Just 4 km along the road from us is a village. If you’re passing through (and you won’t: it’s not on the main road to anywhere much) you’ll probably think it’s just another sleepy French backwater. A backwater called Léran.
But you’d be wrong. Over the last five or six years, Léran has reinvented itself.
Once upon a time, when this area was, for the time, quite industrialised, when Laroque and Lavelanet were churning out textiles to meet an apparently unending demand, Léran was the leather-working village. It must have been quite a smelly unappetising place with all those hides hung out to dry and cure. The river Touyre, flowing through the village, was dirty and polluted from the leather making processes. It would already have been pretty bad from flowing through Lavelanet and then Laroque when dyes from the textile trade were flushed into the waters. Friends of ours remember their parents being employed in the still-busy leather works in those days. Immigrant workers from Spain and Italy were much in demand to augment the local working population.
But times change, and as the textile mills declined, so did the leather works. Léran’s population fell as the young left to seek work elsewhere.
About perhaps twelve years ago, a few anglophones, scouting around for somewhere attractive to open chambres d’hôtes, found the village, noted its quiet agricultural setting, its château built by the local landowners, the Lévis- Mirepoix, and the stunning views towards the Pyrenees. They opened a couple of businesses. Guests, above all English, but other English-speakers too came to stay, liked what they saw, and some looked for properties to buy in the village. At that stage houses were cheap enough in this failing little community.
Slowly, the village came back to life. Marek and Shirley Woznica (yes, they are English) bought the run-down and almost decrepit little village bar and set about turning it into le Rendez-vous, the village hub for French and English alike. Quality meals, quiz nights in both French and English, open mic events soon became part of their regular programme.
At a village vide grenier (that’s ‘empty your attics’, the French answer to our car boot sale) some years ago, we remember French inhabitants telling us that the English were responsible for some revival in the village fortunes. ‘But it’s a shame they keep themselves to themselves and don’t mix with us’, they said regretfully.
Well, that might have been true then, but it’s no longer the case.
About five years ago, another English resident, Alan Simmonds, a fine musician, decided to begin a choir. Inevitably, people round here call it ‘the English choir’, but it’s truly cosmopolitan, with singers from several different countries of origin in Europe and beyond. It’s already got a name for itself, and is quite in demand.
In summer, there are the Friday evening markets, when visitors and residents alike crowd into the village streets to buy their evening meals from an eclectic mix of food stalls, and sit down to share their meals at long ranks of tables laid out along the main street. This is Léran at its liveliest.
But it hasn’t been onwards and upwards without some struggles. The village shop closed, then the bakery. Léran no longer had any shop but a hairdressers. A now rejuvenated village council decided to act. They opened up a municipal storage building, named it ‘Les Halles’, and set about encouraging a mix of local traders to come on different mornings of the week to sell bread, meat, charcuterie, cheeses and vegetables to the villagers – it’s the only community round these parts that now has a daily market. So far it’s going well.
And this year, the village has developed yet another project: ‘Léran: le village qui chante’. In mid-June, St Cecilia’s Day, French communities everywhere throw themselves into a weekend of music-making of every kind. There are concerts in churches, bars, along the street. Anywhere. It’s a great weekend to be in France. But Léran wanted to do even better. With a tuneful choir, and some fine musicians living in the community, from opera singers to folk music, the villagers pulled together to put on a three day series of events. This is how they described it in their publicity:
- Everything from popular operatic arias to foot-tappin’ jazz. Soulful solos to choral songs that rock the rafters.
- World-class singers, a host of musicians, and the hugely popular Choeur de Léran.
- All in a lively village with the Pyrenees as backdrop.
They weren’t wrong. Concerts in everywhere from the local hall, the village church and even local houses drew enthusiastic audiences from miles around. We loved the Baroque group, ‘L’ensemble de Montbel’, which we attended. No wonder le village qui chante now wants to make it an annual event.
More recently, there has been one very sad event. In July this year, that château I mentioned caught fire one afternoon. It had been fairly recently developed as rather elegant flats: now one of the turrets has been consumed by angry flames. It’s a sad loss for the community.
So there we are. A lively and vigorous village community which we’re delighted to have as neighbours. Do we ever wish we’d chosen to live there instead? Well, no. We like the English whom we’ve met there, but we’re glad that we don’t have the easy option of making our social circle an English one, which must be almost inevitable in a community of so many Anglophones. We’ll go on coming for a meal chez Marek and Shirley, we’ll look out for concerts and other events in the village, and then we’ll stroll over the hill back to Laroque.