WINDMILLS AND WATERMILLS OF THE VENDEE

 

 1. NOIRMOUTIER, CHALLANS AND ST GILLES AREA

   

 

ISLAND OF NOIRMOUTIER

Noirmoutier island is known for its amazing causeway, its early potatoes, the production of sea-salt - and for the three windmills of La Guérinière. The MOULINS DE LA COUR still stand near one of the south-coast beaches; one of them was converted into a house by French film director the late Jacques Démy (Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and his wife, film director Agnès Varda.
Squat, and almost Spanish in appearance, the tower mills stand facing south over the sands at the narrowest part of this attractive island. Look for the brochure Les Balades Insulaires (shown left), in which one of the walks described takes you past the mills - all are private, and none is in working order - as well as within sight of the Moulin du Both, perched on the edge of the shore.

Click here for a site about Noirmoutier. Unfortunately, I have not managed to give you direct links to its windmill pictures, but you should find yourself in the Geographie section, where you can look in the La Guérinière box and in the Barbâtre box for "moulins". Once you have got the appropriate label showing in the slot, click on OK. When the small images come up in the main window, you can click on them to see larger versions.

 

 

 

CHATEAUNEUF


Back on the mainland, the village of Châteauneuf, north-west of Challans, is proud of its working windmill - LE PETIT MOULIN - that has stood here since 1703 on the site of a 16th-century pivoting wooden mill (the remains of which can be seen in the staircase). Like most of the Vendée's mills of today, Le Petit Moulin has the Berton system of sails, consisting of wooden slats that can be opened or closed up by the miller single-handed, from the inside of the building. Bar, creperie and souvenir shop; flour for sale made from wheat, buckwheat and millet.
 Tel: 02 51 49 31 07.Near the mill is a farm shop (open July & August, daily 3-8pm), selling fresh local produce.
 

 

 

 

SALLERTAINE 

A little farther south, to the west of Challans, is the pretty village of Sallertaine - once an island rising above flat marshland. In summer, tourists wander its lanes looking at crafts, buying local produce, visiting its ancient church - and even taking canoe trips among the surrounding canals.
A mile or so out of the village (in fact if you look carefully you can spot it from Sallertaine) is the MOULIN DE RAIRÉ - another stone-built tower mill, whose sails are said to have been turning ever since 1560. It's a real farm setting, and like at Chateauneuf you can climb the creaky wooden staircase while the miller explains the finer points of the system. From the occasional window you have a magnificent view towards the coast, over the marshes, interrupted regularly by the majestically-turning sails. Outside are several displays of milling and harvesting equipment, and there is a bar, plus sales of organic flour and other souvenirs.

A close-up of the Moulin de Rairé's wooden-slatted Berton sails, left, in their semi-furled position. Invented in 1848, these easily regulated devices - by which a miller can control the surface of the sails from the inside of his workroom - now drive most of the Vendée's working mills. Until Monsieur Berton's breakthrough, windmills were powered by canvas, stretched over a wooden ladder-type construction (see the Mont des Alouettes in section 5); these were much more difficult and dangerous to regulate - the miller had to stop the sails turning and increase or decrease the sail area from outside. Photograph by Angela Bird

 

 

 

 

NOTRE DAME DE MONTS

On the coast, the seaside town of Notre-Dame-de-Monts has just awoken to the potential of its abandoned windmills. Once there were six. Now only a few remain: one (sited on the main street, just visible in picture on left) has recently been spruced up - though not to working order.

Photograph from Notre-Dame-de-Monts web site

 

 

Another, the MOULIN DU BOURG, or village mill, left, that stands nearby has been transformed into the zany JARDIN DU VENT (lower picture). The evocative presentation on the subject of wind (the town is a well-known sand-yachting centre), uses captive yacht sail, wind-eroded sculptures, wind-created sounds etc on a different theme each year.
The mill was raised to its height of 12 metres in around 1903, the surrounding pine forest having grown to a height that prevented the wind from reaching the sails of the more squat building that preceded it. It ceased activity in 1948.

Top “before” photograph by kind permission of
Le Courrier Vendéen newspaper
Lower “after” picture from the website of the town
of Notre-Dame-de-Monts

 

 

 

ST REVEREND

 

In action from 1842 to 1930, and restored in 1997 by the Communauté de Communes Atlancia, the MOULIN DES GOURMANDS in St Révérend, inland from St Gilles, now invites visitors to climb its stairs for a guided tour to see the transformation of its interior.
Open 1 July-31 August, Tues-Sun 10am-noon & 3-7pm. Tel: 02 51 60 16 72.

 

 

 

A reminder of those who worked there in bygone times is this faint sketch, left, on a crumbling interior wall made by a long-dead miller.

Photograph by kind permission of Le Courrier Vendéen newspaper

 

 

 

Another carefully-preserved drawing, left, is of a donkey (today's miller still uses one to tug the long "guivre", or pole, to turn the heavy cap of the mill and keep the sails facing the wind). You can buy jams, honey and other local produce, and sample crêpes (pancakes); savoury ones will be made with buckwheat flour (an acquired taste).

Photograph by Angela Bird

The restoration work on the Moulin des Gourmands has been well documented. Shown left is the mill receiving its crowning glory, the pointed roof, covered with wooden tiles, typical of the Vendée's windmills. Modern lifting equipment ensured that its installation was an easier task than it would have been in 1842!

Photograph by kind permission of Le Courrier Vendéen newspaper

 

 

 

Close-up of the ingeniously-designed slatted wooden sails, left, which the miller can furl or unfurl rather like venetian blinds, without leaving his post inside the mill. The system was invented by a Frenchman named Berton in 1848.

Photograph by Angela Bird

 

 

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