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Guest blogger! Cook’s handbook for Normandy, 1883

Our guest blogger today is Cook’s Handbook for Normandy (and Brittany) from 1883.  Excerpts include traveler advice, the Norman character and scenery.  Every town and larger village are described, but for this match we have included a visitor guide to Bayeux.

The river Aure at Bayeux
Match! The river Aure at Bayeux

We expected the handbook to be a little dry but it is sprinkled with personal insights and informative asides that explain just why Cook’s handbooks were so popular with the inquisitive 19th century traveller. Text in italics are Cook’s.

Cook’s introduction to Normandy

Few countries ought to possess greater attractions for the educated Englishman than that immense territory lying between Paris and the sea-coast, which may be said to comprise nearly the whole of North- West France. 

Indeed, but how best to enjoy this earthly paradise? lets start with Cook’s ‘Useful Information’…

When to Go

Any month may be chosen between April and October, inclusive. The early spring and late autumn are pleasantest in Normandy. The angler should select April, May, or June.

Cost of tour

About 10 shillings per day [equivalent to @£300 today] will suffice for daily expenses in the best hotels. Incidental expenses, exclusive of carriage hire, about 2s. to 2s. 6d per day [£75 today] .

The Thomas Cook rail ticket

The company offered a range of set rail journeys across the region.

 circular tours 1 ticket prices, vintage

The Paris option: Travellers who cannot bear a long sea voyage may obtain at the offices of Thos. Cook & Son circular tickets, for tours beginning and ending at Paris. In the summer cheap return tickets from Paris to the chief sea-bathing stations on the French coast may also be obtained.  

Thomas Cook traveller coupons ensure ‘civility and attention’

For the convenience of tourists, Thos. Cook & Son have made arrangements under which the best hotels in all the principal towns accept their hotel coupons. Travellers holding Cook’s coupons may rely on being treated with civility and attention.

Food ‘do as Rome does’

The traveller in Normandy cannot do better than follow the maxim, “When at Rome do as Rome does.” It is the custom throughout the country to have a table d’hote breakfast at half-past 10 to 11 o’clock. Cook’s dejeuner coupons are available for this repast, which is usually ample and well served. Tourists who cannot conveniently conform to this custom may have an ordinary English breakfast at their own hour, with meat or fish, in exchange for the same coupon.  Many of the buffets at the railway stations give good dejeuners from 2fr. 50c. to 3fr.  

Throughout Normandy, wine is an extra, but cider ad lib, is placed on the table at dejeuner and dinner.

Bottles of calvados in a Bayeux shop
A rather interesting shop in Bayeux


The climate of Normandy closely resembles that of England, but there is less moisture in the air, and no fog.

Churches and Cathedrals

Usually open at all hours of the day, but the choirs and side chapels are usually kept locked. The Suisse, or beadle in charge, will admit the tourist for a small fee.

Carriage Hire

All the principal towns in Normandy can be reached by rail, but there are many points where it will be found necessary to hire carriages.  Carriages by the day cost from 8fr. to 10fr., with a gratuity of 2fr. to 3fr. additional to the driver.


Passengers with luggage to be registered should arrive at French railway stations at least a quarter of an hour before the time advertised for starting. Thirty kilos of luggage (about 661bs.) is carried free on all French railways, whether first or second class.  Luggage may be left “a la consigne” in all the principal stations.

Sham Curiosities!

All along the coast of Normandy tourists are subject to gross imposition by persons who pretend to have valuable old paintings, carvings, and articles of vertu for sale. These things, as well as modem pictures, are manufactured in Paris in large quantities. Tourists should not therefore be tempted to invest their money in such treasures.

Brocante flea market Honfleur
Sham curiosities?! Brocante!

Things to be remembered – some fine advice here

  • Always see your bedroom before taking it.
  • Always agree upon the price beforehand, unless you have Cook’s Hotel Coupons.
  • Have your hotel bill made out some hours before leaving, so as to allow time for rectifying errors. This is important.
  • If you wish to be called early instruct the night porter in charge.
  • Take your meals, as far as possible, in your hotel, as long as you remain in a town. By so doing you interest the proprietor, and are better served.

The Norman

The Norman of to-day is the counterpart of his forefathers who landed at Pevensey with the Conqueror. He is hardy, big-framed, bull-necked, hook-nosed, and eagle-eyed. His stiff black hair is close-cropped, and his face clean shaved. He is fierce and eager in asserting his rights and protecting his interests. In a word, he applies to trade those aggressive and acquisitive qualities which formerly developed themselves in less peaceful pursuits.

He is keen in pursuit of gain, and grasps with a firm hand what he gains. His women are portly, comely, and gracious to strangers, but always with an eye to business and in no country in the world is there so high an appreciation of the “petit sou” a quality which all Frenchwomen inherit, more or less.

Normandy scenery

The scenery of Normandy is familiar to all who have travelled to Paris by Havre or Dieppe. Its beauty may be of a commonplace character, showing but little variety, but it is the beauty of fertility and prosperity.  The greater part of the country consists of well-watered and rich pastures, interspersed with meadows, and orchards abounding in fruit. The cattle have coats like satin, the agricultural horses are well fed, and there is a general well-to-do air in the various towns and villages.

Normandy, however, is not without its more romantic spots. The scenery of the lower Seine, between Rouen and Havre, although lacking the gloomy grandeur which characterises the Rhine, presents at numerous points panoramas of great and varied beauty, enhanced by noble forests, fertile valleys, and the picturesque ruins of old chateaux.

Saint Germain de Livet
Somewhere in Normandy

Mont St. Michel, St. Lo, Vire, Rouen…

The view at Avranches, again, is superb. A vast tract of well-wooded and undulating country fills the landscape, relieved by the glittering curves of the river, which broadens in the distance to a wide estuary, with the romantic Abbey of Mont St. Michel and the sister island of Tombelaine in the distance. A view scarcely inferior can be obtained at Vire. The town of St. Lo is also most picturesque, while nearly all the smaller towns have features interesting to the artist. Among the more important towns, Rouen is pre-eminent for beauty. Its general aspect from the railway is sufficiently charming, but the traveller who will take the trouble to ascend the iron spire of the cathedral, or mount the overlooking hill upon which stands the Church of Notre Dame de Bon Secours, will be well repaid the trouble.

For the student of architecture

The student of architecture will find in every direction abundant material to satisfy his taste. Besides the great cathedrals of Rouen, Bayeux, Lisieux, and Coutances, the Church of St. Ouen, at Rouen, and other noble edifices, there are in the smaller towns many fine examples of Norman architecture, although unhappily, nearly all of them have been in part periodically destroyed and rebuilt.  Old castles and ruined abbeys abound; on the north bank of the Seine are several magnificent ruins, such as the Abbeys of Boscherville and Jumièges.  At Lillebonne may be seen a Roman theatre, almost the only trace of the Roman occupation that remains in Northern France.

By the Sea

During the bathing season the hotels in the “Bains de Mer” towns not only advance their tariff, but decline to take in travellers except at board rates of 16 to 20 francs per day, without deduction for meals taken out of doors. This applies to Trouville, Dieppe, St. Valery, Etretat, Cabourg,  Granville, and many other towns. Cherbourg and Havre being commercial ports, make no changes.

Cook’s comprehensive list of Normandy seaside resorts includes helpful comments about your likely companions from ‘much frequented by middle class families‘ and ‘specially frequented by artists’ to ‘chiefly frequented by financiers and diplomatists’.  

watering places handbook normandy brittany 1883


For our match we have chosen Route No.1, a circular tour which started in Cherbourg and went on to Granville, St Malo, Flers and Caen.  We are now set for Bayeux.  Our trusty Cook’s handbook is at first less than encouraging:

Bayeux (Calvados), Normandy. Population, 8,500. A dull old town situated about two-thirds of a mile from the station, on the line between Caen and Cherbourg.  It stands on the slope of two hills, on the banks of the little river Aure.

The river Aure runs through Bayeux
The river Aure runs through Bayeux

Then of course some sensible history

 Bayeux was the Augustodorus of the Romans. It became Christianized by St. Eudoxia in the 4th century, when the bishopric was founded. At the death of William the Conqueror, his sons disputed its possession. It was burned in 1108, and again in 1346. In 141 7 it was taken by the English, but lost again in 1450. Ten of its churches were destroyed in the Wars of the League and the Revolution.  The town consists of two main streets, leading upwards to a square promenade, with boulevards encircling it. In this place is the Bibliotheque, containing the tapestries.

The Cathedral, a remarkable Norman-Gothic building, dating from the 12th century … Bayeux contains many interesting medieval houses: 4 Rue St. Malo [still standing, a lovely timber building with carvings], 43 Rue St, Martin [medieval, still standing and stunning], 1 & 45 Rue Manche [street name changed?]  8 Rue Larche [gone, just a stone arch remains].

 43 Rue St, Martin, Bayeux
43 Rue St, Martin, Bayeux

Many of the women of Bayeux still wear the bavolette, or head-dress, of the court of the Dukes of Burgundy. Good lace is manufactured here.  The Post Office is on Rue Royale. Omnibus to station, 30c during the day, 50c. night.

Bayeux costume
Bayeux costume

Cook advises a visit to the Bayeux Tapestry.

Bayeux Tapestry ‘events deeply interesting to every Englishman’

The Bayeux Tapestry, of which a facsimile may be seen at the South Kensington Museum, was formerly shown at the Hotel de Ville, where it was unwound from a roller each time that it was exhibited. It is now placed in the Public Library, where it may be seen daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is worked on linen 20 inches wide and 213 feet long, and is believed to have been executed by Queen Matilda, queen of William the Conqueror, and the ladies of her court.

As a record of historical events deeply interesting to every Englishman, it merits attention, while at the same time it is a curious specimen of early French art. The drawing of many of the figures is very spirited. The Normans are represented in complete chain armour, with large shields, resembling children’s kites. They are all close shaven and cropped. It is worthy of note that all the buildings represented have round arches, like the architecture of the tenth century introduced by the Normans into England.

The history of this tapestry is somewhat curious. After its completion, it probably remained in the cathedral for several centuries. It is described in an inventory of the contents of the church made in 1476. It was preserved in the cathedral until the Revolution of 1789, and hung upon the walls for public exhibition on fete days.

Postcard of the Bayeux tapestry

 A second conquest of England?!

After the Revolution, when the first Napoleon projected the invasion of England, he had this tapestry exhibited in Normandy from town to town, to encourage the French people to attempt a second conquest of England.

The story of the tapestry, in 58 sections, is then carefully described.

the bayeux tapestry panels are described

All followed by an end note still a bit sour about the Conquest some 800 years later:

The Tapestry throughout represents William as the rightful heir to the crown of England, and Harold as an usurper, a view evidently held by the majority of French people after the Conquest, for in a work called the “Romance of Rou” written by a canon of Bayeux Cathedral, Harold is described as doing homage to William, Duke of Normandy, for the throne of England.

A wonderful excursion

Our circular ticket would then whisk us off to Cherbourg (‘a first class military port…great triumph of engineering skill…’), by steamer to Weymouth and train to London, exhausted and exhilarated by our experiences.  There is not a Cook’s 1883 Normandy tour we would not be happy to take today.

To find out more about Cook’s Normandy, view the full pdf Handbook.


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Thomas Cook

Thomas Cook’s idea to offer excursions came to him while walking from Market Harborough to Leicester to attend a meeting of the Temperance Society. Launched in 1841 with a special train to carry temperance supporters, by 1883 Cook’s tours went as far afield as North America, Egypt, China and Normandy.  Read about the history of Thomas Cook tours here.


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