Death of a hat

Where we stayed in Normandy

Where we stayed in Normandy

Besides visiting a fellow blogger, my partner E.J. and I spent several days last month in Normandy. Neither of us had been there before. Friends of ours own a pre-Revolutionary farmhouse that has come down through their family. Considering that in my family an heirloom is something my parents bought, I was impressed. The cat at the farmhouse was not impressed by me, though. I had to wonder if he’d come down through the family, too. (He sort of did.)

There’s an old saying that fish and house guests stink after three days. So E.J. and I decided we’d spend the fourth day on our own, and give our hosts a chance to catch up on their own lives. There was a nearby historical site, an old ruined castle at Gratot, that was only 7 km away. We decided to walk there. There wasn’t much chance we’d get lost. All we had to do was follow the highway signs. And we had the map app on a mobile phone as backup.

See: cows. And Gratot's church in the background. The ruined castle is barely visible to its left.

See: cows. And Gratot’s church in the background. The ruined castle is barely visible to its left.

It was supposed to be a cool, cloudy day with a chance of rain. But the rain held off, so we had excellent walking weather in the morning. The road was a minor highway with very little traffic, and ran through mostly rural countryside. As we walked, we saw hedgerows and working farms on either side of the road most of the way. They were raising everything from cattle to corn. (Probably the corn was meant for the cattle; humans don’t seem to eat corn in Normandy). It was a quite enjoyable walk. Making it just that much better, there were sometimes ripe blackberries on the bushes at the edge of the roads. We helped ourselves.

As we approached our destination, we walked on the road up a ridge, and there were the ruins of the castle and its church off to the left and in front of us.  Now I’ve studied the history of European warfare a bit, and I could tell that this was definitely a medieval fortification, built before the age of gunpowder and cannons. It had tall round towers connected by high but thin walls. It’s a good way to protect the castle against pikemen and cavalry, but cannons would level those walls with ease.

Inside the perimeter wall of the ruined castle

Inside the perimeter wall of the ruined castle

One of the reasons the castle had survived was that it wasn’t in a strategic location. Oh, you could see out to the coast from the towers, which meant you could see Vikings or an invading English army coming. But it didn’t command any important routes and wasn’t that important by itself. So it stayed in the hands of Norman nobility for most of its existence, instead of being seized by the Crown. After the Revolution, the castle passed through many hands, became dilapidated, was all but abandoned, and began falling into ruin. Only a local effort began the restoration of the castle in the last few decades. So most of what’s been left has been stabilized, and some repairs and restoration have taken place. But there’s no money to pay a staff, so you can go where you will, though you are advised not to go past points which are marked as dangerous. A few laminated guide pamphlets, which you are supposed to use and return, provide information about the castle’s features.

There was a moat around the Castle. Unlike the moat we’d seen at Pirou Castle a few days earlier, this one’s water was mostly clear, not scum-covered, which indicated there was some source of running water in the moat, although there was almost no current. The drawbridge had been replaced a long time ago by a permanent stone bridge.

The gray guardian of the castle

The gray guardian of the castle

Which is not to say the castle was unguarded. It was guarded. By cats. (I should have figured this after the farmhouse.) At least three cats, as it turned out, all feral. We first saw two small kittens holding the mainland side of the bridge, eyeing us suspiciously. The gray kitten was very skittish, but the white one was aggressive enough to approach us and let us pet her, if we were careful. They both looked cute, the white one especially so because it was being friendly. They decided to form our honor guard across the bridge. There we met the captain of the guard, the mother cat, who was as white as her favored offspring, the one she played with more. All three cats had scarring on their ears.

Leaving the cats behind, we walked the three levels of buildings open to us, including climbing up as far as we could all three of the remaining standing towers. There was also a display indoors in one of the buildings, going into the history of the castle and the noble family that once owned it. It filled out the story in the printed guides.

It's a ruddy shelduck, E.J.! Don't go for your camera!

It’s a ruddy shelduck, E.J.! Don’t go for your camera!

Cats were not the only inhabitants of the castle grounds. As we prepared to leave the castle, we saw ducks in the moat, swimming near the bridge. And one was a very odd looking duck, of a species E. J. was sure she’d never seen before. So she quickly reached for her camera to get it out of its pouch and to take a picture before the duck did something horrible, like swim away.

Now E. J. likes hats. They are part of her signature style. This day, she was wearing a broad-brimmed “Shaker hat” (made in China but sold at Canterbury Shaker Village), because it was lightweight (a good thing when it is hot, which it was becoming) and it keeps the sun out of her eyes and off much of her face.



But such hats have one undesirable feature: they pick up the wind. Or, rather, the wind picks them up! E. J. had inadvertently demonstrated this during the English part of our trip, when a wind snatched that same hat off her head and blew it into a street intersection . . . where we recovered it before a car ran it over. And now, with both hands busy getting the camera out of its case, Eleanor was not prepared for a sudden gust of wind that picked up, picking up her hat, off her head, and carrying it over the parapet! And then the gust died. Hats, no less than cannon balls, are subject to gravity, and with the dying of the gust, E.J.’s hat began its slow descent . . . down, down, down, until it landed brim-first flat on the waters of the moat.

And there it sat! The lack of current in the moat meant the hat wasn’t moving much, and in no definite direction. Since it landed brim first, the crown of the hat was above water, and the air trapped underneath it ensured it would stay afloat for some time. Yet there was nothing we could do to recover it! We couldn’t fish it out, it was out of our reach, and there was no staff on hand to appeal to for help. And neither of us felt like jumping into the moat and swimming over to the hat. E.J. stood on the bridge, disconsolate, looking down over the parapet at her hat, itching for some way to get it back! But, in the end, she had to settle for taking a picture of her forlorn-looking hat, and then walking away.

We ended up taking a roundabout route back, via the nearby coastal resort town. The sun had come out from behind the clouds, making it a warm and sunny day. I didn’t know it, but my nose was acquiring a sunburn. E.J., of course, missed her hat, so the sun afflicted her, too. When we finally arrived at the shore, I made a beeline for a local bar to get an orange-flavored Picon beer, while E.J.’s feet turned to the ice cream parlor across the square. Each to his or her own preferred form of relief!

E.J. sorely missed her hat. Our hosts lent her one the next day, but that’s not the same. She needed a hat, her hat. The second day after, we went to an open-air market, and she bought a hat. It looked somewhat similar to the one she had lost, though it was whiter and had a smaller brim. It had one ironic similarity: it, too, had been made in China.

E.J. is smiling because she has her new hat

E.J. is smiling because she has her new hat

What was more amusing was that the label also told her that the hat was made of paper! This made it so light and airy that E.J. was initially uncomfortable with it. As she told me, she didn’t expect to feel the wind on the top of her head when she had a hat on, but with this hat, she did. Despite being so insubstantial, and even being rained on at least once, the hat has made it back to the United States intact.


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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9 Responses to Death of a hat

  1. sarij says:

    I am terribly sad to hear about the death of E.J.’s hat. One cannot comprehend such a loss until they have had one of their own personal accessories expire in a tragic water accident. I lost my favorite pair of sunglasses in Hawaii when I was pulled by a killer wave. I survived, but the glasses did not. I sat on a rock mourning my loss until my boyfriend said, Ah, you know I can buy you another pair just up the street”. And with that, I shook my mourning band off and skipped off in search of a new pair of sunglasses.
    Tell E.J. I picture the duck laughing manically as she swims away in her new yellow straw hat.

  2. crimsonprose says:

    Alas, poor hat; I remember it well. But at least EJ was able to find a replacement. And it doesn’t surprise me that it, too, was made in China. According to the label in my own hat, despite it was designed in England, it, too, was made in China. Apparently, China is the place that makes hats. Footwear, too. My vital (much-used) galoshes winged their way from there earlier this year. Anyway, sounds like you enjoyed the visit to Normandy and her castles. (Loved the cats)

  3. Judy says:

    Yes, I had a similar tragedy not so long ago. I too was paying more attention to my camera and didn’t have the string of the straw hat I was wearing under my chin when the wind caught it and it plopped into the water down in Miami. We were on our boat in choppy water with bunches of other boats so all I could do was watch it get smaller and smaller as the waves caught it and we traveled on. It was a good hat!! Sob sob!! My condolences to EJ.

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