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Angoulême, Angoulême, five minutes to Angoulême

This was the train announcer’s cry as the train neared the station. I have always enjoyed train travel, and being able to get back to the centre of London from Angoulême within the day was important. Before the arrival of low cost airlines, this was possible by train. Then the journey home, leaving London at midday and arriving in the Charente round about 10 in the evening, after a change in Paris or Lille. And always waiting for that announcement, a signal to get ready for the open door and the steps unfolding down to the platform.

Angoulême has a history that dates back to the 9th century. Much of this earlier time is referred to in the trilogy. A market town with a charter given in 1204 by King John, to keep the freedoms and customs of their fair city and defend their possessions and rights.

There is a large cathedral at the top of the rock, next to the chateau, that was at first a small 4th century pre-Christian sanctuary. Clovis destroyed this in 507 and another building was built and consecrated in 560 but burnt possibly by the Normans, the Vikings who raided up the Charente to Angoulême three times in the 9th century. Isabella’s Taillefer ancestors were vital in defending the town against the marauders.

A third cathedral was then constructed and consecrated in 1017. It was enlarged in the 12th century, and although various modifications have been made the façade is still medieval. This is where Isabella was married to John in August 1200 and where she married for the second time to Hugh Lusignan.  

Moving closer to modern times Angoulême’s best known industry was paper making. This began at some stage in the 1500s and used the water from the Charente for both the pulp and to power the mills. The mills worked to transform linen, cotton and hemp into paper and vellum. Bank notes, official documents and cigarette papers were among the products. 

In de Balzac’s novel Lost Illusions he writes,

Angoulême is an ancient town built on the summit of a cone-shaped rock towering over the meadows through which the river Charente runsits ramparts, its city gates, and the ruins of a fortress perched on the peak of the rock.

The fortress is, of course, Isabella Taillefer’s chateau.

The ramparts that Balzac mentions were built very early on, and they still ring the steep sides and slopes of the city.

The ramparts may be known to some because of the Circuit des Remparts. It was used once in 1939 for a circuit race for Grand Prix cars and Formula Two voiturettes. Now it is a successful race for car enthusiasts, but only classic and vintage models.

The steepness of the rock stopped the town spreading but in the 19th century it did develop along the river banks. Haulage, a foundry, inns, tanneries, laundries, brandy warehouses, depots for raw materials and all water side trades.  Access by water was easier than the new roads being built to Périgeuex and Bordeaux.

The main setting of Lost Illusions is a paper making business in Angoulême, and one important theme is the invention of a cheaper way of making paper. Today the industry has almost disappeared although two mills still make paper the traditional way for the restoration of old books.

On the opposite side of the river from the paper mill is a beautiful building that is a converted old riverside distillery. A chai or cognac warehouse, which is now a comic strip museum, a cinema, a library and a bookshop. Comics and cartoons are taken very seriously in Angoulême and there are murals and street art spread around the city. The comic strip is considered an art form in France and with its link to the paper industry, Angoulême has become known as the comic strip capital

street art esrea France

And to my great delight it is in a bookshop in the heart of Angoulême, CosmOpolite in the Champs des Mars shopping mall where the trilogy is sold. A tiny space is given over to books in English. I approached the head of the libraire with some trepidation to ask if they would take my books.  I have no distributer in France so had to invent a process whereby they could accept books directly from me. After some hesitation they took copies of Part 1 and Part 2. But when I arrived with Part 3, smiles all round, the books were selling! My great wish is to approach the town hall, which is in the chateau building where Isabella lived and ask them to sell The Tangled Queen as part of their tour of her home. This year that has been impossible due to C19. However perhaps in 2021?

And perhaps in 2021 a translation into French as a remarkable woman who lives in Angoulême has read the books in lockdown and is very serious about translating and finding a local publisher. A silver lining in these isolated times.

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