Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Ardèche Bridges

October 28, 2018

 

The Bridge across the Duzon on the way to Tournon

Due to an operation on my hand, Kate is doing all the driving for a month, which gives me the opportunity to admire our beautiful landscape and to appreciate the marvellous engineering of our roads. Just for fun I started to count the bridges that we cross on our different runs to Lamastre, St.Félicien, Tournon and Valence. For example on the short trip to Lamastre, which is just 6 miles, we cross 9 brooks or rivers. Intrigued, I checked the Internet about the number of bridges in the whole of the Ardèche and it transpires that there are 2345 bridges included in the departmental road system. That excludes all minor roads, village streets and hiking paths.

There are in fact more bridges here than in the Alps. The reason – expressed in the language of a kindergarten-geologist – is that the glaciers scooped out motorways in the Alps, whereas erosion in the Ardèche had to fight against hard crystalline rock, thus creating a topography resembling the teeth of a comb.

As the Romans were keen to get from Marseilles up North, there are several Roman bridges in the Ardèche – or at least several which are called Roman. Traditionally, old looking bridges are very soon qualified as Roman, but in fact there are only two still in use. The language of course does not help: roman in French is Romanesque – romain is Roman.

Bridge at Boucieu-le-Roi

Then there are a great number of medieval bridges, including the one closest to us crossing the Doux to Boucieu-le-Roi. Once a Roman bridge, the present construction dates from 1492 – that is not counting the bits that fall off when big lorries get stuck on it (last patched up in 2017).

Setting up a Picnic for Walksweeks by the Boucieu bridge

Very often while hiking one comes across an old bridge in a remote places.

Bridge on path from St. Félicien to Nozières

The picture above is of a bridge near St. Félicien and is at the moment our favourite one. It is on the old path between St.Félicien and Nozières and only about 6 miles from Les Sarziers. We discovered it only last year, when we were asked to mark a path for the Tourist Office.

We have walked across some extraordinary bridges in the South Ardèche, many of them spectacular and often built in impossible places. Some we are told have had the generous assistance of the devil. (As a Swiss I do feel obliged to inform you that there is only one genuine Devil’s bridge in the world, which crosses the Reuss on the St.Gotthard pass road. The others are all fake and the guy they thought was Satan was a farmer with a strange hair style and a pitch fork).

The Devil’s Bridge near Thuyets across the Ardèche river

The Ardèche boasts two famous inventors. In the 18th century, Monsieur Mongolfier from Annonay invented the hot air balloon. It is not clear whether his invention was prompted by the winding roads, and whether he thought that if everyone had a hot air balloon you could stop building bridges. Anyhow we are very proud of him and so was the king of France.

Suspension bridge across the Rhone from Tournon to Tain

Some 30 years later Marc Seguin, his somewhat more down-to-earth great-nephew, turned his attention to bridges and came up with the suspension bridge. Admittedly the concept was not completely original, as there were already chain bridges in the States and in Great Britain. What was new was the use of steel cables instead of chains. His first big bridge was built across the Rhône between Tournon and Tain in 1825, and his design became the prototype for the whole of France.

Spanning the Rhone is quite a feat and worthy of another post.  But tucked away in our side valleys, small ones like this will do.

Hiking up the River

October 19, 2018

In this blog we sometimes touch on our “other lives” in which we escort tourist groups around various parts of Europe as professional Tour Managers. It is this experience which motivated us to set up Walksweeks, but generally the two worlds – touring and sightseeing versus walking and staying at les Sarziers, do not cross over. That was until Road Scholar, an organisation for which we have occasionally worked since 2013, asked us to create a hiking itinerary to complement their excellent Provence and River Cruise programme which we have led many times.

This was an exciting project and we really enjoyed the research and planning that went into devising the itinerary. The challenge was to find interesting and varied walks which would fit around the progress of the boat as we cruised from Martigues, where the Rhône meets the Mediterranean, up-river to Lyon and then along the Saône as far as Chalon.

I have recently completed the first of these programmes with a delightful and enthusiastic group of Americans and Canadians. We started with three nights in St Rémy de Provence, discovering the Roman sites, following the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh, hiking around les Baux, tasting olive oil and enjoying the hospitality and delicious cuisine of this lovely area.

Then we headed off towards one of the most famous wonders of the Ancient World – the Pont du Gard. I have known this monument since I was a very little girl but have never approached it as we did on the hike Markus cleverly found. We discovered many more traces of the acqueduct than we had realised were still visible, ad exploring the terrain really brought into focus the incredible engineering feat involved in supplying Nîmes with over eight million gallons of water daily.

And then suddenly there was the bridge itself, stunning and silent, its golden arches striding over the valley as they have for almost exactly 2000 years. Breathtaking!

After lunch and the afternoon in the bustle of lovely Uzès, the group boarded the welcoming MS Van Gogh and settled in for our delightful five night cruise.

A well deserved sit down in Uzès

Markus and I love this journey up the Rhône, stopping in Arles, Avignon, Viviers and even on our doorstep in Tain l’Hermitage, where the group hiked through the vineyards, before visiting Vienne and Lyon.

In the vineyards of the Hermitage at Tain

The two days cruising up the romantic and peaceful Saône are even more enchanting as the ship drifts past small villages, grazing cattle and fishermen seated on the banks.

What made this trip special was the opportunity to visit the various monuments, villages and sites in a rather different and more intimate manner. Walking helps one to understand the natural features of each landscape, the way that the climate influences vegetation, agriculture and the situation of settlements, giving a deeper appreciation of a “sight” than when you just roll up in a tour bus.  A good example was our hike to the village and castle of Brancion in Burgundy, which dominates the fertile wooded territory which its owners controlled for centuries.

The boat is beautiful and all the staff are so charming and helpful that it was a wrench to leave them in Chalon sur Saône and head back to the real world of traffic and hotel check-ins.

Dawn breaks over the Saône in Chalon

But the hike from tiny Avenas on the forested northern slopes to a stupendous lunch overlooking the sunny vineyards of the Beaujolais was enjoyed by everyone and the next day we had a great time visiting the Croix Rousse area of Lyon, learning about the heritage of silk weaving and exploring the long traboules.

On mange bien en France!

We always enjoy our assignments with Road Scholar, not least because of the wonderful people we meet. The participants on this programme were no exception, curious, open minded, well-informed, adventurous people who were up for the challenge, even, in some cases at a pretty advanced age (encore mes félicitations Diane!)

For me, it was a special pleasure to have had the privilege of leading a new itinerary which I had devised myself (with Markus of course, who was unfortunately unable to join us as he was valiantly leading a band of forty people All Over Italy at the time). With this project we have been able to combine our love of walking and knowledge of France with insights from our very own region and explorations of our particular interests: the silk saga, the wine saga, the Occupation, French food, traditions and customs – so many subjects that we have touched on in this blog.

The weather was glorious, the group was delightful, the MS Van Gogh and all her staff are fabulous … we can’t wait for the next one!

 

 

Turning Water into Wine

September 8, 2018

Tomorrow will be the start of the 2018 grape harvest at Morlanche. Our neighbours Brice and Lisa have been busy all year to make this the best vintage ever! And yes, the grapes look pretty promising!

 

 

A few days ago, last year’s wine was finally bottled – a necessity, as the vats need to be filled with the new grapes. This is the reward for all the work done in 2017 and for the constant checking up on the quality over the last 12 months. We think that they can be proud of themselves – the wine is extremely good – so sales can begin and feasts can continue!

Bottling at Morlanche

Lisa sealig the corks

 

But the big event for Brice and Lisa this year was the creation of a new vineyard on the hill opposite Les Sarziers on the way to Arlebosc. 5,300 plants were to be planted – approximately half red (Gamay), and half white (Marsanne and Roussanne) on roughly two acres of land.

 

Throughout the coldest and windiest period of the winter Brice measured out the terrain and planned the geometry of his new plantation.

Then in January and February the planting started.

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Everything seem to go according to plan …

… until the sighting of some rabbits (which for some reason seem to hold no interest for the chasseurs). So bamboo sticks and nets for each of the plants had to be purchased and put into place.

Then in the early spring the first leaves made an appearance and things looked promising. The wettest spring of the decade encouraged the plants to grow fast and steadily. Of course the weeds knew the same trick and were slightly better at it! This cohabitation, which is just about tolerable when it is raining, became a nuisance and later a problem as the summer drought and the high temperatures turned the soil of the vineyard into the equivalent of an airport runway. The vines started to wilt and gasp for water – even the weeds were ready to give up the ghost. We prayed for rain, but there was none in sight.

So Brice called for a desperate rescue plan. With no spring and no mains water nearby he had to find another way of getting the water to the plants.

And this was when the solidarity of the neighbouring farmers kicked in. One of them provided a water tank on wheels and offered the water from his pond that could be pumped into the container twice daily, another lent a tractor, which Brice learned to drive after a one minute driving lesson, and a third gave us access to his well above the vineyard, which could provide water by gravity. Still others (ourselves included) helped with the chore of manually watering the vineyard, using miles and miles of garden hose.

 

Brice and Lisa set up an app on a phone which beeped every 17 seconds, alerting us to move on the next plant. Each one got 2 litres of water and then another two on the return up the rows – a job that took two people seven hours, three days a week and needed to be repeated week. Fortunately, after about 20 days there was some rain – not much, but enough to relax for a bit.

In the last few weeks the temperature has dropped and we had some rain on Thursday – so the panic is over. What looked like a loss of 30% has turned out to be around 5%.

Oui, on a eu chaud!

So let’s cheer ourselves up and look to the vendange …. Santé!

Markus

Par Ici les Artistes!

August 13, 2018

If you have followed this blog over the years you will probably have realised that  apart from hiking in our lovely hills a considerable amount of our energy has been put into encouraging the musical events in the area, mainly as spectators, but also as performers and organizers.

Now we rarely talk about the presence and activities of the artists, painters and potters  who have settled in the area.  This does not mean they don’t exist.  Like all of us, they have been attracted by the beauty and diversity of the Ardèche landscape and by the affordability of food and lodging.  Like all artists they come and go, but we have some real pillars in the community.

To celebrate this, the ever inventive Laurent – now joined at Kaopa by his very creative partner Sandy – recently  organized an event which he called “Art à la Criée” in the little alley in front of his café in Lamastre.

La Criée is normally associated with fish markets  (especially the one in Marseille) where the catch that has just come in on the fishing boats is sold off in a boisterous and noisy auction, in which shouting has an intrinsic role.

Lamastre is landlocked – so no fish from the Mediterranean, but art work freshly produced by local artists!

Fifteen artists, using diverse media, set themselves up and worked away steadily all morning, despite the rain and the crowds of people chattering and peering over their shoulders.

It was impressive to see how calmly absorbed they were and to observe different techniques and ways of working.

Periodically Laurent and the auctioneer , a professional tourneur , would select a piece to be sold.

Bidding started at 5 euros and the final amounts were mostly very modest, but the notion of acquiring a work of art which had scarcely had time to exist before being sold made for a lively auction and an exhilarating atmosphere.

The morning concluded with a Match d’Improvisation  between two teams of artists – the idea being that the teams had to create a painting on a single given theme, with handicaps introduced from time to time, such as closing one eye, painting with the left hand or using an imposed colour.

Unfortunately our day was busy and we couldn’t stay …. so we don’t know who won.

Gammes, Gamay …

July 25, 2018

Yes I know, these blog posts are like London buses: nothing for weeks and then they all come along in a row.  Its not that there’s nothing to say, rather too much going on!

Brice and Lisa, our neighbours, were far too busy in the vineyards to make it to the concert unfortunately.  The long wet spring meant that the vines – and the weeds – were growing great guns and they have been out working all hours to keep things under control.  More of that later.

Instead, Brice dropped off a case of their 2017 cuvée, the bottles beautifully inscribed.  The word games are very clever, but difficult to translate, for example un carton means a case (of wine) but also a huge success.  Other jokes revolve around Gamay (his main varietal) and gammes (musical scales) and the sound of Markus rehearsing, which he could hear floating across the meadows as he toiled in the vineyard.

But for all you French speakers out there, here they are.  We were very touched, and his wine, by the way, is excellent!

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Photo credits: Markus

Photomontage: Brice Banchet

Carla at les Sarziers

April 20, 2018

Preparations are well underway for our upcoming concert next week end!

Our friend Carla will be performing her own compositions for piano, and what started out as simply “Carla dans la Grange” has grown into “Carla De Preter and Friends”.  She has arranged some of her pieces as duos for clarinet, violin or with Markus on trumpet and has also composed settings for poems written by our mutual friend Elena, some of which Kate will be singing.

For a taste of Carla’s musical style, click here.

We’re looking forward to a great event, and meanwhile Markus is doing a fine job adjusting the piano.

(By the way Roz, have you noticed the Tee Shirt?)

Bombyx Mori – suite et fin!

April 11, 2018

Well now, spring will finally be with us soon (or so the calendar assures us), so let’s get this silk thing wrapped up!

Where we left the saga everything was going great guns, so obviously disaster was lurking around the corner – and so it proved. A busy, productive and largely successful period for the rural Ardèche was about to come to and end as three pillars of the agricultural economy were successively hit by disease. The first to succumb was sericulture, with annual production plummeting from around 3.5 million kilos of cocoons in 1850 to just 550,000 seven years later. The culprit was la pébrine or ‘pepper disease’, a parasitic infection which, once acquired, is passed on from female moths to their eggs and kills all the larvae hatched from those eggs. The boom years had led to conditions of severe overcrowding and insufficient hygiene in the magnanneries which had in turn been exacerbated by a succession of mild winters and damp summers. In previous cases of illness the farmers had been able to solve the problem by buying in new stock from abroad, but here nothing seemed to work, and no one knew why. After a year of scientific study, Louis Pasteur discovered a method of selecting only healthy moths for reproduction, but his findings were fiercely contested, both by silk producers, whose amour propre was offended by the pronouncements of a mere scientist and the foreign suppliers, who had a lot to lose. The epidemic lasted around ten years before it was finally brought under control, using Pasteur’s methods, but artisanal silk production in the Vivarais never recovered. During the crisis the Lyonnais silk merchants had resorted to importing cocoons and raw silk from Italy at very competitive prices. For the peasants, their market had been lost and so the whole era of a lucrative cash economy came to an end, causing severe hardship in the smallholdings.

Almost simultaneously, the farmers had to contend with serious problems in their vineyards. From the 1860’s on, new fungal infections had appeared. First came le mildiou, le black rot and l’oidium, whose names reflect the fact that these diseases originated with imported American vine varieties. Then in 1870 the terrible phylloxera plague started to spread up the Rhône valley and by 1882 three quarters of all the vines in the Ardèche had been wiped out. These were small vineyards, laboriously crafted on steep terraced hillsides in stony, unfertile soil. It was impossible to cultivate any other crop on such unforgiving land and, as another source of income dried up, farms were abandoned and large numbers of people left to find a livelihood elsewhere. Some may have emigrated to North Africa, Lyon or Paris, others found employment in the local towns, on construction projects like our local narrow gauge railway, or in the reeling and weaving mills in the valleys.

As this depopulation was happening a third sickness was insidiously attacking the sweet chestnut plantations. The chestnut tree is so emblematic of life in the Ardèche that it is called l’arbre à pain. Chestnut flour was used to make bread and nourishing winter soup but the tree also accompanied the peasant in every stage of his life. It is said that an ardéchois is born in a house with chestnut roof beams, sleeps in a chestnut cradle as a baby, eats off a chestnut table, works with tools made of chestnut wood and finally is buried in a chestnut coffin.

Had the countryside been buzzing with an active workforce someone would undoubtedly have noticed the sinister black liquid weeping from the base of the chestnut trees. But in 1875 labour was scarce and the plantations were no longer as immaculately maintainted, so the maladie de l’encre was able to take hold and spread. Slowly but surely the magnificent trees withered and died in the grip of yet another fungal organism against which they had no defences.

This looks like the end of the story, and in one way it is. Only the gnarled old mullberry trees growing around the farms are left as witnesses to the adventure of artisanal silk production.

But the industry itself was not done for. In Lamastre there were three factories: Reyne, founded in 1880 along the Doux, reeled locally produced silk, and dispatched it to Lyon to be woven into textiles, and St Etienne for ribbons.

La Varenne, another mill, located below the hospital on the Sumène, survived independently into the 1920’s when it was absorbed into a larger enterprise with its headquarters in Meaux near Paris.  It prospered for many more years, employing 30-40 workers engaged in the production of stockings, socks and underwear.

La Vivaraise in the centre of town produced luxury silk stockings, notably for Dior, and employed up to 180 people.

I remember we found a few packets for sale at a brocante years ago and I wish now that we had bought them. The factory closed in 1968 and was later acquired by André Trigano, founder of the Club Med and adapted for the manufacture of tents, awnings and camping equipment.

Because the survival of this fragile textile industry now depended on its ability to adapt to new synthetic fibres* which require more sophisticated and complex machinery, and although there is no more industrial silk production, several companies do survive, some of them specialising at the very cutting edge of modern textiles. Trigano’s very successful main factory, which builds camping cars and caravans is now located in Tournon, whilst the recently extended Lamastre facility, producing all their mattresses, curtains and cushions, has an in-house training department and employs a workforce of 75.

The most striking example of this adaptability must be Chomarat, located in the little town of le Cheylard with further production sites in two tiny mountain villages and facilities worldwide in Tunisia, China and North America. Founded in 1898, the Group has remained faithful to its Ardèche origins, whilst becoming a world leader in composite and industrial textiles as diverse as textile coatings for car interiors, luxury luggage and protective clothing, waterproof membranes used in road construction and the textile element in composites for boats, snowboards and other sports equipment.  So there we are – not just a rural backwater, but an economy which is constantly evolving and adapting to new challenges and opportunities.  Vive l’Ardèche!

* I got very interested in the invention of the earliest synthetic fibres whilst researching for this article. You may not be so fascinated, but here’s a post script of what I found!

The first artificial silk was discovered accidentally by Louis-Marie Hilaire Bernigaud de Grange, Comte de Chardonnet – what were his parents thinking when he was baptised! – who, in the late 1870’s was working with Louis Pasteur on a remedy to the pébrine epidemic. Failure to clean up a spill in the darkroom resulted in Chardonnet’s discovery of nitrocellulose as a potential replacement for real silk. He called his new invention soie de Chardonnet and displayed it to great acclaim at the Paris Exhibition of 1889. However, it was extremely inflammable and was subsequently replaced with other, more stable materials. The name which was finally chosen for the first artificial silk was Rayon, apparently because of the way in which it reflected the sun’s rays.

The next synthetic fibre to appear on the scene was Nylon, which was developed by Du Pont in the United States in the late 1930s and used as a replacement for Japanese silk during World War II. The Du Pont company was founded in 1802 by Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, (another snappy name!) who had left France for the United States after falling foul of the Revolutionaries. The company first produced gunpowder, then cellulose based paints, synthetic ammonia and other chemicals. In the 1930’s Du Pont began experimenting with the development of cellulose based fibres with the aim of creating a cheaper and superior replacement for silk stockings.

Nylon was first displayed at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 with great fanfare and huge promotion, designed to increase demand for the glamorous and affordable stockings before they were available on the general market. Nylon stockings were promoted as “strong as steel, as fine as the spider’s web” and on October 24th 1939, when the first 4,000 pairs went on sale in Delaware, they sold out in three hours. The following year 64 million pairs were sold and “nylons” quickly became an essential fashion item. However in 1942 domestic production was halted and redirected to military uses, primarily for the manufacture of parachutes and tents.

Throughout America and war-torn Europe, women went to extraordinary lengths to acquire or imitate nylon stockings which were suddenly unobtainable. Nylons became a black market staple and those who could not get their hands on a pair used make-up to create the illusion of hosiery.

No more ladders! 3d a leg, all shades. UK 1941 Daily Telegraph (?)

I remember my mother telling me that as pancake make-up was also unobtainable she had tried custard powder because of its attractive blush pink colour, but that there were disastrous consequences if it came on to rain!

Drawing the seam line with a device made from a screwdriver handle, a bicycle clip and an eyebrow pencil! 1942 (Bettmann/Corbis)

In the US women longed for Peace and Nylons, and Fats Waller wrote the song “When the Nylons Bloom Again”, which is almost a humorous hommage to “There’ll be Blue Birds Over the White Cliffs of Dover”.

At the end of the war, Du Pont announced that production would resume and newspaper headlines cheered “Peace, It’s Here! Nylons on Sale!” and “Nylons by Christmas”. However production delays led to a shortage in supply and thousands of frustrated women queuing for the chance to buy a pair, resulted in the so-called nylon riots in many major cities.

10,000 women queuing for the first post war sale of nylons. San Francisco 1946. (DuPont archives)

Any readers old enough to remember the torture of the suspender belt (which to my mind is the very opposite of a sexy garment!) may also recall the liberation that came with the invention of tights as the only viable hosiery to wear with a mini skirt. I personally instantly adopted both, to the extreme displeasure of the straight-laced Senior Mistress at my school!

Freedom!

Sources: DuPont Archives, Telegraph.co.uk, Bettmann/Corbis, JM Bouchon

Snow

January 29, 2018

For all our Walksweekers and others who have only seen Les Sarziers in the summer, here’s a tiny video of how it looked a couple of days ago.  (Sorry the music is very quiet!)

 

Bombyx Mori Part 3

January 27, 2018

The numerous derelict factories like this one which are to be found in the narrow side valleys of the Ardèche might lead you to suppose that industrialisation spelled death to the artisanal production of raw silk.  In fact the very opposite is true.

Raw silk as we have seen is created by unravelling the cocoon and combining several threads to form a filament. The important difference between silk and other natural fibres in that a filament of raw silk is continuous and theoretically endless, whereas cotton, wool, flax etc. have a defined length, or staple, and must be spun into yarn.  Raw silk can be woven into fabric, but it is fragile and has the notable drawback of tending to disintegrate in hot water as the residual sericin gumming the fibres together dissolves.  It can therefore not be dyed and is too unstable for most commercial purposes.

The solution is reeling, a process in which the thread is twisted on itself. The sericin is eliminated, and the resulting thread is stronger and has a more regular thickness.  For example, to produce organzine, the warp thread used in weaving silk fabric, two threads, each previously twisted at a rate of 600 turns per metre, are twisted together in the opposite direction at 800 turns per metre.  This is obviously a precise technical operation requiring purpose-built machinery and a source of power.

The wealthy silk merchants of Lyon, les soyeux, imported raw silk from the Mediterranean along the Rhône, and were quick to realise the potential of the Ardèche as an ideal site for the reeling mills they required to carry out this step between silk production and weaving.  In a pretty close parallel to Richard Arkwright, who built his cotton spinning mills in the narrow valleys of Derbyshire which offered plenty of water to power his machines and a remote location, unlikely to be besieged by angry spinners put out of work by mechanisation, so the soyeux took advantage of the abundance of small rivers tumbling out of the mountains, and a biddable rural workforce, unlike the Lyonnais canuts who were notoriously fractious and rebellious.

The mill owners themselves worked hand in glove with the soyeux, adapting their production to the different types of fabric required, but gradually, in a bid to reduce their reliance on imported raw silk and to increase their control of the process, they encouraged the planting of mulberry trees and the establishment of magnanneries in the smaller side valleys and right up into the Vivarais, or northern Ardèche where we are.  So in fact it was the existence of the reeling mills which led to the boom in artisan sericulture rather than the reverse.

Later on the factories took over the processing of the cocoons or filature with the farmers simply raising the silk worms and selling the cocoons at market, frequently thousands at a time.

Over a period of two centuries 400 factories were built and 50% of the French silk processing was concentrated in the Ardèche, giving it an industrial identity as defined as mining and heavy industry are to Lorraine.

The mills were generally built parallel to the river and on two or three floors.  The machinery was housed on the lowest level, which had a vaulted ceiling, thick stone walls and was heated in the winter, since silk is most easily worked in an atmosphere of 80% humidity and a temperature of around 25C. The upper floors housed the mill owner and his family, with the workers lodged in dormitories.  The workforce was overwhelmingly made up of young unmarried girls from farming families, who spent the week at the factory, returning home perhaps on Sundays to visit their parents and to bring back supplies for the meals they cooked in kitchens provided for their use.

The girls began working at an early age and their modest earnings were generally given up to help with the finances of the family farm.  They would leave the factory around the age of 25 when they married and went to live on another busy smallholding in the hills.  Their lives were undoubtedly hard, and the hours long, but they were docile, and their nimble fingers deftly performed the quick, delicate operations required by the intricate machinery.  Thousands of women spent their youth and adolescence in the mills – the only period of their lives when they were away from their home surroundings, (and comparable to the experience of young men, uprooted from their familiar setting to serve in the Army).

Lurid rumours spread, perhaps inevitably, about loose morals and high birth-rates, but there is no conclusive evidence from the records to suggest that for these girls their factory life was anything more than an interlude in an otherwise fairly monotonous existence.

In the simplest form of the reeling process hanks of raw silk were first wound onto bobbins (le dévidage), which were then transferred to the reeling machine where the filaments were wound onto another bobbin, rotating more slowly and perpendicular to the first, thus creating a twist.  The reeled silk was fed onto a hank holder ready to be sent on for dyeing and ultimately weaving, so that the finished product superficially resembled the raw material.  Reeled silk however has none of the lightness and sheen of raw silk, but is duller and less fluid because of its tight round section.

Une banque de dévidage

The complex wooden machinery was constructed by local carpenters and locksmiths.  Carpentry has a noble tradition in our area with Lamastre in particular being well known, even today, for its furniture makers. These light and perfectly maintained machines could run on a mere 2 or 3 horsepower, which meant that the mill owners could build factories on relatively tiny water courses.  The mills did not always operate full time: the girls might only be required to work when the owner had an order to complete, and in summer, when the water supply diminished to a trickle the factory might be closed down and the girls sent back to their farms.

It sounds like a hard and precarious existence, but not so different in fact from the lot of the average Ardéchois at that time.  There had been a population explosion after the Revolution and the countryside was almost at saturation point, as witnessed by the numbers of farms dating from the 19thC and the herculean labour of terracing ever higher and ever steeper up the hillsides.

The cash earnings from sericulture and factory work were a godsend for these families who were living more or less on the bread line.  But unfortunately, as the century progressed a series of crushing blows fell on the three pillars of the local agriculture.  One by one, the silkworms, chestnut trees and vines fell prey to disease; war was to follow and the steady decline of the rural economy was set inexorably in motion.

That’s a rather gloomy note to end on, but there will be an upturn in the final episode of our silk saga!  Until then, here is some silk trivia to be going on with.

  • What is denier? A single strand of silk measuring 9 km weighs 1 gramme and is called 1 denier. So denier indicates fibre thickness and also weight in grams – try weighing a pair of 15 denier tights!
  • With its compact structure, silk can absorb one third of its own weight in moisture without feeling damp, hence the luxury of silk sheets and nightdresses..
  • How  long is a piece of string?  Who knows, but the average length of the silk filament drawn from one cocoon is 1,200 metres, which would stretch from Westminster Abbey to Trafalgar Square.
  • The annual world production of silk represents 70 billion miles of silk filament, a distance well over 300 round trips to the sun.
  • Early parachutes were made of silk, which is light but strong enough not to rip under the strain.  It takes 65 yards to make a parachute.
  • Did you know that several “paradogs” were dropped into Normandy in June 1944, and later over the Rhine in March 1945?  This is Salvo on a training drop in 1943.

 

 

 

A Family Business

January 11, 2018

We heard today that M Chabannes died on Monday at the age of 92.  We knew him and Madame slightly, they were of a previous generation – les anciens as they are affectionately known here – but our lives overlapped perhaps more than he ever realised.

When we first arrived the village had three cafés, (at one time apparently there were twelve!) one of which was much more than a simple watering hole.  Chez Chabannes as it was unofficially known, also operated as a restaurant, hotel, taxi and ambulance service and a petrol station and the large garaging space at the side of the building on the main street housed several full sized coaches, painted in the livery of Les Cars du Vivarais.

The coaching business was begun in 1890, by the splendidly named Antoine-Frédéric Heraud, who is described as a voiturier,  offering transport services of the horse and cart variety.

In 1929 M Heraud acquired his first petrol-driven Berliet autocar.  The war years were challenging and fraught with danger and heroism but he was able to restart his business at the Liberation and in 1947 Marc Chabannes entered his employ as a driver.  In 1962 Marc and his wife Jeanine took over the business which they ran very successfully, expanding their routes and fleet and buying out smaller local companies which had run into difficulties.

An early fleet of school buses. The garage is the last building on the left.

In 1987, the year we bought les Sarziers, M Chabannes retired.  The business continued, managed by his sons who, needing more space to run an expanding operation, had moved their headquarters to nearby St Félicien, where they live.  It so chanced that when we were allocated our brand new telephone number it was, unbenownst to us, the one recently relinquished by the bus company.  For the first few months we would excitedly rush to the phone – who could be calling us? – to hear a plaintive country voice at the other end asking when the next bus was to Bozas or whether the Tuesday market service was still running in spite of the snow.  We were considerably puzzled and, as newcomers, at a loss to answer.  It was when we were stuck behind a bus on one of our interminably winding roads and read our number clearly painted on the back that we grasped what was going on.  We made sure to get hold of a comprehensive timetable, and for quite some time we operated as a reliable information service for les Cars du Vivarais!

The new depot at St Félicien

The family business continued to thrive and prosper and is now into its fourth generation.  In 1990 they branched into the travel business, opening an agency under the name Voyages Chabannes, in St Félicien and in 2004 two more agencies opened, one in Tournon and the other in Valence.  The company has a fleet of 40 vehicles, ranging from luxury international touring coaches to minibuses, the majority of which are manufactured by Iveco 25 miles away in Annonay.  They now operate regular bus lines, school bus and factory staff services and airport transfers together with long distance group coaching holidays.  It’s come a long way from  M Heraud’s horse and cart!

We often use their regular lines to connect with train services in the Rhone Valley, but the service we most enjoyed was the market bus on Tuesdays, which we only discovered about eight years ago.  To get into town we could take the regular 9 am bus which stops at the end of our lane.  For the return, M Chabannes himself would pick up passengers at twelve sharp outside the bank (a fact that you needed to know in advance otherwise you could wait for days at the official bus stop, which he had decreed was impractical, in view of the market throngs).

Of course most of the handful of passengers were regulars and M Chabannes would install them in their appropriate seats in the minibus before packing away the little step he had thoughtfully provided and settling into the driving seat.  He had by now been retired for some 25 years, but he loved providing this useful weekly link between Empurany, Arlebosc and the market in Lamastre.  So much so that, when one autumn we discovered it had disappeared from the official timetable published by the Conseil Regional, and stopped him in the village to ask if it had really been discontinued he replied emphatically  “Bien sûr que non!”  The authorities can publish what they please, he said, but I will still be running my usual service!

M Chabannes in 2011

The ambiance in the market bus could be lively.  He had been at school with many of the elderly ladies and chatted away animatedly with them, although he would brook no nonsense.  Once in Empurany he was accosted by the driver of an enormous lorry who asked directions to an impossibly distant farm.  M Chabannes gave directions, enthusiastically supported by the ladies behind him who exclaimed “oui, oui, OUI” at every juncture until it became too much for him.  Turning round to us all he exclaimed “mais arrêtez de dire oui tout le temps!”  He was a good friend of M Banchet who sold us our house and, when he stopped to drop us on our corner he would climb out, firmly shutting the doors on the ladies, to ask about his friend and generally have a little chat before consenting to carry them further on their way.

There were many funny moments on that bus, such as on the day when M Chabannes had miscalculated the number of likely passengers and turned up with a car, which proved too small to accommodate us all.  Pas de problème, he popped over to the school to borrow one of the mini buses and returned in an instant.  Voilà!  However there was no step, which left one lady (whom our friend christened Mrs-Angry-and-a-Half) muttering, with an air of offended grandeur “If I had known I would have made other arrangements!”

Les Cars du Vivarais are special to us and whenever we spot one we feel a glow of familiarity and friendship.  I remember once travelling on a motorway in Spain with my group of American tourists, when my bus overtook one of M Chabannes’s fleet carrying a party of pensioners from Arlebosc to the Algarve.  Everybody probably thought I’d gone slightly weird as I enthusiastically waved at them all through the windscreen!

On another occasion Markus was escorting a group in Budapest when he noticed a Car du Vivarais parked in the bus park.  The driver was not there, but Markus left a little note under the windscreen wiper saying hello to everybody and sending best wishes for their return to the Ardèche.  Some weeks later M Banchet told us that there had been great excitement upon the discovery of the note and a considerable amount of detection work necessary to determine who had written it.  I think M Chabannes was touched.

I suppose this is what it means to feel part of a community and links to a place even if you are technically an incomer.  So as we bid adieu to M Marc Chabannes we wish his family business every success for the future: a heartening example of continuity, local enterprise and connections.

The garage in Arlebosc at the turn of the century. The early days of public transport.

Many of the photos are from the site of Les Cars du Vivarais


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