Last week we went for a couple of days by the sea, following a route that has long been familiar to us – crossing the Vienne river, then through Angouleme and miles of vineyard-covered hills to the eponymous Cognac and Saintes, and so to Royan.
Capital of the “Côte de beauté”, the city is located in Charente-Maritime at the mouth of the Gironde Estuary, the largest estuary in Europe. Royan has five sandy beaches, a marina, and a fishing port. It is a very popular seaside resort for the French. We first visited it in 1968, and we have been there on several occasions since then.
During World War II, two German fortresses defended the Gironde Estuary: Gironde Mündung Nord (north, at Royan) and Gironde Mündung Süd (south, at La Pointe de Grave). These constituted one of the Atlantic “pockets”, including a large U-boat base, which the Germans held on to grimly, well after the liberation of the rest of France. In the early hours of January 5, 1945, a force of about 350 Royal Air Force heavy bombers, at the request of SHAEF which had been told that nobody was left in Royan but Germans and collaborators, bombed Royan out of existence in two raids.
Then, Allied operations, against the German forces on Île d’Oléron and at the mouth of the Gironde River, began with a general naval bombardment on April 15, 1945, some 10 months after D-Day. For five days, the American naval task force assisted the French ground forces with naval bombardment and aerial reconnaissance in the assault on Royan and the Pointe de Grave area. American B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator aircraft carried out aerial bombing missions, including extensive and pioneering use of napalm, finishing the destruction of Royan on January 5.
The first bombing raids killed over 1,000 civilians and only 23 German soldiers. When the Americans returned later and used napalm, they destroyed the entire city and killed another 1,700 civilians.
Apparently, there was a Free French commander with the U.S. Seventh Army outside Royan, who was not informed until too late. The message was in French and the American signalman could not understand it. It took four hours to get it translated.
The destruction of Royan was almost total; and it included the former neo-Gothic parish church. It was decided to rebuild it as a building of bigger size and with an architecture both ambitious and spectacular, inspired by the aesthetics of large Gothic cathedrals.
The church of Notre-Dame of Royan is considered as one of the leading works of contemporary architecture. Built in three years and finished in 1958, it is constructed completely of concrete. The church was classified as a historical monument in 1988. The dimensions are: a nave in ellipse, 45 metres long by 22 metres wide (148 ft × 72 ft) which can hold approximately 2000 persons, flanked by an ambulatory and by a surrounding aisle situated three metres below ground level. This aisle is lit by stained glass rhomboid panels depicting the Stations of the Cross. The structure of the building consists of an alternation of elements in reinforced concrete (Lafaille system, named for the engineer Bernard Lafaille who created the process) alternating with immense covering windows 500 square metres (5,380 sq ft), the work of the stained glass maker Henri Martin-Granel.
The total effect is stunning, overwhelming and glorious. The architectural transcription of the mystery of faith is particularly successful in this masterpiece by Guillaume Gillet. He died in 1987 and is buried there. The great and tall church stands at the highest point in the city and is visible everywhere. At the harbor and on the beaches, its unmistakable silhouette can be seen through the masts of sailboats. With its own appearance as a ship, studded with enamel-work, this immense building provides a contemporary expression of the search for spirituality in religious architecture.
The design reflects the hill on which the church is built. The main entrance is located at the top; and from there the stairs lead down, across the full breadth of the building, into the nave. The window behind the altar appears in all its beauty; and light that enters through the side windows gives a soft light and a feeling of quiet contemplation.
After the Second World War, nearly 4,000 churches in France were severely damaged. Within the financial limits available, the reconstruction of churches resulted in an abundance of original forms, facilitated by new construction techniques and the progress of industrialization. These achievements benefited from research on thin shells in concrete and pre-stressed structures.
Unfortunately, the original construction was done too quickly in the interests of economy; and the concrete is now rapidly degrading. The building, which was never finished, suffered from the aggressive salty marine air; and considerable work has still to be done to ensure its survival. Thus an association for the defense of the Church of Royan was created in 2008 to raise awareness and organize the protection of the edifice.The restoration work – to cost € 3,785,638 — began in 2013 and is expected to take four or more years to complete – during which time, sadly, the church is closed to the public.
The great organ was installed in 1964. It is considered by the organists and the music lovers an exceptional instrument. This is the first example of large sixteen foot hammered tin pipes built since the 18th century. At the entrance of the church, a sign tells us that “The organ in this church, wonderful realization of the master organ builder Robert Boisseau of Poitiers, has 47 ranks.” I have heard it on several occasions, most memorably when I attended a concert for organ and trumpet – an unforgettable experience in those glorious acoustics.
In January 2014 the organ was completely disassembled, to be restored in a specialized workshop in Béthines in the department of Vienne. It will be replaced when the four or five years of church restoration have been completed.
There is a footnote: I have a special interest in another church, far from Royan, but which is more or less contemporary with it. In 1956 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother laid the foundation stone for the new parish church of St George, Stevenage — one of the New Towns built around London after World War Two to replace bomb-damaged housing and to alleviate congestion. Consecrated by the Bishop of St Albans on Advent Sunday, 1960, in the presence again of the Queen Mother, it was, and still remains, the largest parish church built in England since that war.
Its architect was Lord Mottistone, of the firm of Seely & Paget; and it is a miracle of concrete parabolic arches and glass. Just three years after its consecration I became its priest-in-charge and then, subsequently, Rector of the parish until 1974. During that time we too had concerns about the structural integrity of the building – there having been several reported collapses elsewhere involving “high alumina” cement. But, in fact, all was well.