The Dordogne valley in southwest France is a great favourite with the British holidaymaker and for good reason: the scenery is charming without being too overly dramatic, the food and wine is excellent and the climate – in summer at least – is pleasant. We spent many happy holidays there, especially visiting the bastide towns (Belves, Monpazier and others). Coincidentally, these towns were largely established and built by the English and are once again over-run by them during the summer. In recent years, this has happened to such an extent that English language papers are widely available and there’s even an English radio station on air during the summertime.
The countryside hereabouts mixes activities in a way that happens in Europe but rarely in the UK: one can round a bend in a remote country road and, without warning, be confronted by a massive paper mill or a cement factory. During the Victorian industrial age, parts of Britain (the Peak District, for example) combined rural and industrial activity within a single area but, through the 20th century, British industries have become more centralised and, leaving the countryside behind, have concentrated themselves into specific areas. This is not to say that there are no steelmaking or mining towns in France or Italy but rather that industries there have remained un-concentrated and, in consequence, have a different relationship with local communities from where their workforces are drawn. One might reasonably conclude that this decentralised model goes some way to explaining the survival of village communities in mainland Europe at a time when they are increasingly under threat in the UK. Hence, even though there may be no village shop, the baker and butcher make daily rounds of even the smallest hamlets and, notwithstanding the impact of the out-of-town retail park, local enterprise is able to continue in the face of arguments of non-sustainability.
The cultures that continue as a result of this situation do so in a way and to an extent that hardly exists in Britain any more and for us, this has always been one of the attractions of the Dordogne. Not only is the countryside splendid but local restaurants and especially local markets never fail to offer delights largely forgotten at home. Who, for instance, could resist the spice stall at the market in Monpazier? Where, apart from a few fashionable locations, could one hope to find anything like that at home? This brings us to the question of how the British have lost so much of their local cultures while, on the continent, they endure and are staunchly defended, however impractical they may seem. Yet we still hanker after such things and the attraction of Tuscany or the Dordogne as holiday destinations confirms this. The guilty party is, I think, our obsession with so-called “sustainability”. We require that things be viable, sensible, practical, affordable but have no way to calculate or comprehend the cultural and cost of their loss. This may be what sets the Brit apart from his continental cousin: a refusal to dilute the rush to the future by an attachment to the past. We see here the true cost of progress: a sense of loss, of alienation, of detachment from our history and heritage. There is a lesson here: sadly, it may be too late for us to learn it.
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