Les lavandières


What a lovely view for washing day, although I’m not sure I’m up to the effort required to enjoy it..

We had a light sprinkling of snow overnight and a superb Sunday afternoon. Failing the opportunity to garden, I took a walk down the valley, past the monument to Châtillon-sur-Saône’s most famous son, Jan Monchablon (of whom more later) to the old village lavoir.


Turn away from the view of the river and you see Châtillon’s lavoir

Many reading will know that lavoirs (or communal outdoor washing areas) were the norm in France before water was piped into each home. There have been volumes of photography published on the subject, so beautiful can they be architecturally. Even our rather impoverished, backwoods area of Lorraine/Haute Saône/Haute Marne boasts some very fine examples.

It took me about 15 minutes to walk down to the village lavoir from where I live in the old village. Much of this along muddy, woodland paths.

IMG_8687Although a beautiful and easy walk in the winter sunlight, what would have this been like if I’d been carrying a basket of my family’s washing?


I think I am resting my bottom on the stone bench that many women in the past must have used to pause, catch breath and enjoy the day a little.


There are two long, rectangular pools to either side of the smaller central pond where the spring pops out.

Most French lavoirs are fairly central in the village, where there was also a good source of spring water. Not so in Châtillon.

I’m guessing that this is due to the fact the old village stands astride a ridge (this geography ensured its historic importance as a kind of garrison town for the Dukes of Bar, and then Lorraine, in the medieval and Renaissance periods).

There must have been no reliable source of spring water located in the village itself, and so those poor women had to toil all the way down through the woods with their heavy baskets.


The muddy path back up to the village from the lavoir disappears uphill to the right of the picture.

During the fêtes or musée vivants in the village – and particularly in August at the Fête de la Renaissance – a small group of dancers and a fiddle-playing friend of mine (backed up by me, on flute) play a dance called ‘Les Lavandières’ (the washerwomen).

It’s pretty sprightly, a bit like the weaving tunes from the Hebrides and Scottish islands, and involves a lot of hand-clapping and stamping to emphasise the rhythm (as well as some finger wagging to symbolise, of course, the fact that women are the world’s worst gossips). Gradually it picks up speed, becoming faster and faster; everyone is supposed to be breathless by the end.


Saturday morning rehearsal before the fête.

There are different versions of ‘Les Lavandières’ from all over France (as you’d expect of a folk dance). Let’s hope that the Vosgien version was originally performed a little slower, because if I’d been a woman living at Châtillon in the nineteenth century, I can’t imagine how I’d have found the energy to dance after walking all the way down to the lavoir and back with my washing. But they were made of sterner stuff in those days.


Here I think they are dancing ‘Les Lavandières’, but haven’t got to the finger-wagging stage yet

I was disappointed to discover on Wikipedia that there may be no connection between the plant, lavender, and the lavoir. The name implies that there is, because its root seems to be from the Latin verb to wash, lavare. Plants that have woven themselves into the fabric of our lives over the centuries are fascinating: little photosynthesising scraps of history, as familiar to our great, great, great grandmothers as they are to us.


Lavender flowering in the garden on a glorious July morning in 2013

But Wikipedia tells me that this little theory on the etymology of ‘lavender’ might be false. Some persist with the association, however. I discovered a lady on the net today who advises people to put a few drops of lavender oil in the fabric softener compartment of their washing machine to keep away the moths.

You’ll have to come to Châtillon in August for a demonstration of how they did their washing then – wood ashes feature more than anything as deliciously smelly as lavender.

Certainly in England there’s an old tradition of hanging your sheets out to dry over lavender hedges, both for the scent and for the antiseptic/moth deterrent value. Wish I had enough lavender to try it out! Do you have some lavender lore to share?

Just beyond the lavoir is a sandstone quarry that has been worked for over 200 years.

IMG_8660Walking through the forest and suddenly encountering the two little fish of Châtillon’s arms carved onto those towering walls made me think of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. Do you remember the bit where Susan, Peter, Lucy and Edmund suddenly find themselves back in their kingdom years after they have departed – and everything is in ruin?


On my way around the top of the valley I passed (twice, it’s not a circular walk) the monument to landscape artist Jan Monchablon (1854 – 1904). He was born here and returned to the village with his wife in later life. His house still stands on the ridge to the left in the photograph, although not visible in my picture.

IMG_8701His paintings were sold in the States at around the same time as Renoir was being marketed there – and occasionally fetched considerably more than a Renoir. Those were the days when the Impressionists were considered simply to be artists who  didn’t know how to paint.


Only mountain goats can garden in Châtillon!


I thought it would be fun to include a reproduction of one of his paintings made from the approximate viewpoint of my photograph above. You can see that the woodland (which is owned by the French state) is badly managed and beginning to encroach these days.


Monchablon 1


The quality here is not too hot, but I’m particularly fond of the painting to the left because the viewpoint is from the garden terraces just along from my own garden. And when I look out in spring it really does look like this (except not so blurry!).

All those little tidy squares of veggie gardens, lovingly tended by their owners. But the grassy area by the river (where there are now sheep grazing) seems so much larger and less wooded.




Back at home there were cheering things stirring. Catkins on hazels thinking about opening  …

IMG_8806And my tiny little woodland garden (on a hot slope). Hellebores and snowdrops just beginning to please. It’s a surprise that we are later than some other gardening bloggers, since we face due south and catch lots of sun (if there is any).


My little patch of Helleborus niger is fairly pristine this year and is beginning to flower properly for the first time.

IMG_8863IMG_8549The best surprise was what I think must be a self-sown H. orientalis flowering at the edge of a purple-flowered plant’s little mound of leaves.  My experience is that self-sown hellebores are usually rather wishy-washy pinks.

But this is something to brag about. Or maybe I purchased and planted it two years ago and am quite simply as muddled as our seasons?


I’m planning on writing a little more about the special village where I live in the winter weeks ahead. Meanwhile you could always have a look at the village’s website if you are interested. And there’s always my own potted history on my old Garden Dreaming blog at Weebly.

25 thoughts on “Les lavandières

  1. Meta van der Stelt

    Thank you Cathy. What a beautifull pictures. Here in Selles we’ve got a lot of lavatories. They are connected with each other. Except one lying aside the canal which was used in winterd because the water did not freeze.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Glad you enjoyed Meta – I really must come and see them! I know I wrote that lots of people have done books of photographs of lavoirs, but I quite fancy making a collection of my own.

  2. Island Threads

    lovely post Cathy, enjoyed it and the interesting details about your chosen village, I think washing any where before water was piped to our homes would have been a challenge, Frances

    1. Cathy Post author

      You are so right, Frances. I like things like that because I like to feel close to the people who lived here before me. You can (apparently – I haven’t managed to make it out) even see the marks of clogs on the stones.

  3. Paula Clements

    What a treat to read this. Thank you x

    On Monday, 18 January 2016, “Garden Dreaming at Châtillon” wrote:

    > Cathy posted: ” We had a light sprinkling of snow overnight and a superb > Sunday afternoon. Failing the opportunity to garden, I took a walk down the > valley, past the monument to Châtillon-sur-Saône’s most famous son, Jan > Monchablon (of whom more later) to the old vil” >

  4. bittster

    Between this and your other links I’ve spent an enjoyable morning in the French countryside covering hundreds of years of history. It’s so different from the experience here in the US where so much is disposable and some people almost seemed ashamed of a poorer or violent past and are so anxious to cover it up. All the best for your town’s efforts, it’s hundreds of years of neglect you are repairing so I’m sure the progress seems painfully slow, but it will come.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I’m so glad you enjoyed. Unfortunately there has been a grand exodus from the French countryside and villages are falling into complete ruin everywhere you look. We are lucky because our is rather a little jewel (not that there are not many of them in France). The tendency amongst thinking people seems to be to want to look after it, buy into it, rather than let it fall down because it is quite important historically and architecturally for the region. Some have even bought and renovated buildings they don’t live in because they love it so much. I think (mostly!) that we are very lucky.

    1. Cathy Post author

      So glad you enjoyed, Annette. Yes – I’m really thinking I’d like to do a collection of lavoir photos myself (ours is more practically interesting rather than beautiful). In fact there are so many architectural themes one could pick in France, aren’t there?

  5. gardeninacity

    I loved your photos and explanation of the lavoirs. Yes, I think our ancestors had to be much physically tougher than we are today. Your story reminds me of how when Judy was a child, she would visit her grandmother in South Dakota who had no indoor plumbing (a wasteful indulgence, she believed). So on these visits she would walk through the herb garden to the outhouse, grabbing a handful of dill to hold to her nose as she went. Luckily Judy never had to visit during the South Dakota winter!

    1. Cathy Post author

      Good story! Yes, even my neighbour in rural Suffolk had an outdoor toilet about 25 years ago. Rural France often seems to me to be 50 years behind anywhere else in Europe. I hope Judy remembers her grandmother’s ‘arrangements’ every time she enjoys your mod-cons now!

  6. Molly Buchanan

    Lovely pictures and fascinating history Cathy. I have the. Christmas roses still in bloom, but yours are really gorgeous. Mum

    Sent from my iPad


  7. jenhumm116

    What a fascinating post, thanks for sharing.
    Sadly, my ‘lavender lore’ story is not a happy one! I bought a pair of lovely lavender ‘maracas’ woven with ribbon with the lavender heads bent inside the maraca head from Provence a few years ago. (I’m sure there’s a word for them, do you know it?)
    I put them in my cupboard and then, after leaving my jumpers in there over the winter, realised when I came to start wearing them again, that many had moth holes. Clearing out the whole cupboard showed moth caterpillars all living inside one of the maracas – euggggh!
    Hundreds of pounds of knitwear later I certainly wouldn’t trust lavender as a moth deterrent, so beware!

    1. Cathy Post author

      I don’t actually know the word you are looking for, sorry. But my goodness about the lavender! It sounds like the moth deterrent advice was not only incorrect but wool-threatening! Thanks for passing that on … made me feel a bit queasy, though.

  8. sophos

    Really enjoy reading your blog entries, be it about the garden, local history or house trials and tribulations. The photos are always absolutely gorgeous too – I didn’t comment at the time, but I must admit I was scratching my head when you admitted to blogging doubts a while ago (I even invented the term ‘blog dysmorphic disorder’ 🙂 about it).
    So jealous of your hellebore patch and especially the speckled one. One of my plants has now snuffed it, due to several hard freezes, the other I’m trying to keep alive in the stairwell. Happy New Year from Berlin!

    1. Cathy Post author

      And a happy New Year to you too! You are one of my very favourite gardening bloggers. Such beauty and honesty from a tiny space in Berlin. If you want it, you’ll have hellebores like mine when you are as desperately old as I am!


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