Sicard’s First Excursion dans les Hautes-Corbières: Camps-sur-l’Agly   Leave a comment

The Sciences, back in the early 1900’s were exciting. SESA (La Société des Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude) was determined to be modern : it broke away from its conservative parent, la Société des Arts et des Sciences de Carcassonne (1836 > ), was open to all classes of people, and encouraged women to join.  Its weekend excursions to nearby sites with groups of botanists and amateur archaeologists were immediately popular.

Venturing into Les Hautes Corbières was a different matter. There would be no M. le Maire to welcome them off the charabanc, with adequate hostelleries and a grand repas with abundant wine and speeches and toasts to round off the weekend. Germain Sicard’s invitation had come from Mme Landriq, institutrice à Camps-sur-l’Agly, a tiny village off the road near Les Gorges de Galamus. I have friends who have lived here for most of their lives – and they don’t know where Camps is.

Sicard’s description is unsparing: ‘Camps est un pauvre village de 157 habitants, il en a eu 250. On voit dans son enceinte de nombreuses ruines. C’est un endroit isolé, sans communications d’aucune sorte, sauf par la poste et le téléphone ; il est dépourvu de toutes ressources, les habitants le quittent peu à peu, les sangliers prennent possession de ces pays abandonnés’.

But Mme Landriq was an active correspondent to both SESA and to la Société Préhistorique de France (SPF) in Paris – and she had found some dolmens. And that was enough to fire the curiosity of the elderly Germain Sicard (twice President of SESA) and his great friend Antoine Fages (treasurer of SESA, and one of the first to discover the dinosaur bones at Couiza) who set off at 3 pm from Carcassonne station, on Monday 17th April 1922.

The excursion was ill-fated: the weather was against them from the start. But Sicard’s account is wryly understated and uncomplaining. I suspect that he had read Jerome K. Jerome’ s ‘Trois Hommes dans un Bateau (sans parler du chien)’. It was published in 1889, the year he helped found the new ‘Société Savante’. He was 38 – about the same age as Jerome himself, and George and Harris. Incidentally – the dog, Montmorency, is entirely fictional but, as Jerome admits, ‘developed out of that area of inner consciousness which, in all Englishmen, contains an element of the dog.’

As Wikipédia puts it (much more succinctly than the English version): Le livre est parsemé d’anecdotes comiques, mais aussi de réflexions philosophiques sur l’existence, les illusions que nous entretenons volontiers sur le monde et sur nous-mêmes, et la nécessité de ne « pas trop charger de luxe la barque de sa vie.

“Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need – a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.”

As you will discover, in this the first of Sicard’s adventures into the deep south of his département – these words could well have been his touch-stones. A thumb-rule for a life well-lived.

The moment they stepped off the train their journey descended rapidly into difficulty and discomfort. Sicard’s account remains light-hearted, while wryly noting each twist in their fated venture: the omnibus that deposited them at Rennes-les-Bains, the jalopy with the tattered canopy crammed with crates that took them – it was now dusk – a stage further along unmade roads and around precipitous bends – and the nine kilometer walk to Camps, with rucksacs, in a sudden driving snow-storm.

Its easy to sweep past the little lane that leads to Camps in a modern car. It was nearly impossible for them to find that turn-off in the snow. Camps is hidden from the world behind one of three enormous rock out-crops. It’s like a street cup-and-dice game to figure out where the village lies. Once safely across the dilapidated wooden bridge over the Agly, they manage to raise a lanthorn from one hovel, and thus make their way to the Schoolhouse, where theire hosts had long given up hope of their arrival.

Finally they received ‘la réception si cordiale et si réconfortante que nous firent M. et Mme Landriq.

The morning brought no respite – there would be no dolmen-hunting in the hills that visit. Instead the Landriqs took them on a short walk out of the village to La Bastide, a Templar holding, and up to las Tretzes Croux – boulders marked with crosses to designate the land protected by the Order. Sicard later researched this aspect of ‘rough stone history’ in his Notes sur Les Croix Rupestres : ‘groupes de croix, comme celles que l’on peut voir près de Camps et de Rouffiac et qui sont gravées sur des blocs de rochers, non équaris, épars dans la brousse dans un espace d’une cinquantaine de mètres carrés. Le mystère règne encore sur l’origine et la destination de ces gravures rupestres.‘.

The ‘mystery’ surrounding the carved rocks is explained in a brilliantly detailed account of its ‘rediscovery’ by Gauthier Langlois here . Anyone interested in Mediaeval Aude, will find his section on the Templar commanderie at Douzens, our nearest village, most compelling.

Another engraved stone near Camps was found a few years back by Christian Gaudé, a bucheron or timber-cutter. We met him at La Maison du Chevalier – a pub in Camps run by Jeff and Ariane. He lent me the official report of his find, compiled by archaeologists from St. Paul de Fenouillet:

He was pleased with his find – but less happy that the site was sealed off and all his logs lost.

The Templars – possibly the world’s first multinational corporation and bank –  and their stones are fascinating. But they are outside the remits of this blog. One last photo or two before we return to Really Old Stones :

La Bastide is now in a rather dilapidated state, with most portions remaining of the barracks and living quarters, but almost nothing of the chapel.

The following morning Sicard and Fages set off on their return journey to Carcassonne – on foot, through the Gorges de Galamus, in driving snow. It was a 12 kilometre walk to the station at St. Paul.

Any jocularity à la Jerome K. Jerome is significantly absent in this lengthy closing sentence.  But – as in all his accounts – there is not a word of complaint.

This grim little outpost of civilisation must have been a welcome sight.

Posted August 11, 2010 by MH

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