We have a new washing machine. Well, that’s not very exciting, you might be thinking, but actually it is, a little bit, as it’s a top-loader. I consider it another step in a Frenchwards direction as I firmly associate such machines with this country. They were the only sort of washing machine we ever came across in the gîtes we stayed in when we used to come to this country on holiday. I was terrified of them as it was all to easy to forget to close the lid of the drum and so all the washing would end up outside it.

My excuse for such negligence is that I hadn’t come across top-loaders since Mum’s twin-tub in the mid-to-late 1960s, and those machines operated quite differently. I recall using the wooden tongs to first heave boiling hot washing from the left-hand tub to the spin dryer for a first spin, then heaving it back into the washing tub for a cold rinse, then out again for the final spin. There was a switching round of hoses too to fill then empty the machine. I associate washday using the twin tub with a lot of hard work and steam.

Up until now I’ve had front-loader machines. But as the years have passed, the bending down to load and unload them has become an increasing chore, and I’ve always disliked how the rubber seal gets mildewed, as well as trapping all sorts of bits and bobs and needing regular cleaning. Their main advantage is that they fit under a work surface, but I was prepared to give that up for the sake of my back.

And so I now have a Indesit top loader. It’s a little taller but a lot less bulky than a front loader. Allegedly these machines are less economical to run, but mine is labelled as A+++ which is about as good as you can get. It was also cheaper than the front loaders on sale, and nice and straightforward for Chris to plumb in. Wash cycles are generally shorter than for front loaders, although some people report that top loaders are noisier. Ours is tucked out of the way, so that’s not a problem if in fact it’s true. I can’t say I’ve ever come across a quiet washing machine anyway.

I am eternally grateful to live in an era with automatic washing machines. Here in rural France you come across lavoirs in every village, and frequently also in what’s now the middle of nowhere but which was once inhabited by a population big enough to warrant the construction of such a public wash-house. They vary in sophistication from small, open, rectangular ‘ponds’ with sloping stone sides where women had to work on their knees, to large, covered buildings containing stone or concrete ‘tanks’ which allowed women to do their tasks standing up. Both methods would have been equally back-breaking, although the latter was at least easier on the knees.

I had always thought that lavoirs were where the women did the washing, but in fact it was where they did the rincing. The washing part, which didn’t require very much water, just a few bucketfuls but an awful lot of physical effort in wetting, rubbing and wringing the laundry, was done at home. Then the women lugged a week’s worth of heavy, wet washing to the lavoir, where it was soaked in the clean water, pounded against the sloping stone sides and finally battered with wooden paddles to get as much water out as possible before lugging it all back home again. This arduous rincing palava was a social event. Exchanging news and gossip with neighbours helped make it all slightly more bearable.

Lavoirs are generally situated at a spring or built over a stream or small river so that water naturally flows through them. That’s good for the lavoir, but not so good for people downstream. Epidemics of cholera, smallpox and typhoid were aided and abetted by washing being done in water that was subsequently drunk by someone. This prompted the government to pass a law in 1851 which would provide up to a third of the cost of a large, roofed lavoir for a commune. These larger lavoirs facilitated the whole washing process and ensured that the dirty water didn’t end up in the town’s drinking water supply.

Lavoirs fell out of use due to the arrival of the domestic washing machine. Now they’re peaceful relics of the past, and often home to aquatic mammals and plants. We always enjoy coming across one on during our geocaching and walking outings. We don’t enjoy coming across a dumped washing machine, though, but sadly it’s fairly common. Two and a half million washing machines (34% of which are top loaders) are sold each year in France, and sadly not all of those are disposed of responsibly.

I hope it will be many years before my Indesit reaches the end of its ‘life’ and needs to be disposed of. This will be the first of my machines in France that won’t have suffered at some point at the hands of gîte guests so the prognosis is good. In the meantime, I shall use it as sparingly as possible, and dose it with either laundry detergent sheets delivered in a small cardboard envelope or my own home-made washing soap, thus avoiding laundry-related plastic packaging entirely. And, remembering the women of the past who did all the household chores by hand, washing the most arduous of them, I shall never take my washing machine for granted.