In the footsteps of Charity Selborne

Regular readers of this blog will know that I holidayed in the south of France at the end of last month and that I am posting about locations I visited which feature in Mary Stewart’s first novel, Madam, Will You Talk?.  Having written about Avignon and Nîmes, today’s post is on the Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct that spans the river Gardon.

At Pont du Gard we drew in under the shade of the trees, opposite the hotel.

Sixty-plus years have brought some changes to the Pont du Gard: the construction of  a large car park, interactive learning exhibits in a museum, walking trails and so on mean that it is now a monetarised ‘visitor experience’ rather than somewhere you simply draw up for a quick look at the view.  However, once you have parked, passed through the entrance area, and walked for a couple of minutes, you can finally see the aqueduct! We admired the bridge and walked across it for a cold drink at what must surely be the hotel referred to in the above quote: an inn since the 19th century, it is now a restaurant called Les Terrasses.

The former hotel


Whenever I look back now on the strange and terrifying events of that holiday in Southern France, I am conscious of two things which seem to dominate the picture. One is the continuous dry and nerve-rasping noise of the cicadas, invisible in the parched trees, the other is the Roman aqueduct over the Gardon as I first saw it that brilliant day. I suppose the ten or twelve minutes that David and Rommel and I spent gazing at those golden arches spanning the deep green Gardon were like the last brief lull before the thunder.

We stood near the edge of the narrow river, on the water-smooth white rock, watching Louise settle herself in the shade of some willows, where the aqueduct soared above us, its steep angle cutting the sky. On the under-sides of the arches moved the slow, water-illumined shadows, till the sun-steeped stone glowed like living gold. Except for the lazy sliding silver of reflected light under the striding spans, nothing moved. Not a leaf quivered; there was no cloud to betray the wind. You would have sworn that the gleaming river never moved

This is all so beautifully written: intriguing the reader as to the ‘strange and terrifying’ events to come; and the poetic beauty of description such as ’till the sun-steeped stone glowed like living gold’ (a line to enjoy saying aloud). Plus for me there is the bonus here that I am reminded of the only French poem I know entirely off by heart: Théophile Gautier’s ‘Le Paysage’ that begins ‘Pas une feuille qui bouge’ (Not a leaf stirs).

Pont du Gard. Notice the white rock like that on which Louise settled to paint, and which is hiding the Gardon on this side of the bridge. See how tiny the people look in this photo!

The Pont du Gard is outstanding, with a fascinating history and I would recommend a visit there. But I am glad I did not attempt to paint it! Here is Louise’s lament once everyone was back at the hotel in Avignon:

‘The shapes are wonderful, but oh Lord, the light. It can’t be got. If you leave out the reflections the arches look like American cheese, and if you put them in they look like fat legs in fish-net nylons’

There is also mention of a Brangwyn picture of the aqueduct:

Louise talked a bit about light, and reflections, and a picture by Brangwyn of the Pont du Gard that she had seen in a Bond Street exhibition

I haven’t found a copyright-free version of his drawing of the Pont du Gard, but if you are interested, take a look at Brangwyn and Sparrow’s ‘Book of Bridges’ at this website: the Pont du Gard is about the 30th picture shown.

So that was UNESCO World Heritage Site Pont du Gard. The final post in this look at Madam, Will You Talk? locations will be Marseille, which I hope to write very soon. Au revoir!