The French remain very fond of their “lavoirs”, the communal washhouses that appeared throughout the country from the 18th century onwards as a modern alternative to heading down to the nearest river.
By the end of the 19th century, there was one in virtually every rural community in France, their rise having been given a helping hand by a law passed in 1851 aimed at promoting the use of washhouses. The law had resulted in State subsidies that funded a third of all construction costs.
The lavoirs served not only a functional purpose (that of washing, scrubbing and rinsing the laundry) but also a social purpose: they represented a natural meeting point on a par with the local church, café or market. They fell out of use in the 20th century with the rise of domestic plumbing and, from the 1950s onwards, the arrival of washing machines (and launderettes).
But countless lavoirs remain and, for the most part, are cherished and promoted rather than neglected by their local councils. However, many of the pools are empty, while many others contain uninviting, stagnant water… which is why the lavoir in the Médoc village of Avensan is all the more remarkable.
It was built slightly outside the village, on the edge of the forest and, more importantly, on the right bank of a stream which marks the eastern limit of Avensan: the Louise (visible above to the bottom left of the picture). The Louise later flows into the Jalle de Castelnau, which then passes through the Moulin de Tiquetorte en route to the Gironde Estuary.
The feeling you get when witnessing the process is that you are not observing a remnant of a by-gone age, but rather a fully-functioning lavoir that no-one just happens to be using anymore. You can hear the sound of the water flowing and all that is missing is the company and the latest local gossip! I’ve promised myself that next time I’m in the area I’ll have some dirty laundry with me…
- Find it: Route du Lavoir, Avensan
- Given the popularity of France's washhouses, many resources are available on the internet. These include Lavoirs de France, Notre Passions des Lavoirs and Les Lavoirs de France (which lists more than 40 lavoirs to view in Gironde alone!). There are also coffee-table books such as this one by Mireille Rodier and this one by Christophe Lefébure.