This week I have embraced slow travel. In fact I have stopped. The place is the étang de Chaumont, in the commune of Soligny-la-Trappe, in le Perche, Orne (61).
The étang is a pretty lake. At one end is the dam with the road to the abbey, just around the corner, to which it belongs. On the eastern side is a wood of pine, fir, birch and beech (pins, sapins, bouleaux, hêtres), lined with gorse (ajoncs) along the bank. All afternoon and in the evening, it is sprayed with sunlight, and its reflections on the lake. It must smell delightful in summer, but there is no warmth to the air. The southern side, tree-lined, is a dam that separates it from a twin lake. The western side is lined with trees, and at this time of year you can see from across the lake a field, and the forest beyond. In this sunny but cool March day, the light is crisp.
On the lake, grebes and ducks (grèbes huppés et canards colverts) are feeling spring coming. You can hear the traffic from the route départementale D930 just above, and the rumbling of planes. In the evening, song-thrushes (grives musiciennes), black birds (merles) and robins (rouge-gorges). And geese from time to time (bernaches). Several times a day and no matter the time of year, ring the bells of the abbey.
There are signs saying “Etang privé, Baignade interdite, Chiens tenus en laisse” (Private lake, bathing forbidden, dogs held on a lead). Baignade is a word for which I can’t find an exact English equivalent. It is not quite “swimming”, too sporty, nor “bathing”, too hygienic, nor a “dip”, too quick. Maybe baignades are part of French joie de vivre. Where they are not forbidden, of course.
There is a path all around the lake, and picnic tables. At first you think you go to them, as the gate is closed and under lock. But it is only to prevent access to motor vehicles; walkers can go around and find two convenient passings over the down-trodden fence. We call these diverticules, not quite détours, just informal tracks going around an obstacle, a trunk or a fence. This is technically trespassing, but nobody minds. Anything that isn’t explicitly forbidden is allowed, in France. And even sometimes, when it is forbidden but harmless, it is accepted.
Walkers are not an issue. Angling, however, is strictly controlled. On the panneau d’informations, a sign in red shouts that fishing carp and sturgeon from the road is forbidden: La pêche à la carpe et à l’esturgeon sont interdits le long de la route. If you want to fish, you need a card: Tout pêcheur doit être muni de sa carte valable pour trois lignes – a card allows three lines. The whole règlement (seven articles), as well as the arrêté municipal (five articles; a decision by the mayor, who makes local law, validated by the préfecture) are pinned up too. The lake is regularly re-stocked with trouts. The lake preserves its raison d’être: the mediaeval monks dug it in order to have a ready supply of fish for Fridays.
There is a little bit of littering, mainly along the road. People come here on their lunch breaks or after work, for a peaceful break. About half don’t get out of their cars. Others come to walk their dog around the lake; it is clearly a place the locals enjoy. The dogs I have seen were not on leads, by the way. As long as they are well-behaved, who cares about that silly sign? A man I speak to comes here to take refuge from radiations; he spent the first lockdown (confinement) living in his camper-van in the woods. He tells me the only man he saw during that period was the forester, delighted he had the forest to himself!
Choosing to live away from cities, mediaeval monks have shaped the landscape around here. They would clear forests, dig lakes, convert new lands to farming. Different orders would compete for influence, the ownership of land and wealth, as well as for souls. A vale which used to be called Val-du-Diable (Vale of the Devil) is now Valdieu (Vale of God); that’s quite a transformation !
The abbey around the corner from étang de Chaumont, Notre-Dame-de-la-Trappe, is the original Trappist abbey. This is where in the seventeenth century, the abbot Rancé forged stricter rules for monks to live by.
The shop sells religious and spiritual books, candles, but also beauty and health products and local produce. Cider and apple juice, fruit pastes and jams, as well as jars of charcuteries: rillettes, pâtés, stews, tripes. Outside, there is a spring where you can fill your bottles. No, actually, you can’t. It still freezes at night, so the pipe must have been shut.
Around here, the rolling hills of Perche are a pleasant mix of woods (Forêt du Perche, de Longny, de Réno-Valdieu, de Bellême, de Saussay, bois de Chérencey, de Voré) and of pastures, orchards and fields. The landscape is imbued with religiosity, with the white body of Christ on wooden crosses at crossroads, and abbeys, chapels, churches dotted around. The traditional houses are cream, with bricks lining prettily the doors and windows.
In many ways this place is not special, but it could be nowhere else but France. Deep France.