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We had a wild time in France ogling orchids

by Anna Pavord

I hadn't expected nightingales. But there they were. A whole chorus of them, trilling their hearts out. During a long, sleepless night, they were the best company I could have had. This was in France. I can't remember when I last heard a nightingale in Britain. We were visiting my brother, who has a farm on the high, lonely plateau of the Causse de Gramat, north of Cahors. This is limestone country, where rock lies scarcely an inch under the surface of the ground.

But the advantage of this terrain, in late spring, is the staggering quantity of wild flowers - especially orchids. You can scarcely put a foot down without narrowly missing some glory, such as the white helleborine (Cephalanthera alba) glowing out from the scrub. Treasures such as this (the same was true of the bee orchid and the lady orchid) weren't scattered all over the fields. Each speciality seemed to have its own domain. You passed through the place of the wild Solomon's seal to the place of the tassel hyacinth (Muscari comosum), before being given an extraordinary spread of giant orchids (Barlia robertiana), easy to pick out because of their broad, highly polished leaves.

Orchids don't clump up, as we've discovered with the southern marsh orchids that colonise Foxpatch, the little field below our house that we've planted up as an orchard. They grow as singletons, though on my brother's farm the commoner orchids, such as the early purple, sometimes made spreads of a dozen or more. But the fact that they so often glowed out alone from the dun-coloured stony ground around them increased their allure. They demanded (and got) your full attention.

We stayed in the Causse de Gramat on our way back from the Cevennes, further east. This was new territory for me, though my brother, who is a vet, used to organise endurance rides there and often spoke of the drama of the great limestone gorges and the magnificent emptiness of the high plateaux. A loner, my brother. I booked a room at the modest Hotel du Mont Aigoual in Meyrueis, where three rivers come pelting down from the crags, and fill the place with the noise of weirs and roaring water.

The road in, weaving through the Gorges de la Jonte, was not the kind you can take quickly and we arrived at the hotel after nine o'clock at night.

We had a map of course which promised details of footpaths. But in effect it only gave the approximate course of some of the Grandes Randonnees, the long-distance footpaths through the National Park of the Cevennes. The scale of map we had - 1cm to 1km - was nowhere near big enough to accurately plan a walk in terrain we did not know.

But as is sometimes the way, our feet found a path that gave us a terrific walk in the Causse Mejean, a plateau set at around 2,500ft, north of Meyrueis. The map suggested it would be a promising area - high, empty, crossed only by one or two wandering D roads, scarcely the width of our hired car.

We made for Drigas, one of the few hamlets in this uncompromising landscape, only because it had an ancient megalithic tomb, of the kind I'm familiar with from my home in Wales. The tomb stood solitary in a field, blessedly free of noticeboards, "interpretation" and all the other interferences that sap significance. And the hamlet still had a working farm, the sheep only just being unpenned from their winter quarters. We watched two dogs shepherding them through the yard and down the track to one of the small fields, walled in with stone, that characterise the area.

A heartbreaking place to farm, I couldn't help thinking. Tiny areas cleared to sow, the stone heaps larger than the turf that now surrounds them. Thin ground. A few small patches of better soil, in natural, shallow depressions, each one walled round in stone to protect the crops inside. We walked over one of these abandoned pools of former cultivation, to look at a shepherd's shelter, built into the surrounding wall. Behind it, on the rocky turf, was a complete flower garden of staggering beauty: deep purple pulsatillas with hairy leaves, two-tone grape hyacinths, navy-blue below, sky-blue above, a small, white-flowered rock rose, and four different kinds of orchid, including a creamy-yellow flowered one (Orchis provincialis?) I've never seen before.

It was a perfect day to be up on the Causse. We were lucky. As a place to live, this area is testing. Did the shepherds up here ever have the opportunity to contemplate the beauty of wild flowers?

The footpath we were on turned out to be the Sentier des Trois Hameaux, linking Drigas with two other distant hamlets. We never got to them. Too busy ogling orchids. But the footpath system in France works well, with small strokes of paint as waymarks, on stones or gateposts, unobtrusive but reassuring.

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