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Poles Apart - Carrelets along the Atlantic Coast

Poles Apart - Carrelets along the Atlantic Coast

We celebrate a curiosity which has become a defining feature of the Atlantic Coast and its estuaries.

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The urge to go out and fish is probably as old as man himself, and a hangover from our most basic survival instincts. It was perhaps inevitable then, that sooner or later someone somewhere would combine the escapist appeal of this timeless pursuit with the rather more recent desire to ‘spend some time in the shed’ - the result being what we now refer to as ‘le carrelet’. However, unlike garden sheds and their coastal counterparts the beach huts, carrelets fulfil a different need, namely to accommodate fishermen who lower large square nets (after which the carrelets take their name) into the shallow waters below them to catch whatever might be passing.

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It sounds simple enough, except that the timber poles - ‘pilotis’ or ‘pontons’ - which support them must be tall enough to keep everything safely above the highest spring tides, not to mention whatever conditions the sea might take it upon itself to hurl in your direction. This accounts for the carrelets’ distinctive spidery appearance, and the expression: ‘cabane sur pilotis’ (many sturdier looking poles are in fact a legacy from the period when EDF switched to concrete for power cable posts, and sold off huge numbers of redundant timber ‘poteux’ at around 10-12 francs apiece). Of course, the ‘cabane’ (shed) is only part of the equation. Nets are large and have a sturdy frame of acacia wood, making them far too unwieldy to handle without the aid of a crane-style lifting device or ‘engin’, and carrelets often deploy two or even three nets.

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So much for the basic practicalities which dictate the general appearance of the structures, but in many ways their history is just as curious. The term ‘carrelet’ seems to have derived from ‘quarlet’, which first appeared in the French language during the 14th century. Surprisingly, net fishing didn’t become a popular leisure activity until around the late 19th century, at which time the circular net used was quite modest in size and known, not surprisingly, as ‘une balance’. After WWI things were scaled-up significantly, when platforms accessed by a pier-style footbridge or ‘passerelle’ were built by professional carpenters to permit wealthier leisure fishermen to enjoy a little escapism, uninterrupted by tidal movements. To this end some of the carrelets off the Bois Vert cliffs at Fouras were linked to their owners’ homes via extra-long passerelles.

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Today carrelets are a familiar sight in tidal rivers and estuaries around the Atlantic coastline, but over the years they haven’t exactly had an easy ride. After the brutal tempête of December 1999, for example, some 450 (around 90%) of Charente-Maritime’s carrelets had to be reconstructed, only to suffer further damage in February 2010 when Hurricane Xynthia blew in and claimed another 100 of their number. Many others, though, were simply abandoned during the long period when the structures fell from favour and were regarded by many (including tourism organisations) as unwelcome disfigurements of the precious natural landscapes of the coastline. Eventually, however, the tide of opinion turned in their favour, and the carrelets which survived are now valued as a part of our heritage, with State funds released to aid recovery from the devastation of natural events like those above.

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This doesn’t mean that the structures are immune to the French passion for red tape. Should you or your Association wish to take up net fishing from a carrelet then you’ll soon become aware that their location and numbers are tightly regulated, 518 being the maximum currently permitted in Charente-Maritime. You won’t own it, either; in return for an annual rental payment to the State of around 300 euros you’ll be permitted to take on an existing structure, and bear the costs of any reconstruction required (building from scratch could cost 35 000 euros). If you’re still not deterred you’ll need to submit an application to a commission composed of dignitaries including the Préfet or their representative, provide evidence of your financial Port_des_Barques-carrelet-francesolvency and pledge solemnly to maintain the structure in good order. And if you’ll be building a new carrelet on a site (which you won’t own either) vacated by a previously demolished structure, you’ll need to go through the usual channels to obtain a Permis de Construire, plus an environmental impact assessment to satisfy the rigorous EU Natura 2000 sustainable development initiative.

Jump through all these and other bureaucratic hoops and your tenacity will be rewarded with the right to non-residential, non-commercial occupancy (renewable every five years). Despite which, les carrelets are alive and well, and their rustic appearance remains remarkably close to that of their ancestors. Regulations include maximum dimensions of 20m2 for the platform, 10m2 for the cabane and a 1m wide passerelle. The timber cabane should have a metal roof (corrugated iron being the traditional choice) and colours, whether by applying weather-resistant paint or allowing treated timber to fade to a pleasing natural patina should, in theory, blend into the surrounding landscape.

A carrelet offers a perfect setting for away-from-it-all relaxation, alone or among friends, plus the prospect of a tasty meal prepared from your catch. Each time you raise the net there’s a chance you’ll discover mullet, sole, crabs, prawns or eels - and for onlookers you’ll be perpetuating the age-old spectacle of these Sentinels of The Coast.

 

Find out more

The tourism view of things:

www.en-charente-maritime.com/tourisme/visite/patrimoine-maritime/carrelets 

You’ll find historical overviews and much more here: 

www.pays-royannais-patrimoine.com/themes/peche/les-carrelets-sur-ponton/anatomie-du-carrelet/ 


There’s lots of information relating to occupancy on the website of the Association Départementale de Défense de la Pêche Maritime de Loisir et de Tradition:
www.carrelets-charentais.com 

 

© Living Magazine - all rights reserved. Originaly Published in Living magazine June 2014