The Scent of Smoke by Michelle Lawson

A heavy breath of smoke and things smoked wafts through the open doorway. It’s the scent of silver plumes spiraling from heavy stone roofs, the deep odor of smoked meats and the tang of clothing dried around the fireplace. It’s also the only sign of life in this shuttered village shadowed by the damply wooded Pyrenean foothills. Like other valleys, it’s seen a steady population decline from the end of the 19th century, although descendants of the original emigrants sometimes return to their ancestral homes during the summer months.

But the voices I hear aren’t always French. There’s a scattering of English incomers settled in this wilder western side of the Ariège département of France, following their dream of a new life across the Channel. The western Ariège, however, is a long way from sunny gourmet France, being a place of stubbornly rooted wildness. People talk about leaving England for the French way of life and an old-fashioned sense of community, then end up leaving their families to live amid the ghostly silence of abandoned and decaying houses. Some feel disquiet when they realise they share the landscape with a growing international community of pierced and dreadlocked incomers. What the French call the neo-ruraux, or marginaux, these seekers of an alternative way of life sometimes squat in empty barns, using adjacent battered vans as cupboards and wardrobes.

But it’s the English incomers who first arouse my curiosity. I set out to gather their stories by cycling along the 18 river valleys radiating from the western Ariège. They seem to enjoy answering my questions, taking the opportunity to evaluate the new lives they’ve forged in the Pyrenees.

Today I’m on my way to visit Elaine. Elaine’s patterned sofa, carpets and glass-paned doors transport me to an English seaside bungalow. ‘We haven’t got a French house,’ says Elaine. ‘A dark old French house doesn’t appeal to us. And I’ve transferred a lot of my English furniture here. Nothing in the house is French.’

Elaine’s white-heeled sandals flip between the coffee table and the kitchen as she brings Earl Grey tea and warm cookies. Elaine and her husband are no strangers to France, having crisscrossed it in search of where they might want to live eventually. They’d seen this house on the internet. ‘We walked in the gate and just fell in love with it.’

Almost all the other English incomers know Elaine. She’s a hub for the scattered English community, an organizer of their gatherings. People tell me that they met each other “through Elaine”. Elaine laughs at this and doesn’t deny that the common traits and interests of the scattered English incomers is what attracts them to each other.

‘All the English are good cooks. And all the English people tend to dress very well.’ I raise my eyebrows at that. ‘I don’t dress quite like I used to. But I’ve still got my Jaeger suits that I will not give up for anything. Any opportunity to wear them, I’m thrilled to put them on.’

Elaine shows me around the vegetable patch and the chicken enclosure. The mist swirls above our heads, revealing looming grey peaks, and a flash of sunlight illuminates a patch of damp pasture as we both look skywards. Elaine weighs up what she has here against what she left behind. ‘It’s not the smart set, but it’s nice living here. The Ariège is what it is. You’ll never change the Ariège people and they are so nice, aren’t they, in their own little way? Simple folk.’

A battered van blocks the route, its front corner lurching over the drop at the edge of the mountain road. Dylan and his girlfriend Anna are the new owners of a couple of derelict barns on a wooded slope of land on which they plan to build yurts for tourists. By the time the breakdown vehicle arrives I have an invitation to visit their project.

A muddy rope tied to a tree indicates the start of the route. The couple have failed to take into account that the land is almost vertical, lacking road access apart from a private track built by a man known locally as L’Ours (The Bear). L’Ours doesn’t see why he should let newcomers benefit from his years of hard work. That leaves Dylan and Anna to carry everything up a steep track in the forest, accompanied by their three-year-old toddler.

After hauling myself up the bank with the rope, I scramble along a steep track littered with boulders from collapsing walls, using hands as well as feet in places. After twenty minutes the primary colors of crudely painted window frames beam out through the trees, and behind them the skeleton of the half-built yurt. Anna takes my bottle of red wine with a frown. ‘I only drink water,’ she says, but fetches a couple of jam jars for Dylan and me.

Dylan leads me through the undergrowth, showing me the land and barns purchased for less than the price of a garage back in London. The corner of one barn bulges from where the mortar-less stones have shifted outwards. ‘I never noticed that when the estate agent showed us round,’ he admits. We go inside, where my head senses the weight of the entire structure bearing down. It’s a relief when Dylan leads me out, locking the door with an ancient key that fills the palm of his hand.

We skid down a dried-up gully back to the other barn, where we squash onto an old car seat in their “living room”, the air tainted with fumes from a wood-burning stove. Whenever I move a leg, I nudge the wires attached to a car battery, and the lights flicker. The roof space is taken up with an erect tent, a barrier against the barn’s existing residents: a family of loirs, or edible dormice, living in the upper rafters. The rodent family resent the humans and harass them throughout the night, screeching and throwing nuts at the sleeping family. Dylan shows me his latest strategy: a borrowed blowpipe. Locals claim this is normal behavior for loirs, who, when challenged, will move out of a house but not a barn. They know the latter is their territory, never meant for human habitation.

Dylan and I take our jam jars out to sit on tree trunks around an enormous blackened kettle on an open fire. The family’s water supply is a permanently open tap fixed to the end of a hose dangling in a stream, powered by nothing more than gravity. I’m impressed by their attempts to make the camp homely, but the enormous trees filter out the fading daylight and obscure the sun as it sinks below the ridge. I shake my head at the offer of a shot of absinthe and continue slapping my legs and arms, now smeared with blood from fat mosquitoes.

Dylan laughs at my interest in the English incomers, and I relate a few snippets, such as their  preoccupation with importing English paint for their house renovations. I can see parallels between the English middle class ‘dream’ and the alternative one incubating on this hillside; the essence of every move is the same: a more rewarding or more meaningful life, although here it’s more about survival and an escape from the grind of modern-day England. Both, however, show signs that things aren’t always fully thought through. Anna admits they haven’t yet sought permission to convert the barn into something officially habitable. ‘We don’t really know what we’re doing,’ she says with a laugh. ‘We’re like children, you know?’

A small white van, its driver door left wide open, is parked in my usual spot. Dylan walks over, dwarfed by a lanky, sunburned man whose long red hair hasn’t quite reached the state of dreadlocks. Dylan introduces him as the van owner, explaining that the door ajar is a deliberate strategy to deter thieves. ‘They can see there’s nothing to steal, so they won’t bother to break in,’ says the newcomer, a Dutch man who introduces himself then laughs. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says, ‘no one can pronounce my name.’

‘We don’t know what to call him!’ says Dylan. ‘How about we give you an English name, something similar like Gerald?’

But the Dutch man frowns, shaking his head. ‘I don’t like that name.’ Inspired by his story of building a house in the Netherlands using “other people’s rubbish”, I begin to think of him as Stig, the character of a book I’d loved as a child called Stig of the Dump. I envision a house constructed from rotting, stinking landfill, but of course he means that he built it from recycling old building materials.

Stig and Dylan had met at a festival somewhere. Excited by Dylan’s description of the secluded Pyrenean valley with a reputation for live and let live, Stig has arrived on the lookout for somewhere to live himself. He jokes about building up his property portfolio, and at first I think he’s looking to buy something cheap, like Dylan and Anna. Before long I realise he squats in unoccupied barns. He’s here to look for something more comfortable than his other home in the neighbouring Aude, where the roof is collapsing.

Stig ends up moving into a tiny, cave-like house almost vertically above Dylan’s. Set into the hillside, it has a curved window fashioned from a recycled car windscreen. Locals refers to it as “Andy’s house”, Andy being a legendary English man admired for his strength, now living back in England. Stig declares it the most comfortable dwelling he’s had for years, charmed by its running water from a stream hose. He settles into a routine of filling the exterior bathtub in the morning, and by late afternoon it’s sufficiently warmed for an open-air soak.

More people turn up over the next few days, young travelers met at festivals and random people encountered in car parks; everyone welcome as labor to add flesh to the bones of the yurt. One night I walk up to see a row of them crammed into the barn’s kitchen, elbowing each other and squinting in the dark as they concoct a dinner from what they’ve salvaged earlier from a supermarket skip. Most days, as I return home from cycling among the English, I pass the van going the other way on what they call their “skipping” ritual. Every evening they pile into Dylan’s van and head for one of the supermarkets, slinking behind to the metal skips filled with discarded products. One of them keeps a lookout while the others rummage through food past its sell-by date. Tonight they proudly show off the smoked salmon they’ve salvaged.

I half imagine tagging along one evening. But I don’t want to come across as a voyeur, an outsider playing at their way of life. One evening, when I drop a piece of baguette and go to discard it, one of the girls grabs it from my fingers and puts it back on the table, saying, ‘No, it’s okay, it’s us.

The next day I lead Stig and a young Italian up through the forest to the high pastures, along paths dappled with sunlight and crunchy with acorn shells and a carpet of oak and beech leaves. The forest opens out to a glacial platform, deep-cleaved by a stream. Overshadowed by the long ridge of Trois Seigneurs, the plateau is dotted with a network of tiny stone huts. The largest hut has a tended vegetable patch and a washing line, but the smaller cabins are deserted.

A hundred years ago, this was the summer village of Goutets. These pastoral villages grew and declined with the rhythm of the population. Around the turn of the 18th–19th century, the extended family would bring their cows, sheep, pigs, goats and rabbits up here to spend the summer tending the animals, making butter and cheese, and growing vegetables and hay for winter.

We walk around squat cabins with traditional slate-covered apex roofs, a crude hole acting as chimney. Tiny hip-height square huts are topped with grassy-domed vault roofs. This type of hobbit-style hut, known as an orri, was designed for eating and sleeping. Other huts were built to house chickens and pigs, while those built over a stream served as basic fridges to chill the milk and butter.

Most of the huts are unlocked and I show Stig the old iron bed frame in one of them, still laid with a traditional mattress of dried ferns. He stretches his lanky frame along it, claiming it to be as comfortable as anything he has in his “houses”.

I’m cycling along one of the wider and sunnier river valleys towards the high ground, pedaling through a village where cafe tables, overshadowed by the bulky stone church, remain empty. As the road rises, my eye catches an unmistakably English symbol; two red St George’s crosses beaming out from white deckchairs. A British-registered car stands alongside what looks like a building plot. Lynn spots me looking and stops work, pleased to chat about the house-building project. She pulls the deckchairs away so that we can hear each other over the grind of the concrete mixer.

An estate agent had introduced Lynn and Steve to this corner of France. ‘We didn’t really know France very well, to be honest, but I speak a little French from school. We wanted quality of life, and to engage in French culture. We looked for somewhere with outdoor activities and skiing. And we wanted the weather.’

As the cement mixer whirrs, Lynn describes how they’re not like the other English who come to France. ‘We’re very ordinary, very working-class background. There’s no airs and graces about us; what you see is what you get.’ She’d felt some concern that the other English incomers might be the opposite, which is why she’d become excited to hear that the Ariège is “a very hippy area”. ‘I thought, yeah, this’ll probably suit us better. I’m not into pretentiousness.’ Lynn had hated the French classes she’d attended back in England. ‘All the other English people had been so pretentious, with their villas in the Dordogne. None of them had heard of the Ariège.’

Now it’s August the following year. Cycling past the house, I catch sight of Lynn outside a house with a shiny slate roof in place. The terracotta block walls, awaiting rendering, have been spray-painted with graffiti that shouts ‘Lynn and Steve welcome you to Valley Cottage’ to passing drivers. The English house name is repeated on a black metal name plate by the front door. But the house is already up for sale.

It turns out that Lynn had jumped the gun in recommending the quality of life in the Pyrenees before the concrete house foundations were even mixed. ‘We haven’t enjoyed the experience at all,’ she says. ‘We’ve had hardly any time off and we rarely go anywhere. And I miss English culture.’

Perhaps the deckchairs and the sprayed graffiti are a stab at class counter-culture, a statement of who they aren’t rather than who they are. Lynn and Steve don’t slot easily among the other middle-class incomers. Their house, standing grandly in the valley, has been brought down to earth with graffiti and an English name.

I turn to Steve, hoping for something more positive, but he looks gloomy.

‘Everything shuts down between twelve and two, you can’t do anything.’ That’s an underwhelming reason to move back to England, but living in a frozen-up caravan during an exceptionally harsh Pyrenean winter is what really ground them down to a point of no return. They are worn out and looking forward to moving back to the English Midlands.

‘You know, I did question whether I was doing the right thing last summer, because the three weeks we were here, we had six lovely days, and the rest it rained, torrential rain. I was gutted, because we were moving from somewhere where it rains every day.’ She pulls a face. ‘It was a case of oh my God, what am I coming to? Plus, there’s not an awful lot around, and when it’s miserable, it’s bloody miserable.’

As the temperatures dropped below minus 20, they’d been left to cope with no water or flushing toilet, and nowhere to empty the bucket, for almost two months. Without water access, in desperation Steve drank from the river, despite knowing that cows grazed on the opposite bank, and he contracted dysentery. But for Lynn the worst ever day was when 120 sheets of plasterboard arrived in the snow. They’d made a sledge out of pallets and rope, working until nighttime to get the plasterboard indoors.

‘We came here for the weather,’ she said. ‘We did it all wrong.’

I cycle back to my car and steel my nerves to drive up a route featured on a World’s most dangerous roads website. Starting from Couflens in the Salat valley, the road winds up to the Col de Pause, the end of the road for most drivers, although a track continues, twisting its way in a crazy fashion all the way up to the Spanish frontier at the Port d’Aula. The road was begun as an attempt to forge closer links with the Spanish, but the Spanish never completed their side. As I swing the steering wheel around single-track hairpins, there is nothing to stop the car from going over the edge.

In the near distance two men throw a sheep carcass into the back of a small truck and drive away. I pull into their tiny parking spot and get out to walk the rest of the way along the parallel GR10, a trans-Pyrenees walking trail. As the height increases, the panorama over the Salat valley and the endless ridges unfolds in a way that only a walker can truly appreciate. On foot I can also observe the small villages that the GR10 passes through, such as the narrow slate passageways at Faup, a village perched on a kind of natural balcony above the valley. The most spectacularly sited village of all–La Serre–has either begun its winter hibernation early or overslept. With shutters fastened tight, the village closes its eyes to the folds and hollows of the ridges and cirques of the vast glacial arena opposite.

The last few steps to the Col bring me face to face with the most conspicuous—although not the highest— Ariège mountain: Mont Valier, whose distinctive shoulders protect the Arcouzan glacier nestling a few hundred meters below the summit. I continue up the pastures to the top of Pic de Fonta for a panorama of the endless Pyrenean chain and the plains running north to Toulouse. There’s a startling rush of air as giant wings swoop over my head; forty or so griffon vultures, the vautor fauve, are circling around me on the thermals. Some swoop so low that I make out the distinctive white collar ruff and fanned-out flight feathers. They continue to circle me for the next hour or so, taking advantage of the rising updrafts to soar around looking for carrion.

These carnivorous scavengers, once endangered, have multiplied rapidly in France, with growing concerns about their increasingly aggressive nature and a fear that they are turning from scavenger to predator. That means targeting live animals, not just carrion, with an added undercurrent of a potential serious risk to humans. A few years ago, the body of a woman hiker was found an hour or so after she had fallen whilst walking in the Pyrenees near Larrau. By that time the body had been stripped of flesh. Only her bones, clothes and shoes lay there; everything else had disappeared with the vultures.

Dylan, Anna, Stig and I all leave the Ariège on the same October day and I never see any of them again. The completed yurt sits on its platform, superficially solid yet vulnerable to the approaching snowfall. Dylan admits he’s tempted to overwinter here, looking down on a white world in isolation. But the yurt has used up most of their money and he needs to go back to London to pick up more work.

Stig has also been drawn in to the romanticism of a solitary Pyrenean winter, talking about fetching a car-load of books back from the Netherlands to see him though the long months up in Andy’s house. But in the end common sense prevails; for a start, the “running water” that has so charmed him would spend the entire season frozen solid.

Dylan, Anna and the toddler climb into their van, while Stig and I share a last coffee. I’d come to shadow the English incomers, but I’d unexpectedly found myself drawn to what Stig now calls “our little community”. We’re an unconventional mix, but that, along with our acceptance of each other’s ways, is what makes it precious.

We’ll keep in touch, we say, knowing, deep down, how unlikely it is that our worlds will merge. Stig stoops to return my hug, his musty ginger locks swinging around my face as I breathe in the scent of smoke, and a hundred what ifs buzz around my mind.

Michelle Lawson is an English writer/lecturer whose study of English settlers in the French Pyrenees is published as a travel narrative: A house at the end of the track: Travels Among the English in the Ariège Pyrenees. A sense of place permeates much of her work, including her latest project: a collection of short stories.

When Michelle isn’t writing or teaching Applied Linguistics, she could be halfway up a Pyrenean mountain or riding a bus around rural Ukraine.


Twitter: @MichelleL_Dr