A night in the woods

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 WISH TO SHARE

We ended our last post in Alès, which is barely 20 miles north-west of Uzès. It was a temptation I could not resist.

I had first come across Uzès in the course of making an all too tardy discovery of  southern France east of the Rhône at about the time the judge’s car had been in its infancy. There, some 30 miles north-west of Arles, I had found myself moving from mediaeval to Renaissance to 18th-century elegance within a few hundred steps of my hotel, a former coaching inn where a stone trough in the courtyard once used to water the horses of coaches travelling to Nîmes was reputed to be a Roman sarcophagus. So great was the charm of the place known to the Romans as Ucetia,  that I fantasised about forsaking lodgings in London for residence there.  I would walk where Racine had walked; muse where the great poet had mused three centuries before me; publish my own “Lettres d’Uzès”. At the time, I could have had a modest  house in the town that likes to call itself  “the first duchy in France” for the price of the London bedsit.

Thirty years on, much had changed, but the charm had survived not only intact but enhanced by two decades of intelligent preservation and restoration. With further exploration came inspiration.  I had learned that below Uzès was to be found the source of the river Eure, and that it was from here that the Romans constructed their great aqueduct to Nîmes, of which the Pont-du-Gard survives as one of the greatest monuments of the Roman world. Inspiration came by way of coincidence.

Among the many treasures of Uzès is the former “hôtel” — town house—  of the Counts of Flaux, a village hardly five miles away on the edge of the  sort of the sort of arid, stony, unpopulated uplands covered in dense thicket of chêne vert and other evergreen  vegetation which here is called garrigue, and in Corsica maquis, a name irrevocably associated with the Resistance of the Second World War. Considering my options, studying my maps, I had already noticed that clearly defined tracks led for some five miles down to the valley of the Gardon and to Castillon du Gard, a place unknown to me but significant enough to be on what was obviously a purposeful routing of the GR 63, coming from the Rhône to join the GR 6 at the Pont du Gard. According to my Hachette guidebook,  not only  was Castillon  “one of the most beautiful villages of the department of the Gard, built on a hill overlooking the vineyards”, but in the very heart of the village was  “a distinguished inn with patio and swimming pool”. Interest aroused, I consulted the Michelin red guide. A charming, quiet hotel at the heart of a mediaeval hilltop village, together with of one rosette for its table appeared to be among the attractions of  le Vieux Castillon hotel. And all at the end of a three hour walk on typical, heart-of-the country paths starting at a point easily accessible from Uzès! Again, the appeal was irresistible.

Two days later, on the sort of morning that makes one wish one might live forever, a mile south of Flaux, I idled in the sun and the hint of a breeze to chat with  men who — guns slung casually from their shoulders— stood widely spaced at the side of the track,  patiently waiting for wild boar to appear from the undergrowth and add themselves to the  score (“I, personally, only eight so far”) of the new season’s kills. “ Sangliers!  Last year in the department Gard alone the total bag was seventeen thousand. Pity it wasn’t more. They come into people’s gardens and eat everything they can find.”

Apart from the sound of an occasional shot, it was very quiet up there in the garrigue and good, easy walking. During the last hour I had glimpses of the valley, then a clear view of  lofty Castillon, isolated among the vines, then a warm, thirst-making climb up below the massive walls of what must have been a formidable fortress to the discovery that Hachette’s “heart of the village” and “distinguished inn” descriptions had been exactly right. Take half a dozen neighbouring or contiguous houses in the centre of a decayed hilltop stronghold. Take an architect of  talent, taste, and imagination supported by craftsmen using the best of materials entirely suited to the local environment. Put a great deal of money into the whole undertaking. Add management and staff who know and like what they are doing and you have the makings of one of the most remarkable hotels in France. To find it requires, first, the knowledge that it exists in what appears to be only a maze of mediaeval alleyways, then the faith that an unusually shy Relais & Châteaux sign is to be taken at face value. Lying by the pool with a long drink; dining very well; much enjoying a local wine that to both nose and palate was reminiscent of  the garrigue I had walked through, I wished —not for the first time since April and Calais—   that  I had come at least three times the distance to deserve such pleasure and had more attractive company than my own.