It was a pity that the children hated goat

Goat chops in the Loire

Andrew Brown for Salon Wanderlust

It was a pity that the children hated goat. They were delighted to sleep in a mediaeval stone-flagged castle chamber; they managed to negotiate the broad spiral stairs to the dining room, worn down by tramping feet until they sloped like a river bed; but when we were told what was for supper, they refused to eat. Just kidding, my wife said, without missing a beat: she told them solemnly that "ch À vre" was the French for lamb, not goat. They were hungry enough to believe her.

Everything else about the château de Chémery was perfect. It is quite easy to stay in extravagant and perfect châteaux in the Loire valley, if you have the money, but English snobbery demands somewhere old and ordinary — and cheap. This place which had a moat, a fax machine, and a history going back to the thirteenth century, seemed perfect. It is set in the dusty flat country where France begins to seem strange as well as foreign to an English eye: the perspectives are too long; the roads too straight, the bluffs above the rivers too steep. The architecture, too, is changing, from the timber and stone of the North into the dusty fawn concrete that lies in the sun like a sleeping cat. Fruit that normally comes with its taste shrouded in cellophane is suddenly revivified. Tomatoes turn into revelations.

The first vineyards start at this latitude, a little South of Paris. Some are famous: the northernmost good red in France, St Nicolas de Bourgeuil, comes from just north of the Loire; but most of the vineyards here, as almost everywhere are small and domestic. Enamelled signboards hang where the farm tracks come down to the road, advertising goose liver or goat’s cheese.

The village of Chémery was dustier than usual, since the main street had been dug right up. As in most French villages, the main street is also the main road, so to reach the village, we had followed a long diversion down narrow straight roads joined by right angled corners, through a small oak wood, and out onto the potholed, shuttered centre of the village. Nothing moved but a chicken scratching in an overgrown garden. I drove carefully round a few potholes to the outskirts of the village, and found the château by its towers. For centuries it had been a farm, then a rock star’s retreat; but it still had the towers essential for any Loire château: grey, round, with conical slate roofs, so they look like squat sharpened pencils rising from the ground.

The drawbridge was down, across a green and soupy moat. It did not look safe enough to drive a car across, but in the gravel courtyard was a people-carrier van, which turned out to belong to a group of travelling actors. The horse-drawn cart which served as their stage and advertisement. was parked more conspicuously by a dovecote in the field opposite the castle. They were to perform that night for the villagers.

The owner of the château was an architect, Axel Fontaine, who had bought it ten years before when it was almost derelict, as parts still are. He hopes to restore it to be a museum of costume; and in the meantime he and his wife take in guests for bed and breakfast. They live in the oldest part of the building, where there are still traces of fourteenth-century wall paintings in one room, which also has a grislier souvenir of the Middle Ages: a model of the soldier whose skeleton was found bricked up inside a wall in 1850.

The guests are given more modern and less haunted rooms inside the main tower. The larger room has feather beds, as in the fairy stories. No wonder princesses couldn’t sleep on them: they were so soft that the sides seemed to close round us when we lay down. The smaller room had modern and more comfortable beds, also a deep narrow window, handy for shooting arrows through.

The afternoon slid languorously into evening, as plump carp jostled at the surface of the moat beneath the window..

The owners showed us round the château , or at least those parts that are safe to walk in. They are slowly building a museum of clothing there.. Every inch of wall in the children’s chamber was covered in prints of historical costumes and uniforms. In the cavernous stone room next door stood a spinning wheel, a loom, and a four poster bed, all looking quietly decayed as if they had been waiting there since the end of the age of fairy tales. The mummers dragged their cart over the drawbridge and across the crunching gravel of the courtyard, preparing a show of La Fontaine's fables for the village. The smell of herby goat chops frying drifted around the old tower

The mummers’ performance was almost entirely silent: they stalked and strutted in grotesque costumes and head-dresses, acting out fables which go back to the dawn of European thought, for many of the stories that la Fontaine retold in the seventeenth century originated with Aesop in the sixth century BC. The characters were foxes, crows and ants: the only humans were a gang of robbers with a donkey. Each story concluded with a rhymed moral, just as in Aesop. But these were the last sententious stroke of the hammer on a nail already driven in. Even without any French, the stories were clear enough: all were as dramatic as the frog who tried to puff himself up to the size of an ox, appearing three times from behind the cart, until the last time he was puffed up ten feet wide. This was still too small, a cackling crone on a step-ladder assured him, so he ducked behind the cart for one last effort — and a tremendous bang scattered his costume all around.

The last fable, as night fell, was brought right up to date: the grasshoppers sang and played all summer, while the ants all round them toiled. When winter came, the ants retreated to their nest; the grasshopper starved outside. They begged the ants three times for food and shelter. Three times the ants refused. The third time, the grasshoppers, cackling wildly, brought out a huge, old-fashioned bug spray, and squirted it down the chimney of the ants’ nest. The ants allowed them in ; everyone sang, and socialism triumphed.

When it was over, the exhausted children vanished into their feather beds. Around them, in the high and distant corners of the room, only friendly ghosts lurked. "Actually, goat does taste good" muttered the elder, and slept.

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