Remembrance of times past

The village of Ménéham on Brittany’s north Finistère coast has been restored to show visitors the typical lifestyle of peasant farmers and fishermen in the 19th and 20th centuries.

30 November 2018
By Connexion journalist

The 14 houses, where around 80 people used to live but which were falling into ruin, were restored from 2004 to 2009 to showcase the traditional rustic architecture of the region.

The last person to live in the village- turned-tourist attraction (meneham.bzh) moved out in 2001. Similar homes can be seen in villages and towns along the coast, though many have been knocked down and replaced by more modern housing.

The first houses were built around 1840. Peasant farmers’ houses in many other parts of France were large and shared with animals during the winter – often including a barn to stock hay, crops and provisions – but these houses are noticeable for their small size.

They were made up of one room on one storey and barns were built on either side of the dwelling place. Additional houses would be built on as the family grew.

The building stone was the local granite and they were thatched.

Jessica Marrec from the Office de Tourisme de la Côte des Légendes says that though the roofs look perfect today, they were not as pristine for the people living in them. “The reeds came from the local marshes and were not very strong and so they had to be repaired frequently.

“One side would be patched up one year and the other side the next. When the cottages were restored, better quality reed was bought from other parts of France to make the thatch longer-lasting.”

The Maison Salou, named after the last family to live there, was turned into a museum following the restoration of the village by the Communauté de Communes Pays de Lesneven et de la Côte des Légendes and the Finistère Conseil Général.

It is a perfect example of this type of housing. Mrs Marrec says: “It is interesting to note where it was built.

“It is behind some huge boulders, typical of the region to protect it from the strong prevailing coastal winds, and all the doors and windows face inland. On the coastal side there are no openings at all.”

The windows are small, to keep out the weather and reduce window taxes, and they and the door are painted white around the opening. Mrs Marrec says this was deliberate to reflect any light from the outside into the dark interior.

Inside the furnishing was rudimentary, with a fireplace at both ends of the room, a plain table and benches and box beds.

“Often three generations would live in the same room, so to give some warmth and privacy there would be on average three box beds in a house: one for the grandparents, one for the parents and one for the children.

“If there were several children, some would have to sleep out in the room.”

Life was hard but they took care of what they owned and every Saturday all the furniture would be taken outside, the mud floor swept and everything else cleaned with white vinegar. Whenever they could, the family lived outdoors.

They made their living from the land and the sea. Now the village is surrounded by green turf, but when people were living there, all available land was turned over to vegetable gardens near the houses and grain crops further away.

The soil was poor and the weather unkind and they could not live from farming alone so they turned to fishing.

“The women would use nets for fish and the men were in charge of catching crabs, lobsters and shellfish using baskets they made themselves.

“They did not eat any of the fish, other than ones which people would not buy, as they were too valuable. They also collected seaweed and were called paysans-pêcheurs-goémoniers, from the word goémon, meaning seaweed collected for use by man.

“First it was used to fertilise the land and then, when it was discovered that it was a natural source of iodine and sodium alginate, used in pharmaceuticals, food and textile printing.”

Despite their harsh life, Mrs Marrec says people who are still alive and who lived there have good memories: “We have talked to the old villagers and they say that even though they worked hard, there was a good atmosphere and they were happy.

“There were no shops. They made everything themselves and shared. There were three bread ovens and when a pig was killed, the meat would be handed around as without fridges they knew a family couldn’t keep it all for themselves. There was, of course the bistrot. No Brittany village was complete without a bar.”

The first building on the site was an army look-out post built as part of the coastal defences during the 18th century.

Called the corps de garde, it is famously built between two huge boulders and looks out to sea, across the Channel towards the British enemy at the time.

It has an unusual roof, built out of flat slabs of rock. Legend has it that whenever the soldiers were away, locals would steal the wooden roof beams, as wood in that treeless landscape was rare, and so the army decided to thwart the robbers by using stone.

They filled the building with sand and laid the stones, only emptying the building of sand once the mortar was set.

First the soldiers lodged in nearby villages. Then a barracks was built, and it is recognisable as the only housing with windows looking seaward rather than landward. At the same time other housing was built for the farming families and little by little they were added to.

During the second part of the 20th century the population waned. Now the village sees more people than ever before as the site attracts between 120,000 and 150,000 visitors a year.

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