Some years ago, Markus inherited his godfather’s photo archive. Adrian Stückelberger worked as a professional photographer for the Basel chemical industry. From the late 1950’s to the early 2000’s he also travelled widely and enjoyed taking what he called holiday snaps. These pictures of women doing their laundry – which they have brought down in wheelbarrows – were taken in Brittany in 1958. It seems like a distant world, but it is one that I remember very well from travelling through France in the 50’s and 60’s. In fact the use of the lavoir faded away so gradually that it was only in the late 70’s that I realised that the tradition had gone for ever.
In most French villages you will find a lavoir, either carefully restored or left empty of water and in ruins. They generally consist of two or three basins surrounded by a wide rim sloping towards the centre, to facilitate scrubbing. Running spring water enters and leaves the basins separately so that one can be used for washing and the other for rinsing the laundry.
We wondered why there was apparently no lavoir in Arlebosc, until we learned that the construction was about 500 yards below the village. We found the place, in a fairly precipitous valley, below a road bridge that crosses a small stream. There is not much left of it – vegetation having taken over. But there was a road, and there was water, even in a dry summer.
Our neighbour remembers how all the washing would be loaded up on a cart and taken down to the lavoir. Previously the family linen had been covered with ash and left out on the grass overnight so that the dew could do the pre-wash by next morning. (The idea of using wood ash on white linen seems surprising until you recall that phosphates are still used as a water softening agent in many modern laundry detergents).
Laundering was hard work in those days. The linen was bashed and scrubbed with a hard brush and a hefty cake of savon de Marseille, then wrung out, rinsed and wrung again several times in the fresh water. A fairly pleasant task on a hot summer’s day, but in the winter months it must have been tough, kneeling on the cold stones and plunging up to the elbows in freezing water. However wash day was a convivial occasion when the women, ordinarily confined to their busy lives at home overseeing the farmhouse, kitchen and barnyard together with looking after numerous children, could get together to gossip, laugh and exchange news.
Since the Ardèche hamlets are so widely scattered, many farms had their own mini-lavoir. One of the most impressive is at les Blaches, a neighbouring abandoned farm in the woods just below us. As the years passed we were sad to see the structure crumble and eventually collapse, so we were delighted when the house was sold last year and saved from total ruin. We recently met the new owners, who are planning to restore the lavoir, as the spring nearby is still running.
This is how it looks now. Watch this space for news of the restoration of a crucial part of our rural heritage.