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John Lichfield: Normandy Notebook

Village life gets a ringing endorsement

For the first time in several years, the bells of our village church have counted out the lazily passing hours of a Norman summer. The old bells had worn out. The commune – which, like most communes in France, owns the church – could not agree whether, or how, to repair them.

Finally, the bells have been restored, booming out the hours and breaking into occasional, inexplicable peals of joy. Inexplicable because the church has not been used for more than two decades, other than for the odd wedding and frequent funerals.

Like almost all of the 40,000 village churches in France, our église – part 13th century, damaged in the battle of Normandy and restored in rather a dull way – is defunct. Church services have transferred to the nearby towns.

When the bells packed up, there was a lengthy debate in our village council. Why should a dead church have real bells? Why not, like other French villages, install a sound system to play tapes of bell sounds?

Finally, it was resolved that a village, to remain a village, must have a church, even if it is rarely used. It was further resolved that a church must have bells. Genuine, automated bells were installed, with a computerised timing system to count the hours and to break into occasional peals of joy.

Our house is in a hamlet more than a mile from the church. We could hardly hear the old bells. We can hear the rich tolling of the new bells as if they were a few hundred yards away – as evocative of the charm of Normandie Profonde as cows and combine harvesters.

Ask not for the whom bell tolls. It tolls for a kind of computerised, ersatz neighbourliness – but neighbourliness all the same.

Le pain also rises

Our village has not had its own baker since the 1950s. The nearest bakery is on the main road five miles away. Six years ago, a calamity occurred. The excellent old baker retired and was replaced by a younger man whose baguettes tasted like bicycle tyres. People started driving to towns further away. The other shops in the village suffered. After complaints, the baker has finally agreed to go elsewhere. A new baker starts today. Did dough change hands? I should not be surprised.

Club sandwich

Rural wife-swapping latest. The "club echangiste" (wife-swapping club) which I reported as having advertised itself on the main square of our nearest town has still not opened for business. It still has the sign "bring your spouse, your dog, your donkey, your mother-in-law". It also has a new placard which says "reduced rates for groups... come disguised".