August 2010

Summer is here and I have just arrived back in France after a three-week book tour in Britain and Eire. RETURN TO THE OLIVE FARM has been, as we say in Ireland, launched and I hope that you will be encouraged to rush out to the shops and purchase a copy. The early reviews and feedback are proving to be very positive. I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who attended one or other of my talks and, in certain cases, to those of you who came along twice! The events were made joyous by your presence and enthusiasm.

Aside from rather a lot of rain, torrential in some areas, my head is filled with images of a genteel England and southern Ireland. I spend so much of my time writing about France and far-off lands for my books or travel articles that I am apt to forget how lovely those countries where I grew up can be.

After a first week in England I flew to Cork and drove with my Irish mum to Bantry Bay where we stayed at Bantry House, a magnificent Anglo-Irish mansion built on the southern shores of Bantry Bay in or around 1700. It was originally called Blackrock and has a fascinating history. Today, it remains privately owned but its splendid and rather unusual gardens are open to the public while one wing of the house is run as a very welcoming bed and breakfast establishment. If you have never been to Bantry and find an opportunity, I heartily recommend it. If walking is your favoured pastime, this area is a must. The promontory of Bantry is one of my favourite Emerald Isle haunts and again its history is worth acquainting yourself with. It was here, in 1796, where Wolfe Tone, along with the United Irishmen, hoped to land an armada of French warships. With French assistance, they intended to end British rule in Ireland and establish an Irish Republic.  Alas, it was not to be. The weather, as is often the case in this part of west Cork, was too severe and the ships never dropped anchor. Indeed, almost a quarter of them were lost, but I’ll leave the rest for you to discover for yourselves.

Back in England, Dartington Hall in Devon was still awake and celebrating the latest events at its annual literary festival, Way with Words, when I and my fabulous publicist, Elizabeth Allen, wheeled our suitcases into the candlelit medieval courtyard at close to midnight. We were greeted by distant peels of laughter and a choir singing somewhere out of sight. I felt as though I had walked into a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was my second visit to the festival and on both occasions my event has been held in the Great Hall. Stepping out onto the stage the following morning to be greeted by an audience of around four hundred was particularly moving for me this year and brought tears to my eyes before I had even said a word. It is a while since I have worked as an actress, particularly on stage, and it reminded me how much I am missing.

A week later in the tour we went north. In Lancashire, I made an amazing discovery: the National Trust property of Rufford Old Hall. I was not speaking there and had fallen upon the contact almost by accident. During a BBC Radio Lancashire interview, talking with David Gilmore, I learned a little more about the terrific initiative partnered by the BBC and the National Trust: BEE Part of It. During the show, David mentioned to me that the National Trust has installed a hive at Rufford Old Hall and that the head gardener there, David Roberts, is learning to become a beekeeper. I suggested a visit, which is how I came to discover this 16th-century jewel of a property. By the way, for those of you who love a good ghost story, Rufford is reputed to be home to not one but three ghosts. Fortunately, I did not encounter any of them, but I did meet the bees!

Here are a couple of photos of me in the grounds with bees and beekeeper, Bill Patterson who is teaching David Roberts the craft of apiary.

The photo above shows beekeeper, Bill Patterson, and I discussing the growing numbers of bees within the hive. It was a healthy colony and the queen was laying plenty of eggs.

The plight of the honeybee and the loss of our hives on our farm in France is one of the storylines in my new book, RETURN TO THE OLIVE FARM. Almost one third of honeybees worldwide have either disappeared or died off. What are the reasons for this? The answers, almost certainly, are multifold. Out in the countryside, the bees are losing their natural habitats to farmers. There are far fewer plants for them to feed off. Cocktails of sprays, insecticides and pesticides, are damaging their nervous systems. A honeybee has an innate sense of direction and will always find her way back to her hive but when chemicals used on crops attack her nervous system she loses her sense of direction and dies of fatigue trying to find her way back to her hive. It is a fact that honeybees being reared in urban environments, in cities such as Paris, London and New York are faring better than their country cousins. In the cities, there are plenty of blossoms and flowering trees in parks and gardens and these are rarely sprayed. Without the honeybee, man will be in trouble. They pollinate the larger percentage of all our fruits and vegetables. Einstein said that without the honeybee, man will survive for four years. After that time, our diet will be a meagre one.

If you are reading this and you are concerned by what I am saying, why not consider helping the honeybee? Honeybees are endangered. If it is possible and appropriate, why not become a beekeeper with a hive in your garden or housed in an allotment? Otherwise plant up window-boxes; rethink your garden without lawns; leave the daisies, dandelions; resuscitate unused plots, corners of lands, road verges with nectar-rich plants.

Another alternative, if you live in Britain, is a scheme the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) runs called Adopt A Beehive. But whatever you decide, the next time you pour a spoonful of honey, please celebrate the extraordinary creature that brought it to your table.

I am writing this from our Provençal olive farm where I have been catching up on the latest news of our own four colonies. All is thriving here. While out watering the lavender beds last week, I discovered a swarm hanging from one of the lower grove oak trees and we have housed it with its queen into a fifth hive. Soon, there will be honey to harvest.

As I settle into summer, I will remember with enormous pleasure the readers I have met over the past few weeks and some of the fascinating places I have visited.  What lies ahead? I am at work on my next book as well as the documentary film series of The OLIVE ROUTE. All being well, principal photography will begin in the autumn.  I still have a few events ahead for the ongoing promotion of RETURN TO THE OLIVE FARM including one at yet another magnificent property. The event is a ‘A Garden Party To Make a Difference’, a green festival inspired by the Prince of Wales for the public to be held in the rarely seen royal gardens of Clarence, Lancaster and Marlborough Houses. It will be taking place every day between 8 and 19th September. Guest speakers will be appearing on different days, so do try to come along. I will be participating in events on 15th September. What a spectacular location within which to celebrate and consider the future of our earth.

The OLIVE FARM Facebook page is gathering momentum. Do join us. It is a lively group and we would love to meet you there.

In the meantime, thank you for reading this and my books and for all your wonderful letters.


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