The backbone of the earth is never far beneath the surface here, as we have found to our cost every time we plant a tree or a shrub! The farmers carefully make piles of the stones they plough up, but more push through every year. It’s almost as if the stones grow here. Although it’s not easy to cultivate crops in these conditions, the stones have made good building materials in the past.
I’ve written about stone before, principally its uses in dry stone walling and the construction of houses and barns. You can’t walk anywhere around here without coming across heaps of rubble that were once dwellings. But there are other mounds that weren’t houses.
Before the arrival of the plough in the early 19th century, the land was worked only to a shallow depth. The plough went deeper and broke off pieces from the top layer of the limestone bedrock. Sometimes, the volume of stones turned up was too great to use for anything.
Instead, the farmers made heaps known as cayrous or cairous. They were often square and carefully constructed to pile up large quantities of stone. You can be forgiven for thinking that these cairous are ruined houses. No doubt they also served as stores of spare materials for mending stone walls or other constructions.
The cairou below near Vidaillac (Lot) has a gariotte, or stone shelter, built into the end of it. More about those below.
You frequently see other structures made of dry stone, which are characteristic of this part of Southwest France. Their primitive nature makes them look very old. In fact, although documents mention them from the 15th century, the majority were constructed during the 19th century.
The population expansion at that period led to deforestation and an increase in cultivable land, sometimes quite distant from the farm itself. Between 1850 and 1880 farmers planted new vineyards, until the phylloxera bug destroyed most of the vines. The amount of pastureland also extended, leading to an increase in the number of livestock. Shelters against the elements and stores for tools were essential.
A gariote or gariotte was a simple stone shelter, most commonly built into a wall. It had a couple of slabs for a roof and maybe a flat stone inside for a rustic seat. There are several of these within 100 metres of where I’m writing, incorporated into the walls that still surround some of the fields.
Below is the entrance to the gariotte that was built at one end of the stone heap above. It’s a comparatively large one.
A more sophisticated structure was the caselle or cazelle. This was most often a free-standing building, although sometimes you see them incorporated into a wall. A cazelle was usually round.
The roof was vaulted or conical and composed of overlapping flat stones. Cazelles were used for storage, or as shelters for people or sheep in a field. Built close to a farm, they served as hen houses or even as accommodation for temporary farm workers.
Some of these structures have been well restored. But, owing to rural depopulation, large swathes of land were deserted from the late 19th century. Many of the gariottes collapsed along with the walls into which they were built. The friable stone crumbled into grit and dust. Nowadays, farmers no longer mend the walls, preferring instead to use electric fencing or, unfortunately, barbed wire.
These stones, so carefully assembled a couple of centuries ago, are returning to the earth.
I’m grateful to fellow walker John for some of the information in this post. The images are mine, taken during various walks over the years.
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