Nov 07 2018

A Week Away

A Week Away

Definition: Refugee – Chambers English Dictionary: one who flees for refuge to another country, esp. (sic) from religious or political persecution  [ Fr- L refugium-fugere to flee : C17th : refugie]

A recent week in La Rochelle and the Ile de Re, C17th protestant stronghold of France, and a local history lesson of the region reveals I am a descendant of one of the largest number of “Refugie” to ever enter this country! Indeed the very word comes from our arrival in Britain : somewhere between 20 to 50,000 of us! And  in 1700 the population of England was just 5.1million.

Oh my, in these Brexit riven days, what would we make of those numbers now flooding in from just across the water?! How welcome would my forbears be today, I wonder!!

The Huguenot Henry of Navarre, later to become the Catholic Henry IV, did his very best to bring religious tolerance to France in 1598 but, alas , his grandson, Louis XIV, revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 replacing it with the Edict of Fontainebleau and my forbears were forced to flee or face certain death. Sound familiar?!

My maternal grandmother, Alice Margaret Teulon’s ancestor Antoine Teulon did just that aged 20 in 1689. He came to Greenwich and set himself up as a successful hatter and felt maker. He was naturalised British in 1708 and married Ann Defaux. Some ten generations later I read about Teulons who became printers, preachers, architects, engineers, booksellers and, intriguingly, adventurers; must find out more!

As I gaze at the beautiful harbour at La Rochelle it is hard to imagine the terrible siege and sea battles fought all those years ago.

On a happier note we visit the pretty town of La Flotte on the Ile de Re, sit with our old friends by the water’s edge drinking a glass of wine in the setting sun.

We visit the market and once again I ponder why our local markets are so lack lustre compared to France. And of course we eat delicious food day after day; oysters, moules, great big crevette and so much more.

But of course the highlight of my stay was none of these things. The Ile de Re is the home of the Poitu donkey : great big scruffy fellows with huge ears and traditional long matted coats or “cadanette. The males or baudet, pronounced “bo-day”, are one of the biggest breed of donkeys reaching up to fifteen hands: the mares or anesse, just a hand smaller. I jump from the car and race across a busy main road dodging the traffic to try to capture a large group of them with my camera as they stand in a huge circle eating hay on rough ground outside the C 17th fortifications of St Martin-de-Re.

For hundreds of years these beautiful fellows were bred for mule breeding some three hundred miles south west of Paris, not always with the best care. Locally they are still famous for their work on the salt marshes on the Ile de Re hauling huge carts of the famous Sel de Mer from the water’s edge, their legs protected from the salt by strange baggy stripped leggings.

By 1717 an advisor to King Louis XV is said to have described them thus:

“There is found, in northern Poitou, donkeys which are as tall as large mules. They are almost completely covered in hair a half-foot long with legs and joints as large as those of a carriage horse.”

They were exported to many countries and the mules bought by armies across Europe to pull guns carriages, move supplies and transport troops.

But, alas, by the 1950 the breed had all but died out. Mechanization had rendered them redundant. They were replaced on the salt marshes by tractors and by tanks and lorries on the battlefield. Herds were sold or killed; they became seriously endangered. Between 1949-1977 their numbers had fallen from 281 to just 12.

And then in 1988 things began to change. Jaques Fouchier, former Minister for Agriculture set up SA-BUAD to save the breed from certain extinction. He was joined by the Parc Naturel, breeders, national studs, research scientists and by Elisabeth Svenson founder of our own Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, Devon. Thanks to them a wonderful breed has been saved.

As I look at my own new boys from the Sanctuary I cannot but wonder if big Christos may have just a touch of Poitu blood. Look at those huge ears!

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