Every day I take the same route to school. I leave our village and take the long straight road that cuts its way through open farmland, climbs a gentle sloping hill and then slithers down into the valley where in an ancient village a narrow bridge across a small river forces cars to cross alternately in single file. Each morning the old lady who lives in the old stone house on the corner by the river-wall will open her shutters and upstairs windows to let the air in – come rain or shine; it is a route I am coming to learn well.
The seasons transform the landscape too, as it changes from fields of sunflowers in summer to bare ploughed soil in winter. The light flickers moodily and the weather caresses and spits, depending on its whims. But there is one thing that remains unchanged – on a centuries-old skyline are the spires and towers of the area’s many churches. They are both points of navigation and historic monuments, and as we come to the brow of our closest hill we see the first tower, down by that narrow bridge. In the distance behind it is the sharp Gothic spire of the church in Pont L’Abbe, the second navigational waypoint on my morning route.
The area’s churches are solemn structures, weathered by centuries of weather, warfare and changing religious stances, but they endure, testimony to the immense spiritual strengths of the area’s feudal ancestors.
Sitting square and solid in the village of Champagne, the Romanesque church above is typical of the beliefs and financial devotion of a landscape’s 12th century peasantry
Originally unembellished and often utilitarian in outlook, some churches became much wealthier in later centuries and sought to improve their outlook with their newly-found wealth. The sharp Gothic spire on the 12th century Romanesque church in Pont l’Abbe – the église Saint-Pierre, is a good example.
Heading northwards towards Rochefort, the squat Romanesque church-tower of another église Saint Pierre in the marais village of Soubise is also instantly recognizable on the landscape – miles before we get anywhere near to it.
To the west, far out across the marais de Brouage, is the church spire of Marennes – its visibility reaches for miles around and far out to sea, an important navigational beacon for both fishermen and pilgrims.
The churches on this landscape have stood for nearly a thousand years now – some even longer. As places for worship and refuge, they illustrate the importance of religion and its rituals, and they bear testament to the skill and patience of previous generations. Central to village life, they were monumental structures in a time of relatively small and plain buildings, and even today they still resonate with importance and permanence, jutting proudly like signposts for tired pilgrims above the flat landscape of the marais and its surroundings. One never tires of seeing them