Lighthouses of Brittany-Ile d’Ouessant

Le Phare de Créac’h on the Island of Ouessant (Ushant in English) off the coast of Brest on the westernmost tip of France, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.  For about 50 of those years, Europe’s most powerful lighthouse has been lulling – you might say ‘flashing’ – me to sleep with its two white beams every ten seconds through my bedroom window in our family’s vacation cottage just across the bay.


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Le Phare de Créac’h on the Island of Ouessant (Ushant in English) off the coast of Brest on the westernmost tip of France, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.  For about 50 of those years, Europe’s most powerful lighthouse has been lulling – you might say ‘flashing’ – me to sleep with its two white beams every ten seconds through my bedroom window in our family’s vacation cottage just across the bay.

One of my grandsons, Yann, who is half Breton, could identify all the Ouessant lights almost before he could talk.  For much of his childhood summers he sat on my window seat at sunset – refusing to go to bed until the Créac’h began flashing.  

Brittany (Bretagne), especially La Finistère, (meaning ‘end of the Earth’), is crowded with more lighthouses than any other region of France.  Of the country’s 120 lighthouses on over a nearly 2000-mile coastline, 57 are located in Brittany’s five départements, and 22 of those are in the Finistère.  Ouessant, an island with only an eight by four kilometer surface, leads the show with a cluster of five:  two on land, the Créac’h and Le Stiff, and three at sea, Kereon, Nividic and La Jument.  Yann named his cat Nividic!  

Often blanketed in fog or beaten by tempests, Ouessant is surrounded by some of the most treacherous waters anywhere.  For mariners over the ages, the dictum was “Qui voit Ouessant voit son sang” – “He who sees Ouessant sees his blood”. Some 50 shipwrecks are recorded in her rocky     depths, about half of which can be explored through the local diving center. 

The concentration of warning signals – lighthouses, buoys, beacons and foghorns – can also be explained by the island’s location at the mouth of the English Channel off the ‘Rail de Ouessant’, the island’s Shipping Fairway or traffic lane, which accounts for 25 percent of the world’s maritime traffic – over 54,000 vessels a year.  

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The first lighthouse, Le Stiff (from the Breton ‘spring’ for the one that gushes from a nearby cliff), inaugurated in 1699, was built under the Marquis de Vauban, chief military engineer to Louis XIV.  It was built on the island’s highest point to guide passing ships but to also serve as a military observation tower.  Closed to the public for several decades due to severe rot, it is now protected as a National Monument (along with the Créac’h), and since last June re-opened to visitors after a restoration that cost about one million euros.   

The Créac’h also houses the ‘Musée des Phares et Balises’, under the direction of the Parc National Reginal d’Armorique.  Its unique collection of over 800 objects traces martitime signalization from the legendary Pharos of Alexandria and other antique lights, through a full range of Fresnel lenses, to the energy-saving halogen and LED (light emitting diodes) lamps of today.  A curent show commemorating the 150 years since the tower was built in 1863 focuses on its social and human context.

“You might say that Ouessant is itself an open-air museum,” said Delphine Kermel, the curator who also runs the Museum. “The life of the islanders is so intricately linked with its lighthouses and the sea in general.”

The chief ‘keeper’ of the Créac’h, Jean-Yves Berthelé, after decades of shifts on Kereon and La Jument, now bears the title CTRLP,Controleur Principal.  “It’s really aggravating when everybody, particularly journalists, keeps wanting to see our profession only in the past. Today we have even more responsibility,” he says, describing the software enabling him and his colleagues to remotely control about 120 lighthouses, buoys and beacons throughout the Mer d’Iroise, stretching to the Ile of Sein. Each light has its own integrated signal linked with computers in the Créac’h.

“But nobody’s interested in this work” said Berthelé. “All they want are 40 meter high waves. Lighthouses may not play the same role they used to, but they’re still a comfort, often vital, especially when GPS and other electronic devices break down – and they do.” 

In any case, law requires that lighthouses, buoys and beacons function.  Jean-Yves and his two colleagues are there to make sure they do.  One of the three, Theo Malgorn, was standing in the doorway of the Phare de la Jument when, in 1989, a huge wave (some reach 20 to 30 meters) struck, and photographer Jean Guichard shot what became a world famous picture, shown here.

“We were used to bad storms, and I really didn’t feel the big wave coming, said Theo, who after twenty years at sea, is happy to be home on dry land.  “I was cooking on an upper level when I heard the helicopter and came down to have a look.  As soon as I realized the danger, I rushed back inside and shut the door.”

Since rough seas, mighty currents and tides limited the number of work days, it took nine years to build the seven-story, 47-meter high tower on a jagged rock called ‘Ar Gazec’ in Breton:  La Jument (The Mare). 

La Jument has special significance for my family.  My husband used to fish in the surrounding waters, frequently talking with the keeper who was usually fishing himself.  We were sure that this was Maurice’s favorite place on earth, so that’s where we scattered his ashes when he died in 1998.

It also took nine years (1907 to 1916) to build Le Phare de Kereon, washed by the violent Fromveur current between Ouessant and Molène, with a gift from a descendant of Charles-Marie Le Dall de Kereon, a naval office guillotined at age 19 in 1794 during Le Terreur.  Because of its sumptuous oak paneling and marquetry – one floor has a compass rose in mahogany and ebony – Kereon was nicknamed “Le Palace”. 

Hardy souls can enter “Kereon Lighthouse Shift Change” on their computers for a quite terrifying video, now historic, since Kereon, France’s last manned lighthouse, became automatic on January 29, 2004.

Whatever the future holds for lighthouses, which, everyone agrees, constitute an important part of a nation’s history and identity, their symbolism will remain intact like the great cathedrals and castles. 

Appropriately, on December 31, Ondine Morin, who runs Kalon Eusa (Heart of Ouessant) took the amazing photo below of Phare de Nividic

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and will welcome revelers under the Phare de Créac’h when, she insists, but only on that night, the Lights talk to each other, tell their secrets, memories, fears and love stories.  Then, after a countdown to the rhythm of each flashing beam, at midnight a glass of sparkling Champagne will usher in the New Year.

Betty Werther's article was originally published in France On Your Own.

 

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