There are red squirrels in Normandy. For the English visitor this is always a wonderful surprise.
In dear old Blightly our squirrels are lumpy old things as grey as our rain clouds. We have lost most of our reds, pushed out by these dreary tree rats. British children are still told the old stories from Beatrix Potter starring sleek red squirrel Nutkin, but they are fairy-tales without a glimmer of truth.
In Normandy Squirrel Nutkin, or Noisy-Noisette as he is charmingly called, is very real. And we saw him.
Our match was a stunning château with unusual turrets shaped like giant bells.
Le château de Couterne
The same family, de Frotté’s, have lived within these red brick walls since 1542. Fourteen generations who all know exactly how lucky they are to live in the peace of the Orne, by a lake, surrounded by trees filled with red squirrels. We have rarely envied a château more.
Guns and silk dresses
Château de Couterne is a home and not open to the public, however in summer months a showroom with an eclectic selection of pieces from the château’s history welcomes visitors.
Here you will see a remarkable collection of silk dresses, some over 250 years old, as perfect as the day they were last worn by the very stylish ladies of Le château de Couterne. Complex designs of pleats, ruffles and stripes enhanced their wearer’s daintiness, and shouted their wealth. Next to these shimmering delights are cabinets fill with curiosities; ancient books, portraits, manuscripts, guns, swords, a child’s paper theatre. The showroom gives an unusually personal insight into French château life.
A small bit of history
In 1542 Jehan de Frotté bought the land and remains of an old château for 4,500 livres. He had arrived in Normandy as part of Marguerite of Angouleme’s entourage when she was married off, by the king of France, to nice but dim Charles IV of Alencon in 1509. Marguerite was well educated and enjoyed the arts. The sophisticated Jehan wrote poetry and acted as her chancellor for many years
Jehan built the central part of the château we see today. Future generations added to it, but kept to a graceful and unfussy style that reflects the spirit of its old Huguenot lords. For this stubborn family were Protestant and remained so until the end of the 18th century, through many years when refusing to convert to Catholicism was a very dangerous decision.
Revolution reaches Couterne
There have been a couple of hic-ups in this peaceful building’s history. On 24 July 1789 just 10 days after the taking of the Bastille in Paris, the peasantry of Couterne revolted. They ransacked the château, drank all the wine in the cellar and cheered as a miserable Charles-Gabriel de Frotté legged it to his other house near Bayeux. There he died, far from his squirrels but generally unmolested in 1791.
By the end of the 18th century the old order snuck back in and restored the château. Nothing of any consequence has changed at the château since then.
WW2 at Le château de Couterne
The next upset we can discover for the château was not until 1944. An interview in www.ouest-france.fr with the current owner and his elegant wife revealed all. M. deFrotté explained how during WW2 his home was occupied by the Germans, then briefly and more cheerily by the Americans.
He was just a boy but remembers the fearsomely ‘correct’ German officers, mostly aged around 40, who they tried to avoid. During the Battle for Normandy the Germans left and as battle raged the family spent several nights hidden in the cellar. M. deFrotté recalled:
“On August 13 1944 in the evening Couterne was released. Then on the morning of 14 August I saw an American jeep on the edge of the pond, I could not believe it, a military Jeep!”
In just a few hours a complete camp was set up for 500 soldiers. The started pumping water from the lake to drink but “We told them it was not safe, but they put in pellets.”
The Americans were much younger and much more relaxed than the Germans.
“I remember the colonel, who was a photographer, in our parlour, lying on the sofa, feet on the table, delivering his instructions! When the colonel had his birthday everyone came in singing “Happy Birthday”. This was all very different from the rigidity of the Germans.
“The Americans stayed for 15 days and there were fantastic luxuries we had not seen or tasted since the beginning of the war; a cinema, doctors, canned food and chocolate! They had plenty and threw it from their trucks as they drove by.” (link to original article).
Did we mention the squirrels?
We walked up the quiet road, not sure how easy the match would be to make. But the château, standing privately at the end of a tree lined avenue, has generously maintained an open view from across the lake.
It looked beautiful and … then we saw them. Undeniably red, sleeker than their grey bulling cousins stuffing their white tummies with nuts and twitching their tufty red ears.
Three of the most perfect red squirrels.
We gazed and gazed at this, for Brits, rare sight. At some point we took our château photo match, then went to have another look at the squirrels. Eventually they got tired of us and zoomed up into some trees. We smiled all the way home.
When to visit
Access to the beautiful park is free and open all year. The château exhibition rooms are open in July, August and during the annual French Heritage weekend in September. Entry is 4€. Visit the château website for more information >