If you picture the Loire, that most beautiful of French rivers, you surely imagine it flowing lazily through a gentle landscape dotted with romantic châteaux.
The Loire Valley is one of the must-see regions for any visitor to France. Somehow the mix of charming small towns and villages, excellent wines, mild climate, a peaceful, welcoming atmosphere and of course those châteaux combines to create a perfect image of how we imagine rural France should be. It is indeed a lovely area and about as different as possible from the spot where the river is born, high up in the mountains of the Ardèche.
How idiosyncratic rivers seem to be when you consider their course on a map! How incredibly unlikely that the Loire, rising on the Gerbier de Jonc mountain, just 140 km from the Mediterranean should, instead of tumbling down the hillsides and say, joining the Rhône, flow determinedly north, skirting le Puy and cutting itself a gorge at St Etienne as it bypasses Lyon. Still heading north, the river is swelled by the Allier, which itself rises only 70km away from the source of the Loire (once again, as the proverbial crow flies) and finally turns west at Orléans. Picking up châteaux as it goes, it is joined at Tours by the romantic river Cher and flows gracefully onwards to Nantes, finally reaching its estuary with the Atlantic at St Nazaire. A journey of 1020 km or 634 miles, making the Loire France’s longest river.
The Gerbier de Jonc is a strange conical dome of volcanic rock rising 1551 metres above the Mezenc range, its shape easily recognisable and visible from many of our Walksweeks hiking routes. This is a remote and desolate area, magical in the summer months with drifts of purple violas, harebells, gentians and aromatic spignel, battered by the freezing wind called la burle and buried under two metres of snow in the winter. It is too a place of mystery and tragedy, known as the Bermuda Triangle of France, le triangle de la Burle.
It is claimed that strange crosses and fireballs have frequently appeared in the sky here and the magnetic rocks are said to disrupt the navigation systems of aircraft. At least 40 planes have crashed or disappeared without trace, one of the most notable disasters being an RAF Halifax bomber which was bringing supplies to the Resistance, and exploded in flight on November 3rd 1943. The sole survivor, the gunner, described how the aircraft had started to behave bizarrely, turning in circles and unresponsive to the navigational instruments, buffeted by alternate hot and cold blasts of wind and surrounded by tiny multicoloured lights.
In May 1948 another British plane crashed in the area killing all four passengers, including Kathleen Harlington, sister of J F Kennedy and in January 1971 a French Nord 262, carrying 21 atomic scientists and the director of nuclear development in France, crashed in heavy snow on the Gerbier. The distinguished group was on its way to a conference at Tricastin, the proposed site of a nuclear power plant and weapons research station, located nearby on the Rhône. 500 soldiers were deployed in the aftermath of the crash to search the area for survivors and to recuperate scores of top secret classified documents. There were no survivors, but apparently one extra, unidentified body was recovered, giving rise to all kinds of conspiracy theories. Crashes and unexplained disappearances continue to this day.
Until the mid 19th C the Gerbier was almost inaccessible, the area badly served by tracks which remained “dans un état affreux et impraticable” despite the repeated appeals to the authorities made by the locals who needed to get their beasts and produce to market and sustain a minimum of connection with the outside world.
They had not always been so anxious for contact. In the 1740’s, as part of the great project to create a complete and reliable map France under the direction of Jacques Cassini, teams of geometers, equipped with specially made portable instruments, were sent out to survey and map the entire country. The story is told of a young cartographer who reached the Mezenc range one summer’s evening.
Two days’ walk from the nearest road and in apparently trackless wastes, he spied a small settlement of black stone huts. There was also a tower, which he took to be a church, perhaps denoting the presence of a curé, who might speak French in addition to the impenetrable local patois and would be able to identify other hamlets and natural features. So he pressed on to make inquiries. Alas, the appearance of a stranger, equipped with strange instruments which he directed towards the barren hillside and who wanted to climb the tower for no explicable reason, aroused suspicion and terror in the inhabitants of the village, called Estables, who hacked him to death.
As is the case for so many other rivers, the exact source of the Loire is mired in controversy. In the little village where I grew up, not far from the official source of the Thames, it was firmly believed that the true source of the mighty river was actually the delightfully named Swill Brook, which flowed through our orchard. (In the village there was also a Muck-Heap lane – but I digress!)
When in 1932 the Touring Club de France finally completed a road which would bring tourists up from the Rhône valley to the source of the Loire, there was a certain amount of disagreement as to which of the various springs should actually be defined as the official source.
Traditionally the spring flowed through a cattle trough in a barn, but this was considered to be somewhat infra dig and a different spring was chosen. The Touring Club had also built a chalet to welcome and accommodate visitors and the locals were quick to spot the commercial potential. The owners of the barn put up a sign, other signs went up, with more to follow. Rival establishments opened, offering refreshments, souvenirs and a glimpse of the “true” source of the Loire! As the popularity of the site grew a makeshift market sprang up with carved walking sticks, embroidered aprons and of course, all the local specialités gastronomiques – saucisson and pâté, bilberry jam, honey, dried ham and so on.
When we were first here you could climb the Gerbier on a steep and stony track, to be rewarded with a 360 degree view stretching from the Alps to the plateau of the Cantal. Then there was a dispute with the landowner, the track was shut, health and safety reared its head, the chalet fell into ruin, the market was said to be too low-brow, the parking arrangements insufficient . . . we were obviously headed for a general gentrification and makeover.
It took many years but in 2016 the completed project was inaugurated and we were delighted to discover that the results are both innovative and sensitive. The site now houses a well designed visitor centre with explanations of the geology, hydrography, hydrology, the flora and fauna of the area and the entire drainage basin of the Loire. The age old controversy about the source has been tactfully dealt with by official acknowledgement of la véritable, l’authentique la géographique whilst the waters from all of these have been symbolically united and run together through a granite basin.
And all the while the river flows, mapping its course through the infinitely varied regions it traverses, from source to estuary an image of the natural beauty and diversity of France.
PS Here’s a quote from Chief Joseph which seems appropriate to the current situation! “You might as well expect rivers to run backwards as any man born free to be contented penned up”.