Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tales from Abroad 11 - Scotland & France.

So. Yesterday I wrote a post about my weekend directly into blogger which of course deleted the whole thing when I hit publish. It was somewhat disgruntled, so perhaps blogger recognised it for the shite post it was & did something about it.

Instead we have possibly the last tale from my Ma & Pa who will be home in 2 weeks. They called Sunday night, I think Mum is getting a bit homesick & wanted to hear our voices.

When we were growing up on the farm, we hosted around 12 international agricultural exchange students, the first arriving when I was around 12 years old. I think we had 8 or 9 in a row (first 3 were from Canada, then we had a run of Scandinavians); the last 3 we had were from France (I'd moved out of home by then), hence the familiarity of the farmers Dad writes about.

Loos, France, 14th June

Our Scottish adventure started from Glasgow where we stayed with cousins. On a sunny day we took a day trip to St Andrews. The city is dominated by the cathedral ruins, although there are quite a few golf links. It has one of the oldest universities in Britain. There is a band of good arable farming land right across this part of Scotland (although we travelled mostly by motorway).

Next we headed to the highlands via "The Road to the Isles". Maillaig is a busy fishing village & ferry terminal. Next day we took the ferry to Skye & rented a cottage in Dornie, right on Loch Long with towering mountains directly behind & over the loch in front. With the sun rising before five & setting close to eleven there were some magnificent reflections in the water.

We took day trips to Glenelg, Plockton, Kyle & Applecross. At Glenelg there were ruins of broches which were the highland versions of the iron age structures we had seen previously. They were perfect beehive shapes with larger wall cavities & used up until the 7th century AD.

In Plockton we went to a local fundraiser. It was a film & seafood night, including local fresh mussels & prawns. The drive to Applecross was white knuckle stuff. Single lane alpine driving with sharp switch backs & few passing places. It was worth it to get to the surprisingly mild coastal town with a coral beach & pretty walled garden.

Another interesting day was watching a local game of shinty on a paddock that sloped from the side of the road down to a loch side marsh by about 7 degrees. There were no buildings, few seats & the players often had to chase their own balls from the sheep paddocks or the rushes. It is like a game of hockey without rules - lots of body contact & overhead stick action.

Next to the shinty field is a burial ground with lots of McRae headstones. There are even more at the ruins of the church at Loch Duich which is the traditional McRae burial ground. There is a certain mystic quality around the country that they left in the 1850's and Australia must have seemed very alien.

Kilmartin was a good stop on the way to Oban. There is evidence of the early neolithic & later civilisations everywhere, from standing stones, cairns, burial mounds & artifacts. This is the place where the early kings were crowned (and buried nearby on the island of Iona). The country around Oban is softer with vegetation on the lower peaks & hillsides. We missed otters in the wild but saw them at the excellent aquarium here. We stopped at a good backpacker hostel notable for the fresh scones provided every morning & its position by the picturesque waterfront & busy main street.

This time we managed to be at the right airport (they'd had an unfortunate incident earlier, almost missing a plane as they were at the wrong terminal). Often Ryanair passengers are at the wrong airport. Ryanair fly from Prestwick & say they fly from Glasgow (45 minutes away). We have heard lots of complaints about Ryanair.

A friendly face met us at Paris. It was Vincent who had visited us on the farm. He drove us to his farm near Beauvais. There he milks 70 cows & crops on 200 hectares with his parents. The cows graze on the few hectares which are tied to his milk quota & the rest are cropped. The rotation is wheat, maize, sugar beet & canola. The crops are quite stunted & they desperately need rain. The main topic in the farming journals is the drought (also in the south east of England).

Vincent's cows are feed a complete ration according to production via an outdoor 2 stand feeding station which recognises the electronic collars. From November to March they stay in loafing barns. Slurry is stored & spread when permissible & the dry manure is carted to the cropping paddocks, windrowed then aerated by contractors prior to use as fertilizer.

Herd records & quality assurance is all entered to a national database online daily. He is getting 33 € cents per litre at the moment. Last year when the supermarkets started discounting, the local farmers removed all the milk from the local supermarket. Better than the usual dumping of manure on the steps of Parliament by French farmers! Vincent says French farmers have an emotional response as they are less organised than Australian farmers. A considerable part of his income comes from EU support for cropping but the dairy (apart from the fodder) is unsupported.

Gerberoy, the village voted number one is near to Vincent. It was raining when we visited, so we could walk unhindered as it is usually full of tourists. The buildings are mostly of timber and brick or clay. Most of the surrounding farms are typically French with large wooden doors opening into a court yard surrounded by the house, barn, stable, dairy etc all joined together. They have cellars that were often used to make cider. Most of the ones in the village streets have been converted to modern housing but retaining the facade.

Vincent drove us to his friend Gonzague (and our former worker) in Loos near Lille. This is a very unusual farm because it has 5 hectares and the main farm buildings within the city boundaries. Some of their land was appropriated for a major hospital about 500 metres away and there is always the threat of more land being acquired. They have a legal advisor specialising in town planning and all their operations are a compromise with the community; although they do have significant support for their farm shop.

Gonzague milks 20 cows and operates with his wife (who is also a pharmacist) & parents. 150,000 litres are kept (unpasteurised) to produce butter, fresh cheese, yoghurt & fresh milk for the shop. The yoghurt is by far the best we have tasted. The rest is picked up by the tanker for manufacture. There are 700 battery layers plus meat birds. Battery cages are banned from the end of the year, so they have bought another larger shed. The remainder of the 100 hectares is mostly nearby but some is 15kms away. They also grow potatoes, wheat, sugar beet, maize & canola.

Today we went to the fruit & vegetable market in Lille to buy strawberries, carrots, onions & zucchini to stock the shop. It is like the Footscray market but may be larger. They only sell in season produce. Lille is a very interesting city, having been once under Spanish rule. It was a textile town & trade centre between England and mainland Europe. Barges still carry freight via the canal flowing through the city.

Tomorrow we catch the train to Cholet. It is mostly by TGV - 600kms in 4 and a half hours - so the photos might be a bit blurred. Apologies on 2 counts. Some of you might already have some of this news and the keyboard is QSDFGH not QWERTY.

They still have 2 of our previous exchange students to visit with before heading home, so Dad may give us one more update! It sounds amazing that Gonzague's farm is right in the middle of town - Dad said the town is around the same size as Warrnambool (pop approx 30,000). I suspect the stone they lost in Scotland will return in France due to all the butter & pastry they've been consuming! Mum was practicing her French on the phone to me, but I suspect our previous students families speak little english & the language barrier has been more difficult than in the UK. I'm still deciding what to cook for their arrival dinner - they'll probably want a feed of steamed veggies & some fruit. I'll ask Dad for a request or two. When they left I cooked them a rack of lamb with veg, followed by home made apple pie.


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