Monday, 10 September 2012

Lifting boulders


The chestnut forests of the Cévennes are roasting in hot sunlight; the steep valleys and rocky outcrops are glowing green and tawny brown.

View of Le Castel, looking south-west

I am staying with my friend Nicolas at Le Castel, a Provençal mas or farmstead. It lies on the Mediterranean side of the Cévennes, standing on a knoll overlooking the head of the Vallée Française, through which the waters of the youthful Mialet flow on their way to join the River Gard, and ultimately the Rhône.

Abandoned terraces

Jean-Baptiste C. has lived here for seven years, but he has just put the place on the market. Originally from Paris, he keeps a handful of sheep in a byre on the ground floor - whence a strong but not unpleasant smell drifts up - otherwise he lives alone with a dog. Le Castel is a dry place on a steep valley side, with a black alkathene pipe from the stream as its sole aqueduct. The soil is very stony; rocks are continually shifting downhill from the granite outcrops above, or breaking out of the scanty soil. The land near the house is arranged in terraces, mostly covered with scrub or trees; elsewhere the slopes are forested. Inside, the house has a dim, lofty feel, with big wooden beams and wicker baskets and sheep bells hanging from them. Pictures with religious associations, ranging through Christianity, Hindiusm and Buddhism, decorate the walls, for Jean-Baptiste is a kind of mystic.

There are other buildings at Le Castel. A ruined farmhouse and barn are situated nearby, with a window lintel engraved 1730. A ruined chapel lies in the valley below, with the remains of an apse and a stone-vaulted ceiling. If you take a goat path slanting up the valley side - through broom, bracken and bramble, along crumbling terraces, past unmanaged chestnut trees and over small ravines - you will come to a roofless stone barn known as a clède.
Clèdes are evocative places, like old engine houses in Cornwall. They were once central to rural industry in the Cévennes, being used for smoking, dehusking and drying chestnuts after harvest. In olden days, a fragrant fume would hang over Cévenol valleys every October, as people processed the châtaignes which were a staple of their subsistence. Beyond the clède, the pathway and terraces peter out, and chestnuts give way to rocky moorland with stunted oak trees. Population growth in the 16th century led to a major expansion of chestnut cultivation in the region, we are told: forest clearance accelerated and a major phase of terracing and planting took place; thus the Cévennes became clothed in chestnut forest, within the natural limits dictated by soil and climate (1). Situated at a valley head, next to the high Atlantic / Mediterranean watershed, Le Castel may lie close to those limits - the high strandline of châtaigneraie.

View of Le Castel, sited close to the gorge in the centre
There is a bronze statue of a naked man in the village of St Germain de Calberte. He is lifting a boulder, and clearly symbolises the monumental effort of people to terrace and transform their mountains into productive land. Le Castel has evidence of much prolonged labour written into its landscape and ruins. I imagine the families that once made their homes here; they created the terraces and buildings over the centuries to make their subsistence. Jean-Baptiste grows a few vegetables and maintains his tiny flock, but he can hardly be described as a Cévenol farmer. By contrast, the National Park is trying to maintain historic land-use and culture in the region. For example, it runs workshops on how to look after and revive la châtaigneraie; it promotes traditional apiculture; it specifies that roofs are to be made of heavy, overlapping slabs of raw schist known as lauze. The Park also has a say in who may buy property in its domain: it prefers people with strong local connections. It promotes efforts to record the last scraps of surviving paysan oral culture (2). The aim is to conserve local culture and a distinctive sense of place.

Today, we had visitor from Paris, a man interested in buying Le Castel - house, ruins, chapel, terraces, forest and scrub - all 23 hectares. He shares his surname with one of the managers of the National Park. Is he the kind of man to rebuild a productive Cévenol landscape - can he lift boulders?

Whoever lives at Le Castel, the granite will continue to crumble from the mountain side and wildlife will continue to invest the place with its own anarchic wealth and beauty.

Episode after rain
Jersey Tiger Euplagia quadripunctaria

(1) 'Votre Chataigneraie' (Parc National des Cévennes, 2008)
(2) Laurence, P,: 'Du Paysage and Des Temps -  La memoire orale en Cévennes Vallée Francaise et Pays de Calberte' (Sivom Des Hauts Gardons, 2004)


  1. Lovely piece Tim :) Captures the Cévenol ambience. Very interesting history too. And mystic friend! Clearly many eco-spiritual types are attracted by the relatively wild/unspoilt landscape, however harsh it can be to live and work in it. We (myself and Chrystel, my French partner) don't actually live in the Cévennes. We just went there for a short break - stayed in a nice site in the hameau of Saint Roman de Tousque, on the Corniche des Cévennes, not far from where you stayed. We live in Lodeve, between Millau and Montpellier (think I've mentioned that before on Twitter). I did like the Cévennes but in all honesty prefer our area - more contrasting and Mediterranean. We've been developing a green holiday site to promote the many attractions of the area in fact. Kind regards, Steve

  2. Thanks for your kind comments, Steve. I loved making forays down into the Provençal 'plain', descending the winding mountain valleys and out into the hotter, drier and recogniseably Mediterranean landscape, eg to Nîmes or Avignon. Any details of your green holiday site yet online?
    Best regards, Tim


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