Many travelers know exactly where they are going, what they want to see and why. But if you, like us, aren’t so sure, matching some vintage postcards is a fantastic way to discover new places, even in an area you think you know quite well.
We have zoomed along the D513 many times; to Pegasus Bridge, the Merville Batterie, D-Day beaches, the Emmaus 2nd hand depot at Tailleville and beyond.
On the way an ornate house and ‘Potterie’ sign have sort of caught our eye, but coming from where we do in England, pottery tends to mean solid, brown, round and dull so we never got around to exploring it.
Then we picked up a postcard for ‘Le Mesnil de Bavent – La Tuileire, L’atelier de Poterie’. An unusually long and helpful title for a vintage postcard.
So we stopped by.
Poterie du Mesnil de Bavent is brilliant and as far from dull brown pots as a pottery can be.
Haven of heritage
Bavent pottery skills have been passed down through generations of families, shared with young apprentices and now occasionally with enthusiastic sculptors and amateurs.
This heritage pottery has a specialty; finials, the curved tiles that stop rain getting into the pointy bit of a roof, and they are unlike anything we have seen before.
A pottery on this site has made durable tiles from a rich local seam of clay since the middle ages. Somewhere along the way sparks of creativity were encouraged in the potters, and their individuality was treasured by local house builders and owners.
A little bit of pottery style added to a roof finial could announce a building owner’s business, call on stories from the bible for deliverance, make a political point, or simply look quite pretty. And they are still doing it.
Look up at the more ornate villas of Houlgate, Deauville, all along the Calvados coast, and you will see roofs topped with fanciful pottery twiddles. They do appear on homes across the world but many are still joyously close to the pottery that made them.
Life in clay
The first pottery factory here was set up in 1842 by industrialist Maurice Comptet. He bought a bit of production organization to an artisanal craft, enabling mass production of tiles, pots and architectural ornaments. The Tuilerie du Mesnil de Bavent (tuilerie means tile) business flourished and his sons inherited. One stayed in Bavent to make pots, the other developed a factory mainly producing pots, in Caen.
Bavent pottery became so famous a piece of pottery from the factory was included in the design for the Roman House at the 1989 L’Exposition Universelle Paris exhibition. A finial apparently but we can’t spot it, perhaps it was a surface decoration.
By the turn of the century the Tuilerie was owned by M. Aimé Jacquier. M. Jacquier appreciated the uniqueness of the more creative designs that came out of his pottery; sturdy enough to withstand extremes of weather and beautiful enough to be considered art.
His brother Francis was a sculptor who created many wonderful clay animal designs and that are still reproduced here today.
The pottery changed hands a few times until 1931, when another Maurice took over. He combined his engineering knowledge, business sense and encouraged the potter’s creativity. The time between 1931 and the outbreak of WW2 is seen as a golden age. During German occupation production slowed to almost nothing. Then on 6 June 1944 the Allies arrived on Normandy beaches. Just 10km from Bavent.
6 June 1944 – D-Day
After heavy fighting at the Merville gun battery and destroying the bridge at Varenville, British and Canadian paratroopers fought to take the Mesnil crossroads just along the road from Bavent. The crossroads is on a high ridge and had views in all directions to German positions and the Allied seaborne invasion at Sword beach. Around Bavent the Commandos experienced World War One-style trench warfare, with the Germans well dug in. Fighting continued to be intense in this key strategic area for seven exhausting, terrible days.
The Allies would be forced to continue repelling the enemy for a further two months until Bavent was finally released on 17 August, just one week before Paris. At one stage an HQ and makeshift hospital were set up in the Bavent pottery. During the conflict the village of Bavent was destroyed, the pottery buildings badly damaged and, we have been told, bullet holes can still be seen today in some of the statues and buildings on the site.
With hard work and perseverance, production at the pottery was able to restart in June 1945. By January 1946 tile production was up to 1000 tons per month supporting the rebuilding of a liberated Normandy.
The creative side of the pottery was maintained until the late 1960’s when new owners cared little for the expensive to produce ornaments. By 1987 just the tile production was due to be sold and the architectural ornament workshop abandoned. Skills saved over centuries would be lost forever.
Fortunately for the Le Mesnil Tuilerie at Bavent and the villas of Normandy, a wonderful determined lady called Martine Kay Mouat decided to buy the creative workshop at Bavent. She was an apprentice at here in the 1960’s and understood perfectly what would be lost if the workshop closed.
Martine saved unique style of Bavent and the livelihoods of the pottery artisans. Her daughter Dominique joined in 1992 and still manages the pottery today.
The site is now a centre of excellence and includes a museum, an exhibition space for contemporary art and sculpture and a separate studio for artists in residence to come and use in exchange for demonstrations and lessons.
The workshop still produces classic pieces from vintage moulds, as well as new pieces and restoration of old damaged creations. It also acts as a custodian of local pottery heritage, saving old moulds from closing potteries across the region.
In 2007 the Potterie du Mesnil de Bavent was quite rightly awarded the Living Heritage Company label (‘Entreprise du Partrimoine Viviant’ – EPV ) by the Ministry of Economy, Finance and Industry.
This is not dainty pottery for the faint hearted. Bavent creations shout across rooftops, glisten in the sunlight and are anything but subtle, which suits the neo-normand house style perfectly. A piece of Bavent will cheer up any home.
If you are more organized than us you can phone ahead, book a tour and some time in the workshop having a go yourself.
Should you just be passing do drop in. The workshop can still be seen, the shop is a riot of clay crazy and the exhibitions great fun. There are also some brocante shops on site and a vintage doll shop and hospital. This is inside the old manor house so a chance to see how Bavent pottery can work for a building interior.
- Opening hours 08:00 to 12:00 then 13:30 to 17:30 Monday-Saturday but best to check the website (English and French) http://www.poterie-bavent.com/