The top left of Normandy is the Cotentin Peninsula and within that, the Val de Saire. A region with timeless pockets of wildness and a shoreline that has been battling the sea since time began.
All around its maritime boundaries are ports; from stately Cherbourg to little stone pockets by small villages that huddle against an unpredictable sea. Our match is Le port du cap Lévi, built around a natural bay sharp with rocks.
Roman and Vikings
The Romans were busy here, using the cove as a transit point for England. Proof was uncovered during a rebuild in the 18th century when hundreds of Roman medals were discovered. They bore the effigies of Trajan and Marc-Aurelius, two of the ‘good’ emperors who ruled between A.D. 98 and A.D. 180.
Medieval histories are scarce but the Cotentin was known to be looted often by Vikings then dominated by the Normans. The name cap Lévi was originally the viking name Kapelvic; Kapel – chapel, vik – a good harbour for Viking dragon ships.
According to local lore in the summer of 1177, Henri II Plantagenêt King of England arrived at Cap Lévi with 200 English knights ready to travel to the Holy Land.
Dangerous times in the 15th century
During the 15th century the Cotentin coast was busy and on high alert for enemy raids. Memories of the troubles were still fresh when La Société des antiquaires de Normandie recalled years later in 1892 how ships captains in those days had to be warriors as well as sailors. Foreign ships would sneak along the coast trying, with varying success, to capture French vessels and their cargoes.
The Society’s notes included mention of Captain Malesart who landed twice on the English held island of Aurigny (Alderney), plundered the country and carried off as many cattle as he could fit on his boat, which he then sold triumphantly in Cherbourg. This was apparently a ‘vigorous reply’ to an attack on the French coast made by the English a few months before. Another time Captain Malesart succeeded in getting his ship and its cargo of oxen away during ‘an encounter’ with the English, but Captain Peter Cappon was ‘less happy in an engagement’ he had with a Flemish boat. He and his ship were seized by the Flemish crew until a larger vessel from Guernsey sailed up and captured both ships. After a few days of imprisonment Captain Cappon was released for a ransom.
In the 16th century cove at Cap Lévi had a reputation for sheltering privateers.
A proper port
Local lord Avice of Fermanville successfully petitioned the king in 1654 for the right to build a port built at ‘Cape Lévi’ but the sea had its revenge destroying it all before the century was over. Still the oyster business kept the cove busy and ships continued to seek refuge there, with vessels up to 100 tons dropping anchor.
Eventually a new jetty and quay were built in 1786. In 1801 a fort was built nearby at the request of Napoleon; fort du Cap Lévi, tasked to defend the little harbour as well as mighty Cherbourg.
New purposeAgain the sea showed its strength with ‘Great seas that besieged this coast’ in 1803 and 1808 (recalls Géographie militaire) but the port was less important so left unrestored until much later in the 1860’s.
Then with Napoleon III’s plans for a huge port at Cherbourg, the little harbour was important again.
On 5 March 1874 an agreement to construct a new jetty was agreed, with the General Council Of the Department of La Manche contributing 23,000 francs and the Treasury making up the additional 92,000 francs needed.
Port du cap Lévi was being strengthened to carry granite from the Fermanville quarries to build the new, huge Cherbourg harbour. A second jetty would be added between 1877-1880. Le port du cap Lévi has changed little to this day.
Another century, another war
100 nautical miles from England, the peninsular was occupied heavily during WW2 and blockhouses still dot the perimeter. Cherbourg was destroyed in 1944 as was the Cap Lévi lighthouse.
Now this sleepy fishing port is no longer in danger from pirates from the Channel islands or England and is safe from occupation by a familiar enemy. Unless you count the tourists of course.