Just south of our house in Finistère, tulips are grown in profusion. For most of the year the fields look drab, even barren; in early spring, however, everything changes. For one month there are carpets of the most vivid purples, violets, scarlets and yellows. Sometimes there are broad rows with, say, bands of yellow and scarlet alongside one another; sometimes the flowers form solid blocks of colour that go on and on (see first illustration).
The dense colours of tulips are particularly special, but before them there will have been the less showy hyacinths, and after, delicate irises. All of these grow on the old sand dunes just inland of the Pointe de la Torche, at the southern end of the Baie d’Audierne.
For hundreds of years the Dutch have been obsessed with tulips and during the tulip season flowers and bulbs worth billions of pounds change hands. In Holland, however, land for growing flowers is expensive and in 1980 a tulip-growing Dutch couple discovered farmland near la Torche that was relatively cheap where the sandy soil and the climate – mild winters and cool summers – were ideal.
The two soon bought a few buildings and some land and have been expanding ever since. With two other families they now grow nearly two million tulips each year, most of which, mainly as bulbs, are sent back for sale in Holland. The business is important for the local economy and for local tourism. Each spring the producers build a giant tulip structure – a castle or a windmill for instance – to celebrate the wonders of the tulip, a tradition they brought from Holland. In response, umpteen cars and coaches bring tourists to see the colours, to buy the produce and to marvel at the display.
While the colours and the festivities ooze success, there are many around, including most of our friends, who dislike the whole business . The reasons given for this unpopularity vary, but first and foremost is the pollution. Each year the growers use industrial amounts of pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilisers and insecticides which, for eco-friendly locals, is anathema. And just as bad, when the plastic sheeting of their polytunnels decay, they send tiny particles everywhere.
In 2012 the growers were taken to court for using a pesticide forbidden in France and while they pleaded guilty and paid their fine, they continued to use agents, albeit permitted which, after polluting the soil, then wash into the sea. La Torche has a fine surfing beach and its surfers, who know the French coastal waters well, tell how on the surface of the water there is often a strange-smelling froth which makes their eyes and lips burn! The sea around la Torche has been likened to a “chemical cesspool”!
When it comes to resources, the tulip farms consume water and appropriate land. Reserves in the water table near la Torche are limited and garden hosing is sometimes banned but the tulip farmers continue their spraying, which, to many is an affront. And there are other such insults. In the past, asparagus grew wild on the hinterland to be picked by the locals at their leisure. Being offered cultured asparagus for sale – a new line as part of the growers’ diversification – is hurtful.
Now to an underlying cultural issue and one which I see as important but others might feel is exaggerated.The tulip farms are in the centre of an area of Finistère, now called the Pays Bigouden, where people have been living, farming and fishing together for over 7000 years. Here, the locals have their own identity, culture, customs, costumes – the tall white linen hats worn by the women are famous throughout France and beyond (see second illustration). Many Bigouden people even have particular facial features – a sallow complexion and almond-shaped eyes. Importantly, those who can say that they are Bigoudène (for women) or Bigouden (men) do so with with enormous pride.
It would seem inevitable that when outsiders take over around 500 hectares of land (equivalent to almost four Hyde Parks or half a Richmond Park) to grow non-indigenous plants to be sold abroad, that local people will feel aggrieved. Some have even likened the ranks of flowers to invading soldiers. But, of course, invasion is not new; over the centuries the people of the area have had to deal with the Romans, the Vikings, the French (soldiers from Paris!) and in the Second World War, the Germans.
Not for the first time, people who have had their heritage used to provide essentially frivolous goods for people living miles away, see it as wrong. Fifteen years ago, when on holiday in Kenya, I saw acres of British-owned polytunnels growing vast quantities of runner beans for UK supermarkets, and the sight made me feel ashamed. The culture of tulips in industrial amounts in the Pays Bigouden gives me much the same feeling, and I don’t think I am in the minority.
The first illustration shows a photo taken four weeks ago of a field of purple tulips near la Torche. In the far distance can be seen single rows of tulips that are yellow and blue.
The second illustration is of a group of women sporting their Bigouden coiffes.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Annie T, Annie P, Armelle, Sarah, Rohan and Vivien.