Close Encounter of a Caprine Kind

Just outside our village, we have what is known as La Dechetterie Verte – The Green Tip. It is a place where you can leave all your garden rubbish. In reality its just a large pile of steaming, decomposing greenery. It is located at the top of a steep hill, on a local farmer’s land. When it gets too piled up, the council workers come and shove it down the hillside…nothing too technical.

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At this time of year there is always a goodly assortment of greenery which comes in handy for decorating the plant pots and containers dotted around the village.

Yesterday, there I was, on official business searching for suitable foliage for Christmas Decorations. I took Faithless Hound Zouzou with me. He lolled in the front seat of the jalopy all ready to defend me against any irate hunters who might be out and about searching for their Christmas dinner. I’ve met them before. They have an extraordinary ability to pop up from behind a bush and shout and wave at me. At first, I thought they were just being friendly…then I learned a few French swear words. But I digress.

So we rumbled up to the green tip, the old car belching and burping like a cow with belly ache. Frosty morning, sun shining, blue sky, just the day for a trip to the tip.

We arrived. Faithless Hound zoomed off in search of who knows what and, me, bravely squidging through the mud in leaky boots, I found what I was looking for. Conifer branches, glossy green laurel, bits of cedar all thoughtfully dumped under a load of tree branches.

I set to with a will, a song in my heart, squidging, squelching, pulling and tugging until I got to the good stuff. Carefully I arranged these in piles by the old jalopy. I was just retrieving a particularly good branch of conifer when a peculiar aroma tickled my nostrils. A sort of fusty, dusty, I hesitate to be blunt…but… it was a stink. I turned around and there was this large, well largish, horned Beast chomping away at my neat piles of foliage. Outraged I waved my conifer branch at it.

‘Yah, shoo, get off that.’ I cried.

The Beast looked at me, yellow eyes glowing. Its jaw worked steadily from side to side. It gave a snort, scornful, I thought and resumed its munching.

‘Hey that’s mine and don’t you know it’s poisonous to the likes of you?’

Another snort and a rather impatient stamp of a hoof. My goodness it was in need of a pedicure. Its hooves were so long they had curled up at the front like a pair of Chinaman’s slippers.

Of course I realised my mistake – it is one many of Les Anglais who visit these shores make – that of supposing all the natives speak English if only one shouts loud enough. Its unresponsiveness showed me clearly that it was a French Beast.

Waving my conifer branch I took, yes I admit it, a very hesitant step towards it. I have had some experience of Beasts like this and still have the scars to prove it. I bawled:

‘Casses-toi, bete, fiches le camp.’

It looked up at me and took a couple of steps forward. It then occurred to me that perhaps this was a Spanish Beast. Perhaps it had spent a happy hour duty-free shopping in Andorra and taken a wrong turn on the way home. Unfortunately ‘no hablo Espanol’ was the only phrase I remembered from my rain-sodden honeymoon in sunny Majorca.

By now the Beast was tossing my branches around, making a right bordel of my neat heaps. I advanced again, waving my branch, The Beast stamped and snorted. This was looking dangerous. Where was Faithless Hound when I needed him?

As if on cue, FH appeared with what looked like a mammoth’s femur in his jaws. He looked at me and then at the Beast, dropped to the ground and calmly began gnawing away.

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Something had to be done. Pulling together my two thin threads of courage I advanced, conifer branch at the ready. When under stress my linguistic skills (such as they are) desert me and I resort to the language of God’s Own County…Yorkshire.

‘Yah shoo, yer girt lump o’nowt. Bugger off. I’m not laikin’ wi’ likes o’thoo.’

I shook my conifer at him. Shook it real good and proper I did. The Beast abandoned its purloined branches and stalked towards me. I retreated, cut off from the safety of the jalopy. It padded forward, head lowered. One, two, three paces. I could see the steam puffing out from its nostrils

At this point, FH took over. Deserting his treasure to rescue his beloved mistress he rose, a bit leisurely though and emitted a polite woof followed by a series of rumbling growls. Clearly FH spoke the lingo. The Beast tossed its head and scarpered up the hillside. Well satisfied, FH returned to his bone.

‘Come on, we’re off’ I muttered, stuffing the greenery into the jalopy. I had a nasty feeling there might be a whole battalion of Beasts hiding in the bushes waiting to launch a full-on assault. FH was not very gruntled at being hustled into the car, minus mammoth bone, but what was an admonishing nip compared to a possible attack by slavering Beasts.

After all that, I did manage to put a few pots together but I think the incessant rain is going to spoil them.

So please, if any of you know someone, somewhere, who might like a brown, hairy, crinkly-horned, smelly billy goat for Christmas will you please let them know. It is terrorising our green tip. They are welcome to come and get it…no ifs and hopefully no butts.

A Journey Back in Time

The Ariege Departement in SW France possesses extensive cave systems within its limestone mountains some of which have prehistoric cave paintings. The Grotte de Niaux near Tarascon-sur-Ariege is one of the few caves that is still open to the public where you can view examples of these paintings.

There is a narrow, vertiginous road snaking up to what is now the cave entrance and visitor centre. The scenery is rugged; massive limestone cliffs lower over one side of the road and a steep wooded drop awaits the careless driver on the other.

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The Grotte de Niaux is part of a large cave system that delves deep into the mountain-side. The entire network has been explored, most of it remains closed to the public as too difficult and dangerous to access. 

Over time, the exploitation of the Niaux site has led to a deterioration of the paintings. So visits are limited to 20 people – by reservation. This allows the cave to maintain the temperature of 12° necessary for the preservation of the paintings. There is no lighting within the cave and no photographs are allowed.

We are issued with a square hand lamp that gives off a dull yellow light and we walk from the bright sunshine into the deep black of a gallery that winds deep into the heart of the cave. The journey back in time begins.

Everywhere the ground is uneven. Sometimes it is gently bumpy with the floor of washed sand, hardened over the centuries. Other times we stumble through round depressions in the rock where water lingers and a film of moisture makes it slippery underfoot. Our progression is, to put it mildy, somewhat tortuous.

We are just the latest in a long line of visitors as a rock, inscribed with graffiti testifies. The earliest scratching is dated 1602. There are few stalactites/stalagmites left in the cave since these were robbed out in Victorian times to make artificial grottos in gardens.

For the first 400 metres or so there are no paintings, nothing. We arrive at a point where the cave narrows. A long-ago rockfall of great boulders from the roof of the cave partially blocks the way and with warnings not to touch the sides of the cave to avoid contamination by us, we stoop and squeeze through a narrow passage. As we emerge we see the first signs of our prehistoric ancestors – the Magdelenians – late stone-age people from between 17000 and 10000 BC.

A series of symbols – dots, dashes, lines and bars in series. Some are red some are black. The red is haematite, the black manganese dioxide or charcoal. These were mixed with something to bind them – either water or fat. But what do they mean, these symbols? Current thinking is that they mark the entrance to what was, for our ancestors, a sacred place.

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We continue along the vast gallery and despite the unevenness of the ground and the winding route it does feel like we are treading in the footsteps of our ancestors. The trackway disappears ahead of us, swallowed up in the darkness.

Around the 800 metre mark the path narrows before opening into a wide area, rather like a cross-roads, with other tunnels leading off. Our main path climbs steeply and we find what we have stumbled, slipped and slid to see. We arrive at the magnificent round chamber of the Salon Noir – the Black Chamber.

We are told to shut off our lamps and put them to one side lest we are tempted to shine an unwelcome light on the paintings. The chamber, round and vaulted echoes with our murmurs. It is said to be the only place where the cave answers back.

There, in the pitch black, our guide uses her torch to show us the wall paintings.

They are grouped together in separate panels; composed of animals, mostly bison, ibex, horses and deer; represented in profile, as if suspended in air. They are both realistic and stylistic; mostly outlined in black with occasional use of red and the artists have cleverly used the undulating forms of the rock.

We stumble back towards the daylight, quieter now and I’m preoccupied…not so much with the paintings themselves whose age and condition alone make them something quite wondrous but more with the people who painted them. I imagine them making the journey we have taken; I see them crouched, uncomfortably against the rock creating their art by the light of a weak, flickering flame.

Why did our ancestors paint these? What meaning did they attach to the paintings?

One suggestion is that these people possessed a sense of a spiritual existence which is represented by the animals and symbols…a religion if you like. The paintings are deep inside a cave system which was not inhabited by them so they must have had a strong reason to penetrate so deep into the cave.

Perhaps in a world where they were surrounded by these animals they saw themselves as an integral part of this world, not above it? Something that perhaps we modern visitors should remember more often.

Perhaps they believed that the rock face represented a curtain between their world and the spirit world?

So many questions. No answers just theories. 

Don’t Mention the War

It’s been an interesting week during which the idea of buying a house in France took centre stage once more. This is an old idea that pushes itself to the forefront every now and then especially when it’s the end of May, 9 degrees outside, blowing a hoolie with the occasional hail storm thrown in. Call me a big softie if you please – je m’en fiche. It’s nearly the longest day and where was spring? Where is summer – South-west France I reckon.

I’ve always been a bit of a Francophile ever since my first trip there when the St Tropez police force turned a jail cell into a hotel room for a tired, bewildered 16 year old, abandoned at Nice airport by the family she was supposed to be staying with. I had omitted to carry their address with me such is the confidence of youth in plans laid and made; I spent all my holiday money on a taxi from Nice to St Trop (because I knew the family lived somewhere around St T) and eventually the taxi driver threw me out at the police station. The sargeant and his men made me welcome, introduced me to smelly cheese and made up a bed in a cell whilst they pursued their enquiries. In a last moment of defiance before sleep I remember slathering on some self-tanning cream and muttering about not going home without a St Tropez tan. In fact the result was more St Tropez tangerine.

Then with Ex No.1, we spent three weeks most years bombing around France in a little white MG Midget with all our camping gear stowed behind the front seats. Even back then, property-buying lured us and we got as far as viewing a few cottages. Wrecks one and all and not even habitable wrecks at that. Very serious, very British in our ankle socks and sandals we solemnly inspected roofs, floors, walls and poo-filled french drains. On one occasion Ex No.1 jumped up and down on a bedroom floor to demonstrate the depredations of beetle and bug. The vendor and his neighbour, two veritable ancient wrecks themselves, gawped at Ex and then at each other. The vendor whispered:

“Mais, il est fou, n’est-ce-pas?” and twizzled his finger around the side of his head in the international sign for madness.
His neighbour, more sanguine, chewed the cud a while and then gave a gorgeous Gallic shrug.
“C’est la guerre” he pronounced by way of explanation and then, diving behind a great oak beam that was holding the ceiling up, he aimed an imaginary machine gun at us.
“Ack, ack-ack, ack-ack-ack”
The spittle sprayed us even if the bullets didn’t. Then he came out from his placement, walked carefully around us before saluting smartly and stomping off, presumably back to HQ.

I have no idea to which war he was referring – unless he was prescient of course and foresaw the war that was to end our marriage.