Stilt Crazy After All These Years
Nearby village La Cellette takes the 15th August public holiday very seriously and always organises an impressive fête. Unlike many other fêtes, which pretty much just consist of a vide grenier (think car boot sale minus the car) and maybe one or two trade stalls with a bit of entertainment thrown in, La Cellette goes for a particular theme and we always cycle there to see what’s going on.
This August fête is the Fête des Régions, with a different region under the spotlight each year. This year the region was Les Landes. It turns out this area is famous for people on stilts.
Les Landes is a huge plain situated in south-west France. It is delimited by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, by the River Adour to the south and by the River Garonne to the north-east. Today it is home to the largest forest in Europe, consisting mainly of pine trees planted in the mid-nineteenth century at the behest of Napoleon III.
So why the stilts? These were first used before the forest was planted when Les Landes was an immense, flat bog. There was low, scrublike vegetation, and many shepherds with their flocks of sheep were found there. To be able to pass easily through the thick vegetation, keep a watchful eye on their sheep from a distance and, at the same time, keep their feet dry the shepherds took to using stilts.
Records of their use date back to the beginning of the eighteenth century but they may have been introduced long before that, possibly by Flemish migrants although it’s possible the locals of Les came up with the idea themselves.
The stilts consist of the ‘escasse’ (‘leg’ in the Les Landes dialect and from which the present French name for stilt, échasse, comes), and the ‘paouse pé’ or ‘foot rest’ which is between 90 cm and 120 cms off the ground. The stilts are attached to the wearer’s leg by two leather thongs.
Over time Napoleon’s forest dried out the marshes which in turn led to the disappearance of the pasture land and the sheep, and their stilt-wearing shepherds during the last half of the nineteenth century. However, the Les Landes locals decided to put their stilts to festive use and performed plays and dances on them. The first folk group immortalising these dances was founded in 1889 and twenty more groups have followed.
We didn’t see the dancing but just watching Lous Tchanchayres wandering around La Cellette on their échasses was pretty amazing in itself. It really brightened up a dull, rainy morning.
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