In which the cast is introduced and the scene is set.
These are some reminiscences of days on the river in the Perigord region of France. I shall be mixing up stories from my first trip, eight years ago, to the trips we did last summer, about thirty trips in all. I’m attempting to be self-deprecating in these stories and I really hope nobody takes offence. This entry is about arriving in Brive for the first day of the Perigord trip.
St. Leon, I was still only in St. Leon. I lay in bed looking up at the ceiling where a fan wasn’t spinning. I’m in France, not Saigon. “Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another.” Who was I kidding? I’m here to guide a river trip down a couple of rivers. I’m working for a canoe outfit and we have some guests over from the USA. It’s not really going to be anything like a river trip on the Mekong. Still I’m hoping it will be an adventure of some sorts.
Yesterday I left the comfort of my friends in Paris and took the slow train down to Brive. I drowsed and slept as I generally do on the train. It wasn’t a TGV and it wasn’t busy and I didn’t have to engage in any bonhomie. Outstanding. A French word came out. I imagine I shall have to get used to it. After Limoge I start to notice the landscape. After Uzerche a river appears tumbling and falling in a narrow valley. It’s the Vezere. It looks a bit fierce. Fortunately it calms down further downstream.
At Brive I was met by my colleague and co-guide Paul. Actually he’s the boss and I’m just the gopher. Forget the gopher. I’m the water-rat. Which is just as well as Paul knows all the ropes and I’m the rookie. Cripes I’m a bird too. No matter. Paul has been here a day already and has laid the foundation for the trip. We have a minibus, we have picnic gear and we have a collapsible canoe on the roof. I look suspiciously at this as it looks remarkably insubstantial. I fear that this will be my boat.
I think I’m ready for this expedition. I have canoed before, in fact I canoed only last October and it’s May now, but it’s long time since I paddled with any frequency. I barely know one end of a canoe from the other. Fortunately Paul seems confident in my ability and has assured me that the rivers are not raging torrents but really little more than quiet green streams. It’s going to be like “Wind in the Willows”.
Which is all very well but I will have other problems too. We have guests. Worse than that I am expected to look after them, to accompany them on the river, to help them learn to paddle and to tell them something of what’s going on around them. It’s not possible to brush up on one’s social skills without being sociable. I shall have to do my best and jump in the deep end. No, not the deep end.
Paul has convinced that though the guests will be from the USA they will be able to understand me. I’m English. He has also reassured me that it’s a general rule that people who are prepared to come on a canoeing holiday are quite easy-going and friendly. In any case they have paddled before and know full well about the vagaries of travel on the water. He’ll be doing all the hard work in the background and all I have to do is get them, and the canoes, from one place to the next. A small matter of paddling downstream for four or five hours. Without losing anyone.
I’m apprehensive of course. I’ve never had a job like this in my life. But would I rather be sitting at my deck looking at a computer screen or here in France profonde with the early summer sun on my back. I don’t think so. I’m ready. I’ve got the shorts and boots on. A short-sleeved shirt and a hat that’ll protect me from the sun and float on the river when I lose it. Time to meet the guests.
To accompany us on the trip we have three couples and Mitch. Mitch tells us he’s from Nevada. The couples are Erin and Ryan, Tom and Nancy, and Mary and Joseph. We just introduce ourselves to each other as we meet them off the train and bundle them and the luggage into the van. We are off. First off it’s a short forty minute drive to St. Leon in the Vezere valley and a picnic on the river bank to introduce the trip, go over the itinerary and generally break the ice.
Down on the riverside we choose a picnic table under a parasol and settle ourselves down. The river is sliding by beside the weeping willows. Paul and I go inside to order the food and wine. We have a selection of cheeses and cold meats and a couple of bottles of wine. The violet confit adds an unusual touch. We keep going back for more bread as we sit in the sun and chat. Everyone seems easy-going and relaxed. We watch a couple of canoes slip by and it’s clear that the river should pose no problems.
After the plates are cleared away the maps come out and Paul and I go over the trip. Everyone of course has read all about the trip on the website before booking. They’ve figured out that it suits them and the reason they aren’t doing the trip for themselves is that they want us to take the responsibility. It’s a bit tedious then to go over the trip like this. They do like to be reminded but after the first few days have been described and some places pointed out on the map it becomes obvious that the interest is failing. So we screw the map then (in fact I fold it properly) and suggest instead of driving to our hotel we could walk. Why not. A slow walk will take about an hour, although I have to point out that it is a gentle uphill all the way.
Unsurprisingly everyone is up for a walk. After all they are here for an adventure holiday and not to sit about in the van. Paul of course will have to drive the van up the hill with all the luggage. That’s his lot as I don’t drive. That’s a cunning ploy devised when I was teenager and put off by the antics of my Dad and his ancient Morris Minor. That’s another tale.
Before we set however we’ll have a little stroll around the village, and in particular, have a peek inside the local church which is just next to us on the river. I must try not to get too complacent about these types of things. How old is it? 11th Century I say. And added to later. It seems to work for most everything around here. It’s a plain church and very simple inside. One of the ceilings has the vague smudging of an old mural recently revealed. It’s more imposing outside with the rounded end of the Romance style of architecture. The local yellow stone which ages to grey can look golden in the right light. The tall flowers planted around the base of the building relieve lines. Some scratches on the wall mark previous flood levels. One of them is chest height for me. The whole village must have been under water.
The small village is clustered together around narrow lanes. Bright flowers erupt everywhere and tiny, sometimes overgrown, gardens come into view on the corners. It’s quiet around here too. The village is set off from the main road and is not therefore cursed by through traffic. I noticed a few cyclists at the picnic spot.
Before we leave the village we wander back to the van so they can get their gear sorted out. Walking boot and cameras and things.
Our walk winds it’s way out of the village and passed a large house. The roof of the local Château can be seen, but we will get a better view from the river tomorrow. This large house however is almost a castle or château in it’s own right. Behind an iris topped wall and through a gate designed like a portcullis can be seen a square bailey, with mullion arched windows and crenellated battlements. Who lives in this house?
Up the walled road we pass our first Walnut Trees. These are ubiquitous around here. There are Walnut orchards everywhere as well as wild Walnut trees at every juncture. We shall get used to walnut at dinner time: in drinks, in salads and in desserts. As we continue up the road we pass a small chapel by the cemetery. The walls around the cemetery have been newly repaired and glow in that now familiar yellow. A peek over the wall reveals huge family sarcophagi with individual mementoes on top. Next door a new extension to the cemetery has been built. It is ominously huge. Unless the plague revisits this part of the world it should last for centuries.
The trail then crosses the main road and starts to climb up a rocky track. It’s overgrown with familiar hedgerow shrubs: Blackthorn and Hawthorn, Wild Roses and Box. On either side a crumbled dry-stone wall is covered in moss. These walls remind us that these hills were formerly used for sheep grazing until it became uneconomic in the 1950’s. I’ve been told that dry-stone walls can last up to 200 years without attention and I’m guessing these were built sometime in the mid 19c. The houses that can be glimpsed either side of the trail reveal a more modern use for the land. They seem to be summer homes. One has a small swimming pool.
At the top of the climb the trail breaks out onto a small lane and we turn left to follow the road past open meadows. They are overgrown now but will be scythed down in a matter of weeks to be turned into hay. For now though they are glowing with wild flowers and the buzzing of bees. The next junction sees us turn off the lane and onto a farm track with hedges either side. Now we have brambles and Traveller’s Joy beside us and we disturb several types of butterfly as we pass: some Blues, some Marbled Whites and some elusive Fritillaries lead the way.
As we climb towards the farm buildings ahead of us we can turn to the right and see the village of St. Leon, it’s church and its château below us in the distance. We can see how the valley curves, but the river remains invisible. On reaching the farmhouse and the top of our climb we catch our breath. The farm looks tired an unused. No-one is about. May be it’s the time of day. However as the trail levels out we can see that a vegetable allotment has been carved into one of the fields. Someone must live here.
For the final stretch the trail plunges into a wood and suddenly the path becomes very damp. We keep to the edge of the path but sometime resort to walking in the wood to avoid the yellow sticky mud. I notice that many of the trees are Sweet Chestnuts. The trees have been coppiced in the past but the wood is long overdue a cut. Further on the trail sides are covered in bracken and it’s about here that I have to look carefully for the side track that will take us to the Relais. It’s difficult to locate and when I do I have to go ahead and beat the bracken down. At one time the Relais was used mainly by travellers along the long-distance trail. These days the clientele more often arrive by car. It’s no wonder the trail is overgrown.
Just before we arrive the trail turns along a bank and gives us another view into the valley. And then we arrive. Paul is here and has been busy unloading the luggage. The rooms are allocated, the fridge with the cold drinks is pointed out, everyone can see that the place has a swimming pool and we agree on a rendezvous time to leave for dinner. Paul and I can now enjoy some downtime.
Lying on the beds in our shared room we chat about the trip ahead. Not too deeply though as we’ll get through by dealing with each day at a time and just making sure that we stay one day ahead of the game. In fact we just took a nap.
At seven o’clock we roused ourselves to take our guest to dinner in the village. I asked if anyone wanted to walk down. They did. So we did. This time walking down the lane instead of taking the trail. It’s an easy stroll. Halfway down Paul passed with the rest of the group. We are having dinner at the Old Post Office and take a table outside on the road. The menu of course causes a few wrangles but once we have explained that almost every dish is duck everyone settles down. We calm a potential furore about choosing the wine by pointing out that they have pichets on the wine list. That’s easy. We explain that we are paying for the standard menu, but you can have what you like and pay the difference. For drinks and the like Paul and I will run a tab and bill everyone from time to time.
Lubricated by sufficient alcohol the first evening and dinner seems to go well. People are talking and smiling. We have a few questions about what we are doing tomorrow but it seems nobody is being very picky and asking those impossible to answer questions.
I restrain myself about being obtuse. If someone asks how long is the paddle it’s very tempting to quip back and say it depends how fast they paddle or it depends on how fast the river is. When I get to know these people later than I can start being cheeky. For now I just stick with averages and say that we are under no pressure to race down the river. On the contrary we are here to enjoy it.
By the time dinner is done it is knocking on 10 o’clock in the evening. It’s time to drive back up the hill to the Relais. Fortunately no-one wants to walk. It’s my duty to accompany anyone who does and so I’m relieved that we are all jumping back in the van. Pretty soon we are back in our room. Lights out. Time for Paul to knock around all night and claim not to be able to sleep. He dreams that he is awake.
In fact we lie awake for hours musing on the trip. We have to turn the trip around to become something less prosaic than a simple meander down some of Frances calmest and greenest rivers. We have to liken it to Scott. But then we’d have to die. So then we come up with Shackleton. Frozen canoes and open sea voyage beckon. But then, the genius, we come up with Apocalypse Now. Our rivers will become the Mekong. We’ll forget the fact that we are supposed to go upstream. Who would do that in a canoe? What will be our Cambodia. What is our mission. Who will be Willard and who Kurtz. We begin to riff on this as the night lengthens. It’s possible we fall asleep and then get the riff going again in the early morning when neither of us can sleep.
Remarkably one of the guys on the trip has a Martin Sheen look about him: Mitch is our man. We haven’t found out much about him yet. He has told us his days as a motocross rider and how his legs are all smashed up. He has a military look too. Cropped hair and a look that says he might kill you. May be not, he seems like a nice bloke.
Now all we need is to fill out the rest of the crew. And we need some quotes. We spend sometime racking our heads to remember lines from the film.
“Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another.”
So we have our setting. We have a crew, of sorts, and we have our mission. What we don’t have is sleep. What we need is sleep. I sleep. Paul doesn’t. Probably because I’m snoring.
“I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said “yes” to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the Perigord. I’m here a week now… waiting for a mission… getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Neanderthal man squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I looked around the walls moved in a little tighter.“