My Little French Obsession

Don’t worry, it’s not a dark and terrible secret! And I don’t think it could end up taking over my life! Although, having said that, stranger things have happened!

Since the very first time I came here, I have been very taken with a little building, present in most French villages and towns – The Lavoir. As you enter any village you will almost always see a little brown sign indicating their direction.

It can be worth a detour, as some lavoirs are very beautiful, and there are villages that take great pride in their upkeep, turning them into an architectural feature.

A lavoir is basically an outdoor washhouse. There was a great movement in France towards hygiene around the 1800’s. It was considered a good way to keep contagious diseases at bay and household laundry was at the frontline so to speak. Lavoirs started to spring up around France and there was even a parliament vote in 1851 that agreed to grant funds to each village, to construct or improve a lavoir facility.

Lavoirs are usually situated close to a water source and here in Burgundy we are spoilt for them! Northern Burgundy sits on a limestone plateau, so there are sources literally popping up everywhere. Some villages even had two lavoirs. One for the public and one for the gentry or bourgeois. Grand houses or Chateaux would have had their own private lavoir. No sense in airing dirty linen in public now is there! Let alone actually run the risk of mixing undergarments with the lower classes!

Lavoirs are usually roofed, thus providing shelter for the women, who would transport their linens from their homes in a wheelbarrow. The roof would have been a kind comfort in the drudgery of handwashing in freezing waters. Usually the first and second wash would have been done at home, and then the lavoir provided the clean, fresh water for a final rinse.

Some lavoirs have a little fireplace in the corner. I always presumed this was a heat source for cold days, but apparently it was to provide wood-ash which was used for bleaching and deep cleaning.

I have become fascinted with the lavoirs of France. I remember my mother telling me stories of steeping the lint (flax) in the river where she grew up. I always imagined the fibres streeling and flowing with the current and then laid out on the grass to bleach in the sunlight. In a similar way I can imagine the water careering through the clothes and then the sound of the water being slapped out before the laundry was thrown across the huge beams to drip-dry.

Us modern gals don’t really understand the hardship involved in some of the everyday chores that just had to be done, so it’s easy to have a slightly romantic notion of it all, although I can imagine that even if the work was pure toil (and probably painful), I’m sure the lavoir was also a scene of conviviality. Men weren’t allowed there and religion was not to be spoken of. I’m sure this opened the floor to some pretty juicy topics of conversation!

Mon homme knows, as soon as we’re somewhere new, it’s a given that we have to take that detour! One of the most impressive lavoirs I’ve seen is the Fosse de Dionne in Tonnerre (the Yonne department). This one was constructed in 1758. Before that, it had been used as a source of water dating back to Gallo-roman times. This source is so deeply situated in a Karst labyrinth that apparently speleologists and cavers have lost their lives trying to reach the actual end of it.

We were out for a spin on Sunday. Spring has sprung and the sun was shining. We decided to take a few backroads and see where they led us. We ended up arriving into the back end of a village that didn’t look remotely familiar. There it was of course – the little brown signpost indicating the lavoir, so off we went. It was a funny little village with not one, but two public lavoirs.

The older lavoir was right in the middle of the village and a very beautiful design incorporating water-troughs for animals. The little stream ran down through it before going underground again and then feeding the newer, more “modern” lavoir, which was built as the older one was becoming a little rough around the edges! The newer one even had a toilet! Stone “hole in the ground”! The water then carreered it’s way further into a beautiful little walled pond in the field just behind it. There were hens and ducks in the field and I thought to myself “fancy digs indeed!”

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I had gotten my lavoir fix of the day and as we drove around to the front of the village and hit the main road, we realised that we had passed this village a million times, and never actually gone into it. You think you know a place -eh?

We drove on a little bit to a very pretty hilltop village called Thizy. This village is perched on a hill. It’s tiny but has some fabulous houses and buildings, including a chateau (nonetheless).

It being a Sunday, the village was deathly quiet. Just us strolling through. Our little one and Charlie the dog making probably more noise than the villagers had heard all week. We came upon a gorgeous stonemason’s studio (closed on a Sunday – of course) but there were still some examples of his work lying around outside. This beautiful little spiral feature at the end of a watercourse looked like exactly the kind of squiggly thing I’d love in my garden!

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Leading away from the village we found a path heading towards the woods. Lo and behold, nestled away from everything in a little clearing was another glorious lavoir. This village seemed to take great pleasure in this space as an amenity. Picnic table, benches, little features here and there. The same type of stone spiral was fed by the water and our dog went crazy for it. He kept turning around and around, trying to make sense of it. I don’t know if the same stonemason carved it, or was simply inspired by it. Some day I’ll go back and try to find out!

This was truly a place of tranquility and calm. Even the Celtic goddess Epona was here. She is a goddess of abundance and fertility. She is also the goddess of horses, mules and donkeys funnily enough. I thought it ironic that as I was looking at her depiction there was a donkey braying in the backround!

Happy Spring everyone!

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Feel free to comment…
  • Tarley Farley
    March 11, 2015, 6:15

    Hi Carmy, loved this one. I think I know more about France then I do about Sligo these days. Must catch up soon. Love to ye all.
    Fran C

    • March 12, 2015, 9:16

      That’s only because I keep going on and on about France!!! Love to you all too. x

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