A sunny day. As I cycle out of the campsite, I wave to the woman at the desk. She raises her hand and smiles. A different sign to each person, an expression of what she has taken from each, an acknowledging smile, the world experienced from her desk.
Solonge Heading south, I am soon in the Solonge. What a change! From dreaming river, wide hazy fields, stone crucibles of the soul, I am in a forest. And such a forest! Of turbulent growth, rampant and multifarious greenery, unrestrained vegetable energy, a bursting up, bursting out, with dense trees roped in vines and buried in dense undergrowth. And a place of wild animal energy, of snorting combative well-being, the grunting, headlong boar, the crashing bellowing stag. Nature let go, left free to its burgeoning, energetic competitiveness. A place not to tame but to fight; not to coerce but to do battle with; a place for man, his ancient blood up, to hunt.
In Celtic times this uncrossable forest marked the boundary between two of the great tribes, the Carnutes, whose capital was Orléans, and the Bituriges, centred on Bourges. It is reputed to be the location of one of the great Celtic nemetons, the sacred groves where druidic rituals were shared between the tribes. The sort of place that Lucan titillatingly described thus. ‘No bird nested in the nemeton, nor did any animal lurk nearby; the leaves constantly shivered though no breeze stirred. Altars stood in its midst, and the images of the gods. Every tree was stained in sacrificial blood. The very earth groaned, dead yews revived; unconsumed trees were surrounded with flame, and huge serpents twined round the oaks. The people feared to approach the grove, and even the priest would not walk there at midday or midnight lest he should then meet the divine guardian. At a certain season the druids assemble in a consecrated place on the frontier of the territory of the Carnutes which is taken as the centre of all Gaul.’
And the heart of Robb’s Celtic wisdom, a wisdom buried first by the mechanistic Romans, and then by the Christian Franks, the root of Gaul that has lived on in the paysan soul.
Developed as aristocratic hunting grounds in the fifteenth century, the Sologne became neglected, its impermeable soil making drainage difficult, so that by the nineteenth century it had become a ‘dreary, bare, lake-studded plateau … with its malarious, scrofulous, wretched inhabitants’ (Ormsby). A traveller records in 1863 ‘a desolate country, crossed by a difficult, sandy, deserted road; not a single château, farm or village in the distance, just a few lonely, wretched hovels.’ Such a contrast to the château- and trade-rich Loire valley, the managed Forest of Orléans just to the north! I realise that crossing the Loire I have passed out of the direct influence of Paris (which is, after all, only 60 miles north of Orléans), a step deeper into la France profonde.
The area was transformed by Emperor Louis-Napoleon from the 1860s, by drainage and afforestation, a personal interest because his mother’s family, the Beauharnais, lived here. Much of it was then bought up by the new, belle époche wealthy for hunting estates.
Hunting, the great aristocratic privilege, had been opened to all at the Revolution, to great rejoicing. And the first day of the hunting season is still celebrated with expeditions and fusillades across the country. I remember being woken by the blaze of gunfire all around our cottage in rural Aveyron, and the neighbour’s son triumphantly returning with a rabbit slung over his shoulder. They shot song birds and dropped them in the freezer one by one until they had enough for a meal. But by 1820s restrictions were being introduced, hunting was increasingly privatised, and these hunting estates are the result.
Which is how it is today. There are a few signs of agriculture. Here and there, a field has been hacked out of the forest for a crop of hay. Here a bog, there a lake among the trees. There are occasional houses, but behind high walls, buried in trees. There are tracks leading into the forest, but everywhere the signs, ‘no fishing’, ‘no entry’, ‘private’, ‘keep out’.
I find a Meridian marker, and a road parallel to and almost on the Meridian. I have just passed 500 miles on my milometer. I stand on the white line, photograph its recession to the vanishing point between the trees, imagine it across France to the Pyrenees. By the road are rough platforms. I imagine them to be the platforms that the original surveyors built, where they took their readings and made their meticulous notes. But they are for the guns (the instrument becomes the man) to shoot from.
In my ride along empty lanes between trees I come upon villages buried among the turbulent vegetation and hacked-out farm land. A house in this village has long ladders fixed diagonally across its walls as decoration. On a gate in this one is a handwritten sign, ‘Ste Montaine in peril. No to the quarry.’ There are apple trees and pear trees and vines. A length of road has an avenue of trees cut down, tree after tree. They lie like fallen idols, or gods, the resinous smell their ichor.
It is a place to explore, get lost in, to follow intriguing tracks leading off into the woodland. But every one has a sign, sign after sign, ‘no entry’, ‘private’, ‘keep out’.
But it is exactly in these unmade roads winding into the forest, the buildings glimpsed through the trees, the secret worlds at the ends of tracks, that my interest lies. For this is the world of the lost domain of Le Grand Meaulnes. I am, at last, in Alain-Fournier’s Sologne.
Le Grand Meaulnes was Alain-Fournier’s only novel. He was killed, age 27, in the second month of the Great War. For the French the book represents the world lost in that cataclysm: not just the old world, but the young men, and the possible futures. It fixes the moment after which nothing was the same again. It is a school set-text.
For myself, and fellow discoverers, it is one of those books that, if it catches you at that right moment, when you are young enough to crave adventure, old enough to be romantic, it keeps hold of you. You find your hand straying to it late at night, and you reread it, alone in the night, in the light of a single reading-lamp, your home, wife, family, life all around you out there in the dark beyond the lamplight, and you shake your head and smile, and go deeper each time into its labyrinth of friendship, love, loss, yearning, acceptance, while gazing often out, into the dark.
I turn south east, out of the Sologne, towards the birthplace of Henri Alban Fournier, as he was christened, at La Chapelle-d’Angillon. Looking at the map, I see that a few miles north (past La Surprise, yet another intriguing name on the map I won’t visit) is Aubigny-sur-Nère. A ‘Franco-Scottish’ festival is held on Bastille Day. The ‘Auld Alliance’ between France and Scotland is traced back to 882. It is an area where, according to Robb, Scottish veterans from the Hundred Years War were settled. I wonder if my bagpipe-playing friend is of the same clan. So many places passed, unvisited, on this trip, because of the discipline of the Meridian.
La Chapelle-d’Angillon in the midday sun, hot now, is deserted. Doors and shutters are closed, there is no sign of a shop. Just a bar, long closed, now a house that has kept the fading sign, ‘café A.Mercier bar’.
Fournier’s father was the schoolteacher here until Henri (as Alain was christened) was five, when they were moved to Epineuil-le-Fleuriel, in the south of the department. His parents returned to teach here when Alain was eighteen, when he was at school in Paris, and they were still here in 1914.
The place of his birth, 35 Avenue Alain-Fournier, is a neat house that must have been new in the 1890s, a child’s picture of a house, with a pitched roof, two windows for eyes upstairs, and a door like a surprised exclamation. It even has an ivy nose. But all the shutters are unpainted and rusted shut, and the garden is overgrown, with rampant white roses, and red camellia climbing the front. On the gate post there is an enamel sign, ‘Member of the Federation of writers’ houses, and the literary heritage.’ Patrimoines litéraires meaning so much more in French, and to the French, expressing both national identity and uniqueness. French exceptionalism again.
I cycle past the locked mairie, along a street emptied of all life (not a cat, not a bird) to a mural covering the side of a house. It is a feature of French towns and villages, this painting of large, descriptive murals on the rendered end-walls of houses. This one depicts ‘La Chapelle’s medieval fortifications’, and next to it is a board telling of a Greek hermit who settled by the river here, among the beehives that belonged to Bourges monastery. After his death in 865, the faithful came to pray at his tomb, Monks from Bourges built a chapel for the pilgrims (and, one imagines, collected the offerings). La Chapelle passed to Gilon of Sully. He was a descendant of the Vikings who had rowed up the Loire in the ninth century and sacked Theodulph’s palace. In 1064 Gilon gave the monks the right to glean in the forests, fish in the streams, and cut enough wood to build a new priory. He also fortified the village, and built the château. The archbishop who built the great gothic cathedral of Bourges came from here.
But my priority is Alain-Fournier. There is a museum dedicated to him at the château. And I have questions to be answered. While the geography of the book, the towns and villages mentioned and the area he gets lost in, ‘in the whole of the Solonge it would have been hard to find a more desolate spot’, clearly refer to this area, equally clearly the house, school, and the village bear no resemblance to what is here. I’m hoping the museum will unpick the story. I head for the château.
Château Chapelle-d’Angillon The museum is in a neat brick building, ‘Musée Alain-Fournier Jacques Rivière’. (Rivière was the close schoolfriend who married his sister), in smart art-nouveau lettering. ‘Ouvert 14h à 18h’. It is 15h, and very fermé. Indeed it is as shuttered as his birth place.
The château is a tall, four-square building set in a deep moat. It has round towers with conical roofs either side of the front door. I cross the drawbridge. On the door, in French, ‘Welcome! To the ancient sovereign principality of Boisbelle. To visit please ring the bell.’ I yank the ancient bell pull. The bell clangs sonorously. I wait for slow steps on stone, the creaking of rusty hinges. But no one comes. Many of the windows are broken, and it all looks rather dilapidated. But when I walk round the back, there is a large visitor car park, carefully laid out, with signs ‘do not drive on the grass’, completely empty. The place has been arranged as a major tourist attraction, but is quite deserted. Perhaps a case of ‘build it and they will come’, but they came not? Or perhaps a place that only comes to life in the two months of French holidays.
Past the car park it opens out into a deer park, with a lake and a splendid giant cypress tree. At the back of the château, overlooking the moat and the park, and facing the sun, there are well-maintained brick buildings around an attractive courtyard, with flower beds, statues and several modern, expensive cars, signs of a comfortable life. But no one.
I head out of the village, having met no one, and found no answer to the mystery of Meaulnes’ ‘lost domain’. I head out on a minor road towards Bourges, to avoid the dead-straight D940.
Through the village of Ivoy-le-Pré. This is the birthplace of Felix Millet, who invented a rotary engine that in 1892 he attached to the back wheel of a bicycle, creating the first moped. It was the progenitor of France’s universal Solexes, eight million of which were made, the very image for us of young France, with a cool quotient (especially when a slender girl with flying hair was bouncing along on it) the moped could never match. A failure in the 1895 Bordeaux-Paris-Bordeaux motor race ended its commercial life. ‘By 1900 the Millet marque had disappeared.’ But the engine had a second life as an aircraft engine in the first World War, and many planes were powered by it. How did a man from a village in the middle of nowhere, when the bicycle was a novelty, in the earliest days of internal combustion engines, come up with such an idea?
In Ivoy is yet another renovated washhouse. On it a sign: ‘Contes et legendes de nos lavoirs en pays Sancerre Sologne’, and the tale of a grumpy, plough-throwing, bachelor giant.
The Principality of Boisbelle I discover, was a kingdom within the kingdom of France. An independent realm in which the Prince of Boisbelle had sovereign rights, to make laws, administer justice, and mint money, and where the inhabitants paid no taxes. They were exempt from the hated gabelle (salt tax) and the equally hated corvée (the duty to provide their labour for road upkeep), paying dues only to the church. And they were exempt from military service. This utopia was established by the descendants of Viking pirates, and the privileges were repeatedly renewed until 1766.
This curiosity was, curiously, bought in 1605 by Sully, Henry IV’s chief minister, when his main base was at Sully-sur-Loire. Curiously, because Sully’s main achievement was in unifying and centralising the French state. But he was a devout Protestant. (As was Henry, but he had converted on becoming king, to stop the ruinous forty-year wars of religion.)
In 1609 Sully began to build, in the middle of Boisbelle, 10km from La Chapelle, a new town, dedicated to Henry, called Henrichemont. He designed it as a perfect square around a perfect square, with geometrically radiating roads. It represented an ideal harmony. It had its own money, its own mint. What was his idea?
To provide a refuge, in this state within a state, for Protestants, who were still persecuted in spite of the Edict of Nantes of 1598? Was he, in this, secretly encouraged by Henry? (It did indeed become a refuge for persecuted Protestants.)
Was it, rather, the blueprint, with its geometrical harmony, for a harmony between Catholics and Protestants? It was, after all, planned to have both Catholic and Protestant churches.
Was it to be the capital of this state within a state, where Sully could, in small, work out ideas that might then be applied to France? Who knows what might have happened here, what example set? But this is my imperturbable faith in utopian thinking. Whatever, a year after Sully began building his new town, Henry was assassinated. And by 1611 Sully had fallen from power. In 1685, after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Protestants left the town.
The Henrichemont I cycle through is an ordinary small French town, its high concepts neglected, its ideal proportions blurred, obscured by time and forgetting.
In 1766 Sully’s descendant gave up the Principality to the crown, and it lost all its privileges. What was a candidate for a French version of Passport to Pimlico had become a might-have-been. Although that doesn’t stop me, as I cycle along the quiet road under shading trees, writing the script. It would include the eccentric but canny aristocrat of La Chapelle, his feisty daughter, the radical school teacher, the tax-avoiding, smuggler-peasants, the recently-arrived ecoactivists, the at-first scandalised, but then gleefully complicit priest, in an unlikely alliance of utopians …
I pass the villages of Presly, Pigny and Fussy, who become, on a long slow climb (oh for Millet’s startling, rotating engine!), a trio of loveable, hairy dwarves forever playing tricks in a world of grumpy, plough-throwing giants. Such japes!
At the top of the hill I have my first view of Bourges, its great cathedral almost celestial in the late afternoon light, a shimmering destination for devout pilgrims.
Pilgrimage ‘Êtes-vous pèlerin?’ The girl on reception at the youth hostel in Bourges asks casually. A pilgrim, me …?
‘Are you on the Camino?’ Bourges is on one of the routes to Santiago de Compostela. Do many pilgrims stop here? I ask. Yes, many, she says.
The relics of St James became a popular pilgrimage destination after the ‘discovery’ of his bones at Compostela in the ninth century. It is glib, but not without a germ of truth, to see our holidays as echoes of medieval holy days, and tourism our pilgrimage. For don’t we holiday for ‘re-creation’, to recover our lost selves, to come face to face with our true selves? Don’t we often return from our holidays determined to change our lives? And with the growth of adventure holidays, extreme experiences, cultural tourism, aren’t they becoming more pilgrimage-like, our substitutes in an age of unbelief for the journey of spiritual significance? Indeed there been an enormous increase in recent years in pilgrims to Compostela, whether believers or not. Am I a pilgrim?
In his 1140 guide to the Camino, Pope Callixtus II writes: ‘The pilgrim route is a very good thing, but it is narrow. For the road which leads to life is narrow … it is the thwarting of the body, the increase of virtues, the road of righteousness, love of the saints … it makes gluttonous fatness vanish, constrains the appetites of the flesh … cleanses the spirit, leads us to contemplation.’
And my journey?
The road is narrow, certainly, but I allow myself a capricious latitude from it. It is less a thwarting than an exercising of the body. I have sought out the shrines of my saints; but are they saints in any meaningful way? Gluttonous fatness is certainly vanishing, as are the appetites of the flesh; but I welcome their absence because it increases my sense of well-being, rather than experiencing it as penance. My life has simplified, and I am thinking a lot – is that a cleansed spirit and contemplation? Or just mental meandering? Doesn’t the personally-determined nature of my journey damn it as self-indulgent, a self-selected piece of cultural tourism? And isn’t that just a fancy name for a holiday with pretensions? And am I not just wheeling over the surface of ‘le spectacle’, that simulacrum of reality created by consumer capitalism? And less ‘experiencing’ it than recording it, with notebook, ipad, iphone, camera? To what purpose?
‘No,’ I reply. But still I’m not sure.
Robb, The Ancient Paths
Ormsby, France p159.
Robb, The Discovery of France p9, quoting Grandsire. And p38.
Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes p46.