Sunday, March 26, 2023

What Century are we in?

Thursday mornings I meet up with a group of women that walk. We walk the hills and dales, forest and river banks of our small corner of the Perigord Vert. Each week Sara, our clever leader, plots out a circuit and off we go like spunky puppies. We jabber away, getting ahead, getting behind, stopping every now and then to be sure we are heading in the right direction. Public pathways spiderweb all of France and have done so forever. You could walk from here to any corner of France if you wanted to by following yellow-topped sign posts. Sara doesn’t stick to just the sign posted trails. She has a talent for connecting pathways and country lanes to create her own circuits. Every week is a different walk and yet every now and then we may be crossing where we have been before. Our territory is small, but there’s something new to see, or maybe be seen differently, on every walk.

One day I stopped jabbering enough to notice a bright green badge, the Chemin Harrison Barker, just under one of the yellow markers.

The pilgrimage path of Saint-Jacques-de Compostelle passes through this area, but who is this Harrison Barker and why is there a pathway named for him?

Like so many of my questions about life in the Dordogne the answer soon appeared in the local newspaper, the SudOuest. I found an article about a recently republished book by an Englishman named Edward Harrison Barker. Harrison was accomplished in geography, geology, botany and had a penchant for writing and wandering in south-western France. 

Turns out H. Barker walked right past my house here in Bourdeilles — in 1893.  

His travel journal, titled Two Summers in Guyenne - Journal of a Voyage Along the Dordogne, was originally published in London in 1894.  Long out of print, it was recently rediscovered and republished by local history buffs. What I love about this narrative is that his experiences from 1893 are so similar to the sights and emotions that I experience walking in our amazing Perigord Vert now in 2023. 

Here is a sketch of what Barker has to say in the chapter Perigueux to Riberac. (we are only joining him as far as Bourdeilles)

Leaving behind the city of Perigueux I head up dusty farm roads towards the nearby tiny city of Brantôme. The first views of Brantôme are from above and I am struck by the verdant green river valley where it seems springtime is eternal. It’s as if the little village is charmed by the grace and elegance of its poetic and romantic setting. Following a gentle descent I arrive on the edges of this small city. The road passes along the banks of the Dronne River gurgling under the ancient Abbey and through the medieval village. I take a moment to admire the abbey from the dog-leg bridge, a thing of fantasy with a fanciful turreted Renaissance pavilion at its entry. It feels like Shakespearean characters could appear dressed of old and telling tales of love. Time here has stopped in the 1500’s. Where I am standing has nothing to do with the 19th century. At dinner today I met an eccentric man that showed me his farm of pheasants. Except it is not a proper farm. The pheasants are nesting and wandering in every room of his old and grand house. As the moon rises we go down the road to see the largest and best preserved dolmen I’ve seen in southern France. It’s with a bit of reluctance that the next morning I left the charms of Brantome to head downstream along the valley of the Dronne River. The road passes under the shadows of impressive rock cliffs carved out by the river. Suddenly there in the distance appears a massive, dark tower. Here is the village of Bourdeilles. One of the best examples of feudalism in the Perigord as well as one of the most picturesque because of the strong contrast of the somber tower to the cool, peaceful beauty of the green valley below. There is an elegant promenade lined with shade trees where villagers can walk and visit. The formalness seems a bit strange as the village has clearly seen better days and they are down to about 1000 inhabitants and houses are shuttered and empty. I continued down through the village passing past the miller’s houses and over the charming, heavy gothic bridge. I love how many of the bridges in the region have one angular side to decrease resistance during a flood. Continuing down river I can see the defensive towers of the grand house Étourneau. The view on the valley opens up and the fields are filled with the joy and the light of summer. 

This is a dolman.

sunrise on the tower

Harrison Barker headed on up the same lanes and paths that we will cross on our Thursday walks. Literally the only visible difference will be a sprinkling of new houses and maybe a paved road instead of a mud path leading through a farm yard. Another big difference is that instead of meeting up with local folks along the way like H Barker often did, now a days the hamlets will be silent and the few farmers we see will be encased in noisy, unapproachable tractors. I’d like to have met some of those colorful characters and to have heard their stories about life around here. Thank goodness for Harrison Barker and his gift of observation and the journal stories he left behind to give us a snapshot of times gone by.

le manoir d'Étourneau

Now it’s time to head off and take a walk through the beauty of spring being offered up today.

Edward Harrison Barker. Deux étés en Guyenne  Journal de voyage au fil de la Dordogne 1892- 1893.  published by FANLAC


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this great story, Susan!

Kathie K said...

How I wish I could walk with you!

Jim Lengel said...

Yes, Susan, Bourdeilles has not changed much since Harrison visited. I can sit on my front stoop on the rue de l’Eglise, and see nothing that was built after the 18th century. No cars, no telephone wires, no asphalt, no modern buildings. And we want to thank you, Susan. You have given Kathi and me a good idea as to what to do with the abandoned house on the Grande Rue. We’re going to import some pheasants, and let them ply their trade in the house and in the garden. Perhaps it will draw tourists. Or pilgrims.