The Lion’s Cub Gateway portal opened and Annie, my French and I decided to don our masks for a short bus ride to Honfleur to visit the old port town one the other side of the river Seine estuary. Little did we know what trial by fire we were about to embark upon.
The 8th of the 8th dawned and the sun rose promising a day of 35C searing heat, so we thought it was time to get out of Le Havre for the day and cross the wonderful Point Normandie double arching bridge, over the Seine to visit the old port town of Honfleur. This was the major seaport here before it silted up and Le Havre de Grace was founded as the new seaport.
It was just 20 minutes away and we thought that was about as long as we could manage wearing our masks for. Fate, had another idea and so began the first of two trials. Our Trial by Fire.
The short bus ride turned into a journey into hell and back. Sitting on the very packed bus, that wasn’t observing the one metre social distancing rule by any standards we journeyed out of Le Havre towards the magnificent modern bridge. Just as we began to approach the duel carriageway that leads to the elegant sweeping double arches that form the splendid river crossing, we hit a traffic jam.
One side of the second bridge was entirely shut and empty and so massive tailbacks were forming. Nothing was moving especially the air and the heat was building. Breathing hot damp air through face masks is so unpleasant and began to trigger a panic in most of the passengers. There was also no air conditioning and we were trapped inside a bus, with vast glass windows and there was nowhere to go and nothing we could do to find a wisp of pure air with any oxygen in.
This nightmare lasted 90 minutes with our insides being cooked and our bodies running with sweat like Niagara Falls. We all looked like we had been hosed down in our seats with warm bathwater. I thought my body was going to slip into a convulsion of heat exhaustion. It was unbelievable. We arrived in Honfleur saturated and barely able to stand up. Cooling off seemed impossible even with fresh outdoor air. This heat had been roasted into our bones and every internal organ was screaming in pain.
The joy then of discovering an open air Laverie, where the washerwomen of the past worked to clean the sheets and clothes, that was fed by an icy underground spring was beyond pleasure and our first stopping point.
This cool pool though while very welcome, was so icy that after 30 seconds the freezing temperature of the water stung the skin and seared into the shinbones. We were forced to keep dipping, walking around and returning every 20 minutes. I kept thinking about women having to dip their hands into this icy spring in the winter to wash clothes and the harsh frozen biting pains they suffered.
The wooden roof surrounding it was so that during rain the clothes and sheets could be hung up to dry. The English word ‘launder’ comes from the French verb ‘laver’, to wash. The French word itself comes from the old summer habit of placing sheets over lavender bushes to dry in the sun while being perfumed by the flower heads of the bushes.
This Laverie was outside the church of St. Leonards. I lived in St. Leonards-on-Sea in the UK for many years and in the oldest part there was an area known as Lavatoria. For many obvious reasons this name has faded away as nobody wants to live in an area that sounds like a toilet.
In the heart of the old Honfleur there are early terraced skyscrapers of several stories high. It was due to the silting up of this port that protected it from the bombings of 1944 that devastated the old town of Le Havre. These magnificent buildings now form part of the eating and restaurant quarter of the town. It was rammed with people sitting and eating an socialising but very much like London the energy was one of manic greed and not belonging to the people who lived there but instead the hoards of faceless visitors crushing and rushing around to snap up all they could as they passed through the town. There were so many tourists, ourselves included, that police were forcing everyone to wear their face masks outdoors here. After the bus roasting this seem very harsh on us so we didn’t stay long in that area. We needed air to cool down our lungs.
Also in the centre of the old town is France’s largest wooden church, St. Catherine’s. Built by shipwrights in the 15th century to replace a stone church that was destroyed during the 100 years war, it is covered in chestnut wood shingles. Now I’ve always loved a chestnut as my birthday visit to an Italian chestnut festival clearly demonstrates.
The bell tower of the church is separated from the main structure and is sighted opposite the main doors to the church. Like something in a clearing of a deep dark forest where something sinister happened centuries ago. that nobody mentions any longer!
The interior of the church was not something I could imagine at all, having only every been in stone churches. I was so surprised, not just by the size but also the acoustic, dubbed warmth and stillness of the inside. The interior seemed to breathe and sigh comfort and contented peace.
The organ loft, like in most European churches, added later in the 18th century but was nonetheless a beautiful and sympathetic addition to the structure though rather asymmetrical and full of dull metal. Organs were installed to allow the church to pay the wage of a single organist rather than the many salaries of the old church ensembles.
I was excited to see this wooden church as St. Paul’s cathedral in London had also been a wooden structure before the Great Fire of London destroyed it in 1666. There’s that fire again and worth a side note that the physical fire in London brought an end to the Black Plague that ravaged the city. Is the internal cooking of the body going to end the current plague that is devastating life? Who can say? St. Paul’s however went from wood to stone unlike St. Catherine’s that went from stone to wood.
Eventually we managed to book seats on a bus that was naturally running late, to plunge us back into the vehicular inferno and return us to Le Have. The fires though within, didn’t leave our bodies for days. I felt like a kebab on a spit that had been roasted for too long and dried out entirely.
Drinking water to remain hydrated, “Hello Hannah Spanner”, was not easy either. My inside were converting all liquid into fresh sweat. Still it opened up an opportunity to create two readings about the experience. The first here, the Trial by Fire. You can see the exhaustion etched into my entire being in this deeply personal reading.
The next day we decide that we would absolutely stay inside the boundaries of the Le Havre arrondissement (district) with no hot hellish buses. We had the foresight to jumped on the tram the night before, from the bus station to the flat at La Place and were so grateful for the air conditioning. We therefore thought it might be magical to take the tram to the end of the line to a place called Pré Fleuri, the flower meadows and walk along the river Lézarde to the pretty picturesque medieval town of Harfleur.
Oh how we had conjured up the wrong image in our heads on that little journey too. After passing through a dark tunnel we emerged in a place called Frileuse which Annie told me meant a place of chills or frosty! As the tram slowly climbed the outskirts of Le Havre, the cosy honey coloured houses turned into vast towering council estates where all ‘Les Miserables’ were seemingly housed. The air turned still and the energies darkened but there was no orchestra striking up the overture. We reached the terminus and didn’t want to get off. We wanted the curtains to close after the final bows and then head straight home.
The energy of depression hung heavy and we began strolling towards Harfleur. We weren’t just sensing the criminality everywhere it was visible. When people have no yellow brink road, through absence of sympathetic social policy making, then drugs and violence bloom. Not the pretty meadows but the shitty shadows of the dispossessed. You could taste the violence of living on the fringes of life, with little to feel hopeful about and then, wham, there it was before our eyes. Fresh human blood strewn across the pavement. We quickened our pace, tout suite.
Before Honfleur became the seaport of the Seine estuary, there was Harfleur. This was part of the territories of William the Conqueror who set sail and took England as his own in 1066. The western half of modern France remained fiercely independent of the eastern half, that was under the control of the Holy Roman Emperor. Harfleur was for six centuries the principal seaport of France and therefore the focus of many power struggles and sieges.
In Roman times the town was known as Caracotinum the main port of the Calates. Several Merovingian sarcophagi have been found at the foot of Mount Cabert. So this place has a very long arm of history and trauma attached to it. The modern suffix ‘fleur’ comes from Old Norse Flöthe meaning the arm of a river into the sea. Herosfloth was a Norman corruption of that name. In 1202 King John of England granted the town a charter. Yes that King John, of the famous Magna Carter.
Walking the streets we were both struck by the stench of sewage. It seemed somehow not real though, more like a feint memory across time. There was an odour of disease all around and even though the beauty of the place was taking our breath away, the mystery stench was making us grateful for having the option to don a face mask. Spirit was bringing up the memory of the famous Siege of Harfleur which we learnt later.
Henry V of England recaptured the town during the battle of Agincourt with Sir John Fastolf of Norfolk claiming to be the first man ashore to reclaim the town. This siege lasted a long time due to the outbreak of dysentery, which we seemed to be sensing in the miasma still.
The river eventually silted up and now seems only a few inches deep. Sadly the pretty town was soon starved of its commerce. The council estates of Pré Fleuri and the old frequencies of the peasants and their endless abuse at the hands of the wealthy land owners still chimes through today. I recorded the bells of the church of St. Martin built is an almost dizzying greed of gothic splendour only to find that when i play it back my iPhone switches to headphones mode and is silenced. As then, as now the poor are controlled with an iron rod.
The town became poorer and poorer over the successive centuries and the ‘land owning’ family in the 18th century built this Chateau and lake- filled gardens. The quirky french inheritance law gives all children equal shares in land and property and so now that chateau has become the town hall. The gardens have been lost too as the many ring roads and highways needed keep traffic and haulage flowing to and from the ports of Le Havre have now enclose Harfleur inside a concrete wall of thorns, where inside the pretty village sleeps forever cursed to wait for a prince to wake it back up. But he ain’t coming anytime soon. So there Harfleur remains in an energetic time capsule sealed away
. All except for cars that is. This is a tiny town and everything is within walking distance and yet the entire town seemed to be in their cars driving to the bakeries to buy their Sunday croissants, the crazy petrol heads. The pervading smell here now is of pollution.
Unwilling to venture back to Pré Fleuri we tried to catch a train but there wasn’t another one for two hours. Bit like the buses to Honfleur that were every few hours, it’s like Le Havre is a big trap that you can’t leave. Well not easily as it carries a secret curse from 1944. We were advised to wait for a bus, which we didn’t like the sound of. Not again!. This too was complicated as we had to stand in the blazing sunshine and we had no water left. Being Sunday too, shops were shut and the wait was almost interminable. After a very very very long wait we finally boarded another hot bus and it shot off at break neck speed taking us straight back to the scene of the bloody crime we escaped earlier. Ha. Thanks spirit.
The fires inside me were carbonising every molecule in my body and it felt like my DNA was restructuring and I needed to release the heat so very badly. So straight after that ‘Trial by Fire’ reading I walked to the sea and stripped-off and plunged in. Ah the bliss of the release was so amazing. I was healed by the magical frequencies of salty water and I returned, refreshed, to record my ‘Trial by Water’. Not knowing where this was heading until I was in up to my neck!
Pick a Fleur
So here we go again. It’s time to Pick a Fleur and see what’s hidden in it’s perfume that’s exuding from the essence of your soul. Saucy smells, I know. but there’s an energetic fragrance behind everything as the tales above stand testimony to.