Our walking group has recently taken some interesting routes, which have introduced us to the patrimoine (historic heritage) of the region. Some of the sites are quite off the beaten track and we hadn’t come across them before in our 22 years here. Last week, we took the road to Cordes-sur-Ciel in the Tarn, to explore the countryside around this perched hilltop town.
Cordes itself has become a tourist magnet. This is no surprise, since it’s built on a hill and commands the surrounding area. You see it from some distance away. Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse, owned much of SW France in the early 13th century and had the fortress town built in 1222. It’s generally considered to be one of the first bastide towns in SW France, although Montauban got there first.
The “sur-ciel” part of the name was added only in 1993, designating its lofty situation. And in 2014, the town was elected “French people’s favourite village”.
It’s a long time since we visited Cordes itself. This time, we didn’t go into the town, and it merits its own blog post once we have revisited it.
Our destination last week was la Meulière de Clayrac, a subterranean millstone quarry. This is reached after scaling a steepish hill, which affords panoramic views of the rolling Tarn countryside.
What’s so special about this place? It was one of the main suppliers of millstones to grain mills in the northern Tarn area. But they also got as far as Najac and Réquista in Aveyron. A meulière was dedicated to producing only millstones.
We were advised to bring torches, which was a good idea, since the quarry stretches well back into the rock. And what an amazing place it is! The hillside has been excavated to produce a series of interlocking galleries of about 12 m in height at the highest point. You certainly need to see where you’re going, since half-finished millstones and lumps of rock litter the floor. Unfortunately, my little camera wasn’t up to the task of shooting in the dark, but you get a bit of an idea.
Six centuries of rock bashing
The quarry was originally the property of the Counts of Toulouse. The Clairac family (hence its name) owned it from about the 17th century onwards. The meulière was exploited between the 13th and the 19th centuries, mostly by hand with hammers and chisels. The millstones were hacked out of the vertical columns of rock, and each pillar supplied about 16 millstones. You can see some that were left unfinished. The millstones were dressed at the quarry and then transported downhill on reinforced carts.
You can imagine that working in the quarry wasn’t a particularly pleasant job, with all that stone dust and injuries caused by falling stones or by bashing your hand or foot with a mallet. Another meulière existed not far away, apparently, but it collapsed completely one day, crushing workers and beasts of burden beneath tonnes of stone.
The Clayrac stone has one drawback: it’s quite soft. This meant that the millstones wore out more quickly. It also resulted in a lot of broken teeth since the stone dust got into the flour that was destined for people’s bread. So eating bread at that time was quite a hazard – and not just because of the hard crust, which can still result in a visit to the dentist.
Other quarries with superior stone, notably in the Périgord, superseded this one, and it fell into disuse. The last trace of its use dates to around 1836.
Yet more evidence of a local industry that has disappeared.
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