France | Cliff and Orcs and Bells Going ‘Dong’

When I (unsuccessfully) attempted to move to France last year, Seth and I spent each Sunday in his van, zooming around the countryside in search of interesting things. I like being in the van; it’s high up so you feel safe on the road, even though the closer you get to the Mediterranean, the nuttier everyone’s driving becomes.

On the penultimate day of my visit to Albi, we once again hoisted ourselves into the van and set off with the vague intention of finding some pretty things to look at.

We drove down long, straight roads, past fields and sandy-coloured farmhouses and lots of blossoming trees. You see a lot of oddities at the roadside in the south of France, things you can only ponder briefly at as they flick by beyond the windows. A lonesome donkey with a giant dong. An iron statue of a fish. A grinning plastic snowman in somebody’s front garden. Many of the roads in the French countryside are lined with trees, one after another at regular intervals, going on for miles. Seth told me these trees are a species called platanes, and that Napoleon planted them centuries ago so that his armies could march long distances in the shade.

Our first stop was a village called Penne, which would be pronounced ‘Pen-ay’ if it was in Italy but is in France, so is pronounced ‘Pen’. It was a sunny day, blue sky and almost warm, and we parked the van outside town and wandered down a slope towards the village. We turned a corner and the full view of Penne opened up to us, and I stopped and said ‘fuaaaack’ for a long time. I looked back at Seth; he was grinning.

The village is fictional. It’s bollocks; how dare it exist. It cannot. It makes my pretty home-village of Bardsey look like an industrial estate. Penne is in the middle of a valley, and in the middle of this valley sits a cliff. I know that sounds ridiculous, because you can’t have a cliff without a mountain, or at least a hill, but no: the ground just sort of rises up out of the valley floor for no clear reason, then immediately (and very Frenchly, I think) gets bored, says ‘fuck it’, and careens a hundred metres back down to a river far below. All the way up the cliff are houses and churches, and on the top of the cliff, looming ridiculously, is a crumbly Tim Burton castle, balanced so precariously it looks like it could blow off in a light breeze. It’s a nonsense castle and a nonsense cliff.

“How does a cliff get there?” I asked Seth, staring at it. It was so pretty it made me angry. “How can that be real?”

“Yeah, I dunno mate,” yawned Seth.

My mind was straining with the effort of stretching back to GCSE geography classes. Tectonic plates. Oxbow lakes. Magma?

“So I guess there must have been a full-on hill here at one point, and the river eroded it, and then the hill just…”

“Fell off,” finished Seth.

The hill-clung village, once we reached it, was practically deserted – nothing but wooden shutters knocking in the breeze and the slow squawk of a turning weathervane. Signs of habitation were everywhere – fresh dust outside a carpenter’s shop, laundry drying on lines, muddy boots on doorsteps, a distant radio playing somewhere – but we were the only souls wandering the cobbled streets. It looked as if the town had been raptured, or else had hidden away indoors anticipating a high-noon shootout.

I stooped to read a black slate nailed to a wall, on which someone had scrawled a message in chalk. I can read a reasonable amount of French, but the sign didn’t make any sense. There were more as we wound through the village, higher up the hill towards the castle. By the third or fourth slate, we realised they were little poems.

We followed the uneven path up into a small, empty town square, loomed over by a church with giant wooden doors thrown open like a great maw. I realised that was where the music was coming from – soft Christian soul drifting out from the empty pulpit and across the square. We stood before the doors, drinking it in.

“I feel like I’m in the Wicker M—.”


I was cut off by the church bell ringing suddenly – just one great, solemn strike. Seth and I looked at each other.

“Man,” I finished.

A little spooked (me, not Seth), we went into the church. There was nobody around, just empty pews and lots of paintings of Jesus looking benevolent and weary. The music was a live recording of a concert held decades ago, and it floated overhead as we wandered around and touched things.

It was weird to imagine the place full – the local priest giving a sermon, all the benches filled with villagers who all knew each other’s names and stories and secrets. A thousand million miles from London’s bustling, oily anonymity. Multicoloured light poured in from stained glass windows, casting rainbow auras on the stone floor. I stood in one and made Seth take a photo of me.


The castle was closed for lunch, so we milled around and explored until the hour had passed and we were permitted to enter. A redheaded girl was the only employee, sitting in a little hut at the entrance. We bought our tickets and she handed us an information pamphlet. The cover image was of the castle’s main gateway, with a young woman in a dress stepping inside. You could only see her from behind, but she had dark red hair. I looked from the image to the girl sitting in the hut.

“C’est toi?” I asked, pointing to the pamphlet.

“Er… oui,” she said, turning scarlet.

She laughed, cringing, and told me I was the first person ever to notice it. I was thrilled. I felt like a detective.


The castle was beautiful, and profoundly gravity defiant – every bit as mental from the air as it was from the ground. Christ knows how they built it. It was big, too: there were keeps and barracks and crumbling chapels, and a grassy area in the middle with wooden stocks.* We took turns locking each other up and taking pictures.

*Note: I’ve always called them stocks, but I just quickly Googled it and stocks are actually for locking up your feet, not arms and head. The arm/head one is called a pillory, it turns out – but if I’d said pillory nobody would have known what I meant.

I found a stick inside the castle grounds to use as a pretend sword, partly because I knew it would amuse Seth and partly because I, like all men, just love pretending things are swords. Place a snapped-off branch in my hand and in my mind’s eye I transform into Aragorn, striding out alone and fearless to face down a horde of snarling Uruk Hai at Amon Hen.

(this bit)

I slew a couple of imaginary orcs, just to please my inner child, and then used the stick as a walking aid and pointing tool.

“Look over there,” I said, as we stood on an outcrop, staring manfully across the valley.


Nowhere. I just wanted to point with my stick. I skewered a couple more enemies, then, suddenly worried Seth might find my behaviour childish and/or irritating, I handed him the stick. To my relief, he began to snipe invisible baddies in the hills.


We ate lunch in a cafe on the outskirts of town. They’d stopped serving food but offered to make us sandwiches. My French abilities, which until that point had served me reasonably well, abandoned me. I don’t know if it’s my accent or the shy mumble I take on when speaking French, but the friendly and heavily pregnant waitress in the cafe didn’t have a clue what I was on about. Seth ordered a ham sandwich, and when the waitress asked what I wanted, I said:

“Errr, juste la même chose, s’il vous plait.”

She cocked her head like I’d just spoken Swahili.

“What do you want to eat?” she asked in English.

Everytime a French person switches to English I experience an orgasm of self-loathing. Makes me feel like such a boob.

“Ham,” I said, bowing my head in sorrow.


Next, Seth took us to a gigantic cliff half an hour’s drive away. I was somewhat reluctant to leave the car when we pulled up; I’ve been to clifftops with Seth before. I know what he’s like.

And well, I was right:

“Seth. Seth. Don’t stand– don’tstandsoclosetotheedgeyou’regoingtofalloff.

Seth finds it very funny when I panic. I seem to panic more around Seth than other people. He’s simply calmer than me; it’s the role I have to take on. In any duo, there’s always one calmer than the other. When I’m with my mum, I am the relaxed one, and she is the one who worries I might slip on the rug and behead myself – and I laugh and tell her to stop being a sausage. When I’m with Seth, who is very assured and practical and doesn’t fret about getting splinters or dying, it’s my turn to be jittery.

But come on. Cliffs are scary! You don’t have to go near the edge! The view doesn’t change! All you can see is more down, and down is just ground – plain old ground! No need to check up on it!

And plus there’s that whole ‘call of the void’ thing. I hate it: I’m incapable of standing anywhere high or dangerous without some ominous voice in my head (it sounds a bit like James Earl Jones) saying ‘Do it. Launch yourself off. Why not? You’re gonna have to face death some day, may as well be now. Fuck it!’

Shut up shut uppp, I tell my head.

“I quite like it,” said Seth, teetering on the edge of a thirty metre drop. “Feeling that lurching sensation inside. Makes you remember you’re alive.”

“I’m acutely aware I’m alive,” I grumbled, stalking away into a maze of gorse bushes to have a wee. “And I’d like it to stay that way. Hence I’m getting away from this fucking monstrous death trap. Oh, bonjour.”

“Bonjour,” said the old couple who’d just parked up and come over for a look. “C’est joli là-bas?”

“Oui, vraiment joli!” said Seth.

And I said nothing because they’d almost certainly just heard me call it a fucking monstrous death trap.

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