Monday 22 June 2015

In search of the Lavender Field

There are many true stories within the pages of The Sea Garden, though all are filtered through the distorting mirror of fiction. The area of Provence I know well was a stronghold of the French Resistance during the Second World War. It’s the kind of country place where people are proud of their past and stories are passed down in everyday conversation. The Resistance years are spoken about – to British, American and Canadian visitors in particular – with considerable pride and a sense of shared history.

One of the most exciting stories concerns the clandestine airdrops of arms and agents by the RAF, and the secret landings of planes while France was under Nazi Occupation. When I began research into these air operations, I discovered a poignant detail in the memoir We Landed by Moonlight written by one of the RAF’s finest Special Operations pilots, Group Captain Hugh Verity. On the makeshift landing strip known as “Spitfire”, close to the great lavender fields of Sault, a Dakota was flown in carrying key French personnel just before the Allied landings on the south coast in August 1944. The plan was to land, drop the passengers and collect a group of escaping American airmen who had been on the run.

But the Dakota was too heavy, and the makeshift runway too short. On the run-up to take-off, the undercarriage snagged on a wide strip of lavender that had been planted to disguise the length of the field from the ever-vigilant occupying authorities. Before another attempt could be made, some of the US airmen had to disembark. Promises were made to come back for them the following night, but it was too late. The botched operation had taken too long, the Nazis and their Vichy enforcers, the Milice, were now aware of it and took brutal reprisals. The next night, the Dakota returned but there was no Resistance reception team waiting to signal it down.
This was the starting point for The Lavender Field, the mid-section of The Sea Garden. In the present day, on the ground, there are no indications of the drama that took place but a hunt for its setting and exact location has a certain satisfaction, even so. It sits on the Albion Plateau, south of Sault (where the top photo was taken), north of St Saturnin-les-Apt and west of St Christol.


The village of St Christol is quiet and shuttered. Like so many hill villages in Provence, it is a place of narrow streets that offer shade from the sun and for secrets. You can't help but wonder how many people looked up at this clock on a night of vital activity.

Not far outside the village are little-used roads and fields of lavender that are relatively flat. The landing field codenamed "Spitfire" would have been very similar to this one, long enough for an RAF plane to land and take off again with only torches held by the "reception committee" on the ground and the moonlight to navigate by.

The actual field is known as Champ Long (Long Field) to the locals, and the exact co-ordinates for a walk to find it from the small village of St Jean de Durfort can be found in this lavishly illustrated guide I've found online: Balades dans les lavandes. There is some very good information about the wartime operations, too, including verses by the poet Rene Char, mainstay of the Vaucluse Resistance.

If you don't read French, here is another guide in English from the En Provence website, though it only mentions Champ Long in passing, and gives no indication of its fascinating history.


PS. Not perfect, this post, with the spaces between text and photos, but Blogger has driven me crazy this afternoon - giving me strange fonts and type sizes, refusing to place the photos in the centre with text aligned left as usual. After I finished writing, publishing this post has taken an hour and a half! Something not quite right.


Jacqui Brown said...

A really interesting posy, thank you. A few weeks ago we were enjoying the very same roads around Sault in our Mini Cooper roads trip. I even got to see the first blush of colour in the lavender fields, which made me very happy.

Lynne Rees said...

I love hearing stories that are hidden in our contemporary landscapes. So many sacrifices made in this one.

Marcheline said...

First off, I know what you mean about Blogger getting the vapours now and again... so frustrating!

Second - great post. I look at the photos of the fields of lavender and imagine what it must smell like, standing smack in the middle of all that. Heaven!

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