The Auvergne

A gentler pace in the Auvergne

For Rachel Crolla walking the mountains of the Auvergne in central France will always be associated with a unique time in her life – the time when she and Carl were completing the research for their second Cicerone guidebook ‘Walking in the Auvergne’ – and she was seven months pregnant with her first child.

Carl and I had been busy researching Walking in the Auvergne, and the eight-week trip to rewalk and double check all the routes was going to have to take place two months before the baby came. I was apprehensive. Did I have the energy to hike up the Auvergne’s mountains (some of them are just shy of 2000m)? Should I be focussing on imminent motherhood rather than concentrating on finding the best paths up dormant volcanoes?

As I boarded the train from Yorkshire to travel 750 miles to the Auvergne by rail, my doubts began to lift and I knew that I was doing the right thing. Carl was already in the Auvergne and I had agreed to join him after finishing work and starting my maternity leave. Despite the ease of jumping on a low-cost flight to Clermont-Ferrand, I had decided to take the train and give myself a chance to unwind. As I took my seat on the Eurostar my body seemed to relax for the first time in months.

Maybe it was just the pleasure I have always taken in being on the move towards adventure and of being unencumbered by all the paraphernalia of home. But maybe too it was the thought of leaving behind anxieties about the coming responsibilities of parenthood and escaping to my personal comfort zone of the outdoors. Whatever it was, I was asleep within moments and only woke up again at Paris.

The massive Auvergne region lies deep in the heart of France. The land there is forged by the furnaces of ancient volcanic eruptions which wasn’t hard to imagine as Carl met me in the summer heat at Vichy.

I was still flagging in the heat as we set off checking a circular route up the ridge of the Puy de Niermont in the Cantal. I knew one thing for sure; I was going to have to take it easy. Having raced around the mountains of the continent while completing our first guidebook Europe’s High Points, and spent much of the previous decade rock-climbing and hiking,

Carl and I were usually fit and fast. Over the past seven months my body had changed. I had struggled to keep active, sometimes wincing with pain in the ligaments around my hips as I trudged the one mile journey to work. I had had intense morning sickness and even walks around the park with friends had been punctuated by dashing to the nearest bushes to throw up. But our bodies are usually great at telling us our limits. Years of walking in the hills teaches you when to push your limits and when to stay well within them.

Two and a half stone of extra body weight and the hormonal signals of pregnancy meant I knew my limits.

The terrain of the Auvergne is not a playground for supermen and women, but a mixture of conical cinder hills, sweeping ridges, ancient tracks and high meadows. In fact, our walk around Niermont was leisurely and I took lots of extra rest stops. Gazing out, I could picture the radiating arms of the Cantal supervolcano which formed the landscape around a million years ago. I let myself breathe in the gentian-scented air and watched the astonishing array of butterflies for which the region is famed. I paused to admire the free-roaming Salers cattle, which grace the hilltops (and eventually the menus) of the Cantal. I noticed little details like the different styles of stile over fences on the ridge-top path, spent time composing striking photographs and let Carl worry about working out the guidebook times.

Initially I wanted to walk every route myself and was niggled by envy as I waved Carl off on an 11-mile grand horseshoe hike over the Puy de Sancy, the highest point in the Auvergne and indeed in the whole Massif Central which runs down the centre of France. But deep down I knew it was beyond my capabilities and my body was telling me to look for less vertiginous terrain. I ambled off to check out the start of a route in the spa resort of Mont-Dore.

Circumstances were dictating a more subtle form of teamwork which would stand us in good stead for the coming challenges of parenthood.

The Parc Naturel Regional des Volcans d’Auvergne is the largest protected area in France, covering 400,000 hectares and stretching 120km from north to south. We camped near the small town of Murat for part of our trip and had a more northerly Auvergne base in the picturesque Montagne Bourbonnaise village of Ferrieres-sur-Sichon. Ferrieres is a special place for us. In 2005 we made an impulsive decision to buy a small 200 year-old house in the village for a princely sum of just over £10,000. We had bought our ‘second home’ before we owned our first, but we had fallen in love with the Auvergne and the walking, climbing and skiing that would be on our doorstep. It was in our dilapidated ‘maison’, eating delicious croissants from the boulangerie 50 yards from our door, that our guidebook was dreamt up and eventually written.

Crater in the Auvergne
On the rim of an ancient crater in the Auvergne

Back in our base in the Montagne Bourbonnaise, I felt the freedom of tranquil, short walks through rustic villages and gently rolling hills. The peaceful charm and relaxed pace of Bourbonnaise life was the perfect antidote to the hectic demands of the 21st century and the pressure I didn’t know I’d been feeling. People had been making the usual comments about how much my life was about to change. Other parents had gleefully told me that I wouldn’t be climbing mountains any more and I’d even felt self-conscious about being out rambling near to home while heavily pregnant. In the Auvergne I felt this worry lift from my shoulders. I had plenty of time to think as I followed the River Sichon through twisted beech copses and rested at the 13th-century ruins of Montgilbert.

I knew that continuing to walk and camp and do the things I love, and getting outdoors where I am happiest, would make me, ultimately, a better parent.

I felt reassured by the people I met in the Auvergne. Resting to look out over the River Loire from the top of its gorge in the Livradois-Forez above le Puy-en-Velay, I chatted in broken French to a fellow walker. He was convinced that my unborn child would be strong and healthy because I was out walking. And it was a sentiment echoed many times by hikers I met on walks from the popular excursions up Puy Mary and around Lake Pavin to the eerie ancient tourbiere craters and rocky plateaus around St Nicolas des Biefs. I lost count of the times I was hailed as ‘courageuse’ and given a friendly greeting. I began to have confidence that I could adapt to enjoying the outdoors in different ways and passing that enjoyment onto my children.

Looking out toward the Chaine des Puys

In 2009, when I was interviewed for Women’s Hour on Scafell Pike about Europe’s High Points, I remember telling the story of my parents climbing the same mountain when my own mother was eight months pregnant with me. My mum had stopped somewhere above Styhead Tarn but ended up helping my hobbling Dad down the mountain after he had forged ahead and twisted his ankle while descending. My parents passed on their love of the outdoors to me and I imagined doing the same for my children. In fact the daughter born shortly after that visit to the Auvergne has now visited the region. She has toddled along some of the foresters’ tracks in the Montagne Bourbonnaise and played by the pretty Sichon river. And she loves being outdoors.

That trip to the Auvergne was not without its difficulties (sunburn due to hyper-sensitive pregnant skin being one of the issues), the time we spent there working on the guidebook will always remind me to slow down and relax. The Auvergne reminds me that smelling the air, spotting butterflies, listening to the wind and eating the odd hunk of cheese with a baguette are as much a part of enjoying the outdoors as bagging any peak.

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