4 out of 5 stars

The publisher provided a copy of this free of charge in return for an honest review.

For the past quarter of a century, Adam Thorpe has lived in an old house in the Cévennes, a range of mountains just north of Montpellier in southern France. He moved to France in 1990 and it was there he wrote Ulverton, a book about 300 years of history of a village in England.

Even though he is English, he was born in Paris and lived all over the place before settling in this region of France and his writing is a more thoughtful and considered approach to life abroad. He takes a long-term view of the place he has chosen to live. He celebrates the good parts of life there, and being a full resident feels that he has earned the right to critique it too.

I haven’t read Ulverton yet, but have read On Silbury Hill a few years ago. Like that book, it is a careful blend of memoir, history, and observation of the people that he has chosen to live with. He chose to move to France knowing that on an author’s salary, he would never be able to afford anywhere in the UK. The plan of buying a plot of land and a rambling farmhouse was scaled back to a house in a village.

The village they chose is very old, most of the buildings still there were erected in the medieval period and the landscape around still has the terraces visible that were used for growing crops in times past. It is a place that comes alive in the spring as orchids, wild garlic and numerous other wildflowers turn the grey slopes a psychedelic riot of colour.

The house they live in has layers of history that are visible in the architecture and tiny details that he learns about from his neighbours about how it was used. The region suffered a lot from poverty people went barefoot to save wearing out their shoes and stripped the hillsides of all timber for fuel.

The house they have bought reveals many things as they change and adapt it to their modern needs, they find long shallow grooves in the back stonework and a neighbour shows him demonstrate how knives were sharpened as they headed out for a day’s work. In a more sinister note, they find a witchcraft poppet. This is for the owner to cast spells over someone else. He returns it to where it was found and covers it again.

The families that live in the village have been there for millennia too. Thorpe learns much about the complexity of relationships even in this tiny village. There is a chapter on the rivalries between the two families and the long-running dispute they have had. He learns to tread carefully when asking about the history of the place.

I really liked this. It is not the story of someone fortunate enough to be able to afford a second home in a nice part of France, rather it is the observations of someone who is completely committed to the place they have chosen to live. His gentle and sensitive prose is a gentle meander around this village and like his other non-fiction book, is a blend of memories, history and current events, jostling for your attention. If there was one flaw, and this is only a minor one, it felt a little disjointed at times. It was reading the acknowledgements though that I found that this is a collection of articles that he wrote for the TLS, re-edited and bought together for this book. I personally would have preferred to have known that as I read each chapter.

Spread the love