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Architecture of France: The Grande Lande

The Lande that time forgot

In the centre of the Landes department in south-west France the Grande Lande had a specific rural architecture for hundreds of years until the start of the 20th century when the landscape was transformed by the compulsory introduction of pine forests. The old housing and farm buildings began to disappear.

A recreated hamlet at the Ecomusée de Marquèze, near Sabres, has 30 original buildings which were either there or were transported to the site and which faithfully reproduce the living conditions of the local inhabitants in 1890.

Curator Florence Raguénès said their features were adapted to the area’s geography and its flat and sandy land with the water table often only a metre below the surface.

It was so poor only subsistence farming was possible and the flocks of sheep that roamed in summer were not there for food but to fertilise the land for the only cereal crop that would grow, rye. They were guarded by shepherds on stilts to keep out of the wet and give a better view.

“The farming community lived in hamlets called quartiers at some distance from the towns”, said Mrs Raguénès.

“The landowner lived in close proximity with his workers. His house was slightly larger than the others and had a shaded porch area called in Gascon an estantade, which was a shelter where he could receive visitors before going inside and where some household tasks could take place.

“Other than that it was the same style and materials as the other houses. There was little local stone; so pine, oak and acacia were used for the main structure, and the gaps filled with daub made out of rye straw.

“Buildings were low to the ground with one storey and perhaps an attic for storing crops. Roofs were long with a gentle slope and built to be as light as possible, due to the unstable sand the buildings stood on.

“Unusually, there were no foundations as water was so near the surface it was impractical. Instead, the main wooden beams rested on slabs of local stone and the floor lay on anything that helped raise it off the ground to prevent humidity.”

As in the rest of the Landes, houses were built with the main entrance and windows towards the east to make the most of the sunlight and on the back wall the roof sloped down close to the ground.

Glass windows came late to this poor part of the world, and even some of the landowners did not have glass until the beginning of the 20th century. Instead there were shutters at night, and very thick curtains during the day to keep out the worst of the weather and insects.

“The houses could be taken apart and extended and there is evidence to suggest they began as a small central unit with rooms added as the family grew.

“If, for example, two brothers inherited the house, it was not unheard of for them to divide the building and move the halves, one for each man, to a new location.”

Other farm buildings are in styles only seen in this part of the Landes.

Chicken houses sit on 1.50m poles with a ladder access taken away at night so foxes could not get in.

Mills were designed to funnel the plentiful but low-pressure water into channels to turn the stone wheels and wells used a pivot system to lower and raise the bucket to collect the water which was not far down.

In winter, shepherds, who were usually young single men, would live in the family home or in one of the quartier’s most rudimentary houses. In summer, they were with their sheep and had two types of shelter: a borde, small and covered with a rye straw thatch, and a parc, which was bigger and so could be covered with clay tiles.

Families in the quartier lived hard lives but it seems they worked together in harmony and shared resources. This changed from 1857 when Napoléon III ordered the area be planted with pine forests.

Much of the Landes was already forested, but the marshy, flat lands in Gironde and Landes were seen as useless as they could not produce cash crops. Over 50-60 years the flat marshy land was completely altered and the sheep and shepherds had to go.

Pines were a lucrative source of income as they were tapped for resin, which was transformed for use in paints, rubber type materials, the pharmaceutical industry and cleaning products among other things.

Now, the privately owned forests made money so there was a greater difference between the landowners in the quartiers and their employees. Mrs Raguénès said: “Landowners no longer wanted to live in the country and moved to the towns where they could afford to buy stone from other areas and build bigger houses.

“Shepherds were angry at the loss of their livelihood and there was social unrest.

“Gradually, a whole way of life and its associated architecture disappeared.”

Ecomusée de Marquèze has an English app to guide you round the site and tablets can be hired there.

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