Noses to the Grindstone? La Meulière de Clayrac near Cordes

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”.

Cordes in the sky

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.

Subterranean quarry

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.

Approach to the quarry
Quarry entrance showing spoil heap outside

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.  

You might also like:

Tilting at Windmills

Walnut oil mills and windmills

Goats, grain and gremlins

Copyright © Life on La Lune 2019. All rights reserved.

About nessafrance

We moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I'm fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs. I also write historical novels and short stories.
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6 Responses to Noses to the Grindstone? La Meulière de Clayrac near Cordes

  1. Beth Lamb says:

    Our favourite vineyard is near Cordes, at Vindrac-Chateau Bourguet.
    If you go to Cordes, consider visiting the Jardin du Paradis, very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks for the tips. We used to go to Cordes a lot at the start, when we had wall-to-wall visitors, but we don’t seem to go that way often nowadays. However, it’s worth a visit, since I’ve never really written about Cordes on the blog. Several people have mentioned the Jardin, which is on my bucket list.

      Like

  2. Fascinating history!! There’s a millstone quarry not too far from Saint-Chinian, and I’ve heard that it is well signed and prepared for tourist visits! I’ll have to get there and write about it before too long!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I understand that there may have been quite a few of these quarries around – depending on the type of stone, of course. The one we visited is not especially well publicised, but they have established a randonnée that goes to it. It had never really occurred to me before, but of course millstones had to come from somewhere!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think you are right about there having been many quarries – transport being kind of difficult, you’d try and quarry millstones locally if at all possible, I would imagine. These days it’s all stone roller mills…. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        Yes, transport would certainly have been a problem. I guess if the stone wasn’t available locally, you would have had to source them from some distance. And, in the case of this quarry, better stone was available elsewhere.

        Liked by 1 person

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