Sunday, 6 April 2014

Fresnaye and the Lost Forest

The Baie de la Fresnaye is where I live. Its name comes from the Latin: fraxinus, ‘ash’. The name causes no real problems and is paralleled in the names La Fresnais (An Onnod) in Ille-et-Vilaine; Le Fresne-sur-Loire and Fresnay-en-Retz (Onnod Raez) in Loire Atlantique. The Breton names, all featuring  onn, ‘ash’, confirm this. There are also a few hundred similar place names at sub-commune level across Brittany.
So far so good. But the problem is that in my Bay I haven't seen an ash tree, not a single one. So I started to check the history and archaeology and came up with some interesting facts and hypotheses.
The Bay is a centre for mussel cultivation and you can see all the bouchots at low tide. The cultivators, over the years, have come up with many samples of fossilized ash trees and fossil roots. So clearly there were ash trees here at some time and, more importantly, there were some in the Bay.
How was this?
Well, the story goes, in 709 A.D. there was an earthquake off the island of Jersey. This in turn caused a tsunami which primarily affected the Bays of St Malo and Mont St Michel. The disaster was big enough to wipe out whole forests and villages in the region; and, in some accounts, to actually create the two Bays of St Malo and Mont St Michel. The citadel of Mont St Michel Abbey was the only thing left, standing as an island on its own after the forest of Scissy was swallowed by the flood.
Unfortunately, Father François Manet’s 1829 account of this event is copied from the story of a medieval monk with no further research or scientific evidence given. Modern science casts doubt on any such flood.
After the 2004 tsunami in South and Southeast Asia, research was carried out on the history and probability of tsunamis in the North Sea region. An unusual layer of sand, several centimeters thick, found in the sedimentation along the east coasts of Scotland and North England suggest tsunami activity here about 8000 years ago: Time Team even did a programme called 'Britain's Stone Age Tsunami' based on archaeological excavations at Star Carr in the Northeast. It was this tsunami that separated Britain from Europe and wiped out Doggerland for good. Evidence for this tsunami can also be found in Iceland, Norway and the Shetland Islands. 
More recently on 6 April 1580, an underwater earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale, flooded Calais and  hundreds were killed when giant waves swallowed their ships. A second tsunami followed reaching Mont St. Michel in Normandy. The wave height was about 15 meters.    
In 1931 the Dogger Bank earthquake measured 6.1 on the Richter Scale. This was 60 miles off the North Yorkshire coast and only caused chimney and spire damage, followed by a small tsunami wave.
But there is no evidence of any earthquakes in 709. So, there may have been ash trees in the Baie de Fresnaye, but definitely no tsunamis. 

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