A MYSTERIOUS MAGICAL GROTTO

As promised I am continuing my series of local Artisans and I have to admit these are as interesting for me to write about as they are for you to read and for that I have to thank you, for without you all reading and being so encouraging I would not have written the first article or continued with so many and I would have missed out on so much local knowledge, for I have learnt so much in the process.  This week I bring you a group of Artisans, extremely talented sculptors…

Last week, late one afternoon, Millie and I decided to have a walk through the woods at Port d’Envaux and see if we could find any of the legendary statues and carvings of the Lapidiales sculpture group, who hang out deep in the greenery each summer. We’d heard rumours that this was a real adventure, and it turned out to be not only that, but also a very interesting experience.

We parked the car in a deserted lay-by where we saw a quarry a little way down a track, and hopped out for a quick look. Two other people were wandering around in what was obviously a deserted attraction, and it seemed our luck was out for the year. Port d’Enveaux lies by the River Charente, and is a popular destination for canoeists and kayakers, but the stone carvings seem strangely lost in the general tourist blurb

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We slowly ambled down to the tin-roofed area and ducked into what was once a sandstone quarry, now cloistered with a tin roof and wooden columns for events during the summer season.

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Deeper into the hillside we went, slowly losing the light, and then on a wall we came across some remarkable paintings, obviously by the hand of someone very in tune with our ancient ancestors. It should have given us a clue to the talent that awaited us….this was no ordinary graffiti…..

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Dispirited, we left, vowing to return next year, but as we moved down the road and around a corner in the car, we realised we’d stopped at the wrong place to start with, and there was very much life deep in the forest, and in a clearing next to the road a busy group of people were hard at work turning stone into art !

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Amongst the artists were several monumental works and scaffolding ran around one huge piece which was busily being photographed by a man in a straw hat. Beyond him, we saw a path leading downwards into a gully, with a signpost indicating a route to follow. Millie and I decided we’d do that first and come back to the clearing later.

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As we descended the path, we became aware that we were in a veritable cathedral of stone-worship, and any thoughts of mere touristic curiosities swiftly left my head as I looked on the first carvings, the start of a series of steps into a story of stone, each sculpture or grouping by a different artist, all following the natural theme of the life of mankind.

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The green dim light coming through the canopy above us gave the whole scene a surreal grotto-like atmosphere, and with barely a whisper of birdsong to disturb the silence we both grew silent in contemplation of each artist’s individual act of worship to both the stone and the story-line they followed. The scale of the carvings was immense in places.

IMG_8710The rise of humanity by an Indian lady was a combination of so many different ideas, and as we passed from birth to life,

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we took to the earth again, following the hollow into and under the hill. Here it became dark once more, and various groups, images and figures gazed and watched us from every corner.

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To my western eye, Dali and Hieronymus Bosch seemed to lurk in every dark shadow, as contorted figures and morbid representations of life, suffering, temptation and sorrow sighed with the evening light as we went deeper into the darkness.

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As we came out the other side into another part of the quarry, the emphasis by the artists seemed to have shifted towards that part of life that begins to wonder what lies at the end of our earthly sojourn. Each artist seemed to bring to life their own national cultural thoughts, and we saw works from Senegal, Russia, England, Kenya and Argentina amongst many others.

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One brave soul had created an imaginary temple opening into the hillside, and Millie and I were both glad the door did not truly open.IMG_8721Amidst the temptations, a life-size woman escaped into an Escheresque opening,

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and a monumental, detailed and freshly finished work by a New Zealand artist, Paora Toi Te Rangiuaia, towered up a complete cliff-face, and swept me back to the Bay of Islands and all the imagery I once looked at there. The gleam of paua shell in the figure’s eyes seemed oddly at ease in the dark subterranean light.

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Finally we turned out of the dark and started back up the hillside to the clearing on the other side of the quarry, and it became apparent that the sculptors here were now creating their own visions of hell, eternity and the life thereafter.

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A mythical city in the sky, presided over by a huge head of stone, quickly led to an expected vision – hell, and the damnation which occurs in it.

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Exhausted somewhat by our journey through life and its tribulations, Millie and I crested the low hill and came in to the workshop and its attendees. We dawdled, and watched fantastical shapes being craved, with eyes carved and hair straightened on heads, and sinuous curves being sanded by loving hands. There was the steady chink, chink, chink of tools and mallets, and the scene looked as if it could have come from a place far long past, in an age when woodcutters and masons joined forces to shape sandstone for new churches a 1000 years ago.

A gentle sculptor showed Millie the ear she was perfecting,

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carving with a tool unchanged for 500 years. After it became obvious that Millie was fascinated, the lady broke off a piece of sandstone, offered Millie an awl, and taught her how to carve her own name.

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Finally, as the sun fell, people started packing up, and I fell into conversation with a sculptor from the UK who briefly told me the history of the Lapidiales group, and what it represented. Artists from all over the world have been meeting here for over 20 years, and what has emerged in terms of work is simply a mutual understanding of talent, and a growth of sculptures all related to the inherent motive – to understand, teach and reflect on the destiny of man. Whether it is the works of stone, or the traditional music and plays, or even the rapport that the group establishes each season and each night with their audience, it seems there is something for everyone, and the site has enough energy and is respected enough, that during the 8 months of the year that it lies unattended, no one comes to desecrate or vandalise. I’m keen to come in winter and see how it all feels then, away from the green light of summer.

As we left, we had time to admire some finished statues and carvings in the workshop clearing, and some of the work that had taken all summer to complete was simply astounding in design, complexity, detail and a skill. Alongside a stunning Celtic warrior in the fullness of life,

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was another, caught in the embrace of death and legend

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Our New Zealand artist had also contributed to the circle of carvings, and his offering once again told volumes about patience and the depth of his truly unique talent.

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It seemed a long way from the land of Maori, here, deep in a small wood in the Charente Maritime, but I thought it must have been a journey of thought bravely followed. I felt a sense of great achievement attained from a mutual gathering of spirit, a kinship that gathered each year to worship stone and produce art designed to last for centuries.

There is a giant end-of-summer party this weekend as tools are packed and the grotto and clearing are then left to nature for the winter – there’s a child’s workshop one afternoon and I know all of mine will want to go.

LOCAL ARTISANS – THE PAYSAGISTE

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Michel Libouban left school at 15, and decided then that a life on the open sea was for him. Never one for classes despite good marks, he was keen to get out and do something for himself from an early age. However, after one trip on the high seas he realized his mistake and took up a station in a commercial bakery, instead. After six months or so of repetitive work on what was basically an assembly line, he then realized that his love for nature may provide an answer, and so he signed on as an apprentice ‘paysagiste” – someone qualified as a horticulturist who plies their trade as a gardener and garden designer – a very honest metier in France. Years passed, and as he qualified through a long 10-year period of study he met his wife at college, and settled down in a small village close to his parents, both doctors in the seaside town of Royan.

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The rest of this blog today should of course now be about his life in the fields and gardens of his countryside, and how at the age of 45 he is now at the peak of his career, caring for the plants and flowers of the rich and famous. But something is amiss, and Michel finds himself at a crossroads in his life as a result of many converging differences. It makes me wonder whether this is happening right across France, or perhaps across Europe, and perhaps overseas.  But first, we need a little recap.

Anyone who is visiting France and loves gardening will try and include a visit to the formal gardens of Versailles. If you have never been to Versailles but have even the merest passing fancy in a rose, you should make this trip. The gardens at Versailles were designed by André Le Nôtre and are proof that French gardens reached their clearest expression in the 17th and 18th centuries under Louis XIV and Louis XV. It was at this time that gardens provided a symbol of status, and their importance to lifestyle and culture at this time cannot be overestimated. The traditional French garden tends to have a strong symmetrical axis and is very structured which is in contrast to the English garden which reached its height with the Romantic movement in the 1790’s and early 1800’s. English gardens of this era highlighted the variety of nature and its capacity to inspire the imagination; they usually included ponds or a lake, rolling lawns doted with animals, large trees and spaces of natural fantasy rather than geometric constructions of nature. Ironically by the late 18th century the trend of the English garden had spread, and famously, even Marie Antoinette had a small English garden created at Versailles, where she would dress in simple muslin garments and milk cows.

Versailles is a little out of reach for a day trip and some photos for you all, but we have Rochefort, ten minutes to the north of us, which is of course a town developed by the same Louis XIV, and it too has gardens and public spaces that amply reflect the thoughts of those gardeners from the era – it’s fascinating to see the formality of layout and planting which has continued up until today.

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As a result of these entrenched traditions, the paysagiste is regarded as a true artisan in France and French gardens are for the most part still considered to be a symbol of pure art. French gardeners tend to have a far more formal approach to gardening than the English or Americans, and French gardens are much copied and aspired to around the world, especially two of its main parameters -the parterre and the formal potager.

It was armed with these thoughts in mind, therefore, that Roddy and I set off for a morning with Michel to discover all the secrets of the life of a French landscape gardener. Walking into Michel’s garden to meet him it is immediately clear that this is the garden of a professional. Although small and haphazard due to the constraints of space and lifestyle, everything is very clearly thought out in terms of planting and plant selection – indeed, Michel specializes in plants and their biological needs, and he tries to instill that line of thought in all he does. However, not many of his clients are of the power and ilk that Louis XIV brought to the table, so the first shock of the day came when he said that the vast majority of his local clients, ordinary people with modest means, tended to lean towards a Mediterranean style in the Charente Maritime. Oleander, cyprus, olive, agave, pines, succulents of all sorts, grasses and other hardy bushes and shrubs that easily adapt to both the searing heat of the local summer, and the cold, wet salty winds of the autumn and winter. He added that even though France has that tradition of formality, life has changed, and no longer does anyone have the time or the inclination to run a team of hedge-trimmers, lawn-mowers and dedicated groundspeople that is required for a large formal garden. It’s an era of low maintenance and slim budgets, of adaptability and fortitude, and a substantial knowledge of rocks and gravel.

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One of the main exceptions to the local style is the continued use of roses, in great profusion and in a huge variety of colours, that permeate every corner of every garden, street and hedgerow. The Charente Maritime is an area where I have never seen so many roses growing both domestically and wild, and so of course, Michel has one too, a huge rambling bush that climbs to about 25’ high against the uphill wall of his neighbour’s barn. Above it towers a fig tree, which is another staple of the area’s greenery – it seems every home has a fig tree somewhere which in turn leads to at least one table at every brocante or vide-grenier selling la confiture !

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As a designer, Michel says much of his time is spent choosing plants and trees for his clients, and expressing their desires on plans he lays out according to their desires. Mixing colours and height, and transforming an area from a piece of burnt lawn into a manicured Mediterranean sub-space is relatively easy in terms of manual work, but the overall transformation is almost solely due to the finely tuned details he has acquired over the years as you can see from one of his projects from start to finish below. (the following four photos are courtesy of Michel)

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As we walked through the vast nursery that was our first stop of the day, Michel started to educate us on the myriad of plants that surrounded us, and it became bewilderingly clear to me that this was a man who knows intimately and instantly where each piece of his jigsaw goes, right down to the details of the correct substrate in which to plant his choices. Calling out names in the French vernacular and the latin nomenclature, I was suddenly very aware that this was the son of two doctors, not merely a country person familiar with some greenery. Each huge shed we came to, was full of one family of plants or another, and Michel called out to them familiarly. I was utterly amazed at the amount of variety in each hothouse and when Michel explained that this was one of France’s largest commercial nurseries, I understood. It counts LeClerc and Gamme Vert amongst its clients……

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As the morning progressed we moved from one location to another, from nursery to irrigation depot, and from wood-yard to tool-shop. As we rode along in Michel’s battered truck, potting-twine and weathered working-gloves around our ears, we learnt more and came to understand that despite the appearances and the business, Michel was worried. He was explaining how he has a swarm of bees in his roof  and when I asked when he was going to get them removed he looked at me horrified, the truck swerving slightly across the road, and said he had no intention of removing them, and he waved airily at the countryside around us.

“Where will they go ?” he asked. “There is nothing out there any more for insects ! Your garden, and my garden are probably the only natural gardens in the village – that is why we always have bees in our flowers.” He banged his fist on the wheel in emphasis. “All the fields around the village – there is no goodness in them. That is why there are no birds anymore – they have nothing to eat, no insects, nothing……” and he dwindled into silence.

In the quiet that followed I looked across at Roddy and he was already asking the question before I could form the words; “Do none of your clients have organic gardens ?”

Michel shook his head sadly in answer. “Not many,” he replied. “Very few. And sometimes, even after a few months, they find it easier to go back to the weedkiller and the poisons.”  Monsanto.  He seemed to spit the word out the window.

We talked more then, and it became apparent that Michel was worried for his business. A man of principal, who pays his taxes, and a man of integrity who loves nature so much he has as many weeds in his garden as we do, it seemed there was a rising tide of legal but cheap day-gardeners emerging, under-cutting him at every turn. Increasingly, his clients say they have no need of his weekly garden care, as someone else is there instead, cheaper and quicker. Cheaper because they use the clients’ own tools, and cheaper still because they have no insurance and no tax to charge. Indeed, some clients can claim back money from the government for using the lesser artisan. Quicker of course, because they are not as thorough as Michel.

Coupled with all of that, is the way the new breed of un-qualified gardeners indiscriminately use chemicals and pesticides, little knowing what the real danger of them is, sometimes with no clue as to how they work or why, and ruining the goodness in every garden they visit. Michel explained that as he has got older, he has seen many people from the industry, from his early years, fall ill or even die as a result of ignorance when it came to the products they used to use, it’s now in later years that they are paying the price for this ignorance, it’s a really sad story.  In half an hour we learnt of some terrible practices once used in the commercial industry, and discovered a long litany of crimes against nature that humans have committed in the past 40 years or so. Michel was concerned there was no future for him, nor for the true qualified artisan with a wheelbarrow, and perhaps none for his bees and other friends. We all became a little quiet.

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As the morning came to a close and we returned home, I realized that people who garden naturally really do more for the environment than many think – it is not just a question of doing “good”, it’s really a question of doing as much as one can at a time when the world is growing smaller and less friendly for all the wildlife and insects that a garden depends on. It may have taken a Frenchman in a battered truck to illuminate some of the ideas I had read and thought about, but it is a lesson I will not readily forget. As we walked into our driveway and a cloud of small honey-bees rose from the honeysuckle hedge, I understood even more – I knew where they were going to spend the night and I knew we were doing the right thing, weeds and all.

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LOCAL ARTISANS – THE ENDURING LEGACY OF CLAY

 

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Tucked into a small quarry under a clump of trees where a host of black kites nest each year, lies one of the Charente Maritime’s oldest industries. Quietly known throughout France by the cognoscenti, and with a rich history stained by the very earth on which it stands, the furnaces of TERRE CUITES still shimmer with heat as they have likely done for over a thousand years.  Yesterday we had the pleasure of meeting the owners and our family spent a fascinating afternoon learning about this important local industry.  I was so happy to meet Monsieur Pauzat and his Father and to make this number 3 in our “Local Artisans” series.

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Underneath a set of wooden trusses that date back to the 14th century, Terres Cuites is a business of clay, water, fire and oxygen. It produces tiles for both roofs and floors, for walls and decorations, and it was the tiled floor in our own house that started me off in search of their origin. I had wondered where the tiles had come from, with their rich ranges of colours and their obvious individuality. They looked old, and completely in character with our building, and when I saw the same tiles in Monsieur David’s boulangerie, my question was answered with a shoulder that pointed over the hill and a knowing smile. “Les Terres Cuites,” he said,  I knew instantly where he meant, I had passed the sign many times and so I set off to investigate further.

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“Il y’a beaucoup de vipères,” Monsieur Pauzat warned us, as we set off to climb a clay mound for a photo of his family’s enterprise. “Faites-attention !…..” and he pointed at the kites circling overhead. “….that’s what they feed on!” and we did indeed pay attention for snakes as the clay quivered beneath our feet. I was standing in a lie of land perhaps a thousand yards long, and 300 yards wide, a lie shaped by the hand of man over many centuries as clay was manhandled from its bed and slid on sledges into the gaping maw of the mixer, there to be molded with water, cut and dried for a month, and then baked in the heart of a furnace at 1200˚C; in ancient times fuelled by the faggots of local forests and the charcoal of the seasonal charcoal burner.  We had learnt all this over the course of an hour’s conversation, offered by Monsieur Pauzat without question and with a smile, and completed with an invitation to take photos. It was breathtaking to think of the antiquity of such an incongruous business, settled into the landscape without preamble or fanfare, but with a story stretching back to the 10th century, to a time when our village had no church and the tiles from the furnace went to the fortified chateau and the hostelry on the main road. The three current furnaces of the business are still old, and each consume 200 square metres of tiles at a sitting, tickling at a constant 1170˚C thanks to modern thermostats, and consuming €900 worth of gas at a time.  Monsieur Pauzat had filled my head with facts, even though he and his family had only been running the business for three generations.

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We learnt winter is cold, a time to stockpile, tidy, repair, and fire some tiles in warm weather. The spring is a time to fire many more, as the temperature rises and humidity stays low – this is the busiest time of the year, sliding slowly into summer as the stockpile dwindles during the house-building season and supplies are replenished when the weather is not too warm nor humid. Autumn the furnaces burn again, tiles churned forth to be stacked against the winter cold.

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We were amazed at the amount of tiles in stock, but were quickly told that there were actually very few compared to normal. We learnt the simplicity of the process of making tiles, and then became confused by the hundreds of complexities that are also needed to be taken care of. Two colours of clay in the quarry, white and a red, and a combination of burnt oxygen and heat combined meant a great range of colours could be produced, from white to purple with all the shades of sunset and sunrise in-between. It bemused me that so much clay could be consumed over so many years and yet so much could still remain. We were told that hidden among the trees along the escarpment overlooking the marais were other chimneys of long forgotten furnaces, and that the tiles from the hills had been used far and wide across France, known particularly for their durability, thanks to the ferruginous qualities of the clay – it contains iron oxide which hardens when fired. The oldest tiles that are known from the quarry date to the 11th century and exist in the old Priory in the village. Tiles used in the fortified chateau go back to the 12th century. Most of the Napoleonic forts in the region and many of the important civil buildings, all have our local tiles on their floors and walls.

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We were led deep into the premises, and gazed awestruck at the number of drying racks, the mounds of completed tiles, and the size of the furnaces. A carriage stood ready to be fired the next day, the furnace open to receive its cargo, its door and interior blistered and burnt by years of fiery hell. At the heart of the building, under a more modern sheet-steel roof, stood the wooden frame of an original building, quietly standing with dignity some 700 years after being erected; it was tantamount proof to the passage of worms and beetles, its scarred surface a testament to the enduring adaptability of man and his work.

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With a fond adieu to Monsieur Pauzat and his 85-year old father, down for an afternoon check on his son’s work, we headed back to our own tiles, wondering at the tenacity of a skill and its determination to survive in the face of modern processes and cheap foreign imports. I had earlier asked, innocently, why people would care to buy something of lesser quality from a shop for the same price as a hand-made, valley-fired tile, and Monsieur Pauzat had shrugged. “Why ?” he had queried with a gallic shrug. “Perhaps it is because we are too busy to sell when we are so busy making,” he said, “and after all, people come here as they have done for hundreds of years, and most likely will do for hundreds more.” We looked at the kites, circling overhead with their beady eyes open for prey, and saw a continuance that could not be shrugged off by mere modern smart businessmen. We could find no argument with his reasoning.  The talk of tiles, the quarry and how they are made continued through supper, they had made a lasting impression.

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