“Where is everyone?”is the question most often asked by visitors to France as they pass through villages of empty streets and shuttered windows. I am at home in the peaceful stillness of rural France where it now makes perfect sense to me. This is a world where shopping is not held to be a pastime, but a necessity, whereas fishing is treated as an one of many essential sources of relaxation and peaceful contentment. When the going gets tough, the tough relax and contemplate what may be and what might have been, often with a fishing rod in their hands.
The perimeter of the Digue de Faymoreau is home to a Gallic version of the “garden shed”. Wooden piles are sunk into the bottom of the lake, close to the shore, to support wooden platforms, on top of which each lucky owner will construct a fishing cabin in his own particular style. These styles are variations on a theme but there is a certain neo –Victorian elegance about many of them. Colour is from a muted palette that echoes the natural surroundings, with the occasional chromatic shock from a corrugated iron roof that has been freshly painted in terracotta to simulate the tiled roofs that are traditional in this area of the Vendée. There is even a trend to cement real “tiges de bottes” tiles along the ridge of the roofs to add a touch of authenticity.. The tiles are known as “tiges de botte” (boot tops) because of the shape of the tiles which, on account of the wet clay being formed over the tile maker’s thigh, have a tapered roundness which is redolent of a riding boot.
I have never been drawn to fishing as an activity or as a sport, but the peace and tranquillity of this place seems to bestow upon it a contemplative nature that I find attractive. The simple constructions are in total harmony with their natural surroundings save for the huge and grotesque barbecues which are constructed from pre cast sections of breeze block and, as they are to be seen in every garden in this part of France, I no longer notice. House name plates of the “Dunroamin” school are common, but with French jeux des mots. There is a very clear house numbering system and it doesn’t take long to work out which is the chic area and which are the least desirable positions for one’s cabane.
Fields filled with wild flowers and herbs run down to the water’s edge where horses quietly drink. Walking through the grass produces a cloud of perfume from the bed of mint and camomile that is disturbed by each footfall. The arrival of a new person into this peace galvanises flotillas of ducks that are under the impression that all humans carry quantities of bread with them, the sole purpose of which is to feed ducks. These ducks are fearless of humans which is ironic as the Vendée is the largest producer of duck foie gras in France.
Each cabane is stamped with an individuality reminiscent of the English beach hut and I have been assured that they are as difficult to acquire, but without the insane price tag. In France it is more likely to involve adhering religiously to a multiplicity of “réglementations” whilst filling out enough forms to create a papier maché replica of the cabane in question.
Liberté is a keystone of the French psyche and constitution, yet its meaning relates more to privacy than to liberty itself in everyday life. Thus it is that each of these platforms, set on piles in the lake, has a gangway over the water leading to it. These gangways serve less for access than denial of access to unwanted visitors. All of the gangways will have a padlocked gate at a midway point, over open water. Some have metal gates set in wire cages, whilst others use the ultimate insulation from intrusion – the drawbridge. It quickly becomes clear that these “contemplative” fishermen do not relish unsolicited interruption to their reveries.
The Digue de Faymoreau was created originally to provide hydro electric power for the surrounding area, which it did until 1958. I have noticed that the dam end is definitely the chic address for one’s cabane. Dark green, as in dark green wellies, is the preferred colour here, and platforms here have more than one structure together with a dining area and the famous barbecue. The shoreline pathway behind these smart cabanes is edged with a steep bank going up to a neighbouring field. These uppercrust tenants have terraced this slope in order to plant beds of herbs, create firewood storage and finally to surmount the whole with a smart, dark green sentry box which undoubtedly houses a “loo with a view”.