Tapisseries and Patisseries

Actually it has more to do with mince pies than patisseries by why let facts spoil a good title?

Wednesday 10th December 2008, Bayeux
The days are short, cold and damp. Furthermore they are passing so quickly that it is proving impossible to keep this account up to date. Over recent days we have managed a few drives out into the countryside, a few bitingly cold clifftop walks and several investigative walks around the historic streets of Bayeux.

On Saturday it was the weekly street market on the square. While nowhere near as large as the one at Caen, it brings in everyone from the surrounding villages and is a very lively affair. There are the regular commerçants who travel around the region appearing at different markets each day, but there are also smallholders from the locality who turn up at the Bayeux market with their produce. Sometimes this is no more than some muddy organic carrots and a few bunches of fresh herbs. Usually though, it is possible to buy home cured meats, unpasteurised cream, goat's cheese, even live geese, rabbits, chickens and pigeons. Somebody had turned up with a basket of kittens in the hope of finding them homes – buy one get one free!

Saturday market in Bayeux

Saturday market in Bayeux

Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, here just as in England. Orders were being taken for locally produced foie gras and farm killed turkeys. One farmer had even brought a van load of them along so you could see what you'd be getting. They were quite unaware of the fate that will shortly befall them.

Turkey vendor in Bayeux market

Christmas trees, potted plants, cut flowers and seasonal music added to the festive atmosphere. We wandered the stalls nibbling the free samples of ham, boudin, dried sausage, quiche, pâté and sweet tangerines. Nobody pressed us to buy. The dried sausage vendor with his bristling moustache stood beside a lifesize cutout of himself with the caption "Chez Moustache tout est bon!" He proffered us slices of donkey sausage on the end of his sharp knife. We rarely see such colourful characters in England.

Taking advantage of a sunny afternoon we ventured out into the surrounding countryside. Much of it is under water! The rivers and lakes have overflowed and the fields have become quagmires. The brown and white speckled Normandy cattle were standing in disconsolate groups on any raised hummock of land they could find, plastered completely in mud.

Flooded Normandy countryside

At nearby Balleroy we found the château at the end of an avenue of immaculately pollarded trees. The French are obsessed with forcing and twisting their trees and shrubs into unnatural shapes, cordoning them along walls or trellises. The work involved each year is enormous! Here we found portable scaffolding had been set up to enable access to the branches where every single twig was clipped off leaving nothing but a few bare, deformed limbs. These avenues looked as miserable in winter as do the desolate vineyards further south. Pollarding and pruning are definitely an art form perfected by the French.

Château de Balleroy

Château de Balleroy

Pollarded trees near the entrance to the Château de Balleroy

The early 17th century château of Balleroy was closed for the winter. We understand it is owned by the family of an American, Michael Forbes, obsessed with hot air ballooning. We did visit it many years ago and recall even the lace curtaining had balloons worked into them!

Returning to Bayeux we stopped at sunset to investigate the Abbaye St. Martin de Mondaye set alone in the green countryside. The monastery, with its library of 50,000 volumes, was closed to visitors but we were able to wander around in the huge 18th century church accompanied by the evening choir practice.

Abbaye St. Martin de Mondaye

Buildings of the Abbaye St. Martin de Mondaye

On Sunday morning we again found ourselves in Grandcamp Maisy. This time the sun was shining and we discovered it was the Fête de Coquilles St Jacques. Somehow Modestine got herself tangled up with the firemen's band as it paraded noisily through the town and we were obliged to go with it until we found a side road by the quayside and managed to park.

Parading firemen, Grandcamp Maisy

All the trawlers had been out scraping the sea bed and the entire town was sinking under the weight of scallop shells! Even the bountiful supply of Christmas decorations around the fish market and quayside were all made from these shells! Tastefully spray painted in silver and gold they twinkled amongst the Christmas trees and hung in garlands from the rafters of the covered market. Dozens of stalls were selling scallops as well as crabs, lobsters, sea bass and flounders, and there was the happy sound of cheerful banter. Almost everyone was wandering around with a couple of plastic bags of dripping seashells and a marquee was serving seafood Sunday lunches. Families were tucking into plates of moules, scallops and oysters served with chilled white wine. (It was bitingly cold there on the seafront but nobody seemed to notice.)

Selling coquilles St. Jacques on the quayside

Cockles and oysters for sale, Grandcamp Maisy

Sunday lunch in a quayside marquee, Grandcamp Maisy

There was singing, music and dancing throughout the day. We watched a group of local folk dancers, their wooden sabots clattering as they stomped and twirled to the accompanying accordion. In the main market hall they were selling homemade chocolate cake, hot pancakes and cooked sausages with mustard. We bought some of each and took our bounty to a sunny, sheltered bench beside the fishing boats for lunch. Later Ian got into conversation with somebody from one of the chalutiers (fishing smacks) and disappeared on board for a look around. He reports climbing down several ladders to see the nets, the freezer room, the kitchen and bathroom as well as the sleeping quarters with their bunk beds. He also investigated the engine room and learned that normally the boats go out to sea for several days at a time. In winter though they tend to return to port at night as they are currently using mainly drag nets to gather the abundant scallops from the sea bed.

Folk dancers wearing clogs, Grandcamp Maisy

Chalutier visited by Ian, Grandcamp Maisy

Bunk beds on one of the chalutiers, Grandcamp Maisy

Dragnets onboard the chalutier, Grandcamp Maisy

On Monday we drove the short distance to Arromanches. Down in the town there was not a single shop or restaurant open and we were the only people around. French seaside resorts can be very dismal out of season. Beside the beach with its decaying remains of the temporary harbour we found a section of the cast iron roadway that had been transported across the Channel and laid along the top of the caissons. Up on the icy cliff top overlooking the Mulberry harbour, stands the 360 degrees cinema with its nine linked screens. It shows actual film footage made during the D-Day landings along the coast, interspersed with flights across the same landscape today. Standing alone in the cinema, completely surrounded by the fighting, we found ourselves holding tightly to the metal bars provided. Because so much was filmed from the cockpit of a tank or helicopter it really did feel as if the ground was moving beneath our feet!

Section of the temporary roadway along the Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches

Today we have been exploring more of Bayeux. The river Aure runs through the town and has always been of major importance to the city. Along its banks are water mills, once used for the production of rape oil.

River Aure during the recent rains, Bayeux

14th century Bayeux poet Alain Chartier at the corner of our road, Bayeux

Hotel de Ville, Bayeux

Main street, Bayeux

We have discovered a newly inaugurated and thought provoking remembrance garden near the British military cemetery, where war correspondents and photographers from around the world, who have died in action, are honoured. It is an impressive place with the names recorded each year growing rapidly, reflecting the changing areas of conflict in the world. There are already more than two thousand names, revealing the price at which we obtain our news.

Bayeux Cathedral, whose Gothic spires are visible across the rooftops from our flat, stands in an open area in the middle of the mediaeval town, surrounded by the Deanery - now a museum, and the Bishop's Palace - part of which is now the Hôtel de Ville. Consecrated in 1077 in the presence of William the Conqueror, the Norman nave was added to over the following centuries, including the ruthless insertion, beneath a rounded arch with restrained Romanesque decoration, of a flamboyant baroque pulpit. Thomas Becket is remembered with paintings in the south transept and, above the south door, there is a sculpted account of his life. To either side of the west entrance are Gothic sculptures of the passion and last judgement, crowded with busy figures.

Bayeux Cathedral

West front of Bayeux Cathedral

Passion, Bayeux Cathedral

Last Judgement, Bayeux Cathedral

Near the cathedral is the centre for lacemaking. Since the 17th century Bayeux has been famed for it lace and there was once a lacemaking school established here, training orphan girls for a living. Now it is taught as an art form though pieces are offered for sale from the adjoining souvenir shop. It is rather pleasurable in the afternoon gloom to peer through the lighted window of the half-timbered mediaeval shop where several lacemakers with large magnifying glasses sit twisting the delicate black or white bobbin threads around pins, until a delicate lace flower or butterfly gradually emerges.

We have also visited the famous Bayeux Tapestry. Actually it is more an embroidery than a tapestry. The figures are stitched in woollen threads onto a length of white linen stretching right around the walls of the specially adapted display gallery. The dyes used are made from natural pigments in several tones of rust, yellow and green. They have not faded at all over the past nine hundred years and the tapestry has somehow survived wars, fires and floods as well as being housed in several different locations over the years. It is thought to have been commissioned to hang in the newly constructed Bayeux Cathedral where it was displayed on special ceremonial occasions. It is sometimes attributed to Queen Matilde, wife of William the Conqueror and there is a 19th century painting in the town museum showing her busy at work with her embroidery. However, it is more seriously considered to have been woven in the 11th century and possibly commissioned from England. Whatever its origins it is undoubtedly an amazing record of the history of the Battle of Hastings and the conquest of Britain. The main events leading up to the battle are depicted along the centre with a frieze of mythical beasts along the top and bottom. Sometimes too, there are overflow events from the main history embroidered in the lower frieze, such as the archers during the actual battle scenes.

The tapestry is 50 centimetres high and is broken up into sixty or so different scenes. Above each is embroidered a Latin inscription explaining what is taking place. It really is just like a cartoon strip or "bande desinée", an art form that has remained hugely popular with the French ever since! It starts with Harold being sent by the English king, Edward the Confessor, to Normandy to confirm that Duke William will be his successor. On the death of Edward however, Harold had himself crowned king instead. In England there was anxiety at this and the tapestry depicts a comet in the top frieze, a sign of bad omen. This has since been recognised as Halley's comet which would have been visible in the sky at exactly that time. William's reaction was to gather his forces, build many ships and raise an army against Harold. All this is depicted in fascinating detail in the embroidery. The ships are loaded with supplies, weapons, coats of armour, barrels of wine, soldiers, archers and horses. The horses in particular are amazing, standing proudly in the ships with happy smiles on their faces! When regarded as an invasion to re-establish legitimate power, it bears comparison with the D-Day landings nine hundred years later, but in reverse.

When William and his troops land at Pevensey Bay in 1066 they needed to live off the land. They are shown building a defensive castle, burning down houses and sending the innocent inhabitants of Pevensey on their way, just as happens to so many refugees today. Following scenes show Harold's army gathered to fight. Eventually Harold and William meet near Hastings and the battle rages. All the turbulence of the battle is depicted in graphic detail with severed limbs and dead bodies scattered in the bottom frieze. The dead are stripped of their armour and weapons for further use, the archers send streams of arrows over the defences of the English troops and one strikes Harold in the eye. Harold dies and the Normans are victorious. There may have been missing panels depicting William's progress to London and his coronation but here the tapestry ends.

It is here, however that the Norman influence in England begins. Upstairs there is an exhibition showing how key positions in both government and the church were given to those dukes and nobles who had supported William in what was seen at the time as his English crusade - he even had the approval of the Pope! It is thanks to William that we have so many beautiful Norman cathedrals – Canterbury, Winchester, Durham, Rochester and many more. The Normans also built castles, such as the Tower of London, Exeter and Rochester. They set up new systems of law and government. William ordered a detailed survey of his kingdom – the Domesday Book. This provided information not only on the population, but also on the lands, size of properties, fields and crops and even how many sheep, pigs and cattle where owned. It was a complete record of Britain in the 11th century and has provided a wealth of historic data for researchers ever since.

Present location for the Bayeux tapestry

Sunday 14th December 2008
Interspersed with all these cultural activities we have been swept up in a cheery round of visiting and receiving friends here in Bayeux and also in Caen. We have just returned from Sunday lunch around the corner with Bénédicte. Geneviève was also there as was Marise, yet another recently retired librarian visiting from Paris. Thursday and yesterday we invited various friends for lunch and on Thursday evening we were invited to supper with Claire in Caen. With less than a week left now before we return to Exeter for Christmas we have planned a little party "à l'anglaise" for our friends tomorrow afternoon here in our flat. There will be a dozen or so of us, almost all librarians. In the morning we will be busy preparing salmon and cucumber sandwiches and mince pies, regarded in France as typically English. We also brought a large box of Christmas crackers with us from England. They should help the party go with a bang. We have raided the supermarket here for Christmassy paper plates and asked several guests to bring extra cups and cutlery as this flat is designed for two people only. We will be taking it in turns to sit down!

Lunchtime in our flat with Chantal and Geneviève

Christmas supper with Claire, Jean Pierre and Geneviève, Caen

Christmas lights at the Hotel de Ville and Abbaye aux Hommes, where William the Conqueror is buried, Caen

The rain yesterday was dire and it is almost as bad again this evening. We gather much of Devon has also been badly flooded. It was far too wet to visit the Saturday market this week but after lunch we braved the rain to accompany our guest Claire on a visit to the Musée Baron Gerard, housed in the former deanery opposite the cathedral. Currently there is a temporary exhibition of Bayeux porcelain, one of the town's major industries until the 1950s. The art of porcelain manufacture was unknown outside of China until the early 18th century. Bayeux was one of the first places of production in France and had its own distinctive hand painted designs. Initially vases, ornaments and delicate tableware were produced. In later years more ordinary household dishes and cooking tureens became a mainstay. In the 20th century, up until the 1950s, the Bayeux porcelain works also produced much of the ceramic equipment required for the chemical and electrical industries.

The exhibition was excellent. Pieces had been lent from around the country and displayed chronologically showing the range and development of the different styles and products. Huge, vivid vases were decorated with deep blue and bright orange flowers and plants together with a liberal use of gold leaf. Later, entire dinner services were produced using the blue marguerite motif that became the mainstay of the company.

Tuessday 16th December 2008, Bayeux
Well the party went really well. Benedicte entered into the spirit of the invitation arriving in a huge black evening cape bedecked with sequins. Genevieve brought an emergency basket of additional cups, saucers and tea spoons and by dint of using the bathroom stool and an upturned paper basket everyone eventually found a seat. We'd spent the morning making platters of English sandwiches, even managing to find some Scottish Chedder for the cheese and pickle ones. The mince pies and chocolate Santa lollies we had brought with us from England, in hopeful anticipaton of such an event. Glittering strands hung from the rafters and festive crackers and napkins made everywhere look very cosy. Even our landlord Gordon was able to come, though Liz was across the Channel in England. Everybody, with the exception of Gordon was either a librarian or recently retired from libraries and the conversation was a mixed hubbub of French and English.

Invitation to take tea in illustrious surroundings

French library friends taking English tea in our flat, Bayeux