Wonderful woodland: la forêt de Grésigne

View towards la fôret de Grésigne from Puycelsi

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.

Penne, one of the gateways to la Grésigne

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.

Puycelsi – hilltop fortress town and another of the forest’s gateways

Multi-purpose woodland

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.

Twin châteaux of Bruniquel

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.

Over-exploited

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.  

Vaour on the edge of the forest – what is left of the Templar commandery

You might also like:

Vaour and the Templars

Heart of Oak

Seeing the wood for the trees

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6 comments

  1. So do you have large swathes of “old growth” forest around ? (say 200+ years of unmolested by human activity? ) With very very large old trees?

    Liked by 1 person

    • In our immediate area, no. Ours was a farming area, and though there’s a lot of woodland here now, much of it is less than 100 years old, having grown in former fields. La forêt de Grésigne, which I describe in the post, is about 30 km away, and that is at least 1,000 years old. However, parts of that were over-exploited in the Middle Ages. It’s now managed woodland owned by the French state. I’m sure some of the trees are very old.

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  2. Informative as usual! We once camped briefly at st Antonin noble Val after a miserable experience on a Spanish campsite. Remembering references on your blog we explored nearby villages including puycelsi and penne. Happy memories.
    Bruniquel’s cave I visited when I helped a teacher friend on a school trip. Due to suffering from claustrophobia I loitered at the entrance while everyone else explored. I have loitered outside many a grotte since we’ve lived here! Bon courage et restez sauf

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah yes, I remember your miserable Spanish experience. I’m glad it was mitigated by your visit to our area.
      The Neanderthal structures I mention were quite far down in this particular grotte, I think. I also suffer from claustrophobia. While I will go into a cave, provided the ceiling is at least room height, I cannot imagine why people do pot holing for fun!
      Bon courage à vous aussi.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the Grésigne. A favourite day out is to drive to Larroque for about 10am and walk almost to Mespel before turning onto the GR towards Puycelsi. Long and leisurely lunch at Le Jardin de Lys then back to the car by a shorter path. The restaurant has fabulous views and great food and, the big plus, no problem with sweaty hikers and muddy dogs! Z

    Liked by 2 people

    • We’ve never walked from Larroque, although we did eat there a couple of times many years ago. We know Puycelsi well, since we’ve sung in the church there on many occasions in aid of the church restoration. The weather is usually good, and you get those wonderful almost 360 degree views.

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