On my way north towards Thiers, I drove through wooded slopes and mountain forest and stopped in the small town of Ambert. I’d phoned a dealer there and was told, “Oui, je suis la de 8h 30 et, non, je ne ferme pas a midi.” Honey to my ears. There are some stops that I remember with fondness, this was one of them, for its calm, ease and gentleness. The shop was in a bright atelier with one entire wall of metal framed windows looking down over an industrial yard. Monsieur was pale and thin, as if recovering from some serious illness. But he seemed content in his work which, that morning, involved renovating a heavy double doored 1930’s ice cabinet. In one corner sat his sagging leather armchair next to a pile of reference books. My eye was caught by two massive wooden balustrades, a metre high. “They are either from a chateau or a Spanish galleon,” he said. “I just brought them in today, and this too.” He patted a two metre high carved and polished wooden crucifix.
As I wandered through the atelier, he wandered with me. I picked up a basket here, a bedroom chair there, and for each thing I chose he said, “Tenez, have this too, cadeau, a gift.” The collection of 19th century wine glasses, wooden frontons, a metal box of a grandfather clock and its white enamel face, rush seated chairs, table ware continued to grow. Propped against a trunk was a large watercolour of a Provencal market square with stone arcades on all sides, cafe tables and chairs set out in the shade. Just lovely.
I spotted a tall three door housekeeper’s cupboard, painted grey and beautifully worn. “Ah, I cannot sell this to you because I cannot bring myself to part with it yet – but if you come again next year…..” As we struggled to get the monstrously heavy balustrades into the back of the van he told me of a Brocante that I could find along the route I was planning to take.
The tiny hamlet of Pont de Chantemerle (Blackbird Song Bridge) was in a wooded valley. I parked in front of a house with a barn next door, a vine and a bold Brocante sign. I waited until 14h30 and knocked on the door. No reply. I loitered. Two other cars pulled up. People strolled over, waited a few minutes, then left. But this was such a lovely spot. Birds singing, leaves rustling, water gushing beneath the bridge, sun warm. No rush, I thought, I’ll just stay and rest here a while longer. At 15h a woman drove up and gestured to me that she would shortly be opening up the barn. “I am so sorry to keep you waiting,” she said, “I was at the dentist.” But the musty Barn was full of heavy, dark furniture and there was little to entice. “If you have the time, I can open up next door for you,” she offered. Next door was a large concrete building with the river running beneath it, turning turbine wheels. It was the old shoe lace factory. Madame went round unlocking doors on the ground and first floors and told me how to find my way round, and then returned to the Barn. This huge space, pretty much neglected and definitely deserted was filled with the contents of old schools, old factory lockers and the miscellania of domestic life.
The roof had leaked, birds had flown but it had considerable appeal. I rifled up piles of books, thick white ceramic plates, enamel ware, mirrors, religious paraphernalia, a painting of a ballerina on horseback in a circus ring, all vivid pinks, reds and yellows. Two faded blue thick hard back business directories from 1929 and other curiosities were also gathered up. Madame returned and we carried everything out to the van. The sun was wonderfully hot after days of lugubrious skies and woolly jumpers.
I joined the autoroute a Thiers and travelled up past Montlucon to my chambre d’hote. “Dinner is at 20h,” said Madame matter of factly. She had bleached hair and not much of a smile. I’d been anticipating a quiet evening to catch up with myself and with paperwork, but two other couples were staying that night. We were served turquoise and orange cocktails before taking our seats at table. Tentative and polite enquiries were made about journeys, provenances and destinations over a generous supper of cutlets and rice, salad, cheeses, apricot clafoutis and a carafe of wine. By the end of the meal everyone had relaxed and stories were being swapped of the years’ abundant cherry crop, national idiosyncracies and optimum breeding conditions for frogs. “Ah, vous les anglais, vous n’aimez pas les cuisses de grenouille, hein?” The English and frog’s thighs….