Holidays in the New Normal

They are calling the time after coronavirus “the new normal”. It seemed a good idea to use some of our long days of confinement while in lockdown to try and define what this might mean for Le Moulin de Pensol.

We weren’t enormous fans of the old normal. In fact, getting away from the old normal was what brought us out to France in the first place. We disliked what the English call the rat race. The constant quest for money to service enormous debt on houses that you hardly ever saw because you were out working, or worse commuting long distances to and from work. Using some of that money to pay for treats to make it all seem worth it – a new phone upgrade, an expensive package holiday, new clothes that you may only wear a few times before they go out of fashion. And of course wine and whiskey to mask the pain of the knowledge that on Monday you will have to get up and do it all over again.

So perhaps this desperately difficult period is a chance to redefine what we all want from life. For us, the virus has pushed us further down the road which we were already voluntarily travelling. We hope the future holds significantly more self-sufficiency in terms of food production, while at the same time looking after the incredible biodiversity of this area. We have enjoyed having the time to read widely on permaculture, pasture management and no-dig gardening systems and have watched hours of YouTube videos on how to train mules and donkeys to be useful substitutes for lawnmowers, tractors and cars. I have signed us up to the French WWOOF network (Working on Organic Farms) where willing like-minded volunteers come and work on your land to exchange skills in return for accommodation and food.

Nik has been enthusiastically developing the island. We discovered this small area of land buried under brambles. The island is formed by an overflow channel in the River Bandiat, and Nik and Guy had cleared the brambles and constructed a charming wooden bridge across to it. Boys do so love an island! Under the brambles we discovered numerous mature fruit trees as well as a stand of blackthorn to provide sloes for our sloe gin next year. This seems an important area for the future plans of Le Moulin. It has easy access to water but it doesn’t flood. Now we have cleared some alder it has abundant sunlight with dappled shade cast by the fruit trees. We have constructed some raised beds with well-rotted donkey manure – a resource in which we are suddenly extremely rich! In these beds we will try and grow a mixture of shade loving vegetables and flowers to make it a charming and productive place. Plants like lettuce and spinach find the blazing hot glare of the Limousin summer a bit much and tend to run straight to seed, so we are hoping they will do better here.

The island also has a natural glade area which seems to be custom-made for concerts, weddings, parties and gentle magical evenings round an open fire. We have strung some hammocks between the fruit trees and had a few fires already and can confirm this fledgling concept is definitely a goer.

We have also spent a lot of time restoring the old fruit orchard at the top of our land. This used to be a pick-your-own (PYO), and we have inherited hundreds of blueberry, current and gooseberry bushes. While I am happy to make jam which we can then serve to guests as part of breakfasts, I don’t remotely have enough time or patience to pick the harvest that we are likely to get from these plants now that we have pruned and cared for them a little. So the idea is to open an English style PYO, where people can come to Le Moulin, enjoy picking fruit in the sunshine and admiring the butterflies and bees while they do so, then perhaps have a coffee and a slice of cake over on the island serenaded by the twinkling River Bandiat. If the season is right, they might like to buy a bunch of sweet peas, or some jam, or a pumpkin, or whatever else we have available at the time. I am not sure that courgettes ever really have a financial value during the summer – they can probably have those for free! A few minutes talking to the donkeys over the fence and they could be on their way having whiled away a pleasant half-day, taking with them all the ingredients for supper.

Gite guests are likely to be more from France and less from other countries than under the old normal. Again, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Ryanair are talking about cancelling most flights until July. Climate change has not stopped because of Covid-19, and since the pain of laying off thousands of air industry staff has already happened, why not take the advantage to try and hugely decrease the amount of air travel we all do? I know this sounds hypocritical as I am a huge Ryanair customer, but investment needs to be put into the alternatives which is never going to happen when flights are £9.99.

The knock on effect of this increase in French visitors is that our language skills need to radically improve. We cannot continue to just muddle by. To this end I have signed up to a skype course run by a local Frenchman and absolutely loved my first lesson. Did you know the French hardly ever use the terms dejeuner and diner? They say a midi or ce soir. Dejeuner and diner sound absurdly posh and overblown, especially when said with an English accent. Remember, the French we learnt was 30 years ago at school. From textbooks written by 50 year old men speaking the language they themselves had learnt 30 years earlier. It’s hardly surprising the language has moved on a bit. I am looking forward to learning lots more gems like that!

The new normal for our visitors, be they bed and breakfast or gite guests will also need to be designed. I am aware that people will be reluctant to travel and nervous about interacting with people again. We will need to reassure them and I think we are well placed to do this as we have so much space and it should be easy to maintain some social distancing measures for all our guests. Our B&B breakfast table for example is so large it is easy for guests to breakfast separately, even if all three rooms are occupied. And we don’t have a set breakfast time so it is unlikely that guests will bump into each other.

Gite guests may wish to have meals delivered to their gites rather than going out to eat. We are happy to provide this. Perhaps pizza night could become pizza delivery night for anyone not wishing to interact with other guests?

We will also amend our booking procedures. I will no longer take deposits or any payment in advance, as it seems likely that there may be future lockdowns as the virus peaks and declines. Repayment of deposits has been one of the most painful aspect of all of this for us financially. Bookings will be made on a “pencil you in and see how it goes” basis. The PYIANSHIG principle. I may copyright that!

Stay safe. Stay positive. Come and see us one day soon and help us craft our new normal by interacting on our Website, Facebook, Instagram, Linked In and Twitter accounts.