So, my friend Jean-Paul's gut feeling was right. The precocious spring was blanketed in snow and ice before we had even had time to stock up on candles and cold remedies. Fortunately every serious country household has its reserves of firewood, confit de poule, patés, and various dried, bottled or canned edibles. Why not frozen goods you may ask? Well, there will be some frozen produce but experience shows that Electricité de France will occasionally be short of its main product, especially when branches of dead and frozen trees fall on its supply lines. It does its best, but its best is sometimes not enough.
One should never ignore a countryman's gut feeling on any subject, even if it only indicates the nearness of a meal. But I chose to discount Jean-Paul's grumble because he said he had just been rear-ended by a Czech registered 40 tonner at a stop light east of Perigueux. The light was on orange. This, he said, had caused serious damage to his car and rattled his brains until they rang – 'j'étais un peu sonné'. The Czech driver was, as far as Jean-Paul could ascertain, monolingual. Certainly he had no French and, as Jean-Paul had never claimed to know more than the politesses in English, a traffic snarl up was inevitable. Perhaps the Brussels bureaucrats could abandon improving farm regulations and concentrate on a Europe wide definition of what an orange light means.
The February cold snap should have put a temporary stop to the heavy lorry traffic. Probably to all traffic came to a halt until the authorities cleared those roads it could and domestic drivers regained their courage and put on their chains. Some even had the foresight to put on winter tyres way before Christmas. These were the well-armed people whose memories went back to the early eighties, the last serious period of cold in the Dordogne. This was when we had a few days of night temperatures down to – 22C and I bought the last electric resistance heater in town for the wine cellar. It looked rather like the Jodrell Bank telescope and managed to keep the cellar temperature at zero. I was terrified lest it set the whole place on fire.
This cold snap we are spoilt. Not only do we have partial central heating, courtesy of the wonderful wood-fired Rayburn, but we also have a 24 kilowatt electricity
supply which means we can use some electric radiators for basic heat in various rooms. In the eighties one we only had about 9 kwh, the open fireplaces and cumbersome moveable gas heaters. On the positive side then we could drain down the Farmhouse and Shepherd's Cottage and not worry; a little anti-freeze or alcohol in the lavatory pans, a fan heater under the vulnerable points of water pipes, et voilà!
This time – and since the nineties – over winter, we have 28 sheep in the barn, most about to lamb. So the water supply points down the farm have to be kept unfrozen and the electricity must be confined to this task, along with lighting. The sheep need water - looking for new-born lambs by torch light is neither efficient, nor fun. Nor is stumbling around the mezzanine, chucking down bales of hay. Obviously the ewes have instinct to guide them, aeons of experience without man's help. But if there is a death, it is man who has the guilty conscience whilst the ewes mourn.
This cold snap could not have come at a worse time. Already the summer drought created a shortage of hay and straw. Extra time inside will make greater demands on the feed stocks. Professional magazines tried to persuade farmers of the virtues of letting sheep graze for longer, in the woods, wherever. Recently a couple of neighbours suffered from a pyromaniac (still at large) who set fire to their hay stores. Emergency support from other farmers in the region helped them out – but that was before the roads were frozen. The moon is waning, perhaps the cold will wane with it. The next full moon, with possible strong change of weather, is not until 8th March, ages away.