Every day during term time I drive the same route. 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 on my return trip I notice the upstairs window closest to the road in the old stone house on the corner by the river-wall will be open wide letting the air in – come rain or shine. The seasons may transform the landscape, as it changes from fields of sunflowers in summer to bare ploughed soil in winter. But these simple routines never change.
The light flickers moodily and the weather caresses and spits, depending on its whims. But there is another thing that never alters – the spires and towers of the area’s many churches that feature heavily on a centuries-old skyline.
They are both points of navigation and historic monuments, 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, another navigational waypoint on my morning route.
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.
The pointed spire of the church of Saint-Pierre de Sales in Marennes can be seen from miles around above the flat landscape of the marais and its surroundings, not surprisingly perhaps as it stands 85 metres tall.
Since 1840 it has been listed as an official historical monument although the church has undergone many changes over the centuries. Founded in 1047 it was then entirely rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries. However by the end of the religious wars between the protestants and catholics the main body of the church was totally destroyed and all that remained was the bell tower. The rebuilding work began in the early 1600’s and lasted until 1776 when the church we see today was finally finished.
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.
I will never tire of looking at these amazing buildings. We are lucky, the doors here are always open and one can enter at leisure and I am instantly filled with a sense of peace, the cold inside makes me pull my coat a little tighter around me but at the same time I feel calm and safe. Very occasionally I take one or two photos but as a general rule I don’t, preferring to keep my thoughts firmly to myself.
On my travels I sometimes pass through the village of Champagne. It is not a large place and in fact it has a population of only just over 500 people. There is of course the Mairie, the administrative centre of the village, there is a boulangerie and of course there is a church. For such a small neighbourhood one might expect a modest-sized place of worship but as is typical of this region, the church is huge and proudly takes centre stage in this small community where most of the houses jostle for space and share their roofs with their attached barns. Inside these houses may have metamorphosed into the 20th and 21st centuries, but on the outside, except for the colour of the shutters one gets the feeling little has changed for a great many years.
The church itself is Romanesque and is typical of the beliefs and financial devotion of a landscape’s 12th century peasantry.
I wonder when the original arched doorway below was blocked up and ceased to be an entrance? It must have a thousand tales to tell, not the least of which – is ‘why’? What happened in the life of this church that such an important opening was closed to light forever?
To one side of the church sits the old rectory, it would have been one of the most important houses in the village and this one has far reaching views over the valley beyond.
It is – of course – perfectly positioned just off the Rue de l’Eglise.
Many of the area’s churches are solemn structures, weathered by centuries of weather, and almost all of them scarred in some way by warfare and changing religious stances; but they endure, testimony to the immense spiritual strengths of the area’s feudal ancestors.
The Église Notre Dame du Bon Secours in St Agnant is by contrast to many others here quite small. Built in 1689 in a simple Baroque style, its perhaps most notable feature is the external staircase which climbs up to the bell tower.
But imagine this, the church sits next door to our favourite boulangerie owned and run by our good friends Amélie and Franck. So I have had ample opportunities to park and walk and take notes whilst satiating my hunger with a nibble on the end of a still warm baguette, because whoever can resist just that small piece on the end of a decent baguette has a great deal more willpower than me!
What’s more they actually make a loaf of bread called a baguette Eustache, (circled below) a tribute to a priest called Eustache Leboulanger (you couldn’t make this up), who during his tour of duty at the church next door in the early 1700’s decided to have a bell made to be put up in the belfry. With his own funds he designed and had manufactured a bell of some 1700lbs in weight, which in the event turned out to be too heavy to hoist to the height required for installation; instead it now lies – interred and mute – within the church, on view to passing savants who can either smirk at the priest’s miscalculations, or admire him for his worthy charity.
It just goes to show we all make mistakes and some are bigger than others! It’s wet and windy here, I seem to have been saying this since December and it’s not at all typical of a Charente Maritime winter. I’ve never heard the locals complain so much! I hope that whether you are in the grips of a heatwave or surrounded by snow that the New Year is getting off to a good start.