Fiona Freer

Writer, historian and speaker

Woodworm Ate My Toothbrush.


I thought I would write a blog about the highs and lows of our springtime visit to Brittany. There aren’t usually any lows when we are in our French home, but on this occasion woodworm ate the bristles of my toothbrush.
Of course, woodworm are not worms at all, but round, black beetles with hard, cloven backs. Around this time of year they drop out of our ancient beams and join us in the kitchen. They can also make a loud, clicking noise, which was extremely disconcerting when we first heard it. “Could be Death Watch Beetle,” Liz suggested, so we were mightily relieved when they turned out to be just homely woodworm.
Well, I picked up my toothbrush and discovered that the bristles had been neatly severed and had disappeared. A woodworm/beetle was lying dead next to the toothbrush holder; no wonder he expired with his tummy full of sharp bits of nylon. A low moment for him as well as for me.
But the rest of our stay was full of golden moments. The first thing I saw as we drove through the gates was the old cooking pot full of daffodils – they came up! The garden was covered in primroses and wildflowers, and I decided to keep a wildflower diary for my grandsons.
The most prevalent plant throughout March was Greater Stitchwort with its delicate white flowers and rapier-shaped leaves. Lesser Celandines started to appear towards the end of the month, growing in pads along the sides of the lane and reminding me of the cushion wreaths people order for funerals. Creeping Speedwell peeped out from under the lavender at the edge of the garden, and sweet violets suddenly added spots of purple to the grassy banks. Red Campion was taking hold during the last few days of the month, and on April 1st we found bluebells by the river. P1050861
That was the day two swallows returned to our hamlet. Our neighbour told us that fewer and fewer come back each year so I waited anxiously for more to appear, but none had made it by the time we left.
On Easter Sunday we went to church. Every other week Christ Church Brittany holds an English service in the church in the square in Huelgoat, and a warmer and more welcoming group of people would be difficult to find. For Easter the pews were hung with forsythia, yellow ribbons and shiny eggs, and there were chocolate treats on offer with the coffee. The church was full, with many holiday home owners returning after the winter. (Rather like the swallows I suppose.) “It’s so lovely to see everyone again,” said Joy, and you could tell that she meant it. I love going there and listening to the familiar words of the Church of England service while we sit among the crucifixes, statues and confessionals of a Catholic church.
Wendy cooked an amazing vegan meal for us – four curries and a vegan cheesecake – it was delicious. While we ate, stormy winds tore through the forest outside and churned up the river. Liz has just bought an outdoor ping-pong table and was anxious about its safety, and we caught her looking through the window to make sure it wasn’t flying past, careening through the trees like a giant surfboard.
We went on long walks and saw foxes, deer, buzzards and sparrow hawks, and met Marie, who lives in a hamlet populated entirely by her family. She has a long, low cottage, her daughter and grandson have the large house by the bridge, and her mother and brother live in the tall building in between. I told her she was lucky; I can think of nothing nicer. Marie explained that her great-grandmother had lived in the hamlet, and the properties had been passed down through the family. The Breton people do not claw their way up the property ladder, they often live in houses that belonged to their grandparents or great-grandparents. There is a strong sense of family and continuity and no need to use your home to prove your wealth and status.
I do know where some of my great-grandparents lived – Claro Grove and Samuel Street were both demolished during the slum clearance in Leeds, Winchester Street was bombed in the Second World War, but I think my great-grandfather’s house in South Shields might still exist. It seems so far away in both distance and time.
We have just left Roscoff. I never watch the port disappear without thinking of Geoff, our neighbour, who sailed on many missions during the Second World War to pick up spies from the French coast. Presumably he rescued stranded British airmen as well, but we never asked him about it, and it’s too late now.