We've had another amusing day immersing ourselves in French culture. We set off first of all to the musuem devoted to cod fishing on 'the Grand Banks' off Newfoundland. Whereas the Breton fishermen stuck to the old French-Canadian inshore territories, the Fecampois traditionally fished for cod in the deeper water. The tiny mother ships – only 50 tons up the beginning of the 19th century – would send out a dozen or so dories, each with two men who lay out the lines. Their positions were chosen by lot. The whole thing was horribly risky and open to chance – if fog or ice or bad weather overtook them, their only way back to the ship was hearing her bell ringing. Many men were lost every year. A haunting scenario. When they got their hauls of cod back to the big boat they had to throw it up onto the deck, where it was weighed by the mate, and they were paid by the number they had caught. It was salted at sa and brought back, mostly to be kippered in great warehouses round the harbour. None of those enterprises (or cod fishing boats) are left, of course, but the buildings are being restituted and respected. The museum itself is beautiful, fantastically well presented and staffed, richly plannd and endowed, with marvellous models of famous vessels (going back to the Vikings, too, as it was the Vikings who are credited around here for inventing kippers). They even have that wonderful book 'Tim at Sea' by Edward Ardizzone, in French, on sale in the excellent bookshop.
Then we went off to see the extraordinary parish church of St Etienne, which was started by an ambitious abbot in the early 1500s, on a huge scale. He died or left, they ran out of money and stopped with just a choir, transepts, tower and no nave. Fifty years royalty visited and the celebratory cannonshots actually set this awkward structure on fire. It took a further 15 years to be repaired, but still no nave. Rather reminscent of St Barts the Great in London now.
Then we took in the astonishing Abbey of Fecamp, which is utterly huge, white, and complete. This is where Wm the Conq came back to give thanks to God for letting him conquer and become King of England. He poured money into it, gave the Abbey possession of the churches at Rye, Winchelsea, Pevensey and Steyning and then staffed the rest of the English chuch with clerics from Fecamp. No wonder it was so rich. The noticeboard explaining some of this, across the road from the heavily symmetrical 18th century west front, is malicious in its glee in telling this story, in my opinion. The Normans proved to be a savage and punitive lot as far as the English were concerned, and our culture never did quite recover its confidence.
We went back to the harbour for lunch – to le Progress – filled with fat Frenchmen in pairs, eating in silent homage to their good fortune. The formule was 15.50 for Pecheurs... so it was fruits de mer, huitres, moules, morue, frites etc. The two men beside us were pleased to chat, sent us some nibbles, recommended the food, drank our health and sent us three 'trous Normandes' – little entr'actes of apple sorbet dropped into Calvados, as a present. One of these two was very merry and repetitive. The other was really spherical and reticent. He concentrated solely on the business in hand. Looks like they went there every day. Because Fecamp really is still more or less 'old France' this is how things are. We have not seen so many gourmandes in places which are better known to tourists.
A trip to the Tourist Info filled us up with maps, invites, etc especially relating to the maritime museum theme (part of the reason for my visit – to help form an alliance perhaps between the museum here and new one we are considering in Faversham to concentrate on our Creek and the Thames Barges).
Then, up we went to the Chapel of Our Lady of Salvation on the hilltop to the north of the town... again, no nave. This time it had fallen into ruin, and what's left of the very early church only survives because – like Reculver in North Kent – it acted as a way marker for shipping. The holy space below and around the tower (with a golden Virgin on top) is filled with all kinds of French religious bric-a-brac, several Mothers and Child, lots of plastic flowers etc., as well as very poignant memorials and prayers for poor sailors lost at sea. A (19th? century) noticeboard urging visitors to show respect and join in the prayers has been adorned and 'improved' with bright pink nail varnish, ending with the honest-looking word 'merci' all in lower case bright pink squeezed in at the end. The church there has been used as a quarry ever since the 18th century.... a farmhouse has been banged onto the back of the building, and that in turn has been adapted to a hotel, built in cloister style but looking both expensive and run-down at the same time. The knock-up nature of the farm house is hilarious.
We carried on along the coast, to a hidden valley leading down to a beach... lots of tiny cabins now costing thousands, I guess, but very tucked-away and rather cute. Then back to the town to find a really big supermarket... this time LeClerc.... huge, full of everything you could want. I love these places. This is where you can chart the progress of 'new France' and I can report things are definitely looking up. Stylish, cheap, confident, with a distinct national character, and very practical. I bought some more plastic-handled cutlery, 6 place settings of four pieces each for just under 13 euros. Cheapo and terrific.
Now we are back at the flat. Sunshine is flooding over the harbour. After our massive fish lunch it will be salad for super tonight. We are all tired. I have no idea if I'll get to 92 which is my mother-in-law's age, but I must say she's doing very well. Engages unkown gentlemen in conversation with ease. We had her in her wheelchair at the museum but otherwise she's done the whole day just with her walking stick for assistance. Pretty good.