Angelines Villacampa: Guide and conservationist who restored a village in the Pyrenees

 

It is rare that a person can be associated with a place as strongly as Angelines Villacampa was with the tiny Pyrennean hamlet of Susin. But as its sole inhabitant, volunteer guide and conservationist, Angelines was as much a part of Susin as its huddle of around half a dozen ancient buildings – all of which she single-handedly restored – high in the sierras of the Alto Gallego in Aragon.

She was born in Susin some time in the 1960s Angelines' family quit the hamlet to look for work, as did the rest of its inhabitants – then as now it was a familiar pattern in rural Spain. Her parents then ran a hotel in nearby Sabiñanigo and after studying French at a boarding school in Pau, Villacampa first worked as a teacher.

However, in the 1980s she returned to Susin, living alone for long periods in her former family home, Casa Mallau, still with no electricity or mains water. Her objective was simple: to ensure that Susin remained as best preserved as it could be, and to keep its memories, traditions and customs alive.

With that in mind, Villacampa restored as many of the important buildings as she could, from the blacksmith's forge to the hermitage chapel of Nuestra Señora de las Eras. With the aid of scout groups she rebuilt Susin's pathways and replanted its gardens, as well as tending to the local woods. In her attempt to maintain local heritage she organised a festival of Pyrennean oral history in Susin.

But her warm welcome to anybody who stumbled across the village, and her willingness to communicate her powerful, informed vision of the area and its history to visitors, against the background sound of a warm fire crackling in her kitchen hearth, made a visit to Susin at any time a memorable one.

With her death, tributes and praise for Villacampa flooded in from a host of ecologists, mountaineers and photographers who knew her. They are only too aware that one of the strongest bulwarks of the Pyrenees against the loss of its indigenous culture and traditions had disappeared, as one of the increasingly infrequent examples of how the steady abandonment of so many of Spain's villages could be successfully reversed.

Alasdair Fotheringham

Angelines Villacampa, teacher, conservationist and guide: born Susin, Spain 1960s; two sons; died Huesca, Spain 7 February 2013.

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