Life in Languedoc

By Buck, James | Contemporary Review, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Life in Languedoc

Buck, James, Contemporary Review

Languedoc is a rural area today synonymous with cheap wine and summer sun and it is difficult to realise that a century ago it was a thriving agricultural and industrial area. Paradoxically, as the region as a whole has slipped into economic decline its capital, Montpellier, has seen remarkable growth in size and importance.

Historically and culturally Languedoc includes most of that part of France west of the Rhone and south of Clermont Ferrand, but the modern administrative region consists of the Departments of the Herault, Gard and Lozere plus the Aude and Pyrenees-Orientales forming Roussillon. The immediate image is of long sandy beaches and salt water lagoons backed by mile upon mile of vines, but this is only the narrow strip formed by the plain of Lower Languedoc.

Inland one is soon at an altitude of near 1000 metres and the northern parts of the Herault and Gard and the whole of the Lozere are upland areas which include l'Aigoual at 1567 metres, highest point of the Cevennes and Mont Lozere at 1699 metres. Whilst this is mostly high plateau and small beer maybe compared with the Alps or Pyrenees, the Caroux north of Beziers is definitely mountainous in character. It is high enough to provide a mountain habitat and the meeting of Atlantic and Mediterranean influences have produced unique natural hybrid plants of great interest to naturalists.

The hills are rich in minerals, and metal refining processing and manufacture, mostly on a small scale, has a long history. A prehistoric copper mine, one of only four found in France, has been excavated and Francois Granier, a bellfounder from Herepian, has documents tracing, his direct descent from Guillaume in 1570, all in the same trade. He is semi-retired, but his business is one of the few to survive. Monsieur Granier's mother came from a long, line of nail makers and one historian suggests that the Roman army may have been supplied with nails from the hills of the Herault.

Bauxite takes its name from les Baux in the neighbouring Bouches du Rhone and this ore is also found here and extracted in small quantities, but the most recent discovery, in 1966, was uranium near Lodeve. Underground and opencast mining began in 1975 and at its peak employed 800 people. important in this now underdeveloped area. Unfortunately this enterprise went through the same cycle as other similar activities when extraction became uneconomic due to the fall in the world price of uranium following the drop in military demand. The Lodeve area is now left with an unemployment problem and a huge hole in the ground as millions of tons of earth only produce a small quantity of ore.

Apart from local supplies of copper and tin ore, Monsieur Granier's father could find sufficient coal for his foundry on the surface on his own land, but this became illegal when coal was declared a national asset. Coal mining went on near Ales in the Gard and on a smaller scale in the Herault in the upper valley of the Orb north of Bedarieux. The coal was low grade and could not compete with more distant coalfields particularly when most power stations became nuclear. Coal supplies were never sufficient, however, and charcoal for industry was produced on a large scale leading to massive deforestation. This in turn caused disastrous erosion and a mixed replanting programme was started on Mont Aigoual in 1875. This forest has matured and it is difficult to believe that it is little more than a century old.

In 1850 the Gard and the Herault came second and third for industrialisation south of the Loire, only the Var on the Italian border had more factories. Apart from metal working and coal there were small glassworks of which only the memory remains in placenames like Ferrieresles-Verreries and a few unexpected chimneys in remote valleys. More important were textiles, wool and silk.

Silk, culture and manufacture, introduced into France in the late sixteenth century was centered in the Cevennes, and Ganges was the largest supplier of silk stockings in France before the arrival of nylons. …

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