CHRISTOPHER A LONG - Les Découvertes en Campagne de Christopher Long [No. 3]

Les Découvertes en Campagne de Christopher

[No. 3] Disparition de Barrages sur la Vire — La Voix Le Bocage — 03-12-2010

By Christopher Long

Removing Weirs on the River Vire

In the series "Christopher's Country Discoveries" this month: the removal of weirs on the Vire is announced and with them a slice of history.

A European directive plans to remove all the weirs on the Vire in order to return the river to its "natural state".

It must have been the Vire above all that attracted our forebears to settle in the Bocage Virois soon after the last ice age – a river rich in fish and surrounded by rich soil. Man probably started 'taming' the Vire almost immediately – a little dam here to improve the fishing, a few stepping-stones there to reach the opposite bank.

Very soon there was the 'fortified Vire' for the defence of towns; the 'deviated Vire' to power mills; the 'dredged Vire' to make it more navigable; and the 'narrowed Vire' to allow for road bridging.

This river owes its appearance and behaviour to us. Still visible today along the Vire's 118 km are dozens of mills which were often founded in the Middle Ages. Up-river of each of them was a weir which led water into the race which powered the wheels. The 14 surviving mill weirs are easily recognisable since they have sloping faces which allow salmon and trout to pass.

For nearly 800 years the power of the Vire made the fortune of 'the king of the countryside': the miller. Unfortunately for him, a second industrial revolution took place between 1848 and 1861 – the construction of the Vire canal.

To reach the port at Pont-Farcy from the sea required 19 locks. Horses on the new tow-path now pulled barges filled with cheap lime. This lime – combined with manure – allowed intensive dairy farming for the first time without impoverishing the soil.

After 1861 nearly every farm began milking cows – especially the Normande breed. Thanks to sophisticated marketing, the 'ancient tradition' of Normandy butter and cheeses was born.

Instead of an annual income from his grain harvest, the farmer grew rich on a weekly income from his dairy products delivered straight to Paris in a few hours on the new railway system.

The 'deviated' Vire has been tamed since at least mediaeval times.

Destroying the weirs will almost certainly leave long sections of today's Vire dry since the river will return to it pre-canal bed.

So, the long-distance ramblers' trail which follows the tow-path will often be far from the river Vire and its natural bed.

Generally speaking, the river's flow will be faster, narrower and shallower. And once liberated, a river is by nature a 'nibbler'... it has no particular respect for our maps and the territorial borders of local inhabitants or farmers!

With many thanks to Georges de Coupigny for the photograph that accompanied the original press article.

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