Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Alabaster Coast

I knew about this area, but I'd never fully Googled it until today: in Normandy, to the east of Le Havre, there's an 80-mile stretch of coastline called La Côte d'Albâtre (the Albaster Coast), which is the coastal margin of the chalk plateau called Pays de Caux.  The Alabaster Coast is where the familar chalk of English geology continues on the other side of the Channel, and the result is a strikingly similar coast (both in scenery and pattern of settlement) to that of parts of southern England I especially like. I find it fascinating and even a little disturbing: there's a strange 'parallel world' sensation in seeing a landscape so familiar in its features, yet completely unknown.

See Normandy's White Cliffs (Thirza Valloi, France Today, May 20, 2010) for a general description, then check out the cliffs of Étretat (with their natural arches so like Durdle Door in Dorset); the village of Les Petites-Dalles (so like Beer or Freshwater); and the striking coastline at Varengeville-sur-Mer with its scary example of a "valleuse" - another picture here - one of its deeply-cut coastal ravines highly akin to the chines of the Isle of Wight, Dorset and East Devon.

The Alabaster Coast's scenery and handiness for Paris attracted a number of French Impressionist artists such as Renoir, Monet and Courbet, but its semi-Englishness had made it a popular destination for 19th century English visitors even before that, as decribed in Brits Abroad (Julian Barnes, The Guardian, 18 October 2008). Barnes mentions the bizarre encounter between Guy de Maupassant and Algernon Swinburne, when the former had been involved (probably peripherally) in saving the latter from drowning at Étretat. Barnes adds that the now-famous story - The Englishman of Etretat - involving insane paintings, a flayed hand, a monkey, and a violent servant driven from the house at revolver-point, was most likely embroidered by de Maupassant:

Maupassant had had seven years to work up the story, and that it was being both told, and written down, by a fiction writer. At other times he ended the story differently.

Maupassant grew up in the area, and some of his stories and novels feature the landscape, such as the 1882 Le Saut du Berger (The Shepherd's Leap), which tells of a repressed priest who pushes a shepherd's hut over a cliff because he is infuriated by seeing a young couple embracing inside.

From Dieppe to Le Havre the coast presents an uninterrupted cliff, about a hundred metres high and straight as a wall. Here and there that great line of white rocks drops sharply and a little, narrow valley, with steep slopes, shaved turf and maritime rushes, comes down from the cultivated plateau towards a beach of shingle where it ends with a ravine like the bed of a torrent. Nature has made these valleys; the rains of storms have ended with them in the shape of these ravines, trimming what was left of the cliff, excavating down to the sea, the bed of waters which acts as a passage for mankind. Sometimes, a village is snuggled into these valleys, where the wind of the open sea is devoured.
- Le saut du berger 1882

- Ray

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