Saturday, 27 December 2014

And the trumpets sounded on the other side

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," Keats wrote of autumn, and though by December the French countryside is bereft of fruitfulness, the mist is still here, close and grey and dampening.

At ten to eight in the morning our little group of walkers met by the mairie, under the stumpy pollards and the yellow glare of the streetlight. The forecast was not good; fog, fog, fog. There had been fog on the road driving into the village, so that we had to drive hard up against the verge, following the pale boundary of tarmac and withered grass in the headlights, and the mist seemed to be crystallising above the trees, so that the sky was hidden from us, and the world collapsed into a claustrophobic cocoon of grey.

We were paralysed. Should we set out, and risk motorway fog? Should we choose another walk? What would we do if it got worse? There was checking of forecasts, and checking of GPS, and swapping of mobile phone numbers, and no one was willing to risk saying yes or no. But in the end we went, as the mist lightened. Somewhere, but not here, the sun was shining; here, the mist was glowing, but it never cleared.

At Heurteauville nothing stirred. The bar windows were dusty, the doors firmly shut, a "for sale" notice barely visible in the dull light. The ramp down to the car ferry was empty; we could not see or hear the boat. Eventually, someone found out that we had arrived during the morning break in service. There was nothing to do but sit in the car, or pace the quayside trying to keep warm in the chill damp.

A boat passed. We heard the muffled growl of its engines long before it was visible, and the fog was so thick we couldn't see its whole length, only the blunt, dark prow cleaving the water, and then the long dark line of its side, and then silence, except for the slap of its wake against the concrete landing ramp.

We waited. A single light shone faintly far off, a pallid yellow that stained the white of the fog. I say 'far off'; it felt very distant, but we had no way of telling how far. At last we heard the chug of a motor, and the light divided; a light on the far quay, and a light on the ferry, that angled its way across the current towards us. (And that current was fast, and swirling, and evil.)

We drove through Jumieges, past the two great towers of the ruined abbey barely visible behind high walls; we turned up from the river road into the hills, and parked where a green lane ran off into the forest. Dull red cows turned to look at us, then lowered their heads again to the dank grass.

Mist in a forest is lovely. It turns everything to Japanese calligraphy or sumi-e, with blurred silhouettes and a muted palette of greys and browns, like sepia brushed on to slightly wet paper.

The nearest trees stood dark against the low sun; but further off, the serried trunks faded into grey, and only a sudden blaze of russet bracken enlivened the scene.

In the heart of the forest stands a small chapel, by a junction of grassy ways. Generations of passers-by have cut their initials on the soft chalky stone of the walls; inside, two shelves carried religious statuettes with all the banality of a small collection of garden gnomes or a lifetime's supply of souvenirs from Great Yarmouth. The square stone reservoir close by was almost empty; a single walking boot balanced precariously on its rim.

We came down eventually out of the forest, and on to the road that runs straight as an arrow along the bank of the river, turning back toward where we'd started. The other bank of the Seine was invisible; it was as if we were walking along the edge of the known world. Above us, white chalk cliffs were topped by dark grey trees, dissolving into the mist.

Down in the fields below the cliff, a single tree stood out, its huge limp leaves yellow in the grey. Dogs raced through a field towards us, barking. We'd stuck together in the woods, but now we were strung out along the road, one or two striding out way in front, others dawdling to take pictures, or chatting, or simply trudging along the tarmac. Cars whipped past, headlghts still on at one in the afternoon. In one of the orchards by the road stood a tiny  derelict half-timbered house where a wicked fairy must have lived, surrounded by stunted and lightning-blasted trees and tangles of briar.

A boat passed us, quite invisible in the mist. The sun shone straight ahead of us, diffusing its light through the banks of low cloud and fog. One one side the fields and cliffs and forest, on the other side of the concrete wall with its iron bollards, nothing but the sound of the boat's engines, the wake slapping the shore, a couple of swans in the shallow water. A solitary navigation lamp on its concrete pillar would have made a fine vantage point, had there been anything to see, but the ladder up to the top was missing, and the light was off.

After lunch, in a restaurant just off the main road, in a low, slanted room under heavy oak beams - and a good lunch it was, too - the path headed back up, zigzagging up the cliff through damp ferns and over slushy fallen leaves. The mist was finally beginning to clear; rays of sun slashed through the forest, cold light in our eyes, and suddenly the bracken was aflame with colour. As we came down to the village of Le Mesnil sous Jumieges, the sky cleared, to a deep, clear blue shot through with crinkled contrails and sharp edges of cloud; yet down in the valley, the Seine was still hidden by drifting mists.
In one of the orchards here, a drift of drying, brown apples surrounded a leafless tree; here in Normandy the trees are still ancient, high trees for the most part, not the low-slung trees preferred where mechanical pickers are used, and many of the farms still make traditional cider.

This was an atmospheric day; our risk ofthe morning had turned out well. We strode on, past Saint-Philibert's church, past Agnes Sorel's manor, with its fine Gothic window and a small wellhouse, on through open fields and orchards and past incurious cows and bedraggled horses, and as we did, the day delivered its final surprise, a sunset of
velvety texture and impressive fieriness that glowed like embers under the soft grey roiling of high cloud.

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