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The man in the Roche d’Oëtre

Roche d'Oëtre cliff face
Match! Can you see the (silhouette) man in the Roche d’Oëtre? (Well one of them)

The stone man in the Roche d’Oëtre gazes out across an endless panorama of river, forest and meadows. Four hundred feet below in the gorge twists the silver Rouvre river, flowing on to a densely wooded valley.

These granite rocks are part of the oldest mountain in France, the Amorican Massif. Two billion years old it covers the whole of Southern Normandy reaching across to the Pays de la Loire and down into Brittany.

Two million years ago the Amorican Massif towered more than five kilometres above sea level.  Erosion has worn it down to be France’s lowest mountain, a plateau like peneplain peaking at little over 400 meters. This landscape occasionally reveals ancient brittle schisms, rocky cliffs still sharp after a millennia that conceal secret pathways and gloomy caves.

Clinging legends

Of course legends cling to the rocks; fauns with hairy feet live in the caves, fairies dance on the Roche d’Oëtre and Naiads dream in the waters below. Heaven help anyone who disturbs them.

There is a Chambre aux fées, ‘Fairy’s Cave’ in Roche d’Oëtre, about 12 meters down from the top of the rocks.  It has long had a reputation for hiding as many brigands and highwaymen as sprites and a recent inhabitant was anything other than fairy-like. Fouasse de Noirville Marquis de Ségrie-Fontaine was not a very nice man at all.

Rouvre river valley from Roche d'Oëtre
Rouvre river valley from Roche d’Oëtre

The climbing Fouasse’s of Falaise

The lord’s family came from Falaise and were in living memory mere inspirational bourgeoisie.  They bought the stronghold of Noirville in the 16th century, adding ‘de Noirville’ to their name. They  continued an impressive social rise, taking on the roles of country lieutenant and donating to the right causes until 1733.  That year Pierre Anne-Alexandre Fouasse de Noirville successfully bought himself papers of nobility, raising the family Fouasse to the Marquisate of Ségrie-Fontaine. He bought old Chateau de Rouvron at Ségrie in 1738, tearing it down twenty years later with making plans to replace it with something modern reflecting his families growing importance. It was this gentleman’s son, Noël Anne-Alexandre, who found himself in the Chambre aux  fees.  The accommodation was not by choice.

Nasty Noël

Noël had married the daughter of rich Caen merchants and when his father died in 1763 carried on his plans for a new chateau.  He was not a popular man.  The families’ social rise was widely resented, not helped by this swaggering, arrogant, rather short popinjay’s continual greed.

Noël had little intention of using his own money for his grand plans.  Wanting a new road between Pont-des-Versa and Ségrie he hit on the brilliant idea of just raising and raising taxes on his peasants. They were not impressed, remembering coldly that the Fouasse were mere merchants not many years before.

Building work on the chateau and road was still going on when revolution exploded in Paris on 5 May 1789.  Unfortunately for Noël he was precisely the sort of gentleman revolutionaries had in mind when they started sharpening the scaffold.

Revolution reaches Ségrie

Like many of the nobility tucked up warm in their country chateaux across France, Noël refused to believe the revolution could succeed. He was caught completely by surprise when on 14 August 1789 his loyal manservant Jean-François Toussaint, known as Racine, informed him a large group of furious peasants armed with rifles, sticks and axes were on their way to the partially completed chateau de Ségrie.

It took some discussion and shouts in the distance to convince the very noble marquis it would not in his best interests to stay and hear what the peasants had to say.

Roche d'Oëtre view over the Orne bocage
Roche d’Oëtre view over the Orne bocage

A rocky hiding place

Noël and his manservant rode out into the Orne countryside, heading east to the thick woodland of La Rouvre river valley. It was night-time when the two fugitives reached the plateau above the Chambre aux Fées. From here Joseph tied a rope to a tree trunk and to Noël, slowly letting him down to the cave. Jean then left, returning with blankets and provisions. He would return every night with food for his master.

Noël did not manage well in the cave. Perhaps it was the hard rock to sleep on, or perhaps the fairies took umbrage at their uninvited guest and played tricks on him, for whatever reason he was not in the cave for many days.

He started to head to Falaise but was soon spotted and arrested near La Courbe by eight men who were once his own peasants. They did not treat him well.

Rescue and a harsh agreemet

A farmer and his men rescued Noël and took him to their farmhouse but it was soon surrounded by three hundred enraged peasants. Noël escaped on horseback but in revenge for helping the hated marquis the farm was plundered.

He made it to Falaise where his family were waiting with his friend and neighbour M. Brossard.  Fortunately for Noël his friend was widely respected and managed to calm the crowd a little.  The peasants explained their fury, and with politics for this small time on their side, an agreement was made in their favour.

On 22 July 1789 at the chateau of La Fresnaye before a notary, Noël Anne-Alexandre Fouasse de Noirville Marquis de Ségrie-Fontaine gave up his feudal rights to the farming, hunting and fishing on his land.  He agreed the rabbit warrens could be destroyed and that rents would no longer be collected.  Just one condition was imposed on the peasants, that they respect his possession and preserve his nearly completed chateau at Ségrie.

Noël made preparations to leave France until this revolutionary fuss was over.

End of an unpopular marquis

His peasants were delighted and as soon the pompous marquis was gone cheerfully ignored the conditions of their bounty. They set about busily restructuring their houses and farms with the rather nice quality building supplies that once were chateau de Ségrie.  In a very short time all that remained of this ode to extravagance were some stubborn foundations and a wide terrace, facing out onto the lovely wooded hills of the Orne bocage.

Noël, once proud marquis de Ségrie-Fontaine, never returned.  He died in Trieste, Italy in 1792.

Roche d'Oëtre lizard
Lovely Roche d’Oëtre green lizard

Roche d’Oëtre today

With remarkable views, lovely walks and some animals and plants rare to Normandy, this a very popular site that retains a feeling of peace even when busy.  Look out for the little white flowers of Spergula, lots of ancient lichen and lovely little green lizards. There are some handy facilities; free parking, nice shop, café, loos and displays on history and the environment.

Some walks and natural history (Fr., via Orne tourisme).


Some sources

Le département de l’Orne archéologique et pittoresque By Léon de La Sicotière 1845

L’Ouest Éclair 2 September 1931

 

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