From childhood holidays and solo forays, Valerie Thompson’s French travels led to a home in the Dordogne valley and a fascination with its many hidden stories
An author’s fascination with the land and legends of the Dordogne valley
France was always my first love for holidays. When I was 11, my father, a teacher, exchanged our modest house in Surrey for a flat on Rue Brune in Paris, now lost beneath the périphérique. For three weeks we explored Paris from the antique shops of the Clignancourt district, to the Sacré Coeur, the riverside, Le Louvre, Notre-dame, the Eiffel Tower and even the catacombs. During my teens we sometimes holidayed in the south of France. Returning to Paris at 18 with a college friend, I remembered which Métro to take and where to find places of interest. I was hooked.
I made my first solo foray to France about 31 years ago. Fed up with wet Welsh painting holidays, I rented a cottage in the Loire Valley. It was a miserable place, with no cooker, lampshades or comfy armchairs. Browsing the estate agents in Chinon, I realised how inexpensive houses were in France. Muttering for months to my husband about wanting to buy one, he finally relented.
Together with my eldest daughter and one of her friends, I planned our househunting visit. Pure chance drew me to the southern tip of Corrèze, or the ‘Hidden Triangle’ as described by Freda White in her book Three Rivers of France, and used by me as the title of my first book. I borrowed a house where the side path was running with water; wellies were essential.
Trying the stiff key in every outside door, we eventually opened one to find the room seething with buzzing and spinning flies. Spraying killed the live ones and we took turns to sweep out the bodies. The old house was freezing and we slept in tights and jumpers, with coats on the beds. None of the chipped china matched. We never managed to get the boiler to work. But we found the area delightful.
South, west, east… Looking further afield, we headed south, where Lot was pretty but more than a day’s journey from the coast. Going west into the Dordogne department, the landscape wasn’t as interesting, the population too English and the houses had less character. East was too cold.
I loved ancient Beaulieu (which would become my local town) with its massive abbey church. I loved the varied countryside with tree-covered hills, riverside meadows dotted with walnut trees, and rocky outcrops along the River Dordogne. In a nearby village, Brivezac, I found a solid stone house, needing vision and renovation, which I could decorate in country style, with matching china, a cooker, heating and a cosy living room; it was within my limited budget. Improvements, the purchase of land (we now have a pool and a barn, which we partly converted into the grandchildren’s games room) have added to the total cost, but my husband now finds it the most relaxing place for holidays. As the billowing bands of mist drift up the hills in the morning, our sleepy village, with its characteristic stone or shell-shaped-slate roofs, is peaceful and there is little noise except maybe an old tractor, the river sploshing over rapids or the high cries of wheeling buzzards seeking their breakfast prey.
Over the years, my fascination with the stories surrounding the River Dordogne grew to the point of obsession. From the standing stones and dolmen of prehistory, through the Roman occupation, the final defeat of the Gauls at nearby Vayrac, the turmoil when the Cathars and Templars were suppressed, the devastation caused by the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion, the oppression of lepers, industries such as fishing, papermaking and the transportation of wood for wine-barrels, the present decline in population and agriculture – I absorbed as much as I could.
For five years I drove the length of the river with a friend, on sometimes perilous backroads, through villages and hamlets, taking notes and photos. I researched in numerous books, in English and French, keeping information on file cards and then started writing about this enchanting area.
Over the years my fascination with the stories surrounding the River Dordogne grew to the point of obsession
My second book, From Source to Sea, a Meander Down the Dordogne Valley, with my own sketch maps and drawings in pen and ink, is now available from Amazon or Lulu.com. Though it covers a great number of different topics, I never dwell too long on any one, skipping briskly on to the next.
One highlight of our research was exploring the history of Brivezac. To discover that its abbey was of greater importance in the past than nearby Beaulieu’s, was a revelation. Now there is just a small church with a few robbed-out stones scattered in the walls of the village barns. Where the former cloisters stood, although no walls remain, it’s now the village boules pitch.
A tunnel is said to run under the hollow church floor to a Renaissance house opposite, thought to have been the family home of Jeanne d’albret, sister of Francis I of France. During the Wars of Religion, the bones of Saint Fauste were scattered to the winds but her splendid reliquaries survive in the Musée du Moyen Age in Paris, where, though the room was officially closed when I visited, I was permitted to look at and photograph the Limoges-enamelled caskets.
All is revealed Another special discovery was Mezels, an apparently unimportant village, where persecuted lepers were allowed to shelter. Following a small roadside sign, I found the well which the lepers used – the nearest to the river, so they would not pollute the villagers’ water.
On the riverbank they must have built simple shelters of bent branches covered with cloth or animal skins, and fished in the river for sustenance. When looking into the derivation of Mezels, I discovered links with the word ‘ mazar’ (a begging-bowl) and even with place names in England where lepers had been looked after.
Following a sign to Sigoniac, we arrived at an extraordinary prehistoric site uncovered by accident. The owner had started to dig a path, only to expose a vertical wall, a ready-made track and another wall the other side. This led to steps made with single stones for each foot, left, right, ending near a spring. Excavating the crumbling, muddy, stony platform on which his house stood, the owner found three hidden round chambers, one with a weird acoustic, another with a still pool of water, over which cult celebrants would have had to step.
Below the house is a clapper-bridge, of large slabs, over a stream leading to an overgrown marsh, thick with reeds and willow trees, where I am sure he will find votive offerings when he finds time to clear it. A private museum in his house displays his finds in historic order. I was thrilled to be allowed to handle the polished stone axe heads and Roman objects he has unearthed.
Come on this journey with me!
Valerie’s husband Tony Valerie’s drawing of a local dolmenExploring the Autoire waterfall in Lot Wayside crosses
“The most relaxing place for holidays.”The Autoire waterfall in Lot Valerie loves exploring the Dordogne valleyThe solid stone house is in Brivezac The village of Curemonte in Corrèze has three castles A beautiful wall of flowers
Valerie’s book is full of her beautiful sketches, like this one of the riverside town of Argentat