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All posts for the month February, 2012

Life in Ruins Part II

Published February 27, 2012 by pennyrandall

Peyrusse le Roc, Aveyron, France.

The ruins of Peyrusse le Roc, deep in the heart of France’s rural Aveyron, have an atmosphere of beautiful abandonment that even now, almost ten years after my visit, infuses many of my favourite daydreams.

Its once magnificent buildings moulder in leafy splendour down the steep side of a wooded valley and dozens more lie in ruins at the edge of the more modern village at the top of the hill.

Dominated by the skeletal towers of the “Chateau Inferieur” perched on top of the sheer sugarloaf of the Roc de Thaluc, this medieval village once thrived on a silver mining industry and was a local centre of political power. But when cheaper silver began to be imported from the new world, its fortunes changed; the bureaucrats moved to another town and the inhabitants of Peyrusse le Roc drifted away.

I remember the climb to the top of the castle up a series of iron ladders embedded in the side of the Roc de Thaluc. Vulnerable, exposed, yet flushed with adventure, we made our way up to the towers that once dominated the valley, then down once more, to a tiny flight of steps which leads to a little building sheltering an ornate 14th century sarcophagus. This was discovered by the villagers as recently as 1957 and is known as the “Tombeau du Roi”, although no one knows the identity of its occupant. The hole in which it was found is still visible in front of the tomb; it goes down about 6.5 metres and many other skeletons, separated by thin slabs of mortar, were found there too.

Further down the hill is the village’s most spectacular building, the magnificent ruin of Notre Dame de Laval, which was built at the end of the fourteenth century and abandoned in 1680. Overshadowed by the black, grey and apricot Roc de Thaluc, its once imposing nave, choir and twelve side chapels now are carpeted with grass, nettles and wildflowers. Ferns have colonised the walls and towards the choir, on the north side, looking out over the valley, two of these lateral chapels have collapsed into a huge block of mossy masonry. This must come close to what the romantics must have seen when touring the ruins of England’s abbeys and priories, before the age of gravel paths, entry fees and mass tourism. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

Continuing down the path, bordered on one side by the astounding foundations of this building, we came to a smaller structure nestling into the rock itself. This building, known as the synagogue, is made up of a fortified tower backed by a less well defended building.

From there, we walked through the woods to the foot of the hill, where by the side of the river, is the 13th century “Hopital des Anglaises.” It’s a large rectangular building with a fireplace on the top floor and would have been used not only for treating the sick but for housing the poor and lodging pilgrims. In front of it is a bridge and about 100 metres away is the Chapelle de Notre dame de Pitie et la Pieta, which may have originally been an oratory serving the hospital. We continued to the very ancient Pont du Parayre, noting the green man painted on a rock by the riverside, then up past the ruined miller’s house to the Chateau Inferieur.

Walking through a ruined street, we doubled back towards the village, through the ruined fortified gate known as La Porte de la Barbicane to the remains of the covered market, which once housed 13 arched stalls, although only three remain today. We followed the signs though more ruins, to a charming medieval garden, then back to the “modern”village square.

Whereas last week’s village, Tidemills on the Sussex coast, whispered to me of our impermanence, this one sings of the romance of ruination, of how abandonment can transform a settlement into something different, something beautiful, something that resonates in the soul and remains with us for the rest of our days.

Pictures copyright Penny Randall

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Life in Ruins Part 1

Published February 19, 2012 by pennyrandall

There’s not much left of the once thriving community at Tidemills, near Newhaven on the Sussex coast. A few crumbling walls, the old tidal millpond, traces of a railway. On a chilly winter’s day, when the wind whips in from the sea and waves pound the shingle beach like it’s done something wrong, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever living here.

But they did. And in its boom years, their village must have seemed as permanent to them as our towns and cities do to us. Then, at the end of the nineteenth century the redevelopment of the nearby port closed the tidal creek to barge traffic and the coming of the railways made it cheaper for farmers to send their grain to market than have it milled locally. The mill shut down; the settlement  fell into decline and in the 1930s, after several houses were  declared unfit for human habitation and demolished, it was dubbed “Britain’s most backward hamlet” by a national newspaper. It was finally cleared in 1940 as part of the country’s sea defence strategy and used for street fighting practice by Canadian soldiers stationed nearby.

A memento mori of brambles and broken bricks, Tidemills is a whispered reminder of how our own certainties are built on shifting sand. And while nothing lasts forever, I suspect the relevance of that message will endure for a very long time.