After a guided walk on the weekend, organised by the local commune, and run by a local guide from St Prix who also works at Bibracte, Marie-Paul, I now have a much better idea of the history of La Grande Verriere.
Its Roman name referred to it as a centre of glassmaking. Finds of Celtic coins show there was probably a settlement here, and glassmaking was probably among its commercial activities. (My personal conclusion was that the centre is likely to have been near the ruined “white mill”, on the main, River Mechet, as I noticed when I was walking there how sanding the riverbanks and bed are, which in my experience is rare in the Morvan.)
There was almost certainly a Celtic oppodium on the hill above the village, above the Roches de Glenne, which then became the site of a large medieval chateau, with a commanding view for many miles around. That was destroyed in the 16th century and now only vestiges of the ditch around it survive. It was an important and rich feudal centre – one of its owners was at the head of a Crusade that left from Vezelay (just up the road). He would have taken half of everything the peasants produced – shades of a book I’ve just been reading.
This area was rich and important in Roman, Celtic and medieval times as a trade centre, being roughly equidistant from the Med, the Atlantic and the English Channel. But now, as Marie-Paul wryly noted, its been bypassed by road and rail links, so is very quiet. (Rather to the better for people seeking peace and quiet!)
The area was only about 30% forest in Caesar’s time – it was rich and developed – and probably 50% at the end of the Second World War, with large amounts of arable farming in the remainder. But depopulation, and the march of the pine forests, mean it is now 70-80% forest, with cattle grazing on most of the remainder.
Tha village now has a bar/paper shop, bakery and a cafe/restaurant with attached small shop, but there used to be a lot more. The butcher’s house is just down the “main road” from the hotel – with the workshop out the back where he used to killed and butcher cattle, and just across is the old blacksmith’s shop. It was apparently left with all tools and materials intact, and was completely transferred to the museum at Le Cresuot. There were also at least two hairdressers!
Many of the town houses have outside steps to the upper floor – that was where businesses such as clogmakers would have been based: a reverse of the tradition Asian shophouse.
The church is 19th century and not very exciting, but it stands where there was a 9th-century original.
we walked up to Le Crot-au-Meunier, the second-biggest settlement in the commune, about 3-4km up into the hills – though you can still hear the church bells most of the time. It’s a hamlet of perhaps 150 houses, a lot o fthem holiday homes, though once it had a school of its own. (Probably 100 years ago, certainly more than 80, since I know someone who went from here to La Grande Verriere for school in the 30s/40s.) Looking at plants along the way, including floxglove, which grows in poor soils.
I’d love to know more – if anyone can point me to print or online sources, in English or French, I’d much appreciate it! (There’s quite a lot of useful links here.)
And here’s what the local paper had to say about the day.