Tuesday, 26 March 2013


France is the country of mistletoe. We have seen millions of orbs, I think, in the last 24 hours. Some of them are so densely packed with branches they are almost black.  They favour poplar trees, but also venture out into other species. Parasitic, reputedly spread by birds, but with a magic quality, staying green when their host tree branches are empty and bare (ruined quires, where late the sweet birds sang).

We spent most of today driving back up north, planning to stop for lunch at Reims, but turning off before that into Verdun. What an extraordinary place. It was so central to the horrors of the first World War that in 1920, London decided to 'adopt' the city to help rebuild it. I had not appreciated, until today, how widespread the battlefields were - not just up in Flanders but right through the areas we have passed through today, down into Alsace and Lorraine.  Some of the older buildings still have pockmarks from armaments.  It's clearly still a place of pilgrimage for many different peoples, with lots of tempting caf├ęs and restos, with cheap tarrifs, and worth visiting.

We have seen so many wonderful birds on this drive - especially the red kites between Bitche and Sarreguemines - but also buzzards in great numbers, and lapwings, and kestrels.  We also saw a herd of small deer - munkjack? - who had ventured out into the fields.  The landscape is unbelievably huge here, seemingly endless miles of farmland without hedge or tree... a profitable desert. But just now and then, something catches the eye... a pair of crows, a colony of rooks, and of course those storks or cranes we saw flying along the course of the Rhine.

Now we are at Lens, to see the Lens-Louvre museum tomorrow before we head home. Lens is a place you might just drive past, with its slag heaps and grubby suburbs, and its traffic jams, but here we are in a little 3* place, where the wifi is annoyingly dodgy but seems to be ok for now.

The deaths, the deaths.... we have driven smoothly and calmly over the killing fields.  At Verdun there was a sign which said it had been destroyed in 450, 485, 984, 1047, 1246, 1338, 1562, 1792 and 1870. Almost incredible. It happened again of course in 1916, in ten months.  But being in the middle of the great European continent, that is what happened to small towns...... I think of little Faversham. It's had its troubles, but nothing like that. 

I wonder how we have the nerve to describe the marvellous life of birds and animals as 'wild life'. Who is really wild? Us, or them?

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