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The peculiar chapel of Allouville-Bellefosse

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Chapel Oak of Allouville-Bellefosse and a feeble attempt to replicate technicolour

We drove expectantly through the plain fields of the Pays de Caux to Allouville-Bellefose to match this most peculiar postcard.

A chapel in a tree, and what a tree!  Still alive after centuries leafy branches capped with little man made roofs twist and turn. Inside support has been supplied by someone of the Heath Robinson school of construction.

How did this marvel come to be in the middle of a tiny Normandy village?

Very very old

Once in severe danger from Revolutionary hordes and now a valued part of community, our postcard is a picture of possibly the oldest and toughest tree in France.  A oak tree that is also home to a tiny chapel and a hermit’s cell.

The tree’s growth is said to reflect that of France – it has certainly had it’s share of disasters and triumphs.

Disaster!

Rather narrow entrance to the Chapel
Rather narrow entrance to the Chapel

Disaster first struck in the 1600’s when the oak was already an impressive 800 years old (or 400 years, depending on who you ask)

Even by conservative estimates the tree had already lived, quite disinterestedly, through the reigns  of many Kings Louis, Philip and Charles.  Then around the birth of Louis XIV, soon to be The Sun King, a terrible storm shook Allouville-Bellefose.  During the storm a colossal thunderbolt hit the tree, exploding right down the middle leaving a gaping hole at its base.

The villagers were of course saddened to see such appalling damage.  They expected the worst but the tree was not unsteady and as busy farmers with other concerns, they left were it was. While quietly considering in that practical Norman way, what to do with the wood.

The miracle of Allouville-Bellefosse

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAStubbornly the tree thrived.  New shoots started to grow at an astonishing rate.   The village priest Father Du Cerceau and his friend Abbot Du Détroit saw the new growth and pronounced it … a miracle!

Respecting miracles tremendously, Abbot Du Détroit and Father Du Cerceau built a small shrine to the Virgin Mary inside the now hollow oak.  Everyone agreed how peaceful the shrine felt, as candles flickers against the old tree’s sheltering walls.

Stories of the beautiful Chêne Chapelle (oak chapel) spread and visitors from Rouen and Le Havre braved the muddy roads to visit the holy tree.  The church and village soon agreed to build a modest chapel, Notre Dame de la Paix (Our Lady of Peace), within the oak and protect it with a door.

Heath Robinson would be proud - the supportive interior
Heath Robinson would be proud – the supportive interior

Later a staircase climbing around the tree was added, leading to a tiny Chambre de l’Ermite, a hermit’s room with a nice view of the village.

Revolution and danger for the oak…

All was going well for the oak when the French Revolution came smashing through the villages and towns of Normandy.  A revolution that preached reason, not worship.

One day, perhaps during the weekly market, a angry revolutionary crowd began to gather in the centre of Allouville-Bellefosse.  They discussed “Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” and burning symbols of church oppression…. like holy trees.

The debate was extremely heated but fortunately for the oak and for the village, one quick thinking and influential local loudly declared the tree the ‘Temple of Reason!’.  He won the debate and the tree was admired and accepted as a symbol of the new way of thinking.

Today

View from the hermit's room
View from the hermit’s room

Today Chêne Chapelle is wearing the signs of very old age.  A lot of bark has fallen off the trunk and has been gently replaced with wooden shingles.  Poles have been strategically placed to offer support.

Part of the trunk has died but green leaves still shine in the sun and acorns dance in the breeze.  The tree endures.

Twice a year a popular mass is held at Chêne Chapelle and there is an annual pilgrimage on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin.  The tree has also been entered into the national ‘Monuments of France’ competition 2014!

Happily it looks as though the old oak of Chapel Oak of Allouville-Bellefosse will see out many more Normandy storms.

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