Talking Location With author Daniella Bernett – MALTA
Talking Location With Pam Billinge – Mayenne, FRANCE
21st July 2021
#TalkingLocationWith… Pam Billinge, author of The Spirit of the Horse – Mayenne, FRANCE
NATURE’S HEALING IN MAYENNE, FRANCE
The first time I set foot on French soil an undignified label was hanging around my neck, Paddington Bear style. ‘UM’ it declared, for ‘Unaccompanied Minor’. I was 14, it was the mid-70s and I was leaving the UK for the first time to visit my French pen-pal. Every facet of the adventure bewitched me : the slopes of the Vosges Mountains knee-deep in daffodils; the coupe of champagne afforded even to the children at a first communion celebration; my hosts’ first floor apartment with its floor to ceiling windows which rattled when the church bells rang, the dark bitter chocolate served in a slice of crusty baguette for an afternoon snack.
My penpal’s parents were the schoolteachers in a small village in Alsace. I had been raised in anonymous suburbia and this foray into a rural French community opened my eyes to the possibility of difference and a particular kind of adventure. I realised that by learning to communicate in French I could not only discover a new culture, I could also explore a different part of myself. There is something about the music of a language, the phrasing of sentences, the placement of emphasis, the tone, the stretching or shortening of vowels, the way you turn your mind and lips and mouth around words, which takes us on a journey of intrapersonal as well as geographic dimensions.
Perhaps it was this love of self-discovery through language which led me much later in life, to write. And then, to return to live in France in 2018. How I chose the location of my new home, the North Eastern corner of Mayenne, had more to do with the needs of my three horses, however, than mine as an author. For it was my dream of having my herd live at home with me, which gave me the courage to sell up in England and relocate to a small ‘fermette’ with two hectares of land.
As well as writing, I am a horse-led coach and therapist so my home would also double as a base for retreats. It had to feel magical, healing and peaceful. The hills roll gently through this part of France and are laced with tiny streams and medium sized rivers. Walk in Les Alpes Mancelles, hike or canoe, discovering Saint Ceneri le Gerei, a tiny hamlet prettier than any chocolate box or Saint Leonard des Bois with its magnetic rock formations and ancient oaks. The slopes which my horses inhabit, like many in the region, are irrigated by natural, underground water sources. A spring gurgles adjacent to the house and it is hard not to fall under its spell, taking a seat and simply sitting for a while, allowing the breathe of the land to fill my lungs. Even in the hottest, driest days of summer the meadows are green and teem with insect and butterfly life. See swallow-tailed butterflies, luminescent grasshoppers two inches long and the elegant, captivating hummingbird moth as it gathers nectar with its long proboscis.
Deer and wild boar can often be seen travelling through the valley and in winter when everywhere is frozen, the waters still run and ensure life for all kinds of birds. In the finer weather when the raspberry canes are loaded, and the squashes and courgettes run riot in my vegetable plot, and the old, gnarled boughs of the pear and apple trees bourgeon with ripe fruit, it really does feel like paradise.
Beyond my boundary, forests and riverbanks provide shaded walks, and pretty medieval villages with their stone and turrets and tumbling geraniums are destinations for lunch, picnics or a flavour of history. You can find, too, Roman ruins at Jublains and prehistoric caves at Saulges, where out of season you’ll meet barely a soul. Here lunch hours are not hours, but two. Don’t plan on doing anything between 12 and 2, other than, perhaps dine at one of the local restaurants. Choose from the ‘menu des ouvriers’ – a copious lunch designed for those who are working or travelling.
At the open markets I buy fresh raw goats’ milk, artisan cheeses and home-grown organic vegetables. If I am lucky a vigneron may have travelled from Alsace or the Loire Valley to offer a tasting and sell their wines in boxes of six or twelve bottles. It would be a shame, anyway, to only buy one from these people who have travelled miles to sell their own produce direct to their customers.
My books which are about personal transformation, discovering our essential self and how to be at peace, with joy, have found a perfect home here in the heart of agricultural Mayenne. Coming to live here suits my herd, but it also suits me, more than I might have thought. Soaking in nature, leading a quieter and more spacious life, having access to outstanding, locally produced food and being surrounded by the grounding, healing spirit of my horses. What more could an author, a horse or indeed a visitor want?
Author of The Spell of the Horse, Stories of Healing and Personal Transformation with Nature’s Finest Teacher, and The Spirit of the Horse, More Stories of Life, Love and Leadership. Both published by Blackbird Books.
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