We had a light sprinkling of snow overnight and a superb Sunday afternoon. Failing the opportunity to garden, I took a walk down the valley, past the monument to Châtillon-sur-Saône’s most famous son, Jan Monchablon (of whom more later) to the old village lavoir.
Many reading will know that lavoirs (or communal outdoor washing areas) were the norm in France before water was piped into each home. There have been volumes of photography published on the subject, so beautiful can they be architecturally. Even our rather impoverished, backwoods area of Lorraine/Haute Saône/Haute Marne boasts some very fine examples.
It took me about 15 minutes to walk down to the village lavoir from where I live in the old village. Much of this along muddy, woodland paths.
Although a beautiful and easy walk in the winter sunlight, what would have this been like if I’d been carrying a basket of my family’s washing?
Most French lavoirs are fairly central in the village, where there was also a good source of spring water. Not so in Châtillon.
I’m guessing that this is due to the fact the old village stands astride a ridge (this geography ensured its historic importance as a kind of garrison town for the Dukes of Bar, and then Lorraine, in the medieval and Renaissance periods).
There must have been no reliable source of spring water located in the village itself, and so those poor women had to toil all the way down through the woods with their heavy baskets.
During the fêtes or musée vivants in the village – and particularly in August at the Fête de la Renaissance – a small group of dancers and a fiddle-playing friend of mine (backed up by me, on flute) play a dance called ‘Les Lavandières’ (the washerwomen).
It’s pretty sprightly, a bit like the weaving tunes from the Hebrides and Scottish islands, and involves a lot of hand-clapping and stamping to emphasise the rhythm (as well as some finger wagging to symbolise, of course, the fact that women are the world’s worst gossips). Gradually it picks up speed, becoming faster and faster; everyone is supposed to be breathless by the end.
There are different versions of ‘Les Lavandières’ from all over France (as you’d expect of a folk dance). Let’s hope that the Vosgien version was originally performed a little slower, because if I’d been a woman living at Châtillon in the nineteenth century, I can’t imagine how I’d have found the energy to dance after walking all the way down to the lavoir and back with my washing. But they were made of sterner stuff in those days.
I was disappointed to discover on Wikipedia that there may be no connection between the plant, lavender, and the lavoir. The name implies that there is, because its root seems to be from the Latin verb to wash, lavare. Plants that have woven themselves into the fabric of our lives over the centuries are fascinating: little photosynthesising scraps of history, as familiar to our great, great, great grandmothers as they are to us.
But Wikipedia tells me that this little theory on the etymology of ‘lavender’ might be false. Some persist with the association, however. I discovered a lady on the net today who advises people to put a few drops of lavender oil in the fabric softener compartment of their washing machine to keep away the moths.
You’ll have to come to Châtillon in August for a demonstration of how they did their washing then – wood ashes feature more than anything as deliciously smelly as lavender.
Certainly in England there’s an old tradition of hanging your sheets out to dry over lavender hedges, both for the scent and for the antiseptic/moth deterrent value. Wish I had enough lavender to try it out! Do you have some lavender lore to share?
Just beyond the lavoir is a sandstone quarry that has been worked for over 200 years.
Walking through the forest and suddenly encountering the two little fish of Châtillon’s arms carved onto those towering walls made me think of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. Do you remember the bit where Susan, Peter, Lucy and Edmund suddenly find themselves back in their kingdom years after they have departed – and everything is in ruin?
On my way around the top of the valley I passed (twice, it’s not a circular walk) the monument to landscape artist Jan Monchablon (1854 – 1904). He was born here and returned to the village with his wife in later life. His house still stands on the ridge to the left in the photograph, although not visible in my picture.
His paintings were sold in the States at around the same time as Renoir was being marketed there – and occasionally fetched considerably more than a Renoir. Those were the days when the Impressionists were considered simply to be artists who didn’t know how to paint.
I thought it would be fun to include a reproduction of one of his paintings made from the approximate viewpoint of my photograph above. You can see that the woodland (which is owned by the French state) is badly managed and beginning to encroach these days.
The quality here is not too hot, but I’m particularly fond of the painting to the left because the viewpoint is from the garden terraces just along from my own garden. And when I look out in spring it really does look like this (except not so blurry!).
All those little tidy squares of veggie gardens, lovingly tended by their owners. But the grassy area by the river (where there are now sheep grazing) seems so much larger and less wooded.
Back at home there were cheering things stirring. Catkins on hazels thinking about opening …
And my tiny little woodland garden (on a hot slope). Hellebores and snowdrops just beginning to please. It’s a surprise that we are later than some other gardening bloggers, since we face due south and catch lots of sun (if there is any).
My little patch of Helleborus niger is fairly pristine this year and is beginning to flower properly for the first time.
The best surprise was what I think must be a self-sown H. orientalis flowering at the edge of a purple-flowered plant’s little mound of leaves. My experience is that self-sown hellebores are usually rather wishy-washy pinks.
But this is something to brag about. Or maybe I purchased and planted it two years ago and am quite simply as muddled as our seasons?
I’m planning on writing a little more about the special village where I live in the winter weeks ahead. Meanwhile you could always have a look at the village’s website if you are interested. And there’s always my own potted history on my old Garden Dreaming blog at Weebly.