It seems we’re to have a crocodile park

CHARLES ROBERTS It all began for me, two or three years ago, when I'd been out on a wintery promenade. The aim was nothing more than a chance, at leisure, to acquaint myself with a village which, if not unique, has to be extremely rare.

CHARLES ROBERTS

It all began for me, two or three years ago, when I'd been out on a wintery promenade. The aim was nothing more than a chance, at leisure, to acquaint myself with a village which, if not unique, has to be extremely rare.

I ended up enjoying a cup of coffee in his office with Monsieur le Maire of Civaux, Hervé Jaspard, and a lively introduction from that gentleman to his central passion in life: his village.

What is your next big project? I inquired. He paused, looked me straight in the eye, and replied:


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“To build a 350-hectare Crocodile Park.” I began to laugh, which was an error. A look like that of a full colonel taking to task a mere captain silenced me in a moment.

The park enterprise came together slowly, largely through the intervention of bad weather. Last week, press and public were afforded a progress report. Having blamed the weather for the hold-ups, the details were revealed.

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Building piles, for example, have been driven down 10 to 12 metres, to reach convenient underground stone layers, which in turn will be followed by a concrete base which will carry the framework of the building.

All this will be in place by April. The public opening is expected to take place in spring 2008. That will herald the appearance of around 200 crocs, with an expected 130,000 to 150,000 visitors to see them.

But the glass dome itself will play a key role. It will not only be a zoological park. Visitors will come to see the caimans and other gavials (long Indian crocodiles). People will be guided through tours, in brief, depicting the five continents where the crocodile clans live out their lives. On then to Africa Noire, to the village and to the meeting tree, the arbre à palabre.

To Egypt, which we enter through a temple, planted on the edge of the Nile. Under this same dome, you encounter elephant skeletons, totems, vegetables more or less luxuriant; and a great deal more.

But to return to the practical present. Church, houses, streets, all are in meticulous order. Not a spot of litter to be seen. And why? Because the village has a considerable income from the adjoining nuclear power station, whose land the commune owns.

The village sits comfortably, even elegantly, around its church, a considerable chunk of which was built in the sixth century AD. On one side, calm in the shade of plane trees, there are Roman remains which are even older.

Now look to the right - and looming over you is the power station and its cooling towers. How, one wondered, did these two entities come together?

I went first for an answer to the grande dame of the village, a venerable lady whom time has touched only lightly. She was born here in Civaux, and lives in the fine house which was built by her great-grandparents.

When the power station was proposed, was there much opposition? I asked. Her response was serene and unarguable. It was General de Gaulle who first suggested the building of power stations throughout the land. “If the General said it was right, then it was good enough for me. I was one of the first to sign when the village was asked to vote.”

As soon as all the legal processes were in hand, the chosen site of between 300 and 400 hectares - which happened to belong to the commune - meant that a whole parcel of local taxes to the completed project could be imposed.

A small village in France might generally tot up to about e200 per head per year. Civaux's total is a staggering e4,900 (about £3,350).

When the money started to come in, it began at once to be pumped into village restoration projects. The village asked for a top grade swimming pool. It not only got one, smartly, but received a small, exclusive balneotherapy pool.

Before nuclear power came, Civaux was a dying village, with a large elderly population. There's now a growing number of children, who are taught in a handsome new school, funded and created by Monsieur Jaspard and his colleagues.

Now another big venture is moving forward in an exciting adventure with the Jaspard touch.

t Postscript: Yesterday, Monday, I was putting the finishing touches to this article - while listening to the TV news headlines. Could I have heard correctly? That a 3-4ft long croc had found its way into the deep end of somebody's swimming pool? Talk about nature aping art!

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