It rains a lot in the night. Mine is the only tent on the site, among blank-eyed motorhomes. After the man from Felixstowe, I see no one. There are individual bird songs from 5, by 5:30 a full, raucous, competitive cacophony. I get up to mist, greyness, and a forecast of rain.
The weather forecast for the next few days is poor, and my days are ill-planned. I intend just to get on, perhaps find some way of sorting out my gears, head for the Aveyron and my former home.
I set out at 7:45, without breakfast. As I’m leaving, the campsite lady points out my hat that I must have dropped last night. It’s sodden. She has told me that it’s a good road to Ussel. I usually avoid the main roads, but it is Sunday, so there will be little traffic until at least ten, and I just want to get on.
It’s cloudy, with some rain. I make good time, even though the road soon rises to 800m. I remember with gratitude the work of the engineer Trésaguet in the 1780s here in the Limousin. Recognising that the straight roads of Trudaine, made in the 1730s, were fine on the flat, but less practical in the uplands, he introduced a gradient limit of 8%, or 1 in 12. Fine, as Robb writes, for a fully laden mule, and, coincidentally, a cyclist on a decently-geared bike. So that the arrows of Trudaine across the lowlands are in the Massif replaced by Trésaguet’s sweeping curves. The inner conflict in the French between the direct straight line and the elegant curve, the rational and the aesthetic, is neatly combined in their roads, a resolution that is both a metaphor and a reality.
The rain sets in, and I stop at La Courtine for coffee. It is a village in the middle of nowhere, transformed in 1904 when an army camp for thousands of men was created around, indeed in, the village, and every peasant became an instant bar-owner. Russian soldiers were based here, and in 1917 when the Revolution happened, they dismissed their officers, formed a soviet, and ran the base for four months, before the French army recaptured it after five days fighting. It was occupied by the Germans from 1942.
A group of soldiers in uniform stands by the garrison gate, bright-eyed, bursting with energy, boyish. I buy a millefeuille at the baker’s, served by an elegant black girl.
Into the one bar open, a military bar, with a mass of insignia, badges, even military caps pinned to the wall behind the bar, going back generations. An oldish woman, dark hair pulled back, smoker’s husk, recovering the bar from Saturday night, says, I probably haven’t got what you want – meaning, I guess, that the long list of food displayed isn’t yet available. I say, if you have coffee, milk, and a large cup, you have what I want. As she prepares a grand crème, I imagine her life here. At first, as a country girl, impressed by their swaggering, boastful virility, maybe falling for it, over the years watching them grow younger, turn into noisy, insecure boys, sympathetic. While observing, with admiration, as I have in pubs near army camps in Dorset, the way, no matter how drunk, or carried away by the allure of girls the squaddies are, they look out for each other. Not just in fights, either, but in keeping each other safe, getting them home. What the Australians endearingly call ‘mateship’, a word whose very awkwardness is so working-class male.
I pass a village bus shelter, decorated with a country scene: smiling animals, including an owl, emblem of Athena, and a cow with a crescent moon for horns, symbol of Isis, goddess of magic. I am close to the Meridian.
Ussel It’s raining, I’m cold and wet, and I haven’t eaten a decent meal for two days, so I stop in Ussel for a Sunday lunch. I still imagine I will find a traditional family restaurant with family parties, motherly patronne, and just one dish, a huge pot of the slow-cooked ‘dish of the day’ on the menu.
It is a grey town, on a grey day. I stop by the church. The congregation is just coming out, people stand around, as if waiting for something. By the church are life-size sculptures made from small plates of dark welded bronze, mostly animals, two crocodiles, a horse, a bear, also a spiky-armoured samurai, unsettling, menacing even, these plated, metal creatures, as if they are about to clank into life, more menacing in the confines of the tall, dark stone. I just catch the small supermarket before it closes at midday. There is a noisy bar, not what I had in mind. It’s early for lunch, but still I can find nothing even promising in the centre, so reluctantly I head out on the road to Bort-les-Orgues. There are several cafés and restaurants on the long road out, but all are closed, except one, and that’s empty – is it even open? I go into the bar next door, part of the same establishment.
It’s noisy, full, like the public bar of a popular working-class pub in England at Sunday lunchtime. There are no women. The patron is huge as a stevedore, in a vest, with tattoos on his massive, fleshy arms, dark as a fairground gypsy, only the earrings are missing. He pours a ricard with care, picks up an ice cube with tongs, delicate as an egg, puts it gently into the ricard, hands the glass to the customer with a moment’s pause, like a sacrament, then busies himself with the next customer. A shrunken man comes in, shakes hands all round, including with me, saying bonjour to each. I struggle to the bar, ask the man if they are open for food, but of course, please, please, ushers me through into the empty dining room.
I take a seat in the window. I always do this, because I like to look out, and because I’m sure that people will come into a restaurant or café if they see someone inside, especially by the window. I always want to bring trade to the establishment.
The restaurant is decorated in florid bad taste. The individual elements are questionable – rag-rolled mustard walls, purple leatherette chairs, orange serviettes on green paper tablecloths, on the wall optically disturbing, curious elongated metal figures of ‘elegant’ ladies with small dogs, a revisiting of 1950s ‘contemporary’. The whole is a chaos. The patronne, alerted by the patron, bustles in. She is large, dark, with long frizzed hair, all in black, wearing a loose gold belt, she narrows down from a voluminous loose top to big-hipped tights, to slender ankles, even a gold ankle chain, and stiletto heels. This decor is proudly hers, style in contrast to her husband’s ramshackle bar. I decide they are devoted to each other. I order what looks like it might be a mixed grill. I have a ravenous desire for meat.
As I sip my beer, I check on Ussel. A Gaulish foundation and a Gaulish name. (I note that close by are Lignareix, Loudeix, Courteix. Perhaps the patron is Obelix, the patronne, Eponine.) More Celtic connections. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was a centre for butchery and tanning. In June 1944, as the various resistance groups became active after the D-day landings, 55 maquisards were massacred in the town, among the granite buildings where the metal menagerie is now. The town was also the scene of battles between the maquisards and the Brigade Jesser, a notorious outfit set up by the Germans to suppress the Resistance. The Massif Central was one of the most important centres of the Resistance in 1944, diverting thousands of Germans from defending against the Allied landings. Nancy Wake, the formidable New Zealander resistance fighter, would have cycled through here on her epic 400km ride to the radio-operator at Chateauroux to call for help for the 2,000 defending le Reduit de la Truyère against 20,000 German troops in June 1944. The arms drop came two weeks too late.
A glum-looking French family, drawn in by the €13 menu, not having seen ‘not on Sunday’ in tiny letters, are trying to find something affordable on the menu, requests from the children furtively put down, the quiet desperation of the unhappy family. An old couple have quietly taken their regular table, settled with a contented sigh for their customary weekly meal out, sharing, in sips, a small carafe of wine.
And then I note that the town was part of the fiefdom of the Viscount of Ventadour. Ventadour rings a bell. Of course! Bernat de Ventadour (Ventadorn in occitain) was the leading troubadour of the 12th century. Troubadour, a favourite word. He was born, I learn, in the nearby castle of Ventadorn (I’ll use the Occitain), son of a baker, learned to write and sing love poems dedicated to the count’s wife, Marguerite. But on making the mistake of falling in love with her (wrong artistically, for the troubadour song is dedicated to the unattainable, even to unattainability itself. But it turned out to be a good career move), he had to flee to the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine. She had just married Henry II, and she took Bernat with her to the English court. His work influenced the trouvère tradition in French, specifically Chretien de Troyes, from whom we get the Arthurian romances. Dante was a great admirer, Occitan the only language other than Italian used in his Commedia. When Eleanor fell from favour in England, Bernat returned to the south and the court of Raymond V of Toulouse, father of Raymond VI, who was to have such problems over the Albigensians. Another favourite word.
I can’t quite get my head round a court of love in this Massif gloom, but on this cold, wet Sunday, I am transported to the warm realm of love song, and to the sunny south. While in the north Suger of Saint-Denis and Bernard of Clairvaux were strengthening the papacy and the crown, and Suger was inventing the Gothic, in the South it was an age of less formal religion, and of courtly love. And I like to imagine that while Bernard was being heckled by the ‘heretics’ in Albi, Bernat was enjoying the court life of Toulouse. And I am beginning to get my head round the astonishing richness and complexity of the twelfth century – courtly love and scholastic debate, Gothic building and heretic burning – in the land we now call France. How intriguing it would be to visit the château of Ventadorn, just a few kilometres away … But no time on this trip.
Two women have come in. Middle-aged, lively. Are they a couple, having just discovered their true sexuality? Colleagues, friends, happily single, sharing a lunch? Lunching before heading for the bars, and fun?
As I tuck into lamb chop, thick bacon, two sorts of sausage, and chips, greasy but robust, eight bikers enter! Four couples, all in leathers. I’d seen them pass and then return to park opposite. And suddenly, as I munch through my meaty meal, I’m in a movie, writing scenarios for the movie. This, around me, is the set-up: the dysfunctional family with the rebellious adolescent daughter, the unreadable and yet oddly available women, the inseparable old couple, the eight bikers, have been introduced as a characters. It’s all set. Now something will happen. Someone will burst in, to make a desperate hold-up, or maybe they’re escaping from a failed heist, and the police, or betrayed associates, are in hot pursuit. A hostage-taking bomber or, in a period film, a fleeing partisan. Each remembering, years later, (told in flashback?) what they did, and didn’t do. Decisions will be made, people will die, those who survive will be changed. At dawn the survivors will stagger out, blinking, into the grey light, the camera will pull back, THE END. I try different scenarios as I eat my fruit tart, continue as I drink my coffee.Around me the diners carry on, oblivious.
I pay the bill, and, stomach lined and filled, I leave.
I continue along the main road, south-east now, across the Meridian (nothing) heading for my night’s stop as directly as possible. I have booked into a hotel near Bort-les-Orgues. I struggled to find cheap hotels on-line in the Massif, hence the camping. There is still little traffic, for the day is more like October than June, it rains, it eases, I think it will clear, and then it returns. But in the breaks in the rain there are clear views of the Auvergne, the mountains of the Auvergne, very clear, very blue, the blue mountains of the Auvergne.
But I continue to have problems with the gears slipping. My only solution is once more to lock the rear changer in one gear, using the front changer to give me two gears, far too limited for the ups and downs of the Massif. I will write of my gears and my bike here, and not again.
My bike is old, but I had thought it sound. It has taken me across Britain, Northern Europe, France, up Lake District passes and Mont Ventoux. The frame was hand-built for my father, and on my continental rides I’m taking the thought of him, as well as his bike, to places he never went. I don’t know what the problem is. I had thought of myself as Hilton’s ‘old timer’ on his outdated bike. But on his bike ‘the transmission – chainset, chain and back sprocket, the heart of a bicycle – is expertly and beautifully maintained’. I have failed to maintain the heart of my old bike. I ponder during the rest of the trip whether what I had thought of as a classic, that needs careful but routine maintenance, is in fact a vintage, requiring constant care. I email a friend, ‘it’s like driving across the US in a Morris 1000 with a dodgy clutch – adventurous certainly, admirable perhaps, even heroic, but not good sense.’ But that, and my other thought, that the bike is so heavy because I am carrying my father, are inflated self-dramatisations. When I get back to England, I solve the problem. And a couple of weeks after, I meet a group of cyclists all riding bikes of my vintage, each one with the carefully-preserved accessories of the fifties and sixties, the golden age of English cycling.
The sad thing is that with the bike working properly, with the full range of gears, it would have been a much more interesting ride, I could have taken better advantage of Trésaguet’s careful roadbuilding. As it is, I ride by using the tricks of ‘age and guile that beat youth and innocence’ to quote a P J O’Rourke book my son gave me, putting aside possible solutions and, concentrating on survival, (walking where necessary, holding the gear levers in place where practical), on getting there, learned over a lifetime of cycling. Of getting by. What the French in the War called système de débrouillage. The problems continue throughout the journey, but it would be tedious to mention them again. When I get back, I try something counter-intuitive, cleaning off all the oil I’ve been lavishing on the gear mechanisms (lubrication the watchword on bicycles). And the changers, front and back, work perfectly. I struggle, and fail, to work out what lesson I might learn from this.
I travel on. I am passing through, living within myself, within the small (and yet limitless) compass of my self, oddly, contentedly, independently self-sufficient. That word again. Who am I? The locus, the centre of gravity, the null point of everything that happens around me and to me. Like one of those Gormley figures that is the person-shaped absence at the centre of rods pushed in from (or radiating out on?) every side.
Between Crépiat near La Courtine, and Sauliac near Bort-les-Orgues the name endings change definitively from ‘at’ to ‘ac’.
The hotel is in a small village outside Bort-les-Orgues. How strange, after camp sites and a youth hostel, tents and a dormitory, to have my own room, four walls, a double bed to lay out my things on – to sleep in! having made a bed of my clothes for a week. There are wardrobes and drawers in which to place my things, a bathroom. All mine! With a decor, however unexceptional (romanticised rural views) to respond to, to have an opinion on. Society. I hang up and spread out all my wet things. They will be dry by the morning. And I will be able to pack my four panniers with a renewed order. A long, hot shower.
The village is miles from anywhere, so I upgrade to demi-pension. I eat chastely alone. Behind a screen a Dutch couple eat à la carte. I’m in the empty bar, at my own small table, like a Peynet character on a desert island. The patronne serves each course as if she is clockwork, absenting herself. While insistently making her presence felt by slapping noisily across the long, empty floor in her loose slippers. A plate of cold meats. Pig hock, with mashed potato, mushrooms and beans. A plate of cheeses. Cherry tart. She appears, as if on some ratcheted cue, some timed interlocking of gears, through the door from the kitchen, with the new dish, slaps across the long floor, removes the last plate, places the new dish, departs, in silence. Once she appears too soon, while I’m still eating; she turns on her heel, a mannequin turned back to the kitchen on a short circuit, and disappears through the swinging door. She reappears, several minutes later, her timing recalibrated. She is polite but aloof. Or, rather, resistant. She has prepared a good meal, making intelligent use of leftovers from the à la carte menu. But her mechanical presentation, and the insistent slap of her slippers registers as a silent reproach at her situation, that somehow she is better than this, was meant for better, maybe even greater, things. Was there once another man, the one who ‘got away’? Or is she a woman who needs to have disappointment in her heart to justify the inevitable failure of her life. Her husband is proud of his business, working hard to build it up, he’s affable. But he accepts, negotiates around, the reluctance of his helpmeet to have the same wholehearted enthusiasm. Perhaps he wonders where it might have gone, this business, to what heights they might have taken it, if she had had his enthusiasm. Society. The Dutch couple behind the flowers are animated, but struggle with French when talking to the patronne.
Warm, dry, well-fed, I go to bed.
Robb, The Discovery of France p226.