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FAILURE, I'M afraid. Signal, abject failure. Serves us right for being so cocksure, of course. We'll be back by teatime, we said. Nothing to it. Easy-peasy. A doddle. We'll call you from the top. Chill the champagne ready for our triumphant return

FAILURE, I'M afraid. Signal, abject failure. Serves us right for being so cocksure, of course. We'll be back by teatime, we said. Nothing to it. Easy-peasy. A doddle. We'll call you from the top. Chill the champagne ready for our triumphant return, will you?

I'd better start at the beginning. Last month - go back and have a look, if you like - I published a photo of the mountain ridge to the north of our house. Silhouetted against the sky the various crags and outcrops resemble the form of a woman lying down - nose, lips, chin, neck, bosom, knees and so on. She's known locally as La femme couchée, the woman lying down, although if you look on the map the nose and chin are lumped together under the name Roc d'Ourliades, her bosom is called Montahut, and they're a little over 1000m (3300 feet). We just call her The Lady. This photo caused a certain stir in some quarters. Some, chiefly men, could see the resemblance to the famous female outline, others stared as uncomprehendingly as we did when we tried to make sense of those optical illusion puzzles we sometimes had as kids.

Responsible journalism - and what else would you expect of this column? - clearly demanded a closer familiarity with the female form than a distant photo taken at dawn, even if The Lady's classically proportioned figure was formed of rocks and boulders and knee-deep heather. Early in September I and Josephine and brother-in-law Derek set out to examine her credentials in some intimacy, leaving Josephine's twin to hold the fort down in the valley, scan the distant ridge with her binoculars and to return our triumphant waves from the tip of The Lady's nose, when we'd eventually clambered up there.

Purely in the interests of conserving our energy for the final assault we drove up as close as we could. This involved swinging up the hairpin bends from the valley floor to the pass called Col de Fontfroide and then taking an unmetalled forest track called La Route des Crêtes, the crest road, which roughly follows the 1000m contour. This track is marked on the map as GR7. GR stands for Grande Randonnée, long distance footpath, and GR7 is one of the most famous of the many such footpaths and hiking trails that criss-cross France. It stretches from near the German frontier in Alsace to Andorra in the high Pyrenees, and its peculiarity is that it follows, more or less, the partage des eaux, the separation of the waters, i.e. the watershed between rivers that flow into the Channel or the Atlantic and those that flow into the Mediterranean.

After several kilometres of GR7, throwing up dust-cloud wakes worthy of fashionable lifestyle 4WD adverts, we arrived at a meeting of five forest tracks, each with a red No Entry circle and the words sauf service below. If we'd been French I expect we would have muttered purée! or mercredi!, which are both genteel euphemisms for much more robust expletives, because the sign forbids entry to all vehicles except those belonging to the forestry or fire services, on pain of a €130 fine (about £115, if you're lucky with the exchange rate). So we got out and and walked.


Thick forest of beech and pine both sides of the track prevented any view, so we really had no means of telling where we were or how close we might be to cosying up to The Lady. Suddenly we came to a silent halt: coming round a bend we saw ahead of us in shafts of filtered sunlight several marcassins rootling about in the leaf litter. Marcassins? There's no word in English. They're wild boar piglets, attractive infants in their stripy coats, giving no hint of the fearsomely ugly and supposedly ferocious adults they're going to turn into. Speaking of which . . .
. . . one of our party, whom I shall call Dora the Explorer to avoid identification, refused to go on until the other two had armed themselves with stout staves to beat off any infuriated adult wild boar. In fact the mother appeared (wild boar males being content to sire their offspring and then slope off, a phenomenon not unknown in other species) and she and her brood scampered away into the woods, sparing us not a glance. D. the E. breathed again and we carried on.

We came to a clearing on the edge of the mountain, a rocky balcony with magnificent views over our valley, over the hills the other side and far away towards the Pyrenees. We could see our house, a tiny Lilliputian doll's house 3000 feet below. We could also see the fabled Lady, barely recognisable from beyond and a little above.

But there was a deep gully between us and her nose, far too precipitous to think about without boots, ropes and proper Alpine equipment.


We could see that the nose, chin and bosom were all part of an up-and-down ridge, linked to the parent mountain by a gentle saddle. To reach the nose we would have to continue along our forest track until we came to the saddle, surmount the bosom (cue men's changing-room jokes), scramble up and over the chin and then clamber up the nose to the tip and triumph. We had 40 minutes before sunset. Not enough. I had images of my daughter, once benighted in these wild mountains with no other light than her mobile phone. Not good. And how would D. the E. fare with the threat of wild boar in the dark?

So we decided to turn back, contenting ourselves with an optical illusion photo of me about to scratch The Lady's nose for her. Not much of a compensation, really. But we'll be back.


* * *

GREAT EXCITEMENT up and down the valley lately, with several of its generally sleepy villages mentioned on the national news. Over the past few months someone has been sending anonymous death threats accompanied by live bullets through the post to national and local political figures, nearly all to the right of centre, including President Sarkozy. Apparently the point was reached where leading right-wing politicians not on the death-threat list were wondering why they'd been left off. Didn't they measure up? Weren't they fit for purpose?
Anyway, these letters were traced to a local source. The poison pen (known in French as le corbeau, the crow) sent the letters in the name of a shadowy 1000-strong organisation called Cellule 34, cellule meaning cell in the sense of a clandestine group of political activists and 34 because it's the identifying number of the Hérault département. It has to be said that the Hérault is coloured deep red on the political map.

The police and the French equivalent of MI5 cast their net and hauled in local left-wing sympathisers with access to ammunition, like hunters and rifle club members. There were dawn raids, arrests made, houses searched, computers confiscated. Several of those taken in for questioning were people we knew slightly. No charges were brought. No one had heard of Cellule 34. The police retired, baffled, the letters stopped for a while, and angry public meetings were held denouncing wrongful arrest.
Then last week another batch was posted and the police pounced. The presumed corbeau was arrested, apparently given away by a DNA match. It turned out to be a loner with a grudge. There was no hotbed of revolution simmering in these quiet villages. Cellule 34 and its 1000 members existed only in the corbeau's imagination.
So the valley hit the national headlines for a few moments. But instead of reading POISON PEN ARRESTED in the papers I'd much rather see EXPAT'S EXPLOIT: LADY'S NOSE TICKLED. Much more creditable.

Photos: D. Chaplin