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

“Well, hello! I am so glad you are still waiting for me here.”


“Why did I ask you to meet me here?”


“So simple, my dear. Do you remember what was so essential to foundries at the time? Yes. Besides the iron ore, the charcoal and the limestone?”


“Water! Absolutely!”

There is plenty of water in the area. A brook goes through the village and links up three ponds on its way. Let’s cross over the foundry reach.

Right in front of you, those houses look more comfortable and they get a lot of sunshine. Hard to believe today, I know. You’ll have to trust me. They are quite new compared to the hovels where the foundry workers had to survive. They were built during the XIXth century for the foremen and their families.

This house was the administration office. This is where the workers would get their wages (incredibly low salaries). This is also where the estate steward kept the books for the foundry and the village. He was in charge of managing everything, from finances to the forest, the foundry and the workforce (around 400 people in all including foundry workers, charcoal burners, miners, carters, etc.).

One interesting point: Since the Rohans never lived there, they hired professional ironmasters who usually came from the eastern part of France.

Then there is a small chapel, the “chapelle Saint-Eloi”. There were two doors. The workers used this one, directly from the cobbled street. The Ironmaster and the steward used the main one on the right. The Rohans were Protestants but they built the chapel to suit the needs of their Catholic employees. (By the way, it is still used nowadays from time to time.)

On your way out, the country house which you won’t be able to visit. The Janzé family bought the mansion, the foundry, the forest and the land in 1802. (And I kind of feel that I should add the workers to their purchases.) The Janzé descendants still live there. But the village is mostly empty now and under renovation.

A school has been recreated in one of the buildings. It really shows some  paternalistic streak. Who can believe that in those times, there was a school for the children of the workers? Schooling only became compulsory in 1881 for every child in France.

At the “Forges des Salles”, a school was then created but some 300 m away from the foundry. A Catholic private school financed by the Janzé. It was closed in 1960. Hard to believe, I know but it was coeducational.
Maybe the only coeducational school in France at the time.

The old stables still exist but I doubt that they are used nowadays. They do look derelict.

The small cider-factory has been restored. This building (and its cider press) was probably very important in times when cider and apple brandy were used as a bonus for most workers. This was still true for farmhands, not too long ago in Brittany. What about foundry workers more than a century ago?

My friend Bernard told me that on his father’s farm, in the 50s and the 60s, the farmhands were issued one bottle of apple brandy per day which most of them drank while working. One of them was famous for soaking up 7 to 10 liters of cider besides his liter of apple brandy every day. (Hard to believe, but he died a very old man.)

Let’s go back to the foundry and its blast furnace which was the heart of the place after all. The foundry closed in 1877. The furnace was completely taken apart at the time. On the right, there were two huge bellows activated by a paddle wheel set in the breach.
Of course, Popeye spent a long time explaining to me how it all worked but as usual, I was taken by the sights and my emotions and couldn’t really remember all the details... I know, I know, this is pitiful.

I remember he told me that they would pour a mix of iron ore, charcoal and limestone into the furnace... then there would be a spurt of hot air from below and then... and then... well they would recover the molten cast iron which they would use for making nails, etc. Oh, sorry, my dear Popeye. Thank goodness, there is wikipedia...

All I can tell you for sure is that when they rehabilitated the building, they decided to protect it with a slate roof but never rebuilt the furnace.  They added some silly contraptions inside so that dummies like me would understand the whole process.

Oh yes. I do remember hearing that the limestone helped to refine the impurities of the iron ore! How? I do not know. But it worked. It worked!

All I know now is that I’ll take a walk with you along the brook and I’ll show you this wonderful pond not very far from the Forges. So peaceful and charming... (Whereas it used to be so useful a long time ago and much less serene.)

Aren’t you glad you followed me through this time travel? Even if I haven’t helped you much to enhance your knowledge of foundry techniques...

One last thing though. Once we left the chapel through the door used by the masters of the place, we walked in the garden, which is very nice indeed. And we spent a few hours into another world, didn't we?
Then why on earth, did the owners install such an obnoxious, ugly and rather obscene device on such a charming timeless wall? A dish aerial... Question asked... No further comment!

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


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*


"Murder", she cried. "Fighting", he replied.

Moles are delightful furry animals. Quite small even though on the pudgy side. They do look weirdly funny with their rather big hands and small feet.

If you get to see one... Alive, I mean. Moles are rather blind and not really prone to run around in the open. They dig tunnels and spend their time trapping earthworms which they hoard up by hundreds, so people say since I have never been inside one of those tunnels...

In Brittany and elsewhere (except in Germany I think), moles are pests. They are lurking about in the gardens and in the fields and along the roads. Everywhere... Right below your feet but invisible until one day, you take a walk on the lawn and you feel some unusual softness here and there. It hasn’t rained in a while so you really wonder what is going on... but only for the first time it happens in your life.

Because you learn fast. The following morning when you open the shutters, your beautiful lawn has turned into a battlefield. Molehills everywhere!

And then what?

Well, our lawn is not beautiful. It looks like an oldish and quite worn rug and it is currently waiting for a facelift, this fall. So no worries about our lawn.

The thing is that we have set off on a new adventure, garden-wise.

Its latest version I wrote about last year was unsatisfactory since it still left too much space to the worn-out lawn. This became obvious last fall and we started planning a new version.

Planning and designing a garden filled with flowers. Flowers from Brittany and from exotic places as well since our friend Yves loves to try out strange plants, especially in our garden. We wanted bright colors, fascinating and unusual shapes, and above all, plants that would attract hundreds of insects and passerines.

Color, beauty, scents, buzzing and warbling.

As usual, it will take quite a few more months and probably years to reach our dream! But we are patient and ready to plant and wait and plant again and wait... Nature is a slow worker and needs to be acknowledged as such.
Upon his arrival to Les Tertres, by the end of July, Popeye had a fit... Lots of molehills everywhere... but confined to our “lawn”... It was exceptionally rainy and wet and the ground had turned very soft. Earthworms were having a field day. Not for long though.

Moles adore earthworms. But they also have a weakness for young and yummy roots... And one day, they invaded (creating their own underground passages) the forbidden zone -- our very young and fragile flower garden.

“This is unforgivable”, said Popeye who knows how to stop them.

I hate this kind of situation where we have to kill and destroy... well, hornets are different. We act pitilessly whenever hornets build a nest in our chimney (which happened this summer too).

But moles...

Popeye called the mole-catcher who answered that he was overbooked... Rainy days, soft grounds, earthworms and... moles! (And our village boasts one of the most extraordinary golf course in France... which is the reason why our mole-catcher was very busy. Molehills are not welcome on a golf course.)

Popeye is a very good sailor but he has more than one trick up his sleeve. He's spent years watching the mole-catcher and he felt he was ready to set traps on his own.

Setting traps is not this easy. You have to discover which way the mole is going and re-create the tunnels using your imagination. Remember, everything happens underground...
First traps and no results. More molehills everywhere. But Popeye is as stubborn as a mule.

The moles were very bright. They sensed the traps and they steered clear of them...

Until Saturday night, quite late...

From the far end of the garden, someone started whooping with unconcealed joy. Popeye had made a kill!

I am not squeamish about blood nor dead animals. I have lived in the country long enough to face harsh reality but... it really bothered me to listen to Popeye being so jubilant about his “victory”.

Actually I think he was mostly happy because now he could tell the mole-catcher he did not need him this bad anymore...

I ended up walking to the scene of the crime. She looked perfect. Asleep, sort of. And I was mesmerized because I had never seen a mole in all my life...

And of course, being a photographer... I could not resist... even though I was still upset! Photographers can be real vultures, I know!

Popeye checked his traps, straightened a couple of them which meant that a mole (or two or three) had been there and was still having a good laugh about the whole thing...

Not quite though because on Sunday morning, right after breakfast, there were new whooping sounds... One more mole. Two more moles. Three more moles.

It started looking like battlegrounds with corpses lined up... Not very pleasant.

But so interesting to study moles very closely after all. Beautiful fur and extremely efficient paws.

Impressive shadow of one hand!
It was quite a surprise to discover their strong jaw and perfect sharp teeth... I had always imagined that earthworms would be quite easy to gobble down... sucked up like a strand of spaghetti! Obviously not. Moles do chomp.

Popeye had to go back to (real) work on Sunday night. 
I am not a mole-catcher. Our friend Bernard came to check the traps. He was quite impressed with Popeye’s cunning. (He knows how to trap moles, being a farmer.) The traps were empty though. And new molehills had come out... So our garden moles are still alive and well. Most of them that is.

Except for the three casualties. Let me reassure you. They did not suffer. The traps work speedily and very efficiently. One click and they are dead.

I know because I was there when the third one got caught... Not that I was waiting for the kill. I was watching Popeye while he was setting the trap. He was getting ready to set a stone above the opening when she ran "blindly" into the trap. And she died instantly.
And thus I got used to watching my mate making kills to protect our territory, just like in prehistoric times.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*