CHAPTER VIII. Concerning Coutances and Some Parts of the Cotentin

When at last it is necessary to bid farewell to Mont St Michel, one is not compelled to lose sight of the distant grey silhouette for a long while. It remains in sight across the buttercup fields and sunny pastures on the road to Pontaubault. Then again, when climbing the zig-zag hill towards Avranches the Bay of Mont St Michel is spread out. You may see the mount again from Avranches itself, and then if you follow the coast-road towards Granville instead of the rather monotonous road that goes to its destination with the directness of a gun-shot, there are further views of the wonderful rock and its humble companion Tombelaine.

Keeping along this pretty road through the little village of Genets, where you actually touch the ocean, there is much pretty scenery to be enjoyed all the way to the busy town of Granville. It is a watering-place and a port, the two aspects of the town being divided from each other by the great rocky promontory of Lihou. If one climbs up right above the place this conformation is plainly visible, for down below is the stretch of sandy beach, with its frailly constructed concert rooms and cafes sheltering under the gaunt red cliffs, while over the shoulder of the peninsula appears a glimpse of the piers and the masts of sailing ships. There is much that is picturesque in the seaport side of the town, particularly towards evening, when the red and green harbour-lights are reflected in the sea. There are usually five or six sailing ships loading or discharging their cargoes by the quays, and you will generally find a British tramp steamer lying against one of the wharves. The sturdy crocketed spire of the sombre old church of Notre Dame stands out above the long line of shuttered houses down by the harbour. It is a wonderful contrast, this old portion of Granville that surmounts the promontory, to the ephemeral and gay aspect of the watering-place on the northern side. But these sort of contrasts are to be found elsewhere than at Granville, for at Dieppe it is much the same, although the view of that popular resort that is most familiar in England, is the hideous casino and the wide sweep of gardens that occupy the sea-front. Those who have not been there would scarcely believe that the town possesses a castle perched upon towering cliffs, or that its splendid old church of Saint-Jacques is the real glory of the place. Granville cannot boast of quite so much in the way of antiquities, but there is something peculiarly fascinating about its dark church, in which the light seems unable to penetrate, and whose walls assume almost the same tones as the rocks from which the masonry was hewn.

I should like to describe the scenery of the twenty miles of country that lie between Granville and Coutances, but I have only passed over it on one occasion. It was nine o'clock in the evening, and the long drawn-out twilight had nearly faded away as I climbed up the long ascent which commences the road to Coutances, and before I had reached the village of Brehal it was quite dark. The road became absolutely deserted, and although one or two people on bicycles passed me about this time, they were carrying no lamps as is the usual custom in France, where the rules governing the use of a bicyclette are so numerous and intricate, but so absolutely ignored. My own lamp seemed to be a grave distraction among the invisible occupants of the roadside meadows, and often much lowing rose up on either side. The hedges would suddenly whirr with countless grasshoppers, although, no doubt, they had been amusing themselves with their monotonous noises for hours. The strange sound seemed to follow me in a most persistent fashion, and then would be merged into the croaking of a vast assemblage of frogs. These sounds, however, carry with them no real menace, however late the hour, but there is something which may almost strike terror into the heart, though it might almost be considered foolish by those who have not experienced a midnight ride in this country. The clipped and shaven trees that in daylight merely appear ridiculous, in the darkness assume an altogether different character. To the vivid imagination, it is easy to see a witch's broom swaying in the wind; a group of curious and distorted stems will suggest a row of large but painfully thin brownies, holding hands as they dance. Every moment, two or three figures of gaunt and lanky witches in spreading skirts will alarm you as they suddenly appear round a corner. When they are not so uncanny in their outlines, the trees will appear like clipped poodles standing upon their hind legs, or they will suddenly assume the character of a grove of palm trees. After a long stretch of this sort of country, it is pleasant to pass through some sleeping village where there are just two or three lighted windows to show that there are still a few people awake besides oneself in this lonely country. I can imagine that the village of Hyenville has some claims to beauty. I know at least that it lies in a valley, watered by the river Sienne, and that the darkness allowed me to see an old stone bridge, with a cross raised above the centre of the parapet. Soon after this I began to descend the hill that leads into Coutances. A bend in the road, as I was rapidly descending, brought into view a whole blaze of lights, and I felt that here at last there were people and hotels, and an end to the ghostly sights of the open country. Then I came to houses, but they were all quite dark, and there was not a single human being in sight. Following this came a choice of streets without a possibility of knowing which one would lead in the direction of the hotel I was hoping to reach; but my perplexity was at length relieved by the advent of a tall youth whose cadaverous features were shown up by the street lamp overhead. He gave his directions clearly enough, but although I followed them carefully right up the hill past the cathedral, I began to think that I had overshot the mark, when another passer-by appeared in the silent street. I found that I was within a few yards of the hotel; but on hurrying forward, I found to my astonishment, that the whole building was completely shut up and no light appeared even within the courtyard. As I had passed the cathedral eleven reverbrating notes had echoed over the town, and it seemed as though Coutances had retired earlier on this night of all nights in order that I might learn to travel at more rational hours. Going inside the courtyard, my anxiety was suddenly relieved by seeing the light of a candle in a stable on the further side; a man was putting up a horse, and he at once volunteered to arouse some one who would find a bedroom. After some shouting to the gallery above, a maid appeared, and a few minutes afterwards mine host himself, clad in a long flannel night robe and protecting a flickering candle-flame with his hand, appeared at a doorway. His long grey beard gave him a most venerable aspect. The note of welcome in his cheery voice was unmistakable and soon the maid who had spoken from the balcony had shown the way up a winding circular staircase to a welcome exchange to the shelter of a haystack which I had begun to fear would be my only resting-place for the night.

In the morning, the Hotel d'Angleterre proved to be a most picturesque old hostelry. Galleries ran round three sides of the courtyard, and the circular staircase was enclosed in one of those round towers that are such a distinctive feature of the older type of French inn.

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.

Following the estuary of the river from Lessay on a minor road you come to the hamlet of St Germain-sur-Ay. The country all around is flat, but the wide stretches of sand in the inlet have some attractiveness to those who are fond of breezy and open scenery, and the little church in the village is as old as that of Lessay. One could follow this pretty coast-line northwards until the seaboard becomes bold, but we will turn aside to the little town of La Haye-du-Puits. There is a junction here on the railway for Carentan and St Lo, but the place seems to have gone on quite unaltered by this communication with the large centres of population. The remains of the castle, where lived during the eleventh century the Turstan Halduc just mentioned, are to be seen on the railway side of the town. The dungeon tower, picturesquely smothered in ivy, is all that remains of this Norman fortress. The other portion is on the opposite side of the road, but it only dates from the sixteenth century, when it was rebuilt. Turstan had a son named Odo, who was seneschal to William the Norman, and he is known to have received certain important lands in Sussex as a reward for his services. During the next century the owner of the castle was that Richard de la Haye whose story is a most interesting one. He was escaping from Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, when he had the ill luck to fall in with some Moorish pirates by whom he was captured and kept as a slave for some years. He however succeeded in regaining his liberty, and after his return to France, he and his wife, Mathilde de Vernon, founded the Abbey of Blanchelande. The ruins of this establishment are scarcely more than two miles from La Haye du Puits, but they unfortunately consist of little more than some arches of the abbey church and some of the walls of the lesser buildings.

Immediately north of La Haye there is some more heathy ground, but it is higher than the country surrounding Lessay. A round windmill, much resembling the ruined structure that stands out conspicuously on the bare 
 tableland of Alderney, is the first of these picturesque features that we have seen in this part of the country. It is worth mention also on account of the fact that it was at St Sauveur-le-Vicomte, only about seven miles distant, that the first recorded windmill was put up in France about the year 1180, almost the same time as the first reference to such structures occurs in England. St Sauveur has its castle now occupied by the hospital. It was given to Sir John Chandos by Edward III. after the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360, and that courageous soldier, who saw so much fighting in France during the Hundred Years War, added much to the fortress which had already been in existence since very early times in the history of the duchy.

A road runs from St Sauveur straight towards the sea. It passes the corner of a forest and then goes right down to the low sandy harbour of Port Bail. It is a wonderful country for atmospheric effects across the embanked swamps and sandhills that lie between the hamlet and the sea. One of the two churches has a bold, square tower, dating from the fifteenth century - it now serves as a lighthouse. The harbour has two other lights and, although it can only be entered at certain tides, the little port contrives to carry on a considerable export trade of farm produce, most of it being consumed in the Channel Islands.

The railway goes on to its terminus at Cartaret, a nicely situated little seaside village close to the cape of the same name. Here, if you tire of shrimping on the wide stretch of sands, it is possible to desert Normandy by the little steamer that during the summer plies between this point and Gorey in Jersey. Modern influences have given Cartaret a more civilised flavour than it had a few years ago, and it now has something of the aspect of a watering-place. Northwards from Cartaret, a road follows the coast-line two or three miles from the cliffs to Les Pieux. Then one can go on to Flamanville by the cape which takes its name from the village, and there see the seventeenth century moated manor house.

Cherbourg, the greatest naval port of France, is not often visited by those who travel in Normandy, for with the exception of the enormous breakwater, there is nothing beyond the sights of a huge dockyard town that is of any note. The breakwater, however, is a most remarkable work. It stands about two miles from the shore, is more than 4000 yards long by 100 yards wide, and has a most formidable appearance with its circular forts and batteries of guns.

The church of La Trinite was built during the English occupation and must have been barely finished before the evacuation of the place in 1450. Since that time the post has only been once attacked by the English, and that was as recently as 1758, when Lord Howe destroyed and burnt the forts, shipping and naval stores.

Leaving Cherbourg we will take our way southwards again to Valognes, a town which suffered terribly during the ceaseless wars between England and France. In 1346, Edward III. completely destroyed the place. It was captured by the English seventy-one years afterwards and did not again become French until that remarkable year 1450, when the whole of Normandy and part of Guienne was cleared of Englishmen by the victorious French armies under the Count of Clermont and the Duke of Alencon.

The Montgommery, whose defeat at Domfront castle has already been mentioned, held Valognes against the Catholic army, but it afterwards was captured by the victorious Henry of Navarre after the battle of Ivry near Evreux.

Valognes possesses a good museum containing many Roman relics from the neighbourhood. A short distance from the town, on the east side, lies the village of Alleaume where there remain the ivy-grown ruins of the castle in which Duke William was residing when the news was brought to him of the insurrection of his barons under the Viscount of the Cotentin. It was at this place that William's fool revealed to him the danger in which he stood, and it was from here that he rode in hot haste to the castle of Falaise, a stronghold the Duke seemed to regard as safer than any other in his possession.

Still farther southwards lies the town of Carentan, in the centre of a great butter-making district. It is, however, a dull place - it can scarcely be called a city even though it possesses a cathedral. The earliest part of this building is the west front which is of twelfth century work. The spire of the central tower has much the same appearance as those crowning the two western towers at St Lo, but there is nothing about the building that inspires any particular enthusiasm although the tracery of some of the windows, especially of the reticulated one in the south transept, is exceptionally fine.