Lydia Bell recalls halcyon family holidays in a little-known part of France where nothing much ever happened.
La Haute Fraignaie was an unassuming terracotta-tiled and rough-shuttered stone farmhouse with plain timber rafters on the vague prow of a hill in La Vendée, a coastal département in western France. It was owned by my family for 18 years, from 1990 to 2008.
Large open fields on all sides dwarfed the dwelling and there was no fence between the garden and those fields that shone with wheat or sunflowers, or were laid bare by the bleak fallowness of winter. It had a front and a back terrace and my father planted a shrouding of shrubs, grapevines and creepers; a constellation of apricots, plums and crabapple trees; and a eucalyptus. Inside, a large kitchen with a worn tiled floor, a simple hearth and a big wooden table was the heart of the home.
The house sat amid a gently rolling landscape of fields, woods, lanes, high hedges and sleepy settlements. It was so quiet that any noise was notable, from the bang of a chasseur’s gun to the ramblings of the sozzled vineyard owner across the road, to frogs mating. Proudly untouristy and unfashionable, the region’s roads and farmhouses were obscure, as were the châteaux of its petite noblesse.
The River Lay passed through our local village, Moutiers-sur-le-Lay, which had a café for a grilled meat-and-chips supper, a tabac and a boulangerie. A short drive downstream, Mareuil-sur-Lay was the town of local winegrowers. I would often cycle south to the cathedral town of Luçon with my brother, down a long, empty Roman road, just to get a citron pressé in an old-fashioned café where the waitresses wore lace headdresses. There was nothing else to do after that so we would cycle back, stocking up on Orangina along the way.
The locals were kindly but dismissive of foreigners. At one stage, there were plans to build a giant rubbish dump close by. My parents went along to a meeting with the local mayor and when they told him our family name, “Bell”, he pfffffed then cried, “Ah! La poubelle!” (the rubbish bin!) and the whole town roared. The Vendéens are sticklers for scheduled meal times, even more so than the rest of the country. If you pitched up at a restaurant even 30 minutes after lunch hour had commenced, silence would fall, pitying looks would be exchanged and eating would resume in a resigned fashion. The inner monologue was clear: “Les Anglais!” Shrug.
The character of the good folk of La Vendée was formed by history. They were decidedly not down with the French Revolution and suffered for it. Between 1793 and 1796 they fought the Republicans and up to 200,000 perished, often fighting for their lives and their Catholicism with nothing fancier than scythes or hunting guns. To this day, you’re less likely to see the revolutionary blue, white and red flapping in the sun than in other parts of France.
While my brother and I, teenagers at the time, were less than impressed with the sheer boringness of our newly enforced rural holidays, my parents took to it with aplomb, flexing their dodgy French and finding ways to fill the days in the middle of nowhere. Most of the photos from that time show groups of cravat-wearing French couples rosy cheeked with red wine guffawing at my parents while clutching French-English dictionaries for dear life.
We did do some things. We spent beach days on the windy Atlantic coast, with its wide sandy stretches backed by dunes and 19th-century pine forests. We drove over the causeway to Noirmoutier Island, with its shellfish-foraging locals, and saw whitewashed, green-shuttered houses and summering Parisians at chi-chi Île de Ré. I liked Saint-Vincent-sur-Jard on the coast, where statesman Georges Clemenceau retired (after the signing of the Versailles Treaty) to a long, low, ivy-shrouded fisherman’s house with an Impressionistsinspired garden. Windows framed with aquamarine shutters overlooked the endless sands of low tide.
The River Lay reached the coast via the Marais Poitevin, the largest of the three areas of marsh in the Vendée. Our favourite bit was the Venise Vert, with its innumerable canals and rivers. Small, cow-filled meadows are shoehorned between the tree-lined canals and some farmers transport their livestock on barges. You can still pootle about on boats for hire, jumping out for beers and crêpes at cute riverside cafés along the way.
We ate a lot, of course. In our field, devouring produce we had lingered over for hours in supermarchés. In the seafood bars of the ancient port La Rochelle decked with tiered platters of langoustine and mussels and oysters. We ate brioche Vendéenne, a long plaited loaf, followed by éclairs in the shape of hearts.
My parents sold the house in the end. I remember I was about as peeved when they sold it as I had been when they bought it. My brother and I were starting our own families and we would have – finally – appreciated it. But they were getting older and had grown tired of endless DIY. And so it went, forever, to a Frenchwoman returning from a life in Gabon, bought sight unseen by her daughter in Bordeaux.
I sometimes still think of that place, up on its gentle prow, surrounded by nothing-ish Vendée and enveloped in its calm, and feel a pang of appreciation.