A Hamlet At War - Part Two

Posted 23 October 2015

My front lawn has been completely dug up by moles. As my friend Tony says,

“I don’t mind sharing my life with nature if nature abides by the legal boundaries - mine.”

So I’m afraid it’s war, the high jump for our moles - literally. You put your hand down their newest hole to find their tunnel, where you plant a kind of rocket that waits for them to come home. And poof - it expels them heavenwards. So sad. But it’s either that or turn the front lawn into a skateboard park. Anyone who has a kinder alternative, let me know. Or come and try your hand at rural living!

So to return to part two of the “stabulation” or cow invasion in massive hangar saga. I had gone to the Town Hall to settle our water bill (still recorded and receipted on carbon paper) and was waylaid by a ubiquitous Dutchman called Jan (known locally as Jean), a local councillor with a finger in every pie.

“Are you coming to the meeting?” he asked me.
“What meeting?” He looked surprised.
“The one about all that’s going on in your hamlet. You must.”
“It’s the day after we’re due to go home.” Surprise turns to alarm.
“Don’t you understand the seriousness of the situation? Let me show you.”

He takes me into the mayor’s office, where the deputy, a young woman with long blond tresses in a very chic suit, sits at the mayor’s large, shiny desk.

“May I show Michele the map?” It’s behind her, above her head.
“Of course. She needs to know what’s going on - since permission is already granted.”
“For what?” I ask, mystified.
“For a massive intensive farming enterprise in your hamlet” she explains. My stomach turns. I have visions of chimneys belching black fumes.

“Here,” Jan points - he makes a c-shape with his finger, moving it from our house to the other end of the hamlet,

“is where your neighbour, the Belgian farmer, intends his agricultural venture - 300 cows in a variety of hangars right in the middle of you all.”

“And how will that affect us?” He stares at me as if I’m dense.
“It could affect the value of your home,” says the deputy mayor, looking up from her paperwork. “And then there’s the noise, the smell,” she sighs, “and the problems with the water.”
“I will come and see you and explain,” Jan says.

And he does, that afternoon, with a map. That’s when Peter notices plans for a huge barn for massive machinery just over our fence - but more important, an entrance leading to it right opposite us, on the narrow “chemin communal” or bridle way used by ramblers, cyclists, and horse-riders.

And then there’s the “small” detail that according to French law you cannot build less than 100 metres from your neighbour’s boundary. In this case it appears that several enormous barns would be a mere 40 or 50 metres from most of the other houses in the hamlet.

How is that possible, we ask?

Jan shrugs. “If the prefecture at Limoges says they can, they can. That’s France. You have the right to appeal.”
“And has anyone done that?”
“Only Bruno so far. They are devastated. His mother’s family home for generations will have a huge cow barn opposite their front door. They have made a “recours”, a legal challenge.

We don’t want any more legal battles, thank you. Nor do we want to jeopardise the project for Yannick and Lotte. We want them to succeed, to bring life to this forgotten part of the countryside where numbers decline almost daily.

It’s good to have a young family living here. Lotte and I had coffee together in the summer and I liked her a lot. So we send a letter to the prefecture at Limoges “a l’amiable” - which invites the “prefet” to facilitate a friendly compromise.

But all we get by way of reply is in an uncompromising, ungracious letter in unintelligible French legal-speak, two pages of formal, pretend deferential guff that say basically, “We know the project doesn’t conform to French law, but we’ll break it if we want. And if you want any different make a proper legal challenge. Otherwise, the communal path is the Mayor’s responsibility.”

That’s how battles are sorted in France - by years of wrangling amongst all concerned parties.
“So what now?” I ask Peter.

“We postpone our crossing home and wait for the mayor’s meeting. And we grow the Leylandii on that side of the house to a hundred feet to hide the barn! Fortunate his field is in on our northern side with no view.”

Fancy! The Leylandii have been the bane of our lives - closing in on us, like a forest around Sleeping Beauty before Peter can hack them down to a reasonable size. But now - well, maybe they’re another of those blessings in disguise.

The meeting, in a rather grand, if sombre drawing room of the 18th century mairie, is a scene straight out of Dickens.

A host of extraordinary caricatures arrive, each one letting in a gust of freezing December night air - Bruno, the volatile, chain-smoking professional musician in a sweeping greatcoat with a long scarf tied several times around his neck, Martin’s parents, he with grey pony-tail and matching beard and his jolly, round gypsy-like wife, whose dress trails the floor, Roland with droopy handle-bar moustache that’s a throwback to the last war, (Bruno rudely says it’s a tribute to the Vichy government’s Marechal Pétain), and the long-suffering daughter of the lately buried M Paul, who sniffs like a bloodhound, manifestly resenting being here at all, and complaining from the start that she only is because she has had no choice but to take on her father’s farm along with her own elsewhere.

And then, of course, there’s Yannick, a large, brawny presence, looking perpetually bewildered because he speaks only Flemish, and Lotte, his go-between and interpreter, with a forced, nervous smile.

Jean Lavale, our erstwhile legal challenger, who farms the field next to ours, arrives in boots and a faint whiff of cattle, apologising grumpily that he hasn’t had time to change, with Marcel, the hamlet’s small, twinkly-eyed carpenter in wood and aluminium, who has built himself a monstrous, modern structure in the latter that is anything but a good advert for his creative workmanship, and surely without planning permission.

“My mother is not coming,” Bruno says pointedly, before the meeting has even had time to start. “She is too unwell. All this,” with a sweep of the hand around the table at which we sit, “has made her ill”.

The mayor, a typically French irenic businessman, with a rather charming smile, I can’t help but notice, opens the proceedings and off Bruno goes - bang, like our mole device. We all wait for the explosion to die down, then Roland, who has always been so courteous and helpful to us, but is acting as Yannick’s right hand man, also lets verbal rip - about what, no one is very sure because his large moustachios muffle the sound, but it appears he is affronted that anyone should have a grouse against his employer at all.

The mayor, looking straight at us, says, “Who’s going first?” We have already shown him the letter that says he is responsible for the bridle path in front of our house. He is waiting for us to fire his bullets and ensure that what belongs to the community is kept that way. We bow to the inevitable, and Peter expresses his concern that a large tractor will ruin a narrow pathway currently used by ramblers.

“Ah,” Lotte reassures us. “That entry will only be used in the event of an emergency.”
“Do we have your word?” the mayor asks. She nods.

“There,” he says, “holding up the open palms of his hands, “our first concession.”

Nothing is written down.

Martin’s parents who have introduced themselves as Jules and Julie explain they need more land to survive financially and that they were promised ten extra hectares to rent from the previous owners of Yannick’s land. But now Yannick won’t keep that promise - he needs the land. The mayor says apologetically that there is nothing he can do about that as they don’t have it in writing, so it’s not strictly relevant to the meeting.

We seem to go around the houses for another two hours or so, then Peter finally pipes up, “In my work in the church, whenever we had projects that might cause upset, we always had a Plan B. Can I ask Yannick and Lotte whether they have a Plan B?”

Yannick and Lotte confer and with a blank expression, Lotte shakes her head.

“A very good point,” says the mayor. “You do understand that because of Bruno’s legal challenge you may not be able to start your project for several years, and that could cause you severe financial difficulties. You own a huge amount of land. Moving your barns one hundred metres up the road might mean you could start tomorrow. Wouldn’t that be a better idea than going to court?”

No reply and we move on. I ask why so many trees and hedgerows have been destroyed. Jean Lavale intervenes and, as if to a recalcitrant Year Seven, explains that as tractors get bigger, so farmers find it harder to manouevre around trees. Nothing for it but to remove the obstacle.

“It’s all about balance,” Lotte explains. She is studying agriculture at college, which I find staggering. “I can’t see any balance in destroying half of Europe’s birds,” I challenge. “We have Golden Orioles here. They’re so rare. How can you put them at risk?”

The silence in the room tells me they think I’m just another poor, benighted twitcher, but I’m not giving in that easily.

“The land here is terrible - pure clay. Trees are the only way to absorb the excess water that swamps the crops.” The mayor agrees that he loves Golden Orioles and attempts to bring the meeting to a close.

Jean Lavale puts up a hand and is invited to speak. “Why are you against wind turbines?” The mayor’s pleasant smile turns to frost. “Why do you want them?”
“Renting out my field could get me a lot of money.”

Peter taps me on the knee under the table and I resist the urge to giggle. That’s what’s so funny about Jean. He hasn’t even the nous to hide the selfish truth.

“Jean,” says the Mayor, dismissively. “I got in on an anti-turbine ticket. I will not sell my countryside. I’m not saying more than that as it’s irrelevant tonight.”

And so back to the UK we went, hoping that compromises were honest and that Plan B stood a chance. Lotte and Yannick are absolutely adamant that they will follow the agricultural book, that there will be no noise, no flooding, no effluents, no smell, no flies.

If only they had explained their plans to their neighbours in advance.

Lotte says she knows that now. She underestimated village life - the passion for land and adherence to boundaries, the long histories and family loyalties, the traditions and political affiliations. I blame that rum architect of theirs. In the plans it says that in the event of fire, there is a small lake nearby!

Ours! Of course we’d let it be used in an emergency, but he could have asked. Besides, all you’d get in the summer is clay.

One day, enraged by the noise of constant digging as he tried to work (as an illustrator for children’s educational programmes) and the subsequent waste tip that appeared opposite his house, Bruno, foolishly he admits, took a pot shot at a tractor that Yannick’s father-in-law was driving. A crack shot he aimed at the window and shattered it. But he might have missed.

The Belgians took out an injunction against him. And that’s why I can’t have a party of any kind for all the hamlet. It’s a mini version of the Middle East.

Where will it all end?