Kent Barker | Country Matters
After taking a leap from London, the plan was to start a new life in the countryside and a career as a famous author. Instead I acquired a dog and part-time work managing a community orchard. You can read these experiences on my blog: www.kentcountrymatters.blogspot.co.uk
The French seem to have a somewhat schizophrenic approach to dogs. Even the most macho of men can carry around the smallest and fluffiest of lapdogs without embarrassment. Canines of all sizes are welcomed in restaurants where adults who should know better fawn over them and call them by the childish term ‘toutou’. Waiters rush to bring them bowls of water along with coffee and croissants – the latter for the owners, obviously, not the dogs.
Myrtle thinks this is all excellent and wishes she was treated with such respect in the UK. Yet on a morning walk round the village that we’ve adopted in the hills of the Haut-Languedoc we came across a very different situation.
As we rounded a bend a howling started, followed by angry barking. A little way down in the valley were a few rudimentary shelters with low corrugated roofs. The area was enclosed by a high wire fence, against which a dozen or so large dogs were jumping, apparently in a desperate attempt to escape. Who could blame them? It was baking hot and their ‘kennels’ must have exacerbated the heat rather than provide shade.
I think Myrtle picked up their distress and started moving swiftly away. I was shocked that anyone would keep dogs in such conditions and decided to ask around the village whose they were. But in fact it was a washing machine that ultimately provided the answer – well indirectly, anyway.
The house we acquired was, by most definitions, a bit of a wreck. Stucco was falling from the facade, cracked plaster tumbled in large lumps from ceilings, while wallpaper peeled off under its own weight. The entire electrical installation (if you can call it such) was carried by a pair of lighting cables without any thought of an earth.
Amazingly, though, there was running water and the water heater didn’t fuse the entire system when switched on (though I was careful to unplug it before using the kettle). An ancient fridge coughed into action – even if it was powered from a light socket – and, once we’d replaced the gas bottle, the cooker functioned in an idiosyncratic sort of way. So we were able actually to live rather than merely camp there for the month.
What we desperately needed, however, was a washing machine. With all the heat and dust we were soon running out of even vaguely clean T-shirts and it was a 20km run to the nearest laverie automatique. So we asked our new friends in the village if they knew of a second-hand machine for sale and, lo and behold, they said yes, another English couple had just bought one only to find it wouldn’t run off the solar panels that provided their only source of power.
Their invitation to view the machine came with an ominous warning. “It’s the start of the hunting season and it can be a bit like the Wild West up here,” Neil said. “I’d better meet you halfway up the hill.” As I gingerly drove up the dirt track behind his Land Rover we were forced to pull over to let a stream of pick-up trucks and battered Peugeots pass. Now I’m used to the French habit of popping away at small birds during ‘la chasse’. But this was clearly hunting on a different scale. Two of the vehicles towed trailers. Inside a big cage on one was a pack of dogs. In the other were three very large – and very dead – wild boar.
It turned out that Neil knew a bit about it all, having become pally with one of the hunters and been taken out at the end of the previous season. The extensive wooded hills around the Orb valley are divided up between various villages with the territory jealously guarded by individual hunting clubs. There are tales of food being left out to ensure there are sufficient animals to kill.
Some in the village who are not so keen on the ‘sport’ say the animals have become so tame that they occasionally wander into remote houses in search of sustenance – which could give you a bit of a turn if you found a large, betusked porcine standing there with a metaphorical begging bowl.
Anyway, it all made sense of the dogs we’d seen down the valley.
And of a curious sign I’d come across, ‘Diane De Berlou, Mercredi, Samedi, Dimanche et Jours Feries’. Not some local girl made good, but Diana – Roman goddess of hunting!
Though what the local priest saying Sunday mass makes of this pagan ritual is anybody’s guess.