Last weekend was the European Mills Weekend. Each year the whole of Europe celebrates its milling heritage on the third weekend of May, with demonstrations of the millers craft, and buildings being opened to the public which are often not accessible for the rest of the year. Once upon a time there were lots of mills in Languedoc; St Chinian alone had in excess of 10 water powered wheels and one windmill. I visited Roquebrun on the Sunday, and the St Chinian windmill on the Monday, and since I don’t want to make this post overly long I will split it into two.
I’ll start in chronological order with Roquebrun. Until 1870, when the bridge across the Orb was completed, Roquebrun was somewhat cut off from the rest of the plain by the river. On the carte de l’etat major a map from between 1820 – 1866 the road to Beziers led via Causses et Veyran and it was probably no more than a track. There was a ferryman at Roquebrun, so that the arable land on the other side of the river could be accessed, but that was it. The village was more or less self-sufficient, and the mills played an important role.
The first mill I visited was an oil mill, which was in operation until the 1920s. Waterpower was provided by the stream from Laurenque, and the mill consisted of a crushing mill to reduce the olives to pulp, and a press to extract the oil. In the 1920s the oil mill transferred to a location on the edge of village, now the site of the cooperative winery. In the old days every possible spot of land was cultivated, and olive trees provided families with their supply of oil for the year.
Across from the oil mill stand the other two mills: on the edge of the river is the grain mill, which ground the locally grown cereals into flour or cattle feed. The inside of the mill can be visited, and usually houses exhibitions of local artists.
At the entrance level there is a reproduction mill, and on the next floor the beautiful roof timbers are visible. The wheel room can be accessed from the outside, and the entrance to the mill-race is still visible from the banks. The old mill stone is now outside, propped up against a wall.
Next over and now surrounded by water is the moulin a genet, a mill which was used to process plant fibre extracted from the spanish broom which grows abundantly on the hillsides. At one point this mill could be reached on foot, but a change in the river bed on the opposite side has meant that there is now water all round it. In case you are wondering, the round structure atop of the building was a pigeonnier, providing meat for the table. The broom fibre was used to make sheets and sacking and produced a somewhat coarse fabric. A lot of houses had their own looms, and the open loggias at the top of a number buildings indicate that this is where the drying of the fibres and weaving was carried out.
The mills look a little like stranded ships, the pointed bows have helped them withstand the floodwaters of the Orb river for centuries. The dam which fed both mills used to be made with bunches of twigs, and was replaced in the 1960s with a new dam made of concrete. It’s due for a major refurbishment shortly. Both of the water mills fell into disuse at the end of 19th century, when the villagers no longer relied on self-sufficiency.
As part of the mill weekend in Roquebrun a guided visit of the Jardins de Limpach was on the program. We were met by the president of the association Patrimoine et mémoire de nostre pais, which researches and promotes the history and heritage of the village. Our visit started just a few yards down from the mills, and took us along the Laurenque stream, to the site of the first gardens in Roquebrun. This area of France was occupied by the Moors from the 4th to 7th centuries, and the Moors brought with them a certain amount of know how where irrigation was concerned. The water was captured in a canal further up the valley, and each garden along the valley had a beal, a channel made of stones, which in turn filled up a basin called a tane. From the tane the water was distributed on to the ground with the aid of a large and slightly curved paddle, more of a large soup spoon perhaps.
Other systems existed to get water into the gardens, where the ground was too high to be fed by the stream. Along the valley are cisterns, into which the water would flow.
Some of them are barely visible, but others still seem to be in good repair and use. To get the water out of the cisterns there were various methods. One was something called chaine a godet, literally translated as a bucket chain, which was hand-cranked. For larger amounts of water there was also the noria, which worked on a similar principle as the chaine a godet, but was operated by a donkey.
But the most common and probably least expensive was the chadouff (or shadoof), which is called pousalanque in Occitan and which involved a stone pillar, a slender tree trunk, some stones and a bucket. Examples of this can be seen today in India, Egypt and elsewhere. There are many stone pillars left in the jardins de Limpach but only one which is more or less working at the end of the walk.
The bucket hangs on a chain, and is lowered into the water by pulling the chain downwards to lower the arm. The counterweight at the end of the arm helps pull the full bucket up without much effort, and the water is then emptied into a channel, which spills into a tane, from where it is splashed ont the surrounding crops. At the top of the valley there was also the fontaine intermittante – a spring which overflows at certain times. In the days before running water, the women of the village used to come here with their pitchers to get water and no doubt have a chat. Later the water was pumped up to a reservoir at the top of the hill, from where it fed a number of fountains.
I followed the path the women would have taken for centuries, and it looked as might have when they did. I couldn’t resist the Iris which were flowering along the way.
Looking into some fo the gardens there are series of stone pillars, some of them connected by iron hoops. According to our guide, the first orange trees were planted in this valley, and the structures were orangeries, which could be covered in winter to protect against frost.
After that interesting visit I went for a little walk around Roquebrun, there’s a lot more to see and of course there is the jardin mediterranean to visit at the top of the hill, but that’s for another blog.
Now for two last pictures! The giant asparagus is the beginning of an agave flower stalk, and the pale blue patch in the distance is a field of blue iris.