This week we are celebrating fellow Normandy lover Gordon Home, whose delightful watercolour of Mont Saint-Michel is possibly the loveliest we have ever seen.
A sense of beauty
A newspaper report of Gordon’s wedding in 1926 to Violet Maude Chapman includes these lines from the vicar’s address:
“What gift, then, will you, Gordon, bring to the common life? If I may single out one gift among many others, you will bring a sense of beauty to a life where the value of beauty is already recognised. We know you as a man by whom beauty of colour, of line of form, by whom the rhythm and beauty of words is strongly felt…”
Gordon’s sense of beauty shines out in every one of his Normandy paintings.
The watercolour of Mont Saint Michel is from his book ‘Normandy: the scenery and romance of its ancient towns’ published in 1905. As our guest blogger, Gordon describes his visit to this much loved “many tower’d Camelot“.
Concerning Mont Saint-Michel
by Gordon Cochrane Home @1905
“The majestic splendour of this gulf, its strategic importance, have at all times attracted the attention of warriors.” In this quaint fashion commences the third chapter of a book upon Mont St Michel which is to be purchased in the little town.
If one can manage to make it a rather late ride along the coast-road just mentioned, many beautiful distant views of Mont St Michel, backed by sunset lights, will be an ample reward.
Even on a grey and almost featureless evening, when the sea is leaden-hued, there may, perhaps, appear one of those thin crimson lines that are the last efforts of the setting sun.
When the rock is still some distance off, the road seems to determine to take a short cut across the sands, but thinking better of it, it runs along the outer margin of the reclaimed land, and there is nothing to prevent the sea from flooding over the road at its own discretion.
Choose the romantic arrival
Once on the broad and solidly constructed causeway, the rock rapidly gathers in bulk and detail. It has, indeed, as one approaches, an almost fantastic and fairy-like outline. Then as more and more grows from the hazy mass, one sees that this remarkable place has a crowded and much embattled loneliness.
Two round towers, sturdy and boldly machicolated, appear straight ahead, but oddly enough the wall between them has no opening of any sort, and the stranger is perplexed at the inhospitable curtain-wall that seems to refuse him admittance to the medieval delights within.
It almost heightens the impression that the place belongs altogether to dreamland, for in that shadowy world all that is most desirable is so often beyond the reach of the dreamer.
It is a very different impression that one gains if the steam train has been taken, for its arrival is awaited by a small crowd of vulture-like servants and porters from the hotels.
The little crowd treats the incoming train-load of tourists as its carrion, and one has no time to notice whether there is a gateway or not before being swept along the sloping wooden staging that leads to the only entrance.
The simple archway in the outer wall leads into the Cour de l’Avancee where those two great iron cannons, are conspicuous objects. They were captured by the heroic garrison when the English, in 1433, made their last great effort to obtain possession of the rock.
Beyond these, one passes through the barbican to the Cour de la Herse, which is largely occupied by the Hotel Poulard Aine. Then one passes through the Porte du Roi, and enters the town proper.
The narrow little street is flanked by many an old house that has seen most of the vicissitudes that the little island city has suffered.
In fact many of these shops which are now almost entirely given over to the sale of mementos and books of photographs of the island, are individually of great interest. One of the most ancient in the upper part of the street, is pointed out as that occupied in the fourteenth century by Tiphane de Raguenel, the wife of the heroic Bertrand du Guesclin.
Advice for tourists bothered by vendors
It is almost impossible for those who are sensitive in such matters, not to feel some annoyance at the pleasant but persistent efforts of the vendors of souvenirs to induce every single visitor to purchase at each separate shop.
To get an opportunity for closely examining the carved oaken beams and architectural details of the houses, one must make at least some small purchase at each trinket store in front of which one is inclined to pause.
Perhaps it would even be wise before attempting to look at anything architectural in this quaintest of old-world streets, to go from one end to the other, buying something of trifling cost, say a picture postcard, from each saleswoman.
In this way, one might purchase immunity from the over-solicitous shop-keepers, and have the privilege of being able to realise the medieval character of the place without constant interruptions.
The misguided tourist
Nearly every visitor to Mont St Michel considers that this historic gem, in its wonderful setting of opalescent sand, can be “done” in a few hours.
They think that if they climb up the steps to the museum – a new building made more conspicuous than it need be by a board bearing the word Musee in enormous letters – if they walk along the ramparts, stare for a moment at the gateways, and then go round the abbey buildings with one of the small crowds that the guide pilots through the maze of extraordinary vaulted passages and chambers, that they have done ample justice to this world-famous sight.
If the rock had only one-half of its historic and fantastically arranged buildings, it would still deserve considerably more than this fleeting attention paid to it by such a large proportion of the tourists.
A lack of education
So many of these poor folk come to Mont St Michel quite willing to learn the reasons for its past greatness, but they do not bring with them the smallest grains of knowledge. The guides, whose knowledge of English is limited to such words as “Sirteenth Senchury” (thirteenth century), give them no clues to the reasons for the existence of any buildings on the island, and quite a large proportion of visitors go away without any more knowledge than they could have obtained from the examination of a good book of photographs.
Sleep on the rock
To really appreciate in any degree the natural charms of Mont St Michel, at least one night should be spent on the rock. Having debated between the rival houses of Poularde Aine and Poularde Jeune, and probably decided on the older branch of the family, perhaps with a view to being able to speak of their famous omelettes with enthusiasm, one is conducted to one of the houses or dependencies connected with the hotel.
A light to carry you home
If one has selected the Maison Rouge, it is necessary to make a long climb to one’s bedroom.
The long salle a manger, where dinner is served, is in a tall wedge-like building just outside the Porte du Roi and in the twilight of evening coffee can be taken on the little tables of the cafe that overflows on to the pavement of the narrow street. The cafe faces the head-quarters of the hotel, and is as much a part of it as any of the other buildings which contain the bedrooms.
To the stranger it comes as a surprise to be handed a Chinese lantern at bedtime, and to be conducted by one of the hotel servants almost to the top of the tall house just mentioned.
Suddenly the man opens a door and you step out into an oppressive darkness. Here the use of the Chinese lantern is obvious, for without some artificial light, the long series of worn stone steps, that must be climbed before reaching the Maison Rouge, would offer many opportunities for awkward falls.
The bedrooms in this house, when one has finally reached a floor far above the little street, have a most enviable position. They are all provided with small balconies where the enormous sweep of sand or glistening ocean, according to the condition of the tides, is a sight which will drag the greatest sluggard from his bed at the first hour of dawn.
View across the sea
Right away down below are the hoary old houses of the town, hemmed in by the fortified wall that surrounds this side of the island. Then stretching away towards the greeny-blue coast-line is the long line of dike or causeway on which one may see a distant puff of white smoke, betokening the arrival of the early train of the morning.
The attaché of the rival hotels are already awaiting the arrival of the early batch of sight-seers. All over the delicately tinted sands there are constantly moving shadows from the light clouds forming over the sea, and blowing freshly from the west there comes an invigorating breeze.
The tides that bring the sea across the great sweep of sand surrounding Mont St Michel, are intermittent, and it is possible to remain for a day or two on the island and be able to walk around it dry-shod at any hour.
It is only at the really high tides that the waters of the Bay of Cancale give visitors the opportunity of seeing the fantastic buildings reflected in the sea. But although it is safer and much more pleasant to be able to examine every aspect of the rock from a boat, it is possible to walk over the sands and get the same views provided one is aware of the dangers of the quicksands which have claimed too many victims.
It is somewhat terrifying that on what appears to be absolutely firm sand, a few taps of the foot will convert two or three yards beneath one’s feet into a quaking mass. There is, however, no great danger at the foot of the rocks or fortifications, but to wander any distance away entails the gravest risks unless in company with a native who is fully aware of any dangerous localities.
Danger in the sand
The sands are sufficiently firm to allow those who know the route to drive horses and carts to Tombelaine, but this should not encourage strangers to take any chances, for the fate of the English lady who was swallowed up by the sands in sight of the ramparts and whose body now lies in the little churchyard of the town, is so distressing that any repetition of such tragedies would tend to cast a shade over the glories of the mount.
This “many tower’d Camelot”
You may buy among the numerous photographs and pictures for sale in the trinket shops, coloured post-cards which show flaming sunsets behind the abbey, but nothing that I have yet seen does the smallest justice to the reality.
Standing on the causeway and looking up to the great height of the tower that crowns the highest point, the gilded St Michael with his outspread wings seems almost ready to soar away into the immensity of the canopy of heaven.
Through the traceried windows of the chancel of the church, the evening light on the opposite side of the rock glows through the green glass, for from this position the upper windows are opposite to one another and the light passes right through the building.
The great mass of curiously simple yet most striking structures that girdle the summit of the rock and form the platform beneath the church, though built at different times, have joined in one conscience and now present the appearance of one of those cities that dwell in the imagination when reading of “many tower’d Camelot” or the turreted walls of fairyland.
Down below these great and inaccessible buildings comes an almost perpendicular drop of rocks, bare except for stray patches of grass or isolated bushes that have taken root in crevices. Then between this and the fortified wall, with its circular bastions, encircling the base of the rock, the roofs of the little town are huddled in picturesque confusion.
The necessity of accommodating the modern pilgrims has unfortunately led to the erection of one or two houses that in some measure jar with their medieval surroundings. Another unwelcome note is struck by the needlessly aggressive board on the museum which has already been mentioned.
However, when a sunset is glowing behind the mount, these modern intrusions are subdued into insignificance, and there is nothing left to disturb the harmony of the scene.
A walk round the ramparts reveals an endless series of picturesque groupings of the old houses with their time-worn stone walls, over which tower the chatelet and La Merveille. Long flights of stone steps from the highest part of the narrow street lead up to the main entrance of the abbey buildings.
Here, beneath the great archway of the chatelet, sits an old blind woman who is almost as permanent a feature as the masonry on which she sits.
Ascending the wide flight of steps, the Salle des Gardes is reached. It is in the lower portion of the building known as Belle-Chaise, mentioned earlier in this chapter. From this point a large portion of the seemingly endless series of buildings are traversed by the visitor, who is conducted by a regular guide.
You ascend a great staircase, between massive stone walls spanned by two bridges, the first a strongly built structure of stone, the next a slighter one of wood, and then reach a breezy rampart where great views over the distant coasts spread themselves out.
Inside the abbey
From here you enter the church, its floor now littered with the debris of restoration. Then follow the cloister and the refectory, and down below them on the second floor of the Merveille is the Salle des Chevaliers.
Besides the wonderful Gothic halls with their vaulted roofs and perfect simplicity of design, there are the endless series of crypts and dungeons, which leave a very strong impression on the minds of all those whose knowledge of architecture is lean.
There is the shadowy crypt of Les Gros Pilliers down below the chancel of the church; there is the Charnier where the holy men were buried in the early days of the abbey; and there is the great dark space filled by the enormous wheel which was worked by the prisoners when Mont St Michel was nothing more than a great jail. It was by this means that the food for the occupants of the buildings was raised from down below.
Without knowing it, in passing from one dark chamber to another, the guide takes his little flock of peering and wondering visitors all round the summit of the rock, for it is hard, even for those who endeavour to do so, to keep the cardinal points in mind, when, except for a chance view from a narrow window, there is nothing to correct the impression that you are still on the same side of the mount as the Merveille.
At last the perambulation is finished – the dazzling sunshine is once more all around you as you come out to the steep steps that lead towards the ramparts.
Gordon Cochrane Home, Normandy
Gordon includes a history of the Mont in his full review, online here. You may like to read it, as Gordon goes on to say:
“Who does not know that sense of annoyance at being conducted over some historic building by a professional guide who mentions names and events that just whet the appetite and then leave a hungry feeling for want of any surrounding details or contemporary events which one knows would convert the mere “sight” into holy ground.
I submit that a French guide, a French hand-book or a poor translation, can do little to relieve this hunger, that Mont St Michel is fully worthy of some preliminary consideration, and that it should not be treated to the contemptuous scurry of a day’s trip.”
A little more about Gordon Cochrane Home
Gordon was born on 25 July 1878 and lived to 91, passing away on 13 December 1969 in Midhurst, Sussex. Sadly Violet died many years before him on 24 June 1944, just a few days after their 18th wedding anniversary. Gordon did not marry again.
During his life Gordon worked at the Morning Herald in 1900, as art editor of The Tatler magazine in 1901 and The King. He later worked at publishers A & C Black. He served as a Major in the Royal Army Service Corps from 1914-1920 in France and North Africa, and later travelled widely in North Africa, the British Empire and the Commonwealth.
As an artist, Gordon worked mainly in watercolour and pen and ink and frequently exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. He was the author of many travel books including the beautifully illustrated Normandy: The Scenery & Romance of Its Ancient Towns (J M Dent & Co., 1905).
Read the charming description of Gordon and Violet’s wedding in the 12 June 1926 Whitstable Times and Tankerton Press.