The Lakes with additional rain, cloud … and sheep

One of the sheep who were our constant companions
One of the sheep who were our constant companions

The Lake Distict: English holiday destination par excellence, and favourite subject for armies of painters and poets. Wordsworth, who wandered ‘lonely as a cloud’, Coleridge, Southey – they’re known as the Lake Poets – drew inspiration from the area. Peter Rabbit’s stamping grounds, including Mr. McGregor’s vegetable patch, must have been near Windermere, where his creator, Beatrix Potter lived. JMW Turner’s one of thousands of painters who’ve been inspired by views of the Lakes. Batallions of holiday-makers, especially walkers, arrive in the area every week of the year.

In short, everyone loves the Lake District. Except me. I arrive under banks of mist and bucket-loads of rain (like everyone else). I tramp round pretty towns looking for evidence of ordinary every day life, and find nothing but outdoor shops, craft galleries and tea shops. I’m one of a crowd in an area I’d prefer to enjoy in solitude. So I tend to avoid it in favour of the Yorkshire Dales, Northumberland or the Peak District. Still, there we were last week, first for a magnificent birthday celebration, and then for a family weekend. And for the first time, despite lots of rain and even more mist, I enjoyed being there.  I learnt to distinguish Swaledale sheep from their Herdwick cousins, who have black lambs: I enjoyed briskly walking with friends and family in the bracing cold, and finding daffodils and blossom, despite its being May: and at last I learnt to appreciate the famous scenery.   An excellent holiday.

Rouen: our day out

Time for another trip to England (purpose of visit: to attend several 60th birthday celebrations). We generally try to visit somewhere new to us on our journey back, but this time, we decided to spend time in a town we’ve passed through maybe dozens of times, without spending time in anything more exciting than a traffic jam.  Rouen was to be our mini-break destination.

Though inland, it’s still a thriving river port, and once it derived its wealth not simply from this industry, but from textiles. Even today, the city symbol is a sheep, a reminder that Rouen once owed its opulence to working with wool.
We really were on a very mini-break, so decided to focus on a Rouen which Joan of Arc and anyone living there up till about the 16th or 17th centuries would have recognised.  We knew we’d find a few ancient streets.   But we were totally unprepared for a city centre where street after street consists of half-timbered houses and buildings, the oldest of which date from the 13th century.   There amongst them were glorious Gothic churches: the cathedral of Notre Dame, the abbey church of Saint-Ouen (sadly closed, because it was a Monday), Saint Maclou church (sadly closed because it’s coming to the end of a massive restoration programme).  In among, though, were modern quarters, woven into the ancient fabric of the town in a way that reminded us that Rouen suffered terrible damage in the 2nd World War, when bombing tore irreparable holes through the city.
This was was not the first time that Rouen witnessed death and destruction.  It was here that folk-hero and later saint, Joan of Arc died.  She was a simple peasant girl who, claiming divine guidance, led the French army to several important victories during the Hundred Years War, But after being tried for heresy by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais she was burnt to death in 1431.
Then there are the  grounds of the Aitre de St. Maclou.  They had been used as burial grounds since Roman times. However, during the Black Death of 1348 when three quarters of the area’s inhabitants died, the site became somewhere to throw the hundreds of corpses to whom an overwhelmed and diminishing  population could no longer give decent Christian burial.
But we were there on a glorious spring day.  We took away memories of a wonderful lunch eaten in the sunshine, walks along those characterful streets, and unexpected blossom of trees and flowers to lift our spirits.  Rouen, we know there’s so much more of you to discover.  We’ll be back.

‘I don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I sing.’ *

Thursday evening.  Choir.  Arrive early in time for a quick chat and a gossip, and then settle down to work.

The mood’s established from the first note.  Our voices chase up and down the scales in a series of jolly rounds, verses and tongue-twisters as we warm up our voices and then it’s down to work on the repertoire.  Vanessa, who squeezes pretty good music out of a very mixed bunch of singers, keeps us busy, committed and enthusiastic.  We love her.

It’s all so different from the choral society I belonged to in England.  There, the repertoire was the attraction.  Haydn’s ‘Creation’, Charpentier’s ‘Te Deum and all those stirring sacred Masses.  I liked my fellow choristers too.  Really though, I felt like Groucho Marx.  I didn’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.  I was never quite confident in what I was singing.  I was always running from behind and rarely had the confidence to sing my heart out.

But the repertoire held me in thrall, and so when I arrived in France, I looked for more of the same.  And didn’t find it.  I guessed the Departmental Choir was beyond my reach.  I took me ages to realise that most villages and small towns, even Laroque, do indeed have a choir, and even longer not to feel sniffy at what I then considered an irredeemably low-brow  programme.

More fool me.  Since I gave in and joined in I’ve had the best fun.  Thursday nights when we have our rehearsals are simply unmissable.  We sing a bit of everything: Henry VIII’s ‘Pastime with good company’ (en français naturallement); ‘Amezzing Gress’ (en American, off coss), some sacred stand-bys; Breton or Auvergnat folk songs: the odd sortie to Russia – but the general feel is vairy Frainch, often with songs to which everybody but me already knows the words.  I soon catch up though.  I have to.

We’ll have concerts in the communities nearby.  And every now and then, as last week, there‘ll be a ‘Rencontre de Chorales’, when a number of choirs from a wide area gather together for the afternoon and invite the general public in for a feast of singing.  Each choir sings about 6 numbers from their repertoire, catering to every possible musical taste. And we all sit together in our concert get-up, sympathising with mistakes, applauding great performances until our own turn comes. At the end, every chorister from every choir will somehow squeeze onto the stage to join in the ‘chanson en commun’.  The audience enjoy it, but it’s even more fun for we singers to join together, united by our love of singing.  As we all suggested last week at the tops of our voices, ‘C’est magnifique’

Far too busy getting to know each other and renew old friendships to start singing yet
Far too busy getting to know each other and renew old friendships to start singing yet
There we are, members of 5 different choirs, all in our different concert gear, squeezing together to begin singing.  That's me in the middle, in blue.
There we are, members of 5 different choirs, all in our different concert gear, squeezing together to begin singing. That’s me in the middle, in blue.

* William James

Gentians for a May morning

GentiansRoquefixadeApril24th2013 047

May Day here in France is the day when the French like to offer lilies of the valley. It’s been so cold and wet these last few days that ours in the garden are still tightly in bud. But the other day, we did see gentians.  Turning their vivid blue faces to the sun, they were marching up the sunny sides of the slope at Roquefixade.   I’d like to share some with you.

The Château at Lagarde

Draw a square.  Now draw another one surrounding it, with a nice big border.  Now do it again.  Now draw a big rectangle alongside one of the sides, as wide as one of the sides of the square, and maybe 3 times as long.  There.  You’ve just given yourself a brief history of the Château de Lagarde.

We had a better history lesson, because we were there, in cold gusty conditions, being introduced to the site by Fabrice Chambon, as part of the series of events organised as part of this season’s Laissez-vous conter le Pays des Pyrenees Cathares.

Lagarde is a ruined castle, an imposing and dramatic addition to the skyline hereabouts.  We always assumed it was medieval, destroyed in one of the many wars that characterised that stormy period of history.

And certainly it was first constructed in the 11th century, by Ramire de Navarre, King of Navarre and Count of Barcelona.  During the crusades against the Cathars, it came into the possession of Simon de Montfort, who always gets a look in round here to any story from that time.  He gave it to his lieutenant, Guy de Lévis, and this is the family to whom it’s mainly belonged over the centuries.  They owned châteaux everywhere in the area:  Léran, Montségur, Terrefort – all within easy distance of Lagarde.  It was a fortress, a castle, and occupied that inner square you drew.

By the late 15th – 16th centuries, defensive castles were so last year.  Jean V de Lévis-Mirepoix had the money and the leisure to go travelling, and admired all those famous Châteaux of the Loire: Azay -le- Rideau, Chambord and so on.  He liked what he saw and had his own château remodelled with some of the features he had so admired, and windows piercing the original solid medieval masonry.  The finest feature may have been a splendid staircase with wide shallow steps curving upwards through the central tower: it was said that it was possible for horses to mount these stairs.  It was a fine Renaissance palace, and extended to fill that second square, because it included space to accommodate his artillery forces and a large dry moat.  Of course by the time the work was done, the style he’d copied had also become so last year.

By the time of Louis XIV, the château had become a fine palace.  The site had been considerably extended (to fill that third square!), and copied aspects of Versailles.  Think of Versailles, and it’s the formal gardens that come to mind, and the Hall of Mirrors.  That’s what Lagarde should bring to mind too.  But the vast and elegant formal gardens no longer exist: even the land on which they were constructed is no longer part of the site.  It had a Hall of Mirrors too, which though inevitably on a smaller scale than that at Versailles, was said to be magnificent.

Then came the French Revolution.  Lagarde escaped destruction, despite an order to knock it down in April 1794.  But its glory days were over.  It became an arsenal, a stables, an immense barn, a munitions factory and a bit of a ruin, until in 1805 it became once more the property of the Lévis-Mirepoix family.  These days a variety of charitable and national associations are working to restore the site and make it, at the least safe to visit, and at best a place where its glorious past will be explored and celebrated.

The photos I took are all of the exterior of the site, as it’s too dangerous still to penetrate the inner courtyards, much less the interior of the building.  Nor can I show you pictures of the château in its Renaissance glory days, nor of its time as a palace with formal gardens.

Sadly, because of the poor weather , the pictures I took yesterday weren’t up to much, so I’m mainly using some others I took recently. I can show you the ruins.  And I can show you the castle’s lawnmowers: an inquisitive and friendly herd of donkeys with their charming foals.

Mother-and-baby down in the dry moat.
Mother-and-baby down in the dry moat.

UPDATE:  May 2nd 2013

Château de Lagarde
Château de Lagarde

Thanks to local historian Martine Rouche, I can now show you some images of Lagarde as it was in its final most glorious days before the Revolution.

Look at the statues in the colour picture . One was taken to Mirepoix during the Revolution and  ” turned ” into Goddess Reason. Then it disappeared. Never to return. A few years ago, a man who was vaguely in charge of the grounds and ruins, found lots of things, including a foot of one of the statues. Nobody knows where that foot is now. It is a pity because it gave a precise idea of the size of the statue and showed those statues were made of brick, covered in some sort of white enamel. 
Anyway, enjoy these pictures, which certainly make it easier to imagine what the castle must once have been like than gazing at those ruins, however romantic they may be.
Château de Lagarde
Château de Lagarde


Les demoiselles de Caraybat, daffodils and gentians

Once upon a time long ago in Caraybat, when times were hard, the men of this small village had to look far afield for work.  And they went to Spain, for the hay-making season.  Hawkers came to the village, and peddlers.  They found a village with no men.  They took advantage.  So did the women.

When the hay-making season was over, the men returned, and the women spied them returning over the distant mountains.  Suddenly ashamed and frightened, they fled to the hills.  God, in vengeful and Old Testament mood, was displeased.  As the women reached the summit, he turned each one of them to stone.  And there they are to this day, les demoiselles de Caraybat, a petrified reminder of a summer of sin.

A few of those demoiselles hide themselves behind the woodland trees
A few of those demoiselles hide themselves behind the woodland trees

We remembered this legend yesterday when I took our Laroquais walking friends to Caraybat and the dolomies to discover those daffodils I’d been shown on Thursday.  I was quite chuffed that not a single one of them had previously known this special spot, and we had a pleasant hour up on the rocks, picnicking and enjoying the last days of the daffodil season.

We followed the walk I’d learnt about on Thursday, and then we finished our day by going to the plateau above Roquefixade to see the gentians there.

Gentians above Roquefixade
Gentians above Roquefixade

Sadly, it was by then rather cold and windy, and most of the gentians had sensibly folded their indigo skirts about their faces and tucked themselves away to wait for a sunny day.  We’ll wait too.  And when the sun comes out properly, we’ll be back.

Daffodils in the Dolomies

Yesterday, we walked in Les Dolomies, which you could confuse with the Dolomites with its craggy pillars and rocky outcrops: though actually it’s a small area between Lavelanet and Foix, just along from Roquefixade.  After a few days of hot sun and blue skies, it was disappointing to have the threat of rain, but the slight mistiness brought its own beauty to the landscape, softening the distant views, and enhancing the vibrant greens of the springtime meadows. Everywhere, blossom and flowers.

We walked upwards through the woods.  Anny and Maguy had a surprise for us.  And quite suddenly, there they were.  Daffodils.  Thousands and thousands of them, extending upwards over the hillside, tumbling over rocks, leaving not an inch of path for us to walk along.  The weather cleared. The sun came out.  We were entirely happy.

Come and share the walk with us, along blossom-laden paths, through the daffodil woods, and then down into the valley, looking across at those still snow-covered peaks.

To view any of these photos  full-size, click on the image.