On the left bank of the Gironde Estuary, in Jau-Dignac-et-Loirac a little to the north of Pauillac, the quaint Phare de Richard offers ...

Phare de Richard: when size matters on the Gironde Estuary

On the left bank of the Gironde Estuary, in Jau-Dignac-et-Loirac a little to the north of Pauillac, the quaint Phare de Richard offers an instant glimpse into the history of Médocain lighthouses.

The lighthouse was first built in 1843, at a spot on the bank of the Estuary where a tall poplar tree, known as “l’Arbre de Richard”, stood and served as a navigation aid for sailors until it was destroyed by a violent storm in 1830. However, after entering into service, it was soon established that the Phare de Richard had one serious shortcoming: at just 18 metres, it was too small! And so, in 1870, navigation duties were handed over to a less elaborate but taller (31 metres) and more effective metallic structure, and the two lighthouses cohabited side by side for nearly 80 years. 

The way things were: the 1870 and 1843 lighthouses standing side by side (picture source: www.phare-richard.com).
A 1:10 scale model of the second lighthouse, built in 1997 by lycée students in Pauillac, now stands where the full-size version used to be.
But by the 1950s, shipping navigation methods had evolved on the Estuary, switching to the use of beacons or buoys. The second, taller lighthouse therefore ceased operations in 1953 and was demolished three years later to be used for scrap. The surviving older, shorter Phare de Richard, along with the surrounding land were sold on to private owners, who subsequently abandoned the lighthouse, which fell into a serious state of disrepair. 

An orientation table on the bank of the Estuary handily locates the beacons which replaced the use of lighthouses on the Gironde.
That was the case until the 1980s, when a group of local youths took it upon themselves to clean up the site, out of a combination of boredom and frustration when they saw the state of neglect the original lighthouse was now in. In their endeavour they soon gained the support of the local mayor and council, and come 1988 the land was re-acquired by the municipality. Over the following years, the lighthouse was restored from bottom to top, and in 1993 a non-profit association (Association communale du phare de Richard) was set up to bring the lighthouse back to life as a heritage site, to draw tourists and organize cultural activities.

And that remains the situation today: the lighthouse is indeed open to the general public all year round, and for a token admission fee (two euros) visitors can climb the 63 steps to the top of the structure and, from a small platform that stretches around the top of the circular building, enjoy a unique vantage point over the Gironde Estuary. As well as being able to see over to the north bank and the village of Talmont-sur-Gironde, the view takes in a long row of carrelet fishing huts

The view from the top, looking over towards Les Monards, Mortagne-sur-Gironde and, somewhere over to the left, Talmont-sur-Gironde!
A neat row of carrelet fishing huts.
At ground level, a small but perfectly-formed museum (and low-key souvenir shop) provides an overview of the history of the lighthouse and of the Gironde Estuary’s fishing culture and heritage. At the base of the lighthouse, a carrelet that was built in 2008 by the association which oversees the site is also available to rent. And the surrounding land has been converted into a pleasant Estuary-side picnic area. There are indeed worse places to enjoy a picnic… 

Looking south over the carrelet built by the association.
The work and dedication has paid off: every year around 12,500 visitors to the Médoc, best-known for its wine-growing credentials, take time out to stop off here at Phare de Richard, breathe in the bracing Estuary air, and soak up a little bit of the local fishing and shipping culture.

A bird's eye view of Phare de Richard, as enjoyed during a flight over the Atlantic Coast and Gironde Estuary sometime ago.
> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Phare de Richard, Jau-Dignac-et-Loirac
> Official website: www.phare-richard.com (including an interesting video compilation of pictures retracing the lighthouse's highs and lows here).  
> Ce dossier est également disponible en français.

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