Helen Rose Outdoor Diary River Seine and Normandy Part 2
River Seine and Normandy Part 2 – December 2019
Following on from the last blog in November on the Seine Cruise, this is part two.
I have always wanted to see the Bayeux Tapestry which is housed in its own Gallery in the little town of Bayeux. In fact, it is not a tapestry at all but embroidery on linen using coloured woollen yarns. Before going to the Gallery we paid a short visit to the Bayeux Memorial to pay our respects in the largest British War Cemetery dating from the Second World War in France with 4,648 graves of British and Germans mostly killed in the invasion of Normandy. A very sad place reminding us of the atrocities of war.
Scholarly analysis has concluded that the Bayeux Tapestry was probably commissioned by William the Conquerors half-brother Bishop Odo and created in England by Anglo Saxon artists. The tapestry is 70 metres long and 20 centimetres high. Its survival almost intact over nine centuries is little short of miraculous although the final 1.5 metres of the tapestry are missing. It could be an almost complete record of events leading up to the Norman Conquest and William’s victory at the 1066 Battle of Hastings. I particularly liked the scene where the horses on the boat were depicted laughing on their way to victory. On the drive back to Caudebec we crossed the Brotonne Bridge built in 1977 and has the widest range in concrete construction being 320 metres wide.
Arromanches is near Bayeux and 878 years after the Battle of Hastings we were at another scene of an epic Normandy battle in European history. The operation was called Gold Beach which was the code name for Arromanches, one of the D Day landing sites used on 6th June 1944 by Allied Forces including the USA and Canada to liberate German occupied France. This an amazing story and I have to confess to ignorance that the two prefabricated marinas were built by the Royal Engineers in England. They were artificial temporary harbours to allow the unloading of heavy equipment and men. A total of 146 massive cement caissons were towed over from England and sunk to form two semi-circular breakwaters in which floating bridge spans were moored. What an amazing feat of military engineering and ingenuity! The British and Canadian troops used it to invade. The US were on the adjoining beaches at Omaha and Utah. Some of the caissons can still be seen off the beach at Arromanches today. It is hard to believe that this port was used to disembark 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tonnes of supplies in the three months after D Day. The scale of the operation was astounding but very successful and led to the liberation of Nazi occupied Europe.
We visited Honfleur, a delightful calm and tranquil fishing village on the estuary of the Seine looking out on to the English Channel. It has a lovely harbour with a fish market selling local catch including oysters. The artist Eugene Boudin came from Honfleur and we visited the Art Gallery in his name. He was Claude Monet’s teacher.
One of the interesting buildings in Honfleur is the Sainte Catherine church, the largest church in France made out of wood and was erected by ship builders. As oaks of sufficient length were not always available, many of the braces are of unequal length with some even placed on a stone as a base.
Monet at Giverny
Claude Monet was born on 14 November 1840 in Paris. In 1845, his family moved to Le Havre in Normandy. His father wanted him to go into the family’s business but Monet wanted to become an artist. On the beaches of Normandy around 1856 he met fellow artist Eugène Boudin, his mentor and who taught him to use oil paints. Boudin also taught Monet techniques for painting outdoors. From 1883, Monet lived in Giverny where he purchased a house and property and began a vast landscaping project which included lily ponds that would become the subjects of his best-known works. In 1899, he began painting the water lilies, first in vertical views with a Japanese bridge as a central feature and later in the series of large-scale paintings that was to occupy him continuously for the next 20 years of his life.
At the Orangerie Museum in Paris, the eight compositions of the water lilies are set out in two oval rooms with natural light from the roof evoking the symbol of infinity through the cycle of light throughout the day. It was wonderful to see the ponds at Giverny and the water lilies painted by Monet. The ponds were created adjacent to the garden. The water garden is full of asymmetries and curves. It is inspired by the Japanese gardens that Monet knew from the prints he collected avidly. The garden is a blaze of colour throughout the year due to careful planting. Monet made a garden full of perspectives, symmetries and colours. He did not like organised nor constrained gardens but combined flowers according to their colours and left them to grow freely.
The little town of Vernon is close to Giverny and was an unexpected delight. Many of the half-timbered houses are no more than four or five metres wide which is the standard length of beams from the hundred year old oaks of the Middle Ages. Tourelles Castle dates back to the 12th century when Richard the Lionheart captured Vernon and built its defences.
At the river’s edge, there is a quaint old mill house perched above the water on decaying piers of the old bridge which once was a huge flour mill. There were bread riots there when the peasants were starving in 1789. More recently, Pierre Bonnard lived there. He was a member of the group of artists called the Nabis and afterward a leader of the Intimists. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest colourists of modern art.
The cruise on the Seine was a feast of culture and history and one that I would highly recommend.
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