“We’re not lost. I know where the path is,” I said. Many such words are uttered with great conviction and almost complete ignorance. It wasn’t entirely my fault. The route of this randonnée had changed, and it was no longer the same as the one in our book of walks.
In all our 23 years here, we had never been to Mouillac. It’s a long way off the road between Caylus and Puylaroque and isn’t really on the way to anywhere. But I decided that we must rectify this gap in our local knowledge – especially as we were promised plenty of examples of patrimoine (historic heritage) along the way.
We set off from home last Sunday under cloudless blue skies; a little late, since it was already rather warm. Fortunately, the parking places by the church in Mouillac are shaded by trees.
Blink and you’d miss Mouillac. The village itself is tiny: a 19th-century church, a Mairie of around the same vintage, which was probably the school in past times, and a couple of houses. The hamlets that make up this commune are larger.
Like so many such villages, Mouillac’s population dwindled during the late 19th century. In 1800 it had 468 inhabitants; the 2017 census listed 98. The low point was in 1975, when only 39 people lived there.
One of the reasons Mouillac once flourished is water. The area’s particular geological formations capture water not far beneath the surface. Access to a reliable source was of capital importance to people who lived off the land. In other places, they either had to make a daily trip to collect water or were forced to sink very deep wells to find it. One of our wells is 12 metres deep.
The church in Mouillac is built on a rise with an excellent view over the surrounding countryside. An orientation table identifies the landmarks.
From there, we set off full of optimism, since the route appeared to be well waymarked. Not far from the church stands a former windmill (moulin à vent), which was clearly converted into a pigeonnier at one point. This was a good place to site a windmill, which would have been exposed to the prevailing winds from the west.
Wells in abundance
Under an increasingly hot sun, we trudged along the road until we found the next set of waymarks leading down into the valley of the ruisseau de Mouillagol. The track descends steeply towards the stream, which must have carved out the valley over millions of years. The stream now appears to be dry, but maybe it flows in the winter or after heavy rain.
At the bottom, we came across a clearing, which may once have provided grazing for sheep, as evidenced by an ancient stone drinking trough.
Three wells exist in this spot, each in a different commune – Mouillac, Caylus and Puylaroque. Their existence is noted as far back as 1304. Today, one appears dry, another has some water in it and the third is full of squelchy mud.
Back up the valley along another, less steep, path, and my confidence in our route began to wane. We couldn’t find any further waymarks. By now we were feeling pretty hot, despite hats and water, so we decided to cut short and visit the hamlet of le Pech before making our way back to Mouillac.
At the entrance to this hamlet – where we didn’t see a soul despite evidence of occupation – three wells stand in a group. These are in addition to the two wells we passed on the way up to the hamlet – one ruined and one restored. I’ve never seen so many in one place, but they have always belonged to different owners, even today, apparently.
Water for animals and people
The local consuls supplied a public water source in each hamlet. The open wells, i.e. those without a roof, served for watering animals. Those with a roof of tiles or split stones (lauzes) provided drinking water for the inhabitants. Water was raised from the covered wells with a bucket and chain lowered from a cylinder of wood turned by a rudimentary handle. We found one in our well when we restored it.
And, something I didn’t know, people used covered wells to store perishable food during hot weather since they were the coolest places. This may explain why there’s a ledge around the inside of our wells. Bad luck if you dropped your week’s supply of meat down the well.
The way we thought led back to Mouillac is now closed, so we had to take a rather longer route to get there. This ran alongside la Lère Morte (the dead Lère), a river that once flowed more abundantly than it does now. Again, it had carved its way through the rocks to flow at the bottom of a steep-sided valley.
After a hot and dusty climb with no shade uphill to the church, we collapsed into the stone bench facing the landscape, released our feet from imprisonment and finished off our water, which by now was like bathwater.
If you do this walk in summer, a) set off in the early morning; b) make sure of the route; c) wear a hat and sunglasses; and d) take plenty of water. There was loads of it beneath our feet, none of it accessible.
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