Studio informationa chronological look at Alan's work
2004 - 2010 Missegre, Aude, South France

Missegre, France.



GETTING TO THE PYRENEES
First I had to dismantle all I had built up at Whitty Down Farm. Yet again…. I had thought that Whitty Down had everything there for me to see my days out, .. content. But now I was on the move again and I had to lighten the load to start again, in France. I had piles of reject pottery littered outside the kiln shed. My previous method of getting rid of dud pots, dropping them out at sea, had proved not as simple as first thought when this aroused the interest of the Customs and Excise and the police. A lot of the pots had big cracks, firing defects in them and these went into the first of the many skips that I was to have parked on the grass verge by my courtyard gate. But there were many that had only slight faults, or were just simply dull, lacking interest.



Years back I had taken a stall at Greenwich Market, there were two, a covered, permanent complex and an outside area with battered metal tables in rows, for rent by the day to whoever had goods to sell, whatever they were. It operated on a Saturday and Sunday, perhaps midweek as well. I’d done one day there ,years back, had shifted quite a lot of substandard pots at low prices. And now I was back, ringing a man called Frank, a name I’d been given by somebody. “ Just turn up, mate, by eight o’clock, see if I can fit you in!” was all he had said. So I drove up to London with lots of boxes of pots.





I’d used an angle-grinder to make a score through my initials on the bases as I didn’t want people reselling pots I had rejected myself as first quality ones. Often it’s only me that sees why it is a “second”,… and I can change my mind! So, early on a Saturday morning Barbara and I set off, her Renault 5 well laden with boxes of pots, a couple of chairs and hand written signs saying, “ Seconds”. First we had to find Frank.

A large, jolly, blonde lady, setting out her stall, knew Frank. “E’s ‘orrible, ugly bloke, little short legs” she said. Well, that wasn’t all that precise, or encouraging, then I realised Frank was within earshot, he was meant to overhear. He wasn’t outstandingly ugly or short legged, but he did look tough. But he was amiable and showed us a vacant table up against the railings closing off the concrete area where some of the rows of stools were from the road leading up past Greenwich Theatre, bordering the park. It was nice and sunny. We set out our stall, it was still very early but there were already a few people about, early bird bargain hunters. I could also see a trailer, a flap propped up, a line of people queuing.

The cheery couple in the trailer were handing out sandwiches as they were put together, cooked on the little gas stove, egg sandwiches, bacon sandwiches, bacon and egg sandwiches, all sorts of combinations of greasy delights. Well, I like them,… occasionally. I went back to our stall and Barbara was already engaged in conversation with a slightly built, dark haired man with a slight accent. He was examining our wares, began making very low offers. Very low indeed. I said they were far too low, not worth considering. I had indeed put low prices on the pots, I needed to get shot of them, I had to lighten my burden, but some cash would be handy too.

The man said he’d come back later. Another trader was setting up next to us, he seemed to be selling CD’s, he was friendly and Barbara was soon chatting away, he put on a CD and she immediately liked it, later bought a copy, “Gotan”, In think it was called. I can’t remember now the term he used for the type of music he specialised in, perhaps “ World” music, certainly it was from a range of countries. It looked as though he was going to make an agreeable neighbour as a fellow stallholder! I took a stroll along the other rows of stalls.


There was a big stand spreading over several stalls, a really fascinating profusion of silver Afghan jewellery, turquoise, amber beads and pendants, carvings, lots of rich fascinating stuff, an engaging man and a woman setting it all out. Other stalls were offering an assortment of semi antiques, tin toys, miscellanies. A bookstall or two, on and on, I could see I’d have to careful not to be coming back with more things than we were trying to get rid of. The bustle really started quite suddenly, the big space filled up as if busloads of people had just been disgorged. And we were selling pots one after another, rummaging for old newspaper under our countertop, our cash tin rapidly filling. It was a great start, I hadn’t been very optimistic.

There were lulls at intervals and I nipped over to the sandwich stall, got a couple of fried egg sandwiches, tried to avoid the liquid egg from running down my clothes. A messy feast. Mid afternoon to our delight a girl friend of our neighbour arrived, he put on something South American and they went into a flamboyant dance routine in front of the stall, in among the crowd, it seemed quite spontaneous, Barbara loved it, so did I!

The crowds began to thin as the afternoon went on, there were now spaces on our table top which had been crammed with pots to start with. The small, darkhaired man appeared again, seemed miffed we had sold so much, he grudgingly raised his offers for some of the remaining pieces. We haggled. They were the larger pieces which I knew would be harder to sell, most people were fitting a visit to the market into their day of wandering in Greenwich Park, looking at the Cutty Sark, having a drink. Carting a heavy pot around would be too much of an encumbrance. But this man didn’t seem to mind. He eventually bought two or three after prolonged offers and counter offers. Maybe he mentioned then that he had a stall over in part of the covered area I hadn’t looked at then.


So that was our first day, we went back to Barbara’s flat and counted the takings. They were handsome indeed! I looked forward to the next day. I took time off to seek out the stall of the darkhaired man. It was quite impressive, a big area, crammed with African sculptures, various carvings, Indian artefacts, and there among them were my pots, he’d draped beads over them, savage, tactile beads, the loops following the contours of my pots. The pots were enhanced, I liked what he’d done! I also noticed that the prices he was asking for them had been very greatly enhanced from what he had so grudgingly given me!

He became a frequent customer over the weeks we ran the stall. He always followed the same routine, a reconnaissance early on, making low offers, which I always rejected, then he’d appear again late on, the haggling began, he made pitiful references to his poverty, my rapacious demands, but we usually came to terms and he got a lot of pieces out of me. I was told he did well with them later on the Portobello Road. Good luck to him. And many others have done well years later from the “ seconds” they picked up from our stall, I see them come up on Ebay frequently, people paying eighty, a hundred pounds for pots I expect we sold for four or five pounds,… again, good luck to them!

We enjoyed our time behind our stall, the weather was clement, I took in a handsome amount in cash, and the sheer weight and volume of what I had to clear from Whitty Down was much reduced. Barbara too enjoyed the contact with a stream of very varied buyers, of many nationalities, visitors to Greenwich, not necessarily going there expecting to bebuying handmade pottery. Some did know what they were looking at, others were just intrigued by the forms, colours and surfaces, that spontaneous response is something I always value. Barbara was a wonderful companion, I enjoyed her enjoyment of chatting away to people, I picked up bits of jewellery to give her from what we called the Afghan stall nearby, though run by the pair very definitely not Afghan, from Dartford, down the Thames.

She took buying trips to India and other parts. How did she manage the language? She said she took a calculator, typed in her offer, the seller typed in his price, they went on entering numbers until there was agreement, then there was only some smuggling to do before the treasures were on show in Greenwich market, and Barbara was exclaiming her delight. She was a delightful person to give to…



During the week I had to make inroads to the vast accumulation of pottery materials, equipment, benches, kilns etc I had some years before laboriously transported across the valley to what, I had thought, would be my final workplace. Now I had only a short time to clear everything, the house, the workshop, the kiln sheds, everything, and get it all to France. Not everything though that I had, I had to be selective, and ruthless. Treasures I had been moving from place to place over nearly fifty years were going to have to be abandoned, wasted. My stock of pitch pine glazing bars, enough to build a large greenhouse, I offered them to one of my sons, “Burn it, Dad!”, he said to my dismay. But I’d been carting it around for so long, one day, it would be used! “ Burn it!” said my son, he’d never get round to using it, he said, just as I hadn’t. I didn’t burn it though, gave it to someone who also will probably never use it either! Skips came, and skips went, loaded to the brim with relics of my working past.

Great plaster moulds, used for making components when I had a spell making large sculptural forms for garden use, to pool with water, mosses. I’d enjoyed making them but there were huge firing losses, I’d often too ambitious. All the moulds had to go, hours, days of work, into a skip, tons of materials, feldspar, grog, remnants of the days when I had been producing large volumes of work, needed to buy in bulk. Those days would never come again, they’d been good, but now I wanted a quieter pace of living. And there were my kilns too. They could not be taken to France, one I had built to try soda vapour glazing. I used some heavy bricks, some arched, from an old industrial salt glaze pottery in East Dorset, a fascinating time alone amongst the bottle kilns, huge workshops of the great deserted factory, the landmark chimney still towering above it.

An uncanny experience, going down for load after load of wonderful semi glazed bricks, curved and straight. Some I had used as paving on a patio, some for the kiln I built, wrote about once in Ceramic Review. But now it had to be demolished…the bricks disposed of to a daughter who also paved her garden with them. Then there was the small, ex electric kiln, left over from my first workshop in Forest Hill, a sturdy Kilns & Furnaces good buy. It had served me well in the tile making days, some instinct had made me reluctant to get rid of it when I had had no qualms about selling, giving away the seven or eight efficient, but lighter built kilns from another manufacturer. There was something about the Kilns & Furnaces way of constructing their kilns then. Built to last, and mine had. And it had saved my bacon when I had blown up the bigger gas kiln, when I converted the little kiln to gas firing, kept up some saleable production. But, now, I took my angle grinder to it, cut up the steel framework, took a sledgehammer to the brickwork and trundled the shattered remnants out to the skip. Then I set to on the big gas kiln. That was much more formidable a task. The door alone was massive, I could only smash out the brickwork, barrow the pieces out to the skip. The steel framework was weighty, a hefty task for my small angle grinder if I were to cut it up, so I manhandled it somehow out to the skip, heaved it in! The main framework though had possibilities for further use.


I smashed out the brickwork from that, so painfully pieced together not that long ago, after the explosion. Then I carefully started cutting the angle iron uprights and side members into reusable, transportable lengths. I hoped they’d come in for building a kiln once we got out to France. At Barbara’s fault I’d had my first encounter with computer use, I had taken little interest in the spread of its use, I had got through life so far without one, had not really considered what advantages one might bring.

I enjoyed writing long letters by hand, enjoyed receiving them, especially from my old friend Tony Barson, made so much more entertaining by his witty illustrations interspersing his attractive handwriting, and occasional evidence of the circumstances of their penning, a round ring with a reddish tinge, left by the wine glass he’d been swigging from as he wrote. You don’t get that with emails….Now, though I began to appreciate what the Internet had to offer! I’d watched avidly the many programmes then popular on buying dream homes somewhere in the sun, watching them had started in me a feeling that a rush had started, if one didn’t join in all the nicest places would have been snapped up.

There was it seemed a property boom everywhere. There were too programmes setting out some of the pitfalls of buying in foreign parts, rush in and one might find oneself the victim of unscrupulous locals, unforeseen failings with a property. But Barbara and I, after long discussions, settled on an area to look in. Barbara had had for many years, a wonderful old stone farmhouse in Gozo, the island next to Malta, I’d been there, liked it, loved the heat and the swimming, but it had made me conscious of how small the island was. I wanted space, but sun too, if possible, and, hopefully, water. Sea, river, or lake.

We also needed to consider our advancing age, we were in our seventies, I’d had a stroke, Barbara knew she was in for arthritis, her mother had had it, had been bedridden before she had reached the age Barbara now was. So we had to think of ease of access, and the availability of public transport for when we might have to give up driving. We considered looking in various countries, we wanted somewhere warm, but not too far away, we were hoping our families would be wanting to visit us at not too great a cost.



Some years before I had made a very long trip across France with the object even then of buying in France, would that I had done it then, the opportunities then were so advantageous. But that is hind sight again, at least there might still be time to find somewhere. During that trip I saw a lot of wonderful country, but it was the Pyrenees that I’d taken to most, the caressing warmth, the scented hills and the proximity of the warm blue sea. I hadn’t been attracted by much other landscapes, the Tarn Gorges, but, examining maps I could see that the terrain was against access by train. Following rail routes on the map, I could see lines ran through Carcassonne, lines getting one to anywhere in Europe, I could also see there were branch line going south, right to the Pyrenees, some on into Spain. Looking closer I could see a line following the course of the Aude river. I looked up the Aude on the Web, read about it being brown and icy with melt water from the mountains in Spring but later, tranquil and much used by canoers. I saw it ran through a biggish town, Limoux, where, it was claimed, the first sparkling wine originated. All this looked promising, but I wanted a bit of land to grow things on, and maybe some outbuildings to put a kiln in, have as a workshop.


Glorious visions of what I might find began to form in my mind, as they have always done, all my life. Reality has never quite lived up to what I’ve dreamt of, but I’ve done pretty well much of the time, despite having to readjust to actualities. I looked on the map for villages reasonably near Limoux where I hoped I would find a house with some land, and not to dear, my divorce had left me with very limited funds! I found there were not very many villages to pick from, the contours made it obvious that the land rose sharply near Limoux. I saw one with the name, Missegre…..I thought the name sounded good….


We had already been looking at properties for sale in France on the Web, the very first to come up had been an idyllic little place perched on a ridge high in the Cevennes. It wasn’t dear, looked charming….Barbara looked, said she definitely wasn’t going to be stuck up a mountain with me ! We were trying to be very clearheaded about living together. That was impossible, we had both agreed. She had lived alone for many years, had her way of doings things and her way was very disciplined, orderly,…clean. I admire those qualities but they are not in my genes. I don’t like dirt, but can put up with disorder for long periods, having drastic purges at intervals, then letting the clutter build up again. I like to have a lot of things around me, visible things, books, pots, paintings Barbara has a lot of things, but they are beautifully arranged on shelves, well dusted. So we agreed that we would have to look for two houses, perhaps side by side. But I was the one who needed somewhere urgently! Whitty Down Farm would be going up for auction and would have to be cleared of everything I had there within a month of the sale. If I bought in France whatever I bought might have to serve as a base for a search for what might suit us better.

After seeing many gorgeous places up for sale on the television programmes, one place with a stream with a splendid natural rock bordered pool…..I rang an agent centred near Limoux. English speaking. Rang her, she sounded nice, I told her what I was looking for, a house, hopefully with a workshop, hopefully with a bit of land. I said I’d been looking on a map, had seen a village called Missegre, I said somewhere near there would suit….” How strange!”, she said, “Details of a house for sale in Missegre came into the office only this Friday past!” I asked what it was like. I was told it was big, could be split into two. Workshop? It had a very big garage. Land? It had two “ potagers, side by side”….oh,… she went on, “ the potagers are next to a “ ruisseau!” “ I’ll BUY it!” . I said….” When can I come down?”….




We found an English speaking chambre d’hote advertising their services in the proximity of Missegre, in Alet les Bains, which seemed to be an attractive base, and also while minutely examining maps of the area I found to my astonishment that was very near a village that had long fascinated me after seeing a television programme long ago, in the seventies perhaps, the hilltop village of Rennes le Chateau where the village priest was said to have discovered an enormous, and mysterious treasure.

I hoped we could include that in our reconnaissances. We booked a room in the Chambre d’Hote and debated how best to get there, I wanted to simulate how we might have to travel when we were getting past driving, or if other means of travel became difficult through strikes or whatever. I thought going by train would be entertaining, that we would see a lot of France through the windows. So we booked tickets through SNCF in Piccadilly right through to Alet les Bains, and it turned out to be a good thing that’s how we did it!


It was exciting getting to Waterloo very early in the morning, Barbara looking rather exotic in a wide, Russian style fur hat I’d bought her. In was March and chilly in England, I hoped the Pyrenees would be much warmer. Earlier in the year, I had asked the owner of the chamber d’hote what the weather would be like in March. How the hell would he know? he’d snapped, rather rudely, but I was amused. He then relented and explained that he got so many stupid queries from people wanting to be able to pitch their tents in the camping site he also ran, under a tree, but with lots of nice grass. Grass doesn’t grow under trees, he was tired of growling. He said that March was very often warm and sunny, and so it turned to be.

It was our first trip on Eurostar and I was impressed, and excited when the train emerged from the long tunnel into the morning light of France, cars on the roads, men in the fields. We had to take a taxi across Paris to get to the Gare Mont Parnasse and I enjoyed that too, the driver pointing out the sights on the way. Then we had to find the platform, but it was no TGV we got on to. Its passage to Bordeaux seemed irritatingly leisurely, and the view from the windows rather monotonous…endless countryside with no dramatic features that have stuck in the mind. At some point a man sitting by us started to talk. A Frenchman who had worked in America, he spoke English but with an American accent. He began to deride all things French. Why did we want to live in such a decadent country he wanted to know? He went on and on, I began to dislike him very much. He suggested we got off the train in Toulouse, went to stay with him for a few days. Never…I thought. He was talking very loudly and I grew embarrassed by having to reply to them, then two officials were ate our side, they were wearing kepis with lots of silver braid on them, they were smartly uniformed. “ Shut your mouth!” said one, menacingly to our unwanted companion, “ every one in this carriage is disgusted with the way you are talking!”. They went off, the man crumpled, said no more. I felt embarrassed that the other passengers would associate us with him.

We saw no more of the unpleasant man after that, he left the train, the journey continued, I knew that when we got to Carcassonne to change to the little local train that it was the last one to leave that evening. Then, suddenly as our train neared somewhere oddly named, Bram, I think it shuddered to a halt, not at a station. For a while there was silence, apart from questioning murmurs. Then the two officials came through our carriage. We gathered that there had been reports that the line might have been sabotaged, a bomb attached. The train could not proceed until bomb disposal experts had inspected the track. We all waited….and I began to get restive. If there was much of a delay there would be no hope of reaching Carcassonne to make the connection for the train to Alet les Bains.

Time passed, the train remained motionless, I forget for how long but eventually it rumbled into motion again but I doubted whether there would be time for us to make the change of trains. Then the two officials were by our side, were we the two English people en route to Alet they enquired. We were indeed, I said, “ Madame, monsieur, we will hold the train to Alet les Bains until you arrive!” Heavens above, I thought, would British Rail do that for you? That seemed service indeed, I suppose it was because we had booked right through that our trip showed up on some computer schedule they had consulted. So, when we at last reached Carcassonne station we were immediately shown to where a very sleek, very modern looking, blue streamlined two carriage train was patiently waiting, just for us! We heaved our things in, settled in to get the last stage over, nearly there, we felt.. I peered with interest at the small stations the train stopped, dusk was falling, I hoped there would be no problem finding the chamber d’hote. Then I saw the sign, Alet les Bains. There didn’t seem to be an actual platform, when the automatic doors slid open we wound ourselves, and our luggage on bare ground, next to the railway lines. The doors hissed shut again and the smart little train disappeared into the darkness, swaying, its lights dwindling as it diminished, went out of sight in the darkness.

We were bewildered, alone, this was not quite what we’d expected, I’d thought there would be lights, other people. One of Barbara’s favourite films is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the scene in it when Butch has persuaded Sun Dance that Bolivia will be their salvation, but on arrival at a dilapidated station in the back of beyond, Sun Dance looks around, utterly disillusioned, with the comment….” So this is Bolivia!”




What we had arrived at seemed worse…. We cautiously picked our way across to the station building we could make out as our eyes adjusted to the night. No lights were on anywhere, it wasn’t manned. We made out a passage leading somewhere and as we made our way down it we could see that we were nearing a road with a few lamp standards. When we got there, we found a zebra crossing, a refuge after the first striped area. A fine drizzle had begun.

I thinking I must have begun even then to brace myself for the justifiable trickle of scathing comment Barbara would be pouring of me about the dissimilarity of the warm, sunny South that I had promised we would be going to….and how it was turning out! “ So…..this…is the South West of France, Alan….” I could imagine would be coming my way. Usually I would have waited to escort Barbara across the crossing. It was very lucky indeed that on this occasion I forged ahead, towing our two suitcases behind me.

I had got barely halfway across when I found myself blindingly lit up as a car swept round the nearby corner a great speed. Somehow I leapt forward, something struck my leg a heavy blow. I don’t know whether it was the car, more likely he hit one of the cases and sent that slamming into my leg. Barbara, miraculously, had stayed still at the kerb, before going on to the crossing. I had leapt forward to the refuge, I think amid the squealing of brakes, I can remember the car slewing across the road, screeching to a halt, then the door flying open and a man rushing towards me….” Oh, God,” I thought, “ now the maniac is going to finish me off manually!”


But, as he rushed up he was expostulating, Monsieur, monsieur!” He hadn’t seen me, he babbled, he was so sorry,…..I’ll bet he was, there is a clear speed limit sign at the spot, I checked later, he was doing at least twice the limit, it was late I suppose, he hadn’t expected pedestrians to be about. I assure him I was alright, I was too shaken up to think clearly, and Barbara too had been appalled by how narrowly the car had missed hitting me full on. The man went off into the night. We completed the crossing, made our way across a high stone bridge leading to the village centre. My leg was beginning to hurt. The road forked we took the lefthand fork, not knowing quite why. All was very silent, the house all shuttered, no sign of life, the only sound the rumble of the wheels on the suitcases I was towing. Some shutters opened high above us, a light shone out, “ Hullo!” said a voice, in English….” Is that Mr. Wallwork?” Ah, yes, yes, it was indeed Mr. Wallwork and his apprehensive companion, Barbara, still expectant of a future of warmth and relaxation, but now beginning to get cold feet….

The voice was that of the wife of the owner of the business, she welcomed us, showed us to a nice room upstairs overlooking the street we had just limped down. WE asked where we could get something to eat, it had been a long day. The guidebook had said there were five restaurants in Alet. “ Oh, they won’t be open this early in the year!” our hostess said. We must have shown our disappointment vividly, we had been so looking forward to getting there, celebrating our safe arrival, the start of a brighter future. “ Well,” said our hostess, “ you could try the casino, I suppose….” A casino? I imagined something swish, men in tuxedos, sleek women in evening gowns. There wasn’t anything sleek about us! I explained my qualms. Oh, I was told, it’s not that sort of casino…..

It was about half a mile up the road we were told. Unencumbered now by baggage we set off into the night again, my leg growing increasingly painful. We had agreed to a month of austerity before leaving fro France, we both enjoyed a bottle or two after a good days work but we had become inclined to finding rather too frequent causes for celebration, so I had suggested total abstinence until we got to France. Then we would be free to indulge again, I had been looking forward to ordering the first glass of rouge in whatever café we came to, Chardonnay for Barbara. At last we saw lights glimmering and as we neared the group of buildings, it did look rather grand, but we pressed on, went through the doorway. There, ahead of us was a big circular bar, rich looking wood, brass, several barmen, I ordered our wine, we perched on our stools. I took a big swig.

I had been going to ask whether there was any chance of getting something to eat, but then I noticed, over to the right of the bar, a very large circular table, loaded with plates of delicious looking food, a buffet. People were lining up, circling the table, taking plates from a stack, piling theirs up with whatever they fancied from the magnificent array.

We finished our drinks and joined the tail end of the queue. The selection on display had been somewhat depleted but we found plenty left to sustain us. As we completed the circuit of the table I noticed a slightly formidable woman, steel rimmed glasses standing to one side, she had the look of a governess about her, someone not to be trifled with, but she only seemed to supervising, nothing else. I sidled up to her. Madame, I asked, deferentially, where do we pay? ”

Her steel rimmed eyes regarded me frostily. What did I mean, pay?. She seemed perplexed. You have been playing the tables, haven’t you, she queried? I explained that we had just come in, had had a drink, were hoping to get something to eat. She seemed nonplussed, baffled as to how to deal with such a situation, two obvious old half wits blundering in to her well run casino.



“Oh, go and put money in the gaming machines!” she said dismissively. So we did, went to a counter, bought some chips or whatever they are, tokens perhaps, fed them into the “one armed bandits” till they were all gone. Only about ten euros worth, that seemed had bought us a very nice supper. We were well pleased, I think I would have felt very awkward if, as well as the free supper, there had been a deluge of winnings from the fruit machines. We staggered out into the dark again and back to our room.

I had blurted out to the estate agent, “ I’ll BUY it!” when I hadn’t even seen the place, it was because when she’d said that the house she was offering me in Missegre had a large workshop and even two potagers, bordered by a stream, it seemed too good to be true! But Barbara and I had put in a great deal of thought into the whole concept of shooting off to France when we were already in our seventies, Barbara knowing her arthritis would inevitably worsen, me always with the possibility of another stroke. I’d tried to think through what such a challenging adventure would entail. I’d enjoyed poring over maps, first of all checking out what were the transport facilities in that area. I’d seen that the topography of other parts I already knew, while very attractive, by their rugged nature were lacking in airports, roads, railways. The village of Missegre, I could see, was reasonably close to Limoux, a real town, known for its early discovery of sparkling wines. It had the River Aude running right through it, I found…, “ its waters brown and turbulent in Spring with melt water from the nearby mountains.” So water shortages, as had begun to be frequent in England shouldn’t be problem. Carcassonne airport was close and in Carcassonne itself there was a mainline station with connections to most of Europe. I tried to think of other possible snags, such as troublesome seasonal winds- the Mistral with its malign reputation. I read there was a wind, the Tramontane which could be disruptive but that blew nearer the coast, not up where Limoux, and Missegre were. I’d promised Barbara we would find somewhere where the sun shone a lot…and arthritis could be soothed….

Partly as a rehearsal for inevitable old age, I’d suggested we test out reliance on public transport, buses, trains…and taxis. So, after our first night at the Chambre d’Hote we conferred with the owner, ( whose offer of help to potential property seekers had made us choose her place). We asked about buses, the train and taxi services from Alet les Bains into Limoux. We decided to try the bus into Limoux first, to go to the office of the estate agent who had given us the details of the house in Missegre and then see what other agents had to offer. Televisions programmes for ages had been promoting the prospects of finding delightful bargains in France, Spain etc. I had begun to fear that all the “bargains” would soon have been snapped up! So we set off for the bus stop down the quiet street, calling first at the boulangerie just across the road. In spite of our arrival the night before things looked to be turning out more as we’d been hoping for. It was March but the sky was a deep clear blue, it was caressingly warm…as Barbara and I had been hoping for. Turning as directed we found ourselves crossing a magnificent stone bridge, its splendid arch spanning the Aude itself, tumbling over rocks below, a pleasant looking island just downstream. The aspect was very pleasing to say the least. Across the bridge the bus stop wasn’t much to look at though, a strictly functional concrete, open sided shed, but clean, whitewashed with a long wooden bench. A bit of graffiti, but not much compared with England. We were to see a lot of that shed. We were almost straight across the road from the pedestrian crossing where our adventure had so nearly been cut short the night before. But last night it had been miserable and raining, we had seen only what was lit up by occasional headlights and sparse street lamps. But now we could take in the imposing heights on either side, rugged, steep cliffs, pinnacles of rock, cypresses spiking up and densely wooded, precipitous slopes cut through by the broad dual carriageway, curving off to right and left.

Then, off to our left, where a longer curve of the road went out of sight, a long blue coach appeared and swept in to the layby where we were waiting. The door slid open , we mounted the steps , asked the amiable looking driver for two tickets to Limoux under interested inspection. We found two seats and returned the bonjours of the other travellers, then we were off, round the bend from which had hurtled our near executioner of the night before.

Now, rounding the bend, a winding avenue of mature plane trees bordering the road on each side was revealed, on the left a sheer cliff of fissured rock soared up, to the right, following the line of plane trees, a low parapet guarded the road from a precipitate drop to the river, then cliffs rose steeply up on the other side, densely wooded, wild and impenetrable. It was all a lot wilder than the Dorset I’d known for so long, but exciting. After threading through the long shaded gorge, the road opened out into sundrenched, vine planted, warm tinted land and the river spread out amongst willows, wide and gentle now. The bus eventually swung into the forecourt of Limoux station, a long building that had seen better days but had well-tended flowerbeds and a waiting room off to one side, next to it, I noted… a toilet. At our age the proximity of a toilet had become important.

We saw a sign, “ Centre Ville” and set off in that direction, past a long chestnut shaded area with market stalls, and again, I noted, … “ Toilettes”. We set off down a long narrow street lined with shops and offices, and saw those of the agent I’d spoken with in England. We went in and met Elaine, attractive and friendly, originally from Devon. She heaved out books with details of properties on offer in various price ranges. We asked to see the cheapest. Here came our first disillusionment. The idyllic havens at rock bottom prices we’d seen on the television must have been thin on the ground…or had all been snapped up long ago! We knew what we were looking for, our needs were specific. We were looking for two properties, side by side, or, one big enough to split into two so that we could each live as we knew suited our natures, Barbara in total order and cleanliness, me in some sort of order, and reasonable cleanliness. Some things don’t allow compromise. That really cut down on choice. Also I needed a workshop and hopefully, land to make a vegetable garden. And a view. For years I’d been very fortunate that way. I love to end the day sitting with a bottle of wine, watching the sky and then the sun going down. I also like to listen to majestic music while I work, often at a majestic volume. Mahler, Richard Strauss… So, neighbours could be a problem!

Elaine had plenty for us to look at but mostly quite unsuitably sited, attractive though they might be if one were looking for a holiday cottage in a village somewhere, but I was hoping to end my days there, have visitors, frequent long visits from my several children, with their children, a long term family possession, for which I’d be blessed in years to come. How naïve can I be? I’m still finding out.

What Elaine had to offer sobered us very considerably. An ex chicken farm with lots of squalid buildings, a large area of land its only virtue, a town house requiring massive repairs….but, what did look interesting was a cluster of buildings adjoining a larger house in a hamlet on the edge of the high mountains. It said it had outbuildings and, I think, a hectare of land. It looked wonderful in the photograph. We told Elaine we were interested. Elaine said a lot of people had been also, but after a visit, had quailed at its snags, but we said we’d like to have a look and made an appointment for the next day. It was quite a drive, Elaine said……

And so it was. Alet les Bains had been comfortingly sunny and warm, and so was Limoux, just what we’d been hoping for, but on the drive towards the mountains I noticed more and more drifts of unmelted snow in spite of the bright sunshine. After driving through a largish town Elaine turned off into small winding roads and then up a steep incline cut into the hillside, I noticed Elaine seemed nervous of the precarious access. After a hairpin bend the little road climbed up into the hamlet itself, just a short street with a few buildings straggling along it. The house we’d come to see seemed just a jumble of low roofs, huddled into a taller house. The entrance was low, a passage way which led into a cluster of rooms at different levels, one realised the house was built into the hillside, from the entrance all the rooms were at a lower level, looking out over the deep valley, a ravine really. And what a view there was! High above, towering over the long line of crags was the spectacular ruin of the fortress of Montsegur! That was what would greet one each morning.

I had some time before read up about the region and the bloody suppression of the Cathar Heresy. I remembered that their last stand had been at Montsegur, after a long siege they had surrendered, had been offered mercy if they recanted. They had refused and had chosen instead, two hundred of them, to leap into the flames of a vast pyre that had been thoughtfully provided by their Catholic conquerors. Certain places, for me, never seem to lose the resonance of tragic, horrific events. Although I had told Elaine that I hoped to find a place with a dramatic setting, a place not overlooked, where I could play my music full belt with no neighbours to consider, living here would be a far sight too dramatic for comfort! A long, wide ledge ran from the ravine side of the house and ended in a sort of outbuilding, that would have to be one’s workshop with all that staggering backdrop to look out to. The hectare of land that went with the property hung from that ledge,at an angle suited perhaps to goats or sure footed sheep, not old codgers. Magnificent…..but for us a little too much to take on. Barbara loved it but I knew it was not a practical proposition, there was no wonder it had hung on the market. We needed something a bit less….challenging.

So, next day we were back at Elaine’s office to see about a visit to the house in Missegre with the potagers and the stream, “ ruisseau” made it sound even more charming. We had time to look around other agents window displays, and have a drink at several of the café`s bordering Limoux’s splendid town square. In the window of one agent we saw he had the details of the very house we were to look at next day, but 10,000 euros cheaper! We hurtled back to Elaine’s office with this information. She immediately rang the vendor we were soon to meet and a heated exchange ensued……

In Elaine’s nice car we crossed a long bridge across the Aude, wide and shallow and sparkling, willow shaded. The land was level with lines of poplars bordering fields, lots of huge globes of mistletoe hanging. We passed a long, low tile factory, a bit later an area of apparent clay workings…interesting. Then the road began to climb, but only gently, zig- zagging. The views were intriguing, steep overhangs where the road was cut into the hillside, the lower slopes below corrugated, patterned with rows of vines. As we got higher, the tumbled hills were densely forested, excitingly the single tower of a ruin rose above the trees, re- glimpsed at intervals as the road twisted and turned. It was only much later, remembering that first visit, that I should have noticed that, occasionally, I had to swallow as my ears needed to adjust to the lower air pressure as we climbed up from the valley. We were climbing higher and higher. The road was so cleverly engineered that there were no steep inclines, just many, many hair pin bends. The views were so delightful that I wasn’t conscious of how far we had been driving…..As the road climbed higher the landscape grew more dramatic, the drop to one side of the road more alarming, deeply valleyed, thickly wooded, on the other side steep slopes of woodland , occasionally arid areas of rock breaking through vividly coloured earth, yellow ochre and a striking crimson, I knew the area was mineral rich and here was proof. In my younger days I would have been delighted by the prospect of mining my own pottery materials. Then the road entered a deep defile, it was almost sinister, the road had been hewn through steep rock faces which were left to overhang the tight bends. Obviously extreme caution would be in order when driving as any oncoming vehicles would appear without warning. We didn’t know then that the road was used by vast timber lorries that swung through the bends at speed, their huge size giving them dominance over any other road user they were likely to meet.

After that dark passage, the road burst into sunlight. Gentle hills framed the view, the road now curving across a wide level valley bottom, a line of tall plane trees to the right, pastures to the left with a first scatter of houses set well back from the road. Old tiled farm buildings, a handsome church where the ground rose higher. There was a road sign......MISSEGRE.

I never lost an uplift of the spirit at that opening out to sunlight and spaciousness after the gloom of the forest, emerging the calm of a wide, golden serenity. Elaine drove on under the line of poplars, past more houses on the left, a big, boarded up building on the right, a deep concrete lined gulley between it and the road. Then a little square opened out, with a fountain with a circular basin into which a constant stream of water fell from a big faucet. A sign on a tall building in the opposite corner of the square read, “ La Poste”. That was good to see. A narrow street led uphill to the left, towards the church, lichened tiled roofs, ancient stone walls. Along a little further , on the left, more lettering on a newer big building with a balcony, topped with an openwork iron bell tower, “ Mairie” and “ Ecole” in big painted letters, lots of flowers in pots and then a playground set back under trees. We were obviously in the main street and it stretched straight ahead, rising gently, then bending round a corner. Then more houses, old stone walls, old weathered roofs piled up the hillside on the left. On the right the “ ruisseau” followed the road’s edge, flowing briskly in a deep, stone lined channel. Stretching away behind it verdant pastures, a solitary shuttered old house standing alone with the wooded hillsides rising up to the skyline.

A blank cliff of a building jutted out at right angles to the road past a barn supported on massive round stone pillars, a high stone building set back behind it. In the wall facing us there was only a single small window high up. The return wall, rising straight up from the road was also blank below, only two windows high up, with shutters and iron grills. No nice old stone, just drab, unpainted concrete rendering. Grim. Then the rest of the house was revealed, L shaped. A low jumble of loose stones marked off the “garden” from the road, a bare, patch of trodden earth enclosed by the wings of the house. This was what we had come a long way to see. It didn’t exactly enchant the eye…

It began to look more promising though than on our first approach, the rendering was older, more textured, painted a faded rosy pink, patched and cracked. Opening immediately on to the patch of ground was a big pair of garage doors, with peeling faded paint. At right angles to the big doors was first a low stone wall, then a long line of granite edged steps, leading up to a long patio, shaded to the right by a big acacia tree, then was closed by a high stone wall, round the angle, further on the wall grew higher with an ancient iron barred window set in it. Then a huge arch. the magnificent curve sheltering a long stone cattle trough and the remains of an old iron pump. All this looked much more promising!

A long iron railed balcony ran across the whole façade ‘ from the inner angle of the house, running behind the acacia tree, apparently leading up to the apex of the great arch . French doors seemed to open on to the wide balcony with a line of shuttered windows. In the left hand corner, below the balcony, a wide, heavy door seemed the main entrance, a window to its left, a small patch of earth below it with a big shrub, just beginning to bud. More shuttered windows above. On the worn patch, some thin grass struggled for life, on it stood a rusty round metal table, surrounded by some rickety iron chairs which were offered to us by the attractive, auburn haired woman who appeared in the doorway and greeted us….Penny, with her partner, Peter, the vendors, she, a photographer, he, an all round musician, both English.

After introductions, we were taken in to the rather dark entrance hall, only later did we come to appreciate that dimness, cool, is to be welcomed after the blaze of the sun. A boiler room was immediately opposite, a hefty looking apparatus almost filled the low ceilinged, bare joisted room. On the left a doorway revealed a long, dimly lit kitchen, a wide beam spanning the far end. indicating where a big cooking range once had been. An impressive room if restored to what it had once been. Only a few attractive cupboard doors set into recesses suggested that the kitchen had once been far more congenial. Someone had started on a characterless modernisation. Then, through another small lobby, but with a sink, I noted, I was on the look- out for pottery making potential, another door gave on to a steep flight of concrete steps and one was in a very big, high ceilinged room, obviously intended to be a double garage. It wasn’t an attractive room, no windows whatsoever, one would have to work under the existing fluorescent lights, but, if the big doors were swung open there would be fresh air at least, and a bit more light. It was though a huge space, all my big long benches would fit in easily, the walls seemed sound, could easily be shelved up. There was even a tap in one corner, emptying into to a drain on the floor. Just where I would want to put my wheel, there were power points to hand. The floor was excellently finished, smooth. I could see that this room would make a very good workshop, in spite of its total lack of character.

We were taken up to see the upper floors, a modern staircase led up from the gloomy entrance hall to a big high room, very barely furnished, but sunny, white walled. A corridor led of it to more bedrooms, a bathroom, all very basic, featureless, except for the views from the windows which were good. That was one wing of the rambling house, from the staircase the other wing led off, first, a good big sunny room, doors and window opening on to the balcony, another big bathroom was attached, also big, freshly decorated, white tiled floor, and, off that yet another room under a glass roof, a sort of conservatory but with some bare concrete walls. The whole house appeared to be unfinished. Obviously a huge amount of work had gone into it, stretching probably over years and there was still a lot to do! Some of the work done must have cost a lot of money, the long wide balcony alone was a substantial addition, supported by massive columns, the bigger rooms had huge beams spanning them, unfortunately encased in plaster cladding so one could not tell if they were timber or steel. In all, while it seemed that vast expense ha gone into renovation, all the old features that had once been present had been taken away. Going our through the doorway of the conservatory and on to the balcony where it widened above the great archway below, it was revealed that the whole house was built intimately into the hillside, literally into the rock face. The second storey, from its balcony opened on to a steep unmade up track going up even further, one roof of the house, where it was built in, sloped up from only about seven feet higher than the still rising hillside. From the track a few steps went up on to a small ledge and off that, a little door revealed a charming little “cell” of a room, bare floored, bare raftered, a single heavy beam spanning the room, just the limb of a tree, unsquared off, still with its bark on it. Under the heavy, “ provencal” tiles was a layer of insulation. Just thick, dry bracken. No way of telling how old it was, but it seemed still in good nick. At least part of the house revealed how it had once been! The room would make a lovely little studio for one of my daughters I thought if I knocked a window out through the massive wall. There would just be golden hillside, trees and the sky to look out on.

There was even another spiral staircase, hidden by a door in the central upper room, and up there was a huge attic, an unfinished floor and two small windows in deep embrasures, unglassed, only original, ancient wooden shutters,…. there was still a lot to do! Under the balcony down below, opening the first wide, heavy old door revealed a big, low stable, not a room, still with a rubble and earth floor, rough stone walls… a much newer pig sty made of brick in one corner. No windows whatsoever, with the big door closed the pig must have lived in near darkness, a bit of light coming through the ragged edges of the heavy door, where bats came in to roost, I later found. Another door further along was to just a long, very low storage area too low to stand up in, but useful for clay storage but not much else!

We sat outside again in the forecourt, Penny told us about the various idiosyncrasies of the villagers, about the mobile shops that came to the village. A butcher who parked his van right outside, two bakers who blew their van horns from different stopping places up the street, a fish man on Fridays etc. Although I had brightened to see a bus stop near the square, Penny said this now no longer ran. She said how friendly everyone in Missegre was, she said this could be far from the case in other villages!

I had plenty to mull over. At home I had fantasied, as I have done all my life about my projects, this time about what I would discover in France. Something on the lines of the crumbling gem high in scented hills as in Manon des Sources perhaps, but without the water supply snag. But, after hearing the delightful radio series,” An Englishman In The Midi”, by John P. Harris, I had bought his book of advice about buying in France. “If you buy somewhere isolated, it will be broken into!” Not necessarily by the French, but by marauders, he’d said. And “remote” in France could mean of quite a different order to anything people from England were likely to envisage. “ Buy a village house and you’ll have a hundred eyes watching……” he’d said. That sounded like very sound advice, especially to people of our age. And this house, though so far from my fantasies, was smack in the middle of a village street, sprawling along it in fact, but not hemmed in, the windows looking only out across the potagers, fields beyond that and then rough hillside, distant sheep with tinkling bells. The patio where I imagined working, and boozing, set well back, shaded, sheltered at one end by the big acacia tree. I could be noisy and dishevelled without upsetting anyone. This house might just do, I thought…. A lot of my life at that time has gone into a blur, I felt so bludgeoned by events that I hardly knew whether I was making rational decisions. Some decisions though were inevitable, and urgent. Whitty Down Farm had to be sold, and cleared. Selling by auction also meant that the propecty had to be totally vacated within a month. Whatever I decided to do had to find somewhere to move on to, with all my gear.

So with a strange sense of being in a dream I found myself saying that I would buy No. 14, Rue de la Mairie, Missegre. There seemed a strange inevitability about what was happening, of things meant to be. that sort of thing had occurred before in my life. A place being offered just where I was looking, then it having most of my prerequisites, though no where near what I’d imagined. Barbara said she would come with me on a trial basis, possibly the house was big enough to split into two so that we could share some parts, go our own way in other. The process of getting a survey, finding a notaire to do the legal work was all facilitated by Elaine, the Limoux estate agent. The die seemed cast, all I had to do was pack up, at get there…..

Other things seemed to uncannily fall into place as though ordained. We used another stay to do more exploring by taxi, as I had planned. We took a trip to Rennes le Chateau to see how it matched up to the sinister reputation Henry Lincoln had imbued it with in his books and television programmes. It didn’t, the little church I found charming and quite without a brooding atmosphere. We were also lucky to go when we did because the graveyard was still open to the public then and there at one end was Abbe` Sauniere tucked up cosily in his grave next to his buxom housekeeper, Marie Denarnaud. ( because of all the lurid publicity about Sauniere and his goings on, the exasperated villagers have since had him shifted to a horrid, shiny parking space in a corner of what was his garden, Marie is on her own and the graveyard gates are closed to the public.) Sauniere’s garden, the tower he built and the extraordinary views from the hill top were no disappointment though and even seemed to justify Henry Lincoln’s devotion to reading meaning into the significance of the pentagon of mountains peaks that ring the hill top. To cap our day, just as I’d asked the driver if forest fires were any problem, (I’d noticed houses for sale amongst the pinewoods and garrigue), and he’d said they weren’t a problem, he rounded a bend and there ahead the whole skyline high above our hotel had a line of flame towering high into the sky. It looked as though the hotel far below might be endangered! As the taxi dropped us off though we could see that we were, we hoped, at a safe distance, the deep river valley lay in between. We had a grand stand view from our window of the planes taking turns to drop loads of water on the conflagration for hours on end. I had been given an unexpected demonstration that the hills round Missegre, though heavily wooded, were a safer bet because mostly covered by broadleaved trees, chestnut, oak, ash, with nothing like the inflammability of nearby country, scented with lavender, thyme and pines, attractive though it was. Once again I’d been lucky, not sagacious.

Back in England I started arranging the move. I found there was a removal firm only a mile or two away, and a very unusual firm it was. The proprietor had acquired a substantial area of land lying behind other properties in the straggling hamlet of Raymonds Hill. He had a large bungalow for himself fronting on to a main road with easy access. Behind his house was a large parking area for his big vans and then quite a big spread of thin woodland, meadow. Semi-derelict vans and trailers were strewn amongst the trees. These were in use as temporary storage. He was a jovial man who seemed to find me amusing, “ I could listen to your stories for hours, Al!” So, that was nice because what I needed from him wasn’t a run of the mill removal job. I had to do a lot of dismantling, of couldn’t say immediately just how much I wanted to get to France, how soon all would be ready. I was told that was no problem, I could take my time, use my own van to bring part loads over to his yard, put vulnerable goods in one of his big trailers, under cover, pile up other materials, clay, sacks of glaze materials, kiln bricks, lengths of steel, amongst the trees. He would give me a price when he’d seen all there was to shift. So day after day I drove back and forth, ferrying my accumulation of valuables. Dave, the removal man wasn’t impressed though by my goods. “ Ain’t they got old iron in France, Al” he exclaimed. “ They may well have,” I told him,” but I won’t know straight off where to find it, I need to take the sort of old iron I need with me, to use to build a kiln!” He let me get on with my eccentricities. I had been busy with my angle-grinder cutting out the long sections of heavy steel from the massive frame of my propane kiln, bought new from Kilns & Furnaces in the days when they had really built kilns to last! The big door I had heaved, with difficulty, into one of the many big skips I had to hire to get rid of so much valuable materials, redundant equipment, remains of my potting history over more than forty years. I had tried to find buyers for much perfectly useable materials, clay, grog, feldspar and so on without much success. I had no time to lose so off it all went into landfill or to scrap yards. The waste still troubles me. Dave, the removals man’s big trailer began to fill up with my big benches, my wheel, shelves, sieves, etc,etc. With household stuff too, enough to get us started at least. Much of Barbara’s belongings were still in Gozo, the island next to Malta where she still had a house.

I did it all within the month allowed, single handed, trip after trip the day long between Whitty Down Farm and the removal man’s yard just over the hill. At times I began to doubt whether I would ever clear every thing before the due date. So, I’m sure, were my purchasers! But I managed it. I was still quite strong and fit then in spite of the slight stroke that had disabled one arm for several months. The heavy labour perhaps made me fitter…though it could, I suppose, have finished me off! But, after long troubled years I had an aim, at long last I had the chance of a life in glorious France.

We went on whittling down my backlog of substandard pottery at the weekend market in Greenwich and also took a quantity of better pieces to the Harlequin Gallery, also in Greenwich. John Rastall had taken over the running of it from a predecessor, Trevor, and had made it a good outlet for me. He had suggested a farewell exhibition of my work in the autumn, just before we were due to set off into the unknown. He also paid cash for many of my collection of work from over the years, so I could travel as light as possible. I had bought a big Toyota van with seats, which I had removed, but retained. My plan was to put in some pottery making bare essentials, some household equipment and bedding, the bedding piled on top of all else so that we could, if necessary, sleep in the van en route. I hadn’t realised then that Barbara was by no means as used to “roughing it” as I was. I hadn’t thought of discussing it! But it was the onset of Barbara’s back troubles that was to make me have to rethink many of my expectations….. It was a nice van to drive, good suspension, plenty of power and a good “feel” on the road, but I was to feel a bit apprehensive when I finally loaded up for our departure and the weight I had on board showed on performance and handling….

So much else happened before our departure, my memory has become blurred. My daughter Rebecca announced that she was getting married in Cambridge and all was to be done as she decreed. I was to wear morning dress. Not even for Rebecca could I face that….. Barbara and I took a trip to Southall and I got fitted out at an Indian clothing store with baggy trousers. A long embroidered kaftan with a nice embroidered waistcoat, all in a silky, soft grey material. Very comfortable. Rebecca had also ordained that the whole wedding party progress on foot from her flat to the church through the streets of Cambridge. The priest, in his vestments, was waiting to welcome us in the church entrance. A colleague was by his side. “ He makes you look a bit shabby!” the second man said to his superior, who didn’t look that pleased. After the service an arch of oars celebrated Rebecca’s renown as Captain of Rowing at her college and we all set off to where a flotilla of punts awaited to bear us all upstream to the reception at Grantchester. The punts had champagne aboard and the cheerful puntsman let Barbara have a go at punting. She got us broadside on and heading for the bank but at least she didn’t fall off the boat!. That day is not at all blurred in my memory and ends in Barbara and I, after speeches and feasting, leaving to drive back to London and get up early for our last appearance at Greenwich Market. My exhibition at the Harlequin Gallery had been a sell-out I was told, and next day early we would be starting up our heavily laden van and setting off for the Pyrenees!

What a daft thing to be doing! So it seems to me now, some ten and more years later. Two battered old people, both with health problems, setting off to keep an appointment with a notaire in a remote town in South West France. We were supposed to be there on the morning of November 3rd to complete the purchase of a large, crumbling, old house I’d only looked at briefly… in an even more remote village in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Now, I am amazed that we were just so lucky to get away with it all, if only with the weather, but it was to be a golden journey, the whole way! It could so easily have turned to disaster. It could have become a nightmare. It can’t have been straight after Rebecca’s wedding, as I have said earlier, that we set off. First I had to dispose of my accumulation of pottery and tiles that I didn’t want to haul right down to the south west of France, so all that I let go at knock down prices to John Rastall of the Harlequin Gallery, where I’d had several exhibitions. I just packed a few boxes of favourite pottery pieces from over the years, and clothes, bedding, pots and pans and lengths of steel angle iron to form the rudiments of the kiln I hoped to build. All this took up a layer half way up the cabin space of the Toyota Space Cruiser I had had expensively checked over. I then topped the layer of household stuff, tools etc, with a couple of mattresses, assuming that Barbara wouldn’t mind clambering up there if we stopped for a night in some field or wood off the road. I’d roughed it like that years before all over France when it had been just me and my three kids. But I’d been in my thirties then… and France had changed too, it wasn’t as wide open to al fresco camping as it had been.

I can’t remember now how long it took to get the van packed and for us to get on our way down to Dover and the ferry. I remember though that the day was brilliantly sunny and the van didn’t seem to sway as much as I’d feared, loaded though it was. There was no trouble getting on the ferry and my nagging worries of trouble ahead faded as we had a peaceful crossing. Only when we docked did events begin to seem to bode ill… the big doors of the ferry wouldn’t open! Men came with big hammers and crowbars and banged at them. Many of the trapped motorists set off a cacophony of horn blowing… but that had no effect on the doors either. The daylight began to fade, and so did my hopes of getting off to a good start and finding somewhere to rest for the night. Then a man appeared with a welding torch and a bit of heat in the right place did the trick…..and we were rolling out into France! It was still sunny.

As on previous trips to France I’d planned to just get off the ferry, not look for a particular road, just get off and head in the right direction, hoping to get into a quiet stretch of country where I could adjust to being in another country, take a leisurely look at the map, plan a route avoiding busy roads. That had worked fine on previous trips, I have fond memories of a very early morning ferry crossing of a wide river, mists hanging low over the water, the sun just breaking through. Where was that? I’ll never know, but it was magical. Another night, spent on the ground, in a sunken grassy lane just off a forgotten road, through orchards, only dimly glimpsed the night before in my headlights. Now, I wasn’t looking to rough it so much, not like in the old days.

As the evening fell even any hasty plan for a chosen route became irrelevant as we kept being confronted with signs saying “Road Closed”,… “Detour”. It being Autumn obviously they were doing roadworks after the tourist season was over. I lost any sense of direction and decided to make our priority the finding of a place to settle for the night. Getting on to the best route could be best done in the morning light. After driving through a small town and emerging into countryside I turned off into a field from which a crop had just been taken and parked the van. “We’ll stay here!” I said to Barbara. “What, in the van?” she said. “Can’t we find somewhere in the town we’ve just been through?” So we drove back into town, stopped outside an auberge, went in. It was large, dark and empty except for a man behind the bar. He seemed amiable, we had a glass of red and we told him we were looking for somewhere to stay for the night. He said he knew of a nice place. He suggested we should have a meal at his place, then he would escort us to the chambre d’hote he knew. So that’s what we did. A plate of escargots, which Barbara likes, to start with; the first time for me and, surprisingly I liked them too. After our meal, and some wine, the patron got his car out and we followed him to a elegant looking, shuttered house, fronting on to a small, quiet square. We were taken into a wide hallway with a bright, blazing open log fire to one side and introduced to our hosts. Then we were shown to the guest rooms. These turned out to be what had once been wine cellars, long, below ground rooms with arched, vaulted ceilings of rosy, exposed brickwork. Dark probably by daylight but softly, warmly lit by night. There were a couple of beds and a big bathroom leading off. With what a bath! I’ve yearned for one like it ever since! I’ve searched the Internet for anything to match it, toyed with finding that town again, making the journey just to use the bath! Alas… too late now.

It looked like an antique at first sight. White, with a generous, wide rolled top and big, ornate, gold feet, but it was in fact quite modern, only antique in style. It was made of thick white fibre glass, beautifully finished and with a superb sculptural form. It was wide and deep and rounded and it turned out to be delightful to wallow in! Barbara said it was the most comfortable bath she’d ever been in!

So, it was a great night we had. Far better than being on a mattress in the back of a chilly van… After breakfast in a high ceilinged room lined with antique carvings, in the morning, through wide doors we had a glimpse of the elegant tree lined back garden and the elegant, gracious wife of the owner filled a bag for us with huge, glowing, apples, obviously from the trees lining her elegant garden. Then we were on our way! There was much more of a hint of autumn as we drove out of town than we’d felt in England, when we’d left. That morning, starting off, there were quite thick pools of mists in the hollows of the land. Soon these lifted and we drove on through bright sunshine. We never again resorted to the van as shelter for the night, we always sought somewhere to stop when the sun began sinking close to the horizon. Never again though did we find anything matching the charm of that first night with the sumptuous bath!

The next night could not have been less like! Le Hotel Des Pecheurs didn’t look too scruffy from the exterior, though the attempt at exposed beams and whitewash looked a bit half hearted and bogus. The bar, when we went through it to see about rooms, was full of men who looked almost like cartoon Frenchmen, though with heavy First World War moustaches. A very worn, jaded looking, blonde lady was manning the bar. She summoned a weedy little man, with a weedy moustache to show us the accommodation on offer. He led me up a steep flight of steps I thought might worry Barbara, and then along a long corridor lined with shoddy flush doors, presumably behind which were the guest rooms. The weedy man opened one, apparently at random. The room could hardly have been more basic! Two cheap beds, a little table with a lamp between. A WC and a shower room led off. It was the shower that has always stuck in my mind…the ceramic base was heavily cracked and the cracks stood out from the white glaze starkly because they were so vividly picked out with a filling of black, greasy grime! “Heavens!” I thought, Barbara won’t wear this! The weedy man could sense my revulsion, but I wittered about the stairs being a bit steep. “The room is very cheap!...” the weedy man assured me! And so it should be I thought.



We went down to where Barbara was in the bar with the moustachioed men and she came up to vet the room. “Oh, this will do!”, she said, to my astonishment. We asked if we could get a meal, were told only steaks were on the menu. We had another glass or two of wine, enjoying the tatty atmosphere, and eventually we were ushered into a fake timbered dining room just off the bar. We were the only diners. The steaks arrived, large but the worst I have ever been served. We sawed at them desperately, futilely but only a chain saw would have made an impression. They were literally inedible. The chips were alright. A large black Alsatian dog in a corner looked at us as we left the room. As I paid I wimpishly apologised for not touching the steaks, saying we were too tired to do them justice…I wondered whether the Alsatian would do better! I expect in summer the place is packed with macho anglers fishing the nearby river, a filthy shower wouldn’t trouble serious, manly men like that. We remember that night very well. Subsequent nights as we headed south were less memorable, but more comfortable and hygienic… and the food was good. The landscape was often spectacular and I got a sense of anticipation as we began to descend from high country and into rolling vineyards…and heat. Then, there they were at last! The Pyrenees, way, way off, a long line of snowclad peaks, like a mirage along the horizon, the sky a flawless blue hanging above them. The prospect was exactly as one would have wished for. Snatches of that distant magnificence came into view as we rolled through the tawny vineyards, each time a little closer…

I don’t remember now whether we headed straight for Chalabre, where I was to sign papers for the house purchase, pay over the money. The countryside had changed again as we neared Chalabre, in the Quercorb, according to the guidebooks a relatively unfrequented part of France. It looked that, almost park like, handsome fields and beechwoods with, apparently few houses. We found the notaire’s office without difficulty, a school was opposite, there was the sound of children playing, French children, French voices. It was warm and sunny and peaceful. Soon, Elaine, the English estate agent, arrived and we all trooped into the notaire’s office. He was young, good looking, and proud of his facility with English. He rattled on for what seemed a very long time about all the things I could, and couldn’t, do with the property. I couldn’t, for instance, fell the acacia tree that stood outside. I didn’t want to. I was to be very happy, working at a long bench in its shade… That acacia tree was one of my acquisitions I prized most, though its thorns turned out to be vicious! He droned on and on and then it came to the time to hand him a cheque. As I made it out, for much of what little money I had left, a little voice in my head was saying, “ do you really know what you are doing?” But I had a strange sense of doing something that had to be done, something ordained… whatever the outcome was going to be!


Normally, I believe, the handing over of a property is made something of a ceremony, with wine and conviviality. But Peter and Penny, from whom we were buying, had done their signing the day before and were on their way somewhere. We only ever saw Penny again in later years. So we just said goodbye to Elaine, the agent, and headed straight off for our new home in the hills, Missegre… Back down through Limoux, across the long bridge across the Aude and then there came the long, twisting, gentle climb through vineyards, scrubby barren hills, then more densely wooded, steep hillsides, often with a precipitous drop to one side of the road. Then came the slightly ominous narrow defile before the widening out and the warm colours and the huddled roofs and walls of the village itself. Shangri La.

Our well laden van crunched on to the shabby forecourt of the shabby house I had just bought. I unlocked the heavy door with the massive key I had been given and we started to explore. Penny, from whom I had bought the house, had left us a long letter of welcome and voluminous advice about the facilities of the house, where to get heating oil, telephone services etc.,etc. Also comments about some of the villagers most likely to offer help and advice. I expect we put the kettle on and made some tea, and then explored. Probably first the land that came with the house, the house could wait. The two “potagers lay the other side of the village street, directly opposite the house. They had low stone walls round them, higher in places than others, nice old walls. Some attempt had been made at cultivation them but it had been half hearted and there was obviously a great deal yet to be done! The two dry stone walled potagers were separated by a narrow grassy roadway, a lane, leading directly to the so called “ruisseau” Poor Barbara had been sadly disillusioned on our first visit to Missegre to view the property. Full of optimism, she had brought with her a newly acquired bathing costume, expecting to have a celebratory dip in the, imagined, sparkling waters of the ruisseau, a stretch of which was now ours! It did have water in it, in winter we found quite a lot! It could become an impressive brown torrent, overflowing across the potagers and nearly up to the road. In summer it almost disappeared, exposing the concrete bed that had been laid at some time. When it was flowing it wasn’t unattractive, curving off to the left between steep, tree shaded, flowery, banks. It never did sparkle though, Barbara’s new bathing costume would be surplus baggage for a while it had seemed. The water never looked dirty, tadpoles flourished while the water level was high enough, I discovered later, but a neighbour’s washing machine discharged its rinsing water into it, and what went on further upstream I never wanted to find out. Barbara never did disport herself in it, in her nice, new, silver costume.

To the right, the far bank was also tree lined, a big walnut opposite, other trees, several fruit, were dotted along at intervals, one, a medlar, I later tried out, but wasn’t greatly impressed. On the nearest bank bordering the righthand potager were many small plum trees, which I was pleased to see. They were heavily laden with small yellow plums, sweet and delicious. Later I made innumerable pots of jam, which were to last a very long time, fortunate as the trees never bore again in such profusion! Beyond the ruisseau lay a pleasant meadow, beyond it the hillside rose steeply, bracken clad, to a fence along the skyline where I could see sheep dotted about. Their bells tinkled as they grazed, a fond, abiding memory. Over to the right the hillside became thickly wooded. We had a makeshift night of it, uncomfortable on a thin foam mattress left in situ on a strange raised platform built above the slope of a stairway. An uneasy night it was in that huge rambling, silent house, barely knowing the way around it yet, but it felt warm… and friendly.

In the morning we unloaded the van of our meagre supplies and took stock of what needed doing first. Getting rid of the acid green paint in the big, long kitchen seemed a priority so we drove down to Limoux to get some paint, cheese, bread, wine etc. Barbara exclaimed at the glorious autumn colours of the vineyards as we got lower down. Somehow I’d assumed that England would be doing Autumn better than France, but that wasn’t true where we had come to. Each grape variety seemed to have a splendour of its own, one particular rounded slope was now a magnificent purple. Amongst the vines lines of acacias stood out tall, their leaves yellow now but retaining a fresh green in summer I found, almost Spring like. Great globes of mistletoe hung in the high branches. We snaked the way down, relishing the long views. A lonely ruined tower standing out rising from a sea of tree tops. “ Majestic…majestic….” Barbara kept murmuring. So it was, I never tired of that drive down.



In Limoux we found a magnificent hardware store with a huge range of decorating materials, plumbing equipment, the lot. Mr. Bricolage it was called. The assistants were friendly and helpful. We got what we needed, wine and food included and headed back up into the hills. Barbara set to work straight away on changing the colour of the kitchen. It was a very long, fairly low ceilinged room, seemingly much altered from how it originally had been. Not for the better.


A long heavy beam spanned the room at the end away from the window. Once there had probably been a long open range there, a big open wood fire that would have warmed the whole house. This had all gone, a modern refrigerator stood where it had once been, some makeshift shelves and worktops around it. A small electric cooker stood to one side. There were several cast iron radiators. That was all except for some built in cupboards that seemed from a different time. Their doors were interestingly panelled and gave an appearance of quality that the rest of the room lacked. The floor, at least, was tiled in simple terracotta tiles. It was a nondescript room.

Having had time now to really look round one could imagine more of how the house had come to be as it now was. Obviously a lot of money had originally gone into repairing the structure. There had been great subsidence cracks in the massive exterior walls. There had once been repair plates and tie rods spanning the wings of the building. But these had gone and concrete beams and RSJs had been inserted and the structure, we hoped, had been stabilised! Along the façade facing the road a massive balcony had been added, seemingly adding hugely to the strength of the walls. The internal spiral staircases were obviously not original, being in cast concrete. Poking around in the big, low, rough walled stable of a room behind a nice old wide, weather worn, frayed door, below the overhanging balcony, I found a flue which, I assumed, had once led from some sort of stove, perhaps used to heat up swill for the pigs once housed in the still remaining pig sties. I found the flue was blocked and I started to clear it with my set of flue cleaning rods. It wasn’t easy, but, using a screw- in gubbins with a sort of cork screw end, I brought down the ball of sodden newspapers that was blocking the flue. They were dated 1985…. So they must have been put there some fourteen years before, the renovations must have been going on for quite a long time. I suspected that funds had run out. Repairs had perhaps eaten away the resources of the previous owners, or something else had brought the scheme to an end, original hopes unresolved. Later I was told there had been marital difficulties. But I never probed, and the villagers never seem to be eager to relay gossip, or not to me!

We had to make do with the unfinished project we had taken on. Barbara began with painting the kitchen. And how she worked at it! An accomplished painter, but on canvas, board or paper, she made a meticulous job of the walls, the cupboards and, the radiators… That was a finicky job, getting between all the fins of the old fashioned iron radiators. It took her hours. Her back suffered. But she got it done, and the room looked transformed in soft, warm, French, greys!

I, meanwhile, was learning, the hard way how different modern French wall structures were from anything I had encountered in England. Barbara was standing in one of the upper rooms we had decided to make into an office. I was the other side if the dividing wall, giving on to a much bigger room we were going to use as a sitting room, the walls lined with books. I was about to drill holes in the room to insert Rawlplugs, screws and brackets. I was well supplied with everything I would have needed….in England. I fitted a long masonry drill into my big hammer drill, switched it on and applied my drill to the first measured mark. I held the drill firmly as I applied pressure. Almost immediately my drill sank up to its chuck against the wall. I heard a shout from Barbara on the other side. I left the drill, up to its hilt, hanging off the wall, rushed in to see why Barbara was making such a noise. I found she had been close to the dividing wall when several inches of whirling masonry drill had burst through the wall very close to her head… She was not amused. Investigating, I found that all the internal walls were constructed of a very lightweight type of hollow ceramic brick, pottery really. I’d never come across it in England. I am from the Stone Age. I knew though of suitable fixings, what were used on hollow plaster board walls, so off I had to go, on the long drive down to Limoux, and Mr. Bricolage!

We were busying ourselves get the house more habitable while waiting to hear when the huge removals lorry would be arriving from England with our household goods and my pottery equipment, my wheel, benches, pug mill and so on. Then we got a phonecall, the driver was in Limoux and needed a few directions. With these given we scurried about making sure spaces were clear. Then, up Missegre’s quiet main street, Rue de la Mairie, rolled this vast removals truck. We waved, indicated where to offload and the driver expertly reversed his huge vehicle so that it lay across the big old arch next to our property where in former times there had been a long stone cattle drinking trough. The skeleton of the pump remained and, behind an iron grill inserted in an arch, one could always hear the echoing drip of water in a big well down below. His rear doors he opened just below the spread of our acacia tree. With the doors swung back, I saw an impressive cliff face of my belongings piled ingeniously up to the very roof of the truck.

The driver said he’d had a problem in Limoux, in making a tight turn to line up with the long, most frequently used, bridge at one end of town, his rear wheel had caught the kerb, ripping the wall out of one of his double rear wheels! I had found out myself, the hard way, the vicious nature of French kerbstones in that region. Made of reinforced concrete, their smooth surfaces seemed prone to break up in use, exposing a coarse aggregate within and a ragged edge, full of sharp flints. One had to be cautious about rubbing along the kerb while parking. Our driver seemed unconcerned however, saying the one remained tyre on that wheel had coped with the load. He also said that he had been heavily overloaded anyway and had been lucky not to have had his load weight checked en route! He seemed a very cool, nonchalant young man. His name was Dean, had made deliveries worldwide, had seen a great deal of action. He was good looking too, he had style and Barbara took a shine to him…

We set about off- loading the mountain of gear, it was afternoon and the days were shortening. There seemed to be less warmth in the air too. We had only just begun, daunted somewhat by what we had to shift, two oldies and a driver, when a man appeared next to the lorry. A handsome man, not young but in good nick, didn’t look French somehow. “ Bon jour!”, I began, fumbling for my school boy French. “Alan Wallwork?”, the man replied. “ Yes!.. but who are… you?” I said, astonished. “I’m Malcolm, my daughter used to be the girlfriend of the son of an old friend of yours, years back!” He then explained that Peter and Ursula, my friends, knowing he lived in the Pyrenees had called him, saying I too was arriving in the Pyrenees, perhaps to somewhere near him! I wasn’t very near, but only a half hour’s drive away. His village was much higher up. But how fortunate it was that he should turn up at the very moment when all our stuff had arrived! Malcolm, bless him, pitched in and, miraculously we got everything piled away into the vast double garage which was to be my pottery workshop. We could distribute everything to the proper place over following days.

We tottered into the big kitchen and rustled up some sort of meal, opened bottles. Dean, the driver regaled us with stories of hair raising adventures in far distant, uncivilised places. Then he retired to his luxurious berth above his driving seat and Malcolm drove back up to his retreat further up in the hills, promising to come back soon to see how we were getting on. Though retired, he was a keen painter and, we later found, had a far more immaculate house than ours would ever be. He even had a lawn, a curiously English thing to go in for in the Pyrenees, to my mind. A nice man, who helped us a lot, even to driving us down to the sea when I had got wary of the mountain roads, as age took its toll…

Now I had all my equipment and tools I could start making plans to build a kiln. First I had to decide where it was to be sited. At first I thought I would put it across the road in the left hand one of our potagers, plenty of room there, I could build behind the wall between the potager and the road. I thought of making a roof over it from the plentiful supply I thought there would be of the warm, lichened Roman tiles indigenous to the region. But these I soon realised had become a valuable, prized commodity. I had noticed that they had not long survived the disuse of a small bus shelter, formerly an asset of the recent, regretted, discontinuation of the infrequent bus service that had toiled its way up through the villages. Overnight all the tiles had been stripped from it. Also I would need a power supply across the road, for a lead light when firing after dark and also to power a pyrometer to judge temperature rise in a firing. I had used a battery powered version before in England. Though mobile I hadn’t liked its display. I preferred mains powered instruments with bright displays. Also I worried how my fellow villagers might take to seeing a chimney and the roar, even if muffled, and glow of a kiln very close to the road. Planning permission, such as I knew well in England, hadn’t at first crossed my mind! The primitive feel of Missegre, the atmosphere of having moved back fifty years or more in time had pervaded my mind. Surely, up there in the mountains one could do as one wished?

It was practicalities that made me give up plans of building a kiln in the potager. I began debating the advantages of building the kiln half under the overhang of the substantial balcony that had been built the whole length of the road-facing frontage of the house. The balcony would give shelter to where one would stand to monitor the firing of the kiln, peering in through the spyhole at the Seger cones, checking the long green spurt of flame as one began reduction, unloading and loading could all be done beneath the balcony... It would mean using a taller than necessary chimney in order to carry away fumes from users of the balcony. But the chimney could be braced against the balcony, lifted out of sight when no firing was under way… It was to be a propane fired kiln, although relatively expensive as a fuel I have long been in favour of its efficiency, cleanliness and compactness of storage. It would also be less obtrusive in that position. Everything, gas bottles and all, would be somewhat hidden by the substantial trunk of the acacia tree and I planned to suspend lengths of slatted bamboo wind sheltering forward from the balcony to form an awning, to shade the raised area, and….. it would make a kiln less prominent!

The raised area was part garden, part patio. It stretched from our front door and ran along between the acacia and under the overhang of the balcony, where the doors to the old stable-like workshops were . The far end of the raised, partly stepped, patio ended at the end of our property where, next door, a gravelled yard lay, with behind it, built into the hillside, the huge arch stood where the cattle trough still lay ,where cattle had once been watered. We were using that space for our parking, as did other villagers, and also as did the charismatic butcher who arrived once a week to serve villagers at our end of the village, after his horn had summoned everyone. His horn had sounded already as he entered the village further up the road, to serve villagers up there before he progressed through the village, stopping at intervals wherever customers waited. Barbara liked his colourful silken shirts and his dashing white overall with just one strap across the shoulder.

Dean, the lorry driver, was on his way back to England, after getting a new tyre fitted. Now that my tools had come I could make a start on building a kiln, made far easier now I had decided to build it smack in front of the house where power was at hand. I rummaged through the motley assortment of angle iron in a variety of thicknesses and lengths I had brought from England. “ ‘Ent they got old iron in France, Al?” Dave the removal firm man had said when he saw the treasures wanted him to take to France. Now, how glad I was I’d brought it all! For there seemed almost all I needed to build a kiln. In the evenings, and as I lay in bed at night, my head buzzed with various possibilities in design. A basic factor though was my supply of silicon carbide kiln shelves, bought in my affluent days. I still have some, they’ll certainly see me out! Impossible to cut like other shelves, I would have to build a kiln to fit the shelves rather than vice versa. So that settled the internal size of the firing chamber. I didn’t want a particularly big kiln, no longer likely to be producing in the quantity I once did, but I wanted to be able to make some fairly tall pieces and I decided that fifty centimetres in height would be sufficient. I had decided on a top loading kiln already to avoid the problems in the making of a front loading kiln with a hinged door, a lid would be so much simpler. A lid that size would be quite heavy, so I set about thinking of a way to raise it, or move it out of the way while packing the kiln.

I had spent time in England while clearing Whitty Down Farm, cutting up the massive framework of my big old Kilns and Furnaces kiln, bought in the mid 1960’s, when they were still making heavyweight, long lasting kilns. The door I had dumped in a skip after smashing out the brickwork to make it easier to shift. I hadn’t imagined using that ever again. The uprights though were a different matter, wide heavyweight angle iron bars, about seven feet long, I had cut these out carefully, and laboriously, with an angle- grinder. My acetylene ,torch, which would have made the job quicker, had long been retired. I had cut out side members and any other bracing members if they were likely to be of a useful length. All these I now laid out on the patio like rudiments of a large- scale, battered, Meccano set.

I could visualise the four original corner upright posts being used again in the same way, as uprights. A cage of lengths of lighter angle fixed to them would form support for the brickwork of the kiln chamber, bolted between the four uprights. I didn’t need all the uprights to be of the full seven feet height available, only two at the rear could be, supporting the back of the kiln, the flue or whatever else. The front two need only be about four feet high, allowing for the kiln body to be supported about a foot or so off the ground, the chamber would then have its top opening level off at a reasonable height to be reached over while packing ware into the firing chamber. I started making sketches of ways to enabling raising and lowering and moving away the lid when as required.

I came up with the idea of using the heavy rear uprights to attach the fulcrums for two long heavy arms that could be hinged and swung up in some way, pulling up heavy chains fixed to each corner of the lid, lifting it thereby. I just happened to have brought a side lift car jack with me, along with a quite numerous collection of scissor jacks, acquired at boot sales for very little money. I like having jacks to hand, I had long found a use for them in raising, and holding, sections of big pots or moulds. I envisaged mounting the side lift jack somehow at the front of the kiln so as to locate under the two hinged lifting arms. Extending the jack using its operating crank would lift the lid clear of its seal of the kiln chamber. It would have been too complicated to try to lift the lid high enough to have clearance enough to gain access below it and, anyway I didn’t fancy working below a heavy chunk of steel and brickwork while it swung from its lifting chains!

So I worked out that all I need do was lift the lid enough to slide in a number of steel tubes to act as rollers. When they were in place, the lid could be lowered on to them only after two lengths of angle iron had been in to carry the rollers, the angle irons having been first secured with four bolts to the kiln framework. The angle irons needed to be long enough so that the lid, and the rollers, could be trundled forwards along the trackway formed by the angle irons which were cantilevered forward a sufficient distance. The lid would remain rolled forward and secured while the kiln was packed. Then the process would be repeated, the lid slid back, the lifting chains refitted, the lifting arms cranked up by the re-applied jack, the rollers and trackway removed…and the lid lowered into position for firing to commence! When I did assemble it all it worked like a dream!



While I was doing all this I hadn’t yet worked out how I was going to support the kiln floor. I had decided to bring the burners in through the floor, firing upwards. My previous kiln, the one I blew up, had had four burners, two on each side, firing horizontally. But what I was intending to build now was much smaller, only two burners would suffice. I had worked out how I could mount the burners below the kiln floor. They couldn’t be fixed into the brickwork, through burner blocks, they had to be movable, adjustable. I devised a steel framework with the two burners bolted to it, pointing upwards to where the burner ports would be, in the kiln floor. The burner framework I then supported on two of my scissor jacks so that burners, framework and jacks were a unit which, when the jacks were lowered, could be slid below the kiln, lined up with the burner ports and then raised with the jacks to meet the ports. An optimum distance for admitting air for combustion to the ports could be made by adjustment to the height of the jacks. A length of high pressure rubber tubing was to lead to the burners from the gas bottles, in sheltered place under the balcony, a distance from the kiln.

I toyed with various ways of supporting the kiln floor but then the uncanny way in which Providence, or whatever, seems to help me out stepped in! In one of my potagers, lent against a stone wall I had found two square sheets of heavy iron plate, about four feet square and about at least a quarter of an inch thick. They were not at all easy to move! I think they had been used at some time to support free standing iron wood stoves in the house. Rather than making a brick or stone hearth these heavy steel plates could protect a wooden floor beneath a freestanding stove, the thick metal would conduct away heat from the stove, especially as the base of the stove would be cooler anyway. The sheets were big enough to retain any coals and ash that might fall. Later, with enormous effort, I got one sheet back upstairs into one room, laid it on the floor and bought a cast iron woodburner to mount on it.

The other sheet I had walked out of the potager, across the road when there were no cars, which was how it most frequently was, walking the sheet, corner to corner, trying to keep the thing in vertical and in balance without tripping and being crushed by it! I had to get it across the road, across what we had made into a driveway, then up the flight of wide granite steps that led up to the patio where the kiln would be. Somehow I lowered it on to bricks so that I could use an anglegrinder to cut it to shape. Overall, miraculously it was very close to the right dimensions, but I had, somehow to make cut out spaces to allow the burners brought up to meet up with the ports. If I’d still had my acetylene burner, the problem would have been simple. But I only had anglegrinders. I need to use the plural because I got through several angle grinders!

Fortunately, at Mr Bricolage’s there always seemed to be Special Offers of power tools at astonishingly low prices. They weren’t high quality but were quite good enough for the average D.I.Y. man who only gave them light, occasional use. Making long cuts in battleship-worthy iron plates however was tough going and meant they burned out in no time, but, at the price they then were, it wasn’t a big problem. The problem was the sheer tedium of keeping a feather touch, not using too much pressure, as one slowly, slowly ground away at the thick metal. It took a long, long time! The din, hour after hour, perhaps day after day, as I knelt out on the patio, laboriously cutting away two squares out of the big metal sheet attracted the attention of Jo, the then mayor whose house was down the street, on the other side from his headquarters, the Mairie, always flower covered with Republique Francaise in proud iron work above it. He was, is, an attractive, weathered, man with a wide grin and a dry sense of humour. I’d taken to him immediately, had thought he might be ex- military, he had an air of having seen action about him. I later found he’d been an engine driver! How I wish I’d been fluent in French…I think there would have been tales to tell from the Missegrois!

What on earth was I doing, M. le Maire wanted to know? Once again, in retrospect, I am amazed that I set out to do things that I well knew would have raised all sorts of problems in England. It just didn’t feel so bound up by regulations in Missegre. I think it probably was, but the French make it seem that there is more freedom….or used to be. One can go very wrong though, I fancy it depends whether they like you or not. I met a man at a local gallery Private View, he been down there some time, he had some wooded land. He said he had built a splendid log cabin on his secluded land, felling the trees necessary for its structure. He had built it, had then got a visit from his mayor. “ Monsieur, you did not ask permission! You must reinstate the trees you have cut down!” “ How the hell can I do that. I told the stupid man ?” he’d said. That, he’d been told, was HIS problem. I had taken an instant dislike to the man myself, I felt very much on the side of his mayor. He’d gone about things quite the wrong way, I felt. So, very nearly had I!

Jo, the mayor had not let me get very far before coming to see what I was up to. I showed him the things I made, he was interested, asked me if I was hoping to sell things in the summer Foire. He asked what my prices were. He made that gesture I rather liked of shaking his hand as though he had burnt his fingers!

Obviously, he thought my activities would be unobtrusive, once the scream of the anglegrinder would be over, but never again was I unaware that I should be asking permission for what I was about to do! I’ll never know quite what I got away with. Realising that it would be better always to ask his advice when making alterations, I did just that when I was sorting out our tatty front garden. I wanted to build a low stone wall between the road and the garden. There was a jumble of stones littered about, I assumed there had once already been a wall there. “How high?” asked Jo.

I indicated with my hand. “Make it that high,” he said, moving his hand down a bit lower, “And start it about five centimetres in from the road edge. Otherwise I shall have to put in plans for you down in Limoux….lots of paperwork!” Obviously he didn’t want that….so I built my wall where he said and the villagers are very approving of what I, and my successors have made of that front patch. When I tactfully consulted him when I wanted to paint the house exterior, but having already mixed up the colour I wanted to use, ( but only the colour it had been long ago, as were other houses at our end of the village, a colour made from the red ochre of which there was an outcrop just out of the village ) Jo said the colour must be yellow ochre! He then took me in his van to see the houses that were the approved shade of yellow ochre.

I discarded the big tub of nice rosy paint I had mixed up, made a tub of ochre. But I didn’t mix the rather pale, wishy washy colour monsieur le maire had suggested, I made it a bit warmer, darker. When I used it people in the village congratulated me on it, but not Jo. “ Too pale” he said. “ If you were in Collioure for instance, down on the coast, you could use pink, blue, yellow for instance, but up here, round Limoux, the colour must be ochre!” “What happened to Liberte, Fraternite et Egalite?” “ That went out of the window long ago!” growled Jo. Oh dear…

The weather wasn’t quite as clement and I planned a quick trip back to England to buy insulating bricks for my kiln. Although ceramic fibre had come in I wasn’t convinced by it in spite of its boasted efficiency and lightweight. I am old fashioned, I like the look of brickwork, and the ease of its repair. I had contacted a supplier in the Midlands, placed an order for brick, ceramic paper, cement. I said I’d collect. Later, Reuben Batterham, who pots in the Jura, France, told me on the phone that the bricks I went all the way to England to collect had been made at a factory just outside Paris. I hadn’t needed to make the trip! But I was already in my seventies, had had a slight stroke and was beginning to feel doddery, easily stressed by finding a route through traffic, finding parking space, all the penalties of modern driving. Negotiating a way through French industrial estates would have probably taxed me to the limit, if not beyond! So I have no regrets about having found finding an industrial in England the softer option! Besides, I wanted the trip to be a “ dummy run” for what I hoped would be in our future, leisurely runs back to England through fresh, interesting country, stopping where we pleased, eating and drinking well, with our van well laden my ware, for sale to established customers back in England….. huh!

This trip couldn’t be leisurely because I imagined the weather would start to be less benign, I had better pick up the bricks and get back to France with them, get back to the warm south before more northern parts gave trouble. Going back to England seemed to emphasise how much nicer driving was in France, the nearer we got to the ferry the busier the roads got and, once back in England there seemed to be one continuous line of roadworks. We had had some very pleasant stops overnight in France, fascinating places, off the main route, I was looking forward to more of that in later years! I went up to the Midlands while Barbara checked on her flat in Blackheath which she was wisely hanging on to while we chanced our luck in France, or my luck really, I had virtually burnt my bridges!

The bricks made an ideal load, not too heavy, quite compact. I don’t remember the exact route back, I don’t think I made the best choice of ferry, but we got over, got quite a way down France but the driving wasn’t as pleasant, I remember hating driving on wet roads against head lights somewhere, in rush hour traffic. My eyes weren’t as good as they’d been, especially at night. As we pulled into one pleasant looking hotel and restaurant and I got out of the van into the rain I thought, this isn’t just rain, there’s a bit of sleet about it! As we had a very good meal in the restaurant I said to Barbara that I wanted to make a concentrated run for it in the morning, do the rest of the distance in one go! I said, if it’s like this back here, what’s it going to be like on the road up to Missegre, especially that bit where the road narrows through the sort of gorge?”, what I’d begun to call the Valley of Death?

So, next morning we set off, and I drove and drove. Eleven hours of almost constant driving I think it was. It’s a big country France! We got up into the mountains just in time before the weather really changed and I saw what it could really throw at you that high up! I only then realised how fortunate it was that Dean had come when he had. I had been starry eyed about living in the Pyrenees, or to be accurate, living high up in the Pyrenees. The ascent from the low ground round Limoux, the valley of the Aude had been so gentle, gradual but I should have recognised from having to keep swallowing to clear my ears that the altitude in Missegre was quite different from Limoux and its surrounding villages and vineyards. Missegre, I found out later when I bought some maps, is about two thousand feet up above sea level so it was bound to get different weather from the plain below. Later too, I always marvelled at how abruptly the snow fall petered out as one drove down, suddenly everywhere would seem summerlike, not in the depth of winter. Someone had built an idyllic house just at the point of change. A jumble of old tiled roofs and rooms, all looking down the long valley with a little artificial wedge of a lake just below. A paradise. They kept donkeys and beautiful horses there, with foals in the Spring . It did look a charmed setting, all warmth while a few minutes further up all would be deep, drifted snow. What a place for a pottery workshop it would have made! What they actually made was a range of cosmetics made with milk from the beautiful mares.

When it was stifling down below, on the plain, in full summer, it was always a relief to get up high again where we were. There was always a breeze up there. We also got used to Missegre when it was cut off, sometimes for up to a week, when even the snow ploughs couldn’t get through. Barbara’s son, Christopher, we knew was to fly down to spend Christmas with us, so we did our best to make the place festive. I was impressed by French taste in Christmas decorations. In Leclerc’s, the huge, chi-chi, supermarket down in Limoux we found an impressive range of tinsel bands, some almost exquisite, and priced to match! Many of the baubles too were very tasteful, textured and worth keeping on show, Barbara still has some. I think we managed to find a turkey and we served Christopher his Christmas dinner on a “golden” plate. At some point it snowed and how it did snow! Drifts formed everywhere but the Rue de la Mairie was soon cleared by a snow plough. It was all very exciting. At some point I even drove the Toyota up to the “col”, a sort of pass higher up from the village where the road snaked through the lowest point of the hills where Missegre lies. It is a favourite spot for picnickers up there, a rough table has been put there and one can sit and drink in the view across to Spain, a sea of mountain tops, a jumble of peaks seeming to go on forever into a blue haze. It was a bit tricky, getting the van up there, but I did it. It was brilliantly sunny and lit up the spectacular drifts by the road. About nine feet high, I estimated, wonderfully sculptured by the wind. It soon grew icy and the wind picked up as the afternoon waned, we drank Blanquette, a local sparkling wine, made, it is claimed before champagne existed, out of egg cups, we were short of glasses, and we were glad to make our way down again to warmth and shelter in the village, and our ramshackle house.



I think it was a good Christmas but we had to absorb some difficult developments. Christopher announced that he was planning to buy a substantial sailing boat out in Turkey and sail it all the way back to England with his then fiancée, now wife. This rocked me back on my heels! I had no illusions about the perils of two old people like us, me having already had a slight stroke, Barbara with incipient back trouble and a family history of arthritis, marooning ourselves high up in the Pyrenees. My own family was well involved with numerous children and several didn’t drive anyway. I had assumed that Christopher would always be a sort of backup, mobile and reasonably well heeled, able perhaps to pick up pieces if trouble arose! How could he do that if he was battling the seas somewhere, out of touch? He said, “Al, it’s only the Mediterranean!” Well, I said, the Mediterranean has a vicious reputation, and that’s only part of the way! But he was obviously determined and said he’d ring every couple of days when they put into port. I understood that that was not a manoeuvre that one should do more than necessary, Barbara, who’d done quite a bit of sailing, knew that well, but she kept quiet,… just hoped. Christopher flew back to England and prepared for his Odyssey .

The roads had been cleared, but heavy drifts remained for ages. The sky was an immaculate deep clear blue and the sun shone warmly! I have a happy photograph somewhere of Barbara sitting out on the balcony…basking! She is wearing her slinky silver bathing costume and her bare feet are propped on a heap of snow! The South West of France wasn’t turning to be so bad after all…

We must have been getting down to Limoux alright but I can’t remember quite exactly when it was that Barbara was suddenly stricken. I know we were down there, by the Aude, when she almost collapsed in agony. Something in her back had gone. “ Al”, she whimpered, “ you’ve got to do something!” But what? Close by was what I’d assumed was the main hospital in Limoux. How opportune! It is a big rambling place that I’d thought was so wonderfully sited, right on the banks of the wide river, with lots of balconied rooms looking straight down on to the usually placid water, dotted with ducks and hopeful fishermen. One often saw silver flashes as fish turned in the clear water, so the fishermen weren’t hoping in vain, perhaps…

I helped Barbara along through the hospital entrance and up to the reception desk where there were several uniformed nurses. I told them of Barbara’s extreme agony and asked if a pain relieving injection could be given. I got a torrent of explanation about why this was an impossibility. I couldn’t grasp what the problem was. Surely the place was full of nurses, any of whom could slide a needle into Barbara’s bum? Apparently not, the torrent continued. Very gradually… they were very nice, very patient, I grasped that only a specific kind of nurse could do this without referral to a doctor! Nurses of that kind were readily available however, I was assured, and they would telephone for one immediately. Within half an hour the nurse arrived and Barbara was being bent over the reception desk while a jab was given…and, almost immediately relief came. I paid them, thanked them profusely and they gave me the name of a GP who had a daily surgery close by. It wasn’t until quite a time later that I found out that the big, attractive hospital was in fact specifically for the mentally ill! What a nice place to be bonkers in!

So began Barbara’s adoration of Dr. Barbe. I liked him very much too. His surgery was quite close to the town end of the long bridge where Dean had ripped out his tyre. It was up a quiet side street and one got to the door of his surgery by entering a very widely arched, very dark, stone flagged sort of tunnel with dim door ways along its length, very atmospheric like the setting for a film noire. A bit sinister. Dr Barbe’s name was amongst others on the first door jamb from the entrance. After ringing as requested one opened the door into a nice light passageway with a waiting room off to the left. All the internal walls though looked very makeshift, wooden panelling on rough sawn frameworks. A line of folding chairs were arranged along opposite sides of the room. Most seats were occupied, many with very time worn, country people Nice old faces. There were some youngish girls, not peasant like at all. Quite chic. Everyone chorused “ Bon Jour!” to us and smiled. It all seemed very friendly and a buzz of conversation was resumed. Every now and then Dr. Barbe appeared from the consulting room at the end of the corridor and ushered the next patient in. He looked nice, tall, well built, tanned with tightly curled black hair, just turning grey, obviously popular from the responses that he got from his patients.

Eventually, it was our turn, his door opened for us and we sat down in front of his desk. It was a big, light room with enlarged photographs of a tall yacht heeling dramatically in dark blue seas. We introduced ourselves and tried to explain what the problem was in our rudimentary French. He said he spoke a little English, liked the English in fact. “ You ‘ave the sense of ‘umour!” Well, he certainly did as I was to find out, I have such fond memories...

He started with Barbara. She told him about her medical history, a fractured spine from a fall from a stepladder while changing a light bulb in her former house in Gozo, next to Malta. The electricity supply in earlier days was notoriously dangerous, Barbara had lain for some time, unconscious, with only her six month old son by her, alone and barely able to, in the end, get help. Since then she had always been prone to suffer back pain. Dr. Barbe said he would prescribe a course of cortisone injections, he would arrange for us to have these given at a clinic in a small town further up the valley. The clinic we later found was next to a jovial café with chairs outside in the sun, it was no hardship to keep the appointments and we were amazed to find how knowledgeable and attentive the assistants were in any of chemists’ we had to call at.

As he finished with Barbara, Dr. Barbe turned to me, asked about my own problems, the medications I had been prescribed. He agreed that they were the right drugs, but he didn’t agree with the dosages, or, more specifically when, and how frequently they were taken. What he said seemed to make a lot of sense… It was as we had stood up, were about to leave, Dr. Barbe said, quietly, “Alan, what Barbara needs…is love!” Well, what does one say to that? Don’t we all? Doesn’t everyone? But never in England had a GP ever come out with that kind of prescription! Maybe I’d been unlucky with GPs, but this man seemed to have such a humane, understanding approach. He also made you think he had time to listen!

We went down for the appointments, Barbara got the injections, we found that Couiza, a little town straddling a nice river, where the clinic was had a small Spar supermarket . Embedded in it, it had a bakers and a brilliant patisserie. What goodies we found there, everything looking so exquisite let alone tasting so good!