It was barely 7 miles as the crow flies from Henri Pellés cellars in Morogues to Henrichemont, where there would be hotels, but by the time the tasting was over it was later than I had bargained for and I knew that if I hoped to be in time for dinner I would need to set myself a brisk pace.
Shunning the obvious but hardtop road, I took tracks to the east of it, but only an hour after setting out, with a leaden sky and my pack seeming especially burdensome, it became obvious that before I could reach the macadam on the far side of the forest that I had so boldly chosen to traverse, I should be benighted.
In retrospect, I suspect that I may unconsciously have welcomed the excuse to experiment with a piece of equipment that I often carried in case of emergency, but had never yet used — a Gore-Tex bivvy bag. Substituting for a tent, and significantly lighter; needing neither poles nor guy ropes and pegs, a bivvy bag is a sort of sack which can accommodate the user in a normal sleeping bag. Here, in the swiftly darkening Bois d’Henrichemont, its moment had arrived.
In a thicket of saplings that gave an illusion of security (I have always been afraid of the dark) I found a level space just large enough for my needs; and for extra shelter, and to enhance the illusion, rigged my lightweight groundsheet as a sort of porch. I was not badly provided for. I had water. Odds and ends remained from my lunchtime picnic. Not least, I carried a small flask of whisky. By 8 pm I was snugly cocooned.
Few people can honestly claim unbroken sleep in a bivouac. I slept and woke, slept and woke again. Within arm’s reach outside the bivvy bag, the water in its plastic bottle was almost ice-cold and I laced it with whisky. While I hid there, winter tightened its grip. It was not simply a matter of temperature, but of impalpable, primordial mood. The silence of the woods was not merely that of repose, but of all nature cowering from the dread tyrant, not daring to stir, hoping to be overlooked.
But in the morning there was a heavy frost and a million leaves had fallen.
A man working in a vegetable patch still flourishing with fat leeks, huge cabbages and late tomatoes pointed to a path which he said would take me up through the woods and out of the valley. It did, but was so closely crowded with blackthorn that at moments I was strongly tempted to turn back.
Persistence was justified. Emerging at last from the thicket, I climbed on up to the brow of the slope, sat comfortably on a low bank, and in spite of being told by the map that I was on les Monts Damnés was glad to be alive on such a day. The autumn sun was warm, the sky blue and almost cloudless. Reaching to right and left below me were the downland,valleys,woods and villages of the heart of the Sancerrois; and beyond Sancerre itself on its isolated peak, beyond the channels and backwaters and islands and meanders of the river, were the vineyards of Pouilly. The mists had dispersed. Further away still were the forested uplands of the Nivernais, and far in the distance the blue-veiled heights of the Monts du Morvan.
And now I drew the cork from a bottle of Pouilly-Fumé. Next to champagne, a very acceptable apéritif is a good white wine from the upper Loire.