I’ve been in a difficult mood all week. This down-sizing malarkey isn’t suiting me at all. Though I haven’t been down to the tip yet to excavate for my lost goods, it can only be a matter of time. I gave some books to a friend this morning, books dating from my student days, then took them back from him. ‘I will give them to you’, I promised, ‘but I just need a bit more time’. I haven’t read those books in 40 years. But I might.
So to distract myself, every afternoon this week I’ve set off on my self-imposed challenge. I want to see how many more short walks, each lasting two to three hours I can discover setting off from the house. We know such a lot already: at least four different ways to get to and from Léran, two to La Bastide sur l’Hers and several other shorter ones in the same direction. Walks to and from Dreuilhe, Lavelanet, Regat, Tabre, Aigues-Vives, Campredon, Patato (yes, really), Fajou…..
The area we’ve explored least lies westwards from Laroque. There’s a small and charming village called Esclagne about two and a half kilometres away as the crow flies. I reckoned I could find any number of ways to get there and back, and so far this week I’ve come up with three – and that’s not counting the road, obviously.
French maps (I need to whisper this, in case anybody French is listening) are not a patch on our UK Ordnance Survey maps, mainly because they’re hopelessly out of date. Paths peter out, if you can find them in the first place, because as in England, not all farmers welcome ramblers. Yesterday I scrambled under several barbed wire fences, and several more electric ones. Waymarking tends to be unreliable too. The path along the ridge leading from Laroque to la Bastide offers no possibility of going wrong. There’s a cliff-edge on one side, and thick woodland on the other. Nevertheless, it has trusty yellow waymarks painted on trees or rocks every few yards. But get yourself into territory where there are multiple five-lane-ends, or a couple of tracks that might or might not have been made by resident deer, boar and badgers, and you’re abandoned to your fate.
Still, Esclagne is mounted attractively on a hill top. You can see it once you’re in the area, and if you haven’t managed to track down a suitable path, all you have to do is choose fields with not-too-cruel fencing, not too boggy, no bulls in sight, and walk. It’s a chance to come upon herons startled from their familiar deserted feeding ground, make friends with affectionate donkeys, or simply enjoy the views.
Esclagne has some 115 inhabitants. Even such a tiny village qualifies for a mayor and town council, a town hall, and a community notice board filled with all kinds of official pronouncements. The inhabitants are no longer dominated by farmers and agricultural labourers, but townies looking for a peaceful retirement. Unlike their British counterparts, they are not resented. They haven’t priced the country folk out of suitable housing. There’s been enough and to spare since the first world war, which emptied the villages of their menfolk. Those who weren’t killed often didn’t return, preferring to make an easier living up in the more prosperous north. Still, it’s not a lively village. There are almost no children living here. I did spot a traffic hazard though: a busy group of hens all foraging around the traffic signs warning of (a) a 30 k.p.h speed limit and (b) speed bumps.
So that was Esclagne. I consulted the map, found yet another path worth exploring, and after 10 minutes or so found myself dumped once more at the edge of a wire-fenced stubbly field. Never mind. I could see Laroque ahead of me at the bottom of the hill. Just point myself in the right general direction and head home. Another successful walk.