Village life in Saint-Vaast
Discover the bustling maritime community of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, where the locals live according to the rhythm of the sea. Alison Hughes takes a tour of this little-known coastal gem
On disembarking from the ferry at Cherbourg, most people head straight down the Cotentin Peninsula to destinations further south. But turn left out of the port, drive for about half-an-hour and you’ll discover the little-known village gem of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue. This maritime community is situated on the north-eastern tip of the peninsula – a position which in days gone by led to numerous invasions until master military engineer Vauban designed twin towers that now look out over the bay; Fort de la Hougue on the peninsula and Tour de Vauban on the nearby Île Tatihou.
Recently these forbidding towers built for war have accommodated more peaceful purposes; welcoming shanty singers from England and the Netherlands to sing in what is now an annual music festival, Les Traversées Tatihou. The symbolism of this event is not lost on local historian and author Annick Perrot, who is Saint-Vaast’s biggest fan – she says she thanks her ancestors every day for being born here. Although her career took her away to Caen and to Paris, she returned to Saint-Vaast about 15 years ago.
“I felt stifled in Paris,” she says. “I needed to return to the place where I was born, to be close to my family – and I missed the sea.”
Ebb and flow
Her interest in genealogy and enthusiasm for her birthplace has led her to write several books: one on the origin of local street names, another a record of the village in wartime and a third detailing the history of the towers, which she co-authored. In fact it was Annick who prepared the proposal that led to the towers being listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. Her latest literary ventures are a mix of bandes dessinées and romans-photos – amusing adventure stories with a bit of history thrown in, all with a connection to Saint-Vaast and featuring Annick as heroine.
The sea informs every part of Saint-Vaast. “We live by the rhythm of the tides,” says Annick. “Saint-Vaast est un port dans la ville.”
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And it’s true. Even though the number of fishermen has diminished, there are still some 30 fishing boats which ply their trade. There are also extensive oyster and mussel beds in the bay, renowned for the quality of their produce. The ancient trade of shipbuilding has also developed into the restoration of historic vessels.
The Chantier Naval Bernard in Saint-Vaast includes among its projects the restoration of Le Marité, the last three-masted schooner to be built. Gilles Auger and his team are now busy restoring the only remaining working craft from the D-Day landings in Normandy. Another project, lasting two years, was the restoration of the Fleur de Lampoul, a beautiful two-master that now takes passengers as far afield as Tromsø in Norway as well as closer to home, down the coast to Honfleur and around the Baie de la Hougue.
Every coastal community should have a nearby island and Saint-Vaast has Tatihou – a Norse name meaning ‘land (hou) belonging to Tat’. In its time Tatihou has had a number of different uses, ranging from lazaret (a quarantine centre) to sanatorium, internment camp and house of correction. Given its history, it took some time for locals to regard the island in a different light and ‘soyez sages ou on va vous mettre à Tatihou’ was the warning given to wayward children until recent times. The island is now open to the public and houses a maritime museum which hosts a permanent exhibition on the Battle of La Hougue between the French and Anglo-Dutch fleets in 1692 which led to the building of the towers, one of which stands solidly at the far end of the island.
The museum also has an interactive salle where students can learn more about the marine environment and a boathouse. The grounds of the original lazaret have been transformed into gardens featuring exotic plants and part of the island is a nature reserve where 150 species of birds can be seen. Tatihou’s history of scientific research is carried on today in its laboratory and educational visits. The Île Tatihou is just ten minutes away from Saint-Vaast, and to get there you could be bumped across the oyster beds at low tide in an amphibious boat or sail across the waves by more conventional means at high tide.
Back at Saint-Vaast, however, mention must be made of Maison Gosselin, which is something of an institution here, not least because it has been in the same family for 120 years. Known affectionately as ‘le Fauchon du Contentin’ by visiting Parisians or ‘the Harrods of the North’ by expats, it would be difficult to leave this shop without parting with a few euros. The displays themselves are visual feasts, and if you have just moored up in the harbour staff fill even deliver to your boat in the shop’s van.
There is a strong sense of community here. A Bénédiction de la Mer is held once a decade, and there is a special service annually for those lost at sea. But the emphasis is on life and the living. When I ask Annick if the character of Saint-Vaast has changed down the years, she replies that it has evolved, but the sea will always be at the heart of the community. And as Annick says, to open your shutters every morning, breathe in the salty air and gaze across the bay at the changing colours; what could be better than that?