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WELL, WHAT would you have done?

You'd have done what I did, wouldn't you? You'd have fetched the net and rescued the poor . . . but I'd best start at the beginning.

Water's such a precious commodity round here, especially in high sum

WELL, WHAT would you have done?

You'd have done what I did, wouldn't you? You'd have fetched the net and rescued the poor . . . but I'd best start at the beginning.

Water's such a precious commodity round here, especially in high summer when the springs stop flowing, that you find little watercourses, stone-lined wells and cisterns and ponds choked with lush weeds all over the place. These usually belong to a distant age when the land was more intensively cultivated, before mains water was laid on, and before plastic hoses snaked from standpipe to strawberry patch.

So our two mini-wells are the best part of a century old, probably more. We call them bassins. They aren't deep, half a metre at the most. For nine months of the year water seeps into the upper bassin, and when the level reaches the overflow pipe it decants into the lower bassin with a merry gurgle that reminds me of a record we had when I was a child, a 78rpm shellac creation with Donald Peers singing 'In a shady nook, by a babbling br. . .' Short of intelligent guesswork, I never discovered what followed because the record never got beyond line 2, sticking on 'a babbling br – a babbling br – a babbling br' over and over again until someone turned the record over and we had instead 'The Voice in the Old Village Choir' by a duo called Layton and Johnson. (This, too, has latter-day French echos, as we'll hear later.)

When the lower bassin is full, a deceptively crystal jet from the overflow discharges into a laneside streamlet where wild cress grows. Sweat-streaked hikers sometimes cool off under it. The other day an unexpected procession of curricles, phaëtons and flies (the carriage, not the insect) from the village Mayday Horse Festival watered its horses there. If only they knew how protein-rich the water is . . .

EVERY AUTUMN some instinct draws dozens of salamanders to the upper bassin to spawn. I don't think Charles Darwin can have devoted much time to salamanders, a kind of giant black-and-yellow amphibious newt, if you can call growing to 12-15 centimetres giant. They defy natural selection, they seem a race doomed to early extinction, yet the name 'salamander' itself was already ancient when classical Greeks took it over from some even more venerable language. Legend gives them a curious symbiosis with fire. The irreverent thought strikes me that maybe they survive because the French don't eat them. We'd better hurry on . . .

Although quite nippy in the water, they're very slow on land, and a determined snail might make it to safety before a salamander glanced peckishly towards it. I'm afraid we see them most often as ex-salamanders, nasty black-and-yellow squashed messes on the road.

Their annual Mecca is the upper bassin. There were about 20 last autumn, taking their pleasure in the sludge, among the fallen chestnut leaves. Some expire from the effort of spawning and from trying to get out again: for days on end they tread water ponderously, trying to find the slightest irregularities in the rendered bassin wall to help them climb up and out. By mid-November I couldn't bear it any longer, so I fetched the swimming-pool net and fished all the survivors out. This is where we came in: you'd have done the same, wouldn't you?

I put them in the ditch, among the wild cress. I don't expect they were in the least grateful.

WE GAVE the upper bassin its their annual spring clean the other day. What nightmarish ecosystems teemed beneath the placid waters, all at one another's throats: slimy mud-lurkers all, grubs, larvae, leeches agape for something juicy to attach themselves to . . . and then, when the water had cleared, the playful flip and twinkle of salamander newtlets. Even as we watched, one or two incautious infants disappeared down the overflow, into the lower bassin. Maybe as a child you had a record of the old music-hall song 'My baby has slipped down the plughole'?

A day or two earlier, soon-to-be son-in-law Henry mentioned having seen something long and yellow in the lower bassin. We saw a few roots, some faded blades of grass. But later I saw a yellowish water-snake, about 30cm long, nosing about in the weed. I can't say it looked ill-fed; maybe there's an old French vaudeville song about a salamander in the salle à manger?

If, like the hikers and horses, you pass our crystal fountain this summer, feel free to cool off under it. But I shouldn't drink it: crystal it may seem, but it's still imbued with nature red in tooth and claw.

FROM THE depths to the heights: up and up the path climbed, up steps crudely hacked out of the mountain rock, and this after a pretty stiff hairpin-bended drive up to the car park. Tumbles of building stone, making me envious for the drystone wall I'm building if I'd had a string of mules to bring some down, lay beside the path, witness to a long ruined defensive wall. At the top, with extraordinary views up and down the valley, we reached a tiny stone chapel, the only restored part of what was once a hill-top castle complex about the area of Richmond in Yorkshire or Rochester in Kent.

My small choir, 10 strong, 5 different nationalities, were there as guests of Les Amis de St Michel de Moucairol, the association that looks after the restoration of this magical place. We were due to sing as part of their annual festival of re-dedication. I'm afraid we sat outside during the Mass, ostensibly to leave more room inside for Les Amis, but really because we were enjoying the spring sunshine and the Languedoc mountain air, so rich and heady you could practically cut it up into chunks and send it home to Mother for her bronchitis.

They called us in as Mass was finishing, and by the time we'd arranged ourselves in a candle-lit horseshoe behind the altar the priest had just about cleared away the elements of Communion. Sensitive to the susceptibilities of the faithful, I asked my little flock not to put anything, handbags, sheet music, elbows and so on, on the altar.

So we sang and at the end they gave us a standing ovation. No encores: it's always best to leave an audience wanting more. We processed out into the sunlight. A little later we were invited back in again, because they'd started serving the apéritif no beano of this kind is complete without. We were handed slices of a delicious tarte aux noix, and were told that drinks, muscat or kir (white wine flavoured to taste with blackcurrant or bramble liqueur), were being served at the far end of the chapel, where we'd been singing.

The altar was now cluttered with bottles and plastic cups, and men stood round drinking as relaxed as if they'd been in the four-ale bar of the Goat and Compasses. So much for those susceptibilities, eh?

JUST NOW France is beset with strikes and demonstrations, mostly about pension reform, but it's really the left re-asserting itself after crushing electoral defeats a year ago. Old hands recall wistfully the heady days of May 1968, when a combination of trade unions and students eventually brought down De Gaulle. To have been a soixante-huitard, a sixty-eighter, is now a matter of pride, a bit like having been an Old Contemptible or an Aldermaston marcher.

"La rue s'exprime," said Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the embattled Prime Minister, "mais la rue ne gouverne pas." The street makes its views known, but the street does not govern. Wit and Wisdom, or Famous Last Words?

What will they call this year's crop of marchers and activists? I asked our friend Prisca, herself a soixante-huitard student, for a possible French version of 03-ers: zéro-troisistes, she suggested. Or zéro-troistards. Or zéro-troisons. Take your pick. No bets. Not just yet, anyway . . .