This post was kindly written by Margaret Smythe, a long time friend and resident of St Chinian, as well as a dedicated walker!
It started as a daily exercise routine and has become much more; the exercise part is now almost incidental and the routine is one of pleasure, mostly. So what is this exercise? Well, we are talking about the early morning walk through the vines and gardens of our village, a brisk-ish 45 minute circuit which takes us through history and nature and seasons from equinox to equinox. The route is the same, with minor variations; the routine is the same unless it’s raining: up at 7-ish, out by 7:30, back around 8:15 for much-needed coffee. It’s not an iron discipline; we are not trying to prove anything, but have grown to enjoy it so much that we miss it when it doesn’t happen.
I am going to lead you through our walk on a beautiful spring morning in late May or early June, when these photos were taken. When we begin in March the cold air stings our faces and ears and fingertips but we want to be ready to savor the first signs of spring: slowly day by day buds appear and open, birds begin to chatter and the sun is more than just a lamp in the sky. By the end of April spring has exploded and we have exchanged our hats, gloves, scarves, and heavy coats for sunglasses and jackets.
We set off down Rue de la Digue, towards the Vernazobres river and the scene of a tragic disaster for the village. In 1873 there was a terrible flood which swept away a lot of houses and killed more than 100 people. The ruins of some of the houses remain, now incorporated into gardens. The Digue (a flood protection dyke) was built to prevent this ever happening again. In fact the river was canalized for the part that runs through the village. Now the river is well-behaved and is a peaceful place for swimming and fishing.
Before we get to the ford we stop to look at the three ancient mulberry trees, one of the few remaining signs of the silk industry that went on here until the early 19th century. They still sprout leaves in their ruined condition, but no fruit. Read the plaque.
Here are inaccessible peaches – too bad some are rotting on the ground already – and unripe figs.
After passing the ford and the swimming hole, known as Les Platanettes for its sheltering plane trees, we emerge into the open spaces of the vineyards. Ahead we see the rocky outcrop “la Corne” an important landmark for the village. Wild flowers, olives, a sloping wheat field and vines and more vines. As we tramp along we listen out for the birds: I cannot claim to recognize them all but the cuckoo is obvious and so is the hoopoe with its distinctive four tooting notes. I saw one once, years ago, and long to see another. They are shy and getting rarer to see, they say. We hear nightingales and larks, and sometimes ducks flying over. Photos do not capture too well the beauty of the wild flowers, different ones coming out every week. Have a look at the last lingering poppies struggling to stay red but fading fast.
Soon we are back at the river, this time crossing by a metal bridge, a “passerelle.” At one time I used to drag a bicycle over it with not too much difficulty and there are signs for the routes of rallies for heavy 2-wheelers, mountain bikes and the like, to cross over too. On the other side we come to a group of houses, site of an old woollen mill known as la Rive. Here we meet the first of the dogs – these ones are ferocious barkers and not friendly. La Rive lies at the foot of the Corne which is now very close – we are almost underneath and able to make out the cross on its summit. On the west side, not visible from here, there is a chapel, Notre Dame de Nazareth, with a steep Way of the Cross leading up to it, where people make an annual pilgrimage followed by the habitual feast and verres d’amitie.
Our route is flat however, no harm first thing in the morning. We are now on a paved road for a short stretch until we swerve into the vines again and say hello to the other dogs, the friendly ones – caged for hunting. They always greet us leaping up with wagging tails as if to say let us out to play. The meeting of the waters comes next, that is a place where the canal and the stream meet. The canal disappears into some trees and when we see it again it has started its course along the many gardens leading into the village. It’s a very important feature of the village, which in the late middle ages (1460s) was tamed by the abbot (Abbe) of the local Benedictine monastery to irrigate his vegetable gardens in the center of the village. The monastery now houses the municipal buildings. Today for an annual 32 euro fee owners of the gardens all along its length can join the Association and water their crops. The flow of water is controlled by a number of vannes (sluices) which we show in the photos. For the rest of our walk we are more or less following the course of the canal.
After another stretch of tarmac we take a short cut and say hello to the donkeys who live with some ponies in a field bordering our path. This short cut between the canal and a damp-ish hedge – being near the water — is lined with different kinds of flowers. There are myriads of the wild pink pyramid orchids, wild garlic and earlier in the season yellow irises and kingcups.
Back on the road again we are nearing the village. We turn into the Martinet and pass a row of houses built almost on top of the canal. The machinery at the entrance to Le Martinet was taken from a sulphur mill before it was converted into a modern dwelling. We pass the vegetable gardens and wave to some of the gardeners and then join the top of the digue to view even more gardens.
The plane trees along here have been infected with an unusual canker. You can see the ones destined for the chop. Many have already been felled. The canker apparently came from wooden pallets containing ammunition brought over to France by the US Army at the end of WW2. It has taken all this time, more than 60 years, to destroy the plane trees. The fate of the plane trees along the Canal du Midi is the most disastrous: all 40,000 of them have to go. The trees were originally planted for shade for the horses and people who worked along the canal through the centuries, and also to secure the banks. Today, classified as a UN World Heritage site, it is extra important to replace them, and this work has begun. We see places along the canal now which are bare, bereft of their welcome shade, but with new trees already growing. The replacements are of varied species so as not to risk the same danger another time. Our village is just one of many who have been dealt this blow.
At the top of the Rue de la Digue we take a right down Rue des Jardins, wide enough for only one car at a time, and then a left into Rue du Canal de l’Abbe, nearly home. If you think life before washing machines was too tough, take a look at this ‘washing machine’ – le lavoir, on the edge of the canal. Some French villages have really elaborate lavoirs, washing places, with wonderful architecture. But the best that we can say about this one is that it is unpretentious. I’m told it was used in living memory. It is hard to imagine being on one’s knees, bending over scrubbing at some garment here without falling into the canal. Actually the olden days were not all bad; for example, there was a law on the books of the village that the mill owners could not discharge their effluent into the canal between certain specific hours of the day, which means a definite awareness of taking care of the planet, and/or consideration for the washerwomen.
And so around the next corner we are back at home.
When you follow the same route every day, naturally you barely notice what has changed from day-to-day. On the other hand a month later it all looks different. Later on in early autumn when the grapes have been picked and the green vine leaves have turned a rainbow of colors from yellow to orange to deep purple, the end of our walking season is signalled by the low autumn sun which transforms the early morning scene into a land of sloping shadows and sudden flashes of light on the hilltops.