Painful pillows? Not that old chestnut!

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The Independent Online

I'm in the Ardèche for a holiday with family and assorted friends. I haven't worn shoes for 10 days and am growing a beard that is turning out to be unnervingly grey. All is good … well almost all.

The French pillow is an object of quite fearsome cruelty. If the French pillow were to be introduced to Guantanamo Bay then Donald Rumsfeld himself would come out of whatever he does in retirement (I think he pulls wings off butterflies) to protest at this unnecessary cruelty. I've long suffered from this heinous invention.

Back in the early Nineties, I lived in Paris for a sleepless year. The French pillow is made of a material similar to, but less comfortable than, pliable concrete. However you adjust it, it is designed to leave you with a crooked neck and sharp, shooting pains down the spine. Out of my mind with sleep deprivation, I drove into our nearest town to try to purchase a comfortable pillow. Local shopkeepers dealt with my description of a soft, comfortable object that allowed one to have a good night's sleep with looks of complete bemusement. One after another they shrugged their shoulders and looked at me as though I was asking them for permission to take a dump in their store.

One man thought he might have the answer and disappeared into the back of his establishment only to return with one of those long, solid bolsters that French women use to keep their husbands away from them in the marital bed. I eventually gave up.

The midday heat was so intense that I needed to seek shelter somewhere cool. That was when I discovered the Chestnut Museum. Before entering this prime Ardèche tourist attraction, I was very much an ignoramus when it came to the world of the chestnut. I can happily report that this is no longer the case. The museum is spread over two floors, as one was not considered to be sufficient to relay all the important facts on said nut. I was with about five kids and it would be fair to say that they were not enormously excited about the exhibition.

It didn't start well. The first room had three awful paintings of chestnut trees on the wall and nothing else. The second room displayed an old saw (this was how they used to cut branches, the blurb explained). Below this was a chainsaw (this is how they do it now, it helpfully continued). Close to breaking point, I nearly ripped it off the wall and ended it all, but there was another floor to discover.

There we discovered a group of about 10 Belgian tourists sitting and watching a "locally produced" film about the chestnut. I watched for about a minute as an elderly couple sat under a chestnut tree and talked about their lives as chestnuteers, but couldn't take any more. We moved on to the final room displaying a very ordinary table and chairs made from chestnut wood.

The kids collapsed in laughter and an angry Belgian gentleman appeared to tell us to be quiet as he couldn't hear the chestnuteers. We stifled our giggles, took our leave, and exited into the melting streets. Tomorrow we visit the Lavender Museum.