Holidays and longer vacations in 2020 have largely been halted because of the pandemic. While frustrating, in one way it has been a revelation. It has forced us to seek our pleasures nearer to home. The British have coined the term “staycation” and in many ways, this new-found incentive to explore local treasures had been a blessing. It harks back to a simpler life when most people took their leisure relatively near to home.
Over the years we have been spoiled, with the world just a flight away. Usually, we would go abroad and try to discover new places and meet new people. Yet all this was turned on its head last summer as we were forced to look nearer to home. After much thought, we went to a place in Normandy where we had been at least a score of times over the years (being not far from home) and where we would meet as few people as possible.
So it was that we settled on the Cotentin peninsula and, more precisely le Cap de la Hague, a headland facing the British Channel Island of Alderney. Strangely, this area is nicknamed little Ireland. Of course the question of “which camera should I take” arose. I decided for the first time to take only one camera and no back-up— just my Leica X2. I thought it would be the perfect tool to photograph that particular area of coastline.
La Roche and Goury
The hamlet of La Roche where we stayed was just a stone’s throw away from Goury, the most westerly harbour of the peninsula. It is a pleasant walk that leads you to the harbour with its dry-stone walls and vegetable-gardens that line the sea. Goury is famous for its lighthouse and its double-lifeboat ramp but also for one of the strongest European ocean currents, Le Raz Blanchard. On the dry-stone wall, you can notice a protruding slab of granite which is dug into its centre to allow a wooden gate to fit in.
The city has always been a key-defence point since the tenth century when a stronghold was first built. Later, King Louis XVI started the construction (completed by Emperor Napoleon) of what was to become the second-largest artificial harbour in the world.
In 1912 Cherbourg, was a stop-over for the Titanic before sailing to Cobh in Ireland on what was to be the start of its last journey. In 1944 on D-Day, the battle for Cherbourg started as early as the first morning of June 6. The town was liberated but almost totally destroyed by the beginning of July 1944. On a Sunday, fishermen usually prepare for a fishing campaign on their trawlers and leave for about a month. Cherbourg is also the town where the 1964 film “les parapluies de Cherbourg” was shot.
The coast south of Goury
A coastal path going south as far as Le Mont-Saint-Michel (St Michael’s Mount) passes through Goury and the beach in “La Baie d’Ecalgrain”, rising up to the headland of “Le Nez de Jobourg.”
This cliff walk is very popular and is probably one of the most beautiful in the area. But this particular stretch of coastline is quite treacherous, with millions of reefs hidden underwater, and this makes sailing in those waters particularly dangerous.
The local people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries took advantage of that particular seabed in a most unkind way. Before the lighthouse was built in Goury, they would light fires on the cliffs to entice merchant ships. The ships would wreck on the reefs. The locals just had to wait for the merchandise to be washed ashore. Later they would hide their loot in caves under the headland.
Racine is known as the smallest harbour in France. The place was first populated in Neanderthal times, and It is one of the highlights of the area. It hosts a fleet of small boats that mainly target lobsters, crabs and creels. The harbour itself is quite picturesque, and it is always a pleasure to watch people going or coming back from fishing.
The small harbour of Barfleur lies some 30 miles from Goury and is situated at the eastern tip of the Cotentin peninsula. The name Barbefloth dates back to 1066. The “fleur” comes from the Old English “fleod”, meaning incoming tide, and is still used in English—the flood tide. Bar is an abbreviation of Barbay or Barbey—the bearded one.
In the Middle Ages, Geoffrey de Monmouth mentioned the city of Barfleur in his “Historia Regum Britanniae”. And, according to legend, King Arthur left from Barfleur to fight against the Romans. In 1066 William the Conqueror sailed to Pevensey, East Sussex, from Barfleur with sailors and captains from Barfleur and later conquered England, becoming William I.
A commemorative medallion was set into a stone 900 years later to commemorate William’s crossing. Later in the Middle Ages, Barfleur was destroyed by the English during the Hundred Years’ War.
Today Barfleur remains one of the few important tidal harbours. Fishers leave and disembark their catch when the tide is high, and the quays are always busy, with boats preparing to sail out to sea or moving in to discourage their bounty.
The city was known as “Sabco Vedasto” in the twelfth century. The term La Hougue was added later on. It comes from the Old Scandinavian term “haugr”, meaning a promontory overlooking the harbour. In 1346, the English kind Edward III landed in Saint-Vaast with 20,000 men at the start of the Crécy campaign which culminated in the acquisition of Calais.
Calais remained a part of England until 1558 during the reign of Queen Mary. Hearing of its loss, she is said to have declaimed, “when I am dead and opened, you shall find Calais lying in my heart.”
The city is also known for the battle of La Hougue between the French and English fleets in 1692 where the English fleet, under Admiral Edward Russell, first Earl of Oxford, destroyed several French ships which had been beached near the city.
During the Second World War, Saint-Vaast was the first harbour in Normandy to be liberated by the allied forces on June 21. Today, Saint-Vaast is famous for its oyster farms, which can be seen at low tide, and the fishing harbour and shipyard.
There is always something happening on the seafront. Opposite the city, the tiny island of Tatihou was originally a leper or quarantine colony. Early in the 20th century, the buildings were turned into a detention centre for young offenders. Today it’s a nature reserve that can be reached at low tide by foot or by an amphibian vehicle at high tide.
The little Leica X2 exceeded my expectations. I had no backup camera, but I did not miss the wider 28 mm lens of my regular companion, the Ricoh GR. The X2 proved a wonderful tool, with accurate colours that needed little or no post-processing.