Village life: The beauty from within
The Normandy village of Barfleur has a rich maritime heritage, as Paul Lamarra discovers during a visit to the harbourside community
First impressions of Barfleur, a small fishing village close to the north-eastern tip of Normandy’s Contentin peninsula are of a sensible, no-nonsense fishing community that eschews whimsy in favour of practicality.
For instance Rue Saint-Thomas Becket, the village’s main thoroughfare, is lined on both sides by a more or less continuous terrace of stout granite homes and shops. The windows are small, the roofs in slate and the walls thick. Their heights vary and some have shutters over the windows but a certain plainness is the lasting impression.
In a village marked by the rigours of the sea it is perhaps unsurprising that the houses be plain and unadorned, but taking the time to scrutinise the houses from their roofline to the doorstep reveals the small frivolities that the Barfleurais allow themselves.
At eye-level the name of a house or the identity of a famous resident, such as Henri Chardon, the painter, is often marked with a highly glazed three-dimensional tile that might feature a fisherman in his boat or a jumping fish.
Higher up on the rooflines and apexes there is often a pottery owl or what looks like a stack of ornate urns. Almost all the slate roofs are topped with faîtages dentelles or capping stones finished with what appears to be pottery lace (whereby lace has been printed into the soft clay to create a pattern before firing).
Taking pride in their sense of self-reliance, the Barfleurais source these minor affectations from within and Ingrid Guilbert, the village’s only potter, is kept very busy meeting the demand.
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Ingrid, 38, who has worked at the pottery since arriving on a work placement 20 years ago, frequently works 12 hours a day making the faîtages, crafting owls and angels and designing the blue and white crockery for which the village has become well-known.
“I work from eight in the morning to eight at night, I close just one day a week and take just one week of holidays but I don’t go far,” explains Ingrid. “People want owls to keep the pigeons and the seagulls away, and the blue in the crockery is the shade of the sky above and sea around Barfleur.”
“The crockery is nearly traditional – it will be traditional one day,” she adds laughing. Everywhere Ingrid goes in Barfleur she can see examples of her work and, although originally from Cherbourg, she feels that she belongs. “Barfleur is a place where everyone feels they own something and everyone who comes to Barfleur feels as though it belongs to them.”
Rue Saint-Thomas leads directly to the small tidal harbour. At high tide fishermen and sailors make ready their boats or off-load their catch onto the quay. Low tide creates a hiatus. The village is still and the fishing boats and pleasure craft rest on their hulls or sit lop-sided, unable to balance on their keels.
At the end of the quay on the very margins of the sea sits a very sensible looking 17th-century church of Saint-Nicolas and it acts as a squat granite sentinel between the fishing folk of Barfleur and the notoriously treacherous waters that lie beyond the harbour mouth.
A church dedicated to Saint Nicolas, patron saint of ships and sailors, is one of the many pacts that fisherman make to alleviate the dangers of their occupation.
To emphasise the link, as is customary in fishing communities, a model ship swings above the main altar. With few windows the church has the feeling of a dank subterranean chamber swept regularly by an angry sea.
A devout Barfleurais fisherman might, in the teeth of a storm, pray to Saint Nicolas to take the tiller and guide him home. However, for good measure, they also place their faith in more earthly precautions.
Across the bay to the north stands the Gatteville lighthouse – at 75 metres it is the second tallest in France. The powerful beam reaches out over 22 nautical miles and crosses with the beam emitted by the Saint Catherine lighthouse on the Isle of Wight.
Lit for the first time in 1835, the Gatteville lighthouse scans the barely submersed rocks that have claimed numerous ships and lives. During World War II, the Germans would use it strategically by turning it off and on at will.
The Gatteville lighthouse, however, did not eradicate misadventure and 30 years after it began operating France’s first lifeboat station was opened in Barfleur adjacent to the church.
Nowadays it responds to around four emergencies a year. The most famous boat to go down near Barfleur was The White Ship. On 25 November 1120, it left Barfleur for Southampton carrying Henry I of England’s only legitimate son William.
By all accounts the crew were drunk and full of bravado and, in trying to overtake the king’s ship which had already sailed, The White Ship struck a rock on its port side. All but two lives were lost. England lost its heir and 19 years of conflict ensued on both sides of the Channel.
From 1066, when William the Conqueror became king of England, Barfleur thrived as the first cross-Channel ferry port and the Norman kings were frequent travellers. Indeed, it grew to the point where its population of 9000 rivalled that of London. It was also in Barfleur that William the Conqueror’s flagship, The Mora, was built and a green copper plaque at the top of the village slipway marks its departure for England in 1066.
Today the most distinctive craft that set sail from Barfleur are the traditional vacquelotte. Black hulled with only a splash of colour at the bow, these two-masted fishing boats are specially designed to allow one fisherman to operate them. The mizzen (main) sail is used to stop the craft and the smaller sail at the stern keeps its steady while the fisherman brings in his nets.
Throughout the year they fish for mackerel and herring and in the winter for scallops or coquilles Saint-Jacques as they’re known in France. Between June and September the local fisherman can, with permission, exploit the only bank of mussels in the open sea in Europe.
During this period each fisherman is allowed to land 500kg per day. Small, with a smooth and delicate nutty taste, the mussels are described by the locals as belles, blondes et sauvages and best eaten accompanied by some dry Normandy cider.
Protected by an AOP that brands the mussels as Blondes de Barfleur, it also allows only the Barfleurais fishermen to sell them directly from the quayside.
For the 600 people of Barfleur it is the sea and its dangers that continue to preoccupy them and it is the sea with its constantly changing temperament and colours that keeps life interesting. So, as the Barfleurais would say, why try to compete?
By air: Flybe fly from London Southend to Caen Capriquet
By rail: trains from Paris-Saint-Lazare to Cherbourg take three-and-half-hours
By road: Brittany Ferries sails to Cherbourg from Portsmouth and Poole. Tel: 0871 244 0744; www.brittanyferries.com
WHERE TO STAY
Hôtel le Conquerant
16 et 18 rue Saint-Thomas Becket
Tel: (Fr) 2 33 54 00 82
WHERE TO EAT
Café de France
12 Quai Henri ChardonTel: (Fr) 2 33 54 00 38
April – B’Art Fleur: 50 artists, painters and sculptures exhibiting in homes around the village
July – August - été Musicale de Barfleur: series of classical music concerts including concert pianist Anne Queffelec, mother of the festival.
August – Villages des Antiquaires: old world fair and villagers in costume.
Office de Tourisme Barfleur
2 Rond Point le Conquérant
Tel: (Fr) 2 33 54 02 48