Tuesday 29 April 2008

Walk with me

Up at 1000 feet where we wake our heads are in clouds that condense into tears on our faces. But Accolay, where we start walking, is only 360 feet above sea level and the clouds here are resolved into plaques that shade from white to gunmetal grey. The sky is like Navy camouflage but despite the predictions, it isn’t raining.

At the edge of Accolay is a giant, dirty white pierced vase. It stands more than 12 feet high and is explained by a panel describing the arrival, in 1945, of three avant-guard ceramicists who built a trade here that flourished until the early 1970s. Then it died and the alarming, angular, fading concrete structure out on the main road turns out to have been their shop rather than a petrol station; now long relinquished to weeds and urine.

We pass on the left a gracious Belle Époque villa with a baby pigeon loft at the bottom of a field. It is one of those French manor houses that you long to own and renovate until you realise it sits inches from a main trucking road. Across that road, we start a slow, steady climb up a dirt farm track between fields of young oats. The air pressure is heavy but it is warm, 12ºC, and I feel dozy. A cuckoo, a falcon mewling, a patch of coltsfoot each rouse me momentarily. Then David, a few paces ahead, cuts short an exclamation, and I stride forward to look. A long, thin shape snakes across the path in browns and yellows, but its edges are ruffled. A sloughed snakeskin? And yet it is moving. At the second blink we see it is a caterpillar train: twenty-eight identical caterpillars each an inch or so long, feeling their way nose to tail across the stones of the path. Occasionally one slows and breaks the chain, but it panics to catch up. I’ve never heard of this behaviour yet it makes sense: from the air the tiny creatures will look like a snake, far too large for a blackbird or starling to tackle.

Further along, we see for the first time low purple flowers with bright yellow centres. The leaves and buds remind me of poppies, but the flower petals are pointed and protective like a bell – a kind of anemone, know here as “barbe de chèvre”. It is still before eleven, but with the gentle climb I am already warm and stop to strip off a layer. As I do so, I realise we are back with the vines: a few small parcels here and there on the slopes, the southern edge of the Burgundy region.

Despite nine days’ break from walking our bodies have already found their rhythms: stride follows stride, the poles swinging our arms forward with each step. We can scarcely walk without the metronome the poles provide anymore. At moments like this, when the ground rises, they lever us uphill just as much as they regulate our pace, keep us from slipping or channel the pack weight away from our backs. I see them in my view, as I see my feet. While watching out for stones and ruts, sometimes it seems our feet and the ground immediately around them are all we see of this trek.

We crest the hill on the pale track between low crops and pass alongside a wood. Relief! A place to shelter for a loo stop. Sometimes it’s not easy to be discreet. The heavy air is starting to peel back, too, and I feel fully alive to the views and the smell of apple blossom. But that doesn’t stop my mind wandering now and then to thoughts of last week and the visitors we had. There’s something about the constant pacing that mesmerises and lets the mind wander. I remember Owen waiting patiently for the red squirrel to reappear, and the faces of Charlie and Amelia as they run towards us full of their climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower. I wonder if they all got home ok.

A party of four older Germans are going the other way. In front, with a guidebook held like a shield, is a barrel-shaped man with a beard and a grey brimmed hat. They are all in shorts and look energetic, like gnome-scouts. They call out to us that Compostela is the other way. We laugh and call back that it is a long story …

We drop down through the neat edges of Cravant, a large village. We’ve seen the Romanesque arches of the tall church tower getting close, and now we can see the ornate carvings around those arches. Too ornate for Romanesque. Someone has given it a Renaissance going-over. But first there is a “lavoir” with considerable presence to duck into. Stone walls pierced with arches to echo the church, and the tricking of water into the large pool between shaded benches. From Normandy onwards, so many villages, even towns, have had their “lavoirs” – called “lavau” in the Morvan. Nearly all are well maintained with solid roofs, though I’ve never seen anyone using them. Now, for the first time, I grasp what a cool, shady place they must be to sit and chat on a hot day. Do people use them like that, for peace, shade and company? Or is the memory of the hard work they represent too strong a disincentive? The only picture I’ve seen of women washing clothes by hand was not in a “lavoir “but in a photo of the banks of the Seine in Paris, in 1956.

Cravant’s church is surrounded by the grass of a little esplanade with benches and pollarded trees. That’s how we know the village is more prosperous and proud than many we have seen in all these months. A grandfather is walking there with a child, and they wave to us. We pick our way through the village. It’s no wonder we wander in the middle of roads these days. In silent stone streets like these there are rarely any pavements and if there are, their twenty-centimetre width is occupied by parked cars. Away from the main road though, there’s rarely anything moving except us.

We decide not to stop at the advertised bar for a coffee, but carry on through the back of Cravant where two women with shopping bags stop their gossip to stare at us and then look away. I feel it is on their tongues to point out we are going the wrong way for Compostela. The red and white stripes of the Grand Randonée markings are on a fence post behind them, showing the way uphill past another church. The route has been well-signed today so far; there’s little need to study the map.

Like the other church – like most churches unless they are touristic highlights – this one is locked. We’re out of the habit of trying the doors of most churches; but just occasionally we do and are sometimes rewarded with the magic of some humble interior with mossy walls and dirty cracked tile floors, or sometimes a delicately carved capital or a gentle statue. In such places it is a parishioner who bothers to keep the church open, leaving fading notices in school-perfect handwriting to point out the aspects they are most proud of. If there is a box inviting donations for the church or for keeping it open, I’m so grateful I always drop money in. The boxes invariably sound empty.

This is a steep tail-end of a street and I’m conscious of my hip grinding as we go. But not too badly; it will probably wear off. And we quickly slant long and gently across the contours through more vineyards. We have the impression that vineyards are a meaner employer here. We see only three people working in the whole area, although they look up and wave to us. In place of people, the vines are brought to life by colour. Strips of fruit orchards alternate and scatter white blossom onto the brown rows. Between the rows blue is painted in by grape hyacinths, or pale mauve by alyssium. Even invasions of dandelions become attractive.

The day and the pace resolve into a succession of newly-blooming flowers that go beyond my knowledge; of buzzards hunting overhead and of butterflies. We take photos and leave the naming of them to research in books back home.

We’re still on chalk tracks, easy walking. After climbing steadily we level out and even drop slightly. We’re making a big loop around a hill called “Belle Vue” – a diversion from where we will end up, but the plotters of the GR obviously think the views will be worth it. And they are. The valleys on our left open out to the narrow plain of the weaving Yonne river below, studded by towns and the occasional smoke billow. Each hillside is a palimpsest of green, of orchards, vines and small woods. Now that all the trees are clad in a shimmer of leaf, we can see how each species has its own shade, height and silhouette. The fruit trees briefly make me think of the apple orchards below the Střahov monastery on Petřin hill above Prague.

We make a sudden turn to the right and after all that lazy gazing out into the distances my head goes down, my arms start pumping and my knee immediately twinges: it has seen the long, steep climb up the stony side of the vertical vineyard. I pant and I plod. Plod and pant. David is behind me, preventing me from slacking. Mid-pant, I reach and put on my sunglasses against the brilliance of the chalk. At the top, in a hollow of bushes, I wheeze and take a big glug of water. It is warm from my back, but welcome.

Now we skirt the hill on a narrow, winding path between scrubby bushes. The path is over-full of the white chalk stones cleaned from the fields. Our feet twist and tilt on them, bruised; and chippings work their way down between our socks and the boot leather. There are no vines here, just grass or plump green crops. I have a passing image of the North Downs Way, heading east. The land falls away on our left where the Yonne widens out into a marsh of small lakes, glinting between trees.

When the path leads down again we enter Irancy, a lovely small wine village concentrated in a horseshoe valley. It is less claustrophobic than the Champagne villages; houses have gardens, even courtyards that give glimpses of the family orchard beyond. Instead of dusty plaster walls sheer from the road, the buildings here are in stone with carved touches dating from Renaissance times. We sit in the sun on the Mairie steps to eat our sandwiches. Walnut bread and the tangy shock of Bleue d’Auvergne cheese. I drool with joy. An old woman leans out between her brown shutters, sees us and says hello. Stopped, no one can tell we are going in the wrong direction. Down the street a tiny poodle and a matching long-haired terrier cross and re-cross the stillness, kings of the village. After an apple, there’s the Restaurant-Bar-Tabac “Le Soufflot” to visit for a warming coffee and toilet stop. A buzzing place, it has a smart, glass-roofed courtyard where respectable people eat and a down-to-earth bar where we, dusty decorators and slick office-workers who drove up in sports cars are equally comfortable. The barman has pined up an email from a local off travelling the world. There’s a poster extolling the Irancy AOC wines, made from Pinot Noir grapes and two ancient local varieties, César and Romain. I like Irancy. I’d like to come back. It has beauty, it has some life. Or maybe it just has sunshine and coffee. As we climb out, we see the way it snuggles into its vines. Then we see an old wooden cart, once updated with rubber wheels but now abandoned. And we see orchids. Irancy is behind us.

Just before we enter a wood, two women and a child walk towards us, lean and fast. It’s ok, they’re not carrying packs; they can’t be pilgrims. But that doesn’t stop them telling us Compostela is the other way. This time David tries to imply we’re on our way back, while I just laugh and pretend not to understand. We’re too embarrassed to stop and explain the whole thing, so leave them with an odd impression of unfriendly ex-pilgrims, clearly unaffected by the spirituality of having once reached Compostela.

The greater part of today’s walk circles the heads of three valleys, tributaries of the Yonne. As the day grows and we tire, it helps us to imagine the day into thirds, punctuated by cafés, and therefore to pace ourselves. The second café is at Champs-sur-Yonne, just after we miss our way through an excess of enjoying the walking and peering at orchids. We earn an additional 2 kilometres along a busy road as a forfeit, so deserve a rest. The pretty café near Champs-sur-Yonne’s main esplanade is closed, without reason given. But at the back of the town is an ugly commercial complex, a concrete square of supermarket, DIY depot and carwash; and a tabac that is open. One of our faithful PMUs, with the usual silent bartender who is persuaded to serve us Oranginas and to point to the toilets. After walnut and blue cheese sandwiches, cold Orangina is my second favourite sensation of the day.

So far we’re lucky with the weather. The sky is full of clouds but somehow wherever we turn a channel of sunshine opens up to lead us through. Now we turn to the river and for the rest of the day we know the path will be flat. It’s an actual riverside walk, not one that hangs above the river on a cliff. There are chalets and cottages on our other side, tree-shaded and dishevelled in their overgrown gardens. One is new: we eyeball a glass wall through which we can almost stroke the lacquered doors of the fashionable kitchen.

At Vaux our luck changes. The clouds close over and remove our energy source, while the river is impassable. The bridge is a-crawl with workmen, netting, dust and sparks. We think about blagging our way across but see it is too dangerous. If we were in a car we could follow the diversion, but no one thinks of walkers, so the end of the day is a foot-mashing six kilometres along roads. We’re tired now, coming up to twenty-five of what ends up being a thirty-one-kilometre (or over nineteen miles) walk that has included lots of climbing. It was only meant to be twenty-four kilometres in total, but we’re too tired to figure out how that happened. I switch off and retreat into myself. It’s all about slogging it out to the finish now, like the ends of so many days are. Just getting it done, getting there, fills my thoughts. ‘There’ being a shower and a bed to stretch out on. Even when there’s a chance, today, to go back onto the riverside path from the road, we’re too tired to bother at first. The ill-named “Rue de l’ile de Paradis” squeezes us between a building site and the railway, while angry Doberman dogs stake us out.

And then, just at the end where we succumb once more to the river path, a final reward. We see a different side to Auxerre from the medieval cobbled city inside its wall that was closed and silent on a rainy Sunday afternoon. This Auxerre is a city of football practice, of joggers and cyclists, archery and canoeing clubs.

A record day for length and almost for ascent, and although tired we’re not too beaten up. But I can tell I will regret this evening staying in a cottage with stairs.

Day distance: 19.3 miles / 31.1 km
Overall distance: 801 miles
Time walking: 6 hours 16 minutes
Average speed walking: 3.1 mph
Total ascent for the day: 1437 feet / 437 m

22nd April 2008

Sunday 20 April 2008

Spilling over

When I look back over these six days, in my mind is a brown hessian sack slung over a red shoulder. It’s a full sack – over-full you might say – and the shoulder belongs to Father Christmas. His sack is lumpy with odd-shaped packages, some squashy and rounded, others whose sharp corners tear through the weave of the bag. Each one is thrilling and although the sack is awkward, Father Christmas carries it along expectantly.

The party was in the light-hearted Hotel Ibis on the edge of Troyes’ magical centre, all cobbles, half-timbered buildings and improbable gravity. We two arrived peacefully last Monday morning and by five o’clock we had become six when Cathy, Andy, Owen and Bryn arrived from Gloucester in time for tea. Two days later we swelled to ten with Kevin, Chris, Charlie and Amelia down from Chipstead. A gathering of directions in a town we might never have visited but for the coincidence of school holidays and long-promised journeys to find us.

Some packages inside the sack were teasing and some were absorbing and educational. They were cuddly and quizzical. They were loud and colourful. There were party poppers and dull socks. There was chocolate but also apples and oranges, at a picnic table by the Lac d’Orient:

Owen quietly prowled behind and around us, camera in hand, weighing the shots and taking them unobtrusively like a true photographer. Tall and lean as a telephoto lens.

Amelia’s daintiness and old-fashioned style. A perfect mini Parisienne in her belted mac of bright flowers, tripping in summer frocks whatever the weather.

Bryn the detective, following the children’s tourist trail of a mammoth thirty-three questions. No matter that it was all in French: with remembered words and sprinkling of help he leapt like a born linguist from the French to something similar in English and worked out the sense and the answers to them all.

Cath delighting in the absurdities of shoe fashion in the shop windows, from the frankly frumpy to the delectably insubstantial.

Charlie speaks the French he knows but his awareness of ‘foreign’ equals his awareness of ‘shy’. There are policemen, museum guides, hotel staff, waiters and random passers-by throughout Troyes whose baffled faces greeted his life story and ambitions.

The feathered and beaked heads of the chickens and ducks nestled coyly by their naked bodies on the market hall counters. Those heads disturbed no-one; but the crab stuck upside down on the oxygen bubbles in the vast lobster tank was too much for tender-hearted Amelia.

Andy’s enjoyment of the way old Troyes architecture was echoed in modern and refurbished buildings, bringing to life for us the wooden slats and tiles and the geometry of natural colours.

Bryn, introduced to espresso coffee by David, having to be bodily restrained from imbibing two double-shot cups before 10 am.

Owen bridging the ages on our ambles to and from the restaurant in the evenings. The open piazzas of polished cobbles were too tempting for the young ones, but Owen was always alert to bring them to a halt before the pavement ran out.

Amelia’s dedication to keeping a low volume all morning to earn the joy of a ride on the mermaid ‘with the big boobies’ on the carousel.

The long minutes with Owen and Bryn watching the sci-fi ugliness of a cock turkey who was too stupid to figure out the persistent meekness of his hen. We adults holding our breath at the kitchen sink drama.

Charlie transfixed and silent only when reading or creating worlds of adventure round the toys in his hands. A totally different boy to the one who shouts so loudly he takes the precaution of putting his fingers in his own ears.

Chris slipping from her chair with giggles when I accidentally introduced a B word into the pirate story I was reading to Amelia.

Kevin’s thriving schoolboy humour finds its outlet in the dreadful jokes he whispers for the twins to repeat out loud. After the groans and chuckles, Chris’s deadpan timing with “Do the children still find you funny” earned roars.

The first sip of lager in the Latin Quarter restaurant as our day in Paris ended. A steamy and cacophonic day of Eiffel Tower queues, perplexing pyramids, traffic-versus-child races, double-decker metros, springy spiral staircases, toilet trips and broken water beakers had finally paused to let us catch up.

Bryn, David, Owen and Andy in endless Top Trumps challenges as we picnicked in the bedroom while Troyes, Cathy and I went to sleep over lunch. Jabba the Hut’s Sailbarge was the winning card.
Owen, edging close to the time he’ll be off to University and adulthood, is mature enough already to enjoy sharing our carafe of wine or to choose to stick to water, as he sees fit.

Bryn’s perfectly logical sulks and “Why ask me what I want if you won’t let me have it?” on learning he could not order the vodka-laced ice cream like David.

The avenues of mud and water-filled moats on our walk through the Forêt d’Orient. Bryn chose pole-vaulting but for us it was log-balancing or falling in: Andy was resignedly exasperated to learn Owen had brought only one pair of shoes …

In turns the lounge and large bedrooms of the hotel, the restaurants in the old “maisons a pans de bois” near the main square, the whole of Troyes’ “bouchon de champagne” district bounded by avenues and the river in the shape of a champagne cork became the sack that was filled to bursting with laughter, stories, colours, music, conversation, competitions and, like those hard corners pushing out of the sack, sometimes with screams, tears, jealousies and misunderstandings. Like a Christmas holiday, the atmosphere was special, the food rich and the treats overdone. As we waved goodbye to the final four this morning David and I turned back to the silent hotel and sighed, at once lonely and calm; unsure how to entertain ourselves but relieved at the thought of plain food and housework.

20th April 2008

Sunday 13 April 2008

Joey: a story

Not many people come down this lane. Not much happens here at all, really. The odd car puffing out dust as it slams in the potholes. Sometimes a mother with a toddler in tow, both too bored to stay at home and out looking for something to stare at. If they catch sight of me, I’ll do.

So if there is some movement I’ll glance up. Of course I will, it’s only natural. If I’m awake. It might just be the woodpigeons come to brag on the wires. But it’s something.

I can’t remember how long I’ve been living here. Four years? The days run together and so the years slip by. It’s not a bad place, in itself. Spacious. But when the wind howls across the plain beyond the village and whips rain around the eaves, I can’t help shivering. So I know when the seasons change. When I first came here I could get about quite well, but recently my feet have been getting me down. They throb, and I can’t seem to put them down with the confidence I used to. They’re unsteady and all I can do is hobble. Sometimes it’s too much of an effort to go and get something to eat even. Maybe that’s why I sleep so much these days.

The truth is, I don’t mind being left alone and forgotten. Far better to be left in peace to fend for myself as best I can than have to put up with a constant mothering by a crowd of folks. Being tapped so gently and pityingly, my hair smoothed. Always asked, how am I? Told I’m doing fine. Being patronised like a youngster. Wanting to keep me clean, make me take exercise. Or having to behave how they think is right. Having to be friendly and accommodating, sunny-tempered. No: better to be left alone that to put up with any of that.

- O -

When I hear a car door slam and men’s voices, I look up. It’s one of those upright cars with high tyres that the farmers round here seem so fond of. One of the men looks familiar, the one with white hair and a face mottled purple by cold and drink. He’s wearing old brown cords and a blue anorak and his hair is flying in the damp wind. He looks impatient. What you’d call cheesed off. For some reason he’s carrying a bundle of old ropes in his hand. With is other hand he slams the car door shut.

The other two I don’t know. You can’t tell them apart hardly: both built like barns and dark heads of hair like they’re wearing helmets. They’re scarcely less colourful in the face than whitey, but tending towards the red.

It’s unusual enough to see people stopping along here, so I haul myself up to look closer. It’s not easy, on my feet. But I said that already, didn’t I? Those two – the ones with whitey – have got big thick jumpers on. I can practically smell the wet wool and body odour from here. They’ve got odd flaps on their legs. I’ve never seen that before. Stiff planks, like, that seem to tie up behind. But not so stiff as the planks in the barn wall, nor as long. I’ve got it! Leather.

I edge closer but keep myself half hidden. Whitey comes right towards me across the lane and now I can hear him clicking his tongue in that impatient way. The others follow him, and one of them even unlatches the gate to come in. OK, so now I’m concerned. I come out from hiding and march straight at them, thinking they’ll get wary and back off. Well, I say march. Of course, I’m capable of no such thing. There’s no authority in my shuffle, which is why they hold their ground and whitey even moves closer. He seems to be talking but in that low, would-be-soothing way that they all put on when they visit, so I don’t quite catch what he’s saying. Both of the leather-legs have brought some sort of contraption from the car. A wooden stand which the taller one is unfolding, and a green canvas bag with poles sticking out at all angles. Now what’s all that about?

I can sense that something’s wrong. Smell it, you might say. I’ve always had a fine sense of smell. But these leather-bound men with their rough jumpers and even rougher faces and their contraptions – it’s all new to me. I stand at bay a few moments, wondering what to do. I can’t make out their intentions, you see. Facing them off didn’t work, so should I turn and flee? I’m hesitating, but already my leg muscles are twitching with the memory of running and my heart in my chest is pumping expectantly. I feel my eyes have widened. My nostrils certainly have; the air is surging into them, a slippery cold that reaches down into my throat.

Just as I’m on the point of turning, whitey reaches out a hand and slaps it down on my head. I jerk back, but his fingers have twisted deep into my hair and he hangs on, painfully tearing the roots as I thrash to free myself. With his other hand he shakes the pile of ropes and the fear runs cold through me. It’s a harness of some sort, a way of trussing me up, for sure. Suddenly he’s in charge as he slides the rope behind my head, grazing my ears. We’re nose-to-nose, eye-to-eye, but there’s no triumph in his, just the same grumpy impatience.

I pull back again, tugging hard, and I’m sure my eyes are rolling as if I were crazed. We tussle in a tug-of-war that, if it was left to whitey and me, I would have won. I can see the rope is burning his hands as it’s burning my cheeks but, you see, I’m desperate to escape whereas he – well, he seems irritated. It’s not an emotion that would win wars. But this war isn’t just between me and him. There’s the other two, the lumps of walking rock with their leather legs. They start hitting me, not hard it’s true; more like slapping me around, forcing me slowly forwards till we’re near the tree by the gate. That’s where they tie me up, finally, with a length of rope so short I can do nothing, barely even shake my head to clear my thoughts.

And straight away they’re back to all that soft-talking and gentle taps and strokes, like I was a pet. The "Come on, Joey, calm down now, there’s a good fella." The "Won’t take a moment, you won’t even feel it." The "It’s for your own good you know, you’ll be much better afterwards." As if I could trust them one second. As if I was an imbecile.

I can feel leather legs number one run his hand down my thigh, ever so gently, ever so crooningly. He can see I’m about to kick him so, sly bugger that he is, he sticks me with some kind of pin just above the ankle, and as I draw my foot back in surprise, he grabs it and twists it up against his leather thigh. His mate hands him a piece of metal covered in ridges. Now, at last, I understand, as the grating shudders up through my hoof, along my shuddering back and down into the teeth that I bare in whitey’s bored purple face.

11th April 2008

Lac du Der

The desiccated beech leaves crack like breakfast cereal and we stop, taking shallow breaths with our lips parted. The scent of decay and dark fungi jostles closely, but lighter is the lemon-tinged pollen. Now we are still and our breathing has stilled too. The skin above my lip prickles with damp in the fragments of sun, expectantly.

The woods are a morning market for birds, each crying their wares in repetitive four- and five-note tunes, sung simply, over and again. The trees are not yet in full leaf; barely have their buds broken, yet the songs sound distant as they career through the high branches. Tree-creepers with pearl-pink breasts reward our silence by shuttling beak-down or beak-up on the bark. A dynasty of blue tits sweep their family disputes into the bushes nearby. The chaffinches and gold crests are distracted by breakfast and robins throw their voices across clearings while woodpeckers play the glockenspiel of dying trees. We are the only ones to hear it.

The morning advances and the smell of sunshine wins over that of spring floods. Where the trees thin, rays of sunlight have been brought to earth as cowslips; then the cowslips themselves lift and dance around our heads in the bodies of brimstone butterflies. A cream-feathered buzzard dives to the ground a few feet away, close enough to see his prize.

We’re after bigger prey. The mud that is black with leaf mould holds prints well. The smooth, forward-pointing ovals of deer have taken on an inward tilt and a slight point at the front. Wild boar, and in numbers, were thrown into an ecstasy of acorns at this crossing in the paths. But why did one of them leave behind these fringes of black and white bristles, half trampled into the bracken?

A razor of wind cuts our ears, reminding us that today’s sun is coquette. But the wind reaches us only at the water’s edge along with the ghosts of the drowned villages. A bird we don’t recognise flashes its rust coloured tail as it farms the stony beachlets between the cut rocks of the causeway. A heron frowns and takes off with the sound of wave on shingle to find a quieter bay. Cormorants, mallards and grebes ignore us splendidly. Here, the white tumbles of pebbles merge into drifts of wood anemone whose meek blushing bells are slowly gaining confidence and raising their yellow hearts to the sun. Periwinkle flowers so darkly violet in the undergrowth we look at it for several seconds before knowing it is not green. The purple-white of meadowsweet fringes ditches where stagnant water seethes black. A thousand tadpoles have chosen today to hatch and fight their way to oxygen.

Beside a wooden hut, two women spread their pale ample shoulders along the backs of plastic chairs. They are quite content to gossip the day away, but smile still to see us and thank us for stopping. They pour us juice and cook fresh waffles that smell like birthdays and feel like eggshells as I bite through the sugar crust to the warm inside. The owner describes the winter when snow lies thickly and the boars come to dig right at the doors of the hut. Her husband has shot his share of them, she says. In summer and autumn she picks wild strawberries and nuts, blackberries and mushrooms to serve from the kiosk. When she retires next year, while her husband is hunting birds and deer and boar, she will spend all her time gathering food and making jam, and teaching her grandchildren the to profit from the woods.

8th April 2008

Monday 7 April 2008

Life in the vines

Back in early January, on our third or fourth day of walking, we were in the Denbies’ wine estate near Dorking speculating that the next time we would see vines would be in the Champagne region, beyond Reims. And so it has finally proved.

The gently rising slopes of brown look lifeless: not a promising time of year to be visiting. But as we walk through them over several days, we see the chalk and clay tracks are speckled with dozens of vehicles, and that the tiny dark blobs are the hunched backs of workers. These brown days are a time of promise and fierce activity. The countryside is alive.

In the agricultural swathes of Normandy or Picardy farms were mastered by machinery and just one or two workers. Here, a single glance shows twenty or more intent people; the degree of labour needed for wine production explains its price as a luxury good. The labourers look up and nod a hello, but rarely stop their hands to talk. They hint at an old-style countryside, where hundreds lived and worked together through their annual tasks and festivals - although it is no doubt much emptier even here than in the past. Nowadays five full time workers can service a three-hectare estate, rising to twenty-five people for the week-long harvest. There’s a medieval echo to life. At noon, all the church bells sound long and loud to call the vineworkers in to lunch, and again at five to end the day. In two bars, the workers nodded and smiled, but still didn’t attempt a conversation; and when two o’clock sounded they drained their coffee cups and headed back out into the clay and chalk lanes.

Living with the vines means living utterly at the rhythm of the seasons and the weather. When winter turns you must prune, and you must prune before the sap rises again. But not too soon, or the vine will channel its strength too quickly and risk frostbite on the new shoots. If a frost threatens, you must offer protection – spraying water to encase the buds in an icy nest of 0º; or burning resinous wood to build a warm smoky blanket; or fleece ‘socks’ over the vines. When the shoots and leaves start to grow it is time to pinch out all but the main branches. And when the grapes are ripe, you must harvest them. Then and there. No matter that the changes in climate mean your grapes are ready a fortnight before normal and your grape pickers have not yet arrived for the season – you must rally them as quickly as you can. "Si juin fait le vin, août fait le goût".

After several days of hiking between the vineyards and the forests of the Montagne de Reims, we are full of questions. This is the season for pruning, a job that lasts a good couple of months and follows rigid rules for the number of shoots left on which year’s growth, and for the height at which the shoots may begin and finish. There are four pruning patterns, authorised or forbidden according to the type of grape and whether the village is grand cru, premier cru or a simple champagne. With familiarity it should be possible to tell, from the pruned stalks, what kind of vineyard you are standing in.

There are as many women as men working, we notice, all swaddled in woollen hats and padded jackets with hoods, hunched against the fog and frost, the wind or rain and sleet. They work peacefully and rhythmically. Homemade or sophisticated, the winegrowers use tools uniquely evolved for the vines. They sit to their tasks on low plastic benches like skateboards on six-inch high wheels. The width of the gap between vines. The wheels point lengthwise so the worker can roll themselves down the slope as they go. After pruning, the chosen stalks must be attached to the horizontal wires, and for this a tagging gun was invented, like a shop assistant’s ticketing gun, except this one shoots out, twists and cuts the tag in one whirring motion.

Sometimes the cut stalks are taken to the woods and left to rot down, but mostly people burn them. Oil drums are slit lengthwise and eased apart, then mounted on a one-wheel frame like a wheelbarrow, to carry fire and smoke up and down the rows and consume the waste. Looking across the valleys with the ugly, modern rectangles of Reims a constant backdrop, smoke pillars are everywhere in the morning mist. Now rising tall, now billowing thick and sideways with the vagaries of the wind.

Why are some vineyards full of snails on the plants, and others not? Why are all the snails a translucent yellow-green? What is in the brown capsules hanging on the fences and at the end of some rows? What is being sprayed from the absurdly tall tractors that straddle the rows like a praying mantis? Is there such a thing as organic champagne?
Not even our visits to the Musée de la Vigne or the cellars of our hosts, Patrick Soutiran, have yet satisfied the questions that come to us as we walk.

The region of the Montagne de Reims was born out of the huge sea that once covered the land. Blame millennia of sea creatures for the claggy soil that weighs our boots with extra kilos in these still damp weeks. The landscape is less monotonous than expected. The vines only love the poor soil on the slopes of the hills, where they are oriented plot by plot to be sure of full exposure to the sun. Below them, the soil of the plain is too rich and has been cultivated for wheat, rye, and oats and for rapeseed and beets. On the ‘mountaintop’, really a hill plateau, the forest takes over, a tangle of undergrowth and mossy fallen wood, boar and deer tracks and, very rarely, neat piles of harvested logs. We roam constantly between these landscapes, partnered by the exuberance of skylarks on the plain and echoing woodpeckers and nesting bluetits and blackbirds in the forest. The vines themselves are knobbled like arthritic witches’ hands in a flamenco dance. Birds do not love the vines, or not yet; but when the sun breaks through a mist of bees and insects takes us by surprise. Spring is another step nearer.

The scene looks unchanged for centuries; but in fact up until the 1920s, when re-planting after the phylloxera disaster early in the century was finally completed, the familiar rows did not exist. Vines then were plated to grow up on posts rather than along on wires, and the plants were higgledy-piggledy across the slopes, defying mechanisation. Then, too, roles were strictly divided. Wine growers grew the grapes and passed them to presses from where the extracted juice was sold to the champagne houses in Reims or Epernay for the complicated and slow process of turning it into wine. With the economic collapse in the late 1920s, growers taught themselves to make and sell the champagne themselves. Now there are no less than 320 crus or classified villages, and many more individual champagne producers.

The villages which camp at intervals between the vineyards and the forest are larger than we are familiar with: dense pockets of construction, every second gateway leads to a small Maison de Champagne with vast warehouses and small offices. Not a scrap of ground is wasted for gardens, pavements or squares. Despite the vaunted tourist routes, despite even the number of people supported by the work in the vines, these villages are as under-serviced as ever. The streets taunt with their painted and wrought signs, but each is for a champagne house to visit. There are no shops and rare bars. The shops have been replaced by vans that tour the villages and toot to scurry out the housewives: one for the bread, one for the butcher, one for the fishmonger.

Back in our flat in Ambonnay, we pass the evenings with books and big meals we prepare together, a fusion of British (kippers, roast beef and potatoes) and French (Normandy pork in cider, ratatouille) and, of course, compare the wines of the Montagne.

4th April 2008