My Grandmother Rudd had told the ‘lost’ French lady of her grandson’s desire to work that summer in France and the lady had offered to find me a job. So, June 8th 1965, a week out of school, bundled into André and Leina Bimont’s new white Panhard car in a sweltering, black and shabby-looking Bordeaux, taken to their flat and given a welcome dish of strawberries in chilled red Bordeaux, sprinkled with sugar (Le Pot de Cochon)! But there had been a hiccup. The promised job had fallen through; “Dear Mr Haitswaite, my Aunt died last week … for me a great misfortune … it is absolutely impossible to receive you this year”. Soubie, Domaine de Lisennes.
But the Bimonts were a kind and inspiring couple. André had a business making a scaffolding system he’d invented and Leina had just started to make and sell woven wood fence panels like she’d seen in England. We don’t think of France as so very entrepreneurial these days. But back then, with ‘Le General’ on the throne, it really was quite different and in areas other than pop music and that little ‘Swinging’ bit of London, ‘buzzier’ than the UK. Anyway, Entrepreneur is a French word isn’t it? Leina and Andre were almost retired … but having fun. Could running a business actually be fun? Mmm, new idea for the boy who dreaded the very thought of actual work.
These determined folk tried hard to get me a job in Bordeaux, but finally we had to settle for an unpaid job on an archaeological dig out in the sticks in this village called Sainte Colombe near Saint Emilion where a man apparently just wanted someone to do the grunt work. As I was reasonably familiar with a shovel, I went.
I got my first view of Sainte Colombe when we left the main Dordogne valley road and headed towards the ridge that runs along the valley’s northern edge. Back then it was mostly woods and fields with just a few striped patches of vineyards; wine here having had a hard time of it for the last hundred years. The wine boom was still some years off. We headed into one of the little side valleys, one larger than most. The road wandered from farmhouse to farmhouse. They were all small, with barns, in pale stone, but all had signs that proclaimed them to be ‘Château something-or-other’. There was only one, up on the right, that actually looked like a real château, small, cute, with a tower and central courtyard. Little did I know we would one day buy it … but I mustn’t get ahead of myself.
We drove on towards the church tower and the few houses gathered around it. This was the Bourg of Sainte Colombe; all cosy and protected by its wooded ridge from the cold north winds. A particularly warm place to live and, presumably, why there were the ruins of a Roman Villa here that needed excavating. The tall palm trees, I really liked the look of. This must be an especially sunny spot, no? I was going to enjoy summer here. Love at first sight, really. I just wanted to write postcards home immediately. But there were no postcards. And the village had no shop. It had nothing, really, just farms and houses. But that first day I did start writing and even drawing and I have never stopped since.
I was at first happy working with my new archaeological friends who gave me not a shovel but a small brush. Apparently archaeology was different to working as a navvy on building sites. But alas the young archeologists all left after the weekend, and I sat in the hot dust alone, scrabbling away at the remains of this Gallo-Roman villa. And the weather just got hotter. And hotter. And dustier . And there was nobody around. Nothing. No cars. No movement at all. The houses were all shuttered and quiet…apart from the cicadas going frantic. What I didn’t then realise was there were people here, but they were all inside, in the cool. They’d all been up since dawn, working their fields and vineyards. When I came out – late-ish, after a little too much wine with supper – to work in the sun, they were already back in the cool. I was the classic mad dog Englishman who didn’t know that here, as they had done for centuries, they still follow l’heure soleil, not the clock. They do still.
I still have this picture in my head of an old guy, small, bent, but about four feet wide at the shoulder, coming slowly down the hill behind two white oxen. I must have looked close to expiring in my dusty hole. He was looking at me and shaking his head in a pitying sort of way. He pointed to the blazing heavens and wagged a ‘no, no, no’ finger at me. He indicated my bare head and waved the finger again. I had understood that southern Europeans were a bit lazy. But when it’s in the high thirties and no-one’s got any air conditioning… well, I mean, don’t be daft. But I was, and so I did, soon after, get sunstroke.
The dig had uncovered walls, mosaic floors, and, of huge significance, two four foot by four foot, stone-built, cement-faced square high-sided basins. They thought they must have been wine vats… 1600 years old. No-one else knows about these things because the following year the château that owned the land where the dig was, got sold and the new owner just flattened everything to plant vines! She should have been locked up. But we had, briefly, proof that Ste Colombe was, early on, seen as a good place to make wine.
Not being able to fend for myself, I was directed up the hill to lodge with an old couple called Cassin, in another of the six hamlets that go to make up Sainte Colombe, called Lardit. And that was hugely significant.
“C’est bien un Anglais, celui-la”, Monsieur Cassin said to Madame that first evening as they watched me floundering towards them across their vineyard, the nineteen-year-old, freshly-landed in France and supposed to be lodging in their house. It had taken me a while but I’d finally found my way out of the ‘dig’, past the church, up the hill on the path through the woods, past the Mairie to Lardit … and now there was just this vineyard to cross. This worried-looking old couple stood the other side. I could see them shaking their heads as I fought my way across the rows of vines.
Which of course is NOT what you do, as vines in Bordeaux are strung along wire fences … many, many parallel rows of wire fences. You have to be very stupid to try to go across them. The Cassins welcomed me in anyway.
And my life changed totally.
My subsequent wine life only happened because of those two in that vineyard, called La Clariere. They were that day, and till the end, just ‘Monsieur’ and ‘Madame’ to me. In 40 years I never called them anything else. I told people they were my ‘French Parents’. And although they always kept it formal and never addressed me as ‘tu‘, but always ‘vous’, they did actually like me. Even if I was Anglais. Très English apparently.
In France, I had a lot to learn. At school I hadn’t learnt much, certainly not French. The Cassins were a little shocked by that, but had agreed to help out the archaeologist who was employing me on a basis of no wages, food and lodgings only. So the Cassins bravely took me in.
Well…not quite ‘in’. Always a cautious couple, they put me in the barn. Not actually in the hay, but a small side room with a bed. A big bed with ancient linen sheets, very thick and coarse, that were wonderfully cool on hot nights. They were antique sheets, with Madame’s very elaborate cipher embroidered on them, by her, at school. There was a bowl on a stand to wash in, with a big jug to fetch water from the pump in the yard. The rest of my bathroom was fifty yards down the vegetable garden. It was not a ‘WC’ water closet, just a closet … an earth closet. Let’s skip the details … but you can understand how come it was such a bountiful vegetable garden.
And what Madame could do with those vegetables and her hens, pigs, geese and ducks was something miraculous. I loved the whole barn-living thing but it was the food that was the best bit. And the wine wasn’t bad at all.
I wasn’t very used to wine, but it grew on you. “This is the life!” I thought. I didn’t then realise that it was, actually, going to be my whole life. Not just that wine. Not just that vineyard, that village and the town and district of Castillon on the Dordogne … but the whole world of wine. In 50 years I have not found a nicer world.