Our internet has been playing up for a few days and went off altogether yesterday: hence I’m posting today what should have been Sunday’s post. We love living in la France profonde, but one of the downsides is the antiquated telephone network. Friends in nearby villages gleefully tell us they have fibre-optics, while we grind our teeth and make do with a system that practically runs on steam. But that’s not what I wanted to write about.
Largest forest in the region
While we plod along on our walks not more than the regulation 1 km from the house, I think about the places where we have enjoyed walking, but which are temporarily out of bounds. Come with me this week on a virtual visit to the largest, and one of the oldest, oak forests in the region, la Forêt de Grésigne.
This beautiful stretch of woodland extends over 3,600 hectares/ 9000 acres and covers an area bounded by the valleys of the Aveyron, the Vère and the Cérou. The trees surge over the hillsides and deep ravines like a dark green sea. La Grésigne is home to all kinds of wildlife, including stags, which wander about perilously on the roads at night.
I love woodland and trees and never tire of the views of the forest afforded by the hilltop villages of Penne, Bruniquel and Puycelsi, its gateways. The town of Vaour, once a Templar commandery, sits in the middle of the high plateau on its eastern side.
Our prehistoric ancestors occupied the area, as evidenced by remains going back many thousands of years. In nearby Bruniquel, a cave containing structures found to be Neanderthal was discovered a few years ago.
The Romans were also there and left oppida, defensive tumuli, and the vestiges of camps. From about the 9th century, the Counts of Toulouse owned the forest and granted the use of it to their local vassals.
The forest passed to the crown in 1281. To this day, la Forêt de Grésigne remains a national property (une forêt domaniale) and has never been privatised, unlike many others.
From the late 14th to the 19th centuries, glass blowers established verrières (glass factories) in the forest. They used the local sandstone, known as grès, which gave the forest its name. The verriers used large quantities of wood to heat their kilns to the necessary 1,000C temperatures. The glass had distinctive colours from blue-green to violet, whose production was a well-kept secret. However, competition meant that most of the verrières closed during the 18th century.
Charcoal burners also operated in the forest, but they had mostly disappeared by World War I. And la Grésigne supplied wood for casks for the Gaillac wine industry.
La Grésigne was a natural resource exploited by seigneurs and peasants alike – and over time, over-exploited. The unlicensed plundering of the wood by local people for firewood and building and by the verriers and deforestation for grazing and cultivation led to an official review, in 1666.
The study concluded that unchecked exploitation put the forest’s future in danger. It also found that the king derived no advantage from the forest, partly because of the abuses but also because there was no means of transporting the wood to construct naval ships. The plans for a solution, the canalisation of the River Vère, were abandoned in the 18th century.
Today, the timber is still cut and used, but it is properly managed.
Our introduction to the forest began around 20 years ago. S, a friend, owned a small château with Templar origins, right on the edge of the Grésigne. She had an absolutely wonderful view to the west.
We sometimes walked in the forest with S and her pair of incredibly badly behaved dogs. Their favourite exploit was to run off and refuse to come back when called. We left them to it and returned to her house to take tea or apéros on the terrace. The dogs returned later, filthy and usually stinking of something unmentionable.
Sadly, S died some years ago, but whenever we go anywhere near la Grésigne, I remember her. And her dogs.
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