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Welcome to Doodlecat, where we enjoy the pleasures of life (with a slight bias towards the outdoors). This page is regularly updated with news and views plus information about any additions or changes to the various parts of the site. It acts as Doodlecat’s Blog too, so the odd rant considered opinion may pop up from time to time.

I would love to be able to say that Doodlecat is all my own work, but it isn’t. Much of the outdoors content is courtesy of the splendid people who participate in the annual TGO Challenge (there is a section entirely devoted to this unique event) and many others.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

A Ridgeway Ramble

sign Ridgeway by Smeathes Ridge
Cut-out metal sign at Smeathe's Ridge
I rather dislike long distance walks in the summer, and I’ve never been especially keen on the national trails of the southerly parts of Great Britain. The plain fact is that they lack solitude. Every few miles it seems there is a road, and a car park, with its attendant rubbish, cans and about 200 yards of dog poo extending in either direction along the trail. That and the fact that many southern landowners seem to resent anyone straying inches from the strait and narrow, so they closely hem in all public paths and byways with a range of barbed wire barriers that could outdo the Western Front in 1916.

However, between the glorious days of spring and the cool days of autumn there is a hiatus in my personal walking calendar. The Alps, Picos and the Pyrenees are heaving with hikers, and the refuges become places to avoid – especially the fly blown latrines. Scotland and Scandinavia are plagued with midges, and often sweltering too. And so I tend to a period of summer sloth; just a six or seven miler on a Sunday, and couple of mornings doing our charity dog walking (not too onerous now poor old Alfie the help-dawg has a gammy leg).

Alan by information sign and map
Alan points out the route
So I approached Alan Sloman’s suggestion that we broke our summer interlude with three days walking part of the Ridgeway with a degree of circumspection. “It’s easy walking, and there’s a pub at each overnight” he said in a cajoling voice, “and we can park a car at each end to make it a nice linear walk rather than a contrived circular with horrid bits. Did I mention the pubs? There are pubs, you know, with beer and stuff – even a lunchtime one – plus a tea shop!”

I succumbed, although the bit about the pubs and the tea shop turned out to be overly optimistic.

On Tuesday 8th July I arrived at the car park on the Ridgeway at Bury Down, just south of Chilton. Al’s car was already there. I saw several official looking notices saying “No overnight parking”, so parked the old beemer by some bushes at a discreet distance from the road. As it transpired, this was not discreet enough – but more of that later. Soon we were whizzing off to our start point at The Sanctuary car park on the A4, just SE of Avebury, with its ancient stone circle and avenue.  This car park too is festooned with “no overnight parking” notices. These though are of a more half-hearted computer printout variety, badly laminated and stuck to the fences like wind-blown litter. I really don’t get it. It’s not as though these places are going to be chocca at 3am is it? Are walkers expected to leave their cars on the unlit verges of the A4 instead? I had always entertained the idea that a car park is a place dedicated to the parking of cars. Clearly this is a ridiculous notion, and I am ashamed for having clung to it for the past six decades.

map of day one
First day - the route shown is where we went on the Ridgeway, the tent symbol is where we dropped down to camp.

Nevertheless, pettifogging rules aside, this turned out to be a very pleasant summer walk, teeming with wild flowers, butterflies, birds and strewn with ancient forts, tumuli and tombs. Plus the views that unfold heading east just get better and better. There are a few viewless bits between hedges and trees, but not enough to spoil the walk.

After the car shuttling we finally set off around 11.30 for the leisurely stroll to our first overnight camp at Ogbourne St George. The adjacent fields on Overton Down still have a scattering of Sarsen Stones, as used in the ancient monuments. It seems that 3,500 years ago the pre-agricultural  landscape was very different -  strewn with these mysterious boulders. They are known locally and shown on the map as “grey wethers” (a wether being a young ram) and they really do look a little like sheep grazing in the long grass.

View west from Avebury Down
View west from Avebury Down

We ambled on, and in blustery winds with sunshine and showers scudding past, eventually passing through the ramparts of Barbury Castle, an iron age hill fort. It has a long history of military use, through Roman and Saxon times right up until the 1940s, when anti-aircraft guns were placed there to protect the nearby airfield. Quite important as it was here that many of the Horsa gliders were assembled for D Day, and no-one was risking the Germans getting wind of what was going on. Subsequently the airfield became a hospital base for casualties, and a military hospital remained on the site until 1996. Today the site is owned by the London Science Museum and used as a storage facility for the largest objects – hovercraft, de-activated (I hope) nuclear missiles, old computers and so on.

On the way to Barbury Castle we met a young woman with camera, tripod and clipboard, making careful notes.

“Probably a naturalist,” I remarked.

 “Oooh, do you think she’s going to take her clothes off?” said the ever optimistic Al.

Al on Smeathe's Ridge
Al on Smeathe's Ridge
We stopped for a chat and discovered that she was engaged in a survey to assess the visual impact of covering the airfield in 160,000 solar panels. This being a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty I would have thought that it would be a pretty major intrusion. Nevertheless, she explained,  Swindon Borough Council has approved the scheme on the basis that the airfield is a ‘brownfield site’. I am sure that the fact that the council, via a wholly owned subsidiary, are joint partners in the project had no bearing whatsoever.

So why the survey work? Such has been the outcry against this cosy bit of decision making that HM Planning Inspectorate is conducting an inquiry in September. In the meantime, much to the dismay of the council and the solar energy industry, the government has moved to cap subsidies for solar farms, so it is likely that even if they do get the scheme past the inquiry, the project will be uneconomic anyway.

Al had promised a café at the farm just after Barbury Castle, and I was looking forward to a cuppa and a butty. Sadly we were faced with a weed infested roofless ruin. We later learned that the tenant had abandoned the place deep in rent arrears, and that it was subsequently vandalised and set on fire. I quietly hoped that the pubs of Ogbourne St George had withstood the economic downturn rather more successfully.

And then it was a glorious descent along Smeathes Ridge into Ogbourne. We saw a Red Kite here – rare in my part of the country, but as I was to discover, very common now along the Ridgeway. All the way dark clouds loomed over our little patch of sunshine and we could see mini monsoon showers skim along the edge of the ridge. Only a few drops touched us though until we entered the village, where it fairly fell out of the sky.

Fortunately we were passing the Parklands hotel. Although it was barely tea-time we tried the door – it opened. It opened into a little reception area and beyond that a bar with a real ale tap on display. A sign over a bell push invited us to ring for service, so we did, and a very nice young lady and then the owner served us much needed hydrating fluids over the next hour or two until the rain subsided. We decided to book a table and toddled off to find our camp site at Foxlynch, a horsey sort of place and indeed we shared the field with a couple of ponies and a few chickens. But the facilities were clean, everything worked and it was nice to have a garden bench to relax on.

 The chickens decided that Al’s trailstar would make a great love shack, and within minutes of him pitching it a hen scuttled in, quickly followed by a large red cockerel. Much squawking followed, mainly from Al, as he evicted the would-be lovers.

chicken entering Al's tent
Heading for the love shack

Our Camp at Foxlynch
Our Camp at Foxlynch
Cockerel
Rocky the Rooster

En route to the campsite we passed a decent looking pub called “The Inn With The Well”, but having already booked our dinner we reluctantly gave it a miss and returned to the hotel, where we watched Germany thrash Brazil 7-1. The goals went in so fast that it was difficult to know whether you were watching a replay of the last one or a fresh ball hitting the net.  And so to a good night’s sleep.


Day Two

map for day two
Route for day two


Al sitting on bench with view
Never pass a bench without sitting on it
The next morning started with a bit of a trudge along an overgrown byway to regain the ridge (NE from the tent symbol on the map) but once aloft the going was easy once more, if a bit hemmed in by hedges at first. But once past Whitefield Hill, the views opened up once more and before long Liddington Castle (another iron age fort) came into view. We paused here to enjoy a bit of a sit down in the steadily improving weather, and as Al remarked, we wouldn’t want to arrive too early at the Shepherd’s Rest for lunch and a couple of refreshing pints. At this point we were overtaken by a couple of teenage lads who we had seen pitch at Foxlynch last night. They were in good spirits and going “as far as they got”. They weren’t bothered whether they wild camped either, as they were carrying all the food they needed for their six days on the trail. They waved a cheery farewell as we settled to the serious business of a slight snooze.

Timing is everything and before I had really settled in to a proper snooze it was time to set off across the M4 to Foxhill and the Shepherd’s Rest.

Green Shield beetle on M4 bridge
Green Shield beetle on M4 bridge
Disaster! The pub had been transmogrified into an indian restaurant! We had heard rumours in Ogbourne, but the horrific reality was almost too much for Al, especially as we had a hill to climb now.  “Maybe they’ll have a bar”, he said. “Yes, I replied, but only with bottled Cobra I’ll be bound”. And so with heavy hearts and packs we set off and found a pleasant lunch spot by Lammy Down with a view down to Ashbourne House in the far distance. We ate and dozed in the warm sunshine to the rhythmic clanging of a nearby farm hand engaged in hitting a metal spike with a large hammer, to no obvious purpose.

From here on the walk and the views get better and better still. Where the path became rather unpleasantly rutted, a chap with a Ridgeway T shirt popped out of the trees and directed us along a pleasant woodland path to Wayland’s Smithy, a Neolithic Long Barrow or burial chamber. A strange and atmospheric place, set amongst ancient whispering beeches seemingly from another world and time, which I suppose it is. Two bunches of long dead flowers lay in the dark chill of the central chamber, placed there by whom? We agreed that this place had a very special feeling as we left to the murmuring of the wind in the old trees.

Wayland's Smithy long barrow
Wayland's Smithy

And then we were back on the trail again, well made and maintained now all the way to the fort and prehistoric white horse at Uffington. Here we came across a large youth group led by PGL leaders. They seemed to be inner city kids, a tad out of their comfort zone, but enthusiastic and ‘up for it’. Their camp was in a field just below the fort and as we passed it en route to Britchcombe Farm we saw them being organised into teams for some sort of bonding exercises by their team leaders. A bit of instruction on tent pitching would have been more useful, judging by the rows of tents that lurched drunkenly in the light breeze.

view from Uffington Castle
View from the iron age fort, Uffington Castle

Uffington White Horse
Uffington White Horse (back end and tail)

Knapweed with butterfly
Flora and fauna - Knapweed with Marbled White butterfly

Britchcombe Farm offered a delightful pitch for the night – a bit of a long way from the pub in Uffington, but it was worth the walk. I can thoroughly recommend the Fox and Hounds for good beer and decent unpretentious food. A village pub that hasn’t pretensions to being a restaurant, but does the job just as well, if not better than many that do.

Camp at Britchcombe Farm
Camp at Britchcombe Farm

Day Three

It’s a stiffish climb up the footpath back to the Ridgeway, but we accomplished it easily enough in the cool sunny morning. By the time we reached the top the sky was cloudless and the sun beat down – time to slap on the factor 30!
Map
Final day - stunning views north

The views north from here onwards to the A34 are stunning, stretching towards an infinite horizon under a cloudless blue sky. We were overtaken by a chap who was walking from Lyme Regis all the way to Hunstanton on the Norfolk coast. He had bivvied the night before at Liddington hill fort. He had a wedding to attend in Norfolk, and had decided to walk there. The only trouble was the date of the wedding meant that he was having to do 18 mile days. We chatted for a while and he told us about some great long distance walking in Turkey, a place we’d never previously considered.

Chalkland meadow
Chalkland meadow with hundreds of wild flowers

As he was (necessarily) walking at a fair pace we said our farewells and sat down for lunch. After a few minutes we heard the strains of “Clementine” being sung lustily with revised lyrics:

Are we there yet, are we there yet
Are we there yet, are we there?
Are we there yet, are we there yet
Are we there yet, are we there?

The songsters came into view; the two teenage lads we had met the previous day. They had made a lateish start after camping in a wood and were heading for Goring (or “as far as we get”). I rather liked their attitude to this walking lark – head from here to there and leave the bit in between unplanned, to pan out as it may.

Now we were heading for the end of our walk, but one last treat was in store. We had seen several Red Kites, but as we approached the crossing point on the B4494 south of Wantage, we saw half a dozen hovering in the updraught and occasionally swooping low over the fields before soaring aloft again. So spectacular was the display that a businesswoman with an open top Mercedes had pulled over into the makeshift car park to watch. “I really should be back at work,”  she said, “but you don’t see something like this every day.”

Indeed you don’t.
Red Kite in flight
Red Kite in flight

And then it was just a stroll back to the car park – we could tell we were getting close by the increasing number of dog walkers bringing their animals along to crap on the path. Some picked up, presumably to adorn the trees and hedgerows with yet more of  their pooches poops neatly encapsulated in little plastic bags. Why do dog owners do this?.

My car was safe and sound and we were soon whizzing along to Al’s car. As we had finished all our water we called in to a pub in Marlborough for a couple of cold shandies, and I phoned home.

“Ah, it’s you,” came the frosty tones of Miss W. “Did you get the messages that I left on Alan’s phone?” (my own phone generally lives in the car).
“No, what messages?”
“The messages about the police calling here at three o’ clock this morning making enquires about an abandoned black BMW in a remote rural car park. They woke the neighbours up too”

Oooo –er. I sensed that I might be in a bit of trouble here. It transpired that the police had had a report about my car and the local police had been over to have a shufty. When it was still there the next night they made enquiries. Quite why the enquires were followed up at 3 am I’m not sure, just as I am uncertain as to what the appearance of Miss W at the door armed with a fly swat (the only weapon she could find) made on her visitors. I was absolutely sure, however, that the fly swat might well be employed vigorously on my return.

I grovelled.

No overnight parking signAnd here’s a tip, courtesy of the Thames Valley Police. If you are leaving your car somewhere for a day or two, ring 101 and let the local police know. All those “no overnight parking in this car park” do tend to put you off, but I doubt whether the council has bothered to have them authorised by the Secretary of State for Transport, so in most cases they will be unenforceable.  Certainly no mention was made by the police, and there was no parking ticket on my car.

The only fixed penalty that I suffered was when I got home. :-(

All in all this was an unexpectedly enjoyable walk. The weather helped enormously (it would be rather unpleasant in sheeting rain I reckon) and the views, history, flora and fauna all contributed to a very relaxing three days.  You could easily thrash along this trail, but my advice would be to potter around the monuments, drop off into the odd village pub when the fancy takes you and generally enjoy a rare bit of peace in the often overpopulated south of England.

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Monday, June 30, 2014

National Insect Week

National insect week has just finished. What? You hadn't heard of it? Ok, I must confess that I hadn't either, until Miss W was prompted to mention it last week when she made a remarkable discovery in our wildlife pond. The pond has matured well, and is now partly covered by water lily and ringed with marsh marigold, irises, norfolk reed and many other wild plants. As a result the life inside it has proliferated too, despite the attentions of Mike, the local heron, and some of the most fascinating creatures that we see swimming about are the mini lobster-like dragonfly nymphs, fearful predators that will attack and eat almost anything smaller than they are - including other dragonfly nymphs! So, what was the discovery? Tucked under a lily leaf, about 6" above the water was this:

exuvia or outer shell of dragonfly nymph
This is called an exuvia - nope, I didn't know that either

It looks like an insect, doesn't it - but it isn't. It is in fact a completely empty shell, translucent and gossamer thin. No, this is what is left of one of our free swimming nymphs after it has emerged from the water to transform itself into an adult dragonfly. The problem with having an exoskeleton is that it is a fixed size, and the creature has to shed it in order to grow. This nymph will have done that several times during its couple of years in the pond. Finally it develops wing buds on the thorax, and at this stage it is ready to emerge. It climbs up out of the water, anchors itself under a leaf, and then the skin splits from the base of the head right across the thorax. You can see the opening in the picture below.


Exuvia showing emergence opening
Exuvia showing emergence opening

First the legs emerge, and an hour or so passes whist the new legs harden. Once this has happened the dragonfly wriggles and tugs until it finally pulls its body free, and the wings slip out of the wing buds. Its old casing (now called the exuvia) is completely empty, and the newly emerged dragonfly starts to inflate its wings, eyes and body to full size - about twice as long as the nymph casing from which it emerged. In our case the nymph was 45mm long, so the dragonfly will have been around 90mm - quite a big one. It's very vulnerable at this stage as it has to hang there quite still until body and wings are fully hardened, which can take a couple of hours.

Dragonflies mating
Dragonflies mating

 I wonder what type it was? I'm no expert, but maybe some can give me a clue. Dragonflies are fantastic creatures, and the picture below is of one of our regular visitors,  the rather fab Broad Bodied Chaser.

Broad Bodied Chaser
Broad Bodied Chaser by the pond

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Challenge 2014

There are quite a few excellent trail diaries on this year's challenge, not least those of my walking mates Alan Sloman and Andrew Walker. That's them in the picture below, heading east from Glas-leathad Feshie. I have to say, they are both pretty accomplished wordsmiths, so for truly entertaining (if not entirely accurate) reportage, their's are the better places to go.

Alan and Andy walking the hills above the Feshie

However ... if you've ever struggled with a really tough day, and thought you were the only one thinking of ending it all ... if you've craved company after maddening days alone in the wilderness ... suffered from a bootful of blisters ... love Scotland's wild places ... then ...

Wot I have wrote is HERE 

It was another fab walk. Hope you enjoy it too. If you want to comment then pop back here!

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Friday, January 24, 2014

The Beast of Gévaudan

Our holiday home near Saugues
Our holiday home near Saugues
We are frequent visitors to France, but September saw our first visit to the Haute-Loire, and we looked forward to a relaxing holiday amongst the forests, pastures and ancient granite that long extinct volcanoes have left behind. The house we had rented was a curious place, built on the site of a medieval watch tower. Half hewn into solid granite rocks, with barred windows below and sturdy oak doors, it really did look as though it was designed to keep something out. And indeed it was, for it was built at a time when terror stalked the land. From a passing curiosity about the history of our holiday home we found ourselves on the trail of a mass murderer.

This is the true story of a gigantic beast that slaughtered women and children in what was then the old province of Gévaudan, and it all began just a few miles from our gite.

Early in June 1764, a woman was looking after a herd of oxen near the village of Langogne, when she was attacked by a gigantic beast. Her terrified dogs ran off, but fortunately the oxen grouped together and drove the animal away. The woman was not badly hurt, but she came back to Langogne very shaken with her clothes in tatters. Her description of the huge beast was dismissed as the imaginings of someone who had been badly frightened – post traumatic stress in modern parlance. It was only a wolf … maybe a rabid wolf … said the villagers, not that unusual. The story was soon forgotten.

contemporary illustration of beast eating victim
But a few weeks later the Beast re-appeared. On June 30, at Saint-Etienne-de-Ludgares, it made its first kill and devoured a 14 year old girl; on August 8th it attacked a girl from Puy-Laurent and ripped her apart.

The death toll mounted. Three 15-year-old boys, a woman from Arzenc, a little girl from Thorts and a shepherd from Chaudeyrac were all found dead, their bodies terribly mutilated and barely recognisable. In September, a girl from Rocles, a man from Choisniet and a woman from Apcher disappeared. Only partial remains and shreds of clothing were found, scattered across the countryside.

The attacks continued into the autumn. On October 8th, a young man from Pouget met the Beast in an orchard and it slashed his scalp and his chest. Two days later a 13-year-old child had his scalp ripped off. On October 19th a 20-year-old woman was found horribly torn to pieces near Saint-Alban. According to the local press, the Beast “drank her blood and ate her guts”.

The slaughter was to continue for three more years, with almost 100 victims dead, mostly women and children, and many maimed. Sometimes the beast was actually shot, but got up again to charge at its tormentors. Sometimes it was beaten off by its intended victims but eventually it always succeeded in making a grisly kill.

Record of death in parish of Hubacs
Entry in parish record of Hubacs. Translation: On 1st July 1764, Jeane Boule was buried without the final sacrements, having been killed by the Beast. Present Joseph Vigier and Jean Reboul.

The sensational story gripped the nation as newspapers reported the killings, with lurid illustrations adding colour to the reports. Such tales spread terror. Throughout Gévaudan work in the fields was abandoned, streets deserted; people never went out alone and unarmed. Finally the army was called in, with a troop of dragoons under Captain Duhamel making daily excursions. Hundreds of local men, armed with shotguns, scythes, spears, and sticks joined the chase. As soon as the Beast was reported, they would hunt it down. Criers brought out the peasants from the villages; brave men got organized and scoured the snow covered countryside.
 newspaper illustration of farmer and wife beating off beast

All in vain. Duhamel killed one exceptionally large wolf, but despite his claims it was not the beast. The killings continued unabated.

Winter passed into spring. The discredited Duhamel and his soldiers were replaced by a professional hunter from Normandy called Denneval, who had pledged that he would return with the body of the beast within a few weeks. He laid careful plans, reconnoitred the country, took statements from survivors and measurements on the attack sites to ascertain the true size of the animal. In the end he had no more success than Duhamel. As the gravestones and parish records bear testament, the spring of 1765 saw the slaughter rise to its peak.

This was a challenge, not only to the local authorities, but the national government. France has always been a somewhat loose association of independently minded regions, and the state has to prove its value to them if it is to retain its grip on power. There was also the reputation of France to consider. The story had been picked up by a London newspaper, which cast a satirical eye on the story, reporting that a French army of 120 000 men had been defeated by this fierce animal and that after eating 25 000 cavalrymen and the whole artillery it had been brought down by a tabby cat when it tried to eat her kittens.

Now the honour of France was at stake!

woman attacked by the Beast
And so it was that the King took an interest, and a reward of over 9,000 livres was promised. Unsurprisingly this brought about some truly outlandish schemes, my personal favourite being a vast doomsday machine made up of 30 shotguns that would be triggered by ropes attached to a tethered calf – the theory being that its struggles as the beast approached would set off all the guns in one murderous broadside. However, the King was not impressed by the inventors’ enthusiasm and ordered a court official, his hunting companion and “Porte Arquebus” Francois Antoine de Bauterne, to go immediately to Gévaudan. and to bring the monster’s corpse to Versailles. At last the people could take heart. By the command of the King of France, the Beast would die!

Unfortunately the Beast didn’t oblige.

Antoine had little experience of tracking and hunting wolves in hard mountain country. The skills of the royal huntsman, honed in the forests of the Loire were of no use here. He organized traditional beats to flush out his quarry, but had not the faintest glimpse of a wolf. The peasants mocked his efforts and complained that he and his entourage were just as ineffective as all the others, and far more expensive too. After three months of trial and error, and no kills, Antoine suddenly changed tack and left for a wood near Chazes, despite the fact that in this part of the Auvergne the beast had never been seen and no attacks had ever been reported. However, many wolves were known to be in that area. On 21st September, he was lying in wait and saw a large animal, with its mouth wide-open and bloodshot eyes. No doubt about it - it was the Beast! Antoine fired; the Beast fell. It got up again but a second shot brought it down, dead.

The Beast weighed 100 pounds, was 5 feet 8 inches long, and had enormous teeth and huge feet. It was a wolf, a large one, but an ordinary wolf all the same. It was carried in triumph to Saugues where the surgeon carried out a post-mortem examination. Several children who had seen the Beast declared  (under some pressure from Antoine) that they recognised it. Minutes were written and Mr de Ballainvilliers, the Intendant of Auvergne, wrote to His Majesty thanking him for saving the people of Gévaudan. The corpse of the Beast was stuffed and sent to Fontainebleau, where the king joked with his courtiers about the superstition of simple peasants, which had transformed an ordinary wolf into an apocalyptic beast.

Stuffed wolf shown to King
The wolf killed by Antoine de Bauterne is shown to the King

It was a good day for Antoine. He was awarded the Grand-Croix of the Order of Saint-Louis and received a pension of one thousand livres. His son obtained a cavalry company and made a fortune by exhibiting the Beast in Paris. Ten years later, it was still being shown in country fairs.

At last France could sleep easily - the Beast was dead.

But far from Fontainebleau and Versailles, deep in the countryside of Gevaudan, there was scepticism. The people it had attacked knew exactly what a wolf looked like, and their descriptions were of a very different creature, "a beast with a huge head, reddish sides, with a black band along the back, a very bushy tail, thick legs with large claws."

In order to obey the King, said the sceptics, Antoine had killed a beast, but it was not the Beast. Antoine’s “Beast” had been killed far from its usual haunts in a forest where wolves were certain to be found. Fortunately for Antoine, they said, the killings appear to have stopped, but this is just a pause. Maybe it’s somewhere else where the summer weather makes hunting easy, but it will return for easier prey when winter comes.

Beast abducts two children
That prophesy was fulfilled all too soon. As the autumn of 1765 drew into winter the carnage began again. A young girl was killed in the village of Marcillac, then a woman in Sulianges – just her two severed hands were found. From 1st January 1766, it was seen almost every day. In one notable attack two little girls in Lèbre were playing in front of their house when the Beast came and pounced on one of them and grabbed her in its fangs. The other girl jumped on the back of the Beast, held on tightly and was carried off. Her screams of terror alerted the villagers … too late. The head of the first child was ripped off already; the face of the other little girl was torn to shreds.

beast eating a womanThe people of Gévaudan begged the Intendant of the province for help, but their pleas were, of course, ignored. The Intendant did not want to lose face, and indeed his position or his liberty. Versailles had closed the case. To suggest that the Beast was still alive was to challenge the King or at least insinuate he had been cheated by M. Antoine. The Beast was dead. M. Antoine had killed it, and that was that.

But the inconvenient truth was that the Beast was still eating people, and something had to be done. So it was that on 19 June 1767 the Marquis of Apcher, one of the lords of Gévaudan., organized a beat. One of the hunters was Jean Chastel. He was about 60 years old, born in the parish of Besseyres-Sainte-Marie. He was a solid and religious man, well known to be a skilled hunter.

According to his own account, Jean Chastel was positioned outside Sogne-d’Auvert, near the town of Saugues. He was armed with his shotgun, loaded with two consecrated bullets. He was saying his prayers when he looked up and saw the Beast -  “the real one”. Calmly, he closed his prayer book, put it in his pocket, took off his glasses and put them in a case:

“The Beast does not move; it waits. I shoulder my weapon, shoot; the Beast stands still. At the sound of the shot, the dogs run up, knock it down and rip it up. It is dead.”

Its body was loaded on a horse and carried to the chateau at Besques where it was examined. It was indeed “The Beast”.  It was not a wolf. Its feet, its ears, the hugeness of its mouth indicated a monster of unknown origin; in its stomach was the shoulder of a young girl, probably one that had been devoured two days before in Pébrac.

The corpse of the Beast was exhibited around the province, then it was put in a box and Jean Chastel set off for Versailles with his prize. There numerous academics would determine what kind of animal it could be - and Mr Antoine would be exposed as a fraud who had tried to cheat the King. Chastel had never believed Antoine’s claim, and had been an open critic of him during his time in Gévaudan, resulting in Antoine ordering his temporary imprisonment. Chastel had a score to settle with M. Antoine.

Unfortunately, the trip took place in the heat of August. By the time he reached Versailles the Beast was in such a state of putrefaction that the stench was unbearable; it was buried before anyone could examine it.  Alas, the burial site is lost, so even today we will never know exactly what the Beast of Gevaudan was.

Nevertheless Chastel was introduced to the King who was greatly amused by this taciturn peasant and his belated claim to the reward. The King made fun of him, and poor Chastel had to endure the mockery of the courtiers too. He was sure that he was the victim of a court intrigue instigated by Antoine, who, after all, had much to lose if the King took Chastel seriously. But what could he do? Alone and far from home he did not invite further humiliation by protesting his innocence. He made his obeisances to the King  and returned to Gévaudan,where the killings had stopped for good.

This time the Beast really was dead.

view of Besseyres-Sainte-Marie today
Jean Chastel would recognise this view - Besseyres-Sainte-Marie today

The Gévaudan. was less ungrateful than Versailles. The Receiver-General granted him an award of seventy-two livres and Jean Chastel became a hero. Everyone in the region knows his name, and even a century and a half later a local writer devoted an epic poem of 360 pages to him. His name is on many of the memorials of the Beast and its victims, and a bronze plaque in his honour stands outside his village.

And that, it might seem, is the end of the story – but not quite … questions remain …

Sign at Besseyres-Sainte-Marie saying home of Jean Chastel
Sign at Besseyres-Sainte-Marie
Was the ending of this story perhaps the beginning of the werewolf myths? Or were they already so deeply embodied in folklore that the Beast was created as a convenient cover for a murderer?

As well as being, notionally, an innkeeper, Chastel was a hunter and poacher who kept dogs and other beasts at his home. He was well acquainted with the habits of the wolves in the area and continually criticised the rather inept beats organised by the King’s appointed hunter, Francois Antoine. This annoyed Antoine so much that he had Chastel arrested and imprisoned at Saugues with the instruction that he should not be released until well after Antoine and his retinue had returned to Paris.

Bronze plaque to Jean Chastel
Chastel's plaque at Besseyres-Sainte-Marie
And here’s the thing. During Chastel’s imprisonment, the killings by the Beast ceased. And Chastel’s account of how he killed it seems just a little odd. The Beast apparently waited calmly whilst he completed his prayer, put away his glasses, raised his gun and fired. Not the actions of the Beast as described by everyone else that encountered it. Could it be that it knew Chastel? Could it be that it actually belonged to him? The rumours go that Chastel himself had bred a dreadful hybrid of mastiff and wolf and used it to kill and devour in order to cover and distract attention from his own depraved, sexually motivated killings. If true, then far from being a hero, Chastel was one of history’s most notorious serial killers.

It has also been suggested that he began his crimes before the arrival of the Beast, and that the threat of discovery led to its creation - trained to attack and eat human flesh to cover Chastel’s own murders. The rape, killing and mutilation of young women being masked by subsequent attacks, where he simply released his beast to attack men, boys and girls. Then he would commit the next rape and murder, followed by more Beast killings.

But where is the evidence? The cessation of killing whilst Chastel was locked up could be mere co-incidence. Although a part-time inn keeper, Chastel was not a sociable man. By all accounts he was a bit of a loner, a known poacher and not one to have many close friends. Such introverts tend to attract the worst kind of gossip – especially if they gain some sort of fame.
Chastel became very religious after the Beast was killed – almost mystic in his religious fervour, and even more withdrawn. This too has been painted as an indicator of guilt. However, if the rumours had begun during his lifetime, had he found himself not only humiliated at court, but suspected of being a murderer rather than a saviour, then becoming withdrawn and turning to religion is not so strange; perfectly understandable in fact. In any event, whatever the doubts about his story, the Beast was indeed dead, and today his home village celebrates his memory both on the village sign, and with his magnificent bronze plaque.

 Few of its victims were wealthy enough  to have tombstones to record their fate, and for the most part their names now only exist in dusty parish records. Some brave survivors have their courage celebrated in statues and sculptures, but for the most part it is the Beast that is remembered. When children in the Gévaudan misbehave, you might still hear the threat, "Si tu se tiens mal, la Bête te mangera!"

Statues of beast and peasants at Malzieu
The town of Malzieu has these sculptures showing a local farmer and his wife chasing off the Beast

statue of beast and shepherdess fighting at Auvers
The courage of a shepherdess, Marie-Jean Valet who fought off the Beast, is commemorated in the village of Auvers

Today the paths across these granite uplands and cool forests make for wonderful walking, offering wild raspberries and myrtles in the woods, and stunning views across wide valleys. Wolves can be seen too, but only in zoological parks and reserves. The countryside is tamer now than in Chastel’s time. We can safely follow the red and white paint marks of the Grande Routes or the yellow ‘balisage’ of the local paths. But in the quietest parts of the forest you just might fancy that you hear the soft padding of an unseen presence and somehow feel that nearby something is breathing, and watching you. Then you realise that the waymarks have changed to ... large purple pawprints.

These mark the “Traces de la Bête”, and show that you are following in the bloody steps of the Beast of Gevaudan.

waymark showing purple paw print

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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Blogroll anyone?

Apologies to all those who have Doodlecat blogrolled on their sites and wonder why I no longer display any links to their posts. It's not something you said, honestly!

Up in the top right hand corner of this page there used to be a wee blogroll that constantly changed to show the 5 latest posts from my Google Reader RSS subscriptions. It was a doddle to set up. Google Reader automatically generated a neat piece of code that I simply had to paste into a div and add a dash of CSS to make it blend into the page's design.

This worked a treat. Whenever a new post appeared on any blog that I subscribed to, it instantly appeared at the top of the blogroll, and the older ones moved down. Simples!

However, with the unnecessary demise of the excellent Google Reader, my blogroll disappeared too. Why did they do this to a service with millions of users? Probably it just wasn't new & sexy enough for ambitious Google wannabes to take on. After all, if you want to be a rising star, you have to be associated with the new cutting edge exciting stuff. So Reader was shunted into the sidings whilst the people who could/should have kept it running went off to join the Gingerbread and Jelly Bean feast in the boss's office.

Were I using blogger simply as blogger there would be no problem - just plug in a ready made widget. Doodlecat, however, is hand crafted, and this blog has been built and styled to blend seamlessly with the rest of the Doodlecat pages. Although it uses Blogger's engine for posts, the CSS and template design is my own.

So this is a plea for help. If anyone knows of an RSS reader that supplies a piece of html/javascript to do the same thing, or has any other suggestion, such as to how to incorporate and style a standard widget, I'd be glad to hear it.

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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Paramo's Five Star Customer Service

In May I was attacked by a herd of Ents - well that's how it felt as we pushed through ever denser pine trees with ever sharper branches. It wasn't just my temper that was getting frayed, though. After finally breaking free from the flesh tearing tangle of branch and twig I discovered a minor disaster.

Cut hands and faces quickly heal, but the deep rip in the shoulder of my beloved Paramo Velez smock would not. Repair or replace? After all, I bought it in 2007, so it was almost six years old. The smart deep black of the fabric had faded to a charcoal grey and, even with meticulous cleaning, each re-proofing seemed slightly less effective than the last. Was it time to part with an old friend (and around £170!)?

Surely not. It had seen me through another TGO Challenge as dry and comfortable as always  - and Paramo make a great deal of their green credentials (repairs, recycling etc). So I decided to give the repair service a try, and packed it off to the service centre in Wadhurst.

I quickly got a letter quoting £38 for the repair, inclusive of return postage. The waiting period was six weeks, which seemed rather a long time, but as I never use it in the summer that didn't bother me too much.

The Velez came back last week and I am delighted with the result - a jacket that performs virtually "as new" for just £38. Not only has the damaged shoulder panel been replaced with new fabric, but, no doubt because the jacket has faded, the other shoulder panel has been replaced too, so that it matches. The stitching is neat and the professional clean and reproof has made the jacket repel water just like new.

close-up of repair to shoulder
New shoulder panel - note water beading

I wholeheartedly recommend Paramo's repair service. Like my old gran's broom, which had both head and handle replaced many times over the years, this jacket could last forever!

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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Augustus Carp Esq. - review

Augustus Carp - the book illustration
We have all come across him – or at least his descendants. Augustus Carp is a monster: an arrogant, self-righteous (and self-serving) prig, misogynist and crashing bore. Believing himself to be the epitome of a Christian (or “Xtian”) gentleman, Augustus cheerfully ignores the caution “let him that is without sin cast the first stone” for in his eyes he IS without sin. He takes malicious pleasure in exposing and punishing those who fail to measure up to his own exacting standards – especially if he gains personal advantage as a result.

A monster, but what a comic creation he is.

Augustus displays a stunning lack of insight that leads to hilarious encounters as he constantly misinterprets the reactions of others to his pompous outpourings. His encounters with Mrs Lorton are especially enjoyable as her stifled laughter is interpreted as emotional sobs of remorse.

Both he and his father are steeped in the deadly sins that they affect to condemn. They are martyrs to gastric problems and chronic flatulence as a result of their gluttony.  There is not one ounce of charity in Augustus’ soul, but avarice, pride, sloth and envy abound in this “really good man”.

As you laugh (and laugh you will) you also long for him to get his comeuppance. He does, deliciously, but there is a sting in the tail as Augustus is reborn to plague the next generation.

I’ve just re-read it for the third time and still find myself snorting with laughter. Beg, steal, borrow (or even buy!) this book. Almost 90 years old and still, in my opinion, a masterpiece.

Augustus Carp, Esq. Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man. by Sir Henry Howarth Bashford

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