“Louis, by the Grace of God, King of France and Navarre: to all those present and to come, GREETING. Whereas the proposal hath been submitted to us for joining the Ocean and Mediterranean Seas by a transnavigational Canal…”
FROM THE PRINTED PAGE the voice from the past drones on; solemn, and in the heat of the afternoon with the murmur of insects for accompaniment, soporific. This is no time for study. This is the hour to idle, to drowse, to daydream, to bless the shade, to watch the dragonflies, to wonder if the fisherman on his canvas stool is asleep or any right-minded fish is awake.
In 1666 they started the colossal work of cutting the Canal du Midi. Fifteen years later they finished it. Now, the grass grows long and the trees grow tall on the bank raised by those 17th century engineers. From across the fields there comes the sound of a tractor, so someone at least is working, but here even to turn the pages is too much trouble. The eyelids droop, the head lolls.
It is a tranquil existence, this life on the canal. For much of the way between Toulouse and Castelnaudary it is a world of narrow, yet sufficient horizons. In places where the canal banks are not high and are open to the countryside one may look out across the fields to low hills, the spires of village churches rise from distant trees, here and there a castle crowns a ridge; but for miles the banks are above eye level, or are tree-bordered so that only from a vantage point on the boat can one see beyond them. For long stretches woods close in, high branches meeting overhead so that one moves in sylvan tunnels where the light seems green.
That there is little desire to see or travel far from the towpaths or the banks is part of the anatomy of the delight; for by this narrowing of the horizons, this blinkering by embankment and poplar and willow and stately plane trees, the mind and the emotions are turned and tuned to the calm simplicities of this other, secret world of landlocked water. “Canalised” now has a literal though punning significance. The banks, the ducks, the farmyards, the birds, the barges, the flowers; these are the few things to which, hour after sweet, slow-moving hour, the attention is directed and confined. The lock keepers, the bargemen and women, the fishermen, the facteur on his bicycle; these are the few strangers one is even briefly concerned with. Steering the boat, having a care to keep its propeller and filter free of weeds, its grease reservoir charged and its speed and wash to an inoffensive minimum, working it through the locks; these and unsophisticated domestic affairs are the sum of one’s responsibilities. There is time for letting lunch in the shade idle on, the boat secured to a tree but her crew tied to no plan or programme whatever until someone with a little more energy than the others comes to undo the rope and turn the starter key and ease the vessel gently on its easy-going course again.
From time to time one makes brief excursions to the busy world ((to shop, to dine ashore, to post a letter) which, on the canal, has been half forgotten. And it seems better than one remembered, which is probably to say that, taken on one’s own terms, it has become more tolerable. For the boat has become to the traveller what a prepared line of withdrawal is to the military commander: a nice thing to have if the going gets too difficult. So one wanders at ease around the market, taking great pleasure in the selection of fruit and farmyard eggs and fresh vegetables. So one sits at pavement tables, enjoying a drink all the more for the awareness that here and now is part of the total holiday pleasure, not merely a pause on the way to it. Keeping its distance even from most of the villages, making little more than a passing and by no means disagreeable acquaintance with Castelnaudary and Carcassonne, the canal is one-part urban, ninety-nine parts rural; the ancient waterway exerts instead a wholesome philosophy of patient, happy submission to timeless joys and realities: sunrise and sunset, dawn and dark, the heat of high noon, the first, gentle breeze of evening, the scent of hay, the sight of bright yellow iris among the reeds, a bird calling in the night.
Slowly, slowly one moves; three or four miles an hour, perhaps. Slowly, slowly the precious time goes by, but never hanging heavily upon one’s hands, never lost, never squandered mindlessly, never regretted. Keep going and you reach sea, but on the canal, getting there is not half the fun, it is the fun, whole and sufficient unto itself. Shall we breakfast on this side of the next lock or on the other? It does not matter. Shall we picnic under these trees or those, on the boat or off it, before the bridge or after it? The decision is of little consequence. If 7.30 p.m. and the end of the lock keeper’s working day finds us a mile or two from where we had thought we might have been, no frustration or anxiety mars the pleasure of our drink before dinner, for our beds are here, ready made in our cabins. If, instead of bed or bunk, we fancy lying close to the good earth and with the stars instead of sheep for counting, there is space enough ashore. Let those who rise early to fish take care only not to make too much noise with the dinghy. Let those who stay up late be inhibited by nothing but the desirability of not greatly rocking the boat.
The Canal du Midi is today more than 50 years older than when this piece was written.Would anyone who has travelled on it recently care to comment on the experience?
After an unpromising beginning in the south-west of France, the day had been little less than idyllic; but now, short of a miracle, I was confronted with unavoidable catastrophe: hot, hungry, and longing for a glass of wine, I was faced with the prospect of a picnic with only water to drink.
I ought to have bought something in Carcassonne, but had been reluctant to buy supermarket wine when I was sure that more interesting possibilities would present themselves on the way to Caunes Minervois, a dozen or more miles to the north-east, towards the Cevennes. After breakfast at the superb Hotel Domaine d’Auriac, just outside Carcassonne, the sky had been doubtful, but an hour later, on the towpath of the wondrous Canal du Midi, there were gleams of sun and patches of blue to be glimpsed through the overhanging plane trees; blackbirds sang and doves cooed in competition with traffic on the busy road bordering the waterway. At the Écluse du Fresquel there was brilliant sunshine. Honeysuckle, yellow broom and a profusion of dog roses bloomed beside the path. Near the Pont Rouge there were marguerites, blood-red poppies and tall cypresses. I heard what I was sure were nightingales. The road was further away now and I could look across wide expanses of well-tended vineyards, but the view confirmed what a few minutes more with the 1:25,000 map before setting out would have told me: that I was not within reasonable reach of a wine domaine. Anyway, it would have taken a braver and brasher man than I to interrupt a wine maker at his family lunch in order to ask for a single bottle. It was now long past drowsy noon and all hope was dead.
I had left the canal, heading north on a very minor road, looking for the beginning of what the map said was the Chemin des Romains, and had paused to check my bearings and to drink from my water bottle, when as if from nowhere a ‘moto’ appeared and stopped beside me, the rider wearing bleus de travail (working overalls), green rubber boots, a white helmet and heavy-duty goggles. “Vous cherchez quelquechose, Monsieur?” he asked, switching off his engine, slowly removing helmet and goggles and hanging them on his handlebars to reveal a weathered face that I imagined to be well into its seventies and a head of roughly trimmed white hair. “Je peu vous aider”?
“Thank you”, I said. “I was just trying to make sure that I know where I am”.
“Ici, vous êtes sur le Chemang des Romang”, said the motocyclist in the accent of the south that renders the French for bread as pang and demain as demang. “Mais vous allez où?”
“Caunes”. I said.
“Caunes! Mais c’est loin (lwang), vous savez”.
“Not really”, I said. “Not more than 8 or 9 miles”.
“Eh bien! Vous êtes courageux! Mais le chemang (chemin) est asssez compliqué”.
Given the map, the way appeared not to be complicated at all; but for an instant hope was reborn. Did Monsieur happen to be from these parts? I enquired. Not far off, the motocyclist said. Why did I ask? Nothing important, I said: I just wondered if he might know where there might be any chance of my buying some wine for a picnic.
Wine! Oh la la! Not anywhere nearer than Bagnoles or Trèbes. And not at this hour.
No, of course, I said, resignedly. I just thought it was worth asking.
Until this moment the motocyclist had remained astride his machine. Now, dismounting slowly, saying nothing, he pulled it up onto its stand and turned his attention to a capacious wooden box on the pillion secured with a broad leather strap. From it he took first a large marrow, placing it carefully on the verge, then an object generously swaddled in newspaper held in place by baling twine. Back towards me, he laid the parcel across the bike’s saddle before taking an Opinel knife from a side pocket of his bleus de travail and cutting the twine. Sheet by sheet, he removed the paper, folded it neatly and replaced it in the pillion box, then turned towards me with a black, unlabelled litre bottle in one hand and a shy, conspiratorial smile on his face. The miracle had come to pass.
It wasn’t much (“pas grande chose”) he said; but it was an honest little vin de pays that I might find better than nothing. He was on his way to visit his sister in Tribes and taking her a couple of bottles as well as something from his garden; but she wasn’t a great drinker and there was plenty more where this one came from. Was he himself a vigneron? I asked after offering payment (an offer brushed aside) and thanks that could not have been more sincere. Not any more, he said. He used to own a few vines but had sold them to a neighbour who took all his grapes to the local cooperative for vinification and let him, my benefactor, have as many bottles as he wanted. So in a way you could say it was his own wine.
Deep red and robust, it may not have been grande chose, but half an hour later, on a low mound that passed for a hill in the great plain that prefaces the Black Mountain, in the meagre but blessed shade of a lone acacia, before eating so much as a crust I poured away half a glass as a libation to Bacchus and sundry other gods, drank to the health of my motocyclist, and thought that there, at that moment and in that place,I could have wished for nothing better.
Vive la belle France.
Adapted from Walking in Wine Country, revised edition, edited by Bridget Moser.
On the inch Ordnance Survey map sheet number seven I made a span of 30 miles with my right thumb and little finger, put the thumb upon a village I knew to the south of Biggar in Lanarkshire, then looked to see where the little finger lay. It was upon the junction of Tweed and Ettrick, so I took the sleeper from King’s Cross to Edinburgh, breakfasted well in the North British Hotel and caught the 11.25 south again from the Waverley station to Galashiels. *
Using now the one-inch Ordnance maps, I followed the faint dotted line of a path that led over the low hills towards a crossing of the Tweed at Yair. There were fields where cows grazed and where I put up a covey of partridge and a cock pheasant and startled a hare. There was downland where the grass had been cropped short by sheep who stared at me until I was no more than a pace away, then fled, their behinds bouncing ridiculously, their fleeces as white as the great cumulus clouds. The contours on the map were not close together here, the ground was firm.
Though gentle the start, after no more than an hour I was tired, or thought so, as I looked down on the fast-flowing Tweed from the wooded slopes at Yair. Tired and hot. The river was beautiful, not for itself alone but for the suggestion of relief. From briars among the purple willow herb I gathered wild raspberries. Their taste was a memory of childhood: of homemade jam in a stone-flagged kitchen; of new-baked cake and tea on a summer afternoon. I sat in the shade, studying the map. The sound of the river came up to me, cool and clear, clear and cool.
Then for a while I was lost. The rides and tracks of the wood were not shown upon the map and what had seemed a proper footpath petered out. Following a burn in the belief that it would lead me up on to the moor, I was impeded by fallen trees and swampy ground and bracken that was breast high and concealed all manner of hazards. Once, I tripped, the pack pitching over my head, hurling me painfully and ludicrously into the undergrowth where I lay for a minute, cursing in anger and exhaustion. Out of the wood, another trial began: to avoid a long, rising, diagonal march I chose to climb what seemed a short, though steep heather-covered ridge. But the heather was deep; each step had to be high and deliberate, strength and resolve had to be marshalled and measured by the child’s device of counting (“a hundred paces before I rest”). And tricked. (“A hundred-and-fifty, and then I really will.”) And then what had seemed to be the crest of the ridge was revealed as only the edge of a plateau with the ground beyond rising again to another crest yet to be won. Reaching the top at last, I slumped into the heather like a gravely wounded beast. And thus far I had gone only five miles.
As the crow flies I went two more miles that day, following a drove road along the heights. At about six in the evening I reached the pine coppice to the east of the 1,500 ft. summit of Broomy Law. The sun was still not close to setting, but neither the ground nor the map offered any other shelter I might have reached before dark. On the edge of the wood, within the loose stone wall that bordered it on the windward side, I made camp. My thirst was enormous, my water bottle empty. I changed into gym shoes, left the pack and walked half a mile down to a spring that came from the hill. So free was I now, so resilient was the turf, I felt I might have made the journey in a single bound. A hare loped away from the spring as I approached. I could have raced him, and won.
In a hearth built of stones behind my kingdom’s wall I made a little fire of dead pinewood. While water boiled for a freeze-dried supper I dragged fallen branches to form a hedge about my bed. Supper done, I sat by the embers of the fire and lit a small cigar for the companionable scent of it. It was very quiet there. For a while after sundown I heard a bird calling. Sheep made their idiotic sounds. Once, something moved suddenly in the shadows behind me and I started in foolish alarm. The breeze became a wind that filled the wood with its sound and I hid myself in sleep.
Morning was the sky becoming grey above the branches. It was the sound of a pigeon close by me in the coppice, then the smell of wood smoke and frying bacon and of coffee made from fresh-ground beans only two days before. And it was the chill of the heavy dew through my cotton trousers as I walked through bracken. It was long shadows in the valley below me, the scent of damp heather and turf, the sun hot on my back before nine o’clock. I kept to the drove road, for the most part a mere track, but a track that followed the heights (Brown Know and Hare Law and Minch Moor). To the north, beyond the valley of the Tweed, were the hills of Peeblesshire and Selkirkshire and Midlothian. Soon after noon I reached the road near Traquair and saw people again for the first time since setting out. In a meadow I saw a caravan and a tent and at the tiny post-office and store a man came to borrow a kettle for picnic tea, but from then until the following evening, apart from the keeper on the moor above Glenshiel Banks, I saw nobody at all.
I lunched by Quair Water, cooled tired feet in the stream, lay on the bank and read Mr. Standfast by John Buchan, then went on up the glen. For two miles I was glad of the lane and the path, then had again to climb where no track was shown upon the map. It was up, up, up again through the heather. Sheep paths made my way easier. At about half past 6 o’clock I had reached the head of the ravine below Glenrath Heights. The last mile or so had been swamp and peat hags where I had to pick my way with care, breaking the steady rhythm of walking that is necessary if a man is not to tire too quickly. Below me was a burn and I resolved to go no farther.
The going down was as hard as had been the climb up, and at the first small patch of almost level ground beside but safely above the water I stopped, pulled armfuls of heather and made a thick couch. There was no other cover, so above the couch I erected the fool of what I had bought as a one-man tent but which now seemed to me no better than a toy. The bare twigs of heather burned the year before made a fire.
By the time I had eaten it was cold there at the head of the Glenrath burn. The couch of heather felt good enough to have earned a badge for a Boy Scout, but inside the sleeping bag I awoke during the night, found my spare thick socks and without getting out of the bag managed by a contortionist act to put them on. I put on also a cashmere pullover, then slept until dawn.
By 10 next morning I was crossing the river called Manor Water. Then I climbed (how slowly I climbed) the precipitous slopes of Posso Craig, then across Pykestone Hill and Ben Knowe to the Drumelzier burn, and so again to the Tweed. There, in that particular place, I wished I could have stayed for a week, but evening was near and I had still eight miles to go. Some time after sundown, from the last ridge, I saw below me a house where I knew I would be a welcome with malt whisky and a bath.
The Galashiels line has been closed for some years but a re-opening is being discussed.