In which we go canoeing for the first time.
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. This entry is about the second day of the Perigord trip, where we go canoeing together for the first time.
The next morning everyone gathers at breakfast. A simple affair. Juice, coffee and croissants. The mood is good and the weather looks fine. Paul and I go over the day. We’ll do a short canoe trip in the morning and then visit a cave shelter in the afternoon. And then we’ll see if we can fit anything else in.
Some of us are going to walk down to the village but before we do that we have to ensure that everyone has the gear they need for the day organised. Dry-bags are issued for stuff to carry on the canoe. Also walking shoes and extra clothes can be put in the van for use later.
It’s a rigmarole explaining what to take. Wet weather gear, cameras, phones, wallet, sunscreen, hat and all the other bits and pieces. It’s important to explain that all the stuff should be ready to hand. Even a change of clothing in case you fall in and a fleece or something as the cave can be chilly. It’s the first day so I try to be patient. They’ll get the hang of things in a few days and van will turn in a tumbling mass of everyone’s gear.
Paul and I have pulled out the picnic gear that we’ll use for our lunches and have loaded up the cooler with stuff from the fridge. Two frozen water bottles will accompany the wine box. Those that are walking with me then set off down the hill. Like last night its an easy walk. The lane is interesting as we pass several houses. Nobody is about. Not even a rabid dog.
I’m thankful no-one is clacking down the road with walking poles. What’s that all about. I never really get it. Have to be careful though as some people have dodgy knees and need them. Still hate the clack clack clack though.
Lower down the hill we pass some fields on our right. they’ve already been cut for hay which is a pity as earlier in the season they are waist high with grasses and flowers and it’s a great spot for photographing butterflies. Early in the morning I’ve often found Marbled Whites still roosting at the top of long stems of grass. Sometimes a Common Blue too and from time to time Six Spot Burnets in their red and black livery.
Just before we come to the crossroads at the entrance to the village we pass Louis Dega cycling back up the hill. He’s wearing his customary outfit: dungarees, Wellington boots, floppy hat and wire-rimmed spectacles. He looks all the world like Dustin Hoffman in Papillon. That’s Louis Dega. We’ve been seeing him on this stretch of road for a couple of seasons now. Always on this road, up or down, always on his bicycle and always dressed the same. We wave and smile and he waves and smiles too. We have no idea who he his or where he lives or what he does. He just is. A familiar and strangely reassuring sight.
In seasons past we’ve had other Degas. At one time we had a strange chap who used to be seen walking the road between St. Leon and Montignac. He was walking one way or the other clutching a carrier bag. He walked with a slight hunch and stoop. In the last season we saw him he had started wearing a luminous visibility jacket. We can only presume someone had given it to him. It looked dangerous as he was always carelessly walking along the main road. And then one season he was gone. We missed him, but now we have a new Dega. We’ve christened them all Degas now. Every village has it’s own Dega. We have a theory about that now and we look out for them. Possibly in the back of our minds we have ambitions to a be Dega ourselves.
Paul tells me about the Dega in his village back at home.
He’s called Dan and is often to be seen riding around on a mower. It’s a John Deere.
That’s important as he’s very loyal to the brand, as many of these guys are. He’s loyal to no end for certain brands; trucks and sports teams for example. He wears Boston Red Sox hats, socks, shirts and gloves. He works hard and appreciates real friendship. He’s a bit slow but “knows” people well particularly when someone is using or belittling him. He speaks with a high nasal voice. He’s 62 years old, wiry and thin with bowed legs, but he’s strong and just does the work he needs to do with no complaint. He has simple pleasures and a singular purpose in completing the task at hand. He’s a man of few words, but if you show an interest many words will spill out and keep coming. He has, as they probably all do, some odd hobbies and habits.
I reminisce about Mr Fox, the fellow that used to wander around my village at home in Kent. He actually worked for the council doing various bits and pieces around the village. He pushed a hand-cart full of his gardening tools. He had a cleft palate and so talked funny. Kids in the village used to tease him mercilessly and imitate his voice cruelly. He was liked though I think and I knew him too as a fixture in the local church where he was a churchwarden. What is that strange pole thing that churchwardens carry in church sometimes? Also what is a sides-man?
Arriving in the village we stroll over the bridge and down into the canoe place. I remark that the bridge was designed by Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame. It’s a simple truss bridge built with iron girders and rivets. I was once told this was an Eiffel bridge but I can find no evidence or documentation. The canoe place is a grassy sward next to the river with a huge pile of canoe and kayaks, obviously, and a marquee where we find Philippe who greets us like long lost friends. He’s a bear of a man and built like a rugby player. We’ve learnt in the past that he has canoed for France in sprint events. He’s all smiles as we get everyone a paddle and a life-jacket.
We look at the river, which is running more swiftly than we thought past the pontoon. This is where we finish for the day so don’t go sailing past I remind everyone. Normally on the river we stick together but sometimes people like to go on ahead. That’s fine by us as long as they understand that they will have to deal with any obstacles themselves and woe betide them if they miss the place where we will stop for lunch or the take-out point for the day. It has happened. We have had irate clients. And when it does we have to take the criticism on the chin. ‘I told you so’ just doesn’t cut it.
Anyway we pile into the van for the short run up to Montignac where we will start todays paddle. On this first day we could have two guides on the river but Paul has decided not too and will instead rendezvous with us at the lunch spot in Sergeac. In the van I forget to remind Philippe not to take the back road over the bridge in Thonac. It’s annoying as the road runs alongside the river and gives pleasant views and passes one of the picturesque Châteaux we will pass on the canoes. I don’t like to have the clients get a preview like this so I chat away and try and distract them from looking.
Ten minutes later we are in Montignac and I help Philippe unload the canoes and get them lined up on the small beach below the ramp. Before we start off though we decide to have a wander around the village. Some of the clients are ready for a coffee. I have to go to the bakery to pick up bread for the picnic.
Back at the boats it’s time for the safety talk. This is always a bit problematic because many of the clients are experienced paddlers and because the river is so soporific it provides almost no dangers. Even so I step in and remind them of the procedures for falling out, for avoiding strainers (trees trapped in the river) and for preventing your boat getting pinned on rocks. I remind them too of the essential paddle strokes and who is responsible for what in a tandem canoe. Two people in a canoe always provides scope for tensions and I’m hoping that we don’t get too much bickering on the first day as people get used to paddling together.
In the past I remember having to separate only a a few couples because they were both incompetent. All in all people generally get on. Besides some people like to bicker.
At the waters edge I’m the one to get my feet wet as I hold the canoes steady as people get in and I push them off with instructions to hang about whilst everyone gets in the water. You have to laugh at the number of clients who will avoid at all costs getting their feet wet. How can you go on a canoeing holiday and not expect to get your feet wet is beyond me. Even if they have speciality canoeing shoes they don’t want to get them wet. If I’m in the mood I’ll get them wet for them. Not today though. Not the first day. May be later when I’ve had time to figure out how they’ll take it.
Finally I’m the last to get into my boat and we are all in the water. I’m paddling solo. So is Mitch. He’s specifically requested his own boat as usually, if we have an odd number of guests, I would paddle with them. Not this time though. It’s better really as I can then concentrate on guiding and generally either lead the way if I ascertain that’s what the group wants or linger back and get in the sweep position behind everyone else. Either way works and in any case usually I flit between the two.
To start with I get everyone to get close together and raft up. That is, all the canoes are lined up alongside one another and being held together by holding each others gunnels. Gunnels I said! I explain that we don’t have to hang close together, but that if you go out in front you are on your own and have to make your own decisions about which part of the river to follow. The river is quite low so if you make a wrong decision you might run aground and have to walk the canoe a bit. You’ll get your feet wet then. If you want, I say, we can play follow the leader as we progress down the river. In any case if you get too far ahead and haven’t seen anyone for a while it might be an idea to wait and let the rest catch up. Nobody wants to miss the lunch stop.
Just before I let the raft break up I mention some of the animals and birds we are likely to see. Kingfishers, Wagtails, Dippers and Herons as well as the ubiquitous Mallard Ducks. We’ll see other woodland birds and perhaps some raptors too. As for mammals I point out that we’ll be lucky to see anything at all but to look out for Coypu (Nutria), which was introduced from South America, and the Otter. I’ve seen a Mink before and sometimes you see Red Squirrels in the trees on the river bank. I’ve also seem Martens and on one memorable occasion a Fox trotting down the bank in parallel to me. I point out that it’s quite unusual to see these as the noise we make will make them hide long before we approach. We will also see plenty of damselflies and dragonflies along the way and butterflies will cross our path. We will probably hear frogs but not see them. I mention that I’ll be happy to answer any questions about the wildlife and also any about the wild-flowers and trees we will see. I point out that we have reference books in the van to check any ideas and to look up anything we are unsure of. And then we are off swinging into the current and trying to avoid being swept under the overhanging trees on one bank where the current seems to be taking us.
It’s a beautiful day. It’s quiet. No-one else is on the river. Not even a fisherman. We start to see some of the birds I was mentioning. The Wagtails are most common and easy to spot with the characteristic undulating flight they have. When on the ground they also have the the little wag dance as they flick their tails. Usually we see the Grey Wagtails, which are disconcertingly yellow. They have a grey head though and the Yellow Wagtails have yellow heads. The Pied Wagtails we sometimes see are black and white as you would expect.
Kingfishers are about too, though they are normally only seen by the canoe at the front of our flotilla. They are easily disturbed and fly off in fast straight flights about a foot off the water. They can be hard to see except when the metallic blue colour gets caught in the sunlight. We push them down the river, until finally, they can get back upstream by cutting a bend or flying over our heads. It’s only then that we get a glimpse of the orange-red chest.
When the river speeds up a little over quick riffles we catch sight of the Dippers. A small black bird with a white chest. They have a bobbing action when on the ground and also a straight and direct flight. these birds are rumoured to feed by dipping underwater looking for insect nymphs. I haven’t seen this though.
From time to time we disturb a Grey Heron who we also push downstream. They lazily fly a few yards before getting disturbed again. They never fly far and though they are usually silent after being moved on a few times they have a good croak and a moan. They too will use a bend in the river to get back to their territory although sometimes they will roost high up in the trees and wait for us to pass. For a large bird they are strangely difficult to get near. Usually they are seen in singles but in the breeding season they come together in Heronries and one time, on another river, I saw seventeen all at once turning slowly on a thermal above a cliff.
The Vezere river is easy to paddle, it’s chocolate coloured water taking us slowly downstream. From time to time we cross sides to take the deeper water running on the outside of the bend. Novices will often try and cut the corner and then be surprised by running aground as the stream runs shallow.
A few minutes later we paddled around a bend to come across our first Château. This is the Château de Losse, but, first in front of it we come to the remains on some old locks. On one side of the river the lock gates remain intact, though the wooden gates have long gone, and on the other side the remains of a broken wall is all that is left of the dam that blocked the river. In former times the river was the means of transport for goods downstream to Bordeaux and the coast. Perhaps wine was being taken down. I’ve been unable to find any information about these locks. Three of them are evident between Montignac and St. Leon-sur-Vezere. I imagine they were built during the heyday of canal building in the 1750’s as the major canal systems in Great Britain and France were. The locks on the Lot river date from the 1770‘s. They are not insubstantial and must have been built to a high standard to have lasted this long. I can only suppose that they were built to control the level of the river for transport and that, at that time, the roads were impractical.
The three locks here are built fairly close to three Châteaux too so I’m wondering whether tolls were charged by the local land-owners for boats to pass. I have no idea what type of boats they were either. I’m assuming they would have been of a very shallow draft and probably poled downstream. Perhaps they were pulled by draught horses, although there is not much evidence of a canal path these days.
The first thing to notice about the Château is the way it is built right on the edge of the river. It seems to hang over and in fact a curtain of long ivy conceals a overhang into which we paddle. Inside the sunlight gleams green through the ivy and the caustic light glistens on the roof of the overhang. It’s a good place to rest awhile and I’ve used it before in the past to shelter from rain. Not today though. In fact it’s cool under here. It looks like you could disembark here and make an entrance into the castle. But in fact you can’t. The Château is open to the public but they have made no provision for visitors arriving from the river. A pity.
Pulling out from underneath the ivy curtain we spin around to get a better look at the Château. Research has told me that the Losse family came here from Flanders in the 11th Century and built a stronghold here. In 1576 a Renaissance Hall was built, by Jean II Marquess of Losse, inside the medieval fortress and nothing much has changed since. The religious wars at the time meant that he improved the defences of the curtain walls and barbican. Over the entrance you can read the inscription “Man does as he may, Fortune as she will”.
And so the river swings on as we pass underneath the bridge at Thonac and catch a glimpse of the Church of St. Pierre with it’s strange open belfry.
Later we come across another lock. This is the best preserved and the easiest to access so we swing across the river and paddle into the old lock gate from the down stream end. There is just enough room to turn around. We examine the brick work and can see the slots where the gates fitted and the grooves where the hinges sat.
In another few minutes we turn another corner to come across the Château Belcayre which is also built on a small cliff overlooking the river. This château is more dramatic than that at Losse as it’s built on a jagged spur which sticks out over the river giving it a more dramatic look. It’s history is vague though. All I can find out is that it was built in the 15th Century and repaired in the 19th century. I can find no information of who owned it during what time periods. I do know that it is privately owned now. The ‘Keep Out’ signs on the lawns are testament to that.
These châteaux are stunning though and even if I’ve paddled this river many times I still like to see them. It’s hard to think of new ways to photograph them though. I think I should come back on a hike and see them from another perspective.
As we spin our canoes around for one last look at the château we must be careful not to get caught up in the overhanging trees. It’s no matter really as the river is so slow we can brush underneath the branches and get ourselves into the main stream again. After the excitement of the architecture on the river our attention goes back to the wildlife as we disturb the birds along the river bank. Before long however the river curves to the right and undercuts a cliff and starts to speed up. A little care has to be taken here not to get the canoe too close to the edges of the limestone where the river has sharpened the edges. This quick rush is soon finished however and we find ourselves at the rocky spot where we have to pull over for lunch.
I tell everyone to slow down and give each other room as I go first, jump out of the canoe and pull up onto the rocks so it doesn’t float away. Then each of the canoes comes in one at a time and I help them disembark, collect the gear they need and tie the boat to the next. Pretty soon all five boats are tied in a fanned out loop and in turn tied to a small fishing punt which is chained to the bank. We scramble up the trail to find Paul is here and has set up lunch on a picnic table.
We are at the small village of Sergeac and at the end of a tiny lane is a path down to the river and here, sitting two metres above the water, is a single picnic table set amongst a stand of White and Black Poplars. Beside us is a small stone commemorative thing which seems to be a Madonna. It think it’s supposed to mark a spring.
In any case I tell people that the village has a toilet, give them instructions to find it, and tell them lunch will be ready when they return. I pass around the chemical hand-cleaner to those that remain. When did we start using this stuff? I heard tell that its completely useless at killing germs, but people seem to be mollified by its use.
Lunch is the usual combination of French bread, cheeses and sausages with some salad vegetables thrown in. Actually we make an effort to make it look respectable and though we, Paul and I, are used to eating this kind of stuff, the clients are excited and compare it favourably to what you would expect at a picnic on the other side of the water. It’s a small thing to introduce local cheeses and some things not normally found on the dinner table at home. The wine normally goes down well too, whether we have something from down the valley, say a Bergerac, or something from the Lot: A Cahors.
A pleasant lunch makes everyone relax and get to know each other better. Remember it’s still the first day on the river. Paul has been up to see Isobel at Castel Merle. This is a pre-history shelter site on the banks of the Vezere river between here, Sergeac, and St. Leon. We’ve visited it many times and it provides an interesting introduction to the caves of the Vezere. This river is famous for having been a centre for human habitation for tens of thousands of years. We will visit other caves in the area but this local shelter gives a more intimate perspective.
Paul has said that it would be a good time to go the shelter now after lunch rather than later after we finished our paddle. We can go now, take our time, and finish off the paddle later. It’s little more than forty minutes on the river from here anyway. Everyone agrees with this and after tidying away the picnic stuff everyone, except me, bundles into the van for the five minute drive to the site. Sometimes we walk from here, but Isobel wants to fit us in now. I’m staying behind to look after the boats and mind my own business. I might have a snooze. I might take some photographs. I might have a walk into the village.
In fact I do all three. And read my book for a bit as well. They spend hours up at the shelter which gives me ages to mess around here. Sergeac is the tiniest of villages. I walk up the lane and walk the circle of tiny lanes that comprise the village. As usual the church in the village is huge. Unusually though it is open and I step into the coolness inside. It is surprisingly plain. Some of these local churches are decorated very extravagantly, but this one is on the plain side. I do wonder why the churches are so huge though. Was is a function of the size of the congregation or something to do with the largesse of the local benefactor? And so many churches. The country must have been overrun with country priests, or vicars or parsons. Not now though. These country churches are now lucky to have one priest between the six of them, and lucky to have a service more than once a month.
I’m surprised that the municipal authorities have stumped up the cash to build some public toilets here. This village is well off the tourist map. It’s almost off the map and the road that reaches here is a no-through one. Somebody has some money somewhere because Thonac, the village on the other side of the river, has also seen some improvements. All the footpaths and roads were tidied up only a year ago. A cynic would perhaps suggest that the EU is wasting money as usual.
On the other side of the village I step into the a museum built into a small house. This is the museum put together by the Grandfather of Isobel who is the 4th Generation of the family to be managing the Castel Merle shelter. It was discovered by her great-grandfather. This tiny museum has a rather dusty collection of arrow heads and flint tools. Many of them were found here, though the best examples have gone to the National Museum of Pre-History at Les Eyzies. In addition it seems that he has traded other stone tools from around the world for the sake of comparison. You really have to be into pre-history to enjoy this place. Outside is a table strewn underneath with chipped bits of flint. This is where he practices making his own stone tools: chipping away with a leather sheet in his lap.
Of more interest to me is a little alcove where he keeps a motley collection of birds nests. He has never told me how he acquired these. Whether he collected them himself or perhaps whether he collected them as an itinerant schoolboy. This is what I think. I imagine too that the little scoundrel collected birds eggs but these perhaps are a little bit too sensitive to put on show. He’s about the same age as my own father. He too collected birds eggs as a child in the 30’s. I did too in the 50’s.
Back at the boats I wander down to the river bank to see what’s going on. A few damselflies are about so I get my camera out and attach a macro lens. With a little bit of patience and care I manage to photograph both the female and male of the Western Demoiselle. They are sexually dimorphic; e.g. the sexes look different. The male is metallic blue with wings which are clear with a broad black band near the tip. The females are metallic green with golden coloured wings. Both handsome. The males seem to be more active as they fly about whilst the females seem to stay more tucked into the vegetation.
I’m dozing at the picnic table when the rabble return. They are genuinely pleased by what they have seen at the Shelter. I learn that this year Professor White, from New York University, together with his research students and other academics have dated the oldest known painted surface in Europe. It’s been dated at 37,000 years old. People, both Neanderthal people and Cro-Magnon people (us) have been living in this river valley for that long. They also enjoyed the spear throwing that Isobel shows them. Spear throwing with that bone implement which makes the flight harder and longer. I can’t remember what it’s called.
Anyway after everybody settles down I get to the boats and untie them one at a time and get them going again on the water. It’s a tricky start as the water is flowing quite fast here, but pretty soon every one is on there way. We pass the bend where Castel Merle is and can see the small stream trickling into the Vezere. We can see nothing of the site. Next up is an opportunity to paddle down the side of an island. Very often this is too shallow to do but today the narrow side of the island provides a speckled and sunlight passage through to the other side. We only disturb a few Mallards during our passage.
After that we pass the third of the old locks before coming upon our third Château of the day. This is the Château Clerans at St. Leon-sur-Vezere. Again not much information is available about it. It’s 15th and 16th Century and it’s privately owned and so cannot be visited. You can get a good view from the river as you get parallel to it but both before and after it is obscured by trees. It’s not that large, merely a single square building with two towers, one of which is strangely flattened off.
Shortly after that the village comes into view with the Weeping Willows and the picnic tables where we had lunch yesterday. A few people are here today too and a small child is throwing a stick for a white dog. We slip by the church, admire the cliffs on the other bank where we have seen children jumping before, and then pass under the Eiffel bridge.
Paul is there at the take-out to help catch the canoes and get everyone out of the water safely. Soon we are dragging the boats up the bank, putting our paddles and life-jackets away and flipping out boats over so that we can use them tomorrow without waiting for Philippe to be around. We’ll need an early start tomorrow. So what shall we do now? Everyone votes for a stroll back across the bridge to the cafe in the village for an ice-cream or a beer. The sun is shining. Everyone is in a good mood. The day has been interesting and fun. Not too much and just enough.
Half an hour later we hop into the van and drive up to the Relais. It’s again time for me and Paul to relax. But maybe a swim in the pool first. And may be another beer too.
That evening we drive back out to Sergeac to the small Auberge de Castel Merle. It’s located right above the shelter we visited earlier in the day. It’s a strange place really. A cross between a gite and a hotel, but we’ve eaten here before and usually come back once or twice a season. We come here because they have an amazing outside terrace with tables that overlook the river from on high. In one direction you can follow the river past Sergeac itself and in the other you can see the river as it flows towards St. Leon. All around you can see the wooded valley of the Vezere. As the sun goes down it can be spectacular.
We settle down with some aperitifs: It’s time to taste the local Vin Noix or perhaps a Chataigne. These are made by flavouring red wine with walnuts and chestnuts respectively. The recipes include a dash of Eau de Vie too just to up the alcohol content a little. The menu here includes Wild Boar Stew and this is often a popular choice, but the classic Confit de Canard and Magret de Canard are available too. The confit is a duck leg slow roasted in duck fat and the magret is breast of duck, usually served quite pink. At this point on the trip we are not yet overloaded with duck. It wont be long though as duck will be available at almost every meal.
The meal goes down well with several pichets of wine and the talk turns to the plans for tomorrow. That’s easy. We will do some canoeing and we will visit some sights along the ‘Valley of Man’. We will in fact see how this river has been occupied by man for 40,000 years.