There are no rural bus services here. Once you pass beyond a certain perimeter of a town, that’s it – you’re on your own.
In the past, that didn’t matter: people worked where they lived, or lived where they worked. There were people who never travelled more than 20kms in any direction in their entire lives. Markets came to them, and the travelling grocer, butcher and baker still make the rounds of the villages.
But with mechanisation in farming, and with the loss of the traditional country industries, if the young, in particular, want to find work, they have to go to town, or to the meat processing plants.
So at 6.30 this morning the fractious hornet buzz of a scooter broke the silence, transporting someone from their warm home through the dark, cold lanes to their place of employment. It’s the only transport available. There is no money for a car, and driving lessons, and insurance: even the sans-permis vehicle, which only requires a chat with the salesman by way of instruction, is way out of their price range. Inch for inch, those things are expensive.
There are no lights on the roads at that time of day. In our village they go off at 10pm, and come back on again at 7.30am. In between the countryside is dark. Really dark. If you live in a town, you don’t know what darkness is. Some of our visitors have found that they are actually frightened by the intense reality of it, and have to leave a light on somewhere in the house overnight.
There are more stars here than you will ever see in the land of streetlights: the Campaign for Dark Skies does have a point. And I wonder whether, if we saw only the real black sky each night, we would feel so powerful as we think we are. Fear of night is very atavistic, and very humbling.
We met a lady in our last village who was a retired teacher. She had done her training in the late 40s, and seeing that there used to be a station in the village, we assumed that she had taken the train to Poitiers every day to study. However, apart from the fact that she couldn’t have afforded it, there were no passenger trains running after the war. She had gone to college by bicycle.
The distance from the village to Poitiers is 25kms. It takes 30 minutes in a car. The road passes through open countryside and forest, and two or three small villages. She told us she used to set off before 6am to get there for lectures, whatever the weather, whatever the season. She would spend a whole day there, then get back on her bike and cycle home.
Some evenings there were parties, and she wasn’t going to be left out, so on the odd occasion, she would travel cross-country in the small hours of the morning, get home for 3 or 4am, get changed, have something to eat, and cycle back again.
She told us that she never questioned it. If she was to be a teacher, she had to study; and if she had to study, she had to go to Poitiers by whatever means was available.
That bike, and her unflinching determination, got her to where she wanted to be, in more ways than one.
Hearing that scooter in the still-dark hours, it was easy to turn over and pull the duvet closer, and listen to the ticking of the central heating. Maybe I should have been out there cheering them on instead. They may be motorised now, but the old spirit is still there: if you want something, you have to find a way to help yourself towards it.
One tiny headlight doesn’t make the vast darkness any less complete, at 6.30 on a rainy winter’s morning; but it does open up the immediate road ahead.