(Almost) all is safely gathered in…

Regular readers will know I’ve got into the habit, once a month or so, of revisiting an old post. And I’m reminded of what October used to mean in France. Blackberrying’s over now in England (the devil spits on the fruit as soon as October kicks in, didn’t you know?), but my inner-Frenchwoman has been squirreling away scavenged apples, pears, mushrooms – even a few unimpressive walnuts. It all reminds me of France, where foraging is a way of life…

October 25th, 2012

‘All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin’ *

Autumn colours mean it’s harvest time for foragers.

I’ve written before about the ‘au cas où’ bag: the carrier you always have with you on a walk, ‘just in case’ something tasty turns up and demands to be taken home and eaten.

Well, at this time of year, it isn’t really a case of ‘au cas où’ .  You’re bound to find something.  A fortnight ago, for instance, Mal and I went on a country stroll from Lieurac to Neylis.  We had with us a rucksack and two large bags, and we came home with just under 5 kilos of walnuts, scavenged from beneath the walnut trees along the path.  A walk through the hamlet of Bourlat just above Laroque produced a tidy haul of chestnuts too.

Yesterday, we Laroque walkers were among the vineyards of Belvèze-du-Razès.  The grapes had all been harvested in the weeks before, but luckily for us, some bunches remained on the endless rows of vines which lined the paths we walked along.  We felt no guilt as we gorged on this fruit all through the morning.  The grapes had either been missed at harvest-time, or hadn’t been sufficiently ripe.  They were unwanted – but not by us.

The walnuts we’re used to in the Ariège are replaced by almonds over in the Aude.  You have to be careful: non-grafted trees produce bitter almonds, not the sweet ones we wanted to find.  But most of us returned with a fine haul to inspect later.  Some of us found field mushrooms too.

Today, the destination of the Thursday walking group was the gently rising forested and pastoral country outside Foix known as la Barguillère.  It’s also known locally as an area richly provided with chestnut trees.  Any wild boar with any sense really ought to arrange to spend the autumn there, snuffling and truffling for the rich pickings.  We walked for 9 km or so, trying to resist the temptation to stop and gather under every tree we saw.  The ground beneath our feet felt nubbly and uneven as we trod our way over thousands of chestnuts, and the trees above threw further fruits down at us, popping and exploding as their prickly casings burst on the downward journey.

As our hike drew to an end, so did our supply of will-power.  We took our bags from our rucksacks and got stuck in.  So plentiful are the chestnuts here that you can be as picky as you like.  Only the very largest and choicest specimens needed to make it through our rigorous quality control.  I was restrained.  I gathered a mere 4 kilos.  Jacqueline and Martine probably each collected 3 times as much.  Some we’ll use, some we’ll give to lucky friends.

Serious business, this scavenging.

Now I’d better settle myself down with a dish of roasted chestnuts at my side, and browse through my collections of recipes to find uses for all this ‘Food for Free’.

Jacqueline, Martine and Maguy’s chestnut haul.

* Two lines from an English hymn sung at Harvest Festival season: Come, ye thankful people, come’

A contribution to Six Word Saturday, and Jo’s Monday Walk: it’s more than one walk Jo.  Extra value?  Or disqualified?

The Pyrenees and their biggest fan.

We’ve been invited this week, in the Lens-Artists Challenge #65 to pick a place that’s captured our hearts.  I barely had to stop and think.  The Pyrenees has the power, even more than my beloved Yorkshire Dales, to stir my soul, to inspire and awe, to soothe and quieten me.

Le Cap du Carmil.

These mountains formed the backdrop to our lives in France.  We were in the foothills, but even a twenty minute drive had us steadily climbing to the higher peaks.  Here was where we spent our Sundays with our walking friends, getting our heartbeats up with stoical climbs in the morning, before a leisurely picnic with those slopes all around us: craggy, alive with butterflies, bugs and beetles  and sturdy yet delicate wildflowers: then an afternoon dropping down once more to the valley.

Here was where, for much of the year, we could see snow-covered peaks in the distance, while nearby were meadows with gentians, impossible numbers of orchids, poppies, and early in the spring, wild daffodils.

A drive over to see Emily in Barcelona meant crossing the very highest peaks: dizzying climbs, vertiginous descents.  Our own ‘patch’ was less demanding, more homely, with sheep, cattle and donkeys grazing the meadows among beech and oak wooded slopes.

There was history here: the revivalist Christian Cathars flourished.  There was industry – talc mining, textiles, now all gone.  Farming and tourism are what remains.  And the Pyrenees always provided a barrier and a stronghold in times of conflict.  For us though, for more than six years, it was simply … home.

 

The midsummer solstice: sunrise from Montsegur.

An entry for Lens-Artists Challenge #65: Pick a place

And also for Fan of …# 35

Returning to my roots

My life has come full circle.  Many of my earliest memories come from Sandhutton, current population 260, where my mother was head teacher of a two-teacher school which educated all the village children between five and fifteen years old.  These days I visit the village weekly – it’s less than ten miles away.  The school no longer exists, but my Spanish teacher lives there.

There we are. Sandhutton School, c.1951, just before I started there.

When I was five, my life changed a bit.  We went to live in London (current population 8.13 million).

A trip down the Thames: nearly at Westminster now.

I was a student in Manchester (538,000).  Then I went on to live in Portsmouth, in Wakefield, in Sheffield, in Leeds: all cities numbering their citizens in the tens,or even hundreds of thousands.  I loved city life.  I relished the opportunities only a city could usually offer, and the diverse populations living in them.

One of my favourite places in Manchester: The John Rylands Library. Who wouldn’t feel a real scholar in these surroundings?

When we moved to Harrogate, some twenty years ago, I announced we were moving to a small town.  A mere 75,000 people lived there.

Harrogate: one of its many open spaces: the Valley Gardens.

But that was before we went to France.  Laroque d’Olmes has a population of some 2,000 people, and its county town, Foix, has only 10,000. We came to appreciate small town life: its neighbourliness and our sense of belonging – the space to appreciate the countryside and mountains beyond.

The street near the church in Laroque, with the Pyrenees in the distance.

When we came back to England, that small town of Harrogate suddenly seemed horribly large, traffic-infested and in every way untenable, despite its green spaces and lively community life.  So here we are in North Stainley, population 730.

In fact we’re not even in the village, but in a little enclave just outside, with that walled garden I showed you last week.  Population 8.  It’s perfect.

One of North Stainley’s three village ponds.

 

Lens Artists Photo Challenge #64: Countryside or small towns.

Le Jardin Extraordinaire: a late summer treat

In this most dreadful of weeks for British politics, I think we all need a distraction. Just now, this is it. Back in France, one of the regular pleasures of our late summer was a visit to Le Jardin Extraordinaire, open for just a few days every year as the holiday period drew to an end. Let’s go there now, courtesy of a post I wrote in 2013 …..

September 4th, 2013

Le Jardin Extraordinaire, 2013 version

Le Jardin Extraordinaire is always comfortingly familiar, yet always surprising. If you’ve been once, you’ll go again, on this one weekend of the year, to enjoy strolling round this very special wild, yet bewitchingly tamed garden. The members and volunteers of Artchoum have been working for months to create this space, just for your pleasure.

You’ll want to explore the riverside walk and exclaim at the enchanted place they’ve created with stones, trees and flower petals. You’ll go on to wander through the leafy tunnels and arches tumbling with gourds. Then you’ll amble off into the woods, where more fantastical experiences await you.

People come from miles around to explore, smile and wonder at this very special place. But although you won’t be alone, there’s a relaxing feeling of space and of peace too. You’ll go away refreshed, invigorated and joyful.

Click on any image to view full size.

An entry for Jo’s Monday Walk. It’s an old walk Jo. But sometimes the old ones are the best. And I hadn’t ‘met’ you then.

How Not to Run a Cycling Race

Shock!  Horror!  Unheard of!  Today we could be found (a) watching day time television and (b) it was a cycling programme.

Today’s daytime TV.

The Tour de France, to be exact.  Normally we only display an interest in this or any other cycling event if it passes our front door: as it did twice when we lived in France, and once, in 2014, when memorably, the Tour began in Yorkshire.

The Tour de France goes through Laroque, 2012

Today however, stage 15 of this year’s Tour took place in the area we called home, the Ariège.  We had to watch.  The struggles of the cyclists passed us by as we grew nostalgic, even damp-eyed as familiar roads, familiar landscapes appeared on screen.

But as I watched, I was reminded of an incident that took place in Laroque, back in 2012.

Every year, just before the Tour, another cycling race takes place in the Ariège: L’Ariégeoise.  It’s divided into three levels of difficulty: the Ariégeoise itself (160 km,3,500 m. of climbing), the Mountagnole (118 km, 2,500 m. of climbing) and for wimps, the Passejade, a mere 68 km, and 750 m. of climbing.

That year, the route passed our way.  That year, the routes of the two main races parted company in Laroque.  And that year, there were no signs to say so….  and nor were there special marshalls for the Mountagnards.

The unsuspecting riders arrive at the parting of the ways….

As the riders arrived at the crossroads in town , they didn’t know where to go.  Ariégeoises  followed MountagnardsMountagnards followed Ariégeoises.  It was hopeless.  Riders tried to turn round, collided with those behind them, swore, and swore again as they saw their hard-won perfect timings being swallowed up in the chaos.  With extraordinary presence of mind, I shot some video footage.

 

I heard later that following the event, the race organisers used my little clip for  training purposes, to demonstrate How Not To Organise a Cycling Event.  I’m guessing it’s part of every year’s Tour de France training too.  That’s why it always runs so smoothly.

You can read all about it here.

Tabariane: New Light on the Dark Ages revisited

Which of my posts about our time in France to re-blog this month?  In the end, it was easy.  I fell to thinking about all the wonderful trips we had learning about the history of the area we’d chosen as our home, courtesy of  Pays d’art et d’histoire des Pyrénées Cathares.  Here’s a memorable day from July six years ago…

July 13th 2013

Tabariane: new light on the Dark Ages

When I was at school (back in the Dark Ages), we learnt in history that the Romans came after the Greeks.  They left us a legacy of Romance languages, our alphabet, Roman law, neo-Classical architecture, impossibly straight roads and under floor central heating.  As the empire crumbled, so we were told, the continent descended into the Dark Ages.  Barbarians, Vandals, and unpleasantly savage descendants of Asterix the Gaul ravaged Europe, raping, pillaging and generally leaving little time for culture and a settled everyday life.

I think we all knew it was a bit less straightforward than that.  The Frankish Germanic tribes entering the late Roman empire had a very different culture from that developed by the Romans, and it’s been much harder to research systematically because there are few contemporary written records.

This week though, we went to visit a Merovingian site, Tabariane, recently excavated and interpreted near Teilhet, not far from Mirepoix.  The Merovingians were an early Frankish dynasty established by Clovis, and they ruled an area roughly equivalent to much of France and Germany from the 5th to the 8th centuries, and are the kind of tribe that was dismissed as one of those from the very heart of the Dark Ages.

It was a burial site we’d come to see.  It has first been discovered in the very early 20th century by Captain Henri Maurel, and had been partly excavated according to the fairly invasive practices of the period.  War and economic upheaval meant the site became first neglected, and then entirely forgotten about until recently.

Recent research lead by Nicolas Portet has meant that the burial ground, now carefully excavated, is now, as it almost certainly was then, a burial garden.  It’s a large site, on a hillside overlooking the site of the now disappeared Merovingian settlement  on the opposite side of the valley.  The 166 tombs seem to have been arranged in ‘clans’: loose arrangements of extended families and friends, over a long period of time.  It seems to have been a burial ground which held a place in the life of the community for many years, rather than being a cemetery developed as a result of tragedy – war or plague say.  Most of the bodies were laid with their heads to the west, their feet to the east.  Originally they were clothed, but little remained apart from metal objects: belt buckles, brooches, jewellery and, with some of the men, weapons.

This is where ideas have changed. Early 20th century archaeologists sent excavated objects to museums far and wide, even to America: modern practice which encourages an area’s ‘patrimoine’ (heritage) to remain as far as possible intact did not then exist, but you can find examples of objects found here in the Museum at Mazères, and in Saint Raymond de Toulouse.

Now as then, the tombs are planted with local flowering plants: lavenders, marguerites, herbs.  It’s thought that locals would have visited the grounds with their families, spent time there, as we might in a modern park.  So it was important to both the living and the dead to make it a pleasant, calm place to be.  The burial ground overlooked the village. The village overlooked the burial ground.  Each had an interest in the other.  Each could intercede for the other.

It’s a tranquil, special place, surrounded by meadows and hilly countryside.  A circular walk of some two and a half kilometres , starting and ending in the village of Teilhet gives you a chance to spend a peaceful  hour or two exploring scenery that may not be so very different from the way it was when the Merovingian villagers first laid out their burial ground, some 800 years ago.  Excellent information boards will help you understand a little more about those Merovingian people who made their lives in this still rural area.

While you’re there, make time to enjoy the facade of the 14th century church at Teilhet.  Here are some pictures to whet your appetite.

 

A bonus post for the Summer Solstice

Generally, we don’t make much of a thing of the Summer Solstice: we simply mourn that the day after, the days start getting shorter again.

But when I was looking for a post-from-the-past to reblog for June, I came across this one, and was reminded of a Special Summer Solstice.  Montségur, for the uninitiated, is a startling tump of a mountain celebrated as one of the last strongholds of the Cathars, a mediaeval Christian sect.  It’s a potent landmark in the Ariège.

June 21st, 2011

Summer solstice, Montségur

All this time we’ve been here, we’ve not seen the sunrise over Montségur.  Today, midsummer day, I decided to change all that.  Me and 99 others……

I arrived at the car park just after 5 o’clock,  at the same moment as a hare which had for at least two frantic minutes been trying to out-run me.  And I realised I was not alone.  It was still dark, and quite a difficult business to trek up a steep, slippery rocky path.  Other more provident people had torches, and everybody helped one another.

The route to the top. Still pretty dark.

Towards the top, the night sky was slowly washed from inky blue to delicate blues, pinks and greens by the sun which was still well below the horizon.

I found a couple of friends there, and a vantage point relatively distant from the crowd crammed into the castle ruins.  They had come to see something special – the rays of the sun as they poured through the ruined windows.  I decided it was too packed with people to feel special in there.  I’ll come back another day soon, to see for myself.

What I saw was quite wonderful enough: a rich copper disk slowly mounted above the line of mountains in the distance,  tinting the sky ochre, rusty-red, sugar-pink, finally emerging so fiery bright I could no longer look at it.  Some locals burst – quite beautifully – into song.   Occitan/Ariègeois stalwarts, ‘Quand lo Boièr ven de laurar…’ and, inevitably, ‘Se Canto’.

Gradually the whole sky lightened and brightened, turning the entire landscape crisply clear.  I strolled round the summit – it was surprisingly easy to get-away-from-it-all, before skidding and climbing my way down to the car park again….

Montségur casts a shadow on the hillsides beyond. The car park’s still full.

….and there were my companions who’d provided torchlight.  They were hitching, because their car had failed to start.  We journeyed back to civilisation together, ready to resume normal service.  It was 7.30 a.m.

Almost deserted again, Montségur in the early morning light