A Parisian friend sent me this picture of a little cottage on the French coast that they were thinking of purchasing as a holiday cottage. They wanted Mr G to look at it and tell them whether he thought it was ‘safe’ from the tides. It is minute, a mere 7 metres by 10 metres over all – but, they assured me, it had two bed rooms and they would only be there for the month of August each year. It came accompanied by an eye watering price tag! I could buy several Bentley Continentals for the same money….not that I have any wish to, but you get the idea.
The Internet search for information on tidal levels and behaviour drew me on a curious journey through the past. The little cottage has quite a history and is an object lesson in how spoilt we have all become.
It was built by a fisherman in 1750ish, as a single storey shelter when he was working on his nets. His son inherited it. The son’s wife and three baby daughters lived in a rented cottage in the nearby village. The fisherman died in a storm, and with no income to pay the rent, his widow moved into the shelter with her young daughters and a pair of goats. The widow contracted cancer of the stomach – no money for a Doctor, and no ‘cure’ in those days – she still lived to 97 though! The children, young as they were, spent the days fishing for shrimp in the pools left at low water.
They had no income – they lived exclusively on shrimp and goats milk. The daughters grew to be adult, but never married or left ‘home’, such as it was. They were offered furniture by other villagers, but routinely turned down the offer – not out of pride, but because the ground floor of the shelter flooded at high tide. When that happened they climbed up into the loft and sheltered there until the tide went out when they could gather driftwood and light a fire in the hearth to dry out. You can imagine how miserable that was in the dead of winter.
My friend nearly had a fit when I translated all this for him – a sea wall has been built since then, but it could happen again, just the once perhaps, not once a month as it did, and his expensive plants in the garden could be ruined…albeit that the house is safe now.
A few days later we went to Rocamadour, and marvelled again at medieval man’s sheer chutzpah in carting blocks of stone up a sheer rock face and building a sanctuary there. It must have taken an army of monks years to cut each block of stone and haul it up there to its final resting place – until it was finished and they had constructed a roadway, they would have lived in makeshift shelters, some detailed each day to hunt for food and produce the fire to cook it by. Some will have died and been buried where they had toiled, some will have grown sick. No Doctors. No Routiers to take their three course lunch in, over their two hour lunch break. No nearby shop to buy another pair of trousers when clothing wore out – they would have had to be entirely self sufficient, it was a wild and dangerous area in medieval times. If they fancied a beer at the end of the working day – only if someone had had the wit to plant some hops and brew that beer.
They built it with one aim in mind – not merely shelter for themselves, but sanctuary for others.
Jeanne and her daughters lived in that cottage for 60 years. She did so to keep her children safe and fed. Was she happy? I have no idea – but then modern human beings don’t seem so happy either.
We find so much to whinge about these days, so much that is so far removed from the lives of our ancestors. We fret that our children will be born in debt, that they wont get on the ‘housing ladder’, that they won’t do ‘better’ in life than we did, have more, be wealthier. Jeanne fretted that her children wouldn’t survive her.
They did though – and no one ever coaxed them to try just one more chicken nugget, or ordered another meal for them in the restaurant because they didn’t like the sauce on the chicken. They were just grateful when the tide went out again and they could climb down the ladder and light a fire in the hearth once more.
The ‘original granite hearth with 1756 carved into it’ is a feature of the cottage now – not that anyone will ever use it in the month of August. I doubt if they’ll bother to catch the shrimp. They’ll shop for the coarse brown bread that was once the preserve of the peasant, and eschew the white bread that was reserved for the aristocrat. They’ll go back to Paris clutching little hessian bags of the corse sea salt that kept Jeanne and her children alive, and give it to their friends as chic presents. The might even buy goat’s milk as an expensive luxury in a Parisian supermarket – little Marcel is allergic to cow’s milk you know.
We have come such a long way in 250 years – are we any happier? Do we still live to be 97 – even with cancer?Jeanne’s daughters – as old women themselves!