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August 3, 2010

A One-Bell Symphony

by soundlandscapes

It’s August, the height of the holiday season and here in France most people are as usual taking advantage of it. In my neck of the woods here in Neuilly-sur-Seine every day at the moment is as quiet as a Sunday. There are two butchers’ shops in my little street and both are closed for the duration as is the greengrocer, the cheese shop, the antiques shop and the kitchen shop. It will remain that way until la rentrée at the end of the month when everyone comes back and life returns to normal.

Not everyone deserts Paris in the summer of course. Some of us prefer to take our breaks at other, less busy times of the year. Some time ago, I had a Spring break in Normandy in the gorgeous old port of Honfleur.

Situated in the département of Calvados on the southern bank of the Seine estuary across from le Havre, Honfleur is especially known for its old, beautiful, picturesque port, its houses with slate-covered frontages and the artists who spent time there including Gustave Courbet, Eugène Boudin, Claude Monet and Johan Jongkind who formed the école de Honfleur (Honfleur school) which contributed to the Impressionist movement.

For me, the most distinctive feature of Honfleur is the unique St Catherine’s church, unique because it is the largest wooden church in France and it has a bell-tower which is situated some distance away separate from the body of the Church.

The church is also unusual because it has two naves. The first is the oldest part of the building, dating to the second half of the 15th century, constructed immediately after the Hundred Years War. It was built on the model of a market hall, using naval construction techniques, which gives the impression of an upside-down ship’s hull. The bell-tower was built a good distance away so that parishioners wouldn’t be burnt in case of a fire. Indeed, the bell-tower did draw lightning strikes due to its height and its position on the side of a hill. In the 16th century, a second nave was added whose vault was like the wooden vaults of modest Gothic churches. The famous “axe masters” of the naval yards created this building without using any saws just like their Norman ancestors and like the Vikings before them.

When I was in Honfleur I happened upon St Catherine’s church for the first time at the end of a morning walk. I spent an hour or so in the church looking around and then came out just as the midday chimes were peeling out from the bell tower. This was followed by what I can only describe as a one-bell symphony, one bell sounding out but varying in volume and colour. I recorded it standing in a very narrow street behind the bell tower and this is what it sounded like.

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