Friday Morning

I unzipped the tent to overcast skies, a marginal improvement on the previous day. We were on duty at 8.30 so there was no time to linger over numerous mugs of tea. We availed ourselves of the water heater in stewards facilities so didn’t even need to wait for the kettle to boil before setting off down the hill. A few more cars had arrived in the dedicated car park, including two families with young children.

Our comrades for this shift were the two comedians from the previous evening. They were brimming with excitement. The Hairy Bikers and entourage had arrived during their shift and accommodated their selfies with good grace. Our guys had helped carry their luggage to a separate area, adjacent to glamping, where two Airstream caravans and several squrts were billeted. The latter being vertically challenged yurts, looking distinctly mushroom-like. We hoped no-one was too tall as, not only would they not be able to stand-up but the limited diameter would require a foetal sleeping position. We saw no sign of anyone, perhaps it was too early.

We were quite happy when it was suggested that we go back to the gate we’d manned previously. At least there was some activity there. The sun was making its daily breakthrough as the clouds melted. New arrivals were heaving heavy loads up the hill from the car park which now extended out of sight down the track, yet further to drag in the dusty heat. We had become quite adept at noticing wrist bands as people approached so that they didn’t need to stop and adjust their load to display the correct colour.

We restarted our best greetings to these hot dusty beasts of burden as they trudged back and forth between cars and tents, carrying as much as possible to minimise the number of trips. A few had their own carts which was just as well as no-one had opened up the wheel-barrow stall and all had been locked away in the van over-night. A few disgruntled faces tried to ascertain when it would open, apparently not 9am as that hour came and went. We had no idea either.

A lady turned up with an empty barrow. She had hired it just before the stall closed the previous evening and had been told to return it by 10am to retrieve her £20 deposit. We suggested she tucked it behind the gate beside where we were stood, until she returned later. Before long we had 8 barrows piled up beside us and realised that we could operate a roaring trade if they didn’t open soon. By 10am the returners, holding their receipts, were milling around with those wanting to hire. It was very tempting to tell them to get themselves organised and work together but thought we might get into bother for suggesting entrepreneurship!

We half-hoped for a relief or break at some point during the four and a half hour shift but none materialised and we weren’t bothered enough to abandon our posts. The wheelbarrow guy rolled up around 10.15 so we lost the interest factor there, but the rest of the arrivals were building up. I noticed a woman dragging a hugely overladen trolley up the track from quite well down the hill. Her husband was ahead with another well stacked sack trolley. He parked it near Roger and went back to help her out. As they were about to continue Roger pointed out that they needed to swap their tickets for wrist bands. They seemed grateful for the rest but returned to their luggage less than pleased. They too were glampers who had been mis-directed to the general parking and carted their loads all the way up the hill in the heat. He wasn’t very happy as he stomped off down the hill to collect the car. I was relieved we weren’t on car park duty. We were intrigued to know what all their luggage contained as they seemed to have more than most, but no need of a tent or bedding at the very least.

The time galloped on, unlike it would have done in the glamping stewards tent. We only directed four cars down the track all morning, even if one was seriously unhappy. The quiet campsite field had filled up, the remaining spaces shrinking with each influx. Our shift was due to finish at 1pm and at 12.30 we heard an act on the main stage start up, opening Cornbury 2018, which nearly didn’t happen as 2017 was going to be the final event.

No-one came to relieve us again so we took the decision to abandon our posts to the guys a few yards away. We left the hi-vis jackets in the tent as we weren’t doing another shift until Sunday evening and that would be at the main glampsite. We were now free to go and enjoy the festivities until then.

Off to Work we Go

Back down the hill again, for the third time, which meant we would have climbed it three times as well by the end of the shift. Ensuring that we weren’t late again we arrived at our little tent-station in good time for our 1pm shift start. No other team members had arrived, we expected two others plus our supervisor. I assembled the two tressel tables and four folding chairs which had been left in the tent along with a laminated map of the area and bags of valuable wrist bands of assorted colours: pale blue for the 3-day weekend, navy for VIP and sparkly pink for glamping. We just didn’t know what to do with them. Roger tied back the front walls as we attempted to make the plain white canvas shed look welcoming. The teepee reception opposite had coloured rugs on the floor and hanging on the walls, a turquoise dream catcher spun in the light breeze.

Another couple turned up, our shift colleagues. Fortunately they had past experience of volunteering at this festival and soon organised us, being somewhat more specific than the vague direction we had received from the morning briefing. We were supposed to be meeting, greeting and banding new arrivals to this glampsite. The music wasn’t due to start until the following lunchtime and with their accommodation already prepared, there wouldn’t be much settling in to do so we didn’t expect a rush.

Our supervisor, a huge ex-marine, so laid back as to be horizontal, strolled down the hill towards us, accompanied by two other women in the mandatory hi-vis jackets. I wondered where they were headed, nowhere! One boss plus six volunteer stewards and no arrivals, with none expected. We all ended up huddling inside the small tent cluttered with 2 tressel tables and four chairs, just to keep out of the blazing sun. All the mist had been burnt off, any lurking clouds had been frightened away and the sun was now so high that the only shade afforded by a large oak tree behind us was on a patch of stinging nettles. Just as well I’d read somewhere to pack a book as some shifts are quiet.

After a period of pleasantries the two women were sent off down the access road, to where I knew not. The other bloke was taken off to another tent somewhere, leaving the three of us to deal with the influx. One couple arrived. This was fortunate as this most expensive camp site, rumoured to cost £3k for the 3 days, was yet to be connected to water. (The generator broke during the evening, after our shift, and I wouldn’t have liked to deal with justly frustrated glampers.)

An empty sloping expanse of cut grass with a line of toilets and shower cubicles at the bottom lay over the 6-foot high fence in front of us. At 2.30pm a swarm of ants surged up the hill, the gates for this ‘quieter’ campsite had opened. People ran in all directions and then appeared to dump their loads of tents, pillows, sleeping bags and duvets in random spaces in the middle of the scorched field. There was no shade for them either. In no time we saw this area change from deserted to a blanket of multi-coloured tents and gazebos.

As people unloaded and unpacked, pitched tents, filled water containers and opened their cans of beer whilst they were still cold the two women came back to swap with us. We retraced their steps along the track on the outside of the fence at the bottom, behind the toilet block. I had no real idea where we were going and what we were to do, beyond directing glampers along this track. We arrived at the main entrance to the quiet campsite where there was significantly more activity. The portacabin box office loomed over a large ridge tent which housed four people, including our colleague who had been whisked away, swapping tickets for wrist bands. On the other side of the double gate an assortment of stripped wheelbarrows could be hired to transport all the essential camping equipment from the cars parked further on down the hill.

A large woman, who appeared to be struggling in the heat, was sat in one of two folding chairs set off to the side in the shade of the tent. These were our duty posts but we couldn’t comprehend the purpose of sitting there when we learnt that we were checking for anyone with a glamping wrist band. They needed to be directed along our track and not go straight ahead to camp with the riff-raff. We couldn’t clearly see appropriately coloured bracelets from that position so took up sentry posts on either side of the gate.

The blue and white golf umbrella proved invaluable as we stood in the glare of the sun, not a drop of rain in sight. We segued from peering fruitlessly at wrists for a pink sparkle to noting the pale blue regular weekend band from a distance, welcoming all and sundry with a cheery ‘hello’. The time passed so much more quickly and I began to feel part of this huge organisation (although larger festivals are available.)

A pleasant pair, looking very similar to a couple we knew so immediately endowed with the characters of our friends, passed us with their luggage on 2 of their own and very popular trolleys. They turned left and began walking along the track to glamping. Roger trotted after them. Yes, they were glampers. No, they didn’t know that they could drive through and park next to their tent. They’d been directed into the main car park by the marshalls. Without ado, he walked back down the hill to collect his car and reload it for the now short and flat drive to the glampsite. They were our only ‘clients/customers’ all afternoon.

5.45pm came and went. There was supposed to be a 15 minute handover period. Would anyone come to relieve us? We were unsure whether we were meant to be in that position or had just been added due to the excess numbers of volunteer stewards. Allowing another 10 minutes we conceded and went to have a word with the campsite stewards supervisor standing 10 yards away at the entrance to the fenced area. We’d been stood at the exit to the car park, but doing virtually the same job, hopefully making each other’s lives easier.

Back at the glamping stewards tent, two blokes had joined the two women who were doing a double shift. I had noticed these guys pitching their tent quite close to ours, a real pair of comedians. We bade them a good evening and trudged back up the hill through the quiet campsite, merging into the main campsite, past the red and yellow campsite marquee and bar, coffe shop and milk bar. Exiting this campsite we turned left through the main campervan site, which was filling rapidly, and back through to our site which had doubled its occupancy since we’d left. Our neighbour had conveniently erected a flagpole displaying a red and yellow stripped goldfish for ease of location.

After a delicious evening meal of fried pork chops and reconstituted mushroom rice, washed down with a couple of still-cool pinot grigios from blue enamel mugs (to match the kettle,) we made our way back to the main campsite tent for the live bands’ performances. They were competing for a place in next year’s line-up but couldn’t hold our attention for long. We were knackered, there was nowhere to sit and we were on shift at 8.30 the following morning so we returned to our tent. Collapsing onto the double airbed and snuggled inside the sleeping bags, wearing extra layers, fell to sleep, despite all the noise.

Day 2 Briefing

I looked forward to unzipping the tent and boiling my kettle for a cup of tea by the gentle heat of the rising sun but when I peered out at 6.30 I could barely see across our field. A dense mist slumped over us. Pitching the tent with the entrance facing east, towards the sunrise, had been somewhat pointless but I fired up the propane stove anyway. The little blue kettle took its time to boil but eventually achieved its purpose in life. The heat from the sun slowly dissolved the mist, completing the task by the time we were showered and organised. Roger made a trip to the Stewards Tent where he bought our ‘Wicked’ subsistence wrist bands. For £3 a day we would have access to unlimited tea and coffee, toast and soup, fruit and crisps, use of toaster and microwave and a big table to sit round chatting to other vols. This seemed perfect if attending alone and was never empty.

On our arrival the previous day we had been told that we couldn’t register until 10am the following morning, when we would also have our briefing. Our neighbour was a veteran volunteer, a mine of useful information (we’d helped erect her tent so there was some reciprocation). She returned to her tent at 9.15, having registered and acquired her ‘working personnel’ and ‘crew camping’ wrist bands. We duly trotted over and filled our lower arms with neon green and yellow bracelets.

Making our way back at 9.45 for the 10 o’clock briefing, I couldn’t help noticing that there weren’t many people around, perhaps because we were early. I nipped back to the tent for my sun hat and found Roger on the phone when I returned. One of the ski companies, which we were due to visit the following week for an interview, was still trying to ascertain which posts we’d applied for. We hadn’t. Our CVs had been passed on, unbeknown to us, by a recruitment agent. It had all become rather confusing even before we’d left and now, the weak phone signal complicated matters further. Roger hung up a couple of minutes later as we noticed that there were actually fewer people than before, not more. We were meant to attend the briefing at the glamping site, not the stewards’ tent as we’d been told. Just as well we’d already registered.

The main arena, containing the four stages and all the stalls and concessions, was fenced in and closed off. Surrounding this were the various campsites which were also completely enclosed by high fencing although the intermittent gates were open. Our crew campsite was outside the campervan park, so on the periphery. Glamping was located almost 180 degrees from crew camping and we’d have to walk all the way around the outside of the arena fencing. Consulting the site map it appeared that walking counter-clockwise would be marginally shorter. We set off knowing that we couldn’t cover the distance in less than 5 minutes so would be late. Not only an inauspicious start but we might miss out on crucial information. Everything would be important to us as we had no idea what was expected of us.

We entered the nearest gate to the punters’ camping zone which took us past the campsite we’d used when we’d attended this festival five years previously. Access to the direct route across the arena was denied so we began the trek around the back of the main stage, having forgotten how steep the hill was. Signs for ‘glamping’ appeared so we diligently followed them but they seemed to be taking us to a different area to where we had expected, but couldn’t be wrong.

We ended up right at the bottom of the hill, at a deserted glamping site displaying teepees and ridge tents. We discovered a woman in a hi-vis jacket who denied all knowledge of stewards’ briefing. Another guy took his head out of his van and told us there was another glampsite, still on the other side of the arena. We were not far from our starting point but much lower down the slope. We began the climb back up the hill over uneven tussocked grass. A gate into the arena was open so we took it. If challenged, we decided we’d be ok as we sported an assortment of wristbands, even if not the correct one.

The avenue of stalls were opening, stocking and decorating. A sign for the Hairy Bikers Pop-up Restaurant leant against a huge triple teepee at the end, blocking our way. We veered to the right, past the English sparkling wine double-decker bus bar, across the top of the area from where to watch the main stage lower down the slope. Through the gate at the bottom, still unchallenged, (we should have gone this way in the first instance) we climbed back up the hill on the far side of the arena and arrived at the main glamping site. Everyone, except 2 people, was dispersing, our neighbour was disappearing along a track, having wondered where we’d got to, as she knew we were in the same team.

The two remaining people, the couple we had walked back with from the pub the previous night, directed us to our supervisor. After our profuse apologies he said that he still needed 2 more people to man the lower glamp site and as we knew where it was…. We agreed but explained that there was no point going back as there was no-one there. Oh, there would be, they’d set off five minutes before, so we turned round and retraced our steps through the middle of the arena and found a man in an orange hi-vis jacket, who was managing this lower site.

We grabbed the opportunity to have a nosey in these posh tents. One of the teepees contained a full sized double wooden bed and three ridge tents had en-suite bathrooms. There were six places with their own tilting mirrors and a hairdryer each in the pamper tent. We said our cheerios and headed back up the hill again, to our campsite for brunch – bacon, egg, sausage and beans cooked over the camping stove – before our return to start shift at 1pm.

Off to Cornbury

The armed police were very attentive as we neared the venue for our first experience of working as stewards at a festival. We were headed for Cornbury at Great Tew in Oxfordshire, not far from Blenheim. Some American big-wig (or toupee) was visiting the palace, which may have diverted the attention of our guards. They appeared unable to influence the ubiquitous roadworks which reduced the access route to single track. This might prove to be quite an impediment when the expected 20,000 people per day arrive.

We rocked up on Wednesday, to allow time to settle in before our first shift on Thursday afternoon. The blue 5-man tent was pitched in the half-empty crew-camping field without any fall-outs and we settled down to a well-deserved gin and tonic. This needed to be drunk as it wouldn’t stay cold for long in the 28 degree temperatures as the cold packs couldn’t stay frozen, even in the cool box. The country was experiencing a heatwave, unprecedented since 1976, the year before I took my ‘O’levels. The ground was like concrete. Roger had suggested buying a mallet the previous day which proved invaluable when trying to drive home the pegs of our own tent and those of several others in our vicinity, who struggled to achieve the same aim with various implements and footwear.

A litre bottle of tonic with added gin later, we followed an uneven grassy path around the outside of the punters’ empty campsite. The earth was parched and cracked, fissures burrowed into the crops courageously ripening in an adjacent field. Small clusters of rooftops could be seen hiding in leafy clumps as we made our way down to the pub in the nearest village. England were playing Croatia in the semi-finals of the world cup and there was no TV at the campsite. The pub overflowed onto the front terrace, the back garden inexplicably closed. We assumed these were all the locals gathering, as a community, to watch the national team qualify for the final. We met most of them back at the campsite that evening, so only as ‘local’ as us. The result hadn’t dampened our spirits.

Despite the heat of the day, I awoke during the night with an odd sensation of cold, something I’d not felt in these past few weeks. We’d unzipped the sleeping bags and laid them on top of a double sheet but they kept sliding off. A fleece top was conveniently on the top of my opened backpack so I added this to my PJs. I’d only brought light-weight sleeping bags (and a small blanket to sit on) as I thought we’d be too hot, like at home where a sheet has sufficed. Socks would be included in my nocturnal wardrobe the next night.

We’re back!


(Sorry, computers can’t cope with two ‘home’s – thanks Jill)

We left ADH yesterday morning with more snow than ever for this late in the season. We travelled all the way through France and from the south coast of England to Yorkshire in rain with decrepit windscreen wipers (windscreamers). Woke to beautiful sunshine today and a heat wave forecast. I’m a lucky person 😊😊😊

Home!

We left ADH yesterday morning with more snow than ever for this late in the season. We travelled all the way through France and from the south coast of England to Yorkshire in rain with decrepit windscreen wipers (windscreamers). Woke to beautiful sunshine today and a heat wave forecast. I’m a lucky person 😊😊😊

21. Snow’s back

The balcony had no snow on it for 24hours so far this season

This is the final instalment for winter 2017/8. Our last day off dawns tomorrow and then it is only 3 more days to work before we head north to warmer climes (hopefully). Snow has returned in earnest today but I expect that it will disappear again soon as it is April! We’ve had a reasonable last few weeks despite the end of season exhaustion taking a firm hold: tighter each year as age and injuries take its toll.

The clock change resulted in us stepping out the front door of the apartment block as the sun cast an early glow across the sky prior to showing its face again but this time we were accompanied by the dawn chorus. We had to walk in to the chalet in the mornings a few times as the van was out of action for over a week but it was superb. Fortunately we only had to walk back up the hill in the evening a couple of times. But the van is back after the replacement of a vital piece costing the princely sum of €16!

We had a slightly challenging group 3 weeks from the end. We would probably have taken them in our stride earlier in the season as they weren’t a bad bunch. I did have a minor altercation with Dad/Granddad one evening after he had imbibed a few glasses of wine. He was quite vociferous that we put too little seasoning in the cooking. We are on the light side but only so that people can add to their taste, they can’t remove it. He was reluctant to keep salting his food as he didn’t feel it created the same flavour. My resistance was backed up by his daughter and daughter-in-law who didn’t want their young children to be over salted. Roger also removes our portions after serving their initial helpings prior to putting seconds in a bowl on the table and I didn’t want any more salt in it anyway. I did manage to resist telling him that there was nothing wrong with the seasoning, it is just that he is old and his taste buds have deteriorated.

The aforementioned little darlings weren’t too bad but did turn the one empty bedroom into an adventure playground after exploring the eaves cupboard and pulling out items they shouldn’t have been interfering with. It was no surprise to discover on their departure day that a favoured cuddly toy was missing. We assured them that it would be returned if we found it when we stripped the chalet down for changeover but to no avail. Our only conclusion was that it was somewhere under the snow and probably around the hot tub where they had spent considerable time, including opening the valve to empty it. The ‘top-up’ requested was a bit of an understatement!

Icicles of melted (dirty) snow

We let them know on Sat afternoon that we hadn’t found it only to be informed that the cousin of the bereft boy admitted to hiding said cuddly in a cupboard. This could only be the 2 feet high and diminishing 3 feet wide crawl-in cupboard in the eaves, where they shouldn’t have been! This bedroom was now occupied which complicated matters further except that the young madam now residing in there had got off on the wrong foot when the incoming group arrived at 12.30. This was just to drop their bags as check-in isn’t until 3.30pm. The group were duly putting boots and shoes back on to walk up to town when a girl, who had raced to the front door first, took her boots back off, walked past Roger and I and sat herself down in the lounge.

‘What are you doing?’ We asked in unison.

‘Oh, I’m staying’ she replied.

‘No you’re not.’

She stood up, went back to the boot room where she announced that she’d been ‘chucked out’ (correct). The ‘Mother’ then entreated with me that she be allowed to stay as she was ‘so tired and had started her period’. She was to be upstairs in the yet-unmade attic room. I conceded (what else could I do apart from annoy incoming guests in their first hour of the week) and said that she could wait in the lounge whilst I made up the beds which I did as quickly as possible, glanced around the room which was back in its bedroom state from being an adventure playground, ushered her in and closed the door. What she or (step) mum failed to realise is that we empty the bathroom bins. Well we do if there is something in them by Tuesday, 3 days later, but not if they are still EMPTY!

When Roger kindly decided to go crawling in to rummage in the eaves cupboard to look for soft-toy he spotted a soft husky on the second bed in that room on his exit. Girl said she’d found it in the drawer of the bedside table but didn’t think to mention it (this did identify that I hadn’t checked/cleaned the room properly but then she shouldn’t have been in there 3 hours early) but at least bereft boy got his very soft and rather lovely husky back and we earned the creme eggs they had kindly given us after their Easter egg hunt when it transpired that the kids didn’t like creme eggs!

Although I have complained about the snow for working purposes it has meant that we have had a beautiful surface to ski on when the sun has managed to pierce the persistent clouds. The runs are still amazing and lower areas that are usually brown or even green and sprouting little flowers by this time are still covered in a decent layer of snow. We have been able to enjoy the ambience of Le Spot several times recently and even bumped into Ali and Tom there again. They assumed that as we were still on the slopes at 3pm that it must be our day off as that would be unheard of in our first season. They seemed impressed that not only was it a work day but that we’d have a rest before going back in as well. We enjoyed a proper conversation with them, not only one we could hear but also with them sober and interesting, particularly Ali’s take on the Japanese view of the world. When we returned to the flat we indulged ourselves in this season’s luxury: a mug of hot chocolate with a spoonful of Nutella (left behind by successive previous guests).

I risked life and limb for this photo

Roger has been using an app to track our routes around the mountains when we ski and we are quite chuffed to find that we cover around 50km during our 2-3 hour excursions (including lifts). We actually won the ‘furthest travelled in a day’ prize last week when apparently we covered over 500km in one afternoon, hmmm? I was actually lucky to get back in one piece that day. I wanted to take a photo from a different angle to usual at the top of Marmottes2 (you may have observed a degree of repetition in the views) so left my skis next to a hut after we exited the bubble lift. On return I moved them out slightly as they were crossed where I’d dumped them. As I put my boot into the bindings I heard a strange muted thud and saw a clump of snow landing right where my skis had been moments before as it slid off the roof. I moved forward to tell Roger what a close shave I’d had when a loud expletive came from a child nearby. The rest of the snow from the hut roof had slid off and landed exactly where I’d been putting on my skis seconds before. This latter dump was significantly larger and endorsed the signs around the resort reminding people to beware of roof slides, particularly as most of this snow is compressed and frozen. Still, no harm done and I am much more careful now. See you soon.

20. Penultimate Day Off

Our day off started on Tuesday evening, just as a weekend starts on Friday night for most people. We decided to treat ourselves and go out for a meal. Our favourite local restaurant couldn’t fit us in until 9.30, way too late for us but quite normal for the French. We chose a new venue which had been recommended by guests with dubious taste but thought we’d give it a try so had booked for 8.30. At 8.29 we were still stood in the kitchen of the chalet as this week’s guests were intrigued by our recent history. Much as we would have liked to continue the chat, I closed the dishwasher and set it going before saying goodnight. Roger suggested we drive straight to the restaurant but as this was one of the few occasions to apply the slap I refused and insisted on changing out of my black polyester work trousers and black logoed polo shirt! We were only 10 minutes late for our table.

We had chosen this restaurant based on the reputation for their steaks; Roger fancied a cote de beouf and I wasn’t adverse to the idea. The specials were on a blackboard and we both ordered the cote de beau. Whilst waiting for our mains – no starter to spoil the appetite – a party of around 30 arrived, all French and all ages. We were relieved that we’d got our order in before them or could have ended up eating at 9.30 anyway. Our plates duly arrived and we enjoyed two delicious pork chops!

The plan had been to go to Undies afterwards as we rarely managed to drag ourselves back out of the flat once we have returned but as we were already out we could arrive in time to enjoy their 11pm music gig. However, latterly through the meal I could feel my eyelids drooping so suggested we just go straight home to bed, then checked myself. No, we only had one more week left after this and so could catch up with sleep then and not miss another night of Dave’s excellent musicianship and vocals.

Tom and Ali

I walked into a fairly quiet bar whilst Roger parked the van at the bottom of the hill and walked back up. I chatted to Mark, one of the bar staff we have come to know quite well. Roger arrived, Mark served us our drinks and I stood back to look around. A group of lads gathered a few feet along from us, one was sat on the stool facing the bar and leaning back against the post looking at me. There was something familiar about his face but then his mate moved in front of him so I couldn’t see through his back. He moved slightly to the side and I looked again, he was looking at me. Another of the group turned and shouted “Roger! Gill!” It was Ali and Tom from our first year. The rest of the evening was spent catching up with these two not-insignificant figures from 4 years ago.

Ali had been our saviour. He had tried to hint at how we needed to reduce our workload in order to survive the situation, eventually spelling it out at full volume to our seemingly deaf ears. We have always felt indebted to him for his help and guidance or we may not have completed that first season and our lives may have taken a very different course. Since then he has spent the winters teaching snowboarding in Japan and loves it and a certain Japanese lady.

Tom had been the handyman and a bit of a nightmare. The happy friendly healthy-looking guy stood with an arm around one or other of us, at times both, planting frequent kisses on my cheek, bore no resemblance to the unpredictable surly lad we had known. He had sorted himself out and was delightful. 

Unfortunately two other guys from that season were to have been with them and we would have enjoyed catching up with them as well but there had been a bit of a fall out so they had gone to Meribel before we had the chance. We staggered home at 1.30 after being plied with slammers and jaegerbombs, having missed most of Dave’s set.

Casualty of the conditions

The forecast for Wednesday was poor so I was surprised to open the curtains to glorious sunshine. We would have to go out. We had few opportunities left to ski and hadn’t been out much this year as the weather and subsequent visibility has been so poor. Then I noticed the speed of the clouds careering across the blue sky and was aware of a group of skiers standing above the stationary lift outside our window. All the lifts were closed due to the 80km/hr winds. That was an indisputable excuse to stay in doors. I read the Saturday Telegraph from 24th March, only 11 days late.

We had arranged to meet a friend that afternoon who is manager in one of the hotels. We are exploring options for next year as the market is changing so rapidly and apparently we are a hot commodity. We learnt much from her about one of the other tour operators who, having been taken to court last year, are offering the best staff terms and conditions for next season. She told us about a super little 10 bed chalet in a nearby resort which will have 3 staff manning it, including a rep/host position. We are going to have a trip to have a look at it next Wednesday.

We ran across the road to Undies for après. Thunder, lightening and yet more snow cascaded down the hill. We arrived just as Gareth and Dave were about to start; Tom and Ali were in the same place at the bar already quite well oiled as there had been little else to do when the lifts hadn’t opened. A large group of predominantly women were sat at an extended table along one wall. As the opening riffs of Sweet Home Alabama sailed through the air they leapt up and flowed across the dance floor. They stayed there, belting out number after number as the boys maintained the tempo, stopping only to relinquish the acoustic guitar and microphone to one of the young women. This is not uncommon when would-be performers manage to persuade Gareth that they can entertain his clientele, however the ensuing standard can be variable but there was a very good ‘Jake Bugg’ last week. The females seem to not have the strength of voice to belt out enough sound over the general buzz of the bar but this girl was amazing. I wondered if she was a professional performer but transpired to be a maths teacher, as were five of the others. Another was called Doreen and it is surprisingly easy to slip that name in instead of ‘Jolene’ or ‘Eileen’ as in ‘Come on Eileen.’ I should have recognized their roots when they insisted on 500 miles by the Proclaimers and were undeterred by Gareth’s lack of lyrics. After the guys had finished an impromptu version of ‘Flower of Scotland’ gave away their origins.

We trekked back through the fresh snow at 8pm, enjoyed a chicken curry, put on a DVD and Roger fell asleep on the sofa. Another great day off.

19. Seasonnaires’ pay and conditions for 2018/9


Is this the end of exploitation in the catered chalet market or the demise of the catered chalet market?

As we approach the final weeks of the 2017/8 ski season thoughts and conversations focus on next winter. This is despite the copious amounts of snow still glistening outside apartment windows at lower altitudes than previously seen at this time of year. Terms and conditions for the multi-functional hosts have been evolving apace over the past few years for those working in the catered chalet corner of the winter hospitality industry. The British are the major group of users of this style of holiday and next season could see the most significant changes yet, for both staff and guests.

In past decades UK tour operators have employed school leavers on diminutive salaries as so many wanted to experience the thrill of this hedonistic lifestyle for five months. Supply of cheap labour outweighed demand by 100:1 if propaganda is to be believed. The number of applicants may have lessened but still significantly exceeds demand. As a result of this basic capitalist principle wages, and consequently prices of holidays, were contained; company profits sat on the healthy side of the graph. However, change is here and the full impact on this industry is yet to be felt.

Five years ago Switzerland imposed their minimum wage on the industry to improve the lot of these chalet slaves but resulting in many operators withdrawing smaller establishments from their brochures, unable to make a reasonable profit. France, Italy and Austria were rumoured to follow close behind, but didn’t until last season when a couple of the main players limited their staff to 44 hours of a work with 1.5 days off each week.

Other companies resisted this improvement in working conditions as they continued to enjoy the price/wage levels set by a huge supply of potential candidates. The previous normal working week was up to 80 hours, at the beginning of the season, reducing to 55-65 with improved efficiency, with only one day-off, for 18-20 weeks, paid at £7.45 per day, plus a food allowance of £5 per day – although food was provided – and holiday pay based on the £7.45.

Working a season is not for the faint-hearted. An over-recruitment policy is implemented by some of the larger companies to cover the 25% ‘natural wastage’ resulting from injuries and illness, homesickness, family demands etc. What isn’t mentioned is the proportion of staff who walk out, disgusted by the Dickensian conditions.

Next winter will see more changes applied across the industry in Europe. Chalet staff hours will reduce further, to less than 40, salaries will increase to over €700 per month and protected time off will increase to 2 full days. This may have been influenced by Brexit although employers will claim to be more caring for their staff. The result will be increasingly expensive holidays for Brits who choose catered chalets.

If the brochure price doesn’t vary much customers will probably receive less for their money, compared to this year. Next winter many guests will be served cooked breakfasts, freshly-baked afternoon tea cakes and evening meal on only 5 days instead of 6, to allow for a second staff day-off. Canapés are already as elusive as chamois, these were amongst the first tasks to be cut due to the time required to create the fiddly little mouthfuls, taking almost as long as the main course preparation.

Historically seasonnaires have all had the same single day-off to socialise amongst themselves, causing huge resort-wide demands in restaurants on Wednesdays only. Two consecutive days off would be one option for the new format, but could disrupt the limited breakfast provision on the second morning. Staggered days off seem the obvious solution but it remains to be seen how that will work out. Only one company is reputed to be recruiting more staff in order to continue to deliver the same standard of service to their guests. Prices will have to reflect their increased costs; alternatively profits could decrease, but that seems unlikely.

A second evening meal out for 2018/9 season will increase guests’ costs, even if brochure prices remain similar. A cheap meal in the Alps is as rare as a marmot sighting in January. There is minimal change from €15 for a burger and drink anywhere on the slopes. Evening meals cost upwards of €25 for a main course with a wine or beer, a 3 course meal with a number of drinks will be over €50. Guests may resent the hassle of going out on a second evening when they’ve been out all day – not everyone wants a roaring night-life after a day on the slopes. They could demand the use of chalet kitchen facilities, previously denied, but if allowed, could add to staff workload on return from days-off, particularly if guests are not inclined to clear up after themselves. Two evening meals out each week could produce a significant increase in profits for local restaurateurs but guests may chose to reduce their expenditure by dividing restaurant bills between the 2 nights at cheaper joints.

Staff benefits in kind: accommodation, food, lift pass and kit may reduce to mitigate the increased direct costs resulting from these changes, but there has been little to indicate that this will be the case. Traditionally cited as compensation for, or supplemental to poor wages, these packages sound generous but cost relatively little. Accommodation standards could possibly fall further but have always been as cheap as available, although some better than others, but the ensuing squalor in certain digs may have been created or increased by the occupants. Lift passes are discounted to tour operators anyway as they sell them on for a margin. Equipment is usually old and of poor quality, 4th or 5th year from connected hire shops, and would have been binned or sold for a pittance if not given to seasonnaires for a sizeable deposit (and frequently mislaid).

All this bodes well for new seasonnaires who, with no knowledge of previous conditions, don’t seem to appreciate their already improving circumstances. The job is switching from task-based: working as long as it takes to complete, to time based: stopping when the hours have been completed, regardless of whether the job is finished. The former model produced increased efficiency and corner cutting wherever possible, even literally running around the chalet to be out on the slopes as early as possible. However, an attitude of entitlement, verging on belligerence, has now materialised – ‘I’ve done my hours. I’m out of here.’ Sadly, ‘It’s not my job’ has replaced the team spirit of ‘We’re all in this together.’

Veterans consider these new hours and rates of pay to be amazing. We know how to complete the job efficiently: fast chopping and peeling, not stopping work whilst talking, moving items around the building in one journey, neglecting Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram during working hours. Those of us with several years experience, including the end of the era of exploitation, and a track record of reliability, capability, knowledge and customer satisfaction whilst efficient, could be highly desirable.

Private chalets may struggle in this market of reduced profit margins. Their staff have to adopt all the roles delivered by the resort team of the big operators: cook, cleaner, snow shoveller, tour rep, (although these are being replaced by apps in some of the larger companies) chalet manager, handyman and driver. Their packages have been variable but broadly commensurate with the lower end of the pay scales. These smaller businesses will have to follow the bigger companies or risk losing staff to the more attractive terms and conditions, unless they can come up with some other new incentives.

Larger operators will need to think laterally: moving head offices to within the EU or employing English speaking, hard working and hospitality-familiar people from other EU countries, upsetting a tranche of British school leavers. Meantime, if you are thinking of a catered chalet holiday for 2018/9 don’t procrastinate, but be sure to read the small print, or in one case, the front page, in full.

18. The End is in Sight…

…but we’re not there yet. Last week we said goodbye to Buster, one of the long-term staff at Undies, for the remains of the season. He has to return home early each spring to open his surf hire business in Cornwall for the Easter weekend. Not a bad combination for the year. His departure denotes that the rest of us will be finishing in the not-too-distant future.

We’ve had yet more snow, spring snow this time, as opposed to all the winter snow, between which there is no discernible difference. There will be no opportunity for the early flowers to raise their heads until 2 metres of cover melts from above them. The days are longer and the sun is warmer though. We had a super session on a new layer last week and went off-piste proper, for the first time.

Roger’s tracks

We were converted to gliding through inches of pristine powder, no other tracks ahead of us. It became slightly less negotiable when the trees started to pop up in front. They’d been planted as part of the avalanche control system so were in lines across the hillside which only allowed for small gaps between them to descend so we did a lot of traversing but got down intact. Hopefully we’ll do it again after another dump but we’re enjoying some consecutive days of sunshine at present, for the first time this season in our Ile au Soleil!

These dwarf signs should be 6-8 feet high

We need to finish soon as we’ve completed our watching programme for the season. This year it has been 7 series of The West Wing which has absorbed us night after night, 2 episodes an evening, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It reflected the social and international situation of the 1990s, when it was first shown, but is equally as fascinating to watch it 20+ years later with hindsight and developments from those plot lines. Breaking Bad marked our first season’s viewing followed by Game of Thrones the next year then a huge compilation of films and finally West Wing. I’m not sure what we would have done without these epics.

We’ve benefited from 2 light weeks of guests, 7 last week and 6 this week before we fill again for the final 3 weeks. Last week’s group weren’t a bad bunch and even accepted the van breaking down after their first day, with resignation. Even the vehicles get end-of-season grumps. They can’t walk out of the job but have a very effective way of refusing to work. We’d had a couple of warning messages on the dashboard about injection and emissions but when the red light started flashing ‘STOP’ we thought we’d better pay attention. We have spent more hours trying to find someone to look at it and taking it back and forth to the garage than we would have worked had it been running properly.

The view from the door as I set off on my morning commute

It is expected to be fixed tomorrow but in the meantime we have enjoyed the walk to and from work, particularly in the morning. I have to walk all the way back round from the bread shop because the footpath is completely blocked with the snow which has been pushed off the upper drive and I haven’t been cutting a path through every morning so it is impassable.

Last week’s guests were quite complimentary about us on their feedback forms but a couple did add that they would have liked some help carrying cases of beer down from the supermarket. This had not been mentioned to us directly at all. Did they expect us to carry their beer instead of carrying it themselves? Did they think we should have done that because the van was out of action? Did they think that we would have done trips to the supermarket if it had been running? Did they think it was ok to use up our petrol when they are opting to buy their own beer instead of purchasing the same beer from us at €1 a bottle? Who knows, but perhaps they did know the answers to these questions which is why they didn’t ask for help. Heyho!