Part Six. Start of a Love Affair
I had been reading a history of science in the seventeenth century and came across mention of Denis Papin, one time employee of the Royal Society and originator of, among other things, the ‘steam digester’ or pressure cooker.
Among the ‘other things’, by the by, is a paddle steamer, in which in 1707 he travelled on the River Fulda at Cassel until the local watermen had it seized by the authorities as a threat to their monopoly of traffic on the river.
In 1700, Thomas Savery, another associate of the Royal Society, had proposed a like vessel to the English Navy Board, who had a similar mindset to the watermen of Fulda.
Their response was reported to be
‘What have interloping people, that have no concern with us, to do to…contrive or invent things for us?’
Clearly there was no Admiral Jacky Fisher on the Navy Board in 1700.
But back to Denis Papin. While pressure cookers hold no allure for me….youthful memories of mother blowing up a tin of steak and kidney pie having kept me at a safe distance from the brutes….Monsieur Papin is another steam digester of fish.
The building society pressure somewhat released by higher earnings I could afford a few more days off, and decided to visit the Loire Valley. Inconveniently placed in the centre of France, it was never an easy stop over on the night trains upon which I had depended to avoid having to take a hotel for the night, so, fired up by French history, the Loire Valley it was.
I drove down without incident through one of those golden autumn days when the leaves are just starting to fall and arrived in the late afternoon at Blois only to find that every hotel known to the tourist office was booked for some convention or other.
Gloomily heading out of town, thwarted, I saw a bar and pulled in for a coffee, fortifying myself for a trek to somewhere I didn’t want to be going to.
But the bar had rooms….clean, even if the smoke from the bar did seep up through the floorboards by about ten o’clock…and there was a dining room at the back where I had one of the best meals that I have ever eaten in France, before or since. I was saved.
The next morning I set out on foot, crossing the bridge across the Loire in the pearly light that seduced me then and has delighted me ever since, a soft luminescence which casts an enchantment on the buildings and countryside the whole length of the river.
I wanted to visit the chateau, but it was too early, so I walked through the town centre, up the interminable flights of steps and round corners, until I came upon the statue of Denis Papin. I walked on, I walked round, and wherever I went I would turn a corner only to find……..Monsieur Papin.
I visited the chateau…..redolent of the murders and conspiracies of the Wars of Religion.
I drove out into the countryside….I found the Chateau de Talcy, where Ronsard’s Cassandre lived …she of
‘Mignonne, allons voir si la rose..’
The other side of the same culture…the age of the poets of the Pleiade.
I travelled through the lakes and woodlands of the Sologne, across to the medieval donjon of Loches and up again to Amboise, where the bodies of murdered protestants were hung upside down from the battlements in the St. Bartholemew’s Day Massacre while the young Mary Queen of Scots looked on.
I carried on, to Chinon, where the new nuclear plant was visible long before the chateau; to Fontevraud, where the abbey had not long ceased to be a prison and restoration was underway; to Saumur, home of France’s version of the Spanish Riding School, the Cadre Noir.
I had gone to visit historical sites and instead fell in love with an area…the small towns, the cliff dwellings, the white stone walls around the vineyards, but, above all, the light of the Loire Valley.
For Proust, the sensation of the madeleine dipped into lime flower tisane…
For me, the unexpected encounter with Denis Papin, bringing back a sudden, vivid memory of my first visit to an area where I would eventually come to spend some twenty years of my life