Thursday, 27 August 2009

Horticultural Holidaying Humphreys

A recent blog from Amanda at Kiss my Aster asked "Have you ever been at a party, outside on someone's patio, and the overwhelming need to deadhead the hosts' containers becomes too strong to fight?" Oh... yes! but whereas the Sock tends to stop at the occasional surreptitious pinching off of a dried up bloom - the Humphreys did a full garden make-over!

The Socks often rent holiday villas or cottages not least because it enables the Bedsock to spend the holiday perusing local shops and markets and buying the kind of exciting fresh ingredients he can't get at home for his culinary masterpieces. Sometimes the rentals have been fabulous - views to die for, luxurious bathrooms, wonderfully equipped kitchens whilst others have been poky, damp holes with too many of the local insect population scuttling around.

After settling in to their temporary new home, filling the fridge with goodies, displaying the wine haul, scattering books and guides on the tables and generally making the place their own, the Sock will pour herself an apéro and seek out the 'House Book' to see what previous visitors have made of it. Entries invariably follow the same pattern of dodgy restaurant recommendations, child-scrawled details of 'What Daisy did today', weather reports, the sighting of some interesting critter which you will then spend the whole week watching for but will never show again, useful advice on how to unblock the chimney when the room fills with smoke etc. The entries are usually anodyne, repetitive and intrinsically boring except for the occasional absolute cracker - and what a beauty the Humphreys' entry was.

The cottage was an interesting old stone building with sandy garden extending an hundred metres down to the beach just outside Concarneau in Brittany. Quirky would be one way to describe it - a cavernous, high ceilinged living room stuffed with heavy antique furniture of varying degrees of comfort and a strange mezzanine loft sleeping area built under the ceiling accessed by a pretty much vertical library-style ladder on rollers. One wall was dominated by a fabulous raised granite fireplace which the Socks toasted themselves in front of every evening mesmerized by the flames from the blazing logs and mellowed by their evening brandies.

There were various slightly musty and mildew smelling bedrooms in the house extension which were cramped but comfortable enough and a dank kitchen with the scariest ceramic wall tiles you could possibly imagine being a psychedelic orange and brown that no-one could have liked even in the 60s. All pretty much to be expected for this kind of rental. Being able to wander down the large sandy garden to a stone-walled terrace directly over the beach made up for any other small irritations with the property.

Not for the Humphreys though. The visitors book contained an eleven page diatribe of everything possibly wrong with the property. According to Mr. Humphrey, his wife and seven children, the house was nothing short of a death trap with a list of 'Health and Safety' violations long enough to give a years worth of material to Mutt and Jeff. These included the fact that several Humphrey offspring had had great fun swinging dangerously off the loft ladder whilst others wheeled it backwards and forwards across the room (an enjoyable game which the Socks copied). Assuming they had not been killed on the ascent, the sleeping loft having no door could have meant a 15ft plunge to their stone-floored doom for any sleep-walking Humphrey child. Dangerous electrics, plumbing, stairwells - the list was endless.

Best of all in this fascinating condemnation of the property and all things related was the fact that the Humphreys had been so appalled by the state of the garden that they had had to spend their entire holiday clearing and tidying it and weeding the flower beds!! The Sock only remembers the garden as being slightly overgrown in the sort of way that is charming if it is not your own and having rather more cannas than you could shake a stick at.

The Humphreys' parting shot was that they were looking forward to staying in a Travel Lodge on the way home!!!!

Determined that not all Brits should be judged by this whingeing crew subsequent visitors had filled the book with hilarious criticisms of the Humphrey parents and what had become known as their tribe of seven dwarves. The Socks added their piece to the visitors book and only wished they had photocopied it and sent it to John Peel for his (then) Radio 4 Hometruths programme.

The Sock confines her holiday gardening to watering parched pots and occasionally breaking off the odd aeonium head that somehow falls into her handbag. Feel free to confess to greater gardening crimes than this.


VP said...


At Garden Organic on Tuesday we felt duty bound to do a bit of weeding and squish a few cabbage white butterflies whilst we went round in spite of the hordes of volunteers working away in the gardens. More volunteers than I've ever seen at a property open to the public. For some strange reason we didn't weed out the 5ft example of fat hen we found in one of the gardens, but ate bits of it instead because I'd just been reading up on the nutritional virtues of this weed. Surprisingly, it tasted rather good. However, we did find an unintentionally hilarious book of weed recipes in the bookshop afterwards - more to come on that one later...

HappyMouffetard said...

Ah yes, the guest book. Always worth a read, but I've never come across anything as wonderful as the Humphreys family essay.
Presumably they went back home and rolled themselves back in their cotton wool cocoons.

Most of the cottages we've stayed at have been a bit short of garden, with just the odd pot that I've watered. I have taken to weeding the paths at work recently though.

Martyn Cox said...

I love the comments left in guest books. My favourites are where a derogatory comment left by a guest is answered by the owner in a paragraph below. Obviously the guest has long gone and is in no position to read the comment, defend their point of view, or defend themselves from an attack by the owner. Being a mischievous sort I sometimes have to leave a message in defence of the former guest, thus (hopefully) infuriating the owner.

maggi said...

While chuckling at VP's comment on our new found pastime of eating the weeds in gardens we visit, and of the mentioned book, I was trying to remember some of the comments we have seen over the years. Sadly none in particular spring to mind but we did once follow a similar family, but the details are now a blur.

One year however we were staying in France in a property belonging to some friends. It was a barn conversion next door to the main house (cottage or whatever). A fabulous place, no complaints whatsoever about the accommodation apart from the fact that the incredible view from the kitchen windows was completely obscured by the overgrown hedge. We were sorely tempted to rectify this but it did seem a bit presumptuous. Our friends, the owners arrived on our middle weekend. Bob took one look at the hedge and said "Mmmm, I think I'll have to get the maintenance people in to sort that out". A nod is as good as a wink .... PD says immediately, you have hedge cutters in the shed (he'd looked already, also found a bike which he renovated) I'll do it and proceeded to spend a very happy day hedge cutting. Gerry and I sat and watched while sipping a nice cool glass of something fruity (grape type fruity) and as she said, "If the men wish to play with toys, who are we girls to stop them".

WV is pswisin which sounds rather rude!

Arabella Sock said...

VP - weed recipes sound good particularly if there is one for Creeping Buttercup soup (although after Emma said cleavers were edible I nibbled at one and have to disagree).

Martyn, I think we should all start being more creative in our Guest Book comments and hope the trend catches on. Actually if the Guardian's Simon Hoggart can produce books of what people say in their 'round robin' Christmas cards then I'm sure a book of interesting Guest Book comments would be a winner.

Maggi I'll bet PD put considerably more enthusiasm into the hedge-trimming than if he had been ordered to do the same job at home! LOL We generally just content ourselves with rearranging the furniture.

VP said...

Being an engineer, NAH always goes round fixing things whenever we stay anywhere. He just has to make things work better.

I can't remember all the recipes, but I expect if there's a buttercup recipe in there, it'll be for a spread. There's quite a few ground elder recipes too, just to keep Happy Mouffetard happy.

jro said...

We used to stay in a NT cottage in Cornwall every year, in which visitors had a running commentary on how to cook the apples and blackberries that grew in the wild and abandoned garden.

At the same time, the children were entering into a never-ending commentary on the exploits of Henry the Seagull, apparently at least 30 years old, who tapped on the kitchen window every morning and demanded food. (They really did do that!)

One night in a fit of boredom I entered a recipe for 'Henry, Apple and Blackberry Casserole', and told the little children that Henry would no longer bother them.

We returned the following year and the book was full of irate parental comments!

HappyMouffetard said...

jro - genius! Although a fe spoilt holidays for small children, I suspect.

VP - I haven't actually been brave enough to try any of those recipes!

Fat Rascal said...

Our last couple of holidays we stayed in houses which were the homes of the owners. You immediately feel guilty about having evicted them. They ask you to water and look after the garden -which then gets better care than your own garden back home.

One year we rented what was known locally as "la maison de l'aveugle" -the blind person's house. The old lady had recently died and the rellies cashed in by letting the house for hols without having done anything to make it suitable. The loo -first port of call - was down a dark tunnel and I had to feel my way along the wall. Never did find any light switches.

There was no guest book but just a "cahier" which told us not to use the kitchen cupboards as they'd been treated for ants and to be careful of the rat poison on the stairs.

As we had our doggy at the time we didn't even stay the night.

The "best" guest book was in a villa in Provence which was just a catalogue of all the things which weren't working as the children of the previous family had broken them. Hmmph.

emmat said...

I am so glad that everyone who stayed there afterwards clubbed together to get that moaney family back. I just think there are certain people who are SO moaney and who expect the most ameeeeezing holiday in the whole world even though they haven't paid for it. The only place you ever get a truly unanimous guestbook is somewhere that's £400 a night like those really 'vanilla' places in English Country Cottages where you get a free basket of preserves or whatever and every room has a plasma screen tv even though you are in Devon

Arabella Sock said...

Jro - we shall all have to up our game with visitors book contributions. I always think the one where people say "and we have hidden a ping-pong ball for the kids to find" is a good one. Clearly they haven't and subsequent visitors' children spend a frustrated week searching for it.

Some of the most fantastic places we have rented were found in Private Eye, and The Garden small ads. Sadly when everyone jumped on the 'buy property and rent it out' bandwagon we twice ended up at horrible properties that were nothing like as described so we tend to go with National Trust, specific recommendations or Companies where there is some come back rather than private rentals these days.

jro said...

I love the idea of hiding some never-to-be-found object for the kids to find!

Well, if you ever go to that particular National Trust property, I signed tbat entry 'The Wicked Witch of Winchester'!

I also asked the housekeeper for a new pair of ovengloves, saying that I had wrecked a pair trying to stuff Henry in the oven. Oh dear, it's all coming back to me now.