A sense of place: settling on the rocks

Jean Heaven recounts her experience of moving into a new home in France

Houses on rocksIn South West France in high summer, the sun doesn’t stroke, or caress; it presses, penetrates to muscle and bone. It loosens taut shoulders and scorches away tension. The herbs in the garrigue release a mist of oils and the air smells of incense.

The house is set in rock, grown like a pale crystal on the mountain. The Mayor says, (Catalan accent masking his French) ‘No land, No land? Ca va?’
‘Yes, definitely! Ca definitely va!’ In Britain I couldn’t even cope with a garden the size of a kitchen table.

The house has four storeys, and a barn attached to one side. The roof is made from thick stone tiles in an oval shape, like the roofs in picture books of fifty years ago. The walls are feet thick, made of a mish-mash of stone; limestone, granite, pink and white marble. Some stones are more than doorstep size, others the size of a fist. The overall impression is of a tall house, Cotswold coloured, with the palest blue shutters. It is set in a steep mountain slope, which swoops up to a blue arc of sky. Amongst the scrub oaks and blond grasses, thyme and wild lavender bloom. The last time we were there the spring had been a cool one, so cascades of iris were still twisting down the slope to the valley road. Some iris flowers are light, almost blue, others are a purple so dark they’re nearly black. They especially love the earth of these mountains, and they bloom in yellows, gold and crimson alongside the more common purple.

On the road just below the house is la petite chapelle, which is like a little stone-tiled house, with a grill in front. Inside, half a metre up, is St Gauderique, the patron saint of the region. He can be found in lists of medieval saints, but Disappears in more modern times. He’s obviously been relegated. Dressed in 17th century costume in muted brown and holding a spade, he appears entirely appropriate for an agricultural saint. The story goes that during serious storms, when crops were battered and spoiled, the crops belonging to Gauderique were miraculously spared. I must admit, although I am an agnostic, finding a saint by the front door is a comforting thing.

The house, slightly above the sinuous track that climbs the mountain, faces the majority of the village. On the far side of the Caillan, a tea-coloured trout river that bisects the village, houses are sprinkled atop a conical hill and along the road. The hill is crowned by ‘le petit chateau’, a ruined castle with its crenulated wall and two-bell stone belfry.

On my side of the valley it is possible to park and have goods delivered from the side of the road that is etched into the rocks. ‘Road’ seems a rather grand name for this terrifying tarmac track, which snakes upwards in hairpin turns, on which you are either next to a precipice or jagged rocks. On the far side of the river, very narrow and steep concrete or cobbled paths meander around the houses, and all goods, however large, must be carried to their destinations. The wealthier of the residents have useful mechanical trolleys, about the size of the special buggies provided by airports to carry disabled passengers from A to B. Without a trolley the choice is wheelbarrow and muscle or perhaps, as in times past, a donkey.
As we carried cupboards and saucepans into the damp interior on that first night, neighbours arrived and invited us for aperos. We stood in a large kitchen-cum-sitting room with chestnut wood ceiling and floor. Beams, entire tree trunks, supported the floors above. Pierre pointed at the scarlet divan, (we were obliged to buy furniture and fittings with the house) placed incongruously in the corner. ‘When Angelique was married, they spent their wedding night there!’

I must have looked surprised, because his wife Francine quickly explained that, traditionally, jolly neighbours and friends were expected to harass the newly weds until well into their wedding night, so the bride’s family had arranged with the previous owner of our house for the young couple to hide away there and enjoy their wedding night with just the two of them present. I looked at the stubby divan, jammed between the gas-heater and the fridge and hoped the couple had found the room more romantic than it looked.

We left, striding up the steep paths opposite, to Francine and Pierre’s stone house, grateful to postpone the serious work of moving in for a while. I noticed during the evening that the village on this side of the river had a very good view of our home; we’d have to be careful or we’d become the entertainment for the rest of the village!

Two hours later, after eight o’clock, we returned, definitely jollier, unsteady and carefree. We were offered an amazing choice of alcoholic drinks, made from honey, pear, peach, blackcurrants and fennel, alongside red and white wine, Ricard and champagne. I’d enjoyed the Kir Royale (cassis and champagne) and consequently felt quite unable to continue organising any of our possessions. I flopped onto the scarlet divan that had been Angelique’s marriage bed. It was hard and lumpy. Snatching up the red blanket I investigated the layers beneath and discovered the straw mattress. Imagine the wildlife inside! Angelique’s marriage bed or not, that would have to go.

Later, in our spare Scandinavian bed from Ikea, we gazed out at the silhouette of the hill, the chateau, the fingernail moon, sliding in a great arc over the deep blue, and went to sleep to the gurgle and gush of the river below – or was it the boiler over-boiling…? Ah well, tomorrow was another day.

Jean Heaven

About Jean Heaven

Who am I? Well, I'm no longer a teacher, no longer a social worker. Now a widow of eccentric filmmaker Simon, mother of Rupert, Pippa, and Jo and grandmother to their children. Living in Herefordshire and South West France, a regular visitor to the treats in London, I write, attempt and aspire to understand the complex world we're living in, but above all enjoy the people around me and my good fortune at being alive and well at a time of accelerating change.