On then, over to the west of the Cotentin peninsula to Portbail, a pretty estuary town with palest of grey and ochre hues. The little antiques shop there was actually open and from a huge wardrobe filled with sheets and table linens I pulled out several bundles of large, starched damask napkins tied up in ribbon. Madame wrapped my purchases in brown paper and string, and for the second time that day I felt as though I’d stepped back into a much earlier time.
The day had become warm, and we took a picnic lunch out on the coastal spit . With baguette, cheese and tomatoes, we sat watching small groups of people with baskets and shell fish rakes going down to the low tide beach in the grey, bright, bluey light. I collected a lapful of big creamy white and yellowy grey limpet shells. The smell of pine trees and the rustle of sea grasses was just lovely, and Jersey darkly glistened on the horizon.
Then a visit to Therese, along narrow overgrown lanes to the hamlet where she lived. Her big green metal gate was open and I popped my head round the door of her showroom. Graham dozed in the van while Therese and I caught up. She showed me around – “and have you seen a table like this before?” “just look inside this armoire!” “isn’t this a marvellous colour?” On an old salt glazed plate I spotted a curious expression: “Mieux vault avoir un panier de rats qu’une fille de vingt ans” (Better to have a basket of rats than a girl/daughter of twenty.) I wish I’d bought it.
But I did buy a blue and white dinner service of garden birds perched on flower pots or branches. “Come and look in the back,” she said, taking me through to the workshop, “there is something here that you might like.” A 19th century oak buffet, in need of some restoration, with its fielded Louis Philippe panels, doors with pleasing French hinges that sensibly lift off without the need to unscrew anything, a key that fitted the lock, solid old drawers and the perfume of age and wax – excellent. I bought it, but agreed to collect it on my next visit as I didn’t want to fill the van before seeing what was available south of the Loire.
I tend to like French metalwork generally – hinges, escutcheons, cast iron handrails for worn limestone staircases, balcony railings ornate or plain. It has a handsome appeal, adding solidity and permanence. I’ll always rummage to the bottom of a box if there’s a chance I’ll find an 18th century bolt or handle.
That night, after dinner in a hamlet down by the salt marshes, I took Graham to see Notre Dame de Fatima. It was dark, an owl hooted and a cow called out over the marshes. We pushed open the metal gate and picked our way along a narrow path, tall yew hedge on one side. Turning sharp right, through another gate and up to the chapel. Above the door a small arched window glowed alight. The door was unlocked and we entered this small chapel lit by a handful of white tapering candles. White walls, clay tiled floor, three or four prie-Dieu chairs, an altar, two statues of Notre Dame de Fatima all bathed in warm soft apricot light.