Size isn’t everything…
One of the things you have to get to grips with when you come to France is how much more space there is and what that means in everyday life. France has roughly the same population as the UK but in a country just under two and a half times the size (the UK has approx. 243,610 sq km, France approx. 551,500 sq km), so there is noticeably more space. It also means the population is more widely dispersed and distances between towns are usually much greater. In rural areas, a car is more or less essential if you want to travel around, because there’s very little in the way of public transport when you’re out in the sticks. But, France does have a very good rail network that links its towns and major cities and it’s well worth investigating when you want to take a slightly longer trip.
Last week we decided to venture down to Périgueux for a day. We’ve been to Périgueux many times before but always to the shopping areas that are on the outer road of the city, the Perifique. This is where all the big supermarkets are and the DIY stores etc. This time we were headed for the centre of the city and, specifically, the old town area. This is when it makes good sense to take the train. It’s a ten minute drive to our local station, where we can park free for the day. The journey from our station, Thiviers, to Périgueux, is 30 to 45 minutes, depending on how many stops the train makes, and with an SNFC advantage card (similar to other rail discount cards) the round trip is 15 euros which, for a total return distance of around 70 km, isn’t too bad. One big advantage is that the train puts you into the middle of the town, a short walk from the old town, with its fascinating architecture and a range of interesting small shops. Now, here’s where the size thing gets interesting. Périgueux is the capital of the Dordogne, the county seat as it were. The Dordogne department covers an area of 90,060 sq km and is France’s third largest department (county). It is home to around 413,000 people, of which less than 30,000 live in the capital, Périgueux. Compare that to Devon, the third largest county in England, with an area of 6,707 sq km and a population of 1.194 million. The county capital is Exeter, with a population of just under 131,000
When you consider all this you get some idea of the difference in scale between France and the UK.
The Dordogne region is popularly considered to be the most ‘British’ of the French departments and the British Press often refer to it as ‘Dordogneshire’. In fact, this isn’t the case, as is often true of the British Press’ view of France. The largest British population is in and around Paris itself, with other large British immigrant populations in Brittany and down around the old midi-Pyrenees region, where France buts up to Spain, home to the popular city of Toulouse. In Dordogne, most Brits are in the south of the Department, in the smaller towns and villages around Bergerac. Eymet is considered to be the Dordogne commune with the highest British migrant population – around 10% of its 2,500+ population. Where I live, in the north of the department, the Dutch are probably the most dominant non-French group. France is, currently, home to around 170,000 British immigrants, one of the largest British populations outside the UK. By contrast, French migration to the UK peaked in 2019, at 191,000 and has since dropped back to around 150,000, largely due to the changes brought about by Brexit. Similarly, at its height, the British population of France was thought to be around 250,000 but many of those would have been second homeowners and Brexit meant that large numbers moved back to the UK, uncertain as to what the future might bring.
Périgueux itself is a charming city. It’s not particularly stunning, though it does have some lovely old architecture, and there aren’t many major features beyond the landmark Saint-Front Cathedral, with its domes and turrets, but Périgueux has been a settlement for a very long time and its Vesunna Gallo-Roman museum is well worth a visit for history buffs.
What I like about the place is the proliferation of small shops that exist within the city centre and the quiet sense of culture you get there. The market that takes place in the main square in front of the Cathedral draws people in but it’s the life that goes on in the side streets off this square that is more fascinating. The high points of our visit, for me, was the discovery of Boukie’s Bookshop and also of La Demotheque. Boukie’s is an English Language book and coffee shop, owned and run by David, an American, ex of New York, and living in South West France for many years now – so you don’t have to order your coffee in English! English bookshops are a rarity in rural France and, while I do read French to a certain degree now, I’m better sticking to Tintin and Asterix & Obelisk rather than venturing into the classics. Similarly, while I can easily get English language books for my Kindle (other e-readers are available) it’s nice to read a real book now and again; but the real appeal of Boukie’s is it’s that sort of bookshop that has largely died out in much of the UK. When I was there, the place was full of people drinking coffee, reading, talking, some working on laptops, all just generally hanging out and soaking up the atmosphere. I managed to have a lengthy debate, with David, about the polarisation of Western politics, as well as a discussion with one of his customers on British rock and roll artists of the early 1950s. Now, that’s a bookshop!
La Demotheque is the sort of shop that vinyl junkies like myself dream of. A dark, dingy shop of record racks and stacked boxes, with the potential to find a real gem around every dusty corner. It’s the sort of place where you could spend hours and a small fortune, despite the individual records being very reasonably priced. Most of the stock is second-hand but with some fascinating limited editions and recent re-pressings and, while finding items can be challenging, the custodian of the shop, an elderly long-haired Frenchman with a clear passion for music, knows exactly what’s in the various piles and can direct you accordingly, though the only English you’ll hear in this shop comes from the records themselves. All of which leads me on to this month’s music, all taken from records found during my visit to Périgueux. First up is Cajun/Zydeco musician, Zachary Richard, a personal favourite of mine and I managed to find two albums from him, 1979’s ‘Mardi Gras’ and 1984’s ‘Zak Attack’, this track comes from the earlier of the two, ‘Viens Don’ ‘Vec Moi’.
Next up is Rodney Crowell, from his eponymous third solo album, released in 1981. It was his last recording for Warner Brothers, before he moved over to Columbia Records and, while it may not be his best album, it is home to the sublime ‘Til I Gain Control Again’. Here he is in more recent years, playing the song at the Grand Ole Opry.
Finally, something I was delighted to find. Sandy Denny’s ‘Gold Dust’ is a recording of her last ever live performance, at what was then the Royalty Theatre, on the 27th November, 1977. It was recorded for a live release at the time, but the tapes were considered unusable due to some technical issues. Modern technology has meant that the tapes could eventually be recovered, though Rob Hendry’s original guitar parts had to be replaced, and who better to do that than Jerry Donahue, who had played so extensively with Sandy Denny prior to her death, just a few months after this recording was made. The album was originally a CD only release back in 1998, but for World Record Store Day, in 2022, it got a limited release on 180 gm vinyl. Here she is with the opening track of the album, her version of Richard Thompson’s great song, ‘I Wish I Were a Fool For You’.
A day in the small city of Périgueux. Size isn’t everything.