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9 Dec 2008

Normandy beaches

Contrary to the Hollywood version the D-Day landings took place (almost) simultaneously on five different beaches, code named Sword (British), Juno (Canadian), Gold (British), Utah (US) and Omaha US), and involved all the western allies; US soldiers were a minority. For those who want to understand that extraordinary event, you must visit the Caen Memorial Museum, exit 7 on the Caen peripherique (ring road), which includes archive film from both sides. This is a museum dedicated to peace not war, and also shows a great deal of very moving information about the Occupation and the effect on civilian life in France, rather than the usual boys' toys and violence.

However, this post is not about those beaches along the northern coast, but rather those further south in Normandy, and as they now are. All along the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula, as far as Avranches, are some splendid, sandy beaches that are little known. The picture is of St Martin de Brehal. Part of that is because of their history, as well as their location. When the railways came to Granville and the region, a whole series of little holiday villages developed. This was because it had become possible for the Parisian middle class families to send the wives and children to the coast for the summer, with the men joining them for August.

The beaches were ideal, because being part of the shallow Bay of Mont St Michel, they shelved gently, were very sandy and safe for children. The holiday villages grew up because the villages after which they are named are actually almost all a couple of miles from the sea. Places such as Breville-sur-Mer or Lingreville-sur-Mer are not sur mer. The sea retreated several hundred years ago, leaving exposed land that has been turned into excellent market gardens. Especially good for leeks and root vegetables such as carrots. But the villages were too far from the sea for small children, maids and mothers to walk every day, in both directions. So, all sorts of little cottages, chalets, bungalows and, occasionally, fairly grand houses, were built beside the sea. Many were rented.

If one visits, say St Martin de Brehal, today, many of the properties directly facing the sea are being renovated and extended, and there are many newer developments, including apartments, being constructed. In summer most of the beaches have life guards.

Apart from miles of sand, many of the beaches are also used for farming mussels, oysters and other seafood. Mussels are grown on ropes of coconut fibre (it doesn't rot in sea water) and where there is a mussel farm, at low tide the poles with their ropes are exposed, and tractors and trailers drive across the beach to maintain and harvest them. These mussels are moules de bouchot – highly prized, plump little fellows, and now have their own AOC, like wines and cheeses.

At the solstices, when there are extreme high and low tides, there is a phenomenon known as the peche a pied – fishing on foot. The tide goes out an enormous distance, exposing rock pools etc that are never normally seen. Thousands of people arrive, with rakes, shovels, buckets and other equipment, in search of wild shellfish, crabs etc. And I do mean thousands – more people at the December low tide on the beach than at the height of summer.

All year round, splendid walks and sights.

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