We are just back from a rainy hike to recce the final section of the Dragon’s Nest project and as it is still bucketing down this seems like a good moment for some updates.
Yes it is still unnaturally green and cool. We have had more rain than anyone can remember for the season and the brooks are tumbling merrily down the hillsides to fill up the Doux. It’s not so great unfortunately for Brice and the other winegrowers: the dreaded mildew, black rot and oidium are wreaking havoc with the vines and the vendange will be a very reduced affair this year. However, we have escaped the floods in northern Europe and the devastating fires in the south, so we are somewhere in the middle of the extraordinary weather patterns and should not complain too much.
Our indefatigable friend Elizabeth invited us to get involved in The Dragon’s Nest project, which, since it is all to do with water catchment systems, streams and their valleys is very appropriate. The idea comes from a lady, fairly recently arrived in the area after a career spent organising unusual cultural projects and site-specific events, most recently in the notoriously tough quartiers nords of Marseille.
Looking at the map of the river Doux and its tributaries Christine saw that, with a bit of imagination, they have the shape of a dragon and she started to look particularly into the characteristics of the valleys of the Lesche and Mandonne, which feed into an artificial lake above Empurany before continuing down to join the Doux. This gave her the idea of creating a guided exploration of the area for the European Heritage Day on September 18th.
Christine has boundless enthusiasm and energy and the project is expanding by the week as she finds more and more fascinating detours and insights to add. The basic idea is to propose a hike from Arlebosc up to the lake, which will include a short trip on the train, various encounters with local farmers and residents who will talk about the history and specifics of their hamlet and end with a picnic and music by the lake (raft to be agreed!)
As a first step Christine has criss-crossed the area on foot, seeking out the most interesting hiking paths, getting permission where necessary and, most especially, meeting and chatting to anyone and everyone she encounters on the way. We have really enjoyed taking part in the exploration; even after thirty-five years here the incredible richness of our area means that there are still secrets to be discovered right on our doorstep. We have found some great new routes to add to our Walksweeks library and met many fascinating people who are both welcoming and generous with the time they give to share their knowledge with us.
One of the first encounters was right here in Arlebosc, with Dédé B, who is 83 years old and was born in a mill, down below Arlebosc, close to the station. These little mills, which are to be found all along the Doux and its tributary streams, mostly worked seasonally to mill the grain which was grown by each farmer in small quantities for their own needs. Generally speaking every hamlet had its own bread oven – there was one at les Sarziers – where the residents were able to bake their bread. And of course in our area, chestnut flour, from l’arbre à pain, was also milled.
The hike will start at the old mill, which, although no longer in use when Dédé was born, still had a complex system of béalières – water channels which supplied the mill and could be reconfigured to irrigate the fields in the summer when it was not in operation. We knew Dédé and his wife slightly, since they were friends of M and Mme Banchet, but had never had much occasion to talk with him at length. He explained the complex system of water channels, tunnels and sluices, poking around in the undergrowth with his stick and patiently explaining the layout and workings, which, although no longer functioning are extremely sophisticated and beautifully engineered.
He told us about growing up on the farm and described the endless back-breaking work involved. When he was quite a young man, slaving away with a recalcitrant mule whilst the elders took a break in the shade with their canon de rouge and Gauloises, he suddenly saw red. “This is ridiculous”, he declared, “we need to modernise and get a tractor!” “Well”, replied his father, “if that’s how you feel you’d better buy out your brothers and take over the farm, I want no part in your new fangled ideas”. And that was precisely what he did. Since one of his brothers wanted his cash paid immediately, Dédé told us that another, established farmer lent him the money without interest. “That’s how it was back then”, he said, “the others were ready to give you a hand to get started”.
Dédé worked hard to make his farm as productive as possible, as was the way at that time. Emerging from rural poverty and the privation of the war years, farmers were encouraged to produce ever more and more, motivated by subsidies and the expanding agro-chemical industry. We all know the result. Dédé himself now says that he regrets some of the decisions he took, for example to plough over and destroy some of the béalières. He looks benignly on the many small organic farmers round here who are reverting to the old methods and struggling with the same difficulties he knew as a young man. But, he says, that was then. He and his wife had five children and he needed to feed his family.
Madame is a quietly stylish lady and Dédé told us with relish how they had met. She had caught his eye one day on the little train, which was at that time the fastest way to get down the valley. She was not local and their paths did not cross again for a while but one evening, sometime later when he had acquired a moped, he and some mates decided to hit Tournon and the bright lights. They sat down at one of the cafés for a glass of wine and there she was. “Haven’t we met before?” enquired Dédé with a mischievous grin (he is still immensely charming), and the rest is history!
Dédé had a smart trick up his sleeve. So many of the local women had left the area for a less arduous life in town, leaving many lonely bachelors struggling in their antiquated farms. “You know what I did? I installed an indoor bathroom and lavatory, and she stayed!” His wife grew up in Mezilhac, high in the Ardèche mountains, a remote area which was considered backward at the time. But she was shocked, on a visit to a neighbouring farm above Arlebosc, to find herself expected to eat her soup from a table with carved declivities in lieu of bowls – so probably the internal plumbing was a very good idea!
In the early 1980s Dédé started un camping à la ferme, which he sold just before we arrived here in1986. Our very first night in the commune was in that campsite down by the Doux. But his wife missed the social contact with the campers, so he installed her in her own dress shop in Lamastre. She has a wonderful sense of colour and style and told me that she enjoyed advising her customers and tactfully steering them away from dresses that she considered unsuitable.
They are of course both now retired and living in a modern house nearby, designed for them by one of their sons. But they are very far from inactive. We paid them a visit a few days ago to purchase some of Dédé’s spectacular gnole – a fiery fruit spirit of which he produces vast quantities. Whilst Markus was in the cellar sampling, (and admiring the unfortunate snake which Dédé had cunningly lured into a bottle of his hooch), I chatted with Madame as she knitted away with a beautiful dark blue mohair yarn. “I have always knitted professionally” she told me “as well as for my children and grandchildren”. She now knits items to order for a trendy wool shop in fashionable St Bonnet le Froid, driving herself up there to deliver her finished products every week or so.
There is still so much to discover here and we are certainly never bored!