WE'RE SO lucky to have an old railway line practically at the foot of our garden. I've mentioned it before, but in case it has slipped your mind, it's the track of the railway that used to run through our very up-and-down countryside to carry coal
WE'RE SO lucky to have an old railway line practically at the foot of our garden. I've mentioned it before, but in case it has slipped your mind, it's the track of the railway that used to run through our very up-and-down countryside to carry coal from open-cast pits near a town called Bédarieux to power the woollen mills and leather tanneries in a town called Mazamet, a distance of about 40 miles.
The woollen industry declined, so the SNCF, the French national railway system, closed it down about 25 years ago. The rails and sleepers were taken up. The track gradually became derelict and overgrown. Trees grew in the middle of what became a strip of jungle running from Bédarieux to Mazamet.
Then someone had the bright idea of turning it into a footpath, a bridle path, a cycle track, open to walkers, horse-riders and cyclists but definitely closed to motor vehicles. Except service vehicles. After miracles of agreement between the often very fragmented French local authorities several sections of the track were bought and transformation into a piste verte (i.e. 'green path') was started, clearing the jungle and surfacing it with all-weather fine gravel. It has been a great success, and there are now plans to open the complete track from Bédarieux to Albi, about 70 miles. Here's a photo of it, not far from our house.
As a very occasional cyclist, my chief memory of the piste verte is the exquisite pain I suffered some years ago after cycling from our village to St Pons de Thomières, about 12 miles up the valley. We hired bikes locally, from a place called Oxygène. It might just as well have been called Bum Steer. Never have I sat on such an uncomfortable saddle. Permanent paralysis of the perineum threatened. Apparently cycling shorts are padded in all the right places. Woe betide if you didn't have any. I didn't know, did I? Any pushbikes I'd ever had were broad-saddled and sprung, with the maker's name Brooks on a little label at the back. The sort of sit-up-and-beg thing elderly gentlewomen pedal about St Mary Mead on. Nothing like the instrument of torture Oxygène wheeled out for me.
It was uphill all the way to St Pons de Thomières, nothing very steep, a gradual incline, and I can't begin to relate the heavenly bliss of being able to freewheel almost all the back, standing on the pedals. I haven't done it again. Once was enough.
As a pedestrian, however, impressions are sometimes very different. Why, only the other day...but I'll tell you about it.
Almost every day Josephine and I take a constitutional along the piste verte. A day or two after New Year's Day, in that dead period when you're not quite sure what day of the week it is, and it doesn't matter much anyway, we were ambling along when we heard the sound of a car behind us. If you got as far as paragraph 3 up there you won't need reminding that motor vehicles are banned on the piste verte, and Josephine and I are of an age and disposition when we wax wroth about such heinous, dastardly delinquency.
It turned out to be a white van, with the département (roughly the equivalent of county) logo on the side. An Official Vehicle, then. To our surprise it drew up beside us. The driver stopped the engine and lowered the window. What could this betoken?
In a very friendly way and with a broad smile he offered his hand out to be shaken, wished us meilleurs voeux (i.e. best wishes, for a happy New Year) with a special extra wish for good health, which was very kind of him. As he'd stopped specially to greet us it seemed churlish not to return his good wishes and ask him how his season's festivities had passed, so we did. Yes, the St Sylvestre (Hogmanay, New Year's Eve) meal had been splendid, he said: they'd started with langouste (crayfish). He went into great detail about the sauce Madame had prepared, and about the wine they'd drunk, a wine he'd discovered by a happy accident in the Gers, a département 100 miles to the west. He'd bought a bottle or two and had brought it back for just such an occasion. Had we had langouste too?
No, we replied. (In fact we'd been entertained to a very fine meal indeed on New Year's Eve by our neighbours M. and Mme Hector, who sometimes feature in this column.) We'd started our meal with foie gras. What did we drink with it? the driver asked. Monbazillac, I answered, pleased with myself that I could pull this name out of the hat. Monbazillac is a sweetish fortified wine from the Dordogne area. The driver nodded approvingly. Clearly this showed very good taste.
He had already picked up from our accents that we were British. Well, more likely from mine than Josephine's, whose French accent is truer than mine. (I don't expect mine will ever improve now. The nearest I've ever come to be taken for non-British was once when someone took me for a Belgian. H'm.) But. the more he spoke and the wider the conversation ranged the more I wondered who he was. Should I know him? Had I seen him before? Had he been marginally employed in the building of our house seven years ago? Did he occasionally work in a shop we frequented? Was he a relative of French friends? Had he ever sung under my baton? Or maybe attended concerts I'd given? I hadn't the faintest idea who he was. A mystery. I came to the conclusion that Mister Mystère must be someone Josephine knew.
We talked further and pleasantly about food, wine, the weather and the fact that one of the old railway parapets a bit further along was gradually disappearing because somebody was stealing the finely-dressed coping stones, leaving the mortar beneath to degrade. He agreed it was a crying shame and 'they' ought to do something about it before someone had an accident and went tumbling down the cliff into the river below. So the conversation continued for about ten minutes until he said he must be getting on - it was nearly 12 o'clock, when everything stops dead here - so he shook our hands again and drove off.
Who was that? I asked Josephine. No idea, she said. I thought he was someone you knew.
On this showing this makes the French just about the friendliest, most outgoing nation on earth. If you're booking your holidays just now - through French Connections, what else? - I hope you never find anything to suggest otherwise.