I had my photos of the much-loved butterflies of an English summer day all lined up to display for Denzils’ Nature Photo Challenge 13# Butterflies. Then I realised I wanted to share something else instead: a photo of a rare butterfly I first saw in the Pyrenees, ten years ago now: the Mountain Apollo.
July 31st 2013
I just want to share a photo I took on our walk on Sunday, when we went to the Gorges de la Frau. This butterfly seduced us all with its distinctive spots and white grisaille wings. It turns out to be rare, a protected species, and known only in mountain regions, mainly in Southern Europe. The French know it as Apollon, and its Latin name is Parnassius Apollo. If your French is up to it, you can read about it here.
And here’s a small taste of the Gorges de la Frau, only a few miles from our house.
It was twelve years ago this weekend that I realised that even ordinary-seeming mishaps on country walks can have very unfortunate consequences …
SOS Air Ambulance
March 20th, 2011
Poor Micheline. Her pain, her distress was our Sunday Soap Opera.
We’d gone walking with our Rando del’Aubo friends, near Nébias again. We’d yomped up a mountainside, two hours of it, and were looking forward to lunch in – oooh, maybe ten minutes. That’s when Micheline fell over a tree root.
It was bad. Very bad. Broken ankle? Knee? We still don’t know. Anny, who has GPS, ran off to find some kind of reception for her mobile, so she could ring emergency services, and give them our exact reference.
Pretty quickly, it became exciting. We were fairly inaccessible, though not as badly so as we might have been, considering we were almost at the top of a (smallish) mountain: because there was, for the first time that morning, open land nearby. A bright red ambulance service 4×4 came into view, then an ambulance, tossing about on the rutted track. The sapeurs pompiers had to walk down into the woods, carrying all their equipment and a stretcher, to see Micheline, who was now in quite a lot of pain. Then – wow! A helicopter air ambulance hovered overhead, looking for a landing spot.
The pictures show the efficient and organised crew. (11 of them, sapeurs pompiers, nurses, pilot) doing what they had to do in muddy, dirty conditions to get Micheline sedated and sorted and ready to be air-lifted to Carcassonne Hospital. They don’t show the 4×4 being ignominiously towed out of the mud by a local farmer.
Despite our compassion for Micheline and the acute pain and discomfort she was in, we were quietly excited to be part of such a drama, the first apparently, in Rando del’Aubo’s long history of weekend walks. No news from Micheline yet: but she won’t be at work tomorrow.
That was all I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the accident. In fact, Micheline -who worked in a shop – was never fit enough to return to an on-your-feet-all-day job. The French Ramblers’ Association argued for months about whose insurance should pick up the tab for the helicopter call-out. It was all a sorry mess, and I’ve thought twice since then about venturing to out-of-the-way places for a solitary walk.
You’d have to have been following me a long time to know why I call my blog ‘From Pyrenees to Pennines‘. I began writing it in 2007, to record our big adventure in moving to the foothills of the French Pyrenees, to a small town, Laroque d’Olmes whose glory days as a textile manufacturing centre were long over, and where we were (almost) the only English . There we stayed till 2014, involving ourselves in local life from politics to choirs to walking groups, and falling ever deeper in love with the Pyrenees which formed the background to our lives.
Through the walking groups we came to know the mountains in every season. The abundance of meadow flowers and orchids in the spring: the relief from lowland heat in the summer: rich autumn colours that could compete with any on the planet, and deep snow in winter. We welcomed the physical challenge of yomping upwards to some high peak or plateau, and earning our panoramic picnic, and learnt to respect the mountains’ moods.
Here’s a selection of virtual postcards, which may help explain why the Pyrenees will always remain for us our Special Place.
We’re asked to celebrate celebrating this week, in the Lens-Artists Challenge. I’ve decided not to focus on Christmas, but instead take us to a small town in France, in the Pyrenees – to Seix – in June, where every year, like so many other mountain settlements, they celebrate Transhumance. Here’s what I wrote in June 2011:
CELEBRATING TRANSHUMANCE IN THE HAUT-SALAT
Transhumance. It’s that time of year where here in the Pyrénées, the cattle and sheep are moved from their winter quarters down on their lowland(ish) farms up to the lush summer pastures in the mountains. They’ll stay there till Autumn, and then be brought down again. And each time, it’s the excuse for a party.
On Saturday, we joined in, and went over to Seix to meet friends who live there. The Transhumance celebrations in Haut Salat last three days, but we made do with Saturday morning. We nearly arrived late – very late – because we found ourselves behind a herd of cattle making their steady way along the road. Overtaking’s not an option: the cows commandeered this route hundreds of years ago. But we managed to zip down a side road and make a detour. A whole hour later, after coffee with our friends, the herd reached the edge of Seix and passed their door….
…and finished their long walk into town. We went too, and arrived just as the last flocks of sheep were arriving, to be corralled like the cattle, at the edge of the town square. For a while, and probably much to their relief, they were no longer centre stage.
Instead it was jollity of the traditional kind. There were processions of large solemn plaster effigies, local bands. Dancers from Gascony, the Basque country, the Landes made sure we all had fun, and Malcolm and I even joined in some Basque dancing. Stars of the show for us were the shepherds from the Landes. Theirs is flat, marshy country, and they used to keep their eyes on their roving flocks by ranging round on stilts. But this was a day for dancing, and that’s just what they did, up high on those stilts. Have a look at the photos.
We went off for lunch at the end of the morning. But there was more celebrating, more meals to be shared, particularly by those farmers and country people who over the centuries have welcomed the fellowship of Transhumance as a break from the routines of an often lonely life.
We’re going back eleven years today: not to Malcolm’s actual birthday, which is In The Bleak Midwinter, but to an April day when we were still living in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and when a bunch of amateurs – the friends and family of Malcolm – formed an impromptu production company to deliver, for one day only – Malcolm and the Microlight – to celebrate his birthday.
Shot on location in the Ariège by Jacques, Malcolm & Margaret.
A Lawrenson-Hamilton-Clift Production MMX
‘Curiously, I had no feelings of fear or apprehension, perhaps because of what our friends had told us about Jacques, the pilot, and his machine – it’s his pride and joy, and he takes great care of it.
There was a sharp feeling of exposure after take-off – we were not in a cabin, there was no protection from wind, we were just vulnerable beings in a powered shell under a giant wing – it reminded me of riding pillion on a motorbike, but this was in the air.
The various destinations came up quickly – not like travelling on the ground, even though our speed was only about 80-85 kph.
Over the mountain peaks, it was very cold – temperature had fallen from 13 or so on take-off to minus 1 over the snowfields and the flat white surfaces of isolated frozen lakes were still clearly to be seen. And suddenly, directly underneath, a herd of Pyrenean chamois, running and leaping, disturbed by the engine’s sudden sound in their snow-quiet world
A few minutes more and we were at 2600 metres, when the mountains seemed so empty and cold, even in the lovely morning sunlight. We could see long distances in the clear air at this altitude – 200 km away, we could see the Pic du Midi
The warmth after we left the mountains behind and lost altitude was welcome, and I could concentrate on the views of walks we had previously done, and which had sometimes seemed long and meandering, but were now clearly visible with their beginnings and ends.
Then back to the field and the short grass runway. As we flew over, I could see Margaret far below, waving. Then it was down, very smoothly, and a turn, and back to rest. What an experience! And how kind of my family to make this possible.‘
From time to time, some of you ask me how it was that we came to live in France for about seven years. This post, written on this day eleven years ago, tells the tale.
A WALK IN THE AUDE
February 26th 2010
Last Sunday, we went off as usual with our walking group, Rando de l’Aubo. We went a mere 20 km eastwards into the neighbouring Aude. What a difference a few miles makes. The rugged forests, with hillside pasture for cattle and sheep, fields of maize and feed crops in our own department are exchanged for an almost Tuscan landscape, with little hillside towns overlooking ranks and ranks of vineyards delineating the contours. Both departments are lovely, but we hicks from the Ariège tend to prefer our less manicured and somewhat wilder countryside.
Still, Sunday’s walk was quite a sentimental journey for Malcolm and for me, because we walked through the village, Ferran, that was our first introduction to this part of the world. A few years ago, an old friend of Malcolm’s sent him an email. In his letter, he said that it was February, and he’d been sitting outside in his shirtsleeves, gazing out at his perennial view of the distant Pyrenees, at that time covered with bluish-white snow. Did we fancy a visit to him in Ferran? We did. We were of course seduced by those hillside towns, those vineyards, and especially by those views of the Pyrenees. Not too long after, we came over again, to house hunt, and of course didn’t find that elusive, perfect spot. Only after we’d returned home did our friend’s wife, who’s an estate agent, spot the possibility that we just might like the butcher’s house in Laroque where we now live.
It was crazy really. We bought it without really knowing the first thing about the area. But we’ve never regretted it. We’ll never finish exploring the hillside pathways, always deeply mulched with fallen oak and beech leaves, or the craggier routes up mountainsides, or the gently undulating lower paths through meadowlands, bright with orchids and other flowers, as well as butterflies, throughout the spring and summer.
But that’s the Ariège. Ferran and the other villages we skirted last Sunday are typical of the Aude. Colour washed houses and farms in shades of barley, corn and almond perch high on the hillside, looking down over their vineyards, and beyond – one way to the Montagne Noire, the other to the Pyrenees. The hills roll away into the distance, not so blanketed by forest as our hills are, but at this time of year, green and lush. Though we only walked about 13 km, by the end we were exhausted, because throughout the day we’d been buffeted by the winds for which the Aude is known. But how lucky we are to have two such very different kinds of countryside within such easy reach of our homes.
I bet you’ve been thinking, in these gloomy rainy days, that a bit of a break somewhere like the south of France might cheer you up. But not necessarily. In honour of Flashback Friday, I’ve found my post from 29th January 2013, written in the corner of Southern France that we used to call home.
RAIN RAIN …
The banner headline on this morning’s regional paper, La Dépêche du Midi, told us what we already knew. There’s been twice as much rain this month as is usual. Of snow, we’ve seen hardly a flake.
Driving back from Foix yesterday, we saw meadows that have become mini- lakes. Even more fields glistened with water as the water table has risen to the very surface of the soil. It’s made the month a somewhat gloomy one, even though the days have been pretty mild. The mountain peaks are snow-capped, as expected, but the white stuff barely creeps down the mountainside and with all the low cloud and zilch visibility, it’s sometimes hard to know where the Pyrenees have disappeared off to.
Our regular yomps into the countryside have been a bit curtailed. Walk after walk has been rained off, and when we do go, we choose our routes with care. If we don’t, we’ll be lugging kilos and kilos of glutinous heavy clay with us as it clings to our boots and the bottom of our trousers.
Roll on the 2nd of February, Chandeleur (Candlemas), the day when Winter decides whether to stick around or push off. Last year, it was icily cold, and Winter stayed and made his presence felt with several weeks of constant snow, ice and bitter cold. This year, he‘s looking much more half-hearted about it all. We blame ourselves. We invested in snow-tyres and snow chains for the car. We clothed our olive tree and a few other plants in white dresses of horticultural fleece.
So Winter laughed in our faces. We daren’t change the tyres or undress the tree though. We all know what will happen if we do.
Mont d’Olmes: local playground for skiers. You wouldn’t travel any great distance to spend a holiday here, but for locals, it’s the ideal winter sports spot. It’s a wonderful area for walkers too. We’ve only just begun to discover the wealth of footpaths, mainly across truly ‘sauvage’ slopes, with views downwards to Montségur, Roquefixade, and northwards almost, it seems, as far as Toulouse.
It’s alright waxing lyrical though. For many people living in the area many years past, and until the early years of the 20th century, these slopes were the places where they came for long hours each day, working both on the surface and by crawling through narrow airless tunnels, mining talc.
The trucks that used to transport the talc from the mines.
The old mine workings. Can you spot several tunnel entrances?
Talc? Yes, that stuff you sprinkle on babies’ bottoms. That stuff those Olympic gymnasts plunge their hands into before taking to an overhead bar. That stuff that apparently still has many industrial uses, notably in the ceramics industry and for plastics paints and coatings. This soft soapstone was found here on Mont d’Olmes and is still mined in nearby Luzenac. Here though, all that is left are the gashes in the mountainside where the workings once were, and a few ancient trucks once used to transport the material down to civilisation.
Come and take the path we took last Sunday. We walked in more or less a straight line, up and down hill after hill, as the path became increasingly rocky and impassable.
Our path onwards and upwards.
So many paths! But you’ll never meet a soul.
Apparently this plant is carniverous, feeding on passing insect life.
Early morning mist burning off in the sun.
Our reward was the occasional handful of raspberries or bilberries, then a lunchtime picnic by l’étang des Druides. No, sorry, l’étang des Truites. Whatever. Nobody seems to know which name is correct. Some say the person making the first map of the area misheard and wrote ‘truite’ – trout – instead of ‘druide’. We saw no trout. We definitely saw no druids. But we had a jolly nice picnic. And I paddled.
Our first sight of L’étang des truites or druides.
Our picnic spot.
Told you I paddled!
More of the picnic spot.
And then I ruined a perfectly good day, in which morning chill and mist had given over to hot sunshine, by falling flat against the rocky path, cutting open my face and chipping three teeth. I hope the druids weren’t lining me up for some kind of sacrifice.
Our homeward path.
Lavelanet, then Laroque lie far below us.
People often hang these thistles on their doors to bring good luck. Maybe if we had too I wouldn’t have had my little accident.
August 2020, PS. Don’t worry. I’m fine. The chipped bits, which were only small, have smoothed down nicely.
It’s that time of the month when I re-visit a blog post written during our years in France. I’ve chosen this one because of the perspective it offers on rural life there, a hundred or more years ago. Because France – certainly where we were in the foothills of the Pyrenees – had no Industrial Revolution, country life continued more or less unchanged for many until villages devastatingly lost their menfolk during the First World War.
Country life is country life, and some of these occupations would seem familiar to our own grandparents. Others less so. Have a look and see.
Le Cami des Encantats
July 26th 2012
Today we visited Benac, one of those small and almost picture-postcard-pretty villages outside Foix. I think it’s unlikely that too many horny-handed sons and daughters of toil live there these days. Too many freshly painted facades and cheery boxes of geraniums at the windows. Too many sleek and highly-polished cars.
But once upon a time it was a busy working community. For the last few years, every summer the villagers here and in nearby hamlets arrange carefully constructed and dressed figures into appropriate corners of both village and countryside. These figures celebrate the way of life that persisted here – and throughout France – for centuries, and only died out some time after the First World War. They call the route you follow to hunt out all these scenes Le Cami des Encantats: Occitan for something like ‘the Enchanted Path’. Come with me and take a look. Click on any image for a closer look and a caption.
The priest arrives at church.
Un poilu – a WW1 soldier, the French answer to a Tommy.
Then as now, it’s good to sit and watch the world go by.
Here’s the Garde Champêtre, paid by local farmers to keep local crops and stock safely in one place.
Pudding basin haircuts weren’t just for English children.
A colporteur: a hawker, purveyor of books and other good things.
The mobile distillery or alambic came round every autumn to distill some of the fruit crops into potent alcohol. It still happens.
An important craftsman: the nailmaker.
This man’s work is indoors. He’s at the forge.
Log sawing: always important in this wooded region, for building, fuel, joinery ….
A woman at the village lavoir, or clothes washing place. Sinks are fed from a natural water source and sheltered by a roof. One of the centres of village life.
The French love to hunt. Then it was a necessity rather than a hobby.
Le pelharot: the rag and bone man.
As in England, the pig played an important part in keeping the household nourished through the winter months.
L’estamarron: the tinker dips worn cutlery to bring it back to life
The church bellringer.
If you work in the fields all day you need water. This young woman brings it to you.
This shepherd will spend the whole summer at high mountain pasture with his sheep.
You must be logged in to post a comment.