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History

A lot has been written about my father’s involvement in the history of Méribel and although there are variations in the various accounts all are consistent in stating that he first visited Les Allues in 1936. That he deserted the slopes of Austria because of the Anschluss is unlikely as this was two years away, although it is true that Nazi influence was already affecting Austria. It is possible that snow conditions in Austria were poor that year and that his Austrian guide knew of an expedition in the Allues valley that was already featured in a book of “12 Great Alpine Skiing runs in the Alps” (I do not have the book to hand and may have got the title slightly wrong).

It is more likely that he was advised by Arnold Lunn, the most famous of all ski pioneers, who had been commissioned to visit and survey the Savoie and Dauphiné regions in 1925 and who had reported that the three valleys of St Bon, Les Allues and Les Bellevilles had enormous potential with well exposed slopes and controllable avalanche risk.

He was also advised to seek the advice of Emile Allais, the great French ski champion and instructor, who died last year aged 100. Emile Allais helped design the pistes and lifts that were to become Méribel.

Peter & Barbara Lindsay, Chalet Tara?

Peter & Barbara Lindsay, Chalet Tara?

On arriving in the Allues valley in 1936 Celestin Gacon, who had served in the Chasseurs Alpins was recommended as a local guide. The party of three, Peter and the two guides climbed La Saulire on skins and skied down to Brides-les-Bains, a twelve kilometre downhill expedition. This run, now pisted, remains wonderful as long as there is a decent amount of snow lower down the valley. It is said that my father fell in love with the valley that day and his subsequent actions would certainly suggest that this could have been the case.

Not long after this Peter met Count Jean Gaillard de la Valdenne and they discovered a joint interest in developing a ski-resort. I remember someone telling me that my father had the idea and Gaillard de la Valdenne had the money. Whatever the truth Jean Gaillard de la Valdenne deserves more credit for the early development of the plan that he receives as it was he who oversaw much of the purchase of the land during the war. Being born in 1895 and having been a French air ace in World War One he was possibly just too old for World War II. La Valdenne had been married to Lily Alvarez the Spanish tennis star who was a three times Wimbledon finalist in the twenties (losing to Helen Wills Moody in 1927 and 28). Lily had tragically lost their only child in 1939. They separated soon after.

There was some development in the resort before the war including the first lift in 1938 – the magnificent “Red Dragon”  – a giant sled with a tractor engine bolted on top that pulled itself up a rope from the Doron (now the Pub) to the Télébar. Also bolted to the sled were 19 metal café chairs and the whole was driven by “Cigarette” Raffort never, one imagines, in danger of breaking any speed limits. A block of flats “Les Airelles” was also started before the war.

Peter Lindsay, born in 1900, was five years younger than La Valdenne. He had left Eton in 1918 to join up but was too late. Aged 39 at the start of the Second World War he managed, with some difficulty, to enlist in the Irish Guards, then joined the SOE and was sent to Burma. He arrived back in Meribel in 1946 in his Colonel’s uniform. He declined to collect his DSO and the British Consul in Lyon eventually had to drive it up to Meribel. Peter had come to Meribel to take over from La Valdenne for “six or nine months” until a full-time manager could be found. He stayed for twenty-five years until his death in November 1971. My mother, Barbara Dunn, was an early visitor and they were married in Paris in 1950. My sisters Jane and Sarah were born in 1951 and 52 and I appeared in 1956.

The money raised for the development of Meribel came from a mixture of French and English capital. Jacques MANCEAU, an artificial flower manufacturer, was a significant early investor and became President of Meribel Alpina – the ski-lift company. The SFVA (Societe Foncière de la Vallée des Allues) owned the land. The accepted model in ski-resort development has been that the land makes the money and the lifts make none. Peter’s approach was that the sale of a plot by the land company could provide the finance to build a ski-lift. As he never became a property developer neither company made much money and because he did not sell land to other property developers Meribel developed slowly and charmingly into a resort of chalets and small hotels all built in the stone, wood and slanted slate roof style that had been defined and enshrined in the building style that had to be adhered to – the “cahier des charges”. This style was developed by the architects Paul Grillo, Georges Buzzi, André (Dédé) Detour and most importantly Christian Durupt. It was Christian who stayed and spent the rest of his life in the valley becoming the architect of Meribel. He remained in partnership with Dédé DETOUR until his death in 1996. Dédé, for his part, continues to commute to Meribel from his house in Nice every few weeks. The architectural input into the original plan was considerable, not only in establishing the building style but also in plotting the further development of the resort for the next 30 to 40 years. The early enthusiasm gave way to the reality of lack of capital and there was not enough work to support a big team.

The process of chalet building followed a set formula; visitors arrived in the resort, they would be put up by Marie Blanche in her guesthouse in Musillon, and later in her charming hotel. If, in time, they developed an interest in building a chalet my father would possibly sell them a piece of land and Christian would design their chalet. The011_11 Front Frères (Eugene, Maurice and Dédé) would build it.

Meribel-les-Allues, named after the nearby hamlet of Meribel Village, was the first of the Three Valleys to start developing. In the fifties my father’s strategy of selling land to fund ski-lifts extended to our own three-tiered house in the trees “Tara” which he sold in 1958 to fund La Frasse teleski. We moved out and lived in a flat for 18 months until another chalet was built slightly higher up the Burgin slope.

The resort of Courchevel, in the valley of St Bon, came into being in the early fifties and, with public funding, quickly overtook Meribel. The left-wing local government of Savoie wanted to make the mountains more accessible to the public and backed the development of the resort. My father, probably unused to the interventionist French style of government gradually became an irritation to the Savoie Conseil Generale in Chambery. Some of the correspondence at this time is quite comic with my father secretaries, especially the famous Angele DORFMAN, reluctant to obey French letter writing convention. The battle for control between “Chambery” and my father continued until he retired in 1970 the year before his death.

The development of the resort continued, lifts were built, hotels and blocks of flats went up. The “liaison” with Courchevel by 2-seater telecabine was established at Courchevel’s cost. The clientele was a healthy international mix of Europeans. The majority were French, with English quite a way behind and a mixture of other nationalities. By the sixties the resort was still small by today’s standards with two-man telecabines, télébennes (yoghurt pots) and téléskis. The first chairlift (the Cheferie – now the Plan de l’Homme) did not appear until 1968.

The companies were run by my father with an international board of directors including French, Dutch and English directors. Sir Edward Tomkins became a director after he retired from the Foreign Office and Tom Hall was a director for over thirty-five years. The three of us would travel to board meetings together and saw several changes of ownership along the way. My father sold a controlling share to Michel COMOY a property developer in 1970. Michel Comoy greatly accelerated the development of both property and lifts but declined an offer to develop the Mottaret lifts. Comoy sold his shareholding to “The Societe Generale de Belgique” to avoid the problems that his companies were facing and Gerard PLUVINET was president of the company managed by Andre SURELLE until the sale to the Compagnie des Alpes in 2000, the world’s largest ski-lift company. During the tenure of the SGB and Surelle the company continued to develop greatly increasing its capacity. Although the CDA is a branch of a branch of the French state the sale in 2000 was not the fate my father feared. Indeed Chambery was so incensed by the sale to the CDA that a political row ensued and an accommodation had to be reached between the Conseil Generale and the CDA. Meribel Alpina, as a subsidiary of the CDA, continues to exist as a company and now runs the ski-patrol and piste maintenance, formerly the concern of the Commune, as well as the lifts. The quality of Meribel Alpina’s uplift, pistes and maintenance are first class.

This article is only one view of Meribel’s history. My father was anything but a self publicist and most of what I know has been gleaned over the years rather than learnt first-hand from my father. He never talked about his work to me and he was very much in the mould of the generation to which he belonged. I am continually learning more about his life and would welcome input from those who knew him or who remember stories about those times. He would be the first to say that his story is a small part of the history of the valley – skiing just happens to have had an extraordinarily large impact on the valley and the life of all its in habitants.

The best history of Meribel might be one taken from many different angles especially those of the original families who have lived in the valley for generations. In has delightful history Georges BUZZI, originally approached as an architect for Meribel, says “Il y avait évidemment Marie BLANCHE, notre mère à tous qui nous traitait affectueusement, et le quelques “indigènes” du coin à base de: GACON, FRONT, CHARLET, LAISSUS, etc..”. These families not only sold the original land that allowed the development of the valley but have also endured the greatest change in their home valley profiting from it in various and different ways but sacrificing their former way of life in the process. Skiing has certainly turned the valley into one of the most prosperous in the Alps and the contrast with neighbouring valleys with no skiing is very obvious. Most would agree that the  advantages have outweighed the disadvantages and those who are still prepared to put skins on their skis, as well as use the superb lift systems, can still adventure far and wide across the Alps in the same way that our fathers did.

David Lindsay. 15th November 2009.

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