The ramshackle French mountain farm where Alex Batty was known as Zak.

EXCLUSIVE This is the ramshackle French mountain farm where Alex Batty, the British boy who vanished, was known as Zak… as locals lift the lid on what the now-17-year-old from Oldham has been up to for the last six years 

  • It’s claimed the family have been living on a farm in Pyrenees for past two years

Travelling by night, and sleeping rough in gardens by day, Alex Batty spent four long days trekking more than 30 miles, across muddy, rain-lashed, mountainous terrain in his bid for freedom.

It’s the sort of walk that would challenge a seasoned traveller, with professional camping equipment plus a smart phone and GPS to guide their way.

To think that this journey was undertaken by a naïve 17-year-old, with nothing but a rucksack, torch and his beloved skateboard for company, beggars belief.

But that shows how desperate Alex was to get back to ‘normal’ life in Britain — far from the nomadic, technology-eschewing community with whom he said he’d been living for the past six years with his mother and grandfather.

Alex, from Oldham, Greater Manchester, was just 11 when he failed to return from a holiday to Spain with his mother Melanie, then 37, and grandfather David, then 58, in 2017. His grandmother and legal guardian, Susan Caruana, said at the time that she believed her daughter and ex-husband, David, had taken him abroad to live an ‘alternative lifestyle’. Her suspicions were correct.

Gite de la Bastide, remote part of the Pyrenees where teenager Alex Batty was living with his Grandfather David Batty

Travelling by night, and sleeping rough in gardens by day, Alex Batty spent four long days trekking more than 30 miles, across muddy, rain-lashed, mountainous terrain in his bid for freedom

On Wednesday, Alex was picked up in a stroke of blind luck by a French student, out doing his part-time delivery job in the early hours of the morning, in the small, largely deserted rural towns in the foothills of the French Pyrenees.

Freezing cold, soaked to the skin — and with only 100 euros in his pocket — Alex claimed that his last six years had been spent with a New Age group, drifting from place to place, country to country.

Never staying more than a couple of weeks anywhere before moving on, the community had lived off the land and whatever money they could scrape together doing various odd jobs.

With his 18th birthday approaching in March — and with no qualifications, no plan, no permanent address and no future — last week it seemed that Alex had decided he’d had enough.

At a Press conference yesterday, Toulouse Assistant Public Prosecutor Antoine Leroy, who is leading the investigation in France, said Alex had told officers that after six years of travelling from Morocco to Spain and then on to France, it was his mother’s announcement that she was planning to move them to Finland that had prompted him to go.

‘When his mother indicated that she was going to leave with him to Finland, this young man understood that this had to stop,’ Leroy said. ‘So then he decided to leave the place where he was with his mother and walked for four days and four nights.’

The French police also said that Alex had told them his grandfather David, who was 64, had died six months ago and that the teenager took part in a ‘meditation’ ceremony at the time of his death. Whether or not David Batty received a proper burial — or, indeed, whether he is actually dead — remains unclear.

For there are myriad questions that prosecutors — and, of course, Alex’s family — will want answers to in the difficult days ahead. One thing is clear: Alex Batty has been living an extraordinarily secretive life over the past few years.

Alex Batty’s Grandmother Susan Caruana answers her door to reporters at her home in Oldham, Greater Manchester

Alex Batty (pictured left) – a British boy who said he was kidnapped and taken to a ‘spiritual commune’ by his mother Melanie (centre) and grandfather David (right) six years ago – was ‘brainwashed’ while living with them, his family in England have said

For another version of events has emerged of Alex’s life over the period he was away.

Far from a life on the road, it’s claimed that the family have, in fact, been living on an isolated, rural farm, high in the Pyrenees for the past two years.

Surrounded by high peaks, thick forests and fast-flowing rivers, the tiny hamlet of La Bastide — population 15 — proved the ideal hiding place for the Britons.

Today, the mayor of this rural idyll, who knows the teenager, described him as a ‘happy and polite’ young man, but added: ‘He’ll be happy to be back with his grandmother.’

Mayor Rolande Alibert, 73, told the Mail: ‘He is a lovely young man, always polite and nice. He didn’t speak French, neither of them did, but they always said ‘Bonjour’. We knew the boy as Zak and his grandfather as Peter, and it was only after I read about them in the newspaper that I learned the truth.’

She said he’d last seen Alex carrying a suitcase, but he hadn’t disclosed where he was going.

It’s claimed David Batty and Alex — his mother’s whereabouts remain unclear — arrived in the tiny hamlet, about an hour’s drive from the city of Carcassonne, some two years ago.

They had been taken on at a local gite doing odd-jobs and looking after guests in return for their board and lodgings. Today, the owner of the gite, known only as Fred, declined to comment on his former employees.

However, Veronique, a part-time waitress at the gite, told the Mail: ‘Of course, I know him, but to us he was not Alex he was Zak.

‘He lived at a gite on the other side of the mountain with his grandfather, who said his name was Peter. Now I recognise him from the pictures on the news. They were living at the gite for about two years.

‘I got to know Zak — he could speak some French but not that much. I told him he should learn more. That was part of the reason he left, I think.

‘He was stuck in the middle of nowhere. He did not have [identity] papers, so he could not get on with his life. He was a lovely young man. We danced together at the summer fetes.’

Far from the high-tech city lifestyles of Paris and Toulouse, the remote valleys of the Pyrenees are dotted with ‘alternative’ communities. Craftsmen and organic farmers leave their high-mountain properties early on Saturday and Sunday mornings to sell their wares at artisan markets.

Dreadlocked hitch-hikers stand in pairs at the side of the few roads that traverse the mountains.

At a Press conference on Friday, Toulouse Assistant Public Prosecutor Antoine Leroy, who is leading the investigation in France, said Alex had told officers that after six years of travelling from Morocco to Spain and then on to France, it was his mother’s announcement that she was planning to move them to Finland that had prompted him to go.

Abandoned camper vans and caravans can be seen in fields and in parking spaces. Brightly painted signs lead the way up dirt roads to mountain retreats.

Alex hasn’t disclosed to French authorities whether he warned his mother that he was leaving.

They say he doesn’t seem to fully comprehend the impact of his disappearance, or international efforts to trace him.

He is currently being looked after by French social services while police have said they are working hard to ‘bring him back to Britain as soon as possible’. However, the repatriation is being held up by the need for a new passport, because children’s documentation is valid for only five years and so Alex’s will have expired.

Police sources said that a passport application for the teenager is being ‘expedited’, but he is not expected to return to the UK before next weekend.

Greater Manchester Police have declined to state whether Melanie — or David — were suspects in the investigation into Alex’s disappearance, although Assistant Chief Constable Chris Sykes told reporters: ‘Obviously his mother is part of that conversation and investigation.’

A newly resurfaced interview with grandmother Susan, done in the years after Alex vanished, in which she was desperate to spread word about the boy’s disappearance, describes how Melanie and her father, David, had become caught up in an alternative lifestyle. She revealed how Melanie had gone from being a law student to a ‘chaotic’ bohemian in a few short years. She described her daughter as a rebellious teenager who had ‘partied hard’, leaving her parents struggling to cope.

When she gave birth to Alex in 2006 — the identity of his father hasn’t been disclosed — Susan stepped in to help, looking after her grandson and lending her daughter money. However, she says Melanie simply ‘blew the lot’.

It was around this time that David developed some unspecified health issues, for which he received therapy and ‘changed dramatically’, becoming deeply spiritual and rejecting work — beliefs his daughter embraced fully.

Melanie began travelling abroad with her young son. ‘Melanie didn’t believe in school or education. I was really worried about them,’ Susan added.

In 2014, Melanie took the then eight-year-old Alex to live in a commune in Morocco, where her father soon joined them.

Alex Batty, from Oldham, Lancashire, was just 11 when he did not return from a holiday to Spain with his mother Melanie (left), then 37, and grandfather David (right), then 58, in 2017

A panic-stricken Susan paid for Alex to fly home, and he began living with his grandmother full-time.

‘I got Alex into a local school in Oldham and he was really settled and happy. He was so pleased to have a home,’ she said.

Susan applied to the courts for guardianship of Alex, which she was awarded in 2016, but Melanie refused to attend the court hearing or recognise its ruling.

In October 2017, Melanie asked if she could take Alex away on holiday to the Spanish resort of Marbella. Reluctantly, Susan agreed he could go.

‘During the holiday, Alex called me, and said he was on the beach. But in the background, I heard his mum shout: ‘Switch the phone off. No more contact!’ My heart dropped. I was frantic.’

Melanie then sent a video message, saying Alex would not be returning to the UK because she wanted him to follow her lifestyle.

And then the trail went cold . . . until Wednesday night, when a big-hearted young delivery driver spotted the strapping young teenager trudging through the rain and took pity on him.

Speaking to local news reporters of the moment he had picked up the teenager, chiropractic student Fabien Accidini, said: ‘He was walking while the rain fell in heavy drops. The second time I passed him, I decided to offer to drop him off somewhere. His attitude gave me confidence. He ended up getting into my van.’

Fabien said Alex had told him that his mother was ‘a little crazy’, but insisted that she had never imprisoned him and he could ‘leave when he wanted’.

‘He lived with his mother in a spiritual community, far away from normal life.

‘He had no animosity towards her, but he really wanted to find his grandmother — he really missed his grandmother,’ Fabien told reporters.

‘When he explained his situation to me, I gave him my phone because he never had a means of communication.’

Alex sent a message to his grandmother on Facebook, saying: ‘Hello grandma, it’s me, Alex, I am in France . . . I really hope that you receive this message, I love you. I want to come home.’

Yesterday, Susan was still trying to process the news that her grandson had finally been located.

Alex’s grandmother Susan Caruana said: ‘I cannot begin to express my relief and happiness that Alex has been found’

In a statement issued via the police last night, Mrs Caruana said: ‘I cannot begin to express my relief and happiness that Alex has been found.

‘I spoke with him [on Thursday night] and it was so good to hear his voice and see his face again. I can’t wait to see him when we are reunited.

‘The main thing is that he’s safe, after what would be an overwhelming experience for anyone, not least a child.’

The rest of the family was also adjusting to the news that Alex had been located at last.

His cousin, Stephen Devine, said it would be ‘a big adjustment’ for him to be home, while great aunt Raisa Devine said she was ‘very pleased’ that he had turned up safe and well.

‘He was very settled with his grandma and she was devastated when he disappeared,’ she said.

Officers from Greater Manchester Police are not currently being sent out to join the hunt for his mother and grandfather, it is understood, with detectives liaising with their French counterparts on the ground.

Assistant Chief Constable Sykes said of Alex’s wider family: ‘They are obviously massively relieved and a whole host of emotions are going through their minds at the moment as they come to terms with this good news.’

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