The Dragon Hike

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Dragon’s Nest Project – an interpreted hike which was being planned for European Heritage Day on September 18th.  It was a complex undertaking, involving a route which crossed three separate communes and with many logistical complexities.  Needless to say the planning phase was not without its challenges – there was some ruffling of feathers, some grinding of old axes, as was to be expected, but also genuine enthusiasm and collaboration from local farmers and inhabitants keen to tell their stories, to add to local knowledge and, at times, to put their side of the case.

Forty of us gathered that Saturday morning at the camping du viaduc, which occupies the site of a former mill, for a full day of exploration and learning.  Coffee was available and those of us who were part of the organisation were issued with dragon badges, laser printed from the exact map contours forming the Dragon outline of part of the course of the river Doux.

The focus of the day was on the use of water in agriculture, starting in earlier times, when mills were vital and a network of leats was constructed to channel water from the Doux and to generate sufficient pressure to drive the mill wheels. Since these channels crossed agricultural land, the water was made available to the farmers at times when the mill was not in use, at night and during periods of relative drought, in return for their labour in maintaining the system.  Here is Dédé Blanc, whom you have met before, showing us the special tool (currently minus its handle) which was used for this work. 

He explained how these béalières had often been hacked through the rock for considerable distances and his wife Christiane remembers that their children loved to walk, bent double, through these scary dark passages linking various oxbows made by the river.

When our railway was built – 130 years ago this year – the construction had to respect this existing system and so, where Arlebosc station now stands, the level of the line was raised slightly and a masonry culvert built beneath it for the water to pass through. 

The next part of our day concerned the railway and several people had stories to tell – from when in 1995 Leonardo di Caprio, then an unknown actor filming Total Eclipse, monopolised Mme Blanc’s bathroom and had to borrow a toothbrush, to our friend Elizabeth telling how scared she always was, returning at weekends from her boarding school in Tournon on the autorail, by the gaping holes in the floor which was so rusted through she was afraid that the whole thing could give way and deposit her on the track. 

We heard that most farmers had donated their land for the construction of the railway, in return for various favours and amenagements.  However the owners of the land over which the viaduct was to be built demanded financial compensation – and as a result the viaduct, which provided easy access to the farm, has no walkway, a considerable nuisance to friends of ours who now own the house!

It is hard to overstate the importance of the network of secondary lines, frequently metric gauge like ours, which were built in France in the second half of the 19th C.  The objective was to have a railway station in every sub prefecture town and to link every corner of this large and diverse territory.  The effect in an area of tortuous hilly terrain like ours was spectacular.  Certainly passengers were able to travel more easily but it was particularly the transportation of goods which was revolutionised.  Timber, particularly pine trunks for use as props in the mines of St Etienne, building stone, animals, grain, fruit, wine and vegetables could all be sent down to the Rhône valley in a fraction of the time it took with a horse and cart and in massively greater quantities. 

But when our line was finished there was no station at Arlebosc and the locals kicked up a tremendous fuss.  Other villages too had missed out, but the worthies of Arlebosc, supported by their élus – the mayor and municipal council – were able to persuade the train company to build a three-sided halt.  After further complaints that waiting passengers froze in the winter and got soaked with rain, they grudgingly threw up a couple of rails as a doorway and filled in the side towards the track with breeze blocks.  But because of the béalière and the modifications that had been required to build the track, this spot is on an incline, meaning that extra coal was needed to get up the pressure required for the engine to get going again after stopping to pick up passengers.  The company was not happy and it was suggested that the train would only stop on the downhill run …. but the villagers had got their station!

So after the stories we boarded our own private autorail and set off for the Pont du Plat, five kilometres down the line, where we disembarked and started the hike which would end at the Oasis lake, 860 feet above the Doux.  The first part of the route was on a wide track over private land.  With the gradual closing of the little mills along the river and for lack of labour to maintain them, the béalière system fell into disrepair and was abandoned.  From the 1960s, diesel pumps became widespread and those farmers whose land bordered or was not too far from the river were able to pump up water to irrigate their crops.  This was the reason for the track we were now following.  Nicknamed the chemin de la pompe, it was built by the current young farmer’s grandfather to bring water up to his farm at les Egaux.  Les Egaux is a little hamlet of a type common around here, but it also has a very fine house, which is somewhat out of the ordinary.   Florian explained to us that at the time of the French Revolution the house belonged to a notary, who owned the hamlet and all the surrounding land.  Fired by revolutionary ideals, or possibly in a bid to save his own skin, he divided up all the properties equally and made them over to his tenants, which is how the hamlet got its name.

By now it was time for a picnic tiré du sac as the French say.  (I was struck by how many people, including ourselves, pulled sandwichs au jambon out of their respective sacs!)  Here we are in the shade of some little oak trees listening to explanations about current conservation projects, concerning water, which is a pressing subject here after successive years of serious drought, and the future of responsible forestry, another hot topic.

Then it was onwards and upwards, heading along some gorgeous paths with wonderful views over the Doux valley and beyond to the Rhône and the hills of the Vercors.  We were amazingly lucky with the weather, which has been unusually unsettled and autumnal lately – it was a beautiful day.

Markus and I had to skip the last bit as we had been asked to provide some music for the arrival of the weary walkers.  The original idea of a raft or a boat on the lake had fallen foul of the authorities but one could hardly imagine a more idyllic spot to end the walk than this meadow overlooking the Oasis lake. 

Here the group was met by the former mayor of Empurany, who talked about the creation of this artificial reservoir. 

Markus and I were totally dismayed in 1994 when the upper part of this peaceful green valley was devastated by huge earthworks, blasting and the construction of the dam.  A friend at the time called it Armageddon and would not go near the place for years.  So it was very good to hear M Lassara explain the whys and wherefores of the Oasis, a project which took eleven years to bring to fruition. 

Here he is, in the centre, with M Gay, the mayor of Arlebosc and Mme Bourjat, who, as well as being mayor of the neighbouring village of Vaudevant is responsible for the local economy on a departmental level … and a random dog!

By the 90s, pumping directly from the Doux was beginning to look rather dubious as thirsty crops such as maize and tobacco were being grown close to the river and there was much less water to go around.  And what of the hill farmers, too far away from the river to make direct use of its water?  Many of them started to build their own small lakes, catching the water of the little tributaries and thus further reducing the flow of the Doux.  The hill farmers of Empurany and Arlebosc, fifty of them at the start of the project, decided that a better course would be to get together and build one large lake, collecting water from the whole drainage basin of the upper valley and to share the water amongst themselves according to their requirements.  They are mostly fruit farmers growing cherries, apricots and some peaches and they use micro irrigation techniques to maximise the use of the resource. 

There followed a lively debate about all the issues which had been touched on during the day followed by le buffet featuring all the local specialities – bread, cheeses, saucisson, yoghurt and of course Brice and Lisa’s wine.  As we played and sang while the dogs wandered around and people dodged the cowpats somebody pointed out that the cows who had left them were the very ones whose milk had gone into the yoghurts, and we all raised a glass to our local producers and to continued sustainability.

9 thoughts on “The Dragon Hike

  1. You write so beautifully and with endlessly fascinating detail about your life in rural France. I can’t help feeling you have something which we have almost entirely lost – although life in our small, friendly town comes, I suppose, about as close as it gets.
    At very much the same time as you were on your Dragon Walk, Lesley and I were following a leat back to Two Bridges from ancient Wistman’s Wood high on Dartmoor. The word was new to us and it is interesting that you use it quite naturally. Ours was beautifully constructed, more than a century ago, winding along a contour, to supply water to Devonport docklands, Plymouth.
    And when we got back to the Two Bridges Hotel for our drink — it being a beautiful, hot day — all was perfectly timed for us to sit by the road on our camp chairs and watch the Tour of Britain stream past, accompanied by numerous support vehicles and at least 30 police motor cycles — apparently all volunteers on their holidays. So it felt more than a little bit French.

  2. A worthy celebration of the Dragon’s Nest. You really do have to take your hat off to the work of previous generations on the béalières, the construction of the railway and the more recent lake. What a great way to celebrate a usually unsung piece of our European Heritage and at the same time to look at sustainable water use for the future.

  3. As ever, you lead us beautifully to at least virtual contact with a world of real humanity that seems almost forgotten to most of us now.

    We are at the terminus of a sort of leat here. Islington, high over north London, is the termination of the New River, a 23 Km waterway built in 1613 to supply London with water, starting in Hertfordshire and distributed initially from New River Head in wooden pipes to the City. It was built by Sir Hugh Middleton who’s statue stands by Islington Green. Initial financial difficulties were resolved by King James I buying half the shares.

      1. Indeed – a lot is. It’s about small canal sized. Friends in north London had it flowing past the end of their garden and there’s a footpath along quite a long length of it. I believe that it still feeds into the London water supply but perhaps via the River Lea now. There are some isolated stretches in islington with footpaths and gardens alongside.

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