Wildlife, chateau, borders – notes from walking one of France’s most beguiling rivers.
Field, chateau, river, night noise
For two nights I sleep in the shadow of the Château de Chenonceau, on the edge of its tiny, pretty village. A mellow red sunset sinks over a vineyard. Crickets whirr. Swifts and swallows swoop and dart in pursuit of their twilight insect feast. In the gathering darkness I take a dip in the placid waters of the Cher to sluice the sweat and dirt from a day’s walking.
Back in my corner of a field I doze. Bats flutter in and out of the cedar trees, and while an occasional plane silently moves through the stars. It’s a warm night. It’s quiet and tranquil. At least until darkness falls.
There is a railway line thirty metres away. By day it barely troubles the village with its sleepy, random timetable of commuter trains. By night heavy goods trains rumble past, engine reverb throbbing over the field. Nearby, there appears to be an abandoned station converted into a store for an obsessive’s collection of junk, metal and rubbish. Through the night the lights are on and strange scraping noises pierce the night air. A night work gang arrive shouting as they dig, pound and break one of the level crossings. At dawn the cleaning machines suck at the rubbish and woosh at the dirt to clean the empty car park for the coming day’s visitors. Hot air balloons drift overhead with gas flares and finally, just to top it off, one of the French Air Force’s fighter jets screams over the field.
By 7 am peace has descended once again for a sleepy day.
A border: Vichy France / Nazi France
The Chateau is one of France’s finest – its graceful beauty shimmering in the near-perfect reflection of the placid waters of the Cher, a tributary to the Loire. It has a fascinating history dominated by powerful women down the ages, but a more recent story resonates in an age of borders, nationalism and the alt right. The Cher marked a boundary between Vichy France, the unoccupied free zone, and France controlled by the Nazis. The Chateau became a crossing, the gallery’s south door enabling Resistance fighters and Jews to pass through from the Nazi bank into the relative safety of the free zone. Going back further in time the Loire was once a boundary between English and French territory.
Over millennia borders shift, warp, disappear, re-appear in the blink of an eye. For their integrity, suffering blooms and blood erupts yet, in time, they will be forgotten and irrelevant.
The Chateau’s forgotten inhabitants
I wander with the crowds through fine rooms, ballrooms, rib-vaulted halls and a lovely old chapel. There are beautiful treasures: 16th century Flanders tapestries, four poster beds, Renaissance fireplaces, Gothic furniture and portraits of the Chateau’s mighty down the ages.
Yet, forget the treasures and leave, for a moment, the stories of the queens, the matrons, the dowagers who ruled the Chateau. What enraptured a few who noticed was an eye level view of the flying acrobats of the swifts feeding their young. Dozens of them whistling as they raced in and out of the nests lodged in the eaves of the outer walls. You could hear the cheeps of their young, insatiable for more as their parents arced away, with rush of air, never still.
So it was apt that I later found this homage to the Chateau’s wildlife hanging on the walls.
“Let’s look at it from a new perspective, leaving aside those very well-known figures, those silhouettes on the magic lantern of French history. Let’s give a thought to some other successive occupants of the chateau, anonymous inhabitants who are far more numerous than those we know or believe we know…
Let’s take a few steps back: let’s think about the countless generations of birds that have flocked around these walls, the skilful architecture of their nests, the royal genealogies of the animals in the animals and their dens and unadorned shelters, their hidden life, their almost always tragic life, so often at the hand of man.
Take another step along the paths: let’s dream about the great race of trees, with different species taking over in succession compared to whose age four or five hundreds means nothing.
Another step further on, far from any human concerns, here is the water in the river, water that is both older and newer than any other form, and which has for centuries washed the cast-offs of history. Visiting old residences can lead us to see things in a rather unexpected way.”
de l’Academie Francaise (1903-1987)
sous bénéfice d’inventaire
The Loire: the shifting river
I walk out of Saumur along the river. The river is tamed: ancient quays, slipways and earth levees testify to the huge efforts to pacify the river as a key highway for trade and transport. The river is wild: it freely wanders through a shifting mosaic of wooded islands, sandbanks, back channels.
Sometimes I walk beside a wide and expansive river, other times an intimate tranquil back-channel, covered with lilies and trees dipping their branches into the water. The river beguiles, it teems with life. Dragonflies, glittering and bejewelled, dance and loop over the water. Are they aware they play nature’s random game with the lurking fish that glide in and out of river shadows? The fish lunge up for their meal and then fall back with a gentle plop. The vegetation is lush and colourful, gleaming under the hot sun. The terns thrive, wheeling and calling over the sandbanks.
Early morning I awake and listen to the terns. I wonder about the birds. They must play a deadly game with the river, choosing where to nest and rear their young living on a river that rises and falls, wanders and floods.