The Resorts in the days of Sea-bathing
Cayeux sur Mer
The beach was the main gathering place in the resort. A tourist guide from 1895 states that: In the afternoon, the swimmers usually congregate in their huts, aligned side by side on the shingle, along the long boardwalk ; women work, men read or play cards or dominoes, children frolic – a gentle family life, simple and homely, devoid of etiquette, but very monotonous.
One of the entertainments for bathers consisted in watching the vessels bound for Saint-Valery, waiting at anchor for the harbor pilot to arrive. Le Hourdel harbour was also a place to visit.
Guides also refer to fishing for clams and shrimps, to games of tennis and croquet on the sandy beach at low tide.
In the 1910s, flying festivals began to develop, with demonstrations by the Caudron brothers, who flew from Le Crotoy, landing on the beach at Cayeux. This was also the period when the “aéroplage”, the ancestor of the sand yacht, began to generate interest. Children had models of such machines and raced them on the beach.
Between the wars, Cayeux-sur-Mer advertised its 14km (9 mile) long sandy beach at low tide (1929 guide). The guides even boasted that it mostly rained at night, and that the wind cleared the atmosphere. This wind, however, was not recommended to people suffering from tuberculosis, ensuring that bathers need fear no contamination on the plage de santé (“healthy beach”) as it was called.
People patronizing the resort benefitted from the enthusiasm of Parisians, who were the most active builders of residential villas – this was the case in all the Picardy coast resorts.
The beach huts, located at the top of the shingle embankment, were served by a boardwalk which ran parallel to the sea.
At the end of the 19th century, there still used to be a beach along the present-day rue du Général-Leclerc and route Blanche. It was known as “Bois d’Amont”. Gradually invaded by shingle, it began silting up during the 1910s, with the coastline receding. As a result, the lighthouse now stands further inland. In the same period, observing the success of Cayeux, a group of London investors undertook to develop “Bois d’Amont”, re-naming it “Nouveau Brighton” (“New Brighton”), a reference to the famous British resort.
Brighton’s major asset was its pinewood: in the late 19th century, it hadn’t yet become fashionable to seek exposure to the sun. On the contrary, swimmers sought out the shade, with women hiding under parasols and veils. The presence of a wood was a welcome feature, especially as it was the only one on this windswept coastline. The medicinal virtues of this wood were extolled: its balsamic fragrances, combined with the iodine-laced wind, were seen as a compelling strength. To the extent that promoters of the resort named it the “Arcachon of the North”.
Speculators were relying on the railway (which reached Cayeux in 1887) to serve Brighton, somewhere in the vicinity of the pinewood. In 1890, a request was made to the town council to build a 2 foot gauge line from Cayeux station to Brighton.
A hotel-cum-casino was soon built to accommodate and entertain the first visitors. Starting in 1898, the Company was allowed to place beach huts on public land. Villas were quickly built. However, the site became gradually less attractive. With the coastline receding, access to the sea became increasingly awkward between the wars. In 1917,a violent storm flooded most of the area located closest to the sea. In the same way, the silting up of the area saw sand increasingly invading the streets and hampering access to the villas. WWII was a major trauma for the resort. 3600 trees were cut down by the German troops and used either as firewood or for military construction, while many villas were destroyed. On 31st August 1944, the lighthouse was blown up (it was rebuilt in September 1951).
The village of Le Crotoy was originally a walled stronghold. The parish church was rebuilt in 1865, but retains its 12th century steeple [fig. 7 and 8]. A second church, of which nothing remains, used to be located among the sand dunes of what is now known as the Aviation district (Saint-Peter’s church). A number of windmills were built along the beach, outside the town, to take advantage of westerly winds. None of them have survived. For several centuries, the village remained confined within the walls. It was only when sea-bathing became fashionable that the town began to spread beyond the walls, along the Somme Bay.
As early as 1846, one year before the opening of the Amiens-Boulogne railway line, Guerlain was granted a concession on municipal land, for building a bathing establishment (where today’s Résidence Pierre & Vacances is located). A dispute with the architect, then a financial crisis in 1847, combined with the February 1848 political crisis, obliged the Parisian perfume maker to postpone the project. Having bought land that had a better location, Guerlain decided to build on it. A few years earlier, Jean-Baptiste Fanthomme had built the first hot and cold bathing establishment, under “Windmill Rise”, at the foot of the walls. This was nothing more than a smal wooden structure. In 1857, a third bathing establishment was created by Simon Benoît. Le Crotoy beach, facing south, was a very attractive location. The opening of the railway to Le Crotoy, in 1887, led to the town extending northwards. The village became a seaside resort thanks to a seasonal activity that expanded continuously throughout the first half of the 20th century. Customers were attracted by the south-facing beach, adverized as being the only one in Northern France. In the late 19th century and early 20th, swimming in the sea and resting on the beach were the most popular activities with holiday-makers. Walking was also part of the daily programme: hikes to the fishermen’s cabins, located by the seaside at Saint-Quentin-en-Tourmont, or to Windmill Rise with its fine panorama, provided the opportunity to enjoy a picturesque atmosphere, while children rode donkeys. Menfolk also enjoyed shooting duck and seals in the Bay.
Former municipal casino at Le Crotoy, known as Eden Casino
The casino, postcard, 1st quarter 20th century (private coll.).
Saint-Valery-sur-Somme boasts a rich ancient architectural heritage, much of which remains. Around 1756, the Cassini map shows two distinct communities: Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, enclosed within walls, and La Ferté, around the harbour. The boatyards being located near the present-day railway station, this area became known as 'Chantier' (‘work yard’). Roperies, previously located on the heights of La Ferté, bore witness to the importance of the maritime activity. On the quayside stood a salt warehouse, built around 1734-1737. Each district had its place of worship: the Saint-Martin parish church was built behind the walls of the fortified town (‘Ville Haute’), the fishermen’s district had a chapel dedicated to Saint Peter, built on higher ground, while a sailors’ chapel was built near Cap Hornu. A defensive fort founded in the 9th century was located at the South-West corner of the walled city.
A hospital was also built outside the city walls, between the Ville Haute and the Romerel district.
On the Place des Pilotes, a commercial tribunal was built in 1870 by Louis Daullé. The town also features old dwellings, both in the walled city and in La Ferté. Fishermens’ houses can be found in the Courtgain district, and more stately homes along Quai Perrée. With the advent of sea-bathing, the town underwent a functional and structural evolution. From the 1830s, a cross-Channel service carried goods and a few passengers: a company was created to link London to Abbeville via Saint-Valery, using the steamship “Eclipse”. Furthermore, from 1847, passengers travelling from Paris to Boulogne by rail could stop at Noyelles-sur-Mer. In those days, shooting waterfowl in the Bay attracted many people, who also began enjoying another fashionable pastime, the pleasures of the beach. Local bathing establishments were created from the early 1850s, at the foot of the city walls: known as the ‘city baths’, they were adjudicated in 1854 by the town council, with the requirement that the Harold Tower be fitted out as a lounge for bathers. In 1857, a second site was put into service on the other side of the harbour: the ‘baths of La Ferté'. This sea-related activity increased when the railway reached Saint-Valery-sur-Somme in 1858, as it meant that Parisian passengers could travel directly from the French capital. A tourist-related economy began to develop, which provided a complementary activity for local inhabitants. The city grew along the Somme Bay. Hotels were built for travellers in former dwellings, at the foot of the city walls, and a few residential houses were erected along the Bay, in the Romerel district. A municipal casino was built on the same promenade, to entertain tourists. Besides bathing, the latter were attracted by the medieval atmosphere of the walled city. Among the most sought-after pastimes were excursions on foot or by boat: the tug 'Le Picardie', whose main task was to see ships safely in and out of the harbour, doubled as an excursion vessel for tourists.
The ‘Ville-Basse’ district at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme
The harbour, photograph by Henri-Emile Chevalier, 4th quarter 19th century