Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Post 31 The Aveyron.‏

It's hot and sunny here, has been for sometime, huge deep valleys, medieval villages that cling precariously to the hillsides. Rich red wine that goes with the colour of the soil. Cherry blossom in the hills, oregano, thyme and marjoram in the pastures, honey vinegar, walnut wine that tastes like cake, chestnut butter to spread on rock hard bread. [I eat the chestnut spread with a spoon and give the bread to the horse]. Stopped with Laurent, he makes and restores roulottes.
Roulotte suitable to be pulled by a horse
Put the wagon in his yard and horse in a field. In the evening we sat around outside and ate spicy merguez sausages, cooked over the hot coals of the fire. Frederick, who plays bagpipes came round and we played a few tunes. Pernod and petanque, [a ball game], the pernod leaves you cataractic in the morning and trying to wonder what you were doing, then a French farmer comes to complain about a horse in his field,  l grab his unwilling hand and shake it and tell him l'll get it 'toute suite.' I don't feel guilty, he'd rob me if he got the chance and pretend he hadn't.

The horse likes to eat good food too, and like the French farmer is thinking about the next meal while eating this one. You have to feed your horse any way you can. Many times in England l've stopped and tethered my horse on a wide verge beside a road and people have slowed down in their cars and shouted, 'buy a field you gyppo bas...d. It hardens you, but it doesn't make it ok. If l bought a field l'd be stuck there, l'd soon be putting a sign up, 'keep out.' I don't want that, l like to travel.
There's always been conflict between people who are nomadic and those who are settled. The settled people produce paperwork to say they own the land, even though the nomads might have been using it for centuries or more. I try to find stopping places where l don't get noticed, where l'll be left in peace, but it's often not possible.

13th April.10 miles [17km] up over the Causse de Severac. A long climb up to the Col de Lagarde 810 metres [2657 feet]. Dry limestone ,waterless hills, thousands of cowslips. Got to Severac, it's a charmless place, bought a cake, a 'toi et moi,' a sort of eclair, coffee one end, chocolat the other. Watered the horse at the fountain, carried on, got some water from a house for me, the old man who gave it to me said he preferred white wine to water.
It's quite a steep hill out of the town, it's Palm Sunday and old couples are driving up to the cemetary to put offerings on their relatives graves, the road is narrow and they are delayed momentarily by a horse plodding  up the hill, several of them wave happily to me, but  the last car, an old man with his wife, beeps his horn angrily and shakes his fist. I expect if he'd seen a man with a beard riding a donkey, he'd have been unpleasant to him too.
A bit further on and l stopped at the source of the Aveyron. I drank the water and l'm still alive, it tasted much better than the tap water. It was a good place to stop for the night.
The source of the Aveyron

30 Working donkeys

After Maurs, l headed east along the river Lot. This is beautiful country and some of the people speak the patois of Occitan. The villages are really attractive. Beside the river there are small, very fertile fields, ideal for growing vegetables. The hillsides are steep and wooded. The woods are abundant with  chestnut, hazel and walnut trees. A very good honey is produced here, and at this time of year the bees are busy collecting pollen from the flowers of the chestnuts.
Bilingual signs, French and Occitan
I stopped the night with Cedric, he has a smallholding. He uses donkeys and an old Cob de Normandie  for many of the jobs. In the morning he prepared some ground for potatoes, using two good strong donkeys.
Two good strong donkeys
In the afternoon he used his old cob to bank up some ground, ready to plant pumpkins. He led the horse, while his friend Samuel handled the plough. Cedric could have done it on his own, guiding the horse using the reins, but he'd been kicked a few days before, in the chest, by a big fat, ill-mannered Breton mare and was feeling rather sore.
He  has a lot of beehives, he also has orchards and makes a lot of apple juice. He has twenty sheep and two well trained border collies. He'd trained them himself and they worked well. The sheep eat the grass in the orchards. They are good for this as they don't damage the trees. In the evening he cooked potatoes, that he'd grown and cooked slightly spicy Merguez sausages made from his sheep. His jumper was made from the wool of his sheep. It was good chatting to him. He showed me a basket he'd made from Clematis.
He has a selection of small ploughs, harrows, a mower,suitable for a pair of donkeys to pull and also some carts and sledges. Sledges are very useful on the steep slopes and are easily made. In the morning Cedric gave me honey, eggs and applejuice.
Small harrow for a donkey
I carried on 8 km, [5 miles], and crossed the river Lot. On the other side l stopped with Yannick, who is a professional beekeeper. He had also worked as a beekeeper in Roumania and gave me useful information about that country. We drank wine made from unripened walnuts, that his partner Anne had made. Delicious, l love the taste of walnuts. After lunch l rested and played a tune on my pipes for Anne and her little girl. I'd hardly finished playing, when a couple in a car stopped to look at the wagon. It turned out that Jean-Pierre also plays the pipes, in fact he's one of the best pipers in France and I'd heard of him. Later they took me  back to their lovely old 16th century house and Jean-Pierre played me his pipes, l was really pleased and it was interesting talking to him and Diana, his wife, while we ate hazelnut cake.
Friday 4th April. I went up to the medieval village of Conques, it's a tough pull up the hill and some of the cobbles are slippery and the streets are narrow. It's one of the routes of St Jacques de Compostelle, [he was an apostle] and many pilgrims come through the village and pray at the church. At this time of year it is very quiet in Conques, perfect for me.
Conques, very narrow streets
I went past a saddler. Lin Alberici, the saddler came out to see the horse and wagon. I asked him if he might be able to repair a piece of the harness, 'toute de suite,' [straight-away] for me? He said he could. It was nearly mid-day, so l arranged to come back at 2pm, [French people have a two hour lunch, then work later]. That was great as it gave me time to tether the horse and get sorted out. I got back to the saddlers a little early and his neighbours invited me in for a glass of wine, while l waited for him to re-open. Lin was very kind and friendly and worked quickly and efficiently, while we chatted. It was great to watch him working. He also cut me some spare straps of leather, in case l needed to do more repairs and he wouldn't accept any payment, that was really generous and kind of him and has helped me on my way.
Rooftops in Conques
These villages aren't inhabited by thieves and l feel safe going off and leaving the horse and wagon, when l got back to where l'd tethered the horse, some men were playing boules near him, he enjoyed watching.
Later on l walked around the village and visited the church. I'm not in any hurry, so l can take my time to enjoy looking at things. I ate my dinner in the Auberge St. Jacques, l chose the, 'menu de pelerin' [pilgrims menu]. It was really good and l felt l could get used to being a pilgrim. After the meal l sat on the steps of the church and listened to the mass and the chanting. It felt good to be here in such a lovely place, it felt good to have got here, 600 miles, [950km] south of Calais.
5th April. I went to Espeyrac and stopped there. I'm still on the route of the pilgrims and there are taps for the pilgrims to get drinking water along the way, handy for me too. A lady told me to stop in the park and that no one would mind. A lovely spot beside the river.
7th April. It's very hot and sunny today. I got to Estaing about 11am, another small medieval town. I stopped by the river and unyoked the horse for a rest. A young man on a horse, a Camargue X Espagnol, rode into the river, so l jumped on my cob and rode him in too. He was glad to see another horse and they enjoyed splashing and having a drink.
Fed up with flies at Estaing, river Lot, 7th April
I tethered the horse and did some shopping, then sat on the terrace and had a milky coffee. I carried on through, Espalion, busy with impatient lorries, got to St. Come d'Olt, late afternoon, 18 miles [30km]. I was hot,tired and thirsty, but this is a lovely small medieval village. I went through the narrow streets and over the narrow bridge and pulled onto some nice grass right beside the river.
I washed the horse, then got a pail of water and washed my hair, which revived me a bit. Then l had to lie on the bed for a bit and rest. It's tiring never knowing how far l've got to go to find a place to stop and not knowing what it's going to be like, when l get there. In the morning it was raining, l'm glad, l moved the horse to new grass and went back to bed, it's nice here and l'll rest for the day. The shops are close by, an epicerie, two boulangeries and several cafes.
Having a paddle in the evening, River Lot
In the last 12 months l've travelled 2,560 miles, [4,119 km], with my wagon. During that time the horse has had 158 days rest. He's pulled the wagon for about 850 hours and spent the other 7,880 eating or resting, Oh and he's been swimming a couple of times. 

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Post 29 Breton horses.‏

1st April, hot and sunny, did 20 miles [33km], a long day, my feet are tired, l'm almost at Maurs. I took photos of some cows, l like the colour of them and their horns, some of them are wearing bells.
I saw quite a few Breton horses today and tonight l'm stopped at a place where there is a stallion. It's several hundred miles from Brittany, but the breed is popular. They are fattened for meat. They make good strong draught horses, when they are not so fat. Some people might object to them being eaten, but if they weren't, they would have died out in the 1960s when farmers no longer needed them. In Britain, breeds like the Suffolk Punch and Dales have almost died out and have a tiny gene pool. I had a Dales stallion a few years ago, it was useless.
I watched a mare being served by the stallion.
Breton Stallion
Daniel, who owns the stallion said l could tether my horse up the track. I was glad as the horse was tired, l was too.
Two very fat Breton mares
Daniel asked me the age of my horse, l told him he was eight. He said there is an expression in France, which roughly translates as, 'until eight a horse is good for you, after eight it is good for a friend, at 16 it is good for your enemy.'
When horses are too fat and full of grass they are very hard to train or do anything with. If your horse looks this fat at the beginning of spring you aren't looking after it properly. A fat horse is also unhappy. Your horse should look a little lean at the end of winter and it will be better for it. If your horse is a 'good doer,' and doesn't do much work, don't feed it hard food and if it has to have hay, feed it hay from last year.If it wastes hay, you are giving it too much and wasting money.Don't put a rug on it, instead,let it run around to keep warm, this is what they have to do in the wild.
Horses have been bred for centuries to do hard work on the minimum of feed. What does work mean? My cob usually pulls 850kg, about 5 or 6 hours a day, 6 days a week. When your horse is fit there will be little or no fat on him, if your horse is unfit his sweat will be white and foamy, when he's fit his sweat will be clear. If he isn't sweating you haven't worked him enough.
Horses that get too fat often get a terribly painful illness called laminitis, the best thing then is to shoot your horse and put it out of its misery. Vets don't tell you this, they make money out of ill, suffering animals, not dead ones. Of course they still charge you if the animal dies.
Breton mares and foal
I tethered my horse near to a couple of Breton mares. One had just had a foal, the other mare was  about to drop hers.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Post 28. La Dordogne

26th March. I stopped in a picnic area. It has a tap, which is good as l need to wash some clothes, and it has a compost toilet, l've never seen one before in a picnic area.
Robinet in pique nique area

The next morning, as l was about to leave two Gendarmes stopped and asked to see my passport. They were friendlier and l chatted to them. One of them told me it was market day in Lapleau and l got all excited, thinking of stalls laden with delicious food. When l got to Lapleau there was one lady selling crepes and a man selling vegetables, only they weren't selling them as l was the only person there. I felt obliged to buy something and help the economy, so bought some carrots for the horse. I told the man the horse liked them and he gave me some extra ones. I bought some crepes from the lady, l should have told her the horse liked them too, l missed a trick! I ate them later, delicious.

Gorge near Lapleau
Huge hills and wooded valleys 800 feet [240m] deep, the road winds backwards and forwards around the contours of the hills and the gradients are not bad for the horse. When l get to the bottom of the hill it takes about an hour to get up the other side. I went through Soursac . Soursac is quite a busy village, with a few shops. l met an English couple called Ron and Liz, they were very kind and invited me back to their place, they had enough grass for the horse. We had lunch in the garden and watched the first swallows arriving. I got my washing done and caught up with my emails. They have great views of the mountains, covered in snow, 30 miles east in the Auvergne. I was interested to meet them and see how they have adapted to living in France. I guess it's a success if they are happier and more content. They gave me dinner and l was glad l'd met them.
Down in the valleys the wood anenomes and ladies smock are flowering  and the leaves are coming out on the birch and hazel and the grass is lush. This is a very uninhabited part of France, the few people l've met have been very friendly and l'm getting more confident speaking with them. I've seen more swallows today.
La Drodogne, 29th March
I crossed the Dordogne today at pont de Spontour. It's quite a nice looking village and when l got to the other side of the bridge there was a good place to stop. The swallows are flying up and down the river feeding. The village has enough houses for about a 1,000 people. At 6pm l walked through it, l thought l'd go to the cafe. When l got there, it said 'ferme definitive,' [ l can't do accents on this keyboard]. Cafe shut, forever. A bit further down the street there was l'hotel, judging by the faded, peeling paint and cracked windows it has been shut for some years. There is no shop. There was nobody about, birds where singing, but no sound of a radio or television, no smell of cooking, no voices, then l heard a door shutting, apart from that, nothing. The church bell chimes the hour, forlornly. It's slightly post-apocalyptic. Large parts of rural France are now inhabited only by the aged. Unemployment is high, many young French people now live in Britain. Back at the wagon I was glad to hear the sound of the horse crunching the grass and the sound of the stream.
It took me an hour to get up the hill in the morning, the sides of the hills are incredibly steep, and there are rockfalls, when l got to the top l could hear the river half a mile below. Although l'm only half a mile from where l started, l've done three miles.
I did 18km, [11miles] then stopped by a water tower in a woods. Just enough grass for the horse.
Chateau d'eau
The next day l did 25km, [15miles] to Laroquebrou. Very hilly wooded countryside, nice villages, at one village l watered the horse at the fountain. A retired couple gave me a bottle of cold beer to drink and some crepes and an apple tartlette. Delicious. By the time l got to Laroquebrou the sun was going down and l was anxious to find somewhere to stop, l found some grass by the cemetary. It also has a tap. No one in the cemetary bothered me.
31st March, Having a drink