My Travel Book in Brittany - "Les Forges des Salles" (The Salles Ironworks) - Part I

This summer has been very strange. Not very summery, I’d say. Instead of complaining all the time, we tried to make the best of it... Well, to tell the truth, we did complain a lot because what’s a summer without a lot of boating and some sunny weather...

But this very windy and rainy and chilly summer opened new horizons for us. We started to travel around Brittany because besides boating and coastlines and islands and harbors, we had occasionally driven through this beautiful place without taking the time to really enjoy and discover its huge multiplicity.

I love Brittany. I am totally satisfied with our choice of second home. So is Popeye and this is great!

Talking about Popeye... He is a sailor and a mole-catcher. But first and foremost, he is a foundry man.

Foundries are linked to the Industrial Revolution, such a major turning point in our western civilization circa the beginning of the XIXth century. From traditional and small scale manufacturing to modern technologies allowing mass production.

Popeye knows a lot of things about foundries all over the world but he was very surprised to learn that the first (quite industrial) foundry was created in Brittany as early as 1623, that its smelting furnace was put out in 1878 and that the whole foundry had been preserved and put on the historical register in 1980.


Why Brittany? Maybe because there was a real need of farming machinery. More than likely because there were lots of shipyards around. Pulleys and special nails, etc. were sorely needed. It probably was less expensive to produce them close to the shipyards.

At the time, the iron industry needed several essentials.

Mineral resources (iron ore). A forest (charcoal needed as fuel for the furnace). Plenty of water (for the paddle wheel operating the bellows). And limestone (for the furnace).

All those essentials could be found within a 10-km radius on an estate that belonged to a very famous noble family, the Rohans. Hence the creation of the first foundry in Brittany (and France).

The “Forges des Salles” are in central Brittany, some 50 kms away from our place (in Northern Brittany, on the seaside).

I forgot to mention in my previous post about Brittany that in between Northern and Southern Brittany, both maritime and agricultural areas, there is Central Brittany, “far from the seaside” but packed with farms, rivers and lakes and forests.

(Brittany is quite small. From its northernmost point to the southernmost place, count 150 kms. From its western coast to its eastern border, 230 kms.)

Small size but incredible variety. So many treasures and so much beauty everywhere. Ok, ok. I L-O-V-E Brittany!

Back to the “Fonderies des Salles”. And let’s start the visit... When you get there, you can ask for a guided tour. We do not like guided tours and anyway there was none available because there were too few visitors...

So just fine. No guided tour and the “Forges” all to ourselves! Almost!

We walked around and it was very enjoyable and I’ll say, quite a sobering reminder of olden times, quite harsh for the rank and file, whether from farming or industrialized communities.

It is obvious as soon as you get to the gate.

Small buildings and a handsome XVIIth century country house. The working class dwellings and the lodgings of the “iron masters” (the Rohans) who by the way never lived there. And their gardens and orangery. 

What you don’t see on the picture: lots of small houses I will take you to later, the smelting furnace plus several buildings used to store the charcoal and the iron ore that are behind the first row of houses called “La rangée” (The row, of course!)

The visit starts from the back of the "Row". In the background, the storage buildings.

One-room dwellings (plus two very small sheds in the back and one hayloft "upstairs"). Beaten-earth floor and fireplace for cooking and heating. Darkness since the only light comes from the panes in the top part of the door. And the inescapable fact... everything belonged to the Iron Master. The workers were not really slaves but they were living in some sort of serfdom.

This feeling was so oppressive that we did feel upset throughout the visit. 
Workers died quite young from consumption (so said the documentary film we watched prior to the visit) and the noise and the heat and the humidity were rather unbearable.

On your way to the furnace, you walk below a footbridge that used to link up the warehouses and the furnace.

Charcoal produced in the forest was hoarded in the first warehouse while the second and much smaller storehouse was used to protect the iron ore extracted in the area and the limestone.

In front of the warehouses, the tipper that was used to load the furnace from its throat (the upper part). The furnace was 12 meters deep. And the heat was awesome - 1536°C (2796°F). One has to remember that the men in charge worked unprotected.
Cut back to your left. There you’ll get to the “cantine” area. There is a rather imposing oven shared by the women. And a grocery store (bare necessities if I may say so) doubling as a café and a canteen mainly used by the gamekeepers and the  foresters.
The canteen was also the place where people met whenever a peddler would come through this rather forsaken place.

And finally the workshop of the blacksmiths who were very busy shoeing all the draft horses around and fixing everything that needed to be mended.

You probably need to get your breath back... I do!
The visit is not finished yet!

See you tomorrow! I’ll be waiting for you right here!

*Good Luck, and Good Night*

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