For nearly 1000 years, fine produce from across the Pays d’Auge has changed hands in the vast market hall of Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives. Aromatic sausages, oozing Camembert cheeses, the furry and the fowl; over time goods sold under this peg tiled roof have altered little.
The hall was built for monks from the old Saint-Pierre abbey whose church still stands proud in the centre of the town. The Abbey was founded in 1046/7 by Comtesse Lesceline, great aunt to William the Conqueror. She chose the site of St Wambert’s martyrdom by Vikings in 867 and started a monastic complex that was for centuries a centre for Pays d’Auge commerce.
Sometime in the thirteenth century the monks needed a large hall for grain, for markets. The size of the hall, so large for such a small town today, reveals just how rich the Abbey had become.
Although the hall stands on low stone walls, the building’s strength comes from gigantic timbers. This internal construction of king posts and beams is reflected in buildings old and new in every corner of Normandy. So when the hall was destroyed in 1944 the architects of its resurrection had plenty of buildings to study.
Up until 1944 the hall had survived the war, and previous wars, intact. There had been occasional rebuilding over the centuries, and additions until the hall reached 70 metres in length, the longest market hall in France.
In 1940 Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives became the unwelcome host to enemy occupation. When news of the invasion arrived on 6 June 1944 there was a palpable sense of hope. Hope that was shaken by the parade of prisoners just hours later, Allied airmen captured in the fields of Normandy.
It took until August 1944 for the Allied army to reach as far south as Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives. Many in the town had been evacuated in July but it was still an enemy stronghold.
On 15 August intense bombing and shelling rained down on the town. The town hall was badly hit and one person killed. That night the shelling seemed to be from all directions, miraculously no-one was killed nor injured.
An astonishing sight
The battle continued through the next day until 7pm. Then, an astonishing sight; eleven tanks of the 5th Cameron Highlanders rolled into the Place de l’Hotel de Ville. Fifty of the enemy were rounded up as POWs, but the war was not over for the little town.
That evening at 9pm the enemy attacked again. Gunfire was intense and reached the Abbey church. Then the medieval hall, pride of the town, began to burn.
Loss, and triumph
By the next morning the hall was completely destroyed.
There would be further bombing by the enemy on 19 and 20 August, but, on the morning on 16 August 1944 the war was nearly over for Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives. As the 5th Cameron Highlanders marched through the town they were welcomed enthusiastically as ‘liberators’.
Rising from the ashes
We are grateful that after WW2 the hall was not given the Le Havre treatment and replaced with the sort of modern design that erases all memories of the past. Although just stones remain from the original, you will see from our vintage postcard new timbers have been arranged to match the original with fanatical precision.
For the sharp eyed there are hints at reconstruction; beams cut using modern methods have a smoother finish. But just as carpenters in the Middle Ages used wood pegs to secure each joint, no nails or bolts were used here. Today 290,000 handmade chestnut pegs secure the Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives market hall.
This wooden phoenix rose from the flames of war and was reborn by 1949. A testament to the skill of modern day carpenters whose skill and devotion restored the heart of this old town.
Visiting Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives and the old market hall
Apparently, in the Musee des Techniques Fromageres (by the Tourist info office, south of the church) you will find a robotic cow whose innards light up as they convert grass into milk.
A traditional French market is held every Monday in the medieval hall.
On the first Sunday of the month an antiques market, Marché aux antiquaires, fills the hall. A group of antique brocante shops are open in the buildings next to the hall every weekend. Read our review here.
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