CHAPTER VIII. Concerning Coutances and Some Parts of the Cotentin
The long main street does not always look deserted and in daylight it appeared as sunny and cheerful as one expects to find the chief thoroughfare of a thriving French town. Coutances stands on such a bold hill that the street, almost of necessity, drops precipitously, and the cathedral which ranks with the best in France, stands out boldly from all points of view. It was principally built in the thirteenth century, but a church which had stood in its place two centuries before, had been consecrated by Bishop Geoffrey de Montbray in 1056, in the presence of Duke William, afterwards William I. of England. The two western towers of the present cathedral are not exactly similar, and owing to their curious formation of clustered spires they are not symmetrical. It is for this reason that they are often described as being unpleasing. I am unable to echo such criticism, for in looking at the original ideas that are most plainly manifest in this most astonishing cathedral one seems to be in close touch with the long forgotten builders and architects whose notions of proportion and beauty they contrived to stamp so indelibly upon their masterpiece. From the central tower there is a view over an enormous sweep of country which includes a stretch of the coast, for Coutances is only half a dozen miles from the sea. This central tower rises from a square base at the intersection of the transepts with the nave. It runs up almost without a break in an octagonal form to a parapet ornamented with open quatrefoils. The interior has a clean and fresh appearance owing to the recent restorations and is chiefly remarkable for the balustraded triforium which is continued round the whole church. In many of the windows there is glass belonging to the sixteenth century and some dates as early as the fourteenth century.
Besides the cathedral, the long main street of Coutances possesses the churches of St Nicholas and St Pierre. In St Nicholas one may see a somewhat unusual feature in the carved inscriptions dating from early in the seventeenth century which appear on the plain round columns. Here, as in the cathedral, the idea of the balustrade under the clerestory is carried out. The fourteen Stations of the Cross that as usual meet one in the aisles of the nave, are in this church painted with a most unusual vividness and reality, in powerful contrast to so many of these crucifixion scenes to be seen in Roman Catholic churches.
The church of St Pierre is illustrated here, with the cathedral beyond, but the drawing does not include the great central tower which is crowned by a pyramidal spire. This church belongs to a later period than the cathedral as one may see by a glance at the classic work in the western tower, for most of the building is subsequent to the fifteenth century. St Pierre and the cathedral form a most interesting study in the development from Early French architecture to the Renaissance; but for picturesqueness in domestic architecture Coutances cannot hold up its head with Lisieux, Vire, or Rouen. There is still a remnant of one of the town gateways and to those who spend any considerable time in the city some other quaint corners may be found. From the western side there is a beautiful view of the town with the great western towers of the cathedral rising gracefully above the quarries in the Bois des Vignettes. Another feature of Coutances is the aqueduct. It unfortunately does not date from Roman times when the place was known as Constantia, for there is nothing Roman about the ivy-clad arches that cross the valley on the western side.
From Coutances northwards to Cherbourg stretches that large tract of Normandy which used to be known as the Cotentin. At first the country is full of deep valleys and smiling hills covered with rich pastures and woodland, but as you approach Lessay at the head of an inlet of the sea the road passes over a flat heathy desert. The church at Lessay is a most perfect example of Norman work. The situation is quite pretty, for near by flows the little river Ay, and the roofs are brilliant with orange lichen. The great square tower with its round-headed Norman windows, is crowned with a cupola. With the exception of the windows in the north aisle the whole of the interior is of pure Norman work. There is a double triforium and the round, circular arches rest on ponderous pillars and there is also a typical Norman semi-circular apse. The village, which is a very ancient one, grew round the Benedictine convent established here by one Turstan Halduc in 1040, and there may still be seen the wonderfully picturesque castle with its round towers.