When the temperature fell below -11 even my Macbook froze. I didn’t think they did that, but they do. When I finally thawed it out it had reset the date, for some reason, at 1st February 2008 and wouldn’t open my email. But since the internet had stopped working, this was kind of academic.. The satellite dish on our roof had a beard of icicles hanging from it which presumably messed up its pointing system with the satellite.
Well, if you choose to holiday at 800metres in the Pyrenees in February, I suppose you shouldn’t be surprised if it gets cold. But not like this. This has been the worst winter for 15 years, according to our neighbours in the commune of Alos, who’ve been struggling to keep their horses fed and free of frostbite. Normally, the people of the Pyrenees welcome snow to keep the ski resorts working – which have become an important part of the local economy.
And it’s very rare for the roads to be blocked as many have been over the past week. This is because they have a highly effective snow-clearing and gritting operation. The big snow ploughs on the main roads tear around so fast they often leave a trail of sparks on the road behind them. Local farmers, it seems, can earn a bit by sticking a snow plough on the fronts of their four-by-fours and driving around the networks of small roads that keep the dispersed community going. And this is a dispersed community.
One of the reasons I love the Pyrenees is that it’s what I imagine the Highlands of Scotland would have been like had the people not been cleared from the land to make way for sheep and deer. In the hills of the Ariege, there are lots of people, in hundreds of tiny, low densities communities or “hameau”, often illuminated by a solitary street light. When you look at the surrounding hills at night here they’re dotted with what look like constellations of stars, but are actually the streetlights of these hamlets in the sky. I don’t know how these hill farming communities have survived, with their tiny strips of pasture, their goats and kitchen gardens, but they do.
In fact, there has been an influx of people to the Ariege Pyrenees since 1968 when the hippies, or “soixante-huitards” started coming here to escape the materialism of urban consumer society. There are antique hippy communes still functioning on a largely self-sufficient basis, teaching their own children and growing their own recreational herbs. Many congregate at the Saturday market in St Girons, which is like a small agricultural Glastonbury, where an infinite variety of cheeses are sold by ageing blokes with dreadlocks.
The soixante-huitards came here because property was, and still is, incredibly cheap. You can still find a perfectly habitable detached house with a tiny field and a wood for around £50,000. Try that in Torridon or Glencoe. And local taxes are very low. Property is so cheap because there are so many houses here and an almost limitless supply of ancient pitched-roof barns, in various states of decay, dotted across the hills. Near the ski resorts, many have been turned into posh chalets.
Which brings us back to the Highland Clearances. Those revisionist historians who insist that the clearances were a myth, should take a trip to the Pyrenees. All these houses are a product of policies that have kept rural areas alive over the last 250 years and put people before sheep and sporting estates. There’s no housing crisis here. No young families forced to live in caravans because they can’t afford the local house prices.
Readers of this column will be aware of my frustration at the perennial housing problem in the highlands and most of the rest of Scotland. We have the lowest population density in western Europe and some of the highest real estate prices. Yet whenever I raise this with civil servants and politicians they suck their teeth and tell me that it isn’t as simple as it looks. Don’t I know that land prices are high; it costs too much to put in the infrastructure for housing; “and anyway we don’t want our beautiful country to be ruined by roads and housing developments”.
Well again – look at the Pyrenees. This place is beautiful precisely because it has people living in it and who look after it. The hills are covered with trees, unlike in Scotland’s barren hills where the sheep prevent woodland re-establishing itself. And you don’t get those vast empty expanses on the map where there are no roads. Roads aren’t always bad – indeed, if you want to develop low density, environmentally-sustainable communities, they are essential.
In the Pyrenees, as in all of France, the land belongs – at least in theory – to the people, and huge efforts are made to keep their highlands populated and accessible. The mountain areas have thousands of kilometres of way-marked walking routes, the randonnee, maintained by a small army of volunteers. You don’t get lost in the Pyrenees unless you try really hard. Every year hundreds of people – not all of them religious – cross the Pyrenees here on the old pilgrim routes to Spain, like the Santiago de Compostelle. Others walk Le Chemin de la Liberte, which follows the routes taken by British airmen during the Second World War.
Of course the Pyrenees suffers from economic decline, in common with all rural areas, and the recession has hit South West France particularly hard. But the local administration is based around powerful local mayors, in the “mairie”, who work hard to hold onto their commune’s population. There is keen competition between local mayors to attract and keep people in their bailiwicks, which has its downside. Even amid this superfluity of housing, necklaces of boring bungalows, zoned by the mayor, are still being built around some of the local townships.
But in the highlands of Scotland, you have the opposite: community politics here tend to dominated by groups of home owners trying to protect values by blocking housing development or windfarms. Of course, there is a value in preserving genuine wilderness areas of Scotland. But the highlands deserve better than to be turned into an environmental theme park. In the Pyrenees people aren’t regarded as pollution.