A desire for more freedom led artists Stephen and Laurence Clary to start a new life in France. Scheenagh Harrington finds out why the hilltop village of Cordes-sur-Ciel in Tarn provides the perfect artistic inspiration
Why the hilltop village of Cordessur-Ciel provides an artistic couple with all the inspiration they need
In 1947, writer and poet Jeanne Ramel-Cals coined the name ‘Cordes-sur-Ciel’ to describe the fortified medieval village in the south-western Tarn department, which sits atop a steep hill. The name means ‘Cordes in the sky’ and evokes the sea of clouds that surround the outcrop in autumn and spring. The village – until then known as Cordes – officially adopted the longer name in 1993, and it’s with a smile that former drama teacher Laurence Clary, (45) revealed the author once lived in the building next door.
She and her artist husband Stephen (60), a former art teacher, have lived in one of the town’s most photographed buildings, the Barbican, since July 2015.
Laurence points out that the exposed stone of their home’s back wall dates back to the 13th century and the front of the house dates from the 17th century, while Stephen adds: “Francis Meunier, the surrealist artist, bought this in 1960 and before him, the house had belonged to a weaver who had his loom in our gallery.”
The couple’s journey to France has been long and slow, as Brittany-born Laurence explains: “I had lived in the UK for 22 years and my parents, who were still in Finistère, were getting older. I felt more and more that I needed the freedom to be with them, but teaching in a state school, it wasn’t always easy to get the time off.
“I was getting increasingly worried, and I had felt for a few years that we needed to find a way to come back and be free – or freer – in our lives.”
While she regarded a move to France as the solution, Stephen wasn’t so sure. “My lack of command of the language and awareness of cultural differences made me reluctant,” he admits. “I never had the so-called French dream.”
But growing concerns over the health of Laurence’s father prompted the couple to take a series of exploratory tours, first in Dordogne, then Provence and
finally in Tarn.
“If there was a moment, it was when we were staying with a Dutch couple who had a chambres d’hôtes in the Tarn valley,” says Stephen. They persuaded the Clarys to visit the nearby town of Albi, and both Laurence and Stephen were charmed.
“From this vague consideration, suddenly it was like a switch went on in my head, so I said to Laurence ‘let’s have a look at some estate agents’. It started from there,” says Stephen.
Trawling the internet, they found several properties, including one in Cordes, and the village attracted Stephen in particular.
“We had read up a bit on Cordes, found it had a reputation for being a bit arty, and that it had a mix of nationalities – which for me, with my lack of language, was good. I felt that I wouldn’t like to be in an exclusively French village. I didn’t want that feeling of being isolated.”
Unfortunately, the house they initially found wasn’t suitable, but luck was on their side. “We saw a sign in a window about an architect’s house, rang up for an appointment, and came in here and saw this,” remembers Laurence.
“We fell in love as soon as we entered the living room. We thought ‘wow, this has been done up so well!’, and it’s exactly the kind of style we like – it’s old with touches of modern. The features have been kept but it’s not dark. It’s very rare to find a house with a lot of light in Cordes, as lots of the houses have got small windows and windowpanes.
“The light in particular really did it for Stephen; we just couldn’t have a better atelier space. It’s absolutely excellent for that.”
Back in the UK, the race was on to sell their Norfolk Broads home, and juggle the last few days of the school term with packing up the house. The Clarys were pushed to the wire, as the house sold on a Wednesday, school finished the same week and the removal men were coming the following Monday. “It was manic! Luckily, we had friends who gave up their weekend for us. In the end it was really quite rushed. We thought we’d have enough time to say goodbye to England properly but as it happened we didn’t,” remembers Laurence.
The journey from Calais to Cordes took longer than expected, too, thanks to farmers’ blockades, but eventually the weary couple and their beloved dog made it to their new home.
But, as the couple revealed, there was a new obstacle to be met, in the form of Cordes’ narrow, medieval streets.
Laurence explained their removers had had the foresight to hire a smaller lorry, but when they tried to get past the village’s medieval gates, they realised it was still too big – and their new neighbours were not shy about letting them know it. Again, luck was on Stephen and Laurence’s side, as a local builder was kind enough to help out, and after 22 trips in 32-degree heat, the Clarys had moved in.
Thankfully the incident, which still comes up in conversation today, did not leave a bad impression on the Cordes townsfolk. “Cordes is an unusual place – it’s not typically French; there’s such a mix of people here,” says Stephen.
After the drama of moving, settling in has been relatively easy, but both have experienced culture shocks.
For Breton-born Laurence, being able to speak French was her biggest advantage, but there were still several hurdles to be overcome. “I left Brittany when I was in my very early twenties; I’d never lived away from home as an adult in France, so I’d never had to deal with my healthcare, never filled in a tax form, never done any admin beyond the very basic.
“This is a very different landscape and a very different mentality. People very easily say hello here. Where I come from, if you say hello to someone and they don’t know you, they think you’re weird,” she says.
Stephen’s language skills have improved but he still finds it difficult at times. “Having a wife who is completely bilingual means that I tend to rely on her and don’t always try as hard as I might to develop my French,” he admits.
Cordes is renowned for its artistic community, and Stephen, the only Englishman with an atelier in the village, has been warmly welcomed.
“We had a vernissage (private viewing) and we got about 150 people. We invited all the other atelier owners and business people, and it was a lovely evening,” he says.
Laurence adds: “Everybody does different things. The type of paintings Stephen does nobody else does, the kind of jewellery and cards I make, nobody else makes, so we’re not treading on anyone’s toes. We are all quite careful not to.”
It leads Stephen to an important point: “It was something we were quite conscious of from the beginning – even Laurence. We’re strangers here, we needed to proceed with a degree of caution and tact and sensitivity in order not to put people’s noses out of joint. We didn’t want to come in as ‘the big I am’. This place has been here for 800-odd years; we’re just passing through.”
Cordes is one of Tarn’s biggest draws for tourists, and was voted France’s favourite village the year before the Clarys arrived.
In March 2016, the couple set up Atelier de la Barbacane – a gallery space where visitors can watch them paint and create jewellery and cards, as well as browse their shop – and it has led to a surprise for Stephen.
“One of the really nice things you get here is that French parents in particular are very keen for their children to come and watch. They even point me out and leave them to it. I had one particular little girl with eyes the size of saucers who said: ‘ c’est ma couleur préférée’ while I was painting the pink lily,” says Stephen.
“Sometimes they ask questions and in my restricted French I’ll do my best to answer, but sometimes I ask Laurence to translate and then we’ll have a conversation,” he adds.
Although Stephen doesn’t currently offer painting lessons, it is something he is considering, as the pair are looking to move to a bigger property to accommodate Laurence’s parents. Stephen explains: “We love this place, but we’ve made one move and we can make another, and in a way it’s perhaps me becoming a bit more French. I accept that Laurence, who is an only child, feels a very strong responsibility towards her parents and I agree with that, but for it to happen, we need to be somewhere else.” Laurence is keen to stay close to Cordes, and with good reason. She is heavily involved with the Friends of English Theatre, a group set up by actor and near-neighbour Donald Douglas. For the former drama teacher, it’s a much-needed outlet for her passion. “We perform British plays, proper professional productions, several times a year throughout the summer,” she says. As for Stephen, no matter where they go, he will paint. “Being an artist is not really a matter of choice and sometimes it can feel more like having a rope around your neck. But really, having your own gallery in a beautiful medieval village, full of flowers, above a wonderful landscape? It couldn’t get much better!” He smiles, before adding: “There is one French expression that I’ve picked up for use in the shop. If someone is buying something, what else can I say, other than ‘ je suis content que vous l’aimiez’.”
“Owning a gallery in a beautiful medieval village – it couldn’t get much better!”
sur-Ciel The hilltop village of Cordes-
Stephen and Laurence in their studio
The village’s charming cobbled lanes are a pleasure to stroll through
This page, from top: The front of Atelier de la Barbacane – Stephen and Laurence’s studio and art gallery; the house has exceptional views of the countryside; Stephen enjoys painting colourful flowers Facing page, from top: Stephen hard at work in the studio; a pretty painting of lilies