The most important port on France’s Biscay coast for centuries was La Rochelle. Heavily fortified, with a deep-water port, it had all the attributes of an excellent naval base. Unfortunately, it was also the centre of Protestant resistance to Paris, and in 1627 was surrounded by government forces. After a long and murderous siege, it surrendered the following year. Most of the population had perished, and of those that survived many quickly left. The victors demolished the remaining fortifications, and the port lost its trading privileges. All of which left France with a problem. Where could the navy find a base on that coast to exploit the excellent oak forests and maritime know-how of the Vendee? The solution adopted by Louis XIV was typical of the Sun King. He simply ordered the construction of a new naval base, from scratch, in the middle of marshland.
The place chosen was twenty miles to the south of the smouldering ruins of La Rochelle, where a loop in the estuary of the River Charente provided a natural moat on three sides of the new settlement. At first the boggy location proved problematic. Excavating dry-docks and foundations for some of the larger buildings was particularly challenging. The massive ropery, a structure that had to be over a quarter of a mile long (one cable length), was to be built at a site on the river bank where the mud went down a hundred feet before bed rock was found. The builders came up with the novel solution of constructing this substantial stone building on a raft of oak beams. The resulting structure is still standing today, in spite of having no conventional foundations.
After some initial teething troubles (such as the 108-gun first rate Victorieux, launched in 1675, which had to be broken up as it was considered unseaworthy) Rochefort was soon building substantial numbers of ships for the French Navy. The growing town started to serve the navy in other ways. In 1722, for example, the world’s first School of Naval Medicine was opened, and began training surgeons for the service. The 18th century and early 19th century saw the town expand and prosper as a centre of ship-building.
In 1850 Rochefort’s most famous resident was born. Pierre Loti came from a middle class family and joined the Navy at 17. He travelled the world during his career, and wrote a series of best-selling novels based around the exotic places where he had been stationed. His books were enormously popular, and he used the fortune he made to transform his house in Rochefort into an extraordinary fantasy palace. It still exists today, and is well worth visiting.
As warships grew in size, the limitations of Rochefort as a site started to become apparent. The river was too small and shallow to launch the substantial ships the navy now required without continuous dredging. One of the main reasons for choosing Rochefort was the substantial oak forests nearby, but the new ships were increasingly being constructed from iron and steel, which had to come from the other side of France. In 1919, with the First World War over, Rochefort launched her last ship, the 550th to be built there, after which the dockyard closed. With the only reason for Rochefort’s existence gone, the town went into steep decline.
Then, in the 1980s, things at last began to look up. Residents and local politicians began to realise that the town had an architectural gem at its heart, in its almost perfectly preserved 18th century naval arsenal. Thanks to the lack of any alternative uses for the site, almost none of it had been lost. Work started on restoring some of the iconic buildings, such as the ropery. UNESCO world heritage status followed, and the tourists began to arrive, but Rochefort needed something more to really put them on the map. Then an extraordinary idea began to be formed. Surely what an 18th century dockyard needs, is an 18th century ship?
The one chosen was L’Hermione, a frigate which had been built at Rochefort in its heyday, and which had taken Gilbert de Lafayette to America in 1780 to negotiate French support for the struggle for independence. An old dry dock was re-opened, funds were raised, and in 1997 work began on a full-size replica of the original. The forests of the Vendee were called on once more to supply the two thousand oak trees required, and artisans in the town were employed to relearn the skills required to make all the hundreds of blocks and miles of rigging required. L’Hermione would not just be a static display ship, but a fully working frigate, capable of sailing across the Atlantic once more. In 2015 she made that voyage, arriving at Yorktown in June, and then visiting a number of US ports along the Eastern seaboard.
The L’Hermione project has been an unquestioned success. Millions visited Rochefort during her construction (including this writer and his family), and the delightful town they discovered is now firmly established as a tourist attraction. Other former shipbuilding towns are now looking at L’Hermione as a possible template they can copy, including the former Royal Dockyard at Deptford in South London with a project to build the Stuart navy’s ship Lenox. But for Rochefort, the town built in a swamp, the future looks much brighter.