Jour­ney’s end

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

French Property News - - Contents -

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.

River ram­blings

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

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