Fiona Freer

Writer, historian and speaker

Back in time – through our kitchen.


Photo:Association Le Douare-Archives. Our kitchen must have looked very like this.

Photo:Association Le Douare-Archives. Our kitchen must have looked very like this.

Our home is close to Huelgoat, a dream-like village with a lake and forests full of legends. We live high up on the side of a valley, surrounded by farmland and woods. There are just three houses in our hamlet, along with the ruins and remains of three or four others. When we first viewed it, I asked our estate agent how old it was. “You English,” she replied, “You are always asking when was this built, but I cannot tell you.” The notaire knew a little more, and told us the house had probably been built in the seventeenth century. I have never lived in such an old house before.

A lot of changes have been made to the house over the years, but there are huge, dark beams holding up the kitchen ceiling, and thick stone walls. Of course, the room we call the kitchen was actually the only room for most of its history. The residents would have slept, cooked,  eaten and tried hard to keep warm in there. People were living in our hamlet in the 1500s, although their dwellings must have been simple and primitive. I found the marriage record of a young man who had been born in our hamlet at that time and was married in the nearest village. He worked in the lead and silver mines on the other side of the valley.

It was unusual to wander far from home. I came across the record of Anne Bizouarn who was born in our hamlet in 1690 and died there in 1756, despite marrying twice. She had five children. It may have been during her lifetime that the simple houses were rebuilt using stone. The chimney was probably added a hundred years later, but the floor would still be stamped down earth and there would have been no running water. The residents of the hamlet would tramp across the fields in the morning to use the hedgerows as a toilet. This can’t have been much fun if it was raining, and must have had implications when collecting blackberries in the autumn – “Mind your feet, don’t step there…”

Keeping the family clean must have been a challenging task. It is a five minute walk down the hill to the river, where the women probably washed the clothes. Carrying the soaking wet laundry, or buckets of water, back to the house would have been back-breaking work. At some time a pipe was laid to bring water from a nearby spring right to the outside of our house. What a luxury that must have been! The cooking was done in a huge metal pot suspended over the fire from a hook in the chimney. The hook is still there, and I found the cooking pot half buried in the garden. I filled it with daffodil bulbs. There would have been a box bed in the corner next to the fire, and the children would have scrambled up the ladder to sleep on straw beds in the loft, probably with mice for company. The house must have been quite dark inside, and I wonder how the women managed to do their sewing. I believe they had to sit outside to sew, which means that little sewing got done on rainy days or through the winter.

Many people in rural Brittany kept their animals in the house, and this helped them to keep warm. Pigs were the exception – they had to be housed elsewhere as they would root up the mud floor. We worry if our homes smell of cooked cabbage or wet dogs, but a Breton home must have been full of rich odours, particularly as the windows were very small. There is an old, stone shed built onto the side of our house and we keep the garden furniture and the lawn mower in it, but it has an animals’ feeding trough across the back wall. Perhaps that is where the pigs lived.

Life in our area of Brittany was very hard indeed, and most people were grindingly poor. In 1846 there were six houses in our hamlet and twenty-eight inhabitants. The occupations of the householders are listed on the census – two were farm workers, one was a miller, one was a housewife and two were beggars.

By the end of the nineteenth century half the hamlet was owned by Louis Primel, who was presumably descended from the families on the census. Sometime in the 1920s he gave our house to his son Yves. Yves had married Francoise – always known as ‘Coise – and their four children were born and brought up there. Family life was much the same for them as it had been for the residents of our hamlet a hundred years before. There was still no tap inside the house, no toilet or bathroom and no electricity, but the children had the woods to play in and the river to swim in. When the children had grown up they brought their own children to visit ‘Coise and play in this beautiful place, and one of the children – Alain – particularly loved it. When ‘Coise died around 1980, he bought the house from his mother and her three brothers, and renovated it as a holiday home for his two daughters.

'Coise outside our house with her family.

‘Coise outside our house with her family.

‘Coise lived in our home for nearly sixty years. I often wonder what she would think of our fridge and washing machine, let alone the bread-maker and the food processor. But the house is still quite dark, despite the new spotlights, and I find the mellow lighting very comforting. If there are any ghosts in our old house, they are certainly happy ones.

Our kitchen today.

Our kitchen today.