The mills were shut or demolished

CHARLES ROBERTS Sunday was a special date in the French calendar. It was one of those national days when all are encouraged to remember their heritage and their Frenchness.


Sunday was a special date in the French calendar. It was one of those national days when all are encouraged to remember their heritage and their Frenchness.

Sunday's contribution was . . . mills. Among the old-fashioned wind and water mills, there was even one mill which drove a generator. This produces enough electricity to power one whole 40-watt bulb. Wow, impressive! The turbines live in a mill as eccentric as its owners. You approach it down an ultra-narrow, steeply angled lane. The lower you get into the mill valley, the more you have intimations of crocodiles and trickles of tropical sweat.

The two propriétaires don't appear to notice. Madame keeps guard at the front door. Monsieur launches into millpond depths of description and detail, totally immersed in the most passionate subject of his life. The fact that in reality he presides over decay, debris and decline quite passes him by.

We're already behind schedule, and announce our departure. I drive up the dizzy lane with a quick prayer to the Almighty that he'll delay anyone about to set off on the descent. He hears me. (Do prayers work? Discuss!)

We already have directions for the next leg of our journey. "Won't take you long. Just a few miles cross country."

Most Read

I drive along rural lanes which serpentine, twist and turn, then swirl up an incline so steep that I can't see over the bonnet of my car. At one point we are skimming across a plateau, with nothing in view except us. Even the clouds have sped. The journey, I'll swear, seemed to take two hours. If not, it was surely one.

When we get to the village we're aiming for, there's a final little labyrinth of lanes. We park, walk a few hundred yards and come to what looks like a 1960s holiday camp - to the questioning surprise of a happy little lady, who is airily cooking a vast dish of paella.

It was, she said, for an afternoon event.

So we ask about the water mill, and where is it exactly? "Oh, my husband demolished it last year." Strange that only on Saturday did the local paper carry a listing showing all nine mills open on Sunday to the public in the Vienne.

Among them were the mill premises where I now sit gulping a cold beer - and which promised guided tours, home-made stone-ground flour; the "hooking" of fish destined to go directly to the kitchen and the client's plate, in that order; and not least, the dilettante delights of Guinguette.

OK, this was all very good training for understanding the French. But it was another mill erased from my list. A fourth one was suggested. Fine, one last try! But no more.

We arrived at length at a house-cum-restaurant tucked away at the side of a large van. The gates, and everything about the place, indicated Closed, with a capital C.

As we were about to leave, two cars turned up and the palatial gates were opened . . . for about three minutes. "But look here, yesterday's newspaper said the restaurant was open all day Sunday."

"Yes, it is. But today is a feast day for the parish. Villagers who would normally come here will be at the fête. So we closed. But we open again at 2.30." It was 12.30. We contemplated the thought of whiling away two full hours, and found it wanting. I, the ardent Francophile, was getting increasingly tetchy.

"Let's go into the nearest town and find a decent brasserie". "Done," came the response. Being Sunday, and a sunny Sunday at that, the town was full. Likewise the principal brasserie on the square. But within a satisfyingly short time a table became free. We settled under a soothing umbrella. All seemed to be going well.

A glance at a neighbouring table revealed the favourite dish of the day: peppered roast beef and gratin Dauphinois, that delectable combination of thinly sliced potatoes cooked in cheese. It looked good.

It took a while to order, but that gave time to look around and "people watch". Or more accurately, "people listen". At a large table nearby was a gathering of large Brits, with large voices and larger laughs.

The rule seemed to be that he (or she) who had just cracked the last mega-joke should lead the appreciation. A table of Germans, Dutch and two stunningly beautiful honey skinned girls, kept notably low key throughout.

At last our food arrived and, yes, it looked delicious. Pity that my beef was tough as prime leather, and my Dauphinois so tooth resistant as to be uneatable.

Alas, not the best of mornings.