcrop overlooking the vineyards of the area and a centre for the silk industry in the past. In the morning heat, its closely built houses and trees provided some protection from the sun but we were too early for lunch so travelled on to Barjac. Barjac is a favourite haunt and we had a large salad lunch before the short journey through oak forests and winding roads to Les Vans. It had been a market day and the streets were being cleaned. We explored the centre before arriving at the hotel that was close to the centre and had a pool. We had not figured on 32 rooms and most of the occupants already cooling themselves in the pool so it was slightly disappointing as was the pre-packaged breakfast. 

Sunday was exciting as we were returning to our much-loved chambres d' hotes, close to Le Garn on the edge of the Ardeche Gorge. It was only an hour and a half away so we took a minor road into the forests enclosing the Chaussez gorge and spent an hour or so on one of the many trails that included part of the GR4 that runs east to west across southern France. We crossed the Ardeche river at Ruoms and took a back road over a ridge to Barjac where we had a tapas lunch in a favourite square. We phoned to see what time we could arrive at our accommodation at La Bastide de Muriers. We were told to come now and we arrived at 2:30pm. Evelyne and Jean-Pierre, the owners had become good friends since we first stayed in 2008 and almost every year since although Covid had prevented visits in the last couple of years. They were there to greet us and provide a welcoming drink and a slice of one of Evelyne's cakes. The next few days were predicted to have record temperatures and it was already 41°C. Unpacking could wait, it was time to head for the gorgeous pool that is never crowded.

The rooms are in an old stone Mas that has been painstakingly converted with a French flair for detail. With air conditioning, it is perfect for escaping the sun and spending some time watching the Tour de France. We had no desire to travel far and in the next five days, we stayed close to the base with just a couple of meals out. Breakfasts are superb with seasonal fruits, bread, local cheese, and homemade cake. There is a small kitchen in an outside stone hut that allows simple meals to be prepared. And that was it. I read a couple of books, watched the swifts that were nesting in stonework outside our room fledge their chicks, swam before breakfast and then another two or three times a day, and watched the last hour of the Tour de France every afternoon. I got through quite a few bottles of Pelforth blonde. My regular 5-mile morning run to Le Garn and around the forests and vineyards was only attempted once in the searing heat and only the prospect of a swim at the end kept me going. It was simple unadulterated bliss. No need to watch the Tory leadership handicap stakes or concern ourselves with the shit show that is the UK sliding into recession and depression.

Five days and nights passed quickly as we mingled with other guests from France and Switzerland and I practised my topiary skills on an Olive Tree for the second time. We visited the nearby village of Organs d'Avens that had been transformed during the lockdown, a new boulangerie, the primary school modernised, a new business hub, and a dozen or so new houses all built in the local vernacular with white limestone walls and spacious gardens and an upgraded hotel that had been run by the same family for four generations. We also visited Le Mouton Noir a restaurant deep in the country near Issirac where a young couple has combined local produce with a modern flavour in a simple but elegant new building.

Jean Pierre had retired from running the family estate that surrounds the Mas that has been converted into five suites of rooms for the chambres d' hotes. His land includes vineyards, apricot, peach, cherry, fig and almond orchards, oak forests for truffles, lavender fields and olive groves. He now helps Evelyne run the chambres d' hotes, although happily not the cuisine that she provides with an amazing skill at utilising the local produce. 

We left shortly after midday for the trip to Nimes and arrived in good time for the flight home. More than could be said for the plane that had been held up on the outward flight from Edinburgh airport for 3 hours owing to delays caused by staff shortages. Ryanair made no announcement but did provide a free snack. Every time we land in Edinburgh the trek from the plane to the terminal gets longer and more confusing and the walk from the terminal to the bus stops for the parking gets longer. It would seem that Edinburgh airport is determined to make itself as confusing as Heathrow, the other logistical nightmare operated by Global Infrastructure Partners.

Chassezac Gorge near Les Vans

Courtyard of the Mas

Malataverne after the Lavendar was cropped

My handiwork at Topiary

Dining room for those cool, wet days. None this year.

Young Swallow 3 days after fledging

Barjac, our regular haunt for coffee or lunch


Barjac, the fairground is in town

Le Mouton Noir, Issirac


Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Avignon and the Gard

Palais des Papes, Avignon

When in France we normally head for the Ardeche but our late booking for flights required us to find alternative accommodation for the first week when our usual accommodation was already booked up. We decided on a gite about 15 kilometres from Avignon in the wine-growing area of the Rhone Valley. Leaving Nimes was not easy with the satnav on the car constantly calibrated to select the autoroute contrary to my instinct to find quieter routes through the glorious limestone country and perfect old Provencal villages. I switched off the satnav and we headed north to Usez and then meandered along roads that tunnelled through plane trees and were menaced by fast vans on narrow roads with precipitate edges. The landscapes were a melange of vineyards, forests and fruit trees with limestone escarpments providing the third dimension. The afternoon heat had soared to 38°C but it would get a lot hotter as the week progressed. 

The gite in St Laurent des Arbres was in a village that boasted two boulangeries, two restaurants and a fortified church with a watchtower. It is situated amidst some attractive pine forests and vineyards. We had brought some food so settled down to enjoy the pool, the balmy evening and the chance to recharge our optimism after suffering Boris Johnson's largely successful attempt to convert the UK into a rogue state. 

We indulged ourselves with some lazy days in the sun, reading, swimming, enjoying our daily bread, eating melons, apricots, peaches, salads, and cheeses and drinking litres of cold water as the mercury danced into the forties. We visited the village of Chateauneuf du Pape just across the Rhone. After lunch in the village, a climb to the castle gave a splendid view of Mont Ventoux.  A well-presented tour of the wine museum explained the importance of soils, climate and the balancing of grape varieties. We went to Uzes on market day, and amidst the curios and antiques we heard a superb rendering of Summertime, but parking wasn't easy. On the hottest day, Bastille Day, a walk in the nearby pine forest was our morning exercise and after the heat began to subside we climbed to the Castello in the nearby village of Saint Victor da Cost which gave amazing views across the Gard and generated an appetite for an evening meal in the village square. 

It was the Festival d' Avignon Festival in July, an Arts festival that began in 1947, the same year as Edinburgh. Avignon is a tourist hotspot at any time of the year but becomes even more so during the festival. There is a very efficient park and ride from a large free car park on an island in the river Rhone into the walled city. We arrived sufficiently early to enjoy time walking around the pedestrianised city and listening to some fine street musicians. We revisited the wonderful Palace des Papes which is a well-curated experience made even more so by a quite remarkable exhibition by the photographer Sebastiao Salgado that captures the landscapes and indigenous people of Amazonia. It worked as both a photographic experience and as irresistible evidence of the need for action to tackle climate change. We had some lunch and continued to soak up the atmosphere of street theatre, there were dozens of shows to see including a French take on Brexit. The street performers seemed more laid back and less aggressive than those that take over Edinburgh during its festival. There was a sense that the festival is better integrated into the community than occurs in Edinburgh.  

We visited the quirky Chateau de Bosc, a wine estate near Pont du Gard that hosts a museum displaying an extensive collection of bikes, motorbikes and toys as well as having two retired fighter planes adorning the vineyard. The museums were a revelation with a Vincent Black Lightening motorbike that conjured up a favourite track by Richard Thompson. Even alongside some remarkable motorbikes from Germany, France, Italy and the United States, the Vincent looked to be the adonis of motorbikes.

The were numerous wooden bikes from the early nineteenth century and steel bikes from the early twentieth century on display but the star exhibit was Jaques Anquetil's bike from the 1963 Tour de France. I had been captivated by this race as a teenager when Anquetil began to go head to head with his great rival Raymond Poulidor in the days when French riders dominated Le Tour. I was desperately keen to have a racing bike with the components on Anquetil's bike: ten Campagnolo gears, Mafac brakes, Mavic wheels, Cinelli handlebars and Christoph pedal clips. They were fitted on racing bikes by Mercian, Holdsworth, Claud Butler and Bob Jackson that were readily available in the UK and common in the school bike shed. In those days the top cyclists were cycling on bikes that could be bought in local bike shops. Levelling up was innate in those halcyon days not a slogan in search of a solution.

We left the gite on a Saturday, thanking our host Charles, who had a great back story. He had been brought up in the Congo in Africa and after moving to France developed a successful textile company that exported to all parts of Europe and Africa. The arrival and domination of imports from India and China at the time of the banking crisis persuaded him to sell his business before it went bankrupt and move to the Gard where he ran a gite along with some rooms and enjoyed a less stressful life with a far smaller carbon footprint. 

St Laurent des Arbres watch tower

Street in Chateauneuf du Pape

Mont Ventoux from Chateauneuf du Pape

Remains of the Castle at Chateauneuf du Pape

Hats off to Avignon Festival

Palais des Papes theatre

Festival d'Avignon

Salgado Amazonia exhibition - people

Salgado Amazonia exhibition - mountains

Salgado Amazonia exhibition - trees

Morning walk in the forest

View from Castello at Saint Victor da Cost

Castello above Saint Victor da Cost

Cicada hitching a lift on Aileen's hat

Mig 17 fighter in Chateau de Bosc outoor museum

Vineyard at Chateau de Bosc

Jaques Anquetil's bike from winning the 1963 Tour de France

Triumph in Avignon

The Gite in St Laurent des Arbres