Notes on a Village Slope by Tim Goodyear
Busy chit-chat of both birds and earnest Swiss-German dialects on the Route de Saint Jacques has arrived earlier than usual in Prangins. For a few ex-patriots the back-packing march of the pilgrims might be the model to be matched on hill and mountainside in this early spring. For others, including one suspects most native Pranginois, a lazy languid stroll across the middle of the village, a little downhill from the presently narrowed gap and gash of the Auberge Communale, is just the ticket. All roads may lead to Rome – or even Santiago de Compostela – at this point. But an easier route leads across the village car park to the head of a deep defile, down beside the château, skirting a fussily over-managed pond, past a brilliantly neglected prairie, across the route du lac and to the port of Abériaux.
The head of the defile – in general topography unchanged from illustrations made during Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s time – can evoke his “myriads of rivulets hurrying thro’ the lawn”; a lawn and adjacent wooded banks containing primroses, violets, wood anenomes, wild garlic and, free from tidied gardens, explosions of dandelions. From the pond at the foot of the defile a sun-dappled prairie beckons beyond the lane. The next two lines of Tennyson come to mind – prompted by the trees and a row of hives at the top of the field, “The moan of doves in immemorial elms, And murmuring of innumerable bees.”
Bees, so far as is known, are indifferent to onomatopoeia. And here, they are too busy feeding on: cowslips, lesser celandine, meadow saxifrage, germander speedwell, bulbous buttercup, bugle, bush vetch, meadow vetchling, bird’s foot trefoil, lesser stitchwort, ox-eye daisy, mouse-eared hawkweed, meadow cranesbill, knapweed and harebell.
Beyond the feeding-ground, across a main road partly tamed by the improvements that transformed the château into the Musée Nationale, by a manicured football ground, the path takes the Prangins pilgrim to the port. A stroll along the ranks of vessels allows fairly rapid identification – through the state of the mooring lines – of those that seldom, if ever, leave harbour. Among these are several boats capable of crossing the Atlantic; chacun à son goût, but these are mightily expensive picnic sites. Through their inactivity, they are also to the taste of that most delightful of Lémanique birds, the great crested grebe, which builds floating nests of weed on the dormant lines.
The ballet and gymnastics of the grebe in its courtship and nest-building were analysed and described in famous detail in 1914 by Sir Julian Hutchley, FRS – he who married suisse romande Juliette Baillot and was among those instrumental in founding UNESCO and WWF and who introduced to anglophones the work of palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In Huxley’s day live grebe were rare; the feathers of most of the UK population were to be found adorning Edwardian ladies’ hats. To this day, most birdwatchers in England must spend much time and money to see something which, here, is almost on our doorsteps. We who live by the shores of Lac Léman are privileged.