Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Five

That night a wind got up and as we lay in bed, once again we debated what to do about the little eddies of dust that were falling on us from the attic. When we first bought Bel-Air the ceiling of the small room which we enlarged into our bedroom was panelled with pine. We removed this false ceiling, not only because it was sagging and home to many legions of woodworm but also because we found it hid the beautiful oak beams and the original hand cut boards above.

It was these same hand-tongued and grooved oak boards which were now causing the trouble. It was probable that they had been there for at least two hundred years, perhaps longer. Some, less strong than others, had gradually succumbed to the woodworm, and the fact that the house had been uninhabited and neglected for eleven years before we found it can’t have helped. Each year, as rain came through the roof, the boards had warped a little more, enlarging the gaps between them. Sadly it looked as though the time had come to replace them.

‘Try M. Lecours,’ advised Raymond, ‘but you’d better get a move on if you want it done this year.’

‘Why?’

He laughed. ‘Because once the pigeon shooting starts…work stops. C’est sa passion!

M. Lecours was a short dark man with shifty eyes and a huge belly. He spoke very quickly out of the side of his mouth which he opened as little as possible. In spite of his girth he was as agile as a monkey and in spite of his eyes as honest as anyone would wish. He clambered all over the attic. Yes, the boards were very old. You could patch them but they would keep on moving. It would be better to replace the oak with chestnut, not pine, which the worms apparently preferred. Mind you, it was going to be difficult to level the ancient beams but he and his son would do their best. He took measurements and promised to come with a devis, an estimate, in a few days.

The next day we drove to Toulouse airport to collect my cousin David and Dorothy his mother. We usually ask our visitors to find their own way at least to Agen, if not to Villeneuve, but Dorothy had recently celebrated her eightieth birthday. As she had never been to this part of France we wanted her first impressions to be good ones. So on the way back we left the motorway at Montauban. It is one of the absolute joys of motoring in France that while most of the traffic thunders down the main roads there are small and enchanting, but good roads, unrolling an almost traffic-free network all over the country. For the sake of an extra ten or fifteen kilometres on a journey, often less, you can motor peacefully without passing another car in an hour. The only possible disadvantage is that anyone coming in the opposite direction doesn’t expect to see you either.

Once through the industrial side of Montauban the road begins to climb. We crossed the Aveyron and the sunlight splintered as we entered the magnificent alley of plane trees at Loubejac. The trunks were bare, the lower branches lopped, but the feathery tops laced together across the road. Dorothy looked out eagerly as one fertile valley succeeded another with orchards of peaches, apples and hazelnuts, and patchwork fields of grain and maize and millet. The fragrant smell of burning sawdust from a timber merchant filled our nostrils as we came down from the ridge into yet another valley only to climb up again to the small town of Molières. We stopped to admire the view from high up above the lake, then drove on past Castlenau-Montratier with its huge, domed church, through Montcuq, its castle silhouetted against the burning blue sky, on past vineyards and fields of ripening sunflowers and, hardly touching a main road, we at last climbed the track to Bel-Air.

Dorothy got stiffly out of the car and looked around.

‘It’s all so beautiful,’ she said. ‘It’s a feast.’

I could not disagree.

A few days later we were wakened by the sound of an unfamiliar machine. At the bottom of the track were two telephone engineers with a heap of poles and a mechanical auger. Like a giant’s screwdriver, with a bit more than two metres long, it bored into our hillside, withdrew, and swung limply aside while each pole was hoisted and dropped into place. Using no spirit level they worked at speed. Although the third pole had a certain charm it was anything but straight, but, as promised they stopped the line at the edge of the orchard and, refusing an aperitif, they disappeared.

The following day two more men arrived with a roll of cable. The chief, a handsome, moustached rugby player, told of visits to Dewsbury and Bradford and tried out his charmingly idiosyncratic English, shinning up and down the poles with obvious pleasure while threading through what looked like a great string of liquorice. By mid-morning it was finished. His gold chain gleaming on his brown chest, he swung himself up into his van. ‘Good afternoon!’ he shouted. ‘They’ll bring your telephone tomorrow. All is connected.’ It was – but not for long.

That very night there was a violent storm. The electricity failed. The wind raged outside. In the candlelight, David and I sang as many hymns as we could remember; he, being a priest, knowing many more than I. Dorothy sat placidly at the window watching the rain. Suddenly there was a loud crack. Lightning not only struck one of our new poles, splitting it in two, but also burned right through the cable. The next day, a fierce sun steamed the sodden fields. The engineer arrived, telephone in hand, to finally connect us, and his face fell. However, to our surprise it was all mended by the end of the week, Bel-Air was ‘on the phone’ and I was able to make a rendezvous with the chiropractor.

The first person to insist on my bringing an X-ray to the initial consultation, he gave me a certain confidence. His surgery made that of my osteopath in London look like something out of Dickens and I began to feel he really might help me. As August passed I made three or four visits and at last was able to walk from one end of the market to the café in the middle by sitting down every few yards on the nearest garden wall.

‘I’m sure the swimming helps,’ I said to Mike.

‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had our own pool?’

We talked about it with Hugh who is always an enthusiast.

‘Spoil yourselves,’ he urged, working out, I’m not exactly sure how, that it would cost us about sixty pence a day for the rest of our lives.

I had often dreamed of having a pool for the very hot summers but it was not just the cost which made us hesitate. We had tried so hard to garder le style of this very old and simple house. Bel-Air and a swimming pool seemed totally incompatible and yet, and yet…that in itself had become a sort of challenge.

We walked across our rough meadow to the farthest edge and looked down across le grand champ to where the hills beyond the Lot valley begin.

‘Look at the view you’ll have from the pool,’ said Hugh. ‘It’s the best view from Bel-Air and yet you never sit here.’

It was true. We had made terraces near the house to the south and to the west but the meadow was only used for a badminton court when anyone could be bothered to paint the lines. I had made no attempt to plant anything there, having always had an idea at the very back of my mind that if one day we did manage a pool, then I could finally plan a garden around it.

We began to give it serious thought, and to look more closely at every pool we saw. I started drawing on scraps of paper and marking with a cane exactly how far the shadow from the house came across the meadow as the evening sun went down.

But the pool was for the future. The immediate problem was the bedroom ceiling. Would M. Lecour et fils be able to fit it in before the open season for pigeons?

‘Ça dépend,’ said Raymond grinning.

‘On what?’

‘On whether they need the money at the moment.’

Fortunately it seemed that they did, as father and son appeared next morning, took final measurements, and said they would start in two days time.

Now all we had to do was move everything out of our bedroom and the adjoining corridor as the ancient boards covered both areas. Being slightly worried about an activity hardly recommended for sciatica, I was very relieved when Raymond arrived on the tractor to help us.

M. Lecour and his son worked very fast, smoked furiously and spoke hardly at all. We piled the old oak boards outside on the west terrace; just what we would need for next spring’s fires. It was odd to be able to look straight up through the beams to the chinks of sunlight coming through the roof tiles. M. Lecour patted the great old beams fondly as he scrambled about from one to the other. We were sad to lose our original boards but, once in place, the new chestnut flooring looked pretty and smelled good.

When we eventually moved back into our bedroom it was a relief to know that our nights of diving under the covers to avoid the falling dust whenever the wind got up, were finally over.

It was finished just in time for we were expecting two more sets of guests. Our oldest friends, Tony White, and Nan his wife were driving down in stages from Northumberland and les Fostaires, as Raymond calls them, were coming from different directions, Judith from the Vercors where she had been learning about the growing and harvesting of plants for essential oils and Barry from London, although he had just finished filming in Provence.

Les Fostaires arrived safe and sound but sadly one of our first calls on our new telephone was to tell us that Tony had suffered a brain haemorrhage as he and Nan drove through Brittany. He had been rushed to hospital in Rennes. We were all stunned by the news. We thought about him most of the day and phoned each evening. His daughter and son-in-law flew out to support Nan and at least it seemed that he was holding his own. It was late September and, ironically, the weather was perfect.

Unable to help in any practical way we decided to continue with a proposed trip to Conques, about which we had heard a great deal.

On dit que c’est magnifique,’ said Raymond.

‘But you’ve never been?’

‘Oh, un de ces beaux jours,’ he smiled and went off to finish yet another task.

The next day we set off with les Fostaires, following the Lot valley eastward. We made a small detour, being unwilling to miss that special moment when the great Château of Bonaguil first towers into view against the thickly wooded hillside. The restaurants and, now, the horse drawn holiday caravans which cluster at its feet do little to diminish its grandeur.

Leaving the valley of the Lot we followed another smaller road which twists beside the river Célé, its banks lined with outcrops of rock which sparkle in the sunlight. This is schist: cut into curved tiles it makes the rooves of the houses glisten like the tails of mermaids.

We stayed the night at Figeac and late that evening phoned the hostel where Nan was staying. Being told she was still waiting at the hospital I feared the worst and rang.

‘Ne quittez pas,’ repeated a soothing voice as they searched for the extension number and in between there were bursts of soaring, solemn music as if to prepare one for bad news. Finally we were put through and after speaking to Nan we were thrilled to hear a very tired but lucid Tony talking about some poems he had taped and had been bringing for us.

‘You will get them darling,’ he said. We learned that there were plans to fly him back to England as soon as possible and that a difficult and dangerous operation was to follow. His chances were not good.

It seemed an appropriate time to be taking our road, insignificant on today’s map but in the Middle Ages very important – the pilgrims way to Conques and the shrine of Saint Faith.

We reached it next day. The silver roofs sparkled beneath yet another cloudless sky and we walked around enchanted.

The village nestles, protected on all sides by high wooded plateaux. Originally a monastery it was given its present name of Conques – meaning a cavity – by Louis, King of Aquitaine and son of Charlemagne. Founded by an early Christian hermit, the remote monastery became famous in the ninth century when the relics of Saint Faith – Sainte Foy, a twelve-year-old girl, murdered for her faith some six hundred years earlier – were transferred from Agen. This assured the prestige of Conques for the next two centuries. Many miracles were reported and pilgrims staged at Conques on the way to Compostella.

We were lucky that day for the village was magically quiet and we learned that the following week it would be crowded for the annual procession.

Conques possesses the largest treasure of medieval gold in all France yet we looked at it almost alone. It is breathtaking, but for me, the history of the people of Conques throughout the centuries is just as fascinating.

In 866, to house the precious bones of the little saint, the inhabitants made a hollow wooden statue of yew, almost a metre high, and covered it with gold. For the head of the statue they used something they already had to hand, something much older.

It was discovered in 1955 that this head of embossed gold dates from the fourth century and originally wore a laurel wreath. Whose head it actually represented remains a mystery. The saint’s skull was put inside and the wreath replaced with a crown. It was then crudely fitted onto the statue’s wooden neck, tilting backwards. It is slightly too big for the body and it gives the statue, or ‘majesty’ as it is properly called (for she sits upon a splendid throne) a curious power.

The cult of Sainte Foy de Conques spread throughout Christendom into Italy and Spain, even to Horsham in England, and by the middle of the fourteenth century there was a village of some 3000 inhabitants, a flourishing market, and workshops in both gold and enamel. Pilgrims brought precious stones, rock crystals and sapphires and cameos to adorn the strange little figure with the enamel eyes of deepest blue. But she was only a part of a great golden treasure housed at Conques.

Although there was a gradual decline in the following centuries with the ravages of the Black Death and the miseries of the Hundred Years War, Conques fared better than other shrines by being so hidden away.

During the wars of religion in 1568 the Calvinists destroyed part of the village. Fearing for their relics the inhabitants put most of the saint’s bones inside two chests and built them into a wall between two columns in the church. There they remained.

By the end of the eighteenth century Conques was a very sad and different place. Famine and plague had taken its toll and the priest wrote of the remaining 630 inhabitants; ‘we have 100 beggars in the parish…to suffer from hunger, to live on chestnuts…such is our situation.’ During the revolution, with the abolition of all religious orders, its citizens lost the last help they had relied on. This poverty makes all the more remarkable their great act of faith.

After the revolution in 1794 the National Convention ordered the confiscation of all precious metal objects to be melted down and many of France’s greatest ecclesiastical treasures were destroyed. But once more the inhabitants of Conques took their treasures and hid them; this time in chimneys, chestnut stores, attics and stables, and simply waited for the political storms to pass.

It was the young Prosper Merimée, newly appointed as the first Inspector General of historical monuments, but more famous today as the author of Carmen, who was sent on a journey which eventually led him to Conques.

One can only imagine his astonishment after riding into that remote, poverty stricken village when the people took him on a tour of their hiding places to show him all the priceless things they had so carefully guarded. He it was who in 1838 alerted the State and praised the brave citoyens of Conques for their courage and their honesty.

The only thing that perplexed the experts of the time was the lack of bones inside the statue. Some village elders claimed that the bones were said to have been buried in the church. The strange wall between two pillars behind the altar was demolished and on 21 April 1875, a wooden chest was discovered containing the missing bones all intact and a coin dated 1590. After almost two hundred years the bones of the little martyr were once again reunited.

I don’t know whether it was anything to do with Sainte Foy but by the end of that September my sciatica had finally gone and Tony had had his operation and was well on the way to a complete, and pretty miraculous, recovery.

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