After recovering from the long journey back from Venice I took a trip down to see a pal in St Albans. Abigail and I have been friends for 30 years since we met in a restaurant in Katmandu. Abigail was only 15 at the time and needed some help dealing with the local airlines in her quest to return home. I went along as ‘aunty’ so they sold her a ticket. She is a very plucky woman whose battle with poor health has been nothing short of heroic. She is a generous, kind and loyal friend and I wish I could spend more time with her.
We decided to have a day out to Hatfield House, Hartford, so I drove 90 miles down to St Albans and we spent a lovely time wandering the craft fair (which was huge, reasonably priced, diverse and extremely interesting). Then I drove back to Wisbech (another 90 miles) to spend the rest of the week with my mum.
Hatfield house and the craft fair
The next weekend I took another jaunt up to Hull to visit with my childhood friend and see what the City of Culture had to offer in terms of culture. Anita and I had a lovely afternoon sitting in a pub beside the Humber Bridge just chatting (for about 4 hours), eating and drinking coffee. In the evening we went to see Shakespeare’s Richard III, at the Hull Truck Company Theatre. What a brilliant production, first class acting, staging, and of course writing (LOL). The lead role – Richard III was played by an actor called Mat Fraser, who was a thalidomide victim, (he lacked forearms and so his hands/wrists are joined at his elbows). His strong body and strong voice were awe-inspiring. He has been featured on UK TV as a proponent of more roles for actors with disabilities.
The next day I drove back down to Wisbech – another three hour drive. I had planned on staying put for a few days before my return to France. My cousin Veronica was also away on a cruise. Her husband Gary, who had been in poor health for many years, was recently released from the hospital. Veronica was cleared by the hospital to go away for her week long break with her friend Linda. Gary was being cared for by various family members including yours truly and my mum. He was a very independent guy who liked being at home and not fussed about. Early Tuesday morning Mum and I were having a cup of tea when we noticed an ambulance draw up to Gary’s bungalow. I went over to investigate and found 5 paramedics working on Gary who had been vomiting blood everywhere.
I talked to the paramedics just before they took Gary in the local hospital. I called his daughter, took care of their dog and proceeded to clean up the mess. Rachael went to the hospital immediately, followed by other members of the family. Gary was very seriously ill. They called Veronica to bring her back from her cruise, so she flew home a day early. Other members of the family started to gather, but Mum and I stayed away. Gary was very ill and really needed to rest, but for his grandchildren it was the first time they were facing the potential loss of someone very close and very dear to them.
On the Friday morning mum and I went to visit Gary in the hospital, Veronica was there with her sons, daughter, sister and brother so we did not say long. I went to say goodbye as I was leaving that morning and my mum just wanted to check in on him, as they were quite close friends. Gary was relatively conscious and he recognized us. He said he had felt like he had been cut in half with a chainsaw the day the ambulance came. I told him the bathroom looked like that was what had happened, and I was not going to clean it up again. So no more chainsaws.
St Mary’s Church tower – West Walton Wisbech
After our hospital visit I went to Peterborough to catch the train to Gatwick and a plane to Montpellier. It took ages and I landed in France around 11:00pm. Much to my concern Martin was not there to meet me as we had arranged. I thought he may have had an accident or something, so eventually, as the lights were being switched off at the airport, I took a taxi to the Port Ariane in Latte where Skookum was moored. We had been in Latte (a suburb of Montpellier at the end of a canal) last year so I knew where it was and what to expect when I got there. It was around midnight and I was tired and a bit nervous but eventually found Skookum with Martin in residence, looking very sheepish and blooded.
Apparently he had missed the taxi he had called to take him to the airport to meet me, ran to catch a tram, fell, scraped his knees and hands and was dripping with blood. After Wisbech I had seen enough blood for one week. I was a bit annoyed and disappointed he was not at the airport, but also relieved that he not broken a bone nor been in an accident. My cousin Paul, who had been staying with Martin, left for a night in Montpellier before I arrived. It was very sweet of him to give us some time together.
The next day I called my mum to find out that Gary had died the evening I left the UK. I was very sorry to hear this. Losing a family member is devastating and Gary’s passing is no different, but everyone rallies to support each other. Grieving is a long slow painful but necessary process and only time gives the relief and healing to our hearts. RIP Gary Holmes, aged 68, husband for 48 years, father of three, grandfather of seven and great-grandfather to three soon to be four.
Martin asked me why I wrote about my family and friends in the European Sojourn blog. My answer is that we have been living a dream on the canals and rivers for six summers and cruising through European waterways for that long makes me feel a bit of a water-gypsy. Even gypsies have back stories, which are a part of their personal history. To stay grounded (which is a bit odd given that we are living on the water – but you know what I mean) I stay connected with my other (real) life by sharing the experiences both happy and sad of our family and friends. So if you are not interested in my real life please feel free to skip that part and just read about the adventures. There is still plenty going on!
I spent the next couple of days on Skookum, getting myself organized ready for cruising. Paul took the bike to Aigues Mortes to pick up the car cycling about 25kms.
Martin and I went to the Lattes market – which is a great food experience one day, and took the tram into Montpellier to get Kerry a hair cut and me a phone sim card.
Kerry before her haircut Kerry after
By Tuesday we were ready to leave, so headed back down the Lattes Canal to the Rhone/Sete canal and stayed out on the side of canal at Maguelone on our way to the Frontignan bridge.
The cruise down the canal included flamingos, nesting cranes and a few Camargue horses. The bird life on the canals is quite remarkable and includes cuckoos, gulls, grebes, coots, cranes, European bee-eaters and swallows.
We cruised down to Maguelone, which is an abandoned ancient (10th century) Cathedral that was purchased and restored by a local family. It is also by the beach so we were able to enjoy a walk and a paddle in the Mediterranean. We spent the night moored on the side of the canal, it was highly restorative and we all felt good to be on the move again. Our next challenge was the bridge at Frontignan; this only raises twice a day at 8:30 am and 4:00, so we were out early to catch the bridge.
Once through the bridge we followed the canal to the Etang de Thau. This shallow lake of brackish water holds large numbers of mussel beds – a major part of the local economy. We had been to the Etang before – last year – when Martin jumped in for a swim. He was less enthusiastic this year when we saw shoals of jelly fish floating across the lake.
We made for the small port of Meze – a delightful place with lots of services, shopping and restaurants. There was a strict code for boaters who are not allowed to use their own toilet facilities for fear of polluting the lake and the mussel beds.
We could swim in Meze but the lake was a little chillier than last year (it was August when we were visiting in 2016), so a paddle sufficed to say we had been in the water. Paul, however, was made of much sturdier stuff and went swimming in anyway.
Our next stop was the small port of Marseillan, with its lovely but pricey harbour/moorage. Marseillan is also the home of the famous Vermouth Noilly Pratt.
Roger Moore (007 for many movies) had just died the day before so there was lots of discussion about the perfect Martini – shaken not stirred? The people at Noilly Pratt felt that shaking a martini bruises the cocktail. We took a tour of the factory where the vermouth is made, which was, of course, followed by a tasting and purchasing.
Noilly Pratt was named after the nineteenth century owners of a distillery, who developed vermouth using wine aged for 8 months in Canadian oak barrels followed by a blending with grape juice and lastly by macerating with herbs for about three weeks. The herbal formula is a deep dark secret but the includes chamomile, bitter orange, nutmeg, coriander and cloves. They now make four kinds of Noilly Pratt: regular, extra dry, red and amber (which is more like a liquor).
So you may ask – what is the perfect Martini. It is one part Noilly Pratt, two parts Blue Sapphire or Tanquery gin or Grey Goose Vodka, orange bitters and an olive with lots of ice. The methodology according to Roger Moore (007) for a perfect martini requires time and patience, resulting in slow (not sloe) drinking.
Martin and I took ourselves out for a fairly flash lunch in town consisting of mostly raw shellfish, while Paul explored the waterside. He discovered the fishery landings on the side of the lake that also served cheap pink wine (yum) and fresh fresh mussels and oysters.
So being the inquisitive sort, Martin and I cycled out to the east of Marseillan and bought some fresh mussels for supper, got back on the boat and set course for the entrance to the Canal du Midi (at last – it had only taken us six summers to get here).
The entrance was a bit disappointing – full of rotting old boats, squatters, travelers and migrants, not quite the picturesque tree-lined canal I expected. The aesthetic was lost and I was disappointed as I felt they were very disrespectful towards this 400 year old engineering feat.
Entrance to the Canal du Midi
Happily the canal and it’s aesthetic did get better.