Away from the bustling market towns, the countryside between Manche and Orne regions of Normandy is a land of legends. Here in thick forests and hidden meadows fairies entice, the devil leads astray, giants hurl megaliths and stories of the old kings and queens are told by firelight on long cold winter nights.
One legend took us along a small unremarkable lane to a shady place next to the waterfalls of La Sonce river. From here a gentle walk alongside sparkling cascades, accompanied by iridescent blue dragonflies, led us up to a shimmering silent pool. La Fosse Arthour. This is King Arthur’s pit and here is the legend.
Towards the end of the 5th century brave King Arthur, victor of many battles, disappeared. Some say he died in a swordfight with his nephew Mordred. Other that he sailed away to the mythical island of Avalon. In Normandy they know better.
A legend, for love
It was love of course that had distracted this ambitious, brilliant man from the noise of the camps and uncertainties of fighting. As passionate in love as he had been in battle, Arthur yearned for a remote place where he and his beloved could be undisturbed. Famous across many lands, it took Arthur some time to find a place to be left in peace with his true love (hence other places trying to take credit for being his final abode).
Eventually he found a suitable hollow in an isolated crag surrounded by woodland and made it his home. The cavity can be seen to this day high above the river Sonce and still called ‘la chamber du Roi’ the King’s chamber.
Of course being a man of legend, life for Arthur and his beloved was not straightforward.
A troublesome sorcerer
He was in love with an enchantress. A fairy if you like. The powerful sorcerer that protected her made one strange and difficult demand upon Arthur. He could see his beloved only after the last shafts of sunlight gilded the crest of the mountain, and must leave her again before dawn touched the summit with its soft pink fingers…
And so a cavern in the cliffs opposite Arthur’s own became her home, known as the Queen’s chamber. Each day the couple were separated by vertiginous cliffs and the perilous rushing waters of the Sonce. At night the hot blooded king made his way urgently across the abyss, to be welcome into the ardent embrace of his Queen.
Which went well for a time, but Arthur’s noble passion showed no sign of abating. Instead it grew and the restrictions forced upon him caused daily torment.
Impatience of kings
One warm spring day as the sunlight twinkled like diamonds on the waters of the Sonce and the scent of herbs and wild flowers wafted up to Arthur’s craggy home, a tormenting breeze carried across the ravine the sweet singing of his Queen. Hopelessly lovelorn and with the impatience of kings, Arthur could not wait for sunset.
He climbed down the crag face, stomped purposefully across the herb strewn ground, stooping momentarily to pluck sky blue harebells for his love, splashed across the river and scrambled up the cliff face. His queen was shocked but and overcome with happy emotion, choosing to forget the awful promise made to the powerful sorcerer.
But nothing untoward happened to Arthur and his queen. The water continued to dance down over rocks between the two mountains. Birds sung, bees buzzed and little red squirrels chattered.
But then a strange sound…
The next day an emboldened king sauntered across the valley and climbed up the cliff face singing a very cheerful song. His laughing queen welcomed him and they day went on much as before. This new routine carried on for quite some time and the lovers were happy.
Then one overcast day, stuffy like the hours before a storm, Arthur was making his way back across the valley when he heard in the distance a rumbling sound like thunder. But it continued on and on, getting louder and louder. Above him the queen gazed out across the valley to see what was causing the noise. And then she screamed.
Into the deluge
Below, a wall of water rushed towards Arthur, seemed to still for a moment before … engulfing him in a swirling vengeful torrent. Submerged, thrown against rocks then hurled in the air only to be submerged again, Arthur’s Queen heard his desperate cries.
Above the noise of the deluge she shouted ‘You call me!’ ‘Here I would be alone; there we will be together… Arthur I open my arms to you, here I am!’ and with that she leapt into the raging water.
As the waters closed over her they stilled to form a lake. On a nearby rock the sorcerer observed his vengeance and a tear fell from his eyes at his own cruelty. He reached out a hand and touched the watery tomb of the king and his enchanted queen and declared it would protect them, together, forever. So they would not be forgotten here, the cascades would evermore sing the lover’s last songs and on stormy nights shout their final cries across the valley.
And with that the sorcerer was gone.
There is a little more to this legend. Hippolyte Sauvage visited La Fosse Arthour in the 1860s and was told a story never before written, just handed down through the generations. The locals believed Arthour had granted them a magical favour, for providing him with asylum. Hippolyte revealed all in his book of Normandy Legends. It translates a little like this:
“On returning to the neighbouring village we met a peasant to whom we made some questions and he tells us that the Fosse Arthour once brought great happiness to the inhabitants of the country. Those of them who could not afford to plough their lands went, early in the morning, to the edge of the pit. Here they put a small piece of silver and the next day at sunrise out of the water would come two tireless black bulls who would work for them for whole day. The bulls had to be returned to the Fosse Arthour before the end of the day, the farmer taking care to tie a bundle of hay between the horns in thanks before they plunged back into their wet home.”
While the bulls are seen no more (as far as we know) apparently for centuries two white crows said to protect the harvest were seen every day hovering high above the King’s Chamber.
A grateful king indeed.
Visiting la Fosse Arthour
This tranquil lake (thought to be around 70m deep) is a short walk from a free car park. Around it are walks and longer hikes. If you take the path up to the Calvary (on the right on the way up), it takes you to a beautiful panorama. The rocks here are popular with climbers and offer 180 routes from beginner to advanced.
- View the walks
Curiously a local name for the lake is la Fosse à Retour (pit of return), perhaps in the hope Arthur will return to rule again, our ‘once and future king’?
Légendes normandes recueillies dans l’arrondissement de Mortain (Manche) by Hippolyte Sauvage published 1869
Aww lovely – slightly wobbly film of the cascades and our first film match!