a village i once visited…

by pasdelabas

The setting

From the eastern Mediterranean coast the territory covered by the department of the Aude reaches inland for about 80km, initially across a broad plain of arid land which rises steeply to the south into the Pyrenees and to the north the Black Mountains. It is cut by the Aude river which travels beyond the last outpost of the department to reach Toulouse where it is joined to the watershed to the Altantic by the Canal du Midi. Carcassone is the capital city, houses the Prefecture and it is located on the banks of the Aude at the foot of the Black Mountains. The population is thinly spread across the region apart from Narbonne towards the coast and Carcassonne inland on the river which have populations of over 50,000. Other towns are considerably smaller with Limoux, one of the sub-prefectures having only 10,000 inhabitants. The journey from the airport at Carcassonne is known to many British migrants. While others in Alaigne who work, shop or take leisure in Carcassonne might not know the route to the airport specifically, it is the same journey. The road leaves the outskirts of the city where the hypermarkets are located quickly and travels a straight line east through vineyards, below the A61 autoroute, past the site of a miracle attributed to St Dominic and on towards Montreal, a small town of a couple of thousand inhabitants. The road has now risen slightly and as the road bears south leaving Montreal when the weather is clear an astounding view appears of the green foothills with the high ranges of the Pyrenees clear in the distance as if some trick of the light were bringing them right into the eye. Turning south again the route passes fields of cereal before bearing west through Belveze du Razes, population of just over 750 and home to the now defunct railway line linking to Mirepoix, an important market town further west. The road heads south again, rising gradually until beyond fields of vines the church tower and cluster of houses of Alaigne is seen. The road dips then approaches, climbing gently, from the south.

To the right a few houses, a road to the left and a set of farm buildings. The road turns west and unmistakably the Town Hall is up on the right. Suddenly the centre of the village appears to be there. A junction ahead with an alley of plane trees sheltering a broad two level residential avenue to the south and a narrower, two level road ahead to the west. This is bordered to the south by a terrace of high houses on the upper road. There is maybe a group of men siting up there who will look to see if they recognise the person driving through. On the lower road the bar may be open, people sitting on a terrace on the other side of the lower road next to a restored weigh station building. Beyond this there are large metal holders for carboard boxes to be stored, gaz bottles to be held and bins. Opposite is the shop, open every day from early. It is probable that you will slow down whether you know someone or not, cars may be pulled up, people crossing the road.

This is Alaigne, population of 333 in 2006. This point of arrival in the village is only part of the village as it really is of course. The village is a circulade, a village founded in the early medieval period and that developed around a central fortified building. The defenses were circular hence the larger village grew in the ruins of these forming more or less imperfect circular roads and terraced, three story buildings punctuated by formal gates in massive stone. Further complexity was added by the persistence of the moat in some spots into living memory. The fortified building at the heart of this has long since disappeared and a round place is in its place, bordered by the Church to the south and domestic housing all around. The place, which is the central point in the village had been recently restored when I arrived with a formal Empire period fountain at its heart. The Post Office is here along with the soon to be defunct bakery.

Although it might appear to be the centre of the village, the road with the bar and the shop lies on the northern side of the circulade, the Town Hall frontage forming one of the tangent that shoot off, in this case to the north-east back towards Carcassonne. There are other areas on all sides of the circulade that have grown. To the south east, beyond the avenue of planes that run along the eastern stretch of the filled in moat, is a comparatively large area of new housing, the lotisments and beyond them a residential center for people with a demanding autism. To the south west lie lanes running a short distance to the cemetery, bordered by a stone wall and tall cypresses. Beyond that farm tracks lead through vineyards to the higher grassland and hills beyond, the Pic, the local beauty spot. The north west is more dispersed with some farm buildings, store yards, gardens before running down to the valley to the west where a small seasonal stream runs from beyond the Pic.

There is the sound of children’s voices that come from the Town Hall which shares its space with the local primary school. The same sound is infrequent once school is closed because there are few children living in the village proper, maybe as few as 10, with some in the tangential houses. The village is often quiet, very quiet. It had once a far greater population so there is a lot of space and many of the houses appear closed. Those people who are out are often older, in their 60s and upwards. There are younger people of course but the dominance is with an older population. 30% of the population is over 60 a similar proportion under 30. Nearly two thirds of the people here lived in the commune five years ago and only 13% come from outside the department in the same period.

French is spoken with a recognisable regional accent which has, the more you learn, roots in an intensely local, village based, dialect of Occitan. The population of the village has risen over the past twenty years by 15% or so. This might, if we knew it, be held as an account for the fact that the village bar is called the Café Galloise and is run by an Anglo-Welsh couple, themselves in their 50s. It might be an account of the 30 or so British and Irish people who have taken up residence in the village over the previous eight or nine years, some full time, around 20 and others more casual in their occupation. Another figure might be an account of this migration with only 300 of the population of the 333 being included in a tax return. The migrants themselves are, by and large, older with many of retirement age or seeking a form of early retirement.

104 people are counted as having a job who live in the village of which one out of three is not officially salaried but half of these have ‘jobs for life’ in the public services or other permanent posts. Of those with salaried posts over a quarter are part time employees accounting for more than half of the women working. Of the 104 with jobs over half work in the commune itself. There is not a sense of business in Alaigne except perhaps when the sun is up and the bar is in full swing or on winter evenings when there is music and crowds can gather outside the bar. Then however the business is one of amusement, of those involved and of those observing, they are few that work at this business. But when the bar is busy the de-centered centre of the village can appear busy, even crowded at times while the rest of the village remains largely quiet.

The village had always been regulated by the agricultural cycle and even now large machinery will pass through the village at harvest time particularly when large consignments of wheat or grapes will be pulled though by tractor, or mechanical grape harvesters pass through. For some this is still the measure of the year but the numbers employed in agriculture is now strictly limited. There are two active farms in the village proper, both largely vineyards and a dozen or so farms outside the village in the wider commune, each farm employing generally one farm labourer at most. For some life is perhaps regulated by the journey to work outside the village, some in public service, some in shops and other commences. These too number few. For some, life could appear to be regulated by a journey to the airport, their stay in the village being punctuated by journeys back to the UK.

The weather is perhaps the greatest commonality that draws these cycles together. The warmth and the sun bring everyone outside to a greater or lesser extent. It can be bitterly cold but clear skies can warm the village even in winter. In summer it is usually hot whilst remaining generally temperate, something seen in the increasing ground cover from deciduous trees and dense scrub on the hill sides. Alaigne is a quiet village in all appearances. It’s architecture given a certain formality by the structure of the circulade with the oddity and complexity of the form tempered by older and more recent civic works.

Village houses.

The houses vary in size and in form as well as age. The older houses that form the terraces of the circulade have their walls in the fortifications and have indeterminate dates from the medieval period on. They are nearly all modernised to the standards of the 1950s at the least with electricity, mains water and drainage all connected. The internet is less common although increasingly so. Many of these houses have entrances at the front and back with the frontages often having been commercial or agricultural at one time. Towards the cemetery the lane is lined with older houses as well and some once active farm buildings. The area of new housing is varied with however an evident and angled structure to the road layout which alone makes it feel more modern. The newer houses themelves are all detached with some garden. Many of the houses in the circulade are actually small inside with no garden space at all. Car ownership is general although a certain element of the older population do depend on younger people with cars to bring them in and out of the village. There is no bus route through the village and no rail link nearby. There is no one who has ‘never left the village’ and they are not infrequent those who have spent many years away.

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