I realise that just by using the above title, my reader will have to be a lady of a certain age to even understand the reference so for those younger ones who might read this, Malory Towers was the all girls’ boarding school in a series of six novels by Enid Blyton, published between 1946 and 1951 when well brought up girls were gels and daily life was jolly hockey sticks and innocent gossip (look up the Wikipedia site and you will get the gist!) and Mrs. Dale’s Diary was the first significant radio soap opera first broadcast in 1948 on BBC Light Programme; Mrs. Dale was a doctor’s wife in a time when doctors were still revered in the community (again take a look at Wikipedia).
You might think that things have changed greatly in the last seven decades but looking back to those days and contemplating a recent holiday in a French chateau with seven other ladies of similar ages suggests that not so very much has altered!
It all began when a dear friend of mine was persuaded to start the bidding at a charity auction where the lot in question was a week’s chateau stay, kindly donated by the owner; she bravely raised her hand and made her bid and looked round to see who else was going to be tempted, never thinking for a moment that she would be the lucky one – but as so many of these charity auctions prove, it is a dangerous gesture if you are not serious, and in this instance, she was the only bidder!
A chateau in one of the Bastide towns in the depths of French countryside sounded divine, and although the seven bedrooms, complete with annexe and romantically sounding pigeonniere was advertised as sleeping fourteen or even sixteen at a pinch, my friend was sensible enough to choose only seven companions to join her in the week. (I have to say that 14 or 16 would have been a great trial as there were insufficient spaces for so many in either the kitchen or the sitting room). Although the bid was financially a generous one, yet it was still a fraction of the Airbnb price and there was jostling for places amongst her closest friends – and she began to wonder at the wisdom of her decision as she received comments and complaints from all around her. Nevertheless, the plan went ahead and the first week of September was duly booked with great excitement all round.
Little did any of us realise that the weather in September is unreliable and the mercury could drop from the high 80s to the low 70s overnight, and that the warm swimming pool could turn into a combat hazard to be braved – hardly breaking the ice, but with a brisk breeze the term ‘refreshing’ was often to be heard that week as laps were swiftly swum and pool exited for the warmth of a thick towel.
Little did we remember too that rural France has an unfriendly habit of closing for the beginning of September, presumably to recover from the trials and tribulations of the grockle invasion of the summer months, and all around our chateau the shutters were firmly closed and barred, along with those restaurants and hotels, delicious patisseries and boulangeries whose owners all vacate presumably for the Caribbean sun and the delights of hurricane season. We were left bereft with one small general store for miles around. Luckily, apart from butter and cheese it also had a good stock of wine which kept us sane, if tipsy, for the week.
Our hostess and friend decided to arrive a day early, in order to do a big shop ready for the onslaught of the rest of the group. It was after the Fast Hotel, (its real name) conveniently close to Toulouse airport, was booked, that they realised the constraints of age when hiring cars – over 70 and either no car at all or a prohibitively expensive penalty incurred for still managing to want to drive – one would image with logic that if you are still driving at that great age you are probably pretty good or would be dead or invalided but truthfully it’s just another insidious way of the companies making more profit from a captive audience. Anyway, I was cajoled to also arrive a day early with my Spanish registered left hand drive car and so I duly agreed. My problem was that my little Polo resembles a gypsy caravan with clothes hanging from the back doors and the boot full of those things that I might just need on my many ramblings and when I regarded the space left I had misgivings that another two women plus baggage would squeeze in. Luckily my school girl French was resuscitated sufficiently to enable me to speak to the chatelaine of the chateau and arrange to drop off my stuff en route. Good job – I was right, and we would never have piled everything into the car without the installation of a roof rack.
Toulouse airport is similar to a lot of others who have also found a new way of making lots of extra dosh off their unfortunate customers – if you linger longer than ten minutes a mortgage is required to park. A slight delay in my friends’ arrival and longer than normal passing through formalities saw me circling in and out of the ‘Express’ car park a dozen or so times before we all met up and escaped before the magic ten minutes expired. I felt triumphant that we had managed to do it without cost – forgetting the fuel that I had used up circling!
That first night was unmemorable – we did the things that we are wont to do; we enjoyed a gin & tonic and a few nuts and then mussels with frites and slept the sleep of the innocent, and well refreshed off we went the next morning with big grins on all our faces. An hour and a half later we were at the ‘chateau’. I put ‘chateau’ in inverted commas to bring your attention to the slight misnomer. A chateau to me equates to a castle and that means pointy bits with or without a moat. A chateau in France can mean just a largish house, which is what this one was, albeit complete with the pigeonniere – not many houses can boast that. This particular pigeonniere had been converted into two pretty bedrooms and a bathroom. Two slight problems – the bathroom was downstairs off the ground floor bedroom which doubled as a sitting room with sofa bed, and as we all know there comes a time in life when sleep is interrupted by an urge to visit that small room, so creeping downstairs and across creaking floors comes into play in order not to wake the sleeping sofa bed occupant. Second small disadvantage was the evidence of a rat who chose to hunt on top of the roof regularly at about 3am. It was decided by everybody that the rat was in fact a squirrel who was promptly named Lucretia as if somehow by naming the rodent ‘she’ and changing her category of vermin she became less threatening.
I was put in the annexe which had probably been the wood store in former days, but it suited me fine as my sleep pattern does not match anybody else’s and I was away from the group in glorious isolation in a room filled with a double bed and a cosy loo and shower – perfect.
The rest of the accommodation was less easy to deal with – two gloriously huge rooms with en-suite facilities and two tiny ones with miniature windows and sloping ceilings which presumably would normally be given to small children. Our hostess was all for martyring herself and squeezing in with her best friend (who didn’t look quite as though martyrdom was really her style, but was going along with the decision). I put my foot down. Not that I was about to give up my annexe to share with anybody – boarding school put paid to that habit many years ago, unless the sharer is a man of note – but I was embarrassed to think that the lady who had forked out for all of us was to get a 2ft 6 inches cot when the rest of us would be lounging in splendour. So we persuaded her down from her moral high ground, and she reluctantly agreed to move a bed into the best room in the house – at least if she was to share it would be in a decent room. This left the quandary of how to allocate rooms. It was clear that this would be seen as favouritism however it was done. Tough, these decisions have to be made and so they were. The two ladies who shared the pigeonniere almost certainly felt favoured till they were introduced to Lucretia and her night time prowls, whence they probably would have swapped in a minute had the offer been made.
Anyway, just like boarding school everybody unpacked, settled in and bottles of wine and gin were opened and supper created and consumed with much chattering and plans being made to sit by the pool the next day and visit the local markets and of course purchase fresh bread and croissants daily from those wonderful patisseries for which France is so famous. Whoops – do you remember a couple of paragraphs ago? Few and miserable markets in September and zero boulangeries – just the standard French sticks from the temporary supply at the local store. At least our figures blessed us for the lack of temptation.
It’s a funny thing about groups – of anybody; men; women; children; different nationalities, you name them. Sooner or later they divide into smaller factions. Our group wasn’t helped by the unseasonal weather nor the lack of things to do in the area. Best friends become better ones, or fall out completely; people who have the occasional gin tend to drink more than normal maybe out of nervousness or uneasiness; party games start and end in irritation and those who find each other’s company charming over dinner or coffee start to discover that these delights are better taken in small doses than concentrated intensity.
On reflection, it is probably better to ask each half of the group for four days and overlap for a day or two, rather than to sling eight feisty strong independent women together for a full week.
It is with tremendous group pride that I report that although there were a few minutes of strain over the week, we had a great time with lots of laughs and plenty of good food and wine. We did not fall out and we are all still talking to one another and busy making plans to meet for coffee, the theatre, drinks and dinners – but just possibly not for a group holiday again or at least not till the next time somebody wins a chateau!