MILLS OF NOIRMOUTIER ISLANDHISTORICAL FIGURES
As you come to Noirmoutier Island, you will be surprised by the impressive number of windmills here. The island’s mills are ballet masters, elegant and romantic. Flocks of seagulls often come to salute their strange cousins with a tip of the wing. The mills too would love to still be playing with the wind, but they have lost their “wings”. But they still provide a faithful reminder of their millers and that bygone era.
MEMORY OF THE WIND
Abundant grain production and great exposure to the wind explain why so many windmills were built on Noirmoutier Island. With a maximum elevation 22 metres above sea level, the minimal variation in topography made it possible for 32 mills to operate at the same time in the 19th century, an extraordinary density for the west of France. Today, you can still see 23 of them, only four of which are partially demolished.
Mills of Noirmoutier Island © Pascal Beltrami
A QUICK HISTORY LESSON
- The first mills were built by Saint Philibert’s monks during the 7th century. Those mills used the power and movement of the tides as their source of energy. Farmers would bring their wheat, barley and rye grown on the island, particularly on bossis, small prairies nestled between the salt pans and the marshes. Those mills were still in service in the 16th century. There are still traces of the first windmills dating back to 1380, although it is clear that the sails of mills were already spinning before that date.
- The creation of polders, on which large fields of wheat were cultivated, encouraged the construction of many new mills beginning in 1830.
- The last mill shut down its operations in 1945. Many of the islanders today can still remember the mills working during their childhood. They often mention the living conditions of the last millers with admiration: unable to waste the slightest breath of wind, they worked day and night, all year round.
- Protective owners continue to take care of the twenty-odd mills remaining today. Their simple lines and harmonious spaces have always endowed the mills of Noirmoutier with a charm all their own. The first summer visitors to the island were crazy for them. Over time, these “holiday homes” even became residences in their own right.
Mills of La Guérinière - Michel Pottier
DID YOU KNOW?
The mills were of precious assistance to sailors. In fact, in most cases, they were erected on dunes overlooking the beaches.
Easily recognizable from the open sea, sailors could identify them thanks to their large white sails. As a result, tuna and sardine boats were able to anticipate the direction and speed of the slightest breeze from the coast. Some days, the roles were reversed, and the millers were the ones to watch the boats’ sails for indications of the vagaries of the wind at sea.
SPOTLIGHT ON: THE FOUR COURT MILLS
The four Court Mills of La Guérinière were so named after the construction of a court of law in the 18th century, halfway between the two main centres of Barbâtre and Noirmoutier-en-l’Île: La Guérinière Courthouse. A grey dune stretches out from the bases of those four mills. That lunar landscape separates them from the beach, covered with moss, lichen and low-growing plants. Next comes the white dune, the last defence against the onslaught of the ocean. These expanses of preserved wilderness are ideal for rambling. Using the access paths is essential to the life of the island. So that people can enjoy the dunes for as long as possible, they need to be protected.
Walk in La Guérinière - Going through the mills
MARIE TESTS A HIKE IN LA GUÉRINIÈRE FOR YOU
“The walk continues on the beach, another landscape with other sounds. I advance slowly, looking for shells left behind by the tides and for pieces of glass polished by the backwash. Starting from the Pointe de la Loire headland, a breast wall runs along the coast, all the way to the Plage de la Cantine beach, like a path round a rampart. I pass by the lovely Both Mill. Back on the beach, I walk by the base of an arc of stacked stones: the remains of a fish lock, that can only be seen at low tide. Straight ahead, I spot the sails of the four Court Mills, built at the narrowest point between the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay.”