A small band of intrepid ramblers gathered early on 27th June in the forest of Pirou for the final walk before the summer break. The walk commenced in the heart of the forest and followed a circuit along forest tracks, passing secluded houses, and visiting a ruined windmill. The forest of Pirou consists of a population of maritime pine trees (Pinus pinaster) with long thick needles and clustered cones, native to the coasts of the Mediterranean and Iberia and a varied moorland environment.
The pine forest is quite dense in places, alternated with cleared areas. In recent years the forest has suffered from fires in the hot summers but it is remarkable how quickly the forest has regenerated. Careful forest management through the use of firewalls and clearings has helped to protect high-value plant and animal species within the forest. The floristic heritage interest focuses on the most open areas where dense populations are rare and / or protected at the national and regional level.
As we headed back to our start point for lunch the day was warming up and on arrival at the picnic area we were glad of the shade provided by the pine trees. The Lunch was a sumptuous affair with everyone sharing their delights. The walk was enjoyed by all and it was a fitting end to the walking group’s season.
Once again, our excellent guide and historian, Simon Tasset, brought another piece of Normandy stone to life and, in his inimitable style, allowed us all to imagine the reality of an earlier time.
He explained the relevance and importance of the site of this ancient château, originally of timber construction in a motte and bailey format, at this river crossing. The river itself had been diverted from its initial course to enhance the defence of the chateau. A church on the site had been recorded as early as the time of the French Duke of Normandy, Richard the Good (980 – 1026).
We learned of the ambitions and political strategies of one of its earliest documented owners, the colourful and war-hungry baron, Geoffroy d’Harcourt. His ambitions and aspirations had consequences far beyond St Sauveur and even Normandy, influencing English history and creating a link to England that materialised in its reconstruction in stone by English stone masons. In many respects it was considered locally as an English castle and remained a robust architectural statement until seriously damaged by the RAF in 1944.
Geoffroy, you see, was not a peace-loving baron and had military arguments with his close neighbours as well as further abroad (Flanders War). After a “private war” with baron Robert Bertan of Briquebec he was forced into exile, fleeing to England (1343) where he acknowledged the sovereignty of Edward III. He later assisted Edward to land in Normandy prior to the Battle of Crécy. Despite such treachery he was forgiven by the French king, Philippe de Valois, who bestowed upon him the responsibility of defending Lower Normandy. However old habits die hard with the treacherous and Geoffroy next supported a contender to the French throne, Charles of Navarre and he organised military action on behalf of Charles. He was killed in a skirmish, but not until after he had already bequeathed the castle of St Sauveur and it’s sovereignty to the English king in his will.
Geoffroy had spent much time and expense rebuilding the castle in stone and refortifying it to make it ready to receive the King of England. The French king, Philippe de Valois had confiscated the castle (1343) but after Geoffroy’s royal pardon in 1346 Philippe allowed him to continue with the rebuilding programme.
Understandably the two periods of English occupation of the castle at each end of the Hundred Years War (1357 – 1375 by Edward III and 1420 – 1450 by Henry V and Henry VI) were not popular with the French who laid siege twice.
The fortifications undertaken by Geoffroy included the perimeter stone walls with towers which replaced the timber palisades of the interior space of the chateau which was formerly referred to as the barnyard. There was also a dungeon documented and that can be seen to be the ground floor level of the large, remaining keep tower. Note the absence of windows on the ground.
Simon had a particularly large Harry Potter style ancient key in his hand and he used it to open the door of the keep. The dungeon level had no windows and was dark and inhospitable. A narrow, steep spiral staircase in the corner took us up to the first level, a large single room which had a huge fireplace and windows as well as a higher ceiling. The integral mantel of the very wide fireplace is testimony to the work of an English Master Mason since it differs from the more superficially attached French mantels of the time.
The second storey of the keep Simon described as Royal private sleeping quarters, with a somewhat more secretive and intimate nature, accessed by steps down into the room from the spiral staircase, thus allowing some soundproofing from the traffic on the staircase. The quarters also had the luxury of a loo hidden in the opposite corner to the entrance comprising of a hole in the floor. The third storey were guards quarters and we did not visit them due to the unsafeness of the floor. From an arched window on the second floor we could see the Abbey buildings in the distance behind pine trees. On exiting the keep we walked into the courtyard where we noticed the rise in the air temperature outside. One boundary of the courtyard is a fine fifteenth century stone building dating from Henry V’s occupation, with a chapel attached (photos bottom right). This large building gave access to the kitchens (first floor) which in turn had earlier connected to the adjacent Keep tower on the first level via an elevated timber walkway. The adjoining chapel building is now a visitors’ information office.
The interior of the perimeter curtain wall shows evidence of previous adjoining rooflines of ancillary buildings within the courtyard of the castle. There was obviously greater accommodation in an earlier era since Louis XIV turned it into a hospital in 1598 and it was also used as a prison during the French Revolution. Truly a chateau Polyvalente!
Another fine piece of active imaging by Simon …. Thank you.
On the 17 June Catherine, Jacques, Chris P, Kay, Gerry, Paul and myself met up for lunch at La Gare de Percy. We had a superb meal which set us up for the walk ahead.
We then met up with Mike and Judy outside of the Tourist Office in Villedieu where we split up into two teams, each armed with a list of questions and a map.
We had six general questions to answer and thirty-one relating to various points along the trail – there were a couple that neither team managed to get the answer to.
Unfortunately the walk proved too much for Kay. So she and Gerry had to give up half way round, which was a great pity. Hopefully in the near future she will be able to complete the trail and be pain free.
We saw parts of Villedieu we wouldn’t normally see, quaint courtyards and parks all with interesting plaques giving information about days gone by. You certainly had to keep your eyes peeled to be able to pick out some of the an-swers. They were intriguing, informative and some were subtle.
After a couple of hours, or more, we met up for some well-deserved refreshment and compared our answers. There were only two points between the teams, so well done to all.
We were also very lucky with the weather as it was a beautiful day to spend walking around a very interesting town.
There was a lot of thought that went into the trail and the questions, not to mention the walking involved, so a big “THANK YOU” goes to Chris R who was responsible for devising it all – it was just such a pity that so few members took part.
Our Dance Group has been meeting once a fortnight and, under the patient and long-suffering guidance of Louise, we have had great fun and much hilarity learning some more English and Scottish country dances.
Our season culminated in June in a small dance “show” at Le Manoir retirement home in Coutances and an end-of-season party at Gratot.
This was our second visit to a retirement home in Coutances to entertain the residents and on 14 June we were as warmly welcomed as before. There were twelve brave dancers, including and led by Louise, plus Dave Wilson on music and me giving a short introduction. We danced for about an hour, demonstrating four Scottish and two English dances, and then invited the staff to join in a couple with us, which they did with great enthusiasm, even pressing us for an extra one! They then provided us with refreshments (much needed and gratefully received!) while we had the chance to chat to some of the residents. It was a super experience, hopefully to be repeated … how many retirement homes are there in Coutances?!
Our end-of-season party on the 17th June at Gratot gave us a chance to do all our favourite dances, enjoy copious food and cider, and present Louise with a small thank-you gift to encourage her to put up with us again next season!
If any of you are interested in joining the Dance Group in September, please come along to give it a try – no prior experience needed and it’s amazing how uplifting dancing, music and laughter can be!