Visit to St-Sauveur-Le-Vicomte, The Château

The Chateau

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.

Villedieu-les-Poêles Treasure Trail

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.

Dance Group at Le Manoir

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!

May’s Walk at Les Roches de Ham

Les Roches de Ham form a sandstone escarpment, towering over the River Vire as it meanders around them. Their height of over one hundred metres provides a panoramic view of the adjacent countryside which consists of a mosaic of farmsteads and fields. Despite the sandstone terrain the steep slopes of the escarpment are densely wooded.

A relatively small group of walkers met in the car park which is situated near the highest point of the escarpment. The view of the river valley from this point is particularly attractive. The only way is down. We descended on a gentle path through dense woods and eventually joined a quiet road which took us further down to the river past an attractive thatched modern cottage. There are a number of colour-coded routes of different lengths marked for visitors and it is possible to reach the river without leaving the woodland. The river is quite wide and crossed by a substantial single span steel and concrete bridge. From this point we followed the slow moving river as it meandered over stony shallows. The river bank path took us past some attractive, out of the way gardens and from here you can appreciate the enormity of the sandstone cliffs. We eventually came to the return path which took us back to the summit up a long, gentle but de-manding climb of a path. Yes, the only way was up.

Certainly the most attractive part of this walk is the view from the top but at this point the most attractive thing became the thought of the crêperie and its menu. The small crêperie is tucked away, somewhat out of view from and below the car park. We had passed it on the way down when it had been closed but by now it had been transformed into something much more promising. The view from here is really lovely and the crêperie would be an especially attractive lunch venue on a true summer’s day. We enjoyed cider, galettes completes and a dessert crêpe, all efficiently served by the solitary owner.

As we left we made a promise to return again some sun-nier day. Thank you Dave for another enjoyable walk with views to remember.

Words: David Beech
Photos: Gill Beech

April Walk – 2019

Spring was definitely in the air for our April walk around Orval sur Sienne. Already cheered by the blue sky, sun, and a gentle breeze, the group set off. We were accompanied by one canine friend, already a veteran of our walks, and two new members who brought their dog along.

The time went by quickly, people chatting as they walked; new conversations starting as people changed groupings. There were some more challenging parts where muscles were certainly exercised, but this was worth it for the views we enjoyed.

At one point, some young bulls took a great interest in one of the dogs. Indeed they all followed us right to the end of their field, where we left them, still curious.

Well, a long walk deserves a reward…. Lunch was taken at à La Sienne. This restaurant has been used before and again, it did not disappoint. The cheerful lady who served us was welcoming and efficient. We had been asked to arrive for 1.30 so most of the regular customers had finished. I did wonder if this would mean that some menu choices would not be available. However, there was no need to worry. Everything on the board was still on offer and was very tasty. A very good value lunch at 12€ for 3 courses.
Thank you Louise and Dave, for the well organized walk and for re visiting our lunch venue. Looking forward to the next one!

Annual General Meeting -Tuesday 9 April 2019

Tuesday began with an uncertain sky, the sort that encourages you to take an umbrella, which, of course, guarantees later sunshine, rendering the umbrella completely unnecessary. Our welcome at Le Poulailler was, as always, warm and friendly and the coffee and small viennoiseries were much appreciated. Before ten o’clock Anglophones had already started to gather to the bemusement of the solitary French local who had obviously anticipated a quiet few minutes for his coffee. I explained to him that we were Anglophones congregating for our annual meeting and he was surprised to learn that so many of us were residents, not tourists.

The Membership Secretary and his PA were kept busy with a continuous supply of membership renewals and cheques. Loik was kept busy with a continuous request for hot drinks. What a perfect place it is to meet! And, of course, the sky brightened, and we started to make our way in the cool April sunshine to Les Unelles for the meeting. Some thirty members attended in La Salle Jules Barbey D’Aurevilly. Who was Jules Barbey D’Aurevilly you may ask? Well, not just an obscure French name but actually a Byronesque literary figure, born in St Sauveur-le-Vicomte who was appreciated by Baudelaire and known for his dandyism and snobbery, adopting an aristocratic lifestyle and hinting at a mysterious past although his youth and childhood were actually relatively uneventful. His novels were famed for their risqué subjects. Weird Women, The She Devils and Happiness in Crime have each been translated into English if you are curious.

The President welcomed members to the meeting in an apologetic style, fearful that members might find the proceedings less than exciting. But how wrong could she be? Ahead of us was a treasurer’s report, the voting for the re-adoption of the charity, Les Sauveteurs en Mer for another year, news of three committee members who were giving notice of leaving the committee after three years of service and the cajoling of members to become new committee members.

There was a vote taken regarding whether or not the Association should apply for affiliation with the British Community Committee in France, which is an umbrella organisation of British associations in France, coordinating information on their activities and also able to represent their interests towards the British Embassy as well as the government in the UK. A strong majority of members voted in favour of making an application. The President advised members that this would be her last year so next April the Association will be looking for a new President too.

After the meeting the lunch at La Pergola was a pleasant opportunity to sit on the longest table in Coutances and shout at each other. We enjoyed good food which was efficiently served. My jambon in a cider sauce was delicious and the pizzas looked excellent. If you deserved it you got rhubarb tart and ice cream too.

Write up and photo’s courtesy of members.

March’s Walk – 2019

Our first walk of the year saw a good gathering of people and numerous four legged friends set off from Créances Plage. Dave chose a coastal walk to avoid muddy and waterlogged woodland tracks, with all the recent rain this proved to be a wise choice. Créances plage is a wild beach bordered by dunes and extends north to the mouth of the Lessay harbour.

The route took us south through the dunes towards Pirou Plage and although it was a slightly fresh and misty start, once it cleared and we were striding out, it soon warmed up into a very pleasant day. After reaching Pirou, we headed back to our lunch venue and start point at Créances along the expansive beach with lovely views across to Jersey. The tide was out on the return which exposed the numerous oyster and mussel beds. The walk was enjoyed by all and a very well deserved lunch at La Badine (just a short stroll from the beach) was excellent value for money with a varied selection available. All in all, a very enjoyable first walk.

Write up and photo courtesy of members.

Anglophones go Bowling- March 2019

On the evening of 15 March approximately sixteen Anglophones with a few guests assembled at the Bowling Alley at Coutances. For those who’ve never been there, “Le Yeti” Bowling is next to the Ice Rink (le Patinoire) on the Rue des Carrieres Saint-Michel opposite La Foir’ Fouille. The whole set up was very similar to that which I knew from family outings in South London in the 1990s. On our night it was quite quiet and we could use three lanes, so the action was fast and furious. Fortunately for many of us, a bar was available.

Raimund had had the bright idea of reviving what had once been a regular social event for the group. I don’t know when the last event took place, but with a few obvious exceptions, most of the participants had not held a bowling bowl for at least twenty years and, perhaps, that’s what made the evening so much fun. As a result of practice, lots of mutual encouragement and top-ups from the bar, everyone’s bowling improved. That is at least to the extent that most attempts led to the ball actually going in the right direction, staying out of the gutter and even knocking a few skittles over.

There was an abundance of laughter and banter throughout the evening. Everyone agreed that it had been a very enjoyable occasion. We’re most grateful to Raimund for his initiative and the time he spent organising the evening and ensuring its success. Please do it again soon!

Write up and photo courtesy of members.

Bring a Plate, Darts and Quiz- February 2019

I was delighted to be asked to report on the darts and quiz event at Jaques and Catherine’s beautiful house. The day was perfect, considering we are at the mid-point of February! What could be more British than sharing a few drinks, a sumptuous feed and a game of darts with good friends, to say nothing of Dave’s excellent quiz.

That was exactly what we all enjoyed this Sunday. The spread, provided by all of those present, was varied, plentiful and superbly judged, old favourites combined with exciting dishes, new to many of us. It was then on to a gut-busting selection of puddings.

I think, like many others, that our committee had chosen a perfect event in the ideal setting, providing a much-needed respite from the dreariness of winter. The joyous assembly was sadly marred by Catherine’s illness, which had forced her to remain in bed. She was most sadly missed as our “hostess with the mostest” although the redoubtable Jaques did a fine job in filling the void. We all wish her a rapid and complete recovery, but also pass our thanks to the committee who enabled the event to be another roaring success.

Thank you all, and a special thank you to Alan for his guidance through the mysteries of darts, a sport clearly new to many, but one that they will not now forget.

Write up and photos courtesy of members.

Burns Lunch – 25th January 2019

It may, initially, seem a little incongruous for a group of English speaking people to assemble on Robbie Burns’ birthday to celebrate him and his poetry but, as you can imagine, the opportunity to use the occasion to share a haggis and a wee dram was too inviting for most of us to miss.

Needless to say it was a sharp frost that January morning but the welcome at Les Unelles was warm and the committee members had been hard at work preparing the tables which were beautifully prepared in blue and tartan, decorated with votives and sprays of heather.

Tartan drapes also festooned the rails. A portrait of a young, confident and debonair Robert Burns was displayed at the entrance, leaving no ambiguity as to why we were there. It was a pleasant opportunity to mingle and chat with a welcome drink in our hand and, with interesting aromas escaping from the distant kitchen where the haggis luncheon was being prepared, a treat was anticipated.

The presentation of the haggis was wonderfully orchestrated and, with distant bagpipes echoing around, the ceremony began. Kerry, dressed in a wonderful kilt, brought some haggis up from the kitchen on a ceremonial platter to be admired by all and then Jock gave us a real treat by addressing the haggis, reciting Burns’ Ode to a Haggis, all from memory, and in the original version too.

The haggis were then taken back to the kitchen for serving and were shortly returned to the table accompanied by tatties and neeps as well as that wee dram. The flavours were superb.
A vegetarian option had been prepared which most people needed to sample out of curiosity. It was all a very successful arrangement of flavours, beautifully cooked by Polly. I am reliably informed that no haggis suffered unnecessarily in the making of this meal, other than the indignity of being cooked and eaten by Sassenachs. Second helpings were available, in fact I think I had a third. A beautifully creamy, oats and raspberry Cranachan desert followed.

After the meal we had the pleasure of hearing John McA (note the Mc) talk about the life, issue and poetry of Robert Burns. John had done some considerable research into the subject and had produced a leaflet for us all. It was most informative. I got a little confused by the complexity of the numerous issue of Robbie Burns, and so too did Mr Burns, it would appear. John also recited a Burns poem — To a Mouse – on Turning up in Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785:
Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O what a pannic’s in thy breastie!
John, of course, got a very appreciative round of applause for his research and entertaining presentation. Now a few more English speaking men and women know more than they ever did about Robert Burns. The event was very nicely themed and brought to something of an exhaustive conclusion with first a demonstration of some Scottish Country dancing by the Dance Group, and then some energetic wheeling and slipping by several other members who were invited to join in.

Great fun was had by all.
A final “Thank You” was given to all responsible for this very enjoyable entertainment and feast — the members of our committee, Kerry, Jock, John and the chef. Several people remarked how nice it had been and were particularly appreciative of the themed nature of the afternoon – “ It would be nice to do another themed event in the future.” Suggestions, on a postcard please, to the committee, complete with offers of contributions.