CHRISTOPHER A LONG - La Vire Canalisée

La Vire Canalisée

De l'Eau, des Bateaux, de la Chaux et des Veaux

Canal barges from Porribet to Pont-Farcy were towed by horses and land-owners were required to provide a 24-foot wide towpath (7.8 metres) for horses. One horse could pull an 18 tonne 'gabarre' while two (sometimes three) pulled a 25-45 tonne 'chaland'.

On 20 July 1852 a passenger transport service was briefly available between St Lô and Carentan. The barges, with both first and second class cabins, were capable of carrying 60 people and a small commercial cargo. They were towed by two horses (changed three times along the way). The project was not popular and was abandoned less than three months later when a barge was wrecked during a flood.

42 per cent of materials transported were for improving agricultural land: chalk, lime and sea-sand). 56 per cent was building materials (sand, gravel, rough-stone, rubble, building stone, bricks and tiles); 2 per cent was 'other merchandise'.

Sea-sand was collected at the Vire estuary and sent straight up the river. A rich white lime was produced at Bahais, Cavigny and Roque-Geneste (La Mauffe) downstream of Pont-Hébert, first by the 175 workers of the Société des Canaux de la Manche and from 1860 by the Compagnie Chaufournière de l'Ouest.

'Barges' on the Vire canal between 1896 and 1905 were of two types. Forty-five 'gabarres' had pointed ends and were best suited to estuaries and larger rivers. They were 17.5 metres long, 3.55 metres wide, with a capacity of 18 cu. Metres (18 tonnes). There were also nine flat-bottomed 'chalands' on the Vire, with no decking, useful on shallow rivers and in harbours. Four of these were 18.5 metres long, 3.8 metres wide and capable of carrying 40 cu. metres (25 tonnes). Another five 'chalands' were 18.6 metres long, 3.95 metres wide and carried up to 55 cu. metres (45 tonnes). All of them travelled at an average of 4 km/hr downsteam (loaded) and 3 km/hr (loaded) upstream. Unloaded they made an extra 1 km/hr in either direction.

The port at Pont-Farcy, like the other eight on the Vire, belonged to the State and had 150 metres of quay on just under half a hectare of land. The Pleines-Oeuvres quay opposite was 100 metres long on about one fifth of a hectare. The port traders sold sea-sand and lime to local farmers who collected it in hampers to be spread on ploughed land.

Although the port at Pont-Farcy was still quite busy in 1908, by 1926 the canalised Vire was officially demoted to a non-navigable river since improved roads, road transport and railways had almost entirely taken away its business. But the greatest blow was that chemical fertilisers had replaced the traditional sea-sand.

The canal was probably most active around 1880 with the number of barges reaching 103 by 1896. But its decline was already beginning. The barges carried 93,000 tonnes in 1881 but only 53,000 tonnes by 1905 (57 per cent of which was lime and sea-sand). The steep decline in trade continued: 4,400 tonnes in 1920 and only 2,050 tonnes by 1927.

By the end of the C19th local railways were taking business away from the canals. One of these was the line that ran from St Lô to Gouvets via La Chapelle-sur-Vire and Tessy-sur-Vire. It ran parallel with the canal for much of its length. Other local lines were those that radiated out from Vire which itself was supplied by the main line from Caen and which crossed Eiffel's dramatic pont de la Souleuvre.

Il serait difficile d'exagérer les conséquences importantes liées à l'arrivée de la chaux, transportée peu cher par des péniches et puis les chemins de fer, jusqu'au grands points de distribution comme celui de Pont-Farcy.

Cette chaux a mené directement à une révolution agricole mondialement reconnue. Où il n'y avait que des céréales et des moutons, tout d'un coup arrive une industrie laitière. Même le mot 'Normandie' évoque partout dans le monde une vision d'une très vieille tradition de beurre et de fromage.

Mais les 'vieilles' marques de nos beurres et de nos fromages, si évocatrices, si nostalgiques, sont en fait des créations d'un 'marketing' très raffiné du XlXe siècle. Nous connaissons tous l'image de la bonne vieille fermière vêtue en costume normande, en train de traire ses bonnes vieilles vaches normandes…

… sauf que même la vache normande est une création de la révolution industrielle qui a donné jour au canal. La vache dite 'Normande' est le résultat d'un croisement fait en à peu près 1850. Une vache rustique du Cotentin était croisée avec un taureau de Durham (en Angleterre) et le résultat croisé encore une fois avec un taureau des Îles normandes. Voilà la vache normande : sa viande de Durham, son lait de Jersey et sa résistance du Cotentin…

L'arrivée de ces bêtes exotiques explique aussi l'arrivée de nos petits champs d'autrefois. Ces champs, entourés de talus et de haies, servaient à concentrer les vaches à une époque qui n'avait pas encore connue la clôture électrique.

L'arrivée des vaches a surtout transformé l'architecture agricole, tout comme « la mise au normes » de nos jours qui est en train de la transformer encore une fois. Avant 1860 nos maisons de ferme consistaient en gros d'une pièce habitable (la maison), une cave, une grange à blé et souvent une bergerie. Tout d'un coup il fallait héberger des vaches exotiques et très rentable… mais comment ?

Banne = Cart used for transporting coal, manure, etc. Tombereau = Tumbril: a two-wheeled cart which can be tipped backwards to discharge its load. In Bocage Virois patois this was sometimes referred to as a banneau.

For many of the pictures used in the 'talk' La Vire Canalisée the author wishes to thank: Henri Letellier, Jean Delafontaine, Séverine at the Communauté de Communes de Tessy-sur-Vire and Google Earth.

© (2010) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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Christopher Long

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