France using the byways

Our route back towards Caen took us via Loches on the river Loire. Friends Susan and Ray, whom we met on our first year of travels down in the Languedoc moved here some years ago. You may well have already encountered them in our blogs. Since we last saw them Ray has been very unwell indeed, and after a life-saving operation in Tour last year he has been forced to return to the UK leaving Susan to sell the house that represents all their dreams over the past decade, and make long term decisions for their future.

We spent a sunny day helping Susan around the massive garden, tidying the woodshed, potting up summer tubs with plants to encourage prospective purchasers, removing weeds from the flagstones and accompanying Susan to the same delightful restaurant in a neighbouring village that we found so fantastic on an earlier visit. This time of course we missed Ray’s cheerful company but, as compensation, we drank his share of the complimentary bottle of wine that accompanied the fantastic value lunch served to us beneath a sunshade in the pretty garden edging onto the river. Ray by the way, is now living in neighbouring Somerset so we are likely to be back in touch again now we are home in Devon once more.

We camped at Loches' municipal campsite on the banks of the Loire, one of the nicest we have found in France. It was here we were serenaded at 3am on an earlier visit by a nightingale perched on a branch overhanging Modestine. An evening stroll took us along the chateau moat and up through tiny streets of crumbling white stone houses and troglodyte dwellings clambering up the hillside above the chateau.

Troglodyte houses, Loches

Before moving on to Vendome the following morning we revisited the citadel of Loches to see the tomb of Agnes Sorel (1421-1450), the charming and beautiful mistress of Charles VII. The chateau at Loches was a gift to Anges Sorel from the king. It was also the place that he was persuaded by Jeanne d’Arc to have himself crowned King of France.

Tomb of Agnes Sorel, Loches

Vendome we have visited previously. It was at the College de Vendome that the 19th century novelist Honore de Balzac spent seven years as a student. His experience is reflected in his novel Louis Lambert, set within the college.

We were still pottering northwards on the minor departmental roads though we could have reached Caen in a couple of hours. That evening we camped near Mayenne where a fellow camper, a Frenchman, told us that we should visit a picturesque village nearby, Lassay les Chateaux. It is thus that we encounter so many of the delightful experiences during our travels. The town is quite charming with four different chateaux scattered within walking distance of the village centre. We followed part of the route linking them, passing through the mediaeval garden where a family were enjoying a happy picnic, around the ancient paved streets of charming stone houses, and along the typically provincial street of bars, bakers, flower vendors, charcuteries and butchers. Being Sunday the local bar was crowded with cyclists stopping for an appero’ before streaming off across the French countryside like a line of processionary caterpillars!

Lassay-les-Châteaux, castle by the lake
Lassay-les-Châteaux, picnic in the medieval garden
Lassay-les-Châteaux, lavoir
Stopping to explore prices in the window of the estate agents we were approached by a forlorn looking gentleman pleading with us not to buy! He told us the place looked charming and he had been seduced into buying a home in the village some four years ago, moving from his flat in Le Havre. Since then he had found it impossible to integrate with the village residents, he was lonely and unhappy. The winters seemed long and once you’d walked around the chateaux and visited the mediaeval garden there was absolutely nothing to do. And he was a Frenchman! How much worse for Brits retiring to France? This poor man says he’s desperate to leave the village and return to live in a town. He even talked of suicide if he was forced to suffer another year in the village. He wished he could do as we have done and live in a campervan, moving around the country until he found the right place to really settle down. We felt very unhappy for him and concerned to leave him standing waving us farewell when we finally parted. Hopefully having had a long talk with us he felt happier. Loneliness and depression must be a major problem for so many people in rural France.

From Lassey we continued to Domfront in the Pays d’Auge. Again we have written about Domfront elsewhere in our travels. By mid afternoon we were back in Caen with Geneviève.

Ian still had a mission in mind. The area around Coutances on the western coast of the Cotentin Peninsula was the home to an extraordinary number of itinerant booksellers who were the bane of the Parisian authorities in the 18th century. In preparation for the paper Ian has been invited to present in Bayeux next November he was eager to track down the villages of some of these booksellers or colporteurs.

The war memorial in the churchyard at Muneville-le-Bingard near Coutance bore witness to the fact that the same families were still in the village a century and a half after Ian had traced them in the correspondence of a Rouen bookseller in the 1770s and the parish registers in the years before the fall of the Bastille. It was from this village that the large majority of the booksellers would leave on their travels each February, and it became clear that they must have been fleeing rural deprivation, seeking their fortune on the roads of northern France.

Muneville was a depressing place, its name being its most attractive feature. Ian however was chuckled to discover many names on the graves in the churchyard were familiar from the documents he has been analysing. Geneviève and I though simply found the churchyard cold and draughty. The little village was crumbling and scruffy, cut through by the main road and with an abandoned, crumbling factory building once powered by a water wheel. It looked a dismal place to live. No wonder the colporteurs were eager to leave home for as long as possible, returning only to take part in the harvest. With nothing to do over the wintertime and such uncomfortable housing, even carting heavy books around the countryside has its attractions!

Church, Muneville-le-Bingard
War memorial. The names of Banse or Bense, Blaisot or Blaizot, Duplenne and Saint-Denis can all be found as itinerant booksellers in the registers of Muneville-le-Bingard in the 18th century, Muneville-le-Bingard
Water powered factory, Muneville-le-Bingard
Cob building near church, Muneville-le-Bingard
Another few kilometres on Montsurvent told the same story. This village is the birthplace of Noël Gille, one of the better documented of these hawkers who traversed northern France with a cart drawn by two horses. When he was interrogated by the police in Montargis in 1774, he declared that he could neither read nor write, yet he dealt not just in chapbooks but in the works of Rousseau as well as a range of rather more dubious titles - he ended up with a term in prison.

Montsurvent, church. The names of Heuget, Blaisot and Laisney can be found both on the war memorial and in 18th century records
Montsurvent, cob building
The booksellers all originated from several small villages between Coutances and the sea, a remote area where a maze of narrow lanes winds through little hamlets which are not always named. Ian was determined to seek out as much information as possible, directing us from one remote village to the next.

It was bitterly cold as we made our way on to Blainville-sur-Mer, a straggling place, but rather more prosperous than the previous villages we had passed through. A new wave of booksellers left the region for Paris in the 19th century and many of them made good, particularly as printsellers. They retained their links with their native land and constructed comfortable villas in the Bas Rue in Blainville, which became known as “Booksellers’ Street”.

Bookseller’s villa, Bas rue, Blainville-sur-Mer
As a reward for our indulgence Ian treated us to burgers and chips on a draughty seafront terrace at Agon-Coutainville, it being the only place open on a dismal chilly Sunday. So much for French chic seaside resorts and French cuisine outside the high season!

We remained with Geneviève for several days visiting our several friends in the town before taking the morning ferry to Portsmouth and continuing to join family members gathered for the funeral of Ian’s Aunty Marge’, his mum’s younger sister. She has been a brilliant aunt to him and his sister over the years and the ceremony was very moving. She will be sorely missed by us all.

Horses on the beach near the ferry port, Ouisterham
Related links
Domfront See Thursday 12th July 2006