Walking in the High Languedoc/Cassagnolles circuit (revised)

Today, June 4, 2022, I walked from the village of Cassagnolles up on to the ridge above Masnaguine and then descended through forest back to my starting point, about 3 and a half hours in duration. The ascent took an hour and a half. Perfect weather for the climb as it was partially cloudy and therefore cooler. Hotting up by the end of the descent. A walk I’d not done since before the pandemic hit in March 2020, so something of a celebration. It was good also that I found the climb quite easy, having done a few walks and bike rides in preparation for this more challenging route.

Passing a small waterfall just outside Cassagnolles, on a short path connecting to the main ascent route.

The view along the ridge, showing the path on the right and the adjacent valley on the left below. The ridge-way undulates, linking a series of small summits with cairns on the top.

After descending from the ridge you meet a road linking Masnaguine and Mances, walking alongside high meadows with views through to more pastoral country.

Before reaching Mances, the route leaves the road and descends through forest, offering some welcome shade as the day grew hotter. A different kind of walk after the wide open vistas on the top.

In June the forest trails are covered in drifts of wild flowers.

A break in the forest: a spot where I often stop for a rest and a snack, whilst admiring the view.


There is a small car park just before the village of Cassagnolles, where I left my vehicle. The relevant map is Carte de Randonnee 2344 ET. Montagne Noire (Est). Grid ref 469 1820 for the starting point. This was my own route, worked out over many years. There is a way-marked circular route which does not include the high ridge section above Masnaguine, which should not be attempted in stormy weather as wind speed on the ridge can be excessive.

For the shorter way-marked route see: Les Sagnes Cassagnolles. Carte d’identitie du sentier 49, produced by the Minervois tourist office. (www.minervois-tourisme.fr).

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Recent article on the Cambridge Gage

Here is an article recently published by me in Country Life Magazine (27/4/22), based on research for my book on Fruit Farming in the Cam Valley (see previous blogs for more detail). Copies of the book are still available. If you are interested, leave a comment and I will get back to you.

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Back in the Languedoc – part two

It’s been just over a week since I arrived and the rain has been pretty relentless. March can be like this, a transitional month in the year before it begins to heat up. It’s so different living up here at 600 meters in the hills, compared to the flat low-lying basin of the Cam valley. This is real rain, drenching rain, which you don’t want to be caught out in, up on the ridges. The rain has revealed a couple of leaks in the roof, when the wind is in the wrong direction. A job for the dry months. It can get pretty windy up here too, with sudden gusts reaching down from the tops into the valley, shaking things up.

I have manged to get out for a couple of good walks and a bike ride, catching moments of temporary dry. Most of the high land is set out as commercial conifer plantations. Many of these plots have reached maturity and are being cleared, so the character of my walks has changed, with new vistas opening up. I have been walking here for twenty years, having enjoyed the forest in its fullness. It’s good to see new planting is going on. Timber is the main source of income in the area. The lowers slopes are covered in wild brush and scrub oak. Here broom and heather grow well and a plethora of wild flowers. The valley is well served with forest trails and ancient paths from one village to another. Overtime you can get to know the good walks and their variations.

The rain seems to have eased off, for now at least, so I’ll sign off and get some fresh air.

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Back to the Languedoc hills

It’s now mid-March and I have returned to our little maison in the hills above the Languedoc plain. It’s been raining continuously for 48 hours and now the clouds have descended into our high valley, a strange spooky experience. I’ll tog up in my waterproofs and go for a walk later on. This is when I question my mother’s judgement about re-locating here – I inherited the house from her in 2012.

That said, living here brings you back to the essentials of life; staying dry, keeping warm, eating good home-cooked food and enjoying the odd glass of wine or two. I get through a lot of reading when I come here, usually sat before the wood burning stove in the evenings, with some good music on in the background – Beethoven’s piano trios just now.

For reading I have been going through the novels of Robertson Davies, the Canadian author, actor and cultural polymath, who died in 1995. His books were popular in the 1980s, but seem to have fallen from favour. They have a profound Humanist quality, much needed in these troubled times and I recommend them to anyone searching for a bit of spiritual truth. They are well written, very lively and stimulating brain fodder.

The rain has returned so my hopes of a walk appear to have been dashed – for now. Yet all is not lost. I have a leek and potato soup simmering away, to provide a cheerful and sustaining lunch.

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Fruit Farming in the Cam Valley – a brief update

Posting a short update on my book, which has been selling well. It’s been heartwarming to receive so many positive comments from local residents who’ve bought copies, especially from those with a family involvement in fruit growing. After all this is their history. My book has also struck a chord with the wider community of fruit enthusiasts, with whom it seems to be spreading by word of mouth.

I’ve just given a zoom talk for the Cambridge Museum, which you can access from their website and posted a blog on the book for the Cambridge University blog site: https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=22564

See previous blogs below for retail outlets and a more detailed summary of the book with details for ordering a copy from me directly.

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Fruit Farming in the Cam Valley: outlets for my book

For anyone interested in purchasing a copy of my book, you can contact me directly via the comments field, (see previous blog on my book), or if more convenient purchase a copy from the following outlets:

Cam Valley Orchards Farm Shop, Whitecroft Road, Meldreth, open, Thur-Sat from 9-5. Shop now closed until August, 2022

The Cambridge Museum book shop, bottom of Castle Hill.

The Cambridgeshire Collection, Cambridge Central Library, The Grand Arcade

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Fruit Farming in the Cam Valley, an horticultural, social and economic history, by Jonathan Spain

486pp. with illustrations, maps, bibliography and index, price £25.

Well, at long last and after various delays my book has been delivered from the printer and is available for sale. This is a self-published effort which I am marketing and distributing myself.

To order a copy leave a comment or contact me via email: jrspain1@hotmail.com . Local orders can be delivered by me or be collected. If required, postage and packing on top.

I finished writing the book just before the first Lock Down in March 2020 and have spent the last year doing the editorial work, checking references and producing the bibliography and index. My main historical sources for this, the University Library and the Cambridgeshire Collection, were closed for much of the past year or only allowing restricted entry. However it has been a good project to have, occupying my time whilst languishing at home.

Book Summary

My book is focused on the main fruit-growing villages of the Cam valley, looking at the horticultural, social and economic history, setting this within the wider regional and national context.

Part One contains chapters on the fruits grown in the Cam Valley, the Cambridge Gage, other plums, apples, cherries, pears and soft fruits, tracing their origins and commercial development. This reveals a long history of fruit cultivation in the Cam valley from medieval times through to the commercial era in the late 19th century. This story also sets the Cam valley within the wider global history of the domestication of fruits, which has never been restricted to national boundaries. It’s a story which begins over two thousand years ago.

Part Two looks at the geography and social history of fruit-growing, with a chapter surveying the spatial development of orchards in Melbourn and Meldreth, Bassingbourn and the Morderns, Orwell and Barrington, Shepreth, Foxton and Harston. These villages came within the organisational remit of the Melbourn branch of the West Cambs. Fruit Growers Association, established after the First World War. They shared the same soil and growing conditions and distributed their fruit via stations on the Cambridge to Kings X railway line, constituting a unified and coherent group. A further chapter explores the social history of fruit-growing in terms of the working lives of fruit growers and their employees, as expressed in the year-round demands of orchard management. Also village life – the central role fruit growers and fruit played in social gatherings and activities.

Part Three considers the economic history, the factors which brought about the rise and fall of the local fruit industry which, to be fully understood, includes the regional and national context. Rapid population growth and urbanisation in the 19th century led to rising consumption of fresh fruit in towns and cities, and the development and expansion of wholesale markets in London and the provinces to supply that need. The arrival of the railway network in Cam valley after 1850 provided the means of transporting fresh fruit to those distant markets. In the 1880s agricultural depression led local farmers and small growers to diversify into fruit farming, drawing on the strong local tradition of fruit horticulture. Of equal importance was the remarkable growth of the Chivers jam factory at Histon, established in the 1870s, which stimulated the expansion of the local acreage of greengages, plums and soft fruits. Changing patterns of demand for fruit preserves, and also for fresh fruit, continued to play a determining role in the development and ultimate demise of the local industry.

Another essential element of the narrative is the development of the European and pan-global trade in fruit, which began in the mid- to late-19th century, with the UK becoming the main market for this trade. The impact of mounting fruit imports on the domestic industry became a factor of increasing concerning after the First World War, leading to seasonal tariffs and import quotas in the 1930s and 40s. UK trade policy remained a critical factor, culminating in entry to the Common Market in 1973, which had a disastrous effect on the local apple and pear industry, following a surge of quota-free imports from EEC countries.

Changing patterns of fruit retail, in particular the rise of supermarkets, beginning in the early 1960s and superseding traditional wholesale markets and high street fruiterers by the mid-1980s, was an equally important factor, particularly in the demise of small scale fruit-growing. To strengthen the marketing position of the small fruit grower, a local fruit co-operatrive, Cambridgeshire Growers Ltd, was established in the late 1940s to pool sales and distribution costs. This was a small scale operation, restricted by a low and dispersed membership, lack of capital and a heavy overdraft. The increasingly difficult trading conditions of the mid-1970s, forced it into liquidation.

From the 1980s onward increased consumption of exotic fruits from all parts of the globe displaced domestic consumption of the UK’s traditional hardy fruits such as apples, pears and plums. Jam, once an item of mass-consumption, experienced a long term decline in consumer demand and, latterly, so too canned fruits, reducing the market for stone and soft fruits. Declining sales and profits in the mid- to late 1950s led to the end of Chivers and Sons Ltd, as a independent family-run business, followed by a series of consolidations and rationalisations at the Histon jam factory, under the food conglomerate, Schweppes, later Cadbury-Schweppes Ltd, in response to ever-continuing decline in the market for jam.

Whilst the fruit industry faced major economic challenges, during the 1920s and 30s local fruit growers played an important role in the development of new techniques in orchard management and fruit marketing, working closely with scientists from Cambridge University and elsewhere on new and more effective pesticides and spray technology, counter-measures for fruit diseases and the introduction of cold and atmosphere controlled storage – a ground-breaking development in the new science of food technology. Local fruit growers were forward-thinking and progressive in their approach, willing to adopt new orchard techniques and practices.

During the two world wars the local fruit industry was in the forefront of the food campaigns, supplying the Chivers factory with fruit for the jam ration and to meet orders from the War Office for the troops. During 1917-18 and 1940-45 local growers overcame shortages of labour and materials to provide supplies of hardy fruits for the civilian population, in the face of a collapse in fresh fruit imports, due to the German submarine campaigns.

For over a hundred years, from the 1880s to the 1980s, there developed in South Cambs. a commercial fruit industry which transformed the landscape, giving the district a distinctive and special character, noted for its greengages and plums in particular. This book is a celebration of that industry and the families and individuals which brought it about. Its purpose has been to record that history whilst it is still in living memory. My thanks go therefore to local fruit growers, past and present, ex-fruit pickers and village history groups for their generous assistance with this project.

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News from the Home Front: VE Day celebrations 1945/2020

Out for my daily exercise yesterday, I cycled over to Ashwell via the green bye-way known as the ‘Stret’, and then back to Shepreth, with wonderful warm sunny weather. I passed through several villages bedecked with bunting and flags, people sitting on deck chairs on their drives and front lawns, chatting from a distance to neighbours across fences. Interesting to see a plethora of Union Jacks out rather than the red and white English flag.

Returned home to read through my notes from the Cambridge Independent News from May 1945 to see how the end of the war in Europe was celebrated in the Cam valley. In Melbourn there was a joint service of all the local churches in the parish church, filled to capacity. Pride of place was given to returning POWs, Flight Sgt. Jim Palmer (RAF), L/Cpl. Fred Field, RE parachutist, and Pte. Arthur Wardock, Royal Scots regiment. Local members of the Home Guard, Red Cross and British legion were all present.

In the afternoon there was a street party for children at Portway organised by the  council tenants. In the evening there was a huge bonfire in the field owned by Collis Palmer, a local farmer, where an effigy of Hitler was burned. Fire works were set off, some indiscriminately thrown about in the crowd.

On VJ Day, later in August following the end of the war against Japan, further celebrations were held in Melbourn, starting with a prolonged ringing of the church bells at 7am, various street festivities and a united church service. At 7.30 in the evening another large bonfire was lit at Collis Palmer’s meadow together with an ‘organised’ display of fireworks. Music and dancing took place in the High Street at Rose Inn corner with special lighting, lasting till midnight with as many as a thousand persons present. The news report added, all was quiet and orderly!

Between these two dates there had been a general election returning a Labour Government with a landslide majority and a Labour MP for Cambridgeshire for the first and only (?) time, overturning a Conservative majority of 8,000 by just 44 votes. This heralded a period of social reform and the creation of the NHS, which we have all been cheering on Thursday nights during the current Covid-19 lock down.

Might we turn our attention to our present social ills when the current crisis is over? The lock down has exposed the terrible problem faced by some women suffering physical abuse from their partners. More help and protection for them please. Better funding for the NHS and in particular for ‘public health’ administration – whose inadequacy has been so cruelly exposed by the pandemic. The reason for the severity of the lock down is that we did not have the capacity for nationwide testing and tracking in the early stages. Many of us had mild cold symptoms and are wondering was it Covid-19 or not? A government obsessed with Brexit has neglected so many areas where action is needed, in particular the crisis in social care for the elderly. This neglect has also been seen in the response to Covid-19 and the lack of PPE for care home staff.

If Brexit has divided us perhaps the Covid-19 crisis can unite us? A return to the spirit of 1945?

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News From the Home Front Part Five

During the present Covid-19 control measures small things become large and the picking of the first asparagus on my allotment for our evening meal last night was a joy. This follows on several pickings of rhubarb, which has supplied us with a breakfast compot and various puddings. The over-wintering chard is now producing some large leaves so we have fresh green stuff for a while until it goes to seed.

The onions which I set in late February are all looking strong and healthy. So too the strawberry patch which has received much care and attention. This year I have added a layer of well-rotted compost, dug in around the plants and paid attention to watering since we have had a long dry spell. The plants, once bedraggled and unkempt, are all ‘greening up’ and looking much healthier. I await the first green shoots of the potatoes poking through – with a light plastic tarpaulin at the ready to protect from frosts.

I have planted some small seed which is now showing – turnips and beetroot, and yesterday I added a row of early carrots. The greenhouse remains full of tubs with seeds and seedlings waiting for the end of May/early June for planting out, tomatoes, pumpkins, beans and courgettes. I have grown more kale and celeriac this year, still quite small and not ready for planting out.

All this talk of relaxing the control measures seems a bit premature although I would take advantage of nurseries and building supplies centers opening up again.

Instinctively, I think we are in for a long haul and what do we we mean by ‘back to normal’? We still have the existential threat posed by climate change – don’t we need ‘control’ measures to tackle that or are we just going to simply carry on regardless? A few less airline companies – no bad thing?

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Notes From The Home Front 2020 Part Four

Having implemented virus-control measures down at the allotments, tenants are driving to the site and working on their plots in isolation, getting on with the normal jobs at this time of the year, planting spuds, preparing the ground for seeds and seedlings busy germinating in greenhouses. Looking forward, we have suggested tenants set up a buddy system for watering etc, in case of infection later in the summer. The official infection rate rate in Cambridgeshire is around 100 just now which if we magnify by a factor of ten for the true rate, leaves us quite low in the league table.

I have been busy setting up a permanent runner bean trench. Just before retail outlets were closed down I bought two pieces of 8 foot 3×3 timber, and have some old post holders and scaffolding pipe, and have used these to create a rigid and gale-proof structure to which canes can be attached later in June when the runner beans are planted out. We have some old compost bays at the back of the site which are now providing good quality material, high in organic matter with a light texture which is ideal for filing the trench.

The rhubarb patch is getting going now although the stems are still on the short side. Still, we have had a small picking which has been stewed with raisins and dark sugar to produce a compote to go with our morning porridge or with yoghurt.

I have three propagation trays going at the moment. One with tomato seeds, all now germinated, which will produce around 20 plants, (Purple Cherokee, Brandywine, Green Zebra, Gillian’s Yellow Heirloom, Little Lucy – all heritage varieties from a friend in North Carolina, who has a business in this line). The second tray has celeriac coming through just now. The celeriac is interesting – since you lay the tiny seeds on the surface of the seed compost which has been well dampened and then cover. A higher temperature (18 degrees plus) is needed to kick start germination. These are now showing. The third tray has plenty of kale, green and dark purple varieties. This one is in the greenhouse and is now sending up small shoots.

In the next week or so I’ll be planting courgette and pumpkin seeds in large containers in the greenhouse. Still waiting for the soil to warm up down at the allotments before planting more small seed. At present I have a row of turnips and some chard under  protective cloche netting, together with a small seed bed of leeks for later transplanting. However beetroot and carrots await warmer weather before sowing.

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