Into the woods

There is a stretch of road when you exit the motorway between Miradoux and Lectoure, where the night air is heavy with owls. White ghostly and majestic they swoop over the ploughed fields or cross the road to patches of woodland on the other side, dipping in the headlights, the tips of their wings  brushing the windscreen with perilous disregard. Or so it was that first night.

These were the first creatures to replace the Paris sparrows. The first memory of our arrival one night as we wound through the countryside to our new home in the early hours of the morning.

At the house there were other memories – all of which would form the tissue of our new Gascon adventure.

In the last of those burnished summer days came a swarm of yellow-tailed hornets batting at the door and windows to be let in. A hundred zotting butting kamikazes – a veil to the old door once red now scorched palest pink. We fled from the door to the fields, calling a local hornet-master, who would trace the nest back to a hollow tree trunk uprooted in a storm in a field at the back.

“Never be so foolish as to presume that a hornet will leave you in peace like a bee.” His ominous words “these creatures are pure evil. The first thing they will do when attacked is to turn on their children – or yours!”

There were woods to each side of the track and one night returning home late we startled a family of boar – mother, father and babies loafing on the driveway on an evening stroll. We stopped the car and they came to sniff the fender, bumping snouts against the warm metal. I wanted to get out and stroke them – until warned how dangerous this would have been.

If you buy an old house in the woods and your cats are too well fed to care, the field mice will come. The children were eating a makeshift supper from tins, when the first one scuttled across the oven and up the sticky handle to steal a bean. The kitchen surfaces were soon littered with trails of black droppings and so the doors and the holes in the walls needed stopping up. Beneath the kick-back board which ran along the bottom of the kitchen-units Dad found a new surprise : a family of rats as petrified as the new home-owners! The inexplicable odour that hung in the old kitchen suddenly explained.

The old water-barrel contained a new horror – the hairless bloated water-rat that floated on the surface. A new revelation : creatures loose their fur when drowned!

The bath-tub sat on the upper landing – the most logical place the old farmer had found to place it. Above it was tall window overlooking the sunflower fields and from which there came a daily swarm of new creatures : Shield-bugs. Green in their youth, turning stale brown with age; their vengeance when menaced, the release of a pungent and cloying odour which filled the air. One bug found itself sucked up into the hairdryer fan, the inimitable scent which hung from my fringe a new twist on my usual Jacques Dessange coiffure.

The shield-bugs (or “stinky-bugs”) fell with a ping on the parquet floors, pedalling the air with their legs to try to right themselves. We made soapy baths for the children and they fell into the water or were crushed beneath our feet so in those first few days as we exhaled Parisian air from our lungs, our early memories were those of the intrepid adventurer.


Gascony was “real” life – I was back in the woods – like Little Red Riding hood. Here nature was not the creature I had known in a picture book. Or the gentle version of it sold in flower-shops in the city. The woods of our new home were filled with tweeting, hooting and scuttling, along with the occasional terror.

And with the screams and yelps of our new discoveries – with the toughening up from creatures of city life to the country dwellers we would become – hung notes of unforgettable beauty. The solemn peregrine falcon on the telegraph wire. The russet red deer startled in the early morning mist, ears twitching, frozen a moment before gambolling off across the fields.

“Run rabbit, run rabbit – run run run” – the hares and rabbits and the badger. Our night-time friends.

Into the woods we go – from the river Seine where we lived before, to the dark woods of Gascony.

Next stop – Lectoure.

Time to come out of the woods and meet the world.

Karen Pegg – November 2019