One of the many perennially fascinating aspects of spending part of each year in this particular part of France is the way in which the past still so tangibly impacts on the present. Two years ago I wrote a post reflecting on the irony that a lover of historic buildings like myself should have bought a house in an area where so much of the built past was wiped out in a few short weeks in the summer of 1944.
Almost every week during the summer there is a report in our local French newspaper of one commune or another holding its annual commemoration of the day it was liberated from Nazi occupation. The town or village dignitaries and a rapidly decreasing number of old soldiers gather at the war memorial, together with the school children and a good sprinkling of the population not at work, to lay flowers, make speeches and stand in silent tribute.
Some of the communes are able to give thanks that their buildings were largely or completely spared by the fighting. Others in our immediate area hold their ceremonies of commemoration in surroundings that their ancestors would not recognise, so complete was the devastation.
On top of the ridge to the north across the valley from us is a little village called Gathemo. Sixty-nine years ago today, on the 10th of August 1944, it was virtually wiped out in just one day of violent conflict. It wasn't a particularly pretty little place and after the war it was rebuilt as quickly and efficiently as possible, with no attempt to imitate or restore what had been lost.
To the east of Gathemo along the ridge is the small market town of Sourdeval on its high plateau. It too was almost obliterated from the map when fierce shelling caused a catastrophic fire which rapidly spread out of control until the old town centre lay in ruins. It too was rebuilt, largely on the old footprint, and when we go to the market there it is a pleasant little place to be. But there is none of the mingling of different periods of building, none of the quirky mixture of old and new, the secret little bits of history, which make most towns and villages in France and elsewhere so rewarding to explore.
|A town reborn|
Like so many other places on all sides of the conflict, these courageous little Norman communities had to create new identities for themselves in the aftermath of war, mourning what had been lost, but turning their faces resolutely towards a new and hopefully peaceful future. Our Normandy idyll is rooted in a landscape that has suffered, and amidst all its quiet beauty I can never forget its turbulent and sometimes tragic history.