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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

30 Working donkeys

After Maurs, l headed east along the river Lot. This is beautiful country and some of the people speak the patois of Occitan. The villages are really attractive. Beside the river there are small, very fertile fields, ideal for growing vegetables. The hillsides are steep and wooded. The woods are abundant with  chestnut, hazel and walnut trees. A very good honey is produced here, and at this time of year the bees are busy collecting pollen from the flowers of the chestnuts.
Bilingual signs, French and Occitan
I stopped the night with Cedric, he has a smallholding. He uses donkeys and an old Cob de Normandie  for many of the jobs. In the morning he prepared some ground for potatoes, using two good strong donkeys.
Two good strong donkeys
In the afternoon he used his old cob to bank up some ground, ready to plant pumpkins. He led the horse, while his friend Samuel handled the plough. Cedric could have done it on his own, guiding the horse using the reins, but he'd been kicked a few days before, in the chest, by a big fat, ill-mannered Breton mare and was feeling rather sore.
He  has a lot of beehives, he also has orchards and makes a lot of apple juice. He has twenty sheep and two well trained border collies. He'd trained them himself and they worked well. The sheep eat the grass in the orchards. They are good for this as they don't damage the trees. In the evening he cooked potatoes, that he'd grown and cooked slightly spicy Merguez sausages made from his sheep. His jumper was made from the wool of his sheep. It was good chatting to him. He showed me a basket he'd made from Clematis.
He has a selection of small ploughs, harrows, a mower,suitable for a pair of donkeys to pull and also some carts and sledges. Sledges are very useful on the steep slopes and are easily made. In the morning Cedric gave me honey, eggs and applejuice.
Small harrow for a donkey
I carried on 8 km, [5 miles], and crossed the river Lot. On the other side l stopped with Yannick, who is a professional beekeeper. He had also worked as a beekeeper in Roumania and gave me useful information about that country. We drank wine made from unripened walnuts, that his partner Anne had made. Delicious, l love the taste of walnuts. After lunch l rested and played a tune on my pipes for Anne and her little girl. I'd hardly finished playing, when a couple in a car stopped to look at the wagon. It turned out that Jean-Pierre also plays the pipes, in fact he's one of the best pipers in France and I'd heard of him. Later they took me  back to their lovely old 16th century house and Jean-Pierre played me his pipes, l was really pleased and it was interesting talking to him and Diana, his wife, while we ate hazelnut cake.
Friday 4th April. I went up to the medieval village of Conques, it's a tough pull up the hill and some of the cobbles are slippery and the streets are narrow. It's one of the routes of St Jacques de Compostelle, [he was an apostle] and many pilgrims come through the village and pray at the church. At this time of year it is very quiet in Conques, perfect for me.
Conques, very narrow streets
I went past a saddler. Lin Alberici, the saddler came out to see the horse and wagon. I asked him if he might be able to repair a piece of the harness, 'toute de suite,' [straight-away] for me? He said he could. It was nearly mid-day, so l arranged to come back at 2pm, [French people have a two hour lunch, then work later]. That was great as it gave me time to tether the horse and get sorted out. I got back to the saddlers a little early and his neighbours invited me in for a glass of wine, while l waited for him to re-open. Lin was very kind and friendly and worked quickly and efficiently, while we chatted. It was great to watch him working. He also cut me some spare straps of leather, in case l needed to do more repairs and he wouldn't accept any payment, that was really generous and kind of him and has helped me on my way.
Rooftops in Conques
These villages aren't inhabited by thieves and l feel safe going off and leaving the horse and wagon, when l got back to where l'd tethered the horse, some men were playing boules near him, he enjoyed watching.
Later on l walked around the village and visited the church. I'm not in any hurry, so l can take my time to enjoy looking at things. I ate my dinner in the Auberge St. Jacques, l chose the, 'menu de pelerin' [pilgrims menu]. It was really good and l felt l could get used to being a pilgrim. After the meal l sat on the steps of the church and listened to the mass and the chanting. It felt good to be here in such a lovely place, it felt good to have got here, 600 miles, [950km] south of Calais.
5th April. I went to Espeyrac and stopped there. I'm still on the route of the pilgrims and there are taps for the pilgrims to get drinking water along the way, handy for me too. A lady told me to stop in the park and that no one would mind. A lovely spot beside the river.
7th April. It's very hot and sunny today. I got to Estaing about 11am, another small medieval town. I stopped by the river and unyoked the horse for a rest. A young man on a horse, a Camargue X Espagnol, rode into the river, so l jumped on my cob and rode him in too. He was glad to see another horse and they enjoyed splashing and having a drink.
Fed up with flies at Estaing, river Lot, 7th April
I tethered the horse and did some shopping, then sat on the terrace and had a milky coffee. I carried on through, Espalion, busy with impatient lorries, got to St. Come d'Olt, late afternoon, 18 miles [30km]. I was hot,tired and thirsty, but this is a lovely small medieval village. I went through the narrow streets and over the narrow bridge and pulled onto some nice grass right beside the river.
I washed the horse, then got a pail of water and washed my hair, which revived me a bit. Then l had to lie on the bed for a bit and rest. It's tiring never knowing how far l've got to go to find a place to stop and not knowing what it's going to be like, when l get there. In the morning it was raining, l'm glad, l moved the horse to new grass and went back to bed, it's nice here and l'll rest for the day. The shops are close by, an epicerie, two boulangeries and several cafes.
Having a paddle in the evening, River Lot
In the last 12 months l've travelled 2,560 miles, [4,119 km], with my wagon. During that time the horse has had 158 days rest. He's pulled the wagon for about 850 hours and spent the other 7,880 eating or resting, Oh and he's been swimming a couple of times.