Ouessant

Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.

Ouessant is an island located about 20 kilometres west of Le Conquet and it marks the beginning of the English Channel. The waters between the island and the mainland are swarming with rocks and other small islands.

Molene, located halfway, is the only inhabited one of those small islands. Ouessant has a bad reputation among sailors for the strong currents around the island, the unpredictable winds and the fog that often covers it. Although it is a dangerous area, Ouessant and its surrounding waters have been of strategic interest for centuries and today 50,000 ships pass through those waters every year. Until the 17th century Ouessant was only defended by some small watchtowers.

However, when plans for the overall defence of Brest were made the island became of more interest. It could be used as a harbour for a fleet to wait for the right time to attack ships in the Channel, or it could be a safe haven for passing ships, etc.

In the 1680s several plans were made by various engineers. Vauban'supervised some of them. One of the plans was to make a small harbour near the village of Lampaul with a fort located on the small island, called Korz, at the mouth of the harbour. Other plans were made for watchtowers and batteries on the island. In the end only one tower was made; the Stiff lighthouse. It was a tower of the same model as on Ile Tatihou, Cap Frehel and Ile des Hebihens.

It was in the form of two cone-shaped towers placed side by side, the small one holding the staircase and the bigger one holding the living quarters.

Instead of a platform for cannon the tower is topped by a platform where the fire was lit. Of the towers of this type, the Ouessant tower is the highest at 30m. It is located on the highest point of the island (89m above sea level) from which whole island can be seen.

One of the main purposes of the tower was to watch out for enemy ships, mainly English ones. Ironically enough in the early days one of the combustibles used to light the fire of the tower was coal imported from England.

In those days the tower used about 16 tons of coal for one burning season, which lasted from October until March. The lighthouse was first lit in 1700, making it one of the oldest lighthouses in France. It is still in use today. Around the tower several small buildings are located.

I don’t know when they were built but I presume they date from the 19th century. All other towers of this type had no adjacent buildings in their original plans. Barracks, like the ones at Tatihou for instance, were added in the 19th century.

Three battles at sea are called The Battle of Ouessant. They all took place in the late 18th century in the open waters kilometres away from the island. So it did not actually play a part in them. Two of them were fought during the American Wars in the 1770s.

The third battle took place after the French Revolution, when a convoy of ships broke through the English blockade of Brest.

Visiting Ouessant

Throughout the centuries several other fortifications have been constructed on the island, varying from small 19th century forts to coastal batteries and Nazi Blockhouses. Some of them can still be found while wandering around the paths along the coast.

Life used to be harsh on the isolated island but today this harsh life no longer exists there. Although heavy storms sometimes batter the island for days, even in the summer, it is a very beautiful place well worth a visit for a day or, even better, for several days. Every day, from Brest and Le Conquet, several boats go to and from the island. You can buy tickets online at pennarbed.fr

Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.

Back to the "Fortresses" page