There is a forlorn French poem by Jaques Prévert about a lighthouse keeper who loved birds. It is based on a terrible fact; birds flying on cloudy nights can become hypnotised by a bright light, and if that light turns endlessly, the birds will follow it. Endlessly.
Lighthouse keepers were first to notice this phenomenon. On cloudy, foggy or rainy nights migrating birds (many prefer to migrate at night) would become trapped, circling in the constant sweeping light until they fell exhausted to their deaths. On clear nights they flew on by. Many thousands of birds were dying every year, drawn tragically to lighthouses across the world. The poem goes a little like this (translation).
The lighthouse keeper who loved birds too much
Thousands of birds fly towards the fires
by the thousands they fall, by the thousands they collide
by thousands blinded, by thousands stunned
by the thousands they die
The lighthouse keeper cannot stand such things
the birds, he loves them too much
so he says “Never mind, I do not care!”
And he turns everything off.
In the distance a cargo ship is wrecked
a cargo ship coming from the islands
a cargo ship loaded with birds
thousands of birds from the islands
thousands of birds, drown.
Apparently the poem is taught in schools to stimulate philosophical discussion.
Massacre at Gatteville
As this tragic phenomena became better known, bird lovers raised their concerns. To readers of the 1912 journal ‘le Chenil’ bulletin of the Saint-Hubert-Club de France (for ‘hunters and breeders’) the problem was well known. In the article ‘Les Oiseaux et les phares’ they reported:
“In February, Maurice Maurice of Carentan, wrote to the St. Hubert-Club that in the preceding season at the lighthouse at Gatteville, more than 10,000 birds had been counted [dead on the rocks], including 1,800 Woodcocks… It is understood that these massacres recur throughout the transit line of migratory birds and very few relatively unfortunate travellers arrive at their destination.
“The French League for the Protection of Birds has joined its grievances with those of the Saint-Hubert-Club, which generously offered a prize to anyone who creates a device likely to prevent the birds from killing themselves against the lenses, like butterflies in the flame of a candle.“
Happily a solution of sorts was found. Lighthouses began erecting perches, vast ladders beneath their lamps to offer the exhausted bird a place to rest, rather than falling onto the sea drenched rocks below. The perches were a huge success. After they were installed at Terschelling, the keeper reported in 1912:
“In the night of 8 to 9 October there was a considerable passage, especially of Finches, Starlings and Larks. Two thousand birds rested on the artificial perch and were able to resume their journey the next day. In the night of the 30 to the 31, there were three thousand, and from the 31 October to the 1 of November, five thousand. In these last nights just forty-nine Larks, six Thrushes and eighteen Starlings were found dead.”
In the second half of the 20th century lighthouses moved away from revolving beams to strobe lights and this stopped the migratory bird’s terrible hypnosis. Now every night the lighthouse at Gatteville fires out two white strobes of light, reaching over 50km, every 10 seconds.
A brief history of Gatteville lighthouse
Around Barfleur strong currents and acres of sharp rocks have always made sailing in the area lethal. History in this area is marked by shipwrecks.
Not all of those wrecks were considered accidental. When petitioning government for a lighthouse at Gatteville, M. Vaubin said it would ‘solve the problem of wreckers’. Historian’s have found no proof of wreckers in the area, but the rumours persist.
The first contract to build a lighthouse was awarded in 1774 and the lighthouse completed in 1775, under the guidance of the engineer Duchesne. Unfortunately the lighthouse was too low to be seen by most ships in the channel. A second lighthouse was commissioned in 1800 under the direction of Morice de la Rue and first lit in 1835. This is the lighthouse we see today.
For more 66 years it was the tallest traditional lighthouse in France (until the lighthouse at Finistère built in 1902) and is still the third tallest in the world.
There are lots of easy to remember calendar facts about Gatteville’s lighthouses: it has 365 steps and took the lighthouse keepers around 15 minutes to climb. There are 12 floors and 52 windows.
In the early days the lighthouse was run by at least 6 guards who lived on site with their wives and children. At any time, two were at the top of the lighthouse on look-out and two downstairs powering the steam engines that powered the lamp. The men were also busy maintaining machinery and collecting coal by horse and cart from Gatteville station. As the machinery was modernised, the number of lighthouse keepers gradually fell to three.
Gatteville lighthouse in 1944
During WW2 the lighthouse and the Cotentin area was infested with enemy. Then when D-Day happened the soldiers at Gatteville lighthouse were ordered to destroy it. They placed explosives on every floor, but the lighthouse keeper Georges Cosron tried to persuade them not to blow it up. Fortunately none of the soldiers fancied standing close enough to light fuses 15 minutes up 365 steps from the ground. Instead they dressed themselves as civilians and quietly made their way to Cherbourg. The finished the war as POWs and the lighthouse was liberated with very little damage.
Gatteville was automated in 1984. Today four people work at the lighthouse.
The very best sort of lighthouse
Gatteville is, according to lighthouse keepers, the very best sort of lighthouse. They have three categories: lighthouse at sea? Hell. Lighthouse on an island? Purgatory. Lighthouse on land? Heaven! The view from the top is wonderful.
Phare de Gatteville is just closed for some weeks in December and January, and when the wind is force 7 and above. There is a charming museum at the bottom and free parking close by.
The shortest film ever of a helicopter buzzing the Phare de Gatteville didn’t land), but who was in it? Macron was in Cherbourg that day…