Friday, 24 August 2012

Man in the maquis

The Ardèche - 15th August 2012

The village of Grospierres (in English, 'boulders') lies at the foot of a range of low, rounded hills, overlooking the Chassezac plain of the Ardèche, southern France. A big holiday village is sited on the lower slopes, otherwise Grospierres seems dedicated to cultivating vines and tapping trade passing along the D111.

The land is dry this August; the atmosphere is heavy with fumes of heat and veils of cloud.

Grospierres is the essence of the Midi: tracts of stony ground bristling with maquis scrub; dark green hills of holm oak and pine rising from hot, open plains; villa houses with red-tiled roofs, shuttered against the sun; roadside fruit vendors; hectares of tailored vines. The Ardèche is the edge of the Mediterranean world, and its place names are evocative: Cabaresse, Prade, Salavas. I am reminded that the Occitan language is closer to Catalan than French.

My friend Nicolas Panel and I are visiting his friends Marc and Violette who are staying at the holiday village. Their children are having a happy time, absorbed with swimming and horse-riding. The village has pastel-coloured houses sited on terraces, grouped around a centre complex with a pretend bell-tower. The view includes strategically planted umbrella pines and pointed cypresses. Everything looks neatly Mediterranesque. But the place is too predictable, and I am not used to such vivid concentrations of humanity. I have an opportunity to explore the local landscape. Gathering my water bottle, camera, sun hat and a packet of peanuts, I head for the hills.

I want to get to know the maquis better, and I am also attracted by a series of rocky outcrops visible along the hill crest. The heat makes walking a chore, but away from the village I soon find a stony track leading upwards. It passes exposures of grey, calcareous mudstones and, higher up, limestones. Trees begin to crowd the path. Just short of the hill top, I am surprised by a brown-skinned jogger who overtakes me, sweating on the gradient. This vision of daring male vigour has the effect of condensing my being, focusing it on a sense of its own mortality and the mission in hand.

I find myself standing on red soil full of limestone fragments - a true terra rossa - surrounded by a low, bristling woodland of box and holm oak; the box lends a strange, meaty smell to the air. There are oaks of a type I have never seen before, and a fine shrub with ribbed, spear-shaped leaves and clusters of small, coral-pink fruits. There is almost no ground flora. Piles of dead twigs are scattered among small trees of several years' growth. In other areas the holm oaks are much larger, about 20ft high, with no signs of recent attention. This land is evidently being managed as a kind of rotating coppice, most likely for firewood. Perhaps this is the best possible land-use for this environment: the soils is thin, very stony and very dry; if ever it yielded more abundantly then centuries of over-exploitation for sheep and goats may well have destroyed its fertility; if ever thicker soils were present they have now been washed off onto the plain. By a long process of selection, the flora here would tend to feature plants which grazing animals found unappealing because of their thorns or bitter, aromatic oils. The result is maquis, garrigue or matorral, whatever you call it.

Quercus pubescens - a species used in truffle culture
Pistachia terebinthus - the turpentine tree
I wander for half an hour among the maquis, immersing myself in its small variations, picking up trails that seem to lead somewhere - then nowhere. I stop to examine seed pods, twigs, fossils. The suspended impression of being lost vanishes when the view opens out before me. I have reached the rocky outcrops which overlook the plain.

A massive apron of angular stones fronts the hill scarp, through which ribs of rock and a few stunted shrubs protrude. It extends sideways in both directions. If this hillside were a human face, one would say that the forehead was a hard, supra-orbital desert frowning over the village below. The rock fragments clatter and clink underfoot in a metallic, non-human way.

Some kind of physical drama is being enacted on this hill crest. I imagine that any rain falling on it flows through the shallow soil across the limestone, flushing away fine particles. Freeze-thaw action during the last Ice Age over 10,000 years ago probably created this mantle of fragments, and winter frosts continue the process today. My thoughts disappear into a geomorphological reverie, experimentally peeling back time to make a series of hypotheses to make sense of what I am seeing here. I pick up a piece of limestone: it falls into pieces, like a sheaf of paper, and fossil shells appear engraved on the pages. Layers of an ancient sea bed are breaking up in my hands.
The holiday village is spread out below; the sun is veiled by cloud; the heat is abating. The plangent sound of a love-soaked pop song wafts up densely from below, electronically amplified. The place is an oasis of human life grafted onto the rocky soils of the Midi, only made possible by water. The swimming pools are a palette of shocking blue on the plain.

It is time to return to the human world. Pushing my way back through the maquis, I come across a small clearing with strands of honeysuckle and a tall spurge plant. A few black animal droppings are lying there, probably roe deer, the only signs of mammal life I have seen so far. I shake out a handful of peanuts from my bag and leave them in the clearing, as an offering to the gods of this place. Perhaps wild pigs will find them in the night.

Monday, 6 August 2012

The High Fens

The highest point in Belgium  is surrounded by forestry plantations. The site at Botrange is marked by a stone tower at 694 m above sea level, a café and a car park.

View of Botrange, courtesy of Google Maps.
A hinterland of sprawling moorland and forestry known as the Hautes Fagnes-Eifel or Hohes Venn-Eifel lies beyond it, some 950 square miles of upland straddling the German-Belgian border. Clouds rolling in from the west are forced to rise and spend their water on this plateau of impermeable Cambrian quartzite. Thick snow drifts accumulate in winter; impenetrable fogs may descend at all seasons. Unable to drain away easily, the water ponds here, and decaying vegetation turns to peat and mor in the acidic soils. The Hautes-Fagnes are literally the 'High Bogs'; the word 'fagnes' has deep north-west European linguistic roots, being related to French 'fange' (mire), Old German 'venn' and English 'fen'(1). Maybe it was originally pronounced 'fenyes' by the early Franks. The creature Grendel would have felt at home in this landscape:
'a famous boundary-stepper, who held the moors, the fen and the fastness'.(2)
I have been staying with my friends Corinna Whatley and Mario Paquet. Our trip to the Hautes-Fagnes took place on a day which threatened rain, but never quite succeeded in delivering it. Had it rained, there would just have been more water to swell the sphagnum. We parked at the Mont-Rigi café and took a walk around. I cast about for British parallels for this distinctive landscape: the Galloway moors, the Cambrian hills, the peat bogs of Dartmoor? The patchwork of heath and pine forest of Breckland, perhaps? Elements of these places were present, but disconcerting elements obtruded, such as the stands of bog asphodel and the spruce standing like Christmas trees.

Fagne de la Polleur
Grey stone pillars engraved with 'B' and 'P' on opposite sides mark the former boundary between Belgium and Germany (Prussia). Local people speak both French and German dialects. What was it like here in August 1914 - did the Infanterie Regiment Lützow (1. Rheinisches) No 25, brigaded at Aachen, do their first boundary-stepping here? How did the 12ème Régiment de Ligne, garrisoned at nearby Verviers, respond? The border is not linked with any apparent feature in the landscape - it is an arbitrary line on a map. I wonder if anyone died defending it.

The Fagne des Deux Séries, looking towards Germany
Boarded footpaths led us conveniently and safely out into the protected landscape; we visited a variety of ecotypes and the degraded scarps left by peat extraction. According to historian Serge Nekrassoff, the Hautes-Fagnes was mostly forested until the Middle Ages, after which the surrounding villages began to exploit it for grazing and peat and a source of timber. By the 18th century the landscape had become predominantly open, and had gained a reputation as a hostile and forbidding landscape, perilous for travellers. This made it a source of fascination as well as sinister stories. Nekrassoff has gathered and analysed historical information about perceptions of the area, and has organised it around the metaphor of a mirrored human face. He distinguishes perceptions which have given rise to deforming 'images' of the Fagnes from those which have yielded a true 'visage' or realistic portrait 'without make-up', although admitting that many documents relate to both categories.(3) 

What is the face of the Hautes Fagnes for a visitor today - what is 'image' and what is 'visage'? 

My view is a fresh reading without benefit of any prior information, shared with friends. There will be as many discourses of the Fagnes as there are geographies: 'image' dissolves into 'visage' as various users and polities perceive the face of the land in their own way, be they bird-watchers, cyclists, dog-walkers, foresters, ice-cream sellers, motorists or planning authorities. Their thoughts and perceptions of the area build mythic material slowly, like peat - and some of it eventually gets shared. 

Stages in peat extraction and processing, from an interpretive panel on the Fagne de la Polleur.
My recent visit to the Hautes-Fagnes was a brief, boardwalk tour of a singular and lonely landscape. I have carried away some memorable impressions. With further information from leaflets, books and photos, I have been able to think about this material in a more detailed way than my three-hour visit could ever allow. My plan is to return one day for a guided walk led by Serge Nekrassoff, and get the benefit of his steadily accumulated knowledge and experience.

Meanwhile, rain keeps falling on the Fagnes, the sphagnum keep growing, and rivulets continue to trickle over the ancient Cambrian rocks; trees and bushes continue to invade the moorland. The High Fens remains a sparsely settled area, and for this reason alone it will continue to attract fascinated visitors and unsettled perceptions. 

(1) - J. Lechanteur: 'Le mot fagne et sa famille', in: Quenon, J., Schumacker, R. and Streel, M.: 'Les Hommes et les Hautes-Fagnes' (Université de Liege; 1994).

(2) - From the Old English epic 'Beowulf' 2, lines 104-5 - mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold, / fen ond fæsten. A mearcstapa is literally a stepper of the marches, a walker of boundaries, a border riever.

(3) - S. Nekrassoff: 'Images et visages des Hautes-Fagnes - Evolution d'un paysage et de sa perception' (Serge Nekrassoff, 2007)

Friday, 3 August 2012

The Seggs

Out on the boundary of a rural parish I have a sense of being anywhere, nowhere. Only the map tells me I am on a significant line, with perhaps a ditch or hedge to anchor this information to a sensed place.

I am standing on the edge of the shallow valley of the River Dove. It drains part of the plateau of central Suffolk, wending its way quietly northwards into the River Waveney at Hoxne. A jungle of bushes and marshy ground lies before me, rioting with nettles and reeds on an unkempt portion of the floodplain; local people call this area the Seggs. Other parts of the valley have open, grazed meadows and wooded margins, but the Seggs keeps an unruly isolation. It is fed by floodwater in winter and the discharge of a side valley, the Birdwalk Brook, little more than a ditch which drains the Eye Industrial Estate, a mile and a half away. It lies exactly on the parish boundaries of Eye and Brome & Oakley.

Aerial view, courtesy of Google Maps

My story began here in 1996, when the Environment Agency decided to deepen the channel of the Brook with a mechanical digger. The Industrial Estate was expanding, and more run-off was expected. I decided to look at the excavated spoil spread beside the ditch. At that time I was investigating local archaeology, by walking the fields owned by my landlord Mark Prior, and I had turned up Mesolithic, Neolithic and early Bronze Age flint work. I hoped to find more prehistoric evidence preserved in the peat and alluvium of the valley floor. I soon found animal bones scattered in the spoil, including cattle skulls. There were two slabs of Niedermendig lava quern stone, and a sherd of greyware pottery. I decided to look at the freshly cut walls of the ditch to see where this stuff was coming from. 
Peat and alluvium exposed where the Birdwalk Brook
entered the Dove valley. Summer 1996.
Over the course of two months I excavated a layer of compacted peat beneath the floodplain alluvium of the Dove, recovering bones from it (cattle, horse, pig, dog), also worked roundwood and evidence of a wattle fence, but no pottery or metalwork. Geomorphologist Alistair Pitty and soil scientist Bill Corbett helped me understand the sub-surface geometry of the peat and alluvium by hand-drilling a series of core-sampled transects across the basin. I explored the Brook a little way upstream and found evidence of a dumped clay dam spanning its valley. Since the sediments and fossil pollen at Diss Mere, five miles away, had been so well studied, I thought it might be possible to relate the environmental evidence here to a robust local framework going back 10,000 years.


Gradually the story of the archaeology and geology came together in some hypotheses about the history of the site. Far from being a quiet, forgotten corner of the Dove valley, the Seggs could tell a story of human business and environmental change.  
  • The animal bones came from a farmstead at the Seggs, possibly later prehistoric, and the peat dated from this time.
  • The arrival of farming in the Dove valley, possibly in the Iron Age, led to increased run-off from local fields, and hence deposition of the layer of alluvium over the peat. 
  • There was a mill sited where the Brook enters the Seggs, perhaps in Mediaeval times.

I wrote a simple report of my findings and gave the excavation archive to the Suffolk Archaeological Service for posterity. There it stayed until 2010, when I met Ben Gearey who was excavating the Iron Age site at Barsham in the Waveney valley, and I told him my story. We revisited the site, now much overgrown, and he took some wood samples for carbon-14 dating. 
The results dated the worked roundwood to 420-610 AD. So we have rare evidence of life in the post-Roman period in East Anglia - the time of early Anglo-Saxon settlement and the age of Arthur. 

This information has transformed my awareness of the Seggs. Somewhere here, on the boundary between the two parishes, there was a farmstead where people were born, lived and died. Perhaps they were Christian Britons, but they are more likely to have been among the pagan Angles or Saxons whose settlement sites are typically found along the valleys of Suffolk. I am reminded of West Stow in the Lark valley. Perhaps they buried their dead in the cremation cemetery discovered in 1818, a half a mile away at Waterloo Plantation. They lived in the days before Christian parishes, and when the boundaries were drawn here, perhaps in the 8th century, the existence of their homestead may already have been forgotten. People had moved by then to village centres on higher ground, leaving the valley to its pagan desolation - its trees, meadows and wetland - much as we see it today.
The Seggs reminds us of an abandoned ancestral geography, and when I walk there my awareness is dense with all the silent memories written into the sediments of the valley floor, which only excavation could give a voice to.