The Principality of the Brothers Grimm revisited

The other day, I wrote about the rather mysterious and enchanting places which are Britain’s temperate rainforests. I’m not sure if France’s Labyrinthe Verte also qualifies, but it’s a very promising candidate. Here’s a post I wrote some eleven years ago, after we’d walked there.

THE PRINCIPALITY OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM: AND STONE SOUP

Sunday. We went to Nébias in the Aude. Just outside the village, you’ll find the Labyrinthe Verte, a natural maze, with winding pathways through a forest, where rocks and plants have created a bewildering array of natural passageways which are both beautiful and fun to explore. These paths are cut deep through limestone, often at shoulder height.  Somehow, we’d never visited.  But today, thanks to the Rando del’Aubo, our walking group, we did.

It’s been a lovely bright spring day today, but the forested labyrinth is never really sunny.  Trees, their trunks and branches bearded with feathery fronds of moss and lichen, crowd the limestone crags and fissured passageways.  Deprived of light and space, they assume crippled and fanciful shapes, or else aim straight for the sun, their thin trunks competing with each other for a place to establish their roots.  It’s not eerie however.  On this warm March day, we wouldn’t have been surprised to meet an ethereal band of fairies whirling through the dampened glades: on a bad night in November, perhaps a gnarled and wicked hag from the tales of the Brothers Grimm.

Every time of year has its own magic apparently.  On the coldest days of winter, the mosses and lichens are white and crisp with frost, making the forest fit for a Snow Queen.

At lunch time, since we were in France and eating’s important, the darkened passages unexpectedly cleared.  Suddenly, beneath blue skies and bright sunshine there was a fissured limestone pavement, providing surfaces and seating for our lunchtime picnic.  Which Malcolm had somehow left behind.  The members of the group magicked their very own version of Stone Soup for him. Do you know this tale?

Once upon a time, there was great famine throughout the land. Villagers squirrelled away any tiny amounts of food that they had. One day, a soldier came by, asking for a place to sleep for the night, and perhaps a meal. The villagers explained there was no food. ‘That’s alright, I have plenty. I have a magic stone that cooks delicious soup for me every night’. And he hauled a great cauldron from his pack, set a fire, filled his pot with water, and reverently placed a stone – also in his pack – into the water. Eventually the water simmered. The soldier tasted it. ‘Delicious!’ he pronounced. ‘Now, if anyone happened to have a carrot to add, it would be even better’. A woman in the crowd hurried home and found – two. The soldier declared the soup even tastier, but if anyone had some cabbage…? Then …. an onion? …some celery? … potato? The butcher found some scraps of pork and everything went into the pot. Before long, the soup was delicious indeed, and everyone filled their bellies. But the soldier wouldn’t sell his stone: no, not for any money.

On this occasion, within half a minute Malcolm had more food then the rest of the group put together. A mustardy ham baguette, some home cured sausage, a chunk of bread, a chocolate pudding, and apple…. The power of working together!

The afternoon was different.  Walking away from the enchanting and enchanted labyrinth, we came to more open country, where we passed first farmland, then the edges of forest with tracks showing where wild boar and deer had recently passed.  Finally, we climbed, and had views across to the mountains and the walks we’ve enjoyed there on other Sunday rambles, finishing up listening to the lively splashing of a waterfall.

7th March 2011

The featured image is from the archive of La Dépêche du Midi, our local paper when we lived in France.

Thoroughly British Rainforests

I have just been reading a book about rainforests. In Britain. Not the exotic tropical rainforests seen on television through which, drenched in sweat, you hack your way, attacked by insects and snakes as you wield your machete: but the gentler British version, temperate rainforest. These increasingly rare woods now occupy under 1% of the earth’s surface. No wonder they’re a best-kept secret.

Guy Shrubsole‘s The Lost Rainforests of Britain is an engaging and thoroughly absorbing account of a National Treasure of which most of us in Britain are completely unaware. Our temperate rainforests are spectacular woodlands with ancient, often stunted gnarled trees, draped and and bearded with mosses and lichens, and once marched across the British Isles from Dartmoor in the south to the north of Scotland – most particularly on the more sodden eastern seaboard. These days this unique habitat is increasingly under threat, and tiny pockets of such forest are now hard to find, and increasingly isolated and encroached upon.

Guy Shrubsole is the evangelist who seeks to protect and save them. To tell the story of this once widespread forest, he discusses geology, farming history, climate, Celtic Druids, the Romantic poets, JRR Tolkein – even Arthur Conan Doyle. He maps the eco-system in detail and calls for immediate political and public support: Shrubsole is a campaigner as well as a writer. This book may sound worthy, and therefore possibly dull. But it’s very readable, elegiac, amusing, entrancing and shocking by turn. It may turn out to be 2023’s Must Read.

None of these images is from a temperate rainforest: I haven’t – yet – visited one. But the picture shows somewhere I have been: the so-called Lud’s Church, a ferny gorge near Gradbach in Staffordshire, where the cool damp microclimate qualifies it as the very tiniest of rainforests.

I read this for the 2023 Gaia/Nature Reading Challenge

It fired my imagination, and reminded me that I may already have explored such a dim, green and shady place, crowded with trees clothed in soft green mosses, and draped with tangles of lichen, evocative of a spirit life with wraiths, witches and goblins. It wasn’t here in England, but in southern France, where even in the foothills of the Pyrenees it’s hot and often dry. I’ll post about that next …