Now the thing you need to retain about British coach parties is that they may be older but are more disparate, educated, polite and clubbable than any other equivalent group. Any other at all. Being older, they are also more interesting: they have lived and done more, and have little left to prove. In our group there was a former showjumper, an electrician, several engineers, business people both national and international, ex-factory foremen, a schools manager, a former MP and diplomat, a toolmaker, a chiropodist, NHS workers, a champion fell- runner, farmers and a retired university professor.
They also tend to be more tolerant when, say, the organizer cocks up and has them served lunch in jam jars. The included wine helped. As did the glory of the setting. We had come up on the Panoramique des Dômes rack railway: ideal for those whose mountaineering needs are best met sitting down. It wound round the dormant volcano as if inserting stitches, then spat us out on a grassy summit featuring what is left of a Roman temple to Mercury, a weather station and edges that overlook the 80 or so other volcanoes of the Chaîne des Puys, lined up northwards for 20 miles. There is no equivalent in Europe.
These looked like proper volcanoes: conical with round craters and the air of having just burst through the earth’s crust. Which, in geological terms, they had. The Puy-de-Dôme itself is just 11,000 years old – only slightly more than the aggregate age of our coach party. From here, we dominated central France. The land extended forever.
The Massif Central (the geographical context of historical “Auvergne”) comprises grand rounded uplands, lacking the killer edge of the Alps but furnishing far horizons, lakes and slow rural certainties. Mountain roads proceed in curves and hairpins just wide enough for a coach, and sometimes not quite. High above the cheese and spa village of Saint-Nectaire, a bad-tempered white van came hurtling at us head-on, forcing the coach to the edge of a precipice, into low-hanging electricity wires. They snagged on the roof.
A lesser coach driver would have ploughed on, dragging the wires and blacking out central France. That is not the way of Dales drivers. With the help of a tall passenger, a very long-handled broom and lots of patience, our man Paul had us on our way to a distant farmhouse lunch. The wires stayed up. Up at the farm, they took us round the caves where the farmers used to live and where, now, they mature cheese. (“What about mice?” asked a Yorkshireman. “Traps,” whispered the guide.)
Saint-Nectaire, like many villages round here, had been a thermo-mineral spa for centuries.
Authors Balzac and George Sand both showed up, doubtless requiring treatment after reading one another’s works. Proust came later. The Saint-Nectaire waters are useful for more than urinary infections and literary relief, however: they also petrify anything left under them for long enough. The Petrifying Fountains family firm is apparently the only one to benefit from such a, placing rubber molds under constantly flowing water until calcium carbonate deposits phenomenon build up, creating ornaments and designs. They used to do domestic pets, once dead and stuffed. You would leave your dead dog there until it turned into a stone statue of itself. Sadly, they do dogs no longer: “Wasn’t very artistic,” said the lady who showed us round.