Saturday, 7 December 2013

A Winter's Tale.

It's early December. I'm walking in the forest, resisting the urge to pick up yet more fir cones and trying not to think about the fast-dwindling amount of shopping days left 'til Christmas. The air is crisp, the sky is icy-blue and the remaining beech leaves are almost glowing with their strange luminosity. Their less fortunate, fallen compadres are satisfyingly crunchy underfoot. I really should be Christmas shopping....

Through the trees, I spy a little cabin, and can't resist making my way towards it.  There's smoke curling from the chimney but there doesn't seem to be anyone around. It looks so cosy, and I'm just about to step inside when I hear a voice... 
"Oi! What do you want?" 
"Oh sorry," I say and turning, am surprised to see that the voice is coming from a gnarly looking frog who appears to be wearing a tiny silver crown.
"Um...I was just out walking and saw this place....I was just curious.....actually, I'm trying to avoid going shopping for Christmas presents."
"Ha!" he snorted, "Look around are everywhere"
"I don't understand?"
"You got the beautiful sky and stars above, you got the trees in all their splendour, you got the calm reflections on the lake to feast upon...that's just for starters..."
"Oh I see, I was thinking more like....something from Dixons?"
"Well, think again!.... you get to take a deep draught of that cool, clean air, feel the energising breezes, you'd even get to see the amazin' sunrises if you weren't so lazy."
"How do you know that I'm lazy?"
"Listen love, I'm a talking frog! I just know."
"But, how can I get these gifts and share them with my loved ones?"
"That's simple, you go to and book 'em in. They'll even send you a gift voucher if you like."
"How wonderful! Thanks so much," I say, "I could kiss you..."

..But that's another story.....
Merry, Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Crabs, Concrete & Lager (three reasons to visit the Southern Seas).

A Guest Post By Our Special Atoll Correspondent.

Whilst trawling around on the internet recently, I chanced upon some photographs of the tiny atoll of Tematangi,  way down in the south Pacific ocean. The photos instantly reminded me that, way, way back, in another life,  I had lived there. Not for very long you understand, only a couple of months, but it now seems such a long way off (both in time & distance) that  now seems like a good time to share my strange and unique experience.

Tematangi (or Bligh's Lagoon) is "famous" for two reasons. The first is that it was discovered by Captain Bligh (of HMS Bounty fame) in 1792 whilst seeking out his mutinous crew who had holed-up somewhere amongst the Polynesian atolls & islands. The second is that it is the antipodes to Mecca, therefore the only place on earth that a Muslim could perform prayer in any direction and always be facing the holy city.
I was 22 at the time and (don't ask me how) found myself as part of a small working party of around a dozen, tasked with first digging, then laying concrete foundations and erecting various metallic buildings to be used as a weather station. To say that Tematangi is remote would be an understatement. It lies pretty much in the middle of the south Pacific ocean and it's highest point above sea level would be no more than 4 or 5 feet. As with all atolls it consists of a narrow band of sand and rock, probably no wider than a few hundred feet at it's widest, scattered with coconut palms with a deep lagoon in the middle and the wild open ocean all around you. Being close to the equator means that sun-up is around 6.00 am and sundown is around 6.00 pm, all year round. 

Tematangi shore

We arrived by ship, but there being no dock and the small issue of a treacherous coral reef surrounding the atoll, meant that we had to anchor quite a way off. We, our equipment and all of our stores had to be loaded into a large, wooden rowing boat, manned by two islanders who would, apparently,  row us over the reef in time with the ocean swell and hopefully not dash us all on the rocks. It was one of those moments in life when you have no choice other than to trust completely and implicitly the stranger your life has just been entrusted to. Needless to say, they knew exactly what they were doing and repeated the exercise many times until we and all our kit was safely ashore. I should mention though at this point that several weeks after our unforgettable arrival, whilst walking along the shore in the 40 degree heat, I chanced upon an un-opened bottle of Kronenbourg lying in the sand. This was very welcome, believe me, even if it was a bit warm. Over the following couple of days about half a crate of them had been washed ashore in total. My very own "Whiskey Galore" moment!  The beer had obviously gone over the side on some earlier arrival and was only now being given up by the ocean. How alarming that must have been for those poor workers, seeing their valuable ration of lager being swallowed up by the seas.

There was nothing really on the atoll besides some abandoned buildings and a small weather station. Once a week, the islander who ran the weather station would release one of those enormous helium balloons which would soar off on it's one way journey to the upper atmosphere. We had no electricity, we slept in a large open-ended tent, the cold showers used stored rainwater and the toilet was a shack on the beach under which we had dug a deep hole. This was also where about a million flies lived. The atoll was uninhabited, or so I thought. One morning we had gone for a run and after covering about 8kms or so came across a primitive village of around 40 people, living under palm-leaf shelters, families with small children. I was amazed. How could all of these people be living on such a tiny strip of land with no fresh water? They had come from other islands and were there to harvest the coconuts that covered the atoll. The men would climb impossibly high palm trees to hack the coconuts down which would then have their green outer shell deftly removed with a couple of machete swings and laid in heaps to dry. The by-product of this work was the valuable milk that each coconut contains. This was what they drank in place of water. When they weren't harvesting coconuts, they were paddling out to sea in their outrigger canoes (pirogues) to catch fish. These people were not just surviving, they were positively thriving. You'd be hard pushed to find a healthier looking bunch of people. Whilst we were there a Japanese ship arrived to collect their cargo and for several days the dried husks were loaded into rowing boats and ferried the half mile or so, over the reef, to be loaded into the ship's hold.

Tematangi Atoll

BinLlovin' Coconut Crab

The only other occupants on the atoll were crabs. I'd never really seen many crabs at that point in my life, just the ones you find in rock pools as a kid. I'd heard of hermit crabs, but had never actually seen one. Every night on Tematangi the hermit crabs came out and appeared to be crossing the atoll like an invading army. You could hear them moving en masse in the dark and if you walked anywhere during the invasion you would literally have to crunch your way through them, such were the number and density of them. Quite extraordinary. It was also home  to the coconut crab. Now these I had never even heard of, crabs that live in trees!   Whatever next.  They are massive and have claws that can comfortably crush bones and they also only come out at night. The islanders would catch these formidable beasts and hang them out in the sun to dry, whereupon they would be given a couple of coats of varnish and flogged off to tourists in Tahiti and Bora Bora. One of the saddest sights I saw however was a huge turtle that a couple of the islanders had caught whilst out fishing. It was dragged back to the atoll and rolled onto it's back in the baking sun and left to a similar fate as the coconut crabs. It was about the size of two bath tubs and an animal that large takes more than a little while to die, even in those conditions. The poor creature was there for days, gasping in the heat. I sat with it for a while one day, it was really distressing to see it. I remember wanting to release it, but this was how these islanders survived and it wasn't my place to tell them how to live or what was right or wrong. There's no doubt it would have been a high value item and as such would have been very important income for them. Why, you ask would they not make their end more speedy?  In order to preserve the shell intact is the answer.

In any case, no one could accuse the islanders of pillaging, as various colonial powers had already seen to that. They only took what they needed from the seas, nothing more.

The work was hard, especially in the heat. We had only two pieces of mechanical equipment; a concrete mixer and a dump truck. We made endless trips to the beach to shovel sand and gravel first into the dumper, then into the mixer. I don't know how many tonnes we mixed and laid, a couple of hundred I should think. We erected a couple of metallic buildings, something none of us had done before, but we soon got the hang of it. One of my jobs was to spray paint the buildings, green I seem to remember. Since it was so hot, only shorts & boots would ever be worn whilst working, so at the end of each day I would have to have a total body wash with diesel fuel as I was green-gloss from head to toe. On one occasion one of the guys slipped from his ladder, he wasn't very high up, 7 or 8 feet, but as he fell he caught his forearm on the corner of a metal cladding sheet and it opened his arm up like a sardine tin. I can still picture him clutching his arm and letting out a loud wailing sound whilst running off in the direction of the first-aid box, for that was all there was. He was lucky looking back on it. If he'd severed anything important it probably would have been curtains for him.
I spent many hours walking the shoreline, beachcombing. Other than the lager that washed up, I don't recall finding anything man made. The seas were heaving with life down there, I wouldn't go as far as to say that they were shark infested, but sharks of all kinds were a very common sight, occasionally catching glimpses of them as they swam through the breaking waves. Flying fish were common too and yes, they do actually fly! I've never been a keen swimmer, so it was no hardship not to go in as I'm sure it would have ended in some kind of personal tragedy.
So now, here we are, years later in deepest Dordogne, offering our punters the chance to get-away-from-it-all and asking them not to expect too much in the way of a mobile phone signal and I wonder if my south-seas adventures all those years ago may have shaped or somehow influenced the way I do things now?   Possibly.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

We are the Champignons.

When we first came to live in these parts my French vocab was a bit limited. In addition to "pain" and "vin", another word I knew was "champignon" and I remember being amazed at how many times, when earwigging in the supermarket queue or in the bar, this one word would keep cropping up. It seemed to me that everyone was talking about mushrooms, pretty much all the time. Of course in those days, saying the word mushroom to me had me thinking 'small white buttony things in a blue barquette from Sainsbury's. I had flirted with chanterelles and shiitakes....but they were very much on the periforal edge of my culinary vision, I had no idea then that mushrooms were something of a regional, if not national, obsession, their arrival even making front page news in the local paper!

After a couple of years though, I started to think that there must be something in it and decided to go forth into the woods with my trusty guide book. Soon I became a convert and spent many happy hours fruitlessly foraging in the forest.

Now, the season is upon us once again and the woods are thronging with all kinds of fungi and foragers. In the normal way of things, seeing a man shuffling about on his own in the woods would activate my Weirdo Alert, but I'm now quite used to coming across them. For sure, he might give me a funny look, but that'll be because
A: I might be nicking mushrooms on his turf, or
B: He is nicking mushooms on my turf, or
C: He was just born looking funny.
Skip the Dog, who's Weirdo Alert is more finely tuned up than mine, will often spot someone ahead of me and he'll let off a warning salvo of his most fearsome barks. But the fungi hunters will barely raise their heads, such is their obsession.

Thursday, 8 August 2013


Bob and I are getting on a bit and remember a time before we were all constantly plugged in to cyberspace.
I'm only talking about the nineteen eighties, not the 1880's, but even so, travelling back then was a different world.
In some far flung places, I can remember having to book telephone calls back to the UK and waiting in a hot and dusty office for a slot to become available. The lines were scratchy and echoey and often overlaid by other people jabbering away in a strange tongues.

Phones, pads, & gps's have revolutionised the way we travel and I can see their advantages, especially for women travelling alone, but part of me hankers for that simpler time, when self reliance was what I relied upon and we had interesting maps to tangle up, turn upside down and ponder over and perhaps, a reason to stop and ask someone the way. I found that the people I encountered formed an important part of the journey and my experiences were certainly made richer (and sometimes a bit scarier!) by them.

Bob, on the other hand, has never, to my knowledge, asked anyone the way, ever. He once travelled the whole length of France with just the front cover torn from a map for guidance. But then, I don't suppose he was too fussed where he finally pitched up - so no problemo!

Here at the cabin in deepest Dordogneshire there's still a chance you won't get a mobile signal - we had a chap staying a while back who got a bit lost whilst out for a cycle ride - he stopped to ask a lady, who was working in her garden, the way and she and her husband then drove 50 yards or so down the road to show him ....turned out he was not that lost after all. Later, his saviours arrived at the cabin with bags of fresh garden vegetables and an invite for dinner the next day! That just doesn't happen when your head's down, staring at your device. Which just goes to show, good things may happen if you just let yourself switch off.

Are you in need of a digital detox?  Go to

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

In The Groove.

Here at covertcabin we like to keep abreast of modern technologies and so when the opportunity arose to purchase a "portable, lightweight music player with no need of batteries or charger, in its own faux leather carrying case" naturally we jumped at the chance and snapped one up on-line.  Admittedly, the parcel that duly arrived was slightly larger than we'd anticipated but we now find ourselves the proud owners of a state-of-the-art Decca 66...

Not entirely by coincidence we had recently acquired a collection of old 78's, which was lucky for us, as our device did not seem to have a docking station for our pods or any slots for sticks or cards.  We spent a rainy afternoon washing the dusty old discs and marvelling at the wondrous titles: "While I Was Holding My Coconut", "He Played His Ukelele As The Ship Went Down", and the sexist classic " Why Did I Marry My Wife?" and whilst we did so Bob, whose depths of obscure knowledge are unfathomable, explained all about 78's, 45's, rpm's and why the modern day single is invariably a maximum of 3 minutes long. My mind wandered a little as he continued on about groove widths, rotational speeds and fidelity, those of a techy/nerdy disposition can read more about that stuff here Not now though, later.....lest you become forever lost in Linkland. 

Next day was the first truly hot day of Summer and even though I have been slightly moany about the sun's poor show so far, by mid afternoon I was, contrarily, too hot and slunk off to the shade.  Under the trees with a couple of cool beers we wound up the Decca 66 and listened to some strains from old refrains - a very pleasant interlude indeed...

Fancy spinning some discs yourself?  The Decca 66 and a wide selection of 78's are recently installed down at Woodsman's cabin.

Hear what you like - when you like

Thursday, 9 May 2013



Fancy a sundowner? at
Having lived here in France for a number of years I have undoubtedly picked up a few French habits.  My consumption of garlic and goat's cheese are up, for sure and my Mum once reprimanded me over an irritating Gallic style shrug that I had unknowingly developed.  Some things remain mysterious though.  I've never enjoyed playing P├ętanque or felt the urge to hurl my duvet out of the window on a fine day... or even overtake on a blind bend. When it comes to speaking French I happily babble away, using perhaps only three of the many possible tenses available to me.  I'll never be mistaken for a native, or at least, so I thought
One day, in a local supermarket I was waylaid by a chap who was selling wine.  He made it himself, locally and had somehow managed to wangle a pitch in the store.  We chatted for a bit about the wine and stuff.  He made his wine from the Gamay grape which always tastes sharp, with a hint of worn socks to me.  In a bid to avoid the imminent tasting I was going to have to endure I told him I much preferred beer and then he said... 
" You have an accent particulier, Madam?"
"Yes, I'm English."
"Oh I thought you must be from Brittany" 
This, I now realise, was French code for "I thought you must be from Mars" as Brittany is the furthest place away imaginable to a lot of locals who are not well travelled but I was secretly chuffed about his comment and bought two bottles, even though, I have to say, the wine was quite ghastly.  Only on the way home did I begin to suspect that perhaps he had flattered to deceive!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

A Tale of Two Tails - Guest Post by Pops the Cat....

"Mutual understanding is at the heart of any good relationship.  Often, we misread the signs others give out and misinterpret their intentions and that's when problems can arise".  This was how my 'Mistress' explained it to me when I had to have yet another swipe at that damn dawg.  But when I sees 'im gaily wagging his great black brush of a tail I don't see it as sign of friendliness at all, but more like the angry switch that I am quite fond of doin'.  And when Skip hears the audible thump of my tabby tail on the rug he dimly perceives a happy-go-lucky little friend who'll be delighted to see 'im, when in fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.  She's only tryin' to help us get along better, but I think the best thing would be to cut 'is tail orf.  Snip, snip.  Voila! Problem solved.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013


We have long known about the existence of a large group of standing stones near to Fisherman's Cabin, but despite several attempts to locate them, until quite recently, their exact whereabouts remained elusive.  They are called Roches Eyzides.  Once, we found some coordinates on a dusty looking french website and set off to where we thought they must be, but these just led us to a field with some angry looking cows in and so we shuffled off home dejectedly.  Finally, I was driven to do the one thing that Bob says we must never do when lost, and that is to ASK SOMEONE!  And within seconds the mystery was solved and the location revealed.

The legend goes that a shepherd tending his flock was being menaced by a wolf.  He asked the genies or spirits of the forest for help but they were powerless against the wolf and so, after a bit of a conflab, decided the best thing would be to turn him and his sheep to stone.  Thanks for that you spirits, that's very helpful.

So now, standing an impressive six metres high, here is the petrified shepherd, and his stony flock are spread around and about him in the forest.  It's a great place for a walk or a picnic, just take no notice of any menacing wolves and, whatever you do, don't call upon the woodland spirits.

Thursday, 17 January 2013


Sometimes when I'm out walking with Skip the Dog it's easy to lose track of time and indeed my location.  I am wandering along the many woodland tracks and trails and my mind is also on the roam.  I should be considering the great issues of our age, like what to do about Palestine, but more than likely I'm thinking shallow stuff like what sort of cake I should bake and whether I've put the dishwasher on. Suddenly it'll occur to me that I don't actually know where I am and a prickle of panic will rise.  Not that I'm going to be so lost I can't find my way home, I don't walk fast so I can't have covered too much ground, however these trails and trees can all look the same.  Skip's no help - although he likes to lead out on the walk he has no clue where we're supposed to be going and when a 'junction' approaches he'll invariably find something really interesting on the ground that requires his detailed investigation.  Once I've turned left or right he'll then rush forward again to take up his default pacesetter position. 

One such evening, I found myself adrift in the wood as the sun was going down.  Suddenly, the benign forest took on an eerier feel, there was the screech of a buzzard overhead and we heard a mystery animal crash through the undergrowth a little way off.  Skip thought about giving chase but then looked at me with a 'WTF was that?' expression and we drew close.  I stopped and tried to get my bearings, then decided the best thing to do would be to head for the fast fading light.  I quickened my pace and stomped through the bush, brambles snagging my progress as we blazed a trail to who knew where?  After a couple of minutes I thought I caught a glimpse of a clearing ahead and then we tumbled out of the forest right onto the bank of the lake at Woodsman's cabin.  I was amazed at how I could have been so close to home and yet apparently so lost and was relieved to be back on familiar territory.  Skip ran on ahead as though he'd known the way all along and had bravely led us to salvation and we trundled off home through the gathering gloom.